Monday, August 18, 2014

The Lure of Vikings, The Lure of Home

by KARL STEEL

(we're in the midst of a series at ITM about diversity and (medieval) academia! First post is below, by Michelle Warren on "Diversity and #medievaltwitter." Definitely read that first, and please keep coming back to see how the series develops. Consider what follows a bit of ancillary programming, part II of my recent post on Vikings and Heritage)

A couple of days ago, World News Daily gave us this: “USA: Viking Ship Discovered Near Mississippi River.” While they admit that “all news articles contained within worldnewsdailyreport.com are fiction, and presumably fake news,” there’s nothing in the article that smells of satire. It’s just a lie, or just Tabloid journalism, without any of the winking that would make it a joke, illustrated with mislabeled images of an eleventh-century Danish longshipa sword from the Port an Eilean Mhòir ship burial, and, lending gravitas, a photo of Professor Nicolò Marchetti from the University of Bologna (billed here as the invented James Milbury of the University of Memphis). For what it’s worth, Marchetti is, in fact, an archaeologist, although not one much concerned with Nordic boats, imaginary or otherwise.

World News Daily’s “presumably fake news” is presumably just looking for web traffic. It’s succeeded, outrageously. When I last checked, the article reports 1402 retweets and 283,621 Facebook interactions. Assuming that’s true, that’s a lot, even for World Net News: by comparison, “Pakistan: Cannabis Discovered in Prehistoric Tomb” got only 201 retweets and 17,719 Facebook interactions. People love Vikings. The question is why?

Viking AgeSearching for quotations of the article gives one, obvious answer: I found the article reprinted on “occidentalenclave,” “a community for Ethnic Westerners,” on Stormfront, a (the?) preeminent white supremacist website, and on what, if Google translate may be trusted, is an anti-immigration, anti-gay rights blog from Sweden.

The comments on World News Daily itself give a more nuanced answer: the first praises Odin and trashes newfangled religions like “Christianity,” and unlike “Jews, Muslims, Hindus, [and] Buddhists.” Conversation heats up fast, with the community ensuring that our Odinist understand that Christianity predates Islam. Fair point, but they miss why the claim was made at all. One commentor below suggests why: “Well, being able to trace my ancestors back all the way to the Vikings, and knowing many others around here who can do the same, I can testify to the fact, there`s nothing we would like more then fight the muslims out of our country! They are the scourge of our time.”

What’s at stake is heritage: a sense of home, of belonging, of feeling the present isn’t enough in itself, and that the past offers a purity to cure the ills of the present. If the present is one where the left forces diversity on otherwise pure nations – or so goes the fear – then the white supremacist cure is to discover the originary, lost purity, before the imposition of a weak, Semitic faith and before mixture of any type (hence, perhaps, the praise of Viking rape in the deep comments: what’s so vulnerable as desire mixed with love instead of violence? next day edit: this is a point that will need to be leaned on a bit, but what's suggested here is that the fantasists think of sex as a way to impose their will, violently, indifferent to or against the consent of the person they're having sex with). What they want is autonomy and the barbarian freedom that goes with it, while they bind themselves to race fantasies and their demand for purity and their nervousness about disorder. What they want, in America especially, this land thronged with immigrants, is to feel at home. And they want to feel that they got here on purpose. They want to feel that their home is under assault, which explains the love in these legends of Norse discovery for "Indian massacres" (like the one "recorded" on the Kensington Runestone, or "reported" in the World New Daily site). Vikings in America, rather than, say, the Vikings in the Orkneys, give these people the simultaneous mastery of violence and sense of victimhood that they crave, with results whose nasty effects we can witness, most recently, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Now, I’m not being entirely fair to all the commentators at World News Daily. The site is only accidentally, I think, in cahoots with the homesickness of the white supremacists; and some of its commentators thankfully point out that “we’re all from Africa. So wish what you may.” Nonetheless, the site’s picked up eagerly by the white supremacists and by people who may not be aware of their own alliances. My goal is to go deep into why, for an audience of nonmedievalists.

My secondary goal: Annette Kolodny and Geraldine Barnes have both produced very fine work on the cultural afterlife of the Norse in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglophone writing. However, I find them both too optimistic. Towards the end of In Search of First Contact, Kolodny writes that “in contrast to the celebratory effusions of the nineteenth century, most Americans today read the sagas as the tacit preamble to a tragic and very American tale.” Meanwhile, the Viking missions to Mars displace “the old paradigm of race with a prideful image of national technological supremacy.” Barnes’ contribution to the “Medievalism of Nostalgia” special issue of postmedieval, "Nostalgia, Medievalism and the Vínland Voyages,” similarly observes that “the darker side of the story – the consequences of European expansionism…preoccupy contemporary writers” on the sagas.

I don’t doubt that that’s true, in that limited milieu in which the Viking Missions feel contemporary and for that group, comprising Thomas Pynchon, Jane Smiley, and William Vollmann, graced with the label of “contemporary writers." They’re certainly better than, say, Ottilie Adeline Liljencrantz, but I’m not convinced that Liljencrantz is all that much better than the many, many fans of that World New Daily fraud. 283,621 Facebook interactions! We need to pay more attention, and as wonderful as queer asynchrony can be, and as foundational as asynchrony is to any considered experience of time, we need renewed attention to the desire to heal the sense of displacement.

With that in mind, here’s part two of my paper on Vikings and heritage, which is, confusedly, the paper’s very opening. Thank you, thank you a million times to Michael Collins for sharing Historic Newfoundland with me at Kalamazoo 2014:

Lure of NewfoundlandThe very first lines of Historic Newfoundland, a tourist brochure first printed in 1955, are “Come to Newfoundland! It is the cradle of white civilization in North America.” I quote from the second printing of its 1968 revised edition, published in 1969; still more recent printings exist, running into the late 1980s, though as yet I don't know if they also begin this way. The brochure’s author has the unlikely name of Leo English, a former Newfoundland school inspector, deeply interested in the discoveries of Jon Cabot; from 1947 to 1960, he ran the Newfoundland museum. Writing in a Newfoundland that had been, in 1949, recently absorbed into Canada, English obviously aims to argue that Canadian history proper and indeed that of North America began in Canada's newest acquisition. Come to the east, the brochure cries out; come east and meet your ancestors!

Or, rather, meet them in the middle, as they sail west. Here's the brochure's cover: a Viking ship, complete with a dragon-headed prow and warriors outfitted in horned helmets. Historic Newfoundland CoverAs soon as we pick it up, we’re in the world of fantasy, with the wrong helmets and the wrong boat, a warship instead of the mercantile knorr more likely used by Newfoundland’s Norse arrivals. Most charitably, this is just good marketing: Vikings are exciting. It's the same logic that justifies calling a recent textbook on Old Norse Viking Language and decorating it with its own dragon ship.

But starting Historic Newfoundland this way also tells a story about where and how "history" starts: with the freedom of the open sea, and with a violence that can count as historical. We have been called upon to identify with the Norse not just as settlers or fishers, but as Vikings, which means identifying with them raiders, thieves, and killers, and then to erase these deeds as crimes by calling them the founding acts of “white civilization.” This is what Walter Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" called a "constituting violence," because this violence constitutes itself after the fact as legal. Law and civilization and history all start here, in a violence that retroactively erases its foundational illegitimacy.

As in many accounts of America, what this violence erases is nothing, as the erasure has happened already by the time the brochure’s opened. Notably, its second section, not its first, concerns the Newfoundlanders already present when the Norse showed up. English describes these people, perhaps the Beothuk, as "strange," "remain[ing] in their primitive barbarism," that is, without any possibility of entering historical time, and as decorated in "trinkets," worthless trash, abased rather than beautified by their culture. The Beothuk are in Newfoundland only because they have been "pursued [there] by other warlike hordes across the American plains." Losers as soon as we meet them, having run as far as they could, Newfoundland is their end, just as it is the beginning of North American white civilization. Out of time, the Beothuk “vanish,” victims to famine, to Mohawks, disease, and the “white man,” whose arrival seals what English calls their “fate.” Fate, you’ll remember, is one of the most distinguishing concepts of the Norse sagas: characters feel their doom coming, and know there is nothing they can do to avoid it, as if they were conscious of being bound into a story bound to be told repeatedly. In Historic Newfoundland, though, fate is what the first Americans suffer, while the Vikings, their first European enemies, the masters of fate, full of life and warrior vigor, inaugurate history.

This is one way that heritage starts. According to English and his ilk, when the Norse arrive in Newfoundland, they bring with them a heritage worth the name. The brochure tries to stir up attachment to a place and to a race, inviting Canada to return to its “cradle” to find what it really is. Like all heritage sites, this one’s embattled – a baby is a fragile thing, after all – and connected to the present, since the child, as the cliché goes, is the father of the man, still present in the father so long as the father – “white civilization,” in this case – still lives and still keeps up his family obligations. What Historic Newfoundland offers, then, is attachment, whiteness, and, with its Vikings, freedom, three points I’ll consider in turn for my contribution to this conference on “heritage.”

3 comments:

Janice said...

In some research that I've yet to publish, only share at conferences, I linked late nineteenth century Canadian and American rival claims on the Norse discovery site to ethnic prejudices. The comments from both groups displayed anti-Catholic and anti-Italian sentiments while promoting northern European ethnic "fitness". There's certainly a massive and dark underbelly to the "celebrations" of Norse sites in North America.

Did you know that there was a book published about the Vinland stories that was titled "Canada's First Boy Baby"? Staggering disregard of the many children born here for millennia.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Janice: That children's book title makes my brain explode.

Karl Steel said...

Janice -- is this the one you're thinking of, George Johnson's Canada's First Boy Baby?

Via @NorseLass on twitter, we have Nottingham's VIKING IDENTITIES NETWORK, which I'll be digging into. eg, Christopher Callow from Birmingham did a seminar in 2007 on "Vikings in the 21st century," but doesn't seem to have published anything on the topic.