Category Archives: Nationalism

Winter Dawn in Kolgrafarfjörður

On his reading tour through wartime Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1940, Gunnar Gunnarsson said that the darkness of Iceland was as much the soul of Icelanders as the long days of summer light. It was a statement meant for a Nazi audience and expressed what he saw as the one common point between Nazi culture (his main audience) and his own: a belief that people sprang from the land and represented its highest aspirations. In Iceland’s case, that also means (says Gunnar) from the darkness and the light, presumably in how they are caught by the land. It was a peculiarly pre-modern idea expressed at the height of the modernist period. Now that we all live in a post-modern era, in which everything is an image or a belief, Gunnar’s expression appears a little strange, if not repugnant, or it would, if the light and the darkness were not still there, however he expressed them in that troubled time. This is a troubled time, too, so it might be interesting to look at what he saw as an answer to these troubles: darkness and light, that are the same when viewed through a human eye.

Rather than being a Nazi view, that is, at heart, a profoundly Christian one, in a specifically Icelandic sense, for in Iceland Christianity made only a light break between Norse and Christian belief, uniting them through a common ethical ground. Ground like the image of Kolgrafarfjörður at first light on Christmas Eve Day above. Gunnar was buried in a Catholic cemetery on Viðey, to be with his wife, but the impulse within this ethical ground remains profoundly Lutheran. It represents a choice. It gives human nature as the ground in which this choice is made, ground that is formed by experience with scenes like the one above and so scarcely separable from them. Gunnar told the Germans that no-one but a child born to Iceland could act rightly in its landscape. It is the kind of statement most often made about language — that a native speaker of a language never makes a mistake in it, while a non-native speaker must always follow set rules, lest a mistake be made and nonsense result.  This then, is Gunnar’s language:

If you see mountains only, look again. Better yet, go there in the winter, when you are a body among other bodies (non-human ones) there, in a syntax in which you are but one word, one through which human language comes.

A Social Lesson in Climate Change from Iceland

Time is a tricky thing, even in Iceland. On the South Coast, for instance, where lava has taken many farms away since settlement over 1000 years ago, and where people with no better means to independence eked out a subsistence living between the moss and basalt, power poles walk across the landscape towards Reykjavik. It’s there, in “modernity”, that most Icelanders now live, yet the power that sustains them and guarantees them the wealth to maintain their independence in a global world, walks across their past to get there and turns it into nature.In other words, to look at this landscape is to look at time, over a thousand years of social time included, through the lens of a great emptying. This sense of time is the price Icelanders must, perhaps, pay to belong to the world, but the cost is emptiness. It empties out the land, and empties out the past and empties out the soul. In short, one becomes dependent on the present and can no longer live in the fullness of time.  This is not just an Icelandic issue. Today, as the Earth empties of life, we are all paying the price for this defense against each other. What a tricky balance!

The Politics of Farming and the Truth of Art

A century ago, most Icelanders were farmers. Now a few thousand remain.  Their Iceland is as complex as any other. For instance, the image below shows not only rich hayfields, with some drainage issues not-yet-solved by dredging, but the results of government farm-improvement subsidies (for dredging) that are one of the ways that Iceland keeps farmers on the land. Note the older style of farming in the foreground, with the sheep at pasture on the heath.

Borgarfjörður Eystri

If you travel around Iceland, you will see fields like this all the time. Few look quite like this one, though. Notice how the mounds of soil dredged out to drain the land are left beside the canals from which they came. If this were a prosperous farm, they would have been levelled out across the entire field, enriching and deepening the soil. They aren’t. Rather than enriching the land, in this remote, barely-prosperous farm, the dredging remains a political calculation at best. The view is a sobering reminder that although millions of people visit Iceland for relaxation, in most of the areas one passes through people are working at their absolute limit, and within a narrow set of political parameters. This tetchy balance between freedom and control is as much Iceland today as when Gunnar was driven off his farm when his workforce went to work for the Americans instead of under his beneficent dictatorship, or when Halldor Laxness wrote his great novel of orneriness, stubbornness and endurance,

…or  Independent People.

These things aren’t just in the imagination of novelists.

The Roots of Reykjavik Architecture

Do you wonder why Reykjavik looks like Reykjavik? 

For the answer, go to the Northeast.

Bustarfell, near Vopnafjörður.

Note the multiplicity of small houses, all that turf and driftwood and the strength of a horse can manage …

… with many dark passages leading to faint light…

… sometimes brighter…

…and all joined together by spontaneous organic design…

And then back to Reykjavik you go, this time with the delight of recognition…

Splendid.

It’s improv theatre!

This is the kind of history the Icelandic National Museum doesn’t cover. Best to get lost on your way there, I think.

Haunting Iceland

This image from North Iceland haunts me. This was once a prosperous farm, as the driftwood fence shows. In a country without wood, to have rights to pick up Siberian wood from the beach was enough to make a farm pay. Now they’re inexpensive  replacements  for more expensive metal posts, and not a cash item.

Speaking of economy, look at the tun, or house field in the centre of the image. It would have been manured with the manure from the winter sheep barn… just as far as a man could carry it with his strength. The point is, that was economy: this concentration of the energy of the land in such a way that it gave forth more richness in the year to come. This principle was applied after the Second World War, when the country embraced foreign modernity to maintain the old economy. In this case, the fuel tank, and a tractor that went with it, looked like a path to a bright future. Maybe it was for Reykjavik, but after 1,000 years no one lives here anymore. It’s still farmed, as a hayfield. The main field, the tun so to speak, is up against the ridge on the upper right of the image, bright green and fertilized with nitrogen fertilizer: an industrial product, that must be paid for with cash the land can barely spare. That’s where the edge of maintaining Iceland by bringing in foreign technology has lead now. Without it, there’d be no economy, yet if it had always been this way, there’d be no Iceland. This has always been Iceland’s bind. Gunnar Gunnarsons’s attempt to solve it by bringing modern German farming to the Fljótsdalur in 1939 lasted only a couple years, before he had to give it up. In fact, this might just be a universal human bind: one looks for permanency and must accept transience, yet the dream of permanency continues to exert its pull.

What it says is that we are haunted by the world as much as we haunt it.

Living Among the Ruins: Italy and Iceland

This is the kind of thing that annoyed the Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson in 1928. This is Hadrian’s Villa, built in the year 134 near Tivoli, in what is now Italy. He thought it was too bright.He meant that this man and his politics were wrong for Scandinavia (which, to him, included Baltic Germany):

Mussolini Rejects Democratic Rule in 1928

He also meant that this version of Hadrian’s Tivoli villa was the wrong approach to art:

The Tivoli Gardens Amusement Park in Copenhagen

Gunnar didn’t see art as a populist entertainment. He was after something else. This is the architecture he liked:

Landhus Farm, Fljótsðalur

You could consider it a part of the landscape, he said. Almost all the houses of this type are ruins now, but not like Hadrian’s ruins:

Like this:

In the 1950s onward, the Icelandic government gave away trees, as part of a nationalist program of rebuilding the eroded landscapes of the country. Out of the same impulse as Gunnar, people planted them on the sites of their former turf houses, leaving the hills, the intended recipients of the trees, bare.  The government keeps a few turf houses as museums:

Farmhouse Window,  Bustarfell

It is the same impulse that drove Gunnar from the Tivoli Gardens. He considered that mixing northern culture, an expression of northern land and climate, with a southern one would destroy it, such as the German Reich’s turn from a people’s culture, based on farm life, to an Imperial one, as documented in the image below.

For Gunnar, independence meant to have no masters at all, and the point of modernity was to refine old folk ways. He shared that with the Italians and Germans of his day. He was more clear than they were, however, on the price of Imperialism and power exercised as force. It’s too bad he didn’t speak more clearly about this, but at least we have the ruins…

Buðahraun

… to speak…

… for him …

… now:

Sandgerði

Reykjavik is Hadrian’s Villa.