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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The earth is a place of woe and wailing: This is an understanding as old as human consciousness. However, most men and women have always seen that such an understanding is hardly adequate. Small contentments and towering ecstasies, consolation and redemption, must have their significance as one considers the arrangements that the Powers have made for us.

What, then, are we to make of the thinkers and artists who believe that our world is Hell? In the superb essay “The Dark Brain of Piranesi,” Marguerite Yourcenar describes the mid-18th-century series of engravings Invenzioni Caprice di Carceri, or Imaginary Prisons, as images of human damnation under a human regime: 

These sites of hard labor from which Time and the forms of living nature are eliminated, these sealed chambers which so readily become torture chambers, but in which most of the inhabitants seem perilously and obtusely at their ease, these abysses which are bottomless and yet without means of escape, are no ordinary prison: they are our Inferno, our Hell.

Men condemn not only others but also themselves to this dark confinement, Yourcenar suggests, when there is no God to stop them. She plainly has more recent enormities in mind. There is abundant evidence for this view.

Yet Piranesi’s vision (and Yourcenar’s) stops short of the ultimate terror. For what if Hell on earth is not of human devising but enforced by metaphysical fiat? Can there be a more frightful intuition or revelation than that one is a resident of Hell by order of some implacable Power? Such an insight sounds like the stuff of schizophrenia, or an episode of The Twilight Zone; most anyone who succumbs to this occult delirium is offered pity, derision, and a straitjacket or padded cell. 

Yet even a genius such as August Strindberg (1849-1912), the Swedish writer, painter, photographer, and pseudo-scientist, can fall victim to this loss of equilibrium. Strindberg registered intimations of his own earthly damnation early in his literary career, and felt them perhaps already in childhood. His life was certainly cruel enough that one can understand how this obsession seized him: In a 1907 letter, he wrote, “My life often seems as if it has been staged for me, so that I might both suffer and portray it.” It is remarkable that his suffering did not disable him from accomplishing anything at all. In fact, he wrote more than 60 plays, 18 novels, 9 volumes of autobiography (more precisely, autobiographical novels), 3 books of poetry, historical and linguistic tomes, antifeminist and anti-Semitic screeds, and some 10,000 letters.

Here, Sue Prideaux, an Anglo-Norwegian novelist and author of a prize-winning biography of Edvard Munch, breaks little new ground—Michael Meyer’s exhaustive and engaging 1985 biography remains the standard in English—but she goes over the familiar ground ably and succinctly. Prideaux seems to pity Strindberg more than Meyer does, though both biographers recognize that many of Strindberg’s pains were self-inflicted. All the same, whenever one blames a man as troubled as Strindberg for his own miseries, one must ask how he could have avoided them except by being born someone else.

His father was an ogre, his mother a hag. Carl Oscar Strindberg, a Stockholm spice merchant and shipping agent who went bankrupt when Johan August was 4, made his third son the whipping boy—and everyone else in the household joined in the abuse. Nora, a barmaid whom Carl Oscar kept as his mistress for six years before marrying her, browbeat her unacceptable stepson as hellward-bound for certain, according to the savage mystery of her Pietist faith. In The Son of a Servant (1886-87), the first of a series of autobiographical novels, Strindberg recalls the shame and fright of being the family’s punk: 

Afraid of being hit by his brothers, slapped by the maids, scolded by his grandmother, caned by his father and birched by his mother .  .  . he could do nothing without doing wrong, utter no word without disturbing somebody. .  .  . It had effectively been dinned into him that he had no right to exist.

Compound the unhappiness at home with an awful time at Klara elementary school, “a preparation not for life but for Hell,” in Strindberg’s words, and his boyhood becomes unendurable. The torment abated somewhat as August changed schools; but when his mother died, the wicked stepmother, 30 years younger than Carl Oscar, meant going from bad to worse at home.

At last he was able to get out, but only briefly at first. Strindberg matriculated at Uppsala University, Sweden’s Oxford, but his father, although flush again, refused to finance his studies. After one term, August was forced to become a schoolmaster—at Klara, of all places. He was an inspiring but uninspired teacher, and his melancholy became obvious to a friendly neighbor, Dr. Axel Lamm, who offered to take him in as companion to his two sons and as a medical student under Lamm’s personal tutelage. Strindberg loved the studies, which he described as “penetrating nature’s secrets.” He loved Dr. Lamm for (what Prideaux calls) his “disinterested benevolence.” The Lamms were among the few Jews in Stockholm, and, for a spell, Strindberg had only generous things to say about Jews. But as his paranoia deepened over time, and he sprayed venom in all directions, the Jews would become a particular object of his mad hatred. With sadness, Prideaux points out that the year Strindberg spent with the Lamms was the only time he was ever “part of life in a happy and functioning family.”

Then the theater bug bit him. He attended the Royal Theatre two or three times a week, bluffed his way into supernumerary roles, flubbed his chance for a one-line part, drowned his sorrows in opium and liquor, and woke up hungover but pregnant with a play of his own, and then a long poem. Prideaux writes, “At last he felt chosen, blessed, directed.” In short order, he turned out five plays, one of which, In Rome, about a Danish sculptor’s success in the face of his father’s scorn for art, received its premiere at the Royal Theatre in 1870. Strindberg used his paycheck to return to Uppsala. He acquired prodigious learning for a young man, composed songs, learned to paint, and wrote three more plays, one of which earned him an audience with the king of Sweden and a royal stipend. 

He left the university in 1872 without a degree. Supporting himself in Stockholm with freelance journalism and a position at the Royal Library struck him as beneath his dignity, but he had time for scholarship and writing plays. And by now there were women. There would always be women from this point; and they would be his particular torment. He had a long affair with a “waitress”—Prideaux considers the word a euphemism—who he dumped when she got pregnant in 1875. Later that year, he met the first woman he would marry: Siri von Essen Wrangel, a Finnish aristocrat, the wife of a Swedish baron, and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter. She yearned to be a famous actress, and Strindberg offered her excitement that her handsome but inert husband could not. At first, their union seemed impossible; in despair Strindberg even (sort of) tried to kill himself, but then the baron’s own adultery opened the way to a divorce and Siri’s remarriage. Bliss beckoned; Hell gaped. 

Strindberg’s autobiographical novel A Madman’s Defense (1888) traces the arc of their romance from first infatuation through her infidelity, his jealous rage, his loathing her as a slut and a lesbian, and, above all, his fears that their children might not be his and that his vampire wife was trying to poison him. All modern women came under assault. In an earlier manifesto he had endorsed female emancipation and full equality; now, like Nietzsche, whom he admired and corresponded with, he came to woman with the whip: “The very thought of having to witness the recognition and apotheosis of these intelligences of the Bronze Age, these anthropoids, these semi-apes, this pack of pestilent animals, roused my manhood.”  

He would work this vein for the rest of his life and become the anti-Ibsen, a self-appointed role Prideaux alludes to and on which Michael Meyer, an Ibsen biographer, provides a running commentary. Disastrous subsequent marriages to a trophy-hunting Austrian journalist and a very young Swedish beauty who would become the leading lady of the Scandinavian stage furnished Strindberg with deep background.

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.