Ibsen and the problem of ideological decay


Georg Lukács

This sureness of portrayal — and the flexibility and elasticity that is necessarily bound up with it — are lost as a result of the subjectivism and relativism of the decadent period. And this is where the bold, but of course far from always successful, battle of the major realists against the ideologically unfavourable conditions of the era of decay makes its appearance. This battle is exceedingly complex but, by analysing it, it is possible to attain a correct and not merely schematic view of the relationship between world outlook and literary production, and see the possibilities and dangers of the ‘triumph of realism’ in the era of decay in a more concrete fashion than we have so far presented them.

We can take as our example here Henrik Ibsen, certainly a major writer. In his play The Wild Duck, which he himself saw as a new departure in his work, he reached the very threshold of a magnificent and exemplary comedy of the self-destruction of bourgeois ideals, the exposure of the mechanism of hypocrisy and self-deception in declining capitalist society. Towards the end of the play, there is an important conversation between the representatives of two opposing standpoints: Gregers Werle, the Don Quixote of traditional bourgeois ideals, the ‘ideal demands’, and the cynic Relling, who defends hypocrisy and self-deception as a vital necessity for people. In this dialogue, Relling refers to the fact that he had told the degenerate theology student Molvik that he was ‘demoniac’:

GREGERS: Isn’t he demoniac, then?

RELLING: What the devil does it mean to be demoniac? It’s just a piece of nonsense I hit upon to keep the life going in him. If I hadn’t done it, the poor simple creature would have collapsed years ago under his self-contempt and despair . . .

RELLING: While I remember it, young Mr Werle – don’t use that exotic word ‘ideals’. We have a good enough native word: ‘lies’.

GREGERs: Do you mean that the two things are related?

RELLING: Yes. Like typhus and typhoid fever.

GREGERs: Dr Relling, I shan’t give up until I have rescued Hjalmar from your clutches.

RELLING: All the worse for him. Take the saving lie from the average man, and you take his happiness away too.

[Ibsen, Three Plays, translated by Una Ellis-Fermor, Harmondsworth, 1950, pp. 243-4.]

This is a bold and profound exposure of capitalist philistinism in its various shadings. (And in how many would-be ‘demonic’ modern writers are we not struck by the cynical truth of what Relling says here!) If it had been possible for Ibsen to pursue his argument to its logical conclusion, both artistically and in terms of world outlook, he would have been the greatest playwright of his time, a worthy successor to the classic writers of comic drama. What then is the barrier? Before The Wild Duck Ibsen had vigorously scourged the hypocrisy of bourgeois society, and time and again pointed out that the proclaimed ideals of the ascendant bourgeois class had now become hypocritical lies, no longer having anything in common with bourgeois practice. He accordingly portrayed the tragic conflicts that arose from the collision between ideal and reality. Although this problematic is somewhat too narrow to expose the deepest contradictions of bourgeois society, yet major and irresolvably tragic contradictions of love, marriage and family in bourgeois society do appear in his work, particularly in A Doll’s House and Ghosts. Ibsen’s literary practice here goes beyond his world outlook and the questions this raises for him. If Nora and Mrs Alving take their ideals seriously and even tragically, it is this that becomes the pivot of the tragic conflicts in Ibsen’s own eyes; in his actual portrayal, this moral seriousness is simply the occasion and stimulus. These women possess such moral vigour and consistency that their actions burst the shell of the bourgeois family, expose its deep and corroded hypocrisy, and tragically show up its social and human contradictions. Here Ibsen portrays the reality more broadly and objectively than his own world outlook would suggest.

In The Wild Duck, Ibsen stands on the threshold of a modern, bourgeois-philistine Don Quixote. Gregers Werle represents with equal conviction and hopelessness the ideals of the heroic period of bourgeois development, caught up in the midst of capitalist philistinism, just as Don Quixote honourably and hopelessly represented the ideals of a disappearing knighthood during the rise of bourgeois society. These ‘ideal demands’ of Ibsen’s directed at the degenerate petty bourgeois of capitalist society, dissolve as. deeply into the realm of the ludicrous as did the knightly ideals of Don Quixote in his time. In Ibsen’s case, this ridiculousness is intensified still further and becomes a really splendid comedy. What Gregers demands from genuine marriage, i.e. ruthless candour and honesty, is put into practice by his father, a deceitful old capitalist, with whom he had broken relations for that very reason, and by Mrs Sorby, a shrewd hussy and careerist. The ‘ideal demand’ of reciprocal truthfulness and honesty as the foundation of marriage is cynically realized by these two cunning cheats as the basis of the peaceful continuation of their former lives. The old ideals are thus not only debased by the inability to realize them, by being distorted by degenerate people into lies and hypocrisy, but Ibsen also shows how the cynical big capitalists can exploit these ideals for their own brutally egoistic ends. In this world of cynicism and hypocrisy, bourgeois idealism perishes in the same tragic-comic fashion as did the knightly ideals in the tragic-comic adventures of the knight of the sad countenance. Ibsen was very close to writing a great comedy of his time.

And yet however close, he failed to achieve this. As Marx said of the historic function of great comedy:

The gods of Greece, already tragically wounded to death in Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, had to re-die a comic death in Lucian’s Dialogues. Why this course of history? So that humanity should part with its past cheerfully [‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction’. Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 179].

This was the historical task of the Falstaff comedies, and of The Marriage of Figaro.

This cheerful parting from the past is something that Ibsen failed to achieve. The Wild Duck already suffers from this. The character of Gregers Werle has neither the enchanting comedy nor the tremendous nobility of Don Quixote. And the reason for this is that Cervantes was both aware that the ideals of his hero had passed into history, and dissolved into its mists, and equally aware of the human purity, subjective honesty and heroism of Don Quixote. He recognized both these aspects correctly, and assessed them correctly too. Ibsen, on the other hand, despite his own profound and exposing criticism, clings desperately to the contents of Gregers Werle’s proclamations. He seeks not only to rescue Werle’s subjective purity and honesty, but the content of his attempts as well. Here Ibsen’s own portrayal gives rise to the most frightful dialectical contradictions, as well as the most splendid comic situations. But he cannot altogether use these in his play, as he assesses his hero incorrectly, partly overrating him and partly underrating him, partly elevating him beyond his actual merits, and partly unjustly debasing him.

In the further course of his work, after the fading of his ideals — ideals which The Wild Duck still objectively presents, despite its mistakes — Ibsen subsequently sought to create heroes who met the demands raised by Gregers Werle and yet are not susceptible to Relling’s criticism. In this way he got caught in a false aristocratism. He sought to create a man who would be superior to the average, a man who rose above the old contradictions, and yet — in closest connection with his inability to criticize the content and real historical situation of Gregers Werle’s ideals — he was forced to portray this new man in terms of the old material, simply with artificial elevation and intensification.

Ibsen was far too realistic, consistent and fearless a writer not to understand and also portray what was mean, repulsive and even ridiculous in his new heroes, in Rosmer, Hedda Gabler and Solness. But he forces himself despite this to present them as tragic heroes who rise above the average level. The division in human standards apparent in The Wild Duck is accordingly continuously intensified. These characters are still more strongly both under- and overrated by their author. This undifferentiated and unelucidated juxtaposition of mutually exclusive judgements forces Ibsen to create characters who stand constantly on tiptoe so as to seem taller than they really are, whose ‘tragic nobility’ is artificially and inorganically stretched upward by use of symbolist devices, even while their painfully produced and hence never really convincing stature is continuously subjected to bitter mockery by the writer himself.

It is no accident, then, that Ibsen’s deliberate resort to symbolism commences precisely in The Wild Duck. This symbolism is the artistic means for reconciling at least in appearance what is in actual fact irreconcilable, for artificially concealing the contradiction that is unresolved in life, misunderstood, perceived in a distorted fashion and reproduced still most distortedly. Precisely in the case of such a major realist as Ibsen, we can see how symbolism failed to overcome the artistic contradictions of the realist attempts of the late nineteenth century, and was actually the literary expression of the fact that these writers had been unable to deal with these contradictions in human, ideological or artistic terms. They fled into symbolism and were ruined in it. For symbolism in no way offers any solution for the contradictions of this realism, but means on the contrary the perpetuation of these contradictions at an artistically lower level that is still further from grasping reality.

Ibsen’s tragic transition, from a realism still combined with naturalistic elements, to a contradictory emptiness of symbolism is extraordinarily instructive for our present investigation. For it shows how little these processes are fundamentally artistic in nature. They represent in fact crises in the world outlook of the writers concerned. And the literary expression of these crises of world outlook is precisely the loss of a standard for the portrayal of human beings, their actions and destinies, of what these human beings socially and morally represent, what is the meaning of their fate in the reality of social life, and what form their relationships with other people actually take.

In Ibsen’s case we still see the tragic seriousness of this crisis. Not simply on account of his great talent and literary honesty, but on account of the objective socio-historical significance of the problems with which he wrestled, and which he did not manage, in a tragic and crisis-bound way, to overcome. As the literature of the decadent era further developed, the figure of the maddened petty bourgeois comes ever more to the fore, inflating his philistinism into eccentric and isolated heroics, and capitulating before every modern superstition of a ‘cosmic’ tragic destiny.

No one should think we are exaggerating here. It would of course go beyond the framework of the present essay if we sought to analyse this development of drama after Ibsen in any detail. We shall therefore only take one characteristic example. It is well known how in the decades immediately prior to the war August Strindberg played a leading role as a playwright and was in many respects placed far above Ibsen. His later works were very important for the rise and development of symbolism as a theatrical movement, as well as for its further growth into expressionism.

SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. “Marx and the Problem of Ideological Decay” (1938), in Essays on Realism, edited and introduced by Rodney Livingstone, translated by David Fernbach (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1981), pp. 114-166. This extract, pp. 159-163.

The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Preface to 3rd edition
by George Bernard Shaw

Raymond Williams on Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1952)

Anti-Nietzsche (5)

Ibsen & Hitler?

Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck & Other Works:
A Select, Annotated Bibliography

Georg Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason: Selected Bibliography


On George Bernard Shaw
on R. Dumain’s Reason & Society blog

The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913 ed.)
by George Bernard Shaw

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