Sunday, 15 July 2012

Strindberg's spiritual search

Strindberg’s spiritual search

Strindberg loved battles. He would enter any battle like a war-hungry soldier. He wrote about the battle of the sexes, the class struggle and the battle of brains, and in his early play, Master Olof, he lets the main character, Olaus Petri, say: ‘It wasn’t the victory that I wanted, but the struggle.’
In Master Olof, which is about the introduction of Protestantism in Sweden he uses the Reformation as a metaphor fo the rise of Socialism. Towards the middle of the 1880s Strindberg went through a period of atheism and he wrote to his publisher, Bonnier: ‘Since I am about to become an atheist (the world is run by idiots, consequently God is an idiot) I shall probably attack God from now on as well.’ 
This warning to his publisher must have been very worrying indeed. Strindberg had already stood trial for blasphemy once and Bonnier, who was Jewish was, naturally, uncomfortable with anything which might be interpreted as an attack on the Church of Sweden. In another letter to the Danish critic Edvard Brandes, Strindberg admitted that he was preparing to become an atheist but he found it horribly difficult. His atheism was - in his own words - a mental experiment which had failed at once.
During his short marriage to Frida Uhl he was drawn to Catholicism which he was introduced to through his mother-in-law in Austria. But with Strindberg we can never know for sure what he stands for. As soon as we have put a label on him he changes and is already on his way somewhere else. His Austrian mother-in-law was a believer and a good Catholic, but she was also drawn to Swedenborg who became one of Strindberg’s idols during the 1890s.
He bought a Catholic prayer book and a rosary and even thought of entering a monastery. In Inferno he writes:’I have bought a rosary. Why? It is beautiful and the Evil One is afraid of the cross.’ The thing that held him back was the need to obey. Strindberg found it very difficult to obey anyone. 
‘I am not a wild man. I prefer strolling by the sea and growing cucumbers. But people hate me because I write so bloody well. My motto is: Leave me alone, I am prickly. Why the hell do they have to probe me when I am prickly. But everyone has to have a feel. And then they get stung!’
The road back to Christianity meandered along some narrow paths, via Swedenborg, Kierkegaard, Buddhism and Islam. But in the end Strindberg found his way back to the faith of his childhood and by that time regret and remorse had replaced his wrath and defiance. ‘What shall I regret? How much shall I regret?,’ he asks himself. ‘How should I live in order to please God?’ At the same time he realises that his greatest sin was the way he had treated his wife and children. He accuses himself of hubris, the only sin that the gods won’t forgive. Maybe Christ is an avenging spirit? 
In 1897 he abandoned Swedenborg  and didn’t return to him until the end of his life. In May 1897 he applied for a place in a Benedictine monastery but when he found out that the abbot had been sacked because of a sexual offence he withdrew his application.
‘I want to have religion as a quiet accompaniment to the monotonous everyday tune of life.
A buddhist book has made a more lasting impression than all the other holy books because it puts positive suffering above abstinence.’ 
His most beloved drama, A Dreamplay, is a synthesis of all his thoughts about faith and the meaning of life. The leading character, Indra’s daughter, an invention by Strindberg, has been interpreted in many ways - as a human being or as a divine being. She walks through life like a female Jesus and returns to heaven at the end of the play. Her recurring line is: ‘Det är synd om människorna,’ a sentence which is practically untranslateable. ‘Mankind is to be pitied,’ is perhaps the closest we can get to this sigh of compassion.