Demosthenes Agrafiotis

Happy Norway and a stroll in the “sublime”

One country, Norway, has escaped the economic crisis and enjoys a certain level of prosperity, which if not increasing, is at least stable. But has it indeed avoided the crisis? Oil, mined carbohydrates, the expertise in organization and immense deposits of courage and stamina might explain the constant economic development in a country that has gone through phases of great poverty and necessary emigration in the recent past. Its National Fund for the future generations has been established as a mechanism of insuring its people against unforeseen future disasters, and is funded by the oil platforms in the Atlantic. The Norse could invest large sums in any country they wanted; in fact, it has been proposed by some people that they purchase outright the American company Microsoft. The tradition of stiff-necked polar explorers remains alive with the countless Museums in the country, which are specifically dedicated to them. The stereotype of the Norwegian man, somber, strong, unselfish and honest remains solid. Many international delegations for peace or assistance throughout the world, even today, are directed by the descendants of the fearless seafarers (like Nansen, Amundsen, or Heyerdahl of Kon-tiki fame.) However, in private discussions with Norse people, and other than the constant threat of psychological disorders due to lack of sunlight and the difficult weather conditions, two new issues weigh heavy on their minds: the massacre of 2011 (77 people died after a bomb explosion in Oslo and by gunfire at a neighboring island by a fanatic nationalist) and the recent arrival of refugees from the Middle East. The proverbial tolerance suddenly seems fragile. Is a different kind of “crisis” bubbling under the surface in this idealized picture of prosperity and good management?

Is perhaps the diagnosis of the situation in happy Norway with “crisis” terms due to a residue of agony or a defensive attitude by the people of the South? Undoubtedly Europe is ruled by the North, since its peoples seem to be more powerful in the current phase of its history, and it is almost determined by fate that the people of the South would feel the need to understand the special characteristics in the rulers of the moment. So, a critical attitude and a search for the weak points of the Northerners is certainly understandable, not only because of the coincidence of inequality in power, but also because of a need for mutual understanding of the cultural differences between the two European territories.

If for a moment we leave behind the world of cities and settlements and turn toward “nature,” what would we find in our reckoning with the so-called natural environment of Norway? In this adventure, a certain painting might be able to function as a milestone: “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818) by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840,) Kunsthalle, Hamburg, DE. This painting which belongs to the Romantic tradition, is considered to be the clearest witness of the sublime in painting and a great number of books and articles have been written about it. In our case, it will function as a guide, as a signpost in experiencing the Norwegian landscape. Certain moments of the journey will be selected, so that its usefulness will become evident in the recognition of the landscape and in the organization of its understanding.

The train from Oslo to Trondheim crosses central Norway. A succession of plains, lakes, plateaus, valleys and rivers, and houses of vivid colors, placed here and there, as the locals have a kind of agoraphobia. They think that isolation, with distance between houses measured in kilometers, is good for communal life – for them the ideal would be every house/household in its own island, real or imaginary. At some point, the train is passing by the edge of a smooth, motionless lake on which a snow-covered mountain is reflected. As the train speeds away, the “mountain” and its mirror image become confused with each other and there is a sense that the train is entering the reflection, that the double, the reflection is becoming stronger that nature itself. A strange, metaphysical sensation, almost like vertigo. A passage to the other side of the mirror, a momentary hallucination runs through the body. A quick blinking of the eyes is necessary to get out of it, even momentarily. An acute sense of the other world swallowing the tangible one, of even this very train becoming lost in the abyss of the representation, carrying away with it all the unsuspecting, innocent passengers.

fjord 1

The boat from Trondheim takes three days to get to Tromsø, as it crosses the lacework of the island fjords and also the open sea of the North Atlantic. During this very short length of time, the mega-time of the great geologic changes is revived. The sound from the waltz of the continents, the succession of glaciers, the horrific friction of glaciers against the earth’s crust is depicted in the shapes of the mountains, the depth of the fjords and the shores of the endless gulfs and bays. The sense of verticality, as it dominates for a moment that of the horizontal, demonstrates in an almost mathematical way the immense force of the geological events. In this case, the signpost of the painting is proven to be rather thin as, in a first approach, the impact of the great and indomitable force of the geological phenomena is paralyzing, and in second, the “audacity” of humans in wandering about and in being deceived, in this place – a time continuum. That is, the painting seems to be rather weak in front of the density of feeling induced by the snowy mountains and the convoluted fjords to the wanderers of the 21st century, who move around in their wondrous modes of transportation – boats, trains and airplanes, constantly accumulating multiple views of the arctic landscapes.

The northern lights have become the central point of tourist promotion in Norway. Bright or blinding images caused by ions from sun bursts entering the magnetic field of our planet. In between earth and sky, these meteoric lights are carried through photography and video clips—often with some photoshop improvements—to television, computer and cell phone screens. However, the personal acquaintance with the stunning physical event is never guaranteed. The possibilities for actually catching the light show, which are announced each morning in official scientific internet bulletins, depend on many factors: the sun’s activity, the weather conditions, the magnetic fields, etc. So, for example, a general reduction of probabilities is expected for the next ten years. The tourist trade employs special small tourist buses or small boats, and after 10:00 pm, the tourists participate in the hunt of the northern lights. A regular enterprise, with wireless communication, allows some 200 buses to range in the mountain of Norway (and also in those of Finland,) so that their passengers might become witnesses of the spectacular phenomenon. Undoubtedly, this shuttling allover mountains, lakes, rivers and plateaus covered with snow and ice, creates an especially charged atmosphere of waiting and expectation. When the much expected “curtain” of clouds opens up and the colors of the northern lights start flickering in the void of the sea of clouds, then an irrational feeling takes hold, that nature is a spectacle and the spectators are the most privileged beings for being able to enjoy a theatrical performance by forces of mysterious origin. Humankind, which is made of “universal dust,” behaves egotistically, by reducing a field of forces, which surpass it by far, to a mere provider of enjoyment, wonder and perhaps awe. Surely, the local traditions see the northern lights as a threat, as a way for the dead to snatch off the living. In total contrast to those superstitions, the wanderers of the night, with special photography, confirm the exact moment of the appearance of the northern lights. That is, the modern technological capabilities for representation construct versions of the “eternal” and the “momentary” and offer gilded illusions or false memories. The painting by Friedrich seems impotent in comparison to colors in the sky and the vastness of the white landscape. If you add to that the gusts of icy wind, then the bodies of the spectators are receiving multiple stimulations in a pandemonium of sensations and feelings. Finally, the painting seems simply as an introduction to an exercise of the sublime. The return, late at night, after the “miracle” is much easier, with all the tourists fast asleep after the excitement of the encounter with the solar system and the bitter cold of the Scandinavian mountains.

fjord 2

Many things have been written about the Vikings, those courageous second-sons who through trade and plundering kept striving for at least 4 centuries (800-1200 A.D.) to become men of property. The excellent construction of their ships, their knowledge and their hazardous collective undertakings are noted in all texts and are presented in the many museums of Norway. The image of the model explorers who, with scientific knowledge and noble objectives went out to sea (of water and ice) for the glory of human curiosity and mastery, is cultivated in every opportunity. From all the history of conquests and all the rich mythology, we propose to take a look here at the risky proposition of the “end of the world.” The Scandinavian mythology has a common origin with the Nordic-German mythology, and in spite of the peculiar Christianization in this area of our planet, paganism continues its influence until today. The influences of the Vikings are many of course, from the names of the weekdays-in English, based on the names of gods in their mythology-, to the founding of cities, such as Dublin, Kiev and Moscow. With their excellent ships (both in design and construction,) they crossed seas, rivers and lakes and, sometimes by plundering, sometimes by trade, they united northern Europe to the south and the Middle East. Sometimes as a terrible scourge and other times as mercenaries of traders, they contributed to a constant exchange of cultural models and products. From the entire fresco of their mythology, we pick an element that has direct connection to the crisiology of our times, since, according to the Viking mythology, the “end of the world” is expected. More specifically, the Scandinavian paganists believed in the future rise of Ragnarök (the fate of the gods,) ushering a period of battles, wars, conflagrations and disasters resulting in the death of the gods (Odin, Thor…) and the inundation of the earth in water. After that total apocalypse, life will start again by a couple that will survive that horrible turn of events. In essence, they conceived an idea of time as a combination of something linear and cyclical. In contrast to the Christian concept of the Second Coming and the Day of Crisis/Judgement, when Holy Justice will be rendered and good will triumph, the end of the world for the Norse is connected to the material changes of the planet and will come about with the clash between gods and humans. It sounds like a Hollywood movie where spectacular forces are set on a deadly course that leads to the twilight of the gods. (The Wagnerian approach comes from that same mythology where humans and gods fight each other in the same arena.) In the Christian version, time will stop when the wicked will be punished with everlasting fire, while the virtuous will enjoy total happiness, and temporality will have no meaning. In today’s world the word “crisis,” as it is understood and used by the powers that be, draws elements from the Scandinavian prediction about the destiny of the gods and the geologic and ecologic forthcoming changes. In our times, the invocation of the “crisis” as the path toward a great and unavoidable destruction is dominant, and it is accompanied by the exclusion of all other definitions of crisis and all other ways of coping with it. That is, it’s a case of a well guided Babel, and at the same time, a cynical strategy of the powerful, in order to impose their own aims and objectives.

The Stoic philosophers advised people to go back to “Nature” in order to discover how the world of humans and of things works. This journey to Norway has been a great opportunity for such an exercise. Of course, “Nature” for the ancient Greeks was very different from today’s version, which is more like a reserve of forces that man is ready to exploit and utilize. In our own case, we consider the landscape as an opportunity for a dialog with nature, keeping as maxim that we too are part of nature, approaching in that way the ancient Greek view of it. With a simplification, it is necessary for the aforementioned dialog to have physical and metaphysical nuances. What formations emerge from the Norwegian landscape? First of all, the vertical and the horizontal elements of the landscape are in a delicate balance and in a constant succession. The mass that unfolds, both above the surface and undersea, is overwhelming and awe-inspiring. The “spectator” is crushed by the sheer size of the mountains, their naked structure and their placement on the earth’s crust. The lacework of the fjords, the depth of the sea and the height of massifs lead to a realization that the physical world may be starting “here,” but its farthest end unfolds somewhere in the vast universe. That perception, however, is made possible by dint of the technology of modern transportation and that of modern clothing! That is, technical solutions have been found, thanks to human ingenuity, that allow our species to stand in a position of relative power, in the degree that it finds an observation point of the world, being at the same time a minor element of that same world. On a parallel approach, the scale of time is equally overwhelming, since this landscape still carries the traces of the first processes of creation that have led to the shaping of the earth. The space-time then has a geologic and tectonic implication, which leads to questions as to the manner of human existence in our galaxy and the universe. A lesson in the geography of the “sublime!”

fjord 3

When the ship (“SPITSBERGEN”) enters the arctic circle, the captain calls the passengers to a simple ceremony, during which Poseidon (almost a caricature) holding his trident makes an appearance, and he, the captain, pushes ice-cubes down the tourists’ back so they can have a direct experience of cold and ice. In any case, from this point on begins an apotheosis of the polar-zone landscape. The gaze of the “wandering traveler” is not merely entertained by the enjoyment of the beautiful or the scenic landscape, but it’s shocked by meeting forces and materials that are a challenge to the gaze itself. This landscape doesn’t seduce with its harmony, but causes agitation as the visible reaches its limit, as the intelligible seems to be powerless. The landscape is not a stage offering a liberating glance where the light dominates, where clarity fights darkness – there’s no allegory unfolding in front of the eyes and the bodies of the travelers; only vastness and the imposing materiality of the earth’s crust transfixes the gaze and turns it to primeval acceptance and cosmic recognition. Here, the “corruption of civilization” seems out-of-date, and “nature worship” looks faded, as it becomes necessary to consider the inevitability of the birth and transformation of the world. The temporary, the brief present is eliminated and silently the need becomes evident for a basic responsibility of mankind for the long-term survival of the earth. Doubtlessly, the experience of this landscape favors boundaries, limits and transcendental excesses, but it liberates the time frame. (More specifically, for people of a certain age, for whom the sense of time-passing fills them with anxiety, because of the seeming acceleration in the sequence of moments, geologic time obliterates their micro-rhythms, giving a sense of relief, totally fallacious but psychologically effective.) In relationship to the painting by Friedrich, the fleeting variations of the Norwegian landscape elicit multiple emotions and reflections, and therefore it would be difficult to find words to express such multi-layered experience. Perhaps the word “sublime” might work, if any traces of religion and mythology are removed from its meaning. Here, in front of the arctic landscape, “sublime” acquires a certain conceptual depth, if it is stripped of any metaphysical hues and it is clad instead in the materiality of natural forces. This stroll and wandering in the hyperborean Europe becomes an exercise in the realm of the sublime.

According to Ancient Greek mythology, Apollo (the god of Light) spent six months of the year visiting the hyperboreans in the northernmost edges of the world as it was understood then, that is, between October and April, the time of darkness and of the long night in the north pole. His mother, Leto, had been a hyperborean, and had come to Delos to give birth to him. What the ancients knew about the arctic area is an open question, that is, whether they meant the Scythians or other ethnic groups. In any case, Iphigenia and Orestes found shelter among them, an indication of acceptance and hospitality for the unfortunate and persecuted children of the royal family of Argos. In what language did Apollo speak to the local inhabitants? What language did the young virgins speak, when as hyperborean ambassadors they brought their gifts to Delos and Delphi, the two centers of Apollonian worship? The hyperboreans were considered to be learned men, perhaps even immortal, since for them, just like for the Olympian gods, the four elements by which they were made, (earth, air, water and fire,) were connected with unbreakable and eternal bonds. A significant aspect in the relationship of the Greeks to the hyperboreans had to do with Avaris, a hyperborean priest of Apollo, and also interlocutor and teacher to Pythagoras and Orpheus. This way, there is a certain genealogy created between the hyperborean life and art prototypes and the quests by mystics (whether involving gods or not) in the span of centuries. Also, Avaris had given to Pythagoras the projectile (arrow) by which he was able to travel safely on his many quests in the world of that time, by surmounting all obstacles. That projectile had been given by Apollo to Avaris, the Ether-traveler (Aetherovatis) who, in one of his journeys, had gone to Greece to visit his “brothers.” The happy Norway of today – if we follow the Greeks – descends from the land of Happiness and Immortality. Its landscapes confirm that, because time and place seem to pulverize every micro-scale of their understanding. Finally, its citizens have developed, with courage and forbearance, cultural models and mythologies durable throughout the centuries.

     Translated by Angelos Sakkis

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