Hamsun, Ibsen, and Their Utopias

EDITORIAL, 20 Aug 2012

#231 | Johan Galtung

From Grimstad, Norway

We are celebrating the two greatest Norwegian poets in this beautiful town they had in common.  Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) had his farm here, and Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was apprentice in an apothecary.  And you have given me the honor of concluding this festival with some words about their relevance for our world today.

Ibsen was born into a doubly patrician family, but his merchant father became a bankrupt alcoholic taking it out on wife and children.  Hamsun was born in deep poverty and survived in very low class ways, including a couple of years as tram-conductor in the USA.  That they both became leading poets in Norway and the world, initiating the modern drama and stream of consciousness, is a miracle.  I bow my head to their memory, grateful for being part of their language community.

They were building Norway, giving the country a soul. Or two.  Ibsen wanted a country whose people could think great thoughts.

They were both highly critical of England.  Ibsen expressed this in his epic poem Terje Viken, the poor sailor who broke the English blockade in 1809, rowing to Denmark for a barrel of cereal, captured by the English and put in prison for 5 years; came back to an unmarked grave; his wife and children having starved to death.

And     Hamsun wrote about the English killing and robbing, making it look as if it were for the best of the victims.  He defended the Sultan in Istanbul, an ally of Prussia and Hapsburg-Austria, the three empires that collapsed after World War I. Unusual in Norway; usual was another Nobel Prize winner, Sigrid Undset with her captivating medieval saga of Kristin Lavransdatter: 100 percent anti-German, 100 percent pro Anglo-American.

In a world plagued by colonialism, bolshevism, nazism and imperialism they both had their utopias; their vision of the good world, the world they would like to see,  And, without any regard for each other, their utopias had the same name: the Third Realm.

For Hamsun a pan-German world with a favored position for Norway.

He welcomed the German occupation of Norway.  He wrote an obituary for Hitler:  “He was a fighter, a fighter for humanity, and a prophet for the gospel of rights for all nations”.  Well, yes, for the right of Germany-Italy-Japan, the class of the 1861-1871 unified nation-states, not to be overshadowed by the elders, the allies.  His enemy’s enemy was his friend.  And in New Earth house teacher Coldevin says:  “No, do not forgive, never. Revenge!  To forgive is to turn justice upside down.  Pay back good with more good; but for evil, revenge.”

He admired Germany; he praised the country that had nursed so many of his compatriot artists to greatness.  But listen to Nagel, the Superman in the love drama Mysteries (no triangle, a hexagon!):

“I hold on to the mysteries–what is gained by depriving life of all poetry, all dreams, the beauty, mystique, all the lies–“.

He appealed for clemency for Norwegians condemned to death, and had a meeting with Hitler arguing the removal of Terboven, the brutal German ruler of Norway who made a lie of the favored position.  Like the King in Copenhagen was all good, not his representative in Norway (run for 400 years from Copenhagen).  Like USSR was good, the problem was Stalin.  Like USA is good, the problem was Bush.  Norwegian naïveté.

Did he know about the Holocaust?  No, Yes, Maybe, half-knowledge, repressed, like Norwegians not wanting to know about the mass murders committed by the US Empire.  A little care judging Hamsun, please.

Norway handled his case after the war through psychiatrization, declaring his spiritual capacity insufficiently developed and weak.  Whereupon he wrote one of his best novels, written when he was 90.

He was not a Nazi.  He had a stand, naive and uninformed, like Norway on colonialism and imperialism.  And he won: Hitler, not unlike the Kaiser, wanted a Europe run from Berlin with economic capital in Brussels (Niall Ferguson).  We are very close to that, today.

For the subtle Ibsen, utopia was a both-and world of the two trees in Christianity, the Tree of Knowledge in the Old Testament–from which Adam was tempted to eat by a conspiracy headed by Satan in the guise of a serpent using Eve as the temptress[i]–and The Tree of the Cross in the Passion Story of the New Testament.   But where?

Not in his poem Terje Viken, a beautiful story of forgiveness, when the skipper once arresting him comes back as mylord with mylady and a little child, almost shipwrecked, saved by Terje the pilot thirsting for revenge, nevertheless forgiving “because of that lithe one there”.  The opposite of Coldevin.  And of Hamsun for that matter.

Not in his comedy Peer Gynt with a centerpiece, the incredibly beautiful Sermon by the Priest at the grave of the “little warrior in the small war of the farmer” who had cut off a finger to be relieved of military service, devoting himself under the most adverse conditions to his family, “because there is something above the law, like there are even higher lights, above the mountain Glittertind”.  He was true to his calling, his family, his farm, not to himself only.

No, not even in Ibsen’s wonderful women who enter above the male bourgeois massive trivia-string with the light, the liberating tune; like a clarinet, an oboe, a solo violin, a piano in a Mozart concerto.

In what Ibsen called his major work, Emperor and Galilean; the Emperor being Julian the Apostate (361-63), the nephew of Constantin the Great who made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, the Galilean being Jesus. Julian rejected the monopoly as Ibsen rejected the evangelical-lutheran monopoly in Norway.  Julian stood for hellenism, for truth and beauty, for paganism, the old Greek-Roman Gods, Judaism. And Ibsen also for Jesus and 12 poor fisherman in a life of simplicity and compassion.  So Julian says in the end: “You have won Galiean”.

Ibsen won: we got human rights, mutual tolerance.  But he wanted them inside us, enriching us, a true globalization.  Thanks, Henrik.


 [i].  See H. Paul Jeffers, History’s Greatest Conspiracies: 100 Plots, Real and Suspected, New York:  Fall River Press, 2004.  This is plot no. 1; others include assassination of Lincoln and Kennedy, Soviet in Cuba, CIA on Santo Domingo, the faked Protocols of the Elders of Zion, etc.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He is author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including ‘50 Years – 100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

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