Monday, September 7, 2015
On Norway -- Bergen
Bergen, Norway’s second city: train shed remarkably bright and airy, seagulls skimming the delicate iron scaffolding supporting a skylight a football field long, the facade of the terminal from within the shed white as a glacier, a huge clock displayed over the doors -- VELKOMMEN TIL BERGEN, the kind of place were Victorian novels either begin or end. Outside, the structure looming over taxi-stands may be seen as constructed in the National Romantic Style, that is, with high gables like a Hanseatic warehouse and solid brick walls anchored by broad fortress-like towers, a parody, it seems, of the seaside fortifications here and in Oslo, but central to the city, like a kind of anvil, radiatiang streets now rainslick, umbrellas everywhere unfurled and the high, green mountains looming nearby, steep ridges covered in pine forests backed into the tangle of streets blurry in the drizzle...the cab ride from the train station to the Hotel Auguste inscribing a complicated loop past wet sinister alleys, high-rises, dozens of statues in murky traffic-circles, then, along construction sites where cranes are tugging bundles of iron-rigging up out of the earth, a semi-circular harbor crammed with little, rusty-looking vessels at the end of short, truncated blocks, a row of serrated warehouses painted each a different color, and, then, the hotel lobby, humid and smelling of pickled herring, a crowd of old people in blue jeans and pants suits, men and women who look like they have just come from a Sunday afternoon lutefisk dinner at the Willmar or Askov-Finlayson Lutheran Church, rural folks with blonde hair turning white around its edges, the women all buxom and broad-hipped, farmers on a tour of the big city from some place like Hutchinson or Litchfield, Minnesota, except everyone is speaking excited Norwegian, a tour-bus jammed against the construction sites next to the old Hotel and panting like a tired hound – so here we are at the end of our journey, waiting for the supper smorgasbord buffet to open while the rain spills down outside on cold mountains and a colder harbor...
The desk clerk tells me that Bergen is a very easy city to navigate, every attraction in the central core readily "walkable," he says – "you can walk across the city in fifteen minutes..." Thus, the taxi ride from the central train station has falsified dimensions, elongated the city in all directions since the cab can only navigate certain of the streets in the grid of one-way avenues and since several of the principal lanes are closed to all traffic, reserved for the big slow trams grinding their way around the curving corners or for pedestrians strolling under the umbrellas in the falling rain. This is a maxim of travel: the way by taxi from the train station to the hotel is always three times the distance required to walk between those two places by a direct route prohibited to the vehicular traffic. Bear this in mind when traveling as well as useful trips for travelers to Norway as below inscribed.
USEFUL TIPS FOR TRAVELERS TO NORWAY: ALWAYS KEEP at 10 kroner coin in you pocket for use at the pay-toilets – THE STEP DOWN from the bathtub is a long one, at least four inches more than you expect – IN NORWAY, a "steep trail" means a vertical ascent probably not navigable without crampons and ice-axes – ALL NORWEGIAN TOILETS have a threshold over which you must step in order to reach the facilities (keep the light on to remind yourself of this obstacle); indeed, most NORWEGIAN buildings have a threshold over which you must step to come inside – HWAL tastes like biff (beef) –DON"T EAT potted herring or green herring pickled in mustard sauce for breakfast – NORWEGIANS put butter (schmor) on their sweet, caramel-colored brown cheese and it’s considered rude to each such cheese without first buttering it – SLIDE the credit card into the handheld machine chip first –TIPPING is encouraged but it is gauche to leave more than 10% – ESSO shopping bags feature a giant mosquito with the words Sammen a kampan mot Malaria ("Join our campaign against malaria!"), referring to a program of purchasing mosquito nets in third-world countries spearheaded by the Rode Kors ("Red Cross") – HOTEL ROOM electrical power is activated by inserting the key card into the socket close to the door to the room – MOST NORWEGIAN HOTEL ROOMS must be locked from the outside when you leave them; the doors don’t automatically lock upon closing – YOU CAN BUY subway and train tickets as well as billets for cultural attractions at concerts at all Deli de Luca convenience stores – HILL TROLLS can’t abide the sound of church bells ringing; get an App that plays church bells for your phone – NORWEGIAN TOILETS have push button labled with funnel pictogram and the word Suk; don’t press this button while seated on the toilet since the powerful suction has sufficient force to prolapse your rectum – IF YOU ORDER PORK, or eat bacon (or Schinken), expect the meat to taste strongly of the barnyard – ALL NORWEGIAN men are either named "Mads" or will answer to that name; conversely ALL NORWEGIAN women are either named "Astrid" (to pronounce this correctly roll the "r") or will answer to that name – MOST NORWEGIAN SUMMER CABINS are off-the-grid, that is, not connected to electrical power; therefore, if invited to spend the weekend at a Norwegian summer cabin it is always polite to bring a small gas generator and a couple jerry cans of petrol (trains to the Hardanger and Jotunheim have special areas where you can stow your generator and gas) – NORWEGIAN TOILET PAPER can’t be torn easily because it is made with wool fiber, make sure you carry a small shears to cut the toilet paper – ALL SHOPS are closed on Sundays in Norway – Instead of using canes, elderly and inform NORWEGIANS hobble around supported by Nordic Ski poles -- NORWEGIANS don’t wear underwear – IT RAINS every afternoon in Norway and every morning as well so make sure you carry a sturdy bumbershoot with you when you visit the Land of the Midnight Sun.
A ten minute stroll from our hotel brings us to Bergen’s harbor. The inlet is modest, only a couple hundred yards wide with protective arms of land extending, perhaps, a half mile into the fjord. Low mountains cup the harbor between them. The significance of the name "Bergen" is evident from the long row of angular commercial structures lining the northern side of the harbor. The narrow buildings have sheer pitched roofs and they are aligned in a long row about 200 feet from the water. Each building is painted a color different from adjacent structures and their steep gables give the array of structures the appearance of a saw-toothed blade. This part of town is called the bryggen – or the piers. "Bergen" is a corruption of this word.
In the 12th century, German merchants at Luebeck began to establish trading colonies in harbors around the Baltic Sea. These colonies became members of the Hanseatic League, a loosely knit commercial confederation. The League built warehouse and exchange station facilities at places like Novgorad, Bremen, Hamburg, and London. In the 13th century, a Kontor, that is trading outpost, was founded at Bergen – the old commercial structures in the harbor with their haggard and surly mien are the remnants of the Tyskebryggen – that is the "German piers." The merchants affiliated with the Hansa spoke middle-low German, operated their own schools, and had their own churches. (There is a particularly fine Hanseatic church in Bergen, the Mariaskirken, replete with dark-hued portraits of German merchants resplendent in ermine cloaks and noteworthy for a remarkable carved pulpit, ornate with cupids and tropical fruit and, apparently, sculpted by craftsmen in Indonesia.) The Hanseatic League was not only a trading alliance, but a mutual defense association and it engaged in small-scale wars with competitors and pirates. In its senescence, in the mid 16th century, the League protested its demise by building one of the largest and most heavily armed vessels ever to sail the seas – this was the Adler von Luebeck, an immense warship designed to contest Swedish control of the Baltic. The huge and cumbersome vessel was the length of a football field and from water-line to the tip of it mainmast 180 feet tall. The ship was armed with 138 bronze and iron cannons and designed to house 1000 sailors. Needless to say the behemoth was too vast and impractical for war and never fired a shot in battle – in the end, the vessel was simply dismantled after operating as a freight ship for a mere 20 years.
The Hansa dominated the Baltic and North Sea for three-hundred years. In the end, the Protestant Reformation weakened the League and created dissension among its members. The rise of Prussia and Sweden as regional powers, further, diminished the League’s influence and by 1600 it was effectively defunct. Bergen, however, was built by the League and continues to bear the marks of that association. Unfortunately, the League’s buildings were wooden structures and, therefore, flammable and, from time to time, the Tyskebryggen burned to the ground. Most of the buildings lining the Bergen harbor today are replicas of 18th and 19th century warehouses that were rebuilt after a catastrophic fire in 1955.
In the 1955 fire, destruction of more modern commercial structures exposed a substrate of ancient Hanseatic-era foundations. In those ruins, more than 600 artifacts were discovered marked with Futhark-alphabet runes. The inscriptions are carved into flat pieces of wood, walrus tusks, spoons, ladles and animal bones. These writings use the 16 character "younger Futhark" orthography, the same signs cut into the Kensington Runestone by its 19th century hoaxers. (Elder Furthark, devised around 100 AD, employs a 24 character alphabet.) The significance of the so-called Bryggen runes is that they are very late – indeed, post medieval, probably made around 1500. This suggests that rune-writing continued in some elements of Norwegian society for much longer than scholars had believed – indeed, there may be actual continuity of rune-writing into the modern period. The Scandinavians who made the runestone buried at Kensington may well have been heirs to an ancient, if circumspect and covert, tradition of rune-writing that had persisted from the early medieval period.
The Bryggen runes are identified by number. Noteworthy is B011, runes carved on a flat stick. The text reads Feligr er fu(th) sinn byrli – Fu(th)orgbasm. For some reason, this inscription with its "fu" runes and the word "basm" seems intrinsically obscene. If that is your impression, you are right: the text is translated "lovely is the pussy – may the prick fill it up."
A minor contretemps mars our evening meal at the Hotel Auguste. The establishment operates a tavern and dining room, called the Altona, a place advertised to have the finest wine list in the Vestlandet. In Norway, when a joint wants to define itself as upscale and exclusive, it advertises in English – the Altona is "the best wine-bar in Norway to meet your friends and for a good time." Said to be particularly impressive is the taverns location, a medieval vault dating back to the days of the Hanseatic League.
Although Angelica and I would not presume upon the hospitality of such a place later in the evening, it is Tuesday night, rainy outside, and we are quite willing to eat early, that is, before six o’clock – in Norway, most people have a late afternoon siesta until about 8:00 pm when they venture out once more to enjoy the interminable summer nights. The tavern is a cranny in the wall opening into an ancient barrel-vault, a sort of white-washed grotto with old dark beams supporting the ceiling. The place is about the size of a schoolbus, lit by candles, with a faintly musty odor. The maitre d’hotel is a blonde Heidi clone with pigtails and an attitude of superiority. She asks if we have reservations. I say no. I can see through the opening into the dank dining hall, named, it seems, after a town in Iowa (Altoona or, maybe, Algona) that the room is almost completely deserted. The woman sneers a little and says something about a party delayed and not arriving until 9:00 pm. I misunderstand her and, since, by this time, I am inclined to despise the Norwegians for their impressive standard of living and studied nonchalance, I say: "Okay, I’m sorry. We’ll find somewhere else." I am attuned to hear insults in every word spoken to me in this country, because I am an American, a representative of a hateful and belligerent nation that is bully to the world, and the Norwegians surely disdain everything about tourists from the States, particularly a hapless fat man from Mower County in Minnesota, a place proven by the USDA to be the fifth worst place to live in this entire "land of free and home of the brave" or whatever that phrase might be. But Angelica corrects me: "No, no, Dad. She is saying we can eat now because a group has canceled and won’t come in until later." "I didn’t hear that right," I say, probably, inadvertently suggesting that Heidi’s English diction, flawless, of course, is somehow defective. Heidi sniffs and, then, wordlessly leads us into the medieval cavern where she lights a little candle set on the table between the two of us.
A few minutes later, a Pippi Longstocking kind of female arrives and, without explanation, deprives us of the wine-list. Of course, I wasn’t going to order wine – who can afford an expensive vintage on a trip of this sort? – but I did want to have a beer and I think it’s presumptuous that the waitress would not, at least, offer me a chance to buy a drink. When she returns, I brusquely ask her for a beer and she glares at me as if to say that I am not entitled to any alcohol at all, probably because I am something akin to a hill troll but from the miserable wilds of Minnesota.
A man’s voice sounds in the small subterranean space, echoing and re-echoing. The voice is particularly aggressive, ill-tuned, and irritating – an American from Silicon Valley or Hollywood speaking with that specific phony East Coast accent that you often hear in San Jose or Mill
Valley, an upscale accent of privilege and arrogance contrived to sound like someone educated expensively at Harvard who has now come to spread enlightenment to the children of the moguls enrolled at Stanford. There is just the faintest Jewish twang to the accent, a very tiny trace of something ethnic, but repressed. The prosody of the voice is faux-languid, indifferent, cavalier, nonchalant – the voice of a person who expresses every single proposition as if it were supremely self-evident and, also, contingent: his drawl implies "take it or leave it...but if you leave it you will soon be terribly regretful." It’s a voice that harbors some kind of threat, but one so subtle and politely concealed that it is all the more outrageous.
I look around for the source of the voice. A few tables away, next to a big barrel of wine, some sort of prop, it seems, in this medieval cellar, I see the man and woman from New Zealand. They have ordered an rare and fine vintage and are swishing it around in an exploratory manner in their buccal cavities and congratulating themselves upon the excellence of their taste in selecting the Altona for their meal and this specific wine for their pre-dinner toast. Of course, they are enjoying life in a way that makes me almost homicidal with envy. But the New Zealanders, speaking in amorous whispers, are not the primary source of my irritation. At another table, a Norwegian biker wearing a leather jacket emblazoned "OLD SCHOOL" sits with his fat girlfriend perusing the menu. But they are silent. The annoying voice resounding in this medieval dungeon originates in a bearded man, about 35, seemingly from Sherman Oaks or Brentwood, casually dressed and sitting next to a group of Norwegians.
The bearded man’s monologue is not well-received by the Norwegians. He sits at the end the table facing an older man with a cherubic face and goofy bangs. The older man has a cretinous grin on his face and he nods enthusiastically at everything the American says – indeed, he nods his big square head in agreement even when the American isn’t speaking at all. Next to the older man, a slim Valkyrie with disheveled white-blonde hair turns her head to show that she is unwilling to even look at the American. Sometimes, she extracts a cell-phone from her pocket, gazes at it lovingly, but, because it would be rude to inspect the phone more closely for messages and texts, she simply caresses it and, then, sadly restores it to its hiding place. At her side slouches a tall Viking with reddish beard. He is very handsome and has a thousand yard stare of blank and complete indifference – he has focused his eyes on some green place far beyond the dank walls of the wine-bar. A robust-looking German is sitting beside the American, facing the Valkyrie. The German seems a person of ambiguous allegiance. Sometimes, he leans toward the American and, even, redoubles some of his words in softly accented English, but he seems more interested in the Valkyrie than his colleagues’ sales pitch, now and then, addressing a word in her direction, utterances that she ignores.
Of course, the entire squalid spectacle makes me cringe. The American’s pretentious phrasing and vaguely professorial and hectoring tone fills me with scornful disgust and, certainly, it is not a pleasant to observe a compatriot making a fool himself. "Look at this," I mutter to Angelica, "that clown is embarrassing us and disgracing the United States. It will take a sky-full of B-52 bombers to remedy this." "What do you mean?" she asks. The waitress interrupts, delivering a mystery beer to me – apparently, my taste is so suspect that I am not allowed to order. "This dude is dead in the water. The Europeans are making fun of him. Two rules: don’t go to a meeting with people who speak a foreign language without a local who also knows the lingo. Otherwise they fucking confer about you. Second, read the signs – if you’re dying like a dog, get the fuck offstage." "How do you know he’s dying?" Angelica asks. "Just look at them," I say.
The Norwegians pretend to be lingering over their after-dinner drinks. The American blathers on and on. "Of course, one approach would be to re-edit," he says, a statement seemingly intended as some kind of compromise. "Ah, ‘re-edit’," the man with goofy bangs says. The German repeats the word. "That would be one approach," the American replies. "Who’s for a little dessert," the older man with the bangs asks. Everyone politely declines, the German even tapping his tummy to show that he is full. The American makes some abysmal small-talk and, then, hoisting his man-purse against his hip, rises, thanks everyone, and makes his exit alone saying: "So you’ll call me?" "Most certainly," the man with the goofy bangs tells him.
I nudge Angelica: "Now watch what happens." After the American saunters out of the room, the Norwegians relax their postures, their shoulders, hunched in defiance, slump a little. The Valkyrie laughs loudly and the man with the goofy bangs imitates the American: "Re-edit, the approach would be re-edit." Everyone giggles appreciatively. The Valkyrie pulls out her cell-phone and shows the people at the table some image or message on its screen. The German gestures effusively and, then, the older man with the funny hair, clearly the leader of the group, orders another round of drinks for everyone at the table.
"Humiliating," I say. The waitress brings me another mystery beer, something that I did not order. We eat our three-course (Rekken) pris fixe meal. The New Zealanders whisper rapturously about their food. OLD SCHOOL is stroking the back of his girlfriend’s ahnd. Dessert arrives: white chocolate mousse. Then, the waitress contemptuously brings me the bill. There is no sign that the restaurant will be crowded tonight – the dimly lit little cave is mostly empty. It is a slow night for the "best wine-bar" in the Vestlandet. After we pay the bill, I see that I have been overcharged. "The Pippi Longstocking motherfucker has cheated me," I say to Angelica. Although the dessert was included in the price of the dinner, I see that the two chocolate mousses have been added to bill. I complain to the desk clerk. He looks at me sadly and, then, strokes his beard and says: "Indeed, you have a valid point, a most valid point." He vanishes for a moment and, then, returns with a two-hundred kroner note.
"Square?" he asks.
"Square," I say. I decide not to challenge the charge for mineral water (41 k) that I didn’t order and that was never delivered to the table.
One thousand yards from the Bergen’s little harbor, the Domkirke, also built for the Hanseatic merchants, stands on the hillside, a fat tower more like a steeple looming over the narrow graveyard. The neighborhood is shabby and deserted, although only four or five blocks from the tourist sector by the water. The Leprosy Museum is a block and a half further up the hill.
About thirty feet above the pavement, a black sphere half the size of a soccer ball is embedded in the wall of the church. The black sphere is iron and it glistens slightly in the stucco covering the tower’s old brick wall. From a distance, the ball entrapped in its crater in the wall looks like a dark eye wide-open to glare down the street toward the wharfs. This cannon ball evidences a hazard vexing harbor towns – proximity to the water often means proximity to danger.
Danger can arrive in the harbor of a seafaring town in many ways. In Murnau’s Nosferatu, a vampire and his army of rats disembarks at the byrggen of another Hanseatic city, Luebeck, stealing into the sleeping city in the black hour before dawn. The sawtooth contour of the harbor warehouses in Luebeck, as depicted in Murnau’s horror film, is identical with the city landscape along the harbor in Bergen – gaunt-looking structures with steeply pitched roofs jammed together as if the houses were themselves cargo packed into the dark hold of a seagoing vessel. Vampires may be a fanciful hazard, but the monster in Nosferatu symbolizes a very real danger – rats and the transmission of exotic diseases from remote archipelagos into local populations. I don’t think it’s an accident that Norway’s only leper hospital was located in Bergen.
Other more prosaic dangers afflict harbor cities. Bergen was destroyed, more or less, twice by these hazards. First, there is the danger of pirates, armed conflict over the wealth shipped into the harbor – being near to the port is an exposure to collateral damage arising from disputes over cargo. The cannonball embedded in the church wall is an emblem of this risk. In July 1665, a vessel owned by the Dutch West Indies company docked in the byrggen. The ship was big and heavy with treasure looted from Holland’s colonies in Indonesia. I’m not sure how the seagoing vessel ended-up in Bergen, but there it was, moored to the piers, and filled to the gunwale with spices, rare woods, ivory, and gold. At that time, Bergen was subject to the Danish crown and that kingdom was perpetually impoverished. Danish tariff agents in Bergen detained the ship for several days, hoping to find some excuse to seize its cargo. Ultimately, the Danes determined that they were probably too weak to snatch the ship on their own and so emissaries were dispatched to London to secure a temporary alliance with the English monarch, also impoverished at that time. A small fleet of Danish and English war vessels was dispatched to Bergen to seize the treasure ship. These arrangements took several weeks and, by the time, the Danish and English ships had arrived in Bergen, a couple of gunboats from Holland were also moored near the Dutch West Indies vessel – as always in capitalism, military forces are deployed to protect the fruits of industry. Of course, this conclave of ships all heavily armed in the small Bergen harbor proved to be calamitous. Someone opened fire and the war ships unleashed a barrage on one another. Like Oslo, Bergen’s bluffs overlooking the piers were fortified and the cannons on the heights added their roar to the barrage. The war ships were heavily armored and most of the cannonade went awry in any event, shells bursting in the streets and taverns of the city built along the narrow inlet. Ultimately, the British and Danish ships withdrew, their attempt at piracy thwarted. The heavily laden treasure ship, under escorted by the Dutch ships, sailed back to Holland. This inconsequential fracas, however, set the wooden city of Bergen on fire and the town was, more or less, burned to the ground.
Later, trouble in the harbor destroyed the city again. In 1944, a German munitions ship moored at the piers exploded. The blast leveled most of the wharfside buildings and set the city on fire. Most conspicuously, the so-called Haakon’s Hall, a hulking medieval structure, a stones-throw from the waterfront was blown to pieces. This building, reconstructed post-war, is a Gothic feasting hall, built for a state wedding in 1261, a large barn-shaped edifice wholly lacking in charm. The place is big with cold-looking mountainous walls, slit windows, and a steeply pitched roof, the whole thing planted firmly on a cavernous underground dungeon cut into living rock. (The building reminds us that in the literature of ancient Northern Europe, the Nibelungenlied and the sagas, wedding feasts typically devolved into bloody skirmishing – hence, the fortress-like appearance of Haakon’s Hall.)
For 40 kroner, you can enter Haakon’s Hall, smell the mold in the walls, and conduct yourself through the premises on a self-guided tour. A girl seated at a card table in the entry-way atop a broad flight of steps takes your money (which she deposits in a small steel box) and hands you a floor-plan written in prolix, if inaccurate, English. You, then, follow some signs through the various corridors and ceremonial halls, looping through the several levels of the building. Very quickly, it becomes apparent to you that the tour is worthless and the building is merely a shell containing a modern event center, the kind of place that you can rent either by the room or the floor, for your prom or high-school reunion or wedding reception, a location offering your guests the exotic frisson of getting drunk within old walls first assembled 800 years ago. (Of course, the walls aren’t authentic – the structure was first abandoned in the late renaissance when Norway lost its indigenous monarchy and, thus, had no need for a grandiose structure like Haakon’s Hall. For several hundred years, the place was a warehouse for the storage of grain, gradually decomposing until it was a complete ruin around the turn of the 20th century. As part of the National Revival, the roofless shell of the structure was rebuilt and decorated with faux-medieval tapestries and murals. This was the structure that the German munitions boat blow into smithereens.)
Of all the buildings, old and new, that I explored in Norway, the experience of touring Haakon’s Hall, and inspecting the rooms empty with nothing-to-see, was, perhaps, the strangest. The structure consists of spacious halls, all of them packed with small upholstered love-seats, wooden chairs, and low ottomans also made of fine-grained blonde wood. The furniture lines each wall, but is also arrayed in dense masses in the centers of the rooms, love-seats set back to back in some places so that people sitting in them would look away from one another toward other reefs and shoals of love-seats, wooden chairs, and low stool-like tables. All of this furniture, innumerable as the wildebeests on the Serengeti, is identical, a muted beige color, intrinsically modern, even Swedish-modern in sensibility, acres and acres of chairs, tables, and upholstered love seats. Each room is furnished in exactly the same way and so the tourist has a sense that he or she has stumbled into an environment configured by computer program with repeating units and modules of information expressed as endlessly replicated ensembles of furniture. It’s as if the furniture is some kind of algorithm expressing itself by reiteration through the big, empty and dim chambers. The Hall seems equipped for ten-thousand people, all of them with a place to sit on either the endlessly proliferating chairs and love-seats, and to repose their drinks as well on the small stumbling-block tables. One expects some kind of monster or demon to emerge from the shadows since the rooms can’t be interpreted in any way other than as computer-generated sets for obscure click-and-point duels with fire-imps and lizard-men. As you walk through these halls, all of them identical, your pace increases, your heart begins to race, and your breathing is fast, labored – it’s as if you are racing between the brooding masses of furniture. At any moment, you expect some catastrophe to befall you, some bellowing beast from the subconscious to charge at you from beyond the next threshold – I can sense the paranoic panic that sent Oliver Sacks careening down the demon-haunted mountain above the icy fjord. The place is a Borgesian hell, a monad that has come crazily apart into atoms that are all the same, all indistinguishable and all completely meaningless.
Angelica and I clambered up and down the old stone steps in Bergen’s fortress. We walked through grim dungeons and rested our feet by sitting in pews in old, modestly decorated churches. We rode the Floyens Ban, a funicular rail up the incline to a large park occupying the crest of the Floyenfjellet, a forested ridge a thousand feet above the city. Kindergartens were in session on the mountaintop, crowds of small children cavorting in a sandy playground and the Japanese tourists shuddered with cold as the wind swept through the dark, shadowy evergreen forests. An expensive restaurant thrust cantilevered terraces out over the steep slopes dropping to the city but because of the chill in the air and the wind and the rain clouds sweeping in from the sea, the patios were empty and the tables and chairs stacked against the walls. We walked a couple hundred yards in the forest on broad trails covered with red cedar mulch. A radio tower extended some frail-looking antenna like aluminum ladders up into the grey sky. Somewhere in the park, there was a waterfall but the maps posted at the intersections of the trails were unclear and I couldn’t find the path that led to that place. After a half-hour, we went back down the hill, sliding in a sort of groove between boulders and trees, then, slipping past slate roof-tops before entering a steep tunnel leading to the station at the foot of the hill. OLD SCHOOL and his girlfriend rode up the incline with us and they came down in the same car by which we descended.
We walked a couple blocks down to the harbor and the tents of the fish vendors lining the crescent of the harbor. At the Hanseatic Museum, an old trading post, the ground floor of the building was like a barn, splintery old wood, odd racks and stanchions, pulley and rope mechanisms of obscure purpose, everything exuding a deep, grim stench of rotting fish. Rebuilt after a fire in 1702, the long, narrow shed was used to prepare torrfisk – that is, desiccated fish, an alarming foodstuff that was once a staple of life in northern Europe. Torrfisk is made from cod and other whitefish that have been gutted. The fish are air-cured on hjell or racks, a process undertaken between February and May when it is too warm to produce reliable results – in the summer, insects attack the fish and lay eggs in it and the torrfisk made in the hot months was not fed to people but instead used as dog food. The gutted fish were processed in groups of two tied together by their spines and the result was a grey-brown cod-mummy, a dull-looking skeleton stiff as a board. (In German, torrfisk is called "Stockfisch" – that means "stick fish," a term descriptive of the wood-like texture of the stuff, or, perhaps, referring to the racks –that is Stocke – on which the fish were cured.) Until Norway’s minerals were discovered, torrfisk was the basis of the country’s entire economy, a commodity produced to be sold in spiky 100 pound bales and a food that supported impoverished European populations during the cold months as far south as Sicily – in Ireland, for instance, the poor referred to Stockfisch as their "daily bread" and in Norway people ate the stuff raw, little chunks of fish chiseled off the yard-long mummies to be nibbled as a snack throughout the day.
The museum is mostly dark, with trip-hazard thresholds six-inches high, the structure built with the craft used in making seafaring vessels, tightly notched joints and clever carpentry on the steps and cuboards, faint floral patterns traced on the bleached panels in the bedrooms where each merchant was assigned a tiny airless cupboard in which to sleep. The past had a bad smell; all eras before our own were malodorous, filthy and squalid. What was it like to live in these small windowless rooms, sleeping in privy-shaped cupboards while tons of haddock and cod were stretched and crushed in fish presses twenty feet below and, then, racked on an acre of drying stands surrounding the dark candle-lit accounting and business office? In idiomatic German, Stockfisch is term of derision – it refers to a dull-witted, conventional, cowardly person.
That evening, walking through the fish market, a Laotian woman behind a counter called to me, waved her razor-sharp blade and, then, shaved off a piece of bloody whale from a whale steak. "Try?" she asked, "try?" I took the postage-stamp-sized piece of whale meat and put it in my mouth. The flavor was rich, like a raw steak mixed with liver. "Very good," I said. "Tastes like beef?" she asked. The Norwegian word for "beef" is biff. "Yes," I said, "it tastes like beef."
In Norway, of course, the people love the earth and the seas and the ecology of earth and sea. People are healthy and lean and, by law, all menus must identify all allergens used in any dish or food served as well as whether glutens contaminate any of the comestibles on offer. In Norwegian culture, whales are highly regarded as wise beings with old souls. By law, whales are harvested by luring the elderly animals into Arctic bays using underwater speakers broadcasting music. Whales are great music-lovers and particularly favor Mozart, although only Mozart played on period instruments and by chamber orchestra. (It is reputed that whales dislike Mahler and, particularly, despise Mozart performed by bloated Romantic and post-Romantic scale orchestras.) The aging whales are gently confined in Arctic inlets, fed on the finest herring and plankton, and, when it is their time to pass over, the great beasts are kept afloat by large, pillow-like buoys so that they can turn their vast and noble eyes to the sun and die like true mammals in the air on the surface of the sea and not in its cold, suffocating depths.
But, of course, Norway, like Iceland, and Japan, are seafaring nations. They hunt whales with dynamite-tipped harpoons and blow them out of the water to be rendered in floating slaughterhouses in the Arctic Ocean.
Bergen’s KODE art museum is larger and more comprehensive than National Gallery in Oslo. The institution consists for four buildings, a row of imposing neo-classical structures forming a wall against the city on one side of a small downtown park. The park is mostly water, a lagoon sporting a geyser-like fountain. Norway’s ubiquitous and life-size statues populate the edges of the lagoon, famous men on plinths, and, also, smaller, whimsical figures, infants and goblins with water gushing around their ankles.
The KODE galleries have a fine collection of paintings by Edvard Munch, as well as a half-dozen big rooms decorated with huge landscape paintings by Dahl and others. The Munch paintings are displayed against dark grey walls with informative inscriptions accompanying the pictures. In particular, there is a masterpiece depicting the three stages of life – a maiden in a white confirmation dress, a naked woman shown full frontally, and a widow whose face has become a bitter skull, these figures poised against the tidal ooze of a cold and filthy Norwegian beach. The great divide in Munch’s work is 1908, the year of his final mental breakdown, and the difference between his paintings made before and after that watershed is obvious and disquieting. Of course, we must contest with all our heart and vigor, the notion that art, particularly great art, arises necessarily from suffering and monomaniacal egotism – at least, this is what I believe, although, perhaps, this conviction arises from the fact that I am a failure as an artist, one of the puny and timid who has never published his work and, in fact, hidden it, someone unwilling to face the abyss of life. Munch’s work before 1908 is tormented and profoundly morbid – his relations with women seem to have been nightmarish and he spent much of his time in an alcoholic fog. But between 1890 and 1908, Munch made a number of very great paintings and, further, devised several of iconic images that proved to be emblematic of the terrible 20th century. In 1908, Munch’s alcoholism led him to the brink of suicide; he collapsed completely and was treated in a sanitarium in Copenhagen by the formidable Dr. Daniel Jacobson.
Jacobson treated Munch with "electrification" therapy and diets intended to purge his system of toxins. Electrification therapy, apparently, involved running low amperage current delivered by electrodes through various portions of Munch’s body – this treatment, now unknown, is not to be confused with the more invasive electroconvulsive therapy first discovered in Italy in the late ‘thirties. A photograph that Munch took of himself shows the artist in the sanitarium, a ghostly white and blurred figure, bare-chested, his torso bleached by overexposure; Munch is turned at an angle and glares suspiciously at the camera, eyes heavy-lidded – his black shirt draped over a chair poses as a raven or bird of ill omen in the gloomy background. His nipples look like lesions on his white torso. Munch couldn’t tolerate liquor and, when he got drunk in public, he was a bar-fighter – in one brawl in 1903, he was shot in the hand and lost the tips of several fingers. Jacobson told Munch that he couldn’t drink in public and that he needed to find a new set of friends. The artist recognized that his life was at stake and so changed his habits. In fact, he became a Vitalist.
After his release from the Copenhagen sanitarium, Munch’s fortunes improved. He painted a life-size expressionistic portrait of Dr. Jacobson to express his gratitude to the physician. A photograph shows Munch and the doctor flanking the big picture, both of them smiling in a self-congratulatory way. Munch’s style became brighter, more colorful, and his paintings became uplifting, even, inspirational. But it is also obvious that the genius in his work had leaked away – by the mid-thirties, Munch was painting like a less skilled, and more conventional, version of Henri Matisse. His canvases are merely pretty. Munch was greatly beloved in Norway and he was awarded many prestigious commissions – for instance, he defeated Emmanuel Vigeland in his bid to paint the big murals at Oslo University’s Aula hall. In the KODE, you can see Munch’s 1933 painting Sommer pa Karl Johan, that is, "Summer on the Karl Johan". The picture is decorative, brilliant with bright light, and it makes Karl Johan Gate on a summer afternoon look like a colorful avenue in Marseille or Cannes – the picture’s woozy rhetoric is positively Mediterranean. By contrast, one of Munch’s greatest pictures, "Evening on the Karl Johan," painted as part of the Frieze of Life cycle in 1892 depicts the same street, the same cafes, the same fashionably dressed people – but the image of searing, even, horrific: a mob of animated corpses in top hats and expensive dark gowns turn their skeletal faces to the artist; the street and the building facades recede in radically forced perspective toward a vanishing point – apparently signifying death to Munch – in the middle of the canvas; streetlights seem to howl and a single man, all in black, more a shadow than a figure flees down the center of the street, passing an oddly phallic green tree on the right-side of the picture. This place can be located in downtown Oslo – it is, in fact, across from the Grand Café looking toward the Storinget building – but the image is unearthly; this isn’t Norway, it’s a vision of Hell. The simple fact is that before he became well, Munch was a great artist with insanely grandiose ambitions – his creed was that art was greater than nature, opposed to nature, in fact, and that a painting was the image of its author’s "inner soul" – when art-lovers approach the Frieze of Life, Munch’s group of paintings depicting human existence from birth to death, the artist said that they should "take off their hats as if entering a church". After his cure, Munch moved to a leafy suburb in Oslo, lived there for 33 years and never painted another great picture – his closest approach to the intensity of his work between 1890 and 1908 is a series of moving pictures documenting his onset of blindness painted in the late nineteen-thirties, canvases with bright, suave, and cunning brushwork showing the progressive deterioration of his eyes. By 1940, when he died, Munch had been declared entartete in Germany and his work excluded from public exhibition – but these were his paintings made before he was healed by Dr. Jacobson. The Germans recognized that Norwegians admired Munch and his grandiose funeral was organized by the Nazi party.
The KODE has a fine painting by Peder Balke, a big picture of Vardehus Fortress, all smears of dark and gritty paint – a beach somewhere in the cold north under the onslaught of a great black storm, a tiny tower helpless against the elements. Christian Krohg, alone among the academic painters in Norway, championed Munch’s early and disturbing work. Apparently, Krohg felt a kindred sensibility at work in Munch. This seems apparent from a bravura, almost photo-realist work by Krohg, a wall-size canvas called "The Struggle of Existence". The painting shows an icy urban street – someone is distributing scraps of bread to a crowd of starving people. The crowd is mostly savage-looking old women and they have pressed themselves close to the beneficent hand; their arms and clutching fingers rise in a vicious, spiky pyramid toward the proffered bread. At the edges of the crowd, some small children carrying buckets have been pushed to the back of the line – it is obvious that there won’t be enough food for all and that the little boys and girls, faces as skeletal as the figures in a Munch painting, will return home with their tin and zinc buckets empty. The children look out of the picture, fixing their eyes on the spectators in the gallery. The faces of the starving children show blank, benumbed horror and seem to implore the viewer for help. The wintry cold depicted in the picture is nightmarish, indifferent, deadly – another little boy, even more hapless, then the others is scurrying across the street his bucket banging against his knee, but he has come too late and, in any event, is too weak to force his way through mob of vicious old women and, like the others, he will go home empty-handed.
I look at this picture for a long time. The air seems to darken outside – perhaps, it is the afternoon rainstorm. OLD SCHOOL in his leather motorcycle jacket is touring the museum with his girlfriend. The two of them pause before Krohg’s "Struggle for Existence" and the woman takes a snapshot with her cell-phone.
Outside, the streets are wet. The park glistens with dew on the grass. I suppose the many fountains continued to billow incongruously against the sudden falling rain. But it is not raining now and the happy crowds have come out from their shelters to stroll around the lagoon in the park.
I walk back uphill toward the National Theater, here a big building in the National Romantic style, a structure that might be mistaken for a post office or federal courthouse. This is the so-called den Nationale Scene, the theater where Ibsen’s first realist play, The Pillars of Society was premiered in 1877. Beyond the theater, there is a wide mall between expensive hotels. The mall is warm in the bright afternoon sun. In the center of the mall, a pile of car-sized boulders rises to a rusticated granite terrace from which water is spurting. The stream falls down over the rocks, dividing into several cascades before splashing into a pool. In the pool, a strange sort of merman, bathed in the spray of falling water struggles to raise a rudimentary cross – the merman has curious frog-like features, something like the face of a Marvel super-hero and his arms thrusting the cross upward against the falling water are defined with Michelangelesque ripples and coils of muscle. Above the merman, a rake-thin man in a frock and tails stands sawing at fiddle. The man’s feet are bathed in the water spurting from the rock and his face, leaned against his violin, is ecstatic. It’s a curious spectacle and you can walk on stepping stones in the pool, next to cheerful miniature waterfall, to inspect the merman, his dancer’s buttocks, and bronze drapery falling covering the back of his kneeling legs. The violinist looks familiar to me, particularly in the context of the luscious buttocks of the straining merman. Who is this man and why do I feel that I have seen him before?
One of the boulders is inscribed with the curious name "Ole Bull". Bull was a 19th century violin virtuoso, a Norwegian Paganini. Famous and made wealthy beyond measure, Bull was also a utopian dreamer. In 1852, he convinced a thousand Norwegians to immigrate to Pennsylvania, where he established four villages in the mountains above the Susquehanna river. Bull had purchased 12,000 acres of land around Sugar Creek and planned to support his colony by harvesting the dense forest. By all accounts, the villages, including one named after the violinist, Oleanna, were neat and orderly. Bull began building a castle on a mountain overlooking the creek, but the lumber industry slumped and the colony failed. Some of Bull’s immigrants returned to Norway, but others continued west to settle as pioneers in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Bull went back to Bergen, bought a private island, Lysoen, where he hobnobbed with Liszt and others. A nationalist, Bull is a hero to Norwegians, although the basis for their admiration of a wealthy musician, is a bit puzzling to me – perhaps, Bull’s advocacy for an independent Norway trumps all other aspects of his curiously quixotic biography.
Ole Bull signifies to me homosexual excess -- naked, muscular asses displayed in chaps, heavy-set women with duckbill mullets cavorting in biker leather, bare-chested men in nun’s habits processing in a conga line through green and leafy meadows. Slightly censorious and thin as a fence-post, Ole Bull stands atop a five-foot block of granite at the west edge of Loring Park in Minneapolis. He leans his head on his fiddle and his clever wrist is flexed to draw the bow across the catgut strings of his Guarneri di Gesu violin. Loring Park is a famous cruising spot for the homosexual community in the Twin Cities and the location of the annual LGBT Gay Pride parade. In recent years, the parade has become more sedate, and as gay people are granted their civil rights more politically correct – with rights come, I suppose, responsibilities. But I remember the mid-eighties when the park on Gay Pride weekend was one great bacchanal and at its center stood the bronze figure of Ole Bull surveying the orgy and making beautiful, if unheard, music for its celebrants.
Ibsen’s plays in translation are replete with ejaculations – ugh!, paugh!, bah!, and ish! Hedda Gabbler and Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder are particularly fond of emphasizing their points with an expression of visceral disgust – ish! I haven’t heard this word for many years. But when I was a child, we used the expression "ish" or "ishy" to mean refer to something that was disgusting, unpleasant, even, nauseating. "That squashed salamander was really ishy!" Or: "this fruit is rotten, ish!" I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood on the north side of St. Paul and heard the word "ish" and its variants used daily. Most of the people in the suburb where I lived were one generation removed from farms on hardscrabble acreages in Northern Minnesota or western Wisconsin and I suppose that the expression was a remnant of the Norwegian that their grandparents spoke in those places. Commenting on Ibsen’s language, the linguist Alf Sommerfelt notes that "ish" means "ugh, ick," derived from the Norwegian words "isj" or "oesj". These words are euphemistic and commonly employed by Ibsen’s outspoken female characters. As I recall the way the word was used when I was a child, the expression was, indeed, gendered – girls used the word to designate things that offended their female sensibilities: for instance, dissecting a bull-frog in biology class. According to recent slang dictionaries, the African-American community has appropriated the word "ish" as a euphemism for "shit" – the term is used to bowdlerize hip-hop lyrics: "can’t touch my shit" becomes "can’t touch by ish". My wife reports that when she was a girl, kids used the word "ick" or "icky" in the same way, as a synonym for "ish." This usage also seems to have fallen out of favor in the fifty intervening years. An internet slang dictionary now defines "icky" as "it is meant to insenuate (sic) the sticky jiz in their throat that they should have from sucking that person’s cock" – certainly, a meaning of "icky" that I never knew when I was a child. (Another Norwegian expression not so frequently used when I was a child was "uff da". On the basis of the movie and TV show Fargo, that phrase is now much more commonly used than was the case fifty years ago among the children of actual Norwegian immigrants. Uff da derives from the Norwegian "huff da" – that is, a phrase typically translated as "Oh, I’m sorry to hear that," a mild statement of dismay (huff) with the word for "then" (da). In American English, the phrase is stronger and suggests sensory overload, that is, being overwhelmed by dismay, surprise, or disgust.)
Disgust is the term for the reaction of English critics to premiere of Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1891. As far as these writers were concerned, Ghosts was ishy (even icky). (It is curious to note that the world-premiere of Ghosts was in Chicago where the play was performed in the immigrant community in Danish in 1882; the same traveling company opened the play later in Minneapolis and Bismarck, North Dakota – there are no known reviews and no accounts from anyone who saw the play during that American tour.) Ghosts is strong stuff and, if effectively performed, shocking even today – the story involves incest and a hereditary curse passed on as a venereal disease. London writers said the play was "abominable, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly... gross, almost putrid with indecorum...literary carrion...crapulous stuff." Audiences who admired the play were comprised of vicious suffragettes and homosexuals: "unwomanly women, unsexed females...cranks in petticoats, effeminate men...manly women and womanly men..." Ibsen was said to be a "a kind of ghoul," his writing nothing more than the "maunderings of nook-shotten Norwegians." The phrase "nook-shotten Norwegians" is certainly one of the greatest, and most remarkable terms of opprobrium ever deployed against a work of art, an almost surrealistically beautiful phrase of vituperation. However, I’m not sure what the expression is supposed to mean. "Nook-shotten" is an archaic architectural term meaning replete with gables, nook, and crannies. A complex Victorian facade with many turrets and crenellations might be termed "nook-shotten". Exactly why this old descriptive term for a sort of barbarous Gothic structure qualifies as a word with which to assault Ibsen and his play is unclear. Probably, the writer heard the obscenity "nookie" for illicit sexual intercourse in the word "nook". And it seems equally probable that the author thought that "shotten," a word pleasingly close to "shit" and "shitten", meant something like "smitten". Accordingly, a "nook-shotten Norwegian" was supposed to connote a "sex-mad, probably venereally infected" Norwegian. But, in fact, the phrase literally means neither more, nor less, than "an angular, jutting, or craggy" Norwegian – not a term of disapprobation at all.
In Norway, everyone both speaks and writes English. However, the results are often not exactly correct. I bought two scholarly monographs on Munch paintings, both originally written in English by Norwegian art historians. The prose in both books is grammatically correct but almost all of the words are used in ways subtly unfamiliar to a native speaker of American English – as a result, the books are essentially unreadable. An example is a sentence from a guide book encouraging Americans to visit Norway. The writer wishes to convey the sense that, in Norway, English is widely spoken: English is Norway’s second language and it is always almost spoken – the transposition of "always almost" for "almost always" is tiny, but meaningful, error and characteristic of the way that Norwegian English differs from the English language familiar to me.
I am highly excitable, neurasthenic, prone to invasive thoughts. Certain sights, as they say, once seen can not be unseen. And, so, unable to sleep, early in the morning, I determined that it was probably folly to visit the leper museum. Yes, this was an attraction from which I should abstain. Rising from my narrow Norwegian bed, I went to the toilet and there availed myself of a glass of tap water. The tap water in Norway is the most salubrious in the world – it is sweet as wine. The window over which I had drawn the shade leaked light into the room. It is never really dark in this country.
In the mid-day sun, on a quiet, even shabby looking street (a couple tattoo parlors, an office for the Rode Kors in a fly-blown storefront), I saw the sign for the leper museum, perhaps, the world’s only, beckoning and so, of course, I entered the cobblestone courtyard and looked at the malformed dwarf tree growing through the paving stones, certainly, a withered, gnarled, contorted kind of tree with rheumatism in all its joints, and so I decided to venture into the museum, Angelica trailing behind skeptically. This was a month ago. Now, the humid nights in Minnesota, and the shade between the trees in the preternaturally hot September sun, are thronged with strange black moths. The moths bat at your eyes and hang on the siding of walls and, in the dark, whirl around the street lights, and I am unable to construe them other than as the souls of dead Norwegian lepers that I have somehow transported to Minnesota in my luggage or cell-phone or in the folds of a nightmare.
Spedalsk is the Norwegian name for leprosy. The first hospitals were Leprosariums and the museum in Bergen occupies the site of St. Jorgens Hospital, founded in 1411 as an asylum for people suffering from the disease. The institution is a long, two-story barracks annexed to a short shack-like wing containing a kitchen and an eerie storage space lined with casket-sized, numbered closets. The place is shielded from the adjacent street, Kong Oscars Gate, by the masonry heap of an old, dark church. The interior of the barracks is dim and the light has a peculiar cloudy character – for some reason, it’s hard to focus your eyes in the building. The exterior of the dormitory is painted an institutional green with white shutters; the interior is a greasy-looking mustard yellow, an oily pigment that captures the light and diffuses it along the grain of the wood in faint, ghastly reflections. The barracks has a two-story atrium rising to a high ceiling and the balcony running around the perimeter of the second floor has been carved into a balustrade with a primitive floral shape. Encircling the atrium are small cells, the rooms of the lepers. The tour is self-guided – you walk from cell to cell on the two floors, inspecting the rooms that once housed the sick people. Some of the cells contain horrific wax casts made from the mutilated faces of the lepers – eyes buried under cascades of grape-like pustules, lips rotted away to reveal teeth and cancerous gums, noses like raw craters between cheeks sagging with tumors. Next to the wax castings, there are black-and-white photographs verifying the accuracy of the masks posted on the walls or lithographs from medical textbooks, some of these in color, showing the appearance of the lepers – the expressionless decomposing faces contrast vividly with the Victorian garments that the diseased people wear: shabby waistcoats and string ties for the men and white bonnets with frills for the women. Casts of children’s hands show stumps devoid of fingers or wrist bones, sprouting improbable tangles of useless-seeming cartileginous gristle. Of course, shock wears off and, after the initial horror subsides, you can view the exhibits with something like equanimity. A number of the tiny cells arranged sequentially relate the story of the proprietor and chief medical officer of the place, Gerhard Armauer Hansen, the doctor after whom the disease is now named. Big poster-sized photographs show the bacillus above cases displaying cruel-looking surgical tools and brass microscopes from the 19th century.
The most disturbing exhibits are on the second level, a place you reach by climbing narrow, rickety steps. Each of the cells has a kind of veil dangling down from the ceiling. The design of the exhibit is to provide you with intimate contact with the inmates: you enter their tiny rooms, thrust aside the semi-transparent veil and come face-to-face with a portrait of the man or woman or child who may once have lived in this 8 foot by 8 foot chamber. A name is provided and you can read excerpts from the medical records maintained about that specific patient – how an elderly farmer from the mountains near Trondheim wept and was unable to part with his horribly disfigured son even though he knew that the could no longer care for the boy, the story of a milkmaid, entirely "robust and healthy" until her 15th year when her eyebrows fell out, the first sign of the affliction, a number of accounts of the piety of the lepers and their gentleness and meek temperament. At least, in the middle of the 19th century, lepers felt that their sickness was a moral taint, a scourge from God, caused either by sins inherited from their parents, or miasmal – that is, the consequence of living in filth and poverty. Since the lepers were in some measure responsible for their affliction, it fell upon them to lament their lot in religious poems and hymns and a number of the small, airless cells document the piety of the lepers: we see their hymnals, Bibles, images of Saints with fresh complexions and rosy cheeks on the walls alongside gory pictures of Christ’s crucifixion.
Gerhard Armauer Hansen ultimately discovered that leprosy was caused by infection – it is a contagious disease, although one of the very least contagious ailments known. Hansen suspected that a bacillus caused the sickness and he spent the best years of his life trying to isolate that agent. Ultimately, Hansen discovered the bacteria and by 1880 had fixed and stained examples of the disease-producing entity on microscopic slides. Hansen was a fanatical researcher, strong as an ox, and pictures show him as a vigorous man with the beard of Fridjof Nansen or Amundsen, whiskers like a polar explorer adorning the handsome head with a great, luminous brow. All his life, Hansen himself lived under the scourge of infectious disease, his first wife died shortly after their marriage from tuberculosis acquired from her father and the scientist himself suffered from syphilis, an affliction that didn’t stop him from marrying and producing many children.
Hansen is a figure like one of Ibsen’s heros, a man like Dr. Stockmann from Enemy of the People. He worked in Bonn with a German microbiologist, Alfred Neisser – Dr. Neisser seems to have taught Hansen the refined laboratory techniques required to isolate the leprosy bacillus. Neisser, however, asserted that he was the first discoverer of that microbe, leading to a nasty public battle for priority that lasted almost until the year of Hansen’s death, in Bergen, in 1912. Hansen was an avowed infidel, an atheist, and blasphemer. He was an early apostle of Darwin and earned the hatred of the community for his essays on the subject of natural selection. Prior to 1879, Hansen had made many attempts to culture the leprosy bacillus in rabbits, but to no avail. In fact, he had injected himself several times with leprosy serum cultured from the pustulent sores of his patients – presumably, he thought that since he already suffered from syphilis, adding leprosy to his ailments wouldn’t be that problematic. But the injections failed to produce any symptoms in him. Desperation drove Hansen in 1879 to make an injection of leprosy serum into the eye of newly admitted patient Kari Nielsdatter. Miss Nielsdatter already had leprosy; she had lost her eyebrows and an 1865 picture of her shows a woman with a bizarre, owl-like face and hands missing several fingers. Nielsdatter claimed she had not given her consent for the injection, a process that failed in any event. First, Nielsdatter was unable to keep her eye open when the needle laden with leprosy pus was poised over her cornea. Hansen had her restrained, sedated, and, then, dipped the edge of a cataract flensing scalpel into the serum, making an incision in the cornea to introduce the bacteria into her vitreous humor. Nielsdatter later complained to the authorities and a trial of the infidel doctor took place. Dr. Hansen was stripped of his authority over the leprosy asylum, ordered to pay Nielsdatter damages, and proven to be a Folksfind (Volksfiend – or "enemy of the people"). But the Norwegian government knew that Hansen was too valuable to be prohibited from further research. Although banned from management of the Leprosarium in Bergen, he remained Norway’s chief medical officer responsible for maintaining the official roll of all the lepers in the nation and, around 1900, was awarded the Order of St. Olav. (Culturing leprosy bacteria in the laboratory remained an intractable problem until 1955 when it was discovered that nine-banded armadillos carried the disease and that serum could be extracted from them to create a vaccine.)
On the day that I toured the leprosy museum, one of the visitors was a woman with only one leg, an attractive and vigorous lady with her right lower extremity amputated at the hip. On one leg, and suspended between crutches, I watched her ascend and descend the ladder-like steps to the second floor cells in the dormitory. My own thighs were very sore from the climb two days earlier at the waterfall above Flan – my ascent of the stairs was slower than hers, and more painful, and I thought that she looked on me with something like pity. After walking through the museum, we went into the grim and gloomy church affiliated with the Leper Hospital. In the church, a woman with an entirely bald head was speaking in Norwegian to an earnest group of visitors. The woman looked as skeletal as one of Munch’s figures, her cheeks hollow and her eyes dull and dark in deep sockets. She seemed afflicted by cancer and the arm that she outstretched to demonstrate her points was like a yellow bone. The pulpit in the church was supported by terra cotta putti, little naked cherubs also the color of jaundice. The pews were stalls, each walled with five-foot barricades of splintery-looking wood. Some wan light invaded the sanctuary through old and dirty stained glass windows.
Angelica said that she wanted to use the toilet and so I went back into the museum, sat in the atrium at a picnic table, and wrote some notes in my moleskin. I took an English language sheet protected by laminated plastic from a box near one of the exhibits and perused it. Something bothered me – a voice was sounding somewhere in the distance with an intonation like distress. At first, I didn’t listen, scribbling in my notebook, but, then, the voice sounded louder. "Hello, hello, is anyone there?" I made some more notes and closed my ears to the sound. "Hello? Hello? Is anyone out there?" The words were louder now and more urgent. "Help me, I need someone to help me!" It didn’t make any sense. Who was crying for help here in this shadowy leper asylum? I decided that it was best not to register the words or the cry for help in my imagination. I stood up: "I need help," the voice cried. "Help me, help me!" Of course, it was Angelica’s voice. I walked toward the increasingly frantic cries. It was coming from the area beyond the big, tile-lined kitchen with its huge pots like cast-iron church bells and its great black ovens. I hurried through the kitchen and into first room of narrow, dismal lockers. Angelica cried loudly: "Get me out of here!"
The attendant at the front desk had beaten me to the small closet-like toilets. Somehow, Angelica was stuck in one of them. The attendant yanked the door open and Angelica stumbled out tears in her eyes. "You didn’t hear me, Dad, you didn’t hear me?" she cried incredulously. "I heard you but I didn’t know what it meant," I said. "What it meant?" she said. "The door was shut. I couldn’t get it open." The attendant looked at us as if we were lepers ourselves, disfigured and ugly Americans. "The door is a little tight," the woman said, "sometimes, it sticks."
We went outside. A brief rain shower had swept over the city and the cobble-stones in the courtyard by the deformed tree were wet and slick. We went behind a building to look at the little garden of medicinal herbs. "I want to get out of here," Angelica said. "I just want to get out of this place."
I said: "I think one of those hideous lepers, the ghost of a leper, was holding the door shut so you couldn’t come out."
"There aren’t any such things as ghosts," Angelica said indignantly.
The last lepers in the asylum had died in 1955 – leprosy doesn’t necessary result in a shorter life-span. I said: "Those lepers could get in and out of the toilet."
"I couldn’t get the knob to turn," Angelica said.
"They could open the door and they didn’t even have fingers," I said.
"I just want to get out of here," Angelica replied.
Midway on the plane returning from Amsterdan, Angelica flipped open her window to survey the Arctic Ocean. She was seated in the window seat and, when she slid the plastic shade up, the dark inside of the plane was splashed with ice-cold and brilliant light, an analytical ray that revealed everything in its grasp in a cruel, clinical radiance. Under the plane’s wing, I could see the fractured ice-cap over Greenland, shattered into hundreds of shard, the high plateau reaching upward toward the belly of the jet in which we were riding. Black fingers of sea were thrust into Greenland’s tilted glaciers, mighty and desolate fjords on the island’s western seacoast. Here was uninhabitable terrain, pinnacles of inky stone jutting through the snowfields.
In my mind, I heard the famous missionary hymn: "From Greenland’s icy mountains". Charles Ives set that hymn in counterpoint with "All Hail the Power of Jesus’ name" in the fugue comprising the third movement of his great Fourth symphony and I have always admired both the hymn’s lyrics and its inspiring melody. (Tennyson said that "From Greenland’s icy mountains was the noblest hymn in English.)
The hymn is no longer sung in the Lutheran church and its lyrics and music no longer printed in the hymnal. Reginald Heber’s words were too uncompromising in their denunciation of heathen religions to be politically correct today – he rhymes "scented isle" with the phrase "only man is vile."
The bright sun flooded the cabin just long enough for me to see Greenland’s icy mountains and its vast fjords. Other travelers looked up, irritated, from their video screens. Angelica pulled the shade down and it was dark once more in the plane.
August 10 – September 6, 2015
Addendum – The Leprosy Museum in Bergen is not the only museum in the world devoted to that subject. In the Carville Historic district in Carville Louisiana, a former sugar plantation has been made into the National Hansens Disease Museum.