I remember my introduction to conceptual art. We were in the tenth grade, and our art class had a student teacher, a feminist raver (this was 1997 or so) from Penn State named Ms. Ziggler or something similar. One day she showed us a slide of Duchamp’s readymade, In Advance of the Broken Arm:
The caption at MoMA’s website, where I got the image, describes the process—“Marcel Duchamp selected a snow shovel, hung it from the ceiling of his studio, and called it art”—and the intent—“His readymades also aimed at shifting viewers’ engagement with works of art from what Duchamp called the ‘retinal’ (pleasing to the eye) to the ‘intellectual’ (in ‘the service of the mind’).” This intention became clear by the end of our lively debate about the image back in my suburban public-school art class. Most of us simply dismissed the work as a fraud, a way to get money from the credulous with a minimum of effort. Some of us tried to rescue the piece as intelligible “art” by picking up on the title’s hint and attributing a narrative content to the image: we thought it was a kind of poetic threat, as in, “I will pick up this shovel and hit you in the arm with it!” or else a traumatic reminiscence, perhaps of childhood (e.g., “A repressed memory of the time dad broke my arm with the shovel just returned to me”). But most of us simply couldn’t grasp why anyone would do such a thing, why anyone would show such contempt for craft, beauty, competence, labor, mimesis, etc. Then Ms. Ziggler announced the correct verdict: “Look at how pissed off you are by this picture,” she said. “Obviously it’s got you talking about something!”
In other words, Hegel was right: art has been nothing but a long succession of attempts to incarnate truth within sensuous media—arrangements of words, colors, forms, sounds—but now that we have arrived at a correct philosophical understanding of history and our role in creating it through thought and action, we can discuss the truth directly with a minimum of sensuous mediation. Art was a means to truth, but, in providing truth directly, philosophy has superseded art; concepts have therefore replaced beauty, which was only ever a vehicle for concepts in the first place. At the end of history, art’s only possible justification (and it is a weak one) is as spur to debate, goad to dialectics. You’re not really supposed to look at it, you’re supposed to talk about it.
Literature has had its own version of this movement, as in Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent defense of Uncreative Writing. That book stages a number of pedagogical scenes in which “conceptual” writing (transcribing the phone book and the like) really gets his classes talking. But literature has in general proven much more resistant to avant-gardization or Hegelization than visual art. Even Joyce and Kafka have been eulogized as humanists; even Woolf and Beckett pulled back from the end of art—she wrote The Waves and then turned back to realism and history, he wrote “Ping” but then wrote Company. Literature’s versions of Duchamp, e.g., Gertrude Stein or William S. Burroughs, never achieved the hegemony within literature that Duchamp’s methods did within art. Ulysses is not Fountain, and The Waste Land is not In Advance of the Broken Arm.
Because literature is an artistic medium using language, it cannot really attain full abstraction; as Mikhail Bakhtin once observed somewhere, words always mean. As much as literary modernists wanted, rightly, to dispense with the overt rhetorical appeals of their Victorian precursors, they could not make the literary work wholly hermetic, an intrinsically meaningless address to the intellect. The fragmented speaker’s struggle for meaning in The Waste Land, Leopold Bloom’s lonely and thoughtful wandering, Lily Briscoe’s attempt to have her vision, the Unnameable’s persistence of utterance in the absence of all guaranteed knowledge or communication—these monuments of modernism are as deeply and humanely moving as anything in the literary tradition. They are embedded in dense and resistant artworks with an undeniable conceptual dimension, but in the end their significance is not only and not even primarily conceptual; they affect the emotions, they produce sympathetic laughter and empathetic tears.
The above is a long way for me to ask what Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is supposed to be. I have read a little more than 80 pages in a state of irritated boredom. There is a good kind of literary boredom, when the text seems to be recalcitrant or aggressive, to be turning you away from what you want to know (think of Henry James or Toni Morrison) or telling you more than you want to know (think of Joyce) or trying to get you to resonate to a slower or longer life-rhythm (think of Tolstoy or Cather). But those kinds of boredom are ultimately accompanied by pleasure, something like the pleasure of physical exercise; they carry the feeling that, despite the momentary discomfort, you are accomplishing necessary work or communing with the difficulties of life itself, in its essence, by struggling with literary form. This is not the kind of good boredom Knausgaard produces in me; his text is in no way difficult, nor is its pace even all that slow for a “literary novel.” It’s just that I don’t care, either about the text itself (which is pedestrian, plodding between unadorned description/narration/dialogue and an essayism that I guess is supposed to be profound but sounds to me like slice-of-life stand-up comedy [“What’s the deal with funeral parlors? Why are they always on the ground floor?”]) or about the characters (none of whom are vividly evoked anyway, aside from Knausgaard and his father).
The Knausgaard-lovers claim to be thoroughly entertained, addicted even (it’s like crack, says Zadie Smith—and when, by the way, did Zadie Smith get hooked on crack? when she was at Cambridge or at Harvard?). They speak of the pleasures of identification. Maybe this is my problem—I don’t identify with Knausgaard. I am not of his generation not from his country, did not really have the “normal” childhood and teen years his novel describes, do not now have a big family keeping me from my literary endeavors, etc. My struggle is not his. But a novel that fails to satisfy anyone who doesn’t see him- or herself depicted precisely and demographically in the protagonist can hardly be counted a literary success. I am not a Russian ax-murderer or a bug in Prague or a clone doomed to die at 30, yet Crime and Punishment and The Metamorphosis and Never Let Me Go feel as if they are addressed to my own most profound experiences and concerns. So if you can only appreciate Knausgaard if you identify with him, then I have no trouble writing him off; he’s not for me, and that’s all there is to say. But still, something seemed not right about the most high-profile dissent from Knausgaard, that of William Deresciewicz:
Nor do I agree with Smith and Wood that Knausgaard’s method constitutes a stay against oblivion. “Writing promises to rescue moments from the march of time,” says Wood, but Knausgaard’s approach to arresting the flux resembles yet another tech-enabled practice, common now especially among parents: he photographs everything, as if everything could be saved, and as if such a record were sufficient in itself. His book is like a box of snapshots—no, a steamer trunk, a shipping container. Their very profusion makes each of them null. What’s needed is attention of a different kind. One painting, not a hundred thousand pictures. The patience to create the beauty that in turn creates significance.
I agree with this, and with most of Deresciewicz’s complaints. I especially appreciate his refusal to capitulate to the ascription of heroic or anti-heroic modernism to Knausgaard: “Lionel Trilling wrote some fifty years ago about ‘the modern self-consciousness and the modern self-pity.’ Today he’d also say, the modern self-inflation. I’m Hitler! I’m Proust!”
The Romantic and modernist project was a mission to rescue experience from the clockwork oblivion of secular/materialist progressivism, from Blake’s “eternity in a grain of sand” to Wordsworth’s “spots of time” to Pater’s “gem-like flame” to Joyce’s “epiphanies” to Proust’s “memoire involontaire” to Woolf’s “moments of being” to Benjamin’s “jetztzeit“—but all of these involved a journey deeper and deeper into the single moment, each required some delicate or off-center or roundabout approach, a way of writing around the thing you most wanted to write about. Think of how death is handled in the great modernist narratives, almost always with a kind of ritual diffidence: Rudy in Ulysses, Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, the baby in Beloved. There is a tact in all these that I don’t see in Knausgaard, an indefinable quality that Harold Bloom once somewhat grandiloquently called aesthetic dignity.
Knausgaard’s willfully hurried performance, his attempt to force his way past the barriers of artifice straight into the clearing of truth where birth and love and death converge, just strikes me as naive, even adolescent, more akin to Allen Ginsberg than the modernists. “Forget art, just say it!” But you can’t just say it. Never mind the novel, even in everyday life you can’t just say it. Artifice is the only way to say it. I recall Mulholland Drive, in which the most extraordinary scene, the performance that seems to burn its way through the screen, comes in Naomi Watts’s character’s rehearsal for a movie role. “The Truth of Masks” is how Wilde put it; his countryman Yeats likewise wrote of “the artifice of eternity.”
But we’re sick and tired of artifice. This is what Deresciewicz plainly misses. Knausgaard, like David Shields, like so many of us, is done with novels, doesn’t want to see another word of free indirect discourse, of foreshadowing, of irony, of implication, of narrative, of drama. He doesn’t care about any of these aesthetic scruples that Deresciewicz learned at Yale, is manifestly trying to do without them. He longs to touch the naked flesh of the world directly, to walk naked down the street. We are in that kind of historical moment, the kind that longs to put a period to history, to bring an end to the struggle and have the truth in hand. In such moments, when Hegel convinces us that forms are exhausted and meaning imminent, we get conceptual artworks. Is that what My Struggle is? A gadfly work meant to sting us into thought and talk? Whatever it is, I certainly can’t read it.
Making complex artifacts out of traditional materials to engage the senses, the emotions, and the intellect all at once, takes a certain faith. When that faith wanes, as it does, fearful certainties can take its place. I’m not talking about Knausgaard’s intentions, which I’m sure are unimpeachable, but about the logic and the force of his chosen form, about where that leads, that desire to do away with art and have truth, about how the conceptual can come in advance not of plenitude but of brokenness, even of ruins…