Feb 28, 2014

Dag Hammarskjold: Gay Isolation at the United Nations

Augustana College, my alma mater, was founded by Swedish Lutherans, and most of the students were still Swedish Lutherans, so there was an obsession with all things Scandinavian.

So everyone read Markings (1963), by Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish economist, diplomat, and finally Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953 to his death in a plane crash in 1961.

Discovered and published after his death, Markings contains no references to Hammarskjold's illustrious career; instead, it talks about his spiritual journey, his search for God, his loneliness and isolation and existential dread.  His desperate search for a love that he never found.

Why was this famous public figure, surrounded by people all the time, so overcome by loneliness?   I noted that he never married, and there were a few glimpses of masculine beauty in the brief poems and phrases.

When he told me that he had many friends, could easily make new ones, it struck hard like a blow which had been very carefully aimed. A question had become meaningless.

Narcissus leant over the spring, enthralled by the only man in whose eyes he had ever dared -- or been given the chance -- to forget himself.

In the Stone Age night
A church spire, erect on the plain
Like a phallus.

I had no doubt that he was gay.

 There were a few biographies in the Augustana library: Dag Hammarskjold: Soldier of Peace (1961), Hammarskjold: A Pictorial Biography (1962), and Dag Hammarskjold: Strictly Personal (1969).  None of them mentioned him being gay, of course.

Even the most recent biography, Hammarskjold: A Life (2013), by Roger Lipsey, argues that he may have experienced same-sex desire, but he certainly never engaged in any of that yucky sex stuff.  Besides, it was a trivial thing, utterly irrelevant to the qualities that made him great.

But Noble Lives (2005), by Marc E. Vargo, argues that 1. Yes, he was in fact gay; and 2. It was not trivial; it played an important role in his career.

In 2011, the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York featured Borders, an exhibition of 26 life-sized androgynous statues by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir.

Though representing "cultural diversity," the statues do not interact, as they do in the Norwegian Penis Park; they are sitting, standing, facing each other but not touching, isolated and lonely.  Like Hammarskjold himself.  (They are currently on display at Chicago's Park District).