The Swedes and Their Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

FOR AN AT LEAST PARTIAL OUTSIDER LIKE MYSELF, the intriguing question must naturally occur: why are the Swedes so particularly enamored with the eighteenth century? Further, what is it that makes one feel its ambiance as somehow more intense and alive in Sweden than perhaps anywhere else?

The question becomes more fascinating yet difficult because of the apparent paradox it poses. Sweden during the eighteenth century was a remote, rugged, thinly populated northern outpost, far from the European heartland and a latecomer to the world of European higher culture. It still contains today much of the continent's last remaining undisturbed nature. Sweden's now mainly urban inhabitants, while they may picture themselves as a nation of cool-headed, hypermodern technocrats and engineers, at the same time pride themselves on being hardy nature-lovers and characteristically escape at every opportunity to their primitive stugor in the woods, out onto the storm-blown Baltic, or up to Lapland's tundra.

The same conditions apply in varying degree to the other Nordic lands. Yet in none of them is fascination with the eighteenth century so strong. It strikingly reveals the Swedes' characteristic search for an ideal balance between natur och kultur--nature and culture--which appropriately is the name of one of Stockholm's leading publishing houses. Fit-looking blond culture enthusiasts on their way out to a baroque chamber music concert at Sturehov manor on the Stockholm subway, clad in their sturdy Fjallrav parkas, may give something of the picture. It seems an attraction of opposites.

The Swedes' special preoccupation with the eighteenth century cannot be a question of the overall number of preserved buildings, furnishings, works of art, or literary and musical accomplishments from that period. In this regard Sweden is easily surpassed by several other European countries. One might meanwhile suggest that Sweden's relative poverty in population and capital long delayed its economic development while protecting a rigid, traditional social structure, which contributed significantly to preserving its older cultural mileux in both countryside and town until the time came when their conservation became a matter of priority. Sweden meanwhile never underwent a violent, iconoclastic break with its entire ancien regime, unlike France and other parts of the Western world. Still, the question remains: why is just the eighteenth century such an enduring presence in the Swedish cultural landscape?

The reason seems, up to a point, to have been quite prosaic. In comparison with the numerous palaces and manor houses, churches, parsonages and other official residences, inns, farm buildings, burghers' homes, garden pavilions, even entire town quarters that have been lovingly preserved from the eighteenth century, architectural relics from earlier periods in Sweden--except for the purely ecclesiastical--are surprisingly few. Stockholm's Old City and above all medieval Visby are of course notable exceptions in this regard. Anyone who browses in Stockholm's many antique shops will find them crammed with furniture, painting, silver, porcelain, crystal, and other objects from the eighteenth century, or later replicas and imitations thereof.

Fascination with the eighteenth century is certainly not unique to Sweden. It is widely shared throughout the Western world. But most western and southern European lands have much longer recorded histories offering a wider variety of memorable periods in their past to glorify--classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance--as well as many more venerable remnants in stone and brick.

In a region rich in forests, most building in Scandinavia was in wood, which was constantly decimated by decay or, more often, by fire. Furthermore, parts of Sweden's oldest and most developed cultural regions along the Baltic coast were systematically ravaged by Peter the Great's Russian galley fleet in 1719-1720, toward the end of the Great Northern War. …