It is a great honour to receive Jan Myrdal’s big prize – the Lenin Award. But the honour is not unconditional, judging by the many reactions that came after the announcement of this year’s award. Shame was a word that was used, and it is the exact opposite of honour.
Should I be ashamed to accept this award?
The definition of shame in the dictionary reads: “Shame is a feeling of consciousness or understanding of dishonour, disgrace, or condemnation.” For my own part, I would like to add that shame is perhaps the most important social regulation mechanism we have, and in that way, you can say that the question of shame points straight into Jan Myrdal’s writing. Yes, the question of shame can be said to be at its very core, what remains after all the layers have been peeled away. This may seem like a strange statement, because Myrdal is known as a shameless writer, ruthless and brutally honest, a political brute, but the shame is still always there, it is what must be cracked, that he must write his way through, because it is on the other side of the shame that the truth lies. And the truth was for Myrdal the promised land, what everything he wrote reached towards.
I feel the protests in the air. Shame? Truth? What are you talking about? Myrdal lied, right? Didn’t he lie about his mother and about his father and about his entire childhood, and about the Cultural Revolution in China and about Pol Pot?
This is what I intended to talk about. Shame, truth, and Jan Myrdal’s books. Or, if you want, shamelessness, lies and Jan Myrdal’s books.
But before I do, I should perhaps add that I never met Jan Myrdal myself. He wrote me a letter once after I had published a text about Sweden, entitled “In the land of the cyclops”, but apart from that I never had anything to do with him. I didn’t grow up in Sweden either, so I have no relationship to Myrdal as a public figure. The following is therefore based exclusively on Myrdal’s books, and especially his masterpiece “Contemporary Confessions of a European Intellectual” and the childhood suite.
Let me start with the protests I felt in the air when I mentioned Myrdal and truth in the same sentence. I think everyone who writes hears those voices at regular intervals. The voices ask not only if what is written is true, but also always what people will think about it, how people will react to it. The voices correct. But where do they come from? They come from outside but are internalized. They come from the social but appear in the individual. So when I said that everything Myrdal wrote was reaching towards the truth, the voices protesting were loaded with everything that has happened to Myrdal’s posthumous reputation in the public eye in recent weeks, with the release of the correspondence between him and his parents, which seems to completely invalidate Myrdal’s description of them and not least the interview with the son Janken Myrdal, who paints a picture of the father as a pathological liar. I also heard the inner voices protesting when I said I would accept this award, because what would it look like, what would people think if I allowed myself to be associated with Jan Myrdal, a writer who did not distance himself from the authoritarian regimes he had embraced and worshiped in his youth and—as if that wasn’t enough—also allowed myself to be associated with Lenin, a dictator who almost single-handedly began an era of endless murder in Russia?
Yes, what would I look like? What would people think of me?
And afterwards, but always only afterwards: the very consequences that have followed in the wake of their activities, the victims themselves? Shouldn’t you show empathy and compassion and simply say no to the award?
I myself had a notorious liar for a father, insensitive to his children’s feelings and with whom I broke contact several times, so I identified with Myrdal’s son when I read the interview with him. But I also know that my father was beaten by his father and that he was traumatized by his upbringing, in other words that the story neither begins nor ends with him. As I see it, the son’s version does not silence the father’s, but adds complexity to it, as does the recently released exchange of letters. To close the door to Myrdal’s literature because of that, or to disqualify it, would be mindless. Not because the truth is subjective, and Jan Myrdal’s version is therefore as true as everyone else’s, but because the truth as such, the truth as a phenomenon, is examined and put at stake in his work.
“The truth as a phenomenon” – it sounds good and as all Myrdal readers know – what sounds good, you should be on your guard against.
So, what do I mean by “truth as a phenomenon”?
“Contemporary Confessions of a European Intellectual” was published in 1964. It circles around an incident in Myrdal’s life, and it is the circling that constitutes the plot, not the incident itself. The incident is as simple as it is brutal: a young woman, called A in the book, who borrowed Myrdal’s apartment, killed herself one day in his kitchen. What the book tries to clarify is what role Myrdal himself played, how much he understood of the situation she was in, what he could have done differently. The road there is full of avoidance, interruption, suppression, embellishment, romanticisation, and occasionally outright lies. Time and time again, Myrdal interrupts himself, always suspicious of his own thoughts. For example, it might sound like this:
I read through what I have written, it’s completely harmless, also for myself. It is false.
I cannot accept this description of my relationship to the outside world. It is romantic and thus false.
All of this may be true. And even if it’s true to the extent that it describes my actual situation – it’s just an apology. I have a bad conscience before A.
My falsehood feels tight like alum in the skin. I make my normal and rather mediocre pitiful behaviour heroic. And that without being able to directly catch me with lies in words or description of the course.
Therefore, it must now be said that this entire drawing of my situation in the fall of 1945 is, however, fundamentally false. False without a word being a lie. Because I withheld the most important thing.
But this presentation of the facts shifts the blame from me to the more abstract society and then in a few words puts the blame on “the objective conditions” in this case “society as it is”. Lie. J.M. cannot be allowed to escape so easily.
And in that way, I could have continued quoting. The innermost insight, when all the layers of pretence are peeled away, is that he knew she was going to kill herself and could have done more to save her. Towards the end, he lifts that insight up to a political level: we know about the wars. We know about the atrocities, the injustice, the torture, the famine, the need, the poverty. But we do nothing to prevent it. It is the total and final betrayal, he writes.
How can we live on as before when we know we are failing?
That is what “Contemporary Confessions of a European Intellectual” explores. How we deceive ourselves, in ourselves. Beautifies, disguises, displaces, excuses, minimizes. Against that, one could object that “Contemporary Confessions of a European Intellectual” is in itself a pretence – because surely, at the beginning of the book, Myrdal must have known what kind of guilt he had in the suicide. The whole process towards insight, that is the whole book, then becomes pretend. But then you don’t take into account that to think and to write what is thought, are two different things. To write something is always, under all circumstances, to address someone. Language in itself is always, under all circumstances, directed towards another. Writing is therefore a social act. This non-subjective element, found in all writing, is crucial to understanding what a confession is and what it means. When you write about yourself, what you write will appear as it appears to others, to yourself. There are the voices, those who correct, and you cannot escape them, the text must relate to them, either by following them or by going against them. That process is rarely conscious. But if you write a beautiful sentence when you write about yourself, who are you writing it for? The self is reflected in it, but only via the other, the one to whom the language addresses itself. This means that there is corruption in the act of writing itself. Another book that deals with this is Peter Handke’s ” A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story”. It came out in 1972, i.e. eight years later, and is also about a suicide. In Handke’s book, it is the mother who commits suicide, and the attention is not directed to what the author knew, but to the language available to tell about it, which in itself distorts reality, makes it bigger or more romantic or more remarkable than it was.
For Myrdal, “Contemporary Confessions of a European Intellectual” was a political book. The self-deception that it disrobes layer by layer applied not only to him but to everyone and it was not in the ideas or ideals, had nothing to do with outlook on life, but was in the most intimate, a person’s thoughts about himself, the game of the social , which in other words is also there, in the innermost part of the human being but which only became clear when it was written down. A form of invisible opinions, invisible demands, invisible attitudes that the narrator struggles to make visible, in order to become free from them, to see himself and reality as it is – and to act.
This can be turned upside down. For what is the social? What do you fight free from when you fight free from it? The social, that’s us. It’s us. It’s you and me. That’s what we have together. To be true to that, what is it but to be in solidarity? Instead of seeing shame as a mechanism that binds the individual and makes him unfree, it can be seen as a mechanism that is for the common good and that regulates the vital balance between the individual and all of us. If you are shameless, you can take advantage of others and that is the opposite of solidarity.
Another writer who wrote about the social as shackling, was Aksel Sandemose. As you know, he wrote the Law of Jante. You should not think that you are something. You must not think that you are better than the rest of us, and so on. For Aksel Sandemose, the law was about the group’s oppression of the individual and was something terrible. What is not as well known is that Aksel Sandemose’s son, Jørgen, wrote a biography of his father. The book is perhaps the most brutal character assassination in Scandinavian literature. In any case, in that book Jørgen turns the Law of Jante upside down and reads it as a law about sticking together. About solidarity.
Jørgen Sandemose was a communist. Jan Myrdal was too. When you read “Contemporary Confessions of a European Intellectual”, with its strong focus on the individual, it can seem paradoxical, so much in that book is about being without ties to others, so that you yourself can stand free – for example in the small passage towards the end, where a young Jan Myrdal argues with an older Nic Waal, famous Norwegian psychotherapist and communist, about a few lines in a blues text: “You can’t trust nobody/you might as well be alone”. Myrdal endorses the sentence, Nic Waal protests: “She talked about that you have to trust, have to trust, have to trust.”
That’s exactly what Myrdal doesn’t do in this book, he doesn’t trust anything or anyone, not even himself, because what binds him to society is a lie, yes society itself is built on a lie. The language that moves through society, between people and deep into people, perpetuates the lie, perpetuates the betrayal. And if it is so, the truth must come as something independent, unrelated, and most profoundly unwanted. But also, for some, as a sudden release.
In the book “Childhood”, which came out in 1982, Myrdal draws a picture of a boy who grows up in a family that is not right for him, he is like a stranger to his mother and a stranger to his father and that distance seems to be absolutely decisive for him, also for the books he would write. In the end, the boy sees everything as a game, the whole social tangle the parents are involved in and their relationship with him, it’s a game – which means two things, it’s not real, and equally important: it could have been different. The social, with all its customs and traditions, taboos, and rules, is arbitrary. Breaking a taboo is nothing in itself, it is the social that makes it something through the shame. But this did not only apply to Swedish culture and the Swedish society he grew up in, the same applies to the European one. He writes: “But it was a European perspective. It must be corrected. Since I came home to Sweden, I had systematically tried to learn the parallel traditions; Arabic and Chinese (…) to systematically break down my ethnocentric European perspective.”
If you see the social as a game, you are not bound to it, and if you are not bound to something, there is also no shame in relation to it. But though people play, they are not themselves a game, and being free in relation to what they do does not mean that one is free in relation to what they are.
In my eyes, “Childhood” takes place there, it tests the relationship with the parents and the family, tests the very concepts of home and descent, and Myrdal does it in Myrdal’s way, by trying as carefully as possible to correctly recreate what he felt and thought and not wavering from that no matter how unpleasant the feelings and thoughts were and what consequences they could conceivably have – that would be letting himself and really everything he stood for down – the book could not be a game, the feelings in it. So, he is shameless. Did he write himself free?
That I stand here, more than eighty years later, talking about his relationship with his mother and father, and that the media has been full of material about them in recent weeks, suggests that he did not. But it also means that we continue to read his books, that they continue to be relevant and that, I think, has to do with the same thing. Most books from the sixties are almost unreadable today because they are so sixties. They are populated by sixties people who think sixties thoughts with sixties attitudes. Only the books that have bowed their necks and searched for their own, original, and stubborn, continue to be read, because they are about something that does not pass away. Jan Myrdal’s “Contemporary confessions of a European intellectual” is such a book, it could have been written yesterday or a hundred years ago, it is an outstanding book, as several of Myrdal’s books are, and that is why it is a great honour to receive this award, for which I would like to thank you very much.