INTERVIEWS The magic philosopher

Christian Have has always been keenly interested in Hans Christian Andersen's life and works, quite simply because the story of the man himself epitomizes the archetypal tale of rising to prominence from nothing, based solely on the content of one's character - coupled with an historic knack for putting oneself forward.

By Mikkel Stjernberg - H.C. Andersen 2005 - 16 October 2003

It was early morning on 21 November 2002, when Christian Have hailed a taxi in downtown Seoul. He was visiting the South Korean capital in his capacity as Director of Public Affairs for Hans Christian Andersen 2005 and had been, for the previous 24 hours, working to forge vital links to the South Korean government and potential collaborative partners in the country. When he got into the taxi, he was on his way to the airport to catch a plane to Tokyo, before returning home to Denmark a couple of days later.

On the way to the airport, he tried to strike up a conversation with the taxi driver, but it did not get much beyond the level of expository gestures. That is, until the word "Denmark" crossed the Dane's lips. Then, the South Korean taxi driver smiled warmly and replied with the word "Andersen."

A split second of a rhetorical pause later, the two men were laughing together at having found common ground in the midpoint between nothing and everything. With no other basis for dialogue than the word "Andersen" to which, with a glint in their eyes and a smile on their lips, they both could nod with warmth and recognition. Quite simply because Hans Christian Andersen belongs to the world, and nations such as, for example, China, Japan, and South Korea may lay just as much claim to him as Denmark. 

Spiritual vitamins
"You become wiser from spending time with him," responds Christian Have, when asked what it is like to work with Hans Christian Andersen, "because he gives you vitamins to draw on. A sort of spiritual dietary supplement that fills you with more contentment and energy."

Then, he refers to his encounter with the taxi driver in Seoul and the eminence linked to an experience like that; for Hans Christian Andersen is a universal figure, whose magic and philosophical view of life reach directly into most people's hearts, regardless of their cultural background. That is precisely the point of the international celebration of his 200th birthday in 2005.

"I think we can all identify with the struggle for recognition, love, identity and significance. With the desire to leave behind some footprint on the Earth, when you are gone. It is one of the most important things in every person's existence, and it is just what Hans Christian Andersen struggled for his entire life. Sometimes with a majestic overestimation of himself. At other times with bombastic self-importance or acute anxiety. We see the extremes embodied in him, as we see them in ourselves."

The highest price
Christian Have relates that what is interesting for him is that Hans Christian Andersen paid the highest price a human being can pay to achieve his goals - never attaining love on this Earth and having loneliness as his constant companion, or shadow, throughout his life.

What did he get in return?
"The fulfillment of the mission he discovered in himself, which was to tell the world about what it is like to be human. The fulfillment of his dream to become famous and to leave behind some footprint in the world. The important thing here is that Hans Christian Andersen understood that there was a price to be paid for this, and he accepted it. That is why his life epitomizes the archetypal story of paying the price for the highest things in life."

So, in reality, he simply made his own life an example of this?
"That's how I see him and, if the world knew him, I believe it would be just as taken by this. But as it is, most people are only familiar with five or six of his fairytales and, then, from an early age. That is why I believe it would be fantastic, if we could tell his own life story in connection with our celebration of him. For just as the fairytales have been alive for almost 200 years, the story of his own life can be what lives on in the next 200."

Humility and awe
What is the relationship between Hans Christian Andersen 2005 and the footprints you are leaving behind in the world?
"Well, what drives you is a natural fascination with Hans Christian Andersen. Plus an awe at having our country's heritage in your care. It makes you humble, which is necessary. Humility is an important component, because if you are just logging up the hours on a project like this, you shouldn't have anything to do with it. It requires a certain degree of idealism to be involved, because you can't have a normal life, when you are a part of it. That is the price that has to be paid for the privilege of participating in what we hope will be an historic event."

Why is it that we are willing to pay that price?
"Yes, why do we do it? Why is it of almost vital necessity that there be a global celebration of him? Why does a government decide we should commemorate him? Why does a foreign minister in Sri Lanka or a cultural minister in Japan decide we should commemorate him? Why is the world about to make so much ado about this?"

Yes, why?
"It is because his energy, life and destiny demand it. Because he still has something to say to the world. We need the world to discover Hans Christian Andersen himself. His depths, his shadow sides and his multifacetedness for better or for worse. This story can, if anything can, tell what it is like to be human. Just as much as his fairytales. We are simply not finished with him, until we have told the entire story."

Putting oneself forward
What has your involvement in the project so far meant to you - professionally as well as personally?
"You are continually challenged by him and undergo a personal development that is extraordinarily positive but difficult as well. Because even as you have to work professionally and maintain the necessary distance to the project to be able to work properly, you are also forced to deal with certain personal identity questions. You can't just shove them aside by remarking glibly that there are other things in life as well, because Hans Christian Andersen cannot be kept an arm's length away. He constantly demands your attention and, consequently, I feel him to be just as assertive now as he must have been, when he was a young unknown, running around Copenhagen and knocking on the doors of notable personages to bring himself to their attention."

What other reactions have you experienced out in the world, now that you have circumnavigated it for a year?
"With great surprise that the farther away you get from Odense, the more well known Hans Christian Andersen is. There is quite simply an enormous enthusiasm and admiration for Hans Christian Andersen and his works out there, no matter what country you visit, and I would not have thought that. Not with such a human warmth and immediate understanding for what the project is all about."

What does this mean for you, when you are out selling the project?
"It means everything, because we don't have to sell it. We don't need to convince people, because they already have a great empathy for and openness to the project and feel themselves to be a natural part of it. So, our job is mostly to act as a catalyst for their enthusiasm and, occasionally, as a source of inspiration. Of course, this means that we have a pretty strong tailwind behind us and that, even though the project is difficult on account of all the practical details, it is no burden."

The ultimate storyteller
Hans Christian Andersen has been called one of the greatest brand names in the world.  What is your view of this?
"It is actually quite interesting that people all over the world talk about Hans Christian Andersen as a brand name. Would you say the same thing, for example, about Shakespeare, Victor Hugo or Goethe? No, you wouldn't. It's strange that it is Hans Christian Andersen that is a brand name. We apparently have no trouble imagining him used in a commercial context; but we can't quite see Shakespeare's name, for example, marketing some new toy."

Why is this?
"In my opinion, Hans Christian Andersen is a brand name, because he is the ultimate storyteller."

Shakespeare was a good storyteller as well. How do you become a brand name, just because you are a good storyteller?
"Hans Christian Andersen is himself the story, and that makes all the difference. He is himself the ugly duckling, the little matchstick girl, the little mermaid and Clumsy Hans; and, although we don't quite realize it, these tales are so powerful, because they come from the man himself. Therefore, he becomes something much more than just the author. You might say that he is to the world of art what Jesus is for the world of religion. Simply because the energy that exists in his universe is so powerful, it makes him into a brand name. It is amazing that you can put Hans Christian Andersen's name on any sort of product, and there are people who think it takes on extraordinary value. This being the case, you can only say that you are dealing with a brand name that has held up pretty well so far. Compared to today's brand names, there aren't many of them that will still be around in 200 years."

But if only half the story of Hans Christian Andersen and his fairytales has been told until now, what can we bring to the world by telling the remaining half?
"The belief in miracles! I know it sounds hackneyed, but it has to do with the faith that you can come out of the worst conditions, go through the most awful experiences, and still achieve significance for the world. That even though you are timid and ill-equipped, you can make something of yourself. Or the exact antithesis of pop stars, the world of fashion models, and the general faith in facades. If anyone does, Hans Christian Andersen exemplifies that what one has on the inside has far greater power than one's external appearance. The answer, therefore, is that, in the moment he is able to captivate a nation, he might also be able to bring it about that the next reality show, for example, is about authors ? instead of who has the flattest stomach. I think the world would be the better for it."

Content over packaging, then?

Commercial cultural life
What will the project mean for international cultural life after 2005?
"The result may be a whole new way of dealing with cultural life.  If this project turns out to be as big and as good as we hope, it will be proof that a little country like Denmark can put together a worldwide celebration of a cultural personality in a way that has a measurable effect. Because if cultural life can generate documented income in the magnitude we're talking about here, then we will have made the case that cultural life can be exploited commercially in a way that has never before been seen."

But many people believe that it is Andersen who makes the difference. That this method is only possible, because it is Andersen we are working with?
"No one is saying that you have to do a worldwide television show for a billion people. You can be content with doing a local television show for 10,000 people. This is exactly what I mean. It doesn't matter how big the event is. What matters is the content. In Germany, for example, they can do something with Günther Grass or Goethe; in France, Victor Hugo; in Norway, Ibsen, and so on. It may be that it remains regional or local, but Hans Christian Andersen 2005 makes the case that an effect results.  Physically, financially and spiritually, and it can potentially stir things up in cultural life in heretofore unseen ways."

What do we get out of creating a more commercial cultural life in this way?
"The same thing as always, but in a far grander style. Greater quality, strength and vitality in life. Greater faith in life. That is what art and culture can give and, thus, the most important thing about this project in my view is that it challenges attitudes. Because once you shake up attitudes, you can move mountains, and Hans Christian Andersen 2005 has that potential."

If you were to summarize what you yourself believe to be the core of Hans Christian Andersen, how would you do it?
"I would say that Hans Christian Andersen is the world's great, magic philosopher. If we were to rattle off the 20 most significant persons in world history since Jesus, I believe that Hans Christian Andersen would be among them. Regardless of whom you ask."