The world stepped forth

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard

After about two hundred pages, My Struggle, Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, abruptly shifts into a higher gear as a brief account of his falling in love as a teen with a girl named Hanna serves as a threshold for him to leap into the future, much closer to the present, and describe his life as a writer and expectant father in Stockholm. His indebtedness to Proust becomes even more evident than it already has been in the way he drifts from narrative to essay–the book begins with a startling, riveting account of what we do with the bodies of the dead, how we hide them immediately and inexplicably keep them close to the ground. It’s a phenomenological examination of our collective denial of mortality–the oddity of our rituals around it as an avoidance of the unknowable. Here, two hundred pages later, he launches into a meditation on visual art which, at the end, comes full circle, halfway through the book, finally, with those opening Montaigne-like observations about mortality. He isn’t just talking about death here, but about consciousness itself. “The intellect has taken over everything.” He points to the unreality of the world we inhabit now, and is trying to show how we’ve increasingly transformed our world into a virtual, intellectual shadow-play where ideas and concepts replace the actual phenomena of experience, and within all of this is embedded a critique of art since Manet. What he says here reflects my reactions in London when I walked through the Tate, which I loved, compared to the Tate Modern, which left me not only cold, but feeling a surprising aversion for a lot of what I saw there, even though I love so much art from the past century. Something about the place itself seemed almost inhuman and repellent. It was like the divide between reason and feeling Knausgaard outlines in his reaction to visual art: feeling increasingly has no place in creative work devoted to concepts, irony, theory, and analysis. His extreme reaction to certain paintings is almost comical, but he isn’t trying to be funny; for him it’s like finding water in a desert:

“. . . . a book about Constable I had just bought. Mostly oil sketches, studies of clouds, countryside, sea. I didn’t need to do any more than let my eyes skim over them before I was moved to tears. So great was the impression some of the pictures made on me. Others left me cold. That was my only parameter with art, the feelings it aroused. The feeling of inexhaustibility. The feeling of beauty. The feeling of presence. All compressed into such acute moments that sometimes they could be difficult to endure. And quite inexplicable. For if I studied the picture that made the greatest impression, an oil sketch of a cloud formation from September 6, 1822, there was nothing there that could explain the strength of my feelings. At the top, a patch of blue sky. Beneath, whitish mist. Then the rolling clouds. White where the sunlight struck them, pale-green in the least shadowy parts, deep-green and almost black where they were at their densest and the sun was farthest away. Blue, white, turquoise, greenish-black. That was all. The text describing the picture said Constable had painted it in Hampstead at noon, and that a certain Mr. Wilcox had doubted the accuracy of the date as there was another sketch made on the same day between twelve o’clock and one that showed quite a different, more rain-laden sky, an argument which was rendered invalid by London weather reports for this day, as they could easily have described the cloud cover in both pictures. I had studied history of art and was used to describing and analyzing art. But what I never wrote about, and this is all that matters, was the experience of it. Not just because I couldn’t, but also because the feelings the pictures evoked in me went against everything I had learned about what art was and what it was for. So I kept it to myself. I wandered around the Nationalgalleri in Stockholm or the Nasjonalgalleri in Oslo or the National Gallery in London and looked. There was a kind of freedom about this. I didn’t need to justify my feelings, there was no one to whom I had to answer and no case to answer. Freedom, but not peace, for even though the pictures were supposed to be idylls, such as Claude’s archaic landscapes, I was always unsettled when I left them because what they possessed, the core of their being, was inexhaustibility and what that wrought in me was a kind of desire. I can’t explain it any better than that. A desire to be inside the inexhaustibility. That is how I felt this night as well. I sat leafing through the Constable book for almost an hour. I kept flicking back to the picture of the greenish clouds, every time it called forth the same emotions in me. It was as if two different forms of reflection rose and fell in my consciousness, one with its thoughts and reasoning, the other with its feelings and impressions, which, even though they were juxtaposed, excluded each other’s insights. It was a fantastic picture, it filled me with all the feelings that fantastic pictures do, but when I had to explain why, what constituted the “fantastic,”I was at a loss to do so. The picture made my insides tremble, but for what? The picture filled me with longing, but for what? There were plenty of clouds around. There were plenty of colors around. There were enough particular historical moments. There were also plenty of combinations of all three. Contemporary art, in other words, the art which in principle ought to be of relevance to me, did not consider the feelings a work of art generated as valuable. Feelings were of inferior value, or perhaps even an undesirable by-product, a kind of waste product, or at best, malleable material, open to manipulation. Naturalistic depictions of reality had no value either, but were viewed as naïve and a stage of development that had been superseded long ago. There was not much meaning left in that. But the moment I focused my gaze on the painting again all my reasoning vanished in the surge of energy and beauty that arose in me. Yes, yes, yes, I heard. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go. But what was it I had said yes to? Where was it I had to go?

. . . and I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, just staring at the burning red ball in the sky and the pleasure that suffused me was so sharp and came with such intensity that it was indistinguishable from pain. What I experienced seemed to me to be of enormous significance. Enormous significance. When the moment had passed the feeling of significance did not diminish, but all of a sudden it became hard to place: exactly what was significant? And why? A train, an industrial area, sun, mist? I recognized the feeling, it was akin to the one some works of art evoke in me. Rembrandt’s portrait of himself as an old man in London’s National Gallery was such a picture, Turner’s picture of the sunset over the sea off a port of antiquity at the same museum, Caravaggio’s picture of Christ in Gethsemane. Vermeer evoked the same, a few of Claude’s paintings, some of Ruisdael’s and the other Dutch landscape painters, some of J. C. Dahl’s, almost all of Hertervig’s …But none of Rubens’s paintings, none of Manet’s, none of the English or French eighteenth-century painters, with the exception of Chardin, not Whistler, nor Michelangelo, and only one by Leonardo da Vinci. The experience did not favor any particular epoch, nor any particular painter, since it could apply to a single work by a painter and leave everything else the painter did to one side. Nor did it have anything to do with what is usually termed quality; I could stand unmoved in front of fifteen paintings by Monet, and feel the warmth spread through my body in front of a Finnish impressionist of whom few outside Finland had heard. I didn’t know what it was about these pictures that made such a great impression on me. However, it was striking that they were all painted before the 1900s, within the artistic paradigm that always retained some reference to visible reality. Thus, there was always a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it “happened,”where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world. When you didn’t just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it. Something that didn’t speak, and that no words could grasp, consequently forever out of our reach, yet within it, for not only did it surround us, we were ourselves part of it, we were ourselves of it. The fact that things other and mysterious were relevant to us had led my thoughts to angels, those mystical creatures who not only were linked to the divine but also to humanness, and therefore expressed the duality of the nature of otherness better than any other figure. At the same time there was something deeply dissatisfying about both the paintings and angels, since they both belonged to the past in such a fundamental way, that part of the past we have put behind us, that is, which no longer fit in, into this world we had created where the great, the divine, the solemn, the holy, the beautiful, and the true were no longer valid entities but quite the contrary, dubious or even laughable. This meant that the great beyond, which until the Age of Enlightenment had been the Divine, brought to us through the Revelation, and which in Romanticism was nature, where the concept of Revelation was expressed as the sublime, no longer found expression. In art, that which was beyond was synonymous with society, or the human masses, which fully encompassed its concepts of validity. As far as Norwegian art is concerned, the break came with Munch; it was in his paintings that, for the first time, man took up all the space. Whereas man was subordinate to the Divine through to the Age of Enlightenment, and to the landscape he was depicted in during Romanticism –the mountains are vast and intense, the sea is vast and intense, even the trees are vast and intense while humans, without exception, are small –the situation is reversed with Munch. It is as if humans swallow up everything, make everything theirs. The mountains, the sea, the trees, and the forests, everything is colored by humanness. Not human actions and external life, but human feelings and inner life. And once man had taken over, there seemed not to be a way back, as indeed there was no way back for Christianity as it began to spread like wildfire across Europe in the first centuries of our era. Man is gestalted by Munch, his inner life is given an outer form, the world is shaken up, and what was left after the door had been opened was the world as a gestalt: with painters after Munch it is the colors themselves, the forms themselves, not what they represent, that carry the emotion. Here we are in a world of images where the expression itself is everything, which of course means that there is no longer any dynamism between the outer and the inner, just a division. In the modernist era the division between art and the world was close to absolute, or put another way, art was a world of its own. What was taken up in this world was of course a question of individual taste, and soon this taste became the very core of art, which thus could and, to a certain degree in order to survive, had to admit objects from the real world. The situation we have arrived at now whereby the props of art no longer have any significance, all the emphasis is placed on what the art expresses, in other words, not what it is but what it thinks, what ideas it carries, such that the last remnants of objectivity, the final remnants of something outside the human world have been abandoned. Art has come to be an unmade bed, a couple of photocopiers in a room, a motorbike in an attic. And art has come to be a spectator of itself, the way it reacts, what newspapers write about it; the artist is a performer. That is how it is. Art does not know a beyond, science does not know a beyond, religion does not know a beyond, not anymore. Our world is enclosed around itself, enclosed around us, and there is no way out of it. Those in this situation who call for more intellectual depth, more spirituality, have understood nothing, for the problem is that the intellect has taken over everything. Everything has become intellect, even our bodies, they aren’t bodies anymore, but ideas of bodies, something that is situated in our own heaven of images and conceptions within us and above us, where an increasingly large part of our lives is lived. The limits of that which cannot speak to us –the unfathomable –no longer exist. We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves. Nowadays, as one might expect, all those who have occupied themselves with the neutral, the negative, the nonhuman in art, have turned to language, that is where the incomprehensible and the otherness have been sought, as if they were to be found on the margins of human expression, on the fringes of what we understand, and of course, actually, that is logical: where else would it be found in a world that no longer acknowledges that there is a beyond? It is in this light we have to see the strangely ambiguous role death has assumed. On the one hand, it is all around us, we are inundated by news of deaths, pictures of dead people; for death, in that respect, there are no limits, it is massive, ubiquitous, inexhaustible. But this is death as an idea, death without a body, death as thought and image, death as an intellectual concept. This death is the same as the word “death,”the bodiless entity referred to when a dead person’s name is used. For while the person is alive the name refers to the body, to where it resides, to what it does; the name becomes detached from the body when it dies and remains with the living, who, when they use the name, always mean the person he was, never the person he is now, a body which lies rotting somewhere. This aspect of death, that which belongs to the body and is concrete, physical and material, this death is hidden with such great care that it borders on a frenzy, and it works, just listen to how people who have been involuntary witnesses to fatal accidents or murders tend to express themselves. They always say the same, it was absolutely unreal, even though what they mean is the opposite. It was so real. But we no longer live in that reality. For us everything has been turned on its head, for us the real is unreal, the unreal real. And death, death is the last great beyond. That is why it has to be kept hidden. Because death might be beyond the term and beyond life, but it is not beyond the world.”

He comments on these preoccupations in an annoying knowing conversation on the part of his interlocutor, James Wood, published in Paris Review. Wood steers things toward his “I-wish-I-could-have-faith-but-this-is-impossible-now-that-we’ve-all-grown up-and-are-living-in-the-21st-century, if you want to be a respectable intellectual,” yet Knausgaard doesn’t pretend to know what’s really possible. Though he seems to have no sectarian allegiance, maybe no faith, he knows that he’s reaching in his work for what people seek on prayer mats and in pews and monastic cells, without any cynicism about the possibility that he might put himself in touch with something more than himself in the process, as others still do in these ostensibly anachronistic ways. What’s unknowable isn’t simply nothing–it’s also everything, and our inability to know it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Precisely what he says, that we’ve turned life into intellect means that we disregard what’s fundamentally unknowable, and we believe language itself fully exhausts the world, what is, when in fact, language and consciousness shine a flashlight to disclose only a tiny portion of it, and the mystery remains when it comes to how we can relate to what’s still in the dark, and what will never yield to reason and consciousness. We’ve lost a consensus on how to relate to the whole of things, which organized religion once provided and still does for many of us but the fact that a small segment of sophisticates think faith is dead, that doesn’t mean it is. How we conceptualize the world has changed. Mortality remains exactly what it has always been. The sound of a robin remains the same. Death hasn’t changed. The rain smells exactly as it did 10,000 years ago. We’ve simply become utterly disoriented and don’t know how to proceed as the intellect runs into one dead end after another, though many of us continue to try, some with great success in my view (though maybe not in the view of Woods):

. . . they say one of the main things about religious ecstasy is a feeling of selflessness—that you yourself disappear. I feel that when I read Dostoyevsky. I can have that feeling. I can just disappear. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what it means. It’s the same thing looking at art. I feel so moved by it, but I don’t know why. And what is that? Is it just emotions? And why should emotions be important, a little movement in your soul? For me, I think I’ve just substituted literature and art for religion. Yes, that is a very conservative, Romantic part of this project. Most contemporary art is completely without that dimension. Anselm Kiefer has it very much. Some do, but I think most art is just playing with words and concepts.

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