“Everything has become intellect”

When I’m writing I often feel the tension between writing about the thing, the reflections on the thing, and the process of the reflections on the thing. In our day to day lives we likely all feel this same tension, the distancing from reality, floating in and out of lived experience with varying degrees of reflectiveness. It’s turtles all the way down. If I find myself drift more and more into reflection, the writing or experience ends up feeling stale. Yet writing matter of factly about a thing is also uninteresting. It’s in navigating the balance between these dimensions, in that layered dance between reality and impression, where the possibility of a significant space emerges between them.

I’m currently reading Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1, which is the Norwegian writer’s retelling of his family history. It’s an autobiography that focuses on his experiences as lived and reflected on from the first-person point of view. As he states himself in the book, he is influenced heavily by Proust, who in En Recherche du Temps Perdu offered us a window into the consciousness of another time. Knausgaard achieves a similar phenomenological effect, delving deeply into the realm of how we live and think through our experiences. He accurately delivers a poignant depiction of the texture and nuances of our period’s consciousness.

Reading the passage below from Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1, was one of those moments where someone expresses a sentiment you’ve long ambled around with such lucidity, that just reading it echoed back to you brings stillness. He captures the tension, the strange list of experiences that seem to touch us and those that don’t, and its significance to art. Mid-way through the novel I think he lays out the aim of the book itself: to find that something in the space between reality and the portrayal of reality.

I’ve edited some portions out to make it a bit briefer while trying to have it still make sense. I recommend reading the book. This passage’s context in the larger narrative is beautiful.

p. 223
Literature has always been related to utopia, so when the utopia loses meaning, so does literature. What I was trying to do, and perhaps what all writers try to do — what on earth do i know? — was to combat fiction with fiction. What I ought to do was affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out, for in that way I would undoubtedly have a better life, but I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t something had congealed inside me, a conviction was rooted inside me, and although it was essentialist, that is, outmoded and, furthermore, romantic, I could not get past it, for the simple reason that it had not only been thought but also experienced, in these sudden states of clearsightedness that everyone must know, where for a few seconds you catch sight of another world from the one you were in only a moment earlier, where the world seems to step forward and show itself for a brief glimpse before reverting and leaving everything as before …
The last time I experienced this was on a commuter train between Stockholm and Gnesta a few months earlier. The scene outside the window was a sea of white, the sky was gray and damp, we were going through an industrial area, empty railway cars, gas tanks, factories, everything was white and gray, and the sun was setting in the west, the red rays fading in the mist, and the train in which I was travelling was not one of the rickety, old, run-down units that usually serviced this route, but brand-new, polished and shiny, the seat was new, it smelled new, the doors in front of me opened and closed without friction, and I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, just staring at the burning red ball in the sky and the pleasure that suffused me was so sharp and came with such intensity that it was indistinguishable from pain. What I experienced seemed to me to be of enormous significance. Enormous significance. When the moment had passed the feeling of significance did not diminish, but all of a sudden it became hard to place: exactly what was significant? And why? A train, an industrial area, sun, mist?
I recognized the feeling, it was akin to the one some works of art evoke in me. Rembrant’s portrait of himself as an old man in London’s National Gallery was such a picture, Turner’s picture of the sunset over the sea off a port of antiquity at the same museum, Caravaggio’s picture of Christ in Gethsemane
I didn’t know what it was about these pictures that made such a great impression on me. However, it was striking that they were all painted before the 1900s, within the artistic paradigm that always retained some reference to visible reality. Thus, there was always a certain objectivity to them, by which i mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it “happened”, where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world. When you didnt just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it. Something that didn’t speak, and that no words could grasp, consequently forever out of our reach, yet within it, for not only did it surround us, we were ourselves part of it, we were ourselves of it.
In the modernist era the division between art and the world was close to absolute, or put another way, art was a world of its own. What was taken up in this world was of couse a question of individual taste, and soom this taste became the very core of art, which thus could and, to a certain degree in order to survive, had to admit objets from the real world. The situation we have arrived at now whereby the props of art no longer have any significance, all the emphasis is placed on what the art expresses, in other words, not what it is but what it thinks, what ideas it carries, such that the last remnants of objectivity, the final remants of something outside the human world have been abanoned. Art has come to be an unmade bed, a couple of photocopiers in a room, a motorbike in an attic. And art has come to be a spectator of itself, the way it reacts, what newspapers write about it; the artist is a performer. That is how it is. Art does not know a beyond, science does not know a beyond, religion does know know a beyond, not anymore. Our world is enclosed around itself, enclosed around us, and there is no way out of it. Those in this situation who call for more intellectual depth, more spirituality, have understood nothing, for the problem is that the intellect has taken over everything. Everything has become intellect, even our bodies, they aren’t bodies anymore, but ideas of bodies, something that is situated in our own heaven of images and conceptions within us and above us, where an increasingly large part of our lives is lived. The limits of that which cannot speak to us — the unfathomable — no longer exist. We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves. Nowadays, as one might expect, all those who have occupied themselves with the neutral, the negative, the nonhuman in art, have turned to language, that is where the incomprehensible and the otherness have been sought, as if they were to be found on the margins of human expression, on the fringes of what we understand, and of course, actually, that is logical: where else would it be found in a world that no longer acknowledges that there is a beyond?
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