1.31.2011

A Sense of Place in Lagerlof and Cather

Alright, slight raving side note: The Story of Gosta Berling, by Selma Lagerlof is one of the most beautiful novels I've read in a very long time. I could do a month of posts on this book. I may do one or two more, and make you all so sick of this book I'll ruin your opportunity to discover the beauty of Selma Lagerlof's beautiful vision. So, I'm trying to restrain myself here.

One of the things I loved about this novel (and there are several others) was the powerful feeling of place - I commented to a few people while reading it that it reminded me of Willa Cather's sweeping powerful Nebraska and New Mexico, and the farther I got into the book, the more I felt this - both Cather and Lagerlof leave me with a deep nostalgia for a place I've never been. Thomas Hardy has this feeling for me in his books somewhat, as well, but I don't feel his love for the place he's talking about as much as his horror at the absence of the place. Victor Hugo makes me feel this way about Paris - but in Paris, he is in love with the city, and a city is in many ways just an expression of human beings (another book that feels this way to me is Moby Dick, but with a ship instead of a city). Lagerlof and Cather make you feel in love with something much bigger than you, with the earth itself, I suppose. In Cather, they are these wild places that humans are trying to find an uncomfortable toehold in - in Lagerlof it is a country that has been settled for thousands of years, but where nature and the man-less world lives just outside the edges of day-to-day life. And in both, you see the country exhibit itself in the souls of the people who live there - but not as a sort of clumsy allegory, but rather in the way that we really that people really DO entwine themselves with their native land.

This is particularly powerful to me, because I don't HAVE a 'native soil.' I love my upbringing in this sense, I love that I could see so many places as a child, I think it was good for me. But, at the same time, I would love to truly know and love a place, to be married to the soil in the consummated way that some people are (less so in America, these days, which I think is interesting). That feeling of deep intimacy with a place makes one feel, in some ways, like a perpetual outsider.

It's strange, because the closest I can come to this feeling of deep and powerful intimacy with a place is with the internet itself (ah, yes, insert laughs here, it's okay). I've lived in the soil of the internet now for almost two decades, at some level, and for most of the time, the internet has been a deep and intimate part of my life. Like Cather knew the sweep of the blank prairie, and the way the earth grows beneath it, the way it bites back angrily at the plow, I know the ether of the web, I know the way an empty palette gnaws at a new piece of code, the way that a refugee can stare at it and hunger for their native land, but also dream deep and strong of what they can make of their new home. The way that Lagerlof knows the wolves, the winter wind, the water that comes in the spring floods, I know the angry rises and falls of this pseudo-landscape, the way worlds will form and dissolve with the impartial fury of a decimating blizzard. I know the way that this land can take a person and gnaw them until it leaps one day to devour them whole, and the way that it can cradle up someone lost and yield a little hole for them to make into a home. I've seen it in people I love, in stories that already feel so strange and elemental to be like folklore, I've seen it in myself - like a land, the internet proves it's veracity by being a place where one can be all the selves one is, at the same time.

The strangeness of this realization was that it feels, to me, more like Cather than Hugo - the internet feels like a land, not like a city. IT's inhabitants feel like they are connected to the earth, not cooped into metropolitan finality. It's the sort of place where I can imagine stories living of their own power, instead of simply as currents in a river of human existence (This is not to say that a city isn't just as beautiful, in it's own way). Sadly, I can't WRITE like Lagerlof or like Cather, but I've wondered how long it is until the Cather of the internet is born, telling the story not of the heroes of the land, but of the land itself, the writer who will see this ether plucked from ourselves almost unwilling as a character instead of a setting.

The power of Lagerlof is that she loves her land so much that she loves it's sins and horrors. Her Gods and Heroes are of the ancient cast, the kind that are equal measures of good and evil - how do you tell that story in a world where opinion is, in some sense, the root of identity?

7 comments:

Trapunto said...

I'm an interloper in your land like the Christmas tree thief in Robert Frost's poem "To a Young Wretch."

Not laughing, but taken aback.
"a world where opinion is, in some sense, the root of identity" = the Internet.

For me the way the idea of native soil (in the apolitical sense, the only one I care about, I love Lagerlof too!) is *not* about the land you're born on in real life, though for the people who happen to be born on theirs on it often seems that way; it's an innate capacity. Not everyone has it or wants it if they have it. Marriage is a really good analogy, because the capacity is a metaphor, but it's also a physical and emotional reality. The internet misses the physical part.) The right kind of cutting will try to put out roots in a bucket of water just as hard as it would put them out if you stuck it in the ground. There's no less reason to have the capacity for a Lagerlofian connection to the land just because you haven't (yet) excercised it.

America less these days? Maybe, but I think there are a lot of people walking around dragging their roots.

I hope you do write more posts about Gosta, though please don't feel obligated!

Nymeth said...

I am NOT laughing about you feeling more rooted to the Internet than to any other place. In fact I was having a similar conversation with M the other day - not about place, but about history. It occurred to me that the history I feel the most connected with, that feels MINE, that makes me feel like a part of it rather than as a disconnected spectator, is Internet history. People talk about ICQ and IRC and the dawn of Twitter and what happened in Iran and I think "Ah yes - I was there". Nothing about the outside world makes me feel that way to the same extent.

I had not heard of the book before, but it sounds beautiful.

Jason Gignac said...

Trapunto - Perhaps you're right, maybe I just haven't found the name of the place I come from? I think in the sense you describe roots, you are right - I think sometimes this is the root of many problems in America. Human identity is very connected to a place and community, and those things have been so abstracted. I will see what I can do about Gosta.

Ms Nymeth - I must say, I really, really highly recommend it to you. I think you would love it. I agree, on the sense of history - I think nations are beginning to have less and less a historical 'self' and comunities that are more abstract, or at least more disparate, are becoming historical nexuses instead. I love that you've thought about it too, makes me feel less crazy :).

Debi said...

Well, I certainly didn't laugh! I can't claim to feel that way about the internet. It was a land that didn't exist for so much of my life that I guess that's perfectly understandable. But that in no way makes me find your experiences, your feelings, laughable!

I feel very blessed that I do feel a deep connection to a home. I'm not so much sure it's the land, but more the climate which of course is so related. It's strangely powerful, and yet I didn't even know the connection existed until I moved away from the snow belt. Then I knew...because of the continual aching for it. And coming home was beyond wonderful.

Selene said...

I love this! Pithy, insightful, beautifully written, and convincing. I agree, the Internet seems more a land than a city, especially with it's inherent adaptability and fluidity. Great post.

LifetimeReader said...

What a thoughtful post. First let me say that my son and I both love Lagerlof's work for children, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Really terrific book.

I wonder if Lagerlof's love of homeland, with all its flaws and tragedies and horrors, is at all like white southern liberals' conflicted but deep love of place.

Must read the Lagerlof, and Cather, too. Thanks.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Debi - I can't claim a connection per se, but I DO miss the climate up north, particularly this time of year :).

Ms Selene - Why thank you.

Ms LifetimeReader - An interesting comparison to draw - in some ways it is different, or FEELS different, in that much of the defining narrative of the south has nothing to do with the land ITSELF, so much as the very unnatural human traditions of slavery and racism. In Gosta, to draw a parallel, there is a scene that parallels this, where the town is all opposed to a fellow because he is a German - and this feel unnatural (like it's supposed to be unnatural), like one of the moments where she shows people losing their connection to the land. That's how, say, Gone With the Wind (the movie, that is) feels to me: like a number of people trying to shoehorn something awful into the soil. That racism is imbued in the soil, now, of course, in some ways, it's legacy is very much here in Texas, for instance (although it is in the north too, in a different way). But to imbue something in the soil is different then to create one's self from the soil, you know?