Torches for Superman

Raymond Williams

  • By the Open Sea by August Strindberg, translated by Mary Sandbach
    Secker, 193 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 436 50008 6
  • August Strindberg by Olof Lagercrantz, translated by Anselm Hollo
    Faber, 399 pp, £20.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 11812 7
  • Strindberg: A Biography by Michael Meyer
    Secker, 651 pp, £25.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 436 27852 9

Who carried a torch for August Strindberg? On his 63rd, and last, birthday, some ten thousand people, led by the Stockholm Workers’ Commune with bands and red union banners, marched past the apartment that he called the Blue Tower, after the name of a Danish prison. The ‘Marseillaise’ and ‘other anthems of liberation’ were sung. There were cheers for ‘the People’s Strindberg’ and ‘the King of Poets’.

No moment illustrates more clearly the complexities of Modernism. The militant workers with their torches were acclaiming the very type of the accursed poet and immoralist: moreover a self-conscious member of the ‘aristocracy of intellect’ who repeatedly distrusted the people he saw as ‘the masses’ and the ‘ganglia arguments’ that directed their minds.

Strindberg was equal to the occasion. He wrote in a special birthday article: ‘Deep down in every human being, whether he has been beaten down by life or not, there is, after all, a dark sense of unworthiness which falsifies his position at the moment of ovation, and thus he feels ashamed rather than arrogant. That is what happened to the great French singer Nourrit after a performance, when the torch-bearing mob arrived in front of his house to cheer him. He was seized by the notion that they had come to mock him, as he had not been in good voice that night, and in his despair he jumped out of the window to his death.’ Unlike the singer, Strindberg stood on the balcony, holding his daughter’s hand.

There is one immediate and relatively simple level of analysis. Throughout his extraordinarily productive writing life, Strindberg was skilful in presenting persuasive images of himself. The novel Son of a Servant, usually read as thinly-disguised and essentially reliable autobiography, can be taken as evidence of his radical and popular and even outcast inheritance, though it is nothing of the kind. Olof Lagercrantz has to begin his biography by saying that what we are told in the novel about Strindberg as a child is ‘either useless or downright misleading’, and that consequently he ‘will not dwell upon any of those opinion-forming, tear-jerking little episodes’. He notes that Strindberg had ‘an extraordinary talent for making us believe what he wants us to believe’, and that as a result the common biographical way of reading his works can be exceptionally misleading.

Yet this only shifts the problem to a different level. There is bound to be some relationship between the personae which many writers create, as effectively public self-images, and the situations from which these proceed. The contrasting cases of Hardy, Lawrence and Orwell – reworkings and reinterpretations of experience to inform a personality through which the experience then seems direct – can be readily traced in this way. So too, in one central sense, with Strindberg: the exposed and unjustly suffering individual, the victim as man of genius.

What is then significant is the uneasy relationship between this cultural figure, who from a hundred different lives has become the type of a certain kind of modern artist, and the increasing recognition of an exposed and unjustly suffering social class, who in all other respects are very distant from such art. Many years ago I described one form of this relationship, with reference to Gissing, as ‘negative identification’: the exposed and isolated artist makes the suffering of the poor a form and an emblem of his own condition. But the true negative identification is most evident in those cases in which, at a certain point, the sense of isolated suffering overcomes the abstract social identification and, twisting on itself, becomes a contempt of the claims of these others: a hatred of the now stupid ‘masses’ even more intense than the original hatred of the successful and powerful. In this twist, the exceptional ability, the extrordinary gifts, of the isolated and suffering artist are very strongly emphasised. Always the ground of his claim to recognition, they are now also the ground of his distinction from those who are suffering without so special a claim.

There are moments in Strindberg when this influential twist – one of the most recognisable features of a strong tendency in Modernism – is not only evident but hammered home, with all his remarkable power. It is a central theme in the newly translated novel, By the Open Sea, which was finished in 1890. An Inspector of Fisheries is sent to an island in the Stockholm archipelago to supervise new conservation arrangements. He gets on very bad terms with the fishing people, and a relationship with a young woman who is visiting the island fails. What reads like his mental breakdown is experienced by him as a liberation: the escape of a higher spirit from the banality and barbarism of so many lower forms of life. It can be read as a powerful narrative of isolation and breakdown, a succession of exotic and memorable images, but there can really be no doubt of the authenticity of the feelings and rationalisations of contempt and hatred. The island and the sea come through as themselves, in writing of remarkable beauty: but all the people who live and move in them are refracted by what is unmistakably a psychotic vision.

The moment of European art of which By the Open Sea is a small example remains of great interest. Its central character, Borg, speaks endlessly of creativity, and in his own ways continually creates. More generally, in those years, in music and painting and philosophy and fiction and drama, extraordinary creative powers were released – the sense of release, of liberation, is exact. In the drama, for all the massive achievement of Ibsen, and the later innovations of a Chekhov, a Pirandello, a Brecht, Strindberg remains the single most original and powerful genius. Moreover, in his novels and other prose, much less well-known in English, he was a remarkable and continually innovative writer. It is impossible to understand that whole movement through any single figure: indeed, it is the fact of a quite general structure of feeling, within and beyond so many remarkable individuals, which is made inescapable by the evidence. Yet, on the shortest list of examples, Strindberg is an inevitable name. The extraordinary creativity and its highly specific forms are nowhere more clear.

What has mainly happened, however, is that this powerful movement has created, in its train, a whole set of critical and ideological procedures and assumptions which, for all the appearance of their own Modernism, are in the end little more than descriptive. A powerful structure of feeling, with its own highly specific artistic procedures, has been at once projected and protected as a social and cultural norm: its evident abnormalities, by any other criterion, ratified by its simultaneous generalisation to authentic (the only fully authentic) art and that modernity which is also a universal human condition, lately and devastatingly revealed.

The point is not then to reject the art, which is permanent, but to look at the forms of its subsequent presentation and ratification. Olof Lagercrantz’s biography seems to me genuinely useful as an element in this long reconsideration. There has been an immense amount of biographical writing about Strindberg, but much of it has been little more than gossip about this shocking celebrity – the form which has become a cult, at many levels, in the newspapers – while some of the best of the rest assumes, in para-Freudian fashion, that the specificities of the art can be interpreted as if the plays and fictions were the dreams and fantasies of an inner psychic life. It is then not only that Lagercrantz is informative, in a useful everyday way, about Strindberg’s actual writing practices, which the jump from psyche to art characteristically omits: he also takes the diversity of the art into the historical and social circumstances within which many of its impulses and problems were formed.

Michael Meyer’s long and interesting biography has much less of this quality, though its sustained narrative offers a good deal of the information. At its centre is an understandable emphasis on Strindberg as dramatist; his fiction and other prose are treated as less interesting. This is a defensible judgment, since theatre, in its most projected forms, travels more easily than many other kinds of work. Yet Meyer can also say, of By the Open Sea among others, that while there are ‘occasional fine scenes and descriptions of landscape’ it is ‘sloppily constructed and full of boring didacticism’. Behind these terms there is what is known, curiously, as an English idea of interesting writing but is in fact a much more local and contemporary metropolitan variation. Strindberg was exposed, and exposed himself, over a much wider range of experience and thought than these terms can encompass. It is his long struggle with possible forms to embody a new dimension of experience in which the person, the social and the intellectual are all being transformed that makes him remarkable. Meyer gives us the full background to part of this struggle, and any well-told story of Strindberg is interesting in itself. But the exceptional usefulness of Lagercrantz is that it is not an isolating but at least in part a connecting story of Strindberg in his place and time, and with a sense of these as authentically formative. This is, moreover, especially helpful in the case of so widely if selectively exported a writer, where it is easy – as with many Modernist gestures and assumptions – to mistake the unknown for the universal.

Thus to follow Strindberg’s life and writing before, say, 1885 will be to most readers who know only the work of the next period, typically The Father and Miss Julie, surprising. He was 34 when he left Stockholm for France, in 1883, and much by which we now know him was about to begin. This move, so characteristic of high Modernism – away from a culture that has formed an artist into a wider and more precarious, releasing and restless, professional sphere – cannot be understood without the earlier history. Yet an attention to the major works of those earlier years, and even a response to their titles – Master Olof, The Swedish People, The New Kingdom – can involve a return to the orthodox narrowing perspective. In Master Olof the central theme is the relation between spiritual progress and political power; The Swedish People is an attempt at a whole cultural history; The New Kingdom has as subtitle ‘satirical narratives from the era of assassinations and jubilees’. At a time of economic depression, strikes and world crisis, Strindberg predicted ‘a time of wolves’ and wanted to ‘side with those who came, weapon in hand, from below’. In a verse he contrasted Swartz the inventor of gunpowder and Nobel the inventor of dynamite:

You, Swartz, had a small edition published
For the nobles and the princely houses!
Nobel! You published a huge popular edition
Constantly reissued in a hundred thousand copies!

There was bravado and confusion in some of this, but the position was clear: the writer as radical and militant, with the publishing metaphor for explosions remarkably apt. Suffering and exposure follow from challenging the rich and powerful, but to endure this nobly is to begin to break the chains.

The next phase of his life and work is the crux of the whole problem. There is an apparent transition in his remark: ‘Sometimes I suspect that I’ll end up in a madhouse, myself, because I can get quite wild sometimes, thinking about the insanity of the world.’ But the more characteristic movement is in this: ‘I’m engaged in such a revolution against myself, and the scales are falling from my eyes.’ A central objective event was the prosecution of his short stories, Marrying, for blasphemy (a mild reference to the brand price of communion wine, and a reference to Jesus as an ‘agitator’). The case was inflated by the general political situation, so that Strindberg became what Lagercrantz calls ‘an involuntary people’s hero’.

But he was left disturbed and in debt, and at just this time, ironically through the writing of Son of a Servant and Utopias, the idea of a new and higher form of society collapsed in his mind. What replaced it was an emphasis on the struggle for supremacy between men and women, and the probably associated idea of the superman. Nature, in the post-Darwinian sense, was now a force throwing men and women together in unavoidable conflict, and it was crucial for the health of the culture that the stronger – man – should win. It was at this time that Strindberg and Nietzsche exchanged extravagantly complimentary letters. Nietzsche said of The Father that ‘it has astounded me beyond measure to find a work in which my own conception of love – with war as its means and the deathly hatred of the sexes as its fundamental law – is so magnificently expressed.’ Strindberg acclaimed ‘the prophet of the overthrow of Europe’ and the rejection of that ‘religion of the small, the paltry, the castrates, women, children ... the current aggressiveness of women seems to me a symptom of the regress of the race and a result of Christendom.’ Nietzsche, he wrote to Brandes, is ‘the modern spirit who dares to preach the right of the strong and the wise against the foolish, the small (the democrats)’. The ugliest and most vicious formation of 20th-century high culture was beginning to crystallise.

The ferocity of Strindberg’s verbal attacks on women, from this time on, is evidently pathological, and came at a time when his marriage was failing. Yet it is difficult to feel these explanations as sufficient. The new structure of feeling becomes evident, historically, in so many apparently different men and situations. The case of Lawrence, thirty years later in England, is only one of many examples. There are common elements: a hatred of bourgeois society; a utopianism first identifying with and then wildly rejecting the popular movement and democracy; frustration and prosecution as an artist; an emphatically physical narrative of sexuality, in which male mastery, or its fantasy, seems to alternate with fear and slander of women as the stronger and more predatory sex, each accompanied by anxieties about impotence. The problem is then not only in these individual cases, but in the cultural pathology which gave them such resonance that they were offered and accepted as the truth-bearers of modern sexual reality.

The movement for women’s rights, which had been part of the emancipatory and democratic spectrum, was now to such men an overwhelming threat: how could civic rights be granted to ‘semi-apes, inferior creatures, sick children ... unconscious criminals ... instinctively malicious animals’? At the same time such men could not simply leave women alone. Strindberg went through two more marriages and at 60 is said to have proposed marriage to a girl of 18.

Is it possible to see a connection between an angry disillusion with the popular movement and this particular form of hatred of women: each distinguished by an explosive power which is of a different kind from simple and settled supremacism and reaction – different because of the attraction and fascination each held and in certain ways continued to hold. What seems certain, as we begin to gain some perspective, is that we have both to recognise the strange, almost hypnotic creative power which temporarily discharged these tensions and to insist – against orthodox criticism – that registration of this power is not aesthetically neutral. The question becomes pointed when we observe Strindberg, in his last years, trying to analyse the consequences of isolation and its tensions, saying of Hamlet that ‘he becomes desperate when he applies all his strength to the great boulder and discovers that it will not budge.’ Exhausted and himself desperate, Strindberg now believed that what he called his ‘devastation’ – the sense of being damned and hunted by persecutors – was, in fact, a means of redemption and even salvation. More practically, the terrible experience was what had made him a dramatist.

Yet alongside this conversion he returned, in his writing, to the radical ideas of his youth. In a wide-ranging national controversy, in 1910, he attacked inherited property, the cult of royalty, bureaucrats and judges, and militarism. Socialism as a doctrine was seen as infused with the Spirit of Christianity. It was in the atmosphere of this last phase that the workers’ representatives carried their torches and flags.

Seventy-five years later, the workers’ and democratic movements are still learning the true costs of being occasionally represented by the anti-bourgeois rebels of that long phase. It was probably inevitable, at an early period, that the articulate anger of isolated writers against an indifferent, hypocritical and greedy social order should have seemed, to the more directly exposed, a voice of their own feelings. Indeed the violence of the rhetoric, and the occasional rhetoric of violence, often promoted this apparent identification. In an overtly masculine social order in which an actual majority of men were deprived and when necessary repressed, the fit could seem exact. But it only needs to be asked what kind of society could follow from feelings of this kind, or what immediate relationships were possible while they held sway, for one to begin to see the scale of the historical deception. The transition of so many figures of this kind to the cult of mastery, even when the superman is announced in self-pitying and hysterical cries, cannot now be surprising. Yet there is an equally dangerous succeeding phase, in which guilt and disorientation appear to become absolutes, and in the consequent darkness the everyday continuities of popular and democratic aspiration are made, by an arbitrary reversal of the truth, to appear childish and naive. It is then not the negative identification of rejected writers with the suffering masses that bears most heavily, but the false identification of a popular movement with the internal victims of a hostile and destructive social order. The actual popular movement has its own very different victims and heroes.

Strindberg remains important because more clearly – at once more powerfully and more analytically – than any other writer of this phase he both embodied and illuminated this dynamically influential structure. What he called his ‘devastation’, which he narrated and dramatised with controlled power, is profoundly instructive. It is not only what are called the raw emotions – it is the twisting and turning of an exceptionally informed and highly intelligent mind, in the grip of forces which he could incomparably project and at the same time try vainly to control, that continues to hold attention: even, against his will, a calm attention.