Translators: Emily Kent, Lola Sachs & Pearl Waskow.
Originally Published: St Petersburg 1908.
Source: Ibsen ed. Angel Flores, Critics Group, New York 1937.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org, October 2000.
HENRIK IBSEN is unquestionably one of the greatest and most sympathetic figures in modern literature. As a dramatist he probably has no peer among his contemporaries.
Of course, those critics who compare Ibsen to Shakespeare fall into rather extreme exaggeration. For even if Ibsen were possessed of Shakespeare’s genius, as works of art his dramas could not attain the heights of Shakespeare. They have an inartistic – an artificial – quality which can be sensed by anyone who reads Ibsen’s dramas carefully and repeatedly. And that is why his dramas, replete with the greatest suspense and interest, every now and then become dull and boring.
If I were opposed to works of art expressing ideas, I might say that this artificial element in Ibsen’s dramas is due to the fact that they are saturated with ideas. And a statement of this kind might even, at first glance, seem very apt.
But only at first glance. More careful analysis of the problem would prove this statement to be most unsatisfactory and superficial.
Rene Doumic has very acutely said of Ibsen: “The most striking thing about this dramatist is his love for ideas: by that I mean his moral restlessness, his preoccupation with problems of conscience, his need to bring all the events of daily existence into a singler focus.” This trait, this love for ideas, cannot be isolated and considered in itself as a defect. It is, on the contrary, a great merit. It is this very characteristic which arouses our interest, not so much in Ibsen’s dramas, but in Ibsen himself. It is this trait which justifies his remark, in a letter to Bjärnson written December 7, 1867, that he was “in earnest in the conduct of his life.” And it is this trait which made him, to use Doumic’s expression, “one of the greatest teachers of the revolt of the modern spirit.”
The teaching of “the revolt of the modern spirit” does not of itself exclude the artistic element. However, lest it should, the teaching must be clear and coherent; the teacher himself must be at one with the ideas he teaches; these ideas must be part of his flesh and blood, they must not hinder and perplex him in his moments of creation; in short, these ideas must not have a disruptive influence upon him. Otherwise the writer is no longer master of his own ideas, nor can the ideas themselves be clear and coherent. The intellectual, or ideological, content can then have only an injurious effect upon the work of art. It must be realized, however, that it is not the ideas themselves that are to blame, but the impotence of the artist, who, for one reason or another, has not satisfactorily adjusted himself to them and therefore is not able to be a perfect or true poet of ideas.
In other words, the real reason for the artist’s weakness lies not in the ideological content of his work, as might appear on first thought, but quite the contrary, in his confusion or lack of ideas.
The teaching of “the revolt of the modern spirit” lends interest adds an element of loftiness to Ibsen’s work. However, while he taught “revolt,” he himself did not know to what end it should lead, but as often happens in such cases, he valued revolt for its own sake. Now if a man teaches revolt simply because it is revolt, not knowing himself to what end it should lead, then his teaching will take on a rather nebulous character. If he is an artist, and thinks in terms of images and forms, then the vagueness of his thinking will necessarily result in vague artistic images. An abstract and schematic element will creep into his creative work. And it is just this negative element which is to be found in all of Ibsen’s dramas of ideas, to their great detriment.
Let us consider his Brand, for example. Doumic calls Brand’s ethics revolutionary, and unquestionably they are – in so far as they “revolt” against bourgeois triviality and mediocrity. Brand is the sworn enemy of opportunism, and considered in this light he certainly takes on the appearance of a revolutionist. Yet it is only an external resemblance, and a one-sided one. Let us hear what he has to say:
Come thou, young man – fresh and free –
This is not badly expressed. Revolutionists love to applaud such sentiments. But who is this “foeman” against whom we are to declare battle to the death? What is that “All” in place of which Brand, in his eloquent preaching, will accept “Nothing”? Brand himself does not know; and when his followers call to him: “Show us the way and we will follow!” he can offer them only this program of action:
Over frozen height and hollow,
Now let us see what this is all about.
Brand demands of his followers that they break with compromise and set themselves energetically to work. But what is this work to be? They are to “lift” the people and loose them from their “soul-destroying snares,” from the “maze of middle ways” – in other words, to free humanity from the chains of compromise. And then what? Neither Brand nor Ibsen himself seems to know. Consequently the struggle against compromise becomes an end in itself, and quite without purpose; the description of this struggle in the drama (the expedition of Brand and his followers into the mountains) has nothing real about it; in fact we get a feeling that somehow it is all false and spurious. To me this expedition recalls Don Quixote; the skeptical remarks hurled at Brand by that weary crowd are very reminiscent of those uttered by Sancho Panza for the benefit of his chivalrous knight. The only difference is that Cervantes laughs while Ibsen preaches, which analogy is hardly favorable to the latter.
Ibsen creates great suspense by his “moral restlessness” and his preoccupation with problems of conscience. However, his ethics are just as abstract and therefore just as meaningless as Kant’s.
Kant remarked that to use logic in solving problems reminds him of the rather comical picture of the two yokels, one of whom is milking a goat while the other holds out a sieve for him.
Apropos this remark, Hegel says that the same situation results when people attempt by means of purely practical reasoning to distinguish between right and duty.
Kant’s ethical criterion was not the meaning but the form of the will, not what we want, but how we want it. Such a law is meaningless.
In Hegel’s words, such a law does not say “what must be willed and done in all circumstances, but what must not be willed and done. It is absolute not in a positive sense but in a negative sense: it is utterly indefinite or ‘infinite.’ Moral law must, according to its nature, be absolute and positive: for this reason Kant’s moral law is not moral.”
Similarly, the moral law which Brand preaches is devoid of all moral content. It proves to he a very inhuman law; recall, for example, the scene in which Brand demands that his wife, out of charity, give away the little cap which her dead child had worn and which she carried next to her breast. When Brand preaches this law, which, even apart from its meaninglessness, is quite inhuman, he is milking the goat, and when Ibsen puts this law in practice he is holding out the sieve.
At this point the objection might be made that Ibsen himself considerably modified his hero’s preaching; for as Brand dies, buried beneath the avalanche, a “Voice” calls out to him that “God is Love!” This afterthought, however, does not alter the situation in the least. In Ibsen’s eyes the moral law remains an end in itself. Even if he had created a hero who preached love, his preaching would be no less abstract. Brand is merely another variety of the type to which Master Builder Solness, Sculptor Rubek [When We Dead Awaken], Rosmer, and even the dying bankrupt merchant John Gabriel Borkman, belong.
The strivings of all of these characters prove but one thing: that Ibsen himself had no idea what they should strive for.
I might also be reminded at this point: “But these are all symbols!” To which I reply: “Quite so.” The point is – what drove Ibsen to seek refuge in symbols? This is a highly interesting question.
“Symbolism,” writes a French admirer of Ibsen, “is a form of art which fulfills our desire to come to grips with reality and at the same time transcend it. It gives us the concrete simultaneously with the abstract.” To which we say that a form of art which gives us the concrete simultaneously with the abstract is just as imperfect as a vital form of art which is turned into a bloodless phantom by the addition of the abstract. Furthermore, why do we need this addition of the abstract? According to this imposing critic, we need the abstract in order to transcend the boundaries of reality.
Man’s mind can transcend the boundaries of reality in two ways: by means of symbols – which lead into the realm of abstraction; or by way of the road which reality itself travels, by which it transcends its limitations, develops meaning through its own power and strength, and creates the foundation for the reality of the future.
The history of literature shows that man has always used one or the other of these means to transcend a particular reality. He employs the first (i.e. symbols) when he is unable to grasp the meaning of that particular reality, or when he cannot accept the conclusion to which the development of that reality leads. He resorts to symbols when he cannot solve difficult, sometimes insoluble problems; when (to use Hegel’s happy expression) he is not able to utter those magic words which bring to life a picture of the future. Thus the ability to utter those magic words is a sign of power, while inability to do so is a sign of weakness. And so in art, when an artist leans toward symbolism it is an infallible sign that his thinking – or the thinking of the class which he represents, in the sense of its social development – does not dare penetrate the reality which lies before his eyes. Symbolism hides a kind of mental poverty, so to speak. For if thought is armed with understanding it does not need to wander forth into the wilds of symbolism.
It has been said that literature and art are the mirrors of public life. If this is true – and unquestionably it is – then clearly the leaning towards symbolism is conditioned by the social consciousness and social development of a given society.
What are the reasons for this? I should like at this point to show why I have not been unjust in condemning Ibsen or Brand for not knowing what should be the goal of those who have determined to “nobly break with compromise”; and in maintaining that the moral law which Brand preaches is devoid of all moral content.
Let us examine more closely Ibsen’s social ideas.
The Anarchists consider the poet one of their own, or almost one. Brandes tells us of a certain “bomb-thrower” who, in defending himself in court, mentioned Ibsen as an advocate of Anarchism.” I do not know which “bomb-thrower” Brandes had in mind, but a few years ago, while attending a performance of An Enemy of the People in Geneva, I personally observed with what avidity a small group of Anarchists who were present listened to the tirades of the good Dr. Stockmann against the “compact majority” and universal suffrage. And it cannot be denied that these tirades bore a close resemblance to the principles espoused by the Anarchists. Many of Ibsen’s own views also bear this resemblance. Ibsen hated the state, for example. In one of his letters to Brandes he wrote that he would gladly participate in a revolution that would destroy this hateful institution. Or we may read his poem, To My Friend the Revolutionary Orator. There he pays tribute to the only kind of revolution that he could support – the Deluge in Genesis:
Yet Lucifer tripped, even then; by a later ship
“Make a clean sweep of the chess-board,” Ibsen cries, “and I’m your man.” This is in the best Anarchist tradition; one might even gather therefrom that Ibsen had read a bit too much Bakhunin.
Nevertheless it would be an exaggeration to brand our dramatist an Anarchist on these grounds. Bakhunin’s language assumes a different meaning when spoken by Ibsen. For the same Ibsen who declares himself ready to take part in a revolution against the state declares unequivocally that he is not the least bit concerned with the form of social relationships. The only thing that matters is “the revolt of the modern spirit.” In one of his letters to Brandes [April 4, 1872] he says: “Freedom of thought and spirit thrive best under absolutism; this was best shown in France, afterwards in Germany, and now we see it in Russia.” In the interests of freedom, according to Ibsen, this form of state should be retained always; from this it follows that those who oppose it commit a sin against the modern spirit. Bakhunin, I feel, would hardly agree with this conclusion.
Ibsen realized that the modern constitutional state is superior in many ways to the state ruled by police control. But these advantages appealed to him only as a citizen, whereas man is more than a citizen, he is a man at all times. Here Ibsen reveals his essential indifference to politics. What wonder, then, that Ibsen, the enemy of the state, the tireless preacher of the “revolt of the modern spirit,” could reconcile himself to one of the most despotic forms of government known to history? It is, as a matter of fact, well known how sincerely he regretted the seizure of Rome by Italian troops, which brought to an end the Papacy as a world power.
The reader who does not see that the “revolt” which Ibsen preaches is just as meaningless as Brand’s moral law, and that this is the reason for the shortcomings of his plays, can not have the slightest understanding of Ibsen.
Ibsen’s best plays illustrate glaringly the harmful effect of the meaninglessness of his “revolt.” Consider his Pillars of Society, for example. In many respects this is a splendid work. Mercilessly yet artistically it reveals the moral rottenness and hypocrisy of small town society and politics. And what is the outcome of the drama? The most typical and corrupt of Ibsen’s bourgeois hypocrites, Consul Bernick, comes to the realization of his rottenness, loudly repents before the whole village, and then proclaims his discovery that women are the Pillars of Society – whereupon his worthy sister-in-law, Lona Hessel, with touching eloquence, contradicts him: “No, no, the spirits of freedom and truth – these are the Pillars of Society.”
If we should ask this worthy lady what truth she had in mind, and to what freedom she aspired, she would probably answer that freedom consists in complete independence of public opinion, while truth is – well, just what this play brings out. It seems that in his younger days Consul Bernick had a love affair with an actress; her husband got wind of it and the matter threatened to become a public scandal. Whereupon a friend of young Bernick, Johan Tönnesen, who was about to sail for America, took the blame upon himself, only to be falsely accused by Bernick of running away with his cash-box. On the basis of this first misdeed Bernick found himself committing, in the course of years, many other misdeeds which, incidentally, did not seem to hinder him from becoming one of the “pillars of society.” At the end of the play, as already mentioned, Bernick does public penance for his sins-he manages to conceal a few, however – and since this unexpected moral transformation was due to the beneficial influence of Lona, it is obvious what kind of truth, in her opinion, upholds society. If you have played around with actresses in your youth, speak up and confess that you are the guilty one and do not throw any false suspicions on your neighbors. In money matters, do the same: if no one has stolen your money, do not pretend that you have been robbed. Such candor may hurt your prestige – but hasn’t Lona already told you that you must be completely indifferent to public opinion? If only everybody would always remember to uphold these noble moral standards, what a fine thing it would be for society!
Much ado about nothing! In this excellent drama the spirit “revolts” only to overcome the most banal, the most boring, the most commonplace situations. Is it surprising, then, that such a childish solution of the dramatic conflict has a harmful effect upon the aesthetic value of the play?
And how fares Dr Stockmann, that scrupulously honest soul? Alas, he gets himself entangled in a whole series of the most absurd and hopeless contradictions. At the mass meeting [An Enemy of the People, Act IV] he proves, “on scientific grounds,” that the democratic press lies shamelessly when it tells the masses that they are the “real essence” of the people. “The masses are nothing but the raw material that must be fashioned into a People by us, the better elements.” Splendid! But who are the better elements? Here the good doctor presents his most irrefutable “scientific” arguments:
What a difference between a cultivated and an uncultivated breed of animals! Just look at a common barn-door hen. What meat do you get from such a skinny carcase? Not much, I can tell you! And what sort of eggs does she lay? A decent crow or raven can lay nearly as good. Then take a splendid Spanish or Japanese hen, or take a fine pheasant or turkey – ah! then you’ll see the difference! And now look at the dog, our near relation. Think first of an ordinary vulgar cur – I mean one of those wretched, ragged, plebeian mongrels that haunt the gutters, and soil the sidewalks. Then place such a mongrel by the side of a poodle-dog, descended through many generations from an aristocratic stock, who have lived on delicate food, and heard harmonious voices and music. Do you think the brain of the poodle isn’t very differently developed from that of the mongrel? Yes, you may be sure it is. It’s well-bred poodle-pups like this that jugglers train to perform the most marvelous tricks. A common peasant-cur could never learn anything of the sort – not if he tried till doomsday.
I will not go into the question of how far a Japanese hen, a poodle, or any other kind of domesticated animal can be compared to the best of the animal kingdom. I merely wish to note that the “scientific” arguments of our good Doctor serve only to befuddle him. He implies that only those individuals belong to the better elements who have “descended through many generations from an aristocratic stock, who have lived on delicate food, and heard harmonious voices and music.” At the risk of being impertinent, I should like to ask whether Dr Stockmann himself descended from such people? In the play there is no mention of his “ancestry,” and it can hardly be assumed that the Stockmanns stemmed from the aristocracy. As far as his own life is concerned, it was clearly the life of a proletarian intellectual. Hence h would have been far better had the Doctor kept quiet about the question of ancestry, in accordance with the advice of Krilof’s peasant to the conceited goose. A proletarian intellectual who is socially conscious ought not to attribute his mental development to his ancestory but to realize that he himself is responsible for having acquired his education and ideas during the course of a lifetime crowded with work. Thus Dr Stockmann’s ideas are neither new or convincing.
Dr Stockmann is fighting the majority. Why? Simply because the “majority” refuses to accede to the complete reconstruction of the Municipal Baths, which he feels to be so absolutely necessary for the welfare of the sick.
Under these circumstances it should have been very easy for Dr Stockmann to see that the majority (in this instance) was on the side of the sick, who flocked to the town from far and wide, while those who objected to overhauling the Baths were actually in the minority. Had he perceived this – and the facts were obvious enough – he would have realized how foolish it was to rail against the “majority.” But this is not all. Who actually constituted this “compact majority” with whom our hero found himself at odds? First, there were the shareholders of the Municipal Baths; second, the landlords; third, the newspapermen and publishers, and lastly, the townspeople – who were under the influence of these three elements and followed them blindly. In proportion to the first three groups the townspeople naturally formed the “compact majority.” But if Dr Stockmann had bothered to observe this, he would have discovered that the majority against whom he thundered (to the great glee of the Anarchists) are not really enemies of progress; rather it is their ignorance and backwardness, which are products of their dependence upon a financially powerful minority.
Had our hero realized this, he would no doubt have forfeited the applause of the Anarchists, but he would have won the truth – the truth which he loved but which, because of his “scientific” backwardness, he failed to comprehend.
It is understandable why the Anarchists applaud Dr Stockmann: his very manner of thinking reveals the same confusion that characterizes them. Our good Doctor thinks in the most abstract terms, such as Good and Evil. He does not realize that Truth is not absolute but may belong to various categories, depending on its origin.
For instance, among the supporters of serfdom in the era of the Great Reformation in Russia, i.e., the 1860’s, there were doubtless many who were far more cultured than their “baptized livestock.” Now, these people naturally did not believe in the superstition that thunder is caused by the rolling of the prophet Elijah’s carriage through the heavens. Therefore, on the question’of tile cause of thunder the truth was on the side of the minority – the educated feudal lords, and not on the side of the majority – the illiterate rabble. But where would it have been on the question of serfdom? The majority – these same ignorant peasants – would have declared themselves for the abolition of serfdom, while the minority – these same educated feudal lords – would have cried out that abolishing serfdom would mean the collapse of the “most sacred foundations of society.” On whose side would the truth have been in this case? Not, it seems to me, on the side of the cultural minority.
An individual (or a group of individuals, or a class) is inevitably swayed by his own interests. Wherever an individual (or a group or a class) judges a matter where his personal interests are at stake, no matter how cultured or educated that individual may be, he will almost invariably view the matter from the standpoint most favorable to him, even though it may be the exact opposite of the true state of affairs. Hence it would be the greatest folly to believe that the minority is always in the right and the majority always in the wrong – especially on questions of social relationships, and consequently also where the interests of the various classes or sections of the population are concerned. Quite the contrary. Social relationships, to this very day, have always been such that the majority is exploited by the minority. It has, therefore, always been in the interests of the minority to misrepresent the truth in everything pertaining to the fundamental facts of social relationships.
The exploiting minority cannot avoid, cannot, in fact, help falsifying these facts, consciously or unconsciously. The exploited majority, on the other hand, never knows where the shoe pinches. Only the direst necessity finally forces the majority to stare truth in the face, whereas the minority sees only the warts and the wrinkles on the face of truth. And on this fundamental lie of the exploiting minority there arises a vast and highly complicated structure built upon more and more lies, which continues to blind them to the truth. It takes, therefore, the utter naivete of Dr Stockmann to expect that this minority will love truth and serve her unselfishly.
“But no one claims that the exploiting minority is composed of the noblest people,” Dr Stockmann might indignantly retort to all this. “What about us, the intellectuals, who live by the products of their own, not somebody else’s, labor and consciously seek the truth?” Perhaps. Nevertheless, intellectuals do not drop as the rain from heaven. They are flesh of the flesh and bone of the bone of that social class into which they were born. They come forward as the ideologists of their particular class. No one would deny that Aristotle was an “intellectual,” yet he formulated a theory, dear to the Greek slaveholders of his time, that Nature herself had willed that some people be born slaves and others masters.
What educated class has ever played a revolutionary role in society? That one, and only that one which, in social matters, has dared to place itself on the side of the exploited majority; that one which has ceased to feel contempt for the masses – something which “educated” people find so hard to do.
When Abbe Sieyes wrote his famous controversial brochure, Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-Etat? [What Is the Third Estate? 1789], in which he proved that it includes practically everybody, with the exception of the privileged few, he came forward as a liberal “intellectual” and placed himself on the side of the oppressed majority. In so doing, however, he abandoned the abstract concepts of Truth and Untruth and went directly to the heart of actual social relationships.
Our good Dr Stockmann, however, wanders further and further into the realm of abstraction and it never occurs to him that where social questions are concerned one must go about seeking the truth in quite a different manner than one does in matters of pure science. Upon first leading his impassioned speeches I recalled an observation which Marx makes in the first volume of Capital regarding those naturalists who, without any preparatory training in the subject, take it upon themselves to solve social problems. These men, realists in their own field, turn into idealists of the first water when they enter the field of social science. Thus Dr Stockmann too, in his “scientific” studies of the masses, turns out to be a pure idealist. For instance, he imagines he has discovered that the masses cannot think freely. And why not? While we hear his explanation, let us not forget for a moment that freedom of thought is to him practically synonymous with morality.
But, happily, the notion that culture demoralizes is nothing but an old traditional lie. No, it’s stupidity, poverty, the ugliness of life, that do the devil’s work! In a house that isn’t aired and swept every day my wife maintains that the floors ought to be scrubbed too, but perhaps that is going too far; – well, – in such a house, I say, within two or three years, people lose the power of thinking or acting morally. Lack of oxygen enervates the conscience. And there seems to be precious little oxygen in many and many a house in this town, since the whole compact majority is unscrupulous enough to found its future upon a quagmire of lies and fraud.
From this it follows that when the shareholders of the Municipal Baths, together with the landlords, wish to deceive the public – and we already know that the initiative in this deception was taken by the representatives of the shareholders – this can be explained by their poverty and “the lack of oxygen” in their homes, which has enervated their conscience. When our politicians are corrupt and reactionary, it is because the doors of their mansions are seldom swept; and when our proletarians finally rebel against all this hypocrisy and rottenness, it is, of course, because they inhale so much oxygen – especially in times of unemployment, when they are thrown out on the streets. Here Dr Stockmann reaches the limits of his endless confusion. More clearly than ever is the weakness of his thinking revealed. That poverty is a source of corruption, and that those who blame corruption on “culture” are profoundly mistaken – all this is absolutely true. But it is not true to say that all corruption is due to poverty, and that culture is under all conditions an ennobling influence. Quite the contrary, no matter how corruptive the influence of poverty may be, “lack of oxygen” does not prevent the proletarians of our day from being far more sensitive than any other class of society to everything which stands for progress, truth and nobility. The mere fact that a certain class is poor does not explain how poverty reacts on its development. “Lack of oxygen” will always represent a minus quantity in the algebraic sum of social development. However, this “lack” is due not to weakness on the part of the productive forces of society, but to the general social relationship between the forces of production, which leaves the producers in poverty while the appropriators indulge their every whim and extravagance – in short, this “lack” is rooted in the social system itself, and, while blunting and demoralizing a certain section of the population, it gives rise to revolutionary thoughts and feelings in the majority of the people by placing them in a negative position in relation to the existing order. This is precisely what we find in capitalist society, where on the one hand there is tremendous concentration of wealth while poverty is the lot of the increasing majority, and along with the impoverishment of the masses comes a revolutionary discontent and an increasing, understanding of the road to emancipation.
But of all this our naive Doctor has not the faintest inkling. He is absolutely incapable of understanding that a proletarian might have the capacity of clear thought and action even though he breathes foul air and the floors of his home leave much to be desired in the way of cleanliness. This is why Stockmann, who regards himself as a thinker “at the outposts” of humanity, ridicules the idea that:
the multitude, the vulgar herd, the masses, are the real essence of the People – that they are the People – that the common men, the ignorant, undeveloped member of society, has the same right to sanction and to condemn, to counsel and to govern, as the intellectually distinguished few.
This is also the reason why he, one of the “intellectually distinguished few,” raises an objection against democracy which Socrates made long before him:
Who make up the majority in any given country? Is it the wise men or the fools? I think we must agree that the fools are in a terrible, overwhelming majority, all the whole wide world over. But how in the devil’s name can it ever be right for the fools to rule over the wise men?
At these words a worker present at the meeting shouts: “Out with the fellow that talks like that!” And other workers shout: “Turn him out!” They are entirely convinced that Stockmann is an enemy of the people. And from their point of view they are perfectly right.
We know, of course, that Dr Stockmann was far from wishing the people harm in demanding the rebuilding of the Baths. In this respect he was an enemy of the exploiting minority rather than of the people. But in his battle against this minority he erroneously raises the very objections invented by those who fear the rule of the majority. Unintentionally, even unconsciously, he speaks here as a true enemy of the people, as a political reactionary.
It is interesting to note that Björnson, in his drama, Beyond Human Might, makes Holger – a real enemy of the people, an exploiter by profession – speak exactly like Dr Stockmann. In the scene with Rachel, Holger says that there will first be happiness on earth:
... when this earth once more finds a place for big personalities, who dare and can proclaim their own selves. When we get away from antheap ideas and centipedal dreams – back to big men with genius and will ... To me the most important feature of the whole struggle is to make room for personality.
In another scene, at the meeting of the entrepreneurs in the third act, he jeers at the demands of the workers:
When they call out to us from the other side that the will of the majority must rule, and that they are the majority, then we reply: the insects are also in a majority. [Cries of: “Hear, hear!”] If such a majority should come into power here – by the ballot, or any other means – a majority, that would mean, without the traditions of a ruling class, without its nobility of mind and passion for beauty, without its age-tested love of order in big things and small – then, quietly but firmly, we would give the word, “Guns to the fore!”
This, at least, is clear and consistent. Dr Stockmann would no doubt hare protested indignantly against this conclusion. He wants truth, not bloodshed. But the point is that he himself does not realize. the significance of his own words about the right to vote. In his astounding naivete he fears that the people seek to solve questions regarding the general origin of knowledge, and not problems of social practice, which are closely bound up with the interests of the masses I and which are decided against these interests when the masses themselves do not have the right to pass upon them. Incidentally, it may be observed that the Anarchists also cannot understand this.
While Björnson, during his second period – that is, after he had abandoned his earlier religious ideas and come forward as an advocate of modern naturalism – could not free himself from an abstract social philosophy, still he sinned far less in this respect than Ibsen – despite the fact that in the 90’s Ibsen declared that he had endeavored to study the question of social democracy even though he did not have the time “to study the great embracing literature which deals with the different social systems.”
From this it would seem that questions of “social democracy,” if not their solution, were not unknown to Ibsen. However, he always remained an idealist where practical matters and methods were concerned.” This alone was the source of many errors. But not only this.
In approaching social questions Ibsen not only used idealistic methods, but he formulated these questions so narrowly that they did not adequately correspond to the public life of modern capitalistic society. That is why his every attempt to solve these problems was ultimately vitiated.
What then is the point of this whole discussion? What was the cause of these unfortunate errors on the part of a man who was not only possessed of talent and keen insight but filled with a tremendous passion for truth?
The basic reason is that Ibsen’s Weltanschauung was conditioned by the social milieu in which he was born and reared.
Vicomte de Colleville and F. de Zepelin, the authors of an extremely interesting work, Le Maitre du Drama Moderne. Ibsen, ridicule the idea that the Weltanschauung of the great Norwegian dramatist was formed under the influence of the “milieu” so highly esteemed by Taine. They believe that Norway “was by no means the milieu in which Ibsen’s genius developed.” This opinion, however, is refuted at every point by the material which they themselves present in their book.
For instance, they say that some of Ibsen’s dramas were based entirely upon his childhood memories. Is this not the influence of milieu? Let us further examine the characteristics of Ibsen’s social milieu, which is so strongly emphasized by these authors. This environment was marked by a “hopeless banality.” The little seaport of Grimstad where Ibsen spent his childhood and youth was the classic soil, according to their description, of insipidity and boredom. ...
All of the sources of livelihood of this little town lay in its port and its commerce. In such surroundings men’s thoughts are not likely to rise above the day-to-day struggle of material existence. The townsfolk leave their dwellings only in order to find out about the latest landings, or the latest rate of exchange. Everybody knows everybody else, and people almost literally live in glass houses. The rich are greeted obsequiously by everyone; the middle class does not receive quite the same welcome, while the greeting of lowly workman or peasant is acknowledged merely by a curt nod. There is not the slightest hurry here about anything, the attitude being “if not today, tomorrow.”
Anything above the ordinary is frowned upon; anything original is considered ridiculous; anything eccentric, a crime. Even here, however, Ibsen stood out as an unusual and somewhat queer character.
It is not hard to imagine how Ibsen must have felt among these philistines. They irritated him, while he enraged them.
My friends greeted me as peculiarly fitted for the unintentionally droll, and my non-friends thought it in the highest degree strange that a young person in my subordinate position could undertake to inquire into affairs concerning which not even they themselves dared to entertain an opinion. I owe it to truth to add that my conduct at various times did not justify any great hope that society might count on an increase in me of civic virtue, inasmuch as I also, with epigrams and caricatures, fell out with many who had deserved better of me.... Altogether, – while a great struggle raged on the outside, I found myself on a war-footing with the little society where I lived cramped by conditions and circumstances of life.
In Christiania, the Norwegian capital, where he later settled, Ibsen fared no better. There too the pulse of public life beat hopelessly slow. Colleville and Zepelin write:
At the opening of this century [i. e., the 19th century – G.P.] Christiania was a small town of 16,030 inhabitants. With a rapidity reminiscent of the development of American cities, it grew to a city of 180,000, but it retained all its former pettiness; gossip, fault-finding, calumny and vulgarity. Mediocrity was praised to the skies while true greatness found no recognition here. A whole book could be filled up with articles by Scandinavian writers depicting this dark side of life in Christiania.
By the time the German-Danish war broke out, Ibsen’s patience was exhausted. The Norwegians claimed to be filled with Scandinavian patriotism, ready to sacrifice anything for the good of the three Scandinavian countries, and yet they did not offer the slightest aid to Denmark, which was soon conquered by its powerful enemy. Ibsen wrote a burning poem: A Brother in Need ,[December, 1863], decrying the empty phraseology of Scandinavian patriotism. It is of this period that one of Ibsen’s German biographers says: “Contempt for his countrymen took firm root in his heart.” At any rate, the disgust which Ibsen had long felt for his countrymen reached its limit. According to Colleville and Zepelin: “It became a matter of life and death to him to leave this country.” And so he put his business affairs in order, “shook the dust from his feet,” and went abroad, where he remained until practically the end of his life.
Even these few facts serve to prove that contrary to the opinion of our French authors, Ibsen’s milieu left its stamp upon his life and his Weltanschsuung, as well as upon his literary production.
I should like to emphasize here that environment leaves its mark not only upon those who accept or compromise with it but also upon those who openly declare war against it.
It might be said: “Yes, but although Ibsen could not endure his environment, still the vast majority of his countrymen found it quite satisfactory.” To this I reply that many Norwegian writers fought against this same environment, and Ibsen, naturally, carried on his battle in his own characteristic manner. By this I do not mean to minimize the importance of the individual in history in general and in the history of literature in particular. Without individuals there would be no society and, consequently, no history. When an individual protests against the hypocrisy and vulgarity which surrounds him, it is then that his spiritual and moral qualities, his insight, taste, and sensitivity are brought to the fore.
Each individual travels the road of protest in his own way. But where this road leads depends upon his environment. The character of negation is determined by the character of that which is being negated.
Ibsen was born and grew to manhood in a petty bourgeois environment, and the manner and method of his protest were predetermined, so to speak, by the character of that environment.
As we have already seen, one of the peculiarities of this environment was hatred of anything original, anything which deviated even the least bit from the usual social routine. Even Mill once complained bitterly of the tyranny of public opinion. And Mill, we must remember, was English, a citizen of a country where the petty bourgeoisie does not set the pace. In order to really know what heights the tyranny of public opinion can reach, one must live in one of the petty bourgeois countries of western Europe. It was precisely this tyranny which Ibsen rebelled against. We have seen how, as a youth of twenty, during his residence in Grimstad, he had already begun his fight against society, how he had mocked it in his epigrams and scourged it in his caricatures!
A notebook kept by the young Ibsen has been preserved in which there is a sketch representing “Public Opinion.” And what do you suppose this sketch depicts? A fat petty bourgeois, with a whip, lashing two pigs who walk along before him very gravely, with their little tails boldly raised high. I do not mean to imply that this first attempt by Ibsen in the field of artistic symbolism was very successful, for the artist’s intention was too vague; nevertheless, this drawing of the two pigs indicates that the underlying idea was not in the least bit respectful.
The boundless tyranny of petty bourgeois public opinion, which likes to stick its nose into everything, and knows everything, forces people into lies and hypocrisies, into compromises with their’conscience; it debases their character and makes them cheap and ordinary. That is why Ibsen raises up the flag of rebellion against this tyranny and cries out: Truth at any price! and then, as a corollary: To your own self be true! Brand says:
Be passion’s slave, be pleasure’s thrall, –
There are critics who claim that in writing his Brand, Ibsen was influenced by Pastor Lammers, and particularly by the well-known Danish writer, Sören Kierkegaard. This is quite possible, but it does not weaken my point in the least. Pastor Lammers and Sören Kierkegaard, each in his own sphere, had to deal with the same type of environment which Ibsen warred against. It should not be surprising, therefore, that their protest against this environment resembled his.
I do not know the works of Sören Kierkegaard, but judging from Lothar’s description of them, Ibsen might very well have borrowed from him the maxim, “To your own self be true!” He wrote:
Man’s task is to be an individual, to concentrate his attention upon himself. Man must become what he is; his only task is to select himself, by “God-willed self-choice,” just as it is life’s only task to unfold the self. The truth is not to know the truth, but to be the truth. Subjectivity is the highest good.
This does sound very much like Ibsen, and merely demonstrates once again that similar causes produce similar effects.
In petty bourgeois society, men whose “spirits” are driven to “revolt” must necessarily be exceptions to the general rule. Very often such men proudly regard themselves as aristocrats, and they do resemble aristocrats in two respects: they are superior spiritually just as the aristocracy is superior socially because of its privileged position; and their interests are so remote from – even inimical to – the interests of the majority that they are as far removed from the latter as is the aristocracy. The only difference is that the real historical aristocracy dominated society during its heyday; while the intellectual aristocracy practically no influence upon the petty bourgeois society of which it is a product. Having no social power, these spiritual “aristocrats” remain isolated individuals, and in compensation, devote themselves all the more zealously to the cultivation of their personality.
Their social environment makes individualists of them, and then they make a virtue of necessity. They make a cult of individualism, believing that what is really a result of their isolation in petty bourgeois society is an indication of their personal strength.
As crusaders against triviality and mediocrity, these men often appear as pathetic individuals of broken spirit. But truly magnificent figures are to be found among them. Pastor Lammers, whom Lothar discusses, is one. So, too, is Sören Kierkegaard, and certainly Ibsen.
Ibsen gave himself completely to his literary calling. It is really moving to read what he wrote to Brandes on the subject of friendship:
Friends are an expensive luxury; and when a man’s whole capital is invested in a calling and a mission in life, he cannot afford to keep them. The costliness of keeping friends dues not lie in what one does for them, but in what one, out of consideration for them, refrains from doing.
This path may lead, as it led Goethe, to dreadful egoism. It is, however, the path of the greatest and richest enthusiasm for one’s art.
An equally magnificent figure in the battle for the whole man is Ibsen’s spiritual son, Brand. When he thunders against conventional moderation, against the philistine divergence between word and deed, Brand is splendid. The petty bourgeois creates even God in his own image complete with house-slippers and bathrobe. Brand says to Einar:
I do not flout;
Ibsen, through Brand, castigates petty bourgeois hypocrites who in the name of love reconcile themselves to evil.
Never did word so sorely prove
Here I sympathize with Brand with all my heart. How often do the enemies of Socialism hide behind love! How often are the Socialists denounced for inspiring hatred against the exploiters, because of their love for the exploited! For good folk counsel everybody to love everything – flies and spiders, oppressed and oppressors. Brand – that is, Ibsen – knows the true worth of these cowardly words:
Humanity! – That sluggard phrase
All this is indeed excellent. The heroes of the great French Revolution spoke thus. Here we see the kinship between the spirit of Ibsen and that of the great Revolution. Nevertheless, Doumic is mistaken in thinking Brand’s ethics revolutionary. The ethics of a revolutionist has definite content whereas Brand’s ethics, as we have seen, is empty form.
I have already remarked that Brand, with his meaningless ethics, is in the ridiculous position of the man milking the goat. Before endeavoring to explain the sociological reasons why he came to assume this unpleasant position, I must first take up some characteristics of this type of social phenomenon.
The spiritual aristocrats of petty bourgeois society often consider themselves chosen men, or, as Nietzsche put it, Supermen. To these men the masses, the “majority” of the people, are inferiors. The Supermen are permitted everything. It is only to them that the command: “To your own self be true!” applies. This does not go for ordinary mortals. Wilhelm Hans has rightly observed that, according to Ibsen, all those who have no “mission” in life have only one mission left – “to sacrifice themselves.” King Skule, in The Pretenders (Act V) says:
There are men born to live, and men born to die.
As to the contempt in which the masses are held by our spiritual aristocrats, we need no further example than Dr Stockmann’s remarkable speech, still fresh in our memory.
In this speech Dr Stockmann arrives at reactionary, absurd conclusions, which, of course, do no credit to Ibsen. However, we must not overlook one mitigating circumstance. The petty bourgeois “compact majority” whom Ibsen’s hero addressed were Philistines incarnate.
In modern capitalist society, with its sharply defined class distinctions, the majority, consisting of the proletariat, represents the only class capable of being inspired with zeal for everything noble and progressive; in early petty bourgeois society, however, there was no such class. There were, of course, the sick and the poor. But the poorer classes of the population lived under conditions which were hardly conducive to mental stimulation, but which rather lulled them to sleep, thus making them obedient tools of the “compact majority” – the more or less well-to-do Philistines.
At the time Ibsen’s opinions and ideals were being formulated, a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed in Norway, and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life. Thus it is very clear why Ibsen, in writing Dr Stockmann’s speech, failed to mention the Norwegian working class as a progressive social force.
He saw the people as they actually were in typical petty bourgeois countries: an utterly undeveloped mass, sunk in mental torpor, differing from the “Pillars of Society,” who led them along by the nose, only in that their manners were cruder and their homes dirtier.
I do not wish to repeat here that Dr Stockmann is mistaken in attributing the mental lethargy of the poorer sections of petty bourgeois society to “lack of oxygen,” but I should like to point out that this erroneous explanation is causally related to the idealistic nature of the doctor’s social views. When an idealist like Stockmann ponders the development of social ideas, and attempts to remain on scientific ground, he appeals to oxygen, to unswept Boors, to heredity – in short, to the physiology and pathology of the individual organism; but it never occurs to him to consider the social relationships which in the last analysis condition the psychology of every society.
The idealist explains Being through Consciousness, and not vice versa. This is readily understandable in petty bourgeois society, where there is talk of “Supermen.” These people are so isolated from the society around them, and their development proceeds at such a snail-like pace, that it is impossible for them to perceive the causal relationship between the “course of ideas” and the “course of things” in human society.
It must be remarked that this relationship was observed by scientists in the nineteenth century. The class struggle as the most important factor in the whole social movement was indicated by historians and publicists of the Restoration period.
But the “Supermen” of stagnating petty bourgeois society have only one pleasing discovery to make: that without them society would be devoid of thinkers. Therefore they consider themselves “Supermen;” Dr Stockmann, however, considers them “poodle-men.” This reactionary absurdity which slipped into the doctor’s speech does not, of course, prove that Ibsen sympathized with political reaction. It must be said, to the honor of the great poet, that those readers in France and Germany who consider Ibsen to be a bearer of ideas which confirm the rule of the privileged minority over the propertyless majority, are greatly mistaken.
Ibsen was completely indifferent to politics, but, as he himself said, he hated politicians. His way of thinking was apolitical; fundamentally that was its outstanding characteristic. This can be explained in terms of his social environment, but nevertheless it involved the poet in a whole series of painful contradictions.
What politics, what politicians, did Henrik Ibsen know? The politics and politicians of that very petty bourgeois society in which he himself almost suffocated, and which he denounced so bitterly in his works.
What is petty bourgeois politics? A miserable botchwork. What is a petty bourgeois politician? A miserable botcher.
Petty bourgeois progressives now and then do put up broad political programs, but they are very lukewarm about them, never in any hurry; they hold fast to the golden rule, “Make haste slowly.” There is no room in their hearts for that mighty passion without which, in the beautiful words of Hegel, there can be no great historic deeds. And truly, they have no need of passion, for great historic deeds are not their task. In petty bourgeois countries even broad political programs are given petty support – but they pass, for thanks to the lack of sharply defined class conflicts these programs meet with little social objection. Political liberty is cheaply bought here, and therefore has little value. Furthermore it is completely saturated with the Philistine spirit, which in practice is constantly vitiating its true meaning. Even in his conception of political liberty the petty bourgeois is frightfully narrow-minded.
He has merely to be faced with a conflict which is only an aspect of the great and furious struggle raging in modern capitalist society – and which, due to the shattering and pervasive influence of the more developed countries, occasionally breaks out also in the “tranquil” petty bourgeois countries of western Europe – and, liberty forgotten, he cries for order, and, without the slightest compunction, he ignores in practice those very ideals of liberty which he cherishes so much in theory. With the petty bourgeois Philistine, word and deed are just as divergent in this respect as in every other. In short, petty bourgeois political liberty is a far cry from the powerful, dauntless beauty of which Barbier sang in his day, in Les lambes. It is rather a quiet, petty hausfrau’s brand.
He who is not content with prose that is exemplary, neat, and freshly laundered daily can scarcely be expected to fall for this solid hausfrau. He would sooner disavow his love for political liberty, abandon politics altogether, and seek another field of interest. And that is exactly what Ibsen did. He lost all interest in politics. Nevertheless, in The League of Youth and An Enemy of the People he gave an excellent picture of petty bourgeois politicians.
It is worthy of note that Ibsen, as a rather young man, collaborated with Paul Botten-Hansen and Osmund Olafson in publishing the liberal, satirical weekly, The Man, in Christiania, which was openly hostile not only to the conservative party but to the opposition as well; the latter he opposed not because it was too radical, but because it was too moderate.
In this weekly Ibsen published his first political satire, Norma; or, a Politician’s Love, in which he depicted a political climber, a type which he later developed to perfection in The League of Youth. It is apparent that already at that time Ibsen was repelled by the baseness of petty bourgeois politicians.
Yet even in this struggle against pseudo-political philistinism, Ibsen remained himself. Lothar says: “The politics in which Ibsen was then and later interested was confined entirely to individuals, to the men behind movements or parties. His interest shifted from man to man, it was never theoretical or dogmatic.” However, politics confined entirely to individuals, without regard to the “theories” or “dogmas” which they represent, has nothing political about it. Shifting “from man to man,” Ibsen’s ideas were partly ethical, partly artistic, but always apolitical.
Ibsen himself aptly characterized his attitude toward politics and politicians as follows:
All we have had to live upon up to the present date are crumbs from the revolutionary table of the past century, and even this fare has been masticated over and over again. These ideas of the past require new substance, new interpretation. Freedom, equality, and fraternity are no longer the same things they were in the days of the guillotine of blessed memory. This is what the politicians will not understand, and therefore it is I hate them. The people demand only special revolutions, revolutions in the outside world, in the sphere of politics. But all this is sheer nonsense. What is really needed is a revolution of the spirit of man.
Ibsen’s distinction between political revolutions and other (presumably social) revolutions for those not content with superficial details, is untenable. The French revolution to which Ibsen refers was both political and social. And this must be said of every social movement which deserves to be called revolutionary. But this is beside the point here. The point is that the lines just quoted illustrate better than anything else Ibsen’s negative attitude toward politicians. He hates them, because they re-chew the “crumbs” from the table of the great French Revolution; he hates them because they do not go far enough, because their vision does not penetrate beneath the surface of social life. It is the same charge which the Social-Democrats of western Europe make against petty bourgeois politicians. (The political representatives of the upper bourgeoisie of western Europe no longer mention any kind of “revolution” whatever.) In so far as Ibsen makes this charge against petty bourgeois politicians he is right, and his defiance of them measures the height of his ideals and the strength of his character. However, Ibsen imagined that all politicians were like those he had known in his petty bourgeois homeland at the time his views were being formed, and in this, of course, he was wrong; his hatred of politicians reflects the narrowness of his horizon. He forgets that the heroes of the great French Revolution were also politicians and that their heroic deeds were performed in the field of politics.
The crux of the matter here, as always with Ibsen, is “the revolution of the spirit of man” for the sake of revolution itself – enthusiasm for form independent of content.
As I have said, Ibsen’s defiance of politicians under the aforementioned circumstances is a measure of the height of his ideals. Yet this very defiance involved him in those countless contradictions which I have already mentioned and will discuss further.
The greatest tragedy of Ibsen’s fate was that he, a man of such strong and determined character, who valued consistency above all else, was destined to become entangled in unending contradictions.
Ibsen once asked a group of friends: “Have you ever thought an idea through to its conclusion without a contradiction?” Unfortunately it must be assumed Ibsen himself rarely succeeded in doing this.
Everything flows, everything changes, and everything carries within itself the germ of its own destruction. For the human mind, every concept carries within itself the germ of its own negation. This is the natural dialectic of concepts, which is based upon the natural dialectic of things. It does not confuse those who command it; on the contrary, it lends elasticity and consistency to their thinking. It has nothing to do with the contradictions in which Ibsen involved himself; these were due to the apolitical character of his thinking as already referred to.
Ibsen’s disgust with the insipidity of the public and private life of the petty bourgeoisie drove him to seek a sphere where his truth-hungry, powerful soul might rest, even if temporarily. At first he found such a sphere in his people’s past, which the romantic school led him to study – the past which was so remote from his banal petty bourgeois environment and so full of rugged power and heroic poetry.
The Norwegian Vikings, the giant predecessors of Ibsen’s philistine contemporaries, stirred his creative imagination, and he brought them into several of his dramas, the most noteworthy of which is unquestionably The Pretenders. Ibsen bore this play in his soul, so to speak. Its plot was conceived in 1858, but it was not written until 1863. According to Colleville and Zepelin, before Ibsen left his native land, “where the sons of the Vikings had become pale, egoistical bourgeois, he had decided to show them the full depth of their degradation.”
This drama is also interesting because of its underlying political idea. The hero of the play, King Hakon Hakonsson, is struggling for the unification of Norway. Here our poet turns political, but he does not remain long upon this plane. Modern times cannot use the ideas of a vanished past. The ideas of the past had not the slightest practical value for the poet’s contemporaries. These people loved to recall the brave Vikings over a glass of wine, but they themselves naturally lived in the present. The Mayor, in a conversation with Brand, says, “Great memories bear the seed of growth,” whereupon Brand retorts contemptuously:
Yes, memories that to life are bound;
Thus the political ideas of the past proved to be useless in the present, whereas the present was not productive of any political ideas capable of inspiring Ibsen. Consequently his only alternative was to take flight into the field of ethics – which is what he did. From his point of view, that of a man who knew only petty bourgeois politics, and despised it, it seemed undeniable that abstract preaching of the “purification of the will” was more important than participating in the trivial, disgusting bickerings of petty bourgeois parties unable to transcend their empty issues. Political struggles, however, are based upon social relationships, whereas ethical preaching seeks the perfection of the individual. Therefore once Ibsen had abandoned politics and put his hopes in ethics he naturally arrived at the standpoint of individualism. Whereupon he had to lose interest in everything beyond the bounds of individual perfection. Hence his indifferent, even antagonistic attitude toward laws – those obligatory norms which impose certain limits upon the personal will of the individual in the interests of society, or the ruling classes of society – as well as toward the state, as the source of these obligatory norms. Mrs. Alving, for instance, says: “Oh, that perpetual law and order. I often think that is what does all the mischief in this world of ours.”
This is said in response to a remark of Pastor Menders that her marriage “was made in complete conformity with law and order;” but she is thinking not only of this particular law but all laws, all the “duties and obligations” which in any way restrict the personality. It is just this feature of Ibsen’s philosophy which seems, on the surface, to ally him with the Anarchists.
Ethics aims to perfect the individual. Nevertheless its practical precepts are rooted in politics, if we understand politics to mean the sum of all social relationships. Man is an ethical being, according to Aristotle, only because he is a political being.
Robinson Crusoe had no need of ethics on his uninhabited island. If ethics overlooks this, and fails to bridge the gap between itself and politics, it falls into a multitude of contradictions.
Individuals perfect themselves, free their spirits, purify their wills – all of which, of course, is excellent. However, this perfecting leads either to a change in their relationship to other people – in which case their ethics becomes political; or it does not affect this relationship-in which case their ethics becomes stagnant: perfection of the individual then becomes an end in itself, that is, it loses all practical value, and the most perfected individuals, in their relationship to others, have no need of ethics. This means, however, that ethics destroys itself.
And that is what happened to Ibsen’s ethics. He repeats again and again, “Be entirely yourself; that is the highest of laws; there is no sin greater than that which goes contrary to this.” The immoral Chamberlain Alving [Ghosts], however, was “entirely himself,” but nonetheless he was all filth and vulgarity. Of course, as we have already noted, the recommendation to “be entirely yourself” is made only to the “masters” and not to the “masses.” Although the ethics of the masters must also be based upon some laws, we look for these in vain in Ibsen. He says: “It is not important that we wish this or that, but that one absolutely must wish that which one must wish because one is what one is and cannot do otherwise. All else leads to a lie.” It is too bad, but this, too, leads to a lie.
The crux of this problem – which is insoluble from the Ibsenian point of view – lies in what the individual concerned must wish in order to remain “what one is.” The criterion of the “MUST” is not whether it is unconditional, but what its object is. To remain always “oneself,” without having to consider the interests of others, was possible only for Robinson Crusoe on his island, and even then only until Friday appeared. It is true that the laws mentioned by Pastor Manders in his conversation with Frau Alving are really empty forms. Nevertheless Frau Alving is greatly mistaken – and Ibsen as well – in thinking that every law is but an empty and harmful form. A law, for example, that restricts the exploitation of labor by capital not only is not harmful; it is, on the contrary, very beneficial. And how many similar laws could there be! Admitted – although with many qualifications – that everything is permitted the “Hero.” But who can be considered a “Hero”? “He who serves the interests of the universal development of mankind,” answers, instead of Ibsen, Wilhelm Hans. Good, but with these words we pass from the viewpoint of individualism and individual ethics to the viewpoint of society, of politics.
In Ibsen this transition occurs – when at all – quite unconsciously; he seeks direction for his “spiritual aristocrats” not in their social relationships but in their own “autonomous” wills. It is for this reason that Ibsen’s theory of the masters versus the masses is so anomalous. His hero, Stockmann, who places freedom of thought on such an extremely high level, tries to convince the masses that they have no right to have their own opinions. This is only one of the innumerable contradictions in which Ibsen “absolutely must” have become involved once he confined himself to ethical problems exclusively. In light of this we can now fully appreciate Brand’s remarkable character.
Brand’s creator could find no way out from ethics to politics. Therefore Brand “absolutely must” remain within the field of ethics. He “absolutely must” confine himself to purifying his will and freeing his spirit. He advises the people to struggle “as long as life.” But what is to be gained? “... a will that’s whole, – a soaring faith, a single soul ...” This is a vicious circle, Ibsen did not – and for the aforementioned reasons could not – find an outlet for his “will that’s whole” in the dreary world around him, nor any means of changing or enhancing that dreary world. Consequently Brand “absolutely must” preach the purification of the will and the freeing of the spirit, as ends in themselves.
Furthermore the petty bourgeois is a born opportunist. Ibsen hates opportunism with all his soul; he describes it brilliantly in his plays. Recall the printer Aslaksen [An Enemy of the People], with his incessant preaching of “moderation,” which, in his own words, “is the greatest virtue in a citizen – at least, I think so.” Aslaksen is the epitome of the petty bourgeois politician, who finds entry even into the Labor parties of petty bourgeois countries. And it is as a natural reaction against Aslaksen’s “greatest virtue” that Brand proclaims his proud motto: “All or Nothing!” When Brand thunders against petty bourgeois moderation, he is magnificent; but, having no foundation for his own will he “absolutely must” degenerate into empty formulas and pedantry. When his wife Agnes, after having given away to the poor all of her dead child’s belongings, wishes to keep as a remembrance the little cap in which he died, Brand cries to her angrily. “Serve thine idols! I depart.” He demands that Agnes give away the cap too. It would be laughable were it not so cruel.
A real revolutionist does not demand unnecessary sacrifices, for he has a criterion by which he can distinguish between necessary and unnecessary sacrifices. Brand, however, has no such criterion. The formula “All or Nothing” is inadequate.
For Brand, form kills the entire content. In a conversation with Einar he defends himself from the charge of dogmatism with the following :
Nothing that’s new do I demand;
Here Brand speaks almost like Mephistopheles:
All that is born
And the conclusion is the same for both. Mephistopheles concludes:
Then ’twere best if nothing were created.
While Brand does not say this directly, he repudiates everything on which “day dawn’d,” and on which “day may ... descend.” He values only the “everlasting.” And what is everlasting? Only motion, or, in the theological (i.e. idealistic) language of Brand, “the Spirit, that was never born.” And in the name of this everlasting unborn Spirit Brand rejects everything that is merely “new” and of the time. Thus ultimately he reaches the same conclusion as Mephistopheles with regard to current things. But the philosophy of Mephistopheles is onesided. This “Spirit,” which rejects everything, forgets that there would be nothing to reject if nothing had been born. In the same way, Brand does not realize that eternal motion (the everlasting unborn Spirit) finds expression only in the creation of the merely “new” – new things, new conditions, new relationships. This rejection of everything new makes him, despite his loathing for compromise of any kind, a conservative. In Brand’s dialectics there is no negation of the negation; hence its utter futility. But why is this essential element lacking in his dialectic? Here again Ibsen’s social environment is responsible. This environment was sufficiently defined to produce a negative reaction on Ibsen’s part, but it was not defined enough – because it was not developed enough – to arouse in him a definite longing for something “new.” That is why he was not able to utter those magic words which bring to life a picture of the future. And that is why he ultimately lost himself in the dreary, barren desert of negation. This is the sociological basis of Brand’s methodological weakness.
This weakness – Brand’s and Ibsen’s – could not but leave its defacing effect upon all of the dramatist’s creative work. In a speech at a congress of the Norwegian Women’s Rights League, Ibsen declared: “I have been more a poet and less a social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to believe.” On another occasion he remarked that he always aimed to give the reader the impression of having an actual experience. This is quite understandable. The poet thinks in terms of poetical imagery. But how can “the Spirit that was never born” be portrayed in terms of poetical imagery? Symbolism must be used. Hence Ibsen invariably resorts to symbolism when he leads his heroes, stumbling, into the field of abstract self-perfectionism, in quest of the everlasting unborn Spirit. His symbols never fail to reflect the futility of this quest. They are pale and bloodless, devoid of vitality, representative not of reality but only a blurred copy of it.
Symbols, as a matter of fact, are Ibsen’s weak point. His strength lies in his incomparable ability to describe petty bourgeois heroes. Here he proves himself to be a superb psychologist. Because of this a study of his work is essential for everyone who wishes to understand the psychology of the petty bourgeoisie. In this connection every sociologist should study Ibsen.
But as soon as the petty bourgeois begins to “purify” his will, he becomes a boring, professorial abstraction, like Consul Bernick, for example, in the last act of Pillars of Society.
Ibsen did not and could not know what to do with his abstractions. Therefore he lets the curtain fall on his heroes immediately after the “Revelation,” or lets them die somewhere in the mountains under an avalanche. This recalls Turgenev, who killed off two of his characters, Bazaroff and Insaroff, because he did not know what to do with them.
In Turgenev’s case this was due to his ignorance of the goal of the Russian Nihilists and the Bulgarian revolutionists; but Ibsen’s characters, whose goal is merely self-expression, for its own sake, simply do not know where to start.
“The pregnant mountain gives birth to a tiny mouse!” This occurs frequently in Ibsen’s dramas. And not only in his dramas; it is characteristic of his philosophy as a whole. What, for example, is his attitude toward the woman question? When Helmer reminds Nora [A Doll’s House] of her duties as a wife and mother, she answers: “I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are – or, at all events, that I must try and become one.” She does not recognize marriage as the customary “lawful” cohabitation of man and wife. She strives after that which was once called the “emancipation of woman.” Ellida Wangel [The Lady from the Sea] from all appearances also strives toward the same goal. Her aim is freedom at any price. When her husband gives her her freedom, she denies the “unknown” which had attracted her so strongly, and tells him: “You have been a good physician for me. You found – and you had the courage to use-the right remedy – the only one that could help me.”
Even Maia Rubek [When We Dead Awaken] is not satisfied with the narrow confines of married life. She accuses her husband of not keeping his promise to lead her up upon a high mountain and show her the glory and magnificence of the world. She finally breaks with him and sings joyously:
I am free! I am free! I am free!
In short, Ibsen recommends the emancipation of woman. Yet here, as everywhere, it is the psychological process of the emancipation that interests him, and not its social consequences, not the altered social status of woman. Only the emancipation of woman is of importance to him; her social status remains unchanged.
In the speech delivered before the Norwegian Women’s Rights League on May 26, 1898, Ibsen confessed that he was not quite clear as to just what “women’s rights” really were. “Women’s rights” seemed to him to be a problem of humanity’s rights. His aim had always been “to give the people a higher standard,” and in that connection it was for the mothers, by strenuous and sustained labor, “to awaken a conscious feeling of culture and discipline.” This must be created in men before it would be possible to uplift them. Thus according; to him it is for the women to solve the problem of humanity. In a word: it is woman’s duty, in the interest of “humanity’s rights,” to confine her horizon to the walls of the nursery. Can this be called clear vision?
Woman has duties as a mother; that is true. Man, on the other hand, has duties as a father, but that does not prevent him from going beyond the confines of the nursery. The emancipated woman can be as content with the role of mother as the woman who never dreamed of freedom. That, however, is of no importance. Of importance only is the eternal, not the contemporary. Of importance is the movement itself, and not its results. The “revolution of the spirit of man” leaves everything unchanged. The pregnant mountain has again given birth to a tiny mouse, all because of that methodological weakness the social causes of which I have already mentioned.
And love itself – love between husband and wife? Fourier, with marvelous satirical power, has already pointed out that bourgeois society – civilization, as he calls it – debases love and ruthlessly drags it down into the mire of material calculations. Ibsen knew this as well as Fourier. His Love’s Comedy is an excellent satire which ridicules bourgeois marital virtue. And what is the outcome of this splendid comedy, one of the best which Ibsen wrote? Svanhild, who loves the poet Falk, marries the merchant Gulstad because her love for Falk seems to be too idealistic. The following conversation, which sounds unbelievable but which is very characteristic of Ibsen’s philosophy, takes place between Svanhild and Falk:
This is a complete triumph of the eternal “unborn” spirit, and, at the same time and for that very reason, it is a complete self-renunciation and self-annihilation of the “new,” the “temporary.” This triumph of the “purified” will is identical with its complete defeat, and the triumph of that which it had set out to negate. The poetic Falk retreats before the prosaic Guldstad. In their struggle with petty bourgeois philistinism Ibsen’s heroes always become weaklings precisely at the moment when their “purified” will is strongest. Love’s Comedy might well have been called “The Comedy of the Independent Will.”
Comrade Jean Longuet, in L’Humanite, has said that Ibsen was a Socialist. However, Ibsen was just as remote from Socialism as from any other theory based upon social relationships. Consider the speech which he addressed to the working men of Trondhejm on June 14 1885.
In this speech the aged poet describes his reactions upon returning to his native country after many years abroad. He found much to be commended but also much to be deplored. He was disappointed to observe that the most indispensable individual rights were still not being properly recognized. A ruling majority was arbitrarily curtailing freedom of speech and belief. There was still much to be done in that direction, but it was beyond the power of the present democracy to solve these problems. An element of nobility would have to enter Norway’s political life – administration, representatives and press. “Of course,” Ibsen hastens to explain, “I am not thinking of nobility of birth, wealth, or even intellect; I am thinking of nobility of character, of will, and mind. That alone can make us free.” And this nobility will come, according to Ibsen, from two sources: “from our women and from our working men.”
This is all very interesting. In the first place, the “ruling majority” with whom Ibsen takes issue immediately recalls the “compact majority” against whom Dr Stockmann struggled. That group, too, was accused of disregarding individual freedom in general and freedom of speech in particular. However, unlike Dr Stockmann, Ibsen does not say that “lack of oxygen” condemns the “masses” to stupidity. No, the working class is here depicted as one of the two social groups to which Ibsen looks for the reform of Norwegian society. This best proves my contention that Ibsen was certainly not a conscious enemy of the working class. When he thinks of it as a special section of the “masses” – as he did at Trondhjem, but otherwise very seldom – it would seem that he is no longer satisfied with “milking the goat” – with the “revolution of the spirit of man” as an end in itself, but has arrived at a concrete political task, the broadening and strengthening of personal rights. But this task – which, by the way, must be considered one of those “special revolutions” so bitterly condemned by Ibsen – is to be accomplished how? It appears that the solution of this problem must be a political one. But Ibsen always feels exceedingly uncomfortable in the field of politics; he therefore hastens to return to the old stamping ground of ethics: he expects great things to result from the injection of a noble element into the political life of Norway. How confused this is! It is as though one were listening to his spiritual son Johannes Rosmer, whose aim is “to make all the people of this country noble” [Rosmerholm, Act. I]. Rosmer expects to do this “by freeing their minds and purifying their wills.” Of course this is extremely praiseworthy. A free mind and a purified will are very desirable. But there is not the slightest trace of politics here. And without politics there can be no Socialism.
Let it be understood: there is a great deal of truth in what Ibsen says about nobility of character, will and mind. His poetic sensibility, that could not bear petty bourgeois moderation – which distorts even the noblest sentiments – did not mislead him when it pointed to the workers as the social group most capable of introducing into the political life of Norway the “element of nobility” which it lacked. The proletariat, pressing with all its might toward its final goal, shall indeed free its mind and purify its will. However, Ibsen misunderstood the true relationship of things. The moral rebirth of the proletariat can take place only when it begins to strive toward its great goal; for no amount of moral preaching could otherwise lift it out of the petty bourgeois morass. The noble spirit of enthusiasm is brought to the working class not by Rosmer but by Marx and Lassalle.
The moral “emancipation” of the proletariat will be accomplished only in its social battle for freedom. “In the beginning was the deed,” said Faust. But Ibsen did not understand this.
The Trondhjem speech does, it is true, contain a passage which seems to confirm Jean Longuet’s assertion:
this reformation in which I rest my hopes, upon which I insist and for which I will devote my entire energies for the rest of my life.
Here Ibsen speaks almost like a confirmed Socialist. Still his language is weak became of its vagueness. Aside from the fact that the so-called woman question cannot be separated from the so-called labor question, the thing to be noted here is that Ibsen does not utter a single word as to what he conceives “the future status of labor” to be. This proves that the aim of the “reshaping of social conditions” is simply beyond his comprehension. His hopes for the future “nobility” of woman did not prevent him from confining her to the nursery. Then why assume that his hopes for the “nobility” of the worker led him to the conviction that the worker would have to emancipate himself from the domination of capital? This is not to be divined from his words; but from his address to the Norwegian Women’s Rights League, it is apparent that the “reshaping of social conditions” to him meant one thing: “to lift the people to a higher plane.” But is this Socialism?
According to Ibsen, men must first be ennobled and then lifted to a higher plane. This formula resembles that used by the supporters of serfdom: “First educate the people and then free them.” I repeat emphatically that Ibsen was by no means feudalistic. He was far from being an enemy of the emancipation of the people. On the contrary he was`even prepared eventually to serve the interests of the people. But how and in what way was a complete mystery to him – the reason being that the petty bourgeois society in which he grew up, and with which he came into such violent conflict, did not – and could not – provide the slightest clue to the solution of this problem; nor even formulate such problems as the labor problem, or the woman problem.
Jean Longuet was mistaken. He was led astray by the statement which Ibsen made in 1890 in reply to the press comments concerning Bernard Shaw’s lectures on Ibsen and Socialism. In this statement Ibsen declared that he had endeavored, in so far as his “ability and opportunity permitted, to study the question of social democracy,” although he did not have the time “to study the great embracing literature which deals with the different social systems.” As I have already remarked, however, it is everywhere apparent that Ibsen studied “the question of social democracy” from his habitual, i.e., exclusively ethical, point of view, and never from the political point of view.
Ibsen’s incapacity to judge the modern proletarian movement is obvious from the fact that he did not make the least attempt to understand the great historical significance of the Paris Commune of 1871. He described it as a caricature of his own theory of state, although there was no room in his mind for theories of state.
At Ibsen’s funeral one of his admirers described him as a Moses. But this is hardly a fair comparison.
Ibsen, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries in world literature, was capable of leading his readers out of the “Egypt of Philistinism.” However, he did not know where the promised land lay, and, as a matter of fact, he believed that such a land was unnecessary, that the all-important thing was the spiritual liberation of man. This Moses was sentenced to wander about in the desert of abstraction. Which was a terrible doom. Once he said that his life had been “a long, long Passion Week.” There can be little doubt of this. To a sincere and consistent nature such as his, it must have meant untold agony to wander about in an endless labyrinth of inextricable confusion.
This torment he owed to the backwardness of Norway’s social life. Drab petty bourgeois reality showed him what had to be opposed, but it could not show him which road to pursue.
It is true that when Ibsen shook the dust of bourgeois mediocrity from his feet, turned his back upon Norway, and established himself abroad, he had an excellent opportunity to find the path that leads to true elevation of the human spirit and to victory over banal Philistinism. In Germany, already at that time, the movement for the emancipation of the working class – a movement which even its enemies admitted was alone capable of bringing forth a true and great ethical idealism – was moving forward irresistibly. But even then Ibsen lacked the fundamental prerequisites to comprehend this movement. His inquiring mind was much too occupied with the problems raised by the life of his native land, and which he could not solve because that life had not yet developed the conditions requisite to a solution.
Ibsen has often been called a pessimist. Indeed, he was one. Considering his position, and the seriousness with which he regarded the problems which tormented him, he could scarcely have been an optimist. He could have become an optimist only if he had succeeded in solving the riddle of the sphinx of our time. But this he was not destined to do.
He himself once stated that the conflict between the ideal and the real was one of the basic motives of his work. He might equally well have said that this was the basic motive of his work and also the reason for his pessimism. This conflict, so far as he was concerned, was a product of his environment. In petty bourgeois society “poodle-men” can have the grandest ideals, but to realize them is something they are “not destined to do,” for the simple reason that their dreams find no objective support.
It has also been said that Ibsen was an individualist, which is also correct. But this was due to the fact that his ethics could find no outlet into politics. Ibsen arrived at the individualist point of view not because of the strength of his personality but because of its weakness, which, again, he owed to his early social environment.
Note the acumen of La Chesnais’ remark, in the article from the Mercure de France mentioned above, to the effect that it was very fortunate for Ibsen that he came from a small country, “where, it is true, things went badly with him at first, but where at least his works could not remain unnoticed and lost among thousands of other volumes.” This is, one might say, the standpoint of literary competition. With what contemptuous irony would Ibsen himself have accepted this interpretation!
Colleville and Zepelin are justified in calling Ibsen a master of the contemporary drama. However, if a work of art reflects glory on its creator, it also reflects his shortcomings.
Ibsen’s principal shortcoming – his inability to find a way out from the field of individual ethics into the field of politics “absolutely must” have its reflection in his works: symbolistic, abstract and propagandistic elements. These transformed some of his poetic images into bloodless abstractions, and even his “supermen,” his “poodle-men,” had to suffer greatly as a result. It is for this reason that I contend that Ibsen as a dramatist could never have reached the Shakespearean heights even if he had possessed Shakespeare’s poetic powers. But why and how did it happen that this undeniably grave defect was construed by the public as a mark of merit? This, too, must have its social basis.
What then is this social basis? In order to determine this we must first establish the socio-psychological causes for Ibsen’s success in the countries of western Europe, where social development had reached a much higher plane than in Scandinavia.
Brandes says: “It requires more than strength of talent to transcend the boundaries of one’s native land. A great talent can of itself slowly create such a receptivity in its own countrymen, or it may be able by intuitional apprehension to sense the temper of its contemporaries or immediate successors. But Ibsen could not have created this receptivity among people who spoke a foreign tongue, who knew nothing about him and among whom, even though he seemed to have discerned the state of things, he had at first found no approbation.”
This is entirely correct. In such cases talent alone is never enough. The mediaeval Romans were not only indifferent to the artistic creations of the ancient world; they even burned the antique statues in order to extract the lime. But then another period dawned when the Romans, and the Italians in general, began to grow enthusiastic about ancient art and to use it as their model. During the long period when the Romans – and not only the Romans – dealt so barbarously with the great works of ancient sculpture, a gradual process took place in the inner life of mediaeval society which deeply changed its structure, and, consequently, the views, emotions and sympathies of its members. The metamorphosis of their existence led to a metamorphosis of their consciousness, and only the latter made the Romans capable of the Renaissance period, capable of appreciating the works of ancient art. It is this new consciousness which made the Renaissance possible.
In general, when an artist or a writer of one country wishes to influence the inhabitants of other countries, the state of mind of that artist or writer must correspond to the state of mind of his foreign audience. From this it follows that if Ibsen’s influence spread far beyond the boundaries of his native country, his works had characteristics which corresponded to the state of mind of the reading public of the modern civilized world. What are these characteristics?
Brandes mentions Ibsen’s individualism, his dislike of the majority. He says: “The first step toward freedom and greatness is to possess personality. He who has but little personality is only a fraction of an individual. He who has none, is a zero. But only these zeroes are equal to one another. In modern Germany we again find confirmation of the words of Leonardo da Vinci to the effect that ‘all the zeroes of the world are, so far as their content and value are concerned, equivalent to a single zero.’ Only in this respect has the ideal of equality been attained. And the thinking group of Germany does not believe in equality. Henrik Ibsen does not believe in it. In Germany the opinion is prevalent that after the period of belief in majority rule will come a period of faith in the minority, and Ibsen is a man who believes in the minority. Finally, many assert that the road to progress is via the isolation of the individual. Henrik Ibsen agrees with this trend of thought.”
Here Brandes is again partially correct. Today, the so-called “thinking group of Germany” is actually no more inclined toward the ideal of equality than it is toward a belief in the majority. That this is a fact is well substantiated by Brandes. His explanation, however, is wrong. In fact according to him it would seem as if the striving for equality were irreconcilable with the development of the individual and that the “thinking group of Germany” repudiates this ideal for that reason. But such is not the case. Who would dare to assert that on the eve of the great revolution the “thinking group” of France had less regard for the “individual” than the same group in modern Germany? Yet the “thinking” Frenchmen of that period were infinitely more sympathetic to the idea of equality than modern Germans. The “majority” frightened those Frenchmen far less than they frighten modern “thinking” Germans. No one will deny that the old Abbe Sieyes and his fellow ideologists belonged to the “thinking group” of France at that time, but nevertheless Sieyes’ chief argument in favor of the third estate was based on the fact that its interests were the interests of the majority, and conflicted with the interests of merely a small group of privileged individuals. Consequently it is not a question of the attributes of the ideal of equality or the belief in the majority; it is a question of the historical conditions under which the “thinking group” of France of the eighteenth century had the same point of view as the more or less revolutionary bourgeoisie, who, in their opposition to the spiritual and the real aristocracy, felt solidarity with the tremendous masses of the population, that is, with the “majority.” The modern “thinking group of Germany,” however – and not only of Germany but of all countries where the capitalist system of production has become entrenched – has in most cases adopted the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, who have come to realize that their class interests are more closely related to those of the aristocracy (who, in their turn, are now filled with the spirit of the bourgeoisie) than to those of the proletariat, which, in all advanced capitalist countries, constitutes the majority of the population. That is why “belief in majority rule” has unpleasant connotations; that is why it seems to them to be irreconcilable with the conception of the “individual;” that is why they incline more and more to “minority” rule. The revolutionary bourgeoisie of eighteenth century France applauded a Rousseau whom they did not fully comprehend at the time. The modern bourgeoisie of Germany extol a Nietzsche in whom they sense, with true class instinct, the poet and ideologist of class rule.
However that may be, there is no doubt that Ibsen’s individualism accords with the “belief in minority rule” which is peculiar to the “thinking group” of the bourgeoisie of the modern capitalist world. In a letter to Brandes dated September 24, 1871, Ibsen writes: “What I chiefly desire for you is a genuine, full-blooded egoism, which shall force you for a time to regard what concerns you yourself as the only thing of any consequence, and everything else as non-existent.” The state of mind which is expressed in these words not only does not conflict with the state of mind of the “thinking” bourgeois of today, but it accords with it perfectly. Likewise the state of mind expressed in the following lines of the same letter also accords with it. “I have never really had any very firm belief in solidarity; in fact, I have only accepted it as a kind of traditional dogma. If one had the courage to throw it overboard altogether, it is possible that one would be rid of the ballast which weighs down one’s personality most heavily.” And finally, every “thinking” class-conscious bourgeois will be unable to criticize, except very favorably, the man who wrote the following words: “I do not believe that things are better in other countries than in our own; the masses, both at home and abroad, are without all understanding of higher things.” More than ten years later Ibsen wrote in a letter to Brandes: “It will never, in any case, be possible for me to join a party that has the majority on its side. Bjornson says: ‘The majority is always right.’ ... I, on the contrary, must of necessity say: ‘The minority is always right.’” These words, too, can have the approval only of the “individualistic” minded ideologists of the modern bourgeoisie. And since the state of mind which is expressed in these words underlies all of Ibsen’s dramatic works, it is not surprising that his works attracted the attention of all ideologists of this type and that they proved to be very “receptive” to it.
Of course, as the old Romans said: Two people may say the same thing, but still it is not quite the same. Ibsen’s conception of the term “minority” was quite different from that of the middle-class reader of advanced capitalist countries. Ibsen added in explanation: “I mean the minority which leads the van, and pushes on to points which the majority has not yet reached. I mean that the man is right who has allied himself most closely with the future.”
As we have seen, Ibsen’s views and ideals were developed in a country which had no revolutionary proletariat, and where the backward masses were petty bourgeois to the core. These masses could not become the vanguard of the progressive ideal. That is why every forward step of necessity seemed to Ibsen to be a movement of the “minority,” that is, of a small group of thinking individuals. It was quite different in countries of developed capitalist production. There every progressive movement obviously had to be a movement of the exploited majority, or rather, it had to attempt to be that. For people brought up in Ibsen’s social atmosphere “belief in the minority” has a completely innocent significance. And more: it serves as an expression of the progressive strivings of the small intelligent oasis in the barren desert of philistine life. On the other hand, in advanced capitalist countries this belief in the “thinking group” is a sign of conservative opposition to the revolutionary demands of the workers. Two people may say the same thing, still it is not quite the same. If, however, someone preaches the “belief in the minority,” this preaching can and will find the approbation of those who share such belief, even if for entirely different psychological reasons. Ibsen’s bitter, sincere attacks against the “majority” were greeted with applause by innumerable people who believed this majority to be the proletariat fighting for its emancipation. Ibsen attacked that “majority” which was alien to all progressive strivings, but he received the approbation of those people who feared the progressive strivings of the “majority.”
Let us go further. Brandes continues: “But if one carefully tests this individualism [i.e., Ibsenian individualism – (G. P.] one will discover a hidden socialism in it, which was discernible in Pillars of Society and which became clearly evident in Ibsen’s enthusiastic speech to the workers in Trondhjem during his last visit to the north.”
As I have already stated, a great deal of good will is needed in order to discover any sort of socialism in Pillars of Society. In reality Ibsenian socialism was based upon the good-natured but very vague desire “to raise the people to a higher plane.” This was not only no hindrance to Ibsen’s success so far as the “thinking group of Germany” and other capitalist countries were concerned, but was even beneficial to him. If Ibsen had really been a Socialist, he would not have been approved by those people who “believed in the minority” out of fear of the revolutionary movement of the majority. And just because Ibsenian “Socialism” meant no more than the desire “to raise the people to a higher plane,” it was hailed by those people who were sympathetic to social reform as a means of hindering social revolution. Here the same quid pro quo took place as in the interpretation of the “belief in the minority.” Ibsen went no further than the desire to raise the people to a higher plane” because his views were shaped by a petty bourgeois society whose developmental process had not yet placed the great socialistic problem in the foreground. But only the narrowness of Ibsen’s aims assured his success in the highest class (the “thinking group”) of that society whose entire inner life is controlled by this great problem.
In any event it must be observed that even his limited reformatory strivings found almost no expression in Ibsen’s plays. There, his thinking remains apolitical in the widest sense of the word, that is, far removed from all social questions. He preaches the “purification of the will,” the “revolution of the spirit of man,” but he does not know what goal to set for the “purified will,” nor what social conditions the spirit of man ought to combat after its “revolution.” This is a tremendous shortcoming. Nevertheless it too, along with the two previously mentioned shortcomings, must have greatly augmented Ibsen’s success among the “thinking groups” of the capitalist world. These groups could sympathize with the “revolution of the spirit of man” only so long as this revolution took place as an end in itself, that is, remained without purpose and did not threaten the existing social order.
The “thinking group” of the bourgeoisie could listen with the greatest compassion to the words of Brand when Ibsen promised:
Over frozen height and hollow,
“frozen height and hollow,” but in order to let them fulfill some definite revolutionary task, then the “thinking group,” thoroughly shocked, If this same Brand, however, had made it evident that he wished to “lift and lighten” the people not merely to take them for a walk over would have considered him a “demagogue” and would have stamped Ibsen a “propagandist.” And then Ibsen’s talent would have been of no good, then it would have been clearly revealed that the “thinking group” does not have the sensitivity necessary to appreciate talent.
It is now clear why Ibsen’s weakness – which lay in his inability to find an outlet from ethics to politics, and which found expression in his works in the form of an element of symbolism and abstraction – not only failed to injure him in the eyes of the great majority of the reading public, but was, on the contrary, advantageous to him. “Heroes,” “Supermen,” are vaguely drawn in Ibsen’s works, they are almost completely bloodless creatures. This is necessary, however, in order to appeal to the “thinking group” of the bourgeoisie. This circle can sympathize only with those “heroes” who display a vague, faint striving “upward,” and who entertain nothing more than the sinful desire to belong to those who “here on earth erect the kingdom of heaven.”
This is the psychology of the “thinking group” of the modern bourgeoisie, a psychology which, as we have seen, is explained by sociology. This psychology has left its mark upon all contemporary art. It is due to this psychology that symbolism is having so widespread a success at the present time. The inevitable vagueness of the artistic forms created by the symbolists corresponds to the inevitable vagueness of the practically futile efforts of the “thinking group” of contemporary society, who even in their moments of greatest dissatisfaction with the status quo cannot bring themselves to a revolutionary opposition to it. The state of mind created by the modern class war in the “thinking group” of the bourgeoisie necessarily leads to superficiality in contemporary art. The same capitalist system which in the sphere of production prohibits the full utilization of all the means of production over which man now has control, at the same time also sabotages the field of artistic production.
And the proletariat? Its economic position is now such that at present it cannot concern itself with art. Still, in so far as the “thinking group” of the proletariat does concern itself with this subject, it must, of course, take a definite stand toward an author.
The “thinking group” of the proletariat fully realizes the previously described inadequacies of Ibsen’s manner of thinking and his artistic creations, and it is aware of the reason for these shortcomings. Nonetheless it cannot help but love the Norwegian poet as a man who deeply hated petty bourgeois opportunism, and as an artist who brilliantly clarified the psychology of that opportunism. For the “revolution of the spirit of man,” which has now found expression in the revolutionary strivings of the proletariat, is also, among other things, an expression of a revolution against petty bourgeois triviality, against the “weakness of the soul” which Ibsen combatted in his Brand.
We see, therefore, that Ibsen represents a paradoxical case of an artist who – to almost the same extent, although for opposite reasons – captivated the “thinking groups” of both of the two great irreconciliably-opposed classes in contemporary society. Only a man who developed in a milieu altogether dissimilar from the scene of the colossal class struggle of our times could be such an artist.
Last updated on 19.7.2004