What Karl Ove Knausgaard Learned from Walter Benjamin

In a nice acceptance speech for the Welt Literaturpreis, Karl Ove Knausgaard discusses what he learned from Walter Benjamin about the difference between literature and media. 

Knausgaard says contemporary culture is flooded with images that we can see anywhere at any time. Everything  is the same in the image stream. We view images as if they were in a movie. They distract us from the boredom of our everyday lives. But every once in a while an image appears that interrupts the image stream. For Knausgaard it was the image of  the dead Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey.  Knausgaard realized the boy
was dead, and all of a sudden I understood what death meant. All of a sudden, I understood that the people coming across the sea were not people in the plural, but in the singular. This I understood because I myself have children. I saw their deaths in his death. The image thereby penetrated my defenses, broke through the murmur and appeared to me as what it was: an image of reality. The boy was real, and his death was a real death.
Novels, Knausgaard continues, break down the distance between the unreal many and the real one in encounter between reader and author. The novel allows the reader to see a character without the constraints of the social under which we encounter actual people. We see a person specifically, unlike in the media, which presents people as general and abstract. The standardized language of media serves to further protect us from the real. 
 
At this point Knausgaard  introduces Walter Benjamin, who he read as a student. Knausgaard doesn't specify which texts, though. What he picked up from Benjamin is purely idiosyncratic, but worth considering anyway. Benjamin taught him that a whole society can be seen a fragment, that "even the smallest fragment of a society is always an expression of that society’s culture, of its dreams and of the conceptions it holds." From there Knausgaard makes the improbable jump to Hitler imagined as an individual, as a real person. Hitler, Knausgaard urges us to realize, was was part of the same society and spoke the same language as Benjamin. By focusing on particulars, Benjamin maintains the path to the real, however disturbing that place might be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s