Sunday, May 30, 2010


Undset's home at Lillehammer

Sigrid Undset: The Slavery of the Modern Mind

It’s 1905 in Norway, and the world we know in 2010 is already happening:

Birth control—living together—adultery—divorce—broken homes—free sex and free love—free thinking—socialism—modernist theology—feminism—democracy—college loans (!)—public schools and educationism—the new morality—the end of religion—scientism—“that horrible medievalism”—spiritualism and new age theologies—political correctness—anti-Catholicism—mass media madness—mental slavery—the Servile State—the Catholic Renascence of the 20th century.

An “intellectual” in 2010 would be just as much at home with Paul Selmer’s divorced, modern parents, members of the Norwegian upper class, as they are with the academics and government functionaries of our time. For the modern mind is enslaved by its concept of freedom.

For young readers of this piece, your patience, please. You will have to do some chronological reorienting to grasp Undset’s wise imaginings. Indeed, if you read all the works of Sigrid Undset, you will have gained a profound education of your historical imagination.

Paul Selmer’s story begins in The Wild Orchid (1929) and continues in The Burning Bush (1930), two novels that Sigrid Undset published together under the title The Winding Road. By the time she wrote these novels and several others I will be looking at in this series, Undset was world famous. In 1928---only the third woman to have earned this honor--she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize was given in recognition of her massive achievement in writing two novels set in medieval Norway—the 13th and 14th centuries—Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy, and The Master of Hestviken, a tetralogy.

So Sigrid Undset is writing of 1905-1928 from the perspective of 1929-1930 just after years of imagining in the 13th and 14th centuries. More, she is writing from the perspective of a convert to Catholicism who was, after an annulled marriage, received into the Catholic Church in 1924, though she had been moving toward the Faith since the end of WW II. And by 1929-1930, she had spent seven years after settling in her country home at Lillehammer writing two of the greatest novels ever written, both set in medieval Catholic Norway. Now she was prepared, in making the story of Paul Selmer's conversion to Catholicism, to face modern Norway head on.

As one is able to gather from reading her modern fictions, for Sigrid Undset to convert to Catholicism in the Norway of the Jazz Age was as startling for her contemporaries as a movie actor of our time to convert to—-not Catholicism as it exists in most parishes in America-—but to traditional Catholicism, which survives now in a few religious orders, traditional parishes, Byzantine rites, and the Traditional Latin Mass communities struggling to survive in a sea of cafeteria Catholicism, where they are viewed as cranks, throwbacks, or simply (as with many modernist priests) enemies to be stamped out. A Catholic reader online comment on an article about bringing the traditional Mass back wrote “medievalists! Ugghhh! Evil!”

No term in modern usage is more loaded with opprobrium and hatred than “medieval.” And no term in the modern vocabulary is used with so much ignorance. Read Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, and for many hours, you will live in the authentic middle ages. Sigrid Undset was the daughter of an archeologist who specialized in the Iron Age. She grew up in a household filled with swords, iron age tools and artifacts, and the tales of old Norway. She breathed the atmosphere of all that daily. Through that deep immersion, she came to write—in 1909—her first medieval novel, which followed several realistic modern novels, Gunnar’s Daughter. Life raw, rough, brutal, and pagan, as frank as any of the Icelandic sagas she knew. In this early period, Undset began to strike themes that she followed through all her works: the natural virtues of pagan life; the spiritual emptiness of neo-pagan modern life in the 20th century; the centrality of love, marriage, and family to human existence and the fundamental change that Christianity brings to them.

The last sentence may suggest that Undset came to see life through the tinted lens of a sentimental Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is why she took the occasion of a speech in New York (1942) to speak directly to other Catholic writers, many of whom she knew had fallen into this trap. When a philosopher friend of mine held a weekly Catholic book study for parish ladies in Texas and asked them to read Kristin Lavransdatter, one lady came back distraught, “but she’s a bad girl!” No, Undset, told Catholic writers, “tell the truths you have to. Even if they are grim, preposterous, shocking. After all, we Catholics ought to acknowledge what a shocking business human life is. Our race has been revolting against the Creator since the beginning of time. Revolt, betrayal, denial, or indifference, sloth, laziness—which of us has not been guilty in one or more or all these sins some time or other? But remember you have to tell other and more cheerful truths, too; of the Grace of God and the endeavor of strong and loyal, or weak but trusting souls. Ad also of the natural virtues of man created in the image of God, an image it is very hard to efface entirely.”

Though the grim saga style of Gunnar’s Daughter is different from the style in The Winding Road, the angle of vision remains the same, but is only deepened by her conversion and the years of steeping in medieval life. Undset sees the full landscape of the natural world—one must marvel at her minute knowledge of it, which never becomes a mere stage set—and she sees history in its the pagan, modern, and Catholic dimensions all at once, with exactness and penetration. The characters are richly complex and alive—-in one sense, she has no minor characters. Each person appears full blooded and unsubordinated to plot, and in any few pages of her narration, one knows them as one knows oneself.

The world of The Winding Road is like that. Right away we are plunged into human life in all its social, psychological, spiritual, and political complexity. 1905 is a turning point in Norway’s history, when its parliament declared independence from Sweden’s monarch, who had ruled the joint kingdom for centuries. We meet the modern world in the constant collision of Paul Selmer’s mind with his mother’s and those of many others. Paul is a bright young man facing all the questions of human life with no guide of any kind other than the honesty of his native wit. He is a young man who observes the world around him, which most modern young men fail to do. It is always easier to simply call oneself a “liberal” and accept the current wave of opinion. As Socrates knew, that is the happy relativist way.

Such observation brings Paul to sharp conclusions, like this one: “People became so unbearably narrow minded when they were emancipated.” And in observing the political warfare of his day in the wake of the emancipation from the Swedish crown: “Socialism would probably triumph, because the whole tendency of the age—mechanical, technical civilization—was to place power in the hands of the most numerous, not the most intelligent.” Having no religious background whatsoever, Paul is nevertheless not willing to share the horror of his secular, atheist friends nor the thin platitudes of either traditional Lutherans or the gnostic progressivism of the more modernist Lutherans of the Norwegian State Church, most of whom sound like liberal Protestants in America or their next of kin, the modernist Catholics of the post-Vatican II era. Paul wants to know the truth.

All around him he hears the siren calls of the “new morality” of the modern age. “The new morality—all he could see was that it was spreading and shooting up merrily; presumably it was as old as the human race, as you can see when a forest has been cleared or trees blown down by the wind: the saplings that shoot up and spread have mostly been growing there before, in the shadow. In time the forest is there again—a new morality. That is to say, there are cases when the belt of the forest shrinks—wastes and pasture take its place. Then there is nothing to be done—in that way a country is impoverished, unless people are willing to make sacrifices and wait a long time for a return.”

In Norway that was, and is, a long wait indeed. As the Reformation blight spread to the North, the Catholic Church, made illegal, disappeared in a few decades. It was finally permitted and reappeared in the late 19th century, but as Paul sees, it is regarded with repugnance, as something only ignorant people could possibly join. Paul’s journey is a long one—complicated as such journeys often are by sex and love. But I think the reader will find what I have observed in all Undset’s writing from the early “realism” to her last tales. There are no false steps. I never find a scene, a dialogue, a narrative that does not ring true to the depths. In my essay on Dickens (, I emphasized that the whole art of true tale-telling hangs on one thing, what next? For only with a deep knowledge of human nature can the poet know that. And that is what makes for great fiction that captivates the human heart.

I hope that someone who needs The Winding Road will find it and read it. One word of caution. If you are a mainline Protestant or a cafeteria, modernist Catholic (same thing?), you will not easily recognize the Church to which Paul Selmer converts in Norway. It’s the real thing.

Stay tuned.

Note: Where does one get the novels of Sigrid Undset? All the great medieval ones have been in print, in many languages, since they first appeared. I suspect she is the most unknown and most read authors of the 20th century. I get most of the non-medieval titles from www.alibris,com, which I patronize for several reasons. They offer books for second-hand prices, and using them permits me to support small book sellers all over the world, something Paul Selmer would have approved. One has to check this site constantly, for out-of-the-way titles come and go quickly, especially the cheap ones. In this way I have been able to get inexpensive copies of Undset’s non-fictional works such as Catherine of Siena (this slightly marked up and dog-eared copy came from the Sydney Public Library which, like most public libraries today, purges good books, and Saga of Saints, a history of Norway through the lives of its many saints. This very clean copy came from the Villa Madonna College Library in Kentucky, which like almost all Catholic college libraries today, also purges the good books young people need. Happy hunting! To be a seeker after truth these days, one must build one’s own precious library.