A Review of MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE: Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard): by Dr. Joseph Suglia / MY STRUGGLE by Karl Ove Knausgaard

An Analysis of My Struggle (Min Kamp): Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”

–Oscar Wilde, Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”

–One Direction, “Better Than Words”

If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust.  Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius.  Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust.  Those who have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice.  Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”

Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, My Struggle (Min Kamp), a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel?  It is completely devoid of novelistic properties.  There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (perhaps even the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.

The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present.  He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children.  He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities.  All of the pomposities are trivialities.  All of the profundities are stupidities.  All of the epiphanies are banalities.

For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.

We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays.  We learn that raising children is difficult.  Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park.  In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party.  Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party.  His daughter forgets her shoes.  Jesus gets the shoes.  He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.

Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red” [65] of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!”  He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” [66].  He reads better books than the one that we are reading (The Brothers Karamazov and Demons by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads.  For some reason, this does not surprise me.

Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.

Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog.  “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says [80].

Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA.  The noise irritates his Russian neighbor.  He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.

In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad.  He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol.  I agree with the author’s self-assessment.  He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter.  She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.

Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce.  “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” [478].

(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s.  Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)

Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet.  And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.

Never before has a writer written so much and said so little.  The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.

Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human.  We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:

Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer?  Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature?  Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue.  It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes].  However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader.  It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.  Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.  Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words.  What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.

The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this.  They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual.  There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do [129-130].

The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence from words.  Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader.  After all, any idiot can have feelings.  Very few people can write well.

It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature.  He is much more interested in LIFE.  Everyone alive has life.  Yes, palpitant life–throbbing, living life.  Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer, to channel Martin Amis.

This might be the reason that Knausgaard dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.

“Fictional writing has no value” [562] for Knausgaard.  After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it?  This Thought is at least as old as Plato.  Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing.  Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.

(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology.  He affirmed the uncertainty of things.  Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)

Hater of words, enemy of literature: Such is Knausgaard.  He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write.  What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much?  One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.

Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability.  Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore.  People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites.  Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers.  The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care.  We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage?  Those who are private–or who believe in the right to privacy–are regarded with malicious suspicion.  Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of My Struggle should come as no surprise.  An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.

Art is not autobiography.  As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist.  Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.”  It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.

Joseph Suglia

IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker / An Analysis of IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker

 

An Analysis of In Memoriam to Identity (Kathy Acker) by Joseph Suglia

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL

Resonating with the title of Kathy Acker’s most mature work, In Memoriam to Identity (1990), is the notion that the self is inseparable from its own becoming-other, from the forms that it assumes and the masks that it dons.  The book serves as a series of largely disconnected epitaphs to a discarded concept of identity—that is, to “identity” conceived as transcendental and substantialized subjectivity that would endure unchanged through time and exist a priori independently of all relations to the other.  What Acker’s book suggests, in a manner that seems disjointed and even at times haphazard, is that personal identity is based on the exposure to the other person that is revealed by sexuality (the final and perhaps most significant word of the book).

Three cycles of narrative intersect with each other: 1.) A willfully anachronistic and reconstructive transcription of Rimbaud’s biography (broken off arbitrarily when Acker grew disgusted with the poet’s imperialist conversion) interspersed with references to AIDS and postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard (here decried as a cynic), deliberate mistranslations of Rimbaud’s verse, and intentionally unacknowledged citations from Büchner, Lautréamont, and Artaud—members of the counter-tradition of subversive literature within which Acker would like to insert herself.  Of foremost importance to her is Rimbaud’s impassioned relationship to Verlaine, who is compelled to choose between a socially unacceptable liaison with the boy and his responsibilities as a father, husband, and member of the bourgeoisie.  The narrative is set against the background of the Franco-German War of 1870.  According to the logic of Acker’s repoliticization, the Germans appear as yuppies who wage a ceaseless battle against the unemployed and arrogate to themselves services that only they can afford.

2.) A narrative oriented around Airplane, a young girl who exists in a relationship of absolute dependency to her rapist (later nominated as her “boyfriend”)—a relationship that mirrors, despite Acker’s own self-interpretive claims, Rimbaud’s relationship to Verlaine.  She is inexorably driven to dance at a strip club.

3.) A transformative replication of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that concerns the sexually voracious Capitol, who is erotically obsessed with her brother Quentin.  Her goal, to couple with every man in the world, is the indirect endeavor to achieve sexual congress with her brother, the only man who matters to her.  Capitol is the pure desire to consume men, the will to conquer through copulation; she generalizes her male sexual partners to the point at which they are reduced to nothing.  Because Capitol can never remember any of the men with whom she couples (and does not exercise any discrimination in her choices), she not only erases these men as individual human beings: By eliding all memory, she effectively destroys her Self as an identity that would persist through time.  She “herself,” a female Don Giovanni (and this is the joint that links her narrative to the Rimbaud section), is “No One”: non-identical with herself; “she” is a multiple series of drives to overcome men through sexuality.

4.) “The Wild Palms” alternates successively between the narrative of Airplane and that of Capitol; both narratives are sutured together in counterpoint (this is a Faulknerian practice).

To love, in each context, is to demolish and shape one’s personal history.  The work is an extended, productive commentary on Rimbaud’s dictum, “Je suis un autre,” “I am an other.”  The most productive point of departure for an analysis of this work would be the first narrative, which concerns this dictum most directly.  Rimbaud longs to free himself not merely from the self that he is and has been, but from the stability of identity in general: “I want to die” [21].  He desires “to wake inside someone else’s skin” [23] (a direct translation from Rimbaud’s correspondence), and this self-transformation is only possible by way of a relation to the other human being: “Human flesh needs human flesh. Because only flesh is value” [27].  And later: “I’m waiting! I’m waiting for what I want! A certain type of life which I call LIFE.  So far I haven’t been able to get there because I need another person, V, and what’s happened and is still happening between me and V is nothing, ****… I want blood” [28].  Rimbaud prefers “the vulnerability of real identity” to the bourgeois self (a pre-existing self that would be identical to itself).  R’s identity is, strictly speaking, a non-identity: He is a multiple series of selves rather than the self-sameness of the unique self that would come before all others.  His desire to become other-than-himself, to be exteriorized as his own double, is inextricably bound to his relation to V.  Identity is both constituted and destroyed by the sexual relation.

It is a relation that gives rise to the most intense experience of pain.  Sexuality is not absolute communion, the fusion of the self and the Other, but rather absolute loneliness: What is most distinctive about the sexual relation is the absence of all bonds between the persons involved.  Whereas R’s relationship to V is one of submission, fragility, and addiction, the latter’s relationship to the former is something that could be reduced to a moral decision (Verlaine is able to choose between Rimbaud and his responsibilities as a husband, father, and member of civil society).  One witnesses a certain dissymmetry in the relation between R. and V. in scene after scene of this work.  What marks their rapport is the fact that this relation is unequal and without a future.  The hopelessness of the relation belongs to it essentially and defines both of its members.  Love becomes, as well, synonymous with coercion, the penetration of rape, and the agony of torture: “R’s consciousness of his love for V was a torture rack” [62].  R hates to desire V.  He desires V because he hates V, because V is killing him.  As Rimbaud says to his mentor African Pain: “I need what you’re doing to me because it’s only pain and being controlled which’re going to cut through my autism.  Because it’s pain you give me I love you” [5].  Acker’s “Rimbaud” is inescapably drawn to Verlaine because of the pain that the latter inflicts upon him.  He discovers love through pain and this is the only experience that would allow him to “demolish” “identity” [18] altogether: “There’s no way out but death or consciousness… Break the heart’s dead ice. He knew that the habitual self had to be broken” [16].

When V. withdraws from R’s life altogether in order not to be named a “homosexual,” R accedes to another relation.  It is at this point that R renounces poetry and pronounces poetry’s end—though one cannot assign a precise date, August 1873, for instance, to this renunciation and pronouncement—and is transformed utterly: “Each person has the possibility of being simultaneously several beings, having several lives” [92].  It is not as if Rimbaud discarded his past self as if it were an old shell and entered into a new one (that of an arms dealer and ivory trader).  What is affirmed is the essential instability and uncertainty of all identity: that the “I” is already the “Non-I.”

The renunciation of poetry corresponds precisely to the renunciation of Verlaine and what he represents: the self-sameness of subjectivity conceived as substance.  Such is Acker’s implicit explanation of R’s alleged “silence”—which was not a form of silence at all, but the accession to another order of writing.  It is not merely the case that R has broken with his past self and is transmuted into an imperialist (such is a conclusion that Acker has rejected).  He enters into an experience in which the self is continually annihilated and reformed, an experience in which the self proliferates into a series of duplicable selves or non-selves.  R’s narrative ends with the affirmation of an other consciousness: not a new consciousness that would supersede one that would come before it, but a consciousness that is always entirely other-than-itself.  R’s apparent renunciation of poetry, mistyped as his “silence,” was, in fact, a phenomenological turn toward the experience of the self as an other.

All of Acker’s work is severely flawed and In Memoriam to Identity is no exception.  But these flaws are tied to the success of her densely individuated style.  Acker’s bad writing (and carelessness is in evidence here—I have seldom read a book with more typographical and syntactical errors) might be read, charitably, as a mark of her biblioclasm, of her refusal to fashion a well-crafted masterpiece that would be accepted within the canon of traditional literary history.  Unfortunately, the stylization of the narrative is not immune to this practice.  The description of the relationship between R and V is, I’m afraid, only intermittently compelling and tends to veer toward mere compilation and summary of biographical data.  The deadpan repetition of “facts” from R’s life denies any pathetic identification on the part of the reader.  This, in itself, would not be disturbing if pathos were not what In Memoriam to Identity were all about.  The work is most impressive when Acker gives herself over to the desire, however juvenile, to shock her audience and approximates the punk sensibility of her vastly inferior early novel Blood and Guts in High School (1980), while bringing to the work a far greater intelligence.  And yet the work lacks the critical naivete that made Acker’s early writing (relatively) powerful.  Most troubling in this regard are the frequent intrusions of Acker the Professor and Literary Theorist into the space of the narrative.  Everything proceeds as if the author had surfeited herself with postmodern theory to the point at which she could only write narratives fraught with savvy, self-interpretive statements.  She anticipates the interpretation of her work in the hands of her informed readership.  In Memoriam to Identity thus takes on the strange appearance of a book that reads itself.

Joseph Suglia