Pan

Pan

PAN KNUT HAMSUN Between "Hunger" and "Growth of the Soil" lies the time generally allotted to a generation but at first glance the two books seem much farther apart. One expresses the passionate revolt of a homeless wanderer against the conventional routine of modern life. The other celebrates a root-fast existence bounded in every direction by monotonous chores. The issuance of two such books from the same pen suggests to the superficial view a complete reversal of position. The truth however is that Hamsun stands today where he has always stood. His objective is the same. If he has changed it is only in the intensity of his feeling and the mode of his attack. What above all he hates and combats is the artificial uselessness of existence which to him has become embodied in the life of the city as opposed to that of the country. Problems do not enter into the novels of Hamsun in the same manner as they did into the plays of Ibsen. Hamsun would seem to take life as it is not with any pretense at its complete acceptability but without hope or avowed intention of making it over. If his tolerance be never free from satire his satire is on the other hand always easily tolerant. One might almost suspect him of viewing life as something static against which all fight would be futile. Even life's worst brutalities are related with an offhandedness of manner that makes you look for the joke that must be at the bottom of them. The word _reform_ would seem to be strangely eliminated from his dictionary or if present it might be found defined as a humorous conception of something intrinsically unachievable. Hamsun would not be the artist he is if he were less deceptive. He has his problems no less than Ibsen had and he is much preoccupied with them even when he appears lost in ribald laughter. They are different from Ibsen's however and in that difference lies one of the chief explanations of Hamsun's position as an artist. All of Ibsen's problems became in the last instance reducible to a single relationship--that between the individual and his own self. To be himself was his cry and his task. With this consummation in view he plumbed every depth of human nature. This one thing achieved all else became insignificant. Hamsun begins where Ibsen ended one might say. The one problem never consciously raised by him as a problem is that of man's duty or ability to express his own nature. That is taken for granted. The figures populating the works of Hamsun whether centrally placed or moving shadowlike in the periphery are first of all themselves--agressively inevitably unconsciously so In other words they are like their creator. They may perish tragically or ridiculously as a result of their common inability to lay violent hand on their own natures. They may go through life warped and dwarfed for lack of an adjustment that to most of us might seem both easy and natural. Their own selves may become more clearly revealed to them by harsh or happy contacts with life and they may change their surfaces accordingly. The one thing never occurring to them is that they might for the sake of something or some one outside of themselves be anything but what they are. There are interferences however and it is from these that Hamsun's problems spring. A man may prosper or suffer by being himself and in neither case is the fault his own. There are factors that more or less fatally influence and circumscribe the supremely important factor that is his own self. Roughly these fall into three groups suggestive of three classes of relationships: (1) between man and his general environment; (2) between man and that ever-present force of life which we call love; and (3) between man and life in its entirety as an omnipotence that some of us call God and others leave unnamed. Hamsun's deceptive preference for indirectness is shown by the fact that while he tries to make us believe that his work is chiefly preoccupied with problems of the second class his mind is really busy with those of the first class. The explanation is simple. Nothing helps like love to bring out the unique qualities of a man's nature. On the other hand there is nothing that does more to prevent a man from being himself than the ruts of habit into which his environment always tends to drive him. There are two kinds of environment natural and human. Hamsun appears to think that the less you have of one and the more of the other the better for yourself and for humanity as a whole. The city to him is primarily concentrated human environment and as such bad. This phase of his attitude toward life almost amounts to a phobia. It must be connected with personal experiences of unusual depth and intensity. Perhaps it offers a key that may be well worth searching for. Hamsun was born in the country of and among peasants. In such surroundings he grew up. The removal of his parents from the central inland part of Norway to the rocky northern coast meant a change of natural setting but not a human contact. The sea must have come into his life as a revelation and yet it plays an astonishingly small part in his work. It is always present but always in the distance. You hear of it but you are never taken to it. At about fifteen Hamsun had an experience which is rarely mentioned as part of the scant biographical material made available by his reserve concerning his own personality. He returned to the old home of his parents in the Gudbrand Valley and worked for a few months as clerk in a country store--a store just like any one of those that figure so conspicuously in almost every one of his novels. The place and the work must have made a revolutionary impression on him. It apparently aroused longings and it probably laid the basis for resistances and resentments that later blossomed into weedlike abundance as he came in contact with real city life. There runs through his work a strange sense of sympathy for the little store on the border of the wilderness but it is also stamped as the forerunner and panderer of the lures of the city. As a boy of eighteen when working in a tiny coast town as a cobbler's apprentice he ventured upon his first literary endeavors and actually managed to get two volumes printed at his own cost. The art of writing was in his blood exercising a call and a command that must have been felt as a pain at times and as a consecration at other times. Books and writing were connected with the city. Perhaps the hatred that later days developed had its roots in a thwarted passion. Even in the little community where his first scribblings reached print he must have felt himself in urban surroundings and perhaps those first crude volumes drew upon him laughter and scorn that his sensitive soul never forgot. If something of the kind happened the seed thus sown was nourished plentifully afterwards when as a young man Hamsun pitted his ambitions against the indifference first of Christiania and then of Chicago. The result was a defeat that seemed the more bitter because it looked like punishment incurred by straying after false gods. Others have suffered in the same way although being less rigidly themselves they may not like Hamsun have taken a perverse pleasure in driving home the point of the agony. Others have thought and said harsh things of the cities. But no one that I can recall has equalled Hamsun in his merciless denunciation of the very principle of urbanity. The truth of it seems to be that Hamsun's pilgrimage to the bee hives where modern humanity clusters typically was an essential violation of something within himself that mattered even more than his literary ambition to his soul's integrity. Perhaps if I am right he is the first genuine peasant who has risen to such artistic mastery reaching its ultimate heights through a belated recognition of his own proper settings. Hamsun was sixty when he wrote "Growth of the Soil." It is the first work in which he celebrates the life of the open country for its own sake and not merely as a contrast to the artificiality and selfishness of the cities. It was written too after he had definitely withdrawn himself from the gathering places of the writers and the artists to give an equal share of his time and attention to the tilling of the soil that was at last his own. It is the harvest of his ultimate self-discovery. The various phases of his campaign against city life are also interesting and illuminating. Early in his career as a writer he tried an open attack in full force by a couple of novels "Shallow Soil" and "Editor Lynge" dealing sarcastically with the literary Bohemia of the Norwegian capital. They were on the whole failures--artistically rather than commercially. They are among his poorest books. The attack was never repeated in that form. He retired to the country so to speak and tried from there to strike at what he could reach of the ever expanding ever devouring city. After that the city like the sea is always found in the distance. One feels it without ever seeing it. There is fear as well as hatred in his treatment of it. In the country it is represented not so much by the store which after all fills an unmistakable need on the part of the rural population as by the representatives of the various professions. For these Hamsun entertains a hostile feeling hardly less marked than that bestowed on their place of origin whither to his openly declared disgust they are always longing. It does not matter whether they are ministers or actors lawyers or doctors--they are all tarred with the same brush. Their common characteristic is their rootlessness. They have no real home because to Hamsun a home is unthinkable apart from a space of soil possessed in continuity by successive generations. They are always despising the surroundings in which they find themselves temporarily and their chief claim to distinction is a genuine or pretended knowledge of life on a large scale. Greatness is to them inseparably connected with crowdedness and what they call sophistication is at bottom nothing but a wallowing in that herd instinct which takes the place of mankind's ancient antagonist in Hamsun's books. Above all their standards of judgment are not their own. From what has just been said one might conclude that the spirit of Hamsun is fundamentally unsocial. So it is in a way but only in so far as we have come to think of social and urban as more or less interchangeable terms. He has a social consciousness and a social passion of his own but it is decentralized one might say. He knows of no greater man than his own Isak of "Growth of the Soil"--a simple pioneer in whose wake new homes spring up an inarticulate and uncouth personification of man's mastery of nature. When Hamsun speaks of Isak passing across the yearning spring-stirred fields "with the grain flung in fructifying waves from his reverent hands" he pictures it deliberately in the light of a religious rite--the oldest and most significant known to man. It is as if the man who starved in Christiania and the western cities of the United States--not figuratively but literally--had once for all conceived a respect for man's principal food that has colored all subsequent life for him and determined his own attitude toward everything by a reference to its connection or lack of connection with that substance. Taking it all in all one may well call Hamsun old-fashioned. The virtues winning his praise and the conditions that stir his longings are not of the present day. There is in him something primitive that forms a sharp contrast to the modernity of his own style. Even in his most romantic exaggerations as in "Hunger" and "Mysteries" he is a realist dealing unrelentingly with life as it appears to us. It would hardly be too much to call his method scientific. But he uses it to aim tremendous explosive charges at those human concentrations that made possible the forging of the weapons he wields so skilfully. Nor does he stop at a wish to see those concentrations scattered. The very ambitions and Utopias bred within them are anathema to his soul that places simplicity above cleanliness in divine proximity. Characteristically we find that the one art treated with constant sympathy in his writings is that of music which probably is the earliest and certainly the one least dependent on the herding of men in barracks. In place of what he wishes to take away he offers nothing but peace and the sense of genuine creation that comes to the man who has just garnered the harvests of his own fields into his bulging barns. He is a prophet of plenty but he has no answer ready when we ask him what we are going to do with it after we have got it. Like a true son of the brooding North he wishes to set us thinking but he has no final solutions to offer. EDWIN BJORKMAN. PAN I These last few days I have been thinking and thinking of the Nordland summer with its endless day. Sitting here thinking of that and of a hut I lived in and of the woods behind the hut. And writing things down by way of passing the time; to amuse myself no more. The time goes very slowly; I cannot get it to pass as quickly as I would though I have nothing to sorrow for and live as pleasantly as could be. I am well content withal and my thirty years are no age to speak of. A few days back someone sent me two feathers. Two bird's feathers in a sheet of note-paper with a coronet and fastened with a seal. Sent from a place a long way off; from one who need not have sent them back at all. That amused me too those devilish green feathers. And for the rest I have no troubles unless for a touch of gout now and again in my left foot from an old bullet-wound healed long since. Two years ago I remember the time passed quickly--beyond all comparison more quickly than time now. A summer was gone before I knew. Two years ago it was in 1855. I will write of it just to amuse myself--of something that happened to me or something I dreamed. Now I have forgotten many things belonging to that time by having scarcely thought of them since. But I remember that the nights were very light. And many things seemed curious and unnatural. Twelve months to the year--but night was like day and never a star to be seen in the sky. And the people I met were strange and of a different nature from those I had known before; sometimes a single night was enough to make them blossom out from childhood into the full of their glory ripe and fully grown. No witchery in this; only I had never seen the like before. No. In a white roomy home down by the sea I met with one who busied my thoughts for a little time. I do not always think of her now; not any more. No; I have forgotten her. But I think of all the other things: the cry of the sea-birds my hunting in the woods my nights and all the warm hours of that summer. After all it was only by the merest accident I happened to meet her; save for that she would never have been in my thoughts for a day. From the hut where I lived I could see a confusion of rocks and reefs and islets and a little of the sea and a bluish mountain peak or so; behind the hut was the forest. A huge forest it was; and I was glad and grateful beyond measure for the scent of roots and leaves the thick smell of the fir-sap that is like the smell of marrow. Only the forest could bring all things to calm within me; my mind was strong and at ease. Day after day I tramped over the wooded hills with Asop at my side and asked no more than leave to keep on going there day after day though most of the ground was covered still with snow and soft slush. I had no company but Asop; now it is Cora but at that time it was Asop my dog that I afterwards shot. Often in the evening when I came back to the hut after being out shooting all day I could feel that kindly homely feeling trickling through me from head to foot--a pleasant little inward shivering. And I would talk to Asop about it saying how comfortable we were. "There now we'll get a fire going and roast a bird on the hearth" I would say; "what do you say to that?" And when it was done and we had both fed Asop would slip away to his place behind the hearth while I lit a pipe and lay down on the bench for a while listening to the dead soughing of the trees. There was a slight breeze bearing down towards the hut and I could hear quite clearly the clutter of a grouse far away on the ridge behind. Save for that all was still. And many a time I fell asleep there as I lay just as I was fully dressed and all and did not wake till the seabirds began calling. And then looking out of the window I could see the big white buildings of the trading station the landing stage at Girilund the store where I used to get my bread. And I would lie there a while wondering how I came to be there in a hut on the fringe of a forest away up in Nordland. Then Asop over by the hearth would shake out his long slender body rattling his collar and yawning and wagging his tail and I would jump up after those three or four hours of sleep fully rested and full of joy in everything ... everything. Many a night passed just that way. II Rain and storm--'tis not such things that count. Many a time some little joy can come along on a rainy day and make a man turn off somewhere to be alone with his happiness--stand up somewhere and look out straight ahead laughing quietly now and again and looking round. What is there to think of? One clear pane in a window a ray of sunlight in the pane the sight of a little brook or maybe a blue strip of sky between the clouds. It needs no more than that. At other times even quite unusual happenings cannot avail to lift a man from dulness and poverty of mind; one can sit in the middle of a ballroom and be cool indifferent unaffected by anything. Sorrow and joy are from within oneself. One day I remember now. I had gone down to the coast. The rain came on suddenly and I slipped into an open boathouse to sit down for a while. I was humming a little but not for any joy or pleasure only to pass the time. Asop was with me; he sat up listening and I stopped humming and listened as well. Voices outside; people coming nearer. A mere chance--nothing more natural. A little party two men and a girl came tumbling in suddenly to where I sat calling to one another and laughing: "Quick! Get in here till it stops!" I got up. One of the men had a white shirt front soft and now soaked with rain into the bargain and all bagging down; and in that wet shirt front a diamond clasp. Long pointed shoes he wore too that looked somewhat affected. I gave him good-day. It was Mack the trader; I knew him because he was from the store where I used to get my bread. He had asked me to look in at the house any time but I had not been there yet. "Aha it's you is it?" said Mack at sight of me. "We were going up to the mill but had to turn back. Ever see such weather--what? And when are you coming up to see us at Sirilund Lieutenant?" He introduced the little black-bearded man who was with him; a doctor staying down near the church. The girl lifted her veil the least little bit to her nose and started talking to Asop in a whisper. I noticed her jacket; I could see from the lining and the buttonholes that it had been dyed. Mack introduced me to her as well; his daughter Edwarda. Edwarda gave me one glance through her veil and went on whispering to the dog and reading on its collar: "So you're called Asop are you? Doctor who was Asop? All I can remember is that he wrote fables. Wasn't he a Phrygian? I can't remember." A child a schoolgirl. I looked at her--she was tall but with no figure to speak of about fifteen or sixteen with long dark hands and no gloves. Like as not she had looked up Asop in the dictionary that afternoon to have it ready. Mack asked me what sport I was having. What did I shoot mostly? I could have one of his boats at any time if I wanted--only let him know. The Doctor said nothing at all. When they went off again I noticed that the Doctor limped a little and walked with a stick. I walked home as empty in mind as before humming all indifferently. That meeting in the boathouse had made no difference either way to me; the one thing I remembered best of all was Mack's wet shirt front with a diamond clasp--the diamond all wet too and no great brilliance about it either. III There was a stone outside my hut a tall grey stone. It looked as if it had a sort of friendly feeling towards me; as if it noticed me when I came by and knew me again. I liked to go round that way past the stone when I went out in the morning; it was like leaving a good friend there who I knew would be still waiting for me when I came back. Then up in the woods hunting sometimes finding game sometimes none... Out beyond the islands the sea lay heavily calm. Many a time I have stood and looked at it from the hills far up above. On a calm day the ships seemed hardly to move at all; I could see the same sail for three days small and white like a gull on the water. Then perhaps if the wind veered round the peaks in the distance would almost disappear and there came a storm the south-westerly gale; a play for me to stand and watch. All things in a seething mist. Earth and sky mingled together the sea flung up into fantastic dancing figures of men and horses and fluttering banners on the air. I stood in the shelter of an overhanging rock thinking many things; my soul was tense. Heaven knows I thought to myself what it is I am watching here and why the sea should open before my eyes. Maybe I am seeing now the inner brain of earth how things are at work there boiling and foaming. Asop was restless; now and again he would thrust up his muzzle and sniff in a troubled way with legs quivering uneasily; when I took no notice he lay down between my feet and stared out to sea as I was doing. And never a cry never a word of human voice to be heard anywhere; nothing; only the heavy rush of the wind about my head. There was a reef of rocks far out lying all apart; when the sea raged up over it the water towered like a crazy screw; nay like a sea-god rising wet in the air and snorting till hair and beard stood out like a wheel about his head. Then he plunged down into the breakers once more. And in the midst of the storm a little coal-black steamer fighting its way in... When I went down to the quay in the afternoon the little coal-black steamer had come in; it was the mail-packet. Many people had gathered on the quayside to see the rare visitor; I noticed that all without exception had blue eyes however different they might be in other ways. A young girl with a white woolen kerchief over her head stood a little apart; she had very dark hair and the white kerchief showed up strangely against it. She looked at me curiously at my leather suit my gun; when I spoke to her she was embarrassed and turned her head away. I said: "You should always wear a white kerchief like that; it suits you well." Just then a burly man in an Iceland jersey came up and joined her; he called her Eva. Evidently she was his daughter. I knew the burly man; he was the local smith the blacksmith. Only a few days back he had mended the nipple of one of my guns... And rain and wind did their work and thawed away the snow. For some days a cheerless cold hovered over the earth; rotten branches snapped and the crows gathered in flocks complaining. But it was not for long; ...