Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

“The Adolescent” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Rosmersholm” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

ROSMER: Infected – ?

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

ROSMER: Oh, if only I could believe that!

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

ROSMER: But – ? Well?

REBECCA: But it kills happiness, John.

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

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

( from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRENDEL: Faewell,  Johannes! Forward to victory!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, we two are one.

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

***

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

Digressing with Sterne

My intentions were good, that’s for sure. All those times I have bought books with impressive titles, impressive blurbs on the back covers, and, I am sure, even more impressive contents, I had every intention of reading them. And this despite already having scores of unread books on my shelves, and my normally slow reading rate having become even slower of late.

Right now, I should be reading Nietzsche. He is, after all, one of the most important and most influential thinkers of the era that, in literary terms, possibly interests me most – the latter half of the nineteenth century. How could I hope to get a handle on the intellectual currents of the time without knowing Nietzsche?

A great many writers and thinkers one could become acquainted with at second hand, through a process of osmosis, as it were. Of course, if you want to study these writers and thinkers properly, you will have to read their works: there is no royal path to understanding. But one can, nonetheless, get a very rough idea with secondary material. But with Nietzsche, it becomes very difficult: he has been interpreted in so many different ways, and with so many of these interpretations deemed dangerous misinterpretations, that one really has no option but to dive in and see for oneself. Which, given my lack of a background in philosophy, is not easy. So I bought myself the Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, and read the various excellent essays in there, as a way of easing myself in. What’s more, I think I even understood these essays. Well, some of them, at least. And I was just about to dive into Beyond Good and Evil – when I got distracted.

It was Laurence Sterne who distracted me. And that is curiously appropriate, as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (as well as his lesser known Sentimental Journey) are masterpieces of distraction. Here was a writer who, try as hard as he could, just could not keep to the subject at hand. Tristram Shandy is a sort of paean to the Art of Digression: the entire novel is but a series of digressions – though digression exactly from what is not very easy to figure out. But Sterne is so engaging a narrator, so genial, so personable, so delightfully dotty, and so scrupulously polite despite all the bawdiness that will insist on intruding, that it doesn’t seem to matter. And, one soon realises – the digressions are the point.

I won’t try to describe Tristram Shandy here. I’ll keep that for a later blog post – to be written once I’ve finished reading this. This is not my first reading: it is, if I remember correctly, my third. But it is strange how one’s receptivities alter over time. Not that I didn’t enjoy my earlier readings – I most certainly did – but I don’t think I enjoyed them to quite the same extent I am enjoying it this time round. I think, more than anything else, it is Sterne’s personality I am enjoying. In talking about books, we often undervalue the companionship afforded by the author: and what better company could anyone ask for on the commuter train?

It makes quite a change from the last book I read. (Apart from those essays on Nietzsche, that is.) I recently finished reading The Adolescent by Dostoyevsky, which I had started as I was a great admirer of that writer, and, given this novel’s reputation as one of his lesser works, had not read before. And I remain a great admirer still, despite my experience of having now read this novel. But either his remarkable powers deserted him when writing this, or he was working at some level beyond my comprehension. I do not know. I am currently debating with myself whether or not I should write a blog post on this novel: what’s the point, given that I couldn’t make any sense of it? Just a short post to register my incomprehension, perhaps. But be that as it may, whether the problem was with the book itself or with my shortcomings as a reader, it wasn’t a satisfying reading experience.

I have also been reading – and blogging on – the major plays of Ibsen. Now Ibsen, unlike Nietzsche, is a writer I have been acquainted with for a long time, and he is very close to my heart, for reasons I haven’t yet worked out. So I thought that reading those plays, and writing about them – not pronouncing upon them, as such, but, rather, recording my own thoughts and impressions, such as they are – would help me come to a closer understanding of what it is about these plays that affect me so. I have been reading these plays this time round in chronological order, and am now approaching his last plays; and, frankly, I feel intimidated. The next play I would like to write about is Rosmersholm, and that is so very difficult and complex that I really don’t think I am qualified even to try to untangle its psychological and moral depths. And, for this very reason, I have been delaying writing something on it: I am finding it difficult to grasp and to pin down something that I can sense is in there, and which is, I can tell, immense. I’m sure I’ll get down to it eventually. And, although it is unlikely that Ibsen ever read Nietzsche, the essays on Nietzsche I have recently been reading did seem to me to shed some light on these Ibsen plays. It is not, after all, any great surprise that major creative writers and thinkers, writing at the same time, should have similar concerns.

But, for the moment, let’s leave Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen aside for a while – all mere complexities. I’ll return to them later when I am so minded. Not that there aren’t complexities in Tristram Shandy also, but whatever complexities there are in it are so camouflaged with Sterne’s warmth and ludic dexterity that I find myself reading with a broad grin on my face rather than a with a furrowed brow. And that, for the moment at least, is how I like it.

Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen can all wait. I am now digressing with the greatest digresser of them all, and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

Bypassing thought

“I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other word, bypass thought, and still affect us.

In one way, I rather like this. After all, I’m damned if I can understand Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, or Eliot’s “Little Gidding” – at least, I’m damned if I understand these works well enough to account for the effect they have on me. And yet, they do have an effect on me: I can’t deny it.

But in another way, it bothers me. If one can respond, even respond powerfully, to something before one understands it; or even, perhaps, without ever understanding; can one then not respond to any old thing? What then of our powers of discrimination that we so pride ourselves with?

Of course, I tell myself, there is much one can love deeply without understanding. If, after all, one had to understand the principles of counterpoint to enjoy listening to a Bach fugue, poor old Johann Sebastian wouldn’t be left with too many admirers. And similarly with visual arts. Earlier this year, as I stood in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in those great oval rooms, surrounded on all sides by those vast water-lilies of Monet, by those dazzling, resplendent splashes of colours, I felt quite transported. But were I imprudent enough to try to write a blog post about them, I don’t know that I could say anything more interesting or more meaningful than “I like them, and think they are very good”.

Indeed, now I think about it, much of writing on arts, perhaps most, could be reduced to that. “I like it. I think it is very good.” Or maybe “It rocks”. Or, conversely, “It sucks”. For who needs articulacy when you don’t have much to say in the first place?

And this, I admit, bothers me, because, while I do accept the truth of Bresson’s dictum (and of Eliot’s), the logical end of their pronouncements seems to be the death of dialogue. If understanding is not the point, then why go beyond “It rocks” and “It sucks”?

I pose these questions rhetorically, of course, but if I cannot at least attempt an answer, much of what I write on this blog would be quite meaningless (if, indeed, it isn’t pretty meaningless as it is). And I think my answer may be along the following lines:

While gaining an understanding may not be essential to appreciation, it surely helps.

Recently, I watched Robert Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made when he was an old man in his 80s. It is a challenging film, as I think the expression is; which, in other words, means it’s hard to figure out what the hell it’s about. Bresson seems, towards the end both of his career and indeed of his life, to take his trademark austere style to its very extremes. The narrative line is elliptical, with the causes of the various effects we see never quite made clear; the actors have clearly been instructed merely to speak their lines clearly, without the slightest hint of expression; and it is left entirely to the viewer to figure out what these characters’ motivations are, or, indeed, what it all signifies. For, presumably, it all does signify something: it is clearly not a set of random events strung together arbitrarily. But how do I know this? I mean, how do I know that this is not merely a set of random events strung together arbitrarily, when, to tell the truth, I can’t make too much sense of it all? I’d answer that the film affected me. Rather strongly. But is this enough? Is a mere subjective response on my part, a response I cannot account for in any objective terms, a sufficient criterion of artistic merit?

Well, yes, it is, if one believes that the very concept of artistic merit is merely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And there’s my problem.

For whatever reason, I cannot leave it there. I cannot just say “I like it” (“It rocks”) and leave it at that.  I had to think about the film as best I can, allow it to enter into my consciousness. The plot is based on a late novella by Tolstoy, The Forged Coupon. In that story, the simple act of passing on a forged coupon has all sorts of unexpected knock-on effects, and Tolstoy shows us a small act of evil – so small, indeed, that “evil” may seem too strong a word for it – escalating into something enormous. And then, in the second part of the story, Tolstoy shows the opposite effect: a single small act of human kindness similarly escalates, and has knock-on effects, but in a different direction. Tolstoy’s work is, of course, a moral fable, and while some, I know, think of it as evidence of the decline of a once great artist, I personally think of this novella as amongst the world’s greatest literature. But be that as it may, Tolstoy’s purpose, unlike Bresson’s, could not be clearer.

Bresson takes this story, and shows us only the first part. Two boys pass a forged banknote, and the cumulative effect of this thoughtless action grows, until it seems to engulf humanity itself. But the counter-action – the spreading of Good – Bresson does not show. He takes the spread of evil to its end – omitting quite deliberately many of the links in the process – and then leaves us there. So yes, Bresson’s film, unlike Tolstoy’s story, is a deeply pessimistic work: it sees evil as triumphant, and humanity helpless. But if this were all, it would not have affected me so very powerfully. “Evil is all-powerful and we are helpless” seems too trite an observation to be the basis of a great work of art.

So what else is there to this film that affected me so? To get a better grasp of the film, I needed not merely to feel, but to understand – to understand why the characters act as they do. And yet, those are the very aspects of the film that Bresson chose to leave out. So, naturally, it was up to me to try to fill in those gaps. I have felt the film, as Bresson had wanted me to: but I found it deeply unsatisfactory to leave it there. I needed also to understand. And maybe, if I did, I could feel even more intensely.

It isn’t easy: Bresson was not merely a devout Catholic, he was also a Jansenist, and the modes of thinking this implies are very alien to my sensibilities. But it does seem to me that the principal character, having already attempted to kill himself, becomes so filled with hatred of his own self that he wants to damn his own soul. Mere physical destruction isn’t enough: through some strange workings of his mind that are outside the normal orbit of my own, he has to destroy himself spiritually too.

Now, there is no point in wondering whether or not this is the correct interpretation: since Bresson himself refuses to explain, any explanation that is not inconsistent with what is in the film is valid. A work of art isn’t, after all, a crossword puzzle – a code one has to solve to arrive at a correct answer. However, having reached at least some sort of understanding, however inadequate and superficial, I needed desperately to know what others have made of it. For the perspectives of others can but deepen my own.

I searched on Google, but I must admit I didn’t really find anything that was particularly valuable. Maybe I was looking at the wrong places. But I am not looking for a solution: there aren’t solutions to these things. What I am looking for is dialogue – something a bit more substantial than “it rocks” or “it sucks”. For the more one can understand, the better one can feel.

Ultimately, all works of art, of any substance at all, ultimately lies beyond our understanding. Even works we are well acquainted with. I have known King Lear, say, since I was eleven: I have seen many performances, both on stage and on screen; I have read it and re-read it for nearly 50 years now; I have even read books and essays about it. But do I really understand it fully? Could I account for all this play makes me feel? No. Ultimately, these things remain a mystery. But without making the effort at least to understand what I can, I would not have been able even to approach this mystery.

Looking back at the quotes with which I started this piece, I notice there is one word they both use. “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (My italics.) Feeling may indeed come before understanding, but that is not to say it replaces it. And nor does analysis (which is no more than structured thought) destroy feeling, as so many seem to think. Quite the opposite. True, we may never pluck out the heart of the mystery that any work of art of any substance, I think, possesses; but not even to make the effort reduces us merely to passive spectators. And to engage adequately with a work of art, we need to be far more than that.

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.]

“The Wild Duck” by Henrik Ibsen

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

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

HEDWIG: It’s only a loft.

GREGERS (looks hard at her): Are you sure?

HEDWIG (astonished):  That it’s only a loft?

GREGERS: Yes. Are you quite certain about that?

It is hard either to read or to see The Wild Duck, and not be aware of its various symbols. Of course, Ibsen had used symbols in his earlier plays too: if, as I increasingly think, the point of serious literature is to force language to communicate matters language is not primarily designed to communicate, then symbols becomes virtually unavoidable, and all serious writers, to some extent or other, use symbols to refer to that which cannot be stated directly. But in The Wild Duck, we seem so firmly enmeshed in a network of symbols, we can barely move without running into them.

The loft, for instance. It’s a strange concept in what is still a “realistic play” – by which I mean a play that takes place in the world we inhabit rather than in some dreamscape, features characters from walks of life familiar to us, and tells a story that we can believe could conceivably happen in our real world. This loft, which in performance is just offstage and can be just tantalisingly glimpsed, is a dark place, done up like a forest with what Meyer’s translation refers to as “Christmas trees”, and populated by chickens, pigeons, and rabbits. We don’t need to be told that this loft represents more than a mere literal description can convey.

And what’s more, the characters know this as well. But to each character, it means something quite different. For instance, to Ekdal, once a fearless bear-hunter in the great forests but now reduced to a pathetic shell of a man, it is an image of the forests he used to love, but which he now does not have the nerve to go to. Once he went into the forest to hunt bears; now, he goes into the loft with his gun to shoot rabbits. He speaks of the forest “taking its revenge”, and when the final tragic act of this drama unfolds in this loft, he returns to this theme: “The forest has taken its revenge,” he says quietly. So to Ekdal, the loft is a symbol of the forest, and the forest itself is a symbol of some mysterious impersonal force that punishes humans for their encroachments – though why, we do not precisely know.

Meanwhile, the teenage girl Hedwig associates the loft with the “vasty deep” – the depths of the sea, where a former lodger, a sea captain, is now drowned. And this “vasty deep” she associates with the world of the imagination, a magical world removed from the solid, quotidian concerns of real life.

And inside this loft, this mock-forest, this “vasty deep”, there resides, amongst the pigeons and the rabbits and the chickens, the wild duck of the title. And, of course, this too is a symbol for something. But it’s perhaps best not to try to interpret these symbols too precisely, or too rigidly: the play is, after all, a play about humans interacting with each other, and not an abstract interplay of theoretical symbols, or some intellectual crossword puzzle to be solved. But the preponderance of these various symbols, and the various different interpretations that are attached to each of them (often by the characters themselves), create in this play a powerful poetical dimension: alongside the reality – the  real world that Ibsen by now was so expert in depicting on stage – we are shown another world, a mysterious and poetic world of the imagination, or, as Hedwig would call it, of the “vasty deep”. And these two worlds co-exist, each inter-penetrating the other, on the one hand giving the real world a poetic depth, and, on the other, anchoring the flights of poetic fancy to the solid and the everyday. While, in the four earlier plays of this cycle, we had mainly inhabited the real world of solid things, with The Wild Duck, I get the impression that Ibsen was moving into new directions: we are now in a world that is increasingly suffused by the poetic, by the mysterious and inscrutable powers of the imagination, by the “vasty deep” itself – by all those things that language unaided by the poetic sensibility is so ill equipped to communicate. And, however solid the real world had been that Ibsen had presented to us in his previous four plays, he was – as Brand and Peer Gynt should remind us – as much a poet as he was a dramatist. If his previous play, An Enemy of the People, was, as I had suggested, a sort of step back, then we can see it in the light of the subsequent plays as a sort of consolidation, a restatement of what Ibsen had already achieved, before setting out on a new and adventurous direction.

But to say we shouldn’t be too rigid in interpreting these symbols doesn’t mean we shouldn’t interpret them at all: we need merely to remember that each interpretation is at best partial – that these symbols can mean all sorts of different things simultaneously, and that what they mean at bottom is as elusive and as intangible as the workings of the human mind itself.

The wild duck, for instance, also means different things to different people. It is Hedwig’s pet, and she loves it; and Gregers, the fanatic, knowing how much it means to her, suggests she sacrifice it in order to prove her love for her father – an act of pure symbolism to demonstrate that which is real. But Gregers himself sees the duck as something else. This duck had been winged by his father (from whom Gregers is now alienated); it had fallen into the lake, and had gone down to the “vasty deep”; and from there, it had been retrieved by his father’s dog. And now, wounded and flightless, it resides in the loft that is at the same time real and symbolic. In one sense, this duck is Hedwig’s mother Gina, once violated by Gregers’ father, and now living her life in quiet, unassuming domestication. But that “vasty deep” into which the duck had sunk means to Gregers something other than what it means to Hedwig: to Hedwig, it represents the world of the imagination; but to Gregers, it represents a world of lies, of delusion. And he sees Hedwig’s father, Hjalmar, as the duck that has sunk into this world of delusion; and he sees his own self as the dog who is to bring him back to the surface, into the clear light of day.

There are other symbols too – weaving its way in and out. There’s the recurring image of vision (or the lack of it), and of light; there is the image of hunting; and so on. We can quite easily get to the stage that we start looking for symbols in everything. So, for instance, when Gregers fails to light his stove properly and the room fills with poisonous fumes, and he throws water over the stove to put it out and floods his room, we can’t help wondering what it symbolises. I personally think it is no more than a comic episode, and, far from symbolising anything, merely demonstrates Gregers’ inadequacy in dealing with the real world of solid things – an inadequacy that, in a different context, leads to devastation. But if we wish to tease symbolic meaning here too, I’m sure we’re entitled to: as long as we do not allow this interplay of symbols obscure the very human drama that Ibsen presents with such clarity. For the play does not merely inhabit a poetic world of the imagination: it is as firmly rooted in reality as is any of Ibsen’s earlier plays in the cycle.

And it has a very well-defined plot. The principal protagonists of this plot are two young men who used to be schoolfriends, but who are very unlike each other. There’s Hjalmar Ekdal, good-looking and vain (he speaks admiringly of his own curly hair), indolent, self-obsessed and self-dramatising, and living a blissfully contented life. And there’s Gregers Werle, who is (we are told) physically ugly; he is son of a very wealthy local businessman, but he is not on good terms with his father: his father had been a philandering type, and he cannot forget the misery this had caused his late mother. He has tried to stay away from his father, and on returning to his home town, finds he cannot forgive him:

WERLE: Gregers – I believe there’s no-one in the world you hate as much as you do me.

GREGERS (quietly); I have seen you at close quarters.

WERLE: You have seen me with your mother’s eyes.

Their respective fathers had been in business together, but Hjalmar’s father, Ekdal, had been found guilty of business malpractice, had served a prison term, and is now a broken man. Gregers’ father had been indicted too, but he had been found not guilty: Gregers does not believe his father had been innocent, although we, the audience, never know the truth of the matter. As far as Gregers is concerned, his father had merely used Ekdal, letting him go to prison while he himself had thrived.

And old Ekdal has a further reason for shame: when found guilty, he had a gun in his possession, and honour demanded that he turn the gun on himself; but he, the fearless hunter of bears in the forest, had proved (in his own mind, at least) a coward. And now, he is utterly broken, reduced to doing some menial copy-writing work given to him by his former business partner, and shooting rabbits in his own loft.

Hjalmar speaks sentimentally about his father, and speaks of rehabilitating him once again in society; but in reality, he is ashamed of him, and fails even to acknowledge him in public. He is married to the submissive Gina, who does all the work – and even, we find out, runs his business, as Ekdal is too lazy to run it himself. (He has been set up by Werle as a professional photographer.) And Ekdal is blissfully unaware that his wife Gina, when she had been housekeeper at the Werles’, had been Werle’s mistress; and Hedwig, the girl he thinks is his own, is, almost certainly, Werle’s.

It is into this atmosphere that Gregers intrudes. Unable to live under the same roof as his father, he becomes a lodger with the Ekdals. And he is determined that his old friend Hjalmar must not live with his delusions; he must know the truth about his wife, and accept that Hedwig, who loves him unconditionally, is not his own daughter. And Gregers is convinced that once Ekdal’s eyes are open, he will forgive, and that they will all live happily in perfect understanding of each other, and with perfect love – that a new life will open for them, based not on lies and illusion, but on Truth, which is the most important thing of all.

Gregers is quite clearly a fanatic, as Brand and Dr Stockmann had been; and he is also, quite clearly, mad. While it is possible to see his forerunners Brand and Dr Stockmann as heroic, it is hard to discern anything at all heroic about this strange character who insists on seeing life in terms of ideals, and who is so much at odds with the rest of humanity that he cannot what really is so blindingly obvious – that a man as shallow and as self-dramatising as Hjalmar Ekdal is not capable of living with the Truth, however valuable that Truth may be.

But the principal conflict in the drama is not between Gregers and Hjalmar: the weak and indolent Hjalmar is not really strong enough character to carry the burden of such a conflict. The conflict is between Gregers and Dr Relling. Dr Relling, unlike Gregers, takes a much dimmer view of humanity: humanity, he feels, cannot live with the Truth, and it is better for them to live contentedly with whatever illusions they need to get through life. So he has convinced Hjalmar that he has the talent to be an inventor; and he convinces the rather pathetic drunkard Molvik that there is actually something “daemonic” about his character. Contrasting as he does with Gregers’ lunacy, it is tempting to see Dr Relling as the voice of sense – the chorus, as it were, commenting sensibly on what is happening, but unable to prevent the tragedy. But this won’t do.  At the very end, after the almost unbearably tragic outcome (which, seen in a good production, really does tear the heart apart), we get a brief scene between Gregers and Relling, where Relling says that, despite the uncontrollable grief of Hjalmar’s, he will not be ennobled by his experience, that he is incapable of being ennobled – that he will continue to be the indolent, self-dramatising and self-pitying man he always has been. Gregers’ can’t accept this:

If you are right and I am wrong, life is not worth living.

And while we may agree with Relling on this specific point, we would be wrong to dismiss Gregers: if life does indeed consist, as Relling insists, merely in drowning ourselves in illusion so as to avoid facing truths, then life really isn’t worth living. Gregers may be mad, but in this, he is surely right.

In An Enemy of the People, it was Dr Stockmann who held the people in utter contempt: this is because he saw them incapable of being the noble searchers for Truth that he feels they should be. But it is not just the idealists who can become enemy of people: here, it is Dr Relling who holds humans in contempt; it is he who knows Molvik to be merely a pathetic drunk, and Hjalmar a self-deluding fool. Can the case not be made that it is Dr Relling, so contemptuous of his fellow humans, and, indeed, of himself, who is, indeed, the Enemy of the People here?

To understand the drama in realistic terms rather than as an abstract clash of  theories, we need to try to re-create something of these characters’ past. Gregers had been quite devoted to his mother. When Hjalmar speaks of his feelings when his father had been indicted and sentenced to prison, of how the world seemed at the time to collapse around him, Gregers is immediately reminded of how he had felt when his mother had died. It does not require too great a psychological insight to deduce that Gregers blames his father for his mother’s unhappiness, and that his present actions may be (albeit unknowingly) motivated by this hatred. But the nature of his parents’ marriage is not easy to unravel. Towards the end of the first act, we get the following exchange between Gregers Werle and his father:

WERLE (lowers his voice a little): But you should remember her vision was sometimes a little – blurred.

GREGERS (trembling): I know what you are trying to say. But who was to blame for that? You were! You and all those – ! And the last of them you palmed off on Hjalmar Ekdal, when you no longer – oh!

WERLE (shrugs his shoulders): Word for word as if I were listening to your mother.

The vision being “blurred” is a reference to the image of sight and of blindness that runs through the play: old Werle is going blind, as is the young Hedwig, presumably through some hereditary defect. And here, this reference to blurring is also, quite obviously, a euphemism: Gregers certainly understands what his father is driving at: though it is never made clear, we may infer that she was becoming mentally unbalanced. And that, at least as far as Gregers is concerned, it was his father who had driven her to madness. Now, it could be that Werle was simply an unprincipled and ruthless sybarite, who was cruel to his wife; or it could be that their marriage had already broken down for other reasons. We cannot really tell. We see Werle now as a successful and respectable businessman, but of course, that means nothing. We see him also as a man who is careful to do his duty: he may have escaped prison (rightly or wrongly), but he spends his own money to set up his disgraced partner’s son in business, and later, makes sure his illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter Hedwig will be more than adequately provided for. And we certainly don’t see him as dissipated: he is clearly living with his housekeeper, the very self-possessed independent minded widow Mrs Soerby, and in the course of the play, announces his engagement with her. Dr Relling and Molvik go out boozing  together, and often visit a certain establishment run, we are told, by a Madame Ericsson: Werle is not the type of person to frequent such places. Now, it could be that with age, and, possibly, under the good influence of Mrs Soerby, Werle has grown out of his past habits; but it could equally be that, though far from morally pure, he was not quite the monster his son thinks him to be. We cannot be sure.

But Gregers has, for better or worse, taken after his mother. And so disgusted is he by what he sees as his father’s moral depravity, he is determined to see other humans as essentially noble beings. Or, at least, as the noble beings they would be if only they were to perceive the Truth. He is certainly a fanatic, and in this, he recalls Brand, but the differences are important: for one thing, Gregers does not mention God. Brand had insisted on the highest moral standards for humans because that is what God wants from Man: it’s not as a means of achieving happiness, but rather, to carry out God’s will, for only in carrying out divine will can the soul be purified. Pastor Manders too, in Ghosts, had asked why we humans should search happiness: we have our duty, given us by God himself, and that is sufficient.

But if God is no longer part of the equation, then what can we live for? How then can we justify life at all? Gregers may not mention God; he may not even believe in God; but his moral compass is very firmly rooted in Christianity all the same, and is centred, as Christianity is, around the concepts of forgiveness and sacrifice. Search for Truth, take this Truth to our hearts, forgive, and sacrifice for the sake of those we love; for only through that can we achieve for ourselves happiness and joy, and make life worth living. We may think all this hopelessly naïve, but before we dismiss it as such, we should consider Dr Relling’s position: live in delusion, he says, for we are not good enough or strong enough to live with the Truth; and, far from searching for happiness and joy, take solace instead in drunkenness, and in the joyless pleasures of Madame Ericsson’s establishment. Is this really any better than Gregers’ naivety? If Dr Relling is right and Gregers is wrong, then is life really worth living?

The Wild Duck addresses some of the most fundamental of questions about our lives: how should we live? How can we justify our lives, and make our lives worth living? But there is nothing abstract about the drama: it is a very human story, peopled with weak and fallible people who nonetheless demand our sympathy and understanding; and it culminates in a tragedy that really does break the heart. Hjalmar may be weak and self-dramatising, but seeing him weep over the body of one who had loved him unconditionally, but whose love he had in his moral blindness rejected; and to see also the equally helpless tears of the mother Gina, who saw the terrible tragedy unfold before her eyes, but who was helpless to prevent it; is among the most heart-rending of all scenes in drama, and even brings to mind the final scene of King Lear.

And interfused with this tragedy is the poetry – the deep and resonant imagery of the loft, which is at the same time the forest and the “vasty deep”, and whatever associations the forest and the vasty deep may have; and of the wild duck itself, winged, brought up from the vasty deep, and now, wounded, residing in the mock forest in the loft. The point is not to identify what these things mean, but, rather, to allow this world of dreams and of the imagination to intermingle with the worldly solidities, and reveal to us some of  the most hidden compartments of our consciousness.

Ibsen in his later plays was to go much further in using theatre, the most public of all art forms, to delve deeply into our unconscious: The Wild Duck is only the beginning.

“An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, with Stanislavky himself playing the protagonist Stockmann, was a sensation. The year was 1905, a rather significant year in Russian history: there was great social and political unrest, mutinies, attempted revolution, and a disastrous military defeat at the hands of Japan. Near the very start of the year, in Petersburg, soldiers fired on unarmed protestors, killing 96 people according to Tsarist official records: the actual toll is likely to have been much higher. Feelings were running high, and Ibsen’s play, written some 23 years earlier, and depicting a heroic individual speaking truth to power, struck a powerful chord. Even in its inevitably censored version, with censors actually attending performances to ensure unauthorised passages were excised as ordered, the effect, to judge from Stanislavsky’s autobiography, was electrifying. Stockmann’s speeches were enthusiastically applauded, and, at times, members of the audience actually came on to the stage to shake Stanislavsky’s hand, or to embrace and kiss him.

It is easy to see why this play, at this particular time, should make such an impact. At a time when truth was suppressed by tyrannical authorities, here was an individual standing up for this very truth in the face of everything that may be thrown at him – a man who insists that truth matters above all else. And it is tremendously theatrical. It is, perhaps, a bit difficult to stage, given that the big scene in the fourth act requires a crowd – and the bigger the crowd, the more effective the drama – but even on reading it at home, the theatricality of the various dramatic confrontations seem virtually to leap out from the page. Not surprisingly, the play has proved one of Ibsen’s greatest hits, and, despite the difficulty of staging the big crowd scene in the fourth act, has been frequently revived. It has also been filmed several times, and adapted in all sorts of ways. The opening half of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is effectively a re-tread of this play; and Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru placed the action in Bengal, with the Bengali version of Dr Stockmann finding dangerous pollution in holy temple water. (Sadly,  Ray made this film soon after a major heart attack, and in defiance of doctor’s orders not to return to work: for understandable reasons, this film isn’t among his best.) Dr Stockmann, in his various manifestations, has become the very epitome of the courageous individual who stands up alone for what he knows to be right, for what he knows to be true.

But while this heroic and inspiring stand for truth defines the principal tonality of the work, there are some very troubling dissonances throughout that frequently threaten to overwhelm this tonality. I can’t help wondering, for instance, how well the Petersburg audiences appreciated the profoundly anti-democratic nature of Stockmann’s stand, and, perhaps, of the play itself. Quite early in the play, for instance, we get this exchange between the newspaper-man Billing and the sea captain Horster:

BILLING: Still, we all have to vote, at least.

HORSTER: Even those who understand nothing?

BILLING: Understand? What do you mean? Society is like a ship; everyone must come together at the helm.

HORSTER: That might be all right on land; but it would come to no good on a ship.

Dr Tomas Stockmann himself is presented as a loquacious man, a dynamic personality, never still, forever brimming with energy and optimism. He is clearly highly intelligent, but in terms of judging the political temperature, or of judging the people around him, hopelessly naïve. He has made the discovery that the water in the spa, the very spa on which the entire economy of the town depends, is dangerously polluted. And he knows also the solution: the pipes carrying the water need to be re-laid. But he never gives a thought to the financial implications of this. He is certain that, in making this discovery, he is saving the town itself, and that he will be lionised for doing so; he is certain that he has the “solid majority” behind him.  Certainly, the liberal press is on his side, but he cannot see what the rest of us can – that they are supporting him not out of any love for truth, but merely to score political points. The points they want to score are against the town’s conservative mayor, Peter Stockmann, Dr Stockmann’s own brother, and chairman of the spa’s board. And it never even occurs to Dr Stockmann that a person in such a position is not likely to welcome his scientific findings: his belief that the truth is something that everyone would welcome is simultaneously touching in its naïvety, and also somewhat alarming. For how can someone with so inadequate an understanding of human behaviour cope with humanity as it really is?

It doesn’t take long for the expected to happen – especially as Ibsen moves the drama forward with virtually every line, barely pausing for breath. Dr Stockmann’s brother, the mayor, consummate politician that he is, goes to work behind the scenes. He puts forward a proposal for some minor changes that will, he personally assures everyone, solve all the problems; and he lets people know how much Dr Stockmann’s solution will cost: it will require not merely a huge rise in taxes, but also the spa closing down for two years while the work is carried out. In short, the town will effectively be deprived of an income for two years. Dr Stockmann, still as naively optimistic as ever, continues to believe that the “solid majority” will continue to support him: how, after all, can any rational person, when faced with the truth, fail to acknowledge it? It is impossible! But others know better. Those who had previously expressed support for him now change their minds: after all, isn’t the mayor proposing a solution that would cost far less? Only a fanatic, after all, would propose depriving the town of its income for two whole years while hiking up taxes. Even the liberal press backs out: it’s not that they’re against the truth, as such – of course they aren’t – but they cannot, obviously, back Dr Stockmann’s dangerous fanaticism.

Ibsen spares no-one, not even the “centrists”, the men of sensible moderation: the printer Aslaksen (who had appeared in Ibsen’s earlier play The League of Youth), always preaching temperance and moderation, always warning of the dangers of fanaticism, also deserts the man  he now comes to see as a dangerous fanatic: when it comes to it, his “centrism” is no more than pusillanimity, a craven failure to back radicalism when radicalism is what is needed. This frankly makes for uncomfortable reading for political moderates such as myself, and that is, undoubtedly, as Ibsen had intended. While this play is still seen (as A Doll’s House often is) as a comfortable work that flatters our sense of our own honesty and integrity, it is, in truth, a deeply uncomfortable work that turns the spotlight very disconcertingly on to our own selves, and reveals things that we would perhaps prefer not to see. I must confess that if I saw myself at all in this play, it was as the cowardly and self-justifying Aslaksen rather than the heroic Dr Stockmann. And that is far from comfortable.

If things are beginning to become uncomfortable by the end of the third act (where Dr Stockmann is threatened by his own brother with losing his job should he refuse to see reason), the remarkable fourth act goes even further. Stockmann, denied a public platform, has decided to hold a public meeting where he could speak to the “solid majority” he still reckons will back him. No public hall would accept his booking, so the meeting is held in the large front room of the sympathetic sea captain Horster.

The public, even at the start of the meeting, is hostile to Stockmann: the powers ranged against Stockmann, while denying him a platform, have already let the public know how much Stockmann’s solution would cost, and has further let them know that the patches proposed by the Mayor will solve whatever problem there is. It is easy for us to take sides against the public here (as Stockmann himself does), but a simply dichotomy of Good vs Bad serves but to weaken the drama: the public’s position is surely understandable, and I, for one, find it easy to sympathise: it is, after all, their livelihoods that are at stake. Even at this meeting, against Stockmann’s wishes, a chairman and moderator are appointed, and they quickly rule that Stockmann is not entitled to speak about the water pollution. And then the dam breaks: the anti-democratic seeds that had been planted early in the play now blossom, and take on frankly grotesque forms.

Of course, since this is, after all, an Ibsen play, we know that the pollution of the public water is a symbol for something else. And now, Dr Stockmann clearly and explicitly sees it as a symbol, and explains what it is:

DR STOCKMANN: I have some great revelations to make  to you, my fellow citizens! I  want to report the discovery of a very different scope than the trifling matter of the water supply being poisoned and our Health Spa built on  plague-infested ground! … I’ve said I wanted to talk about an important discovery I’ve made over the last few days – the discovery that our spiritual wells are being poisoned, and that our entire civic community rests on a plague-infested ground of lies!

Readers of Ibsen’s earlier work should have no difficulty identifying Dr Stockmann here: he is Brand, the unyielding idealist and stern moralist, insisting that his fellow humans must accept the truth at all times without compromise – insisting on moral imperatives that human beings are, on the whole, incapable of following. The heroic Stockmann then goes on, in his rage, to articulate a number of things that are, frankly, hard to stomach. The broadside against democracy continues:

The majority never have the right on their side, never I tell you! That’s one of those lies in society against which any independent, thinking man must wage war.  Who is it that constitutes the greater part of the population in a country? The intelligent people or the stupid ones? … The might is with the many – unfortunately – but not the right. The right is with myself, and a few other solitary individuals.  The minority is always in the right.

Then, he draws a parallel between humans and dogs, coming in the process close to advocating what we would nowadays describe as eugenics:

First, imagine a simple, common dog – I mean the kind of vile, ragged, badly behaved mongrel that runs around in the streets fouling the house walls. And put one of these mongrels next to a poodle whose pedigree goes back several generations, and who comes from a noble house where it’s been fed with good food and had the chance to hear harmonious voices and music. Don’t you think that the poodle’s cranium has developed quite differently from that of the mongrel?

Michael Meyer, arguing that the poodle has associations in English that aren’t present in Norwegian, changed the breed to greyhound in the above passage in his own translation, but its meaning is unmistakable either way. Not that Stockmann is favouring the aristocracy: the “mongrels” he is referring to are, as far as he is concerned, from all social classes. But even so, those of us who had been cheering on Stockmann so far, and who remain convinced that he is in the right (as he surely is), can but grit our teeth. But Stockmann is now unstoppable:

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!

The mayor, the press, Aslaksen, weren’t wrong: Stockmann really is a dangerous fanatic. He is declared by the meeting to be “an enemy of the people”. And if Stockmann is Brand in his unbending integrity and his fanaticism, he is also, it seems to me, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, who, also in a public meeting, is declared an enemy of the people and exiled; and who, again like Stockmann, remains unbowed, and vents his fury upon the populace that repudiates him, banishing them even as they banish him:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As the reek of the rotten fens, whose love I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air: I banish you.

The  play ends not with victory, but on a note of defiance. Stockmann has been attacked by the mob, and the windows of his house smashed; he has, predictably, lost his job, and so has his daughter:  not that her employer wanted to dismiss her, but, like everyone  else,  they dare not keep her. No-one in the town dares: the weight of public opinion is too strong. The Stockmanns are evicted by their landlord: once again, he dares not do otherwise.  But Stockmann, like his predecessor Brand, is determined  to fight on, to stand up for the Truth, no matter what the cost to himself or to his family. And we are left not entirely sure whether to admire or to deplore him.

***

In the context of the twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, which may loosely be termed a “cycle”, this play, the fourth in the series, is, in some ways, a step back. After having used the very public medium of theatre to explore inner lives of his characters in A Doll’s House and, even more, perhaps, in Ghosts, we are, in this play, back in the very public world of The Pillars of Society: the inner lives of the characters here are not addressed; the characters are only really important here in terms of their public function. Of course, Ibsen was soon to delve more deeply into the inner lives of his characters in his subsequent plays:  in some of these works, he delved as deeply into the recesses of the human mind as is perhaps possible. But this play stands apart somewhat from the others: it is, in a sense, simpler, in that its content can be fairly adequately summarised, in a way that the contents of plays such as Rosmersholm or The Master Builder, say, cannot. But it is still very much a part of the cycle: its themes – the nature of truth, our human capacity for accepting and acknowledging the truth – are every much themes that Ibsen explored from different perspectives in this and in other plays.

The truth here, despite Wilde’s famous epigram, is both pure and simple: in literal terms, the spa water is indeed dangerously polluted, and, in symbolic terms, our human society, as in The Pillars of Society, is indeed built upon lies and corruption. What is at issue here is not the nature of Truth (Ibsen was to explore that later), but, rather, our human capacity to accept and acknowledge the Truth, and also the inhuman fanaticism to which an entirely admirable devotion to Truth all too often gives rise. For the title is not ironic: Dr Tomas Stockman is, quite literally, an enemy of the people. That he is a man of the utmost integrity, and heroic and admirable, does not alter this fact. It is a play that should make us all feel uncomfortable.