The Other Side of the Face
May 28, 2014 | by Karl Ove Knausgaard
When I consider the neck, the first things that spring to mind are guillotines, beheadings, executions. Which does seem a little strange, since we live in a country where executions do not take place, there are no guillotines, and beheading is thus an entirely marginal phenomenon in the culture. Nevertheless, if I think neck, I think, chop it off.
This may simply be because the neck leads a hidden existence in the shadow of the face, that it never assumes a place of privilege in our thoughts about ourselves, and only enters the stage in these most extreme situations which, though they no longer occur in our part of the world, still proliferate in our midst, given the numerous decapitations in fiction. But I think it runs deeper than that. The neck is a vulnerable and exposed part of the body, perhaps the most vulnerable and exposed, and our experience of this is fundamental, even without a sword hanging over us. In this sense, it is related to the fear of snakes or crocodiles, which may as well appear in people living on the Finnmarksvidda plateau as in Central Africa, or for that matter, the fear of heights, which can lie dormant in people who have never seen anything other than plains and sand dunes, lowlands and swamps, fields and meadows.
Fear is archaic, it is embedded in the body, in its purest form untouchable to thought, and it is there to keep us alive. There are other vulnerable parts of the body, the heart being perhaps the most obvious, but when I think of the heart, I don’t think of it being pierced by a javelin or a spear or a bullet; that would be absurd. No, the heart fills me with thoughts of life and force, and if vulnerability and fear are involved, it is no more than a mild concern that one day it will simply stop beating. This must be because the heart belongs to the front of the body, the front we turn to the world, and always keep in check, since we can see what lies ahead of us, we can see what is coming, and take our precautions. The heart feels safe. That the neck is in fact just as safe, since we live in a world where people no longer carry swords, makes no difference to the feeling of vulnerability, it is archaic and closely linked to the fact that the neck belongs to the reverse side of the body, it is always turned toward what we cannot see and cannot control. The fear of everything we cannot see converges on the neck, and if in earlier times it used to be associated with physical violence, the most pressing association now is its figurative sense, which lives on in the social realm, in expressions like being attacked from the rear, getting it in the neck, watch your back, having eyes in the back of your head, being spoken about behind your back.
But the symbolic language that radiates from or the associations that converge on the neck, are not only about being struck, that is, being a passive victim of a surprise attack, or having something taken away from you, but also the opposite, where vulnerability is something that is offered. When we wish to show someone respect or to be polite, we bow to them, in other words, we expose our neck. It is a way of showing trust, and of giving something of yourself to the other, in an ancient system of differentiation where, in face of the supreme, you not only make a deep and sweeping bow, as to a king or other dignitaries, but kneel and lower your head to the ground, as you would before an altar or on a prayer mat. The gesture is humble, self-surrendering, it means laying your life in the hands of others.
While this country has not had the death penalty since the trials of Nazi collaborators after World War II, it is still applied in countries we have close ties to, namely the U.S.A., our main ally. If we consider the execution methods used there, it becomes obvious that death is not just death, since there is a big difference between separating the criminal’s head from his neck with a well-aimed stroke of the axe, and injecting his body with a lethal toxin or sending a surge of electricity through it. An injection has something neutral, controlled and professional about it, it is administered by a medical doctor, while electricity belongs to modernity and therefore seems civilized—though perhaps not so any longer, there is something crudely early modern about it, we associate it with quantity, with mass, and therefore also with the same kind of brutality and lack of sophistication shown by the errors of medical science during this era, lobotomy, measuring human skulls, eugenics. But still not as brutal as hanging, traditionally the least honorable form of execution, that most degrading to the victim—it is said that the prospect of being humiliated through hanging is what caused Göring to commit suicide in his Nürnberg cell—and even more so in the case of beheading. We perceive beheading as something barbaric and inhumane. To see a head being separated from a body must be one of the most terrifying sights a human being can be exposed to. But why? The end result is the same as when a lethal injection is administered, the person dies. It must be that something else is revealed in the act of decapitation, something more than the bare fact, the cessation of life functions. So what is it? In ritual sacrifice, which is still carried out in certain cultures, the head is separated from the body, and it is this, as much as death in itself, that the community gathers around. Death is displayed, and thus controlled, but the same would have been achieved if the victim had died quietly of poison.
When the French philosopher Georges Bataille founded the secret society Acéphale (The Headless) in 1936, which among other things celebrated the decapitation of Louis XVI and supposedly also discussed the possibility of carrying out a human sacrifice, the reason was not simply because the chop in the neck opened the abyss between life and death, but also between head and body, reason and chaos, human and animal, in a symbolic language where the neck forms the transition between what is low, corporeal-animal, and what is high, spiritual—but also in an ambiguous mythical language, where beheading reveals or liberates certain forces, murky and archaic, linked to death, soil, darkness, but also to repetition and continuity, for what the sacrificial victim exhibits, with its steaming blood and deep bellow, is a place where existence is dizzyingly densified. This is why Francis Ford Coppola ends his film Apocalypse Now with sacrifice and beheading, where meaning meets meaninglessness, life meets death, collective transgression meets individual limitation.
Having said that, the opposite way of thinking, which views beheading as the cutting off of an electrical cord, that is, a way of thinking that is instrumentalist and functionalist, is not just possible, but completely dominant in our time. We desire clarity, aspire to reason, reject the darkness, the uncertainties, the steaming blood. Few places express this more clearly than a hospital. In a hospital, the body is divided into departments. One department for the ear, nose and throat, one for the eyes, one for the stomach and the intestines, one for the sexual organs, one for heart and blood vessels, and one for the soul, which is treated in the psychiatric wards. This is of course the case because medical science is instrumental, it has analyzed the functions of the different body parts and organs, and seeks to restore them when they have been weakened or damaged by disease or injury.
A common objection to this is that it leads to an instrumental view of human beings, materialist and fragmented, and that medical science and hospitals never consider the human being as a whole, in its totality, but reduce it to components, and also leave out the existential dimension of being human. But as long as the medications and the operations actually work, as long as the coronary arteries can be cleared of plaque, or the brain drained of blood after a stroke, thereby perhaps prolonging the patient’s life by several decades, the objection seems as odd as it would have seemed to an auto repair shop if one were to point out that the focus on individual wires and fan belts, spark plugs and engine oil levels, diverted attention from the car as a whole. Car healing will never become a widespread phenomenon, we will never see incense burning and prayer in an auto repair shop or mechanics who attempt to fix a car by washing and polishing it. The fact is that the heart is a pump with four chambers, the action of which causes a red fluid to circulate through the body’s system of transmission lines, and that the neck is a tube through which bundles of nerves run from the brain into the body.
The first time I really understood this aspect of the body was when I read about a woman who had taken a fall while she was skiing, and had lain unconscious for a long time with her head underwater in a stream. When she was found, her body temperature was extremely low, and for all practical purposes she was dead. Her heart was restarted, but her condition remained critical, and as far as I understood, to reheat her body too quickly would have placed too great a strain on her system, so what the doctor did was to lead her blood out into the room and let it do a round in a tube there, before it was led into her again, slightly warmer, until her body temperature returned to normal. She survived, with no serious injuries.
This story shocked and fascinated me at the time, it seemed almost like a revelation, not of the divine, but of its opposite, the mechanical nature of the body, its automata-like properties, that the doctors, those engineers of the flesh, could repair as if it were a clock or a hydraulic crane. I had always known this, that hands can be stitched back on and myopia burnt off, intestines removed and stomachs sewn up, but the simplicity of these operations vanishes from view in the sterile and blinking order of the operating rooms, in the—to me—unattainable expertise and professionalism of the doctors, all the smocks and special equipment, which in this particular case was completely trumped by the provisional, simple and improvised nature of the doctor’s solution, it seemed like something I could have come up with myself, related to the way children play with water, hoses, channels. Any thought of the sacredness of human life, the grandeur and mystery of it, was stripped away in a second, and I saw the body for what it is, a construction of bones, strings, tubes, and liquids, that you can tinker around with if something inside it should break. Why, I would not have been surprised if the doctor had patched a burst blood vessel with a wad of chewing gum.
To compare the body with clocks and automata is something people began to do in the seventeenth century, the mechanical century, the spirit of which was perhaps best captured by Descartes and Newton, and which is still present in our view of the world and ourselves, for while new knowledge may arise quickly, insight travels slowly. It takes generations before a discovery or a phenomenon out there gains enough weight to sink in and change what is in here, if it ever does.
That quantum physics and quantum mechanics found their expression as early as the 1920s made no difference to the teaching of physics and chemistry when I was at school sixty years later; no one told us that the discoveries made by Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, Sommerfeld, and all the other physicists of the interwar period had in fact revolutionized our knowledge of the material world. The same holds for genetic engineering, for even though we know that a revolution has taken place in this field, after the mapping of the genome, and that it is now possible to clone animals, probably even humans soon, that it is possible to extract genes from fish and insert them into plants, and that cultivating organs for transplantation, and not just on the backs of mice—in other words, mass-producing them, is no longer science fiction, we don’t care, we don’t take it in, we don’t allow it to change a single thing in our thoughts and conceptions of what it is to be human.
This may be because we are extremely adaptable, we are constantly turning the future into the present, the unknown into the known, this is how we have always existed in the world. It may also be because culture, which is to say language, soaked through as it is with conceptions and world views, is so sluggish that it either fails to perceive the new—that it is, so to speak, beyond the reach of novelty—or it sees the new as a variation of the old. Or it may simply be that being human is always the same, regardless, that the force of it, being cast into the world with all one’s senses and needs, is immutable. A beer is malt and hops and water, it tastes good and quenches thirst. A loaf of bread is grains and yeast, it tastes good and fills the stomach. The sun shines and gives warmth. The grass beneath my bare feet is soft and pleasant to the touch. A chopped-off human head is the most terrifying of all sights.
When I study the photographs in Thomas Wågström’s book, which are of necks, that is what I see. A neck cannot be modern. A neck is in time, belongs to time, but is not formed by it. If these photos could have been taken ten thousand years ago, they would have looked the same. My guess is that even photos of Neanderthal necks would not differ significantly from these. In other words, the neck is untouched by culture, it is, in a certain sense, pure nature. Something that grows in a certain place, the way tree trunks grow, or mussels, fungi, moss.
But is this really true? And if so, what does it mean? In that case, does it not also hold true for all the other parts of the body, such as the face, the knees, the heart, the fingers?
In a certain sense, of course, it does. There is such a thing as a human being as it is in itself, a pure object in the world; this is the naked body, the body as biological matter. But, and this is a major objection, this body is inaccessible to us. We can’t see it. Nor can we be it. For the biological body, the human being as pure nature, is swathed in thoughts, conceptions, ideas of such diversity and opulence that not one square inch of the body or the world is untouched by them.
A face? We see what the face communicates, what it “tells” us. We enhance communication, we apply lipstick, mascara, we wear glasses, grow a beard, whiskers, or we don’t, but even a naked face tells us something, every look is a form of address, and a downturned gaze is not nothing, it is a non-address, a turning away. In the world of images we inhabit today, there is hardly a single part of the body that has not been exploited, sexually, commercially, or intellectually. Breasts, bottoms, thighs, calves, feet. Backs, biceps, six-pack abs. Cunts and cocks. Toes and fingers with nails lacquered red. Pierced tongues. Inner organs are bought and sold in the Third World; in the First World, the transactions take place between the living and the dead, in so-called organ transplants. In this sense, the neck is perhaps the only body part left that is not for sale, that is not on view in magazines and periodicals, that doesn’t serve as the owner’s marketing site or display window, that doesn’t change owners after death, and which, in contrast to its front side, the face, hardly communicates anything, neither contemporaneity, nor culture, nor community, and thus appears “mute.” And this is why, I think, that in looking at the neck, as these photos lead us to do, we get the feeling that we are being offered a glimpse of the body as it is in itself, non-individual, non-relational, biological, whole, and authentic. Something growing in a certain place in the world.
But the fact that the neck is unexploited visually and commercially of course does not mean that it stands outside of the culture, to the contrary, the neck, too, is loaded with meaning. It means only that it is marginal, somewhat forgotten, most often associated with not seeing, and with not being seen, that is, with negation, in contrast to the heart, for instance, which is also blind and mute, but in touch with a whole other wealth of signification. The heart signifies love, it means warmth, kindness, consideration. She has a big heart, home is where the heart is, our heartfelt sympathy, his heart is broken. The heart is life, light, love, compassion. The only figurative sense assigned to the neck that I can think of is found in the expression stiff-necked, that is, stubborn, obdurate, willful, intractable, impossible. To be stiff-necked is not to give way, not to yield a single inch, to always know best, always keep one’s cards close to one’s chest. The meaning can be extended to uprightness, which is the positive variant of being stiff-necked, that is, not relinquishing one’s pride and self-respect, holding one’s ground. Thus, the neck, in a certain sense, is linked to an existence outside of the community. The opposite, in the symbolic language of the neck, is to be stooped, that is, cowed, at the mercy of others, but in a more passive and less voluntary sense than when one bows deeply or kneels, out of respect for the other or in awe of the sacred.
It may seem as if the neck, in the symbolic language of body parts, has assumed the place between humility and pride, self-surrender and self-righteousness, but in a most discrete, gray eminence–like way, present only indirectly, as opposed to the more imposing organs and joints, like the brain, the symbol of intelligence, associated with a certain coldness and distance, but also with clarity and objectivity, not drowning in a heaving sea of vague emotions and sentimentality as one who thinks with the heart is.
In the metaphysics of the body, the neck forms the link between the reason of the mind and the light of the spirit, and the irrationality of the body and the darkness of desire. In other words, the neck is the place between and the place outside. To be stiff-necked, as opposed to cowed, does not refer only to exposing your neck or not, appearing defenseless or not, for when you bow your head you also conceal your gaze from the other. To look into someone’s eyes is to signal that you are equals, while to look down is to subordinate yourself to the gaze of the other, to no longer be on the same footing. It can also mean keeping something hidden, one’s true self, or something in it that one does not wish to be seen. The downturned gaze may contain hatred, or shame, or, as is often the case, both at once.
The primordial image of the bowed head and the downturned gaze is found in the Bible, in the story of Cain and Abel, where it is written about Cain that “his face fell.” Jahveh asks why Cain’s face has fallen, and continues: “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” This touches the very core of what it is to be human, as I see it, namely, that to be in yourself is inhuman, since that which is human is always something that becomes in relation to something else, yes, the human is this otherness, that we become ourselves in and that we exist in. To bow down is to bow down before something, to be stiff-necked is to be stiff-necked in the face of something, to worship is to worship something, and to look down is also to look away from something. This relativity, which is as complex as it is abstract and intangible, since it occurs in the spaces between, and has no object, no place of its own, never fixed, always in motion, turns the concept of biological man into a fiction, an image among images, nothing in itself, except in death, when for the first time the body no longer grasps at something, no longer seeks anything, and only then is it something in itself, that is to say, no longer human.
And perhaps this is the real and simple insight afforded by the sacrifice, that we are creatures of flesh, filled with blood, and that we are going to die. What sacrifice does is to penetrate every layer, every veil of culture, and in a gesture devoid of meaning in any other sense than this, it reveals to us the otherwise always inaccessible truth about our existence, of what we are in the world.
Just a few days ago—sixteen, to be precise—I found myself in the middle of an existential situation of quite another order. It was in a hospital in Helsingborg, up on the second floor, from the window there was a view of a parking building, and behind that a residential area, whose myriad lamps drew an arc of light under the otherwise black sky. Not that I was thinking of this at the time. We were expecting our fourth child; the mother-to-be was lying in bed with an elastic strap around her huge belly, I was in a chair beneath the window, fiddling with my mobile phone. Once in a while a midwife or a nurse would enter the room to see if anything was happening. The room was clinical and packed with technical equipment, I could see an oxygen tank, a defibrillator, and right next to me stood a monitor on which you could read the child’s heartbeat and the mother’s contractions as graphs and digits. The room was strongly lit, the metal beds adjustable, in front of the sink there was one dispenser for disinfectant and another one for soap. When, shortly after, the contractions began to quicken and the birth got underway, all of this vanished. The mother was on her knees, with her torso hanging over the end of the bed. Every time she had a contraction, she grabbed the mask with laughing gas and inhaled deeply. From time to time she shouted into the mask. Waves seemed to ripple through her, and she fell into their rhythm as if into a trance, and the rhythm seemed to transport her to another place, of pain, body, darkness. Her shouts were hollow and seemingly endless, with no beginning nor end. They became darker, more animal, and contained a pain and a despair so great that whatever I did, whether it was wrapping my arms around her and pressing my cheek to hers, or rubbing her back, it was no more than feeble, futile ripples on the surface of the deep that engulfed her. She was in the middle of something, in a place I could never reach, but only observe from the outside, and yet it changed everything for me, too, it was like a tunnel, the sides of which dissolved the material world in dimness: emotions forced their way through and took over, my gaze was filtered through them. She turned over on her side and no longer breathed regularly, no longer removed the mask when the breakers of pain withdrew, but lay there screaming at the top of her lungs until she had no more air left in her, then she drew a new breath and screamed again, a scream that, though it was partly swallowed up by the mask, was still piercing, and unlike anything I had heard before. Shortly after, the child tumbled out onto the bed. It was purplish, the thick umbilical cord nearly blue. It was a girl, the head was compressed and glistening, the face wrinkled, the eyes closed. She lay quite motionless. I thought, she’s dead. Three midwives came running, they rubbed the slippery little body, and she emitted her first scream. It was a feeble scream, more than anything it sounded like the bleating of a lamb.
Up until that moment, no one and nothing had been able to reach her, she had lain surrounded by water in the middle of another body, and for a few seconds she remained untouched in the world, as she lay there, as if dead, shut up in herself, without breathing and with her eyes closed, but then hands reached out to touch her, and then she drew her first breath, not without pain, I assume, and the world flowed into her. I have never seen it so clearly before, how a new human being is literally lifted into the community by other people, that this is what happens. A newborn baby has no muscles in its neck, and its vulnerability and helplessness are absolute, it can’t move itself, nor even raise its head, but has to be supported by the hands of others, lifted up to the faces of others, which are the first thing she sees as she opens her eyes. And then she enters the circle of faces, in which she will live out the rest of her life.
* * *
For quite a few years, I thought that being a child was like being a prisoner, at the mercy of adults’ favors and whims, and that to be a parent was to be a prison warder. Now I think maybe it is the other way around. That the child is the one who is free, the adults are the captives. Occasionally this thought extends as far as to consider that childhood is the true meaning of life, the apex of our existence, while all the rest of life is one slow journey away from it, where the main task is to be at the disposal of those who are now at the center of existence, that is, the children. Perhaps this is why I have always liked Heraclitus’s image of the god as a child playing somewhat carelessly with pieces on a checker board; I may have sensed somehow, as with so many other fragments of this pre-Socratic philosopher, that it was true.
This, you are probably thinking, says more about me than about childhood. For if childhood is supposed to be the zenith of life, what about sex? What about the desires of the flesh? What of ambition, zeal, heroics, career? What of insight, wisdom, experience, the accumulated weight of life? How about progress, conquest, riches, and splendor? Politics, science, the project of the Enlightenment? To put children and childhood before all this testifies not only to a considerable regression, but to an enormous resignation. Knowledge increases pain, the Bible says, and surely only an immature person could opt for ignorance in order to evade pain. Being able to handle complexity is part of being an adult, and as for sex, which is the central obsession of our culture, and which, when all is said and done, may well be the most powerful force in our lives, to ignore it bears witness not only to puritanism and notions of purity, and not only to the fear of the body (which in my case must be understood as a fear of women) inherent in these two concepts, but to a longing for simplification which at its core is barren, unproductive, lifeless, even dead: the child does not create anything, it simply is.
The biggest difference between being a child and being an adult has to do with the lack of boundaries, that feeling of vastness that one has as a child, where time and the world appear infinite, and this infinity is taken for granted, since neither time nor the world is something you think about, but something you move within, and which keeps opening up, room after room, farther and farther in. The land of childhood, the expression goes, or the valley of childhood: Portraying time as topography is a way of expressing that the divide between child and adult is too great or too comprehensive for it to be due simply to time. The world of childhood is radically different from that of the adult. To me, a summer day now is divided up into different tasks, and has no weight of its own. I can make breakfast, I can pack swimming gear, drive to the beach, lie on a towel and keep an eye on the kids, feed them oranges or sodas, hand them towels when they emerge from the water, maybe check my mobile from time to time. Drive home, cook dinner, eat, since the weather is nice we eat outside, in the shade of a tree. Wash the dishes, do a load of laundry. Maybe read a little as the day fades, hang up the washing, talk on the phone, put the kids to bed, smoke a last cigarette outside in the light of the summer evening, go to bed. Little of this has any intrinsic meaning, and all this time I have been observing it without entering into it, without losing myself in it. The boundary between myself and my surroundings has been sharp, and the day has been divided up into a sort of coordinate system, which in a similar way has kept me on the outside of it. I have been free, since I could just as easily have done something else entirely, stayed at home and worked in the garden, taken the kids for a drive into town, or for that matter just kept on driving south, into Denmark, through Germany and down to Munich, for example. If the children had protested, I could have employed some of the means at my disposal as an adult, ranging from outright bribes to force and gentle violence. Children are almost always subject to the appraisal and actions of adults, and in that sense they are unfree. And when I spend my days with them in this way, I see them doing what they are doing based on my own approach to the world, where the days whirl away, as if down a drain, one after the other, without any one of the day’s events ever overwhelming me. This is time as quantity, this is life as matter. That it may be different for the children is hard to grasp, since we live side by side and share almost everything that happens. And yet I suspect that they do experience these days differently, for I can still remember what it was like to be a child, when the sun rose above the spruce trees to the east and filled the house with light, and I walked barefoot across the rust-colored wall-to-wall carpet, then over the golden parquet floor and finally the fractionally colder linoleum, on my way from the bedroom to the kitchen, where I would eat breakfast. The sun was like a person, or not like a person, more like a figure or creature with which I had a personal relationship, a kind of intimacy. There it was again, hazy, yellow, glowing. This intimacy, which did not just apply to the sun, but to all things and phenomena, is impossible to explain, I now find, for it appears to be a personification of the world, imbuing it with spirit, but it wasn’t, it was something else, a sort of interiorization, perhaps, as if I approached objects and phenomena in the world in the same way that I approached familiar faces, with the same trust, without ever having thought of the sun or all the rest of it as persons, as being alive. It was rather that everything had a face, every tree, every hillock, every bicycle, and therefore was something I felt connected to, for I saw the tree, the hill, the bicycle, and I recognized them. This way of seeing is gone. The sun is the sun, a tree is a tree, a hill is a hill, a bike is a bike. I no longer regard the world the way I look at faces, it is as if the faces have turned away from me.
Back then, on those summer mornings when I sat eating my breakfast and gazing at the landscape outside, the dry asphalt road with sand dust along the edge of the sidewalk, the houses, the spruce trees, and beyond the tree tops, the sound, and on the other side of the sound, the forest and the big white tanks, containing I still don’t know what—gas, maybe?—all of this was connected to me, by its appearing to me as something familiar. This familiarity or intimacy may seem like an addition, for now the world is just the world, but back then it was always something more, but it wasn’t an addition, it was just the reverse, it was that the object or the phenomenon was seen as something in itself, something in its own right, with an identity of its own, this is what created the intimacy that gave everything a face.
It’s easy to think that now I see the world as it really is, as faceless, blind and mute matter. Just as these photographs of necks allow me to see the human being as it really is, flesh and blood, cells and strings, biology. In everything I write, there is a longing for out there, to that which is real, outside of the social realm, while at the same time I am aware that what is out there, beyond the light of the faces, and which we occasionally catch a glimpse of, through art, turns everything to nothing. That the experience of the sublime is the experience of nothing. That God is nothing, which we exists in spite of. And this is why the real is such a dangerous category. In ourselves, as bodies of flesh and blood, things growing somewhere in the world, we are nothing, and I think this is why I am so fearful of the cultivation of organs, the manipulation of genes, of the human machine on an operating table, since even though it saves and prolongs life, it also reduces it, brings it closer to nothing, a wire, a string, a tube, a gutter.
If that is true, what do we need truth for?
Back then, when the world was made up of faces, I didn’t know what went on, or why what happened happened, it just did. Why, for instance, was I so obsessed, at the age of seven or eight, with looking at myself in the mirror, not just frontally, but from the sides and even from the back? I stood there on the bathroom floor with a small, round mirror in one hand, and directed it toward the large bathroom mirror in front of me at ever changing angles, so that I could see myself in varying forms of profile, and finally, from the back and from above, so that the back of my head and the nape of my neck became visible. What I saw made me very uncomfortable. So this is what I also looked like? I had gotten used to and accepted my face, but not this. But this is what other people saw, this is how I appeared to them, perhaps that is why I explored it. I felt a similar unease the first time I heard a recording of my own voice, and the first time I watched my own movements on a TV screen. It was alienating, I couldn’t possibly identify it with myself, the way I was, it made it seem as if I was suddenly also someone else. That it was this other person that everyone else saw and heard, bothered me. It still bothers me at times, the unease caused by non-identity.
Now that I have children of my own, I look at the self-mirroring and the self-listening not as a result of narcissism or self-absorption (though it was that, too), but as part of being socialized, becoming an independent individual. To be socialized is to learn to see yourself as you appear to others. To bring up a child is really nothing other than representing or personifying this, the gaze and the voices of others, for at the outset the child possesses only a sort of undifferentiated self, permeated by feelings and needs, which can be, as it were, lit or extinguished, but not otherwise controlled. Since this is all, it is also nothing, that is to say, unknown. Something is lit, something is extinguished. All the boundaries one gradually imposes as a parent, all the prohibitions and commands, do not only have to do with teaching the child how to behave, are not just about making it function without friction in daily life, though that is perhaps often the motivation, but it is also always a gaze, it is also always a place from which the child can see itself from the outside, from a place other than the self, which only then can emerge as its own, whole self. It becomes an adult. One process is completed, and another sets in: slowly the world turns its face away.
What applies to the identity of the individual also applies to that of the culture, if not in quite the same way, then in accordance with the same principle; it is continuously setting its own boundaries, and always seeks to see itself from the outside. If this is necessary, or why it is necessary, I don’t know; the answer to that is the same as the answer to the question of why we have art, or why art is necessary. We live in the social realm, which is sameness, the light of the faces, but we exist in the non-identical, 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 spongelike object that the neck holds aloft.
Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.
All photographs © Thomas Wågström.
Karl Ove Knausgaard was born in Norway in 1968. His debut novel, Out of This World, won the Norwegian Critics Prize in 2004 and his A Time for Everything was a finalist for the Nordic Council Prize. For My Struggle: Book One, Knausgaard received the Brage Award in 2009, the 2010 Book of the Year Prize in Morgenbladet, and the P2 Listeners’ Prize. My Struggle: Book One was a New Yorker Book of the Year and Book Two was listed among the Wall Street Journal's 2013 Books of the Year; Book Three has just been published in the US. My Struggle will be published in at least twenty-two languages. Knausgaard lives in Sweden with his wife and four children.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Neckar (Necks), a book of Thomas Wågström’s photographs published in Sweden by Max Ström. © 2014; reprinted with permission.