Peer Gynt and Hegel's Ideas on Egyptian Art

By Aarseth, Asbjorn | Scandinavian Studies, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Peer Gynt and Hegel's Ideas on Egyptian Art


Aarseth, Asbjorn, Scandinavian Studies


ONE IMPORTANT QUESTION asked by students of Peer Gynt, but not often satisfactorily answered concerns Ibsen's choice of location for the fourth act. The first three acts, which are comparatively short, take place in the Gudbrandsdal region and the mountains of east central Norway. The fifth and last act begins onboard a ship in the North Sea approaching western Norway and shows Peer Gynt making his way on land, back--apparently without realizing it--toward the region that he had left half a century earlier while heading for America. But the act between the third and the fifth, the longest and arguably the most eventful, deals with Peers very mixed adventures in north Africa from the southwest coast of Morocco through the Sahara desert to the Nile valley of Egypt and finally the Cairo madhouse.

Many critics have commented on the apparent lack of dramatic coherence and thematic relevance in the various scenes of the fourth act; others have tried to find a way to connect these events and characters Peer faces in Africa to some of the enigmatic figures he encounters earlier in the drama, particularly in the second act. This need to find coherence and correlation between the various acts is understandable, and Peer himself is in fact the first to try to recognize the mysterious beings he meets in the desert sands of Africa claiming, for example, that Memnon is the Dovre King and the sphinx is the Boyg. This approach is an easy way out, and it does not make the reader much wiser.

To get a better understanding of these enigmatic passages, we must turn to the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. The connection has previously been pointed out but has for some reason been overlooked by the community of Ibsen scholars. The first to point to the Hegelian dimension in Ibsen's drama was the German, Josef Collin, who published a book on Ibsen in 1910 in Heidelberg. Collin even suggested that the curious figure, Professor Dr. phil. Begriffenfeldt, director of the insane asylum at Cairo, could be seen as a caricature of Hegel. This idea was taken up and developed further in 1940 by the Swedish scholar, Arne Liden, in his article "Peer Gynt i Egypten" in which he discusses some possible implications of Hegel's philosophy for his reading of Ibsen's drama. He focuses mostly on Hegel's concept of Verrucktheit [madness] as applied to Peer's experiences in the Cairo asylum but also discusses Ibsen's use of the Aesthetik. My own reading of Peer Gynt is, thus, indebted to Liden. In 1967 in a centennial lecture on Peer Gynt, Rolf Fjelde also suggested that Begriffenfeldt is Hegel although without an awareness of the work of Collin and Liden.

Hegel's Aesthetik was put together by his students and friends after his death in 1831 on the basis of drafts for his lectures and their notes and then published in 1835. In this impressive work, Hegel discusses numerous artistic traditions and forms that arose throughout history in various parts of the world. The nineteenth-century European interest in Egyptian art and religion was initially aroused by the expedition of the young French general, Napoleon Bonaparte, to Egypt in 1798-99. The nineteenth century in turn witnessed a growing curiosity among European intellectuals about the art and monuments of ancient Egypt, and various expeditions of archeologists and other scholars went to Egypt to investigate the traces and remains of the ancient civilization of the Nile valley. Against this historical background, it was necessary for Hegel to discuss these newly discovered or rediscovered vestiges of the ancient civilization.

Why, though, did Ibsen send his central character to Africa and to Egypt? When Ibsen arrived in Italy in 1864, he was, like so many Scandinavian writers and artists before him, greatly impressed by what he saw of the sculptural and architectural remains of Roman antiquity. The profound impact they made must have stimulated his interest in classical art, and we may assume that he turned to contemporary authorities on the history of these impressive works of art. …

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