Monday, October 22, 2007

Memoir 6

[This is actually part of an essay that is coming out in a book soon]

I grew up in Skåne, the southernmost province of Sweden, consisting mainly of farm land. In many of the fields there are burial mounds from the bronze age (10-15 feet tall). My grade-school class used to go to play at one of these mounds in a field just outside of Håstad, the small town where the school was located. This particular mound was unusual: there was a large gash in the side of it. The farmer who owned the field had tried to get rid of the mound in order to make his farming more efficient. However, he only got in one day’s work. For that night he was awakened by a terrible din. When he ran outside he saw that his animal barn was on fire. The clamor of his horses and pigs screaming and trying to break out of the burning barn shocked his entire body. Since that day he was paralyzed in one side of his body and half blind.

The farmer was married to my grade-school teacher, a kindly but stern and devout lady. I would see him around town dragging his bad leg around. He had an intriguingly pathetic air about him in his filthy overalls and wrinkled face. Perhaps this makes it a folk tale instead of a fairy tale. Perhaps it makes it gossip. In Sweden they just referred to such stories as “sagor,” or tales, but this is not the kind of tale you will find in any anthologies. There is no official version, no original text. For all I know I may have made it up myself. I am one of a very limited number of people to know about it (there can’t be more than 100 people living in Håstad, and certainly the farmer and his devout wife are both dead by now.).

However, the story is by no means unique. The style and the theme are recognizable from other, more official tales. There is for example the story of Odin’s Eye, a perfectly round, bottomless lake in Skåne. According to the old Viking myth, Odin threw an eye into a well and this allowed him to see the future. But that’s not the tale I’m thinking of. The one I’m thinking of I was told as a child: As modern civilization was taking over the country, measuring and explaining with scientific method, the magical creatures who used to inhabit the countryside fled down into the bottomless lake. When scientists heard about the lake they were naturally curious to measure its depth, since there is no such thing as a bottomless lake. They brought their measuring device and lowered it down in the water. They kept lowering and lowering it down but it never seemed to reach a bottom. Finally it caught. But when they pulled up the instrument they did not find soil in the instrument. Rather the skeleton of a whole bull was clamped to it. This was a sign for the scientists and, by implication, all modern people, to stay away from the lake. The trolls and fairies may had given up the world, but they were still dangerous, threatening.

In both stories, there is a conflict between modern society and the old superstitions. The modern world has more or less taken over the world, but the old superstitions are not to be disrespected. They allegorize the intersection of modernity and superstition, but the kind of knowledge that comes out of the stories is not explanatory in the way natural science, sociology or even literary interpretations are explanatory; they are explanatory as obfuscation, anti-explanation.

What interests me most of all with both stories is the violent, allegorical-seeming imagery of the story. Why is the barn burned down, rather than the house? Why is the farmer struck blind (as opposed to killed)? Why the cattle skeleton? In myths the logic of such details are available to the audience. These stories use the vehicle of code but without the tenor. The morals are obvious and simplistic in both stories, but the visual imagery overwhelms the morals.

Following the lead of the German Romantics, Samuel Coleridge famously defined the “symbol” as superior to “allegory.” Coleridge opposed the allegory as “a translation of abstract notions into a picture language, which is nothing but an abstraction from the objects of the senses.” He opposed this “counterfeit” rhetorical tool with the symbol, which “partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part of the unity of which it is representative.” Coleridge felt that the symbol organically explained itself, while the allegory was artificial in that you needed a key to unlock its riddle.

These sagor resemble the allegory in that they do not explain themselves. However, the key has been thrown away. I find the lack of code liberating: unable to transform the images into meaning, I can revel in the ruins. So much of critical work on stories focus on how to interpret them, as if the interpretation was a way of solving a problem; a way for a culture uncomfortable with the unknown. Even “realism” has to be interpreted as mimesis. The tales let things remain intensively strange.


Post a Comment

<< Home