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[Readings]

Only a Game

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From a letter written by Karl Ove Knausgaard to Fredrik Ekelund, a novelist, in 2014. The letter was included in Home and Away, a collection of their letters about the World Cup, which will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Séan Kinsella.

Dear Fredrik,

When you describe the pope and the cardinals watching soccer on TV I react with a strong sense that this is wrong. TV and the pope don’t belong together. Do not imagine I am joking, I mean this. Not rationally, but emotionally: TV and all it represents is irreconcilable with the pope and all he represents. To be human is to be so small, so random, so improvised, so arbitrary, so hastily assembled. We cut ourselves on tin cans as we open them, we forget where we leave a car key and spend a whole morning looking for it, we miss the bus and run after it banging on the door while the driver sits inside in the warmth (it happens mostly in winter), shaking his head, probably gloating. A child misses her footing on the trampoline, hits herself in the face on the iron frame, and breaks a tooth. We spill coffee on the computer keyboard, we say stupid things to people we don’t like and regret it for days afterward, we forget the stove is on and boil the pan dry, we put so much salt in our food that it is impossible to eat, we cut our hands as we tie up a rosebush blown over in the winter storms, or we notice too late that the weed we are pulling up is a nettle. And think about all the foolishness that produces a fatal outcome — the man wearing a Moomin costume who is knocked down by a car and dies, people who fall and knock their heads on the edge of the bath and die, people who walk onto smooth coastal rocks to see the enormous waves and are swept into the sea and drown, people who go to sleep drunk and suffocate on their own vomit, people who put a hand into water while holding some kind of electric apparatus, people who stumble down cellar stairs and die. You know where I am going. The world is material, it consists of more or less hard surfaces with more or less jagged edges, and we humans never have complete control over our actions, unforeseen accidents happen all the time, some with fatal outcomes. Not to mention all the misunderstandings that arise and all the vague and downright incorrect knowledge people possess. That is how it is. That is our world. Religion, in this light, is a fantastic discovery, the greatest in the history of mankind, because in religion we erect a magnificent sky above all this smallness and misery, and say this is the real, the essential, the true. There, in this perfect space, are the perfect creatures, the holy beings, the divine principles. Whether we believe in religion or not, churches were built as holy places, holy zones in the midst of trivial reality. The priests’ attire was magnificent. The songs and the music were magnificent. The language, the invocation or the interpretation of God, magnificent, and as far away from reality as you could get. The incense magnificent. The lights magnificent. No weapons. No arguing. No loud voices. No stumbling. No making of food. Only devotion, solemnity. It didn’t matter whether a man had died by falling into the manure cellar and drowning in excreta, when he was buried it was with dignity, piety, his life was sacred, all our lives were sacred, humanity was immense. It didn’t matter if the priest, as soon as he was alone, wanked over the bathroom sink or had worms and pulled down his trousers to scratch his ass because no one saw. The technology we have now means that human foolishness, which previously was private, witnessed by one or two or maybe twenty people, and human smallness, which was bound by time and place, have become boundless, are everywhere, and what has been lost, what no one seems to want back, is grandness and dignity. The pope has probably watched TV since the 1950s and enjoyed it, but when he does so openly, in the full glare of publicity, when his picture is disseminated by press agencies and printed in newspapers and shown on web pages all over the world, there is no longer any pope, he is no longer a representative of the divine on earth, everything has gotten mixed up and holiness has dissolved into foolishness. The fact that no one cares, or at least very few, is because other zones have taken over the role the church used to have.

On a soccer field, almost everything human has been removed. What is left are rules, rituals, and predetermined patterns of behavior, from which all doubt and ambivalence have been erased: when a goal is scored that is all that exists, the goal-scorer’s happiness is total, he screams as loudly as he can, he wheels away with his arms in the air, his teammates shout and run after him. When do you see such elation in real life? Not even when a child is born do you see such comprehensive joy. Soccer is a theater, a place where the normal world has no place, it is a zone of concentrated meaning. If someone in the street threw a melon in the air and jumped up and kicked it while upside down, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic did against England, no one would admire the acrobatics, no one would acclaim the acrobat or appreciate the performance, because it would be worthless. What a soccer player can do has value only on the field. Everywhere else, soccer moves are worthless in the same way that pouring water onto a child’s head is worthless outside a church. The actions have value because they occur in a restricted area in which we say they have value. The structure is the same. This was what became so clear when the pope was watching soccer on TV.


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December 2016