- Ibsen’s Houses: Architectural Metaphor and the Modern Uncanny by Mark B. Sandberg
In his classic essay “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919), Sigmund Freud defines the uncanny, associated with triggers like dolls, automata, dead bodies, ghosts, and doubles, as a “class of the frightening” wherein something “that ought to have remained secret and hidden . . . has come to light.” The uncanny, he suggests, is “nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” Mark Sandberg’s new book has itself an aura of the uncanny: while he anticipates that his assertion that Ibsen was “a master of the uncanny . . . will not strike all readers as immediately convincing” (18), the claim is in fact instantly persuasive. One has only to think of the eerie doubling of Oswald and Captain Alving in Ghosts, the white horses of Rosmersholm, the mysterious Stranger in Lady from the Sea, the invisible helpers and trolls in The Master Builder, the Rat Wife in Little Eyolf, the walking dead in John Gabriel Borkman, and of course Nora, the dancing doll-wife who turns out to be a real human being in A Doll’s House—a stunning reversal of E. T. A. Hoffman’s quintessentially uncanny tale “The Sandman,” in which the seemingly living Olympia turns out to be an automaton. Sandberg’s book thus seems—uncannily—like a book that has been waiting to be written, bringing to light what we have always known about Ibsen’s work but have not yet recognized in the terms that Sandberg proposes.
Crucial to Sandberg’s analysis is Freud’s brilliant discourse on the ambivalent etymology of the German word for uncanny, unheimlich, which is derived from its opposite, heimlich—literally “homely,” meaning “belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc.,” but also paradoxically “[c]oncealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others.” Thus, Freud observes, while unheimlich initially seems to be the opposite of what is familiar, “among its different shades of meaning the word ‘heimlich’ exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, ‘unheimlich.’ What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich.” Following Anthony Vidler in The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (1992), in which the “home” embedded in heimlich/unheimlich is revealed to be a crucial site for the experience of the uncanny, Sandberg’s study centers on Ibsen’s deployment and subversion of the metaphor of society as edifice that was prevalent in nineteenth-century Scandinavia and is overtly signaled in the titles of Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, Rosmersholm, and The Master Builder, but that also underlies Ibsen’s other prose plays, as well as his verse drama Brand. While Freud’s version of the uncanny crops up intermittently—for example, Nora, abandoning her home and family, becomes an “‘unhomely’ heroine” (83)—Sandberg’s primary focus is on the “architectural unease” (11) that came to pervade Ibsen’s canon as he relentlessly exposed, critiqued, and ultimately rejected the conventional norms and values embedded in the home as the container for the family as foundational social unit.
Crucial to Sandberg’s analysis, and to the impact of Ibsen’s plays both in their original context and far beyond, is the Scandinavian ideal of hygge, along with the related adjectives hyggelig and its opposite, uhyggelig. As Sandberg explains in his opening chapter on “Ibsen’s Uncanny,” hygge, in Danish and Norwegian, refers to the cultural value of coziness, comfort, and cheer particularly, though not exclusively, associated with the home, so that the adjectival extensions of the term approximate the German heimlich and unheimlich and their English-language equivalents, homely and unhomely. Tracing this concept through the plays, as well as through commentaries on the newly published texts and early productions, Sandberg demonstrates the devastating impact of Ibsen’s typical strategy of opening his plays with hyggelig scenes of domestic comfort that he then proceeded to demolish. Sandberg...