A Place Apart: An Anthropological Study of the Icelandic World

A Place Apart: An Anthropological Study of the Icelandic World

A Place Apart: An Anthropological Study of the Icelandic World

A Place Apart: An Anthropological Study of the Icelandic World

Synopsis

A Place Apart offers a rich and reflective representation of Iceland and Icelanders today. Kirsten Hastrup draws upon extensive first-hand research, but also upon her original theory of what anthropology is and should be, which this book exemplifies. In two previous books she studied the processes and patterns which shaped Icelandic society from medieval times to the nineteenth century; now she brings this historical study up to date by drawing out the dominant themes in present-day Icelandic self-understanding. In many ways Icelanders' sustained image of themselves as a singular people in the world refracts the actual social reality. The image tends to favour particular interpretations of history as well as particular social groups, as Hastrup shows through analyses of tradition and ideology, landscape and memory, community and honour. She investigates the ways in which everyday life is informed by a living tradition and a stress on the historical depth and cultural uniqueness of this place apart. The result is a renewed sense of the texture of the Icelandic world, seen not as a static and prescriptive culture, but rather as a space within which Icelanders are suspended between modernity and consciousness of the antiquity of Icelandic values, between presentness and pastness.

Excerpt

In Icelandic, saga means both story and history. It is literally what is 'said' about previous events, periods, or people. Telling makes history. The Icelandic sagas are stories of different historical veracity, but the point is that in the concept of saga, story and history are one. In my conversations with Icelanders the notion would often be incurred in relating particular events, and although obviously the Icelanders are perfectly capable of distinguishing between truth and lie, this distinction is of less moment in the telling of the past than one would think. Knowledge (fræði) is neutral in relation to the distinction between truth and lie: one's learning may be somewhat wanting or wrong, but no lie; lies are made by people speaking against better knowledge (Sørensen 1993: 38). And that is the point; in telling what they know, or what they have been told, the Icelanders share what is 'said' with each other--and with the anthropologist. The story contains the knowledge of history and more often than not it is prefaced by a sagt er ('it is said'), or if the content is less certain: munnmælin segja ('legend says', or 'speech goes').

For some Icelanders, or sometimes, this is not good enough. Again, Þórbergur Þórðarson (1981: 199) provides the example; at some point in time he was desperate for precision and solid knowledge, and wished that people had written proper diaries in which they told their stories (sögur), instead of the eternal references in speech to ef til vill ('if that is so'), gæti verið ('could be'), hér um bil ('here about'), nálægt ('almost'), or að haldið er ('as is believed'), and so forth. These phrases are still much used in practical conversation, however, also on his native farm; they belong to the general register of telling the past.

The frequency of relating what is 'said' in Iceland, as prefaced by the above words or implicitly invoking them, showed me that 'history' was a vital reference point in present-day self-understanding, much more so than in my native Denmark. While not necessarily knowing the exact chronology of past events or the precise nature of particular turning points in Icelandic history most people lived by a sense of history which seemed to connect present-day identities to notions of pastness. The selves were inscribed into a historical context. History is of a complex nature; it is neither positive (or positivist) progress nor is it just social or cultural change in time. It is rather a congeries of consciousnesses about change and direction brought to bear upon contemporary action (Lyman 1978). One particular kind of consciousness is formed and transmitted in official texts, such as school- books, and is often based on publicly supported research in official archives, regal courts, or tribal councils. This is the 'legitimate' history; it may still be contested . . .

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