Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Revenge of the Rats

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Revenge of the Rats

Article excerpt

The Cartesian Body in Kerstin Ekman's Rovarna i Skuleskogen

I would like to invite my reader to view a body. It is an historical body--the body of a famous philosopher--and it appears in Kerstin Ekman's novel, Rovarna i Skuleskogen. [The Robbers of Skule Forest]. Despite the brevity of the dead philosopher's cameo appearance, his presence may be the single most important key to understanding the philosophical grounds for Ekman's historical/ magical novel. In her reading of history, the death of Descartes is not so much an accomplished fact as a death-wish: a wish for the death of Cartesian rationalism, for the death of notion of animal as machine, and for the death of the brutality reputedly incited by the objective nature of Cartesian thought.

In this essay I intend to address some of the difficulties in dealing with Rovarna i Skuleskogen. On the one hand, the novel succeeds in creating a compelling and imaginative new perspective from which to contemplate human history and the relationship between humans and nature. As Arne Jarrick has observed, "Kerstin Ekman tycks inte ha bestamt sig var gransen for det manskliga gar" (242) [Kerstin Ekman seems not to have decided where the bounds of humanity run]. Through the agency of Skord, her troll-protagonist, Ekman opens imaginary access into the world of animals--their thoughts, feelings, and speech. In Skord's ability to take on the shapes of animals and speak with them, he is reminiscent of the canine protagonist of Ekman's earlier novella, Hunden (1986) [The Dog]. But since the troll, unlike the dog, lives for five centuries, his view of the world is much broader; he is able to bring both his considerable life experience and his unique non-human nature to bear on his observation of human "progress." The dizzying array of characters, landscapes, and events embraced by the novel's girth reveals Ekman's profound knowledge of both history and the natural world, and the penetration of folklore and magic into the usually sober realms of history and science has an enchanting effect. It is difficult as a reader (already inclined toward sympathy) to remain unmoved by this fantastic expression of Ekman's positions on the environment and feminism.

On the other hand, the complexity and the beauty of the novel is undermined by an uncomplicated reading of Cartesian philosophy and a consequent violence of feeling and expression. The depiction of Descartes in Ekman's novel falls in line with feminist and environmentalist criticisms that have been leveled regularly against the seventeenth-century, philosopher since the beginning of the 1980s. These criticisms have created an image of Descartes based on a specific reading of the philosophy and the man, a reading which fails to take into account, for instance, the philosopher's intellectual exchange with women of his time. Ekman's novel, in presenting this caricature as a body in her reading of history, falls into the trap of over-simplification; but that is not the most significant danger lurking behind her playful presentation of Descartes.

In order to kill rationalism, dualism, and brutality, Ekman must do violence herself. This violence takes four forms: the first a misreading of Descartes that amounts to a killing caricature of his corpus (as well as his corpse). The second lies in the brutality of Ekman's narrative; the book's title, after all, refers to the vicious band of robbers who raid, rape, and murder without mercy for their victims, and Ekman narrates their deeds without mercy for her readers. Language and writing, often associated with the masculine (phallocentric, logocentric) realm of rationalism in some schools of feminist criticism, are linked in the novel to acts of violence and degradation, which surely must indicate a significant obstacle for a woman who writes. This leads to the third form of violence, which seems to run counter to the book's intentions: the continued oppression of women. …

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