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Attempt to take it all inward

In Erland Kiøsterud's Hunger and Beauty, the hunt is felt along the breaking surfaces of an ice-thick world, in search of something that can heal it.


Erland Kiøsterud:
Hungry and beauty
October, 2016

Erland Kiøsterud's last collection of texts are essays in the proper sense of the word; a series forsøk to describe and foresee something. This "something" is circled through the title concepts hungry og beauty, but also the concept of silence, which goes again like a chorus through this little, brave book.

Thought and feeling. What the author examines, however, is not these concepts in and of themselves; The keywords are inputs and openings for engaging in a larger theme. He examines life as such, the individual's encounter with the world. Human life could perhaps be viewed from the wisdom of the past, as a perpetually repeated drama in which the individual finds a place in a larger whole – in community and nature. But Kiøsterud's point of departure is that both community and nature have lost the last of their old reluctance.

The world problems as we know them from the media – refugee crisis, surveillance policy, systematic violence and environmental problems – are not treated as political problems but as existential challenges. At one level, the text is a panoramic reflection of the human situation in our time. Deeper thought is this thoughtfulness accompanied by one through sensing – and here lies the strength of the essays.

Naked. Kiøsterud consistently chooses to approach the situation as naked and honest as possible. He is "thin-skinned, very thin-skinned". This fragile self feels its way along the fracture surfaces of a worldview that has somehow broken. The existential discomfort lies close to religious feelings of perdition and longing for salvation. The starting point is a sense that an original harmony has been lost. The result is an attempt to recover with the loss – but also a longing to restore harmony. Along the way, Kiøsterud carefully defends himself against new and comforting illusions. But even more important is to avoid seeking refuge in cynicism and blunt disillusionment; a resigned acceptance of the unacceptable. One consequence of this is that he also avoids any kind of distant irony or bluster: The text is uncompromisingly honest and serious.

The silence. The typical modern problems were associated with a value crisis that resulted from the discredit of religion and tradition. In addition, there are more postmodern and late-modern problems: Not only the stories of the backward-looking tradition, but also the story of progress have lost credibility. The silence grips. The concept of nature also appears as a construction: Nature is no longer a harmonious whole or a safe framework for human life. It often turns out to be foreign and crushingly indifferent. Other times it appears as fragile and vulnerable as ourselves, or as a cruelty in us that we can not stand. We look through the stories we used to tell to justify ourselves to other injured parties. There is no longer a credible excuse: the human potential for violence, destructiveness and insensitivity to the suffering of others is laughable in the eye. Man's "hunger", the basic and vital appetite for life risks making us monsters. At the same time, we often feel helpless, like a kind of "innocent animal" suffering under circumstances beyond our own control.

Style Violations. Behind Kiøsterud's considerations, the reader can sense characters such as Schopenhauer (the blind will to live) and Nietzsche (the attempt to live life despite the suffering), but perhaps also kinship with other thinkers such as Martin Heidegger (to spare and let things be), Georgio Agamben ( the naked life) and René Girard (the rivalry and the empty desire). Nevertheless, Kiøsterud consistently avoids mentioning academic isms, and rarely refers to other thinkers. The result is a philosophical prose that is sensual and concrete – which by and large leaves thoughts and feelings at its own expense.

Personal stories and a direct way of expression make the text clear and robust at its best. Nevertheless, the reader sometimes has to stumble through some striking style breaks while the text jumps from poetic high style to scientific terminology and then suddenly on to Norwegian everyday phrases and more journalistic trivial prose. In Kiøsterud's defense, one could say that the world is not stylish at all – a review of the overall situation must include morning coffee, mythological innovations, the sports team, evolution and the hunger for the heart for beauty.

Nature is no longer a harmonious whole or a safe framework for human life. It often turns out to be foreign and crushingly indifferent.

Anti-humanism. A deeper tension than the stylistic one is found in the narrator's voice. Through a kind of grammatical trick, he establishes a first-person singular which is alternately the author Kiøsterud, an abstract narrator, the human being as such or a given human being in a given era: The self can be a monkey man in the trees, a city dweller in the Middle Ages, an outcast in a modern big city, a refugee or a capital owner in an international group. This gives an openness to the general and opens up for a holistic vision, but at the same time this ambition to speak on behalf of everyone risks becoming intrusive.

On the other hand, the text reflects on its own premises: “Even the impulse to embrace the world with the intellect, as this book does, evokes a totalitarian tendency. I must learn that need […] only by making myself a-personal, making myself no one, can I avoid the destructive forces in myself and the world: I must dismantle myself as a human being. " The dissolution of the author subject mixes here with a liquidation of subjectivity as such. In the end, Kiøsterud ends up with a kind of anti-humanism. The longing away from the human may spring from the recognition of man's predation on nature and his fellow human beings – and from his own complicity. Human existence may always be violent in one sense or another. But are there no boundaries? Kiøsterud asks a long list of groping questions, but does not draw life-denying or misanthropic conclusions. When he takes on the discomfort, it is an attempt to find a new way of being in the world, which is neither blunted nor despairing – a way of life that allows life to regain its dignity.

The sacred. The experience of nature and man being violated and desecrated, ultimately reminds us that the feeling of the sacred is active in man, even without religion. The sacred, as a healing force, is present all the time – and this is what Kiøsterud basically means by the term skjønnhet. Kiøsterud gives the reader convincing and poetic descriptions of life's joys and unexpected encounters, sudden moments of inspired rapture and trembling caution. This opens up that the feeling of life he longs for is possible even in our time – at any time. Cultivating this reverence and then letting it affect life is perhaps also the core of Kiøsterud's sympathetic project.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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