Only now is the city we walk into
A clenched fist transformed
Only now is the street changed into a harbour
A windy song, the coughing of a demi-god
As a rule, I spent the evenings before work sitting at
a café on Øster Voldgade, near the Botanical Gardens. I had
a corner table by the French doors, with a view of the street and the shops
across the way. At that hour — roughly six — the sidewalks were busy with
young mothers on bicycles towing their babies behind them in little contraptions;
businessmen returning from the day’s calculations; drug-addicts emerging
from the shadows for their first (and perhaps only) meal of the day. One
could tell them by their dress, their haunted mein. I sipped my dark coffee.
The sun’s rays struck the buildings at tree-level. Leaves flickered in
the breeze. The café was a cavernous place, dimly lit, with low
Turkish-style sofas in the center. A large television screen dropped from
the ceiling to show World Cup matches. Usually the place was rather quiet,
with a few regular customers clustered around the bar. My waitress (Sigrid,
always Sigrid) brought me a press-pot of coffee, a small pitcher of crème
frâiche, and a brick of bitter chocolate, then she kindly disappeared
for an hour or two. Not sure why I chose this particular café, except
perhaps for the French doors, and the snug feel of my table.
I worked nights in the new library,
downtown, that sleek black-glass building jutting out like a prow over
one of the inland waterways. Part of my time there, I was doing research
for an article on the Young Mermaid, that fetching little statue of H.
C. Anderson’s character sitting just a few feet off-shore; specifically,
I was researching the vandalism she has endured over the years. Variously,
she has been beheaded (twice), splashed with paint (repeatedly), carved
upon, and, once, knocked off her pedestal with explosives, among other
indignities. Quite a litany of horrors to be visited upon a fictional character.
I wanted to understand why such abuses occur. I thought of the slashed
van Goghs, Mussolini’s decapitated Dionysus, Hustveld’s “Roméo.”
The Venus de Milo. What is it, in the human mind, that can cause us to
respond to art, to creation, with thoughts — with acts — of destruction?
What makes us opportunists for violence? Is there a daemon in the human
psyche that is opposed to the divine?
I was living, for that summer,
at the Niels Steensens Gymnasium, a Jesuit school on Sankt Kjelds Gade.
I had an upstairs room with a balcony view of the courtyard garden. The
exchange officer at my university arranged it for me, and the prefect,
Father Richard, was kind enough to give me the run of his attic floor.
His students were mostly gone for the season, working or doing their national
service. A few graduate students lived downstairs; they conducted themselves
with the obsequiousness of librarians. They seemed to pass their days in
deep scholarship of mystical origins. That is to say, I never saw them,
though I was aware of their existence. Presumably, they worked in the spirit
of the namesake of the institution. Niels Steensen, a 17th-century Dane,
worked as a scientist in Florence at the court of the Medicis; he established
the sciences of geology and crystallogy, but, more significantly, perhaps,
he made the discovery that the human heart is a muscle — thus uniting,
in a single stroke, the dualistic thinking of Descartes, among others,
about the world of matter versus the world of the spirit.
My days I spend traversing the
city on foot. I logged many hours in a stationer’s shop and a bookstore
in Old Town, near the statue of Kierkegaard. I walked the streets of other
nearby cities. One day I took the train into Odense, H. C. Anderson’s natal
village. The station sits just across the thoroughfare from the palace
grounds, where, on that day, a giant television screen had been erected
for the match between Denmark and England. Already, at roughly nine in
the morning, a thousand or more Danes had gathered, wearing flags and pelts
and horns and face-paint, and solemnly drinking beer. The day’s fortunes
would not improve. England won 5-2 in a physical game. Denmark was eliminated.
Slowly the crowd dispersed — the very strange spectre of Vikings wandering
through a modern European city. I walked down along the river, a slow-rolling
stream in the shadow of the cathedral, where the bones of former kings
are interred in the floor, or, as in the case of — was it? — Hrothgar II,
gathered in a small wooden boxwith a glass cover. I gazed directly into
the poor fellow’s afterlife, the long journey back to dust. One day I rented
a bicycle and rode down to Viejlby, on the coast, for a diversion. I rode
past the summer cottages in their bright colors looking happily out to
sea. A gentle rain began, rain pinging on the roof of the konditieri, and
on the ashes of last night’s bonfires. I called goddag to a fisherman in
yellow waders who looked dead-like the art critic John Berger, hauling
in his nets, hauling in his nets.
Evenings brought me back to the
café on Øster Voldgade. Sometimes these were the hours least
bearable. A writer has a brief span of good work each day, if that, then
there is the problem of what to do with the remaining twenty-or-so hours.
There is eating, and drinking, and making love. There is the inevitable
melancholy of sunset. Occasionally I would go walking in the Botanical
Gardens. Girls sunbathed half-naked. Families cooked sausages and potatoes
on their disposable grilles. Young men played soccer on the broad green
fields. Old people played a horseshoes-like game with small blocks of blonde