Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Jante Law

Aksel Sandemose, the inventor of Jante Law

Jante Law was developed by Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose (1899 - 1965) in his novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor ("A fugitive crosses his tracks", 1933). There Sandemose describes life in an imaginary village called Jante, which is loosely based on his own home village.

Jante Law is basically an unwritten and strict code of conduct regulating all fields of life and guaranteeing not one individual will rise above the rest, under the threat of all sorts of social sanctions, common disapproval and so on. These hierarchies and "pecking orders" will take care that only those members who will agree to play along the rules will subsist, and those diverting from the path will be cast aside. Jante Law is considered especially a Scandinavian phenomenon, distinctive of relatively tiny, close-knit societies of "small village mentality", but also Australia, New Zealand and Canada are said to have something similar, called "Tall Poppy Syndrome".

Lately Jante Law came up in Finnish domestic discussion when it was claimed Panu Rajala, the author of Unio Mystica, a biography of the legendary Finnish writer Mika Waltari, lost the acclaimed Finlandia Prize only because the Prize Board members thought Mr. Rajala's "celebrity status" -- the author often featured on the pages of ladies' magazines and so on -- prevented the book in question having any real "literary merit" in the eyes of the Board and thus from receiving the Prize many thought Rajala's book deserved.

Other examples in Finnish cultural life are countless; just every time when it's a question of the artists' job opportunities, grants and common recognition, being the source of endless bitterness for those hapless individuals who consider themselves being discriminated by "the System" or even by "the Mafia" (i.e. the cultural gatekeepers such as critics, curators, publishers and so on).

The late Finnish artist Kalervo Palsa, known for his morbid and grotesque paintings and comics depicting sex and death, kept Jante Law as his motto sign on the wall.

Jante Law:

1. Don't think you are anything.
2. Don't think you are as good as us.
3. Don't think you are smarter than us.
4. Don't fancy yourself better than us.
5. Don't think you know more than us.
6. Don't think you are greater than us.
7. Don't think you are good for anything.
8. Don't laugh at us.
9. Don't think that anyone cares about you.
10. Don't think you can teach us anything.

Jante'd - More on Jante Law


Rene Kita said...

Good one. The thing that surprises me, a returned expat, time and again is just how humble and tiny one needs to be in order to avoid bumping into this phenomenon. It's just not worth bothering about.
Occasional reading of British news sites seem to indicate that this applies to English society, as well. Famous people there can cop amazing mountains of shit, if they don't do the 'umble good bloke well enough. The charming part about it is the hardheadedness of most English celebrities in the face of it. Probably easier to be an unconcerned outcast, if the money keeps rolling in, though. In a small country like Finland, that can cut into one's livelihood.
Oh, and the Japanese put it nicely: "The nail that stands out gets hammered."

pHinn said...

Jante Law is one of my obsessions, so expect more on the subject some time in the pHuture...