Pontoppidan's 'Rewritings' of H.C. Andersen
The eagle never lost so much time
as when he submitted to learn of the crowWilliam Blake
That Henrik Pontoppidan polemicized against H. C. Andersen is a widely acknowledged fact. To compare Pontoppidan's "Ørneflugt" with Andersen's "Den grimme Ælling" ("The Ugly Duckling") has almost become a cliché in the teaching of Danish literature. The standard interpretation which this cliché rests upon is that Pontoppidan is the 'modernist' or 'naturalist' out to settle some accounts with his 'romantic' and 'sentimental' precursor, Andersen. That Pontoppidan's most celebrated work, the novel Lykke-Per, could be read as an analogous text has, on the other hand, hardly been discussed at all. But the fact is that Lykke-Per not only borrows its title from Andersens novelette Lykke-Peter (Lucky Peter), but also follows the Bildungsroman-like theme of the latter text in a polemical way. In the following I will examine the intertextual relationships between the duckling and the eagle and between Per and Peer as closely as possible within the confines of a short essay. I am going to argue that there is more to the picture than meets the eye, that the 'naturalist' vs. 'sentimental romanticist' dichotomy is unsatisfactory.
One obvious reason why this is the case, is that Andersen was no doubt a precursor of some importance for Pontoppidan (I am not going to argue along Bloomian lines, though). He represented the romanticist heritage of myths and fairy tales which had provided Pontoppidan and other authors of his time with their formative experiences of literature. And the two texts by Pontoppidan discussed here both belong to the alleged middle phase of his oeuvre, which is normally classified as the naturalist one. During this phase his early social criticism gradually gives way to a renewed interest in the mythical dimensions of life which will dominate his later work. His apparent polemics against Andersen should maybe be read in this light.
Before embarking on my intertextual journey I will, however, comment upon Georg Lukács' reading of Pontoppidan's Lykke-Per in his The Theory of the Novel. In this work Lukács is still heavily influenced by romanticist and idealist notions of literature, which suits my overall purpose just fine. But first of all I will have to discuss briefly the main genres I will be dealing with, the fairy tale and the novel, and consider in what respects Andersen can be said to be a romanticist.
The Novel and the Fairy Tale
Our modern conception of the novel dates back to early German romanticism, also known as Jena romanticism. As the latter name indicates, this movement was geographically situated in the German city of Jena, where a small circle of people around the turn of the 18th century, amongst them the Schlegel brothers and Novalis, endeavored in theory and in practice to develop a new kind of literature: the one we today deem "romantic". Their poetological ideals were, however, extracted from earlier pieces of fiction, some written in the romanesque languages (hence the term 'romantic'), by authors like Cervantes, Calderón, Shakespeare, Rabelais, and Sterne. It was especially the meta-fictional aspects of novels like Cervantes' Don Quixote and Sterne's Tristram Shandy that caught the attention of the Jena romanticists. They wanted to apply this kind of self-reflective poetics in order to reach their own ends. One such end reflected a new task confronting the creative, artistic subject: that of 'living poetically', of creating oneself in the process of creating the work. That this was posited as an ideal was related to certain problems surfacing within the philosophy of reflection. The human subject had gradually been reduced to an 'empty' category by philosophers like Descartes and Kant. This tabula rasa it was the task of the creative individual to fill out. According to the Jena romanticists, the path to follow in order to realise this was the one laid down by the novel. But they only wrote a few, incomplete novels. Adhering to the basic philosophical tropes of their time, they operated with a dialectics between self-creation and self-annihilation, a 'creation via negation', which called for irony, a mixing of genres, and fragmentary writing. The grand romantic novel of their age thus became an ideal which could only be represented negatively: ironically and fragmentarily. So the status of the novel in early German romanticism was indeed complex.
In his 1916 work, The Theory of the Novel1 1 the young Georg Lukács interprets the entire European tradition of the novel in a way which is heavily influenced by early romanticism - as well as by Hegelian dialectics of history. The 'modern' subject he conceives is one which can no longer rest assured in a relationship to a transcendental God. According to Lukács, modernity thus begins immediately after the Renaissance, a moment when man experiences himself to be in a state of "transcendental homelessness" (p. 41). Lukács argues that it is in the novel that this experience of homelessness is reflected and the search for a new 'home' takes place. From such a perspective, it is meaningless for Lukács to distinguish decisively between romanticism and naturalism. Novels from both periods take part in the same project which is as yet unfinished.
Of course, Lukács is aware that the world and our relationship to it has changed drastically since the Renaissance. Any given moment in human history he rather finds to be characterised by a specific tension vis-à-vis an apriorically given but no longer adequate 'transcendental order', governing man's interpretation of his position in the world. And there are novels that have captured the tensions of those moments in which they were written to an eminent degree. One such novel is Don Quixote. The enchanted but ontologically secure fairy-tale world of the romance had only just been forfeited, and Don Quixote's desperate attempt to restore it, his struggle to recapture paradise lost, heroically expresses the tensions at work at the moment of the novel's conception.
Another novel canonized by Lukács is Pontoppidan's Lykke-Per.2 While the transcendental tensions in the case of Cervantes' novel demand that the hero's psychology be portrayed as a static entity, the demands are quite the opposite in Pontoppidan's case. Don Quixote rested in and expressed an ontological security which became comical, or even absurd, because it no longer corresponded with existing reality. Such a security can no longer exist apriorically at the time of Pontoppidan. The typology of the fairy tale with its static and one-dimensional characters must therefore be replaced by the description of the psychological transformations of the hero. Pontoppidan does exactly that in Lykke-Per. But when this novel comes to its conclusion, Lukács argues, it seems like the hero was, after all, the same throughout the whole story, remaining a detached witness to whatever happened to and with him; the psychological dynamics of the novel are only apparent dynamics. Lukács identifies such a distance within Lykke-Per because, in accordance with early romanticist notions, he believes irony to be the fundamental structuring principle of the novel. According to the author of The Theory of the Novel it is subsequently wishful thinking on the part of the naturalist novelist, if the latter thinks that he can completely dissociate himself from romanticism. But how is Andersen affiliated with romanticism?
In his H. C. Andersen og Genrebilledet3 the Danish critic Jørgen Bonde Jensen writes: "Andersen is a romanticist - and a realist. Romanticism is the movement he is coming from, realism the point of view he is groping his way towards" (p. 8, my translation). Bonde Jensen attempts to demonstrate this by means of a series of analyses of the ways in which Andersen both adopts and comments upon the conventions of the genre piece. As genre, the "genre piece" is intimately connected to what is designated as Biedermeier, the modestly self-celebratory and harmonising culture of the bourgeoisie in the 18th century. The genre piece, painted or written, depicts, in a sentimental manner bordering on the cliché, standard landscape scenes or domestic idylls. Therefore, it is per definition a realistic genre. But at the same time a genre piece is always already a quotation which reaffirms the cliché that it quotes. It is only realistic in an inauthentic sense. Bonde Jensen points out that Andersen was acutely aware of this, even when he seemed to celebrate domestic idylls in the most sentimental and naive fashion. One of his best examples is Andersen's poem "Moderen med Barnet", where we read the following lines: "Under Taget Svaler quidre / Solen synker - og saa vid're". As Bonde Jensen argues, this particular genre piece indulges in discrete self-parody, indicating that its naivety is a self-conscious one - so much for naivety, one might add. Hereby it relativizes its apparent realism, admitting that it is painting a picture so familiar, that the reader is perfectly able to add the final strokes himself.
As Bonde Jensen further points out, elements pertaining to the genre piece are important features of Andersen's fairy tales. Andersen in fact deposits objects belonging to the domestic idylls of everyday life in fairyland. He tells fantastic tales about needles, collars, and the like. Just like the novel, the fairy tale is a highly romantic genre. But the romanticists did not write fairy tales simply because they loved everything unspoilt and original. A romantic fairy tale is never just a simple narrative. It reflects upon its attempt to obtain such a level of immediacy and simplicity - which is one reason why it never will. A romantic fairy tale is ironically aware of its own limitations in this respect which is exactly what justifies it artistically. This is true of many of Andersen's fairy tales and has been stressed in numerous readings. In the following I shall try to demonstrate that it is true even of a text which is so apparently naive and sentimental as "Den grimme Ælling".
The Eagle and the Duckling
In "Den grimme Ælling" one will recognize many of the standard
elements of the genre piece. This is evident from the very first sentence
of the text: "Der var saa deiligt ude paa Landet" (p.
30).4 As in the poem about the mother and her child we are introduced to a scenery
with which we are so familiar that we ought to be able to visualise it
without much help from the artist: 'It is so beautiful in the countryside' - 'og
saa vid're'. But there is a marked difference between the two texts. In
"Den grimme Ælling" Andersen abandons the timeless present which
characterises the genre piece: "Der var saa deiligt ude paa Landet". Does
the use of the past tense allude to the 'once upon a time' of any genuine
fairy tale? Or does the narrator imply that the loveliness of the countryside
is a cliché, that it is an ideal which does not, and perhaps never did,
correspond to any existing state of affairs? Is the idyll already disrupted
by means of this introductory sentence? It is probably not possible to answer this question with absolute certainty.
The standard interpretation is that Andersen in "Den grimme Ælling" tells us the tale of his own miraculous ascent from being a working-class kid with no prospects whatsoever to becoming a successful author, the implicit moral of the story being that artistic genius will shine through eventually, no matter how much hardship must be endured and how much is misunderstood. But is that really the story we are told? The final words of the text, uttered when the duckling has realised that it is really a swan, are as follows:
(...) den tænkte paa, hvor den havde været forfulgt og forhaanet, og hørte nu Alle sige, at den var den deiligste af alle deilige Fugle (...) da bruste dens Fjedre, den slanke Hals hævede sig, og af Hjertet jublede den: "saa megen Lykke drømte jeg ikke om, da jeg var den grimme Ælling!" (p. 38).
A happy ending, certainly! But it should not go unnoticed that the author has our duckling/swan tell us that: "(...) saa megen Lykke drømte jeg ikke om, da jeg var den grimme Ælling!". The swan in fact repeats the title of the text of which it is the main character, even suspending the quote between quotation marks. Instead of communicating the fullness of its happy ending in an unmediated fashion, the text hints at its own textuality, its lack of straightforward authenticity. In other words, this piece of genre piece writing is framed by a meta-fictional reflexivity. To the explicit moral of the tale: "Det gjør ikke noget at være født i Andegaarden, naar man kun har ligget i et Svaneæg" (p. 38), one might add the following: "once a text, always a text".
How, then, are we to interpret the polemical conclusion of Pontoppidan's "Ørneflugt": "For det hjælper alligevel ikke, at man har ligget i et Ørneæg, naar man er vokset op i Andegaarden" (p. 216).5 Is Pontoppidan, because he adheres to a naturalistic, scientifically oriented point of view, ridiculing Andersen's belief that the gifted individual can overcome its biological and social heritage? And does he thereby ignore the textuality of Andersen's text? We must consider the frame of this story, too.
"Ørneflugt" commences with the following words: "Dette er Historien om den unge Ørn (...)" (p. 211). Pontoppidan's text thus clearly admits to its own textuality, its being a narrative, a story. This story, moreover, is explicitly stated to be a reply to another one we are by now familiar with: "Ligesom Eventyrets 'grimme Ælling' voksede den op her mellem skræppende Ænder og kaglende Høns og brægende Faar (...)" (p. 211). It is not, however, a genre piece we are reading in this case. About the eagle, Klavs, we are initially told that:
Saasnart den fik Øje paa den store Dorte, kastede den sig ned paa Stenbroen og vraltede det fyldte Fad imøde i det burleske Sækkeløb, hvori Æterens Kongebørn bevæger sig paa Jorden (p. 211).
What Klavs is fed with is waste from the kitchen - which proves to be so nutritious that he "formelig lagde sig Mave til" (p. 211). Genre-wise, it seems that we, as indicated by the text, are dealing with the burlesque or grotesque. The text is full of staggering, guzzling, quacking, and bleating. Moreover, it even ends in the dungheap, where Klavs falls down after having mistakenly been shot. It certainly appears that Pontoppidan is throwing all the filth that he can muster at Andersen's genre piece. But does Andersen's 'beautiful country' then constitute a nice genre piece? Maybe not. At least it also contains a few burlesque or grotesque elements. A couple of examples: "(...) der gik Storken paa sine lange røde Been og snakkede Ægyptisk, for det Sprog havde han lært af sin Moder" (p. 30); "Endelig knagede det ene Æg efter det andet: 'pip! pip!' sagde det, alle Æggeblommerne vare blevne levende og stak Hovedet ud" (p. 30); "Mod Aften naaede den et fattigt, lille Bondehus; det var saa elendigt, at det ikke selv vidste til hvad Side, det vilde falde" (p. 34). One might argue that these examples just exemplify Andersen's love of cute, quaint and curious details. But an eggyolk coming alive is hardly the cutest thing imaginable. Rather, I would say that what Pontoppidan is doing to Andersen's genre piece Andersen has already done to it himself, albeit in a much more discrete manner. From this perspective, Pontoppidan's gesture seems quite a superfluous one.
So far we might thus conclude that the intertextual relationship between the two texts is of a kind which renders a solely thematic interpretation of Pontoppidan's intervention insufficient. Let us have a look at the novel and the novelette, then.
Peer and Per
It is very surprising that it has gone almost unnoticed that Pontoppidan's Lykke-Per alludes to Andersen's Lykke-Peer. Not only do both texts (almost) share the same title, but there are numerous references to H. C. Andersen's text in Lykke-Per. Furthermore, the way in which Pontoppidan has demarcated his own work from Andersen's, his removing an 'e' from its title, is pretty cheekish, resulting in a Derridaean differance, a difference which does not signify orally. He is, in other words, from the very beginning polemicizing at a subtle level of textuality. But let us first of all see what we might gather if we look at the themes of the two texts. Both of them are about a person who is explicitly stated to be lucky (= gifted and fortunate). They are, however, not lucky in exactly the same sense.
Andersen's text is about an artistic genius, in fact a kind of jack of (almost) all genres; Peer capitalises on his innate talent and becomes a musician, a composer, a singer, and an actor as well as a writer. Quite romantically, we follow a genius who overcomes all possible obstacles. The just-as-romantic conflict between the philistine and the artist is, however, represented in a very light-hearted manner. Of course, Peer is continually misunderstood by the good people surrounding him, but he does not suffer any major setbacks and triumphs immensely with his final work, the opera "Aladdin". But that Peer is such a brilliant artist and that his opera is a genuine masterpiece is not brought home to the reader in a convincing manner. In both cases we have got to take the text's words for it. Should we do so?
At least the ending must provoke a certain incredulity. When Peer, immediately after the first performance of "Aladdin", is applauded by an enraptured audience, he - drops dead. Astonishingly, the narrator informs us that it is because of this very fact that he must be said to be "den Lykkeligste frem for Millioner" (p. 317).6 What can the narrator possibly mean by that? Maybe he suggests that Peer will then not have to realise that his triumph was, in a deeper sense, a fiasco, that his audience was completely unable to grasp the real significance of his work. And, furthermore, that Peer did not realise this because he was too gratified by the overwhelming acclaim which his work was met with. That would be incriminating enough. But what is worse, it might not, after all, be this fulfillment, which makes Peer's heart burst literally. Amongst the audience he in fact catches a glimpse of a young baroness that he has more or less fallen in love with. She stands "opreist som en Skjønheds-Genius høit jublende ved hans Triumph" (p. 317). Is it the luck of the artist or that of the lover which is too much for the frail heart of our hero? And why does Andersen represent the per definition suffering and misunderstood romantic artist, who always suffers from unhappy love, as a character who depends on how his work is received by either a girl he fancies or his philistine audience as a whole? The most obvious answer to these questions is that Lykke-Peer is an ironic comment on the sentimental myths about the same romantic artist. Which would further explain why Andersen in his novelette follows the typology of the fairy tale, since all the characters of the text, including Peer, are stereotyped ones.
In Pontoppidan's text, however, the case is the opposite. As I have already mentioned, the psychological development of the main character, Per Sidenius, is described in great detail. The same can be said of several of the other portraits in Lykke-Per, especially the one of Per's fiancée, the Jewish girl Jakobe. But that is not the only respect in which Pontoppidan makes his text differ from Andersen's. His Per is not a romantic artist, but a true standard-bearer of the modern age: an engineer. He is in possession of an innate talent in this area, though, but just as in "Ørneflugt", this element of nature cannot overcome the vices of nurture. Being the son of a village priest, he is considered to be an upstart and therefore the brilliant project that he has sketched out is not accepted. Prejudices, sly investors and his own stubbornness (resulting from his sense of his own inferiority) are too serious obstacles. In fact the quarrelsomeness and melancholia which characterises his family, makes him his own worst enemy. Pontoppidan's intention appears to be to show that Per must simultaneously learn to accept himself as he is and realise that worldly success is not worth striving for. Per is not permitted to feel happy until he finally settles as a humble highway engineer somewhere far north in Jutland. Happiness (in Danish: "lykken") is indeed finding out who you really are, Per says in some notes and sketches which he has left behind. And this he does in splendid isolation - having left his children and his wife after a split which he himself provokes.
I hope I have succeeded in suggesting that there is a vanitas-motif in both texts, even though it is more understated in Lykke-Peer. Was Pontoppidan not aware of this? And if he was, why did he then, by 'borrowing' the title of Andersen's work, copying its main theme, and repeatedly alluding to the Aladdin-motif, once more oppose his text to Andersen's in a polemical fashion? Furthermore, if his aim was not to celebrate the modern age - and it was not - what on earth is going on? In order to answer these questions, if they may be answered, I will comment on some important features of Lykke-Per.
First, it is quite curious that Per is not the real name of Mr. Sidenius. He was baptized Peter Andreas. He only starts calling himself "Per" when, in an attempt to emancipate himself from his background, he goes to Copenhagen and commences his studies. Thus, he tries to create himself anew by means of the imaginary: the sphere in which it is possible to invent new names for things or persons - including oneself. This is a highly romantic motif - which by the way already appears in Don Quixote.
Secondly, it is noteworthy that the imaginary is an important factor throughout the whole novel, since the genre of the fairy tale is a frame of reference for several of the characters, Per not least, which governs their interpretations of themselves. In order to compensate for the humiliations he suffers at home, for example, Per invents a fairy-tale background for himself, imagining that he really is a child born of errant gypsies. Later, when he breaks with his home, he senses that he is now embarking upon a fairy-tale journey, even referring metaphorically to himself as 'a son of a king'. Other persons also conceive of Per in such a manner; Jakobe speaks of him as her 'prince'. Furthermore, almost all the characters in the novel at some point indulge in the reading of novels, finding interpretative frames for their lives which all prove more or less deficient. And every time Per changes his point of view in a decisive way, he has first and foremost read his way towards his new insights. Primarily, there were the fairy tales. Then the writings of Dr. Nathan, a character modelled on Georg Brandes, become sources of inspiration. Still later he consults religious and edifying books. This is another well-known motif. In Don Quixote it is, as we all know, the reading of romances which has disturbed the mind of the main character. Literature and writing is again alluded to when Per informs us about the happiness of the final phase of his life through the aforementioned notes. What he leaves behind is in fact "udaterede Smaastykker" (vol. III, p. 339),7 fragments - the fragment is, as I initially pointed out, another romantic genre. Lukács is probably right in reading Lykke-Per as belonging to a novellistic project which was initiated by the aforementioned authors and reinvented as a modern and therefore as yet interminable one by romanticism.
Thirdly, the most central theme of the novel is obviously homelessness in the metaphysical sense of the term. Right from the start it is pointed out that "Peter Andreas saa at sige fra Fødslen blev en Fremmed i sit eget Hjem" (vol. I, p. 15). The same goes for each and every home he later visits or manages to set up for himself - apart from the last one, of course - for which reason he leaves these homes. Reaching self-knowledge through such a series of negations is of course a romantic and idealist motif. According to Lukács, writing in the wake of these traditions, this kind of homelessness is even the apriorically given condition of the modern subject, as reflected in the novel. By means of his choice of theme Pontoppidan cannot be said to have moved beyond romanticism.
Does not the theme of homelessness, though, constitute a major difference between Lykke-Per and Lykke-Peer? For although Pontoppidan's hero is as transcendentally homeless as one can be, Andersen's has not only got a harmonious childhood but feels very much at home in the realm of art. Or so it seems. In the Philistine Biedermeier culture portrayed in the text, art can, at any rate, not help being somewhat homeless. This is more than indicated by the fact that the patron of the arts who supports Peer during a decisive stage of his life, the choirmaster, is a Jew. He is in other words an exile in the culture he inhabits, which the narrator points out on a couple of occasions. Now, the Wandering Jew, Ahasuerus, is quite as romantic a motif as Aladdin. What happens in Lykke-Peer, however, is that these two figures join hands. Alas, this does not bring about the end of the exile of the choirmaster, rather it points to the fact that Peer is exiled, too.
So we must conclude that there was not much thematic difference between the two texts in this respect either. Indeed, both texts denounce a Philistine culture which is unable to understand and/or unwilling to accept their respective heroes, thus reinforcing their homelessness. By the way, Andersen's wonderfully mobile narrative voice is itself a brilliant example of the freedom which the constitutional homelessness of the writer permits. As motifs, both the knight errant, be he fighting dragons or windmills, and the Juif Errant represent the errant ways of literature. Andersen knew this only too well. And Pontoppidan must also have known it even as he polemicized against what he might have believed were the errors of the former.
The battle that Pontoppidan stages is thus far from being simply a battle between new and old, between naturalist and romanticist, poetics. One could in fact ask whether the attempt of the realistically oriented naturalist to distance himself from the romanticist is not merely a repetition of a drama which was intrinsic to romanticism. The interest that the romanticists took in 'das Interessante', in particularities and curious details, meant that they were to a certain extent realists.8 But they had also already refuted the naive forms of realism. The magnificent way Andersen hovers between the fairy tale and the realistic novel in Lykke-Peer fully exemplifies this. Maybe that is what provoked Pontoppidan. He might very well have admired Andersen but at the same time felt that his precursor was too damn lucky with the style he developed. At least the fact that his apparent polemics is permeated by the aspects of textuality which I have pointed out indicates this. Therefore, it is perhaps very tempting to hail our brave knight Henrik as 'Don Toppidan'.9