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Strindberg and Radicalism—Strindberg and the Avant-garde: A Hundred-Year Legacy

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 235-247 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0033

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

Jag är socialist, nihilist, republikan allt som kan vara konträrt mot de reaktionära! Detta på känsel, ty jag är Jean Jacques’ intime när det gäller återgång till Naturen: Jag skulle vilja vara med och vända upp och ner på allt, för att få se hvad som ligger i botten; jag tror att vi äro så intrasslade, så förfärligt mycket regerade att det inte kan utredas utan måste brännas upp, sprängas, och så börja ett nytt! (Strindberg, August Strindbergs brev 166)

I’m a socialist, a nihilist, a republican, anything that is opposed to the reactionaries! And from instinct, for I’m Jean-Jacques’ intime where a return to Nature is concerned: I’d like to join in turning everything upside down in order to see what lies at the bottom; I believe we are now in such a state, so dreadfully regulated, that things can’t be straightened out, it must all be burned down and blown up, so we can start afresh! (Strindberg, Strindberg’s Letters 77)

This Is How the Thirty-One-Year-Old August Strindberg (1849–1912) presented himself to Edvard Brandes in response to the latter’s invitation to contribute to the Danish newspaper Morgenbladet in 1880 (Strindberg, Strindberg’s Letters 75). The two writers had never met before, and the offer from Brandes followed close upon his reading of Strindberg’s breakthrough novel Röda rummet (1879; The Red Room), an inflammatory piece, which quickly made his name known in Sweden—or, as Brandes’s invitation indicates, throughout Scandinavia. But did this youthful declaration of revolutionary stance come true over a lifetime of work? Or, rather, how did the author’s voluminous contributions to literature and the arts contribute to further questioning of the fundamentals of what “ligger i botten” (Strindberg, August Strindbergs brev 166) [“lies at the bottom” (77)], as he expressed in the letter? Is it possible, even desirable, to chart the ebb and flow of Strindberg’s radicalism throughout the immense body of texts he produced? And was this radicalism progressive or conservative in its direction? Forward-looking or reactionary in its outlook? Indeed, did the author’s work end up challenging customary definitions of the concepts so often used to historicize, canonize, and rationalize literary representation? Within the framework of their respective subjects, each author in this special issue on Strindberg and RadicalismStrindberg and the Avant-Garde grapples with such questions. For the first time in the history of Strindberg studies, we are, through this volume, offering a comprehensive, varied, and innovative examination of them.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, something or someone “radical” is “characterized by independence of or departure from what is usual or traditional; progressive, unorthodox, or innovative in outlook, conception, design, etc.” Another meaning of the term, especially when speaking of change or action, is described as “going to the root or origin [the term comes from the Latin radix, i.e. root]; touching upon or affecting what is essential and fundamental; thorough, far-reaching.” Thus radicalism can be associated, often simultaneously, with the forward-looking, innovative stance of the avant-garde and with a revisionist reassessment of the past in defiance of the present. In his letter to Brandes, for example, we see Strindberg evoking Rousseau’s call for a return to nature, so that the present, “så förfärligt mycket regerade” (August Strindbergs brev 166) [“so dreadfully regulated” (77)], can be uprooted and given a fresh start, all in one gesture. Thus, radicalism is by no means a theoretically unequivocal concept; it wasn’t for Strindberg, either. The author’s response to Brandes, articulating his calling as the writer of Röda rummet, namely, to go back to the roots and “vända upp och ner på allt” [“(turn) everything upside down”] echoes the complexity of the term.

As Alastair Bonnett argues in Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia, “the modern era is characterized by change and a far more intense and urgent relationship with loss [than previous eras]” (20). Strindberg’s experiences with and reactions to modernity in Sweden and while living abroad...

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