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An image that encapsulates my life

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I’m thinking about how I could use a single image to summarise my life.

Think of the cover image of a book, an image that’s intended to symbolise its contents. In a similar way, I’m looking for images that encapsulates the content of my life.

At first I thought that a photograph could perhaps do the job. Innumerable biographies and autobiographies have a photo of the protagonist on the cover for exactly that reason. (My biography of Niels Jerne was no exception). But the problem with photographs, I think, is that they are too contextual: it’s difficult to view them without thinking about when and where and under what circumstances they were shot. By putting a photo of myself on the cover of the autobiography I single out a snapshot of myself at a specific place and moment in time. And that’s not what I’m looking for.

I’m looking for something less contextual, something that catches the timeless ‘essence’ — and I’m deliberately using the metaphysical e-word, sorry about that, all contextualists out there — of me in a single image. Something like what Plutarch called a “slight deed” (πρᾶγμα βραχὺ), for example, a word in passing or a small gesture, which often, he said, reveals more of a person’s character and disposition (ἦθος) than his public appearance or deeds (in Plutarch’s famous opening to his Alexander biography).

I don’t rule out the possibility of actually finding a photograph that reveals my character over time. But so far, I haven’t found one, and therefore I’ve also thought about other kinds of images, like caricatures or allegories.

The problem with caricatures is that they are usually drawn by (street) artists, who don’t know anything about the subject’s personality, but make the drawing from the physiognomy only. And I’m not interested in my physiognomy; I’m interested in an image that reveals my character (my disposition, my habitus), and I don’t know of any caricature artist who knows me well enough to catch this aspects of me.

So what about allegory then? I’m not thinking about the autobiography as an allegory (cf. David Herman, “Autobiography, allegory, and the construction of self”, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 35 (4) 1995, p.351+), I’m thinking of allegorical images as summaries of lives. For example, in earlier post I’ve characterised myself as a typical intellectual fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. So Archilochus’ proverbial fox might be a good allegorical summary of my life — and a fitting cover for the autobiography.

But there are most probably other, and perhaps better, possibilities. So I’m continuing my search for good allegorical images (as well as habitus-revealing photographs). And those of you, who think you know me well, are very welcome to send me images which you think encapsulate my personality and life.

(image from here)

Adopted from a Facebook post published 4 January, 2018, which gave rise to some comments, including these (in Danish and Swedish): Read More

‘Diminishing returns’ i biografiarbetet

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Ett exempel på ‘diminishing returns’ i memoararbetet – som ändå ger livskvalitet:

I maj 1969 bodde jag hos en äldre brittisk kollega under ett par veckors forskningsuppehåll vid Queen’s University i Belfast. Ron, som han hette, var mycket hjälpsam och vi fortsatte att korrespondera ett par år tills han flyttade till en helt annan del av världen och våra vägar gick i helt olika riktningar.

Häromdagen hittade jag honom via LinkedIn, skrev till honom — och fick ett entusiastiskt svar. Han är nu 91 år gammal och vid gott mod.

Han mindes mitt besök i Belfast som om det var som igår. Han hade också ringt upp sin drygt 60-årige son, Owen, som hade sagt att han “remembers you well and that you were a Beatles fan, as he was. He also remembers that you shared a liking for one of their songs, “Get Back.”

Har just slagit upp “Get Back” på Wikipedia; den kom ut på single i april 1969, dvs. en månad innan Belfast-resan, vilket understödjer sonens excellenta minnesbild. Har också lyssnat på “Get Back” på Youtube; minns ingenting.

En liten oväsentlig detalj i pusselspelet. Memoarmässigt ett mycket litet utbyte. Men den förnyade kontakten med Ron efter nästan 50 år gjorde mig ändå glad. Så min livskvalitet tog ett rejält skutt framåt.


Question for my friends: do you throw personal stuff away?

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Question for my friends – when it comes to personal things, do you keep them for the future or do you throw them away after a while? And do you treat documents, books, images, and material stuff differently?

I am a compulsive saver of documents and photos (and books), but tend to throw material stuff away. I know at least one person who has it exactly the other way around.

What about you? Are you a saver or do you throw away? And what kind of stuff do you keep and what do you discard?

Published as two separate posts on Facebook (25 and 26 September 2015), this image generated the following comments: Read More

What do you call events that signify a specific year on the timeline?

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This photo is forever associated with the year 1973. It's a signifier for 1973 in my memory.

This photo is forever associated with the year 1973. It’s a signifier for 1973 in my memory.

Not unexpectedly, some events in my life stand out as more important and/or memorable than others, and are therefore worth being placed on my personal timeline.

I’m thinking of events like when I began school, when I was married, when my children were born, when I defended my PhD, when I landed a new job, and so on and so forth. There are maybe a couple of hundred events of that kind altogether.

As Ken Caneva points out, these are examples of typical ‘milestones’. But I’m also thinking about seemingly less important events that are usually not thought of in terms of ‘milestones’, such as my telling Larry Holmes at the HSS meeting in New Orleans in 1994 that I was relieved by the death of Niels Jerne. It took five minurtes, and it’s definitely not a turning point in my life, but it nevertheless forever imprinted in my memory as an event attached to the year of 1994. Or like listening to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band was a ‘marker’ event of my 1967. These events are signifiers (markers, cues) for a particular year and function as a kind of signposts on the timeline.

So it’s not just ‘milestones’, what’s the best generic term for such events? I have made some searches on the net and in the literature and cannot find a good generic term.

Could one call them ‘signal events’? Or ‘signifying events’? Or ‘autobiographical cues’? Or ‘signposts’? Or perhaps ‘bio-markers’ (although there’s of course a risk of confusion with biomarkers in the biomedical sense)?

Objective time in autobiographical writing

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4 years old and watching the sun dial at the summer house, 1951.

One interesting aspect of writing autobiography / memoir — one that I haven’t thought much about before — is the difference between objective (measurable) time and subjective (experienced) time.

The archive unfailingly invites me to think in terms of objective time. Almost all my letters and diary entries are dated, and the calendars from the last 45 years give me a detailed chronological framework for the account. So from the point of view of objective measurable time, my life has developed over well-identifiable years, months, weeks, days, and sometimes even hours. All important events can be put on a time graph.

I say time graph, not timeline, because I don’t visualize time linearly. For me, time is ondulating, on all scales. On the largest scale, my life graph moves upwards from 1946, peaking in 2000. On the scale of decades, it peaks in 1950, 1960, 1970 etc. On an annual scale it peaks at New Year’s Eve. And so on and so forth. It’s ondulations all the way down to the microseconds.

Until today, Tuesday 19 February 2016, I’ve experienced 3605 weekends, and seen night turn into day 25.238 times. In even higher resolution, I have lived some 605.700 hours (36,3 million minutes). That’s more than two billion heart beats.

If I’m lucky I’ll have another 300-400 million heartbeats left to finish this project.

(I’ll get back to subjective time in a later post.)

The calculation of number of weeks, days and seconds (heartbeats) was made by the help of

The memory of atmospheric smell

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My PhD student Anette Stenslund has made me aware of atmospheric smell as an important dimension in our relation to the world.

@stenslund (

In her dissertation, which she defended last week, Anette discusses smell in the hospital in terms of ‘atmosphere’ — i.e. not as a perception of specific olfactory stimuli, but as a phenomenological apprehension of situated smell.

Anette’s work is important for understanding the synaesthetic qualities of museum exhibitions (a topic I will return to later). But the notion of atmospheric smell could also add an interesting dimension to autobiographical studies of the individuals’ memory of the past. Here’s an example from my own life-history.

18 years old (autumn 1965)

When I matriculated at Stockholm University 50 years ago, I chose chemistry as my first subject. The chemistry programme began with a month-long intensive propaedeutic course, where you should learn basic stoichiometry and the whole periodic table by heart. It was a kind of rite of passage that sorted out the less devoted students and gave the rest of us license to enter the holy laboratories — inorganic chemistry and physical chemistry in the autumn, and organic chemistry in the spring.

What I remember best from my year of chemistry studies is the social life and the feeling of being in the lab. We were around 12 students in each lab group, having an intense social life together. We met at 8am for breakfast and gossip in the canteen before the morning lectures began, and then spent 6-8 hours together in the lab, two and two at each bench. We often had dinner together, comparing lab notes, before going home to write the daily lab reports and read the textbooks (and getting 6-7 hours of sleep before the next hard day). It felt more like a voluntary boot camp than a school.

Chemistry taught me that science is about abstract concepts, experiments and precise observations. We spent months learning to weigh substances, calibrate pipettes and calculate errors of measurement. There was also some heavy theory (I remember struggling hard with thermodynamics and quantum chemistry). But what lingers most strongly in my memory is that it was an intensely sensuous study (today, maybe it’s all learnt in front of the computer screen?).

All the senses were involved. I vividly remember the beautiful colours of some of the (mostly organic) stuffs we produced and the click-click-click sounds of the Geiger counter. Almost everything we did involved manipulating something, including instruments, hands-on.

And above it all hovered the smell. I remember it as if all substances we used and produced smelled of something. Ammonia, hydrochloric acid, nitrous gases, bromine, hydrogen sulphide, and a whole array of carboxylic acids, ethers, aldehydes and ketones — a constant bombardement with specific smells, many of them pleasant, and sometimes dangerous, some foul, but nonetheless often harmless, at least in small concentrations.

The lasting impression in my memory of the year 1965-66 is not the specific smells of specific substances, however. What I remember best is the unspecific smell atmosphere of the laboratories — ranging from a vague sense of bakelite and vacuum tubes in the physical chemistry room to the heavily odorous organic chemistry lab, which not even the most efficient fume hoods could remove and which impregnated the lab coats as well.

That experience has followed me throughout life. Whenever I see an image of a organic chemistry lab, I can easily recollect its unspecific odorous atmosphere — which is almost as ‘tangible’ as the visual impression of the room.

220px-PerfumeSuskindWould it be possible to write a smell memoir? Something akin to the fictional scent biography of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille that Patrick Süskind created in Das Parfum, but not fictional and not focused on specific odours: more in the form of an autobiographical report of one’s own life in terms of the different kinds smell atmospheres one has encountered throughout life. Would it be too monotonous? Too emasculated? Too vague and too short? All these probably. But it would nevertheless be an interesting exercise to use that kind of analytic perspective on one’s own life as a complement to other and richer analytic perspectives.

Under all circumstances it would be interesting to develop the notion of the atmospheric qualities of memory further. Any tips about literature or ideas how to proceed?

Note: The smell in the chemistry lab has been discussed by others; for example, David Lowe has written about the smell in contemporary organic chemistry labs, and historical aspects of smell in the chemistry laboratory has been studied by the Uppsala historian of science Anders Lundgren. But to my best knowledge, the notion of atmospheric smell as a dimension of our memory of the past has not been treated (whereas memories of specific smells are of course a commonplace topic, not least due to Marcel Proust’s famous Madeleine cake experience and its impact on subsequent generations of scholars).

The earliest memories — the act is lost in oblivion, but the metaphor remains

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One of the earliest memories from my childhood in Stockholm is not about things I did or the outer world I encountered, but about a metaphorical image I associate with my evening prayer — “Gud som haver barnen kär” (God, who holds the children dear):

Gud som haver barnen kär,
se till mig som liten är.
Vart jag mig i världen vänder
står min lycka i Guds händer.
Lyckan kommer, lyckan går,
den Gud älskar, lyckan får.

(God who holds the children dear,  care for me who is so small. Wherever I go in the world, my happiness lies in the hand of God. Happiness comes, happiness goes, those whom God loves will be happy.)

Every word of this very popular Swedish childrens prayer is forever imprinted in my mind; probably because I seem to have said it every evening, from early childhood up to the age of nine, and maybe even later (“Thomas and I alone at home. He went to bed reasonably early and we read God Who Holds the Children Dear”, wrote my grandfather in his diary in March 1956).

But I don’t have any memories whatsoever of saying the prayer. I don’t remember actually saying the words, or the social situation, or the time and place.

What I do remember, however, when I repeat these words today, is the image that went through my mind 60-65 years ago when I said the prayer.

Not our iron - but it could have been.

Not our iron – but it could have been.

When I say the penultimate line “Lyckan kommer, lyckan går” (Happiness comes, happiness goes) today, I still remember having the inner image of an iron moving forth and back on an ironing board: Iron comes, iron goes.


(an anonymous German woman)

I probably didn’t understand what the word ‘lycka’ (happiness) meant. But ‘coming’ and ‘going’ were both familiar words; and ironing was an everyday household chore (for the women in our family) in the early 1950s, and was an easily available and appropriate metaphor for how something could ‘come’ and ‘go’.

I guess children often use physical metaphors when trying to conceptualise abstract concepts, when having books read to them, or hearing songs or prayers. But what interests me in this case is the memory aspects — namely, that it is the metaphorical image evoked by saying the prayer that has remained in my mind until this very day, whereas the memory of the actual, situated everynight act of praying seems to be lost in time.

Originally posted on Facebook (1 November 2015), this post generated comments from Inge-Bert Täljedal, Kenneth Caneva and Signe Hegelund:

Inge-Bert Täljedal: Interesting. The account of your childhood memory with its focus on the verbal and non-verbal symbolic representations of “come” and “go” sounds pretty Freudian to me. Perhaps a good and efficient working with anxiety linked to separation?
Inge-Bert Täljedal: […]By the way, I think your translation of the children’s prayer was a bit in error. Although, admittedly, the Swedish text is ambiguous, it would be blasmephous to insinuate that God does not love all children. So, instead of “those whom God loves” it should probably be “those who love God”… By the way, probably because of this language ambiguity some families used another last line of the prayer: “Gud förbliver Fader vår” (“God remains our Father.) For some reason I guess that your version was popular in so-called “free” or “dissenter” church circles, while the verision mentioned here was more popular in Church of Sweden circles. But I am not sure. At any rate, you must not teach children that some children are not loved.
Thomas Söderqvist: This is a really difficult one, Inge-Bert. I’ve been thinking a lot about this prayer. Shall the phrase “Den Gud älskar lyckan får” be understood as “De barn som älskar Gud blir lyckliga” (kids who love God will be happy) or as “De barn som Gud älskar blir lyckliga” (kids whom God loves will be happy). The second option is terrible: there may be some children that God doesn’t love for one reason or the other; and am I one of those? But the first option is terrible too: you have to *achieve* happiness of God in order to be happy; those of us who cannot pull ourselves together to love God will thus be doomed. What a terrible prayer to indoctrine a 3-4 year old with. No wonder I was thinking of ironing instead. What do my religious friends Lisbet, Jes and Signe say to this dilemma? (And by the way, my anxiety was set in motion before I wrote about the ‘come-go’ motif.)
Inge-Bert Täljedal: Well, I agree that this classic children’s prayer is questionable even from a Christian point of view, because it invites overly neurotic brooding. If, for the sake of argument, one wants to defend it against the accusation of being outright heretic, first of all the second interpretation (whom God loves) must be ruled out as insinuating that God does not love all children. Moreover, the first one should not be interpreted as meaning that loving God is a prerequisite for happiness. Rather it is a pious assertion that those who love God (but not necessarily only they) become happy, which, however, is also a questionable thing to say to a child. I mean, what is “happiness” and what does it, in a child’s vocabulary and fantasy, mean to “love God”? So, on all interpretations this prayer is questionable, but worse on some than on others. Even from a Christian perspective, that is.
Kenneth L. Caneva: Yes, interesting. Whether your explanation is accurate I’m not qualified to say. That you forgot the events themselves is, to me, unfathomable.
Thomas Söderqvist: Well, I don’t think I have actually produced an explanation yet – I’ve only described a phenomenon waiting for its explanation.
Signe Hegelund: Memoria er jo den 4 af de såkaldet ” fem forarbejdningsfaser” eller PARTES i den klassiske retorik. Et af de hjælpemidler der anvendes er netop at forbinde det sproglige med noget visuelt. Hos os er det jo ofte lidt større tekstmængder det drejer sig om – og en noget kortere indøvelsesfase – og derfor har det at anbringe informationerne i en specifik rækkefølge i et kendt “landskab” været hyppigt brugt. I den moderne Sherlock Holmes bruger både Sherlock selv og skurken Magnusson forøvrigt den teknik. Så: du har brugt den metode der tilsyneladende ligger lige for når man skal lære at memorere informationer.
Thomas Söderqvist: Interessant. Bortset fra at jeg som 3-5-årig nok ikke hade brug for at memorere teksten. Bønteksten sad der nok alligevel, på samme måde som mine børn i tidlig alder kunne gengive Halfdan Rasmussens rim ordret uden at forstå særligt meget af indholdet. Så med respekt for at det er interessant i en retorik-sammenhæng, så jeg tror faktisk ikke det var tale om en ubevidst mnemoteknik. Jeg tror snarere det var tale om en tilfældig association mellem “lykken kommer/går” og “strygjernet kommer/går” — det som behøver forklares er hvorfor kun metaforen lever i min hukommelse, og ikke bedesituationen.
Signe Hegelund: Hvorfor det? Hvordan husker børn? Jeg tror ikke at retorikken udvikler mnemoteknikken – jeg tror den imiterer og forfiner en “Naturlig mnemoteknik” – som er den børn også tyr til helt af sig selv. Vi har vel alle brug for at memorere- spørgsmålet er vel HVORDAN vi reelt gør det. Vi gør det også ved hjælp af det sproglige: rim, rytme osv.
Signe Hegelund: Da jeg jo først lærer svensk af min stedmor – som bestemt ikke er kristen – har jeg ikke lært denne bøn som barn. Vi BØR lære vores børn at de ER elskede og at vi som gode protestanter ikke tror på at det er noget man kan gøre sig fortjent til. Gud elsker dig! Og Gud er ikke en købmand som man slår en handel af med… Gud elsker mennesket og Kristus har sonet dine synder – så du har ikke nogen grund til at skjule dig for Gud. Men nu er vi igen i fuld gang med forkyndelse på FB… Og som retoriker må jeg sige: Det egner mediet sig moderat godt til.

(image credits: and Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F001163-0012 / Unterberg, Rolf / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I can’t recall a single meal

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Högbergsgatan 11 (credit:

Högbergsgatan 11 (credit:

I vividly remember the house on Högbergsgatan on Södermalm in Stockholm, where I lived on the ground floor with my mother, grandmother and grandfather during the first decade of my life, 60-70 years ago.

I remember the physical features of the house, and also the four-room apartment we lived in. I recall the outline and ambience of the rooms, the hallway, the bathroom, and the kitchen. And I still remember the distribution of light and shades throughout the apartment at different times of the day.

But I remember very little about the family members and our daily activities. And I can’t recall a single meal!

I must have had around 7,000 breakfasts, dinners and Sunday lunches in that apartment. I clearly remember where the sideboard stood, and the shape and colour of the dinner table! But not a single meal has survived in my memory. Not a single one!

Summer 1951 (4 years old) titled "Gröt är bra att ha i magen innan man börjar dagen".

Summer 1951 (4 years old) titled “Gröt är bra att ha i magen innan man börjar dagen”.

There is photographic evidence that I had meals :-). But only in two photos, and none of them in our apartment in Stockholm. One (on the left) is of me with a plate of porridge, probably outside my grandparents’ summer house in Bergshamra, some 50 km north of Stockholm. I was 4½ years old when it was taken.

In the other photo, taken in 1954 when I was 7 years old, I’m having breakfast with my grandmother on the porch.

Breakfast on the porch. Summer of 1954.

“Sunny breakfast” on the porch. Summer of 1954.

(Seeing these two photos today suddenly makes me remember one small thing though: I often (or always?) had graham flour porridge, and sometimes cornflakes, with milk for breakfast. But I still don’t remember the ambience of the meals.)

I have read somewhere that we tend to forget the mundane activites of our earlier life. Dressing, undressing, brushing one’s teeth, eating porridge and potatoes are such everyday events. They are the fundament of our lives, and yet they easily get lost in time.

So maybe it’s quite natural that I don’t remember any of the ~7,000 meals I had during the first decade of my life. But it’s also sad that such an important aspect of life has disappeared altogether from my memory. Instead of having to remember the day when I found out I was a mistake.


Writing memoir for publication or for the desk drawer?

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Around 1950, ~3 years old.

Around 1950, ~3 years old.

I have not yet made up my mind as to whether I shall 1) restrict myself to the process of writing about my own life, interspersed with observations about memoir writing (using myself as the empirical case), or 2) also write a full memoir.

The first choice has been my priority so far. I’ve immersed myself in the archive and the process of memoir writing. And I have taken every opportunity to interrupt my readings and note-taking with reflections on what is going on in my mind in the process.

The alternative — writing a full memoir or autobiography —also has its attraction, however, and it feels like a kind of mental abortion to reject this option out of hand.

What has so far dissuaded me from thinking seriously in terms of a full memoir, I think, is the spectre of going public, of having to share private and intimate details about my life. There are too many things in life I still feel ashamed of.

desk drawerBut I am beginning to realise that I don’t really need to go public even if I should decide to write a full memoir text. Because I can also choose to write for the desk drawer (or rather the harddisk).

Is this really a realistic option for a person like me, who have lived my whole life in writing for the public domain?

The American writer and scholar William Zinsser (best known for his bestseller On Writing Well, 1976; free pdf here) have some interesting thoughts about this.

zinsser-memoirIn a 2006 essay in The American Scholar, Zinsser pointed out that there are many good reasons for writing memoirs “that have nothing to do with being published”:

“Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.”

And added that memoir writing can be “an act of healing”.

Zinsser’s point is that you can actually get full personal satisfaction from writing for the desk drawer. It’s of course okay to write for the public, but there are so many positive side-effects of writing privately, that one does not even have to contemplate the public alternative.

Still, the idea of writing only for private use is pretty anathematic for an intellectual like me, who have spent my whole life writing for publication. Private writing is something amateurs do.

For us intellectuals, there is something taboo-ish about writing for the desk drawer. We are heavily socialised into writing in the public domain, we are supposed to publish our manuscripts as books with academic or trade publishers, or as articles and essays in publicly available journals and magazines. Our works should not only be of the highest possible quality, but preferrably also have as wide a circulation as possible. The worst fate befalling an intellectual is to be unread by others. The quality of his/her works is secondary to their circulation and citation. It’s all about visibility and impact. That’s our destiny.

So for today’s intellectuals, writing for the desk drawer equals self-annihilation as an intellectual. And maybe it is exactly therefore that the idea of writing a memoir only for private consumption is so titillating. Rejecting the publication imperative is probably the strongest critical statement one can make about one’s social status.