Thursday


Gotland 4

Stockholm, as I noted previously, has been called the “Summer City,” and its enviable position on the coast, extending out into the Baltic by way of a chain of islands . In so far as the Stockholm archipelago is an extension of Stockholm, we might call the Stockholm archipelago the “summer islands.” Certainly for me the Stockholm archipelago turned out to be the “summer islands,” as my time here consisted of bright, clear, sunny skies without a cloud in sight — pleasantly warm, but not hot, even during high summer in mid-August. That is weather than I can appreciate, as anything hotter than Stockholm would probably be uncomfortable for me.

Gotland 6

When my sister and I initially planned this trip we had another itinerary in mind, but plans change, as they tend to do, and we opted for islands, as neither of us had visited the Stockholm archipelago but had heard of it throughout our lives. Our travel in the Stocholm archipelago took us to islands as small as that of the Kasallet, off Vaxholm, and the small island where we ate lunch when we rented a boat (either of which could be walked around in ten minutes), to the mid-sized Sandhamn, which it took two or three hours to walk the circumference, and lastly to Gotland, which would probably take days to circumambulate. Interestingly, diminutive Sandhamn also had a tiny town, which was more like a village. Larger Gotland has Visby, which is a good sized town which could perhaps be called a city. And Stockholm, which is on the mainland, is much larger than these others. It is almost as though the familiar principle of island biogeography, that species confined to an island tend to evolve into smaller sizes, also holds for cities.

Tennyson would have recognized this flower in the crannied wall of Visby's ruins.

Tennyson would have recognized this flower in the crannied wall of Visby’s ruins.

Visby is large enough and old enough to have had an eventful and colorful history. I would compare it to the role of Cyprus or Malta in the Mediterranean: it is a strategic crossroads of the Baltic that has tempted many invaders and occupiers over time. And the usually peaceful Hanseatic League, which was primarily interested in trade, here got entangled in an urban/rural conflict that led to open battle for control of the island.

Gotland 5

I have mentioned several times that Visby is sometimes called “the city of roses and ruins.” Of course, there are cities all over Europe with picturesque ruins of town walls and great buildings. After a certain time in history, town walls were no longer relevant to defense, and later still became an impediment to growth. This explains the ruined town walls throughout Europe. Usually, when we see a large number of ruined buildings in a concentrated area, there is a good reason for it, even if we don’t know the reason. Many people who travel to England view the many ruined abbeys and monasteries there, without realizing that their number is the direct result of Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries and expropriating their lands and revenues for the crown. Elsewhere, where there are entire ruined towns or cities, there is a traumatic story behind how an entire urban area fell into ruin.

A ruined carving from a ruined gravestone in a ruined church in Visby.

A ruined carving from a ruined gravestone in a ruined church in Visby.

In Visby, I was unable to discover any single, unified reason for the large number of large ruins in with the old walled city itself. Each ruin has a plaque in both Swedish and English that describes the building, and a little about its history and had it came to be abandoned. While the stories were similar, they did not point to a single historical cause.

...and more ruins...

…and more ruins…

It is almost as though the Gotlanders had simply lost interest and allowed these great churches to decay and fall into disrepair, then ruin — much as contemporary Europe has largely lost interest in its religious tradition and is, for all intents and purposes, secularized (an historical category now held in low esteem, but one that I would like to rehabilitate). Europe remains today a post-Christian remnant of Christendom. Did the Gotlanders get there first? Was Visby an (unexpected) glimpse of the secular future of Europe? The displays in the Gotlands Museum emphasized the wealth and prosperity of Visby during the middle ages, and wealth is often if not always an occasion for the development of high culture and advanced ideas. Now, I am not seriously suggesting this as an historical interpretation, but it is an interesting idea to play with.

Gotland 10

Below is a picture of me in one of Visby’s ruins, looking for all the world like a Caspar David Friedrich painting. It is also interesting to play with the idea of ruins in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, in which ruined churches in particular play a prominent role. Many art critics have seen romanticist symbolism in this portrayal, but perhaps Friedrich was simply fascinated by ruins. (And was Albert Speer influenced by Friedrich in his Ruinenwerttheorie?) Perhaps the Gotlanders allowed their ruins to stand rather than clearing them away because they found them to be beautiful in their ruined state.

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Gotland 7

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Caspar David Friedrich, Klosterfriedhof im Schnee

Caspar David Friedrich, Klosterfriedhof im Schnee

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The Technology of Living

28 August 2013

Wednesday


Gotland 1

Variations on a Theme of Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier famously (or notoriously, depending upon your point of view) said that a house is a machine for living in (“Une maison est une machine-à-habiter”). This appears in his manifesto of modern architecture Vers une architecture of 1923 (which has been translated as Towards a New Architecture and more recently as Toward an Architecture), and it would be worthwhile to consider the context in which Le Corbusier made this assertion. It appears at least three times in Le Corbusier’s book, as follows, first in the opening “Argument” of the book:

“The airplane is the product of close selection. The lesson of the airplane lies in the logic which governed the statement of the problem and its realization. The problem of the house has not yet been stated. Nevertheless there do exist standards for the dwelling house. Machinery contains in itself the factor of economy, which makes for selection. The house is a machine for living in.” (p. 4)

In the section, “Eyes which Do Not See” (elaborating on the “argument” given above), Le Corbusier wrote:

“A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on.” (p. 95)

And again in the last essay, “Mass Production Houses,” Le Corbusier wrote:

“‘Citrohan’ (not to say Citroën). That is to say, a house like a motor-car, conceived and carried out like an omnibus or a ship’s cabin. The actual needs of the dwelling can be formulated and demand their solution. We must fight against the old-world house, which made a bad use of space. We must look upon the house as a machine for living in or as a tool.” (p.240)

What Le Corbusier was reacting against in his manifesto was the traditional European house, the old-world house, as it calls it. It is probably pointless to ask if a manifesto is right or wrong, as it is the nature of a manifesto to be polemical, i.e., rhetorical, and therefore not meant to be held to standards of logic or reason applicable elsewhere. It is probably more helpful to go into the detail of what Le Corbusier was condemning in the traditional house: citing his litany of “Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene” we can obtain, by way of the via negativa, his image of the traditional house. In many respects, Le Corbusier was completely justified. Let me try to explain.

I have mentioned in past posts by interest in seeking out open-air museums in Europe. Last year I mentioned the Hardanger open-air museum at Utne and the Sogn open-air museum near Sogndal. Today I visited an open-air museum in the north of Gotland at Bunge, the Bungemuseet, which not only collects many traditional houses and rural industrial buildings together, but also includes many picture stones as I mentioned yesterday.

The traditional houses preserved in open-air museums have a certain kind of rustic beauty, though this may not correspond to Le Corbusier’s canon of “beauty in the sense of good proportion.” I admit I am fascinated by these old houses, and take any opportunity I have to visit them. But as much as I am enthralled by them, I can see that Le Corbusier was right. If you have never lived in an old house you may not understand what Le Corbusier is talking about when he writes of, “warmth at will,” but I can assure you from personal experience that older, drafty houses heated by woodstoves do not give warmth at will. Most houses today do give warmth at will, so people have forgotten what a great advance over the past this is.

As for the rest of Le Corbusier’s litany, these houses had no running water, much less hot and cold running water. They had no indoor bathrooms, showers, or bathtubs. The Windows are small and dim, letting in little light. Their kitchens have no modern conveniences or appliances, so there was no conservation of food. Le Corbusier focused on the needs of the body, but the needs of the mind are equally wanting. When I look around these cramped homes in which people like my ancestors lived, I realize how little intellectual stimulation they had. Even in the midst of civilization, it seems, having entered into a social contract, life can be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” — in Hobbes’ famous phrase — but it was not likely solitary. People had to live closely packed together just to survive.

It is always humbling to me to see the conditions under which our ancestors lived, and to reflect how far we have come, and how quickly. But I also observe the remarkable level of technology involved in even the most rudimentary dwelling, and the way of life it implies. If a house is a machine for living in, as Le Corbusier said, then different houses are different machines, and each housing mechanism is integrated into a particular technology of living.

In my many visits to museums I have, example, seen many traditional spinning wheels. Some of these are very rudimentary and easy to understand, but the later ones from the 19th century, before the industrial revolution rendered then all obsolete, are quite complex and could only be operated by someone with a significant level of skill and knowledge in this particular technology. I suspect that if a person started with the simplest spinning wheel and used it for a while, the limitations would become obvious over time, and you might begin to see how and why the additional complexities were introduced; one might, in this fashion, ontogenetically reconstruct the phylogeny of a technology.

An entire house, even a traditional house, as a machine for living in, is like the spinning wheel, and to live in a house according to the way of life for which it was designed is to understand why it was built in the way it was built. But we don’t get to live in the houses and rooms we see in museums; we observe them briefly, and so we do not really understand them.

The Gotland open-air museum also displayed a large number of structures associated with rural industries, including an unusual wind-driven saw. Most of these mechanisms were beyond being brought back into service, although I turned the crank on one old mechanism and its wooden teeth and gears still meshed perfectly and I suspect the machine was still useable. But I didn’t know what it was for; I didn’t understand its function. These several literally “cottage” industries all involved the production of the most basic necessities of life — the production of food and clothing — and the industrial processes behind them were surprisingly complex, involving many stages of production and specialized workers. The lives of these workers, in turn, would have reflected their involvement with the industries they have masters. Rural characters such as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker — not to mention the blacksmith, the carpenter, and the miller — are as familiar in the stories we still retain from those times as the social roles of today that represent industrialized society (banker, salesman, clerk, mechanic, etc.).

This made me think of the Vasa warship that I recently saw in Stockholm, which was not only enormous, but also a highly specialized and intricate piece of technology. If you took a few hundred intelligent and and educated persons of today and put them on the Vasa as its crew, they literally would not even know where to begin to get the ship underway. Our advanced technology and engineering knowledge does not replace or supersede the technological and engineering knowledge of our ancestors; we could no more cope with their world than they could cope with ours — though either, given the time, could learn the life of the other.

The technologies of living are many and various; the lives of individuals are integrated into a technology of living that is adapted to their place and time, and houses in which they individuals live are both technologies in and of themselves as well as being integrated into a wider technological context. What is this wider technological context? Adam Smith’s famous example of the woolen coat furnishes us with the perfect example of technological synchrony.

Here is a typically longish paragraph from Smith, which I have not quoted in its entirety, but I have quoted at sufficient length to give a proper appreciate for Smith’s conception:

“The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country? How much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world? What a variety of labour, too, is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brickmaker, the bricklayer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the millwright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them. Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress and household furniture, the coarse linen shirt which he wears next his skin, the shoes which cover his feet, the bed which he lies on, and all the different parts which compose it, the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals, the coals which he makes use of for that purpose, dug from the bowels of the earth, and brought to him, perhaps, by a long sea and a long land-carriage, all the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his victuals, the different hands employed in preparing his bread and his beer, the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the wind and the rain, with all the knowledge and art requisite for preparing that beautiful and happy invention, without which these northern parts of the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation, together with the tools of all the different workmen employed in producing those different conveniencies…”

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chap. I

If we think through Smith’s imaginative litany of craftsmen, and reflect on the fact that such a list could be made much longer and with much greater detail, we can better understand how technological change introduced within this complex synchronic web of inter-dependencies must of necessity only slowly make its impact felt throughout the whole system of production. However, all of these innovations are occurring in the same parallel, synchronic fashion, and these collected innovations incrementally affecting the whole slowly lead to changes to the whole, though it is difficult in the extreme of indicate any one point of transition. The temptation is to identify and name a decisive point of transition, but this is a falsification of history.

Our lives, and the mechanisms by which we live it — our technology of living, as it were — are as integrated into a technological context as were the lives of our ancestors. These technologies are very different, so different in fact that it is difficult to discern the underlying continuity that led from the one to the other, but it was countless small changes that added up to the transition from the subsistence agriculture of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to the escalating production powers of industrial-technological civilization.

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Gotland 3

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A Passage to Gotland

27 August 2013

Tuesday


Visby 1

After a night in Stockholm my sister and I booked passage on a ship to Gotland. This requires a bus journey of about an hour to the ferry landing and then the ferry passage itself which took several hours. We were off the ship on Gotland before 3:00 pm and walked to our room in the oldest part of visby, still surrounded by its medieval walls. Visby, the largest city on Gotland, is sometimes called “The City of Roses and Ruins,” and indeed within minutes of arrival both roses and ruins are to be seen.

Though Visby is not large by any measure, it has a very interesting museum with a widely ranging collection that points to the historical significance of Gotland. There is an excellent collection of prehistorical “picture stones,” which are unique to Gotland and which date to immediately prior to the Viking period of Scandinavian history. …

There is also a display relating to the Battle of Visby in 1361, when rural Gotlanders rebelled against the growing control of Visby by the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League was essentially a transnational corporation of the late medieval period which operated around the cities of the Baltic, much as the commerce of the Roman Empire operated around the cities of the Mediterranean (I wrote about the Hanseatic League last year when I visited the Hanseatic museum in Bergen, Norway, which was another major depot for the Hansa). The remains of soldiers killed in the Battle of Visby were interred in a mass grave, still in their armor, and the excavation of this mass grave of medieval war casualties has provided significant historical knowledge about medieval arms and armor and the kind of damaged inflicted on the human body in such combat. This has been made famous by John Keegan’s book, The Face of Battle, since a picture of a skull in chainmail is used for the cover the paperback edition.

In addition to these finds, there is also a wide range of other material on the history of Gotland and Visby, including Viking treasure hoards and a striking medieval baptismal font.

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A wooden equestrian statue from the Gotlands Museum.

A wooden equestrian statue from the Gotlands Museum.

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Sandhamn to Stockholm

26 August 2013

Monday


sandhamn 4

The day began on Sandhamn, and a beautiful day it was — a perfect day for a walk on the beach. So my sister and I set out to circumambulate Sandhamn. Sandhamn is large enough to do a complete walk around in a couple of hours, which is about what it took us. Much of the center of the island is covered in a pine forest, while houses dot the shoreline and extend a little way inland. Besides the main gravel path across the island there are numerous trails that lead through the pine forest. Some of the waterfront is private and fenced off, but quite a bit of it is accessible beach (perhaps half or more). It was a good walk, but left both of of feeling tired walking in the sand and loose gravel.

sandhamn ferry

After circumambulating the island it was time for us to go, so we boarded the ferry back to Stockholm and in two hours are back in the heart of Stockholm. Having started in Stockholm and then headed out to Vaxholm and Sandhamn in the Sotckholm archipelago, Stockholm now stands out more clearly in my mind as a result of the contrast. Sandhamn is a typical island community that is centered on the boat traffic that is its lifeline; it is about as small as a community can be and still have some identifiable sense of community. Stockholm is larger by many orders of magnitude. Stockholm is not only one of the great European capitals, renowned for its museums, its history, its cityscape, and its cuisine, Stockholm is also a global city. All the peoples of the world can be seen — and heard — on the streets of Stockholm, which has a decidedly international flavor. While this is obvious prima facie, it is all the more obvious now that I compare it to the intensely local character of life on Sandhamn.

Stockholm 16

Speaking of the cuisine of a world-class city like Stockholm, I should mention that despite Stockholm being an essentially global city, it still retains a traditional Swedish character, and part of this character is expressed in its cuisine. There are, in Stockholm today, many ethnic restaurants, many fast food establishments, and probably a great many restaurants serving what has come to be called “international” food. Yet there are also some traditional Swedish restaurants, and among these I want to particularly mention Den Gyldene Freden. This restaurant has been in operation in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan since 1722. My sister found it when researching restaurants in Stockholm, so we made a point of going there.

Stockholm 17

My dinner at Den Gyldene Freden was not only excellent — I had traditional Swedish meatballs — but also turned out to be a personal and even a sentimental experience. Let me try to explain. During my formative years, my maternal grandmother did a lot of cooking for my sisters and me. (My grandmother stands in that maternal line of mitochondrial DNA going directly back to Sweden that I mentioned in The Land of My Foremothers.) My grandmother made a distinctive brown bread that I particularly enjoyed. When my sister and I ate at Den Gyldene Freden the server brought round an overflowing basket of bread from which we could choose. Both of us choose the brown bread, and as soon as I tasted it I said to my sister, “This is exactly the same taste as the brownbread that our grandmother made.” My sister tasted her piece of brown bread and agreed.

Stockholm 18

The particular dishes and cooking specialties prepared by a particular individual are, like Shakespeare noted of personal virtues, oft interred with their bones. We retain in memory something of the taste of foods we assume we will never taste again, just as we retain in memory the likes the the dislikes, the interests and preferences, the personal quirks and eccentricities of the dead. And then we see a descendent who, in some offhand gesture or attitude, surprises us in their perfect resemblance to the deceased. I have just experienced the culinary equivalent of this: it is as though my grandmother were briefly present again in the taste of the brown bread at Den Gyldene Freden. If I have managed to convey this experience, you will understand that this was more than merely a meal to me.

Stockholm 19

It was a beautiful evening in Stockholm, and as we walked in Gamla Stan after this memorable meal we took pictures of the sights of the city in the late twilight.

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Vaxholm to Sandhamn

25 August 2013

Sunday


Sandhamn 2

Today we took the same ferry line that got us from Stockholm to Vaxholm farther out into the Stockholm archipelago. The ferry terminates at Sandhamn, which is a small island without paved roads and mostly without cars (I saw one car). There are gravel walking paths covering the island, and there isn’t really much point in having a car here, since everything is within a 20 minute walk.

Sandhamn 3

Most of the islands of the Stockholm archipelago are rocky, but Sandhamn has a couple of small sandy beaches. The port feels very much like a beach town that does a significant trade with boaters. Boating seems to be the primary activity here, with the harbor filled with sailing boats and power yachts. There is one large hotel and several restaurants.

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Saturday


Vaxholm 1

In my recent work on the expansion of civilization it has become increasingly obvious to me that transportation technology plays a central role in civilization, and that it will continue to do so in of the foreseeable future. While human agency involves an ideal freedom to make of itself what it chooses (unless one is a determinist), and this is the ideal sense of freedom that Sartre often emphasized in his writings (and also the ideal sense of freedom I tried to outline in a recent online conversation), ideal freedom is constrained in fact by the capacities of the human body. In terms of transportation, this means that your desire to travel wherever you like is limited to where your legs can carry you — and before hominids adopted bipedalism, it was limited to where your arms could take you in the treetops.

In response to the human, all-too-human constraints imposed on our movement (and therefore upon our freedom) we have created technologies that have served the function of making our actual freedom of movement more closely approximate our ideal freedom of movement. In respect to transportation technology, in the whole of history it would be difficult to name a more momentous breakthrough than that of the canoe. It was with a combination of walking and canoeing that hominids settled the entire Earth. Later, we integrated the whole of the Earth through technologies that made travel more rapid and more comfortable — the sailing ship, the bicycle, the train, the automobile, the airplane, and the spaceship. All of these technologies have advanced civilization while allowing actual human freedom to more closely approximate ideal freedom, and this relationship between freedom and the expansion of civilization is rarely appreciated.

Vaxholm 3

Even today, in the 21st century, the degrees of freedom one enjoys is predicated upon the transportation technologies to which one has access. If you are limited to walking, you can see a lot, but you can see much more in the same period of time if you have a bicycle, and much more yet if you have access to a car. But any of these technologies will still mean that you halt at the water’s edge, and given that the majority of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, your freedom is significantly constrained by being limited to travel on land.

And so it is in the Stockholm archipelago, which consists of thousands of islands. Not to be able to travel on the water here is a palpable and immediate limitation of freedom. Looking out over the Stockholm archipelago one sees not only countless little islands, but also a swarm of small boats connecting these islands together. Wanting to experience this for ourselves, my sister and I rented a boat in Vaxholm and added another degree of freedom to our travel in Sweden by taking to the water of the Stockholm archipelago and passing almost effortlessly between the many islands within easy reach of Vaxholm — even stopping at an island restaurant to have lunch among the pine trees with no sign of any car in sight.

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Vaxholm 2

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Stockholm to Vaxholm

23 August 2013

Friday


Stockholm 14 small

It began as a beautiful morning in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan. The sun was bright and the sky clear, but the air in Scandinavia never has that hot feeling that one finds in summer elsewhere in the world. I haven’t experienced a summer in the farthest reaches of the southern hemisphere, but I suspect that it is not unlike this.

Swedish meatballs in Sweden!

Swedish meatballs in Sweden!

After a walk around the central square of Gamla Stan, with its stately and colorful houses and its fountain, my sister and I left our hotel and made our way to the ferry landing for the boats that go to the Stockholm archipelago. Stockholm itself is made up of a series of islands connected by bridges, and leaving Stockholm by this waterway was remarkably beautiful. Beyond the islands of Stockholm proper, there are literally thousands of islands — some only a few rocks thrusting up from the Baltic, while others range from large enough for a single house to many square miles.

The restaurant in Vaxholm where we had lunch.

The restaurant in Vaxholm where we had lunch.

The Stockholm archipelago is where the Swedes themselves go to vacation in the summer, and it is filled with quaint vacation cottages and countless boats winding their way among the islands. Because of its popularity, it can be quite difficult to get a room here, especially on a summer weekend. If you come in the summer, book well in advance and make an effort to decipher the ferry schedules so that you know you can get to where you’re going in the time you have.

If you're going to get around the Stockholm archipelago, you'd need to take a ferry or two.

If you’re going to get around the Stockholm archipelago, you’d need to take a ferry or two.

Our initial foray into the Stockholm archipelago only took us as far as Vaxholm, which is less than an hour’s ferry ride from central Stockholm. Vaxholm is connected by roads and bridges, so it is possible to drive here, or even to take mass transit to this pleasant little town with a great many restaurants on the harborfront. But we took a boat taxi across a narrow channel to the next island over where we are staying at the Kastellet Bed & Breakfast, which is another historical trace of the Vasa dynasty.

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Thursday


Stockholm 11

Today I had an interesting visit to the Swedish Royal Armory Museum, or Livrustkammaren, which preserves relics from Sweden’s apogee as a military power in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. More than merely a military museum, the Livrustkammaren is an exercise in the advent of historical consciousness. It is the oldest museum in Sweden, and has its origins in the command of King Gustav II Adolph in 1628 to preserve his clothes from his campaign in Poland. The website of the museum says:

Here you will also find historic items such as the blood-stained shirts and buff jerkin which Gustavus Adolphus was wearing when he was killed in the battle at Lützen (Germany) in 1632. The costume worn by Gustavus III when he was assassinated at a masqued ball at the Royal Opera in 1792 is also on display, as is the uniform worn by Charles XII when he was killed in the trenches at Fredrikshald (Norway) in 1718.

The year the museum was established, 1628, was the same year that the Vasa warship sank on its maiden voyage. It is interesting to note that this ship, replete with its many symbols of imperial dynastic rule — including medallions of Roman emperors — was built (and, unfortunately for the crown, sunk) at the same time that Gustav II Adolf ordered the preservation of his blood-stained clothing from his military campaign in Poland. This was a monarch who was not only thinking of military triumphs and personal glory, but also obviously concerned with his place in history — a concern that extended to historical preservation and invoking the symbols of Roman imperial rule.

Stockholm 12

Textiles are, apparently, more easily preserved than ships, and so the first bequest that created the Swedish Royal Armory Museum is still on display. It took rather longer to refine the technique of preserving ships, but the attempted preservation of ships has an interesting history. This preservation history is an exercise in historical consciousness — and also, as it turns out, the source of a perennial paradox of Western philosophy. The Athenians attempted to preserve the ship of Theseus, and this attempted preservation in the interest of ancient Greek historical consciousness — did not the Greeks invent the genre of history? — resulted in the paradox that is now synonymous with the Ship of Theseus. Here is what Plutarch said of the attempted preservation of the Ship of Theseus:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

After Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation, his ship, The Golden Hind, was put on display in Deptford and remained so for a hundred years until it rotted away — apparently the English were not as keen as the Greeks in their attempted curation. Now we have the example of the Vasa, which was not nearly so seaworthy as The Golden Hind, but which first preserved in the icy waters of Stockholm harbor for more than 300 years, and now preserved by the techniques of contemporary science and technology, and may be so preserved indefinitely, as long as the infrastructure of industrial-technological civilization shall endure to maintain the Vasa in existence in its present form. The Vasa’s technologically-enabled preservation (and even sempiternity) is another way in which scientific historiography contributes to growing historical consciousness, and makes the Vasa, which was not seaworthy, “history-worthy,” i.e., seaworthy on the ocean of history.

Stockholm 13

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Wednesday


The center of Gamla Stan in Stockholm.

The center of Gamla Stan in Stockholm.

Last year in The Land of My Forefathers I noted my connection to Norway through my father. Just as the unbroken genetic line of my Y chromosome goes directly back to Norway, so the unbroken genetic line of my mitochondrial DNA goes directly back to Sweden (Småland, to be specific), thus concentrating my genetic heritage entirely in the Scandinavian continent — before it came to there from sunnier, southern climes. Why would anyone choose to leave the sunny south for the cold north?

A parade of Swedish horsemen in Gamla Stan by the Royal Palace.

A parade of Swedish horsemen in Gamla Stan by the Royal Palace.

That branch of the human family that left Africa and made its way north over thousands of years to the farthest northern extreme of the Eurasian landmass must have been among the most peripatetic of human beings — like the peoples of Siberia who crossed over to the Western Hemisphere and made it all the way to the tip of South America, or the Polynesians who populated the islands of the South Pacific, as isolated in the vastness of the ocean as the stars are isolated in the vastness of space. These intrepid peoples, having placed themselves, like extremophiles, at the ends of the Earth, began the process of incipient speciation, until the advent of civilization preempted this incipient speciation by effectively abrogating the geographical barriers that, in the past, would have resulted in allopatric speciation. The Scandinavians went on later in their history to further demonstrate their wanderlust when they passed beyond the known limits of the world and during the medieval climatic optimum (when conditions were favorable) took their ships to the Western Hemisphere as well as throughout the Old World.

Bernt Notke's Saint George and the Dragon in Stockholm's Storkyrka.

Bernt Notke’s Saint George and the Dragon in Stockholm’s Storkyrka.

Hundreds of years later, during the Little Ice Age, when the Scandinavians had been domesticated and civilized by Christianity, and it must have been very cold indeed in Stockholm, a remarkable piece of sculpture was commissioned in Stockholm — Saint George and the Dragon as “re-imagined” by Berndt Notke (also spelled “Bernt Notke”), completed in 1489. I say “re-imagined” as this is the current Hollywood term for adapting an old story to new circumstances, or simply tampering with the narrative. Outside Hollywood, folklore is defined by the existence of variants of a story, and the legend of Saint George and the Dragon is folklore if anything is folklore. Most scholars doubt that the legend even has a basis in fact, but it has engendered some wonderful art, of which the sculpture in Stockholm is, to my mind, the most astonishing instance. While aspects of this sculpture are identifiably medieval — the impassivity of Saint George even in the moment he is killing the dragon (when he should be straining and sweating) reminds me of the Saint George and the Dragon sculpture in Prague — in other respects the sculpture is so fantastic as to exemplify every idea of medieval fantasy. While the greater part of the Middle Ages was nothing like this, it is possible that this is a fragment of that florid world, like the castles we see in the background of the paintings of the Brothers Limbourg.

The motif of Saint George and the Dragon repeated elsewhere in the Storkyrka in another medium.

The motif of Saint George and the Dragon repeated elsewhere in the Storkyrka in another medium.

The explanation of the legend accompanying the sculpture said that a dragon was demanding human sacrifices from the town of Selene, but when the day came that the king’s daughter was to be sacrificed, Saint George chanced by, and told the townsfolk that if they would all convert to Christianity he would slay the dragon and save the princess. They did, she lived, and the dragon was killed. Montaigne said that he would as like light a candle to the dragon as to Saint George (actually, now that I look up the reference, I see that it was Saint Michael, but the sentiment remains the same: “…I could easily for a neede bring a candle to Saint Michaell, and another to his Dragon…”), which is my attitude. One can see in this legend an explanation and a rationalization of Christian conversion (with its attendant abandonment of old gods, which had previously defined the identity of a people), and I think this is part of the currency of the legend throughout Christendom, but not all of it. Dragons are symbols of existential risk. A people faced by a dragon face a calamity for which there is no apparent mitigation but for the most drastic of measures, as in human sacrifice. Human sacrifice is, on one level, a catastrophic loss of identity, which is what communities faced in their conversion to Christianity, but also in the face of any existential threat. Under the extreme regionalism, if not localism, of medieval life, an entire community might be wiped out by a famine or a plague or a natural disaster; existential threat was never far. Dragons symbolized the unknown fear of a world that might turn against one at any time. The myth of Saint George and the Dragon gave elaborate detail and realism to the vague threat of unknown calamities, making them concrete and making it possible to weave the narrative of such existential threats into the history and thus the consciousness of the people.

The vasa, disinterred from its watery grave and now proudly displayed despite its initial calamity.

The vasa, disinterred from its watery grave and now proudly displayed despite its initial calamity.

Calamities of all kinds attend the human condition. I also visited the Vasa museum, which I might well say is the most impressive museum I have ever seen, containing the nearly pristine bulk of the warship Vasa — pristine because it sank on its maiden voyage of 1628, only to be raised 333 years later, re-floated, and installed in this enormous building. The building has to be enormous because the ship is enormous. If you stand near the back of the ship and look up at its bulk towering several stories above it is difficult to believe how such a construction could be undertaken in the 17th century, with wood and the most basic tools — no electricity, no CAD, no concrete drydock, no construction crane of steel, no modern capitalization or management. And still today in the 21st century the ship impresses, if not intimidates.

Unbelievably ornate bas-relief carvings on the Vasa.

Unbelievably ornate bas-relief carvings on the Vasa.

At the beginning of his television series Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clark stands in front of Notre Dame de Paris and says that he can’t define civilization, but that he knows it when he sees it. For Clark, Notre Dame exemplifies civilization. If I could “re-imagine” Clark’s television series — something, by the way, I would love to do — i might start here at the Vasa museum, and with the towering warship behind me say that I can’t yet define civilization (though I’m working on it) but I know it when I see it, and certainly the Vasa exemplifies civilization. And I would go on to add that everything that I admire about civilization — the art, the technology, the mastery of difficult tasks, and the human ambition it represents — as well as everything about civilization that makes me despair — the extremes of social hierarchy, entitlement and privilege for the few, routinely repressive societies, the horror of war, and, again, the human ambition and hubris that the Vasa represents — are all found together in the Vasa. Here we find a social embodiment of the home truth that the best and worst qualities of an individual are often precisely the same.

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Stockholm!

20 August 2013

Tuesday


Certainly not the best picture of me, but proof that I made it to Stockholm.

Certainly not the best picture of me, but proof that I made it to Stockholm.

After my hectic turnaround of yesterday, returning to Portland from Dallas on Sunday 18 August and leaving again the next day on Sunday 19 August, I have made it to Stockholm, by way of Amsterdam. One good thing about this tight turnaround is that all this riding on airplanes gave me time to think about the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress that I just attended, and as I thought about what I had heard there I took many pages of notes, some of which will, in the fullness of time, become posts here. Both the congress and my subsequent reflection on its proceedings have made me aware of many refinements and improvements that need to be made in the material I presented, as well as projects that I have been working on related to the proceedings of the Congress.

Stockholm 2

Now I must re-orientate myself intellectually from this intense focus on spaceflight to a more general openness to the world, which is what I believe that travel is, at its best. Sometimes the best way to travel is to throw yourself in and let what you see and hear teach you. This isn’t a very systematic way to travel, and in the past I have studied my destinations quite carefully. While I have a little background knowledge of Sweden and Stockholm, having previously visited Sweden in my first trip in Europe in 1988 and again in 2005, I haven’t spent the time I would like to spend in preparation, so I will try to make a virtue of my lack of preparation by adopting the attitude just described of throwing myself into the milieu and learning what I can. I recently mentioned my similar experiences in Uruguay, where I only learned of the school of Uruguayan constructivist painting as I was leaving the country. A reason to return.

Stockholm 3

So here I am, in Stockholm, in medias res, looking forward to some sightseeing tomorrow after my initial walk about Gamla Stan this evening. And it was a beautiful evening. The moon was nearly full and hung low and large in the sky, reflecting on Stockholm harbor, and yielding countless picture-taking opportunities. I wish I had had the strength on such a beautiful night to take a walk of many hours around the city at night, as I did earlier this year in Montevideo and which I like to do in a city in order to explore on foot and get my bearings. My initial walk from Stockholm central station to my hotel in Gamla Stan was a typically confused tourist walk, where I went down one street and then another, reading street signs, comparing them to my map, and then finally getting myself pointed in the right direction. This can be hard work with luggage, but it was a nice day and, once again, I learned something from the experience.

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Stockholm 4

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