“In a strange way, what I read coincided with what I was. I read about the raging sea as the sea raged, I read about the whispering forest as the forest whispered, and when I read that to pray was not to speak, but to become silent, that only in silence could God’s kingdom be sought, God’s kingdom came. God’s kingdom was the moment. The trees, the forest, the sea, the lily, the bird, all existed in the moment. To them, there was no such thing as future or past. Nor any fear or terror. That was the first turning point. The second came when I read what followed: What happens to the bird does not concern it. It was the most radical thought I had ever known. It would free me from all pain, all suffering. What happens to me does not concern me.”
I admit it. I am a Knausgaard addict.
I have read everything the man has ever written and am a big fan of his six-volume My Struggle.
I was a bit late reading The Morning Star, because I refuse to read e-books, and books are not very easily accessible here in Bali (unless you like spiritual self-help books or books in the genre “how to make money without giving a f.. about anything and without working more than an hour a day”).
But at the end of the year, I finally got my hands on The Morning Star (thanks to my mother), and even in my Mother tongue Danish (bliss).
What a book. What a story.
The narrative takes place in the course of two days, and alternates between nine main characters, who all experience the rise of a huge new star in the sky.
There is an apocalyptic feeling to the story, and you sit back with a lot of unanswered questions. Is the feeling of a lurking evil an indication of a disaster about to happen? Is nature finally fighting back? In all the intertwined sub-stories the characters have encounters with animals acting in strange, unusual ways: flocks of crabs migrating from the sea into the forest, an eagle attacking a sparrow eating crumbs from a cafe-table in the middle of the city, a racoon appearing in a living room, a deer approaching a parked car maintaining eye-contact with the amazed driver for long minutes, huge swarms of ladybirds filling up a terrace… The weather is also abnormal; unusually hot and moist, and the Norwegian fjord is turned into a nearly tropical setting.
The Morning Star is a grand novel about life and death, about nature and human relations, about mental health, loneliness and immense beauty, and about embracing the things we don’t understand and cannot explain.
Another book that made my heart sing in 2022 is Richard Powers’ most recent novel Bewilderment. You might know Powers as the author of The Overstory, the incredible saga of human interconnectivity with tress.
Bewilderment is the story of a father (Theo) and his 9-year old son Robin (or Robbie as his father calls him), who have lost their wife/mother and are trying to navigate the world and get on their feet again after their loss.
Robbie is a very emotional boy, who is in almost every way different than the majority of his 9-year old peers (his teachers would like him to get a diagnosis, so that he can be medicated, but his father Theo refuses). He is bullied at school and gets expelled for smashing his friend in the face, after the friend makes an unkind comment about his deceased mother. This leads to Theo taking him out of school and homeschooling him. Theo is an astrobiologist searching for life throughout the cosmos, and Robbie ends up spending most of his days at Theo’s lab.
Robbie is a dedicated vegan suffering from eco-anxiety, who again and again and engages in fundraising projects to safe endangered animal species. There is a heartbreaking beauty in seeing the state of the world through the eyes of an emotional, hyper-sensitive 9-years old.
Powers explores in Bewilderment the idea of an empathy-machine that allows you to feel what other people feel; and actually not only other people, but with all living beings. This thought experiment raises questions like:
- What if human despair and the appalling ecological state of the natural world are related?
- What if we could feel what pigs felt, or what it would feel like to be a bird or a dog or a horse — would we then be more empathetic towards these beings?
- And what if we could feel what it felt like to be another person, would we then be kinder, more focused on kinship and connectivity rather than on competition and rivalry?
I have a great idea, Robbie said. Dr. Currier’s lab could take a dog. A really good dog. But it could also be a cat or a bear or even a bird (…)
Take a dog and do what, Robbie? His thoughts these days often grew richer than he could say.
Take him and scan him. Scan his brain while he was really excited. Then people could train on his patterns, and we’d learn what It felt like to be a dog. (…)
Robbie was right: we needed universal mandatory courses of neutral feedback training like passing the Constitution test or getting a driver’s license. The template animal could be a dog or a cat or a bear or even one of my son’s beloved birds. Anything that could make us feel what it was like not to be us.”
The idea of an empathy machine that can allow us to feel what others feel — even animals and plants — is a beautiful philosophical experiment that explores what is needed the most in the world right now.
Perhaps the solution to some of the big problems we consensually facing; pollution, animal and plant species going extinct, cultural blandness due to globalisation, homogenisation, inequality, racism, sexism, chauvinism, terrorism etc. etc. is to be found in fostering and cultivating our “soft skills”, like the ability to feel empathy and be compassionate and kind, to be intuitive, and to feel love and experience beauty?
The next book on my list is a re-read for me. It’s one of my “bibles”, and it is written by one of my heroes: Existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. The title of the book is The Ethics of Ambiguity.
“The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; so to say it is ambiguous is to assert that it’s meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won. Absurdity challenges every ethics; but also the finished rationalisation of the real would leave no room for ethics; it is because man’s condition is ambiguous that he seeks, through failure & outrageousness, to save his existence.”
This is one of the books I try to re-read every couple of years. It beats the living daylights out of any self-help book, ethical treatise, or spiritual essay, and it is furthermore immensely relevant to today’s discussions on climate, sustainability, (in)equality, and welfare.
In de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy, alike Sartre’s and Kierkegaard’s, human development toward authenticity and true freedom is described as a progression through a range of stages (from the least free to the most). In her terminology: from the sub-human to the passionate human.
De Beauvoir declares in The Ethics of Ambiguity that being free is not the equivalent of being able to do whatever you want whenever you want. Rather, true freedom involves embracing the transcendence of existence (as abstract as this might sound). And this movement most certainly doesn’t include the oppression of others; it is its antithesis. As a matter of fact, the existence of other free individuals is the very condition of one’s own freedom.
This point can beneficially be drawn into today’s capitalistic consumer reality. If suppressing others — whether this be directly or indirectly — makes you unfree, you are actually acting against your own freedom when buying and consuming goods that you know are probably not produced in an ethical way. Products that you know are most likely produced by workers in an Asian sweatshop who are paid an astoundingly low wage, and who work long hours under horrific conditions in order for you to be able to wear the newest trendy fashion item at a low cost, or in order for you to buy weekly new plastic toys for your kids. Because let’s be honest: when we buy a cotton shirt for less than $10, a pair of shiny new shoes for $15, or a radio-controlled plastic car for $5, we know that in order for this to be possible somewhere in the value-chain someone must have surely paid a high price.
When using others and compromising their freedom for your own gain, you are not truly free. To be free and to be able to obtain and consume whatever you want at the expense of others is to participate in oppression, no matter how we look at it.
Passion is an important part of genuine freedom, according to de Beauvoir — and one can only be passionate about something that one is sincerely engaged in. However, passion is only converted into genuine freedom if it is shared — or, if the object for the passion is “opened up” to others. One cannot be fulfilled if limited to oneself. Joy, and the desire to share, makes passion authentically free!
“If a man prefers the land he has discovered to the possession of this land, a painting or a statue to their material presence, it is insofar as they appear to him as possibilities open to other men.”
In order for us to “cherish the land discovered more than the possession of this land”, we must follow our path in life, and not obey cultural norms, must-does, and must-haves of others — even if this path requires a degree of civil disobedience or disapproving gazes. If not, the possession (or the status that comes with whatever one does or creates) rather than the object for our passion (or the land itself ) is the focus.
Meaning must come from within. The condemnation of freedom, which is substantial in existentialist philosophy, involves an obligation to act accordingly with one’s purpose as well as an involvement in the world.
Much more can be said about this book. I won’t say anymore right now. But it is, in my opinion, a must read.
I have also loved (!) reading a lot of Indonesian literature last year, especially Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Apple & Knife by Intan Paramaditha.
Thanks to my lovely friend, Indonesian poet Cyntha Hariadi (who’s lyric is unfortunately not translated to English — and as much as I try, my Indonesian language does not yet allow me engaging in poetry), I have been gently guided to this treasure chest of contemporary Indonesian literature — and honestly, there is so much to say that I will have to write an article just on each of these books. I will however dive briefly into Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu.
“If a friend invites you over for dinner, don’t turn them down like you’ve done before. Even though i’s your first chance to, don’t bring a date — you’ll look like you’re trying too hard. Bring a bag of mangos; wear a little red dress. When people ask for your timeline of events that led to your breakup, keep it short. Some popular responses: We both liked to read, but turns out you need a better reason to stay together. Or, His farting problem was unbearable. Don’t bother to lie about your supposed novel project if they don’t ask. They won’t really care.
Go jogging every morning. You need the endorphins and also quiet moments for yourself. Don’t bring your iPod. And don’t catch Pokémon. Turn all your focus inward. If you see any of your college classmates, say hi. If they invite you to run with them, say you’re happy with your current route. If they say, all right, they’ll join you, reply, “Perfect!” and laugh. Don’t sing to yourself while you’re running — they’ll think silence makes you uncomfortable. Respond to any remarks they make, whether political, pseudoaltruistic, narcissistic, or even poetic.”
This quote is taken form one of the twelve short stories called “A young poet’s guide to surviving a broken heart”.
The twelve novels are independent, but also intertwined (some of the characters and places recur), and all in a subtle manner occupied with gender and homosexuality in a culture where you don’t speak about such things. There is a moving, at times heartbreaking sensitivity to the tales of the characters trying to find their way in a world and culture that doesn’t accept them for what and who they are, or the charters who didn’t accept others (loved ones) for who they were, and are now living in denial and in an unspoken state of regret. Like the mother, Mama Sandra, in the story So what’s your name Sandra who decides to travel to My Son in Vietnam after her only son’s death (even though she has never in her life gone any where before). What appears to be a pilgrimage of sorrow turns out to be a crusade of regret; her son’s suicide is interlinked with Mama Sandra’s rejection of him after her finding out that he is homosexual.
The book is also extremely humorous and at times nearly surrealist. Like The True Story of the Story of the Giant in which a young man sets out to find a fabled giant in the mountainous Tapanuli region in North Sumatra after having heard of the legend of Parulian the giant from a classmate.
“After that, I roamed around North Sumatra for one and a half years, burning trough all my Big Java Vacation savings and loosing twenty-five kilos from trying to save money by eating only once a day. And then, out of the blue, in a village called Partonun, from the lips of a very old woman weaving ulos came a tale — a very short one — about Parulian. The woman told a story about a little boy who grew a full adult’s height every year, until he was as tall as a mountain and could speak with God”
I am going to have to re-read these short stories soon. Very soon!
Last, but not least, I have to also mention this incredible novel— despite it being in Danish, and not translated to English (which means a lot of you probably can’t read it, unfortunately). But this is one of the books that made my heart sing the loudest last year! Ohh my!
Josefine Klougart is a Danish novelist, and Alt dette kunne du få (which translates to something like: You could have all of this) is her sixth novel.
This beautiful novel is about interconnectivity between human beings; family bonds and breaks, friendships, sisterhoods, bonds of love, and about kinship between humans and nature; about childhood experiences of being at home in the natural world, about loosing that sensitivity, and about reclaiming it as an adult.
It holds descriptions of beauty experiences so intense and magnificent that it brought tears to my eyes. It is an incredible piece of literature, a piece of sublimity.
There were many other incredible books that I enjoyed in 2022, but these five are the ones that made a particularly strong impression on me
Reading a book is like a journey, is like an odyssey. Reading a book is a beautiful, slow aesthetic experience. Reading a book confirms the connectivity between human beings. Reading a book can lead to a deep sense of belonging and of being at home in the world. Reading a book can change stuck perspectives and allow for the river of life to flow.