No One Has a Monopoly on Death


Arts & Culture

Peder Severin Krøyer, Copenhagen: Roofs under the Snow, 1870–1900, oil on canvas, 7″ x 9″.

January 1981

It’s snowing. I’m thinking back to January 1979, when I received a letter whose writer told of his sudden fear of snow; for an instant the snow floating down to earth had been a poison that smothered all life.

It’s snowing. I’m remembering the farmer on TV who told of walking out into his fields in early November, and the snow, the first very sparse and fine snow, burned like fire. But now, so much later, nobody would believe it. Even though practically every child knows that snow and fire are no longer opposites. Not in a radioactive world.

So. It’s snowing. The snow is no longer snow, but it’s still snowing.

We’re now so fearful that we’re not even fearful anymore, but the fear is spreading anyway, and the closest word for it is sorrow.

We see what’s happening, and we’re happy about what’s not happening. We compare what’s terrifying with what’s even more terrifying. We compare limited nuclear war with total nuclear war, and the comparison deprives us of the last remnant of our natural horror.

We see thousands of dead birds, thousands of dead and maimed soldiers, thousands of death wishes and their violent expressions, but as long as we see all this annihilation in all its well-known forms, at least we’re seeing something, and as long as we see something, total annihilation hasn’t happened yet. 

So fear has become a strangely useless feeling, discarded and purposeless, and over these chaotic fragments of a fear that once had a social purpose, sorrow has spread. The future is dead and buried, and the work of transforming ourselves from mourners to survivors, or at least to people capable of surviving, has barely begun.

At night we sit frozen to the TV screen, and night after night the same thing happens: first President Reagan comes on and then General Haig comes on, and night after night Reagan says we’re optimistic, and night after night Haig says that no one, and he means no one, has a monopoly on virtue.

No, we’re not really afraid anymore.

It’s true that we have a map of Denmark on which someone has shown what will happen when, in due course, an atomic bomb falls on Copenhagen. What will happen is that Copenhagen will turn completely red, and the redness won’t pale to gentle, pink radioactive fallout until way out in western Jutland.

But we don’t react anymore. We don’t pack any little brown suitcases with the things we’d need if we were trying to escape, and we don’t pile up any sandbags, either, in the bedroom or by the front door. We see what’s happening. We can’t get alerts, and we don’t want any. But occasionally, in the best Jules Verne fashion, in a dream of getting through all dangers, we set out and arrive safely at our destination, where we dig ourselves down into a mountain cave deep under the Siberian snows.


January 1982

It’s snowing. It keeps on snowing. The radio broadcasts music and weather reports, music and weather reports, and the call goes out for all civilians to refrain from driving, making unnecessary telephone calls, or contributing to the chaos with their usual defiant attitude toward the weather gods, but to get themselves home, before the roads close, before one part of the country after another shuts down and the whole country ends up paralyzed. At that point, military tractor-tread vehicles will be the only things capable of moving the immovable snow around, the only ones bringing food out to the stricken families, the only ones providing fodder for the radio’s spirited accounts of birth and death in the drifting snow.

And meanwhile Haig appears on the screen. I’ve said before, he says, and I’ll say again, he says, that no one has a monopoly on virtue. If the USSR thinks they have a monopoly on virtue, the U.S.A. knows how to break that monopoly. And that goes for every bit of virtue in the world: if it threatens our American interests’ direct and swift access to virtue, then the U.S. has the power and the ability and the will to use its power to defend that virtue. Virtue is certainly not an inalienable commodity. It must be fought for and won again and again; this means that a great country certainly can lose its virtue, but not without fighting, for a great country can never lose its greatness or allow itself to lose face.

We talk about the commission that’s been set up. It would be very good if we were less vulnerable, especially during snowstorms. It would be very good if we were less dependent on General Haig’s attempt to make a virtue of necessity or vice versa. It would be very good if we were better at survival, on the day or night when, under cover of the first, the best, round of snow, we were invaded by Russian polar commandos, while all the Danish tractor-tread vehicles were on their way out to assist all the Danish motorists. All in all, it would be very good if there were a meaning to it all.


January 1983

It’s snowing, but it doesn’t matter.

General Haig is being interviewed by Secretary of State Haig, or vice versa, but it doesn’t matter.

The neutron bomb has been put into production, but meanwhile we’re using our time as wisely as we can; we insulate our life with a vengeance, shut out everything that can possibly be shut out, and give ourselves over to living in house slippers in the living room; and when the pot of potatoes is taken out of its haybox it coincides exactly with the beginning of War Games in Denmark on TV. “When the war comes, I’m going to hide in the haybox,” says the youngest child. “It’s so nice and warm in there.”

The neutron bomb has been put into production, but there do seem to be plans to examine the civic bomb shelters. We’re not sure whether we’d need to bring water along.

I’m sitting here thinking about why it’s only greed and fear that motivate us toward these sensible pursuits that, to put it bluntly, are sensible only because everything everywhere is so senseless. Why we don’t use all our sense to establish peace, or use all our instincts to maintain life. Human beings’ peace needn’t be as different as we think it is from birds’ peace; their musical division of the country—so that each individual can take care of itself and thus help to further the entire race—is all in all a better idea than our economic division.

But that’s ludicrous; it’s a false analogy; human beings aren’t birds, and if they are, most of them are raptors.

But that’s precisely the point. All human beings are actually sparrows, songbirds, siskins, parrots, and the like. They’re prey to chance. And as prey, they aren’t guaranteed a long and fruitful life, not without implementing a comprehensive warning system, a meticulous knowledge of the area, and a network of hiding places.


January 1984

It’s snowing. Visibility is sharply reduced.

Whereas in earlier wars it was soldiers who died by the hundreds of thousands and civilians who mourned their deaths, it’s now probable that if war breaks out it will be civilians who will die by the millions, with soldiers the ones left to mourn them.

How else could it be? Considering that the home front will either quickly dissolve or be directly wiped out, so that the soldiers will have nothing left to defend, then it will be the soldiers themselves who will have to try to survive at all costs, and to dig themselves down, as many as possible, into their underground command centers.

In any case, they have gas masks and radiation detectors, and they most likely have protective suits and food as well. I’m not sure whether they thought about bringing water along. But of course they must have; maybe they even have machines that can melt the poisonous snow into something whose effect resembles that of water.


January 1985

It’s snowing, and the snow obliterates all traces.

We steal around taking classes on securing everything and everyone against everything and everyone. Classes in defense against everyone and solidarity with everyone. Classes in obstruction, sabotage, and icy courtesy. As it snows, and the snow obliterates all traces. And as the atomic procession winds through a snow-covered Europe, we sit frozen in front of our TV screens and watch the snow keep snowing, obliterating all traces.

It’s snowing; visibility is sharply reduced. We don’t dare leave the TV off. Since the atomic bomb was dropped on the mountains of Iran, and since parliament voted to dissolve Denmark’s ties to NATO (Haig in passing pushed the press aside and said it was impossible for NATO to pay attention to “a small country’s one-sided decision”), and since the Strait of Hormuz was closed, since the oil stopped coming, since we started to get cold, we’ve kept the TV on. It gives off warmth, and at least it feels like an alarm system. As long as we can see an atomic bomb exploding on screen, at least we know that we ourselves haven’t been hit. As long as we still have hope that the gas masks we’ve saved up for will be delivered. As long as we can say that where there’s life, there’s hope. Maybe we can manage to figure something out. Because no one has a monopoly on death.

Translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied


Inger Christensen (1935–2009) was the recipient of many international awards, including the Nordic Authors’ Prize. Her other books include AlphabetAzornoButterfly Valley, and It.

Susanna Nied’s work has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. Her translation of It won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award in 2007.

Excerpted from The Condition of Secrecy, by Inger Christensen, translated by Susanna Nied, published by New Directions on November 27.