Published April 20, 2011
Walking through Reykjavík late on a Saturday night and observing the
natives attempt to go through the preliminary stages of copulation, one
could be forgiven for assuming that Icelanders might not be the most
romantic of people. But in another sense, precisely this behaviour is in fact an indication of the very romantic nature of the people living here.
If you look through the foreign press in the past few years, any mention of Iceland is likely to have something to do with economic collapse, volcanoes or whale hunting. Give or take the economic collapse, this is how people have always viewed Iceland. The country was, in a sense, first discovered by the outside world sometime in the 19th Century. It went from being a fishing station or even the gates of hell to being a magical land full of wild natural beauty and ancient culture, a view helped by the Sagas, the scenery and an exotic sounding name. The romantics in Scandinavia, Germany and, to a lesser extent Britain and France, started idealising it. This is how the outside world has always preferred to see Iceland.
“THERE’S DEFINITELY NO LOGIC…”
Icelanders, especially of late, have largely been more than happy to play the part. This has brought dividends. Björk rose to international prominence in 1993 with the single and video to ‘Human Behaviour’, where she was portrayed as a pixie, a true nature child. The chorus of “There’s definitely no logic to human behaviour,” might even sound like a renunciation of the sciences, although it’s probably closer to romantic Weltschmertz.
Icelandic novels, even when about crime in the capital city, are often marketed abroad with a picture of a romantic looking farmstead on the cover. And many Icelandic films made in the past two decades have juxtaposed the wild and strange countryside with the no less wild Reykjavík nightlife. These often include a major foreign character and seem to be aimed mostly at foreign markets.
VIKINGS AND ACCOUNTANTS
The dream to make Iceland the banking centre of the world, a sensible Switzerland or Luxemburg of the north, seemed to be a step away from all of this, the triumph, if you will, of hardnosed rationalism over romanticism. The results were exactly the opposite. The bankers behaved a lot more like the Vikings of old than as dull mainland accountants. Their boats may have sunk with the loot, but this all added to the image of Icelanders as wild men governed by their emotions and basic desires, rather than a fully civilized European nation. We may no longer be noble savages, but we remain savages nonetheless. Whale hunting is another case in point. It makes no economic sense whatsoever; there is a lot more money to be made from whale watching. Nevertheless, it appeals to a romantic vision of Icelanders as a strong, independent people who do what they like, no matter what polite society or fiscal common sense might say. When you add the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and its consequences, you again get the sense of Icelanders as a strange people living in an even stranger land.
BUT IS THE IMAGE TRUE?
Largely, yes. People here are excited by mystery. As soon as you try to explain things with a coherent system, be it science or even organised religion, they lose interest. Anyone offering rational explanations tends to be written off as hopelessly dull. We pay lip service to reason, but we don’t really like or even completely understand it.
This comes to light in Iceland’s political discourse. We have little time for boring bureaucrats, but prefer larger than life personalities such as Davíð Oddsson. These may claim to be acting in the interests of reason, but really they offer us romantic schemes of transforming the country completely in a couple of years, wild dreams that appeal more to nationalism than common sense.
Iceland was largely invented by the romantics, both local and foreign, in the 19th Century. Their vision is the one we have stuck to ever since. Perhaps it is time for a little Enlightenment? Icelanders might not be the most romantic of lovers, but they are true romantics when it comes to the economy. Maybe we should try it the other way round.