Report From the Flatlands of Statistics

By Mathilde Walter ClarkJuly 29, 2014

Report From the Flatlands of Statistics

The Danish original of this essay is available immediately below the English. Translated by Colie Hoffman and Mathilde Walter Clark.


I'M IN WALMART in a small town in central Texas, buying socks with my American father. On the wall, alongside a number of other products, firearms hang from metal hooks, assault rifles and semiautomatics packaged in plastic and colored cardboard. It’s a snap that wakes me from a doze. Like most Danes, I'm not used to seeing weapons in real life. A sign on a nearby glass cabinet reads:  “In order to serve as many customers as possible, all ammunition sales are limited to three boxes per customer per day.” 

My father and I start discussing the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, which allows individuals the right to bear arms. It's like stepping onto a merry-go-round. As we talk, the fundamental meaning of words like “rights,” “freedom,” and “life” keep shape-shifting, leaving us unable to find common ground. My father ends the discussion by saying that for Americans the right to bear arms is the most basic of rights. It is the right to life, something, he says, I simply don't understand. 

My father is right. I don't understand. But perhaps that goes both ways. The discussion is hopeless because it has its roots somewhere before language. Utøya in Norway comes to mind, the most traumatic event to occur in Scandinavia in recent memory. Sixty-nine people, most of them teenagers, were murdered in a shooting spree. But I realize that I can’t bring the Utøya massacre into this discussion. Right there, in the aisles of the supermarket, where cheap firearms hang from metal hooks, I can already hear the counterargument: why would anyone send dozens of young people onto an uninhabited island without protection? That says just about everything Scandinavian about naïveté. Had the youths carried firearms themselves or, at the very least, had the leaders of the summer camp thought of armed security guards, Utøya might never have happened.   

This argument has never occurred to me before, and I do not recall hearing it in the wake of Utøya. I Google “Utøya” and I’m right: I can’t find one single individual's-right-to-bear-arms argument. The whole idea seems ludicrous, and when I present this line of thought to my Danish friends as part of a hypothetical discussion, they squirm uncomfortably in their seats. They stare at me in silence as if I really mean what I’m saying, as though these are my own true objections and not those of a hypothetical interlocutor. The idea that people should be able to decide for themselves to get a weapon for protection just doesn’t seem like a real solution to us. I believe it has to do with the individual’s relation to the community: a sense that what we’ve got — whatever that is — here in naïve Scandinavia is easier lost than attained, and that we cannot even talk about it without the risk of losing it. It seems characteristic that the “How could this happen?” that always follows a traumatic event has focused on the contrary: how “One of Us” (the title of the most recent book about the Utøya perpetrator) could so fatally betray our shared notion of community. It is not a question of choice. We can’t just choose to say: “every man for himself” — because who would we then be? So instead we insist that our society is a place where our youth can camp on uninhabited islands, even if reality sometimes proves us wrong.



Recent studies that rank Denmark as the happiest nation in the world, like the U.N. “World Happiness Report,” remind me of some strange crab-like gestures my philosophy teacher once made during class. He was illustrating a thought experiment about what life would be like in a two-dimensional world, something even flatter than a piece of paper. In an attempt to set fire to our imaginations he started creeping sideways in circles in front of the blackboard, trying in vain to look completely flat. It was, of course, impossible to imagine: his highly three-dimensional body kept getting in the way, as did my own three-dimensional experiences (How, for example, would these creatures play leap-frog?).   

The very notion that we can measure happiness is easy to problematize. How can we make the subjective objective, fix the buoyant? But the scientific team behind the “World Happiness Report” have, of course, taken into account the objections that most of us can think up from the comfort of our arm-chairs. Personally, I find the concept of national identity difficult. Do these reports really say anything about national character? I can’t see through the numbers, and I don’t know how to compare them to other studies, such as those dealing with alcohol consumption, suicide, or the use of anti-depressants. But honestly: I don’t care about statistics and numbers. What I do care about are subjective descriptions. How it feels to be one of those creatures living on this flat landscape.    

When I hear other Danes mention these reports, it’s almost always with an undertone of irony. We feel the immediate urge to deconstruct the very notion of happiness. Happiness isn't exactly something we attribute to one another. We know, after all, what we are like: The incessant complaining about trivialities: the constant rain, the trains never running on time, the less-than-exuberant way of treating each other on the street on a day-to-day basis. The boorish or even downright hostile behavior toward people who do not belong to what was once called our “silent tribe.” The occasional, maddening lack of generosity towards ourselves as well as others.

It’s hard to immediately connect one's corporeal reality with the two-dimensional world of statistics, and I think this is partly explained by the Danish word for “happiness.” In English, “happiness” is synonymous with “contentment.” In Danish the word “lykke” suggests something vertiginously subjective, like standing on top of a hill feeling at one with the world. But the U.N. report is not about that sort of happiness. It’s about a more general sense of what could be called life satisfaction: a sense of trust, security and freedom to express yourself; confidence in your political leaders; comfort in your daily life. These things are easily taken for granted when you have them, but must seem terribly acute when you don’t. The U.N. report favors a more nuanced concept of happiness over the one that has dominated since the 1800s, which associates happiness with material wealth. The report is based on a genuine wish to discover how people function, what makes the world more people-friendly or people-suited and what we — that is nations, governments and legislators — can do to create this kind of world. So, yes: after looking at the report more closely, my temptation to resort to irony dwindled. What the report is really about, what lies beneath the statistics and numbers, is the stuff that is hard to talk about. The stuff that is easier to lose than to attain.



Whenever I think of the Danes, I think of quicksilver. Not something agile or unpredictable, but something with its own magic will to become one giant glob, to dissolve into community. A will to equalize man-made differences.   

For the past few months a post has been making the rounds on Facebook: a picture of a woman and a text that reads: “I am a Danish school teacher making about $61,000. We get free education, you don't have to pay to see the doctor or go to the hospital, and we pay our students to go to university.” It also says that Danish employees get maternity leave covered and six weeks of paid vacation. It concludes with a catchy slogan: “Everyone in the world wants the American dream. Every Dane has that opportunity!” The last remark is meant as political banter: the paradox that a strong public system ensures the very security so many Americans believe is a product of less government control.

All banter aside, everything it says about Denmark is true. It is also true that Danes in general are surprisingly happy to pay 50-70 percent in taxes, because, as we say, “just think what we get for the money”: a one-size-fits-all access to the services you more or less need in the course of a life.  

Since I was 11 years old, I’ve caught myself sounding like that Facebook post. I grew up with my mother in Denmark and attended the Danish school system, but I spent many of my summers with my American father and four half-siblings in the United States. I went to an American summer school and attended NYU for part of my master's degree in philosophy. Early on I learned to measure my experiences using two rulers. I was a child of a single mother, whose modest secretarial pay most likely wouldn’t have put me through college had we lived in the United States. This awareness turned me into a tiny missionary, battling the overt systemic injustices in America — the kind of missionary who turns shrill (why can't you just be like us?); given the right provocations, I can still reach that high pitch. I'm not proud of it. It’s the quicksilver in me.   

Still, I am a divided missionary. I find myself in a state of perpetual provocation: in America by inequality, and in Denmark by conformity. It is the compulsion toward uniformity that pains me most about the Danish spirit.



When I was in kindergarten, my teachers would collect all our lunchbox fruit in a big bowl, and mix them together. Proper food was a high priority in our household, and my mother would spend her meager single parent income to buy expensive and rare Danish strawberries. Every day those precious strawberries would be collected in a big bowl with all the other kids' fruit, and the children had to pass the bowl from seat to seat, each picking the fruit he or she preferred. My seat was in the back: contrary to the distribution of the fruit, the seats were fixed, so when the bowl finally reached me, all that was left were apples and bananas.

My mother's futile attempts to feed me something better than bananas and apples reminds me of the story of the Buddhist monk who bought a bucket of fish with the noble intention of saving them from the destiny of the dinner table. Later at the pier, as the monk threw the fish back into the sea, a flock of pelicans appeared. Instead of saving the fish, he became the unwilling host of a splendid meal for the birds. You can’t prevent a pelican from eating fish, and you can’t prevent a Dane from trying to even out things. It’s in their nature.         

There is certainly both beauty and solidarity in perhaps this most Danish character trait of them all: the compulsion to equalize. For example, class teaching is meant to accommodate those who find it most difficult to be attentive. We happily wait for those who are struggling. No student should feel left out — except perhaps the ones who do well, and who will simply have to sit still and wait for the others to catch up. Solidarity has its obvious preferences. As in many other Western countries the “elite” has become suspicious, but in Danish even “ambition” has a negative connotation. When I look it up in my English dictionary, it’s associated with words like “achievement” and “performance,” “will power” and “hard work;” the examples suggest that ambition is an acceptable, or even admirable, way to achieve your goals (ambitious students; an ambitious attempt to break the record; an ambitious program to eliminate all slums)Definitions in my Danish dictionary, on the other hand, are notably different: “1) Which is full of ambition = desirous, pushy: an ambitious career-hunter. 2) Which requires great effort, perhaps too great: a very ambitious project, an ambitious goal.”

Career-hunter? The effort required is perhaps too great? Too great compared to what? Says who? I get the sense that ambition is not entirely morally sound. To have ambition in Denmark is to fly higher than your wings will carry, to make more dough than you can bake. The Danish language brims over with sayings that are designed to dampen ambition. To excel is to betray the community.



As it happens, our great national book, our Moby-Dick, is about a young man in search of happiness. Henrik Pontoppidan was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1917. His magnum opus, Lucky Per, wasn’t translated into English until 2010 (translation by Naomi Lebowitz). Even so, half the title's meaning is lost in translation. The Danish word “lykke” encompasses external and perhaps random luck, as well as a more mysterious inner state of happiness, or even bliss. Any Danish high school student will know that Pontoppidan’s writing also served as a polemic against Hans Christian Andersen and his romantic notion that one can grow up in a duck pond and still turn into a beautiful swan. When we meet Per he is driven by a great ambition to show the whole world, show his family and, more than anything, show his father, a strict, life-denying priest, who he really is. He devises a grand canal project that would give Denmark a vital position in Europe. But it is not the others who, in the usual Danish way, “adjust his expectations,” as we say in modern Danish. What makes Lucky Per such a despairing read is that every time he is about to achieve success, he vacillates. You want to shake him: “Enough already! Take responsibility for that project of yours! Marry that girl!” But for some reason he can't bring himself to realize his dreams and plans. The ending remains hauntingly difficult. Per leaves his wife and children to end his days as a “road assistant” in the windswept edges of Denmark. Through his friend, the schoolteacher, and through his diary we learn that he has found happiness in those remote and desolate places. But we never experience this first hand. It is as if we are far away, looking through a window at a battered life. The corpse is carried out of the house. The isolation is miserable, the wind howls “like a sick dog.” There is nothing exalted about this asceticism.      

There is an irony at play, but where? I think it is in the chasm that opens between the reader's expectations for Per and what we learn from his own reports on happiness. This is a man who could have had it all. Pontoppidan shows us a Per cut down to size, yet he knows himself, knows that only in that humble outpost can he fill his own skin. As spectators looking in, we find it difficult to recognize our own ideas of happiness. There is such great distance. To be summoned as a witness to this sad scene forces us to examine ourselves. If we have a hard time accepting the truth of the ending, the denial is on us. “What is happiness?” asks the school teacher. Per refuses to answer, but says that you cannot sense it through anybody’s bones but your own. There is no use for handed-down ideas.      

 The novel’s last irony is perhaps the crowning one. When the schoolteacher asks the bailiff if he can keep Per's notebook of daily records, his little report on happiness, the bailiff says: “Yes, go ahead and take it, Mikkelsen. We have no legal responsibility for written matters and besides, it has no monetary value.” The notebook is at once the most valuable thing Per leaves behind and the most worthless. Whether it tells the truth, nobody can ever know.   



Maybe it is all a dream: the naïve Scandinavia and its perpetual gravitation toward the middle, its quicksilvery compulsion to commune with community. The Crown Prince biking around the city of Copenhagen on his Christiania bike in a hooded sweatshirt. Maybe it is all a dream from which we are about to be awoken. The year my grandmother died, I chose to remain asleep when I knew I was about to wake up. I balanced on the edge of waking as long as I could. I knew that when I finally did wake up, I would see her English grandfather clock there, in our living room, and knew what that meant: she was gone. In the dream there was no separation. Maybe the image of Denmark to which I felt connected on that day in Walmart, while buying socks with my father, is too, such a dream. A dream in which there is no separation. To stay in it requires a little bit of effort, even if this effort is only halfway accessible to the conscious mind. A dreamy edge on which to keep oneself balanced.      

Remember Copenhagen’s old tourism poster with the smiling policeman helping a family of ducks cross the street? I'm not so sure there actually was a time when policemen would escort a family of ducks across the street in “Wonderful Copenhagen,” but I am sure there was a time when we believed in that world. Now I see it as representing a kind of delay, how what we see is always a bit disjointed from how things really are. That same poster that inspires nostalgia makes us sad or even angry, because it shows us what we’ve lost. It is no longer an image but an image of an image. Within the notion of paradise lost lies a potent piece of propaganda. It is that kind of edge, that kind of balance.

The popular, award-winning fictional TV series Borgen, which centers on Danish coalition politics and a female prime minister who more or less stumbles into power, is also an image of our dream of ourselves. But it’s a fresher dream, a dream closer to a recognizable reality. As a reviewer wrote in The Telegraph: “You'd give just about anything for it all to be true.” I feel the same way. I think I speak on behalf of a good many others when I say that we would all like to live in Borgen. Yes, there are all these political intrigues, divorces, sick children, a merciless press, and cynical spin, but in Borgen, it all seems to be softer, more friendly, and more humane, because Borgen believes that vulnerability is vital in the overall political equation. Borgen believes in the whole project of running a country without losing your humanity. The show provides us the beautiful belief that if we simply pretend it is like that, it could be so. We could be these people.

There is something crucial in this almost-willful disjunction between idea and reality. I think it is related to the stuff that is difficult to talk about. Perhaps even a precondition to what philosophers call “the good life.”   



When is an image true? It’s been a month since the trip to Walmart. I'm sitting on the terrace reading the morning papers in the sun. A female columnist writes about the latest school shootings at UC Santa Barbara. It is not enough to implement tighter gun control, she writes. America has to confront its relationship with “the chauvinist alpha-male that thrives in popular culture.” The sound of traffic is humming in the street. The last few weeks the whole country of Denmark has been preoccupied with whether the leader of the opposition, the former prime minister, ought to resign as party leader. He has been the center of a number of controversies around questionable use of funding, the latest being the purchase of shoes and suits and boxer shorts using party money. “Avaricious,” a word that has long gone from common use in Denmark, haunts the newspaper headlines. The same clip is shown over and over on television: the party leader, surrounded by journalists, his face yellow and drenched in sweat, dries his forehead with a handkerchief. There is no telling how many times we have yet to see him dry his forehead with that handkerchief. In interviews he repeats the same statement again and again: “I cannot recognize myself in the image drawn by the press.” His supporters, in turn, repeat their statements that he is “the most talented political craftsman in the parliament.” The relationship between image and truth has always been troublesome. Images are not democratic. It is Monday. The sky is the color of porcelain.




 Rapport fra statistikkens flade landskaber

 Af Mathilde Walter Clark



JEG ER I WALMART for at købe sokker sammen med min amerikanske far i en lille by i midt-Texas. Side om side med alt muligt andet hænger der skydevåben på metalkroge, angrebsrifler og automatpistoler indpakket i plastik og kulørt pap. Det er et knips, der vækker mig af en slags døs. Som så mange danskere er jeg ikke vant til at se våben i virkeligheden. Ved siden af, på et glasskab med ammunition, hænger et skilt: For at kunne servicere så mange kunder som muligt, er al salg af ammunition begrænset til tre kasser per kunde per dag.

Det udvikler sig til en diskussion mellem mig og min far om den amerikanske forfatnings Second Amendment, som giver individer ret til at bære skydevåben. Det er som at stige på en karussel. I løbet af diskussionen skifter ord som "rettigheder", "frihed" og "liv" fundamental betydning, og der er vældig lang vej til fælles grund under fødderne. Min far slutter af med at sige, at for amerikanerne er retten til våben den mest grundlæggende af alle. Det er retten til liv, siger han. Det er bare noget, du ikke forstår.

Min far har ret. Jeg forstår det ikke. Men det gælder måske begge veje. Diskussionen er håbløs, fordi den handler om noget, der begynder før ordene. Jeg kommer til at tænke på Utøya i Norge, det største traume i Norden i nyere tid, hvor 69 unge mennesker blev slået ihjel i en skudmassakre. Men det slår mig samtidig, at jeg aldrig ville kunne bringe Utøya ind i diskussionen. Dér i supermarkedet, hvor billige skydevåben hænger frit på krogene, kan jeg allerede høre modargumentet: hvordan man dog også kan finde på at sende sin ungdom ud på en ubeboet ø, fuldstændigt ubeskyttet. At det siger cirka alt om skandinavisk naivitet. Havde de unge haft adgang til skydevåben, eller havde man i det mindste tænkt på bevæbnede sikkerhedsvagter, kunne tragedien på Utøya have været forhindret.

Denne indvending har aldrig slået mig før, og jeg mindes ikke at have hørt den i kølvandet på Utøya. Jeg googler ’Utøya’ og kan ikke finde et eneste individets-ret-til-at-kunne-beskytte-sig-med-våben-argument. Tanken er på en eller anden måde utænkelig, og da jeg senere lufter denne tankerække for mine venner, rykker de uroligt rundt på stolen. De stirrer på mig, tavse, som om jeg mener det, som om det er mine ægte indvendinger, og ikke nogen, der tilhører en imaginær diskussionspartner. Det forekommer os bare ikke at være nogen løsning, at vi hver især skal til at overveje, om vi skal skaffe os et våben, fordi den forkerte har fået adgang til ét, og jeg tror det har noget at gøre med individets forhold til fællesskabet. En fornemmelse af, at dét vi har – hvad det så end er – her i det naive Skandinavien, er noget som er lettere at miste end at få, og at vi ikke engang rigtigt kan tale om det, uden at risikere at miste det. Helt karakteristisk har dette hvordan kunne det ske?, som altid følger en traumatisk begivenhed, tværtimod drejet sig om, hvordan "En af os"(som titlen på en af de seneste bøger om gerningsmanden lyder), kunne falde så grundigt ud af fællesskabet. Det er ikke et valg, vi kan ikke bare vælge at sige: Nu må hver især sørge for os selv – for hvem er vi så? Så insisterer vi hellere på, at vores samfund er sådan et, hvor vi kan sende vores ungdom ud på en ubeboet ø, uden bevæbnede vagter, også selvom virkeligheden indimellem viser os noget andet.



Når jeg hører om nogle af de undersøgelser, som nu senest FNs World Happiness Report, der placerer Danmark i toppen over lykkelige nationer, kan jeg ikke lade være med at tænke på nogle underligt krabbende fagter, jeg engang så min filosofilærer lave. Han var vistnok i gang med et tankeeksperiment, der handlede om livet i en todimensionel verden, altså noget endnu fladere end et A4-ark, og for at hjælpe fantasien på gled krøb han ligesom sidlæns rundt foran tavlen, mens han prøvede at gøre sig helt flad. Det var selvfølgelig umuligt at forestille sig de todimensionelle væsener, der beboede denne verden, min filosofilærers særdeles tredimensionelle korpus kom hele tiden i vejen, ligesom også mine egne tredimensionelle erfaringer (hvordan kan de fx sjippe?), og det eneste, der står tilbage, er forbløffelse og et muntert smil ved tanken om den sære pantomime.

Det er nemt på forhånd at udpege problemer med projektet: At måle lykke. Problemerne med at gøre det subjektive objektivt, at fiksere det flydende. Men det videnskabelige hold bag rapporten har selvfølgelig taget højde for indvendinger, som de fleste af os kan komme med uden nogen sinde at rejse os fra lænestolen. Selv har jeg det vanskeligt med begrebet national identitet. Kan man sige noget om nationalkarakteren ud fra disse rapporter? Jeg har det skidt med at tale om disse undersøgelser, på den måde at skulle generalisere, at medregne små seks millioner sagesløse danskere i mit forestillede vi. Jeg kan heller ikke gennemskue de tal, der ligger under konklusionerne, og jeg ved intet om, hvordan man opvejer dem mod andre undersøgelser, dem om alkoholindtag, selvmord, kræft, dødelighed, brugen af anti-depressive midler. Men ærligt: Jeg interesserer mig ikke for tal og statistikker. Jeg interesserer mig for subjektive beskrivelser. For hvordan det føles, at være ét af disse væsener, der lever i det flade landskab.

Når jeg hører rapporterne omtalt af andre danskere, sker næsten altid med en ironisk undertone. Vi får straks lyst til at nedbryde begrebet. Lykke er ikke ligefrem noget vi går rundt og tiltror hinanden. Vi ved jo godt selv, hvordan vi er. Den evindelige brok over småting, at det altid regner, at togene ikke går. Vores ikke særligt oversvømmende omgang med hinanden, sådan i det daglige gadebillede. Uforskammetheden og det underlige, Fawlty Towers-agtige ubehag ved alt, hvad der indebærer god gammeldags service. Den i bedste fald bondske, i værste fald direkte fjendske, omgang med mennesker, der ikke tilhører, hvad der engang er blevet kaldt vores "tavse stamme". De til tider fantasifulde forestillinger om, hvad Systemet bør tage sig af. Den sommetider fortvivlende mangel på largeness på egne og andres vegne.

Det er simpelthen svært umiddelbart at genkende sin kødelige virkelighed i statistikkens todimensionelle verden, og jeg tror, det har noget at gøre med ordet lykke. På engelsk er lykke – happiness – også synonymt med glæde, men på dansk indbyder ordet til en forestilling om noget svimlende subjektivt, noget med at stå på en bakketop og føle sig ét med verdensaltet. Men FNs rapport handler ikke om dén form for lykke. Den handler om en mere generel følelse af hvad man kunne kalde livstilfredshed. Om tillid og tryghed, og hvordan man opfatter sine muligheder for livsudfoldelse, om man nogenlunde stoler på sine ledere, om man i det daglige føler sig tilpas, noget af alt dét, jeg kom til at tænke på, da min far og jeg skulle købe sokker i Walmart. Alt dét, som er let at komme til at tage for givet, når man har det, men som må føles massivt, når man ikke har det. Rapporten, finder jeg ud af, lægger op til at basere samfundsdannelsen på et mere nuanceret lykkebegreb end det siden 1800-tallet fremherskende, der entydigt har fokuseret på akkumulation af materiel velstand. Den er båret af et reelt ønske om at finde ud af, hvordan mennesker virker, hvad der gør verden til et bedre sted i forstanden mere menneskeegnet, og hvad man – altså stater, regeringer, lovgivere – kan gøre for at indrette sig derhenad. Så ja. Efter at have kigget nærmere på rapporten, er det som så med lysten til at ironisere. Jeg tror, at dét, den i virkeligheden handler om, neden under alt det andet, alt det praktiske og dagligdags, er noget af det, der er svært for os at tale om. Noget af det, som måske er lettere at miste end at få.



Når jeg tænker på danskerne tænker jeg på kviksølv. Ikke kviksølv som noget hurtigt eller omskifteligt, men som noget, der ligesom bærer en egen magisk vilje til at blive én stor klump, til at ville opløse sig i fællesskabet. En tilbøjelighed til at ville udligne menneskeskabte forskelle.

I løbet af de seneste par måneder, er der blevet delt en besked på Facebook, et billede af en kvinde og en tekst. I am a Danish schoolteacher, making about $61,000 a year, lyder den. We get free education, you don't have to pay for going to the doctor, the hospital, and we also keep paying our students for getting the education they want. Der står også, at vi får betalt barsel og seks ugers ferie, og teksten slutter med et catchy slogan: Everyone in the world wants the American dream. Every Dane has that opportunity! Den sidste bemærkning er ment som politisk drilleri: Paradokset i, at et stærkt offentligt system sikrer netop den sikkerhed og de ydelser, som så mange amerikanere tror er produkter af en svag statsstyring.

Bortset fra drilleriet er det sandt, hvad der står om danske forhold. Det er også sandt, at danskerne som helhed virker overraskende tilfredse med at betale en skat på 50-70%, for "tænk på, hvad vi får for pengene". En one-size-fits-all-adgang til de velfærdsydelser, som man cirka får brug for gennem et liv.

Siden 11-årsalderen har jeg taget mig selv i at lyde lidt som dén tekst.  Jeg er vokset op hos min mor i Danmark, og har gået i danske skoler, men mange af mine somre tilbragte jeg hos min amerikanske far og mine fire halvsøskende i USA. Jeg har gået på en amerikansk summer school, og har som filosofistuderende taget noget af min universitetsuddannelse på NYU. Jeg har tidligt lært at måle mine erfaringer med to linealer. Bevidstheden om, at jeg som barn af en enlig mor med en beskeden sekretærhyre nok ikke ville have fået mulighed for at gå på universitetet, hvis vi havde haft et system som det amerikanske, sidder dybt i mig. Så i mødet med hvad jeg oplevede som åbenlyse systemiske uretfærdigheder i Amerika gik jeg tidligt hen og blev en lille missionær, én af dem, der har det med at kamme over i anklage (hvorfor er I ikke bare som os?), og givet de rette provokationer kan jeg stadig blive skinger. Det er ikke noget, jeg har det godt med. Det er kviksølvet i mig.

Men jeg er en splittet missionær. Jeg befinder mig i en evindelig tilstand af provokation over uligheden i Amerika og konformiteten i Danmark, for det er samtidig denne vilje til ensartethed - ikke mindst på andres vegne - der piner mig mest ved den danske folkesjæl.



Jeg husker i børnehaven at måtte aflevere min frugt til pædagogerne. Min mor brugte sin beskedne eneforsørgerløn på at købe danske jordbær til min madpakke, for ordentlig mad havde en høj prioritet hjemme hos os. Hver dag blev de dyrebare jordbær samlet ind i en stor skål sammen med de andre børns medbragte frugt, og så blev frugtskålen ellers sendt rundt på bordene til genfordeling efter først-til-mølle-princippet. Jeg sad på ét af de bagerste borde. I modsætning til fordelingen af frugten, lå pladserne fast, og når skålen nåede ned til mig, var der kun æbler og bananer tilbage.

Min mors forgæves bestræbelser på at opflaske mig på andet end æbler og bananer, minder mig om historien om den buddhistiske munk, der købte en spand fisk med den noble hensigt at redde dem fra en skæbne på middagsbordet. Da han senere stod nede på molen og kastede dem tilbage i havet, dukkede en flok pelikaner op. I stedet for at frelse fiskene, blev munken ufrivillig vært for et fornemt måltid for fuglene. Man kan ikke forhindre en pelikan i at spise fisk, og man kan ikke forhindre en dansker i at ville udjævne forskelle. Det er en del af deres natur.

Der er ganske givet noget smukt og solidarisk i dette måske mest danske karaktertræk overhovedet: den ekstreme nivelleringstrang. For eksempel er klasseundervisningen i folkeskolen indrettet efter dem, der har sværest ved at følge med. Vi gerne venter på dem, der har svært ved at komme i mål. Ingen i skolen må føle sig forkerte eller hægtet af – måske bortset fra dem, der har det let på skolebænken, og som pænt må sidde og vente på, at de andre er med. Solidariteten har sine klare præferencer. Som i mange andre vestlige lande er "elite" gået hen og blevet et skældsord, men på dansk har selv "ambitiøs" en negativ klang. Slår jeg ordet op i min engelske ordbog betones bedrifter og præstationer, vilje og hårdt arbejde, og eksemplerne bidrager til en forestilling om ambitioner som et acceptabelt middel til at nå sine mål (ambitious students; an ambitious attempt to break the record; an ambitious program to eliminate all slums). Men hør så, hvad min danske ordbog siger: 1) Som er fuld af ambitioner = ærgerrig, stræbsom: en ambitiøs karrierejæger. 2)  Som kræver en meget stor indsats, måske for stor: et meget ambitiøst projekt; en ambitiøs målsætning.

Karrierejæger? Indsatsen, der kræves, er "måske for stor"? Men for stor i forhold til hvad? Siger hvem? Jeg får en fornemmelse af, at ambitioner ikke er helt moralsk forsvarlige. At ville flyve højere end vingerne bærer, at ville slå et større brød op end man kan bage. At tage munden for fuld. Det danske sprog svømmer over med talemåder, der har til formål at lægge en dæmper på ambitionerne. At udmærke sig er at svigte fællesskabet.



Tilfældet vil at vores Moby-Dick, danskernes store nationalbog, handler om en ung mand, der søger lykken. Henrik Pontoppidan fik Nobelprisen i 1917, men hans hovedværk, Lykke-Per, blev først oversat til engelsk i 2010 af Naomi Lebowitz under titlen Lucky Per. Det er en titel der kun fanger den ene halvdel af betydningen i det danske ord lykke, det udefrakommende og måske tilfældige held, men ikke den mere gådefulde, indre lykketilstand. Enhver dansk gymnasieelev ved, at Pontoppidan polemiserede mod H.C. Andersen og den romantiske forestilling om, at man kan vokse op i en andedam og blive til en smuk svane. Da vi møder Per er han drevet af store ambitioner om at vise hele verden, vise sin familie, og især vise sin far, en streng og livsforsagende præst, hvem han i virkeligheden er. Han udtænker et storstilet kanalprojekt, som skal give Danmark en vigtig placering i Europa. Men det er ikke de andre, der efter vanlig dansk skik justerer hans forventninger, som det hedder på moderne dansk. Det fortvivlende ved at læse Lykke-Per er, at hver gang hans planer er lige ved at lykkes, vakler han. Man har lyst til at ruske ham: Så tag dog ansvar for dit projekt! Gift dig dog med Jakobe! Men han kan ligesom ikke bringe sine drømme og planer til nogen realitet. Slutningen bliver ved med at nage. Hvad skal den betyde? Han forlader kone og børn og ender sine dage som "vejassistent" i en forblæst udkant af Danmark. Vi får aldrig lov til at opleve det direkte, men gennem hans ven, skolelæreren, og Pers efterladte dagbogsnotater, får vi at vide, at han har fundet lykken. Vi står ligesom langt væk, og ser ind på det forslåede liv, som er blevet levet dér. Liget bæres ud. Isolationen er kummerlig, vinden piber "som en syg hund". Der er intet som helst ophøjet ved askesen.

Der er en ironi, men hvori består den? Jeg tror den ligger i kløften, som åbner sig mellem læserens forventninger til Per og hans egne forlydender om lykken. Det er en mand, som kunne have fået alt. Pontoppidan viser os en Per, som er skåret til i størrelse, men som kender sig selv, og først her, i den ydmyge udpost, kan han fylde sig selv ud. Den udenforstående, der kigger ind, har svært ved at genkende noget fra sine egne forestillinger. Der er så stor afstand. At blive hidkaldt som vidner til dette triste scenarie, tvinger os til at ransage os selv. Hvis vi har svært ved at tro på slutningen, må vi skrive den på egen regning. Hvad er den højeste lykke? spørger skolelæreren. Per vil ikke svare, men han siger, at man ikke kan sanse den gennem andres organer, sådan som dem, der lever på overleverede forestillinger.

Scenens sidste lille ironi siger alt. Da skolelæreren spørger fogeden om lov til at beholde Pers notesbog med dagbogsnotaterne, siger fogeden: "Ja, tag De den bare, Mikkelsen. For skrevne sager har vi ingen ansvar. Og den har jo ingen pengeværd." Notesbogen er på én gang det mest værdifulde, Per efterlader sig, og det mest værdiløse. Om den taler sandt, kan ingen afgøre.



Men måske er det hele en drøm. Det naive Skandinavien, den evindelige søgen mod midten, den kviksølvagtige tilbøjelighed i retning af fællesskabet. Kronprinsen der cykler rundt med sine børn på en Christianiacykel i hættetrøje. Måske er det en drøm, vi er ved at vågne fra. Jeg husker, hvordan jeg i året, der fulgte min mormors død, valgte at blive sovende, selvom jeg vidste, jeg var ved at vågne. For selv et sted i drømmen havde jeg nok en anelse om, at når jeg stod op, ville min mormors engelske standur stå i vores stue, og det vidste jeg godt, hvad betød. Det betød at min mormor ikke længere fandtes. Så jeg balancerede så længe jeg kunne på drømmens kant. Her fandtes der ingen adskillelse. Måske er det billede af Danmark, som jeg forbandt mig med i Walmart, sådan en drøm. En drøm uden adskillelse. At blive i den kræver en lillebitte anstrengelse, også selvom anstrengelsen kun er halvejs bevidst. En drømmende kant at holde sig balancerende på.

Måske husker I den gamle turistplakat med den smilende politimand, der hjælper en andefamilie over gaden? Jeg er ikke sikker på, at der nogensinde har været en tid, hvor politimænd kunne finde på at hjælpe ænder over gaden i Wonderful Copenhagen, men jeg tror, at der har været en tid, hvor vi troede på det. Jeg tænker nu på det som en slags forsinkelse, på at dét vi ser er en smule forskubbet i forhold til, hvordan tingene faktisk forholder sig. Den plakat som før inspirerede nostalgiske følelser, gør os nu mere triste eller ligefrem sure, fordi den viser os, hvad vi har mistet. At den ikke længere er et billede, men et billede af et billede. I forestillingen om det tabte paradis findes en potent propaganda. Det er dén kant, dén balance.

Den populære og prisvindende tv-serie, Borgen, om koalitionspolitik i Danmark og en kvindelig statsminister, der nærmest snublende kommer til magten, er også et billede på drømmen om os selv. Men det er en friskere drøm, tættere på en genkendelig virkelighed. Som en anmelder skrev i den engelske avis, The Telegraph: "You’d give just about anything for it all to be true." Sådan har jeg det også. Jeg tror, jeg taler for andre end mig selv, når jeg siger: Vi vil alle sammen gerne bo i Borgen. Der er alle disse politiske intriger, skilsmisser, syge børn, en nådesløs presse og kynisk spin, men i Borgen er det hele ligesom mere blødt, mere venligt, mere menneskeligt, for Borgen tror på sårbarheden som en afgørende faktor i den samlede politiske ligning. Borgen tror på hele projektet med at lede et land uden at miste sin menneskelighed. Serien rummer et smukt postulat, en tro på eller et håb om, at hvis vi nu siger, det er sådan, kunne det være, at det også var sådan. Vi kunne være disse mennesker.

Jeg tror, der ligger noget afgørende i denne måske viljesbestemte forskydning mellem forestilling og virkelighed, og at den også har at gøre med noget af det, som er svært at tale om. Måske er det endda en forudsætning for dét, filosofferne kalder ’det gode liv’.



Hvornår taler et billede sandt? Det er en måned siden jeg stod i Walmart. Jeg sidder på terrassen og læser morgenaviserne i solen. En kvindelig klummeskribent skriver om de seneste skoleskyderier på UC Santa Barbara. Det er ikke er nok for amerikanerne at stramme våbenlovgivningen, siger hun, der må også gøres op med "den kvindeundertrykkende alfahan, der stortrives i massekulturen." Det summer fra trafikken på gaden. De seneste par uger har hele landet været beskæftiget med om oppositionens leder, den forhenværende statsminister, bør gå af som formand for sit parti. Partilederen har været midtpunkt for en række sager om tvivlsom brug af andres midler, senest om indkøb af sko og jakkesæt og boxershorts for partiets penge. "Bjærgsom", et ord, som forlængst er gået ud af daglig brug, går igen i avisspalterne. Den samme sekvens bliver kørt i tv igen og igen, hvor partilederen, omringet af journalister og med ansigtet gulligt og drivende af sved, tørrer sig henover panden med et lommetørklæde. Det er ikke til at sige, hvor mange gange vi endnu skal se ham tørre sig over panden med den klud. I interviews gentager han samme formulering: "Der er tegnet et billede af mig, som jeg har svært ved at genkende mig selv i." Hans partistøtter gentager til gengæld sætningen, "den dygtigste politiske håndværker på Christiansborg." Forholdet mellem billede og sandhed har altid været besværligt. Billeder er ikke demokratiske. Det er mandag. Himlen har samme farve som porcelæn.



MATHILDE WALTER CLARK is a writer of novels, short stories and essays. Her most recent publications include the novels Cast (2012) and Priapus (2010), the short story collection Grim Stories (2011) and a genre-bending art book, Patron Wanted (2013).

LARB Contributor

Mathilde Walter Clark is a writer of novels, short stories and essays. Her most recent publications include the novels Cast (2012)and Priapus (2010), the short story collection Grim Stories (2011) and a genre-bending art book, Patron Wanted (2013), which documents her year-long performance of the same name via e-mails, letters, photos and film. Her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Absinthe, Chattahoochee Review and The Literary Review. In 2006 she was awarded the prestigious Three Year Scholarship from the Danish Art Foundation. Her father is American, her mother Danish. She lives in Copenhagen, where she is currently at work on a novel. Visit her at


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