PURITY IS A HARD TASK MASTER by Brita Green, Ph.D.
I don’t remember exactly what year it was when we, a group of young Swedes, all read Stig Dagerman and in particular his novel A Burnt Child, but it would have been some-time in the early 1950’s. We were a dozen or so school friends of both sexes who were about to finish school. We were at a stage when we realised that suddenly the many years of daily contact would come to an end, and we would all be going our different ways, maybe grow apart and lose touch. There were so many important choices to face up to: choices of study, career, political orientation (getting the vote at 21), as well as choice of life partner. The boys had to cope with military service, and the career choice certainly weighed more heavily on them than on us girls. We would have sworn that we were absolutely equal in every respect but, if we were honest, we girls still knew at the back of our minds that we had a sort of opt-out chance, a possibility of a career break at least, if we married and had children: the boys on the other hand knew that they would always be expected to be the main bread-winners. In other words, we were at quite a vulnerable stage in our lives, searching for solutions and open to suggestions. I suppose we felt that Bengt in A Burnt Child was one of us, still a child in some ways, battling with becoming a grown-up and convinced that he was really superior to the adults around him. We were drawn to a character who, unlike us, dared to follow his ideas uncompromisingly. We probably didn’t see the self-centredness in Bengt any more than we saw it in ourselves. I don’t remember us discussing the events in the book or what we felt about Bengt’s grief, or his relationships with his father, his weepy fiancée and his “stepmother”. It was the talk of purity combined with youth and innocence that struck a chord with us: the idealistic notion that somehow, somewhere, there was a “pure” life we should strive to live, a life of one hundred percent commitment, a life that did not involve shoddy compromises or second-bests. “What parents call experience is nothing but … successful attempts at denying everything that, in their own youth, they regarded as pure, as true, as right.” A sentence like that would be underlined in our copies of the book.
Rereading some of the statements again now, I am uncomfortably put in mind of today’s fanatics and fundamentalists (“To be pure is to be able to sacrifice everything except the one thing you live for”, “A pure human being can do things other people do not have the right to do”), but back then – half a century before 9/11 – we would have understood it as simply listening to our inner voices and being true to ourselves. Our teacher of religion, a wise old man, had given us, mostly non-believers, a definition of morality which we could all relate to and which reflected his own touching belief in humankind: morality is “inner faithfulness”. We probably looked at Bengt’s attitude in the light of that.
Most of us soon learnt to conform and compromise, become adults. (And, incidentally, we did not lose touch but are still great friends.) Maybe we have occasionally regretted that we have not always lived up to the ideals of our youth, but in our heart of hearts we know that it is the only way to live. I say “most of us”, because one of the boys in our group did not make it. Two years after Stig Dagerman’s death, that boy was found dead in the family car in his father’s garage. Whether it was a “copycat” act is hard to say. There were no doubt many different factors that led to his suicide but, worldly-wise as only 22-year-olds can be, I think we felt at the time that we understood the real underlying reason he had taken his life: rather than compromise, he had opted out.
Brita Green lives in the U.K. and occasionally writes on poetry and translation issues