Psychological Models for Drama: Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' and the Relational Self

By Gerland, Oliver | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1996 | Go to article overview

Psychological Models for Drama: Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' and the Relational Self


Gerland, Oliver, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Freud often speaks of the psyche as a closed system designed to absorb, circulate and discharge instinctual energy. Theoretically tidy as it sounds, this economic account belittles a fundamental fact of human existence: interpersonal relationships. We experience life as lovers and teachers, colleagues and friends, whereas according to the economic view we are independent Newtonian engines striving to maintain a constant - and private - state of psychical excitation. Responding to this weakness in Freudian theory, Jacques Lacan has developed his elaborate analysis of the role of "the mirror stage" in the formation of identity, but his rather pessimistic conclusions have the effect of perpetuating some of the patriarchal egotism that characterizes the Freudian model. A more positive challenge to Freud can thus be found in the work of "relational" psychologists like Melanie Klein, D. W. Winnicott, Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut, who have developed an approach that stresses openness rather than closure, connectedness rather than isolation. According to Stephen Mitchell, these theorists treat the self

not as a conglomeration of physically based urges, but as being shaped by and inevitably embedded within a matrix of relationships with other people, struggling both to maintain our ties to others and to differentiate ourselves from them. In this vision the basic unit of study is not the individual as a separate entity whose desires clash with an external reality, but an interactional field within which the individual arises and struggles to make contact and to articulate himself. (3)

Not only have such models proven clinically effective, they also offer literary critics fresh ways of engaging texts of the 19th and 20th centuries. As Barbara Schapiro writes, "While these psychoanalytic theories are certainly applicable to the literature of any period, the heightened and self-conscious exploration of subjectivity in literary works of the past two centuries make them particularly suitable for this sort of inquiry" (25).

Ibsen's 1867 dramatic poem, Peer Gynt, provides fertile ground for exploring relational theories of the self. Loosely based on the legendary character in Asbjornson's Norwegian Fairy Tales, it traces Peer Gynt's forty-year journey around the world in search of fame, fortune and a stable sense of identity. As a young man, he stumbles into the palace of the Troll King or Dovre-Master who commands, "'To thine own self be - all-sufficient!'" (295). Peer apparently takes the royal dictum to heart. As he later tells his capitalist cronies,

The Gyntian "Self" - it's the regiment Of wishes, appetites and desires; - The Gyntian "Self" is the sea of ambitions, Needs and demands; in fact, whatever Causes my breast to heave uniquely, And makes me exist as the "I" that I am. (334)

Similar to Freud's economic account, Peer here portrays himself as a self-contained Newtonian machine compelled to external action by a host of internal drives, i.e., wishes, appetites and desires. Because he is whatever he wants to be, Peer becomes many different things over the course of the action: a merchant, a slave trader, a prophet, an historian and a king of madmen. By the final act, however, he doubts that he has ever really been himself. A world-weary Peer returns to Norway and his long-suffering love, Solveig. "Say where Peer Gynt has been all these years" (420), he asks in despair, "Where was I myself, the entire, true man?" The blind old woman calmly replies, "In my faith, in my hope, and in my love." As a glorious sunrise fills the stage, Peer collapses in her lap and cries out, "My mother; my wife; purest of women! / Hide me there, hide me in your heart!" (421). Peer's idea of what it means to be a self is transformed in these closing moments. He had regarded the self as an expression of internal drives. Now he recognizes it to be essentially relational: one is oneself only in another.

Peer's insight into the relational nature of his subjectivity serves as springboard for my reading of the play. …

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