I am in Amsterdam on a ‘working holiday,’ and specifically today I’m trying to finish a section about Karl Ove Knausgård. In particular, I am trying to say something more specific and definite about the uncanny power of his evocations of the everyday or the banal.
Other critics have struggled (productively!) to give a clear description of how it works. For instance, James Wood, in his review of the first volume of the series, describes ‘a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader.’ Wood finds himself working through descriptive contortionism in order to describe the strange effects of Knausgård’s prose and its ‘banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.’ Similarly, Zadie Smith has written in the New York Review of Books that:
As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.
She seems to be drawing here on the vocabulary of the contemporary enthusiasm for quasi-Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ meditation… When you have to reach to the New Age section of your vocabulary to describe a literary effect, you know you’re in a bit of a strange spot.
Anyway, in the course of this work I decided to have another look in on Hegel’s statements about the ‘prose of life’ in his Aesthetics. It was quite something to be reminded, given where I’m sitting (the picture above is the view from my desk) of the body of artistic work that he is discussing when he uses the phrase:
Yet if we wish to bring to our notice the most marvellous thing that can be achieved in this connection, we must look at the genre painting of the later Dutch painters. What, in its general spirit, is the substantial basis out of which it issued, is a matter on which I touched above in the consideration of the Ideal as such. Satisfaction in present-day life, even in the commonest and smallest things, flows in the Dutch from the fact that what nature affords directly to other nations, they have had to acquire by hard struggles and bitter industry, and, circumscribed in their locality, they have become great in their care and esteem of the most insignificant things. On the other hand, they are a nation of fishermen, sailors, burghers, and peasants and therefore from the start they have attended to the value of what is necessary and useful in the greatest and smallest things, and this they can procure with the most assiduous industry. In religion the Dutch were Protestants, an important matter, and to Protestantism alone the important thing is to get a sure footing in the prose of life, to make it absolutely valid in itself independently of religious associations, and to let it develop in unrestricted freedom. To no other people, under its different circumstances, would it occur to make into the principal burden of its works of art subjects like those confronting us in Dutch painting. But in all their interests the Dutch have not lived at all in the distress and poverty of existence and oppression of spirit; on the contrary, they have reformed their Church themselves, conquered religious despotism as well as the Spanish temporal power and its grandeur, and through their activity, industry, bravery, and frugality they have attained, in their sense of a self-wrought freedom, a well-being, comfort, honesty, spirit, gaiety, and even a pride in a cheerful daily life. This is the justification for their choice of subjects to paint. (Knox translation, 597-8, italics mine).
Work was just about over for the day, and we’ve been trying to decide whether to go back to the Rijksmuseum or not. At least we know where Hegel stands on the matter.
Just to start: my father worked for a consumer products company, one that made biscuits and the like. Cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals, that sort of thing. And when I was a small boy, he used to say to me, in that cryptic way that dads often distribute nuggets of gnomic wisdom, things like: “See that cereal that you’re eating? Do you know that when mum pays for that, mostly what she’s paying for is the box.”
What he meant is that the cereal (or cookies or what have you) itself was incredibly inexpensive to manufacture. (Or, as his company always called it, to “bake.” They had bakeries, not factories.) Most of what it cost the company to bring their goods to market and to sell them on that market went into PR – the design of the packaging, the composition of the ad campaigns, and of course the price to place the advertisements where they appeared. When you buy the Corn Flakes, mostly you’re paying for the iconic rooster on the box, etc.
And so: today, from a Huck Magazine post, which seems to be inspired by Paul Mason’s new book, called “Five postcapitalist projects that offer a blueprint of a new world.”
When was the last time you saw an encyclopaedia? Upsetters Wikipedia have destroyed the old model of profiting from information by locking it away and charging people to access it. Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. See also: Wikileaks who are using open source principles to revolutionise access to information and hold governments to account.
There is something – and something I’ve long been preoccupied with on this blog – incredibly strange about one of the sentences in this paragraph. It is this one: Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year.
If you want to see the face of the new, or not really that new but at least burgeoning drive to establish new enclosures of the commons, it is visible here. There’s an odd mysticism, or dark metaphysics, that is at play. Wikipedia, in providing content without advertisements, is actually stealing away or squandering income that might have been derived, in private hands, from advertisements or sales. Which, in a certain sense – a sense highly palpable if, say, you were the owner of the failing Encyclopaedia Britannica business – would seem pressingly true.
But of course it is not true, not in the least. No more than the fresh air that we breathe is stealing from the possible fresh air companies that might be formed to sell it to us, or the water we drink is stealing from corporations that, improbably, bottle the same stuff that comes out of our taps only to label it and sell it back to us for prices that are often higher than petrol. (Oh wait…)
But while (fortunately) the Britannica people didn’t, it seems, have the money to fight the market encroachment of the Wikipedians nor, perhaps, a leg to stand on argumentatively, this sort of attack on the state sector – in this case not as inefficient but as all too efficient – has become increasingly prevalent of late. The entire funding crisis at the BBC is grounded in attacks of this sort. There’s the kiss of death logic of the “If it’s popular, it’s beyond their remit to show it” argument. Strictly Come Dancing or Wimbledon could well be generating profits for Sky or someone else, and besides, they actually make people feel like the license fee isn’t such a bad deal after all.
But it’s not just the BBC that’s targeted by this “logic.” There’s a gathering storm regarding higher education “state monopolies” and the mystifying message that they’re blocking access to the “market” through their accreditation cartels. It’s further absolutely clear that the animus against the NHS that exists amongst many Tories is equally based on anti-welfare-state ideas and the sense that there is big money to be made, that’s currently not being made, in the business of medicine. I’m sure if the cost of housing wasn’t so absurdly and eye-wateringly high, we’d be hearing attacks on the few vestiges of social housing left here and in America for inciting “market distortion.” And there are undoubtedly loads of bureaucratically subterranean aspects of the state sector, here and abroad, that are suffering from the same sorts of sorties.
Cynical ploys all of them, and in that sense no more interesting than any of the other hypocritical, fallacious, or just plain cruel attacks on the state sector than any of the others that we’ve seen during our age of austerity. But there is one thing that’s perhaps a bit interesting, as it’s a bit complex, about them.
In addition to the pretext of this line of argument, that state entities suck up market share without generating profit from it, there is an important subtext as well. Namely, that advertising costs us nothing. That is, of course it costs the corporations that advertise, but for the end user of the content that is funded by advertising, it is free.
This, of course, is little discussed. Certainly the media men aren’t going to bring it up. When Murdoch and his lobbying minions and PR flacks say, for instance, that “the BBC is a publicly funded entity that partially destroys our ability to sell advertising,” they of course never continue on to say, “advertising, that given the price that is paid for it, obviously must extract a huge amount of capital out of those that would be watching our channels instead of the BBC.”
When you ride on public transportation, that the bus interior or the carriage of the train is festooned with advertisements, does it cost you money, beyond the fare, to do so? Does it cost you money to use gmail, given all of those little ads that you ignore (but, we can assume, someone’s not ignoring them) on the sidebar? How much more does your newspaper cost you, given all of the car and mobile phone and supermarket advertisements that you find inside of it? How much do you spend, beyond the satellite bill and / or license fee, on spending a night in in front of the television?
I’m absolutely positive that corporations sometimes waste money on advertising, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never clicked through a “sponsored ad” on Google. But on the other hand – they simply can’t be dumping all of that money, can’t have been dumping, for ages, all of that money, if someone, somehow, isn’t making it back in profit. If Wikipedia is running content that otherwise could generate $3 billion per year, then presumably the attention captured by this content, if not in the hands of the Wikipedias, is worth at least $3 billion per year to the companies that would have been advertising on these sites.
It all, it seems to me, goes back to what my father used to tell me all those years ago. “Mostly the price of the Cornflakes is the box of the Cornflakes.” What I’d like to work on (although sometimes it seems to me to be potentially a project of Kapital-like demands on my brain-power and time, neither of which I have at this point) is a study of just this quasi-mystical value equation. What does the ad before the YouTube video cost us to watch? What would we “save” were the ad not there, were YouTube a public institution rather than an arm of a massive profit-seeking corporation?
I want to do this because I’ve long believed that the leap from Why not ads on the side of the bus to Let’s dismantle the remains of the welfare state is not only a short one, it’s one in which each step is informed by the selfsame logic. That is, it’s informed by a deep misapprehension about the value of the commons and the sort of life that is lived on them.
UPDATE: Armando Ianucci is on the case this morning in the Guardian:
“It’s Facebook and Google who came along and ate up all newspapers’ classified ads. Yet it’s the BBC, who run no ads, that gets the blame, while it’s Google and Facebook that get the helpful tax arrangements from HMRC.”
While on the other hand, in the same paper on the same day, we have Sturgeon and the SNP showing her/its true colours:
“One of the things the last 12 months has demonstrated is that the old model of public service broadcasting – important though I think it is – doesn’t work well enough. It no longer reflects the complex, varied and rich political and social realities of the UK.”
It hits hard, when you’re the sort of person inclined, as I am, to the critical analysis and evaluation of others’ behavior, when you do something yourself that you know is legible. By legible I mean open to readings that endow said action with a meaning beyond the immediately obvious and literal. All the chattering I do, spoken or un, about other people and their foibles returns with a vengeance – I have made myself available to skeptical treatment that is all the worse for the the fact that I will probably never hear it, only sympathetically imagine it.
I’ve done a few things that cause this rather reflexive – even paranoid – reaction in me. The other day I threw a strop outside of my house because there was a summer street party on and someone had stuffed my rubbish bin full of street party debris. The neighbors, with whom I’ve exchanged less than a hundred words since I moved here last November saw me do this, and now I avoid them at all costs, even more diligently than I avoided them before. I can almost hear them discussing my over the top reaction in their bed at night, which sits a few meters away from mine behind, of course, the wall between our places.
Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that I moved to this street in the first place. My current house is on the same street as my home during my previous marriage. It’s a street that runs for two blocks, so it’s not like once living at the bottom of 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village and then moving, a few years and a divorce later, to the same street on the Upper East Side. Or even the bottom of Tottenham Court road in Soho and then moving to one of those flats that sits atop Warren Street Station. My new place is exactly 50 house numbers away from the old one. And given the opposing sides of the streets, that places me 25 houses away from the place that I used to call home.
You can understand why I can hear, echoing, the readings of this development. “He wants to reset the clock. To start over. He’s trying to get it all back. Can you imagine, out of all the streets in London, or even just North London, he picked the selfsame one???”
One of the jokes, perhaps a bit defensive, that I used to make is that I can now go back to my old GP and simply claim that they have my house number wrong. I never bothered to transfer to another doctor, as I’ve not been to a doctor since I last lived here. Full circle, the trip has been, to the point that even the NHS won’t notice I’ve ever been gone.
I can’t decide if I am an incredibly sentimental person or a completely anti-sentimental person. Probably it’s the sort of geometric arrangement where everything meets at the poles, and the least becomes most and vice versa. But I do know that, on the one hand, there were clear reasons to me why I chose to buy this house, reasons that of course had nothing to do with my previous incarnation on this street. They are solidly sensible, middle-class sorts of, reasons. The space afforded, quality of presentation, school catchment zones, relative un-horrificness of the commute. And of course there’s a Waitrose in walking distance. When asked or prodded, I respond, “I am good at the real estate business. If I picked well once, why wouldn’t I pick the same thing again?”
Definitely not a clincher in the decision, but something that was at the back of my mind, was the fact that when my daughters visit, as they are doing right now, they are in a neighbourhood that they know and love. That, during our last visit, when I still lived in Highbury, they begged me to return to over and over so that they could run into their friends at the park behind their old school. Which of course, now, we do.
But the funny thing is: now that they’re back, and recognized constantly on the street by people that are strangers or half-strangers to me, mothers of their friends or their old friends themselves, they draw away, reluctant to engage, half-heartedly waving and saying “hi” but basically pulling me back toward our house. And then they say, or at least the oldest does, “Please can we go home now. I’d rather just be at home with just my sister and you.” The same thing on the way to the park itself, that object of fascination and long bus rides just last year. “It would be cool if people were there. But I kind of hope they aren’t and we can just hang out. Is that weird, dadda?”
If I were honest, I’d reply that it is a bit weird, but at the same time utterly understandable. For we, as a family, are town people – the bourgeoisie, if you take the term literally – and we I think corporately believe in the “good fences make good neighbors” stuff. They are sisters, but they seem to have inherited my only child’s love of solitude, or the relative solitude of family life behind chained front doors and closed shutters. I can’t remember ever knowing my New Jersey neighbors during my childhood. And now they themselves, my daughters, primarily live in New Jersey. Plus ça change…
I wonder further sometimes whether all of this has anything to do with my interest in the novel as a form. After all, as I tell my students over and over again, the form gets its start in an increasingly bourgeois-ifying world, when the doors are more often shut and the shutters more often pulled. One started to wonder – as I tell my classes – what exactly is happening over the reception room, the kitchen, the bedroom next door. And so the novel pulls down the walls, doll house style, and shows…. The spousal argument in the reception room, the euphemized or not sex in the bedroom, the man with his children who normally live in New York, feeding breakfast to them in the kitchen one Kellogg’s box and yogurt pot at at time, and wondering what exactly it is that we’ll do together today to make day fourteen of thirty-nine go well in a memorable sort of way.
Just before bed, my youngest daughter queried my wife about what the prefix “step-“ means. What a stepmother is, a stepdaughter, a step-sibling, and the like. It’s really no wonder: in the past year or so she and my older daughter have gained a stepmother, a stepfather, a stepsister, a stepbrother, and now an as yet unborn half-sister, which they only learned about last week.
She seemed especially baffled, as the conversation went on, about how it was possible that I could be the new baby’s father, given that I am her father but my wife is not her mother. That is to say, her mother is no longer my wife.
Of course, in part, this is the natural impulse of the newly re-sistered to protect her turf, to stake out her claim of specialness and special parental attention. But it also seemed to me like genuine bafflement – a sort of child’s version or inversion of the Freudian axiom about the essential unknowability of paternity.
I remember being confused about such things too when I was her age. I had no pressing reason to wonder about it, but these things edge into the quasi-metaphysical when considered by the six-year-old brain. How can my father father a child who is not my full-sister? What does it mean to be “related” to someone if they are neither my mother nor my father nor my sister nor my brother nor my cousin etc.
For better or worse, I had a less complex childhood than my daughters had, so mostly my own perplexity had to do with the difference between “real” cousins or uncles or aunts and those people who were simply called cousins or uncles or aunts. Living without siblings, and being born to a mother without siblings and a father who clearly would rather have been such, brings these questions to the fore. Do I have any real family at all, save for you two? I also remember being utterly stumped by the branching and self-entangling family tree of the British royal family.
In the end, she had to be put to bed as we have to get up early tomorrow, but I am not sure that she ever fully grasped the whole step- and half- and full- situation. There is a monumentality to parenthood, in the eyes of a six-year old. It’s like the familial version of the mathematical principle of identity: “each thing is the same with itself and different from another” just as “my dad is my dad and is no one else’s dad… save of course for my older sister, who was here even before me.”
But there is a principle of identity at play for my wife, their step-mother too. At some point in the conversation, my youngest offered the following equation, in conversation, to her.
“You are not my mummy.”
“That is true. I am not your mummy.”
“Actually, you’re just my Rosie. You’re my Rosie.”
We rented an Airbnb place for tonight and the next two nights in Paris. We are in Paris because, due to extravagant airfares, I had to cancel a trip to see the kids last September. “We could do other things with that money – great things” I said on the phone. Disneyland was broached, by one of us, both of us, so we are here.
I saved at least £1500 by staying in an Airbnb in Paris rather than the park itself. Earlier this year, they visited the proper Disney World, in Florida, with their mother and their new step-father, so I felt I could get away with it.
Somehow I missed the right stop. I had convinced myself that we were staying on one of the spurs off of Place de la Nation. When in fact it was Place Voltaire. And so we backtracked. And we are here.
What was interesting though was the entry to the apartment. Here are the instructions that the owner sent us:
Hi Michael, a few information to get in my home…
- First, when you are in front of the big brown door on the street, you’ll have to make the following code : 472B.
- Then, in the hall, you’ll see on your left some mailboxes. Mine is the one with ‘X’ written on it and a little orange sticker. You can open it with a coin, or your own key… And get the 2 sets of keys which open the door of the flat.
- To open the glass door in the hall, put the green pad that hangs on the keys on the black pad just beside the door.
- Then my flat is at the 5th floor, on your left. The very little key opens it. You’re home!
I let you the phone number of my friend if you have any problem : (phone number hidden). Could you confirm when you’re home that everything’s okay? (I am currently in Rio so I just woke up…)
If you need any information about the house, ask me!
Despite all my apprehensions, the directions worked to a T. So much so that I developed a soft sort of respect for our landlord of three days. But my girls, at least temporarily, had other ideas.
It was dark upon entry. We had to use the light on my iPhone to guide us around. Clearly the woman who rented us this place is a person with a penchant for atmospheric lighting. Children react badly to such things, especially when they are initially sceptical about what we are doing in somebody’s flat, off the beaten path, rather than – as my daughter put it – a ‘hotel like the ones in Memphis or wherever.’ She meant a chain hotel.
And so there was a bout of worry to get over. Things seemed to improve when we turned the TV on. I cannot now seem to turn it off, but we will get to that in due time. Nonetheless, I had to turn some pictures – I think a cover of a book about transvestites – over before they would sleep. The French love images – in every corner someone or something peeps out in this place.
But the point of Paris, especially to young Americans, which I was once, is estrangement. I hope that is what happens and it sticks. They are starting Paris in a different place than I did. But let’s hope it sticks.
My father burst into tears today. His face scrunched up like a child’s – like himself as a child, his face as a child – and the tears began to flow. Did he leave himself like that, visible, just long enough for me to see before plunging his face into his hands? He will be 70 next month.
He cried because he’d fucked his flight reservations. For the second time this week. The day before he flew from the US, he called me in a panic to say that he’d messed up, really messed up. That he was supposed to fly out of London and back home on Friday but had somehow booked the return for Sunday. He asked if we would be around over the weekend, if it would matter if he and mum stayed on. I responded that – as he already knew – we were taking the kids to Paris on Friday night.
During his stopover at JFK on the way here, he managed to change the flight. As it turns out though, he changed it to the wrong day – Thursday, today, instead of Friday, tomorrow. Which we discovered as we tried to print out his boarding passes in my kitchen – he is obsessive about printing his boarding passes at the earliest possible moment – and the screen indicated that the flight in question was delayed, but would begin boarding within half-an-hour.
Upon examination, we further discovered that the flight he’d thought was booked for Sunday was actually booked for Saturday morning. He’d confused the dates. And even more: we remembered that Saturday morning was the date and time we’d agreed they would leave all those months ago when he was booking his trip.
After the tears, a phone call which sorts it out at a price of $1000 for the two of them. He’d already paid $1000 to sort it out, erroneously, earlier this week. He has the money to cover it – and I remind him of as much. I also bark when, in the midst of the tears and the calling, he utters the phrase, “I’m not sure I can take this much longer,” which I know refers to my mother. I reply: “This has nothing to do with anything other than an airplane flight. What does it have to do with anything else?”
He is gone now – off to a hotel by Heathrow where he will anxiously pack and repack his bags and perhaps take the shuttle over, a night early, to try to pick up his boarding passes, which we never were able to print. Of course one wonders about senility, given what an expensive debacle he’s made of his travel arrangements for this trip. When others speculate, I ward them off.
My barking is not a new thing. I suppose I learned it from him. But it is odd, when one is 38 and one’s father is 69, how quickly the tone shifts. How quickly the once scolded son becomes the scolding son, on alert for faux pas, childish projection, and other behavioral anomalies. I do it to my children, bark, and I do it to my parents too now.