Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece, Part I

Edward Armitage   Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarian   1875

Edward Armitage (1817 – 1896): Julian the Apostate Presiding at the Conference of Sectarians (1879)
The same God [who] gave the throne to Constantine the Christian [gave it also] to Julian the Apostate.  Julian had exceptional endowments, perverted by sacrilegious and abominable superstition working through a love of domination…  Confident of… victory, he burnt his ships carrying essential food supplies.  Then, pressing on feverishly with his inordinate designs he paid the just price for his rashness when he was slain, leaving his army destitute, in enemy territory.  (Augustine, City of God, V.21)[i]
I work every day at Julianus Apostata, and hope to have the whole book finished by the end of the present year…  It is part of my own spiritual life which I am putting into this book; what I depict, I have, under different conditions, gone through myself; and the historical subject chosen has a much more intimate connection with the movements of our own time than one might first imagine.  (Henrik Ibsen to Edmund Gosse, Dresden, 14 October 1872)[ii]

Augustine’s City of God would have been one of the sources – along with the works of Libanius, Eunapius, Ammianus, and of the Emperor Julian himself, all likely in German translation – on which drew the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in the composition of his epic drama in two parts Emperor and Galilean (1873), begun in Dresden during the year of the Franco-Prussian War.[iii]  The sources are important to an understanding of Emperor because of the historical parallelism that Ibsen assumes between his own time and Julian’s epochal Fourth Century.  The religious apocalypse of Julian’s age Ibsen sees as prefiguring the political apocalypse of the strife-ridden Nineteenth Century.  Ibsen understands both the Gnosticism of Julian’s abortive pagan revival and the Left Hegelianism of the post-Hegelian decades as episodes of an on-going ideological distortion of reality.  Against every prejudice that one harbors about him (that he is “liberal,” “progressive”), Ibsen writes into his play, not Julian’s assessment of Christian orthodoxy, but Augustine’s orthodox assessment of Julian.  Ibsen rejects all revolutionary millennialism as inimical to life and to happiness.  Not that Ibsen has a formula for happiness.  Happiness goes missing in Ibsen’s authorship with one exception, The Lady from the Sea (1888).  It is important, then, in order to come to grips with Ibsen’s epic drama, first to grasp Augustine’s canny view of the Apostate Emperor – a most unhappy man or so the historical record would lead one to believe.

I. Augustine discusses Julian on two occasions in City of God; but it is the atmosphere of that book that infuses Ibsen’s most un-Aristotelian plot with a twilight color. Ibsen intended his play about Julian to be not only a representation of the contemporary moment in historical guise but also an autobiographical and confessional document, on the model of Augustine, although with a post-Christian content. Julian the Apostate, lives on the historical limen, lofting the torch of paganism just when the fire goes out of the Olympian tradition: He marks the death of a world which had once been both vigorous and beautiful but has long since passed into its sputtering and confused old age.  The characteristic imagery of Emperor and Galilean is nocturnal, as in the opening Easter Vigil in Constantinople.  Julian takes for granted the dissolute character of the present moment but foresees a regenerative “Third Empire”[iv] under whose sign “a new race in beauty and harmony shall go forth over the earth.”[v]  Jesus was “a physical weakling”[vi] whose charisma has exhausted itself.  Ibsen stages a riot on the basilica steps between the Donatist faction and everyone else.  This rancor depresses the young prince.  In the coming age of “Helios,”[vii] even now approaching, such pettiness will be swept aside.  Humanity’s “lost likeness to deity”[viii] will be reborn.  Time weighs heavily on Ibsen’s story. Despite the protagonist’s faith in a “new revelation,”[ix] something just beyond his vision seems to mock his efforts and empty them in advance of their meaning.  Augustine, a mere generation after Julian, marks by contrast the onset of a new age – one which Ibsen, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, thinks at last itself to have been surpassed and which ought to give way soon to a new dispensation.  Yet, alas! – The modal counterfactual rarely corresponds with the real: The Christian Aeon tenaciously sustains its vitiating hold on humanity.

This motif of a world exhausted has found expression in writers of the modern period, such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) and Oswald Spengler (1886 – 1936), especially in the latter’s notorious Decline of the West (Volume I, 1919; Volume II, 1922).  For Spengler, Late Antiquity provides the clearest model of a moribund civilization fixing itself under arbitrary forms intended to be final and eternal – so as to stave off time.  Whether Christian or Pagan, says Spengler, Late Antiquity was “a world of anchorites, saints, prophets, miraculous conversions, scriptures, and revelations,”[x] the sum of which marks the epochal dissolution of a senile Classicism.  There is sufficient reason, however, to ascribe the same notion, with various qualifications, to Augustine, who perhaps inherits it from the Platonic concept of the Great Cycle of twenty thousand years.  Augustine is not a theoretician of cyclic history, of course, the idea of which stands at variance with Christian doctrine; in his writings, he strenuously and repeatedly rejects the notion that history might be cyclic.  His contemplations both of the historical record and of what, for him, was contemporaneity are nevertheless worthy of consideration, not least as they are determinative for Ibsen’s assessment of his own contemporaneity in the mid-Nineteenth Century.  A telling Augustinian passage comes from the last book of the Confessions, where the author underscores the notion – widespread, apparently, in his day – that “this worldly order in all its beauty will pass away.”[xi]

NOR Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Olrik (1830 – 1892): Portrait of Henrik Ibsen (1879)

In City of God, Books XV – XVIII, Augustine undertakes an exposition of historic chronology in light of the Bible and elaborates, in so doing, a linear subdivision of recorded time into six ages corresponding metaphorically to the six phases of the individual human life.  The ages are: (1) from the first man, Adam, to the Deluge; (2) from Noah’s resettlement of the world to Abraham and the Covenant with God; (3) from Abraham’s death to the kingship of David in Israel; (4) from the prophecies of Samuel, a contemporary of David, to the exile in Babylon; (5) from the release of the captives to appearance of Jesus; and (6) from the Christ to an eschatological Last Day whose date lies outside any prognostication.[xii]  In Book XV, discussing the Scriptural claims for the gigantism and longevity of the earliest generations of men, Augustine writes of the newness, as he puts it, of the First Age.  He quotes Virgil on the physical robustness and endurance of the Homeric heroes and remarks that the poet of the Aeneid seems to take it for granted that “in those days the earth normally produced larger bodies than now.”[xiii]  Extrapolating the principle to antediluvian times, he adds, “how much more then in the days when the world was newer, before that renowned and far-famed flood!”[xiv]

There might even be a science – a physics, as it were, or a biology – of the aged world.  A bit farther on in the same discussion, Augustine cites Pliny the Elder (“a man of profound learning”[xv]), whom he paraphrases this way: “As the centuries pass and the world gets older… the bodies produced by nature become smaller and smaller.”[xvi]  Not only was nature more vigorous in the ages closest to Creation; but, as Augustine sees it, a certain receptivity to God coincides with the hardihood and longevity of the ancients.  God spoke directly to Noah and to Abraham.  Beginning with Samuel, a whole line of prophets spoke from divine inspiration with uncanny foresight and foretold the goal of their preaching, the coming of the Redeemer.  The last prophet of the sixth and last age is John of Patmos, author of the Apocalypse, after whom prophetic activity ceases.  Gnostics and the divinely mad need not apply, as the canon of Scripture is now closed.  From this point on there can be no new codicil to the divine dispensation; for theology is no longer vatic but hermeneutic; and where Antiquity supplied the letter, the present age merely interprets.  In Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen makes Julian rebel against just this purely interpretive character of the times.  He tells his Christian friend and sometime advisor Basil of Caesarea that he grows weary of the commentaries, of “Books,” as he says, “always books.”[xvii]  The words are angry and desperate: “Books are no good to me, it is life I am hungry for, communion with the spirit, face to face.  Did a book teach Saul to see?  Was it not an overwhelming flood of light, a vision, a voice?”[xviii]

In parallel with the prophetic record, Augustine also outlines the philosophic record, with the recurring stipulation that philosophy ranks as inferior to prophecy.  Augustine concedes much to Plato, who lived nearly a millennium before him; about the neo-Platonism of what we call the Hellenistic and Late Antique periods, however, he was not so forgiving.  This, too, is relevant to Ibsen’s drama, where Julian embraces a magical Platonism quite distinct from Platonic philosophy per se.  In City of God, Book VIII, Augustine acknowledges the nobility of Plato’s theological conception.  Augustine comments plainly and with noticeable admiration that “there is none nearer to us [that is, to the Christians] than the Platonists.”[xix]  Indeed: “Platonism must take pride of place over ‘fabulous’ theology, with its titillation of impious minds by rehearsing scandals of the gods, and over ‘civil’ theology, where unclean demons, posing as gods, have seduced the crowds who are wedded to earthly joys, and have desired to make human errors serve as divine honors for themselves.”[xx]  Augustine appears to know the precursors to Plato, the Italian and Ionian philosophers, well, but he dismisses them as mere physical speculators; and he says the same thing of their later successors, the atomists – especially the Epicureans.  In anticipation of Christian revelation – and again in parallel with the Genesis account in the Old Testament – “the Platonists realized that God is the creator from whom all other beings derive, while he is himself uncreated and underivative.”[xxi]


Philippe de Champaigne (1602 – 1674): St. Augustine

It is because of this likeness, Augustine says, that laical Christians often take amazement, when Plato at last comes to their attention.  Could this be a pagan philosopher?  In a fascinating passage, Augustine mulls the question why Plato’s vision so closely resembles true revelation.  He offers the hypothesis, apparently not original to him but current in the Fourth Century, that “at the time of his journey to Egypt, Plato listened to the prophet Jeremiah, or else that during the same foreign tour he read the prophetical scriptures.”[xxii]  The dates do not, in fact, coincide, since Jeremiah was already dead when Plato came to Saïs, nor had the prophetic writings yet been translated out of Hebrew into Greek.  But, reserving the hypothesis, “it may have been that he learnt by word of mouth as much as he could of the contents of the Scriptures.”[xxiii]  Consider the implication of Augustine’s assessment: in attaching the finest of philosophy speculatively to the prophetic tradition, he transforms it into something other than philosophy; he also reduces what might otherwise be called the history of philosophy more or less to a nullity, since there has been no perceptible advance, in ethics or epistemology, since Plato.  Far from it: Philosophy, considered in and of itself, describes little else after Plato but a decline into pre-philosophical doctrine, a recrudescence of the “abominable superstition” that Socrates and his pupils sought to overcome and to the allure of which the otherwise talented Julian sadly succumbed.

Such a judgment colors Augustine’s remarks on the philosophers of his own period or of the century just before – such Neo-Platonists as Apuleius, Plotinus, or Porphyry, or again on the theosophy of Hermes Trismegistus.  In these writers, a single element of the Plato’s original teaching, the demonology, has come to play a central role, such that what once deserved the name of “the love of wisdom” now solicits a different moniker: Theurgy, or even demonolatry.  Thus, as Augustine notes (Book VIII), Hermes acknowledges a supreme god, but he admits of other deities and demons.  The “Thrice Great” also says “that the visible and tangible idols are in some ways the bodies of gods” and he “talks of gods being made by men.”[xxiv]  Both positions belong to a type of religious atavism.  Augustine writes (Book X) of Porphyry that he “goes so far as to promise some sort of purification of the soul by means of theurgy,” for which a less recondite term, as Augustine sees it, is “sorcery” or “black magic.”[xxv]  Augustine judges that Porphyry’s credulity about the demon-realm and magic makes him philosophically less acute than “any […] old woman” of the Christian faith.[xxvi]  The decline of philosophy from Platonic clarity back down into the pit of superstition corresponds with the destiny of the Roman Empire (Book XVIII), which “was founded to be a second Babylon.”[xxvii]  The magic known to the Romans of the Fourth Century was associated strongly with the Chaldean Mysteries.  Augustine sums up his age as follows (Book II): “Rome was founded and extended by the labours of those men of old; [yet] their descendants made Rome more hideous while it stood than when it fell”; and he adds: “For in the ruin of the city it was stone and timber which fell to the ground; but in the lives of those Romans we saw the collapse not of material but of moral defences, not of material but of spiritual grandeur.”[xxviii]

II. For Augustine, the civil world remains corrupt; there is no opening in his vision for anything even remotely resembling the modern notion of progress. Existence indeed has a goal in the individual redemption or damnation, as predicted by eschatology. Nor may one say that life has no value, as of course it does.  Yet history­ – the chronology of meaningful events – is exhausted, along with the visions and prophecies that have, from a Christian perspective, constituted it.  Events might occur but none will be significant.  As Eric Voegelin writes in characterization of Augustine’s sense of his own time, “after the appearance of Christ, history simply goes on having no internal aim until at some point of time the aimless course is cut short by the second appearance of Christ.”[xxix]  Augustine lives in the sixth age, “the senescens saeculum of the crumbling world, [which] holds no hope beyond its end except for… heavenly peace.”[xxx]  Pessimism and boredom are natural concomitants of this rather bleak attitude.  The baroque counter-religions of the age, the Gnosticisms and Dionysiac revivals that exerted their attraction on so many, signify an appetite for events, for epiphanies and apocalypses that would effect a break in the spiritual vigil without clock or calendar, the endless waiting, waiting, and waiting.

Viviano Codazzi (1604 - 1682) & Domenico Gargiulo (1609 - 1675) Constantius II Enters Rome (1638)

Viviano Codazzi (1604 – 1682) & Domenico Gargiulo (1604 – 1675): Constantius II Enters Rome in Triumph

In many ways a religious thinker, Ibsen the atheist, for that is that position he appears to have embraced by the time he came to write Emperor and Galilean, might accept the premise of an exhausted world – or at any rate of an exhausted cultural dispensation – while yet finding no consolation in a faith concerning the hereafter.  Ibsen’s relation to Christianity is complicated.  He had written the play Brand (1866) about a priest who embraces an essentially Gnostic view of salvation: That it comes from complete spiritual self-sufficiency and from the concomitant rejection of a corrupt society; the “Brand” character would reappear in the person of Dr. Stockman in the secular setting of An Enemy of the People (1882).  Julian, like Brand, turns against Christianity, at least in its established form; like Stockman he finds himself completely at odds, in his dedication to truths and ideals, with his fellow men.  An autobiographical impulse is at work.  The small-town Norway of Ibsen’s youth entailed what seemed to him a stifling Lutheran piety; and the existence of Lutheranism as an established religion to which one paid mandatory obeisance only strengthened the conviction.  But the cultural landscape of Europe as a whole struck Ibsen, in the 1870s, as bleak and confused in the extreme.  “There are actually moments,” he wrote to his friend the Danish philosopher and critic Georg Brandes (24 December 1871), “when the history of the world appears to me like one great shipwreck, and the only important thing seems to be to save one’s self.”[xxxi]

A year earlier, during the German advance on Paris, Ibsen had written to Brandes that Europeans were “living on nothing but the crumbs from the revolutionary table of the last century, a food out of which all nutriment has long been chewed”; whereupon, under the statement that “the old terms require to have a new meaning infused into them,” he declared how “what is all-important is the revolution of the human spirit of man.”[xxxii]  He little expected it, however, for “the masses […] are without understanding of higher things.”[xxxiii]  Of the historical problem of Julian, Ibsen wrote, “I have in a way become a fatalist.”[xxxiv]  The burning of the boats in Part II of the Emperor and Galilean is a fatalistic act par excellence and a fatal one.  Yet it might be the case that Julian’s fatalism is his despair, his recognition that all that has gone before, the messianic certitude, the insistence on an infallible will, has constituted a will-‘o-the-wisp.  The main thing, however, to be noted in an account of the drama and the Augustinian influence on it, is that Augustine started as a pagan, worked his way through Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, and then became a Christian; whereas Julian made his way from Christianity through philosophy to a species of Gnostic hubris.  For Ibsen, with the qualification that he never absolutely endorses his subject, Julian’s authenticity resides in the Apostate’s rebellion: The champion of Hellenism achieves justification precisely in his defiance of décadence.  But Ibsen never fully endorses Julian’s confused program.  Julian’s reversal of the Christian conversion begins in an attraction to philosophy; or it begins, rather, in his weariness of Christian ritual, reduced to just that and no more, in the court of his cousin, the emperor Constantius.

Thus in the Easter scene (Part I, Act I), when the sects do battle, Ibsen also produces Constantius in regal train.  Although he is “only thirty-four years old,” Ibsen wants him to appear “gloomy and suspicious” such that “his gait and his whole bearing betray uneasiness and infirmity.”[xxxv]  This living embodiment of the Christian Empire, though chronologically young, is bent, as though by age.  The corruption and disintegration of his regime find reflection in his surplus of guilty conscience, like some century’s cumulus of sin.  Like Macbeth, Constantius imagines a stain that will not vanish.  He snaps at Julian because of a misunderstood remark uttered by the youthful prince.  Constantius has said, in a conciliatory mood, to Julian, “Oh, let us stick together… my dear cousin,” to which Julian has replied, “It’s in your hands, my beloved lord,” whereupon Constantius says nervously: “My hands?  What were you thinking about my hands?”[xxxvi]  Constantius, the worshipper of Christ Jesus, has, in fact, been murdering Julian’s immediate family one by one to secure the succession of his own male issue, should his wife produce one.  Julian’s brother Gallus denounces his relative as “the murderer in the crimson robe; my father’s murderer, my stepmother’s, my eldest brother’s.”[xxxvii]  Such fratricidal violence for the sake of dynastic continuity from father to son reflects the ambient bloody-mindedness of the drama’s setting, as exemplified in the vehement hatred of one clique of dogmatists for another: “A Donatist!  You carrion; you tree corrupt!” or “A Manichaean?  A stinking heretic!  Ugh!  Ugh!”[xxxviii]  Julian, keenly aware of the emperor’s blood-guilt, disgusted by imperial politics, and repelled by the cultic animosity among the people, expresses the wish to withdraw from the world.  He would “most of all [like to go] to Egypt,” in imitation of the hermits, if only Constantius permitted it.  In Constantinople, says Julian, “the anguish of my soul grows worse every day” and “evil thoughts crowd in on me.”[xxxix]

Mithras 01

Mithras Killing the Bull (Roman Bas-Relief – Second Century)

Ibsen reveals his protagonist as a philosophically sensitive type, part esthete and part mystic, who sees around him the vanity of ecumenical conflict.  Remaining outside the church after the emperor has entered for the Easter service, Julian meets his school friend Agathon, newly arrived from Ephesus, who notes that Julian is “paler”[xl] than he remembers.  Julian answers that he “can’t stand the palace air.”[xli]  It is unhealthful and debilitating.  He inquires after Mardonius, their old teacher of the classics.  Agathon says, “His hair is completely white.”[xlii]  It is another sign that a once vital spirit, which Julian will soon identify as Hellenism, has lapsed into a moribund state with nothing to replace it.  Julian later expresses a more acute version of the same sentiment in the nostalgic and desperate phrase (Part I, Act V), “the gods are far away,”[xliii] which should be taken together with another sentiment (Part II, Act III), “isn’t the whole world a heap of rubbish?”[xliv]  One symptom of the loss of contact with the charisma of the past – with the old art and philosophy – is that Constantinople has become “a blaspheming Babylon.”[xlv]  Some of Julian’s Christian friends share his sense of the world’s sickness, but for opposite reasons.  Basil’s sister Macrina, who harbors romantic feelings about Julian, writes to her brother (Part I, Act II) that she believes the prince to be “David born again, who shall slay the champions of the pagans.”[xlvi]  It hardly corresponds to the Gospel dispensation; but it does chime with the sanguine yearning, which Ibsen makes to pervade his milieu, for a purely immanent redemption.  It signifies the intended metamorphosis of this world after the model of a particular asserted doctrine or venerated image.

Julian, not yet decided for the old faith or the new, sees himself in an impossible situation.  He asks Basil: “Where is this Christianity that needs to be saved?  Is it with the Emperor or with Caesar?  Their deeds surely cry out: no, no!  Is it among […] those effeminate voluptuaries at Court, who fold their hands over their bellies and ask in their high-pitched voices: Was the Son of God created out of nothing?  Or is it among the enlightened… like you and me, [who] have drunk the beauty and learning from pagan springs? […]  And then all the riff-raff of the empire […] who mob the temples, who murder pagans and their families […] afterwards they squabble among themselves over their victims’ belongings!”[xlvii]  When Julian discovers that scurrilous anti-Christian pamphlets attributed to the pagan scholar Libanius actually come from the hand of his own catechist, Hecebolius, he resolves to embrace what the Christian bigots scorn and to become Libanius’ student in philosophy at Athens.  Like Augustine before his conversion, Julian intuits in philosophy access to a transcendental order that promises redemption from Babylonian chaos.  Julian says to Libanius (Part I, Act II), “When I listen to you with my eyes closed, I sink into a sweet dream and seem to see Diogenes born again among us.”[xlviii]  The parallel with Macrina’s epistolary comment on the prince himself is obvious: The persistent theme of redemption through rebirth endows both similes with its characteristic nostalgia for the past and revulsion against the present.  Yet Julian’s initiation into philosophy has left him deeply disappointed.  Images of the past are glamorous: “Wasn’t Alcibiades beautiful when, aglow with wine, he stormed like a young god through the streets of Athens by night?” and “wasn’t Socrates beautiful in the symposium?”[xlix]

The youthful elites of Athens might recognize in Julian their intellectual leader, but for reasons that Julian has come to regard as specious.  In one scene, Ibsen represents a group of young pagans who goad Julian into debating with Gregory, a Christian loyalist of Constantius’ regime.  Julian asks Gregory what a citizen owes the Emperor; Gregory responds that a citizen owes whatever the Emperor demands.  But to how much, Julian poses, is the Emperor entitled; says Gregory, to everything.  The continuation shows the sophistic aspect of an outworn paradox.  “Julian: [Yet] it is written, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s […] and unto God the things that are God’s.  Gregory: Well, then?  Julian: Then tell me, oh shrewd judge […] how much of what I have belongs to God?  Gregory: Everything.  Julian: And how much of God’s property may I give to the Emperor?”[l]  Julian’s performance pleases his public but he himself understands that his trompe dialectique amounts only to a clever rhetorical display signifying absolutely nothing.  When the crowd has dispersed, Julian even confesses to Gregory that “Libanius is not a great man.”[li]  He is a classic orator-huckster teaching verbal gimmicks for money:  “The successor to Socrates and Plato… ha! ha!”[lii]

Sol Invictus

Image of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus)

It is a serious impasse, but Julian’s interest has already bent in another direction than philosophy.  The name of Maximus, the seer and magician, has been uttered by this moment in Ibsen’s drama a number of times; the first mention is by Agathon, during the Easter Vigil, at which moment Julian reacts to the invocation with the retort, “don’t mention that charlatan.”[liii]  He adds a few lines later and with evident approval that, two years before, Constantius made “two brothers of Maximus […] pay with their lives for their wrong-headed doctrines.”[liv]  Despite the orthodox remark, the name of the magician increasingly piques Julian’s imagination.  Here Ibsen draws not on Augustine, but on Eunapius and Ammianus, two of Julian’s chroniclers, both acquaintances of the Apostate emperor.  Unsatisfied with paltry syllogisms and paradoxes, Julian has, as he intimates to Gregory, sought illumination in “the pagan mysteries in Eleusis.”[lv]  Admitting that “there’s little to be got from those dreamy dabblers in the occult,” he nevertheless defends himself with the argument, “I must live, Gregory, and this academic existence here is not life.”[lvi]  Maximus will appear to Julian rather as Mephistopheles does to Faust, in Part I of Goethe’s verse-drama, in the role of a demonic seducteur.

The rumors associate Maximus, not with philosophy, but rather with direct mystic participation in the divine – and even with the possibility of deification, like that claimed by Alexander the Great after his consultation with the Egyptian oracle of Zeus-Ammon at Siwa.  Maximus preaches the “Third Empire,” a Gnostic farrago bound to appeal to those who see about them, as Julian does, the debris of two dead worlds superimposed intolerably on each other: that of a vanished, a deliberately repressed, Hellenism and that of an ossified Christianity invoked as a cover for brutal acts.  Earlier (Part I, Act I), Libanius, appearing as the anonymous “Philosopher,” had called Julian to his face “an Achilles of the spirit.”[lvii]  The attraction to Maximus thus germinates from a seed planted by the subsequently discredited Libanius.  Maximus will himself inculcate in the rebellious Julian the notion that the latter can become either the “Adam […] reborn”[lviii] or the Bacchus Redivivus, but in any case the man-god who challenges the exhausted Deity of the Testaments and revivifies the tired world through the power of his will.  “There is one,” says Maximus (Part II, Act IV), “who always returns at certain intervals in the life of the human race… down he had to come in his various forms up to this very day.  Down he had to come as the divinely begotten man in the Garden of Eden; down he had to come as the founder of the world-empire… down he must come as the ruler of God’s kingdom.  Who knows how often he has walked among us, unrecognized by any man?”[lix]

In Part I, Act III and again in Part I, Act V, Maximus awakens in Julian this idea that, in an opus of divinely inspired volition, the prince will bring about the eschatological “Third Empire.”  Perhaps it is less an awakening than a seduction.  Ibsen pitches the Act III séance at a high level of mystic and dramatic intensity, which yet leaves room for readers of the play to see the intellectual sham of it: As, for example, when the session begins with Maximus cueing a troupe of dancing-girls and musicians to begin their choreographic display.  Shortly, incense fills the apartments; torches burst spontaneously into flame.  When wine flows freely, Maximus calls it “the soul of the grape” and invokes “Logos in Pan!”[lx]  The scene corresponds to the dinner-party in Plato’s Symposium, previously praised by Julian as an emblem of the healthy past; but while Socrates supped with the living, the prince quaffs his wine with shades of the dead.  The old image has not so much been revived as it has been inverted.  It is not Eros that Julian celebrates, but Thanatos.  Maximus tells Julian: “intoxication is your marriage with the soul of nature,”[lxi] and he proclaims, “The hour of annunciation is upon you!”[lxii]  Yet the reader suspects that it is a false annunciation and that Maximus manipulates all.  Three ethereal – or perhaps diabolic – voices speak to Julian invisibly.  They are, says Maximus, all at once, “the three corner-stones under the wrath of necessity” and “the three great helpers in denial.”[lxiii]

The first voice tells the prince: “You shall establish the empire.”[lxiv]  Julian requests an explanation from Maximus, who says that “there are three empires”: “First, that empire which was founded on the tree of knowledge; then that empire which was founded on the tree of the cross”; and finally “the empire of great mystery… which shall be founded on the tree of knowledge and the tree of the cross together, because it loves and hates them both.”[lxv]  Later, it emerges that the first two voices were those of Cain and Judas; but the third, according to Maximus, is Julian himself, beckoning from the future backwards to the present and opening the way to triumph, if only the prince elect were to follow that “way of freedom” which is “by willing.[lxvi]  This freedom, however, which also bears the name of will, has only a moment in the dialogue before taking on another designation, that of “wrath” or “denial.”  The symbols pile on one another, layer after layer.  Thesis and antithesis flow together into synthesis.  The reader, attempting to make meaning of it all, must experience something like Julian’s own inebriation from having quaffed uncounted bowls of wine.  Nevertheless, when Ibsen turns an item of ordinary vocabulary in this way, one ought to pay close attention.  What does it mean when freedom is identical with the final degree of willful arbitration? [Jump to Part II]

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Georg Brandes, translated by W. Morrison.  Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature, vol. VI, Young Germany.  London: Heinneman, 1905.  (Originally in Danish, 1871)
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Halrdan Koht, translated and edited by E. Haugen and A. E. Santanello.  The Life of Ibsen.  New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971.
Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.  Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ.  New York: Penguin, 1985.
Jaroslav Pelikan.  The Mystery of Continuity: Time History, Memory and Eternity in the Thought of Saint Augustine.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1986.
Oswald Spengler, translated by C. F. Atkinson.  The Decline of the West, vol. II, Perspectives on World History.  New York: Knopf, 1928.  (204)
Eric Voegelin.  History of Political Ideas, Vol. I, Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
[i] Augustine, translated by Henry Betteson.  City of God.  New York: Penguin, 1972.  216.
[ii] Letters of Henrik Ibsen.  Translated by John Nilsen Laurvik and Mary Morison,  New York: Duffield and Company, 1908.  248.
[iii] Halrdan Koht gives the list of Ibsen’s main secondary sources in the chapter on Emperor and Galilean in his Life of Ibsen (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971): “He read David Strauss’ famous 1847 lecture, ‘Der Romantiker auf dem Throne der Cäsaren[,]’ a brief study by August Neander, Ueber den Kayser Julianus und sein Zeitalter[,] J. E. Auer’s Kaiser Julian der Abtrünnige im Kampfe mit den Kirchenvätern seiner Zeit[,] and Albert de Broglie’s great work, L’Eglise et l’empire romain au IVe siècle” (281).
[iv] Henrik Ibsen, translated by J. W. McFarlane and G. Orton.  The Oxford Ibsen, Volume IV, The League of Youth and Emperor and Galilean.  London: Oxford University Press, 1963.  263.
[v] 254.
[vi] 254.
[vii] 254.
[viii] 253.
[ix] 243.
[x] Oswald Spengler, translated by C. F. Atkinson.  The Decline of the West, vol. II, Perspectives on World History.  New York: Knopf, 1928.  (204)
[xi] Augustine (translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin).  Confessions.  New York: Penguin,  1984.  (346)
[xii] I acknowledge gratefully G. L. Keyes’ reading of City of God in his Christian Faith and the Interpretation of History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966 [158 – 163]).  I am indebted, in addition, to Jaroslav Pelikan, The Mystery of Continuity (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1986 [34 – 51]).  I have also made use of Eric Voegelin’s chapter on Augustine in History of Political Ideas (Vol. I): Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997 [206 – 223]).
[xiii] Augustine, translated by  H. Bettenson.  The City of God.  New York: Penguin, 1984.  609.
[xiv] 609.
[xv] 610.
[xvi] 610.
[xvii] Ibsen, Emperor and Galilean.  244.
[xviii] 244.
[xix] Augustine, City of God, 304.
[xx] 305.
[xxi] 308.
[xxii] 314.
[xxiii] 314.
[xxiv] 331.
[xxv] 383.
[xxvi] 387.
[xxvii] 787.
[xxviii] 49.
[xxix] Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Vol. I, Hellenism and Early Christianity.  Collected Works, Vol. 19.  Oxford, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1997.  (212)
[xxx] 212.
[xxxi] Henrik Ibsen, translated and edited by J. N. Laurvik and Mary Morison.  The Letter of Henrik Ibsen.  New York: Duffield and Company, 1908.  (218)
[xxxii] 204.
[xxxiii] 218.
[xxxiv] 218.
[xxxv] Emperor and Galilean, 202.
[xxxvi] 204.
[xxxvii] 223.
[xxxviii] 204 – 205.
[xxxix] 205.
[xl] 207.
[xli] 207.
[xlii] 208.
[xliii] 305.
[xliv] 399.
[xlv] 211.
[xlvi] 243.
[xlvii] 243 – 244.
[xlviii] 234.
[xlix] 241.
[l] 232.
[li] 236.
[lii] 237.
[liii] 210.
[liv] 212.
[lv] 236.
[lvi] 236.
[lvii] 217.
[lviii] 254.
[lix] 413.
[lx] 256.
[lxi] 256.
[lxii] 257.
[lxiii] 259.
[lxiv] 258.
[lxv] 259.
[lxvi] 259.

One thought on “Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece, Part I

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