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Ibsen round-up

Well, today may have been the first time I was ever tempted in class to link Ibsen to Suicidal Tendencies, but the passage we focused on from Ghostsall kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them — made me think of the above song, which was released in 1983. They key connection comes when the singer asks how he could be considered crazy if he’s simply a product of his parents’ various institutions. As noted in discussion, Ibsen’s take on cultural inheritance is pretty bleak. Might we even say it’s punk?

Here are some links to past discussions of Ibsen on this site. Last year someone posted a clip from a recent theater production in London. Here’s a post that reads syphilis itself as the play’s creepiest ghost and another on 19th-century Norwegian beliefs about ghosts and haunting — with a surprising dip into the history of photography. Here’s one on Romanian takes on the undead.

I think I mentioned in class that Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter, was a big Ibsen fan. Ibsen was 30-odd years older than Munch and they only met a few times. But Munch was pretty taken with him. Here’s a brief essay on the relationship between their work, including comments on Munch’s 1906 set designs for Ghosts (see above, Oswald sitting in the chair in the final scene, the sun rising outside as visible through the big picture window). I like this observation in particular:

To see was the most important thing for both Ibsen and Munch – but certainly not in an external, photographically recording sense. The artist’s ability and task is to see inwards – so that external motifs and inner, mental agitation are “lived through” (to use one of Ibsen’s favourite expressions) and melted together into valid expression. I do not paint what I see, but what I have seen, Munch once said – and Ibsen could have said the same about his “poetic visions”.

And here are a couple links to even earlier posts: the first conveners’ post from 2012; one on humor (how much of this play should we read as comedy?); and one on fatherhood — especially bad fathers — as one of Ibsen’s particular obsessions. Enjoy!

decipi frons prima multos

Never judge a book by its cover. This popularly overused proverb never ceases to lose its relevance; it is, indeed, hard to argue against. Appearances often can be deceiving. Can anyone claim that when meeting new people he/she does not pay attention to their appearances and the notorious ‘social status’? Everyone has a snapshot evaluation instinct. Nonetheless, many try to argue that they do not take this into account.

Physiognomy, the assessment of one’s personality or moral characteristic by appearance, is a recurring topic throughout the novel. Physiognomy grew popular throughout the 18th and the 19th century and was even discussed seriously in the academics. From the beginning of the novel, an application of physiognomy made Doctor Stevens decide to rescue Mervyn.

Stevens’ physical description of Mervyn, and in particular his “youth, unspoiled…uninured”, allow us to justify the “claim to affection”, on a physiognomic level. Based on his clothing alone, Stevens is able to infer a ‘manlike beauty…so powerful’, he can make definitive statements about Mervyn’s fortunes and ‘misfortunes’. The sense of innocence of character that Stevens acknowledges even before conversing with Mervyn illustrates this physiognomic attitude of the era.

Mervyn is not an exception to applying these norms. However, he goes further, metamorphosing outward-in; his personality, thoughts and beliefs evolve with each new facade. After going through his own Welbeck-endorsed transformation, Mervyn is in fact committing his ‘original sin’ in the book. The initial exterior transformation soon enough develops into the interior transformation, or perhaps self-reconstruction. To put in more metaphorical terms, Mervyn initially wears a Mask, and he becomes the Mask itself.

I was now conscious of a revolution in my mind. […] Subsequent incidents, perhaps, joined with the influence of meditation, had generated new views. On my first visit to the city, I had met with nothing but scenes of folly, depravity, and cunning […] but my second visit produced somewhat different impressions…[I met] beings  who inspired veneration […] If cities are the chosen cities of misery and vice, they are […] the soil of  all the laudable and strenuous productions of the mind. (Brown, 221)

Mervyn, however, is not the only person to transform, or seem to transform. He too commits the error of misjudging someone based on their physical appearance and endowments, on several occasions. Priding himself on his superior analytical and deductive abilities, and taking into consideration his antiestablishmentarian stance (with regards to gender roles especially), it is thus notable that he falls into the trap of stereotype. This is particularly acute with the curious case of Eliza Hadwin. Mervyn comments:

Her total inexperience gave her sometimes the appearance of folly […] Ah! thought I, sweet, artless, and simple girl![ …] the extreme youth, rustic simplicity and mental imperfections of Eliza Hadwin (Brown,  215, 221)

 Upon Eliza demonstrating a mental proficiency at par with Mervyn’s, he remarks,

I was suprized[…]I had certainly considered her sex unfitting[…]I could not deny, that human ignorance was curable by the same means in one sex as in the other (Brown 224)

Be it by sex, by clothing, by class, by appearance, eloquence or education, and through the character of Welbeck, Brown goes to lengths to show that people aren’t always who they seem to be, and that intuitively, there is something we can gain, and a lot we lose, when we use physiognomy.

By: Suel, Kee, and Kefa