Archive for March, 2018

Some agnostic musings on Good Friday

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Michelangelo’s Pieta, courtesy of the Duomo Museum Florence

Even those who claim not to be Christian, or not to be religious, often find themselves listening to Bach’s passion music on Good Friday. And, further, find themselves moved by it. I am among them. I do not profess to be religious; I do not identify myself by any religious affiliation; and indeed, I was not even born into a Christian family (my parents were Hindus, though not practising Hindus). And yet, I shall shortly be putting on CDs of Bach’s Matthew Passion, and fully expect to be in tears by the end.

I make shamefaced excuses for this. It’s the quality of the music, I say. Well, yes, it is. But it is not entirely the abstract nature of the music that moves me so. It is the story itself that the music narrates

This, for many, is what is known as a “gotcha!” moment. “Gotcha!” they say. “So you are religious after all! And a sentimentalist to boot!” And sometimes I think, well, maybe I am. But so what? And then, I think a bit more and realise that I find myself moved by Othello and King Lear also, and don’t for a minute believe in the literal truth of Desdemona or of Cordelia. So my militant agnostic status, I submit m’lud, remains on solid ground.

Of course, in speaking of the undoubted sublimity of the story of the Passion, we shouldn’t overlook its occasionally less savoury aspects. A Jewish friend of mine jokes that, much though he loves Bach, every time the Evangelist sings of “Das Juden”, he can’t help thinking to himself “‘Ere, ‘old on, mate! It warn’t me wot killed yer Messiah!” But even he concedes the power of the story.

Artists, composers, and poets have all been drawn to this story – not necessarily because the churches were among the major patrons of the arts and demanded works on religious themes, but because they found in this story a focus for some of their most profound thoughts and feelings about everything that matters most – betrayal, guilt, atonement, evil, cruelty, suffering, grief, love, compassion, and, of course, death. And, for the believers, resurrection. Or, even for those of us who do not believe, that tantalising promise. In the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare dramatises this promise of the Resurrection, and I have never been quite able to work out quite why, despite my not believing, I find that scene so ineffably moving.

But I am not speculating on the matter any further: I am quite happy leaving my unanswerable questions unanswered. It is true I was born into an Indian Hindu family, but Christianity is so deeply imbued into Western culture that it is simply not possible to absorb one without also absorbing the other.

Nearly thirty years ago now, when I knew so little of Renaissance art (even less than I do now), I remember standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà that is now in the Cathedral Museum in Florence, and I gasped. I felt that same sense of solemn wonder as I do when faced with the mystery that is Bach’s Matthew Passion. This Pietà is a late work: Michelangelo had been working on it till the very end of his long life. He had left it in a vandalised state: in some divine fit of dissatisfaction, he had taken a hammer to it, and had smashed Christ’s left arm, and his left leg. (The arm has been reconstructed from the fragments, but the left leg is still missing.) The sculpture is also unfinished: the figure under Christ’s right arm was sculpted after Michelangelo’s death, and it shows. Though undoubtedly competent, it’s the only part of the entire group that, as even my inexpert eyes could tell, is lacking in expression. And this figure throws into relief the almost unbearably intense and profound expression of the rest of the group.

There is much that may legitimately be said against religious belief. And yes, I know well the vast sufferings that have been caused, and continue to be caused, in the name of religion. But I must confess I find it hard to regret a culture that has given us a meditation so profound as this on suffering, on death, on grief and on compassion, and on love. On everything, in short, that most matters.

 

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The “nunnery scene”

In a recent post, I found myself focussing on what seems to me one of the most complex scene in the entire Shakespearean canon – Act 3, Scene1 of Hamlet. I barely scratched the surface: there is such complexity in this scene that I rarely read it the same way twice. Everything seems to be happening at the same time, and it becomes virtually impossible to keep track. No performance, not even the finest, could hope to capture all the subtleties and nuances.

This scene is often known as the “nunnery scene”. It starts with a bit of scene-setting with Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia (Ophelia is to be the bait, as it were, to get Hamlet talking, while Claudius and Polonius spy on him); then Hamlet comes in, and delivers the famous soliloquy that we can all reel off, word for word; and then he sees Ophelia, rants and raves at her for a bit; and then he storms off. And during all that ranting and raving, he tells her to go to a “nunnery”. At which point we all snigger like schoolkids because a “nunnery”, as we all know, was slang for “brothel”.

But does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a brothel? Yes, “nunnery” was sometimes used ironically to refer to a brothel, and this secondary meaning may well have added a bitter undercurrent to the proceedings. But even if it were a widespread piece of slang in Shakespeare’s day (and I honestly have no idea how widespread it was), the brothel is still a secondary meaning, not the primary one. And I do get the impression that we are so taken with this secondary meaning, we allow it to drown out the significance of the primary one. As a consequence, we lose much not only of the subtlety of this scene, but also the pathos, and the deep poignancy.

The context is clear. Hamlet, in his soliloquy, questions why we go on living when life is so full of suffering and pain, and concludes that we only do so because we are too frightened of death. It is a natural step to move from this to thinking that it is best not to have been born in the first place. Why bring yet more people into the world?

Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet is here telling Ophelia not to bear children, not to bring yet more people into this life, in which all any of us can do is merely sin and suffer. And as he says this, he expresses a quite startling degree of self-disgust:

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

And this is why Ophelia should go to a nunnery. We owe it to our unborn children not to bring them into life.

By allowing a possible secondary meaning to swamp what is undoubtedly the primary meaning is to do this extraordinarily tragic and moving scene a great disservice. It is to replace a profound lament for life with merely a cynical guffaw.

“Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen

[All excerpts below, except where otherwise stated, are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill, published by Penguin Classics]

Despite all the fantasy, the surrealism, the dream sequences, the weird forays into the realms of folklore, the plot, such as it is, of Peer Gynt, isn’t hard to follow. At least, not for the first four acts. Peer, when we first see him, is a madcap young man much given to mischief-making and to spinning fabulous yarns. He has been brought up by his long-suffering widowed mother, who is constantly upbraiding him, and who is, at the same time, fiercely protective of him. In the first act, Peer gate-crashes a wedding, and runs off with the bride. Later, he abandons her. He appears to have a few more sexual encounters, but refuses to take responsibility for any of them. In the course of all this, he fathers an illegitimate child, and, once again, refuses to accept responsibility, retreating from the child, and from the child’s mother, in a kind of horror. After his own mother’s death – the death scene, where Peer spins one final yarn for her, one of the loveliest and most tender in all dramatic literature – he goes abroad, and becomes a successful and international businessman, though completely unscrupulous, trading, amongst other things, in slaves. He is cheated of his wealth by other businessmen as unscrupulous as himself, and eventually finds himself an inmate of a madhouse in Egypt. And then, after all this, comes the fifth act, which is even stranger than all that had gone before.

Translator and biographer Michael Meyer suggests that Peer either dies in the madhouse at the end of the fourth act (although his death is not explicitly depicted); or he dies in the shipwreck off the coast of Norway at the start of the final act (although, once again, his death is not explicitly depicted). And all that follows is a sort of phantasmagoric unwinding of his life at the moment of his death, in which he is challenged to discover what significance his life may have had. This makes sense to me. All the fantasies and surrealism and dream sequences of the first four acts may be seen as reflections, however distorted, of reality; but even that model breaks down when we come to the last act.

Although the outline of the plot is clear in the first four acts, the details aren’t. Sometimes, even some very significant plot details are left maddeningly stranded in some no man’s land between reality and fantasy. That which is real and that which isn’t become so inextricably entwined, it becomes impossible to separate them out. We may take the trolls, for instance, to be fantasy, but how are we to take Solveig? If we insist on taking everything in this play at face value, Solveig is a vision of purity, the good and beautiful woman whom Peer really loves (even as he frolics with other girls); and she, in turn, returns his love, and eventually seeks him out. But before they can even begin to live their life together, Peer, horrified by the sight of the brutal child he has fathered, leaves her, departing in shame. And, throughout Peer’s life, Solveig patiently waits for him. And at the very end of the play, she reclaims him. Now, clearly, Solveig is neither conceived nor presented as a real person, but it is impossible to tell whether Solveig is an idealised version of a real woman, or whether, indeed, she exists at all anywhere except in Peer’s mind. It is certainly possible to see Solveig as a pure fantasy – a vision of idealised womanhood that Peer, despite everything, harbours in some corner of his mind, but which he felt he felt he had to abandon when shamed by his own actions. But it is possible also that Solveig is a real person, although presented in the drama in a way Peer would like her to be, rather than the way she really is. We do not know, we cannot tell. And in this confusion of reality and fantasy, the impossibility of ever separating the two is very much the intended effect.

Similarly with Peer’s desert adventures in the fourth act. After the other businessmen have cheated him out of his wealth, Peer travels the desert; comes accidentally in possession of riches; is mistaken for a prophet; and takes for himself as mistress the slave Anitra, who declares she has no soul, and who goes on to cheat Peer of his new-found wealth. Did all this really happen, or is this again one of Peer’s tall tales? Could it be that he really did have a mistress in North Africa who had robbed him and left him, and that all the rest is merely an extravagant product of Peer’s teeming imagination? Once again, we cannot tell. Maybe Peer was cheated of his wealth on separate occasions both by the other businessmen, and by his mistress Anitra; maybe he was cheated just once, and his imagination accounts for the rest. As with so much in this play, we cannot tell.

The repetition of a theme – in this instance, of being cheated of his wealth – we see also in other parts of the pay. In the first act, for instance, the theme of Peer seducing and then deserting a woman is presented twice – the first time, in a more or less realistic mode (when Peer runs off with, and later rejects, Ingrid, the bride at the wedding); and then, the entire scene of seduction and desertion is replayed in a mode of pure fantasy. Here we first see Peer frolicking with three girls who are trolls – those strange goblin-like creatures of Norwegian folklore. Then, Peer, having seduced one of the troll girls (who happens to be the daughter of the troll-king), has to face her father in the Hall of the Mountain King. (He is called the “Dovre King” in Geoffrey Hill’s translation.) It is one of those scenes of mad, wild fantasy, as dark and sinister as it is playful and exuberant, that this play is so full of, and bears little resemblance to the playful scherzo Grieg composed as incidental music. In this scene, Peer agrees at first to become a troll himself and marry the Troll-king’s daughter, but changes his mind when he realises that a surgical operation must first be performed on his eyes, so he can see the world as a troll. He is saved – in true folklore tradition – by the church bells ringing, at the very sound of which the trolls scatter in confusion, and the entire Hall of the Mountain King collapses.

Immediately there follows perhaps the strangest scene of all in this very strange play. It is set completely in the dark. Peer is trying to walk forward, but something is blocking his way. Whatever it is that is blocking his way identifies itself as the “Boyg”. It tells him to “go round”. Peer is determined to walk through, but it is no good: he cannot pass through – he has to “go round”. And once again, he is rescued, as in the previous scene, by the church bells. “He was too strong for us,” says the voice of the Boyg, “the prayers of good women were keeping him safe.” What are we to make of all this? We may no doubt take the scene with the trolls as a fantastic reflection of real events, but what do we make of the Boyg, and of the injunction to “go round”? What do we make of the repetition, within a mere two pages, of Peer being saved by the church bells? What do we make of that curious reference to the “prayers of good women”?

Fantasies though they may be, but neither the encounter with the trolls nor that with the Boyg is wasted on Peer. He may have refused the surgical operation on his eyes, but he certainly takes to heart the injunction given him by the Dovre King:

Out there – remember? – under the sky’s high-gleaming vault
‘be thyelf, be thyself, even to thy most inward fault’
is the great injunction. Down here, with the race of trolls,
‘be to thyself sufficient’ is the motto that appeals.

“To thyself be sufficient.” I’d guess that the original Norwegian resists easy translation. Peter Watts (Penguin) translates this as “To thyself be – enough!”,  with an interpolated dash and italics; James Kirkup and Christopher Fry (Oxford) make a reference to Polonius, translating this as “To thine own self be – all-sufficient!” – again with an interpolated dash, but no italics; and Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us “Man, be thyself – and to Hell with the rest of the world!” The basic idea, made explicit in Meyer’s rendition, is one of solipsism: one’s own self is the only thing that matters. Whatever else of the troll-world Peer might reject, this injunction he follows.

And he follows too the Boyg’s injunction to “go round”. He never faces anything: he always takes whatever happens to be the easiest way, the path of least resistance – he always goes round. When he is horrified by the child he has fathered, when  he is too ashamed to face Solveig, he goes round – rather than face it, he simply walks away.

This makes the character of Peer Gynt in many ways the diametric opposite to that of Brand. (The two plays of which Brand and Peer Gynt are eponymous heroes were published only a year apart, in 1866 and 1867). Brand was always fanatically true to his fanatic self, but Peer “goes round” so often, one wonders whether he has a self to be true to. While these two verse dramas may be seen as mighty opposites, and their respective eponymous characters equally contrasted to each other – the one rigid and austere, the other exuberant and prodigal – the contrast between the two is too obvious, perhaps, too simple, to cast much light on either. Nonetheless, it may be said, I think, that, whatever misgivings we may have about the person of Brand, he was great of soul; with Peer Gynt, we wonder whether he has a soul at all. And this is the theme that comes to the fore in the final act: what, at the end of it all, is Peer? Is he really anyone at all?

The fourth act had ended in a madhouse in Egypt. The scene was nightmarish, frenetic: it had about it a sense of wild, uncontrolled frenzy. Maybe this is where Peer dies: we cannot tell. At the start of the fifth act, without explanation, we see Peer as an older man, on a ship back to his native Norway. Maybe he had escaped the asylum, and had made some sort of life for himself; maybe what we see is yet another fantasy, this time happening at the moment of his death. We do not know.

On this ship, Peer meets a ghostly passenger (referred to in the Dramatis Personae in Michael Meyer’s translation as the “Strange Passenger”). The crew tells Peer that he is the only passenger, but, by this stage of the play, we are not surprised to encounter someone who doesn’t exist. This strange passenger is perfectly courteous, and he politely informs Peer that he wants Peer’s body when he dies.

Off the coast of Norway, the ship is wrecked in a storm. The strange passenger re-appears, and, in modern parlance, breaks through the fourth wall by telling Peer not to worry, because the hero of a play doesn’t die at the start of the fifth act. But here, maybe, he does.

Then Peer is on dry land, and finds himself at a funeral. His own funeral, we wonder? No, it is the funeral of a man Peer had seen earlier in the play chopping off his own fingers to avoid military conscription. From the long funeral oration, we find he had been a good man: he had had a family, and had looked after them. In short, he had been what Peer hadn’t. As Peer dies, so does his alter ego. And while we ponder the significance, if any, of the chopped fingers, we move on.

Peer now encounters a character who could have come straight out of folklore – the Button Moulder. He has been sent to melt Peer down, for Peer had not actually been anyone. Peer has no soul, nothing that could either be saved or damned. He is a blank, a nothing, worthy merely to be melted down. Even evil had eluded him. True, he had paid no attention to morals, and had even traded in slaves, but he had done all this not out of any attachment to evil as such, but simply because it had been the easiest way: he had, as ever, “gone round”. It is not a question of Good and Evil: it is a question of Being. What has Peer been?

Earlier, he had tried to describe his “Gyntian self”:

The Gyntian self – that iron brigade
of wishes, passions and desires,
a massive flood that knows no shores,
vortex of impulse, need and claim,
the world that I entirely am.

To his own self, in other words, he is sufficient. But can “a massive flood that knows no shores”, a mere “vortex of impulse”, really be anything at all? Is a shoreless flood an object? Does it have shape?

Peer asks to Button Moulder to give him time to prove himself, and they agree to meet at the next crossroads. In the meantime, Peer searches desperately for some meaning, some significance, his life must, he feels, have had. It is here we have the famous scene where Peer peels an onion, and finds merely layer upon accumulated layer, with no real core. In another scene, balls of yarn speak, as do withered leaves, and drops of dew, and broken straws. They tell us  they are the thoughts Peer hadn’t thought, songs he hadn’t sung, deeds he had never delivered, tears he hadn’t shed. Peer meets the Dovre King again, now come down in the world; and he meets a thin man in a priest’s cassock, who turns out to be the Devil himself. Neither can vouch for his being. At one point, Peer comes close to the cabin where he had left Solveig so many years ago: she sits there waiting for him still, singing, and once again, Peer turns away in shame.

But it is Solveig who nonetheless claims him in the end. How are we to read this? That he is saved by a vision of an ideal, which he had turned away from in shame but which had never quite disappeared from his heart? That Eternal Woman leads him on ever upward, as it had Faust?

Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

These famous lines of Goethe’s had been quoted earlier in Peer Gynt, but in a mocking tone. Are we to take them seriously now? I suppose there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. But there’s no reason why we should either. In this play, where it has proved consistently impossible to separate out the different levels of reality and fantasy, this could be yet another fantasy. For even as Solveig claims Peer, having waited for him all her life, we hear the Button Moulder’s ominous lines:

Last crossroads, Peer? Our final meeting?
We’ll see. Till then, I shall say nothing.

Nothing is settled.

***

Peer Gynt is a huge, vast piece – like its predecessor Brand, far too long to be performed uncut in a single evening. But unlike Brand, it is wild, it is exuberant, it is overflowing with mad, extravagant, phantasmagoric visions. What it must be like reading it in the original Norwegian, I can only imagine, but all four of the translations I have read – by Michael Meyer, Peter Watts, James Kirkup & Christopher Fry, and the most recent translation in Penguin Classics, by Geoffrey Hill – convey a sense of almost of abandon, of reckless energy and vigour and  irrepressible ebullience.

As with his translation of Brand, Geoffrey Hill, not knowing Norwegian, had worked from a literal (and annotated) translation, this time by Janet Garton. It does not seem to me to be the ideal way to translate, but the results, it must be admitted, are very persuasive. Hill’s verse flows freely, with rhymes at the end of lines, and, more often than not half-rhymes, or simply words that vaguely echo each other. He varies the length of the lines far more than he had done in Brand, sometimes using alexandrines, or lines even longer, of fifteen or sixteen syllables. Sometimes he uses internal rhymes. But in all this, he achieves a wonderful fluency. The technique, as is to be expected from so distinguished a poet, is formidable, but it never slows the verse down: much of the time, it seems to rush forward like a torrent, a “massive flood that knows no shores”. I don’t think it displaces the earlier translations, but is certainly a most welcome addition to them. And by the end, I was left breathless.

***

I don’t think anything in Ibsen’s earlier work could prepare us for that sudden explosion of creativity that resulted Brand and Peer Gynt in, respectively, 1866 and 1867. He had been writing for some fifteen years, but, to my mind at least (I realise others may differ on this point), he had never really been much more than a journeyman dramatist. Even the best of his earlier work – The Vikings at Helgeland, Love’s Comedy, The Pretenders – could not have led anyone to expect what followed. But then, he was awarded a grant from the Norwegian government, and the freedom not to have to write for the stage seemed suddenly to release his creative energies.

The 1860s were a remarkable decade in European literature. It started with the publication of Great Expectations, and soon  afterwards, Dickens started serialisation of his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend. (It was published in  1865.) Turgenev wrote what is often regarded as his finest novel, Fathers and Sons; and meanwhile, Dostoyevsky announced himself with From the House of the Dead and Notes From Underground, and followed them up with Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. Meanwhile, in France, Baudelaire published the third and final edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, containing several new poems; and Flaubert weighed in  with L’Education Sentimentale, and  George Eliot with, amongst other, The Mill on the Floss. And meanwhile, in Russia, there was the trifling matter of War and Peace. There was more than enough written and published in just those ten years to keep any reader occupied for an entire lifetime. And Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt are among the major achievements even in this company. He may have started the decade merely as a journeyman, but after these two monumental achievements, everything was changed.

Brand and Peer Gynt were written  to be read rather than to be acted, but Ibsen’s instinct for the theatre never deserted him: judiciously trimmed versions still hold the stage triumphantly, even in  translation. (This is not something that can be said for all verse drama.) But curiously, Ibsen never wrote in verse again. Why he turned away from verse drama, after having written two of the very finest – possibly the last great plays to be written  in verse – is a matter of considerable conjecture: perhaps he felt he had exhausted all he could achieve in the form. His next play turned out to be the very exotic epic Emperor and Galilean, a vast work in two parts: Ibsen spent several years on this, and thought them, at the time, to be his best work, but I have never understood them, and a recent reading has left me as puzzled as I ever have been. And then came the decisive break: realistic plays, in realistic settings, with people from ordinary walks of life speaking the kind of language the audience spoke. No more Vikings at Helgeland, no more emperors and Galileans, and, above all, no more verse. It was a very unexpected turn for Ibsen to take, given what he had written before, but the themes broached in Brand and in Peer Gynt were to echo, I think, even here. They may not be verse, but the hand of the poet is apparent throughout.

But let us not anticipate…

“Brand” by Henrik Ibsen

[All excerpts below, except where otherwise stated, are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill, published by Penguin Classics]

There is a chill wind that blows through Brand. I don’t merely mean the setting: the Norwegian fjords, the isolated villages, the icy mountain heights, culminating in the “Ice Church” – the deep ravine over-vaulted with a sheet of ice – all evoke a sense-chilling cold; I mean also the content, utterly voided of anything resembling human warmth. At the centre of this drama is the priest Brand. Whatever the resonances the name may have in Norwegian, in English, it suggests flame, and there is indeed something very flame-like about him, about his burning intensity. Yet it is a flame that provides no warmth: it merely scalds.

Brand is a man who will brook no compromise. Not for him the kindly, indulgent God,

… your old, pampered God:
white-haired, moist-eyed with age,
his comic turns of rage
send children off to bed
giggling and half-afraid.

Brand’s vision of God is altogether more terrible:

My God is the great God of storm,
absolute arbiter of doom
imperious in His love!

your God can hardly move;
he’s weak of mind and heart,
easy to push about:
but mine is young, a Hercules…

These are no mere words. For Brand, it is literally “all or nothing”: if you do not give your all, you give nothing. For all that truly matters is his vision of divinity, imperious in His love. The quest for the Absolute, the refusal of any compromise, of anything that comes half way, or even that which comes close but stops short, is, to Brand, worthless. And if human concepts of the Absolute fall short, then they must be rejected. And if that means the rejection of all that all that we may recognise as human, then so be it.  The wind that blows through this poetic drama, vast and epic both in length and in scope, is chill indeed.

It is not that Brand is without love: far from it. Even human love he has. But his interpretation of this problematic concept is chilling. He refuses to give last rites even to his dying mother, as she is, even at her last breath, unequal to renouncing every last penny of all the possessions she had accumulated through her cupidity. He seals the death sentence of his infant child when he refuses to leave his vocation, his flock, and go south for the sake of the child’s death. And he destroys also the mental well-being of his wife, Agnes, first by allowing their child to die, and then, with what those of us less lunatic than he can only describe as the most appalling cruelty, refusing to allow her to mourn for her lost child as she would have wished: any mourning that indulges sentiment at the cost of acknowledging the harsh truth and reality of mortality, Brand refuses, both for himself, and for Agnes. Of course, Agnes had entered into union with Brand knowing precisely what he stood for: indeed, it is his very refusal to compromise that had attracted her in the first place. And, by the end, she does indeed see the face of God. But it is a terrible God, the God of Brand’s inflexible vision. She reminds Brand of Exodus 33:20: “Whoever looks on God shall die”. This God, imperious in His love, is seemingly indifferent to any human need other than the spiritual: Brand has forced Agnes to look upon such a God, and she must die.

And Brand does not spare himself either. He is no automaton. The grief of the deaths of those he most loved breaks him, but still he does not compromise. In the final act, among the most astonishing creations in all drama, Brand, reviled and stoned by his very flock, heads out into the mountains, into the icy waste. He had thought to replace the small, decrepit old church with something vaster, something more worthy of the greatness that is God, but he decides that this too is not enough – cannot be enough: no human concept of God, however great, can match the grandeur and terror of the Absolute. And so the tormented Brand, bleeding and reviled, assailed by hallucinations and temptations (including a vision of the dead Agnes), finds his ultimate destination high in the cold mountain peaks – the Ice Church. Never has God, mankind’s highest vision of the Absolute, seemed more remote from mankind.

One could, of course, see Brand merely as a cruel narcissist, merely destroying all that is human. To the objection that Brand himself is tortured by the death of his child and of his wife, one may reasonably answer that he had tortured the dead child and the dead wife somewhat more in the process; that whatever suffering Brand brings on himself, he had no right to impose it on others. Such a verdict is, of course, correct: it is the verdict the villagers, sensibly moderate, would no doubt pass. Yet, we have to go no further than this, for such a view does not come close to accounting for the tremendous power of the drama, a power apparent even when reading. Indeed, one may say especially when reading, as this play was written to be read rather than to be staged; and while it is theatrical enough to be successfully staged in somewhat cut-down versions – the full text is too long to fit comfortably into a single night’s viewing – no performance I have seen, not even the best, quite evokes in me the awe and the terror I experience when I read it.

This is a play, after all, that opens in a blizzard, and ends in an avalanche. And at its centre is a character who is both lunatic and visionary, who seems to carry the Ice Church within his very heart. We may reject this lunatic-visionary, but it would be wrong, I think, to dismiss him summarily. The world has seen these lunatic-visionaries enough whose pursuit of their Visions of the Ideal does not bother to count the merely human bodies wasted in its wake: we may not approve, but we must take them seriously. For what is the alternative? To compromise our morals, our ideals, merely for the sake of our momentary comfort, our convenience? To bend whichever way the wind blows? To live our lives as the villagers do in this play?

It may be objected, of course, that the villagers – the mayor, the provincial doctor, etc. – are all presented as caricatures, people with small minds and small souls, but we must be careful about using “caricature” as a pejorative: a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. The villagers, Brand’s flock (until they reject him, and stone him) are not individualised: they form a sort of chorus of “right-thinking people”. They may not possess the greatness of soul of Brand, or anything like his visionary intensity, but neither would they sacrifice their own child for the sake of something so vague as an “ideal”. They may have a smallness of mind that we tend to think of as “provincial”, but these are people who travail against desperate odds, against drought, famine, hunger: the struggle to keep body and soul together does not leave much time – except for the most driven – for thoughts of the well-being of one’s soul. Brand is cast out at the end because he has to be: a man with no thought of human needs, or, rather, of what most of us would consider to be human needs, can have no place in a human society: the Ice Church is really the only place for him – grand, magnificent, awe-inspiring, but utterly cold and inhuman. To the Brands of this world who tell us that this is the Absolute we should strive towards, we surely have the right to say “no”; we surely have the right to drive them out. Caricatures these villagers may be, but they are not crude caricatures; and if we look closely and honestly, most of us should be able to recognise ourselves.

Once he is cast out, he takes to the mountains, and there he encounters, once again, the mad girl Gerd – like himself, also an outcast. We had learnt previously that it is possible that Gerd and Brand are half-siblings: that Gerd is possibly an alter ego of Brand’s is obvious, but attempts to pin down the significance of this don’t really get us too far. Enough that both are outcasts, and both are mad. Gerd is tormented by an imaginary hawk that she thinks attacks her: once again, it is easy to come up with suggestions of what this hawk symbolises, but none of the suggestions purporting to unlock this symbol can account for the extraordinarily resonant nature of the symbol itself. When Gerd sees Brand rejected and despised, and wounded and bleeding, she mistakes him for Christ. Sadly, Christ imagery is two-a-penny these days, but it is a piece of imagery Brand unambiguously rejects. If we are to see Gerd as an alter ego of Brand, we should really conclude that the proposed parallel to Christ is something that occurs to Brand himself; and, further, it is not something he entertains seriously. The imagery is introduced to be rejected almost immediately.

But then comes the final scene within the Ice Church, within which Brand and Gerd are overwhelmed by an avalanche. To the very last, Brand is tormented: for all his apparent certainty, the certainty to which he had sacrificed all that had been most dear to him, he, like Job, has questions for God. At this point, Geoffrey Hill (in an interview on these translations  printed at the end of the Penguin Classics edition) admits to deviating from Ibsen’s original. In Hill’s version, Brand asks God:

                             Tell
me, O God, even as Your heavens fall
on me; what makes retribution
flesh of our flesh? Why is salvation
rooted so blindly in Your Cross?
Why is man’s proud will his curse?
Answer! What do we die to prove?
Answer!

I must admit I don’t understand these questions. In the more literal translation by James Kirkup and Christopher Fry (from the Oxford Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane) we get this:

Answer me, God, in the jaws of death:
Is there no salvation for the Will of Man?
No small measure of salvation … ?

While Michael Meyer (Methuen) gives us:

Answer me, O God, in the moment of death,
If not by Will, how can Man be redeemed?

Both the versions by Kirkup and Fry, and by Meyer, seem to me to be not merely more direct and dramatic than Hill’s, but also more comprehensible. I find myself unconvinced both by Hill’s alterations, and also by the reasons he gives for it. But puzzling though these lines are in Hill’s version, what seems to me more puzzling is the response – the final line of Ibsen’s play:

A VOICE (calling through the noise of the thunder): He is the God of Love. (Hill)

A VOICE (cries through the thunder): He is the God of Love. (Meyer)

A VOICE (sounding above the thunder): God is Love. (Kirkup and Fry)

No issue here with any of the translations, but puzzlement nonetheless: does this mighty drama end with a piece of mere conventional piety, a trifling piece of sentimental platitude? How are we to take this line?

Of course, given that two people are being killed in an avalanche while this line is spoken, one could view this line as ironic. But if so, the irony is ham-fisted, and is as facile as the sentimentality of a more conventional reading.

But I think we need to look a bit deeper. First of all, although this last line is in response to a question asked directly of God, it is not God who answers. God, when he speaks to Job, or to Moses from the burning bush, refers to Himself directly and unambiguously in the first person (“I am who I am”). Here, the voice that sounds through the thunder speaks in the third person: God, throughout this play, remains silent. This voice could, of course, be an angelic voice, but it could equally well be a demonic one, beguiling mankind with false assurance. I personally think the voice is Brand’s. Just as the speeches of Gerd, his alter ego, or the gently loving but treacherous speeches of Agnes’ ghost, are really expressions of thoughts appearing in secret chambers of Brand’s own mind – thoughts Brand has to reject – so also this final line: this is what goes through Brand’s mind at the very moment of his death, in answer to his own tortured questioning. But if this is so, it provides no resolution. For Brand’s concept of love was harsh, much like that of the God he had created for himself:

My God is the great God of storm,
absolute arbiter of doom,
imperious in His love!

Is this still what Brand understands as “love”? It could be, of course, that at the end, Brand’s vision had softened, but there really is no indication of this in the rest of the text. No – if I read correctly this disturbing last line, then, in answer to Brand’s question, there is no salvation for the Will of Man, for the Will of a silent God, Brand’s God, imperious in His love, may crush it at will. Far from being sentimental, the ending brings no comfort at all: Brand’s death is as cold and as inhuman as his life had been.

If one knows the later plays of Ibsen, it is impossible to read Brand without seeing in it foreshadowings of what was later to come. That is not, of course, to say that Brand cannot stand on its own as a great work of art:  it clearly can, and does. But while Ibsen, in his later plays, descended from the mountain-tops to report in plain, everyday prose on domestic middle-class households, the themes broached in his two vast verse dramas, Brand and Peer Gynt, seem to me to echo through them. The man who brooks no compromise, who demands the Truth and the Absolute Truth only, even from his fellow men who are not strong enough to bear the burden on the Absolute, is a recurring theme: we see this in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck. The Truth, the Absolute, are fine things, but they can destroy us. And soon, Ibsen was questioning the nature of Truth itself, of how we perceive it.

Then there is the question of sacrifice for one’s aims. Brand sacrifices his child and his wife, and, finally, himself, in search of his Ideal; later, in The Master Builder, Solness too sacrifices his own children (for that is what it amounts too), and makes of his wife effectively a living corpse, in pursuit of his worldly ambition; and, just as Brand demands answers from a God who remains silent, so too, Solness, at the top of the church  tower he had himself built, challenges an equally silent God, telling him that no more would he build churches in His name.

We find the motif of destroying others in pursuit of one’s own fulfilment also in Ibsen’s last two plays, John  Gabriel Borkman, and  When We Dead Awaken. The last of these also ends with the principal characters overwhelmed in an avalanche, but this time, these characters go to their deaths willingly: when we dead awaken, they realise, we shall discover that we have never lived. Written over thirty years after Brand, and having taken a most circuitous route, Ibsen, at the very end, seems to return to where he had left it; but the onus is not now on God now to answer any questions.

Which is just as well, perhaps, given His maddening eternal silence.

***

A note on the translation:

In some ways, Geoffrey Hill was an ideal man to translate Brand and Peer Gynt, since, it may well be argued, it takes a poet to translate poetry, and, possibly, a great poet to translate great poetry. But in other ways, he wasn’t so appropriate: he knew no Norwegian. Brand he had translated for a National Theatre production directed by Sir Peter Hall, and had worked on a heavily annotated literal translation by Inga-Stina Ewbank; and, shortly before he died in 2016, he had returned to revise it, and also to work on Peer Gynt, this time working on an annotated literal translation by Janet Garton. I must confess that this does not seem to me the ideal way to translate anything, but it seems to have borne results: as is perhaps only to be  expected from a poet as accomplished as Geoffrey Hill, the dramatic verse throughout is often of quite exceptional quality.

On reading Hill’s translations (both of Brand and of Peer Gynt), I found myself comparing with the more literal translations I had read before – by James Kirkup and Christopher Fry, and by Michael Meyer (and, in the case of Peer Gynt, also the older Penguin  Classics translation by Peter Wattis). And, certainly in  the passages I compared, I cannot say I spotted any great divergence in meaning. (The exceptions to this are the handful of passages where Hill himself admitted to diverging from the original.) I’d guess that with the publication of Hill’s translations, Wattis’ translation will now be withdrawn, but it doesn’t deserve to be: it may not perhaps reach the poetic heights of Hill’s version at its best, but it is nonetheless a remarkable piece of dramatic verse in its own right, and, I’d guess, more literally faithful to Ibsen’s original text.

As for the Oxford Ibsen, the whole set has long been out of print, with only some of the translations appearing as Oxford World Classics paperbacks. I found a volume of Kirkup and Fry’s translations of Brand and of Peer Gynt in a second hand shop, and snapped it up immediately: I would certainly advise anyone else who finds this volume similarly to snap it up, as the translations are magnificent.

Michael Meyer’s translations for Methuen are equally recommendable. (It was through Meyer’s versions that I first got to know Ibsen, and confess to having a sentimental attachment to them.) However, his Brand is a version intended specifically for performance, and, hence, is judiciously trimmed.

But Hill’s version, however it was arrived at, and however he diverges from Ibsen’s original in a small handful of passages, remains a very fine work in its own right. I suppose it is almost de rigeur to go for the Shakespearean iambic pentameter when translating dramatic verse into English, but Hill resists that temptation, preferring shorter lines, and often writing in trimeters. He also rhymes lightly, occasionally using full rhymes, but, more frequently, half rhymes, or words that no more than vaguely echo each other. End-stopped lines are only occasionally used, so the verse has a fine flowing line. The result is verse that is supple, and which moves quickly, and which is sonorous, and also of tremendous dramatic power. As, indeed, any successful translation of Brand should be.