Lit, an Antidote to Dehumanizing Media

Brigit Ganley (1909-2002), is called The Dramatist

Brigit Ganley, “The Dramatist”


A recent issue of The New Yorker published an acceptance speech by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norwegian author of the monumental six volume memoir My Struggle, about how literature restores our humanity to us. As Knausgaard sees it, modern media strips away our individuality, but literature counteracts this process. Given that he specifically mentions how we become deadened to the plight of refugees, the essay is particularly relevant at the moment.

Knausgaard points out that our very ability to witness what is going on in any part of the world has a deadening effect:

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 world—not just the world of the past, but also, and perhaps especially, that of the present, the world of which we are a part—is so massive. Any event, anywhere on the planet—an earthquake, a plane crash, an act of terrorism—will 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 one’s attention is continuously being directed toward something else, to what is happening right now: the occurrence, the event, the news item. 

Knausgaard says that the sight of a drowned refugee child alerted him tohow much he had been dulled by a media narrative that renders “every event equal, every occurrence identical.” Our reality is fictionalized because “the particular, the singular, the unique” are all dissolved. We think we are seeing reality—after all, these are news images—but instead we are experiencing just the opposite, a remoteness from reality.

This leads Knausgaard to conclude that our humanity has a “vanishing point”: 

In our humanity, there is a vanishing point. We step in and out of it; it’s a kind of zone in which we shift in each other’s 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. 

Later in the essay Knausgaard talks about how “we” can become “they” and then “it.” 

The problem with becoming “the mass human” is that we become capable to great cruelty, capable of participating in the Holocaust or bombing Dresden or Hiroshima. In the current climate Knausgaard might also mention the calls to indiscriminately bomb large sections of the Middle East or to elide all differences in large refugee populations.

Having set up the problem, Knausgaard then holds up literature as the antidote. Whereas the mass media prompts us to move from the definite to the indefinite, literature moves us from the all to the one: 

[I]f 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 reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind.

Overcoming remoteness is key to Knausgaard’s aesthetic and is the emphasis of his own writing, where he invites us into his life in a way that makes him fully present to us. But the subject matter doesn’t matter. All great literature, Knausgaard says, creates a special intimacy between author and reader:

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 reader—the reader’s own sense of color and form, his or her understanding of landscapes and languages, people and thoughts, being decisive to how well the novel works—is 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 writes—for 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. 

At this point, Knausgaard notes how reading even creates a level of intimacy that we don’t get when we interact with a neighbor. For whereas such interactions are bound by various rules and practical constraints, the novel moves beyond all such boundaries. As a result,

we are 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 space—that is, the novel’s—is idiosyncratic, particular, and singular: in other words, it represents the exact opposite of the media, which strives toward the universal and general. 

At this point, Knausgaard turns to a passage from Hannah Arendt:

When the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, in The Life of the Mind, wrote, “Clichés, 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.

As Knausgaard’s speech was delivered in Berlin, he mentions that many German writers have focused on “the idiosyncratic, the particular and the singular” in striving to “overcome our protections against” the world and “keep open our path of access”:

The writers I have mentioned—Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Paul Celan—make up only the tiniest part of my own German-language canon, which numbers many, many authors, from Hölderlin to Goethe, from Thomas Mann to Judith Herman, from Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard to Christian Kracht and Durs Grünbein, 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. 

In other words, when we read literature, we are reading as though our humanity depended on it—because it does

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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