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Scandinavian Literature: Knut Hamsun

Thoughts after reading the novels Hunger, Mysteries, and Victoria by the Nobel-prize winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun

Every July, the inhabitants of Stockholm pour out of the city and tourists come streaming in.  It sometimes seems as if everyone in Stockholm must take the entire month off work.  In our district, the few children without vacation plans for July (including my son) were all moved to a central daycare, the only one that remained open.  The daycare my son attended was located next to a nature reserve by the Igelbäcken stream, so the walk there, although quite a bit longer than usual, was absolutely beautiful.  There were also two water fountains located along our route where my son always insisted on stopping in the afternoons on the way back home.  We were never in any hurry, so when the weather was nice (which it often was this July), we stopped at the water fountains so Anton could chase after birds and I could read.  I chose several short novels by the renowned Norwegian author, Knut Hamsun, as my reading material. The novels were very quick reads, both because they were short, only a few hundred pages each, and because they so easily absorbed the reader in the story.  I was finished with each one in only a few sittings, and Anton was happy to play outside by the fountains while I read.

The first novel I read, Victoria, was a tragic love story with a twist.  Unlike, say for example, Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers are doomed because of external factors entirely beyond their control, the plot in Victoria is set up so that the external obstacles, while compelling enough to provoke sympathy for the characters, are by no means insurmountable.  Unfortunately, however, the lovers do not have enough faith in their love to take the leap, and they end up torturing each other in a perverse attempt to find some kind of objective proof capable of giving them the will to overcome these obstacles. Of course, such proof does not exist, and in the end, it is the lovers themselves, and not the obstacles per se, that bring about their own doom.

The contrast between inner life and perceived reality is also brilliantly portrayed by Hamsun.  To spectators, Victoria’s sudden decline in physical demeanor – her pale look and faded beauty – were due to her fiance’s tragic hunting accident.  In reality, her appearance reflected the news that her true love had, in the mean time, also promised himself to someone else.  Likewise, to the outside world, the narrator of the book was a wildly successful author and entertainer, but in reality, all of his books and poems were inspired by and written to one person:  Victoria.  She was the only reader he cared about.

The second book I read, Mysteries, I think I enjoyed even more than Victoria. The book centered around a stranger’s visit to a coastal Norwegian town. The stranger possessed striking intuitive insights, which often unnerved the local residents.  This book also contains elements of a tragic love story, but unlike Victoria, the book is not centered around love, but has a more expanded scope on intuition in general.

Finally, the last book I read, Hunger, now ranks easily as one of my favorite books of all-time.  Hunger’s main theme was artistic inspiration, although again, elements of tragic love and intuitive insight also appear in the book.  The main character, a writer who would sooner starve than suffer spiritual or moral corruption, could have been a guardian or philosopher king in Plato’s ideal city-state.  Hamsun, however, caught his hero in an all -too-plausible inversion of Plato’s ideal, and left him dependent on the vulgar and base for shelter and bread.

The genius of all three books, in my opinion, lies in Hamsun’s ability to portray both the extreme fragility and the supreme importance in those phenomenon which, although outside the scope of scientific enquiry, in practice play a large role in human affairs.  According to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, these are the things which “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  Or, as put by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger:

Earlier I have commented on the fact that for this same reason the physical world picture lacks all the sensual qualities that go to make up the Subject of Cognizance.  The model is colourless and soundless and unpalpable.  In the same way and for the same reason the world of science lacks, or is deprived of, everything that has a meaning only in relation to the consciously contemplating, perceiving and feeling subject.  I mean in the first place the ethical and aesthetical values, any values of any kind, everything related to the meaning and scope of the whole display. All this is not only absent but it cannot, from the purely scientific point of view, be inserted organically.  If one tries to put it in or on, as a child puts colour on his uncoloured painting copies, it will not fit.  For anything that is made to enter this world model willy-nilly takes the form of scientific assertion of facts, and as such it becomes wrong.

-Erwin Schrödinger, from What is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches

Hamsun transports us out of the realm of science and into to the realm of the ideal – into the arms of art, religion, and philosophy -and shows us how these things can be everything and nothing at the same time.  And so love, for example, “is only a wind whispering among the roses and dying away,” but also “an inviolable seal that endures for life, endures till death.”  How does one know whether one is in the presence of the former or the latter?  From a scientific perspective, it is a meaningless love affair – a firing of neurons,  a release of chemicals.  The possibility of the latter exists only subjectively, in the mind or spirit of an individual.

The subjective nature of Hamsun’s themes is what makes them so extremely delicate.  Love, intuition, inspiration:  how fleeting the feeling, how easy it is to doubt, to dismiss.  There can never be an objective confirmation of the meaningfulness of these occurrences in an individual’s life. But one ignores them, or analyzes them from a scientific perspective (which at best amounts to the same thing, and at worst can drive a person insane*) at one’s own peril.  Hamsun here enters the domain of Kierkegaard’s repetition and Dostoevsky’s miracles. While the notions are somewhat different for all three authors, there is a common thread.  For Kierkegaard, “repetition is the raising of [ ] consciousness to the second power.”  It is “the movement by virtue of the absurd that commences when one has reached the border of the wondrous,” and it occurs when:

. . .being has been split . . . the moment it is apparent that the individual can lose himself in events, fate, lose himself in such a way that he therefore by no means stops contemplating but loses himself in such a way that freedom is taken up completely in life’s fractions without leaving a remainder, then the issue becomes manifest . . .

– Soren Kierkegaard, A Little Contribution by Constantin Constantius, Author of Repetition

This point, when the crisis comes, when “being has been split” is the same point at which Dostoevsky saves his hero in The Brothers Karamazov by a miracle in the guise of a meaningful coincidence linked to a dream.  And time and time again in Hunger, Hamsun’s hero also reaches this point of absolute despair, but as soon as this point arrives – the moment he begins to curse God and welcome his death – he is saved by a sudden flash of inspiration or an unexpected act of kindness.  Such occurrences appear as a lifeline thrown out to the character which, if he does not reach out and grab, will leave him to fall and drown in the dizzying depths below.

Hamsun is a brilliant writer, but his stories are dark and his characters profoundly unhappy.  The mood of the novels contrasted sharply with the idyllic scenery surrounding me, and I often found myself worrying whether so much happiness was bound to be cursed.  I think I have had my fill of Hamsun now for a while, but am sure to pick him up again when I feel capable of reading Pan in Swedish (much, much closer to the original Norwegian than is possible with an English translation).

Anton sitting beside one of the fountains on the way to "dagis," Swedish for daycare

Anton sitting beside one of the fountains on the way to "dagis," the Swedish expression for daycare.

* The trap of analyzing such phenomenon from a scientific perspective is, I think, masterfully demonstrated by Vladimir Nabokov in The Defense.

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To the nihilists

The role of creativity in the search for ‘searching necessity’

There are people I know who, having lost religion in their adolescence, throw themselves into the pursuit of science and technology with all the fervor of “irrational rationality.” Later, as they begin to mature, it dawns on them that science may not be the panacea they once believed it to be. Cracks begin to appear. Their thoughts begin to turn to those eternal questions for which science offers no answer:  “Why am I here?”, “What is my purpose?”.  More alarmingly, they begin to see themselves from a scientific perspective, and when the whole of the universe is your reference point, a single human life is but an insignificant blip in celestial time.

Perhaps they then attempt to figure out what went wrong, and reach back to the fundamentals of science.  They begin to peel back layers upon layers of logical systems in search of the lowest common denominators.  They begin to ask themselves, “Why Greenwich?”.  In other words, why, for example, should our system of coordinated time be built around Greenwich as opposed to a more relevant city?  It occurs to them that all systems are built around a similarly arbitrary empirical basis.

After failing to find meaning in the empirical, they might then take refuge in pure reason, in logic and math.  But soon they find themselves caught in a web of equivalencies, with everything defined in terms of everything else. Reason is unmasked as an empty tautology and the disillusionment is complete.

Nihilism sets in. A mocking smile is turned on those deluded individuals who still dare to ask the big questions. Although they have turned their scepticism back against science itself, they have not torn themselves from the framework of a scientific worldview.  They fail to see that nihilism can only exist on the basis of division and differentiation.  They are above all scientists, and it does not occur to them that there might be something wrong with ripping the fabric of the world into two pieces – into empirical and rational components – and then surmising that, because each piece taken alone is intrinsically meaningless, it must necessarily follow that the world itself and everything in it must also be intrinsically meaningless.

At this point, if nihilism does not lead to despair, some turn to simple, almost hedonistic pleasures and distractions: YouTube videos, lolcats, or whatever happens to be the latest internet or entertainment trend.  Others devote themselves with renewed energy to their day-jobs and family, with the conviction that the only thing that matters is the biological drive to pass along ones genes and provide for the future.  Others combine the two approaches.

. . . the intellect remains eternally confined within the realm of the conditioned, and goes on eternally asking questions without ever lighting upon any ultimate answer . . . Since, then, he cannot appease his inquiring intellect by evoking any ultimate and inward cause, he manages at least to silence it with the notion of no-cause, and remains within the blind compulsion of matter since he is not yet capable of grasping the sublime necessity of reason.  Because the life of sense knows no purpose other than its own advantage, and feels driven by no cause other than blind chance, he makes the former into the arbiter of his actions and the latter into the sovereign ruler of the world.

-Friedrich Schiller, from Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man

One might argue that the countless diversions supplied by modern entertainment are symptomatic of nihilism: their purpose is escapism, the goal of the participants, sweet oblivion.  It seems to me, however, that these diversions are the result of a one-sided nihilism, one in which the senuous is at least implicitly recognized as an important element in life. This is easier to see with respect to the physical drive to provide for oneself and ones progeny. This drive is not a form of nihilism, but rather a testimony to the power of the materialism inherent to the scientific framework from which they never truly left.  The nihilism of those who embrace this physical drive is incomplete, but they nonetheless feel that there is something missing from their lives, so they still consider themselves nihilists. Why?  If one accepts the premise that man is a synthesis of the mental and the physical, then I maintain that the former, the mental, has been denied in some way.  Is there perhaps, a parallel mental drive corresponding to the physical drive to pass along ones genes and provide for future generations?  In what follows, I argue that there is, that this parallel drive is this creative drive, and that the creative drive is the anecdote to the kind of nihilism that often plagues the most technically and scientifically-minded individuals.

First, some justification is no doubt in order for any statement which implies that scientifically-minded individuals are neglecting their minds.  A brief exposition should serve to clarify my meaning.  I will begin by explaining my understanding of “mind” in this particular context.

To think is to confine oneself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the sky.

– Martin Heidegger

It is not uncommon for those who philosophize to preface or introduce their work in terms of a search for a unifying thought or principle. Some, as for example, Heidegger in the above quote, or Schopenhauer in the preface to The World as Will and Representation, take this to an extreme and write thousands of words in explanation of what they claim to be a single thought.  But what does it mean “to confine oneself to a single thought” in this manner?

In his book What is Life?, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger set forth the idea that a defining characteristic of life was a  reduction of entropy, or “negative entropy.”  Whereas inanimate matter falls into more and more disarray, eventually reaching thermodynamic equilibrium, life strives to maintain order against this constant threat of chaos.* Thermodynamic equilibrium is to a living system nothing other than death.  This tendency towards order caused Schrödinger to speculate as to whether another law of thermodynamics would eventually be discovered to accommodate the phenomenon.

Entropy and negative entropy (perhaps better thought of as free energy) strike me as a modern formulation of the twin forces that mankind has marvelled over at least since the Presocratics in ancient Greece began referring to them as “strife and love.” In this framework, life can be viewed as a brazen charge against the second law of thermodynamics.  Note that this is a broader definition than that given by those who would reduce life to the set of physical processes characteristic of all particular life-forms. Rather, under this alternative view, life is a striving, a search for order and unity, and in man, life has evolved an ever more powerful tool in furtherance of its goal.  This tool is man’s mind.  It is the mind which strives to take in a stream of random, disorganized information and spit it back out in ordered, expressible terms.  The mind longs for unity in knowledge.

Science hinders that individual quest for unity in two primary ways.  First, there is the problem of specialization. Almost by definition, the degree of specialization required to practice in any field today precludes an individual’s search for a more unified body of knowledge.

We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge. The very name given to the highest institutions of learning reminds us, that from antiquity to and throughout many centuries the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in and width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge by during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true who aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them -and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.

-Erwin Schrödinger, from What is Life?

The second problem with modern science is that it has become a slave to the material. That is, as it exists now, the ne plus ultra of science – its greatest aim – is the improvement of material circumstances.  With very few exceptions, scientific funding is contingent on a showing of concrete, practical benefits, usually expected within a relatively short time-frame. Neither the patent system nor the grant system are designed to evaluate new directions in research leading to unknown practical benefits or benefits expected to accrue on a long-term basis. The paradoxical result is that this gap in our incentive structure sometimes leads to slower advancement of the material goals the system exists to support. Is it possible that the promotion of science for science’s sake alone – for the sake of greater understanding, greater unity in thought- could lead to even greater, though perhaps unexpected, material benefit?

These deficiencies in modern science are what lead me to claim that scientists are, in some ways, neglecting their minds. They despair over the thought that science will never be able to answer the big questions, never be able to give them a purpose for living, but they don’t realize that these questions can only be asked from a reference point outside of life, that is to say, the questions are invalid.  Life itself is that very struggle towards order and unity, and one neglects that drive at the expense of their own sense of happiness and fulfillment.

What then, is my suggestion to an unhappy nihilist? (Because, above all, of course, the particular breed of nihilist I have been describing looks to concrete, practical suggestions).  The solution is simple:  create (or, perhaps some people would prefer the term invent). Creation is nothing more than life -the drive to order and unification – in action.  If you feel uninspired, then broaden your knowledge. Seek to learn from fields of knowledge outside your own, and you will find the creative drive will kick in on its own accord as your mind inevitably begins to incorporate the newly discovered knowledge within the framework of what you already know.  The key is to let the mind’s search for unity dictate the material form of the creation, and not the other way around.

A more common problem, I fear, than lack of inspiration, however, is lack of training in expressive mediums. For those who are easily overwhelmed by the possibilities hidden in the sheer amount of information available, it helps remember that any creative break-through must first be expressed conceptually, usually in pictorial or written form.  If your particular field does not allow opportunities for practice and training with creative expression in a suitable medium, then it might be worth your effort to learn more about the different expressive mediums themselves.  This is to me a task for arts and humanities, which has a role both in introducing a person to the historical current of endeavor towards a more all-embracing knowledge, and in training a person in the use of various expressive mediums so they might be capable of contributing their own work.

There are many ways of going about this quest. Ian Fairweather, for example, was an Australian painter who described the act of painting as something which gave him “the same kind of satisfaction that religion, I imagine, gives to some people.”  It was his “searching necessity,” and I suppose it is the spirit in which I write.  It doesn’t seem to matter which medium you choose.  Just get started with something.  Creativity breeds more creativity.  As soon as you succeed in conceptualizing and expressing one theme, you will find that the theme also serves as a lead, sending you on your way to read more, to learn more, to do more, about another aspect needing clarification.  Start small, and soon your particular works will begin to form to the boundaries out of which a larger picture can arise.  Once you are able to see that picture with greater clarity, your previous works can also serve as the raw material from which you may sculpt your meta-picture.  Repeat the process and learn just how far your ideas can propel you.

But the fact that today I still stand by these ideas, that in the intervening time they themselves have constantly become more strongly associated with one another, in fact, have grown into each other and intertwined, that reinforces in me the joyful confidence that they may not have originally developed in me as single, random, or sporadic ideas, but up out of a common root, out of some fundamental will for knowledge ruling from deep within, always speaking with greater clarity, always demanding greater clarity.  For that’s the only thing appropriate to a philosopher.  We have no right to be scattered in any way, we are not permitted to make isolated mistakes or to run into isolated truths.  By contrast, our ideals, our values, our affirmations and denials, our if’s and whether’s, grown out of us from the same necessity which makes a tree bears it’s fruit – totally related and interlinked amongst each other, witness of one will, one health, one soil, one sun.

-Nietzsche, from the Genealogy of Morals

I would change one thing about the quote from Nietzsche above, and that is, instead of saying that philosophers have no right to be scattered, I would say that a human being has no right to be scattered.  To exist scattered in the way Nietzsche uses the term is to lose part of ones humanity.  Everyone needs to discover their own “searching necessity,” and once you set foot on that path, it wouldn’t surprise me if you never watched another youtube video again.  Well, unless of course, you choose video as your means of creative expression, but that leads me to a whole other topic . . .

* It is also interesting to note that, if entropy is time’s arrow, then life strives in the opposite direction, towards the past. This is intuitively expressed by people everyday when they speak of their battle against time. But it is also interesting to consider this notion in relation to the mind specifically.  We are forever seeking explanations, attempting to find the origin of what exists. Thus, from the time of Plato, philosophers have been interested in the role of recollection and memory in the obtainment of knowledge.

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