The Hallberg Principle


            Easter Week again. 2004 this time, a year after Visby in Gotland for me, a year after the fall of Baghdad (already a major epoch in the political sphere), and probably about nineteen hundred and seventy-six years since the crucifixion of a certain Joshua Bar Joseph (a.k.a. in Greek, the international language of the Eastern Roman Empire at the time, Jesus of Nazareth). Instead of going to see Mel Gibson's The Passion, I traveled to Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Hamburg, thanks to my association with the Swedish Institute last year in Stockholm and my meeting the writer Peter Hallberg there.

            It may be premature to thank all the people who helped make these important journeys possible. Between vaguely impending familial events on the home front, terrorist attacks in Madrid, wars and rumors about other possible attacks on monuments and people (most of them gratefully false), I flew off again from LAX via Air Tahiti Nui to Paris, traveling lightly baggagewise, but heavy with thought and the truths of the Hallberg Principle. Of course, I didn't know that I was contemplating that principle at all. In fact, it only occurred to me as I began writing this essay to try to put all the random thoughts and feelings I had during my trip under that umbrella concept. And for me they will remain, after all, truths "to feel on my pulses" and perhaps ideas others might be interested in thinking about.

            I will summarize the Hallberg Principle later in this essay since it may prove difficult to clarify precisely. My sense of it comes from personal experience and conversation with the author, and the help I gave him in translating English versions of a speech he gave in Vilnius last summer and in Belgrade this winter called "The Right to Be Unhappy." The first irony I must announce is that the coincidence of the above events works out very happily for me at this time in my life, definitely a way to transition from a teaching career and see the research I have done until now as a useful springboard to publishing my own writing and helping other writers to internationalize (or globalize?) their work. It is a cause I can really believe in having tried to help students come in contact with the intellectual building blocks of Civilization, and now, when every politician talks about defending it (sometimes by bombing opposing factions and outgrowths of the multitude of sub-cultures laying claim to it), speaking up and participating in what remains of dialogue, lest fear of "evil" and "the barbarian other" drown all healthy debate.

            So it occurs to me to discuss what lessons might emerge from Holy Week this year. We can thank Mel Gibson for one thing: a slew of articles discussing the historical events that led to the crucifixion. The mere fact that Gibson used Aramaic and Latin in the film was cause for debate about historical details, with most experts agreeing that Aramaic was right on target as the language spoken among the followers of Jesus (though the dialect may have been somewhat different), but disagreeing with Gibson about the use of Latin among the Roman soldiers. Historians point out that Greek was the international language of the Eastern Empire and that Pontius Pilate would have instructed his centurions, who were probably not from Italy but from Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, in Greek as well as conducted any inquiry that may or may not have occurred at the time.

            The above may seem like a minor detail--especially in the United States where we expect everyone to speak some kind of comprehensible English. If Shakespeare only gave Julius Caesar three words in Latin to say to Brutus, certainly it is hair splitting to discover that Suetonius (Shakespeare's likely source), writing in Latin, quotes Caesar in Greek, the language they would have learned together at school in order to be considered literate Romans.

            But let me return to Ulf Peter Hallberg for a moment. Let me introduce someone who has dedicated his life to keeping up with major and minor trends in Western Civilization in a multitude of languages. He writes in Swedish, but lives in Berlin. He has a lovely wife, literarily creative in her own right, and two sons. Peter recently turned fifty, an event we had discussed as impending a year ago, and to which I could provide a few unhappy reflections of my own. Things he probably didn't want to hear about at the time, but he did ask me, and I was instinctively following the yet-to-be articulated Hallberg Principle with rigorous honesty.

            I think I can say with some insight that if Walter Benjamin desired to reincarnate himself and be projected into the twenty-first century, Peter would certainly be the right vessel to contain that fiery spark of intellect, at once at play and in serious dialogue with what is going on in the literature of drama, fiction, poetry, photography, and film--only to mention his most salient interests. Having seen his library and working studio in Berlin, I asked him if he ever tired of reading. His answer, after a pause for reflection, was a definite "No," as if the question had never occurred to him. If you wander with him through bookstores, as we did together in Hamburg, Peter can't go away without more volumes to add to his library and to his reading list. The problem doesn't seem to be fatigue; the only limits have to do with the number of hours in a day, and how illness might befall family members. And yet it is also the way his everyday experience interacts with his creative thought and work that makes him more than just another clever artist, and that led him to write as confrontational a piece as "The Right to Be Unhappy."

            My plan was to have my visit with Peter in Berlin coincide exactly with the anniversary of my meeting him in Stockholm. This plan may have emerged some time last summer after frequent exchanges of emails and my first effort to help him with his English version of his speech. He had also been writing a weekly article on culture and politics for a newspaper in Malmo, and these were other surprisingly insightful pieces for me to practice my Swedish and learn quite a bit about goings on in different parts of Europe. Recently he had done a number of pieces on Italy, especially related to Rome, and having never managed to get there myself, I decided I should visit him via an overnight train from Paris to Rome, stay for three days, then take another overnight train to Munich and Berlin.

            The plan worked perfectly, though not without a few delays in train connections. I saw Paris again with an old friend--with especial interest in the arcades near Place des Voges and La Bastille, and the Joan Miro exhibit at the Centre Pompidou. Then I was on my own in sunny Italy long enough to catch the Pope's homily in Saint Peter's Square the Sunday preceding Palm Sunday. Rome had its impressive ruins and tortured history. I was as mindful of the statue of a brooding Giordano Bruno in Campo de Fiori, burned at the stake in 1600 for, among other heresies, defending the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis. And I read memorial placards to my favorite English poets, Keats and Shelley. Somehow it wasn't the organization that could erect the biggest dome or amass the longest row of classical pillars that gets the final civilizing word. Flowers left in memory of the victims of the Madrid terrorist attacks at the Spanish Embassy in Piazza di Spagna reminded me that martyrdom and terrorism have historical precedents and are often a matter of perspective. 

            This was excellent preparation for Berlin, where for the first time since 1979, I was to experience to some degree the changes that have happened since the wall came down nearly fifteen years ago now. Alas, the weather was excellent there too; the history just as brutal and just as glorious as in Rome. I found myself at the nexus of Martin Lutherstrasse and Winterfeldtstrasse not far from where Christopher Isherwood lived in the 1930's. But I will remember above all else the music, whether from street musicians trained in the former Soviet Union, or the sounds of Schumann's Rhenish Symphony finely orchestrated at the Komische Opera.

            Then it was off to Hamburg on the train with Peter to survey the urban scenes in St. Pauli (launching pads for Johannes Brahms in one century and the Beatles in another) and Altona where an evening production of "Learning Europe" involved groups of actors from six different municipal theatres--three from "Old Europe" and three from the "New Europe" soon to join the club. (May 1st seems to ring a bell as an important date in some way.)

            But finally to the Hallberg Principle. While visiting with him, I tried my best to be "scholar in residence," testing ideas I have been thinking about. He has of course been considering the condition of Europe in these changing times, and has offered his ideas on how thinking has been the "drug of choice" in Europe throughout its history going back at least as far as the Greeks. Rather than a simplistic, homogenized, globalized Europe, Peter has been arguing for multiple minority language perspectives with a playful touch of irony and rigorous critical thinking. In a way, I thought, he is arguing for the very thing most Americans want to wish away about "Old Europe," but they do so at our peril!

            For if America has become the New World Order and Washington D.C. the new Rome, Europe in its multiplicity of languages and cultures is the equivalent of the Greek City States, the heart and spirit of our heritage however multicultural we may claim we are. Open-minded America, we have found, and not only thanks to Allen Bloom, can become mind-less and anti-intellectual, too quickly consumerized in a market where software for word processing brings obscene royalties while major poems, plays, translations, and essays are published for a pittance. Not to mention a paucity of literate readers.

            Meanwhile Iraq looks much like Judea must have looked to the Romans. What would Pontius Pilate do today with what the Jewish priests of the Sanhedrin called "a blasphemer" and what a Roman governor would see as a potential "terrorist," claiming to be "king" of the Jews?  Instead of crucifixion, might he not have sent Jesus to the equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, say the Bay of Tunis near the destroyed city of Carthage, to find out more about the subversive Essenes and their prophesies of a Messiah?

            History repeats itself in strange ways. The martyrs and oppressed become the upholders of law and order and the oppressors. All of us are human and have, according to the Hallberg Principle, a human "right to unhappiness," which, alas, is our burden and potentially our means to become civilized again. I think Peter would see that principle not so much as a rational construction, but rather as an act of reason and imagination which must be continuously renewed.

            I guess I should add the Anderson Corollary to this principle at Easter, which I expand from Peter Hallberg with my own spiritual convictions. The Nazis weren't the first to try a "final solution" to problems of diverse beliefs and cultures. The Pontius Pilate who "washed his hands" in frustration in a province prone to insurrection and rebellion despite crucifixion and other means of suppression soon became a Titus to raze Jerusalem and begin the Diaspora of the Jews. That hadn't worked before during the Babylonian Captivity. It didn't work for the Romans either, and that troublesome Jewish sect, the Christians, three hundred years later would find an Emperor in Constantine to make their religion the state one.

            It is tempting to think that people will cower to displays of military might, especially when the enemy seems so blatantly evil and uncivilized, but to raise that hand is to treat the innocent caught in the crossfire as "collateral damage." An offense against Innocence, however, is forbidden by God's Law! As Jesus taught, we must somehow, against our strongest instincts, learn to love our enemies.

            Unhappy, indeed!                                              11 April 2004