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Strindberg Meets Jewish Theology: A New Perspective

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 469-488 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0045

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Strindberg’s compelling transformation from empiricist to mystic has been a long-standing topic of intrigue among Strindberg scholars. His deep hunger for a comprehensive understanding of physical and spiritual reality is apparent in the synthesis of the numerous worldviews that color his work, specifically in his post-Inferno writing. His texts include overt references to Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and various mystical ideologies, but scholars have additionally acknowledged Judaism’s position among the scattering of worldviews he studied. Rokem dates Strindberg’s keen interest in the Jewish tradition back to 1897, when he approached Stockholm’s chief rabbi in hopes of studying halacha [Jewish law] and the Hebrew language (Rokem 2004, 172). Scholars speculate that Strindberg also read the Talmud and the Book of Esther (Stockenström 1972, 350; H. Lindström 1990, 95). His interest in the Jewish faith was not only an intellectual one, but a personal one as well. In “Strindberg and Humanism,” Delblanc suggests that Strindberg identified strongly with Judaism, observing that he may have sought solace in the Old Testament as he struggled to reconcile his “religious demand for submission” with the humanistic right to personal freedom (Delblanc 1988, 11). His interest in Jewish theology only increased with his descent into the Inferno crisis, a time when mystical teachings steered the content of his work, serving as powerful directives for his artistic and literary development. In Till Damaskus II (1898; To Damascus II), he praised the Zohar, the principal text of the Kabbalah, as “den visaste av alla vishetens böcker” (Strindberg 1991b, 199) [the wisest of all books of wisdom]. He exclaimed: “Kabbalah önskar jag gerna!” [I surely desire Kabbalah!] in a letter written to Emil Schering, from whom he also requested to borrow synagogue prayer books (Eklund 1974, Vol. 15, 325).1 Kabbalah resonated with Strindberg as did the other religious mysticisms he studied.

Despite scholarly discussions of Strindberg’s acclaim for and exposure to Jewish theological teachings, Judaism has taken a less prominent role as a platform for textual analysis compared to the other world-views from which he took inspiration. Given Strindberg’s thorough exploration of the Jewish faith and the intensely personal quality of his post-Inferno career, one would expect to find embedded in his work underlying themes reminiscent of Jewish theology. Indeed, close analysis illuminates the possibility that Strindberg’s fondness for Jewish thought, specifically Jewish mysticism, pervades not one, but all three of his creative mediums, namely his literature, visual art, and scientific experimentation.

What attracted Strindberg to Judaism was likely the same impetus that directed his studies with mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, for both streams of thought share a common thread: each ideological system is contingent upon belief in a cosmic unity that dispels the perceived chasm between physical and spiritual existence. For example, Sweden-borg introduced Strindberg to the philosophy that the soul is comprised of matter, which suggests a reconciliation of opposing physical and spiritual forces assumed to be at odds with one another (Hedström 2001, 43). Likewise, Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that sparks of divine light permeate the physical world, negating cosmic discord between the heavenly and the mundane (Hoffman 1989, 23). Stockenström’s remarks in “The World That Strindberg Found: Deciphering the Palimpsest of Nature” pertaining to this theme summarize the allure of mysticism through Strindberg’s eyes:

The precondition for all these interpretations of cosmos was, after all, the belief in the original unity of the universe, from which all ‘reality’ originated. This thinking in terms of the whole, where everything is seen in corresponding universal levels of creation, the series and degrees from the divine to the spiritual, to man and nature, is at the heart of Swedenborg’s doctrine. It was an affirmation of the infinite order that Strindberg had sought for so long. It meant that each and every thing in creation is meaningful, at the same time part of a spiritual and moral order, and affecting all other things in the chain of being.

(Stockenström 2002, 27; original emphasis)

It is conceivable that Strindberg’s interest in ideologies such as Jewish mysticism arose from a desire to rectify his fragmented inner self by seeking proof of...

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