On Trying to Be a Person: some thoughts after reading Knausgaard

A few quick notes after reading the first two volumes of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. 

Why it works: even though My Struggle is personal and autobiographical, it is not confessional. It's personal narrative without guilt or its close brother: aspiration. The other reason it works is that the writing is full of detail, description, not just of inner life, but also of objects and ideas and landscapes. Knausgaard gives us a full picture of experience. His writing is neither subjective nor objective; or maybe better put, Knausgaard's writing makes that distinction irrelevant. While the content of the book is personal: family life, adolescence, work, play, etc., these things are also universal to human experience. 

More than that, Knausgaard's resurrection of the person is also a crushing criticism of the way in which 21st century life has destroyed the personal as a source of meaning. It's done this in two ways: 1) through the culture of sameness, in which we learn to obsessively narrate our lives through cultural memes and tropes, e.g. Facebook. It's not that our lives are really the same, it's that we are limited in our expression of life, even (especially?) as we express it to ourselves. 2) Through liberalism and socialist thinking, which encourages us all to understand ourselves and what it means to be alive in terms of an affectively impoverished and overly analytical set of concepts like class, race, etc. None of these concepts give us a handle on feeling or family or death or work--the personal universals that make up life in its immediate forms. So we end up lacking much sense of immediacy,* empty and out of touch with ourselves, uselessly trying to fill the void with filtered selfies (hollow subjectivity) an equally hollow politics (hollow objectivity).

*followers of the blog will recognize that the main argument linking all of these posts together is that running is valuable and we are drawn to it because it tunes us in to the immediacies of experience [while running, too, is also subject to all the various mediations that alienate us from immediacy (joy, pain, meaning, love) -- social media, $$, shallow, status driven goals and practices, etc.]*

Reading 1000 pages of Knausgaard has led me to this thought: contemporary life only gives us two primary ways of relating to ourselves: through guilt or through self improvement. Neither of these are actual self relation; they both reject the self. Guilt makes this rejection negatively through resentment and self loathing, self improvement positively, through the actions of self-sacrifice. They both substitute relation with an ideal for relation with the actuality of the self -- hence mediation and the lack of immediacy. 

Knausgaard's prose reminds us that we can be with ourselves--our memories, our present--without the impulse to hate ourselves or improve ourselves. In this way, he is a Nietzschean or a stoic. The authorial voice in My Struggle does not struggle to improve or to analyze or to understand the self, but to be a person, to practice selfhood. 

We sort of follow Knausgaard through his life as he learns and re-learns how to be a person. While you'd think that 6 volumes of words about one's life would be narcissistic, it turns out to be quite the opposite. The text bites the bullet we must all bite; which is that we all have a duty to practice self-hood, to become a person. Knausgaard sort of sets himself out into the world, attempting and failing at this task again and again, and thereby succeeding I think, more than most.

By inviting us into the struggle, Knausgaard does the opposite of what social media does: he figures his personhood intimately and honestly and factually. His self is not written as a cultivated object, but almost painted, as an artist would render an object in a natural and social world. Knausgaard teaches us something that we already know, but too often forget: practicing selfhood and self care is the only genuine way to be with the world and with others. 

Nietzsche's concept for this was amor fati, love of who one is, his highest ethical principle. Narcissus neither knew himself, much less practiced himself; his self relation was empty, a mere image--what these days we call a status, a meme, a selfie. 

Who would have thought that what 21st century life needed was more self-examination, not less!


  1. Always excited to see a new post Jeff. They are worth the time. I thought amor fati was loosely defined as a love of fate, an acceptance of all that has happened to us good or bad. More than acceptance, that whatever has happened was necessary. I would love to hear more about that!

  2. Love reading your thoughts here on Knausgaard. Read the post a couple of times and letting it soak in.

    As an aside, the whole scene of Karl Ove cleaning his grandmother's house for days somehow sits in my mind. I really liked that.


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