An Ideal Direction

A warm garden breeze
filtered its way through
the laboratory window.
A man, old beyond his years,
bent over a workbench, head in hands,
exhausted after another sleepless night,
intruded by insomnia.
Always ready for the next task,
he was stopped by the pain of angina.
In his pocket was the nitroglycerin
necessary to assist blood vessels
to conquer their constriction.
The same substance that he had commercialised
by some strange irony.
He was days from death.

Odin will hand out his magic mead
only to true poets and scholars.
He embarked on an obsessive search for wisdom.
He tore out his right eye as a sacrifice
to Mimir – The Rememberer – and was
allowed to drink the water of insight from the well.
“All science is based on the observation of
similarity and dissimilarity,” Alfred believed.
And that this lay at the core of all human knowledge.
His great-grandfather, Olof Rudbeck, the Elder,
was gifted in medicine and engineering.
Alfred may have inherited his talents,
but he said his life was “sheer torture.”

Odin’s continued search for wisdom was compulsive,
relentless, and he knew it would be brutal.
He hung himself from a branch of The Tree of Life,
pierced himself with his own spear,
and remained hanging there nine days and nights,
while his blood dripped into the dark Well of Urd.
He stared into the waters seeking inspiration.
Previously he had sent out his two ravens,
Thought and Memory, to the four corners of the earth.
But each day they only came back with gossip and information.
Odin was disappointed to find that two-thirds
of human talk was gossip.
He had to find other ways to gain wisdom.
After his torturous experience on The Tree of Life,
secrets of the Runes of Wisdom were revealed to him.
He gave a shout of joy in exultation.
He would now be acknowledged by poets, shamans and kings.

Alfred was a workaholic and toiled continuously
on research, business, and endless paperwork.
Task-driven, he sometimes worked 15 hours a day.
He did not go to bed before midnight.
He was, “exacting, plainspoken, and always in a hurry.”
His relaxation was reading and writing,
letter writing and creative literature.
His personal life was somewhat disappointing.
One of Odin’s revelations was how to find and keep a loved one.

Alfred was hostage to the spirits of Niflheim
and desperately tried to avoid the cover of Hel,
goddess of the Underworld, keeper of the inglorious dead,
and responsible for depression, melancholy and misery.
North of the Great Gap, Niflheim was icy and cold,
the ninth world of mists, fog, frozen rain and glaciers.
Alfred was chronically sick as a child in Sweden
and the dark, cold and damp winters bothered him.
We now call this seasonal mood change –
Seasonal Affected Disorder, or SAD.
There are some light treatments for it.

He did acknowledge his depression,
but it deeply influenced his life.
Of his own volition, he used habitual work
to distance him from that dark presence.
But during the night, insomnia stalked him
and added to the leaden load.
Always wary of the spirits of Niflheim,
who grabbed and pulled him to a solitary hell.
A heavy black cloak of melancholy would
cover him, and besiege his mind.
Poetry, both read and written, had often
assisted in the salvation from the descending fog.
It had been a refuge and a sanctuary.
This illness may have been responsible for
being lonely, reclusive, pessimistic and withdrawn.
He said he was, “a worthless instrument of
melancholy, alone in the world and with
thoughts more gloomy than anyone can imagine.”

But he wasn’t always antisocial, and in Paris,
he gave dinners where he was a delightful host,
witty and talkative to invited guests.
To people he knew well, and close employees,
he was very generous and supportive.
His boyhood was sad; he said he was a “pensive looker.”
In Russia, he was a gifted student, and he found poetry.
Once, in a mood of extreme melancholy, he had
destroyed a “hecatomb” of youthful poems.
By 1895, there were only 14 titles left of
novels, dramas and lyric poetry.
His final play, Nemesis, was his catharsis,
purging emotional tensions through tragedy.
He had enjoyed reading the work of Rydberg,
“nobility of soul, beauty of form”;
and Ibsen, Tolstoy, Shelley, Byron, and Victor Hugo.
The confrontation of dreams and reality
is a constant theme in his poetry.
“I have not the slightest pretension
to call my verses poetry; I write now
and then . . . to relieve my depression, or to
improve my English.”

Thor was Odin’s son and the most popular of the gods.
He was the god of thunder, strength and war.
He was armed with a hammer, and he wore
an enchanted belt, which doubled his strength.
Alfred had been called – the Lord of Dynamite.
He chose the name of the explosive from
the Greek word for power – dynamis.
But he was not a fighter or a proponent of war.
He called it, “the horror of horrors and the greatest of crimes.”
In his youth in Russia, his father was
not impressed by young Alfred’s interest in poetry.
He sent him to France to study chemistry and engineering.
The chronology from there led to the invention of dynamite.
While working with the precursor, nitroglycerin,
there was a fatal explosion in a Swedish factory.
Among the dead was his younger brother, Emil.
Shortly after, his father suffered a stroke.
Alfred then made it his mission to find a solution
to the volatility of that substance, and calm it.
This led to fame and fortune and explosives
that would pave the way for tunnels and canals,
railways and roads, carved from rocks.
But also the use of explosives in cannons, for war.
He was not the god of war, but he was a facilitator.
He once gave a brief autobiography with
six short statements, concise, and brusque.
He was stunned when a French newspaper
published his mistaken obituary when his brother Ludvig died
They referred to Alfred as, “The Merchant of Death.”
That statement probably cut deep
and made him consider how he would
redeem his name and leave a suitable legacy.
Maybe Odin the Wise, as Vegtam, the
Wanderer, in his dark blue cloak,
had visited the conscience of Alfred
to guide him to redemption?

He would use the accumulated wealth in his will
to validate and vindicate his name after death,
and help to assuage any guilt.
His family knew nothing of his intention,
and they contested the will.
Ragnarok – destruction and death
leading to construction and life,
in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

“I am a misanthrope, yet utterly benevolent;
I have more than one screw loose,
yet am a super idealist, a kind of ungifted Rydberg,
who digests philosophy more effectively than food.”
He really liked the idealism of Shelley and Victor Hugo.
Byron was his favorite poet.
The Nobel Prize for literature was to go to
“the person who shall have produced, in the
field of literature, the most outstanding work
in an ideal direction.”
In his written intentions for this prize in his will,
a slip of the pen wrote – idealirad.
Did he actually mean – idealiserad?
This means – idealised – in English,
better than reality.
But, on proof of reading his will, he corrected
the written word with an – sk– above it.
Over the – rad – in – idealirad.
The new word thus written as – idealisk.
In English it means – ideal,
something perfect or excellent.
This changed word has been open
to much speculation ever since.

Alfred was a well-qualified linguist
with good achievement in English.
Was he thinking then of Shelley,
who wrote an idealised history of his life,
where his actual desires were realised
and were better than the reality?
Or did Alfred’s – ideal direction –
mean one of perfection or the best possible?
He did say that he was a, “super idealist.”
You decide.

Alfred Nobel: October 21st, 1833–December 10th, 1896