Two testaments over life
You could probably say that Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s new book Seven Meanings of Life (Kagge Forlag, only published in Norwegian «Syv meninger med livet») is a kind testament from his hand – as it sums up a long life and much insight. In recent years, his life has been tested with cancer, which provided further life wisdom for this social anthropologist or pilgrim – as he has travelled the world observingly, or as professor in Norway in particular, has shared his knowledge through lectures and books.
Let me read his book against another «pilgrim» – Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy, from over 700 years ago. The Comedy is another «testament» of a life lived in which the transcendent otherworldly Christian picture of our presence from the Middle Ages dominates. It stands in interesting contrast to the reality, immanent or secular presence of Seven Meanings. But are they that different?
Hylland Eriksen conveys, for example, the myth of the two wolves. A grandfather says to his grandson: «I have two wolves in me fighting for dominance. One is evil. He is anger, envy, grief, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, grudge, inferiority complex, lies, false pride, arrogance and selfishness. The second is positive emotions. He is joy, peace, love, hope, harmony, humility, goodness, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and trust».
Dante, for his part, in The Comedy depicts the three kingdoms of death. The first, Hell itself (Inferno), is with the folly and evil of sinners: gluttons, misers, spendthrifts, ill-willed, haughty, blasphemers, violent, suicidal, thieves, sorcerers, flatterers, seducers and traitors. These are punished with eternal torment.
For Hylland Eriksen, it depends on which circumstances that feed the wolves – for example, he mentions the current growth in arms sales in the USA due to lower trust in others during the pandemic.
Dante described the sinners in one part of hell as wanton – drunkenness, gluttony, and love-delusion – while those in the lower, worse part of hell were positively evil. Breaking God’s order led to monstrous but just punishments in this cabinet of horrors created by Dante. At the same time, Dante’s pilgrim (the young version of himself) shows in this fictional underworld his compassion for several dead Italian ancestors and famous personalities, so he also had his doubts about God’s punishing justice.
The pilgrim travels through the darkness of hell, out and up the mountain of the purgatory, where many other «minor» sinners must fight for forgiveness, to finally arrive in the third realm of the dead – the Paradise, with its angels and God’s heaven.
This male-dominated narrative from Dante’s time was staged this spring, when Florentina Holzinger at the Volksbühne in Berlin, showed us The Comedy with a dozen naked women wandering in the underworld (see picture above) – and a ridiculously clumsy Dante.
Let us ask ourselves how applicable Dante’s very Christian narrative is today, in a world of anthropologists and developed democracies. For example, wasn’t Dante too one-sided that only those who confessed to Christ could be saved (unless they had ended up in hell’s Limbo) – which could be seen as a condemnation of other religions’ existence? This is quite different from the diversity Hylland Eriksen presents in his book.
Dante’s dead figures in Hell were, also individualistic sinners who only thought of their own good – and deserved the punishment that followed.
Hylland Eriksen gives us an alternative to this individual view in his first chapter, «Relationships», in Seven Meanings. Meaningful relationships also come with reciprocation, such that «a meaning of life is to give and receive in a stream that flows continuously». He also adds that relationals can be defined either through «competition or solidarity, individualism or ecological connections». As we know, competition and individualism do not exactly lead to the fraternization the world now needs – with climate changes and war in Ukraine. For Hylland Eriksen, a philosophical life in solitude – without binding relationships with, for example, with children – is not a complete life. And if the relationships evaporates, he explains: «When the threads become invisible to you, you are completely alone. That’s when life becomes meaningless».
Rather than Dante’s illuminated paradise as life’s significant meaning, Hylland Eriksen tells us when he travelled out into the world as a young man on a January day, where he then «experienced a feeling of freedom that was so dizzying and intoxicating that it can still be recalled. […] These months were some of the most intensely meaningful in my life». As we can understand, he did not need to dive into the hell of the underworld, then climb the mountain of the purgatory, to find the light of God – helped by the beautiful Beatrice …
In the chapters that describe ones life’s seven important meanings, one of them is «Scarcity» – where he mentions the boredom from growing up in Tønsberg, which created a productive sense of scarcity: He then vacillated between «the long-haired, colourful, ecological optimism of the hippies and the depressiveness of the industrial grey post-punk». This important scarcity is neither felt by big spenders in a frictionless society – where you get everything you point at. Disappointments, recognition and ambitions should follow if you are to experience that life has meaning. You need crises, and you have to develop, and the filter you use towards the world should be constantly cleaned – according to Hylland Eriksen.
Time and Odysseus
In his chapter «Slow time», we remember with the philosopher Martin Heidegger that we are time and that time is precious, scarce, relative, money, incomprehensible, and could be like the sand in the hourglass. In addition to a chapter on the joys of the moment, we also get «Dreams», where I think of Dante again: As Hylland Eriksen points out, the dream life in many cultures is an alternation between «this world and another world, which can be the realm of the dead or an alternative world». Dreams are thus a source of insight into both the world and yourself. As we know Dante’s fictional worlds has been for many writers and intellectuals after him.
Dante’s description of Odysseus is also interesting: He describes how Odysseus dreams of a new or different world, made him set out to the ocean with his boat and crew – breaking God’s ordered laws. The ship was wrecked and sinks. He ends up in hell for his deeds (also the Troja story). In his book From hell to paradise; Dante and his Comedy (1966), Olof Lagercrantz asks whether, based on human hubris, God should instead have let Odysseus be the person deepest in hell – and not Lucifer («evil himself, king and ruler of hell»). But this sin of moving beyond Gid’s given creation, doxa or the social orders, stands for us today as a symbol of a desire for adventure and a thirst for knowledge. Maybe just like the questioning and reflections of people like Hylland Eriksen, and Dante himself.
For his part, Odysseus, according to Dante, is aware that he is defying the will of the gods, as he is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of knowledge: For progress, where the coming is dependent on power(s), even if the goal is annihilation. So: God’s world «is a mind-boggling clockwork that will one day strike the mighty with doomsday blows», as Lagercrantz writes. If knowledge, self-will and free search can be more important than Christian «salvation», we will now and then see the «Faustian» desires for knowledge or the desire to conquer, that it will suddenly hit back at those.
The violence, torture and terror of today’s Ukraine war is continued without considering whether one ends up in hell for such violent sins as we now is witnessing. Is Putin himself Lucifer (who deserves the punishment of being eternally frozen in an ice well)? And what about NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg (does he understand what kind of ambitious puppet he is for the powers behind?), or the cynical Biden with the US/NATO’s possible interest in weakening Russia – and in consequence Europe – to grow relatively stronger themselves? Three big sinners destined for hell?
Today, Dante’s underworld or Kingdom of sinners will be more populated, as large Western arms supplies prolong this proxy war with only more killings to follow – with no «real» winner in sight. But, also, the totalitarian Russian government and the «rebellious» Ukraine also have several souls back here in safe Europe cheering for a winner – where the goal of the military industrial complex to give a «victory», just covers today’s political sins of arrogance, hubris, seduction and lies.
I think we will likely end up with a big tragedy, a hellish realism, and an escalation out of control. As is well known, tragedy begins in the Aristotelian way in the good and peaceful and ends badly – while comedy (Dante) is the story that begins in misery and ends well (in Paradise).
In this interplay between darkness and light, I can add last year’s issue of the Norwegian magazine Vagant about Dante, where two critics insist that we all know the fear of death: «It is the one at stake from the very beginning in The Comedy. The forest in the first song is the one ‘that no one has ever passed through alive’. […] Dante was intensely concerned with death. It is what drives him, both as a philosophical and theological problem».
The fear of death
The awareness of death from the many songs in the Comedy, is also a theme for Hylland Eriksen. The seventh meaning of life in the book, is «Letting go». This is interesting in our context, also as Hylland Eriksen himself experienced with cancer to be in a ward reserved for the terminally ill. He survived.
Hylland Eriksen himself experienced with cancer to be in a ward reserved for the terminally ill.
He observed there that the fear of death was as intense in the elderly as in the young. It seemed that instead of being grateful of life and feeling that they had enough days alive, the elderly struggled with their inability to make amends – having wronged others without having asked for forgiveness, or a crime they had not atoned for. According to the nurse in the ward, the despair at dying without solving a problem was also due to the opposite: that someone else had wronged them, remembering a bitter inheritance settlement or an unfaithful spouse.
In the book, Hylland Eriksen distinguishes between a good death, where one comes to terms with the impermanence of things and oneself, and the bad death, the one that comes suddenly, where one does not have time to say goodbye. Moreover, in the chapter «Letting go», he refers to death rites and the relationship of us the living to «invisible forces that lie beneath the sensible world and regulating it, in short, the world of gods and spirits». Yes, here Dante’s Comedy is telling, as the underworld of the spirits of the ancestors can guide us about life even as we now are living it. I also noted that the social anthropologist Hylland Eriksen wrote similarly about how in Madagascar, they drive around for a while with the remains of their newly dead relatives in a taxi: «The reason is that the ancestral spirits can cause great problems for the living if everything is not taken care of».
At the same time, the importance of being part of a larger narrative is pointed out by Seven Meanings – which can be big feelings like love or solidarity. This also helps us to accept our finitude – or that you are nothing «more than this frail, perishable individual, a speck of dust that lives only for a moment». He actually repeats the words «speck of dust» six times in the book.
A time for everything
Two thinkers, 700 years apart, have written down their rich and wise world experiences – their testaments to posterity. Seven Meanings ends with talking about the apocalypse – the opposite of Dante, who begins with this hell. Seven Meanings was written before the Ukraine war, which is not mentioned. However, Hylland Eriksen tells us about «the coming doom of our civilization» via Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2016). In this book, the soldier must face death, and if we are to survive, «we must learn to live with and through the end of our present civilization», according to Scranton. Hylland Eriksen also refers to him by writing «when the scarcity of clean water, land, energy and food hits, adrenaline and testosterone will once again become the driving forces of history, he says, and not human rights, faith in progress and the dominion-free discourse».
Hylland Eriksen acknowledges that he has not been in war, as Scranton has, and is, therefore, more optimistic than him: In Seven Meanings, he, therefore, prescribes now more humanistic education and to obtain a circular understanding of time rather than today’s progressive linear one. Moreover, he hopes that we, like him today, manage to live more in the moment – but to be mentally with the time of the cathedral and the slowly growing oak tree. And not least, to be able to accept unconditional love.
To conclude: I can’t imagine that Hylland Eriksen, like Dante, believes in a life after death, so with his death experience from cancer, he emphasizes that rather than paradise, it is the world here that is wonderful, «diverse and rich in possibilities». But also for the circle to be closed, there is «a time for everything, also for saying goodbye».
But it probably all depends on which of the two wolfs that is fed – or which follies that rules the politics and public, when a possible annihilating European war threatens most of us – with eternal perdition.
This article first appeared in Norwegian via NY Tid