Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Tagore for Tired Times

Perhaps the virile poet has something to say to this tired age of scams and shams...

Do we hear him amidst the noise? 

Aseem Shrivastava

On the anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore's death, Aseem Shrivastava helps us to look  into the heart of a man who was both a simple poet and a remarkably insightful social commentator.

“The stars are not afraid to appear as fireflies.” - Rabindranath Tagore

The simple is never easy. It hides under the many skins we grow as we navigate our lives. No path leads towards it, though many roads emanate from it. Thus its elusiveness, but also its suggestive, natural beauty.

One who is intimate with the simple is sometimes known to humanity as a poet. He embodies wholeness and thus manifests simplicity. He is able to express infinitely complex thoughts or feelings because he approaches the Truth with empty hands. Life chooses him as its lips because he finds his strength in his ignorance. Because he knows how to listen, he is able to speak.


Such a man was Rabindranath Tagore.

First, consider this. Overweening social custom leads Rabindranath into marriage to an 11-year-old girl. His elder sister-in-law, who had been in love with him, commits suicide soon thereafter. By the time he reaches his forties, he loses his wife, and two children as well. What must this man not have suffered!

Later, he would write: “death belongs to life as birth does.” And again, “I have learnt the simple meaning of your whispers in flowers and sunshine – teach me to know your words in pain and death.” Rabindranath found the strength to bear the cruel blows of life by seeking in them the disguised messages of an ultimately benevolent creator. Furthermore, he had the rare faith and fortitude to embrace his sufferings and sorrows dearly enough to find the strength to share those of others.

In Rabindranath’s case cataclysmic personal losses yielded an astonishing harvest of creativity. Some mysterious force of divine justice must be at work, for he found the courage to live to the age of 80 and left behind over 20,000 pages of literature, thousands of songs and hundreds of paintings. No one can do this without being inspired by an unshakeable faith over an entire lifetime. Something much larger than life spoke through Rabindranath. The polymath was also a pilgrim, the kind of man they perhaps stopped making some generations ago.

Tagore is better understood when placed in the perspective of the long line of musicians, poets, artists and philosophers who took their inspiration from the medieval Bhakti tradition – which itself has older roots in the Sub-continental past. Not only did he read and translate Kabir, there are repeated references in his writings to the legacy of Mira, Nanak, Chaitanya and Tukaram. He also learnt much from Lallan Fakir and the Baul musicians of Bengal.

All his life Tagore was accused of wearing his heart on his sleeve – as though that was the crime, while hiding one’s heart behind countless layers of expected hypocrisies was the way to be! In an age rendered blind by a cruel and cowardly one-eyed reason, Tagore was a rare genius of the heart, whose natural authenticity and integrity meant that he had no use for the footnotes and references that scholars typically rest their careers and reputations on. Poems, after all, do not have their origin in other people’s thoughts and experiences. Their birthplace is the free spirit of humanity. Rabindranath was a seer, not a scholar, a visionary, not an intellectual. His writings are remarkably free from the ostentation of erudition which decorates the journals of academia today.


Rabindranath’s abiding concern and legacy is human freedom.

There is nothing more dangerous than the illusion of freedom, especially when it serves as a glove which masks the hand of greed and power. No one understood this great contemporary truth earlier, or better, than Tagore.

If there is one overarching meaning and mission to Tagore’s life, it is to show that the modern idea of freedom is a desperate fiction. It is a slave to power, not to Truth. Thus, the modern world can only promise freedom, but never deliver it. Tagore is never deceived into confusing mere political liberty with freedom itself: “We must never forget in the present day that those people who have got their political freedom are not necessarily free; they are merely powerful.” A man in search of freedom does not seek power. He recognizes from afar the faithless cowardice of such a quest. He seeks his destiny instead “with the living creatures that are crushed” under the wheels of power. “God grows weary of great kingdoms”, Tagore writes, “but never of little flowers.”

Such sentiments lead Tagore to an unqualified rejection of nationalism, which takes “organized selfishness…as its religion.” In fact, “the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented.” Einstein would have agreed.

The true temper of the times is evidenced in the letters people write to each other. (Today we mostly write messages across cyberspace, alas!) Much can be confided in letters that writing formally for the public cannot reveal. One of the thousands of letters of Tagore that survive is written to his friend C.F.Andrews. He writes there with even greater candor (and relevance) how he feels about the modern idea of ‘freedom’, especially as India has absorbed it from the West:

“Men of feeble faith will say that India requires to be strong and rich before she can raise her voice for the sake of the whole world. But I refuse to believe it. That the measure of man’s greatness is in his material resources is a gigantic illusion casting its shadow over the present-day world – it is an insult to man. It lies in the power of the materially weak to save the world from this illusion; and India, in spite of her penury and humiliation, can afford to come to the rescue of humanity. The freedom of unrestrained egoism in the individual is license and not true freedom…The idea of freedom which prevails in modern civilization is superficial and materialistic…”

At a time when the whole world is blindly chasing an impossible American dream, and when there are more ‘Americans’ perhaps living in India than in the US, it is appropriate to recall Tagore’s observation that “the temptation which is fatal for the strong is still more so for the weak.” The restless materialism of our day will inevitably meet its nemesis.

Only a myopic impatience, or a near-sighted cowardice, would ignore the warnings of the prophet.

Those who sing Tagore’s songs as the national anthems of India and Bangladesh would be well-advised to listen to this piece of wisdom: “it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity”. One truth that echoes throughout the writings of Rabindranath, is, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, this: the lines between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and falsehood do not run between countries, nor between religions. They actually traverse the width of our hearts. Only through a forgetful self-treachery can we afford to ignore this simple truth in the xenophobic world of today.

Not long before this 150th anniversary year of Tagore’s birth, on a visit to Communist-ruled Kolkata, I asked a friend if people still read his works. Her sardonic response was: “They are too busy worshipping him!” This, alas, appears to be his fate elsewhere in India too. The betrayal of Rabindranath is at once a betrayal of the highest values of this civilisation.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Once in Norge...

The most beautiful sea
hasn’t been crossed yet.
The most beautiful child
            hasn't grown yet.
Our most beautiful days
            we haven’t seen yet.
And the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you
            I haven’t said yet.

They've taken us prisoner,
they've locked us up:
            me inside the walls,
                        you outside.
But that's nothing.
The worst
is when people - knowingly or not -
carry prison inside themselves...
Most people have been forced to do this,
honest, hard-working, good people
who deserve to be loved as much as I love you.

- Nazim Hikmet

The Land of the Midnight Sun is a paradise in summer. But it can be a very dark place in winter. Landscapes become bleak and desolate and the sun gets stingier as Christmas approaches. Weeks can pass before you see it in its fullness again. Hearts sometimes sink and recede from each other, at least until springtime. It is easy to lapse into depression. Imaginative measures become necessary in order to counteract this tendency in the community at large.

Some years back, when I had the good fortune to teach philosophy at the Nordic United World College (UWC), a residential international junior college near Bergen on the west coast of Norway, I took the advice of a friend while visiting India over the summer. She suggested that I take back with me some colourful rugs for the philosophy classroom from Dilli Haat to lighten up proceedings during those heavy early morning lectures on Nietzsche while it was dark, cold and wet outside. I took to her idea and packed and shipped a large bundle of red and yellow rugs which, I was delighted to note, the college was happy to pay for.

With due permission from the institution, we removed the industrial factory furniture from the classroom and laid the radiant rugs on the floor. Cushions in matching hues were strewn about, making the room bright and cosy. Not only did the classroom become a popular rendezvous for meetings (and other purposes!), the impact on my classes was perceptible, if not sometimes dramatic. Both early morning attendance and participation improved, and Nietzsche’s playful, lighter side rushed to the surface to become a lively topic of discussion among students (who were earlier disturbed by his seemingly sombre embrace of suffering). There was a spurt of new interest in the teachings of Zarathustra. Suddenly, even the philosopher’s searing analysis of guilt, seen by him as “nobler than punishment”, began making sense to many – though not to all – students.

As interest in such themes grew I found myself increasingly drawn into discussions of issues around violence, crime and punishment with students outside of class. The question was not just how to address violent crime after it happens, but what it meant. We talked about the danger of isolation, of repressed emotions which slumber under the surface, turn negative, only to erupt suddenly with surprising violence. Nietzsche’s analysis of historically inherited guilt and bad conscience was examined in detail. We discussed whether revenge was the same as justice, whether retributive justice had a rightful place in law, whether punishment teaches the criminal anything (or deters potential criminals), and so on. Many celebrated the fact that the maximum punishment for any crime in Norway is 21 years (a law, some argued, Nietzsche might have liked). Others lamented the fact. All the issues were deeply contentious and any of us could be found changing positions on a day-to-day basis, especially since the College had students from around the world, with exceptional intellectual gifts and character.

Such interactions brought us closer, since the issues we were talking about were dear to everyone’s heart. What made this especially so was that these were the days of the World Trade Center attacks and the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, not to forget the revelations of torture at Guantanamo, Baghram and Abu-Ghraib. Tempers climbed high, especially on days when gory images of dying children and water-boarded prisoners hit the media. Even those who sometimes mocked at the UWC Mission, devoted to the making of a peaceful world, were drawn into campus controversies. And yet, a very large proportion of the college participated in the Feb.15 global protests against the Iraq War by attending the massive demonstration in Bergen.

One day a group of students concerned about the war and torture revelations brought out a comprehensive Factsheet, challenging much of the news (or absence of it) in the corporate media. A rival group of angry students came to me complaining about the fact that I had allowed the former to use my photocopy code to bring out their ‘propaganda’. As a teacher I had to be fair and balanced. So I gave my code to the disgruntled group, who brought out their own version of the reports of events in the Middle East. This was naturally followed by long, heated arguments and debates on campus. It gave me much satisfaction to find that more than a few students changed their opinions once they had access to the full range of relevant facts. One student in particular, wrote an excellent research paper on how the 173 newspapers controlled by the now infamous Rupert Murdoch suddenly changed their stance on the war one summer day in 2004.

I still recall the morning on which Dagsbladet, Norway’s leading daily, published on its front page an image of American troops parading two naked Iraqi men through the streets of Baghdad. I took the picture to the philosophy classroom. There was an eruption. Nietzsche was no longer just theory! 

And now…

“We are all in sorrow, everybody is scared.”
- Imran Shah, a Norwegian taxi driver of Pakistani origin

"Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave a paradise for a sect.”
-         John Keats

7 decades ago, not long before he preferred death to being captured by the Nazis, Walter Benjamin declared that “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.” The happenings in Norway last week is a resounding reminder of this advice. It does not mean that such an emergency is inevitable. On the contrary, it is a call to face the absurd conditions which make it so.

Watching and reading the news from Norway has brought a flood of emotion. It is as though a serene Arctic iceberg has suddenly expressed its long-held titanic rage. One reels with horror to realize the depth at which our fears and prejudices continue to remain hidden and do their nasty mischief periodically.

As a species, we continue to misunderstand the meaning of courage, confusing it with a cowardly masculine bravado. We are witness today not to a clash of civilizations, but to a collision of atavistic 21st century tribalisms.

Many of the discussions I had with students all those years ago have raced through the mind. When I read a report in The Sydney Morning Herald that the mass-murdering Anders Breivik trained on the war-game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, calling it “part of my training-simulation” (one is tempted to read “stimulation”), I recalled more than a few students remarking how so many young people now spend hours every day war-gaming in cyberspace. At least some of the violent crime, in their view, was traceable to the fact that people unconsciously lose their sense of the real when they are shooting down ‘snipers’ every day on their screens. Now even some right-wing groups are calling for regulation of excessively violent cyber-gaming, for the likes of Breivik, in their nihilist enthusiasm, have lost the distinction between the joystick and an M16.

Norway is one of the most open societies in Europe, especially insofar as immigration is concerned. During my four years there, I came across Pakistani cab-drivers. I became friends with Afghan refugees from the brutalized, Taliban-dominated, war-torn north of their country, who worked hard on their Nynorsk in Fjaler, and invited me to share their biryani. They were deeply grateful to Norway for giving them asylum in a time of desperate need. I met some Iraqis too, running from the everyday scare of American smart bombs.

It is remarkable for a society to make room in its primary schools for the teaching of any immigrant child’s mother tongue. And yet that is precisely what I saw; at the local Leirskule in Fjaler, special arrangements would be made to facilitate this. In some cases, the parents of such children would be invited to teach the particular language! This is an achievement that Norwegians ought to be proud of. It holds out the possibility of a democracy of cultures, something the world has never witnessed till now. Instead, the likes of Breivik violently resent such ‘multiculturalism’.

Ten percent of people living in Norway are ‘immigrants’. There are Somalis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds and many others. Such a liberal immigration policy has been criticised by the extremist Progress Party, of which Breivik was briefly a member. The Labour Party on the other hand has always supported immigration. Breivik connived to attack both the grassroots (the Youth Camp on the island Utøya) and the headquarters (in Oslo) of the Labour Party within hours on the same day, claiming the lives of scores of innocents, the bulk of them teenagers. The meaning of the attacks was clear: to strike terror in the hearts of people who stand for a Norway (and by extension, a Europe) which keeps its doors open to the world. Europe’s problems, especially unemployment and cultural decline, are falsely attributed to its loose immigration policies.

Such advocates of ‘Fortress Europe’ rarely pause to ponder the role of aggressively globalizing banks and corporations and their enormous influence over economic policies and the overall social climate. As many UWC students used to argue, one’s culture is not something which someone can just steal away, especially if you are aware where the real threat to it comes from. It does not come from having multicultural societies. (Even with significant immigration, a mere 3 percent of Norway is Muslim.)

Money and profit are practically universally accepted today as measures of social advancement and success. Commercialism, consumerism and invasive advertising, not to omit the enormous stress and unnatural fatigue of everyday work in the fiercely competitive world produced by capitalism, have done far greater damage to social cohesion and cultural traditions in every part of the world than is commonly recognized, perhaps because the media – which plays a pivotal part in the shaping of popular perceptions – is owned and managed by the very interests which must bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for the erosion of culture.

The rapidly growing commodification of social relationships entailed by the expansion of a system whose exclusive aim is profit has long been at the heart of the problem, though the Breivik bunch show no signs of this elementary recognition. Cultural loss is, more than anything else, the collateral damage of the nearly militaristic obsession with economic growth, a multi-national race which has reduced so much of human labour to mechanical meaninglessness, where it hasn’t destroyed livelihoods altogether. If so many modern cultures are losing their cohesion today it is on account of the massive and growing inequalities generated  by economic policies that have been shaped by and for globalized elites. When the causes of discontent lie so close to home they elude the eyes of people like Breivik.

The events of last week also put paid to the deep-seated prejudice that all terrorism is the handiwork of Islamic radicals. Some of the world media, especially in the US, but also in places like India, has been overtly or otherwise presenting a view of the world in which “all terrorists are Muslims, even if all Muslims are not terrorists”, a view beholden to Christian and Hindu radicals alike. Now, after last week’s massacre we learn, yet again, an old truth. Hate and terror cut across cultural differences, rendering them secondary before a much deeper, shared, universal feeling about the senseless insanity of political violence. This is the single largest massacre anywhere by a lone gunman in living memory. It shows the dangers of xenophobia and perceived insecurity, defended by ideologically driven extremist world-views.

Such views, and especially the violent tactics, could belong to the political Right or to the Left. The mass-murdering assassin could be a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu. The human implications are not too dissimilar. 9/11 can happen to any community today – and does. One image from a UWC student art exhibition that comes back to mind is of some forty identical hearts painted in a rectilinear pattern on a canvas. Under one was written “Jewish”. Another was called “Muslim”. There were “Christian”, “Hindu”, “Communist” and “Anarchist” hearts too…

Any ideology or religion, if it insulates itself from critical scrutiny and believes dogmatically in its monopolistic knowledge of ‘the truth’, is capable of creating totalitarian psychopaths out of otherwise potentially decent people. Such is the power of thought. Ideology, at the best of times, actually refracts our picture of reality. Since as human beings we can never have complete and perfect knowledge of anything, much of our picture of the world is held together by a more or less bloated tissue of assumptions and beliefs. According to the bag of assumptions and beliefs it is founded upon, an ideology focuses attention on certain facts (and myths) while steadfastly ignoring others which are relevant, but run counter to ideological expectation. Those of opposing persuasion of course see the empty half of the glass. If the premises are cynical, and structurally exclude others, actions prompted by them can only precipitate tragedy.

If there is one thing that teaching at a UWC (with students from a 100 countries) taught me, it was to ask the following fundamental questions: how important is it anymore to have an ideology in the first place? Can we even afford to cling to ideologies in a spectacularly diverse context like ours? Aren’t facts and values quite enough, if we can learn the fidelity to honour them?

The everyday fact about campus life at a UWC is that at least 20 languages are spoken. Norms of dress, tastes in food, habits of prayer, and a hundred other differences between young people coming from utterly different places, emerge as the difficult business of living together emerges. And yet, given the potential for conflict there is very little. There are meetings, discussions, negotiations. Time is short. Nothing is perfect. But it is not uncommon for Palestinians and Israelis to become friends, for young conservatives and radicals to find a language to listen and speak to each other. For students from seriously stricken nations in Africa to tell stories which become object lessons for those listening. At Nordic College there is also plenty of awareness of the palpable Anglo-Saxon dominance at such institutions (though everyone realizes how hard it is to change certain things!). For the staggeringly complex cultural setting in which the colleges function, we do not do quite as badly as senates and parliaments – whose members are far more homogenous.

At the Norway college, the level of political maturity and cultural awareness was remarkably high. There were many dissenting faculty on campus, holding views sometimes diametrically opposed to the college establishment. This had much to do with Norway’s deep-rooted social democratic traditions. While there were always parochial pulls at work, many worlds could co-exist under the same sky, often finding the heart to celebrate difference, especially through food and theatre, art and music. The camaraderie that emerged has survived the years.

Under the normal conditions at a UWC, one’s own ignorance becomes an inescapable, sometimes embarrassing, fact to live with. One realizes, as a teacher, that one’s only role is to facilitate – as gently as possible (I was never gentle enough!). This was particularly so in philosophy classes, where passionate views were exchanged all the time once students gathered the confidence to speak up, made somewhat easier by a democratic (circular or horseshoe) seating arrangement in the classroom, instead of the normal hierarchical one.

My students might add that Nietzsche, so wrongly and unjustly understood by some as a proto-Nazi philosopher, not only castigated all forms of chauvinism and nationalism, he repeatedly poked fun at those who claimed to ‘know’, always keen to underscore that all human knowledge appears within a “perspective”, especially by the time it scales the height of the lips. Zarathustra playfully mocked know-all scholars: “their wisdom actually smells as if it came from the swamp.”

If human knowledge is inevitably imperfect, any absolutist claims  deserve to be challenged with all the scepticism one can muster. This, as we learnt in our philosophy discussions, need not leave us with an empty-hearted nihilism. Scepticism and nihilism are not only not the same; they are in fact poles apart. While the former retains reason and is consistent with the practice of certain values (such as integrity, courage or respect for opposing views), the latter negates the very possibility that anything in life ever has any value. It is thus unwilling to sit down, listen and talk, having arrived at its certainties in perfect isolation. In fact, fanatics and self-conscious martyrs of all dispositions act so faithlessly that they are the actual nihilists, no matter that Breivik can claim that he is the only one with belief – while others just have ‘interests’. ‘Belief’ has little meaning when it is altogether bereft of compassion. More than anything else, it signals unacknowledged despair.  

Nietzsche called for the creation of new values to overcome the decadence brought on by the hypocrisies of the 19th century. Fate knocks at the doors of the 21st century, prompting us to stem the slide into a chaotic, lawless world threatened, even more than yesterday, by violent nihilism. The outbreak of neurosis, as Nietzsche and others anticipated, is now quite public. Trust, dangerous as it is (so is everything else, only more so!), is the call of the hour today. It needs to take the place of cold-blooded suspicion and become the basis for dialogue and possible friendship across increasingly proximate cultures and peoples. A world globalizing as fast as ours deserves at least this.

Those of us who have grown up in India know that multiculturalism is an inescapable fact of life. We might as well enjoy the diverse ways of being human, for life is short! The old expression ‘acting in good faith’ needs to be hauled out of the marrows of memory. Such faith is, after all, founded in deeper realms of the human spirit. If authentic, it is universal, and thus inclusive. Faith, we may remind ourselves was described by the great 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, as “the highest passion in a human being.” It ought not to be surrendered lamely to the monopolising fervour of fanaticisms of every hue, leaving an arrogant reason to plough a field rendered crusty by a parched, loveless conscience.

The Norway carnage represents nothing if not the virtually global phenomenon of the breakdown of trust and faith. The chauvinism of the centuries has caught up with a world undergoing accelerated globalization. Secular modernity puts so much store exclusively by reason that it frequently forgets that reason itself is driven by passions, and constitutes an article of faith. Every good scientist knows – and admits – that. We had better face up to this as a species, since the distinction between good and bad, true and false reason, can never be made by reason itself. The real test for this lies in the realm of evidence, very often “of things not seen”, hence calling for a keen sense of judgment, itself the outcome of good faith. Without profound introspection and continuing re-examination of commonly accepted assumptions about global public life, we will not be able to see the way ahead.

Are we seeing in the latest crime the beginning of a new movement for ethnic cleansing in Europe, at a time when multiculturalism is a growing bogey for the Far Right and its economies are facing unprecedented fiscal crises and unemployment? Is Breivik’s attack part of a much larger enterprise slowly gathering pace across the continent? After all, he boasts of connections to extremist groups in other countries, such as Britain. Many an observer has noted the rising tide of Neo-Nazi extremism across Europe. There are official fascists in many European parliaments. In some countries, including Norway, 10-30% of the electoral vote has gone to fascists in elections in recent years. Is there, as Breivik’s paranoid imagination anticipates, a “European Civil War” in the offing?

These questions are perhaps prompted by exaggerated fears. But they shouldn’t – and won’t – go away. In light of the history of the last century, and the increasingly harsh economic environment (for which immigrants are likely to shoulder at least some of the blame) there is little room for complacency. Scapegoats will be found where real structural causes and those responsible for perpetuating them remain hidden from public view.

Sometimes, the price a civilized nation pays for being an open society is to bear the terrifying occasional risk of the sort of nihilistic hyper-violence we have just seen. The accessible technologies of the day have only heightened the dangers. The option today is to surrender to extremist blackmail and lock people up within their borders – which will release yet other forms of violence, from the many whose legitimate liberties are hurt.    

The enormously comforting fact is that the Norwegian Prime Minister, a man of stout liberal conviction, said this soon after the terror attacks: “Our answer is more democracy, more openness to show that we will not be stopped by this kind of violence.”

Afterthoughts: On a journey of sacred hopes

At Nordic College, we studied the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, one of the many brilliant minds that Hitler could not stomach, in effect forcing her into an American exile. Her bitter experience taught her what anyone using common sense should be able to learn: violence always changes the world – for the worse. A result of the failure of speech, it only deepens the muteness that gives rise to it. Anyone – of any political hue from Far Left to Far Right – who advocates the use of violent means to achieve political ends must surely realize this truth. We never control the ends of our actions. We can only control the means. But we are all too happy to believe otherwise and act accordingly. There isn’t any wonder therefore, if the world becomes what it does.

At times like this, hope becomes all too sacred, and, like every sacred thing, all too fragile. Its hidden roots have to be watered every day so that the visible plant does not shrivel up and perish. I am reminded of times at Nordic College, when some new source of campus tension would be defused by little gestures like students asking everyone else at their Kantine table at lunch if they wanted something to drink. Little deeds like that are never as small as they appear.     

Nor are little nations that little. The problem of Norway today is also the problem of the world.

Big nation, Little world

Little Nation!
They don’t talk about you,
Until something like this happens.

You are just a forlorn spring-onion,
In the coldest corner of the globe –
Till you explode.

But now that you have,
Even they know what you always did:
That you are as much the world
As anyplace else.

It is not a matter
Of whether you are 4.9 million or 490.
Numbers are only the wicked illusions of the powerful.
Nor is it a matter of being wealthy or poor.
You know better than others that money can run amuck.

It is the ceaseless battle between good and evil,
The fine infinitudes that thread them,
That make of every living heart a restless cosmos,
Large as any other,
But never unto ourselves alone –
That only prolongs the battle!

Norway changed the meaning of ‘days’ and ‘nights’ for me. Each could last eternally! The long winter nights reminded me of the demon Kumbhakaran from the ancient Hindu myth, the Ramayana, who would sleep for six months and stay awake the next six. I used to wonder if he might have Nordic roots, perhaps participating in the Icelandic sagas! That strange, ruggedly beautiful country taught me something about endurance. You have to climb a few mountains along the fjords with a Nordic to know what I am talking about!

No one knows better than Nordics that even the inevitable long nights can be stellar and must ultimately yield to a sparkling dawn. The two great artists, the composer Edvard Grieg, and the painter Edvard Munch, who have brought so much joy and meaning to people all over the world, came out of the wise earth of this land. Why should we doubt that they shall continue to come in the future too?

This season of torment will pass. The fragrance of innocence will return to the meadows of the handsome land. And the day may not be far when children will be found singing once more Fjaler’s lyric poet Jakob Sande’s Christmas ditty:

Lights twinkling in peaceful hamlets
shine forth flickering through the night;
and hands of a thousand children
hold heaven-raised candles tight.