Stephan G. Stephansson - A Philosophical Poet, A Poetic Philosopher
by Kristjan Kristjansson
The aim of the paper is to present a sweeping, if somewhat personal, overview of some recurring themes in Stephansson's philosophy of life: his anti-determinism and emphasis on individual human responsibility, his atheism, his unflattering view of human evil, his ideal of all-round maturity, and his refined, prudential hedonism. The topicality of Stephansson's concerns, which tally neatly with the recent upsurge of naturalism and virtue-based ethics, may serve as an indication of the essential feasibility, if yet incompleteness, of the Enlightenment project of constructing a unified morality in a world where, as in Stephansson's poetry, "the limitations of language and geography cease to exist."
Cette communication a pour but de présenter un aperçu péremptoire, bien que plutôt personnel, de certains thèmes répétitifs dans la philosophie de la vie de Stephansson : son anti-déterminisme et l'importance qu'il accorde aux responsabilités individuelles, son athéisme, son opinion peu flatteuse du mal humain, son idéal de la maturité complète, et son hédonisme raffiné dicté par la prudence. L'actualité des préoccupations de Stephansson, qui correspondent bien à la récente hausse très marquée du naturalisme et de l'éthique axée sur la vertu, pourrait servir d'indication de la faisabilité essentielle, bien que jusqu'ici l'incomplétude, du projet psychologique de bâtir une moralité unifiée dans un monde où, comme dans la poésie de Stephansson, "les limitations de la langue et de la géographie cessent d'exister."
I. Unclouded Sun
I imagine we are all familiar with that perennial question: what book would you take with you if you had to stay for a year on a desert island? Arguably, I answered that question for myself, through action rather than words, at the beginning of the year when I chose a book to accompany me on a long journey. The destination was admittedly not a desert island, yet it was a place where experience had taught me that my verbal communication with the locals would be somewhat scant. I was going to Taiwan to attend my father-in-law's funeral; the book was Sigurdur Nordal's celebrated selection from Stephan G. Stephansson's Andvokur (Wakeful Nights) So, during the preparatory days of chanting, where tonsured monks and nuns read from right to left about Buddha's omniscience, I read Stephansson's poetry from left to right.
Perhaps it was the climate's fault; his verse warmed the cockles of my heart as never before. What is more, an important truth was borne in on me, one closely conected to the ambience of the place. Despite the smog of the Taiwanese urbanity, where no "unclouded eastern sun / blazes up glen and grade" (96; KG) "the pace of life" is "narrowed in every respect" (100), I felt as if the spirit of the Poet of the Rocky Mountains imbued every person in sight, be it the chanting monk, the nouveau riche businessman or the street vendor. His spirit was with us and in us, in them as well as in me. I have never sensed the presence of an inter-human denominator as strongly as during those days in Taiwan, and I decided that if I should ever put pen to paper to discuss Stephansson's poetry, my task would be exactly this: to try to convey the universality of his message.
One caveat before starting: I may not be the most eminently suited person to give an overview of Stephan G. Stephansson's philosophy. For instance, I have read but a small portion of all his copious letters and essays. In extenuation of my boldness, I can only quote the poet's own words that everything relating to him, which is of any lasting value, is to be found "in the poems themselves" (Introduction, VIII), and that he "never thought it required much mental effort to discover their view of life" (Introduction, IX). Stephan G. Stephansson seems to have been an unusually transparent person, and this is amply reflected in his poems which often seem like poly-photos of his own personal self. Each new poem one reads forms a dot in the same overall picture, adding to its detail but never contrasting with the whole: the coherent edifice formed by the poet's mind, heart and hand. There is a strong case for saying that Nordal's perspicuous "Introduction" to Stephansson's poetry in the above-mentioned edition leaves little in that department for others to do; yet I have always felt that Nordal's standard method, of trying to probe beyond the surface for contradictions in the poet's personality, "the equilibrium of conflicting forces"3 in his soul, goes somewhat awry in Stephansson's case. Nordal does single out, as a catalyst for creativity, the rather obvious conflict between Stephansson's desires and his external conditions, but he fails to provide any critical ammunition in support of his aim, indicated at the outset, of delineating "contrasts in the poet's character" (Introduction, XV). The reason is simply that there are none.
Stephan G. Stephansson's reputation has fallen on hard times of late in Iceland, perhaps because of his clarity of thought rather than in spite of it, while renewed attention has been paid to some of his contemporaries. Poets of abstract visual imagery, not of vicissitudinous life, are the flavour of the month, with verse often being prized the more in proportion as it is further fetched. Nevertheless, many of Stephansson's concerns are of surprisingly modern appositeness, perhaps even more topical now than they were in his own lifetime. In an age which speaks easily of the fragmentation of morality, the deterioration of language, and the impossibility of any common human understanding, I think we might be well advised to pay heed to the spirit which I found equally alive on the musty pages of my old copy of Wakeful Nights and in the motley Taiwanese crowd.
II. World View
The mainstay of Stephan G. Stephansson's philosophy is moral rather than metaphysical. For example, his conviction that the world, its "wealth" and "joy," is not "a gift of god" but "a human artifact" (259), has a moral underpinning, as I shall subsequently explain. To start with, it is scarcely apt to ----- Stephansson "poeticised his world view" as clearly as his view of life, let alone that he did so with "mathematical precision and logical rigour," as the renowned scholar Sverrir Kristjánsson claimed in an essay on the poet more than forty years ago. Kristjánsson's discussion mainly draws on the poem "Tiundir" (Accounting) whose message warms him as much as it left Nordal "cold" (Introduction, LV). To be sure, some of the metaphysics of this particular poem are beyond controversy: we live in a godless universe, infinite in time and space, "where power and matter, while undergoing changes, are never destroyed" (319). Other philosophical points are less palatable. For instance, what exactly does Stephansson mean by the verse lines: "Everything called happenstance is but an unknown cause" (319)? Is he there pledging his allegiance to a materialistic determinism, rejecting man's free will?
Kristjánsson's answer is that in the middle of the nineteenth century a new kind of materialism emerged, bridging the imaginary gap between human autonomy and subjection to a universal law: the so-called scientific socialism or Marxism which defined labour as the mainspring of history. For him, Stephansson is a faithful disciple of this new vision; in fact, Kristjánsson claims, most of Stephansson's poems are written in the spirit of socialist politics and his general way of thinking is marked by dialectical evolutionism. I, by contrast, believe that Stephansson was not a Marxist thinker, and that a direct rejection of some of Marxism's main tenets, such as its determinism and anti-individualism, forms the very core of Stephansson's philosophy. Kristjánsson, himself a Marxist historian, may be guilty of wishful thinking here; anyway, as we shall soon see, Stephansson was not one likely to have faith in utopias, whether in heaven or on earth.
So, the question above still remains unanswered: was Stephansson's world view characterised by some kind of materialistic determinism? We should perhaps pause to recall that there are numerous variants of determinism abroad which claim not to reject man's free will, apart from the Marxist dialectical materialism which considers man free to the extent that he precipitates the ineluctable (that is, hurries up the predetermined historical process). Among those variants is so-called "soft determinism," according to which we can be considered free as long as our actions are fuelled by our own will, irrespective of whether this will is itself determined by antecedent forces or not. I find no evidence in Stephansson's works of his being familiar with these "subtle" conciliatory theories, or making them his own. For him, the only two options seem to be, on the one hand, that we are puppets on a string, controlled by some external wilful force or blind fate, and, on the other, that we are the creators of our own destiny. If this is to be seen as a dividing line between hard determinism and a belief in free will, it is clear on which side of the issue the materialist Stephan G. Stephansson comes down: in his view, we are by our very nature free agents.
Let me not be understood as saying that destiny or fate is a concept totally absent from Stephansson's poetry. Indeed, one of the soldiers in the poem "Ceasefire" refers to it as his "fate" that his will became "a mote" in the storm of armament, a "senseless, purposeless toy of all directions" (285, 288; KG). Besides, as a farmer, Stephansson readily acknowledges that his life is dependent on the caprices of sun and rain (221). However, "fate" as he understands it mere^signi-^^fies the conditions in which life puts us, not any sinister forces subjugatinJ^P will, and our greatness is to be measured by the way in which we come to terms with these conditions, what we do with them. Fate is the initial position of the chessboard, but the game itself is ours to play. If we are checkmated, we have no one except ourselves to blame. For example, it was Stephansson's own "self-inflicted punishment" that he did not acquire any material riches ("Introduction," XX), and if the wife of Kolbeinn, the person who pledged his soul in a verse-making contest with Satan, had made an unwise choice in marrying him, the blunder was hers alone, as she could have accepted the advances of her other suitor (71-72). In our times of endless fig-leaves and scapegoats, it is refreshing to listen to Stephansson's ungrumbling voice: his equanimity and insouciance. Fate qua the conditions of our existence - the play of chance and the wear of time - does not absolve the individual of his responsibility but, quite the contrary, challenges him to do better: to swim rather than sink (39).
Being such a stickler for human responsibility is among the clearest signs of Stephansson's rugged individualism, rightly emphasised in Nordal's "Introduction," an individualism that at times subtly fuses into sheer delight in the idiosyncratic and eccentric. In Stephansson's poetry, it is usually the underdog who breaks new ground. Sigur—ur Trolli, Jon Hrak, Kolbeinn: rough on the outside, shining on the inside: those are life's lasting heroes: the invincible army fighting the forces of evil, while the "throng of sub-mediocrity" (Introduction, XLV) "dies at the end of the day" (258). It is difficult to imagine a more undialectical line of thought, a fact strangely overlooked in Sverrir Kristjansson's above-mentioned essay.
I hope it is not too far-fetched to suggest that Stephansson's pith of idiom, his rare phraseology, and rough and jagged coinages may stem from a similar root, namely his uncompromising individualism. All real innovation in the world is, in his view, the work of a few marvels of humanity. Thus, all individual distinctiveness, be it of character or language, is as such good, even though it does not have any other positive features than simply promoting diversity, a point also made by another nineteenth-century thinker, John Stuart Mill, whose mental affinity with Stephansson is at times quite remarkable. We see Stephansson's distinct, some would say idiosyncratic, use of words in a different light if we do not think of his poetry as rhymes shaped with a hammer and squeezed with a wrench, but rather as the deliberate expression of the view that form and content cannot be separated - that language fashioned to convey fertile and original thought will itself be fertile and original. We may even have discovered an initial key to the philosophy of our earthbound farmer, in his conviction that the ordinary rags of mediocrity are not the essentials of human life, but rather the festive garbs of manliness: the personal sovereignty of an individual who faces up to his responsibilities for his own life as well as that of his fellow men, and who carves out such a special niche for himself, in language and in action, as is necessary to break the fetters of tradition, "the decaying, the weary" (115).
III. On Evil
Notwithstanding Stephan G. Stephansson's attempts to emphasise his standing as "a heathen and an atheist" (Introduction, LII), various people have been loath to accept these labels. Sigurdur Nordal tries to convince the reader, with a fervour surpassing the strength of his arguments, that whatever Stephansson may explicitly have said, an implicit central element of his mental life was "a spiritual experience," a true "religion," which furnished him with endurance, optimism, and a sense of faith (Introduction, LIX, LXI). Even the writer Halldor Laxness ascribes to him a "belief," albeit one in ideals and progress.7 Furthermore, Emil Gudmundson has in a most scholarly fashion analysed Stephansson's links to free-thought movements in the late nineteenth century, culminating in his Unitarian sympathies after he turned his back on the Lutheran congregation.8 Gudmundson's research is beyond reproach; nevertheless, it is clear that the Icelandic Cultural Society, which Stephansson played a leading role in organising in 1888, went much further in its non-religious liberalism than even the most free-thinking Unitarian would have dreamt of. There is every merit in stressing Stephansson's beliefs in this and that; but why further assume that they can be equated with religion! I have tried but altogether failed to understand why the very poet who wrote a eulogy of disbelief, describing it as "a glimmer of light in a dark cold grave" (308; HH), is not to be taken on trust when he defines himself as a non-believer.
I mentioned earlier that Stephansson's general world view, and thus his atheism, could be traced back to a moral root. More specifically, the Christian theory of atonement contrasts sharply with his sense of justice, the sense encapsulated in Sigurdur Trolli's claim that "everyone should survive on his own faith and initiative" (50). The idea that you can somehow regain what you have lost here on earth in an afterlife through someone else's vicarious suffering is for Stephansson both incomprehensible and immoral. Everybody must pay his own debts. Moreover, the severity of the famous problem of evil (the irreconcilability of life's adversities, on the one hand; the existence of an omnipotent god, on the other) forms an insurmountable barrier between Stephansson and the dogmas of the Church. Every accidental death of an innocent, defenceless person must be God's will (53). But why should "the good," let alone the personification of the supreme good, have wreaked its vengeance on Gestur, the poet's son, who was hit by lighting? It surely had "no fault to find with" him (177; PS), so how are we to believe that the universe is ruled by a benevolent father?
Notably, Stephansson's rejection of the Christian theory of fall and redemption does not lead him, as many Icelanders after him, into the path of Oriental pantheism, with its moral monism of the good. As stupid as it is to imagine that a caring, almighty father in heaven would let his children suffer so much, it is scarcely less naive to reject the existence of evil, considering it, as in Eastern religions, an illusion: a chimera in the eyes of immature people who have not yet realised that their alleged misfortune is but the setting of tests in the trajectory of their reincarnations. The poem "Pessimism" is written almost like a philosophical argument, aimed at refuting such a soothing, if watered-down, form of theodicy - that of "dreaming darkness away":
And what is gained by dreaming black is white?
Deterring deeds to kindle light in darkness.
It's well to know that black is never bright
That awakes in me a longing for more brightness (308; HH).
For those who, like Stephansson, reject both the Christian and Eastern solutions of the problem of evil, there remains the option of embracing some form of religious, moral dualism, seeing the world as a battleground of good and evil spirits. But such a view does not commend itself to Stephansson either. His moral dualism is strictly a godless one; its foundation is the very disbelief in powers superior to those residing in man himself. It was precisely in the light of such disbelief that his humanistic visions became "nearer and dearer" and "the gnarled shadows darker, but clearer" (307; HH). There is, for Stephansson, a veritable "problem of evil," namely that of fighting those "gnarled shadows," making the world a better, brighter place, but the traditional theological problem of evil, as that of explaining (or the explaining away) of evil, is a pseudo one. Evil is no more of a mystery than good; firstly, misfortune is created by the whims of nature, secondly by human folly and turpitude. We can choose either of the two options, of kindness or cruelty; the "problem" lies in the choice which is ours to make, not the availability of the options.
The mentioning of visions "nearer and dearer" is apt at this point, for by consigning the traditional problem of evil to the scrap heap, Stephansson thinks we will, so to speak, catch at the substance and lose the shadow. We realise that man is not "a petrified angel" who needs to "shed his cloak of humanity" (309) and return to a state of undefiled innocence, regaining his lost paradise of yore. On the contrary, man is and has always been a part of nature. Its "grime" is also his grime. However, far be it from Stephansson to think that man is essentially evil, any more than he is essentially good. As in nature, "gem chips" (308; HH) glitter in our souls, and, what is more, we have a free will to decide whether those or the "grime" will be the guiding lights of our lives. Many of Stephansson's poems, most notably "Sigurdur Trolli," are a testimony to those who, however buffeted by misfortune, chose the "gem chips" rather than the "grime."
Combining his observations about human nature with his insights about the nonexistence of any deity, Stephansson teaches us to appreciate Jesus Christ as a coworker in the battle against evil, but first and foremost as the best among equals. "That life does honor to its race / Which leaves the world a better place" (317; PS). Whether you are a Jew, an Icelander, or a Canadian is irrelevant. That is how Stephansson sees Christ and would like Christ to see him: as a mortal fellow-being working on a common project. But although individuals meet their personal deaths, evil will not prevail. It can never "rule the good and right. / It matters not what life and death are boding" (177; PS). Evil can never win a final victory, for there will always be new heroes ready to take up the cudgel, people like Sigurdur Trolli, or for that matter, Jesus Christ.
The maintaining of this wholesome moral attitude has various important implications, of which I shall mention two. The first is anti-pacifism: a justification of taking up arms when needed. A person who makes himself a sheep will be eaten by the wolves. A man of virtue will have to "attack, fight" if that is his only "ransom" (7). Such was Illugi's decision, when defending his outlaw-brother Grettir; he had realised that death and martyrdom may at times be "the way to light, to truth," but life itself "a stain on the hero, the person" (42). It is evident that Stephansson would not have acquiesced in Cicero's famous words that an unjust peace is preferable to a just war. But why, then, did he resent the participation of his compatriot Icelandic Canadians in the First World War as much as he did, running (at least temporarily) the gauntlet of public opinion? Sigurdur Nordal discusses this question in some detail and concludes that Stephansson simply resorted to excessive means in his enthusiasm at the time, making clear his stern opposition to the "interests of the war profiteers" who were fanning the flames of hatred on both sides. In his enthusiasm, Nordal says, Stephansson overlooked the fact that those "sons of the Mountain Lady" who went to war were "choosing the lesser of two evils" (Introduction, L-LI). Nordal's moral assessment of Stephansson's attitude may be debatable, but his analysis of Stephansson's logic is surely correct: Stephansson could not be against war as such, that is not if the end justified the means; he could only be against this particular war because it did not pass muster in his view, neither as a necessary preemptive measure nor as a just act of vengeance.
Another implication of Stephansson's moral dualism is not viewing with a beady eye all those emotions and passions which are usually frowned upon by moralists. It is not angers fault that its occurrence is often inappropriate to the situation, it is not jealousy's fault that we are often jealous of people who deserved what they got more than we would have. Those emotions are still needed, up to a point, as long as we avoid extremes, and it is simply "the fault of our own ignorance, not knowing how to utilise the weeds" (197). Stephansson is here thinking along similar lines as Aristotle did 2000 years earlier. The so-called negative emotions are worthy of praise, rather than blame, as long as they are felt toward the right individual, at the right time, and in the right amount, being neither too violent nor too calm. Only the foolish wimp never feels angry or pained, even if his moral rights are violated.9 We need such emotions to survive in a harsh world. Stephansson prefers darkness to any narrow rays of light, "as long as the darkness is spacious" (135). And while the "rills" are fine, as they are "clear and safe for wading," he still prefers the river because of its superior "tonal shading" (120; PS); not only can it murmur but thunder. We live in a world where we sometimes need to shout rather than whisper, where the torrents of spring must have enough force to bring down dilapidated dikes. It is good for my enemy to know that I can "hit harder," although I try to keep the force of the blow down as much as possible (191). If we refuse to accept this truth about the necessity of foul means as well as fair in times of need, we commit, in Stephansson's view, the cardinal moral error of taking ourselves to be something else than we really are, of trying to shed the cloak of our human nature.
IV. Progress and pleasure
Since the main theme of Stephansson's philosophy of life, his emphasis on progress and betterment, has already been discussed in considerable detail by Nordal and others, I shall not dwell much on it here. It is beyond controversy that the fulcrum around which most of Stephansson's concerns revolve is that of human maturity: "Life is maturity.../ Progress is the true joy of life" (197). The right way of life consists in climbing the mountains of our own potentialities, ascending gradually to their peaks with longer and longer steps, "stumbling" rather than halting, "falling" upward rather than ever giving up (309). The ultimate criterion of success, for an individual or a nation, lies in the question of how many of its potentialities the party in question managed to actualise; it is the proportion between circumstance and achievement. Thus, as Haraldur Bessason has noted, Stephansson finds Grimur, the first man to make full use of the sail, worthy of higher recognition -owing to his meagre means - than Fulton, the builder of the first steamship.10 Moreover, the "unerring thought" of theoretical wisdom is not a sufficient sign of all-round maturity; we also need the "artful hand" of practical expertise and the "true and proper" heart of moral virtue (222; FS).
I have extolled the virtues of this highly Aristotelian view of human maturity ad nauseam in various previous writings, and will not try to gild that lily here.11 A major constituent of this view is objectivism about human nature: the belief that the same "yearnings" and "thoughts" (316; PS) characterise people in different societies at different times, people sharing "eyes of the same ilk" (198). However, the fact that human nature, as a battleground of good and evil, remains essentially unchanged does not mean that social progress is impossible. Quite the opposite: we know that "shortage intensifies our evilness, / whereas prosperity cultivates our best traits" (65). Through improved economic conditions and the dissemination of knowledge, the "dawn reaches numbers increased" (324; JJ): the boundaries of culture are expanded. The poet envisions a "future more noble and pleasant" where the "good" has been made "into better" (215; PS) by combined human effort. We do not need eugenics of humanity, any more than we need breeding of the birch tree, for it to prosper better; we simply need to find a more fertile soil for it to grow in.
It is all too easy to pay lip service to the ideal of human betterment, but why should we really be craving so much for it? What is the force which drives our will towards this objective? One of the lasting virtues of John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism is to combine the Aristotelian idea of maturity, reflected in Stephansson's poetry, with that of prudential hedonism. The eventual reason why we want - or should want - to achieve all-round maturity is that nothing makes life more joyful. The wise and the experienced can be our witnesses there. Pleasure, fecund and deep, is the ultimate motive behind all our actions, and it so happens, given our common human nature, that steadily aiming at our individual betterment yields more pleasures of that sort than any fleeting fancy.
The mentioning of John Stuart Mill is here again very much to the point, because I hear exactly the same Millian idea echoing in Stephansson's poetry, although this seems to have escaped the notice of previous writers. Indeed, Stephansson comes nearer than any other Icelandic author I know of to stating the core of hedonism, a la Mill. By that I do not only mean that he was the most debonair of persons himself, as Nordal learnt from one of his contemporaries (Introduction, LVIII), or that he loved people and therefore loved their joys. Every humanist does that. More importantly, when Stephansson encourages himself and others to work assiduously on every task leading to more maturity, and to let the steepest hill bring out one's greatest strength, he is not proclaiming maturity for maturity's sake, but rather for the sake of the reward which can be reaped from it. That reward, which in the end gives meaning to life's toils, is the feeling of joy which "lights fires in the realm of the spirit" (303): "Just give me enough work and a joyful day, then I am a rich man" (224). If I have done my best, it does not matter how the world values my toils; I can be content with my "delight in having tried" (231). From Stephansson's own experience, creation is the greatest source of joy, and hence the greatest source of value: "I know your most joyful week was the one in which you created the world," he addresses the god "Hebrew-Jahve" (225). Then, finally, after having experienced the concomitant of creation and betterment, joy, as the icing on the cake of a well-rounded life, the individual can depart from this world with a sense of satisfaction (32). I find it somehow fitting that the sun-loving farmer, Stephan G. Stephansson, should be the one to hold aloft this torch of prudential hedonism in Icelandic poetry.
Stephansson's idea of an upright person may be a complex one, but its main ingredients are already there: responsibility, maturity, pleasure. It is the idea of a person who is the creator of his own destiny, in so far as that is within his own power, but who endures what cannot be cured; a person who accepts adversity as a challenge, becoming nobler, kinder and younger in spirit as the years go by (191); and a person who reaps a rich harvest at the end of the day in the form of unfailing delight. Vidar Hreinsson is correct in seeing Stephansson as a poet of care; he cared for the lot of his fellow-men and wanted to enhance their growth as well as his own. But he was also a poet of retribution, who saw no reason why others should tread on his toes since he did not tread on theirs. Stephansson's great fortune in life was to become through his deeds and works a personification of his own humanistic ideal, and to stand in history, just like the "Hermit Peak" of which he wrote, as "the holy image of health/ and honesty, axed in granite" (21; KG).
V. Root Flavour
Sigurdur Nordal quotes a distinguished academic who once described Stephan G. Stephansson as a "bad-tempered" philosopher but an incompetent poet" ("Introduction," XXX). This alleged bad temper is not borne out in Stephansson's poetry, but if my exposition so far is on target, the label "philosopher" is very much to the point. Two of his main virtues as a thinker are his ability to generalise or universalise, and his adeptness at chiselling complex ideas into clear images and phrases. Stephansson was well-read and familiar with the main currents in ancient and modern thought. Furthermore, he seems to have had an uncanny ability to elicit the most important aspects from earlier views and make them his own, by enshrining them in a new coherent whole. His message is all the more memorable for its terse clarity. There is no use, however, in trying to place Stephansson on a pedestal as an epoch-making philosopher. He was not particularly original and innovative in the sense of being a progenitor of radically new ideas. It is the form of Stephansson's thought, rather than its content - in so far as these two can be separated - which gives his philosophy a unique standing, no wonder for a poet possessing the magic wand of language that could with the slightest of touches turn everything to gold.
Stephansson's theory of responsibility and betterment, as well as his inherent hedonism, are redolent of Mill's utilitarianism, as I have already mentioned. The same applies to his reference to the experience of the noble and wise as a source of knowledge. In as much as we can detect any special epistemology in Stephansson's works, it is also, like Mill's, an empiricist one: with the trowel of patience we dig out the roots of truth. It is the accumulated experience of generation after generation which carries us gradually to that future kingdom described so vividly in the poem "Evening." The thread which connects Mill and Stephansson is their mutual uncompromising naturalism, their conviction that the world is essentially know-able, understandable, and that solutions to the perennial riddles of philosophy -including the correct specifications of moral concepts - are to be found in the world, not outside of it.15 Previous writers have been tempted to explain Stephansson's naturalism with relation to his role as a landscape-conscious, weather-wise frontier farmer. I doubt, however, that his judgement could not have been sharpened to an equally fine edge, even if he had not been doomed to brave the elements as a farmer, but perhaps working as a mailman or a teacher instead.
A more plausible reason for Stephansson's naturalism lies in his experience as an immigrant, in what Vidar Hreinsson aptly calls his "double horizon" as an Icelander and a Canadian. Stephansson's "hunch" that every nation comprises persons "with a similar mind, a similar heart" must have been strengthened no end in the international hotchpotch of nineteenth-century Canada. His realisation became similar to the one I described at the beginning, in Taiwan: the realisation that we all share a common human nature, although some nations may be "separated by such a distant mother tongue and fatherland that no ferry has ever been known to pass between them" (195). It is this objectivism about human nature, rather than his experience as a farmer, which I consider to be the main inspiration of Stephansson's naturalism. And if there is no essential difference between the way people feel and think once the shallow layers of time and place have been peeled away, why should it not be possible to establish a future kingdom, like that "invisible shore" (323; JJ) of the poem "Evening," which, even if not utopianly perfect, at least satisfies our basic human needs, a kingdom "where the limitations of language and geography cease to exist"?
If this truth about the ubiquity of human nature was borne in on our Poet of the Rocky Mountains through the doubling of his horizons, one should think a similar realisation would have occurred, with even greater force, among people of the present age, an age which has seen the world shrink and "ferries" connect all nations. That, however, is for some reason not the case. All kinds of relativism and scepticism concerning knowledge, language, and morality blossom nowadays as never before, and have perhaps reached a historical zenith in the writings of so-called postmodernists and deconstructionists. I was wondering, during my sunny days in Taiwan, whether Stephansson's poetry could not be administered in proper dosages as an antidote to these subversive theories.
Stephan G. Stephansson was a scion of the Enlightenment. Its belief in universal morality, in universal knowledge, was also his belief. The project of the Enlightenment is admittedly an unfinished one, but can it be completed? Fortunately, there are still philosophers, even in Continental Europe, that hotbed of postmodernism and deconstructionism, who believe that it can. Stephansson's methodology supports such optimism. While deconstructionists like Derrida claim Reality (with a capital R) can only be approached diagonally, Stephansson walks in a direct line to the door of reality (with a small r) - the reality of man qua natural being - and unlocks it. While Derrida deconstructs, Stephansson constructs, after having traced his way back to our common human roots. The antidote of which I spoke, the medication against all the fashionable cynicism of late, is nothing more than this: it is the root flavour, brought to us by the springs of Stephansson's poetry, deep down from that earth, that nature, of which we are the common heirs.
* I would like to thank Atli Hardarson, Haraldur Bessason, Vidar Hreinsson, and my wife Chia-jung Tsai for their comments and criticisms of an earlier draft. I am especially grateful to Vidar Hreinsson for giving me access to his unprinted university lectures: "Praise, Scorn and Sorrow: Western Icelandic Literature 1877-1900"; "The Barnyard Poet: Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927)"; "Pegasus in the Cow Shed, or Heifer Rump Poetics: Stephan G. Stephansson, K.N. and Guttormur J. Guttormsson"; and "The Philosophy of Integrity: "The Icelandic Academy", Stephan G. Stephansson, Halldor Laxness and Bill Holm's Music of Failure."
Canadian Ethnic Studies.