21 July 2012
On the drive today inland from Florø toward the fjord country of Sogn and Fjordane, my sister and I detoured from the main road to see a group of petroglyphs at Ausevik. This was not at all far from Florø, and well worth the detour. There is a large, flat rock sloping down toward the fjord that is covered with a variety of carvings in the rock, some of them recognizably representative of familiar objects, and some of them not representative at all. I often marvel how the oldest art works of human beings are the most robust and likely to outlast the civilizations that superseded them. The petroglyphs, geoglyphs, and megaliths to be found around the world have been exposed to wind and weather for thousands of years longer than civilization has existed, and they remain today a vivid reminder of our prehistoric past. Similar considerations hold for the earliest monuments of human beings: the pyramids are likely to outlast anything that came, and is still to come, after them.
To mention other forms of robust ancient art like the petroglyphs at Ausevik reminds me of seeing the Nazca lines in January of this year — another perfect example of aesthetic simplicity and mystery likely to far outlast any subsequent constructions of civilization. The petroglyphs at Ausevik and the geoglyphs at Nazca remind me of each other for other reasons besides their robust character: the hypnotic patterns of lines is similar between the two, and the difficult of interpreting that which is not naturalistically representative poses the same dilemma in both cases, and in many other cases as well. Perhaps there is no better proof of ideas in the Kantian sense (as Husserl called them) than non-naturalistic, non-representative art. Such works of art have not correlate in nature; they spring from the mind of man, and are natural only to the degree that the mind is natural (and this is a matter of some disagreement).
It has been an invariant feature of the human mind since the advent of cogntive modernity that the mind of productive of non-naturalistic, non-representative ideas. This is a reminder to us of the conceptual sophistication of our prehistoric ancestors, and of the similarity to us. In other words, we are right to recognize ourselves in them, as they would be right to recognize themselves in us, their descendents. Of course, there are limits to this identification over time, but as I tried to show in my discussion of our intimacy with the past, it is partly a matter of perspective.
In thinking about these petroglyphs at Ausevik I realized that there is both a phylogenetic and an ontogenetic aspect to our intimacy with the past, i.e., there is also a personal version of the historical quest to understand the past. This is precisely what I was getting at in describing my pilgrimage to Kinn, where my fraternal grandmother came from. Personal pilgrimages to discover one’s own origins are the ontogenetic correlate of phylogenetic inquiries into history that privilege the impersonal, the universal, the objective, and the abstract — that is to say, the traditional ideal of history as a rigorous intellectual discipline.
My visit to Kinn recontextualized my personal history in a greater expanse of time than that I had previously understood; the life of my fraternal grandmother, whom I never met, is real to me in a way that it was not previously real to me. I have been to her home and walked in her footsteps and to a limited extent seen the world from her point of view. This is the first step in recontextualizing one’s past in ever greater expanses of history. The more we can expand our concepts to a generalization of our life that eventually coincides with the lives of our ancestors, the greater our intimacy with the past and the greater our understanding of the past. If we continue to extrapolate this process backward through history, the entire universe becomes implicated in our personal existence. In this way, we come to live the interconnectedness of all things. One’s personal history becomes impersonal and ultimately indistinguishable from the history of the world entire.
I see this effort as a way toward formulating a philosophy of history that is as personal as conventional philosophies of history — be they Augustinian, Kantian, Hegelian, Marxist, positivist, or anything else — have striven toward being impersonal, objective, universal, and abstract. I am not suggesting that philosophy or historiography abandon the pursuit of these admirable intellectual ideas, but what I am suggesting is that a personal conception of the world need not be unrigorous. While it is true that most personal visions of life are parochial in the extreme, this is not necessarily true, and it strikes me as an equally admirable intellectual ideal to formulation a personal philosophy of history.
One obvious question that follows from this intellectual exercise, and the question that demonstrates the profound practicality of the philosophy of history, is whether this coincidence of personal and universal history extrapolated into the past also holds when extrapolated into the future. I can intuitively see how this might be the case, or how it might fail to be the case. It would be a further intellectual exercise to try to answer to this question in a rigorous and still personal way. Such an answer — if indeed such an answer is even possible — would point the way to a naturalistic eschatology that might be sufficiently vivid as to supplant the supernatural eschatologies that have fascinating human beings since the beginning of time (and which have probably constituted the greater part of the non-naturalistic, non-representative ideas that human beings have entertained).
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20 July 2012
One of the westernmost islands of Norway is Kinn, which can be reached by boat from Florø. On Kinn there is a Romanesque church, one of the oldest stone churches in Norway, and also, like the island, perhaps the westernmost church of Norway. The island and the church were the object of pilgrimage in the middle ages. There is a legend, of course, and it is the Legend of Saint Sunniva.
According to the legend, Sunniva was a daughter of an Irish king and a Christian. Although the Irish were among the first Christians in Europe, they couldn’t defend themselves, so when the Vikings strong-armed their way into the kingdom of Sunniva’s father, it seemed that Sunniva was going to be forced to marry a Viking and a pagan. Horrified at the prospect, Sunniva with two sisters, a brother, and a number of followers fled. They went down to the sea in ships, and to place themselves utterly in the hands of God, they cast away their oars and sails so that their destination would be decided by God alone. Here is one telling of the legend of Saint Sunniva:
“Without oars or ship-gear they committed themselves to
the sea, and the storm and tempest carried them across the North Sea and finally landed them on the little island of Selje. The people on the mainland saw the strangers, and proceeded to attack them. Sunniva and her companions fled for refuge to a cave on the island, and prayed that death might come to deliver them from their heathen foes. The prayer was heard, and a stenskred (stone avalanche) fell and closed the entrance to the cave and all perished. Later on some merchants sailing past the island, saw a light, and going ashore found a human head, which emitted a fragrant odor. They went to Olaf Trygvesson and told the tale. The king then with Bishop Sigurd went to the island, and after searching they discovered the body of St. Sunniva perfectly preserved. A church was erected on the island and a cloister established, and from Selje later on, many teachers went out to spread the faith. It seems most probable, on the whole, that the visit of Olaf and Bishop Sigurd to Selje, took place after he had gone to Nidaros, and when his work of Christianizing the north was further advanced. Selje was subsequently the seat of a bishopric, which was transferred to Bergen at the end of the eleventh century; but it remained an important monastic center down to the sixteenth century, and may well be called the ‘holy isle’ of Norway.”
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH AND STATE IN NORWAY: FROM THE TENTH TO THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, BY THOMAS B. WILLSON, M.A.
While Sunniva herself washed up on the island of Selje, her sisters came to rest on different islands. Her sister Ingeborg washed up on the island of Moster, and the other sister, Borni, came to rest on Kinn.
We know from other historical accounts that Christian monks from Ireland, seeking both complete isolation from the world and to completely place their fate in God’s hands, did in fact commit themselves in primitive rafts to the icy waters of the north sea. Those who arrived alive on distant shores created monasteries where they landed. We also know that the prevailing currents will bring flotsam from Ireland to this part of the Norwegian coast. Moreover, we know that in the transitional period of Christianization that there were many stories of princesses who refused to be married to heathens, probably intended to bolster popular piety — but of course the legend is much more beautiful than the facts.
While on Kinn we were told a local legend about the life of Saint Borni after she arrived on Kinn. She contracted with a local man, perhaps a supernatural character (perhaps even a species of troll), to build the church that is the church that still stands on Kinn. He said he would do so if Borni would marry him, but Borni was as horrified of marrying him as Sunniva had been horrified at the idea of marrying a Viking. So he changed his offer: he would build the church, and if she could guess his name before he was finished, she would not have to marry him. When the church was nearly finished, Borni traveled to a neighboring island and heard the builder’s folk singing his name in honor of his presumed upcoming nuptials. So Borni returned, called the builder by his name, and so shocked him that he dropped the belfry on the ground next to the church, where it is to be seen today, instead of installing it on the top of the church.
I have read books and heard lectures in which the writers and speakers insist that it is an anachronism to attribute to medieval pilgrims the motives of modern travelers; that medieval pilgrims were engaged in a religious duty, and that this ideological focus transformed the act of pilgrimage into something distinctive. Well, yes and no. It is right for scholars to point out what makes medieval pilgrimage distinctive, but I don’t buy the most general formulation of this thesis — not for a minute. It is impossible for me to believe, among the vast numbers of peoples who went on pilgrimage throughout the European Middle Ages, that all were solely motivated by a narrowly-conceived religious ideology, and that in visiting distant places never found themselves marveling at the sights in a way indistinguishable from the modern tourist.
Pilgrimage is what Wittgenstein would have called a “form of life.” Or, to use Marxist language, we can find in pilgrimage throughout the ages — whether ancients visiting the Oracle at Delphi or medievals visiting the relics of Saint Sunniva or moderns visiting the lands of their forefathers — an invariant material infrastructure that can be distinguished from the ideological superstructure. In other words, we are all doing pretty much the same thing, whatever we may understand ourselves to be doing.
I, too, was on a pilgrimage when I visited Kinn. It was a familial pilgrimage, like my first trip to Norway in 1988, also with my sister who is traveling with me now. Our father’s mother was born on Kinn and was baptized and confirmed in the church we visited today. So while I would not hesitate to identify tourism as the modern form of pilgrimage, and to identify those great symbols of civilization like the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal as places of tourist pilgrimage, my pilgrimage to Kinn was more personal. It was important for me to see Kinn in order to understand where I come from, and to understand the form of life lived by my ancestors. In that way I become less the Other to my own past, to my own history (in the sense of otherness I described in Being the Other).
When my father first told me about Kinn he emphasized its barrenness, that there was nothing there but fish. Today I learned that there was a lot of fish — the local guide said that in the late nineteenth century (my fraternal grandmother was born in 1891) that Kinn was so famous for its herring fisheries that there was a saying in Norway to the effect that you can go to Kinn and get rich. And the fishing boats were said to be so thick on the water that you could go from one island to the next by stepping across the boats like a bridge. This gave me a new perspective on Kinn even as at the same time it fitted in with my overall understanding of history.
At the end of the nineteenth century a number of developments were coming together — increasing populations, increasing commerce, the growing influence of the industrial revolution, and so forth — that meant that traditional resources that had been local staples were transformed into extractive industries and cash crops for an export industry. At Kinn, herring and salmon were the cash crop; they were put on ice and sent to Bergen the same day, and then sent from Bergen to England the next day. At the same time this was shaping the lives of my father’s family in Norway, it was also affecting my mother’s ancestors half a world away at the mouth of the Columbia River, where salmon fishing became a booming industry at the same time, before the over-exploited fisheries could no longer support that level of harvesting. Fortunes were made and fortune vanished almost as quickly. That is the way of the world.
That is how I put it all together — at least, that is what I try to do — bringing together the big picture and the local picture, filling in the details that illuminate the whole by going to the point of my origins and finding what stories I can. In the end, all we have are our stories, and now I have part of the story of my family, with the story of Saint Sunniva and her sisters thrown in for good measure.
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19 July 2012
The category of “The Other” has become among the most familiar in postmodern thought, with The Other representing all that is different, alien, and foreign. But the other isn’t always other. Sometimes we recognize that we are, ourselves, the other. This is what travel teaches us: being the other.
When we first visit an unfamiliar country — and I do here mean country and not necessarily nation-state — everything feels not just odd, but random, unaccountable, almost irrational. One does not know the traditions, customs, expectations, intentions, and the rituals of daily life that shape our way of thinking and hence our way of acting. In a foreign country, the ordinary business of life is different in every detail. But it is important to see that it is the details and the details only that differ. Even as we are puzzled by the differences in detail between our life at home and the lives lived by foreign nationals at home, we see that the overall structures of life are recognizably the same.
Here in Norway, even though it is the land of my forefathers, and I know more of the customs here than in, for example, Peru, I am nevertheless The Other. I am different because I do not know what to say, what to do, or when to do it. But I know that everyone everywhere in the world satisfies those needs of life dictated by the human condition. The human condition remains the same (or I could say that it is invariant), even as the details of meeting the needs of that condition are a diverse as the ways of life to be found around the globe.
As a result, the ignorant traveler bumbles through the business of ordinary life in a foreign country, though the business of ordinary life feels quite extraordinary. The extraordinariness of the everyday is another familiar feature of travel, and this can be expressed in ways that are both illuminating and embarrassing. One goes to the grocery store, and one makes a fool of oneself. One stands in line to buy a ticket, and finds upon arriving at the window that one has stood in the wrong line. One makes the simplest of mistakes at every turn, and in so doing the air of competence and assurance that we have at home going about the ordinary business of life is shaken, if it is not in fact ripped away from us and we stand naked before the world.
And then, in the midst of this discombobulation, there enters the sublime: although this is perhaps the reason for one’s travel, one’s confusion by now has driven the object of touristic interest from one’s mind… but only until it catches up with us, and in the midst of our confusion we are stopped in our tracks by a vision of the world that makes our bumbling and confusion and discombobulation seem utterly irrelevant. And it is.
All of this is to say that today I toured around Bergen for a while, taking in the Hanseatic Museum I have long wanted to see, and the Bryggen Museum, both of which were interesting and excellent museums. At 4:30 pm my sister and I took a boat from the Bergen quay to Florø, north of Bergen. The boat wound through the rocky, forests islands of the fjord coast of Norway that one sees from the air when flying into Bergen. I neither read nor wrote during the comfortable journey because the scenery was so fascinating. To call it beautiful does not do it justice.
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