May 21, 2006

Iceland from an anthropologist's view

I just finished reading Icelandic Essays: explorations in the anthropology of modern life, by E. Paul Durrenberger (1995). He begins his book with a quote:

Long ago [1875] Richard Burton warned of a condition he labeled "Iceland on the brain," which overtakes some foreigners who get so romantically involved with Iceland that they see everything through rosy lenses.

I don't believe that this happened to W.H. Auden. To be honest, it has happened to me. But I anticipate that when I visit Iceland and fantasy becomes reality--rainy, cold weather and all--I will still be crazy about Iceland, even without rosy lenses. We'll see!

Durrenberger, let's call him Paul, explores the "Skipper Effect," Elves, the sagas and their effect (or lack of effect) on Icelandic society today, among other things. Paul, like Bill Holm, went to work on a remote farm in order to learn Icelandic. He went back time after time, because being an actual part of a working farm enabled him to not only to learn the language, but also to be able to draw anthropological conclusions based on personal experience and observation, rather than research removed from the source.

Paul has some unusual points of view as well as some ideas that I find a little reactionary. While I'm not an anthropologist, this book is geared toward the layperson. What I really liked about it is that it looks at Icelandic society from a very different perspective, and gave me a lot of fresh ideas to consider. His book could have benefitted from some editing, but it is a very worthwhile read. You won't agree with everything he says, but you'll find many thought-provoking ideas.

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