Odd Nansen died 45 years ago today, on June 27, 1973, age 71. I always feel that the anniversary of his death is an appropriate time to memorialize his life, and to try and draw lessons from it.
Although Nansen wrote several books during his lifetime, his sole “porthole” through which we English speakers can know him is through his incomparable diary, From Day to Day. I have written extensively about the importance of his diary as a diary in my Introduction to From Day to Day, and I have written several blogs about various aspects of diaries (here, here and here).
My good friend (and another famous writer) Samuel Hynes, in his most recent book, On War and Writing (which I have blogged about here), also touches upon the importance of diaries. Although his focus is on soldiers, the observation is apt for wartime prisoners as well. In an essay entitled “In the Whirl and Muddle of War,” he explains:
“There seem to be two quite different needs that produce war writing: the need to report and the need to remember. The reporting instinct operates as war happens, and appears in letters and diaries that at their best realize the unimaginable. [Nansen’s diary certainly does that.] But such documents are more than simply narratives. . . . Wars force their participants to confront the questions that life will put to them anyway, but not so bluntly: Am I a leader? Am I a coward? When required to act, will I fail? You don’t have to label this challenge the test of manhood (a term that is not in much favor these days); call it instead a test of maturity, or of selfhood. War confronts [one] with a challenge in terms that makes success or failure nakedly clear.
Life back home doesn’t often do that. So the letters and diaries . . . are also report cards; they say that this young man has taken the test, and has passed.”
No one reading Odd Nansen’s diary can come to any conclusion but that he was a leader, he acted when required, he took the test of manhood/maturity/selfhood, and he passed.
But the power of Nansen’s diary, in my opinion, is not simply as a report card of his success in passing the test of selfhood. To me, Nansen shows how an ordinary man can inspire each of us to overcome our own tests of selfhood. Nansen was no different than each of us. True, he was born into a notable Norwegian family, with a larger-than-life father. But nothing in his upbringing had prepared him, or could have prepared him, for the crucible he was to face during World War II. And yet he met that challenge, and defeated the forces of hate and fear arrayed against him.
Drawing yet again upon the insights of Sam Hynes, who writes in a subsequent essay entitled “A Critic Looks at War”:
“War is also the human struggle against human enemies—against Evil, Fear, Death itself. Against those enemies men have sometimes performed acts of great courage and self-sacrifice, qualities that we recognize as humanly valuable, even as we hate the wars that bring them into being. War stories are witnesses to such acts, not performed by heroes but by people like us. Like Wilfred Owen, we may pity our fellow humans, pitched into war scenes of such extremity, but like Hemingway we must recognize the dignity of what they do. They are ourselves, elsewhere; and their actions are our extreme possibilities.”
Next time we are faced with a moral conundrum, let us each remind ourselves, “What would Odd Nansen do?” Inspired by Nansen’s great courage and self-sacrifice while in the infernos of death that comprised the Konzentrationslagers of World War II, let us aspire to live up to the “extreme possibilities” that lie within each of us.