THERE IS LIFE AFTER BIRTH
Sigmund Freud wrote in 1929 a reflection on how an individual's wishes are counteracted by society's demands and expectations. Civilization and its Discontent begins with an obviously undeniable claim:
It is impossible to resist the impression that people commonly apply false standards, seeking power, success and wealth for themselves and admiring them in others, while underrating what is truly valuable in life. Yet in passing such a general judgement one is in danger of forgetting the rich variety of the human world and its mental life.
Thus Freud established our pursuit of perfection as one of humanity's greatest scourges. If we do not find perfection in ourselves, we seek it in others. Consequences for not accomplishing great expectations might be dire for ourselves, as well as for those unable to live up to the requirements we are imposing upon them. However, it may at the same time be argued that pursuit of perfection has been a crucial driving force behind the achievements of individuals, as well as the entire humankind. It made us humans, turned as into ”civilized” creatures. By striving for something better, a perfect existence, we have changed the prerequisites for our existence. We have transformed nature into culture. By doing so we made ourselves, as well as others, imagining us as being ”superior” compared to what we once were. However, no one is perfect. Human perfection does not exist. Coercion and rectifications are not requirements for improvement, rather the opposite.
We judge others in accordance with what we perceive as their state of perfection. We compare them to role models – those perfect creatures we, and especially others, should emulate. Children are tormented by parents who compare them to the offspring of other families. “Look at Yvonne she is already a medical doctor. What are you? Look at Gustav he has become a millionaire. What have you become? What have you done other than neglecting your natural gifts and qualifications? You are a good-for-nothing, a slugger, a failure.”
Comparisons make their appearance early on in a child's life and might in a defenseless creature create feelings of shortcomings and inadequacy. S/he might start to consider her/himself as a loser. Someone who is different from ”everyone else”. An insecure girl or boy might imagine that s/he is an alien. That s/he was left on the doorstep; an orphaned changeling, especially if her/his father and mother got into the habit of comparing her/him to ”more successful” siblings.
Our idols are those who have ”succeeded”, become famous and successful – the very criteria for an idol. They are the ones we want to be, or rather – whom we want our life companions, our children, our employees, our superiors, to be. During my time in the United States, I marveled at the large number of children's and ”young adult´s” books that had been written and published about successful, admirable youngsters, in whose spirit the growing-up generation should act.
Here in Italy, the Catholic Church is constantly publishing stories about young saints brought up by wise men and women. Like Dominic Savio, who died as a 14-year-old student of St. Giovanni Bosco (1815-1888), founder of the Salesian Order, which purpose it was to take care of abandoned, or poor children and raise them to become rural - or industrial workers. San Bosco wrote an inspirational book about Dominic Savio, in which he portrayed him as an ideal for students and young Christians. All over the Catholic world, there are statues of Saint Bosco and Saint Dominic.
China had (has?) its absurd cult of the young soldier and cultural hero Lei Feng: ”Follow Comrade Lei Feng's example.”
The Soviet Union had its Pavlik Mozorov, who betrayed his regime-critical father. After the Soviet authorities had executed his erring father, Pavlik was murdered by his rightly upset relatives. Thirteen-year-old Pavlik became hailed by a great variety of poems, biographies, a symphony, an opera, and several movies. Virtually every social system seems to be creating its own youthful heroes. Beautiful young people who are too good to be true.
It is not only saints, athletics, revolutionary heroes and young geniuses who serve as role models. We are also harassed by something as general and abstract as ”everyone else”, or so-called ”normal persons”. Idiotic generalizations, mirrored by expressions such as ”we, the people” and other all-encompassing expressions of mob madness, which constantly is roaring all around us. Comparisons with Tom, Dick, and Harry have been nailed into our thick skulls, or deeply rooted within our brains. We are whipped through life until we on our deathbeds are forced to admit: “Past! Past! Oh, had I but enjoyed myself while I could have done so! but now it is too late.”
As a child and youngster, I was an enthusiastic reader of Swedish translations of an American comic magazine series called Classics Illustrated. Unfortunately, my mother once threw away my collection of comics while she was clearing out our attic. There were Bang!, which featured exceptionally well-drawn comics translated from the French, as well as all my Donald Duck magazines. She probably thought I had put them up there because they no longer interested me. On the contrary, I treasured them all and wanted to keep them. The loss may not have been so great after all. If I now could revisit all those magazines I doubt I would be able to retrieve the magic that once devoured me.
Among all the Classics Illustrated, Faust was probably my greatest reading experience. I returned to it again and again. Faust was actually the last number of the original Classics Illustrated series issued by the American Albert Lewis Kanter. This specific Faust issue was unique in the sense that it contained both the first and second parts of the Tragedy. Faust´s second part is considerably more difficult to access than its first part and it took me a long time before I could read it in the original.
My grandfather had in his library a magnificent edition of Faust's first part, lavishly illustrated by a certain August von Kreling. I read it several times, but it was not until I read the second part in Britt G. Hallqvist's excellent Swedish translation and I finally got a grasp of the mighty work, which like other classics can be read several times and at every occasion be interpreted in a variety of ways. Goethe's Faust is occasionally heavy reading, though if digested with calm, patience and reflection it is quite thought-provoking.
Some years ago, I watched Aleksandr Sokurov's claustrophobic film Faust, which takes place in the early 19th century, within a small German, run-down town. I found some of it incomprehensible, though nonetheless, the movie became a near-hypnotically intense experience, with images etching themselves into my memory. A distorted, strange dream version that, in all its originality, provided an in-depth and unexpected angle to the Faustian story, which Sokurov. like in a Kafka story, limited within the boundaries of a small world, which suddenly opened up to unanticipated depths. Because of its strange allure Sokurov's version of Faust, Part I, although sometimes quite different from Goethe's story, is probably the interpretation, which in my opinion, comes closest to the great German author´s vision.
To me, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust – there are several other novels about the legendary or real Johann Georg Faust, who apparently lived between 1480 and 1540 – deals with the pursuit of perfection. The scientist/magician Faust pursues a single meaning/law governing our entire existence. In other words, he seeks God, the paragon for perfection.
The drama is launched in Heaven where Mephistopheles, who is either the Devil or a demon in his service, meets with God. However, before it all begins a Prelude takes place at a theatre where a performance is about to start. The salon is filling up, within a few minutes the curtain will rise. Grabbed by rampage fever, a Theatre Director, a Resident Poet and a Comic discuss what they expect from the show. The Director wants it to be a success, that the spectators will appreciate the spectacle and make others want to visit his theater so all performances will be sold out. The Poet does not really want to make a spectacle of his work. He has spent lonely days and nights labouring over his work. The Comic demands that the show will be entertaining, an unforgettable extravaganza.
Through the Prelude Goethe makes it clear that his drama is a fairy tale. That the tragedy's characters are not ”real” people, they are not even based on any existing models, neither contemporary nor historical. They are mere figurines, perhaps even dolls (during Goethe's time it was common to present the Faust legend as a Punch and Judy Show). His characters are fictitious, symbols within a Morality Play.
Mephistopheles is a liar. He hides Truth behind a web of lies, obscuring the fact that we ought to use our knowledge to help others. Instead, Mephistopheles teaches us that happiness comes from satisfying selfish urges. He preaches a gospel based on a search for well-being and success at the expense of others. To quench our sexual desires without respecting the feelings of others To exercise power by suppressing our fellow beings, to revel in the misfortune of the destitute and underdogs. He tells us that in our constant search for well-being and money, the use of cunning and fraud is quite OK.
It appears that Oscar Wilde in his The Picture of Dorian Gray introduced a Mephistophelean figure. in the shape of Lord Henry Wotton. An elegant gentleman who exposes ”wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories.” A charming conversator, a spiritual companion endowed with wit and a brilliant intellect. No wonder that the handsome, but naive, Dorian Gray is enchanted by Lord Wotton's dazzling arguments and soon puts his radical theories into practice, unaware of the fact that the decadent and bored Lord Wotton used them only to shock his surroundings and appear as an interesting fellow. Lord Wotton questions every established truth and tries to replace it with his own sybaritic pleasure doctrine:
”Life is not governed by will or intention. Life is a question of nerves, and fibres, and slowly built-up cells in which thought hides itself and passion has its dreams. You may fancy yourself safe, and think yourself strong. But a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings sublte memories with it, a line from a piece of music that you had ceased to play – I tell you Dorian, that it is on things like these that our lives depend.”
It is only when Dorian Gray despairs about himself and the kind of existence he has become trapped within that he realizes that Lord Wotton's teachings were false and corrupting. His affirmation that temptations are beneficial became the reason why Dorian Gray sought satisfaction at the expense of other human beings, thereby destroying both his own life and that of others. Oscar Wilde appears to have been a believer in art and aesthetics, assuming that they had no other purpose than to provide pleasure, forgetfulness, and relief. As an escape from the grotesque reality Dorian Gray indulged himself in egocentric exuberance, Wilde made him seek relief in aesthetics, a deliverance from threatening anguish – elegant home décor, exquisite perfumes, beautiful clothes, fine art, good literature, beautiful music. However, a polished surface of taste and wonder lured an increasing disintegration that soon affected Dorian's mind. More or less unconsciously he is eaten up by bad conscience. Dorian Gray had imagined that an unrestrained existence was the same as complete freedom:
The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.
But by deceiving others, Dorian deceived himself and the final consequence of his recklessness was a complete moral and physical downfall. Dorian Gray ended up despised and hated by himself and all those he had known and corrupted.
Oscar Wilde had not read Søren Kierkegaard's books, neither Stages on Life´s Way, nor Either/Or, in which the Danish philosopher analyzed the nature of the Aesthetic Man. A person imprisoned by a string of beads composed of enjoyable episodes. In fear of being deprived of his pleasures The Aesthetic Man focuses on specific moments that provide contentment and gratification, thereby his personality becomes fragmented. The Aesthetic Man loses itself, crackles. He becomes an actor, moving from set to set, from character to character. A liar who does not give himself time to reflect on his actions.
The Aesthetic Man fears and avoids moral obligations, chooses not to take any stand, neither to help others nor to assert his belief in an ideology. By following such a path The Aesthetic Man soon finds himself in a paralyzing state where only two choices remain – to take his own life or reconsider his attitude towards life. Unlike The Aesthetic Man, The Ethical Man accepts responsibility for his actions. For Kierkegaard, who in his own manner was a convinced Christian, morality meant relying on God – an unimaginable being, free from all human inhibitions and limitations created by time and space, eternal and infinite. An absurdity that our narrow intellect cannot comprehend. Thus, religion is entirely about faith and thus quite different from science. Faith is a personal experience, inexplicable and far removed from any scientific knowledge.
The truth that Mephistopheles preaches in Goethe's Faust is to live in accordance to a lie, a false illusion, similar to Lord Wotton's pleasure gospel. Mephistopheles' name probably comes from the Hebrew and the character was created in an effort to try to explain why it is so easy to lure even a good man from the path of righteousness. Each of us runs the risk of being tempted by our sensual desires. It thus becomes quite easy to imagine that besides God and his angels there exists a powerful and evil force – a Tempter. It was assumed that we are surrounded by demons, maybe a whole army of them, a legion of satanic devils. The leader of one of these wicked hordes became Mephistopheles, whose name consisted of the words מֵפִיץ (mêp̄îṣ) spreader and ט֫פֶל שֶׁ֫קֶר (tōp̄el šeqer) lie mason.
Like several other liars, Mephistopheles uses cynical charm. He is funny, all-knowing, and witty, just as a skilled manipulator should be. Mephisto is also a good and entertaining companion, as well as a good judge of human nature, well acquainted with diverse environments through which he moves like fish in the water. Of course, Mephistopheles does present himself to God as his loyal and submissive servant, yet his view of the world and human nature is light-years apart from the all-encompassing wisdom of the Ruler of the Universe.
Mephistopheles is incapable of comprehending the limitations of his ideology. He suffers from tunnel vision. A restriction that makes him perceive humans as governed by their basic instincts. According to Mephisto, human beings´ sole function is to satisfy their needs. Surrender to her/his insistent desires and ignore the well-being of others have to be the primary endeavor of any human being. Our Life-Lie.
The Egocentric is for Mephistopheles the essential idol of everything human. The Perfect Man whose every need has been met. The word idol comes from the Greek εἴδωλον, eidōlon, image, actually something that has no real existence. An interpretation of reality, a fantasy. An idol is a superhuman, a creature superior to all others. A Super Lie, a creation by The Master of All Lies – Mephistopheles.
The Superhuman perceives himself as free and independent. He needs no Master, no God. By believing that God is dead, the independent Superman imagines that he has been able to rid himself of human shortcomings, in particular of crippling compassion. However, Superman does not realize that the death of God means the Devil's victory. With God out of the game, Mephistopheles, The Master of All Lies and ultimate supporter of selfishness, will be sole Ruler the World.
Like many other full-fledged egocentrics, Mephistopheles is a gambler. Someone who believes that material gain brings happiness and success. Mephisto is incapable to refrain from making a hopeless bet with God, assuming that if he becomes victorious in such a desperate and relentless gamble, he will eventually gain world domination. The biased and limited Mephisto foolishly wants to convince God that He is wrong and thus make Him lose their constant struggle over human souls. However, Mephistopheles is actually a pathetic amateur compared to a master player like God, who has all the cards at hand and knows how to keep his trump card hidden until the game's final and decisive moment.
God is quite familiar with Faust, how he studies and struggles to reach the inner truth of life's meaning. Nevertheless, to arrive at any valid insight Faust has to leave his ivory tower and become exposed to the temptations inherent in human existence It is only after vanquishing earthly desires and thus prove that he cares for the wellbeing of others that Faust will become a true sage.
Without even realizing it, Mephistopheles acts as God's servant. By giving Faust access to earthly pleasures, bringing him deep down into the abode of desire, Mephistopheles assumes that by indulging Faust with sinful acts he will eventually gain control over Faust´s soul. However, God knows that Faust´s ability to learn from his mistakes will strengthen him, increase his knowledge and that Mephistopheles consequently will lose the bet. Faust will eventually be saved from Hell, but first, he has to be tempted by pleasures and earthly rewards. It is only after realizing into what abysses of despair selfish desire is able to push any human being, that Faust might mature and become a truly wise man:
What if he serves me in confusion now?
Soon I shall lead him into clarity.
A gardener knows the leafling nursling tree
With bloom and fruit will grace the years that follow.
The thrill of the drama, combined with the imagination and ingenuity Goethe spiced it with, rests in the reader's/spectator's doubts if Faust will nip at the baited hooks the wily Mephistopheles are dangling before him. However, Faust manages to wriggle himself out of the traps. Time after time Faust's undeviating curiosity saves him. His unquenchable thirst for knowledge – especially his dissatisfaction and struggle to improve everything – whips him onward. Faust does not become the full-fledged egoist Mephistopheles wants him to turn into.
Despite his good intentions, Faust does a lot of damage to others, mainly by never being fully satisfied. He constantly finds something to complain about. By the beginning of the play, Mephistopheles shows up at Faust´s place, at the very moment Faust is utterly disappointed with himself and his useless aspirations and thus plans to kill himself:
Alas, I´ve studied Philosophy,
The Law and Physics also,
More´s the pity, Divinity
With ardent effort, through and through
And here I am, about as wise
Today, poor fool, as I ever was.
My title is Master, Doctor even
And up the hill and down again
Nearly ten years wherever I please
I´ve led my pupils by the nose –
And see what we can know is: naught.
Faust looks around. He is enclosed by a book-packed study chamber, complete with useless alchemical devices, herbaria, stuffed animals and fetuses within glass jars; cramped, dusty and musty. Here he ended up, coming no further. As Jim Morrison sang:
This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend.
Faust has read and studied life but has not experienced it – the violence, the love, the pain, and the joy. In a despairing search for meaning, Faust has blindly pushed ahead into nothingness. Finally, he turned to magic, to superstition, dreams, and speculations. And then ... suddenly the gates of Hell are opened wide and the powers of darkness are summoned. Mephistopheles who, in the shape of a poodle, has followed Faust into his suffocating chamber, reveals his true self to the suicidal researcher and presents him with an offer he cannot refuse – he will turn the aged, dandruffed, whining Faust into an strapping young fellow and together they will explore the world, attract desirable women, gather experience and riches. They will wallow in happiness and beauty. Their agreement stipulates that Mephistopheles will be forced to fulfill any wish expressed by Faust. This while Faust only needs to accept one, single condition – if he someday becomes entirely satisfied with what Mephistopheles has provided for him and asks for a single moment to be extended – Verveile doch, du bist so schön, ”Stay a while, you are so beautiful”, then he will be condemned and forever belong to the Devil.
After a long life during which Faust, like each and every one of us, has made quite a number of mistakes, wounded and injured his fellow human beings, he finally finds himself in a situation where, as an administrator over a region, he has been given the opportunity to improve the lives of his subjects, especially by pushing back the sea with dikes, make ditches and turn the earth into cultivable fields. A struggle against nature for the benefit of man – culture against nature. However, like a ruthless dictator Faust intends to achieve progress with whip and carrot:
Get me workmen,
Thousands by any means, with cash
And whores and drink and with the lash
Encourage,tempt, pressgang them in.
I want news every day how far
Along with digging at that trench you are.
However, he perceives the wellbeing of others as his ultimate goal, stating that he will not rest until he has achieved it:
Stand on a free ground with a people who are free
Then to the moment I´d be allowed to say
Bide here, you are so beautiful!
Aeons will pass but the marks made by my stay
On the earth will be indelible.
I enjoy the highest moment now in this
My forefeeling of such happiness.
Finally, Faust has uttered the fatal words Verveile doch, Du bist so schön, ”Stay a while, you are so beautiful.” Mephistopheles triumphs and is about to drag Faust with him down to his kingdom of eternal suffering. However, Mephistopheles has actually lost the bet he made with God. The Devil is only familiar with sensual pleasures and desires; his powers and kingdom are based solely on selfishness and false self-realization. The Devil is utterly unable to understand that most of us might find joy in the well-being of others, just as Faust seems to assume by end of the play.
Faust är döende och det är uppenbarligen först nu i dödsögonblicket som han insett det som William Shakespears samtida, prästen John Donne skrev om i en av sina många begravningsdikter:
Ingen människa är en ö, hel och fullständig i sig själv
varje människa är ett stycke av fastlandet, en del av det hela
Om en jordklump sköljs bort av havet, blir Europa i samma mån mindre,
liksom en udde i havet också skulle bli,
liksom dina eller dina vänners ägor;
varje människas död förminskar mig,
ty jag är en del av mänskligheten.
Sänd därför aldrig bud för att få veta för vem
klockan klämtar; den klämtar för dig.
In Goethe´s Faust, Mephistopheles is revealed as a servant of God. His gambling with God was nothing more than God testing Faust's reliability. God seems to believe that Ein guter Mensch in seinem dunklen Drange ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewußt, ”A good man does, despite his dark urges, know the right path.” In Faust, Goethe wanted to demonstrate that humanity's foremost driving force is its search for love. To a certain extent, Goethe does in his tale about Faust provide us with an answer to why we should care about other people's well-being. We are naturally social beings. We live in communities and such a life becomes more pleasant, more stimulating and safer if we behave in a caring and friendly manner, instead of being easily irritated and hostile.
However, to turn the messy, whimsical, weird, ironic, hard-to-interpret and occasionally skilfully written Faust into an uplifting tale about humanity's highest ideals would be to push beyond the goal. Faust is hardly a morally unassailable individual. He is far from being a saint. Faust is an egoist whipped through life by his urges and not the least by his lust. Since Faust is a male creature, he seeks love in women. Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan, ”The eternal woman hithers us on.”
This conviction may be likened to Dante's love for Beatrice, which guided him through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. It was divine love Dante sought through his Beatrice. She was an ideal, not a ”real” person, a Dream Woman. Dante was never allowed to live with her and when he wrote his powerful epic Beatrice was since long dead. It was absolute love Dante was chasing after in his dream, his Divine Comedy. During his search for knowledge, the Comedy's Dante is inexorably curious, constantly inquiring and in the end he finds l´amore che move il sole e l´altre stelle, ”the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
However, what Faust seeks in his love for women is far from being just heavenly bliss. Throughout Goethe's entire work and life, erotic lust is combined with scientific curiosity and this is also the case of his Faust. Love and sexual desire permeate the entire Faust; passionate desire – comic, tender, obscene, ecstatic, mysterious, grotesque. Even the disciplined and deeply religious Dante was possessed by love in its various shapes, though in his epic it was a search for chivalrous and religiously motivated love that urge him on – Divine Love. Nevertheless, just like Goethe, Dante also searched for absolute knowledge. The Comedy's Dante is inexorably curious, inquiring and seeking.
In Faust, angels come down from Paradise to bring with them Faust's redeemed soul, singing Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen,"The striver, the endeavourer, him we are able to redeem.” They emerge by the end of a multi-faceted work that was not at all like Dante's Comedy – a religious fable, but rather a tribute to human imagination, scientific research, a perpetual search for the truth. Goethe was not very religious, what he found in religion was love, but not a purely idealistic one, akin to the on Dante was seeking, but love in all its aspects, not least the erotic.
To some extent, Goethe did in his Faust saga provide us with an answer to why we should care for one another. We are naturally social beings. We live in communities and such a life, both within our family fand a larger community, is certainly more pleasant, more stimulating and safer if we are caring and friendly, rather than being easily irritated and hostile. We must affirm love, but not only as an exclusively sexual drive.
Goethe was just as arrogant as Dante, well aware of his vast expertise in a wide variety of areas. He considered himself more of a great scientist than a writer. Goethe's art was according to himself just part of a scientific search for the origin and meaning of life. How could all this knowledge be managed and used for the benefit of himself and others? In a letter, Goethe explained: In mir reinigt sich’s unendlich, und doch gestehe ich gerne, Gott und Satan, Höll und Himmel ist in mir Einem, ”Inside me a constant process of purification is going on and after all, I willingly admit that within myself God and Satan, Hell and Heaven are mixed together.” Faust is an argument about which part of the human nature that should be allowed to take the upper hand – the pursuit of evil, or pursuit of good.
Mephistopheles declares Ich verachte nur Vernunft und Wissenschaft, des Menschen allerhöchste Kraft, ”I only despise reason and knowledge, man's foremost strength.” The Devil´s driving force is his effort to corrupt science, knowledge, and love. Make them all serve a selfish end. Most scientists and teachers supported both National Socialism and Fascism. When we are deprived of compassionate intelligence, respect of and care for nature and people, we become bereaved of a shield and weapon that could be used for love and respect. Neglecting such moral strength makes as slaves under the same destructive force that Mephistopheles adheres to – The Master of all Lies and Sin. Man's search for love and goodness is by this demon reduced to an urge for wanton survival. Er nennt’s Vernunft und braucht’s allein, nur tierischer als jedes Tier zu sein, ”he [the humans] calls it Reason, but it only makes him more animal than an animal”.
Was it a pursuit of knowledge and love that brought me to Lund University? Maybe, anyway when I got there it felt like freedom.
Here we are now, entertain us.
I feel stupid and contagious,
here we are now, entertain us.
The feeling was probably not entirely different from Faust´s excitement after Mephistopheles had transformed him from being a tired, old man into a handsome youngster. After leaving the warm embrace of my family and the boring, limiting childhood town behind me, I was free to take care of myself in Lund. Like Faust, I threw myself into studies of those subjects things I liked – literature, art and religion, and not the least Drama, Theater, and Film, that at the time was an academic discipline. I experienced some bewildering romances and participated in life and fun, not the east nightly binges with like-minded friends, and an occasional excursion to cities more open and exciting than Lund, such as Copenhagen and Berlin.
Of course, there was some annoyance present as well. Lund had its fair share of boring know-alls who impressed their surroundings with prestigious knowledge. It was in the early seventies and chic to be radical; Mao, Lenin, Che Guevara, and Marx were hailed as heroes. ”Radical intellectuals” urged for world revolution, international solidarity and the importance of organizing to fight The State and Capitalism, while death to the family and religion was peached as well. While spreading around quotes by Mao, Marx, and Hegel, self-proclaimed ”radicals” became extremely annoyed if someone questioned their mediocre axioms. They praised one-party states with oppressive bureaucracies and called their brainwashing ideologies ”constructively implemented socialism”. If I did not agree with such luminaries they condemned, despised or ignored me, labeling me as a "right-wing reactionary" while drowning me with gibberish and ironic comments. The general narrowmindedness got on my nerves and it didn't help that I tried to get my opinions better organized by reading Mao, Hegel, and Marx. I did not understand much of their writings. The first two I found to be hard reading and rather hopeless cases, although parts of what Marx had written I found to be both thoughtful and well-formulated, although I could hardly get a good grasp of his extensive writings.+
However, I counted upon the good companionship of witty friends from my hometown. Claes, Stefan, and Didrik were moderately politically interested. With them, I could discuss other essentials. When it came to politics and philosophy, my corridor mate (the usual living quarters of students were single rooms along a corridor with a common kitchen) Mats Olin became a solid rock and reference point. He did like me come from the rural district of Göinge, but unlike me, he had solid language skills; read unhampered English, German and French, and even Spanish. Mats was knowledgeable about politics, philosophy and social anthropology, and he also read a great deal of fiction far beyond what was considered to be mandatory reading for left-wing sectarians.
It was through Mats I discovered alternatives to the obviously omnipotent, uniform, and often violent totalitarianism that swirled around me. He made me aware of The Frankfurt School, of Marcuse, Illich, Castoriades, Baudrillard, Feyerabend and a host of other new thinkers and critics of biased, totalitarian ways of thinking. Through Mats a whole new world opened up to me, fueled by my increased interest in mysticism and ”alien” cultures. Mats became the reason to why I became interested in the Situationists and during one of our trips to Copenhagen I bought a couple of Danish translations of essential Situationist literature, among them Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle and an anthology compiled by Victor Martin, one of the leading Danish Situationist artists – There is a Life after Birth.
In Lund, I met a Situationist with whom I became briefly acquainted. Sometimes I encountered the Jean Sellem at the pub Spisen, The Fireplace, where he often nested at a corner table together with the notorious, eternal student Maxwell Overton. Jean Sellem always drank tea, while Maxwell drank cheap Turkish wine, Beyaz, it was bad enough as it was and became even worse due to Maxwell´s habit of putting sugar lumps in his wine glass.
Sellem was happy to talk and always in a contagiously good mood. Probably a dozen years older than I was I found him to be an unusually stimulating acquaintance – witty and with astonishing insights, as well as a lighthearted, unpredictable humour emphasized by a, to my ears at least, peculiar and very strong French accent, his bottle-thick glasses, unvarnished, as well as his unkempt. wildly frizzled hair. A true bohemian artist and a healthy element among all the boring ”leftist intellectuals”, many of whom did not at all appreciate the anarchistic Sellem whose Gallery Saint Peter for Experimental and Marginal Art was opposite Lund´s Book Café, an ”independent and unsectarian left-wing bookstore specializing in society-oriented, radical and Marxist literature”.
Jean Sellem, who made his appearance in Lund sometime in the late sixties, had been affiliated with The Situationist International (SI), though this ”fellowship” had been disbanded in 1972. Already before that, several of its members had been excluded after being skeptically inclined towards the increasingly dogmatic, left-revolutionary direction in which the association was moving. When I met him, Jean Sellem seemed to be more attracted by the Fluxus movement, which also was some kind of artistic fellowship, but far more extensive, and cross-culturally inclined than the Situationist International. Fluxus had no formal membership, though many of the most respected artists at the time were considered to be Fluxus affiliated; for example, John Cage, Joseph Buys, Nam June Paik, Terry Reily, Öyvind Fahlström, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneeman and Wolf Vostel. Like Sellem, they devoted themselves to conceptual art, but he had distanced himself from the celebrity image that flourished within Fluxus circles and was more attracted by a group that identified itself as SI 2, or Situationist Bauhaus, headed by Asger Jorn's brother Jørgen Nash. This so-called the Second Situationist International was more focused on art than The First Situationist International and found its center in the artistic collective Drakabygget just outside Örkelljunga in northern Skåne, my home district.
Sellem considered it to be fascinating that my father knew Jørgen Nash, something he confirmed when they met and Nash stated that he counted upon Axel Lundius, from in the local newspaper Norra Skåne, Northern Skåne, as ”one of us”. Sometime after I got to know Jean Sellem, he was involved in a complicated battle with Lund Municipality, which had decided to withdraw its cultural contribution to his gallery. After he had invited me to read a few of my short stories, Gottegrisen, The Sweet Tooth, and Det blödande barnet, The Bleeding Child, in his gallery, Sellem obviously counted me as a supporter and furthermore published two of my drawings in one of his magazines. Sellem was a quite assiduous publicist and everything that happened in his gallery was carefully documented and archived in his Archive for Experimental and Marginal Art.
One day when I entered his gallery, Jean Sellem came running towards me and shouted in his inimitable French-Swedish:
- Ah, Lundius! Come in, come in! Close the door quickly so the rabbit does not run away!
I did as he said and somewhat confused looked around the place. There was no rabbit in sight. The floor of the gallery's exhibition hall was covered with newspaper strips and in the middle of them was a large salad head that Sellem every morning bought at the Saluhallen, the town market. There was, however, no rabbit. The installation was part of an exhibition containing an ”imaginary” rabbit.
Sellem was, as always when I met him, in a brilliant mood and our conversation was occasionally interrupted by his chuckling laugh. He told me of an initiative, an art action, he was staging together with a new-found friend of his, the graphic artist Andrzej Ploski, who recently had arrived from Kielce in Poland. Ploski had some problems with the Artists' National Association (KRO) and Sellem had difficulties with the municipality. On one of the gallery's display windows he had in large letters written: ”Censored by S [the Social Democrats] and M [the Moderates, a right-wing political party] in Lund.” Since Sellem was no longer receiving cultural support from the municipality, he now planned to print his own banknotes and sell them for ten Swedish crowns apiece, in support of his gallery.
The banknotes were to be designed by Ploski and issued by something they called The Lundada Bank and referred to as ren money, i.e. clean money. Ren is a word that can be interpreted as both ”clean” and ”reindeer” and the banknotes thus referred to the municipality's Social Democratic chairman, Birger Rehn. The bank's motto would be printed on the banknotes: Enighet ger stryk. Alla för alla, alla för ren, a play on words that is almost impossible to translate. A direct translation would by ”Unity results in a beating. One for all, all for Rehn”. In those days Swedish banknotes carried the caption Hinc robur et securitas, Latin for ”hence strength and security”. However, the Swedish word for ”strength” could also mean ”a beating”. ”One for all, all for one” was, of course, the motto for The Three Musketeers, which in Swedish becomes en för alla, alla för en, though Sellem changed ”one”, en, for ren, ”reindeer”, the name of the municipality´s chairman., Birger Rehn.
Sellem also worked on a book with sixteen full-page engravings by Andrzej Ploski. They were thinking of calling their book Lundius, Commedia dell´arte and Sellem now wondered if it was OK for me and my relatives if they used our family name. I explained that it certainly did not matter at all to my relatives, they would rather like it. When the book was published, Sellem gave me several copies of it, as well as a number of posters that my father sent to his brothers and my cousins. He framed his own copy and hung it in the entrance to my childhood home.
Through the books Mats Olin made me buy and my acquaintance with Jean Sellem, I became increasingly interested in the Situationists. Before he ended up in Lund, Sellem had drifted around in Europe, mostly making his living as a sidewalk artist. He had spent quite a long time in Germany where he had a daughter, Marie-Lou Sellem, who now is a fairly well-known actress, especially as she made a career in television where she has starred in several films and series. After his time in Germany, Sellem studied at an art school in Copenhagen. Sellem told me that some time afterward he had in Finland found that he could live on selling his own art, something that worried him and made him relinquish his own income-generating artistic creativity and in a truly Situationist spirit instead began dedicating his time to inspire and support other artists to create ”situations” which could awaken people to discern the ”real state of life”.
Jean Sellem came to Sweden and Lund, became fond of the small university town where he met and fell in love with Marie Sjöberg, who became his assistant, photographer, and all-arounder. Together they did between 1970 and 1982 administer Gallery Saint Peter. When I wondered what he was living on, Sellem explained that until now the Lund Municipality had willingly supported him and provided a yearly grant to his gallery, furthermore, he could count upon the support of his co-worker, Marie, who worked as a night nurse at Lund's hospital. When I asked him if his way of life was in accordance with the Situationist ideal, Sellem explained that this was how he interpreted it.
Until 1972, Guy Debord (1931-1994) had been the Situationists´ secretary, strategist, philosopher and disciplinarian, who regularly accepted or excluded members from an association he refused to call ”organization”. The movement, or whatever it could be called, was founded in 1957 under the name Situationist International (SI). Its ”ideology” was in 1960 established in a Manifesto, which introduction stated:
The existing framework cannot subdue the new human force that is increasing day by day alongside the irrisistible development of technology and the dissatisfaction of its possible uses in our senseless social life.
The Situationists had experienced the emergence of oppressive totalitarian states, World War II's devastating catastrophe culminating in the industrially efficient slaughter within extermination camps and the atomic bombs' effective eradication of human life. The War´s aftermath meant in several European countries abject misery, which however was soon followed by a rapidly improving economy, while nations experienced repression under direct Soviet rule or communist minion regimes. It was a time marked by doubts, worries, and protests, accompanied by alternative art in the form of free jazz, abstract expressionist painting and the dissolution of traditional storytelling techniques. The Situationist Manifesto stated that human slavery characterized by mind-numbing wage work only benefitted a few capitalists, supported by a commodity fetishism that has replaced ”real” life with an ever-increasing, frantic consumption of commodities, which quantity overshadowed and destroyed their quality. The Situationists wanted every person to become an artist in charge of her/his own life, rather than remaining as an alienated cog in a machinery that produced commodities that no one actually needed.
We must liberate our inherent creative power, let loose our playfulness. Turn life into a feast. Let our own imagination, render self-proclaimed ”experts” redundant, expose their true nature as simple lackeys in the service of ruthless capitalists. Instead of being entangled in the net of commercially conditioned manipulations, each and every one of us should be offered an opportunity to become an ”amateur expert”, members of a richer, more playful, more open society, instead of being demeaned and humiliated as a hapless consumers/producers.
There is a life after birth! Be realistic, demand the impossible! They buy your happiness, steal it back! Depression is counter-revolutionary! The boss needs you, you don't need him! Stalinism is a rotten corpse! Prohibit prohibition! The beach is under the asphalt!
A new openness could be manifested through the creation of ”situations”. A first step would be to free art from its misappropriation and exploitation by market forces, which by pricing it has transformed artistic expression into a commodity. An urgent action/situation would according to the Situationist Manifesto be to carry out a spectacular coup against an institution which for The Situationists was the epitome of oppressive State bureaucracy´s ongoing attempts to equalize and neutralise art, science, and education by transforming them into subservient slaves of a centralized, controlling society where everything has been provided with a monetary value. Where everything is up for sale.
A first step would be to occupy UNESCO, The United Nations Organization for Science, Education, and Culture, which has its headquarters in Paris. A huge, sumptuous building containing a select group of highly-paid “experts”, who decide what kind of “culture” may be deemed worthy of global support. A situation recommended by the Situationist Manifesto would be to use the UNESCO headquarters for the announcement of a proclamation that invited the people of the world to participate in the creation of a human existence, characterized by trust, love, and imagination.
Such a negative view of UNESCO and the commercial valuation of art seemed to be contradicted by a large painting by Asger Jorn, which I used to pass in one of UNESCO's large foyers when I ten years ago functioned as an insignificant cog within the Organization's vast machinery. The painting was purchased in 1958, the same year when UNESCO's stately headquarters were opened in Pars. The Danish artist Asger Jorn was a good friend of Guy Debord and one of the initiators of the Situationist International.
Asger Jorn was already making money on his art and through the years he became an important driving force behind and a significant financier of various Situationist activities. Asger Jorn (1914-1873), whose original name was Asger Oluf Jørgensen, was an amazingly energetic and multifaceted Jack of all Trades. Twenty-two years old, he had scraped together enough money to buy a motorcycle and use it for traveling to Paris to study art under the famous Vasily Kandinsky. However, Kandinsky turned out to be severely depressed, tired, old and poor. Instead, Jorn began studying for Fernand Léger and eventually became acquainted with the renowned, constructivist architect Le Courbusier. Together with Courbusier Asger Jorn worked on the decoration of the Temps Noveaux Pavilion, which was part of the 1937 legendary World Exhibition.
After admiring Le Courbusier, Jorn soon came to regard his ”misanthropic homes” as dreary and sterile places. Above all, he found the Functionalism that Le Courbusier advocated to be a force that hindered and circumscribed the all-encompassing experience and appreciation of life and imagination that true art should contribute to. A release of each individual's creativity. All people should be provided with opportunities to contribute to the growth and change of their local environment. Cities ought to become living organisms, not solidified in pre-established forms and systems, but dynamic and changeable in symbiosis with the people living and working within them. Jorn came to regard Le Courbusier's Plan Voisin from 1925, a proposal to rebuild large parts of the centre of Paris, as an absolute abomination, a perfect antithesis to his own urban thinking.
After returning to Denmark, Jorn immersed himself in studies of magic and ancient Nordic art. During the war, he joined the Danish resistance movement and contributed with several articles to Helhesten, a magazine paying hommage to folk art, Nordic paganism and uncontrolled spontaneity. Helhesten, The Horse of Hell, was a Danish supernatural creature, three-legged and pitch black it appeared on moonless nights in the vicinity of graveyards. Those who were unfortunate enough to encounter this lugubrious horse were sure to die shortly after the confrontation. By naming their magazine after a threatening apparition the artists who contributed to it wanted to suggest that their art was a deadly threat to the occupying Nazis. During the War, Jorn also translated Kafka into Danish and began to collect a large number of photographs that eventually became an archive he named 10,000 years of Nordic Folk Art.
After the War, Asger Jorn resumed his restless travels and made contact with artists around the world. His abstract paintings sold well and progressively he became quite well known. At Café Notre Dame in Paris, he did in 1948, together with the author Christan Dotremont and the artist Constant, a pseudonym for Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys, establish the artist group CoBrA. The name was constructed by the first letters of the artists´ hometowns; Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Shortly afterward, the Dutch artists Karel Appel and Guillaume Cornelis van Beverloo (Corneille) joined the group. They already shared an apartment with Constant. In their Manifesto, CoBrA declared that their spontaneous art was intended as a denial of the decadence of European art, which had begun during the Renaissance. They wanted to counteract all specialization and ”civilized art forms” and instead support a ”direct” primitive and childish art, based on a free and joyful collaboration between material, imagination, and technology. Their art would be equivalent to ”inhibition-free well-being”. CoBrA had a major impact, but the group only remained united for a few years. One of the reasons for its dissolution was that Asger Jorn began an intimate relationship with Constant's wife.
After CoBrA was disbanded in 1951, Asger Jorn returned to Denmark, depressed and severely ill with tuberculosis. However, in 1953 he managed to regain his health and stamina. Jorn had become interested in pottery and moved to the coastal city of Albissola Marina in Liguria, the seat of the legendary pottery company Giuseppe Mazzotti Manifattura Ceramiche founded in 1903 and became, after being recognized by Futurist leader Tommaso Marinetti, a production centre for futuristic fine arts and craftsmanship. Soon a number of artists gathered around Asger Jorn, among them Constant, who had forgiven his former friend´s elopement with his wife. Jorn was by now married to Constant's ex-wife, Matie van Domselaer, with whom he had two children.
Constant began working on an urbanization project he called The New Babylon and elaborated large architectural models through which he tried to create the dynamic urban landscapes he often discussed with Asger Jorn.
As usual, Asger Jorn within a short timespan established stimulating contacts with local artists. One of them was the chemist and multi-worker Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, who in Alba, a mile north of Albissola Marina, owned an industrial plant producing herbal sweets and remedies.
Pinot-Gallizio was a left-wing politician and put Constant in touch with the leaders of a Romani camp, where they together with the residents began to experiment with realizing their ideas of alternative urbanism, within which individual´s creative powers would contribute to the creation of a dynamic society. Constant was musically talented. He was a skilled violinist and guitarist and had early on become fascinated by gypsy music, which led him to learn various improvisation techniques from the Romani and to play the cimbalom (tsymbaly).
In his Alba factory, Pinot-Gallizo developed, in collaboration with his son and Asger Jorn, something he called Pittura industriale, Industrial Art Production. With the help of various machines and innovative techniques he did together with a local workforce create up to 70 metres long canvases, filled with spontaneously created art. These ”pieces of art” were then sold by the metre as fabric goods.
Later on, Pinot-Gallizio created within art galleries in Turin, Paris, and Amsterdam a kind of ”environments” – a ”raw” ambient art he called Cavernas dell´antimateria, Caves of Antimatter. Gallery visitors were invited to move within a maze of painted canvases where they were surprised by unexpected ”situations”.
Soon artists from the global art world became attracted by Albissola Marina, among them Asger Jorn's friends from Paris – Guy Debord and his wife Michèle Bernstein. They were among the leaders of a group called Lettrists, a movement that intended to trace the origins of human thinking and action. By breaking down the language into its smallest units; moaning, sighing, screaming and changing the alphabet into ”primordial” signs and symbols, they wanted to create building blocks for the build-up of new, more spontaneous, personal and free modes of expression.
Lettrism was created by like-minded young people in post-war Paris, within bars, cheap restaurants, and shabby hotels. In August 1945, twenty-year-old Isidore Goldstein arrived in Paris, after spending six weeks traveling through post-war Europe from his Romanian hometown Botşani. With him, Isidore Goldstein brought a wealth of poems and writings inspired by his idol and compatriot Tristan Tzara (Samuel Rosenstock), who in 1916 in Zurich, together with the German Hugo Ball, had founded the famed Dada movement.
Isidore intended to shock and offend everyone. Already a few months after his arrival in Paris he was thrown out of Theatre du Vieux-Colombier, where a play by Tzara was performed. Isidore had several times interrupted the performance by roaring: ”Dada is dead! Lettrism has taken its place”. Scandals quickly erupted around him. In 1949, Isidore had managed to get a novel published, Isou ou la mécanique des femmes, Isou, or the Mechanics of Women. This autobiographical novel was a tribute to sixteen-year-old and later concept artist Rhea Sue Sanders. The scandal was caused by the fact that Isidore Goldstein claimed that simultaneously with his mistress he had for four years made love to no less than 175 women and if time and space permitted it he could describe each act in great detail. Isisdore Goldstein was fined 2,000 francs, sentenced to eight months imprisonment and the court decided that all existing copies of the book should be immediately destroyed. However, after a month the prison sentence was suspended.
After two years in Paris, Isidore Isou, as Goldstein now called himself, had established himself as a significant culture personality and the prestigious publishing house Gallimard published two of his books: Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique, Introduction to a New Poetry and a New Music and L'Agrégation d'un nom et d'un messie, The Merging of a Name and a Messiah.
After six years in Paris, Isou began to express himself through film. Traté de bave et d´éternité, Treaty of Mucus and Eternity, which was divided into three parts. The first, called The Principle, depicted how people moved along Parisian streets, accompanied by excerpts from a lecture on film. The second part, The Development, described a romantic meeting between a man and a woman and consisted entirely of clips from other films. The third ”chapter” was called The Evidence and was entirely composed of abstract imagery, including so-called leaders, i.e. sequences of numbers that were used starting strips for films. Not many first-time visitors succeeded in enduring the entire screening and left the theatre under loud protests. When the film was later presented during the Cannes Film Festival, the influential Jean Cocteu watched and appreciated Traté de bave et d´éternité, making sure it won first prize in a newly established film category – The Best Avant-garde Performance.
Isou's incomprehensible film was based on two Lettrist concepts, which later were further developed by the Situationists – détournement and dérive. The first concept could possibly be translated as ”return/bringing back” and meant that artists made use of images and expressions manufactured by the so-called Mass Society, which had been created by capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Artists destroyed, cut up, and manipulated all kinds of imagery in such a way that it came to transmit an ”alternative world view”. Asger Jorn explained the détournement process as a unique form of innovation: ”Only those who are capable of disparaging generally accepted opinions will be able to create new values.” Situationist artists used advertisements, comic books, porn magazines, B-movies, kitsch and trashy art. They cut them up, united the pieces, added new sentences and hints and then published the results in magazines, as posters, or movies.
Asger Jorn created new, critical artwork Peinture's modifiées, Modified paintings, meaning that he manipulated, changed and painted over cheap artwork he had bought in flea markets.
A possible translation of dérive might be ”drifting”. This meant that you wandered aimlessly within an urban landscape, without a set goal and any intense involvement. Maybe akin to the introduction to Christopher Isherwood´s Goodbye to Berlin: ”I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” A ”therapeutic” approach aimed at clearing your brain from its constant struggle to organize and subordinate impressions within logical frameworks.
During her time as an art and design student, my oldest daughter became inspired by dérive, especially as it was expressed by English Psychogeographers. She used city maps to draw in random red lines, which during town itineraries had to be followed as closely as possible, regardless of the obstacles you might encounter. She also designed an Urbilabe, a kind of ”modified compass” manipulated through the introduction of various components, giving different directions. Her Urbilabe was intended to inspire ”its users to explore an urban landscape in a spontaneous and inspiring manner.”
A year after the premiere of Isou's first movie, his six-year-younger adept Guy Debord presented an even more incomprehensible film – Hurlements a faveur de Sade, Screams in Favour of de Sade. A movie entirely devoid of pictures. The flickering movie screen remained white during readings from a book Isou had written about film, as well as detached dialogues from John Ford's Rio Grande, recitations from James Joyce´s Finnegans Wake, as well as the Code civil des Français. During longer breaks between the readings, the screen remained completely black. It was also blackened during the last twenty minutes of this quite patience-demanding presentation.
While making the film, Debord was responsible for the Lettrist magazine Potlatch. The word means ”give away” and denoted major events during which indigenous people along the west coast of North America accompanied by dance and partying gave away large portions of their property.
The magazine Potlatch was issued on a monthly basis and distributed free of charge. Each number was initiated by the words:
All texts presented in Potlach can be freely reproduced, imitated and/or partially quoted without any reference whatsoever to the original source.
Soon there came a break between Isou and Debord. They were both complicated personalities and began to attack each other in various writings. Especially Isou had become utterly annoyed by Debord and his Situationist International, which he described as a neo-Nazi organization.
In the summer of 1957, Guy Debord, his wife Michèle Bernstein, as well as the English psychogeographer Ralph Romney visited Asger Jorn and his Italian counterparts within an artist community Jorn had established in Albissola Marina as part of something they called MIBI, or The International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus. Asger Jorn's good friend, the young philosophy student Piero Simondo, had an aunt who owned a small hotel in the village of Cosio d´Aroscia and it was there that the Situationist International (SI) was established amidst extensive wine-drinking and violent discussions.
During the twelve and a half years of the organization´s existence, it had at most seventy-four members (63 men and 11 women). Despite its limited membership SI came to have a major impact and inspired a wide variety of artists, writers, and philosophers. Guy Debord, who delved deeper into philosophy and politics, believed that SI's ultimate goal could not be to create experimental and engaging artworks/situations without producing a truly revolutionary consciousness. Capitalist society, and to the same or even higher degree, state capitalist systems like those of the Soviet Union and China, had vanquished all attempts to challenge the hegemony of commercialism and bureaucracy. The bourgeois class had appropriated avant-garde culture, put a price tag on all art and thus turned it into a commodity. Debord's conclusion was to exclude all artists from the group, something that did not prevent him from continuing to receive financial support from a successful artist like Asger Jorn.
Even if the Situationists were critical of prevailing political and social systems and advocated an ”entirely new” view of life and culture, they were nevertheless children of their time. In the United States, we find The Beat Generation and Great Britain had its Angry Young Men, just to mention two of all those ”alternative movements” that had sprung up all over the world. Several of these movements criticized the current, dominant society, though, at least initially, most of them had been generally ”aesthetically” inclined. However, most of the members of the governing segment of society were deeplý worried by the wars in Algeria and Vietnam, as well as other ”resistance movements” in the Third World. Some intellectuals approved of what they considered to be the creation of ”social alternatives” in ”socialist” societies, like those established in Cuba or China. They immersed themselves in Marx and Hegel while integrating their reading and thinking in writings and actions.
Debord stated that the current Capitalism, as well as Communist totalitarian systems, were manifestations of what he called The Society of the Spectacle, a state in which commodity fetishism's ”spectacle” had reifacted all human relations.
The concept of Warenfetischismus, Commodity Fetishism, was coined by Karl Marx in an effort to describe how Europeans view consumer goods as ”things which, by their characteristics, satisfy all forms of human needs.” Goods have become sources of human satisfaction and people no longer understand that they really are – results of how human labour has transformed natural resources into consumer goods. Our unwavering desire for goods and services has turned them into something desirable, something almost divine, endowed with an existence of their own, beyond our everyday lives:
A commodity appears at first sight as an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as its is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in sucha way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with it feet on the ground, but in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.
The word reification also derives from Marx. It was created from the German Verdinglichung, ”making into a thing”, a description of how we humans have come to regard other creatures as if they were things. Thereby have social relations also been transformed into “things”, more akin to products/commodities than shared, unifying ideas. We imagine that happiness, knowledge, prestige, and togetherness can be bought for money, just as if they were goods.
According to Guy Debord, capitalism had transformed our society in such a manner that our thinking and our emotions have become experiences that can be bought and sold. What Debord labels as a Society of the Spectacle is an order of things in which our existence has been transformed into a business transaction. We have wiped out our individuality, our imagination, and playfulness only to become full-time consumers. Like a group of passive onlookers, we soak in everything offered by a manipulative and invariably present, capitalist system, which at the same time unabashedly oppresses and subverts us under an impersonal, state-controlled bureaucracy. Debord summarized The Society of the Spectacle in five points:
Uninterrupted technical renewal.
Total integration of the State and the economy.
Secrecy of how this manipulation is carried out.
Dispersion of lies that cannot be contested.
The transformation of our existence into an eternal and unaffected “now”. History and philosophy have lost their significance.
The Society of the Spectacle must be combated and broken down from within, through the creation of mind-boggling, mind-altering situations. However, in order to succeed in doing so, the Situationist must place her/himself beside the current consumer society. Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of the movement.
Guy Debord considered that wage labor chained us to the murderous bureaucracy of capitalism. Early on in his youth, he scribbled on a wall: Ne Travaillez Jamais, never work. Nevertheless, his wives worked. Debord married twice and had several mistresses. For example, Michèle Bernstein sustained them both for a time by writing horoscopes for racehorses. When a friend visited Debord and his second wife, the poet, linguist, and historian Alice Becker-Ho, in the hotel apartment where they lived, the guest noticed that Alice did all the housework. Debord declared: ”She washes up the dishes while I make a revolution.”
Debord “worked” by thinking and writing and was then economically supported by others, including Asger Jorn. Since 1971, when he met Debord, until his death in 1990, the publisher and film producer Gérard Lebovici constituted Debord's most important emotional and financial support. Although he interacted with wealthy celebrities Lebovici had an anarchic inclination that directed him to critical thinkers like Debord. Unfortunately, Lebovici was also attracted by people from criminal circles. On March 7, 1984, he was found dead in his car in a garage on Avenue Foch not far from the Arc de Triomphe. Someone had four days earlier, at short range, shot him with four bullets in the back of his head. The murder remained unsolved. Guy Debord, who naturally became very agitated by the murder, retreated to a village in the Loire Valley, where he ten years later committed suicide through a gunshot in his mouth. He had then for several years been seriously ill in the suites after lifelong alcoholism.'
As early as 1960, Guy Debord, who despite the Situationist gospel of unrestricted freedom, often acted as the movement´s dictator, had dispelled Pinot-Gallizio and several German artists. During The fifth Situationist Conference, which was celebrated in the Swedish town of Gothenburg in 1962, there came to an open conflict between the majority of the practicing artists and a group of ”theorists” who supported Debord. As a result, most of the SI artists, including an artist group called SPUR with its centre in Munich, joined Asger Jorn's brother Jørgen Nash, who recently had established an artist community called Drakabygget. There they retained their beliefs in art as a life-changing activity, but they were more of apolitical anarchists than theoretically inclined activists. After the Gothenburg Conference, only twenty-five of SI's seventy-four members remained in the Situationist International.
Asger Jorn did, despite his increased international recognition and income, continue to be an anarchist in constant conflict with the art establishment. For example, he found the practice of rewarding works of art with prestigious prizes to be utterly absurd and when The Guggenheim Museum in New York decided to award him with the 1964 International Award for his painting Dead Drunk Danes, he declined the reward and sent a telegram to the chairman of the jury in which he declared that he did not want to participate in its ”ridiculous game”.
Jorn had high ambitions and was a diligent writer trying to ”reconstruct philosophy from an artist's perspective”. Accordingly, he refuted on Kirkegaard's theories about a contradiction between an aesthetic and an ethical worldview. He even ventured into an attack on Niels Bohr's epoch-making work on quantum mechanics and further on developed the so-called triolectics, a concept that I do not understand much of, though it has been explained as a ”many-valued”, logical system that, in addition to the value concepts of ”true” and ”false” counts upon a third, indefinite value. It does apparently build upon the mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré´s (1854-1912) assumption that intuition provides the foundation for all of the mathematics
Asger Jorn was an esteemed guest at his brother's Drakabygge. One member of the art commune described Jørgen Nash's anticipation of Asger Jorn's arrival:
Everything was in a whirl of excitement, when Nash’s famous brother came to “Drakabygget”. Nash treated it as if God Almighty was on the way. All the time it sounded “my brother, my brother”. Sometimes I thought, if he says “my brother” one more time, I´ll strangle him.
Jørgen Nash has by himself and others been described as a ”happy rebel”. Jean Sellem told me that he thought Nash to be a better artist than his brother Asger Jorn, who in his art tends to be gloomier and more serious than his light-hearted, ”life-affirmative” brother. They had a difficult childhood, being six siblings whose mother became a widow after her husband died in a car accident. Nash and Jorn started painting early and during the German occupation of Denmark, they both became involved in the Danish resistance movement. Nash escaped to Sweden where he began his career as an ”action poet”.
His most notorious action was to cut off the head of the famous Little Mermaid in Copenhagen´s harbour. Nash claimed that he had placed it in a hatbox and buried it in peat bog close to the Danish seaside resort Tisvilde. The head has never been recovered, despite the fact that Nash underwent lengthy interrogations by the murder squad of the Danish police. Nash was not convicted of his confessed crime since the Police considered him to be ”untrustworthy” and they could consequently not rely on any of his numerous and contradictory acknowledgments.
My father told me about various situations staged by Drakabygget´s artist collective. In his capacity as editorial secretary and later editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, he was often notified about what they were up to. For example, when the artist Finn Sørensen as an act of ”protest against the brutality in the world” let himself be buried alive in a ventilated coffin, provided with a telephone. The day after the solemn burial act, Sørensen and his coffin were dug up by the local police. Sørensen was taken to St. Mary's Mental Hospital in Helsingborg, where a doctor explained that the artist was in need of immediate and enforced mental care.
In 1975, Jens Jörgen Thorsen and Jörgen Nash appeared in the Danish Parliament wearing striped prison suits and outfitted with heavy iron chains, spreading leaflets protesting against the ”formal attacks” on the freedom of expression, which they considered had smitened Thorsen's planned movie about Jesus´s sex life.
When it comes to Thorsen, I find it difficult to support the views of Drakabygget. From time to time, both theirs and the ideology of the Situationist International could, unfortunately, appear as being both pornographic and misogynic. Thorson's 1970 movie Quiet Days in Clichy was based on Henry Miller´s in my opinion worst novel of the same name. Miller is a skilled stylist and I have with great interest read several of his novels and essays, though in that short novel his occasional sensationalism, misogyny, and egocentrism are at their absolute worst. Thorsen's film followed Miller's novel quite faithfully and is thus both annoying and bad, especially due to its pitiful and exploitative view of women.
Miller and Thorson stated they intended to reveal all the falsehood and emptiness that dominate life in capitalist societies and instead explore how something as natural as sex has been turned into a taboo and consumer goods. Despite this probably benevolent purpose, I fully agree with author Jeanette Winterson when she, in a review of Fredrick Turner's hagiography Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer, pours her enraged wit over both Turner and Miller:
Miller the renegade wanted his body slaves like any other capitalist — and as cheaply as possible. When he could not pay, Miller the man and Miller the fictional creation work out how to cheat women with romance. What they could not buy they stole.
The Situationists have been accused of being an exclusive ”men's club” and there might actually be some truth to that. Their magazines were filled with scantily dressed or naked ladies who had been cut out from porn magazines and provided with thought-provoking, or challenging, speech bubbles, initiatives devoid of any worries about the fact that such ”provocations” could be perceived as abusive to women. In addition, for a large part of their lives, several Situationists, like Debord, Jorn, and Nash, were known to be notorious ”women chasers” and famous Situationists like Raoul Vaneigem, Jean-Pierre Bouyoux, and Alexander Trocchi, did under pseudonyms publish rude pornographic novels. Women like Michèle Bernstein, married to Guy Debord, and Jacqueline de Jong, married to Asger Jorn, were excellent writers and of great importance for the formulation of Situationist theses and texts. Nevertheless, Bernstein has later stated that women like her were subordinates to their husbands and supporting actors to male primadonnas.
Thorson's planned movie about Jesus' sex life was blatantly pornographic. The Danish Film Institute promised financial support and a couple of scenes were filmed in Spain and elsewhere. However, wild protests became extensive even before the filming could begin in earnest. In Great Britain, the Vatican and the United States, various religious groups raged against the endeavour, something that of course was expected by Thorsen who considered the hullabaloo to be excellent publicity. The screenplay for the film had already been published as a book and Jørgen Nash gave my father a copy. It turned out to be nothing more than badly written and degrading pornography. Thorsen was far from being a skilled author and the obvious purpose of the entire, tasteless business was to shock as many people as possible, another was probably to make a profit from the unabashed provocation. The Danish Film Institute withdrew its support and Thorsen enjoyed playing the role as victim of Western censorship.
At Drakabygget, Jørgen Nash's goal was to combine art with agriculture. Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and horses were purchased and he made ambitious plans for the future. Extensive drainage ditches were dug to receive Government grants, artworks were exchanged for food and gasoline, although far too much of the expenditure was dependent on Asger Jorn's financial support and he soon tired of keeping the poorly planned agricultural endeavour on its feet. Jørgen Nash was definitely not a farmer and the bohemian members of the artist commune were unwilling to engage in any agricultural activities. They sold art to keep the messy economy going. Over time, artists such as Hardy Strid, Nash's third wife Liz Zwick and Yoshio Nakajima managed to get well paid for their paintings, as did Jørgen, who occasionally signed his artwork with ”Jorn”, to increase the market value.
Drakabygget´s agricultural activities were discontinued, but after many years of balancing on the brink of bankruptcy, Nash's economy gradually improved. Finally, he could to an author who interviewed him in 1999, proudly declare that
I am the poor boy who became a millionaire. But up to the age of 60, I had perpetual problems with surviving.
He posed in front of a painting of the Danish fifteenth-century astronomer Tycho Brahe commissioned and paid for by an art collector at USD 20,000. On the portrait, Nash had attached a three-dimensional nose of genuine silver. He explained:
– Tycho was a goat! He had over 200 children! However, one of the cuckold husbands brought with him five henchmen to Tycho´s castle, Uranienborg, where they cut off the astronomer´s nose. To conceal his disability, at least to some extent, Tycho acquired a silver nose. [When Tycho Brahe's tomb in 2010 was opened in Prague it was found that the nose had actually been made of brass].
Two years before Jørgen Nash died, the Drakabyggets Konsthall Foundation was inaugurated in 2002, but the trust went bankrupt in 2014 and all its collected artwork was sold. Recently, during a visit to my childhood town, the nearby Hässleholm, I saw an advertisement in the display window of the Savings Bank:
Former Drakabygget´s Art Gallery in Örkelljunga is up for sale! It is a completely renovated and bright exhibition hall of about 215 sqm. At the adjacent building there are six garages at the ground floor and a modern apartment upstairs. The entire space can e.g. be converted into apartments.
In Nash's and Jorn's birthplace, the Danish town of Silkeborg, Asger Jorn's museum has, however, become a success. The paintings on display have been valued at around USD 40 million.
Jean Sellem's gallery was closed down. The Municipality ceased to support him and where the gallery was located there is now a hairdressing salon. In his defense, I might say that Jean Sellem's manner of thinking and ideas about art have been important to me and his cultural significance was for many others certainly at least as stimulating as other cultural initiatives supported by the Municipality of Lund.
I am absolutely convinced that within the cultural climate we now live in, no municipal government, and definitely not someone with a Swedish Democratic Party (a deplorably ever-increasing populist party) majority, would support a happy anarchist like Jean Sellem. He was not someone who tried to shock his fellow human beings by attacking their political or religious beliefs. Jean Sellem is a cheerful homo ludens, a playful man, who wants us to be that as well. We should look at life with a more open and light-hearted point of view than the one our everyday confrontations with an impersonal bureaucracy and all kinds of problems lock us up in.
I remember how Sellem once when I looked into his gallery was unusually excited. His good friend Andrzej Ploski had more or less unwittingly created a great turmoil in the centre of Lund. The town´s art gallery was displaying works by someone Sellem labeled as a ”Stalinist fascist”, the East German artist Willi Sitte, something that annoyed the eastern European refugee Ploski, who att the same time considered himself to be poorly treated by KRO, The National Artist Association.
Sellem thought Ploski's ”action” was quite amusing, though I was somewhat hesitant about appreciating Ploski´s prank. It happened in the midst of a time when many Europeans were in constant fear of threatening terrorist attacks, not as now by Islamists, but by political terror groups such as the IRA from Ireland, the ETA from the Basque Country, the RAF from Germany and Italy's Brigate Rosse. Ploski had intended to hand over a make-believe bomb to Konsthallen, The Municipal Art Gallery. A package on which he in large letters had written BOMB. When no one was to be found there and Konsthallen appeared to be closed for lunch he placed his package in front of the entrance doors and went to eat at a restaurant close by. When Ploski got the bill he asked the management of the reputed restaurant to send it to KRO. Of course, this was considered to be a nuisance, if not sheer rudeness. Nevertheless after Ploski had been forced to pay for his expensive lunch he received a certificate from Stäket, i.e. the restaurant, that he initially had asked it to send KRO the bill, With that statement in hand he went over to the office of Sydsvenska Dagbladet, the local newspaper, as a step further in his protest action.
On his way from Sydsvenska Dagbladet, they had not been particularly interested in Ploski's complaints, he found that the central square of Lund, Mårtenstorget, had been sealed off while bomb demolition experts, specially summoned from Copenhagen, had appeared equipped with a remote-controlled robot which now was busy removing his bomb package. It was then in a special vehicle taken from the scene. When the package had been opened during secure circumstances it was found to contain a rubber duck. Since Ploski had written his name and address on the package, he was arrested the same evening. I do not remember the consequences of his actions.
Although Sellem was amused by Ploski's Situationist action I do not think he himself would have been capable of doing anything slightly illegal. I cannot recall any police interventions in connection with Sellem's support to ”marginal and experimental art”. As I now remember Sellem, I recall my good friend Örjan, also he an industrious supporter of ”alternative” art, in his case it mainly about literature. While Sellem was working with his gallery, Örjan was a member of a punk band, Bostonvärk, which devoted itself to music, poetry, and happenings. Like Sellem, he was also a book publisher. The first book he published had no title and was an anthology compiled from anonymous contributions – drawings, poems, essays, and short stories. In it, I published my short story The Bleeding Child that I previously had read at Gallery St. Petri. Örjan also knew Jean Sellem and shared with him his optimism and belief in the transforming power of art.
In 2013, Örjan published a new edition of a book that Jean Sellem in 1981 had printed in eleven copies – Sweden Today. The new edition was produced by hand in 85 numbered copies, all of which were signed by Jan Sellem and sold to customers who had pre-ordered their copies. It is a hardcover book in large format with 1000 completely black pages: ”The result of Jean Sellem's long-standing research on the state of the nation.” Although many told Örjan it was a crazy endeavour to publish Sellem's book, the demand was great and the publisher is now constantly receiving inquiries on how to get hold of the unique book. Nevertheless, the 85 copies are sold out and the book will never be published again. Sweden Today remains listed on the editor´s homepage with the comment:
What is this? An ink bomb? A nihilistic descent into the Maelstream? An unique comment on contemporary Swedish everyday life? But ... all pages are completely black! Is the present situation really as bad as that? Probably, the author's analysis is undoubtedly quite clear and in his eloquence is difficult to dispute.
In spite of the difficult times that have befallen him Jean Sellem has kept his good mood. Marie and he have separated and their Archive for Experimental and Marginal Art has been scattered. Even worse is that such an aesthetically inclined man as Jean Sellem is now almost blind, he can only distinguish faces, images, and text from a short distance.
I find that my essay became much longer than I expected it to be. Something that might be expected while tackling such an intricate issue as the meaning of life. Jean Sellem's answer may partly be hidden within his Sweden Today and Örjan dealt with it in an interesting book he called Livets mening är en hägring, The Meaning of Life is a Mirage. These two books were the ultimate reason why I embarked on writing this blog entry. It is now time to end my long-winding journey along Faust´s and The Situationists' meandering paths. I finish with a question alluding to Nietschze's dictum:
It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.
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