In my last post I wrote about Martin Gayford’s book about Lucian Freud, in which he refers to the changeability and, in effect, inexhaustibility of great works of art, which have the capacity to seem new, or changed, every time we see them. Their elements cannot be committed to memory, and in this they are perpetually revealing themselves. By coincidence, after Man with a Blue Scarf, I read the first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a six-volume novel written in Norwegian that is gradually being translated into English. In his work, Knausgaard also writes about inexhaustibility in art, but in a rather different way.
My Struggle is very much the story of a writer, and his challenges as a writer, but Knausgaard spends a great deal of time also discussing the visual arts and music. His novel series is a kind of bildungsroman, in which he depicts his life and family and friends without even changing their names. There are many ways to appreciate these extraordinary volumes, including Knausgaard’s startlingly detailed descriptions of everyday life, but here I want to emphasize his comments about the arts. Surprising in a writer, what he most distrusts is conceptual analysis and even words. He writes that paintings and photographs mean a great deal to him because they contain no words or concepts, and his experience of them is also “nonconceptual,” “devoid of intelligence” (II, p. 129). Writing about some of Constable’s pictures, and in particular a cloud painting from 1822, he observes that his own only criterion for art is dictated by the feelings it arouses. “The feeling of inexhaustibility. The feeling of beauty. The feeling of presence. All compressed into such acute moments that sometimes they could be difficult to endure” (I, p. 208). For Knausgaard, inexhaustibility seems to be much more a quality of the world than of a painting. The feeling of presence. But paintings can on occasion body forth this feeling. About Claude’s archaic landscapes he writes, “I was always unsettled when I left them because what they possess, the core of their being, was inexhaustibility and what that wrought in me was a kind of desire. I can’t explain it any better than that. A desire to be inside the inexhuastibility” (II, p. 208).
The paintings that move him were all painted before the 1900’s and retain a reference to visual reality. This is where it happens, when “the world seemed to step forward from the world. When you didn’t just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it. Something that didn’t speak, and that no words could grasp, consequently forever out of our reach, yet within it, for not only did it surround us, we were ourselves part of it, we were ourselves of it” (I, p. 223).
Knausgaard’s project as a novelist is to evoke this experience in the reader, a concrete experience of living reality that we may have sensed nonverbally, but which he wants to evoke through words. “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” (II, pp. 128-29). Words and literature, according to Knausgaard, open up in us what words do not normally have access to, something that somewhere inside us we know or recognize (II, p. 129).
Here then, is how Knausgaard describes the inexhaustibility that can be felt in some paintings and can be evoked, though not described, through literature. While Gayford locates inexhaustibility in great works of art, Knausgaard locates it in what art can evoke about the world. It is as if we possess an all but forgotten sensory experience of meaning that is called forth through art. I find myself wondering if the two authors are writing about two aspects of the same thing, or two different things. Perhaps it all depends on where we locate ultimate meaning.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book I, trans. Don Bartlett (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book II, trans. Don Bartlett (Brooklyn: Archipelago, 2013).