The politics of forgetting

I am preparing a bit for a Round Table discussion we will be having on Wednesday evening. The subject of the Round Table is Diversity in Scandinavia, and it is part of a new exhibition I am working on called Forgotten Nordics: Ethnic Diversity and National Narratives. We are doing a bit of a preview exhibit now, with the full exhibit opening after the holidays.

The title of the exhibit is inspired by my dissertation, particularly chapter 4 of my dissertation, which was in my opinion the dissertation's theoretical core. Thordar saga hredu is an oddly happy saga, with characters that seem to lack some of the developmental complexity seen in the more inscrutable saga characters, like Gudrun of Laxdaela saga or Njall of Njall's saga. And the saga has a happy ending, which of course the other sagas do not. So well perhaps I lack a certain literary sophistication, but I relate to Thordar saga hredu, since I tend to be an optimistic, happy person.

But even to me, it seemed to be too happy, too simple, especially if one considers when and where it was written. It was written in the area of Skagafjörður and Eyjafjörður shortly after the epic battles that marked the end of the Sturlungaöld, both of which took place in that same area. So that is really weird, to have a happy saga written in a place that had just been devastated by war.

So Chapter 4 of my dissertation uses the concept of directed forgetting to suggest a way to reconcile these two facts. I identified several places in the text where is seems oblique references are being made to the events, characters, and locations associated with the Sturlungaöld battles, and I hypothesize that by obliquely referencing--rather than directly referencing--the text participates in a process of communal, directed forgetting, the kind of forgetting that is necessary for the community to heal. So for instance, there are two farms named Mikilbaer in Skagafjörður, one associated with the place where the first large battle of the Sturlungaöld took place, and the other associated with Thorður and the cathedral at Hólar. By using the same farm name, but a completely unrelated narrative, with different associations, the text redirects the thoughts of the readers away from the reality of the war, towards something more positive.

I guess the best analogy would be when you break up with someone, and then a few months later start dating someone who is a similar type, but has a different personality and lifestyle and you do different things together. It is like the brain cells that used to lead to thoughts of one incident or person get redirected over time to think of someone else or something else. The trick is that it cannot be so similar to what came before that one is reminded explicitly, but erasure also doesn't happen if simply new pathways are forged that do not write over the old pathways.

Of course this is only necessary if there is some level of trauma, of pain, and of loss. If there is something one wants to forget, like loosing one's sovereignty. In other words, one has to be on the loosing side, the person who was not victorious in achieving their aim, and now finds there is nothing to do about it but forget they ever even had an ambition that did not come to fruition. The identity matrix of the people of Skagafjörður had to change to conform to the new political reality.

It's rather nuanced and complicated and I don't think it can or could work at a conscious level. But there is a plethora of coincidences in the saga, even the main character, Thorður hreða, he might remind one of Thorður kakkali, who was the victor on the side of the Sturlungs that defeated the local magnate, Brandur. By hearing the saga, which was oft repeated and very popular, however, the memory of Thorður kakkali fades in favor of the memory of Thorður hreða, a hero par excellence, one with a good sense of justice and honor and Christian sensibilities, who brings it all to a conclusion by taking on the necessary challenges. 

At the Round Table on Wednesday, we won't so much be talking about that sort of forgetting associated with trauma however. Rather, we will be talking about the people living in the Nordic area who have gotten left out of the national narratives of the pure Scandinavian homogeneous society. That construct can be uncomfortable and alienating for people even like myself--hardly a blue eyed blond--but it is more of a micro-aggression than a trauma. Micro-aggressions can be stopped by more explicitly intervention, like acknowledging the historic facts that have been glossed over for the benefit of the national narrative. Once micro-aggressions stop, those who have been treated unfairly start to feel better, they start to feel like they can be included. It isn't so much then about winning and loosing, but everyone finding a way to be more honest about the past.

The problem is I guess knowing whether the violence that has been done qualifies as a trauma that needs is best process through subtly redirected thoughts and associations or whether it is a micro-aggression that needs to be explicitly acknowledged, and that depends I guess on whether the victim lost something truly important to them at their core that cannot ever be recovered, or if they were just abused by people hiding behind a veil of power who need to step into the light and admit they did something unfair. 

Either way, the point is not to get stuck in a frustrating situation, and instead find a way forward. 

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