Into the darkness

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When Rick Perlstein asked me to participate in the Writers for Dan Biss event he was organizing for January 27 at In These Times, I asked him what I should prepare to read — what was the theme? He said something about truth, justice, and the American way. So, I decided to talk about Norway. This is what I said.

I traveled to Norway earlier this month – I got home just this Monday, and no, I did not have much luck persuading any Norwegians to come back with me.

The trip was planned long before Donald Trump made Norway the sudden and momentary focus of the immigration debate four days before I left, and in those four days I heard as many jokes as you can imagine about shitholes and just how many large, blonde, white people people I could fit in my carry on bag. But before that, before Donald Trump sucked all the air from the room of my vacation planning, the most common response to my itinerary was just plain “why?” Why on earth would anyone go to Norway in January, when they don’t ski and the temperature’s locked in at freezing and there are maybe six hours of light in a day?

But, really, there were several reasons why January in Scandinavia seemed appealing. One of them even vaguely professional — to go visit the Oslo spinoff of a Chicago project of mine. But beyond that it was also my 50th birthday, and the one-year anniversary of the onset of our ongoing national nightmare, and I figured if age and the looming apocalypse aren’t reason enough to lean into the long Northern winter, then what is? I was not going to just lean in to darkness, I proclaimed, I was going to embrace it. Celebrate it. Snuggle up with it.

I was going to go get hygge.

Hygge is one of many Norwegian words for which there is no real English-language analog. Others include fjellant – which means being accustomed to being or walking in the mountains – and snillism, which denotes a philosophy of living that entails being kind to other people, along with many unpronounceable names for wood sprites and other spirits.

Of all of these hygge, which is a sort of portmanteau encompassing the experience of cosiness, togetherness, and warmth, is the word that may be best known in the west. No less than nine books on hygge were published in 2016, with titles such as Hygge: The Secret of Nordic Living and How to Hygge: Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life. The art and practice of hygge involves lots of staying home in the winter with your family and loading up on hot cocoa, hand-knit socks, and board games.

And, OK, it’s best known as a Danish thing but just as Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish are iterations of the same Old Norse language, so too does hygge translate across borders. And what could be better? If the people of Norway, the Happiest Place on Earth, have found hygge to be key to surviving the 18-hour night, then clearly there was something there for a despairing tourist to embrace. Huddle up with your people and bake that cake, preaches the gospel of hygge. Drink the glögg. Turn up the music. Don’t you worry about the wind at the door.

But, I am here now, back in the United States to report that hygge is not perfect.  The fight against darkness itself has a dark side – as a glance at any Scandinavian noir thriller will tell you.

Because, if you think about it for a minute, of course it does. Do you really want to be shut up with your family for months on end? Hungover on mulled wine and bloated from too much skolskenkringle? How many sweaters can one person knit before cabin fever sets in? The parallel concept in Finnish (a language more kin to Hungarian than Norwegian or Danish) is kalsarikannit – which means to stay home and get drunk in your underwear. It’s a lot less Instagrammable, but perhaps more honest.

And, on a more serious note, hygge is not a friend to dissent. According to Danish author Dorthe Nors,  “Anyone who is too offbeat or out there is apt to be scolded for “spoiling the hygge.” To get along with your brother in law through the long dark nights you don’t talk politics; you don’t rock the boat. “’Suppression of difference’” is inherent in the idea, says Nors. Conformity and homogeneity are key. (When you’re done with that thriller maybe go back and read some Ibsen as well.)

So, it should not be surprising to learn that Norway is not perfect either. Sure it has mountains and fjords and the Northern Lights. It has gender parity, affordable health care, and a functional social democracy. It has vast nationalized reserves of oil wealth held in trust for future generations. It is populated but a great many distressingly tall and attractive people. And it also has a lot of conformity, insularity, and, alas, racists. Outside of Oslo and other smaller metropolitan areas, it is “Trump land,” one lovely Norwegian told me one night. “It’s where British racists escape to when they’re tired of being hassled back home for being  … racist,” she continued.

During World War II Norway had the dubious distinction of being seen for a time by the Nazis as a kindred state – one that had only to be brought into the National Socialist fold through gentle persuasion rather than brute force. But from the moment the Nazis marched unmolested across neutral Sweden to the Norwegian border (something Norwegians are still a little bitter about), many Norwegians did their best to put that notion to rest. They fought the German army for two months before the King went into exile in England and the occupation settled in. The German priority, above all else, was to keep Norway, which was of great strategic value to them, calm and quiet and at least on the surface all business as usual, and the apparatus went to work to ensure that it was.

But underground, in the woods and the fjords and the mountains, the Norwegian resistance was strong, and only grew stronger as the war went on. If you want an inspirational experience I highly recommend the Norwegian Resistance Museum in Oslo, which details the history of the Resistance – its secret wireless networks and illegal newspapers and lonely surveillance posts in the frozen wilds of the north – through archival documents and a lot of truly adorable dioramas. As a plaque on the wall explained, at first:

“Open resistance was the natural reaction of a community based on law. Norwegians, however, were soon forced to the conclusion that their struggle against a ruthless enemy would have to be organized in secret if it were to be proved effective.”

During the war, once Norwegians were no longer able to fight back not in the streets, by the light of day, they did not turn to hygge, shutting the door on all but the safe and familiar. Instead they forced themselves to stay out at great risk in the cold and dark, waiting for a sign, looking for a messenger and maybe, once in a while, shining a soft and quiet light to signal that the message had been received. That there was a fellow resister out there in the endless night.

***

When you’re on vacation your time away can seem an eternity – and while I was in Norway a lot of things happened, most of which seemed at a far and misty remove. Of all the news from home, the testimony of hundreds of courageous women in the Larry Nasser sentencing hearing captured much of my attention – so much so that I had to be told by a Norwegian, while I was drinking a nice pilsner at an Oslo club, that to mark Trump’s first year in office the federal government had shut down.

But earlier in my trip the United States also celebrated Martin Luther King Day, and, across seven time zones, a quote kept bouncing through my social media feed. You know the one I mean:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Darkness is such a universal metaphor for fear and for despair, mostly I hazard because what darkness cloaks is the unknown. Menace or promise — you just don’t know until you can see what’s out there. And without a light to guide you, you have to feel your way blindly, until you’re uncomfortably close enough to see what you’re up against.

The words of Dr. King resonated throughout the trip, as my friend and I scooted through the icy streets of Oslo in January, feeling our way towards points of light: a café, a museum, the home of new friends, the jazz club sheltering old friends from Chicago. Sure it was dark and snowing, but we were out in it, learning and looking, and seeking others in the gloom.

On our way home from Norway we met another friend in Iceland for a few days. And where the darkness in Oslo took at least familiar form, in Reykjavik it was otherworldly — long, impenetrable nights and short days in which the sun hovered just over the horizon for a few hours before diving back beyond the North Atlantic. On our last day, we ducked into an austere church in the pitch-black of 9 am, in conditions that can only be described as gluggavedur – or “weather best witnessed from the window.” Many other early rising tourists had had the same thought, and a quiet clatter of languages and accents bounced off each other in the soaring space. There, in a corner, I put a kroner in the donation box and lit a candle on a spherical iron rack. The text posted next to it, by a Swedish poet named Bo Setterlind, read as follows:

“Do not let the darkness prevent
you from seeking the light!
And when you have found it let
other people see, re-think, and
be convinced.
If you want the light to live then
give rise to the same yearning in
other people.

Light the light of frankness
in the darkness of fear, light the
light of justice in the darkness of
corruption,
light the light of faith in the
darkness of denial,
light the light of hope in the
darkness of despair,
light the light of love in the
darkness of death.
Light the light!”

I don’t know who I was signaling to, exactly, but by then, outside it was finally breaking dawn. So my friends and I gathered our courage, wrapped our scarves tight around our heads, and stepped back out into the howling wind with other strangers to see what else we might see.