The Steingrim circle
One time a few years earlier Steingrim Hagen had stayed at Lier with Erling for a couple of days, which they had spent mostly in talking and drinking. There were not many Erling dared bring home; some were rather inclined to stay on, and ignored a gentle hint to get going. Others were too eager to return. Norwegian lack of formality had many advantages, but it could also become a plague: a man could not feel secure in his own home. When a person one knew relatively well stood at the door it could be rather embarrassing; one couldn't deny one was at home, nor say one was busy and that it was inconvenient; the caller might feel hurt, and in any case, work would be disrupted whether one asked him in or endured the nervous upset that would be the result of a refusal. Possibly intentionally such callers didn't telephone before coming, and he felt embarrassed for them and had to pretend he didn't see through the [p. 172] deception. Moreover, telephoning wasn't so good either; one had to return to work after having said no, and this no kept ringing in the head as a refrain against work which on the contrary needed positivism and yes in every fiber. Artists might be considered enviable, being masters of their own lives, but they in turn might envy some others. Businessmen and industrialists could throw a silly, unintentionally insulting letter into the wastebasket and go on to the next thing, and practically all their undertakings are definite problems which demand exact solutions. Anyone disturbing an artist actually steals the yeast from his bread, making it go flat and hard as a piece of wood if he attempts any further work that day. First he must use important time to wash off the interruption and the peace-disturber. Artists should meet even their friends on neutral soil—in a café, with cheese and wine under their sensitive noses. Interruption is an accident, like breaking a finger, because an artist, or a scientist, cannot shuffle his interest from one subject to another easily. Many others have the same problem but they can succumb to office work or simple drudgery. It is the strength and the fiber of the ability to concentrate which is the deciding factor in a person's fate.
Erling had once lived with his family outside Oslo. Behind the house was an overgrown garden. It was his refuge when he wished to think through something, but he soon found it was a lost paradise. Among the neighbors were a few who also worked at home as their own masters, but unfortunately they belonged in what has been nicknamed the practical life. They would come into the garden and say: I noticed you weren't working and thought I would talk for a moment.
They were innocent, they were honest, Erling liked them. They realized it might be real work to write—but now he had a hoe in his hand. They hadn't learnt one could write with a hoe in one's hand, or a spade, or while lying on one's back staring at the clouds. How to explain to them that it was just now one was writing? He realized why artists must be considered selfish and odd. It was always the same: he stood there fumbling with the hoe as if he had some unfamiliar object in his hands, became embarrassed, lame, worn out. A freshly flaming fire was extinguished beyond hope: visions and logic, inspiration itself, all the material that in the evening would have taken shape on sheet after sheet—sheets that one after another would slide across the table, flutter to the floor with soft, nightly sounds, while the hours passed without being measured by the clock.
"I realize you must rest your brain occasionally," the fine neighbor might say.
Rest the brain? That was what they understood; they thought the [p. 173] brain could be given a rest. They should only know how it felt to have a brain. They should only experience the fear that the brain one day might decide to take a rest.
Fortunately there were a few who could not disturb each other, because they belonged together in the same way as changes in the weather belong to nature. No one of the Steingrim circle could disturb or arrive inconveniently. They comprised one of those human circles which surely no one has tried to analyze, or perhaps they haven't been discovered by the sociologists; anyway they did not fit any definition familiar to Erling. Such circles have nothing to do with acquaintances or groups of friends, much less the family circle, and absolutely nothing with organization. They were formed and existed for a few years (during the war) and gradually they became a sort of constellation, and by then the ring had become so strongly forged that any attempt by an outsider to gain admittance would in advance have met the same fate as an attempt to disorganize Orion's Ring. Perhaps the absolute strength of such a circle lay in the fact that its members were individualists. They created wholeness and unity even when they formed the group; it arose without intention, without planning for use or usefulness, like the Belt of Orion or the Pleiades. No meetings were called, they were not a club, not a society, no one could be voted in or out, no dark secrets existed, no skeletons in the closet, and no guests were brought along, for transportation to the Pleiades is rather difficult.
A stir in a few human minds, the nucleus of the circle-to-be, attracted over a long period of time the very few that could belong, men or women, sex did not seem to be the determining factor. There were seldom more than half a dozen in the group. Erling had noticed that such a group seemed to have difficulty of survival if one member died, but sometimes it happened. The Steingrim circle survived. But no new member could be admitted—one could never get in if one hadn't grown in during the maturing years long ago. If a member died, the circle would only survive if the member had been such that he survived as a living memory.
When during the war we needed help or advice in our underground activities against the Germans, did we go to our friends and acquaintances? Well, perhaps we might have considered asking them, but did we actually ask them? Yes, if it so happened that any one of them was a member of what I call the Steingrim circle. In time of stress such members were seen in their true light. And where are the Steingrim circles today? Dormant perhaps, some members distracted by family or business involvements, but the circle is not dead. It comes to life when a [p. 174] demagogue exceeds the line. Such rulers are hardly aware of these groups; they are of the opinion they only have to fight established groups, which demagogues of all times have been confident of obliterating. But in these cells the dormant yeast of all layers of society lurks constantly and is ready to rise when the mighty ones become too arrogant. Then the head of state delivers a statement to the effect that he does not appreciate the method of the irresponsible.
Irresponsible one might ignore, it is the demagogue's way of saying he is the ruler. The method of turning to the people in a democratic way, instead of writing a petition which would land in his waste-paper basket, this is a most uncalled-for notion of his subjects.
And who are the irresponsible, or the irresponsible elements, when the chief speaks from on high? They are the minority among his own voters, who pondered their responsibility even when electing him. And he didn't like it. He suspects that they elected among many evils what seemed to them the least evil. And he absent-mindedly sketches a coffin for democracy while he reads.
Of necessity all such groups, or Steingrim circles, have something in common, but this is seldom apparent to the outsider; indeed, the very existence is often not known. The members of the circle need not even consider themselves a circle, and when they do the individual might wonder what holds them together. They can't give any clear explanation of its origin, or when it actually began. Thus the amazement when it strikes, and with strength no one had suspected.
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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