Chair no. 7 - Sara Danius

Sara Danius, born on 5 April 1962 in Täby, a Stockholm suburb. She is a professor, literature scholar, critic and author. She was elected to the Swedish Academy on 7 March 2013 and admitted on 20 December 2013. Danius succeeded Professor Knut Ahnlund on Chair No. 7. She is the Academy's permanent secretary from 1 June 2015. Danius lives in Stockholm and is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities. She has doctorates from Duke University in the United States and Uppsala University in Sweden and has been guest professor at the University of Michigan as well as fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in Germany. She holds several posts in the research community, among them membership of the Swedish Research Council’s advisory board for the humanities and social sciences. She has held a professorship in literary studies at Stockholm University since 2013.

Sara Danius grew up in several places before, at the age of eleven, her family settled in Täby, a municipal suburb north of Stockholm. She chose the natural science line at Åva Gymnasium 1977–80, while non-curricular life focused on basketball and David Bowie. After graduation she worked for a couple of years as a card dealer and croupier at a casino in Stockholm.

She began university studies in 1982, choosing literary theory as her major and writing her degree thesis on Tomas Tranströmer. She spent a term studying French in Paris and did internships in the cultural section of two newspapers, Expressen and Dagens Nyheter. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in June 1986.

While at Dagens Nyheter, Danius wrote her first book review, on Roland Barthes’ La chambre claire. She was a temp as a page designer and copy editor for the culture pages. She was also writing literary criticism for BLM magazine (Bonniers Litterära Magasin) and Dagens Nyheter, where she still contributes. She has flourished as an independent essayist throughout her academic career.

A wish to deepen her understanding of literary critique enticed Danius abroad to Nottingham University in England, where she studied cultural theory 1987-1989 and wrote a weighty Master’s paper on Fredric Jameson’s theory of interpretation. It was her first step on an international career in literary research.

On her return home she presented Fredric Jameson for Swedish audiences, introducing him in a 1989 essay, fittingly entitled “En amerikansk Marxist” (An American Marxist). With the 1980s at an end, Danius wanted to emphasise the timely need for a more socially and politically oriented theory of literature. Jameson has been a vital companion in her intellectual life through his innovative return to the material conditions of art creation, without sacrificing a sensitivity to subtleties in the text. In 1990 Danius was accepted at the Graduate Program in Literature at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA, where Jameson himself was her tutor.

Sara Danius spent almost all the 1990s in the USA. While writing her doctoral thesis on the titans of modernism — Mann, Proust and Joyce — she continued to introduce Jameson and other cultural theoreticians to Swedes. In 1994, Jameson’s The Political Unconscious was published in a Swedish translation with a foreword by Danius. In those years, described by her as “intellectually decisive”, she also introduced other new cultural theory to Sweden.

Danius’s major undertaking in those years was the genesis of her doctoral thesis, in which she shone new light on the classic works of 1920s modernism. Investigating Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and James Joyce’s Ulysses, she found the aesthetics of those works inseparable from the technological advancements of their time. She bluntly claims the works can be only semi-understood without that insight. At the same time, the forms of perception altered by technology are not to be seen as merely mirrored in literature. Instead, there is a synergy, where sensory forms both influence and are influenced by the new aesthetics, via new technology. Danius received her doctorate at Duke University in 1997. In the following year, 1998, she presented an extended version of her thesis at the institution of literary studies at Uppsala University. It was published as a book by Cornell University Press a few years later, under the title The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics (2002). Today, the book is a standard reference in modernism research.

Sara Danius allowed herself a summary of her view of literature in her book Försök: om litteratur (Endeavours: on Literature) in 1998. In her essay “Litteraturens död 1–6” (The Death of Literature 1-6) she uses as her departure point her late father’s idealistically imbued book collection, tracing six variations of the consequences of the death of high modernism, which in some respects is synonymous with the death of literature. After modernism, literature ceased to be the place for contemporary debate. What did it then become?

After submitting her dissertation in Uppsala, Danius returned to the USA to spend two years in Los Angeles, where she was guest researcher at UCLA and the Getty Research Institute. There, she completed Prousts motor (2000), challenging in essay form the image of Marcel Proust as a retrograde nostalgic. Instead, we meet a Proust obsessed by future technology: cars and airplanes, cameras and gramophones. In one passage, the involuntary memory of petrol fumes appears instead of that of madeleine cakes, and as early as 1907, Proust wrote a newspaper article on “Impressions from travel by automobile”, included at the end of Danius’s book.
Prousts motor is an extremely well-conceived, accessible and convincing essay on how Proust captures, with great precision, the arrival of modernity and allows it to progressively develop throughout his colossal work.

Danius returned to Sweden in December 2000 and was given a four-year Pro Futura research grant, established in memory of scholar and newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt. She also accepted a fellowship at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Germany, where she spent the academic year of 2001–02. Her stay in Berlin provided the opportunity for a further step in her research studies. She was now working backwards in time: after having investigated 20th-century modernism and the revised forms of perception in the new technology, she began to study realism and a new kind of visualisation that emerged a few decades into the 19th century. From Mann, Proust and Joyce she took a step back to Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert, in an attempt to identify the historic moment when “the art of making objects visible” took a dramatic new turn.

After an appointment as senior research fellow at Uppsala University in 2005, a residency as guest professor at the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the spring term of 2006, and subsequently acquiring tenure as Reader of Aesthetics at the institution for culture and communication at Södertörn University College, in 2006 Sara Danius completed the first part of a planned trilogy investigating how the realistic novel has conquered the vast field of the visible. The book was called The Prose of the World. Flaubert and the Art of Making Things Visible, and, as indicated by the subtitle, Flaubert has become her focus for this important moment in the history of literature, when his renowned descriptions transcend their own limits and become “a new object in the history of literary representation”. Flaubert’s images are autonomous; that is, language images that exist in their own right without reference to a larger entity that explains them.

Sara Danius has written freely on many subjects – cookbooks, for example – but has also looked at applied arts such as glass and ceramics. She had written about glass art in the 1990s and in 2006 published a book on contemporary Swedish ceramics where she discussed a new generation of innovative artists. The title was Voices/Röster, comprising exact, essayistic miniatures clearly showing her prominence as an essayist.

In her year in Berlin, Danius met German actor-writer Hanns Zischler, discovering a common interest in James Joyce. They decided to write a book together on a neglected episode in Joyce’s life: his first destination after leaving Ireland was Pola, in what is now Croatia. In his half-year in Pola in 1904–05, Joyce was an eager consumer of the burgeoning new media, cinema and various faits divers journals. Danius/Zischler show in their book Nase für Neuigkeiten. Vermischte Nachrichten von James Joyce (2008: Croatian translation 2009, Swedish translation 2013) the importance of this prelude to Joyce’s future productivity. But the book is principally about a remote place at the time of the birth of modernity, and about the relationship between the novel, cinema and daily press at the turn of the previous century.

In 2008, Sara Danius was appointed Professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University College near Stockholm. In short time, she and colleagues Cecilia Sjöholm and Sven-Olov Wallenstein launched a major editorial project, a multi-volume review of the history of modern aesthetics. The first volume, of almost 700 pages and published in 2012, was entitled Aisthesis. Estetikens historia del 1 (Aisthesis. The History of Aesthetics Part 1) and covered the period from the early 18th century until the Second World War. The translated contributions are complemented with prefaces by the editors.

In a slim volume, Proust–Benjamin. On Photography (in the journal series Moderna Museet Essä 2011), Danius refines the connection, previously hinted at in her research, between Proust and Walter Benjamin regarding the theory of photography. In point of fact, Danius succeeds in her precise essay in establishing Proust as the father of modern photography theory.

2013 was eventful. Within brief intervals, Sara Danius was given professorship at the department of literature and the history of ideas at Stockholm University, was elected to the Swedish Academy, and published two books in Swedish as well as Nase für Neuigkeiten in Swedish, as Näsa för nyheter. Essä om James Joyce (Nose for News. An essay on James Joyce).

Her second published book that year implied a breakthrough outside academe. The Blue Soap. The novel and the art of making things visible brought unusually ample media attention for a contemporary literary scholar. Probably the main reason was that her style was making new gains. Very few literary scholars of our day have her stylistic crispness and clarity, and her development of the chief argument from The Prose of the World – that the realistic novel is not a mirror but a window, a new opening on quotidian reality – is tantamount to a genuine contribution to popular knowledge. In The Blue Soap, she elegantly traces how, a few decades into the 19th century, the foundations of society shifted and writers were thereby given a new purpose. Danius looks especially at the importance for realism of “lowbrow” cultural expression, such as apparel, fashion magazines and the daily press.

The book follows an arc from the early 19th century to its end, at the same time telling the story of the art of visualisation in literature. Danius studies some of that epoch’s most important writers – Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert – and presents new perspectives on all three. The book completed the trilogy she had previously flagged. Seldom have the different growth stages in a literary project been so clearly delineated. And in such evident relationship to society at large:

“At that time, the term ‘society’ underwent radical transformation. Its meaning shifted and changed. Society became a community of private property, the refuge of the private individual and economics, and therefore a place outside of politics and beyond the state. Why was the visible mobilised? Not to reflect. But to illustrate. Ideally: to suppress.”

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Kim Loughran)