Is this a blog about failure? The question popped up in my head when I was browsing through my last few posts. I mean, I wrote about the poor Høyer, who owing to his pigheadedness lost his membership of the Royal Art Academy, his workshop, his clientele, and his good name. And I wrote about Jens Johan Vangensten, who hated his own poetry and never got anything published. I also wrote about Kjerstrup, who spectacularly failed at flying, twice, and had to flee the country because of it. Hultgren’s mural of Ragnar Lódbrok went up in flames. Tordenskjold failed to win a duel and died. Linnaeus failed to please the mayor of Hamburg. And Henrik Hertz even failed to fail.
Well, let me just say that I hope that all this does not in anyway predict the outcome of me defending my PhD thesis.
I just seem to be drawn to such stories, to historical figures who, despite their best efforts, did not make the cut and slipped into oblivion. It is pure joy to drag such poor souls back into the glorious light of eternal, immortal fame that is this blog.
Here’s a small selection.
A Wooden Arm
Great was my excitement – to name just another example – when I stumbled upon a certain Per Adolf Granberg (1770-1841) whilst reading an old Swedish literary history looking for more gems to add to my database. This Granberg was born without his left forearm, an inconvenience that was repaired with a wooden prosthetic. The missing arm was the only thing that Granberg had in common with that most famous of one-armed authors: Cervantes. Whereas almost everyone knows Don Quichote, I am quite sure that no person living today has read Svante Sture och Märta Lejonhufvud or Jorund or Carl Knutssons död.
I couldn’t restrain myself from giggling – knowing full well that handicap shaming is not woke at all – when I read a review of one of his other long-forgotten works, in which the reviewer maliciously quips: “Apparently, the author wrote this with his wooden hand.”
The Great Hans Ørn Blom
Particularly painful is the self-aggrandizing of Hans Ørn Blom (1817-85), who considered himself the best poet of his day. At the beginning of his career, he wrote an “impartial examination of our literature”, which was basically a long list of insults directed against his rivals, who, of course, in his eyes could not string two words properly together. A literary history from 1896 remarks: “If this is meant to be impartial, then we live in a world without bias.”
His bluntness brought Blom in a heap of trouble when he joined the Danish war effort during the First Schleswig War in 1848 and got himself in a fierce polemic with the Norwegian navy lieutenant Ketil Motzfeldt, whom he insulted so badly that he was sued for defamation. The case ended with Blom being declared mentally ill and institutionalized in a mental home.
Once declared fit, Blom entered into a conflict with a certain young man named Henrik Ibsen. At the occasion, he wrote the following lines, which, well, have not aged well:
But I am H.Ø. Blom – see, that’s the thing!
And you are Henrik Ibsen – and not more than that!
History has not been kind to mister Blom.
Only a Gust of Wind
In Stockholm there is a whole museum dedicated to one big failure. Built in the early seventeenth century by order of king Gustavus Adolphus, the ‘Vasa’ was intended as one of the most powerful warships of its time, a symbol for Swedish military might. Yet, once setting sail it lasted for no longer than 1300 meters before it started sinking. The construction had been way too unstable, the armaments too heavy. It needed just a gust of wind for the ship to be tipped of balance and the lower decks to make water. A crowd of thousands – including spies of Sweden’s enemies – witnessed the king’s prestige project going down like a house of cards.
The Shoulders of Giants
Your Google Scholar search engine has it that we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. Sir Isaac Newton once claimed something similar. That other beacon of wisdom – Wikipedia – interprets this metaphor as expressing the meaning “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.” In others words, we owe great debt to the great masterminds of yesteryear, because we have the luxury to learn from their ideas and inventions and move on from there.
Wikipedia, for once, is wrong.
We do not stand on the shoulders of giants, we stand on the scattered debris, the towering pile of sorry remains produced by the failed attempts and half-hearted schemes of the countless miserable dwarfs that went before us. They, the losers, the failures, offer the necessary contrast against which true genius stands out. Without Blom no Ibsen. Without Granberg no Cervantes. Without Vangensten no Ewald or Oehlenschläger. Without Høyer no Danish Golden Age.
In the best case, we learn from the mistakes the dwarfs made. Without Kjerstrup no Montgolfier brothers, no Wright brothers. Without Vasa no HMS dreadnought.
There is great comfort in all this: even if you fail you contribute to the progress of humankind. You can’t go wrong.
Now, let me finish my dissertation.