#4 FROM THE MOUTH OF THE CAVE
In the translation of Samuel Butler, the second ode of the Odyssey ends as follows: “Thus, then, the ship sped on her way through the watches of the night from dark till dawn.”
When we read about the wanderings of Ulysses we let them symbolize adventure, but they also stand in for the journey towards the unknown that is an unavoidable part of all our lives. The story makes us think of the obstacles we face, the traps set for us. What do we see at the horizon? How will we fare? How do we know to do the right thing? Man travels on a fragile ship, and his path will be filled with troubles and doubts. Demagogues and systems of power will try to trap him, tempt him, seduce him, destroy him.
Himself nomadic, the author Harry Martinson claimed the epic remains a very contemporary literary work because of the way it treated fanaticism and the idea of giving in to power:
“What, then, does the Cyclops symbolize, the one-eyed giant with his horrible caves and his breeding of sheep. Naturally, it’s that ever-present one-eyed fanaticism and the violently simplifying power. They are eternal and they still exist in our time, just as strong and just as one-eyed. The idiotic language of power, the dictatorship of stupidity. Oh, we do have reason to ask ourselves how we shall fare. We remain, just as we did then, in the cave of the Cyclops. When amongst wolves, we try to act like sheep. Facing the threat of the Cyclops and his grasping hands, we hide underneath the belly of the ram, trying to convince the tyrant that we are his favorite sheep.”
Flexibility, openness, and motion stand against stupidity, stagnation and totalitarianism. This issue of 10TAL is themed around getting lost and going wandering. Right-wing extremist tendencies have lately been growing stronger in Europe, and now we have a racist party in the Swedish parliament. Göran Greider, the author and journalist, describes Sweden as a country that has lost its course: “Sweden is drifting, rudderless, through time. We don’t even have a majority government. And even worse: the right-wing extremist Swedish Democrats have boarded the ship (Metro 20/9/2010).”
The issue deals with several ways of getting lost: the political, the poetic, and the private. From the ethnocentric erroneous course of the ship steered by the Swedish Democrats — the roots of which can be found in a political and ideological crisis among all parties that have allowed market-oriented liberalism to ravage our society without resistance — to getting lost in the nightly forests of sexuality in Anders Olsson’s essay about Djuna Barnes.
Throughout time, the wanderer has been a theme in literature. Édouard Glissant, the poet, novelist, and theorist from Martinique points out that all the oldest texts of various cultures — the Old Testament, the Iliad, the Odyssey, chansons de geste, the Icelandic folk tales, the Aeneid, and the African epics — deal with exile or wandering. Glissant claims the mobility of peoples are productive for humanity, because not settling in a specific place entails an inherent questioning of territorial intolerance. In Glissant’s Caribbean islands, which were settled by various groups at various times, identity is conceived of as a pluralistic concept in relation to other groups instead of in opposition to them. For Glissant, then, the nomadic and creative stands against the dogmatic and settled. Search instead of security. Exile instead of nationalism. Considering a relational poetics instead of having roots.
“We have to dispense with the idea of a fixed identity. If we don’t dispense with it the Jews and the Arabs will continue to kill one another, the Hutus and the Tutsis will continue to kill one another, Irish Catholic and Protestant Irish will continue to kill one another. We must dispense with the idea of a fixed identity. But it is difficult, because a fixed identity is like a weapon,” says Glissant to Michael Dash (see the interview on page 30).
Nomads often move on when an area has been depleted. A similar migration is happening in Swedish society today. Dan Jönsson depicts this development in his essay “The helplessness of the digital flock”. Over the last few years, several Swedish artists have explored the gradual abandonment of several small towns in the countryside. Stores and schools disappear and social connections wither. Housing and workplaces are gradually emptied of people who move on as fast as they can. Is our settled life changing into a nomadic existence? “The evidence is overwhelming,” Jönsson writes, in an analysis of Jan Jörnmarks photography project Abandoned places: “Monument after monument over a conquered civilization; tracks and ruins of a culture where community still meant belonging to a specific place.” Jnsson also describes how this development, having happened so surprisingly quickly, wouldn’t have been possible without an underlying ideology propelling it, and he further outlines how this ideology, liberalism, have made certain political decisions seem inescapable and ‘true,’ lacking a relationship with any values.
In 1993, our current prime minister published The Sleeping People. It was his first book, and it is rarely spoken of. In it, he excels at getting lost in his own ideology, the new conservative entrepreneurial spirit, and uses it to rail against that which his party loves to hate: the Social Democrats. He believes their ideology has made the Swedes into passive sleepwalkers. Reinfeldt wants to break up with the concept of a social safety net and with solidarity. The text is available online as a private PDF, and 10TAL asked Aase Berg, the author, to read it and look at the ideas behind the politics of the party in charge. What is the ideological foundation for the society that surrounds us today? How much do we know about its history, and what is its relationship to other, newer ideologies?
The French-Algerian author Nina Bouraoui discusses using writing and the way that reading can bring one closer to the Other and let us go beyond the borders of bodies and identities. In Bouraoui’s novels love is the greatest, the last, and the most subversive tie to the Other, and she claims this love appears as a reversal or opposition to the violence of the world. This union of self and other makes love a near-religious experience.
The playwright and poet Jon Fosse searches for something similar in literature. He detests what he perceives as the contemporary movement towards individual or private celebration of “me, me, me” as opposed to something greater. In his conversation with the author Ida Linde he claims that the reader won’t encounter a ‘self’ in good poetry or good plays. You meet “something greater than the self that is oneself. Who is something greater than the self that is oneself. Who is both you and me.” Fosse said that art and literature have a subversive mission here, because they are both completely unique and exactly like everyone else at the samr time. Just like people are.
At the end of last November something strange occurred. The political association of the Swedish Democratic youth demonstrated against a poetry festival: the Stockholm Poetry Festival at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, which had a clear anti-racist focus that year. “It is awful to praise the cultures of the rest of the world and devalue one’s own” said the demonstrators in a press release at the site Politiskt inkorrekt.
We are all lost in an insecure situation that constantly needs to be reevaluated and redefined. How do we meet the anxious need for isolation and for retaining the “Swedishness” in Swedish culture? How do we shape a strong and united but also pluralistic “us”? 10TAL continues to claim literature as a force that can both increase perspective and sensibility — and that can encourage constant questioning. Feel free to come along with us.
–Madeleine Grive, translation Vendela Engblom