A common criticism of public policy is that it operates in a political space which is in effect a vacuum of neoclassical economics. Although there is little Ministerial or Cabinet will for change across Western jurisdictions, there is increasing interest in the policy practitioner community to reintegrate the lost voices of culture into political debate. It is envisaged that greater diversity will overcome the analysis paralysis which is occurring in public policy and shift towards evidence-based solutions, particularly in the sustainability domain and our orientation towards the lived spaces of our natural and built environments. Governments and their policy practitioners must turn to these other disciplines to broaden the dimension of public policy production and uncover the answers to our environmental crises that economics appears insufficient to provide. Literature, for instance, makes a unique contribution to environmental discourse.
Iceland and Australia share commonalities in their identification with their natural and cultural spaces. Both are islands and isolated. Both are vulnerable to climate change and salinisation. Both adopted inappropriate European agricultural practices and have political histories that have been sensitive to land management. Both have increasingly urbanised societies. However, whereas in Iceland there has been a cultural response to the environmental crisis by its most influential author, Halldór Laxness, and tangible political action has been undertaken, in Australia there has been neither a response in literature nor significant action in public policy. The crucial difference is that Laxness’ voice clears a cultural space and unites a national identity which is greater than the sum of its parts, ameliorating the atomisation of contemporary society which the dislocating hegemony of neoliberalism, neoclassical economics and the New Right have wrought.
A nation’s identity has always been intertwined with its relationship to the land that sustains it. One of the earliest extant examples we have of this in literature is Plato’sCritias where Critias laments for the land occupied by the early Athenians. According to his account, the Attic people more than just identified with this land; in their creation myth, they emerged from it. However, by Critias’ time this once fertile land had been washed away by erosion. Critias indicates that there is evidence of the soil’s former health, its ability to retain water and that the mountains around Athens were once covered in forest. It is Plato’s inference that deforestation contributed to the erosion and nutrient depletion of the soil:
The earth that erodes during these times and events leaves no deposit worth mentioning, as it does in other places, and it is always carried away, slipping away into the depths… the remaining lands (compared to those back then) are the bones of a body ravaged by disease, with all of the soft fat earth having wasted away, leaving behind only the earth’s emaciated body, [the rain is] now, lost when it flows off of the bare earth and heads into the sea. [Before] much of it was retained since the earth absorbed it, storing it up in the clay… supplying all regions with generous amounts of springs and flowing rivers. That what we are now saying about the land is true is indicated by the holy sanctuaries, which are situated where this water used to spring up. (Plato 360BC: 111)
In the earliest examples of European literature this intersection of ecological space, historical space and cultural space was maintained by the medieval poets. In the 14th Century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is ‘riding through the realm of Britain… his way was wild and strange’ (Anon: l.692, l.709). This anonymous verse was written during a period when the Black Death killed a third of the population in England. The natural environment and its laws were ‘wild and strange’, beyond comprehension. The poem’s Green Knight was a figure of nature’s potency and the personification of chaotic death, death without honour or reason; the inglorious death of the Black Death. He is, as nature, the indiscriminate slayer of men of all ranks of life: ‘For whether churl or chaplain by the chapel rides, / Monk or mass-priest or men of other kind,/ He thinks it is as convenient to kill him as keep alive himself’ (Anon: l. 2107-09).
When the Green Knight absolves Gawain in the poem’s conclusion he is enforcing Nature’s fundamental law over humanity; that man and woman are subjects of the natural world which defines their sensual reality and that the chivalric code (or civilization) does not and cannot rule nature. The terror that the Green Knight evokes is the terror of medieval humanity’s ignorance of the workings of nature. This ontological disconnection between our origins and ‘civilized’ humanity’s engagement with the natural environment is evident in other literature of the period: from the emergence of Robin Hood in popular literature, to the bucolic themes of Chaucer, the classical allusions of Petrarch and proto-feminism of de Pisan, to the mysticism of the Icelandic Sagas.
Literature has, since Homer, been crucial in representing a nation’s engagement with its natural and, more recently, built environment; articulating its sense of place and space. The Icelandic Sagas are an exceptional example of this influence on a nation’s identity through intersecting ecological, historical and cultural spaces. It is believed that the Sagas were written by the first inhabitants of Iceland: the Catholic monks who migrated from Ireland. The Sagas were initially written in Latin and then translated into Icelandic in approximately 1170 AD.
It is as much a part of Icelandic folklore as the Sagas themselves that the morale of the Icelandic people has been maintained down through history by the literary tradition of the Sagas. The history of Iceland is one of political oppression and environmental volatility. Iceland’s climate is influenced by its unstable volcanic surface and it has been becoming progressively colder since the 11th Century. In the mid-16th Century, the King of Denmark converted Iceland to Catholicism and removed the treasuries from the monasteries which at that stage were the centres of learning, culture and community. 62,000 gold coins left Iceland under cover of darkness in just one night. Then, in 1783, Iceland suffered its most catastrophic volcanic eruption at Laki. The sun was obscured for three years and 20% of the population died of starvation. Throughout, the Sagas have buoyed a bankrupt and ecologically fragile country.
This impact on nationhood has been possible because the Sagas represent Iceland’s natural environment as a weave on the psychological unknown. Halldór Laxness, Icelandic author and Nobel laureate, described how he had attempted to capture this narrative method in his novel Iceland’s Bell (1943-46). He had been ‘trying to describe things from the exterior rather than the interior… Thoughts and feelings are conveyed through dialogues and physical reactions.’ (Guðmundsson 2002) Laxness termed this style ‘material psychology’, connecting the new behavioural sciences not only to his own work but also, through association, the Sagas. In this method character is established through an individual’s interactions with the immediate environment; predominantly the natural. Emotional experience is represented indirectly and the ineffability and the complexity of the human condition are sustained.
In the 20th Century this weave on the psychological unknown was adopted by Laxness in his own novels because Iceland faced new threats to its nationhood: its independence during and after the Second World War and its very existence due to the environmental crisis. Iceland is the most ecologically damaged country in Europe. Since the Norse settled in 874 most of the original trees have been felled and half the original soil has eroded into the ocean: carried away, slipped away into the depths. Vegetation and soil nutrients that had taken tens of thousands of years to build up were exhausted in the first decades of human settlement. This was primarily due to the adoption of European agricultural practices unsuitable to the Icelandic soil. 80% of the original forest was cleared in the first decades. Furthermore, sheep grazing and the rooting of pigs prevented seedlings from regenerating. There was an enormous increase of sheep in Iceland during the First World War. At one stage their population was estimated to be over a million which prompted Laxness to suggest that sheep ‘were the greatest act of terrorisim’. Today, only 1% of Iceland is forested. Large areas of the island are now barren wasteland which is why NASA chose Iceland to train astronauts and simulate moon landings in the 1960s.
Laxness’ environmental activism was less a political imperative than a natural progression which emerged from his capturing of Iceland’s voice and its connection with the ecological, historical and cultural spaces it inhabits. The representation of these spaces as a whole constitutes a gestalt, a holistic awareness of Icelandness which is greater than the nation’s history, natural resources or artistic output.
The journey to political praxis for Laxness was one of inversion. While in the USSR in the 1930s, he was impressed by Soviet agricultural factories, dams and their control of ecosystems. Although not ignorant of the human rights abuses occurring under Stalin, Laxness believed that ultimately ideas were more important than people; perhaps a consequence of his Jesuit education. On his return to Iceland, Laxness’ Soviet experience influences his response to poor farms in Independent People (1934-35). In the novel he suggests that heavy industrialization is required to reinvigorate the vacant Northern farms. The first edition of Independent People was subtitled A Heroic Tale; an ironic title for the ironic protagonist, Bjartur.
Tragedy emerges from Bjartur’s heroism. There is a disconnection between his idealism and the reality of Northern life. His fate is that of Sisyphus, the Greek hero punished for all eternity to toil uphill with his rock. Bjartur’s suffering is useless, but it is not meaningless, for the greatest end for humanity is expending all our substance and existence to achieve precisely nothing. Ultimately, this is the premise of Independent People; the suffering of Iceland’s independent farmers will come to an end, as will their time, for their ideals are represented in the novel as their fatal flaw. In maintaining his ideal of Icelandic rural culture, Bjartur has preserved only an illusion and planted the seeds of his own demise, as the novel’s conclusion emphasises: ‘Bjartur of Summerhouses’ story is the story of a man who sowed his enemy’s field all his life, day and night.’ (Laxness 1934-35: 481) Independent People resonated deeply with Icelanders at the time it was published because the heath on which the novel is set represented the margin between the built and natural environments: the urbanised future of Iceland and the romance of its pastoral past, the Iceland of the Sagas.
The crucial change in Laxness’ perspective that the Second World War evoked was that people became more important than ideology. In order to confront a world in which the event of Hiroshima could occur, the nihilism of a world able to destroy itself, Laxness began to write literature which conceived worlds where beauty was immanent: a distinct authorial shift from the future-orientated ethics of Marxism in Independent People.
During this period, Laxness also underwent a philosophical transformation. He became influenced by Adorno, Benjamin and the Frankfurt School and this was supplemented by a renewed, more sophisticated interest in existentialism. Independent People had already demonstrated synergies between Laxness and the philosophy of Albert Camus. Politically, Laxness was also more sympathetic towards Camus and his reluctance to embrace Soviet socialism, than Jean-Paul Sartre, who Laxness described as ‘the biggest fool in Europe’.
Laxness’ opinion of Nietzsche becomes more positive following the War as well. His unsophisticated and clumsy quoting of Nietzsche in The Great Weaver from Kashmir(1927) develops into a clever and refined appreciation in later novels, such as represented in the character of Dr. Syngmann in Christianity at Glacier (1968) who paraphrases Nietzsche’s third error of knowledge from The Gay Science (1882):
Whose defeat is it, now that the demons of the earth have acquired a machine to wipe out all life? … Can the Maker of the heavens stoop so low as to let German philosophers give Him orders what to do? … Many consider the human being to be the most useless animal on earth or even the lowest stage of evolution in all the universe put together, and that it is more than high time to wipe this creature out, like the mammoth in the tundras. (Laxness 1968: 133, 167)
Laxness also became less concerned with issues of political left and right and more focused on Iceland’s viability and sustainability as a nation, especially his perception of its inability to adapt and change in a changing world. The protagonist of The Atom Station (1948) is again from a Northern farm. Ugla has come south to work as a housemaid for her local Member of Parliament. In the ecological spaces of Ugla’s youth, nature is perpetually changing and its people along with it; this condition is contrasted in the novel with the built spaces of the South and its narrow-mindedness and dogmatism. The margins of the heath are now redrawn in Reykjavík.
In The Atom Station the intersection of ecological, historical and cultural space occurs at ‘the house behind the buildings’ where the Organist lives and which becomes Ugla’s sanctuary. The site is off the map, in an in-between place ‘which could not be seen from any street, and which no one would imagine existed.’ (10) The Organist is representative of Laxness’ post-war appreciation for Nietzschean and existential philosophy. A regular of his house, Benjamin the atom poet, refers to Iceland as a desert. His diagnosis is both ecological and cultural, for Iceland has been stripped away to nothing by the military-industrial machine: literally by agricultural mismanagement; and figuratively in bending to the will of American imperialism in the form of the planned Atom Station of the novel’s title.
The atom poet personifies the atom in all its multiplicity: the destructive power of the atom post-Hiroshima, the atomising of culture between Ugla’s North and Reykjavík’s South, and the existential stripping away to the base atoms of authenticity and the latent promise that lost within the complexity of the machine is something that is greater than its constituent parts. This gestalt in the machine is an ontological reconnection with our origins at the nexus of ecological, historical and cultural space; a return to the material psychology of the Sagas and their weave on the psychological unknown; a sustaining of the ineffable if not a primordial embrace of the Green Man’s chaos.
As detailed above, the nations of Iceland and Australia share commonalities in their identification with their natural and cultural spaces. These commonalities are not restricted to the adopting of European agricultural practices unsuited to the local environment and similar environmental challenges. The lived spaces of the countries are also comparable. Australia has a landscape with an impenetrable centre and a sense of cultural dislocation between the east and west, not unlike the divide between north and south which occurs in Iceland. However, unlike the literary tradition of Iceland, Australian literature does not emerge from a history of representing our natural environments as a weave on the psychological unknown. There is no contemporary gestalt emerging from the foundation of an ancient mythos that continues to resonate with mainstream culture.
There is an ancient mythos: the Dreamtime stories of indigenous Australians. Unfortunately, these stories and the insights they provide on the First Nations’ connection with the natural spaces of this continent are, if not ignored by contemporary authors, only represented in a tokenistic fashion or as a foil to European or Asian modes of discourse.
It must be acknowledged, of course, that the dominant European culture of modern Australia does not identify with its pre-colonial past as is the case in Iceland. Although the Sagas were not written by ascendants of the dominant Scandinavian population of Iceland, but rather the Irish Catholic monks who predated them, the Icelandic population of today is not estranged from its pre-colonial past by shame, prejudice or ineffability. That there has been little progress in Australian environmental policy in recent decades while there has been a significant global growth in environmental awareness – and tangible advances in many countries including Iceland – is intimately connected with our inability to relate to our ecological space, reconcile our historical space, and clear a cultural space to make sustainability happen.
This relation, reconciliation and clearing occurred in Iceland through the adoption of the myths of the First Nation’s people: the Irish Catholic monks. However, European Australia imported its myths along with its agricultural practices. In Australia, that which was carried away, slipped away into the depths was not just the nutrient-rich top soil but the intimate connection with our unique natural environment that the Dreamtime myths captured and which is also to be found in the traditional dot paintings and visual art of the indigenous people. Similarly, the indigenous oral tradition has not been reproduced through the European medium of literature, and this absence is compounded by the systematic and deliberate annulling of indigenous languages. Indigenous poetry, as it exists through the filter of Western metre and verse, is a simulacrum of European literature and is restricted by European conventions. It does not re-imagine, re-conceive, nor modernise the Dreamtime myths.
The representation of the natural environment as a weave on the psychological unknown that is so expertly executed in Laxness’ material psychology is absent in Australian literature. For instance, a ubiquitous image in our popular fiction is that of the isolated protagonist, alienated from the world just as this island continent is surrounded by water and physically cut off from other land masses. This archetypal idea of Australian-ness is part of our folklore and has been represented consistently in our literature since Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson developed the prototypes in the Nineteenth Century. However, this fetish with margins and the origins of our European sentiment, which has emerged from a perceived isolation from civilization and the legitimate tide of history, does not assist us in any philosophical or political way to engage with what it truly means to be Australian, to be the human element in its ecosystems, or to question the cultural myths which impede sustainability policy.
When contemporary Australian authors draw on this tradition, the natural environment becomes a literary device rather than a weave on the psychological unknown, such as in Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus and the writing of Tim Winton. Consistently throughout his novels, Winton employs the very typical European ‘settler’ experience of Australia. His work prioritises the isolated protagonist in a foreign land; surrounded by margins, both geographical and social, which imprison him. This is certainly not the indigenous experience of Australia as a universe-unto-itself; a complete, holistic experience, not one of absence but abundance: a gestalt.
Being a nation born on the sheep’s back should be a heritage of great shame and guilt to all Australians. The historical space in which this myth manifested is that where the dispossession of the First Nations and the denuding of our soil nutrients intersected. When environmentalists in Australia attempt to expose the triple bottom lie of the hegemony’s neoliberalism and neoclassical economics, it is this myth that must be confronted and overcome. No Australian author of fiction confronts this myth as articulately as Halldor Laxness, nor is there a narrative method as suitable as material psychology. A.D Hope, Patrick White and Judith Wright have all made meaningful contributions to environmental discourse in literature but their projects are largely left incomplete; any political capital their art generated remained unspent.
This is due, essentially, to the fact that an accommodating cultural space has yet to be cleared in Australia. We do possess the cultural foundation to incorporate sustainability into our lifestyles: the histories and knowledge frameworks of Australia’s First Nations. The Dreamtime myths have many parallels with the Icelandic Sagas; however we do not celebrate this cultural history, preferring to retain an exclusively Euro-centric history. The dominant mainstream perspective is that Indigenous art is primitive art, unsophisticated; however what connects Australians of European descent to this art is its principal theme of our common ecological space, a shared natural environment which has sustained the Indigenous population for 40,000 years and the Europeans for 200.
A nation’s primal myths, and the act of retelling these myths, maintain identity through a shared history. Unfortunately, in Australia, the Dreamtime myths which celebrate innovation, independence and imagination are eclipsed by the myths of the European descendants such as the above-mentioned sheep’s back and that of Anzac Cove which celebrates obligation, resignation, social status quo and suffering.
The myth of mateship emerges not just from events such as the Gallipoli campaign or a common literary tradition such as the Sagas; it is intimately connected to the hostility of both nations’ landscapes and the role of social capital in building nations in adversity. Laxness explores mateship in the juxtaposition of the crofters of Independent Peoplewith the Bailiff of Myri and his wife. The crofters’ is a useless suffering diminished by the Bailiff’s wife’s attempts to make it meaningful, because to her, as opposed to the landowners’ troubles, ‘all the dalesman had to do to be perfectly happy was to rise an hour earlier in the morning and work an hour later at night. Rich people are never happy, she said, but poor people are happy practically without exception.’ (Laxness 1934-35: 19)
Just as Sisyphus’ fate is shared with Bjartur of Summerhouses’, there is also a similar connection with the events of Anzac Cove and the Sagas. The mismanaged Gallipoli campaign caused the useless suffering of Australian and New Zealand troops, as did the trials of many of the Sagas’ heroes, but it was not meaningless because, as the myth of Sisyphus attests, the greatest end for humanity is expending all our substance and existence to achieve precisely nothing.
The contributions of Hope, White and Wright were unable to rupture the cultural space between art in Australia and other policy domains, unlike Laxness whose literature deterritorialised conventional environmental policy in Iceland by resonating with Icelanders who identified Laxness’ Iceland with the Iceland of their own experience. Laxness, through his literature, was able to inspire the reterritorialising and re-conceiving of environmental public policy which enhanced the sustainability outcomes for Iceland. With the possible exception of demystifying the desert and representing the struggle of desert ecology as a source of great shame rather than national pride, Australian literature has been unable to generate political tension or exert political influence on environmental policy.
That is not to claim that there have not been Australian literary figures that have shared Laxness’ intense nationalism and bridged the divide between art and politics. For instance, Lawson, although his motives may have been xenophobic, pushed for a national identity for the fledging nation with a passion lost to contemporary authors. Unfortunately, there is currently no comparable voice in Australian literature to challenge the monotheism of Federal sustainability policy. The Hawke Government rescued environmental policy from ineffectual State Governments in the 1980s when intervention was required under the external affairs power to save the Franklin River but now, 20 years on, it is the States which are demonstrating leadership but little influence. There is no dominant voice in literature, no Australian Laxness, to clear the cultural space required, to represent our unique engagement with the Australian natural and built environments in such a way that resonates with the people and converts this identification into political capital and praxis.
Laxness said that one must talk of oneself only in one’s own stories but mainstream Australia’s stories are that of a historical and cultural space disconnected from our ecological space. However, for Indigenous Australians, Laxness’ maxim is very much consistent with their experience of space. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines details how Indigenous Australians read and live the landscape through songs. This aspect of Indigenous culture is also portrayed by White. His early novels are not unlike Winton’s in thematic emphasis; however his representation of the experience of our natural environment in his later novels, beginning with Voss (1957), adopts an ethos similar to the Indigenous experience. Cinema also offers an opportunity to reinvigorate this oral tradition and the lived space of story and song. Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, the first film in Australia to be recorded entirely in an Indigenous language, demonstrates this movement towards reconciling the European and Indigenous experience of space.
As Iceland has discovered, it is the people’s responsibility to construct a nation’s sense of its ecological, historical and cultural spaces, to articulate and chronicle their margins, to talk of ourselves in our own stories. Only then can the political tension exist to make a Government accountable to respond to and serve these stories and map their contours through public policy.
It was through environmentalism that Laxness reconciled his early socialist ideals with his intense patriotism. What he develops in The Atom Station and Christianity at Glacieris a common metaphor for his later work: that the identity of Iceland, like its natural environment, is being carried away, slipping away into the depths by global events and exploitation by the hegemony: the Scandinavian Kings, the Church, the USA. The environmentalism of his novels was complemented by his journalism. In 1970, his seminal article ‘The War against the Land’ pre-empted the insights of both the Club of Rome’s Limits of Growth (1972) and the Brundtland Commission’s Our Common Future(1987). Laxness asserted that Iceland’s environmental crisis was due to the idealism of its increasingly urbanised population: ‘The idea that nature is beautiful does not flow from farmers, but from people living in the large cities of our time.’ (Laxness 1970: 126) Like Bjartur of Independent People, the inhabitants of the built spaces of modern Iceland have preserved only an illusion and planted the seeds of their own demise through the unsustainable public policies emerging from Reykjavik which have led to diminishing birdlife, the degradation of wetlands and the overgrazing of sheep.
Today in literature we lack a distinctly Australian voice on threats to our sustainability; we can, however, draw a great deal from the articulate and resonant expression of Laxness in a country which is confronted by similarly bleak environmental scenarios. In his novels he responded to the common space, the shared space, of the natural and built environments of Iceland. In his epic vision for his homeland he represents the problems of our environmental crisis in re-imagined and revitalised ways which extend beyond the narrow margins of neoclassical economics and cleared a cultural space. In this space a new political landscape was generated where a myriad of cultural influences could come to bear on Iceland’s landmark National Strategy for Sustainable Development, Welfare for the Future (2002).
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Halldór Guðmundsson (2007) . Halldór Laxness: Life and Work, publication pending.
Halldór Laxness (1997 ) [1934-35]. Independent People (Vintage: New York).
Halldór Laxness (2004) . Atom Station (Vintage: New York).
Halldór Laxness (2004) . Under the Glacier (Vintage: New York).
Halldór Laxness (1987) . ‘The War against the Land,’ in Over-shadowed Places: Some Studies (Vaka-Helgafell: Reykjavík, 1994), pp. 125–140.
Plato (1994) [360BC]. Critias. Internet Classics Archive.