Late last October I was both praised and vilified for publishing naked photos of Norway’s favorite son, Fridtjof Nansen.
I’d flown to Oslo for the launch of the Norwegian edition of a book I edited and published, Brenda, My Darling: The Love Letters of Fridtjof Nansen to Brenda Ueland (see page 54). During the weeklong publicity tour, I was interviewed by many of Norway’s major newspapers and most popular radio and TV news programs. And while the bulk of the book is made up of a written correspondence, shot through with passion and the complexities inherent in long-distance love, the question that dominated nearly every conversation was why I chose to illustrate the text with three nude photos that Nansen had sent to my stepgrandmother, Brenda.
Nansen is Norway’s greatest hero. He was an athlete, polar explorer, scientist, artist, statesman, humanitarian, and winner of the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize. As a result, I thought long and hard for over five years about whether to publish these letters and photos. When I asked Norwegian diplomats, historians, and several Nansen biographers for their counsel, they urged me to publish them.
Just before going to press, my Norwegian publishing partner, Ole Rikard Høisæther, convinced me to let him run the complete nude photos. (In the U.S. edition the photos are discreetly cropped.) He argued that Norwegians insist on the “whole truth and nothing but the truth,” and “to not show the photos fully is to not trust our readers.” So we published the full monty in the Norwegian edition—and set off a firestorm.
There have been literally tens of thousands of tweets, blog posts, and letters to the editor flying through cyberspace debating the decision. Some argue that the photos are private, “sent by an old man to his young mistress,” and not only “cast no new light on the man” but also are “problematic” to publish. Others find important historical evidence between the lines that Nansen was a “modern man who breaks with the prevailing gender norms” and “a man with a positive view of his own body, who is also not afraid to adopt new technology.”
“He ventured to the Arctic and faced huge dangers,” one reviewer wrote. “I think, though, that this exploration of the soul was his greatest achievement.”
The ruckus has even inspired an addition to the Norwegian vernacular: If someone wants you to tweet a revealing picture of yourself, they urge you to “Do a Nansen!”
What was Nansen trying to say by posing this way? The images are not erotic, but they are very naked. Nothing is hidden. Nansen stands, or reclines, like a knight without armor. I imagine him saying Here I am, completely open. I hide nothing. I hold nothing back. I lay before you my hopes, fears, frustrations, sexual history, everything. My life is an open book.
The photos, and the letters that accompany them, are a kind of confession—revealing a man who has come to terms with himself, who doesn’t hide his disappointments, failures, or infidelities.
As I considered this physical and psychological nakedness, I found myself thinking of Minneapolis’ Tibetan community, which turned out last spring to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the University of Minnesota. Like Nansen, the Dalai Lama is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Tibetans believe he is also a living embodiment of the Buddha.
While Tibetans routinely flock thousands of miles to be in the Dalai Lama’s presence, they become shy and reticent when they are within actual reach of him. They believe he sees into their hearts and knows all. Yet, because the Dalai Lama is the manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion, Tibetans also want to be truly seen, since he can forgive their sins and view them with compassion, kindness, and unconditional love.
I think Brenda Ueland and Fridtjof Nansen did the same for each other. They exposed all, saw all, and forgave all, giving each other unconditional love.
Are you ready to stand before history, posterity, time—or just your mirror—and account for your life?
It takes uncommon courage. It requires complete honesty. It could even cause a controversy.
Seen in this light, perhaps “doing a Nansen” will someday take on a greater meaning.
Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader.
Have something to say? Send a letter to email@example.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.