August Strindberg, the Spirit of Revolt: Studies and Impressions

August Strindberg, the Spirit of Revolt: Studies and Impressions

L. Lind-af-Hageby
L. Lind-af-Hageby

Author: Lind-af-Hageby, L. (Lizzy), 1878-1963
August Strindberg, the Spirit of Revolt: Studies and Impressions


Studies and Impressions











August Strindberg—Bust by Carl Eldh.


August Strindberg. From a Bust by Carl Eldh
Strindberg’s Parents
August Strindberg (1862 and 1870)
August Strindberg. From Statue by Carl Eldh (not available)
August Strindberg (1884)
August Strindberg (1884 and 1897)
August Strindberg. From Bust by Max Levi, 1893 (not available)
August Strindberg. From Bust by Agnes Kjellberg Frumerie, 1896 (not available)
August Strindberg. From Portrait in Oil by Chr. Krogh, 1893
August Strindberg. From Portrait in Oil by Richard Bergh, 1906
August Strindberg (1904 and 1906)
August Strindberg (1906 and 1907)
August Strindberg (1902). In His Home in Stockholm (1908)
August Strindberg. From Bust by K.I. Eldh. Bought by the Swedish State.
In the National Museum, Stockholm
August Strindberg. From Portrait by Carl Larsson, 1899. In the National
Museum, Stockholm
Strindberg in His Library in the Blue Tower. His Last Home
Strindberg in His Study (1911)
The Strindberg-Theatre in Stockholm
Harriet Bosse. Strindberg’s third Wife as Biskra in Samum, 1902
Anne-Marie Bosse-Strindberg. Strindberg’s only child by his third marriage
Strindberg’s Funeral (May 19th, 1913). Trades-Unions
and Undergraduates in Procession





There have been few dispassionate attempts to discern August Strindberg’s place in contemporary literature. His writings and his personality defied ordinary criticism.

He took upon himself the rôle of destroyer, he mocked men’s religion and men’s morality, he ridiculed propriety and poured bitter scorn on the social order. There was something cometic in the swiftness and intensity with which he appeared, disturbing the well-ordered orbits of traditions and conventions. The erratic course of his voyage through humanity caused alarm. No sooner had people congratulated themselves that his terrific lust for destruction had passed by their favourite systems and their cherished ideals, than his ruthless force was upon them, exposing ugliness and scattering treasures.

He passed on, making enemies, breaking idols, desecrating temples. He sowed reality and he reaped hatred.

His titanic spirit worked through a brain charged with explosive mentality. He poured out dramas, novels, stories, with a versatility and an accumulating energy which in themselves were offensive to the mediocre and to those who sought to place him within literary shackles. He discoursed on history, science and statecraft with the calm assurance of omniscience.

He wrote books which were decidedly and unblushingly “immoral.” He compelled attention by blasphemous outbursts which filled the religious with righteous indignation and sighs for the auto-da-fé. He dissected the human heart, laid bare its meanness, its uncleanliness; made men and women turn on each other with sudden understanding and loathing, and walked away smiling at the evil he had wrought. He turned on himself with savage hatred, and in books, bearing the mark of the flagellant and reflecting the agony of a soul in torment, he pointed to his sins and his stripes.

“He is very evil,” said some; “let us put him in prison.”

“He is mad,” said others; “let us have him declared a lunatic.”

“He is most improper,” said the majority; “let us ignore him altogether.”

When public opinion was quite sure that Strindberg was evil, mad, and improper, when he stood convicted out of his own mouth of anti-social and satanic designs, he stayed the verdict by his own magic. He wrote more and more, and there came from his pen artistic creations endowed with virtues which could not have risen in a mind submerged in vice; pictures of scenery which bespoke a delicate and spiritualised nature-worship. His mind held a garden of flowers as well as a pile of putrescence.

On May 14th, 1912, the stillness of death descended on the battlefield which was Strindberg’s life. The literary historian who justly passes the suspended verdict must hold peculiar and special qualifications. For the winds of literary taste and fashion cannot touch the giant of expression. Condemnation by temporary systems of morality and creed did not alter his course in life and will not disturb him in death. He was—himself; and he worked ceaselessly at the task of finding more of himself. Strindberg the atheist, Strindberg the scientist, Strindberg the spiritualist, Strindberg the mystic, Strindberg the sensualist, and Strindberg the ascetic, took equally important parts in his theatre of life. The critic met him day by day in different attire and pose, incarnations of the elusive self which was stage-manager of this extraordinary performance. A soul in conflict with itself, good and evil, fair and foul; sparkling with life and tense with passion to create, he could not give us peace or contentment. Like Jacob, he wrestled with God, though not for a night only, but throughout life, and he fought with the desperation of one who knows that upon the issue of the struggle depends, not his own blessing, but the liberation of countless prisoners.

An epitome of humanity, a fragment of the world’s eternal and real drama of birth and death, he cannot be fully understood save by those who share his cosmic consciousness.

He studied chemistry, astronomy, botany, physics, geology, entomology, medicine, philology and political economy with a voracity which made him ridiculous in the eyes of the specialists who are satisfied with a few well-established formulæ. For him there were no barriers between specialised departments of human knowledge—all sciences were thrown into the melting-pot, in which he was preparing the new brew which would slake the thirst of parched souls. A solipsist who assimilated, rejected and transmuted the patiently accumulated theories of morals as the supreme duty of existence, he scorned the slaves of ethical communism.

The iconoclasm of Ibsen was fired by the realisation of the duties of the wise prophet amongst his foolish people. The hypocrisies and foibles of the little souls were the objects of the thundering chastisement of his trumpet. The white heat of Nietzsche’s forge for the making of Superman was engendered by contempt for the feeble and sickly. The misanthropy which breathed poison out of Strindberg’s writings, which showed souls and things in hideous nakedness, and painted sores and disease with horrible realism, was the darkness which he held high so as to call forth the cry for tight.

The collected works of Strindberg, which will shortly be published in a new edition, consist of some 115 plays, novels, collections of stories, essays and poems. Amongst these some seem absolutely antithetical. It is the constant changeability, the self-contradictions, which made Strindberg so incomprehensible to his contemporaries. The measure of his life-force was so liberal that he could afford to continue where others stop. He shed his skins like the snake and altered his colour like the chameleon, because he was the personification of perpetual movement and change. Thus he was endowed with ever-recurring youth; the decay of the old was immediately followed by birth of the new. The diary, in which, during the last fourteen years, he recorded his visions and supernatural experiences, will not be given to the world for many years to come. Though it depicts the last phase of his spiritual evolution, the postponement of publication is no doubt wise. Meanwhile, those who have poured curses on Strindberg’s blatant atheism have been perplexed by his last words.

When death was drawing near, he took the Bible—which always lay on the table by his bed—held it up and said in a clear voice:

“Everything personal is now obliterated. I have settled with life. My account has been rendered. This alone is right.”

He expressed a last wish that the Bible and a little crucifix which he used to wear should be placed on his breast after death, and that he should be buried early in the morning, and not amongst the rich. He desired to be laid to rest alone on the top of a hill under the firs.

This love of the early morning was part of his craving for more light. For many years he used to take a solitary morning walk. At seven o’clock he emerged from his “blue tower” in Stockholm and walked briskly through the streets and squares of his native town. At nine he was back at his writing-table—of late years a recluse for the rest of the day, absorbed in his work.

“Ever since my youth,” he writes in Inferno, “I devote my morning walk to meditations which are preparations for my daily work. Nobody may then accompany me, not even my wife. In the morning my mind enjoys a balance and an expansion which approach ecstasy; I do not walk, I fly; I do not feel that I have a body; all sadness evaporates and I am entirely soul. This is for me the hour of inner concentration, of prayer, my divine service.”

I have often seen Strindberg in the streets of Stockholm. He walked with his high forehead painfully contracted, the eyes searching and concentrated, and an expression of haughty bitterness upon his face. A solitary, suggesting to the passer-by Rodin’s Penseur in motion and the futile wanderings of Ahasuerus; he seemed wrapped in his own misery, held aloof by suffering and contempt.

One day I met him with a companion. He was holding a little girl by the hand and talking to her. The child looked up in his face and Strindberg’s expression was changed. Love for the child, respect for the questions and joys of childhood shone out of the face of the hater. He was not obsessed by the ugliness of things or the cruelty of human deception. His face was aglow with the early enthusiasm which, though slain a thousand times, rises again at the bidding of the Self that knows the answer to the riddle.

In the early morning of Sunday, May 19th, August Strindberg’s body was laid to rest. It was a glorious spring day with sunshine and blue sky. Some sixty thousand people were astir to do homage to the memory of one whom they knew to have been intrinsically true and tragically great. Royalty, Riksdag, universities, capital and labour, statesmen, writers and artists assembled to say a united farewell to the man of mystery who, by his intense sincerity and the exuberance of genius, had at last melted hatred, and ascended the steps from shame to glory.

In a message after Strindberg’s death, Maxim Gorki likened him to Danko, the hero of the old Danube legend, who, in order to help humanity out of the darkness of problems, tore his heart out of his breast, lit it and holding it high, led the way. The masses who mock and praise so easily, who crucify and raise idols with the same haste, seldom recognise their real friends. Strindberg patiently burnt his heart for the illumination of the people, and on the day when his body was laid low in the soil the flame of his self-immolation was seen pure and inextinguishable.



Strindberg’s childhood and youth, as described by himself in his autobiographical novel The Bondswoman’s Son, present psychological features of exceptional interest. The circumstances of his early home-life and their effect upon the unfolding forces of his genius cannot be ignored by anyone who attempts to explain the varied strata of his artistic production.

His insistent and torturous need for exact self-analysis, coupled with an equally compelling need to tell the truth, made all his writings strongly subjective. His autobiography—”the story of a soul’s evolution”—is an intimate revelation of his power to dissect his past selves, to record minute incidents and to extract reflexes from the bundle of emotions and thoughts which go to make up character. Nothing is lost, nothing is too insignificant for careful examination in the microscope under which he places every cell of himself. The confessions of Rousseau and Tolstoy have not the nakedness of Strindberg’s truth about himself. Though he never loses sympathy with himself, he scorns excuses and exposes his sins and his follies with ruthless exactitude. There is a strange combination of the coolly analysing psychologist and the passionate flagellant in the descriptions which range from the struggles of childhood, through the Inferno-period of 1896, to the calm of Alone, and the final visions of light.

The autobiographical novel in four volumes which was published under the titles The Bondswoman’s Son, Fermentation Time, In the Red Room and The Author, was written at the age of thirty-seven, and, though the impressions of childhood are recorded with deep insight into the child’s mind, we cannot forget that they were written down and interpreted by the man who had behind him years of tumultuous and bitter struggle for self-expression, and before whom the banquet of life seemed reduced to dead-sea fruit. In the preface to the fifth edition of The Bondswoman’s Son, he tells us that when writing the volume he believed he stood before death, “for I was tired, saw no longer any object in life, considered myself superfluous, thrown away.”

Johan August Strindberg was born in Stockholm on January 22nd, 1849. His father, whom in disparagement of his parentage he often calls “the grocer,” was a merchant and shipping agent who had married a servant-girl, the mother of his three children. The father was a man of education and natural refinement who passed through many economical vicissitudes, culminating in bankruptcy at the time of August’s birth. August was born a short time after the union between the parents had been legalised by the ceremony of marriage, and he was not welcome. His father bore his troubles with manly fortitude and resignation and cherished the ideals of the upper classes, whilst the mother was essentially of the people and remained so. He claimed a distant ancestral connection with the nobility of Sweden, his family having descended from the son of a peasant who was born in 1710 at Strinne in Angermanland, and who married a girl of noble birth. The discord resulting from the difference between his father and mother gave August his first impression of that class struggle which I throughout life held him in the bondage of a haunting problem, and which stimulated the development of his mordantly critical faculties.

Poverty, with its attendant cares and anxieties, reigned in the house by Klara churchyard, where, from a flat on the third floor, August began to survey life’s difficulties. He tells us that he recollects fear and hunger as his first sensations. He was afraid of darkness, of being beaten, of offending people, of falling down, of knocking against things, of being in the way, of the fists of his brothers, of father’s and mother’s chastisements.

It was not easy to avoid being in people’s way, for the parents with seven children and two servants lived in three rooms. The furniture consisted mostly of cradles and beds; children slept on ironing boards and chairs. Baptisms and funerals alternated. The mother developed phthisis after the birth of her twelfth child.

She was contented with her life, he tells us, for she had risen in the social scale and improved her own and her family’s position. The father was less satisfied with his fate, for he had descended and sacrificed himself. He was tired, sad, severe and serious, but not hard.

Strindberg’s recollections of his early impressions of the relations between his father and mother show the inception of the views on women and marriage which earned for him the title of woman-hater, and which found their most provocative expression in The Father and The Confession of a Fool.

“This is the father’s thankless position in the family,” he writes; “to be everybody’s breadwinner, everybody’s enemy.” He concluded that his mother did not overwork herself, though his account of the daily life in the family does not support that view.

As a little boy August was as weak as other little boys. He adored his mother. He was shy, acutely sensitive, morbidly self-conscious, keenly resentful of injustice. He was not his mother’s favourite, he was nobody’s favourite, and this embittered him. The mother soon became an object of analysis; he was torn between love for her and contempt for her faults, which he discovered through making comparisons between her and his father. He says that a yearning for the mother followed him through life. The future misogynist was fostered by the child’s passionate and unrequited love for the mother. When in later life Strindberg’s attacks upon women were criticised, he defended himself by declaring that he chid woman because he loved her so well.

Disgust with the daily drudgery and routine of the household was aroused at an early age. He speaks of the family as an institution for providing food and clean clothes, where there is an eternal round of shopping, cooking, cleaning and washing.

“Glorious moral institution,” he cries; “holy family, inviolable, divine institution for the education of citizens in truth and virtue! Thou pretended home of virtues, where innocent children are tortured to speak their first lie, where will-power is crushed by despotism, where self-reliance is killed by narrow egoism. Family, thou art the home of all social vices, the charitable institution for all lazy women. The forge for the chains of the breadwinner, and the hell of the children!”

This passage follows the description of an unjust punishment which was meted out to August. He was accused of having drunk some wine out of his aunt’s bottle, and upon blushing in response to his father’s question was beaten as the culprit. Fear of the physical pain made him confess the deed which he had never committed, and, upon telling his old nurse that he had suffered innocently, he was again seized and now beaten as a liar as well as a thief. After that day he lived in constant anxiety. The world was a cruel and unfriendly place; there were enemies everywhere.

“Who drank that wine?” he repeatedly asked himself. The search for a satisfactory reply to that question and to Similar questions was not abandoned, though it was futile. The hostility to social injustice and enforced criminality to which, later on, he gave literary utterance, had a remote though ineffaceable

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