The Experience of Nothing

Karl Ove Knausgaard, “The Other Side of the Face,” The Paris Review 28 May 2014

This intimacy, which did not just apply to the sun, but to all things and phenomena, is impossible to explain, I now find, for it appears to be a personification of the world, imbuing it with spirit, but it wasn’t, it was something else, a sort of interiorization, perhaps, as if I approached objects and phenomena in the world in the same way that I approached familiar faces, with the same trust, without ever having thought of the sun or all the rest of it as persons, as being alive. It was rather that everything had a face, every tree, every hillock, every bicycle, and therefore was something I felt connected to, for I saw the tree, the hill, the bicycle, and I recognized them. This way of seeing is gone. The sun is the sun, a tree is a tree, a hill is a hill, a bike is a bike. I no longer regard the world the way I look at faces, it is as if the faces have turned away from me.

[…] This familiarity or intimacy may seem like an addition, for now the world is just the world, but back then it was always something more, but it wasn’t an addition, it was just the reverse, it was that the object or the phenomenon was seen as something in itself, something in its own right, with an identity of its own, this is what created the intimacy that gave everything a face.”

[…] It’s easy to think that now I see the world as it really is, as faceless, blind and mute matter. Just as these photographs of necks allow me to see the human being as it really is, flesh and blood, cells and strings, biology. In everything I write, there is a longing for out there, to that which is real, outside of the social realm, while at the same time I am aware that what is out there, beyond the light of the faces, and which we occasionally catch a glimpse of, through art, turns everything to nothing. That the experience of the sublime is the experience of nothing. That God is nothing, which we exist in spite of. And this is why the real is such a dangerous category. In ourselves, as bodies of flesh and blood, things growing somewhere in the world, we are nothing, and I think this is why I am so fearful of the cultivation of organs, the manipulation of genes, of the human machine on an operating table, since even though it saves and prolongs life, it also reduces it, brings it closer to nothing, a wire, a string, a tube, a gutter.

[…] To be socialized is to learn to see yourself as you appear to others. To bring up a child is really nothing other than representing or personifying this, the gaze and the voices of others, for at the outset the child possesses only a sort of undifferentiated self, permeated by feelings and needs, which can be, as it were, lit or extinguished, but not otherwise controlled. Since this is all, it is also nothing, that is to say, unknown. Something is lit, something is extinguished. All the boundaries one gradually imposes as a parent, all the prohibitions and commands, do not only have to do with teaching the child how to behave, are not just about making it function without friction in daily life, though that is perhaps often the motivation, but it is also always a gaze, it is also always a place from which the child can see itself from the outside, from a place other than the self, which only then can emerge as its own, whole self. It becomes an adult. One process is completed, and another sets in: slowly the world turns its face away.

[…] We live in the social realm, which is sameness, the light of the faces, but we exist in the non-identical, in what is unknown to us, it is the other side of the face, that which turns away mutely, beyond the reach of language, just as the blood trickling through the tiny capillaries of the brain is beyond the reach of the thoughts thinking them, a few millimeters away, in that which upon closer inspection turns out to be nothing more than a chemical and electrical reaction in the spongelike object that the neck holds aloft.

In the Spaces Between

“This touches the very core of what it is to be human, as I see it, namely, that to be in yourself is inhuman, since that which is human is always something that becomes in relation to something else, yes, the human is this otherness, that we become ourselves in and that we exist in. To bow down is to bow down before something, to be stiff-necked is to be stiff-necked in the face of something, to worship is to worship something, and to look down is also to look away from something. This relativity, which is as complex as it is abstract and intangible, since it occurs in the spaces between, and has no object, no place of its own, never fixed, always in motion, turns the concept of biological man into a fiction, an image among images, nothing in itself, except in death, when for the first time the body no longer grasps at something, no longer seeks anything, and only then is it something in itself, that is to say, no longer human.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard, “The Other Side of the Face,” The Paris Review 28 May 2014

Slumgullions

“I’m fated to deal in mixtures, slumgullions, which preclude tragedy, which require a pure line. It’s a habit of mind, a perversity. Tom Hess used to tell a story, maybe from Lewis Carroll, I don’t remember, about an enraged mob storming the palace shouting “More taxes! Less bread!” As soon as I hear a proposition I immediately consider its opposite. A double-minded man — makes for mixtures.”
Donald Barthelme, “The Art of Fiction N° 66,” The Paris Review 80 (Summer 1981)

[See F. Scott Fitzgerald.]

A Successful Fragment

Stéphane Mallarmé, letter to Paul Verlaine, 16 November 1869

Patient as one of the alchemists, I’ve always imagined and attempted something else, and would be willing to sacrifice all satisfaction and vanity for its sake, just as in the old days they used to burn their furniture and the beams of their roofs to feed their furnace for the magnum opus.

What is it? Difficult to say: simply a book, in several volumes, a book that is truly a book, architecturally sound and premeditated, and not a collection of casual inspirations however wonderful that might be…So there, dear friend, is the bare confession of this vice which I’ve rejected a thousand times…But it holds me in its sway and I may yet be able to succeed, not in the contemplation of this work as a whole (one would have to be God-knows-who for that!) but in showing a successful fragment…proving through finished portions that this book does exist, and that I was aware of what I wasn’t able to accomplish. [via]