Archive for May, 2015

Literary Paedophiles and Cyclopean Readers

I am browsing through Anti-Natalism: Rejectionist Philosophy from Buddhism to Benatar by Ken Coates. It is fairly short and the Kindle edition is a good deal. He discusses Hinduism, Buddhism, Eduard von Hartmann, Peter Wessel Zappfe, David Benatar, Beckett and Sartre. In the chapter on Schopenhauer he summarizes Schopenhauer’s philosophy and points out that in his system the will to power enslaves everyone and everything. Life is slavery to the will and this drains all the joy out of it. In Schopenhauer’s thought aesthetic enjoyment is the only thing that can provide relief. But there’s a catch. Two of them, actually. Coates writes that

these moments do not last long and soon willing and striving resumes its hold on us. In any case the vast majority of people do not have the capacity to enjoy intellectual pleasures. Schopenhauer does not consider popular forms of entertainment and pastimes as a substitute for aesthetic pleasures. Here he shows himself to be an elitist unwilling to grant the masses reprieve from willing and absorption into the spectacle before them, e.g. at a sporting event, the circus or music-hall, in a manner paralleling the appreciation of arts. Indeed he believes that sports, card playing and similar pastimes are simply a means to stave off boredom.

I wonder what Schopenhauer would have said about today’s music hall shows which are all about striving and competing, e.g. talent competitions and the Eurovision Song Contest. There is nothing wrong about trying to pass the time and avoid boredom, but there is a difference between art and entertainment. It will not go away.

This got me thinking about the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard who published a beautiful rant in Dagens Nyheter where he called Sweden a country of cyclops full of hate and fear. He was reacting to piece published by Ebba Witt-Brattström, Professor of Nordic literature at the University of Helsinki, where she called Knausgaard a literary paedophile for portraying relationships between older men and younger women. On the face of it, Witt-Brattsöm’s comment sounds loopy, but her views do bring up a theoretical point that is interesting. Whether he likes it or not, Knausgaard’s work does fall into the category of high literature. The kind Schopenhauer wrote about as a true aesthetic experience or the kind Nabokov himself wrote. These are books that change readers and change the way they see the world. Very few literary works do that. They are not to be read like they were books of pornography or cheap romance novels.

As literary theorists and critics have chipped away at the distinction between high and popular culture, the idea that all texts should conform to the reader’s monolithic ideological standards has made it possible to make these allegations. It is quite alright to say it when you do not like a book or a film and give reasons for it. That is what criticism is for. But to change an aesthetic experience into a battle ground of the will to power is distasteful and frightening. People who impose their own cyclopean views on high literature, judging (say) Shakespeare a misogynist and Nabokov and Knausgaard kiddy fiddlers, scare me more than an army of literary paedophiles. People who make such accusations are just using their objects of criticism to talk about something else. Any number of other suitable texts would do to make the point they are trying to make. They actually say nothing about the texts they claim to discuss.

If a literary text is any good, it will teach you to read itself. If it is really good, it will subvert itself by changing those rules once you get going. It will give you an experience that is terrifying, disgusting, exhilarating, sublime and, ultimately, beautiful. That is what is so great about literature in the first place. If you want your own ideas and thoughts validated while reading something that you want to change you profoundly as a human being, you will obviously be disappointed. This to me is the essence of high literature: it changes us as individuals and collectively. It should not come as a surprise that these changes often happen against our will.