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On Mysteries

An analysis of Knut Hamsun's novel Mysteries, initially published in four parts in Bilkent News between October and November 2018.

Having read Hamsun’s “Mysteries,” I am trapped in a delicious state of complete cluelessness as to what has happened to me. The novel is fabulously mad and esoteric, with a balanced, measured way of walking through the narrative that makes all its shadowed surrealities seem as sensible as anything else.“Mysteries” describes the many lives of a young stranger who has come to a small fishing town in northern Norway. This stranger, Johan Nagel, mixes with the townspeople to relate stories of his eccentric past, along with making forceful and spontaneous assertions regarding the desires, personalities and inner conflicts of his companions. He falls in obsessive love with Dagny Kielland, who is already engaged to someone else, and in an indecipherable state of heart proposes to an older spinster, who eventually refuses him. Getting increasingly confused, struck only by patches of mental clarity in which he becomes convinced as to his darkened fate, Nagel tries to kill himself to no avail in two mystic sequences, before he finally succeeds in drowning. The last scene in the book shows the spinster Martha Gude and Dagny walking over black ice together, holding onto each other, continuing a light and disjointed conversation that for a moment touches upon Nagel as if with the slightest remorse.


Nagel is the pivot of the story, the principal mystery: we know less about him than any other character, and not for lack of discussion – he bares himself compulsively, repeatedly, in various ways to everyone he speaks with, relays anecdotes and insecurities and admissions of deception, and it is precisely this continuous disinformation that bewilders the reader. We never know what he’s planning, what he’s thinking, why he says what he says; we are absolutely confounded as to whether Nagel is genuine in his feelings – even though he explains everything in exhaustive detail – because he contradicts himself within a paragraph, a sentence, throughout the entire novel. Yet the long sequences of his inner speaking carry distinct and secretive gems of the collective human experience, with the casual, graceful tact of one who has always known, and who will never combat what he knows except with the great, impertinent instinct of the child; Nagel’s recurrent rebellion is death. “Over there, for instance, sticking out of my waistcoat pocket is the neck of a vial. It contains ‘medicine’ – prussic acid…But why do I carry it around, and why did I get it in the first place? Hypocrisy again, nothing but a sham; the decadence, phoniness, self-adulation, and snobbery of our times! To hell with all of it!” The vial of acid is as critical a symbol in the book as Nagel’s lifesaver’s medal, which to Dagny he claims to have stolen, telling her that he agonizes over his own lowly deception, while to himself he admits in this same passage, “I earned it honestly, as they say. One plays around with all kinds of things like saving people’s lives.” Later, his companion Grøgaard replaces the vial of acid with water, thwarting Nagel’s suicide attempt; Nagel is furious with him afterward, for the same thing he has done to someone else: he saves a person from drowning to get his medal, and it is by drowning that he eventually manages to die. He meets his end not as he has brought on that of another – of a dog he kills to get to Dagny – but as he has saved a complete stranger. In this way Nagel makes out another fundamental truth: the long trill of life is inviolate. In ironic counterpoint, his ambiguous good deed is compensated for by his unambiguous bad one. But his longevity hints at a more basic, more mysterious fact: as long as Nagel is abstract – as long as he is “a stranger, alien to this world, a stubborn manifestation of God” – he cannot be killed. Death is to him a relief, an implacable comfort: “He would finally get out of it all – end it! Would he ever be capable of carrying it off? Yes, by God, he wouldn’t falter! He felt euphoric at the idea of having this escape hatch in reserve….” It is to him a comfort on a par with complete spiritual knowledge and with life: “A tremor of ecstasy ran through him. He felt himself carried away and engulfed by the magic rays of the sun. The stillness filled him with an intoxicating sense of well-being…the only sound was a soft murmur from above, the hum of the universal machinery – God turning his treadmill.” It is this sort of living that Nagel thrums with, that he cries for, this same irrepressible form of love.

(part two)


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.

(part three)


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.

(part four)

Always talking about himself, about the secretive delightful inner qualities of the world, Nagel is intertwined with victory and morality, and he is a paragon of defeat. In one of many conversations with the self about great men, a recurrent theme, he identifies the species as “he who has brought us the basic values, and that is, after all, the greatest gift to the human race. The man of influence, the wielder of supreme power, the mighty one who turns the switch that revolutionizes the world.” He admits quickly that this man is Christ out of all the examples he throws out and does not say at all that it is also him in a very different age, an age in which he does not disturb values but makes them. It is impossible to quite express how every one of his words is him and how deeply they are not, that he violates himself, contradicts himself, but that he only does so superficially, he does so to the eye but not the heart, and stays true to the most vital part of who he is, which is that he believes, and he wants, and he burns himself out to get what he needs, which is the oyster’s flesh of all the beauty that has existed and that will ever exist. Perhaps we don’t know if he really saved a life or if he’s really rich or if he really loves Martha Gude, and perhaps we don’t understand how women slip on and over the page, and his visions and dramas are obscure and mystical, but then he has already asked us what truth is. He has already admitted that it is only the undertone’s passion that matters, that his humiliation in pursuit of newness is completely tangential, perhaps doesn’t even exist; he will always be doing something because that is how he lives. That is how he will die. Nagel is a hero of our time. He is an incorrigible fraud. The mystery isn’t whether what he’s saying is true as much as whether it is right, whether anything is as it should be and how he could make it be, because he is a stranger, an interferer, he is insurmountable simply by virtue of his edible love. And the love might be real or not real, but what only matters is the great lick it gives our protagonist, our symbol, a white fly in the Norwegian sea; Nagel is the prowler of the world and a very sick man. He is weak enough to fall ill by what he sees, to be petty, yellowed, mean-spirited, to harshly and malignantly tread over other people’s lives, and then to fold over like a crushed flower and beg mercy from passersby. It’s extraordinary that he is the focus of every weakness and of none. His fractured thoughts and long monologues, his music, are all as if he is eating and spitting out things he sees; Nagel is a poet and a very good one, and like all good poets he is a sham. He is also completely mad. We are treated to Nagel’s mysteries, which are the world’s mysteries, which are ours, and which we can glimpse only by a shoulder of a sign of a moonfaced gnome come to visit us in the night. He profanes his loves and humbles himself in penitence with his whole body heaving with the guilty pain of having been crude. He engages in long sessions of fantasy in which he is convinced that he will achieve the greatest and most elevated state of love after death. Indeed, it is that we know all we know because of all the little deaths he continues to die.

Nagel is nothing, and because he is nothing he is everything. Nagel is against anyone and anything he might see, he is in love with all of them, a living abstraction, someone no one will ever know, not even the reader, who is never privy to the inner recesses of his soul. His final scene is freeing and neutral and understandable, as he rushes to the water to for the last time be saved. “Someone is calling,” he murmurs. Perhaps it is the mad little dwarf of his shrunken past and the guttural “Come!” that has led him to so much that is so holy. “There are so many strange things between heaven and earth, beautiful, inexplicable things, presentiments that can’t be explained, terrors that make your blood freeze.” Nagel is one of them and is the pursuer of all of them, loving it all, loving and hating life just as he does Dagny, his egg of light, as he cries to himself, “I only wish that I could forever hear your name, hear it spoken by all men and beasts, by every mountain and every star. I wish I were deaf to every sound except your name ringing in my ears day and night for the rest of my life.” How alive he is as he is dying, and how indifferent and callous and fanatical and reckless as he lives – Nagel is the biggest conundrum of an adult life and the only truth to ever be found on the human earth: There can only ever be more mysteries.

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