THE LONGEST JOURNEY IS THE JOURNEY INWARDS
This is the presentation on Dag Hammarskjöld by Carol O’Connor given to the Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library on Tuesday the 18th of March. Two external sources for this paper are acknowledged by Carol, Dag Hammarskjöld : a Biographical Interpretation of Markings, by Henry P. Van Dusen (Faber, 1967) and Hammarskjöld : a Life, by Roger Lipsey (University of Michigan Press, 2013).
A friend sent me a copy of Markings over fifteen years ago. But it wasn’t until last year, when I heard Richard Rohr quote Dag Hammarskjöld in a series of lectures on CD, that I became much more interested in knowing about the life of this Swedish man. Rohr quoted the rather famous words in Markings on Whitsunday (Pentecost) May 21st 1961, written a few months before Hammarskjöld’s tragic and untimely death, in which he determined a certain point in his life where he consciously affirmed and surrendered in faith to something in the universe that was bigger than himself. This saying Yes illumined a Way, a path in life for him.
Perhaps this is a moment that resonates for many people of faith - the memory of a pivotal moment whereby it is felt that something inside oneself that has been resisting, finally is let go of, and now assent is given to ‘someone, or something,’ bigger than the self. And this assent brings meaning, clarification about one’s own goals and strivings. Such was Hammarskjöld’s experience.
When Markings was first published in Swedish, posthumously in 1963, some people criticised Hammarskjöld for having a martyr complex, or casting himself in too heroic a role. One Swedish journalist wrote: ‘Hammarskjöld identifies himself to a higher and higher degree with Jesus. Here is a tragedy. Hammarskjöld lost contact with reality and no longer could be reached or saved.’ A Norwegian newspaper described Hammarskjöld as a ‘poor, miserable aesthete, a despairing man.’ However, the work sold prolifically from the time it was first published. It has remained in print ever since.
Last week I went to hear Miroslav Volf, a Croatian systematic theologian from Yale Divinity School, speak in a series of three lectures, Faiths and the Challenges of Globalisation: A Christian Perspective at Melbourne University. Some of you may have heard him last night on the Q & A programme. He began his opening address by quoting Nietzsche who gave a two world account of reality - the transcendent unseen and the mundane, the seen, the ordinary. Moving from this, Volf’s thesis is that human beings live in two distinct systems, that of faith and politics. These systems overlap but they are nevertheless distinct. To live authentically, a human being needs to give priority to the world of faith. Volf says: ‘to be in creation is to be in reference to God’.
In Roger Lipsey’s work Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life, a detailed comprehensive biography of Hammarskjold published in 2011, he says:
Hammarskjöld knew two unlike worlds very well. The world of politics and political leaders, deception and honesty, violence and kindness, reflection and the search for solutions. And another world: a world of inwardness and prayer, of self-scrutiny and ancient wisdom, of periodic return to ‘a centre of stillness surrounded by silence that nourishes, situates and restores. In the first world he was nearly always with people. In the second, nearly always alone with his own person and his God. In both worlds he was a lifelong inquirer with initiative; it wasn’t enough to pass through, contributing cautious splashes of oneself here and there. In the world at large he strove to summon the best of himself, look carefully and imaginatively, and act as wisely as possible.
When you observe some of Hammarskjöld’s actions as United Nations leader, for example his passionate belief in personal dialogue with world leaders at critical moments in a particular nation’s history, you realise this took immense courage and integrity on his part. Hammarskjöld was breaking new ground for the budding UN organisation. Though always strictly adhering to the UN charter (of which, by the way, he had taken two miniature copies just before that fatal airline crash) he helped forge and grow the unique character of UN nations at a particularly early and vulnerable stage of its development in the late 1950s and early 60s, the cold war period. Where did he get his insight from? Where did he get his courage from? What sustained and nourished him? Did he instinctively know, as Miroslav Volf tells us, that to live authentically a human being needs to give priority to the world of faith, ‘to be in creation is to be in reference to God’?
Given that we have, I think, a paucity of leaders with such depth today, I wanted to know more about him. But also : how do each of us translate our inner dialogue, our ‘negotiations with (ourselves) and with God’ into our everyday world? For Hammarskjöld, as for me, that God is the Christian God, the centre of which is Love. It’s the Trinitarian God of Father/Mother, Son and Spirit. How can we with more conscious awareness transcribe our inner life in God, relationship with Jesus, into our own actions in our lives?
Hammarskjöld died tragically in 1961. Still today it is unexplained how and why the plane actually crashed over the Congo, as he travelled to speak with Moise Tishombe, a Congolese politician. Most occupants were burnt up in the plane, but he and another were thrown outside; it was known he didn’t like seat belts. His briefcase was found near him. There are many problematics surrounding the crash. Did Hammarskjöld die instantly? Maybe not. It was many hours before the body was officially found. It seems he was shot in the head later, but we don’t really know, because the autopsy report was lost. When he died only one person, his friend Leif Belfrage, knew about his personal journal, Markings. A few years before, Hammarskjöld had asked Leif that if he died, could he please receive the book and see if it were something worth publishing. A letter to this effect was inside the journal, which was found by Hammarskjöld’s bedside in his New York apartment after his death.
This short letter is written out in full at the beginning of Markings. I find his final remark very striking, Dag describes the diary as ..a sort of White Book concerning my negotiations with myself - and with God. What is a white book? what are negotiations with God? I’m sure there are many references in terms of a ‘white book’, but it makes me think of the white space of snow that Hammarskjöld encountered as he climbed the huge white mountains to the far north of Sweden during his life. These treks, alone or with a friend, from earliest childhood always meant a lot to him, gave him refreshment.
This White Book, entitled Markings, also has an epithet: at the beginning is a quote from Meister Eckhart: Only the hand that erases can write the true thing. So It was a journal that was read and re-read by its writer over time. It was in a process of its own. It was important for Hammarskjöld to edit the work over the years. Entries aren’t necessarily always in chronological order, e.g. 1960 ends with an entry written in November, not the Christmas Eve one.
Over the years critics have found it very helpful to hold the text and its dated entries close to the living events in Hammarskjöld’s life, particularly during his UN years. I think Markings can be read also as a valid text in its own right , set connected with, but also apart from the man. But to know about the man’s life, the influences upon his growing up and his own disposition, the choices he had to make as UN leader day after day, is a very useful entry into the text.
Who was he? What helped shaped his vision of the world, and informed his decisions and actions?
One of the pieces that Hammarskjöld was working on when he died - he had taken two copies with him with handwritten corrections (again, two copies, it’s as if existence and the possibility of loss were very real to him) - was an essay written in Swedish, entitled Castle Hill, being written for the Swedish Touring Association. It reads like a bucolic reverie, set out as a calendar of the year, moving from Spring through each season and referencing the sounds, customs, places, birds, even bugs that surrounded the home of his youth. It’s a poetic essay, a tribute to his childhood growing up in the 16th century castle, in Uppsala. This was a massive castle built by Gustav Vasa in 1545, one of Sweden’s oldest and most historic castles. It has all the hallmarks of your classic castle: mysterious passages, a tower, walls eight-feet thick, and dark dungeons. Below the castle at the back stood the school which Hammarskjöld attended. And on the other side, directly below, stands the brick gothic Lutheran Cathedral which he also attended with his family. The Castle is ten minutes by foot from the University, and not far from the university library. Here Hammarskjöld’s family moved in soon after his birth, and he lived in it for almost quarter of a century, until his father retired as Governor of Uppsala. He continued to live with his parents when they left the castle. It was only at the age of 40, five years after his mother’s death, as he was about to transfer to the Foreign Office, that he established his own home. Hammarskjöld had a privileged, and on one level cloistered childhood.
The family name, Hammarskjöld means hammer/shield. The family was of the old nobility with an aristocratic heritage. Dag’s father (1862-1953) was a scholar in philology, and early in his career taught in law and government. He was professor of Civil Law at Uppsala University, then drafted into the Swedish Cabinet and Minister of Justice. After several important ministerial positions he returned as Governor of Uppland in Uppsala. He also became a mediator in international conflicts - being the first delegate to the second Peace Conference at The Hague, chairman of commissions of reconciliation between the US and China, Switzerland and Germany, and so on. He always viewed himself as a non-party participant in international affairs and was so successful that he was summoned by the King of Sweden to form a Cabinet, which he did and was Prime Minister throughout most of the First World War. He returned as Governor to Uppsala in 1917. So not only does Hammarskjöld have a privileged existence, but also an aristocratic heritage, plus a father who is highly educated and influential in Swedish and world politics. His father is an international mediator who managed to keep Sweden neutral during the First World War.
Dag came to be influenced strongly by the non-partisan position his father would adopt in political affairs and eventually took his father’s place, quite literally his chair, seat No. 17, in the Swedish Academy in 1954. In his speech when he took his father’s chair he spoke of his father with respect and admiration.
However, private family life was difficult. Dag was born July 29th 1905, the youngest of four sons. In Edward Murrow’s radio program This I believe, November 1953, he said that he had, ‘generations of soldiers and government officials on my father’s side’ and ‘scholars and clergymen on my mother’s.’ From his father he ‘inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country–or humanity.’ But as a child his father was often away, and when present was austere and severe, authoritarian and unbending. His mother, however, was warm and effusive, social, opening the castle to friends and family, and locals as well. Dag was always close to his mother. To a friend, in 1930, he wrote: ‘Where one was light, the other was warmth. And who wouldn’t want to integrate light and warmth.’ On a same radio programme in 1953, he tells: ‘From scholars and clergymen on my mother’s side I inherited a belief that, in the very radical sense of the Gospels, all men were equal as children of God, and should be met and treated by us as our masters in God.”
Not only was he influenced in this way by his mother. In 1917 Archbishop Nathan Söderblom moved to the Cathedral with his family. Close friendships developed between the two families. Overtime, Archbishop Söderblom became a mentor for Hammarskjöld; Söderblom himself was one of the original founders of the Ecumenical Movement for Christian Unity. He too was highly educated, gifted with a far ranging vision and immense energy. He strove, not unsuccessfully, to bring a Christian perspective onto social, political and international issues. The guidance of Söderblom would have countenanced another lifelong influence upon Hammarskjöld, and that was Axel Hägerström, a fierce and formidable atheist professor of philosopher who taught him at University. Where Hammarskjöld came to value the intellectual rigour, language and method Hägerström disciplined into his thinking, he came to reject Hägerström’s demolition of medieval Christian mystics and complete dismissal of spiritual experience.
As a child Dag Hammarskjöld had a great interest in biology and insect life. His mother called him her ‘little larva,’ even during later life. Carl Linnaeus, originator of taxonomy for plants and animals, professor of botany at Uppsala University mid-18th century was an inspiration for him. Linnaeus, a scientist, explorer, also had found spiritual renewal by climbing and exploring mountains in the Swedish far north. In 1957, Hammarskjöld said: ‘With the creative power of the poet (Linnaeus) showed us how better to capture and hold the elusive experience of the moment in the net of language…A great naturalist guided the author, but a great poet permitted the scholar to peer into the secret council chamber of God.’ Linnaeus had a mind that liked classifications, minute details. He had a fascination with the natural world, as well as a passion for broad ideas, open spaces. Hammarskjöld’s words: Numen semper adest. (The divine is breaking in around us) is also a referencing to Linnaeus, who had the words: Innocue vivite, numen adest (which is a line from Ovid’s Art of Love - Live innocently, the divine is always breaking in) placed in a prominent place in his home.
Hammarskjöld continued to read widely throughout his life. There were many disparate and major influences on his thinking. Some of these remained constant favourites: Rudolph Otto’s Idea of the Holy, Albert Schweitzer, Pascal (introduced to him by Mrs Söderblom), Thomas A Kempis (given to him first at his confirmation by his mother; there was a copy beside his bedside in his New York apartment and he travelled with an edition in old French, which was found in his brief case when he died), Meister Eckhart, Herman Hesse, Joseph Conrad (pictured, like Linnaeus, in his New York apartment). The writings of the Christian mystics increasingly interested him. He gave a copy of the Cloud of Unknowing to David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel in 1953. He loved Saint John of the Cross. Later he was to meet with Martin Buber and on that last fateful trip was several chapters into translating I and Thou from the German and English, into Swedish.
During the 1950s Hammarskjöld took it upon himself to promote certain writers, e.g. Boris Pasternak and John Steinbeck as Nobel Prize winners. In 1955 he directly assisted in the passage of the first production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, by the Eugene O’Neill. This till then unpublished play lay in closed archive after the playwright’s death. Despite the endless hours of work, Hammarskjöld attended opera and ballet, and cultivated a circle of friends in New York and entertained literary, artistic and theatrical friends. There was Saint John-Pearse, John Steinbeck, W.H. Auden, Carlotta O’Neill (Eugene’s widow), and even Greta Garbo.
Hammarsjköld was appointed the second UN Secretary General in 1953. Before this he had completed a Bachelor’s degree by the age of 19 and then went on to study economics and complete a Law degree. He developed a successful career in Swedish finances and diplomacy. He was Governor of the Riksbank, and State Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He wasn’t any of the leading candidates for the Secretary Generalship of the UN in 1953. His offer of the position came out of the blue, for him and others. Reading through the accounts it seems that he was thought to be a good middle of the road candidate for such a position. He came from Sweden, neutral during the War, wasn’t a member of any political party, and spoke four languages fluently. He was obviously a quiet and reserved man, with moral integrity, intelligence, knowledge and experience in foreign affairs, but who it was thought, would toe the line. They didn’t know what they were in for.
And in truth, it looks like Hammarskjöld didn’t know either.
Hammarskjöld always worked hard and was totally dedicated to his professional responsibilities, particularly during difficult periods, e.g. as discussions became more and more difficult during the Congo crisis, he often went to bed at 5am and was up working again by 9am. For rest and relaxation he liked to translate. In June 1961, friend and artist, Bo Beskow, reports these words from Hammarskjöld:
If I have one unsolvable problem to think of night and day, I can manage. And even if I have two or three at the same time - but when they start multiplying my brain starts to boil. I simply have to find something to translate. But what?’
That what, became Buber’s I and Thou. But that Hammarkjöld found translation a means of relaxation tells us something interesting about him. He found it calming to translate words from one language to another, - to move across languages, ideas, worlds, ideas. He enjoyed seeing connections, bringing together that which is in disparate places. It is as if he was hard wired to seek out the impartial position. It is the fitting place of someone who is most comfortable working with the bigger picture as well as the fine details and who is working for world peace.
The word Markings, or Vagmarken, in Swedish, has a certain meaning. They are trail marks, or as a friend of Hammarskjöld described them: ‘Cairns - the piles of stones that a climber leaves to mark his progress on an unchartered mountain.’ These piles of rocks aided the climber in his descent, so he should know his way and not lose direction.
These words we encounter in Hammarskjold’s journal are the word shapes of a man who wanted to signify certain points in his life. Why? Well, firstly, he was a man who often felt he was pushing limits: at the frontier of the unheard of, in Swedish: vid gransen or det oerhorda - oerhorda, meaning, the unheard of, or, the ineffable, unfathomable, inapprehensible, hidden, latent, numinous. The first thing explorers want to do when they enter an unknown landscape is to chart their course; map out the territory they are going through so they can find their way back. And also show others what they have discovered.
Secondly, Markings is the record of a pathway through Hammarskjöld’s own life. As a White Book it reveals a man who finds himself a little like Job, struggling and working through suffering out there in the wilderness of the white northern mountains with his God. Like the Book of Job, it’s the testament of a man who is attempting to live authentically in the times that he finds himself in. And in the spiritual struggles inside of himself. Hammarskjöld constantly opens himself to self-scrutiny and cross examination. Markings is difficult and unwieldy to read through from beginning to end, it seems to keep running away from some centre it purports to hold. There are points of intersection between the man and his life; there are echoing themes throughout; there are even startling connections such as the first and last entries - shown in the notes I have given out - these very much contain the work as a whole. But the disparate nature of the entries, their variety of length and change in form, the very slippage of voice throughout, from first person, second person, third person makes for a bumpy post-modern ride. As a spiritual work perhaps it is best dipped into and single passages simply meditated upon.
Thirdly, Hammarskjöld was a man who thought about problems and situations from all angles. If you are this sort of person you can find yourself all over the place, lost without bearings. As he worked towards the good within himself, it was necessary to note intersecting points of discernment. He needed to build solid spiritual markers into his life so he could learn to recognise the territory the next time he found himself passing through it. The words, these markings, are points of reference and aids to memory. They served to bring him back to himself; upon re-reading remind him who he was or who he stood before and ultimately deemed himself to be accountable to.
Just as Markings kept his inner journey on track, he used the UN Charter to keep his role as Secretary General of the UN in check. During particularly intense and difficult times of conflict within the House he always referred back to the charter as the place where he gleaned discernment and justification for his decisions. He drew strength from the charter in his work for impartiality amongst all nations, particularly the smaller ones under threat by the super powers. We see this particularly in the later years with the aggressive, eroding stance taken by the Soviets. Just as he let go in a spiritual sense, in Markings, to his Christian God, with the UN he would let go in terms of requesting the House as a whole to vote on contentious issues. In both the private and public sphere he sought to walk a path that was being revealed to him, but also in some sense he was surrendering to. He was both in control, and surrendering that control. So both Markings and the UN Charter gave him signposts, each was a compass and represented something to which he held himself accountable.
There are just two more points I’d like to make here about Hammarskjöld :
What we read in these entries, particularly just prior to 1953, reveal a man who was deeply struggling with meaning and purpose in his life. He always struggled with loneliness. It’s sometimes thought to be that this was because he was single, or homosexual. With regards to the homosexuality, as much as I think it would be fine, I don’t believe this is the case here. There was definitely a smear campaign started by the outgoing disgruntled first UN Secretary General. There were some other comments by one individual, whose own motives and scruples were found to be very problematic. Likewise, whatever motive W. H. Auden had, he did not serve the text of Markings well with parts of his translation. None of Hammarskjöld’s own close friends, including ones he travelled quite a bit up the mountains, ever had a sense of his being homosexual; and one friend recounts a conversation he had with Dag in which Dag states categorically that he would never have accepted the post of Secretary-General had this been the case. Hammarskjöld had a number of close women friends. He once stated that he remained single because he remembered what his mother went through when his father was away so much, and didn’t think it fair to put someone through this. Barbara Hepworth, the artist of the famous Single Form, a memorial to Dag Hammarskjold which now stands in front of the Secretariat building in New York, was at the end of his life a very close friend who lived in London. It seems to be the case that Hammarskjöld was thinking about retiring soon from the position, and there is the possibility that this friendship could have developed further.
I want to finish with mention of something that Hammarskjöld effected during his early UN years. I find something prophetic in his formation of the Room of Quiet within the secretariat building. It was already there, in a kind of bare bones form, but during his time extensive changes in 1957 and with external funding, It became something really significant. Hammarskjöld had been gifted a large block of iron ore and this stands as a table in the centre of the bare room. It is so heavy, that in the car park directly under the floor where the iron ore stands is a pillar of concrete holding it up. On one wall is a fresco, painted by his Swedish friend Bo Beskow. Outside this Room of Quiet read these words: