Friday, June 26, 2015

Knausgaard, Heidegger, and Literary Society

Another recent-ish Stephen Mitchelmore blog post lamented (albeit in very strong terms) the state of online literature writing, its diminishment in the face of concentration and generally dudely commentary. In the post, he reminds us of a passage from the second volume of Knausgaard's much bruited My Struggle books. Knausgaard reports having been unable to make poetry open up to him, how he felt like a fraud, judged. He goes on to present a litany of ways in which we could write about poetry in objective terms, for example about Hölderlin and his poetry.  But, "It was possible to do all of this without Hölderlin’s poems ever opening themselves up. The same could be done with all poets, and of course it has been. (Translated by Don Bartlett)".

Re-reading Knausgaard's words brought to mind for me Heidegger's essay (or series of lectures) called "The Nature of Language" (located in On the Way to Language), which somewhat randomly I had been reading at about the same time. There are numerous passages I could quote by way of illustration, but I'll go with this one:
But as for us, it must remain open whether we are capable of entering properly into this poetic experience. There is the danger that we will overstrain a poem such as this by thinking too much into it, and thereby debar ourselves from being moved by its poetry. Much greater of course--but who today would admit it?--is the danger that we will think too little, and reject the thought that the true experience with language can only be a thinking experience, all the more so because the lofty poetry of all great poetic work always vibrates within a realm of thinking. But if what matters first of all is a thinking experience with language, then why this stress on a poetic experience? Because thinking in turn goes its way in the neighborhood of poetry. It is well, therefore, to give thought to the neighbor, to him who dwells in the same neighborhood. Poetry and thought, each needs the other in its neighborhood, each in its fashion, when it comes to ultimates. In what region the neighborhood itself has its domain, each of them, thought and poetry, will define differently, but always so that they will find themselves within the same domain. But because we are caught in the prejudice nurtured through centuries that thinking is a matter of ratiocination, that is, of calculation in the widest sense, the mere talk of a neighborhood of thinking to poetry is suspect. (Translated by Peter D. Hertz)
I don't have a lot to add, beyond highlighting this convergence, in part because I'm still trying to get the Heidegger essay to open up to me. The previous sentence was written back in February when Stephen's post was still new, and in fact, I failed to finish the Heidegger essay (I'm not certain I've ever finished a Heidegger essay or chapter, come to think of it)... (and god what a portentous post-title! you should have seen what it was in the first place...)

. . . but I had wanted to say something seemingly unrelated, but which was originally prompted by this convergence. Knausgaard is interested in whether poems open themselves up to us, he is interested in ultimates, as it were, as Heidegger puts it, he is interested in the contrast between what is often said, in "objective" terms about a poem, or a poet, and what the writing actually does, or could do, to us were we awake to it. And yet Knausgaard has become a kind of literary celebrity, called on to write travelogues for the New York Times Magazine, to be a native informer in the pages of the New Yorker, to sit comfortably alongside Jonathan Franzen, happily domesticated for our consumption. I mention Franzen, because he is the quintessential literary celebrity, it seems to me, and I have frequently seen him and Knausgaard mentioned in the same breath, the same tweet, as though they were very much the same thing (highly praised white male authors who are perhaps not all that, being the general vibe). I find the yoking baffling and unpleasant and obfuscating, not least because as writers, I think they have little in common - and though I certainly much prefer Knausgaard, surely even whatever merit Franzen's writing has is utterly obscured by his weird celebrity? It pushes us away from the writing, does it not? Prevents us from allowing a work to open up to us? There is backlash: Knausgaard is dismissed, the praise is surely excessive, isn't it?, the celebrity off-putting, and what the fuck is up with that title anyway? (Though why Hitler should get to own forever two such useful words as "my struggle" is honestly beyond me. If we don't name our 3000-page pseudo-memoir-y novel series My Struggle, surely the terrorists win? Hello?) Even extra-literary criticism that I find potentially interesting and valid - would a woman writing something like My Struggle be taken so seriously? (So so seriously.) Indeed not; probably not. But even this question, just as it is (literary society is unquestionably sexist, as in fact Steve's post touches on), pushes away the writing, prevents it from opening up - we are suspicious. We are suspicious! But in such questions it is also assumed that if a woman wrote a long autobiographical novel-ish thing, that it would thereby be much like Knasugaard's, because in such terms our only mode of inquiry appears to be at the level of chatter and celebrity and ratios of recognition. The experience is placed at a distance, foreclosed. We are not open.


davidly said...

Very nice, thanks.

The issue of the title leads me to how when I hear the name of a band and think "worthy of an album title but surely not a band name". In other words there is not so much a ethical faux pas as an aesthetic one, like, worthy of a chapter title, but surely not an entire tome. And, anyway, doesn't the power of the controversy of the title rest with its use in the native tongue? I mean, every monoglot knows Mein Kampf as well as Gesundheit or Fahrvergnügen and, hence the English shouldn't be lent such teeth, should it?

On the greater matter at hand: I wonder if the reader and writer share the struggle to recognize emergent themes and shape their essence without killing their subtlety through emphasis.

Richard said...

Hi, thanks for reading and commenting.

I can see where it might be a kind of faux pas to name your entire book/series thus. As for the English versus "Mein Kampf", the Norwegian is virtually identical with the German, so I don't know if he gets off by this formula!

I like your final paragraph. Something to chew on, certainly.

Sarah Elkins said...

Here via your posts on *Gilead* and other Marilynne Robinson works (I've read Lila and circled back to Gilead which I'm halfway through). I view Robinson's concerns about science as similar to Heidegger's essay you quoted. Being open to the *experience* of poetry can be blocked by over-emphasis on analysis. That doesn't mean analysis (or science) is wrong -- it can be illuminating, but it's not the only or necessarily the most important way to approach phenomena. I say this as 1) an IT operational support worker at a bioinformatics outfit (yay science) and 2) the daughter of a man who had deep faith and also prepped for teaching Sunday school for 50 years by examining what he felt about the scripture passage each week -- and looking at different translations and commentaries about them (open + analysis).