Thursday, September 23, 2010

Castle Hill

Dag Hammarskjöld's last essay, "Castle Hill", was written in New York in 1960, and travelled with him during his final diplomatic mission, to Congo in 1961. On the night of his death on 17 September 1961, he left the typed manuscript with his belongings in Leopoldville, while the work he gave himself to do on his last flight (to the Northern Rhodesian town of Ndola) was his Swedish translation of the 1923 German philosophical text Ich und Du.

Hammarskjöld was by work and intellectual disposition an internationalist: he spoke several languages fluently, he was greatly admired by people from many different nationalities, and he excelled as a diplomat - his quiet, sometimes awkward style was paradoxically rather good for someone who had to adapt to a wide range of situations. People liked and trusted him.

But, all the same, I think it's fitting that his final written work was about home, and that during the last days of his life he had with him on a manuscript about his childhood. In a sense, he was travelling back to his hometown of Uppsala the moment he left New York with his copy of "Castle Hill" - writing his way home.

The essay is organised around the seasons, and begins in June, when the students are away and the town is temporarily given over to large families, old ladies, and the park bands that keep them entertained. In early autumn, the banquet hall of Uppsala Castle appears, and now becomes a fully-developed part of the story of the town, rather morbidly as well: it is a catacomb:

I remember it deserted. The summer lingered on in the smell of sun-dried wood from huge rafters. In the high window embrasures you could find, in the September sun, the feather-light bodies of swifts that had flown in by mistake during the games and chases of June and had never found their way back.

There is a famous Anglo-Saxon text about life and death that compares life to the bird that for a fleeting moment flies into the banqueting hall before once again returning the cold outside. In Hammarskjöld’s re-working of the theme, the swifts have perished in the hall, and yet returning is one of Hammarskjöld’s main themes. In a way, it’s a theme for all university towns, where students return year after year. But, as a royal town, Uppsala yearns for another return, to grander times: when the weather conspires to remind the town of its former days of glory, there are traces of the Vasa dynasty that made a regal home within the red-walled Castle on the hill:

The higher the snowdrifts piled up on the north side, the greater the distance seemed to be to the town, the more stubbornly the red Vasa walls towered and the deeper became the blue of the night perspective in the old state apartments, where modern furnishing vanished in the gloom. The winter restored the Castle to its days of greatness.

And, during the spring graduations, the university town is where, in old age, former students reassess their lives:

In the afternoon you can see them—the jubilee doctor, still with the laurel wreath on his brow, and the young one who has just received his degree and is looking forward to his lectureship. There are fifty years between them. One goes over the hill in order to see, once more before leaving, the town where he has spent many a long year laying the foundation of his life’s work. The other, about to encounter the town of his youth, measures the distance between what he once hoped for and what he achieved. How many return as victors?

Perhaps the answer lies with the swifts, which, if not returning as victors, are at least allowed to pass their final days in the old banqueting hall.