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”  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” . 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 .
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” .
(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”  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.
Aphorisms on Libertarianism, Criticism, and Psychoanalysis
Dr. Joseph Suglia
Libertarianism is conservatism that is ashamed of saying its own name.
Criticism is the stratosphere of the mind.
The whole enterprise of psychoanalysis is to turn aliens into pets.
An analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
No play in the Shakespearean canon is as politically radical as Measure for Measure, suggesting, as it does, that all political authority is corrupt at its core. It is the antithesis of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most reactionary play.
The title, Measure for Measure, is richly ambiguous. It refers directly to the Hebraic and Christian Bibles–in particular, to the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” [Matthew 7:2]. This is Jesus’ endorsement of divine justice. While Jesus repudiates the endless cycle of human eye-for-an-eye violence, he has no problem endorsing a divine lex talionis.
In Shakespeare’s play, the character Angelo, who is no angel, makes of himself a figure of divine justice. He is invested with secular authority, as well. Before Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, withdraws from the city, he deputizes Angelo, delegating to him all of the powers of the state:
Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart [I:i].
Well, mortality does, at least. But no mercy lives in Angelo’s reptilian heart.
The Duke only pretends to withdraw from Vienna and to migrate to Poland (others say to Russia or Rome); all the while, he remains in the city, disguised as a friar.
In the Duke’s (apparent) absence, Angelo sentences to death a young man named Claudio for lechery. Claudio is betrothed to his beloved Juliet, but their marriage has not yet been consecrated:
[S]he is fast my wife, / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order [I:ii].
“Outward order” is indeed the problem of the play. She has been impregnated out of wedlock. For this, the sin of fornication, Claudio is to be beheaded.
Angelo is a theocrat who does not distinguish between secular and religious authority. He recognizes no nuance, no degree between offenses. Every crime is equal to him. In accordance with his absolutist morality, all of the bordellos in Vienna are ordered to be plucked down [I:ii]. When the demi-god Authority [I:ii] hammers down on the city of Vienna, it knows no distinction between murder and fornication. Prostitution is a secular and a spiritual offense in Angelo’s eyes. Unlicensed sex is the same as murder and deserves the same penalty as murder:
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen / A man already made, as to remit / Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image / In stamps that are forbid. ’Tis all as easy / Falsely to take away a life true made, / As to put mettle in restrained means / To make a false one [II:iv].
Angelo’s moralism is anti-sexual, and what is anti-sexual is anti-life. It is also, of course, an unreachable ideal. As Lucio puts it, it is impossible to extirpate human sexuality. You might as well condemn the sparrows for lechery. Pompey’s question (to Escalus) is a propos: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” [II:i]. Indeed, Angelo’s New Vienna is much like Giuliani’s Times Square in the 1990s. Like Giuliani, Angelo would desexualize the city, eunuchizing its populace.
A more measured justice, against the moralistic extremism of Angelo, is represented by Vincentio. And this is the second connotation of the title: As opposed to the absolutism of measure-for-measure religious violence, a more moderate, more measured secular justice is desirable.
There is a third connotation in the play’s title that I would like to illuminate. The entire play is a web of substitutions. Measure for Measure means, in this context, taking one thing for another. Angelo replaces Vincentio—when the surrogate takes the place of the original, disaster results. Ragozine’s head replaces Claudio’s head. The violation of Isabella’s virginity would substitute for Claudio’s death. There are linguistic transpositions, as well: Pompey says, “benefactor” instead of “malefactor,” “varlets” instead of “honourable men,” “Hannibal” instead of “cannibal,” etc. [II:i].
* * * * *
Claudio asks his sister Isabella (by way of Lucio, friend to Claudio) to prostrate herself before the deputy and plead for his life. He knows the erotic power that she radiates:
For in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men [I:ii]
In the city of pimps and whores, brother prostitutes sister. Claudio would be his sister’s procurer. One should recall that “prone” connotes “lying down.” It is unclear what the denotative meaning is supposed to be. “Move” suggests the contagion of sexual desire. Her words would not be a logical appeal, an appeal by reason to reason, but an erotic appeal, an appeal by reason to the libido.
Isabella isn’t a very strong advocate for her brother’s life. “I’ll see what I can do” [I:iv], she tells Lucio. And she gives up far too easily when her petition is rejected. During the first interview with Angelo, she says, weakly, “O just but severe law! I had a brother, then: heaven keep your honour” [II:ii]. After her appeal seems to be rejected during the second interview, she says, unimpressively, “Even so. Heaven keep your honour” [II:iv].
Isabella’s argument for her brother’s life is a biblical one: Hate the sin, but not the sinner. Angelo sees himself as a vehicle for divine law. It is the law, not he, who is responsible for condemning her brother to death. Both Isabella and Angelo depersonalize in their arguments for and against the death penalty as punishment for “illegitimate” sexual intercourse. Here is what Isabella says at the beginning of her argument:
There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice; / For which I would not plead, but that I must; / For which I must not plead, but that I am / At war ’twixt will and will not [I:ii].
Who would consider this a strong appeal for someone’s life? If your brother were sentenced to death, I would hope that you would plead more forcefully. She speaks of her brother’s death with such flippancy that one must question whether or not she even cares if he will die:
Dar’st thou die? / The sense of death is most in apprehension; / And the poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies [III:i].
The Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, says nearly the same thing to Claudio: Be absolute for death, since it is better to die than to live fearing death. The argument is specious.
Like all moralists, Angelo is a sanctimonious hypocrite. When Isabella pleads with the corrupt deputy for mercy, he makes a bargain: Only if Isabella surrenders her body to Angelo’s sexual desires will her brother be released from the death sentence. As commentators have suggested before me, Isabella is more concerned with her own vanity, her narcissistic self-regard, than with her brother’s mortality:
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame? [III:i].
Harold Bloom might have been correct when he asserted that Isabella is unable to distinguish sexuality from incest. Notice that Isabella not only accuses her brother of incest for attempting to recruit his sister as an advocate, but claims that he cohabitated with her cousin [I:iv].
Though her basic position might be an anti-sexual one, others have noticed before me that Isabella uses an erotic language to persuade the corrupt magistrate Angelo:
Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess / A natural guiltiness, such as is his, / Let it sound a thought upon your tongue / Against my brother’s life [II:ii].
She speaks, and ’tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it [II:ii].
William Empson pointed out, cogently, that the first “sense” connotes reason, while the second “sense” connotes sensuality. Angelo is clearly turned on by Isabella’s coldness (and rationality). The colder (and more rational) she appears, the more he desires her (of course). Isabella wishes “a more strict restraint” than her nun colleagues enjoy [I:iv]. She plays on Angelo’s masochism AND sadism:
[W]ere I under the terms of death, / Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame [II:iv].
There is no question that Isabella is trying to turn Angelo on by talking about “stripping herself.” Nor is there any question that she is succeeding. There is no question, either, that Isabella is exciting Angelo’s masochism by her refusal to submit to his sexual will. She is quite revealing when she says to Angelo: “I had rather give my body than my soul” [II:iv]. And yet she never gives her body to the reprobate deputy. When Angelo, in one of Shakespeare’s wondrous soliloquies, listens to himself speak, we get a glimpse into the character’s inner experience:
Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good? [II:ii].
The question is rhetorical. Angelo is thrilled by the idea of violating her celibacy. Polluting what is holy and dragging it down into the mud–that is what excites him. He is corrupt. Why shouldn’t everyone else in the world be? I hear in Angelo’s “We are all frail” [II:iv] a failed attempt at identification with Isabella: He can never be as pure as she, so she must become as impure as he.
As I stated at the beginning of this analysis, Measure for Measure suggests that corruption is inherent to the structure of all political authority. The Duke has the same designs as his substitute. After all, both Angelo and Vincentio desire and pursue the same person: the celibate Isabella.
When the Duke visits Friar Thomas, the former quickly waves away the idea that he could ever have a sexual thought:
No. Holy father, throw away that thought; / Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom [I:iii].
This is trickery. The Duke might not seem as aggressively amorous as Angelo or as libertine as Lucio, but he does desire women or, at least, a particular woman: Isabella.
Is Duke Vincentio indeed a “gentleman of all temperance” [III:ii]? According to Lucio, “He’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for” [IV:iii]. A “woodman” is a hunter of women. What if Lucio is telling the truth? And why does the thin-skinned Duke castigate and punish Lucio for having insinuated that the latter has a pulse?
Is the Duke’s self-withdrawal and self-disguising a cunning stratagem to seduce Isabella? This cannot be exactly the case, for the Duke never, in fact, seduces Isabella. He commands her to marry him. And then the Duke compels others to be married, whether they want to be married or not: Lucio is forced to marry the punk Kate Keep-down and Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, whom he abandoned once the dowry was lost. As they enter into compulsory matrimony, the Duke must say goodbye to the “life remov’d” [I:iii] as the novice nun Isabella must say goodbye to her celibacy and dedication to things atemporal.
Isabella never says a word after the Duke compels her to marry him. Her silence is ear-splitting. How are we to understand Isabella’s silence? Is it the silence of shock? The silence of assent? And who is Varrius, and why does he have nothing to say?
Reading the play is like looking into an abyss. Every depth leads to a deeper profundity. It would be impossible to exhaust the meanings that this magnificent play generates.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.