Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Apocalyptic Ibsen: When We Dead Awaken

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Apocalyptic Ibsen: When We Dead Awaken

Article excerpt

And four great beasts came up from the sea.... The ... second, like a bear. It was raised up on one side, and had three ribs in its mouth, between its teeth. And they said thus to it: "Arise, devour much flesh."

Daniel 7.4-5

Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he ... causes all ... to Receive ... the mark ... of the beast

Revelation 13.11, 16, 17

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain....

Revelation 21.10

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal...

Revelation 22.1

And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God.... The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them.

Revelation 20.12-13

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.

Revelation 21.1

Those familiar with Ibsen's "dramatic epilogue," as he called his final play, When We Dead Awaken, may recall in it versions of these images from the Book of Daniel and from Revelation. Though the play is immediately linked to apocalypse through its title, the mind rightly rebels at identifying the canny ironist Ibsen with the fevered imagery of the classic apocalyptic texts, their candles, seals, beasts, whores, horned dragons, and women clothed in the sun. An Artaud might go in this direction, maybe a German expressionist, but not Ibsen. Ibsen would be a classicist, a romantic, a Scribean, a realist, a symbolist, not to mention a Hegelian and a feminist, before he would be an apocalyptic. The apocalyptic, or perhaps more properly, millennialist, Ibsen has scarcely been explored.

An aging artist, his spirited young wife, his spectral former model, and a blood-and-guts bear hunter--a foursome that reconfigures throughout When We Dead Awaken into shifting romantic and allegorical pairings--climb upward on a mountain range pursuing their differing visions of ascent: freedom, excitement, inspiration, retribution. For three of the four the pursuit is Life as each conceives it; but for Irene, the half-mad former artist's model swathed in folds of white like a marble figure atop a sarcophagus, the search is perhaps for deliverance from torment.

At a crucial mountain pass, from which ascent and descent are equally perilous, the bear hunter slings the artist's sexy young wife over his shoulder and heads down the mountain, in the direction of warmth, green, and pleasure. The life-denying artist and the life-starved Irene advance ecstatically up from the desolate icy height before us to an invisible peak beyond to consummate their spiritual union, reawakening to life, one supposes, at the highest level of consciousness. And then comes the single most apocalyptic moment in Ibsen-apocalyptic in the popular sense of catastrophic, as well as in its more recondite millenarianism-the avalanche that sweeps away these awakening dead.

In Ibsen's dry-eyed portrait of the jaded sculptor Rubek and the group of characters who surround him in the play has been seen either Ibsen's final reckoning with his own life in art, or, in less biographical terms, a meditation on the conflict between artistic dedication and the ordinary life of the senses. On the spectrum of possibilities between "Perfection of the life, or of the work," as Yeats offers in "The Choice," critics such as Brian Johnston see Ibsen returning, in cyclical fashion, to the "animalic" (92); others see Rubek's and Irene's deadly climb as a triumph of spiritual transcendence; and still others, as in Errol Durbach's delicately ironic reading, see him depicting an impasse between these two modes of existence. In this reading, "to move into the abyss of process, sexuality, and change," as do Maja and the bear hunter, "is to embrace death as surely as to transcend life in mythical constructs of the Romantic imagination" [147]. …

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