Knausgaard’s Beautiful Skepticism

Conservatism is rarely thought of as being beautiful. To emphasize the American paradigms of equality and justice is to be much more poetic and romantic, at least until those ideas are broken down further.

But nonetheless many of the ideals of conservatism are beautiful, even artistic. Conservatism by its nature incorporates a type of skepticism — of economic planning, of authoritarian claims, and even of knowledge itself. One of conservatism’s challenges is to remain relevant and malleable in the best senses of those two words, but its strengths are that it’s based in a sort of earthly reality, taking into account the limits of knowledge and of human experience.

And every so often a piece of art comes along that gives shape to this, that makes space for mystery, reminding us that though we live in an age where knowledge is promised at the fingertips — literally, in front of a computer, categorized and unfathomably large — that promise does not reflect reality.

In this case, that piece of art is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — a provocative and imaginative semi-autobiography that has been wildly popular and controversial in the author’s native Scandinavia. Knausgaard finished the books in two years, furiously writing well over 3,000 pages even as he was starting a young family. Only three of the books have been translated into English so far, the latest of which, A Boyhood Island, came earlier this year.

Knausgaard wants to believe in the promises of modernity and science and humanity; he feels as if he lives in a world that is “fully explored and charted, that it could no longer move in unpredicted directions, that nothing new or surprising could happen.” In this tightly-knit epistemological world, everything is understood, from the outer boundaries of the cosmos to the protons and neutrons of the atom. “Even the phenomena that kills us we know about and understand,” Knausgaard says.

Mystery isn’t a basic facet of the universe anymore; it’s merely unconquered scientific territory. We’ve got systems for naming these places. We have Latin names for them and get Ph.Ds in them, have communities for them, appoint experts in them. Knowledge of anything is always within our reach; and even if something isn’t known it could be, with very little effort and an electronic database.

But of course none of that is true. For Knausgaard, the world is actually “boundless and unfathomable, the number of events infinite, the present time an open door that stood flapping in the wind of history.”

So on one hand you’ve got the appearance of a world of certainty, and on the other, reality, in which mystery surrounds us, and we’re left unable to come up with adequate understandings and definitions of time and space and human consciousness and other concepts that are this universe’s fundamentals.

Knausgaard’s skepticism becomes particularly evident in book 2, in which Knausgaard visits Norway, where he spent his childhood; he goes for a walk at night, looking over the green fields, the fjords, the mountains, then towards the stars:

This was beyond our comprehension. We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence …

This brings to mind Kant’s famous declaration that two things fill him with wonder: the moral law, and the “starry heavens above.” But perhaps Montaigne is a much better parallel here. The French essayist was a famous skeptic, one for whom uncertainty was a way of life. In an excellent biography of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell writes that though knowledge can’t be ultimately justified, Montaigne found a way to continue, “living as though there were no abyss.” He found meaning in humor (making fun of his small member, among other things.) And for Knausgaard, too, life goes on.

This skepticism, though, nags at Knausgaard in his writing. He writes of the insufferableness of being in Stockholm, where the liberal ideals of caring for others are constantly preached, and where citizens take pride in accepting refugees, and yet those refugees aren’t integrated at all, nobody wants anything to do with them, and they live in the slums. Because it’s one thing to preach inclusiveness and diversity and another entirely when that diversity is your next door neighbor.

Most of the book isn’t overtly political, though the later installments have an essay spanning hundreds of pages about Hitler — which is in part why the book is called, provocatively, My Struggle. It is rather filled with details of Knausgaard’s life, many of them banal. The third book returns to the island where Knausgaard grew up with a kind mother and domineering father, after the first book chronicled his father’s death, and the second his two marriages. Yet through all of the banality, and even as we read about doing the dishes, changing diapers, and speaking at writer’s conferences, there’s a sense of urgency in the writing.

He digresses often; in the latest book he turns to memory, and to the child’s mind and incomprehensible ferocity with which it attaches itself to objects and landscapes.

But the fact that it isn’t political is also part of the point: skepticism precludes both poles of fundamentalism. Naturalism and the liberalism that often espouses it is a type of certainty — it’s exactly that tightly knit world that Knausgaard wrote about, and scoffed at (“Who can be modern with a brain tumor?”). And in what often passes for modern conservatism, too, there’s a sense of infallibility, of ultimate truth.

It may be — and this is the territory that Knausgaard begins to explore with his art — that if we were more honest with ourselves, if we pared the rhetorics of a lot of the arguments we hear every day, put them under a microscope and brought them to focus, we’d see two principles side by side, both equally true yet incommensurable. Two supposedly true and basic facets of the universe that shouldn’t both be true at the same time.

But that’s the world that Knausgaard operates in. For him, mystery abounds. It’s not just beyond the reach of the telescope’s probing eye, but it is part of what we breathe and see, touch and hear.

Above all, Knausgaard’s mystery and skepticism — and ultimately the sort of romantic conservatism that such a world view yields — is beautiful. The genius of Knausgaard is that he has found a way to upend our view of the world as a place of certainty, and find beauty in doing it.