Some further thoughts on “The Wild Duck”

It is no original or startling revelation that Brand, Dr Stockmann (An Enemy of the People), and Gregers Werle (The Wild Duck) are cut, as it were, from the same cloth: all three insist that their fellow humans accept the Truth; all three make moral demands that humans aren’t, on the whole, capable of living up to. However, the family resemblance between the three should not be pushed too far, as there are salient differences between them also; and exploring these differences gives, perhaps, some insight into the way Ibsen’s thought was developing.

Of the three, Brand is the only one who is explicitly religious. He demands that humans accept the truth because God wills it so, and because God’s will is paramount. The question of human happiness barely enters into it. The God that Brand envisages loves Man, but he is, in Geoffrey Hill’s translation, “imperious in his love”.

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…

To follow Brand’s God is to forswear earthly comfort; it is also perhaps to forswear happiness, joy. It is to engage in endless struggle. For Brand’s view of the world is God-centred rather than Man-centred: human contentment, human comfort, human joy, all mean nothing when placed next to God’s will, and if carrying out God’s will is to forfeit happiness and comfort, so be it. In this, though in little else, Brand’s vision corresponds with the views of Pastor Manders in Ghosts:

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

Pastor Manders is very unlike Brand because he has neither the strength of character nor the unflinching and uncompromising intelligence to follow through his premise to its rightful conclusions; but their starting points are perhaps not too different.

Stockmann and Gregers Werle are different. Dr Stockmann is, specifically, a man of science: for him, the Truth is not something that is divinely revealed, but rather, something that Man arrives at by exercising his own intellect. And Gregers Werle never mentions God: he never even refers to him indirectly.

But Gregers’ moral code is very Christian: he places great emphasis upon sacrifice, and upon forgiveness. (It may be argued indeed that in his emphasis on forgiveness, he is more Christian than Brand: Brand’s God is “imperious in his love”, and unforgiving.) But Gregers’ reason for making such moral demands of his fellow humans is not to carry out the will of God: rather, it is to make men happy. For once man discovers his innate nobility and learns to sacrifice and to forgive, then the whole of mankind can, he believes, live together in harmony and happiness and joy. This is a consideration that is as alien to Brand as it is to Pastor Manders: “What right do we mortals have to happiness?”

It is Dr Stockmann’s insistence on Truth that is perhaps the most puzzling. He certainly makes no mention of God, but neither does he seem an idealist concerned with human happiness. In purely scientific terms, yes, the water in the spa is indeed polluted, and, unless the fault is corrected, people will suffer. But is his motivation ultimately to prevent human suffering? It hardly seems so:

It’s of no consequence if a lie-ridden community is destroyed. It should be razed to the ground, I say! All those who live a lie should be eradicated like vermin! You’ll bring a plague upon the entire country in the end; you’ll make it so the entire country deserves to be laid to waste.  And if it comes to that, then I say from the depths of my heart: let the entire country be laid to waste, let the entire people be eradicated!

So what does motivate Dr Stockmann? Truth for its own sake, yes: but why? Why should a man who, speaking from the depths of his heart, is happy to see the “entire people eradicated”, care whether or not these people grasp the Truth?

And for that matter, why should Brand be so tortured by the end? Yes, he is rejected and reviled; yes, he has lost everything that he has loved – his wife, his child. But had he not rejected the concept of earthly human happiness in the first place? Had he not told himself that carrying out the will of God is a hard task, and that those who set out to carry out the task must have no expectations of earthly comfort?

These are not easy questions, and these inconsistencies perhaps indicate no more than that we, as humans, are complex, and not perfectly rational creatures. But the most intriguing of the three, perhaps, is Gregers Werle, who, though clearly mad, seems to me particularly interesting. He does not mention God or religion, but his moral code is nevertheless Christian, and he acts by it because he genuinely believes that this will bring about human happiness. And even after his convictions bring about tragedy, he refuses to let go of them. At the start of the play, there had been thirteen at dinner, and, at the very end of the play, Gregers declares his destiny: to be thirteenth at table – that is, to be the odd one out, the one who refuses to abide by what the rest of the world thinks. For he cannot let go of his convictions, regardless of what people think, regardless even of what happens: for to give up his convictions is to accept Dr Relling’s formulation that humans need to live with lies and illusions, simply to make life bearable. But to Gregers, such a life is not a life worth living. This is why he has to adhere to his principles, no matter what: life cannot be worth living without them – there can be no reason to exist.

Ibsen was writing in the post-Enlightenment era: belief in God was still possible, but was by no means a default position, dictated by reason. And the question of how can justify life once we no longer take as given (as Brand had done) a divine overriding purpose is not an easy question. Without belief in an overriding divine purpose, the focus falls on what makes us humans happy.  And the realisation that the Truth does not necessarily make us happy is a terrible realisation: how can we live with that? And it’s not even that there exists a middle ground between Gregers and Dr Relling: either humans are noble beings capable of accepting truth, or they are not. And if we are to reject Gregers’ idealism, what option do we have but to accept Dr Relling’s cynicism, and the contempt for humanity that goes with it?

There still seems to be an image of Ibsen as a purveyor of bourgeois drama – reassuring, comfortable, and perhaps a bit stodgy. All I can say is that this is far from how I see them.

 

 

[The passages from Brand quoted above are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill. The passages from the other plays are from the translations by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. All translations are published by Penguin Classics.]

27 responses to this post.

  1. ‘Of the three, Brand is the only one who is explicitly religious. He demands that humans accept the truth because God wills it so, and because God’s will is paramount. The question of human happiness barely enters into it. The God that Brand envisages loves Man, but he is, in Geoffrey Hill’s translation, “imperious in his love”.’

    The latter-day Einar and the Dean are explicitly religious but seems Brand beyond religion. “Love” is his god, a love that is absolute, unconditional, unflinching and wholly selfless. We, today, might call it “tough love”. Should we say, “He loves too much?” Ibsen’s sides with the angelic Agnes (agnes dei), who finds no fault in Brand: “nothing but kindness”. Brand challenges the timid mediocrity in each of us.

    For all their faults, Nora (A Doll’s House), Gregor and Dr Stockman cling to truth. Lesser mortals wallow in falsehoods.

    Reply

    • Agreed, Brand’s religion is certainly very different from that of Einar’s, or of the Dean’s, but at no point does Brand reject God; indeed, he explicitly addresses God right till the very end. It is hard to see in what way this could be “beyond religion”.

      If, as you say, Love is his God, then the sort of Love he envisages (“tough love”) does not have earthly human happiness as its aim. It then becomes reasonable to question exactly what this love is aimed at. Truth, perhaps – at least, Brand’s own understanding of what “Truth” is – but if Truth does not necessarily bring about human happiness, then I’d question its value.

      In drama, there is no authorial voice. So, unless a character is obviously satirised or caricatured; or unless a character’s actions is explicitly shown to cause harm; it is not possible for a dramatist to “take sides”. Furthermore, “taking sides” when there are important moral issues at stake is to simplify the drama.

      Reply

      • ‘If, as you say, Love is his God, then the sort of Love he envisages (“tough love”) does not have earthly human happiness as its aim.’

        You would blithely dismiss angelic Agnes’s unqualified testimony to the contrary? If Ibsen lacked sympathy for Brand, it is passing strange that he would create this angel as an unblemished witness to truth and love.

        Can you find fault with the angel, who abandons the poet Einar for Brand, the disciple of love?

      • I don’t think I am dismissing Agnes’ testimony. But the happiness Agnes speaks of is not an earthly happiness – i.e. it does not lead to a life of earthly contentment, where she can see her beloved child growing up. Agnes accepts such a fate, but at the same time, she must depart from this life. The happiness she speaks of is not an earthly happiness.

        And that’s the point. Even if we were to accept Brand’s teachings (and we are perfectly entitled not to), the vast majority of humans are simply not prepared to make such sacrifices. And so, we are perfectly entitled to ask what value Brand’s teachings can have.

        We could, of course, say that most humans are merely mediocre. We could, as Dr Stockmann does, rail against humanity for being so mediocre. Fine. But we humans are what we are, and, even if we were to strive to be better, the sort of heroic sacrifice we see in Agnes and in Brand will still be beyond the vast majority of us. What value is there, then in these teachings?

        I think another theme enters the frame here. If doing what is morally right (as Brand sees it, at any rate) brings us earthly unhappiness, then why should we accept Brand’s vision? Agnes accepts it, but she has to forgo earthly contentment. Brand himself does in mental and spiritual agony. So why should we follow the path Brand enjoins us to follow? Brand may answer that it is because of divine will – following the hard and stony path is what God demands of us. But if we do not accept God (Gregers, for instance, makes no mention of God), then what possible reason could there be to follow a path that brings us earthly unhappiness? Gregers thinks that following the path of Truth will bring us earthly happiness: he is much mistaken. Hedwig ends up dead, and Hjalmar and Gina end up desperately unhappy. With the noblest of motives, Gregers destroys their earthly contentment, and he does not even have the promise of a greater happiness to put in its place.

        Agnes accepts earthly unhappiness for the sake of a greater happiness. Fine, that’s her choice. But it isn’t mine. Especially as I have no assurance that the sort of sacrifice Agnes makes will indeed lead to some “greater happiness”. “Earthly happiness” is the only happiness I am aware of, and if that happiness is not the point, then what is?

      • “I don’t think I am dismissing Agnes’ testimony. But the happiness Agnes speaks of is not an earthly happiness – i.e. it does not lead to a life of earthly contentment, where she can see her beloved child growing up. Agnes accepts such a fate, but at the same time, she must depart from this life.”

        Agnes accepts such a fate? Not so. What follows her, “Now you stand at the parting of the ways,” is a declaration of unalloyed bliss, if ever there was one. And Brand nobly refrains from tarnishing her bliss.

        I don’t see “Brand” as a proselytizing religious play, but rather a call for intrinsic virtue – a call common to all his plays.

      • I do not have the text with me right now, but Agnes’ “declaration of unalloyed bliss”, as I remember it, occurs well before Act IV. In Act IV, she is living with the loss of her child, and Brand forbids her to mourn in the way she wants to, insisting (among other things) that she give away her dead child’s clothes to penniless beggars. She accepts Brand’s injunctions, but realises that she cannot go on living. Those who have looked on the face of God, she says, cannot live. Maybe Agnes is rewarded for this later, in some other world: I cannot comment on that. But what I do know is that what we see of Agnes’ earthly life in Act IV is very far from a picture of “unalloyed bliss”.

        To “proselyte” means to convert, or to attempt to convert. So, if Brand is, as you say, a “call for intrinsic virtue”, then it is an attempt to convert its reader to “intrinsic virtue”. Then by definition, it would be a “proselytizing play”. One could, I suppose, see it as such, but diminishes the complexity of the work. While virtue is honoured (even Brand’s conception of virtue, which we need not share), Ibsen considers also the earthly unhappiness it brings, and the human incapacity to follow the hard paths of virtue to its logical end.

      • From BRAND, Act 4, we see Agnes finally giving up her dead son’s christening gown. There follows, in her, a fulfillment of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” Hence her glowing declaration of unalloyed bliss and her, “Choose; you’re at the road’s division!”

        The terrible choice now is Brand’s. As Agnes says, “clip my wings, repress soul’s zeal,
        clog with leaden weight my heel, bind me, thrust me down once more in the depths whence I was saved, — let me live the life once craved, in the murk where once I squirmed!

        In Act 2, you may recall Brand’s demand that Agnes choose.

        ——

        ***Brand: (approaches and asks, without taking it)
        Freely?

        ***Agnes: Freely!

        ***Brand: Give it me.
        She’s still on the steps I see. (goes out)

        ***Agnes: Stripped, stripped bare, — and by that token
        my last bond with dust is broken!
        (stands motionless for a moment; gradually the expression on her face
        changes to strong, radiant joy. BRAND comes back; she rushes joyfully to
        meet him, throws her arms round his neck and cries)
        I am free! Brand, I am free!

        ***Brand: Agnes!

        ***Agnes: Now the shadows flee!
        All the terrors that have battered
        at my heart, foul dreams of night,
        lie in the abyss now, scattered!
        Will has triumphed in the fight! All the mist has blown away,
        clouds swept off in disarray;
        through the night, beyond death’s looming
        I can glimpse dawn’s rosy blooming.
        Churchyard! Churchyard! Never more
        can the word set me to weeping.
        Naming it will prove no sore; —
        now the child’s in heaven’s keeping!

        ***Brand: Agnes! Yes! You’ve triumphed now!

        ***Agnes: Triumphed now, — yes, that is so,
        triumphed o’er the grave and woe!
        O, look up to heaven — see how
        Alf stands by the throne, so near,
        radiant as he was before,
        reaching out towards us here?
        If I had a thousand tongues,
        had the courage, strength and lungs,
        there’s not one I’d volunteer
        to demand him back once more.
        O, how rich God is and wise
        in the means He can devise!
        The child’s sacrifice, that crime,
        saved my sinful soul in time;
        he was born but to be lost;
        I, to bear what victory cost! —
        Thank you for the guidance given;
        for my sake you’ve staunchly striven;
        O, I’ve sensed your heart bewail.
        Now you stand in choice’s vale;
        on you now the load must fall
        of its All or Nothing call!

        ***Brand: Riddles, of your own contriving; —
        they’ve all passed, the pangs of striving!

        ***Agnes: Do you fail to recognise:
        “He who sees Jehovah dies”?.

        ***Brand: (recoils) Woe is me, what light you’re lighting! —
        No! a thousand times, not true!
        Mine are strong hands, made for fighting;
        leave me? That you’ll never do!
        All things here on earth may shatter;
        I can let my gains go scatter, —
        O, but never, never you!

        ***Agnes: Choose; you’re at the road’s division!
        Quench my bosom’s inner lighting,
        stem the welling Christmas vision; —
        give me back my idol’s vesture; —
        she’s still there, just make a gesture, —
        let me go, if I’m so minded,
        back to days quite heaven-blinded,
        thrust me back into the mire
        where till now my sins were dire —
        you are master; you are free;
        stronger, stronger far than me;
        clip my wings, repress soul’s zeal,
        clog with leaden weight my heel,
        bind me, thrust me down once more
        in the depths whence I was saved, —
        let me live the life once craved,
        in the murk where once I squirmed!
        If you will this, are confirmed,
        I’m your wife still, as before; —
        choose; you’re at the road’s division!

        ***Brand: Woe, were that indeed my mission!
        O, but distanced from it all,
        from all memories sorrow-blighted,
        life you’ll find, and light united!

        ***Agnes: Don’t forget it’s here you’re plighted
        by your sacrifice — and call!
        Nor the thousand souls your zeal
        has been called upon to heal,
        those the Lord God bade you lead
        home, to where salvation bides.
        Choose; you’re where the road divides!

        ***Brand: There’s no choice for me indeed.

        ***Agnes: (throws her arms around his neck)
        Thanks for that! — a choice inspired!
        You have staunchly led the tired!
        Heavy clouds hang overhead, —
        keep good watch beside my bed.

        ——
        ——

        In BRAND Act 2, we have also choice: Agnes’s choice:

        ——

        ***Agnes: Now the murk no longer frightens;
        through the cloud clear starlight brightens.

        ***Brand: I am hard, mark what I say!
        All or Nothing is my call; *
        should you by the road-side fall, *
        then your life’s been thrown away.
        No concessions to distress,
        no reprieve for trespasses;
        and should life not bear the strain,
        you must gladly die, no less!

        ***Einar: Stop this game, it’s wild and vain!
        Leave this grim, dogmatic man;
        live the life you know you can!
        Brand Choose; — the parting of the ways. (goes)

        ***Einar: Choose the storm or calmer days!
        Choose to stay or choose to fly
        choose between delight and sorrow,
        choose the night or sweet tomorrow,
        choose to live or choose to die!

        ***Agnes: (rises and says slowly)
        I descend into death’s night.—
        And beyond the dawn gleams bright.
        (she follows Brand. Einar stares after her a while as though dazed, bows his head and
        descends in the direction of the fjord again).

      • Agnes finds “fulfilment of the Beatitude”, as you put it, though I am not at all sure what that means. But she had to forgo earthly happiness to find this, and this was deeply painful for her. Agnes may think this pain she suffers is justified by her eventual “fulfilment of the Beatitude”. Fine. That’s her choice. But it won’t be the choice of the vast majority of us. It certainly wouldn’t be my choice, especially as I really don’t know what “fulfilment of the Beatitude” actually means. Whatever it means, if it requires me to sacrifice earthly happiness, I want no part in it, and Brand’s moral injunctions therefore mean nothing to me.

        And this is my point. Brand makes moral demands of people who, like me, neither understand nor want “fulfilment of the Beatitude”. So what value do these moral teachings have?

        And if we can no longer even believe in a God, if we cannot believe in “fulfilment of the Beatitude”, then Brand’s moral injunctions become completely worthless. If our earthly happiness is all we have, then moral injunctions telling us to sacrifice that really are if questionable value.

      • Agnes does not find or seek fulfillment in the Beatitude. Rather, she inadvertently fulfills it. She becomes pure of heart through an extraordinary act of selfless love in giving up the christening gown!

      • However she fulfils it, and whatever it is, it is something the vast majority of us is incapable of achieving. And most of us (myself included) would not be prepared to sacrifice our earthly happiness for this. So I ask again: what are Brand’s moral injunctions worth if the vast majority of us cannot lives up to them?

        And a related question: if we no longer believe in divinity, and no longer believe in “fulfilment of the Beatitude”, then why should we be expected to forgo our earthly happiness, the only happiness we know, for the sake of something that may or may not be illusory?

      • Unquestionably, the ecstatic Agnes sees her earthly happiness much enhanced. Hence her immediate, “I am free! Brand, I am free!”

        Agnes and Brand set high moral standards and, like Ibsen, we should aspire to them.
        If we no longer believe in divinity, we can still revere the Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see LOVE.”

        Incidentally, there is reason to doubt that Ibsen, himself, was either Christian or religious. The early play “The Vikings at Helgeland”—recounting the ingress of Christianity on northern Norway—bears this out.

        I am current reading his first play, “Catiline”.

      • “Blessed are the pure in heart…”
        But if there is no God, then blessed by whom? I really don’t see how we can cling on to such religious concepts as the Beatitudes if we reject the idea of divinity, the very basis for religion.

        I am not saying that Agnes’ ecstasy is illusory. But I am saying that if we reject God, we have no other option but to view it as such. But whatever it is, it is not of this world. Agnes, in the grips of her ecstasy, realised that she can no longer live. Her ecstasy does not belong to this world.

        But should we reject the concept of religion, this world is all we have. And if that is so, Brand’s teachings can have no value, for his moral demands do not bring this-worldly happiness. Brand himself dies in mental and physical anguish.

        With Gregers, there is no mention of God, or of any world other than this one. His moral injunctions, unlike Brand’s, are aimed at happiness in this world. And of course, he fails disastrously in this. But this leaves him, and us, with an intractable question. We recognise instinctively that Truth is Good, and something to be aimed at. But if this world is all we have, and if Truth brings us unhappiness in this world, then what is the value of Truth?

        Of course, an author as profound as Ibsen can be interpreted in different ways, but I see Ibsen as posing difficult questions and examining their ramifications rather than preaching moral lessons, and enjoining us to become better.

  2. Thank you for these posts on Ibsen, they’ve been entertaining and enlightening.

    The young Nietzsche on a letter to his sister from 1865 (the year Ibsen began writing Brand):

    “Is it more difficult to strike new paths then, fighting the habitual, experiencing the insecurity of independence and the frequent wavering of one’s feelings and even one’s conscience, proceeding often without any consolation, but ever with the eternal goal of the true, the beautiful, and the good? Is it decisive after all that we arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable? Rather, is not the result of their inquiries something wholly indifferent to the true inquirers? Do we after all seek rest, peace and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth–even if it be the most abhorrent and ugly. Still one last question: if we had believed from childhood that all salvation issued from someone other than Jesus-say, from Mohammed-is it not certain that we should have experienced the same feelings of blessedness?. . . Faith does not offer the least support for a proof of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.”

    Reply

    • Thank you for this.

      I am actually planning to get to know a bit of Nietzsche, simply because he was so important and so influential a thinker. I am not sure it is possible to understand those times without knowing his thought. But I gather he is very easily misinterpreted, so I have to be careful.

      The mid- to late- 19th century I find particularly fascinating. The ideas generated by the Enlightenment had sunk in, and possibly for the first time, writers and thinkers of various kinds found that belief in God was not a given. I don’t mean that belief was not possible, but that it could not be taken for granted, it was no longer a default position. It seems to me that a great many writers and thinkers of that era that I am acquainted with (including Ibsen) were asking themselves how life may be justified without reference to a divinity, or to an overriding divine will.

      But it’s very difficult writing about these matters without appearing pretentious, or without giving the impression that i am dealing only superficially with themes that are far deeper than I have the ability to imagine. Well – I can only try my best! I am now approaching some of Ibsen’s most difficult and obscure works, and I am frankly very apprehensive about trying to write something about them that will make sense!

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Ibsen 1865: “Is it more difficult to strike new paths then, fighting the habitual, experiencing the insecurity of independence and the frequent wavering of one’s feelings and even one’s conscience, proceeding often without any consolation, but ever with the eternal goal of the true, the beautiful, and the good?”

    You wrote: “I am not saying that Agnes’ ecstasy is illusory. But I am saying that if we reject God, we have no other option but to view it as such. But whatever it is, it is not of this world. Agnes, in the grips of her ecstasy, realised that she can no longer live. Her ecstasy does not belong to this world.”

    Agnes ecstacy is the ultimate one can experience in this world: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see love.” Her experience is shared by Enoch in the astonishing Genesis 5: 24 “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” For Enoch read Agnes, as would be obvious to Ibsen’s Biblically literate contemporaries.

    If you do choose to “reject the concept of religion”, would you also reject the love—the purity of heart—that ecstatic Agnes freely chooses? Ibsen stands with Agnes.

    You wrote: “…[Brand’s] moral demands do not bring this-worldly happiness. Brand himself dies in mental and physical anguish.”

    Not so. Brand chooses “the eternal goal of the true, the beautiful, and the good”. He dies in quest of these, a much better death than most of us. His final question to God (to love) is answered definitively: love alone brings salvation. With Ibsen, may well say of Brand: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”. A servant to selfless love, not to Einar’s dogmatic deity. Far from unhappy, Brand dies heroically wrestling with “the true, the beautiful, and the good”. Would that we might emulate him.

    BRAND

    (crouching before the descending avalanche, cries up).

    Answer me, O God above !
    In death’s jaws: Can human will,
    Summed, avail no fraction still
    Of salvation ?
    [The avalanche buries him. The whole valley is filled.

    A VOICE (crying through the thunder -roar}.
    God is Love !

    Reply

    • Agnes, at the end, is ecstatic, but at the very moment of ecstasy, she realises that she cannot continue to live. So no, her happiness at the end is not of this world: as she realises, she cannot continue to live in this world now that she knows this ecstasy. And if – I emphasise, if – one were to reject religion; if one were to reject anything that is not of this world; then such happiness can only be seen as illusory.

      (I am not saying this is my own interpretation. But if – and I can’t emphasise that “if” enough – one were to reject the concept of any world other than this one, no other interpretation seems to me possible.)

      Brand’s long monologues in the last act, right up to the final one, are anguished. Brand may have chosen “the eternal goal of the true, the beautiful, and the good”, and his quest for these things is undoubtedly heroic. But they clearly do not bring him earthly happiness. At no point in any of his monologues in the final act does Brand express happiness, or joy, or contentment. Not once. Throughout, he expresses the complete opposite.

      The voice at the end says “God is Love”, but, unless God is referring to himself in the third person, this is not the voice of God. So whose voice is it? One possibility is that it is Brand’s own voice – his inner voice that speaks to him at the moment of death. It is not certain. But whatever voice it is, it does not solve the problem. Brand follows the path he believes to be right, but it does not bring him earthly happiness.

      Reply

      • I would dispute that Brand’s concept of love is the only possible kind of love.

      • Let me expand a bit. This is Brand’s concept of love:

        – It is hard
        – It makes great demands
        – It will bring great mental anguish, and turmoil
        – It may not bring earthly happiness
        – If it does bring happiness, it is of a kind that is not of this world. And as soon as one experiences it, one has to die.

        To follow the path demanded by such love is not something that can be demanded of the vast majority of humans, since the vast majority of humans would be incapable of following it.

        And if the only world one can believe in is this world, then it makes no sense even trying to follow such a path.

        And if this indeed is the only kind of love possible, then we’re doomed.

        It is simply not reasonable to make demands of humanity that the vast majority of us simply aren’t capable of rising to. One may rage about that (Stockmann). Or one may delude oneself that humanity is indeed capable of following such a path (Gregers Werle, John Rosmer). But if it is not possible to find for ourselves another kind of love that we can live by, we really are doomed.

      • You write: “Agnes, at the end, is ecstatic, but at the very moment of ecstasy, she realises that she cannot continue to live.”

        I was brought up Lutheran, as was Ibsen. Moreover Norway had, and still has, a State Church. The play “Brand” has dozens of clever Biblical allusions, which Ibsen employs to communicate the drama to his Lutheran contemporaries. I feel you take these Biblical allusions rather too far. The fate of both Agnes and Brand is the glorious climax of lives well-lived rather than a crushing indictment of a vale of tears. We all must die but few die as well as Agnes and Brand. Lutherans would see it so.

        We should interpret the play in the spirit that Ibsen intended rather than imposing inappropriate, modern sensibilities. Around 1855, Soren Kierkegaard—who Ibsen read—wrote:

        “In the New Testament the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, represents the situation thus: The way that leads to life is straight, the gate narrow–few be they who find it!–…now, on the contrary, to speak only of Denmark, we are all Christians, the way is as broad as it possibly can be, the broadest in Denmark, since it is the way in which we all are walking, besides being in all respects as convenient, as comfortable, as possible; and the gate is as wide as it possibly can be, wider surely a gate cannot be than that through which we all are going en masse… Ergo the New Testament is no longer truth.”

        You write: “… they clearly do not bring [Brand] earthly happiness. At no point in any of his monologues in the final act does Brand express happiness, or joy, or contentment. Not once. Throughout, he expresses the complete opposite.”

        Not so. Just before the avalanche annihilates Brand and Gerd, we read in two translations:

        BRAND (serene, radiant, as if grown young again).
        Frost endures throughout the Law ;
        Then the sunlight, then the thaw!
        Till to-day, to be a white
        Tablet where God’s hand could write
        Was the only aim I saw ;
        From to-day, my life shall change,
        Warmth and richness in its range;
        Breaks the stubborn crust : to-day
        I can weep, and kneel, and pray !

        And also:

        BRAND (his face bright, radiant as though rejuvenated)
        Ice-bound was the path through law, —
        then there came the summer thaw!
        I once sought to be a writing –
        tablet fit for God’s inditing; —
        from to-day, my life shall be
        one rich, pliant poesy.
        The crust breaks. I can weep today,
        I can kneel now, — I can pray! (sinks to his knees)

        The voice at the end of the play is likely an archangel’s testimony.

        Brand’s love—perfect, absolute, unconditional, unflinching and wholly selfless—is not the only love possible. There are countless lesser varieties as my quotation from Kierkegaard expresses so tersely.

        You write, “It is simply not reasonable to make demands of humanity that the vast majority of us simply aren’t capable of rising to.” The overwhelming majority of characters in Ibsen plays would agree with your sentiments. In Brand, for instance: his Mother, Einar, the Mayor, the Doctor, the Dean, the Sexton, the Clerk, the Schoolmaster, the Peasant and the villagers. Would Ibsen agree?

        We can but aspire.

      • First of all, a retraction and an apology from me. I was clearly wrong to have said that Brand never experiences joy. As you point out, at one particular moment, he does. But this is only one moment, amidst a veritable torrent of anguish. This, shortly before his death, is typical:

        Oh, how I long, oh, how I yearn
        For light and sun and gentleness,
        For a tender and serene cathedral calm,
        For the summer kingdoms of light [bursts into tears]
        Oh Jesus, I did call upon Thy name,
        But Thou never took me to Thy bosom.

        (From the translation by James Kirkup & Christopher Fry)

        Even after that single moment of ecstasy your refer to, he dies with an anguished question to God, who remains silent. (Ibsen does not specify whose voice it is we hear at the end, but since it refers to God in the third person, we may reasonably assume it’s not God’s. It may well be an archangel’s, as you think; but it needn’t be. Works of art at this level do not offer easy solutions.)

        I appreciate that Ibsen was raised a Lutheran: but it doesn’t follow that this play merely preaches Lutheran values. Ibsen did read Kierkegaard: but it doesn’t follow he was merely expounding Kierkgaard’s ideas. I appreciate that this play is packed with Biblical references: it doesn’t follow that Ibsen is endorsing Biblical teachings. You say:

        “We should interpret the play in the spirit that Ibsen intended rather than imposing inappropriate, modern sensibilities.”

        I find this immensely problematic. To assume we know beforehand what the author’s intentions are, and to view the work in the light of this assumption, is not, I think, the right way to approach a work of art. We must try to infer the author’s intention from the text itself. And, in a work of art of any stature at all, we are not restricted to a single level of meaning. A work as complex as this works simultaneously on many levels.

        Your interpretation, quite clearly, is that Brand’s vision of love is unambiguously right; that, through Brand, Ibsen preaches that we aspire to this love; and that both Brand and Agnes die happy because they aspired towards and found this love. This is certainly a coherent way of looking at it, but, as I’m sure I’ve said before, if this is the only way we look at it, we are ironing out the complexities of the work.

        Brand’s vision, Brand’s preachings, only make sense if we believe in a God, in some form of divinity. For if we don’t, what exactly are we aspiring to? This was very much a question of Ibsen’s time, and indeed, of our time too. The later half of the 19th century was the era when Nietzsche famously declared “God is dead”; when even as devoutly religious a writer as Dostoyevsky was exploring in his writings the most profound states of doubt and of non-belief. To see such themes in Ibsen’s works is by no means anachronistic. Do Brand’s moral injunctions make sense in a secular world?

        In this series of posts on Ibsen’s plays, I’ve been trying to trace continuities in Ibsen’s thought. Dr Stockmann, Gregers Werle, John Rosmer, all have elements of Brand in them, in that they all aspire towards the ideal. But their world is secular. Stockmann is certainly in the right (the water is polluted) , and yet many of the things he says are deeply shocking and inhuman. Gregers Werle brings unmitigated disaster in his wake. Rosmer has quite explicitly lost his faith, and his vision of making mankind noble seems very remote, and unrealistic (I’ll be writing on Rosmersholm shortly). Brand obviously is driven by his religious belief, but, whatever Ibsen’s own background may be, it seems pertinent to question what value his preachings can have if there really is no God.(And even if we were to believe in God, the validity of Brand’s preachings may be open to debate.)

        Reading the text itself, I do not doubt that Brand is noble and heroic. But neither do I doubt that what he preaches is unattainable for the vast majority of humans, and that they bring immense misery to both Brand and to Agnes. It is true that Agnes is ecstatic at the end, but once she knows this ecstasy, she cannot go on living: her ecstasy is not of this world. And, as you rightly say, Brand too experiences a moment of ecstasy towards the end; but immediately afterwards, he dies in agonised questioning. (And it is certainly possible that these states of ecstasy, experienced as they are in extreme emotional states, are delusions.) None of this necessarily means Brand was wrong. But it doesn’t mean Brand was right either.

        As for what Ibsen intended, it’s best to derive that from the text itself. And the text of Brand should not, I think, be reduced to a single message. Speaking strictly for myself, Brand, for all his heroism and nobility, seems to me a dangerous fanatic, and the twentieth century contains far too many lessons on where fanaticism leads us. To follow the demands of an ideal without taking into account the concept of earthly human happiness (or imagining, as Gregers Werle and John Rosmer do, that these ideals will lead to earthly human happiness) seems to me very dangerous indeed.

        Brand’s way is not mine, though what my way is I admit I do not know. But Ibsen, I think, explored these themes: he did not write plays to impart unambiguous moral messages. Unless one is writing simple fables, unambiguous moral messages do not address the immense complexity that is life.

      • Of course I agree that “we must try to infer the author’s intention from the text itself.” My point is that the play is saturated with Lutheran and Biblical values, not that “the play (merely) preaches Lutheran values”. Ibsen preaches nothing but uses Lutheran values as a ready-made vehicle for his own ideas, as he does in “Ghosts”.

        You write, “Brand’s vision, Brand’s preachings, only make sense if we believe in a God, in some form of divinity. For if we don’t, what exactly are we aspiring to? … Do Brand’s moral injunctions make sense in a secular world?”

        They do make sense. The play—written for those with religious sensibilities—is an religious allegory, not a sermon. Ibsen reveres Brand and Agnes because they unfailingly act from a pure of heart. In the words of Kierkegaard, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” “Brand” could well be the work of an out-and-out atheist,

        You write, “It is true that Agnes is ecstatic at the end, but once she knows this ecstasy, she cannot go on living: her ecstasy is not of this world. And, as you rightly say, Brand too experiences a moment of ecstasy towards the end; but immediately afterwards, he dies in agonised questioning.”

        *** Excellent news! Today, as a direct result of our discussions, I had a moment of wonderful insight about the ending of “Brand”, a decade after reading it. The same thing happened, years after reading “Ghosts” and “Hedda Gabler”.

        The play “Brand” has an unambiguously happy ending, which only now I see. A marvelous parallel between Brand and Agnes has just dawned on me.

        Agnes freely gives up her son’s Christening gown, her last token of motherhood. Brand too gives up or loses everything: mother, son, wife, home, cathedral, vocation, and parishioners. Indeed, his parishioners try to stone him. On the mountain with Gerd, having given up everything, an exuberant Brand has—like Agnes—become “pure of heart”, and so suffers Agnes’s fate: experiences her blessed and eternal reward. Love and truth are thoroughly vindicated.

        The play’s ending, once again, echoes Genesis 5: 24 – Brand walked with God: and he was not; for God took him. The archangel’s “God is love,” is an expression of unmitigated triumph. Wow, what an ending!

      • The play is saturated with Biblical references, yes, and Ibsen uses these to communicate his own ideas. Agreed. We differ, I think, on what those ideas are.

        I am not denying the validity of your interpretation: it is certainly possible to see the play in that way. I am saying that if we see no other way of interpreting the play, we fail to acknowledge the complexity of the work.

        You have given your perspective of the play, and it is very, very different from mine. Once again, I am not insisting that my own perspective is the only perspective possible – there is no single way of viewing this play – but I think it is coherent, and valid.

        Brand, for all his heroism, is, for me, a dangerous fanatic, and possibly a lunatic. The villagers were right in driving him away. I can see that these villagers are small-minded, but I would nonetheless be on their side. Brand’s refusal to consider earthly human happiness in his striving for ideals is inhuman. He may choose such a life for himself, if he wants, but he has no right to impose it on others. He may accept suffering for himself, and so may Agnes, but they have no right to sacrifice their own child in the process. Their child’s life is not theirs to sacrifice. Recent history gives us far too many examples of human lives sacrificed in search of ideals, and I want no part in it.

        You speak of purity of heart. I have no idea what that means in a context where we do not accept God. (And even if we do accept God, it is, at the very least, questionable whether God demands of us that we sacrifice the life of an innocent child. And whether making that sacrifice makes our hearts “pure”.)

        In short, whether we accept God or not, I do not care for “purity of heart” if that means sacrificing a child’s life. If “purity of heart” is to “will one thing”, then I will that the child must not die.

        And what does Brand have to offer us for all our sacrifices? A moment of ecstasy (which may or may not be illusory) at the point of death ? I have no need for that.

        My question remains. If there is no God, what are we aspiring to? If this world is the only world we have, then we should be aspiring towards happiness in this world. For what else can there be to aspire towards? If earthly human happiness is not the point, then what is? If “purity of heart” brings about the death of a child, why should I want it?

        These are all unanswered questions in this play. The ending, far from being “unambiguously happy”, is one of agonised questioning. Brand’s last utterance is an agonised question, and the answer that comes, whoever it comes from (possibly from brand himself), does not resolve the questions.

  4. You write, “I am saying that if we see no other way of interpreting the play, we fail to acknowledge the complexity of the work.”

    Great literature is like a jigsaw. There are many interpretations, but some lack more pieces of the jigsaw—have more loose ends—than others. You take a disparaging view of Brand, himself, and interpret the play accordingly. I express no personal opinion but simply fit pieces to the jigsaw.

    You write, “Brand, for all his heroism, is, for me, a dangerous fanatic, and possibly a lunatic.”

    Thus we tend to see the few who cling unflinchingly to truth and love – and some we stone or crucify. As Ibsen makes clear in many a play.

    ***Mayor: No doubt of it!
    A lonely warrior, on the road!

    ***Dean: No, wait; there’s someone else just showed, —
    but far behind!

    ***Mayor : Gerd, one observes!
    Chap gets the following he deserves.

    ***Dean (jocularly): Well, when his sacrificing’s done,
    he’ll rate an epitaph, — here’s one:
    “Brand lies at rest; his conquest small;
    one soul — and she was mad — that’s all!”

    You write, “Brand’s refusal to consider earthly human happiness in his striving for ideals is inhuman.”

    And yet Brand alone in all Ibsen has a wholly happy marriage (Agnes: “nothing but kindness”). His son is unreservedly adored both by parents. He loves his mother to the extent of forgoing his entire inheritance. His parishioners are happy with his service in the remote village. Brand is devoted works of love, to love in action: he loves his neighbour as himself. He has no regrets and his life is wholly without reproach. This seems like “human happiness” to me! Nothing either Brand or Agnes ever say suggests earthly unhappiness, despite the chaos, trials and tribulations of human life..

    You write, “[Brand] may accept suffering for himself, and so may Agnes, but they have no right to sacrifice their own child in the process.”

    All the moral dilemmas Brand faces are extreme. I suppose a lesser pastor might break his solemn vow of service to the villagers, dreadfully isolated amid Norway’s remote glaciers. An easy vow to break considering his own manse, beneath an overhanging glacier, never sees sunlight.

    Kierkegaard’s “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” means an unyielding commitment to truth and love, which properly understood are one thing. This principle works with or without God or religion.

    You write, “The ending, far from being “unambiguously happy”, is one of agonised questioning.” Here it is:

    ***Brand (crouching before the descending avalanche, cries up):
    Answer me, O God above !
    In death’s jaws: Can human will,
    Summed, avail no fraction still
    Of salvation ?
    [The avalanche buries him. The whole valley is filled.

    Understanding Brand’s question to God does require a Lutheran or, at least, a Protestant sensibility. Lutheran theology is characterized by “sola gratia, sola fide”. “We can do nothing: He everything.” Since the Protestant reformation, this dogma has been common knowledge. (Don’t ask me to justify the dogma.) Brand’s question—an expression of abject humility—is fundamentally Lutheran, and he well knows the answer. The mode and intensity of divine response is, of course, unexpected.

    Here is my opinion. I suspect that, in the play “Brand”, Ibsen is provocatively presenting Soren Kierkegaard’s razor sharp thesis (of 1855), without necessarily subscribing to it:

    “In the New Testament the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, represents the situation thus: The way that leads to life is straight, the gate narrow – few be they who find it! –…now, on the contrary, to speak only of Denmark, we are all Christians, the way is as broad as it possibly can be, the broadest in Denmark, since it is the way in which we all are walking, besides being in all respects as convenient, as comfortable, as possible; and the gate is as wide as it possibly can be, wider surely a gate cannot be than that through which we all are going en masse… Ergo the New Testament is no longer truth.”

    Reply

    • In my last comment, I did make it clear, I hope, that I was presenting my own personal viewpoint.

      I think Ibsen’s play is complex enough to accommodate that viewpoint, although I do, of course, accept that the play can accommodate other viewpoints also.

      I agree that the play is saturated with Lutherism, but it does not follow that Ibsen necessarily endorses Lutherism.

      As for the rest, we’re possibly going round in circles. I can see the scope in the play for multiple and often contradictory interpretations, but on a purely personal level, while admiring Brand’s heroism, I would reject him, and what he stands for.

      Reply

      • In case I hadn’t made it clear, I do not think Ibsen’s play is an indictment of Brand’s values. But neither do I think it is an endorsement of them.

      • Agnes is portrayed as an angel (Agnes dei). If the play does not endorse the values of Brand, Agnes and perhaps Gerd, then whose? All other characters are portrayed in a less than sympathetic way.

        The play certainly seems to support the uncompromising values of Kierkegaard. As for the values of Ibsen himself, who knows? He certainly admires Brand’s purity of heart: his unbending resolve to will one thing. As for God, his divine rapture of Brand, Agnes and perhaps Gerd is incontrovertible endorsement of their values.

      • “If the play does not endorse the values of Brand, Agnes and perhaps Gerd, then whose?”

        No-one’s. The play depicts. The artists is under no obligation to take sides.

        It is up to us to decide which values we choose to endorse. Or, perhaps, we may see the ambivalence of it all, and refuse to commit ourselves. Or, maybe, we side towards one or the other, but with reservations. The play leaves all these options open.

        Brand and Agnes are depicted as heroic. Yet their ideology takes no account of earthly human happiness, and brings about the death of their child. And if Brand had aimed at the transformation of humanity, he is spectacularly unsuccessful. There is ambivalence here.

        The other characters are hypocritical or small-minded. Yet their pursuit of earthly happiness is one that the majority of us could subscribe to. Again, there is ambiguity here.

        My own perspective I have made clear, I think. However much I may admire the heroism of Brand and of Agnes, the pursuit of lofty ideals that takes no account of earthly human happiness; that, indeed, regards human life as dispensable in search of these ideals; is not something I could in all conscience side with.

        But that is my personal viewpoint. The situation is not clear-cut: there are ambiguities.

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