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Love Thy Fatherland as Thyself: Patriotism and Passing in Herman Bang

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 183-204 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0014

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For, just as it is only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains that individual and separate life that we call nationality, so, by curious inversion, it is only by intensifying his own personality that the critic can interpret the personality and work of others, and the more strongly this personality enters into the interpretation, the more real the interpretation becomes, the more satisfying, the more convincing, the more true. (Wilde 2003, 1131)1

It might initially seem strange to label Herman Bang as a patriot given the cosmopolitanism of his biography, the persistent rhetorical marking of the homosexual as a threat to the nation, and the prevailing figure of the patriot as both masculine and sure. However, Bang’s concern for Denmark was persistent, and his varied remarks on the state of the nation reveal that cosmopolitanism is opposed to provincialism rather than to patriotism.2 For Bang, both patriotism and cosmopolitanism turned on the theatrical or on a performance of the menneskelig (human) that is always marked by a degree of tragic contradiction and displacement. For the homosexual subject, cosmopolitanism was often linked to the practice of passing: a project of aesthetics (the art of acting) and of survival (the staging of queer life). Bang’s particular brand of patriotism was infused with a melancholy resignation and based in narratives of nederlaget (defeat); but if he insisted on his own queer exile, he also granted himself a critical perspective on—and love for—the nation via this exile. Perhaps most importantly, his treatment of the nation involved a subtle resistance to the formula that the nation equals the reproductive community.

This article focuses on Bang’s self-representation, realist aesthetics, and theater theory, reading them in concert with questions of nation, exclusion, belonging, and passing. The queerness that permeates Bang’s aesthetics is located in the meeting place between his notions of self-exposure (a kind of stylized self-outing that is nonetheless realist) and his understanding of the non-reproductive subject’s relationship to the nation. Self-exposure in Bang is a passing that can never wholly succeed, a constant border crossing between the foreign and the familiar, an unmasking that requires a mask. His self-figuring as a patriotic servant of Denmark in letters to Peter Nansen, his introduction to the 1889 novel Tine, and his posthumously published essay on homosexuality, Gedanken zum Sexualitätsproblem (1922), reveal this (un)masking as a constant in his aesthetics. Importantly, I discuss Bang’s literary aesthetics in this article in order to better understand his broader aesthetics rather than to set up a reading of his fiction. As will be seen, when discussing the homosexual as a novelist and as an actor, Bang lays bare, without really intending to, a rift in realism that splits at the concept of the staged.

Through a version of Oscar Wilde’s “curious inversion,” Bang critiques provincialism and the normative figure of the nationalist by both wielding and succumbing to his position as a stranger within. In much criticism on the literature of the Scandinavian modern breakthrough, Bang’s figure serves as a point of confluence for a variety of modern issues: his aesthetics of “Uro og Mangfoldighed” (1979, 14) [unrest and multiplicity], his depiction of non-reproductive subjects in literature, and his self-figuring or self-staging come together with contemporary European understandings of heredity and gender, and of the homosexual as member of a fundamentally cosmopolitan race: “den fransk-jødiskeuropæisk-unationale-radikal-fandenivoldsk-liderlige retning” (Knudsen 2008, 173) [the French-Jewish-European-antinational-radical-devil-may-care-depraved trend]. Although his homosexuality was an open secret in Denmark, his own references were oblique, even in private correspondence:

Jeg er altid sky for at tale om de Punkter i mine nærmestes Liv, hvor jeg ikke kan kende fuldstændigt. Forelskelsen er et af disse Punkter. Før jeg har set en af mine Bekendte beruset, ved jeg ikke, hvorledes han ter sig som fuld—hvordan Kærligheden laver Jer—hvad I søger deri, hvad I søger igennem den at komplettere hos Jer selv—ved jeg jo ikke.



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