This is the third 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’s rapture is not reserved for beauty, but shows its face in strange and lucid constellations: “He was in a strange, euphoric state of mind; his every nerve vibrated; he was part of nature, of the sun, the mountains; he was omniscient; the trees, the earth, the moss, spoke to him alone.” He describes his mental voyages without compunction to the loosest bands of strangers. “For ten hours I’ve been walking around in a most exquisite trance. I feel as if I were in a boat of scented wood with a crescent-shaped, pale-blue silk sail…I have the feeling that I’m out fishing – fishing with a silver hook.” The most memorable of them all is one he relates to Dagny about an ethereal woman he meets in the dark hours of the early morning because he has decided to follow her father, a blue-faced madman who appears in his room, through the woods to a dilapidated tower. “The man moved towards the door and vanished….I couldn’t see a thing, but I felt the presence of the little man at my side….I walked for several hours; I found myself in the country, then in the woods. Dew-drenched branches, twigs and leaves slapped against my face….The little man was still at my side; I could feel him breathing alongside…. [He] appeared before me and laughed. I’ll never forget it; he was as alive as I was. He had two front teeth missing and he held his hands behind his back.” At this point, Dagny asks how Nagel could see him, and he responds, “He radiated a light of his own. There was a strange glow about him that seemed to come from behind him and which made him transparent.…I saw a tower ahead of me. I stepped inside under the arched roof, and there was the little man again. A lamp was burning on one of the walls, and I could see him clearly….I looked into his eyes, and they seemed to reflect all the horrors he had seen in his life.” It is now clear to the reader as well that this man is some sort of god to Nagel, the indomitable eater of pain. He is perhaps Nagel in a different life and place, and it is almost certain that none of the story is true and that because of this it is all true, in Nagel’s way of truth, which is that of the human heart. Nagel continues the story by introducing a woman who comes into the tower and undresses the “strange, terrifying being, half-man, half-monster,” sending him up to his room to rest, before turning to speak with the new guest. She puts him to bed and then leaves to dry his clothes. Left alone, Nagel has another surreal experience: “Angels in countless numbers seemed to be descending on a diagonal beam of light….I put out my hand to them; a few of them wafted down and settled on it. It was like having the twinkling Pleiades in my hand.” He realizes the angels are blind, and in the morning, confessing love to the woman who has watched over him, he sees that she, too, cannot see. He returns to town without knowing how, and comes back to the tower the following day to find that she has died in the night. The dwarf is bent over her, crying his heart out with grief; Nagel runs away from the wildness of his eyes, and never sees him again. When Dagny hears the end of the story, she simply murmurs, “What a strange tale!” It is certainly strange – it is impossible – it is Nagel’s end and his beginning. We are seeing a long succession of profoundly unusual events that make up his troubled and fragmented life. It makes him uncouth and conceptual. It makes his words the word of his God.
There are also scattered interjections about poetry, and the poet is Nagel and poetry is life. “Do you know what constitutes a great poet?” he asks no one at all. “He is a person without shame, incapable of blushing. Ordinary fools have moments when they go off by themselves and blush with shame; not so the great poet.” He separates religion from the religious spirit and then sluices the latter with the good object of the word: “What really matters is not what you believe but the faith and conviction with which you believe…what are we gaining by a pragmatism that robs our life of poetry, dreams, mysticism – are all these lies? What is truth? Can you tell me that? We can only struggle along by using symbols, and we change them as we alter our views.” Thus he makes naked the way he makes lies and all of us make lies as we try to be and then to not be seen.