Original title in Swedish: Vårt behov av tröst är omättligt … (1952). The following excerpts are narrated by Stellan Skarsgård in the short film Our Need for Consolation (2012) by Dan Levy Dagerman. Text selection and screen adaptation by Lo Dagerman, Dan Levy Dagerman and Brian Levy based on a draft translation by Steven Hartman.
I have no belief and because of that I can never be a happy man. Because happy men should never fear that their lives drift meaninglessly toward the certainty of death. I have inherited neither a god nor any fixed point on this earth from where I can attract a god’s attention. Nor have I inherited the skeptic’s well-hidden rage, the rationalist’s barren mind, or the atheist’s burning innocence. But I would not dare to cast a stone at those who believe in what I doubt, much less at those who idolize doubt as if that too were not surrounded by darkness. That stone would strike me instead, for there is one thing of which I am firmly convinced: our need for consolation is insatiable.
I seek out consolation as a hunter tracking prey. Wherever I glimpse a sudden flash in the woods, I shoot. Usually, empty air is all I hit. Yet, sometimes, the target drops right at my feet. The breath of consolation is as fleeting, I know, as a breeze sifting through the treetops – even so I seize it.
What is it then that I am holding in my arms?
Since I am alone: a lover, or another lone drifter. Since I am a poet: a bow of words whose tension fills me with both joy and dread. Since I am a prisoner: a sudden glimpse of freedom. Since I am threatened by death: a warm, living creature its heart beating scornfully. As I fear the sea: a foothold of unyielding granite rising just above the tide.
But there are also consolations that come to me like uninvited guests and fill my room with their vulgar whispers: I am your desire – lust after everyone! I am your talent – abuse me as you would yourself! I am your hunger for pleasure – only the one who tastes lives fully! I am your solitude – despise humankind! I am your longing for death – cut!
[ … ] No one can count the times when we may need consolation. And no one knows when the shadow may fall. [ … ] My life is a balancing act haunted by two opposing forces: On the one side: a greedy appetite for excess, and on the other: a cheap bitterness that only feeds on itself. But I refuse to choose between orgy and abstinence. [ … ]
I have no philosophy in which I can move like a fish in water or a bird on the wing. All I have is an endless struggle, every second of my life, between false consolations that only add to my feeling of powerlessness and deepen my despair, and true consolations that bring me momentary freedom. I should probably say the true consolation, because for me only one exists: the one that allows me to know myself as a free human being, within my own boundaries, untouchable. [ … ]
I can walk on the beach and suddenly sense in the endless tides of the sea and in the endless chase of the wind, the terrifying challenge that eternity poses to my existence. [ … ] I can sit before a fire in the safest of rooms and suddenly sense death all around: it’s the fire, in every sharp object at hand, in the weight of the ceiling and the mass of the walls, in the water, the snow, the heat, and in my blood. [ … ]
I can fill all my white paper with the most beautiful combinations of words that light up in my mind. Since I long for confirmation that my life is not meaningless, that I am not alone on this earth, I collect my words into a book and give it to the world. In return the world gives me money and fame and silence. But what do I care for money and what do I care if I contribute to the evolution of literature – I only care about that which I never receive: confirmation that my words have touched the world’s heart. [ … ]
We all have our masters. I am such a slave to my talent that I dare not use it for fear of discovering that it has been lost. I am such a slave to my reputation that I hardly dare write a line. When depression finally sets in, I become a slave to that as well. My greatest ambition becomes to hold on to it; my greatest desire becomes to feel that my only worth lies in what I fear that I have lost: the ability to squeeze beauty out of my despair, anxiety and failings. In bitter joy I long to see my houses fall into ruins and myself snowed under, forgotten.
But depression has seven nested boxes, and in the seventh lies a knife, a razor, a vial of poison, deep water and a leap from a tall building. Finally, I become a slave to these instruments of death. They stalk me like a pack of wild dogs, or am I the dog following them? And then it appears to me that suicide is the sole proof of human freedom.
But from a direction still unknown to me, comes the miracle of liberation. It could occur on the beach, where the same eternity that so recently awoke my fear, now witnesses the birth of my freedom. What is the miracle made of? Simply: my realization that no power, and no person, has the right to make such demands on me that my desire for life disappears. For without that, what can exist?
As I stand by the sea, I can learn from the sea. No one can demand of the sea that it bears all our boats, or of the wind that it continually fills our sails. Likewise no one has the right to demand of me that my life should be captive to performing only certain tasks. Not duty above all, but life! I, like everyone else, must have the right to step back from that working mass of humanity called the earth’s population, and experience myself as a separate being.
Only at that moment, I can stand free of the harsh facts of life that gave rise to my despair, and acknowledge that the sea and the wind will indeed outlast me, and that eternity is not concerned about my fate. But who asks me to care about eternity? My life is short only if I place it on Time’s chopping block. My possibilities are limited only if I count them in the number of words or books that I may turn out before I die. But who asks me to count?
[ … ] Everything significant that I experience, all that lends my life a sense of wonder: a meeting with a lover, a caress on my skin, help in distress, eyes reflecting moonlight, sailing on the open sea, the joy a child inspires, a shiver when faced with beauty– all of this occurs beyond the bounds of time. Beauty is the same whether we take it in for only a second or for a span of a hundred years. It does not matter. [ … ] And so I lift the burden of time from my shoulders, and with that also the demand to perform. My life is nothing that should be measured. Neither a buck’s leap nor the sunrise is a performance. A human life is not a performance either but a growing toward perfection. That which is perfect does not strive to achieve. It works while at rest. It would be absurd to say that the sea exists to carry armadas and contain dolphins. It does these things, of course, but with its freedom intact. And it would be absurd to say that people exist for anything else but to live. Certainly, humans feed machines, or write books, but they could as easily do something else. All the while, maintaining freedom. Like every other part of creation, man is an end in himself – resting like a stone in the sand. [ … ]
Stig Dagerman in the Stockholm archipelago, 1951
Yet, it is not in my power to constantly remain turned toward the sea and know its freedom as mine. There is a time when I have to turn toward land and meet the organizers of my oppression. And there I find that humans have created forms for their lives that seem stronger than themselves. With all my newly won freedom I cannot crush these forms, only groan under their weight. [ … ]
One kind of freedom, I realize, is forever gone. It is the freedom that comes with owning your own element. The fish has its own, the bird its own, the land creature has its own. The human being, however, moves with the peril of a stranger in all the elements. Thoreau still had his Walden. Today, where is the forest in which human beings can live in freedom, outside the hardened molds of society? I have to reply: nowhere. Today, if I want to live freely, it has to be within these walls. The world is stronger than I. I have nothing with which to meet its power other than myself. But on the other hand, that is everything. As long as I do not let myself be defeated, I too am a power. And my power is tremendous as long as I have the strength of my words with which to challenge the world, because those who use words to build prisons cannot measure up to those who use them to build freedom. But on the day when all that remains to defend my integrity is my silence, my power will be boundless, because no axe can cut the silence that breathes.
This is my sole consolation. I know that lapses into hopelessness will be many and deep but the memory of the miracle of liberation carries me like on a wing toward the dizzying goal: towards a consolation that is better than a consolation and greater than a philosophy – a reason to live.
Stig’s entire essay in a translation by Steven Hartman was published in Little Star #5, 2014