The Law of Jante

Axsel Sandemose published a novel in Denmark in 1933 called A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. The book is set in the fictional town of Jante and is famous for setting out the “Law of Jante.”

Ten rules made up the Law that governed Jante and perhaps you’ll recognize them:

You’re not to think you are anything special.
You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
You’re not to think you know more than we do.
You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
You’re not to think you are good at anything.
You’re not to laugh at us.
You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

There’s also an 11th rule, that can be thought of as the penal code of Jante: Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things about you.

All this is charming, perhaps because it’s so slyly familiar to us. We recognize it – but seldom do we hear it articulated.

My friend Johann Axell tells me that throughout Scandinavia, the Law of Jante is widely recognized as a sociological truism and become part of the culture. In fact, different Scandinavian countries have imagined the Law describes them, rather than Denmark. (This is similar to Scandinavian countries thinking they own ice hockey, when everyone knows it’s really a Canadian game, don’t they?)

Together the ten laws make up a closed system that’s hard to see on one’s own. Who can dare to see that that the Emperor has no clothes when (we feel that) we need the system to survive?

This very human dilemma shows up delightfully in the 1987 Danish film, Babette’s Feast.

The movie is set in 19th century northern Denmark. Babette is a middle-aged French refugee who works as a housekeeper for two elderly sisters who are part of an austere religious sect. The sisters’ father used to be the head, but now the group is slowly dying for lack of new converts. An old friend from home has been sending Babette a lottery ticket each year – and this year Babette wins!

Still from Babette’s Feast, 1987.

Babette decides to spend her entire winnings on a spectacular feast as an act of love. Against the melancholic background, the film shows the richness of French cuisine and Babette’s care and love as she goes all out to create the feast of a lifetime. However the sisters and the sect are increasingly worried that the sensory indulgence will be a sin. The guests make an agreement to not succumb to any pleasure at all.

Watching the guests eat the spectacular meal without admitting to any pleasure, even as their language gets unwittingly animated and sensual, is exquisite counterpoint

The novel and the movie work because they bring what the characters are not allowed to say or do to the surface. Once you see it, then you can’t not see them!

Our entire political and economic life depend on our not seeing. They depend on consent and our silence. They depend on our keeping mum and biting our tongue. Yet we’ve all experienced the breakthrough moment when a sudden and seemingly terrible truth is uttered and everything has changed forever. In that moment not just one little thing has changed but everything has.

I believe we’re keying up for just that kind of sudden change in our social, political, economic, environmental and spiritual lives.

 

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