Karl Ove Knausgaard on Death

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Jogging with Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book II

After hearing quite a bit of hype, I tried reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book I about a year ago. I found the first 50 pages or so fascinating; yet every subsequent read became shorter and shorter, until I finally gave it up.

But since then I’ve heard even more about Knausgaard and recently felt the pressure to give his work another shot. This time, instead of laboring over my screen, I opted for the audiobook version. This proved decisive. Listening to his novel, A Time for Everything, was a treasure. I quickly followed that up with My Struggle, and now I’m mostly done with My Struggle: Book II. Knausgaard rambles in such a patient yet meaningful way that listening to–rather than reading–his autobiographical sketches becomes almost meditative.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to his work is that his neo-Romanticism offers a kind of antidote to our American fascination with progress and the futurism of Silicon Valley. Listening to My Struggle feels almost like a guilty pleasure, like a lost time that modernity will always try to cover up, and in some cases for good reason. Yet his style of thinking helps me think about other material that I come across in a new way.

Here’s a passage I listened to while running in the Boise foothills:

Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious. But in my lifetime death was removed from our lives, it no longer existed, except as a constant item in all the newspapers, on the TV news and in films, where it didn’t mark the end of a process, discontinuity, but, on account of daily repetition, represented, on the contrary, an extension of the process, continuity, and in this way, oddly enough, had become a source of our security and our anchor. A plane crash was a ritual, it happened every so often, the same chain of events, and we were never part of it ourselves. A sense of security, but also excitement and intensity, for imagine how terrible the last seconds were for the passengers . . . everything we saw and did contained the intensity that was triggered in us, but had nothing to do with us. (175-76)

These thoughts originate in Knausgaard’s reflections on his Dostoevsky reading. He mulls over the distance between Baroque death, Dostoevsky’s grotesque yet compelling figure of a redeemed humanity that has fallen into nihilism, and then the way modernity has triumphed over death in an artificial, abstract manner—”in my lifetime death was removed from our lives.” The reproduction of death in the news, on film, and through the technology of the internet has made it routine. Death at a remove.

What struck me about this passage is that in it Knausgaard critiques the same indifference towards death that the modern revival of Stoic philosophy values. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus are practically triumphant in the Bay Area right now, in part because they offer a Western correlate to Buddhist indifference. One of the core components is indifference towards one’s own death. “Death is nothing frightening,” Epictetus reminds Stoic practitioners in his Manual for Living.

The Stoic effort to become negative–to become free from externals–is attractive for sated consumers and entrepreneurs alike. Yet looking at modernity’s neo-Stoicism through the eyes of Knausgaard suggests that this indifference is enabled, or even compelled, by data collection. It’s big data that makes plane crashes a ritual, a routine that can be algorithmically determined. This ritualization of death begs for indifference.

Does that make the Stoic revival noble, or naive?


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