NO.5 ANOW PROFILE | PETER HOVMAND

“I don’t think science is the key to understand human beings. I think fiction, literature, is the key. “

In this episode of ANOW Profile, the Danish writer and former soldier, Peter Hovmand gives a rare interview in English. Hovmand offers a glimpse into his wide literary reading and reflective intellectual character. He touches on the allure and current state of the French Foreign Legion, Ernst Jünger’s “insanely sane” account of the warfare of WW1, and the sustained importance of warfare for understanding the human condition.

Hovmand provides an interesting account on Nietzsche’s ‘übermench’ by introducing the surprisingly simple key of naming it as a project to be thought of in terms of a thousand years. He accounts for the importance to his own writing – stylistically as well as thematically in reference to his main literary influencers – Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), Ernest Hemingway and Knut Hamsun.

ANOW’s ‘Profile’ is a show format which provides a glimpse into the thought world of interesting individuals, through an interview-based conversation.

Peter Hovmand: Introduction and brief Biography

Peter Hovmand (1974-) is a Danish writer, professional soldier and photographer. He has written seven books. His literary repertoire include topics such as warfare, love, adventure. Inspired by Hemingway, Nietzsche, Hamsun and Ernst Jünger, he deals with difficult subjects and issues, such as the struggle of coming with age, suicide and the effects of post-traumatic stress and trauma.He has written a total of seven books. His debut was the acclaimed Til det yderste(1998) (Eng. To the limit), a military memoir about his service as a recruit in the French Foreign legion. He has published two essay collections: Hen over jorden (2000) and Ikke altid sådan her [Not always like this](2012). His philosophical novel Soldatens Dans (Hovmand 2003) treats the attraction and horrors of warfare from the perspective of a young man who shortly after world war 2 joins the French legion. This philosophical approach is akin to the critical literary analysis provided in the 2013 publication Knut Hamsuns oprør – a portrayal of Hamsun as someone drawing on Nietzsche’s re-evaluation of all values(2013). The novel Grødhoved (2014a) is a tragicomic portrayal of a soldier returning from Afghanistan, dealing with his recovery from a serious brain injury and the hardship of re-adjusting to life outside the military context. Hovmand has also written a travel guidebook to West Jutland called Vild med Vestjylland (2014b).

Hovmand is as to date untranslated into English. The interview with Fredrik Weibull is the first conducted in English.

Interview Highlights

Why do people join the Foreign legion?

Hovmand discusses the reasons people volunteer to go to the Foreign legion. He names romantic and idealistic aspects as his own reasons for joining: “…to be a professional soldier, also with the purpose of doing good for Europe, so it made sense in an idealistic way…” (02.40-02.55)

His memoirs from the Foreign legion, Til det yderste (1998), Hovmand suggest was meant as a “critique of the politics in Europe”, in sense that, as he puts it, “we don’t really do much for other people” (03.40-04.00), adding that the Syrian involvement has not left him impressed.

Primarily Til det yderste deals with the “training of young soldiers, and how they developed” (04.50-04.55) in the legion and the “rough” form this training takes.

The distinguishing aspect about the legion is that people come from so many different nationalities and backgrounds. He also points out that the lack of something explains why people volunteer fundamentally: “they have different reasons to go there. They all miss something in their life, that they hope to get there. (06.20-06.55)”

 Why is the philosophical question about why people wage war so important?

 Hovmand points out that a key question that interests him is the philosophical one “Why are we making war.” (08.10).

FW: “Why is war such an important philosophical theme?”

PH: “Because people don’t want to understand it. [For example], in Denmark, when something is very horrible …and people say ‘I don’t understand’, I don’t appreciate that kind of talking because we should try to understand war and why it happens”. And that is why I think it is such an important philosophical question. But I am dealing with it more psychologically in my books” (08.40-09.20).

What is the importance of the trio Hemingway, Hamsun and Ernst Jünger?

Hovmand once described himself as a combination of three important writers – Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), Hamsun (1859-1952) and Ernst Jünger (1895-1998).

PH: “Hemingway is probably the best writer of short stories. Ernst Jünger is probably the best writer on war. Knut Hamsun is probably one of the vest writers in Scandinavia. One thing that people [tend to] forget about Knut Hamsun is that he wrote his best books before 1900… He was ahead of his time. ” (16.00). The latter claim was the topic for Hovmand’s book Knut Hamsuns oprør (Knut Hamsun’s Revolt, my translation).

“He developed the main [fictional] character…into something we can recognize in the modern society …struggl[ing] with the ability or lack of ability to be a free human being. And that is quite new. Another new thing is that he developed the storyteller in fiction…a very self-focused storyteller…” (17.20-18.20).

 What is the relationship between the thinking, literary world and the world of the soldier?

Hovmand debunks the perception – which he regards as a dominant one – of the ‘writer-soldier’ or ‘thinker-soldier’ as “rare”. He emphatically claims Ernst Jünger as the most important figure in this category:

“…of course we have a lot of the great writers after the first world war – they have been to the war – and the same thing after the second world war. And the most important of these is Ernst Jünger, absolutely…because he went all the way.” (19.00-19.36)

Here, Hovmand calls attention to the example of the variation in duration in each of Jünger’s first three books:

 Storm of steel, 1920, (Jünger 2003);

The battle as inner experience, from 1922 (Jünger 1980); and

Sturm (1923).

Jünger and The aesthetics of Terror

“…if you look at his first three books: the first one is covering the whole of the first world war…, the second one is dealing with a month, and the third one is dealing with a week. So he is a man who can write thick books with a special focus, and I admire that very much.” (19.40-19.57).

Ernst Jünger’s literary significance, especially concerning the topic of war, Hovmand attributes on the following:

“He is very honest, he goes into detail, and goes all the way, almost [in an] inhuman [way]. He goes really deep into …the aesthetics of terror. He has no fear. He went beyond fear… I don’t think any other writer went this far [in exploring the subject matter], even at a philosophical level. But he shows it so that it is understandable. He uses metaphors at a larger level. It is kind of scary, actually.” (24.00-25.05)

Literature’s importance: fiction and storytelling as key to understanding human beings

PH:         “Science all to itself…is very dangerous, because we are not gods. As human beings we have to try to understand ourselves. And I don’t think science is the key to understand human being. I think fiction, literature, is the key. Even philosophy is storytelling. Historical science is storytelling. Most things, one way or the other, end up being storytelling. What is the interesting thing in all of this? It is people trying to understand people…The key is to appreciate literature in a broader sense.” (31.10 – 31.45).

The declining role of the intellectual

On the twinned question “What is and what should be the role of the intellectual?”,

Hovmand offered the following:

“In most of the Western world [the role of the intellectual] is marginal…In France [intellectuals] still have some importance. Maybe France can teach the rest of us. I think Macron will try to deal with that. That is the hope, I guess.” (33.20-33.30)

Hovmand comments on the replacement of the figure of the public intellectual by the

“pop cultural figure” of the celebrity, suggesting it signals a decline of intellectualism. In this sphere of contemporary society, he attributes this new public figure’s status to wealth:

“…the main problem is the importance of money in the world we live in. People think about money way too much… The fascination with [celebrities] being rich, is a key to [understanding] the respect of celebrities. If they are earning a lot of money they don’t even need to say anything intelligent. They just need to be successful in earning money. It is a big problem in our society…because it is destroying the importance of being aware of what the problems of the world are. I think Nietzsche would say that things didn’t go the right way.” (34.50-35.18).

FW “What is an intellectual?”

PH “It is someone interested in the problems of the world and is trying to understand them, all the time, more or less. Using their spare time to get wiser [about] the problems of mankind.” (37.40-37.55).

This conception informs Hovmand’s own reason for writing. Asked “What drives your intellectual engagement? What is your fuel?” Hovmand answered

“It is to make the reader or listener more aware of themselves as an interpreter of what they see and hear. It is the same awareness that Nietzsche is trying to give the reader.” (38.00-38.22).

References

Hovmand, Peter. 1998. Til Det Yderste – Rekrut i Fremmedlegionen. Copenhagen, Denmark: Lindhardt & Ringhof.

Hovmand, Peter. 2000. Hen over Jorden. Copenhagen, Denmark: Lindhardt & Ringhof.

Hovmand, Peter. 2003. Soldatens Dans. Copenhagen, Denmark: Rosinante.

Hovmand, Peter. 2012. Ikke Altid Sådan Her. Copenhagen, Denmark: Forlaget Patagonien.

Hovmand, Peter. 2013. Knut Hamsuns Oprør – Hamsun, Nietzsche Og Oprøret Mod Det Moderne Samfund. Copenhagen, Denmark: Forlaget Patagonien.

Hovmand, Peter. 2014a. Grødhoved. Copenhagen, Denmark: Forlaget Patagonien.

Hovmand, Peter. 2014b. Vild Med Vestjylland – Anderledes Ture i Det Vilde Vesten. Copenhagen, Denmark: Forlaget Patagonien.

Jünger, Ernst. 1923. Sturm. Hannoverscher Kurier.

Jünger, Ernst. 1980. “Der Kampf Als Inneres Erlebnis, 1922.” In Sämtliche Werke. Band 7., 9–103. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Jünger, Ernst. 2003. Storm of Steel [In Stahlgewittern, 1920]. Translated by Michael Hofmann. London, UK: Allen Lane.

Keywords

Oriana Fallaci, Writer, Writing, Peter Hovmand, warfare, Foreign Legion, Soldier, Korengal, Afghanistan, Syria, Hamsun, Hemingway, Ernst Jünger, Veterans, freedom, Literature, George Brandes, Strindberg, terror, aesthetics of terror, storytelling, literature, Karen Blixen, science, Macron, awareness,

Further reading

Ernst Jünger. 2017 [1933] The worker : dominion and form

Translated from German by B. Costea and L.P. Hemming. Evanston, Illinois : Northwestern University Press.

Hamsun, Knut. 1890 Sult [Hunger]. Oslo: Gyldendal.

Hamsun, Knut. 1894 Pan. Oslo: Gyldendal.

On Ernst Jünger’s third book, Sturm : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturm_(novella)

www.peterhovmand.dk/

Oriana Fallaci interview, on Charlie Rose https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJdG7lQnevY

Films.

The Hurt Locker (2008), Kathryn Bigelow. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hurt_Locker

Korengal (2014) , Sebastian Junger,

Restrepo (2010), Sebastian Junger,

Hamsun (1996), Jan Troell. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamsun_(film

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