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The World Grows – the Ego Expands

Written by: Inger-Lise Hjordt-Vetlesen |

On the threshold to the twentieth century, the doors to the world stood open. At last the individual had the prospect of liberation from the restrictive bindings of religion, class, and gender. In line with ongoing democratisation, what had still been unprecedented and provocative during the Modern Breakthrough was now becoming common mindset.

In this sense, the 1900s do not start at the turn of the century, but in many and varied sources deep down in the 1800s. Now, however, it was a question of expansion – outwardly and inwardly. Intellectual life saw an escalation of ‘isms’, and technological development accelerated along with the onward thrust of the sciences. It was the period in which imperialism weighed anchor, and the modern individual went on an expedition too, into the unexplored continents of the mind.

The Outer Forum

The scientific approach of the Modern Breakthrough inspired a far-reaching process which involved adaptation to a new world picture! Evolutionary theories had burst the concept of time, and humankind had to come to terms with the idea that the metaphysical fuse safeguarding eternity had blown. The perception of death changed character – mortality of the flesh bringing with it a different kind of finality.

Copenhagen Women’s Gymnastics Club, Björkstengymnaster. 1909. Photograph. Danske Kvinders Fotoarkiv, KVINFO, Copenhagen

This also led to the collapse of any remaining paternal authority – not abruptly and brutally, but gradually and very slowly. While male writers and scientists were shoring up their threatened masculinity by categorising “Woman” under “primordial Nature”, the women were surely and steadily gaining ground in the men’s bastions of power: in the life of the community, where women increasingly obtained access to educational institutions, and in the life of the family.

Families generally became smaller, with fewer children and fewer servants. Urbanisation meant that more people had the option of getting married and setting up a home at all; steady intimisation of the family meant that for large sections of the population the mother was a central figure. In a way, this was modelled on the family form of the official class, but conditions in a modern nuclear family were certainly of a different nature. The men were no longer the master citizens; industrialisation had made them wage earners and providers, which led to a gradual loss of their ‘natural’ authority. Now their position was only legitimised via their wages, which were extremely insecure. In periods of unemployment, the women had to do the providing, which was a further factor in conjuring up prevalent notions of the ‘Great Mother’.

Thit Jensen’s campaign for birth control took the modern nuclear family and qualitative motherhood as generally-accepted truisms underlying the argument: “When children grow up, they can be apprenticed – there can and must be resources for this, and she knows for certain that her husband will do everything to ensure they can afford it, for it is their hope – and on this rests all sound enterprise in the world – that the children will be something more than their parents! Thousands of mothers have worn rag shoes in order that their sons could have a secondary school education!

That is mother’s love. The real, civilised mother’s love.” From the pamphlet BørnebegrænsningHvorforHvordan? (1928; Birth Control – Why – How?)

This development also caused the women’s movements to shift their focus. The high ideals were toned down as efforts were directed towards the parliamentary system. Women in all the Nordic countries got the vote around the time of the First World War, and the movements gradually changed character. From being oppositional fronts, they increasingly became culture-carrying organisations.

With the new world picture as its mental sounding board, the new century opened up for a progressive process of integration. Women and ordinary people gained access to bourgeois written culture, and they then of course made their mark on this culture.

The new groups – farmers, smallholders, and to some extent also women of the bourgeoisie – came from a predominantly oral culture. In parlour and village alike, the spoken word – and not the written document – was the mainstay of communication. And oral interaction does not follow the same rational logic as the written text. Speech is bound to speaker and location, and its import only lasts for as long as there is someone who remembers and reiterates what is said.

Oral culture does not, therefore, advance abstract comprehension of the nature of things: that there is something between the lines, a meaning or an essence; rather, it develops an understanding of language as magic: things come into existence upon being voiced.

“[…] the oral and the written cultures favour two different forms of perception. In the former, thought is primarily metaphorical. This means that things are linked by looking at their similarities and differences. The more effective and fascinating the metaphor, the more surprising it is to see the similarity – between Achilles and the lion, for example – where difference is actually the more conspicuous. Thus the language works in its graphicness and sensuality.

The culture of the written word attempts to link things by other means: in such a way that the one entity is a necessary consequence of the other. In other words, in such a way that there is a logical sequence, and that it adds up to the ‘meaning’ in an account.”

Jan Lindhardt: Tale og skrift. To kulturer (1989; Speech and Writing. Two Cultures)

When ordinary people and women became part of the societal configuration, a countercurrent to scientific rationality was simultaneously admitted into the written culture. And at several points this countercurrent, paradoxically, matched the inner contradiction of modernity.

Nilsson, Vera (1888-1979): På terrassen. Rome, 1927. Oil on canvas. Eskilstuna Konstmuseum

City life could also induce a sense of having been thrown into an existence in which the long perspectives, the underlying meaning – indeed, personal identity – crumbled. In the here and now, situation and chance determined who you were going to meet, what was going to happen. The point of contact between this city life and the oral culture is the situational and random aspect – that everything is improvised and controlled by something other than chronological order. There is not necessarily any connection between before and now, and identity can be changed from one moment to the next depending on what happens to turn up. Rather than being distinct from the surrounding space, humankind is instead, both in pre-bourgeois and modern life, entwined with the surroundings, with nature.

Parallel with the technological forward thrust, a less visible development in the history of consciousness was in progress, one in which nature wriggled out of the mechanical mindset. On the societal level, this was manifested in ordinary people and women getting the chance to speak; on the psychological level, nature returned in the experience of the city as a wild and impassable landscape; and in the sciences, nuclear physics recognised that reality could not be explained entirely by means of conventional mechanical laws of nature.

All in all, a history of consciousness permutation that inevitably shook individualism’s abstract conception of the ego.

The Inner Forum

Although the individual now had far greater scope, and although a woman, in theory at least, no longer had to live her life within a traditional gender role, the ego had nevertheless become a field of tension both in spite of and because of individualisation. On the one hand, the ego was in danger of losing its particularised contours in the many movements that had given the individual influence on her or his situation: women’s movements, political movements, temperance movements, or one of the other movements colouring society at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the new world picture undermined the notion of the sovereign ego and again shackled the individual to the body and to nature.

Nor was it any longer possible for the individual to consider him- or herself as ruler of their own inner house. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious now came into play: forces just as blind and impersonal obtain here as in external nature. In the Freudian view, the ego is not a fixed and unequivocal unit. The ego is a fragile structure in a chaotic universe of instincts – and not at all the authoritative entity aspired to by women of the earlier generations.

“One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.”

Sigmund Freud: “Die Zerlegung der psychischen Persönlichkeit” (1932; “The Dissection of the Psychical Personality”, in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis)

Seen from the perspective of the history of mentality, psychoanalysis is a reflective and well-argued reading of the crisis in the outlook on nature and humankind; a crisis that was already underway at the end of the nineteenth century, but which now, at the opening of the twentieth century, had become so detectable that it gave rise to a special psychological science. A science that in itself is a manifestation of the crisis, given that it ostensibly deals with instinctual fantasies and thus not with biological but with cultural circumstances, and then nevertheless continually addresses biology as the ‘rock’ upon which the entire theoretical foundation rests.

The method employed by psychoanalysis was not, however, medical. Freud was a text analyst who monitored his patients’ words. The therapy aimed to get the many fragments of mutually unconnected statements to add up to an epic structure – a life story. Or, in other words: to return the ego to itself by compelling utterances from the unconscious over to the ego’s control. Oral narrative thereby also, in a quite new framework, permeated psychological science.

On the meta-theoretical level, however, the new world picture – and thus also, biology – penetrated psychoanalytic thought. Freud repeatedly ran into difficulties trying to fit femininity into the theory. He could explain ‘the man’, but in spite of many attempts, employing ever more sophisticated hypotheses, he was never able to offer a satisfactory explanation of gender difference. The formation of woman and the woman’s ‘nature’ remained an unexplained subject. The origin of femininity was lost, as he thought, in a sphere “grey with age”.

“It is necessary to make clear that the conceptions ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ whose content seems so unequivocal to the ordinary meaning, belong to the most confused terms in science and can be cut up into at least three paths. One uses masculine and feminine at times in the sense of activity and passivity, again, in the biological sense, and then also in the sociological sense. The first of these three meanings is the essential one and the only one utilizable in psychoanalysis. It is to this meaning reference is made when the text designates the libido as masculine, for the libido is always active even when it is directed to a passive aim. The second, the biological significance of masculine and feminine, is the one which permits the clearest determination. […] The activity and its secondary manifestations, like stronger developed muscles, aggression, a greater intensity of libido, are as a rule soldered to the biological masculinity but not necessarily connected with it, for there are species of animals in whom these qualities are attributed to the female. The third, the sociological meaning, receives its content through the observation of the actual existing male and female individuals. The result of this in man is that there is no pure masculinity or femininity either in the biological or psychological sense.”

Sigmund Freud: Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (1905; Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex).

Although Freud’s theory was far-and-away superior to most of the nonsense circulating about the ‘nature’ of woman, on this issue he ran into the same cognitive difficulties that were everywhere simmering at the time. In literature, in science, and in the cultural debate ‘woman’ was – still – on the agenda.

Much of what the Modern Breakthrough women had dreamt about and fought for was, however, on its way to becoming reality. Women had stepped down from the Madonna-pedestal and become real human beings made of flesh and blood. But neither this new corporeal animation nor equality of opportunity could, apparently, halt the discussion of woman’s ‘nature’. Far from it – on the threshold to the twentieth century, the old gender conflict flared up again in new guises.

No clear battle lines were drawn up in this ‘Great War over Gender’. It was not a case of men versus women, or broad-minded versus reactionary-minded. The gender conflict was more along the lines of a civil war, in which the battle zone was in constant flux, and the battle lines would suddenly prove to be running right through factions, writings, and the individuals involved – irrespective of gender. Unlike the 1880s’ dispute about moral conduct, this was not purely and simply a battle of arguments. Or rather: the arguments were now a question of science and passion. And the dispute was no longer exclusively a matter of different strategies in terms of ‘love life’, but of a far more fundamental issue: motherhood!

Motherhood became an overdetermined item in the contemporaneous debate on philosophy of life. This was partly because the mother figure was now a larger presence in the lives of ordinary families – not in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality; partly because motherhood was an area in which nature – from a purely physical aspect – overtook considerations of upbringing and equality; finally, because the mother figure was mythologised and, particularly in the imagery of the male pen, even assumed cosmic dimensions.

The new world picture expanded the significance of female biology. An individual could now only hope for a kind of life everlasting by means of biological progeny, and the dream of eternity was therefore brought down to terra firma and into the female body – which became, with or without metaphysical overtones, the subject of intense focus. ‘Woman’ was now a concept that could, in all its capaciousness, reflect pretty much every aspect of the modern mindset.

At first glance it might seem that the mystification of nature would be a setback for the emancipation of women. But might there also have been, parallel to the biologistic tendencies, an expansion in the notion of femininity? Freud operated with a multiplicity of social, psychological, and biological genders, and the Nietzsche-inspired gender debate saw ‘femininity’ as an almost aesthetic category. The ‘male Apollonian / female Dionysian’ was more a reference to artistic aspects than to biological differences. When, in one of his most famous poems, the Danish writer Johannes V. Jensen, who was otherwise prone to celebrating masculine vigour, let his poetic speaker express longing to “selv at være et Fruentimmer” (be a woman himself), he was manifesting the erosion of boundaries – between man and woman, humankind and nature.

In Johannes V. Jensen’s novel Den lange Rejse, (1908-22; Eng. tr. The Long Journey), the liberation of humankind – from Nature and from God – again ends in the metaphysical, but now in the form of a cosmic female Being:

“But the cosmic Being that appears over the earth as a Woman to those who can see her, she is Life, the stem of Life beyond the æther, from which the germs have come to earth; true Life, the source of Love, of which we can know no more than longing teaches us.”

Women’s new departures played an important role in this development: women functioned as catalysts in the inner process of expansion; women writers were quick off the mark with a new style of expression, which helped to shift previous concepts of gender and identity. Seen in the perspective of literary history, the twentieth century actually kicked off in 1891, when Selma Lagerlöf came to prominence with her novel Gösta Berlings saga (Eng. tr. The Story of Gösta Berling).

A Modern Saga

“At last” begins the novel that would go on to echo down through large sections of twentieth-century writing – for something happens in Gösta Berlings saga that would – at last – liberate narrative from the conventions of classical realism.

From the very first lines, the novel is engaged in its subtle reconfiguration of the realistic codes: “At last the minister stood in the pulpit. The heads of the congregation were lifted. Well, there he finally was. There would be no default this Sunday, as on the last and on many other Sundays before. “The minister was young, tall, slender, and strikingly handsome. With a helmet on his head, and girt with sword and shirt of mail, he could have been cut in marble and taken for an ideal of Grecian beauty.”

Holmström, Tora Vega (1880–1967): Ryttaren, 1921. Oil on canvas. Photo: Sven Olof Larsén © Helsingborgs museer

At one go, we are presented with two pictures: one realistic, in which “[a]t last” encaptures the tense atmosphere that makes rural steadiness crack, and one imaginative, which disrupts the expectations of the setting and environment. In the description of the minister, Gösta Berling, realistic proportions are left in the background while the figure simply steps forward out of the setting as nothing less than strikingly handsome. And in the subsequent hypothetical construction, the minister transforms into a sculpture of heroic dimension, distance to the context being further increased. The grandiose is just about to tip into the parodic, making it uncertain whether the narrator is serious or mocking.

The uncertainty continues as the text focuses on the relationship between the minister and the congregation: “He had a poet’s deep eyes, and a general’s firm, rounded chin; everything about him was beautiful, noble, full of feeling, glowing with genius and spiritual life.”.

The people in the church felt themselves strangely subdued to see him so. They were more used to see him come reeling out of the public house with his good friends, Beerencreutz, the Colonel with the thick, white moustaches, and the stalwart Captain Christian Bergh.”

But the outlines of his character begin to flicker. The physical imagery shifts from aesthetic to vacillating formlessness, from spiritual transparency to instinctive revelry. His figure reflects an instability that embraces the entire fictional space: The attitudes of the parishioners fluctuate between scorn – “So that’s the way he was after all” –and submission to their master.

Gösta distils the novel’s departure from the compositional principles of classical realism. His development is portrayed not as continuous evolution, but as a space or landscape in which various aspects of his being coexist. The protagonists echo different aspects of each other, just as the superordinate narrative – a pastiche based on the Faust legend – is implicated in a kaleidoscope of episodes, stories and allegories.

Gösta and the major’s wife at Ekeby together weave the fabric of the novel. On the mythical level, they represent the Mother and the Son. Both of them are infinitely beneficent and infinitely cruel; both have drifted from their moorings: she has abandoned her mother, he his calling. Despite the sermon in the first chapter, when “the flame of inspiration burned in him,” Gösta is condemned for drunkenness by the congregation and run out of town as a dismissed pastor.

And this is the condition in which he serves as the polar complement of the major’s wife. She is the nurturing Mother who sustains her large, far-flung household. He is the Son who lives an unreflecting, playful existence. And so they cry out to each other across the expanse of their antitheses. No wonder, then, that she rescues him from his homelessness and installs him along the merry cavaliers at Ekeby. He comes to incorporate their essence, the personification of the novel’s transient, poetic and erotic dimension.

The major’s wife in Gösta Berlings saga is like the ‘Great Mother’ for the ‘Cavaliers’ or adventurers:

“There is mirth and bustle. Fancy, if the major’s wife should see them!

What then? Probably she would sit down with them and empty a bumper. She is a doughty woman; she’s not afraid of a thundering drinking-song or to take a hand at kille [a Swedish game of cards]. The richest woman in Värmland, as bold as a man, proud as a queen. Songs she loves, and sounding fiddles, and the hunting-horn. She likes wine and games of cards, and tables surrounded by merry guests are her delight. She likes to see the larder emptied, to have dancing and merry-making in chamber and hall, and the bachelors’ wing full of pensioners.”

But the symbiosis evaporates once the “sons” rebel and strike a pact with the devil: the major’s wife is expelled, the cavaliers became the masters at Ekeby and abandon caution to the wind. While the major’s wife makes a journey of penance to her mother, every possible force is released – nature rages, the instincts rise to the surface, and the entire superstructure of civilisation is swept away in the frothing waves.

While the major’s wife is the force that creates form, Gösta is the inspiration that lacks all form, the “poet” although he has never written a line. And where her position is empty, his is weightless and devoid of any identity save the eruptions of the moment. He incarnates sexuality and has no history apart from that which is reflected in the women he seduces. His journey is a spiritual one, though fuelled by inspiration, seduction and loss rather than growth and insight. A trifurcate coterie of women conduct him to his final fate in which the narrative lines converge and both he and the major’s wife are transformed into human entities. When the major’s wife dies, the man and woman are born; the novel leaves the realm of myth behind and enters history, allowing Gösta and the young countess to start a real life together.#note7

The mythical strands are tonic chords that create latitude for a cornucopia of melodies, a prose poem that throbs throughout the novel, a luminous display of drama and scenery that bursts with form, sparkles with colour, flows in abundance. Not to mention one story after another elaborated by a narrator who retires, only to clearly identify herself as a subject who pathetically measures the distance to her objects: “O ye women of yore!”

The novel is the literary equivalent of total theatre, symphonically linking all genres and keys. But its polyphonic structure is pervaded by a type of irony that reveals a modernist sense of crisis and danger. The fault lines of modernity can be seen thorough the folds of the baroque, romantic curtain as realism acquires an overtone of multiplicity.

The use of popular culture as the context and mirror for the weightlessness of Gösta Berling is an artistic acknowledgement of the eternal recurrence of primitive, magical consciousness. Similarly, the shattering of epochal structures through a series of transmogrifications is a symptom of the modern self and its many faces. Gösta’s shapelessness and the peculiar amnesia it embraces is a direct evocation of modernity’s psychological tension between bourgeois intimacy and urban superficiality. The tension is propagated by the duality of a personal, sober narrator and unabashed story-telling.

The novel’s critique of civilisation takes aim at both the hollowness of the old hierarchy and the crisis of modernity. The mythical father is glaringly absent. Just as the maternal role expanded in the real world, the mother figure in the novel acquires archaic dimensions. Notwithstanding the catastrophic implications for the plot, the impact is explosive at the level of style.

In describing the fascination of lust and the anarchy it produces, The Story of Gösta Berling abounds with an aesthetic of beauty and pleasure. And for that very reason it cannot be reduced to either myth or a moral treatise. The linguistic sonority is an intrinsic dimension of its meaning, and its modernist composition creates an artistic framework for the shifting perspective from which Lagerlöf’s world contemplated the human condition.

Gösta – made by the major’s wife! – here among the ‘Cavaliers’ in Gösta Berlings saga:

“See them round about the bowl! Twelve are they, twelve men. Not butterflies nor dandies, but men whose fame will not soon die out in Värmland; brave men and strong. […] but in the midst of them was one who was not more than thirty years old, and still possessed the full, undiminished strength of his mind and body. It was Gösta Berling, the Knight of Knights, who alone in himself was a better speaker, singer, musician, hunter, drinking companion and card-player than all of the others together. He possessed all gifts. What a man the major’s wife had made of him!”

A Multiplicity of Forms

Lines can be traced from Gösta Berlings saga to pretty well all forms of women’s writing that set the compass in the early 1900s; to the lyrical modernism which, with Edith Södergran as prototype, opens up the metre and thus allows for the free movement of metaphor in correspondence with as of yet unformulated empiricism; to a subjective, sensitive prose in which reflections and moods blend into the actual forum of the text, and where the malleability of the psyche is transmitted into the motions of the words; and to a narrative prose in which the oral tradition has become an integrated stylistic feature and the text is a weave of threads in constant narrative, supplementing, and ornamenting relationship to one another. Literature written by women thus partly breaks with and partly plays with the classical genres.

C. 1905. Drawing. Københavns Museum

At the beginning of the century, however, the new trends were mainly apparent in works of prose. Here the women authors wrote in competition with the narrative that was the take-off point for their own mindset. The classical narrative with its linear cohence – a beginning, a middle, and an end – corresponded, in general, to a centrist world picture and, in particular, to bourgeois attitudes – ideas on the self-assertive individual, on the creative power of free thought, on development and progress. It was not a case of the women now completely rejecting ‘narrative’. However, the mixed bag of narrative modes shows that classical realism could simply no longer capture all facets in the sentiment of existence – not in the naturalistic variant, either.

For the women of the Modern Breakthrough, it had been a matter of ‘conquering’ themselves; their works had thus taken the development (and breakdown) of the individual as the main thread. Now, on the other hand, the women were in a situation where, in a way, they had been confirmed as subjects – and seen from this vantage point, there was more than one story to be told.

Realism in the classical sense is therefore chiefly to be found in the popular literature, whereas it is the hybrid forms that characterise the modern writing. In oeuvres where the new world picture has become a dimension of artistic cognition, the perspectival lens is – as in the work of Selma Lagerlöf – just one of several ways of seeing within the fictional forum.

The overall characterising feature is: multiplicity! It is not possible to put the individual work, the individual oeuvre, or modern literature written by women as a whole into one formula. Unlike women of the Modern Breakthrough, who could look to the view from the sitting room as their shared horizon, women writers of the twentieth century can be found all over the place – in the bohemian milieu and the universities, they are propagandists and journalists, and at the same time they are wives, mothers, muses, or ‘housekeepers’ on the family estate.

Nor can the writers’ backgrounds be located to a relatively uniform bourgeois milieu. Firstly, because the bourgeoisie was no longer a homogenous group; secondly, because many of the young writers from a bourgeois background had followed a different route to that of the previous generation – quite a few had been through higher education, and even more had put in the hours at an office desk or at the blackboard; thirdly, because the general migration from countryside to town had produced a number of writers who, like Selma Lagerlöf, had spent their childhood in a culture where the oral tradition was still active.

Not just the works, but also the writers’ personal attitudes are extremely varied: stretching from a bohemian outlook in which life and work are entirely intertwined, across the socially committed profile in which writer and feminist stand side by side, and on to invisibility in which the private individual is completely hidden behind the work.

Something similar also applies to the fictional characters. The literature of the 1880s provided a number of distinctive female ‘types’ whose stories, actions, and progress had certain common features. This is no longer possible. Female characters in the modern literature are at entirely different places at entirely different points in history; and the same author who in one work depicts city life might well move the next book out into the rural community of times past or medieval convent life.

On the other hand, women writers now have a tendency to cast the man in a secondary role. Or, it might be more accurate to say that the male figure – a Gösta Berling, for example – has become the bearer of the Dionysian and erotic dimensions in the texts. He is often the occasion and not the objective of the female characters’ endeavours. Another common feature is that the characters are driven by mythical or unconscious forces. It could, on the face of it, seem as if the female ego almost vanishes in a mysticism that can border on a kind of ‘primordial nature’. In terms of artistic structure, however, this is not a case of relapse into a Romantic femininity, but of a conscious, experimental suspension of the ego’s boundaries, which allows language to venture out into the unknown. ‘The new woman’ – self-assured, qualified, purposeful – is therefore perfectly able to exist side by side with ‘woman’ as an unformulated sphere of possibility in the modern text.

In accordance herewith, even the work of authors who chiefly write within a psychological realism have an element of the suggestive and the fantastical. And, generally speaking, the temporal line has a tendency to become absorbed into the dramatic or poetic line. Depictions of everyday life approach the stylised, and the long narrative lines assume organic forms – they become winding and labyrinthine.

These manifestations of form indicate that the organisational and organising element has opened to a language that gives a platform to desire– establishes a play of meanings. And as such, the aesthetic mode reflects a supple and mobile ego able to contain a multiplicity of times and spaces within a single interpreting consciousness.

It is thus through the overstepping of boundaries and the ability to contain the paradoxical and the contradictory that Selma Lagerlöf’s aesthetic tracks emerge in the new literature written by women; in poetry that gives free rein to the wealth of horizons inherent in language, and in prose that ranges from a psychological exploration of the ego’s desire to a narrative in which oral tradition and nature have become a pulse beat in the text.

In the following, two modern authors wielding very different pens – Norwegian Sigrid Undset and Danish Marie Bregendahl – will serve to demonstrate the scope within prose writing in the wake of Selma Lagerlöf’s breakthrough novel.

Observing the Self

In Gösta Berlings saga, the figure of Marianne Sinclair is the representative of what Kierkegaard called the sickness unto death – the split between ‘I’ and ‘me’. She is a Snow White figure, who cannot relate to life because she is afflicted with the “spirit of self-consciousness”.

Literary scholarship also changed its indicators around 1900. There is an intellectual kinship between Gösta Berlings saga and the leading Danish literary scholar Vilhelm Andersen’s reading of the aesthetic-Dionysian aspect of artistic creation:

“The Dionysian viewpoint, which to the ethical eye would seem to be an impasse, whence action is impossible, is, from an aesthetic point of view, the very locale of Life, whence the world can be moved in the mind. At this juncture, where the threads of life converge and its opposites meet, where spirit and nature are united in a soul, where the masculine and the feminine are combined, as in the image of Dionysus in Antiquity, in the human, where the high and the low, that which causes horror and that which excites laughter, is reconciled in a warm irony, which is ‘proficient in both’ like the platonic Socrates, a humour whence comedy and tragedy have their common origin – at this juncture, which is a world in embryo and the ‘navel of the world’, as the Greeks called the Apollo-Dionysus shrine in Delphi, it is possible to create.”

Bacchustoget i Norden (1904; The Bacchus Train in the North)

A descendent of Marianne’s, but placed in a totally different contemporary-realistic framework, is the first-person narrator in Sigrid Undset’s diary novel, Fru Marta Oulie (Mrs Marta Oulie), published in 1907. Just like the poems in which Marianne expresses her loss of self, this text is ostensibly subjective and introverted – and by those very means it is able to express the modern sentiment of existence, in which the ego is split up in reflections of the reflections.

The tale itself is simple, even commonplace: Marta is the ‘new woman’ who falls in love with Otto Oulie, a man of the same age as her, marries, has children and gives up her job – and then some years later she is drowning in the trivialities of everyday life. She feels as if she is “one of the items in the long catalogue of Otto Oulie’s delights”, and she is, briefly, unfaithful to him with their friend Henrik. Otto falls ill with tuberculosis, and he dies without having been told that ‘his’ fourth child was actually fathered by Henrik. The novel ends with Marta turning down Henrik’s offer of marriage and choosing to get on with her life, living alone with her children.

It is not, however, the fable, but the text that is the issue. The novel is written in the form of a diary in which the very first lines wrench the text out of any allegiance to a chronological timeline: “I have been unfaithful to my husband. – I write these words and sit staring at them – they are all my thoughts. – As once I wrote Otto’s name and stared at it: Otto Oulie, Otto Oulie, Otto Oulie – .”

Unlike Gösta Berlings saga, self-observation has here appropriated the entire plane, and the outer fictional space is almost entirely absorbed in the inner, mental space. Awareness jumps between places and times, and the leaps and glides occur associatively – a similarity or a nearness trigger the next stream of consciousness. It is a text in which the manifest ego is so porous that the unconscious thoughts are written into it, and the novel can thus be read as an artistic parallel to the process of psychoanalysis – with the difference that therapist and patient are two sides of the same writing consciousness, which makes the entire novel feel like an ongoing – unconscious – self-correction.

Marianne Sinclair in Selma Lagerlöf’s novel Gösta Berlings saga (1891) suffers from the same ailment as the main character in Sigrid Undset’s novel Fru Marta Oulie (1907; Mrs Marta Oulie) – ‘reflection sickness’. Selma Lagerlöf’s version, the “spirit of self-consciousness” looks like this:

“Then the fiend sits and stares and stares with his icy eyes, and picks and picks with his bony, hard fingers. And if one looks carefully, behind him sits a still paler creature, who stares and sneers, and behind him another and still another, sneering at one another and at the whole world.”

The staging of the story also corresponds very closely to cases recorded by Freud. The action takes place on at least three levels: the moment of writing, shaped by the sporadic progression of the diary entries; the recent past, in which the affair occurred; and back at the beginning of time, when Marta fell in love with Otto. But these levels interact in the text. For example, the sentence “I have been unfaithful to my husband” pulls the earlier words – “Otto Oulie, Otto Oulie, Otto Oulie” – up to the surface. In a triple – rolling – repetition, the husband’s name glides with the movement of the language into the mental complex.

For, completely by the book, it is not the immediate cause – adultery – that is in itself traumatic. The trauma occurs because the actually illegitimate eros invokes the unconscious memory of the first erotic situation, which is thereby – as seen through the prism of self-observation – exposed in its anything but loving aspects. A pattern thus gradually emerges in which Marta unwittingly makes the adultery resemble an inverted repetition.

Of her affair, she writes:

“[…] I, I, I wanted to be hailed by his eyes and hands and lips; it was not that I had to give myself to the one who became the master of my volition – but I wanted him, hook, line, and sinker.”

In Marta’s writings, the affair thus appears to be an active desire for the man who has seen her as desiring. A somewhat provocative female attitude, which insists on personal desire as an aspect of the ego’s integrity, and also – and this is particularly striking – exposes an urge literally to devour the object.

The most disturbing aspect, however, the one that charges the entire novel with a never-discharged tension, is the linking of this aggressive eroticism with scenes from the past. With continually progressing memory work, she recalls that “I loved so fanatically that it seemed I could never immerse myself deeply enough in my own love” – and also that she had in advance appropriated the vision of Otto. He makes a number of appearances as “a handsome figure”, and indeed it is the sight of Otto’s charms that gives rise to Marta’s pleasurable lingering on ‘back then’: “[…] in point of fact, I have never seen so fine a specimen of a man as Otto, slim and strong and elegant; there was something so exquisite about [his appearance] and his manner of carrying himself that one had to think of a fine pedigree animal, a really lovely dog – .”

What comes across unconsciously in the text is not the difference but the similarity between the situations. In this past love, too, sight is involved in the desire; in this instance, however, the eyes are not directed towards her – she, on the other hand, is doing the looking – and the look is lustful because she does not see his, but her own, ‘fanatical’ desire.

Otto dies, and Henrik is turned down – in consequence of the progressing insights of the text. It is not about Otto, it is not about Henrik – it is about their existence in Marta’s ego formation. The text is in pursuit of the ego and therefore has to reconstruct the scenes in which desire showed itself. The route to the ego is via the desire, and that Marta is able to write ‘I’ at all is because the text keeps the dual aspect of desire – self-observation and urge – from disappearing into itself.

The inward opening also, however, brings about an outward opening. The integrity of the subject, on the one hand borne out in the insistent ‘I want’, is disputed on the other hand by the text’s growing recognition that it is not possible to draw clear-cut boundaries between the subject and the surrounding world. Paradoxically, human beings are at one and the same time connected and incapable of reaching one another – sight will attract, but self-observation will render total intimacy impossible.

The only place where a coming together can take place is in motherhood. Unlike the gender debate of its day, the novel does not claim that motherliness is an inherent quality of the female ‘nature’, but that the contradiction between ego and non-ego, between individual and society, is suspended in relation to the child: “With your child on your lap, you are as close to another human being as it is possible to be.”

The thrust of the text does not stop here, however. On the contrary, from this point it starts being possible to spot the contours of a larger, cosmic, coherence:

“But underneath I glimpse a shadow – something I cannot grasp, I do not even know what I should call it – a force.”

In this respect, the novel is inscribed in the twentieth-century reformulation of the metaphysical. Cutting across the subject, cutting across chance beginnings and ends, humankind and nature are driven by forces that cannot be explained by means of conventional cognitive categories.

In this way, the organic, pulsating idiom of Fru Marta Oulie manifests the projection of a manifold ego current in the writing of the modern women authors. Marta is carried along by a language that takes her out into a force field of which she is not in control, while also insisting on being able to see and thereby control herself. Self-observation is on the go to the very last, and the novel draws to a close with Marta’s memory of a little girl who kept on pulling the dressing off her injured hand because she wanted to see “what it looks like – –.”

Karin Michaëlis’s novel Den farlige Alder: Breve og Dagbogsoptegnelser (1910; Eng. tr. The Dangerous Age: Letters and Fragments from a Woman’s Diary), with its combination of letters and diary, takes place in the same psychological settings as Sigrid Undset’s Fru Marta Oulie. And when the central character suffers rejection by a man, the aggressive instinct raises its very recognisable voice:

“Good heavens! I understand the women who throw vitriol in the face of a rival. Unhappily I am too refined for such reprisals. But if I had her here — whoever she may be — I would crush her with a look she could never forget.”

Sense of Self

Marie Bregendahl’s writing has more than one string linking it to Selma Lagerlöf: the connection runs through the entire compositional approach – that being the narrative as a polyphonic construction.

Reading the novella Alvilda (1914), later one of the seven narratives published as Sødalsfolkene III, (1935, originally published 1914-23; The People of Sødal), it is possible to draw parallels, feature by feature, with Gösta Berlings saga.This is partly because Selma Lagerlöf was a huge source of inspiration to writing penned after the turn of the century, but chiefly because both works address the meeting of two cultures. The material is taken from the popular culture of childhood; but the ears that hear and the eyes that see are tuned by modernity.

Common to Alvilda and Selma Lagerlöf’s novel are the contrapuntal linked sequential strings – past and current episodes are woven one into the other, and the perspective diffuses in a range of viewpoints.

However, the twenty-or-so-year gap between publication dates, along with the popular realistic currents around the turn of the century in Denmark, has of course given Marie Bregendahl’s prose its own tone. Oral culture and popular diction are not limited to being an element in her writing, but are the very warp in the weave.

Similarly, the narrator is of a different type to Selma Lagerlöf’s. Alongside the informal narrator, who clearly signals a controlling consciousness in phrases such as “All that here is told took place some time in the mid-seventies”, the technique is almost cinematic, with the narrator vanishing behind a constantly sliding point of view: now the collective voice is heard, now one or other of the characters steps forward in direct or indirect speech, and then in the next moment again becomes part of a communal concurrence.

In this way the text is on the boundary – between the one and the other, between outer and inner, between humankind and nature. In this perspective, the individual character is therefore part of both the geographical and the mental landscape, and is also a kind of landscape in him-/herself, in which the events leave their mark – where a continuous pulling down and building up of the character takes place.

In Alvilda, nature does indeed assert itself from the very outset of the story:

“It was springtime.

Three months of the year had been endured and now it was April. Then the area was visited by a fellow who was not any welcome guest:

The west wind.”

In this prelude, the forces of nature are controlled via characteristic features of the popular parlance – understatement and personification. The west wind, however, is not that easy to control, and as things get more and more whipped up in the text, phrases in which drollness obtains – “Yes, indeed, today there was a good wind for the mill, today they could get some work done” – are replaced by invocations – “Lord, Lord! Where would it all end!”

The questioning, the disturbing, and the incomprehensible gradually take over all levels of the text. Not only is outer nature in turmoil, inner nature also experiences chaos when a female character appears in the landscape. A woman who merges with the elements and is therefore both alien and – it turns out – uncomfortably familiar. For the madwoman is none other than the valley’s once so-loved Mistress Alvilda, who has now returned in the form of her own ghost.

In its way, Alvilda stages the same ritual drama as Gösta Berlings saga – with, that is, the crucial difference that the structuring and the erotic forces are here united in one and the same person: Alvilda. She revisits both the major’s wife at Ekeby and the poet Gösta Berling. But precisely this psychological complication of the character, and the relocation to a forum in which it is the people’s voice we hear, gives the drama a different slant: it deals with the contrast between sight and myth – between the sight of mad Alvilda and the curious tales of good Alvilda.

Sigrid Undset’s Marta Oulie sneers at the so-called understanding between the sexes – for passion and desire are not to be understood:

“O, how right I was that time with my disdain for the vulgar, ill-mannered female clamour for ‘understanding’ – they just want a man to be watchmaker for their tedious, twisted little brains and waste his time indulging their vanity.”

In the collective memory – this being in the oral tradition of the district – Alvida is a totally different figure: the uncrowned queen of the valley, lofty and yet also mingling with the ordinary people. It is not just in name, but also in deed that she comes “from the higher station” and holds herself up like a mirror that unites the individuals within the communal framework. The myths circulating about her all deal with her power to forge coherence. Whenever someone is about to transgress, whenever urges run wild and are about to turn destructive, she intervenes – her presence alone ‘refines’ the fellowship of youth and channels the erotic forces into the community parameters. On this mythical plane, she is the mediating component between the people and the “omniscient gaze” of the textual universe’s father-figure, the old rural dean.

In the meantime, the meandering course of the narrative, with the past woven into the present, covers up a hole in that which is told. It is said that one day Alvilda left for Copenhagen in order to marry a graduate, Hacke, known to the people only for his inability to control either his horse or himself. But what occurred between this vanishing point and her return to the valley is not reported.

The reason there can be no account of what happened in this narrative hole is that the point of view does not shift beyond the valley, Sødalen; it does not move, as it were, from the good picture of Alvilda, but is instead invaded by what is kept out of the frame – the madwoman. In the figure of her own homeless desire, Alvilda rushes around the arena and ‘hacks’ holes in the stories, in the people, and in the meaning.

The vision of the madwoman presses unbearably up against the picture of the good woman, until it all shatters. It would be wrong to say that this happens with a bang, even though it is a waterspout that eventually ‘gets’ Alvilda and kills her. For the point is: it is not a depiction of death at all, but of laughter. The people’s laughter that bursts through while Alvilda dies.

The madwoman in Alvilda – a symbolic expression of the gathering of outer and inner forces of nature:

“Sometimes they saw her appear on a hilltop and sometimes she stood atop a barrow. Now she was here and now she was there; but most often at the spots worst assailed by the howling storm. She was easy to pick out and easy to recognise, once you had noticed her, for she wore a large, voluminous evening cloak that billowed out in the wind like a balloon and had a loose cape that flapped up and down on her shoulders like a pair of phantom wings.”

The people are working in the fields, whence the weather looks like a merry game, the gusts of wind and tourbillons, hail showers and sunbeams vie, playing pranks on one another. And “the strange weather – and all its droll, unpredictable whims” relieves the pressure – and causes the people to laugh. Laughter rings out in every corner of the text, and in so doing also covers up what it is all about: release from the tension between the good and the mad Alvilda.

The more the drama comes to a head, therefore, the further away is the point of view. Why? Because the significance thus plays on the brink of that which cannot be spoken – that which happens at the moment when the whim of nature has smashed humankind’s self-image, and in so doing has opened up for the creation of a new one.

Unlike the major’s wife in Gösta Berlings saga, Alvilda does not make it home. The wildness (Danish: alvilde) and the omniscient (Danish: alvidende) which echo in her name, are never harnessed together. The context of Alvilda’s settingleaves no ‘room’ for her straying desire.

Not only Alvilda, but many other twentieth-century works of literature written by women resound with the culture of popular laughter as it is depicted in the Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, 1965:

“Laughter liberates not only from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor; it liberates from the fear that developed in man during thousands of years: fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power. […] It was linked with the procreating act, with birth, renewal, fertility, abundance. Laughter was also related to food and drink and the people’s earthly immortality, and […] to the future of things to come and was to clear the way for them.”

But should the “reconciliation” sought by the people fail to materialise, and should Alvilda not be redeemed as an individual, then her death will, on the other hand, cause a landslide of the entire empirical foundation whence the myths originated. Not only Alvilda, but also the rural dean and, in a wider sense, the entire mode of cognition will be demolished, and the “reconciliation” will undergo a radical reinterpretation. The patriarchate is brought down, and the father-figure is transformed into a human being who in sadness and love has to trust in the other human being:

“‘Yes, children,’ he then said with a sad, but ineffably loving tone of voice, ‘The reconciliation, well now it will be you who must fulfil it.’”

With this existential slant, the new world picture is admitted into the text, and the meaning is moved away from the drama and over to the narrative as cognitive form. Alvilda is not here a separate subject, but an Other who is fundamentally alien and incomprehensible, consigned as she is to the inaccessibility of her own nature. The hole between sight and myth cannot be healed by an underlying meaning, because there is no other meaning than that created by humankind – in the narrative. This meaning is not a truth, but it is the sphere in which the reconciliation takes place as people take on the unknown Other. Here – in the narrative – the human being is both embedded in a community and experiences a sense of self.

In this sense, cognition is present in Marie Bregendahl’s form: in the slow rhythms of the writing, in the long, drawn-out stretches in which the changes do not occur here or there, but in the way the tale is told. In muted voice, what is said quivers to the sound of the unsaid; and just as the figure of Alvilda is full of holes, so is cognition projected over lacunae of non-knowledge. There is only the viability of the narrative to trust in, and Alvilda is played out, to an even greater extent than Gösta Berlings saga, on the boundary where the ego takes form in an interlacing of threads.

A Portal …

The prospects opened up in Fru Marta Oulie and Alvilda, respectively, thus show that Sigrid Undset and Marie Bregendahl drew widely different artistic consequences from the change in the world picture. And yet the works, each in its way, show that the female ego has grown into the twentieth century and has taken up the challenges of the times.

In both works, the contiguous is replaced by the labyrinthine; whether the point of view looks, as in Sigrid Undset, inward or, as in Marie Bregendahl, outward, the ego emerges as a kaleidoscope of times, spaces, narratives – and as a constant questioning of boundaries: of the unconscious, of fellow human beings, of nature, of the myth. In that respect, the two authors are representative, and between them they make a distinguished portal to twentieth-century literature written by women.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch