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The Turning-Point of Modernity

Written by: Birgit Mortensen |

Adda Ravnkilde (1862-1883) made her story tragically short. She took her own life at the age of twenty-one, but before that she had managed to experience thwarted desire, departure from the paternal home, and an artistic breakthrough. The latter, however, she did not live to see; her works were not published until a year after her death.

Unlike Therese Brummer, Erna Juel-Hansen, and most of the other women on the periphery of Brandes’s circle, Adda Ravnkilde grew up in the provinces – in solid Danish bourgeois officialdom, the upholders of God, king, and fatherland, but in a milieu which, despite the conservative ambiance, was open to the trends of the times. At least, Adda Ravnkilde’s father, birkedommer (until 1919, judge in a District Court) and later mayor of Sæby, paid for his intelligent daughter to spend a year at Zahles Skole (a school for girls) in Copenhagen.

Carl Thomsen: Hjarup Præstegård, 1889. Drawing. The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

Whether that was the reason – or whether it was all her reading – Adda Ravnkilde was full to bursting point with the entire modern mindset when, aged eighteen, she spent a short period as private tutor in Snoldelev. This was not a success, and she spent the next two years in Sæby being in love and writing. She fled the love, but she took the writing with her when she went to Copenhagen in late 1883 in order to train as a teacher and to visit Brandes. He was entrusted with her manuscripts and her confidence. On his advice she abandoned her teacher training and instead studied to take the upper secondary school final examination. Suicide put an end to it all! The course of her own education and cultural development came to as abrupt a conclusion as that of the fictional characters in her slim oeuvre.

From Georg Brandes’s foreword to Adda Ravnkilde’s Judith Fürste (1884):

“I saw her two hours before her death, on the 29th of November. On that day, as I stepped up to the lectern, I noticed her on one of the first rows in the hall, just in front of me; she looked elated, full of life, her eyes had an uncommon lustre, she smiled and laughed a few times during the lecture. Nothing was further from my mind than that at that moment she deserved compassion.”

Body and the written word were tangled up in Adda Ravnkilde’s universe. She is one of the few to have delved so deeply into herself that not only her love, but also her art, were motifs in her novels.

“Tantaluskvaler”, (1884; Tantalus Torments) is a love story – one of the pitiless variety – and it is especially pitiless because it takes place in a confined and petit bourgeois provincial setting where the central character has ended up by chance. An impoverished young woman who has set her sights high – she wants to be a writer! For the time being, however, she has to scratch a living as a cross between teacher and lady’s companion for the puffed-up family of the local doctor. Thus: a woman’s life that well matches reality for many women.

However, as was the case with all the central characters in the three novels Adda Ravnkilde managed to write, Elisabeth Due is strong-minded. She glows with critical idealism, and has a youthful belief in herself – in personal responsibility – which corresponds to her well-developed sense of the ridiculous and petty aspects of the stuffy hole in which she finds herself. But high ideals and grand words – duty, calling, truth – are just about all she has in her luggage.

Count Høegh is the undisputed ruler of the little town – libertine and capitalist – an obvious candidate for provincial indignation and snobbery. A weary Don Juan who is stirred to renewed life in the glow of Elisabeth’s refreshing youth and naive enthusiasm for her ideas. He is enraptured by her zeal and engages her in verbal ping-pong, her arguments being hopelessly punctured by his elegant paradoxes. A mind game, which at the same time develops into an erotic game in which Elisabeth is tossed “from the deepest humiliation to the highest self-esteem”.

Elisabeth has been struck down! Even though the novel starts by presenting her as a determined woman who believes in free will, she proves helpless when faced with the game of sexual seduction. She has her ideas about wanting to get on, but they are loosely attached to a mental structure moulded on the Romantic ideal of womankind. And that is not enough when dealing with a type like Count Høegh, for he is no critical idealist; on the contrary, he represents a modern blasé attitude reeking of eroticised city mentality. He lives on intensity, not on continuity. The more intensely Elisabeth throws herself into his word games, the deeper she therefore falls into the empty nothingness. For where she thought there was reality, she finds she is up against words and fictions. Consequently, the real battlefield moves into her own body, and thus the successive subversions and reconstructions of her body-image – her conceptions of herself – comprise the dynamics of the novel.

The love story results in two interpretations, both of which have validity. For the very reason that her self-image is shattered, she is forced into a painful confrontation with her own fantasies, in which she – if she wants to hold onto herself – must acknowledge her sexual desire. In consequence hereof, she is projected as a woman prepared for sexual abandonment:

“She rose in order to go out and open the door, for she was home alone. And all the while she was walking out, even as she turned the key in the door, she whispered: ‘I am lost’, with a dread and a bliss she had never suspected could be felt.”

Paradoxically, it is precisely this identity that makes her a proper participant in the game, and at the last moment causes her to make what is for him – and for her – an unexpected move. For, at the very instant she opens up to her desire, she realises that the game will be over if she surrenders herself. Then she would lose both him and love. For the sake of love she relinquishes love!

In this interpretation, the problematic is still one of idealised sexuality versus modernity’s iterative and momentary desire. This is a variation on the theme later put on stage by Laura Kieler in Mænd af Ære (1890; Men of Honour). As Count Høegh elegantly and cynically puts it: “Love is not rustic fare, which feeds you all week, it is a fantasy.” Indeed, that it is, too,– Elisabeth’s entire love story is in a way a fantasy stemming from her romantic propensity for fictionalising and transcribing reality in well-turned words. At the same time, however, she is driven by will – an urge to create and make something of her life. So: the rustic fare!

Hence the second interpretation of the story. Intertwined with the love story, we are told about the birth of a writer. In this, too, Elisabeth swings from conviction that “once she was honoured and respected, he would be a decrepit, little known, and little honoured old man”, to dismissal of her writing as “the most vacuous and ludicrous matter in the world”.

Viggo Johansen: Aftenselskab i mit Hjem, 1899. Oil painting (part missing). National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

The crux of the matter, however, is that the writing process takes her back into her body every time she is on the brink of losing herself in the sexual vacuum. There are periods in which she writes as if intoxicated, “humming by virtue of a purely physical satisfaction from the work”. The body is thus presented as being coupled with the writing in desire. But a masturbatory desire! To write is the act of taking oneself, and therefore the words she fashions are coated with shame. In extension of this, she dare not put words to their relationship – that “would make it all abominable in his eyes” – and at the end the thought of the words she actually has written in a work is “abominable” to her.

In Adda Ravnkilde’s “Tantaluskvaler” (1884; Tantalus Tormernts) the act of writing is a pleasurable appropriation of one’s self:

“As if in an ecstasy the words did as she pleased, she forgot herself. The pen flew across the paper, her mood assumed a form. The pain became something outside her.

She stopped from time to time, threw back her head, humming by virtue of a purely physical satisfaction from the work.”

In Judith Fürste (1884), which Adda Ravnkilde wrote after “En Pyrrhussejr” (A Pyrrhic Victory), but before “Tantaluskvaler”, the game of seduction is put within the framework of a marriage drama – trench warfare between two awkward people who neither will nor dare give themselves away. The game stops when, after the death of their child, the husband does actually reveal his vulnerability. Judith rejects him, and in so doing makes herself guilty and thereby can ‘afford’ to admit that she loves him.

Judith, however, is someone whose needs are ahead of the opportunities afforded by the social forum: family, small town, marriage. A chasm therefore opens up between the psychological and the social, and the surrounding world appears on the internal, psychological stage in fictionalised form. A self-contrived universe in which the randomly-chosen ‘now’ is charged with overwhelming significance. Correspondingly, the energies in the novel are dammed up against the eroticised moment.

This moment, of which Judith alone is aware, is brilliantly played out during a nocturnal carriage drive when Judith has decided that she will declare her love to her husband. It all happens inside her; in a way he is unaware of his status as object for her emotions. Her state of inner tension takes the form of hyper-sensitivity, time is fixed to the closed space, and the tense atmosphere echoes in the fragmented syntax:

“Now she had to speak. But every time she tried to do so she became afraid of hearing her voice in the deep, benevolent silence. Her husband, too, sat quite motionless, she could hardly make him out in the darkness of the carriage; he was not asleep, that much she could hear from the lightness of his breath, but he was surely lost in thought.

How should she begin. Something occurred to her. ‘Will you not smoke?’ she asked. She knew that he would appreciate so doing.

‘Thank you, I am afraid it would bother you.’ ‘Not at all, far from it.’ He still hesitated. ‘I assure you, you are so very welcome.’ […] ‘I hope you are not cold,’ he asked, ‘would you like my fur around you; it is on the backseat?’ ‘Thank you, I am not cold.’

All fell completely silent again. She could see the glow in his cigar, now flaring up, now dimmed by the light ash. She saw the fine, bluish-white smoke swirl into the air and out through the window, out into the darkness and cold, but still she remained silent. ‘Now I will speak – now – no, now,’ but she did not.

‘Do you really not mind the cigar?’ ‘Not at all, far from it.’ She was so deficient in words at that moment that she could only manage to repeat those already spoken.

More decisions to speak that paralysed the tongue and threatened to burst her heart every time she attempted to carry them out. She had to speak before it was too late – alas, it was already too late.”

Judith does not manage to speak! But here the text does the talking. By means of an edgy, stuttering rhythm, ‘frayed’ snatches of speech, and an almost total resetting to zero of the epic drive, the carriage scene states that modernity is at a turning-point: the point where departure, breakout, breakthrough become a breakdown of opinion and speech; on the one hand, the urge towards establishing oneself as an expressive person – an ‘I’; on the other hand, disintegration of the contours, both Judith’s and the text’s. What this speech is saying, then, is that the female individuation process is a lonely business. Conversation has become monologue; the word is no longer part of a mutual exchange of meaning. To speak – that speech – is, in one and the same manoeuvre, to give oneself and to shut off. Because the words that were not spoken will forever mark a watershed between before and after.

Herman Bang reviewed To Fortællinger, consisting of “En Pyrrhussejr” (A Pyrrhic Victory) and “Tantaluskvaler”, in the evening edition of the newspaper Nationaltidende, 18 December 1884:

“[…] there is so much truthful accounting in the story […] that for the sake of art we regret deeply that the one to have lived all this, and who thus understood how to give an account of the experience, found art’s comfort against the suffering in life to be far too inadequate, and abruptly curtailed an existence so rich in promise.”

It is therefore not surprising that Adda Ravnkilde is reluctant to let her Judith speak. Adda Ravnkilde’s own life is an example of what could happen afterwards. Regardless of the harmonising conclusion in Judith Fürste, with Judith at length making her declaration, the speech in the novel is at a different level to that of meaning. And that level is at the threshold between body and writing, where the realistic art of illusion is thrown back onto itself as aesthetic signification.

Adda Ravnkilde’s slender body of work thus stands out in the topography of women’s literature as a landmark of ‘something good and important’ – and also of fictionalisation and randomisation. Her life and work manifest a concentration of the optimistic urge towards breaking through, reaching that which is real – the real speech, the true personality – and then so much more painful is the confrontation with modern ‘truth’: that the ‘real’ is sifted out layer by layer, scenes giving way to new scenes, and that personality fades away in sense perceptions, nervous stimulations, fragments of meaning.

Adda Ravnkilde was equipped with antennas that were able to pick up these zeitgeist signals, and this was probably for the most part because she was an outsider; unprepared as she was for modern city life, modernity hit her as a sexual bewilderment. In this, she was broadly representative of Breakthrough women’s general alienation from their times. Opposites merged in her body and writing: the provinces versus the city, purposefulness versus chance, realism versus Romanticism.

Herman Bang’s first published novel, Haabløse Slægter (1880; Generations Without Hope), is inscribed with the same sensitivities as Adda Ravnkilde’s works. As a male writer, however, he has a wider textural register on which to play; his forum is a theatre, and speech is a young man’s attempt to wrest himself out of the structureless darkness – the black hole of the public stage. As is the case in Adda Ravnkilde, speech is a turning-point – either birth or abandonment:

“In a flash his eyes swam, flickered, danced, slid into darkness. But by summoning all his strength he forced himself to see, and in the midst of the darkness the white handkerchief loomed up in the first row of the stalls… He fetched a sigh, parted his lips, it was as if the sound had got stuck… his will battled with his tongue, which was paralysed – Now he got the sound out.

“And then he heard his own voice out in the auditorium—

“And at that very instant, the very moment that he heard it, William Høg knew that he was doomed. And while staring his own penury in the face, paralysis enveloped him like a mantle.”

Translated by Gaye Kynoch