Knut Hamsun: Between Modernity and Tradition

Knut Hamsun was an adventurer, who has travelled through styles, genres and eras. A Norwegian genius, who is now largely unknown and forgotten, has left the literary world a work as dense as a northern forest, alternately obscure and enchanting. As a modern storyteller, he tried to escape the shackles of the literature of his time, working on both the psychology of his characters and language like a goldsmith.

If the Scandinavian writer Martin Nag describes Knut Hamsun as the “Norwegian Dostoyevsky,” it is undoubtedly because Hamsun was very much influenced by the realism of the author of The Possessed (to be clear, Russian realism is not that of the French tradition), even if his literary career took him much further. It was through an article published in 1890 in the magazine Samtiden, entitled “On the Unconscious Life of the Soul” that Knut Hamsun revealed his literary project. In this theoretical counterpart to his major novel, Hunger (1890), Hamsun showed the connection he sought to make, at least in an unconscious way, between Nietzsche’s individualism (although he neither read nor met him) and Franz Kafka’s modernity. Hamsun was impregnated by Nietzschean philosophy, thanks to the influence of Georg Brandes, who from 1888 onwards, gave a series of lectures, in Scandinavia, on the author of the Gay Science, a mindset that can be found in “Dark Sky,” the last chapter of the last book that Hamsun devoted to his trip to America. Blithely mocking his predecessors, especially Guy de Maupassant, he explored the depths of the human soul, starting with his own. This is how Hunger takes the form of a quasi-autobiographical novel. Knut Hamsun made the main character, an anonymous, modern urban, faceless, without roots, proof of his desire to break with the old codes of realism and naturalism of the declining nineteenth century—naturalism, which was more concerned with describing places, characters and objects in detail, with the aim of faithfully re-transcribing “nature.”

Knut Hamsun and the Modernity of Language

Much more than a social novel dealing with the misery and wandering of a man in a European capital that is totally unknown to him, Hunger is a psychological novel that puts its narrator in front of an alter-ego, an ambiguous companion, whom he maintains in order to cultivate the inspiration necessary for his literary work: “I had noticed very clearly that if I fasted for a long enough period, it was as if my brain was flowing very slowly from my head and leaving it empty.” This character runs through the novel, balanced between moments of genius and brilliance, between physical and mental torture. He writes thus: “God had stuck his finger in the network of my nerves and discreetly, by that way, had tangled up the threads a bit.” This ambivalent character allows Hamsun to evoke his own neuroses and to announce another objective of his life: the aesthetics of language. He never stopped working at it; sometimes with fever.

Kristofer Janson, a poet and priest who knew Hamsun, said that he knew “no one as sickly obsessed with verbal aesthetics as he was… He could jump for joy and gorge himself all day on the originality of a descriptive adjective he read in a book or found himself.” In Hunger, the character has an unpredictable and tumultuous relationship with writing: “It was as if a vein had burst in me, words follow one another, organized themselves into sets, constituted situations; scenes accumulated, actions and lines piled up in my brain and I was seized with a wonderful well-being. I write like a man possessed. I fill page after page without a moment’s respite… It keeps bursting into me. I am full of my subject and each word I write is like a dictation.”

His first novel thus inaugurated a work on the aesthetics of language. Previously, Hamsun spoke a Norwegian still “bastard,” peasant, and quite far from the bourgeois Norwegian of the capital. This is probably what he had in mind when he wrote in an article in 1888: “Language must cover all the ranges of music. The poet must always, in all situations, find the word that vibrates, that speaks to me, that can wound my soul to the point of sobbing by its precision. The word can metamorphose into color, into sound, into smell; it is up to the artist to use it to hit the nail on the head… You have to roll around in the words, to revel in them; you have to know the direct but also secret force of the Word… There are high and low resonance strings, and there are harmonics.”

Hamsun’s writing is therefore unquestionably psychological and introspective. The hunger of the hero serves to exacerbate the deepest traits of his personality. Similarly, in Pan, Hamsun delivers the character of the captain in exile, to better confront his thoughts with the wilderness: “I am sitting in the mountain and the sea and the air are whispering, which bubble and groan horribly in my ears because of the weather and the wind… The sea rises in the air, foaming and staggering, staggering; it is as if populated by great furious figures that spread their limbs and bawl at each other. No, it is a feast among ten thousand hissing demons that sink their heads into their shoulders and circle, whipping the sea into foam with the tips of their wings. Far, far away…”

We can also notice the influence of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground on the novel Mysteries and more particularly on the character of Nagel, a man who has a taste for contradiction, and who nourishes an irrepressible need for escape. Nagel shocks by his habits, by his behavior, by his attire. Indeed, if Hamsun’s stories are full of details about the clothes of the protagonists, we know almost nothing about their physical portrait. Thus, the character of Hunger attaches particular importance to his vest, which he leaves “in the hock” to be able to get some money; but his name is never mentioned. And Nagel is always dressed in a suit and a hat. Hamsun’s characters are thus reduced to a silhouette, flat areas of neo-impressionist colors that reveal only their most intimate and sometimes most brutal psychology, like Thomas Glahn in Pan, who kills his dog without apparent motive.

Knut Hamsun, the Man of Tradition

If Knut Hamsun’s characters are modern in their resolutely introspective treatment, they evolve in a surprisingly traditional setting. Indeed, Knut Hamsun, raised in the Protestant tradition by his uncle, and drawing from his mother a deep attachment to his country, fed his stories with a telluric and almost carnal energy.

Hamsun reveals himself in a less obvious way as a man of tradition, in many ways a “pagan who adores Christ,” to quote Nicolás Gómez Dávila. One thinks of the setting of his novels, such as Pan, in which he shows his attachment to the nature of the North, or Markens grode (The Fruits of the Earth, or Growth of the Soil), a rewriting of Genesis. Very critical of bourgeois materialism, Hamsun maintained throughout his life a close relationship with spirituality, which occupies an important place in his books. Thus, in Victoria (1898), he writes in praise of the Gospels: “Love was the first word of God and the first thought that crossed his mind. When he commanded ‘Let there be light,’ love was. All his creation was successful and he did not want to change anything. And love, which had been at the origin of the world, was also its master. But its paths are strewn with flowers and blood. Of flowers and blood.”

Hamsun’s detestation of the bourgeois world is also apparent in a 1917 work entitled, Segelfoss By (Segelfoss Town). In it, Hamsun evokes a city “as if resurrected from the dead,” where people live in “small and old-fashioned” conditions, which is “as it used to be, a long time ago.” This neighboring city is symbolically outside of space and time. However, there is no nostalgia in Hamsun, who is aware of the changes and ruptures of time. Enemy of the modern world and major player in the Norwegian literary revival, his fate is similar to that of Ezra Pound in the United States or Louis-Ferdinand Céline in France.

Antoine Pizaine is a historian, monarchist and Maurrassian. This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.

Featured: “Portrait of the Author Knut Hamsun,” by Alfredo Andersen; painted in 1891.

Yukio Mishima: The Pen and the Sword

If Yukio Mishima remains a key figure in Japanese literature and beyond, it is undoubtedly because he was able to weave a perfectly fitting samurai costume. The writer rejected the mechanization and modernization of Japan to the death. He embodies the spirit of sacrifice in the service of an age-old aesthetic and a nationalism rooted in the smoldering ruins of imperial Japan.

On November 25, 1970, after submitting the manuscript of his tetralogy to his publisher, The Sea of Fertility, and its fourth part, The Decay of the Angel (a somewhat clumsy translation after Marguerite Yourcenar, who suggested “the rotten angel”), Mishima went to the Ministry of the Army accompanied by three of his disciples. He took the General Commander-in-Chief of the Self-Defense Forces hostage and had the troops summoned. He made a speech in favor of traditional Japan and Emperor Hirohito. Very quickly, he was forced to give up in front of the hostile reaction of the soldiers. He then proceeded to his ritual suicide by seppuku, following the tradition of bushido (“the way of the warrior”), and was decapitated by one of his acolytes. More than a ritual suicide, it was a real ritualized and theatrical killing, because it was filmed and photographed. Until death, Kimitake Hiraoka remained Yukio Mishima; that is to say an artist, the “Japanese Jean Cocteau,”, as he was sometimes nicknamed. Marguerite Yourcenar even said that “Mishima’s death is one of his works and even the most prepared of his works.”

Born in 1925 in Tokyo, Mishima appears both as an anachronism, and as a synthesis of European and Japanese classical genius. It was perhaps even in the European classical genius that he found a hope to rectify a Japan that was modernizing (he wrote mainly in the 1950s and 1960s) and Americanizing at full speed (the country is a quasi-American protectorate since the Japanese defeat following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Mishima was therefore undoubtedly the last samurai of Japan. This is how he thought of himself, paying homage through his book on Japan and the Samurai aesthetic, a critical essay on Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure. He was the last to have cultivated this synthesis of the literate spirit and the cult of the body.

Mishima’s Obsession with Death

Mishima was haunted by the idea of death as a memory. This can be seen in three major facts: the first is the memory of burned Tokyo, which did not begin to haunt him until many years after the end of the war. This vision, as well as the two American nuclear bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, influenced Mishima’s entire generation, down to today, in cinema and literature. The bombings forged the relationship of the Japanese to the war, to the foreigner and to this brand new nuclear energy, in the Kaiju films, starting with the first of them, directed by Ishiro Honda in 1954, Godzilla (Gojira/ ゴジラ in Japanese).

Then, this culture of death also influenced and nourished him through his fascination with figures of European classicism—how can we forget the striking photo of Mishima as Saint Sebastian, hands tied, pierced with arrows, the body tense and muscular?

In the end, it was in the cult of the way of the samurai that he was able to find a means out of a Japan in decline. Mishima, a fearful, solitary child, refusing the modern Japan that was thrust on him, nevertheless decided to be a samurai of his time, the only authentic way for him to go his way and go to his end; by refusing modernization and mechanization, he chose the time and the way of his death. Between the code of chivalry, philosophy and religion, doesn’t the Hagakure say “I understood that the way of the warrior is death?” Every day, he “followed the way” and trained with a sword, even though the use of swords was forbidden at the end of the Edo period.

Therefore, how can we not understand his distress and anger, especially through his novel After the Banquet, which denounces the vanity of the behavior of the new Japanese bourgeoisie and especially the parliamentary system that Mishima hated. Similarly, in his novella, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, he evokes themes of traditional Japan—beauty, ugliness and community.

In 25 years, Mishima wrote about a hundred works: plays, short stories, novels, essays. This is not the work of a man lost in an era that is not his own, wandering aimlessly, but that of a man who realizes that feudal Japan and the samurai are no more.

The Samurai and the Martyr: A Sense of Duty and Self-Improvement

But Mishima is also the paradoxical synthesis between Japanese samurai education and European classical literature. He loved Racine, Balzac, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and many others. In his quest for excellence and, again, for a lost ideal, since Europe had stepped into the midst of industrial and mechanical modernity, Mishima found a bridge in the figure of Saint Sebastian. Indeed, the Christian martyr, like the samurai, dies when his time has come, without shirking. Yamamoto Jōchō, in his Hagakure, writes: “True courage consists in living when it is right to live, and dying when it is right to die,” insisting precisely on the necessity to do one’s duty and not to run away from death. If the deep reason for Mishima’s morbid and almost erotic fascination with Saint Sebastian remains to be determined, the link between self-sacrifice and surpassing oneself, dear to the martyr and the samurai, undoubtedly enabled him to create this character, which is now almost mythical.

Antoine Pizaine is a historian, monarchist and Maurrassian. This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.