The following article is reprinted from Prophets of Dissent. Otto Heller. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918. pp. 71-105.
One cannot speak of August Strindberg with much gusto. The most broadminded critic will find himself under necessity to disapprove of him as a man and to condemn so many features of his production that almost one might question his fitness as a subject of literary discussion. Nevertheless, his importance is beyond dispute and quite above consideration of personal like or dislike, whether we view him in his creative capacity,--as an intellectual and ethical spokesman of his time,--or in his human character,--as a typical case of certain mental and moral maladies which somehow during his time were more or less epidemic throughout the learned world. We have it on excellent authority that at his début in the literary theatre he made the stage quake with the elemental power of his personality. Gigantic rebels like Ibsen, Björnson, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy, we are told, dwindled to normal proportions beside his titanic stature. He aimed to conquer and convert the whole world by his fanatical protest against the rotten civilization of his time. The attempt proved an utter failure. He never could [during his lifetime] grow into a world-figure, because he lacked the courage as well as the cosmopolitan adaptability needed for intellectual expatriation. Hence, in great contrast to Ibsen, he remained to Europe at large the uncouth Scandinavian, while in the eyes of Scandinavia he was specifically the Swede; and his country-men, even though they acknowledged him their premier poet, treated him, because of his eccentricity, as a national gazing-stock rather than as a genuine national asset. Yet for all that, he ranks as the foremost writer of his country and one of the representative men of the age. His poetic genius is admitted by practically all the critics, while the greatest among them, George Brandes, pronounces him in addition an unsurpassed master in the command of his mother tongue. But his position as a writer is by no means limited to his own little country. For his works have been translated into all civilized languages, and if the circulation of literary products is a safe indication of their influence, then several of Strindberg's books at least must be credited with having done something toward shaping the thought of our time upon some of its leading issues. In any case, the large and durable interest shown his productions marks Strindberg as a literary phenomenon of sufficient consequence to deserve some study.
Readers of Strindberg who seek to discover the reason why criticism should have devoted so much attention to an author regarded almost universally with strong disapproval and aversion, will find that reason most probably in the extreme subjectiveness that dominates everything he has written; personal confession, novels, stories, and plays alike share this equality, and even in his historical dramas the figures, despite the minute accuracy of their delineation, are moved by the author's passion, not their own. Rarely, if ever, has a writer of eminence demonstrated a similar incapacity to reproduce the thoughts and feelings of other people. It has been rightly declared that all his leading characters are merely the outward projections of his own sentiments and ideas,--that at bottom he, August Strindberg, is the sole protagonist in all his dramaturgy and fiction.
Strindberg was a man with an omnivorous intellectual curiosity, and he commanded a vast store of knowledge in the fields of history, science, and languages. His History of the Swedish People is recognized by competent judges as a very brilliant and scholarly performance. Before he was launched in his literary career, and while still obscurely employed as minor assistant at a library, he earned distinction as a student of the Chinese language, and one product of his research work in that field was even deemed worthy of being read before the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres. In Geology, Chemistry, Botany, he was equally productive. But the taint of eccentricity in his mental fibre prevented his imposing scientific accomplishments from maintaining him in a state of intellectual equilibrium. He laid as much store by things of which he had a mere smattering as by those on which he was an authority, and his resultant unsteadiness caused him to oscillate between opposite scientific enthusiasms even as his self-contradictory personal character involved him in abrupt changes of profession, and made him jump from one extreme of behavior to the other.
Strindberg first attracted public notice by the appearance in 1879 of a novel named The Red Room. Its effect upon a country characterized by so keen an observer as George Brandes as perhaps the most conservative in Europe resembled the excitement caused by Schiller's The Robbers almost precisely one hundred years before. It stirred up enough dust to change, though not to cleanse, the musty atmosphere of Philistia. For here was instantly recognized the challenge of a radical spirit uprisen in full and ruthless rebellion against each and every time-hallowed usage and tradition. The recollection of that hot-spur agitator bent with every particle of his strength to rouse the world up from its lethargy by his stentorian "J'accuse" and to pass sentence upon it by sheer tremendous vociferation, is almost entirely obliterated today by the rememberance of quite another Strindberg:--the erstwhile stormy idealist changed into a leering cynic; a repulsive embodiment of negation, a grimacing Mephistopheles who denies life and light or anything that he cannot comprehend, and to whom the face of the earth appears forever covered with darkness and filth and death and corruption. Indeed this final depictment of August Strindberg, whether or no it be accurately true to life, is a terrible example of what life can make of a man, or a man of his life, if he is neither light enough to be borne by the current of his time, nor strong enough to set his face against the tide and breast it.
The question is, naturally, was Strindberg sincere in the fanatical insurgency of his earlier period, or was his attitude merely a theatrical pose and his social enthusiasm a ranting declamation? In either case, there opens up this other question: Have we reason to doubt the sincerity of the mental changes that were yet to follow,--the genuineness of his pessimism, occultism, and, in the final stage, of his religious conversion? His unexampled hardihood in reversing his opinions and going dead against his convictions could be illustrated in nearly every sphere of thought. At one time a glowing admirer of Rousseau and loudly professing his gospel of nature, he forsook this allegiance, and chose as his new idol Rousseau's very antipode, Voltaire. For many years he was a democrat of the purest water, identified himself with the proletarian cause, and acted as the fiery champion of the poor labor-driven masses against their oppressors; but one fine day, no matter whether it came about directly through his contact with Nietzsche or otherwise, he repudiated socialism, scornfully denouncing it as a tattered remnant of his cast-off Christianity, and arrayed himself on the side of the elect, or self-elect, against the "common herd," the "much-too-many." License for the best to govern the rest, became temporarily his battle-cry; and his political ideal suggested nothing less completely absurd than a republic presided over by an oligarchy of autocrats. His unsurpassed reputation as an anti-feminist would hardly prepare us to find his earlier works fairly aglow with sympathy for the woman cause. He held at one time, as did Tolstoy, that art and poetry have a detrimental effect upon the natural character; for which reason the peasant is a more normal being than the lettered man. Especially was he set against the drama, on the ground that it throws the public mind into confusion by its failure to differentiate sharply between the author's own opinions and those of the characters. Literature, he held, should pattern itself after a serious newspaper: it should seek to influence, not entertain. Not only did he drop this pedantic restriction of literature in the end, but in his own practice he had always defied it, because, despite his fierce campaign against art, he could not overcome the force of his artistic impulses. And so in other provinces of thought, too, he reversed his judgment with a temerity and swiftness that greatly offended the feelings and perplexed the intelligence of his followers for the time being and justified the question whether Strindberg had any principles at all. In politics he was by quick turns Anarchist and Socialist, Radical and Conservative, Republican and Aristocrat, Communist and Egoist; in religion, Pietist, Protestant, Deist, Atheist, Occultist, and Roman Catholic. And yet unquestionably he was honest. To blame him merely because he changed his views, and be it never so radically, would be blaming a man for exercising his right to develop. In any man of influence, an unalterable permanency of opinion would be even more objectionable than a frequent shift of his point of view. [In the early twentieth century] the presumable length of a person's intellectual usefulness has been a live subject for discussion which has resulted in some legislation of very questionable wisdom, for instance the setting of an arbitrary age limit for the active service of high-grade teachers. In actual experience men are too old to teach, or through any other function to move the minds of younger people in a forward direction, whenever they have lost the ability to change their own mind. Yet at all events, an eminent author's right of self-reversal must not be exercised at random; he should refrain from the propagation of new opinions that have not ripened within himself. Which is the same as saying that he should stick to his old opinions until he finds himself inwardly compelled to abandon them. But as a matter of fact, a man like Strindberg, propelled by an unbridled imagination, alert with romantic tendencies, nervously overstrung, kept constantly under a strain by his morbidly sensitive temperament,--and whose brain is consequently a seething chaos of conflicting ideas, is never put to the necessity of changing his mind; his mind keeps changing itself.
It must be as difficult for the literary historian to do Strindberg full justice as it was for the great eccentric himself; when in taking stock, as it were, of his mental equipment, during one of his protracted periods of despondency, he summed himself up in the following picturesque simile: "A monstrous conglomeration, changing its forms according to the observer's point of view and possessing no more reality than the rainbow that is visible to the eyes and yet does not exist." His evolution may be tracked, however, in the detailed autobiography in which he undertook, by a rigorous application of Hippolyte Taine's well-known theory and method, to account for his temperamental peculiarities on the basis of heredity and the milieu and to describe the gradual transformation of his character through education and the external pressure of contemporary intellectual movements. This remarkable work is like a picture book of ideals undermined, hollowed, and shattered; a perverse compound of cynicism and passion, it is unspeakably loathsome to the sense of beauty and yet, in the last artistic reckoning, not without great beauty of its own. It divides the story of Strindberg's life into these consecutive parts: The Son of the Servant; The Author; The Evolution of a Soul; The Confession of a Fool; Inferno; Legends; The Rupture; Alone. The very titles signalize the brutal frankness, or, shall we say, terrible sincerity of a tale that rummages without piety among the most sacred privacies, and drags forth from intimate nooks and corners sorrow and squalor and shame enough to have wrecked a dozen average existences. There is no mistaking or evading the challenge hurled by this story: See me as I am, stripped of conventional lies and pretensions! Look upon my naked soul, covered with scars and open sores. Behold me in my spasms of love and hate, now in demonical transports, now prostrate with anguish! And if you want to know how I came to be what I am, consider my ancestry, my bringing up, my social environment, and be sure also to pocket your own due share of the blame for my destruction!--Certainly Strindberg's autobiography is not to be recommended as a graduation gift for convent-bred young ladies, or as a soothing diversion for convalescents, but if accepted in a proper sense, it will be found absorbing, informative, and even helpful.
Strindberg never forgave his father for having married below his station. He felt that the good blood of the Strindbergs,--respectable merchants and ministers and country gentlemen,--was worsened by the proletarian strain imported into it through a working girl named Eleonore Ulrike Norling, the mother of August Strindberg and his eleven brothers and sisters. During August's childhood the family lived in extremely straitened circumstances. When a dozen people live cooped up in three roms, some of them are more than likely to have the joy of youth crushed out of them and crowded from the premises. Here was the first evil that darkened Strindberg's life: he simply was cheated out of his childhood.
School was no happier place for him than home. His inordinate pride, only sharpened by the consciousness of his parents' poverty which bordered on pauperism, threw him into a state of perpetual rebellion against comrades and teachers. And all this time his inner life was tossed hither and thither by a general intellectual and emotional restlessness due to an insatiable craving for knowledge. At fifteen years of age he had reached a full conviction on the irredeemable evilness of life; and concluded, in a moment of religious exaltation, to dedicate his own earthly existence to the vicarious expiation of universal sin through the mortification of the flesh. Then, of a sudden, he became a voracious reader of rationalistic literature, and turned atheist with almost inconceivable dispatch, but soon was forced back by remorse into the pietistic frame of mind,--only to pass through another reaction immediately after. At this time he claims that earthly life is a punishment or a probation; but that it lies in man's power to make it endurable by freeing himself from the social restraints. He has become a convert to the fantastic doctrine of Jean Jacques Rousseau, that man is good by nature but has been depraved by civilization. Now in his earliest twenties, he embraces communism with all its implications,--free love, state parenthood, public ownership of utilities, equal division of the fruits of labor, and so forth,--as the sole and sure means of salvation for humanity.
In the Swiss stories, subtitled "Utopias in Reality," Strindberg demonstrated to his own satisfaction the smooth and practical workings of that doctrine. It was difficult for him to understand why the major part of the world seemed so hesitant about adopting so tempting and equitable a scheme of living. Yet, for his own person, too, he soon disavowed socialism, because under a socialistic régime the individual would be liable to have his ideas put into uniform, and the remotest threat of interference with his freedom of thought was something this fanatical apostle of liberty could not brook.
In the preface to Utopias he had referred to himself as "a convinced socialist, like all sensible people"; whereas now he writes: "Idealism and Socialism are two maladies born of laziness." Having thus scientifically diagnosed the disease and prescribed the one true specific for it, namely--how simple!--the total abolition of the industries, he resumes the preaching of Rousseauism in its simon-pure form, orders every man to be his maid-of-all-work and jack-of-all-trades, puts the world on a vegetarian diet, and then wonders why the socialists denounce and revile him as a turncoat and an apostate.
The biography throws an especially vivid light on Strindberg's relation to one of the most important factors of socialism, to wit, the question of woman's rights. His position on this issue is merely a phase of that extreme and practically isolated position in regard to women in general that has more than any single element determined the feeling of the public towards him and by consequence fixed his place in contemporary literature. That this should be so is hardly unfair, because no other element has entered so deeply into the structure and fibre of his thought and feeling.
Strindberg, as has been stated, was not from the outset, or perchance constitutionally, an anti-feminist. In The Red Room he preaches equality of the sexes even in marriage. The thesis of the book is that man and woman are not antagonistic phenomena of life, rather they are modifications of the same phenomenon, made for mutual completion; hence, they can only fulfill their natural destiny through cloos cooperative comradeship. But there were two facts that prevented Strindberg from proceeding farther along this line of thought. One was his incorrigible propensity to contradiction, the other his excessive subjectiveness which kept him busy building up theories on the basis of personal experience. The prodigious feminist movement launched in Scandinavia by Ibsen and Björnson was very repugnant to him, because he felt, not without some just reason, that the movement was for a great many people little more than a fad. So long as art and literature are influenced by fashion, so long there will be and should be revolts against the vogue. Moreover, Strindberg felt that the movement was being carried too far. He was prepared to accompany Ibsen some distance on the way of reform, but refused to subscribe to his verdict that the whole blame for our crying social maladjustments rests with the unwillingness of men to allot any rights whatsoever to women.
Strindberg's play, Sir Bengt's Wife, printed in 1882, but of much earlier origin, is interpreted by Brandes as a symbolical portrayal of feminine life in Scandinavia during the author's early manhood. The leading feminine figure, a creature wholly incapable of understanding or appreciating the nobler traits in man, is nevertheless treated with sympathy, on the whole. She is represented,--like Selma Bratsberg in Ibsen's The League of Youth and Nora Helmer in A Doll's House,--as the typical and normal victim of partial and unfair training. Her faults of judgment and errors of temper are due to the fact so forcefully descanted upon by Selma, that women are not permitted to share the interests and anxieties of their husbands. We are expressly informed by Strindberg that this drama was intended, in the first place, as an attack upon the romantic proclivities of feminine education; in the second, as an illustration of the power of love to subdue the will; in the third, as a defense of the thesis that woman's love is of a higher quality than man's; and lastly, as a vindication of the right of woman to be her own master. Again, in Married he answers the query, shall women vote? distinctly in the affirmative, although here the fixed idea about the congenital discordance between the sexes, and the identification of love with a struggle for supremacy, has already seized hold of him.
To repeat, there was at first nothing absolutely preposterous about Strindberg's position in regard to the woman movement. On the contrary, his view might have been endorsed as a not altogether unwholesome corrective for the ruling fashion of dealing with the issue by the advocacy of extremes. But by force of his supervening personal grievance against the sex, Strindberg's anti-feminism became in the long-run the fixed pole about which gravitated his entire system of social and ethical thought. His campaign against feminism, which otherwise could have served a good purpose by curbing wild militancy, was defeated by its own exaggerations. Granting that feminists had gone too far in the denunciation of male brutality and despostism, Strindberg went still further in the opposite direction, when he deliberately set out to lay bare the character of woman by dissecting some of her most diabolical incarnations. As has already been said, he was utterly incapable of objective thinking, and under the sting of his miseries in love and marriage, dislike of woman turned into hatred and hatred into frenzy. Henceforth, the entire spectacle of life presented itself to his distorted vision as a perpetual state of war between the sexes: on the one side he saw the male, strong of mind and heart, but in the generosity of strength guileless and over-trustful; on the other side, the female, weak of body and intellect, but shrewd enough to exploit her frailness by linking iniquity to impotence and contriving by her treacherous cunning to enslave her natural superior:--it is the story of Samson and Delilah made universal in its application. Love is shown up as the trap in which man is caught to be shorn of his power. The case against woman is classically drawn up in The Father, one of the strangest and at the same time most powerful tragedies of Strindberg. The principals of the plot stand for the typical character difference between the sexes as Strindberg sees it; the man being kind-hearted, good-natured, and aspiring, whereas the woman, setting an example for all his succeeding portraits of women, is cunning, though unintelligent and coarse-grained, soulless, yet insanely ambitious and covetous of power. In glaring contrast to the situation made so familiar by Ibsen, we here see the man struggling away from the clutches of a woman who declares frankly that she has never looked at a man without feeling conscious of her superiority over him. In this play the man, a person of ideals and real ability, who is none other than Strindberg himself in one of his matrimonial predicaments, fails to extricate himself from the snare, and ends--both literally and figuratively--by being put into the straitjacket.
Without classing Strindberg as one of the great world dramatists, it would be narrow-minded, after experiencing the gripping effect of some of his plays, to deny them due recognition, for indeed they would be remarkable for their perspicacity and penetration, even if they were devoid of any value besides. They contain the keenest analyses ever made of the vicious side of feminine character, obtained by specializing, as it were, on the more particularly feminine traits of human depravity. Assuredly the procedure is onesided, but the delineation of a single side of life is beyond peradventure a legitimate artistic enterprise as long as it is not palmed upon us as an accurate and complete picture. Unfortunately, Strindberg's abnormal vision falsifies the things he looks at, and, being steeped in his insuperable prejudice, his pictures of life, in spite of the partial veracity they possess, never rise above the level of caricatures.
He was incompetent to pass judgment upon an individual woman separately; to him all women were alike, and that means, all unmitigatedly bad! To the objection raised by one of the characters in The Father: "Oh, there are so many kinds of women," the author's mouthpiece makes this clinching answer: "Modern investigation has pronounced that there is only one kind."
The autobiography of Strindberg is largely inspired by his unreasoning hatred of women; the result, in the main, of his three unfortunate ventures into the uncongenial field of matrimony. In its first part, the account of his life is not without some traces of healthy humor, but as the story progresses, his entire philosophy of life becomes more and more aberrant under the increasing pressure of that obsession. He gets beside himself at the mere mention of anything feminine, and blindly hits away, let his bludgeon land where it will; logic, common sense, and common decency go to the floor before his vehement and brutal assault. Every woman is a born liar and traitor. Her sole aim in life is to thrive parasitically upon the revenue of her favors. Since marriage and prostitution cannot provide a living for all, the oversupply now clamor for admission to the work-mart; but they are incompetent and lazy, and inveterate shirkers of responsibility. With triumphant malice he points to the perfidious readiness of woman to perform her tasks by proxy, that is, to delegate them to hired substitutes: her children are tended and taught by governesses and teachers; her garments are made by dressmakers and seamstresses; the duties of her household she unloads on servants,--and from selfish considerations of vanity, comfort, and love of pleasure, she withdraws even from the primary maternal obligation and lets her young be nourished at the breast of a stranger. Strindberg in his rage never stops to think that the deputies in these cases,--cooks and housemaids and nurses and so forth,--themselves belong to the female sex, by which fact the impeachment is in large part invalidated.
The play bearing the satirical title Comrades makes a special application of the theory about the pre-established antagonism of the sexes. In a situation similar to that in The Father, husband and wife are shown in a yet sharper antithesis of character: a man of sterling character and ability foiled by a woman in all respects his inferior, yet imperiously determined to dominate him. At first she seems to succeed in her ambition, and in the same measure as she assumes a more and more mannish demeanor, the husband's behavior grows more and more effeminate. But the contest leads to results opposite to those in The Father. Here, the man, once he is brought to a full realization of his plight, arouses himself from his apathy, reasserts his manhood, and, in the ensuing fight for supremacy, routs the usurper and comes into his own. The steps by which he passes through revolt from subjection to self-liberation, are cleverly signaled by his outward transformation, as he abandons the womanish style of dressing imposed on him by his wife's whim and indignantly flings into a corner the feminine costume which she would make him wear at the ball.
Leaving aside, then, all question as to their artistic value, Strindberg's dramas are deserving of attention as experiments in a fairly unexplored field of analytic psychology. They are the first literary creations of any great importance begotten by such bitter hatred of woman. The anti-feminism of Strindberg's predecessors, not excepting that arch-misogynist, Arthur Schopenhauer himself, sprang from contempt, not from abhorrence and abject fear. In Strindberg, misogyny turns into downright gynophobia. To him, woman is not an object of disdain, but the cruel and merciless persecutor of man. In order to disclose the most dangerous traits of the feminine soul, Strindberg dissects it by a method that corresponds closely to Ibsen's astonishing demonstration of masculine viciousness. The wide-spread dislike for Strindberg's dramas is due, in equal parts, to the detestableness of his male characters, and to the optimistic disbelief of the general public in the reality of womanhood as he represents it. Strindberg's portraiture of the sex appears as a monstrous slander, principally because no other painter has ever placed the model into the same disadvantageous light, and the authenticity of his pictures is rendered suspicious by their abnormal family resemblance. He was obsessed with the petrifying vision of a uniform cruel selfishness staring out of every woman's face: countess, courtesan, or kitchen maid, all are cast in the same gorgon mold.
Strindberg's aversion towards women was probably kindled into action, as has already been intimated, by his disgust at the sudden eruption of woman worship into literature; but, as has also been made clear, only the disillusionments and grievances of his private experience hardened that aversion into implacable hatred. At first he simply declined to ally himself with the feminist cult, because the women he knew seemed unworthy of being worshipped,--little vain dolls, frivolous coquettes, and pedants given to domestic tyranny, of such the bulk was made up. Under the maddening spur of his personal misfortunes, his feeling passed from weariness to detestation, from detestation to a bitter mixture of fear and furious hate. He conceived it as his supreme mission and central purpose in life to unmask the demon with the angel's face, to tear the drapings from the idol and expose to view the hideous ogress that feeds on the souls of men. Woman, in Strindberg's works, is a bogy, constructed out of the vilest ingredients that enter into the composition of human nature, with a kind of convulsive life infused by a remnant of great artistic power. And this gruesome fabric of a diseased imagination, like Frankenstein's monster, wreaks vengeance on its maker. His own mordant desire for her is the lash that drives him irresistably to his destruction.
It requires no profound psychologic insight to divine in this odious chimera the deplorable abortion of a fine ideal. The distorion of truth emanates in Strindberg's work, as it does in any significant satire or caricature, from indignation over the contrast between a lofty conception and a disappointing reality. What, after all, can be the mission of this hard-featured gallery of females,--peevish, sullen, impudent, grasping, violent, lecherous, malignant, and vindictive,--if it is not to mark pravity and debasement with a stigma in the name of a pure and noble womanhood?
It should not be left unmentioned that we owe to August Strindberg some works of great perfection fairly free from the black obsession and with a constructive and consistently idealistic tendency: splendid descriptions of a quaint people and their habitat, tinged with a fine sense of humor, as in The Hemsoe-Dwellers; charming studies of landscape and of floral and animal life, in the Portraits of Flowers and Animals; the colossal work on the Swedish People, once before referred to, a history conceived and executed in a thoroughly modern scientific spirit; two volumes of Swedish Fortunes and Adventures; most of his historic dramas also are of superior order. But these works lie outside the scope of the more specific discussion of Strindberg as a mystic and an eccentric to which this sketch is devoted. We may conclude by briefly considering the final phases of Strindberg's checkered intellectual career, and by summing up his general significance for the age.
It will be recalled that during the middle period of his life, (in 1888), Strindberg came into personal touch with Nietzsche. The effect of the latter's sensational philosophy is clearly perceptible in the works of that period, notably in Tschandala and By the Open Sea. Evidently, Nietzsche, at first, was very congenial to him. For both men were extremely aristocratic in their instincts. For a while, Strindberg endorsed unqualifiedly the heterodox ethics of the towering paranoiac. For one thing, that philosophy supplied fresh food and fuel for his burning rage against womankind, and that was enough to bribe him into swallowing, for the time being, the entire substance of Nietzsche's fantastic doctrine. He took the same ground as Nietzsche, that the race had deteriorated in consequence of its sentimentality, namely through the systematic production of physical and mental inferiority and unchecked procreation of weaklings. He seconded Nietzsche's motion that society should exterminate its parasites, instead of pampering them. Mankind can only be reinvigorated if the strong and healthy are helped to come into their own. The dreams of the pacifists are fatal to the pragmatic virtues and to the virility of the race. The greatest need is an aggressive campaign for the moral and intellectual sanitation of the world. So let the brain rule over the heart,--and so forth in the same strain.
Very soon, however, Strindberg passed out of the sphere of Nietzsche's influence. The alienation was due as much to his general instability as to the disparity between his pessimistic temper and the joyous exaltation of Zarathustra-ism. His striking reversion to orthodoxy was by no means illogical. Between pessimism and faith there exists a relation that is not very far to seek. When a person has forfeited his peace and soul and cannot find grace before his own conscience, he might clutch as a last hope the promise of vicarious redemption. Extending the significance of his own personal experience to everything within his horizon, and erecting a dogmatic system upon this tenuous generalization, Strindberg reached the conviction that the purpose of living is to suffer, a conviction that threw his philosophy well into line with the religious and ethical ideas of the middle age. Yet even at this juncture his cynicism did not desert him, as witness this comment of his: "Religion must be a punishment, because nobody gets religion who does not have a bad conscience." This avowal preceded his saltatory approach to Roman Catholicism.
In the later volumes of his autobiography he minutely describes the successive search for certitude and salvation before his spirit found rest in the idea of Destiny which formerly to him was synonymous with Fate and now became synonymous with Providence. Inferno pictures his existence as a protracted and unbroken nightmare. He turned determinist, then fatalist, then mystic. The most trifling incidents of his daily life were spelt out according to Swedenborg's "Science of Correspondences" and thereby assumed a deep and terrifying significance. In the most trivial events, such as the opening or shutting of a door, or the curve etched by a raindrop on a dusty pane of glass, he perceived intimations from the occult power that directed his life. Into the most ordinary occurrence of the day he read a divine order, or threat, or chastisement. He was tormented by terrible dreams and visions; in the guise of ferocious beasts, his own sins agonized his flesh. And in the midst of all these tortures he studied and practiced the occult arts: magic, astrology, necromancy, elchemy; he concocted gold by hermetical science! To all appearances utterly deranged, he was still lucid enough at intervals to carry on chemical, botanical, and physiological experiments of legitimate worth. Then his reason cleared up once again and put a sudden end to an episode which he has described in these words: "To go in quest of God and to find the devil,--that is what happened to me."
He took leave of Swedenborg as he had taken leave of Nietzsche, yet retained much gratitude for him; the great Scandinavian seer had brought him back to God, so he averred, even though the conversion was effected by picturings of horror.
Legends, the further continuation of his self-history, shows him vividly at his closest contact with the Catholic Church. But the most satisfactory portion of the autobiography from a human point of view, and from a literary point perhaps altogether the best thing Strindberg has done, is the closing book of the series, entitled Alone. He wrote it at the age of fifty, during a period of comparative tranquility of mind, and that fact is manifested by the composure and moderation of its style. Now at last his storm-tossed soul seems to have found a haven. He accepts his destiny, and resigns himself to believing, since knowledge is barred.
But even this state of serenity harbored no permanent peace; it signified merely a temporary suspension of those terrific internal combats.
In Strindberg's case, religious conversion is not an edifying, but on the contrary a morbid and saddening spectacle; it is equal to a declaration of complete spiritual bankruptcy. He turns to the church after finding all other pathways to God blocked. His type of Christianity does not hang together with the labors and struggles of his secular life. A break with his past can be denied to no man; least of all to a leader of men. Only, if he has deserted the old road, he should be able to lead in the new; he must have a new message if he sees fit to cancel the old. Strindberg, however, has nothing to offer at the end. He stands before us timorous and shrinking, the accuser of his fellows turned self-accuser, a beggar stretching forth empty, trembling hands imploring forgiveness of his sins and the salvation of his soul through gravious mediation. His moral asseverations are either blank truisms, or intellectual aberrations. Strindberg has added nothing to the stock of human understanding. A preacher, of course, is not in duty bound to generate original thought. Indeed if such were to be exacted, our pulpits would soon be as sparsely peopled as already are the pews. Ministers who are wondering hard why so many people stay away from church might well stop to consider whether the reason is not that a large portion of mankind has already secured, theoretically, a religious or ethical basis of life more or less identical with the one which churches content themselves with offering. The greatest religious teacher of modern times, Leo Tolstoy, was not by any means a bringer of new truths. The true secret of the tremendous power which nevertheless he wielded over the souls of men was that he extended the practical application of what he believed. If, therefore, we look for a lesson in Strindberg's life as recited by himself, we shall not find it in his religious conversion.
Taken in its entirety, his voluminous yet fragmentary life history is one of the most painful human documents on record. One can hardly peruse it without asking: Was Strindberg insane? It is a question which he often put to himself when remorse and self-reproach gnawed at his conscience and when he fancied himself scorned and persecuted by all his former friends. "Why are you so hated?" he asks himself in one of his dialogues, and this is his answer: "I could not endure to see mankind suffer, and so I said and wrote: 'Free yourselves, I shall help.' And so I said to the poor: 'Do not let the rich suck your blood.' And to woman: 'Do not let man oppress you.' And to the children: 'Do not obey your parents if they are unjust.' The consequences,--well, they are quite incomprehensible; for of a sudden I had both sides against me, rich and poor, men and women, parents and children; add to that sickness and poverty, disgraceful pauperism, my divorce, lawsuits, exile, loneliness, and now, to top the climax,--do you believe that I am insane?" From his ultra-subjective point of view, the explanation here given of the total collapse of his fortunes is fairly accurate, at least in the essential aspects. Still, many great men have been pursued by a similar conflux of calamities. Overwhelming misfortunes are the surest test of manhood. How high a person bears up his head under the blows of fate is the best gage of his stature. But Strindberg, in spite of his colossal physique, was not cast in the heroic mold. The breakdown of his fortunes caused him to turn traitor to himself, to recant and destroy his intellectual past.
Whether he was actually insane is a question for psychiatrists to settle; normal he certainly was not. In medical opinion his modes of reacting to the obstructions and difficulties of the daily life were conclusively symptomatic of neurasthenia. Certain obsessive ideas and idiosyncracies of his, closely bordering upon phobia, would seem to indicate his world-view were indicative of hypochondria: he perceived only the hostile, never the friendly, aspects of events, people, and phenomena. Dejectedly, he declares: "There is falseness even in the calm air and the sunshine, and I feel that happiness had no place in my lot."
Destiny had assembled within him all the doubts and pangs of the modern soul, but had neglected to counterpoise them with positive and constructive convictions; so that when his small store of hopes and prospects was exhausted, he broke down from sheer hollowness of heart. He died a recluse, a penitent, and a renegade to all his past ideas and persuasions.
Evidently, with his large assortment of defects both of character and of intellect, Strindberg could not be classed as one of the great constructive minds of our period. Viewed in his social importance, he will interest future students of morals chiefly as an agitator, a polemist, and in a fashion, too, as a prophet; by his uniquely aggressive veracity, he rendered a measure of valuable service to his time.
But viewed as a creative writer, both of drama and fiction, he has an incontestable claim to our lasting attention. His work shows artistic ability, even though it rarely attains to greatness and is frequently marred by the bizarre qualities of his style. Presumably his will be a permanent place in the history of literature, principally because of the extraordinary subjective animation of his work. And perhaps in times less depressed than ours its gloominess may act as a valuable antidote upon the popular prejudice against being serious. His artistic profession of faith certainly should save him from wholesale condemnation. He says in one of his prefaces: "Some people have accused my tragedy of being too sad, as though one desired a merry tragedy. People clamor for Enjoyment as though Enjoyment consisted in being foolish. I find enjoyment in the powerful and terrible struggles of life; and the capability of experiencing something, of learning something, gives me pleasure."
The keynote to his literary productions is the cry of the agony of being. Every line of his works is written in the shadow of the sorrow of living. In them, all that is most dismal and terrifying and therefore most tragical, becomes articulate. They are propelled by an abysmal pessimism, and because of this fact, since pessimism is one of the mightiest inspiring forces in literature, August Strindberg, its foremost spokesman, deserves to be read and understood.
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