What is the point of literature? What is the point of life?
Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the hugely acclaimed My Struggle series, has recently published a pamphlet that offers a firm and committed answer to both of those questions.
Knausgaard, due to the fact that his six volume autobiographical masterpiece was released in the original Norwegian between 2009 and 2011 but its translation began in 2012 and is still incomplete, has been somewhat thematically trapped most of a decade behind himself in all of the work he’s had commissioned from English language publications since he became internationally famous. All of Knausgaard’s most avid foreign readers – amongst which I would count myself – are ravenously waiting for Volume 6, the book that is the biggest of the set and widely rumoured to be the phenomenal, neat and deeply exploratory conclusion we have been dreaming of for years. Rather than solely being about Knausgaard and the people he has known intimately, Volume 6 is more outwards facing, looking towards wider social trends and towards the world in which Knausgaard finds himself. Whilst Knausgaard was writing the final volume, Anders Behring Breivik committed his atrocities, and this fed into the work, which already had a focus on evil as Knausgaard discussed Adolf Hitler, the man whose book title he had stolen. I bring this up, because there are thousands of people like me who are waiting to read about Knausgaard on Hitler. And here, unexpectedly, we get that. And we get that, because he knows that’s what we want. His thought and his writing is five years on from our reading of him, but he maintains an awareness of where we are at. Hitler here is an aside, but it’s a knowing aside. The meat of the essay here is deep, dense and philosophical. Is there any meaning to literature? Is there any meaning to life?
I know plenty of people who have never read a book in their lives, and they are neither better nor worse humans than I, who have read thousands of books. Nor is it the case that their lives are lacking in any way, or are incomplete because of it – on the contrary, I suspect, it is I who am lacking, and this is the reason I read (p. 14)
Knausgaard opens his essay with a look at what it means to be alive. In a few pages he describes the importance and the reality of community. I summarise:
No matter how insular the individual, each individual exists within a society that they cannot escape from in the globalised world. Every person has tasks to do that help the smooth running of the world around them, be it a fishcatcher, a nurse, a legislator, a cleaner, a mechanic or a carer. Even people without practical interactions with others contribute towards the whole by their spending of money and contribution of tax – even the emptiest, least useful, office job contributes to the health of the hive by virtue of the tax accrued by the earnings of the individual, and every minor financial transaction they have helps to keep another person solvent. We are all connected, we are all needed to pull society further forward: if no one knew how to repair cars, we would grind to a movemental halt, yet if no one was working on transportation technology to supersede the car, we’d kill the planet. Maintenance of society and its continual improvement, that is the aim and the lot of every individual. Our responsibilities to ourselves automatically extend outward into the world: by fulfilling our own needs, we fulfil other people’s, we each find our places.
And where does Art fit into this?
Well, what is art, Knausgaard writes devil’s-advocately:
[…] if not the arbitrary product of human beings who never really learned how to adapt to society, people who believe themselves to be so special they don’t need to contribute to the community and instead may spend their time giving form to the encounter between their precious inner being and the community’s external manifestation (p. 6)
This is rather a damning critique of the artistic impulse, one with very strong tones of self-recrimation. For what did Knausgaard do with himself about a decade ago, if not dedicate several years to giving form to every last encounter his “precious inner being” had ever had with any externality? Knausgaard knows this is bullshit, unless as one of the most self-indulgent literary stars of recent years he has burst his own internal bubble. Which seems unlikely, as the man swims from strength to strength, the crowds that listen to his words getting larger, too.
In On the Value of Literature, Knausgaard writes about the power of speech, of oratory. It is in this context that he mentions Hitler, writing about how the man famously used emotional manipulation to turn crowds of people to his way of thinking. Hitler, Knausgaard concedes, was one of the most successful speech makers of all time, he is a man who persuaded an entire nation to either commit or ignore truly vile acts of horrific violence, and he did so by appealing to their emotions and their pride and their excitement. This, though, is not literature, this is speech-making. TV shows, in Knausgaard’s opinion, like films and other visual art, are not literature, for literature is a very specific type of art and one he feels has more value due to the consumption of it being private. One reads alone, even if in a crowded room, and it is the intimacy of literary transfer that helps lift it above the other arts.
Literature is open to all, because it comes out of language, because it is able to express any idea that it is possible to express. Knausgaard explores this by citing a historical example of a now defunct concept: descriptions of religious ecstasy, a topic frequently written about in language still used today. Knausgaard can understand the idea these people are expressing, if not the actuality, much as he imagines the medieval monk would be confused by Freudian psychological terms that are (broadly) common parlance today. And this is the difference between language and literature. Language is practical, language is a tool, language is a way to allow people to pass messages to each other, to understand which physical tool is being pointed at in a workshop, which village the market is happening in; language is how we express our thoughts and opinions, whilst literature is what we express when we express something of a meaning deeper than the transitory.
The space of literature is a space between our conception of reality and reality itself (p. 16),
It is through literature that we are able to understand the experience of people completely alien to us, and simultaneously how we are able to understand that the emotions and thoughts we have are normal, are rational, are shared. Without literature, we would not have the opportunity to question what goes on within the minds of our peers, our friends and our family, as well as those we feel little connection to. Literature emphasises the centrality of shared human experience, it is literature that teaches us that we are not alone, that the pain and suffering of life is something common to all. Life is a struggle, for everyone, and literature is the best way to express the way we feel inside.
Literature is as tentative as life itself, as meaningless and as diverse, and quite as directionless, and every now and then, like life itself, it condenses into enormous clusters of meaningfulness and nearness to the world. (p. 16)
Literature is flawed, and imperfect, and very rarely achieves that which it sets out to do, which is to illuminate the darkness shared by every living soul. “Its value,” Knausgaard concludes, “consists in its endeavor [sic] toward the light”, and surely that’s a beautiful thing? We are all flawed people, it seems only right that our finest art should be similarly flawed, that effort and intention should outweigh success, because to attempt beauty is the best that most of us can do, is the best that all of us can do.
The world is wonderful and connected and alive, and literature is a fine way to compare ones experience against that of the crowd. We are never alone, we are all the product of society and we are all trapped within it. That means we lose certain things, certain freedoms, but it means we gain some level of safety, and we also gain art. Without literature or cinema or visual art or Better Call Saul, we’re just animals rutting under electric lights. And we’re better than that, I think, and I believe Knausgaard, a man also prone to gentle post-god spiritualism, agrees.
This is an interesting essay, and I’m glad I found it.
The pamphlet is published as part of Esopus #23 and is translated by Martin Aitken.