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.

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