- I-II – The Other Name
- III-V – I Is Another
- V-VII – A New Name
2019, 2020, and 2021 in translation by Damion Searls
Asle stands and looks at his picture, the one with the two lines that cross in the middle, brown and purple, the crossing colours blending beautifully, and he thinks; and Asle sits in his chair and looks out at the fixed point in the Sygne Sea, there where the tops of the pine trees meet the middle pane of the window, and daydreams; and Asle drives to Bjorgvin, and back, the route he knows so well he can fall into a sort of stupor and reminisce; and at all these times Asle rehearses in his mind his past life and love, his painting, his frugal plans, his faith, and never comes to a full stop even right at the end of the seventh book, the last book, just when you really think he might
Fosse has written a novel describing the practice of contemplation, in the Christian sense of the word analogous to Buddhist meditation and its aim to be rid of all attachment to the world. The first words of that classic work of mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing, are: ‘Here begins a book of contemplation’ – though what is to be attained is named ‘a soul … made one with God’ rather than ‘Enlightenment’.
Given that the practice of contemplation is characterised by emptying the mind, by ‘unknowing’, describing it would seem a quixotic ambition, particularly for a novel. Had it been put to me prior to reading these books I would have struggled to believe it possible, yet there can be no doubt Fosse has some success.
It may seem a rarefied subject matter, not to say frivolous, or even pernicious. Many in my social milieu would scorn a book that treats God as to be sincerely reckoned with. Well, as William Blake put it, ‘Every thing possible to be believed is an image of truth’. Even those beliefs that seem to us most obviously false emanate from and are reflections of, however refracted, truth.
Each of the seven sections ends in a prayer, Asle repeating the Lord’s Prayer, or the Ave Maria, while focusing on his breathing, or thumbing the beads of his rosary. These ritual prayers are frequently given to the reader in full, and their repetitions tie together, make explicit, those that pervade the narrative. Characters themselves are repeated, doubled – we get two Asle’s, two Guro’s, and the strange overlaps in the relationship, or even identity, of the doubles are left unresolved. Asle and his neighbour speak in repetition, their long acquaintance, their rural and isolated lives, meaning that they already know each other’s news, opinions, likes and dislikes, so that they speak in ritual phrases. The language of the novel itself proceeds in measured phrases, unhurried.
In part Fosse means by repetition to take us out of time, or a certain sort of time – out of the momentum of our lives, out of the story of progress, of one thing leading to another. The busy, linear, secular, serial time of getting things done (or plot being developed) is not the time that his character Asle lives (at least, not all the time). Asle’s time circles back on itself, returns to special moments, rehearses familiar thoughts. It is the time of experience rather than that of the clock.
In addition, by this repetition of language, this chanting, this mantra, Fosse wants to get across that the contemplation of God is a practice rather than a system of beliefs. Rituals often use repetition to place their participants in a state conducive to contemplation, and Fosse wants to nudge us toward this place: ‘seeing oneself as Catholic isn’t just a belief, it’s a way of being alive and being in the world’.
This notion of the approach to God as something one does – an attitude or state of being one inculcates – rather than a dogma, is worth dwelling on. To quote the philosopher John Gray:
Atheists who think of religions as erroneous theories mistake faith – trust in an unknown power – for belief.Seven Types of Atheism – John Gray
This mistake, one not made only by unbelievers, results in a weirdly confluent movement of both religious fundamentalists and atheists to persuade others that religion is a matter of unthinking literal belief in some immutable set of statements. Passing acquaintance with your common or garden religious person ought to be enough to dispel this, with most not being pedants of their book, nor even necessarily very familiar with it. Through most of the history of most religions, most religious people couldn’t even read. And speaking of the history of religion, what a farrago of argument and disputation, endless heresies and schisms.
Asle sometimes thinks about his religion, about what God is or isn’t, and ends up stuck with ‘but do I believe that? … is it even possible to believe something like this?’ or ‘I don’t understand what I’m thinking, and I don’t know what I believe or don’t believe’. He returns to his prayers, the words worn smooth as his rosary beads, polished of meaning by long use to the point that they fall silent in their speech, and that silence becomes a space waiting to be filled.
So if faith and contemplation are practices, what are their results? Among them, for Asle, are that when he paints a picture, he knows it’s good when he begins to make out an invisible light in it. What’s an invisible light? I wouldn’t know myself, if I hadn’t seen it. For me it was first in the faces of women I have loved, as Asle sees, when he looks at his wife Ales, ‘an incomprehensible light that streams invisibly from her face’. Occasionally I’ve seen it – I want to call it a radiance, though it changes not a single visual perception – in trees, in the halo of mist shrouded sodium street lamps, or pervading my surroundings entirely.
I mention this not to raise myself up into the company of saints, rather the contrary. My thoughts after experiences of this kind were that as they’d happened to me, and I’m a person, they must be among the sorts of thing that happen to people. This would appear to be somewhere in the vicinity of Fosse’s thoughts on the matter – Asle is not a monk, simply someone who does his work, goes about his day, who thinks about his place in the world, the people of his past. Fosse has called his writing ‘mystical realism’ to emphasise that whatever might seem esoteric in it is at home in the everyday.
The problem we have is that – as the phrase ‘invisible light’ shows – words aren’t adequate to such experiences, and so how are we ever to discuss them? Insofar as a vocabulary exists to describe such things, it is that of mysticism. This is a problem, particularly for those who spurn religion but experience the things it speaks of.
Certainly Barbara Ehrenreich, political journalist, doctor of cellular biology, and lifelong atheist, found it difficult to accommodate an experience that broke through her in her youth.
At some point in my predawn walk … the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? … Something poured into me and I poured out into it … a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.Living With a Wild God – Barbara Ehrenreich
It was only much later in life that she felt capable of grappling with this that had happened to her that she had no words for. Especially given that when she discovered others had talked of such things it was in mystical terms, ‘a vocabulary and framework foreign to [her], if not actually repulsive.’
In her book on the subject she notes that close to 50% of people in the USA admit to having had a ‘mystical experience’ when surveyed. Even allowing that this might encompass a diverse range of phenomena, not all congruent with those under discussion, there’s something significant here. The classic work in this field remains William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which the author enumerates and analyses many examples, ancient and contemporary, from the lives of the saints, obscure autobiographies, psychological case histories, and more. We can leave aside the question of whether these experiences are of the Christian God, or any god at all (Ehrenreich vehemently rejects the idea): these are among the sorts of thing that happen to people.
They can be made out to be more or less than is necessary. Because what we can call mystical experience often comes with a sense of supreme significance, people who undergo it can sometimes think that their experience is of supreme significance for other people. Similarly, each person comes to such experience in some particular set of circumstances, or by following some particular practices, and it’s a pet theory of mine that this can be at the root of what leads the more enthusiastic to then mandate those particular practices – that is, religious practices – more coercively than is strictly polite: ‘I did this thing and something wonderful happened, so now I need to make everyone else do the thing. For their own good.’
Another danger here is the notion that to experience something like this is to have completed the game of life. Punk rock Zen priest Brad Warner questions the very idea of ‘Enlightenment’ for this reason, given that it leads some to think they have had what he calls the ‘Big Fat Download from on High That Fixes Everything Forever Amen’.
If the person who glimpses this is not very mature, this understanding can and does lead to all kinds of not-at-all-nice-things. To take one sadly far-too-common example, you can begin to believe that since all is one, and I am the same as everyone else, then I am the same as my best friend, and it is therefore perfectly all right for me to schtup his wife because, she’s, like, my wife too, right? And besides that even, she is ultimately the same as me ‘cuz, like, everything is the same as me. Therefore on the basis of Ultimate Reality – which, of course, I am privy to, having been enlightened and all – I’m not really doing any harm to anyone but myself. And, hey, I can handle it, so everything is cool.Sit Down and Shut Up – Brad Warner
This is a pretty spot on précis of the doctrine of the mediaeval Brethren of the Free Spirit, who taught that the import of the sense of mystical union was that they had become God. For many of its adherents, the doctrine had relatively benign consequences. For others…
One can be so united with God that whatever one may do one cannot sin.The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millennarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages – Norman Cohn
Adepts of the Free Spirit, being one with God, could only do what God wanted, could only do right things. And so they freely, and in good conscience, lied and cheated, stole – with violence if necessary – and were promiscuous (this last is not in itself so much seen as sinful these days, but the schtupping-your-best-friend’s-wife variety is still generally frowned upon, and in bands of believers led by charismatic preachers was no doubt on the menu). Later iterations of this way of thinking saw bands of armed cultists marauding through the European countryside, and the infamous tyranny of the Anabaptist occupation of Munster.
Warner classes this as obsession, the desire ‘to hold onto that one shining moment of clarity’, a desire which clouds appreciation of all the other – less heralded but no less less true – moments of our lives. Obsessives may also become collectors of mystical experience.
They categorize them into levels of awakening. They compare their enlightenment experiences with each other the same way a group of seven-year-olds might compare Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. They envy those with the cooler experiences and lord it over those who’ve attained lower levels of enlightenment.Sit Down and Shut Up – Brad Warner
The author of the Cloud… similarly warns that though God may ‘set aflame the body of a devout servant’, this is not the goal of the contemplative life.
Some people are so weak and tender of spirit that, if they did not receive some encouragement by experiencing such sweetness, they could never bear or endure the variety of temptations and tribulations that they suffer … on the other hand there are people so strong in spirit … that they have no great need to be sustained with such sweet pleasure … Which of the two of these types is the holier or dearer to God, God knows and not I.The Cloud of Unknowing
For both the Cloud… author and Warner, these are among the sorts of thing that happen to people. There is no final apotheosis, only the practice, whether that’s ‘beat[ing] on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love’, or, well, sitting down and shutting up.
And though I speak of spiritual practice, something that may sound arcane, the experience comes before the practice. Only when we’ve had the experience do we know that something is worth practising, only then do we think about how we got there and try to repeat what we can now call a technique. I have occasionally dabbled in meditation, and the first time I did so I realised that I had already been in something like the state of mind it accessed – when daydreaming, lost in music, angstily wondering what good I could do in the world.
To reach into a cloud of unknowing with a dart of longing love is not more than to accept that you understand nothing of the world, and still somehow want to be of benefit. Many the human who has found themselves under this shadow. The only caveat I put forward is that to accept that you understand nothing of the world is not to file away that piece of information, to intellectually note its likely truth – it is an active stance, an attitude of the whole being.
But some while back I mentioned that mystical experiences can also be made out to be less than is necessary. This is usually through some form of ‘explanation’ that aims rather to dismiss than explain, to say, ‘oh, it’s just so-and-so’, with a great deal hinging on that ostensibly neutral word ‘just’. Often these explanations relate to mental illness or hallucinogenic drugs. Indeed, it’s very likely that some mystics have had mental illness and/or have ingested drugs – these are among the sorts of thing that happen to people.
But to diagnose, usually without benefit of any clinical study and with minimal context, the recounting of a transcendent experience, often couched in the terms of long traditions, is reductive. Besides which, most of the times people undergo mental illness, or trip balls, they do not have mystical experiences, nor are all mystics high or insane. And then again, mystical experiences can resonate profoundly with people who have not had them, becoming part of the culture of religions, and so even if all such experiences were drug induced or caused by mental pathology, there would still be something in there distinguishing them from your common-or-garden hallucination.
We return to the question, then: what is this something in there? This wordlessness, this invisible light. When Asle thinks about it, he often thinks of Meister Eckhart.
was gott fur sich selbst ist, das jann niemand begreifen … gott ist nichts was man in worte fassen kannSeptology, Jon Fosse
It’s a little unhelpful that Fosse quotes the original German, but the internet says that the 13th century Dominican theologian intends: ‘what god is for himself that no one can understand … God is not something that can be put into words’. I don’t vouch for the precision of the English formulation, but it’s close enough to demonstrate that Eckhart was a proponent of the via negativa, the way of negation, also known as apophatic theology. If God is transcendent, then He is above all human understanding, and so we must approach Him by moving our attempts at understanding out of the way – a transcendent God is obviously not male, for a start. ‘He’ is not a father, is not good, even the term ‘God’ is insufficient. In this way we enter the cloud of unknowing.
The author of a recent article on Septology in the London Review of Books considers its ‘religiosity .. old-fashioned’ and is puzzled that Fosse would include prayers within a story that implicitly questions their effect, given its emphasis on life as ‘hard, lonely and bleak’.
As discussed above, religiosity is not, in itself, the point. It is a practice, a tool, a means to an end. Its prayers are a way of being with the world, and what might lie behind the world, not a transaction with a business partner: ‘I’ll be this good if you make my life this much better’. This is the lesson of Job, one of the finest books of the Bible. As for life being hard, which of us doesn’t know of this aspect of it? If for Fosse too, faith is trust in an unknown power, that trust is not in goodness – God is transcendent of the good, as of all else – it is in the unknown. Faith is a step over the horizon of hope.
Incidentally, by this stage some more impatient readers may be annoyed that all this seems to be propaganda for Christianity. Should you repent, sinner, and become a Christian? Dunno mate. If you like. I’m not.
But perhaps some confusion can be expected: as an approach to the divine, the via negativa is not mainstream. Indeed, Eckhart was tried for heresy, and though not declared a heretic, was subsequently subject to the censure of Pope John XXII. Which just goes to show that heresy is a feature of religion, an engine of its evolution. Pope John XXII, amid the turbulent politics of the time, was himself declared a heretic, later reinstated, and then again accused of heresy.
Notwithstanding controversy, the via negativa is a thread woven throughout religious history, most often expressed as the notion, too often taken to fanatical extremes, that making a representation of God is idolatry. From the, at the time, shocking innovation of the empty altar in the temple of Jerusalem, to Iconoclasm, and more topically the taboo against visual depictions of the prophet Muhammad, there are many examples.
Pushed to its limit, voiding all positive statements about God, the via negativa encroaches on the territory of the atheist, allowing Fosse to have Asle think ‘God does not exist’, and even, ‘Meister Eckhart is right about how many of the people who don’t believe in God are people who really do, while the ones who are doing all kinds of things to show that they believe in God actually believe in something other than God’.
Fosse’s phrase ‘shining darkness’ – synonymic of his ‘invisible light’ – appears in an English translation of the Neoplatonic Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. That work is a touchstone for Eckhart (and for the author of the Cloud…) and so its use is surely not coincidental. For Pseudo-Dionysius, God’s ‘incomprehensible transcendence is incomprehensibly above all affirmation and denial.’
So when Asle thinks ‘God does not exist’, is it the same thought, in the same way, that an atheist might have? When you want to speak of what transcends words, or even knowledge at all, things get muddled up. We perhaps have to fall back on something like Maggie Nelson’s take on Wittgenstein:
…the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed.’The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
We cannot pin down the inexpressible, the transcendent. Not in our words, nor in our thoughts. But each time we aim at it with an expression that falls short, our gestures are nevertheless a furthering of the stuff of the universe out of which emanates, here and there, now and then, a shining darkness, an invisible light.
it’s not the painter who sees, it’s something else seeing through the painter, and it’s like this something is trapped in the picture and speaks silently from it’Septology – Jon Fosse