“When a man dies, a library burns down”
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
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.