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Article by Aadu Ott and Lars Broman - 1988
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Aniara: On a Space Epic and its Author

Aadu Ott
Båtsmansv 11, SE-433 64 Partille, Sweden

Lars Broman
Stångtjärnsv 132, SE-791 74 Falun, Sweden

Harry Martinson's Aniara was published in 1956 and has given rise to several different stage versions but - strangely enough - not yet any movie. Most well-known is the opera version of Aniara by the Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl and with a libretto by Erik Lindegren; the opera had its premiere at the Stockholm opera house in 1959.

The first planetarium version of Aniara was produced by Björn Stenholm using music by Dmitrij Shostakovich for Lund's Planetarium in Sweden in 1988. It was followed by a rather different but still Swedish Aniara produced by Mariana Back for Kosmorama Space Theater in Borlänge, 1989. She used contemporary Swedish music by the electronic music composer Ralph Lundsten and others.

The show was well received, and in the meantime the translation of the Aniara songs into English by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg was well on its way. Back subsequently made a version in English based on their translation, a show that had a rather dramatic premiere on 16 July 1990 in the presence of Martinson's widow Ingrid and children, as well as the some 250 delegates of the IPS'90 Conference themed "The Boundless Planetarium" in Borlänge - the premiere was all but wrecked by a sudden thunderstorm.

One of the delegates was John Hare, then director of Bishop Planetarium, Bradenton, Florida. He liked the show, the story, and the poetry so much that he decided to produce a new Aniara planetarium show, which could be packaged and distributed to English-speaking planetariums. This show was completed and presented to the international planetarium community during the IPS'92 Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1992.

In the production, Hare co-operated with both Back and composer Jonn Serrie, Future Music, Atlanta, Georgia, who wrote new original music for the show. The lyrics used in the show were also this time by Klass' and Sjöberg's acclaimed translation. We were asked by Hare to write the text for a booklet with some background and explanatory information about Martinson and Aniara. With minor changes, it is the text from this booklet that follows.

Aniara continues to inspire composers and artists in Sweden. This spring a new stage version called Aniara - a musical journey in time and space has been shown to a large audience in Stockholm with music by Carl-Axel Dominique and featuring the internationally well-known musical artist Tommy Körberg. We hope that the publication of our text in the Planetarian will make a few more planetarians take an interest in Aniara, read the complete epic, and set up the Hare-Back-Serrie show.

The Author
The epic Aniara is one of the main works by the Swedish author and Nobel laureate Harry Martinson.

Martinson was himself an autodidact and had received his poetical experience far away from traditional academic circles. He was born in the southern part of Sweden in 1904. His father died when he was six years old and soon after, his mother left him and his five sisters and emigrated to America.

The children were left in custody of the society, which in the early 20th century rural Sweden meant that they were taken care of by the farmer who demanded the least money for taking them. This is how Martinson grew up and spent his childhood.

He went to sea at the age of sixteen and worked as a stoker, jumping ships every so often and drifting around the continents of the world by foot and by boat. This period of restlessness during the formative years of his life gave him a lot of material and life-lasting impressions which formed the content of his later writing. He felt himself a nomad without a home but at the same time feeling at home everywhere in the world.

Bad health made him return to his home country in 1927. Jobless and without formal education, he had a hard time in Sweden, sometimes even begging on the streets of Göteborg or sleeping out at nights in a tent of his own design in Stockholm.

He came, however, in contact with other young poets and initiated his career as an author. His marvelous style of painting with words and the hard but unique experiences of his life, which he was able to utilize in his writing, soon gave him a national and Scandinavian reputation as an author. "I have spent my whole life painting with words", he said later on.

Martinson married a female author, Moa Swartz, in 1929. Their passionate and stormy marriage lasted until 1940, and in 1942 he remarried and had two daughters with his wife Ingrid nee Lindecranz.

The autodidact, sailor and vagabond was elected into the honorable Swedish Academy in 1949. He also became honorary doctor at the University of Göteborg in 1954.

Martinson received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1974. The motivation for the prize was: "For an authorship that catches the drop of dew and reflects the Universe".

Harry Martinson died in 1978, thereby ending a fabulous life story in which he once started steam engines as a low-ranking hand and ended as a member in one of the oldest and most prestigious academies of the world.

Motives and Reasons
In the authorship of Martinson we encounter a world of intense and sensitive pictures of nature. In poetry as well as in prose he was able to catch the nature around him and transform his visions into poetry.

He wrote in Swedish, and it is difficult to make full justice to his poems in translation to other languages. Therefore he remained above all a Swedish poet.

The poetry of Martinson started with traditional themes, but his interest in the way the Universe worked brought these matters into his writing. He tried to make poetry out of modern science. This is a difficult task for a poet and is seldom undertaken.

He describes the difficulties for a person trying to understand what the Universe actually is like. "We know that we cannot adhere to earlier beliefs, but we do not understand the modern conception of the world".

Martinson is maybe best remembered as the poet who undertook the task of acting as a mediator between science and poetry, between the wish to understand and the difficulty to comprehend.

He was also utterly concerned about the strange dissociation of intellect and emotion in our culture and he wanted to bring into science that holistic way of thinking which is the essence of poetry.

For many years Martinson had a vision of writing a story about some kind of spaceship traveling through deep space. He had, of course, in this vision an idea of writing a story about life on spaceship Earth with its promises and shortcomings. The inspiration to start composing was, however, lacking.

In the year 1953 many events took place on the world stage. Among other things the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb; the United States had one already. The tension between the two superpowers reached a maximum with insurrections in Eastern Europe and military planes were even shot down. These events made deep impressions on Martinson. The final impulse for writing the poem Aniara came, however, from another and unexpected direction.

From Andromeda to Aniara
Martinson recalls himself that one night he was studying the Andromeda Galaxy with his small home telescope and found the nearby galaxy shining more intensely than he had ever seen before. He even went and woke his wife Ingrid so she could share this experience with him, but she was not especially impressed. This forceful experience of outer space turned his imagination towards his old spaceship.

Soon afterwards he began having the illusion of actually being in a spaceship. At first his feeling was chaotic and he felt himself filled with anxiety, but gradually the visions began to clarify themselves inside him, and the songs about Doris and Mima came into being in a couple of weeks' time. Doris is the name of one of the Greek god Oceano's daughters and symbolizes earthly fertility and womanhood. Mima comes from the Greek word for miming.

Harry Martinson dictated the story for his wife while lying on his back. He later commented on this with the words, "I am not making up this poem, it just reveals itself for me".

In the fall of 1953, Martinson published a collection of poems called Cicada. In the few weeks time the last section was changed and a part called "Doris and Mima" was added to the book.

The full story about spaceship Aniara was completed in 1956 and published later that year.

The name Aniara has been interpreted in several different ways. In his earlier poetry Harry Martinson sought a word which could name the strange space in an atom where the electrons moved around. This word later became the space through which planets and stars move. Aniara has also been interpreted from the chemical symbols for argon, one of the elements in air, and nickel, an element in the ground. As the letter a implies a negation, the word Aniara can be imagined to mean not in air and not on Earth; i.e. in empty space. Another interpretation is that the word contains several letters a, as in the word mama. This could be a sign of his lifelong longing for his mother who deserted him.

The Composition of Aniara
The epic contains 103 songs. The journey itself is described in 100 songs (2 ­ 101) divided into four sections.

The first song tells about the situation in the departure hall before the spaceflight to planet Mars.

In songs 2 to 29 the first part of the journey is described. This phase ends with the death of the Mima.

Songs 30 to 68 make up the second phase and tell about attempts to repair Mima and an attempt to recreate reality by creating a world of visions. This phase ends with secret wishes that the journey might come to an end.

Songs 69 to 80 constitute the third phase of the space odyssey and this part is dominated by memories about life on Earth.

Songs 81 to 101 make up the fourth and last phase of the space journey to its final end.

The last two songs are comments on the poetic cycle by the author.

The Aniara story makes a strong impression on its readers. It tells about a spaceship which meets a disaster and drifts into an eternal journey without an end. It is a story about modern man traveling in the outer and inner emptiness of himself. It can also be visualized as a picture of our modern civilization, characterized by its perfection of means but lack of aim.

Doris' "Land of Milk and Honey"
The culmination of the epos is found in poem 79:

We came from Earth, from Dorisland
the jewel in our solar system,
the only orb where life obtained
a land of milk and honey.
Describe the landscapes found back there,
the days those dawns could breed.

In this poem, Martinson describes his feelings for the planet Earth in a very sensitive way. Following his approach one could expect the poet to extend his lyrical picture of Earth, but he continues abruptly with the following lines:

Describe the creature fine and fair
who sewed the shrouds for his own seed
till God and Satan hand in hand
through a deranged and poisoned land
took flight uphill and down
from a man: a king with ashen crown.

This verse tries in a condensed form to transmit to the reader that feeling of reverence which the poet has towards the Earth and at the same time to give through the poem a warning that man is bursting the frames for life given by nature. He regards himself as giving a Cassandra-warning.
The author also calls attention to the fact that one can find protection from anything but mankind (poem 26):

There is protection from almost everything,
from fire and damage due to storms and frosts,
add whatever blows may come to mind -
but there is no protection from mankind.

One profound thought in the poem is that we, who inhabit the Earth, still possess a place to dwell and live in, as opposed to the space travelers in the doomed spaceship Aniara.

In a radio interview on the eve before the publication of Aniara, Martinson pointed out that what he wanted to say was just that we should be careful with the bountiful planet Earth, "We live in a Paradise, but we do not take care of it; that is the essence of what I want to say in my epic."

Departure and Disaster
The poem cycle Aniara begins with a song stating the background to the story:

My first meeting with my Doris shines
with light added loveliness to light itself.
But the simple truth is that my first
and just a simple meeting with my Doris
is now a scene that anyone can see
every day in front of him in every hall
funneling the refugees to lift-off zones
on forced migration to the tundra globe,
in these years when Earth has come to such a pass
that for her toxic radiation she's prescribed
rest and quiet under quarantine.

The Earth is thus made uninhabitable by pollution and radiation and the people are sent off to other planets to try to survive there until the Earth has recovered. The character Doris turns up in the poems in different shapes, first representing a female beauty to be loved and worshipped and later in the epic as the planet Earth and even as a symbol for life itself.

We observe the take-off of one of gigantic spaceships, the huge golgonder Aniara, which is due to make a purely routine start for Mars with 8000 people on board. The word golgonder can be interpreted in different ways, one being associated with the gondola of a balloon.

Golgonder Aniara's locked, the siren gives a wail
for field-egress by the old routine
and then the gyrospin commences towing
the golgonder upwards to the zenith light
where magnetrinos blocking field-intensity
soon signal level-zero and our field-release occurs.
And like a giant pupa without weight,
vibrationless, Aniara gyrates clear
and free of interference out from Earth.
A purely routine start, no misadventures,
a normal gyromagnetic field release.
Who could imagine that this very flight
was doomed to be a space-flight, like to none,
which was to sever us from Sun and Earth,
from Mars and Venus and from Dorisvale.

However, some time after lift-off a disaster happens, as told in poem 3:

A swerve to clear the Hondo asteroid
(herewith proclaimed discovered) took us off course.
We came too wide of Mars, slipped from its orbit
and, to avoid the field of Jupiter,
settled on the curve of I.C.E.-twelve
within the Magdalena Field's external ring;
but, meeting with a huge number of leonids,
we headed farther off to Yko-nine.
In Field Sari-sixteen we gave up attempts to turn around.

The description of the disaster gives hints to the poet's profound symbolic conceptions. He expresses his aim with the poem in disguised sentences which could be interpreted as follows:

There does not exist any asteroid named Hondo, but this name alludes to the Japanese island Honshu, where the first atomic bombs were dropped. The term I.C.E.-twelve could together with the words Magdalena Field be understood as mankind's attempt in an ice cold attitude to forget these events, instead of repenting as the sinner Mary Magdalene did.

A Journey to Eternity
After the disaster the spaceship drifts towards interstellar space with the steering system locked so that the nose-cone is pointing steadily in the direction of Lyra, the constellation of poets. The life supporting systems onboard are intact with heating, gravitation and lighting functioning properly.

Having overcome the initial shock of finding out the consequences of the disaster, the people on the spaceship are filled with horror because of the fate which is awaiting them. After a while, they manage to calm down and try to go back to the same habits they had on earth. They make attempts to live, love, and spend their lives in as normal ways as possible. As on Earth, different groups of people act in different ways. They start different cults, out of which the sexual one attracts the most people.

The continuing epic describes how the journey through space proceeds. Space is in this context regarded as the outer endless space surrounding the spaceship, but the journey also takes place in the internal space of minds of the travelers.

The spaceship is filled with echoes of its own past life and is thus a picture of our own world spinning in space, filled with history and artifacts of time gone by. In a subtle way Martinson describes how earlier cultures have existed and how explorations into science have been undertaken.

With profound symbols the author catches parts of the modern conceptions of the world, including strange notions like anti-matter, the curved Universe of Einstein and concepts from the microcosmos.

The Mima and its Tender
Situated in the center of the spaceship Aniara stands the Mima. This is a strange device:

The inventor was himself completely dumbstruck
the day he found that one half of the mima
he'd invented lay beyond analysis.
That the mima had invented half herself.

The way the Mima is working is also described:

And her electron-work pulls in,
electro-lenses give the screening-cells
their coded programs and the focus-works collect
the tacis of the third indifferent webe
and sounds and scents and images arise
from lavish fluxes.

The Mima stands for culture, poetry, and maybe also for the author himself. This is in contrast with the spaceship, which is a product of technology, a perfect technical artifact but in strong contrast with the life and nature. The Mima also has mind and conscience and is in this way completely different from mankind's other technical constructions.

The man tending the Mima is named the Mimarobe. He is not only the operator but also, as the Mima has a mind, its confidant:

I tend the mima, calm the emigrants
and cheer them up with scenes from far flung reaches,
of things in thousands which no human eye
could never dream of seeing, but the mima tells no lies.

During the travel into eternity the Mima is thus extremely valuable as it creates pictures and diverts thoughts from the hopelessness in the situation. It is interesting to notice that the Mima, contrary to the Mimarobe, nowhere is mentioned to have any influence on the technical operations of the spaceship.

The Mima is also a seeker and takes its visions from other places than the empty space they are traveling through. It also transmits pictures and scenes from other worlds, but never tells where those worlds are located.

Words Change their Value
The feeling of loneliness which the travelers have is described in the verse:

The empty sterile space provokes our horror.
Glass-like its stare encircles us.

The poet points out how words begin to change their values:

The word for Star has now become indecent,
the low names high for loins and woman's breast.
The brain is now a shameful body-part,
for Hades harvests us at its behest.

This is strong criticism of the purely intellectual development which is so important in our culture. In another poem the poet tells about the responsibility of the people in the foreship. They are the intellectual leaders and their responsibility is now eternal.

With these words the author wants to point out that after mankind has been able to break the seal of nature and succeed to utilize the powers hidden deep in the nucleus of the atom, a wholly different world situation has developed. Mankind has become hostage of those having the key to firing buttons of the atomic bombs.

In another context we may say that the same is valid regarding the storage of nuclear waste. The responsibility is now eternal for mankind to take care of these potentially lethal environmental threats.

Frenzy and Dancing
After the extent of the disaster has been clear for the passengers, a sense of desperation spreads around. A hectic and frantic dancing absorbs many of the passengers on board.

Even the Mimarobe is touched by this feeling and he dances with a young girl from Dorisburg, Daisy Doody, who tries to seduce him, lustily singing:

I'm no sleeping chadwick, Daisy pouts,
my pipes are working, I am flamm and gondel,
my date's a gander and my fate's a rondel
and wathed in taris, gland in delt and yondel.

And lusty swings the yurg, I'm led astray -
the grief I nurse might well be thrown away
upon this person who, full of yurg,
slings at Death's void the slang of Dorisburg.

In an interview, Martinson has pointed out that Daisy Doody stands for pure happiness without deeper reflection. In a later poem in Aniara the Mimarobe meets Daisy Doody again and she still has the same attitude to life. One could reflect that it of course is good to be able to be happy, but the picture Martinson paints of her is at the same time one of a stagnant character. Another point of view is that the yurg and the slang of Dorisburg is the manner Daisy Doody has, to keep disaster as a distance and to survive in these tragic circumstances.

Like a Bubble in Glass
One of the most profound poems in Aniara is the famous poem 13, in which the chief astronomer tells about deep space while holding a bowl of glass in his hand:

We're slowly coming to suspect that the space
we're traveling in is of a different sort
from what we thought whenever that word "space"
was decked out by our fantasies on Earth.

We're coming to suspect now that our drift
is even deeper then we first believed,
that knowledge is a blue naiveté
which with a measured quantity of insight
imagined that the Mystery has structure.
We now suspect that what we claim is space
and glassy clarity around Aniara's hull
is spirit, everlasting and impalpable,
that we have strayed in spiritual seas.

Our space-ship Aniara travels on
In something which exists
but does not need to take the path of thought:
a spirit greater than the world of thought.
Through God and Death and Mystery we race
on space-ship Aniara without goal or trace.
O would that we could turn back to our base
now that we realize what our space-ship is:
a little bubble in the glass of Godhead.

I shall relate what I have heard of glass
and then you'll understand. In any glass
that stands untouched for a sufficient time
gradually a bubble in the glass will move
infinitely slowly to a different point
in the body of glass, and in a thousand years
the bubble makes a journey in its glass.

Thus the astronomer compares the bubble in the glass with the spaceship Aniara. This is a way of trying to visualize the four-dimensional space-time structure of the Universe as described by Albert Einstein. The concept of a bubble in glass has also a bearing on microcosmic phenomena, and according to the physicist P. A. M. Dirac, anti-matter can be regarded as holes in existing matter. In an analogous way the spaceship Aniara van be regarded as a hole in an existing reality, a negative hole in a positive reality. The poem also contains a glimpse of Martinson's Taoistic view of life, "clarity is the cloak of the mystery", as well as a criticism of knowledge, "a blue naiveté".

The Death of the Mima
Suddenly the steady pace of the space travel is interrupted by a violent event, as told by the Mimarobe in song 26:

Then the mima is blinded by a bluish bolt
and I am struck dumb at events that pour
on wretched Earth; out here the lightnings bore
down through my heart as through an open sore.
And I the mima's faithful priest in blue
receive in blood run cold the evil news
that Doris died in far-off Dorisburg.

In this poem the faraway Dorisburg is destroyed in the final nuclear war and the faithful Mima shows this to the dumstruck passengers.

This is a turning point in the epic, and since the Mima has a conscience, as related by the Mimarobe in song 28:

She bade me tell the high Command that she
for some time had been just as nice of conscience
as the stones were. She had heard them cry
their stonely cries in distant Dorisdale.

Darkened in her cellworks by the cruelty
man exhibits in his hour of sin
she came as long expected, to that point
(as mimas do) of finally decaying.

The final word she broadcast was a message
from one who called himself the Detonee.
She let the Detonee himself bear witness
and, stammering and detonated, tell
how grim it always is, one's detonation,
how time speeds up to gain some prolongation.

This is the end of the Mima who dies as a consequence of mankind's cruelty. The original story, "The Songs of Doris and Mima" was told this far in the first publication in the year 1953.

Chefone and Isagel
In the year 1956 the complete version of Aniara was published. In this work the story continues.

A demonic dictator called Chefone turns up. He has doubtlessly been modeled after Hitler, and the name also has some hints to Al Capone.

A hard time starts for the intellectuals and especially for the Mimarobe, because Chefone is angered by the death of the Mima. Every dictator has a need of some sort of diversion for the people. The Mimarobe is thrown into jail together with other scientists, while non-intellectuals are ruling:

Chefone now ordered persecutions,
and I and many others were detained
in shelters farthest down in the goldonder
until the bowls of fury had been drained.

In an earlier part of the poem cycle, we had a short encounter with a remarkable person, the female pilot Isagel. She is also jailed together with the Mimarobe.

It is however not possible to keep such a high-tech construction as a goldonder in working condition without experts, and Chefone had to release the Mimarobe:

Then I was led out from the bottom jail
- the female pilot too was in those cells -
back into the holy mima's halls.

Love now unites the Mimarobe and Isagel:

And our eyes meet and lock, and soul to soul
we stand, unspeaking. Isagel I love heartwhole.

Later in the poem cycle we get closer acquainted with Isagel. She is a character who has a platonic background and she represents the pure intellect and incarnates the archetype of truth. Later on, the author tells us that Isagel is a reincarnation of the goddess Isis, who according to ancient Egyptian beliefs ruled over space and knowledge. Isagel is described as a parson with seemingly a contradictory personality. Through her intellect she is capable of the most profound mathematical studies but at the same time she is taking part in the sexual rites on board. In spite of her incarnation as a goddess she dies as told in song 88:

The candid spirit Isagel broke down.
A fevered demon rose into her eyes.
Her pupils widened towards her soul's deep well.
She heard appeals and echoes from far skies.

Unseen by us, she slipped away to where
the Laws of Aleph Numbers all are stored:
there infinite reserves are to be drawn on
when Chance approves, the world's new overlord.

The last verse alludes to the modern concepts of the world where chance and probability have substituted determinism. The verse can also be interpreted as a hint to the start of the Universe by an immense primordial explosion, the Big Bang, when space, time and matter were simultaneously created.

Later on the Mimarobe understands that Isagel was the very soul of the Mima.

Some Others Aboard Aniara
We also make acquaintance with another female person, Nobia, who is the archetype of mercy and kindness, a sort of Florence Nightingale in space. Typically enough, Nobia never enters the goldonder Aniara, as she is there only in the form of a tale. There is no mercy to be found on board the spaceship Aniara.

A third female character is the blind poetess from Rind. She sings very beautiful songs and represents the eternal archetype of beauty. She has the talent to make up the most beautiful songs, but the listeners are critical of her songs:

Enthralled, we listen to the sightless maid.
Then several speak from where they stand, tight-lipped:
What lovely words she summoned to her aid.
What lovely words she came upon in Rind.
But merely words they are, and merely wind.

In the songs we also meet a group of beautiful Women who practice the art of love. Libidel, Heba, Yaal, and Chebeda are all leaders of the sex cult. This is, however, a sexuality of the same kind that is shown in the movies, only for the sake of lust but without any biological purpose of reproduction. For example, the name Chebeba of one of the courtesans means "chi baby", i. e. no baby. The dancing is also preferentially taking place in front of mirrors; it is a self satisfying and exhibitionistic self-centered eroticism as told in song 36:

And there's Chebeba in a yurghic ring,
whirling towards the mirrors' Not-a-thing,
where dance eightfold Chebebas to and fro,
with breasts and feet repeatedly on show.

The engineer, mentioned in this poem, is an expert on yessertubes. This gadget is nothing we know in a technical context. But if we instead consider the word yesser, we might pronounce it as "yes sir". The poet obviously means an engineer who on all occasions is willing to put his ability at the hands of those in power. Another subtle point in this poem is the use of an exact date in an empty space where days have no meaning.

Hardness of Life
Eventually the hardness of life in space affects the travelers more and more, as described in song 35:

But space's rigor drives us into rites
and alter-services we scarce performed
since pre-goldonic times now half-forgot.
And Aniara's four religious forms
with priesthood, temple-bells and crucifixes,
vaginal cult and clamorous yurghing-girls
and tickler-sectaries forever laughing
appear in space, jostling one another
for the eerie deserts of eternity.

And I in service as the mimarobe,
the one responsible for all illusions
burst now, make room in Mima's sanctuary
and recoil their spectacles and sounds
when libidine joins with voluptuary
to snare their god in orgiastic rounds.

We notice that at this stage the Mima, which already has lost its originality and become just an onboard movie with the only aim to create distractions, is degraded even lower and that the different cults even take possession of the holy hall of the Mima.

The Files of Thought
In poem 44 a little hope for the space journey arises:

In Chamber Seven are the Files of Thought.
Scant attendance. Still, there are things there
worth thinking over many times on end.
There is a man they call the Thinker's Friend
who gives to everybody so inclined
the fundamentals of the laws of mind.
He points in sorrow to a group of thoughts
which could have saved us if they had been set
to work upon the soul's development
but which, since soul was not much evident,
were hung up in oblivion's cabinet.

But as our days of vacancy would drag
someone always came here and besought
a look at this or that old line of thought
which, given a new twist, could briefly snag
new interest it too would flag.

When Martinson was asked to comment upon this song he said that he had the Sermon on the Mount in mind and its request to do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you.

Space Cadets
On board the spaceship a daily routine is tried, song 62:

We try the wheel of a routine. I lecture
to space cadets upon the Gopta theory.
Through the vista windows suns look in,
apparently composed, although we know
the thunderous roaring in their roentgen-forge,
their weltering in the eternal gorge.
And while inside my head I hear them booming
like fearful drumbeats in the war which light
forever wages on the dark's great might.
I hear my own voice answer, pussyfooting,
the Gopta questions I had just been putting.

"It took this epoch's re-evaluations
and new expansion of the tensor system
to open up the possibility
of finding the proportioned symmetry
which by the Gopta formula through qwi
was simplified and proved the right approach
for every longer trip in heaven's coach."

In this poem we are presented a picture of a dynamic astronomical event in the grand scale. The Gopta is an art consisting of the most profound aspects of science. The formula Gopta through qwi ia a form of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. A hint is also made to old Manichaean traditions of the eternal war between light and darkness, a motive found in several of the songs.

For Martinson, one essential motive which we encounter every now and then in the epic is the motive of a town annihilated by an atomic bomb. In poem 64 is told:

Hear us who from Xinombra
harrow you with memories.
We dead ones wise too late
harrow you with visions.

The stone of wisdom
contained in the slaughter mask of genius
hit Xinombra City in the heart
which died a third time.
Oh, that jewel.

The author tells how cold, intellectual mathematics results in the hot inferno of an atomic explosion and he asks where those are who were responsible for this. The stone of wisdom is an alchemic concept for a wondrous matter which could turn, for example, cheap lead into precious gold.

In order to get rid of this vision the passengers start using drugs, song 66:

Deeper and deeper each one among the doomed
found the Eden I must herewith name.
But every time our opiates were consumed
and paradisal visions were dispersed
in the shrieking Xinombrano's burst
all sworn to vengeance for Xinombra's shame.

This song has an origin in the ancient tale about how Orestes, after murdering his mother and her lover, to refuge in Delphi, but was haunted by the goddess of revenge.

Degeneration and Decay
As the space travel continues, things become increasingly worn out, and many passengers are dying. The vast halls of the golgonder are cold and empty as told in poem 99:

I paced the halls and it was very late,
paced Mima's hall one night and I was cold.
Still colder, far from all things temperate
roared memory in my soul for Dorisworld.

Ever more mute and numb lay Aniara's ship:
a proud goldonder once, now sarcophagus
which, having lost all power, through empty space was flung
in line with the loxodrome
to which in her fall she clung.

Here is another allusion to the curved Universe where all and everything just falls eternally along lines in the geometry of four-dimensional space-time, which the author here names loxodromes.

Life Ceases on Aniara
The end of the journey is approaching in song 101:

That was our final night in Mima's hall
Self after self broke down and disappeared;
but while the self had not ceased to be
the souls will come more clearly into view,
extricating time at last from space
and lulling fast asleep the Doric race.

In one of the last poems, 102, the author lets the Mimarobe express his visions about what future he had wanted for mankind:

I had hoped to make them an Edenic place
but since we left the one we had destroyed
our only home became the night of space
where no god heard us in the endless void.

In an earlier version Martinson had tried to have a happy ending of the epic. "But as little as a furnace forgives the child who places his hand on a hot plate will nature forgive mankind for its behavior when mankind is breaking the cosmic laws", is the comment by Harry Martinson when asked why the tragedy had to be fulfilled.

The author expresses the difference between the physical laws which are valid in the cosmos and the fundaments for life in song 102:

The firmaments' eternal mystery
and wondrous physics of the constellations
are law, but they are not the gospel truth.
Compassion flourishes at life's foundations.

Martinson comments on this song in an interview: " Aniara is a cruel epic. It gives the law, but not the gospel. When it has gone so far with mankind as in Aniara, then we will not get the gospel easily. We may only regain it by making repentance."

The author describes the ultimate end of the space journey in the final poem 103:

I turned the lamp down, I appeal for peace.
Our tragedy is done. Occasionally
I've used my envoy's warrant to release
views of our fate through the galactic sea.
With undiminished speed out to the Lyre
for fifteen thousand years the spacecraft drove
like a museum full of things and bones
and desiccated plants from Dorisgrove.

In our immense sarcophagus we lay
as on into the empty sea we passed
where cosmic night, forever cleft from day,
around our grave a glass-clear silence cast.

Around the mima's grave we sprawled in rings,
fallen and to guiltless ashes changed,
delivered from the stars' embittered stings.
And through us all Nirvana's currents ranged.

Many years have passed since Harry Martinson wrote his epic cycle. We can follow his thoughts and even locate the origins of them. In the foreword to the edition from year 1963 he writes that Aniara is a product from his imagination and composed by his contemporary time.

One could speculate over the question of what such an epic would look like today. Do we have all the threatening problems still around us? Have we learned to live with them, or do the prospects for life look better today than in the mid-fifties?

Even if the epic cycle did not have that false happy ending which we have been accustomed to from the cultural products originating from Hollywood, still just the mere fact that Martinson undertook the mission of writing the poetic cycle Aniara is a positive sign in the strange brightmare the world has turned into.

Excerpts are made from:

Harry Martinson, Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space. Translation by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg, Vekerum, Box 237, S-240 15 Södra Sandby, Sweden 1991. (The book is e. g. available through the internet bookstore

As general sources we have used:

Tord Hall, Naturvetenskap och poesi, Bonniers, Stockholm 1981.

Sonja Glimset Hall, Aniara - studiehandledning för skolor, Vekerum, Södra Sandby 1991.

Erland Lagerroth, Aniara - en dikt av sin tid, Vekerum, Södra Sandby 1991.

Gunnar Tideström, Ombord på Aniara, Aldus, Malmö 1975.

Johan Wrede, Sången om Aniara, Bonniers, Åbo 1975.

This text was originally published in 1992 jointly by Bishop Planetarium, 201 10th Street West, Bradenton, Florida 34205, USA, and Broman Planetarium, Kärnvedsgatan 11, SE-416 80 Göteborg, Sweden.

Reprinted from the Planetarian, Vol 27, #2, June 1998. Copyright 1998 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.


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