Earlier this week I was having a few drinks with some colleagues at a farewell gathering for someone in our Centre. The conversation turned to the drinking habits of Swedes and I remarked that when I was out to lunch earlier in the week and tried to order a glass of wine, the waitress said that they “don’t serve strong alcohol, only beer”. I learnt that in may places in the city, restaurants in fact only have a licence to serve alcohol with food, a hangover from the days of alcohol rationing, which ended as late as the 60s. People used to be issued with a book of stamps, which limited the amount of alcohol they were allowed to purchase each month. During this conversation, one of my colleagues alerted me to a fantastic essay on Sweden, or more specifically Stockholm, by Susan Sontag, entitled “A Letter from Sweden”.
Susan Sontag, American writer, cultural theorist and filmmaker, aptly captures much of Swedish culture in this letter she wrote while working on her first film in Sweden in 1969. I thought I’d share some of my favourite parts with you, but I really recommend reading the entire thing. She covers everything from Swedish social norms, their love of nature, imprudish attitude towards sex, while prudish attitude towards alcohol, their political orientations, food, egalitarian ideals, and economic arrangements.
While she perhaps paints the Swedes in a stark light, she also acknowledges the incredible gift of space, time and respect one is given here to focus on one’s work, something I have already experienced. As a young academic, working on my very first (little) book, I could not ask for a place more well-equipped to give you good functional quality of life and a lot of peace and quiet to get on with the task at hand.
“You ask me to tell about Sweden after spending seven months of the last twelve living here. I’ll tell you what I can, but please remember that my impressions are specialized and local. The Sweden I know is first of all a place where I’ve been working. More than that: the place where I’ve been able to do something – writing and directing a movie—that has given me more pleasure than any work I’ve ever done. I know the work has been good not just because of my loving relation to it but because I’ve done it here, in a country whose cultural policy is so generous to the independent film-maker. Sweden’s cinema industry in its present phase, which dates from the reforms pioneered by Harry Schein that led to the establishment of the Swedish Film Institute in 1963, is probably the only one in the capitalist world operating with a strong bias in favor of independent directors making “art” (called here “quality”) films, where a director is free of the usual financial and bureaucratic pressures of commercial film-making while given a budget and facilities adequate for entirely professional work. One is simply encouraged to do one’s best and left alone—with one’s crew and actors—to do it. Although I would have gone anywhere on earth for the chance of getting started as director, there’s probably no place where it would have been as pleasant as Sweden.
I think, the conversations I’ve had reflect the quite genuine gift for self-criticism that flourishes here. There’s no complaint I can make about Sweden that a number of Swedish acquaintances haven’t volunteered to me themselves.
Talking apparently never ceases to be a problem for the Swedes: a lean across an abyss. Every time a conversation starts, you can feel the physical tension mount between the speakers. (Oddly enough, though, the Swedes are very gifted at languages. English is not only mandatory throughout the school years but so well taught that almost everyone here under thirty-five is virtually bilingual.) What to talk about is a problem. Favored topics are: the weather (Swedes never stop suffering from the cold, the lack of sun); money (they are shameless about telling or asking how much something costs); liquor (more about that later); and plans of action (from saying “I’m going to pee” when leaving the room for a minute to announcing a vacation).
Silence is the Swedish national vice. Will you laugh if I invoke Greta Garbo? Honestly, Sweden is full of prosaic, graceless mini-Garbos. And of moments from Bergman films as well, the ones when people mutely express the torment of being unable to say what they feel. The evidence I have that has confirmed this venerable imagery of Sweden all comes from Stockholm, the only part of Sweden I know. But everything I’ve heard indicates that this holds even more true for the north. In Norrland, Stockholmers have told me, people hardly talk at all. Families go for months, especially during the long night of winter, without exchanging more than a few sentences with each other. The farther north, everyone says here, the bigger and more unbreakable the silence. And conversely, people south of Stockholm are reputed to be a little more outgoing and talkative, the flow increasing mile by mile all the way to Skåne, the southernmost province, whose natives are known in the rest of Sweden as “reserve Danes” (Danes having the reputation here of a positively Latin jollity). Of course, there’s a difference between young people and older people as there is between North and South. Swedish youth, as in all the advanced countries now, is everywhere more “southern”—more out-going, expressive, emotional; less compulsive—than its elders.
In this taboo-ridden country, perhaps the most notable taboo is raised against the signs of aggressiveness. Policemen on the street are invariably polite; though most (but not all) carry guns, the police are respected and often trusted, at least as much as in England, but they are also more feared, because the level of guilt about infractions of the social code, such as being drunk in public, is much higher than in England. But the cops only deal with gross matters; the most severe policing of aggression is done by each Swede himself. Their marked avoidance of aggression, even in its minimal forms, comes through in the Swedes’ mild voices, and in the low noise level in public places, the inhibition of crowds even at euphoria-provoking or outrageous spectacles and entertainments. (Judith Malina and Julian Beck say that Stockholm is the only city the Living Theatre has played in Europe and the United States where at least some members of the audience didn’t respond, with insults and catcalls, and by walking out, to such deliberate provocations as the “empty” opening twenty minutes of Mysteries. The entire Stockholm audience just sat politely, and waited.) One hardly ever hears people quarreling, and there is a strong aversion to disagreement as such.
The Swedish avoidance of antagonism sometimes goes to really supersonic extremes. I remember one evening last autumn after a day’s shooting out in the suburbs returning to town with my assistant, production manager, and script girl; we were heading for a new restaurant to have dinner, but nobody was sure exactly where it was. Someone said, “I think you continue two more blocks and turn right.” The driver of the car said, “No, we go three blocks and turn left.” In an entirely pleasant tone the first person said, “No, go two blocks and turn right.” After which the third Swede in the car intervened quickly with “Now, now, let’s not quarrel.”
Do you understand what I found sad in this ludicrous moment, and in many similar micro-dramas? There are few qualities I admire more than reasonableness; and I’m far from admonishing the Swedes for not embodying some lush standard of Mediterranean temperament and volatility which is not my own either. Still I’m convinced that the Swedish reasonableness is deeply defective, owing far too much to inhibition and anxiety and emotional dissociation. To repress anger as extensively as people do here greatly exceeds the demands of justice and rational self-control; I find it little short of pathological. The demand for repression seems to arise from some naive misunderstanding or simplification of what goes on between human beings: it’s simply not true that strong feelings escalate so inevitably into violence. And to avoid confrontation and to repress disapproval to the extent the Swedes do shades, rather often, into passivity and indifferentism.
Sweden is the only country I know of where misanthropy is a respectable attitude, one people at least avow often (how deeply they mean it is another matter) and express sympathy for. One Swedish acquaintance, a diplomat, told me I would never understand Sweden until I grasped the concept of being manniskortrott, tired of people. Swedes easily tire of other human beings, he said. They need to get away. I replied that I found what he was saying psychologically implausible. Don’t you ever get tired of people, he asked. I said I often craved privacy, but that wasn’t the same thing. The need for privacy carries no implication of being tired of people; it just means you want some more space for yourself. People are OK, I concluded lamely. (I’d already had versions of this dispiriting conversation with several other Swedes.) He looked at me as if I were crazy, and muttered something about the childish Rousseauistic optimism of Americans. That time I gave up. I think, though, I do understand. Who wouldn’t be misanthropic, if one’s personal relations were habitually stifled, loaded with anxiety, experienced as coercive. For most Swedes, human “contact” is always, at least initially, a problem —though in many cases, the problem can be solved, the distance bridged. Being with people feels like work for them, far more than it does like nourishment. If it felt like that to you and me, I’m sure we’d have the need to get away and rest up as often as possible, just as the Swedes do.
The counter-force to this misanthropy is the celebrated Swedish love of nature. Though I’d heard about this before I came here, still I’ve been amazed by the ardor with which they talk about being alone in the remote countryside. (“Nature” seems to be the only thoroughly respectable object of passion in Swedish culture.) … Large numbers of Swedes really do have an extraordinary romance with nature. Many people on all income levels in Stockholm and the other cities own a small boat or a tiny house in the country or both. These are as much a part of normal expectations in Sweden as a TV and a car in the United States. …Their rhythm demands the withdrawal into nature, which house and boat make more feasible. Nature means being as far from people as possible, ideally far enough to be free of all traces of man—an easily managed vacation goal in a nation so drastically underpopulated. And of Swedish nature’s two perspectives, the one looking out from the nation’s land space and the one which turns inward toward its obscure internal spaces, sea and forest, the emotional accent falls on the latter. Although more than half of Sweden is bordered by the sea and Stockholm is itself a collection of islands (so that anywhere in the city one is only a few minutes’ walk from water and a bridge) at the dense end of a vast archipelago, wooded land and the remote inner lakes supply the more profound and compelling experience of nature. The forest is not only a dominant physical reality that covers more than half the land area of Sweden, but a vital national metaphor. …For the Swedes, nature is not an aesthetic object, as it mostly is for us, but a healing environment or medium: impersonal, stable, dense but empty, both threatening and yet (compared to human contact) enthralling and revitahzing. While it would be presumptuous of me to speculate much more about what kind of pleasures the Swedes get from their solitary experiences with nature, I don’t doubt that many people here are quite dependent on them for their psychic equilibrium.
…Swedes often attribute the awkwardness and flatness of their urban life to the fact that “we’re still a country people, a nation of peasants.”
Certainly Sweden is not a socialist country, though—to my surprise—one hears many people here assert that it is.
Rather, it’s an intelligent, relatively humanely managed capitalist country which doesn’t permit anyone who lives here to be poor (through individual subsidy and insurance pro- grams, and many free services) and also puts some obstacles in the way of being very rich (taxes start at 10 per cent but rise steeply, with few loopholes, to 80 per cent), though not insuperable ones. But it apparently makes people more amiable, comfortable, secure to think of the country as socialist. The real content of the term socialist for the average Swede is the denial of class conflict, which is to say, the affirmation of the status quo….
“Socialism” is a comprehensive anti-ideological ideology, concealing and neutralizing all genuine ideological strife and struggles for power. (The description of Sweden as a country with a socialist government functions similarly to the self- identification of most Americans, whatever their income and social situation, as “middle class.”) It is, perhaps, as pretty an instance of false consciousness as you could find. I have heard many quite intelligent Swedes insist to me that there are no social classes here—despite the ownership of most of Sweden’s resources, banks, and large-scale manufacture by a few families; and the patently weighty role of the bourgeoisie and still strong credibility of bourgeois values.
Decorating one of Stockholm’s main subway stations (Ostermalm, the city’s Silk Stocking district) is a frieze of imagery and lettering that could fill a graphics supplement to Liberation: the Aldermaston symbol set at intervals on the floor; sandblasted into the walls, sketches of ecstatic figures with clenched fists or open arms, heads with the look of having been flayed by suffering, interspersed with several bars of the Internationale, the word Peace in a dozen languages, slogans denouncing nuclear weapons and the use of pesticides, and a smorgasbord of resonant names, including Fanon, Sartre, and Brecht, as well as Virginia Woolf, Einstein, etc. The remarkable decor of this public space is the work of Siri Derkert—an artist in her seventies also famous here as one of the first Swedish feminists, a bohemian, and a pacifist— commissioned by the city authorities. To find such art in a subway station is startling, but the Stockholmers don’t seem surprised by it at all.
[In line with my own irritation with rich youth with radical politics she says:]
Left politics is the one rival to “nature” as a respectable object of passion in Sweden. But, like the involvement with nature, Swedish left politics becomes, in its context, self-alienating. Radical ideas here rarely join with a radical personal consciousness, a radical “psychology”—apart from the conventional antinomianism and anti-bourgeois life-style of youthful dropouts, which seems less relevant in permissive Sweden than it does in the States.
Imagine a society committed to fulfilling any reasonable demand for improvement (short of changing the basic system), avowedly disposed to remedying injustices where it can per- ceive them. Imagine a society which not only doesn’t allow anyone to be destitute, but which tries to be flexible enough t o prevent anyone from being too unhappy.”
Susan Sontag photographed by Peter Hujar
You can read the full essay here: http://www.unz.org/Pub/Ramparts-1969jul-00023?View=PDF
If you are new to Sontag and have enjoyed her writing, you can read more Sontag excerpts on one of my favourite blogs: https://www.brainpickings.org/?s=Sontag