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NOVEMBER 17, 2015

Vanishing Point
BY KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD

If there is an ethics of the novel, it lies in the zone


where the other moves between the definite and
indefinite.
ILLUSTRATION BY DADU SHIN.

The following was delivered at the Axel-Springer-


Haus, in Berlin, on November 6th, as an acceptance
speech for the Welt Literaturpreis, awarded annually by the German newspaper Die Welt.

I
ts early morning as I write these words, the darkness is thick outside my
windows, and, in the sky, which is cold and clear, the stars are strikingly bright.
All is quiet. Even the colony of crows that, each evening, fill two enormous trees
close by with their din and commotion are sleeping. This is the southeastern part of
Sweden, a few short kilometres from the sea, a small village surrounded on all sides
by sweeping fields that, at present, are being ploughed and made ready for winter by
a small armada of tractors.

Physically, Berlin isnt far away at all, a small matter of taking the ferry from Ystad
to Poland, then driving for three hours, after which you arrive in the middle of
Germanys capital city. Mentally, however, when considered from here, Berlin seems
almost like some other world, a parallel reality, akin most of all, perhaps, to a dream
or a mirage.

In the glow of my desk lamp, a tiny island of light in the darkness where I sit, there
is, in principle, no difference between the idea I entertain of Berlin at this moment
and the city as it was perceived at the beginning of the last century, the city of which
Walter Benjamin wrote in his memoirs, and which, at that time, had seen neither
the First nor the Second World War. Nor, for that matter, is it in any way different
from that of the decimated Berlin of the Third Reichs final days, or the Berlin of
the Cold War, divided by the Wall. To me, as I sit here at my desk, all this is but a
series of images in the mind, conceptions, imagination.

Perhaps the foremost characteristic of our age, what sets it apart from all others
before it, is that the sheer volume of images of the worldnot just the world of the
past, but also, and perhaps especially, that of the present, the world of which we are a
partis so massive. Any event, anywhere on the planetan earthquake, a plane
crash, an act of terrorismwill be available for us to view only moments later, in on-
the-scene images we see and consider as we go about our day-to-day lives, stuck in
our tailbacks of traffic, as we make our coffee, visit the bathroom, wash our clothes,
prepare our meals, set our tables. Usually, we keep these different levels of reality
apart, or at least I do. Even the worst disasters are something I merely register, with
varying degrees of horror, as if the world outside were a film, a play, a performance,
of concern to me only in the most superficial manner. At the same time, and more
profoundly, such images provide a release insofar as they allow me the freedom of
never having to be entirely present in my actual surroundings, in the routine state of
boredom they constantly threaten to dull me with, since ones attention is
continuously being directed toward something else, to what is happening right now:
the occurrence, the event, the news item.

But then, occasionally, albeit remarkably seldom, what happens is that the two levels
of reality converge and become one. Last time it happened was this autumn. After
months of news reports depicting the flow of refugees crossing the Mediterranean,
boats sinking, people drowning, which to me was like a steady murmur in the
background, not that different from the constant reports of car bombs in Iraq or
school shootings in the United States, I suddenly saw the image of a little boy, no
more than perhaps three years old, lying prone on a beach, his face in the sand. He
was dead, and all of a sudden I understood what death meant. All of a sudden, I
understood that the people coming across the sea were not people in the plural, but
in the singular. This I understood because I myself have children. I saw their deaths
in his death. The image thereby penetrated my defenses, broke through the murmur
and appeared to me as what it was: an image of reality. The boy was real, and his
death was a real death. The horror of seeing that, and thinking the thought of it, for
a while transformed all other images likewise: they, too, left the film, the play, the
performance, and became part of reality.

I mention this not to enter into the debate going on in Europe at present, about
how best to deal with the refugee crisis, how the problems of immigration may most
fruitfully be solved, but rather to point toward the mechanism in our societies that
turns people into a mass, how ordinary that is and how closely bound up with the
media, which by its very nature creates remoteness, its narrative structures rendering
every event equal, every occurrence identical, thereby dissolving the particular, the
singular, the unique, in that way lying to us, or, put differently, fictionalizing our
reality. It is a mechanism barely discernible to us insofar as images are always, on one
level, images of reality, and it becomes apparent only on those rare occasions where
remoteness dissolves, as in the case of the dead little boy on the beach.

And then reality comes as a shock.

Are people dying?


While this insight may be banal, its repercussions are not. In our humanity, there is a
vanishing point. We step in and out of it; its a kind of zone in which we shift in
each others perspective from definite to indefinite, and vice versa. This vanishing
point has to do with remoteness and is inevitable. The indefinite human, faceless
and devoid of character, the mass human, lives its life in patterns by which it is
bound and is the material of statistics. Approximately the same number of people
die in traffic accidents every year, drown in seas, lakes, and rivers every summer, pass
through the barriers of subway stations every morning in January, although that
particular traffic accident, that particular drowning, that particular subway ride was
determined by a series of personal, individual decisions. If you look out over the
satellite town one morning from your flat on the seventeenth floor, thats what you
see: the way all those people, those dark, ant-like little figures, follow the same roads
and paths, according to a rhythm over which none of them has control, first the
deluge of those on their way to work, then the more scattered patterns of those who
remain in the area during the day, the elderly, those with prams and buggies, those
off sick, and then eventually a new deluge of people returning when the working day
has drawn to a close. These movements can easily be simulated by a computer with
few variables, for regardless of what we think about as we cross the frozen waters on
our way home to our flat, regardless of how utterly original our thoughts might be as
we bow our heads and stare down at the trampled snow, we are at the same time
completely predictable, always part of some greater movement, like a bird in an
enormous flock suddenly changing direction as one and resembling, at that moment,
a great, waving hand.

But such a perspective, whereby we view human beings as part of a mass rather than
as unique individuals, may also be a strategy by which soldiers are trained so as to be
able to kill, and it is a prerequisite of all massacres, as it was, for instance, in the
Germany of the Second World War, when the Jews were deprived of their identity,
first at the national, then the individual level, their names replaced by numbers, each
individual scraped into the nameless, faceless mass to be slaughtered like sheep or
cattle, gassed or burned as creatures without identity. And of course the same goes
for the inhabitants of Dresden or Hiroshima, wiped out by bombs from above, but
tiny dots to their executioners, figures in a calculation thereby concluded.

There is a vanishing point in our humanity, a point at which the other goes from
being definite to indefinite. But this point is also the locus for the opposite
movement, in which the other goes from indefinite to definiteand if there is an
ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all,
that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a
reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves.
The other that thereby emerges does so in the readers imagination, assimilating at
once into his or her mind. This establishing of proximity to another self is
characteristic of the novel. And the way in which the outer work of art is created,
within the readerthe readers own sense of color and form, his or her
understanding of landscapes and languages, people and thoughts, being decisive to
how well the novel worksis special to the form. The novel is an oddly intimate
genre: at root, it is always a matter between two individuals, writer and reader, whose
first encounter occurs when the writer writesfor in writing, the very act of it, there
is always an appeal to a you, redeemed only by the insertion of a reader. This you may
be inserted at any time, even hundreds of years after the event of writing, the way,
for instance, we might read a novel written in seventeenth-century Spain, or
eighteenth-century Russia, or early-twentieth-century Germany, and yet still induce
the voice of the self to rise anew within us, remoteness dissolving. And that self may
also reveal itself to us in the reading of novels from places geographically remote to
us, such as China, Kenya, Colombia.

Why is this important? Is the reading of novels not just a pastime, a way of escaping
from reality for a few hours, and thereby just another element of the entertainment
machine in which we live? Is it not more important to engage with our neighbor,
who after all is real, rather than with one who exists only in a work of fiction?

The difference between engaging with a real neighbor and one in a novel is that the
former occurs in the social sphere, within the boundaries of its rules and practical
constraints, whereas the latter occurs outside of it, in the readers own most private,
intimate sphere, where the rules that govern our social interaction do not apply and
its practical constraints do not exist. Only there, in that encounter, are we able to see
the concept of the social and see exactly what it is. And only there, in that encounter,
are we able to see what a human being is outside of that concept, in itself and on its
own terms. This spacethat is, the novelsis idiosyncratic, particular, and singular:
in other words, it represents the exact opposite of the media, which strives toward
the universal and general. When the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, in The
Life of the Mind, wrote, Clichs, stock phrases, adherence to conventional,
standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function
of protecting us against reality, she was writing about Adolf Eichmann, but the
sentence is valid far beyond that one case, and far beyond the time to which he
belonged. For the need to protect oneself against reality is constant, and the
remoteness established by standardized language and a standardized form is
something all communities strive toward, even if they may not be aware of it.

T
he value of the particular and the singular was something I learned from,
among others, Walter Benjamin, whose work I read while studying literature
in Bergen in the nineteen-nineties. From Benjamin I learned, too, how even the
smallest fragment of a society is always an expression of that societys culture, of its
dreams and of the conceptions it holds, and in that way I understood that the same
is true of people. Walter Benjamin died as a refugee in Spain, in 1940. The regime
from which he had fled, that of the Nazis, was led by Adolf Hitler. Reading Walter
Benjamin today, instantiating the you to whom he once appealed, what he once
thought about the world now being thought by us, he emerges as the particular,
singular, unique individual he was: in other words, as a human being. We have an
image, too, of the man from whose regime he fled, Adolf Hitler, and it is an image
we view from a very remote distance, insofar as we feel compelled to protect
ourselves from what he represented. If we allowed that remoteness to dissolve, what
we would see would no longer be the very image of evil, but a boy growing up in
Austria with a violent, authoritarian father and a mother whom he loved. We would
see a sixteen-year-old so shy he hadnt the courage to speak to a girl with whom he
was in love, able only to profess his feelings by sending an anonymous card. We
would see a man who, in order to survive, distanced himself from all in his proximity.
We would see a man who loved cakes and was so fond of sugar he put it in even the
most expensive of white wines. We would see a man with a gift of imitating others,
who was especially good at putting on the accent of Grings Swedish wife. We
would see a man who, in an astonishingly skillful manner, was able to pick up on
popular currents of opinion and give voice to them in near-perfect pitch. We would
also see a petty, mean-spirited man, a man who felt himself hard done by, an
insufferably self-important man who always believed himself to know better. And
we would see a man who, more than anything else, hated Jews, a hatred that would
seem to defy explanationall of a sudden, it was there in his life, hideous and
repugnant. If we were to do this, we would see a human being. This human being
would, moreover, be conjoined with all other human beings around him: it wasnt
just Hitler who had a violent and authoritarian father and who loved his mother,
who felt himself drawn toward art and music, who saw his friends die in the
trenches, saw the heaps of corpses, everywhere, every day, for as long as that war
endured. Hitler was part of a generation and a culture that shared the same basic
experiences and which comprised a society that collapsed into barbarism. Walter
Benjamin was a part of that society, as were Hannah Arendt and Paul Celan. They
wrote in the same language, yet they were also offended by it, the we that was
present within it to them becoming first a they and then an it. This shift is what
Paul Celans poem Engfhrung is about. It was written after the war, in the
language of the butchers, and it contains everything Ive tried to talk about in this
piece, proceeding so far into the idiosyncratic that even connections between words
are almost entirely severed and lie scattered about the text like pebbles, at the very
border between language and the world, because the cohesive connections the
language, until then, had sustained and guaranteed suddenly no longer applied, they
were destroyedblood was destroyed, soil was destroyed, home was destroyedat
the same time that each of us, as readers, sixty years on, inserting ourselves into the
equation as the you of the poem, by our very act of reading become part of a new
beginning, a new state of affairs, by recognising and understanding what such a state
is dependent upon.

The writers I have mentionedWalter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Paul Celan


make up only the tiniest part of my own German-language canon, which numbers
many, many authors, from Hlderlin to Goethe, from Thomas Mann to Judith
Herman, from Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard to Christian Kracht and Durs
Grnbein, a list too extensive to even embark upon here. Common to them all is the
idiosyncratic, the particular and the singular, and that all are part of the same
struggle to keep open our path of access to the world, so that our protections against
it may fall and its individual character, its here and now, its you and I, may emerge
and become salient.

Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken.

Watch: Jhumpa Lahiri chats about writing, and about working on her book The
Lowland.

Karl Ove Knausgaard is the award-winning Norwegian author of eight works of fiction,
including My Struggle, a six-volume series of autobiographical novels, the fourth of
which was published in English, in 2015.

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