Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Karl O. Knausgaard
A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven
Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson
London: Portobello Books, 2008.

Ec-stasy is the subject of this big novel. Standing outside. Standing outside of time, of one's own consciousness, of life itself.

When Antinous Bellori, age 11 and lost in the forest, thinks he has found his father (who must be searching for him!) but finds terrible angels fishing in a river instead, they are creatures who stand in or inhabit interstices:

Gingerly he raises his head and looks over the edge. The sight that meets his eyes petrifies him. Two cloaked men are standing motionless on the river bank staring up at him. . . . The two figures stand as immobile as before. But now they’re looking at the water in front of them. One holds a torch in his hand, the other a spear. Both wear chain mail under their cloaks and each has a sword hanging at his side. . . . All he wants is to be in their presence. Without giving a thought to what he’s doing, he gets up and begins to walk slowly down, all the time concealed by the trees and with his eyes fixed on the two figures, who display no sign of having heard him, but stand there still as ever. Halfway down he notices their wings and thinks what has until then been just a vague inkling: there are two angels standing in the river. The rush of fear and happiness which this sends coursing through him is almost unendurable. (10-11)

And so, standing close together, the light flickering across their faces and the bottom of their cloaks trailing in the water, they stand eating the fish. Antinous stares at them spellbound. The teeth that sink into the fish’s flesh, the scales that cling to their chins, the eyeballs that now and then turn up and make them look white and blind. Then they look like statues standing there, for without the life of the eyes the deadness of their faces is emphasised. Each time he sees it, Antinous recoils in fear. They’re dead, he thinks. They’re dead. But then the eyeballs correct themselves, the faces again fill with life, and what a moment before was loathsome in them is now beautiful again. (12)

The standing emphasized by repetition (and throughout the novel) is a mark of ecstasy, of standing outside or between, of standing at the border between life and death, of pain and pleasure.

Angels are creatures of this psychological space.

And humans who witness them, like Antinous, experience a timeless presence that is the most powerful of all experiences.

Which other humans have experienced such joyful terror? the narrator asks.

Cain and Abel.
Anyone who has sex or who gives birth. Anyone in pain. Anyone in the presence of death.

The novel imagines the Biblical characters and their ecstatic experiences. Their encounters with angels and their experiences with death and pain are, it seems to me, equivalent.

Abel, for instance, who burns to see the cherubim who guard the tree of knowledge, approaches the extreme state they represent in a grim dissection (of a dying man), in viewing the actual flaming cherubim (he suffers fits as a result), while sacrificing lambs, and through an attempted suicide that emphasizes the standing metaphor:

They smiled at one another. Then Abel went to the bank, climbed up the tree, balanced on the branch, stood erect and dived in.

Able doesn’t come up.

‘That’s enough now, Abel!’ he [Cain] called, although he knew that his brother couldn’t hear him. ‘Come on up!’

It seemed when his voice died away as if it was the first time he became aware of himself. That he was standing here, on the river bank, right now, and that Abel was down in that black river water, and had been far too long. (97)

Cain dives in after him, although he is an unwilling swimmer:

He fought his way over, and when he saw the head, the open eyes, the hair billowing in the water, he realised that he must have tied one foot to the tree.

Cain unties the knot, gets him out of the river, and raises him up and down till he vomits and then leaves him there and weeps.

 . . . and turned to see how Abel was getting along.

He was standing in the pale moonlight staring at him. . . . No spark of recognition brightened his eyes. His gaze was as empty as a corpse’s.

Abel begins to dance. Cain awakes in the morning and wonders if it all really happened:

Found Abel tied up, released him and dragged him out on to dry land?

He suddenly imagined it once more, and a shiver went down his spine. He had seemed to be standing in the water. . .

Best not to think about it. (96-101)

Abel will do anything for ecstasy, anything to stand outside himself at the juncture of life and death. Cain continually disrupts Abel's efforts (he crushes the head of the dying man Abel is torturing, he saves Abel from the river, and he finally kills Abel to save him from a final terrible union with the cherubim).

There are examples from each of the Bible stories, each one marked by standing. 

When Rachel, for instance, is giving birth: “she stood roaring into the forest” (326). Pain = ecstasy.

One extraordinary scene puts a reader with the last people on top of the last mountain as the flood rises and kills them while Noah's ark nudges the last bit of earth. Noah's sister Anna stands among them and watches.

They were now standing on an island and were surrounded by sea on all sides. . . . Was it strange that all they did was stand and stare and stare? . . . (320)

Anna “thought that what she heard was the voice of God” (320). It is the water rushing in to kill them, and in this moment the ark approaches: 

. . . they had crawled up to this foothold, and stood here now, only hours away from their ultimate end. . . . Crowded together they stood watching the ship move closer. When the moment they had been waiting for arrived, and the keel nudged at the mountain just below them, all they did at first was to stand and watch. . . . Anna stood in the background. (341)

“Bellori says that, as eternal beings, time can have no meaning for the angels” (394). It is the nunc stans, the "now standing" of the Scholastics. It is also the "now standing" of anyone about to die or witnessing death.

After years of searching, both through study of the Bible and through wandering through Europe, Bellori finds angels in the woods in the snow: 

The place was empty, but he stood there, nevertheless, positioning himself roughly where he’d stood then. . . . Even so Antinous felt a shiver run down his spine as he stood there. . . . Antinous quickly stepped over to the nearest tree and stood close into its trunk. The angel flew upwards in ever increasing circles, and had soon disappeared completely. He continued to stand motionless for a while longer. . . and stood there unmoving . . . He stood close to a tree . . . and he might have been standing there half an hour. . . . An angel was standing on one of the lowest branches . . . He had no idea how long he stood there. Because nothing moved, there was nothing for time to latch on to and measure it by. He stood there, the bog lay there, the snow fell, the angel stared (452-454 and ff.).

The experience is beyond any he has known since he was eleven, and it is deadly. If it weren't deadly, it would not be ecstatic.

But who is writing about Bellori and his findings? Who is making up the Bible stories? It's a modern Norwegian narrator who himself is looking for ecstatic experience, conditioned to do so, at least in part, by his father's own extremities.

“Dad got up and took the torch from me. But he made no move to go. Even though he stood in the dark, and I couldn’t see his face properly, I knew he was staring at me. Neither of us spoke. Slowly he turned the torch beam on my face. ‘Are you scared of me?’ he said.” (483).

And it’s a disquieting thought that not even the past is done with, even that continues to change, as if in reality there is only one time, for everything, one time to every purpose under heaven. One single second, one single landscape, in which what happens activates and deactivates what has already happened in endless chain reactions, like the processes that take place in the brain, perhaps, where cells suddenly bloom and die away, all according to the way the winds of consciousness are blowing.

But if it’s true that events in the past open and close and constantly form new associations with what’s happening in the present, where does the notion that the past is fixed and finished come from? Nothing is ever finished, everything just goes on and on, there are no boundaries, not even between the living and the dead, even that zone is quivering and unclear. (483-484)

That quivering and unclear zone, that single standing second, is the obsessive/compulsive narrator's obsession:

Contemplating suicide: “I wasn’t standing on the edge of an abyss, I was standing before yet another argument: shall I take my own life to prove to myself that my despair is genuine? (506).

After struggling to kill a huge fish (and thus right there on that edge between life and death): “I read for a couple of hours. Then I stood in the cellar for a while. . . . I stood there for a long time with the phone in my hand. . . . stood looking down into the clear, green water. . . . pulled off my T-shire and stood in front of the mirror. . . . [he cuts himself, ecstatically, first his chest, later his face] For a while I just stood there. . . . Soaking wet I stood there, for the world is beautiful, it’s so beautiful, and I was there in the midst of it.” (514-515).

“Pain has something to do with eternity, I’ve always thought, not the slight, short pain, but the pain that throbs and churns and keeps on. . . . It was as if holes had opened in the surface of time, I sometimes thought, where the drop in pressure was so great that the surrounding time was somehow drawn in to fill the vacuum” (518).

"Every angel is terrible," Rilke wrote in his Duino Elegies. Knausgaard is sure of that.

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