The legendary philosopher who died in Sweden

Yesterday, I learned something I didn’t know. Every day, as they say, is a school day. I learned that the iconic French philosopher, scientist and mathematician René Descartes died, and was buried, in Stockholm.

When I studied philosophy at university, I was fascinated by Descartes. Said to be the father of modern Western philosophy, his list of notable ideas is long. Radically, Descartes shifted the debate from God to Man by asking ‘of what can I be certain?’ rather than ‘what is true?’ The latter question relies on belief in an external authority, whereas Descartes instead relied on the judgement of the individual. This was an extreme, and dangerous, thought as it emancipated the individual from religious doctrine and equipped mankind with autonomous reasoning.

This controversial thought sparked the Age of Enlightenment – the fascinating intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. How we reason today in the western world is profoundly based on this period – our embrace of doubt and our attitudes towards pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, search for liberty, progress and secularism are all based on Descartes initial ponderings. On top of this, his scientific and mathematical theories later inspired the works of Leibniz and Newton.

Perhaps his most known legacy is a famous quote. In his ‘Discourse on the Method’, he wrote ‘je pense, donc je suis’. This appeared later in the Latin form it is today famous for – ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. As Descartes explained it, “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.” He was the father of doubt – challenging the blind faith that was the norm of his time.

Descartes was active when Queen Christina was the ruler in Sweden. Intrigued by his philosophies, she invited him to visit her in Stockholm. The idea was that Descartes would organise a new scientific academy in Sweden and tutor the Queen in science, philosophy and love.

Descartes moved to the Swedish capital in the middle of winter, and lived in a cold and draughty building near the palace. It became clear after a couple of visits that he and Queen Christina did not like each other, and on February 11 1650, Descartes died from pneumonia. Another theory is, however, that he was poisoned by a Catholic missionary who opposed his controversial views.

He was buried in the cemetery of Adolf Fredrik’s Church in Stockholm, where there is today a memorial to him. In 1666, his corpse was transferred to France and his skull is on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

It was surprising to learn that this giant of intellectual thinking died in Sweden. It makes me wonder what other non-Swedish, internationally-noted people spent their last days in this frozen country of the north. If you know of any, please share your insights with me and the rest of the readers.

Swedish icons 15: Anna Q Nilsson

In 1907, Anna Q Nilsson was named the most beautiful woman in America. Born in 1888 in Ystad, Southern Sweden, Anna Quirentia Nilsson emigrated to the USA and became one of the most famous actresses of her time.

Her era was the golden era of the silent movies. During her career, she appeared in almost 200 films, but she didn’t successfully make the transition into the talkies. Her most important films are considered to be Adam’s Rib, They Died with their Boots On, The Luck of the Irish and The Thirteenth Commandment. A qualified pilot, she was well known for being daring and she carried out her stunts herself. Consequently she was burned, broken and bruised throughout her career. She was also the first woman to smoke and wear trousers on camera.

She broke the record in fan mail, and was the first Swedish actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. She appeared opposite legendary actors such as John Barrymore, Loretta Young, Errol Flynn and a young Elisabeth Taylor.

Her final credited appearance was with Buster Keaton and other contemporaries playing themselves in cameo parts in the classic ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ After this, she appeared uncredited in movies such as Showboat, An American in Paris and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Her final movie appearance was in 1954.

Aged 85, Anna Q Nilsson died in 1974 in Sun City, California. When she died, tv channels in the US interrupted their broadcasting to make the announcement. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Swedish icons 14: The Swedish Chef

I can’t write a series about Swedish icons without mentioning the Swedish chef. He was probably my second introduction to the Swedish culture when he appeared on the Muppet Show in 1975. Abba winning Eurovision in 1974 was my first. And in my ears when the members of Abba spoke – they sounded just like the Swedish chef!

The Swedish chef character is a puppet that was invented by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The puppet’s live hands where performed by Oz, while Henson controlled the head and did the classic voice. The gobbledygook that the character spoke was supposed to be Swedish, and had the occasional English word thrown in. It was basically gibberish and sounded like ‘hurdy gurdy’ and ‘bork, bork, bork’. He was known for his ridiculous cooking methods, his accident prone nature and the fact that he almost always tried to cook living animals that, in the end, attacked him.

As a kid, I thought that the Swedish chef was hilarious. I don’t know if my love affair with Sweden began there but I certainly found him entertaining and intriguing. To date, he has been seen in over 100 countries, and in some places he might be all they know about Sweden. Interestingly in Germany, he’s known as the Danish Chef.

Real-life Swedish chef Lars Bäckman claims that he is the inspiration for the character. Allegedly he performed catastrophic screen test in the USA in the 70’s which Henson saw and imitated. Bäckman’s claim has however never been corroborated by the Muppet Show.

So, does he sound like a Swede? Well, most Swedes would say absolutely not. To them, he sounds more Norwegian. I can say that in all the years I’ve lived in Sweden, I’ve only heard a handful of people speak in the ‘hurdy gurdy’ style of the Swedish chef when speaking English. It is so unusual that it is almost a shock when you encounter it. So, the answer is no – the Swedish chef is not accurate, but he is a comedy icon in his own way.

Swedish icons 13: Max von Sydow

What words can be used to describe Swedish acting legend Max von Sydow’s career? Extensive? Impressive? Formidable? Whatever the word, there is no doubt that this man, whose career spanned 70 years, is a true Swedish icon.

In 1929, Carl Adolph von Sydow was born into an academic family in the university town of Lund. In early adult life, he moved to Stockholm to start studying at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. Here, he also took the name Max as people kept spelling his name incorrectly.

Max von Sydow’s career spanned theater, television, many genres and over 150 movies. To some he is known as an Ingemar Bergman actor, and especially known for playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal. In total, he starred in 11 Bergman films.

To others he’s known as the actor who played Karl Oskar in the epic Swedish film series The Emigrants about poor Swedes who emigrate from Småland, Sweden, to Minnesota in the mid-19th century.

To mention some other films, he starred in classics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Exorcist, Flash Gordon, Pelle the Conqueror, Dune, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Quiller Memorandum, Minority Report, Never Say Never Again, Shutter Island, Robin Hood and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Younger generations might remember him as the enigmatic Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Max von Sydow had a enormously successful international career. But it wasn’t always destined to be so. Early on, he was satisfied with his life in Sweden, and consequently turned down iconic roles such as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Dr No.

Towards the end of his life, Max von Sydow became a French citizen and had to relinquish his Swedish passport. He died in Provence and was survived by his wife and four sons.

Swedish icons 10: Monica Zetterlund

Born 1937 in the small town of Hagfors, Monica Zetterlund was Sweden’s most prominent jazz singer throughout time. She was also a celebrated cabaret artist and actor.

She started her career as a teenager singing in her father’s band, and gradually gained fame touring in Sweden, Europe and the USA. She sung mostly in Swedish, but did release a few albums in English. The most famous album was Waltz for Debby that she recorded with the legendary Bill Evans Trio. As a singer, she was frequently compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee, and she performed with Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong, amongst others.

As an actor, she participated in many popular theatre and cabaret productions and acted in many successful films. Her most famous role was in The Emigrants where she played an award-winning role of Ulrika, the fiercely independent village whore. A biographic film of her life, called Monica Z, was released in 2013 and is, in fact, one of the best Swedish films I’ve ever seen.

Throughout her life, she was plagued with severe back pain and developed scoliosis. She walked with a cane and often sat down on stage, and towards the end of her life she was in a wheelchair. She died tragically in 2005 in a fire in her apartment in Stockholm, caused by her smoking in bed.

In Stockholm, there is a park near her home called Monica Zetterlund’s Park. Here there is a sound installation, where you can sit on a bench and listen to her sultry tones.

Below is a sample of her music:

Swedish icons 9: Zarah Leander

Zarah Leander was a legendary Swedish singer and actor born in 1907 in the town of Karlstad. She was enormously famous in her day, a huge star and a scandalous provocateur. With her robust, characteristic deep voice, Zarah Leander was one of highest selling international recording artists prior to 1945.

Although a famous and popular film and cabaret artist in Sweden, she made her fortune in wartime Germany. Between 1936 and 1943, she was contracted by the German Universum Film corporation and starred in ten highly successful films. For the Germans of that time, she was a mega star – a box office sensation. She has been strongly criticized for participating in Nazi propaganda, although she vehemently denied that she supported the party.

It seems like she walked a hazardous line between entertainment and politics; she didn’t socialize with German officers, nor take part in Nazi party functions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called her an ‘enemy of the state’, and once upon meeting her said ‘Zarah? Isn’t that a Jewish name?’ Her iconic response was ‘What about Joseph?!’

In 1943, she retreated to Sweden and died in 1981 of a stroke. Throughout her time in Sweden, she was considered highly controversial, partly because of her association with Nazi Germany and partly because of accusations against her for being a Soviet Agent operating under the name ‘Stina-Rose’. Naturally, she went to her grave denying all allegations.

After her return to Sweden, she eventually made a come back. She released hit songs, and performed in successful films and cabarets and, once again, reclaimed her mantle of prima donna supreme.

Zarah Leander was a fascinating woman, a legendary artist and a true diva. She is buried just outside the town of Norrköping, opposite the Zarah Leander Museum.

The signature song she is most associated with in Sweden is called ‘Vill ni se en stjärna, se på mig’ – ’If you want to see a star, look at me’. Many impersonators and drag queens have mimicked her melodramatic performance in this song. You can listen to it below.

Swedish icons 8: Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf was a legendary Swedish author, born in 1858 in the county of Värmland. Today, 16th March, is the anniversary of her death in 1940.

Selma Lagerlöf is considered to be one of the most groundbreaking female writers in the Nordics. Three of her many novels are ‘The Wonderful Journey of Nils’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Gösta Björling’s Saga’. Her works have been translated into 50 languages.

In 1909, she was the first woman, and Swede, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five years later, in 1914, she was invited to join the highly-respected Swedish Academy – the body that chooses the Nobel prize for Literature. In doing so, she became the first woman to sit at the table.

In 1991, she was the first woman to appear on a Swedish bank note. The 20 crown note, referred to as a ‘Selma’, was removed from circulation in 2016 and she was replaced with an image of another iconic writer Astrid Lindgren.

She was highly politicized, leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Sweden and an active critic of nazism and the persecution of the Jews. She never married, and had two long-standing partnerships with two women. Love between people of the same sex was illegal in her day, but their passion was undeniably clear in a series of letters that became public knowledge in the 1990’s.

Selma Lagerlöf was born into a privileged middle class in a large house called Mårbacka, which today is open for visitors. Around Sweden, there are several statues of her, as well as one in Minneapolis in the USA. When planet Venus was discovered, the larger craters were named after famous significant women. One of them is called Lagerlöf, reflecting the size of her legacy.

Selma Lagerlöf died aged 81. She is buried in the churchyard at Östra Ämtervik not far from her family home.

Swedish icons 6: Ingmar Bergman

One of the most influential film directors of all time, Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden. He directed over 60 films, such as the classics ‘The Seventh Seal’, ‘Persona’, ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’.

His films were often experimental and very dark, melancholy and miserable and many of them required patience to watch. He was nominated numerous times for an Oscar and won three times for Best Foreign Language film – ‘The Virgin Spring’, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ and ‘Fanny and Alexander’.

He developed a legendary company of actors whom he frequently worked with, including great names such as Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Harriet Andersson.

Ingmar Bergman lived a stormy life and was notoriously hard to work and live with. He was frequently accused of being overbearing and misogynistic. Married five times, and with many other romantic connections, he fathered nine children, one of whom is the prominent Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann.

Bergman died in 2007 aged 89 in his home on the small Baltic island of Fårö, where he is buried. On Fårö today, there is a cultural center called the Bergman Center that focuses on his life and artistic achievements. Every year, they host the five-day long Bergman Week filled with film, discussions, drama, music and lectures.

For more information see: http://www.bergmancenter.se

Swedish icons: Ingmar Bergman

One of the most influential film directors of all time, Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden. He directed over 60 films, such as the classics ‘The Seventh Seal’, ‘Persona’, ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’.

His films were often experimental and very dark, melancholy and miserable and many of them required patience to watch. He was nominated numerous times for an Oscar and won three times for Best Foreign Language film – ‘The Virgin Spring’, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ and ‘Fanny and Alexander’.

He developed a legendary company of actors whom he frequently worked with, including great names such as Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Harriet Andersson.

Ingmar Bergman lived a stormy life and was notoriously hard to work and live with. He was frequently accused of being overbearing and misogynistic. Married five times, and with many other romantic connections, he fathered nine children, one of whom is the prominent Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann.

Bergman died in 2007 aged 89 in his home on the small Baltic island of Fårö, where he is buried. On Fårö today, there is a cultural center called the Bergman Center that focuses on his life and artistic achievements. Every year, they host the five-day long Bergman Week filled with film, discussions, drama, music and lectures.

For more information see: http://www.bergmancenter.se

Swedish icons 4: Birgit Nilsson

The diva of all divas, Swedish opera singer Birgit Nilsson was born 1918 in the county of Skåne in southern Sweden. She had an impressive global operatic career spanning decades, and was most known for her performances of Wagner and Strauss.

She had a belter of a voice – the New York Times referred to it as ‘a voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina’. She was like an Olympian athlete, and with her enormously powerful voice, she became the most famous Wagnerian soprano of her time. During her career she played most of the significant roles for a soprano, such as Aida, Tosca, Electra, Brunhilde, Turandot and Salome.

Birgit Nilsson received numerous prestigious awards, one of which was Court Singer to the Swedish Royal Court. Once, asked what was her favourite role, she answered: “Isolde made me famous. Turandot made me rich“.

Birgitta Nilsson was often called ‘La Nilsson’ and, although she wasn’t considered difficult, she was notorious for her assertiveness, directness and her wit. When asked what it was like to sing Isolde with an unattractive male colleague, she responded : “I just close my eyes and think of Plácido Domingo.” When answering a question about her rival Joan Sutherland and if her bouffant hair was real, she gave the iconic response: “I don’t know, I haven’t pulled it yet.’’

Birgit Nilsson died in county Skåne in 2005, at the grand age of 87. She had no children but left an huge musical legacy behind her.