"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Henrik Ibsen–Politics, Principle, And Character

For 17 years of his long playwriting career Ibsen was focused on and fascinated by politics, not partisan politics per se and their issues, but how power is organized and used.  An Enemy of the People is the final play in the series, and in it he sets politics against principle.  Tomas Stockmann, a doctor, has discovered that the Baths of the town, the principal source of income for the community, are dangerously contaminated with effluent from a nearby tannery.  He assumes that everyone in the town, from its leaders to the ordinary citizen will be behind him in his efforts to expose the danger to the public’s health, and applaud him for his efforts. Closing down the Baths, however, will destroy the town’s livelihood, its reputation, and that of its Mayor, Stockmann’s brother.

The Mayor, the town council, the newspaper, and the town’s leading citizens are not surprisingly adamantly opposed to bringing the contamination of the Baths to light.  Stockmann is nonplussed and outraged.  As a doctor and a committed professional, he cannot comprehend how anyone could be against truth and justice, and endanger the well-being of the community.

Stockmann’s principles are pitted against political reality, and as the play progresses, it seems more and more likely that he will give in. The Mayor threatens him with revocation of his right to practice medicine, warns that the town will be of no help to his soon to be destitute wife and children, and says that in no uncertain terms that he will be run out of town if he dares to speak. If the public finds out that he is responsible for the significant increase in taxes required for the unnecessary renovation of the Baths, they will do the tarring and feathering themselves.

The newspaper, initially anxious to publish Stockmann’s exposé because it will increase sales and will help promote the political agenda of its editor and publisher who want to bring down the current political administration, back off quickly when they see that the Mayor and the owner of the polluting tannery are against publication.  The newspaper, it turns out, is in dire financial straits and needs the tannery owner’s support.

In Enemy, Ibsen has perfectly characterized all political societies.  He has understood how human nature and human society intersect  Human beings are self-protective, aggressively expand their perimeters and their influence, and will do anything to assure the succession and success of their offspring.  In human society money rules, greed and venal self-interest always win out over principal and moral rectitude.  Stockmann, in other words, has no chance at all.

Ibsen, however, was a strong believer in individual will, and Hedda Gabler, Hilde Wangel, and Rebekka West (Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, Rosmersholm) are almost Nietzschean in character – indomitable, determined, and unstoppable in their conviction to express their will and dominate and control others. In Enemy of the People, however, Stockmann struggles to find his courage and will.  He, like Nora, in A Doll’s House, are principled characters from the beginning.  Both are aware of the injustice, venality, and immorality of the social system in which they live, but need to suffer for years before they can muster the strength to reject it – to align principle with politics.

Stockmann at the end of the play rejects the idea of running away to America, and is more than ever determined to stay in Norway.  He will fight the forces of evil.

You are really ridiculous, Katherine [his wife]. Do you want me to let myself be beaten off the field by public opinion and the compact majority and all that devilry? No, thank you! And what I want to do is so simple and clear and straightforward. I only want to drum into the heads of these curs the fact that the liberals are the most insidious enemies of freedom--that party programs strangle every young and vigorous truth—that considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside-down--and that they will end by making life here unbearable.
Throughout the play it is clear that Stockmann is a self-centered idealist.  He does not have a dispassionate commitment to right, but his rectitude stems from resentment.  He has been chastised if not marginalized in the past because of his quick judgments and refusal to see the complexities of politics.  It is one thing to believe in a cause, another to have the tact, patience, and social skills to see it accepted.  We see that Stockmann indeed has principles, but they rest on the shaky foundation of his personality and character.  Stockmann has no clue about how the world works. We doubt that his vision expressed at the end of the play will ever become reality. 
The play is inconclusive and somewhat unsatisfying because Stockmann has neither shown true will and courage – i.e. make the news of the contaminated Baths public – nor given any indication that his vision is any more than a frustrated man’s pipe dream.  “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone”, he says at the end of the play; but given the fact that throughout the life of the play he has stood more apart – defiantly dismissive of others – rather than stand courageously alone, we suspect what he says.  He will eventually be destroyed by his hated powers that be. 
Stockmann’s principles – truth, justice, and fairness – have been compromised by his character.  He is weak, undisciplined, and naïve; and his ability to promote his moral vision is impossibly hampered.  There is no alignment whatsoever. 
Rosmersholm is the first play of the next series of interior, psychological plays where Nietzschean will is expressed.  Hedda and Hilde have no doubts whatsoever about their purpose in life – to control, dominate, and direct the lives of others – and their character which is strong, determined, amoral, and insistent.  Rebekka West in Rosmersholm has an initial clarity of vision in which she senses her special place in the world and her unique abilities to change others.  However, her will is weaker than she thinks, and certainly weaker than Hedda’s or Hilde’s, and she goes through periods of self-doubt.  In the end, the weakness of her character is her downfall; and like Hedda does the only principled, honorable thing and ends her life.  
Rosmersholm is considered a transitional play, one which is part political drama, part psychological one; and the conflicts between principle, character, and politics are played out much more explicitly than in previous plays. After many years as a Protestant pastor, Rosmer decides to leave the church and his faith; and to abandon his traditional conservative political and social views and become a ‘freethinker’.  This is not as easy as he thinks, for his aristocratic forbears look down at him severely from their portraits on the walls of Rosmersholm, his estate. How can he possibly reject the principles of class, privilege, and aristocratic noblesse oblige when everything he does is watched by his ancestors? 
In fact, he is too weak to act on his own, but he gains strength thanks to Rebekka West, an interloper and a canny, resourceful, and willful woman from the North.  Rebekka has insinuated herself into the Rosmer household first as servant to Rosmer’s wife, Beata, and then as mistress of his household when Beata dies. 
Rebekka saw that Rosmer, because of his social position, wealth, and influence would make an ideal spokesman for the new ‘freethinking’ progressive movement.  If such a staunch conservative as he, pillar of church and community, could come out in favor of radical democratization and social reform, it would be a coup for the movement and a personal triumph for her. 
It is here that the purely political turns inward.  Rebekka West not only uses her charm and intelligence to influence Rosmer and his wife; she subtly and maliciously drives Beata to suicide. She preys on Beata’s psychological frailty and guilt for not being able to bear children, and suggests that she – Rebekka – is pregnant by Rosmer.  Beata has never been a wife to Rosmer, Rebekka says, and has driven him away from his faith and his family. She now should ‘do the right thing’, end her life, and let Rebekka take over her rightful place as mistress of Rosmersholm and husband and political tutor to Rosmer.  
Rebekka has aligned her principles and her character with her political ambitions.  She has become thoroughly Nietzschean, for she has not only rejected her Christian faith but the entire moral structure of Christianity.  She has progressed ‘beyond good and evil’; and her desire to control, mold, and dominate another to achieve her political ends has no obstacles.
Unlike Hedda or Hilde, however, Rebekka falters. When she sees that Rosmer is consumed by guilt, wrongly believing that he was responsible for his wife’s death, she is overcome with remorse.  Guilt and remorse are weaknesses, she has seen in her earlier moments of clarity, but suddenly she realizes that she is not as strong and able as she thought. Worse still is the revelation that she committed incest with her father.  Still irreconcilably trapped within social convention, she feels that the moral rectitude necessary for her political ambitions has been compromised.  Finally she also realizes that she is in love with Rosmer, a passion that cannot be tolerated in a pure-minded pursuit of ambitions. 
She, however, becomes reconciled to these inconsistencies and divergences, and takes her own life.  She can neither be a passionate and devoted lover nor a dedicated political reformer, and does the only right thing – ends her life. 
Rebekka is the precursor for the character Hedda Gabler in Ibsen’s subsequent play.  Hedda also fails in her attempt to manipulate her lover and potential national figure and to neutralize her ineffectual husband, and commits suicide – cleanly and purely, unlike that of her lover whom she has sent off to do the same thing.  To avoid humiliation and public acknowledgment of her plots, Hedda ends it all. 
Hedda and Hilde represent an important evolution in Ibsen’s thinking.  They have no principles on which they act.  They have no cause like Stockmann or political principles like Rebekka.  They are closer akin to Shakespeare’s true Machiavellian villain Iago. 
Hedda and Rebekka have much in common with Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra controls and manipulates the besotted Antony, and when all goes awry, she commits suicide.  She refuses to be paraded in the streets of Rome by her master, Augustus, and jeered by the foul-smelling rabble. 
All these women have had very clear political goals in sight, and have acted willfully and with determination to achieve them.  When they have failed, they take their own lives in acts of honor and vanity.  They have understood the strength of their character and the power of their wills, and have seen how this force could change history.  For them character and politics were one. 

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