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A New Life

Paul Larkin

Much as William Shakespeare has entered into our language and discourse as “the Bard” who changed our understanding of art and life’s great philosophical questions, Henrik Ibsen should be the literary and dramatic icon of the modern age. Yet he is hardly talked about in literary circles and, more to the Irish point, has sunk without trace in a country which once regarded him with a mixture of awe and trepidation. This is a pity, since Ibsen continues to speak to our times. It can also be argued that we Irish have more in common with Scandinavians in general than most people might assume, or perhaps remember. Indeed the greatest Scandinavian writer has a particular relevance to modern Ireland.

If two of or our most notable literary figures, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw, felt Ibsen was important enough for them to write and campaign on his behalf we may reasonably assume that he was more than just a flash in the early modernist pan and that a revaluation of his works would be worth our while. Joyce went so far as to learn a passable Norwegian in order to be able to read Ibsen’s works and also entered into correspondence with him, or more accurately with one of his English translators, William Archer. He was in no doubt as to Ibsen’s central importance to literature and the world of ideas. As he wrote in an essay published in 1900 in the Fortnightly Review:

It may be questioned whether any man has held so firm an empire over the thinking world in modern times.

With his acute understanding of the historical role of an artist in society, Joyce admired Ibsen as a courageous freethinker who faced down a barrage of international condemnation to bring extraordinary new insights into life as it was lived in the early modern age.

Ibsen was born in 1828 and died in 1906, but his productive period stretches from 1850 to 1899, say roughly from the bourgeois revolutions of 1848 to the onset of the Edwardian period. He was able to observe not only the helter-skelter development of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of an urban working class and the collapse of romantic idealism as an artistic genre but also the turn away from God. After the discoveries of Darwin and the materialist critique of capitalism offered by Marx and Engels, man as the new divinity took centre stage and free will (or rather, the question of what to do with that free will) became a central question. What exactly would fill the vacuum which had rushed in after the demise of the God ideal?

While we cannot be absolutely sure of the detail of Ibsen’s reading there is no doubt that during his extended residence in Germany he would have followed the often hard fought philosophical debates that accompanied the rise to prominence of Friedrich Nietzsche. The tension inherent in Nietzsche’s central idea of there being a Dionysian, orgiastic impulse within man that was counterpointed by the cold, ascetic perspective of Apollo finds ample expression in Ibsen’s plays. The increasingly reckless and sexual tarantella dance scene performed by Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House (while her semidetached husband Torvald looks on) captures this perfectly.

There were, however, two other philosopher-writers who had a greater influence on Ibsen than Nietzsche: Arthur Schopenhauer and Søren Kierkegaard. Where Schopenhauer is concerned, Shaw makes a clear link to Ibsen in his seminal work The Quintessence of Ibsenism, published as a defence of the dramatist in 1891. In summary, Shaw links Ibsen’s work to Schopenhauer’s idea that, given the great misery of life, the obvious thing to do is to commit suicide and the only the only thing that stops us doing this is the will to survive. Thus the rational becomes subservient to the will.

Rationally considered, life is only worth living when its pleasures are greater than its pains. Now to a generation which has ceased to believe in heaven, and has not yet learned that the degradation by poverty of four out of every five of its number is artificial and remediable, the fact that life is not worth living is obvious.

The characters who inhabit Ibsen’s dramatic world, as Shaw sees it, have gone beyond the age of God and rational argument to a place where they must confront their own basic instincts, their own will ‑ will being for Shaw another word for spirit.

Characters like Nora Helmer and Hedda Gabler must face the question of suicide ‑ or choose another kind of suicide where they “murder” their old life and make an existential leap towards a new one. Nora makes that leap towards a new life, a new Nora ‑ and Hedda Gabler shoots herself.

Where Kierkegaard is concerned, Toril Moi, in her biography Henrik Ibsen and The Birth of Modernism, published in 2006, lends support to the idea that Ibsen did not know much of the Danish philosopher’s work. But this is difficult to accept given the “Ibsenesque” scandal that Kierkegaard had provoked by breaking off his engagement to Regine Olsen. Just like Nora Helmer, he ignored a deeply ingrained social convention, in his case for the sake of his artistic wellbeing. Then he threw the fat in the fire by publishing “Diary of a Seducer” in 1843 as part his huge work Either/Or. Nor, surely, did it escape Ibsen’s attention that on his deathbed in 1855 Kierkegaard caused the greatest scandal of all by refusing to take holy communion, except if was administered by a layman rather than a priest. Ibsen, the great iconoclast and champion of individual freedom, would have approved of the gesture; not least because of its direct challenge to the established Lutheran church, which Kierkegaard had grown to despise just as much as Ibsen did. Kierkegaard of course was effectively a generation before Ibsen in terms of much of his output, but it took a long time for his ideas to filter down. One of the major analysts of his work in Denmark was the writer and modernist Georg Brandes, a critic and thinker with an international reputation and greatly admired by Ibsen.

Ibsen’s greatest plays are generally acknowledged to be Ghosts (or The Revenants), A Doll’s House, The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler, and there is no doubt that these works contain all the elements which set him apart as an artist and playwright. It should also be recalled that here Ibsen was dealing with themes no one else had dealt with and using theatre techniques that no one had previously considered. Toril Moi’s largely excellent biography of Ibsen does a fine job of explaining these innovative stage techniques: Pillars of Society,for example, uses a window onto the world technique, which is more cinema than stage drama in its approach.

Ghosts and A Doll’s House examine the idea of marriage as a charade and in particular the “life lie” which women must live for such marriages to continue. A number of writers have referred to Ibsen’s idea of a “life lie”, where his characters must make a decision as to whether they should admit to some dark secret in their past or even a general dissatisfaction with life. These characters, the argument goes, construct an ideal for themselves and convince themselves that everything they have done has been to further that ideal. It thus becomes impossible to question that ideal since to do so would mean admitting that one’s life had been in vain.

Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House has lived a lie to in order to fulfil the ideal of the perfect marriage. Mrs Alving in Ghosts has played a long-drawn-out game of humouring her husband’s debauchery while being in love with someone else. On discovering that her son Oswald has contracted syphilis from his father she has to decide whether to administer euthanasia. Could there be any greater destruction of an ideal? Time and again in Ibsen’s plays, society’s binding communal ideals are revealed as impossible to attain: the only answer is to break away and live as a free individual.

In the light of this one might assume that Ibsen had completely abandoned idealism as a philosophical position. This is certainly how George Bernard Shaw portrays him in 1891 and Toril Moi effectively takes the same position in her biography. Yet Ibsen retained an idealist core. It is unfortunate that Moi attempts to pin him completely to the modernist mast and ignores the visionary element in his work. For despite his gruff and austere appearance, there was more than a whiff of the romantic about Ibsen. (The same could be said of Thomas Hardy and Karl Marx.) In fact, Ibsen, in a speech made in Stockholm, stated quite clearly that there was a higher goal behind his work:

I believe that poetry, philosophy and religion will blend into a new category and a new life power, of which we who live now can have no clear conception.

Indeed there are great similarities between Ibsen and Hardy. Both, for example, used women extensively as their heroes. Hardy controversially described his Tess of the d’Urbervilles as “A Pure Woman” in a similar approach to Ibsen’s treatment of Nora in A Doll’s House. Both writers were, Janus-like, facing two ways at once – backwards to the romantic age and forwards to modernism. Despite his often extended use of metaphor, Hardy always retained a gritty realism. The same goes for Ibsen.

To be a real modernist, the artist is supposed to be absent from his text, and to refrain from attempting to persuade his audience of any ideal. Yet, just as with Hardy, Ibsen’s plays are shot through with his own ideas. Women and men must work towards a new understanding of each other (Rosmersholm, The Lady From the Sea, When We Dead Awaken, A Doll’s House). Businessmen and bankers should stop being hypocrites and remember their social responsibilities (Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House). Fanatics who preach their message regardless of context or social setting are dangerous (Emperor and Galilean, The Wild Duck).

It should also be remembered that there is a major autobiographical element to Ibsen’s oeuvre. Henrik Johan Ibsen was born in March 1828 in Skien, a little harbour town on the southeastern coast of Norway. His mother and father were quite well to do but by the time Henrik was six they had effectively become bankrupt, had lost their social standing and were forced to move to less salubrious accommodation. Ibsen’s mother turned to religion, while his father suffered severe bouts of depression. As a teenager, Ibsen moved to another coastal town, where he worked as a chemist’s assistant. Aged eighteen he fathered a child with a servant girl. He appears to have abandoned the child apart from a small sum of maintenance which he struggled to pay. Eventually he moved to Oslo (then Christiania) but he still struggled financially and it would be a long time before he would be able to describe himself as being financially secure. The fear of financial insecurity seems never to have completely left him.

Finance was not the only problem. By the time Ibsen took his own young family to Rome in 1864, he had established a reputation not only as poverty-stricken “poet”, but also as a drunkard, who would sometimes have to be picked up in the street and brought home. It is possible that the donations towards his trip by other artists and prominent people were at least partly made in the hope that he might be rejuvenated not just artistically but physically. Joyce would have sympathised with the travails of a young artist struggling for recognition and first finding it while in exile. Ibsen spent twenty-seven years outside Norway, which, like Ireland, was then seen as a cultural backwater. Ireland’s cultural elite in the Victorian age looked to London; their Norwegian counterparts looked to Copenhagen, and then France and Germany, for their artistic inspiration and instruction. That same cultural elite also branded both Ibsen and Joyce as muckrakers and writers from the cesspit.

All the above biographical detail is played out in Ibsen’s dramas: a servant girl seduced; a depressed or incapacitated father figure; frustrated women, some of whom find relief through religion. Then there are drunken artists, or artists suffering from an inability to create. Another recurring motif is the character who comes up from the country looking for love, work or some sort of social stability. Away from the large coastal cities, many of Norway’s settlements were still isolated, as in Ireland.

Indeed it is probable that many of Ibsen’s themes are more readily understandable in contemporary Ireland than in Scandinavia, where religious belief has eroded more rapidly. We, more than they, might more easily appreciate his anger at the hypocrisy of the time-serving clergy and their assumed role as moral guardian in society. Had Ibsen encountered contemporary Irish politicians and financiers he would almost certainly have set about writing a play about them: he is perhaps the most polemical writer who ever existed, which again disqualifies him as a proper modernist.

If Ibsen’s reputation has plummeted rapidly in recent decades the problem may lie in how he has been categorised by literary critics. Following Joyce’s enthusiasm, later critics usually pitched him and his works as gloomy, “Scandinavian” and cerebral. His aspirational impulses are rarely referred to, yet this is to completely misunderstand him. Ibsen was said to be parsimonious, even grumpy. On his deathbed, he felt obliged to correct the nurse who told a visitor that he seemed to be a little bit better – tvert imot, he said – quite the opposite, Madam. Part of this apparent irascibility may arise from the fact that he was to some extent an autodidact who was uncomfortable in polite society, but it is also due to the way in which he viewed his role as an artist. Even after his switch from writing his plays in verse Ibsen still insisted that he was a “poet” – a poet, moreover, who saw his role as being to engage with society in discourse. This is not to say that his characters were simply extensions of his own personality ‑ nothing could be further from the truth ‑ but rather to insist that Ibsen, like Shakespeare, was a rhetorician and saw himself more as a Socrates than a Flaubert. Toril Moi may therefore be wrong to insist on Ibsen’s modernism; what we should be celebrating is his polemical engagement with society. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton (in How to Read a Poem) Ibsen’s rallying call might be said to have been “Forward to Antiquity!”

It is perhaps no accident that the literary critic who has come closest to understanding the soul of Henrik Ibsen is something of a literary highbrow. George Steiner writes:

In Rosmersholm, The Lady from The Sea and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen succeeded in doing what every major playwright had attempted after the 17th century and what even Goethe and Wagner had not wholly accomplished: he created a new mythology and the theatrical conventions with which to express it. This is the foremost achievement of Ibsen’s genius, and it is, as yet, not fully understood.

The above comes from Steiner’s classic study The Death of Tragedy, which might have been an important source for Moi: it argues that idealism was central to Ibsen’s project and that he was warning about a modern “God-abandoned” world where all values were relative. But Steiner does not receive a single mention in Moi’s biography. To be fair, she does acknowledge that Ibsen had not completely abandoned idealism.

In its most radical political form, this utopian and perfectionist vision stayed with Ibsen throughout his life.”

But can a writer be a utopian and a modernist at one and the same time? I think not. If we return to Ibsen the crusader for social change, the visionary, we open the doors to a new audience for the kind of social discourse that Ibsen sought to engender, a discourse that draws on the classical idea of rhetoric and implies the honing of arguments, the clarification of philosophical conundrums. Ibsen belongs in this world just as much as in that of gritty realism. Steiner identified the core of Ibsen that puts him on a par with Shakespeare: the word that binds them together more than any other is “tragedy”. For Shakespeare, the fate of Romeo and Juliet was written in the stars; for Ibsen it would have been engraved in the godless void where the human urge to be free calls upon us to write our own history across the universe, not placing blind trust in leaders but seeking our own truth and refusing to accept second best.

Our longstanding, enforced link with England has not only cut us off from our natural ties in Europe but made us forget that the Scandinavians are our blood cousins. If we embrace Ibsen again, we are not only embracing a master of literary discourse but also reengaging with a culture and people with whom we share deep affinities. Ibsen is perfect for the Irish since he came from our kind of society, intimate, closely connected, familiar, claustrophobic, intense, literary and with a veneer of Christianity hiding the essentially pagan values that underpin the country’s folk memory. Ibsen’s Norway has now, arguably, moved on and adopted the mores of a modern industrial society, but Ireland finds itself still dealing with the painful issues explored in his plays. Let us go back to the well.


Paul Larkin was born in Salford, England. After school he spent five years in the Danish merchant navy before taking a degree in Scandinavian and Celtic Studies at University College London. He is a winner of the European Journalist of the Year award and last year made a new translation of Ibsen's Et dukkehjem (A Doll's House) for the Secondage theatre company and (director) Alan Stanford.

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