What We Do For Our Friends
by PENINA EILBERG-SCHWARTZ
Two of my best friends hurt the people around them in ways that astound me. An acquaintance once said she was okay with Natasha, because she directs the worst of it against herself. I saw what she meant but came to a different conclusion. Natasha hurts herself brutally, volcanically, and then turns the same thing outwards, stomping around in pain and accidentally crushing things. We are hurt by her self-destructiveness.
Sam hurts just as much, as it seems to me, but turns very little of it against herself. This is where our worst hurt from her originates; knowing that there is a wall between her and herself that keeps the violence out. It bounces off that shield, like light on a lens it refracts and it blinds us and we spend whole years of our lives curled up, unable to catch our breath. To our acquaintance the hurt Sam causes is unforgivable, but the kind Natasha causes demands sympathy. To me, neither kinds of hurt are forgivable, or maybe both are, I’m not sure, but both demand sympathy. To me, one is not better than the other. Both fail at a certain kind of self-interrogation. The two kinds of hurts are the same and cannot be ranked one over the other.
I am hurt by and drawn to both of these friends equally. They are both able to convince me of things no one else could. This is why they are beautiful and this is why they are dangerous, like Knausgaard.
I arrived late to the cult of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. It has been raging for years now. A few months ago I gave in and started reading the six-volume thing. For the most part, I’m a convert. I agree with much of what’s been said about its brilliance, and have little else to add here that would be anything new. I am, however, struck by the sexism that shows up in it once in awhile, and by how this has seemed to slip away unnoticed in much (though not all) of the criticism I’ve read.
If we are going to choose something as our new bible, it will of course not be perfect, since it hopefully does not need to be said that nothing is. But if we’re going to choose a bible, we should ask — as we should of all sacred texts — which parts we have to leave out. What do we keep and what do we lose? Another way to ask this: what are we willing to forgive?
On multiple occasions, or arguably throughout the whole of the first and second books, Knausgaard blushes about his ruined masculinity. Women used to catch his eye on the street (and we know from multiple drunken anecdotes and from the cover of the book what a hard, handsome man he is) but when he’s pushing the stroller with his child in it, women don’t look at him anymore. When he looks down at his flabby belly, he is soft, he is feminine, he is less than.
He agonizes when he is unable to free his wife at a party by knocking down the door. Another man has to do it and Knausgaard is cowed. It seems sometimes that Knausgaard questions everything except for the reasons he feels humiliated by feeling feminized. For all the questions of himself he asks, why doesn’t he interrogate this? Why does he find femininity inferior to masculinity?
Pointing this out, we run the risk of turning ourselves into the butt of one of Knausgaard’s jokes about the ultra-parodically-liberal world he lives in in Sweden. Although I think that the people he makes fun of are more right than him politically, if there is such a thing, I liked his jokes at their expense. At their best, they expose the hypocrisy of a certain kind of sterilized liberalism that a lot of us are familiar with. As here:
Sweden hasn’t had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve the country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia, for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia, and dump them in a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say.
The kind of liberalism he’s critiquing turns itself into a kind of joke. It does this because, like the systems being critiqued, it fails to ask questions of itself. To me it seems worthwhile to poke fun at anything that does not ask the hardest questions of itself that can be found. This is the funniest, and most frightening, thing we can do.
But if these people are not asking certain questions of themselves, neither is Knausgaard. This is why, along with the deserved applause, Knausgaard deserves some pushback. This, I think, is what we should do for our friends.
It seems that in some of the literary critiques of My Struggle, with the notable exception of Katie Roiphe’s article on Slate, we have erred too much on one side or the other. In the most common type of response, Knausgaard is the new god. In another kind, he is an unforgivable chauvinist, racist, gay-basher. In either case, we fall into the same trap both Knausgaard and his Swedes do — we forget to ask questions of ourselves.
None of what strikes me as sexist in Knausgaard’s beliefs, or his failure to name and question them, detracts from this work’s literary merit, nor do I think that it’s necessarily Knausgaard’s responsibility to call attention to or question this within the work itself. At least not his sole responsibility. He may write these scenes of humiliating emasculation with the same motivation that led him to choose the title, knowing that it would reek of Hitler and make people uncomfortable and also, inevitably interested. He’s more than smart enough to know these scenes, as the title, will be challenged. It all strikes me as a kind of fuck you, though if we give him the benefit of the doubt, it’s a sweet fuck you, a laughable one, an invitation even. If we give him the benefit of the doubt we can imagine him luring us into a conversation, as if to say it is not just his responsibility to call attention to these flaws, it is ours — his readers.
At Knausgaard’s best he pushes us to be truer. At our best, we push him to do the same. This is what criticism should be. An offering of anger as an offer love. A set of tools to help us see better. This is just as relevant in today’s political climate as it is in the backrooms of literary conversation. When lives are at stake, who will we blame, what — if any — questions will we ask of ourselves, and how will this determine our efficacy in making the world into a different thing? Which of our friends will we make into heroes and which will we turn away from? What will we keep and what will we lose and what won’t we forgive?
Penina Eilberg-Schwartz is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in San Francisco and the founder of the lecture series Wundercabinet. She has written for The Rumpus, sparkle + blink, SEMIPERFECT, and Neutrons Protons. She tumbls here.
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