On Knausgaard, Stupidity, and Being Seen

In which the link between stupidity and being seen is demonstrated.

It is nearly impossible to explain why the vague feeling of being seen and believed should make me begin to write a novel and take my writing much further than I had ever done before.
— Karl Ove Knausgaard

In a typically rambling yet as typically profound essay, Karl Ove Knasugaard writes of his relationship with his editor, and more broadly of what has emerged as the chief concern of his llfe and writing: the unstable boundary between meaning and the meaningless. The essay tries to account for his relation to those people with whom he has not struggled--his mother, his wife, and his editor--those who have given to him unconditionally, as opposed to the antagonists who have generated the narrative of his life, quite literally giving him something to write about--above all, his father, but also his brother and his own children. What these people give to Karl Ove is something rare but necessary, to any writer, probably to any human being: the experience of being seen: "seen, not from above, not from a distance, but from the inside."

I think Richard Hugo must have been thinking of this ineffable relation between writer and editor, or between student and teacher, when he remarked that "A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters." We all have a need to be seen, to be visible, and not only in the fast and thoughtless way made possible by the Internet and social media. There's being seen in a slower way, in a way bound up with what Knausgaard calls "trust." By these lights, the most important job of the editor or teacher is not to "improve" the writer's work, but actually to call it into being, the way a shaman intervenes with the spirits, first and most importantly of all by believing in them.

Knausgaard rejects or reverses the notion of writing as "practicing a craft": "To write means that you must break down what you know and have learnt, an unthinkable approach for a craftsman such as a joiner, who cannot start afresh again and again." It is the editor's "courage" that makes it possible for the writer to sustain this experience not simply of not-knowing (a kind of zen "beginner's mind") but actually destroying what he or she knows--a far more radical act. 

Knausgaard writes revealingly of the clumsy, even "stupid" prose that balloons My Struggle to its impossible length. It is the stupid and infantile and regressive in Knausgaard's work that his editor has been most responsive to, what drives the writing away from "literature" toward "life." Knausgaard's pride is such that he will not go all the way--he is no Dadaist---"I could not bring myself to follow the editor's suggestion of removing my entire, carefully thought-out opening in high modernist style, so I hung on to it for dear life, since it proved that I was truly a literary author, that I actually could write and not just emote." It is the visibly dialectical relation between "literature" and "life" that makes My Struggle so compelling, and Knausgaard is insightful about the relation between the "infantile" and the "places where my field of vision has contracted: "The infantile passages are simple, almost like stages before something meaningful and coherent is created, while unravelling the knots of my constricted vision does the opposite and leads to an increased complexity, which points to a view of aesthetics contained in just these two observations, an attitude to what literature is, that has made me attempt to get away from the limitations that are inherent in language and can be conquered only by language."

To be seen means to be distinguished, and to encounter distinctions, which are also always limitations. Knausgaard writes about the "dismantled boundary" that arises in the conversation between writer and editor: "when a boundary is crossed, the act of crossing it makes the boundary more visible." In this intimate conversation the solitariness of writing comes up against the social which is at once the enemy of art (because it habituates and dulls perceptions) and the only meaningful arena in which art can appear. Knausgaard sees the dismantling of boundaries as paradigmatic of the past forty years, that is, his (and my) lifetime; he writes of the experience of reading Deleuze as a young man and getting the news from him, in the sense of the "news" William Carlos Williams says we must get from poems. From Deleuze, Knausgaard writes, "We absorbed concepts like openness, reactivity, mobility, unboundedness, interconnectivity, networks, horizontality. Nowadays, these are part of our reality, new ideals that society struggles to reach while it tries to leave behind all that is closed-in, limited, fenced off, constrained."

Knausgaard, as readers of My Struggle know, is temperamentally appalled by this leveling, even as he acknowledges that the arc of indistinction bends toward greater equality. Here is his essay's most characteristic paragraph:

A longing for boundaries is contained within almost all I have written, as well as a longing for the absolute, for something that is not relative and will last. With this goes a strong distaste for the unbounded, the levelled-down, the relativistic. These two strands, if followed, lead away from culture and out into what my longing is reaching for, into nature and religion. My mind is drawn to settlements, limiting and immobile, because the boundaries drawn around them define distinctions and distinctions create meaning. To write entails precisely that, to create distinctions – and specifically, within what is alike: only through being written about can what is alike become unlike, because it is given form and becomes something that is distinct from something else.

It is here perhaps that Knausgaard comes closest to indulging the darkly atavistic tendencies hinted by the title of his masterpiece, Min Kamp. But as the essay continues, we see him being dialectical about these tendencies. He brings out the dark side of indistinction when he recognizes its leveling effects as a core function of capitalism. And the dialectic also stands between Knausgaard and his editor, whose idelogical instincts are fundamentally opposed to his: "There is a tendency toward relativism in much of my editor's writings, a desire for the non-monolithic, anti-absolutist and egalitarian, in other words, something that goes against the desires I express in my writing." This ought to have made their collaboration impossible, as Knausgaard remarks, but then, sounding almost exactly like Adorno, he concludes that "even 'the alike' is not alike and the likeness ideal will be affected by whatever area it develops in and become unlike." That is, it is a function of writing itself to render unstable the boundary between plot and event, ideas and objects--or to find the objects in ideas, to challenge and divide ideas into objects of experience, limiting the unlimited.

Knausgaard is very fortunate to have found a doppelganger or ideal opponent in the form of an editor who calls Knausgaard's writing out into the open, into the visibility of the boundary between, say, Knausgaard's normative Scandinavian socialism and the impulse toward "settlements, limiting and immobile"--something that I suspect he will deal with most directly in the final volume of My Struggle, which is said to include a 400-page essay on Hitler and the mass murderer Anders Breivik, far darker doubles for Knausgaard than any editor could possibly be.

"To write and read means, at its most profound, to search for freedom, for routes into the open and it is the search for freedom that is fundamental and not whatever one tries to be free of, be it an identity, an ideology about equivalences or an idea about reality." To be truly seen--by an editor or a teacher or a reader or a friend or a lover--is to be given both an identity and the possibility of freedom from that identity, which might include the freedom to create a richer and more profound version of oneself.  Writers and readers are in flight from the pain of being seen in unfreedom, from being marked and "recognized" rather than "seen" (I am using these words in Viktor Shklovsky's sense). This is why the precept "Write what you know" so dangerous: too many writers (and too many readers) seek confirmation of their given identities rather than freedom with-in them.

Only "enstrangement"--in Knausgaard's case, the enstrangement of "stupidity" that the dialogue with his editor makes possible--makes seeing possible. The writer needs an editor or teacher or simply a friend, even an imaginary or dead friend (Shklovsky himself might do in a pinch) to see what she has done and what she might do. The reader needs the kind of writing that Knausgaard shows us the way toward: writing of the dismantled boundary, alive to the struggle between art and life, the meaningful and the meaningless, the process of life that a processual and open literature--that risks stupidity and the unliterary--can make us see.