[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
the Journey
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.

    Science fiction.

    Tale, fable, allegory.

    Philosophical novel.

    Dream novel.

    Visionary novel.

    Literature of fantasy.

    Wisdom lit.


    Sexual turn-on.

    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
    spiritual dereliction.

    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

    Dream novel.
    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
    ever wrote.

    Comic novel.
    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.

    Visionary novel.
    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
    road again.

    *A literal translation of the original Icelandic title is
    ''Christianity at Glacier.''

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