"Hamsun 2009 – Transgression, worlding and remediation”, the largest international conference on Hamsun to date, was held at Oslo University 27–29 August 2009. The programme included six plenary speeches and parallel sessions totalling 40 lectures and attracted participants from many different countries. Trond Haugen (the National Library of Norway) held a lecture on "Hamsun’s Style and the Question of Fascism" at the conference, an extract of which is to be found below.
Trond Haugen, Associate Professor at the National Library of Norway, posed the question of whether there is an essential relationship between Hamsun’s literary style and his political support for the Nazi regime before and during the Second World War.
Trond Haugen reading Hamsun. Photograph: Ketil Born. Courtesy of the National Library of Norway (Nasjonalbiblioteket)
In his paper, Haugen challenged a series of historically well known positions on this issue, held by among others Leo Löwenthal, Atle Kitttang and Ståle Dingstad, claiming that theoretical endeavours to establish a secure link between style and fascism as well as attempts to deny any such link, are equally futile and also scientifically unjustified.
Historically, the question of Hamsun’s style and fascism has been asked in a ‘soft’ manner, Haugen claimed. But the question of whether we can separate Hamsun the writer from Hamsun the politician and whether there might be any possible relationship between literary style and fascism are slightly misguided, he continued. Instead Haugen spoke up for a ‘hard’ scientific question: “What is the essential relationship between art and politics?”
The following text is a preliminary extract from the latter part of Haugen’s forthcoming article «Hamsun’s style and the question of fascism».
[…] The two ‘soft’ questions may, and should, I think, both be answered in the affirmative. Yes, we can separate art and politics, and yes, there are possible relationsips between them. There are and there are not relationships between style and politics in exactly the same way that there may or may not be a relationship between style and life, style and kindness, style and parental responsibility or style and alcoholism. These relationships are always limited by the institution, however, and depend on the critic’s ability to present, explain, support and contextualize his or her arguments. Moreover they are always political (in the broadest sense of the word), and thus fundamentally open to discussion, disagreement, opposition and institutional/political consent or rejection.
On this level, nothing further can be said about disagreements between different readers of Hamsun’s novels other than that the opponents disagree. Of course, you can choose to believe in the most persuasive account of these possible relationships between literary style and political agenda, although there is no need to do so. Even a well supported argument may be rejected on the basis of diverging comparative theoretical or methodological beliefs.
The ‘hard’ question, asking about the essential relationship between literary style and fascism, is far more bewildering. First, let’s take at look at the claim that literary irony precludes any ideological assumptions. On a superficial level, this seems to be a fairly good scientific answer to the ‘hard’ question regarding the relationship between style and politics. Literature’s resistance to its own reading is also a resistance to ideology. The essence of literature is that is has no essence. Even though the deconstructive position is intriguing, I still don’t believe we can argue from a generalized literary self-deconstructive irony to the theoretical assumption that there is no relationship between style and politics. It’s too bold a claim and the premises are false. As far as I can see, there is no evidence of a universally accepted literary irony, acquitting literature of ideology. On the other hand, that does not necessarily entail a positive relationship between style and politics.
So let’s say that we admit that we still haven’t found the essential relationship between literary style and political opinion (and that we may never be able to do so). In that case, we will have to be prepared for the most embarrassing accusations. We may be taken for proponents of aesthetic autonomy, supporters of art for art’s sake or outdated believers in the well-wrought urn of New Criticism. Even worse, we may be suspected of defending political opinions we could never even imagine that it would be possible to hold today.
The crucial point here is that all these accusations are in vain, at least when considered from an intellectual point of view. As everybody knows, the admittance of a certain lack of scientific proof is not proof to the contrary. Not being able to pinpoint the necessary connection between style and fascism is not evidence for the absence of such a connection. In other words, there is no paradox involved in a position saying that we still haven’t found the essential relationship between style and fascism (and indeed, we may never do so) and at the same time rejecting aesthetic autonomy. I believe it is our obligation, both as critics and as professional advocates of comparative literature, not to simplify the questions of art and politics, neither ‘soft’ ones nor ‘hard’ ones.
The recent debates on the works of Hamsun and his political support for the Nazi regime tend to forget, neglect, deny or suppress crucial intellectual distinctions. The result is a non-viable debate, of little scientific value, in which we find ourselves discussing the agendas of a popular media culture with no (or only superficial) interest in one of the real questions of comparative literature. Is there a fascist style, and if not, why do some of us still pretend that there is […]?
About the conference "Hamsun 2009 – Transgression, worlding and remediation” (University of Oslo, 27–29 August 2009)