Henrik Ibsen, by Edmund Gosse

Chapter X

Intellectual Characteristics

Having accustomed ourselves to regard Ibsen as a disturbing and revolutionizing force, which met with the utmost resistance at the outset, and was gradually accepted before the close of his career, we may try to define what the nature of his revolt was, and what it was, precisely, that he attacked. It may be roughly said that what peculiarly roused the animosity of Ibsen was the character which has become stereotyped in one order of ideas, good in themselves but gradually outworn by use, and which cannot admit ideas of a new kind. Ibsen meditated upon the obscurantism of the old régime until he created figures like Rosmer, in whom the characteristics of that school are crystallized. From the point of view which would enter sympathetically into the soul of Ibsen and look out on the world from his eyes, there is no one of his plays more valuable in its purely theoretic way than Rosmersholm. It dissects the decrepitude of ancient formulas, it surveys the ruin of ancient faiths. The curse of heredity lies upon Rosmer, who is highly intelligent up to a certain point, but who can go no further. Even if he is persuaded that a new course of action would be salutary, he cannot move — he is bound in invisible chains. It is useless to argue with Rosmer; his reason accepts the line of logic, but he simply cannot, when it comes to action, cross the bridge where Beate threw herself into the torrent.

But Ibsen had not the ardor of the fighting optimist. He was one who “doubted clouds would break,” who dreamed, since “right was worsted, wrong would triumph.” With Robert Browning he had but this one thing in common, that both were fighters, both “held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,” but the dark fatalism of the Norwegian poet was in other things in entire opposition to the sunshiny hopefulness of the English one. Browning and Ibsen alike considered that the race must be reformed periodically or it would die. The former anticipated reform as cheerily as the sower expects harvest. Ibsen had no such happy certainty. He was convinced of the necessity of breaking up the old illusions, the imaginative call for revolt, but his faith wavered as to the success of the new movements. The old order, in its resistance to all change, is very strong. It may be shaken, but it is the work of a blind Sampson, and no less, to bring it rattling to the ground. In Rosmersholm, all the modern thought, all the vitality, all the lucidity belong to Rebecca, but the decrepit formulas are stoutly intrenched. In the end it is not the new idea who conquers; it is the antique house, with its traditions, its avenging vision of white horses, which breaks the too-clairvoyant Rebecca.

This doubt of the final success of intelligence, this obstinate question whether, after all, as we so glibly intimate, the old order changeth at all, whether, on the contrary, it has not become a Juggernaut car that crushes all originality and independence out of action, this breathes more and more plainly out of the progressing work of Ibsen. Hedda Gabler condemns the old order, in its dulness, its stifling mediocrity, but she is unable to adapt her energy to any wholesome system of new ideas, and she sinks into deeper moral dissolution. She hates all that has been done, yet can herself do nothing, and she represents, in symbol, that detestable condition of spirit which cannot create, though it sees the need of creation, and can only show the irritation which its own sterility awakens within it by destruction. All Hedda can actually do, to assert her energy, is to burn the MS. of Lövborg, and to kill herself with General Gabler’s pistol. The race must be reformed or die; the Hedda Gablers which adorn its latest phase do best to die.

We have seen that Ibsen’s theory was that love of self is the fundamental principle of all activity. It is the instinct of self- preservation and self-amelioration which leads to every manifestation of revolt against stereotyped formulas of conduct. Between the excessive ideality of Rebecca and the decadent sterility of Hedda Gabler comes another type, perhaps more sympathetic than either, the master-builder Solness. He, too, is led to condemn the old order, but in the act of improving it he is overwhelmed upon his pinnacle, and swoons to death, “dizzy, lost, yet unupbraiding.” Ibsen’s exact meaning in the detail of these symbolic plays will long be discussed, but they repay the closest and most reiterated study. Perhaps the most curious of all is The Lady from the Sea, which has been examined from the technically psychological view by a learned French philosopher, M. Jules de Gaultier. For M. de Gaultier the interest which attaches to Ibsen’s conception of human life, with its conflicting instincts and responsibilities, is more fully centred in The Lady from the Sea than in any other of his productions.

The theory of the French writer is that Ibsen’s constant aim is to reconcile and to conciliate the two biological hypotheses which have divided opinion in the nineteenth century, and which are known respectively by the names of Cuvier and Lamarck; namely, that of the invariability of species and that of the mutability of organic forms. In the reconciliation of these hypotheses Ibsen finds the only process which is truly encouraging to life. According to this theory, all the trouble, all the weariness, all the waste of moral existences around us comes from the neglect of one or other of these principles, and true health, social or individual, is impossible without the harmonious application of them both. According to this view, the apotheosis of Ibsen’s genius, or at least the most successful elucidation of his scheme of ideological drama, is reached in the scene in The Lady from the Sea where Wangel succeeds in winning the heart of Ellida back from the fascination of the Stranger. It is certainly in this mysterious and strangely attractive play that Ibsen has insisted, more than anywhere else, on the necessity of taking physiology into consideration in every discussion of morals. He refers, like a zoölogist, to the laws which regulate the formation and the evolution of species, and the decision of Ellida, on which so much depends, is an amazing example of the limitation of the power of change produced by heredity. The extraordinary ingenuity of M. de Gaultier’s analysis of this play deserves recognition; whether it can quite be accepted, as embraced by Ibsen’s intention, may be doubtful. At the same time, let us recollect that, however subtle our refinements become, the instinct of Ibsen was probably subtler still.

In 1850, when Ibsen first crept forward, with the glimmering taper of his Catilina, there was but one person in the world who fancied that the light might pass from lamp to lamp and in half a century form an important part of the intellectual illumination of Europe. The one person who did suspect it was, of course, Ibsen himself. Against all probability and common-sense, this apothecary’s assistant, this ill- educated youth who had just been plucked in his preliminary examination, who positively was, and remained, unable to pass the first tests and become a student at the University, maintained in his inmost soul the belief that he was born to be “a king of thought.” The impression is perhaps not uncommon among ill-educated lads; what makes the case unique, and defeats our educational formulas, is that it happened to be true. But the impact of Ibsen with the social order of his age was unlucky, we see, from the first; it was perhaps more unlucky than that of any other great man of the same class with whose biography we have been made acquainted. He was at daggers drawn with all that was successful and respectable and “nice” from the outset of his career until near the end of it.

Hence we need not be surprised if in the tone of his message to the world there is something acrimonious, something that tastes in the mouth like aloes. He prepared a dose for a sick world, and he made it as nauseous and astringent as he could, for he was not inclined to be one of those physicians who mix jam with their julep. There was no other writer of genius in the nineteenth century who was so bitter in dealing with human frailty as Ibsen was. By the side of his cruel clearness the satire of Carlyle is bluster, the diatribes of Leopardi shrill and thin. All other reformers seem angry and benevolent by turns, Ibsen is uniformly and impartially stern. That he probed deeper into the problems of life than any other modern dramatist is acknowledged, but it was his surgical calmness which enabled him to do it. The problem-plays of Alexandre Dumas fils flutter with emotion, with prejudice and pardon. But Ibsen, without impatience, examines under his microscope all the protean forms of organic social life and coldly draws up his diagnosis like a report. We have to think of him as thus ceaselessly occupied. We have seen that, long before a sentence was written, he had invented and studied, in its remotest branches, the life-history of the characters who were to move in his play. Nothing was unknown to him of their experience, and for nearly two years, like a coral-insect, he was building up the scheme of them in silence. Odd little objects, fetiches which represented people to him, stood arranged on his writing table, and were never to be touched. He gazed at them until, as if by some feat of black magic, he turned them into living persons, typical and yet individual.

We have recorded that the actual writing down of the dialogue was often swift and easy, when the period of incubation was complete. Each of Ibsen’s plays presupposes a long history behind it; each starts like an ancient Greek tragedy, in the full process of catastrophe. This method of composition was extraordinary, was perhaps, in modern times, unparalleled. It accounted in measure for the coherency, the inevitability, of all the detail, but it also accounted for some of the difficulties which meet us in the task of interpretation. Ibsen calls for an expositor, and will doubtless give occupation to an endless series of scholiasts. They will not easily exhaust their theme, and to the last something will escape, something will defy their most careful examination. It is not disrespectful to his memory to claim that Ibsen sometimes packed his stuff too closely. Criticism, when it marvels most at the wonder of his genius, is constrained to believe that he sometimes threw too much of his soul into his composition, that he did not stand far enough away from it always to command its general effect. The result, especially in the later symbolical plays, is too vibratory, and excites the spectator too much.

One very curious example of Ibsen’s minute care is found in the copiousness of his stage directions. Later playwrights have imitated him in this, and we have grown used to it; but thirty years ago such minuteness seemed extravagant and needless. As a fact, it was essential to the absolutely complete image which Ibsen desired to produce. The stage directions in his plays cannot be “skipped” by any reader who desires to follow the dramatist’s thought step by step without losing the least link. These notes of his intention will be of ever-increasing value as the recollection of his personal wishes is lost. In 1899 Ibsen remarked to me that it was almost useless for actors nowadays to try to perform the comedies of Holberg, because there were no stage directions and the tradition was lost. Of his own work, fortunately, that can never be said. Dr. Verrall, in his brilliant and penetrating studies of the Greek Tragedies, has pointed out more than once the “undesigned and unforeseen defect with which, in studying ancient drama, we must perpetually reckon,” namely, the loss of the action and of the equivalent stage directions. It is easy to imagine “what problems Shakespeare would present if he were printed like the Poetae Scenici Graeci,” and not more difficult to realize how many things there would be to puzzle us in Ghosts and The Wild Duck if we possessed nothing but the bare text.

The body of work so carefully conceived, so long maintained, so passionately executed, was far too disturbing in its character to be welcome at first. In the early eighties the name of Ibsen was loathed in Norway, and the attacks on him which filled the press were often of an extravagant character. At the present moment any one conversant with Norwegian society who will ask a priest or a schoolmaster, an officer or a doctor, what has been the effect of Ibsen’s influence, will be surprised at the unanimity of the reply. Opinions may differ as to the attractiveness of the poet’s art or of its skill, but there is an almost universal admission of its beneficial tendency. Scarcely will a voice be found to demur to the statement that Ibsen let fresh air and light into the national life, that he roughly but thoroughly awakened the national conscience, that even works like Ghosts, which shocked, and works like Rosmersholm, which insulted the prejudices of his countrymen, were excellent in their result. The conquest of Norway by this dramatist, who reviled and attacked and abandoned his native land, who railed at every national habit and showed a worm at the root of every national tradition, is amazing. The fierce old man lived long enough to be accompanied to his grave “to the noise of the mourning of a nation,” and he who had almost starved in exile to be conducted to the last resting place by a Parliament and a King.

It must always be borne in mind that, although Ibsen’s appeal is to the whole world — his determination to use prose aiding him vastly in this dissemination — yet it is to Norway that he belongs, and it is at home that he is best understood. No matter how acrid his tone, no matter how hard and savage the voice with which he prophesied, the accord between his country and himself was complete long before the prophet died. As he walked about, the strange, picturesque little old man, in the streets of Christiania, his fellow-citizens gazed at him with a little fear, but with some affection and with unbounded reverence. They understood at last what the meaning of his message had been, and how closely it applied to themselves, and how much the richer and healthier for it their civic atmosphere had become. They would say, as the soul of Dante said in the New Life:—

è costui Che viene a consolar la nostra mente,

Ed è la sua tanto possente,

Ch’altro pensier non lascia star con nui.

No words, surely, could better express the intensity with which Ibsen had pressed his moral quality, his virtù, upon the Norwegian conscience, not halting in his pursuit till he had captured it and had banished from it all other ideals of conduct. No one who knows will doubt that the recent events in which Norway has taken so chivalric, and at the same time so winning and gracious, an attitude in the eyes of the world, owe not a little to their being the work of a generation nurtured in that new temper of mind, that spiritel nuovo d’amore which was inculcated by the whole work of Ibsen.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56