The Growth of a Soul

The Growth of a Soul

August Strindberg
August Strindberg

Author: Strindberg, August, 1849-1912
Autobiographical fiction
Swedish — 19th century — Biography
The Growth of a Soul













The steamer had passed Flottsund and Domstyrken and the university buildings of Upsala began to appear. “Now begins the real stone-throwing!” exclaimed one of his companions,—an expression borrowed from the street-riots of 1864. The hilarity induced by punch and breakfast abated; one felt that things were now serious and that the battle of life was beginning. No vows of perpetual friendship were made, no promises of helping each other. The young men had awakened from their romantic dreams; they knew that they would part at the gang-way, new interests would scatter the company which the school-room had united; competition would break the bonds which had united them and all else would be forgotten. The “real stone-throwing” was about to begin.
John and his friend Fritz hired a room in the Klostergränden. It contained two beds, two tables, two chairs and a cupboard. The rent was 30 kronas[1] a term,—15 kronas each. Their midday meal was brought by the servant for 12 kronas a month,—6 kronas each. For breakfast and supper they had a glass of milk and some bread and butter. That was all. They bought wood in the market,—a small bundle for 4 kronas. John had also received a bottle of petroleum from home as a present, and he could send his washing to Stockholm. He had 80 kronas in his table-drawer with which to meet all the expenses of the term.
It was a new and peculiar society into which he now entered, quite unlike any other. It had privileges like the old house of peers and a jurisdiction of its own; but it was a “little Pedlington” and reeked of rusticity. All the professors were country-born; not a single one hailed from Stockholm. The houses and streets were like those of Nyköping. And it was here that the head-quarters of culture had been placed, owing to an inconsistency of the government which certainly regarded Stockholm as answering to that description.
The students were regarded as the upper class in the town and the citizens were stigmatised by the contemptuous epithet of “Philistines.” The students were outside and above the civic law. To smash windows, break down fences, tussle with the police, disturb the peace of the streets,—all was allowed to them and went unpunished; at most they received a reprimand, for the old lock-up in the castle was no more used. For their militia-service they had a special uniform of their own which carried privileges with it. Thus they were systematically educated as aristocrats, a new order of nobility after the fall of the house of peers.
What would have been a crime in a citizen was a “practical joke” in a student. Just at this time the students’ spirits were at a high pitch, as a band of student-singers had gone to Paris, had been successful there, and were acclaimed as conquerors on their return.
John now wished to work for his degree but did not possess a single book. “During the first term one must take one’s bearings” was the saying. John went to the student’s club. The constitution of the club was antiquated,—so much so that the annexed provinces Skåne, Halland and Blekinge were not represented in it. It was well arranged and divided into classes, not according to merit, but according to age and certain dubious qualities. In the list the title “nobilis” still stood after the names of those of high birth. There were several ways of gaining influence in the club, through an aristocratic name, family influence, money, talent, pluck and adaptability, but the last quality by itself was not enough among these intelligent and sceptical youths. On the first evening in the club John made his observations. There were several of his old companions from the Clara School present, but he avoided them as much as possible and they him. He had deserted them and gone by a short cut through the private school, while they had tramped along the regular course through the state school. They all seemed to him somewhat conventional and stunted. Fritz plunged among the aristocrats and obtained introductions, made acquaintances easily and got on well.
As they went home in the evening John asked him who was the “snob” in the velvet jacket with stirrups painted on his collar. Fritz answered that he was not a snob, and that it was as stupid to judge people by fine clothes as by poor ones. John with his democratic ideas did not understand this and stuck to his opinion. Fritz asserted that the youth referred to was a very fine fellow and the senior in the club, and in order to rouse John further, added that he had expressed himself satisfied with the newcomers’ appearance and manners; he was reported to have said “they had an air about them; formerly the fellows from Stockholm when they came there, looked like workmen.”
John was ruffled at this information and felt that something had come in between him and his friend. Fritz’s father had been a miller’s servant, but his mother had been of noble birth. He had inherited from his mother what John had from his.
The days passed on. Fritz put on his frock coat every morning and went to pay his respects to the professors. He intended to be a jurist; that was a proper career, for lawyers were the only ones who obtained real knowledge which was of use in public life, who tried to obtain deeper insight into social organisation and to keep in touch with the practical business of everyday life. They were realists.
John had no frock coat, no books, no acquaintances.
“Borrow my coat,” said Fritz.
“No, I will not go and pay court to the professors,” said John.
“You are stupid,” answered Fritz, and in that he was right, for the professors gave real though somewhat hazy information regarding the courses of study. It was a piece of pride in John that he did not wish to owe his progress to anything but his own work, and what was worse, he thought it ignominious to be regarded as a flunkey. Would not an old professor at once perceive that he was flattering him for his own purposes? To submit himself to his superiors was, in his mind, synonymous with grovelling.
Moreover everything was too indefinite. The university which he had imagined to be an institution for free investigation, was only one for tasks and examinations. The professors gave lectures for the sake of appearances or to maintain their income, but it was useless to go up for an examination without taking private lessons. John resolved to attend those lectures for which no fee was necessary. He went to the Gustavianum to hear a lecture on the history of philosophy. For the three-quarters of an hour during which the lecture lasted the professor went through the introduction to Aristotle’s Ethics. John calculated that with three lectures a week he would require forty years to go through the history of philosophy. “Forty years,” he thought, “that is too long for me.” And did not go again. It was the same everywhere. An assistant-professor expounded Shakespeare’s Henry VIII with the commentary, in English, to an audience of five. John went there a few times, but reckoned that it would be ten years before Henry VIII was finished.
It began to dawn upon him what the requirements of the degree examination were. The first was to write a Latin essay; therefore he must learn more Latin, which he did not like. He had chosen æsthetics and modern languages as his chief subject. Æsthetics comprised the study of Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Literary History and the various systems of æsthetics. That was work enough for a lifetime. The modern languages were French, German, English, Italian and Spanish, with comparative grammar. How was he to obtain the requisite books? And he had not the means of paying for private lessons.
Meanwhile he set to work at Æsthetics. He found that one could borrow books from the club and so he took out the volumes of Atterbom’s Prophets and Poets which happened to be there. These unfortunately only dealt with Swedenborg and contained Thorild’s epistles. Swedenborg seemed to him crazy, and Thorild’s epistles did not interest him. Swedenborg and Thorild were two arrogant Swedes who had lived in retirement and fallen a prey to megalomania, the special disease of solitary people. It is remarkable how often outbreaks of this hallucination occur in Sweden, owing probably to the isolated position of the country and to the fact that a sparse population is scattered over enormous distances. Megalomania is apparent in the imperial projects of Gustavus Adolphus, in Charles X’s ambition of becoming a great European power, in Charles XII’s Attila-like schemes, in Rudbeck’s Atlantic-mania, and in Swedenborg’s and Thorild’s dreams of storming heaven and of world-conflagrations. John thought them mad and threw them aside. Was that the sort of stuff he was expected to read?
He began to reflect over his situation. What did he expect to do in Upsala? To support himself for six years on 80 kronas till he took his degree. And then? his thoughts did not stretch further; he had no higher plan or ambition than to take his degree—the laurel crown, the graduate’s coat, and then to teach the catechism in the Jakob school till his death. No, he did not wish to do that.
Time went on, and Christmas approached. The little stock of money in his table-drawer diminished slowly but surely. And then? It was not so easy for students to obtain employment as private teachers since the railways had made communication easier between remote country places and the towns where schools were. He felt that he had embarked upon a foolish undertaking. When he found he could get no more books, he began to make visits among his fellow-students and discovered companions in misfortune. Among them were two who had spent the whole term playing chess and possessed nothing between them but a hymn-book which the mother of one had placed in his box. They were also asking themselves the question “What have we to do here?” The way to the degree examination was not easy; one was compelled to seek out secret ways, bribe door-keepers, creep through holes, run into debt for books, be seen at lectures and much more besides.
In order to fill up the time, he learnt to play the B-cornet in the band of the students’ club by the advice of Fritz who played the trombone. But the practices were very irregular and began to cause disputes. John also played backgammon, which Fritz hated, and so he wandered about to acquaintances with his backgammon board and played with them. He found it as dull as reading Swedenborg.
“Why do you not study?” Fritz often asked him.
“I have no books,” answered John. That was a good reason. He could not visit the restaurants, for he had no money, and lived very quietly. At the midday meal he drank only water, and when on Sundays he and Fritz drank half a bottle of beer, they remained sitting at table half-fuddled and telling each other, perhaps for the hundredth time, old school adventures. The term crept along intolerably slow, uneventful and torpid. John perceived that, as one of the lower class, he could plod on thus far but no further. The economic question brought his plans to a standstill. Or was it that he was tired of living a one-sided mental life without muscular exercise? Trifling experiences for which he ought to have been prepared contributed to embitter him. One day Fritz entered their room with a young count. He introduced John to him, and the count tried to remember whether they had not been comrades at the Clara School. John seemed to remember something of the kind. The old friends and intimate companions addressed each other as “count” and “sir.” Then John remembered how he and the young count had once played as boys in a tobacco store on the Sabbatsberg, and how something had made him prophesy, “In a few years, old fellow, we shall not know each other any more.” The young count had protested strongly against this and felt hurt. Why did John remember this just then particularly, since it is quite natural that comrades should become strangers to each other when intercourse has been so long broken off? Because at the sight of the noble, he felt the slave blood seethe in his veins. This kind of feeling has been ascribed to the difference of races. But that is not so, for then the stronger plebeian race would feel superior to the weaker aristocratic. It is simply class-hatred.
The count in question was a pale, tall, slender youth of no striking appearance. He was very poor and looked half-starved. He was intelligent, industrious, and not at all proud. Later on in life John came across him again and found him to be a sociable, pleasant man, leading an inconspicuous life as an official, amid difficulties resembling John’s own. Why should he hate him? And then they both laughed at their youthful stupidity. That was possible then, for John seemed to have “got ahead” as the saying is; otherwise he would not have laughed at all. “Stand up that I may sit down,” this was the more malicious than luminous way of expressing the aspiration of the lower orders in those days. But it was a misunderstanding. Formerly one strove to elbow one’s way up to the other; now one would rather pull the other down to save oneself the trouble of clambering up where nothing is to be found. “Move a little so that we can both sit” would now be the proper formula.
It has been said that those who are “above” are there by a law of necessity and would be there under all circumstances; competition is free and each can ascend if he likes, and if the conditions were changed, the same race would begin again. “Good!” say the lower classes, “let us race again, but come down here and stand where I do. You have got a start with privileges and capital, but now let us be weighed with carriage harness and racing saddle after the modern fashion. You have got ahead by cheating. The race is therefore declared null and void and we will run it again, unless we come to an agreement to do away with all racing, as an antiquated sport of ancient times.”
Fritz saw things from another point of view. He did not wish to pull those above down, but to become an aristocrat himself, climb up to them and be like them. He began to lisp and made elegant gestures with his hands, greeted people as though he were a cabinet minister, and threw his head back as though he had a private income. But he respected himself too much to become ridiculous and satirised himself and his ambition. The fact was that the aristocrats whom he wished to resemble had simple, easy, unaffected manners,—some of them indeed quite like the middle class, while Fritz was fashioning himself after an ancient theatrical pattern which no longer existed. He did not therefore become what he expected in life though he had dozed away many a summer in the castles of his friends, and ended in a very modest official post. He was received as a student in their guest-rooms but came no further; as a district judge he was not introduced in the salons which as a student he had entered without introduction.
The effects of the different circles in which John and Fritz moved began now to be apparent, first in mutual coldness, then in hostility. One evening it broke out at the card-table.
Fritz one day towards the end of the term said to John, “You should not go about with such bounders as you do.”
“What is the matter with them?”
“Nothing, but it would be better if you went with me to my friends.”
“They don’t suit me.”
“Well, they suit me, but they think you are proud.”
“Yes; and to show you are not, come with me this evening and drink punch.”
John went though unwillingly. They were a solid-looking set of law-students who played cards. They discussed the stakes for which they should play, and John succeeded in reducing them to a minimum, though they made sour faces. Then a game of “knack” was proposed. John said that he never played it.
“On principle?” he was asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
“How long ago did you make that resolve,” asked Fritz sarcastically.
“Just this minute.”
“Just now, here?”
“Yes, just now, here!” answered John.
They exchanged hostile looks and that was the end. They went home silent; went to bed silent; and got up silent. For five weeks they ate their dinner at the same table and never spoke to each other. A gulf had opened between them and their friendship was ended; they had no more intercourse with each other and there was nothing to bring them together again. How had that come about?
These two characters so opposed to each other had held together for five years through habit, through comradeship in the class-room, and common interests; they had felt drawn to each other by common recollections, defeats and victories. It was a compromise between fire and water which must cease sooner or later and might cease at any moment. Now they flew asunder as if by an explosion; the masks fell; they did not become enemies, but simply discovered that they were born enemies, i.e. two oppositely-disposed natures which must go, each its own way. They did not close accounts with a quarrel or useless accusations, but simply made an end without more ado. An unnatural silence prevailed at their midday meal; sometimes in lifting dishes their hands crossed but their looks avoided each other; now and then Fritz’s lips moved, as though he wished to say something, but his larynx remained closed. What should he say after all. There was nothing to say but what the silence expressed: “We have nothing more in common.”
And yet there was something left after all. Sometimes Fritz came home in the evening, cheerful, and obviously prepared to say, “Come! cheer up old fellow!” But then he stood still in the middle of the room, petrified by John’s icy manner, and went out again. Sometimes also it occurred to John, who suffered under the breach of friendship to say to his friend, “How stupid we are!” But then he felt frozen again by Fritz’s indifferent manner. They had worn out their friendship by living together. They knew each other by heart, all one another’s secrets and weaknesses, and precisely what answer either would give. That was the end. Nothing more remained.
A miserable torpid time followed. Tom away from the common life of school where he had worked like part of a machine in unison with others, and abandoned to himself, he ceased to live in the proper sense of the word. Without books, papers or social interco

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