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“Ghosts” 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 Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

 

The stage directions for the first of the three acts tells us:

Through the conservatory windows a gloomy fjord landscape can be seen, veiled by steady rain.

We’re in the same location for the second act, and the stage directions tell us:

A rainy mist still lies heavily over the landscape.

The location remains unchanged in the third and final act also, and now, we are in the depths of night:

The lamp is still burning on the table. It is dark outside apart from a faint glow to the left in the background.

The sun does begin to rise in the final moments of the play, but what we see on stage as the sun rises is a scene of unmitigated horror: the rising of the sun brings with it no renewal. Quite the opposite.

It is hard to think of another play quite so unremittingly bleak and sombre as Ghosts. Even Long Day’s Journey into Night had begun in the light of day. The English title, Ghosts, is evocative, but Ibsen’s original Norwegian title is perhaps even more powerful: Gengangere means – so the notes to my Penguin Classics edition tell me – “something that or someone who walks again”. It is about the Past that refuses to stay in the past, that poisons the Present, and crushes the joy out of our lives.

This crushing of the Joy of Life is here a major theme. It is, ironically, Pastor Manders who introduces the motif of the Joy of Life early in the play, when he thinks back on the late Captain Alving:

As a young man, he was certainly full of the joys of life.

But to Manders, this is no more than a ready-made expression: he does not think too deeply on what it may signify. But Mrs Alving’s son, Osvald, recently returned from Paris, seizes upon it:

Yes, the joy of life, Mother – no-one knows much about that here at home. I never feel it here.

The word used in the original Norwegian is livsglad, a compound word, meaning (as, once again, the notes tell me) “happy in life” or “enjoying life”. I suspect that the power of this compound word is diminished when unpacked into the somewhat weak and prosaic “joy of life”. There is, I think, no way around this: in Bengali, too, it is permissible (as it isn’t in English) to create compound words in this manner, and the poetic or dramatic force comes from the often unexpected juxtaposition of the words that are welded together; translated into speakable English, something of this power is inevitably lost. And I suspect it is similar when translating from Norwegian. But, once introduced, livsglad becomes a major motif in this play. What Ibsen presents here is not a lachrymose wallow in the misery that is life, but, rather, a yearning for livsglad that seems ever beyond our reach, and a barely suppressed anger that this should be so.

Not that there aren’t thematic continuities from Ibsen’s previous play, A Doll’s House. It has often been pointed out, for instance, that while A Doll’s House presents a woman who walks out on her husband, Ghosts presents the tragedy of a woman who didn’t. This is true enough, but this neat pattern doesn’t really take us very far, as the marriage between Nora and Torvald is very different from that of the Alvings, and the reason Nora walks out is very different from the reason Mrs Alving had, in the past, nearly walked out. If we are to focus too intently on the thematic continuities between these last twelve plays (which Ibsen himself, towards the end  of his life, referred to as a “cycle”), there is a danger, perhaps, that we fail to see each of these plays as individual entities, and that we miss out on the new themes that Ibsen introduces in each. Yes, there is a thematic continuity in that Nora had refused, Brand-like, to continue living with lies, while Mrs Alving had been persuaded to continue doing so. But what takes centre-stage now are those lies themselves, those gengangere, that do not remain suppressed, that return to poison our lives, and destroy us. Indeed, these gengangere had never really gone away in the first place. And the livsglad that is crushed by them is more than merely “joy of life”: it is, rather, an elemental power that we are born with, that should make life beautiful, but which, when crushed, turns into its very opposite, so that even the rising of the sun brings with it pain and horror.

We do not see the marriage of the Alvings: Captain Alving, when the play opens, has long been dead. But the exposition here is more than merely communicating to the audience the events of the past so that the present drama may be understood: the exposition here is an examination of the past, and much of the present drama consists of the characters re-evaluating it, and coming to a new understanding. Thus, even as late as the final act, we see the characters revisiting the past, and understanding it in a different way.

Captain Alving had been one of the “pillars of society” Ibsen had written about in an earlier play, the very image of civic respectability, but, like those pillars, there was moral rottenness inside. For, in this instance, this exemplar of respectability had been in reality a lecherous and dissipated sybarite. Mrs Alving had left him once, and had taken refuge in the house of Pastor Manders.  And there is more than enough in the dialogue of this play to indicate that, at the time,  Mrs Alving and Pastor Manders had loved each other. But, while it is all too easy to play Pastor Manders as an outrageous hypocrite, he had had denied himself for the sake of the principles he sincerely believed in, and had persuaded Mrs Alving to return to her rightful husband. For Pastor Manders does not believe that humans were created to be happy:

It is the mark of a rebellious spirit to demand happiness here in life. What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam! And your duty was to hold firmly to the man you’d once chosen, and to whom you were tied by holy bonds.

Duty. Duty not with happiness, or livsglad, as the end, but duty for its own sake, duty as its own end. And, far from being a hypocrite, Pastor Manders sincerely believes this: he lives by this, and for this. However, Captain Alving had not, as Manders had thought, reformed after his wife’s return: he remained as dissipated as ever, and Mrs Alving had been compelled, for the sake of the family’s good name and standing in society, to live a lie. And she knows the toll it has taken:

But I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us … It’s not just the things we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that return in us. It’s all kinds of old dead opinions and all kind of old dead doctrines … They aren’t alive in us; but they are lodged there all the same, and we can never be rid of them. I have only to pick up a newspaper and read it, and it’s as though I see ghosts living throughout the entire land.

Mrs Alving has suffered because she had submitted to the conventions of society that had demanded she continue with her farce of a marriage. She had realised that the law that had condemned her to this was wrong, and  this realisation leads her on to further realisation:

Yes, when you forced me to submit to what you called my duty and obligation; when you extolled as right and proper what my whole soul rebelled against as an abomination. That was when I began to examine the stitching that held your teachings together.  Only wanted to unpick a single knot, but the instant I had loosened that, the whole thing fell apart. And then I realised it was machine sewn.

And yet, she has to go on living with these ideas, these values, that she knows destroy all the Joy of Life. The past that lives with us, in us, those dead ideas that we cannot shed off … ghosts, gengangere.

Mrs Alving had been determined there must be, for the next generation at least, a complete break from the past – that her son should inherit nothing from his father. She had sent him away from home at an early age, so he would ever find out what his father had been like. And all the wealth that had come from his father’s side, she had used to open an orphanage, to ensure that none of it ever comes to her son – that her son should be free, in all respects, from all his father had been. And as she had lived a life of lies while her husband had been alive, she continues, for form’s sake, to perpetuate lies about him after his death, preserving his public image as a man of irreproachable moral integrity, while herself burning with resentment inside at the very lie she is perpetuating.

However, despite all her efforts, the Past continues to live within her son Osvald in a most terrible way, and here, we come across a problem that Ibsen had not envisaged. In Ibsen’s time, it was believed, wrongly, that syphilis could be passed on from father to son: but that, we now know, is not true. Of course, it is possible that the father could have infected the mother, and the mother could pass it on to the child, but if that were so, Mrs Alving too would be syphilitic, and that is clearly not the case. [EDIT: Please see footnote at the bottom of this post.] (I am, I should hasten to add, no expert on these medical matters, and would be more than happy to be corrected if I am mistaken in any way.) In short, it is simply not possible that Osvald has inherited syphilis from his father.

However, this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot. Syphilis itself is never mentioned directly, and, while Mrs Alving, and, later, Osvald, accept that the disease has been inherited from the father, there is no real evidence for it presented in the play. Indeed, there is not even any evidence that Captain Alving, dissipated though he was, had been syphilitic in the first place. Osvald, when breaking the news of his illness to his mother, is at pains to say that he had “never lived a riotous life”: but that is not to say, of course, that he had necessarily been celibate. And, indeed, till he discovers that his father was not the irreproachable pillar of virtue he had always believed him to have been, Osvald blames himself. He may not have been riotous, but it is certainly possible that he had been unlucky. Of course, Ibsen had intended us to believe that Osvald’s syphilis was inherited, but medical science has overtaken Ibsen’s intentions in this respect. And while this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot, as such, it inevitably weakens somewhat the play’s dramatic power. In Ibsen’s original conception, the ghosts from the past that we cannot lay to rest were both an image, and also a reality, in that it has taken the very real form of a disease inherited by son from father; but if we can no longer believe in that physical inheritance, it remains merely an image, and Osvald’s syphilis itself is but a cruel and capricious twist of fortune rather than a tragic inevitability. The fruits of sin (as syphilis was then regarded), instead of afflicting the father, afflicts the son instead; the inheritance is metaphorical, not physical.

But though the tragic force of the drama is inevitably diminished somewhat, it is by no means obliterated, as any good production of this play will reveal: it still holds the stage, and the effect remains quite shattering. Osvald’s brain is weakening: he knows that after the next attack, he will remain utterly incapable – alive, but with a brain that is, effectively, dead. He who had in him that yearning for livsglad, that unbounded joy in the simple fact of just being alive, finds himself saying to his mother:

I didn’t ask for life! What kind of life is it you’ve given me? I don’t want it!

But he is not the first for whom the delight in living has turned into its very opposite. When, at the start of the play, Pastor Manders had referred unthinkingly to Captain Alving being “full of the joys of life”, he was simply and unthinkingly using an expression, without considering what it really meant. Since then, we have had a picture of Alving that is very far removed from the joys of life: he enjoyed merely life’s debauched pleasures. But, in an extraordinary passage towards the end of the play, Mrs Alving sees her dead husband, and, consequently, her own past, in a startlingly different light. Pastor Manders may have used the term unthinkingly when speaking of the late Captain Alving, but he had not really been mistaken:

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was a young lieutenant. He was certainly filled with the joy of life!

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It was like a sunny Sunday just looking at him. And such incredible energy and vitality he had!

OSVALD: And – ?

MRS ALVING: And then this joyous child – because he was a child back then, had to while his time away back here, in a middling-sized town that had no real joy to offer, only diversions. He was stuck here without any vocation in life, with nothing but a civil service appointment … Without one single friend capable of feeling what the joy of life might be; only layabouts and drinking companions …

The man she had, for most of her life, hated and despised now appears to her as someone whose natural exuberance and joy had, for lack of any outlet, festered, become corrupted. And she sees as well her own part in this:

MRS ALVING: Your poor father could never find any outlet for this excessive joy of life inside him. And I didn’t bring any Sunday sunshine into his home either.

OSVALD: Not even you?

MRS ALVING: They had taught me about duties and the like, things I have gone around believing in for so long. It always seemed to come down to duty – my duties and his duties and – I’m afraid I made this home unbearable for your poor father, Osvald.

As Pastor Manders may have said, why strive for joy, for happiness, in the first place? Duty, joyless duty, is what we are here for, and to think otherwise is to rebel against the Laws of God Himself. Pastor Manders’ ideas may be old and dead, but they remain with us, and they crush whatever delight, whatever joy, we may take in the very fact of living.

This theme introduced in this play of livsglad, that problematic compound word for which “joy of life” seems to me perhaps too weak a translation, returns again in later plays in the series, most notably, perhaps, in The Master Builder, in which, at a climactic point, Solness exclaims “I – who cannot live without joy!” It is the denial of this livsglad, and the terrible consequences of this denial, that seem to me to be at the centre of this darkest and most unremittingly bleak of all Ibsen’s plays.

Ghosts, after its premier in 1882, predictably, caused a huge scandal, even bigger than the one occasioned by Nora walking out on her husband and family at the end of A Doll’s House. Even years later, when Ibsen was a Grand Old Man of Letters rather than the enfant terrible, the then monarch of Norway, Oscar II, told Ibsen at some formal reception that he really shouldn’t have written Ghosts.  Ibsen had replied: “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!” Unremitting as it is in its intensity, it bears throughout the marks of a play that had to be written.

 

Footnote: My friend Richard Arundel draws my attention to the following footnote by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation of Ghosts, published by Methuen:

In view of the oft-repeated complaint that syphilis cannot be inherited from one’s father, it is worth pointing out that it can be inherited from one’s mother, and that a woman can have syphilis without realizing it or suffering any particular discomfort.In other words, and this is a far more frightening explanation of Oswald’s illness than the usual one, Mrs Alving could have caught syphilis from her husband and passed it on  to her son. Dr Jonathan Miller has pointed out to me that Oswald could also have been infected by smoking his father’s pipe. Ibsen knew more about medicine than some of his critics.

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“A Doll’s House” and “The Maltese Falcon”

It occurred to me while taking a morning walk earlier today that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which I was blogging about only yesterday, is surprisingly similar to The Maltese Falcon –  both Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and John Huston’s film version. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this similarity before, but now it’s in my head, it seems quite obvious really.

No, please, do bear with me. Let me, at least, explain.

In A Doll’s House, the principal theme (the relationship between Nora and Torvald, and the state of their marriage) is introduced quite early. But then, Ibsen introduces new strands of the drama – forged signature, blackmail, and all the rest of it. And he develops these new elements, ratcheting up the dramatic tension in the process. And then, suddenly, almost too easily, these elements are resolved. And once they’re resolved, the true central theme of the work, which had been introduced right at the start but which had been allowed to simmer away only below the surface, emerges, bringing with it a shift in tonality. And we realise, to our surprise, that this had been at the centre of the drama all along, and that the shift in tonality,  though perhaps unexpected, is perfectly in order, because this seemingly new tonality had never really been too far away.

And I couldn’t help wondering: I knew there was another work in which something similar happened, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then it came to me. Of course! It’s The Maltese Falcon!

[ At this point, I suppose I should issue a spoiler warning for those who have neither read Dashiell Hammett’s novel, nor seen John Huston’s film. And issue also a recommendation either to read the book, or to see the film, or, better, do both, as both book and film are absolute dynamite. ]

At the start of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is killed while on a case. But then, Spade finds himself embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans, with a wonderfully colourful cast of crooks and villains and murderers all in search of the fabled, jewel-encrusted statuette of Maltese Falcon. It all builds up superbly towards a tense climax. But then, the tension just seems to dissipate: the issue of the Maltese Falcon is resolved, almost too easily. And once that’s out of the way, we come to the real thing – the murder of Miles Archer. Sam didn’t particularly like Miles, but he was a partner, and, as Sam says, when your partner is killed, it doesn’t matter whether you liked him or not, you’re supposed to do something about it. And we realise that this is what it had all been about, all along. Sam has to do something about the murder of his partner, even if he has to sacrifice what is dearest to him.

***

Now, I don’t know whether this similarity between these two masterpieces has ever been commented on before. I somehow doubt it. Unless someone tells me otherwise, I flatter myself that this is my unique contribution to the field of literary criticism. Now, some may tell me I’m talking rot, and they may well be right. But, rot or not, I offer it, free, gratis, and for nothing, to any literature student out there searching for a theme for a dissertation. No fees charged: just a little mention in the acknowledgements will do.

Thank you for your attention.

“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen

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

Ibsen once denied that A Doll’s House is a “feminist” play, claiming he did not even know what feminism meant. He was being disingenuous, of course: he knew fine well what he had written, and he meant every word of it, but I think I can understand his frustration: while his very specific intentions were eagerly seized upon, his more general themes seemed obscured: the play was seen as primarily didactic rather than as exploratory. That is probably the case even now: although we are no longer shocked by the play’s feminist manifesto – indeed, we tend nowadays to nod along in agreement with its didactic flow – we still think of it primarily as a social play, a play in which the hypocrisies of society are denounced, and social change demanded. And since the society it depicts has largely changed in the direction that Ibsen had advocated (at least in the western world), far from being perturbed by it, we may even find it comfortable, vindicating as it does our liberal values.

For A Doll’s House is surely Ibsen’s “greatest hit” (closely followed, I’d guess, by An Enemy of the People and by Hedda Gabler). Nora is still the part that our leading stage actresses queue to play. One can see why: it is a terrific part – although, I’d venture, Ibsen wrote a great many roles for leading ladies that are at least as challenging (Mrs Alving, Rebecca West, Ellida Wangel, Ella Rentheim, Gunhild Borkman, etc.) But it is this role, and Hedda Gabler, that has captured our collective imagination more than the others.

The overall plot is well-known – so much so that I don’t think I need to put up a spoiler warning” before I summarise it (and if a “spoiler warning” is required, it’s possibly best not to read on): a seemingly happily married middle-class woman, with three children, discovers that her marriage is a sham, and walks out on her family. Contemporary audiences certainly found it deeply shocking (as was intended), but perhaps we moderns should not be entirely shockproof on the matter: a parent, of either sex, walking out on parental responsibilities should rightly shock. Our failure to be shocked, or, possibly, our determination not to be shocked, can but rob that extraordinary final scene of its dramatic edge.

A Doll’s House has always been the English title of the play, although the Norwegian dukkehjem, literally translated, means “doll home”; it is Ibsen’s own coinage, and refers not to a toy house that a child may play with, but to a real home where the lady of the house is no more than a mere doll. Towards the end of the play, Nora says:

[Father] called me a doll-child, and he played with me, just as I play with my dolls. And then I came into your house … I went from Daddy’s hands over into yours.

First her father’s doll, and now her husband’s: the one person she has never belonged to, the one person she has never been, is herself, and, as a consequence, she does not even know what her true self really is. When her husband Torvald, in desperation, asks if she has moral sense, she, far from replying in the affirmative, can only say:

Oh, Torvald, that’s not easy to answer. I simply don’t know. I’m in such confusion over these things.

And yet, only a few lines later, when Torvald claims she is ill and feverish, she replies:

I’ve never been so clear and sure as I am tonight.

There’s actually no contradiction between Nora’s two statements. She does not know whether she has a moral sense or not because she does not know herself; but she is perfectly clear and sure about the fact of her own ignorance.

Peer Gynt, for different reasons, does not know himself either: always choosing to be whatever had been most convenient at the time, he finds he is like an onion, layer after accumulated layer, but with no real core. And it may be that Nora, having been what first her father and then her husband had wanted her to be, has no core either: but she is determined to find out for herself. Having been forced to be a Peer Gynt all her life, she now shows the steely, uncompromising determination of a Brand.

This famous final scene always takes me by surprise, even though I know full well what it contains. Its tonality is very different from the rest of the play. We had been led to believe that the play was essentially about blackmail: Nora, for the noblest of motives (to save her husband’s life, and not to worry her dying father) had imprudently forged a signature, and now, an employee in her husband’s bank on the verge of being sacked tries to blackmail her. Her desperation rises almost to fever pitch: at the end of the second act, she dances on stage a wild tarantella, and she dances with such intensity that Torvald can’t help commenting “You’re dancing as if your life depended on it”. And, without realising it, he is not far off the mark: she is indeed desparate, and has already contemplated suicide. But the crisis set up by the end of the second act isn’t really what the play is about: for the theme that was lying underneath all the while, even if we perhaps didn’t notice it at the time, was the state of Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage itself, and the terrible lie upon which that marriage had been based.

Here, we see the continuation of themes from The Pillars of Society: that play had focussed on the lies underpinning social respectability and prosperity; here, Ibsen considers the same theme, but in a domestic sphere, within the sanctified institution of marriage itself. Even that which we hold most sacred is based on lies, and we would see that for ourselves if only, with a Brand-like insistence upon truth, we determine to look upon it without equivocation, without compromise.

By the end of the play, Nora has become a sort of Brand: the absolute truth must not merely be faced, it must also be acted upon, without compromise. But this is certainly not as she had appeared at the start. When we see her first she is a scatterbrain, extravagantly spending her husband’s money (and being told off for it), eating macaroons secretly despite her husband’s wishes. And when husband and wife talk, it is not the talk of two mature adults:

TORVALD:  When did my squirrel  get home?

NORA: Just now. … Come  out Torvald, and you will see what I have bought.

TORVALD: … Has my little spending bird been out frittering money again? … we can’t be extravagant.

NORA: Oh but Torvald, we can be a little extravagant now, surely. Can’t we? Just a teeny-weeny bit. After all, you’ll have a big salary now and be earning lots and lots of money.

And so on. Nora is the scatter-brained child, to be gently admonished if need be; and he, Torvald, is the responsible adult, indulgent up to a point, but making sure, for her own good, that his wife is not too naughty. We soon see that Nora, though not conversant with the ways of the world outside (having never had the opportunity to be part of it), is far from unintelligent. So why does she speak to her husband in that manner? She speaks to no-one else like that. Why does she behave like a child? Why does she allow herself to be reprimanded?

The answer is surely that she is playing a role. She is wearing a mask that gives her an appearance that is acceptable in society. She plays the child to allow her husband to play the adult. To enable him to play the protector, she must play the part of the creature who needs protecting. She wears this mask not because, like Peer Gynt, it is necessarily a convenient mask to wear, but because, in her position in society, this is the mask she is expected to wear. And, at this point of the play at any rate, she sees no reason not to wear it. And if she wears the mask expected of her, so does Torvald: he is the man, the protector. And Nora takes this at face value. And we have to wait till the very final scene for this issue to be dramatically resolved.

But until then, Ibsen adroitly directs our attention elsewhere. He introduces the blackmail theme. Nora is terrified – not so much because her husband will discover her secret, but because she is so utterly convinced that when he does, he, her protector, will protect her, and take the blame upon himself; that he will accept shame and disgrace and ruin, all for her sake. The thought that he will do so almost drives her mad: Nora believes in the mask her husband wears: she thinks it his real face.

But the resolution of the play is not the resolution of the blackmail plot; that is resolved quite unexpectedly, and with surprising ease. And then the real theme, which had been introduced in the very first scene between husband and wife, and which has been simmering beneath the surface while Nora’s attention (and ours) had been distracted by other things, establishes itself again centre stage. And when it does take centre stage, we realise that it had been there all along. For when the crisis does break, Torvald’s mask falls: he is no protector. He cannot even think of such a thing. The idea of protecting his wife by sacrificing himself does not even occur to him. Instead, he turns on her, and speaks the cruellest, most hurtful things a wife could ever expect to hear from a husband.

But then, suddenly, everything is all right: the crisis has passed, and the threat of blackmail no longer hangs over them. And, as far as Torvald is concerned, they can go back to being as they were. But Nora had seen the mask fall, and she cannot believe in it any more. And, far from the baby talk she had put on for his benefit, she speaks clearly, adult to adult: there is, as she says, a “reckoning” to be made.

We have been married now for eight years. Doesn’t it occur to you that this is the first time the two of us, you and I, man and wife, are talking seriously together?

No, it hadn’t occurred to him. It occurs to her, for she is the more intelligent of the two, despite her having acted otherwise. Once his mask is off,  there’s no putting it back on again, and she must unmask herself also.

Torvald, in this final scene, is, of course, shocked, but he does accept what she says. For, like Nora, he too has been wearing a mask that had not suited him, and he too does not know who or what he really is. After eight years of marriage, after eight years of living on lies, lies about their marriage, lies about their own selves, they, for the very first time, speak to each other. And it is deeply moving. So used have they become to the masks they wore, now that these masks are off, neither knows who they really are.

Some productions make Torvald the villain of the piece. This is wrong. He is simply an ordinary man, not too bright perhaps, but a man who, like, perhaps, most of us, does not question the values of the society he lives in. He is no villain. In one production I have seen, Torvald, when he loses his head, actually strikes his wife. This is a grotesque misjudgement. Nora is leaving not because of domestic violence: she is leaving for reasons far more complex, and the introduction of physical violence is not only uncalled for in Ibsen’s text, it detracts from the true motivations. Nora leaves not because she has been physically abused (she hasn’t): she leaves because she has to know the truth. As with Brand, living a life based upon lies is not an option, and, no matter whom she hurts in the process – her husband, her children, even her own self – it is the Truth that has to take precedence. In that final, solemn scene, there is no room for further subterfuge.

It has perhaps become too easy nowadays to nod away in agreement with Nora in the final scene. That was the way society used to be, but we are so much more enlightened now. We may even congratulate ourselves on it. But Ibsen had intended that scene to be uncomfortable, and the production would fail badly if this scene serves but to reassure us in our modern certainties.

For that final scene, even in our more enlightened times, genuinely is shocking. The masks we nowadays find ourselves wearing may not be the ones worn by Nora and Torvald, but it is not possible to live in any sort of society without wearing some mask or other, and allowing our faces to grow into them. Inevitably, all our lives are based on lies or deceptions of some sort or other: we wouldn’t be able to live in peace with our fellow human beings if we were to be uncompromisingly our own selves: like Brand, we would have no choice but to exile ourselves from society, and, perhaps, find our own pristine Ice Church, untouched by human corruption.  To live amongst our fellow humans is to compromise, that is, to lie, to deceive – at least up to a point. And what becomes of our true selves then? Is it then even reasonable to talk of such things?

This is not to say that Ibsen had not written a social drama, a feminist drama advocating – indeed, insisting upon – independence and autonomy for women. Despite anything he may have said to the contrary, this is an accurate description of A Doll’s House.  But if we see no more than this, we tame the play, as it were, we domesticate and make palatable that which, I think, retains still its power to disturb.

Perhaps thankfully, most of us are not Brand. We aren’t Nora either. We do not insist on the Truth at all costs, however much we may like to think we do: we compromise ourselves as individuals to be able to live in peace with our fellow humans; and, since we have to compromise, since we have to deceive ourselves a bit in  the process, we find ways of justifying it to ourselves. (That is, if we notice  it at all.) Perhaps that is the sensible thing to do. But Ibsen couldn’t allow matters to rest there: in his very next play, Ghosts, published just two years after A Doll’s House, he presents an unflinching look at the consequences of living our lives upon convenient deceptions. The vehement slamming of the door as Nora walks out on her husband and children at the end of A Doll’s House marks the end of one story, but there are many others still to be told.

A lack of vision

I often think my visual receptivity may be lacking. Yes, I know, I have written on various paintings from time to time on this blog, but I have always focussed on the dramatic content of the painting – on what the painting depicts – rather than on the purely pictorial elements. This is partly because I am not qualified to write on such matters, but only partly: lack of expertise doesn’t generally prevent me from sounding off. My reticence on these matters is mainly due, I think, to my realisation that I can’t respond as keenly to visual stimuli as I can to others.

Take dance, for instance. I have a great admiration for the immense skill of dancers, and their obvious dedication to their art, but rarely if ever has dance affected me to anywhere near the same depth that other art forms have. I can enjoy the grace and elegance of Astaire and Rogers, or the exuberance of the Nicholas Brothers, Ann Miller, or Gene Kelly, but, other than a relatively superficial enjoyment, none of this has ever really meant that much to me; I could quite contentedly live without these things, as I couldn’t, say, without my books, or my music. Ballet, I am sorry to say, leaves me cold; modern dance I cannot make any sense of. Dance is among the most central of art forms in Indian culture (more so, I think, than it is in the West), but the traditional  Indian  dances I have seen  have left me utterly unmoved.

Needless to say, these are not comments on dance as an art form, but on myself. And yet, there is much ballet music that is dear to me – Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, and so on. I love it when the music itself seems to dance, when the sounds convey that sense of movement. “What can dancers add to The Rite of Spring that the music does not itself convey?” I ask myself. The answer, obviously, is “a lot”, otherwise skilled dancers wouldn’t dedicate themselves to it, and neither would discerning viewers go to see it:  the deficiency is, once again, in me.

I can see evidence of this deficiency of mine everywhere. Take plays, for instance. In Hamlet, Claudius says “We shall hear a play” (the emphasis is mine). Claudius thinks of a play as something primarily to be heard – and I agree. Radio drama tends to give me more satisfaction than television drama, especially these days when visual gimmickry (or, at least, what I consider to be such) all too often distracts from the dramatic content. And, despite having seen Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – a very favourite play of mine – on stage on several occasions, no version that I have seen has given me anything like what I have experienced from various audio recordings. Shakespeare’s language creates its own pictures that the stage, to my mind, can never quite match. For anyone wanting to experience Antony and Cleopatra, I’d direct them first and foremost to the audio recording by Irene Worth and Richard Johnson; or by Pamela Brown and Anthony Quayle; or by Frances Barber and David Harewood. Really – what can visuals add to what Shakespeare has already given us in words? Those words take the mind to places that no visual effect could possibly enhance.

Similarly with opera. A live performance is a special occasion, of course, but when I am at home, audio recordings often satisfy more than DVDs.

I won’t bore you with further examples: I think you get the picture. I am just not a very “visual” person.

I exaggerate, of course, to make my point. It’s not that I don’t appreciate visual elements: of course I do. It’s just that I don’t appreciate them enough. It’s just that words and sounds make a greater impression upon me than light and movement, shapes and colours.

This deficiency of mine, or relative deficiency, takes on greater significance when it comes to my appreciation of the most recent of all art forms – cinema. Nowadays, the word “cinematic” is used to refer almost exclusively to its visual elements: but cinema covers everything – the aural and the dramatic and the literary as well as the visual. Even more so perhaps than Wagnerian opera, it epitomises what Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk – a confluence of all the different arts. The dramatic construction, the words spoken, the themes addressed, are all contributory factors to a film’s success, no less than are the lighting, the editing, the cinematography. To refer only to the purely visual aspects as “cinematic” seems to me to take a lop-sided view of the medium: there seems to me, after all, no shortage of films of the highest quality that rely primarily on the dialogue, and in which the visual elements, though certainly not negligible, are mere means to an end, and, sometimes, perhaps, little more than functional.

But then, there are films that, equally legitimately, focus on the visual aspects rather than on the literary or the dramatic, and here, I do feel I am at a disadvantage. Recently, I went to see 2001 – A Space Odyssey with a friend who names this as his favourite film. And, needless to say given all I have said above, it is a film I have remained strangely detached from. There is hardly any dialogue; and what drama there is – the conflict between the astronauts and the computer – only starts to develop some half way through the film, and is resolved long before the end. I went along to see it again, my friend’s enthusiasm awakening something of my own; but, while I can see that it is visually imaginative and thematically ambitious; while I can understand why it fills enthusiasts with a sense of awe; all it really awakened in me was a sense of my own deficiency in these matters. What awe I felt was due mainly to the music of Strauss and Ligeti on the soundtrack rather than to anything on the screen. In short, while I could sense why it arouses such powerful feeling in others, I could not summon up such feelings in myself.

So where does that leave me with other films that are more visual than literary? Where the essence of the film lies primarily, or even solely, in what we see? Undisputed cinematic masterpieces such as, say, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, or Bergman’s Persona? It’s not that I am blind to the merits of these films: far from it. But I can’t help feeling that, due to the limitations of my perspective, I am not perhaps getting as much out of these films as many others do.

And there are many other films that are rated very highly indeed, but where – unlike Mirror or Persona, where I can at least glimpse (though not entirely grasp) something of greatness – I can see little or anything at all of any merit. Vertigo, for instance. It is rarely too far from critics’ Top Ten lists, and the last time Sight and Sound held their prestigious critics’ poll, it was actually voted Number 1. Of course, it’s easy (and possibly desirable) to ignore such polls: art is not, after all, a sporting competition. But the fact remains that a very large number of knowledgeable and discerning people see great merit in a work that has always seemed to me (as do many other Hitchcock films) dramatically weak and thematically shallow. But I don’t know that I am in a position to say I am right and they are wrong, that my discernment is superior to others’. Indeed, I don’t think anyone is in a position to take such a stance, though many (rather distressingly, I find), do.

I feel I am on safer ground with literature, but even here, I can’t help but feel that there is so much that,  due to my personal temperament, is closed to me. The older I get, the more I sense this, and the more I question just how much of the vast range of human feeling I am capable of taking in. My own imaginative orbit, in comparison to all that has ever been thought and felt, is minuscule, and I frankly feel overwhelmed by it all.

I don’t really see the arts as didactic, but if they do teach us anything at all, it is how vast the range of human experience is. And I think I should perhaps be content with what I have gained from it, and not worry too much over all that has passed me by. And, the next time I feel like doing a hatchet job on something I didn’t much care for, to take a few steps back first, and take a deep breath. For, after all, it is not just in visual matters that my receptivity may be lacking.

Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass

I can’t honestly remember whether I have read Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels before. I think I may have read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was about ten or so, but I have never returned to it: it wasn’t among my childhood favourites, as were, say, Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles. And Through the Looking Glass, I don’t think I have read at all. But these are books one thinks one has read, even when one hasn’t. One recognises the scenes and characters – the Cheshire Cat whose grin remains after it has disappeared; the Mad Hatter’s tea party; Humpty Dumpty explaining the meaning of “portmanteau words”; and so on: these are all iconic. The poems – “Jabberwocky”, “The White Knight’s Song” – are standards in just about every anthology of English verse, and rightly so. One even recognises the allusions: when Eliot writes of “the door we never opened into the rose garden”, it is inevitably Lewis Carroll who comes to mind. (Well, my mid, at least.) When so much about these books is so well known, we frankly can’t help wondering whether they need to be read at all.

Well, in the recent heat, with the mind too hot and bothered to be focussing on books that stretch the brain further than it is willing to be stretched these days, I thought I’d give them a try. And I am glad I did. They did not surprise: I found them every bit as charming, as funny, and as delightful as their reputation would suggest. I was surprised also at the depiction of Alice herself: stereotypes might suggest that a seven-year-old girl, intended to be delightful in English novels written in the 1860s and 70s, would be sweet, gentle, well-mannered, and respectful of her elders and betters; but Carroll presents instead a girl with a mind very much of her own, who is capable of losing her temper, who can at times be obstinate, who has not always paid the greatest of attention to her lessons, and who is prepared to talk back … in brief, a girl well short of the standards of what a Good Well-Behaved Girl should be. And best of all, while she finds what she sees distinctly odd, she never seems unduly put out by anything: she takes it all within her confident stride.

And yes, it is very funny. At least, I laughed a lot. Carroll was himself a mathematician, and well versed, presumably, in the rules of logic, and the ingenuity with which logic is constantly turned on its head is delightful. When the Red Queen speaks of having seen hills “compared to which that is a valley”, we know there is something not quite rational about this, but it is not entirely easy to explain where precisely the absurdity lies.

Carroll touches on a great many philosophical conundrums, but he is careful always to remain playful: never is the narrative in any danger of becoming heavy-handed. For, whatever delight an adult reader may take in these books, they are written for children, and Carroll never forgets this. But can a descriptive feature of a subject exist independently of the subject itself? The Cheshire Cat’s grin remains for a while when the Cat itself has gone, and the fact of a grin, Carroll insists, remains meaningful even in the absence of the grinner. In Through a Looking Glass, Alice at one point wanders into a wood in which she forgets the name of things – including her own name. And with this forgetting of names, she forgets what everything is – her own self included. Does existence itself depend upon our ability to identify, and to classify?

And so on. I am sure those versed in philosophy would have a whale of a time identifying all those allusions to various philosophical problems. But those of us who, like myself, are not versed in these matters, can still find themselves intrigued by the subtle questions implicit in all the absurdity and the nonsense. And never for a moment does Carroll lose his lightness of touch: these books are primarily intended for children, and whatever delight generations of adults may have taken in them, it is by its ability to delight children that they stand or fall.

Like every great comic writer, Carroll has a fine ear for the rhythms of language. A stand-up comedian can get laughs with the timing, but in writing, the timing is more up to the reader than the writer: what a comic writer must have is mastery over the rhythms of prose. All great comic writers – Austen, Dickens, Wodehouse – had this mastery, and Carroll certainly does not disappoint. For instance:

`Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; `and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well–‘

`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

`They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

`They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; `they’d have been ill.’

`So they were,’ said the Dormouse; `very ill.’

Now, there’s nothing particularly comic about the content of that: three sisters live down a well, they eat only treacle, and are very ill: not, frankly, the greatest flight of comic fancy. But Carroll’s phrasing is so perfect, his ear for the rhythm of the language so sharp, that he gets a laugh even where, one might have thought, there isn’t one.

Throughout these books, we are challenged to interpret, but even to make the attempt is folly. Carroll’s primary interest seems to me language, and what it signifies. There are games with language throughout. Words are signifiers: they exist as labels for things that are not words. A “chair” is, after all, simply a monosyllabic sound, consisting of five letters when written: but we use this sound to signify the piece of furniture we sit on. The word itself is a symbol for something other than itself, and we are happy with this kind of symbolism, because it works, and serves our purpose. But Carroll was neither the first nor the last to detect something slippery about words, and, throughout, he exploits this slippery quality, forcing words to signify all kinds of unexpected things. In the famous virtuoso poem “Jabberwocky”, he uses nonsense words – word that are utter gibberish – to tell a story that we can nonetheless understand.

Humpty Dumpty knows all about words: he explains at one point the various possible meanings of the word “impenetrability”, and when Alice comments “That’s a great deal to make one word mean”, the words suddenly become real entities in themselves:

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I pay it extra.”

And soon, he is describing words coming round to him on Saturday night to get paid.

He then proceeds to interpret the opening lines of the poem “Jabberwocky”, and it makes sense … of sorts. And that in itself is worrying …

I am not sure why it took me so long to get round to reading these iconic books (if, indeed, I haven’t read them before: I can’t quite remember), but it was a sheer pleasure. And part of the pleasure too were John Tenniel’s illustrations: others have illustrated these books since, and often very well, but none has superseded Tenniel.

Possibly, Carroll runs out of steam a bit towards the end of Through the Looking Glass: the chapter about the Lion and the Unicorn isn’t among the most memorable, and while the White Knight’s Song is a masterpiece, the running gag about the White Knight constantly falling off his horse seems a bit forced and uninspired given the brilliant flights of comic fantasy in the rest of this work. But it’s wrong to cavil. These two books deserve all the praise that has been heaped on them over the years.

“The Pillars of Society” by Henrik Ibsen

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

After the soaring poetry and the mythic imagery of Brand and Peer Gynt, the scrupulously realistic portrayal of citizens of a small provincial town seems inevitably a bit of an anti-climax. Not that The Pillars of Society had come immediately after these two verse dramas: Ibsen had taken a curious route from those earlier heights of poetic imagination to this doggedly earthbound depiction of ordinary people living their everyday lives. He had written that vast and exotic two part historic drama Emperor and Galilean, and also a comedy, The League of Youth, the latter generally judged by posterity (correctly, I think) as being diverting, but, perhaps, a bit slight. The Pillars of Society is, however, far from exotic, and, despite its focus on the quotidian, far from slight. It is the first of a sequence of twelve plays that Ibsen, nearly twenty-five years later, referred to as a “cycle”. It seems, however, highly unlikely that Ibsen had any thought of composing a cycle of plays when he embarked on this: if cycle it is, then its cyclical elements, at least to begin with, were accidental. But accidental or not, the thematic connections linking these twelve plays seem to me apparent, despite Ibsen’s stylistic development over the years during which these plays were written, and despite also the often radical new directions in which he took his art. And similarly apparent are the thematic connections with Brand and with Peer Gynt: the break with those earlier poetic dramas was not as thorough as it might seem.

But whatever poetic instincts Ibsen had – from the evidence of Brand and Peer Gynt, and also of his later plays, they were substantial – seem almost deliberately suppressed here. The scene here is not the high mountains and ice-vaulted crevices we see in Brand, nor the mythic, phantasmagoric landscapes of the mind that we find in Peer Gynt: it is, instead, a small, provincial town, all too real and too solid, all too subject to the hard laws of business and of economics: it is a thriving shipping port. And the characters populating this drama do not have the stature and the larger-than-life presence of Brand or of Peer Gynt: these are all, in comparison, small people, and their poetic vision, should they exist, are well hidden away beneath the unexciting pressure of earning a daily living. At the centre of the drama, but by no means dominating it (as it is in essence an ensemble piece), is Karsten Bernick, solid and respectable, the chief pillar of this society. He owns the shipyard on which the prosperity of the entire town depends. He runs it with a ruthless efficiency characteristic of capitalism untrammelled by considerations of social conscience: and yet, at the same time, his ruthless efficiency has brought wealth and stability to a kind of society that, as we had seen in Brand, used regularly to suffer from famine. As the drama progresses, we see Bernick as, morally, a most reprehensible character: his standing and his reputation, both public and private, are built on lies; his entire existence, his status as a pillar of society, is one of utter hypocrisy. The very base on which this society is built is morally rotten. And, on one level, this drama may be seen as an exposure of this moral rottenness, a demand – such as Brand might have made – that we face the truth and confess it, whatever the cost. But, at a deeper and somewhat subtler level, I don’t think things are quite so easy.

But before we try to plumb its depths, the surface demands exploration, as it is fascinating in itself. In many ways, it corresponds to the popular image of Ibsen: here is Ibsen the social reformer, hitting out at the lies and hypocrisies on which respectable society is built, pointing at us the finger of moral indignation: this is Ibsen as dramatist for social change. Somerset Maugham once mischievously characterised the plots of Ibsen’s plays as, essentially, an outsider entering a stuffy room, opening the window, and everyone, a consequence, dying of cold. This is no doubt unfair, but there is some truth in this caricature, and nowhere is this caricature more apparent than in The Pillars of Society. The society depicted in the first act is indeed unbearably stuffy, and the air is heavy with hypocrisy and with moral self-righteousness; an outsider does indeed enter, and, at the end of the act, literally opens a window. But this literal act is also, very obviously, a symbolic act, and the symbolic cold air let in proves devastating.

The play deals explicitly with what was, at the time, a theme of burning topical relevance. Ships allowed to sail even when known not to be seaworthy was a notorious scandal of the time, especially in a seafaring nation such as Norway. As Michael Meyer says in his introduction to his own translation, British Member of Parliament Samuel Plimsoll had been fighting for years against “the cold-blooded and unscrupulous sacrifice of human life by sending men to sea in rotten ships”, merely to allow the owners collecting on the insurance afterwards. In British Parliament, Plimsoll openly called these owners “murderers”. A number of such instances of this occurred in Norway also, and they were much publicised. But that a play dealing explicitly with so topical a theme can still even now triumphantly hold the stage does indicate that there is more to this play than merely a Drama of Social Reform. And if we wish to discover what more there is, we need to look a bit deeper. And once we do, we discover Peer Gynt enjoined by Brand to acknowledge the Truth – the Truth, at all costs.

For, from Brand’s perspective, it is only when one acknowledges the Truth and lives by it that one can find one’s inner self – that same inner self that Peer Gynt discovered at the end he does not possess. But acknowledging the Truth is painful in the extreme; and, what is more, it does not guarantee us happiness. For Brand, such a consideration is irrelevant: Truth must be acknowledged for its own sake, for it is an end in itself. But for the Peer Gynts among us, this is far from obvious.

Bernick is, effectively, Peer Gynt in the real world: that is, the “real world”, as opposed to the world of the poetic imagination that Ibsen had previously given us. The lies in which Bernick has become entangled, and on which his entire life, both public and private, is now based, had not come about out of an evil nature: they had merely been the easiest way of getting what he wanted. When obstacles had come his way, he simply, like Peer, went around. But that is all in the past now, and he is a success. And on his success has depended the success of the entire town: he is indeed a pillar of society. In the very first scene, Bernick’s chief clerk tells Aune, the shipyard foreman:

You are first and foremost foreman of Consul Bernick’s shipyard. You have first and foremost a duty towards the community which is Consul Bernick’s company; because it’s what we live by.

Whatever the lies and the hypocrisy, the community is Consul Bernick’s company. If the company falls, the community falls. Exposing the lies may be morally the correct thing to do: it is what Brand would have insisted upon – not as a means to some end, but because the Truth is not something that may be compromised. But for us ordinary mortals, the dilemma is real.

In a stage of brilliantly staged scenes, the lies upon which Bernick’s reputation has been built, and also upon which his company has been built – which, we are reminded, is what the entire community lives by – are brought to light. But what should Bernick do? On the surface, it is clear-cut: he should tell the truth. But below the surface, the moral waters are murkier. It may be said, with justification, that when Bernick talks of the good of the community, he is only making excuses. But even if that were true, if Bernick’s company goes under, the entire community would go under too. Is Truth really worth so great a price? Are the moral demands of Brand at all reasonable?

But then, if we reject Brand’s moral imperatives, what are we left with? Bernick at one point considers allowing a ship to sail he knows not to be shipworthy, because the man who could bring down his entire business kingdom would, he knew, be on it. In short, he contemplates murder – and mass-murder at that. And he tries to justify even this – seemingly to the schoolmaster Rørlund, but, ultimately, to his own troubled conscience:

Bernick: When one stands at the threshold of a far-reaching enterprise which aims at the improved well-being of thousands – , if this thing were to require one single sacrifice – ?

Rørlund: In what way, sir?

Bernick: Suppose, for example, that a man is considering building a large factory. He knows for certain – since experience has taught him this – that sooner or later during the running of this factory human life will be lost.

Rørlund: Yes, that is only too probable.

Bernick: Or a man embarks on a mining business. He takes family men and youngsters in the prime of life into his service. It can be said with absolute certainty, can it not, that they won’t all come out of it alive?

Rørlund: Yes, unfortunately, that’s probably so.

Bernick: Well. Such a man knows beforehand, then, that the enterprise he wants to set in motion will undoubtedly cost human lives at some point. But this enterprise is for the common good; for every human life it costs, it will just as undoubtedly further the welfare of hundreds.

Whatever Bernick’s motivation, this is true. Even if the Truth may be discerned (and Ibsen was to question even that in later plays), is it necessarily desirable? It is this terrible question that creates a terrible and terrifying undercurrent beneath the seemingly simple confrontation on the surface between Truth and Falsehood. And it is because of this undercurrent that the play remains still so a thrilling a piece of drama: without this undercurrent, it would merely be a call for social reform which, once the reform is implemented, ceases to be of any but historical interest.

But what had been Bernick’s motivation in setting up his business kingdom in the first place? It seems unlikely that he had been motivated by the welfare of the town’s citizens: that had been, at best, a by-product. Bernick himself says that he had tried to salvage his family business, which, when he was a young man, had been in danger of going under. He had saved that business, and, as a consequence, had save the entire community of which he is now so estimable a pillar. And as we see him break less than entirely honest deals, it seems clear that his true motivation had been power – power not merely among his fellow-citizens, but power also over Nature itself, which he feels he can harness:

Imagine what a powerful lever [the railway will] represent for our entire community. Think of the enormous tracts of forest that’ll be made accessible; think of rich seams of ore that can be worked; think of the river with one waterfall after the other. Just imagine all the industry that can be established there.

In a much later play, John Gabriel Borkman, Borkman too had been entranced by the possibility of subduing Nature to his will, but Borkman, in his single-mindedness, had more resembled Brand: Bernick, for all his desire, remains Peer Gynt, for ever seeking the easy way around. But now, the man who had sought power, who had sought to harness Nature itself, becomes fully aware of the moral depths he has suck to as a consequence of pursuing his desires. He realises a curse is upon him, and hopes his son will one day grow up to redeem, and to lift the curse:

The inheritance I am giving him is a thousand times worse than you know. But the curse must lift some day surely. Then again – Perhaps –

Such a figure recalls another figure from that era: Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the last instalment of the mighty Ring Cycle, had been premiered in 1866, just one year before the premier of The Pillars of Society, and it is not too far-fetched, I think, to draw parallels between Ibsen’s Bernick and Wagner’s Wotan. Ibsen would certainly have known of the Ring Cycle – his friend and compatriot, Edvard Grieg, tried to persuade him to go and see it at Bayreuth – but Ibsen, who never cared much for music, had resisted. But it seems unlikely that Ibsen would have found his themes from what he had known of Wagner’s work: we should not really be too surprised when major artists living through the same times hit upon similar themes. This was, after all, the Age of Capital: faster than ever before, Nature and its resources were being harnessed to enhance human power. It would be surprising indeed for intelligent and perceptive artists not to wonder at what the consequences of all this may be. But their foci were different: where Wagner was concerned – amongst other things – with the question of redemption, Ibsen’s focus was on the nature of Truth, and of the all too human compromises we make with it.

This play ends, seemingly, on a moral triumph: after his own son is found to be in imminent danger, Bernick relents, publicly confesses, and all, apparently, ends well. But while the play itself ends on a bright major key, far too many issues remain unresolved. Bernick doesn’t, after all, reveal the whole truth: the most incriminating part of it, including the attempted murder, he holds back. Will that ever come out, we wonder? Will he have the moral courage? And even if he does, should he? Would not his company fall, and the entire community with it?

The play is rounded off satisfactorily as far as the dramatic presentation was concerned, but there remain too many unresolved questions. Possibly because these questions cannot be resolved satisfactorily. Ibsen was to return to these questions with even deeper vision in subsequent plays of the cycle. Indeed, many of the themes broached here return. Among the subsidiary themes in this play, for instance, is the position of women – intelligent people, but whose aspirations and energies are crushed under society’s structure: in A Doll’s House, the very next play in the cycle, Ibsen focuses on this. The theme of the past haunting the present, with terrifying consequence, returns in Ghosts; and in the next play, An Enemy of the People, Ibsen again returns to te theme of the Truth, and public good.

In A Wild Duck, he questions the extent to which we may live with the Truth; while in Rosmersholm, he explores our ability even to recognise it. And so on. With The Pillars of Society, we are only at the beginning.

“The Optimist’s Daughter” by Eudora Welty

What can we do but enumerate old themes? Love, loss, death, remembrance, and the passage of time that allows us fresh glimpses into these familiar things … It is hard to imagine a time when serious artists won’t want to address such matters. No hankering for novelty can remove these things from the centre of our lives. What is there to be said on these matters that is new? Has not all that can be said already been said?

Perhaps the answer to that question is that it is not a matter of saying anything new about them. Or, indeed, a matter of saying anything at all. For no-one addressing these themes do so because they wish to impart some sort of message: any message capable of being expressed on these matters is, almost inevitably, too superficial. But we can contemplate. Not contemplate to arrive at some sort of answer, or even to arrive at some sort of resolution, but contemplate simply because we cannot help ourselves. And each contemplation is new, because each perspective is personal, individual. We live, we love, and then we die, and those remaining remember. We know ‘tis common – all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity – but there is little point asking why it seems so particular with us. We know not “seems”.

These old themes are unapologetically at the centre of The Optimist’s Daughter, a short novel, and Eudora Welty’s last, published in the 1970s in her old age. In its concentration, it is almost a short story. Its principal character, Laurel, now living in Chicago, returns to her homeland in the South: her aged father is ill. At first, it does not seem very serious: a standard eye operation. But he fails to recover. His second wife, the vulgar, frivolous, and self-obsessed Fay, much younger than her frail husband, has little sympathy with death; but although she may think that she is on the side of life, she isn’t: life can mean but little if the significance of death fails to inspire awe, or even, as in this instance, adequate acknowledgement. She urges her husband to live – not for his own sake, but for her own. Possibly, she is responsible, in her thoughtlessness, for hastening her husband’s end. But it all means little to her: she is incapable of contemplation, and cannot even begin to understand why it all seems so particular with others. However, for Laurel, the last link with her past is now gone. Her mother had died years earlier; and her husband had died in the war. Though but middle-aged, no-one is now left alive with whom she retains any strong emotional tie: all whom she had loved are now dead. What can she do but remember?

Her remembering is largely left till the closing parts of the novel. The earlier parts of the novel describe, with all the economy of a great writer of short stories, Laurel’s father’s last illness, and the network of relationships between the old man and his young wife, and between father and daughter. The events move swiftly, as the old man fails to recover from what had appeared initially a routine operation; and as the wife, impatient with thoughts of death, and resentful that her feelings (she had felt the operation unnecessary) were being ignored, unwittingly and thoughtlessly hastens his end. At the funeral, Laurel meets again with her old neighbours, and old family friends, but finds herself feeling distant from it all. Her childhood home will now be passing on to Fay. The past is receding quickly. And, unexpectedly, Fay’s redneck family, turn up. She had said previously that she had no family, and it is not hard to conjecture why: even with her limited intelligence, she knew that they would not be approved of.

The resolution of the novel comes when, towards the end, Laurel is left on her own for a while in the old house that she knows she must soon leave for ever. And it is here that all that had gone previously, all that may have seemed fragmentary, fall into place, and we see them in proper focus. Here, at last, Laurel can think about a past that has left nothing behind, that can now exist only in her memory. Now she can re-evaluate.

Re-evaluation of the past, contemplating on why things have turned out as they have, understanding the ground we have occupied in relation to those whom we have loved, are the themes also of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night; but the past there had been turbulent. The past here seems, in contrast, placid and happy. But, as in O’Neill’s play, love and hatred are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps all loves contain some element of hatred.

A new character, only mentioned in passing earlier in the novel, now emerges in the foreground: Laurel’s dead mother. As Laurel’s mind shifts back and forth between the present and various times from the past, she remembers how she had reacted to her mother’s long illness and eventual death; and she remembers also how her mother had reacted to her parents’ death. A chain emerges, a human chain, of departing and of remembering, stretching back over time, across generations.

Her mother, like her father, had also lost her sight towards the end (vision, and lack of it, are among the recurring images of this novel), but, unlike her father’s, her mother’s illness had been a long one. She had, one suspects, never quite managed to tear herself away emotionally from her strong attachment to her family home in West Virginia – “up home”: for all her closeness to her husband, the home he offered in Mississippi never quite matched up to what she left behind, and the breaking, one by one, of her ties with her past – the death of her father, of her mother – had been for her particularly traumatic. And during her own long, final illness, her mind had deteriorated – or, as Fay puts it, “she died a crazy”. Laurel’s mother had been, towards the end, in despair, and her husband, though loving her, could not acknowledge the nature of the tragedy they were living through:

He loved his wife. Whatever she did that she couldn’t help doing was all right. Whatever she was driven to say was all right. But it was not all right! Her trouble was that very desperation. And no-one had any power to cause that except the one she desperately loved, who refused to consider that she was desperate. It was betrayal on betrayal.

Her loving husband, Laurel’s loving father, is an “optimist”: his nature is such that he cannot even bring himself to believe that certain things are beyond the reach merely of our loving; he could not bring himself to acknowledge the essential tragedy of our lives – the losses, the pains, the passing through nature to eternity.

As Laurel goes through her mother’s things, destroying all which she does not wish to come into Fay’s possession, her mind travels back and forth in time, remembering, interpreting, trying to understand. All the while, a storm is coming; and a bird that has flown down the chimney is trapped inside the house. Symbols, certainly, but to try to pin down these symbols is reductive: better, I think, to take these pieces of imagery at face value, and allow them to resonate in our minds. The course of Laurel’s thoughts may seem random, but they are carefully structured. And finally, her mind turns to her husband, Phil, killed at war:

If Phil could have lived –

But Phil was lost. Nothing of their life together remained except in her own memory; love was sealed away into its perfection, and had remained there.

What might have been, what might have emerged from their love, cannot disrupt that perfection in which it is now sealed.

There remains only a final confrontation with Fay before Laurel leaves for ever her childhood home. Laurel had wanted to hurt Fay, but when the time comes, it doesn’t seem worth it:

She had been ready to hurt Fay. She had wanted to hurt her, and had known herself capable of doing it. But such is the strangeness of her mind, it had been the memory of the child Wendell that had prevented her.

Wendell was a child who had been with Fay’s ghastly family that had descended so unexpectedly on the funeral. And he, at least, was blameless. Laurel does not know why the memory of that child should now prevent her from hurting Fay: she puts it down vaguely to “strangeness of her mind”.

Fay ends, as she thinks, triumphant: “I belong to the future,” she declares. And Laurel lets her have her moment of triumph because she knows this is not true.

Memory lived not in initial possession, but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.

These are all old, old themes. Welty’s perspective is quiet and unassuming. She meditates, as Laurel does, on the nature of loss, and of memory, that fragile and delicate thing that is nonetheless the sole remaining link to that which has been lost. But Welty is also utterly unsentimental: she is well aware of the deep resentment and hatred that can reside even within the most selfless and devoted love; and how even the most buoyant of optimism can be a denial of our lives’ tragedies – a denial almost of life itself. Love does not conquer all, and it is mere foolishness imagining otherwise.

This is a quite exquisite novel from one of the century’s finest writers.