The Son of a Servant

The Son of a Servant

August Strindberg
August Strindberg

Author: Strindberg, August, 1849-1912
Sweden — Fiction
The Son of a Servant








The Knickerbocker Press




From the Publication of “The Son of a Servant” to “The Inferno” (1886-1896)
A celebrated statesman is said to have described the biography of a cardinal as being like the Judgment Day. In reading August Strindberg’s autobiographical writings, as, for example, his Inferno, and the book for which this study is a preface, we must remember that he portrays his own Judgment Day. And as his works have come but lately before the great British public, it may be well to consider what attitude should be adopted towards the amazing candour of his self-revelation. In most provinces of life other than the comprehension of our fellows, the art of understanding is making great progress. We comprehend new phenomena without the old strain upon our capacity for readjusting our point of view. But do we equally well understand our fellow-being whose way of life is not ours? We are patient towards new phases of philosophy, new discoveries in science, new sociological facts, observed in other lands; but in considering an abnormal type of man or woman, hasty judgment or a too contracted outlook is still liable to cloud the judgment.
Now, it is obvious that if we would understand any worker who has accomplished what his contemporaries could only attempt to do, we must have a sufficiently wide knowledge of his work. Neither the inconsequent gossip attaching to such a personality, nor the chance perusal of a problem-play, affords an adequate basis for arriving at a true estimate of the man. Few writers demand, to the same degree as August Strindberg, those graces of judgment, patience, and reverence. And for this reason first of all: most of us live sheltered lives. They are few who stand in the heart of the storm made by Europe’s progress. Especially is this true in Southern Europe, where tradition holds its secular sway, where such a moulding energy as constitutional practice exerts its influence over social life, where the aims and ends of human attainment are defined and sanctioned by a consciousness developing with the advancement of civilisation. There is often engendered under such conditions a nervous impatience towards those who, judged from behind the sheltered walls of orthodoxy, are more or less exposed to the criticism of their fellows. The fault lies in yielding to this impatience. The proof that August Strindberg was of the few who must stand in the open, and suffer the full force of all the winds that blow, cannot now be attempted. Our sole aim must be to enable the reader of The Son of a Servant to take up a sympathetic standpoint. This book forms part of the autobiography of a most gifted man, through whose life the fierce winds of Europe’s opinions blew into various expression.
The second reason for the exercise of impartiality, is that Strindberg’s recent death has led to the circulation through Europe of certain phrases which are liable to displace the balance of judgment in reviewing his life and work. There are passages in his writings, and phases of his autobiography, that raise questions of Abnormal Psychology. Hence pathological terms are used to represent the whole man and his work. Again, from the jargon of a prevalent Nietzschianism a doctrine at once like and unlike the teaching of that solitary thinker descriptions of the Superman are borrowed, and with these Strindberg is labelled. Or again, certain incidents in his domestic affairs are seized upon to prove him a decadent libertine. The facts of this book, The Son of a Servant, are true: Strindberg lived them. His Inferno, in like manner, is a transcript of a period of his life. And if these books are read as they should be read, they are neither more nor less than the records of the progress of a most gifted life along the Dolorous Way.
The present volume is the record of the early years of Strindberg’s life, and the story is incomparably told. For the sympathetic reader it will represent the history of a temperament to which the world could not come in easy fashion, and for which circumstances had contrived a world where it would encounter at each step tremendous difficulties. We find in Strindberg the consciousness of vast powers thwarted by neglect, by misunderstanding, and by the shackles of an ignominious parentage. He sets out on life as a viking, sailing the trackless seas that beat upon the shores of unknown lands, where he must take the sword to establish his rights of venture, and write fresh pages in some Heimskringla of a later age.
A calm reading of the book may induce us to suggest that this is often the fate of genius. The man of great endowments is made to walk where hardship lies on every side. And though a recognition of the hardness of the way is something, it must be borne in mind that while some are able to pass along it in serenity, others face it in tears, and others again in terrible revolt. Revolt was the only possible attitude for the Son of a Servant.
How true this is may be realised by recalling the fact that towards the end of the same year in which The Son of a Servant appeared, viz., 1886, our author published the second part of a series of stories entitled Marriage, in which that relationship is subjected to criticism more intense than is to be found in any of the many volumes devoted to this subject in a generation eminently given to this form of criticism. Side by side with this fact should be set the contents of one such story from his pen. Here he has etched, with acid that bites deeper than that of the worker in metal, the story of a woman’s pettiness and inhumanity towards the husband who loves her. By his art her weakness is made to dominate every detail of the domestic ménage, and what was once a woman now appears to be the spirit of neglect, whose habitation is garnished with dust and dead flowers. Her great weakness calls to the man’s pity, and we are told how, into this disorder, he brings the joy of Christmastide, and the whispered words of life, like a wind from some flower-clad hill. The natural conclusion, as regards both his autobiographical works and his volume of stories, is this: that Strindberg finds the Ideal to be a scourge, and not a Pegasus. And this is a distinction that sharply divides man from man, whether endowed for the attainment of saintship, for the apprehension of the vision, or with powers that enable him to wander far over the worlds of thought.
Had Strindberg intended to produce some more finished work to qualify the opinion concerning his pessimism, he could have done no better than write the novel that comes next in the order of his works, Hemso Folk, which was given to the world in the year 1887. It is the first of his novels to draw on the natural beauties of the rocky coast and many tiny islands which make up the splendour of the Fjord whose crown is Stockholm, and which, continuing north and south, provide fascinating retreats, still unspoilt and unexplored by the commercial agent. It may be noticed here that this northern Land of Faery has not long since found its way into English literature through a story by Mr. Algernon Blackwood, in his interesting volume, John Silence. The adequate description of this region was reserved for August Strindberg, and among his prose writings there are none to compare with those that have been inspired by the islands and coast he delighted in. Among them, Hemso Folk ranks first. In this work he shows his mastery, not of self-portraiture, but of the portraiture of other men, and his characters are painted with a mastery of subject and material which in a sister art would cause one to think of Velasquez. Against a background of sea and sky stand the figures of a schoolmaster and a priest—the portraits of both depicted with the highest art,—and throughout the book may be heard the authentic speech of the soul of Strindberg’s North. He may truly be claimed to be most Swedish here; but he may also with equal truth be claimed to be most universal, since Hemso Folk is true for all time, and in all places.
In the following year (1888) was published another volume of tales by Strindberg, entitled Life on the Skerries, and again the sea, and the sun, and the life of men who commune with the great waters are the sources of his virile inspiration. Other novels of a like kind were written later, but at this hour of his life he yielded to the command of the idea—a voice which called him more strongly than did the magnificence of Nature, whose painter he could be when he had respite from the whirlwind.
Tschandala, his next book, was the fruit of a holiday in the country. This novel was written to show a man of uncommon powers of mind in the toils of inferior folk—the proletariat of soul bent on the ruin of the elect in soul. Poverty keeps him in chains. He is forced to deal with neighbours of varying degrees of degradation. A landlady deceives her husband for the sake of a vagrant lover. This person attempts to subordinate the uncommon man; who, however, discovers that he can be dominated through his superstitious fears. He is enticed one night into a field, where the projections from a lantern, imagined as supernatural beings, so play upon his fears that he dies from fright. In this book we evidently have the experimental upsurging of his imagination: supposing himself the victim of a sordid environment, he can see with unveiled eyes what might happen to him. Realistic in his apprehension of outward details, he sees the idea in its vaguest proportions. This creates, this informs his pictures of Nature; this also makes his heaven and hell. Inasmuch as a similar method is used by certain modern novelists, the curious phrase “a novel of ideas” has been coined. As though it were a surprising feature to find an idea expressed in novels! And not rarely such works are said to be lacking in warmth, because they are too full of thought.
After Tschandala come two or three novels of distinctly controversial character—books of especial value in essaying an understanding of Strindberg’s mind. The pressure of ideas from many quarters of Europe was again upon him, and caused him to undertake long and desperate pilgrimages. In the Offing and To Damascus are the suggestive titles of these books. Seeing, however, that a detailed sketch of the evolution of Strindberg’s opinions is not at this moment practicable, we merely mention these works, and the years 1890 and 1892.
Meanwhile our author has passed through two intervals in his life of a more peaceful character than was usually his lot. The first of these was spent among his favourite scenes in the vicinity of the Gulf of Bothnia, where he lived like a hermit, writing poetry and painting pictures. He might have become a painter of some note, had it not come so natural to him to use the pen. At any rate, during the time that he wielded the brush he put on canvas the scenes which he succeeded in reproducing so marvellously in his written works. The other period of respite was during a visit to Ola Hansson, a Swedish writer of rare distinction, then living near Berlin. The author of Sensitiva Amorosa was the antithesis of Strindberg. A consummate artist, with a wife of remarkable intellectual power, the two enfolded him in their peace, and he was able to give full expression to his creative faculty.
Strindberg now enters upon the period which culminates in the writing of The Inferno. From the peace of Ola Hansson’s home he set out on his wedding tour, and during the early part of it came over to England. In a remarkable communication to a Danish man of letters, Strindberg answers many questions concerning his personal tastes, among them several regarding his English predilections. We may imagine them present to him as he looks upon the sleeping city from London Bridge, in the greyness of a Sunday morning, after a journey from Gravesend. His favourite English writer is Dickens, and of his works the most admired is Little Dorrit. A novel written in the period described in The Son of a Servant, and which first brought him fame, was inspired by the reading of David Copperfield! His favourite painter is Turner. These little sidelights upon the personality of the man are very interesting, throwing into relief as they do the view of him adopted by the writer of the foregoing pages. London, however, he disliked, and a crisis in health compelled him to leave for Paris, from which moment begins his journey through the “Inferno.”
A play of Strindberg’s has been performed in Paris—the height of his ambition. Once attained, it was no longer to be desired; accordingly, he turned from the theatre to Science. He takes from their hiding-place some chemical apparatus he had purchased long before. Drawing the blinds of his room he bums pure sulphur until he believes that he has discovered in it the presence of carbon. His sentences are written in terse, swift style. A page or two of the book is turned over, and we find his pen obeying the impulse of his penetrating sight…. Separation from his wife; the bells of Christmas; his visit to a hospital, and the people he sees there, begin to occupy him. Gratitude to the nursing sister, and the reaching forward of his mind into the realm of the alchemical significance of his chemical studies, arouse in him a spirit of mystical asceticism. Pages of The Inferno might be cited to show their resemblance to documents which have come to us from the Egyptian desert, or from the narrow cell of a recluse. Theirs is the search for a spiritual union: his is the quest of a negation of self, that his science might be without fault. A notion of destiny is grafted upon his mysticism of science. He wants to be led, as did the ascetic, though for him the goal is lore hidden from mortal eyes. He now happens upon confirmation of his scientific curiosity, in the writings of an older chemist. Then he meets with Balzac’s novel Séraphita, and a new ecstasy is added to his outreaching towards the knowledge he aspires to. Vivid temptations assail him; he materialises as objective personalities the powers that appear to place obstacles in the way of his researches. Again we observe the same phenomena as in the soul of the monk, yet always with this difference: Strindberg is the monk of science. Curious little experiences—that others would brush into that great dust-bin, Chance—are examined with a rare simplicity to see if they may hold significance for the order of his life. These details accumulate as we turn the pages of The Inferno, and force one to the conclusion that they are akin to the material which we have only lately begun to study as phenomena peculiar to the psychology of the religious life. Their summary inclusion under the heading of “Abnormal Psychology” will, however, lead to a shallow interpretation of Strindberg. The voluntary isolation of himself from the relations of life and the world plays havoc with his health. Soon he is established under a doctor’s care in a little southern Swedish town, with its memories of smugglers and pirates; and he immediately likens the doctor’s house to a Buddhist cloister. The combination is typically Strindbergian! He begins to be haunted with the terrible suspicion that he is being plotted against. Nature is exacting heavy dues from his overwrought system. After thirty days’ treatment he leaves the establishment with the reflection that whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.
Dante wrote his Divine Comedy; Strindberg his Mortal Comedy. There are three great stages in each, and the literary vehicle of their perilous journeyings is aptly chosen. Readers of the wonderful Florentine will recall the familiar words:
“Surge ai mortali per diverse foci
la lucerna de mondo.”[1]
And they have found deeper content in Strindberg’s self-discoveries. The first part of his Inferno tells of his Purgatory; the second part closes with the poignant question, Whither? If, for a moment, we step beyond the period of his life with which this study deals, we shall find him telling of his Paradise in a mystery-play entitled Advent, where he, too, had a starry vision of “un simplice lume,” a simple flame that ingathers the many and scattered gleams of the universe’s revelation. His guide through Hell is Swedenborg. Once more the note is that of the anchorite; for at the outset of his acceptance of Swedenborg’s guidance he is tempted to believe that even his guide’s spiritual teaching may weaken his belief in a God who chastens. He desires to deny himself the gratification of the sight of his little daughter, because he appears to consider her prattle, that breaks into the web of his contemplation, to be the instrument of a strange power. From step to step he goes until his faith is childlike as a peasant’s. How he is hurled again into the depths of his own Hell, the closing pages of his book will tell us. Whatever views the reader may hold, it seems impossible that he should see in this Mortal Comedy the utterances of deranged genius. Rather will his charity of judgment have led him to a better understanding of one who listened to the winds that blow through Europe, and was buffeted by their violence.
We may close this brief study by asking the question: What, then, is Strindberg’s legacy for the advancement of Art, as found in this decade of his life? It will surely be seen that Strindberg’s realism is of a peculiarly personal kind. Whatever his sympathy with Zola may have been, or Zola’s with him, Strindberg has never confounded journalism with Art. He has also recognised in his novels that there is a difference between the function of the camera and the eye of the artist. More than this—and it is important if Strindberg is to be understood—his realism has always been subservient to the idea. And it is this power that has essentially rendered Strindberg’s realism peculiarly personal; that is to say, incapable of being copied or forming a school. It can only be used by such as he who, standing in the maelstrom of ideas, is fashioned and attuned by the whirling storms, as they strive for complete expression. Not always, however, is he subservient to their dominion. Sometimes cast down from the high places whence the multitudinous voice can be heard, he may say and do that which raises fierce criticism. A patient study of Strindberg will lay bare such matters; but their discovery must not blind our eyes to the truth that these are moments of insensitiveness towards, or rejection of, the majestic power which is ceaselessly sculpturing our highest Western civilisation.

[1] “There riseth up to mortals through diverse trials

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