Let’s talk about the Swedish

The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was born in 1881 in Nagyszentmiklós in what was then Austria-Hungary. Since the 20th century, this city has been situated in Romania. During his youth Bartok was a devoted nationalist, who dressed in national costume and wrote music that celebrated Hungarian national heroes like Sándor Petofi and Lajos Kossuth. His love for the Hungarian culture drove him to go out and document the genuine folk songs that have been passed down throughout the villages around the country, which he considered to be more original than the popularised gypsy music that thrived in Budapest, and which inspired both Brahms and Liszt to their Hungarian rhapsodies. Out in the country the simple peasants sang strange melodies in staccato rhythms, which sounded foreign and exotic to city dwellers’ ears.

It is estimated that, in total, Bartok, between the years 1905 and 1918, documented 2700 Hungarian, 3400 Romanian, 3000 Slovak and 3000 some 250 Arabic, Bulgarian and Serbian songs. Bartok’s eager travelling and collecting of people’s songs inspired him to his very own, and extremely significant contributions to the serious music of the 1900s. He is one of the few from the 1900s who, along with Stravinsky, shocked their audiences by tapping into popular rhythms, who wrote music guaranteed to be immortal, on the level of masterpieces by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. From the songs of the Hungarian peasant culture sprang a music that today may be considered as belonging to world culture. Another interesting manifestation of Bartok’s in-depth studies of folk songs, was that his ideas about a specific Hungarian music are being revisited. Eventually, as he travelled, and continued down in the Balkans, up to what is now Slovakia, and as far away as Turkey, he discovered how the rhythms, melodic patterns and designs went on, how this ‘native’ folk culture, in fact, was not traceable to any pure original source, but how it all fits together and how the influences travelled great distances long before modernity made inroads in these parts.

His edition of Slovak folk songs was banned in 1928 by the government of Czechoslovakia, because he refused to remove a number of songs that showed a Hungarian influence. As a firm opponent to the Hungarian regime’s collaboration with the Nazis and before the threat of war, Bartok chose in 1940 to emigrate to the United States, where he continued his work with the collections of music at Stanford University in parallel with their composers. Bartok had a vision of culture and tradition, for which I personally feel the deepest admiration and sympathy. Among the 1900s European artists, he is one of the greatest, however one regards him. His studies of Hungarian folk music deepened our understanding of it, its roots and influence. It was placed in a larger context, and taken out into the world through Bartok’s own modernist musical language. But I think he would have been mightily surprised had someone said to him that there is no Hungarian culture.

There is no Swedish culture, some claim today. And there it is, even though at all costs it is toned down, ridiculed and fought. Now this is obviously a kind of panic response to the Sweden Democrats’ entry into parliament. But it is also a just weird and stupid claim to make. There is, of course, a Swedish culture – there’s pyramid cake, saffron pancakes, dumplings and pitepalt and kyrkbåtsrodd, as well as Christmas trees and stuffed cabbage. All this is Swedish, although some exists mainly in certain provinces, while other bits have been borrowed from abroad. Stuffed cabbage (kaldolma) in particular is a well-known and often repeated example of borrowed culture. But this dish, cooked here since the mid-1700s, and which is now one of our most celebrated national dishes is of course entirely Swedish today; as Swedish as Cornelis Vreeswijk. However, what should be questioned is the persistent rumour that stuffed cabbage only originates from Turkey. Dolma is certainly a Turkish word that simply means stuffed. But in Turkey, dolma is usually made with vine leaves, just as in Greece and Lebanon. Dolma made with cabbage is specific to the Slavic Balkans and in Central and Eastern Europe, with both sour and non-sour cabbage, ground beef, smoked meat, and all sorts of other types of fillings.

The legend here says that King Karl XII took the idea for stuffed cabbage from Bender, but Bender is in Moldova, which was in the Ottoman Empire in the early 1700s, just as all territory from Egypt and Syria to Greece and Bulgaria. Why should stuffed cabbage be only Turkish, when it is eaten throughout this part of Europe, and in much of the Middle East? However, there is of course Turkish dolma, just as there are Serbian, Hungarian, Lebanese and Swedish versions. Actually, maybe it’s just as well to note in this context, it is also quite unhistorical to identify today’s Turkey with that which vanished almost a century ago: Ottoman, or the Ottoman Empire. This was so much more than Turkey, a true multi-national, cosmopolitan arbiter of world culture. This is different from the contemporary Turkey, created on a fairly narrow nationalistic grounds, with genocide and ethnic cleansing as a prerequisite for the realisation of the fantasy of an ethnic Turkish nation in Asia Minor, which for millennia has been one of the most ethnically and culturally rich areas in the world. When Ataturk created the modern Turkey, he took while killing everything that gave the Ottoman Empire, its richness. Turkey is as much or as little this empire’s heir, as the little alpine country Austria is heir to the Hapsburg Empire, where Bartok was born, and which, for so many centuries, influenced culture, trade and development in Central Europe.

Stuffed cabbage, it may be summarised, is either Swedish or Turkish, or both. Just as it is Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian and so on. The same applies to much of the international cultural heritage we manage here in Sweden. Where do the kroppkakorna (potato dumplings) come from? Dumplings, knodel, konigsberger kloss, gnocchi, are just some of the names of filled or unfilled dumplings that come readily to mind. Whence came the impulse to cook these to Pitea or Oland? Sure, the Swedish culture has not created itself directly from the soil. But which culture has? It is possible that an occasional stone-age tribe in the interior of the Amazon could have claim to have created a completely separate culture, but otherwise our entire human civilisation is built on exchange, trade and development. The Ghana-born philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who worked at Princeton University in the U.S., puts his finger on this elusive point in his inspiring book Cosmopolitanism. Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006): ”… trying to find some primordially authentic culture can be like peeling an onion. (…) Cultures are made of continuities and changes, just as each individual survives the alterations of Jacques’s ’seven ages of man’ All tradition has ever been thus.

When talking about countries without their ‘own’ cultures, that is to say those who received decisive influences from abroad, we can start with Italy. With its pizza, a variation on the pita – in Turkey called pide – their American tomatoes, corn, chocolate, and influences from both old Ostrom and the older cultures of the Middle East. What is ‘Italian’, anyway? The Romans borrowed, incidentally, their architecture and their entire pantheon from the Greeks. They were later also to take Egyptian and other deities, customs and traditions, dress and titulature – to say nothing of Christianity. It is doubtful, perhaps, that one could call the Italians the heirs to the Romans any more than the Turks could be called heirs to the Ottomans, but they live at least in much of the same country. The Italian culture is a mixed culture, eclectic and complex, with wide regional variations as well. And yet we feel we always recognise Italian style, in design, cars, food, architecture. Why is this really? I think about this as I walk through the Old Town’s streets, passing by Stockholm’s Roman baroque royal palace, up against the Baltic-gothic Storkyrkan (The Great Church) and the Stortorget (The Great Square), past the classical stock exchange building. Here it was proposed in the Middle Ages to establish that the Germans who settled in the city would follow Swedish law and be called Swedes. The confusion between tongues, however, was obviously great, so a law was later introduced so that only Swedish was spoken during Council meetings. All of this comes from somewhere, and this is all so typically Swedish in colouration, proportion, and style. It is at home.

During my childhood my father was, for many years, together with an Italian from Milan. As a result, we often went there to visit her family, and spent the summer- and other holidays there. One of the first things I learned was that you were not supposed to take off your shoes at people’s homes – that would be considered too familiar and invasive; and that it was considered impolite to thank your host for the food – it is considered routine that you get food when you’re invited! However, we happily get to talk a lot about the food, praise it, discuss quality, the preparation and so on. This was the experience that came to shape me deeply for the rest of my life. The feeling of entering another culture and discovering its traditions, etiquette and tone of voice, its ways of thinking and looking at the world and fellow human beings, and its being in so many ways different from the Swedish, taught me that there is no ‘normal’ way to be, and that if there is something that would seem strange in Sweden there is the perception that they themselves are ‘natural’ here, relaxed and friendly, like the Swedish are the world’s benchmark, and that all the others just posture. Additional experiences as an adult have deepened my sense of this, but the foundations were laid during childhood. I do not begrudge anyone experience of foreign cultures in childhood. Regardless of which culture it happens to be, it helps one to remain open to all the fascinating differences that characterise human civilisations.

Thinking about the Swedish character is a bit like trying to think about time. When you do not care if you understand it, but as soon as you begin to scrutinise it falls apart, and that which is specifically Swedish becomes increasingly difficult to identify. Perhaps national identity is most obvious and urgent when one lives in exile? The Swedish settlers in Minnesota still hold on to some old traditions. I have family members abroad who drive long detours via the local Ikea store to get herring and meatballs, and who see all the newest Swedish films as soon as they come out on DVD, but I’d rather eat sushi and usually wait until the domestic films are shown on TV, if I see them even then. The same applies also to the immigrants who come here from distant lands. Maybe it feels a little extra special to follow his home country’s version of Idol, when you’re sitting far away in the north, and of course the taste of mango is never as fresh as at home, but if you can see one that is extra fine, it is still irresistible to buy it, even though it is so incredibly expensive and woody in texture. I talked a few years ago with a couple of Lebanese women, who complained that they are so tightly restricted here in Sweden, while their cousins in Lebanon had much more freedom. The cousin’s parents, who had lived in Lebanon throughout all the war years, certainly were of the present time, while their own parents in Swedish exile maintained their approach from the 1970s.

It is said that Sweden is now a multicultural country. Multiculturalism is an ideal that is celebrated by all who want to stay ahead. But what does one really mean by that? An easy way to these terms’ meaningfulness is to simply reverse them: If we have multiculturalism now, did we have mono-culturalism before? I cannot even comprehend what that might mean. A single and undivided culture without any outside influences at all? Is it possible even to imagine such a thing? Influences, meetings, and even decadence and destruction, have always contributed to cultural development. Sometimes it has gone forward, sometimes it has gone backwards.

The irony of many of those who today celebrate multiculturalism is that they seem to have very little understanding of these processes. Today, it is now rather about identifying the separate cultures, to which one ‘belongs’ as members of various minorities and indigenous peoples. All the love of traditions, all the pride and downright chauvinism, which is considered to be so very ugly when it is expressed, for example, by ethnic, native Swedes, is admired unreservedly in the case of Kurds, Palestinians, Sami and other, more or less powerless people. Obviously there is then no universal principle that says that nationalism is wrong, but it’s just wrong when certain people express it. Apart from the injustice of this division, one can conclude that it is also based on a really condescending view of these ‘minorities’, as if their culture did not also emerge through meetings and mixtures, and as if they should not, and indeed even need to, broaden their horizons and develop themselves as the rest of us.

It is no easy thing to relate to minorities’ wants and needs in their own spaces. History shows many bad examples of how, for example, there was an attempt to force school children to cultivate their home language, which took place in the Torne Valley until the early 1950s. It was a well-meaning modernisation movement that was behind this, but it was just as objectionable in its blindness to the cultural needs and differences as the current multiculturalism is in its safeguarding of illusory boundaries between cultures, as if we should want to live in a kind of soft Apartheid, in which each is identified by their ethnic, religious, or cultural origin, and so on. As if culture was innate, pre-destined and mystically in the blood. The approach does not promote any cultural development – and, without development, there can be no cultural life. As soon as it enters the reserves and museums, it dies. The French sociologist Alain Touraine expresses this clearly in his extremely important book Un Nouveau Paradigm Pour Entendre le Monde d’Aujourd’hui (A New Paradigm for Understanding Today’s World) (2005): ”The absolute multi-culturalist hypothesis is as absurd as a city or a country’s cultural homogeneity. Intercultural relationships is the only reality – and it is those that must be studied, from the downtrodden by the other, to cultural mixing.” Touraine’s thesis is that we now live in the era of the global economy, which has smashed the old ideas about states and societies, and which instead rewards individuals, subjects, which have the ability to create themselves and move across and between cultures.

The concept of culture is also no simple matter. Here, the progressive watering down will soon enough include all human activity, but originally culture was a word connected with the German educational tradition and the development of the university system in Germany. It was often contrary to French civilisation, which was considered as more superficial, showy, and not as deep and seriously spiritual as the German culture. It feels sometimes that culture is tightly confined in our country. Free artists are squeezed between the Left, which requires political advantage from every work, and a Right, which just wants to see culture as entertainment, as a silver lining in life. Relativism and cultural scepticism goes hand in hand. A postmodern-influenced academic Left, which has so far said that everything is of as much (or little) worth, has nothing to say when a neoliberal concludes that we need not endorse any particular cultural expression either. The Swedish hostility to culture is peculiar, why is this? Is it a rural nation’s mistrust of the so-called high-culture, which is most at home in cities, and which is also almost exclusively rooted abroad? No, I do not think that it is so simple. The biggest cultural desire is often in the countryside itself, despite the fact that resources may sometimes fall short.

When I think of Swedish culture and try to understand what it really is, I think of the old churches, and in particular I think of the effort to marble the benches and columns, to make the wood look like solid marble. Go into any rural church and look at the North German high altar from the 1400s, the marbled wooden columns supporting the organ loft, wall paintings, where they are preserved, and feel how Swedish all this is. The desire to get it to look like marble, even though only local wood was available. There is something touching in it. The desire to be like those on the continent, and to work a little harder at it. That’s why Stockholmers also often perceived as so extraordinarily well dressed and trendy. We do not live in the middle of the world we live in its outskirts, and we are aware of it. We do not dare to wear slippers and bathrobe to the corner shop, as those in Paris, Rome or New York can do (if they ever do…), we have to work no matter how little extra, dress a little nicer, be a little smarter, invest in trying to be ahead, at least in fashion and technology, because we are so geographically remote, and so very small a population.

As C.J.L. Almqvist wrote in his essay The Significance of Swedish Poverty:


Hederskulturens medlöpare

Första skottet gick in i pannan, det andra i käken. Hon slapp höra hur fadern upprepade ordet ”hora” när han sköt. Obduktionen visade att den första kulan avslutade Fadime Sahindals 26-åriga liv.

“But one thing yet – something big – has the Swede privately from others in Europe been intended for: it is poverty. If we could only learn the law. We have it, more or less, all here; but many of us carry themselves clumsily in the eyes of the world, with what God has given us. The Swede is poor. He understands this, he has this at the heart of his nationality, and it is unconquerable. Being poor, means to be self-reliant.”

The truth is that there was and is enough of this poverty in many places. And Sweden today is rather more spiritual and cultural than purely material. But there is some truth in this observation, that neither industrialisation, welfare or record years of growth have been able to erase. And it is most clearly illustrated in the marbled wooden columns in a rural church, or the little too well dressed Stureplan brat. They are both manifestations of the Swedish desire to do a little better, and it is actually very respectable and even praiseworthy, at least I think so. What’s wrong in striving for that which is better, wiser, more experienced, more beautiful, more sophisticated? Even if it often is imaginary. Not even the rest of Europe consists solely of shining cities with great art collections and historic buildings. Largely suburban, rural, in many places life has been marked by poverty and political and religious oppression. ”In Paris sjangtila halls, worst hooligan is French speaking,” as it is called in Pyttans AB and CD learning.

Yes, but what is Swedish, then? Best to give Almqvist last word:

Swedishness thus consists not in a knot/grumpiness, a archæological pond, a mannered boredom, or a kind of patriotic stiffness and exactitude – it consists of being Swedish, more than shouting about being Swedish.

Torbjörn Elensky


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