- Between Vision and DoubtRe-assessing the Radicalism of Strindberg’s Italian Travel Writing and Likt och olikt (1884)
At The Beginning of His Voluntary Exile in France and Switzerland, August Strindberg planned and published a series of social and political essays, some of which explicitly reflected his travel in Europe. Likt och olikt (A Bit of Everything) was conceived as a platform for his campaign to be recognized as a radical, politically committed writer, one of his main goals during his first period abroad. As the title implies, the series was meant to cover a wide range of topics (Brev 4: III), but only two issues that included four essays in all were published in the late spring of 1884. The first consisted of one long essay that has become a minor classic at least in part due to its evocative title, “Om det allmänna missnöjet, dess orsaker och botemedel” (On the General Discontent, Its Causes and Cures). The second—and last—contained three shorter essays, less often read today, but equally compellingly entitled: “Livsglädjen” (The Joy of Living), “Kulturarbetets överskattning” (The Overestimation of Cultural Work), and “Nationalitet och svenskhet” (Nationality and Swedishness).1
With titles like these, Strindberg’s essays and socio-political prose of the mid-1880s provide a revealing lens through which to observe the fascinating ways in which a late nineteenth-century writer becomes entangled in the dilemmas and paradoxes of modernity that promise liberation while threatening, at the same time, new forms of subjection (Berman 15–36). In this respect, Strindberg’s peculiar and idiosyncratic form of radicalism is interesting more for its general cultural implications than for any biographical interpretation seemingly portraying [End Page 273] the writer as contradictory and whimsical. Contemporary readers have no difficulty recognizing Strindberg’s critique of modernity in Likt och olikt, including what can be understood as a significant environmental concern. Strindberg’s critique is more effective than the rather vague and Arcadian remedies he proposes. In this sense, Likt och olikt shares the problematic aspect of utopian writing generally in which dissatisfaction with the state of affairs causes the author to relinquish contradictions and advance a vision of a comprehensive solution. While these texts thus display Strindberg’s regressive and anti-modern tendencies, as some of his contemporaries already could see, they express, at the same time, a decidedly democratic and anti-monarchic radicalism. This stance is part of an overall progressive and optimistic vision of a parliamentary federal system that, while allowing more direct democracy, could eventually lead to the political unity of Europe and constitute a stronger guarantee of peace among nations, a perspective derived from Strindberg’s experience of living in Switzerland. As Elena Balzamo has suggested, some political visions can sometimes come true (25); others—most of them, in fact—remain the object of the writer’s yearning.
The contradictions in Strindberg’s thinking become particularly interesting in relation to the subjective strategy brought to bear on the narrative style in the essays of Likt och olikt and in other near-contemporary essays. By means of a basically subjective approach, Strindberg can express not only his vision of a cure, but also his doubts and questions as well as his awareness of being implicated in the general social disease being analyzed. This attitude becomes particularly relevant when the analysis in “Om det allmänna missnöjet” deals with the social function of art and literature. Strindberg’s scrutiny is general and objective and, thus, yields a sociology of literature. It is also necessarily, however, individual and subjective and thus a self-examination. Since Strindberg is a writer, he cannot but include his own professional experience—and his own controversial relationship to art and writing—within his observations.
The primary aim of this essay is to discuss Strindberg’s ideas on the future role of art and literature within the frame of the simultaneously progressive and regressive social theory advanced in Likt och olikt. I subsequently intend to elucidate related views as expressed in the long poem Sömngångarnätter på vakna dagar (Sleepwalking Nights in Broad Daylight), the first four sequences of which were written in Paris...