Theater of Cruelty

In a hundred years, everything will not be forgotten

Georg Johannesen died on Christmas Eve, aged 74. He was one of the most important writers in the surrounding circle Orientering, and his latest book, Exile, can be read as a past protest song from the future.


In one of his 1959 poems, the young Georg Johannesen gives advice on who is worth listening to: "You should listen to people / who are still distant / Maybe stay tomorrow / A better day than yesterday / You should listen people / who live as if they lived in a hundred years ». Of course, there is controversy as to whether the council is good, and one has to argue for or against an ironic reading of the sentence. What people are "still distant", in 1959, yesterday, tomorrow? Who lives as if they "lived in a hundred years"? And what about the poem itself, does it demand to be regarded as a grumbling voice of the future?

Will he be remembered?

Let's assume that one of the poem's foremost tasks consists in getting the reader to ask questions, formulate issues. And let us make the claim that the poem, here and now, concerns the question of Georg Johannesen's literary afterlife, his place in an upcoming Norwegian literary history. How will tomorrow's readers relate to Georg Johannesen's work?

About the way in today's oil-rich, postmodern and tabloid Norway you relate (or rather, don't relate to) Ludvig Holberg, Nordahl Grieg and other "Greek" writers? Or will one in the future actually be able to remember a writer like Georg Johannesen?

"Reading Georg Johannesen is one of the most rewarding things a truth-seeking Norwegian can do against the feel-good atmosphere that rests in our bestseller literature and the lack of world understanding that has characterized our foreign policy," Jan Erik Vold wrote in Dagbladet New Year's Eve 2005, exactly one week ago after Georg Johannesen died. The link between Norwegian bestseller literature and Norwegian foreign policy may at first glance be sought, but one should not ignore the fact that cultural "feel good mood" is largely due to political delusions. "You should not listen to people / who are preaching now," we read in the 1959 poem, and we allow ourselves to add: You should not listen to bestselling politicians who reproduce the claim that it is typically Norwegian to be good.

Modern and retrospective

"No one has challenged Norwegian stupidity and self-esteem more strongly than the poet from Bergen," Vold writes, with clear reference to Georg Johannesen's portrayal of himself as "a literary political opponent of recent Norwegian (literary) history". We should note the parenthesis: Norwegian literary history writing takes place within Norwegian history, and Norwegian history writing takes place within Norwegian literary history, therefore (literary) history, "modern" books and "modern" politics in the same Norwegian dance boat.

As is well known, modernity can be so much, and it should go without saying that it is never a given that the so-called present will necessarily appear to be more "modern" than the past. The opposite is often the case. Georg Johannesen "is a 'modern' poet who admires 'older and more mature cultures' than ours," wrote Espen Haavardsholm and Helge Rønning in 1975. Truly a modern and retrospective poet – but not in such a way that Georg Johannesen perceived them " older and more mature cultures ”as so-called past stages, so-called golden ages that have been lost in favor of a so-called progressive and progressive society. On the contrary. The past «older and more mature» gives strong ideas about future possibilities, such as the possibility that the people of the future will look back in time and understand us, our culture and our world, better than we understand ourselves.

Cultural short-term memory

The gateways to the imagined future are many. In 1965, could Orienterings readers delve into Georg Johannesen's review of Axel Jensen's novel Epp: “[…] A great talent here has gained courage on the biggest tasks; to analyze man and society in the magic mirror of the future, which magnifies and diminishes our own face. " And in the book that was to be the last from Georg Johannes's hand, the essay collection Exile (2005), the rhetorician took a forward-looking view of one of Norwegian history's forgotten counter-reformers, the Jesuit priest Laurentius Nicolai Norvegus (1538-1622), alias Klosterlasse: . »

Georg Johannesen's aphoristic portrayal of Klosterlasse's "silent prophecies" is harsh criticism: It is first and foremost we, the present day administrators, who are responsible for the past and the future lying in ruins. The debate program, which pretends to evoke updated images of the present and its "modern" issues of war, does in fact do little or nothing to prevent the spread of one of the most serious public diseases: the cultural short-term memory, the worst enemy of formation.

In Georg Johannesen's latest book, Klosterlasse emerges as one of several "prophets" with ideological habits both in (an interpreted) past and in (an imagined) future. Or to say it with one of the other "prophets," the Jewish critic and Marxist Walter Benjamin: "As you know, the Jews were forbidden to research in the future. The Torah and prayer, on the other hand, teach them the remembrance. This nullifies the sorcery that the future holds for those who are reluctant to seek enlightenment from prophets. But the future did not, therefore, become an empty and homogenous time for the Jews. For every second was the little gate through which the Messiah could enter. "

The quote dates from 1940, the same year that Walter Benjamin died. Everyone knows what the year 1940 marks, but few are able to put into words the collective experiences of the twentieth century's greatest disasters. A forward-thinking Benjamin let the "angel of history" fly backwards, his face facing the past: "Where a chain of events appears to us, it sees a single disaster that incessantly heaps ruins on ruins and throws them at its feet." such a phrase today? "Writing poems after Auschwitz is barbaric," claimed Benjamin's friend, modernist Theodor W. Adorno. It is part of the story that Adorno later explained the statement as an exaggeration, but then an exaggeration in the sign of truth, and an exaggeration and a truth that was impossible to pass by postwar poets. And one of these was called Georg Johannesen. Again the 1959 poem: "You must not listen to people / Who have survived two world wars / They must have small hearts / And lots of patience / They must have figured out what it costs / To get away for free / They must be weighed on the killer's weight / He said: This will be nothing / Let them go ”.

Head pillow for conscience

How to read such verse lines? Ironic? Literal? Or perhaps both ironically and literally, in line with Adorno's idea of ​​true exaggeration? Either way: The poem creates lines of connection to both the one and the other essayistic writing signed by Georg Johannesen, the young and the old. Essayist in the proper sense of the word: to try, to try. Albert Schweitzer “is a pillow for our conscience and can be used for it. Therefore, we cannot pay tribute to him without paying tribute to our cowardice, ”Johannesen wrote in 1954. The young student did not go on a torchlight for Peace Prize winner Schweitzer; the student "remembered forgetting", he made a diagnosis, personified an ideological health problem. Half a century later, one of the pillows was still called Knut Hamsun: "There is nothing to learn from Knut Hamsun," we read somewhere in News about Ibsen and other essays (2003). The claim is part of an intricate but equally crystal clear argument: Nothing means nothing; Learning means formation, and formation is something that one must not forget, but always remember to strive for. In other words, the novelist, the fist-writer, the Nobel laureate and the Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun were completely wrong. In a hundred years everything is not forgotten. It formed vile Remember, if it means "remember to forget".

What do you want to convey, what do you want to say, every time you state that Hamsun is Norway's "greatest poet"? Suppose that one neither communicates nor says anything, seen that in a state of slight nervousness one hopes to avoid making oneself unpopular and "outdated" in good company? "The good company" often works as a bad paraphrase for consensus, the order of things, the so-called healthy peasant wisdom. Knut Hamsun «is Norway's greatest poet 'as Verdens Gang is Norway's largest newspaper. But by Nordahl Grieg one can at least learn to distance oneself from a new Norwegian mentality, which is newly rich, unaristocratic, and without the ability and willingness to think hyperbolically (in exaggerations), »wrote the old Georg Johannesen, the Georg Johannesen who in protest against superficiality, thoughtlessness and barbarism chose to anchor the presentation of their intellectual life in a culture other than the Norwegian. Georg Johannesen was, and will continue to be, at the same time as Quintilian, Dante, Klosterlasse, Holberg, Nordahl Grieg, Bertolt Brecht, Adorno, Walter Benjamin and other "Greek" authors.

But will Georg Johannesen be remembered? Do you want to listen to Jan Erik Vold's advice: "We cannot praise him better than by reading him"? One place to start is the following (perhaps hyperbolic) "remembering rule" from Exile: "Reading Dante gave me an Italian rule: Formation always occurs and only in exile." Yes, a place to start, and a place to go whenever you try, really try, to make constructive contributions to the historical conversation about criticism, literature, politics, the good life, contributions that do not necessarily have to "say the same" as Georg Johannes's poems, essays and aphorisms.

Leif Høghaug

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