The Trollish Theory of Art

A scandifuturist art creation myth

Kittelsen, Theodor, “Trollet på Karl Johan – The Troll on Karl Johan” (1892)

Studying Nordic folklore, one gets the sense that the performing arts were communicated and taught by dark, subterranean powers. The recent ancestors of contemporary Scandinavians lived in a world where the devil was a fiddler and the malicious water spirit known as nøkken, or the nix in English, could be heard playing sweet and seductive jigs from waterfalls and streams. It was said that he offered apprenticeships to those who dared bring him a sacrificial meal. But these entities do not represent creative independence and freedom without compromise: The devil is unable to perform his devilish deeds single-handedly – he is powerless without the initial consent of either god or man – and the nix possesses, like most goblins, wights and trolls, a murderously ill disposition towards mankind. Trolls and their ilk are not known for their innovation, and are in fact utterly passive creatures that must be coaxed or driven to action. Then, one might ask, what do wights and devils have to offer us? The answer is nature. They illustrate that man in one way or another must approach and confront nature if he is to realize culture. And since nature is rather suspicious, poisonous, capricious, etc., it is represented by such clandestine, anti-cultural agents.

Since trolls first and foremost are beings of nature, they are not motivated by cultural concerns. But though they are anti-cultural, they don’t thereby exist in a culture-less vacuum. Nature and culture reside in a mutually destructive relationship to each other, and one could say that the culture of the troll, as it were, is a reactionary necessity. They coil around one another. Norse poetic theory reveals that the shape-shifting nix was originally perceived as a mutant: a creature that was half one thing, half something else, as addressed in Kunstforum 1/2017[1]. The medieval Icelandic poet and chronicler Snorri Sturlusson thus referred to the aesthetic ideal of pagan poetry as nýkrat: “nixy”, because its metaphors were constructed out of opposed elements – poetic, anti-naturalist mutants.

The perception of art in Nordic folk tradition up until the industrial revolution – the era Norwegians refer to as Det store hamskiftet (literally “The Great Shape-shift”) – may be considered an off-shoot of one we see even in Old Norse and Viking Age sources, and can still be traced in language today. This might seem like a bold statement. But languages reveal metaphors and deep psychological concepts and ideas that are often difficult to identify directly, but can be unveiled in etymology and euphemisms.

We usually apply negative connotations to the word “darkness”. To most of us, these lean towards uncomfortable, more or less anxiety-provoking subjects. Many of us are afraid of the dark, but darkness is also associated with seductive moods, instincts and subconscious pulls. The Norse realm of the dead, Hel, has the same etymological root as huldra, a seductive and dangerous subterranean spirit in Nordic folklore. Both words mean “the hidden”. It is precisely to the blackest underworld that gods and men alike must journey to retrieve knowledge and inspiration in Norse mythology.

“That trolls dwell in men is a fact known by all who have an eye for such matters,” wrote Jonas Lie in the introduction to his anthology of supernatural stories, Trold (“Trolls”) in 1891. To whichever end we may ascribe human personality traits to wights and trolls, it will more often than not appeal to our worst natures. The things we would rather hide. Greed, laziness, envy, exploitation or seduction. Any behavior Christianity considers sinful, comes naturally to the troll. Pursuing these metaphors, we may begin to discuss subterranean characteristics. The subterranean is where the trollish has its roots. The trollish doesn’t necessarily reside in the underworld itself, but relates to it much like the Sicilian mafia does to America. And nature is trollish in itself. Thus we may consider trollish personality traits, deeds, impulses, and patterns of thought. And, not least, we may consider trollish aesthetics. A trollish paradigm, not only for understanding art, but also mankind’s masochist struggle between order and chaos, nature and un-nature.

Kittelsen, Theodor “Trolltog – Troll train”

But before we can approach such a “trollish theory of art”, we must return to the beginning. As this is a theory that is best described in a metaphorical light, it is necessary that we spend part of the article within the confines of a mythological Scandifuturist reality, where laughable, eye-rolling terms such as troll will be used with total sincerity.

The Pre-Cosmic Room
In the beginning was Ginnungagap. The room without doors, windows, floor or ceiling. There was no art on the walls. In fact there were no walls either, but the room had two corners: one was hot and dry, the other cold and humid. In the middle of the room a poison fumed, dripping from the cold humidity. Out of this poison sprang a cow, and then a creature with arms and legs: Ymir, “He-Who-Hums”. Without kin, and of uncertain sex. The tooting primeval giant was not long alone, for new beings oozed from his sweating pores, and they looked a lot like himself. They were much smaller than Ymir, though small is probably a misnomer in this scale. His limbs and members fucked each other, and became with child. Children sprung forth in increasing numbers. Some had seven arms, others three legs, nine hundred heads, cauliflower ears, pig-eyes, and concave, inverted faces.

One day, a dewy rock came hovering. A salt block, cold and humid, levitated through the room without walls, through a window that did not yet exist. The cow began to lick away at the salty boulder, and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if a new creature didn’t pop out of that too. A practically perfect and symmetrical being – a god. Búri, “He-Who-Shapes”. He settled down among Ymir’s kin, called the jötnar (singular jötunn), or giants. He got laid too, and from this line a new people sprung called the æsir, the gods. Odin, which somewhat simplified means “mind” or “ecstasy”, lived there with his brothers Vili and in the æsir diaspora, who, despite some genetic relation, had little in common with their trollish neighbors.

Now it was getting hard to breathe in there. It was getting crowded. There were wights of all kinds. Ogres, trolls great and small, and buckets of jötnar. Grotesque critters who cried and chuckled, scratched, yanked, and bit each others’ tails. They shrieked and farted with rivalry in an eternal cacophony without beginning nor end. Yet, for the most part they were drowsy and did nothing at all. They merely sat there and trembled, so hard that they began cracking at the touch, while Ymir did their eardrums in with his incessant tooting. His atonal shriek was incomprehensible. It was so cramped and loud that one could hardly even hear oneself think. All was white noise and entwined, asymmetrical anatomies in this massive room of no ambition.

Then one day the gods decided they’d had it with this damn mess. They’d had it with time and space without direction, and so they killed Ymir and ripped him apart, piece by piece, limb by limb, so blood and guts spattered in all directions. That was the day that culture came to Ginnungagap. The jötnar clung for their lives to each hair of the primeval giant’s convulsing hulk of a body, members and genitals contorted in postmortem spasm. Severed feet and elbows stampeded across Ymir’s own carcass, without even a floor to fall on. Ginnungagap was filled with billions of ogre cries, both ear-deafening and faint, as their ancestral father trampled them all into oblivion. Their lifeless bodies flushed into the toilet of eternity by the blood that spilled out onto the anti-floor, flooding the pre-cosmic room. But the gods kept their cool. They squeezed the juice out, weighed the body down, tugged and broke it apart until a landscape revealed itself. The flesh was torn from the bones, standing tall as mountains. They fashioned the sky from the skull of the ancient giant and exhibited it in the heavens. Thus the world was created; an assemblage of bones and innards.

New life, new floras emerged. First natural, then artificial life. The few wights, ogres and trolls that survived the bloody deluge sought shelter in glens, caves, under bluffs, or in the deepest recesses of the earth. The gods engineered creatures of their own to toil in the various cosmological tasks. Once they had separated night and day, land and sea, they dug ditches, timbered houses, tilled the soil, ate food, drank drink, played games, and recited verse. But this was not enough, for the gods had much to do, and were too busy to populate the earth – the very frontline of the eternal war of gods and giants. They created man and woman, dull and impotent beta-copies of themselves. The humans impersonated the gods, but were ultimately fragile and unimpressive. The fact remained that their dependency, as well as their tendency to die like flies, was seen as a benefit by the divines, who desired no competition.

Mankind was separated from wild animals by virtue of their intelligence, consciousness, and self-destructive neurosis. We stood lodged in the middle between over-, middle-, and underworldly powers. While we descended from gods, we lived among trolls. It was inevitable that troll’s blood, too, came to pump through our veins.

We live in a world of time and change, where nothing stands still. The polar opposite of the pre-cosmic space. Quite unlike the world of ideal forms postulated by Plato, there were no archetypes in Ginnungagap that defined the ideal shape of a fish, or differentiated it from a chair. It demands that the pre-cosmic state is described through allegory and negation. Nonetheless, order would never occur if chaos did not allow it. We live in a world pretending to cater to humanity, though it exhibits cold animosity against us at every turn. That is why we saw the need to move indoors, assemble in cities and villages, make fences, till the soil and lay tarmac.

Thor, Hymir and the Midgard Serpent. Source: Wikimedia Commons

To the gods, art was the ultimate goal – to fashion a completely artificial world. But we don’t live in such a world. Art, in one sense, is the opposite of nature. The troll, whether it lives in so-called nature or within ourselves, forces itself to the surface as often as it can. There was a time when they lay with broken backs, in the mythological golden age, but that was long ago. Man was there when the troll rose again.

They want back, not to a world of yesterday, but the day before yesterday—to the primordial, boundless gap. They have not forgotten Ymir. Potent and vitalistic culture is microbial compared to the natural universe. In the Norse sagas, chaos and disorder are symbolically depicted as natural landscapes, uncultivated land and forests. People cannot live there. They must chop it down and make order, or die. The founding of any society relies on access to resources. We cannot get by without raw materials.

Apocalypse sooner or later
If we take the mythical timeline seriously, then the Eddas[2] seem to imply that nothing is sustainable. The gods realize that it’s not a question of whether or not the world will end, but for how long they can stall the inevitable. A wholly different world had to be destroyed for our world to be created.

Ragnarok, the end of the world, is the conclusion of a spiral of violence, an endemic conflict that has raged since the world began. It is revealing that the first creative act came in the form of a murder. In Viking society, the extended family suffered collective blame if one member was found guilty of murder. You could scold your relative and damn them to hell, but you couldn’t flee your blood ties. And here you might have thought that your family was a hassle to deal with. Still, your hands are also tied to culture. We are liable for it, and it provides us with a safety-net which guarantees a certain level of physiological, mental, and social health, which is the opposite of nature – and I mean the raw, non-recreational nature – and her promise of permanent, inhumane stress.

All culture is an enemy of nature by implication. The need to create art is a need to defeat nature, and to say that cultivation is necessary. That nature is not enough. Art insists on comment. Trolls don’t. But the tension between the artificial and the organic is crucial, not only for art to exist, but for the world to exist.

The end is foreshadowed in the mythology as well as the third law of thermodynamics. We expect that entropy will make the universe uninhabitable in a few trillion years. Not that we need to worry about that – we are already well on our way to turn Earth into Swiss cheese ourselves. A tug of war also rages within nature itself, between competing forces with no relation to human activities. All is poisoned by energy, competition and the transfer of power. Opposing pairs rub against one another, nothing stands still.

Kurtz, Veit Laurent, “Salamanderbrunnen, High Line_Mutations” (2017) Foto Timothy Schenck

The gods must frequently travel beneath the earth and visit the jötnar (who for simplicity’s sake are often called giants, though this is inaccurate). They never create anything on their own, but passively accumulate artifacts and stray seeds of culture. The interest trolls and jötnar have in these items, is measured only in their value as weapons that could be used against us, to settle the score and make primeval forces great again. The jötunn – raw, unfettered, anti-cultural nature – hate our guts. They corrode culture. But in actuality, nature’s hunger retaliates against the pain it suffers at the hands of culture. They eat each other.

Language reveals which team humanity plays for. Jötunn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *h₁ed-, which means to eat. Nature is ferocious and insatiable, seen through the eyes of culture. Right back at ya, says nature. When cities are evacuated, they get overgrown. Nature bites and gnaws itself in. But it can be seen from the other side, too: culture chomps away at nature. Developed land, whether we are thinking about cities or farmland, is a kind of gentrification of the landscape. An agricultural field is wilderness subdued, a slave, of sorts, to culture. Crops and livestock live in a symbiotic relationship with people within the confines of culture. People tend to them and protect them, while taking nourishment back from them. When humans are gone, gardens collapse and crops are overrun by weeds. The opposite is true in the case of certain GMOs, which overrun naturally occurring plants unless kept in check, and are as difficult to control as any weed.

The Eddic poem Völuspá describes a golden age where the corn sowed itself, which is what wild plants do to survive. The ideal is an artifice that imitates nature, but is segregated and self-maintaining. It would seem then, that culture and nature have things in common, like the æsir and the jötnar do. Their mutual relationship is reactionary in the sense that the giants are forced to reinvent their own tactics when faced with the gods. It becomes a sort of dance where culture assumes the same organic methodology as the nature from whence it sprung, though culture is a rebellion against nature.

Into the Tame
Some have this idea that, in the past, people lived close to nature. They imagine that pagan Scandinavians practiced a so-called nature religion. I don’t think the pagans would recognize such a description of themselves.

The city is an expression of the same desire that the gods expressed when they kicked Ymir straight in the eye, and hung the veil between order and chaos. Though the experience can be very different, there is no essential distinction between building a farmyard and building a city, or between living in a turf hut or living in a skyscraper. Mega-cities are extreme expressions of the same impulse that drives mankind to clear forests. The weed of culture takes root where it can. If the gods could, they would free themselves entirely from nature. Mankind would live in sterile, white cube gallery-like dwellings, drink and play day and night, and get all their nourishment from obedient GMOs. There would certainly be no need for the gods to travel far and wide in order to beat the crap out of trolls. The transdivine city hovers above, without ever touching the ground.

We find the same contempt for nature in transhumanism, which under no circumstance accepts its place among trolls and gods. Humans are like the gods by simply being themselves, while transhumanists strive to make the gods obsolete, to be transdivine. They wish to complete what the gods started. Is there a trollish alternative? Antinatalism, perhaps[3], promoted by such philosophers as the Norwegian Peter Wessel Zapffe and the American Thomas Ligotti. Maybe there is a voice from within the woods, or within ourselves. A kind of troll voice, an ogre mafia that wants us to fail.

Cities are in themselves artificial, and this particularly goes for the big modern ones. By the steps of a subway station in the middle of Manhattan, there is a wall covered in a mosaic imitating the face of an overgrown cliff. The frieze is superimposed by a quote, and though the author is not named, it’s Carl Gustav Jung: “Nature must not win the game.” It is subverted by a green, tiled section of simulated overgrowth, but continues across the gate, where the stairs lead to one of the platforms: “But she cannot lose.” The frieze, called Under Bryant Park, was created by the artist Samm Kunce in 2002. It quickly occurred to me that this complicated relationship between art and nature is a recurring theme in much of the newer public art to be found in Manhattan. This is because the island’s last naturally occurring green spots have long since been paved over, no doubt. A person could probably spend their entire life in New York without ever touching a tree that wasn’t put there by human hands.

The landscape inspired art of the heavily gentrified Meatpacking District pays witness to similar ideas, where industrial chic sculptures in halfway smooth and processed, halfway roughly quarried natural stone are everywhere to be found. You’ve probably seen it before. This part of the city, by the way, houses one of New York’s most carefully meditated parks, a platform called The High Line, an old railway track converted into a recreational area for the city’s many nature deprived hip and wealthy. Among other things, they’ve planted a forest in the middle of the tracks, which also serves as a sculpture park. These days, The High Line is the site of an art exhibit called Mutations, which, to nobody’s surprise, explores points of intersection between industry and ecology.

To plant a suspended forest in the middle of the asphalt jungle initially seemed a bit too urban an idea for a Norwegian such as myself. Then again, Norwegians will pave roads through the woods and call it outdoorsmanship. It’s not too different. The expression reflects a wish to display a neutered version of nature, a safe and good nature that we may control. One that does not unsettle us. We believe that trolls can be contained, but trolls always find an expression.

Rafman, Jon, “L’ Avalée des avalés, High Line_Mutations” (2017) Foto Timothy Schenck

The Thing Among Us, The Thing Within Us
In fairy tales, trolls tend to be procrastinating and ineffective types, but if awakened they are quite unmanageable. The Norwegian word vette (wight) is a euphemism for different trollish entities – beliefs of old dictated that if something was called by its true name, it might just pop you a visit. The word has its root in Proto-Germanic *wihtiz, mening “thing” or “being, essence”. The troll is one of the base ingredients of humanity. We don’t need to “become as the gods” – we already are: There is no part of us that is not the fault of the gods, and for most of us, not being a troll is struggle enough. But the trolls live inside and around us, everywhere. If we presume the existence of trollish traits and characteristics, then there must also be people who fulfill more or less trollish functions, or simply are trolls in terms of behavior. In day-to-day speech, trolls are perverted, devilish individuals who turn to the internet to satisfy their schadenfreude.

Let us assume that this is an impulse that dwells in all human beings, which could rise to the surface with certain techniques, or a peculiar sensitivity, or dispositions that are particularly strong in certain individuals. That emerge as self-dehumanizing patterns of behavior, and in worst case scenarios result in the total breakdown of social sensitivity, and a general disregard for the rules of interpersonal relations. That people, either through traumatic events or conscious choice, may renounce their humanity, surrender to their inner troll, and become a cultural antithesis – a process that will almost certainly result in bad hygiene, faltering physical and mental health, neurosis, self-loathing, hubris, distrust, superstition, or any other inability to nurture relationships with other people, not to say behavior that evokes all forms of both sympathy and disgust. It’s no wonder that the troll is often used is a metaphor to describe unreliable and frankly terrible people in Norse literature. At the same time, there is something alluring about the idea of the troll. Just as often, the troll will possess hidden knowledge, secret tricks, and transcendent ploys. Trolls are, for better or worse, with all their twisted cynicism, creatures who see the world with X-ray glasses, and reality for what it is. Though blind with rage as they can be, trolls have few illusions.

In the rustic vernacular, Scandinavians can sometimes be heard talking about the property of having a so-called troll splinter[4] in the eye. The troll splinter is a trait that causes people to see the world in ways that other people do not. Above all, it leads to antisocial tendencies in those of us who have it, as we tend to think exceedingly bad thoughts about our fellow humans. It also causes a novel distortion in the perception of reality, and I believe many artists and authors suffer from this affliction. At the very least it’s clear that many artists have personalities and behavioral traits with trollish qualities. Theodor Kittelsen understood trolls, but there is no need to resort to those artists who use trolls as a motif to illustrate the point. “Degenerate art” was trollish, Dada was trollish. Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, and Vincent van Gogh painted using a troll brush. M. C. Escher’s illusory motifs take a æsian form, but are philosophically trollish. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is a petrified troll. Norwegian author Olav H. Hauge was haunted by trolls, and the contemporary Norwegian poet Erlend Nødtvedt succeeds in making trolls his subject while also showing an understanding of their inner life. The characters in the novels of Thure Erik Lund are fully absorbed by their inner troll.

Trollish, Titanic, Thursian
If you’re vaguely familiar with Nietzsche, you might recall the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and how each of these terms make for aesthetic extremities of their own. Yes, one might as well say that each of them refer to two different – partially opposite, partially complementary – ways of perceiving and being in the world. The stoic, measured and lofty belongs to Apollo, who is counterpart to the ecstatic, spontaneous and promiscuous – traits we associate with Dionysus.

The problem is that these two categories of being share the same Olympian origins, a heavenly root. They lack the total subterranean dimension of being. Therefore I argue, subjectively and with trollish bias, that Greco-Romanesque interpretative frameworks may be too singular in how they place mankind up against the landscape in which it exists. The titan, the pure raw material, is totally lacking in Apollonian-Dionysian aesthetic theory.

In the Nordic worldview, the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy is not represented by two essentially different gods. They are dynamic traits found in the one and the same being. Odin, for example, is both the wise and measured chieftain of the gods – yet simultaneously he is also the transgressive bum. The king and the fool, the sage and the madman, are not necessarily mutually divided, atomized cells, though this is what the Greco-Roman paradigm is trying to sell us. Likewise, man carries properties inherent in both culture and nature, both æsir and jötunn, with the noteworthy extreme that nature within Nordic thought was a perilous and hellish place. In spite of all our dependence on it, nature was to be watched with suspicion and at a distance within conventional, polite culture. Nonetheless, culture requires that some of us see beyond this and, like the Ash Lad[5] of Nordic folklore, makes friends with ogres and trolls. A dose of trolldom complements and informs artifice. A trollish gaze, or at the very least recognition of the trollish phenomenon, is a prerequisite of much great art.

The most deprived and malicious aspect of trolldom is, however, the thursian, the ogrish, which is antithetical to human artifice in every form. The gaze that perceives the world with a troll splinter in its eye is critical and serpentine, but not necessarily pathological and destructive. The thursian, on the other hand, is always pathological, and in any case indecent. It pisses all over Rousseau’s social contract. Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, who tumbled out of the French woods around the year 1800, is a fabulous example of what might happen when a human being grows up in a thursian environment. He would often walk on all fours, refuse to wear clothes, defecate wherever and whenever, bite people, and masturbate whenever he pleased. He never learned to speak, but it goes without saying, his actions speak louder than any of the 300,000 or so words contained in the Norwegian language.

As opposed to what we conventionally consider well-adjusted people, Victor survived just fine in nature, on his own – though he could hardly even open a door. The rest of us are no more at home in the woods than a piece of Styrofoam or a shopping bag. The golden calf we call outdoorsmanship is related to expeditions to the North Pole, ascending the K2, or launching human beings into space. They are variant expressions of the narrative of the cosmic journey, a divine ordeal made possible in part through the confrontation of demonic beings. Such expeditions are impossible to survive without synthetic aid— in nature-phobic bubbles that defend us from hypothermia, asphyxiation, or insanity. To live at peace with nature, one must fully and wholly be a troll. Or you may die, and nature would be just as pleased; the roots of the forest lie in the earth beneath.

The underworld is always closer to nature than the over-worldly. When Norse mythology places the origins of art in the nether regions of the cosmic z-axis, it tells a story of latent potential. It is the fate of art that it must rise up and spread out. It associates with the frequently used metaphor of the cultural underground, thought to contain undiscovered talents – often of a particularly transgressive, unbound kind.

[1]    Eirik Storesund, Among machine elves and spaghetti beasts: Cognitive aspects in pre-Christian art

[2]    The Eddas are the main sources of  Norse mythology.

[3]    A philosophical stance asserting that human reproduction is immoral.

[4]    In H. C. Andersen’s The Snow Queen (1844) the devil, a celestial troll, fashions a mirror that distorts anything reflected in it. While attempting to bring it to the realm of the gods in order to ridicule them, the mirrors shakes so hard with laughter that it is dropped down to earth, shattering into countless, tiny pieces.

[5]    In Norwegian folk tales, Askeladden is the small man who succeeds where all others fail .

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