17 May 2007

Innocence, part two

Wooden Norway:
In honor of Norway's national holiday, I watched the film Hamsun again, with Max von Sydow playing the role of Norway's most contrary and--in his time--controversial writer. Sort of a combination of Mark Twain and Ezra Pound.

I am old enough to remember the wooden Norway of this film--before today's glass and steel, glittering boutiques, more cellphones than people, and toll roads exiting into my own old neighborhood (Tåsen). I remember old men who dressed in suits, vests, and ties in almost any waking moment other than swimming; beautiful pocket watches and glass paperweights; the enormous radio with shortwave, medium wave, and longwave bands stretched out along the front, under the cloth grille from which the announcer periodically said, "Over til Oslo"--the horizontal numberlines of the frequencies notched with the names of exotic cities.

In the days after the German invasion of 1940, the film shows Hamsun being hailed outside his home by a truckful of patriotic young Norwegians, rifles in their hands, about to head to the front. "We'll defend your books from those Nazi pigs," they say happily. "You are the soul of Norway--the king himself said so." Hamsun, who favored the Nazi invasion as a a wonderful German provision against the poison of British imperialism, just looks back at the departing truck and says with exasperation, "Norwegians! Norwegians!" It so reminded me of my aunt Sol, who had four sons and no daughters, exclaiming "Mennfolk! Mennfolk!"

Later, Hamsun is taken to meet Hitler--there the exasperation shows again. Germany is supposed to be the head of a new Europe in which Norway, up in the far north, will have a prominent and honorable position at the table (as Hamsun rehearses in front of a mirror before his visit). When Hitler shows no interest in Hamsun's advice concerning the cruelty of the German occupation in Norway, Hamsun says, "It's like talking to a wall." Hamsun's bizarrely innocent captivity to the Germanic vision survived this encounter; Hitler was a reformer--Hamsun wrote in an obituary for the dead dictator--an advocate of the rights of nations, "whose misfortune was to work in a time of extreme brutality."

It was a brutality that does not fit in the wooden, utterly decent Norway of my memories and myths. I love the scene in the film in which Hamsun is arrested for treason. A young policeman reaches to shake Hamsun's hand. Hamsun grasps his hand and says, "You would shake the hand of a traitor?" The young man says, smiling, "We won't be as barbarian as they were. So I decided I would." Norwegians continue to shake Hamsun's hand, able to find the wild beauty hidden within his shadowy, morose, confused categories. (Example: Lumsk's "Wild Choir" video of Hamsun's poem, "Everything is forgotten in a matter of centuries.")

The simple Norway of my childhood myth lasted a long time--into my late teens. It did come to and end, and I remember the day. My grandmother was reading a news item to someone over the phone: "Oslo has more male prostitutes than female prostitutes." I was struck to my core: Never mind the male or female part; Oslo has prostitutes?

Maybe I always need myths of innocence. When I first came to be among Friends, I loved the tender ways, the unapologetic idealism, the passionate pursuit of the simplest, most direct relationship with God. As a young man very aware of women, I loved the sweet and unpredatory male-female culture of friendship that seemed to prevail among us. When I heard that, in my original Quaker garden of Eden, Canadian Yearly Meeting, women were confronting long-standing patterns of sexual harassment, I was very tempted to retreat into denial. After a while, I began to realize that you don't have to choose between recognizing reality and honoring ideals.

After a certain point, innocence shades into a selective and self-serving denial, a deceptively attractive first step for a path that can lead to catastrophic hypocrisy. We can laugh (or cry) at the naivete of Hamsun, but how many Hamsun-like theoreticians led our country into believing that we can impose democracy wherever we think best?

David Grossman touches on brutality, grief, freedom's end and its rebirth in an almost unbearably beautiful New York Times Magazine essay.

Righteous links: Do video games lead to violence? What about creative writing? Can a video game lead to peace in the Middle East?

Did you know that the International Polar Year has begun? The polar regions are part of our planet's early warning systems for ecological distress--so it's not surprising that the IPY may be one of the largest international scientific collaborations ever. And for my last Norwegian reference on this May 17, here's a link to the northernmost institution of higher education in the world.

The post that didn't get written: An open letter to Friends United Meeting's critics. Oh, it was going to be such an articulate, winsome letter whose tender, understated tone would mask steel-trap logic.

Trust me, it was going to be good! (Or at least satisfying. To the writer if to nobody else.) But I'm hanging up my commentary on FUM for a season. Rebecca Mays and I have been asked to facilitate a retreat on FUM's identity for its board meeting in July. It occurs to me that I will have a more servantlike attitude on behalf of the retreat's potential blessings if I stow the polemics for a while.

For now, I'll just say one thing concerning FUM and its critics: there's enough pain and enough betrayal and enough one-upping to go around. We need a very different approach.

I also have to remind myself that at least in the world of weblogs, we're saying things in each other's hearing. That wasn't always true. I can remember when a lot of commentary on our differences didn't get get much beyond the rhetorical level of "What do you expect from someone who comes from/believes/reads [name the meeting, geographic region, seminary, college, author, or theology]?"

From cold to hot: I've never been able to find very good video clips of William Clarke (1951-1996), but even a so-so clip hints at his amazing energy--it's as if he tried to squeeze his whole spirit right through the harmonica.


Anonymous said...

After a while, I began to realize "you don't have to choose between recognizing reality and honoring ideals".

This is a great phrase, it goes into my quotation list... Sometime I'd love to hear more about how you got there.

Johan Maurer said...

I think I first realized this either in group therapy or in doing pastoral care, as I listened to people whose relationships had gone sour. Often it was because of a partner's betrayal, and they'd say something like "Why did I let myself be fooled" or "used" .... I deeply yearned to honor the idealism of their love, which bears so much, even as I also had to affirm their courage in looking at the truth of the relationship's unsustainability or toxicity. I admire that capacity to love and bear the cost of love, even though the cost should never be unmerited guilt or shame. It's a delicate balance that no formula can preserve--sort of like the difference between being a fool for Christ and a damn fool.

Anonymous said...

Dear Johan, For many liberal Friends--I'm sure you will agree--the fact that most evangelical Friends are intolerant of homosexuality is profoundly disturbing. Here is Quaker lost innocence at its worst.

Please read (if you haven't already) and advertise (with a link) the report of New York Yearly Meeting's representatives to the recent FUM general board meetings in Kenya. Here, I think, is Quaker discernment at its best. Good old New York Yearly Meeting. We will never leave Friends United Meeting, unless we're thrown out. This is costing us many members and attenders, but it is the only honest course: to try to square the circle and represent (as we have since 1955) both the universalist and Christian sides of Quakerism.

The report, signed by Christopher Sammond, Carol Holmes, and Dick Goodman, is found in URL www.nyym.org.

Thanks for your message on Norway in your boyhood. Will you replace what YouTubes covered up? Will you translate the Norwegian song for us? Lost innocence indeed. I read recently that during WWII the Norwegian military and police rounded up two-thirds of the Jews of their country and turned them over to the Germans for transport to the death camps. Not only Denmark did much better, but also Italy and France. And now the U.S.A. is deeply involved in torture.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Jeremy. The report of the NYYM representatives is here.

Here's Lumsk's Mypage presence with more videos. And here is a page with a translation of the Hamsun poem.

My grandfather Knut, a civilian sea captain, spent the war years as a lieutenant in the resistance army, helping save fugitives. Despite the efforts of people like him, the postwar Jewish population of Norway was only about a third of its prewar size. See the article "Jews in Norway." That was a far different, incomparably sadder outcome than Danish Jews experienced. The difference, in part, was that practically the whole Danish nation refused to participate in the Holocaust.

Anonymous said...

Johan, I pray that you and Rebecca will feel the Lord guiding your steps as you help in the FUM process this July. May it be a time of both love and truth. May you be able to help all the Board members to stand in God's grace and love, putting aside their personal frustrations and those within the bodies that appointed them. May all free themselves from their agendas, and those of their YMs, and open themselves up fully to God's agenda, regardless of whether or not that turns out to be what they expect.

What I remember best from my one semester at the ill-fated Martin Luther King Jr. School of Social Change was a professor's comment that "There is no love without risk." He went on to say that the risk is worth it.

We are called to be vulnerable. The ultimate example of vulnerability is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May we learn from and follow His example.