I am searching for a scotagon. I pull a book off my shelf. It’s in good condition for one dated 1907. The cover has gilt and relief: PEER GYNT and HENRIK IBSEN. I flip a bit, looking for something. Finally I find it, starting page 79:
(Peer Gynt höres at hugge og slå omkring sig med en stor gren).
Peer Gynt: Giv svar! Hvem er du?
En stemme i mörket: Mig selv.
Peer Gynt: Af vejen!
Stemmen: Gå udenom, Peer!
Is it not clear what that says? It may not be; when we struggle to understand a language we don’t know – which we all do at least once, as children, and many of us do again and again later in life – we are doing as Peer is doing, thrashing in the dark, wrestling to determine its shape. Hit something and see where the corners are, the angles we can grab onto. Peer is swinging and slashing with the branch of a tree. I’ll circumvent the learning process and give you a translation:
Peer Gynt: Answer me! Who are you?
A voice in the dark: Myself.
Peer Gynt: Out of the way!
The voice: Go around, Peer!
Is it really clearer? A bit, but there are so many more contacts, so many more things to wrestle with – the whole rest of the play, just to start. The voice, we discover, is a mythic Norwegian beast, the Bøyg, thought of as a giant serpent or troll, but in Ibsen’s play it is unseen in the dark, a nothing that is only something because it is; it is a voice with a void at its heart, a giant zero that Peer tries to smash knowledge from as thought it were an atom. Its name means something like ‘bend’, and it tells Peer to go around. Circumvent. Why struggle when you don’t have to?
I often follow that line. Put me behind a slow-moving crowd and I will go around it, adding distance to save time. Faced with a direct interpersonal conflict, unless I have a moment of lost temper I will try to just avoid it, sometimes complicating things even further by doing so. If, in the middle of the road of my life, I find myself in a dark wood where the straight road is lost, will I confront a presence in the dark? Will I attack it head-on to know its shape? Even in a dim alley in my own neighbourhood, I will go around. I will not face the scotagon if I do not have to.
But sometimes we have to. In Genesis we read that Jacob, alone on the road at night, encounters a man and, to know the shape and size of him, wrestles with him all night. At length he knows he has found an angel he can grab onto, and the angel, to escape, dislocates Jacob’s hip. But Jacob won’t let him go unless and until he gets the angel’s blessing – and a name: Israel, ‘Struggles with God’ (a bit more momentous than ‘Dances with Wolves’).
We still do it, in our own ways; science’s modern Jacob is the Large Hadron Collider, hurling particles against the unseeable to know its shape. And though Peer Gynt, once away from the Bøyg, took “go around” as a guiding principle, even he had to face it all – and himself – head on at last.
There will always be scotagons: shapes in the dark that we can only know by feel, by fight. Grab this word, scotagon, and pull it apart. It’s all Greek: σκότος skotos ‘darkness’ plus either γωνία gonia ‘angle’ (as in polygon and octagon) or ἀγών agon ‘struggle’ (as in protagonist) – the latter half is ambiguous and must be grappled with.
My name is James, but only because the Hebrew name Yaʿăqōḇ took a roundabout route through Italian and Spanish to English to enter English once as James and once as Jacob. As a child I was given a Nakoda name, Îpabi Daguskan, meaning ‘son of rock’; the name Peter is from Greek for ‘rock’ (a name given to Simon as Israel was given to Jacob), and Peer is Norwegian for Peter, so I am indirectly Peer too. It was inevitable that I would face a scotagon.
In my twenties, seeing the straight road I had been following disappeared beneath my feet, in hopes that I could avoid having to thrash my way through life with a tree branch, I went around to graduate school to get a doctorate so it would all be handed to me. But who, what, would hand it to me? Would hand what to me? Where was relief from the guilt of inaction? Many nights I walked the irregular polygons of campus paths alone, trying to grasp the shape of my life to come, hoping for not peer support but a hand from above in the dark. The stained-glass window of the campus chapel, glowing in the summer-midnight mist, shone like a reverse Bøyg, a shape I could see but not touch, a light of hope that brought tears to my eyes.
But it was in the dark-bleached kitchen of my unpeopled house that I faced the shadow that was holding me back and the angel that would give me the blessing I sought. Ready to destroy the one so I could surrender to the other, I struck and struck again, smashing to find the form, agonizing, grasping until I could feel the face, find the breath, and choke it. And as I squeezed, I felt the warmth and breath drain away from the shape, from the room, from me. The opposer and the benefactor, my tandem scotagons, were one and the same:
A voice in the dark: Myself.
You won’t find this word in a dictionary. It’s another new old word, formed from Scrabble tiles pulled out of a bag and arranged as I wished. But doesn’t it deserve to stay and be grappled with?