Theater of Cruelty

Rabulist, literary researcher, politician and poet

Deep down in my heart I have my sense. The biography of Georg Johannesen
Forfatter: Alfred Fidjestøl
Forlag: Det Norske Samlaget (Norge)
BIOGRAPHY / "He who is not mad in his own way must participate in the collective madness." This is one of Georg Johannesen's (1931–2005) most apt self-characteristics, writes Alfred Fidjestøl in a new biography of the poet, politician and professor of rhetoric.


"Quotation power in selected sentences" by GJ is indisputable. No matter what one thinks of the Georg Johannesen phenomenonGeorg Johannesen (GJ), he created formulations that are remembered:

"My first intercourse / took place during the Korean War," says a poem from the late 50s. The quick crosscutting of private life and politics is effective, but also one of the main problems with GJ as both poet and politician. GJ had many women's stories in his younger days, He had a crush on the ladies, partly because he was a misogynist, Fidjestøl suggests somewhere.

The biography quotes from a number of letters to GJ's childhood sweetheart, the textile artist Siri Blakstad (b. 1938). Here GJ talks about his "scarce, bitter stone form", which "has culminated in the poems that have to do with us". These letters provide a new and personal background for GJ's most famous – and impenetrable – poetry collection Ars moriendi (1965). And as Fidjestøl writes: "It was as if a curse rested on the relationship between Siri Blakstad and Georg Johannesen. Every time they were together, they parted as unfriended. As soon as they were separated, they longed like mad."

Heart and mind

The title of Fidjestøl's biography Deep down in my heart I have my sense is taken from GJ's third collection New poems (1966): "The skeleton is deep / in every man / And what do I have deep in my heart? Deep down in my heart I have my mind.”

Do these lines justify GJ's cynical and unsentimental style of writing? The picture becomes absurd if one thinks of the mind as a "skeleton" for the heart. The will to rational control seems convulsive. Often, however, it is "like the private sorrows seeping out between the lines", notes Fidjestøl.

Georg Johannesen

"He who says: Look at this rose / leads you away from / the bloodstains on the road." These well-known verses meant that we could not "use our sensitivity as a shield against reality, because then it becomes a false reality," GJ said in an interview.

Jan Erik Vold has claimed that GJ's "inner darkness" was greater than Brecht's. The core of the darkness was the imbalance in the man-woman issue, a lack of trust that is never reconciled, according to Vold anno 1981.

Because of the blood stains on the road, the roses would not be allowed to be beautiful. This makes life more unlivable than necessary. If one occasionally concentrates exclusively on roses and intercourse, one also gets more energy to engage against war and bloodstains.

The philosopher Thomas Krogh wrote in a review of GJs The Norwegian way of thinking (1975) that "the most individual and independent political and literary writing in Norway in the last 15 years is the clearest expression of a collective experience".

But at his worst, GJ was also a mirror image of what he attacked. "Increased use of swear words will raise the level of objectivity in Norwegian politics", reads one of his many paradoxes.

"Increased use of swear words will raise the level of objectivity in Norwegian politics."

GJ claimed that NRK should broadcast porn and boxing matches rather than dumbing down debate programmes. At the same time, he wept sentimentally when he was drunk when he talked about his last major object of identification, the Jesuit Kloster-Lasse. The mix of brutality and sentimentality is also typical of parts of the American culture GJ loved to hate.

Norway-haters and rabble-rousers

A question Fidjestøl asks, but does not fully answer, is how GJ could get away with his hard-hitting and unfair characteristics for so long. He could also be harsh towards those who were close to him. When the friends in the journal Basar (1975-1981) printed an unfinished version of the essay on consumer poetry and commodity poetry, he threatened lawyers! He would also suspend his party mates Gordon Hølmebakk and Sigurd Evensmo from all posts in SF after a discussion in the Writers' Association where they disagreed with him.

GJ all too easily confused private conflicts with large-scale political problems.

But Fidjestøl does not mention that GJ could also demand a written apology from those who criticized him publicly. At a meeting of the Studentersamfundet in Oslo about the journal Agora's theme issue about Bjørnson in 1990, I was cheeky enough to point out that GJ and Bjørnson were not so different: Just as Bjornson treated Norway as his own great room, GJ all too easily confused private conflicts with major political problems – for example in his debut novel Autumn in March (1957). A few years later, the Society organized a debate meeting on rhetoric. GJ then demanded a written apology for my performance at the Bjørnson meeting in 1990. Otherwise, it was out of the question to sit on the same panel, he told the culture committee. Naturally, GJ was much more important to include, so I withdrew. Although he received no apology, the demand for a written apology worked effectively!

GJ's paradoxical success as Norway-hater and rabble-rouser has been linked to Herbert Marcuse's concept of "repressive tolerance»: Capitalism can absorb criticism by making the opposition hostage to liberal democracy. The more he criticizes, the more society presses him to its chest. But before one buys this explanation, GJ's authoritarian handling of criticism should probably also be taken into account.

Compulsory reading

Can one even raise weighty objections to such a solid and comprehensive biography as this? In GJ's spirit, one could point out that the biography is theoryless. Is it a poet biography, a political biography or a psychobiography – what can the reader expect? Fidjestøl follows the material, and thereby the biography becomes all this. The source work is thorough and more than makes up for the lack of methodological discussions.

Only those who believe that they themselves have no weaknesses will accept GJ's mistakes.

GJ's combination of rabulist, literary researcher, politician and poet is unique. He had his demons to contend with, like most artists. (The book also contains a separate section with pictures of his paintings.) Only those who believe that they themselves are without weaknesses will accept GJ's mistakes. On the contrary, it makes you want to read him again after Fidjestøl has given us a wealth of new information to associate the texts with.

Fidjestøl's well-written biography of 500 pages excluding notes and bibliography appears as compulsory reading for anyone interested in Norwegian political debate and literary history from the 1950s to the turn of the millennium.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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