dr. Sigurður
Gylfi
Magnússon

Dreams of Things Past: Life Writing in Iceland.

Anthology from Icelandic Popular Culture, 9 (Reykjavik: University of Iceland Press, 2004). - Fortíðardraumar. Sjálfsbókmenntir á Íslandi. Sýnisbók íslenskrar alþýðumenningar, 9 (Reykjavík, 2004).

Iceland has a long tradition of biographical writing. Over the centuries Icelanders have been telling stories about unusual and noteworthy people and the things they had been through and set many of them down in written form. The sagas of Icelanders - the "Icelandic family sagas" as they are known - provided the actual models for accounts of this kind, most of which dealt with ordinary people going about their day-to-day lives. When the modern autobiography took shape in the early years of the twentieth century it owed a great deal to these antecedents, which set their mark on its form and techniques. In addition it received the legacy of the modern development of the self as it had taken shape in Western culture since the time of the Enlightenment. The outcome was frequently an interesting mixture of the European literary heritage and the native Icelandic narrative tradition.

The present work, Dreams of Things Past: Life Writing in Iceland, discusses this world of twentieth-century "life writing" (or auto-literature) and how it changed and developed during the course of the century. The first part of the book sets out the different ways in which the self manifests itself in autobiographical writings (where author and main character are the same person), memoirs (where the main character is someone other than the author), in colloquies and conversational books (in which an interviewee answers particular and specific questions on the part of an interviewer), auto-fictions (in which the declared intention of the author is the free treatment of facts chiefly from his or her own life), and finally biographies (where the main character is dead and the author working on his life is some individual unknown or irrelevant to him). This section attempts to show, with illustrative examples, the characteristics of the different types of works within each class and so to draw up definitions designed to be of use in scholarly work on the sources. As is made clear in the conclusion to the chapter, there is considerable overlap between the categories and it is often difficult to specify unequivocal features that distinguish one group from another. On the other hand, in all cases it is of central importance to identify the position of the author with regard to the text and assess the level of his or her independence in the work.

Autobiographical writings have remained extremely popular in Iceland throughout the twentieth century and beyond. Large numbers of individuals have presented themselves in print, keen to tell the story of their times and experiences and confirm their part in the building of Icelandic society. All these writings have a powerful nationalistic undertone, in affirmation of the view that each and every individual has their part to play and their contribution to make. Most of the authors were farmers from various levels of society and a recurrent motif is that of shouldering personal responsibility - increasing the size of their hay meadows, tilling the soil, building up their farms - all to the greater glory of the nation.

Shortly before the middle of the twentieth century life writing underwent a process of "mechanization" through the emergence of a particular group of writers specializing in presenting ordinary people's testimony of national life. These efforts appeared in the form of memoirs and conversational books in which special emphasis was laid on demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit of the Icelanders and how each one of them had contributed something to advancing the country's interests. These types of life writing involved a significant change in the status of the main character: the ostensible subject was no longer the active party, the "doer", but a passive participant in a work controlled by an author. There was thus a considerable difference between these kinds of writings and autobiographies, even though in most cases they were produced with close cooperation between the author and main character. In this way there was significant change in the field of life writing: autobiography remained as popular as ever, but new genres appeared on the scene that gave more people the chance to express their ideas and recount the course of their lives. Many who would have been daunted at the prospect of producing works of this kind found things a great deal easier with the hand of a professional expert to guide them on their way.

Of all the genres of life writing in twentieth-century Iceland, auto-fiction was the last to emerge. Initially, most of these works were produced by authors who had been active for much of the century. Established writers used their own selves as material in their books and to start off with the literary world found it difficult to orient itself to precisely what kinds of works these were. Were they, for instance, pure fiction, or some type of reminiscences with a novelistic thread running through them? In the last two decades of the century a change occurred whereby many authors started to approach their own selves and their histories in a much more conscious and systematic manner than had previously been the case to create an entirely new literary genre. They defined themselves and their works squarely within the confines of auto-fiction. In recent years ever more writers have chosen deliberately to exploit the loose connections between reality and the course of their lives that has always been the distinguishing mark of auto-fiction. This has come about, of course, as a consequence of the breakdown of the grand narratives in which the conventional frames of references that had directed people on their way through their daily lives were found no longer to hold good. For this reason many people other than professional writers turned to auto-fiction as a means of shaping their own identities in the public arena. Moreover, the deconstruction of received values led to a loosening not only of the constraints on the forms of writing here designated "life writing" but also on the ideas held by historians about the past. As a result, these sources suddenly became more interesting tools for scholars wishing to examine the world.

The second chapter turns to certain other first-hand sources in which individuals make an attempt to shape and create their own selves. These sources are very varied and fulfil a number of different roles in people's cultural lives. The group includes diaries, correspondence, questionnaires, learning and lore on national matters, interviews (oral history), obituaries, epitaphs and even certain types of public documentation. Within these sources the individual comes out with uneven strength and clarity, attempting to shape and present his own persona, i.e. to create an individual. The most striking feature of this group of first-hand sources is that in later years they have become an ever more significant arena for the release and expression of emotions by people who, it appears, have felt a powerful need to make various experiments with the self, to hop between different personas and try themselves out and assess themselves in different roles. The "blog" is the clearest example of this change, though in fact various other types of web-based media have enabled people to shift relatively easily between actuality and virtual reality.

The overall conclusion of these first two main chapters of the book is that man is not single but multiple. It is not possible to speak of any individual as being one and the same person from the cradle to the grave. The natural decline that brings people eventually to death is not the primary factor here, but rather changes in people's spiritual and mental faculties and attainments throughout the entire course of their lives. The works we list under the heading of life writing or auto-literature demonstrate unambiguously that every person undergoes major and deep-seated changes from one period to another. This characteristic of the human condition is not always equally apparent in the works but is seen most clearly in later times, when self-expression becomes commoner; it simply occurs more often in the course of life itself. In some cases what we find is continuous and integrated expression, as in the case of diaries or blogs. If this view is correct, it then seems proper to ask what effect this has on our ideas about the past, about history, the sources, and the person in question? This question and its implications provide one of the main themes of the next two chapters of the book.

The third main chapter considers the ways in which modern scholarship has used people's personal testimony of their own selves. Put in briefest terms, it is fair to say that for most of the twentieth century scholars had only limited interest in these sources. There have however been periods in which scholarly attempts to work systematically with popular testimony of past times have enjoyed considerable favor and support, for example the "life history approach" associated with the Chicago school. Social history and all the scholarly experimentation associated with it have, however, tended to concentrate on the structural forms of society at the expense of the individual as a historical phenomenon. Thus the main subjects for research have been the groups and classes that underlie society, with little attention being paid to particular individuals, their emotions and needs. For these reasons social historians have often turned by choice to quantitative methods in their research and have tended to steer away from first-hand sources and the qualitative approach they have to offer. The main thrust of sociohistorical research continued along these lines until late into the 1980s.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century the emphases within history and most other areas of the humanities started to shift under the influence of "the linguistic turn" and then later "the cultural turn". Scholars started to pay more attention to cultural dimensions and these began to play a larger part in the findings of academic research. The ideologies of various grand narratives rose and fell during the course of the century and the assumptions that had underpinned learning and scientific research crumbled away with the end of the Cold War. A changed world picture crystallized in the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and this influenced the ways in which scholarship approached the past. It was thus not only the self-image of individuals that underwent radical changes but also the image the scholarly world had of its tasks and subject matter.

After the initial step in this new direction, i.e. from the sociological emphases of social history towards more culturally based research, some scholars, notably in the USA, went still further and started looking at new ideas that were emanating from France (not for the first time), and in particular to the work of the philosopher Jacques Derrida and the poststructuralists. With the emphasis now on culture, the obvious questions arose of what it was that held culture together, of how the concepts used in analyzing people's actions and behavior had arisen, and of who stood to gain from the ways in which they were defined. So in the late the 1980s and early 1990s many started to apply the methods of deconstruction in their analysis. Poststructuralism became a kind of symbol for "the linguistic turn", which might perhaps be termed "the textual revolution" in history and historical thinking. This turned on the idea that language was the tool exploited by those in power to get their messages into currency, among other ways through the definition of concepts. To understand the nature and context of power the most promising approach would be to investigate the tradition of the discourse which underpinned and supported power. These ideas led to major changes in the thinking of many historians and their approaches to their sources. Taking a broad view, it is fair to say that the postmodernist condition (or whatever we choose to call the cultural flow of the present moment) has exerted an enormous influence on historians, especially those of the younger generation - though it needs to be borne in mind that the great majority of social historians and other historians have been happy to turn a blind idea to these ideological upheavals, while others have striven avowedly to oppose and demolish them.

The methods of microhistory received their initial impetus and began to make real headway late in the last century in the atmosphere described above. Though these ideas had been in the melting pot for more than two decades, it was not until the 1990s that their influence began to make itself felt to any appreciable extent. Microhistory was one element in the intellectual currents stirred up in history by the cultural turn and which moved the emphases of scholars away from quantitative methods towards qualitative ones.

The development of a microhistorical ideology revolutionized the use of personal sources. The cultural turn and the changes it brought with it called for the direct testimony of people from different levels of society and advocated a historical method that aimed deliberately at directing the focus on the actual participants in history. People's own experience of the events and phenomena that had shaped their lives were held to be worth their weight in gold, particularly if their accounts were preserved in complete and original form. This provided a means of analyzing people's understanding of the unfolding of life, the workings of the institutions that formed part of their day-to-day condition, and their relationships to other individuals in their immediate environment.

The linguistic turn, however, put this idea of the individual as an independent unit of expression into a state of considerable turmoil. In what way could the validity of the individual's testimony be justified when his expression was so bound up with the systems of language that there was no possibility of communicating experience of the past that was built solely on the thought and emotions of the person involved? Poststructuralists have attempted to answer this question in a variety of ways, but to some extent it can be claimed that the methods of microhistory offer an approach to the analysis of discourse in which meaning is read into discrete accounts of phenomena, events and people that would otherwise be difficult to investigate. By examining all the strands of such discourse in as close detail as possible microhistorians find themselves in a position to deconstruct courses of events and ideas that would otherwise remain concealed behind the smokescreen of the "official" or public discourse of the grand narrative with its imagined connection to the truth of the past. This is because microhistorians are always seeking ways to approach their research materials from some direction other than the one offered by the public discourse - to provide a platform for the many and varied voices that can always be heard on any matter and be prepared to grapple with the contradictions and inconsistencies that echo within the text. The so-called "singularization of history" that I have been advocating in recent years is aimed specifically at defining the possibilities that sources give scholars to talk about the past in a varied manner without becoming trapped in the received categories of the grand narratives.

The cultural and textual revolutions and the ideas associated with them provided a powerful incentive for a new use of the methods of microhistory, and to a certain degree it may be said that microhistory lent itself well to the aims of discourse analysis. These methods consisted of a close examination of the symbols and imagery of the text and attempts to bring out connections that were not discernible at first sight. It is precisely on such terms that microhistory can be applied to discourse in the kinds of texts we find in life writing.

Historians in Iceland have paid little attention to the perceptual qualities of their source material. Scholars in other areas of the humanities and social sciences, however, have shown themselves readier to work with them in a variety of ways. By "perceptual" what I mean are the emotional affects, i.e. associations and influences, that individuals come under, directly or indirectly, from their environment and carry through into the realm of experience. A distinction is postulated between the perceptual and objectified feature of sources, and it is this aspect that provides the main subject of discussion in the book, in particular the logical and discursive structure of particular categories of sources. It is possible to speak of photographs, texts or works of art as things with a logical structure that it is important to identify and recognize, but it is equally possible to speak of the same things as esthetic artifacts that call for the active involvement of people's emotional responses. In the latter case it is necessary to apply all the various organs of sense and perception if one is to bring out the emotional affects that the work demands or has to offer. The approach, then, of whoever handles the source must be personal and in many instances autobiographical. A photograph, say, of people on the shore potentially calls up memories that evoke a redolence of the shore in people's senses and influence the way in which they perceive and interpret the work. The evaluation of the contents and effect of the material is largely bound up with the personal experience of the user in question. But the interpretation of any source or piece of subject matter can be divided between two aspects: on the one hand there is the affect or emotional response that works primarily on a sense level within each individual, though with unequal power from time to time and from person to person; on the other this interpretation is shaped by experience that is constrained and bound within language and as a result amenable to the discursive methods of science. There is often an attempt to objectify the affect or emotional response by transforming it into the form of thought, which is then mediated as experience in different activities and functions of human life. But the emotional responses can also remain outside of and separate from language, while still having an effect on the reality associated with them. This is the perceptual world that scholars have started to work with in their research in recent years.

The crucial point here, to my mind, is the poststructuralists' avowed declaration that no single person can monopolize and control the discourse, however powerful he or she may be. The meanings are so many and varied and the possible interpretations so astronomically diverse that it is an illusion to try to read the symbols and imagery through the thick-lensed glasses of the advocates of positivism who wish to endow every symbol with one and only one meaning. Any ideas that symbols and images can reveal reliable information about the external reality - that they are mirror images of life as it was - I reject utterly. As I see it, the concept of "perceptual mediation" has the potential to open up for many scholars a means of bringing out the multiple ambiguities within texts vis-à-vis their readers and their dynamic understanding of them. They need to use their sensory perceptions in their attempts to grasp meanings that are perhaps concealed from the eyes, ears and touch of others who engage with the material.

The book examines these changes and brings out how, as a result of people's varied approaches to reality, the self has found itself cut adrift, no longer so firmly anchored in the formalism of modernism as it once was. Reality and illusion can scarcely be distinguished with any reliability, and this has led to individuals taking up novel ways of expressing their ideas on past times. The blog and the electronic media have made it possible for people to reinvent themselves at regular intervals, but the most marked consequence of this change has been that many more people than ever before have started to consider their position in the world. These considerations revolved around the self and build on man's efforts to resist and stand firm and come to terms with the context of things in a rapidly changing environment. Previously accepted points of reference associated with the grand narratives have fallen by the wayside and a certain confusion reigns among individuals within society. The possibilities for self-expression are increasing on many fronts, though accompanied by ever more stringent attempts on the part of the wielders of power to suppress such expression. The deconstruction of power calls for ever more drastic measures to redirect the discourse back into the proper channels.

In the final section of the book, the methods of microhistory are applied in presenting an illustrative example of how those who possess power use this power without compunction to suppress and silence undesirable debate, in this case in connection with a controversial biography that came out in Iceland late in the year 2003. The book's author, a well-known friend of the powerful, was found to be guilty of wide-scale plagiarism in his work. Instead of the author's acknowledging his mistake and withdrawing the book from sale, as many authors in Western countries who found themselves in similar circumstances have done, a coordinated campaign of slander and innuendo was launched against those who had had the temerity to criticize the author. The full details of the debate, which stretched over more than a month and a half, are gone over and analyzed, showing how many of the most powerful people in the country rallied behind the author and attempted to defend a work that had patently been produced in a way that fell well short of scholarly standards. Though the present book covers less than the first two months of this case, the matter is still far from resolved. The whole case is instructive for the complex status enjoyed in the modern world by the kinds of literature we classify as life writing and the influence that works of this kind can exert. In addition, it is highly revealing on the methods used by those who exercise power to control and direct the discourse and how they react to any attempt to expose their methods and their power.

SUMMARIES:
Academic liturgy
From Re-evaluation to Disintegration
History War
Metastories
Dreams of Things Past
Education, Love and Grief
Pieces and Molds
The Sound of Divine Revelation
Microhistory - Conflicting Paths
Brothers from the Stranda Commune
Modes of Living in Reykjavik, 1930-1940
Away. Faraway! - And to Another Continent
The Contours of Social History
Method facing a Dilemma
"I am 479 Days Younger than Nilli."...
Modern fairy tales...
Dissertation: The Continuity of Everyday Life
LINKS:
microhistory.org
The Reykjavík Academy
Íslensk heimasíða
© 2006 - Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon