Uro og urenhed. Studier i Strindbergs selvbiografiske prosa: Studier i Strindbergs selvbiografiske prosa

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  • Afdeling for Nordisk Sprog og Litteratur
SummaryThe field of investigation In the dissertation Instability and Impurity: Studies in Strindberg’s Autobiographical Prose Writings, I assume that instability, impurity and lability are characteristic features of August Strindberg’s writings. Several studies have noticed these aspects, but mostly casually and without systematic scholarly discussion. It has been regarded as an aesthetic, cognitive, or even ethical deficiency in his for – other reasons – canonised works. Here, however, I propose a systematic discussion of it as a positive quality, which brings Strindberg in contact with modernism and modern theory of literature. For this reason, I focus on that which points forward in Strindberg’s efforts. The dissertation aims at constructing the modernity of texts that have long been part of literary tradition. It does not intend to reconstruct Strindberg’s own intentions and contexts, but rather to detach his works from them. The emphasis is on the autobiographical texts regarded as texts and not as evidence of the life of the author. This means that I see instability and impurity as a textual problem. It is part of a poetics that I describe as Strindberg’s impure writing, and which I construct by systematic readings in a limited body of works, here termed ‘Strindberg’s autobiographical prose writings’. There are several reasons for choosing the auto-biographical writings as the primary material. Next to the dramas, I see them as Strindberg’s most important innovative contribution to modern literature. They raise such radical questions concerning representation so radically that it is highly regrettable that Strindberg’s endeavours usually have remained unnoticed in the comprehensive international research on autobiography, which for several years has given the genre a privileged position in textual theories. Defining a clear-cut body of autobiographical works causes difficulties. In itself, autobiography has been a challenge to generic distinctions, and further problems derive from Strindberg’s blurring of the borderlines between fiction, autobiography and other discourses. As an experiment, I have chosen to discuss the rather heterogeneous group of texts, which Strindberg has himself retrospectively labelled as autobiographical: the four volumes of Tjänstekvinnans son (The Son of a Servant, written 1886), Han och hon (He and She, prepared for publication 1886), Le Plaidoyer d’un fou (A Madman’s Defence, written 1887-8), Inferno (1897), Legender (Legends 1898), Klostret/»Karantänmästarns andra berättelse« (»The Cloister/ The Quarantine Master’s Second Story«, 1898/1902) and Ensam (Alone, 1903). THE FIELD OF INVESTIGATION 429 Strindberg surely wanted to set this group of texts off from the rest of his work, and editors and scholars have followed his intentions. Nevertheless, this dissertation assigns them neither a common essence nor distinctive features that once and for all separate them from texts as »Kvarstadsresan« or »Hjärnornas kamp«, which Strindberg did not include on his lists of autobiographical writings. It rather sees the works treated as instructively divergent. They span genres such as the novel, short story, evolutionary autobiography, memoirs, self-portrait and epistolary novel, and they also encompass several narrative modalities. They thus allow a dialogue between different forms of written self-representation and the expectations released by a specific genre: autobiography. Thus, the delimitation of a body of works has other advantages than the designation of an inner unity. It includes major works from two fertile periods that also represent an important transition in literary history: the shift from naturalism to post-naturalist poetics. A central objective is exactly to construct Strindberg’s road to modernism through a reading of his wrestling with the forms of self-representation in an attempt to accommodate them to the experience of modernity. Unlike the main currents in Strindberg scholarship that have very often dealt with questions of influence, biography, his place in the history of ideas and other often extra-textual matters, the major part of this dissertation features separate readings in individual works. This is also, what distinguishes it from Michael Robinson’s inventive opening of the discussion of Strindberg and Autobiography (1986). His focus is on self-representation rather than on autobiography as a genre. Works and letters are treated as a total corpus; and quite often, undoubtedly corresponding with Strindbergian intentions, quotes from disparate sources are combined. While he tends to describe the represented life as alienated in the forms of writing, I focus on the interplay between life, self and writing as the irreducible aspects of autobiography. In the last decade, comprehensive studies appeared in some of the works treated here. In Levande död (1996), Ulf Olsson comments on Le Plaidoyer d’un fou and Inferno. The turning point in his readings is, however, allegory, and not self-representation. Self-representation is the pivot of Die Autorfigur (1999) by Wolfgang Behschnitt, who provides extensive readings of Le Plaidoyer d’un fou and especially Tjänstekvinnans son, but also includes the dramas in his investigation. His description of a dialectics between construction and negation of images of the author throughout Strindberg’s works approaches my position; but while he tries to reconstruct a logic, I also delineate the historical changes in Strindberg’s method of self-representation and his poetics. That is why I present readings of the singular works in chronological order. In each case, I ask questions concerning genre, subjectivity and representation. Inspired by structural theories, I study the construction of meaning through narrative, thematic and discursive patterns. The focus is, however, on the desta- 430 SUMMARY SUMMARY bilisation of these patterns. Instability occurs in all the texts treated, but it does not remain the same. In the succession of works, I follow the traces of a crisis in representation, which reaches a peak in Le Plaidoyer d’un fou, Inferno and the second section of Legender. As a whole, the dissertation is composed as follows: 1. Introduction 2. Strindberg and Autobiography (including a discussion of »Karantänmästarns andra berättelse«) 3. Tjänstekvinnans son 4. Han och hon 5. Le Plaidoyer d’un fou 6. Literary Impurity 7. Inferno 8. Legender 9. A Melancholy Constellation 10. Ensam 11. Summary. The instability that I regard as constitutive for Strindberg’s self-representations, is over-determined. It is typical of a tendency within the genre: the modern, individual autobiography. To stress his own individuality, the writer opposes the given forms of representation. Instability is enhanced by individual dispositions like Strindberg’s strong anxiety of influence and the complex, which I describe as a melancholy pattern in his texts; but it also points to displacements in cultural, biographical and aesthetic horizons of experience caused by modernity. My main interest is not, however, to explain the genesis of instability, but to study its results. The most important of these results are the very texts treated: versatile prose writings that avoid what Adorno called "false reconciliation". Truly, the writing of autobiography is often an attempt to find or create stable patterns of meaning by binding biographical and textual elements together in intelligible wholes. This is one side of Strindberg’s enterprise as well. However, it is balanced by an inclination towards dissolution of meaning and decentering of the text. The opposition to closure makes all works into provisional experiments. The Results of the Investigation The Field of Autobiography The works discussed are not all autobiographies stricto sensu. Nevertheless, they pose the crucial questions of the genre, and they use its typical discourse. To understand this field, I develop a conception of autobiography with life, subject and forms as its irreducible, but interacting core aspects. I discuss genres as formalisations of conventions of reading and writing. In the 1880s, the dominating norm was still the modern autobiography in the tradition from Rousseau. I de-scribe its horizon of expectations with reference to Philippe Lejeune’s definition of autobiography as a retrospective narrative written by a real person with a focus on his individual life, in particular the story of his personality. Autobiography is referential. Although this dissertation does not follow the biographical method in its zealous mapping of the external referent of autobiography, it maintains reference as a resistance to the free play of language or THE RESULTS OF THE INVESTIGATION 431 subjectivity. Most of all it insists on discussing its textual functions. Strindberg deliberately used autobiographical reference to challenge the dominating regimes of representation, e.g. by publishing tabooed intimate matters related to identifiable persons. That is why attempts to read Le Plaidoyer d’un fou as pure fiction fail. Strindberg explores the boundary between fiction and autobiography by making reference possible but uncertain. His use of names and signatures only enhances this uncertainty by making the contract between text and reader ambiguous. Thus, his texts approach the purposely paradoxical reference of what some scholars have called ‘autofiction’. Autobiography depicts the routes of a life through a historical, geographical and social world. What holds it together is, however, not the referential facts, but the self-interpretation of a subject concerned with its own identity. This makes autobiography an exclusive form of life history. Large groups of people have been reluctant to focus on the individual self. Nevertheless, most authors with literary ambitions responded to the autobiographical central perspective as the dominating norm. By the use of it, they were negotiating constitutive cultural concepts regarding the subject, representation, meaning and identity. The delegitimation of traditional collective paradigms of interpretation made autobiography and the biographical novel into instruments for a modern subject trying to re-define its relationship to its own identity as well as to the social communities. Meaning was situated in the life of the individual. The historical conditions of the genre are repeated in the singular work: the impulse to write typically stems from a loss of certainty, orientation and identity. Autobiography not only describes, it also serves as a transformation of fundamental relations. The writer recapitulates his past in order to create a new identity; conversion is one of its basic forms. In Tjänstekvinnans son, e.g., Strindberg drops his faith in God as well as in woman. In his series of self-representations, Strindberg is in a dialogue with important modalities of autobiography: the story of the formation of the writer (Tjänstekvinnans son), the apology of the self (Le Plaidoyer d’un fou), the confession and the conversion (Inferno). He uses the centripetal rhetoric of the genre; in Inferno he even talks of finding his life’s ‘equation’. Nevertheless, he also opposes it by a series of centrifugal movements. In Tjänstekvinnans son, instead of a synthesis the narrator refers the reader back to the raw material, i.e. the singular biographical episodes and the many pages of the book, and forward to future events. Here as elsewhere supplements and deferment counteract closure. While Han och hon is an epistolary novel without a single perspective, Legender approaches the memoirs by focusing on other people’s lives. Considered as a whole, the group of texts that are treated form a series of re-definitions of the self. Notwithstanding Strindberg’s penchant for mythologising himself, I emphasise their hypothetical character, which is partly due to 432 SUMMARY SUMMARY the challenge to the singular, retrospective perspective caused by seriality itself. The individual autobiography is not definitive, but only one version of a life (hi)story. Strindberg’s continual self-revision represents an aspect of modernity that has subsequently become generalised: the need for constant renegotiation of identity. His autobiographical endeavour makes it obvious that autobiography is bound to a modern subjectivity, but not to early modern notions of autonomy, substance and authenticity. On the contrary, he repeatedly contests the self, which is the subject and centre of autobiography. Tjänstekvinnans son programmatically rejects its autonomy, unity and constancy. Whereas Le Plaidoyer d’un fou, Inferno and »Jakob brottas« depict an unstable and decentred subjectivity, Ensam maintains notions of a centre, which is however empty. Following the movement beyond the subjective central perspective, the dissertation highlights the importance of the interaction with others for the writing of autobiography, a fact that the ideology of the autonomous subject obscures. As a written and published self-representation, autobiography is also a communicative act. To become readable, the writing subject must insert itself into a community of interpretation. Identity needs social sanction. Very often, an impulse to write is an imbalance in social relations. Strindberg’s characters feel slighted and denounced. Their desire for recognition turns into a struggle for power, which replaces dialectics with identity logics. I show that in this process the dialogue with others is not perceived as an enriching correction of subjective one-sidedness, but as an invasion of the ego. In Le Plaidoyer d’un fou other people’s unauthorised tales are motivating forces for Axel’s desire to claim his rights as the author of his own story. A lack of supremacy leads to a panic enforcement of the principle of individuation. In Strindberg’s case, the disturbances of the interpersonal relationships are vehicles of experiments with forms of self-representation that lead beyond the harmonising subject-object-dialectics of the Bildungsroman and the Goethean tradition of autobiography. Beyond Narrative: The Forms of Autobiography The textual counterpart to this fight against the others is the distrust with which the texts treated meet traditional literary and rhetorical means of expression. In what Renza has called a self-reflexive and ‘paranoid’ mode of writing, autobiographers like Rousseau and Strindberg try to avoid renouncing their individuality and being trapped in collective forms. This endeavour manifests itself in a movement away from the ideal type described by Philippe Lejeune. In a preface to Tjänstekvinnans son, Strindberg opposes genre classifications. He uses the third person and makes no autobiographical pact with the reader. The uncertainty lives on in Le Plaidoyer d’un fou and Inferno, which continually put forward and THE RESULTS OF THE INVESTIGATION 433 withdraw invitations to either autobiographical or fictional readings. The texts are constantly moving into other genres or discourses: memoirs, diary, letters, self-portrait, naturalist or allegorical fiction, documentary or historical study. In the anonymous prose of Ensam, finally, fiction as well as referentiality reaches a degree zero, and genre awareness is no longer precarious. The awareness of genre is followed by an acute awareness of and distrust in the fundamental notions and matrices of autobiography. The dissertation studies narrative, images and conceptual discourses as the means, by which the autobiographer makes meaning. In each work, I describe a double movement: a strong effort to make life coherent and readable, which is however counteracted by a denunciation of the very forms used to achieve this effect. In the field of conceptual discourses such as psychology, theology, sociology, anthropology or history, I thus focus on Strindberg’s tendency to denounce the authorities on whom he leans. His relation to his own frames of reference is revisionist. Similarly, the incommensurability of the images used frequently opposes their fixation into a personal myth. In early works like Han och hon, the dissertation even tracks down an ironic playfulness and self-conscious theatricality in the presentation of self-images, which serve as a warning against taking the later identifications and masks for firm and canonised truths. The most important matrix is narrative. The dissertation particularly concentrates on the plots that until Inferno serve as the main instrument of understanding and of textual coherence. In each work, I observe a departure from narrative time, e.g. the notion of growth and progression, and from narrative structure. Tjänstekvinnans son contests the validity of the great narratives belonging to the philosophy of history. In its own writing of life history, the criticism of causality and coherence results in a resistance to closure. The compositional complexity of Le Plaidoyer d’un fou and Inferno shows that narrating has become problematic. The plot is threatened by reversibility, as narrative progression is counteracted by a cycle of fall and regeneration. Beginnings lose their singularity, and endings are no longer definitive. Strindberg also departs from narrative central perspective. Scenes detach themselves from the whole and stand alone as tableaux. In Inferno, the counterpart to this disintegration is the use of the diary form. In the late works, Strindberg finds an alternative to narrative time in rhetorical and thematic principles of organisation. He approaches the spatial forms that became a ground-breaking part of his post-Inferno dramas, and which Joseph Frank described as emblematic of modernist prose. A Crisis in Representation Strindberg’s autobiographical works manifest a strong will to knowledge. But they also foreground difficulties in the understanding and articulation of expe- 434 SUMMARY SUMMARY riences. Tradition is regarded as invalid, the interpretive communities as false. Even intimate relationships such as marriage or friendship are mistrusted. The subject can only rely on itself, and this self seems insecure, discontinuous and labile. The destabilisation of forms, genre, tradition and self comes to a head in what I label a crisis in representation, which leads Strindberg beyond the naturalism that he introduced in Tjänstekvinnans son. I read Le Plaidoyer d’un fou as a transitional work. Its frame of understanding is naturalist; but the central aspects of representation (perception, memory, interpretation, articulation) have become so problematic that Axel cannot form a stable image of his past. His lack of authority is demonstrated by his hystericised discourse. Desire invades enunciation. Language, his medium, seems as uncontrollable as woman, who is made a metaphor of the unrepresentable. – Inferno is about horror, which again points to the unknown and unrepresentable and makes interpretation imperative. The relations with the outside world are intellectualised: in a polymorphous semiotics, things, places, events and persons are made into signs that have to be read allegorically. The many questions, hypotheses and conjectures demonstrate the uncertainty common to narrator and protagonist. God is invoked, but does not stabilise things, for the field of religion is also decentred, conflictual and reversible. At the same time analogy becomes a central cognitive instrument. More than other epistemological paradigms such as classification or historical progression, it makes knowledge itself into an infinite series of displacements and condensations. Uncertainty thus lives on in Strindberg’s experiments with religious forms. The closure of this crisis consists in a displacement of epistemological difficulties to ontological conditions. Focus is no longer on the subject of knowledge, but on the order of the world. Inconstancy is thus moved from modernity and individual life history to earthly life as such. The accept of fragmentation, ambivalence, contingency and instability in Strindberg’s post-inferno works at the same time implies a departure from realist forms of representation. The dissertation emphasises that this is no anti-mimetic departure from representation as such, but rather a demonstration of the inadequacy of existing forms. The crisis in representation is thus an important motive for the creation of a modernist poetics. Between Realism and Modernism In order to place Strindberg’s poetics of self-representation in literary history, I present theories of realism and modernism. I introduce the term ‘Strindberg’s impure writing’ to designate the intermediary field occupied by his autobiographical prose and several other writings. Impurity is opposed to the dominating view of art, especially to the demarcations of the aesthetics of autonomy. It manifests THE RESULTS OF THE INVESTIGATION 435 itself in a hybrid prose that combines fiction, science and polemics. Strindberg is in a lifelong dialogue with impure genres as the essay, travel literature, satire and, of course, autobiography. He deliberately widened the boundaries of what could be published as a novel, an autobiography or as non-literary prose. His endeavours are demonstrated by a discussion of his use of a homemade hybrid genre, the ‘vivisection’ "Hjärnornas kamp". The dissertation points out the affinity between Strindberg’s impure writing and literary realism. Among other things, it stresses his anti-idealism, the radical referentiality of his texts, and the opening of vocabulary and subject matter toward fields of experience, which idealism had rejected as low, impure and prosaic. Strindberg’s realism is never uncontested. On the one hand he tries to do better than Zola in the field of documentary realism, on the other hand he unmasks realism as a specific literary rhetoric. He uses well-known reality effects, but he also breaks down illusions, not least by establishing a friction with facts. With openly autobiographical references verging on tactless indiscretion, Le Plaidoyer d’un fou thus challenges not only the good taste and the beautiful illusions, but also fiction as such. The crisis in representation leads to a move from realism to modernism. I define modernism by three characteristics: 1) modernity is its horizon 2) the destabilisation of representation and the mortification of traditional literary forms are its impulse 3) experiments with new modes of expression form a central aesthetic effort. From the first pages of Tjänstekvinnans son, which describe national history as a series of permanent transitions, the modernisation of culture forms the background of the works treated. The delegitimation of tradition is also decisive for the crisis in representation, which is, however, reinforced by individual factors that shake existential confidence: divorces, exile, trials etc. An important side of the destabilised representation is the writer’s distrust in his own medium. Throughout his autobiographical writings, Strindberg stresses the faithlessness, inadequacy and falseness of words. Ensam, e.g., focuses on misunderstandings and incongruities that separate people. In Inferno words are opaque and hieroglyphic, full of esoteric meaning. They have to be read allegorically, as some one else is speaking in tongues behind our communicative intentions. I emphasise Strindberg’s active role in the destabilisation of representation. By challenging the conventions of interpretation, communication and literature, he participated in a modernist negation of tradition. Ödeläggelse (Destruction) he called it, with a term borrowed from Swedenborg. Experimentally he represented the world as strange. To this purpose he confronted the extremes: the borderlines of culture, science, mind and literature. In Inferno, the hero is described as an avant-gardist explorer of an unknown world requiring a new language. Here 436 SUMMARY SUMMARY as elsewhere the annihilation of tradition is seen as the precondition for a new beginning. Just as in A Dream Play, Strindberg is in his self-representations trying to weave new patterns. The desire for literary renewal was already conspicuous when Strindberg declared that he wrote Tjänstekvinnans son in ‘a strange novelistic form’ and as a piece of future literature. Inferno was launched as an ostentatious introduction of a post-naturalist poetics. By no longer viewing the facts and objective structures of the past as compelling determining factors, Ensam finally claimed a release from realist constraints on poetic imagination. A poet detached from time and space has the past at his free disposal. Here, the dissertation sees an affinity to the view of history and the poetics of postmodernism. This aestheticist freedom is, however, counteracted by unresolved discords. Ensam is thus not the solution to the problems of self-representation, but rather one out of several attempts to break new ground. Like the whole body of works treated, it is hypothetical and provisional. The muted aestheticism of Ensam is not the most typically Strindbergian road to modernism. He did not give up representation; he rather complicated it. Paradoxically, his return to religion also led to modernism. The effect of his efforts to restore faith and Christian literary forms was a devaluation of the normative validity of tradition. His beliefs remained private, peculiar and incapable of forming a shared frame of reference. That is why allegory is transported from an ethical and religious register to an intrinsic aesthetic. Forms borrowed from Christian tradition are thus detached from their context and made available as artistic devices. Strindberg set them free as artistic means of expressions – just like he in Ensam claimed to have his own memories at his disposal as building blocks for his own constructions. This is how the techniques of his post-Inferno works were actually appropriated by German expressionism. Recurrent Patterns The dissertation also points out several continuities between the works, one of which is instability itself. Another is the use of a melodramatic style as a non-modernist response to modern problems with representation. In a separate chapter, I map a ‘melancholy pattern’ as a dynamic constellation that links together themes and textual strategies across the works and connects them with Strindberg’s other writings. Its turning point is a fixation with separations. The dissociation of the individual from community, which is the drive of autobiography, is also one of the recurrent points of pain in his works and a factor, which makes his self-representation so precarious. A symbolic loss of communities frames his autobiographical suite from Ishmael in Tjänstekvinnans son to Ahasverus in Ensam. His works are full of premature babies and unhappy, weaned children. THE RESULTS OF THE INVESTIGATION 437 The process of separation leaves wounds to be reopened by future departures from communities. The allergy to divisions thus also affects the relationship to society, language, history and religion. That makes individual experiences of loss converge with aspects of modernity, especially its detachment of the individual from family and other communities. The recurrence of the same structures in different fields is exactly what constitutes a pattern. Self-images and social and textual relations may all be connected with the ambivalence towards separation. Strindberg’s characters are never closed and complete entities. He rather depicts them as permeable; notions of invasion and incorporation mark their bodily, mental and textual relations with others. The denial of surrogates for the lost paradise leaves its mark on the scepticism towards everybody who is in an authoratative position. The dissertation reads Strindberg’s revisionism as well as the resistance to narrative time in the light of the melancholy pattern. On the other hand, it insists that these and other facets of his autobiographical writings cannot be reduced to mere reflections of psychological dispositions of the author. They are due to so many private, aesthetic and epochal factors that I refrain from making unambiguous and totalising explanations, and instead concentrate on their effects. The Effects of Instability Regardless of their genesis, the works treated here configure a transition to a post-traditional modernity characterised by its constant renegotiation of know-ledge, schemes of understanding and individual identity. The result of Strindberg’s endeavours is surely no definite truth, neither the faith of Inferno nor the aestheticism of Ensam, but rather the mobility and the will to innovation that characterises the whole series of self-representations and makes every single text transitional. Provisionality is their hallmark. However, I emphasise that this is not a renunciation of knowledge and self-representation. On the contrary, Strindberg incessantly re-shapes versions of life history. The result is also the texts themselves: a series of hardly domesticable, impure and instable works that constitute one of Strindberg’s main contributions to European literature. His autobiographical prose is, considered as a whole, a great work in its own right. This is not the case in spite of, but rather because of its impurity and instability.
ForlagÅrhus Universitetsforlag
Antal sider458
ISBN (Trykt)87 7288 902 0
StatusUdgivet - 2005


  • Strindberg, selvbiografi, genre, modernisme

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