Tag Archives: “Our Land”

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.

Gunnar’s Message to the War

Gunnar Gunnarsson described Iceland to the Germans in 1940 as “Our Land.” This land:

Not Exactly Germany

It was a typical game for this sly trickster.

Gunnar Even Conned Me Out of My Hat

Doesn’t he look pleased!

Did he mean, “Your land and mine,” after his novel Blood Brothers?

From the German Book Club Edition of 1933.

Or did he mean “The land of all Icelanders and no one else,” after his 1933 novel Vikivaki?

The 2011 German Edition

A ghost story combining The Little Prince, a Dance of the Dead, and Jacob’s Ladder.

Well, he was playing it both ways, as usual. But then, he was a poet.

And to poets, answers lie in the water, the sky and the land. He meant one thing only:

Bring no war to this place. It is who we are and all we are. No argument.

You can read the heart here, if you’re a poet. If you’re not, isn’t it about time?

Gunnar’s Warning to the Germans

Look at the riddle Gunnar Gunnarsson told the Germans in 1940, just a few weeks before the invasion of Denmark and Norway and the resulting invasion of Iceland by the British and then the Americans:

It is far better for a man to recognize true inner human nature without touching it than through the words and behaviours people dress it in. Such a view into truth is far more vital than casual thought would have it. And certainly it’s no great sacrifice to hold to good taste and respect in all things. And since the talk is about sacrifice, our land has at least fully earned that, and our joy at its beauty will never be complete until these issues are ordered in such a way that gives no more ground for reprimand.

The text it is from a speech called “Our Land.” It can be read many ways. Here’s one:

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Turf Sheepfold, Reyðarfjörður

Here’s another, referencing each sentence of the passage quoted above to the argument Gunnar built up in the pages preceding it:

1. It is far better for a man to recognize true inner human nature without touching it than through the words and behaviours people dress it in.

Translation: Iceland has no history, except nature. Elsewhere (Germany included), nature is interpreted through the habits and clothing of people — in other words, through the changeability of time. In Iceland, however, nature is naked, and so are people: they are dressed in nothing, except each other. They do not exist in time — only in place. When one builds a bridge in Iceland (it is an example that Gunnar uses), one has to build it out of Iceland and not out of imported ideas, which sit within foreign customs and gardens rather than within nature itself, no matter how successful they were in other places. In Iceland, they won’t work. The land is not forgiving of any departure from its forms.

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Workers’ Housing, Aluminum Smelter, Reyðarfjörður

Gunnar would not have liked this.

2.  Such a view into truth is far more vital than such casual thought would have it.

Translation: Truth is untouched nature. It can be approached (and dismissed) casually, but it is not in itself dismissable. Nature is not the contemporary idea of “all things green”, nor the idea of “landscape art”, nor the notion of a goddess of nature called Natura. It is God: wordless, idea-less, unrepresentable and uncontainable. God is Iceland is Nature — or they would be, except God and Iceland and Nature have no names, and no words or ideas can be given to them, only drawn from them.

P1010427Streambed Near Njardhvik

3. And certainly it’s no great sacrifice to hold to good taste and respect in all things.

Translation: Just as with the sacrifice of Christ, good taste and respect (based on an underlying devotion to God) are not sacrifices but a practical good in their own right. Life flows in patterns. On earth (that is to say on “Our Land”), one lives within them. Land is this shore of life, which other people call a planet, and which yet others call countries. “Our Land” is a changeable idea. It really means, “Who we are.” That’s not a modern idea.

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Ryolite Streambed Near Njardhvik

4. And since the talk is about sacrifice, our land has at least fully earned that, and our joy at its beauty will never be complete until these issues are ordered in such a way that gives no more ground for reprimand.

Translation: Iceland has earned the sacrifice of human desire to its eternal forms; all those wishing to speak of sacrifice must learn to do so in a way consistent with the forms of the shore, in the way water finds its path through the grasses yet still moves with great power. Societies can be repurposed. Land cannot. Any attempts to do so will destroy the society of humans on earth. The joy of Icelanders at the beauty of those forms will not be complete until human temporal constructions are ordered in a way no longer out of touch with the streambeds of nature. The bonds between humans and God — a bond called “Our Land” — must be respected, not with words or ideas or customs, but with bodies and with rock. Only the people of a place can build there. All else will fail.bird

Ptarmigan Waiting for Me to Go Away

It’s a remarkable thing to say, especially to a country in the throes of praise for the sacrifice of thousands of its young men in capturing Poland to provide, in the language of the times, land for nordic people, especially when Finland is falling and talk of Scandinavia’s strategic importance is in the air. Invasion plans have already been drawn up, by both the British and the Germans. It’s an especially remarkable thing from a man like Gunnar, who spent decades advocating for a pan-Scandinavian state and who earned his income writing Scandinavian books for a German audience enamoured with the idea of becoming Scandinavian rather than Mediterranean. It’s an especially pointed statement to a Germany that has just united with Italy, on the Mediterranean, especially when Italy, Norway and Iceland are the three poles of the world given in Gunnar’s speech. Did I say ‘speech’? I meant sermon.

christ

Two Security Systems Hard at Work and Ready to Embrace You. Strandakirkja

Choose the one that works for you.

Next: Gunnarsson as a Lutheran.