Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

Out of the world

The forest calls, now as before.


[self-storage] 17 May 2005 Bjørn Gabrielsen moves to a cottage in Nordmarka, without electricity and inlet water. He should manage himself, with only simple tools and muscle power at his disposal. One year in the forest has resulted in the book Veien ut: One man, one forest, one year, no plan.

A lonely man and an old hut. One can hardly find a more Norse motif, and Gabrielsen embodies the role of real Norwegian in an exemplary way. He cultivates the soil, chops, fetches water. He lives a frugal life in agreement with nature and himself. In a time when it is almost as common to be as upset about Norwegian Puritanism as it is to talk about jantelov and niselu mentality, there is something almost heroic about such a project. I have to honestly admit that I admire a man who can write "I want to live clean and close" without a single ironic reservation.

Way of holding versus consumption

In spite of all the talk of Norwegians' love for the simple and natural, one can also ask how Norwegian today's Norwegians really are. If the media reflects Norwegian reality, it is not exactly the moderation that is most conspicuous. It is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad's thesis on Norwegian culture as a form of secularized pietism. Consumption is becoming more and more flashy, and the buying party is celebrated every day in the newspapers.

Bjørn Gabrielsen has had enough, "enough of not knowing where my food comes from, of not being able to repair the things that surround me, the feeling of not being able to distinguish between what is important and what is nonsense". He wants to find "a way out, but without opting out".

Gabriel is not the first to have enough. One of his greatest inspirers is the 1800th century American poet and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. For Thoreau, the rush of modern society had taken over. "If you stay home and look after your own affairs, who needs a train?" He asked. In particular, he had felt sorry for the media's unstoppable growth: "They have tense telegraph lines from Texas to Boston, without asking if they have anything to tell each other." In 1845 Thoreau moved to a small cabin at Walden Pond in the woods outside Concord in Massachussetts. In his book Walden, which will be published in the Norwegian edition of Pax in December, he tells about his stay.

Henry Thoreau is quite unknown in Norway, but is considered a national call in the United States. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, he was one of the foremost poets of the American Renaissance, who in the mid-1800s laid an intellectual framework for a new American individualism. Against Puritanism prevailing among the New England pilgrims, the Renaissance poets propagated the individual's independence, civil disobedience and nonconformism. "Society is a conspiracy against its members," wrote Emerson in the essay "Self-Reliance." "Whoever wants to be a man must be a nonconformist." Therein also lay a fundamental rupture with the old world.

By undermining ancient authorities, the Renaissance poets would free the individual from the tyranny of the past, from Europe's blood ties and social hierarchies. In the new world, the individual could recreate himself. Here also lay the power of a new literature. The Renaissance poets believed the nation's poetry lay in the mean, low and unclean, in the carnival of the bastards.

Hermitic retreat

The outsider's rebelliousness and lonely autonomy became an ideal, and Thoreau's hermitical retreat must be seen in light of this. Thoreau was opposed to a state that legitimized slavery and a church that did little to protest. He refused to pay taxes because of the war against Mexico, and therefore had to spend a night in jail. He subsequently wrote the famous essay "Civil Disobediance", embracing the motto "that government is best which governs least". The essay has inspired everything from Ronald Reagan's neo-liberalism, to characters like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi.

Thoreau's self-storage project was also a kind of practical anticipation of Emerson's concept of self-reliance. Thoreau believed that modern man had become a slave of his tools ("tools of their tools"), and by leading a simple life he wanted to achieve independence. “A few tools are all you need. Luxury, and many of life's so-called joys, are not only indispensable, they are obstacles to the development of humanity, ”he writes in Walden.

This is very close to Gabriel's thoughts. Gabrielsen is swarming not only for a lost Norwegian ideal of sobriety, but for a bygone era when people had knowledge of their physical surroundings, when "they had to deal with things that worked and, if they did not work, had to be repaired". In the desire to repair their own things lies the desire for control and independence. Of course, moving on May 17 itself is no accident. Thoreau moved July 4th.

Puritanism and moralism

If Walden is to be seen in the context of the American renaissance's break with the past, Thoreau still lived by old Protestant ideals. For Thoreau, the poet's noblest work was his life, and life was to be cut to its core. "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" He proclaimed.

For the ignorant reader, Walden could have just as easily been written by Fridtjof Nansen. Puritanism is always present. Thoreau looks at the ego as something internalized, and is morbidly concerned: "If your neighbor asks why everything is, do your utmost to return a true answer." If someone did not live up to his lofty ideals, he either took not five cents to tell them. Perhaps no wonder Thoreau never had many friends.

A similar moralism can also be traced at Gabrielsen. Veien ut is now a highly readable book, but the discomfort manifests itself when he seems genuinely indignant at people who have "homes with built-in vacuum cleaners, home theater and garden trampoline". It is, on the whole, somewhat self-righteous and jealous of a Dagens Næringsliv journalist who lives the simple life of a cottage in the Nordmarka while whining about the consumer society. The way out will probably appeal first and foremost to readers with a solid social background. Especially those who have been taken to distressed cottages in their childhood, by parents who thought football was the best on radio, and that "lenses fit most".

Reviewed by Ole-Martin Ihle

You may also like