In 1908, the well-established Danish writer Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, the father of Danish modernism, had the audacity to imagine the impossible. It took him the next 14 years to complete his magnum opus – an alternative to the Bible.
‘Den lange rejse’, published in English as ‘The Long Journey’ in 1924, is a mythical epic with deep spiritual purposes. Jensen’s idea was to provide a realistic account of human existence, based on Darwin’s ‘Theory of Natural Selection’. He used the Darwinist ideas as a model for his description of human development from the Ice Age until Christopher Columbus. Ultimately he wanted to emphasise that the reality of human existence is itself still an absolute wonder.
‘The Long Journey’ consists of six separate books. The work was not originally planned as a narrative of human existence and development from before the Ice Age until modern times. It was developed in pieces, after Jensen wrote ‘Bræen’ (‘The Glacier’) in 1908 and ‘Skibet’ (‘The Ship’) in 1912, he began to realise the scope of the work he had started.
The outbreak of the First World War intensified his progress on the books, as he felt the need to privately counter the destruction of war and mass killings with a new version of the creation story. His working notes for the six volumes explain his motivation, and they were published in a literary testament called ‘Aesthetics and Development’ (1923), which was reprinted at the end of the collected works. In this postscript he places his work in the literary tradition of favourite poets such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Knut Hamsun, HC Andersen and Adam Oehlenschläger.
The books (see Factfile) make for grim reading in places, because evolution is a tough business. The first two books take place somewhere in the primeval forests of Europe near a volcano with a summit of fire and trails of lava. Primitive man worships the fire until a man with a mind and a will captures it from the volcano with a torch. With it he lights campfires to keep away wild beasts. In the end the other primitives cause his death, but he has already brought order from chaos. He determines the concept of time from the movement of the stars and love as a civilized intercourse between individuals.
Time lapses between each book. In the next two books, the climate is cooling and there is a general migration to the south. One man sets off in the opposite direction to the icy lands of the north to wrestle with hardship. Defying the cold, he grows hardy and strong. With a woman he meets in the north, he becomes the father of the Nordic race and makes fire by striking it out of two minerals. And thus he founds a new civilization.
And the final two books cover the invention of locomotion: wagons and boats driven by oar or sail. The later books describe the Cimbrians marching on Rome and the Vikings’ raids. At the end Columbus finds a new dream of a tropical paradise.
Interpreting nature and history is for Jensen a spiritual process. For Jensen, a medical student who grew up in the countryside and became a writer in Denmark’s largest city, biology is life’s poetry. In the spiritual undertones of the book, Jensen does not make a clear choice about creation. It is driven by both spirit and matter, not one or the other. He works in the interplay between mind and matter to show the process as a struggle in holistic interpretation, that spirit and matter both condition and enrich each other. Jensen wants to keep the notion of life as a miracle without losing the logic and science of evolutionary theory.
Jensen was both a shy and self-conscious writer; however, in his opinions he was often strict and challenging. He created a new kind of environment-orientated, evocative prose and poetry in Denmark in the first half of the 20th century. In 1944 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature “for the rare strength and fertility of his poetic imagination with which is combined an intellectual curiosity of wide scope and a bold, freshly creative style”, the Nobel Committee noted. “‘The Long Journey’ is like a series of huge decorative paintings in which characterisation is less important than the range of composition and the incomparable skill of the brush strokes,” its chairman Per Hallström added.
And out of all of his works, this series on primitive man’s development has lingered the longest in the imagination. Not least as an inspiration for the Danish artists Asger Jorn and Pierre Wemaëre, whose huge, 14-metre long, collaborative tapestry work was also entitled ‘The Long Journey’ (1958).
Factfile | The six volumes of ‘The Long Journey’
The Lost Country: Tertiary, millions of years ago
The Glacier: The Last Ice Age,
approximately 100,000 BC -10,000 BC
Norne Guest: The three archaeological eras:
– Stone Age (3000 BC-700 BC)
– Bronze Age (700 BC-300 BC)
– Iron Age (300 BC-400 AD)
Cimbrernes Train: 115-101 BC
The Ship: Viking, circa 700-1000
Christopher Columbus: Gothic and Renaissance,
Factfile | Johannes V Jensen
The son of a veterinarian, Johannes V Jensen was born in 1873 in Farsø in northern Jutland. In 1893 he moved to Copenhagen to study medicine, while on the side he began to write poems and articles, of which some were published in Revuen magazine between 1895 and 1898 under the pseudonym Ivar Lykke, and several books.
In his first notable literary effort, ‘Himmerland People’ (1898), Jensen looked to his roots in Jutland and created stories about the fates of peasants who were inextricably tied to their instincts.
And then three years later, he published the first of his masterpieces, ‘Kongens Fald’ (‘The Fall of the King’, 1933), a novel about Christian II, which in 1999 was named Danish book of the decade.
Even when writing ‘The Long Journey’, Jensen simultaneously put out essays, cultural criticism, translations and poetry: he was generally inexhaustible until 1920, after which he withdrew a little (he travelled extensively, including to the United States where he wrote the poem ‘På Memphis Station’) and started dedicating more time to his biological and zoological theories, many of which were polemic. He courted controversy with some dubious racial theories, although he was not a fascist.
However, it was his sister, Thit Jensen, who was the black sheep of the family. She also achieved fame as an author, writing about feminist, erotic and social themes, and was the founder of an abortion clinic in 1924.
Johannes V Jensen died in 1950 aged 77.