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Left Eye—Right Eye: B.S. Ingemann’s Bifocality and Morbid Imagination

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 169-182 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0010

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

At han saae langt med det venstre Øie og kort med det høire, opdagede han først selv i sin modne Alder; men dette var ikke at see paa Øinenes Blik; med begge Øine i Forening saae han klart og lige baade i lang og kort Afstand.

(He only discovered late in life that he was farsighted in his left eye and nearsighted in his right eye; yet this was not to be seen in his gaze; with both eyes in unison he could see clearly up close as well as at a distance.)

This ocular self-description by Danish author and poet Bernhard Severin Ingemann (1789–1862) can be found on the very first pages of his posthumously published memoirs, Levnetbogen (1862; Memoirs). His congenital double-sightedness, he tells us, was matched with a double vision of a psychological nature. The farsighted eye had a strong expression of “lystigt Skjelmeri” [joyful mischievousness] while the nearsighted eye harbored a deeper and more ominous quality, reflecting the kind of “Alvorsbillede” [image of gravity] that believers in mesmerism intuitively recognized in inwardly turned gazes (Ingemann 1862, 4).

Ingemann’s inborn propensity for contradictions and his bifocal gaze may help us understand his eccentric use of death imagery. On the one hand, as suggested in his psalms, death should not be feared; indeed, one ought to look forward to it like a child to Christmas Eve. On the other hand, death provides a rich gallery of macabre events and characters both for his memoirs and for his short stories: embalmed bodies, exhumed and boiled corpses stripped of flesh, ruthless gravediggers, uncanny effigies, vile executions, and horrid disembodiments add spice to the already loaded catalog of fascinations with death in the Danish Golden Age. Hans Christian Andersen, reluctant to partake in similar morbid imagery, criticized Ingemann for allowing poisonous fungi, a “vaad Padehat” [a wet mushroom], into a field of poetic flowers and a disturbing “Plet i hele Maleriet” (Andersen 2000, 586–7) [a smudge in the painting]. Yet for Ingemann these fungi and smudges were but a logical consequence of his radical renouncement of the corpse as a site for religious or metaphysical signification. As we shall see, this renouncement had direct bearing on Ingemann’s contentious and outspoken views on a key dogma in Christianity: the resurrection of the flesh.

Mind Games and Death Fascinations

Let us start with Levnetsbogen. Here Ingemann’s detailed self-portrait—which, as he suggests, would have interested a phrenologist—is pithily couched in a narrative strategy that helps the author overcome an instinctive discomfort with public confessionals. When one writes about oneself, he laments, it is but an egocentric self-reflection. Consequently, his own memoirs are narrated in the third person. Ingemann offers this somewhat convoluted explanation:

Nu tilsidst at samle de adspredte Billedtræk af sit eget aandelige Væsen til et helt anskueligt Sjælebillede, der kunde glæde hans Venner og have Betydning for hans Læsere, syntes ham kun muligt, naar han, som en Afdød, stod udenfor sit helt afsluttede Jordliv og kunde beskue det rent objectivt, som en Andens, uden alle subjective Selvskuffelser. Den Afsondringsskammel, han syntes bestandig at maatte savne ligeoverfor Livsbillederne i hans Fortidsspeil, har han endelig tilnærmelsesviis fundet i den simple Form, at sige han istedetfor jeg om sig selv. Derved har han som Tilskuer stillet sig ligeoverfor sig selv og sin Tidsalder.

(1862, 7–8)

(To assemble, at last, the scattered images of his own spiritual self to a full and lucid image of his soul that might please his friends and have some significance for his readers, seemed only possible to him if he, like a deceased, placed himself outside his completed earthly life and contemplated it objectively without subjective illusions, as if it were another’s. The distance [Afsondringsskammel] he continuously lacked vis-à-vis the images of his life in his mirror of the past, he has finally found, tentatively, by calling himself he instead of I. Hereby he has made himself spectator to his own life and time.)

This laboriously articulated autobiographical strategy illustrates Ingemann’s debt to German romanticism: the split between his nearsighted and farsighted...

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