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Concerning the Baltic

  • Author
    Lorenz von Numers

One memory from my youth is a conversation I had with a Herr Belevucetic about the body of water that he had contemplated from the quay in Travemünde. The encounter between Herr Belevucetic and the Baltic had taken place a couple of decades previous to our meeting in a Dalmatian harbor, but he had still not gotten over it. — And such color, he trumpeted, and such color!

Like oil drums. Hellish!

No, in our geological era the Baltic has hardly had an Adriatic sparkle. It is a drab and stony body of water whose northern coves freeze to the bottom during cold winters and with a southern coast that is mostly flat as a pancake, with silted-up lagoons and solitary lime cliffs.

What images do I retain in my memory? A thunderstorm over Haminanlaks, frightened sheep that cluster next to the lead-gray swell.

On a journey home from the south, after having spent a day in the old Königsberg, I embark on the little steamship in the harbor of Pillaus and walk along the gunwale to my cabin. As I open the porthole I see in the north an enormous rain cloud towering like a burial mound over the sea. While dusk falls, a change comes over me. A feeling of terrible distress takes possession of me — and at the same time a thoughtless, coolly smiling resignation. In the dock, small waves, shiny and hard like porcelain plaits placed edgewise, clatter against the anchor chains. The wind torments

the dunes. The sun shines on the flat crowns of the fir trees. I rest under the cloud, the steamship’s smoke paints our low roof.

When in June we slipped in between the arms of Reval’s pier to where the brindled “Suurtöll” lay idle.

And the knocking of the rust-hammers. Nothing could be more desolate than a walk in a light rain in the forest of fir trees that had been planted in arrow-straight lines on the dunes around Brigitten.

I was born a stone’s throw from the Aura river, where it runs into the Ersta. My family has for some generations wandered along the coasts and has buried its dead in all the provinces around the Baltic Sea, never being settled anywhere for more than three generations, never more than three Swedish miles inland. On my mother’s side they were sailors for several generations.

Therefore I love this temperamental and bleak body of water, which tastes brackish on the tongue.

But the object of love that cannot be anything outside the human being.

I must localize it or clothe it in words. It would, on the other hand, be absurd to search for a motive for the obvious. If I say that for the last couple of years something that I would call “the Baltic” has demanded my attention, as phenomenon and as polarized feelings of loss and tenderness, will I then make myself understood?

The Baltic.

It is probably merely a mood, and any attempt to define the areas where that mood is experienced is problematic. And any attempt to account for its components is fraught with difficulties. But it is something that only small mixed-together peoples could produce, peoples who carried on a lively shipping trade, who shared a common linguistic medium and who were under imminent threat from the outside. Wherever a national culture becomes all too pronounced — Central Swedish Great Russian, High German — there the mood vanishes.

And yet, the Baltic as a state of mind and life milieu is far from limited to the former Baltic provinces where it has been most strongly perceptible. (The leveling and sandblasting that is happening today is a different matter — I speak of what has been or might come to be). No, the Baltic is felt equally clearly in Danzig, in the linguistically confused Vyborg, or in the Swedish-Pomeranian harbor towns. But one needs landscape, as well, and preferably nothing thoroughly decided which called up fierce feelings of captivation. The southern border of the Gulf of Finland and the Riga Bay seems best suited for this purpose — a landscape that seems both prematurely aged and threadbare, predominantly beige and grayish purple, a landscape that could almost be met with anywhere in many countries all the way down to the Ardennes, if it were not markedly poorer than these. One must, of course, not be overcome with despair, as for example in the Seinäjokki region. What is desired is a moderate melancholy.

To maintain this well-tempered state of mind is difficult, if one has good reasons for feeling anger or sorrow. Even issues that, according to yesterday’s ways of thinking, adhered to the “Baltic” — agrarian policies and language conflicts — to mention just two substantial dossiers, were likely to disturb that which was absolutely unique, the mood.

Yes, the absolutely unique. And this has, to me at least, a value that transcends all moral qualities. What does one know about the calculations for pricing a mood? Is it not exactly the consciousness of the precarious nature of the conditions of living that has given the Baltic milieu its melancholy, irresponsible enchantment?

One of my Estonian friends characterized it as “the cool sensation of tender, boundless happiness between attacks of gall-stone….”. Yes, what does it matter to the one who balances on the needle-point of perceptions that whole tribes of peoples have in the past become insolvent or that it was a herring-strangling language like Low German, and not Venice’s sonorous tongue, that mutilated the local sounds? Now when the song-festivals have ended and that which is done, is done.

Small peoples, mixed together …

It is really the same everywhere, the rare alloy of blood along this band of coast, building-styles and languages, the smell of the chambers and the heavy-hearted ceremoniousness of careworn Hanseatic towns.

And wherever one goes, the Peasant Peoples as compact and immovable background, speaking unwieldy, diphthong-rich tongues, in the mind’s eye’s memory forever bargaining on shoreless market-places with bumpy cobble-stone pavements and the government buildings’ rows of pillars like white stockings on fat legs on the horizon …

It is the art of building, the frame for the moods I am trying to capture here, which even scantily summarized most clearly mediates the impression of violent muddling. Here, every architectural style means domination by new rulers — I am speaking, here, primarily of the former Baltic Sea provinces — first the Lower Saxon Hanseatic, the German of the Knightly Orders in brick and stair-case gables, the Swedish baroque, the Baltic Empire that Nils Erik Wickberg has described

with such affection, and finally, the proud, high signifiers of Tsarism, lumbering cathedral-churches, raised in the most prominent places — at the greatest square of Riga, at the Domberg of Reval and the dark-red Uspenski, a handsome exception on a stony Nyland promontory.

The historian of art may try, here, to find that which is shared and that which divides, formulate or repudiate hypotheses of a Baltic cultural milieu. For me, an amateur, the conviction of there being something essentially common is based on “recognition”, on feelings of pleasant comfort and sympathy — yes, on something as indefinable as the constantly renewed memory: dusk in snowy weather, high black spires —

I mentioned above that the Baltic mood evaporates whenever a national culture becomes all-too purely cultivated. And this is connected with the simultaneously provincial and cosmopolitan nature of this oceandominated place. It existed among the people as well as the buildings, it was in a way a translation into nautical terms of certain conditions in the old Danube monarchy! And if one does not understand that, one has little prospect of following what is to come.

But in these areas, incomprehension is well-established. Much of that which an ignorant traveler — “the Swede on Eastern travels” — calls Russian can thus with impunity be designated Baltic. At the Baltic Sea the Slavic was late in asserting itself. The amber-gathering Obotrits of the early Middle Ages and the Russian folk wedge that shot up along the Narva River’s east shore won no homeland-right up here — not before Tsar Peter took Nyen town. And how ill-at-ease was not the true Russian in the metropolis that a ruler’s command had conjured up out of the “Finnish marshes”, in Petersburg, in the most Baltic of towns, the quintessence, despite every type of Caesarean extravagance in buildings and perspectives!

On the other hand, nor should we over-dimension the German element. The moulds for social life and scholarship have without doubt been German on the Baltic Sea’s south coast (and in the Central Swedes’ Stockholm, even after the battle of Brunkeberg). But the casting was on the whole of another consistency. In this context, I find no amusement in working out how strongly the “non-Germans” have influenced the Baltic Sea provinces’ former ruling class. It is enough to refer to the differences in character between Baltic Germans and national Germans. The difference in lifeview between, let us say, a male person from Leipzig and a gentleman from Dorpat were not negligible. The special blend of what in Reval is called “Härzänsbildunk”, of naive egoism, of gallows-humor1 and the prim conceit of high birth can only with difficulty be discovered south of the Marien Church in Lübeck. But it was that which united us despite everything — the Petersburgian on the Nevski, the flaneur in Edlund’s corner and the — today, extinct — kolingen, the harborworker, in Skeppsbron.

There is, beside all this, something in the fairly sparse “Baltic literature”, in the narrowly shoved-together, anxiously aged towns’ atmosphere, which puts one in mind of the turn-of the-last-century’s singular German-Jewish authors in Prague. One seems suddenly to find oneself facing something at once ridiculous and unendurable, a terribly complicated problem in miniature, one is gripped by a helpless embarrassment, similar to that which overcomes one in the presence of a very ancient dwarf who is trying to tell one of his love and who is constantly at a loss for words. The absurd that one is astonished by in some polemical, deadlypoisonous footnote in Jahrbuch für Heraldik, Genealogie und Sphragistik, in the frog-like assonances heard in certain Estonian names, in the collision between grotesque trendiness and ramshackle Middle-Ages as in, for example, the Vyborg of the 1930s ….

In my early teen-age years, I travelled by canoe up the River Sauka under chain bridges, under slowly swinging wings of windmills, under precipices where the plougher strode turned to the heavens, supernaturally large, and the white cumulous clouds and the strand-swallows and the blue dragonfly a few miles upstream where the river became so stony and shallow that the canoe scraped on the bottom.

I was so happy.

In the little museum in Pernau, the world’s most poignant museum, where in the low rooms a crocodile hide over the serfs’ rough dippers and between von Kügelgen’s dull, narrow small paintings the mummycase like a newly-varnished Mora clock.

The grave slabs stood stacked against the outer wall, next to the stairs and two mermaids — double-tailed, with fins split-edged as grape leaves — smiled a bit in the chapped limestone. Why the grave-covers had ended up there probably no one now living knows. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. The town slept in the July sun’s yellow hood. The bicycles had left winding tracks in the thick dust. The boy who that summer contemplated the grave stones in the side of the deserted square is myself.

Oh I know, I know. That within one which wants to be ill, to cry like a girl turned towards the wall.

But one must be a good thin-legged man not to make crude jokes in these courts of twilight. For us on the north side, who have received a more infantry-tactical determined fate, it’s mostly, nowadays, a matter of form. But, on the other hand, we set great store on that.

And moods or not, one thing we probably have in comcommon: the conviction that despite all personal gingerbread-work and draughts of Parisian air and temporary leaps out of fate, the meager pine forest with its collapsed stacks of wood and long echoes is right across the road, when that time the splinter flies from the fir stems, when the irremediable joins up with us, walking at our side, when the machine-gun hacks and hacks.

That kind of cold fall day.

So there is, in fact, no risk that the fundamental mood will be lost.

 

Translated from Månen är en säl. Prosastycken i skilda ämnen [The Moon is a Seal. Prose Pieces on Various Subjects] 1952

 

1 The Eastern ”humor noir”, which in its harshness usually upsets the Stockholmers either morally or socially, has in this collection [of stories] given rise to the anecdote concerning the Siberian garrison. The story was told to me at a sauna by Carl-Gustav Wahren of Tavastland’s Cavalry, and he had heard it himself from a Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, who had experienced it. This was the same Baron who later became a prince in Mongolia and was torn to pieces between four horses.

Remarks

Uspenski is the Orthodox cathedral in central Helsinki.

In the battle of Brunkeberg 1471, Swedish national troops defeated the forces of the Danish king Christian I, then head of the Union of Scandinavian Monarchies.

Mora clock is a traditional grandfather’s clock from the Swedish province of Dalecarlia.

Skeppsbron is the old harbor of Stockholm.