Barthes, Knausgaard, and Instinct

I’m reading two books right now. Or at least two that I want to mention, as I’m definitely one of those shameless people who can hop around between too many books sometimes. But the two I mention here are Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Mythologies by Roland Barthes. I’ve had them each in the rotation for a while because they are each just aggregated collections of of 2-6 page essays about everyday items and experiences, so picking them up comes with no commitment, no fear that I will lose track of what is going on or that I can’t leave the book behind just as quick as I picked it up. Barthes will talk about what’s behind the French toys of his time and deride them for the artificially-colored plastic they are made of which represents the wasteful world of the shiny, new, and unnatural and “introduce[s] one to a coenaesthesis of use, not pleasure.” He will talk about wooden toys and the humanity of touch. Karle Ove will discuss toothbrushes and I’ll learn that for some reason his three children have three (plastic, brightly colored) toothbrushes, yet no one has their own, they just kind of pick up whichever one they feel like using that day. I’ll also learn that the first time Karl Ove learned that he could lie was when he told his father that he didn’t remember if he had already brushed his teeth and so now as an adult when he doesn’t brush his teeth, he feels free, and this is why his teeth are yellow. Barthes’ set of truths, about everything from the French striptease to neither-nor criticism, is both deeper and farther away than Knausgaard’s, but Knausgaard’s perspectives, about everything from him dressing up like Father Christmas to stuffed animals to water, are somehow farther in the past but closer to the individual self. They aren’t as profound in content or conclusion, but are more profound because their topics are closer to the mental space most of us inhabit every day. His world is closer to ours than that of Barthes. He acknowledges that his stories present truths that are personal and that are true for him and him only, and so creates something intensely relatable. He implicitly invites us to consider that we all have our own set of truths and sets of feelings about random things like he has about toothbrushes. 

            I like the idea that I can look at everything as Barthes or as Knausgaard, especially now that pretty much all my time is spent at home around some of the kinds of things they talk about in their books. In a way, they represent the different minds of those inside and outside of academia. Barthes was a scholar of French literature, sociology and lexicology, and while Knausgaard has a writing degree, his mind works in a way that is much closer to the ground and much more approachable than an academic’s. They are the patron saints of my graduate degree so far and the dividers between what I call my academic and human selves. 

            Remember in 30 Rock when Jack and Liz are talking: “We might not be the best people, but we’re not the worst. Grad students are the worst.” I agree with them. And I think this is the case because a lot of students choose to look at everything like Barthes. At the end of the day I love his writing and his truths, but no one wants to hear about the rights and wrongs of using an artificially colored plastic cup at a party or be steamrolled by a Foucault quote while talking about emo music (both of these have happen to me). It is okay to turn it off. Bringing the classroom too far outside the classroom can be interesting, but read the room is all I am saying. Of course this means nothing now that all my spaces are one, but that is why I am thinking so much about it. There is no longer a physical separation so I no longer have physical walls that tell me where to talk about the software I develop for work, where to talk about literature, where to shoot the shit, and where to complain. Mental barriers are all that I have and I think that I’ve overstepped the line more than a few times while interrupting my girlfriend’s workday to figure out what I am trying to say with my voice because I can’t seem to write it down. She graciously listens to me every time but I feel like I am crossing a contextual boundary somehow.

            Separation also perpetuates the idea that those who have different knowledges are so different and defies what I am going to grad school to do, though. I believe strongly that we shouldn’t have boundaries to our knowledge and that knowledge crossover is a beautiful thing. More software people need to better at rhetoric and should habitually read stories to stay grounded and more lit majors should understand more digital tools. What if we each brought our own knowledge to the table instead of each of us trying so hard to leave it behind? And I don’t mean let’s get drunk and talk about philosophy, which I have done too many times and always feel horrifyingly embarrassed about the next day. I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know what I mean. But I am focusing very hard lately on what different spaces are for and how I act in each role. 

            Do I want to be like Barthes and think hard about why lighting a candle on my desk keeps me relaxed throughout the workday? Maybe the candle represents some previous, simpler time for each of us or reminds us of camp or of Christmastime. There are miles of room to talk about fire as an alluring, beautiful, primal force that literally brings us together perhaps because of an evolutionary dependence on it. And maybe sometimes I want to think like that. But do I want to sit there and think about my ancestors every time I light a candle? No. I want to spend a good amount of time in-between thoughts. And I want to smell this candle my mom sent me and thousand-yard stare sometimes. In a sense this is denying the civilized parts of me space to operate, but “civilized” is a word based on supremacy and for that and other reasons I think it is important that we each maintain something of our instinctual selves. The parts that don’t want to think too hard. 

            I hope that you get some kind of holiday break and that during it you find a way not to let your unique, individual, at-home spaces bleed into one another too strongly. And I hope that you make time both to think and to not, because both are beautiful. I will try to do the same. 

Thanks for reading, 


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