Stig Sæterbakken - Between Good and Evil
Stig_photo_tom andreas naerland_15
Stig Sæterbakken. Photo by Tom Andreas Nærland.
An essay by Gabriella Håkansson
"This book is a love child," writes the Norwegian author, Stig Sæterbakken (born 1966), in the epilogue to his translation of Edgar Allan Poe (The Man of The Crowd and Other Short Stories, Bokvennen, 2000). "It's as if he [Poe] is standing at the start of the literary universe, still luring new readers, new passionate literature lovers and not least, new authors into his lair." Stig Sæterbakken was hailed as a prodigy when he made his debut at 18, with the poetry collection Flytende paraplyer [Floating Umbrellas] (Cappelen, 1984), and is definitely one of those authors that Poe has caught in his literary lair. Since his debut, Sæterbakken has published a second poetry collection, a collection of short stories, five novels, two essay collections and a handful of translations, primarily of Slovakian poetry. The influence of Poe and of modern literature that teeters on the edge of Western reason gazing into an abyss of madness, is striking. In his first novel, Incubus (1991), we meet a man struggling to come to terms with the fact that his body and its physical expression are a part of himself. In an interview about the book, Sæterbakken said: "I'm interested in how I can use language to describe bodily, physical conditions. I think I'm getting somewhere with Incubus and the book can be seen as the starting point for my authorship."

Today, more than ten years later, Stig Sæterbakken is recognised as the leading interpreter of bodily expression in Norway. As in Poe's work, inner feelings of angst and fear find extreme, tangible expression. But whereas Poe sees ghosts and thinks he can hear the hearts of the dead beating in the walls, Sæterbakken gives fear and angst physical expression in the form of illness or repulsive bodily phenomena. Incubus was followed by Det nye testamente [The New Testament] in 1993, a far-reaching novel about the photographer and pornographer Lukas, who is obsessed with Hitler and with finding his diaries. It was slated by the critics. "Evil is maybe the most human condition of all," claimed Sæterbakken at the time. He wanted to explode the post-war myth of the evil Nazi. He suggested that the novel might help to correct the black-and-white interpretation of history that distorts the truth in order to demonstrate the superiority of our own times. "We cannot see evil because the day we do, we will have blood on our hands." And it is with bloody hands that Stig Sæterbakken has persevered and continued his controversial and consistent exploration of the body, text and evil.

The novel Siamesisk [Siamese] (1997) and the two subsequent books, Selvbeherskelse [Self- Control] (1998) and Sauermugg (1999) together comprise the so-called S-trilogy, Sæterbakken's most ambitious and unique literary project to date. The trilogy is linked by a clearly defined theme and can without difficulty be read as a monumental monologue about male identity problems. And a disgusting descent into the hell of human flesh.

"This chair is my throne, from here everything is governed, I rule supreme in my own realm, in the kingdom of my mind..." This is what the dying Edwin says in Siamesisk, in one of his cynical fits of self-assertion. Paralysed from the waist down, he sits locked in his bathroom trying to liberate his mind from his body. The experiment is going relatively well. Nearly all his bodily functions have ceased to work, his limbs are in a state of decay and his digestive system is in the process of breaking down. "I'm like Diogenes who lived in a tub, " Edwin states. "This body is my tub, it's long enough, has enough space and has found a comfortable position to sit in. And there it sits." Elsewhere, he says: "This body is a sewer, that's all that remains."

To pass the time, Edwin dedicates his days to chewing gum. Several packets a day and in lumps the size of a ping-pong ball. This frenetic chewing is an expressive symbol of the manic, heaving - the sticky verbal diarrhoea that fills his head and is spewed out over his wife whenever the opportunity arises. With Nietzschean arrogance, the bathroom man, a bizarre counterpart to Dostoevsky's underground man, applies Descartes' dualism to developing evil superhuman attitudes and justifying the neurotic hounding of his wife. When she is not around, he focuses his hatred on humanity instead: "I despise them ... cars, boats, houses, arms, two legs, happy children, they know nothing about life, they don't know what a simple thought can develop into, they know nothing about thinking, they don't know what it's like to sit in a chair day after day, to carry the weight of a half-dead body and an oversized head."

The structure of Siamesisk is perhaps most reminiscent of August Strindberg's dramas about relationships. As in Strindberg's plays, it is the prison of coupledom that creates Sæterbakken's male monsters, monsters who are looked after and cared for and plagued by their female counterparts - the wives. While Edwin sits shouting and prattling on in his rocking chair in the bathroom, his wife potters about in the kitchen, makes coffee, cleans and tidies and does everyday things. "He sits there," she says, "day and night, thinking, that's all he does. He's like a great big spider spinning a web from nothing; it's as if he has spent all these years making a huge, finely-spun web in there. I always have to be careful where I put my feet. He never stops spinning that thread, I didn't even notice I was caught in it, it's as if it will never end."

Symbiotically, the married couple live out their days like a pair of Siamese twins: they are both equally dependent on each other, neither of them daring to cut the umbilical cord. The lack of communication is replaced with humiliation and cruelty and there is an underlying constant, all-consuming need to exist for someone. A desire that is made impossible by the rigid gender roles that the man and woman have been forced to adopt.

In the second book of the trilogy - Selvbeherskelse - coupledom is swapped for loneliness. The inability to communicate, which in Siamesisk manifests in a hysterical Beckett-like torrent of words, takes a different form here. A middle-aged man, Andreas Feldt, meets up with his adult daughter, they talk about this and that, but never really seem to communicate. On an inexplicable whim, Andreas suddenly says that he is going to get divorced. The daughter is deeply shocked, but quickly regains her composure. The conversation continues as if nothing has been said. By pushing things to the extreme, Andreas challenges his existence and when there is still no reaction, he loses his footing. "I will never be happy again. It was not just a thought, it was a certainty...an overwhelming, penetrating certainty that rose in me like silent flood waters." Transparency is a key word in this book. What Saeterbakken gives shape to is the kind of transparency that occurs when all value has been lost from relationships. As the title implies, self-control plays a decisive role. External and internal control mechanisms block the floods of emotion in the collective cardio-vascular system that binds the novel's characters together - a system that constantly threatens to collapse under the pressure of suppressed dissatisfaction due to the fruitless attempts to communicate. For Andreas Feldt, the only options that remain are to identify himself with the pain or to accept invisibility.

In Sauermugg, the final part of the trilogy, we return to the hell of married life. The man giving the monologue has this time channelled his feelings into various forms of neurotic action: transference, regressive outbursts ("In my hell, I am reliving my childhood ..."), projection, sudden fits of aggression. His wife's numerous and repulsive illnesses become a sort of yardstick of the relationship's state of decay, at the same time that her guilt-inducing presence is the only thing that stops him from giving in completely to his compulsive neurosis. And when the distorted psyche has exhausted all escape routes, only death remains - the dream of a liberating, avenging suicide, or even worse, the dream of a merciful killing. "People should be able to take their spouses to the doctor when the going gets tough, in the same way that we take pets to the vet. There's no point in carrying on year after year with a dried out old hag under your feet, complaining from dawn to dusk, when you could easily just give her an injection." As with the other two novels, the narrative stops in a dead-end. What you most fear will happen, never does. The reader is given no climax, no turning point, no solution, but is left on the edge of an abyss, with the vertiginous feeling of having wandered round in circles in an eternal limbo.

This limbo, which is so reminiscent of the place where Sartre's protagonists in Huis Clos [Behind Closed Doors] find themselves, is the literary space that Stig Sæterbakken inhabits. His characters wander around in a shapeless no-man's land like the living dead. They are always just on the outside, always slightly incapable of taking action. They suffer because they are not in control of their lives and they all appear to be governed by the same invisible set of rules. Incarcerated in their thick layers of flesh, they never seem to make it to where life is really happening and in the end, they realise their limitlessness due to a devastating inability to feel at ease in their own bodies. The only legitimate bodily feeling that remains is the sickening feeling of crossing a boundary, a feeling similar to that of a snail creeping along a razor's edge, swaying between safety and danger. A feeling that, not surprisingly, also characterises the men's view of women.

Stig Sæterbakken focuses on gender roles and the Western philosophical tradition - "the supremacy of thought" - that views body and soul, feelings and reason as essentially different substances, in a way that is at once amusing and extremely repulsive. To put it simply, in the S-trilogy and to some extent in his earlier novels, we meet men who hold forth about their existentially unsuccessful lives. The opposite sex exists only as a constant source of hate, frustration and disgust. The voices that we hear belong to a father in Selvbeherskelse, a son in Sauermugg and a man who succeeds in denying his physical body following a Golgotha-like wandering along the boundaries of madness in Siamesisk. All that remains is the mind, the spirit and somewhere in the far distance - a woman who has been allocated the role of a body in accordance with the laws of gender. In Christian-influenced mythology, the man has three stereotypes to choose from - the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost - whereas in the same classical cliché, the woman is placed in the physical and sexually-loaded position of mother/whore. But in Sæterbakken's universe, the gender roles have broken down. The women are frigid and replusive, so the sexual focus is switched to a pornographic icon, such as the maternal waitress.

In a way, it could be said that Stig Sæterbakken complements the (often feminist) female prose writers who criticise and explore the notion of woman as a body and object. Only here it is the man who has been reduced to mind and subject and the problems involved with thought and reason are highlighted. "It just hangs there now," says Edwin about his penis in Siamesisk, "like a trophy, with plastic tubes sprouting from its head, my only protection against what would otherwise have consumed me ages ago, like an umbilical cord attached to a stillborn baby ..."

Essay Collections

Sæterbakken's two essay collections provide an elegant frame to the S-trilogy. If the first - Estetisk salighet [Aesthetic Bliss] from 1994 - is a collection of loosely spun texts about authors such as Laurence Sterne, Octave Mirbeau, Witold Gombrowicz and Anthony Burgess, the more recent collection, Det onde øye [The Evil Eye] (2001), is an attempt to weave together ethics, aesthetics and literature into a homogenous poetics. In the former, Sæterbakken was interested in the desolate and deviant - deviant in the sense of being excessively voluminous and too disgusting, too unrestrained to fall into the category of good literature, whereas the new collection is an attempt to define the purpose of literature.

Sæterbakken's starting point is what is often called "the problem of evil" and he insists that literature is a free zone, a place where prevailing social morals should not apply. According to Sæterbakken, literature exists in a space beyond good and evil where the farthest boundaries of human experience can be explored. The poetics that emerges is a plea for freedom in writing, a sort of literary aesthetic of uncensored speech, the purpose of which is to penetrate the critical moment. This poetics also launches a powerful attack on what could be called bourgeois literature - literature that relies on the art of suggestion, euphemistic text, a whispering literature that chooses to focus on what is hidden rather than what is explicit. While we, as good citizens, can only relate to evil by distancing ourselves from it, an author has completely different possibilities. "Literature is where we can freely discuss all this." On this point, Sæterbakken is apparently heavily influenced by Georges Bataille's collection of essays, Literature and Evil, the basis of which is that literature should be as uninhibited as a child, in other words, evil. But on closer inspection, the similarity is only superficial. The starting point is the same, but whereas Bataille claims that evil manifests as breaches of social taboos, Sæterbakken writes about transgression on a more individual level, about breaking with convention and social obligations. Whereas Bataille says that good is useful and protective, Sæterbakken seems to view good as a necessary consequence of all forms of socialisation. Whereas Bataille talks about excess and the intense feeling of being alive unleashed by crime, Sæterbakken writes about the inescapable loneliness that is a condition of creativity. Bataille talks passionately about communication as the highest form of pleasure - it is what makes us human - and literature as a free zone where we can recreate the sovereignty of childhood; Sæterbakken demonstrates that even the most radical spirits do not succeed in liberating themselves through literature. In the essay "Literature and ethics", Sæterbakken questions whether a text can be evil and his answer, in contrast to Bataille, is a hesitantly worded no. "Is there, somewhere deep in our aesthetic digestive system, a kind of resistant synthesis from the classics, a latent analogy between truth and beauty that still tells us what is beautiful. In other words, that which is well presented, is per definition true, i.e. divine or to put it simply, good?" Evil cannot be disguised in beautiful form and all that is ugly and wanting is rejected from the literary sphere, creating a kind of damned non-literary canon.


One of the fundamental questions addressed in the essay collection is why we are so anxious to keep evil at a distance and how this is expressed in literature. In his insightful opening essay on Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Tell-Tale Heart", Sæterbakken delves deep into the metaphors of evil. For seven long nights, an old servant sits staring at his master, waiting for the right moment to kill him. But it is not until the sleeping master awakens and opens his eyes, with the light from a small lamp falling across his face, that it is possible to carry out the deed. Only then, in the lonely meeting of eyes, in that critical moment, can the deed be done. Poe uses this intense image - one eye staring at another eye, surrounded by a black and impenetrable darkness - to describe the condition of pure and absolute fear. For Sæterbakken, this space is "an oral space, a linguistic blackhole where people can no longer make themselves understood by anyone other than themselves." Because that is one of the curses of angst, he writes, that it never goes beyond the

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL