[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Susan Sontag: A Report on the Journey
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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Essay: A Report on
February 20, 2005
Just weeks before she died last December, Susan Sontag completed
this introduction to ''Under the Glacier,'' by the Nobel laureate
Halldor Laxness. The novel, translated by Magnus Magnusson, will be
published by Vintage International (paper, $14) next month.
The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name,
has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated
in the 19th century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose
options and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life.
Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kinds
of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on
traditions that are more venerable than those of the 19th century, but
still, to this day, seem innovative or ultraliterary or bizarre. I am
thinking of novels that proceed largely through dialogue; novels that
are relentlessly jocular (and therefore seem exaggerated) or didactic;
novels whose characters spend most of their time musing to themselves
or debating with a captive interlocutor about spiritual and
intellectual issues; novels that tell of the initiation of an
ingenuous young person into mystifying wisdom or revelatory abjection;
novels with characters who have supernatural options, like
shape-shifting and resurrection; novels that evoke imaginary
geography. It seems odd to describe ''Gulliver's Travels'' or
''Candide'' or ''Tristram Shandy'' or ''Jacques the Fatalist and His
Master'' or ''Alice in Wonderland'' or Gershenzon and Ivanov's
''Correspondence From Two Corners'' or Kafka's ''The Castle'' or
Hesse's ''Steppenwolf'' or Woolf's ''The Waves'' or Olaf Stapledon's
''Odd John'' or Gombrowicz's ''Ferdydurke'' or Calvino's ''Invisible
Cities'' or, for that matter, porno narratives, simply as novels. To
make the point that these occupy the outlying precincts of the novel's
main tradition, special labels are invoked.
Tale, fable, allegory.
Literature of fantasy.
Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries'
perdurable literary achievements into one or another of these
The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldor Laxness's
wildly original, morose, uproarious ''Under the Glacier.''
Science fiction first.
In 1864 Jules Verne published ''Journey to the Center of the Earth,''
the charming narrative of the adventures of a party of three, led by a
German professor of mineralogy -- the irascible mad-scientist type --
who have lowered themselves into an extinct volcanic crater on a
glacier in Iceland, Snaefells, and eventually exit upward through the
mouth of an active volcano on another island, Stromboli, off the coast
of Sicily. And Snaefells is again the designated portal of another
unlikely fictional mission just over a hundred years later, in 1968,
in a novel by Iceland's own Halldor Laxness, written with full mocking
awareness of how the French father of science fiction had colonized
the Icelandic site. This time, instead of a journey into the earth,
mere proximity to the glacier opens up access to unexpected, cosmic
Imagining the exceptional, which is often understood as the
miraculous, the magical or the supernatural, is a perennial job of
storytelling. One tradition proposes a physical place of entry -- a
cave or a tunnel or a hole -- which leads to a freakish or enchanted
kingdom with an alternative normality. In Laxness's story, a sojourn
near Snaefells does not call for the derring-do of a descent, a
penetration, since, as Icelanders who inhabit the region know, the
glacier itself is the center of the universe. The supernatural -- the
center -- is present on the surface, in the costume of everyday life
in a village whose errant pastor has ceased to conduct services or
baptize children or bury the dead. Christianity -- Iceland's
confession is Evangelical Lutheran -- is the name of what is normal,
historical, local.* (The agricultural Viking island converted to
Christianity on a single day at the Althing, the world's oldest
national parliament, in 999.) But what is happening in remote
Snaefells is abnormal, cosmic, global.
Science fiction proposes two essential challenges to conventional
ideas of time and place. One is that time may be abridged, or become
''unreal.'' The other is that there are special places in the universe
where familiar laws that govern identity and morality are violated. In
more strenuous forms of science fiction, these are places where good
and evil contend. In benign versions of this geographical
exceptionalism, these are places where wisdom accumulates. Snaefells
is such a place -- or so it is stipulated. People lead their mundane,
peculiar lives, seemingly unfazed by the knowledge of the uniqueness
of where they live: ''No one in these parts doubts that the glacier is
the center of the universe.'' Snaefells has become a laboratory of the
new, the unsettling: a place of secret pilgrimage.
As a species of storytelling, science fiction is a modern variant of
the literature of allegorical quest. It often takes the form of a
perilous or mysterious journey, recounted by a venturesome but
ignorant traveler who braves the obstacles to confront another reality
that is charged with revelations. He -- for it is always a he --
stands for humanity as apprenticeship, since women are not thought to
be representative of human beings in general but only of women. A
woman can represent Women. Only a man can stand for Man or Mankind --
everybody. Of course, a female protagonist can represent The Child --
as in ''Alice in Wonderland'' -- but not The Adult.
Thus, both ''Journey to the Center of the Earth'' and ''Under the
Glacier'' have as their protagonists and narrators a good-natured,
naïve young man who submits his will to that of an older authority
figure. Verne's narrator is the eminent Professor Lidenbrock's
orphaned nephew and assistant, Axel, who cannot refuse the invitation
to accompany his uncle and an Icelandic guide on this adventure,
though he is sure that it will cost them their lives. In Laxness's
novel, which opens on a note of parody, the narrator is a nameless
youth whom the bishop of Iceland in Reykjavik wants to send to the
village at the foot of Snaefells Glacier ''to conduct the most
important investigation at that world-famous mountain since the days
of Jules Verne.'' He is to find out what has happened to the parish
there, whose minister -- pastor Jon Jonsson, known as Primus -- has
not drawn his salary for 20 years. Is Christianity still being
practiced? There are rumors that the church is boarded up and no
services held, that the pastor lives with someone who is not his wife,
that he has allowed a corpse to be lodged in the glacier.
The bishop tells the young man he has sent countless letters to
Primus. No answer. He wants the young man to make a brief trip to the
village, talk to the pastor, and take the true measure of his
And beyond science fiction.
''Under the Glacier'' is at least as much a philosophical novel and a
dream novel. It is also one of the funniest books ever written. But
these genres -- science fiction, philosophical novel, dream novel,
comic novel -- are not as distinct as one might suppose.
For instance, both science fictions and philosophical novels need
principal characters who are skeptical, recalcitrant, astonished,
ready to marvel. The science fiction novel usually begins with the
proposal of a journey. The philosophical novel may dispense with the
journey -- thinking is a sedentary occupation -- but not with the
classical male pair: the master who asks and the servant who is
certain, the one who is puzzled and the one who thinks he has the
In the science fiction novel, the protagonist must first contend with
his terrors. Axel's dread at being enrolled by his uncle in this daft
venture of descending into the bowels of the earth is more than
understandable. The question is not what he will learn but whether he
will survive the physical shocks to which he will be subjected. In the
philosophical novel, the element of fear -- and true danger -- is
minimal, if it exists at all. The question is not survival but what
one can know, and if one can know anything at all. Indeed, the very
conditions of knowing become the subject of rumination.
In ''Under the Glacier,'' when the generic Naïve Young Man receives
his charge from the bishop of Iceland to investigate the goings-on at
Snaefells, he protests that he is completely unqualified for the
mission. In particular -- ''for the sake of appearances,'' he adds
slyly -- he instances his youth and lack of authority to scrutinize a
venerable old man's discharge of his pastoral duties, when the words
of the bishop himself have been ignored. Is the young man -- the
reader is told that he is 25 and a student -- at least a theological
student? Not even. Has he plans to be ordained? Not really. Is he
married? No. (In fact, as we learn, he's a virgin.) A problem then? No
problem. To the worldly bishop, the lack of qualifications of this
Candide-like young Icelander is what makes him the right person. If
the young man were qualified, he might be tempted to judge what he
All the young man has to do, the bishop explains, is keep his eyes
open, listen and take notes; that the bishop knows he can do, having
observed the young man take notes in shorthand at a recent synod
meeting, and also using the -- what's it called? a phonograph? It was
a tape recorder, says the young man. And then, the bishop continues,
write it all up. What you saw and heard. Don't judge.
Laxness's novel is both the narrative of the journey and the report.
A philosophical novel generally proceeds by setting up a quarrel with
the very notion of novelistic invention. One common device is to
present the fiction as a document, something found or recovered, often
after its author's death or disappearance: research or writings in
manuscript, a diary, a cache of letters.
In ''Under the Glacier,'' the anti-fictional fiction is that what the
reader has in hand is a document prepared or in preparation; submitted
rather than found. Laxness's ingenious design deploys two notions of
''a report'': the report to the reader, sometimes in the first person,
sometimes in the form of unadorned dialogue, which is cast as the
material, culled from taped conversations and observations from
shorthand notebooks, of a report that is yet to be written up and
discovered. The status of Laxness's narrative is something like a
Mobius strip: report to the reader and report to the bishop continue
to inflect each other. The first-person voice is actually a hybrid
voice; the young man -- whose name is never divulged -- frequently
refers to himself in the third person. ''The undersigned'' he calls
himself at first. Then ''Emissary of the Bishop,'' abbreviated to
''EmBi,'' which quickly becomes ''Embi.'' And he remains the
undersigned or Embi throughout the novel.
The arrival of the emissary of the bishop of Iceland is expected, Embi
learns when he reaches the remote village by bus one spring day; it's
early May. From the beginning, Embi's picturesque informants,
secretive and garrulous in the usual rural ways, accept his right to
interrogate them without either curiosity or antagonism. Indeed, one
running gag in the novel is that the villagers tend to address him as
''bishop.'' When he protests that he is a mere emissary, they reply
that his role makes him spiritually consubstantial with the bishop.
Bishop's emissary, bishop -- same thing.
And so this earnest, self-effacing young man -- who sometimes refers
to himself in the third person, out of modesty, not for the usual
reason -- moves from conversation to conversation, for this is a novel
of talk, debate, sparring, rumination. Everyone whom he interviews has
pagan or post-Christian ideas about time and obligation and the
energies of the universe: the little village at the foot of a glacier
is in full spiritual molt. Present, in addition to elusive pastor Jon
-- who, when Embi finally catches up with him (he now earns a living
as the jack-of-all-trades for the whole district), shocks the youth
with his sly theological observations -- is an international conclave
of gurus, the most eminent of which is Dr. Godman Syngmann from Ojai,
California. Embi does not aspire to be initiated into any of these
heresies. He wishes to remain a guest, an observer, an amanuensis: his
task is to be a mirror. But when eros enters in the form of the
pastor's mysterious wife, Ua, he becomes -- first reluctantly, then
surrendering eagerly -- a participant. He wants something. Longing
erupts. It becomes his journey, his initiation, after all. (''The
report has not just become part of my own blood -- the quick of my
life has fused into one with the report.'') The journey ends when the
revelatory presence proves to be a phantom, and vanishes. The utopia
of erotic transformation was only a dream, after all. But it is hard
to undo an initiation. The protagonist will have to labor to return to
Readers will recognize the distinctive dream world of Scandinavian
folk mythology, in which the spiritual quest of a male is empowered
and sustained by the generosity and elusiveness of the eternal
feminine. A sister to Solveig in Ibsen's ''Peer Gynt'' and Indra in
Strindberg's ''A Dream Play,'' Ua is the irresistible woman who
transforms: the witch, the whore, the mother, the sexual initiator,
wisdom's fount. Ua gives her age as 52, which makes her twice as old
as Embi -- the same difference of age, she points out, as Saint
Theresa and San Juan de la Cruz when they first met -- but in fact she
is a shape-shifter, immortal. Eternity in the form of a woman. Ua has
been pastor Jon's wife (although she is a Roman Catholic), the madam
of a brothel in Buenos Aires, a nun and countless other identities.
She appears to speak all the principal languages. She knits
incessantly: mittens, she explains, for the fishermen of Peru. Perhaps
most peculiarly, she has been dead, conjured into a fish and preserved
up on the glacier until a few days earlier, and has now been
resurrected by pastor Jon, and is about to become Embi's lover.
This is perennial mythology, Nordic style, not just a spoof of the
myth. As Strindberg put it in the preface to his forgotten
masterpiece, ''A Dream Play'': ''Time and space do not exist.'' Time
and space are mutable in the dream novel, the dream play. Time can
always be revoked. Space is multiple.
Strindberg's timelessness and placelessness are not ironic, as they
are for Laxness, who scatters a few impure details in ''Under the
Glacier'' -- historical grit that reminds the reader this is not only
the folk time of Nordic mythology but also that landmark year of
self-loving apocalyptic yearning: 1968. The book's author, who
published his first novel when he was 19 and wrote some 60 novels in
the course of his long (he died at 95) and far from provincial life,
was already 66 years old. Born in rural Iceland, he lived in the
United States in the late 1920's, mostly in Hollywood. He hung out
with Brecht. He spent time in the Soviet Union in the 1930's. He had
already accepted a Stalin Peace Prize (1952) and a Nobel Prize in
Literature (1955). He was known for epic novels about poor Icelandic
farmers. He was a writer with a conscience. He had been obtusely
philo-Soviet (for decades) and was then interested in Taoism. He read
Sartre's ''Saint Genet'' and publicly decried the American bases in
Iceland and the American war on Vietnam. And ''Under the Glacier''
does not reflect any of these literal concerns. It is a work of
supreme derision and freedom and wit. It is like nothing else Laxness
The comic novel also relies on the naïve narrator: the person of
incomplete understanding and inappropriate, indefatigable cheerfulness
or optimism. Pastor Jon, Ua, the villagers: everyone tells Embi he
doesn't understand. ''Aren't you just a tiny bit limited, my little
one?'' Ua observes tenderly. To be often wrong, but never
disheartened; gamely acknowledging one's mistakes, and soldiering on
-- this is an essentially comic situation. (The comedy of candor works
best when the protagonist is young, as in Stendhal's autobiographical
''La Vie de Henry Brulard.'') An earnest, innocent hero to whom
preposterous things happen attempts, for the most part successfully,
to take them in his stride. That the nameless narrator sometimes says
''I'' and sometimes speaks of himself in the third person introduces a
weird note of depersonalization, which also evokes laughter. The
rollicking mixture of voices cuts through the pathos; it expresses the
fragile false confidence of the comic hero.
What is comic is not being surprised at what is astonishing or absurd.
The bishop's mandate -- to underreact to whatever his young emissary
is to encounter -- sets up an essentially comic scenario. Embi always
underreacts to the preposterous situations in which he finds himself:
for example, the food that he is offered every day by the pastor's
housekeeper during his stay -- nothing but cakes.
Think of the films of Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon; think of the
writings of Gertrude Stein. The basic elements of a comic situation:
deadpan; repetition; defect of affectivity; deficit (apparent deficit,
anyway) of understanding, of what one is doing (making the audience
superior to the state of mind being represented); naïvely solemn
behavior; inappropriate cheerfulness -- all of which give the
impression of childlikeness.
The comic is also cruel. This is a novel about humiliation -- the
humiliation of the hero. He endures frustration, sleep deprivation,
food deprivation. (No, the church is not open now. No, you can't eat
now. No, I don't know where the pastor is.) It is an encounter with a
mysterious authority that will not reveal itself. Pastor Jon appears
to have abdicated his authority by ceasing to perform the duties of a
minister and choosing instead to be a mechanic, but he has actually
sought access to a much larger authority -- mystical, cosmic,
galactic. Embi has stumbled into a community that is a coven of
authority figures, whose provenance and powers he never manages to
decipher. Of course they are rogues, charlatans -- and they are not;
or at any rate, their victims, the credulous, deserve them (as in a
much darker, Hungarian novel about spiritual charlatans and rural
dupes, Krasznahorkai's ''Satantango''). Wherever Embi turns, he does
not understand, and he is not being helped to understand. The pastor
is away, the church is closed. But unlike, say, K. in Kafka's ''The
Castle,'' Embi does not suffer. For all his humiliations, he does not
appear to feel anguish. The novel has always had a weird coldness. It
is both cruel and merry.
The comic novel and the visionary novel also have something in common:
nonexplicitness. An aspect of the comic is meaninglessness and
inanity, which is a great resource of comedy, and also of spirituality
-- at least in the Oriental (Taoist) version that attracted Laxness.
At the beginning of the novel, the young man continues for a bit to
protest his inability to carry out the bishop's mission. What am I to
say? he asks. What am I to do?
The bishop replies: ''One should simply say and do as little as
possible. Keep your eyes peeled. Talk about the weather. Ask what sort
of summer they had last year, and the year before that. Say that the
bishop has rheumatism. If any others have rheumatism, ask where it
affects them. Don't try to put anything right. . . .''
More of the bishop's wisdom:
''Don't be personal -- be dry! . . . Write in the third person as much
as possible. . . . No verifying! . . . Don't forget that few people
are likely to tell more than a small part of the truth: no one tells
much of the truth, let alone the whole truth. . . . When people talk
they reveal themselves, whether they're lying or telling the truth. .
. . Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more
significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity. Don't correct
them, and don't try to interpret them either.''
What is this, if not a theory of spirituality and a theory of
Obviously, the spiritual goings-on at Glacier have long since left
Christianity behind. (Pastor Jon holds that all the gods people
worship are equally good, that is, equally defective.) Clearly, there
is much more than the order of nature. But is there any role for the
gods -- and religion? The impudent lightness with which the deep
questions are raised in ''Under the Glacier'' is remote from the
gravitas with which they figure in Russian and in German literature.
This is a novel of immense charm that flirts with being a spoof. It is
a satire on religion, full of amusing New Age mumbo jumbo. It's a book
of ideas, like no other Laxness ever wrote.
Laxness did not believe in the supernatural. Surely he did believe in
the cruelty of life -the laughter that is all that remains of the
woman, Ua, to whom Embi had surrendered himself, and who has vanished.
What transpired may seem like a dream, which is to say that the quest
novel concludes with the obligatory return to reality. Embi is not to
escape this morose destiny.
''Your emissary crept away with his duffel bag in the middle of the
laughter,'' Embi concludes his report to the bishop; so the novel
ends. ''I was a little frightened and I ran as hard as I could back
the way I had come. I was hoping that I would find the main road
again.'' ''Under the Glacier'' is a marvelous novel about the most
ambitious questions, but since it is a novel it is also a journey that
must end, leaving the reader dazzled, provoked and, if Laxness's novel
has done its job, perhaps not quite as eager as Embi to find the main
*A literal translation of the original Icelandic title is
''Christianity at Glacier.''
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