The Confession of a Fool

The Confession of a Fool

August Strindberg
August Strindberg

Author: Strindberg, August, 1849-1912
Swedish — 19th century — Biography
The Confession of a Fool







Translated from the “Litterarisches Echo,”
August 15, 1911



The republication of The Confession of a Fool represents the last link in the chain of Strindberg’s autobiographical novels. A German version of the book was published as far back as 1893, but it was mutilated, abbreviated, corrupted, and falsified to such an extent that the attorney-general, misled by the revolting language, blamed the author for the misdeeds of the translator and prohibited the sale of the book. This was a splendid advertisement for this profound work, but there were many who would have rejoiced if the translation had been completely ignored. It distorted Strindberg’s character and was the cause of many prejudices which exist to this day.
Schering’s new translation is an attempt to make reparation for this crime. “It is impossible,” he says, “that any attorney-general can now doubt the high morality of this book.” Strindberg himself has called it a terrible book, and has regretted that he ever wrote it. He has never published it in Swedish, his own language, because not only is it too personal in character, but it also revealed a still bleeding wound. It contains the relentless description of his first marriage, so superbly candid an account, that one is reminded of the last testament of a man for whom death has no longer any terror. We know from his fascinating novel Separated, how painful the burden was which he had to bear, and how terribly he suffered during the period of his first marriage. So much so, indeed, that he had to write this book before he could face the thought of death with composure. Doubtless, a man for whom life holds no longer any charm would give us a genuinely truthful account of his inner life, and there is no denying that a book which takes its entire matter from the inner life is of vastly greater importance and on an immeasurably higher level than a million novels, be they written ever so well. The great importance of The Confession of a Fool lies in the fact that it depicts the struggle of a highly intellectual man to free himself from the slavery of sexuality, and from a woman who is a typical representative of her sex.
Apart from this, it is an intense joy from an artistic point of view to follow the “confessor” through the book, as he looks at himself from all sides in order to gain self-knowledge; that he conceals nothing from us, not even those deep secrets which he would fain keep even in the face of death. One sees Strindberg brooding over his own soul to fathom its depths. He plumbs its hidden profoundnesses, he takes to pieces the inner wheels of his mechanism, so as to know for himself and to show us how he is made and what is the cause of the instinct which drives him to confess and to create. He opens wide his heart and lets us see that he carries in his breast his heaven and also his horrible hell. We see angels and devils fighting in his soul for supremacy, and the divine in him stepping between them with its creative Let there be!




It was on the thirteenth of May, 1875, at Stockholm.
I well remember the large room of the Royal Library which extended through a whole wing of the Castle, with its beechen wainscoting, brown with age like the meerschaum of a much-used cigar-holder. The enormous room, with its rococo headings, garlands, chains and armorial bearings, round which, at the height of the first floor, ran a gallery supported by Tuscan columns, was yawning like a great chasm underneath my feet; with its hundred thousand volumes it resembled a gigantic brain, with the thoughts of long-forgotten generations neatly arranged on shelves.
A passage running from one end of the room to the other divided the two principal parts, the walls of which were completely hidden by shelves fourteen feet high. The golden rays of the spring sun were falling through the twelve windows, illuminating the volumes of the Renaissance, bound in white and gold parchment, the black morocco bindings mounted with silver of the seventeenth century, the red-edged volumes bound in calf of a hundred years later, the green leather bindings which were the fashion under the Empire, and the cheap covers of our own time. Here theologians were on neighbourly terms with apostles of magic, philosophers hobnobbed with naturalists, poets and historians dwelt in peace side by side. It reminded one of a geological stratum of unfathomable depth where, as in a puddingstone, layer was piled upon layer, marking the successive stages arrived at by human folly or human genius.
I can see myself now. I had climbed on to the encircling gallery, and was engaged in arranging a collection of old books which a well-known collector had just presented to the library. He had been clever enough to ensure his own immortality by endowing each volume with his ex-libris bearing the motto “Speravit infestis.”
Since I was as superstitious as an atheist, this motto, meeting my gaze day after day whenever I happened to open a volume, had made an undeniable impression on me. He was a lucky fellow, this brave man, for even in misfortune he never abandoned hope…. But for me all hope was dead. There seemed to be no chance whatever that my drama in five acts, or six tableaux, with three transformation scenes on the open stage, would ever see the footlights. Seven men stood between me and promotion to the post of a librarian—seven men, all in perfect health, and four with a private income. A man of twenty-six, in receipt of a monthly salary of twenty crowns, with a drama in five acts stowed away in a drawer in his attic, is only too much inclined to embrace pessimism, this apotheosis of scepticism, so comforting to all failures. It compensates them for unobtainable dinners, enables them to draw admirable conclusions, which often have to make up for the loss of an overcoat, pledged before the end of the winter.
Notwithstanding the fact that I was a member of a learned Bohemia, which had succeeded an older, artistic Bohemia, a contributor to important newspapers and excellent, but badly paying magazines, a partner in a society founded for the purpose of translating Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious, a member of a secret federation for the promotion of free love, the bearer of the empty title of a “royal secretary,” and the author of two one-act plays which had been performed at the Royal Theatre, I had the greatest difficulty to make ends meet. I hated life, although the thought of relinquishing it had never crossed my mind; on the contrary, I had always done my best to continue not only my own existence but also that of the race. It cannot be denied that pessimism, misinterpreted by the multitude and generally confused with hypochondria, is really a quite serene and even comforting philosophy of life. Since everything is relatively nothing, why make so much fuss, particularly as truth itself is mutable and short-lived? Are we not constantly discovering that the truth of yesterday is the folly of to-morrow? Why, then, waste strength and youth in discovering fresh fallacies? The only proven fact is that we have to die. Let us live then! But for whom? For what purpose? Alas!…
When Bernadotte, that converted Jacobite, ascended the throne and all the rubbish which had been discarded at the end of the last century was re-introduced, the hopes of the generation of 1860, to which I belonged, were dashed to the ground with the clamorously advertised parliamentary reform. The two houses, which had taken the place of the four estates, consisted for the greater part of peasants. They turned Parliament into a sort of town council, where everybody, on the best of terms with everybody else, looked after his own little affairs, without paying the least regard to the great problems of life and progress. Politics were nothing more nor less than a compromise between public and private interests. The last remnants of faith in what was then “the ideal” were vanishing in a ferment of bitterness. To this must be added the religious reaction which marked the period after the death of Charles XV, and the beginning of the reign of Queen Sophia of Nassau. There were plenty of reasons, therefore, to account for an enlightened pessimism, reasons other than personal ones….
The dust caused by the rearrangement of the books was choking me. I opened the window for a breath of fresh air and a look at the view beyond. A delicious breeze fanned my face, a breeze laden with the scent of lilac and the rising sap of the poplars. The lattice-work was completely hidden beneath the green leaves of the honey-suckle and wild vine; acacias and plane trees, well acquainted with the fatal whims of a northern May, were still holding back. It was spring, though the skeleton of shrub and tree was still plainly visible underneath the tender young green. Beyond the parapet with its Delft vases bearing the mark of Charles XII, the masts of the anchored steamers were rising, gaily decorated with flags in honour of the May-day festival. Behind them glittered the bottle-green line of the bay, and from its wooded shores on either side the trees were mounting higher and higher, gradually, like steps, pines and Scotch firs on one side and soft green foliage on the other. All the boats lying at anchor were flying their national colours, more or less symbolic of the different nations. England with the dripping scarlet of the blood of her famous cattle; Spain striped red and yellow, like the Venetian blinds of a Moorish balcony; the United States with their striped bed-tick; the gay tricolour of France by the side of the gloomy German flag with its sinister iron cross close to the flagstaff, ever reminiscent of mourning; the jerkinet of Denmark; the veiled tricolour of Russia. They were all there, side by side, with outspread wings, under the blue cover of the northern sky. The noise of carriages, whistles, bells and cranes lent animation to the picture; the combined odours of oil, leather, salt herrings and groceries mingled with the scent of the lilac. An easterly wind blowing from the open sea, cooled by the drift ice of the Baltic, freshened the atmosphere.
I forgot my books as soon as I turned my back to them and was leaning out of the window, all my senses taking a delicious bath; below, the guards were marching past to the strains of the march from Faust. I was so intoxicated with the music, the flags, the blue sky, the flowers, that I had not noticed the porter entering my office in the meantime with the mail. He touched my shoulder, handed me a letter and disappeared.
Hm!… a letter from a lady.
I hastily opened the envelope, anticipating some delightful adventure … surely it must be something of that sort … it was!
“Meet me punctually at five o’clock this afternoon before No. 65 Parliament Street. You will know me by the roll of music in my hand.”
A short time ago a little vixen had made a fool of me, and I had sworn to take advantage of the first favourable opportunity to revenge myself. Therefore I was willing enough. There was only one thing which jarred on me; the commanding, dictatorial tone of the note offended my manly dignity. How could this unknown correspondent dare to attack me unawares in this manner? What were they thinking of, these women, who have such a poor opinion of us men? They do not ask, they command their conquests!
As it happened I had planned an excursion with some of my friends for this very afternoon. And, moreover, the thought of a flirtation in the middle of the day in one of the principal streets of the town was not very alluring.
At two o’clock, however, I went into the chemical laboratory where the excursionists had arranged to assemble. They were already crowding the ante-room: doctors and candidates of philosophy and medicine, all of them anxious to learn the programme of the entertainment in store. I had made up my mind in the meantime, and with many apologies refused to be one of the party. They clamoured for my reasons. I produced my letter and handed it to a zoologist who was looked upon as an expert in all matters pertaining to love; he shook his head while perusing it.
“No good, that….” he muttered disconnectedly; “wants to be married … would never sell herself … family, my dear old chap … straight path … but do what you like. You’ll find us in the Park, later on, if the spirit moves you to join us, and I have been wrong about the lady….”
At the hour indicated I took up my position near the house mentioned, and awaited the appearance of the unknown letter-writer.
The roll of music in her hand, what was it but a proposal of marriage? It differed in no way from the announcements on the fourth page of certain newspapers. I suddenly felt uneasy; too late—the lady had arrived and we stood looking at each other.
My first impression—I believe in first impressions—was quite vague. She was of uncertain age, between twenty-nine and forty, fantastically dressed. What was she? Artist or blue-stocking? A sheltered woman or one living a free and independent life? Emancipated or cocotte? I wondered….
She introduced herself as the fiancée of an old friend of mine, an opera singer, and said that he wished me to look after her while she was staying in town. This was untrue, as I found out later on.
She was like a little bird, twittering incessantly. After she had talked for half-an-hour I knew all about her; I knew all her emotions, all her thoughts. But I was only half interested, and asked her if I could do anything for her.
“I take care of a young woman!” I exclaimed, after she had explained what she wanted. “Don’t you know that I am the devil incarnate?”
“You only think you are,” she replied; “but I know you thoroughly. You’re unhappy, that’s all. You ought to be roused from your gloomy fancies.”
“You know me thoroughly? You really think so? I’m afraid all you know is the now antiquated opinion your fiancé has of me.”
It was no use talking, my “charming friend” was well informed and knew how to read a man’s heart, even from a distance. She was one of those obstinate creatures who strive to sway the spirits of men by insinuating themselves into the hidden depths of their souls. She kept up a large correspondence, bombarded all her acquaintances with letters, gave advice and warning to young people, and knew no greater happiness than to direct and guide the destinies of men. Greedy of power, head of a league for the salvation of souls, patroness of all the world, she had conceived it her mission to save me!
She was a schemer of the purest water, with little intelligence but a great deal of female impudence.
I began to tease her by making fun of everything, the world, men, religion. She told me my ideas were morbid.
“Morbid! My dear lady, my ideas morbid? They are, on the contrary, most healthy and of the latest date. But what about yours now? They are relics of a past age, commonplaces of my boyhood, the rubbish of rubbish, and you think them new? Candidly speaking, what you offer me as fresh fruit is nothing but preserved stuff in badly soldered tins. Away with it! It’s rotten! You know what I mean.”
She left me without a word of good-bye, furious, unable to control herself.
When she had gone I went to join my friends in the Park, and spent the evening with them.
I had not quite got over my excitement on the following morning when I received a communication from her. It was a vainglorious letter in which she overwhelmed me with reproaches, largely tempered by forbearance and compassion; she expressed ardent wishes for my mental health, and concluded by arranging a second meeting, and stating that we ought to pay a visit to her fiancé’s aged mother.
As I rather pride myself on my manners, I resigned myself to my fate; but, determined to get off as cheaply as possible, I made up my mind to appear perfectly indifferent to all questions relating to religion, the world and everything else.
But how wonderful! The lady, dressed in a tightly fitting cloth dress, trimmed with fur, and wearing a large picture hat, greeted me most cordially; she was full of the tender solicitude of an elder sister, avoided all dangerous ground, and was altogether so charming that our souls, thanks to a mutual desire to please, met in friendly talk, and before we parted a feeling of genuine sympathy had sprung up between us.
After having paid our call we took advantage of the lovely spring day and went for a stroll.
I am not sure whether it was from an imperative desire to pay her out, or whether I felt annoyed at having been made to play the part of a confidant; whatever it was, the iniquitous idea occurred to me to tell her, in strict confidence, that I was practically engaged to be married; this was only half a lie, for I was really paying at that time a good deal of attention to a certain lady of my acquaintance.
On hearing this, her manner changed. She talked to me like a grandmother, began to pity the girl, questioned me about her character, her looks, her social status, her circumstances. I painted a portrait well calculated to excite her jealousy. Our eager conversation languished. My guardian angel’s interest in me waned when she suspected a rival who might possibly be equally anxious to save my soul.
We parted, still under the influence of the chill which had gradually arisen between us.
When we met on the following day we talked exclusively of love and my supposed fiancée.
But after we had visited theatres and concerts for a week and taken numerous walks together, she had gained her object. The daily intercourse with her had become a habit of which I felt unable to break myself. Conversation with a woman who is above the commonplace has an almost sensual charm. The souls touch, the spirits embrace each other.
One morning, on meeting her as usual, I found her almost beside herself. She was full of a letter which she had just received. Her fiance was furiously jealous. She accused herself of having been indiscreet; he was recommending her the utmost reserve in her intercourse with me: he seemed to have a presentiment that the matter would end badly.
“I can’t understand such detestable jealousy,” she said, deeply distressed.
“Because you don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘love,'” I answered.
“Love! Ugh!”
“Love, my dear lady, is consciousness of possession in its greatest intensity. Jealousy is but the fear of losing what one possesses.”
“Possesses! Disgusting!”
“Mutually possesses, since each possesses the other.”
But she refused to understand love in that sense. In her opinion love was something disinterested, exalted, chaste, inexplicable.
She did not love her fiancé, but he was head over ears in love with her.
When I said so she lost her temper, and then confessed that she had never loved him.
“And yet you contemplate marrying him?”
“Because he would be lost if I didn’t.”
“Always that mania for saving souls!”
She grew more and more angry; she maintained that she was not, and never had been, really engaged to him. We had caught each other lying; what prospects!
There remained nothing for me to do now but to make a clean breast of it, and contradict my previous statement that I was “as good as engaged.” This done, we were at liberty to make use of our freedom.
As she had now no longer any cause for jealousy, the game began afresh, and this time we played it in deadly earnest. I confessed my love to her—in writing. She forwarded the letter to her fiancé. He heaped insults on my head—by post.
I told her that she must choose between him and me. But she carefully refrained from doing so, for her object was to have me, him, and as many more as she could get, kneeling at her feet and adoring her. She was a flirt, a mangeuse d’hommes, a chaste polyandrist.
But, perhaps for want of some one better, I had fallen in love with her, for I loathed casual love-affairs, and the solitude of my

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