A little while back Vanity Fair had an article about Scandinavia that left me both laughing and feeling insulted. Those are the best articles, aren`t they, the ones that inspire a multitude of emotions? Apparently A.A.Gill was annoyed with the “Scandinavian wave” sweeping over the world lately (I didn`t know there was one but then I`m supposedly riding the wave) and he had this to say:
We’re having a real Scandinavian moment: Nordic thrillers piling up on the best-seller list and on TV. The Scream, by Norway’s Edvard Munch, fetching $120 million. H&M colonizing Western malls, alongside Ikea. Even global recession hasn’t dented the region’s smugness. So what’s the downside?
By A. A. Gill
An androgynous figure stands on a bridge, mouth agape, hands on its head, eyes piercing with shock. In the background, a blood-red, malevolent sky. If ever there was an image of our time, this is it. It grasps us like the mad fortune-teller gripping a palm. There is a fascination that goes beyond its mere museum merit. It is a glyph, graffiti of angst and dislocation, emblematic of this topsy-turvy, compassless era. In May, The Scream, the mystical 1895 drawing by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, sold for $120 million at a Sotheby’s auction and instantly became the ghostly face of the Scandinavian invasion blowing out of the North. At least this time they’re not slaughtering monks and taking wenches from behind while wearing the sexually ambiguous combination of beard and braids.
After the Vikings discovered America and couldn’t think of anything to do with it, they slipped back into the liberal margins of culture, popping up occasionally with an open sandwich, open marriages, Abba, Legos, Swedish fish, cell phones, and Volvos, the dependable car for people who couldn’t bring themselves to buy German. They also offered film as endurance. Now, all of a sudden, everything’s blond and knitted. The best-seller list is stuffed, like a Helsinki morgue, with frozen murder mysteries and repressed thrillers by Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø. Television is frosty with Nordic procedurals like Wallander, The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge, and Arne Dahl. (Who knew they even had color television up there? We assumed everything was in black and white.) Copenhagen’s Noma is widely considered the best restaurant in the world, and H&M has colonized the shopping centers of the West. And don’t forget Ikea. For 10,000 years, civilization has worked like a ratchet, improving stuff as it trundled along. Everything got better, easier, softer. The only thing that has ever reverted is home furnishing, thanks to Ikea, which has somehow succeeded by reversing comfort evolution, taking us back to the Dark Ages with its hard, disapproving chairs, as if sitting were a perversion or a sin, while forcing us to build it ourselves.
Last year marked the centenary of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s winning the race to reach the South Pole. What have they discovered now, or what have the rest of us to discover in them? Why is it Scandinavia’s moment?
Scandinavia is Europe’s Canada, gentle giant of the North. A collection of countries we can’t tell apart, whose flags are color variations of the same pattern. They’ve got interchangeable Lego royal families, and all their names end in “-son.” Scandinavia has long been held up as the paragon of a decent, evolved society, like the blue-eyed teacher’s pet at school, the kid your mother always told you to be more like. In every survey of enviable smugness, Scandinavia comes first. Copenhagen is apparently the best city in the world to live in. Finland has a better education system, fewer fat people, and more beautiful women than the rest of us. Norway is, per capita, one of the richest countries. Scandinavians enjoy paying some of the globe’s heftiest taxes because they like their enormous, cozily knitted welfare state, which provides the best child care, hospitals, old folks’ homes, jails, and madhouses available this side of heaven. Mothers get generous maternity leave—16 months per couple in Sweden, and so they will not be disadvantaged on the ladder of success, and for the sake of their perfectly adjusted kids, fathers are required to take at least 2 of those months. No dodging dirty diapers by running to the office.
Scandinavians have managed to attain high standards of living while maintaining a low differential between rich and poor. And if that isn’t enough to make you want to throw up your smoked sheep’s head and give the blue-eyed blond kid a wedgie, then consider that they are the only humans in history who have been cool enough to divorce nudity from sex. Young and old of every gender and proclivity can nakedly sauna, roll in the snow, and skinny-dip with seals without the faintest leer or vain concern for subzero shriveling.
But at least we can console ourselves with the thought that a great many of them will commit suicide. Though the Scandinavians dispute this, saying they’re just more diligent at collating their mortality statistics, the North does have its dark side. The long winter nights, the months where the sun skims like a pale pebble across the horizon. Scandinavians may charitably love the Third World, but they loathe and despise one another. The nations share a pugnacious history of occupation, famine, murder. The watchword of all Nordic people, their mantra, is “conformity.” The worst social sin is to stand out, to appear even obliquely boastful or pleased with yourself. It is one thing to succeed, but you mustn’t ever be seen to be succeeding. You can’t tell how rich or powerful anyone is by looking at how they are dressed or the watch they are wearing or the handbag they are toting. Scandinavians drive sensible, unremarkable cars, pedal old, beat-up bikes. The streets of Copenhagen and Stockholm are a uniform monochrome of black parkas and wool hats. Not belittling others with your success is a serious and constant obligation.
You can split Europe between the herring people and the sardine people. Herring Europe, in the North, is Protestant, liberal, conformist, and honest. The sardine South is Catholic, corrupt, vain, and mendacious. But ask 100 Europeans—or anyone, for that matter—if they’d rather live in deranged, derailed Italy or decent and efficient Denmark and 99 of them will say, “Give me Tuscany.” Including the Danes.
Of course we’d rather live with the flattery, the flirtation, and the sybaritism, putting off till tomorrow what we should have done yesterday. But we also know, in our fear, that what we should do is live more like them. And when the economic weather is cold, it’s better to be a herring. The attraction of Scandinavia’s renaissance is in its having managed to survive a humane and collectively responsible recession. This is not a time for thoughtless laughter and lies, for long lunches and siestas. It’s a time for hunkering round the fire, caring for each other, diligent toil, and eating mushrooms. The appetite for murder and terse detectives always grows in popularity during depressions. The grim darkness of crime fiction reflects hard times. These tales aren’t an escape to a nice world—they are about facing up to a grimly Gothic life where stuff happens and you need to man up to make it right.
Out of Scandinavia comes the cold, cleansing gust of fiscal and social cohesion, of redemption, with a bit of heavy drinking and woolly, fit sex on the side. The Nordics have a trick, a useful mind game. They keep two sets of ethical accounts, like the New Testament and the Old. One set of books they show to the world; the other they keep to themselves. Publicly they are liberal and inclusive. They clear shelf space for pornography and they politely listen to nihilism. They prefer rehabilitation to punishment and they open the doors to refugees. They are never judgmental about social stumbles, abortion, or illegitimacy. They throw confetti over gay and inter-racial marriages. You could probably set up home with a willing reindeer. But privately, behind the shutters, they are moral sticklers, silently unyielding and stern about impropriety and licentiousness. They are formal and easily shocked. They are welcoming but not particularly friendly to strangers. They manage to live with this dichotomy, without suffering its contradictions, because it is practical. Society must work, and it works best if it’s fair and compassionate. Families work best when there are rules and stout boundaries.
The Scream may seem to be very us, very now, but you need to look at it through Scandinavian eyes, without our self-reverential solipsism. We assume that the scream is coming from the figure. We identify with its terror. But Munch described this moment, and the cry is coming from the outside. It is the vibrating call of the wild. The figure is covering its ears, and not screaming but gasping. It’s not all about you. You’re not the victim. It’s out there, all around us. That’s very Scandi, very herring. And if you make your own bed, it’s much easier to lie on it.
So what do I think? I think he nailed it pretty much apart from the Tuscany bit. I think most Scandinavians love going to Tuscany (or Greece or Spain or other places where it doesn`t rain 24/7) but we love coming home as well. “Ute bra, men hjemme best” = “Away is fine but home is best”.
The thing that annoyed me the most about the article wasn`t the article in itself. It was the picture. Apart from the Danish Flag and the Lego it was all Sweden. They`d found NOTHING Norwegian to put in the picture *grumble, mumble* and only two Danish things. I know Stockholm tries to market herself as “the capitol of Scandinavia” but Scandinavia is so much more than Sweden. Yes, you were just witnesses to some good old Sweden-envy 😉 .
What Scandinavia isn`t is Finland. Finland and Iceland are, with the three Scandinavian countries, Nordic countries. So when Helsinki is mentioned as being Scandinavian in that article … phuh. And yes, it did feel good to be able to find a mistake in that particular article. I can be just a little bit smug now, can`t I? I am Scandinavian, after all.
What do you think? Should we laugh or be offended? Or maybe even be proud that someone is noticing us? I`ll go with all three 🙂