Genric Ippolitovich Semiradsky (1843 – 1902): Julian the Apostate (1889)
Part I of “Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece” explores the relevance of Caesar and Galilean (also called Emperor and Galilean – completed in 1873) to the critique of modernity. The fact that Ibsen belongs to the modern dispensation complicates the interpretation, but, like his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche, Ibsen, despite his modernity, could also conduct a critique of the age that he inhabited. Ibsen is something of an anti-modern modern, a not infrequent phenomenon. Ibsen’s Julian, the noteworthy Apostate Emperor of the late Fourth Century, behaves like a modern ideologue: He pursues his conviction fanatically, so much so, that he constructs around himself an impermeable barrier to exclude the actual consequences of his action. Julian, in both Ibsen’s drama and the historical account, from which Ibsen drew, was a religio-political idealist who became increasingly convinced that he could transform the world so that it corresponded to his utopian vision. Julian’s reaction against Christianity had mainly to do with the murderous corruption of his cousin, Constantius II. The homicidal Cesar became identified in Julian’s mind with the God of Peace whom the Emperor hypocritically worshipped, but Ibsen sees something more profound than that. Julian’s rebellion is a rebellion against reality. He dislikes the constitution of the world as though it were his enemy, and deludes himself into thinking that he can annul it by ritual conjuration. He deludes himself again into thinking that he is the superman promised by the hucksters of mysticism. Like the play itself, “Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece” falls into two parts: Part I expounds the notions listed above; Part II, Julian’s descent into a type of Gnostic madness that, in its manifestation as imperial policy, wreaks havoc on early Byzantine society.
III. The reader finds himself, it would appear, in the realm of the phenomenon that Augustine labels libido dominandi, the psychological complement of imperium in politics. The notion of wrath, after all, is associated in literature with Achilles. A subtitle of Homer’s Iliad is The Wrath of Achilles; the first word of Iliad is wrath. Although Julian – in history as well as in Ibsen’s drama – often represented himself as intellectual and scholarly, his accomplishments suggest considerable libidinous drive. In letting Maximus guide him spiritually and advise him politically, Julian (in Ibsen’s play) has embarked on a schedule of contemptus mundi incompatible with the idea of salvaging the world; a perverse world, inimical to will, can only be abolished and a novel world, governed by will, set in its place. Ibsen underscores the contradiction in the second initiatory sequence in Act V, whose setting is the catacomb-labyrinth underneath Vienne, in Gaul. Julian has won a decisive victory over the Goths; his soldiers urge him to assume the crown. Julian, seeking a restoration of Helios,[i] descends into a catacomb, where Maximus reappears with “a white sacrificial band around his brow.” Maximus holds “a long blood-stained knife.”[ii] Says Julian: “My whole youth has been a perpetual dread of the Emperor and Christ.”[iii] Rebellion, both spiritual and political, or indeed ontological, leaps by its own superb causality from the Caesarean ressentiment: “When my spirit, bemused by beauty, thirsted for the traditions and images of the lost world of the Greeks, I was paralysed by the Christian command: ‘Seek only the one thing needful!’ When I felt sweet desires and longings of the flesh, the Prince of self-denial would strike terror into me with his: “Die unto this life, and live in the life beyond! All human emotions have been forbidden since that day the seer of Galilee began to rule the world.”[iv]
Ibsen anticipates Nietzsche in the last line: One thinks of any number of aphorisms from The Anti-Christ (1888): “God degenerated to the contradiction of life… a declaration of hostility towards life, nature, the will to life!”[v] Readers do not know that it is Ibsen proposing the idea on his own behalf; they only know that he gives the words to Julian, who now descends deeper into his initiation. He emerges after an interlude holding the magician’s knife in a raised hand, and bloodied “on his forehead, breast, and hands.”[vi] Ibsen’s source, Eunapius, hints that shortly before launching his campaign against Constantius, Julian let himself be initiated by Maximus into Mithraism – a cult understood both in Late Antiquity and in modern scholarship as an alternative equally to Christianity and to Olympianism. Julian’s Hymn to King Helios mixes Platonic symbols with Mithraic imagery. Ibsen, faithful to his sources, shows that Julian, like so many of his Late Antique counterparts, was a religious eclectic, but that his eclecticism had an obsessive pattern. The pantheon of the theologically please-all emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193 – 211) included Jesus, along with everything else. Julian’s Holy Gallery rigorously excludes the obnoxious “Galilean.” Rising from the Mithras-ceremony, a baptism in blood, Julian shouts, “Helios! – Helios!”[vii] Maximus tells him: “Creation is in your hands.”[viii] Readers should recall the imbroglio over the word “hands” outside the Church in Constantinople where Ibsen invokes the bloody destructiveness of Constantius. Emperor and Galilean, Part I, thus ends in an elemental confusion of darkness and light with the pronouncement of the spirit-guide over his pupil that the latter has assumed the godlike power of creation – or rather of re-creation. This is the meaning of the “Third Empire,” Julian’s attempted realization of which Ibsen represents in the second part of his drama. “So to the venerable gods of our forefathers,” Ibsen has Julian announce (Part II, Act I), “I restore their ancient rights.”[ix]
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1927): Dedication to Bacchus (1889)
In Antioch during the second year of his reign (362 A. D.), says Augustine (City of God, Book XVIII), when Julian began programmatically to refortify Hellenism at the expense of Christianity, “one young man of unswerving faith and constancy”[x] stood in his way by making himself an example to others while under torture. “The emperor was awestricken in amazement at his bold cheerfulness, and was afraid to persecute the other victims in case he should be put to the blush with greater ignominy.”[xi] Yet Julian’s choice of Antioch for his imperial seat after he had abandoned Constantinople (which Ibsen makes him call “that poisoned Galilean city”[xii]) is a typical instance of his combination of metaphysical stubbornness with practical myopia: for this city had distinguished itself arguably as the most Christian metropolis in the Empire, and the emperor should therefore not have been surprised that his program of Hellenic revival would be received by the Antiochenes with recalcitrant antipathy. Theodorus, the steadfast Christian youth to whom Augustine refers, had participated in a public demonstration against the imperial revival of pagan shrines, making a ruckus during rites in the precinct of Venus. Yet, as Robert Browning points out apologetically in his Emperor Julian (1976), the sources cannot be construed unambiguously as saying that the Princeps ordered Theodorus killed; only that he ordered him flogged, after which he released him.[xiii] A Christian woman named Publia has also managed to irritate and thwart Julian’s plan. Ibsen conflates these incidents, giving to Theodorus the name of Hilarion, brothering him to Julian’s school-friend Agathon, and making them both sons of Publia.
Brandes wrote, in Henrik Ibsen (1882), that Ibsen had “robbed [Julian] of his real greatness,” seeing him, “not indeed as he appears to the orthodox churchman, but still with Christian eyes.”[xiv] Especially, writes Brandes, Ibsen “lays stress on a persecution of the Christians with which the real Julian would have nothing whatever to do.”[xv] Brandes elsewhere comments usefully on Ibsen’s drama, but in respect of the remarks just quoted, Ibsen possesses a keener critical grasp of his subject than does his critic-friend or many a later apologist for the famous apostate. Ibsen knows well of Julian’s restraint, as far as it went. He even has him explain to the offended Gregory, who returns onstage (Part II, Act II), that, if zealous court officials had overstepped justice, it would be due to a fanaticism not countenanced by the emperor himself, who “deeply regret[s] that neither time nor circumstances [have] permitted [him] to investigate”[xvi] every deputized application of his imperial will. One might add here that the fanaticism of the deputies is nonetheless useful to the supreme imperial authority. Gregory’s friend Ursulus has suffered a capital sentence in Caesarea, where a certain Nevita is, as Julian admits, “fanatically keen on his job.”[xvii] He does not, on the other hand, offer any unambiguous apology for the course of events. Julian reminds Gregory that under Constantius Christians behaved with similar or worse fanaticism towards pagans; it is, he says, “tit for tat.”[xviii] Gregory demurs. “Tit for tat,” he suggests, by no means constitutes the point. On the contrary, “Tit for tat” implies the wearisome cycle of events that Christianity, with its notion of a linear and teleological time, resolutely rejects.
The point is, rather, that Julian’s Hellenic prejudice, implemented by zealous lieutenants, has exercised the identical effect on Christians that Constantius’ Christian prejudice, similarly implemented, once exercised on Julian, the Hellene. Ibsen gives the insight to Gregory, who describes how under the new pagan zealotry “many unsound members of the Church [have] deserted,” while at the same time “in many apathetic hearts the light of the Lord was kindled and burned more brightly than had ever been dreamt of.”[xix] Gregory himself “was once an indifferent Christian”[xx] whom the new civil (we might even call it ideological) adversity has driven back into the flock. Julian himself might not have been, quite as Brandes suggests he was not, a persecutor by temperament; but in assuming, as he apparently did, that the followers and partisans of his neo-Hellenism would not act like persecutors once he granted them power in his name – in assuming that they were morally superior to Christians – he misjudged badly. When Constantius imposed his Arian version of Christianity as the new civil religion of the empire, he vitiated the spiritual content of the Testaments; it was against such a hypocritical mockery of Christianity that Julian properly kicked. Now, in seeking to reinstate Hellenism as the civil religion, and in commissioning over-eager lieutenants to do his will, Julian likewise makes a mockery of the very Socratic piety that he would promulgate, and mockery once again properly inspires spiritual resistance – this time from the despised “Galileans.” Here, indeed, Augustine provides a better guide to Emperor and Galilean than Brandes, for in City of God the Bishop of Hippo undertakes a lengthy and detailed analysis of the spiritual meanness of civil religiosity considered as a genus.
John Waterhouse (1849 – 1917): Consulting the Oracle (1884)
IV. Following Varro’s Antiquities (late Second Century B. C.), a learned and skeptical examination of myth and rite, Augustine (Books IV and VI) puts forth the thoroughly modern thesis (Emile Durkheim hardly exceeds it) that the public forms of the ancient religion are mere projections of the actual communal or political order; even more, canny patricians and elites manipulate these forms to control the plebeians. Thus (Book IV), “the leaders of men […] taught men as true, under the name of religion, what they knew to be false.”[xxi] Ibsen makes it clear that Julian fully understands the philosophical argument. When Maximus has made an impressive show of bringing a statue of Hecate apparently into life, Libanius (Part I, Act II) tells Julian that such theurgic chicanery is “shocking” and “more than shocking.”[xxii] Says the philosopher: “what in any case do the gods mean to enlightened men?” and “haven’t the explanations of Plato… cleared up everything?”[xxiii] Of course, Libanius venerates his own set of idols, “the laboriously constructed edifice of concepts and commentary,”[xxiv] from the ennui of which Julian has turned in disgust. But is not Julian’s embracing of what Libanius calls charlatanry the beginning of what Augustine calls his love of domination? Is not Julian’s deepest interest in apprenticing himself to the theurgist his desire to manipulate a following? Ibsen’s answer would be yes. In Antioch (Part II, Act II) Gregory notes that from one end of the empire to another obsequious crowds have hailed Julian as a “superman.”[xxv] A word from Augustine seems appropriate here: “There is, to be sure, a slippery slope from excessive delight in the praise of men to the burning passion for domination.”[xxvi] In more than one way, in Ibsen’s representation, Julian resembles that phenomenon of Late Antiquity, the self-deified god-king, the worldly soter or “savior.” Consider Julian’s performance (Part II, Act II) as pontiff of the old gods to the Antiochenes.
In the first instance, Julian appears as a celebrant of Dionysus, looking as absurd as does old Cadmus, when confronted by Pentheus, in Euripides’ Athenian tragedy, The Bacchae. Physically small, Julian as emperor affected the rude dress of a Cynic and sported a deliberately unkempt beard. He often failed to impress the crowd with the presence of his person. In the second instance, during procession to the Temple of Apollo, Julian steps forth “robed as a chief priest, and surrounded by sacrificial priests and temple-servants,” while his hierophants call out, “Hail Julian and the Sun-King!” and “Long live Apollo!”[xxvii] Julian laments that elsewhere in the empire the shrines of the gods have fallen into dilapidation; but in Antioch, he says, Phoebus’ sanctuary still boasts its remarkable beauty, such that, in contemplating it, Julian feels “the presence of the god.”[xxviii] In a characteristic pronouncement, he apostrophizes “the beautiful earth, home of light and life, home of joy, home of happiness and beauty,” saying, “what thou wast thou shalt again become!”[xxix] Julian has been making such pronouncements of revivification since the opening act of Ibsen’s play; each time he invokes a renaissance, the absurdity of it becomes more apparent than before. When, on seeing a procession of Christian rioters being driven away to prison, Julian complains that “terrible is the power [of the Galilean falsehood] to lead men astray,”[xxx] the irony belongs to Ibsen, not to his protagonist. The first tremors of an earthquake now rumble through the city. Says Julian: “Never have I felt so close to the immortal gods.”[xxxi] He mocks the Christians, asking: “Where is the god of the Galileans?” and “Where is the Jew, that crucified son of a carpenter?”[xxxii] On the lookout for magical – which is to say, material – signs, Julian detects no trace of the Christ. He sees only the insanity, from his skewed perspective, of Christian fixity, as in the case of the Bishop Maris.
The Bishop Maris episode is another feature of Julian’s story drawn from the antique commentators. The old man is blind in his eyes but he can, as he says, “see all I want,” because his vision belongs to another realm than the earthly one: “I thank the Lord that he has put out the eyes of my body, so that I am spared from seeing the man who walks in a darkness more horrible than mine.”[xxxiii] As Maris curses Julian, the earthquake rumbles again, stronger than before: “The roof and pillars of the temple sway, and are seen to collapse, with a thundering crash, while the whole building is wrapped in a cloud of dust,” after which, the edifice lies “in ruins.”[xxxiv] Julian’s pontifical interpretation – that Apollo judged his shrine “defiled” and “therefore he smashed it”[xxxv] – seems once again a sophism. This event, or something like it, actually happened. Julian’s three years as emperor corresponded with a singularly ill-starred time for the empire. Because he had committed himself, moreover, to a particularly literalist version of Hellenism, because he relied in his public gestures on portents and omens, he made it awkward for himself to deal with unlucky events. In Ibsen’s analysis, Julian not only strengthens the Christianity that he increasingly despises; he also weakens the old religion that he defends. The ancient historians note with some scorn Julian’s profligate animal and cereal sacrifices at a time when food shortages ravaged Antioch. Ammianus, although sympathetic, calls Julian “superstitious rather than genuinely observant of the rites of religion” and adds, one guesses with irritation, that “he sacrificed innumerable victims regardless of the expense.”[xxxvi]
Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944): Sunrise (1916)
Ibsen references this judgment when he has the court-poet Heraclius note (Part II, Act III) report that most of the meat in Antioch “goes to the sacrifices.”[xxxvii] Ammianus again characterizes Julian as prone to “ambitions too high for a mortal,”[xxxviii] as dependent on “the popular applause of the mob,” and as “excessively eager to be praised for the most trivial reasons.”[xxxix] Ibsen’s Julian forecasts the actor-politicians of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries – the professional narcissists who sacrifice the wellbeing of the state to the spotlight and who strut rather set policy. Ammianus makes the same diagnoses as would Augustine, writing some thirty or forty years after the historian, in City of God. Ibsen appears to concur in the dual diagnosis. In imposing his hoary calendar of rites and observances, Julian, far from rescuing the empire from the burden of history, has merely doubled and trebled that burden. The moment that sums up Julian is his decision to make war on Persia, the geographical and cultural source of his Mithraism. It is a continuation of the ceaseless ecumenical conflict sustained by every Antique and Late-Antique superman since Alexander – or since Alexander’s successor, Ptolemy I, the self-dubbed Soter of Egypt and Syria. To invade eastward invites destruction. Syria and Bactria offer to empire only its dissolution in the waterless mountains.
What did Ibsen mean when he wrote to Edmund Gosse that Emperor and Galilean represented “part of my own spiritual life” and averred that “the historical subject… has a much more intimate connection with the movements of our own time than one might first imagine”? As to the latter, Julian resembles other Ibsen characters: Brand, for example, and Dr. Stockman. These characters, although starting from genuine premises and even intending to do good deeds, find their actions distorted by a deeply seated superbia, which eventually destroys them. Ultimately they are rebels against reality. Ibsen had been through a doctrinaire and radical phase, flirting with actual rebellion. The author of the Julian drama, whom his critics typically accused of having a completely negative outlook, came under the influence, in his twenties and thirties, of Hegel and the Hegelians. His association with Brandes for a time reinforced Ibsen’s Hegelianism, while altering it to favor the so-called Left Hegelians. The notion of “The Third Empire” betrays the influence of Hegel himself and of Ludwig Feuerbach and David Strauss, on Ibsen’s thinking: The religious and scientific outlooks might somehow combine in a new Weltanschauung, ushering in a New Age. Yet Ibsen, at the time he was writing his Julian drama, began to dissociate himself from almost everything that could be called ideology or doctrine. A remark by Brandes, in Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature (1871), on Hegelianism suggests why: “At the time of Hegel’s death… in 1831,” Brandes writes, “his followers compared him to Aristotle, to Alexander the Great, even to Christ.”[xl] Ibsen would have reacted against such inflation.
In addition to describing the Hegelian school as “modern Hellenism,” Brandes asserts that the teaching of the Jena master “acted as an emancipating spiritual power, a power that destroyed faith in religious dogma and freed the individual from the burden of the Christianity of the State church.”[xli] Yes, but in 1870 the Lutheran state, Prussia, had crushed the Catholic state, France – a repetition, as it were, of the Arian-Orthodox polemics of the Fourth Century. Ibsen found the spectacle demoralizing. Nor could the religious implications of the times and their events be concealed. It was Hegel, not Nietzsche, who first proclaimed the epochal death of God. Says Brandes, himself a materialist, the Left Hegelians “avoid employing the words Jewish or Christian,” but they seize instead on Hegel’s coinage of “Nazarenic” to indicate “men with ascetic, image-hating dispositions, inclined to morbid spiritualization,” whom they despise and whom they oppose to those of a “cheerfully realistic temperament, inclined to genial self-development.”[xlii] Nietzsche retains this rancorous Hegelianism in The Anti-Christ, his least likeable book.
Let it be noted, however, that the attitude of the Hegelians, Right or Left, reflects almost exactly the attitude of Julian’s own Hellenism, which is essentially reactionary, not constructive; puritanical, not magnanimous; fantastic, not practical or real. The ironic issue of Hegel’s Weltgeist, after all, was the rigidity of the Prussian State, a libidinous militarism – which greedily annexed part of Denmark in 1864 – and the virtual dictatura of Chancellor Bismarck. I shall not even mention those who, in the twentieth century, sought to build third empires, whether Marxist-Leninist or National Socialist. As Ibsen wrote in a letter to Brandes (30 January 1875), humanity is everywhere parochial, not cosmic. It tends to manifest itself in the parish-council: “And do you ever find a parish-council looking for, and preparing the way for, ‘the third kingdom’?”[xliii] The idealist, like Brand or Dr. Stockman, is always a minority of one; when granted power, however, he becomes a potential tyrant. Like Master Builder Sølness, another of Ibsen’s Julian-descendants, he suffers a fatal crash due to an overweening pride. The world meanwhile – the human world – remains ever-old. It inveterately resists the new or the revived idea. As resistance is inveterate so too rebellion is inveterate but rebellion is likewise reactionary. This infuriating recalcitrance of social reality, this non-conformance of it to the beautiful image in the mind of the reformer, simply cannot be dissolved by magical conjuration, or forced into a new pattern by will, where will and magical conjuration are the same. Who essays that supreme task, like the Emperor Julian, collides with necessity and spends his life in gestures wrathful, destructive, and vain.