Der Grufulde and Passionate Freedom

“I don’t see much difference between our life and the life of the carp in the pond there. They have the fiord close beside them, where the great free shoals of fish sweep out and in. But the poor tame house-fishes know nothing of all that; and they can never join in.” – Henrik Ibsen, The Lady From the Sea (40)


Catfish sculpture by my son Eric Accardi (2014)

This spring I was deeply engaged in making an impassioned argument for the inclusion of literature in philosophical inquiry. One of the texts that I cited in my final paper used Ibsen’s plays- in particular The Lady From the Sea as a source. I had never read that particular play, but I was intrigued on two accounts. One was that the text that was included in the source described an artist that tries to convince a young girl to bind herself to him, with a promise to  “think of him.” He would go off and develop his art, but her thoughts would be a muse  for him. Callously disregarding what effect this might have on her life- emotionally (as well by antiquated ideas of a betrothal’s fetters) to be pledged to a man that had no intention of fulfilling her desires.

Lyngstrand: She too must live for his art. I should think that must be such happiness for a woman.
Boletta: H’m–I’m not so sure–

The second account was that it was argued that this play did not entail moral reasoning and therefore could not seriously be considered ‘philosophical.’

I promptly added it to my summer reading list.

Ellida: [looks after him a while] Of my own free will, he said! Think of that – he said that I should go with him of my own free will (56).

While writing the paper, as well as subsequently, I have yet to discover any piece of literature that does not involve moral reasoning – in fact, I enlisted all of my friends in the pursuit, and if you can name one, I would be most interested.

But, meanwhile,   The Lady By the Sea…oh Ibsen…what a wonderful humanitarian, feminist, and writer…

Ellida: You call that my own life! Oh no, my own true life slid into a wrong groove when I joined it to yours (76).

The play, while ever so slightly too neat, is an extraordinary anachronism.  Ibsen was writing, through the telescope of a female perspective the true meaning of ‘freedom.’  An internal state that is stronger than any temporal ‘moral’ strain imposed from an ‘authority.’

The Stranger: Do you not feel as I do, that we two belong to each other?
Ellida: Do you mean because of that promise?
The Stranger: Promises bind no one: neither man nor woman. If I hold to you persistently, it is because I cannot do otherwise (87).

The distortions of subjugation is the theme of this play. No life is complete, fulfilled, or worthy of sharing,  without complete freedom. Ellida must be free, as a woman, as a human, to choose her destiny…it seems a problem of the past, but in fact, it is not. Societal ‘norms’ dictate what is valued, who gets to choose, what is ‘moral.’ But individuals don’t stop feeling just because they ought not, or are perniciously told not to. Ellida insists her husband (a marriage, she feels, that was of mercenary convenience) must release her, just so that she can decide for herself if she must leave him for The Stranger. She can’t know while she is bound.

Wangel: [looks anxiously at her] Ellida! I feel it – there is something behind this.
Ellida: All that allures is behind it.
Wangel: All that allures–?
Ellida: That man is like the sea (53).

Det grufulde: ‘the terrible,’ what frightens and fascinates. Ellida cannot understand her own life until it is truly her own life. Ibsen had a genius for understanding the subtle but very real harm experienced by the lack of freedom women experience.

Ellida: You can never prevent my choosing; neither you nor anyone else. You can forbid me to go away with him– to cast my lot with him – if I should choose that. You can forcibly detain me here, against my will. That you can do. But the choice in my innermost soul–my choice of him not you,–in case I should and must choose so,–that you cannot prevent (75).

Ibsen bravely expresses the force of one’s heart. It never yields, it only buries itself far away from anyone’s touch. Once free to choose, a true love will out. Rather than forced to react like a caged animal, Ellida, as her own woman, can give her whole heart, at last, to the husband she’s come to love, because she is finally free to choose that love for her free heart’s content.

*title from footnote on pg. 70.

*The Eleonora Duse series of plays, translated by Mrs. Frances E. Archer.





9 responses to “Der Grufulde and Passionate Freedom

  1. Thanks for this. An interesting notion – do we get to know ourselves by being alone or via our interactions with others? Like most big questions, a mixture.

  2. I think the point Ibsen is making is whether alone or with others, one must feel free, and can only be masters of ourselves – no one can touch one’s soul.

  3. Philosophy doesn’t have to be literature; try reading Heidegger, should you doubt. But literature–or more broadly any art–without some “moral reasoning” is mere spectacle or worse, propaganda/advertising. I link, [limit?] as you do, philosophy to morality as aesthetics and metaphysics, while fun to do, have little impact out there.
    And Ibsen. From a quick review of several summaries of this play, it seems like all the couples hookup for your term “mercenary convenience,” and plan to live unhappily ever after. Love–whatever that is–seems not to conquers all at all. Is this drama a pre-existentialist tale of bad faith where, when free to choose, the characters choose not to be free?
    Your kids’ art is great, the catfish here and the figure studies a couple of posts back. Keep encouraging them.

    • Oh I have read Mr. Heidegger. He featured prominently in the discussion. No – one does not have to be the other – other wise they’d be the same. But – both have serious value to the development of the intellect and emotional life of the reader. I am not interested in “out there.” Yes, we are all Dasman, but still, Dasein must truly connect in order to come to terms with the ‘throwness,’ and then strive to live authentically.

      I would argue that your “quick reviews” have lead you astray. The play is far more obvious than that. Mercenary convenience plays its role, and may even be “the plan” but the development of a truly free choice changes the dynamic. It is left up in the air with the younger couple, but Ellida’s case is the central concern of the play – her inability to give her heart to her husband out of the concerns of the law of the land and societal norms must have struck the audience at the time as unseemly…but that is why I love his work – he knew that it is, in fact, unseemly to go along with a life and heart half lived – that it is not just a travesty – for some, it is impossible.

    • Thank you also for your kind words regarding my children’s work.

  4. Still I like to have a little of one in the other. That makes the worthy easier and the easy worthier.
    Herr H. (plus many others, more read about than read) informs my take on “it” and as much as I enjoy neologizing myself, I find too much of it gets in the way.
    So I say, in my own words, we learn to be who we are by observing the others. And if the others were consistent over time and in all scenarios, that would be easy but they are not: they come and go, they change their minds/loyalties/goals. Yet we need this consistency—call it a self—to be (authentic), getting it is a life’s work. Also them and me are not truly distinct—think projection and introjection—sorting all that out adds much work to the project.
    I agree quick reviews are a lazy way out, I apologize. I just don’t have time to read all I want to read so I economize. I just read Greenberg’s “Avant Garde and Kitsch” and Alberti’s “On Painting” plus several essays commenting on them, it’s not like I’m lazy.
    Are all Ibsen plays about someone in conflict with the world where they were thrown? I wonder with whom or what an Ibsen protagonist would stand up to were he to be writing today and how she would resolve it.

    • Well, I haven’t read all of Ibsen’s plays, but the ones I have read (or read about – certainly nothing wrong with that and I apologize if my comment led you to believe I was making a derogatory comment towards you – I was not. Only – I disagreed! with those you referred to, so – I wanted to make my point, it is of course only my opinion, my take, no right-er, but certainly no wronger, nobody that I am…).
      And I agree, it took me some time to get over the chip on my shoulder regarding Herr H’s seemingly purposeful obtuseness. Shockingly, to myself at least, I did get over it. But back to Ibsen, what makes him of particular interest is his interest in contemplating what it must mean for a woman to be ‘thrown’ into this world (a man’s world)…not such a common thing, even today. His protagonists weren’t tortured or abused necessarily, but that is his brilliance, it is the Heideggerian state of anxiety which is felt by all. He captured the importance of inner freedom, or truly connecting as a human being, he allowed the possibility that a woman might have an inner life, and needs, and desires of her own. Radical at the time. Your last question is interesting. I will think about it.

      Interestingly enough, “Avant Garde and Kitsch” just passed through my hands the other day. Shall I read it?

  5. Inner freedom, as opposed to external freedom, free to v. free from? No, more like contrasting self or socially imposed limits on your choices. Much less of the latter these days. But how about the former? Are we free-er or have we just internalized more?
    Do read “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” I found it interesting and useful in my current project: understanding modernism/postmodernism—see most recent post. On my list to finish reading are Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” and Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” I say finish because these “originals” easily overwhelm me, so i retreat and read about all that from a distance.

    • I have read the essay. I found it very interesting. When he speaks of Avant Garde as being too “innocent,” for Stalin, Hitler and their ilk (“to inject effective propaganda into”), I thought that was perfectly put- it is what I find most deeply fascinating about the movement.
      His thoughts regarding the absence of patrons, is one I came to as well in my studies of art history. Artists for artists, poets for poets…somewhere along the line the masses lost interest. I think about that a lot, and wonder why it is so. I’m not sure Greenburg really answers the question beyond – a lack of education…I agree with that, as I wrote to you once, somewhere, before, regarding my thoughts about a common base of education with which a deeper understanding of art can flourish.
      However, he referenced Repin as an example of lowly kitsch, and here I ran into trouble because I was unfamiliar with his art and so looked him up. The very first image I came upon was Repin’s portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, and I really liked it. I thought it was lovely, stirring and moodily energetic…so, what do I know, eh?

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