The man with the tattered coat opens his briefcase, taking out a few sheets of paper and walks round the room to offer them to some of the customers seated at the tables. Probably an insurance salesman looking for new customers he can hoodwink into buying his very latest special offer. 30 years ago, Hresso café was far from busy in high season. The tourists had yet to arrive, while most Icelanders spent their holidays in the far-flung corners of the earth, giving young people a chance to earn a bit of pocket money during their holidays. At that time, Hresso café was therefore mainly popular with scribblers, who spent hours there filling sheets of paper with their words, leaning on one side next to their white iron coffee pot. At this time, you could only buy alcohol in State shops, and coffee was still served in large half-litre pots which kept the scribblers from dehydrating over the next four hours. What’s more, it was not recommended to drink too many pots of this powerful beverage, and those of you who have survived the nightmare of caffeine poisoning, know what I am talking about.
Ragnar struck up a lively conversation with the man. As it turned out, he was not an insurance salesman, but a poet trying to sell his latest poems. The man wanted to know if his poems were not good enough, since Ragnar had not bought a single sheet, to which Ragnar replied that he already had these poems, before closing with these words: ‘He is a child of society’
Haldor Laxness, had already developed philosophical considerations on the term society. In his book ‘Í túninu heima’, he looked into what might really be meant by this word:
‘Society didn’t even exist when I grew up. Today, we would like to believe that it exists, in order to improve it, despite the fact that its address is unknown and it’s impossible to summon it to a court. A while ago, I asked an intelligent acquaintance, if they knew what type of association society was: the people, the Government, the parliament, or perhaps the sum of these? My friend frowned, then finally answered: “Doesn’t this word rather refer to the police?”
Today, subsequent generations know that while society does indeed exist, it cannot be improved. Because what Albert Einstein said holds true: “To be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep, one must above all be a sheep oneself”. To which Niklas Luhmann added:
“ … What is really misleading about the mental state of members of society is the convergence of their ideas and concepts. We naively think that if most men share the same ideas or feelings, these must be fair. Nothing is further from the truth. Convergence on its own is no guarantee of intelligence or mental health.”
Society can be described by the fact that its members have activities that are successful enough to attract attention. As for attention, it can be measured by the mental state as recorded by the daily TV ratings. Over time, we have simply forgotten that communities originally formed in order to find sufficient food, protect themselves from the threat of other species and learn from one another. With the disappearance of these needs, these healthy tissues have become cancerous tumours which we refer to as a society. For example, if we were to compare the relationship between the number of people killed in the name of good, and those killed in the name of evil, we would find this difficult, because of those whom we don’t consider as criminals.
The white iron coffee pots of yesteryear have long since disappeared, along with the scribblers. Café Hresso is now always busy and full of young people and tourists who prefer coca-cola or a yellow liquid that has a certain resemblance to beer.
And the man? He is still there. However, now he stands in front of the door, against the wall, next to the ’Austurstræti stand. The poet and painter Bjarni Bernharður still sells his self-published poems (Egóútgáfan), now available in the form of bound collections, together with a bar code and a ISBN number.
The kiss of the bat
I was living
in a dark cavern
in my childhood
When the bat
That warm kiss
sealed my destiny
I took the path
of cold nights
on the boundary
between light and darkness
Bjarni Bernhardur sells his latest collection ‘Koss Leðurblökunnar’, with his own illustrations for 2,000 crowns, but he also has English versions of his poems, for tourists. There is no greater proof that in his sixty-fifth year of life, Bjarni Bernharður is still a hopeless optimist.
Translation: Jackie Dobble