Bridging the gap

I don’t usually cross-post between different blogs, but this post from Nordic Voices in Translation is one that I want to publish here as well, as it fits into the general subject-area of A Step At A Time. The post is called Bridging the Gap: History and the Nordic World, and it forms part of an ongoing debate I’ve been having with Nordic translators Eric Dickens and Harry D. Watson:

I thought I’d continue out here in the open the discussion that started in the comments to Harry’s Bredsdorff post. Eric wrote:

While nowadays I am more on the right in economic and social-cohesion terms, I still read the former Communist weekly Ny Tid, partly out of nostalgia, partly because of its good cultural coverage, and partly because it is always useful to read opposite views. When I was at UEA and in Åbo, the Communists I knew were almost painfully middle-class offspring. They’d never been within an armsbreath of a worker. But I admired their idealism. And I hope that we people that kick against the cultural pricks of bestsellerdom and xeno-ignorance in the UK can adopt an even-handed approach in political terms.

I have to admit that my political sympathies are mainly centre-right/libertarian. This, I think, is partly a result of the relatively long ime I spent during the 1970s and 80s — after periods in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe — trying to do something to lift the veils of wilful ignorance that surrounded the view of the Soviet Union then prevalent among Western democrats, most of whom were apparently unable to perceive the true nature of global Communism. It’s also probably a result of the time I spent the United States during the same era, when the discussion of these issues had a different configuration from the one that characterized debate in the UK and Europe. Today, if I were still in the U.S. I suppose I would probably sympathize most with “right-wing Democrats” and “left-wing Republicans”.

This political stance caused me some problems when I met writers and intellectuals in the Nordic countries, most of whom held views that were even more the to the left than those of their counterparts in Britain. On the other hand, I became aware that — as Czeslaw Milosz pointed out in The Captive Mind — totalitarian ideology has the power to enslave the minds of individuals who are otherwise decent and intelligent, and that behind the ideological enslavement and blindness often lie beauty, truth and honesty. That is particularly true of writers and poets, I think. In Finland, for example, I found some poets who, though they professed to be Communists, were writing poetry that would never be accepted in the framework of Soviet literary dogma, and was even far removed from anything could be called “left wing”, or “politically committed”.

It wasn’t until I got to Estonia in the early 1990s that I began to meet writers and intellectuals from a Nordic cultural background who also had direct and personal experience of Soviet reality, and who because of that had managed to (even had to) bridge the gap between the personal and the public/political – much in the way that W.H. Auden had done in England and America decades earlier, though from a very different experiential base. These writers knew what Communism was and what it did to people, had felt its physically and mentally destructive force, which was similar to that of Nazi ideology and practice. Meeting these people was confirmation for me that even though in the rest of the Nordic world the influence of the Soviet threat and Soviet propaganda had put blinkers on many minds, there was a Nordic cultural reality that stood outside that limitation and beyond it.

I agree with Eric that the labels of “right” and “left” have become less meaningful since the fall of Communism – yet the old dichotomy remains, now mostly polarized around opposition to or support for the United States and its cultural and political role in spreading the values of liberty and democracy throughout the world. But also, for cultural and historical reasons, and probably because I’m British rather than European, the Nordic world has always seemed to me to stand somewhere between Europe amd America, and I guess I still see it as a kind of bridge between those two inwardly diverse but outwardly monolithic entities.

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