Cancel culture and photographs

In the Land of the Cyclops: Essays
By Karl Ove Knausgård
350 pp. Archipelago Books. $28.

After finishing Karl Ove Knausgård’s monumental “My Struggle” series back in May 2019, I took a break. I had spent so much time in Knausgård’s head over the previous couple of years that I needed some time back in my own.

Then last month, as part of my yearly subscription with the glorious publishing house Archipelago Books, I strode down to the mailbox to find this beautiful hardcover collection of 18 Knausgård essays awaiting me.

In some ways, after the breathtaking highs that the “My Struggle” series hit, this is something of a letdown. These are, after all, just essays, not about Knausgård’s own life as “My Struggle” was, but about the various sorts of art — mostly photography and literature — that he admires.

Knausgård inserts so much of himself into each of these essays that I wouldn’t recommend this collection to anyone who isn’t already an ardent fan of his. Still, these essays can be grouped into two categories — those that are neatly built around the subject that he’s tackling and are, as a result, poignant and revealing, and those that are rambling and superfluous.

For me, eight of these essays — just shy of half the collection — fell into that later category, most of which were paeans to various photographers Knausgård has a thing for. Art is in the eye of the beholder, to be sure, but too often Knausgård will go on a tangent about a photograph or other artwork that, rather than shedding light on something I hadn’t previously seen in the work, I’m left disoriented and utterly baffled by words that take up an awful lot of space, but say nothing.

There are so many digressions, so much lofty language — language so soaring as to seem almost spiritual, but is ultimately empty — that often times I’ll finish an essay feeling like I’m trying to grasp a strand that’s fraying wildly in the wind.

These essays all end on lines so frustratingly vague and vapid that whatever sense you might have had that Knausgård was getting at something disintegrates and is blown away by the final turned page.

I’ve excerpted the last line or two of each of these eight essays so that you might get some sense of what I’m talking about.

“Seamlessly, art removes us from and draws us closer to the world, the slow-moving, cloud-embraced matter of which our dreams too are made.”

“It is to that place those lifeless body parts point, but they do so in a photograph, which, once our disgust and nausea have passed, becomes but one among the myriad of images that make up the sky above our selves.”

“It feels as if she cast herself before our gaze in the expectation that someone there would receive her. Someone there, which is us, we who see.”

“That tremble is the soul’s reply to a question it is unaccustomed to addressing. Where am I now? I am here.”

“We live in the social world, which is sameness, the light of faces, but we exist in the nonidentical, in what is unknown to us, it is the other side of the face, that which turns away mutely, beyond the reach of language just as the blood trickling through the tiny capillaries of the brain is beyond the reach of the thoughts thinking them, a few millimeters away, in that which upon closer inspection turns out to be nothing more than a chemical and electrical reaction in the sponge-like object that the neck holds aloft.”

“Perhaps the task of literature now is to go where the story can’t reach. In other words, to where nothing is, but everything is becoming.”

“They are images without ego, and this is one of their most unusual qualities; they approach the forest, and the forest does not shrink back, does not seek to hide itself away in any assumption as to its nature, but stands as it is, the way it always has and always will, marginally, outside our world.”

“The way they sit motionless as their horrid noise issues into the landscape, as if only then they become aware of themselves, that this is where they are now.”

Let me assure you that these lines are just baffling, just as inane, as part of the whole from which they were taken as they are here.

These essays remind me in some way of the creative writing classes I took in college. At the time, I thought that any piece I wrote that ended with such indecipherable but seemingly important lines was smart, that it said something about what a thoughtful person I was.

If I’m being a bit hard on Knausgård, it’s because I’m a huge fan. His 400-some-odd-page essay on Hitler (“The Name and the Number”) sandwiched inside My Struggle: Book 6 is one of the best things I’ve ever read, as is the entire series. But half of these essays feel as though they’ve been commissioned and, as a result, seem to be written just because they need to be written, not because the author really cares about the topics at hand. All passion and clarity seem to have been excised in favor of an overabundance of purple prose.

It wouldn’t be so plain to see if all the essays were like that, but they aren’t. When Knausgård hits on a topic that he really cares about, you can tell.

The essay on Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Submission is the primary case in point. It may be the best review of the novel ever put in print. Essays on Madame BovaryKnut Hamsun, and the iconic Swedish Director Ingmar Bergman are also insightful.

Knausgård’s title essay is focused on cancel culture and the idea, most often seen on the political left, that a writer isn’t allowed to write about whatever or whomever they want in their fiction (see the furor around Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses for the most infamous modern example of this). Knausgård raises some excellent points here, but dubbing these critics “cyclops” dulls the point and makes the whole thing come off a bit silly, like the other half of a playground duel.

Overall, this collection feels too flighty, too thrown together to leave anything other than a middling impression. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad I read it after “My Struggle,” otherwise I may not have bothered reading anything else by the same author.

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