Tag Archives: Kolgrafarfjordur

Going Deep in Iceland

At a certain point, you see with your chest, not with your eyes. Here with the tide rushing out at Kolgrafarfjörður at sundown around 2:30 pm on the shortest day, the light might be in the air, but it’s really in the water, which you “see” with its substance.

In other words, light is a substance as well, which this photograph, which can only capture the energy within it, can only hint at. You have to be there, because only a body can experience this.  However, renting a car at Harpa at 10 a.m. and rushing out to Snæfellsnes, and back to Reykjavik in time for a quick snack and the 8 pm. Northern Lights Bus Tour will only keep you in the light’s energy. You won’t become the sea. There’s not just one Iceland in the same place at the same time. And it’s not just the sea. It’s the Earth as well, here from Ríf four days later, looking up to the glacier.

I think this is what Gunnar Gunnarsson meant in his 1936 essay “Thoughts on Nordic Fate” (Nordische Schicksalsgedanke), when he spoke of salvation — not in the modern sense of rescue through Christ but in an older sense, of the healing of separation. His answer was to go home to Iceland, but I’m not sure it has accepted him yet.

Or  has  it?

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.