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The Gnosis of Writing



I understand so little. And as the years pass, I understand less and less. It is true. But the opposite is also true, that as the years pass I understand more and more. Yes, it is also true that as the years pass I understand a great amount, an almost frightening amount. As a matter of fact, I feel almost faint at how little I understand and almost frightened at how much I understand. How can it be that both things are true, that I simultaneously understand less and less and more and more?

The lucid thought would say, if that’s the case, either to understand little is also to understand much, and that, I would agree, is true in a certain sense, perhaps almost in a gnostic sense, or, the lucid thought would say, it is about two kinds of understanding. And perhaps that’s how it is, yes perhaps it is as simple as saying that in and through the kind of understanding which resorts to concepts and theory in order to understand, I become aware that I understand less and less, and that the scope of such a realisation more and more often appears to me to be limited, while in the kind of understanding which resorts to fiction and poetry to understand, I understand more and more. Perhaps that’s how it is. At least that’s what it feels like to me, who, after having written a great deal of essayistic theory, am now doing it less and less, and now almost exclusively write a language which first and foremost doesn’t mean, but first and foremost is, yes is itself, almost like rocks and trees and gods and human beings, and only after that means. And in this language which primarily is, and which only secondarily means, I feel that I understand more and more, while I also, in and through the other ordinary language, the language which primarily means, understand less and less.

Of course, this has mostly to do with myself and with my own story. And let it be said, I began to write little poems and stories at an embarrassingly young age, yes embarrassing because the boy who at the age of twelve withdrew to a room where he could be alone, there to write little poems and stories, fits only too well with the myths people like to slot artists into, that you, although you may not be born like that, like the artist you are, at least became one at quite a young age. And in my case, it fits. And things that fit too well make me very sceptical. However, that’s how it is. I have been writing from quite a young age, and the writing has always been something of its own, in a way, it was never something I did to say anything, to voice an opinion, but something that was as good as a way of existing in the world, almost a way to make yourself exist in the world, at least exist there in a good way, through what you wrote, which then lived there, so naturally, in its own existence. For when I write something I feel is well written, something new has come into the world, something that wasn’t there before, I have, as it were created existence, and this, the joy of writing people and stories, yes, whole universes no one knew about, not even I, before I had written them, surprises me, and gives me joy. No one knew about this, not before I wrote it. And where does it come from? I’ve no idea, because it is new to me as well. I probably hadn’t thought about it before. Writing, good writing, will therefore always be a place where something unknown, something which didn’t exist before, is given existence. And that, writing as a state where something, yes in a sense even a whole new universe, is created and given a kind of existence for the first time, is perhaps what I enjoy most about writing. A whole new universe comes into being every time you write well. Because all good texts, yes poems too, are in a certain sense a new universe, which did not exist before, but which is created in good writing.

I often think about my writing as a personal and social deviation, yes, that my writing is quite simply an obvious deviation, in the same way you can become addicted to something, it can be anything from collecting stamp to gambling to heroin, you can also become addicted to writing. In a sense it’s that simple. Of course I greatly appreciate all the recognition that is bestowed on me, yes, I think I appreciate it even more than I like to admit, but at the same time it worries me, when you write a lot and become a reasonably respected poet, novelist and playwright, (which is how I like to describe myself), yes when you even make good money from this deviation, this writing, you do wonder if that’s why you write, to make money, or for the glory and the fame, as they say. But no. I don’t enjoy being, and quite honestly don’t want to be, better than most people, on the contrary, it gives me, perhaps, even a sense of criminal enjoyment to be a little worse. I think I prefer to be where everyone else is, to be as invisible as possible. I want to be like everyone else, and I want everyone else to leave me alone with myself, and with mine, and with my writing.

But to be an author is not like that at all. It is, at least in Norway, almost as if, when you write, when you are a writing person, you are either clearly worse than everyone else, you write, as it were, because you don’t know your place in life, your writing indicates, as it were, that you are on the border of mental illness, if you have not already crossed that border, or you are better than everyone else, have a particular talent, something that makes you worth cultivating, makes your writing worth teaching in schools, makes you worthy of receiving distinguished awards and turns you into a living phenomenon worthy of preservation, someone people boasts about having talked to once, as they sit around their coffee tables. I’m filled with dejection. And once more, like that time you were twelve, you take refuge in writing. This place you have made for yourself in life, this place where, through abandoning both concepts and theories, and the approval of the social hierarchies, you move towards a place where you don’t understand, in fact, towards an almost absolute non-understanding, and from there, through movements and rhythms, through whatever it might be, no I don't know what it is, you write something which just exists and which, in its existence is also an understanding, but an understanding that can agree with all sorts of concepts, with all sorts of theories, an understanding that makes the language consistently mean one thing and the opposite, and many other things. The place where the writing comes from is a place which knows so much, much more than I know, because as a person I know so little, and perhaps it is like Harold Bloom suggests, that the place of writing, that what this place knows, resembles what some of the old gnostics knew, what gave them their gnosis. An insight which cannot be spoken. But which perhaps can be written. An insight which is not something you know, or are aware of, in the usual sense, because such knowledge is always about something or other, but is, on the contrary a knowledge which is not about, but which exists. In other words, what you cannot speak, you must write, as a not unknown French philosopher put it (Derrida) by twisting the words of an Austrian philosopher (Wittgenstein).

Of course, to talk about the gnosis of writing is also just a way of trying to say something about what the writing knows, but without seeing myself as a gnostic (or anything else for that matter), it feels right, in a way, to say it like that. And that to write, to write well, can be likened to the act of praying, as other have said, is obvious to me. But at the same time it feels like an almost criminal prayer.

This essay was written in March 2000 and published in French in LEXI/Textes 4 (L’Arche Editeur, Paris 2000). This is the first time it is published in English.

© Jon Fosse (Translated by May-Brit Akerholt)  

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