We As Humans

Those of you who have actually made your way through the 3 volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical whatever-you-call-it, “My Struggle” (same title as Hitler’s book) that have been translated into English thus far (there are six total volumes I believe) will understand, I imagine, the kind of intense ambivalence he inspires. On the one hand, you love him so much. He’s out of his mind, and raw, and real, and his books are this weird mix of hysterical melodrama and deeply boring daily activities described in mind-numbing detail. Not mind-numbing, actually–it’s more like reading the details puts you in a Zen-like place where repetition becomes a mantra. He takes one potato out of the pot, slices it four ways, puts a pat of butter on each slice, transfers each slice one at a time to the platter, then takes the next potato out of the pot, slices it four ways, etc. After awhile the repetition and the attention to detail in these descriptions of the activities of mundane life become really wonderful and fascinating and somehow even kind of moving. The way we all spend so much of our time slicing potatoes when we are also these complex, deeply-feeling, striving, struggling entities, full of thoughts and ideas and worries, there is something sweet about that, that I think is captured in these weird books this insane person wrote. And you can only admire his brutal honesty, in a certain way. I appreciate the impulse and the gesture behind his honesty, behind his desire to reveal everything, every thought, every contradictory statement or action. He’s a realist, obviously, he’s trying to lay bare the entirety of an existence using only the written word, which is of course impossible, which he knows, which is part of why he’s so depressed.

On the other hand, the Karl Ove who comes through in these books is obviously just an unbearable dingus. It gets more and more frustrating to continue trudging through the repetitive, monotonous descriptions of his deeply stupid problems. Oh boo hoo you don’t like being a father but impregnating your wife makes you feel masculine so you keep doing it? Indeed, I weep for you, Karl Ove. The part where he’s just met her and she won’t sleep with him so he cuts his face to ribbons with a broken bottle and then walks out like “hey guys” and she starts sobbing? Ooookay. In spite of his constant protestations to the contrary, it’s just undoubtedly the case that Karl Ove himself finds stories like these to be somehow self-aggrandizing, even as he’s also telling you how deeply ashamed of himself he always is. Clearly–like many insufferable depressed people–he believes that his childish, groveling, self-obsessed existential angst and inability to socialize normally means he is deeper and more real than other people. Again, that very ambivalence in his writing–that I’m sure he’s aware of–is part of what makes his work compelling (to me). I mean, the world is an awful brutal place. Being alive is an existential nightmare. We have contradictory feelings and we do things we aren’t proud of. And it’s exhilarating to see a (very talented writer) explore all of this. But still, the mounting frustration with this awful person gets harder and harder to bear. I would rather live in a hole in the ground than be that man’s wife; can you imagine how she feels just walking into a room where other people are, now that these horrible books detailing her every flaw and weakness of character, her every juvenile fight with her husband, the horrible things her husband secretly thinks about her, their children, being a husband and father, have been not only published but have become international bestsellers? NO THANK YOU

I suppose that too is part of what’s compelling about him, though. That reality itself is fraught with this same feeling of preoccupation married to frustration. It IS annoying to be a social animal in this world of pain; to be upset about climate change but then also to feel horrible that you got too drunk at that party and said something stupid. Maybe the twin sense of being compelled and repelled by Karl Ove is really just how we feel about ourselves, life in general. Or maybe he’s just a dingus, I don’t know.

Anyway, recently Karl Ove was hired by the New York Times Magazine to drive from Newfoundland all the way across America and write about it, just like Tocqueville, if Tocqueville had been a chain-smoking, self-obsessed, proudly depressed Norwegian who loathed talking to strangers. The resulting saga is just as delightful and frustrating as “My Struggle.” On the one hand, there’s something comforting in the way Karl Ove always behaves exactly the way you expect him to behave. OF COURSE he forgets to get his driver’s license renewed before flying all the way to Canada. OF COURSE he forgets to put more credits on his phone, so he can’t call the Swedish embassy. OF COURSE he forgets that the Swedish embassy will be closed for 3 days because of a Swedish holiday. OF COURSE he immediately clogs the toilet in his weird Newfoundland motel room and is too ashamed to call the receptionist so instead he just lies on his bed smoking and reading some weird Dutch book about Vikings for 20 hours until the toilet miraculously unclogs itself. And OF COURSE he is filled with shame and self-loathing about all the aforementioned.

And yet!

One of my favorite books about the U.S. is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which among many other things is also a kind of road novel. It describes a journey through the small-town world of post-World War II America, where the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is constantly on the lookout for distractions for his child mistress, and therefore stops at an endless series of attractions, which every single little town seemed to be in possession of. The world’s largest stalagmite, obelisks commemorating battles, a reconstruction of the log cabin where Lincoln was born, the world’s longest cave, the homemade sculptures of a local woman. Humbert’s gaze is European, deeply sophisticated, cultivated and ancient, but also perverted and sick, while the things he observes on the journey across America are superficial, childishly un-self-conscious, ignorant of history, but also innocent and possessed of the freshness of the new.

Dang!!! This is basically the best summary of Lolita I have ever read.

He’s so unremittingly depressed and gloomy that you also forget how funny he can be. His descriptions of his high school band’s first show, in volume 1 of “My Struggle,” are total under-the-radar gut-busters. And in his America saga he’ll interrupt his glum, brutal discourses about the extinction of humanity with little moments like this:

I pushed the button, but all that happened was that the back of the seat inclined slowly forward.

“This is, without a doubt, the most exciting thing that has happened so far on this trip,” Peter said.

“I wish the whole car would just explode,” I said. “At least I’d have something to write about.”

Ha ha ha

The rhythm of his writing and descriptions is just oddly soothing. Something about his tone, which is never excited or dramatic, makes his observations often devastating:

At dusk, when the light falling on the snow still had only the merest tinge of blue, we pulled over to look at an enormous concrete statue of Jesus that stood right next to the road, between the groves of trees. It must have been at least 15 feet tall. In one outstretched hand, he held a globe. All his limbs were out of proportion, and his face was so crudely made that the statue seemed the embodiment of a child’s drawing.

To the left of it, there was a house, and to the right, a fenced-in yard. Beyond the fence stood a giant dinosaur. I went over to have a look. A sign on the locked gate proclaimed this exhibit to be the finest in the world. Several other hulking prehistoric creatures stood there motionless in the snow.

When I turned around and looked back at the house, I saw a little girl and a woman in her 30s, probably the girl’s mother, standing in the window staring at us.

What kind of a place was this?

I mean, really. You’ve got to hand it to Karl Ove; he is smart and good at writing. His is an extremely detail-oriented consciousness, finely attuned to stark realities.

So you can imagine my surprise when, delving into Part II, I suddenly noted that he was making the dreaded “We humans have always” blunder that so infuriates me when I’m grading undergrad papers. The way Karl Ove employs it actually reveals exactly what the problem with “we as humans” statements usually is.

I thought: What if the authorities in Europe at the end of the 15th century, when Columbus informed them of what he had seen and experienced, decided to leave America alone? Not to conquer it, not to colonize it, not to exploit it?

It is inconceivable.

If there is something to be gained, if it is gainable, no power on earth can restrain the forces that seek to gain it. To leave a profit or a territory or any kind of resource, even a scientific discovery, unexploited is deeply alien to human nature.

Uh oh. You see what he did there? If not, he makes it explicit a few paragraphs later:

Leaving America and yet keeping it under watch would have turned the continent into a kind of vast human nature reserve, the people there following their own path of development, without knowing they were under observation.

What an awful thought. And nearly inconceivable. Not only is it alien to human nature to leave a profit unexploited, but discovering, inventing or knowing something without passing that knowledge on is alien to us, too.

So, the people who lived in pre-Columbus America were “following their own path of development,” which did not involve exploiting profits, etc., and this is what he fantasizes about as he drives around America imagining it with no big box stores or McDonalds. Yet somehow simultaneously it is “alien to human nature” to not exploit profits.

So Native Americans are not human, in this formulation.

This is what I try to explain to my students over and over again. If “we as humans have always written novels to express our feelings” then that leaves vast swaths of humanity basically outside the definition of “human,” and that is morally bad as well as just logically lazy. It reveals that on some level, the writer genuinely thinks that “humanity” comprises only those who perform what she herself considers normal activities.

Of course, no one MEANS that. When this logic failure is pointed out, the student ALWAYS gets it, and is sheepish. It’s just fascinating to me the regularity with which this formulation appears in student papers. And when it appears in established smartypants grownup writing, I freak out. Karl Ove knows that Native Americans are human beings, part of the same species as he is. And yet, at the level of language, certain unconscious distinctions materialize. “Human nature” is to exploit, to discover, to invent, to spread knowledge. When those qualities run up again some other culture, the result is tragic–genocide, etc.–and the writer shakes their head mournfully, not realizing that in their own formulation they’ve presented the native culture as being outside of humanity.

Anyway, this is why you shouldn’t generalize about human nature. Although probably the only people who noticed this in Karl Ove’s essay were those who, like I do, spend vast amounts of their own mundane daily time grading papers about art. We all have our pet peeves. I always think of Avril Incandenza, DFW’s fictionalized portrait of his own mother, who spends her time starting letter-writing campaigns to any grocery store where she sees a sign that reads “10 items or less” instead of “10 items or fewer.” I feel you, dude.

Anyway, I’m so glad I’m married to my husband, and not some other awful man

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7 Responses to We As Humans

  1. yelena says:

    This description makes me glad I chose to spend the last year reading Elena Ferrante over Karl Ove. I can’t tell, should I still try him though?

  2. Freddy says:

    New Seasons uses “10 Items or Fewer.” This is why it is the grocery store for me.

  3. Eileen says:

    Wait, this dude is still alive? At first I was totally picturing him having died 75 years ago after sustaining a long relationship via letters with someone like Proust. Because when were writers trying to encompass the whole of the meaningful meaninglessness of human existence in one massive multi-part novel? Yeah.

    On the other hand I am super excited to see anyone writing about Lolita without concentrating on the “oh she is totally a siren & temptress even though she’s 12 and clearly being raped repeatedly at best” concept that so many people seem to think is the point of the book, even though it’s basically the exact opposite. There was a Tumblr post about all the different Lolita covers/movie posters exemplifying that exact misinterpretation. GOSH WHAT DOES THIS SAY ABOUT OUR CULTURE

  4. matt o says:

    I saw this article and thought of you:
    http://www.mhpbooks.com/i-am-writing-on-mobylives-about-jeffrey-eugenides-writing-in-the-new-york-times-book-review-about-karl-knausgaard-writing-about-him-in-the-new-york-times-magazine/

    My favorite part: “I am assuming that Knausgaard is immortal and that each volume of My Struggle is a horcrux”

    Also calling Eugenides “a vest with a pirate goatee”

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