The Inferno

The Inferno

August Strindberg
August Strindberg

Author: Strindberg, August, 1849-1912
Autobiographical fiction
Swedish — 19th century — Biography
The Inferno







The Knickerbocker Press







An American critic says “Strindberg is the greatest subjectivist of all time.” Certainly neither Augustine, Rousseau, nor Tolstoy have laid bare their souls to the finest fibre with more ruthless sincerity than the great Swedish realist. He fulfilled to the letter the saying of Robertson of Brighton, “Woman and God are two rocks on which a man must either anchor or be wrecked.” His four autobiographical works, The Son of a Servant, The Confessions of a Fool, Inferno, and Legends, are four segments of an immense curve tracing his progress from the childish pietism of his early years, through a period of atheism and rebellion, to the sombre faith in a “God that punishes” of the sexagenarian. In his spiritual wanderings he grazed the edge of madness, and madmen often see deeper into things than ordinary folk. At the close of the Inferno he thus sums up the lesson of his life’s pilgrimage: “Such then is my life: a sign, an example to serve for the improvement of others; a proverb, to show the nothingness of fame and popularity; a proverb, to show young men how they ought not to live; a proverb—because I who thought myself a prophet am now revealed as a braggart.”
It is strange that though the names of Ibsen and Nietzsche have long been familiar in England, Strindberg, whom Ibsen is reported to have called “One greater than I,” as he pointed to his portrait, and with whom Nietzsche corresponded, is only just beginning to attract attention, though for a long time past most of his works have been accessible in German. Even now not much more is known about him than that he was a pessimist, a misogynist, and writer of Zolaesque novels. To quote a Persian proverb, “They see the mountain, but not the mine within it.” No man admired a good wife and mother more than he did, but he certainly hated the Corybantic, “emancipated” women of the present time. No man had a keener appreciation of the gentle joys of domesticity, and the intensity of his misogyny was in strict proportion to the keenness of his disappointment. The Inferno relates how grateful and even reverential he was to the nurse who tended him in hospital, and to his mother-in-law. He felt profoundly the charm of innocent childhood, and paternal instincts were strong in him. All his life long he had to struggle with four terrible inner foes—doubt, suspicion, fear, sensuality. His doubts destroyed his early faith, his ceaseless suspicions made it impossible for him to be happy in friendship or love, his fear of the “invisible powers,” as he calls them, robbed him of all peace of mind, and his sensuality dragged him repeatedly into the mire. A “strange mixture of a man” indeed, whose soul was the scene of an internecine life-long warfare between diametrically-opposed forces! Yet he never ceased to struggle blindly upwards, and Goethe’s words were verified in him:
“Wer immer strebend sich bemüht
Den Können wir erlösen.”[2]
He never relapsed into the stagnant cynicism of the out-worn debauchee, nor did he with Nietzsche try to explain away conscience as an old wife’s tale. Conscience persistently tormented him, and finally drove him back to belief in God, not the collective Karma of the Theosophists, which he expressly repudiated, nor to any new god expounded in New Thought magazines, but to the transcendent God who judges and requites, though not at the end of every week. It seems almost as if there were lurking an old Hebrew vein in him, so frequently in his later works does he express himself in the language of psalmists and prophets. “The psalms of David express my feelings best, and Jehovah is my God,” he says in the Inferno.
At one time he seems to have been nearly entering the Roman Catholic Church, but, even after he had recovered his belief, his inborn independence of spirit would not let him attach himself to any religious body. His fellow-countryman, Swedenborg, seems to have influenced him more deeply than anyone else, and to him he attributes his escape from madness.
His work Inferno may certainly serve a useful purpose in calling attention to the fact, that, whatever may be the case hereafter, there are certainly hells on earth, hells into which the persistently selfish inevitably come. Because our fathers dealt with exaggerated emphasis on unextinguishable fires and insatiable worms, in some remote future, some good folk seem to suppose that there is no such thing as retribution, or that we may sow thorns and reap wheat. Strindberg knew better. He had reaped the whirlwind, and we seem to feel it sometimes blowing through his pages.
In the Blue Books, or collections of thoughts which he wrote towards the end of his life, the storm has subsided. The sun shines and the sea is calm, though strewn with wreckage. He uses some very strong language towards his former comrades, the free-thinkers, whom he calls “denizens of the dunghill.” One bitterness remains. He cannot forgive woman. She has injured him too deeply. All his life long she has been “a cleaving mischief in his way to virtue.” He married three times, and each marriage was a failure. His first wife was a baroness separated from her husband, whom he accuses of having repeatedly betrayed him. His second wife was an Austrian. In the Inferno he calls her “my beautiful jaileress who kept incessant watch over my secret thoughts.” His third was an actress from whom he parted by mutual consent. All his attempts to set up a home had failed, and he found himself finally relegated to solitude. One of his later works bears the title Lonely. His solitude was relieved by visits from his children, and he was especially fond of his younger daughter, giving her free use of his library. On May 14, 1912, he died in Stockholm, after a lingering illness, of cancer, an added touch of tragedy being the fact that his first wife died, not far away, shortly before him.
He was an enormous reader, and seems to have possessed a knowledge almost as encyclopædic as Browning’s. While assistant librarian in the Royal Library at Stockholm he studied Chinese; he was a skilled chemist and botanist, and wrote treatises on both these sciences. He was a mystic, but had a certain dislike of occultism and theosophy. A German critic, comparing him with Ibsen, says that, whereas Ibsen is a spent force, Strindberg’s writings contain germs which are still undeveloped. He is a lurid and menacing planet in the literary sky, and some time must elapse before his true position is fixed. To the present writer his career seems best summed up in the words of Mrs. Browning:
“He testified this solemn truth, by frenzy desolated,
Nor man nor nature satisfies whom only God created”;
or in those of Augustine: “Fecisti nos ad Te, Domine, et irrequietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in Te.”

[1] Reprinted by permission from The Spectator.

“Who never ceases still to strive,
‘T is him we can deliver.”

“Courbe la tête fier Segambre; adore ce qui tu as brûlé;
brûle ce qui tu as adoré!”



With a feeling of wild joy I returned from the northern railway station, where I had said good-bye to my wife. She was going to our child, who was ill in a distant place. The sacrifice of my heart was then fulfilled. Her last words, “When shall we meet again?” and my answer, “Soon!” echoed in my ears, like falsehoods which one is unwilling to confess. A foreboding said to me “Never!” And, as a matter of fact, these parting words which we exchanged in November, 1894, were our last, for to this present time, May, 1897, I have not seen my dear wife again.
As I entered the Café de la Régence, I placed myself at the table where I used to sit with my wife, my beautiful jail-keeper, who watched my soul day and night, guessed my secret thoughts, marked the course of my ideas, and was jealous of my investigations into the unknown.
My newly-won freedom gave me a feeling of expansion and elevation above the petty cares of life in the great capital. In this arena of intellectual warfare I had just gained a victory, which, although worthless in itself, signified a great deal to me. It was the fulfilment of a youthful dream which all my countrymen had dreamed, but which had been realised by me alone, to have a play of one’s own performed in a Paris theatre. Now the theatre repelled me, as everything does when one has reached it, and science attracted me. Obliged to choose between love and knowledge, I had decided to strive for the highest knowledge; and as I myself sacrificed my love, I forgot the other innocent sacrifice to my ambition or my mission.
As soon as I returned to my poor student’s room in the Latin Quarter, I rummaged in my chest and drew out of their hiding-place six saucepans of fine porcelain. I had bought them a long time ago, although they were too dear for my means. A pair of tongs and a packet of pure sulphur completed the apparatus of my laboratory. I kindled a smelting-furnace in the fireplace, closed the door, and drew down the blinds, for only three months after the execution of Caserio it was not prudent to make chemical experiments in Paris.
The night comes on, the sulphur burns luridly, and towards morning I have ascertained the presence of carbon in what has been before considered an elementary substance. With this I believe I have solved the great problem, upset the ruling chemical theories, and won the immortality grudged to mortals.
But the skin of my hands, nearly roasted by the strong fire, peels off: in scales, and the pain they cause me when undressing shows me what a price I have paid for my victory. But, as I lie alone in bed, I feel happy, and I am sorry I have no one whom I can thank for my deliverance from the marital fetters which have been broken without much ado. For in the course of years I have become an atheist, since the unknown powers have left the world to itself without giving a sign of themselves.
Someone to thank! There is no one there, and my involuntary ingratitude depresses me.
Feeling jealous about my discovery, I take no steps to make it known. In my modesty I turn neither to authorities nor to universities. While I continue my experiments, the cracked skin of my hands becomes worse, the fissures gape and become full of coal-dust; blood oozes out, and the pains become so intolerable that I can undertake nothing more. I am inclined to attribute these pains which drive me wild to the unknown powers which have persecuted me for years, and frustrate my endeavours. I avoid people, neglect society, refuse invitations, and make myself inaccessible to friends. I am surrounded by silence and loneliness. It is the solemn and terrible silence of the desert in which I defiantly challenge the unknown, in order to wrestle with him, body with body, and soul with soul. I have proved that sulphur contains carbon; now I intend to discover hydrogen and oxygen in it, for they must be also present. But my apparatus is insufficient, I need money, my hands are black and bleeding, black as misery, bleeding as my heart. For, during this time, I continue to correspond with my wife. I tell her of my successes in chemical experiments; she answers with news about the illness of our child, and here and there drops hints that my science is futile, and that it is foolish to waste money on it.
In a fit of righteous pride, in the passionate desire to do myself an injury, I commit moral suicide by repudiating my wife and child in an unworthy, unpardonable letter. I give her to understand that I am involved in a new love-affair.
The blow goes home. My wife answers with a demand for separation.
Solitary, guilty of suicide and assassination, I forget my crime under the weight of sorrow and care. No one visits me, and I can see no one, since I have alienated all. I drift alone over the surface of the sea; I have hoisted my anchor, but have no sail.
Necessity, however, in the shape of an unpaid bill, interrupts my scientific tasks and metaphysical speculations, and calls me back to earth.
Christmas approaches. I have abruptly refused the invitation of a Scandinavian family, the atmosphere of which makes me uncomfortable because of their moral irregularities. But, when evening comes and I am alone, I repent, and go there all the same.
They sit down to table, and the evening meal begins with a great deal of noise and outbursts of hilarity, for the young artists who are present feel themselves at home here. A certain familiarity of gestures and attitudes, a tone which is anything but domestic, repels and depresses me indescribably. In the middle of the orgy my sadness calls up to my inner vision a picture of the peaceful home of my wife: the Christmas tree, the mistletoe, my little daughter, her deserted mother. Pangs of conscience seize me; I stand up, plead ill-health as an excuse, and depart.
I go down the dreadful Rue de la Gaieté in which the artificial mirth of the crowd annoys me; then down the gloomy silent Rue Delambre, which is more conducive to despair than any other street of the Quarter. I turn into the Boulevard Montparnasse, and let myself fall on a seat on the terrace of the Lilas brewery.
A glass of good absinthe comforts me for some minutes. Then there fall on me a set of cocottes and students who strike me on the face with switches. As though driven by furies, I leave my glass of absinthe standing, and hasten to seek for another in the Café François Premier on the Boulevard St. Michel. Out of the frying-pan into the fire! A second troop shouts at me, “There is the hermit!” Driven forth again I fly home, accompanied by the unnerving tones of the mirliton pipes.
The thought that it might be a chastisement, the result of a crime, does not occur to me. In my own mind I feel guiltless, and consider myself the object of an unjust persecution. The unknown powers have hindered me from continuing my great work. The hindrances must be broken through before I obtain the victor’s crown.
I have been wrong, and at the same time I am right, and will maintain it.
That Christmas night I slept badly. A cold draught several times blew on my face, and from time to time the sound of a jew’s-harp awoke me.

An increasing prostration comes over me. My black and bleeding hands prevent my dressing myself and taking care of my outer appearance. Anxiety about my unpaid hotel bill leaves me no peace, and I pace up and down my room like a wild beast in a cage. I eat no longer, and the hotel manager advises me to go to a hospital. But that is no help to me, for it is too dear, and I must pay my bill here first.
The veins in my arm begin to swell visibly; it is a sign of blood-poisoning. This is the finishing stroke. The news spreads among my countrymen, and one evening there comes the kind-hearted woman, whose Christmas dinner I had so abruptly left, who was antipathetic to me, and whom I almost despised. She finds me out, asks how I am, and tells me with tears that the hospital is my only hope.
One can understand how helpless and humiliated I feel, as my eloquent silence shows her that I am penniless. She is seized with sympathy at seeing me so prostrate. Poor herself, and oppressed with daily anxieties, she resolves to make a collection among the Scandinavian colony, and to go to the pastor of the community.
A sinful woman has pity on the man who has deserted his lawful wife!
Once more a beggar, asking for alms by means of a woman, I begin to suspect that there is an invisible hand which guides the irresistible logic of events. I bow before the storm, determined to rise again at the first opportunity.
The carriage brings me to the hospital of St. Louis. On the way, in the Rue de Rennes, I get out in order to buy two white shirts. The winding-sheet for the last hour! I really expect a speedy death, without being able to say why.
In the hospital I am forbidden to go out without leave; besides, my hands are so wrapped up that all occupation is impossible to me; I feel therefore like a prisoner. My room is bare, contains only the most necessary things, and has nothing attractive about it. It lies near the public sitting-room, where from morning to evening they smoke and play cards. The bell rings for breakfast. As I sit down at the table I find myself in a frightful company of death’s-heads. Here a nose is wanting, there an eye; there the lips hang down, here the cheek is ulcered. Two of them do not look sick, but show in their faces gloom and despair. These are “kleptomaniacs” of high social rank, who, because of their powerful connections, have escaped prison by being declared irresponsible.
An unpleasant smell of iodoform takes away my appetite. Since my hands are muffled I must ask the help of my neighbour for cutting bread and pouring out wine. Round this banquet of criminals and those condemned to death goes the good Mother, the Superintendent, in her severe black and white dress, and gives each of us his poisonous medicine. With a glass holding arsenic I drink to a death’s-head who pledges me in digitalis. That is gruesome, and yet one must be thankful! That makes me wild. To have to be thankful for something so petty and unpleasant!
They dress me, and undress me, and look after me like a child. The kind sister takes a fancy to me, treats me like a baby, calls me “my child,” while I call her “mother.”
But it does me good to be able to say this word “mother,” which has not passed my lips for thirty years. The old lady, an Augustine nun, who wears the garb of the dead, because she has never lived, is mild as resignation itself, and teaches us to smile at our sufferings as though they were joys, for she knows the beneficial effects of pain. She does not utter a word of reproof nor admonition nor sermonising.
She knows the regulations of the ordinary hospitals so well that she can allow small liberties to the patients, though not to herself. She permits me to smoke in my room, and offers to make my cigarettes herself; this, h

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