Yesterday I mused on the origins of story in lines that cut across pools of presence. Part of the story was the human response to them, that brought them together into art. (If you missed it, you can track through it right here.) Today I’d like to talk about Gunnar Gunnarsson, and how some of those lines are circles, and that they too have a story. Now, circles are very special lines. They have no beginning or end, no directionality and can can extend from every point into every conceivable shape, as long as it has no beginning and end. Circles are eternal. Their boundaries separate into inner and outer representations of … what exactly? Ah, that’s Gunnar’s game. Here’s a circle:
Intersection of Highways 848 and 87
And here’s another:
Well, almost a circle. Sort of. If you took off the scrunchy bits. It has a circle-like edge, at any rate. Here, this might be closer:
Three Maps of Iceland
Two for tourists and one in words to keep tourists away.
That’s a copy of the text “Unser Land” or “Our Land” that Gunnar read on his spring 1940 tour of 50 cities in Germany, immediately after the sod was laid on the roof of his house and just before the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. Here’s how Gunnar starts off:
It rises majestically out of the sea when approached from the water. It grips the heart like a heroic song, touched with eternity, sown with destiny. There is nothing small about its appearance. Even though its face varies from place to place, it remains integral — a pure vision.
A pure (or untrammelled) vision? It’s like a shaman’s spirit stone or a statue of Mary with the Christ Child. Speaking of which, here’s one:
The Skriðusklaustur Madonna…
… in her glass box, with reflected light, and looking very Icelandic indeed (replica).
By “pure vision” Gunnar had many things in mind, including nature in its rawest, least adapted, least, shall we say, artistically crafted, farmed, developed, urbanized or written version and the Madonna. Now, even if we accept that Gunnar idealized his mother and lost her at the age of eight, and then bought the farm next door some 45 years later and set up his writing desk where he could look up the valley and see that childhood, which he called the purest image of eternity, and even if we accept that Iceland, the land, is alive and represents human consciousness just as the consciousness of Icelanders represents the land (which, indeed, Gunnar argues in the latter part of his speech), and even if the madonna above comes from his farm in East Iceland, the Madonna and Iceland — or even Gunnar’s farm — just aren’t exactly the same thing. In his text, though, they are. The title gives us a clue as to what he means by that: “Our Land”. Whose land? Apart from raw, physical and spiritual nature, like this …
In playing this game, it’s good to remember that Gunnar was a showman and a businessman speaking to his main audience: the Germans, who had swarmed (to take a word from the German) to his books for decades. Indeed, they had done so to a whole genre of Nordic romances from Sweden, Norway and Iceland, that was fed, ultimately, into the German war machine. In other words, Gunnar was speaking to two audiences at the same time: Icelanders (himself, most specifically) and Germans who had a longing to get out of Middle Europe and to create a new centre of balance around the Baltic (somewhat removed from them by the Treaty of Versailles). If I’m right, he intended his text to be a cipher, read differently by both groups. The madonna was intended for the Germans. The pure nature for the romantics. The way of looking both ways at once, for himself. Himself, Gunnar was a boy from the fjords of East Iceland, a farm kid, from a long line of farmers. He remained so to the end. In the context of 1940, with German and Russian invasion of Poland a fait accompli and Germany reassertive along the south shore of the Baltic, “Our Land” meant several further things, which I will speak to over the following few days in this Easter season of death and rebirth, grace and forgiveness. One of them was “land to live upon,” a concept which was one of the cornerstones of Germany’s violent foreign policy, by which Germany sought to fulfill what it (or at least Hitler) saw as its “destiny” — another word that Gunnar carefully sows at the beginning of his speech. His audience would have been all ears. In my next post I will discuss the bearing this concept had on Jews and their culture and the horrific story of the Holocaust, but let’s be kind to ourselves. These things are hard and need their time and space to unfold. Until then, look at the world of Gunnar’s nature, islands of air, always different, always the same, and frozen into one picture of pure spiritual vision. Applying this boyhood observation of paradise to the divisive and self-devouring complexities of German political life in the 1930s might have been unwise on Gunnar’s part, but the boyhood observation is a thing of beauty…
The question is: what does one, as a man, make out of that? And that cross we will carry tomorrow.