Look Back on Happiness

Look Back on Happiness

LOOK BACK ON HAPPINESS KNUT HAMSUN I I have gone to the forest. Not because I am offended about anything or very unhappy about men's evil ways; but since the forest will not come to me I must go to it. That is all. I have not gone this time as a slave and a vagabond. I have money enough and am overfed stupefied with success and good fortune if you understand that. I have left the world as a sultan leaves rich food and harems and flowers and clothes himself in a hair shirt. Really I could make quite a song and dance about it. For I mean to roam and think and make great irons red-hot. Nietzsche no doubt would have spoken thus: The last word I spake unto men achieved their praise and they nodded. But it was my last word; and I went into the forest. For then did I comprehend the truth that my speech must needs be dishonest or foolish.... But I said nothing of the kind; I simply went to the forest. * * * * * You must not believe that nothing ever happens here. The snowflakes drift down just as they do in the city and the birds and beasts scurry about from morning till night and from night till morning. I could send solemn stories from this place but I do not. I have sought the forest for solitude and for the sake of my great irons; for I have great irons which lie within me and grow red-hot. So I deal with myself accordingly. Suppose I were to meet a buck reindeer one day then I might say to myself: "Great heavens this is a buck reindeer he's dangerous!" But if then I should be too frightened I might tell myself a comforting lie and say it was a calf or some feathered beast. You say nothing happens here? One day I saw two Lapps meet. A boy and a girl. At first they behaved as people do. "_Boris!_" they said to each other and smiled. But immediately after both fell at full length in the snow and were gone from my sight. After a quarter of an hour had passed I thought "You'd better see to them; they may be smothered in the snow." But then they got up and went their separate ways. In all my weatherbeaten days I have never seen such a greeting as that. * * * * * Day and night I live in a deserted hut of peat into which I must crawl on my hands and knees. Someone must have built it long ago and used it for lack of a better--perhaps a man who was in hiding a man who concealed himself here for a few autumn days. There are two of us in the hut that is if you regard Madame as a person; otherwise there is only one. Madame is a mouse I live with to whom I have given this honorary title. She eats everything I put aside for her in the nooks and corners and sometimes she sits watching me. When I first came there was stale straw in the hut which Madame by all means was allowed to keep; for my own bed I cut fresh pine twigs as is fitting. I have an ax and a saw and the necessary crockery. And I have a sleeping bag of sheepskin with the wool inside. I keep a fire burning in the fireplace all night and my shirt which hangs by it smells of fresh resin in the morning. When I want coffee I go out fill the kettle with clean snow and hang it over the fire till the snow turns to water. Is this a life worth living? There you have betrayed yourself. This is a life you do not understand. Yes your home is in the city and you have furnished it with vanities with pictures and books; but you have a wife and a servant and a hundred expenses. Asleep or awake you must keep pace with the world and are never at peace. I have peace. You are welcome to your intellectual pastimes and books and art and newspapers; welcome too to your bars and your whisky that only makes me ill. Here am I in the forest quite content. If you ask me intellectual questions and try to trip me up then I will reply for example that God is the origin of all things and that truly men are mere specks and atoms in the universe. You are no wiser than I. But if you should go so far as to ask me what is eternity then I know quite as much in this matter too and reply thus: Eternity is merely unborn time nothing but unborn time. My friend come here to me and I will take a mirror from my pocket and reflect the sun on your face my friend. You lie in bed till ten or eleven in the morning yet you are weary exhausted when you get up. I see you in my mind's eye as you go out into the street; the morning has dawned too early on your blinking eyes. I rise at five quite refreshed. It is still dark outdoors yet there is enough to look at--the moon the stars the clouds and the weather portents for the day. I prophesy the weather for many hours ahead. In what key do the winds whistle? Is the crack of the ice in the Glimma light and dry or deep and long? These are splendid portents and as it grows lighter I add the visible signs to the audible ones and learn still more. Then a narrow streak of daylight appears far down in the east the stars fade from the sky and soon light reigns over all. A crow flies over the woods and I warn Madame not to go outside the hut or she will be devoured. But if fresh snow has fallen the trees and copses and the great rocks take on giant unearthly shapes as though they had come from another world in the night. A storm-felled pine with its root torn up looks like a witch petrified in the act of performing strange rites. Here a hare has sprung by and yonder are the tracks of a solitary reindeer. I shake out my sleeping bag and after hanging it high in a tree to escape Madame who eats everything I follow the tracks of the reindeer into the forest. It has jogged along without haste but toward a definite goal--straight east to meet the day. By the banks of the Skiel which is so rapid that its waters never freeze the reindeer has stopped to drink to scrape the hillside for moss to rest a while and then moved on. And perhaps what this reindeer has done is all the knowledge and experience I gain that day. It seems much to me. The days are short; at two I am already strolling homeward in the deep twilight with the good still night approaching. Then I begin to cook. I have a great deal of meat stored in three pure-white drifts of snow. In fact I have something even better: eight fat cheeses of reindeer milk to eat with butter and crisp-bread. While the pot is boiling I lie down and gaze at the fire till I fall asleep. I take my midday nap before my meal. And when I waken the food is cooked filling the hut with an aroma of meat and resin. Madame darts back and forth across the floor and at length gets her share. I eat and light my cutty-pipe. The day is at an end. All has been well and I have had no unpleasantness. In the great silence surrounding me I am the only adult roaming man; this makes me bigger and more important God's kin. And I believe the red-hot irons within me are progressing well for God does great things for his kin. I lie thinking of the reindeer the path it took what it did by the river and how it continued on its journey. There under the trees it has nibbled and its horns have rubbed against the bark leaving their marks; there an osier bed has forced it to turn aside; but just beyond it has straightened its path and continued east once more. All this I think of. And you? Have you read in a newspaper which disagrees with another newspaper what the public in Norway is thinking of old-age insurance? II On stormy days I sit indoors and find something to occupy my time. Perhaps I write letters to some acquaintance or other telling him I am well and hope to hear the same from him. But I cannot post the letters and they grow older every day. Not that it matters. I have tied the letters to a string that hangs from the ceiling to prevent Madame from gnawing at them. One day a man came to the hut. He walked swiftly and stealthily; his clothes were ordinary and he wore no collar for he was a laboring man. He carried a sack and I wondered what could be in it. "Good morning" we said to each other. "Fine weather in the woods." "I didn't expect to find anybody in the hut" said the man. His manner was at once forceful and discontented; he flung down the sack without humility. "He may know something about me" I thought "since he is such a man." "Have you lived here long?" he asked. "And are you leaving soon?" "Is the hut yours perhaps?" I asked in my turn. Then he looked at me. "Because if the hut is yours that's another matter" I said. "But I don't intend like a pickpocket to take it with me when I leave." I spoke gently and jestingly to avoid committing a blunder by my speech. But I had said quite the right thing; the man at once lost his assurance. Somehow I had made him feel that I knew more about him than he knew about me. When I asked him to come in he was grateful and said: "Thank you but I'm afraid I'll get snow all over your floor." Then he took special pains to wipe his boots clean and bringing his sack with him crawled in. "I could give you some coffee" I said. "You shouldn't trouble on my account" he replied wiping his face and panting with the heat "though I've been walking all night." "Are you crossing the fjeld?" "That depends. I don't suppose there's work to be got on a winter day on the other side either." I gave him coffee. "Got anything to eat?" he said. "It's a shame to ask you. A round of crisp-bread? I had no chance to bring food with me." "Yes I've got bread butter and reindeer cheese. Help yourself." "It's not so easy for a lot of people in the winter" said the man as he ate. "Could you take some letters to the village for me?" I asked. "I'll pay you for it." "Oh no I couldn't do that" the man replied. "I'm afraid that's impossible. I must cross the fjeld now. I've heard there's work in Hilling in the Hilling Forest. So I can't." "Must get his back up a bit again" I thought. "He just sits now there without any guts at all. In the end he'll start begging for a few coppers." I felt his sack and said: "What's this you're lugging about with you? Heavy things?" "Mind your own business!" was his instant retort as he drew the sack closer to him. "I wasn't going to steal any of it; I'm no thief" I said jesting again. "I don't care what you are" he muttered. The day wore on. Since I had a visitor I had no desire to go to the woods but wanted to sit and talk to him and ask him questions. He was a very ordinary man of no great interest to the irons in my fire with dirty hands uneducated and uninteresting in his speech; probably he had stolen the things in his sack. Later I learned that he was quick in much small knowledge that life had taught him. He complained that his heels felt cold and took off his boots. And no wonder he felt cold for where the heels of his stockings should have been there were only great holes. He borrowed a knife to cut away the ragged edges and then drew on the stockings again back to front so that the torn soles came over his instep. When he had put on his boots again he said "There now it's nice and warm." He did no harm. If he took down the saw and the ax from their hooks to inspect them he put them back again where he had found them. When he examined the letters trying perhaps to read the addresses he did not let them go carelessly leaving them to swing back and forth but held the string so that it hung motionless. I had no reason to complain about him. He had his midday meal with me and when he had eaten he said: "Do you mind if I cut myself some pine twigs to sit on?" He went out to cut off some soft pine and we had to move Madame's straw to make room for the man inside the hut. Then we lay on our twigs burning resin and talking. He was still there in the afternoon still lying down as though to postpone the time of his leaving. When it began to grow dark he went to the low doorway and looked out at the weather. Then turning his head back he asked: "Do you think there'll be snow tonight?" "You ask me questions and I ask you questions" I said "but it looks like snow; the smoke is blowing down." It made him uneasy to think it might snow and he said he had better leave that night. Suddenly he flew into a rage. For as I lay there I stretched so that my hand accidentally touched his sack again. "You leave me alone!" he shouted tearing the sack from my grasp. "Don't you touch that sack or I'll show you!" I replied that I had meant nothing by it and had no intention of stealing anything from him. "Stealing eh! What of it? I'm not afraid of you and don't you go thinking I am! Look here's what I've got in the bag" said the man and began to rummage in it and to show me the contents: three pairs of new mittens some sort of thick cloth for garments a bag of barley a side of bacon sixteen rolls of tobacco and a few large lumps of sugar candy. In the bottom of the bag was perhaps half a bushel of coffee beans. No doubt it was all from the general stores with the exception of a heap of broken crisp-bread which might have been stolen elsewhere. "So you've got crisp-bread after all" I said. "If you knew anything about it you wouldn't talk like that" the man replied. "When I'm crossing the fjeld on foot walking and walking don't I need food to put in my belly? It's blasphemy to listen to you!" Neatly and carefully he put everything back into the sack each article in its turn. He took pains to build up the rolls of tobacco round the bacon to protect the cloth from grease stains. "You might buy this cloth from me" he said. "I'll let you have it cheap. It's duffle. It only gets in my way." "How much do you want for it?" I asked. "There's enough for a whole suit of clothes maybe more" he said to himself as he spread it out. I said to the man: "Truly you come here into the forest bringing with you life and the world and intellectual values and news. Let us talk a little. Tell me something: are you afraid your footprints will be visible tomorrow if there's fresh snow tonight?" "That's my business. I've crossed the field before and I know many paths" he muttered. "I'll let you have the cloth for a few crowns." I shook my head so the man again neatly folded the cloth and put it back in the bag exactly as though it belonged to him. "I'll cut it up into material for trousers; then the pieces won't be so large and I'll be able to sell it." "You'd better leave enough for a whole suit in one piece" I said "and cut up the rest for trousers." "You think so? Yes maybe you're right." We calculated how much would be necessary for a grown man's suit and took down the string from which the letters hung to measure our own clothes so as to be sure to get the measurements right. Then we cut into the edge of the cloth and tore it across. In addition to one complete suit there was enough left for two good-sized pairs of trousers. Then the man offered to sell me other things out of his sack and I bought some coffee and a few rolls of tobacco. He put the money away in a leather purse and I saw how empty the purse was and the circumstantial and poverty-stricken fashion in which he put the money away afterward feeling the outside of his pocket. "You haven't been able to sell me much" I said "but I don't need any more than that." "Business is business" said he. "I don't complain." It was quite decent of him. While he was making ready to depart and clearing his bed of pine needles out of the way I thought pityingly of his sordid little theft. Stealing because he was needy--a side of bacon and a length of cloth which he was trying to sell in the forest! Theft has indeed ceased to be a matter of great moment. This is because legal punishment for misdemeanors of all kinds has also ceased to be of great moment. It is only a dull human punishment; the religious element has been removed from the law and a local magistrate is no longer a man of mystic power. I well remember the last time I heard a judge explain the meaning of the oath as it should be explained. It chilled us all to the bone to hear him. We need some witchcraft again and the Sixth Book of Moses and the sin against the Holy Ghost and signing your name in the blood of a newly baptized child! Steal a sack of money and silver treasure if you like and hide the sack in the hills where on autumn evenings a blue flame will hover over the spot. But don't come to me with three pairs of mittens and a side of household bacon! The man no longer worried about the sack; leaving it behind he crawled out of the hut to study the weather. The coffee and tobacco I had bought I put back into the sack for I did not need them. When he returned he said: "I think after all I'd better stop the night here with you if you don't mind." In the evening he gave no indication of being prepared to contribute any of his own food. I cooked some coffee and gave him some dry bread to eat with it. "You shouldn't have expenses for me" he said. Then he began to rummage in his sack again pushing the bacon well down so that the cloth might not be stained by it; after this he took off his leather belt and put it round the sack with a loop to carry over one shoulder. "Now if I take the neck of the sack over the other shoulder I'll find it easier to carry" he said. I gave him my letters to post on the other side of the fjeld and he stowed them away safely slapping the outside of his pocket afterward; I also gave him a special envelope in which to keep the money for the stamps and tied it to the neck of the sack. "Where do you live?" I asked him. "Where can a poor man live? Of course I live by the sea. I'm sorry to say I have a wife and children--no use denying it." "How many children have you?" "Four. One's got a crippled arm and the others--there's something wrong with all of them. It's not easy for a poor devil. My wife's ill and a few days ago she thought she was dying and wanted Communion." A sad note crept into his voice. But the note was false. He was telling me a pack of lies. When they came to look for him from the village no Christian would have the heart to accuse a man with such a large and sick family. This no doubt was his meaning. Man oh man thou art worse than a mouse! I questioned him no further but asked him to sing something a ballad or a song since we had nothing else to do. "I've no heart to sing now" he replied. "Except possibly a hymn." "All right; sing a hymn then." "Not now. I'd like to do you a favor but--" His uneasiness was rising. A little later he took his sack and went out. "Well he's gone" I thought "but he hasn't said the customary peace-be-with-you. I'm glad I've come into the forest" I thought. "This is my home and from this day forth no mother's son shall come within my walls again." I made an elaborate agreement with myself that I should have no more truck with men. "Madame come here" I said. "I esteem you highly and herewith Madame I undertake to enter upon a union with you for life!" Half an hour later the man returned. He carried no sack. "I thought you'd gone" I said. ...