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GP 23 January 2008: The Swedish Uncertainty

The Stockholm Archipelago July 2007. A Baltic cruise. We worked our way slowly into Stockholm, passing amongst the 24,000 islands that dot one’s approach to the city.  The beauty that enveloped us as we made our way in by morning light was so compelling that we came around, went back out for an hour, and then steered again into the harbor, charmed anew by 1,000 sights we’d missed on our first pass.  Our colleague captured its magic in “The Pleasures of Water,” which pictures, for instance, one of the many delightful cottages one sees along the way.  This is the perfect introduction to Sweden: nature has treated it most kindly.  Its populace is keenly aware that its woods and water may be its foremost treasures. It is all about nature.

Its cities are not that distinguished. Two of the hotels we visited on a recent journey were cramped and the décor was antiseptic.  It was better to sit at the bar sipping an aquavit than to squirm at the tables in the dining room. When we’ve put up in apartments and homes in sundry towns, they are curiously forbidding.  Despite the fact that Ikea, a home-furnishings company, is one of Sweden’s grand successes (so much so that the owner has had to devise ingenious tax dodges to hide his wealth), there’s a dowdiness in homes, stores, offices, and lodgings.  Real comfort is somewhat elusive.  Its namebrand restaurants are not its best.

Helsingborg. But out in the country with nature, it’s another thing again.  Even now we can remember ferrying across the Strait of Oresund in 1969 from Elsinore in Denmark to Helsingborg.  We were conferring with some young doctors.  One couple—both doctors—had our party out to the family cabin some 30 miles from the city.  It was utterly charming, snug but not tight, warm, and pretty.  We ate by the windows in candlelight and had a long, global conversation about everything.  The following morning Marianne our hostess led us about the briars where we picked berries before turning to business and rejoining the workaday world.  Berry-picking, hiking, journeying out to sunbathe on the islands outside Stockholm for the day--these are all part of the celebration of the good earth in Sweden.  Surely our strawberry romp was a happier counterpoint to Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.

Nature and Linnaeus in Sweden.  The Swedes are dedicated to nature.  Allemansratten, the right of public access to the wilderness, allows walkers into wilderness areas, even natural spots on private property.  It is no accident that Sweden’s greatest and most famous scientist put order into the natural world through his naming scheme called binomial nomenclature.  By this means he put title and order to animals and plants, nature a confusing assemblage to mankind in the preceding centuries.  Linnaeus was a giant, whose tercentenary was just celebrated. Upsalla, a university town, is thoroughly populated with delightful memories of him.  He was born in 1707, just as Sweden began to lose its pre-eminent role on the Baltic.  It is for its scientists, academics, and global diplomats that we recognize Sweden today—not its politicians, monarchs, or businessmen.  This is not a bad fate for a nation, but not the stuff of international celebrity.

The Last Offensive of Charles XII.  On November 30, 1718 Charles XII of Sweden was brought low by fire from the enemy in Norway, as he tried to indirectly counter the growing suzerainty of Peter the Great in the northern climes.  Arguably that is the last time that Sweden could be called a great power, and we feel that it has been confused about its place in the sun ever since.  At the margins it nonetheless has tried to assert itself variously in world affairs for the last 3 centuries, and then retreated into its shell for the most part.

By far the biggest of the Scandinavian countries, it has at times been the big fish in a very small pond.  Today, of course, even with its land size and population, it is even bringing up the rear amongst the Nordics.  Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Denmark are now richer per person and appear generally to be on a better path.  Norway has huge oil wealth and its vaunted shipping industry: the Swedes complain about the cost of going there.  Finland seems more creative, not only because of its architecture, fabrics, glass, etc., but because of Nokia, a telecommunications firm whose light seems to shine brighter than Ericsson’s, Sweden’s comparable entry.  Its healthcare and education are exemplary.  Interesting Denmark is so green that it now produces better than 15% of its energy from the wind.   Sweden seems to have a malaise, at least in government.  On top of this, Sweden’s foreign-born population is well over 10%, introducing an uneasy integration problem that does not trouble its homogeneous Nordic neighbors.

The Elusive Swede.  For many visitors the soul of the Swede is elusive.  We would submit that a sense of identity even evades the Swede himself.  It is hard, we think, for the Swede to know who he or she is, since the country has taken quite a few knocks since Charles II fell on the battlefield.  After 1814 it more or less gave up war as a way to make itself felt in the world.

Last year the great filmmaker Ingmar Bergman passed away, meeting his maker on July 30, 2007, the same day as the magnificent Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni.  Only 3/4 of a year before, Robert Altman, the rebellious American director, a boy out of Kansas City, died at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles.  All enjoyed long and immensely productive lives.  The contrast between them is instructive.

For us Antonioni painted rather empty lives, but painted them beautifully.  Blow Up, certainly one of his finest movies, dealt with the trickiness of memory and other illusions:  but, as with other of his pictures, it was mainly beautiful.  Altman’s greatest popular success was M.A.S.H., one of many movies where he dealt with the buffoonishness of American endeavors.  Its satirical, very comedic dialogue  runs counter to the dire, tragic circumstance in which the protagonists find themselves.  Altman characters tapdance at their own funerals.  Bergman, son of a Lutheran minister with whom he had a tortured relationship, teased out the agonies of the self.  In Persona, for us his finest movie, we encounter a nurse and a mentally troubled female patient.  By the end, with psychological transference in full swing, we are no longer sure who is the patient and who is the nurse, who is in control and who is out of control.  Identities are blurred.

Bergman’s ambivalent relationship with himself and Sweden comes out nicely in an anecdote about him and strawberries.  In Monika Ahlberg’s The Garden Café at Rosendal, we read that he loved them madly, but was allergic to them: “You rang and asked me to write something about wild strawberries. It will be both a short and a sad story.  I have been allergic to wild strawberries all my life.  Five wild strawberries are all right.  But if I sin and eat seven then I am afflicted by small firey red, madly itching rashes around my wrists and ankles.” 

Thus, Sweden.  Very beautiful, even bright, even colorful, on the outside.  And so dark on the inside.  Steady as you go in conversation, but tremulous at the core.

A Country of Considerable Importance. With all its strengths, and all its warts, Sweden is of considerable importance to the United States.  In one sense, it is a laboratory for us: we, too, are losing relative power in the world, our economy is dragging, and our identity is confused.  We need to learn from others in the same boat.

And, as we have said in several places, meaningful innovation now is coming from the smaller countries in the world, and so we need to look to Sweden and other countries at the margin for ideas about our future.  For instance, its neurologists are doing considerable amounts of good work which can nicely affect our own investigations of the brain and the nervous system, the last medical frontier. The new currency of the global economy is knowledge and creativity.  Better that we be tight with Sweden than Russia, tight with Ireland than England, tight with Dubai than Saudi Arabia

In 1936 Marquis Childs wrote Sweden: The Middle Way, which explores a theme that is useful to us at some levels.  Sweden, as well as others, has dueled with the conundrum:  how do you combine the public and private interest to achieve a better union?  While its formula, long fruitful, has finally produced inertia in the country’s high councils, it does remind us that in a democracy the whole had better be greater than the sum of the parts.  Each of us in the developed countries will have to rewrite our social compact in the context of a world that is competing for ever scarcer resources.  It can be said that the social democrat and economist Gunnar Myrdahl probed, at a basic level, the question of how you reconcile private passions and public needs in both America and Sweden.

A Rich Surprise.  America once had its defining frontier. No longer.  But better than  80% of Sweden’s people live in its cities on less than 2% of its land, so the great unpopulated out-there still enriches the kingdom of the north.  We were reminded of this in 2007 when Thomas Karlsson, award-winning cheesemonger at Sweden’s leading department store NK, brought us two delectable Swedish cheeses on a visit to New York.  There was a feta, of which we still have a morsel. And then there was a Vasterbotten; some liken it to a Parmesan but it is much more interesting.  It comes from the large Vasterbotten region (13.5% of Sweden) or county in the North, which, confusingly, includes a smaller province or landscape of the same name.  The hinterland supplies craft surprises such as these all the time.

One cannot help but feel that it is out in the provinces, where the cottages still stand, that Sweden has got it right.  And that it is there that it may restage its esthetic, its politics, its economy, and its identity.  The forests of Sweden stand tall and still form a lynchpin of its experience.  While we were waiting for a ferry to Finland in the harbor a quarter of a century ago, we had a small repast in a grand hotel grill that looked out on to the water.  The toothpicks in the little jar on the table had come from Brooklyn, New York.  Such was the cleavage even then between city and country.

P.S. The Swedish speak of ‘Jantelag,’ a defining ethos which instructs the good citizen not to get too full of himself, not to put on airs.  Ideally, at least, the Swede likes to think he or she has elevated egalitarianism to an art form.  For some this is probably deflating, creating yet more ego and identity problems.  But in practice one finds all sorts of class nuances and barriers to communication in the Swedish experience.  The self-inflation goes on—more quietly. This is the European dilemma—the classless ideal riven by the hidden faultlines of deep class consciousness and aspirations.  One of our number is now studying aspects of French utopias, which in the 18th century always had a monarch, equality not part of the bargain..  Napoleon had boundless admiration for George Washington but could never understand how he handed over power.  He thought he would like to be George Washington, but with a coronation. John Le Carre, the English spy novelist, understands well how little has changed in England, due to the pull of history.

P.P.S.  As a result of a prosecution by Swedish tax authorities (later dropped), Ingmar Bergman had a nervous breakdown.  For a number of years he became an exile—in Munich, Germany.  He had visited Germany previously in 1934, and, for a while, was quite an admirer of the Nazis.  His existence was riddled with ambiguities.

P.P.P.S.  The beginning of the end for Charles XII came at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 where the Swedes got routed by the Russians.  Norway and the Great Northern War just put the final nail in the coffin.  Sweden ratified its shellacking by the Russians and its allies at the Treaty of Nystad in 1721.  Ever since it and the other Nordic countries have had an uneasy relationship with the Russian Bear, and, despite their pacific demeanor, each stoutly maintains strong armed forces.

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