Wooden Norway: In honor of Norway's national holiday, I watched the film Hamsun again, with Max von Sydow playing the role of Norway's most contrary and--in his time--controversial writer. Sort of a combination of Mark Twain and Ezra Pound.
I am old enough to remember the wooden Norway of this film--before today's glass and steel, glittering boutiques, more cellphones than people, and toll roads exiting into my own old neighborhood (Tåsen). I remember old men who dressed in suits, vests, and ties in almost any waking moment other than swimming; beautiful pocket watches and glass paperweights; the enormous radio with shortwave, medium wave, and longwave bands stretched out along the front, under the cloth grille from which the announcer periodically said, "Over til Oslo"--the horizontal numberlines of the frequencies notched with the names of exotic cities.
In the days after the German invasion of 1940, the film shows Hamsun being hailed outside his home by a truckful of patriotic young Norwegians, rifles in their hands, about to head to the front. "We'll defend your books from those Nazi pigs," they say happily. "You are the soul of Norway--the king himself said so." Hamsun, who favored the Nazi invasion as a a wonderful German provision against the poison of British imperialism, just looks back at the departing truck and says with exasperation, "Norwegians! Norwegians!" It so reminded me of my aunt Sol, who had four sons and no daughters, exclaiming "Mennfolk! Mennfolk!"
Later, Hamsun is taken to meet Hitler--there the exasperation shows again. Germany is supposed to be the head of a new Europe in which Norway, up in the far north, will have a prominent and honorable position at the table (as Hamsun rehearses in front of a mirror before his visit). When Hitler shows no interest in Hamsun's advice concerning the cruelty of the German occupation in Norway, Hamsun says, "It's like talking to a wall." Hamsun's bizarrely innocent captivity to the Germanic vision survived this encounter; Hitler was a reformer--Hamsun wrote in an obituary for the dead dictator--an advocate of the rights of nations, "whose misfortune was to work in a time of extreme brutality."
It was a brutality that does not fit in the wooden, utterly decent Norway of my memories and myths. I love the scene in the film in which Hamsun is arrested for treason. A young policeman reaches to shake Hamsun's hand. Hamsun grasps his hand and says, "You would shake the hand of a traitor?" The young man says, smiling, "We won't be as barbarian as they were. So I decided I would." Norwegians continue to shake Hamsun's hand, able to find the wild beauty hidden within his shadowy, morose, confused categories. (Example: Lumsk's "Wild Choir" video of Hamsun's poem, "Everything is forgotten in a matter of centuries.")
The simple Norway of my childhood myth lasted a long time--into my late teens. It did come to and end, and I remember the day. My grandmother was reading a news item to someone over the phone: "Oslo has more male prostitutes than female prostitutes." I was struck to my core: Never mind the male or female part; Oslo has prostitutes?
Maybe I always need myths of innocence. When I first came to be among Friends, I loved the tender ways, the unapologetic idealism, the passionate pursuit of the simplest, most direct relationship with God. As a young man very aware of women, I loved the sweet and unpredatory male-female culture of friendship that seemed to prevail among us. When I heard that, in my original Quaker garden of Eden, Canadian Yearly Meeting, women were confronting long-standing patterns of sexual harassment, I was very tempted to retreat into denial. After a while, I began to realize that you don't have to choose between recognizing reality and honoring ideals.
After a certain point, innocence shades into a selective and self-serving denial, a deceptively attractive first step for a path that can lead to catastrophic hypocrisy. We can laugh (or cry) at the naivete of Hamsun, but how many Hamsun-like theoreticians led our country into believing that we can impose democracy wherever we think best?
David Grossman touches on brutality, grief, freedom's end and its rebirth in an almost unbearably beautiful New York Times Magazine essay.
Righteous links: Do video games lead to violence? What about creative writing? Can a video game lead to peace in the Middle East?
Did you know that the International Polar Year has begun? The polar regions are part of our planet's early warning systems for ecological distress--so it's not surprising that the IPY may be one of the largest international scientific collaborations ever. And for my last Norwegian reference on this May 17, here's a link to the northernmost institution of higher education in the world.
The post that didn't get written: An open letter to Friends United Meeting's critics. Oh, it was going to be such an articulate, winsome letter whose tender, understated tone would mask steel-trap logic.
Trust me, it was going to be good! (Or at least satisfying. To the writer if to nobody else.) But I'm hanging up my commentary on FUM for a season. Rebecca Mays and I have been asked to facilitate a retreat on FUM's identity for its board meeting in July. It occurs to me that I will have a more servantlike attitude on behalf of the retreat's potential blessings if I stow the polemics for a while.
For now, I'll just say one thing concerning FUM and its critics: there's enough pain and enough betrayal and enough one-upping to go around. We need a very different approach.
I also have to remind myself that at least in the world of weblogs, we're saying things in each other's hearing. That wasn't always true. I can remember when a lot of commentary on our differences didn't get get much beyond the rhetorical level of "What do you expect from someone who comes from/believes/reads [name the meeting, geographic region, seminary, college, author, or theology]?"
From cold to hot: I've never been able to find very good video clips of William Clarke (1951-1996), but even a so-so clip hints at his amazing energy--it's as if he tried to squeeze his whole spirit right through the harmonica.