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  • Ibsen: Revisiting Modernism’s Grand Narratives
  • Alyssa J. O’Brien
Toril Moi. Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. xvi + 396 pp. $39.00

In the preface to the publication of collected works appearing to commemorate Henrik Ibsen’s seventieth birthday, Ibsen implored new readers “not to skip anything” but to study all the plays in the order he wrote them: “take in the works—reading them and experiencing them—in the same sequence as I created them.” An ambitious request to be sure, but one well worth the rewards, as we learn from Toril Moi’s new and comprehensive study of the playwright, his complete oeuvre, the cultural context that shaped the arc of his writing, and the consequent narratives about literary history that emerged in the wake of his works.

What Moi’s study offers, ultimately, is a means to understand “the conditions of love in a world where the most genuine expressions of human feelings increasingly come across as theatrical.” Thus Moi asks, along with Ibsen, “How can we love each other in a world where we no longer trust the power of language to convey our meanings, where the search for absolute truth and absolute faith just leads to absolute despair?” For both writers, the answer is a complicated one and necessitates a thick reading of art, theater, philosophy, and critical histories of modernism.

In a masterful scholarly accomplishment, Moi provides a portrait of Ibsen as “the most important playwright writing after Shakespeare” and “the founder of the modern theater.” She presents fresh readings of all Ibsen’s plays, claiming that Emperor and Galilean signifies Ibsen’s pivotal turn from idealist aesthetics to modern skepticism, such that it represents “a document of the historical moment in which Ibsen came to consciousness of the absolute bankruptcy of idealism, a consciousness which was already pushing its way to the surface in Brand and Peer Gynt.”

Yet Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, as the title suggests, provides much more than a reclamation of Ibsen on his own terms. It also offers a rewriting of grand narratives of modernism. In challenging past criticism of and current indifference to Ibsen and his place within the literary canon, Moi locates her defense of the playwright within [End Page 315] a project that is just as concerned with revising the aesthetic ideology of modernism. This formidable task of reassessing aesthetic tradition makes the book worth reading and situates it in the past decade’s scholarly work devoted to mapping modernist genealogies, uncovering alternative literary traditions, and reconfiguring the canon based on reassessments of once-maligned writers.

In a chapter entitled “Ibsen and the Ideology of Modernism,” Moi provides a compelling account of the way in which we are still influenced by the celebration of Artaud, Brecht, Beckett and “the angry young men” of the 1950s who cast Ibsen in negative aesthetic terms. She explains how Ibsen’s complex aesthetic vision has been lost in the struggle between, on the one hand, formalist approaches to literary works which are often what she calls “culture-phobic” and, on the other hand, the subsequent response to formalism which she terms “culturalism,” an umbrella term she uses to encapsulate “the various approaches to literature and other cultural objects that reject the autonomy of art in its modernist formulation and stress the cultural, historical, social, and political aspects of aesthetic phenomena, such as Marxism, feminism, new historicism, and cultural, postcolonial, and queer studies, as they have developed over the past twenty-five years.”

Certainly, “culturalism” is a helpful shortcut for capturing the many critical schools that have emerged in response to formalism. One of the most interesting contentions of this chapter, however, is that formalism and culturalism are not so opposed as we might think. Moi offers an original and feminist reading of our critical literary history to argue that “culturalist critics of film, theater, and literature are still obsessed with high modernist and postmodernist themes such as reflexivity, negativity, absence, the instability of boundaries, and the breakdown of language.” She then asserts that such constructs take on feminized or marginalized attributes in critical discussions, thereby reinscribing...


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pp. 315-319
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