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In the long term

Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)
Torgny Segerstedt,1940. Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)

A text by the publicist and anti-Nazi Torgny Segerstedt from 12 January 1924, in which he describes and attacks the "short-sighted people" and the naive attitude of those in power towards life and family history.

One certainly grasps something quite essential when one sees the break between different currents, which gives our age its content, from the point of view of a struggle between a short-term and a long-term sense of life. It may be readily predicted that this formula, as little as any other, under which one seeks to compress the infinitely varied diversity of life, can do full justice to the individual phenomena which are subsumed under it. Not only can such a purification of concepts be defended, but it can be said to be necessary. Without it, no overview of the state of the times can be gained, and no fruitful change of opinion can come about. Concepts are abstract quantities; the manifestations of a current of time in action are vitiated by a corresponding unidimensionality. To see the contradictions of the times under a more or less purified set of ideas has the same significance as widely discernible, unmistakable signals for the fighting armies.

One view might be characterized by Heidenstam's words about this land where our children will one day live and our fathers sleep under the church roof. The sense of belonging to the past and to the future is its enduring tension. That vision of life is found in a multitude of shadings. It has not only grown out of a sense of kinship, but still finds expression in it from time to time. To the extent that this original framework extends to include spiritual ancestry and influence, the sense of belonging extends its roots to the fields of spiritual cultivation. One feels oneself to be an expression and part of the soul of the people, which lives in the language spoken by one's fathers, in the literature in which it reveals its tract and its nature, in the legal system and the social order which, like a coral reef, is constantly buffeted by the sun and air and foam of the water, though it sinks its foundations into the dark depths, where no ray of memory can penetrate, the soul of the people, which lives in the peculiar way of thinking, feeling and being, of reacting to life and existence, which every people has as its special inheritance.

This sense of togetherness can come about in all sorts of ways. It is awakened by the nature of the country, by the wilderness and by the cultivated fields of the old cultivated villages, by the street perspectives, by what is old and ancient no less than by the budding young, reaching towards days that still bide their time at the door of the future. Old buildings, the reflecting wet asphalt of the streets, the reflections of the lantern light in the drops of water that glisten on the branches of the trees, all can evoke the sense of the life that stretches not only around us, but also ahead and behind us.

The sense of life can be attuned to this and fill the moments with its experience. It is not running away from one's own self, it is perceiving it in its context with its conditions and effects. Where feeling is translated into will, it breaks away into care for the community that exists in the life of the people and of culture. It makes itself known in the care of all that constitutes the prerequisite for the flourishing of culture, the free existence of the people as well as the sanctity of creative thought. All creativity is a child of freedom. In the shadow of constraint, the power of creation tends to fade. Only the desire to create an outlet for the stream of life can achieve anything worthwhile. And creation itself is sustained by the certainty of togetherness. The expression of thought and feeling, in the form which they seek, redeems not only the soul-life from which they break out, but all theirs which are drawn in the same direction.

This approach to existence presupposes that life is seen in the longer term than one's own individual existence. When it is allowed to limit vision, the formula becomes "after us the flood", i.e. may the flood come, if only we can get away. It is the suggestion that the present cultural epoch is tumbling towards its fall that is reflected in the indifference to what will happen tomorrow. Without such a conviction, the same orientation towards life is found in those who want to use society's resources of power to realise their own particular interests. All demagogic endeavours are manifestations of such a mind. This is always to be found in all ages, but it has its most fertile soil in the days of popular wars. It is then that those who feel the least affinity with cultural life have most to say. Then it is best to try to climb up to power and influence on the shoulders of the masses. Then you can make yourself comfortable today and promise all sorts of joys and losses to those to whose instincts you appeal. Tomorrow comes disappointment, but that time, that sorrow. What is tomorrow to us? We live today. If we make a lot of trouble for those who come after, it will be their business.

Demagogy is set on predation. It has always been its ransom to rob and distribute the accumulated taxes. It has never understood what it means, or rather has never asked itself what the profound effect is of severing the strong link between the generations, which is the transmission of inheritance from one generation to another. It has not seen the view of the existence of the people and of the country which requires of the individuals of the present age sacrifices to secure the future independence of the country. It is detestable as a statecraft in the long run. It sacrifices for the sake of convenience national resources which may be spared for the moment, but which, when needed tomorrow, cannot be hastily restored. That the reputation of the nation suffers from its evident inability to keep its house in repair, is not asked by him who does not wonder at tomorrow. The education of the people, the preservation of the race, the advancement of culture, all these are things with the care of which he does not burden his mind, whose vision is limited by his own life. The betrayal of youth, the spread of indifference to the great questions of culture, the decline of public decency, is indifferent to him who does not ask about tomorrow.

Only he who confuses freedom with the right to let go of the pursuit of humanity in order to sink back into the existence of drift, whose purification and refinement into something intellectually, aesthetically and morally higher is precisely the mark of humanity, only he can find it paradoxical that it is the long-sighted type of life which has freedom as its main word, the short-sighted type which has compulsion. Freedom has to do with the self-toughness that breaks the dictates of the moment to give air to something that wants to work itself out from within. He who perceives how life with its problems, tasks and moods flows up into the past of family and people and spiritual cultivation, and through the small current of his own personality flows on towards the future, deals more carefully with these things than he who limits his field of vision to what lies between his birth and death. He who feels responsibility towards the past and the future feels also the obligation to be free and to think freely. Only thus can he bring to light something of value. The lifeblood of culture is freedom. Without it, there is no creation. No one can breathe it without seeking the greatest possible space for his own and others' individuality.

The short-sighted people love compulsion. It lifts the responsibility from the shoulders of individuals to those who take the lead. It becomes mass, everyone's and no one's. For demagogy always works with the mass as its instrument. In the mass, individuals are annihilated. They are crushed together with its other elements; the drives, the instincts, take complete dominion over thought. The mass lets itself be directed by the real or supposed needs of the moment. Indifference to all that is called the patina of age and future expectations is part of its essence. It is significant that the party which works most with the masses as its instrument and target is anxious to expose its jealousy of the great deeds of its fathers. It has, moreover, freed itself from concern for the national independence of future generations.

Working for the long term is the cultural man's approach to life. It is not based on the naive belief that the world will invariably get better. It has nothing to do with the harmless assurance of the natural goodness of human hearts. It has no illusions about a reality whose face can bring to mind the tale of the Medusa's head, which made the spectators freeze in horror. But it draws strength from the certainty that, despite everything, a cultural line runs through this reality, like a streak of birds in the spring evening over the forests and marshes. That cultural stream is the riverbed of good will and clear thinking, the riverbed of dreams and beauty. From every honest effort power flows to it. It is not the outward results that are decisive. It is not the production of great works alone that keeps culture alive. Acceptance and appropriation is an equally indispensable creative act of the personality. No effort put into a cultural task, however insignificant it may seem, is wasted. It is the work itself that is of importance.

A culture does not belong to those phenomena whose type is the fleeting existence of the day. It spans the ages. Anyone who has become aware of what it means, of the fact that the nerve of human life coincides with the line that culture draws through the course of events, will be enchanted by its inexhaustible richness. The more the world of mankind appears like a poisonous swamp, the rarer appears the shimmering grandeur of the culture from which human creativity has drawn. The eye can trace the line back to the dawn of time, forward without limit.

Culture gives life space and grandeur. It breaks the narrow horizons. It also fills its humblest servants with humble gratitude to the life whose innermost glows and shines in all that is great, which the craving for beauty and clarity and freedom has created.

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