The doctor says, “The tumor is just like the brain here, that’s the problem.”
I draw this diagnosis from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose ongoing literary project opposes “monumental aesthetics” with ordinary-language sensibilities, reports on “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery” in Albania. At New Republic, Alex Shepard assesses the essay as “peak Knausgaard.” And because I’ve been indexing Knausgaard’s metaphors, I will set down a short consideration here.
In reading I responded to the dualisms organizing the magazine piece. They reflect the mind-body problem (brain and tumor, “that’s the problem”). Among other contrasts: life and death, subject and object, doctor and patient, Soviet and post-Soviet. Knausgaard would resolve the tensions by mediating them.
For thirteen pages Knausgaard instructs the reader in the greatness1 of Henry Marsh, the neurosurgeon profiled. Marsh will not let his profession and its institutions render his patients small, faceless. The doctor is commended, in the closing pages of the essay, for meeting with the family of an infant he had operated on. He admits to the parents a fatal mistake and cries with them.
The basic formal dichotomy of the author and his subject stands out among the effected contrasts. We are invited to take one as the type of the other and close a gap.
The surgeon cuts into the brain, cutting out part of the brain that is not part of the brain. That is the handiwork. Compare the extraction of anecdote from experience. Compare the excision of metaphors from prose. The difficulty of knowing where to cut.
Mistakes are made. The knife’s edge locates a person’s body that is yet abstract and only part of a system. Figures are left behind, marked in the text. Writes Knausgaard, memorably, in My Struggle, “I took the biggest shard I could find and started cutting my face … I wiped away the blood with a towel. Kept cutting.”
In the Albanian operating room, Knausgaard looks through a microscope at the brain’s landscape and startles at the distance between figure and ground: “I struggled to unite the two perspectives; it felt as if I were on two different levels of reality at the same time, as when I walked in my sleep, and dream and reality struggled for ascendancy.”
Knausgaard’s dichotomies are given political tone in reflections on what’s wrong with our world and what is “the truth” (his word, favored at the end). Knausgaard expresses opposition to any “veneration of the collective” even as he registers his attraction to the totalities imagined in the communist era. The self-images of Soviet Albania are “full of joy and hope … Everything was clear, pure, simple and forceful” (52). Knausgaard’s caricatures of collectivity are, too, a problem. Solidarity must unite competing perspectives and make common cause.
It is as if, in representing familiar pain, the artist cannot join with the grieving family and remain an artist. Living at a distance, he comes to suffer acutely from nostalgia, a kind of “social disease.”2 Writing exacerbates the condition. In the second volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard contrasts the empathy that annihilates him in social situations with the lonely self-fulfillment of writing: “The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle.”
I find little self-solace in the alienation of writing. In the strong identifications reading affords, perhaps, there is what Knausgaard calls “lonely self-fulfillment,” but what satisfaction I take in writing results from looking over a sentence I have written and feeling that it must have been composed by another, an author.
1. “His greatness was that he didn’t hide the smallness but instead used his insight into it to fight against everything that concealed it, the institutionalization of hospitals, the dehumanization of patients, all the rituals established by the medical profession to create distance and to turn the body into something abstract, general, a part of a system.” Karl Ove Knausgaard, “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery,” New York Times Magazine (December 30, 2015). Link to NYTimes.com.
2. Susan Stewart, On Longing (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1984), 23.