Sunday, October 28, 2018

The deeds of passion cease to chain

Having lived in Sweden as a child in the early 1970s and having read Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlö as probably my first mysteries, I have an affinity for Swedish crime mysteries and Scandinavian Noir in general.

I came across an author new to me, Arne Dahl, a nome-de-plume of Jan Arnald. Looks like there are another half dozen in the series. Which is good because I enjoyed Europa Blues which is my first read of his work.

A police procedural with a slow build-up of the main characters, it is centered on the residual sins arising from World War II. There is an intriguing introduction of the Furies, aka Erinyes. Some very clever story-telling merged with deeper consideration of Europe and civilization. It was a bit of a slow start but I enjoyed the twining together of many strands and the robust ending.

Interesting structure for a procedural, interesting speculations on philosophical issues, reminders or new information about old cultural arcana. Very good.

Some snippets.
It was a fresh spring morning of the newly woken kind, the type often seen during the first week of May. The kind of day which looks so inviting from indoors but turns out to be a slyly masquerading winter's day.
On traffic.
It was nine in the morning and the traffic around Haga Sodra and Nordtul was at a complete standstill. Car traffic had increased dramatically in Stockholm over the last year. For some reason, it had suddenly become extremely attractive to be stuck in traffic. Cheap psychotherapy, presumably; a line of metal boxes full of screaming Mr. Hydes. The alternative was the newly privatised commuter train which never seemed to be running, or else the metro which seemed to be forever standing in dark tunnels for hours on end, or else you could cycle along one of the sadistic cycleways no one dared to use since they seemed to have been deliberately designed to cause particularly awful accidents.
At an initial crime scene, the investigators discover what turns out to be a phrase Ἐρινύ, the Erinyes of above.
Then there's this thing with the Erinyes. "Ἐρινύ". From a literary point of view, it's pretty damn exciting.
Have you heard of Aeschylus?

'I'm assuming you'll be looking into the literary side of it in your own time?' Jan-Olov Hultin said brutally.

'Of course,' Hjelm replied, continuing without further ado. 'In ancient Greece, in the fourth century BC, people used to compete, in the field of tragedies. The authors of these tragedies each wrote three dramas: they took themes from older myths, and the three tragedies belonged together, like a kind of suite. Only one complete suite, a trilogy, I suppose, survived. It was written by the eldest of the three great tragic authors, Aeschylus, and it's called Oresteia.

The first of its dramas is called Agamemnon and it'a all about a Greek commander from the Trojan War coming home. He brings a lover with him as a war trophy, an enchantress called Cassandra. His wife Clytemnestra has also found herself a new lover while he's been away and she murders both her husband and his innocent lover. That's the end. It sounds pretty banal, but I'll be damned if it's not one of the most venomous things ever to have been written. OK, part two of the suite is called The Libation Bearers. In this one, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's son Orestes is on the hunt for his mother and her lover. Honour demands that he avenges his father. A blood feud. Are you following?

'Mmm,' said Hultin tentatively.

'And just as he should, he takes his revenge and murders his mother. End of part two. The third part is called The Eumenides. Since he's guilty of murder, Orestes is now being hunted by the most terrible beings that mythology has to offer. They come from the most ancient parts of the kingdom of the dead. They're the goddesses of revenge, the Erinyes. "We are the children of eternal Night, And Furies in the underworld are called."

"They manage to catch up to Orestes, but just as the hour of vengeance is about to strike, Athena - the wise goddess of Athens - appears. In court, she replaces the ancient laws of bloodlust - the driving force behind the Erinyes - with a modern rule of law worthy of Athens' new-won democracy. Barbarism is subdued, civilisation is triumphant. And the Erinyes are tamed; they have become part of society by being offered "a calm and peaceful haven." The era of primordial rage is over. They young, reasonable gods take over from the old, blind, hateful ones. And the Erinyes become Eumenides. Powerless, but with new-found peace. For the first time ever.'
Dahl is getting at real challenge. When you have tamed the Erinyes within, made them Eumenides, what is to protect you from Erinyes which might still come from without. Wolves become sheep dogs become pets. But there are still wolves out there.

At a crime scene.
The moon floated silently from behind invisible clouds and the place was transformed. It was no longer a damp, dark, ancient forest, crawling with invisible life; it was the barren, cruel place where death dwelled. With the emergence of the moon, the gravestones came into vision, one by one, until the scene looked like more like something from a poem by Edward Young.
Edward Young? Name rings a bell. Need to look up his work.
Such was the poodle's real core. As Goethe had written in Weimar.
Groucho Marx famously said:
Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
What about the core of the poodle? I studied a fair amount of German in high school and college including Goethe. What is this poodle's core? I don't readily recall it.

The English equivalent is the core of the matter, the gist of the matter, the heart of the matter. It originates from Goethe's Faustus. Faust goes for a walk and is joined by a poodle who follows him back to his apartment.
Faust (Entering, with the poodle.)
Behind me, field and meadow sleeping,
I leave in deep, prophetic night,
Within whose dread and holy keeping
The better soul awakes to light.
The wild desires no longer win us,
The deeds of passion cease to chain;
The love of Man revives within us,

The love of God revives again.
Be still, thou poodle; make not such racket and riot!
Why at the threshold wilt snuffing be?
Behind the stove repose thee in quiet!
My softest cushion I give to thee.
As thou, up yonder, with running and leaping
Amused us hast, on the mountain’s crest,

So now I take thee into my keeping,
A welcome, but also a silent, guest.
Note that emerging theme (in bold above) of giving up the deeds of passion for the love of man. The poodle continues to make a disturbance, howling, snarling, and beginning to grow in size. Eventually it metamorphosizes into Mephistopheles.

Observing this, Faust notes:
Faust: This was the poodle’s real core
The core of the poodle was the demon Mephistopheles.

Dahl is not heavy handed in the implications. He builds a structure to consider but leaves it to the reader to develop his or her own lines of thought.

For me, it aligns with concerns I have had about European loss of cultural confidence since the war. It sometimes feels as though there is such a passionate effort to never make the same mistakes again, that perhaps some even worse errors will be made instead. We need a modicum of the raw barbarian passion of the Erinyes to avoid a descent into Eumenides who are not merely peaceful but on the road to dissolution or oblivion.

I had never particularly thought if it before but Dahl's theme brings to mind a resemblance between H.G. Wells' Eloi and Morlocks who have a more than passing resemblance to the Erinyes and the Eumenides in Oresteia.

I like an author who makes you think.

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