Culture matters: What we can learn from heritage and history
Dear readers and friends,
In his answer to the question, “What is culture?” the Austrian fin de siècle author Hugo von Hofmannsthal summed things up eloquently and to the point: “To know what is important, and to know what is important to know.”
Never have these words had more significance than at the present time, with notions of identity and culture being put into question. One might even question the validity of ethnic organizations in a society striving to integrate people of all origins and experience. Throughout history, minority groups have been marginalized in the United States and elsewhere, so one might wonder what the purpose of embracing an ethnic home culture is.
I would always argue that we learn from our cultural heritage and that we can leverage this experience to enrich the society in which we live. Today, being Norwegian is not just an ethnic identity: it is a way of life that can encompass all people, regardless of where they were born, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. And with our newspaper, we strive to connect you with the lessons of Norwegian heritage and how it influences the world around you.
So you might also be asking why I chose to quote a Viennese intellectual in The Norwegian American. There actually is a connection: In 1916, in the middle of World War I, Hofmannsthal made a trip to Scandinavia to lecture, with stops in Stockholm and Oslo. Notes from this tour provide interesting food for thought—even today.
While Hofmannsthal was profoundly proud of being an Austrian and a strong proponent of Austrian culture, he understood that the concept of a larger Europe had to supersede any notion of nationalism. He lamented the strife and bloodshed of his day, and above all, he envisioned a better world for all people.
For Hofmannsthal, participation in the whole was an essential part of self-preservation, to surrender one’s own individualism to a higher notion or supra-personal ideal. This theme goes back to his 1911 play Jedermann. Das Spiel vom Sterben des reichen Mannes (Everyman. The play of the rich man’s death), based on the medieval mystery play of “Everyman.” Its message is timeless, and Hofmannsthal’s play is performed each summer at the famous Salzburg Festival he helped to found.
Jedermann—Everyman—is the ultimate self-centered hedonist, whose selfishness and greed causes him to lose everything in life that could have given it meaning. His life ends in loneliness and utter despair. And in 1916, Hofmannsthal saw Europe being torn apart and in shambles, because countries could not overcome self-interest to come together to serve the higher ideal of harmony between nations.
As Norwegian Americans, we know that culture matters. It has taught strong values that we must uphold, that individualism can coexist with tolerance and freedom in a society that strives for a common good. These are important principles to guide us, as we navigate through the crises of the present day. Like Hofmannsthal did over a century ago, I urge you to embrace all that is good in your heritage to serve a common humanity.
Lori Ann Reinhall
Editor-in-chief, The Norwegian American
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.