Reading A BURNT CHILD

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

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In the Forest of Paradoxes

J.M.G. Le Clezio

Extract from J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Nobel Lecture December 7, 2008

Shortly before I received the—to me, astonishing—news that the Swedish Academy was awarding me this distinction, I was re-reading a little book by Stig Dagerman that I am particularly fond of: a collection of political essays entitled La Dictature de chagrin (The Dictatorship of Sorrow). It was no mere chance that I was re-reading this bitter, abrasive book. I was preparing a trip to Sweden to receive the prize which the Association of the Friends of Stig Dagerman had awarded to me the previous summer, to visit the places where the writer had lived as a child. I have always been particularly receptive to Dagerman’s writing, to the way in which he combines a child-like tenderness with naïveté and sarcasm. And to his idealism. To the clear-sightedness with which he judges his troubled, post-war era—that of his mature years, and of my childhood. One sentence in particular caught my attention, and seemed to be addressed to me at that very moment, for I had just published a novel entitled Ritournelle de la faim (The Old Song of Hunger/LD). That sentence, or that passage rather, is as follows: How is it possible on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence.”     (from The Writer and Consciousness)

At Dagerman's birthplace in Alvkarleby, Sweden

This “forest of paradoxes”, as Stig Dagerman calls it, is, precisely, the realm of writing, the place from which the artist must not attempt to escape: on the contrary, he or she must “camp out” there in order to examine every detail, explore every path, name every tree. It is not always a pleasant stay. He thought he had found shelter, she was confiding in her page as if it were a close, indulgent friend; but now these writers are confronted with reality, not merely as observers, but as actors. They must choose sides, establish their distance. Cicero, Rabelais, Condorcet, Rousseau, Madame de Staël, or, far more recently, Solzhenitsyn or Hwang Sok-yong, Abdelatif Laâbi, or Milan Kundera: all were obliged to follow the path of exile. For someone like myself who has always—except during that brief war-time period—enjoyed freedom of movement, the idea that one might be forbidden to live in the place one has chosen is as inadmissible as being deprived of one’s freedom.

But the privilege of freedom of movement results in the paradox. Look, for a moment, at the tree with its prickly thorns that is at the very heart of the forest where the writer lives: this man, this woman, busily writing, inventing their dreams—do they not belong to a very fortunate and exclusive happy few? Let us pause and imagine an extreme, terrifying situation—like the one in which the vast majority of people on our planet find themselves. A situation which, long ago, at the time of Aristotle, or Tolstoy, was shared by those who had no status—serfs, servants, villains in Europe in the Middle Ages, or those peoples who during the Enlightenment were plundered from the coast of Africa, sold in Gorée, or El Mina, or Zanzibar. And even today, as I am speaking to you, there are all those who do not have freedom of speech, who are on the other side of language. I am overcome by Dagerman’s pessimistic thoughts, rather than by Gramsci’s militancy, or Sartre’s disillusioned wager. The idea that literature is the luxury of a dominant class, feeding on ideas and images that remain foreign to the vast majority: that is the source of the malaise that each of us is feeling—as I address those who read, who write. Of course one would like to spread the word to all those who have been excluded, to invite them magnanimously to the banquet of culture. Why is this so difficult? Peoples without writing, as the anthropologists like to call them, have succeeded in inventing a form of total communication, through song and myth. Why has this become impossible for our industrialized societies, in the present day? Must we reinvent culture? Must we return to an immediate, direct form of communication? It is tempting to believe that the cinema fulfils just such a role in our time, or popular music with its rhythms and rhymes, its echoes of the dance. Or jazz and, in other climes, calypso, maloya, sega.

For all his pessimism, Stig Dagerman’s phrase about the fundamental paradox of the writer, unsatisfied because he cannot communicate with those who are hungry—whether for nourishment or for knowledge—touches on the greatest truth. Literacy and the struggle against hunger are connected, closely interdependent. One cannot succeed without the other. Both of them require, indeed urge, us to act. So that in this third millennium, which has only just begun, no child on our shared planet, regardless of gender or language or religion, shall be abandoned to hunger or ignorance, or turned away from the feast. This child carries within him the future of our human race. In the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a very long time ago, the kingdom belongs to a child.

 

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Island of the Doomed Reviewed

Frederic Lindsay, The Scotsman, April 18, 1992

ANGUISH PLAYED OUT IN A SURREAL LANDSCAPE

Born in 1923, by the time he was 26, the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman had published four novels, a short story collection, a brilliant book-length report of the condition of Germany in the broken years immediately following defeat, and four plays. in 1954, he killed himself. The extraordinary outburst of creativity between 1945 and 1949, the five fallow years, his suicide – the factual outline alone leaves a sense of mystery and waste.

Influenced, like other Swedish writings of the Forties, by Kafka, his first novel drew upon his experience as a conscript for an unease fable about the encounter between a young soldier and a girl who has killed her mother. His second, Island of the Doomed, appeared only a year later in 1946, and took up again as its theme the existential necessity of the refusal to evade anxiety and guilt.

Seven survivors of a shipwreck are trapped on an island somewhere in the Pacific. There is a beach, a lagoon, a climb through a jungle terrain to a plateau which ends in a cliff dropping sheer to rocks below. Of birds there is a kind of gull, which when it comes close is seen to be blind; there are iguanas; there is some murderous fish that lies in wait at the bottom of the lagoon. There is not a drop of fresh water. In other words, this is like no island that ever was on the face of the earth.

The effect should irritate, arousing that impatience we properly feel at this point in the century towards stage settings for symbolism. There is a moment when a pool turns to blood held under a trembling membrane. It is – dread word – surrealistic; and what could be more dated than that? Or take the cast list of survivors: the runaway bank clerk. the deserter, the stoker, the mother of a deformed child, the fanatical officer, the frigid girl – oh, yes, and the boxing champion in flight from his notoriety. They should be the very stuff of a Hollywood disaster movie.

The difference is that Dagerman is the eighth survivor and doomed; no island was ever more real as an arena of anguish. The difference is that the stereotype of the melancholy Swede is here, awesomely, in real torment. The difference is the poet’s gift of language, and the novelist’s of character creation. Put the two together in the section dealing with the mother with the iguana son and the comparison with Kafka is, for once, permissible. The difference, of course and as always, is that unbridgeable gap between the wishful average and the gifted.”

(bold type/LD)

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Reading ISLAND OF THE DOOMED

Dagerman’s second novel was written right before his journey to Germany in the fall of ’46.  Its structure is bursting at the seams with over-heated, hallucinatory imagery, the unfettered flow of which is unique in his production.  (Dagerman’s reporting from Germany signaled a turn toward more naturalistic, and to many readers, more accessible writing.)

It is a difficult book to read, writes Olof Lagercrantz, Dagerman’s biographer (1). Not because the novel is obscure or hard to understand – its structure is clear. The difficulty to him is the ratched-up tone or intensity. But when the reader’s senses adjust  “… a whole landscape opens up, and one to which he will often long back.”

Simply, the structure is this: Five men and two women are shipwrecked on a deserted island with a hostile environment. There’s no food, no water, no chance of rescue. The reader gets to know this shard of stranded humanity as each character’s life-story is told through the hallucinatory distortions caused by their thirst, hunger, wounded bodies and souls.  The second part of the novel, explores each character’s chosen path on the island in the face of the inevitability of death.

Island of the Doomed is very much a symbolic novel depicting the fearful state of mankind in the wake of the horrors of war, genocide and the entry into the nuclear age. Lagercrantz describes how Dagerman seems to serve as a medium for the anxiety of the times: “The 300 pages seem written in a trance-like state, the pen rarely leaving the paper, one dreamlike image after the other, and when the contact with the spirit world finally breaks, you imagine how the medium prints ‘fini’ on the last page without really knowing what has transpired.” Indeed, Stig Dagerman (the atheist!) told a friend that the novel was the most curious he’s ever written because “I didn’t think when I wrote it but let God do the writing”.

But it’s not only the post-war times that are reflected through this 23-yearold novelist, it is of course also his own complex psychological make-up.  There aren’t really seven different characters on the island, Lagercrantz argues, but one. They all carry variations on guilt, fear and loneliness, themes close to Dagerman’s own:                                                  – Jimmie Baaz/the once successful boxer paralyzed by the expectations put upon him;        – Madame/the guilt-ridden mother of a catatonic child whom she can’t love;                        – The English girl/who has been raped and fears men and intimacy;                                         – Tim Solider/ the ship-hand who can’t escape his sense of servitude and inferiority;         Boy Larus/the soldier who subordinates his self to absurd obedience;                                 – Ca ptain Wilson/who withdraws into a cold heartless shell devoid of humanity; and     Lucas Egmont/the one with a bleeding, guilt-ridden heart who desperately tries to find meaning in the meaningless.

Lagercrantz sees in Lucas Egmont a reflection of Dagerman’s idealistic self, and Egmont is indeed the only one who manages to find some sense of hope and transcendence before succumbing to his death on the island. The second part of the book describes his philosophical journey as he argues against his nemesis the humanoid Captain Wilson.

Dagerman serves as a medium for the postwar times, and that includes channeling its philosophical currents.  When God is dead and life lacks purpose, how do we live? Moreover, how do we live as humans? The perennial ethical problem.

Similar to Camus’ Sisyphus who endlessly pushes a rock up a mountain only to see it roll down again, Dagerman’s Egmont is the absurd hero who transcends his fate by infusing a symbolic act with meaning. As the last person left on the island,  aware that nobody will ever see it, Egmont carves into the white rock his image of a lion – a symbol for the power of solidarity among men not the killing-machine that Captain Wilson wanted.

“And the awareness, simply awareness, the open eyes that fearlessly observe their terrifying situation have to be the guiding star of the self, our only compass that stake out the direction, because without that compass there will no direction.” (p. 283, transl. LD)

Island of the Doomed is a both a document of an anxiety-filled time and an autobiography. “The strictly personal and intimate melded together with the general and all-concerning. It all came together in this book and that is why, Lagercrantz says, the force of life runs so strongly through its pages.” 

 

(1) Olof Lagercrantz, Stig Dagerman, Norstedts, Stockholm 1985

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Writer’s Role: To Build Bridges And Break Glass

“As a bridge builder, I am fascinated by the solutions to three main problems:            First, there is the problem of connection. I hope to be able to break my own isolation by having one support secured within myself; the other will be found within those people to whom I turn for solace. Secondly, there is the problem of construction, to create the suspension, the artistic problem.  I want to test the powers of my talent. A talent that I am condemned to constantly question, except in those rare moments when I rise far above my own confusion and seem to gleam an arc, far more daring that I ever hoped for. Finally, there is the problem of the setting. I want to offer a panorama of a body of water, until now unknown, but one that I believe is worthy of a bird’s eye view. “                                – Stig Dagerman from Essäer och andra texter (translation by Lo Dagerman)

This credo of Dagerman’s opens Lotta  Lotass’ book about his writing (Freedom Conveyed, 2002). She writes: At the center of Dagerman’s aesthetics lie conveyance and communication. The concern is to communicate to the reader an attitude towards one’s own existence and towards the world at large. The challenge lies in connecting the text with the reader and, by means of an active dialogue, effect critical thinking and aware-ness of one’s own and others’ situation and to indicate ways to change it. The purpose of the communication, and which will decide its value, is its ability to change and liberate.

Dagerman’s yearning for liberation, initially in political terms then increasingly more of a psychological nature, drives him to write.  Striving to keep emotionally open and vulnerable as he creates,  Dagerman’s texts often bring him and the reader into complex, anxiety-ridden territory. This brought him many critics during his lifetime: not only was his writing not seen as being uplifting, supporting a striving toward happiness and harmony in sheltered postwar Sweden, but his texts were also perceived as difficult to understand.

Dagerman raged against this harmony-ideal and an unwillingness to look at the human condition in the wake of World War II:                                                                                                          “By understood you mean that a reader should be able to grasp it without any strain of thought, similarly to a piece of advertisement or a neon commercial. “                                “It has been shown, unfortunately, that quiet contentment has a certain tendency to degenerate into belching and over-eating. And in a world full of happiness-seeking belchers, the most important thing of all may be a sense of being torn apart and the ability to feel fear. That’s why I want to pull down all the chicken-wire put up around our fear, open up the gates for the snakes in the snake sanctuaries, and put broken glass in the bathtubs of all those who claim to have sought and found contentment, because theirs is a cruel occupation in a world where there are so many abandoned people. “                                 Stig Dagerman from The Snake

 


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To Dialogue with Dagerman

stigisland3There is nothing like it in Swedish literature. Its closest relative is Kafka or Camus.” Pontus Stenshall, Director, on Dagerman’s novel The Island of the Doomed

Moment Theater, located in the outskirts of Stockholm, recently had the world premiere of their staging of Dagerman’s The Island of the Doomed.  The performance is an interpretation and a reading and read-aloud and a bringing to life of Dagerman’s novel from 1946, as well as a coming to terms with and a conversation about parts of this daunting text. Four actors step in and out of the novel’s seven wayward characters who are stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck. These character-shifts are indicated to us who watch, by the actors’ putting-on and taking-off the shoes of the different characters.

Director Pontus Stenshäll has sensitively responded to Dagerman’s offer to launch a dialogue – a conversation that with crushing certainty leads to the loneliness of man and the painful realization about how difficult it is to acquire a sense of personal freedom that doesn’t intrude on the freedom of others.

It is in one of the seven and seventy non-descript suburbs it will happen. The doomed seven crawl up onto an island in a sea of texts and talk to us for a while. At Moment Theater, we hear the calls of those seven individuals, who died in a novel sixty-two years ago, and we want to respond to them. Boy Larus. Madame. The Captain. Tim Solider. Lucas Egmont. The English girl. Jimmie Baaz. Those were the seven who died in the text and therefore can be revived time and time again to live among us who remain – and  who are still reading and listening.

Dagerman’s novel The Island of the Doomed describes seven stranded individuals who during a few endlessly short days and hours touch on, provoke and connect seven states-of-mind: The thirst of dawn; The paralysis of morning; The hunger of the day; The sorrow at sunset; The obedience of twilight; The longing of evening; and The fires of night.

These seven states-of-mind come together, not peacefully but to fight about what symbol or statement should be carved into the white rock – a rock that the seven shipwrecked find in the sand just before dehydration, hunger, heat and the lack of love will extinguish the last human life on the island. Lion or not a lion? A life and death struggle ensues about what Symbol to choose for the Arts or Meaning or Life or Truth or Existence, At the crossroads of questioning and listening, Dagerman poses the quandary about the road ahead.

The ensemble of Moment Theater responds to the author that they so very much want to understand and communicate the wealth they’ve found in the novel. In front of a full house, the actors discuss the text: how they enter into it, walk around and catch sight of its richness. The novel about the seven doomed individuals that has been called wild and crazy, modernistic, a difficult read and remarkable, becomes what I believe was Dagerman’s wish: a text to argue with and keep alive through re-readings, read-alouds, stagings and, who knows, maybe the time has come for a film version.

I can hear the actors at Moment Theater talking directly to the author:   You wrote this story in such a haste and with such energy and determination, happiness even. With seriousness AND humor. Although not many people have noticed the humor. We have laughed as we have cried at that which you wrote half a year or so after the end of WWII. You were sitting on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, in a writing hut infused with ghost of August Strindberg. We heard that you had to care for your oldest son who just had started to walk. As you became more and more engrossed in your writing, your son started to tear pieces of wallpaper off the wall until he lay parts of it bare exposing a surface that long ago had surrounded Strindberg. That is how they talk with each other: Authors who don’t live in the same time period. That’s how they talk with each other: Authors and actors and audience. Intense listening on-stage; rapt attention among the audience. Four actors in a sea of white balloons. Music. Improvisation. Read-alouds. Ecstatic outbursts! The four actors singing “Because” by the Beatles. Just because.

I’m tapping the keyboard to capture the feeling of having been right there, or now being here, in a conversation about how we should be able to civilize or train ourselves: to understand each other; to irritate each other without having to fight. Moment Theater doesn’t give us their interpretation of The Island of the Doomed to be admired or rejected. They are instead continuing an inquiry about how we should inhabit our place next to each other on earth. Keen listening, compassion and dialogue are what their performance is all about. Through all its pain, melancholy, grief and humor, their world premiere, just a week or so before Spring Equinox, offers hope. This hope is grounded in our joint vulnerability and universal thirst and longing for consolation. When we use the word “our” and start to engage our neighbor, our  “civilization” work has begun. Keeping each other company and our dialogue alive become possible islands for survival in stormy seas.

I  was much moved by the invitation to the island of the doomed in Stockholm, and rejoiced at hearing the beats of the world’s heart. In all his texts, in spite of his pessimism and difficulties, Dagerman offers a way out through dialogue. A timeless journey where words written down some fifty years ago are brought to life through the bodies and voices of four actors and enliven the room between them and us; and we who also quietly partake in the conversation, this evening in a drab suburb, experience a heightened sense of being alive.

We who are there have for some hours escaped our cages of loneliness. At the end of the evening: A mutual somewhat embarrassed longing, from this Stockholm outpost, to participate in the building of the World. Surely, Dagerman must have intended this text to be experienced on a chilly evening with the promise of Spring Equinox around the corner. The seven on the island who died and then were resurrected out of the sea of texts, will continue to live with us, to be our consolation through the thirst of dawn and the hunger of the day and the longing of evening.

“/…/Man’s fate is sealed everywhere and at all times, and one individual’s significance for another is immeasurable. I believe in the solidarity, the compassion and love as man’s last white shirts. Highest of all virtues, I put that form of love that is called forgiveness. I believe that man’s thirst for forgiveness is not possible to slake, not because of any sin of heavenly or devilish origin, but because we all from our very beginnings are confronted by a merciless state of the world that we can affect less than we wish./…/”

Quotation From “Do We Believe in Man?” 1950; Stig Dagerman, Essays and Texts, Norstedts, 1990

Bengt Soderhall

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Anita on Stig

I got to know Stig in 1947 when his first drama The Condemned was being staged at the Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. He actively participated in rehearsals and spent a lot of time at the theater and we, who rehearsed other plays, always ran into him in corridors, stairs and in the canteen.

At 25, Stig was a slender man with his hair in disarray and constantly carrying a cigarette in his hand or dangling from his mouth. He had a burning gaze which he often lowered when spoken to. Later he told me that he found it difficult to meet people’s eyes. He felt naked – as though people could see straight through him.

Stig had sensitive nervous hands which he often used to emphasize a point. But most of all he liked to  listen and let other people do the talking. Something quite outstanding in Stig’s personality was his delicate conscience and his immense tenderness toward other people. He was very afraid of hurting anybody. In all, Stig was a sensitive intelligent young man who would listen to what you’d have to say in a sympathetic and tactful way. Everybody loved him of course.

Several years later, when we were married, I followed Stig’s struggle to  write at close range. He stayed up late at night, sitting at his typewriter – each morning only to tear up the pages he had written. But one night in the early part of 1954, he woke me up carrying a tray with tea and lit candles. He had finished the first chapter of a major novel he was planning. I listened as he read a piece titled A Thousand Years with God in his tense voice filled with anticipation.

There are times when God tires of his usual guise of light and silence. Eternity sickens him and his cloak falls. A shadow takes shape among the stars and the night moves in. In the house of Newton, in London, preparations are unwittingly being made for His singular visit. The evening is late and through the rain a carriage glides along the street towards Newton’s house. It passes through the arched gate and circles to a stop outside the house as oak leaves drift incessantly to the ground.” (translation by Steven Hartman)

A Thousand Years with God tells the story of how God visits Isaac Newton in his study, on the day of Newton’s death. In his room, Newton has a collection of silence that he has gathered from all parts of the world, and it is understood that nobody is to speak in Newton’s presence. To be sure, he has a mute butler whose heart beats without a sound. He is the son of silence and Newton loves him.

God’s presence in the room becomes evident when the silence suddenly is broken. God dispels the silence and the mute butler speaks. Then God proceeds to abolish the law of gravity, Newton’s holy discovery. As the butler drops a tray carrying Newton’s afternoon tea, the tray quietly floats up toward the ceiling where it hovers. When the butler makes a move to bring it down, he also rises and hits his head against the wood-paneled ceiling. Later, at Newton’s public funeral, embarrassed relatives and dignitaries bring in heavy chains to keep the coffin from taking off into the air. Part of the story is filled with absurd hilarity. But Stig also outlines a deeply felt conflict between his own need for faith, and his conviction that all beliefs are built on deceit.

Afterwards, as Stig finished reading, we were both overcome by emotion. We were struck by the extraordinary reach of the piece, and by the possibility that now, finally, Stig might have broken through his own silence.

Excerpts from a talk by Anita Björk in New York, 1991, on Stig Dagerman.

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Stig’s Christmas Message

mosstig

Don’t believe in stars. Stars are distant things,
that don’t dispel the darkness over any Bethlehem.
They were not lit for us. They burn for themselves.
For people, eyes shine bright. Let us follow them.

Don’t believe in kings. They think themselves wise men.
They don’t journey through the desert to new life.
They live in a desert that separates us from them.
A sword is their gaze and their hand a sharp knife.

Don’t believe in angels. They will not soon descend.
They find space empty and cold. They find the road too long.
If it is song we seek, if light,
seek the light in our brother’s gaze and in our own throats the song.

Don’t believe in stars. Stars are burnt out things.
Long gone; dead grasses on the steppe of the universe.
Beacons beam and sparkle much closer to the earth.
Toward the eyes of others, people should steer their ships.

Don’t believe in kings. They themselves are filled with doubt.
What is life and death for us, is their idle play.
Believe only in shepherds, who know and tend to lambs.
To their belts, we attach our lives without fear.

Don’t believe in angels. They are merely prisoners,
dragging their wings as shackles of lead.
If there is freedom, it is in our brothers’ eyes.
If freedom sings, the song will be heard in our blood.

STIG DAGERMAN, 1950

(Julbudskap in translation by Lo Dagerman)

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“Somehow the door to my life is locked …

… and I don’t understand how to open it again.” October 20, 1954

We all have our masters. I am such a slave to my talent that I dare not use it for fear of discovering that it has been lost. I am such a slave to my reputation that I hardly dare write a line. When depression finally sets in, I become a slave to that as well. My greatest ambition becomes to hold on to it. My greatest desire becomes to feel that my only worth lies in that which I fear I have lost: the ability to squeeze beauty out of despair, anxiety and failings. In bitter exultation I long to see my house fall to ruins and myself snowed under, relegated to oblivion.

Depression is a room with seven windows. From the last of these I can view a knife, a razor, a vial of poison, an immeasurably deep pool, and the ledge of a tall building. Finally, I become a slave to these instruments of death. Or is it I who hound them? And I begin to think that suicide is the sole proof of human freedom.

But from a direction as yet impossible for me to pinpoint, the miracle of liberation draws near. What is the miracle? Simply: my realization that no power, and no person, has the right to make such demands on me that my desire for life disappears. For without that, what can exist?

A human life is not a performance but a growing into perfection. Like every other part of creation, man is an end in himself – resting like a stone in the sand.

From the essay Our Need for Consolation is Insatiable 1952

Stig died on November 4, 1954. He was 31.

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Should we care when guilty people suffer?

“…we have to protect the value of ….respect for the individual even when the individual has forfeited our sympathy and compassion … to protect the capacity to feel in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved.” (Stig Dagerman, German Autumn)

Some months ago, I met four German students in their early twenties at a university seminar about the Swedish educational system. The five of us immediately bonded and felt comfortable talking about just anything. Which brought us to WWII … As I was rereading German Autumn, I told them about these articles Dagerman wrote while traveling through the ruins of Germany in the fall of 1946. They were written for the newspaper Expressen, and are now widely regarded as a classic piece of journalism.

This conversation reminded me of something I had scribbled down on the front cover of my Swedish edition of the book: “check out W.G. Sebald, he wrote something about Tysk höst”.

When I looked it up, I found On the Natural History of Destruction, 2004.  In this volume, based on lectures held in Germany in ‘97, Sebald describes the bombing of 131 German towns and cities by the Allies during WWII. A large number were completely destroyed by the carpet bombing. More than 600,000 civilians died, and 7.5 million Germans were left homeless. Referring to German Autum, Sebald writes …

Stig Dagerman describes the lives of the cave dwellers in a city in the
Ruhr: the unappetizing meals they concocted from dirty, wrinkled vegetables and dubious scraps of meat, the cold and hunger that reigned in those underground caverns, the evil fumes, the water that always stood on the cellar floors, the coughing children and their battered and sodden shoes Dagerman describes schoolrooms in which the broken windowpanes were replaced by school slates, and where it was so dark that the children could not read the textbooks in front of them. In Hamburg, says Dagerman, he talked to one Herr Schumann, a bank clerk then in his third year of living under ground. The white faces of these people, writes Dagerman, were just like the faces of fish coming up to the surface to snatch a breath of air.
pp. 37-38

Why, asks Sebald, does a subject like “the suffering of the guilty” so little occupy German cultural memory?  Again, he refers to Dagerman:

The quasi-natural reflex, engendered by feelings of shame and a wish to defy the victors, was to keep quiet and look the other way. Stig Dagerman /…/writes from Hamburg that on a train at normal speed it took him a quarter of an hour to travel through the lunar landscape between Hasselbrook and Landwehr, and in all that vast wilderness, perhaps the most horrifying expanse of ruins in the whole of Europe, he did not see a single living soul. The train, writes Dagerman, was crammed full, like all trains in Germany, but no one looked out of the windows, and he was identified as a foreigner himself because he looked out.” p. 30

In German Autumn,  Dagerman quotes the British publisher Victor Gollancz who as early as 1945 had questioned violence on the part of the Allies against the defeated Germans, and raised concerns about the values thus communicated by the victors. For more – see Our Threatened Values, London, 1946.

There is so much more to be found on this topic of whether we should care about “the suffering of the guilty”. A 2003 Davidsons symposium about guilt and revenge , brought up the relevance of German Autumn and how much more freely the issue of universal human suffering can be spoken of today. Another good source is “Speak no Evil, Write no Evil: In Search of a Usable Language of Destruction”, where Wilfried Wilms elaborates on the themes put forward by Dagerman, Sebald and others (in W. G. Sebald: History, Memory,Trauma, Denham et al(Eds. ) Berlin/New York, 2006).

It is not an easy thing to show empathy for those among us who are guilty of horrible deeds. But if we don’t, what price do we pay?

Bengt Söderhäll

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