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Knut Hamson – The battle for meaning

October 27, 2014

“All at once I snapped my fingers a couple of times and laughed. Hellfire and damnation! I suddenly imagined I had discovered a new word! I sat up in bed, and said: It is not in the language, I have discovered it – Kuboaa. It has letters just like a real word, by sweet Jesus, man, you have discovered a word!… Kuboaa… of tremendous linguistic significance.

The word stood out clearly in front of me in the dark.

I sat with wide eyes astonished at my discovery, laughing with joy. Then I fell to whispering: they could very well be spying on me, and I must act so as to keep my invention secret. I had arrived at the joyful insanity hunger was: I was empty and free of pain, and my thoughts no longer had any check. I debated everything silently with myself. My thoughts took amazing leaps as I tried to establish the meaning of my new word. It needn’t mean either God or the Tivoli Gardens, and who had said it had to mean cattle show? I clenched my fists hard and repeated again: Who said it had to mean cattle show? When I thought it over, it was in fact not even necessary that it mean padlock or sunrise. In a word like that it was very easy to find meaning. I would just wait and see. In the meantime, I would sleep on it.

I lay back on the cot and chuckled, but said nothing, did not commit myself either for or against. Some time went by and I remained excited, the new word plagued me incessantly, kept on returning, finally took control of my thoughts entirely and made me sober down. I had formulated my opinion on what the word did not mean, but I had not yet come to a decision on what it did mean. ‘That is a secondary matter!’ I said aloud to myself, and grabbed myself by the arm and repeated that it was a secondary matter. The word, thanks to God, has been discovered and that was the main thing. But thoughts pestered me constantly and kept me from falling asleep: nothing seemed to me good enough for this remarkable word. Finally I sat up a second time in bed, took my head between both hands, and said, ‘No, no, that is exactly what is impossible – letting it mean emigration or tobacco factory! If it could have meant something like that, I would have made the decision a long time ago and taken the consequences.’ No, the word was actually intended to mean something spiritual, a feeling, a state of mind – if I could only understand it? And I thought and thought to find something spiritual. It occurred to me that someone was talking, butting into my chat, and I answered angrily: ‘I beg your pardon? For an idiot, you are all alone in the field! Yarn? Go to hell!’ Why should I be obligated to let it mean yarn when I had a special aversion to its meaning yarn? I had discovered the word myself, and I was perfectly within my rights to let it mean whatever I wanted it to, for that matter. So far as I knew, I had not yet committed myself….”

(from Hunger, translated by Robert Bly [1967])

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