Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Scandinavia, postcolonialism and belles lettres

In the thread entitled Modern Greenlandic writing, David suggests that the postcolonial debate has affected many aspects of culture, mostly negatively. I would like to break a lance for a postcolonial approach when looking at Scandinavia and certainly Estonia, as long as we are clear what a postcolonial approach entails.

I fear that the type of postcolonial studies taught at many universities focusses a great deal on the British Empire, where the Britons are the baddies, robbing the indigenous population of raw materials, and the local people the goodies, seeking liberation. The fact that Britain did bring education, health care, law and order, etc., to the developing world gets conveniently forgotten. A second serious flaw in this type of postcolonialist examination is that the subject often looks at the world through the prism of those who come from, or were educated in, the metropolitan countries. So, subliminally, colonial attitudes are indeed perpetuated.

Postcolonial studies, if expanded to include ethnology, history, geo-politics, psychology, and other subjects beyond literature, could be a fruitful way of looking at Scandinavia and the Baltics. But if postcolonial studies does indeed deteriorate into a crude and uncritical bashing of the colonial power, assuming the indigenous peoples to be angels and the colonists all robbers and power-hungry plotters, then it is a non-starter. Nor would I like to see Scandinavian literature used in the same way as English literature is, as a quarry from which to dig out chunks of one-sided anti-colonialist proof.

Obviously, the big boys in Scandinavia over the centuries were Denmark and Sweden. Equally obviously, Norway, Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, Finland, Estonia, Livonia, Greifswald, northern Poland, etc., were not always so thrilled at being the underdog. But the dilemma in modern times is whether any given colony can "go it alone" and become a viable economic and political entity if it becomes independent, within or without the framework of the EU. This debate is being held in Scotland right now, as I believe. The same tricky debate envelops the Faroes and Greenland.

Where literature (i.e. belles lettres) can come in is as an indicator of mood, opinion and action - and examine the psychology of key players and minor figures. But on its own, given the subjective attitudes of many writers, literature cannot stand alone as the only subject through which to examine the history of an empire or a specific epoch.


David McDuff said...

I think the thing about Scotland that sets it apart is that it has major, mainstream literary classic authors like Tobias Smollett, David Hume, Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, R. L. Stevenson, and so on, who are an essential part of both English and Scottish literature. Scotland is not really an example of a "colonial" culture at all, no matter what the nationalists may think.

Eric Dickens said...

I shall leave Scotland out of this, as it is indeed true, as David suggests, that some of the greatest works of English-language literature were written by Scots authors. The same with Irish writers, mutatis mutandis. I have no experience of Scottish nationalism in the arts.

There are virtually no analogous cases, with Estonians writing great Russian novels, or Norwegians writing in Swedish.

In Scandinavia and the Baltics, it has been extremely rare for major authors to write in anything but their mother-tongue, or, in the curious case of Strindberg, in French on occasions. William Heinesen didn't write in Faroese, presumably because his mother-tongue was Danish. Aksel Sandemose changed horses in mid-stream. And a few people in Finland may have written in "the other language" for purposes of social advancement or nationalist sentiment.