And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 25. september 2022

Achronology as a cultural force, part 2


In my previous blogpost, I described how achronology’s ability to blur and obfuscate people’s understanding of the past could impact cultural, social and political decisions in the present. This ability to influence decisions and currents makes achronology a cultural force. Achronology in its purest form means the merging of the past into a single unit where periodisations do not matter. However, achronology rarely, if ever, operates in its purest form. Moreover, since achronology usually operates in conjunction with other forces, impulses and factors, achronology is also very malleable. And, in addition, achronology both creates and thrives on vagueness. For these reasons, it can sometimes be difficult to detect how achronology enacts its influence in current events. One of the most complicated, but also best, examples is how the past was used during the presidential campaign of the forty-fifth president of the United States from 2015 onwards. The infamous slogan “Make America Great Again” exemplifies precisely how achronology impacts current events. In this blogpost, I aim to make a case for how this campaign slogan should be understood as achronology.        

From the beginning, it must be emphasised that I absolutely loathe the entire campaign of the forty-fifth president, as indeed I loathe any Republican politician. I emphasise this because this present blogpost will also explain why the slogan “Make America Great Again” is a stroke of rhetorical genius. The genius of the slogan must be acknowledged, much as one must acknowledge the rhetorical genius of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willen, while at the same time one can, and should, detest both Fascism and Nazism.          

The core message of “Make America Great Again” has very deep roots. The message evokes the idea of a glorious past that is lost and must now be recovered, a golden age that has to be made anew. Several versions of this concept exist, most famously the story of Adam and Eve, and also in Greek mythology from which the concept of the golden age was mediated to the Romans and onwards to the medieval imagination. A modern version can be seen in various secularist movements that hold up the so-called Enlightenment era as the apex of historical progress, and argue that we need to return to this apex. In essence, the concept of a golden age is the sublimation of nostalgia, very often a false nostalgia, and it serves as a perpetual mirror where contemporary flaws are accentuated and magnified in seriousness.    

The concept of a golden age is, of course, not per definition achronological. Indeed, in several versions the vision of a lost golden past necessitates other historical periods, especially if we follow the traditional scheme of a degradation with the passing of time, where history moves from the golden to the silver to the bronze to the iron age. However, there is also a very common distillation of the idea of a golden age, namely the expression “things were better before”, something very familiar to Norwegian ears, for instance. This expression demonstrates how the idea of a golden age can take on achronological properties. “Before” is not a precise chronological unit, and its main point is that it is not here and now. When people state that things used to be better, they might very well have a clearly defined period in mind. But just as often it expresses a belief that things have become worse than they used to be. In either case, the golden age is somewhere in the past and when that past is not clearly defined it is up to whomever listens or utters this idea to imagine when that past was and how that past was. The ambiguity of the unstated timeframe of the past which was so much better is, in essence, a form of achronology, because it turns the past into a uniform canvas onto which people can paint and pinpoint the golden age wherever and however they wish.      

When people utter variations of the idea that things were better before, they tend to have a specific period in mind, usually the time of their childhood. However, because the past is mythologised in popular culture, in education, and in public discourse, it is also possible that people have other historical periods in mind. As mentioned, for certain so-called rationalists that period was the Enlightenment, notwithstanding the many horrors that unfolded in that period, horrors which were rationalised by thinkers or with recourse to intellectual discourse. For those who fetishise masculinity, it can be any time when “men were men”, be it the Viking Age, the Roman Empire, or the Stone Age. For pathological individualists, it might be the Wild West, or the age of European colonisation. Other candidates for the lost golden age also exist, and since the past is lost to us every part of it is up for grabs whenever someone wants to turn it into something more glorious than it actually was.            

Individual ideas of the golden age are usually time specific, in that people tend to select that part of the past which they know or have mythologised. It is not simply the past in all its vast irrecoverability, but a specific part of it. In this way, the golden age is not in and of itself achronological. However, because the golden age can be placed in so many different places on a timeline, the concept also carries in it something achronological. Because it can be placed at any point in time depending on who places it, the golden age depends on a vague understanding of the past and the chronological progression of time. In effect, the idea of the golden age carves out a space in time that is immutable, which is the very opposite of what history is. Because the golden age becomes preserved like a bug in amber, locked in one motion that makes it recognisable to those who seek it, the golden age is also achronological: it is then, not now, and this is its most important defining feature.          

The concept of the golden age thrives on, and indeed requires, a blurred understanding of history, of the passing of time, and of the complexity of humanity’s shared and entangled history. In this way, achronology – which simplifies and blurs the distinction between parts of history – is a key component in sustaining visions of any piece of the past as golden. Moreover, since the golden age is unfixed in time but shared by so many as a general idea, it can be talked about and agreed upon by several individuals who all have very different visions of that golden age, but who can communicate the idea through shared features and common reference points. The most important feature is that the golden age is in the past. Because people can agree about the existence of a golden age without agreeing, or even describing, when that golden age was, the rhetoric about the golden past is in effect achronological.           

Now that we have established, more or less, that the golden age has achronological properties, we return to the slogan “Make America Great Again”. This slogan has three important features that together make it a very successful tool of manipulation. First of all, it states that America, or the US, rather, once was great. Secondly, it implies that America is no longer great and that its greatness must be recovered. (Yes, these are two points but they work jointly and cannot be separated.) And thirdly, the greatness is to be found again in the future. The last point is important here, because the slogan does not suggest to move back in time, to retreat into the past. In so doing, the slogan avoids the connotations of degeneration that lies in a similar expression, “back to the Stone Age”. The past is lost, we are not moving back there, we are moving forward. The slogan, then, preys on the idea that we progress not only chronologically but also qualitatively, and the best is yet to come, as one Republican spokesperson once screamed at a national convention. Even though this slogan implies a return to the roots, it avoids the negative connotations of a return, or going back to something, and instead of retreating or deteriorating, things are moving up, forward, onward, upward. This distinction is enormously important to the imagination, especially in a country like the US, where the national mythology has trumpeted the idea of progression and improvement more or less since its beginning as an independent political unit. 

The first point of the slogan, that America was once great, is of course the key component, and this is where achronology is enacting its force. Because the question inevitably becomes. When was America great? The answer depends on whom you ask, and it is very likely that you will get a wide variety of answers, even though some of those will be more or less the same given the country’s very young age and therefore lack of periods to choose from. But the important thing is not when America was great, but that this greatness, this golden age, can be found whenever one seeks it, and whenever one wishes to find it. Also, the greatness is not here and now, as stated by the second point of the slogan. In this way, the slogan is on the one hand very precise: America was great before this point in time. But because it is completely open in its vagueness about when it was great, stating only that this greatness lies in the past, everyone can receive this message according to their own visions, fantasies and frames of reference. And in this quality, the slogan is achronological.        

When we consider the consequences of the 2016 presidential election in the US, it is clear that the slogan “Make America Great Again” was as successful as it is contemptible. It is also clear that the reason why it was successful is that it leaves an unspoken space that can be filled by whomever listens, and is therefore achronological: the greatness is in the past and not now, and this is a problem. Because achronology played such a key role in the presidential campaign, I argue that it serves as a clear example of how achronology – in conjunction with other factors – can work as a cultural force.        


Achronology as a cultural force, part 1


I can see through time           

- Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons S05E13

As a historian, I am trained to divide history into periods, and I am also trained to deconstruct such periods and critique them. Periodisation is a tool for making sense of large amounts of information, and sorting various narratives and various blocks of information into more comprehensible units. But such tools as periodisation can easily become weapons, which is why so much of the historian’s task is taken up by explaining why terms such as “the Middle Ages”, “Antiquity”, “pre-modern” and “the Enlightenment” are deeply problematic and can be used to promoted racist, nationalist, supremacist agendas. Periodisation can, in such instances, become a cultural force in that it helps create sensations of history moving towards predestined or inherently natural endpoints, which can be used to interpret any major event in history. Such teleological views of history can function as rallying points for groups or organisations, and they also serve to establish an idea of any given group being at the centre of history, whereas all other groups are merely extras or collateral. However, periodisation is not the only understanding of history that can have an impact on how societies and groups approach the past. Another such understanding is what we can call “achronology”, and in this blogpost and the next I will explore some aspects of the achronological view of the past, and what how that view can shape current events.  

Achronology is in a way the opposite of periodisation, because while periodisation rigidly – often too rigidly – divide the past into temporally sequenced blocks, achronology undoes that sequence and puts every part of history into the same block. Since every part of history inhabits the same block, achronology opens up for encounters between historical individuals, phenomena, concepts or objects that could not possibly encounter one another. In this way, achronology is also different from anachronism. Anachronism means that something is in the wrong time period, and we typically see this in works of historical fiction, be it in novels, comics, films, etc. One of my favourite examples is when the eponymous protagonist of the comic strip series Prince Valiant meets Marino, the founder of the independent country San Marino, while also fighting the Huns of Attila. According to legend, Marino operated around 301, while Attila ruled the Huns from the 440s until his death in 455. There is, in other words, no way that Prince Valiant could have encountered both Marino and Attila. What makes Prince Valiant’s impossible encounters anachronistic rather than a case of creative achronology is that the adventures of Prince Valiant are firmly set in the fifth century. Consequently, when later concepts such as crusading ideology or later phenomena such as the Viking raids are brought into Prince Valiant’s world, the boundaries of time are broken and anachronisms are being committed. In achronology, on the other hand, such boundaries cannot be broken because they do not exist in the first place. While periodisation and anachronism predicate chronological differences, achronology obliterates those differences and puts everything into a temporal here-and-now. This also means that time travel stories are not achronological, because such stories depend on the ability to traverse those temporal divides that achronology refuses to acknowledge.        

Like creative anachronism, achronology is also a concept commonly employed in entertainment. Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere, for instance, takes place in a London Below that effectively comprises all elements of London’s history in one and the same time-space. The events in Neverwhere are located in a fixed time period, the here-and-now, but that time period encompasses all other periods and can therefore not be considered a case of anachronism. Similarly, Robert Holdstock’s novel Mythago Wood employs achronology by constructing a complex woodland that contains within it corporeal manifestations of the myths of all peoples and cultures that have lived in that part of Britain since the Ice Age. While the novel does operate with the concept of chronological divides, and while this wood is sectioned according to a chronological scheme, those that enter the wood are not subject to the constraints of that chronology. Consequently, Robin Hood, Cú Chulainn and Saxon immigrants all inhabit the same here-and-now.         
Achronology is a very fruitful creative tool, just like anachronism, and can be used to very entertaining and also educational ends. I am myself very much in favour of achronology when used in such positive creative ways. But like everything in culture, achronology can also be used as a cultural force, namely something that shapes the culture that receives it. When I call achronology a cultural force I mean this: that the erasure of temporal divides can convey an understanding of the past as a single, unified block whose main defining feature is that it isn’t now, and this understanding can in turn shape how people go about in shaping the present and the future. How achronology impacts contemporary culture depends on where it is received, when it is received, and by whom it is received.   

In some cases, the impact of achronology can take the form of constructing folk-spirits where one feature of a people’s past becomes the defining essence of that people. This essence can then be imagined as a constant to be found in all of the past. Such an idea can lead in two main directions, both of which are sinister and deeply problematic. One direction is to see this spirit or essence is still with us, and that can be used to set a people apart from others and to insist on their primacy in world events, where all of the amorphous, unified past serves as a heavy legitimising weight behind such a claim. The second direction is to fuel fantasies of degradation, where this essence now is lost and must be recovered, which in turn is a way of alienating everyone that does not have a claim to this essence. In Norway, invocations of the Viking spirit – which appears from time to time – is a form of this achronological thinking.      

It is important to emphasise that what I have drawn up here is a scheme of the impact of achronology in its purest form. It is a model of an intellectual construct, and such models rarely map perfectly onto reality. There are very few cases – if any – of pure achronology at work in the cultural discourse, at least when that achronology is not employed for creative ends. But there are elements of achronological thinking at work in society, and these erase or hinder a nuanced understanding of chronological progress. Such achronological thinking might not completely remove any understanding of the past as divided into periods, but the length of those periods and the connection between those periods are obscured, and this obscurity simplifies the past. It is in this simplification that achronology strikes most forcefully.  

While periodisation has its problems, it does help us to comprehend how incrementally history is meted out, and how much human activity and how many human lives go into a year, a decade, or a century. In other words, history is a long process where things can chronologically progress slowly or quickly depending on various factors. (I here use progress not in the qualitative, teleological sense, but just as a way of describing the passing of time from one year to the next.) It is this understanding of history as a complex chain of temporalities that contain numerous known and unknown lives and deeds that prevent us from seeing the past as something simple. Achronology, however, works to simplify the past by erasing or obscuring the temporal divides. One of the most dangerous consequences of that erasure is that people who lose or are prevented from accessing the complex understanding of history are more likely to be receptive to conspiracy theories that stretch back into the very distant past. Ideas about sinister global cabals – typically launched against Jews and still employed in contemporary anti-Semitic discourse to devastating effects – depend on a kind of achronology in which it is possible to maintain large-scale secret society that can pass down its work through generations. Because achronology facilitates a thinking about the past as a single block, it is easier to accept the ludicrous idea that such societies have been in operation across centuries.     

A similar version of such achronological thinking was launched in Norway a few years back, when a freemason suggested that the Freemasons had roots in the Vikings, and as evidence he used a figurine from a third-century burial mound that sported a cloth that the freemason interpreted as the apron that is part of Freemason insignia. What we see here is that the Viking Age – a purely historiographical construct – was extended back in time to the third century, connected to the mythical history of the Freemasons. Because Freemason mythology claims to have roots in the period of the reign of King Solomon, the Norwegian freemason effectively latched his extended Viking period onto the more extensive Freemason period, and managed to connect three dots – the reign of King Solomon, the Viking Age, and eighteenth century – into a unified history. While this kind of historical fantasy does operate with temporal divides, these divides are both closer to one another and more permeable than in reality, and this provides fertile ground for fantasies of continuity, whether those fantasies are used for embellishing one’s institutional identity or fomenting anti-Semitic hatred.          

There are numerous other examples of how achronology works as a cultural force, and this preliminary sketch is just a first attempt to put the fundamental idea into writing. I will emphasise that I don’t disapprove of creative anachronism, I relish it when it is done well, and I also do not think that achronological thinking exist in its purest form. But my point here is by simplifying the past and the slow chronological progress of that past, we can become receptive to fantasies that impact how we view or current time, and how we engage politically in the current time. Belief in the possibility of secret societies sustained across centuries or millennia, or belief in folk-spirits that remain unchanged across centuries or millennia, are both very dangerous because such belief makes the believer receptive to propaganda, manipulation and political programmes designed to alienate or ostracise individuals or entire peoples. Achronology plays a part in the willingness some people have to accept simplistic or conspiracy theory-oriented explanations of the past. And while there also are other factors at play, such as national mythologies or economic pressures, the misunderstanding of the past according to principles of achronology is one of the important factors to facilitate the weaponisation of the past to abuse people in the present.      

In my next blogpost, part 2, I will focus on one specific case which can be said to be fuelled by achronology.        

torsdag 8. september 2022

How I learned to love reading – the redux version

At its core, this blogpost is one I have been meaning to write for some time, and if I had not seen a particular video clip online today – more on which anon – I would have left this text to stew a bit longer in my brain, and I would have collected some photographs to illustrate it better. However, since I was reminded about some disgusting assumptions that people still entertain about class and reading, I’m publishing the redux version of a personal essay about how I learned to love reading.   

What prompted the writing of this redux version was a video clip where a judge for the Booker price expressed cheerful disbelief about a book club that included a dinner lady and a steel worker. I will not link to the clip, but it can easily be found with some basic searching. The relevant clip is very brief, and at first it might not seem a great offence, but it should be clear to anyone listening that to be mirthfully surprised about two working class individuals reading literature is to entertain a very misguided, erroneous and misguided view of whom literature is for, and how class should be used as a metric for judging individuals. Because class remains a dominant marker in contemporary society, to perpetuate such views is downright damaging, especially in an era when so many education systems and libraries are embattled by defunding and derisive treatment from – mostly right-wing – governments and other social forces. Precisely because arguments against the funding of libraries and public education play on notions about how access to books can be bought, there is also an implicit corollary that if you are too poor to buy books you don’t need or deserve books, or you are just not interested in books. Such arguments tie into many other strands of thinking, all of which tend to involve variants of the idea that people in certain classes do not need, or do not have any interest in, literature. Any such arguments and any such strands are rubbish, and the fact that they are rubbish is demonstrated by my own trajectory towards a love of reading.  

 Since this is the redux version, I’ll go easy on the autobiographical details, and I’ll skip some of the various milestones in my own history of reading. What matters for this text, however, is a general overview of my background. I was born on a farm in the Western Norwegian fjords. On both sides of my family people have been working as farmers, and been engaged in a variety of jobs that would classify as working class. To map the class-belonging of the past three generations is not easily done, however, because a typical aspect of working life in the Norwegian districts for the better part of the past hundred years or so is that one person would have many different jobs in the course of a lifetime, many of which were seasonal, and many served simply to strengthen the buffer against starvation.  

In the history of my love of reading, one important reference point is my paternal great-grandparents. They were sharecroppers, which in the social fabric of rural Norway meant that they did not own the land where they lived, but rented it from an independent, self-owning farm in exchange for services in the course of the agrarian year. Usually, sharecroppers were financially poor, and often had to add to their income by taking on other jobs. My great-grandmother worked as a seamstress, for instance, and my great-grandfather worked as a sexton. But above all else, they were agrarian labourers, and inhabited one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder of the Norwegian districts. In other words, my great-grandparents were the kind of people that certain judges would find implausible members of a book club.    

Yet my great-grandparents did read, and it was part of their reading that formed a part of my own literary trajectory. I never met them, but I grew up on stories from my grandmother and my grandaunt, and a significant, if not large, part of my childhood was spent in their house where my grandaunt lived for most of her life. In this house was, and still is, a book case that contains the majority of my great-grandparents’ library. Much of it is religious literature, as was typical at the turn of the nineteenth century. But there is also a frayed and fragile copy of Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla, a collection of sagas of the Norwegian kings. This copy is from the first printed edition of Gustav Storm’s translation, published in 1899 in two versions, one deluxe and one which was significantly cheaper called “folkeutgåva”, or the people’s edition. The copy in my great-grandparents’ library is the cheaper copy, but this is still a magnificent book with medievalesque woodcut illustrations executed by leading Norwegian artists, and printed in a Gothic type clearly meant to evoke a medieval aesthetic.  

The printing of this people’s edition was part of a multi-pronged nation building that dominated much of Norwegian cultural life in the years before Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905. As a part of this nation building there was the idea that the Norwegian folk-spirit could be found among the farmers, and it was in the district that the true Norwegian essence had survived centuries of Danish overlordship, and a near-century of Swedish overlordship. While the ideas about the Norwegian folk spirit are deeply problematic and grounded in a dangerous romanticising of poverty and hardship, there was one aspect of this view of the rural communities that proved very valuable: Namely the notion that the people, also in the poor rural districts, would appreciate the great medieval literature as represented by Heimskringla. I do not know whether my great-grandparents received this copy as a gift or whether they bought it, but based on the frayed edges and the weak spine, it was clearly a much-read book. It was in this condition I first encountered it.  

I do not remember exactly when I first came to this book. I have a vague recollection of some party, probably around Christmas, when being in a strange middle ground between relatives who were toddlers and relatives who were adults, I gravitated towards the book case. By this time I must have been around six or seven. I had already learned to love reading, so in a sense the title of this blogpost is rather misleading, but I was still in this heroic age of reading, where new challenges appear frequently, and where the limits of comprehension are being explored and pushed. The grown-up-looking book with arrows on the cover and tantalising illustrations of men armed with swords and helmets drew me in, and I began to read portions of it, not necessarily understanding much of the antiquated text which was more Danish than Norwegian in its orthography, but at the very least I was able to read the captions to the illustrations, and I became engrossed in the book.        

Since I first discovered this copy of Heimskringla, I returned to my great-grandparents’ book case at every family gathering, and my parents eventually bought a more up-to-date edition, with modern orthography and translated into Nynorsk. I read this book frequently, and although I have to this date not yet read it in its entirety, my own copy shows more than enough wear and tear to indicate its heavy use.

As stated, by the time I began reading Heimskringla, I had already learned to love reading, because it was that love which drew me to my great-grandparents’ book case in the first place. That love was certainly strengthened by the books kept in that book case, but it was also developed through numerous other channels. Some of these channels will only be mentioned as a concluding summary here, although in a more comprehensive version of this essay I aim to go deeper into these as well. The point is that my childhood in the Norwegian district was filled with books, books that I read and books that enticed me into more heavy literature, and books that, although I never read them fully, remained reference points on the journey towards a grown-up reader. Just as important, there were also magazines and comics, many of which were no less educational than the grown-up books, and most of which I have returned to in adult life with perhaps even greater pleasure.        

These influences caused me to love reading. My maternal grandparents had a similar book case, filled with bound volumes of children’s magazines and Norwegian literary classics, where I also sought refuge during family gatherings on that side of the family. My paternal grandmother bought me a subscription for one of those children’s magazines that she herself had grown up reading during her sharecropper childhood. My maternal grandfather gifted me many old copies of such magazines, along with various books. My parents bought me comics and books that allowed me to have those first exhilarating moments of advancing through the various stages of reading comprehension. The details are for another time, but for the present it bears repeating that all these initial stages happened within, and were made possible by, a family of farmers and rural workers, where my parents’ generation was the first to have much formal education after the age of 15, and where reading was valued and appreciated.

It is thanks to my rural family that I am the person I am today, and a large part of who I am is an avid reader – of books, of magazines, of comics, of many types of literature. I have been allowed to pursue my love of reading in my professional life, and my reading has shaped me in ways that I hope will prove beneficial in the grand scheme of things. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the course of my reading life is exactly this: That people from lower social classes have no less appreciation for and love of reading than those who grow up in middle and upper classes, and are also no less deserving or capable of participating in a reading world. Unfortunately, this lesson still needs to be taught, even in 2022.     

tirsdag 30. august 2022

What the walrus tells us - language, translation and identity-construction in Historia Norwegie

Today, August 30, I conducted a seminar in a half-term course for first-year students that I have designed myself. The course focusses on the cult of saints and history-writing in twelfth-century Norway, and one of the main intended outcomes is that the students will have an understanding of how Norwegian clerics formulated a Christian identity through the writing of chronicles.

In today’s seminar, we were examining aspects of the chronicle Historia Norwegie, an account of Norway’s geography and history which was composed in Oslo by an unknown chronicler sometime close to 1170. The work only survives in incomplete late-medieval transmissions. A good overview of its history can be found here, while an Open Access edition with translation and critical commentary can be found here.  

For the seminar, I had selected a handful of passages that could help to demonstrate how the anonymous chronicler shaped this book so that it both served a domestic and a foreign audience, in order for Norway to both adhere to the hallmarks of a Christian country, as well as stand out as something unique. This balance of conformity and uniqueness is a key element in identity formation. This was perhaps especially true within an intellectual culture as that of medieval Latin Christendom, where there was a divinely woven pattern in history, and where that pattern could be discerned by elements in new places – such as peripheral Norway – that resembled in well-established, central places – such as the Holy Land, Italy or France.  

Perhaps my favourite passage that highlights this balance between an interior and an exterior audience can be seen in the chronicler’s overview of the dangers of the Greenland Sea in Chapter 2. Here, the chronicler includes a list of sea creatures that inhabit these waters. Among these is the ‘pistrix’, a whale-like creature, perhaps a sawfish, that can be found together with the baleen whale in the Indian Ocean, according to Pliny’s Natural History (book 9, chapter 3). Here we see, in other words, how the anonymous chronicler has used a name familiar to the exterior audience, who are likely to – or at least expected to – have read Pliny. 

Following the pistrix, the anonymous chronicler mentions the ‘hafstramb’, a creature with neither head nor tail, and which dips up and down like the trunk of a tree. This is the earliest known reference to this beast, and to this day there is no consensus about what it is meant to signify. Shortly after, the reader is also presented with two other creatures, the ‘hafguva’ and the ‘hafkitta’, and these two are likewise not identified with any certainty. It is worth noting that the name ‘hafkitta’ can be understood as ‘sea-cat’ (from ‘haf’ meaning ‘sea’ and ‘kitta’ meaning ‘cat’ or ‘she-cat’), and that this is a common Norwegian name for the wolf fish or sea-wolf. It is unclear whether the anonymous chronicler had this particular fish in mind when referring to the ‘hafkitta’, and it is possible that reports such as that in Historia Norwegie has influenced the later appellation of this name to this particular fish.

What is notable in this passage, however, is that all these three beasts are referred to by their Norse names, whereas the pistrix is referred to by its Latin name. We see here, in other words, that some beasts are common to several places, e.g., the pistrix, whereas others are unique to Norway and its maritime zone. In other words, the chronicler balanced known and unknown, domestic and foreign, local and universal, Norse and Latin, in a way that served to cement the identity of Norway as a place with unique things and typical things.  

But then there is the walrus. And the walrus shows us the borderland between the known and the unknown for readers outside of Norway, at least according to the expectations of the chronicler. The walrus is presented as ‘equinus cetus monoculus’, the one-eyed horse-whale. This is a literal translation of the Norse ‘hrosshvalr’, which is the basis for the Modern English ‘walrus’ and the Modern Norwegian ‘kvalross’. The walrus is undoubtedly a beast typical of the Northern waters and well suited to demonstrate the unique aspects of Norway and its historical identity – in this case represented by natural history. But the name is not given in the vernacular, but is instead rendered as a literal translation, just as the name of its native haunt, Greenland, or ‘Virida Terra’. 

When the chronicler found it useful to employ vernacular terms for beasts typical of the Greenland Sea, why did he not do so in the case of the walrus? Or, for that matter, why did he translate Greenland? The answer is, most likely, that unlike the three other beasts, the walrus was not an unknown entity to exterior readers. By 1170, the walrus was the main source of ivory for the craftspeople of Northern Europe, and although the animal itself had not been observed by men and women who never ventured into the Arctic waters, they knew very well where the ivory came from. Consequently, the walrus was a point of reference that would register in the minds of the foreign readers of Historia Norwegie, and it would be something familiar, unlike the obscure and terrifying beasts such as the ‘hafstramb’. Through the walrus, in other words, the chronicler managed to showcase a unique aspect of Norwegian natural history that could resonate with readers who did not speak Norse. It was therefore useful to render the name of this beast in Latin. In this way, the walrus aided the chronicler in shaping a Norwegian identity.     

mandag 29. august 2022

Sculptor - a poem by Sylvia Plath


For Leonard Baskin 

To his house the bodiless 
Come to barter endlessly 
Vision, wisdom, for bodies 
Palpable as his, and weighty. 

Hands moving move priestlier 
Than priest's hands, invoke no vain 
Images of light and air 
But sure stations in bronze, wood, stone. 

Obdurate, in dense-grained wood,  
A bald angel blocks and shapes 
The flimsy light; arms folded 
Watches his cumbrous world eclipse 

Inane worlds of wind and cloud. 
Bronze dead dominate the floor, 
Resistive, ruddy-bodied, 
Dwarfing us. Our bodies flicker 

Toward extinction in those eyes 
Which, without him, were beggared 
Of place, time, and their bodies. 
Emulous spirits make discord, 

Try entry, enter nightmares 
Until his chisel bequeaths 
Them life livelier than ours, 
A solider repose than death's. 

(From The Colossus, 1967 edition)


onsdag 24. august 2022

Finding nuggets - the rewards of reading widely


When conversing about books and reading, a recurring topic tends to be how to balance the amount of available material with the limited time of a human lifespan. There always has to be some kind of balance for purely practical reasons, and how that balance is achieved depends entirely on each individual reader. For me, the decision-making process is largely guided by lists, as I have written about in previous blogposts (here, here, and here).

In my case, there are numerous books that I want to read, many of which I keep putting off for various reasons. It might be that I feel like I do not have the time needed to really delve into the book in the way I want to, which is why I still have not started The Count of Monte Christo, even though I do have an unabridged translation at home in the fjords. Another reason is that I still want to have something to look forward to from that particular author, which is why I have still only read two of the novels by Erik Fosnes Hansen, one of my absolute favourite authors. Or it might be that I simply feel too tired to engage with the book in the way I feel it should be engaged with, which is why I still have not started Hanna Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem.  

Then there are the books that I do not particularly want to read, but that I feel some obligation to read in order to fulfill some kind of personal ambition. In my case, such books are typically found among the Nobel laureates in literature, and there are many of those books I feel no urge to read. But every once in a while, I come to that pleasant place between readings, when the euphoria of having finished a good book and being able to select from the plethora of available options that I feel drawn towards a book that I normally would not prioritise, either because it is not on any of my lists, or because it seems uninteresting or trite (this is sometimes the case for books that are on one my lists as well).  

Two weeks ago, I found myself in this pleasant in-between space that often fuels the mind with a kind of reading-hubris, which leads to choices that would not have been made in sobriety. I was leaving for Oslo after the summer vacation, and I had had a couple of very good reading weeks. And I believe that since I was about to embark on a nine-hour bus ride, my choice fell on a book that I had not paid much attention to in the past years, namely the Norwegian translation of Le Procès-Verbal, the debut novel of J. M. G. Le Clézio, the Nobel laureate in literature of 2008.  

The novel - Rapport om Adam in Norwegian and The Interrogation in English - is not one I would recommend. I found it boring and pretentious, and even by 1963 the stock character of the quasi-intellectual male misfit who shuns societal norms in often violent hypocrisy had outplayed its usefulness. To follow the pathetic complaints of an ungrateful rapist penned by a young ambitious male author is at times gruelling and downright unpleasant. This is a case where even the occasional beauty of the prose is insufficient to make me come away from the experience and look back on it as an overall pleasant experience. 

As many problems as I have with this book, and as much as it has put me off Le Clézio's books for the foreseeable future, reading the novel was also a reminder that even in the most unexpected and unpleasant places, there will be nuggets that make the effort worthwhile. In this sense, The Interrogation also proved ultimately to be worthwhile, because here and there - in-between all the myopic self-centredness and moaning - there were some formulations, some sentences that were remarkably well put, and which I have marked for future use. For instance, for someone like me who researches legends of saints and how the stories of saints are multiplied in the course of the history of a given cult, some reflections about the validity of thousand versions of the same legend - even if this was not about saints' legend - is an excellent starting point for discussing authority and complexity in hagiography, whether that discussion is done in an article, a blogpost, or in the classroom. In short, reading a novel that I found objectionable in many different ways, nonetheless yielded some nuggets that might prove useful, and I was again reminded of the rewards of reading widely - even so widely that it goes beyond pleasure.   

mandag 22. august 2022

Born from old ideas - or, Archive everything

archive everything 

- Karl Steel, in a tweet that I forgot to archive by screenshot 

When I started my PhD in 2014, I had learned a few important things from my MA degree. For instance, I had learned the value of keeping an archive of notes and drafts and half-baked ideas. And, perhaps more importantly, I had learned to do so more logically and well-structured than I had done during my MA - a period in which my method was mingled with some madness, or perhaps it is more accurate to call it mess. From an early point in my PhD, I began to keep neatly organised folders on my computer, as well as a less neatly organised and extensive archive of handwritten notes, print-outs, and ephemera that lost its tenuous organisational solidity when I moved my things from Denmark to Norway at the end of my Danish sojourn in 2019. It was this practice that made the tweet by the medievalist Karl Steel - quoted in the epigraph - resonate very strongly with me when I first read it sometime in 2015 or 2016, if memory serves. The tweet, which I quote from memory, came at a very poignant time, as I remember digging through my notes for the kernel of an idea that I had finally found a way to turn into something substantial. Although I forget exactly which of my ideas it was, the feeling of triumph as I was justified in keeping even the most insignificant-seeming of notes, stays with me to this day. 

A few years after, or last week to be somewhat more precise, this sensation was rekindled in me, as I was scrambling to finish drafts for two articles that may or may not be printed, but which are at least out of my hands for the time being. The articles had begun some months apart, and in my mind the only thing they had in common was that they needed to be done within the same week, and that I was the one who had to finish them, or at least hammer them into a shape that warranted sending them off to the respective editors. However, once I had shipped them off and let them out of my immediate care, I came to realise that these two texts had something else in common, namely that they were both born out of old ideas. 

Like all scholars, I often get ideas for articles that I would like to do, or things I would like to include in articles at some point. Like many scholars, I imagine, I eventually come to the realisation that several of those ideas are not substantial enough for an entire article, or too small or insignificant to warrant the time required to do the necessary research, or too big to be done within the constraints of time and other obligations that always direct how I prioritise my work. And, like some scholars, I keep my ideas in a computer document, which has now grown in length to the point that I would need several lifetimes - and some very careless editors - to be allowed to publish all of them. Luckily, however, I also find that some of these ideas can be developed, either as an article of its own or as part of another article. 

The whole point of my document with ideas of various complexity has always been a conviction that those ideas might some day result in something concrete, although when that someday would come was not for me to know. The articles I submitted last week, however, both came from that document, and both started as ideas formulated in a rather confused, brief and incomplete way - more as a cryptic note rather than a fully-fledged idea. However, as ideas mature, they often get mixed in with other ideas, or they get transplanted into a framework where they can develop further. These are trajectories that usually depend on a mixture of time, accrued learning and experience, and chance. Of these three, perhaps chance is the most important, and it was absolutely chance that threw me into situations where I was invited to submit something to publications whose themes and subjects made me recall those ideas for which I thought I would never find a suitable outlet. Even though I might still have to do a lot with these texts to get them into shape, and even though I might still get rejected, these text have enabled me to develop my fledgling ideas into something material, and that is a crucial step. The compulsion to archive everything has, indeed, paid off.