A deceptive visit to the Danish capital brings Kevin Fitzgerald into the orbits of physics, philosophy, politics but no escritoire connected to Kierkegaard
1. In March of this year I was privy to certain communications divulging that the escritoire once owned by the Danish scholar Victor Emerita, famous for his literary collaborations with Søren Kierkegaard, was to make a rare appearance at private auction. It seemed that the Danish government was looking to fund a series of tax cuts, and was in the process of selling off a number of cultural artefacts from its public collections. The state had already been criticised for cutting 11 million of funding to literary projects: there is concern over a growing budget deficit, an ageing population, and a declining work force.
2. In photographs, I saw the escritoire still bears traces of damage on its right hand side sustained when Emerita, impatient to retrieve his pocket-book from a locked drawer whilst a carriage waited for him outside, forced it open in a fit of anger (a temper one can hardly credit him with). The accident was fortuitous one: it revealed the hidden stash of anonymous documents which, together with Kierkegaard, he would collate and publish under the title Either/Or. The two anonymous authors of these documents discussed their apparently opposed views on whether the world should be approached as sensual ephemera or an ethical problem. Their identity has never been established.
3. My contact was a Mr Vilhelm, an auction administrator who had access to a wealth of contacts and had kindly arranged accommodation in the old seaport of Køge, to the southwest of Copenhagen. The town has cobbled roads, ancient half-timber houses, a large market square and the staggered redbrick towers of Lutheran churches. In the past it experienced witch trials.
4. My hosts the Gotthausens – personal friends of Vilhelm – served pork loin and crackling. The dusk was long, cool, and light. Celebrating Easter, the Gotthausen children ran in circles and played computer games. The Danneborg is one of the oldest continually used flags in the world, and it is not uncommon to see it languishing on masts in suburban gardens – or rather a stretched, ribbon iteration. It is considered unpatriotic to leave the full-size Danneborg flying at night, and this modification circumvents that transgression. “Nations are an aesthetic idea, like race”, Vilhelm had told me. “As such they can be interpreted like works of art, but with real and dangerous consequences.” The right wing anti-immigration Danske Folkeparti – The Danish People’s Party – has one of the largest parliamentary majorities in Europe, and holds the balance of power in the Danish government.
There is a beautiful birch forest outside Køge. My visit coincided with the pale spring blossom of anemones which rested on the forest grass like a fall of sawdust. They glimmered against the eye while the slender birch trees carried on their repetition drama into the dark distance.
5. Vilhelm suggested we meet the next day in the troubled ‘Freetown’ of Christiania in Copenhagen. He was a man of slender build, and arrived late and short of breath. The district is constructed along the perimeter of a defensive moat dating from the 17th century, and throughout the 80s and 90s enjoyed a large degree of autonomy from the state. Devised as a ‘pioneer’ settlement, it is home to disaffected individuals wishing to emphasise their personal freedom, although how far this freedom went beyond smoking marijuana was unclear. Christiania was intended to be self-sufficient, however there is no evidence of cultivated crops, and electricity and gas is piped in from the city. There are inventive self-build houses erected by the idyllic waterside painted with the appropriate signs and colours of ‘counterculture’. It was bucolic and peaceful in the insistent warmth of the sun. “With its secessionary committee and its prohibitions and its wary town-folk,” said Vilhelm, “Christiania could be the kind of idealised township envisioned by the likes of the Danish People’s Party”.
6. At that moment Wilhelm walked ahead to receive a telephone call in private. When he returned he was sombre faced. The auction house was holding a closed viewing of the escritoire and it would therefore be impossible to examine it that afternoon.
7. I took advantage of this unexpected freedom to explore Copenhagen’s art world. As it happened I had an acquaintance in the city I had not seen for many years. I studied a Bachelors in Fine Art alongside David Risley, and some time afterwards he had opened a gallery in London where he had once exhibited paintings by our former tutor Michael Simpson. Now he had relocated to Copenhagen and opened a gallery in the Bredgade district. The city “punched above its weight”, said David, and this was apparent in the wealth of galleries located throughout the city. In the Overgaden, Sonja Lillebaek Christensen’s photographs and films asked us to imagine a continuum between “a shipwrecked Portuguese sailor, a fictional crime scene and a sampled male universe with roaring truck engines and heavy metal”. Leif Kath at the Weinberger showed modest abstractions whose off-kilter geometries both obscured and revealed deeper ones. Gerold Miller’s paintings at Martin Asbaek were slick interior fittings troubled by painterly illusion. “Painters must make ethical decisions when they represent the world,” I could hear Vilhelm saying.
8. We met the next day outside the house where the physicist Niels Bohr was born, at 14 Ved Stranden, a giant mansion overlooking the Danish parliament. Vilhelm was as ever somewhat preoccupied.
Bohr had shown how electrons migrate from high orbits to lower ones around a nucleus, releasing energy as they do so. The physicist, who was Jewish, had been instrumental in assisting the evacuation of Jews from occupied Denmark – one of the largest evacuations from any country during the war.
“The Danes”, said Vilhelm, “have a long history of contribution to the sciences”. It was the accuracy of Tycho Brahe’s observations that lead Johannes Kepler to see planetary orbits as elliptical rather than circular – a blasphemy to his own Platonic idealism. “It is a mistake,” said Vilhelm, “to see Science and the Church as historically antagonistic. The old Round Tower in Copenhagen’s centre – one of the first modern Observatories, was built as part of a church complex and library. Medieval Islamic scholars guaranteed the passage of Greek scientific thinking to Renaissance Europe”. Visibly excited, he said that the Moon landings were like the construction of the Pyramids of Giza: fantastic perversions only possible with “heavy doses of the irrational and ideological”. As such they were the ultimate “aesthetic projects”. I was not altogether sure what Vilhelm meant by this.
9. We ascended the corkscrewing gangway of the Round Tower. Halfway up an upper level of the adjoining church had been converted into a gallery space where a minor exhibition was underway. The artist had placed photographs of deceased acquaintances on music stands.
10. Vilhelm left it until the end of that day, a hot and bothersome sun on his face, to tell me that the escritoire had been sold to a private collector in the Middle East. I looked at him for some moments. How long had he known of this, I asked frankly. “Since before you arrived,” he replied, equally forthright. He shook my hand firmly and walked away.
11. I was obliged to spend my last night in Copenhagen in a dreary hotel room overlooking the giant and odorous Carlsberg factory. Vapour from its funnels was beard-white, and rose endlessly. The beverage – originally described by Orson Welles as “probably the best lager in the world” – has greater brand recognition than sales, so the company are ‘repositioning’ the brand. It was the Carlsberg Foundation, which still holds a fifty percent stake in the brewery, that was responsible for funding the Institute of Theoretical Physics where Niels Bohr worked as director. The luminous glow from the giant Carlsberg signage outside my window was brighter than moonlight, and more permanent.
12. I returned to London the following afternoon much chagrined. I was sad to say goodbye to my hosts – the worthy Gotthausens – but I submit this letter in the hope that further fraudulent correspondence with the suspect Mr Vilhelm may be avoided.