Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Peer Gynt

"But just what is the Gyntish self?"

I reread this to prepare for reading something else in the future. We'll see how that pans out...

Peer Gynt (1867) is a long dramatic poem, a play if you will, by Henrik Ibsen, but so long as to be almost unperformable. At any rate, Ibsen didn't imagine it being performed, until later when he did, and got his acquaintance Edvard Grieg to write some now-famous incidental music for a production.

Peer Gynt is the (anti-?) hero of his namesake play. His father is dead, having died drunk and nearly broke; his mother is still alive, exasperated by her wayward son, but not to the point where she will let anybody else say the bad things about him she allows herself to say.

There was an actual Peer Gynt fifty or a hundred years before the play, but he had already moved into folklore by the time Ibsen took him up as a subject.

The problem with Peer is that he's an irresponsible liar. I'm not sure I should be reading any more things (more than I already do) at this time about irresponsible liars, but be that as it may. When the play starts, Peer, returning home after a month supposedly hunting--his clothes are shredded--tells his mother he was abducted by a flying reindeer. She doesn't believe him, but his lies are so vivid, she starts to retroactively fear for his life anyway.

The play/poem, 200 pages in my edition, is Peer's entire life; the irresponsibility overwhelms the early lying, but then sheer immorality overwhelms the irresponsibility. Peer and his mother need money; there's a neighbor heiress who is attracted to Peer and is about to be married against her wishes. At that wedding Peer sees Solveig; maybe she's the one he wants? Instead Peer abducts the bride, but in the end refuses to marry her; and so now he's now wanted by the law.

What does Peer really want? What is that Gyntish self? He meets the daughter of the king of the trolls (or is that just a fantasy?) and could marry her, but then he'd have to live the trollish life, adopt the trollish motto: "to thy own self, be...enough." (There's also the little matter of a required eye surgery that makes anything ugly look beautiful.)

You see the beginnings of the existentialist crisis here. He flees Norway to try on various roles, all of which temporarily seem the proper Gyntish self: rich man, prophet, lover, even archeologist. None of them last. He behaves pretty badly in doing these things: it's the slave trade makes him rich, etc.

In the end he returns to Norway an old man. He meets the devil, (presumably, not so named) but worse he meets the Button-Moulder: if you go to heaven, then great, you've gone to heaven; if you go the other way, well, then, at least you were a great sinner, and you have preserved your identity. But the Button-Moulder! He recycles the soul-stuff from wishy-washy types by melting it all down to start anew. If you've never found yourself, your true Gyntish self, it's the Button-Moulder for you! And the Button-Moulder tells Peer that Peer is his kind of material.

This makes it all a bit Faust with a twist.

Does Peer save himself from the Button-Moulder? The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Should he have been saved? Enh, I don't know. Poking around, I found this quote from Robert Bly, "He does horrible things throughout the play and yet you end up loving him very much." I'm not sure I entirely felt that love, but clearly some do, and your mileage may vary...

In any case, I suppose even basically horrible people need to find themselves, too.

The edition I read was an older Penguin translated by Peter Watts. It was a verse translation and it was OK, but I wasn't amazed. I found the Robert Bly quote looking for alternative translations. Watts:
"...with a huge concern like mine,
that gave employment to some thousands,
to close the firm down altogether
becomes particularly hard."

"Thousands worked for me--to an enjoyment.
But I became concerned about unemployment!"
I'm not entirely sure between those two. I assume the Watts is much closer to the text, but Ibsen rhymes in Norwegian, and the Bly has more brio. The Bly doesn't seem to have ever been printed, though it was the text for a production at the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota, with Mark Rylance (!) as Peer Gynt in 2007. That would have been fun. Penguin has replaced the older Peer Gynt I have with a new translation by Geoffrey Hill; Oxford has one translated by Christopher Fry. If you have ideas, let me know! Because my copy has basically dissolved after this reading, and Peer Gynt is after all a classic...

Some other quotes I copied out from the Watts translation:

The King of the Trolls: "My son, we trolls aren't as black as we're painted--
that's another difference between us and you!"
-Act II

(Meaning, we humans *are* as black as we're painted?)

The Great Boyg: "He was too strong. There were women behind him."
-Act II

Peer Gynt: "'Exalted?' Yes, that's what will happen to me;
Anything else is unthinkable."
-Act IV

Peer Gynt: ...I've just one question first:
what, after all, is this 'being one's self'? 
The Button-Moulder: A curious question indeed, on the lips
of a man who has just-- 
Peer Gynt: A direct answer, please. 
The Button-Moulder: Being one's self means slaying one's Self
But that answer's presumably wasted on you,
and therefore let's say: 'Above everything else
it's observing the Master's intentions in all things.' 
Peer Gynt: But what can one do if one's never found out
what the Master intended? 
The Button-Moulder: One just has to guess. 
Peer Gynt: But a man's intuitions so often prove wrong,
and then one is sunk, as it were, in mid-ocean! 
The Button-Moulder: Exactly, Peer Gynt, it's when insight is lacking
that the lad with the hoof makes the best of his captures.
-Act V

So: to thine own self be true?


  1. I'm familiar with the music by Greig, but not at all with the original poem. In fact, the only thing by Ibsen that I've read is A Doll's House.

    1. I've seen The Wild Duck on stage, but I don't really know his later prose plays very well myself. This was the last of his verse dramas before he switched modes. It really was a big switch, I think.

  2. i'm bemused by the scientifically established fact that it takes 4/1000th of a second for a human's sensory apparati to transmit data to the brain... this means that we definitely don't live in the present... and i was surprised to realize that Bly knew Norwegian! and i think you ought to send a copy of this to our narcisstic nincompoop!

    1. Ah, yes! Robert Bly. My first experience was when guys started beating on buckets in Sproul Plaza when I was graduate student at Berkeley just after Iron John came out. Still my only experience of Iron John...

      What I've read of his own poetry didn't really register much with me, but he has done of translating and some of it seems good. I like his Hafez, for instance. I assume for some of these languages, like Persian, he gets help, but Wikipedia says he's of Norwegian ancestry (Bly? Who'd've guessed...) and really did learn Norwegian at one point.

    2. i'm stunned... mrs. m knows Iron John; i just read some of Bly's poetry... i went to Berkeley for one quarter. i lived in a truck and it didn't turn out to be a successful gig. mrs. m was telling me about Bly and Marion Woodman and their group therapy/inquiries: she think's he's the cat's meow. we have that book and "Facing the Shadow"... (the mrs. was a counselor/social worker/english teacher in her working days...)

    3. It took me longer than a quarter to figure out grad school wasn't for me, but I did figure it out eventually & well before finishing a thesis...interesting that you ended up there as well. I think Jean at Howling Frog may be another...

      I really should read Iron John one of these days instead of just assuming that banging on buckets was all there was to it...

  3. I never knew, and before now I wasn't even curious about, the story of Peer Gynt. It sounds fascinating. I think I shall add it to my list of possibilities for my next Classics Club list.

    1. It really is pretty good and kind of fun, too. I don't know how much you're supposed to actually like Peer, but I think that ambiguity is meant to be there, too.

  4. Interesting! I especially love the contrast in the two translations (Bly and Watts). I actually have no idea which I prefer and rather suspect that it'd come down to reading mood when thinking about the entire work in one of those voices versus the other!

    1. The work would feel quite different between those two translations, I'd think. I'll probably end up with the Geoffrey Hill someday and that will be a third choice...

  5. "abducted by a flying reindeer" - I'm going to have to borrow that excuse, haha!

    What a wacky story. It's been sitting on my shelf for a while now - I found the Peter Watts translation at the thrift store and thought it might be fun, since I enjoy Grieg's themes. Now I'm more curious to read it...

    1. It is fun and thoughtful both, though a bit darker than Grieg's music. Though one of the things I was surprised was that Grieg thought the music was pretty dark--doesn't sound that way to me.

      Hope you enjoy it! It is, ya' know, a classic... ;-)