Tag Archives: Lennart Svensson

New Biography of Wagner – Svensson

Book News: Richard Wagner – A Portrait by Lennart Svensson (2015)

 

Manticore Books has published yet another book by me. Last year it was my book about Ernst Jünger. Now it’s a biography on Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the German composer.

Richard Wagner – A Portrait is a book about a genius composer. A book like this, about Richard Wagner, is sorely needed. Today Wagner is performed everywhere, all around the world. Reportedly, the mere purpose of building opera houses is to stage Wagner’s Ring, the greatest opera ever composed, this 15 hours long, captivating and complex opus.

So you can say: Richard Wagner has triumphed. In the 2010’s West-world, indeed over the whole world, Wagner operas are played and admired by all and sundry. Today Wagner is mainstream, you could say. And yet, he will always be considered controversial.

More than any other composer before and after, Wagner wrote pamphlets and engaged himself in politics. For instance, he took part in the 1848-49 populist rebellion in Germany. Then, at long last, he became a conservative. This is mirrored in the current book – Richard Wagner – A Portrait – along with other aspects of the man and his works. The main Wagner operas are surveyed in some detail, a bio of Wagner’s life is given and different aspects of his oeuvre are discussed, such as Wagner and popular culture, Wagner and literature, the scenography of the operas and, of course, the specificity of Wagner’s music.

The book is on 198 pages. You can see the design and layout in the pictures of this post. It’s a softcover with perfect binding. According to the publishing house the book gives a fully-rounded picture of Wagner, the man and his music.

 

Sample Chapter: Wagner and Popular Culture

 

Author’s Note: I have written a biography on Richard Wagner. He was a classical composer living in the 19th century. He composed operas about heroes and villains, traditional music dramas showcasing the wonders of the western cultural heritage. Today, Wagner’s music is loved by both opera fans and movie-goers. Below are some lines from my Wagner bio, an excerpt of chapter 17: “Wagner and Popular Culture”. It’s about the Wagner Leitmotif technique used in film scores, and the Wagner music employed in “Excalibur”. And about a certain CD having helicopters on the cover.

Helicopters on the Cover

Sometimes record companies compilate ”best of”-collections with Wagner ouvertures and orchestral pieces. For example, today on the internet you can buy a compilation of Wagner orchestral pieces and ouvertures on CD, called Twilight of the Gods: The Essential Wagner Collection. The subtitle is: ”Music of Terrifying Power and Transcending Beauty”. It was originally issued in 1998 by Deutsche Grammophon, a venerable label for classic music. Here we get standards such as ”The Ride of the Valkyries”, ”Siegfried’s Funeral March”, ”Siegfried’s Rhine Journey”, overtures to The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser and The Master-Singers, ”Good Friday Music from Parsifal” and many more.

This all is very fine and proper. But the cover image might seem strange, sporting as it does American Bell UH-1 ”Hueys” coming at you, the combat transport helicopter employed by US Army in Vietnam. However, the connection is apt; Francis Coppola’s movie about the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now (1979), in a scene uses ”The Ride of the Valkyries” as a soundtrack. Technically this is not incidental, atmosphere-creating music but so called source, music actually played in the cinematic action itself, since the major in charge of the cavalry battalion in question has equipped his helicopters with loudspeakers that play the actual melody during assaults. This in order to scare the enemy.

When seeing the actual film I didn’t quite like that scene, it gets a little over the top, something of an overstatement: ”Look at the militarist Wagner’s music being used in the most awful of all wars, how fitting…!” That said, now the connection is done – Vietnam War and ”The Ride of the Valkyries” – so I have to admit that the CD in question having that film image of the helis, silhouetted against the sun, is very efficient. It’s got edge, being a smart way of selling classical music to youngsters of today: ”Wagner, terryfying power, awesome man…” I might cater to ulterior needs in saying this. But Wagner’s music is rich and deep and it can withstand a lot, from stagings with modern props to CD covers with the war machines of the NWO.

Excalibur

Richard Wagner’s opus lived on, even in the 20th century, even beyond the opera stage. As for Wagner music used in soundtracks my best example is John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981). True, this film also employs music from another classical composer, Carl Orff and his ”O Fortunata” from Carmina Burana, since then a staple in circumstances like these. But the mainstay of the soundtrack is from Wagner. In scenes with Lancelot and Guinevere we hear the Tristan ouverture, and in sir Perceval’s search for the Grail we hear, what else, the prelude to Parsifal.

Then there is the main theme, with parts of ”Siegfried’s Funeral March” from Twilight of the Gods. This music is heard at the beginning, with a text plate saying ”The Dark Ages… The Land was divided and without a king”, followed by rhapsodic scenes of fighting, of Merlin etc. The soundtrack to all this is Wagner and it’s congenial. The same Wagner piece – the funeral march – is there at the end of the film, during the battle in which Arthur is killed by Mordred. Just before he dies Arthur tells Perceval to take Excalibur and throw it into the lake – the lake from which it once was given by the hand of the Lady of the Lake.

Eventually Perceval finds the lake and gets ready to throw the sword. At the same time, in anticipation, the hand of the Lady rises from the surface – and then we hear Wagner’s ”sword” leitmotif, flashing forth simultaneously as a light is reflected in the shiny blade during the throwing. It’s almost better than a Wagner opera. Anyhow, Boorman succeeded in taking old music and having it fit like a glove to this scene, the sword leitmotif sounding out exacly when the hand of the Lady catches the hilt of the sword and then sinks with it, never to be seen again.

All this is very much in the spirit of Wagner. The music isn’t ironically employed as in Apocalypse Now. This is the Wagnerian spirit, translated onto the screen, in a story that coheres. Then there is the employment of the leimotif itself, Excalibur being a sword showcased with Wagner’s sword theme: there is a chance of it getting too clever-clever, too contrived, but no, this just nails it, if I may say so. The use of classical music in Excalibur is on par with what Kubrick did in 2001.

Boorman’s Excalibur, by being produced in the pallid era of the early 1980’s, with cold war, recession and unemployment, could have been a dour, anti-heroic, anti-romantic tale. But true artistry was about in writing the script, in producing and filming it so if you want to ”get that Wagner feeling” on screen, in a non-operatic, modern, cinematographic way, go see Excalibur.

Film Music

Leitmotif, in case you didn’t know already, is a musical phrase that symbolizes a person, a thing, a place or a feeling. Wagner didn’t use the term itself but ever since the premiere of The Ring it’s been widely used to characterize this Wagnerian effect. Musical phrases such as leitmotifs led an embryonic existence before Wagner but he made it into a modus operandi, slightly overemploying it, like in The Ring.

However, after Wagner the leitmotif technique found its way into other musical areas than opera, preferably film music. To have a musical phrase repeating itself in the theme song (the, if you will, ”overture”) as well as here and there in the film score proper, became common practice after sound film came of age. For example the composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), with film scores such as Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958), knew the Wagner way of making music. For instance, in the latter film there’s echoes of ”The Love-Death of Isolde” from Tristan and Isolde.

Wikipedia [entry: Leitmotif] says that leitmotifs, in one sense or the other, have occured since the advent of sound film:

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1938 score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, can be heard to attach particular themes and harmonies to individual characters: Robin, Will, Much, and Gisbourne are all accompanied by distinctive musical material. A more modern example is the Star Wars series, in which composer John Williams uses a large number of themes specifically associated with people and concepts (for example, a particular motif attaches to the presence of Darth Vader and another to the idea of the Force). In the film trilogy Lord of the Rings the dramatic orchestral score has hundreds of Leitmotifs recurring throughout.

 

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Svensson, Lennart. “Book News: Richard Wagner — A Portrait (Lennart Svensson 2015).” Svenssongalaxen, 24 June 2015. <http://lennart-svensson.blogspot.se/2015/06/book-news-richard-wagner-portrait.html >.

Svensson, Lennart. “A Chapter From my Wagner Bio: Wagner and Popular Culture.” Svenssongalaxen, 24 June 2015. <http://lennart-svensson.blogspot.se/2015/06/a-chapter-from-my-wagner-bio-wagner-and.html >.

 

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Jünger’s Gurus and Contemporaries – Svensson

Ernst Jünger: His German Gurus, Contemporaries etc.

By Lennart Svensson

 

Author’s Note: Ernst Jünger lived between the years 1895 and 1998. As you all know he was a German writer. Personally I’d say that he was the greatest German novelist, essayist and diarist of the 20th century. In trying to portrait him you could look at some of his mentors and contemporaries. 

 

Ernst Jünger was a German. And it’s no secret that he in some way or another was influenced by other German writers and thinkers. Below I elaborate on this. The survey is by no means complete. I’d say it’s just ”some informal remarks”.

1. Goethe

Ernst Jünger had some similarities with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Some would say that Goethe was Jüngers chief guru and inspiration. However, that’s a bit hard to prove since Jünger seldom or never even mentions Goethe by name in his works. The only passage I’ve detected is when Jünger quotes, in ”Eumeswil”, the Weimar Apollo’s ”nur was sich nie und nirgends hat begeben, das allein ist war” (”only that which hasn’t happened anywhere, is true”).

Now then, ”Eumeswil”. In this novel Jünger speaks a lot about the Urbild and other Plotinic dealings, about plants receiving their shape from a transcendent idea (= Urbild), and that’s kind of Goethean. Like Goethe Jünger was enchanted by nature, by plants and animals, and both had the esoteric terminology to express that.

2. Hugo Fischer

Hugo Fischer (1897-1975) was Jünger’s friend, at least before the Second World War. They shared an interest in idealistic philosophy, in nature observation and in seeing the traces of God in the creation. In Leipzig in the 20s they both studied philosophy, and in the 30s Fischer accompanied Jünger on a Norwegian trip (q.v. ”Myrdun”, 1943).

In that book Fischer’s alter ego is Der Doktor. In another Jünger book, ”Das abenteuerliche Herz”, Fischer is said to figure as Nigromantanus, an eccentric scholar with a house full of iridizing materials, Vexierbilder and metamorphosing decorations. I’d say that this Nigromontanus may be 30% Fischer; the rest of his persona is Jünger with a tinge of Goethe, the name ”Nigromontanus” being for example purloined from a Goethe text.

3. Spengler

Jünger was a free-form writer and novelist, Spengler on the other hand was a systemizer. Jünger dreamed about techno landscapes devoid of farmland, Spengler for his part was a devout farmer idolizer.

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) once received a free copy of Jünger’s ”Der Arbeiter”. Spengler wrote and said that he wasn’t overly impressed. Why? Because Jünger had forgotten to lift the role of the farmer in his book. — On the farmer depends a nation’s welfare. That was Spengler’s view and Jünger’s vision wasn’t in sync with that.

That said, to me as a youngster, having read a Golo Mann’s essay about Germany in the 20s, the names of Spengler and Jünger almost seemed to merge. Writers writing about war, the decline of the west and all that, how alluring. Further on Jünger’s creed  to me seemed more varied and balanced, however, the Spengler attitude has in some way affected me too. In ”The Decline of the West” and in his late ”Man and Technology” Spengler has a lot of interesting material, looking at things from a fresh perspective.

4. Walter Benjamin

If Jünger differs from Spengler in not being a common systemizer, then in Walter Benjamin Jünger has a kindred spirit. Looking at odd subjects, studying the modern world from abstruse angles (like in the ontology of shops, the metaphysics of stamps). Certain pages in ”Das abenteuerliche Herz” and Benjamin’s ”Einbahnstrasse” (1928) are very similar in spirit. Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) most famous work is”Die Passagenarbeit”, a study of 19th century Paris.

5. Nietzsche

Jünger didn’t quite like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). However, in his youth Jünger seems to have been affected by him. Maybe Jünger mellowed through the years and got fed up with the nihilism of Der Pulverkopf. Then again, Nietzsche, whether liked or disliked, is always there in Jünger’s works. He is referred to more or less directly in ”Heliopolis” and ”Eumeswil” for example.

6. C. G. Jung

Finally, a look at Carl Gustaf Jung (1875-1961). Jung contributed to Jünger’s and Eliade’s magazine Antaios. That said, I can’t trace the name ”Jung”, or references to his works, in Jünger’s books proper. However, Jung and Jünger were kindred spirits in that both were proficient in dreaming. They also preferred ancient authors to 20th century contemporaries. These Germans were both ”old in the land of dreams, myths and legends”…

 

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Svensson, Lennart. “Ernst Jünger: His German Gurus, Contemporaries etc.” Tankesmedjan Motpol, 10 July 2014. <http://www.motpol.nu/princip/2014/07/10/ernst-junger-his-german-gurus-contemporaries-etc/ >.

 

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On Verner von Heidenstam – Svensson

Verner von Heidenstam: An Overview

By Lennart Svensson

 

Author’s Note: Verner von Heidenstam is well known in Sweden. And some of his books are available in English too. When he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1916 some titles were translated. — Hereby an overview of Heidenstam’s life and works.

 

1.

There are many ways of treating the Swedish author and Nobel Prize winner Verner von Heidenstam (1859-1940). One of them is to look at the nationalist strain in his writings. It’s not so far-fetched, not even in a 21st century setting. The newly published biography by Per I. Gedin (Verner von Heidenstam – ett liv, Bonniers 2006) also notes this and makes a fair evaluation of it, particularly of what nationalism meant in the mid 19th century, before it became en vogue. It’s true that Heidenstam didn’t make his debut in 1888 as a model nationalist, this feature becoming more prominent in him around 1900. However, the positive, affirmative trait in which nationalism thrives was definitely part of Heidenstam’s condition when he put his unforgettable mark on Swedish literature at the dawn of the 1890’s.

The mid 19th century Nordic variety of nationalism, Gedin says, was a populist movement, driven by liberals, and only eventually the movement came to include both workers and the elite, the latter in the form of high society, aristocracy and the royal family. This was indeed the case: in the early 1800’s no royal family, including the Swedish, was what we would call nationalists. For example, the elite sentiment that prevailed in Sweden around 1830 was the Russian-friendly; Tsar Nicholas I was seen as the guarantor of order. Nationalism for the then elite was equal to lawless rebellion, as had been seen in France and Poland.

The same was the case in Germany. The year 1848, for example, saw efforts of German unification: the small, separate kingdoms should merge and form a unified Vaterland, the liberal insurgents meant. But all these aspirations were crushed by the forces of reaction. Only in 1871, when Prussia had become Germany’s leading power, was German nationalism also embraced by the elite in question, by the current right-wing.

We saw the same here in Sweden: not until the 1870’s was nationalism adopted by the pillars of society. Still, nationalism wasn’t even by then a Leitkultur in Sweden. It took some time to be more firmly anchored, to be adopted even by the artistic elite, and Heidenstam was instrumental in this. Gedin for his part describes Heidenstam’s debut, Pilgrimage and Journeyman Years from 1888, as something of a boost to the Swedish soul. At the time the Swedish cultural scene was steeped in nihilism and ”grey weather prose”, 1880’s literature being occupied with naturalistic depictions of urban misery. Typical book titles at this time were Greycold and Poverty (= GråkalltFattigdom). This was thought to attract the audience. Realism prevailed and the poetry was harmless versifications. Now all this, with Heidenstams’s example, was replaced by imagination, colour and dance. Heidenstam paved the way for writers like Selma Lagerlöf, Fröding, Karlfeldt and Ellen Key, and for a renewal in painting, indeed, for nationalism in general. As for literature proper Heidenstam gave the Swedish language a new poetic feeling with influences from Byron, Heine and Turgenev. By this a more freeform verse was established in Swedish.

Heidenstam quickly became No. 1, becoming the colour-bearer for the new literature, Gedin says. With his debut in 1888 Heidenstam had won a clear-cut victory: he triumphed over a worn out, dilapidated literary scene. Heidenstam himself said in a letter to Ellen Key, in 1897: ”The constant painting of grey on grey I killed in this country in two years.”

Bold words, but true…! Heidenstam at the time of his debut was something of a force of nature, yet playful and human.

 

2.

In the subject of Heidenstam I’ve also read Kring Verner von Heidenstam (= About Verner vonHeidenstam) by Gudmund Fröberg (editor; Carlsson bokförlag, 1993). The book counteracts the devaluation the Swedish left made of Heidenstam in the period 1910-1990. Essays by Staffan Björk, Olle Holmberg, Magnus von Platen and Pär Lagerkvist sketches a broad, sympathetic portrait of the author. As for the person Heidenstam we find quoted on page 270 the words of John Landquist:

He had blue, kindly inquiring eyes but they also had a mysterious depth. He had a dark voice with a soft sound (…) He was genteel but without mannerisms. He sported a quiet kindness. He listened to what you said. His own speech was effortlessly improvised but then, out of the blue, there came a fitting poetic image, this being the natural movement of his though. You felt at ease with him.

Heidenstam, then, had his sympathetic traits. At the same time he could, in official contexts, be rather pompous. He liked playing the role of poet laurate. This backfired on him in the Strindberg feud in 1910, when Strindberg attacked Heidenstam for a few things. And the assaults found their target, even though Heidenstam kept a brave face and declined to answer the slights. You can say: Heidenstam in this process became a victim of the role he created for himself.

 

3.

Gedin depicts this Strindberg feud in his bio. Plus everything else like Heidenstam’s upbringing, his women and his career, in all its variations. Gedin as intimated does a good job and his book can be recommended for those who like cradle-to-grave, life-and-letters-biographies. If you can handle the book’s physical weight, that is…! This 672 pages book can hardly be read lying down, as I prefer. It should be read at a table.

Inspired by Gedin’s book, and of Fröbergs anthology, I now feel like going through Heidenstam’s important works. I begin with novels and prose and end with poems, in the form of New Poems from 1915. Then I round it off by talking about a few additional things.

 

Hans Alienus (1892)

This is a novel with some essential passages in verse. The overall setting is bold and compelling, mixing realism with fantasy. The hero, Hans Alienus, lives in Rome as an official to the pope. Then Alienus ventures out on a journey through the East and then under the earth, all the time experiencing a few things. It’s like a Swedish version of Dante’s Inferno and Goethe’s Faust; Heidenstam broke some new ground with this book, ”Going boldly where no man has gone before” as we had it in Star Trek. For example Swedish literary scholars have always loved this book; there’s much to deliberate on here. I myself am a little skeptical of the conceptual content. It’s lacking something. Heidenstam was a great poet but not so profound when it came to ontology and spiritual essence. He was like, go and meet the devil, talk to angels, then go home; there’s only a semblance of depth in this book, to be sure. Its style and atmosphere is great but it doesn’t really convince you on a formal level. Then again, even Dante wasn’t always so profound.

A figure that Alienus encounters in his cosmic journey is a haggard lady, Her Archaic Holiness (= Den Gamla Heliga; Den Gamla Människan). This is, as Gedin suggests, a Jungian ”shadow”, this horrifying witch who is sorrow and misery whereas Alienus’ dandy lifestyle is all about beauty and joy.

This could lead somewhere. But Heidenstam is incapable, as Jung advocates, to integrate this shadow with his own essence. The shadows haunt him all the way, until the final scene in Sweden. But Alienus have no defense against this voice from the deep. The novel culminates in sentimental lines of reconciliation with the father. Heidenstam as I said was never profound as thinker; he never reached the esoteric levels that Viktor Rydberg, Per Atterbom or Stagnelius reached. But Heidenstam at least had a feeling of what life had to offer, he understood that it is a mystery. And he could show it in his novels and poems. ”Mystery, fairytale, light of day, your depth no one can fathom” as he wrote in the late poem If I Were A Child.

 

A King and His Campaigners (1897, in English 1902)

This is a living classic, a still readable exposé of characters during the Great Northern War 1700-1718. Many of the texts are like short stories with protagonists only appearing once, but we also have Charles XII appearing in fateful circumstances throughout the book.

This is not a naturalistic novel. Many of the texts has a touch of theater. It’s not always stories we get, sometimes we’re only given static scenes. And the lines sound a little unnatural; all speak in the same fashion, from coachmen to generals. That said, the book has power and color, motion and verve. The book’s merit is the width; you become fascinated even by minor characters such as Mazeppa’s ambassador, Lina Andersdotter, Måns Fransyske and others. And that is the sign of a masterpiece, how even the supporting roles are well cast.

 

The Tree of the Folkungs (1905, in English 1925)

This is a romance set in the 11th century, sporting scenes from both the archaic farmer’s life, the life of early medieval Swedish kings and of Swedes serving in the imperial guard in Constantinople. I here refer to the first part, Folke Filbyter; the second part, about the 13th century, is a tinge bit more ordinary, more Walter Scottish.

There is archaic feeling here; we meet the last remnants of Asatru and we meet nature religion and shamanism. Heidenstam had a keen eye for life in the woods, for the yearning of the Swede to venture out in the forest and feel the presence of brownies, fairies and nixes. As a poet Heidenstam filled this novel with many a poetic prose passage. But it’s still eminently readable as a novel, the first part that is, beginning as it does with Folke returning from a Viking raid, approaching Swedish land on the east coast and, having landed, marching off into the Ostrogotian woods in order to stake out a farm for himself. This was Heidenstam’s image of the founding father of the Folkung dynasty, who ruled Sweden 1250-1319.

 

The Swedes and Their Chieftains (1908, in English 1925)

Here we are given many alluring stories out of Swedish history and myth, such as Ura Kaippa, The Shield MaidenThe Watchdog of the Greekking and others from the early middle ages. They are unsought tales about norsemen- and women, clear-cut images of a vital era, the era of Asatru, archaic climes and heroism. But also from the high and late Middle ages we get good narratives, like Karl Knutsson and the Piper. This is almost Shakespearean: the rise and fall of a king, mirrored in the role of a beggar-cum-piper who watches it all from his corner of the world.

In all this is an absolutely incomparable book about Swedish history, on the border between fact and fiction. Intended as a school book it can be read by everyone. Gedin in his bio denigrates it but he’s wrong.

 

Nya dikter (= New Poems, 1915)

Heidenstam as intimated began his career as a poet. In his debut in 1888 (Pilgrimage and Journeyman Years), he painted with variegated colors, he told tales, he discussed, he drew pictures, all in the form of poems, short and long. So that one is still worth reading. But his NewPoems from 1915 in my opinion is the epitome of his writings; here we get the eternal existensial questions treated in a tighter, more succinct fashion.

The prospect of death is treated with open eyes, as in Begun Journey. It depicts a dead man, a departed soul that looks back on the ground he has left: ”I already wander on the bridge, leading / from the Earth to the unknown / and what used to be near becomes distant”… He’s free, he throws away his shoes and his staff, and when he sees himself buried down on the distant earth, then he can barely recognize the name they mumble around the coffin. – This is visionary powers: to see oneself as dead, the soul wandering off into the unknown.

When New Poems was published Heidenstam was 55. He would live for another 25 years. Yet he speaks of himself as ”an old man, sitting by the fire brooding”. It’s in If I Were A Child, about what you would do if you were a child again; the poet sits and remembers, noting that most of his friends are dead. It ends:

Mystery, fairytale, light of day,

your depth no one can fathom.

Yet the same child am I still

and bliss is here to stay.

This demonstrates a heartwarming, everyday piety which is always viable. This poem sports my overall aesthetic ideal: simple but not simplistic. A similar everyday esoterism we meet in We Human Beings. It says that we’ll all die one day, it is what ”we human beings” have in common. Some kind of kitchen-sink wisdom, really; I’m lacking a more spiritual outlook. Still, I like the opening lines of this poem, having etched themselves into my being,

We, who meet for a few brief moments,

children of the same soil and the same wonder,

on the storm-ridden ness of life!

Another poignant poem is The Burial of Gustaf Fröding. It’s written in memory of the Swedish poet colleague who lived from 1860 to 1911. The poem portrays how Fröding, while he lived, was sitting at his Bible while his hair turned white. From this the poem becomes universal in scope, ”wondrously large is a human fate,” but man is like a reed in the wind: ”Die, die, this he constantly hears / when creating, asking, searching for truth.” Then the key changes in the following lines: ”All is vain, / all things earthly die, die, / but he himself becomes the work that he fashions.”

Speaking about dying Heidenstam for his own grave created this epitaph, being congenial and saying everything about la condition humaine: ”Here lies the dust of an old man. Gratefully, he praised the incomprehensible fact, that it was granted him to live a life on earth as a man.” Truly majestic, simple but not simplistic.

4.

Heidenstam practically stopped writing after New Poems. Authors who thus ”retire” are said to be uncommon. But Heidenstam admitted to acquaintances that his creative powers simply had run out. With all due respect you could say that he became senile. He built himself an estate at Lake Vättern, Övralid, not far from Motala. It looks like a cross between a 17th century Swedish mansion and Goethe’s house in Weimar. The immediate model was the estate Odinshöj in Denmark, where he lived for a while with his partner Kate Bang. Övralid is very stylish, bordering on the sterile. No park or garden would surround it; the lawn would imperceptibly blend into wilderness and the view of the water would be free and unhindered. Only a so-called ornamental tree would provide shade.

The critic Klara Johanson said that Heidenstam’s role in life was the same as the reindeers at Skansen: to offer an easily recognizable profile against the sky. And certainly Heidenstam was a little vain, indeed he liked to pose. He liked, as indicated, to play the role of poet laurate. However, he was also well-liked. Maybe Selma Lagerlöf (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils,1907) was more beloved by the people but Heidenstam could also tell tales and spin yarns. His historical reader for the elementary school, The Swedes and Their Chieftains, as I’ve said, has many witty stories. Astrid Lindgren, for example, testified how she was arrested by the introductory short story about Ura Kaipa and the Stone Age. Heidenstam could paint evocative scenes, as in the story of Ura Kaipa, in the poem ”Tiveden” and the excursions in the archaic forests of The Tree of the Folkungs.

Lagerlöf and Heidenstam died the same year, in 1940. This was commemorated by an anthology called Mårbacka and Övralid, the writers’ respective mansions symbolizing them in the title. Here is given a suggestive anecdote from Heidenstam’s actual writing of A King and His Campaigners. To say that he met the ghost of Charles XII when he composed the chapter on the death of the king may sound unbelievable, but this is what this memory book says. In case it’s worth telling it was like this: in 1897 Heidenstam lived as a guest of the mansion Nor in Uppland, south of Uppsala. He was in the final stages of the Charles XII book. One particular night he stayed up late, working with quill in the lamplight. Just as he had portrayed how Charles XII had fallen by Fredrikshald he heard a sound – the rattle of a bunch of keys. Then he heard the clink of spurs. Then steps coming up the stairs.

The steps approached the den. Finally he stood there, Charles XII, and eyed the author. The king sat down on a chair with his sword resting on his knee. And then he said, ”Remember, I prayed to God the last night I was alive!”

Heidenstam noted all this. Becoming dazed he bowed his head, with his hand to his eyes. When he looked up the figure was gone. No sounds were heard of steps withdrawing. There was a sepulchral silence. Heidenstam remained seated at the table, confused. In the morning he was taken care of by servants. He was bedridden for several days. Then he got up and decided to change his script of the Charles XII book he was writing, A King and His Campaigners. A little research brought him to a certain ”Charles’s prayer before the battle at Narva”. This he edited slightly and inserted in the portrayal of the king’s last days. A few more additions were made in the book so that the religious element in Charles’s life better would come into its own.

Coda

I’m a nationalist of sorts. I savour books about the traditional ways of Sweden, my native country. Then the books may also be artistically high standing as well. And this is readily achieved with Heidenstam’s writings. We live today in a time when the ”elite” of my land often is hostile against all things traditionally Swedish, when it bashes the customary image of Sweden. In this fight, you can’t always, as a defense, offer up ”high-class, immortal works of art” – but with Heidenstam on board you get this. So if you see a book by Heidenstam, buy it. I have an inkling that his books in English are rare and hard to find but they definitely exist. He got the Nobel Prize in 1916 and after that there were some translations made, some of them mentioned above.

 

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Svensson, Lennart. “Verner von Heidenstam — An Overview.” Tankesmedjan Motpol, 9 January 2015. <http://www.motpol.nu/princip/2015/01/09/verner-von-heidenstam-an-overview/ >.

 

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Jünger the Pious – Svensson

Jünger the Pious

By Lennart Svensson

 

Author’s Note (November 2014): The Australian imprint Manticore Press has published an Ernst Jünger biography that I’ve written. Ernst Jünger — A Portrait is the name of the book. This post from earlier this year is a chapter of that book. 

Throughout his life Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) was inspired by religion. He was a pious esotericist in his own right, a stout free-thinker and at the same time drawn to the power of organized religion. Maybe the motto extra ecclesiam nulla salus – “without the church no salvation” – affected him. However, with or without organized religion, Jünger above all warned against atheism. And in this he was rather unique as a 20th century author.

The Impression of Brazilian Monks

In the 1930s, Jünger went to Brazil. He wrote about it all and eventually, after the war, published it as Atlantische Fahrt. A central episode in the book is a visit to German monks in a Benedictine abbey, the brethren impressing the visitor with their joy in spite of having relinquished life and all its pleasures. Strange indeed – isn’t the cloister life supposed to be about hardships and suffering…?

Jünger is amazed. At the same time he can relate to it like in the subservience, with monks obeying the monastic rules like a soldier obeying his orders, the monk life becoming a sort of spiritual body-building and the abbey a training camp for the inner mind. There’s order and joy here, what more to ask for…?

At this stage in life Jünger himself had moved away from titanism and militarism, areas where order was ever present but joy in a lesser degree, so this rendezvous with religion was rather significant. His conversion would take another 60 years. But that event in itself isn’t so important in my book. What’s more important is the Jünger preoccupation with spiritual attitudes that sometimes touch upon those of conventional religion: he was a free-thinker and an esotericist, playing the role of prophet and catalyst, along with and sometimes in opposition to organized religion.

Eumeswil

The chief contribution by Jünger in the discussion at hand is this: his warning against atheism. In the novel Eumeswil (1977) and the late diary he is crystal clear on this issue. Atheism is a vice, a mental sickness. One may object and say that faith in God and/or gods isn’t everything in the esoteric realm, with for instance Taoism and Buddhism being somewhat atheistic in nature. The answer to that is: no they aren’t, they don’t deny the existence of gods. Buddhism, in putting the emphasis on the personal spiritual development, doesn’t state that gods for that matter are totally non-existent. Gods exist on a higher level than we, however still subjected to the laws of karma. That’s the Buddhist theology in nuce [“in a nutshell”].

Of course, everything isn’t solved by automatically starting to worship gods. That’s not what Jünger means. But he means that the central ontological foundation of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and shamanism is true. The existence of God is an ontological reality, there are gods out and about, the divine presence in reality is real. The atheist, on the other hand, is like a ship without anchor, the mind of him (and the current culture as a whole) being the victim of a kind of cross-section paralysis, a total lethargy of the intellect leading out into a sterile desert.

That’s Jünger’s basic message as I see it. Then it’s not so important if he himself was or wasn’t the epitome of piousness, faith and charity. He understood like no one else the ills of our culture. And by not being steeped in the common parochial and sanctified language his message came across more pregnantly.

Start the Day By Praying

The hero of Eumeswil, Manuel Venator, warns against atheism. And he himself, without being a Bible beater or a church goer, lives his life with some pious foundations. Like when he talks about his starting the day by praying, remarking that it’s a central human incentive, even stronger than the sex drive. Both have to be cultivated and released, not suppressed, because if suppressed horrifying things will ensue. Jünger here comes forth as a strong advocate for the pious life, stronger than any latter-day church person I’ve met.

Jünger-Venator is an Anarch. And there is something religious about this, something esoteric, something meditative and in a state of trance, something like saying I AM like the Christ of St. John’s Gospel (“I am the true vine,” “I am the door,” “I am the light of the world,” etc.). Alright, the “I am” dictum isn’t mentioned in the novel. But Uwe Wolf (in Figal and Schwilk’s Magie der Heiterkeit: Ernst Jünger zum Hundertsten, Wolf’s chapter being called ”Dichten, danken, beten”) calls the condition of this Anarch Gottesunmittelbar, i.e., “in direct connection with God.” And that’s a central Christian idea, advocated by St. Paul and Martin Luther as well as Christ himself, the idea of man not needing a priest as mediator between himself and God, not any more than reason or other systematic means are needed. They can’t do the trick here. You meet God by wanting to do so, by realizing your freedom (and limitations) as a man and by letting your intuition guide you. That’s being Gottesunmittelbar, and the Jünger speaking as Manuel Venator to me seems to embody that life form.

Wolf moreover has a keen eye for Jünger’s role as a spiritual author. Wolf states that churches and priests are needed as vehicles for the Word and for Tradition, for continuity and for keeping the flame burning, but additionally we need desert prophets and free spirits to come with impulses, new interpretations and reminiscences of forgotten usages. Jünger, spending most of his author life as an agent free from ties to any organisation, in Wolf’s eye played this role. And I agree with that. Jünger to me represents the eminent free-thinker, a pious but independent prophet helping us to see the religious concepts in a new light.

Bibliography:

Jünger, Ernst: Atlantische Fahrt. Verlag der Arche, Zürich 1947.
Jünger, Ernst: Eumeswil. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1977 (in English on Marsilio Publishers, 1993).
Wolf, Uwe in Schwilk, Heimo och Figal, Günther (eds.): Magie der Heiterkeit: Ernst Jünger zum Hundertsten: “Dichten, danken, beten”. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1995.

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Svensson, Lennart. “Jünger the Pious.” Svenssongalaxen, 7 April 2014. < http://lennart-svensson.blogspot.se/2014/04/in-english-junger-pious.html >.

 

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