Control, Surrender and the Paradox of Self-Transcendence: Wisdom from a Vintage Scandinavian Children’s BookBy: Maria Popova
“It’s a pity that exciting things always stop happening when you’re not afraid of them anymore and would like to have a little fun.”
“It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live,” Henry Miller wrote in comparing the art of living to dance, driven by rhythm into which the dancer must relax. “It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.” Surrender, it turns out, is an essential part of testing the limits, which is in turn an essential part of transcending them — in other words, the raw material of creative breakthroughs. But the beautiful term that Jeanette Winterson used to describe the experience of letting art transform us — “the paradox of active surrender” — applies just as aptly to the art of living itself: Paradoxical as it may sound, to stop resisting that which we cannot control is the only choice we have, but it is also one we must actively make in order to transcend our limits.
That’s what beloved Scandinavian children’s book author and artist Tove Jansson (1914–2001) explores with imaginative insight and sensitivity in Moominland Midwinter (public library) — the same deeply delightful and subtly philosophical vintage fable that gave us Jansson’s quiet wisdom on uncertainty, presence, and self-reliance.
Toward the end of the story, Jansson’s iconic Moomintroll protagonist finds himself elevated by the spirit of sauntering amid the wintry wonderland:
He felt more and more unburdened as he walked along. In the end he was nearly exhilarated. He started to whistle and kicked a lump of ice with great skill along his path. And then it slowly started to snow.
But the picturesque snowfall soon transmogrifies into a terrifying tempest:
The sky darkened suddenly again. Moomintroll, who had never seen a blizzard, expected a thunderstorm and braced himself against the first claps of thunder that he thought would soon ring out.
But no thunder came, and no lightning either.
Instead a small whirl of snow rose from the white cap on one of the boulders by the shore.
Worried gusts of wind were rushing to and fro over the ice and whispering in the wood by the shore. The dark-blue wall rose higher, and the gusts became stronger.
Suddenly it was as if a great door had blown wide open, the darkness yawned, and everything was filled with wet, flying snow.
This time it didn’t come from above, it darted along the ground, it was howling and shoving like a living thing… Time and all the world were lost. Everything he could feel and look at had blown away, and only a bewitched whirl of damp and dancing darkness was left. Any sensible person could have told him that this was the very moment when the long spring was born.
But there didn’t happen to be any sensible person on the shore, but only a confused Moomin crawling on all fours against the wind, in a totally wrong direction. He crawled and crawled, and the snow bunged up his eyes and formed a little drift on his nose.
A different kind of storm begins to rage in Moomintroll himself — that great and despairing fury with which we shake our fists at the sky when life doesn’t go our way; that defiant resistance with which we tense against what happens to us, taking it so very personally and refusing to surrender to the impersonal twists of a universe driven by chance and chaos. Jansson captures this inner tumult with exquisite elegance:
Moomintroll became more and more convinced that this was a trick the winter had decided to play on him, with the intention of showing him simply that he couldn’t stand it.
First it had taken him in by its beautiful curtain of slowly falling flakes, and then it threw all the beautiful snow in his face at the very moment he believed that he had started to like winter.
By and by Moomintroll became angry.
He straightened up and tried to shout at the gale. He hit out against the snow and also whimpered a little, as there was nobody to hear him.
And then, when his inner fury reaches its absolute crescendo and yet proves itself absolutely futile in abating the storm, Moomintroll does something radical — something that is always our only option in the face of that which we cannot change or control, not so much a choice as a last reflex: He surrenders. And, in Jansson’s story as in life itself, this becomes his moment of self-transcendence — “the paradox of active surrender”:
He turned his back to the blizzard and stopped fighting it.
Not until then did Moomintroll notice that the wind felt warm. It carried him along into the whirling snow, it made him feel light and almost like flying.
“I’m nothing but air and wind, I’m part of the blizzard,” Moomintroll thought and let himself go. “It’s almost like last summer. You first fight the waves, then you turn around and ride the surf, sailing along like a cork among the little rainbows of the foam, and land laughing and just a little frightened in the sand.”
Moomintroll spread out his arms and flew… And the winter danced him all along the snowy shore, until he stumbled across the snowed-up landing stage and plowed his nose through a snowdrift.
When he looks up, Moomintroll finds himself in the warm safety of his destination, but then mutters wryly, “a little crestfallen”:
It’s a pity that exciting things always stop happening when you’re not afraid of them anymore and would like to have a little fun.
Moominland Midwinter is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, full of countless such subtle yet intensely shrewd insights into the perplexities of the human experience. Complement it with Jansson’s The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, one of the greatest children’s books of all time, and her philosophical Moomin comics on identity, belonging, and why we join groups, then revisit her rare vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit.
For another beautiful meditation on this most uncooperative of seasons, see Rilke on what winter teaches us about the tenacity of the human spirit.