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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Strindberg–Power, Misogyny, And Jealousy

Ibsen created strong, determined women who are, in Nietzsche’s term, beyond good and evil in their pursuit of power and the control of others. Both Hedda Gabler and Hilde Wangel (Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder) have little to gain by their exertion of will. Hilde persuades the architect Solness to climb the tower of the church he has built, conquering his fears, defying God, and rejecting the humiliating guilt he has felt for years.  She is exultant in his success, but her ambitions are only fully satisfied when he plunges to his death.  She not only has shaped Solness to her image, but has been the master of his fate.  She has exercised her pure, absolute will, and is heroic.

Hedda Gabler controls her husband, Tesman in the same way. She has married him for convenience, and when she discovers that he is only a second-rate mind and unlikely ever to achieve recognition and acclaim, she ignores him and turns her attention to Lovoborg, her former lover, and a brilliant academic who will soon receive the national attention that Tesman had hoped for.  When she sees that he is as childish and weak as her husband, she encourages him to commit suicide. A noble death is far better than an ignominious life she feels.  She burns his manuscript in a willful celebration of power, then turns her attention to what she sees as his valorous end. Hedda has nothing to gain from this potent exercise of will. Even with Lovoborg gone, Tesman will never achieve any critical acclaim. She could have saved Lovoborg’s lost manuscript, returned it to him, and based in his reflected glory, but chose to destroy both him and his work. She is creator and destroyer, superhuman and godlike.

Strindberg also creates very strong and purposeful women. Both Laura in The Father and Julie in Miss Julie want to control men but not out of the same amoral, willful expression of pure control and dominance as Hedda Gabler or Hilde Wangel.  Laura, like Nora in A Doll’s House, is trapped in an airless marriage, and her ineffectual, passionless, and weak husband stands in the way of her ability to determine the future of their daughter.  He relies on social convention, laws, and legal precedent to support what he considers to be a man’s absolute authority as father and husband.

Laura refuses to accept this academic de jure reasoning and knows that family authority, like any other power, is derived only from a contest of wills.  Marriage is a field of battle.  Men and women are arrayed against each other, each with different but equal arms. Her armament, like many women before and after her, is paternity.  Only a woman knows with certainty who her children are; and no matter how many padlocks, veils, chaperones, and guardians a man may deploy to build a wall of chastity and fidelity around his wife, he can never be absolutely sure if his children are really his.

Shakespeare was a master at understanding the frailty of the male ego, the corrosive and destructive power of jealousy, and the madness that can come from it.  Iago destroys Othello through a long, cruel, and progressively damaging innuendoes and suggestions about the infidelity of Desdemona. There are no real reasons for Othello to suspect any deceit.  Desdemona clearly loves him, is in love with him, and is a faithful and adoring wife.  Yet Iago’s mere suggestion of treachery is enough to begin the sad unraveling of a proud and heroic man.  Othello, a courageous soldier, brilliant general, and national hero is no more than a suspicious, weak, and timorous man.

Cymbeline, Posthumus, Leontes, and Troilus are no different.  They are fearful, suspicious, and unable to shake doubts of their women’s infidelity.

At the center of this doubt and insecurity is misogyny.  Posthumus goes on at length about women’s duplicity and treachery:

For there's no motion
That tends to vice in man but I affirm
It is the woman's part. Be it lying, note it,
The woman's; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers;
Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers;
Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain,
Nice longings, slanders, mutability,
All faults that man may name, nay, that hell knows,
Why, hers, in part or all, but rather all.
For even to vice
They are not constant, but are changing still
One vice but of a minute old for one
Not half so old as that. I'll write against them,
Detest them, curse them. Yet 'tis greater skill
In a true hate to pray they have their will;
The very devils cannot plague them better.
 

At the end of Act V, Othello tries to justify his murder of Desdemona:

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;…

He has “done the state some service” because he has rid it of one more treacherous woman. He doesn’t really regret what he has done – Desdemona was partly at fault, and she besotted him with her female charms – so while we mourn the futile destruction of a great man, he had it coming.

The Captain in The Father harbors similar misogynistic feelings. “Women are unconscious of their instinctive wickedness”, he says in Act II. When Laura asks him if he thinks she is the enemy (Act IV), he replies:


Yes, I do. I believe that you are all my enemies! My
mother was my enemy when she did not want to bring me into the
world because I was to be born with pain, and she robbed my
embryonic life of its nourishment, and made a weakling of me. My
sister was my enemy when she taught me that I must be submissive to
her. The first woman I embraced was my enemy, for she gave me ten
years of illness in return for the love I gave her. My daughter
became my enemy when she had to choose between me and you. And you,my wife, you have been my arch enemy, because you never let up on
me till I lay here lifeless.

He cannot escape his household of women, a cage of feline enemies. At the end of the play, in a final humiliation, it is his beloved and trusted nurse who tricks him into a straitjacket.  He becomes completely mad, and Laura’s plot to have him certified and put away proves successful. “I have lived seventeen years in penal servitude”.

Laura doesn’t hate men in the way the Captain hates women.  She is simply dismissive of them.  She tells him that after having their child, Bertha, he has outlived his only legitimate function. “Your functions of man are over”, she says. “Now go.”

She has never loved or respected her husband and her fight to control the destiny of her daughter is an expression of motherhood, a powerful ego, and a view of men as insignificant, useless, and childish. The Captain understands that he has been bested, that he stands defeated and on the brink of madness. Worst of all, he says, “You have robbed me of my immortality”

Men never grow up, says Laura:

Weep then, my child, and you shall have your mother again.  Remember, it was as your second mother that I came into your life.  You were big and strong, yet not fully a man.  You were a giant child who had come into the world too soon, or perhaps an unwanted child.

Strindberg was an admirer of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, and Oedipus and Hamlet are men who came to their tragic end because of their powerful, incestuous feelings for their mothers; but in The Father Strindberg has not stopped at psychological cause.  He has created an activist woman-mother.  Gertrude loved her son but also his stepfather, the king; but never deliberately tried to manipulate or control Hamlet as Laura does the Captain. The drama of Oedipus Rex is one of circumstance, not willful deception.

The Father is a particularly compelling play because of its currency and social complexity.  Strindberg, like Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shakespeare created female characters who are constrained by prevailing social mores that limit the role of women; but who nevertheless prevail.  The list of Shakespeare’s indomitable women is long.  They best their men in the Comedies; take to arms for their husbands in the Histories; and plot, scheme, and deceive with the best of men in the Tragedies.  Strindberg, however, creates characters like Laura who are Nietzschean in will and purpose, feminist in their sexual politics, and Freudian in their understanding of male weakness and psychological insecurity.

CAPTAIN: You want complete power over the child, don’t you, with me there to support you both?

LAURA: Power, that’s it.  What’s this whole life and death struggle for if not power?

She understands that marriage is a struggle for power, that women must use psychological cunning and insight ruthlessly to counter men’s traditional legal authority; and that men – as weak and pathetic children – should be spared no mercy.  Laura is a thoroughly modern woman.

Strindberg, after the production of The Father over a century ago, said about the Captain, “By and large he symbolizes a masculinity which society is trying to invalidate and hand over to the third sex”.

It is hard to know where Strindberg’s sympathies lie in this play. Laura is an antipathetic character in her dismissive cruelty to her husband and in her amoral pursuit of her desires; but she has to be admired for her strength in opposing society’s repressive laws and her willingness to use any means to achieve her ends within it.

Strindberg is never sympathetic to the Captain, for he lets him dissolve into unwarranted madness. He, like Othello, should have known better – should have seen the plot devised by his wife, the complaisance of the Doctor and the Nurse, and the ingenuity of her tactics. He is indeed a child, caught like many men between motherly love and the sexual independence of women who are either saints or whores.  By the end of the play he is totally emasculated.

Miss Julie in Strindberg’s play of the same name, is a woman of a very different character, but one who is a hundred years before her time.  She, by her own description is half-woman, half-man having been brought up

I had to do all the things a boy does to prove women are as good as men.  I had to wear boys’ clothes; I was taught to handle horses…My mother made me groom and harness and go out hunting; I even had to try to plough.  All the men on the estate were given women’s jobs, and the women the men’s; until the whole place went to rack and ruin and we were the laughing stock of the neighborhood.

Her father accepted this regime, but then rebelled, and the marriage became disputatious and impossible.

I’d learned from my mother to hate and distrust men – you know how she loathed the whole male sex.  And I swore to her that I would never become the slave of any man

At the beginning of the play, Jean sees her ‘training’ her fiancé, making him jump through hoops:

I came across the pair of them one evening in the stable-yard.  Miss Julie was doing what she called ‘training’ him.  Know what that was? Making him jump over her riding whip – the way you teach a dog…

It turns out that Julie does not hate men – or at least is conflicted in her feelings about them – and is sexually attracted to Jean, a virile, confident, and self-assured man. Despite her upbringing, she falls for him, has sex with him, and wants to run away with him.  She is playing out the age-old female psychological conflict of domination-submission.  She is suspicious, distrustful, and dismissive of men in general, but wants to be taken by a sexually potent and ambitious man like Jean.

She plays sexual ‘training’ games with Jean – “Kiss my shoe”, she says, “Do what I tell you” – but she is drawn to him. 

She wonders why, but rightly concludes, “Why was I so attracted to you? The weak to the strong?”

JULIE: Menial, lackey! Stand up when I speak to you.

JEAN: Menial’s whore, lackey’s harlot, shut your mouth and get out of here…Do you think any servant girl would throw herself at a man [the way you have]? I haven’t.  Only animals and prostitutes.

JULIE, broken. Go on.  Hit me, trample on me – it’s all I deserve.  I’m rotten.  But help me! If there’s any way out at all, help me!

Later in the play Julie reverts back to her mother’s indoctrination:

Oh, I should like to see your blood flowing--to see your
brain on the chopping block, all your sex swimming in a sea of
blood. I believe I could drink out of your skull, bathe my feet in
your breast and eat your heart cooked whole. You think I am weak;
you believe that I love you because my life has mingled with yours;
you think that I would carry your offspring under my heart, and
nourish it with my blood--give birth to your child and take your
name! Hear, you, what are you called, what is your family name? But
I'm sure you have none. I should be "Mrs. Gate-Keeper," perhaps, or
"Madame Dumpheap." You dog with my collar on, you lackey with my
father's hallmark on your buttons.

She doesn’t believe what she is saying, however; and pleads with Jean to go away with her.  He cannot, however, and finds that as much sexual confidence as he has, his social confidence is lacking – he is and will always be a servant.

Julie and Laura, despite being forceful women are in fact very different.  Laura is strong, willful, amoral, and unstoppable.  She does not ‘hate’ men in the way Julie says she does; but in her dismissal of them and in her conviction that they are weak, useless, and childish, her feelings are far more profound and damaging.  She doesn’t hate men – they are not worth her time.  They are opponents in a sexual struggle, no more no less.

Laura cannot make up her mind and is caught between female passions and more objective theory.  She wants to be her mother’s daughter, but simply cannot be.  She is the more attractive of the two women, perhaps because of her more predictable and traditional emotions; but we respect her less.  We admire Laura’s indomitability, amorality, and brutal pursuit of her goals.  She is the equal of any man, frighteningly so.  

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