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Are Norwegians European? The bohemians say so!

This article makes a case for Norway's European identity by highlighting the history of Norwegian bohemians, i.e. those authors and artists who have rejected their homeland's social norms and customs for being oppressive, narrow-minded and puritanical, and who have ventured south to continental Europe in the name of artistic, intellectual, social and sensual freedom. Upon their return, these bohemians have effected change in Norway, establishing a bit of European decadence in their motherland. Cards keep popping up, urban nightlife is booming, people's attitudes to alcohol, sexuality and pornography have become much more liberal, and the church's authority on morals has greatly diminished.

Keywords: alcohol, author, free, rebel, sex


Norway today I

Geographically Norway is a part of the European continent, although the North Sea separates them, but how 'European' is Norway, a country that voted 'No' to membership in the European Union (EU) in both 1972 and in 1994? In the American Midwest, an area that is heavily dominated by Norwegian-Americans and where many colleges were founded by immigrants from Scandinavia, the prevalent opinion seems to be that Norway is very different from Europe. Here Norway denotes lutefisk and lefse, fiddle music and folk dance, mountains and fjords, snow and red-cheeked skiers in the winter, the midnight sun in the summer. Europe, on the other hand, means metropolitan stylishness, chateaux and fine wine, haute couture and street cafes, gothic cathedrals and artistic masterpieces. Norway goes together with crafts and folktales, Europe with architectural masterpieces and belles-lettres. If Norway is usually recognized for its wholesome democratic spirit and decentralized politics, Europe is associated with old-world powers, such as the British empire, mother of the industrial revolution. Europe is known as a political achiever with aristocratic traditions.

Seen from within Norway, however, the picture looks quite different. True, many Norwegians see their country as one whose very core consists of wholesome farmers and fishermen, environmentally oriented and protective of their land and freedom. These are the ones who are typically critical of the European Union and Brussels as threats to their local governments and independence. To them Europe represents capitalism, exploitation of the land and what it provides, decadence, pollution, and top-down political organization. At the same time, there are those Norwegians who emphasize the connections between Norway and the European continent, politically and economically, and who see Norwegian membership in the European Union as key to keeping Norwegian trade and business up and running. This group of the population has gained momentum since the late 1980s, when the yuppie age arrived in Norway with a conservative government led by Kaare Willoch. Though Willoch was not as conservative as Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, his government has had a lasting effect on Norway's long-lived social-democratic spirit. Prior to the late 1980s, business managers and administrators would bring their sandwiches to work just as any regular factory worker would, but with the arrival of the new yuppies it became fashionable to meet for lunch in cafes. Soon gaps in incomes had broadened drastically and a new class of young rich people became trendsetters, with their cell phones and trendy lifestyle. Before the onset of 'the yuppie age', it was said that one had to take the ferry south to Copenhagen for the nightlife. By the turn of the millennium Oslo was booming with nightclubs and bars and Norwegians were flocking to cafes en masse. A survey conducted in the year 2000 showed that the consumption of red wine had increased by 14 per cent, which means that the average citizen drinks about 10 litres of wine each (2.6 gallons) per year. (1) This does not beat the average consumption in France, of course, which amounts to about 60 litres per year (16 gallons), yet the shift away from moonshine to refined wine in Norway is remarkable.

One might see this trend as indicative of how young yuppies have changed the way Norwegians see themselves. A recent statistical survey shows that Norwegians feel more European than citizens of countries that are members of the European Union (66 per cent versus 56 per cent). (2) It would be wrong, however, to give young yuppies sole credit for making Norwegians feel more European. First of all, the result of the vote for or against the EU was a close call both before and after the yuppie age of the 1980s. In 1972, 53.5 per cent voted 'No' and 46.5 per cent voted 'Yes' (79 per cent of all eligible voters cast their votes). In 1994, 52.2 per cent voted 'No' and 47.8 per cent 'Yes' (the turnout this time was 89 per cent). Second, long before the yuppie age, Norwegian artists and intellectuals identified with continental Europeans. Suffering from claustrophobia in Norway, they sought refuge from the puritanical and provincial mores of their mother country by going south to immerse themselves in the art and decadence of continental Europe. While they loved to hate Norway, the pull of the mother country always seemed to bring these painters, writers and intellectuals back to their homeland. They returned, however, not to succumb to the wholesome Norwegian way of life, but as Norwegian bohemians seeking to establish a bit of European decadence in their mother country by means of a lifestyle that includes sexual promiscuity and carousing in cafes, provoking good citizens with their rebellious ideas, and attacking traditions and institutions. Among their favourite targets were the church, school and marriage.

Today's Oslo is evidence in part of the success of these bohemians. The church has lost most of its Sunday congregation, schools have been radically liberalized and modernized, and marriage has become just one option among others for young people to settle down in a committed relationship. In fact, the analogous growth in Norwegians' identification with Europe and the number of cafes in urban areas reveal how the bohemians' notion of Europe has shaped most Norwegians' image of it. At the same time attitudes to sexuality and nudity have become more open-minded and liberal. In contrast to the Europe of the young yuppies, and the new generation of business people and entrepreneurs who promote the EU and the capitalistic principles on which it is based, the Europe of most Norwegians who are drawn there is as the cradle of art and culture, where life is a bit risque. Whereas the former gained popularity from the late 1980s, the latter has a much longer tradition. In the following I will take a closer look at this tradition to reflect on how it has shaped Norway and its relationship with Europe today.

A quick sweep through history

Escaping Norwegian narrow-mindedness, provincialism and puritanical principles, young aspiring artists, writers and intellectuals (the lines between these tend to blur in Norway) have left Norway and gone south for centuries to find enlightenment, freedom and expression for their art. When Norway was under Danish rule and until Norway was granted its own university (Christiania University) in 1811, they went to Copenhagen for their university education. The university opened in 1813 and Norway gained independence from Denmark in 1814. However, Copenhagen continued to be the cultural capital for Norway's artists and authors long into the twentieth century. From Copenhagen, they moved on to Berlin, Rome and Paris. Here they grew into colonies of exiles, gathered around tables at cafes, drinking and talking, while criticizing and satirizing Norwegian culture and society. To them Europe became tantamount to rebellious art, free love and sweet decadence, nurtured by alcoholic thirst-quenchers served at the continental cafe. They brought back to Norway this image of continental Europe as one of smoky cafes and restaurants. And the decadent hanging out at cafes for luxurious amounts of time--a lifestyle they cultivated upon their returns to Norway--is their legacy.

The first example of the infamous relationship between intellectuals and alcohol is 'The Norwegian Society', founded in 1772 by a group of Norwegian students in Copenhagen. It was not so much the oppressive burden of Norwegian provincialism, as the lack of Norwegian independence (due to the fact that Norway actually was a province of Denmark!) that imbued the spirit of these students. Members would meet over a glass of punch in Madame Juel's Tavern, and drinking was as important as their fight for intellectual and Norwegian freedom. Johan Nordahl Brun's drinking song 'For Norge kiempers fodeland' ('To Norway, Home of Giants'), with revolutionary lines such as 'and yet one day we'll wake again/And break our bondage and our chain', became a Norwegian 'Marseillaise' (quoted by Naess, 1993: 77). Johan Herman Wessel (1742-85)--who turned his satirical gifts against all forms of pretence--was the greatest poet of the society.

After about four hundred years of Danish rule, Norway finally gained independence in 1814. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the heyday of national romanticism, during which the old glory of a powerful and independent Norway (the Viking Age), as well as the tradition of folktales and folklore (the sound backbone of the people) were celebrated. This was an age fuelled by patriotic spirit. But only fifty years later the tide had shifted towards realism and social critique, represented in particular by the internationally acclaimed Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Ibsen set the stage as the great Norwegian European, living most of his adult life abroad, chiefly in Rome, Dresden and Munich, from 1864 to 1891, twenty-seven years in total, returning to Norway only for short visits in 1874 and 1885. When Ibsen returned to Christiania (the name of Norway's capital while the country was under Danish rule and until 1925) he was noted for his daily visits to Oslo's Grand Cafe (which had opened in 1874), where he would enjoy a bock beer (a specially imported Spatenbrau), two sandwiches without butter, and a ten-year-old shot of spirit. Or port wine.

Ibsen has become famous for serving as the self-proclaimed Norwegian 'state satirist'. (3) The son of a prosperous businessman who went bankrupt when Henrik was eight, he experienced early on the sense of shame and social isolation inflicted upon him and his family by their fall in social prestige. Later, when he was eighteen years old and acting as an apprentice to an apothecary in the coastal town of Grimstad, he fathered an illegitimate child by one of the servant girls in the house. Ibsen supported the mother and child for the next fourteen years, but the incident remained one of the darker secrets of his life. In 1857 he was hired to run the Christiania Norske Theater (Christiania Norwegian Theatre). But in spite of his efforts the theatre went bankrupt in 1862. Having no success in Norway, Ibsen fell victim to depression and bitterness, which he tried to drown by high consumption of alcohol. In 1864 he received a grant to study and left for Italy.

In the impressive number of plays Ibsen wrote during these years abroad, he carried on his attacks against the repressive forces of guilt and duty, the public hypocrisies and the self-deception under which he had suffered in Norway. In the first play he wrote abroad--Brand (1866)--Ibsen castigates his countrymen for their spinelessness, their duplicity, their evasiveness, their readiness to seek an easy compromise. It sets up, by way of contrast, a central character whose strength of will is the supreme factor, whose motto is 'All or nothing', and who is ready to sacrifice all to the imperatives of his chosen mission.

The play was the first of Ibsen's string of successes; he was granted financial support from the Norwegian parliament and a diktergasje (an annual salary awarded to authors by the government). The Norwegian parliament's financial support did not, however, make Ibsen less inclined to assail Norwegian society. In Peer Gynt (1867), The League of Youth (1869), Pillars of Society (1877), A Doll House (4) (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1884), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady of the Sea (1888) and Hedda Gabler (1890) Ibsen continued his fierce attacks against the hypocrisies of the Norwegian bourgeoisie. Time and again he provoked public agitation with his biting commentaries, addressing such hot topics as extramarital sex, incestuous relationships and venereal disease, and defending women's rights to independence in plays such as A Doll House and Hedda Gabler. He often faced a hostile reception to his work.

In his later years, Ibsen would recall his encounter with Mediterranean Europe, with its gentle landscape, its wide skies, its serene art, as producing 'a feeling of being released from darkness into light, escaping through a tunnel from mists into sunshine' (quoted by Naess, 1993: 118). So why did Ibsen return to Norway to settle in Christiania for the rest of his life in 1891, when he was sixty-three years old, to a place he himself had so vehemently satirized and where he attended lectures by the young Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) in which his own dramatic practice was fiercely attacked?

The puzzling relationship of love and hate towards the mother country remains a tension in the life of the expatriate author. It is one that is clearly present in the work of Hamsun. This internationally acclaimed author--whom Isaac Bashevis Singer has praised as the father of modernism (5)--also spent significant periods of his life abroad and away from home, drawn to hotels and cafes. Aside from his years in America (1882-4 and 1886-8), during which he lived in both Chicago and Minneapolis, Hamsun was particularly drawn to Copenhagen. He also lived in Paris for a couple of years, (6) spent time in Finland, travelled through Russia and Turkey, wasted money at Belgian casinos in Namur and Ostend, and was a constant vagabond in Norway, restlessly moving back and forth between his own home and various hotels and pensions. A combined sense of homelessness and homesickness informed his life.

It is characteristic of Hamsun's love-hate relationship with Norway that he began his novel Pan (1894) in Paris, where he associated with other Scandinavian artists and authors at the Cafe de la Regence. What is peculiar about Pan is that, on the one hand, it attacks social customs in Norway, yet, on the other hand, it venerates the mystical spirit of Norway. The main character in Pan, Lieutenant Glahn, has escaped civilization to live in tune with nature. While roaming the forest, hunting and fishing, he is in constant discord with the local community's mores and values, satirizing their bourgeois ethics. Set in northern Norway where Hamsun had been raised, Pan idealizes, however, the beauty of this part of Norway, capturing the magic of summer and erotic love in the land of the midnight sun. It seems that Hamsun found the appropriate distance for his ambivalent relationship of homesickness and resentment for Norway in Paris where he started writing Pan. When he found writing difficult in Paris, he moved back to Norway to Kristiansand, a city on the south coast, and completed the book there while maintaining his Parisian flair. Closer to the midnight sun, yet with sufficient distance from it to maintain a sense of its magic, Hamsun was observed with a blue cape and red gloves, 'som en annen pariser!' ('like another Parisian') strolling around in downtown Kristiansand on the main street Markensgada. (7)

As I mentioned above, Hamsun was a fierce critic of Ibsen. He was, however, not alone in criticizing Ibsen as a conservative writer. When Ibsen began to frequent the Grand Cafe in the 1890s, it was already the favourite hangout for 'the Christiania bohemians', a group of rebellious artists and writers. Whereas Hamsun attacked Ibsen's social realism for not addressing the wonderful and bizarre movements of the unconscious, the Christiania bohemians criticized Ibsen's social critique for being insufficient. They were 'the bourgeoisie's disobedient sons' with Hans Jaeger (1854-1910) and Christian Krogh (1852-1925) as its leading figures--shocking news to Christiania's good citizens. The famous painter Edvard Munch, who himself spent many years abroad, in particular in Germany, was a friend of the infamous circle and portrayed its members tirelessly drinking and talking. It is because of these bohemians that boheme--actually a French word for gypsies--came to denote any of those later Norwegian artists and authors who surrounded themselves with a decadent European flair while rebelling against the conformity of Norwegian culture.

In 1886, Jaeger and Krogh started their own newspaper, Impressionisten, (8) in which they published bohemia's infamous manifesto of nine 'commandments'. The bohemians' lighthearted and ironical spirit is evident in the manifesto, though a darker tone imbues it:

1. 'Du skal skrive dit eget liv' ('You shall write your own life');

2. 'Du skal overskj2ere dine familjerodder' ('You shall break with your family ties');

3. 'Man kann seine Eltern nie schlecht genug behandeln' ('One can never treat ones parents badly enough');

4. 'Du skal aldri slaa din naeste for mindre enn fem kroner' ('You shall never hit your neighbour for less than 5 crowns');

5. 'Du skal hade og foragte alle bonder, saasom: Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Kristo-fer Kristo-fersen og Kolbenstvedt' ('You shall hate and resent all farmers, such as: Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Kristooo-fer Kristooo-fersen and Kolbenstvedt');

6. 'Du skal aldri baere celluloidmansjetter' ('You shall never wear celluloid shirt cuffs');

7. 'Aflad aldri med at gjore skandale i Chria. Theater' ('Never fail to make a scandal in the Christiania Theatre');

8. 'Du skal aldri angre' ('Never regret');

9. 'Du skal ta live a dei' ('You shall kill yourself') (Stokkan, 1997: 9).

The commandments underscore the bohemians' resentment towards conventional, provincial and puritanical traditions. Numbers 2 and 3 clearly reject a central biblical commandment as well as any inclination to conform and submit to one's family. Number 3 might also be a kick in the side of militaristic paternalism and the oppressive authority of rationality. Germany had only recently been unified, with Bismarck as its first chancellor (1871-90) and the architect of the unification, who dismissed 'speeches and majority decisions' in the name of 'blood and iron'. This could hardly be good news for an anti-authoritarian such as Jaeger. As a student, Jaeger had been intrigued by Hegel's speculative philosophy, but he resented Kant's logic for confining experience. Using the language of Chancellor Bismarck and Kant to scorn what they represented would be typical of Jaeger's delight in satire. Numbers 4 and 8 clearly satirize what the Christian commandments have to say about just behaviour. The prejudice against farmers in number 5 refers to an actual conflict between the city and the countryside that I shall return to later. In short, people in the city would typically consider themselves more modern, progressive and enlightened, as opposed to country people, who were considered to be old-fashioned, backward-looking and reactionary. The bohemians are using the category here to satirize authors and intellectuals with whom they disagree. Bjornstjerne Bjornson, for instance, was a famous contemporary of Ibsen, concerned with social issues, though like Ibsen not sufficiently radical in the bohemians' opinion. His plays, as well as Ibsen's, could be seen at the Christiania Theatre. Number 6 mocks the bourgeoisie and their new garments, made of a material that resembled plastic. Introducing and concluding the bohemians' commandments, numbers 1 and 9 uphold the individual's independent existential creation of himself and the fulfilment of his destiny.

Among the most central aspirations of the Christiania bohemians was free love. Ibsen and Bjornson had paved the way with their attacks on organized religion, the hollowness of bourgeois respectability and the evils of the institution of marriage. At a public meeting at the Workers' Association in 1881, Jaeger caused a great commotion when he attacked marriage for preventing 'free love'. According to Jaeger, the arrangement of monogamous marriages thwarts man's sexual desires, satisfying only a twentieth of his appetite. The doors to all respectable homes were from that day on closed to Jaeger. Four years later he caused even greater turmoil with the publication of his autobiographical novel Fra Kristiania-Bohemen (1885, 'From Christiania's Bohemia'), in which Jaeger describes how the shameful economic exploitation of young women drove them on to the streets simply to survive. In portraying Christiania's prostitution, Jaeger was not trying to abolish it, but to have the state improve on the work situation for prostitutes in better-organized brothels. The state, however, answered by banning Jaeger's book and sentencing him to tines and eighty days in prison. (9)

The next year, Jaeger's friend Christian Krogh became the centre of controversy for his depiction of Christiania's prostitution in both paint and ink. His novel Albertine (1886)--which tells the story of how a young girl is turned into an alcoholic prostitute because of her economic misfortunes--was banned because it 'offended' public sensibilities. Despite Jaeger's and Krogh's intentions, the controversy regarding the practices of prostitution raised by the cases against them eventually led to the prohibition of publicly accepted prostitution in February 1888. Prior to this, between 750 and 1,000 women had made their living from prostitution by following the police department's rules, which included regular check-ups by the police department's doctor.

Having served his sentence, Jaeger spent the rest of his life as an anarchist, longing for a more liberal society in which sexual and bourgeois taboos were eliminated. A friend of Jaeger's, Nils Johan Schjander, had already escaped to South America, where he befriended the natives (the Manzaneros and the Thehuelchos) while making plans for a utopian society on the plains of Patagonia. While trying to save up enough money to join him, Jaeger pursued a restless life back and forth between Paris (he was renting a room in Montmartre) and Christiania. In Paris he would hang out at the Cafe du Cardinal and the Cafe Lefranc with fellow poets and anarchists. In 1906 he published Anarkiets Bibel ('The Anarchy Bible'). Suffering from alcoholism and syphilis, he died five years later from cancer.

Krogh's life was less tragic. He was after all the one who ended up with the femme fatale Oda Lasson, the woman they had both wanted, and he was able to develop significant contacts and connections. While Jaeger was drowning in despair, Krogh and Oda led an outgoing life in Skagen (on Denmark's coast which became an artists' centre in the late 1800s), staying at the Brondum Hotel, feasting on champagne in Berlin, hanging out at the Cafe Bauer in Paris, or in Christiania. In their social circle were, among others, the Swedish rebel and playwright August Strindberg, the dandy Oscar Wilde, and the artist Auguste Rodin. Eventually Oda's extramarital affairs made Krogh's life overwhelmingly difficult, however. Becoming all the time more restless, Krogh led a nomadic life burdened by financial worries, roaming the cities of Europe--from Rugen to Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Paris, Dieppe, London, Madrid, Seville and so on. His high consumption of alcohol in the 1880s turned to abuse in the 1890s, especially after 1897 when Oda moved to Paris with her lover, the author Gunnar Heiberg, who had been his friend for several years. At the turn of the century Krogh was at a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics. Recovering, and reunited with Oda, he moved to France in 1901 where he spent much of his time at the Cafe de Versailles in the Montparnasse neighbour-hood. During his visits to Christiania he stayed at the Grand Hotel or the Hotel Continental, the most 'European' hotels in Norway. He finally moved back to Christiania in 1909, where he became a leading figure in the art world and a frequent customer at the Grand Cafe until he died in 1925.

In 1920 the prohibition of hard liquor became a fact. Hostile to what it perceived as increasing promiscuity, the church launched a campaign against the morals of young people. The church was reacting against the burgeoning youth culture of jazz (or 'dementia jazzeniana' in the eyes of the church): dance, nightlife and sexual liberation. To the inventive there were solutions. Under the nickname of 'froken Flaskehals' ('Miss Bottleneck'), doctors were signing medical prescriptions for alcohol. Another solution for many was to go to Paris where jazz and the Charleston were in the air. Here Scandinavian authors and artists made contact and bonded with American refugees--Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, e. e. cummings--who had escaped the Wall Street fixation with capital and the fanatical obsession with puritanical morals, in search of freedom, spontaneity, sensuality, whisky and champagne. They gathered at Le Dome (in Montparnasse), the Bar Americain, La Rotonde and Chez les Vikings.

Among the Norwegians in Paris during these years was Sigurd Hoel (1890-1960), one of the cultural radicals of the 1920s and 1930s who flirted with rebellious ideas of social and sexual liberation, inspired in particular by Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich. Hoel was in psychoanalytic therapy with Reich for a while when Reich, who was also a communist and a Jew, fled Germany to live first in Denmark, then in Norway, before he finally moved to the United States. In short Reich argued that the established bourgeoisie supported a cultural sexual repression that manipulated people to obsess about their guilt, thereby becoming submissive citizens and obeying the authorities. In particular it was Reich's research on the central place of sexuality and the disastrous effects of a repressed sexuality that inspired Hoel. In 1927 he shocked the Norwegian church with his playfully erotic novel Syndere i sommersol (Sinners in Summertime, 1930), a story about a group of young, liberated people vacationing on the coast of southern Norway. The novel is written as a homage to youth, freedom, love and summer while it satirizes the church's puritanical concepts of 'sin' and 'shame'. The church responded by condemning the book. On one Sunday alone in 1927 the novel was the topic of the sermon in seven churches in Oslo (Gentikow, 1974: 93). Many critics reacted against the liberated young women portrayed in the novel. The condemnation of the book by the church and conservative critics made it immensely popular among young readers and it was made into a motion picture in 1934, directed by Einar Sissener. Later in his life Hoel became a figure of cultural authority.

The 1930s and the 1940s saw the depression and World War II. These were not flourishing times for decadent bohemians. Instead, patriotism ruled. The 1950s, on the other hand, brought hope and prosperity for a contented middle class, which again was derided by a new generation of bohemians. Jens Bjorneboe (1920-76) was a key representative of bohemians in post-war Norway. Hoel was his friend and mentor. Another central post-war bohemian was Axel Jensen (1932-2003). It is telling that the two most common adjectives used to praise Bjorneboe and Jensen are 'bohemian' and 'European'. In literary histories Bjorneboe is described as the most europeisk innstilte ('European-oriented' or 'European-minded') of all authors in the early 1970s (Beyer, 1975: 198). Bjorneboe's biographer Fredrik Wandrup seconds this classification, asserting that when Bjorneboe died, one of the most European Norwegian authors after the war disappeared (Wandrup, 1984: 9, italics in the original). "Bjorneboe var avgjort av bohem-slekt' ('Bjorneboe was definitely of bohemian heritage'), continues Wandrup, quoting Jaeger to describe him as 'en av "mennene med di store behov, fremtidsbehovene, der forst kan tilfredsstilles under friere, rikere og skjonnere samfunnsformer," sore Jaeger uttrykte det' ('one of "those men with such great wishes--desires for the future--that can only be satisfied under freer, richer and more beautiful forms of society", as Jaeger put it') (Wandrup, 1984: 190).

Bjorneboe suffered throughout his life from depression and alcoholism. He was a regular at the cultural cafe Theatercafeen and later Club 7, where he would recite poems he had written for friends. Criticizing Norway as a group-despotic society, he escaped in the late 1950s to Europe--Germany, Switzerland and Italy--where he found respite from Norwegian hypocrisy and pettiness. Like Jaeger, Bjorneboe was an anarchist and nothing was too sacred for his fierce attacks. He indicted the treatment of those accused of being collaborators by the Norwegian authorities at the close of World War II, the ways teachers and administrators in Norwegian schools dealt with their students, and the treatment of youthful offenders by the Norwegian justice system of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1966 he published the erotic novel Uten en trad (Without a Stitch, 1969), which tells the story of the young woman, Lilian, who consults the orgasm specialist Dr Peterson, finding that she cannot have an orgasm because she is inhibited by a sense of shame towards her sexuality. Lilian's feelings of shame are induced by her mother and grandmother and the novel is an explicit attack against their kind of guilt-ridden relationship to sexuality. Opposed to Lilian's maternal guards stands Dr Peterson, who promotes a shame-free and joyous affirmation of sexuality. He cures Lilian, and hers is a story with a happy ending, but the reception of the novel did not go as smoothly. The book was confiscated and Bjorneboe was accused of writing pornography. He was found guilty by both the City Court and the High Court (in 1967) and was sentenced to pay fines. The book remained confiscated and the sentence has never been revoked. The novel was republished, however, in 1988, and though in theory illegal, it is now generally available in Norwegian bookstores. Abiding by Christiania bohemia's ninth commandment, Bjorneboe finally committed suicide by hanging himself in 1976.

Axel Jensen, who passed away in 2003, epitomizes the Norwegian bohemian-turned-European. The son of a bourgeois factory owner, Jensen broke with his father and ventured into the world as a hippie fifteen years prior to the hippie movement. He spent most of his life as a vagabond abroad until 1992 when, with his fourth wife Pratibha who was from India, he moved ashore on the southern coast of Norway (in Alefjaer, close to the larger city of Kristiansand) after eighteen years on board the old schooner Shanti Devi. An avid reader of philosophy, mysticism, eastern religions and alternative paths to insight, Jensen explored ways to attain a more authentic relationship with life all over the world, from Africa's desert to South America's pyramids to Asia's religions. He spent many years in London, including about a year at Kingsley Hall, the experimental mental unit led by the radical psychiatrists David Cooper from South Africa and Ronald David Laing from Scotland. Cooper and Laing had started their first experimental unit, 'Villa 21', at Shenley Hospital in Hertfordshire, but the unit was moved to Kingsley Hall in London's East End when 'Villa 21' became too radical for Shenley Hospital. Basically the unit's policy was to have no medication (except for the occasional use of LSD) and no rules or routines to control or care for patients with extremely serious diagnoses such as schizophrenia. Suffering from depression aggravated by difficulties in his third marriage, Jensen began to experiment with LSD under the supervision of Cooper. The drug and the mental realms it opened up to him amazed him, and he continued to use it for a while during his stay at Kingsley Hall, which became a centre for the London intelligentsia. Artists, authors, philosophers, actors and film-makers would hang out there, adding to the faintly glamorous memory of Kingsley Hall.

His appetite for life and desire for a richer one brought Jensen to launch into his first adventurous excursion when he was only nineteen years old, venturing to such disparate places as Genoa, Tunis, Kuwait and London. A few months after his return to Norway, he set out on his second journey. Demoralized by the factory business at home, Jensen intended to join a monastery in Tibet. Instead he ended up on a journey that took him through the Sahara desert to the Tuaregs, members of a Muslim, Berber-speaking people inhabiting the western and central Sahara and the western Sahel of north-west Africa. Jensen describes this journey in three travelogues published in the national newspaper Aftenposten in 1955, which he revised and incorporated into his breakthrough novel published two years later, Ikaros: Ung mann i Sahara (1957; Icarus: A Young Man in the Sahara, 1959), which was compared to the early novels of Knut Hamsun, who also portrayed the outsider rebelling against the bourgeoisie and rejecting their social conventions. In his next novel, Line (1959; A Girl I Knew, 1962), Jensen's protagonist, Jacob, returns to Oslo with a manuscript in his suitcase intending to work things out with his family after a year abroad. Putting off making the encounter with his family, he drifts off into two communities that are equally empty in their own way: one consisting of the younger generation of Oslo's better families, among whom he finds and falls in love with Line, and the other including pseudo-intellectual pseudo-artists at the Theatercafeen. Portraying these communities, Jensen did not shy away from graphic depictions of sex. This caused the church to re-engage with its earlier crusade against pornography from the late 1920s and the 1930s. As in the case of Hoel, this merely caused the sales to skyrocket. The story was made into a motion picture in 1961, starring famous Norwegian movie stars such as Toralv Maurstad and Henki Kolstad. Nils-Reinhardt Christensen directed the movie, which bolstered the novel's cult movement that soon had 'Line clothes' and 'Line shoes' for sale.

Jensen later excelled in the genre of science fiction in the tradition of works by Jonathan Swift, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in which it is used as satire of contemporary society--social democracy and the welfare state. Yet, despite his expressed dismay with Norway, Jensen too returned to his mother country. In the mid-1980s Jensen and Pratibha sailed into Oslo and in 1992 they resettled on the mainland.

Before the national referendum on membership of the EU in 1994, Jensen edited an anthology of essays by prominent figures in favour of EU membership. Contributors were from both Norway and continental Europe, a motley group of poets, intellectuals and politicians, including Vaclav Havel and Jacques Delors. The diverse nature of this anthology reveals the complex nature of Norway's relationship with Europe. The book tries to sell itself to those who defend the old culture and the hard-won independence of Norway by appealing to the country's rich traditions. The book's title, for instance, Det kollektive eventyr: en bok om Norge, Europa og EU ('The collective folktale: a book about Norway, Europe and the EU'), was coined by Jacques Delors, but it also alludes to Norway's rich folktale tradition, as does the book's front page, which portrays the national folktale hero Askeladden (the Ash Lad) as he looks from one mountain peak to another, wondering what lies beyond, alluding to the famous words by Bjornstjerne Bjornson: 'Undres meg pa hva jeg far a se, over de hoye fjelle' ('Wonder what I will see, on the other side of the tall mountains'). Jensen, who came up with the idea for the book, alluded to these words by Bjornson in an interview with Alf van der Hagen in 1994. Among the various contributors to the anthology are both those who defend the EU while highlighting economic and political collaboration based on its original capitalistic principles (but also revised and expanded) and those who defend Europe as the cradle of art and culture. Jensen obviously belongs to the latter. In his own essay in the anthology, Jensen writes that
   For meg er ikke Europa bare geografi og historie, okonomisk,
   politisk, kulturelt, men like meget en sinnstilstand som forsterkes
   hver gang vi fullforer en setning. En europeer kan vaere hvem sore
   helst som tilegner seg det fellesgods av begreper som er
   oversettbare til alle kontinentets sprak. Av rent semantiske grunner
   er vi europeere enten vi onsker det eller ikke. Og dersom det hadde
   vaert mulig a skille ut det unikt norske, kvintessensen av
   norskheten fra den europeiske kulturarven, tror jeg vi ble noksa
   fattige ... Alle har vi en felles fortid i det romerske
   keiserriket, felles religiose former, felles sosiale skikker og en
   felles kunst og vitenskap.

   To me Europe is not just geography and history, economically,
   politically and culturally, but just as much a state of mind that is
   reinforced every time we complete a sentence. A European can
   be anyone who acquires that common property of terms that are
   translatable into all the languages of the continent. We are
   Europeans whether we like it or not for purely semantic reasons.
   And if it had been possible to extract the uniquely Norwegian--the
   quintessence of 'Norwegian'--from the European cultural
   heritage, I think we would become rather poor ... We all have a
   shared past in the Roman empire, shared religious patterns,
   shared social customs, and a shared art and science (Jensen,
   1994: 143-4).

Jensen goes on to refer to Europe's shared heritage, from the Greek myths and religion to the Age of Enlightenment with Voltaire and Rousseau, Sir Isaac Newton and William Blake. According to Jensen nationalism is a children's disease, and he urges Norwegians not to be europhobic, but to commit to the joint construction of European civilization and integration to prevent war. Jensen acknowledges that many Norwegians maintain that they are 'pro' Europe but against the EU, but he dismisses this as a childish position that they must rise above in the name of peace and cooperation. It is time, concludes Jensen, to get over the cultural neuroses caused by the traumatic separation from Denmark that has brought Norway to a delayed puberty, in which it is suffering from chronic anxiety that it will be sucked up again by its big sister Europe.

Jensen's defence of the EU is in this way closely related to his rebellion against cultural narrow-mindedness and a longing for a broader-minded attitude to life. In defending the EU, he had by no means turned into a capitalist or relinquished his decadent inclinations. On the contrary, throughout the 1990s Jensen continued to defend the value of his earlier experiments with LSD. Confined to bed after he was diagnosed with the fatal muscle disease ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease in the early 1990s, Jensen continued to hold court from bed to his devotees while sipping on whisky through a straw and taking drags from a cigarette his wife would hold for him. The journalists and literary critics who flocked around his sickbed until the end extolled Jensen as 'a cosmic beat bohemian', 'an outsider of class', 'an esoteric master of the language' and "a homeless European'. (10)

Norway today II

It is interesting to compare Jensen's popularity to the present-day flourishing cafe culture and the increasing openness towards sexuality. Both Bjorneboe and Jensen have by now become members of the canon, indicating a shift in the public attitude towards bohemians. In the 1950s and 1960s these authors created a great stir as radical rebels desiring social and sexual freedom. Today they are acclaimed for the same reasons that previously brought them disapproval as their ideals have gained esteem. Their 'pornographic' novels are widely read and discussed, as is pornography in general. The national newspapers are reporting weekly on the on-going discussions about pornography, in particular Dagbladet and Klassekampen, which have both run a series of articles on the topic. Whereas women have typically been against pornography, the current discussion has heard women defend pornography as possibly empowering for their gender and as an important outlet for our sexual fantasies. Marit Synnevag argues in this way in her recently published book Pornografi (2002; 'Pornography'). A more controversial proponent of pornography, Kjetil Rolness, has received much attention for his book Sex, logn og videofilm (2003; 'Sex, lies and videotapes'). At the same time France is currently witnessing a wave of pornography by intellectual women, including Baise-moi (1999; Rape Me, 2003) by Virgine Despentes, Le Grenier (2000, 'The attic') by Claire Castillon, La Nouvelle Pornographie (2000, 'The new pornography') by Marie Nimiers, Jouir (1997; 'Orgasm') by Caterine Cusset, and La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001; The Sexual Life of Catherine M., 2002) by Catherine Millet, which is followed with great interest in Norway. These works have all been translated into Norwegian and the publishing houses Kagge and Spartacus report that they sell well.

Ottar A. Lovik discussed the situation for modern or new bohemians in a lengthy article published in Aftenposten on 28 November 1999. As Lovik points out, what was once considered provocative in the 1880s or 1960s has by now to a large degree been absorbed by mainstream culture, and bohemians are therefore less visible. Legal partnerships, for instance, whether between two people of the same sex or a man and a woman, have become a common alternative to marriage, and there is more openness to sexual diversity. Yet self-proclaimed bohemians, including the popular musician Jan Eggum, assert the importance of continued rebellion against traditional social institutions such as church and marriage, while he affirms erotic power as the most vital force in our lives with one orgasm per day as a minimum (Lovik, 1999). Eggum adds that he will not relinquish his three daily glasses of wine, though he has quit smoking.

Lovik's point--that bohemians today have become almost invisible simply because they blend in better than before--is important, but it is equally important to distinguish between the urban areas and the surrounding countryside. The bohemians have always reacted against Norway's traditional mores and these remain less challenged in the countryside than in the city. Critics outside the urban centres have typically been more negative towards the works and lives of bohemians than those in the cities, as has been noticeable in the case of Jensen's work in particular. (11) The two national referendums on the EU saw more support for the EU in urban areas and more resistance in rural and coastal areas, away from cities. Tourists travelling in Norway will have no problem finding the wholesome Norway of mountains and fjords, fiddle music and folklore, but if they visit urban centres such as Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Molde and Tromso they will also have no problem finding evidence of a very metropolitan culture. Because Norway was under Danish rule for so long, with Copenhagen as the capital, it was not invested in architecturally for many centuries. Yet the cities have that unique European feel they get from having grown organically from a natural centre that is very different from the modern American city, which often feels like a forced bringing-together of different neighbourhoods, connected by highways. Pedestrians and street life are intrinsic to the European city, as much in Norway as on the continent.

My main point is that many Norwegians identify with Europe and that is a fact which is often ignored in the American Midwest. The Norwegians who do identify with Europe do so for various reasons, but the bohemian heritage has come to carry a strong cultural sway. Today Oslo has a vibrant kafekultur and the Grand Cafe--where Ibsen's old, regular table has now been given its own spot, adorned with a silver plaque--shares the stage with several other arty cafes, pubs and bars for the Norwegian europhiles. Some of these have been hangouts for artists and poets, actors and journalists for about a century, but many are newer. Decadence is no longer just for authors and artists, actors and journalists. The desire to be European in the sense of bringing a little decadence into one's life--if by nothing more than a glass of red wine--is increasing and is shaping the image of Norway today.


(1.) Reported by Vinmonopolet (Wine Monopoly), the state-run Norwegian liquor stores (Aftenposten, 2000).

(2.) Numbers from an opinion poll conducted by Markeds- og Mediainstituttet (Market and Media Institute) and requested by Naeringslivets Hovedorganisasjon (Main Employers' Organization) (Nygaard, 2001).

(3.) Halvdan Koht writes in the postscript to Posen's En folkefiende (An Enemy of the People) that Ibsen thus described himself in the tradition of Ludvig Holberg (Koht, 1978: 101). In a letter of 1875 to Georg Brandes, Ibsen calls for the realization of det tredje rige ('the third kingdom') on a European level but is sorry to see that Norwegian provincialism is working against it (quoted from Koht, 1978: 104).

(4.) This is the title Rolf Fjelde makes a case for in the introduction to his translation of the play. I second Fjelde on this matter and recommend his translations of Posen's plays in general.

(5.) Singer writes in the Introduction to Robert Bly's translation of Hunger that 'European writers know that [Hamsun] is the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect--his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun ... They were all Hamsun's disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler, Jacob Wassermann and Stefan Zweig, Zeromski and Bunin, Kellermann and Peter Altenberg, D'Annunzio and Hermann Bang, and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whether they acknowledged the debt or not' (in Hamsun, 1967: ix).

(6.) Hamsun lived in Paris from the spring of 1893 until the summer of 1895, presumably to study French and to become more 'cultured'.

(7.) Gabriel Scott wrote this about Hamsun in the article 'Mens Hamsun skrev Pan', published in Christiansands Tidende on 3 August 1929 (quoted by Hemmer, 1999: 302).

(8.) The newspaper was first published in 1886 and came out sporadically--chiefly edited by Krogh while Jaeger was in prison--until 1889.

(9.) The sentence was increased to 150 days when the court learned that Jaeger had tried to sell the book in Sweden under a different title.

(10.) E.g. Fredrik Wandrup (1998), Svein Johs. Ottesen (1998), and Jan E. Hansen (1997).

(11.) The libraries of More og Romsdal county decided not to acquire Jensen's novel Line following the accusations that it was pornographic. Jensen's novel Epp (1965), in which science fiction is used for social satire, was praised by the Oslo critics but disliked by many critics outside the urban Oslo area, instigating accusations that the Oslo critics were cliquish (Eide, 1991: 205).


Aftenposten (2000) 'Bytter ut gloggen med rodvinsglasset', Aftenposten, 21 December.

Beyer, E. (1975) Norges Litteraturhistorie, Oslo: Cappelen.

Eide, T. (1991) Outsiderens posisjoner: Axel Jensens Tidlige Forfatterskap, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Gentikow, B. (1974) En skitten strom. Samfunnskritikken i den "umoralske" litteraturen i Norge 1880-1960, trans. K. Haave, Oslo: Gyldendal.

Hamsun, K. (1967) Hunger, trans. R. Bly, New York: Noonday Press.

Hansen, J. E. (1997) 'Hjemmevendt outsider', Aftenposten, 11 February, p. 14.

Hemmer, B. (1999) 'Loytnant Thomas Glahn og Hamsuns Pan', in E. Arntzen, N. M. Knutzen and H. H. Waerp (eds), Hamsun i Tromso II, Hamaroy: Hamsun-Selskapet, pp. 299-319.

Jensen, A. (ed.) (1994) Det kollektive eventyr: en bok om Norge, Europa og EU, Oslo: Aschehoug.

Koht, H. (1978) 'Etterord', in H. Ibsen, En folkefiende, Oslo: Gyldendal, pp. 101-7.

Lovik, O. A. (1999) 'Fra and til munn', Aftenposten, 28 November, URL (consulted January 2004):

Nygaard, O. (2001) 'Europatilhorigheten er sterkere i Norge enn i EU', Aftenposten, 6 January, URL (consulted August 2001):

Naess, H. S. (1993) A History of Norwegian Literature, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ottesen, S. J. (1998) 'I tannhjulsposisjon tr verden', Aftenposten, 11 September, p. 26.

Stokkan, T. (ed.) (1997) Impressionisten June, July, and August, Fredrikstad: Fredriksstad Blad.

van der Hagen, A. (1996) 'Livet pa Dumpen', in Dialoger II: atte forfattersamtaler, Oslo: Oktober, pp. 96-136.

Wandrup, F. (1984) Jens Bjarneboe, Oslo: Gyldendal.

Wandrup, F. (1998) 'En kosmisk beat-bohem', Dagbladet, 13 September, URL (consulted January, 2004):

Anne G. Sabo is Assistant Professor of Norwegian, St Olaf College. Address: Norwegian Department, St Olaf College, 1520 St. Olaf Avenue, Northfield, MN 55057, USA [email:]


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Author:Sabo, Anne G.
Publication:Journal of European Studies
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Date:Sep 1, 2004
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