We all responded to the events of 2020 in our own ways. Like many others, I spent large parts of my days searching through news reports in the hopes of making sense out of a chaotic situation. Failing at that, I spent late nights alone on the couch, fantasizing about traveling “anywhere out of the world.” The best I could do was to pick up an old copy of Spinoza that had somehow remained on my bookshelf many years after my days as a philosophy student had passed and I had moved on to the more mundane topics of my day job as a sociologist. Sub specie aeternitatis—the standpoint of eternity: that’s where I wanted to be.
I had only limited success in staying there. For every logical deduction of God’s attributes, I found an observation about human passions that shed light on the contemporary scene. Soon enough, I gave up and decided to read some contemporary fiction. I noticed that many Best of the Decade lists included an oddly titled series of books by an author with a Scandinavian name. Only later did I discover that My Struggle was a publishing sensation and that Karl Ove Knausgaard had become a literary rock star.
All I really knew was that I was enthralled. And as any reader of My Struggle knows, the allure is not so much in plot or character, but in that very sense of enthrallment the books somehow produce. You spend pages inside a child’s mind noticing the finer details of how to eat cornflakes; follow teenage Karl Ove and his friend on a latter-day hero’s quest to get to a New Year’s Eve party on the other side of town; suffer through an intellectually-minded young father’s dark night of the soul while sitting through a child’s birthday party, as his efforts to think a thought to completion are continually interrupted by parental chitchat. What in any other context would feel like cliché observations about the glimmering beauty of trees or the reflection of sunlight from the street somehow feel just right. And these everyday immersions flowed, as if one was simply another form of the other, into meandering but penetrating reflections on the significance of the face in the Cain and Abel story, the meaning of having a name in the poetry of Paul Celan, the process by which Hitler became Hitler or Hölderlin’s notion of “the open” as a product of and possible antidote to the disenchantment of the modern world.
For me at least, this absorption extended beyond the book. I felt as if there was a little Karl Ove narrating my COVID walks around my neighborhood, pausing to describe the sunset, considering the myriad ways I might scoop up my dessert, squirming through yet another conversation about the case numbers or the merits of masks while my mind drifted back to Spinoza’s arguments about the nature of divine substance. You will be happy to know that I did not indulge the temptation, but I even felt for a time that I could write my own six-volume account of my struggle. I was Karl Ove, and Karl Ove was me.
When I learned that Knausgaard had published a new novel, The Morning Star, I was perplexed. The final book of My Struggle, The End, brings to termination the whole arc of the series, completing not only the story of Karl Ove’s father’s life and death but also Karl Ove’s own life as the author of that story: “Afterwards we will catch the train to Malmö, where we will get in the car and drive back to our house, and the whole way I will revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am no longer a writer.”
If Knausgaard had truly exhausted his authorship with The End, how could he write another novel? And at least on some level, it can seem as if he didn’t; there are a number of unmistakable stylistic continuities between The Morning Star and My Struggle. A character loses herself in a reverie about eating Burger King. Another remarks on the limits of Heidegger’s interpretation of Hölderlin. Tarmacs glimmer and the light dances upon trees and water.
Yet the departures are even more striking. First and foremost, religion is central to The Morning Star. To be sure, religious themes were not absent from My Struggle. There is the aforementioned digression on Cain and Abel, mini-essays on secularization and disenchantment, references to an earlier novel on angels, among others. Even so, the dominant mood is one of self-exposure, introspection and philosophical speculation, in which religion is one theme or occasion among others. Likewise, Knausgaard’s earlier A Time for Everything had undertaken a fantastical retelling of various biblical stories, set deep in mythical time, as well as an examination of a (fictional) Renaissance scholar of angels, Antinous Bellori.
In The Morning Star, by contrast, religion is alive, and not only in a speculative philosophical way. The novel is set in contemporary Norway and shifts among the viewpoints of nine characters. A new star has appeared in the sky, and with it, strange incidents start occurring. Animals begin acting in unusual ways and people start having visions. Life after death, miracles, journeys into the afterlife—these are all treated as living possibilities in our own contemporary world of smartphones and consumer culture. This expansive religious consciousness includes not only personal struggles with faith but gothic scenes of luxurious gruesomeness. A death-metal band is brutally murdered, their bodies skinned and their heads twisted 180 degrees. Semi-human birds stalk the night. A near-death experience yields a vision of monsters performing a ritual human sacrifice. Patients are pronounced dead in the hospital and return to life as their organs are being harvested.
The Morning Star is also a departure from My Struggle in the philosophers and intellectuals that inspire its characters’ reveries. My Struggle was marked by heavy doses of German romanticism, philosophy and poetry. In The Morning Star, Hölderlin and Heidegger do make bit appearances, and Søren Kierkegaard’s sermon The Lily of the Field and the Birds of the Air receives a beautiful but (as we will see) tellingly partial treatment. But prominent roles are given to different sorts of thinkers as well. Kathrine—a priest—happens to pick up John Dewey’s Experience and Nature and later reads some lines from its second chapter, “Existence as Precarious and as Stable.” Another, Helge, an architect, is inspired by Charles Sanders Peirce’s ideas about the fundamental role of chance and contingency in nature and human action. Egil—a wealthy documentarian and religious seeker—pens an essay on the modern meaning of death in which Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution figures significantly.
The guiding themes among these authors are novelty, contingency, chance, fortune and possibility. My Struggle instead sought closure. Indeed, from the vantage point of The End, the entire series can be read as about what it means to end a life. In sharp contrast to the final sentences of My Struggle, The Morning Star’s read: “The Morning Star. I know what it means. It means that it has begun.” The book’s first major section is called “First Day.” This is a book about beginnings, what it means to start something new, or even how the world must be such that new things under the sun—and new suns—are possible.
This shift in philosophical focus was not an isolated event. It seems to have led Knausgaard to rethink some of the major themes that have long preoccupied him: secularization, death and writing. Each of these acquires a new and enriched meaning when considered as a form of beginning things rather than ending them. They also happen to be foundational concerns in sociological thought. Sociology, The Morning Star reminded me, need not be so mundane after all, and that is because the mundane social world it studies is not so mundane either: it contains within it pathways to get outside of it. The Morning Star is such a pathway, but exactly where it starts and where it leads is not clear. And so I asked myself: What can we learn by placing Knausgaard in general and The Morning Star in particular into dialogue with the history of social thought?
We all know that it is not possible to be religious now in the same way that one was in, say, medieval Europe. We call whatever that difference consists in “secularization.” But what does that mean?
The first volume of My Struggle offered a vivid account of one type of answer. The world, as Karl Ove puts it,
after three hundred years of natural science is left without mysteries. Everything is explained, everything is understood … The feeling this gives that the world is small, tightly enclosed around itself, without openings to anywhere else, is almost incestuous.
Call it the standard account. It is a story of religious loss and decline, in which religion trends toward zero as part of a tightly bound package of processes that together constitute modernization. The scientific revolution, the functional differentiation of society due to industrialization, the moral and spiritual emptiness of capitalism, the Protestant Reformation and other factors seem to generate a necessary turn away from magic, superstition and the transcendent, as well as a necessary end to whatever social needs religion may have filled: we have state welfare instead of church hospices, state adoption agencies instead of church poorhouses and so forth. Spiritual experiences might still occur via art or encounters with nature. But these are punctuated moments that intellectual honesty requires to be treated with suspicion, and in any case they are at most quasi-religious, not the real thing:
Art does not know a beyond, science does not know a beyond, religion does not know a beyond, not anymore. Our world is enclosed around itself, enclosed around us, and there is no way out of it.
On this model of secularization as disenchantment, you can celebrate the disappearance of religion as a liberation or lament it as a loss. But either way, facts are facts and you must face them.
In form if not content, however, My Struggle embodies a second conception of secularization. Call it secularization as religious actualization. The slogan for this conception is Max Weber’s statement about the consequence of the Protestant Reformation: every man becomes a monk. Religious ideas and practices become secularized when they transition from the specialized domain of religious virtuosi to the everyday world of economic affairs, politics, family and the self. That we provide welfare to all through the state (or at least Norway does) is a step toward the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth.
In this conception, secularization involves not so much a loss but a heightened demand on normal persons. Extending Weber’s ideas, Robert Bellah observed that a central form this demand takes is intensified pressure to make one’s inner self and struggles available for examination and scrutiny. It is not accidental that in the West, the practice of diary writing as an ongoing process of quasi-confessional introspection emerged and became popular among early modern Puritans. My Struggle can be read as a testament to this form of secularization. Karl Ove vows to leave no part of himself unexposed, even if it causes shame to himself and his family. In fact, shame is an obstacle to the understanding of himself and others he seeks. If most of us are unwilling to go so far, My Struggle shows us that going further is possible, and this is what it would take for us to live up fully to our obligations as self-aware persons.
There is something unsatisfying about these two stories of secularization. The first is marred by a form of scientific triumphalism that blinds it to the fact that not only have various forms of religion motivated modernization processes, many thrive in modern conditions. There is no singular modernity in which all dimensions unfold in lockstep uniformity. Indeed, in capitalist USA, even while decreasing percentages of individuals are attending religious services regularly, the total number of religious organizations (churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.) has been rising over the past twenty years. These are mostly smaller churches, in contrast to mainline congregations, which are on the decline. Both trends occur at once, along with many others.
The second suffers from a kind of Protestant triumphalism, in which the secular realization of God’s will conveniently turns out to be the institutionalization of the Protestant ethos of self-control and self-transparency. Yet as sociologist Hans Joas has noted, even if the Protestant Reformation played a key role in a cascading process of religious transformation, this set off a variety of creative reforms and reactions among other major faith traditions, as well as novel combinations and innovations. Neither scientific nor Protestant triumphalism provides an adequate way to articulate the meaning of secularization.
In a recent interview, Knausgaard points in a different direction. When asked about the resonance between his writings and queer or trans conceptions of gender, he remarked:
For me, literature is to try to reopen the things that are fixed … the things we have to fix for practical reasons, that are risky when they are unfixed. If it’s fixed, it’s easier—but that doesn’t only go for gender; that goes for almost everything, like worldviews and science and religion. But in real life, outside of ideologies, everything is floating and there are no borders. Only in writing and reading can you unlock what you previously locked in, and you can move around, and it is you and the richness of who you are.
The Morning Star, like Knausgaard’s other novels before it, elaborates this thought, in both cosmic and personal terms. Contingency is the keynote, and secularization means a proliferation of options, religious or otherwise. In A Time for Everything, the narrator explains his interest in studying people living at the cusp of modernity. For them, the world still did not have to unfold the way that it did. One passage describes the evolution of modern mentalities as a kind of Darwinian clustering process, in which disparate ideas come together like parasites to occupy certain receptive host minds:
These few and far-flung elements in what was to become a worldview were very like predators with vast hunting grounds. … What suddenly caused the elements … to begin searching for each other, and to find each other, no one can say with any certainty. All we know is that they began to gather in clusters. They gathered in certain minds (the so-called great men), and the more of them there were, the more intense became the hunt for more, until at last they dominated the host’s mind entirely.
The Morning Star returns to this idea in Helge’s reflections on the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. But now we come at it from the other side: the fact that our world is a particular and local clustering of concepts into temporary mental configurations means that it carries within it the possibility of change:
If evolution applies to everything, then something completely new can occur at any time. Take that supernova up there, for example … What if that’s something completely new? Science won’t be able to embrace it, because they’ve already decided that nothing new can happen.…
But what if ideas behaved in the same way?
An idea was conceived, and when first it was conceived it would occur again, over and over, spreading throughout society, until after a few generations our ideas were so entrenched and habitual that what they conveyed became construed as laws of nature. … There was hope in that, wasn’t there?
For the impossibility of changing the course of the world, as like a moth we steered directly into the flame, was only seeming.
This macro-historical sense of contingency has its counterpart in the everyday. Kathrine, the priest, presides over a mostly empty church. She is devout, but has a keen sense that she might not have ended up that way under different circumstances. However, her church stands ready for times when others need it, especially major life events such as weddings and funerals or collective traumas. This is what Grace Davie has called “vicarious religion.” Even if you are not religious, you can count on, and still value and support, the option for it to be there when needed. Egil, no churchgoer himself, has intense religious experiences inspired by Kierkegaard. Yet via a chance encounter with a mysterious man on a train whose child had recently and suddenly died, he finds himself in Kathrine’s church. There, they bow their heads together, she recites Matthew 27:46, and he looks at the child’s coffin, overflowing with flowers. “This was God. A deluge of life. A deluge of death.”
In this third conception, the secular age is one in which it is possible to be somehow open to a full range of spiritual or non-spiritual possibilities, and all of us stand under some obligation to acknowledge that, even if we persist in the religion of our fathers, staying there just as much as leaving is an act of commitment that cannot be guaranteed.
It is on the deathbed that the ardent secularist and the faithful believer alike wonder if this is really the end. The meaning of death in a secularized society suffuses Knausgaard’s writings as much as the question of religion does. Early on, My Struggle raises one standard conception, the “denial of death” hypothesis: “What is significant here is that our conception of death is so strongly rooted in our consciousness that we are not only shaken when we see that reality deviates from it, but we also try to conceal this with all the means at our disposal.”
Popularized by anthropologist Ernest Becker in the 1970s as an extension of ideas from Kierkegaard and Freud, the “denial of death” is the proposition that modern cultures systematically avoid direct encounters with death. Terrified by mortality, we hide our dead and dying in nursing homes, urns and hospitals. This enables the rest of us to live nay as if we were not walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
But again in form if not in content, My Struggle points toward a richer account of the contemporary death complex. Death was not denied in those books. It hangs over almost every scene. It is what Karl Ove and his family spend a great deal of time talking about, planning for and cleaning up after. And for good reason: death in modern conditions is in many ways more present in our lives than ever before. We live longer and healthier lives compared to the past, and have removed or minimized many of the sources of premature or adventitious death. Yet the maximum human lifespan has barely increased, if at all. This combination of demographic facts means that there are more old people around than ever before, who know to a high degree of precision when their time is coming. Having completed most occupational and familial duties, the terminal years of life today constitute perhaps the purest relationship to death any large cohort of humans has ever faced, now to a considerable degree stripped of accident and fortune. Since there are more old people, more younger people will personally know more of them as they complete their lives. In your twenties and early thirties your calendar was full of your friends’ weddings; in your later years it will be filled with their funerals.
Even if we do not deny death, its meaning has certainly changed. My Struggle represents one response to that change: the expectation that we will probably live out a complete life course makes death the conclusion of a full life story. The problem of a good life becomes the problem of a good death, one that rounds out and brings to completion a life that has maximized the opportunities and potentials it was offered. Karl Ove’s father died from alcoholism in a filthy house. Was this the meaning of his life? Did My Struggle give it some other type of meaning in making it the basis of Knausgaard’s authorship? Whatever the answer to these questions, the animating thrust of My Struggle is toward some satisfying sense of completion in which each of us must somehow or other become author of our own story with a fitting beginning, middle and end. In this, the novels are a kind of sacramental offering to the modern death complex as a component of what sociologist Talcott Parsons called “the attitude that human life is a challenging undertaking that in some respects may be treated as an adventure—by contrast with a view that treats human life as a matter of passively enduring an externally imposed fate.”
The Morning Star continues but raises challenges to the viability of this approach to death. The book reaches a kind of intellectual climax in Egil’s essay, “On Death and the Dead.” Like death, the essay seems to come from nowhere to disrupt the narrative flow of the story, perplexing and confounding many readers. At its heart is the proposition that death has a positive normative value. Somewhat surprisingly given Knausgaard’s (and Egil’s) philosophical tastes, Egil does not appeal to Heideggerian ideas about the relationship between death and authentic existence (though the repeated, horror-show refrain throughout the book of you are doomed is suggestive of this). Rather, Darwin is the inspiration. In contrast to the world of timeless laws and eternal order, the Darwinian world is open and dynamic. It is so because it contains death:
Death is what makes evolution possible. And evolution is what made us possible. We are just as unnecessary as death, and however odd it may sound, our presence here is more closely attached to death than to life.
It is perhaps no accident that the pragmatist philosophers Knausgaard includes in The Morning Star—Dewey and Peirce above all—were deeply inspired by Darwin, so much so that Peirce held that even natural laws can be conceived in evolutionary terms. In fact, the chapter of Dewey’s Experience and Nature from which Kathrine reads is an extended meditation on how it is only in virtue of suffering and death that even the loftiest metaphysical ideals have practical reality in human life, despite the tendency of many philosophical systems to obscure their origins as responses to human finitude.
The Morning Star depicts a world that is not entirely comfortable with the implications of this proposition. On one end, we find gruesome death cults committing ritual murders. Is this part of what it means to grant positive normative value to death? The murdered death-metal band had also become the object of Egil’s fascination in his work as a documentarian, which, as his friend Arne remarks, tends to feature individuals or groups capable of sustaining dedication and commitment, something Egil himself could never seem to do. On the other end, we find death itself fleeing, and with it the meaning and purpose it provides. People who should be dying stop doing so. In addition to the terminal patient who had been declared dead but whose vitals somehow return, the son of another character, Jostein, shoots himself but fails to die. Medics report this is a widespread occurrence, and in Jostein’s own near-death journey to the afterlife, we learn that recently deceased souls are being turned away, left to wander aimlessly in limbo between life and death. Perhaps the maximum human life span is no ultimate fact of existence after all, and the scope of our scientific activism dedicated toward extending life has not yet met its match. This at least is the conclusion to which Egil arrives toward the end of his essay:
Death is becoming smaller and smaller … science and religion strangely come together … the cultivation of body parts and the manipulation of cells is no longer a Utopian notion but reality … one might speculate, to the extent that aging and all its processes are genetically determined, given to us at birth, that they might one day not only be delayed, but halted, and what we shall have then, eternal life, is and always has been of course, principally a religious conception…
The Morning Star raises but does not answer the question of whether eternal life without death would be recognizable or desirable.
If we read The Morning Star sociologically as an effort to articulate a cultural symbolization of death in and for our times, we have to conclude that such a symbolization has not coalesced into any coherent form. The old symbols have run their course. Jesus Christ was a young man, and he died in maximal agony. As a symbolic structure, his crucifixion emphasizes youth, mortality and suffering. These are not the conditions of death today (at least for the sorts of people who would read Knausgaard), and until some novel symbolization arises that gives meaning to that condition on its own terms, we can expect the oscillation we find in The Morning Star between the hellfire of the committed and the meaningless meandering of immortality.
Having discussed religion and death, let us finally come to a weighty topic: writing and reading. This is one of Knausgaard’s fascinations—and not just because he is a writer, but because he sees writing as part of the same complex as religion and death. Egil captures this sentiment while browsing bookshops in search of books about the dead, reflecting to himself: “the written language forms the horizon of our cultures, as death forms the horizon of our lives.” In A Time for Everything, Bellori, like Knausgaard, succumbs to an acute form of logorrhea as he obsessively tries to bring to word the fullness of direct experience, before finally giving up, even on the authority of scripture. The truth cannot be contained in the word, he realizes. In all his novels, there are scenes where Knausgaard’s characters lose the ability to express themselves verbally and resort to guttural cries of “AHHHHHHHHHHHHH.” While some critics lament this as lazy writing, it represents Knausgaard’s ongoing effort to examine direct experience at the edges of language.
Throughout The Morning Star, characters try to give symbolic meaning to the new star overhead, even as they cannot shake the thought that it might not have any meaning whatsoever. The matter comes to a point however in Knausgaard’s treatment of Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and Bird of the Air. Egil’s meditation on that text leads to one of the most beautiful and gripping scenes in the novel, as he looks out over the coast and imagines it without humans, all unfolding according to its own inner propulsion.
You can understand how Egil could be so inspired by Kierkegaard’s text, which is as profound and demanding an articulation of the religious mood as you will encounter. The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air is one of Kierkegaard’s “edifying” writings. In contrast to his pseudonymous works, which were written for readers operating outside the religious register and designed to provide them an indirect path into it, these were meant for readers already there. They therefore speak directly, without the layers of irony that mark his more famous texts. Directness is in fact the pervasive mood of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: to understand that text is to live its ideas; there is no other way to properly understand what it says. Like the lily and the bird, the religious person does not agonize but is fully absorbed in the demands of the situation. This is their teaching, and it is what inspires Egil’s moments of religious ecstasy.
But there is another character in The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air that neither Egil nor Knausgaard mention, whom Kierkegaard simply refers to as “the poet.” “The poet” sounds almost exactly like the Kierkegaardian religious teacher, and even says some of the same phrases. And yet, Kierkegaard makes it clear that by saying these things in the mode of a poet, the poet ends up not saying them at all. Even worse, doing so gives the illusion of knowing: the religious experience becomes material for the poet to write about. And this turns it into nothing, or maybe something worse.
Knausgaard writes “the poet” out of Egil’s reading of Kierkegaard, but that same poet haunts The Morning Star and Knausgaard’s authorship as a whole, perhaps more so than any of its more overtly ghoulish figures. Is My Struggle a gripping effort at self-knowledge that models the highest aspirations of our times, or a massive act of narcissism in which breakfast cereal exists to feed the author’s ego, and his wife’s struggle with bipolar disorder is interesting material for his writing career? When Knausgaard wrote that the end of The End marked the end of his authorship, he obviously did not mean he would stop writing. Perhaps The Morning Star can be read as an effort to develop a different kind of authorship, more in the mode of the neo-Kierkegaardian religious teacher. But the spectre of “the poet” remains, and The Morning Star’s recurrent you are doomed could just as easily be read as referring to the inevitable fate of a contemporary writer seeking to escape that fate.
Egil’s essay on death embodies these questions. We first encounter the essay when Arne finds it lying around Egil’s apartment, remarking, “It was a relief to see how pretentious it was. Here sat the rich man’s son, alone in his summer house, thinking himself a philosopher!” Moreover, Egil, we learn, is a far from admirable person. He is a bad dad who walked out on his family, does everything he can to avoid even a week with his son and, when forced to spend time with him, wonders why he is treated with disdain. When we come to his essay toward the end of the novel, there is no narrative device whatsoever to offer even the flimsiest of reasons for how it happens to have come to us. It is just there, standing on its own, apart from the life and story that produced it.
While one critic took this as an indication of Knausgaard losing control of his book as the narrative momentarily falls apart, perhaps this is the point. There are things in life that break from life, and part of being carried away and into a piece of writing is allowing it to an exert an independent power over and above whatever brought it into existence. In The Morning Star, if a conception of reality does not have room for growth, transformation and self-transcendence, then so much the worse for that notion of reality. In the end, The Morning Star is an effort to show us a version of the world which has no ultimate end, only provisional beginnings.
Image credit: Harald Sohlberg, Night, the Church at Røros (1903), Nasjonalmuseet (CC / BY).