Karl Ove Knausgaard and Shame

For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.  Then it stops.

This is the first sentence of the first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book series My Struggle.  The first nine pages, a meditation on Western society’s commitment to secreting death away.  Knausgaard calls it a collective act of repression.  He writes: “A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leave people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and car parks, is not a town but a hell.  The fact that this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is of no consequence.  We know this is how it is, but we do not want to face it”.

My Struggle can be seen in this light.  It is not so much an unearthing of secrets, but rather an exposition of that which is plain to see but unspoken and denied.  Knausgaard has taken a lot of flack, from critics and family members alike for this exposition.  Literary critics mistakenly write about the telling of secrets, they use the word disclosure, but Knausgaard’s work is deprived of big reveals.  Karl Ove does not expose secret affairs or histories of incest.  There are no bombshells.  As far as I can tell, the things he is most castigated for writing about relate to addiction, domestic violence, aging, masculinity, the ambiguity of monogamy and parenthood.  In short, it is a collective and personal history of shame.

I can’t help but notice that this history of shame encompasses many of the scourges of society.  I can’t help but think that a society that avoids talking about addiction, violence, aging, death, gender, issues related to family and attachment, is going to get sicker, not better.  How do you get ride of shame?  You name it.

In Book One, Knausgaard writes : “The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning.  When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children.  That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfil a whole life.  Not mine at any rate”.  As a 35-year-old childfree, non-breeder who often feels frustrated by the collective dialogue surrounding children, and even more disturbingly, the daily conversations over coffee, this passage strikes me as a salve. The risk inherent to saying something for which you might be perceived as cruel, cold, heartless, even sociopathic, is the very thing that does the healing.

Are you thinking I might be singing a different tune if the shoe were on the other foot?  If I were, for example, one of Knausgaard’s children, who will grow up to read that I am not enough. Maybe so.  You’re probably right.  There are many disadvantages to speaking the unspoken, and hurt feelings and damaged relationships are real things.  Looking around me, I’m not so convinced that not speaking these words is the solution.  Our world and our families are full of problems and tragedy and brokenness.  And just take a moment to think of how many of these problems might be solved if we were free to truly speak to one another.  This is not to say everything needs to be said.  There are good reasons for keeping things to oneself.  Knausgaard says very little about his mother for example, and one has to imagine this is a question of discretion.  Nevertheless,  the basic impetus of My Struggle is noble and worthy.  It reminds us that our greatest secrets and confessions do not regard mistaken paternity, trysts with forbidden lovers, plots of destruction–nothing so dramatic.  Our greatest confessions, if they were to occur, would spring from our daily desires and most ordinary fears, commonplace though we would never know it.