The Multiple Ibsen

New York Times Saturday Review of Books

June 9, 1906, BR374

New York Times Saturday Review of Books:

Has any one who has ever written held together within himself so many seeming contrarieties as Henrik Ibsen?

Henrik Ibsen was a mystic, a poet, a philosopher, a dramatist, and he was each one of these things utterly. He was a mystic because his imagination had shot beyond the surface of things, beyond the “stream of tendency,” behind the surface of things, into the super-cerebral, where the ground-plan of Time lies open to the deeper eye, and the man becomes the prophet. Like Nietzsche, Ibsen announced a “Third Empire,” neither of the flesh nor of the spirit, but of both—and of neither. The prophecy appeared in “Emperor and Galilean,” one of his earliest dramas, and is found again in his last drama, “When We Dead Awaken.” Ibsen did not leave the world-twisted souls of Rubreck and Irene in the snows of the mountain tops to be picked by crows. He had them carried away to his Third Empire by the eagles of the Dawn.

He was a poet, because in him burned the immortal loves and hates, because he possessed the power of transfiguring the thing he touched, of making the ordinary the extraordinary. His ears caught the clangor and crash of the unrhymthic [sic] and non-moral laws that base the world. He was ecstatic, exalté, and flung his rebel spirit at the sneering stars. He was not like Job, but like the Voice in the wilderness that cried to Job with a different message! He thundered and passed.

He was a philosopher, because he was impersonal, an interpreter of life, answered no questions because life answers none. Incisive, penetrating, psychologic, with a grim humor, replying to all your questions after each play—yea, each line in each play by a silence that is significant, monstrous, crushing—those wonderful abysms that divide the acts in Ibsen’s plays—he seemed to preserve an indifference as to what happened next that deceived, as all philosophers deceive. The “aloofness” of the philosopher is only the white head of emotion—a passionate desire not to show passion.

He was not a master dramatist, because he was a master technician, but because he realized more vividly than any dramatist who has ever lived that the heart of things is conflict, that the god-of-things-as-they-are is a god of war, that Man is in a desperate strait here on earth, that death is for those who dare the social and cosmic fates, and death—another kind of death, the death of the bug that slept itself to death in a rug—awaits those who venture not forth into the land of spiritual adventure.

New York, June 7, 1906.