October 19, 2018

The teleological error of biography

‘The issue with biography as a genre, and this is as true of autobiography as it is of the memoir, is that the author purports to be omniscient, a sole authority, he or she knows how it all turned out, and as such it is almost impossible not to accord emphasis to any sign, be it character trait or event, that points in that one direction, even if, as in this instance, it is merely one trait, one event among many others that in no way called attention to themselves. Of course, the truth of any past situation is elusive, it belongs to the moment and cannot be separated from it, but we may ensnare that moment, illuminate it from different angles, weigh the plausibility of one interpretation against that of another, and in that experiment endeavor to ignore what later happened, which is to say refrain from considering one character trait, one event, as a sign of something other than what it is in itself.

‘This “in itself” is both riddle and solution at the same time. If we view Hitler as a “bad” person, with categorically negative characteristics even as a child and a young man, all pointing toward a subsequently escalating “evil,” then Hitler is of “the other,” and thereby not of us, and in that case we have a problem, since then we are unburdened of the atrocities he and Germany later committed, these being something “they” did, so no longer a threat to us. But what is this “bad” that we do not embody? What is this “evil” that we do not express? The very formulation is indicative of how we humans think in terms of categories, and of course there is nothing wrong with that as long as we are aware of the dangers. In the night of pathology and the predetermined there is no free will, and without free will there is not guilt.

‘No matter how broken a person might be, no matter how disturbed the soul, that person remains a person always, with the freedom to choose. It is choice that makes us human. Only choice gives meaning to the concept of guilt.

‘Kershaw and almost two generations with him have condemned Hitler and his entire being as if pointing to his innocence when he was nineteen or twenty-three, or pointing to some of the good qualities he retained throughout his life, were a defense of him and of evil. In actual fact the opposite is true: only his innocence can bring his guilt into relief.’

My Struggle (Min Kamp), Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken