Saturday, June 29, 2019
A different breed of Man
In 1888, famous Swedish writer August Strindberg plus family spent the summer in Denmark, at the 18th century Skovlyst palace at Holte. Strindberg, who I assume was quite the character, was soon embroiled in a bitter conflict with the head of the palace staff, Ludvig Hansen. Hansen accused Strindberg of sleeping around with one of the maids, 16-year old Martha Magdalene, who was also Hansen´s half-sister. Apparently, Hansen´s violent outbursts scared Strindberg into leaving the palace prematurely. Later, he filed a formal complaint with the Danish authorities, accusing Hansen of theft. Then, nothing much happened, Strindberg with family simply leaving the country.
Or so poor Hansen imagined…
In 1889, Strindberg had a novella published in Denmark. Titled “Tschandala”, it´s nominally about the conflict between a cultivated 17th century Swedish intellectual and a suspicious-looking Scanian palace administrator (Scania or Skåne was a Danish province until the 17th century). Anyone who knew the local gossip about the Hansen fracas immediately recognized the references. Yes, it was Strindberg´s answer to Hansen´s accusations, republished on a semi-regular basis ever since as part of the famous author´s collected works. Clearly, messing around with August Strindberg came with a price! (The Swedish version wasn´t published until 1897.)
As already indicated, the plot is set in late 17th century Sweden. The main character, Andreas Törner, is a learned university teacher who is forced to spend a summer in Scania, a former Danish territory annexed by the Swedish great power. Törner and his family rent rooms at a nearby palace, administered by a certain Jensen, who is married to the aristocratic widow owning the estate. Jensen turns out to be a “Gypsy” or “Traveler” (Strindberg uses the politically incorrect designations “zigenare” and “tattare”. The latter in particular is considered strongly derogatory). He is depicted as a lower breed of man, a chandala or pariah, constantly surrounded by filth and foul stenches. The palace and its adjacent gardens are run down, the animals have nothing to eat, and the administrator´s main activity seems to be stealing (and sometimes eating) other animals from nearby farms. His family are a clan of bandits, and heavy drinking orgies are the main order of the day. Like many other low-lives, Jensen imagines himself to be a man of culture, worth and education, but of course looks comic or pathetic compared to Törner, described as an “Aryan”. Jensen is also something of a pimp – he wants his daughter Magelone to enter an illicit sexual relationship with Törner. Soon, the Aryan and the Gypsy are at each other´s throats in something that is presumably supposed to be a psychological thriller. Jensen burglarizes Törner´s rented room, threatens his children, tries to get him framed for theft, and so on. Törner fights back as best he can. At one point in the narrative, the Aryan reveals that Jensen´s wife isn´t really an aristocrat at all, but the daughter of a common harlot, thereby punctuating Jensen´s insolent pretensions at being part of the nobility. It also punctuates Jensen´s Gypsy pride, since it means that a non-Gypsy “gypped” *him* rather than the other way around. (It´s part of the plot that Jensen believes his wife to actually be a noblewoman, and therefore regards his marriage with her as his best Gypsy scam.)
An interesting detail with the story, is that Törner (who is Strindberg´s alter ego, remember?) *does* have sex with Magelone (really Hansen´s teenage sister Martha Magdalene). Magelone is described as extremely ugly, and sex with her as borderline bestiality. Törner´s body and soul are soiled by the experience, while the Gypsy of course sees it as a great success for his intrigues. In the end, Törner decides to get rid of Jensen. Playing on the Gypsy´s superstitions and fears, Törner projects pictures of ghosts which profoundly shock Jensen and reduce him to a babbling fool. In a climactic scene, a ghost-like image of a dog appears, inducing the starving dogs of the palace to attack the distraught pariah, tearing him to pieces. “The Aryan had emerged victorious”.
How much of the story is true? This sounds like a silly question – everyone assumes that it´s character assassination pure and simple – but in his private letters, Strindberg at least pretended that “Tschandala” told the truth, with the obvious exception of the climactic murder scene. He claims that Hansen actually was a Gypsy, defrauded Strindberg of money for the rent, and then drove him away from the palace. A Gypsy orchestra, a burglary into Strindberg´s rented room, and huge aggressive dogs played a prominent part in the psychological warfare. In his letters, Strindberg admits that he did have sex with the maid, but claims that she was 18 years old (and hence presumably legal to mount). The letter includes a portrait of Martha Magdalene, drawn by Strindberg himself, depicting an ugly and slightly obese nude female. She was also “very hairy”. Strindberg also claims that the aristocratic lady who owned Skovlyst was a brothel owner!
For obvious reasons, “Tschandala: berättelse från 1600-talet” (the Swedish title), is often considered to be Strindberg´s absolutely worst work, due to its explicit anti-Gypsy or anti-Traveler racism. While the anti-Ziganism is (of course) obvious, the work has further dimensions, equally disturbing to modern readers (and also to “progressive” Strindberg aficionados – the famous writer is often regarded as a man of the left). “Tschandala” is a Nietzschean story, with Törner-Strindberg cast in the role of Übermensch. The word in the title comes from Nietzsche´s “The Anti-Christ”, where he uses it profusely. In Hinduism, the chandalas are one of the untouchable castes. Equality is said to be impossible, since there really are different breeds of men. Even more disturbingly, inequality has to be *consciously created*. The “tschandalas” are filthy because they have been *forced* into the gutter by Manu´s laws. Also, the only way for the Aryans to flourish is by oppressing the “tschandalas”, thereby turning them into manure for the sprouting of the elite intelligentsia. In the novella, Törner has to set aside his Christian convictions and veneer of civilization in order to embrace his true nature as an Overman. Only by dispensing with societal conventions can he hope to defeat the out-cast Gypsy. It´s also interesting that Törner is described as a progressive. He is opposed to the autocratic rule of Swedish king Karl XI, and it´s implied at several points that he is an atheist. Strindberg presumably didn´t see any contradiction between a certain kind of leftism and the elitism of Friedrich Nietzsche.
With that, I end this review.