August 5, 2002

1. Ibsen

Our book group recently read Ibsen’s play, The Wild Duck. Everyone liked it; in fact, several people couldn’t put it down until they had finished it. Not only did people like the play, they also liked the commentary that is bound with the play in the Norton Critical Edition (ISBN 0393098257); it’s the best collection of Ibsen commentary that I’ve seen. There’s an essay by E. M. Forster (author of A Room With A View and other novels), an essay by a Cambridge scholar, Brian Downs, an essay by the prominent American writer Mary McCarthy, a psychological study by Alan Thompson, etc. The essays not only throw light on The Wild Duck, they also throw light on Ibsen’s entire body of work, and on Ibsen himself. The Forster and Downs essays are superb examples of English prose. Now I’m looking at other Norton Critical Editions, hoping to find a book that the group will enjoy as much as they enjoyed The Wild Duck.

The Wild Duck is (to use a baseball metaphor) a change-up: just when Ibsen’s audience was anticipating another play in which a strong character exposes a web of lies, Ibsen threw a change-up, creating a play in which the exposer of lies (Gregers) is the bad guy, and the preserver of lies (Relling) is the good guy.

Gregers visits an old friend (Hjalmar), tells him that he’s knee-deep in lies, and urges him to live in accordance with “the demands of the ideal”. The idealism of Gregers has the worst consequences, and thus The Wild Duck can be seen as an indictment of idealism. An indictment of idealism is not what one would expect from the author who created such heroic idealists as Brand and Dr. Stockmann. How should we account for this?

Dr. Stockmann, courageous truth-seeker, is the protagonist of An Enemy of the People, which Ibsen wrote just before The Wild Duck. Is The Wild Duck a reaction to An Enemy of the People? A reaction within Ibsen himself? A reaction against heroism and idealism? If so, one might compare The Wild Duck to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Beyond Good and Evil was written right after Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Nietzsche described Beyond Good and Evil as a reaction against the positive spirit of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Is it possible that Ibsen found it difficult to live on the plane of Brand and Dr. Stockmann, and so he went off in a different direction, just as Nietzsche found it difficult to live on the plane of Zarathustra, and went off in a different direction? Is The Wild Duck a change-up that Ibsen threw to himself, for his own internal reasons?

It cannot be denied, however, that if Ibsen had written another play in which the good guy exposed a web of lies, his audience might have yawned, and the number of empty seats might have increased. But by throwing a change-up, Ibsen created a buzz among theater-goers, and a lively debate among critics. Isn’t that what every playwright longs for? Perhaps The Wild Duck was designed to surprise, to shock, and to provoke discussion.1

Some critics argue that behind Gregers’ mask of idealism dwell negative feelings, evil feelings, sadistic feelings, and these feelings (of which Gregers himself may be unaware) produce the play’s tragic climax. Jung used the term “shadow” to refer to man’s dark side, and Jung said that the shadow arranged things so as to bring about a crisis, an explosion, that would force one to see, to acknowledge, to come to terms with, the shadow.2 Perhaps it is Gregers’ shadow that “arranges” the play’s tragic climax. Gregers is probably not conscious of this “arranging”. Such an interpretation pays due respect to Ibsen’s genius, Ibsen’s gift for psychology.

Is Gregers a self-portrait? Does Gregers represent Ibsen’s own dark side, Ibsen’s own shadow? Perhaps Ibsen had the genius to know himself, and the honesty to acknowledge his own dark side. Just as Brand and Dr. Stockmann are Ibsen himself in his best moments, perhaps Gregers is Ibsen himself in his worst moments.3

Surely no one can now doubt that idealism has a dark side, though that may have been a shocking proposition in Ibsen’s day. The idealism of Russian Communists, French Revolutionaries, etc. resulted in violence and tragedy, just as Gregers’ idealism results in violence and tragedy. If Gregers is a sadistic idealist, one might compare him with Robespierre.

It would be a mistake, however, to argue that The Wild Duck is Ibsen’s attempt to tear off the mask of idealism. We should remind ourselves that Brand is as much Ibsen’s creation as Gregers. Ibsen is a champion of idealism as much as a debunker of idealism. Ibsen is one of those great minds who perceive the contradictory nature of reality, who perceive that things aren’t black or white, who perceive that things are both... and..., who perceive that idealism (for example) is both noble and false. Ibsen perceived the contradictions within himself, perceived that he had a heroic side and a dark side, and thus Ibsen is able to depict the contradictory nature of man in general.

One essay in this edition of The Wild Duck, “Ibsen as Psychoanatomist”, argues that Ibsen’s dramas are “unconscious demands to be quit of all the sense of guilt and anxiety that shut him out from spiritual freedom and earthly happiness”. How many great writers is this true of! Kafka jumps to mind. Perhaps The Wild Duck is an unhappy intellectual’s approving look at an ordinary bourgeois existence (ordinary, that is, until Gregers disturbs it). Flaubert once dined with a young couple that was raising children and leading an ordinary bourgeois life. As Flaubert left the house, he said, “ils sont dans le vrai” (they are in the truth). Perhaps The Wild Duck is Ibsen’s way of saying that those who lead the ordinary bourgeois life are “in the truth” — not intellectuals like himself.

Though we can suggest many possible explanations, we can never explain with absolute certainty the strange anti-idealism of The Wild Duck, which baffled Ibsen’s contemporaries. All we can say for certain is that The Wild Duck provokes discussion — even now, more than a century after it was written.

2. Philanthropy

In the translator’s preface to The Wild Duck, we find the phrase “sybaritic do-gooders”. Do you know any “sybaritic do-gooders” — any people who combine a taste for luxury with a taste for charity, philanthropy, good works? If you do, then you know people who are the opposite of philosophers, because philosophers have no taste for luxury, and no taste for charity. Thoreau, for example, lived a Spartan existence, and even considered taking up residence in a wooden box, while expressing scorn for philanthropy: “Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. A robust poor man, one sunny day here in Concord, praised a fellow-townsman to me, because, as he said, he was kind to the poor; meaning himself.... I never heard of a philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good to me, or the like of me.”4 Philosophers are hard on themselves and hard on others — the opposite of “sybaritic do-gooders”.

3. Crime

There are three kinds of crime:

  1. Active: John murders Tim.
  2. Contemplative: John thinks of murdering Tim, and though he doesn’t actually do so, he likes the idea, and wishes that it were possible.
  3. Unconscious: John neither murders Tim nor consciously desires to do so, but he has an unconscious will to do so, a will which it is difficult, if not impossible, for him to control.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky portrays a man (Svidrigailov) who commits a murder and goes unpunished, and another man (Dmitri) who is punished for that murder though he didn’t commit it. There is a kind of justice in this punishment since the man who is punished desired the murder. “It is a matter of indifference who actually committed the crime,” writes Freud, in his discussion of The Brothers Karamazov, “psychology is only concerned to know who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done.”5

But is it really “a matter of indifference who actually committed the crime”? Is an unconscious or contemplative crime equivalent, morally equivalent, to an active crime? Is lusting after a 5-year-old girl equivalent to raping a 5-year-old girl? One who abstains from active crime, as Dmitri does, may be assumed to have other impulses that outweigh his criminal tendencies, and these impulses (let us call them “positive impulses” or “virtuous impulses”) may be valuable to society and to the individual himself.

The issue of active and passive crime is a complex one, and one that will surely occupy philosophers for a long time to come.

4. Shakespeare

A recent article in the New York Times warmly embraces the Oxford theory (that is, the theory that the Earl of Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare’s works). This is an important development in the history of the Stratford-Oxford dispute; it gives the Oxford theory the sort of wide dissemination that only a major media outlet can give, and it gives the Oxford theory the respectability that the New York Times, more than any other American newspaper, can give.

The article is in the June 20, 2002 issue, and it’s written by William Niederkorn, an enthusiastic Oxfordian who addressed a recent Oxfordian banquet. Niederkorn writes, “Evidence in favor of Oxford as the author of the works of Shakespeare has been growing since 1920 and with increasing intensity in recent years.” Niederkorn says that most academics are passive Stratfordians.

Imagine how such words galled the kibe of every loyal Stratfordian! Imagine how many angry letters The Times received! One such letter appeared on June 22: “It is unaccountable,” huffs Professor Greenblatt of Harvard, “that you refer to those of us who believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays as ‘Stratfordians’, as though there are two equally credible positions.”

I discussed the Oxford theory in three previous issues of Phlit. What you read in Phlit today, you’ll read in the New York Times in five years, and you’ll hear from Harvard podiums in twenty years!

5. Art History

The number of outstanding writers in the field of visual art far exceeds, in my view, the number in the field of music. Where are the writers on music who can compare with Ruskin, Panofsky, Berenson, etc.? The number of outstanding writers in the field of visual art also exceeds, in my view, the number of outstanding critics in the field of literature. Where are the literary critics who can compare with Ruskin, Panofsky, Berenson, etc.?

6. The Mail Bag

A. Decadence and Renaissance

No respectable periodical is without a “Letters to the Editor” section, so here are some letters:

First, from a student of Islamic philosophy. Looking over my website, he shrewdly perceived that my theory of history, my theory of renaissance and decadence, is my most original theory, my chief claim to fame. But it’s also one of the most obscure sections of my work, hence he had some questions:

You make a striking observation that the French- and English-speaking worlds seem to be synchronized, whereas the German and Russian worlds have a rhythm of their own. Fascinating, just fascinating. I’d have been interested to hear whether you regard this as a historical accident, or whether there is some deeper kinship between those peoples that escapes common view.

I incline to the view that this is due to accident.

I loved your daring assertion that those born from 1960-2000 are the renaissance generation.

I was born in 1961, and I couldn’t leave myself out... could I?

I would wonder whether French society has been too enfeebled to participate in the next renaissance, or whether the renaissance-in-progress, combined with the permanent intellectual ferment, of France, would be enough to make up for the recent enfeebled worldwide influence of their country. Presumably there is no question in your mind that the United States falls within the renaissance zone. (Which makes me wonder also about Canada — is it too civilized a place, not wild and unruly enough up till now to generate world-historic genius? Or maybe Canada’s day is about to dawn, unnoticed.)

I would include England and Scotland, but I doubt Ireland will participate. I would include France, the U.S. and Canada, but leave Australia and New Zealand as question marks. As for other nations (India, China, Latin America, etc.), I think it’s unlikely but possible that they will participate in this particular renaissance.

I was wondering about the near-absolute link you make between decadence and moralism. Surely Nietzsche would love this aspect of your ideas, but I wonder: (a) is it always true?, and (b) do we need to draw a distinction between moralism of printed ideas, and moralism of behavior? And if so, which of these two is the key to measuring the vitality of an era?

I'm confident that there is a link here [that is, a link between decadence and morality]. My confidence is based not only on Nietzsche’s authority, but also on my own experience. Printed ideas seem to be a more reliable indicator than behavior.

The example that comes to mind is Tolstoy, whom you justly regard as part of the great Russian renaissance. Here was a man whose writing contains nothing but the sort of moralism and ressentiment against great historic figures that Nietzsche would despise. And yet in his private life he was obviously an untamed beast of lust. So, if we take moralism as an unfailing sign of decadence, then Tolstoy is a decadent. (I’m aware of the part of your chapter where you point out that the issue of moralism has become a less accurate measuring-stick in recent times.) But in terms of his vast synthetic powers, then he obviously belongs on the Russian renaissance list where you put him.

As mentioned above, lustiness isn’t as reliable an indicator as printed ideas, personal ideals. I think you’re taking the later Tolstoy as the Tolstoy. Isn’t the earlier Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, amoral? I regard him as an example of a great amoral artist — like Homer or Shakespeare. So here again, moralism is a good indicator of renaissance/decadence. Tolstoy, in my view, is amoral and renaissance-type. True, the elder Tolstoy seemed to admire The Gospels, but The Gospels aren’t Stoic morality (in my view), and old age was the decadent phase of Tolstoy’s life.

A different but similar question with Kant... Both in his writings and his private behavior he was an unfailing ascetic moralist. Yet doesn’t he still belong to that titanic wave of German philosophy that swept over Europe, ending in Fichte/Hegel/Schelling? (I am more inclined to accept the notion that Schopenhauer falls outside of this renaissance cluster and into a decadent period.) If this were so, then the link between decadence and moralism would have to be questioned.

Nietzsche would call both Kant and Schopenhauer decadent, just as he would call both Socrates and Plato decadent. I would include both Kant and Schopenhauer in what you call the “titanic wave of German philosophy”, just as I would include both Socrates and Plato in the “titanic wave” of Greek philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that all four weren’t decadent. Proust was a great novelist, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t decadent. Greatness is not the same as renaissance-type. Greatness occurs at all times (more or less), but a renaissance occurs in only 1 or 2 generations in the space of 500 years.

Isn't academicism and overtechnicism of problems a better indication of decadence than moralism is? That is to say, isn’t the key to decadence the need to find stimulation from the outside, whether this be in the form of excessive carnal pleasures or of pasting together the ideas of others into a kind of academic collage?

I think that most intellectuals will lapse into “overtechnicism” and a “need to find stimulation from the outside” — regardless of what era they live in. Only the great man represents the Spirit of the Age, as Hegel pointed out. So we shouldn’t look at what “most intellectuals” are doing. I don’t think that “overtechnicism” and a “need to find stimulation from the outside” are good indicators of decadence/renaissance, though they may be of some use. For some interesting thoughts on “indicators”, you may want to look at Spengler’s Decline of the West.

Finally, I wonder about the link between renaissance and political expansion. This seems to be a point on which you disagree with Nietzsche, since he regarded Bismarck’s Reich as a cultural disaster.

This link is, in my view, worth considering, but not absolute. There may not be an “absolute link”, a completely reliable indicator of decadence/renaissance.

If I were thinking of great Irish figures, I would think of Joyce and Yeats (decadents?), Berkeley, and am I right to remember that Swift was Irish?

I think of Joyce and Yeats as bona fide Irishmen. But I think of Swift, Berkeley, Wilde and Shaw as semi-Irish — Englishmen living in an Anglicized part of Ireland. Were Joyce and Yeats decadent? Perhaps they were, relatively speaking. But I think they were good writers, especially Joyce — better than what England produced at that time. And this is one reason why I think Ireland “marches to a different drummer”.

I’d agree with the notion that the up-and-coming third world nations probably aren’t on the verge of major conceptual leaps.

But my theory isn’t about “conceptual leaps”, minor or major, my theory is about instincts, life- and death-instincts, the life- and death-instincts of societies, and this has nothing to do with concepts, this is unconscious, instincts are unconscious. As for third world nations, I’m not sure where they fit in the historical cycle, but I’m hoping they’ll give us a pleasant surprise.

Perhaps you have some thoughts along these lines about China, which seems to pop up a lot on your site.

Chinese history has clusters of great poets at various times, and a cluster of philosophers around the time of Socrates. But Chinese creativity seemed to dry up in recent centuries. And the future is a question mark.

My theory seems to fit the West best; I haven’t tried to carry it outside the West. Perhaps people with a deeper knowledge of China, India, Egypt, etc. will find ways to apply my theory to those civilizations.

I was taking the anti-“great man” theory of history in War and Peace to be part and parcel of his later views.

I have much respect for the theory of history that Tolstoy sketches in War and Peace; any essay on the philosophy of history should take Tolstoy into account (along with Plato, Herder, Hegel, Ortega, Spengler, Toynbee, etc.). Tolstoy is a deep thinker, and expresses his ideas very lucidly. Tolstoy argues (if I remember correctly) that individuals (like Napoleon) don’t make history; history is made by forces that are larger than individuals. I think Tolstoy would be receptive to my theory of the life- and death-instincts of societies, which seems to be the sort of theory Tolstoy was calling for in War and Peace. The Great Man doesn’t make history, he is made by history, yet only the Great Man represents the Spirit of the Age. It’s a bit like, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Incidentally, Napoleon himself had a deep understanding of history. Here’s what he said about Muhammad: “Muhammad came at a moment when general opinion was ready for a single God.... A man is but a man, but often he can do much; often he is a tinderbox in the midst of inflammable matter.” The Great Man rides the wave, the wave of “general opinion”, the wave of the Spirit of the Age.

I’m also inclined to accept your reading of Hegel as being fundamentally amoral. I just wonder, as a side-note, whether Nietzsche would agree with that. I don't remember his ever mentioning Hegel in the context of decadence or lack thereof.

I agree, I don’t remember any mention of Hegel either. Nietzsche was so preoccupied with Schopenhauer that he seems to have ignored Hegel almost entirely. But Nietzsche does call Spinoza amoral, and Hegel was a great admirer of Spinoza, and that suggests that Hegel was amoral.

...your distinction between periods of greatness and periods of renaissance (with morality/amorality as the key to the difference)

Greatness can occur almost anytime, so I wouldn’t use the phrase “periods of greatness”. I prefer to think in terms of renaissance vs. decadence, but this is complicated by the fact that there’s absolute renaissance and relative renaissance, likewise absolute decadence and relative decadence. My theory isn’t easy to grasp. I’m afraid that no one grasps it except me. But you seem to be closer to grasping it than anyone else.

B. Analytic Philosophy

Another exchange was with an undergraduate philosophy student from Minnesota. He read my “Dispute With Analytic Philosophers”, and tried to mount a defense of analytic philosophy. But he didn’t argue that analytic philosophy is the only real philosophy; rather, he argued in favor of a combination of analytic philosophy and non-analytic philosophy. Borrowing a phrase from my essay, he referred to non-analytic philosophy as “street philosophy”, and wrote

Ethics could be seen as the fusion of analytic and street.

I see no place for analytic philosophy, certainly not in ethics. If ethics requires an “analytic base”, then what happens to Thoreau, Montaigne, Seneca, etc.? In my view, no analytic base is needed, and most great philosophers have no such base. Analytic philosophy is, in my view, largely an enjoyable mind game, something that fits well on a blackboard, a way for professors to show their cleverness.

Have you learned about Zen yet? Zen emphasizes the non-rational. I think it’s an important branch of philosophy, but it’s largely ignored in academia.

The reason I think that an analytic base is both to be seen as good and necessary is because disputes occur. Without reason, how can any ethical dilemma be solved? What if two people write contradictory things? I say stealing is good, but you say stealing is bad? What then?

How would you recommend I resolve a dispute with a Marxist or Fascist who thinks that my duty is to obey the state, not to disobey? I can see no other way but reason.

But if you had an argument with Lenin, you’d never convince him with your reasons, nor would he ever convince you with his reasons. Reason rarely convinces people, because everyone knows that reason can be used to prop up any cause. Reason is useful in academia because it can help a student to get a good grade, and it can help an assistant professor to become a full professor, etc. But in the real world, analytic reasoning plays no role. The philosophers who interest me (Nietzsche, Thoreau, Montaigne, etc.) not only don’t use analytic reasoning, they reject it as useless.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. The same might be said of An Enemy of the People. Dr. Stockmann’s comments are often willfully shocking, as if designed to provoke discussion. back
2. Jung: “Everybody’s psychology is making careful plans to get them into a state in which they have to face themselves, and the shadow. It’s their chance to realize the self.... Christianity forces people to meet the shadow.”(C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, “Four ‘Contacts With Jung’”, p. 160) back
3. Ibsen said, “Brand is myself in my best moments.” (Louis Untermeyer, Makers of the Modern World, “Ibsen”) back
4. Walden, ch. 1 back
5. Freud, “Dostoyevsky and Parricide” (1928). For further discussion of this subject, see The Creative Unconscious: Studies in the Psychoanalysis of Art, ch. 3, by Hanns Sachs (a disciple of Freud). Today I picked up a famous book, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, just to get a taste of it (I’ve never read it). It said, “And you judges who would be just, what judgment pronounce you upon him who though honest in the flesh yet is a thief in spirit? What penalty lay you upon him who slays in the flesh yet is himself slain in the spirit?” James Hillman, a prominent Jungian, wrote, “It is not what contents a person carries in his unconscious that reveal his character, for we have our statistical share of the bomber, murderer and pervert, but how one meets these contents.” (The Feeling Function, ch. 7, p. 160) back