My Struggle: Book 6 - by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Everything had its own significance, that was what culture was. The fabric of a pair of trousers was significant, the width of a trouser leg was significant, the pattern in the curtain hung in front of a window was significant, the sudden lowering of a gaze was significant. The particular way a word was pronounced was significant. What a person knew about one thing or another was also significant. Culture charged the world with meaning by establishing differences within it, and those differences, in which everything of value existed, varied from culture to culture. That the units were becoming increasingly bigger, and cultures increasingly similar, was a discouraging thought, at least for someone like me who was fascinated by differences and attracted by impenetrability. The wonder of Japan, a country that had been isolated for so many hundreds of years and had developed what seemed to us in every way to be such a peculiar culture, almost completely closed to us, and yet existing before our eyes. The thought of that culture dissolving into that of the West and being lost forever, to exist as a mere variation of our own, was as great a loss as the extinction of any species of animal. But the Western world was so strong, and so expansive in its nature, that it would soon have the rest of the world subsumed within it, not by violence, as in the days of colonialism, but by promise. In this wide perspective, I was against immigration, against multiculturalism, against notions of sameness of nearly every kind. In the narrower perspective, that which related to the tangible, day-to-day reality of where I lived, in Malmö, it was hard not to look on immigration as an enormous resource all the while I could see how explosively vibrant and full of energy the city was compared to, say, Stockholm, where all the immigrants lived in the urban outskirts and the faces you saw in the city center were practically all white. Malmö, it’s true, was run-down and poverty common to see, but at the same time the city vibrated in its contrasts, which all had to be brought together in synthesis and most surely were a gift to anyone who grew up there, with so many different experiences and backgrounds existing together side by side, and where a lot of what came about for that same reason came about as if for the first time, with all the freshness and vigor of the new.

The little break had been enough to put me off. When I got started in the mornings, my mind was as yet undisturbed by anything else, and the transition from sleep to text was smooth and fluid. As the day progressed I had to expend more energy to surmount an increasing resistance, and by the time the afternoon came around, the only thing I could do to eliminate it was sleep and start again. It took nearly an hour to get into the swing of things again.

“Come on! What have you done exactly? You’ve written a book about your life, from where you stand. It’s all about liberty. Liberty’s something you take. If it’s given, then you’re a slave. You wanted to write about your life the way it is. There’s a price for that. That price is what you’re looking at now. You didn’t think about your uncle, which means you’ve been thoughtless. That’s what it costs. Yes, he’s angry with you.“

Walking upright on two legs is what above all distinguishes us as a species. This property characterizes not only our physical but also our mental reality, since we orient ourselves in the world of thought as if it were topographical, a landscape through which we walk, from the depths of the subconscious to the sky of the superego, one political utopia farthest to our left, the other farthest to our right; some thoughts are nearby, either easy to grasp or hard to see because we are right up close, some thoughts we need to reach for, others are higher up and can only be made our own by the greatest, most alpine of efforts, while others are low and grubby, close to the ground and to the earthly.

When we moved to Malmö I had been afraid Geir and I would lose touch. That’s what distance does; when the time between conversations gets longer, intimacy diminishes, the little things connected to one’s daily life lose their place, it seems odd to talk about a shirt you just bought or to mention you’re thinking of leaving the dishes until morning when you haven’t spoken to a person for two weeks or a month, that absence would seem instead to call for more important topics, and once they begin to determine the conversation there’s no turning back, because then it’s two diplomats exchanging information about their respective realms in a conversation that needs to be started up from scratch, in a sense, every time, which gradually becomes tedious, and eventually it’s easier not to bother phoning at all, in which case it’s even harder the next time, and then suddenly it’s been half a year of silence.

”Some people love to play. My dad’s got a way with children, they love him. The neighbor’s little boy still invites him to his birthday every year. He’s knocking on eighty now. The same outlook on life as Goethe. ‘For nothing brings us closer to madness than distinguishing ourselves from others, and nothing maintains common sense more than living in a normal way with many people.’ Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.”

The most shameful thing that can happen to a writer is to be caught plagiarizing the work of another writer. The second most shameful thing is for one’s work to imitate that of another writer. Being unoriginal is not shameful in quite the same way, but it is equally degrading – to call a novel unoriginal is one of the worst things a reviewer can say about it. That it is shameful for one’s work to imitate that of another writer, and not shameful, merely degrading, to write something that is deemed unoriginal, is a crucial distinction that speaks volumes of the importance we attach in our day and age to the cult of personality, how imperative it is that something may be traced back to a single, wholly independent individual, who in many respects is considered sacrosanct insofar as the distinctive characteristics he or she has developed are not permitted to occur anywhere else. The important thing is not what such a voice says, but that it says so in a way that is peculiar to itself.

Arve, he was ten years older than me and had acquired such insight into the world it meant he could laugh at everything. He was on a completely different level to anyone I had met until that point. Arve was supreme, in a way, independent in the true sense of the word. He was also demonic, or at least played the demon with me, forever tantalizing. What did he tantalize me with? Freedom. What was freedom? To be free was to transgress. To identify everything as being subject to constraints, stuck, ossified, and to remove oneself from that. Not necessarily the social world as a set of rules for behavior, which then Bohemian-like could be ignored, but the mind-set those rules entailed. What Roland Barthes referred to as doxa.

The number of people we come close to during our lives is small, and we fail to realize how infinitely important each and every one of them is to us until we grow older and can see things from afar. When I was sixteen, I thought life was without end, the number of people in it inexhaustible. This was by no means strange, since right from starting school at the age of seven I’d been surrounded by hundreds of children and adults; people were a renewable resource, found in abundance, but what I didn’t know, or rather had absolutely no conception of, was that every step I took was defining me, every person I encountered leaving their mark on me, and that the life I was living at that particular time, boundlessly arbitrary as it seemed, was in fact my life. That one day I would look back on my life, and this would be what I looked back on. What then had been insignificant, as weightless as air, a series of events dissolving in exactly the same way as the darkness dissolved in the mornings, would twenty years on seem laden with destiny and fate. The people who had been there then would become even more important, infinitely significant in as much as they had not only been shaping my perception of who I was, had not only been the people through which my own face emerged and became visible, but embodied the very understanding of how this particular life turned out the way it did.

The fact that art has become so cerebral that everything to do with feelings is left to the simpleminded, is perhaps the best argument there is against progress, for the very reason that such a standpoint, which it seems must take precedence over our human experience, is so stupid and unintelligent as to be truly simpleminded itself. When the imperative of craftsmanship in art was abolished, it was because the idea that art should be about reproducing the world as exactly as possible was deemed old fashioned and therefore no longer necessary. So it was abolished. But one doesn’t have to think too hard in order to understand that this wasn’t the reason that painters and sculptors spent all their time during their crucial formative years of youth copying others or mechanically reproducing models or objects. They weren’t doing it so they could learn to copy reality, because the reproduction of reality has a cutoff point any reasonably talented student would achieve fairly quickly. They were doing it so as to learn how not to think. This is the most important thing of all in art and literature, and hardly anyone can do it, or even realizes it is the case, because it is no longer taught or conveyed. Now everyone thinks art is to do with reason and criticism, that it’s all about ideas, and the art schools teach theory. Which is decay, not progress.

The priest who held the funeral service said something I’ll always remember. One must fasten one’s gaze, he said. One must fasten one’s gaze. I know what it means to see something without fastening one’s gaze. Everything is there, the houses, the trees, the cars, the people, the sky, the earth, and yet something is missing because their being there means nothing. It could just as well be something else that was there or nothing at all. This is what the meaningless world looks like. And we can inhabit the meaningless world quite adequately, it being a simple matter of endurance, and indeed we do so if we must. It can be beautiful, though we may wonder in relation to what, it being all that we have, without such a thought making any difference, without it really bothering us. We have not fastened our gaze, we have not connected ourselves with the world, and could just as well, taking things to their logical conclusion, depart from it. The connections that hold us back, which cause us to thrash in our chains, as it were, have to do with expectations and obligation, with what the world asks of us, and sooner or later we come to a point where we realize the imbalance of our honoring the world’s demands while the world fails to honor ours. At that point we become free, we can do as we please, but what has made us free, the meaninglessness of the world, also deprives that freedom of its meaning. But if the world is meaningless, what good does it do to fasten our gaze on it? What kind of foolish middle-class delusion is that? The question is how we define meaning. If we take the challenge of fastening our gaze seriously, it must be the case that it is not the object itself that is important, nor the person, in fact it can be any object or any person, in any place, at any time. The important thing is the eye, not what it sees: the link between the person seeing and what they see, regardless of what that might be. This is so because nothing means anything on its own. Only when an object is seen does it become. All meaning comes from the eye seeing. Meaning is not a property of the world, but something we attach to the world. The eye internalizes the extrinsic, but since the extrinsic remains so to the eye, something outside the self, it often believes that the meaning it sees belongs to the object or the phenomenon, which it then denounces, elevates, or remains indifferent to without understanding that what it denounces, elevates, or remains indifferent to is something within itself. It is by way of this internalization of the world that meaning becomes possible. All significance arises in the eye that sees, all meaning in the heart. Attaching meaning to the world is peculiar only to man, we are the givers of meaning, and this is not only our own responsibility but also our obligation.

We clinked our glasses and drank. I put my glass down and made sure to make eye contact with the others, as I had learned was customary only after arriving in Sweden seven years previously, an insight that was accompanied by the realization that, in all the years before that, people had sought eye contact with each other during every toast, apart from me, who had sat there completely oblivious, my ignorance exposed on every occasion without my even knowing.

A conspicuous aspect of what is revealed of Hitler’s inner life in Mein Kampf as well as in Kubizek’s memoir is his almost dreamlike remoteness from reality, as if he were turned toward another age, another place, whether rooted in the intense experiences the two friends shared at the opera, which they frequented, in what he would read of German history and mythology, or in what he would relate of his own life, which never was concerned with what it was but what it would become. To this picture belongs the wholly asocial nature of his character, his disinterest in social life, and his strikingly serious demeanor.

If we view Hitler as a “bad” person, with categorically negative characteristics even as a child and a young man, all pointing toward a subsequently escalating “evil,” then Hitler is of “the other,” and thereby not of us, and in that case we have a problem, since then we are unburdened of the atrocities he and Germany later committed, these being something “they” did, so no longer a threat to us. But what is this “bad” that we do not embody? What is this “evil” that we do not express? The very formulation is indicative of how we humans think in terms of categories, and of course there is nothing wrong with that as long as we are aware of the dangers. In the night of pathology and the predetermined there is no free will, and without free will there is no guilt. No matter how broken a person might be, no matter how disturbed the soul, that person remains a person always, with the freedom to choose. It is choice that makes us human. Only choice gives meaning to the concept of guilt. Kershaw and almost two generations with him have condemned Hitler and his entire being as if pointing to his innocence when he was nineteen or twenty-three, or pointing to some of the good qualities he retained throughout his life, were a defense of him and of evil. In actual fact the opposite is true: only his innocence can bring his guilt into relief.

Only one figure could transcend the rigid framework of bourgeois culture and elevate himself above it, one figure of whom this moreover was expected, and that figure was the genius. The one against the mass’s many. This was an idea born of the understanding that the one should manage the culture of the many, and this by its idealization, by evoking the sense of there being something the many could reach out and long for, by distilling the insights of the many into one: such is our life in this world. This is the mandate of Goethe and Wagner. What happened in art at the end of the nineteenth century was that this figure, the artist genius, altered character. The one no longer represented the all, but went against them. An example is Munch. He went beyond the social world – not positively, but negatively. He was met with scorn and disdain. To do this, to not be a part of the all but to express his particular self, which so deviated from the accepted mainstream, he had to either go against it, which required enormous strength, or be unattached to it. In Munch’s case, as in the case of many artists, he chose to be unattached, living for long periods of his life within himself, having little or no contact with family and practically no friends. Only then could he go beyond, for Munch was not Hans Jæger, and lacked his strength and will. Jæger lived in the social world, cavorted with the social world, went to the wall in the social world. Munch turned away, turned in, painted. Such solitude and lack of social attachment was not dissimilar to the way Hitler was living during this period of his life, but in Hitler’s case this transgression of the bourgeois was only social in nature, not artistic. On the contrary, his aesthetic was identical with that of bourgeois culture, sharing with it the imperative that art should be splendid, beautiful, ideal.

The infatuation with art that Zweig describes as so strongly affecting his youth, and which also ran through Hitler’s teenage years, was not faddish but genuinely meaningful. Wagner, Hölderlin, Rilke, Hofmannsthal, George, all those writers and poets cultivated by German youth, celebrated the great, the divine, the essential, and they lauded death, too, which lay beyond it all. Stirb und Werde, die and become – something to die for means something to live for. The people, the earth, the war, the hero, death. The local, the own, the great, the eternal. These were the predominant concepts of German culture prior to the outbreak of World War I, and many of those who saw it coming looked on it as a catharsis, long-awaited and good.

To the generation born between 1880 and 1900, World War I was the single overriding event of their lives, and the question they asked themselves when it was over was why it had occurred at all. Millions of young men had perished, but for what? For this? For entertainment, cabaret, cinema, self-indulgent art? Had they given up their lives for such systematized emptiness? Was this what they had fought for? This is the way Hitler saw it, and he was not alone. They had been to the very perimeter of life, inhabited the borderland between all and nothing, and the intensity that had saturated them there, the carnage they had witnessed, could never be meaningless or empty, could never be nothing; this they knew above all. From a political perspective the possible consequences were basically twofold: never again could there be such an appalling and meaningless waste of human life, or else a new war would render meaningful the sacrifice of those two million German soldiers. To Hitler, only the second of these possibilities was real.

The fact that his prose renders everything small is not to say that Hitler’s feelings in respect to the things he described were small, nor indeed that those things in themselves were small. Hitler’s talent lay elsewhere, he even underlines this several times in Mein Kampf, the inferiority of writing compared to the spoken word, which he so definitively held in his power and was so adept at exploiting to make his audiences feel what he felt or what he wanted them to feel. In this the mythologization of the essentially quotidian again comes into its own, and the exaltation of a real world in which work, fundamentally dull and monotonous and bleak, becomes heroic and hallowed, and where the past is repeatedly resurrected in parades with horses and medieval banners, in rites and oaths, grand works of architecture reminiscent of Antiquity, a sublime rendering of the present, a reconjuring of society, whose aesthetic elements were largely culled from the world of the military and war: uniforms, ensigns, parades, all unifying. The workers became worker-soldiers, schoolchildren became child-soldiers, sportsmen became athlete-soldiers, and what was unique about it all was that everyday reality was thereby elevated and made significant, not by its interpretation in art, by art’s selection of individual constituent parts within it, the world as read in the poem, as heard in music, as seen in the painting, but by the direct and unmediated reshaping and modeling of reality itself. Hitler turned Germany into a theater. What that theater expressed was cohesion, and through cohesion identity, and through identity authenticity. It was not a matter of invention, of constructing an identity by means of costumes, flags, and rallies, but rather of giving expression to something that had always been there, which modern society had held in check and diffused, and this is why so many of its elements came from history: something had been reestablished. Nor was Hitler a fanatical, militaristic theater director enforcing his will on the people; the strings he played were genuine, the emotions he aroused were in everyone. Anyone who has seen footage of the rallies of Hitler’s Germany knows what feelings they evoke, the sheer might of the uniformed, I-less community, the strength of the collective, and oh, how one might long to be a part of such a we. Some of the images of the age express an almost savage beauty, the endless ranks of soldiers viewed at eye level, a sea of steel helmets extending into the beyond, totally symmetrical, the same human being repeated and repeated as if into infinity itself.

Who would not wish to be a part of something greater than the self? Who would not wish to feel their life to be meaningful? Who would not wish to have something to die for?

I can feel a yearning for something else, and that yearning, I assume, must be felt by others too, because surely people of the same culture cannot be so different from one another that an emotion can exist in one person only? I don’t know what this yearning represents, but I do know that it does not involve any dissociation from what is here, from that which is mine and in which I live, that’s not it at all, there is nothing I despise about any of that, and I realize and understand the value of the unwavering regularity of this existence, and its necessity too. And yet, a yearning. For what? Or more than a yearning it is perhaps a want. A feeling of something not being here. In the midst of life and the living, as if swathed in the chirping and wing-beating of all the birds building their nests nearby, beneath the sun, surrounded by vegetation in every direction, something is wanting.

All thoughts of the hallowed, all thoughts of the authentic have been eliminated from our minds. We live our lives surrounded by commercial goods, and spend great swathes of our waking hours in front of screens. We conceal death as best we can. What do we do if out of all this a yearning arises for something else? A more real reality, a more authentic life? Such a yearning would be founded on false precepts because all life is quite as authentic, and the hallowed is a notion belonging to life, not life itself. Yearning toward reality, yearning toward authenticity expresses nothing other than the yearning for meaning, and meaning arises out of cohesion, in the way we are connected to one another and our surroundings. This is the reason I write, trying to explore the connections of which I am a part, and when I feel the pull of the authentic, it becomes another connection I feel compelled to explore.

When I read Rudolf Otto or Mircea Eliade, both of whom circle around the experience of the divine or the holy, in order to gain an understanding of that experience and to define it, and when I read the writings of Christian mysticism or the Church Fathers, pervaded as they are with the rapture of religious excitement, I find myself confronted by something utterly alien to me, which does not occur at all in my life or in the world around me, other than the occasional glimpse offered by TV into some ecstatic religious movement. This weakens an otherwise fundamental conviction of mine that says the emotional life of the human is constant, that the feelings that stream through us have always streamed through all human beings, and that this is the reason why it makes sense for us to consider even the oldest works of art, or to read even the oldest texts of literature. To be human has forever been the same, I tell myself, quite independently of the ways in which our cultures have evolved. But the kinds of experience that were once the most important of all, meditations on God and the divine, holy rituals and cults, visions and raptures occurring in lives wholly devoted to God and the divine mystery, this resolve to seek meaning, this fervor, with all its spectra of intuitions, moods, and emotions, is no longer sought or, if it is, then only on the peripheries of society, outside our field of vision, perhaps occasionally evoked in respect to some odd and obsolete phenomenon in TV entertainment: So, you’re a monk? What’s it like not having sex? When we closed the door on religion, we closed the door on something inside ourselves as well. Not only did the holy vanish from our lives, all the powerful emotions associated with it vanished too. The idea of the sublime is a faint echo of our experience of the holy, without the mystery. The yearning and the melancholy expressed in Romantic art is a yearning back to this, a mourning of its loss. This at least is how I interpret my own attraction to the Romantic in art, the short yet intense bursts of emotion it can discharge in my soul, the sudden swell of joy and grief that can arch up inside me like a sky if I happen to encounter something unexpected or something commonplace in an unexpected way.

The story of Cain and Abel is about the elimination of the you as the source of violence, and the reader may stop there or continue, for it does not simply concern one brother killing another, but relates also to sacrifice: Cain slays Abel after God accepts Abel’s offering, an animal sacrifice, while ignoring Cain’s offering of grain. The French anthropologist René Girard reads the story as expressing the function of the sacrifice in respect to the act of violence. Sacrifice brings violence into relief and steps into its place as a way of controlling its otherwise unbound forces within society; Cain does not have the violence-outlet of animal sacrifice at his disposal, and kills his brother. The surrogate function of sacrifice is made plain in the narrative of Abraham offering his son Isaac in sacrifice to God, when God yields and asks him to sacrifice a ram instead. This ram, Girard writes, is in Muslim tradition the same ram as once offered by Abel. The sacrifice is a ritual, it is collective, and it construes violence as collective.

Girard believes that the wish to deal with violence among like kind lies behind all notions of taboo, which is a means of avoiding anything that might bring it about. If this is so, rituals stand for the very opposite, being a means of venturing to the point where forces are controlled, the repetitions of the ritual nullifying the arbitrary and constraining emotion.

Only someone who stands outside the social world knows what the social world is; to those within it, it is like water to a fish. Hitler rejects the singular you, and stands outside the we, and yet he longs for it, and it is this longing his audiences sense when he speaks, the longing for the we being the very foundation of the human, swelling in times of crisis, swelling in chaos, as it did in the Germany of the 1920s, and in Hitler it burns fiercely indeed. There is no need to listen to what he says, his audience were oblivious too, but to the way he says it, the emotions by which he is filled, this is what they react to, this is what they feel, and they drink it up like water. Oh, this longing for community, this longing to be equal, this longing to belong. The simplest is the truest, and this is the truth of Hitler, his longing to be a part of the we touches something deep within that we itself – all accounts of his speeches from this time focus on the same thing, the way his raucous beer-hall audiences, for all their shouting and scuffling, their whooping and howling, hush and fall calm, and become as one. The simplest is the truest, and hatred of the Jews represents the simplest thing of all, the we’s need of a they, the basic mimetic structure of violence, the one against the other, duplicated in ritual, us against them, the sacrifice of a they in order that the we may prevail. That need too swells in crisis, swells in chaos, one of the fundamental forms of culture, a condition to which we continue to return.

Charisma is one of the two great transcendental forces in the social world; beauty is the other. They are forces seldom talked about, since both issue from the individual, neither may be learned or acquired, and in a democracy, where everyone is meant to be considered equal and where all relationships are meant to be just, such properties cannot be accorded value, though all of us are aware of them and of how much they mean. Moreover we attach value in our human sphere to that which is made, produced, or formulated, not to what is merely there to begin with; in other words, what is made, produced, or formulated is important, and what is merely there to begin with is not. In a university lecture hall, male attention is centered not on the woman with the most compelling arguments, she who speaks engagingly and with insight about Adorno or de Beauvoir, but on the woman deemed to be the most beautiful, and so it is in every space in which men and women are gathered, on every street and square, in every restaurant and café, on every beach and in every apartment, in every ferry queue and train compartment; beauty eclipses everything, bedims all else, it is what we see first and what we consciously or unconsciously seek. Yet this phenomenon is shrouded in silence inasmuch as we refrain from acknowledging it as a factor in our social lives, driving it out instead by our social mechanisms of expulsion, calling it stupid, immature, or unsophisticated, perhaps even primitive, at the same time as we allow it to flourish in the commercial domain, where it quietly surrounds us whichever way we turn: beautiful people everywhere. Beautiful people on TV, beautiful people in magazines, beautiful people in films, beautiful people in the theater, in pop music, in advertising, indeed our entire public space is packed with beautiful faces and beautiful bodies yet, at the same time, we consider beauty to be superficial, unconveying of the authentic, which is the inner being. Beauty belongs to the body and the face, which are mask-like outer expressions of the I, and its immutable, inevitable nature, the fact of it being given rather than chosen, is what disqualifies it, since after Nazism we can no longer attach value to what is innately human, the Nazis’ division of the human into categories of the innate being what eventually led them into the final catastrophe. Which is to say: we attach value to it but do so in silence.

Charisma is an unusual property, and what it consists of is almost impossible to say, and yet we recognize it instantly the moment we see it. If I see it in a woman, I desire her. If I see it in a man, I desire him too, in a comparable though not identical way, since what a charismatic man awakens in me is a wish to be there, in his presence, and to subordinate myself to him. There is an element of tenderness and affection in these feelings, there being an element in the charismatic, not of weakness, weakness is not the word, but vulnerability perhaps. The wish to be near, tenderness, affection, subordination; these are strong, direct emotions. But I cannot submit to them, cannot allow myself to want to be in the presence of a man as if I were in love with him, and I certainly cannot subordinate myself to him. Therefore I keep my distance, but not without observing the effect he has on everyone else in his presence, and in that I am consumed by jealousy, sometimes to unreasonable degrees, because I want to be him. This inner tussle goes on, I suppose, in the presence of all charismatic individuals, whether it is acknowledged or not. The charismatic I is so strong as to pose a threat to all other I’s in its presence, who must fight to keep themselves afloat, or else give in and become, well, what? A part of the stronger I’s we? A disciple, a follower, a yes-man. The aura of the charismatic individual contains an element of disinterest, of detached ease, an independence verging on the sovereign and somehow discouraging; to be seen or even liked by the charismatic individual is to be bestowed with favor, a gift with no ulterior motive, hugely covetable. Indeed the charismatic individual is free of the bonds of the social world, standing in a certain sense outside its domain, and this sense of boundlessness is what lends such force to their presence: the charismatic person is unrivaled.

If Hitler’s I is lacking the singular you, both in life and in literature, this does not mean that he lives or writes in a vacuum, only that what he does, thinks, says, and writes is unconstrained by obligation to anyone else but himself and what he believes to be right. He does so within a system where “the other” exists only as “the others,” either in the great we, the community of nation, the Germans, or in the great they, the enemies of the nation, the Jews. Inside this system, ideas and notions circulate, lifted from various aspects of life in society, put together in totally idiosyncratic, often idiotic ways, which is one thing that can happen when an individual is unamenable to correction, another being that moments of genius may occur, and what emerges from all this, in a text that pays no attention to what ought or ought not to be said, to what is decent and what is offensive, is the blind side of society, that part of it we try to avoid and which the power structures of style and taste keep hidden away in the dark. In 1910 it would have been unthinkable that a man who had written a book such as Mein Kampf could become a head of state. Heads of state were either monarchs, as in Britain or Germany, the ministers they appointed coming from the upper reaches of society, from the finest families and the finest schools, cultivated individuals held in the highest esteem for this very reason, or else they were presidents, elected from the same elevated and culturally and economically affluent circles. This system was suppressive, keeping the lower classes in their place, but suppression is not unambiguously an ill as we are taught to think, the exercise of power is not the same as the abuse of power, which is to say that abuse of power can have other functions besides maintaining the privileges of a certain class. It excludes what is undesirable, and the undesirable is of course that which undermines the privileges of the ruling class, but also that which is destructive of the values and stability of the society the ruling class is entrusted with governing. Revolution overturns the structure of society, destroying the values on which it is built, and doing so by violence. Revolutionary violence may be construed as a reaction to the structural violence inherent within a societal system – the need, poverty, and gross injustice it generates – but is nonetheless unlawful, for revolutionary violence is also violence among like kind, which no society can tolerate, and the first thing that happens when revolutionaries seize power is that they set up new laws quite as inviolable as the old, with the same purpose, to control that violence within and ensure order and stability in society. This was what happened in France in 1789, in Russia in 1917, and in Germany in 1933, the difference being that the revolution in Germany was not simply a class revolution from below, but involved the lower, middle, and upper classes at once, though primarily the lower middle class, and set the law aside largely without bloodshed. This was possible because societal structures had already broken down or were in the process of breaking down. The state apparatus belonged to the old monarchy, parliamentary democracy was weak, and when inflation and unemployment rocketed with the Depression in a context of humiliation following the debacle of the war, democracy became a paradox, voting for its own dissolution, which is to say handing power to Hitler and the National Socialists, who were antidemocratic. What had existed only as a miscellany of phenomena and shifting currents at the bottom of society only ten years before was suddenly the ideology of a supreme governing party, no longer base and contemptible, but elevated and noble.

The scientification of racial thinking, the entire scientific apparatus that was set up around it, with its specially constructed instruments for cranial measurement, its tables and graphs, its Latin terminology, and technical vocabulary, lent such thinking legitimacy, and although Hitler’s book contains no trace of the scholarly style, it is nevertheless Mein Kampf that makes the connection between culture and nature possible, the coupling of state and body, politics and biology, all so central to Hitler’s ideology. Mein Kampf is an extreme version of that mind-set, and while many found it exaggerated and bordering on the paranoid and could not believe he meant it seriously, certainly not as he approached the corridors of power and thereby became outwardly more respectable, they did not question the fundamental goal of such a policy, which was to improve the stock, the race, to lift it upward into a resplendently healthy, morally unassailable future.

Whereas his anti-Semitism and nationalism were idealistic in nature, amalgamated by racial biology, his thoughts on propaganda were pragmatic. Propaganda was the most important means of carrying through his idealistic aims, and so convinced was he of its power that he was quite open about it. As Peter Sloterdijk notes, Hitler was so sure of himself when it came to the potency of propaganda that he felt he could afford to reveal his recipe. Hitler referred to propaganda as a weapon, “a frightful one in the hand of an expert.” The second really decisive question was this: To whom should propaganda be addressed? To the scientifically trained intelligentsia or to the less educated masses? It must be addressed always and exclusively to the masses … The function of propaganda does not lie in the scientific training of the individual, but in calling the masses’ attention to certain facts, processes, necessities, etc., whose significance is thus for the first time placed within their field of vision. The whole art consists in doing this so skillfully that everyone will be convinced that the fact is real, the process necessary, the necessity correct, etc. But since propaganda is not and cannot be the necessity in itself, since its function, like the poster, consists in attracting the attention of the crowd, and not in educating those who are already educated or who are striving after education and knowledge, its effect for the most part must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect. All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be. But if, as in propaganda for sticking out a war, the aim is to influence a whole people, we must avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public, and too much caution cannot be exerted in this direction. The more modest its intellectual ballast, the more exclusively it takes into consideration the emotions of the masses, the more effective it will be. And this is the best proof of the soundness or unsoundness of a propaganda campaign, and not success in pleasing a few scholars or young aesthetes. The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses and finding, through a psychologically correct form, the way to the attention and thence to the heart of the broad masses. The fact that our bright boys do not understand this merely shows how mentally lazy and conceited they are … The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and in the end entirely canceled out. Thus we see that propaganda must follow a simple line and correspondingly the basic tactics must be psychologically sound. The most crucial aspect of propaganda, however, is not its simplicity, that it may be understandable even to the least intelligent member of the crowd, but rather that it is entirely subjective, without so much as a hint of objectivity about it, and displaying not the slightest form of nuance as to any subject. What, for example, would we say about a poster that was supposed to advertise a new soap and that described other soaps as “good”? We would only shake our heads. Exactly the same applies to political advertising. The function of propaganda is, for example, not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for. Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth, insofar as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly. What is intriguing about this section of Mein Kampf is that Hitler is telling it like it is, propaganda is manipulation, often presenting pure lies so repeatedly and so insistently as to make them truths. One would think that for a politician to write something of this nature would be to undermine his entire credibility and kill him off politically, yet Hitler ventures to do so for two reasons: firstly because propaganda is a means to an end, that end being so important and so just, so beneficial to society, that any means are permitted in search of its achievement, including lies – pragmatism exists for the sake of idealism and is its servant, not the other way around; secondly because he is so certain propaganda works and is so robust in itself as not to be threatened by any such synopsis or admission; this is what he is saying, that the complex, the objectivized, the nuanced will never reach a wide segment of any audience and find effect there, this moreover being true of his own words here.

To protect ourselves we use the most potent marker of distance we know, the line of demarcation that passes between “we” and “they.” The Nazis have become our great “they.” In their demonic and monstrous evil, “they” exterminated the Jews and set the world aflame. Hitler, Goebbels, Göring and Himmler, Mengele, Stangl, and Eichmann. The German people who followed “them” are in our minds also a “they,” a faceless and frenzied mass, almost as monstrous as their leaders. The remoteness of “they” is vast and dashes down these proximate historical events, which took place in the present of our grandparents, into a near-medieval abyss. At the same time we know, every one of us knows, even though we might not acknowledge it, that we ourselves, had we been a part of that time and place and not of this, would in all probability have marched beneath the banners of Nazism. In Germany in 1938 Nazism was the consensus, it was what was right, and who would dare to speak against what is right? The great majority of us believe the same as everyone else, do the same as everyone else, and this is so because the “we” and the “all” are what decide the norms, rules, and morals of a society. Now that Nazism has become “they,” it is easy to distance ourselves from it, but this was not the case when Nazism was “we.” If we are to understand what happened and how it was possible, we must understand this first. And we must understand too that Nazism in its various elements was not monstrous in itself, by which I mean that it did not arise as something obviously monstrous and evil, separate from all else in the current of society, but was on the contrary part of that current.

Decent humans distanced themselves from all of this, but they were few, and this fact demands our consideration, for who are we going to be when our decency is put to the test? Will we have the courage to speak against what everyone else believes, our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, to insist that we are decent and they are not? Great is the power of the we, almost inescapable its bonds, and the only thing we can really do is to hope our we is a good we. Because if evil comes it will not come as “they,” in the guise of the unfamiliar that we might turn away without effort, it will come as “we.” It will come as what is right.

It was true what Linda had said, I’d been hiding out for long enough. Why had I done that? It was a form of survival. In my terrible twenties I had tried to involve myself in the life around me, normal life, the one everyone lived, but I’d failed, and so strong was my sense of defeat, this glimpse of shame, that little by little, unbeknown to myself as well, I shifted the focus of my life, pushed it further and further into literature in such a way that it didn’t seem like a retreat, as though I were seeking a refuge, but like a strong and triumphant move, and before I knew what was happening it had become my life. I didn’t need anyone else, life in my study and the family was sufficient, actually, more than sufficient. It wasn’t because I had problems with the social world that I withdrew from, no, it was because I was a great writer or wanted to be one. That solved all my problems and I thrived on it. But if it was true that I was hiding, what was I frightened of? I was frightened of other people’s judgments of me, and to avoid this I avoided them. The thought that anyone would like me was a dangerous thought, perhaps the most dangerous one for me. It never occurred to me, I didn’t dare think it. I didn’t even think that Mom might actually like me. Or Yngve or Linda. I assumed they didn’t, not really, but that the social and family bonds we were entangled in nonetheless meant that they had to see me and listen to what I had to say. If I had been responsible for only myself there would have been nothing to consider. I would manage whatever the circumstances. But I had three children with Linda and didn’t want them to grow up in a home that was hidden away, didn’t want them to believe that hiding was an acceptable way of engaging with the world.

Maybe her thoughts were basic and undeveloped, but they must have filled her mind in the same way mine did. They must have been just as important for her as mine were to me. So it couldn’t be the understanding that thoughts produced that was the point of them, their objective content, but just their interaction with feelings, sense impressions and consciousness. Whatever was connected with the sense of oneself. So why push your thoughts so far and measure yourself by that yardstick? Intelligent, not intelligent, brilliant, not brilliant?

On my feet to get another beer from the fridge. The effect of the two I had already drunk lay like a veil of well-being over my consciousness, and another one, I knew, would charge it with a faint sense of anticipation, which a couple more would dispel, whereafter everything would be good. A couple more and I would convert my mood into actions, anesthetized against any objections and common sense, and then, if I went out, everything inside would be glittering and sparkling. Oh, how I loved drinking. I loved it. The longing to do so came only when I had drunk a little, then I seemed to remember what it was like and realized what I really wanted, which was to drink copious quantities, drink myself senseless, unconscious, as deep down in the shit as I could go. I wanted to drink myself out of house and home, drink myself out of family and friends, drink myself out of everything I loved and held dear.

“I read something in Gombrowicz yesterday that I’ve been thinking about,” I said. “It’s about why we don’t allow ourselves to be surprised by anything, how we can walk round a corner without being curious to know what is waiting for us there. How we can sit in a restaurant and not be curious about the soup we’ve ordered, how it will taste. That’s what my problem is. Do you understand? I take everything for granted. And it’s a poison. I don’t look down on you, I think you’re wonderful, but when I take everything for granted and there’s no reaction it gets on my nerves. That’s what I mean. It gets on my nerves.” “Do I get on your nerves?” “Come on, you know. When I’m grouchy and pissed off, of course that’s what happens.”

It is through feelings we connect with one another and it is the feelings which are good and bad, not the days.

The novel is a place where that which cannot be thought elsewhere can be thought and where the reality we find ourselves in, which sometimes runs counter to the reality we talk about, can be manifest in images. The novel can describe the world as it is, as opposed to the world it ought to be. Everyone who has read Out of the World will understand that the emotions, urges, and desires that it contains are not something the author has made up but are something inside him. But the agreement between the author and the reader, the novel’s pact, is that this conclusion should not be drawn, and if it is, only in secret. It should never be spoken aloud. The term “novel” is the guarantee of that. Only in this way can what is not said but which is true still be said. That is the pact, the author is free to say whatever he or she wants because the author knows that what he or she says will never, or at least should never, be linked with the author, with his or her private person.

When I sat down this morning, I had such a headache and felt so lethargic I couldn’t work. It has happened a couple of times over the past three years, all of a sudden I’m unable to do anything, I find it an enormous strain to get out of bed, dress, and go to the kitchen to butter a few slices of bread, almost impossible. It lasts one, maybe two days and then it goes, and everything is as before. It is an interesting phenomenon, standing outside everything you used to be inside, when things you normally do without a second thought become unattainable. That is what it’s like to get old, I think with fear in my heart, only slower, your strength is gradually sapped until ultimately you stand outside the life you once lived and you no longer have the strength to recover, with maybe twenty years left to live. But what is living? It is doing things and being at the center of the world. If you are deprived of that, of acting, doing, being at the center of the world, a distance develops between you and the world, you observe it but you are not part of it, and this estrangement is the start of death. Living is being greedy for days, no matter whether they are good or bad. Dying is being weary of days, when they no longer matter or cannot matter because you are no longer inside them, but on the outside.

The heart cannot reason. The brain does that. And if there was one thing I had learned in life, it was that the heart is everything, the brain nothing. That was why everything in life was always so horribly painful.

The problem with people is that they are too sensitive. Almost everyone I knew or met or saw was too sensitive. Something had happened to them once and they hadn’t got over it. If your father had lost his temper with you when you were a child and perhaps hit you, what does it matter now? If other kids locked you in the uniform closet in the gym, what has that to do with your present life? If you were a terrible bed wetter, a wussy little shit or your mother drank or your father took his own life, or if your parents totally ignored you, you aren’t them, you are your own person and you have your own time, which is now, so why on earth do you let the past have any influence on it? Why should what your parents did weigh so heavily on your life? Why didn’t we leave it at that? What good would all these feelings and musings do?

A life where you constantly relate to and empathize with those of others must be unbearable, and perhaps it is also harmful in the case of children, who need distance from the adult world in order to be able to see it and develop in relation to it. Be that as it may, this doesn’t stop me thinking that I empathize too little with the lives of other people. Most conspicuously and persistently with regard to Linda. One of the many things she criticizes me for is that I don’t see her. This is not quite true, I do see her, the problem is that I see her more or less in the way you see a room you know well; everything is there, the lamp and the carpet and the bookcase, the sofa and the window and the floor, but somehow transparently, no mark is left on your mind. Why do I organize my life like this? What do I want with this neutrality? Obviously it is to eliminate as much resistance as possible, to make the days slip past as easily and unobtrusively as possible. But why? Isn’t that synonymous with wanting to live as little as possible? With telling life to leave me in peace so that I can … yes, well, what? Read? Oh, but come on, what do I read about, if not life? Write? Same thing. I read and write about life. The only thing I don’t want life for is to live it.