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The Surreal Paris of August Strindberg’s “Jacob lutte”

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 347-358 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0031

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One Balmy Sunday Evening in November in the late 1890s, the Jardin du Luxembourg was turned into a surreal vision of fantastic images and unexpected juxtapositions in August Strindberg’s “Jacob lutte” (“Jacob Wrestles”), a fragment attached to his novel Légendes from 1898. This surreal vision exposes and lays bare the protagonist’s inner spiritual struggle and dreamlike thoughts in a manner reminiscent of the ideas in André Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme published in 1924, twenty-six years later. In this article, I want to highlight how Strindberg turned the 6th arrondissement in Paris into a surreal city- and park-scape in order to allow the narrator’s inner religious battle to rise to the surface and be expressed in dreamlike visual images without the narrator being able to control the process with his mind or logic. Strindberg is the mastermind of this subconscious visual experiment, which I would like to call pre-surrealistic.

My purpose is to underscore that Strindberg holds a rightful place in the sequence of official precursors to the surrealist movement, which usually includes the “supernaturalisme” of Gérard de Nerval; the symbolism of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé; as well as the work of Alfred Jarry, Arthur Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and the painters Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon. Strindberg should be added to this list. Indeed in 1898, he boldly claimed to have moved beyond realism and naturalism and created a new literary -ism, supranaturalisme. Few seem to have taken notice. In the first chapter of Légendes, Strindberg / the protagonist proudly states: “C’est à moi donc de jeter la passerelle entre le naturalisme et le supranaturalisme en proclamant que le dernier ne constitue qu’un développement du premier” (161) [“It is thus up to me to build a bridge between naturalism and supernaturalism, by expounding that the latter is just a development of the former” (6)].

Why is it important to add Strindberg’s name to the list of precursors to surrealism? Strindberg’s interest in the subconscious and in mixing dreams and reality in both his writing and his painting makes him a forerunner to the groundbreaking movement of surrealism, which not only influenced all the arts, but also called into question such fundamental aspects of the human mind as how we understand and create and see things and events. Many writers before Breton felt the need to move beyond realism and naturalism, but they did not succeed in uniting a group of fellow artists to compose a manifesto. The ground was better prepared for Breton, in part as a result of his acquaintances with Freud, who since 1916 had been an influence on his revolutionary ideas of creation based on free association, dream analysis, and the subconscious as the basis for liberating the imagination. Breton did for the arts what Freud did for the understanding of the subconscious. In his first manifesto from 1924, Breton defined surréalisme as

automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale. (Manifestes 40)

psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, be means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. (26)

Creating through free association and letting dreams serve as a basis or structure for a work of art was certainly not new. Strindberg expressed the ideas quite memorably and poetically in his “Erinran” to Ett drömspel (A Dream Play) from 1901 (although “Erinran” was not added until 1907)—yet still, nonetheless, more than twenty years before Breton:

Allt kan ske, allt är möjligt och sannolikt. Tid och rum existera icke; på en obetydlig verklighetsgrund spinner inbillningen ut och väver nya mönster: En blandning av minnen, upplevelser, fria påhitt, orimligheter och improvisationer. (7)

Anything can happen; everything...

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