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On the Threshold: Knowledge, Hybridity, and Gender in August Strindberg’s I havsbandet

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 373-394 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0034

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Finns det nu något system i denna galenskap?

—Strindberg, “Blomstrens Hemligheter”

Strindberg’s Novel I Havsbandet, published in 1890, introduces the isolated world of the Swedish archipelago as a border zone between open sea and land, order and disorder, and law and lawlessness. Along the Swedish coast, the well-defined waterline is broken up into a cluster of scattered islands and thus expanded from a border line into a border area—a setting recurrent in Strindberg’s prose. Accordingly, the eponymous havsband [chain of skerries], reduplicated in the novel’s original title, does not only provide the scenery for the text, but also an aesthetic space in its own right, experimenting with and challenging traditional spatial demarcations: the skärgård [skerry landscape], as I will argue, is a multiply stratified space composed of several diverse wild elements. Consequently, this “transitional area with a gradual change from a terrestrial to a maritime environment” (Storå 448) is a hybrid space that has to be domesticated and systematized in order to become habitable. Against this background, Axel Borg, the protagonist of the text, sets out to tame the wild: the raging sea and the untilled island. Yet, instead of simply assuming the role of the colonizer who appropriates a place for his own use, Borg stages himself as vanguard in the original military meaning of the word avant-garde: he is the “Träger des Fortschritts” (Barck 544) [bearer of progress], a self-appointed pioneer who, in the end, perishes because he utterly fails to establish control over the colonized. Moreover, Strindberg’s novel presents, represents, and exemplifies the literary and imaginary aspects of scientific language, redefined as a male and poetic language of power. Through science and scientific naming the technocrat Borg seeks to establish a different and experimental order of things: a new law of how to know and how to name properly. Accuracy and precision down to the last detail are the main qualities of Borg’s scientific language, and he presents himself as the perfect Homo sapiens, the “knowing man.” The designation Homo sapiens was introduced by Carl Linnaeus, who was probably the first to place man in a neat system of biological classifications. Accordingly, Linnaeus and his ingenious taxonomies play a crucial role when it comes to questions of classification, nomenclature, and in particular Borg’s highly gendered nomenclature.

This article analyzes the relation between science, hybrid space, and radical (gendered) language by exploring the way in which thresholds are crossed and territories entered, occupied, and named by constituting an order that expels a well-defined group of individuals from science and knowledge. Thus, my analysis explicitly challenges the tendencies in previous Strindberg scholarship to reduce the text to its Nietzscheanism, to hurriedly label Borg’s language as scientific, and to play down the archipelago setting as a reference to the author’s native landscape. As I will show, assumptions of this kind not only underestimate the radicalism of Strindberg’s language, but also neglect the acute tension created by the hybrid setting of I havsbandet, which brings the novel in line with the highly experimental texts of the twentieth century. Introducing the figure of hybridity, the crossing of thresholds and border zones is one of the central images of the following close reading of I havsbandet. Eventually, my approach explores the similarities and differences of scientific and poetic language as well as male and female language and highlights the literary and poetical strategies Strindberg’s text uses in order to create a progressive order of (well-constructed) knowledge. Consequently, I would like to suggest that the Swedish archipelago novel not only precedes contemporary theories of civilization and colonization, but also foreshadows seminal mid-twentieth-century theories of space and radical boundary-crossing.

A Thousand Islands: The Archipelago as Hybrid Space

I. Evoking the landscape of the Swedish archipelago, the title of Strindberg’s novel creates an intriguing imagery of borders and border zones. Not only does it provide the text with an elaborate hybrid space “blandad av land och vatten” (Strindberg, “Skärkarlsliv” 9) [blend of land and water] as described in Strindberg’s short story collection Skärkarlsliv, it also represents a highly significant...



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