Erik Naggum in memoriam

“When a man dies, a library burns down”

iberkeley-liten Erik is dead.

He died alone, untimeley, miserably. But Erik never found life easy either.

In the novel «Det svundne er en drøm»1 Aksel Sandemose describes a woman, Susanne, thus:

«(…) she taught me more than anyone I ever knew. Not by what she knew, but by what she was. God and the Devil battled inside her to the extreme, but she could never keep them apart, nor destroy one of them. The result was senseless kindness and equally senseless viciousness (…)»

Sandemose’s Susanne was from another time and another world, but this made me think of Erik.

God and the Devil battled inside Erik too, and he could never find peace. In the end he was destroyed.
He died from a physical disease, but the cause of death is just the dot at the end of a sentence, the end of a long story.

Erik was a man of many contradictions. As are we all, but everything about him was a size larger than in most of us.

He was strong and self-confident, that’s the trait most people knew him by. He most often stood alone, upright, however strong the wind was. But standing up against the wind has a price. Noone comes unharmed from so many years of struggle and stubbornness.

As well as being strong he was also … not weak, but vulnerable, sometimes even frail. He could be unexpectedly hurt by a careless remark, and I had to learn to watch my tongue. A classical mistake – I thought he could take some fooling around, him being so tough. But he wasn’t, not in private matters.

He could also be very vulnerable at the arena where he seemed the most invincible – Usenet and other Internet fora. Those who knew him only from the Net may not believe me, but he could sometimes be terribly upset and hurt when he was criticized or attacked by someone he respected … even by someone he despised.

How, then, could he be so brutal towards others? Everyone knows how he could assault people.

I have no answer. It is one of Eriks innumerous paradoxes.

Another aspect, probably also unknown to those who never met him in private: He was a sweet, warm, humerous and affectionate man. And funny! Most people know how he played with words and language, but few have experienced him in his everyday life, his jokes and puns, his slapstick humour, the way he would see something interesting and funny in every little thing. It’s almost impossible to explain it – you’d have to be there in the room with him. I have never laughed so much and so heartily with anyone.

And at the same time: the rigid, uncompromizing, unrelenting Erik. He could be so bloody stubborn that you wanted to wring his neck. But – and perhaps this is his essence, his core – he always had some rationale, some logic, a reason to hold his ground. And as much as you disagreed, as much as you rebelled against his views … you had to think, you had to reason, you couldn’t just dismiss him. If you did, you committed one of the deadly sins in his universe: taking the easy way out, avoid thinking for the sake of convenience.

He always challenged you, whether you wanted him to or not. He forced you to think: have I really thought this through? Am I really sure about this? It was very disciplining, – and endlessly frustrating.

For us mere mortals there would sometimes be too many principles, too much righteousness. You wanted to cut him down to size, normal proportions. To some standard scale, whatever that is.

If he could have lowered his standards somewhat, adjusted himself a tiny bit, acknowledged that humans are fallible and the flesh weak, he could (with the risk of sounding pompous) have been one of those who changed the world. Some of it. Maybe.

But Erik couldn’t be modified. That was his essence, and his destiny.

Erik’s deepest passion was knowledge. He started collecting, and devouring, knowledge long before he started school, and continued till the end of his days. At the time of his death he had collected several thousand books, and noone can ever estimate the amount of facts and knowledge he picked up in papers, magazines, and the Internet over the years.
He was interested in practically everything, perhaps except sports. His list of books spans from cartoons to phonetics to politics, but programming, cognitive science and philosophy make out the greater part.

He had little formal education after high school, except an introductory course in philosophy, and some informatic science (where he probably knew way more than his teachers) back in the mid-eighties. In his main field of work – programming – he was an autodidact. A brilliant one.

Did it matter to him, having no degree, when he was so talented and competent? Yes, I think it was a sore point, though he’d never have admitted to it. But he was always trying to show what he knew and could, and that prove that he was intelligent (as if anyone was in doubt). He wasn’t really showing off, I think he was compensating for his lack of academic insignia.

He had great respect for education, and for people who knew what they were talking about, be it a carpenter or a physicist. On the other hand he had nothing but scorn for those who didn’t know what they were talking about, especially if they were unwilling to take in new information or facts. That’s when he hauled out the flame-thrower …

Erik was a thinker almost before he could walk. Too old for his age, what we in Norwegian call «a small grown-up». At the age of 3 ½ he proclamied to his mother that he liked to do things his own way. That was his credo ever after.

When he talked about his childhood, I always pictured him with the same face and clothes (and crewcut) he had as an adult – except his arms and legs were much shorter. When his parents tell me how he was like as a child, I realize my picture was quite precise. He was an adult with short arms and legs.

But as an adult he was also a boy with long arms and legs. He never stopped playing, never stopped wondering. He could be heartbreakingly naïve and innocent. And he had a profound love for animals, as children and good people often have. No cat was ever worshipped the way he worshipped his Xyzzy.

Another paradox: for all his knowledge, all his intelligence, he could be totally ignorant about things in everyday life. How much gas do you need to drive from A to B? (he always thought we’d run out, even when the tank was half full). Do people seriously speak dialects? Can you really make bechamel sauce at home? Doesn’t Joni Mitchell come from Africa?

He could calculate anything, but when it came to working out when we had to leave home to catch the ferry so he could catch the plane home to Oslo (I lived in the countryside), his mind went blank. This lead to quite a few rebookings, which made him quite angry … and he naturally blamed the ferries!

Details, yes. But this illustrates Erik’s many facets and contradictions. In one situation he was absolutely in control, the next moment he was lost.

—————

Erik had every possibility. He had formidable skills, he had the humour and warmth that comes with a safe childhood with good and loving parents. He was highly intelligent, and had a capacity to master anything. Not to say the willpower.

But at some point he slipped in his path. Or was driven into a corner.

He ran in to some very serious problems that poisoned his existence for many years, and made him lose faith in humans. These problems (I won’t go into details, let sleeping dogs lie) would have agonized anyone, but most people would, in time, have come to terms with life’s injustice and cruelty.

But Erik couldn’t come to terms. He couldn’t compromise, he couldn’t let go of his anger and humiliation. He wasn’t able to shrug it off and say «shit happens, let’s go on». He was badly hurt and disappointed, and never really recovered.

Towards the end I think he gave up. He isolated himself, grew bitter, drove people away. Wouldn’t accept help from anyone (his credo …). He neglected his health, seriously. In the end also his body gave in.

I loved him so. I have never felt so close, spiritually close, to anyone else. Sometimes I felt we were inside each other’s heads. That was before everything went ugly, and to pieces.

When I heard of his death it was like a blow to my stomach. Vi had’nt been in touch for a long time, he had rejected me, defined as one of his enemies. (Hatred is the emergency exit in the house of love).

I am not going to deny that I was sometimes furious with him, wished he was a hundred miles away, and said so. But it is impossible to be indifferent to someone who’s once been so close.

Ever since I learned of his death I have been thinking, agonizing, wringing my mind … what could we have done, done different, those of us who were once close to him? Could we, could I, helped him more, been more understanding, more gentle, been a better person? I feel guilty, I even feel responsible. I wish we could start over.

But I don’t think anyone really could have helped him. Noone could have given him the unconditional love and acceptance he needed. Except Xyzzy. She was the love of his life, and she never let him down.

Erik was a good person who was broken down by misfortune and his own obstinacy. He suffered more pain, in body and soul, than anyone knows.

The struggle is over now. I hope he has found peace.

In loving memory

Pernille Nylehn

1I don’t know if this one is translated into English, but the title means «The past is but a dream». Something like that. Wonderful book.

22 Responses to “Erik Naggum in memoriam”

  1. Beautiful reads like a poem. I never knew Erik but I enjoy his writing.

  2. He was amazing, but the ones who learned from him were much more silent than the ones against him.

    I remember reading a Usenet message from him saying he enjoyed marksmanship, if that’s considered a sport… :)

    • > He was amazing, but the ones who learned from him were much more silent than the ones against him.

      I’ve had the most intense usenet «discussions» (i.e. flamefests) with Erik. I’ve also participated in many civil (and helpful!) usenet discussions, and we were very friendly on a small IRC channel over many months. I also met him a few times (and he was all the bit as nice as Pernille describes).

      It seems to me that where most people instinctively value personal relationships over matter-of-fact truths and opinions to a high degree, in Erik’s mind these were 100% separate. So one minute he was helpful and nice, and the next he’d attack what you said viciously.

      Anyhow, my point really was to say that I think the people who learned from and liked him and those who argued against him are two very overlapping groups.

      > I remember reading a Usenet message from him saying he enjoyed marksmanship, if that’s considered a sport… :)

      He brought me with him to the shooting range once, first and only time I fired a pistol (and a .45 revolver I think it was) :) A good way to relax the mind, I believe he said.

      I was sad to hear when he died, thanks Pernille for the eulogy.

  3. I never met Erik in real life, i got to know him from his usenet posts in comp.lang.lisp. A lot of them brilliant, some vicious but well thought-out, one can’t help but marvel at the amount of time he invested in this activity.

    As a person who knew him well, you say that his life was poisoned by circumstances that drove him to social isolation and bitterness. And whilst i do not want to sound like i am asking for personal details, i feel that another post on these issues could help others in similar situations. I know a lot of people that share some of Erik’s personality traits (they seem to be very common amidst computer types), being fiercely independent and leaning towards self-isolation as a way to battle their personal demons. If you feel there is something that others can learn from Erik’s case, feel free to make another post.

    • Hi John,

      I don’t think I’m revealing a big secret when I tell you that Erik ran in to very serious problemes with the Norwegian IRS. Very serious. They claimed he had earned more than he’d reported to them, and he claimed he didn’t. I absolutely think he was innocent, he was very particular about truth. But you can’t argue with the IRS. They are always right.
      Erik of course, argued. For years and years. And he wouldn’t pay ANY tax because they were so unreasonable. And then of course he did become guilty of tax evasion, and their tax claim just grew and grew. As a refsult, he couldn’t own anything because it would be confiscated, couldn’t earn money because they would take most of it … and so on. After some years, everything in his life was influenced, and poisoned, by this. I won’t say he was paranoid, but he became very wary and suspicious, and had real trouble trusting people. And his medical condition just got worse and worse because of this situaton.

      I think I’ve said enough. And I think this is enough for you to understand why he turned som bitter and forlorn.

      Regards,

  4. A great troll. I miss him.

  5. Absolutely beautiful eulogy. Scary how much of myself I recognize in your description of Eric (both good and bad); I very much I believe I will learn quite a few things about my relationship to people around me from what you wrote about Eric – it really struck a nerve in a good way. Thank you; for a lot of reasons.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I had followed Eric while he was posting on c.l.l. and reading his writing is still something I save for quiet moments of reflection and when I need to summon the strength to stand for what I think is right.

    I felt his loss in a way I did not expect. It is good to know more about the man behind all the ideas and storm.

  7. I recognise the story, the strengths and weaknesses, the upsides and the down. I think you may find he was an Aspie. Therein lies both a strength, a thirst for knowledge, a raw intelligence, but also foibles, including an inability to understand the world, especially the people in it.

    I can see you loved him deeply, and I hope where ever his essence is now, he can too.

    • Hi Brett,
      You’re not the first person to suggest Erik was an Aspie, and I understand why. There are many signs and traits that point that way. However, one should be very careful about diagnosing other people, especially when they have passed away.

      And yes, I am aware that many Aspies resent the term «diagnosis». And one can argue that the characteristics of Asperger’s are part of the normal spectrum of personality traits.

      (Sorry if the last sentence is a bit clumsy. English is not my mother tongue, and sometimes the words won’t say what I mean :))

      Regards,
      Pernille Nylehn

  8. I come back and read this post every once in a while. I don’t know how to explain how much it means to me. I saw the damage Erik did firsthand, and I never understood why he was like that. But every time I reread your post, I am reminded that I could fall into the same pattern; I could easily do the same thing.

    You couldn’t save Erik’s soul from his inner Devil, but maybe you have saved mine from it.

    • Hi Kragen! I don’t want to be involved with the Devil, but if my scriblings can be of help in avoiding self-destructive behaviour I’m very happy!
      Pernille

  9. Thank you for the words you wrote. I never met Erik, but I learned a great deal from many of his essays. Thanks also for you own healing work.

    Regards,

    Keith Flower, M.D.

  10. Thanks very much for posting this. I’m sorry for what is quite obviously a very personal loss to you. What you’ve written fits naturally with, but adds texture to, what I know of Erik from the net and from having met him once in person. One cannot change the world, nor even affect it, by simply agreeing with it. As to why he was so unbending, who can say? But we cannot ask of our leaders that they be identical to everyone else; to quote Prof. Amar Bose of MIT and the Bose Corporation: «better implies different.» Our great leaders happen because they deviate in some way from the standard way of thinking–how they differ is not subject to control. Some succeed better than others, perhaps partly by virtue of their ability to relate well to others, and as you say Erik succeeded in some ways better than others. He wasn’t perfect, he was just a guy doing the best he could. But I’m glad I knew him and I still miss him. Yes, he was controversial, but what matters is that he did enough good that it’s worth forgiving the bad. I think he did. I benefited greatly for having known him. I have written twice about him since his death (once a eulogy and once a publication of a letter he wrote me about Atlas Shrugged). I note with considered amusement that these two entries were more viewed than any of my other blog entries–even in death, he’s quite a shining star. :) Or perhaps I should say he’s continuing to have a positive effect on others through his legacy. I think he would have liked that. If you haven’t seen those two pieces of mine, you can find them at my blog at Open Salon (or email me for info). Best wishes and thanks again for this. –Kent Pitman

  11. Hi Pernille, you probably don’t know (or remember) me.
    .
    I am deeply sorry to see that Erik has died.
    We had our fights some years ago, but I always respected Erik as a very skilfull – and even helping – man.

    • No, I can’t say I remember you.

      Everyone had their fights with Erik. But so many people respected him nevertheless. And yes, he was actually rather kind in RL.

      All the best.

  12. I think you’ll be pleased to hear that the man’s influence is felt, through his apparently very faithful disciples, right at the very core of the future world emergent. In that, he has left a significant imprint on the world that will endure. Certainly much more so than anyone he ever argued with, and absolutely much more so than the Norvegian revenue service – or for that matter any and all revenue services of any and all states in history.

    Erik er ikke død. Falt, kanskje, men ikke helt død ennå.

    (I hope you’ll excuse my approximative Norvegian. I do not speak it at all, patching together that much took some toll out of the reference books.)

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