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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The hearths of Stockholm

Stockholmians, who are probably representative of the Swedish population in general in this respect, have a special relationship with fire. Urban Swedes (H and I haven't spent much time in the countryside, so we can't really say) use fire to signal welcome to passersby. Sconces for large, outdoor candles appear everywhere in the city.

Doesn't work quite as well as salt for deicing the sidewalk.

One finds such devices everywhere in Stockholm, especially in and right outside of restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs, and other nightlife spots.

Even the quirky cowboy bars use fire to say, "Hej!"

Of course, "nightlife" becomes a rather ironic term in the subarctic heart of a Swedish winter, since December and January witness the transformation of most Stockholmian life into nightlife. After all, during the deep winter, all the day's light becomes concentrated into a mere five hours.

While five hours of sun isn't quite as intense an experience as the true polar night one gets in, say, Kiruna, it still manages to mess with your circadian rhythms. And in Kiruna, naturally, one finds that the Swedish fascination with fire intensifies. Of course, in a city as large as Stockholm, there's always someone willing to take a charming custom too far (this outdoor structure consists of nothing but heat lamps and canvas).

Ever wonder what fast food feels like while waiting for you to show up?

The outdoor sconces are one of the most visible--because nearly ubiquitous--symptoms of the Swede's pyrophilia, but it also shows up in other ways. You can count on finding candles, for example, on every table of every cafe, bar, restaurant, nightclub, etc. in which you find yourself.

It can be a bit like having a sappy-song-rock-concert moment at every café.

Most home furnishing stores in Stockholm sell a surprisingly wide variety of tea-light sconces, ranging in style from classic to hip to... miscellaneous.

Flat-headed maidens, pinup girls, and Sikhs--there are evidently few limits when it comes to stylin' candle holders.

Additionally, I never really noticed it before, but I now agree with H that one way that mega-retailer Ikea stays in touch with its roots is to keep a special place in its heart for candles and candle-related gewgaws.

Students of architectural theory will recognize in Swedes' conflation of fire and welcome an oblique link to the history of architecture. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (ca. 80/70 BC - ca. 25 BC), known colloquially as Vitruvius, wrote what scholars believe to be the first earliest extant (thanks to AM for correcting me) treatise specifically treating of architecture--his so-called Ten Books on Architecture. In the first two paragraphs of Book II, Chapter 1 of his Ten Books, Vitruvius offers a mythological account of the origin of architecture (thanks to LC for the reference). I've added some emphasis to draw attention to the salient points:

THE men of old were born like the wild beasts, in woods, caves, and groves, and lived on savage fare. As time went on, the thickly crowded trees in a certain place, tossed by storms and winds, and rubbing their branches against one another, caught fire, and so the inhabitants of the place were put to flight, being terrified by the furious flame. After it subsided, they drew near, and observing that they were very comfortable standing before the warm fire, they put on logs and, while thus keeping it alive, brought up other people to it, showing them by signs how much comfort they got from it. In that gathering of men, at a time when utterance of sound was purely individual, from daily habits they fixed upon articulate words just as these had happened to come; then, from indicating by name things in common use, the result was that in this chance way they began to talk, and thus originated conversation with one another.

Therefore it was the discovery of fire that originally gave rise to the coming together of men, to the deliberative assembly, and to social intercourse. And so, as they kept coming together in greater numbers into one place, finding themselves naturally gifted beyond the other animals in not being obliged to walk with faces to the ground, but upright and gazing upon the splendour of the starry firmament, and also in being able to do with ease whatever they chose with their hands and fingers, they began in that first assembly to construct shelters. Some made them of green boughs, others dug caves on mountain sides, and some, in imitation of the nests of swallows and the way they built, made places of refuge out of mud and twigs. Next, by observing the shelters of others and adding new details to their own inceptions, they constructed better and better kinds of huts as time went on.
According to Vitruvius, fire--and more specifically, the hearth--lies at the origin not only of language and political discourse, but also architecture. Humans do not build, on this account, by themselves, but as groups, as communities. Architecture is not an art in the sense that painting or music are, but is rather the original complement of conversation. Humans converse and they build--and this is what defines them as human. And at the heart of the original human community is... fire.

While the Stockholmian sconces are certainly fun, there's also something profound about them. Virtuvius's myth suggests that the human fascination with fire derives not from our animal nature, but rather from that part of our nature related to our political (in the sense of social) and linguistic capacities.

If I don't move, no one will notice me among these lion sconces.

Persevering through the long nights of the Swedish winter requires of people that they exert themselves in being sociable. The entire city relies upon its warmth of heart, as well as its central heating, to survive the winter. The outdoor sconces promise hearths--which is to say, friends and conversation--within, and the table candles are little hearths, around which friends gather and conversation happens. While all cities are in some sense nothing more than oversized hearths, Stockholm celebrates this derivation brightly and openly. It's one of those revealing instances where a seemingly local custom reveals a universal human condition.


Al-Dawg said...

First off, it’s not Stockholmians – it’s Stock-HOMIES.

Secondly, the Swede's pyrophilia should have been obvious to you. Surely all of your informed readers are already knowledgeable about Abba’s hit song - Kisses Of Fire - track 10 on Voulez-Vous (Abba's Eurodisco album released in 1979).

Finally, as fascinating as sconces are (and please don’t get me started on those), I’m curious why your blogs haven’t concentrated a bit more on Swedish pop culture. I mean, the list of famous Swedes is quite impressive, and I don’t feel that you have devoted adequate attention to the contributions of Swedes to our everyday lives. Among the Swedes that I’d like to hear more about include:

 Björn Borg - tennis player and 11-time Grand Slam singles champion

 Elin Nordegren - former model (and nanny) and wife of Tiger Woods

 Annika Sörenstam – golfer and 10-time Major champion

 Ace of Base – 1990s dance-pop band that brought us “All That She Wants” and “The Sign”

And perhaps the greatest Swede of them all:
 Dolph Lundgren – actor who so deftly portayed arch-villain Ivan Drago in Rocky IV (as well as the title role in He-Man Master of the Universe)

Dre said...

I just want to correct a minor error in your post. It's not that Vitruvius' X Books is the the first arch'l treatise, it's just the only one to survive. Vitruvius plagiarized a handful of existing (in his time) Greek treatises.

J. Powers said...

Damn, Dawg... I'm pretty impressed with the list of famous Swedes. Was that off the top of your head or the result of dedicated research? I'm glad to know Dolph was Swedish. For some reason I always thought he was Russian...

J. Powers said...

Dre, thanks for the correction!