Monday, December 15, 2014

helplessness, an infection from the Bible



If the authorities listened to Hamsun then they would know that he lives muddled, according to himself: he reiterates it in Overgrown Paths. "It is a mysterious concept which I am unable to figure out." "But here the riddle began for me." "I wasn't great shakes at thinking deep yet and I just stood there." "A sheath knife has found its way into my room, I don't know how." "I have long wracked my brain over getting my galoshes repaired now that fall is approaching. They go back to the First World War but still have good soles; it's just that the right one is torn and won't stay on my foot." When a young woman walks into the room "not only do I stand there naked from the waist up, I don't even have my teeth in place." He sees himself characterised by "a sufferance of my own shortcomings. An intentional helplessness, an infection from the Bible."

Politics are not divorced from the galoshes, the false teeth, and the decent helplessness, this Biblical failure that is dignified by abjection, submission, which appears in the holy text many times -- it is not -- Biblical -- he implicitly protests -- to ask a person to pretend to know their politics. The letter that he wrote to the court when he was defending himself against the charge of fascism is the most tangled expression of helplessness in the memoir.

I tried to understand what National Union was about, I tried to get to the bottom of it, but it didn't amount to anything. However it may very well be that I wrote in the spirit of National Union now and then. I don't know because I don't know what the spirit of National Union is. But it may have happened that I wrote in the spirit of National Union, that something had seeped into me from the newspapers I read. In any case my articles are there for anyone to see. I'm not trying to minimize them, to make them more trifling then that are, it may be bad enough as it is. On the contrary I am ready to answer for them now as before, as I always have been.


This is the only time when the expression of muddle is itself in any way muddled. In every other instance he is clear. He can even remove himself to the camera-like distance necessary for humour. "I stand there naked from the waist up." (I need to remember that Hamsun is a clown. Nagel is a clown and the narrator of Hunger is a clown.) When he writes he is not confused. He wanders between the distant and recent past but his intentions are constant. He has more self-control than Ruskin, who propels himself into Rose La Touche.

The anti-British xenophobia from his pro-Nazi writings has disappeared. Now he praises British authors. "[T]he great Swift in England …" "Stevenson […] was a genius in eruption …" Does this belong to the instinctive dodging that I think I see in, "But it may have happened …"?

Readers of The Last Joy (1912) know that his ideas were leaning toward fascism twenty years before the National Union/Nasjonal Samling party was invented (1933) and the something in the newspapers would not have seeped so much as chimed.


6 comments:

  1. While I am not yet converted to reading Hamsun, even though your postings intrigue me enough that I am nearly converted, I have to take a moment instead to commend you for your splendid Stead resources. You have given this addicted link browser days and days of intriguing destinations. Thank you. Bravo!

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    1. Thanks for your thanks. If you want more, try typing 'Christina Stead' into the search engine at this Australian newspaper archive: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper. In the Sydney Morning Herald, November 30th, 1938, there's the strange suggestion that a journalist somehow read one of her letters to her dad: "In a letter to her father, Mr D. G. Stead last week, she told of her latest book, 'House of All Nations' [...] This is a story of happy finance."

      I've tried linking to their articles directly but they shift the URLs. How did you find out about her?

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    2. Thank you for the added information. My introduction to Stead came via the late D. G. Myers at A Commonplace Blog; he was a great admirer of The Man Who Loved Children. I confess that I know next to nothing about Stead beyond my reading of the one novel. Nevertheless, I am poised to improve upon that knowledge deficit when time and circumstances allow me to do so.

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    3. I remember him praising it. You're lucky, there's plenty ahead of you. I'd put House of All Nations up there with Man Who Loved Children though it's not nearly as well-known, possibly because it's more difficult to describe and grasp. "A story of happy finance" is one way of putting it.

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  2. "chimed" is good, a good observation. I can imagine him lighting up at the reflection of his own feelings.

    His letter to the court so tortured because he could not bring himself to write what he knew to be true, his sentences melting as he assembles his lies? "I am ready to answer for them now." A defiant empty claim. Poor idiot, I think. Poor idiot.

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    1. Does he know that it's true though? I'm not sure he did. He knows that the outside world expects him to say, "It's true," but this is a writer who has spent his life thinking about the kind of truth that feels real, the truth you have in your gut, not the truth you have in your head, and "I was wrong, of my own free will I supported wicked people, I was betraying Norway," are not ideas that seem to have ever occurred to his gut.

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