Henrik Pontoppidan, Kierkegaard and ‘Danish Gothic’ (Henrik Pontoppidan as Educator)

Henrik Pontoppidan, Kierkegaard and ‘Danish Gothic’
(Henrik Pontoppidan as Educator)
Paul Larkin

The magisterial Henrik Pontoppidan

The Danes are the masters of irony. Probably the best Ironists in the world.

I don’t know how this has escaped the world’s attention, as Denmark has become more renowned for an alleged hygge, good beer, pastries and moody mists in detective films.

In its essence, irony is probably best described as ‘feigned ignorance’. The ancient Greek word eirōn carries the sense of ‘dissembling’. This suits arch dissembler and tormenter, Socrates, very well. He poked at the ruling class of Athens so much with his teasing, leading, ironic questions, that they executed him in the end. However irony now has a much broader import. In drama, the audience and certain of the players, may know some appalling and fateful thing that the hero is unaware of: tragic irony – again originally from ancient Greece. Then there is the type of subjective, reflexive irony that interests me here. It is quintessentially Danish in character because it is negative irony and I would like to call it – ‘Danish Gothic’ irony. Or simply, ‘Danish Gothic’. A negative form of irony that, ironically, can have positive consequences.

There is an astonishing scene of multiple irony in Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke Per (‘A Fortunate Man’), which some of you will have read in this author’s translation (of which more below). To my mind, this scene is one of the most memorable in all of modern Western literature and it provoked a range of startled reactions from my readers, and still does. The build up to the scene involves the novel’s hero, Per Sidenius (not forgetting that Jakobe Salomon is the other extraordinary character and alter-hero in its pages).

Per has undergone an existential crisis in which he realises that he is not living a ‘true’ life. That it is in fact a lie. Worse, his morose and capricious behaviour leaves his wife, Inger, and their young family upset and confused. Per’s behaviour leaves the children traumatised, or at least very wary of their father. Therefore, after first protesting his innocence of having an affair, he suddenly decides – in the cause of a greater truth – to tell a monstrous, wounding lie to his wife in this showdown scene. Precisely because of tragic irony, readers are just as shocked as Inger. Here is the scene in an abridged version from my translation:

‘You met your old flame and fell head over heels for her again.’
‘Inger, I’m telling you. You are wrong.’
‘Well it’s some other woman then! Because there’s something else behind all this! You want a divorce so that you can marry someone else. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Say it right out to my face. Go on!’
Per tried to think things through very quickly. His racing mind told him that it would be far better for her if he went along with her erroneous assumption and told her a lie. Without some form of compelling reason, she would never agree to a legal separation. He had no choice but to provoke her hatred for him, so that she would despise him from this day forth and banish him from her mind all the quicker. And if he was renouncing so much anyway, his name and honour might as well be included. He spoke softly, but clearly.
‘So be it,’ he said, bowing his head. ‘It’s true.’

I have read this passage a thousand times, possibly more than anyone else on the planet as I have dreamed it through to another language. And yet … it still grips me every time. Per’s quiet words at the death – ‘So be it’ – leave me teetering on the brink of existential vertigo.

The ironic scenarios in the scene are endless, quite apart from the lie about an affair. For not only is the prospective ascetic Per Sidenius confronting his former inauthentic selves as we have encountered them in the huge canvas that is A Fortunate Man, author Henrik Pontoppidan is also exploring aspects of his own self and life view and aspects of his own life. It is also striking that Per’s actions mirror Søren Kierkegaard’s behaviour in presenting himself as a skurk (a scoundrel) in his famous breaking off with Regine Olsen, the better to set her free. The eminent Marxist critic George Lukács, who was deeply interested in Kierkegaard and a great admirer of Henrik Pontoppidan, speaks of Kierkegaard not only wanting Regine to view him as a scoundrel, but wanting her whole family to “hate him as a common seducer.” (i) And like Kierkegaard, Per Sidenius opts for isolation and the life of the mind over familial relationships, though both still retain social links with those around them. Both are melancholic by nature.

Clearly, Pontoppidan uses his characters in an ambiguous way. He posits artistic scenarios and creates real, authentic characters – who remain alive for all time, even when we close the book – the true definition of ‘epic art’. Pontoppidan then invites the reader, and himself, to discover where the truth is to be found there. However, the fact that Per retreats to the lonely, wind blasted northwest coast of Denmark and its salt encrusted landscape gives us an insight into the Danish psyche – in extremis. Out of the array of sometimes triumphant, sometimes vacillating characters that could have become the final Per Sidenius, the hero is purged to his essence: stoic, self-deprecating, brave, nature-embracing, one with the land, the sea, and the people, struggling with God, or questions of divinity and the core of existence. He has become ‘complementary’ to both his internal and external universe.

It is a bleak but strangely uplifting vision of the modern Dane that was emerging post Kierkegaard and post formal Christianity – prone to ambiguity and doubt, but prone also to deep thinking and resolve in a vast ‘imagination landscape’. At its best, the Danish mind as a perfect receptacle for irony, but bravely seeking subjective authenticity. The first world war, and Denmark’s strange relations with it, accelerated that ironic psyche and sense of doubt. Despair even. We might say that the forces of history seized once proud ‘Viking’ Denmark by the throat until she was physically subdued and shrivelled, but that the Danes retrieved and expanded exponentially their psychic internal space. Danish Gothic was the spirit that opened that space. Atheist and quantum physicist Niels Bohr’s favourite book was Kierkegaard’s Stadier på Livets Vej (‘Stages on Life’s Way’). A psychological study of the night and day of life.

Bille August’s film ‘A Fortunate Man’ with Esben Smed as Per Sidenius

Per Sidenius seeking his true Danish self from a range of his possible characters

Nordic Noir, of course, comes essentially from dark irony. And irony, be it comic or dark – the boundary is fluid – was once a pan Scandinavian phenomenon. The towering figure of Loki in what have become known as ‘Viking myths’ attests to this perfectly. For whilst Loki obviously shares traits with other mythical gods from elsewhere, especially the trickster Prometheus (forethinker?), Loki really came into his own in Scandinavia. There are a series of characters in ancient Scandinavian tales who resemble Loki in their transgressive, volatile, profoundly searching, ironic take on life. Pushing tension and unspoken themes to the very edge, and sometimes beyond. Take the remarkable figure of Skarphéðinn Njálsson in Brennu-Njals Saga (The Burning of Njál Saga, or just Njál’s Saga). Skarphéðinn is a renowned and feared warrior, but his tongue is even sharper than his swords and spears. His irony has nothing to do with empty sarcasm – it is life or death. As is Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir’s reply to her husband – the flawed hero Gunnar Hámundarson – in that same Njál’s Saga when, as Gunnar’s assassins approach, he asks her to give him two strands of her thick, lustrous hair for the snapped strings of his bow – with which he is invulnerable. There is a whole world in the few words she casts back into Gunnar’s face:

Þá skal ég nú muna þér kinnhestinn
Do you remember that slap you gave me?

Now I’m going to hold that slap against you … (a more formal translation)

As we have already seen, the acerbic, dialectical dialogue composed by Henrik Pontoppidan, often has that same sense of charged, life changing brinkmanship, and it is innate to him. Innate to a good number of Danish artists, as we shall see. They are ‘hold your breath’ moments … did he/she just say that!?

We are teetering over an abyss, towards which savage or cutting irony has pushed us. How do we feel? What is our view? Whose side in the dialectical dispute do we take? We the readers are forced into a decision.

Henrik Pontoppidan, was very much taken with Nordic sagas and would have appreciated their vertiginous take on life and its ironies. The way, perhaps, that overreaching kings or chieftains can suddenly plummet from their lofty eyries, because of cowardice or greed, say; or a failure of conviction. From eagles to turkeys. Or take the holmgang form of settling disputes, where even a ‘commoner’ could challenge a chieftain to a fight to the death on an islet, or holm, if a matter could not be resolved in other agreed ways. Every individual, therefore. needed to know their law, but were also clear that they had a right to speak – a very Scandinavian attribute.

And that right to speak includes the likes of Loki and Skarphéðinn. Indeed, for all their trouble making, they are somewhat cossetted and prized in their societies, amongst the gods also. They are viewed as being just as naturally a part of life and discourse as more attractive characters like Gunnar or the god Thor. Scandinavians are an astonishing mix of conservative mores and a passionate, headstrong, psychological embracing of life in all its facets. Lidenskab – passion was the allegedly ‘cold’ Kierkegaard’s favourite word. Intricate, ironic, psychic passion. Minds full of twists and turns.

‘The Son of Night’ – lyrics by Bifrost, 1977 (my freestyle translation)
(Loki eating roasted heart painting by John Bauer, 1911)

Ancient familial traits – the feuds and idiosyncratic characters they often throw up, were another thing that captured Pontoppidan’s imagination and influenced his artistic concept of style and form. As above with Gunnar and his wife and their wry, hostile exchange, the terse style of the Icelandic sagas is a form that lends itself to binary, ironic discourse. Here is how a son (Egil) answers his soon to die father:

  • You are in no great hurry to give me the money.
  • Are you really hard up, father?
    (Egil’s Saga).

Søren Kierkegaard – ironic psychoanalyst for our modern times

For what does it mean to be – and to want to be – a sovereign individual?

Though it has gone unnoticed outside of Denmark, in modern times it was specifically the Danes who grabbed the irony standard and planted it firmly in Danish soil. Norway produced the anvil hammering, imperious but didactic drama of Ibsen; Sweden the mystical, transcendent feminism of Selma Lagerlöf; Finland the lakes-inspired, tonal lyricism of Sibelius; Iceland the stark fortitude, fire and ice of Halldór Laxness.

Denmark produced Søren Kierkegaard. How ironic. In fact Denmark has a national, what we might call ‘Kierkegaard-maxim’ – Janteloven (the ‘Jante Law’) – which teases and pokes at people not to overdo the self-praise or success. Of course the principle is widespread but few countries make it a national proverb (first coined by a highly observant Norwegian author to describe a Danish mindset).

Kierkegaard is etched into the very street pavements of Copenhagen

It is to have – and to want to have – a conscience.

Søren Kierkegaard is the nonpareil master of irony. Why? Why was it Denmark, rather than any other country in Scandinavia (or in the West for that matter) that produced this epitome of irony? This is one of my favourite subjects for pondering – why is Denmark so ironic? The key to answering this question is Kierkegaard’s revelatory exposition of an individual’s subjective reflection. Every individual, regardless of social standing, or the social culture they inhabit, is interested in her or himself. Note this word ‘interest’ – inter-est. You can see and feel the movement in it: inter-est: between + to be. (In Danish inter-est is inter-esse.) But it is also, thereby, engagement and passion. It also posits the perennially possible.

It is a given that all human beings engage in self-reflection, but those of a highly developed ironic disposition engage in endless reflections on that reflection. The Danes are a Hall of Mirrors with a multitude of reflected and reflecting characters in their internal psychological dramas. To be or not to be? And to be what, exactly? It often takes a long time to successfully split your own psychological atoms. Danes are furtively passionate and dogged in their self-analysis of themselves.

The Danish multi-character subjective staircase
(Image from an anthology edited by Kierkegaard scholar, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn)

Though even the Danes themselves barely realise it, they have always been very good at talking to themselves in different voices. Introspection. Conflicting psychological characters in the same heart, mind and psyche. Henrik Pontoppidan understood this instinctively and he hated its dark, inherent hang to vacillation, because it was part of his own psyche. This was what drew him to Nietzsche’s cry for freedom from self-doubt. There is a remarkable, and often overlooked, passage in Kierkegaard’s Begrebet Angest (The Concept of Anxiety) in which Kierkegaard gives his Danish understanding of the origin of Original Sin: – that the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was plucked.

Kierkegaard states that Adam was talking to himself when he conceived of this ‘first’ sin and that the command did not come from God but from the anxiety and pondering of possible transgression. See, the awakening of conscience in humankind is bound with the ability to speak, including the ability to talk to oneself. It is not the ex-ternal serpent that tempts Adam but the in-ternal serpent that is the latent, double-bind of fear of, and attraction to the possibility of sin. The possibility of creation also. The perception of – and grasping after – the eternal carries with it the fascination and dread of the Great Fall. Watch children as they are appalled by – yet rush to embrace – the monster in the fairy-tale. It was the innocent but burgeoning idea of sin (selfishness) that created sin, not the external serpent hanging in the tree (who had to be female of course). Or as Kierkegaard put it in the Concept of Anxiety: (human) Sin created Sin.

But Kierkegaard goes further: he says that if this was the case for Adam, then it must be the case for everybody. Therefore there was no original sin. Original Sin is in all of us. It was and is not a one off. Rather it is the human condition to be drawn to selfishness by the fact of our capacity to debate the possible with ourselves. Kierkegaard even quotes scripture to underline his point:

… Gud frister Ingen og fristes og ikke af Nogen …. ethvert Menneske fristes af sig selv.
(God is incapable of being tempted by Evil and He is never the source of temptation … every person is tempted by themselves.)
Jacob 1:13-21

That it should be a Dane that illuminated this startling truth with his flash of subjective insight is telling, It is the internal polyphonic. A cast of characters talking to each other in the same mind. And the Danes not only perfected the art of the internal polyphonic – they went a stage further and introduced (re-introduced?) what I would call the instructive ambiguous. Some of my readers may cry – Hamlet and England! – at this point, but thereby forgetting that the Ur-Hamlet was Danish and I’m not referring to the castle at ‘Elsinore’ (Helsingør), even though there is a rather fine castle there.

Danes speaking in tongues

One of the 10th Century ‘Jelling Stones’ – Denmark’s birth certificate

The essential story of Hamlet is not just that he spent a lot of time talking to himself about who he was and what he should do – to be or not to be this or the other – this young ‘People’s Prince’ adopted different identities and hid behind curtains as he pondered how his father should be avenged. It is, in its essential Jutland Danish form, a ‘folk’ revenge tragedy in which usurpers gain hegemony over a kingdom by deceit and then a young hero feigns madness and a set of characters in order to effect the downfall of the interlopers. A Jutlander’s grim joy in bringing the mighty crashing to earth. Shakespeare’s genius was to perceive the turmoil of Hamlet’s inner dialogue and reveal it on the World Stage. (Kierkegaard’s genius was to remind us what ‘Hamlet’ kept secret. What is known only to artists as WB Yeats might have put it.)

Amlode – the dangerous Jutland ‘fool’ who does magic

Meet the Danish Hamlet you never met

I am no Shakespeare, but I know a thing or two about philology and linguistics and this idea of an inner dialogue gave me an insight into the nature of the irony I was looking for vis-à-vis the introspective Danes – bearing in mind that I first learned Danish as a young boy in the Danish Merchant Navy. ‘Dansk’ entered my synapses purely via speech for many years before I began analysing its texts. The Danish word for ambiguous. I soon discovered, is tvetydig (double meaning), but wait … this can become multiplied – flertydig. The extraordinary Danish poet and chronicler Johannes V Jensen has called the Danish Ur-Hamlet an (ironic) serpent in the heart of every Dane. More than anything this Amlode (fool) had the gift of artful speeches. Dissembling for the revenge to come. Without any doubt whatsoever, she/he was the Danish Socrates. But what is this Danish Gothic irony exactly? A thing that wrecked my head for years.

Eventually, I came to Kierkegaard’s posthumously published book – Bogen om Adler – lit. ‘The Book on Adler.’ It was here I found the definition of creative but ‘negative’ Danish irony I had been looking for. The why and whence of Danish ambiguity and dissembling.

Pastor Adolph Adler – he heard voices (his own)

Image of (defrocked) Pastor Adolph Adler from a 1841 painting

Kierkegaard wrote a book on the Lutheran pastor, Adolph Peter Adler, who claimed Jesus had revealed Himself to him and ‘told him what to do’ – the main outcome of which was that he sold a lot of books (Adler not Jesus). No wonder Kierkegaard had his doubts about this alleged – not so lifechanging – revelation of the Godhead to Pastor Adler who was eventually ‘decommissioned’ as a priest, but in a quite gentle way. Kierkegaard delayed the book’s publication as he had known Adler as a schoolfriend at a highly esteemed Copenhagen ‘School of Refinement’ and both had studied theology at Copenhagen University. However, what we are interested in here is the fact that Adler – precisely by the fact that he waxed so lyrical about religion in general and about his divine ‘gift’ in particular – actually ended up showing he knew very little about the divine. Or rather, hadn’t learned much more by Jesus’s apparent visitation. Proof, therefore, that the visitation hadn’t happened at all.

According to Kierkegaard, this said much more about Adler than it did about Jesus. A classic example of negative irony – ask the right, apparently guileless, question and the subject will jump to reveal her or his true self. In other words, by talking so much about it – and to put it in Kierkegaard’s own words – Pastor Adler: forløb sig – got carried away, and told us much more about himself and what he actually didn’t know by protesting his knowledge too much. He protesteth too much, to go all Shakespearean for a moment.

Now we have a very useful synonym for this reflexive Danish verbal construct – at forløbe sig – in Hiberno-English, which has also become adopted in British English – it is: ‘to lose the run of oneself.’ The reflexive, subjective ‘oneself’ is of course the secret to instructive, subjective irony.

The Kierkegaard book that has gone under the radar

Kierkegaard’s posthumous book on Adler – compiled 1846 – 1855

The lack of attention paid to Kierkegaard’s book on the overly loquacious Adler – even by scholars who far exceed my Kierkegaard powers – has always surprised me. (The late, lamented and brilliant Kierkegaard researcher, Julia Watkin, who published the above ‘Adler’ reissue, is an exception.) Kierkegaard had begun pondering and then working on the Adler book not long after Adler had visited him in 1843 and revealed his ‘Jesus experience’. Adler partly used a low whisper, when speaking to Kierkegaard, as Adler felt this imparted ‘the miracle’ more accurately. Adler was speaking in togues not quite his own. So how authentic was it, this voice, and could a genuine voice of revelation be discerned as opposed to a wagging tongue? Authority of voice was, therefore, the central theme in Kierkegaard’s prophetic book about the chattering classes to come. Actually the book’s full title is not – ‘The Book on Adler’. but Nutidens Religieuse Forvirring (The Religious Confusion of the Present Age). A book on which Kierkegaard worked (and effectively completed) in the same year as his sudden but expected death (1855).

I have read the Adler book several times and it always tells me new things and is one of the best overviews in Kierkegaard’s own hand of this Danish genius’s highly extensive oeuvre (‘genius’ as opposed to ‘apostle’ – part of the point of the book was to delineate the difference). But it is what Kierkegaard tells us in this same Adler book about how Socrates got his Sophist interlocutors, amongst others, to ‘lose the run of themselves’ and thereby not only display their ignorance of the matters in hand but their own subjective disposition that is the tour de force in Kierkegaard’s Adler book. This is ‘negative’ irony. The teacher says very little and adopts an ironic (dissembling – feigning ignorance) pose of uncertainty in dialectical opposition to the protagonists ‘over-conviction’. The teacher ‘Ironist’ becomes an existential sounding board for the ‘other’. A kind of – ‘I’ve no idea what the answer to this question is. Perhaps you can enlighten me …’ approach to discourse.

Essentially, the supreme Ironist (say Socrates, or Kierkegaard) allows the people with whom he is in dialogue to convince themselves that it is actually the Ironist that is the idiot. Really, tell me more, says Socrates; all the while reeling his attacker in as the unwitting victim spouts for more rhetorical air. Here is the key line in Danish from the Adler book:

Den ironiske Underfundighed culminerer i den List med hvilken man bringer et Menneske til at tale om sig selv, angive sig selv, aabenbare sig selv, netop da, naar han i egne Tanker taler slet ikke om sig selv, ja endog har glemt sig selv …
Translation (I use the plural to avoid ‘he’):
“This ironic subtlety culminates in the cunning stratagem with which one leads people to speak about themselves, report of themselves, reveal themselves; at the very moment when they, in their own mind, are doing anything but deliberately talking about themselves; yes, have perhaps even forgotten themselves …”

I want to draw readers’ attention to the Danish word list here, which I have ‘bold-highlighted’ in the original Danish quote and in my translation – ‘list’ is a deceptively short Danish word with the power of an ancient culture behind it. Though the general Germanic word list(e) as a categorising of things also applies in Danish, it also means deception, artifice, or cunning, and in this context, as a verb, liste, means to creep, or steal away. I always notice the relish with which Danes use this word list/liste. They use a definite drawn out sibilant fricative on the s.

Though it is not immediately recognisable because of that ‘s’, the word list is related to ‘lore’ and ‘learn’, knowledge and skill. Ironic deception for the sake of conjuring a person’s essence is a form of magic. A form of lore. Irony is a powerful mix of art and artifice. Kierkegaard said that conversation is the greatest art form, as did Amlode before him. Liste

When I re-read these particular Adler pages again in the context of Danish introspection and competing voices inside the mind of an individual, I realised that there was an internal struggle in there for the authentic voice. Whereas Socrates was the ironic external interlocutor, the Danish ironic voice is the subjective internal selfquestioning and interrogating their own selves, via an array of alternative subjective characters, as that self searches for its own authenticity. There are numerous examples of this in Danish fiction. I have already mentioned Per Sidenius and the ur-self-Ironist, Hamlet. Then of course there is Kierkegaard himself and the often forgotten irony of H C Andersen and his deceptively ironic tales. I have also recently completed the translation of Martin A Hansen’s greatest novel, Løgneren (The Liar), which again involves competing inner voices. In this work, on the part of a schoolteacher and locum deacon, who not only stares into a mirror of harsh realities about himself, but also perceives his possibilities. ‘The Liar’ will be published by New York Review of Books Classics early in 2023.

‘The Liar – a conflicted teacher’s dialogue with himself.

Another key Danish Gothic Ironist is Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) – she of the ‘Seven Gothic Tales’. Though it is less obvious, Blixen is almost as pseudonymous as Kierkegaard. Her very first stories were published under the name of her father’s pet dog and she then followed in his pseudonymous traditions as an author, given that Wilhelm Dinesen had used the name Boganis (hazelnut) – a title the Chippewa tribe of Native Americans had given him in his time with them – in his own not insignificant memoir as a hunter. Karen Blixen believed that she had not only inherited much of her father’s spirit but also his sense of adventure and ‘wanderlust’. He had travelled and soldiered far and wide before returning to Denmark, and finally killing himself. She then chose, initially, to publish under the male name of Isak Dinesen (rather than her married name – ‘Blixen’), bearing in mind that Isaac wasn’t just the very late offspring of the Bible’s Sarah and Abraham, ‘Isaac’ also means laughter (Hebrew Yiṣḥāq: he laughs/will laugh). Karen Blixen was literally having a laugh. For good pseudonymous measure, she also sometimes used the pen name Pierre Andrézel. So many characters in one Danish head!

Irony ebbs and flows between the comic and the tragic and ‘Gothic’ Danes hold their gaze steadfastly on the drama as that internal psychological Holmgang unfolds, for good or ill – usually for ill, but sometimes with success, especially where Blixen is concerned.

Karen Blixen – an integral part of ironic Danish currency

There is not space here to even pretend a resumé of Karen Blixen’s phenomenal oeuvre, but I think that to state that there is a sense of a governing moral firmament in her work is more than justifiable. In this, and in many other ways, she reminds me of Henrik Pontoppidan.

In their shared Danish Gothic, they deploy irony to reveal a wider metaphysical truth, but always from behind a mask of partial self concealment. The masking of inner personal, even physical, pain was also part of that. In this way, they follow Kierkegaard’s path, who said the writerly Knight of Infinite Resignation reveals the truth of existence, but leaves her/his own secrets partially hidden. This is a very Danish thing to do. Who or what is that ghost on the mental battlements? Like a Danish author’s Gothic Ball. Nobody – no author – will reveal who they really are behind that mask, but express this through their range of characters in shockingly real life, cliff-hanger situations and dialogue. Just as with the ancient sagas, there is huge drama in their tales. Both of these, at heart romantic, authors dreamed in epochs, even as they flayed the hide of the particular. They were both adventurers and, rather interestingly for our purposes, the highly perceptive USA novelist, John Updike, intuited the ‘Viking intoxication’ and ‘battle frenzy’ in Blixen’s works. Isak Dinesen’s God was pre-Christian and momentous. It is an Old Testament ‘wrestling-with-God’ or the elements syndrome. For his part, Henrik Pontoppidan was frustrated in dreams of embarking on great odysseys. To Greenland, say, or across the Alps, but like Kierkegaard, he could traverse these far lung regions in his visionary mind and across his stirring, vibrant pages.

There are elements of Old Testament in Pontoppidan, too. We might say he is like Daniel proclaiming the Mene, mene, tekel writing on the wall that smote Belshazzar and this is actually cited in A Fortunate Man and in other places in Pontoppidan’s works. Look:

“Every time he felt tempted by the thought, he saw Neergaard in front of him and recalled his words about the swineherd who became a prince, words which had already, on another occasion, revealed themselves in an aura of blazing letters, a Mene-Tekel – ‘counted and counted, weighed and divided,’ an admonishing Biblical scripture on tablets of fiery stone …”

In their steely, stoical, artistic independence and perseverance, Blixen and Pontoppidan mirror each also. More than that, like Pontoppidan, Blixen accepts that people are born with an innate nature, but that they must work their whole lives through to actively express that in life and bring it to full fruition. This is: The Work – the Life Mission. What Kierkegaard called Opgaven – the Task. I like ‘Life-Mission’ better. As George Lukács has pointed out regarding Pontoppidan’s fiction, the characters are not confined to psychological ruminations. They are steeped in and emerge from real life scenarios.

Most readers will be aware of ‘Dinesen’s’ Babette’s Gæstebud (‘Babette’s Feast’), not least because of Gabriel Axel’s 1987 Oscar winning film of the same name. It is interesting to note that in Ireland the film and ‘tale’ was received as a demonstration of the essential cultural difference between Catholics and Protestants, given that historically at least, and still today in parts of the North of the country, there is a strong strain of Pietist and Calvinist Protestantism. But the key instructive irony in ‘Babette’s Feast’ is that the artist and the religious (should) serve the same cause – not only to spread love and empathy and ‘enchant the angels’ but also to risk the devilry that is in art.

Babette is an artist Priestess, who points out that an artist is never poor. This is quintessential Danish Gothic and the other side of its ‘Janus faced’ wisdom is made manifest in another of Blixen’s tales (‘tales’ can do magic, stories cannot), ‘The Cardinal’s First Tale’. Here it is Cardinal Salviati who says that the priest and the artist have the same task, which is to probe the truth of existence and reveal its secrets. This Cardinal was a twin whose double died in very early infancy, so that neither his parents nor he himself could be sure whether he was Atanasio (the Eternal One) or Dionysio (the Ecstatic one), a plan the Cardinal’s parents had mapped out for the respective twins out of the respective passions of the parents themselves. Salviati effectively manages to be both, but admits that faith is a risk and there is no safety net. A Danish Pascal’s Wager. (I am indebted to the Aalborg academic and author, Per Brahde, for clarifying my own feelings and ‘reception’ of Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen. Not just with his highly illuminating essay –Magt og Afmagt – Kierkegaard og Nietzsche spejlet i Karen Blixens forfatterskab (Power and Impotence – Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as revealed in the works of Karen Blixen), but also the dialogue in which we engaged over a period of months several years ago. There is, however, no implication that he might agree with my theories.)

Danish Gothic – where the Devil and Angels meet

As if all the above were not enough, in three astonishing pages of Kierkegaard’s book on Pastor Adler – and as the self-reflexive cherry on this Danish identity layer cake – our hermeneutical genius, Søren Kierkegaard, who loved and praised the Danish language as the sinuous, vibrant, soft but strong Fenris-Wolf binding tongue it is, explains precisely why Danes and their language make them world beating reflexive ironists. This comes in a precious note Kierkegaard left in the margin of his page. Here it is for those fortunate souls who can read Danish (here in the pre-reform orthography):

*)Anm:Det danske Sprog har en Deel verba neutra, som i Sammensætningen med Præpositionen: for betegne et uheldigt Udfald af det som Stammeverbet betyder.fE: at forløbe sig, at forsee sig, at forhaste sig, at fortale sig, at forsnakke sig o: a:. Ironien hjælper nu et Menneske dertil, men hvorved og hvorledes? Ved at forholde sig negativ og indirecte. Lad os tænke et Vexelforhold mellem tvende Mennesker, af hvilke den ene er en Ironiker. Ironikeren gjør sig nu til Intet og forholder sig reent negativt, og derved hjælper han indirecte den Anden til at forløbe sig. Dette Sig, dette pronomen reflexivum skjuler Ironien. Manden forløber sig, han gjør det altsaa selv, men han gjør det ved Ironikerens negative Hjælp; Manden staaer i den Formening at han har med et andet Menneske at gjøre, men ved Ironikerens Underfundighed faaer Manden kun med sig selv at gjøre, thi han forløber sig jo.

Quite apart from, in this margin-note, giving a second succinct explanation of how Socratic, ‘negative’ irony works (the speaker is drawn out by the Ironist to a position of self-realisation by losing the run of her or himself) Kierkegaard explains how this reflexive, eternally reflecting and self-questioning mentality is wired into the Danish language itself by the use of reflexive verbs and reflexive personal pronouns (sig mostly).

I am blessed with an ability to read various languages with a modicum of proficiency and would concur with Kierkegaard that the Danish language must be one of the most reflexive in the whole of Europe and English speaking North America. Perhaps worldwide. What this ‘reflexive’ mode refers to is the fact that when a verb is – or becomes – reflexive, a personal pronoun (sig in the 3rd pers. sg/pl) is appended to it, so that rather than the verb affecting an object it rebounds back on the subject. There are remnants of this in English – take the word ‘bask’ for example, which comes from Old Norse baðask (“to take a bath”, literally “to bathe oneself”) in what linguists call the mediopassive form that joins the verb baða (to bathe) with sik (“oneself”) – ‘ba-sk’. It is true that German reflexive verbs with sich etc. are a hugely significant part of that language also, but mighty, statuesque German is nowhere near as protean, sinuous and reflexive as Danish.

Kierkegaard gives a range of examples of how Danish facilitates the leaving of oneself way out on a reflexive limb, like the above mentioned forløbe sig with Pastor Adler – to get carried away – let one’s tongue run on, which doesn’t have an exact equivalent in German. The best one I know is the colloquial ‘sich vergaloppieren’ but it’s not quite the same, or doesn’t feel ‘native’. I stand to be corrected here, but there is nevertheless an extraordinary exuberance about the way Danes use the ironic reflexive that readily brings Henrik Pontoppidan to mind as a latter day Hamlet or Socrates probing his mind’s own characters. And therefore interrogating them as they come alive within his pages. Danes generally love relating how someone fell short, made a fool of themselves, jumped the gun, caused offence, went on and on, was too presumptuous, as ‘the other’ listens quietly but with a glint in the eye. A famous Danish philologist – Johnny Christensen (a sparkling Ironist himself) – even suggested how Socrates may have fatally erred his way to a death sentence by at overliste sig – being too cunning for his own good – that word list again. (ii)

My favourite Danish reflexive construction, however, is actually not in Kierkegaard’s list of reflexives in his margin note to Adler (the list is not shown in the quote above), but is nevertheless very telling, and that is the verb skabe, which means to create and is linked to English ‘shape’ and German ‘schaffen’, but when the Danes add sig to skabe > skabe sig – it becomes something else altogether. It becomes in fact a ‘Loki syndrome’; for you can be doing a range of offbeat, even crazy, things; including putting on airs, posing, exaggerating and seeking to deceive. You are creating and recreating yourself.

Now we see, I think, much more clearly – thanks to Kierkegaard’s psychological perspicacity- the conflicting tensions, voices and characters that can rage reflexively in one and the same Danish mind and how this is expressed in art. Of course this can be comic, but this quest for personal authenticity can also be a ‘Sickness unto Death’ if there is no final resolution. Henrik Pontoppidan would sometimes speak of his own labyrinthine mind. Henrik encountered a lot of characters there, in that mind, but which one from this ‘polyphony’ of voices, did he decide was closest to his own? Or to put it another way, did his artistic creativity help this betimes caustic and ostensibly self-deprecating Dane find his own self resolution and personal redemption? I think he did, as we shall see.

Lies and Latin – mockery, ridicule and satirising religion – A ‘Storm P Museum’ Poster

Danes – probably the best ironists in the world …

Researchers and academics who have looked at polyphony (particularly in the works of Kierkegaard and also with Pontoppidan, amongst others) have stressed the range of different characters, the equally competing voices and also the ambiguity that reigns in these creations. They carry no clear ‘message’ or ideology. The readers, onlookers, witnesses, are left to decide the truth of things for themselves. However, the particularly Danish nature of this ambiguity and its subjective implications have had little scrutiny, as far as I know. Danish polyphony has subjective ambiguity as its Pole Star. The self-reflecting self is the psychological polar axis.

All those imagined characters losing the run of the self inside the Ironist’s own head! The deceitful self. The deceived and deceiving self and then the inter-est of conscience and the struggle – in the modern age – to break clear of sin (selfishness), or at least confusion and despair. The imagined characters struggling for moral air. The struggle more broadly to live an authentic life in a hypocritical world. Pontoppidan’s works make much of this struggle for real integrity (his characters usually fail, or are brought down). That genuine life has to be continually fought for in a morass of mediocrity and hypocrisy. Great art emerges from this tension. Ambiguity is not just negative. It also carries possibility within it, if we can get beyond Hamlet and Socrates poking their ironic sticks at us. Kierkegaard wrote three whole books trying to get beyond Socrates. I think he did this finally with his 1847 Kjerlighedens Gjerninger – (Love’s Works as I would translate the title.)

Although I am still wrestling with this conceptual octopus in trying to clarify my thoughts, it seems to me that this continual, reflexive, second guessing of self in a constant struggle for clarity is the core of Danish instructive ambiguity. That is why I decided to call this creative ambiguity, ‘Danish Gothic’.

Danish Gothic

Asger Jorn thinker, painter and Danish Goth

Though you would not know it from the extant research on the Danish painter and sculptor, Asger Jorn, it was he more than any other Dane who realised the artistic – and therefore philosophical – importance of this instructive, or ‘creative’ ambiguity. He called it (originally pan Scandinavian) ‘Gothic’ and stressed its ancient properties. Though he stood on Johannes V Jensen’s shoulders to get to attain this view.

This is not the pastiche Gothic of Frankenstein and Dracula films, which I otherwise love; nor is it even Mary Shelley’s precocious vision, which was more a harbinger of the horrors of war, the industrial age and imperial capitalism to come. No, real existential Gothic, as it has been handed down to us, is Danish. A deep, profound sombreness. A trauma and terror lurking in the deceptively every-day. A teasing, sometimes poisonous ambiguity.

You think Hans Christian Andersen is hygge? Think again. Read his ‘fairy tales’ more deeply and you will not only discern the terror (‘The Snow Queen’), the hubris (‘The Wicked Prince’) but also the redemptive (The Ugly Duckling). Things take an even more profound, and darkly ironic, turn with Andersen’s Skyggen (The Shadow), which is a ‘Danish Gothic’ version of Faust, as the Devil is literally the dark side of the morally good, hero-writer in the tale. In fact whilst we speak of Faust, that great admirer of Pontoppidan – the German author, Thomas Mann – partly based his Doktor Faustus novel on HC Andersen’s terrifying fairy tale, Den lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid) and this sea creature’s fateful pact with a ‘Mer-Witch’ so as to stake her very being on a doomed love for a human prince that would also ensure her possession of an immortal soul.

H C Andersen was so good – such a genius – and Kierkegaard (in Loki guise) so jealous, he attacked the ‘fairy tale’ man in his first ever book. The likelihood is that Kierkegaard recognised the similarities between his own creative urges and that of Andersen and so wanted to set a philosophical benchmark that he perceived as lacking in Andersen, who was indeed prone to sentimentality. The fact is though that both these Danish authors are in intense and ironic dialogue with characters in their own psychological labyrinth. Compare this with the social discourse of, say, Dickens or Dostoevsky – Dostoevsky’s The Double is much more a reflection on Russian bureaucracy and a stifling pettifoggery – the crushing of the collective Russian spirit – than Andersen’s subjective portrayal of good and evil residing subjectively within an artist. Literally his shadow.

To be fair to Dostoevsky, his use of instructive irony comes very close to Kierkegaard, in my view, with the Smerdyakov figure in The Brothers Karamazov. The more Smerdyakov taunts the ‘humanist’ Ivan Karamazov by reminding Ivan that he had proclaimed that ‘everything was permitted’ – Smerdyakov being his bastard and retarded brother who murdered their father – the more we the readers digest that unrestricted freedom is not a great idea. Dostoevsky comes even closer to Kierkegaard – perhaps even surpasses him – with the extraordinary seducer figure in the little known novel The Insulted and Humiliated. The scene where the arch seducer, Prince Valkovsky, recounts not only his defilement of women but his pleasure in so doing is every bit as mesmerising and nausea invoking as The Seducer’s Diary. The ironic, instructive element is strong in both these works by Dostoevsky, but, again, there is ultimately a politico-religious (rather than psycho-existential) instruction in these works. Unlike Danish Gothic, Dostoevsky is not interrogating his own mind.

It’s all in the Danish mind
‘Practice in looking at art’ – Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen – 1979

Asger Jorn wrote of humans having an ‘artistic conscience’ that cries out to be expressed long before the physical creation begins. Prometheus/Loki fore-thinking. Thinking before you think. There is some primal artistic impulse there. Art is pre-logical, Asger Jorn said . But he also said that the Nordic artistic mindset is rooted in the mind rather than in symbols or in superficial sentiment. The Danish word for mind is sind. Kierkegaard not only bemoaned his tung-sind (literally his heavy-mind: melancholy), he also spoke of embracing it and needing to cherish it. Perhaps more than anything else. In the week of my writing up this essay from my notes, an important literary and cultural figure in Denmark wrote to me regarding a joint project we are planning and told me that this project was ‘very much on the mind’ (ligger meget på sindet) that the project should go ahead – a good formal translation would be: – there is a strong desire that it should proceed, (we might also say: ‘the project is near to our hearts’). Another striking example of how the Danes have multiple minds in the same psyche is with the difference between the saying in English – ‘to be in two minds’, which in Danish is rendered as to be in seven minds (‘at være i syv sind’). Truly the Danish mind is the receptacle of many conflicting passions.

Perhaps the long winter nights over such a long period of the year encourage this introspective ruminating. This Danish Gothic. Kierkegaard said that you could remain in your room and yet travel all over the world, in your mind. Danish – sind – is rooted in Germanic *senþa(n), which had the meaning of to go, or to travel, or strive towards. A psychological movement emphasised by its links to English ‘send’. I have always liked Kierkegaard’s tripartite proposal of body, psyche and soul. The soul becomes an aspiration beyond the psyche, that we strive towards. Our sind?

It is not too far a stretch, I feel, to make comparisons between this striving towards ‘soul’ and Pontoppidan’s visions of a struggle for authenticity and I give more evidence of this below. Just like Kierkegaard, Pontoppidan spoke of the struggle to make artistically manifest the art of living – levekunst. We strive towards a higher existential aesthetic. Art is the attempt, the striving, the journey, beyond the purely physical and logical, to make the soul manifest. To fully join with it, and be replete within it, at least for a creative moment. Or if we are ‘Fortunate’ and don’t fall backwards again, as part of a life changing artistic leap. Moral perfectionism is not a one-off condition, but a goal, a beautiful vision of possibility. If we follow the emotion of that idea, we can feel the creative influence of artistic impulses on subjective soul searching. That it is more a journey – a life task that must constantly be imagined into being – rather than a final destination. Real life therefore becomes an art form. We are trying to get to what Jorn called the urbilledlige i os selv – the ur-metaphor that expresses our true selves. Not as a fact, but with the much stronger proof that we feel it is right and that we are reconciled with ourselves and ‘the other’.

No scientist can ever truly know what an individual is thinking – the very reason for the rise of psychotherapy, which cannot ever get beyond the awoken self and its voices, beyond Hamlet or Socrates. This was one of Kierkegaard’s keenest insights regarding psychology as a whole and also a quintessentially Danish discovery.

Asger Jorn’s great Scandinavian insight is summed up very well in his book Naturens Orden (‘The Natural Order’) – De divisione naturae, in which he says that it is precisely because Scandinavian individualism rejects the formation of a rigid order in the mind, or the imposition of a fixed set of ideas, that makes ‘Nordics’ appreciate external, social order even more. They are inspired by and can create a range of authentic voices and conflicting, competing emotions, scenarios and characters in their own minds, but Denmark’s buses still run on time.

Asger Jorn understood how Kierkegaard’s characters and their scenarios proliferated in his mind – the aesthete, the seducer, the stodgy magistrate, the multi character Abraham, the young man who loves so fiercely he catapults himself to the far shore of love and beyond. There is no doubt these characters and the pseudonymous authors who created them are the product of a single ironic mind. They are envisioned and given existence in their own artistic validity so as to provoke, to inflame, to debate. Who are these people? Who is speaking the truth? What is my standpoint? Who am I? The guiding mind-lamp that is Danish introspective art. The artist poking her or himself with Gothic ambiguity. Creative, instructive irony. The argument that all these characters are fully independent of Kierkegaard is plain daft. Of course there have been other Ironists, all over the world, but there has been no one (not even Socrates) with the same constant level of sometime merciless, sometime devious, sometime excruciatingly subtle, sometime hilarious Gothic irony of Kierkegaard – ‘marry, you’ll regret it, don’t marry, you’ll regret it … hang yourself, you’ll regret it, don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret that, too! (I abbreviate). This parody of an aesthete’s refusal to commit to anything leads most of us to question, or even reject, circumspection as a lifestyle.

However, Kierkegaard’s debt to Socrates, not to mention his affection, is undoubted. Kierkegaard started off criticising Socrates for leaving people hanging in the web of their own newly spun self-reflection that had been conjured by this master Ironist. In this he anticipated Nietzsche. But Kierkegaard ended up realising that there could be no real sovereign individuality without that initial self-reflection and doubt. This idea of multi-voice indirect instruction, including the goading and teasing of the victim ‘acolyte’, was therefore the path to freedom. The aforementioned Johnny Christensen has stressed that the goading technique used by both Socrates and Kierkegaard was not just used for spite, but also to open the eyes of opinion formers and disarm those who thought they knew it all. (iii)

Twisted Danish irony as teacher. Henrik Pontoppidan as Educator

Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke Per –
‘A Fortunate Man’
– the hardest thing in life is to truly know yourself and what you must do.

Henrik Pontoppidan was influenced by his extensive reading of Friedrich Nietzsche, partly because of the German philosopher’s iconoclasm and especially the idea of the ‘Overman’ (Übermensch) who would, by force of will, supreme talent and inspiration drag humankind forward to a new dawn. Here at last was a great vision that didn’t depend on religious hypocrisy, or weak-willed, unprincipled politicians. However, Pontoppidan’s essentially democratic and ‘folk’ sensibilities meant that his life view and work do not reflect the ‘Aristocratic Radicalism’ that underpinned Nietzsche’s thought. There is no matching Zarathustra who can truly break free of social and spiritual norms in Pontoppidan’s works. All of the characters in his books who might become – or have pretensions to be – modern-day saviours fall ironically short, or even become monsters. Indeed, Pontoppidan always held somewhat at arm’s length the superb Danish critic – Georg Brandes – who coined the term ‘Aristocratic Radicalism’ in the 1889 essay that effectively launched Nietzsche into the European mainstream. Both Nietzsche and Brandes were literary aristocrats, which is precisely the reason that Aristocratic Radicalism applies just as much to Brandes as it does to the German ‘hammer-philosopher’.

I believe that Pontoppidan’s not always publicly expressed literary insights often surpassed Georg Brandes – who also wrote the first important biography of Kierkegaard – for instance by recognising that you cannot separate Kierkegaard’s religio-ethical demand from his cry for subjective freedom. Aristocrats want to be individually free. A ‘Folk’ needs a set of ethics, or we might call it collective conscience.

In his same 1889 Nietzsche essay, Brandes gives one of the best descriptions of Nietzsche’s thought that I, at least, have read. This is based on Nietzsche’s essential view of true, authentic culture as being a rejection of waiting for the hereafter for our reward (we all applaud) and founding our cultural standard on its highest examples (we all sit back and think, shake our head slightly – who decides the cultural standards? The snobs?).

Georg Brandes – 1899 essay on Nietzsche – aristocratic ‘birds of a feather’

In Nietzsche’s view – as Brandes puts it – our individual life mission is not really for the purpose of subjective self-discovery on the part of each individual, but to support, work for and build a society that celebrates and promotes thinkers and artists, pure in spirit who are devoted to truth and beauty. This as Nietzsche sees it is the fulfilment of humankind’s highest imperative in the face of cosmic but ‘neutral’ Nature. We are back in ancient Greece with its broad understanding of sculpture and architecture, mathematics, drama, sport and rhetoric – women and slaves mostly excluded of course.

Brandes agreed and said that ‘Old Norse’ Iceland was another society that was an organic, cultural and social entity. Though, it should probably be pointed out that neither Nietzsche nor Brandes were referring to a racially pure or solely indigenous organic cultures. These holistic societies are not fully ‘homemade’ and have strong external influences and antecedents.

I find Nietzsche’s vision – often much maligned, in the English speaking world at least – both beautiful and inspiring. The idea of breaking free, striking out for a higher ideal of self, and being an example to others, so as to help less gifted people, so as to enrich not just your life but theirs, is visionary and encouraging. It is also part of the role artists play. However, and as Kierkegaard might have put it, it doesn’t even take us beyond Socrates who, as an ironic midwife, sought to birth the truth in everybody.

Nietzsche had a conflicted relationship with Socrates, accusing him of taking the magic from life with all this dialectical irony malarkey. Raising issues that weren’t discussed ‘at table’. Or as the English put it: ‘bringing the tone of the place down.’ He said much the same of Euripides.

Perhaps unwittingly, the Kierkegaard scholar Jacob Howland – who is highly tuned to the Socrates/Kierkegaard dynamic – gives the best description of Nietzsche’s pre-subjective (pre-fractured) Greek society and the Socrates effect, in that (I paraphrase) modernity has burdened us with an individual guilt that only a god can bear, thus depriving us of a genuinely a priori ethical community that can bear the guilt collectively through the shared grieving and catharsis that is ancient tragedy. (iv) Howland of course is invoking Kierkegaard’s ground-breaking modern retelling of the Antigone myth, with its dichotomy between collective ancient sorrow and modern pain in the atomised individual. Nietzsche would have saved himself a lot of his own pain if he had read this extraordinary screenplay, but he came too late to Kierkegaard, though he knew of him before Georg Brandes mentioned him in their correspondence.

You get the distinct feeling that Nietzsche felt that attempts to elevate every individual in society was the road to cultural confusion and he’s right, but his solution was wrong. It isn’t great ‘Overmen’ we need to teach us, although these can be inspiring. More than anything, we need Love. And for widespread Love, you need individuals to, in the first instance, love themselves. Then love the ‘other’. This sounds like Ur-Christianity. Ur-Communism for that matter. You need Works of Love – Love’s Works.

The erotic, teasing, goading midwife to the subjective self

Socrates – a ‘pleb’ according to Nietzsche – was he a Greek at all?

What Nietzsche missed and Kierkegaard grasped was the possibility of a freedom leap in the reflexive effect of subjective irony, when the sovereign individual becomes fully self-aware and separate. A moment suddenly stretches to infinitude, as the soul is perceived.
If there is an existential moment there in that self-reflection, well, it is both temporal and of the divine, or we can say the cosmic if you like. And it is in the gift of every single individual. I don’t know a thing about quantum physics and time travel, but to me this insight by Kierkegaard feels like a breakthrough to a new dimension. Perhaps this was the time-stretch basis for Niels Bohr’s appreciation of Kierkegaard?

In the same way that there would be no science without doubt, there would be no individual freedom without self-aware irony that opens up eternal possibilities for the human being. Isn’t this the same as Asger Jorn’s insight that we have a predisposition to art? Self-reflection can become a window to the transcendent, if it can also embrace ‘the other’.

What this means is that whilst Pontoppidan admired Nietzsche’s idealistic, brave revolt against mediocrity, Pontoppidan’s whole subjective ironic scene setting, characters and their dialogue bring him closer in spirit to Kierkegaard, to Hamlet and to Socrates. Per Sidenius rejects the chance to become an Übermensch and embraces his true nature instead. In fact, Pontoppidan sounds some profound and prophetic warnings about the ‘Overman’ myth if that life view descends into fanaticism. This can be seen very clearly in Pontoppidan’s astonishing novella – Nattevagt, a title which has often been translated as ‘Nightwatch’ in English, but I would prefer ‘The Rear-Guard’. For in this short novel and its bitter, recalcitrant, yet gripping ending, Pontoppidan explores several different sides to his own artistic personality and the dangers of art for ideology’s sake.

This volatile work coruscates with incendiary irony. It is for the onlooker to decide the truth in the story. We might call The Rear-Guard an exposé of what happens when soul searching artists fail to embrace subjective freedom (with its call for conscience and Mercy) and remain stuck in the negative ironic self, which can only be sustained for so long before bitterness and despair set in.

Henrik Pontoppidan’s extraordinary Nattevagt (The Rear-Guard) 1894, 1905, 1912
Rome is a sepulchre between two thorns

What I have noticed about The Rear-Guard, which I hope to publish in translation in the not too distant future, is that it, partially at least, carries the same critique of the way we perceive ‘classic’ antique culture as that delivered by Asger Jorn: it is dead and stares at us blankly and blindly in its statues, now bereft of all colour. Kierkegaard also referred to the ‘plastic’ (fixed and retrospective) art of Ancient Greece. It looks backward.

Asger Jorn argued that Scandinavia had its own Gothic ancient culture, which had been suppressed in favour of a sham ‘classics’ inspired culture. Jorn traces Nordic Gothicism right back to the first incredible wave of folk migrations that poured out of what is now Danish Jutland, and even more so – Sweden and the Geats (Goths) > Götaland (‘land of the Geats’). It is true that the historical sources are relatively meagre but also true that Jordanes writing in 551 described Sweden as the “womb of nations”. Asger Jorn has sought to build a cultural picture of these Goths and the remnants of their ‘wisdom’ and life view in modern Scandinavia. The problem for Jorn was that he was arguing for a Nordic Renaissance just after the Nazi occupation of parts of Scandinavia when ideas of Nordic supremacy of any description were hard to promote. Jorn’s jaundiced view of faux ‘classicism’ is also to be found in Henrik Pontoppidan’s ironic view of Rome in The Rear-Guard – as both hearth of culture and mausoleum. It does raise a question against Nietzsche’s clear view that ancient Greco-Roman society provided a model for future societies and their ‘Overmen’. Pontoppidan’s caustic portrayal of the ex-pat Scandinavian community in Rome simply adds weight to an implicit critique of the idea that classic cultures can be resurrected. Rather they are the repository of ‘cultured’, ossified posturing.

Henrik Pontoppidan as painter (A Danish literary Cézanne?)

Image from the publisher of the above eBook Lindhardt & Ringhof

What also needs to be said, however, is that within this ironic narration-scape, Pontoppidan’s artistic imagination breathes humanity into all his characters. In this way he is very like Dostoevsky, but he surpasses Dostoevsky in his ability to paint a scene. For example in The Rear-Guard when the newlywed Ursula sits by the window of her Rome apartment. The ironic contrast between this idyllic scene and the rampaging husband who is about to enter the room is perfectly pitched and depicted.

We teeter on the brink once again and the painterly idyll is almost mocking. There is nothing ideological and formulaic about Pontoppidan’s keen sense of irony. It is simply innate to him. Danish Gothic. Look how he weaves the lives of the delicate Ursula of the cosseted upbringing and then her husband, the reckless firebrand, ruffian and anarchist painter, Jørgen Hallager, who is offset by his former protégé, Thorkild Drehling, who breaks with social realism to paint ‘timeless’ lyrical and symbolist works. There are no winners here and, anyway, Pontoppidan believed that modern Danes were incapable of grasping greatness. There weren’t enough Nietzsches and Kierkegaards. No, Pontoppidan was more interested in the struggle to achieve greatness, or at least authenticity. The journey rather than the goal. And in this, he joined Socrates and Kierkegaard one last time.

Danish Gothic – A New Art Form – who knew?

‘A Fortunate Man’ This author’s translation of Lykke Per – Danish Gothic at its best

Whilst the ever excellent Jordy Findanis was my English language editor for A Fortunate Man, my cultural and historical text consultant during the necessarily lengthy translation period that finally produced this huge novel in translation was the Danish critic and author, Flemming Behrendt, who is the most knowledgeable person in the world where the Nobel Prize winning author is concerned. This is made obvious in Behrendt’s massive 2019 ‘Life’ of Pontoppidan Livsrusen, which title – given its double meaning in Danish (irony once again) – I would translate as ‘Seized by Life’. This forensic account of Pontoppidan’s life not only exists as seven hundred plus pages of a large, physical book, it also exists as an extended, searchable digital workbook with links to the extensive Pontoppidan Society website. I had the honour of being invited to the official launch of the physical Livsrusen book, for which I extend belated public thanks both to Flemming and to his publisher ‘Gads Forlag’.

There is an argument for translating an abbreviated version of Livsrusen, but there is an even stronger argument for a book in English that places Pontoppidan in his wider European and world context given the praise Pontoppidan received from the likes of Thomas Mann and, perhaps more significantly still, by the world renowned ‘existential Marxist’ author and critic George Lukács.

In my view, Lukács understood A Fortunate Man far better than most commentators, precisely because he places Danish Gothic – negative, instructive irony- at its heart. (He read the novel in the German translation Hans im Glück.) Look:

“Pontoppidan’s irony lies in the fact that he lets his hero succeed all the time, but shows that a demonic power forces him to regard everything he has gained as worthless and inessential and to throw it away as soon as he has gained it. The curious inner tension of the book is due to the fact that the meaning of this negative demonism is revealed only at the end, when the hero achieves complete resignation, thus giving retrospective immanence of meaning to his whole life.” (v)

Can there be any clearer demonstration of negative reflexive irony (negative demonism) and my theory that it is Pontoppidan himself who is ‘ironizing’ his own subjects so as to explore the possibility of authenticity? With his description of the ironic ‘demonic power’ that guides Per Sidenius (and indeed stalks the pages of this incredible novel), Lukács could be describing the Daimonion that holds Socrates in thrall. The ‘demon’ that so disturbed Nietzsche. And I agree with Lukács that Per Sidenius achieves a profound type of resignation in the end.

Such a positive view of the denouement to A Fortunate Man is not universally shared and it is indeed rare for Pontoppidan to be so immanently resolved in his artistic vision. A sign surely that this was one of his most autobiographical novels. But Lukács goes even further than simple high praise for Pontoppidan and this breathtaking novel. For he clearly states that Pontoppidan – with this Danish Gothic ‘irony-gestalt’ I say – evolved a new form of the novel. It is worth looking at what Lukács says in the original German regarding Pontoppidan’s art-form breakthrough (here I have used the German text from the Pontoppidan Society website):

Durch diese Problemstellung ist eine völlig neue Kompositionsart gegeben: (vi)

You don’t need fluent German to understand that Pontoppidan has achieved ‘eine neue Kompositionsart’ – a new form of composition, and I always felt that I was in new literary territory as I translated A Fortunate Man. To traverse the mind – the labyrinthine sind – of such a great Life-Artist as Pontoppidan over such an expanse of life changing fiction is an extraordinary experience.

Of course, that must mean the actual creator of the novel had a similar but even more potent experience as he brought his creation into being and breathed life into it. We do art because it is not there. We fill the cosmic void of meaninglessness with meaning and in so doing come close to the gods. But just as importantly for our argument, this giant of literary criticism, George Lukács, describes exactly how in A Fortunate Man the hero Per Sidenius achieves complete resignation, thus giving retrospective immanence of meaning to his whole life (I have amended the translation slightly):

“… der Ausgangspunkt, das völlig sichere Gebundensein des Subjekts an das transzendente Wesen, ist zum Endziel, die dämonische Tendenz der Seele, sie von allem, was dieser Apriorität nicht entspricht, völlig abzutrennen, zur wirklichen Tendenz geworden.”

“ … the point of departure; the subject’s completely secure bond with the transcendent essence, becomes the final goal, and the demonic tendency of the soul to divorce itself completely from anything that does not correspond with this a priori condition becomes a real, concrete tendency.” (vii)

The extraordinary, Hungarian ‘existential Marxist’ György Lukács Lukács

Lukács – divined the soul of Henrik Pontoppidan

If, in his personal-political sphere, Lukács overstressed the Marxist collective (at great cost to himself in the end), with the ground-breaking form and vision of A Fortunate Man, Pontoppidan showed him a way that the collective ‘Folk’ ideal could be combined with the liberation of the subjective self. Per found immanence in the end and therefore could embrace not only the cosmic, but his own people. And his eternal soul mate, Jakobe Salomon, showed how that same ‘Folk’ ideal is best nurtured by empathy and attention beyond concerns for the self alone.

That Pontoppidan evolved a new art form via his and his alter-ego Per Sidenius’s brave leap into this modern day legend justifies Lukács’s decision to place him alongside Balzac, Dickens and Gogol in his definitive (in Marxist terms at least) work on the theory of fiction as novel.

A Fortunate Man is a truly monumental, seismic, shattering work and I feel that Pontoppidan’s new art form also resolved Nietzsche’s difficulty in his own attempts to elevate the grand design with an ‘Overman’ but somehow keep ‘Everyman’ foregrounded. In my view, and though it is understated both in the novel and in Pontoppidan’s personal life, A Fortunate Man is a declaration that the divine must be present for subjective freedom to be truly reached. If this is true, he joins with Karen Blixen and Kierkegaard in asserting the religio-ethical as the final stage of personal redemption. Not ‘religion’ as an organised power hierarchy but as a subjective empathetic touchstone of faith that embraces (and forgives if necessary) not just the human lineage but the ‘other’. Forgives oneself also.

We can say, I think, that Pontoppidan – as an ironic, modern, Danish Socrates/Hamlet figure – manages to go beyond both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whom he would sometimes draw together like the two reins of the Stagecoach Carriage called “self-torture”. The transcendent finally meets the common man in the flux of day to day human activity. But we must bear in mind that, in true Danish Gothic style, with this wry ‘torture’ remark, Pontoppidan is also ironizing his own inauthentic selves and their labyrinthine self torturing. Per Sidenius is the character closest to his heart. A rank and file soldier in the fight for human liberation – after Heine. An ordinary man who is nothing more than a lowly road engineer in the back of beyond, but who carries the whole universe within him, as does every modern soul. The ‘extraordinary revealed as the inner truth of the ordinary’ is A Fortunate Man’s gift to literary posterity. A clear statement that the struggle for selfhood is not only life’s greatest challenge – and one which will often defeat us – but also its greatest gift and reward. Pontoppidan and A Fortunate Man knock Karl Ove Knausgaard clean out of the existential park.

Postscript – Death – The Final Leap (or is it?)
For our purposes in this brief Postscript, the key point to bear in mind with regard to the monograph on ancient Greek attitudes to death (shown below) is that its author – the eminent philologist and classics expert, J L Heiberg – places Socrates, Kierkegaard and Henrik Pontoppidan together – in the context of their defining a life well lived as being a task that must be worked for. Resolution and satisfaction comes from this achievement and it always involves an element of difficulty. Life is not about the final destination but the journey – the struggle and what was learned from it – and passed on, as the august trio above might put it. The Danish word slægten – lineage or ancestry is key here, looking both backward reflectively and forward to what is to come. I always imagine the word pointing back like a divining rod and the word slægt does have the lineage of pointing with a stick. Observe now Henrik Pontoppidan’s deathbed ‘Bible’:

Liv og Død i Græsk Belysning – (Life and death by Ancient Greek Lights)

A 1915 University Festschrift by the brilliant philologist
and Kierkegaard expert – J L Heiberg

It is true that Pontoppidan is only cited once in Heiberg’s work, but the reference is no less important for that. It comes on the very last page of the monograph and Pontoppidan is praised as having created a “profound legend” based on the Aristotelian idea that people thrive best in times of adversity and they become ‘friends of God’.

The ‘profound’ legend to which Heiberg refers comes in Pontoppidan’s fin de siècle collection of tales – Krøniker (Chronicles) and is the first (ironic) tale in the book – Menneskenes Børn – (Children of the Human Race).

Citing Pontoppidan’s tale, J L Heiberg describes how St Peter and God visit an island where the people are found to be suffering greatly from pestilence and hunger. They cry out to God for salvation. St Peter begs a reluctant God to intervene and in the end God relents and the island soon becomes a land of milk and honey. But the church is now empty.

Krøniker (Chronicles 1890/1899/1922) –
A polished Danish Gothic mirror
to the hypocrisy of the time

This was not the first time that Pontoppidan had been praised as being “profound” and in fact it was in relation to the exact same St Peter ‘legend’, but the praise twenty five years earlier came from Georg Brandes’s brother, Edvard Brandes, with whom Pontoppidan had a sometimes uneasy relationship. Praise from the stellar J L Heiberg was of a different and prized order altogether.

Indeed Pontoppidan wrote to Heiberg in October 1915 after Heiberg had sent the Festschrift to him, expressing particular pleasure at the reference to him on the last page. Professor Heiberg and Pontoppidan were in occasional correspondence and had been members of a ‘Greek Society’, which never gained any momentum as an ‘influencer’. We need to bear in mind in all this that J L Heiberg was a sort of hermeneutical superstar of his age. His fame went far beyond Scandinavian shores, not least because of his 1906 work in deciphering an Archimedes text (i.e. calculations) found as a palimpsest and stored in Istanbul. He did this, we note, by the naked eye and without the technology used today.

Reading Heiberg’s ‘Life and Death’, one gets the feeling that Heiberg sees and feels an affinity between Pontoppidan and the poet Hesiod, whom we might call the first chronicler of ‘ordinary people’ and their lives.

Hesiod was very much animated by injustice and Heiberg accepts what we might call the peasant Amlode (Hamlet) theory of there being a natural form of justice in life and that the unjust would suffer (if not immediately then eventually, down the line) was widespread. One senses that Hesiod and Pontoppidan were at one on this point also. There will always be repercussions for an evil done.

Another ancient writer – and warrior/statesmen – mentioned by Heiberg is the wise, democratic, but lusty also, Solon of Athens, whom Heiberg quotes memorably from a text in his old age as having said – “of course I want money but unearned money I have no wish to possess.” No wonder Heiberg’s book was so close to Pontoppidan’s heart in his final years. Life lived as a struggle well fought, and with honour and pride, brings a good death, which leads us finally back to Socrates and Kierkegaard.

It is not too much to state that with Heiberg’s book as his deathbed Bible, Pontoppidan took Socrates and Kierkegaard to the grave with him. J L Heiberg was centrally involved with the publication of the first collected works of Kierkegaard in the early 1900s and with his knowledge of Latin and Greek was particularly concerned with references to the Ancient Greeks in general and Socrates in particular in Kierkegaard’s works.

The first collected works of Kierkegaard, published in the early 1900s
with J L Heiberg as one of the editors

There are numerous references to Socrates and Kierkegaard in Heiberg’s 1915 monograph and his interest in instructive negative irony and its path to reflexive individualism is clear. Kierkegaard, he notes, changed his mind and – as we have seen – celebrated Socrates’s birthing of modern human mankind as consciously subjective and self reflecting individuals – the very thing for which Nietzsche criticised Socrates, especially in Götzen-Dämmerung (Twilight of the Idols). Essentially Nietzsche seemed to want to house the human soul in a heightened collective consciousness that would exist within a New Republic that would buttress culture against the essential meaningless of life, but Socrates, having seduced Plato according to Nietzsche, rooted the psyche in each individual and demanded, via ironic dialectical thinking, that people should: know thyself!

Socrates was the People’s Hamlet of his day who scythed his way through all cant and brought the Upper Class House crashing down. When Plato should have built a new House instead! came Nietzsche’s cry. One wonders how far back Nietzsche had to go to find his holistic, cultural model of that House of the Arts and Letters and Great Tragedy he so craved.

Heiberg spends some time discussing this Ancient Greek ‘psyche-shift’ to subjectivity in human consciousness and little wonder given that he was so involved with the three key Kierkegaard texts that examine Socrates in depth. Pontoppidan cannot have failed to note the singular presence of Kierkegaard in his deathbed Bible. Or we can put it another way and ask which philosophical tradition did Pontoppidan actually most reflect in his life and work and the answer is undoubtedly Socrates, not Nietzsche or Kierkegaard.

Like Socrates, Pontoppidan proclaimed that he knew nothing (was unlearned). He did so in fact to that same Professor J L Heiberg in 1917. And like Socrates, it was the deep irony in Pontoppidan’s work that schooled society, rather than any stated philosophical or political programme; his sometimes overt patriotism notwithstanding.

What truly lies behind the Pontoppidan mask?

A Fortunate Man? Yes – a full life, lived well and with great honour

Where, however, I feel all Pontoppidan’s Socratic, Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian strands come together is in Heiberg’s salute to those who held ‘the higher view’ (my paraphrase). He quotes Plutarch for example agreeing with the Pessimists that life offers scant reward and a dubious fate, but Plutarch still asserts that we are masters over the best things in life, which no power can take from any one of us: noble thoughts, studying, ethical reflections. A true philosopher, Plutarch says, cannot be unhappy, as every day is a celebration. Karen Blixen’s Babette effectively said the same with regard to artists – an artist will never be poor.

It is in this profound sense that Pontoppidan lived and died as a Socrates of his times and I cannot read this stirring passage below and its salute to Socrates from Heiberg without being greatly moved, not least as I do so in the keen awareness that blessed Henrik read these same lines as his earthly light dimmed:

My translation:
“(It is every) person’s life mission to become self-aware as to her/his role in existence and in accordance with that role bring their essence to full and all-round expression and ethical development. This life mission is eternal. It is sufficient to fulfil one’s whole life, and the work itself in bringing this life mission to fulfilment is the true mark of human happiness and fortune, which no one can take from us. Moreover, this life mission can be successfully fulfilled by anyone who ponders and takes command of their own lives. In their nature, people cleave to the Good …”

These profound lines heralding the sovereign independence of each person and their conscience could just as easily have been written by Kierkegaard, as Heiberg and – no doubt, Pontoppidan – were well aware, instead of being invoked by JL Heiberg from Socrates as portrayed in Plato’s Crito.

The key point, however, is that the lines above could also just as easily have come from Per Sidenius’s deathbed diary.

Henrik Pontoppidan as Educator.

For what does it mean to be – and to want to be – a sovereign individual? It is to have – and to want to have – a conscience.


i – George Lukács, ‘The Foundering of form against life – Søren Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen’, Soul and Form, (Columbia University Press, 2010, p 53).
ii – Johnny Christensen, ‘Nietzsches Sokrates’, Fra filologens værksted, (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2020, p91).
iii – Ibid, p 153.
iv – Howland, The Explosive Maieutics of Kierkegaards ‘Either/Or’. The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Sept. 2017), pp. 107-135
v – George Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, (Merlin Press, London, – first published, 1971-, 2006, p 111).
vi – Ibid, p 111
vii – Ibid, p 110

Paul Larkin
Dún na nGall
An Nollaig/Christmas 2021