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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Kindred Spirits: Maeterlinck, Freud, and The Master Builder

By Robert Jackson Wood

Ibsen and Maeterlinck

In 1892, the great Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a lengthy article in The New York Times proclaiming Ibsen’s The Master Builder to be a new, very special kind of drama. Dispensing with “the useless clamour of violent art,” the play involved no heroic conquerors or barbarians, no poisonings or murdered kings. Instead, The Master Builder was a drama “almost without action,” “one of the first,” he wrote, that “presents to us the gravity and the tragic secret of ordinary immovable life.”

Maeterlinck was referring to the way so much of the play revolved around tortured architect Halvard Solness’ paralyzing internal struggles rather than around his outer travels and travails, an observation that made sense coming from a proponent of the Symbolist movement (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé were also in the club).

As a reaction against the Realist and Naturalist schools, which had favored  gritty, scientific descriptions of external reality over any concern for the inwardly spiritual, Symbolism embraced the more enigmatic dramas of the soul, whose mysterious truths, it insisted, could never be evoked directly. This meant that in Symbolist artworks (or those judged by its criteria), looks could be deceiving. The point was less the words and actions themselves and more what existed, ineffably, between them: the intimations of the soul that no word or symbol could ever adequately convey.

It's no wonder, then, that Maeterlinck was so attracted to the slippery, almost dream-like world of Ibsen’s architect, whose “princesses” “kingdoms,” and “towers” often seemed to be as much pregnant symbols of a tortured inner life as they were components of an actual reality. “Everything that is said in [The Master Builder] hides and discovers at the same time the sources of an unknown life,” Maeterlinck wrote, noting this elusiveness. The Master Builder made no claims on its protagonist’s reality. Rather, “the strangest of the strange dramas” kept the truth at bay while reveling in the ambiguities of a world in which church steeples, mysterious women, and speeches about kingdoms could always be more or less than what they seemed.

Ibsen and Freud

Freud, who always insisted that poets and playwrights were the true forbearers of his theories, might have agreed with Maeterlinck. When Maeterlinck, referring to the play’s protagonist, wrote that “there are many regions [in men] more fecund, more profound, and more interesting than those of reason or of intelligence,” he could have easily been talking about the Freudian unconscious—perhaps the epitome of the Symbolist’s elusive soul.

Freud and Maeterlinck were almost exact contemporaries, and where there could be plays full of elusive symbolic evocations of the inner life, there could also be Rorschach tests and cigars that weren’t necessarily cigars. Though Freud didn’t (to my knowledge) write about The Master Builder specifically, he wrote extensively about Ibsen (Little Eyolf and Rosmersholm in particular) and we can only imagine that he might have seen The Master Builder as another revelatory drama in which the battles between ego and id were on full display.

Did Solness, in his relationship to the young apprentice Ragnar, demonstrate the traits of the “post-Oedipal father”? In building houses for others and not himself, was Solness betraying his castration—that primal sense of loss that Freud spoke of? Were Solness’ towers mere sublimated desires—the ultimate, phallic symbols of a yearned-for virility and immortality? And Hilde, that apparition who shows up unannounced with no luggage on Solness’ doorstep: might she have been a mere figment of his unconscious—a symbol of the impossible object of desire itself?

Whatever the interpretation, it isn't hard to imagine Freud reading passages like the following one, spoken by the master builder himself, and putting a little check mark in the margin: “There is sorcery in you as in me. It is this sorcery which makes the exterior powers act. And one must lend himself to them. Whether one wishes or not, one must.”

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