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

Romeo, Juliet, and Deleuze: Together at Last! by Joseph Suglia / Romeo and Juliet / Shakespeare’s THE MOST EXCELLENT AND LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET / The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare / ROMEO AND JULIET by Shakespeare / William Shakespeare, ROMEO AND JULIET: Analysis, Interpretation / twentieth-century French philosophy and Shakespeare / Romeo and Juliet

 

Romeo, Juliet, and Deleuze: Together at Last!

by Joseph Suglia

 

“Zu wenig Liebe, zu wenig Gerechtigkeit und Erbarmen, und immer zu wenig Liebe…—das bin ich.”

—Georg Trakl, in a letter to Ludwig von Ficken, June 1913

 

THE PRODUCTIVITY OF DESIRE

One of the great lessons of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) is that most of our desires are not our own.  Despite the turbidity of their language, I believe that this is what Deleuze and Guattari mean when they suggest that most desire is embedded in the social order itself: “The truth of the matter is that social production is purely and simply desiring-production itself under determinate conditions.  We maintain that the social field is immediately invested by desire…  There is only desire and the social, and nothing else.”  That is to say: Most desires are not individual; they are social.  They are manifest in the world; most of our desires are already part of the world as such.  Deleuze and Guattari make no distinction between social production and the production of socially conditioned desires.

It is not the case that desire is geared toward an absence.  It is not the case that we want what we don’t have.  Quite otherwise: We don’t long for what we don’t have—for the most part, what we want is already part of the really existing concrete landscapes of the cultures in which we live.  We want what others want; we want what we are prescribed to want.  Most of our desires are premanufactured and mass-manufactured; they are herd-desires, group-desires.  The Platonic-Lacanian theory of desire, which posits that desire is based on absence, is erroneous.  Desire is not empty; it is already full.  Nothing is missing from desire; it already has all that it needs.

Needs do not produce desires.  The exact opposite is the case: Desires produce needs.  Most of our desires do not respond to preexisting needs.  No one is born wanting an Automated Robotic Friend.  Desire creates the need for an Automated Robotic Friend.  Desires rapidly convert into needs; in consumerist culture, there is an infinitely accelerating and multiplying conversion of our desires into needs.  Now, it becomes a need for me to have the newest Bluetooth-compatible selfie stick.  Such things, such commodities, are appendages without which I cannot live.

There is a different kind of desire for Deleuze and Guattari, a desire that they denominate “real desire.”  Real desires would not be desires for our own repression, desires for our own persecution, desires for our own exploitation, desires to reproduce an army of docile consumer-workers, but an altogether different kind of desiring—a desiring that is not socially configured or designed.  I will use the word “love” to describe this other-desire.

Love means the undoing of the community, since love is not reducible to the norms of any community.  This thought is metaphorized beautifully in Shakespeare’s The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (circa 1591-1595).

The desire of Juliet Capulet for Romeo Montague and the desire of Romeo Montague for Julie Capulet are not herd-desires; they are not collective desires.  Both Romeo and Juliet are created by the desire that they have for each other.  It is only a social desire in the self-productive sense—for do Romeo and Juliet not form a society of two?  Though their social is desire, their desire is not the social.  In other words: The love of Romeo for Juliet and of Juliet for Romeo is not familial desire, is not collectivized desire, is not acculturated desire.  It is the subversive desire of each for the other (I will return to this subject below).

The desire of the young lovers is spontaneous (self-productive) and active: As soon as they see each other, they are transformed.  There are at least two signs of this transformation: 1.) Romeo is willing to repudiate his own birth name for the sake of Juliet.  2.) Romeo immediately forgets his erstwhile beloved, Rosaline, as soon as he fixes his eyes on Juliet.  From the moment that they see each other, Romeo and Juliet become entirely other.

Now, Romeo would not be Romeo outside of his relationship to Juliet, as Juliet would not be Juliet outside of her relationship to Romeo.  Who are they apart from their desires?  From this point forward, they do not exist apart from the desires that they have for each other.  Their amatory desire for each other gives birth to Romeo.  Their amatory desire for each other gives birth to Juliet.  The relation precedes the relata.  In other words: The impulsions and propulsions of real desire imply the loss of the self-sufficient subject.  I believe that this one of the things that Deleuze and Guattari mean when they write: “Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack an object.  It is, rather the subject that is missing in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject.”

We see this clearly in the second scene of Act Three.  Juliet asks the maddeningly tangential Nurse: “Hath Romeo slain himself?” [III:ii].  Juliet is No One without Romeo, as Romeo is No One without Juliet: “I am not I if there be such an ‘Ay’” [III:ii].  Such is the subjectlessness of the desire, the asubjective character of all real desire.

 

JULIET IS A NOMINALIST

I am not the first literary critic to notice that Juliet Capulet is a nominalist: The title of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is predicated on this premise.  A nominalist is one who thinks that words are generalities that, in order to signify anything at all, must transcend any particular context.  (The deconstructionists are therefore nominalists by another name.)  A word is only a word—and does not refer to any being or object in the world.  My question to the nominalists would be: Can a word not also be a thing in the world?  When a word is written, is it not a thing?

Juliet refuses to accept that Romeo is defined and confined by, restricted and reducible to the name “Montague,” the name of the familial clan that opposes her familial clan.  From the window, she serenades Romeo:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy. / Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. / What’s Montague?  It is nor hand nor foot, / Nor arm nor face nor any other part / Belonging to a man.  O be some other name! / What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without the title.  Romeo, doff thy name, / And for thy name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself [II:ii].

The olfactory sensation—the aroma of the rose—is independent of the word “rose.”  What is this if not nominalism?  Juliet is suggesting that the word “rose” is an abstraction that is abstracted from the referent, the physical rose, as it is from any other referent.  She implores Romeo to retain his “dear perfection”—his essence, his character, his quiddity, his haecceity, his ipseity—even if another surname were substituted for “Montague” and even if another given name were substituted for “Romeo.”  Charmingly, Juliet has an intuitive understanding of the arbitrariness of naming.  Names are artificially grafted to things and to people; they are mere universals that never touch particulars.  That it is possible to “doff [one’s] name”—this is Juliet’s charmingly naïve belief that beings are beings without language.  Endearingly, she pleads with Romeo to strip away his name in exchange for any other.  And Romeo agrees.  He hates his own name since that name is hateful to Juliet and, were it written, would rend it to pieces: “Had I it written, I would tear the word” [Ibid.].  Her distrust of language shows itself again when she implores Romeo not to swear his love to her: “Well, do not swear” [Ibid.].  A contract between them would have no more weight than the words “It lightens” [Ibid.].  Much as the lightning that ceases to be before one can say, “It lightens,” the contract between them might cease to be before the terms of the contract have been uttered.

The fact that Romeo is willing to discard—and, if necessary, mutilate—his surname implies that he does not see himself as reducible to his clan or definable by his clan.  Again, his desire for Juliet is not a communalized desire.

 

THE INVISIBLE CENTER OF THE PLAY IS ROSALINE

Readers should note that the seemingly minor characters in Shakespeare are often the most significant characters.  In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the most significant figure in the play is, arguably, Alarbus, who is a superficially peripheral character: Without Alarbus, the sequence of vengeance would never be instigated.  I believe that the key to understanding the play is Rosaline, though “key” is probably the wrong metaphor.  Better: I believe that the invisible center of the play is Rosaline.

When we first meet him, Romeo is mooning over Rosaline:

O brawling love, O loving hate, / O anything of nothing first create, / O heavy lightness, serious vanity, / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, / Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, / Still-waking sleep that is not what it is. / This love feel I that feel no love in this [I:i].

Such is the Shakespearean paradoxology of love.  The use of antiphrasis (the combining of opposites) is remarkable: “love” blends with “brawling,” “loving” blends with “hate,” “heavy” blends with “lightness,” “serious” blends with “vanity,” “misshapen chaos” blends with “well-seeming forms,” “feather” blends with “lead,” “bright” blends with “smoke,” “cold” blends with “fire,” “sick” blends with “health,” “still-waking” blends with “sleep.”  Opposites are interlaced.  There is a coalescence or interpenetration of opposites, which means that love, for Shakespeare, is unsystematizable—for only that which is simple and undifferentiated can be systematized.

Rosaline is not named explicitly until the second scene of the first act, when Romeo recites the list of invited guests to Capulet’s feast.  She is first anonymous and then, the audience of readers / spectators only learn of her name from the recitation of the guest list, which foretokens her imminent departure from the thoughts of Romeo.  On the guest list, her name is nothing more than one name among other names.  She will quickly be replaced by Juliet Capulet, who is not listed on the guest list, since she is not a guest at all, but the only child and daughter of the great rich Capulet.

Oppressed by his love for Rosaline, Romeo cannot forswear Rosaline until he falls in love—instantaneously—with Juliet.  Sunday night, when Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo are masquerading themselves for the feast, Juliet will supplant Rosaline in Romeo’s mind.  This substitution of Juliet for Rosaline will take place in the span of no more than one hour—both Scene Four and Scene Five of the first act take place Sunday night, the night of the feast.  There is no more than an hour or so between the scenes.  The new beloved, Juliet, quickly kills off, interchanges with, the old beloved, Rosaline.  As the Chorus phrases it: “Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie, / And young affection gapes to be his heir” [II:0].

At the beginning of Act Two: Scene Three, it is the dawn of the day, and Friar Laurence is gathering baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers into an osier cage.  Friar Laurence sights Romeo and asks the young man if he spent the night with Rosaline.  Romeo’s response:

With Rosaline, my ghostly father?  No, / I have forgot that name and that name’s woe.

Friar Laurence is understandably shocked: “Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!” [Ibid.].  The change that Romeo undergoes underscores the mutability and the malleability of love.  The fact that Rosaline is unnamed in the first act and is easily interchangeable likewise highlights the ductility of love—it is articulative of the thought that desire persists for as long as life persists.  If love is mutable yet ductile, it cannot be systematized and what is unsystematizable cannot be socially integrated.  Romeo’s desire is mutable and therefore his desire is revolutionary.  More precisely: The love of Romeo and Juliet issues in a revolution, literally.

 

DESIRE IS REVOLUTION

There is a war in the play between two Veronese families, the House of Capulet and the House of Montague, as is well-known.  The love of Juliet and Romeo is, above all, a subversive love.  The offspring of one rivaling clan falls in love with the offspring of another rivaling clan.  What is this, if not transgression / subversion / insubordination?  Juliet’s and Romeo’s transgressive, subversive, insubordinate desire remind us that all amatory desire is transgressive, subversive, insubordinate.  Romeo and Juliet are insubordinate to their respective families, transgressive of the laws of familialism, subversive to the will of their respective fathers.  For contemporary examples of this, one has only to think of current practices of exogamy, of interracial, interreligious, or transgenerational sociosexual / conjugal relationships.

No wonder that Romeo’s uninvited presence at the feast is decried by Tybalt as an “intrusion” [I:v], as the trespass of private property.  Romeo is there to seek out Rosaline, not Juliet, but no matter: He is a lover, and lovers are intrusive; they are interlopers.  No wonder that Romeo himself claims to “profane” the “holiest shrine” of Juliet’s hand [Ibid.].  Romeo’s desire for Juliet is metaphorized as blasphemy, as intrusion, as the infringement of the holy.  Desire profanes the sacred, for the sacred is nothing if not that which should not be desired.  Seconds after they fall in love at first sight and kiss at the feast, both Romeo and Juliet use the language of “trespass” and “sin” [Ibid.] to describe their mutual fascination.  And they say these words even before they know that they belong to enemy camps, reminding us that love is the transgression and profanation of the social order.

To return to Deleuze and Guattari: Real desire is revolutionary.  They argue: “Desire does not ‘want’ revolution, it is revolutionary in its own right, as though involuntarily, by wanting what it wants.”  In a culture wherein citizens are labile, wherein citizens are neurotic subjects who are subject to the desires of capitalist culture, psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychotherapists are enlisted to keep them in line.  The analysand is kept in line by the psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychotherapists who direct one’s neuroses to the father or to the mother.  “What are your problems?” the psychotherapist asks.  No matter what your problems might be, the cause of your problems will forever be named “The Father” or “The Mother.”  Deleuze and Guattari are intimating that psychoanalysis supports fascism, since both systems of thought relegate singularities to authority.

Even before draining the ampoule of sleeping potion, Juliet has already infringed the social order.  Such is love’s unfettered character.  The desires of Romeo and Juliet are still social—but they are not the desires of the herd, of the family, of the clan.  Just as today, cult leaders, marketing firms, parents, teachers, bosses, psychiatrists tell you what to desire, Capulet and Lady Capulet tell Juliet who she should desire: the mediocre Paris.  For this reason, the desire of Romeo and Juliet for each other is anti-familial, explosive, liberated, and liberating and realigns the whole of the Veronese society.  Their desire for each other reminds us that desire is resistant, recalcitrant, renitent.

The Prologue summarizes the entire play:

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other, “their death-marked love,” a love which inescapably ends in death, is transgressive and literally revolutionary.  It effects radical political change: the harmonization of the House of Capulet and the House of Montague.

Dr. Joseph Suglia