Archive for April, 2010

“Wuthering Heights” and Romanticism

Wuthering Heights comes with an awful lot of baggage. There have been endless adaptations, all of them presenting it as essentially a love story with two very attractive protagonists (it being an unwritten rule of any love story that people who are not physically attractive have no business falling in love), and none of them getting at all close to the very dark heart of the work; it has been subject to endless parodies, from Monty Python’s “semaphore version” to those marvellous Dave Allen sketches featuring a couple running through the moors shouting “Heathcliff!” and “Cathy!” at each other; it has inspired (if that’s the word I’m looking for) a more than usually vacuous (though very famous) pop song; and there has even been, Heaven help us, a musical, featuring Cliff Richard. The names Heathcliff and Cathy have become such hoary old clichés that the very mention of these names is likely to raise a few knowing sniggers; and worse, these characters are seen to represent archetypal romantic lovers, which, it seems to me, they most certainly aren’t. It is very difficult to offload all this baggage, and try to see the novel with fresh eyes.

The book has seen as the archetypal schoolgirls’ fantasy, and has been criticised on that score; and it has also been seen not to be the schoolgirl fantasy it has been made out to be, and has been criticised on that score also. I am obviously at a disadvantage here, since, never having been a schoolgirl myself, I have no clear idea of what it is they fantasise about; however, if schoolgirls do fantasise about this sort of thing, it is little wonder they used to scare the shit out of me when I was a schoolboy! I suppose it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not Wuthering Heights represents a schoolgirl fantasy: what is undeniable is the very powerful impact it had on me when I read it again recently. But trying to work out why this alleged schoolgirl fantasy made such an impact on me is not particularly easy.

It is, to state the obvious, a Romantic novel – but I don’t mean “romantic” in the sense that it celebrates sexual attraction: I mean “Romantic” with a capital “R”, i.e. relating to the aesthetic movement that came into being somewhere around the late 18th century. And here, I think I run into one of the many problems I have in trying to formulate my reactions to Wuthering Heights: while I can recognise this as being a Romantic novel, I really do not know how to characterise, let alone define, Romanticism. It is something more easily recognised than defined. We may recognise Schubert’s music as Romantic compared to Haydn’s, Delacroix’s art as Romantic compared to Poussin’s, Shelley’s poetry Romantic compared to Pope’s – but it seems almost impossible to identify the criteria that characterise Romanticism. Just about any observation one may make about Romanticism, it seems that the very opposite can also apply; just about any feature one may identify as belonging to Romanticism,  one may find evidence for this feature in other works that are clearly not Romantic.

There is no shortage of learned and eloquent writing dealing with this issue, and I don’t know that I am foolhardy enough to attempt to add to it; but one aspect of Romanticism that I find particularly striking is its insistence on the importance of striving, of aspiring. Of course, the concept of aspiration is hardly exclusive to Romanticism, but there is at least a certain strand of Romanticism in which our very existence seems defined by our aspiration, and which, further, appears to have no conception of what it is precisely that we are supposed to be aspiring towards. In a pre-Romantic opera such as, say, Le Nozze di Figaro, what Figaro and Susanna aspire towards is very simple, and achievable: they want to marry, and live together in earthly contentment. But in a Romantic opera such as Tristan und Isolde, the idea of the protagonists living in earthly contentment as Mr Tristan and Mrs Isolde is unthinkable: the very intensity of their striving seems to transcend its object; even if circumstances were to allow it, it is inconceivable that anything so ordinary as mere earthly union could satisfy a striving so intense.

It is not merely that the object of Romantic aspiration is beyond earthly reach: it’s also that it has to be beyond earthly reach. It has, indeed, to be beyond what may be imagined. For if it is possible to attain the object of aspiration, then once it is attained, the aspiration itself will no longer be required, and the very feature that had characterised our existence to so important a degree will become unnecessary. Goethe’s Faust, for instance, is saved from damnation because he had never stopped aspiring; but once he is redeemed and his soul is taken into heaven, what then? The aspiration that had been, quite literally, his saving grace, now becomes redundant. Can a heaven even be imagined in which the very feature that defines our humanity is redundant?

Thus, while the Romantics aspired fervently towards some heaven, the Romantic imagination did not allow any heaven to be imagined. So, many of them merely aspire for death instead. The protagonist of Winterreise, Tristan and Isolde, and, as we will see, Heathcliff and Cathy, are all unable to live in a world in which their terrible striving cannot be satisfied, and equally unable even to imagine a heaven in which it will: death is all they have left to strive towards.

This is, of course, madness, and it is not surprising that so many Romantic protagonists become mad – the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, Mr Tristan & Mrs Isolde … all mad as hatters, the whole bunch of them. Winterreise is, in many ways, archetypal in this respect: we start off with a hackneyed scenario – the protagonist has been rejected by his girl, and he is awfully cut up about it. But as the song cycle progresses, the longing becomes so unbearably intense, that it far transcends what is ostensibly the object of the longing: even if the boy were somehow to get the girl, such intense longing, we feel, cannot be stilled. Towards the end, the protagonist starts to hallucinate: longing without a clear object can only lead to insanity, and in works of Romanticism, we are never too far from that.

In this context, Wuthering Heights seems very clearly a product of Romanticism, and whatever irrational feature it is in us that responds to this Romantic irrationality, responds also to this novel. Wuthering Heights is unusual in this respect, because the novel, as a form, is very resistant, I think, to Romanticism. When we look through the history of the novel, we find a fine flowering in the mid-18th century with the likes of Richardson, Fielding, Sterne and Smollett, and another flowering some hundred or so years later, with the likes of Stendhal and Balzac in France, Dickens and Trollope and George Eliot in England, etc. But between these two peaks, there are very few novels of much note. There are the Gothic novels, which are impossible to read nowadays for any literary enjoyment; and there was Scott, who has much liked in the Victorian days but whose reputation has plummeted since and is unlikely to recover. But who else was there? Sure, I am generalising, as is inevitable when speaking in such broad terms; and yes, there was the odd masterpiece, such as, say, James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. But the only major novelist I can think of between Sterne & Richardson at one end, and Balzac & Dickens at the other, is Jane Austen.

The reason for this hiatus is, I think, Romanticism, which got in the way. The Romantic ethos, however one defines it, was very quick to capture the imagination, but the novel as a form simply wasn’t capable of accommodating this ethos. The novel as a form dealt with the everyday, the quotidian, and not with the heroic. The great larger-than-life figures such as Achilles, Clytemnestra, Medea, Othello, Milton’s Satan, Racine’s Phèdre – such characters belong to the realms of epic poetry, or to verse drama, and definitely not to the novel. From the very beginning, the novel was seen as anti-heroic: Gargantua et Pantagruel, Don Quixote, Tom Jones – these are all consciously mock-heroic works. How could a form that was so doggedly anti-heroic accommodate the heroism of infinite striving? How could a form so rooted in the everyday be compatible with that which seeks to transcend the everyday?  Jane Austen flourished as a novelist in this period precisely because she bucked the trend: she didn’t have a single Romantic bone in her body, and she would certainly have relished the irony of her novels being marketed these days as archetypal romantic works.

In time, novelists emerged who were not so concerned with the Romantic ethos, and were happy to explore the everyday – Balzac and the rest. Some of the greatest novelists even found the transcendent within the everyday – Tolstoy, say, or Joyce. But finding transcendence in the everyday is not quite the same as transcending the everyday: the distinction may be subtle, but is nonetheless important. I can think of only two major novels (or at least, novels that I would place in the top rank) that have managed to accommodate the Romantic ethos within their confines, and they appeared in the mid 19th century, within a few years of each other: one is Melville’s Moby-Dick, and the other is Wuthering Heights.

Neither novel is realistic. Moby-Dick is clearly symbolic, as the intensity of Ahab’s striving seems quite out of proportion to what he is striving for – revenge against a dumb creature that had maimed him. Since we cannot believe that this simple circumstance could in itself occasion such immense passion, we are forced to see the object of his passion – the white whale – as some sort of symbol. But as soon as we try to identify what it is the white whale symbolises, we begin to flounder. This is not surprising: the very essence of Romantic striving is that the object of one’s striving is beyond definition, beyond even imagining; so, if one is to depict it at all, one can only do so with the use of metaphors. And the white whale Moby-Dick is among the most haunting of all metaphors.

There is striving too in Wuthering Heights, and it is less clear that the object of this striving is presented as a metaphor. However, the longing of Cathy and Heathcliff is not one that can be satisfied on earth. In this, it differs sharply from its sister novel Jane Eyre, in which not only is the longing of this earth, but it is actually achieved at the end, as the rough, masterful Mr Rochester becomes domesticated. An outcome such as this is unthinkable in Wuthering Heights. Unlike Jane and Mr Rochester, neither Cathy nor Heathcliff strives for domestic bliss. Cathy cannot even imagine a heaven in which her strivings can be satisfied: she dreams at one point that she is in heaven, but that she is so unhappy there, that she is brought back to Wuthering Heights. Forever reaching towards something that can never be satisfied, not even in heaven … it seems the very epitome of Romantic madness.

And there is a madness throughout this novel. Cathy and Heathcliff are both quite clearly mad. Heathcliff, indeed, becomes demented: he is a psychopath. The schoolgirl fantasy is of a rough, masculine exterior, masterful and threatening, but with a heart of gold that is capable of yielding to the more tender emotions. Indeed, these are the very terms in which Isabella sees Heathcliff. And Emily Brontë seems to have nothing but disdain for this sort of mush. That may have been all right for the likes of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, but it’s very out of place in this psychotically violent and terrifying novel. Heathcliff and Cathy are not capable of tenderness, not even, perhaps, to each other.

The sense of terror and of violence that runs through the novel is electrifying. It is not merely the graphic depiction of physical violence that is so striking: it is the atmosphere that pervades the entire novel of an emotional violence. The night Mr Lockwood spends in Wuthering Heights is about as terrifying as anything I’ve read: there’s nothing in any horror fiction that I know that surpasses for sheer terror the moment where Mr Lockwood puts his hand through the glass, and is met on the other side by an icy cold hand that enfolds his own. There follows the first of the many grotesque images of violence in this novel:

Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes

Terror can, indeed, make us cruel, but this (especially coming as it does from so insipid a character as Mr Lockwood) is horrendous!

It is, however, entirely consistent with the general tone of the book. There is a very hard edge throughout – indeed, a rather nasty edge. I cannot think of any other novel in which the author quite deliberately takes steps to ensure that we do not like, far less sympathise with, any of the characters. When, due to circumstances in the plot, we may feel inclined to sympathise with a character, Emily Brontë would put in something to make that character appear despicable. For instance, in case we feel inclined to sympathise with Isabella who is ill-treated by Heathcliff, she is shown taunting Heathcliff with Cathy’s death; in case we feel inclined to sympathise with Heathcliff’s ailing and brutalised son, Emily Brontë rubs in his utter selfishness and insensitivity. (Indeed, she possibly overplays her hand on this occasion, as she gives no reason at all for the young Cathy to love him.) Even the nice Mr Lockwood, as we have seen, is capable of rubbing a child’s wrist against a piece of broken glass; even the homely Nellie Dean, in one deeply shocking scene, can express satisfaction that Heathcliff’s teenage son is unlikely to live long. The only character one can come close to liking is Edgar Linton, and he, perhaps for that very reason, is kept more or less in the background. The picture we are given is unremitting: nasty people in an unremitting, nasty world. And yet they are compelling figures, and we watch, fascinated: these figures, and those of Heathcliff and Cathy especially, are larger-than-life figures that no novel hitherto had even attempted to accommodate.

To accommodate such figures, Emily Brontë had first to create a fictional world in which they would not appear incongruous. Melville had to do the same: he set his novel on a whaling ship, thus simultaneously suggesting an enclosed world (the ship) and also the vastness of an unbounded world outside (the seas). In Wuthering Heights, the world is reduced to two houses on the moors: once again, the setting suggests both an enclosed world (the houses), and also a vast immensity outside. Everyone who has read the book, even those who do not care for it, comments on the powerful atmosphere it projects of the landscape; so it comes as quite a surprise to see how little descriptive writing there is. At no point is there a single extended passage of descriptive writing of the type one gets in, say, Hardy’s novels. There is just the odd little touch here and there, but they are made to tell:

…one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

Not a single image, not a single word, is wasted.

The sense of the enclosed world is accentuated by several means. While an outside world is known to exist, all the characters (except Mr Lockwood, the narrator of the framing story, and Hindley’s wife Frances) belong to this enclosed world of Wuthering Heights and of Thrushcross Grange. (Heathcliff is also an outsider, of course, to begin with, but he very soon becomes part of the landscape, as it were.) We are never taken outside this enclosed world: every scene happens in one of the two houses, or in the moors between them. Only briefly in the final chapters are we allowed a brief scene in nearby Gimmerton.  And what happens in the outside world is never clarified: so we never know who Heathcliff really is, why Earnshaw decides to adopt him, or how he makes his fortune: what happens outside the world of Wuthering Heights and of Thrushcross Grange, even if it impacts on the story, is not depicted.

Even the names keep reappearing in different combinations – Catherne Earnshaw, Edgar Linton, Catherine Linton, yet another Catherine Linton, Linton Heathcliff, Catherine Heathcliff, and so on – as if there were only a few names to choose from, and each name must be made up of these scraps: over a century afterwards, Gabriel García Márquez used a similar technique in One Hundred Years of Solitude to suggest a similarly enclosed world.

The story itself, with all the various inter-marrying between families, seems to have an incestuous feel about it. Indeed, the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy may well be incestuous: the possibility that Heathcliff may have been Mr Earnshaw’s illegitimate child must surely have crossed the characters’ minds.

The plotline is very convoluted, and most of it is narrated indirectly, but such is the quality of the storytelling that we never for a single moment lose the thread. I was also surprised by how quickly the plot moved: there is an awful lot of incident crammed into less than 300 pages. The danger in telling so eventful a plot in so relatively short a space is that a disproportionate part of the narrative would be spent on explaining the mere mechanics of the plot; but once again, Emily Brontë is too skilful an author to fall into such a trap. The pacing seems to me masterly.

The various framing devices through which the narrative emerges must have seemed quite bizarre to readers of the time. (And incidentally, those who think that the “unreliable narrator” is a modernist innovation would do well to take a look at Wuthering Heights again!)  The framing narrative is told us by Mr Lockwood, but the main part of the story is narrated to him by Nellie Dean; and quite frequently, as in Nellie’s readings of Isabella’s letters, we get narrations within narrations. All this is done to root the fantastic tale in some sort of reality. Wuthering Heights is not, as I said, a realist novel, but if touch with reality is lost altogether, the result may well be utter chaos. Mr Lockwood’s foolish vanity and Nellie Dean’s homely common sense provide a much needed counterbalance to the demented nature of much of the content.

Melville, too, needed a level-headed narrator to tell the terrible story of Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick; but unlike Melville, Emily Brontë never tells us more than her narrator could have known. Melville’s narrator, whom we are instructed to call Ishmael, often relates scenes at which he could not have been present: Brontë never does this, and even takes the risk of leaving unexplained gaps in the narrative rather than break this rule. However, she gives herself the liberty of diverging from the narrator’s tone of voice. So while she will let Mr Lockwood say a few things to establish his foolishness, once his narrative starts in earnest, a far more perceptive narrative voice takes over. Some may object to this, but I can’t say it bothered me too much: a long narrative completely in Mr Lockwood’s voice would have been very tiresome, to say the least.

As for the content, one hardly knows where to start. There are many parts of the novel that are pure horror. (Certainly, the Hammer studios had no problem ripping off the scene in which a pathetic figure appears outside the window, begging to be let in: this was recycled to quite splendid effect in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.) There is that terrible scene where Hindley comes home drunk, tries to force a knife down Nellie’s throat, and then nearly kills his infant son. Or those scenes of delirium before Catherine dies, where she is terrified of her own reflection in the mirror, and then rips open her pillow and takes out the feathers, and starts talking about which bird each feather had come from; it is completely demented: I can’t remember the last time I read anything so feverish. Then, as Cathy dies, Heathcliff stands outside howling like an animal, beating his head repeatedly against a tree, making the blood gush down its knotty trunk: here, he is barely human. Or take that scene where Isabella narrates Hindley’s attempt on Heathcliff’s life: everything seems piled on top of each other to a wild, phantasmagoric effect – Hindley’s horrible wound with the knife, the relish Heathcliff takes in trampling on Hindley and kicking him in the head, even when he is already unconscious – and as if all that weren’t enough, there’s Hareton hanging up puppies from the back of the chair. The unmitigated sadism nauseates even as it fascinates; and the febrile, thrilling excitement that is generated has no equal except, perhaps, in the novels of Dostoyevsky. It is a world completely alien – thank goodness – to anything I know, but it is utterly compelling. Even when Heathcliff digs up Cathy’s grave to hold her decomposed corpse in his arms once more, one feels compelled to read on even as one feels faintly sick. This is a fictional world in which the inner demons are not on the inside any more – they are out in the open, and they are utterly uninhibited.

At the centre of it all, of course, is the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy. Normally, everyone loves lovers: the world will always welcome lovers, as the song goes. But not if they are like this pair. For this is not the sort of love that one tends to find in love stories – the love that may be satisfied. These two crave each other with a longing that hardly seems of this world: it is completely unimaginable, even if circumstances allowed for it, for these two to find earthly happiness with each other in the manner of the insipid Jane Eyre or the rough-diamond-with-heart-of-gold Mr Rochester. These two are demonic. They crave each other because they must – because cannot do otherwise. Is this really what schoolgirls fantasise about? I sincerely hope not!

I do not want to go as far as to suggest that the longing Heathcliff and Cathy have for each other is a metaphor for something else, as is the longing Ahab has to destroy Moby-Dick. But the intensity of Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s longing does indeed seem to outstrip its ostensible ends. These are superhuman desires – way, way larger than life – and it is hard to see how it could possibly be satisfied with anything earthly. It is that Romantic longing for that which is forever beyond one’s reach; and for the first time, it has found expression in a novel.

By any rational standards, Cathy and Heathcliff both become mad before they die. Once again, this madness is very much part of the Romantic ethos: what else can one be when one desires so fervently what can never be? Heathcliff’s madness takes the form of a sort of psychotic hatred and sadism. It frankly defies belief that this monster could possibly be regarded by anyone as a romantic hero. But, rather disconcertingly, Emily Brontë passes no moral judgement: Heathcliff is as he is because he could not be otherwise – and how can one pass a moral judgement on that? One might as well pass moral judgement on a wild beast.

I don’t know whether Emily Brontë endorses the Romantic ethos she depicts in this book. It is of little matter anyway. What we do get is a vivid depiction of a favourite theme of the Romantics – madness: here, we straddle that vague borderline between sanity and insanity. It may not always be a pleasurable experience, but it hits you with a force that makes most other novels seem a bit bloodless. And it is executed throughout with the most marvellous skill.

The ending, particularly, I found surprisingly moving. (It is, incidentally, surprising that one can be moved despite the very obvious lack of any sympathetic character.) The ending was always going to be difficult: how can one provide a satisfactory end to something so very turbulent? Melville ends Moby-Dick with a breathless, extended climax, as Ahab and his crew finally come face to face with the great white whale. Emily Brontë has a quite different ending up her sleeve: she opts for a quiet ending. Rev Brontë would, I am sure, have had a copy of Milton in his well-stocked parsonage library, and the Brontës would all have been familiar with the quiet endings of such turbulent works such as Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes. Here, Heathcliff, at the very moment when his great revenge would be complete, loses interest in it. He loses interest not out of any moral consideration: that would have been deeply alien to his character. He loses his desire for revenge – indeed, his desire to go on living – because he is, quite clearly, seeing Cathy’s ghost. In the end, he starves himself to death. He does this almost, as it were, passively, because he no longer has the motive to keep himself alive: as he says himself, he has to remember even to breathe. Like the true Romantic hero, he craves death, and welcomes it.

And with this transformation, the whole tone of the novel changes marvellously. It is as if all the dark storm clouds vanish, one by one, leaving a sky of clear blue, and an air of hard-won serenity.

The closing sentence is one of the loveliest of any novel:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Advertisements

Is it because I is thick?

I am not a philistine. Really, I’m not. Neither am I an inverted snob. I appreciate intellectual activity, and admire intellectual achievement. I appreciate also that subtle and difficult ideas often require subtle and difficult prose. If I find any writing incomprehensible at first reading, my usual response is to try to read it more carefully. But, read as carefully as I can, I’m sorry to say can make little sense of something like this .

Now, no doubt it’s unfair to pick on this when there are so many other pieces of writing I could equally have picked on, but this will serve as an example. It’s about literature, a subject that is close to my heart. I normally lap up writing about literature. And yet… All right, let us not be quick to pass judgement. Let us try to read this carefully. Here is the first paragraph:

What does it mean to talk about the end of literature? Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it. But this means that the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility. If the representational problem at the heart of the literary were solved (rather than abandoned in its literary form, which is always a possibility), we would no longer be talking about literature; we would be gods or, no less fantastically, we would be in possession of Borges’s Aleph. The contradictions internal to literature (as with those internal to capitalism) are immanently its end in that their resolution would entail its supersession, but they are also the precondition for its functioning. The end is, in that sense, the a priori; in other words, to indulge in a paradox, the end is in fact the beginning: which is to say that literature’s conditions of possibility and its conditions of impossibility are one and the same.

Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews reminds us. It starts with a rhetorical question: “What does it mean to talk about the end of literature?” Never having spoken about the “end of literature” myself, I do not have an opinion on the matter. But the word “end” can have at least two distinct meanings in this context, and I am not sure whether the author is referring to the purpose of literature, or to its demise. Maybe what follows will clarify. So let us continue.

Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it.

No clarification, then, but an assertion that seems unrelated to the opening sentence. What is this “impossibility” that literature is built around? What is this impasse that is “internal to it”? Well, maybe this will be clarified as well later. But so far, I have read two sentences, and two things are unclear to me: (a) What does the author mean by “the end of literature”? (b) What is the “impossibility” at the centre of literature?

Third sentence: “But this means that the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility.” Its phrasing (“But this means…”) seems to indicate that it follows from the statements made previously. It can’t follow from the first sentence, as that’s a question rather than a statement. So perhaps it follows directly from the second sentence (“Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it.”). But this second sentence, at the very least, assumes a knowledge that I, for one, do not have: I do not know what this “impossibility” is that literature is built around. And even if we are to leave this part of it undefined for the moment, how can it follow from this that “the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility”?

But whether or not the conclusion follows rationally from what has been stated earlier, it’s emphatic enough. “In fact”. It is a fact. Incontrovertible. It takes its place with such other facts as “water boils at 100 degrees Celsius” and “Paris is the capital of France”.

All right, let us not worry about that: let us continue, and accept that the “end of literature” – whether that means the purpose of literature, or its demise – is necessary for literature even to be possible. Next sentence:

If the representational problem at the heart of the literary were solved (rather than abandoned in its literary form, which is always a possibility), we would no longer be talking about literature; we would be gods or, no less fantastically, we would be in possession of Borges’s Aleph.

Concentrate, Chatterjee, concentrate! “The representational problem at the heart of the literary”. I’d guess that this “representational problem” is the “impossibility” referred to in the second sentence. At last! Some clarification! But then again – what is this “representational problem”? We don’t really have a clarification at all: something that wasn’t explained is merely replaced by something else that isn’t explained either.

But whatever this “representational problem” is, if it were to be solved rather than “abandoned in its literary form” … Whoa, whoa there! Presumably, if the problem, whatever it is, is “abandoned”, that means it remains unsolved. But the author is specific here: “abandoned in its literary form” (my italics). This implies that this problem may conceivably be solved in some form other than the literary. What form is that, then? That’s not explained either, it seems. Well, let’s not get worked up over it: after all, I don’t even know what the problem is, other than it’s something to do with “representation”. But whatever this problem is, we, as humans, can’t solve it: if we could solve it, we would be gods, and therefore not human. Or we would be in possession of Borges’ Aleph, and that is equally impossible. OK, I get that: the long and the short of it is that, we cannot solve the problem. Whatever the problem is.

So let’s take stock: where are we?

1. There is a problem about representation in literature – although it is unclear what this problem is;

2. This problem is severe enough to be regarded as an “impossibility” – although what is impossible is unclear;

3. Literature could not exist if its end (meaning “purpose” or “demise” – take your pick) didn’t also exist;

4. It is impossible for humans to solve this problem. However, it is possible to leave this problem unsolved. But only in a literary form.

I can’t help thinking at this stage that it’s just as well that it is possible to leave this problem unsolved, because if it were impossible either to solve the problem or not to solve the problem, we’d really be well and truly buggered.

At this point, I admit, my mind starts to wander. I am only four sentences in, and try as I might, I cannot make sense of any of the four sentences I know I’ve read. My eyes wander too, and light upon the opening words of the second paragraph: “To speak a little more clearly…” At last, I think to myself! I knew if I persevered long enough, I’d find enlightenment! So I skip to this second paragraph, and find this:

To speak a little more clearly, I would say that the institution of literature, only a little more than two centuries old, is structured around a central dynamic, namely a dialectic that plays out between an impulse toward the sublime (an anti-representational practice that, because it forswears representation, remains true to its object at the cost of losing it as object) and an impulse toward allegory (a representational practice which, because it is representational, in taking hold of its object deforms it absolutely). Borges, in “El Aleph,” was fully aware of this dilemma; possession of the Aleph does not make its owner a better poet. It seems to me, though I don’t have time to more than gesture toward it here, that this dynamic can be played back from the beginning, like an algorithm, in a number of different contexts and situations, and that in each case it will have a definite endpoint, an impasse internal to it which finally cannot be superseded.

My eyes wander further, and light upon the words “I want to say something very simple, probably too simple…” I read on, and find this:

I want to say something very simple, probably too simple, about literary criticism and Marxism, and that is that the forms of attention required by literary analysis are particularly congenial to Marxism. Why would this be? It would not be outrageous to claim that literature in the modern sense and the dialectic were born in the same place, at the same time (Jena, at the turn of the nineteenth century, in the circle around the Schlegels and their journals and, in the case of Hegel still feeling his way through the Jena “system-drafts,” decidedly at its margins). So a genealogical case might be made (but it would be far beyond my competence to make it) that in the twentieth century these sibling rivals discovered themselves to be long-lost brothers…

Fair enough, I admit it: I’m thick. I love literature, and I love reading about it, and, I flatter myself, I have, in my time, read some very intelligent and complex analysis of literature. I am also prepared to make an effort with difficult writing, and to think as clearly as I can. But this – and this is far from a sole example – defeats me, and it can only be because I’m thick. So I’d be grateful if someone out there could explain this to me. Just the first four sentences will do.

Ibsen, the Master Builder

Ibsen is still often regarded as primarily a “social writer” – i.e. as a writer whose principal concerns were social themes, and whose principal interests were ideologies advocating social reform. And while some have praised him for this reason, many others see this as a weakness: for if one’s principal concern is the righting of specific social wrongs, one’s work can be of little other than merely historic interest once those wrongs have been righted. Here, for instance, is Erich Auerbach in his classic study Mimesis

Through the complete transformation of the bourgeoisie since 1914 and in general through the upheavals brought about by the current world crisis, his problems have lost their timeliness … 

One may spend much time digging out similar views of Ibsen – views which even now seem widely held. But since this is a casual post in a blog rather than a scholarly dissertation, I’ll not litter this page with more references: the interested reader may easily find expressions of such views for his or her own self. But the basic idea behind this criticism remains … well, basic: it is still believed by many that while Ibsen’s superior stagecraft ensures his continuing popularity on the stage, his plays don’t really have much to offer nowadays other than allowing us an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for being so much more advanced and enlightened than we used to be. And those of us who love Ibsen as a literary artist rather than as a social reformer are left wondering whether there is any other writer of comparable stature who is so continually, and, it sometimes seems, so wilfully, misunderstood. 

Of course, it is true that Ibsen did address social issues; and, in those three plays that are possibly his best known (though not necessarily his finest) – A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People and Hedda Gabler – these social themes are very much to the fore. But even here, I don’t think these plays are primarily about social issues. A Doll’s House certainly addresses the suppression of women within the institution of marriage, but in more general terms, it’s about the masks we, all of us, are forced to wear so we can take our place within a structured society; and it’s about the consequences of the mask refusing to fit. The masks we wear now may be different from the mask Nora had to wear (or, for that matter, the mask her husband Torvald had to wear), but masks haven’t gone away: we must all, to a lesser or greater extent, suppress something of our individual selves to be part of a greater whole, and Ibsen’s examination of the nature of this suppression, and of its consequences, seems to me to be a theme of continued significance. An Enemy of the People may deal with the hypocrisy of a society which, out of self-interest, refuses to acknowledge the truth; but on a somewhat deeper level, it is also about the inherent difficulty all humans have in accepting uncomfortable truths. And it is also, I think, about the fanaticism of those who refuse to recognise human limitations and frailties, and who insist upon the truth at all costs. This may not be the most profound of Ibsen’s plays, but its scope does, for all that, extend beyond that of merely “social issues”. 

And by the time we come to Hedda Gabler, we find ourselves in waters so deep that interpretation merely in terms of social issues seems utterly inadequate. Hedda is trapped, partly by the conventions of society, but, to a much greater extent, by her own cowardice: she despises the doll’s house that she has, of her own volition, entered, but fails to find the courage required to break out. The reasons for this failure are purely internal, not external: they are nothing to do with “society”. And furthermore, the consequences, not merely of Hedda’s cowardice, but also of her awareness of her cowardice, are terrifying: all her energies turn inwards, and become wantonly destructive. To see all this merely in terms of “social issues” is, it seems to me, to do the play a great disservice. 

These works belong to a sequence of twelve plays in prose written between 1875 and 1899: near the turn of the new century, a debilitating stroke put an end to Ibsen’s literary career. A convincing case can be made to see these twelve plays as, essentially, a cycle, as one large work. Ibsen himself had referred to these plays as a cycle, although it is highly doubtful that he had planned them as such when embarking on the first one (The Pillars of Society). But however one regards them, with these plays, drama changed for ever: there was no going back. Drama, from now on, had to be in prose: while attempts have been made to revive verse drama (most notably, perhaps, by T. S. Eliot), they haven’t really convinced. And from now on, there were no more kings and queens or bishops and nobles, no more finely crafted poetic soliloquies revealing the characters’ innermost thoughts. Of course, new generations of dramatists from Pirandello to Brecht to Beckett to Pinter have sought out even newer paths, but the path back was now closed for ever. It is hard to over-estimate the significance of the revolution brought about in drama by these twelve plays. 

Yet, rather ironically, it was Ibsen himself, the great pioneer of realistic drama (although the adjective “realistic” does, I think, need to be qualified), who wrote the last great plays in verse: the austere Brand, and the exuberant, demonic Peer Gynt. If we follow the line of Ibsen’s artistic development, we can see these two plays not as aberrations (however remarkable), but as essential to Ibsen’s dramatic art: indeed, these two plays seem to loom behind everything Ibsen subsequently wrote. Ibsen’s probing into the nature of our identity and of the masks we wear is prefigured in Peer Gynt, in which the protagonist, Peer, is happy to allow his face to grow into whatever mask he finds most convenient at any given time, and whose personal identity becomes like the onion he peels – merely layer after accumulated layer, with no real core. Ibsen’s questioning of our ability to apprehend the truth, and his study of inflexibility in the face of human weakness, are both apparent in Brand: here, the protagonist is a preacher whose intolerance of human weakness, of the human desire for comfort, leads him eventually high into the mountains, where he finds a crevice roofed above by ice – his cold, perfect “ice church”. Even in the most realistic of his later plays, we may find the themes and motifs that haunt these great poetic dramas; and we may find also the same extraordinary ability to create powerful symbols and images that resonate in the mind. 

Brand and Peer Gynt, monumental achievements both, had not been written for the theatre: they had been written to be read. And it was almost as if freedom from the demands of the theatre had liberated Ibsen’s imagination. But even so, these poetic dramas, intended for the study rather than for the stage, are irresistibly theatrical, and cut-down versions of them (full versions are infeasibly long for a single night’s performance) still hold the stage. Theatre was in Ibsen’s blood, and he had, he knew, to return to it. But how? He could not go on writing the same kind of stodgy melodrama that he had mainly been writing before Brand and Peer Gynt. Yes, he had to move on – but where? And in which direction? 

It is perhaps impossible for us now to try to work out how Ibsen reached his decision, but there it was: drama must now be in prose; and it must deal, in a realistic manner, with people from ordinary walks of life. As a literary medium, drama had been overtaken by the novel, and tragic protagonists in novels weren’t Clytemnestras or Hamlets, nor even Romeos and Juliets: they were Clarissa Harlowe, Emma Bovary, Julien Sorel, Yevgeny Bazarov. Can the achievement of the novel be replicated on stage? The difficulties were obvious. In a novel, one could enter characters’ minds; on stage, one is restricted merely to what characters say and do. In drama of a past age, one could be as stylised as one wanted: people could speak the most exquisite blank verse or the most sonorous alexandrines, and reveal their innermost minds. But realism forbids that: to be realistic, people must speak in much the same manner as the audience watching them; and far from letting these characters depict the innermost selves as an Othello or a Phèdre had done, they must be allowed to be as inarticulate and as self-unaware and as self-deluded as the rest of us. The technical problems posed were immense. 

These problems were not surmounted immediately. The first play in this new style was a comedy – The League of Youth: it is an effective play in many ways, but this was not the vision Ibsen wanted to communicate. And in any case, prose had been used often enough for comedy – from Molière to Sheridan to Gogol: nothing particularly new there. And then, for some nine years, Ibsen worked on the epic two-part historic drama, Emperor and Galilean, about Julian, the apostate Byzantine emperor: it’s a fascinating work in many respects, but it hasn’t really proved of much interest to any but the most diehard of Ibsenites. The breakthrough, when it did come, was far more modest in scale and in scope: indeed, it scarcely seems like a breakthrough at all. It is The Pillars of Society – a serious drama about corruption in high places. The characters here are everyday people, and speak in everyday language; there was no soliloquy directed at the audience, no creaking mechanics of convoluted plots; no eavesdropping, no outrageous coincidence moving the storyline along; and yet, although tragedy is averted at the very end, the tragic potential is clearly there. It is a fairly modest play in terms of artistic ambition, and, in retrospect, this play may even seem somewhat dated; but for all that, it was a breakthrough. 

It must be admitted that it did take Ibsen some time to find his feet with this new type of drama. His next play was A Doll’s House, which became a succès de scandale, and, thanks to a great extent to the opportunities it presents to showcase the talents of a star actress, it has retained its popularity on the stage. But compared to his later plays, the technique is not yet quite there: Ibsen is still relying on creaky plot  devices such as intercepted letters; the principal plot and subplot aren’t ideally integrated; and Ibsen later went on to say more with less. But for all that, it remains a masterpiece. In the play, we see a husband and wife both playing roles: the wife is clearly the more intelligent of the two, and yet she acts the scatterbrain, the ingenue who needs to be looked after and cared for by a good, strong man: that is the role expected of her. And her husband too acts the role expected of him, and to which, he, too, is not suited – that of the strong man, the provider, the decision-maker of the family. In that astonishing final scene, the masks come off, and neither is entirely sure who they really are. As in Peer Gynt, once all the accumulated layers have been peeled off the onion, there seems to be no real core underneath. The final slam of the door as Nora walks out seems emphatic enough, but the overall tonality of that ending is one of uncertainty: what we see is but the first step of a long and painful journey towards the truth. But many questions remain unanswered: What is the truth? To what extent are we capable of apprehending it? 

In the plays that followed – Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck – Ibsen addressed these questions. He perfected the realist drama, but even as he was doing so, his restless artistic imagination seemed to be moving on to other things. I get the impression that he wasn’t too happy with strict realism: it didn’t allow sufficient scope to depict the internal lives of his characters. And so, although he continued to write about people in everyday walks of life, conversing in everyday language, his plays were increasingly characterised by a poetic sensibility, and a use of symbolism to express those aspects of the human mind that are too deep, too elusive, to be stated explicitly. 

Even as early as Ghosts – which is still regarded by many as primarily an attack on social institutions – we see the development of symbols and of imagery that probe at matters much deeper. On the surface, it is a play attacking the hypocrisy of society, and the institution of marriage, which is seen as oppressive. And it is a play that seems quite clearly intended to shock: after all, one didn’t talk on the public stage about matters such as inherited syphilis! But now that we are no longer shocked by it, we may see it somewhat differently: we may see it as a picture of the ghosts of the past that we cannot rid ourselves of, ghosts that continue to live with us. The past is all-important: to understand the present, we must understand the past. But the past is elusive: all we have are narrations, which are all necessarily subjective, and therefore all unreliable. Mrs Alving reveals that her happy marriage has been a sham: her late husband, whose memory is now being honoured, was in fact a dissipated lecher. But there is more to it than this: Mrs Alving’s story – as she herself half-realises – is not the whole story. As we, the audience, try to piece together the past from the fragments of it that remain in the present, we begin to see Captain Alving as a man who – like the protagonists of A Doll’s House – had been forced to live a lie. And what had once been joy had decayed into mere depravity. And Mrs Alving, too, has lived a lie ever since, pretending to honour the memory of a man she continues to despise. All that, she thinks, is now over, but in that almost unbearably intense tragic finale, the past returns with a vengeance: the ghosts of the past cannot be laid to rest. To find another play of comparable tragic intensity, we have to go back to Shakespeare, to the Greeks. 

Predictably, the critical response to Ghosts was vituperative, and it is difficult to see the next play, An Enemy of the People, as anything other than a response to that vituperation: it is a play about the moral pusillanimity that prevents us from facing the truth. It is a superbly theatrical work, but it lacks the deep resonances we normally find in Ibsen: the surface is splendid, but there isn’t, perhaps, too much beyond it.  It seems to me to come close to being the sort of play detractors of Ibsen claim to be characteristic of him. 

But perhaps even here, we may see more than is usually reckoned to exist. To what extent should we accept Stockman’s heroism at face value? Are his motives entirely altruistic, and devoid of self-regard? Is it, indeed, reasonable to expect humanity to face the truth fearlessly, no matter how unpleasant that truth may be? 

It is in the next play, The Wild Duck, that Ibsen addresses these issues more explicitly. Here, Gregers Werle, who insists on the truth, the truth at all costs, is seen as a fanatic, and possibly mentally unbalanced. Indeed, we may see in him the inflexible preacher Brand, who had only found perfection in the ice-church high in the mountains, far from humanity. The setting of The Wild Duck is realistic, the speech is everyday, but the poetic sensibility that that informs it is quite clearly that which had created Brand. And the poetic imagery of the work – the wild duck that had dived into the deep blue sea, and had been brought back to the surface; the mysterious attic that fires the imagination of the young Hedvig; blindness in all its forms – takes us to a world far more mysterious and elusive than that of mere social drama. 

If, to put it crudely, An Enemy of the People was about the importance of accepting the truth, and The Wild Duck about the impossibility of doing so, then the next play, Rosmersholm, takes us further into regions unknown, and examines the elusive nature of truth itself. As in Ghosts, most of the principal action has already taken place when the curtain rises: the action we see on stage consists of the characters trying to understand the true nature of what has happened, and trying to come to terms with it. This is, perhaps, not as novel as it may seem: one may argue that Sophocles’ Oedipus is constructed along similar lines. But nothing quite like this had been attempted in modern drama – not even in Ghosts. And no play had focussed quite so insistently on the inner landscape of the characters’ minds, on those aspects of our minds that are hidden even from our own selves. It is no accident that Freud was particularly fascinated by this play: he wrote an illuminating study of the character Rebecca West, psycho-analysing her as if she were a real person. 

Ibsen by now was in complete control of his technique, and masterpiece followed masterpiece. Daringly, he used the drama, the most public of all art forms, to explore the most private of worlds – the elusive and enigmatic depths of the human psyche. Even now, even after Freud and Jung and the reams of theory about the unconscious and the subconscious, it is often difficult to follow Ibsen into these mysterious worlds he presents. As with many other writers who have attempted to depict these areas of human existence, Ibsen made increasing use of symbolism: the wild horses of Rosmersholm, the mysterious ghostly stranger of The Lady From the Sea, the towers of The Master Builder, those water lilies in Little Eyolf  that shoot up from the depths and bloom suddenly upon the surface – these all point tantalisingly to areas of human experience too vaguely understood to be put explicitly into words. 

The next play, The Lady From the Sea is still surprisingly little known: while star actresses queue up to play Hedda Gabler, or Nora in A Doll’s House, they tend to bypass the role of Ellida, which is surely among the finest and most challenging of any leading role. Perhaps, if The Lady From the Sea were better known, more people would question the stereotypical image of Ibsen as a mere social dramatist. This play is full of mysterious elements that hint at the supernatural, and which cannot be taken at face value: we are far from social realism here. And, while, once again, we have a dissection of a marriage, the view of the marriage that emerges from the dissection is not in the least condemnatory: Ibsen was no mere dogmatic critic of the institutions of society. And, instead of the doom and gloom with which he is normally associated, the play, despite its potential for tragedy, ends with a burst of sunlight: the final scene is radiant. 

But the very next play, Hedda Gabler, takes us into a very different world. Far from the cold, bracing, open air of The Lady From the Sea, we are now trapped, as Hedda is, in a claustrophobic drawing room; and her marriage is so obviously doomed from the start, that there is no point even attempting to dissect it. In many ways, this is a return to the more socially realistic plays such as A Doll’s House, and may seem a step back from the poetic sensibility apparent in the immediately preceding works; but a comparison with A Doll’s House shows us clearly how far Ibsen had advanced in terms of technique, and how much deeper his artistic vision now was. Ibsen could now convey far more with far less; the themes are fully integrated with each other; and while the poetic imagery here does not carry us into the mysterious, vaguely glimpsed regions of the human mind, they are more subtly embedded into the texture of the drama.

The drama itself, from beginning to end, is grim: we are as far as can be imagined from the sunlight that had flooded the stage at the end of The Lady From the Sea. This is not to say, of course, that Ibsen is here repudiating the earlier play: as ever, he is exploring similar themes, but from different perspectives. 

After Hedda Gabler, in 1891, Ibsen returned to Norway from self-imposed exile. He had left his homeland some twenty-seven years earlier, a little-known writer: he returned now a Grand Old Man of Letters with an international reputation. When he had left, his mind had been seething with new ideas, and he had not been entirely sure how to give them shape: but now, his artistic vision was clear, and he was moving into new areas of expression. The new terrain isn’t easy, even now. 

The Master Builder remains a mysterious play. Once again, the setting is realistic, the characters are from everyday walks of life, and they speak in everyday language: and yet, it is impossible to take anything at face value. The more solidly Ibsen represents this world, the more mysterious it seems to become. Halvard Solness is a successful master builder, but he is ruthless. His wife seems but a pallid, phantom presence. We can sense that there are ghosts from the past haunting their lives, but we cannot quite put our finger exactly on the nature of these ghosts, not even when the events of the past are revealed. Into this world comes the young Hilde Wangel, whom we had already seen as a minor character in The Lady From the Sea. She makes certain claims about the past, which Master Builder Solness denies vehemently. And yet, for all that, she has a curious effect on him. In a series of the most extraordinary scenes, brimming with intricate and the most powerfully resonant of symbols and images, Solness begins to take stock of his life – his marriage, his past, his tragedies. He is a man on the threshold of old age, and yet still vigorous, both mentally and physically; he longs for a freedom, for a joy, that he knows he cannot have. His wife Aline we merely glimpse through most of the play, but near the start of the third and final act, Ibsen gives us a scene between Aline and Hilde that is amongst the most chilling in all drama: Aline is a woman whose existence is that of a ghost; her spirit is already dead. After this scene, Hilde says that she feels as if she has come out of the grave. Solness himself describes his marriage as being chained to a corpse. And yet, if Aline is dead, it is he who had killed her, and he knows it; the chains that bind him to the corpse are of his own conscience, his own guilt. 

No summary could hope to do justice to this astonishing drama: the deeper we look into it, the greater the depths we discern. When Ibsen had started his literary career, the novel had far superseded the play as a literary form: the novel could take a realistic milieu, familiar to readers, and yet explore to as great  a depth as the author was capable of exploring the internal landscape of the characters’ hearts and minds: drama, as a form seemed ill-equipped to do this. But Ibsen had, as it were, now turned the tables: he was exploring in drama areas of the human experience that now seemed beyond the scope of the novel. And novelists seemed to acknowledge this: London performances of Ibsen’s plays (in translations by William Archer) attracted the major British literary figures of the day, including possibly the two finest novelists of the time writing in English – Henry James and Thomas Hardy. (James was sufficiently taken by Ibsen to want to write plays himself: the result, as is well known, was spectacularly unsuccessful.) And Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken, inspired a certain young man named James Joyce to learn Norwegian so he could write a letter to his literary idol: Ibsen remained one of Joyce’s favourite writers, and one of his major influences. 

Another Irish writer who took Ibsen very much to heart was, of course, Bernard Shaw, whose own career as a dramatist would have been unthinkable without the influence of Ibsen. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Shaw, rather unaccountably but with characteristic megalomania, tried to present Ibsen as a sort of forerunner of himself – a dramatist of social concerns: but in his dramatic criticism, he was far more perceptive. Though not a man given to flights of fancy, he said of Ibsen’s characters: “There is not one … who is not, in the old phrase, the temple of the Holy Ghost, and who does not move you at moments by the sense of that mystery.” 

Two years after The Master Builder saw the first performance of Little Eyolf, possibly Ibsen’s most harrowing work. Sometimes, one wonders what could have possessed anyone to write something so very raw and intense for what was, after all, a public entertainment: the answer is that, by this stage, Ibsen was writing primarily for himself. A good performance of this play can still leave the audience shell-shocked: the laying bare of the human soul is, perhaps, still a bit too much to take. 

In describing his next play, John Gabriel Borkman, translator Una Ellis-Fermor asks us to imagine Macbeth and Lady Macbeth not dead at the end of the play, but exiled. This disquieting thought sets the scene for what artist Munch described as the greatest of all winter landscapes. It is a measure of the tragic intensity of this drama that it’s the most terrifying of Shakespeare’s tragedies that it calls to mind. The play starts, as many of Ibsen’s plays do, in the drawing room, but by the end, we have broken out of those four walls: we are in the chill of the high mountains. On the height of the mountains, by the depths of the sea: the very settings of these late plays seem to reflect a breaking free from the conventions of bourgeois middle-class drama – conventions that Ibsen himself had developed. 

In the last play, When We Dead Awaken, all the scenes are set outdoors. It starts at the foot of the mountains, and ends on the top; and, like the poetic drama Brand, it ends with the protagonists overwhelmed by an avalanche. The characters are drawn from real life, and they speak in prose, but we are back once again in the world of the earlier poetic dramas: translator Michael Meyer once opined that the play should ideally have been written in verse, and that he would have preferred to have translated it as a verse play. It seems as if Ibsen had turned back full circle. 

Not everyone, however, is convinced by this play: Joyce thought it Ibsen’s greatest, but many, including even the first translator, William Archer, thought Ibsen’s powers were in decline. He may not have been far wrong there: soon after Ibsen sent the manuscript to the publishers, he suffered a severe stroke. Given how surprisingly short the final act is, it is reasonable to infer that Ibsen, possibly in some physical distress, did not have the energy to finish the play as he would ideally have liked. In effect, this is an unfinished play, which gives us a glimpse, but no more, of Ibsen’s final artistic vision. 

Ibsen’s literary career was now at an end: after the stroke, he could barely recognise the alphabet. The last seven years of his life, this supremely great author became, effectively, illiterate. When on his death-bed, a nurse took his pulse and declared that he was a bit better. “On the contrary,” replied Ibsen, and died, a stern and unflinching seeker of truth to the very end. The body of work he left behind remains forbidding for a number of reasons, but it is monumental. Sadly, the picture of Ibsen merely as a social reformer has stuck, but for those prepared to look further into the works of Master Builder Ibsen will find riches beyond compare.