Stig Dagerman on Guilt

“What was it you felt guilty about? What have you done, what crime have you been guilty of?”

“Ah, that’s what’s so paradoxical about it all, you see. I haven’t done anything, or at least, I hadn’t done anything—not then. I was completely innocent—and yet I felt guilty. I thought I was responsible for everything that happened, it was my fault that the slum where my parents still lived even after I’d rented a little room closer to the bank, that slum was teeming with children suffering from consumption, it was my fault that so many old people died in poverty in hostels dotted all over the city, and I even felt stabs of guilt every time I saw a beggar or some poor soul with pock-marks all over his face. Of course, I tried to help, using all the means at my disposal in order to reduce my guilt, and I tried all the channels open to a citizen who wants to do something to assist the underprivileged, but I have to say I found all of them inadequate, and in some cases criminally inadequate. The charities disgusted me with their onanistic self-satisfaction, it was as if they had to look at themselves in a mirror after every good deed to check whether they’d acquired a new little wrinkle round their mouths advertizing their kindness. The political parties spent far too much energy on peripheral questions, claimed they were transforming the whole of society, a transformation which would liberate the world from the injustices currently bearing down on my forehead, in the long run: but that was just a cynical way of referring to a permanent postponement, that’s what they really meant. Occasionally they took up some of the problems of the very poorest in their propaganda, and what really disgusted me most about the whole thing was the way the poverty of the world was used as advertizing material for a political party, that a self-evident thing like reducing the number of children with tuberculosis became a publicity stunt for a party whose behavior in other respects has to be regarded with suspicion and even contempt. No, for guilty people like us there was no organization, the distress of the world was being taken in hand by people who’d ceased to feel guilty, if they ever had felt guilty at all, because they lived under the illusion that they were doing such an awful lot to ease it. The biggest problem, it seemed to me, was that people were talking so much about ideas, that’s what took up so much of their energy; but I think ideas are something for the nursery. You need ideas, of course, but you should play with them; ideas are the pretty little toys grown-ups play with. It seemed to me, contests concerning ideas were taking place at the wrong level altogether: instead of sitting around tables where the fate of the world is supposed to be decided with the ideas they cherished so scrupulously and with such sadistic logic, they should have been gathering at tennis courts and playing tennis for their ideas, or in a big theater where they could act out scenes with them, or in big, green meadows where they could chase after them in the sunshine with butterfly nets. There’s nothing more dangerous than taking ideas seriously, and nothing more praiseworthy, in fact I’d go as far as to say it’s the only praiseworthy thing in this life, than taking ideas for the playthings they are in fact. […] What happened next? Well—I grew tired of not being able to do anything but feeling as if I could do everything; I was falling between two stools, and in that situation I made up my mind on one thing. I decided to acquire guilt, real guilt, guilt I could really accept on my own behalf, guilt I could describe as being my very own so that I was the one who should bear it and nobody else.  And so I pulled off a pretty bold feat of embezzlement, and with substantial funds in my pockets I’d left the country on the very first day of my holiday and was well on my way to a life to be lived in relative freedom from guilt; but it all turned out rather differently from what I’d expected.
[translated by Laurie Thompson]

Move over Musil, Walser, Joseph Roth: Stig Dagerman.  Dagerman wrote Island of the Doomed in one feverish summer, in 1946, in a remote island cabin belonging to August Strindberg. Seven castaways on a desert island play out a delirious morality play exhuming all the subterranean passions of the freshly obliterated European bourgeoisie. It concludes with a paradoxical, devastated, utterly disillusioned guide to life which is as sophisticated as any we have seen.

Dagerman is not as disciplined a writer as the great threesome, but his excesses are those of a spirit truly testing the limits of heart and page. The University of Minnesota just now brings out Island of the Doomed for the first time in the US; last fall they reissued Dagerman’s shattering reportage from war-ravaged Germany, German Autumn, with a moving and pertinent introduction by Mark Kurlansky. This fall David R. Godine will bring out To Kill a Child: Selected Short Stories.

Stig Dagerman grew upon a farm in rural Sweden with his grandparents after being abandoned by his unmarried mother in infancy. When he was ten years old his grandfather was murdered and his grandmother died shortly after from shock. Dagerman was then reunited in Stockholm with his estranged father, an itinerate day laborer. Through his father he joined the Syndicalist Youth Federation and began editing their newspaper at nineteen. From there he began a meteoric rise, lionized in Sweden for the novels, plays, poems, and reportage he managed to write before his suicide, after years of depression, at the age of thirty-one. Kurlansky argues persuasively that Dagerman’s own extreme experience of sorrow contributed to his intense sensitivity, as a writer and a person, to the suffering of others, with which Island of the Doomed and German Autumn are intensely redolent.

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  1. [...] of the Doomed (translated by Laurie Thompson; featured here in Little Star) and A Burnt Child (translated by Little Star’s Benjamin Mier-Cruz; featured [...]