Translator: Jenny Covan
Originally Published: Literaturny Kritik, December, 1934
Source: Ibsen ed. Angel Flores, Critics Group, New York, 1937
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org, October 2000.
HENRIK IBSEN was a Norwegian writer and outstanding dramatist, whose influence spread far beyond the boundaries of his native country. Born in the provincial town of Skien, into a middleclass family who became poverty-stricken while he was still a child, Ibsen began life as a typical petty bourgeois forced to struggle for his daily bread. He started his career as a pharmacist's apprentice in the tiny village of Grimstad. Aloofness and independence had always been a rigid tradition with his family, and Ibsen adhered to this tradition through a keen sense of personal pride and a highly developed feeling of self-esteem; but as he was constantly thrown into contact with individuals and groups upon whom he was compelled to be dependent, his attitude was bound to result in a strong feeling of protest. Early in life Ibsen began to regard with sorrow and contempt the manifestations of servility and cowardice displayed by the poverty-stricken bourgeois toward the upper classes. Living amid such social surroundings, and in such a frame of mind, it was natural for Ibsen to turn radical. The personal indignities he was made to endure--some of them inflicted upon him by his own countrymen--and the widespread injustice he witnessed in the world at large, compelled him to take a stand against his own self and to adopt an attitude of almost revolutionary aggressiveness.
The grave events of 1848 left a radically different impress upon each of the various European sectors. The advent of large-scale capitalism, overwhelming the self-supporting petty bourgeoisie, became an important factor in the rise of numerous revolutionary movements at that time. It is significant that such a state of affairs should have also prevailed in Norway, where, for political reasons, the petty bourgeoisie occupied a predominant position and were considered the national and economic leaders of the country--much more so than in any other European state. In the near future this circumstance was to create a special place for representatives of the Norwegian bourgeoisie protesting against capitalist oppression; and it also assured European recognition to its greatest native talent, Ibsen.
We are in possession of an extremely interesting letter written by Engels which is highly pertinent to this state of affairs. In 1890 the writer Paul Ernst, a Social-Democrat who subsequently withdrew from the Party, persuaded Engels to act as arbiter in a quarrel between himself and Hermann Bahr concerning Ibsen's treatment of the woman question. Ernst had defined Ibsen as a typical petty bourgeois writer. Engels, however, took exception to such loose generalizing, which, from the Marxist viewpoint, failed of effect because it lacked concreteness.
Engels' brilliant exposition definitely confirms the soundness of another Marxist analysis of Ibsen's work written by Plekhanov.
Ibsen's plays unquestionably voice the protest of the determined and powerful petty bourgeoisie against antagonistic capitalist principles--in the name of ... But here lies the difficulty. In the name of what, and why, did this powerful petty bourgeoisie call upon its literature for its ideal?
It is obvious that the prophets of this petty bourgeoisie had to exalt individualism, strong and fearless personality, indomitable will; these were not merely the basic virtues inherited from their ancestors of the golden age of Norwegian peasant-fishermen economics, but constituted as well, valuable support in the bourgeoisie's active resistance to capitalist elements.
It is rather absurd to speak of indomitable will without at the same time pointing out its goal. That goal might here have been g moderate impulse to oppose capitalism for the sake of safeguarding the independence of the small merchant. The latter, however, were being systematically ruined--although more slowly than in other countries-by the advance of capitalism; and the petty bourgeois intelligentsia could not reconcile itself to conservative principles--it had to elevate and idealize them somewhat, give them a certain glamor.
This marked the beginning of endless difficulties. For the petty bourgeoisie was unable to create a single mass ideal; it had lost faith in the security of the past, it could see in the present only the increasing yielding and servility of its own class, and was unable to visualize anything constructive for the future.
On this score, Rosa Luxembourg is entirely right in saying that Ibsen, despite his great talent, was not equipped with sufficient perspicacity to be able to evaluate the trends of his time, consequently his work had little concrete value.
Actually, Ibsen was a man of great idealistic impetuosity arising out of the social conditions depicted here, without any pre-arranged plan of action.
As a youth of twenty he became incensed at the spectacle of the destruction of nations and societies. He called upon the people to fight against tyrants, he wrote poetic messages to the Magyars sympathizing with their struggle for independence. He threw himself into his compatriots' battle against "Sweden, the Oppressor." He wrote an immature, chaotic play Catiline, dealing with the case of a slandered rebel, which seethed with indignation. And it is with this play that he began to meet success.
The sole ideal to which Norway would rally was patriotism. Capitalism, which was beginning to flourish in Norway, was to a certain extent interested in remaining independent of Swedish rule and Danish capital. The strong middle-class, which to this day continues to fight for ascendancy in the state, saw in Norway's Viking past not only a basis of patriotic pride but also the seed of keen class consciousness. That is why the plays Ibsen wrote before he returned to Christiania brought him a measure of success. Such plays were: The Warrior's Barrow, Lady Finger of Ostraat, The Feast of Solhaug and The Vikings of Helgeland.
This success brought Ibsen to Christiania and earned for him his appointment as director of the National Theatre. The Norwegian bourgeoisie became so convinced of Ibsen's merit as a national bard that he was granted a pension by the state. But Ibsen's role was a dual one. For he was not at all the poet of the upper classes; on the contrary, he burned with indignation at the laxness, duplicity, greed and treachery rampant about him. His trip to Rome was far from being a poet laureate's triumphant journey, resembled more a flight from an accursed native land. In his Love's Comedy Ibsen for the first time openly slapped the face of society about him; for the first time, too, he aimed a powerful blow at a condition which stunned him--the decadence of family life. This move brought down a storm of abuse upon his head.
Ibsen's flight marked a new period in his life. Henceforward it was a battle for integrity and dignity--as the upper bourgeoisie conceives these qualities--a battle against the despised servility and hypocrisy of the middle class; a battle against everything which was undermining its strength; against the evils which the bourgeoisie beheld in its offspring and foe--capitalism.
Like huge, monumental figures dominating his plays dealing with social problems, stand Ibsen's Brand and Peer Gynt.
Brand was of profound significance in that it revealed a bourgeois class consciousness, or rather, it would have had greater significance if the bourgeoisie, which had no future, could actually have been saved.
Brand is the exemplar of the man of strength and integrity, the teacher of life who constantly admonishes everybody that integrity is man's most essential attribute; who advocates the avoidance of introspection and conflicting impulses. He points to the necessity of ceasing to shirk responsibility after it is acknowledged, and of desisting from deeds which bring remorse. He preaches strength of will: an individual's decisions must be adhered to until death; thus he will achieve the integrity demanded by the nobility of his soul, his objective powers, and his essential morality.
This is the substance of Ibsen's philosophy. As portrayed in Brand, this ethical individual is the prototype of the middle-class landlord. The weapon which Brand wants to fashion is one that is familiar to this independent bourgeois. But, as we have previously remarked, the absence of any definite program makes of all this structure a mere empty shell.
Ibsen invariably convinces his readers. It is all the same to me what this or that particular hero does, what goal he chooses for himself, so long as he strives to attain it wholeheartedly and with undivided effort. But Ibsen's philosophy is even more futile than Kant's categorical imperative. It is the ethics of a class which holds vital power but is unaware of the part it can play in society.
One thing can never be resigned;
One gift there is, a man must keep,--
His inner self. He dares not bind,
He dares not stem, whate'er befall,
The headlong current of his Call;
It must flow on to the great deep.
A certain mysticism premeates this. Every individual has a great goal of some sort to attain. What it is no one knows. Give man complete freedom and in turn let him give his impulses and his ruling passion full play: all will be well.
Thus an intellectual-idealistic aura surrounds the basic principle of the middle class: the landlord--a king in his own house. But Ibsen understands perfectly that this empty external evanescence is only an ideal, entirely unrelated to actuality. He wrote as follows:
Traverse the land from beach to beach,
Try every man in heart and soul,
You'll find he has no virtue whole,
But just a little grain of each.
A little pious in the pew,
A little grave--his father's way,--
Over the cup a little gay,--
It was his father's fashion too!
A little warm when glasses clash,
And stormy cheer and song go round
For the small Folk, rock-will'd, rock-bound,
That never stood the scourge and lash.
A little free in promise-making;
And then, when vows in liquor will'd
Must be in mortal stress fulfill'd,
A little fine in promise-breaking.
Here everything is clearly revealed. Pride in the past is evident-although in Ibsen's opinion it has become nothing but empty words; and so is the realization that this past is dead.
Nevertheless the semi-mystic ending of Brand is a direct challenge to Ibsen, as though the dramatist himself understood the utter futility of his cause. Ibsen wants to lead his people farther and farther ahead. But where to? He himself does not know. And so Brand conducts his followers farther and farther up into the mountains, the snows, the glaciers. What for? No one knows. It is an idle picture. An` ascent to barren heights, where no one can live, and which accomplishes nothing. And when Brand, on his incongruous path, is engulfed by the avalanche, he cries out:
Shall they wholly mise thy Light
Who unto man's utmost might
Then suddenly, as though passing judgment upon Ibsen, God's voice is heard: "God is love."
It is as though Ibsen acknowledged that the road which Brand traveled--a read of stupendous demands upon himself and agonizing intolerance of the people around him--was a false road; that in reality the lofty pinnacle of truth to which he summoned mankind is much kinder, much more merciful, much closer to love--which Brand scorned--than to conquest, which Brand over-rated.
It is hard to tell whether Ibsen at that time had already begun to doubt, in his subconscious, the validity of his noble sermon. It is quite possible that in his mind and heart he knew that the weapon he had fashioned in his social arsenal was inadequate and useless. At any rate Ibsen continued to fight in its name for some time to come.
Nevertheless Brand remains one of Ibsen's positive types, while Peer Gynt, on the other hand, is all negative.
Peer Gynt is a complex play, overflowing with fantasy, mysticism, symbolism, and allegory, but as a whole its meaning is simple. It is a picture of a man (a typical Norwegian no doubt) bewildered and tossed by circumstances, whose convictions vacillate accordingly. He manages to protect himself, but only by becoming as pliable as wax; it becomes evident then that he is like an onion which can be peeled layer by layer and thus destroyed except for the removed layers. This demonstrates that despite the many aspects which Peer Gynt can assume, he has no soul. He is like a defective button come out of the mold. He is unable to fulfill any function, he lacks that which makes a human being's life justifiable; like the defective button he must be-thrown back into the mold and recast. If there is any salvation for him at all, according to Ibsen, it can only lie in the fact that Solveig loves him, and that in her imagination, as the old-fashioned guardian of the home, he will again find the germ of his lost identity.
Thus, on the one hand, Peer Gynt is a satire against the capitalistic spirit which had invaded Ibsen's small native country; on the other hand, it is a poetic longing for a monumental, grandiose assertion of the ego. It is also something of a hope and a plan of salvation through certain inner channels, through the enlightenment one seeks in one's intimate feelings, at one's own fireside. All this is undeniably permeated with pessimism, defeatism and resignation.
In Emperor and Galilean--a play of the same huge proportions and fantastic character as Peer Gynt, a play with some utterly obscure passages--Ibsen expresses despair of ever finding a way out.
Julian is portrayed as a strong man. He carries through Brand's plan. He maintains a firm stand against the oncoming historic epoch, in favor of what he deems to be a sounder system. But the epoch throttles him. In this play, this idea occurs to him frequently. Ibsen seeks to show the impotence of a great personality.
The Pretenders: A great many talented men who pretended to the crown have been rejected, according to history. Their claims were based on some original idea, first put forth by them. King Haakon, however, really deserved the crown because he had solved the problems of his time.
This thought was Hegel's.
Was Ibsen himself unable to solve the problems of his time? What prevented him from finding a wisdom so supreme that it could not fail to become reality?
Ibsen could have achieved his end only by alienating himself from his own class and joining the ranks of the proletariat--but Ibsen was incapable of taking such a step. That is why he himself could be only a pretender to the crown, a Julian opposing advancing capitalism, a brave defender of a hopeless state, a figure in the path of history.
The next phase of Ibsen's work is of great interest because he then occupies first rank among European dramatists. He shifts to an almost realistic technique. He writes of his times, his contemporaries, and the problems of the day. He demonstrates his mastery along the lines of the achievements of the French dramatists of the period--Augier, Sardou, Scribe, etc. But even at this stage of his creativeness--which can already be characterized as the social-realistic stage--we find certain traces of symbolism, a striving to add a dual meaning and an exhaustive, profound rationalization to the events and speeches in his plays.
Generally speaking, all of the dramas of this period evince a spirit of protest against capitalist debauch, against greed and vanity. Upon scrutinizing all these Bernicks, Bjorkmans and Solnesses, one often comes to the conclusion that Ibsen, as a strong bourgeois, was dutybound to defend the independence and integrity that had been Brand's; yet he failed to realize that he possessed the ethical power to condemn their ruling passion: the lust for wealth and power. They all emerge guilty, not because of their utter lack of principle, but rather because they are not unprincipled enough. They crush those who happen to cross them--their own people as well as strangers--crush them individually or collectively; yet this in itself does not seem to persuade Ibsen to condemn them. However, they themselves cannot bear their guilt proudly, or deny it on the ground that they have the right to do anything and everything. They seem to be victims of some sort of inner weakness, a self-abasement which eventually disrupts their entire future.
Nevertheless it would be arbitrary on this score to rank Ibsen as an ideologist of the upper middle class. And it would be equally incorrect to identify Brand's desire for integrity with Nietzsche's will to power.
Nietzsche, perhaps, might have accused capitalist heroes of still retaining some vestiges of conscience. But not Ibsen.
Ibsen holds that where purely human feelings and relationships are concerned, inhumanity is beyond the power of any man, except perhaps some sort of moral monster who does not at all appeal to him. In his "epilogue," When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen--symbolically, of course--excludes even art as an excuse. To sacrifice a woman, a living being, in order to use her as a model, an object by which to achieve fame, is an unforgivable crime.
Ibsen was unable to say what man's goal should be; yet, while demanding heroism, he denounces capitalism and wealth, the sordid and cynical form which heroism took at that time.
Another play of Ibsen's must be mentioned, a play which likewise betrays his inner vacillations even on matters which he held sacred.
To demand truth in all human relationships, to fight arrogance, to tear off all masks--are not these the aims of those members of the middle class who despise all the complications of commercial life, all the hypocrisy of capitalist civilization?
Ibsen's play The Wild Duck seems designed to illustrate these principles.
The Ekdal family lives in an atmosphere of disgusting hypocrisy. Gregers, a Brand-like type, seeks truth above all else. Lies, duplicity, must be banished. In Gregers' opinion life will be easier for everybody once the fog of deceitfulness is lifted. But the play is written so that Gregers emerges not as a crusader for truth but as its Don Quixote. His dedication to the cause of truth only brings him more unnecessary suffering. He becomes ridiculous in his fanaticism. The conclusion which the audience draws is, one must be compassionate; deceit is sometimes a saving grace.
Does not this sound like compromise? Is not Ibsen here himself a "wild duck," with broken wings?
Ibsen deals himself an even greater blow, perhaps, in Hedda Gabler. Realistically (as Eleanore Duse conceived the part), the play is a profound and brilliant study of a shallow, hysterical woman striving for startling effects and for chances to demonstrate her power-cowardly in the face of scandal, devoid of any interest in the constructive aspects of life, a possessive and almost spineless being. However, the demands which Hedda makes on the people around her are so reminiscent of Brand's that many critics considered that she was a much nobler character that Thea [Mrs. Elvsted], that she was a positive type personifying Ibsen's ideal woman. This confusion of the critics was not accidental. Here Ibsen seemed to direct his irony against himself. Demoniacal courage, which might do in an atmosphere culled from old Viking sagas, in our times became hideously unconvincing. But which is to be blamed: our drab and prosaic times, or people like Hedda? Ibsen does not say.
Uncertainty also issues from his remarkable play, An Enemy of the People. In substance this play represents the struggle of the strong, honest bourgeois against capitalism. Capitalism arrives with a definite lie. A Municipal Bath is being built which is not only unsanitary but actually harmful. However, it brings in good profits. To expose the facts about it would mean to throw many people into destitution. But the truth must be told, and therein lies the conflict. Ibsen, however, cannot see any definite social forces which might support the champion of truth.
What is the conclusion? Can Dr Stockmann remain silent? No, he must speak. Can he hope for victory thereby? No, it is impossible. There is only the vague and slender hope that some time in the distant future mankind will evolve; and in the meantime one can work toward that time.
Then what is to be done? One must do one's duty and stand alone.
Of course, Stockmann is not an enemy of the people. The title is ironical. As a lover of truth he tries to trample down a harmful lie. But the people have no use for such love, the people are blind and stupid, and that is why Stockmann is an enemy of the people, an enemy of society; he is also an enemy of the masses because he does not believe in them, because he is ready to tell everyone: "Do not put any faith in the masses, have faith only in yourself."
But is this wise counsel? No, it is not; it is really a product of despair--a despair born not so much of the conditions prevalent in Europe at that time--objective conditions, that is--as of Ibsen's deeply rooted bourgeois individualism and the subjective social conditions which governed him.
As time went on, Ibsen turned more and more from plays of realistic technique to plays of an entirely symbolic character, such as When We Dead Awaken. In this play there is practically no action except of a very hazy sort. The dialogue consists entirely of references to a dim, gradually-unfolding past. The movements of the characters have no clear-cut meaning, except by inference. Realism and symbolism were always at odds in Ibsen, but symbolism finally emerged victorious.
This obscure technique can be laid to two causes, one positive and the other negative.
The positive cause is that Ibsen is no hack writer, nor a playwright of popular trends. He never attempts to portray scenes of everyday life, nor to expound some petty theory of his own through the medium of the stage. He always has some lofty idea which cannot be conveyed in a purely realistic manner, nor without departing somewhat from actuality in depicting characters or relating facts. Neither occasional inaccuracies nor a certain measure of fantasy, nor departures in the interpretation of facts disturbs Ibsen, so long as his original idea is realized in terms of artistic feeling; for he never forgets that the dramatist must work not with bare facts but with images.
But the negative angle is that Ibsen himself does not really know where he is going and what he is hinting at--a circumstance which detracts from the clarity of his symbolism. His trouble lies not in the fact that he seeks a working language with which to express great thoughts and feelings, and is therefore obliged to create new words not hitherto available to him--but in the fact that he is not certain of what he wants to say, and thus speaks unintelligibly: let the public think there is something important behind the cryptic language. To ascend ever higher, to leave the plains for the mountains, to be true to one's self, to be passionately fond of the sea--what does it all mean? Actually, nothing.
If we furthermore consider Ibsen's constant tendency to descend from the heights to very low depths; his sudden demand, "Just give us freedom, we shall not abuse it"; his anemic pessimism; his bleak mysticism--we shall be able to appreciate the profound disappointment of the vital and active public--the public represented by the creative group--with Ibsen's dramas.
What enjoyment could anyone take in Nora, who demands that her husband treat her more seriously without ever for a moment stopping to think that she is as much an individual as her husband, and that it is up to her to find her place in society? Or in Ellida, who is infatuated with a stranger until she is free to follow him, and who elects to remain with her husband the moment she receives her freedom?
However, we must realize the importance of the role which Ibsen played in his day. In the first place, whenever the masses were stirred by a vague feeling of protest, or a progressive striving for freedom, or a movement of defense against the oppression of capitalism--in other words, whenever a need was felt for mildly progressive action, Ibsen was accepted as the prophet of such action. Even his uncertainty seemed constructive, for it was common to many states and many groups, and the indefiniteness of his program made it into a sort of master-key. On the other hand, during periods of disillusionment, when the petty bourgeois of various types and walks in life, defeated in their social existence, gave themselves up to despair, they found, in such works of Ibsen as corresponded to their mood, a certain poetic vindication of themselves, a certain lofty--because so vague--metamorphosis of their own impotence into something fateful and thrilling.
Ibsen is an example of a tremendous effort on the part of certain more admirable members of the petty bourgeoisie to create an independent place for themselves in the face of advancing capitalism; and he is a splendid illustration of the utter impossibility that middle class writers--no matter how talented--will ever achieve this aim.