The Magazine

Unhappy the Man

The life and work of August Strindberg.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Strindberg was the world authority on love-hate sexual relations. Miss Julie (1888) is his most famous play—richly deserving of its place in the modern canon—in which Siri is portrayed in the young noblewoman who has a wham-bam sexual collision with her servant, and then kills herself from self-disgust. Burning lust is the punishment that will not allow Miss Julie, who describes herself as half-woman, half-man, to hate men without reservation. Scorching resentment and ambition plague the servant, who adores his mistress yet can’t help but despise her: “Have you ever seen any girl of my class offer her body like that? I’ve only seen it among animals and prostitutes.” Julie, in turn, spews up a dog’s breakfast of raging vileness: “I’d like to see all your sex swimming in a lake of blood—I think I could drink from your skull, I’d like to bathe my feet in your guts, I could eat your heart, roasted!”  

This comes from a writer who’s been there.

'Love between man and woman is war.” So declares the villainess of another grimacing masterpiece, The Father (1887). She is attempting to drive her husband insane by making him doubt that he is their daughter’s father. The husband is driven to the verge of murder: “Why didn’t you let me kill the child? Life is a hell, and death a heaven, and the child belongs to heaven.” The corruption of the marriage ideal by modern feminism makes love and life diabolical: “In the old days, one married a wife; now one forms a company with a woman who goes out to work, or moves in to live with a friend. .  .  . What became of love—healthy, sensuous love? It died, starved.”

In The Dance of Death (1900), once again the vicious wife goads her husband into a fatal stroke. Characters repeatedly call each other demons and their island dwelling-place a literal Hell. To want to love and to hate instead, to long to be loved and to be hated beyond all measure: That is damnation.

Hell was Strindberg’s homeland. In the autobiographical novel Inferno (1898), he describes his descent into a psychic blackness, where he is tortured with electric shocks, stumbles his way through by interpreting weird signs and portents, and concludes that he is literally damned here on earth:

It is the earth itself that is Hell, the prison constructed for us by an intelligence superior to our own, in which I could not take a step without injuring the happiness of others, and in which my fellow creatures could not enjoy their own happiness without causing me pain.

At first, the revelation rips him open, as well it might. But then his reading of the 18th-century mystagogue Emanuel Swedenborg makes him understand that the demons who oversee his fate have the best intentions: They are “disciplinary spirits”; God makes him suffer for his own good, in expiation of a horrible sin he must have committed in some previous existence, or perhaps even in this one, as his alchemical investigations might have offended the jealous Powers.  

What in hell was going on with Strindberg? Prideaux speculates that his psychosis and paranoia were fueled by an absinthe habit. But schizophrenia or manic-depression seems a more likely explanation than alcoholic delusions. A sister and a daughter of Strindberg both went mad and were confined to asylums, and psychotic illness has a strong hereditary component. Of course, this world is a strange and often brutal place, and it is not altogether impossible that Strindberg was vouchsafed a revelation of its true nature—though no sound and responsible mind would even countenance that possibility: just too crazy.

Whatever its provenance, psychic torment like Strindberg’s is a genuine experience of Hell on earth. When he lay dying of cancer in 1912, the agony was not the worst he had suffered in a life that was largely made up of suffering and writing about suffering. The writing itself suffers from the imbalance of a soul that has endured too much: It knows the ugly and hateful and unhinged like nobody’s business, but outside this field of expertise, it is at a loss. Strindberg was a madman, an outcast, a hater, and he spoke in the name of the damned, who are privileged to have him as one of their own. 

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.