Thursday, 2 July 2009

Two strands in Nordic literature

Still following the thread that was prompted by the discussion of Greenlandic literature, and particularly by the examples and reflections contained in Karen Langgård's essay, I wonder whether the questions connected with the aspiration towards nationhood may not lie at the centre of the debate on Nordic literature itself.

The uncertainty about national role and identity has had a twofold effect on Nordic consciousness and culture. On the one hand, it has led to a preoccupation among Nordic authors and thinkers with issues of identity, society and community, sometimes expressed in religious terms, but more rooted in the ideas of Hegel, Marx and nineteenth century German sociology. On the other hand, much as in Russia, it has often inspired a reaction against those essentially collectivist concerns, leading to the birth of a kind of ethical universalism that derives from the ideals of the German enlightenment, in particular those expressed in the philosophy of Kant.

Just as the Russian classic authors - Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev - go beyond the limitations of the social and historical confusion of their age to create an essentially moral universe in which time and matter play a secondary though none the less vivid role, so the work of the great names of Nordic literature - Kierkegaard, Claussen, Blixen, Ibsen, Strindberg - inhabits a realm in which the ethical and existential concerns of the individual are transformed into a portrayal of all human life, perceived in the eye of the absolute. Perhaps this is the other side of the "religious" coin.

The two strands, the social-communal and the universal, are still present in Nordic literature today, although - just as in Russia during the twentieth century - the former has gained the upper hand. When an author like Pia Tafdrup describes herself not as a Danish poet, but a poet who happens to write in Danish, she is to some extent allying herself with the Nordic universalist tradition, though also with literary universalism everywhere, and with writers who fought the collectivist tyranny (the examples of Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva and Brodsky come to mind). And those Nordic authors who continue to seek their subjects and inspiration in the analysis of social and political issues are harking back to the uncertain murk of Herder, Hegel and nineteenth century nationalism, with its twentieth century consequences.

This is probably a gross oversimplification, but I think it's one that might be worth further inquiry.

1 comment:

Eric Dickens said...

I bought five volumes of Herder the other month, so I shall see in due course whether he emanates "uncertain murk" or clarity regarding the aspirations of smaller nations. Herder is certainly mentioned a great deal by Estonians and Finns.

What is curious about these national cultural movements in Scandinavia and Eastern & Central Europe (e.g. Nyugat, Uusi Suomi, Mloda Polska, Jaunlatvieši), is that the instigators are often either people who come from outside the culture or language or have been educated in the dominant language against which they then proceeded to struggle (e.g. Snellman; Kreutzwald, even Ben-Yehuda with modern Hebrew, and several scholars in faraway Afrikaans).

What makes these movements interesting is the tension between, on the one hand, stasis, subjugation, and assimilation, and on the other the creation or re-creation of a national identity for a small nation.

It cannot be denied that some of these national projects have led to the cobbling together of fairly fake myths and the revamping of early literature. But sometimes the rather kitsch and phoney beginnings do lead to genuine national identity, a couple of generations later. Both the Finnish and Estonian national epics are constructs, yet now they have become quite an important pillar holding up the edifice of the nation's culture.

While Irish culture owes quite a lot to that of Britain, the Finns owe something to a Swedish-language culture, and the Estonians to a German-language one, a new self-awareness has been fostered. Self-esteem is no bad thing.