Tag Archives: Rudel

The Impossibility of the Ideal – An Addendum: Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy

Still on the topic of the impossibility of the ideal: a conversation in the comments section of the previous post reminded me of what is perhaps the most stark and vivid treatment of the concept that I’ve come across. It is Ibsen’s early play, Love’s Comedy. It would be accurate, I think, to say that Ibsen begins where Baudelaire and Rudel leave off; in Love’s Comedy, through the characters of Falk and Svanhild, he shows us precisely what would happen if Baudelaire found his city-woman again, or Rudel his Lady of Tripoli. Ibsen takes the argument right to the bitter end, does not flinch from the disturbing consequences of his own logic, and has both the dramatic skill and the human sensitivity to carry the whole thing off very convincingly.

Love’s Comedy, like all Ibsen, is primarily social commentary: set in a late-nineteenth century Norwegian country boarding-house, it deals with the subjugation of women and the stifling nature of conventions – interrelated themes, both. But what I’d like to discuss is the other theme that weaves its way around these two, that is, Ibsen’s treatment of a certain kind of love, a love that would be avowed by a Lermontov or a Byron, and which, with some discomfort, but for want of a better label, I will tentatively classify as “romantic love“. This is the love between Falk and Svanhild, that sets itself up in opposition to and in conflict with the more… conventional forms that it takes in the relationships between the other – rather more traditional – members of the country house.

A brief account of the characters: Falk is the revolutionary poet, the rebel against society, a Lermontov or a Shelley. Svanhild is the woman trapped in the stifling webs of social convention and, ostensibly, longing to escape. All the other characters – Mrs Halm, the proprietress; Stiver, the lawyer and Miss Jay, his fiancee; Guldstad, the wholesale merchant; Lind, Falk’s friend and fellow-student and his fiancee, Anna; and Strawman, the clergyman are society at its most conventional – although with their own individual twists.

The scene is set at the very opening, when Falk is reciting a poem for the gathering, a poem in which he celebrates the fleetingness of moments:

I will live in song and gladness,—
       Then, when every bloom is shed,
     Sweep together, scarce in sadness,
       All that glory, wan and dead:
     Fling the gates wide! Bruise and batter,
       Tear and trample, hoof and tusk;
     I have plucked the flower, what matter
       Who devours the withered husk!

Immediately after that, Falk claims that if he had control over the dictionary for one hour, he would expunge the word “next” from the lexicon, because we ruin our lives and we ruin our moments by thinking of what is to come next. We then learn that back in the day, when Stiver the lawyer was first in love, he wrote reams of poetry in office hours. And yet, he hasn’t written a word since he became engaged with the woman he loved. At one level, one could view this as a simple commentary on how social conventions destroy all depth of feeling. But at another level, if we look at this in light of Falk’s opening poem, there is a deeper point here: the wellspring of your inspiration that flowed freely when you were pursuing your ideal dries up utterly when you attain it. This is what Falk really means when he says that an engagement destroys love. This is the hidden truth behind his subsequent contemptuous dismissal of Strawman the clergyman:

FALK [looking after STRAWMAN who appears at the window].
 He was once so brilliant and strong;
Warred with the world to win his mistress; passed
For Custom’s doughtiest iconoclast;
And pored forth love in paeans of glad song—!
Look at him now! In solemn robes and wraps,
A two-legged drama on his own collapse!
And she, the limp-skirt slattern, with the shoes
Heel-trodden, that squeak and clatter in her traces,
This is the winged maid who was his Muse
And escort to the kingdom of the graces!
Of all that fire this puff of smoke’s the end!
Sic transit gloria amoris, friend.

Falk then comes up with the classical romanticist desire of finding a woman to be his muse, one who will inspire him to write great poetry.


Let blindness veil the sunlight from mine eyes,
I’ll chant the splendour of the sunlit skies!
Just for a season let me beg or borrow
A great, a crushing, a stupendous sorrow,
And soon you’ll hear my hymns of gladness rise!
But best, Miss Jay, to nerve my wings for flight,
Find me a maid to be my life, my light—
For that incitement long to heaven I’ve pleaded;
But hitherto, worse luck, it hasn’t heeded.

At this point, Svanhild enters, and her very first lines are redolent of tragedy:

I’ll pray that such may be your destiny.
But, when it finds you—bear it like a man.

And then, replying to Falk when he wonders whether her faith in prayer will be adequate to provide him what he has always unsuccessfully asked for: 

Wait till sorrow comes,
And all your being’s springtide chills and numbs,
Wait till it gnaws and rends you, soon and late,
Then tell me if my faith is adequate.

And there you have it. Live by romanticism and, by Lermontov, you will die by it! Falk doesn’t answer, but suddenly, there is a sense of foreboding, and a sense of the inevitable. In a sense, we know what is going to come. Falk will fall in love, he will write poetry, he will live his life like it was a poem, he will live in every moment for the moment, but he will be utterly unable to carry the logic through to its conclusion. Like Faust, he will want the moment to last as long as it can, and in wanting that, he will betray himself and his own professed ideals, and that… well, you know what that will bring.

There is another point at issue here. In his conversation with Svanhild, Falk stresses on how important she is to him, how much she means to him, as a muse.

FALK.
 Yes, free, for freedom’s all-in-all
Is absolutely to fulfil our Call.
And you by heaven were destined, I know well,
To be my bulwark against beauty’s spell.
I, like my falcon namesake, have to swing
Against the wind, if I would reach the sky!
You are the breeze I must be breasted by,
You, only you, put vigour in my wing:
Be mine, be mine, until the world shall take you,
When leaves are falling, then our paths shall part.
Sing unto me the treasures of your heart,
And for each song another song I’ll make you;
So may you pass into the lamplit glow
Of age, as forests fade without a throe. 

In my previous post, a commentator remarked about how Baudelaire doesn’t necessarily want love as much as the feeling of being in love. Something similar is at work, I think, when analyses of A une Passante indicate that to the flaneur, the city-woman serves essentially as an inspiration, or a literary device. And something similar is happening here. The ideal serves not as something we desire, but something that exists so that we can experience the feeling of desiring it, and in that feeling, either (in the case of the flaneur) find a better representation for our own consciousness or, in the case of Falk, be inspired to write great poetry.

I would love to discuss the brilliant interplay between Falk and Svanhild, but that will have to wait for another post. Suffice it here to say that Svanhild rejects him at first – and understandably so – you wouldn’t want to have your existence defined and exhausted by being someone else’s muse, would you? She exhorts him not to write but be (echoes of Kundera’s house of mirrors here); Falk then has a bitter and violent argument with the rest of the members of the household about love, marriage and convention, during the course of which his eloquence and passion is such that Svanhild falls in love with him. They resolve to march to battle against the enemies Society and Convention together. Falk has further arguments with individual members of the household. He and Svanhild determine to leave and travel elsewhere. But then in comes Guldstad, the dry, prosaic, quotidian wholesale merchant, and he asks Svanhild to marry him.

It sounds utterly absurd at first – two lovers, in all the passionate blaze of youth, who have just determined to initiate a war against all the forces of convention; and a grey-haired wholesale merchant who is as much a part of the establishment as a high-backed and cushioned armchair. Surely, if he tries to match arguments with Falk, it is going to be a complete mismatch. But then Guldstad puts forward his claim: 

GULDSTAD [completing his sentence].
That heartfelt love can weather unimpaired
Custom, and Poverty, and Age, and Grief.
Well, say it be so; possibly you’re right;
But see the matter in another light.
What love is, no man ever told us—whence
It issues, that ecstatic confidence
That one life may fulfil itself in two,—
To this no mortal ever found the clue.
But marriage is a practical concern,
As also is betrothal, my good sir—
And by experience easily we learn
That we are fitted just for her, or her.
But love, you know, goes blindly to its fate,
Chooses a woman, not a wife, for mate;
And what if now this chosen woman was
No wife for you—?

FALK [in suspense].
Well?

GULDSTAD [shrugging his shoulders].
Then you’ve lost your cause.
To make happy bridegroom and a bride
Demands not love alone, but much beside,
Relations that do not wholly disagree.
And marriage? Why, it is a very sea
Of claims and calls, of taxing and exaction,

Whose bearing upon love is very small.

In short, he makes a passionate case for safety, stability and security over “lawless passion” However, it isn’t Guldstad’s argument that is so very interesting, as is Falk and Svanhild’s response to it, once he has left, after asking them to make their choice. I quote it in full:

SVANHILD.
But if love, notwithstanding, should decay,
—Love being Happiness’s single stay—
Could you avert, then, Happiness’s fall?

FALK.
No, my love’s ruin were the wreck of all.

SVANHILD.
And can you promise me before the Lord
That it will last, not drooping like the flower,
But smell as sweet as now till life’s last hour?

FALK [after a short pause].
It will last long.

SVANHILD.
“Long!” “Long!”—Poor starveling word!
Can “long” give any comfort in Love’s need?
It is her death-doom, blight upon her seed.
“My faith is, Love will never pass away”—
That song must cease, and in its stead be heard:
“My faith is, that I loved you yesterday!”
                    [As uplifted by inspiration.
No, no, not thus our day of bliss shall wane,
Flag drearily to west in clouds and rain;—
But at high noontide, when it is most bright,
Plunge sudden, like a meteor, into the night!

FALK.
What would you, Svanhild?

SVANHILD.
We are of the Spring;
No autumn shall come after, when the bird
Of music in thy breast shall not be heard,
And long not thither where it first took wing.
Nor ever Winter shall his snowy shroud
Lay on the clay-cold body of our bliss;—
This Love of ours, ardent and glad and proud,
Pure of disease’s taint and age’s cloud,
Shall die the young and glorious thing it is!

FALK [in deep pain].
And far from thee—what would be left of life?

SVANHILD.
And near me what were left—if Love depart?

FALK.
A home?

SVANHILD.
Where Joy would gasp in mortal strife.
                                      [Firmly.
It was not given to me to be your wife.
That is the clear conviction of my heart!
In courtship’s merry pastime I can lead,
But not sustain your spirit in its need.
                [Nearer and gathering fire.
Now we have revell’d out a feast of spring;
No thought of slumber’s sluggard couch come nigh!
Let Joy amid delirious song make wing
And flock with choirs of cherubim on high.
And tho’ the vessel of our fate capsize,
One plank yet breasts the waters, strong to save;—
The fearless swimmer reaches Paradise!
Let Joy go down into his watery grave;
Our Love shall yet triumph, by God’s hand,
Be borne from out the wreckage safe to land!

FALK.
O, I divine thee! But—to sever thus!
Now, when the portals of the world stand wide,—
When the blue spring is bending over us,
On the same day that plighted thee my bride!

SVANHILD.
Just therefore must we part. Our joy’s torch fire
Will from this moment wane till it expire!
And when at last our worldly days are spent,
And face to face with our great Judge we stand,
And, as righteous God, he shall demand
Of us the earthly treasure that he lent—
Then, Falk, we cry—past power of Grace to save—
“O Lord, we lost it going to the grave!”

FALK [with strong resolve].
Pluck off the ring!

SVANHILD [with fire].
Wilt thou?

FALK.
Now I divine!
Thus and no otherwise canst thou be mine!
As the grave opens into life’s Dawn-fire,
So Love with Life may not espoused be
Till, loosed from longing and from wild desire,
Pluck off the ring, Svanhild!

SVANHILD [in rapture].
My task is done!
Now I have filled thy soul with song and sun.
Forth! Now thou soarest on triumphant wings,—
Forth! Now thy Svanhild is the swan that sings!

[Takes off the ring and presses a kiss upon it.
To the abysmal ooze of ocean bed
Descend, my dream!—I fling thee in its stead!

    [Goes a few steps back, throws the ring into the
      fjord, and approaches FALK with a transfigured
      expression.

Now for this earthly life I have foregone thee,—
But for the life eternal I have won thee!

The underlined verses present, I think, the core thought. Paradoxically, it is only in parting that Falk and Svanhild’s love can survive. It is in the nature of the human condition for everything – including love – to decay, to fade, and eventually, to die with use; and so, there is but one solution to keep it alive: the lovers must deny themselves attainment and fulfillment. Baudelaire has found his city-woman again, but he can’t love her – his delirium, his vision of tempests, his resurrection – these can only ever happen if he sees her once, for a fleeting moment, in a crowd. And so, the second time, Baudelaire walks away. Rudel has come at last to the Lady of Tripoli, but how can he sustain his amor de lonh, and have the birds of autumn remind him of his faraway love, when she is right there in front of him, to touch, to grasp, to know? And so, Rudel must depart – whether or not it is to his death. That single, intense, divine passion that has characterised and defined one’s being must, at its very apotheosis, be rejected if it is not to be utterly destroyed.

Is it a happy conclusion? Anything but. We can sense the helpless, suppressed, thwarted anger bubbling within Falk as he bids his farewells to the company:

Forgive me my offences great and small, I resent nothing;— [Softly. but remember all.

And we can sense, only too vividly, the hopeless despair of Svanhild when, having accepted Guldstad’s proposal, and on seeing Falk depart, she says:

SVANHILD [Looks after him a moment, then says softly but firmly:
Now over is my life, by lea and lawn,
The leaves are falling;—now the world may take me.

And the last lines of the play:

CHORUS OF FALK AND THE STUDENTS.

And what if I shattered my roaming bark,
It was passing sweet to be roaming!

We leave – or at least, I left – Love’s Comedy with a distinct of sadness, at the inescapability of the paradox, the inevitability of the logic. It is as if Ibsen is saying, this is the game, and if you decide to play it, this is the only possible end. So choose – either play it and be a Falk or a Svanhild, or opt out, and be a Guldstad. 

It seems, in its original and classic sense, a Catch-22.

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Filed under Ibsen, Romanticism