Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Knut Hamsun in Paa Gjengrodde Stier. Joker, Ubermensch, or Sagacious Madman?

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Knut Hamsun in Paa Gjengrodde Stier. Joker, Ubermensch, or Sagacious Madman?

Article excerpt

Joker, Ubermensch, or Sagacious Madman?

WAS KNUT HAMSUN INSANE? Despite having been raised in humble circumstances at Hamaroy on the remote northern coast of Norway, Hamsun eventually became heir to the Norwegian literary tradition inaugurated by Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland, and Jonas Lie. However, by tenaciously supporting Hitler's Third Reich and Quisling's puppet government before and during World War II, Hamsun traumatized his countrymen and readers all over the world. After the war, the eighty-six-year-old Hamsun was considered a traitor and was prosecuted before the High Court. The traitor, however, stubbornly refused to give his countrymen the apology they expected until the bitter end, thereby intensifying the trauma. The Hamsun trauma resurfaced in the heated discussions following Thorkild Hansen's pseudo-documentary book, Processen mot Hamsun (1978), and after the release of Jan Troell's generally exculpatory film Hamsun (1996). More than fifty years after the trial, Norway's tense relationship with Hamsun can be seen in the attention he receives in the media and in disputes ranging from his politics to the naming of streets and monuments after him (e.g. in Grimstad). The planning of a Hamsun center at Hamaroy remains controversial. The vexing challenge is how to admire the prose of a renowned artist while rejecting his political ideology.

Striving to overcome the trauma, critics and historians have created various narratives to account for Hamsun's Nazism. In the most recent example--Troell's film Hamsun--the author's Nazism is cast as a personal drama in which Marie, Hamsun's wife, is the true supporter of Nazism. Troell paints the picture of a demented housewife manipulating her husband's name, touring Nazi Germany, and reciting Hamsun's prose at political meetings in order to realize her dream of becoming a famous actress.(1) Hamsun's Nazism has also been explained as a product of his philosophic, aesthetic, and cultural inclinations: denouncing England and much of the industrialized West as the embodiment of the modern monster of capitalistic expansionism while embracing Germany's vigorous youthful individualism long before he knew about Hitler. In this light, it might appear that Hamsun was seduced not so much by Marie as by the Blut-und-Boden attitude of German romanticism and Friedrich Nietzsche's hyperbolic philosophy of the Ubermensch. However, as critics have noted, Hamsun expressed a love of nature and Nietzschean ideas before he had any familiarity with the idea of Blutund-Boden or had even heard of Nietzsche's philosophy.(2)

The original narrative presents Hamsun's Nazism in terms of his later senility or madness, a myth originating in the psychiatric evaluation of Hamsun in 1946. Awaiting trial, Hamsun was committed to various hospitals where he was in effect held prisoner.(3) During the winter of 1945-46, he was sent to Blindern Psychiatric Clinic in Oslo to be examined by Dr. Gabriel Langfeldt and Dr. Ornulf Odegaard at the request of the attorney general. Their assignment was to ascertain Hamsun's competence to stand trial for treason. On February 5, 1946, the doctors concluded their examination diagnosing Hamsun as a person of "varig svekkede sjelsevner" [permanently impaired mental faculties]. Advised by the experts, the attorney general decided not to press charges thus sparing the country the embarrassment of putting Hamsun, the former national hero, in the dock. Instead, the proceedings were reduced to the lesser charge of membership in the Norwegian Nazi party, for which Hamsun was sentenced to financially ruinous fines. Hamsun was thus doubly chastised: his economic as well as mental integrity were devastated by the authorities, and the idea of Hamsun as mentally impotent was bolstered. His incompetence became a myth which allowed Hamsun's readers to discard his political convictions as the confused jabber of a harmless, senile, and mentally impaired old man while embracing his pre-war prose. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.