Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Vanishing Point by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The following was delivered at the Axel-Springer-Haus, in Berlin, on November 6th, as an acceptance speech for the Welt Literaturpreis, awarded annually by the German newspaper Die Welt. 

It’s early morning as I write these words, the darkness is thick outside my windows, and, in the sky, which is cold and clear, the stars are strikingly bright. All is quiet. Even the colony of crows that, each evening, fill two enormous trees close by with their din and commotion are sleeping. This is the southeastern part of Sweden, a few short kilometres from the sea, a small village surrounded on all sides by sweeping fields that, at present, are being ploughed and made ready for winter by a small armada of tractors.

Physically, Berlin isn’t far away at all, a small matter of taking the ferry from Ystad to Poland, then driving for three hours, after which you arrive in the middle of Germany’s capital city. Mentally, however, when considered from here, Berlin seems almost like some other world, a parallel reality, akin most of all, perhaps, to a dream or a mirage.

In the glow of my desk lamp, a tiny island of light in the darkness where I sit, there is, in principle, no difference between the idea I entertain of Berlin at this moment and the city as it was perceived at the beginning of the last century, the city of which Walter Benjamin wrote in his memoirs, and which, at that time, had seen neither the First nor the Second World War. Nor, for that matter, is it in any way different from that of the decimated Berlin of the Third Reich’s final days, or the Berlin of the Cold War, divided by the Wall. To me, as I sit here at my desk, all this is but a series of images in the mind, conceptions, imagination.

Perhaps the foremost characteristic of our age, what sets it apart from all others before it, is that the sheer volume of images of the world—not just the world of the past, but also, and perhaps especially, that of the present, the world of which we are a part—is so massive. Any event, anywhere on the planet—an earthquake, a plane crash, an act of terrorism—will be available for us to view only moments later, in on-the-scene images we see and consider as we go about our day-to-day lives, stuck in our tailbacks of traffic, as we make our coffee, visit the bathroom, wash our clothes, prepare our meals, set our tables. Usually, we keep these different levels of reality apart, or at least I do. Even the worst disasters are something I merely register, with varying degrees of horror, as if the world outside were a film, a play, a performance, of concern to me only in the most superficial manner. At the same time, and more profoundly, such images provide a release insofar as they allow me the freedom of never having to be entirely present in my actual surroundings, in the routine state of boredom they constantly threaten to dull me with, since one’s attention is continuously being directed toward something else, to what is happening right now: the occurrence, the event, the news item.

But then, occasionally, albeit remarkably seldom, what happens is that the two levels of reality converge and become one. Last time it happened was this autumn. After months of news reports depicting the flow of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, boats sinking, people drowning, which to me was like a steady murmur in the background, not that different from the constant reports of car bombs in Iraq or school shootings in the United States, I suddenly saw the image of a little boy, no more than perhaps three years old, lying prone on a beach, his face in the sand. He was dead, and all of a sudden I understood what death meant. All of a sudden, I understood that the people coming across the sea were not people in the plural, but in the singular. This I understood because I myself have children. I saw their deaths in his death. The image thereby penetrated my defenses, broke through the murmur and appeared to me as what it was: an image of reality. The boy was real, and his death was a real death. The horror of seeing that, and thinking the thought of it, for a while transformed all other images likewise: they, too, left the film, the play, the performance, and became part of reality.

I mention this not to enter into the debate going on in Europe at present, about how best to deal with the refugee crisis, how the problems of immigration may most fruitfully be solved, but rather to point toward the mechanism in our societies that turns people into a mass, how ordinary that is and how closely bound up with the media, which by its very nature creates remoteness, its narrative structures rendering every event equal, every occurrence identical, thereby dissolving the particular, the singular, the unique, in that way lying to us, or, put differently, fictionalizing our reality. It is a mechanism barely discernible to us insofar as images are always, on one level, images of reality, and it becomes apparent only on those rare occasions where remoteness dissolves, as in the case of the dead little boy on the beach.

And then reality comes as a shock.

Are people dying?

While this insight may be banal, its repercussions are not. In our humanity, there is a vanishing point. We step in and out of it; it’s a kind of zone in which we shift in each other’s perspective from definite to indefinite, and vice versa. This vanishing point has to do with remoteness and is inevitable. The indefinite human, faceless and devoid of character, the mass human, lives its life in patterns by which it is bound and is the material of statistics. Approximately the same number of people die in traffic accidents every year, drown in seas, lakes, and rivers every summer, pass through the barriers of subway stations every morning in January, although that particular traffic accident, that particular drowning, that particular subway ride was determined by a series of personal, individual decisions. If you look out over the satellite town one morning from your flat on the seventeenth floor, that’s what you see: the way all those people, those dark, ant-like little figures, follow the same roads and paths, according to a rhythm over which none of them has control, first the deluge of those on their way to work, then the more scattered patterns of those who remain in the area during the day, the elderly, those with prams and buggies, those off sick, and then eventually a new deluge of people returning when the working day has drawn to a close. These movements can easily be simulated by a computer with few variables, for regardless of what we think about as we cross the frozen waters on our way home to our flat, regardless of how utterly original our thoughts might be as we bow our heads and stare down at the trampled snow, we are at the same time completely predictable, always part of some greater movement, like a bird in an enormous flock suddenly changing direction as one and resembling, at that moment, a great, waving hand.

But such a perspective, whereby we view human beings as part of a mass rather than as unique individuals, may also be a strategy by which soldiers are trained so as to be able to kill, and it is a prerequisite of all massacres, as it was, for instance, in the Germany of the Second World War, when the Jews were deprived of their identity, first at the national, then the individual level, their names replaced by numbers, each individual scraped into the nameless, faceless mass to be slaughtered like sheep or cattle, gassed or burned as creatures without identity. And of course the same goes for the inhabitants of Dresden or Hiroshima, wiped out by bombs from above, but tiny dots to their executioners, figures in a calculation thereby concluded.

There is a vanishing point in our humanity, a point at which the other goes from being definite to indefinite. But this point is also the locus for the opposite movement, in which the other goes from indefinite to definite—and if there is an ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all, that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves. The other that thereby emerges does so in the reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind. This establishing of proximity to another self is characteristic of the novel. And the way in which the outer work of art is created, within the reader—the reader’s own sense of color and form, his or her understanding of landscapes and languages, people and thoughts, being decisive to how well the novel works—is special to the form. The novel is an oddly intimate genre: at root, it is always a matter between two individuals, writer and reader, whose first encounter occurs when the writer writes—for in writing, the very act of it, there is always an appeal to a you, redeemed only by the insertion of a reader. This you may be inserted at any time, even hundreds of years after the event of writing, the way, for instance, we might read a novel written in seventeenth-century Spain, or eighteenth-century Russia, or early-twentieth-century Germany, and yet still induce the voice of the self to rise anew within us, remoteness dissolving. And that self may also reveal itself to us in the reading of novels from places geographically remote to us, such as China, Kenya, Colombia.

Why is this important? Is the reading of novels not just a pastime, a way of escaping from reality for a few hours, and thereby just another element of the entertainment machine in which we live? Is it not more important to engage with our neighbor, who after all is real, rather than with one who exists only in a work of fiction?

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