This is the second installment in a four-part series on Knut Hamsun’s novel “Mysteries.” The first part, which explains the plot and Nagel’s stance on life and death, can be found online at bilnews.bilkent.edu.tr /opinions.
Nagel is made up of nature and visions, which are themselves full of the thick light of his own God. “You find a bed in a damp patch, you lie on your stomach in the marshy ground and take pleasure in getting thoroughly soaked. And you bury your head in the reeds and soggy leaves and crawling things, and soft little lizards crawl on your clothes…. God on high sits looking down on you – you, the most fixed of all his fixed ideas!” In this one monologue Nagel lays out his only irrefutable truths: “You feel a strange diabolic joy which you’ve never felt before. You go to every extreme of madness – scramble right and wrong, turn the world upside down; you are as elated as if you had just done a noble deed. You yield to powers beyond you…. Now you’re really giving way to the most delicious madness – all the barriers are coming down!” He is a conduit of some sort of God, a non-communal, highly human sort of God, communicable only through long dissections of the soul, and then only accessible through solitude, through obsession, complete and unerring devotion, self-violation, self-immolation, a determined and specific love. Nagel is a prophet who does not know himself, but who senses such things as he says the way he does in order to make clear his absolute holiness. He changes because God changes and is sacred and un-sacred, as convoluted as all religion, with one different redeeming trait: Nagel’s faith is as clear and pure inside as is the earth in the eyes of the very young, and it is clear because it is a dissertation of human nature; it is always in the form of what is exactly human, and it is so intense and replete with so many cosmic mysteries that it becomes utterly mad. It is mad because Nagel himself does not understand it. He has no will and no power. He is in the hands only of his own humanness.
Nagel’s explosiveness and expansiveness take on a different shape with women. He seems to be in the habit of making them into objects, sometimes of beauty, at times of desire, and then of holy love. He radiates emotion at whatever he can find to consume: “He jumped up, caught up with her as she was going down the stairs, and, devouring her with his eyes, he exclaimed: ‘Sara, you are really a delight!’” He seizes upon Martha after a long-festering memory of a look. “What a strange blending of a child’s soul with that of a spinster! A single remark, a single word made her heart leap with joy, made her smile, moved her to tenderness…. Her pure, shy nun’s heart beat against his hand, and he gently caressed her hair.” And with Dagny – it is Nagel’s story and it is Dagny Kielland’s – she is his liver, and he seems not to like the liver so much as he likes the idea of how good it must look as it churns the blood of someone else’s body. Dagny is only as sane as Nagel is and sometimes quite the opposite. We can never know because Nagel never talks, he sings, long sweet ululations in the mud of what he wants. He sings praises and wrath to God, which is his women, which is his dwelling and his love. He is the world’s enchanter and a shaman and a fool. He idolizes purity, innocence, openness and vulnerability, all of which, and everything he appears to lack, he finds in Martha Gude. Nagel himself is short of stature, dark, drawing attention with his attire and his sophisms and his nerves. He wants to dazzle and to obfuscate. He adores the plain and clear and pushes it away with a hand. Nagel is not meant to be understood, Martha is too innocent to be known, and Dagny is closed because she need not be open to the eyes of anyone else.
Nagel needs an audience, and everyone he picks is wrong. “God,” he will tell Dagny as he sits across from her, a stranger of the evening, “how beautiful you are!” He is the greatest expresser of them all, a blackguard storyteller, constructed out of moving parts. His women are real and they are fictitious in the same way everything he sees is fictitious, and they are better than him for the sole reason of their self-possession, because Martha will always be better at solitude, and Dagny will always beat him at love. It is his death that she reserves her superior talent for someone else.