Seeing things plain, not lying to oneself, not subscribing to the delusions of others – these virtues, seemingly so simple, prove in life difficult to achieve and tricky to exercise. An inevitable imitative pressure assimilates people to one another so that mere opinion, received but never vetted, comes to function as a surrogate reality, in the cave-like error of which people stumble about their errands in a lurching mockery of witting behavior. The ancients worried about false or second-hand judgment (doxa) or about superstition. Modern people must grapple with ideology. The critique of ideology is the single most important exercise that an individual can undertake who wants to stand in truth and by his own lights against the conformist pressure of public opinion, or what dissenters nowadays call political correctness.
Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), born to a family of Danish freethinkers and raised in Norway in an atmosphere of urbane secularity, confronted the hollowness of that ethos in the aftermath of World War One when she shocked her familiars by embracing Roman Catholicism. If the critical writings of the Dane Georg Brandes (1842–1927) summed up the turn-of-the-century “Cultural Leftist” attitude in Scandinavia, then Undset would have represented the most decisive repudiation imaginable of Brandesian liberalism – atheistic, socialistic, scornful of inherited custom, as it was, and eager to see realized its notion (its vague notion) of a bold new political order toppling every inherited custom and evaluation. Undset championed tradition, remaining critical of any supposed liberation from norms.
Beginning with her vast Nobel Prize winning trilogy about medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, begun in the teens of the century and completed in 1922, Undset undertook a literary, hence indirect but also thorough, critique of the pervasive liberalism-progressivism of European civilization. Her social novels of the teens and twenties invariably place in the foreground thoughtless people who have given themselves to the emergent consumerism of middle class Western European society entre les deux guerres.
Undset’s novels of the modern scene explore the unhappiness of the “Ibsen marriage,” as it is called, and she records in narrative the way in which new attitudes about casual liaison corrode and destroy marriage. Undset’s representative leading character is an embittered someone in his or her late thirties or early forties, a person who holds a grudge against society because a putative promise of happiness has gone, as the subject sees it, unfulfilled – and a delinquency of fulfillment cannot, of course, be the character’s fault. Images in a Mirror (1917) ranks as the best, and also the bleakest, of these tales, recounting the disappointments of a married woman, formerly an actress, who finds herself in a cul-de-sac of meaningless chattels and, as it seems to her, pointless parental responsibility. Even her self-analysis carries the flavor of narcissism, which is her real and unacknowledged problem.
Undset’s recipients of grace, on the other hand, tend to be the down-and-out but independent minded people who succeed in finding happiness despite the actual impersonality of the consumerist order, and in entirely non-material ways. It is impossible not to see the banal social atomism of modern Scandinavia (the prototype of similar social atomism later and elsewhere) forecast in Undset’s fiction.
On occasion, however, Undset addressed the issue of the modern crisis in ways autobiographical, journalistic, and forcibly, non-fictionally direct. The most poignant and explicit of these instances of direct discourse is Undset’s memoir of her flight from Norway after the German invasion of April 1940 and her four-week trek via the Soviet Union and Japan on her way to political asylum in America.
Operation “Weser,” involving Germany’s air, sea, and land forces, caught Norway by surprise. Sizeable German armies swiftly ensconced themselves in Southern Norway, especially in Narvik and Oslo, before the reserves of Norway’s tiny army could mobilize and before the British had time to implement their unilateral plan to trump Germany by occupying the country themselves. In Back from the Future (1942), a kind of tour of the totalitarian nations in the early days of World War Two, Undset remarks what everyone knew as soon as the German troop carriers started angling up the fjords: “It was our misfortune and stupidity that somehow we could not believe that war… was true,” she writes; and while “Finland’s fight for life first awakened some of us to a more nearly realistic view,” yet many remained complacent, who “should have been awake.”
Why were people not “awake” to the obvious threats against the civilized order? The answer lies in the implied social diagnosis of Undset’s novels. Even the tentative consumerism of 1930s Norway had made citified, “cosmopolite” Norwegians self-absorbed and oblivious of evil, at least as Undset saw things. Trouble happened elsewhere, in Poland, perhaps, or in Finland. Trouble could not possibly afflict me, in the secure precincts of my world, which existed to respond to my needs. The ego saw its challenge in career, status, sex, and the acquisition of material chattels. Many people, quick to sense a trend, wanted to assimilate to the Brandesian model of the “Good European,” whose careless liberalism precluded any belief in actual evil. In the 1920s it was the “Good European.” Today it is the “Good Globalist” or the “Good Green Citizen.” In Norway sixty-nine years ago, Nazi bullets shattered the narcissistic dream.
Undset’s first-born son Anders fell in action 27 April 1940 near the family home Bjerke-Baek. Undset herself kept active organizing aide for refugees until late in May 1940 when – fearing arrest by the Gestapo – she crossed the border into Sweden. If Norwegians had lived too blithely, the Swedes seemed to Undset to have succumbed to pessimistic delirium, expecting to be crushed between the USSR and the Third Reich, and meanwhile living in a spirit of one’s forcing his enjoyment tonight because tomorrow he expects to die.
The two contrasting national-psychic moods, complacency and fatalism, lack a doctrinal character and do not quite qualify as ideologies, but, as cognitive distortions, they serve for a preface to Back from the Future’s long central chapter, “Fourteen Days in Russia.” For Undset the Nazis were one evil among several others and she had the foresight to recognize that one of the others might be, in the long term if not immediately, a greater threat to civilized order than the rampaging armies of the Hitler regime.
Well before actually visiting the Soviet Union, Undset understood that ideological allure exceeded ideological achievement by several magnitudes and that for the Cultural Leftists the USSR had long served for an eschatological symbol of the ideological future regardless of that nation’s actual condition. Believers, who had seen nothing of the experiment, “could… predict that the development of capitalistic bourgeois society would inevitably end with all the wealth gathered in a few hands,” with all others become “propertyless proletarians,” whereupon “the whole middle class would crumble away little by little and become one with this proletariat.” When Undset had the chance to gaze on the future during her trip by the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, she saw, not the workers’ paradise of rumor, but rather poverty, neglect, and filth. “I constantly got the feeling,” Undset writes about Moscow, “that the new Russia is built, not upon the ruins of our time, the ideas of our time, but on the world of our grandparents.”
In Moscow, Undset found herself overwhelmed by the pervasive aroma: “The fetid smell of cotton goods which had been washed again and again, but without soap… the smell of bedrooms closely packed with dirty beds,” and “the smell of urine and excrement from the dirty yards.” All this disturbed Undset greatly, but the local people took it for granted, so much so that they had ceased to notice it. In a bookshop, Undset looked for books in German or French, but the most that could be found was a badly produced pamphlet called Wer lebt glücklich im Sovjet-Russland?
Undset records the disillusionment of her son. Young Hans had, “like most Norwegians… been much occupied with the Communistic experiment and was ready to accept all of it which as a Catholic he could.” Yet, “his indignation over the reality, as we saw it, was almost comic.” Communist suppression and vilification of Orthodox religiosity particularly angered Hans; but so did officialdom’s appalling indifference to poverty and disease. Undset observes that, “Russia apparently is trying to build the new on the foundation of ideas which the democracies have long ago discarded as unsuited to their purposes.”
On the Trans-Siberian, although Undset and Hans occupied a first-class compartment, they could get no hot water. They had access to tepid, non-potable water only at intervals. For ten days, the passengers got dirtier and dirtier and some fell sick. “The totalitarian states,” as Undset writes, “do not care a damn about our ideas of the minimum of cleanliness,” which, for them, lies in the inevitable but indefinitely deferred future. What obsessed the regime was, not exactly equality, but a fiercely mandatory likeness, always in thought, but also in pure squalor where some higher form of physical likeness could not otherwise be practically enforced. Despite their attempts to maintain at least a shred of joy in their lives, the Russians that Undset met all knew what hung over their heads should they let down their guard and succumb to even the most trivial impulse to complain or dissent. The shadow of oppression blighted all lives.
Thus, “one morning in the gray dawn we stood at a station a little east of Lake Baikal,” when “a train came in on the track beside ours, large ironclad cars, with tiny iron-barred windows” and “behind every window… a soldier with a poised bayonet.” A day later came another such train: “The prisoners had been allowed to open the large sliding doors a little” and Undset could see “men, women, children… packed together in the cars.” In Vladivostok, conditions showed no improvement over those in Moscow or on the train. The whole city struck Undset as being in the process of rusting away. The only new things were the wall-sized portraits of Stalin and his henchmen painted on the sides of the decayed buildings.
Another of the totalitarian states, Japan seemed to Undset less squalid and terrifying than Russia (this was July 1940), perhaps because its revolution, the bushido government, was more recent and had not yet had time to squander the inheritance of the country’s recent, industrious past. Still, as in Russia, beggars everywhere held out their bowls for alms, indicating acute economic dislocation; and although the bushido government was not yet systematically brutalizing its own people, everyone knew of its “totalitarian-state brutality” as directed against foreigners in its Chinese endeavor. Shoppers, however, had begun to complain of a scarcity of goods. “So in Japan also little by little we got the feeling that here too the living-conditions of the populace were subject to the same law which seems to operate in all totalitarian states: the standard of living sinks surely and steadily… the people are required to submit to more and more restrictions.”
Nothing being more spontaneously human than the market, the ideological regime, insistent on imposing its second reality, will always seek to shackle or annihilate the market: Hence the propensity of totalitarian states to kill off large groups of their own people by starvation.
In Back from the Future, Undset reminds her readers that in the constitutional nations, too, ideologies have begun their work of distorting the vision of reality by making vague but sugary appeals of a utopian variety and lodging infantile complaints against the necessary imperfection of earthly existence. The market is wealth producing and equalizing, but the very equalization makes people more prone than ever to petty but corrosive resentments, despite their wellbeing or their affluence. This situation has not changed in seventy years. Undset addresses “Cultural Leftism” (which has its counterparts to this day in every western society – which is, indeed, at this moment triumphant) when she notes a pervasive conviction that, “social progress from ancient times to our days was determined by economic problems.” This is what the narcissistic characters in her social novels think. If only they had “more” of something – something material – they would be happy. It is sadly what neo-conservative “free marketers” in the Western nations of our own day, think. A formula – a mantra – reduces the human to mere “economics.”
A short gap only separates that seemingly benign but reductive opinion from the “hate-consumed” Marxist position that identifies “future goals” with “dreams of revenge against everything that happened to awaken [its] enmity.”
As in Russia – so too in Japan: Before its defeat in 1945 and during its period of Axis cooperation, Japan would, like its enemy the Soviet Union and its ally Nazi Germany, impose a totalitarian police-state on its own people, socialize industry, and institute an absurd but imitatively wicked anti-Semitism. Japan would intensify its brutality in China, Korea, and other victim-nations of its aggression. Undset hopes that the cataclysm of the war will provoke her contemporaries to reevaluate the merits of that old dispensation according to which “people thought of themselves as souls, beings which never cease existing,” for whom “all conflict was at bottom a conflict between faith which led to salvation and faith which must lead to perdition.” In contemporary terms, one might say that all conflict is at bottom a conflict between those who believe in life, robust and independent, and those who believe in death. Every ideology is ultimately a form of nihilism whose adherents worship death – of the body, of the community, of the culture, and of the tradition. Our world, the world of Anno Domine 2009, stands under indictment by the power of Undset’s pen.
Back from the Future should be set against those remarkably fatuous travel books about Russia that sprouted like mushrooms in the 1930s (Lion Feuchtwanger’s Moscow: 1937 provides a good example) and the servile Western journalism, like Walter Duranty’s for The New York Times, that helped Stalin to cover up the atrocities that he and his Communist Party were then busy inflicting on the captive peoples of the USSR. Back from the Future should be set against all complacency, anytime and anywhere, including the deadly complacency of the present moment.
Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.