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Strindberg Goes to Frankfurt: Critical Theory and the Reactionary Writer

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 249-272 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0035

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

Om man sticker sig me A en nål, var som hälst på huden, så erfar man smärta.

(Strindberg, En blå bok)

Strindberg was an obvious reference for any aspiring literary critic in Europe between about 1900 and sometime during the 1960s—especially for those intellectuals with a left-wing inclination. The time span can be illustrated with the importance that Strindberg had for the young Georg Lukács, on the one hand, and, on the other, the strategic position he had for the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams in his working out of what would become “Cultural Studies.” In between these temporal poles, we find a recurrent definition of Strindberg as “reactionary” with a “mature” or Marxist Lukács as the leading proponent of this view. But this view did not stand uncontested: Adorno, directly or indirectly, challenged Lukács’s orthodoxy as soon as he found an opportunity. In their respective assessments of Strindberg, the dividing line between Lukács’s orthodoxy and Adorno’s critical thinking was re-established. One must remember that this division is not always clear: the Frankfurt School also looked upon Strindberg as in one way or another reactionary. In this critical assessment, Strindberg’s more radical writings, his socialism, and his anarchism were not featured: they were not part of the Strindberg who became a European writer. Instead, a more conservative or even reactionary writer was the international success. But Adorno was suspicious of too quick a designation of literary works as “reactionary,” and in this article, I will try to elaborate on that suspicion although taking it in a somewhat different direction than he himself did. After discussing the role that Strindberg played for these leftist intellectuals, I will try to give “reactionary” a meaning that diverges from its all too common political significance as the opposite of and resistant to anything “progressive.” This will be concretized in a concluding reading of Till Damaskus (To Damascus), the play in which the reactionary writer seems to be put under scrutiny.

Strindbergian Politics

Strindberg’s political trajectory is not easy to summarize: in this field, as in others, his thinking and ideas are often contradictory; he more or less constantly blends liberalism, socialism, and conservatism in different proportions with Christianity as well as atheism adding an extra ideological layer. Growing up as a liberal, Strindberg, for roughly the first half of the 1880s, looked at himself as a socialist and even anarchist writer, and his anarchism in combination with his atheism led him toward a kind of Nietzscheanism in the late 1880s including a strong resentment toward the masses to which Adorno points (Asthetische Theorie 377, Aesthetic Theory 254). In 1884, Strindberg had also tried to take what he called a “steady, socialist hold” on the Woman Question. But when no one else could observe any kind of socialism in his not-very-radical standpoint, Strindberg slowly drifted and was perhaps partly forced into an increasingly conservative and even reactionary camp fed, of course, by Nietzsche’s misogyny and the thinking of Otto Weininger and others of his kind. It was also in terms of the Woman Question that Strindberg became a European writer. His early leftism, however, never had any real success outside of Scandinavia. With the novel Plaidoyer d’un fou (A Madman’s Manifesto), Strindberg produced one of the most important documents in what Bram Dijkstra has called “the war on woman” (vii), and writing it in French was to a large degree an expression of Strindberg’s wish to become European rather than Swedish. But it was not until a few years later that Strindberg triumphed in his endeavors to become an important writer outside Scandinavia, one who was performed in theaters in both Berlin and Paris as well as translated and published in French and German. The Strindberg who enjoyed this success was definitely, or so it seemed, a reactionary writer: he constantly referred to the Bible and to the Old Testament; he was deeply involved in occultism and highly suspicious of scientific reason; and he attacked and scandalized in different ways his old, liberal, and socialist friends. And he remained a confirmed anti-feminist.


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