Strindberg reconsidered

2010-01-25 13:49

The official picture of the author August Strindberg is multifaceted. Radical social iconoclast, insane misogynist, genius and imposing national poet are some of his epithets. The picture becomes even more complex when studied in the light of new queer theory.

In the last few years, gender researchers have begun questioning the hundred-year old creation of myths about August Strindberg. A number of these are compiled in the anthology Det gäckande könet: Strindberg och genusteori [The elusive gender: Strindberg and gender theory]. One of the editors is Anna Westerståhl Stenport at the University of Illinois (USA).

The academic tradition in Sweden is strong in literary history, with writers and their works strictly following a chronological course of events. Swedish literature is a national treasure. Strindberg, an internationally renowned writer, is in this context a valuable asset. Anna Westerståhl Stenport argues that the strong authority of literary historiography creates difficulties for questioning the image of a writer from different theoretical angles. The view of August Strindberg as a national poet is problematic, as he entertains notions that today’s readers might find difficult to embrace.

Strindberg’s elevated position is to a certain degree the result of his narration of the enormous frustration around gender constructions experienced by his contemporaries. During the course of the 19th century Strindberg put a variety of extreme positions to the test, as if expecting that the social discourse would catch up with his experiments. But it never does.

“Short stories about marriage”

Anna Cavallin, the other editor of Det gäckande könet, is in the process of writing her doctoral thesis on August Strindberg’s collection of short stories Giftas I-II [Married I-II]. The stories in Giftas are about marriage counselling, a popular genre among Strindberg’s contemporaries that is treated at once seriously and parodically by the
author.

According to the medicine historian Thomas Laqueur, the view on hierarchy between genders changed in the mid-18th century. From seeing men and women as lesser or more elevated variants of one sex, men’s and women’s bodies came to be considered as completely different. In the 19th century there were nevertheless certain doubts that sex categories were all that stable. These doubts were apparent in the Nordic countries debate on morality in the 1880s. Henrik Ibsen contributed to the debate with his drama Ett dockhem [A Doll’s House], and August Strindberg responded with a short story of the same title in Giftas I.

One can clearly see that sexes are not self-determined. Strindberg is outspoken about this matter, in ways regarded as improper in his time and annoying in ours. He said things which might nowadays be considered as imbecile; he could however not restrain himself from saying something in the first place. The influence on literature of the debate on morality was too strong to ignore. Giftas I has been described as a celebration to patriarchal marriage and it is often emphasized that it was written in good spirits. Anna Cavallin questions that description.

The short story Ett dockhem may look like an idyll, but arms and military symbolism are present throughout the work. To avoid destruction, the idyll must be constantly defended. The marriages that Strindberg describes are not happy; even though the writer’s good spirits might give that impression.

“A different picture of the erotic triangle”

In her doctoral thesis Att röra en värld: En queerteoretisk analys av erotiska trianglar i sex verk av August Strindberg [A Queertheoretical Analysis of Erotic Triangles in Six Texts by August Strindberg], Ann-Sofie Lönngren at Uppsala University problematizes the common picture of erotic triangles as battles between two men over one woman.

The erotic triangle is a literary construct dating back as far as to the Iliad and the Odyssey, of which Strindberg makes the most on the stage. It is assumed that the only desire there is, is the desire for a woman. One ignores then the fact that men compete with each other for power.

Works by authors like August Strindberg, with a central position in the Swedish literary canon, illustrate gender relations and notions of sexuality in interesting ways. Ann-Sofie Lönngren refers in this connection to the American queer researcher Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose concept of male homosocial desire shows that the male dominance in society relies on same-sex associations, with ambiguous relationships to sexuality. These associations are often characterized by a strong homophobia, while at the same time dealing with relations between men as their primary concern.

The plays are written within a patriarchal context, where men are expected to celebrate and support though not desire each other. It becomes strikingly clear that the desire for the same woman creates an erotic liaison between them. The three of them constantly moderate their gender position, and these shifts of position are associated with power. The men are saying things to the woman like “It appears that my emotions were feminized and as if I had to be infected by your love for him”. This is a way of explaining away non-heteronormative desire.

Researchers and literary critics have mostly been unaware of the relationship between male rivals in Strindberg’s plays about erotic triangles. In cases where such relations were noticed, they were subject to evasive explanations.

Some critics have remarked that Strindberg was a genius or a madman and that all kind of things came pouring out of his pen. It has also been suggested that he himself was homosexual. However, Strindberg’s sexual disposition is not really that interesting. Non-heteronormativity exists in our civilization, even among the greatest authors and not only among those defined as homosexuals, but we are blind to these facts.

Author Jimmy Sand
Source Extracted from the magazine Gender Research in Sweden 2009.
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