David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Private Language

Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It’s not found in the language, I have invented it—Kuboå. It does have letters like a word—sweet Jesus, man, you have invented a word . . . Kuboå . . . of enormous grammatical importance.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness in front of me.

I sit with open eyes, amazed at my discovery and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had crossed over into the pure madness of hunger. I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who had said it should mean cattle show? I clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? All things considered, it wasn’t even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn’t difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile I would sleep on it.

…I had made up my mind what the word shouldn’t mean, but had taken no decision on what it should mean. That is a minor question! I said aloud to myself, clutching my arm and repeating that it was a minor question. The word had been found, thank God, and that was the main thing…No, the word was really suited to mean something spiritual, a feeling, a state of mind–couldn’t I understand that? And I try to jog my memory to come up with something spiritual. Then it seems to me that someone is speaking, sticking his nose into my chat, and I answer angrily, What was that? Oh my, you’ll get the prize for biggest idiot! Knitting yarn? Go to hell! Why should I be under an obligation to let it mean knitting yarn when I was particularly opposed to its meaning knitting yarn? I had invented the word myself, and I was perfectly within my rights in having it mean anything whatsoever, for that matter. As far as I knew, I hadn’t yet expressed an opinion….

Knut Hamsun, Hunger (tr. Lyngstad)

Who is the interlocutor who interrupts him and prompts him with definitions? Is it part of him spying on himself? Would definition expose him to attack by these spies? He is not hesitant to define the word; he is defiant in not defining it.


  1. I love that passage from Hunger, and was just thinking about it yesterday when my sight was stopped short by a patch of darkness extraordinary in its opacity.

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