Life, Death and the Hidden Light

This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jon Fosse of Norway, is a prolific writer who should now become better known in the West. His work certainly merits this. Septology, a 7-book novel comprised of three individual titles (The Other Name, I Is Another, A New Name) in just one sentence, more or less, is widely—and justly—regarded as a masterpiece. The work has been hailed as both a new form of fiction and a completely unique reading experience.

In the United States, Septology is published by Transit Books, a small, recently founded publisher based in the Bay Area. The brilliant, incantatory English translation is by Damion Searls. Publishing Fosse is quite a coup for the new imprint.

Septology is a different kind of reading experience. While the seven-book, one-sentence description above may sound daunting, the work itself is anything but. It might best be described as a kind of spiritual journey, one keenly felt by the reader as well as the principal protagonist, a painter named Asle.

Asle’s St. Andrews Cross, generated by DALL-E.
Asle’s St. Andrews Cross, generated by DALL-E.

Asle believes in God, though not merely in the conventional ways. For him, God resides in everything, as a sort of hidden light. Early on, he has worked on a painting which his neighbor dubs St. Andrews Cross—two thick lines forming an X-shaped cross on a black background, one line brown, the other purple. Asle believes a dark light shines from this painting.

That light somehow reflects the inexplicable mysteries of life, death and God, Asle believes. As he says, “…it’s definitely true that it’s just when things are darkest, blackest, that you see the light, that’s when this light can be seen, when the darkness is shining, yes, and it has always been like that in my life at least, when it’s darkest is when the light appears, when the darkness starts to shine, and maybe it’s the same way in the pictures I paint, anyway I hope it is….”

Fosse’s writings about the ineffable somehow seem deeply real, and intensely engaging. Lauren Groff, reviewing his more recent novella A Shining in the Guardian, writes that his fiction “somehow dissolves the border between the material and the spiritual worlds,” and this is true. Yet Fosse’s work is amazingly accessible and compelling, nowhere more so than in Septology (though A Shining will provide you with a brief, stripped-down example).

These works will not resolve the great issues of life, death or God; no straightforward explanations are offered, nor could they be. But in reading Fosse, you will feel the grip and importance of these issues and the questions they raise as never before.

Ceasefire Now!

This page has been silent for most of 2023. In part, this has been due to work on a sizable project. In larger part, though, our silence reflects a stunned reaction to the ever-growing cascade of dire news around the world. What to say? Where to even begin?

Now, however, with 2024 on the horizon, it’s time to speak out again. We could address Trump’s possible (likely?) return to the White House next year … the world’s pathetic efforts to combat climate change … the hopeless situation of gun violence in America. Instead, we’ll focus on the most conspicuous bit of bad news on our screens at the moment: the incredibly disproportionate and criminal violence Israel continues to inflict on civilians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Gaza destruction.
Bombing survivors. Image source: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images.

Yes, Hamas did commit atrocities against Israeli citizens on October 7. Horrendous atrocities. There’s no argument there. The argument is against the scale of Israel’s response. As always, far more Palestinians have died than Israelis, thanks in part to America’s long-term, continuing military support. And the Palestinians who have died are overwhelmingly civilians (many of them children), not Oct. 7 attackers. When called out on this, Israelis have pointed to America’s own disproportionate sins, namely Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We should specify that we do not believe our anti-Zionist stance is antisemitic, though Israel and right-wing U.S. supporters would claim that it is. Rather, our condemnation of Israel’s long-term behavior, and its atrocious behavior right now, is a straightforward matter of observation. In addition to the vast destruction and the indiscriminate killing Israel is currently perpetrating, officials in that country’s government have been outspoken in calling for the blood of the “human animals” they are murdering in Gaza. Within the far-right Israeli government, there is not even a pretense of concern over civilian deaths.

Both Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), two groups noted for trying to stop violence and bloodshed around the globe, are calling for an immediate ceasefire. That is but a minimal first step. It’s a contemptible shame that Western governments, including our own, lack the courage to support even that.

By the way, Amnesty International also notes, correctly, that Israel operates an apartheid state, and has done so for decades.

If any of the above resonates with you, write to your government officials. Do something to counter the blind, pro-Israel support dominating our government. Say something! Donate to Amnesty and MSF. And if you want to push Israel harder, consider supporting BDS. (Note that this last step may entail personal risk at some point.)

Trigger Warning

Recent shootings of innocent visitors by elderly homeowners in Kansas City and Upstate New York have prompted a lot of anguished discussion. Both incidents are mind-boggling: why would you shoot a 16-year-old kid for ringing your doorbell? Why would you fire live rounds at visitors turning around in your driveway?

Elderly man with a rifle. Image source: Craiyon.
Elderly man with a rifle. Image source: Craiyon.

“Stand-your-ground” laws have been cited (Missouri has one, New York does not). So has the “castle doctrine.” However, Christopher Slobogin, law professor at Vanderbilt University and director of the school’s Criminal Justice Program, notes that both of these legal precepts “… still [require you] to be reasonable in your response to the attacker.” *

Fine, except there was no attacker in either case. Ralph Yarl, a black teenager, was shot twice by 84-year-old Andrew Lester for ringing Lester’s doorbell. Yarl was shot in the head but nonetheless survived. Kaylin Gillis, 20, was shot by 65-year-old Kevin Monahan for mistakenly driving, with friends, up Monahan’s driveway in search of a friend’s house. The cars were turning around when Gillis was shot and killed.

So, in addition to questionable self-defense doctrines, you could look at age as a possible factor in these shootings. You could certainly cite racism in the Kansas City case. But you still wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter: the obscene flow of guns throughout America, guns which are available to anyone at any time, regardless of their capabilities or circumstances.

Caroline Light, author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense, notes that stand-your-ground laws have been associated with an 8% to 11% national increase in monthly homicide rates and have given ordinary Americans a selective right to kill.** 

Light further notes that “the key thing here is that in this uneven landscape, where the laws are all kind of different state-by-state, we can see how the circulation of firearms and the expansion of justifiable homicide creates a more precarious landscape for everybody.”

Indeed. It’s the guns, people. It’s the goddamn guns.

* Ralph Yarl, Kaylin Gillis shootings may renew debate about ‘stand your ground’ laws.

** Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.