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Ibsen's Drama of Self-Sacrifice William A. Johnsen Michigan State University Henrik Ibsen, like Flaubert, is a fundamental precursor of all subsequent modern literature. His development, which takes place over a lifetime of playwriting, is nevertheless only obscurely recognized in theories ofthe modern. Critics quarrel about his antecedents: Scribe, Feydeau, as well as Norwegian and Scandinavian dramatists and poets. Yet nothing in any of his predecessors could prepare one for the great prose plays of the last twenty-five years of his career. How did he modernize himself? Ibsen said ofhis transition to prose, that he could no longer allow his characters to speak in verse, the language of the gods.1 It is tempting to begin reading Girard in here, because Ibsen offers us a fascinating variation on the historical moment ofcrisis represented by Flaubert, the moment of modernization itself, where the disintegration ofan accepted political and cultural aristocracy forced everyone to compete for prestige and for unique being in a common marketplace. In the case ofNorway during Ibsen's time, it is the crisis caused by the delegitimation ofDano-Norwegian as the uncontested literary language, in favor of competing versions of an emerging national language for a 1 Ibsen's famous comment is in a letter to Edmund Gosse, 15 January, 1874: "Speaking generally, the dialogue must conform to the degree of idealization which pervades the work as a whole. My new drama is no tragedy in the ancient sense. What I sought to depict were human beings, and therefore I would not let them talk the 'language of the Gods'" (Sprinchorn 145). 142William A. Johnsen uniquely national literature that provokes a rivalry for atavistic or nativist preeminence: Who is the most Norwegian ofall? Ibsen and Henry James (as well as Borges) do not choose chauvinist atavism, yet they also avoid becoming mere disciples of the dominant philosophical traditions which have marginalized them. They are more outspoken discussants of the significant historical and cultural developments analyzed in Girard's Deceit, Desire, and the Novel because they are from "new" countries, outsiders to European culture. It is here we must avoid the occupational hazard ofcritical theory: we must not permit a resemblance between a literary and a theoretical text to degenerate into a transcoding of the former into the latter, without ever considering that their resemblance means that each proposes some contribution to a converging theory ofhuman behavior. Critics who merely convert literature into the theories they already know contribute little to literary knowledge, and nothing to theory. Girard has insisted on the quasitheoretical potential of literary texts from the beginning. Only by staying as close to Ibsen as possible, can we ever hope to add to the considerable work that Girard's hypothesis has already achieved. If there is a general principal at stake in not prematurely transcoding the language of Ibsen's plays into theoretical language (not being prematurely theoretical for the sake of a more inclusive theory), there is also the specific risk of burying the peculiar diversity of his dramatic accomplishment. Ibsen is above all the playwright of complex characterization —no one before him was as subtle in motivating the ordinary characters ofeveryday life. Yet during his time, his plays were awaited for the intense discussions of ideas that they were certain to provoke. How is it that Ibsen is not considered the most theoretical and didactic of writers? Partly, the sheer number of controversial ideas and positions dramatized in play after play kept him from being seen (for very long) as the propagator ofany one ofthem. Michael Meyer reproduces in his biography ofIbsen a contemporary Norwegian political cartoon, which depicts Ibsen flailing first right, then left, then all (Meyer 447). More importantly, Ibsen, beginning with Samfundets Stotter (1877) [Pillars ofSociety], created a drama of ensemble theorizing conducted by characters themselves. Ibsen's work, beyond the creation ofcharacter, was to imagine the conditions and events that might make it possible for ordinary individuals to contribute discoveries about human behavior which, collectively, allow amplification and consolidation as a hypothesis. Ibsen 's Drama ofSelf-Sacrifice143 The mimetic hypothesis first found itself explaining the spectacular results of negative reciprocity in modern resentment, the unperceived commonality ofan isolation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 141-161
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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