Silence, schnapps, sex and socialism on the road to Utopia

Peter C. Newman October 1 1971


Silence, schnapps, sex and socialism on the road to Utopia

Peter C. Newman October 1 1971



Silence, schnapps, sex and socialism on the road to Utopia

STOCKHOLM — In the language of Canadians of a certain age and political persuasion (the middle generation of liberals) Sweden for the last 20 years or so has served as a kind of shorthand symbol for a functioning Utopia. You know the kind of situation I mean: two socially aware, politically involved, deadly serious people are talking about a Canadian Problem and they end their summation of our absurdities by saying, “Now in Sweden, they solve this so sensibly by . . .” Certainly, if most Canadians had to make a list of Worthy Nations, Sweden would probably come at the top. The Swedes have solved virtually all the important economic and social issues that preoccupy governments. They have abolished poverty, defeated unemployment, wiped out slums, banished ignorance, redistributed wealth, dispelled sexual repression and confounded ideology by building the world’s best living standard on capitalist production and socialist distribution.

Eight million characters in search of an author, the Swedes are brooding individualists wracked by introspection. Their country (Europe’s fourth largest which, if it could be swung at its southernmost point, would stretch down to Naples) is a clean, well-lighted place. The industrial revolution came late to Sweden; only 50 years ago it was one of the most backward nations of Europe. There is little industrial ugliness. Superhighways glide by 18th-century castles; factories are set unobtrusively into forests. It is a country obsessed with orderliness. Nothing seems improvised — from the way farmers pile their firewood to the elegant folds in restaurant napkins. Everything is painfully tidy. And silent. It is the silence of Sweden that really sets it apart from other countries.

Sweden’s silence is something more than the absence of sound. It’s a kind of tumultuous stillness, deafening in its intensity — as if within it negotiations of some primordial, unspoken sort were implacably proceeding. Trains, buses and streetcars full of speechless people rumble through the

avenues of Stockholm like wheeled coffins. There are few street noises, little clatter of trade or cries of children; clean walls cry out for desecration.

Russian friends bear-hug when they get excited, the French kiss. Swedes show emotion with a firm, mute handshake, and when they do speak the cadence of their language reduces the exchange to the tonelessness of a weather forecast. They are a nation of spectacle wipers. You ask them a question and, figuratively or literally, they pause to wipe their spectacles before they answer. Conversation thus becomes a series of pauses interrupted by words.

One reason for all this silence is that the Swedish character was formed by the nation’s rural past, when nearly everyone lived in isolated hamlets, with only a weekly church service to interrupt their solitude. This legacy has imbued the Swedes with a spiritual loneliness they call ensamhet which is their most noticeable characteristic. In a typical Swedish anecdote, an emigrant to America returns home after 30 years and invites one of his boyhood friends to the local inn for a schnapps. After an hour of drinking they’ve still not spoken and the visitor finally asks: “Well, how’s

everything, anyway?” His friend groans: “Hell, I thought we were going to drink, not make a lot of conversation.”

The crew cut makes him look like the second-string coach of a midwestern football team, but the darting blue eyes and sensitive, rabbit nose mark him as an intensely political animal. At 44, Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of Sweden, is Western Europe’s youngest, most radical and least formal head of government. Deep into Swedish politics for the past 20 years, he was radicalized in the 10 months he spent hitchhiking through 34 states of the U.S. during the late Forties. He says it was the poverty surrounded by affluence he saw on the journey that inspired his deep commitment to socialism. Palme’s ideology is real and much of Sweden’s current unrest stems from his intention to turn Sweden into something close to a classless society. “I’m against wet-finger politics — testing public opinion before you do anything,” he says. “Without an ideological consciousness and a real will behind practical politics, you only have accommodation from one day to another.”

An ostentatious rebel in a country that still clings like an old maid to social niceties, Palme, when he was Minister of Education, took part in a march on the U.S. embassy in Stockholm to protest the Vietnam war. His great fear is fascism in all its forms. “Today’s radicals just sit and wait for the revolution,” he says. “They say: ‘Everything has to collapse before we can begin to do anything.’ But it is possible to get within the existing system and guide it. The longer you sit outside, the greater is the risk of fascism or at least reaction.”

I met Palme in the cafeteria of Stockholm’s new parliament buildings, a sleek structure with aluminum ceilings, brown carpets and birchwood walls. Discreetly chewing gum and swinging his leg over an armchair, he talked softly about the social equality he is trying to achieve. “I’m being attacked because of my Utopian ideas which / continued on page 51

SWEDEN from page 35

are supposed to be forcing an atmosphere of confrontation. But I believe the opposite. The real confrontation comes from the economic gaps dividing members of the society. We can’t do anything about happiness. But we can try to steer technology in a more humane way. We’ve been circling too much in the past, taking care only of society’s victims. Now we have to give more power, real power, to the people involved in the production process. Power is very important and you don’t need ownership to exercise it.”

Essentially Palme’s message is that a society can be fundamentally alerted without a revolution and that the political leaders of democracies should be committed to such a transformation. “The Swedish example,” he said, “is interesting for only one reason: it shows that social progress is possible through somewhat boring, bureaucratic action.”

The Swedes see little link beween sex and morality, although they see love as one way to beat loneliness

The Swedish attitude to sex approximates the observation once made by Mrs. Patrick Campbell, G. B. Shaw’s actress-friend, to the effect that she didn’t mind what people did so long as they didn’t do it in the streets and scare the horses. Most Swedes see little connection between sex and morality, though they recognize love, however fleeting, as one way to deal with the Swedish curse of loneliness. Trial marriages are common and it’s estimated that a quarter of brides are expecting on their wedding day — a hangover from Sweden’s agrarian past, when marriages rarely took place until the girl was pregnant or had given birth to a son. Marriages can be dissolved by simple mutual agreement between husband and wife. Sexual equality has reached into the bedrooms of the nation. A recent survey of Professor Nils Gustafsson of the Sociological Institute in Stockholm found that 26% of the young men questioned first had sexual intercourse because the girl insisted on it, with some men even claiming that the girls forced them into it.

It’s a statistic one tends to discount. Soft felt slouch hats and tendrils of blond hair framing elegant cheekbones, figures and faces put together with the exquisite care of a Japanese wooden puzzle, the girls of Sweden

must be the loveliest in the world. Instead of having different characters, they seem, from a distance at least, to have various flavors. Cinnamon, maybe.

The most surprising sight to the visitor are the many shops selling every kind of pornography from the disgusting to the philosophical, including a treatise about a man who undergoes an operation for the removal of his navel because its intricate structure fascinates him so much that it interferes with his meditative contemplations.

I watch the tourists trooping into one of the porno shops near Stockholm’s main railway station. Germans, smoking cigars as thick as fire hydrants, march in purposefully. They have discovered sex and are determined to conquer it. Englishmen act curious but yellow, as if sex were a duty, a matter of keeping fit. Americans seem to be snickering: “Hey, Maw, here I am in a porno shop in Stockholm, doing my own thing.” And then there are the Japanese. Who knows what goes on behind those closed faces? Inside the porno shop, a book whose careless typographer must have had the Asian export market in mind proclaims on its lurid cover: 50 BLAND NEW PHOTOGRAPHS.

A country is defined by its images. I had never appreciated the cumulative impact of Ingmar Bergman’s films on my imagination until, flying across the Baltic, I caught my first view of Sweden and was astonished to see it flash green and yellow and brown below, instead of the bleak, black-and-white shadows of the Bergman landscapes that I had somehow been expecting. Bergman was too busy working on a film to see me, but his spirit followed me around Sweden like the devil in his Seventh Seal. “I want knowledge,” one of the characters declared in that film. “Not faith, but knowledge. I want God to stretch his hand toward me, to uncover his face, to speak to me.” Such themes — the hunt for God, love as a kind of agony without end, the idea that in order to achieve reality the psyche must first be stripped and humiliated — these are the preoccupations of Bergman’s dark and violent masterpieces, and in their snorting, volcanic profundity they add up to a tour of the Swedish soul.

Bergman uses his films as a kind of personal wailing wall. Tense with existential agonies, they are peopled by characters whose derisive laughter originates in the darkest corners of his self-made hell. God’s in his heaven, he seems to be telling us, and all’s continued on page 52

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wrong with the world. (“If God is not here,” Bergman once wrote, “life is an outrageous terror, ruled by fate which has no answers, merely appointments.”)

Bergman’s obsession with loss of life’s meaning and a lapse into the silence of God’s betrayal dominates the Swedish psyche. Bergman’s father was an evangelically inclined Lutheran parson who became chaplain to Sweden’s royal family, and it is the moral rectitude of his upbringing that Bergman, and many of the Swedes of his generation, find so difficult to exorcise.

“Still, Bergman’s films are becoming irrelevant to Sweden’s new generation,” says Mario Grut, a theatrical critic for Stockholm’s Aftonbladet. “Their problems belong to people who had a religion and lost it, they don't touch the young who never had a faith to begin with. People try to solve their problems politically now, not through religion. Only about 3% of the Swedes attend church regularly. Relations are now no longer considered to be between people and the church, or people and God, but just between people. In not many years’ time, his films will be an inadequate vision of our society.”

Bergman has been married five times and keeps moving to ever more remote retreats on ever smaller islands. The Swedes wouldn’t be surprised if eventually he ends up perched on a rock, alone somewhere out in the Baltic Sea.

He sits in a large round room with carved ivory ceiling, once the home of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, and he is the most powerful man in Sweden. As head of the Landsorganizationen (LO) Arne G e i j e r controls the destiny (and votes) of more than 1.6 million unionized Swedish workers — backbone of the governing Social Democratic Party. He smokes Kent cigarettes and there is an open copy of U.S. News & World Report on his desk. “In Sweden,” he says, “we can’t afford to have unemployment. The Canadian figure of 6% wouldn’t be acceptable here. Of course, the big change is that 80% of the youngsters who go through higher education here can’t be offered the kind of jobs they expect any more. Somebody has to do the menial work. The pay and living standards of the educated will have to stop rising until the others catch up.”

Sweden is experiencing its first major labor troubles since 1945. In the past, wage agreements with management have quietly been negotiated through an elaborate system of annual continued on page 55

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meetings between LO and its industrial counterpart. But last spring the government took the unprecedented step of moving in to prevent a crippling strike. Even though Sweden has a socialist government, the state has traditionally concentrated on social policies, leaving business and labor to operate in relative freedom. Sweden has had a socialist government for 39 years, but so little industry has been nationalized that only 6% of the labor force is employed by the state. One example of Sweden’s enlightened labor policies is the experiment at the Saab plant in Sodertalje, the first modern mass-production automobile factory to drop the conveyor belt system. Instead, cars are assembled by production groups that plan their own work schedules. Absenteeism has dropped while production quality has significantly increased.

Although official statistics rank Sweden’s standard of living just behind the U.S. (and just ahead of Canada), it is probably the world’s highest on a per capita basis because income is much more evenly distributed. The cost of living went up 7% last year and Stockholm is probably the most costly place there is anywhere. Coca-Cola in restaurants costs the equivalent of 42 cents, liquor outlets charge $10 for a bottle of Scotch; the price of admission to a first-run movie is four dollars; it cost me a dollar to get a shirt laundered in my hotel; a pound of butter sells for 95 cents. It’s a mystery how people can afford such prices, because even though wages are roughly equivalent to Canadian rates income taxes are very much higher. The tax on a salary of $8,226 is 50% on top of a 17% sales tax that applies to most goods.

But the Swedes also get a lot more back from their government in terms of free services, including free annual holidays for housewives; fat pensions amounting to 60% of a man’s average earnings during the 10 highestpaid years of his life; free universal education up to the PhD level; state dowries for newlyweds, and subsidies for single-parent children. The Swedish state has become an essential structure for guaranteeing everyone’s self-interest. “The Swedes have their medical expenses taken care of, all of their welfare costs paid for, their rent subsidized, and so much done for them, that if they lose their car keys they promptly commit suicide,” Godfrey Cambridge, the U.S. comedian, once remarked. Actually, the Swedish suicide rate is not, as many outsiders believe, the world’s highest. UN statistics show 10 other countries — Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and

Germany among them — with higher rates of self-destruction.

But even if citizens of 10 other countries manage to kill themselves oftener, the Swedes must top everybody when it comes to drinking. The Swedish government liquor commission is the largest single buyer of the products of the French wine industry, and there is a saying in Scandinavia that while the Norwegians live to eat and the Danes eat to live the Swedes eat to drink. I believe it. Every meal I had was accompanied by my Swedish host invoking an elaborate drinking ceremony, almost ecclesiastical in its gravity, inevitably climaxing with the cry of “Skal!” and the emptying of yet another tumbler of straight schnapps.

I had dinner with a Swedish journalist in the Kallaren Aurora, a legendary cellar restaurant off the Stora Nygatan in Stockholm’s old city. A place with great trestle tables of hewn planks, torches flaring on whitewashed walls and waiters who look like superannuated philosophy profes-

Sweden is emerging as one of the few European nations with a sensible foreign policy: it rejects dogma

sors; named after Aurora, the mistress of some forgotten Swedish king, its gastronomic traditions go back to 1565. An American tourist clumped ponderously down the stairs, the inevitable cameras bouncing off his stomach. Red socks tucked into two-tone shoes, pale-blue suit with huge sidevents, grey hairs curling out from under a peaked cap, his body seemed slack, nearly devoid of tensile meaning. The wife, a man-eater from another planet called Mabel, told him where they’d sit. A long way from Marlboro Country, they seemed to be the kind of ambassadors from Middle America who stand outside the cathedrals of Europe, saying: “Okay, Harry, you do the outside and I’ll do the inside.”

They both ordered snow grouse roasted on the spit. When it was served, the diners hushed as their waiter retired to his side table. The American tourists stared at the snow grouse, eyelessly gazing back at them. Then the husband turned to the wife and said, “Honey, I think with this beautiful bird one must have a Château Lascombe, say, 1959.” The diners

looked down at their plates; their relief was audible.

Sweden has been neutral for 157 years and until recently this gave the Swedes no more than a spectator’s role in the large events transforming the European continent. But as the twilight of ideologies overtakes the postwar alliances, Sweden is emerging as one of the few European countries with a sensible foreign policy. Sweden has rejected all the traditional loyalties, finding fresh definitions that go beyond the tattered residues of coldwar clichés. The Swedes seem to be acting out the idea of Yugoslavia’s Milovan Djilas, that “the world is satiated with dogma; people are hungry for life.”

The Swedish example is blowing in the wind all across Europe. A continent that was for 25 years transfixed by its stage-centre prominence in the contest between “the American way of life” and “the Communist conspiracy” has become restless and wants to turn in its cold-war costumes. The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 shocked the sensibilities of cold-war warriors in both camps. It revealed the Warsaw Pact to be nothing more than an extension of Russian military colonialism and showed NATO up as an ill-informed overseas branch plant of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Both sides have been backing away from these alliances ever since. Russia no longer bothers to pretend that its partners have any meaningful say, and the United States, weary of its far-flung post-1945 adventures, appears ready to liquidate its NATO commitments within the decade.

To many enlightened Europeans, this means a welcome end of alliance, the decent burial of the indecent Pax Americana which implied an American moral superiority most Europeans have been unable to feel since the Vietnam war. What thoughtful Europeans have suddenly realized is that both the U.S. and the USSR are now operating in their own national interests; they want to opt out of any future struggle between the brutal machinations of the Kremlin and the pushy extravagances of American power overseas, which seems to operate according to an unequal mixture of Old Testament Calvinism and New Jersey corporation law.

Sweden’s non-alignment policy fits in perfectly with this wave of the future. The Swedes believe in both armed neutrality to guarantee their frontiers and exerting moral pressures for world peace through substantial contributions to United Nations continued on page 57

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peace-keeping efforts in the Middle East, the Congo and Cyprus. Some 50,000 young Swedes are conscripted every year and, not unnaturally, the problem of what to do about long hair has complicated their transformation into soldiers. In typical Swedish fashion, instead of ordering it cut off, the General Staff recently issued a set of washable wide-mesh hairnets.

The untidy office on the nineteenth floor of the University of Stockholm’s Institute of Economics is dominated by a sign: DUE TO LACK OF INTEREST


tenant is 72-year-old Gunnar Myrdal, the social scientist whose international reputation is based as much on the man's angry moral vision as on his brilliant scholarship. A generation ago he wrote An American Dilemma, which remains a basic text on U.S. racial problems; he has been a Swedish cabinet minister, an influential international civil servant and most recently has published an iconoclastic study of why poverty lingers in much of the third world. A chubby presence with sailor eyes and an unbounded capacity for joyous outrage, Myrdal is probably the least silent Swede in the world. He interrupts the blasts of his opinions to keep relighting his pipe with special matches that go off like flamethrowers and are then tossed into a huge ashtray, where they keep blazing away, adding to the intensity of his views.

“Come in, brother,” he yelled. “You must review my book. Not one economist has read it, you know. They’re all mad. Crazy. Everybody else writes gloriously about it. I’m a rebel, I think. I’m so goddamn angry.” The object of Myrdal’s anger at the moment is inflation: “I used to say that the only thing the capitalist system can’t stand is deflation, but now I have to add inflation. It really destroys society, but in a democracy it's goddamn difficult to stop it.

“Let’s forget those poor Americans with their wars and moon flights for a moment and talk about small countries like Sweden and Canada. We Swedes are like you Canadians, we want better roads, better schools, better hospitals and all these things are capital intensive. Don’t forget to put that in. And at the same time, we want higher incomes, more consumption and lower taxes. Well, it’s impossible. You have to make a choice, brother. And so now we have inflation. All hell is loose.”

Myrdal often visits Canada, has dined with Trudeau, and believes Sweden can become our model in many things. "We're both reasonable

countries, with similar traditions of democracy. You Canadians don’t have the horrible problems of the United States and I always say to my friends: Be careful, brother, that you don’t let it drop down to that! The first thing I’d do is nationalize all the American trade unions. Canadian unions must be independent. Let them cry how much they want. The other difference between us is this FrenchEnglish business. Is it really so serious? I mean, I was in Quebec City recently, a marvelous, wonderful place. I saw some models of French sculpture, but my motel was as American as you can imagine; the food was completely American. The only difference was the language, plus a few

Nobody is out searching for the Swedish identity; these silent, admirable people know who they a re

intellectuals who make poetry and stuff. Hell, that’s not French culture. They’re as far away from France as the rest of the Canadians are from England. I mean, how in hell can they be independent? It’s all nonsense.”

By some mysterious inner arithmetic the Swedes use the 10 weeks of summer to balance out their harsh winter, when the sun seldom appears for more than six hours a day. Everybody flees the cities to their cottages or boats. The 800,000 Stockholmers own 80,000 boats and on Sunday nights the waterways are as jammed as Canadian highways on Labor Day.

Ola Wettergren, president of the Swedish Sailing Association, invited

me to spend a weekend on his boat, the Dione. She lay heaving softly on her docklines, a 16-ton yawl, her mast sweeping the sky in the gesture of grave ambiguous urgency that marks championship boats. Along with his warmly hospitable family, we sailed most of the day out to Sandhamn, an idyllic island in Sweden’s outer archipelago. That evening, after much schnapps and singing sad Swedish songs like The Glitter Is Not The Sea (or was it The Sea Is Not The Glitter?), I sat in the stern of the Dione listening to the suckle of water under the hull, the clatter of loose halyards hitting the mast and the occasional splash of the tip of a gently cresting wave, brooding about my brief but intense experience of Sweden.

I remembered a phrase from André Malraux, who once wrote that “the mind gives the idea of a nation, but it is its community of dreams that creates its identity,” and it struck me that nobody in this elegant northern country is out searching for the Swedish identity. These silent, admirable people know exactly who they are; unlike most Canadians, their convictions have not yielded to their convenience. Part of the explanation is the fact that Sweden is a unitary state without our problems. But a more important consideration is that its geography has protected the Swedes from the violent ebb and flow of history and has created an inbred conviction that Sweden’s national destiny is theirs alone to control.

Sweden remains on this side of paradise. But the determined survival of the Swedes and their exhilarating willingness to experiment are lessons Canada might examine so that we can, even at this late date, fashion some future that might be distinctively our own. ■