“A Christmas Carol”, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. And a bit of Henry James.

In a recent post, I pointed out what seems to me a striking similarity between a passage in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and a passage in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. In both instances, we see a group of men speaking in indifferent terms about the recent death of a colleague. Of course, this similarity could be a coincidence, but I think not: first of all, Tolstoy openly loved and admired Dickens; and secondly, Dickens was here addressing a theme that was obviously very close to Tolstoy’s heart – What meaning, what significance, can we find in a human life in the context of its inevitable end? This is a question that Tolstoy had returned to throughout his life, and nowhere with greater insistence than in The Death of Ivan Illyich. And Tolstoy is not the only artist to have addressed this question, and echoed A Christmas Carol in the process: Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries also addresses this question, and here too, we see an elderly misanthrope reliving his past, and becoming reformed in the process.

The echoes of Dickens in Bergman’s film are, most likely, accidental; but there was another great artist who, quite consciously, I think, had echoed A Christmas Carol. Consider Bob Cratchit’s speech to his gathered family in the Christmas-Yet-to-Come episode:

“…But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim—shall we—or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

Now let us consider Alyosha’s speech to the boys (also while mourning the death of a child) at the end of The Brothers Karamazov:

“Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

(from the translation by Constance Garnett)

In both cases, the speaker is urging other children to remember a departed child, and, whatever happens in life, be inspired to be good by the memory of that dead child’s goodness.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Dickens for being sentimental (especially in something like A Christmas Carol, which is generally regarded as no more than a feelgood piece of whimsy, and not, perhaps, the deepest expression of an artistic and moral vision); but when Dostoyevsky places a passage that is almost identical in sense and feeling at the very end of what is generally taken to be the most comprehensive statement of his own artistic and moral vision, we should, I think, take it a bit more seriously.

For I don’t think the passage in Dickens is “sentimental” at all. Quite the contrary.  It comes in a scene that is, I think, at the very heart of A Christmas Carol. It depicts, to my mind very convincingly, a loving and close-knit family grieving for a dead child. It’s only a few pages long: Dickens, contrary perhaps to expectations, doesn’t milk it. But the context in which he places it is remarkable. For, earlier, Scrooge had been made to see a world utterly devoid of any human feeling: some cleaning women have robbed a dead man of everything, including the very blankets the corpse had been wrapped in, and are now trying to sell these stolen goods for as much as they can get. A world so devoid of feeling – and not too far removed, incidentally, from the indifference of the men Scrooge had seen earlier discussing the dead man in indifferent terms – is indeed Hell. And Scrooge, by this stage, knows it: he refers to it as “a fearful place”. And he knows why it is such a fearful place: there is no room here for human feeling. He asks to be shown some feeling in relation to the dead man, and he is shown a young couple who are merely relieved, because the death of their creditor has given them an unexpected respite. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see: and he finally articulates what it is that he wants to see – tenderness. He wants to see that which makes of our lives something other than the Hell he has just witnessed. And this is when we are shown the grieving Cratchits.

The mother tries not to show her grief:

The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.

“The colour hurts my eyes,” she said.

The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tim!

The father is less successful, and at one point, spontaneously bursts into tears. Dickens tells us, in a narrative intrusion of a kind very unfashionable these days:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

Far from being sentimental or mawkish, as is often alleged, this seems to me to get to the very heart of the matter. For whatever pain the mother and the father may feel, the very fact that they can feel this pain is what makes them human. This is the tenderness that Scrooge had longed to see, and without which our lives are very literally Hell.

At the end of Bob Cratchit’s speech, he says something very unexpected:

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

I think Dickens is challenging us here: he is challenging us to understand how a man can profess himself “very happy” even when undergoing the greatest mental anguish. And I think the answer lies in what had come earlier: were it not for the pain that the Cratchits feel, they would be even further from their dead child than they already were. It is this ability to feel that makes us human, that makes of this terrible world something other than merely Hell.

A few years ago, I read The Portrait of a Lady, and was struck by a passage at the climactic point of the novel, where, as Ralph is dying, and as his beloved Isabel tells him how unhappy she is in her marriage, he says:

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” 

And I remember trying to figure out where else I had come across a character in the depths of sorrow claiming to be happy. And it took me a while to figure out it that the other book I was thinking of is A Christmas Carol.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took me a while: after all, Dickens and James are about as radically different as writers as it is possible to imagine. Indeed, James deeply disliked Dickens, and attempted to make his own novels as different from those of Dickens as possible. And many readers still, I think, tend to think of James as the serious novelist, and of Dickens as a mere entertainer – good fun, perhaps, but not really possessing much depth. Well, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky certainly didn’t think so: both were happy to pay their tribute to Dickens in their most deeply felt work. And James – entirely unwittingly, I am sure – at the most grave and most solemn moment in one of his very finest works, seems to make contact with a sort Christmas novel still thought of in many quarters as no more than piece of feelgood seasonal whimsy.

I really do think we should take A Christmas Carol as a serious and very deeply felt work of literature.

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A revised definition of “cultural appropriation”

Generally, as we approach Christmas, I try to keep off controversy. It is the season of goodwill, after all. But …

Yes, of course there is a “but”. I’ll try to keep this one short, though.

I have, on numerous occasions on this blog, been scathing about the concept of “cultural appropriation”, arguing that adopting elements of other cultures, far from being reprehensible, is desirable, as the alternative is to create cultural ghettoes. (I won’t link to the various posts in which I argue this case: a quick search reveals them quite easily.) But recently, I’ve been hearing that “cultural appropriation” is not at all about taking things from other cultures: it is about wilfully disrespecting elements of other cultures.

Now, this seems to me revisionism. If “cultural appropriation” is about disrespecting other cultures, then it would have been termed “cultural disrespect”, or something similar. “Appropriation” means taking something that does not belong to oneself, usually without permission from the owner. (I think any dictionary would confirm that.) So when anyone speaks of “cultural appropriation”, I naturally take it to mean appropriation in the context of culture: that does seem to me a reasonable interpretation. And, indeed, all the various manufactured controversies relating to “cultural appropriation” seem to assume this interpretation also: visitors to an art gallery invited to try on a kimono, pop stars wearing sari and bindi, etc. – none of them involving any disrespect at all, and yet all resulting in large numbers of people quite apoplectic with rage. All very comical, frankly, were its implications not so sinister.

However, let us, for the sake of argument, accept this revisionist definition: “cultural appropriation” is not really about appropriation of culture (that would be too simple, apparently), but about disrespect of culture. About disrespect of elements of a culture that have symbolic value for adherents of that culture.

Well, I slept on that for a bit, and it still doesn’t make much sense to me. The most obvious point is that not all elements of all cultures are worthy of respect. Many, clearly, aren’t. The culture I was born into, for instance, has many fine things in it, but it also has this thing called “caste system”, which is culturally very significant. And Brahmin men are supposed to wear around their necks a sacred thread, as a mark of their high caste: it is a significant cultural symbol. Some sixty or so years ago now, my father respected this significant cultural symbol by chucking away his own sacred thread. He did not deem it worthy of respect any more than I do. But that it is a cultural symbol of deep significance is beyond doubt, and the injunction that we must not disrespect it, especially if we weren’t born into the Hindu religion, seems to me arbitrary at best, and, at worst, completely bonkers.

No, I’ll revise that. At worst, sinister and dangerous. For how is much-needed reform to come if that which needs reform is mandated as worthy of respect? How, indeed, can we prevent that which should be reformed from becoming even further entrenched, if it is mandated to be exempt from criticism and disrespect?

And who does the mandating anyway? Who decides what is worthy of respect, and what isn’t? Who are the gatekeepers here, and on what authority?

So really, as far as I’m concerned, if anyone wants to disrespect any aspect of any culture, then that’s fine – disrespect away! Yes, in the course of all this, I am sure that certain things that I myself revere may also end up being disrespected. But don’t worry about that – I can take it! Honestly, I can! And if I can’t, that’s my problem, and not anyone else’s. All this talk about “respect” merely puts me in mind of The Godfather films, I’m afraid.

For consider the implications of even this revised definition of “cultural appropriation”: the worst elements of our cultures become entrenched, thus rendering reform even more difficult; rigid boundaries are set between cultures, with self-appointed gatekeepers; all humanity itself becomes fragmented beyond repair. This is what, it seems to me, many people really want. I, personally, don’t.

Now, I did say at the start of this piece that I will keep this rant short, and I hope I have kept my word. All my posts between now and the New Year will be full of brightness and joy and festive cheer – I promise!

The “Six Degrees of Separation” meme

How about one of those book memes? Yes, why not. It’s nearly Christmas, after all, so let’s indulge ourselves. I found this lovely post in Marina Sofia’s blog, and thought to myself “that looks fun!” The meme is hosted by Kate in her blog, and the rules are described here. The idea is that we start off with a book of Kate’s choosing (this month, it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and find some connection with another book. And then, we take that other book, and find some connection with yet another book. And so build up the chain, ending up with six books.

christmasCarol

I’ve posted about Dickens’ Christmas Books (including A Christmas Carol) quite often in the past, so I won’t repeat – yet again – how much I love that book, and why. But let me draw attention to the following passage, from the fourth part of A Christmas Carol, describing a group of businessmen talking about a recently deceased colleague:

`No,’ said a great fat man with a monstrous chin,’ I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know he’s dead.’

`When did he die.’ inquired another.

`Last night, I believe.’

`Why, what was the matter with him.’ asked a third, taking a vast quantity of snuff out of a very large snuff-box. `I thought he’d never die.’

`God knows,’ said the first, with a yawn.

`What has he done with his money.’ asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.

`I haven’t heard,’ said the man with the large chin, yawning again. `Left it to his company, perhaps. He hasn’t left it to me. That’s all I know.’

This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.

`It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,’ said the same speaker;’ for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer.’

`I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided,’ observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. `But I must be fed, if I make one.’

Another laugh.

`Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,’ said the first speaker,’ for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I’ll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye.’

Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups.

Now, consider this passage, describing a group of lawyers speaking of the recent passing of a colleague:

“Gentlemen,” [Peter Ivanovich] said, “Ivan Ilych has died!”

“You don’t say so!”

“Here, read it yourself,” replied Peter Ivanovich, handing Fedor Vasilievich the paper still damp from the press.

… on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

“I shall be sure to get Shtabel’s place or Vinnikov’s,” thought Fedor Vasilievich. “I was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance.”

“Now I must apply for my brother-in-law’s transfer from Kaluga,” thought Peter Ivanovich. “My wife will be very glad, and then she won’t be able to say that I never do anything for her relations.”

“I thought he would never leave his bed again,” said Peter Ivanovich aloud. “It’s very sad.”

“But what really was the matter with him?”

“The doctors couldn’t say — at least they could, but each of them said something different. When last I saw him I thought he was getting better.”

“And I haven’t been to see him since the holidays. I always meant to go.”

“Had he any property?”

“I think his wife had a little — but something quiet trifling.”

“We shall have to go to see her, but they live so terribly far away.”

“Far away from you, you mean. Everything’s far away from your place.”

“You see, he never can forgive my living on the other side of the river,” said Peter Ivanovich, smiling at Shebek. Then, still talking of the distances between different parts of the city, they returned to the Court.

This is from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, in the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Plagiarism? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as a homage. Tolstoy, after all, revered Dickens. (As indeed did Dostoyevsky: Alyosha’s speech to the boys at the end of The Brothers Karamazov is almost word-for-word the same as Bob Cratchit’s address to his family when they are mourning Tiny Tim. But that’s another story, as they say…)

ivanillych

So that’s my first connection: The Death of Ivan Illych by Tolstoy – a short novel (novella is, I think, the preferred term) – describing an ordinary man, who had never so much as given a thought to his mortality, suddenly confronting the prospect of his imminent extinction.

The shadow of Tolstoy’s short novel seems to me very apparent in one of Ivan Bunin’s finest short stories, “The Gentleman of San Francisco”. A very wealthy American gentleman is on holiday, on a cruise, when he dies of a heart attack, and is transported back home in a coffin. At the risk of giving away spoilers, that’s about all there is to the plot. But as in Tolstoy’s work, albeit in a very different manner, we are made aware of the very basic and terrifying facts of our mortality lurking beneath what is but a thin veneer of civilisation – a civilisation which prefers, for the sake of decorum, to downplay that which is most important in our lives – that is, its end – and pretend it doesn’t really exist. Or, perhaps, that it doesn’t really matter too much.

bunin

Bunin was an émigré Russian writer. Which takes me to my next choice – Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps the most famous Russian émigré writer of them all. However, unlike Bunin, Nabokov, in his exile, started writing in English, the language of his adopted country. Pnin, which I wrote about recently on this blog (and a quick link saves me the trouble of repeating myself) I found among the most eloquent and touching accounts of the state of exile.

pnin

Exile, exile … that brings me to my next choice, Poems of Exile, Peter Green’s wonderful translations of Ovid’s Tristia, and the Black Sea Letters (Epistulae ex Ponto). (When I say “wonderful translation”, I mean they read very well in English: not having the benefits of a classical education, I cannot of course comment on how close they are to the originals.)

Ovid was, for reasons still obscure, exiled by Augustus from his beloved Rome to what was then the wild and dangerous frontiers at the far end of the Roman Empire – to what is now Romania, at the edge of the Black Sea. From there, in these poems, Ovid laments all he has lost. In my last post, I spoke of homesickness: perhaps there is no more powerful testament than these poems of the pain of that condition.

ovid

Fast forward to the twentieth century: the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, also wrote a collection of poems named (no doubt evoking Ovid) Tristia. Sadly, I have not read those poems. Mandelstam himself became an exile later in life, of course, and became one of the many millions (the numbers are so astronomically large that the mind reels) who died of cold and of hunger in Stalin’s gulags.

My next choice, though, is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of those unimaginably terrible years, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (I am counting these two volumes as a single choice). These heartbreaking books rank with Anne Frank’s diary, or with Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, as among the indispensable testaments of what it means to be human amidst the most unthinkable inhumanity. And yes, books such as these are particularly important now, when certain comfortable activists (known, I believe, as “tankies”) attempt to downplay and even whitewash the horrors of Soviet Communism.

I said at the start of this post that this meme looks like “fun”. Well, most of my choices haven’t frankly been “fun” choices. Let’s face it – I’m an overly serious, miserable, po-faced old grouch, whose idea of an enjoyable evening is to pour myself a large vodka, watch Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and follow it up listening to Mahler’s 6th symphony. And then, maybe, retire with some Samuel Beckett for a bit of bedtime reading. So let’s finish off with something lighter. That’s difficult: how can Nadezhda Mandelstam’s books be connected to anything light? Well, let’s try…

Hope Against Hope … hope … hope … yes, I have it! Sir Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda! A splendid swashbuckling adventure story, of the kind I used to love as a boy. And still do, in between my viewings of Bergman, my listenings of Mahler, and my readings of Beckett.

zenda

And that, I believe, is my sixth choice. If you have a blog, why not give this meme a go?

Look back in something-or-other

As even those of us who do not have the benefits of a classical education know, the word “nostalgia” derives from the Greek nostos (meaning, I gather, “return home”), and algos (meaning “pain”). The word could, I suppose, have been taken to mean the pain of returning home, for that can be painful also; but instead, it took on the meaning of “the pain of longing to return home” – that is, homesickness. Soon – I’m not sure when or why – it took on the meaning of longing to return to a home separated from us not by space, but by time; and implicit in this usage is the assumption that there had once been a time in which we had felt at home, or, more likely, in which we think we had felt at home, but which is now lost to us. And this time we usually locate in our childhood.

Wordsworth had, of course, idolised childhood: we come into this life, he said, “trailing clouds of glory”, from “God, who is our home”. As a child, we are aware of a “visionary gleam”, but as we grow older, “shades of the prison house” begin to close in upon us, and soon, that visionary gleam fades merely into “the light of common day”. I am not sure Wordsworth had intended these lines, magnificent as they are, to be taken quite literally, but if they are indeed intended as an image, we are left with the question of what they are an image of. Perhaps of nothing that may be pinned down explicitly. Perhaps there had been no “visionary gleam” to begin with; perhaps it is simply that, as we advance in years, we recognise all too well the light around us to be but the light of common day, and, dissatisfied with it being so, create in our minds an image of when it had, perhaps, been something more. Perhaps. But the creations of our own minds can be very potent nonetheless.

I couldn’t help but reflect on all this lately. We had spent the last weekend in Glasgow, to attend the ceremony at Glasgow University where our daughter was formally awarded a master’s degree. I had myself spent some ten years in Glasgow, between the ages of eleven and twenty-one – five years as a schoolboy, living with my parents in a suburb named Bishopbriggs, and another five years as a student (at the end of my school years, my parents moved down to England, and I moved into student accommodation in the centre of the city); and I hadn’t been back to Glasgow, apart from the very occasional and very brief visit, for nearly forty years now. And I decided this time to give way to my nostalgia. Ever since Lot’s wife was transformed into a pillar of salt we have been told never to look back, but I am now only some fifteen or so months away from turning sixty, and I think I am entitled to indulge myself in this luxury. So, last Sunday afternoon, wet and dreary, I took the bus from central Glasgow to Bishopbriggs, found out the house where we used to live, and again walked those steps that I used to walk daily – from our old house to where the high school, now demolished, used to stand. The last time I had walked those steps was, a quick mental calculation told me, over forty-two years ago.

It all seems strangely smaller now than I had remembered it. The walk to the school seemed much shorter, Crowhill Road seemed much less steep. It had all changed, certainly, but was still recognisable. Approaching my dotage these days, I had expected to be overwhelmed by emotions, but I wasn’t: the streets, the houses were all solid enough, and I saw no ghostly doppelgänger of my younger self accompanying me on my walk. The sun did break out from behind the clouds now and then. If I were to write this as a bad novelist, I’d have described a rainbow forming. Actually, a rainbow did form, but there are times when simply mentioning a naturalistic detail can seem like ham-fisted symbolism. But now that I have mentioned it, it might as well stay.

And near the site of the school stood the old library, where I had spent many a happy hour. That day when, aged eleven, I walked out of the library with The Hound of the Baskervilles under my arm, was, though I didn’t know it then, one of the most significant days in my life. Sadly, this time, it was Sunday afternoon, and the library was closed; but had it not been, I think I’d have wandered inside into the children’s section, just to see if they still had a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles. They probably don’t: children aren’t expected to read books such as that nowadays.

Although I have lived at my current address for the greater part of my life, Bishopbriggs is still the place, and, more importantly, those years spent there still the time, that I tend to think of as “home”. For those five years I spent in Bishopbriggs were the years in which I grew from a child into an adult.

It was certainly in those years that I formed my literary tastes and standards. I have discovered many precious books and writers since those years too, of course, but what I discovered back then formed the base on which everything else rested. From the public library, I discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories; but from other places – including our school library – I discovered ghost stories, creepy stories, eerie stories. It’s strange how it’s often the little things that remain most obstinately in our minds. One evening – I think I was about twelve or so – we had been invited to dinner by a young Bengali couple, both junior doctors, who were living inside the precincts of a hospital, in an old Victorian house that had been converted into small apartments for junior medical staff. And, while the adults conversed amongst themselves, I found a Sunday supplement, with a feature on the horror films of Vincent Price. I was not, at that age, allowed to watch these films, but they nonetheless held for me an inexplicable fascination. When I had been even younger, on late nights every Friday, Scottish television would broadcast a Hammer horror film, and I used avidly to read the synopses that used to appear in TV Times of those films I wasn’t allowed to watch. And on Monday mornings, I would seek out my friend Terence, whose parents did allow him to watch these films; indeed, we would seek each other out, as he was as keen to tell me about these films as I was to hear about them. And now, in the small flat of the Bengali couple who had invited us for dinner, that Sunday supplement feature on the films of Vincent Price really stirred my imagination. And I stared at the stills from those films that were reproduced: they summoned up for me a world that I longed to enter.  I rolled the titles of these films around my tongue – House of Wax, House on the Haunted Hill, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Haunted Palace. As we left, I remember staring at the old Victorian house in which they lived, brightly lit by a very full moon, and it looked to me gorgeously spooky. After all these years, I carry around in my mind still that image of the spooky, moonlit Victorian house. Isn’t that strange?

In Glasgow, my parents found a Bengali community: this was something they had never enjoyed previously, and they took to it. I did not realise it at the time, but, by and large, the Bengalis there were quite a cultured lot. They would meet together often – either in hired halls, or on someone’s front room. At these gatherings, there was a schoolteacher with a lovely tenor voice, who sang Bengali folk songs; there was a lady who had won a gold medal from  Visva-Bharati for her singing of Rabindrasangeet, and who could and really should have been a renowned professional singer; and my father, who, with his love of the theatre and of Bengali literature, would have loved nothing better than to have been on stage, but who had to settle merely for being a surgeon instead, recited poetry; and so on. Of course, as an eleven-year-old, all this meant very little to me. I managed eventually to convince my parents that I could stay at home on my own on those evenings when they had these Bengali gatherings. And so, there I was on Friday evenings, blissfully on my own, enjoying the Morecambe and Wise Show or The Two Ronnies on television, and absorbing for myself a quite different culture – one of which my Bengali parents were not aware.

On Friday evenings too, BBC2 had a series called, simply, World Cinema, in which they used to broadcast films past and present from around the world. And as I grew up, I started taking an interest in these. I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film here (The Hour of the Wolf); I remember seeing Kurosawa’s Ikiru. La Dolce Vita showed when I was about fourteen or so – i.e. I had already entered puberty – and I was very disappointed, I remember, that, despite its immense length, the film featured not even the slightest flash of the nudity that the synopsis in Radio Times had seemed to promise.

But then, it was bedtime. Our house used to creak a lot. And in a cupboard adjoining my room, there was a water tank which gurgled a lot. And, what with my mind so full of ghostly stuff and horror, I was, frankly, frightened. I would not have admitted my fear to anyone for all the world, but every creak of the floorboards and every gurgle of the water pipes made me catch my breath. No point wanting your parents to be back, I remember telling myself, for what could even parents do against the supernatural? The door of my bedroom opened on to the top of the stairs, and I remember debating with myself whether or not I should keep that door open; for if it was open, I would be terrified at what might appear on the landing; but if I closed it, I would be terrified still more by the thought what may already be there. I never did resolve that dilemma.

The Bengali culture in which my parents were immersed didn’t really rub off on me. Not back in those days, at any rate. Firstly, the culture of the West I was picking up through television and through my friends at school seemed to my younger self far more exciting than the Rabindrasangeet and the Bengali folk songs they sang at their gatherings. And secondly, if Bengali culture really was as good as my parents and their friends made it out to be, I reasoned, why did I never hear of it in the outside world? I soon discovered the delights of serious literature. Shakespeare I was reading ever since we went to see King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival back in 1971, and, soon, as well as the Sherlock Holmes stories and the ghost stories, I was reading Dickens, Tolstoy, Gogol, Flaubert, and the various other writers arranged so neatly on the classics shelves of libraries and bookshops. And Bengali writers weren’t amongst them – not even Tagore, whom the entire community idolised, and who was, as I have said before, virtually an extra member of our family. And I decided then that this was but a provincial culture – something I needn’t really bother with. It wasn’t that I rejected it: it just didn’t seem to me anything too significant. Of course, in later years, I realised how much of this Bengali culture I had actually absorbed without realising it; and I realised also its immense value; I realised, indeed, how Bengali I really was. But at the time, I’d frankly rather be watching Vincent Price films, and listening to the pop music that all my friends listened to. (My discovery of Western classical music came only after I had left school.) And among the many aspects of Bengali culture – specifically, Tagorean culture – I think I had absorbed without knowing it was the openness to other cultures. While I was keenly taking in Western literature, I never felt, and, more importantly perhaps, was never made to feel, that I was absorbing something that wasn’t mine. “Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin,” Tagore once wrote in a letter to his friend C. F. Andrews. And, looking back, it was this generosity of spirit and openness of mind that informed the household in which I grew up. And I am grateful for that. I am grateful that I had been brought up to shun those twin evils of cultural insularity, and this recent nonsense that has sprung up that seemingly calls itself “cultural appropriation” – this “I shall not take on any other culture” on the one hand, and “no-one shall take anything of mine” on the other.

Throughout my school years, my father had been (for reasons I need not enter into here) a junior doctor; it was only when I left school and went to university did my father become consultant, and the family move down to England. But by then, my mind, such as it is, had already been formed: all that was to come was built upon the base that had been built in those few years I had spent in Bishopbriggs. All that I took in over those years – The Hound of the Baskervilles, King Lear, the Morecambe and Wise Show, Vincent Price films, ghost stories, War and Peace – they all became part of me. And all that I took in without realising it – principally, I think, the Tagorean ethos of generosity and openness, and willingness to embrace, without rancour, without bitterness, whatever I felt I understood, no matter what their origin – became part of me too. And last Sunday, as I walked that once familiar and still familiar route from our old house to the site of Bishopbriggs High School, I couldn’t help but reflect on all of this. Now that I have fewer years to look forward to than I have years to look back on, it seemed time I started taking stock of it all.

I am not sure how to describe how I felt during my brief visit back to Bishopbriggs. I didn’t feel either particularly happy or particularly sad; neither richer nor poorer for it all. But I felt something. And I didn’t care if I did get transformed into a pillar of salt: I am glad I made that trip. Yes, there are many things in my past I could have wished different – of course there are. Regrets, yes, very much so, and more, much more, than just a few. But no, I don’t look back in anger. Nor in contentment either. I just know that, for whatever reason, I’m glad I revisited the place.

Reading symbols

It may be mere idle speculation, but I can’t help wondering why it is we so clearly recognise Ibsen’s Wild Duck to be a symbol, and, equally clearly, recognise Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles not to be a symbol. Is it simply that we go to these works with different expectations, and that these expectations colour our responses? That’s certainly part of it, I think. It is also, perhaps, that The Hound of the Baskervilles makes perfect sense without the symbolism, but The Wild Duck doesn’t.

But this may be disputed. Why shouldn’t The Wild Duck make perfect sense if we see the wild duck as no more than the physical entity that it is? I think I’d argue that to see it as such wouldn’t be a particularly satisfactory way of looking at the work. The wild duck itself is not central to the plot, in the way the Baskerville hound is: if we were to see the wild duck but as a wild duck, we would be left wondering why so much attention is paid to something that the mere mechanics of the plot don’t really need. The introduction of the wild duck; the attention given to what is, merely in terms of plot, no more than an incidental detail; and also, in this case, the title itself indicating its importance; are all sufficient to convince us of an importance attached to this duck that quite transcends the plot.

Of course, it may be maintained that the Hound, too, is symbolic of something or other. But this would, I guess, strike most readers as foolish. Seeing the Hound purely for what it is, without any symbolic overtones, does not in any way diminish the impact of the novel; indeed, it may be argued that seeing the Hound as possessing more significance than the plot allows is to detract from the thing. I’m sure that hasn’t prevented over-zealous interpreters: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were to exist learned papers and theses pontificating on the symbolical significance of the Hound from Hell. But be that as it may, I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say the Wild Duck is a symbol, and the Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t.

But now comes the tricky bit: if the Wild Duck is indeed symbolic, what is it a symbol of? This question is tricky not because it is difficult to think of plausible symbolic interpretations of the Wild Duck, but because identifying the symbol, or symbols, seems to diminish the richness of the work. It appears to insist on a single meaning, or a single set of meanings, when, before interpretation, a far greater wealth of possibilities seemed available. And even when we may come up with multiple interpretations of a symbol, the sum of the various interpretations seems less than the symbol’s potential. Ibsen’s Wild Duck seems a prime example of this. There are other examples too. As soon as you pin a meaning on the White Whale, on the Scarlet Letter worn by Hester Prynne, on Krook’s spontaneous combustion or on Kafka’s Castle, the potential of what these things may mean seems diminished.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes, symbols can mean one thing and one thing only, and that meaning is fairly obvious. Bunyan, for instance, used to spelled it out: Giant Despair symbolised despair, the Slough of despond symbolised despond, Vanity Fair symbolised … Well, you get the idea. These symbols are intended not so much to suggest what isn’t explicitly stated, but to underline, and clarify, the author’s ideas. I suppose we may class these as “allegory”. But leaving aside such allegories, we are left with a problem: how should we, as readers, respond to symbols and to symbolism? Treating a symbol as something that signifies no more than what it physically is seems inadequate; and yet, various interpretations of what the symbol may mean seem reductive.

Perhaps – and I use the adverb advisedly, as I am not at all sure of what now follows – perhaps, I think, it might help if we were to think of symbols themselves in a different way. Perhaps we should accept that a symbol may carry various resonances, but at the same time, refrain from pinning the symbol down to anything, or any group of things, specific. Perhaps we should allow a symbol to gather different associations as the work proceeds, and try to see the connections and relationships between these various things that have been gathered upon this single symbol, but not insist upon any specific meaning for the symbol itself. Is that possible? Is it possible to see Kafka’s Castle as an obscure and distant presence; as an authoritarian and bureaucratic institution that may contain some great wisdom at its heart, but to which we are denied access; as a seemingly sinister and oppressive power; and so on, and so forth; but not think of this Castle as a symbol for God?

At this point, it seems reasonable to ask why writers employ symbols in the first place. That is not an easy question to answer, but I think we can answer the question of what writers don’t set out to do: they don’t set out to create a puzzle for the reader to solve. That is the realm merely of the whodunit. If symbols serve any purpose at all, it is to help the author communicate matters that language, by itself, cannot communicate.

At least, this is how it seems to me, immersed as I currently am in the late, symbol-rich plays of Ibsen. Much of literature, it seems to me, is an expression of that which words are not designed to express. For there are limits on what we may communicate with words: Sibelius had famously said that “Music begins where the possibilities of language end”. But that seems to imply that, as a mode of expression, music is superior to literature – that literature can only get us so far, but that beyond that point, it is to music that we must turn. But things are not, I think, so simple. The best authors are capable of communicating far more than words, unaided, can: they can force words to convey far more than merely their dictionary meanings. If Kafka had merely intended his Castle to represent God, he could simply have told us; that he didn’t tell us doesn’t mean he was playing games with us, but, rather, that what the Castle means is not something that can be put into words. It goes beyond “where the possibilities of language ends”.

And it is in this spirit I am trying currently to read Ibsen. The last twelve plays of his, the “Ibsen Cycle” as they are sometimes known, are often considered the epitome of dramatic realism, but that hardly begins to do them justice. For Ibsen was always a poet, even when writing in everyday prose, about everyday people, in everyday walks of life. Increasingly, as we go through the cycle, poetic images abound – symbols, pointing to that which cannot be expressed directly in words. And the symbols, after a while, become real, concrete. In The Master Builder, say, we find that Master Builder Solness is afraid of heights, and cannot climb as high as he builds. This is an everyday matter (fear of heights), but is treated symbolically: in some way that Ibsen doesn’t make clear, Master Builder Solness cannot live up to what he professes. But Hilde seems almost distraught by this. What she is presumably distraught at is Master Builder Solness’ moral pusillanimity, but she expresses her anger in more concrete terms: is the Master Builder afraid to climb up the ladder? Is he afraid to climb as high as he builds? And the symbol becomes a reality: Master Builder Solness, to prove himself to her, must physically climb up a physical ladder to the top of a physical tower. Is this “realism”? If so, one would need to stretch the definition of “realism” considerably, I think, to accommodate it.

And this is the world which the later plays of Ibsen seem to inhabit – a strange world in which metaphor and concrete reality seem to merge, and become one. We are invited to feel the resonance of the images, of the symbols, but as soon as we try to tie these images and symbols down to any specific meaning, they seem to fall apart. These plays are rooted in reality: Solness owns and runs a building firm, is unhappily married, and finds himself attracted to a young girl; and he is afraid of competition from the younger generation. All this is real enough, and could easily provide the basis for a television soap opera. But Ibsen’s vision seemed fixed elsewhere, and he could only express these visions through the use of poetic imagery, and of symbols. And when we read these plays, what we make of this vast array of symbols is crucial. I am still not sure how best to read these symbols: perhaps it varies for each different reader. But what we mustn’t do, I think, is to tie them down to anything specific: if Ibsen could have said in a few words what these symbols symbolise, he would, I think, have done so.

“The Adolescent” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sometimes it’s worth writing about a book one doesn’t understand simply to register one’s lack of understanding. Since those who may wish to know something about this work could no doubt easily find those who understand it far better than I do, I’ll try not to detain you long: I’ll keep this as short as I can.

The Adolescent (translated by Constance Garnett as A Raw Youth) should have been a great novel. It is, in terms of length at least, clearly a work of substance; and it was published just a few years after the towering masterpiece Demons, and a few years before what many would say is the even more towering masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Just one year after the publication of this novel, Dostoyevsky wrote The Meek One, one of the finest of all novellas. Admittedly, The Adolescent has something of a reputation of being “disappointing” – that is, in less euphemistic terms, “poor” – but it is not unreasonable to expect so great a novelist, neither serving his literary apprenticeship nor declined into the twilight years of creativity, to produce something that is, at the very least, of some merit. And maybe this is. Maybe it is working on some plane to which I, with my limited perceptions, did not have the key. But whatever merit the novel possesses, I regret to say it escaped me.

I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and in the preface, Richard Pevear makes the case that Dostoyevsky wrote not four major novels, as is generally acknowledged, but five, The Adolescent being worthy to be ranked alongside Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. Pevear’s defence of this novel is certainly a brave attempt, but I can’t frankly say I’m convinced.

I do take Pevear’s point, though, that Dostoyevsky is very successful in maintaining throughout the long narrative the voice of the adolescent narrator. But possibly, this is where the problem arises. Dostoyevsky had used the first person narrator successfully in shorter works such as Notes from Underground and The Meek One, but had avoided it in his other longer novels. There, he had developed a technique whereby different narrative voices weave in and out, some knowing more than others, some knowing virtually nothing at all and relying on stories heard at second hand; and we get, as a consequence, a composite picture, not always entirely coherent, and frequently enigmatic. And, yes, his finding the right tone of voice for his adolescent narrator, and maintaining it across so long a stretch, is indeed, as Pevear says, impressive; but I wonder if this single narrative viewpoint restricted him.

The adolescent narrator is Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky. Despite his patronymic, his father isn’t Makar Ivanovich: Makar Ivanovich is but the peasant husband of Arkady’s mother. Arkady’s real father is Versilov, who, over the course of Arkady’s narrative, is presented sometimes as a demon, sometimes as a saint. I suppose that at the centre of this novel – insofar as it can be said to have a centre at all – is Arkady’s desire to know his real father, and to be acknowledged by him. But whatever that centre may be, even if it exists, it is obscured by a plot of whirling extravagance. Illegitimacy, disputed fortunes, incriminating letters, a blackmailing ring, suicides, sexual exploitation, eavesdroppings … there’s something happening on every page, and it becomes hard keeping track of it all. One often sees complaints about certain books that “nothing happens”: here, there is so much happening all the time that one wishes at times for things to stop happening for a while. And never did I have to consult so frequently the list of principal characters the translators so thoughtfully provide: none has the vividness of the characters in Dostoyevsky’s other novels, and quite often, they seemed to me interchangeable.

In short, I found it difficult to keep up with the intricacies of the plot. But worse, after a while, I found I’d stopped caring. I found I’d stopped caring about who was eavesdropping on whom, or why, or how, or what information was revealed. I persevered, though: a writer who has given me so much surely could not produce a book utterly devoid of interest. I started wondering whether I was simply looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps it made sense to think of it as a sort of “satyr play”. In Athenian drama, a trilogy of tragedies – such as The Oresteia – was often followed by a “satyr play”, in which the themes that had been addressed in the tragedies were now addressed from a comic angle. Maybe, I told myself, that, after the immense tragic dramas of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons, Dostoyevsky was following them up with a “satyr novel”. He most likely hadn’t intended any such thing, I told myself, but if that gives me a key to the work, it might be an idea worth holding on to. And at times, such a approach seemed to make sense. Arkady, for instance, tells us at one point that he has a great “idea”, an overriding thought that rules his life. We have seen in Dostoyevsky’s other novels characters ruled by these Great Ideas. But Arkady’s Great Idea was not about God, or about human suffering, or about sin and redemption, or about atonement, or about any of these things: it is merely that he wanted to make a great deal of money, and hence, gain power and respect. That’s it. The only way to take this, I felt, was to see it as a sort of self-conscious parody of Dostoyevsky’s earlier novels.

Sadly, seeing this work as a sort of “satyr novel” didn’t work for long: for if the intention had indeed been to give a comic perspective on tragic themes, then some humour wouldn’t have been out of place. Now, despite his reputation for deadly seriousness, Dostoyevsky was often a very funny writer: sadly, though, he wasn’t here. Even for laughs, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons give us far more.

Towards the end of the novel, Makar Ivanovich, Arkady’s legal father, suddenly arrives on the scene, and he turns out to be a Tolstoyan peasant-saint, full of great wisdom. And he tells a story, which is reproduced in full. It starts off like one of those Tolstoyan fables. But fables are supposed to be simple stories: this one gets so intricate and involved, that it became almost as hard keeping up with it as it was keeping up with the rest of the novel. Did Dostoyevsky mean this as a joke? It couldn’t be a parody of Tolstoyan fables, as Tolstoy hadn’t written his fables when Dostoyevsky was writing this. And if it was indeed meant as a joke, then, once again, a few laughs wouldn’t have gone amiss.

You get the picture. I am afraid I got nothing at all out of this novel. The fault is entirely mine, I’m sure, but it remains for me a huge enigma: it’s not that Dostoyevsky doesn’t succeed in what he is trying to do, it is more that I can’t figure out what he is trying to do in the first place. Dostoyevsky’s was indeed a very strange mind.

In the meantime, if you’re an admirer of Dostoyevsky but haven’t yet read this, don’t let me put you off: this post is intended purely as a record of my personal impressions, nothing more. I don’t insist on anything.

Dostoyevsky’s great novels are to a great extent improvised: even when at advanced stages in his writing, it’s clear from his notes that he is still experimenting with different possibilities. This may not seem the most promising way of writing novels, but in his case, it worked superbly. But not, I think, here. Where we speak of him “improvising” in his other novels, here, he seems merely to be making it up as he goes along.

“Rosmersholm” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself. 

All quoted passages from “Rosmersholm” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

 

Rosmersholm was not the title Ibsen initially had in mind. He had considered calling it White Horses, referring to a recurrent image in the play of the mythical white horses that are said to be seen on the Rosmer estate before disaster strikes, but he eventually decided against it, possibly to avoid giving this admittedly striking piece of imagery too central a prominence in the work. Ghosts would have been a good title  as well – or, rather, the more evocative  Norwegian  title, Gengangere “something that or someone who walks again” – but that title had already been used in a previous play. Central to this play too is the burden of the past, the past that will not let us be, even when we have left it behind, even when we have outgrown it.

Ibsen eventually titled the play Rosmersholm – the House of Rosmer. For the great House of Rosmer, with its immense history, with the traditions and values it continues to represent (irrespective of Rosmer’s  own apostasy), plays in this drama a central  role. It is an austere, and gloomy house: there is not much room  here for human feelings. As Mrs Helseth, the old housekeeper of the House of Rosmer tells Rebecca:

Little children don’t cry in this house, not as long as anyone can remember … But it’s part of the  Rosmers. And  there’s another strange thing. When they grow up, they never laugh. Never laugh until the day they die.

Tears and laughter, those feelings and emotions that seem almost to represent what it means to be alive, to be human, have no part in the bleak House of Rosmer. But it is nonetheless a noble house. Rebecca West, who had initially entered the house as an outsider, can testify to its ability to ennoble:

REBECCA: It’s the Rosmer view of life – or yours, anyway. It has infected my will.

ROSMER: Infected – ?

REBECCA: And poisoned it. Enslaved it to a law which I had not previously recognised. You – being with you – has ennobled my soul –

ROSMER: Oh, if only I could believe that!

REBECCA: You can believe it all right. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. But – (Shakes her head) – but – but –

ROSMER: But – ? Well?

REBECCA: But it kills happiness, John.

Presumably translator Michael Meyer has translated whatever was in the original text as “happiness” rather than joy so as to avoid unwanted echoes of the English word “killjoy”, but this theme of the destruction of joy,  or of happiness, has appeared before: in Ghosts, the destruction of livsglad, a compound word meaning Joy in Life, is a major theme. Osvald speaks of it often, and his father, the deceased Captain Alving, was possessed with this livsglad. But, as his widow, Mrs Alving, who has no reason to feel sympathetic towards her dead husband, acknowledges, this livsglad had been killed in him. She had not shared in this Joy: her insistence had been merely on a cold, loveless sense of duty. Her husband had no outlet for this Joy, and over time, this Joy had become corrupted merely into empty hedonism. In that same play, Pastor Manders had asked:

What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam!

( from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik)

Osvald too, returning home from Paris, comments that he never sensed back home that Joy he had found elsewhere. The cold insistence on moral duty had killed it all. And here too, in the House of Rosmer, Joy has been killed. But we are given a further twist: what has killed Joy is not a cold and  loveless sense of duty: rather,  it is something that even Rebecca West admits is ennobling. But whatever it is, no matter how ennobling it is, it kills happiness.

The concept of nobility is explicitly placed here as something that is the opposite of happiness. Earlier in the play, John Rosmer had spoken of “ennobling” the people, although what precisely he had meant by this, and how precisely he is to achieve this, he does not say. Brand, too, had sought to ennoble humanity: he had enjoined humanity to take the Truth into their hearts, and to sacrifice all, their own selves if necessary, in  pursuit of this Truth, without even thinking of earthly happiness. And Pastor Manders in Ghosts, though a very different person from Brand in every way imaginable, was also a man of God, and he too had insisted that people do their duty, regardless of human happiness; for mortals, he insisted, had no right to expect “happiness”. This insistence of Truth, this desire to “ennoble” humanity, we had seen also in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, and in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck, but, unlike Brand or Pastor Manders, neither Stockmann nor Werle are religious: they do not even mention God. Brand and Pastor Manders had insisted that humans ennoble themselves by doing their duty, because this is God’s will; but Stockmann and Werle pursue Truth for its own sake. When the people turn against Stockmann, he could have argued against them in purely empirical terms: he could have denounced them for short-sightedness, for failing to see that seeing to their immediate welfare is to bring upon themselves far greater problems in the longer run. But he does not make that argument: he turns against the people because they do not have any sort of commitment to the Truth. And Gregers Werle too believes in Truth for its own sake; he believes that humans already are essentially noble, and that they must accept the Truth for its own sake because that, and that alone, could make such noble creatures happy. He believes this because he has to believe this: if it were not true, then, as he says at the end, life itself wouldn’t be worth living. Stockmann and Werle may not be religious – at least, neither mentions God – but their morality is not really too far from Brand’s: for them, Truth must be pursued, though not necessarily because God wills it (as Brand had believed) – but rather,  for its own sake.

When Rosmersholm was written (it was published in 1886), the intellectual temperature was changing. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, religious belief was no longer a default position. That is not to say that religious belief was not possible, but, rather, it could not be taken as a given: whatever grounds there may be still to believe, belief was no longer something that was dictated by reason. Only four years before the publication of Rosmersholm, Nietzsche had famously declared (in The Gay Science) that “God was dead”. And in this state, one could no longer justify anything, not even life, by invoking an overriding divine purpose. Whatever values we choose to live by, whatever we choose to pursue, we cannot ascribe to any divine purpose, since the existence of God himself was no longer a given. So what, then, forms nobility? How then do we ennoble humanity, ennoble ourselves?

John Rosmer is, very explicitly, a man who had once believed, who had once, indeed, been a Man of God, a pastor, but who has now lost his faith. He is the last in the line of the House of Rosmer, and the immense burden of the past weighs heavily on him. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. Rosmer himself may have lost his faith in God, but retains still his faith in that which ennobles: duty, integrity – the  Truth. As with Stockmann and Werle, he believes in Truth for its own sake, and he believes, as Brand had done, that humans can be ennobled if they could but grasp the Truth, and hold it dear. But unlike Brand, he cannot justify Truth with an overriding divine purpose: he no longer believes. It is merely an abstract concept, existing for its own sake. But he is nonetheless a Rosmer, of the House of Rosmer, and though he has rejected religion, he cannot reject the concept of Truth as something that ennobles.

But when it comes to human happiness, Truth is neutral: Truth may “ennoble” – whatever we may mean by that – but it does not care one way or the other for human happiness. We may still hold on to it as a concept, and value it for what it is, but it is possible that what we value is no more than a ghost of the past, one of those Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”. For if there is no divine will we may appeal to, if there is no God himself, then it is hard to see what there can be more valuable than human happiness here on earth; and if Truth itself is indifferent to the very concept of human happiness, why then why should we value it?

Now, Ibsen is not saying that we shouldn’t value Truth: Dr Relling, in The Wild Duck, says this, but Dr Relling is not Ibsen. Ibsen does, however, pose some very uncomfortable questions. If we no longer believe, if we can no longer appeal to an overriding divine purpose or to an overriding divine will, then we can take nothing for granted; then we must create our own values, and they must be human values, justified in human terms. Possibly this is what Ivan Karamazov meant when he spoke those enigmatic words “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted”. This does not necessarily mean that the non-existence of God obviates moral values, although that is certainly a possible interpretation: more interestingly, it can mean that if God does not exist, we have nothing to guide us in creating our own values, and that we must, therefore, start from scratch. And if we do, we must question everything, even the value of Truth itself. If there can be no aim greater than that of earthly human welfare, and if Truth is indifferent to such an end, why then should we value Truth? Is it merely an emotional attachment on our part and nothing more? And here, when Rebecca West presents the Rosmer view of life as something that ennobles, but also as something that is opposed to human happiness, a deeply uncomfortable question seems to me implicit: what price nobility, what price Truth, if it makes us unhappy?

On top of this questioning of the value of Truth, in Rosmersholm, the very nature of Truth itself is questioned. Not whether there exists such a thing as objective Truth, but whether we are capable, even with the best of wills, of grasping what it is.

Such are the psychological complexities in which the principal characters of this drama are bound, the mind reels. Rebecca West and John Rosmer try to understand their past, try to understand what it has made of them, but little seems clear, and their behaviour, conditioned as it is by their psychological states, seems at times perverse. Ibsen here delves further into the inner complexities of the human mind than he had done in any of his earlier plays. Only four years earlier, in An Enemy of the People, he had presented a very public drama, with very public conflicts; in The Wild Duck, which followed, he moved towards the private sphere, presenting the depths of the mind, of the imagination, as the depth of the sea itself. Now, he moves further into the close intricacies of the human mind. Of course, there is a public life as well: the drama depicted here is very firmly set in the real world, and there is, we gather, much public conflict outside; but this conflict is, essentially, presented as noises off. We see a representative of the conservative camp – the overbearing and bullying Kroll; and we see a representative of the liberal camp, the sly and manipulative Mortensgaard, neither caring for the  Truth, and neither bearing any mark of nobility. But the action of the play never leaves the House of Rosmer, and the focus is turned inward.

Sigmund Freud, famously, wrote at length on the character of Rebecca West in his 1914 essay “Character Types”. (The essay is quoted at length by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation, and Meyer refers to it as “by far the most penetrating analysis of the play”.) Among other things, Freud probes the question of why, precisely, Rebecca West refuses Rosmer’s proposal of marriage towards the end of Act Two. This, after all, is what she had been working towards; why, when it is within her grasp, does she turn away from it so fiercely? Whatever we may think of Freud’s answer to this question, it cannot be denied that it is a fundamental question to ask. Ibsen has placed it at exactly the half-way point of the play; the refusal, though obscure in terms of “why?”, is tremendously powerful and dramatic, and it brings down the curtain on the second act with the utmost force. Freud’s view was that Rebecca West was haunted by her fear of incest. As a younger woman, after her mother had died, she had become the mistress of step-father, Dr West. However, Dr West had most likely been, in reality, her biological father also: Rebecca’s mother had been his lover while her husband had still been alive. And when Rebecca later enters the Rosmer household, she comes into a parallel situation: she ends up displacing John Rosmer’s wife, Beata, to win John, in the same way that she had previously displaced her mother to win Dr West. But the guilt she feels for her previous incestuous relationship Dr West prevents her from taking the final step of this act of displacement.

This may or may not be so: I am no expert of Freudian psychology. It may be argued that when Rebecca refuses Rosmer, she does not know that Dr West was her biological father: she had no idea that Dr West and her mother had previously been lovers. However, against this, it may be argued that she may, at least, have had suspicions; and that, afterwards, Dr West had certainly been her step-father, and, hence, a father figure, if not necessarily a biological father. All this may be so. It is certainly true that the situation Rebecca found herself in on entering Rosmersholm parallels the situation she had been in before. But there does seem to me a much simpler explanation: Rebecca feels guilt not because of incest, but because of Beata, the wife of John Rosmer, and the part she had played in Beata’s death.

As a liberated woman, Rebecca had not, at first, cared much about the niceties of convention, about the sanctity of marriage; but over time, as she says herself, the “Rosmer view of life” had “infected” her will. The words she uses here are significant: infected, poisoned, enslaved. She expresses exclusively in negative terms that which, by her own admission, had ennobled her. The nobility that is so defining a feature of the House of Rosmer had made her ill, had taken away her very freedom: no longer was she the liberated person she once had been. But it had ennobled. It had allowed her to see clearly her own guilt. For, even when we reject religion, reject God, the consciousness of our guilt, and the awareness of our sinfulness, are less easy to throw off: these are Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”.

But what really did happen with Beata? The truth is difficult even to uncover, let alone embrace. To what extent is Rebecca responsible for Beata’s suicide, for Beata’s throwing herself into the millrace? Rebecca herself is not entirely sure. But the dead continue to live with us: in performance, we hear throughout the sound of the millrace from outside the house. Beata herself may be dead, but she remains throughout a powerful presence. And it strikes me as likely that it is Beata’s unseen presence, and Rebecca’s growing awareness of her own guilt and her willingness to accept moral responsibility, that is behind Rebecca’s refusal. At the very end of the play, Mrs Helseth sees John Rosmer and Rebecca West follow Beata, and throw themselves into the millrace – a sentence they pass upon themselves in  the absence of a God they can no longer believe in – and she says: “The dead mistress has taken them”. Amongst other things, Rosmersholm may be seen, I think, as a Gothic ghost story: the ghost of Beata is rarely too far away.

But what really had happened between John Rosmer, Beata Rosmer, and Rebecca West? One thing we can definitely rule out is that Rosmer and Rebecca had been having an affair. They both make quite clear, even when alone together, that their relationship had been entirely chaste. Indeed, John Rosmer appears throughout a sort of sexless being, or, at least, as an asexual being. That he can be living under the same roof as the young and attractive Rebecca, and never even be tempted by desire, seems to indicate a man with a very low, virtually non-existent, sexual drive. (Neither is there any indication, incidentally, of homosexuality on Rosmer’s part, latent or otherwise.)  Perhaps this is in keeping with the cold, passionless ethos of the House of Rosmer, where children do not cry and adults do not laugh. If this is so, we may ask ourselves what had attracted Rebecca to Rosmer in  the first place, and here, I must confess that I am not at all sure: the fact that Rosmer was a man from a noble family (on all senses of  the word noble), and belonging to an old and respected family, and owner of the great Rosmersholm, the House of Rosmer, may in itself had been a sort of aphrodisiac. But more important, I think, is that Rosmer is a genuinely good man. He is, as Edmund says of Edgar in King Lear, a man “whose nature is so far from doing harms, that he suspects none”: he cannot see how pompous and malicious Kroll is, or how untrustworthy and conniving Mortensgaard is; and it never even occurs to him that living under the same roof as Rebecca West may give rise to gossip. He has rejected his faith, but his moral integrity, his determination to do right, to value Truth, are important aspects of his character: these, after all, are the values of Rosmersholm iitself. Rebecca herself would possibly be at a loss to explain what it was that had attracted her to Rosmer, but the fact that he was in all respects a good man is, I think, far from a minor consideration.

And then, there is the question of John’s marriage with Beata: what exactly had that been like? We can only piece it together from the very unreliable memories the participants of this drama have about her. He are given to understand that she had been mentally ill, especially towards the end: it seems likely she had been suffering from what we would now call depression. And that the depression had been brought on by, or, perhaps, exacerbated by, the knowledge that she couldn’t have children – although whether this was due to her own medical condition or to her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her remains unclear. At any rate, she had been a deeply unhappy person, imbued with a profound sense of her own inadequacy, and  her unworthiness to be the wife of John  Rosmer. And Rebecca had played upon this. She had given Beata to understand that she and Rosmer were indeed lovers, and that it was she, Rebecca, and not Beata, who should rightfully be Rosmer’s wife. Not that she had done this openly, or even deliberately: it was not something calculated, and, as she looks back, she cannot quite understand to what extent she really had been  responsible:

REBECCA (vehemently): But do you think I did all  this calculatedly, and in cold blood? No – I was different then from what I am now – standing here and talking about it. And besides – I think a person can have two wills. I wanted to be rid of Beata. Somehow or other. But I never thought it would happen. Every step that I ventured forward, I felt as though a voice cried within me: “No further! Not an inch further!” But I couldn’t stop! I had to venture another inch. Just one. And then another – just one more. And then it happened. That’s how such things do happen.

And, as Rosmer realises, if Rebecca is guilty, he is guilty too. At two strategic points in the play, in the first and final acts, the reprehensible old layabout, Ulrik Brendel, enters the scene. He had previously been John Rosmer’s tutor, and  Rosmer possibly realises that this faded old idealist, now taking refuge in bluster and in alcohol, is a sort of grotesque mirror image of himself. He too, like Rosmer, had set out to “ennoble” humanity; but whatever nobility he himself once may have had has long since disappeared. And he knows it. How can he, pathetic and absurd as he is, have anything to offer?

BRENDEL: Faewell,  Johannes! Forward to victory!

ROSMER: Are you going now? It’s a dark night.

BRENDEL: Night and darkness are best. Peace be with you. [He leaves]

                [There is a moment’s silence in the room.]

REBECCA (takes a deep breath): Oh, how close and suffocating it is here!

Rebecca and John can both seen Brendel an image of John Rosmer himself, and idealist who, being honest, must face up to what he really is, to the guilt in which he is embroiled. He can no longer believe in a God to punish him, but he still believes in sin and in atonement: he must punish himself.  Night and darkness are best, after all.

I, who was to carry my cause to victory – ! And now I have fled the field, before the battle has even begun.

And as for Rebecca, she is suffocating. The only way out for both of them is to go the way Beata had done.

But it is not the case – as I have seen in some analyses of this play –  that John Rosmer decides to atone for his guilt by committing suicide, and Rebecca decides to join him. It is, if anything, the other way round. It is John Rosmer, with the monstrous egotism typical of idealists who expects others to share their ideals, who asks whether Rebecca will have the courage:

ROSMER: Have you the courage – and the will – with a glad heart, as Ulrik Brendel said – for my sake,  now, tonight – freely and willingly – to go the  way that Beata went? … Yes, Rebecca. This is the question I shall never be able to escape from – after you are gone. Every hour of the day it will haunt me.

Rosmer means that this question will haunt him after Rebecca has left Rosmersholm: would she, who is guilty of so much for his sake, and in whose guilt he bears a great part, prove to him the depths not only of her love, but also of her awareness of her guilt? It is a monstrously egotistical thing to ask for. But Rebecca agrees. And only then does Rosmer decide to accompany her.

For now, we two are one.

And there follows the double suicide, the ultimate union in death, the liebestod – but a liebestod entirely chaste, and free of sexuality. The liberated woman who had sought to subdue the world itself to her will, but whose will now has dissipated; and the man of integrity who had sought to ennoble humanity, but who find himself embroiled in such guilt that, in absence of a God, he must himself punish, perish together. Night and darkness are best.

***

I have long delayed writing this post because, despite many years’ acquaintance with this play, I am not sure I understand it, or that I will ever understand it. Reading over what I have written, I fear much of it may appear pretentious: I have touched on elements of philosophy and psychology that I am distinctly unqualified to comment upon. However, this is a work that continues to fascinate me, and I don’t think it is possible to describe how I react to this without touching on these matters. For this is all this is: not an analysis, by any means, but simply a record of how I, personally, react to this play – of what it means to me.  I think it is among the most hypnotically captivating of all works of literature that I have encountered. The dramatist still reckoned essentially to be a social critic, a dramatist of social change, peers here into some of the most obscure and secret compartments of the human mind, into some of the deepest of human concerns, and, inevitably, the play that emerges is difficult, and endlessly intricate. I doubt I will ever come to a definitive view of a work so complex and so profound. Great though Ibsen’s previous plays in this cycle had been, it does seem to me that with Rosmersholm, he moves on to a new level entirely.