Wednesday, January 28, 2015
The Tyranny of the Present
I recently completed the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, A Man in Love. It will be a while before I try Vol. 3. I am in the meantime attempting to replenish lost minerals and fluids expended in that effort. The book comes across like a microwave blast, evaporating everything it touches. I can only puzzle at the source and follow the dry river beds that wind out from there. For the time it takes and the considerable patience it requires of its reader, the rewards are not immediately apparent. Sitting now, more or less a month apart from the final page of the volume, the chief element that stands out is KOK's technique, his ability to draw out moments and build the humdrum continuities of daily life, what's at the window, what shall we eat, clean the dishes, will I write-- all acts of doing saved from higher thought or direct synthesis. He uses this idiom to show the foundations of experience. In a way, he has perfected what he began in Vol 1-- the project to grab time at its slowest. Through this idiom, he gives us the solipsism of a man in love, the binding, blinding totality of need that supersedes the capacity to think like a person out of love and this flows into the problems of cohabitation, the willingness to self-sacrifice to do the dishes and the cleaning and this flows into child birth then exhaustion and all the while, the mind is keenly occupied by the task at hand. There's seldom pleasure taken in the moment. One act gives way to another. In contrast, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, operates on a micron scale in its dissection of a man's lunch break excursion but works to elevate each small choice (the nostalgia for paper straws that sink in Coke, the proper way to tie a shoelace so it doesn't break over time) with a kind of pragmatic wisdom that breaks the true present with asides. With KOK, escape always seems impossible, or its rarity is celebrated with a beer, as so much of the extended scene between Geir and KOK encapsulates the book's walking philosophy. And for all its dryness, for each attempt I made to put it down for good, I found myself needing to pick it back up, if for no other reason than out of respect for the rush that I felt during the birthing sequence, but more out of a sense of incompleteness-- that my actions too were tied to KOK's and I needed the novel to be complete to feel released.
When I started writing about Proust last year, it was in a way to deal with the crisis he creates for writers-- the crisis of capacity and inclusion. I don't feel the same crisis extending from KOK, though he may have been dealing with his own crisis in his own way. As a writer, I find Knausgaard's work draining, unique and perhaps necessary, fascinating for its callousness to its reader, and for reconfiguring the frame around domestic life. I wonder if KOK could work as a baseline, if what he's written can be used to start new conversations around the manner in which we live. I wonder as well about its relationship with technology-- aside from the question of self-surveillance and reality TV-- how does providing this level of detail in marking the passage of days, effect the database of human experience? Does it ultimately alter what we understand human experience to be or simply allow us to say more about the causes and symptoms of contemporary living? If we were to build a robot whose personality was pulled from every book in the library, would this one help it to take some mercy on people or would it just refuse to do the dishes? I wonder if this isn't the first true book of an eventual mathemesis that could be used to translate human thought and feeling for machines. It may sound a little extreme, but in this way KOK seems to have gotten to the mechanics of love.
Leonard Cohen's Democracy