Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Modernist Self-Management in Johannes V. Jensen's 'Myter.'

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Modernist Self-Management in Johannes V. Jensen's 'Myter.'

Article excerpt

Ihrem [der Kunst] eigenen Begriff ist das Ferment beigemengt, das ihn aufhebt. (Adorno, Asthetische Theorie 14.)

(Admixed with art's own concept is the ferment of its own abolition. [12])

In their first excursus in Dialektik der Aufklarung [Dialectic of Enlightenment], Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno use The Odyssey as the pioneering illustration of a self-managing element in modern culture. They demonstrate how Odysseus, during his voyage, attains self-consciousness through cunning, by simultaneously submitting to and deceiving the mythic powers he encounters during his homeward journey. In the most significant instance, when faced with the bewitching power of the Sirens, he finds "er hat eine Lucke im Vertrag aufgespart" (78) ["he has found an escape clause in the contract" (59)] and has himself bound to the mast of his ship. In this fashion, Odysseus adapts to and masters the mythic and primitive powers of fate and nature, and most importantly achieves self-consciousness, not through defiance and battle, but through renunciation:

Im Mythos gilt jedes Moment des Kreislaufs das voraufgehende ab und hilft

damit, den Schuldzusammenhang als Gesetz zu installieren. Dem tritt

Odysseus entgegen. Das Selbst reprasentiert rationale Allgemeinheit wider

die Unausweichlichkeit des Schicksals... Er tut der Rechtssatzung Genuge

derart, da[Beta] sie die Macht uber ihn verliert, indem er ihr these Macht

einraumt. (77)

In myth each moment of the cycle discharges the previous one, and

thereby helps to install the context of guilt as law. Odysseus opposes

this situation. The self represents rational universality against the

inevitability of fate.... He satisfies the sentence of the law so that it

loses power over him, by conceding it this very power. (58)

This act of cunning amounts to a calculated sacrifice, one which "bewirkt ... die Negation der Macht, an welche der Einsatz geschieht. So dingt er sein verfallenes Leben ab" (68-9) ["effectively negates the power to whom the sacrifice is made. In this way he redeems the life he had forfeited" (50)]. The example of Odysseus is crucial to Horkheimer and Adorno, as it stands for a larger pattern of renunciation and dispersion in the modern age: "Die Geschichte der Zivilisation ist die Geschichte der Introversion des Opfers" (73) ["The history of civilization is the history of the introversion of sacrifice" (55)], they claim, and Odysseus, the prototype of modern bourgeois society, through his "herrschaftliche Entsagung" ["dominative renunciation"] and his "Kampf mit dem Mythos, ist stellvertrentend fur eine Gesellschaft, die der Entsagung und der Herrschaft nicht mehr bedarf: die ihrer selbst machtig wird, nicht um sich und andern Gewalt anzutun, sondern zur Versohnung" (74.) ["struggle with myth, represents a society that no longer needs renunciation and domination, which gains mastery over itself not in order to coerce itself and others, but in expiation" (55-6)].

This pattern of self-management recurs under many different guises in the great number of mythic projects that emerged in the early twentieth century, from James Joyce's Ulysses to Johannes V. Jensen's Myter, from Virginia Woolfs The Waves to T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, from D. H. Lawrence to Thomas Mann. In one way or another, modernist engagement with myth is both creative and self-defeating, simultaneously an act of allegiance and an act of self-denial, of "expiation."(1) Artists have always turned to myth for inspiration, and the modernists in particular were avid appropriators of and experimenters with classical symbols, biblical stories, and mythic modes of writing. The first decades of this century have produced an awesome catalogue of works that either reinterpret existing myths, transform classical structures, or seek an originary creative language, a new form of mythopoeia. …

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