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The Ending of Brand

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 67-78 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0005

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At the center of Brand is the paradox that Brand is ostracized as a bad man for seeking to live up to what is man at his best. Attenuating the paradox, the play's ending is famously ambiguous. Through the thunder of the avalanche that sweeps him to his death, Brand asks God if a sufficiency of man's will does not count toward salvation. A voice calls out that God is a God of charity: "Han er deus caritatis!" (Ibsen 1928, 5:362) ["God is Love!" (1972, 250)]. The answer (if that is what it is) poses a choice of alternatives: either Brand is a lost soul because he has lived uncharitably or he is saved because God's charity extends even to uncharitable Brand. But the rigor of that schema is incongruous with the questioning of existential basics that occupy not just Brand's mind, but the whole play. Besides, the irony of a God of charity burying a whole community in snow and ice approaches nihilism. But if Ibsen's text won't allow us to decide whether Brand is saved or lost, we are left with two other options, both also ambiguous. One substitutes a both—and (Brand has been wrong but is forgiven) for an either—or the other assumes the inscrutability of God's ways. Neither can be dismissed out of hand, for Ibsen is remote and elusive on matters transcendental. That is certainly so whenever Brand's tortured, inconclusive thoughts turn to the issue of free will versus original (hereditary) sin. But Brand's being forgiven his lack of charity is the more satisfactory alternative because it is accessible to reason. Or we could deny that Brand acts uncharitably at all, since his call for integrity is precisely an act of charity—not of indulgence!—to fragmented souls. In that case he has been right all along but doesn't know it at the moment he dies. The steadiness of the rhymed tetrameter sets off the play's thematic open-endedness and gives weight and conciseness to the dialogues. Its hammering consistency is attuned to Brand's mind. Ibsen's verse keeps metrics and meaning complementary.

Strikingly often in Ibsen, the protagonist moves physically between depth and height in scene changes of symbolic significance. Images don't just describe; they define. Brand is an instance of such charged vertical topography. Act 1 begins with a move down to the valley on the fjord, act 5 ends with one up to the mountains. Driven to the high, icy wastes by an angry mob that feels he has misled them with his appeal to personal liberation and redemption and sacrifice, isolated Brand has a vision of a whole people sunk in whining complacency, pleading their feeble power and small wants as excuses for their spiritual pauperdom. The impossible distance between Brand's vision and the anxieties of his followers is marked by their questions to him as they move to the heights together: "blir den lang?" (1928, 5:341) [how much longer?], "beholder jeg min Post...?" (5:346) [Will my job be safe?], "min gamle Far er trætt" (5:340) [My old father's getting tired].

As in confirmation of his new doubt about his mission—"Har jeg drømt? Er nu jeg vaagen?" (5:354) [Have I dreamed? Am I now awake?]—the Chorus of Invisibles tells him that all his striving and agony have been in vain because what he has sought is beyond human reach. The Chorus depersonalizes him, addressing him as "orm" [worm] and "drømmer" (5:354-5) [dreamer]—anything other than a full human being and therefore ready to surrender to what the spectral Agnes soon will be telling him. The Chorus speaks to his dilemma as if it were every man's dilemma: seek perfection and suffer or adapt and prosper. But it does not tempt Brand, as Agnes and Gerd in their different ways do in the encounters that follow. The tempter label would distort the Chorus's function. Pitying and admonishing Brand, it dramatizes the crux that Brand aspires to something too high for attainment but is not condemned for it. Another somber paradox in...



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