A Transcultural Modernity?

By Sjølyst-Jackson, Peter | New Formations, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

A Transcultural Modernity?


Sjølyst-Jackson, Peter, New Formations


Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006, 396pp; £25.00 hardback

Sverre Lyngstad, Knut Hamsun, Novelist: A Critical Assessment, New York, Peter Lang, 2005, 394pp; £47.30 hardback

Ellen Rees, On the Margins: Nordic Women Modernists of the 1930s, Norwich, Norvik, 2005, 204pp; £14.95 paperback

The flourishing intellectual interest in distinct and diverse 'modernisms' over recent years, observes Frederic Jameson, invites a search for a 'deeper order and logic'. Is it not characteristically modern, after all, to posit the fragment in relation to some kind of totality? It seems we want to make the various modernisms 'mean something', says Jameson, 'preferably something ahistorical and relatively transcultural'.1 This inclination is manifest, albeit in very different ways, in these diree new studies of Scandinavian modernism by Toril Moi, Sverre Lyngstad and Ellen Rees. If we follow their respective accounts, and line them up in a rudimentary chronology, we find that they all evoke some originary 'break' - albeit at different points in history. The first break would be found in Toril Moi's argument that Henrik Ibsen became a modernist after 1873 as his plays radically challenged and overturned the idealist system of representation that dominated the nineteendi century. The next break would be Knut Hamsun's notorious 1890 lectures diat, as Sverre Lyngstad recalls, bombastically rejected Ibsen along with the rest of European literature in order to establish a new det moderne in terms of disjointed, incalculable and trackless streams of consciousness. The third break would arrive with the various feminine modernisms of the 1930s discussed by Ellen Rees including writers such as Karen Blixen and Cora Sandel, who are said to have challenged phallic authority with indeterminate or ambiguous gender identities, and renounced authorial mastery via discontinuous and unreliable narration. Three separate breaks, then, each insisting on their own novelty in a context characterised by conceptual and thematic overlap as well as divergence. Could these diverse, sometimes mutually exclusive, moments of modernism ever contain any 'deeper order and logic'?

Although Moi, Lyngstad and Rees all pursue ambitious synoptic arguments about Scandinavian modernism, their procedures of reading could hardly be more divergent. By far the most compelling is Moi's book on Ibsen, which offers a stimulating reinterpretation of the Norwegian dramatist's place in the Western canon. Modernism, she argues, did not originate in the rejection of realism and representational arts, but radier, in a protracted struggle against idealism - the conviction that truth, beauty and goodness were inseparable. Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism shows how the struggle against idealism was played out, in the first instance, through the early works, which never quite managed to emulate the high-minded principles of aesthetic idealism. The chapter-length discussions of A Doll's House, The Wild Duck, Rosmerholm and The Lady from the Sea, detail how die mature plays systematically wrenched apart the supposed unity of goodness, beauty and truth not simply at the level of dramatic action, but also in terms of the aesthetics of Ibsen's scenery and staging. Crucial, here, is the figuration of the woman, traditionally evaluated according to the criteria of feminine beauty, purity and willingness to sacrifice all for love. Breaking with both social and aesthetic sexism, Ibsen challenged the mode of representation that produced so many ideal mothers, devoted lovers and tragic heroines. A Doll's House, Moi affirms, is an 'astoundingly radical play about women's historical transition from being generic family members (wife, sister, daughter, mother) to becoming individuals (Nora, Rebecca, Ellida, Hedda)' (p226). The impact of the epoch-making rejection of traditional female identities in A Doll's House rests, in no small measure, upon challenging the intimate yet highly 'theatrical' fantasies - a series of idealist scenarios involving female sacrifice and male rescue - in which Nora and her husband, Helmer, indulge themselves. …

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