2-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​c​r​y​p​t​.​2​-​1.2 | Lee | Brosamer PDF

This paper tracks the symp­tom of ‘miss­ing let­ters’ in order to con­nect the anx­i­ety that per­me­ates August Strindberg’s life and works to his des­tiny as the car­ri­er of his dead sister’s crypt. In his 1887 essay “‘Soul Mur­der’ (A Pro­pos “Ros­mer­sholm”),” Strind­berg reveals that the bot­tom-line of his anx­i­ety is not inter­per­son­al con­flict, but the poten­tial for loss that always accom­pa­nies trans­mit­ted mes­sages along their itin­er­aries. By couch­ing this threat of loss in the image of miss­ing let­ters, Strind­berg estab­lish­es the inter­change­abil­i­ty between let­ters that go miss­ing in tran­sit to those miss­ing let­ters that enter the cor­pus unin­vit­ed through the aper­tures of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Fol­low­ing the tra­jec­to­ry of these miss­ing let­ters in his oeu­vre (most notably, in The Father, Miss Julie, and The Dance of Death I), the paper even­tu­al­ly locates at the (miss­ing) dead cen­ter of Strindberg’s lit­er­ary cor­pus the phan­tom trans­mis­sion from moth­er to son of the author’s younger sis­ter Eleonora.

Cet arti­cle suit le phénomène des « let­tres dis­parues » pour faire le lien entre les grandes inquié­tudes qui imprèg­nent la vie et les œuvres d’August Strin­berg et son des­tin de porter la crypte de sa sœur décédée. Dans son essai écrit en 1887, « Soul Mur­der (A Pro­pos Ros­mer­holm) » Strind­berg révèle que le résul­tat de ses grandes inquié­tudes n’est pas un con­flit inter­per­son­nel, mais la prob­a­bil­ité des mes­sages de se per­dre en cours de route. En déguisant la men­ace de perte en l’image des let­tres dis­parues, Strind­berg établit l’interchangeabilité entre les let­tres dis­parues en tran­sit et celles non sol­lic­itées qui pénètrent le cor­pus à tra­vers les ouver­tures de com­mu­ni­ca­tion. En suiv­ant la tra­jec­toire de ces let­tres dis­parues dans ces œuvres (notam­ment dans Père, dans Made­moi­selle Julie et dans La danse de mort I), cet arti­cle trou­ve finale­ment la trans­mis­sion fan­tôme de mère à fils de la sœur cadette Eleono­ra au cen­tre mort (absent ou dis­paru) du cor­pus littéraire.

Christo­pher Lee | Images: Sascha Brosamer

Missing Letters

1. Sascha Brosamer - Das Loch

1. Sascha Brosamer - Das Loch

Due in no small part to his extrav­a­gant state­ments on women and the women’s move­ment, August Strindberg’s lit­er­ary career is too eas­i­ly defined by the fierce inter­sex­u­al con­flicts that marked both his most famous plays and his life. This car­i­ca­tured view has per­haps had the regret­table effect of mak­ing him one of those unread writ­ers who nev­er­the­less occu­py, if in name alone, promi­nent places in our cul­ture. How­ev­er, by trac­ing the miss­ing places that Strind­berg insis­tent­ly includes in his writ­ings, it is pos­si­ble to see through the smoke­screen of exter­nal con­flicts and see at the core of Strindberg’s lit­er­ary career and mis­sion the some­times con­flict­ing dri­ve to stage a miss­ing let­ter that he was entrust­ed to car­ry, at the same as he pre­served that let­ter from the per­ils of exposure.

‘Soul Mur­der’ (A pro­pos “Ros­mer­sholm”)” (1887), an essay writ­ten at the incep­tion of his dra­mat­ic career, invites this cryp­to­log­i­cal read­ing of the anx­i­eties that Strind­berg shaped into his dra­mas. The pow­er of sug­ges­tion is a read­i­ly rec­og­niz­able theme in Strindberg’s plays—that is, the poten­tial that one per­son may sab­o­tage anoth­er person’s psy­che mere­ly through reg­u­lar chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Soul mur­der” begins as a spec­u­la­tion on that theme, which he had recent­ly explored in The Father (1886). In mod­ern times, he writes, mur­der is replaced by soul mur­der, for a mod­ern con­spir­a­tor eschews the osten­ta­tions of direct force, rely­ing instead on the clan­des­tine method of soul mur­der (själam­ord) or psy­chic sui­cide (själv­mord):

In the past one killed one’s adver­sary with­out try­ing to per­suade him; nowa­days one cre­ates a major­i­ty against him, ‘pre­vails upon’ him, expos­es his inten­tions, ascribes to him inten­tions he does not have, deprives him of his liveli­hood, denies him social stand­ing, makes him look ridiculous—in short, tor­tures him to death by lies or dri­ves him insane instead of killing him. (Select­ed Essays 67)

Reveal­ing the influ­ence of per­se­cu­tion mania—that would lat­er cul­mi­nate in a four-year peri­od (1893-1897) of recur­ring bouts of para­noid delusions—Strindberg then explains how soul mur­der works by offer­ing exam­ples that come straight out of his real—or real­ly imagined—life. The first is “shelv­ing,” which he illus­trates with ref­er­ence to “a great actor […] recent­ly mur­dered in the fol­low­ing way” (67). The soul-mur­der­ing direc­tor offers the actor a lucra­tive con­tract, one that grants the direc­tor, how­ev­er, con­trol over the relay between the actor and his pub­lic, where­by he wields the pow­er to waste the actor’s tal­ent either by depriv­ing him of roles or by giv­ing him mis­matched roles. Anoth­er exam­ple is that of the pub­lish­er who directs the exchange between a jour­nal­ist and his pub­lic, a sce­nario “known in Amer­i­ca as ‘the hand­cuffs’” (67). Strind­berg had actu­al­ly accused his pub­lish­er Gus­tav Philipsen of this indis­cre­tion (Lager­crantz 236-37). After hav­ing grant­ed an influ­en­tial jour­nal­ist a con­tract, the edi­tor lets the man­u­script go miss­ing, hid­ing it in a draw­er until it becomes old news. Even­tu­al­ly, the vic­tim of soul mur­der will lose his will to live, and end up act­ing out the com­pat­i­bil­i­ty between soul mur­der and sui­cide, between själam­ord and själv­mord.

2. Sascha Brosamer - Fenster

2. Sascha Brosamer - Fenster

How­ev­er, just as the pro­gres­sion between själam­ord and själv­mord depends on a let­ter that drops out, Strindberg’s spec­u­la­tion, too, nar­rows its focus on the miss­ing doc­u­ment itself as the source of soul mur­der. Ear­ly exam­ples had high­light­ed those pos­i­tive per­se­cut­ing forces that hide doc­u­ments (or hides the actor like he is a doc­u­ment to be shelved) as a means to soul mur­der. In the final exam­ple of soul mur­der, how­ev­er, the focus shifts from the mur­der in caus­ing some doc­u­ments to go miss­ing to the mur­der that inheres in miss­ing doc­u­ments them­selves. Here is the final example:

Far sim­pler forms of tor­tur­ing peo­ple to death can also serve as ingre­di­ents. One lets a man­u­script or two get lost in the post. A vac­u­um then aris­es in a writer’s psy­che; there is a break in the line, so that the cir­cuit is inter­rupt­ed; the chain of devel­op­ment is bro­ken, so that the next time he takes up his pen he does not know what he has writ­ten (and had pub­lished) or not writ­ten. He begins to repeat him­self, refer­ring to texts that he believes the read­er knows, but which the lat­ter has nev­er heard of. His writ­ing dis­in­te­grates, and he can no longer col­lect his every­where dis­persed thoughts. (68)

As one can see, this final soul mur­der by pur­loin­ing of the let­ter is now no longer for­mu­lat­ed in terms of dying to some­one as either expres­sion or knowl­edge, that is, input or out­put of infor­ma­tion, as in the exam­ples of shelv­ing and hand­cuffs. The final exam­ple instead under­stands soul mur­der as a let­ter that goes miss­ing in tran­sit, but stays in tran­sit as a miss­ing let­ter. A break in the line, accord­ing to this for­mu­la­tion, does not mere­ly cre­ate an inter­rup­tion in knowl­edge. What­ev­er was miss­ing from com­mu­ni­ca­tion enters the chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion as a vac­u­um and becomes encyst­ed with­in the writer him­self. The para­noid fear of psy­chic mur­der that Strind­berg first sought to restrict to the inter­per­son­al set­ting becomes, in this final exam­ple, unmoored from the many imag­i­nary adver­saries who were sum­moned by Strind­berg through­out his life to con­tain his anx­i­ety and aggres­sive­ness. What remains once the smoke set­tles is the mur­der­ous poten­tial that inheres in the postal sys­tem itself, name­ly the always-exist­ing poten­tial of the let­ter to go miss­ing and then come back as soul murder.

3. Sascha Brosamer - Scheuklappen

3. Sascha Brosamer - Scheuklappen

Indeed, even Strindberg’s title for the essay, “‘Soul Mur­der’ (A pro­pos “Ros­mer­sholm”),” reflects his wari­ness of the miss­ing let­ter. The quo­ta­tion marks sur­round­ing the word ‘soul mur­der’ and the bind­ing paren­the­ses that guard the name Ros­mer­sholm indi­cate the care with which Strind­berg approached the top­ic, lest the miss­ing let­ter in the play gets out of hand and go astray, only to come back to and into the writer as his dis­in­te­gra­tion. Just as he tried syn­tac­ti­cal­ly to bind the threats to his writ­ing, Strindberg’s essay obscures his fear of miss­ing let­ters under the smoke­screen of misog­y­ny and inter­per­son­al bat­tle, char­ac­ter­iz­ing the soul mur­der in Ros­mer­sholm as a psy­chic manip­u­la­tion by Rebec­ca. How­ev­er, Ros­mer­sholm, like so many of Ibsen’s dra­mas, is cen­tered on the mes­sage that goes miss­ing, only to return as a source of cat­a­stro­phe. One has only to turn to some of the most famous dra­mas of Ibsen. In A Doll’s House, it is the let­ters bear­ing Nora’s forged sig­na­tures that, once for­got­ten, return to destroy the frag­ile equi­lib­ri­um Nora tried to main­tain. In Hed­da Gabler, Løvborg’s miss­ing man­u­script, after mak­ing its way into Hedda’s hands, ends up pro­duc­ing, not the truth Hed­da had sought for, but only a cat­a­stroph­ic end. In Ros­mer­sholm, it is Beata’s let­ter that, sent just before her death and in Mortensgaard’s pos­ses­sion, allows her, years after her death, to defeat Rosmer’s plans to sup­plant her and accept Rebec­ca (as well as the ideals of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics for which Rebec­ca stands).

After begin­ning the essay as a con­fi­dent sci­en­tist of soul mur­der, by the end Strind­berg shows him­self com­plete­ly fall­en prey to the threat of miss­ing let­ters, whether as actu­al or poten­tial. Strind­berg ends the essay with a hope­ful promise to get to the bot­tom of soul mur­der by writ­ing a frag­men­tary announce­ment, exclaim­ing: “About that, anoth­er time” (Select­ed Essays 72). But this promise of maybe a man­u­script or two that will clear the line between Strind­berg and his read­er points only to the fact that Strind­berg nev­er wrote this fol­low-up. Thus the soul mur­der essay ends up mere­ly stag­ing, as a con­spic­u­ous vac­u­um in Strindberg’s lit­er­ary cor­pus, the miss­ing man­u­script that per­haps, but always poten­tial­ly, got lost in transit.

All his life, Strind­berg was patho­log­i­cal­ly wary of the capac­i­ty of things to go miss­ing, even in his post-Infer­no years, when he was pre­sum­ably recov­ered from his para­noia. When his third wife Har­ri­et Bosse, then estranged, lost her engage­ment ring dur­ing a vis­it to Strindberg’s house and lat­er spoke to him of her sus­pi­cion of the maid, Strind­berg first furi­ous­ly refut­ed the charge, only to break down in tears when the theft was con­firmed (Paul­son 113-14).

His rel­a­tive­ly late turn to dra­ma, too, could be seen as a symp­to­matic pref­ace to the Infer­no years, when his obses­sions reached their patho­log­i­cal cli­max in mid­dle age. Dra­ma is, after all, a genre that is miss­ing its core. Refer­ring to some off-stage past, or some off-stage text and con­text, the scene refers to some unseen ele­ment that the stage is busi­ly try­ing to recov­er or cov­er over. Thus in his The­ater as Prob­lem Ben­jamin Ben­nett calls dra­ma an “onto­log­i­cal­ly defec­tive genre” that is the result of an incongruous––but productive––marriage between lit­er­a­ture and the insti­tu­tion of the stage. When the read­er sens­es a defect in a non-dra­mat­ic text, it is a prob­lem of the spe­cif­ic text, but

when I read a dra­ma, when the dra­mat­ic text is (for me) an object of read­ing, part of my under­stand­ing of its qual­i­ty as dra­ma is the recog­ni­tion that it could be (for me) some­thing quite dif­fer­ent, a kind of shad­owy, inferred pres­ence gov­ern­ing the action and speak­ing of cer­e­mo­ni­al­ly dis­guised fig­ures in an open space before a restrained­ly fes­tive crowd of which I would be a mem­ber. (Ben­nett 61)

This works both ways. The stage, too, must nec­es­sar­i­ly evoke some unrep­re­sentable past. Since Ibsen, real­is­tic dra­ma tends to han­dle time through the tech­nique of indi­rect expo­si­tion. Through it, the stage forges the present “dom­i­nat­ed by an oppres­sive, loom­ing past” (18). How­ev­er, for all of the technique’s capac­i­ty, “[d]rama inevitably con­cerns itself less with long peri­ods of time as such than with the past as an imme­di­ate pres­ence in our men­tal and social life […]” (18). This past that is present is, in oth­er words, absence that is con­tained in the stage, which is always miss­ing its manuscript.

From the first of Strindberg’s mature dra­mas, let­ters were found miss­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing with­in a self-con­sti­tu­tive or intrapsy­chic cir­cuit con­nect­ing self and oth­er as soul mur­der. The Father (1886), writ­ten a year before the soul mur­der essay, traces the root cause of the cav­al­ry cap­tain Adolph’s psy­chot­ic break­down to the infil­tra­tion into and dis­con­nec­tion of his com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The cen­tral issue, the poten­tial ille­git­i­ma­cy of the daugh­ter, is, for Strind­berg, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem, as legit­i­ma­cy is seen as a prop­er trans­mis­sion of lega­cy. The pri­ma­ry means by which Lau­ra destroys Adolph is the postal exchange, which she ably turns into a scene of per­il. Strind­berg shows the soul mur­der­er Lau­ra sit­ting at the relays, clan­des­tine­ly intro­duc­ing the feared miss­ing places into the frame­work of real­i­ty and con­trol Adolph builds up via his pro­fes­sion­al and sci­en­tif­ic cor­re­spon­dence. Specif­i­cal­ly, Lau­ra inter­cepts all incom­ing pub­li­ca­tions that con­tain infor­ma­tion about the lat­est dis­cov­er­ies in the field of astro­physics, frus­trat­ing Adolph in his research (Select­ed Plays 175). It should be not­ed also that Lau­ra relies on a let­ter she inter­cept­ed years ago, in which Adolph express­es doubts about his san­i­ty, for the legal author­i­ty to declare Adolph insane. In oth­er words, hav­ing been tak­en out of its prop­er tra­jec­to­ry and con­text, the let­ter is turned against its spir­it, and Adolph’s own words return from this unex­pect­ed detour as the seed of his mind’s disintegration.

4. Sascha Brosmer - untitled

4. Sascha Bros­mer - untitled

Miss­ing let­ters are also the dri­ving force in Strindberg’s next and most famous play, Miss Julie (1888). But here, Strind­berg elab­o­rates on his the­o­ry of soul mur­der by intro­duc­ing the themes of insur­ance and fire. The bat­tle of the sex­es in Miss Julie has its ori­gin in the arson per­pe­trat­ed in Miss Julie’s child­hood by her moth­er, an act whose moti­va­tion Strind­berg fails or refus­es to explain. The arson is dam­ag­ing and con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing, how­ev­er, only to the extent that its effects were made uncon­tain­able and irre­versible when the moth­er sought to cir­cum­vent the insti­tu­tion of insur­ance. Only by see­ing through the diver­sion­ary fire­works of the arson, one can dis­cern the essence of the dead mother’s mal­ice. Not her arson, but her inter­cep­tion (of the let­ters that con­tained the fire insur­ance pre­mi­um) was what caused the finan­cial ruin of the house, and almost led the father to com­mit sui­cide, the soul mur­der that returns to ful­fill its des­tiny in the daughter.

Insur­ance asserts that since every con­ceiv­able loss can be replaced by some mon­e­tary equiv­a­lent, insured loss is loss already admit­ted and cov­ered. The stan­dard of mourned death, how­ev­er, implies and hides the con­trary notion of an always unin­sur­able loss. The fan­ta­sy of seam­less replace­ment pre­pares, by proxy or inoc­u­la­tion, for this very cat­a­stro­phe, but this cal­cu­la­bil­i­ty of the risk of loss reduces the liv­ing to their mere exchange val­ue, thus turn­ing what was a risk of loss to a gen­er­al­ized cer­tain­ty of loss. As Lau­rence Rick­els points out, the emer­gence of the great insur­ance hous­es in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry occurred con­cur­rent­ly with the sim­i­lar emer­gence of ear­ly modernity’s mass and mas­sive fail­ure to mourn. When mod­ern insur­ance com­pa­nies in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry arose as a response to the emer­gence of the colo­nial trade that cre­at­ed the need for expand­ed marine insur­ance cov­er­age, this intro­duc­tion of the risk-man­age­ment instru­ment reflect­ed a sim­i­lar shift in the risk-man­age­ment that lay clos­er to home, exem­pli­fied, for instance, in the trans­for­ma­tion of Lloyds of Lon­don from a cof­fee house into an insur­ance firm, enact­ing the instru­ment of insurance’s over­tak­ing of coffee’s role as the drink of the melan­cholic. As Rick­els notes:

Lloyd’s of Lon­don accord­ing­ly holds the exem­plary place of tran­sit between con­cep­tions of melan­cho­lia. From a humoral dis­or­der which strikes selec­tive­ly, either giv­ing rise to genius in the one so inclined or inca­pac­i­tat­ing a cer­tain phys­i­cal type always pre­dis­posed to the ill­ness, melan­cho­lia became the specter of unin­sur­able loss which endan­gers even inno­cent bystanders. (65-66)

Strind­berg was cer­tain­ly famil­iar and famil­ial with insur­ance, being a fam­i­ly mem­ber of one of Sweden’s lead­ing ship­ping houses.

After suf­fer­ing a set­back in his youth­ful dream of becom­ing a play­wright and an actor, Strind­berg was offered a com­mis­sion to write a short sto­ry for an insur­ance con­cern, Nord­stjär­nan (“The North Star,” Lager­crantz 46). Strind­berg wrote a sto­ry about “young Mia who is vis­it­ing Stock­holm and writ­ing home to her fiancé Axel in the provinces” and recalls for their joint edi­fi­ca­tion the cau­tion­ary anec­dote about a mater­nal uncle who left behind a wife and six chil­dren with­out life insur­ance ben­e­fits. In stress­ing the capac­i­ty of insur­ance to pre­pare for cat­a­stro­phe, the sto­ry pleased the insur­ance con­cern so much that it hired Strind­berg as the edi­tor of its insur­ance mag­a­zine, Sven­s­ka Försäkringstid­ning (Swedish Insur­ance Jour­nal, Lager­crantz 46). But it did not take long before Strind­berg again ran up against those miss­ing places cycling back in the dou­bling tech­nol­o­gy of insur­ance. The mag­a­zine fold­ed in six months, main­ly because Strind­berg turned the tables on the insur­ance con­cern and began “to ques­tion,” as Lager­crantz reports, “the legit­i­ma­cy of the entire busi­ness; marine insur­ance became his favorite tar­get […] Strind­berg wrote in his mag­a­zine about British and Ger­man ship own­ers’ dis­re­gard for their sailors’ lives. He wrote that these mag­nates, in order to col­lect, had no scru­ples about arrang­ing to rid them­selves of a worn-out ves­sel, with total dis­re­gard for the crew’s fate” (46).

Was this real­ly so? Or was this but anoth­er expres­sion of Strindberg’s para­noia? Regard­less, what comes through in this episode is not only Strindberg’s fear of the per­se­cut­ing pow­er that lets a mis­sive (be it a ship sent out bear­ing car­go) go miss­ing, but also his wari­ness of acci­dent insurance’s sin­is­ter under­side that endan­gers, rather than secures, one’s car­go. Strind­berg returned to this expe­ri­ence in Red Room (1879), the nov­el that launched Strindberg’s career as a writer, where he devotes a chap­ter to expos­ing insur­ance as a con­spir­a­to­r­i­al scheme of the large insur­ance hous­es. To cel­e­brate the found­ing of Tri­ton, a new marine insur­ance com­pa­ny, its founder gives a speech about the pow­er of insurance:

The mer­chant sends out his ship, his steam­er, his brig, his schooner, his bark, his yacht, or what you will. The storm breaks his—whatever it is—to pieces. Well? The mer­chant says, “go ahead!”. For the mer­chant los­es noth­ing. That is the insur­ance company’s idea and ide­al. (Red Room 117)

But through the eyes of the hero Arvid Falk, the insur­ance company’s boast­ful con­fi­dence before loss is exposed as apply­ing only to the major share­hold­ers (117). The major share­hold­ers’ secu­ri­ty is paid for by the miss­ing car­goes of small investors, who always lose out when there are accidents.

In his works, Strind­berg, the son of a ship­ping agency own­er, lived out the strug­gle between the major share­hold­ers and the small investors, i.e. between the ship­ping agent father’s injunc­tive to mourn com­plete­ly, and the per­sis­tence of a loss his moth­er entrust­ed to him in pass­ing, an illic­it, unin­sur­able trans­fer to which he would give the res­o­nant name of soul mur­der. In the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal text The Son of a Ser­vant-Woman, Strind­berg lets the cur­tain drop on a pri­mal scene of this transaction:

Now, while she was still able to get up, she began to mend the children’s linen and clothes, and to clean out all the draw­ers. She often talked to John about reli­gion and oth­er tran­scen­den­tal mat­ters. One day she showed him some gold­en rings.

You boys will get these when Mama is dead,” she said.

Which is mine?” asked John with­out stop­ping to think about death. She showed him a plait­ed girl’s ring with a heart on it. It made a deep impres­sion on the boys, who had nev­er owned any­thing made of gold, and he often thought of that ring. (96)

The pas­sage rais­es sev­er­al ques­tions. Why “a plait­ed girl’s ring”? What does the moth­er give to the son in mak­ing her death the con­di­tion of this trans­fer? Who is the girl for whom the ring was orig­i­nal­ly destined?

The iden­ti­ty of the girl is just as hard for the read­er to dis­cern as it was for Strind­berg. Strind­berg was the third of twelve chil­dren, of whom only sev­en sur­vived infan­cy. Such fam­i­ly his­to­ry is not unique, as child mor­tal­i­ty was high even in the nine­teenth century—although in Strindberg’s fam­i­ly, it seems to have been excep­tion­al­ly so. Nor is it unique that none of the biogra­phies men­tion these five dead infants. Our refusal to acknowl­edge the death of the child grows direct­ly out of their vul­ner­a­ble prox­im­i­ty to death. In com­menc­ing his explo­ration of the miss­ing links of Ger­man let­ters, Rick­els puts the focus on the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry inven­tion of the child-pupil, whose “dou­ble but sep­a­rate” sta­tus dou­bles via anal­o­gy and geneal­o­gy that of the dead in their mor­tu­ary palaces (22-23). This new­ly cement­ed onto­log­i­cal sta­tus, cou­pled with the still high rate of infant mor­tal­i­ty (as seen in the five infant deaths in Strindberg’s fam­i­ly, for instance), cre­at­ed a mas­sive occa­sion for mourning.

A phan­tom is, as Nico­las Abra­ham and Maria Torok have shown, a trau­mat­ic loss buried with­in the body that, nev­er­the­less, does not issue from an expe­ri­ence or a rela­tion­ship that relates to the bear­er of the crypt, not even as some­thing repressed. Rather than being repressed, a phan­tom is an effect rather of encrypt­ing. The unmourned loss of a child the par­ent buries in a sur­viv­ing child’s body is an instance of a phan­tom tak­ing up res­i­dence in a spe­cif­ic loca­tion inside the body. Since a phan­tom trans­mis­sion must escape detec­tion in order to pre­serve the buried cor­pus whole, a phan­tom trans­mis­sion is, there­fore, an unspeak­able, secre­tive affair, which utter­ly coun­ter­acts attempts at libid­i­nal introjection—that is, it sev­ers the link of ref­er­ence between words and some uncon­scious con­tent (Abra­ham and Torok 171-72). Phan­tom words point, instead, to gaps in the intro­jec­tive striv­ings of the ego, and to some cat­a­stro­phe in the par­ent (174).

The ring passed on by his moth­er did not, for Strind­berg, func­tion as a sym­bol, but as the phan­tom gap described by Abra­ham and Torok, a place in his cor­pus where he could car­ry his mother’s melan­cholic incor­po­ra­tion of a lost daugh­ter. In The Son of a Ser­vant, the pass­ing of his moth­er inspires in John only the fan­ta­sy of a girl mourn­ing over her mother.

There was the only good thing that would come from the bot­tom­less well of unhap­pi­ness: he would get the ring. He could see it on his hand now. “This is in mem­o­ry of my moth­er,” he would be able to say, and he would weep at the thought of her. But he could not stop think­ing how fine it would look. (98)

The only con­so­la­tion for the mother’s pass­ing is the ring that con­tains the mourn­ing for the moth­er. But this mourn­ing, like a girl’s ring, appears to belong to the daugh­ter, not to the son. John can­not stop think­ing about how fine it would look on him. A girl­ish van­i­ty is thus the lim­it of his mourn­ing and the affir­ma­tion of a daughter’s sur­vival in him.

Although the name of Strind­berg is asso­ci­at­ed pri­mar­i­ly with the con­ju­gal bat­tle, the fact is the female fig­ure that appears most per­sis­tent­ly in Strindberg’s works is not the wife, but the daugh­ter. Strindberg’s cor­pus is pop­u­lat­ed by fig­ures like Miss Julie (Miss Julie), Queen Christi­na (Queen Christi­na), Agnes (A Dream Play), Eleano­ra (East­er), and Swan­white (Swan­white). Judith looms large, though off-stage, in The Dance of Death I, and takes cen­ter stage in The Dance of Death II. In fact, in both Miss Julie and Fac­ing Death, Strind­berg por­trays a sit­u­a­tion where the moth­er has left and only daugh­ters remain.

Who was the daugh­ter, then, whose unmourn­able loss Strindberg’s moth­er passed down to him with­in a girl’s ring? It is the name to be found entered in the Stock­holm city archives. On record, two sib­lings, a girl and a boy, were born and died with­in the first three years of Strindberg’s life, the first bear­ing the mother’s name: Eleono­ra Elis­a­beth Strind­berg, who lived from 5 May 1850 to 22 April 1851 (Stock­holm Stadark­iv, Död- och begravn­ingskok 1748-1860 M-S). She and the younger broth­er were the let­ters the moth­er had mis­placed: a let­ter or two, a child or two. Late in his career, Strind­berg was to memo­ri­al­ize this sis­ter who died a few days before her first East­er (20 April) in East­er, where he gives the name Eleono­ra to the sis­ter who returns from melan­cholic phan­tom burial.

In The Father, Strind­berg staged the secret infil­tra­tion of this unmourn­able loss of a sib­ling or two unim­ped­ed by acci­dent-proof­ing (such as insur­ance). Adolph’s sci­en­tif­ic research is, in one sense, his attempt to regain con­trol over ghosts, of trans­lat­ing specters into life. This is the gist of Adolphs dis­cov­ery in his own words: “Yes, yes! I’ve been sub­ject­ing mete­or stones to spec­troscopy, and I’ve found car­bon, in oth­er words, ves­tiges of organ­ic life!” (Select­ed Plays 155). By using the spec­tro­scope, Adolph seeks to cre­ate a cir­cuit where life and live mes­sages will not get dropped along the way and become specters. How­ev­er, the fragili­ty of Adolph’s false sense of con­trol over specters is high­light­ed by the out of con­trol loss that hits too close to home, which The Father can only name by proxy via the daugh­ter Bertha’s fears. As Bertha tells her father, a ghost dwells in the attic, mourn­ing the sur­vivors: “Such a moan­ing, mourn­ful song, the most mourn­ful song I’ve ever heard. And it sound­ed like it came from the stor­age room up in the attic, where the cra­dle is, you know, the room to the left” (169-70). This dead child, whose miss­ing place was nev­er­the­less rep­re­sent­ed by the emp­ty cra­dle, is the source of Adolph’s obses­sive fear over the uncer­tain­ty of pater­ni­ty. The fear that the child may not be his child analo­gizes the emp­ty place ded­i­cat­ed to the child that no longer is.

How­ev­er, although The Father and the essay on soul mur­der rep­re­sent Strind­berg at his most des­per­ate, hov­er­ing between the futile attempts to gain con­trol over the cir­cu­la­tion of let­ters and suc­cumb­ing to it in utter dis­in­te­gra­tion, Strind­berg was slow­ly, painful­ly, build­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion appa­ra­tus that would give the vac­u­um some sav­ing con­text at last. This he accom­plished in part through his inter­est in tech­nolo­gies of live trans­mis­sion that cor­re­spond to his role as the trans­mit­ter of life or undeath, as can be seen in The Dance of Death, a play that restages The Father in an attempt to find a solu­tion to the prob­lem of unin­sur­able mes­sages left unre­solved in The Father.

The Dance of Death takes place in a for­mer prison on an island, now turned into the liv­ing quar­ters of Edgar, an artillery cap­tain. Iso­lat­ed from the main­land, Edgar and his wife Alice wage the seem­ing­ly eter­nal bat­tle of the sex­es, a man­ic attempt to obscure the ves­ti­gial evi­dence of unmourned death. But in this play, too, the cen­ter is miss­ing. Just as the dead child dwells in the gap opened up as the ques­tion of pater­ni­ty in The Father, so here, too, two dead chil­dren are men­tioned in pass­ing, casu­al­ly dropped—the names dropped.

Kurt. Does he [Edgar] dance?

Alice. Yes, he’s real­ly very fun­ny sometimes.

Kurt. One thing … for­give me for ask­ing. Where are the children?

Alice. Maybe you don’t know that two of them died?

Kurt. You’ve been through that too?

Alice. What haven’t I been through?

Kurt. But the oth­er two? (Miss Julie and Oth­er Plays 133)

How­ev­er, in The Dance of Death, Strind­berg averts the soul mur­der that the vac­u­um of the miss­ing child (or two) typ­i­cal­ly packs away but then releas­es. Instead, Strind­berg pre­pares a place for the miss­ing chil­dren in the tele­graph­ic appa­ra­tus, through which Edgar gets in touch with the sur­viv­ing pair of chil­dren who, though they live on the main­land, analo­gize the dead pair by their absence. For this rea­son, it is cru­cial that Strind­berg stages the tele­graph not as a writ­ing or print­ing medi­um, but as an audio medi­um. By focus­ing on the telegraph’s abil­i­ty to send its sig­nals audi­bly to those in-the-know, Strind­berg fig­ures the tele­graph as a live trans­mis­sion medi­um, as a tele­phone for the in-group. Thus when Kurt asks Edgar why he does not use the tele­phone, Edgar gives him an answer that iden­ti­fies the tele­graph as the bet­ter tele­phone. The tele­phone, Edgar replies, expos­es the mes­sage, its live trans­mis­sion, to pos­si­bil­i­ties of infil­tra­tion (“the oper­a­tors repeat every­thing we say” 130). Some loose-lipped oper­a­tor could be lis­ten­ing in on the exchange, con­sign­ing the tele­phone to indis­cre­tion and betray­al. As a result, the tele­graph must fill in for the unre­li­able tele­phone as the medi­um that is more capa­ble of receiv­ing and con­tain­ing the unin­sur­able ring.

These appa­ra­tus­es that strad­dle the divide between pres­ence and absence pro­vid­ed the imag­i­na­tive space with­in which Strind­berg could restore the miss­ing let­ters to rela­tion­al­i­ty. As Strind­berg empha­sizes, the tele­graph is a dwelling-place of specters. This the tele­graph reveals in one seem­ing­ly harm­less, and yet omi­nous, stage direc­tion, which inter­rupts the small talk between Kurt and Edgar: “The tele­graph begins tap­ping” (Miss Julie and Oth­er Plays 130). Strind­berg makes sure this seem­ing­ly point­less stage direc­tion is giv­en its full due. As Edgar explains to Kurt, the tele­graph can­not be turned off. The tele­graph always stays on, always in the ready posi­tion to receive, there­by open­ing the here and now to some oth­er place. In oth­er words, tech­ni­cal media can mir­ror and dou­ble the rad­i­cal exte­ri­or­i­ty incor­po­rat­ed with­in the body as a phan­tom, and serve as pro­jec­tion or endopsy­chic scan of its inter­nal yet for­eign topography.

What this scan reveals is the miss­ing let­ter that was cir­cu­lat­ing in tran­sit. In a remark­able pan­tomime that takes place in the mid­dle of The Dance of Death, as Edgar is burn­ing the love let­ters he had sent to Alice, the stage instruc­tion notes that, sud­den­ly, the tele­graph gives a sin­gle click, upon which Edgar clutch­es at his heart in pain (164). Where­as in The Father, the spectroscope’s desire to dom­i­nate the specter result­ed only in Adolph’s obliv­i­ous­ness to Laura’s con­trol of specters via the post, in The Dance of Death, Strind­berg could imag­ine the ghost, passed down as a ring, giv­ing him a ring through Edgar’s tele­graph. Here, the medi­um is the mes­sage, to the extent that the “is” pre­pares the inter­val where­by the non-being of the mes­sage can be con­tem­plat­ed. Even as the click sends elec­tric­i­ty into Edgar’s heart, threat­en­ing to anni­hi­late him, the click also opens Edgar up to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the ghost’s miss­ing-in-tran­sit exis­tence. A sin­gle tap in Morse code is the let­ter E. The tele­graph reroutes the let­ter that had gone miss­ing and begins to spell out the for­bid­den name of the sister.

Even after find­ing the miss­ing let­ters and rec­og­niz­ing that they can exist only as miss­ing, the melan­cholic must deal with the fragili­ty of the encrypt­ed ghost, now imper­iled by the expo­sure to the out­side. Of the two plays that start­ed Strindberg’s career, The Father had dealt with the threat of self-destruc­tive dou­bling (with the spec­tro­scope). In Miss Julie, Strind­berg addressed the per­ils of the crypt’s expo­sure. As the final pas­sage shows, Miss Julie’s sui­cide and Jean’s anx­i­eties are both reac­tions and a solu­tion to the threat of exposure.

JEAN. Don’t think, don’t think! You’re tak­ing all my strength away too, and mak­ing me a coward—What’s that? I thought the bell moved!—No! Shall we stop it with paper?—To be so afraid of a bell!—Yes, but it’s not just a bell—there’s some­body behind it—a hand sets it in motion—and some­thing else sets that hand in motion—but if you stop your ears—just stop your ears! Yes, but then he’ll go on ring­ing even louder—and keep on ring­ing until some­one answers—and then it’s too late! Then the police will come—and then…

Two loud rings on the bell.

JEAN [cringes, then straight­ens him­self up.] It’s hor­ri­ble! But there’s no oth­er way!—Go!

[MISS JULIE walks res­olute­ly out through the door

Cur­tain.] (Select­ed Plays 267)

Two loud rings, a man­u­script or two—and the only way to stop the exhuma­tion of these shal­low graves is for Miss Julie to go and entrust Jean with the task of keep­ing her alive some oth­er way. Jean must sur­vive, in order to pre­serve Miss Julie from expo­sure. In the pref­ace to Miss Julie, Strind­berg explains, “[h]ence the ser­vant Jean lives on; but not Miss Julie, who can­not live with­out hon­or” (210).

Web_Sascha Brosamer - _Brandobjekt_

5. Sascha Brosamer - Brandobjekt

In the pref­ace Strind­berg made explic­it the con­nec­tions between Jean’s des­tiny as the sur­vivor and that of the writer, thus affirm­ing in Jean, the French ver­sion of Strindberg’s first name, Johan, his own des­tiny as the car­ri­er of the sister’s ring. The dramatist’s task, as Strind­berg notes in end­ing the pref­ace, is to sur­vive, and to wait for some future the­ater that will not allow the mes­sage to be dropped in the pas­sage between the stage and the audi­ence, a the­ater that Strind­berg the­o­rizes in detail in the pref­ace. Notably, every aspect of Strindberg’s the­o­ry of this inti­mate stage is geared express­ly toward con­ser­va­tion, such as doing away with inter­mis­sions or remov­ing from the the­ater all sources of dis­trac­tion (213). But this stage exists in the future, and for now, the drama­tist must pre­serve these man­u­scripts safe­ly in a draw­er (217). The writer’s task is con­ti­nu­ity, survival—as Strind­berg stress­es, even if he should fail, there will always be time for more attempts (217).

Even though Strind­berg was to real­ize his the­o­ry in the Inti­ma Teater, he would not use it as the ide­al­ized telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion medi­um he had called for in the pref­ace that would insure his trans­mis­sions. Strind­berg had dis­cov­ered an alter­na­tive means for pre­serv­ing his mes­sages from expo­sure. This alter­na­tive means was fire, which fig­ures as an impor­tant metaphor for Strind­berg, when in 1875 he observes in a let­ter to Siri von Essen that the essence of his tal­ent lay in fire:

—you believe that genius con­sists of a good, sharp head—not so—my head is not one of the sharpest—but the fire; my fire is the great­est in Swe­den, and if you want me to, I’ll set fire to the entire mis­er­able whole! (Lager­crantz 63)

But for young Strind­berg, fire stood for destruc­tion. Lat­er, Strind­berg would retool the metaphor of fire as an instru­ment of con­ser­va­tion. Just as he sought in The Dance of Death to rem­e­dy the destruc­tive effects of The Father, Strind­berg kept return­ing to the burned site of unin­sured loss in Miss Julie, reread­ing and reme­di­at­ing the destruc­tive fire as pre­serv­ing fire. Three of four cham­ber plays of 1907 deal with arson: The Ghost Sonata takes place imme­di­ate­ly after the hero risked his life, putting out a fire set by arson; in The Burned House, the Miss Julie plot of the mis­placed insur­ance pre­mi­um plays itself out exact­ly as before; in The Pel­i­can, the son sets fire to the house to protest the mother’s abu­sive neglect of her chil­dren. The Great High­way (1909) reach­es its cli­max when the Hunter cre­mates the Japan­ese, per his request, after he com­mits rit­u­al suicide—both fig­ures being pro­jec­tions of the author in the Expres­sion­ist fash­ion. A Dream Play (1900) ends in a puri­fy­ing flame, which assumes the shape of a giant tele­phone tower.

In his Psy­cho­analy­sis of Fire, Gas­ton Bachelard cites an ear­ly sto­ry by George Sand in which burn­ing one­self is pre­sent­ed as the means of pre­serv­ing the self and its rela­tions against the threat of death.

In the heart of fire, death is no longer death. “‘Death could not exist in that ethe­re­al region to which you are car­ry­ing me […]. My frag­ile body may be con­sumed by the fire, my soul must be unit­ed with those ten­u­ous ele­ments of which you are com­posed.’ ‘Very well!’ said the Spir­it, cast­ing over the Dream­er part of his red man­tle, ‘Say farewell to the life of men and fol­low me into the life of phan­toms.’” (18)

Cre­ma­tion replaces the frag­ile, decay­ing body with a vir­tu­al, ethe­re­al corpse in the space left by the burnt body (Rick­els 219). Our word “image” comes from the Latin ima­go, mean­ing ulti­mate­ly from the ancient Roman prac­tice of cast­ing death masks (imag­ines), which were then promi­nent­ly dis­played in the atri­um. In trac­ing the out­line of the face, the ima­go pre­serves the corpse as ves­sel of the emp­ty space ded­i­cat­ed to the undy­ing por­tion that does not decay. This is what Maria Torok calls the exquis­ite corpse. As she explains, “the ima­go, along with its exter­nal embod­i­ment in the object, was set up as the repos­i­to­ry of hope; the desires it for­bade would be real­ized one day. Mean­while, the ima­go retains the valu­able thing whose lack crip­ples the ego” (116).

The 1892 one act play, Fac­ing Death, repeats the Miss Julie sto­ry but attempts to lessen the impact of the mis­placed insur­ance pre­mi­um. In the play, Durand, a wid­ow­er who over­sees a run-down board­ing house and tries to keep an eye on his unmar­ried daugh­ters, will lose his final cus­tomer, and, rather than see his house go to ruin and his daugh­ters let loose as pros­ti­tutes, Durand com­mits sui­cide (själv­mord), but not before plan­ning an arson (mord­brand) that will be his lega­cy and gift to the daugh­ters. In this piece, which is set up right away as a play about col­lect­ing on insur­ance (Durand and his daugh­ter men­tion it in their first con­ver­sa­tion), the essen­tial redress is con­tained in the dis­tinc­tion Strind­berg draws between life and fire insurance.

(Durand) I want you to ask me this first: “Do you have life insur­ance?” Well-l!

ADELE (uncer­tain, curi­ous): “Do you have life insurance?”

DURAND: No, I did have a pol­i­cy, but I sold it a long time ago because I thought I noticed some­one was impa­tient about col­lect­ing on it. But I do have fire insur­ance! (From the Cyn­i­cal Life 113)

It is not life insur­ance that will help Durand pro­tect Adele even after his death. It is fire insur­ance that will play that role.

ADELE: It’s burn­ing! It’s burn­ing! Father—What’s wrong? You’ll be burned alive!

(DURAND rais­es his head and push­es the glass aside with a ges­ture full of meaning.)

ADELE: You have … swal­lowed … poison!

DURAND (nods in agree­ment): Do you have the fire insur­ance pol­i­cy? Tell Therese … and Annette … (He puts his head down again. The bell tolls once more—noise and com­mo­tion off­stage.) (116)

The absence of life insur­ance does not make the sui­cide point­less, for the point of Durand’s death is not to cir­cum­vent death by insur­ing life. It is fire, where­in his decay­ing body will be divorced from the ima­go and cease to inter­fere with his func­tion as keep­er of the crypt.

Works Cited

Abra­ham, Nico­las and Maria Torok. The Shell and the Ker­nel: Renewals of Psy­cho­analy­sis. Trans. Nicholas Rand. Chica­go: Chica­go UP, 1994. Print.

Bachelard, Gas­ton. The Psy­cho­analy­sis of Fire. Trans. Alan C. M. Ross. Boston: Bea­con Press, 1964. Print.

Ben­nett, Ben­jamin. The­ater as Prob­lem: Mod­ern Dra­ma and Its Place in Lit­er­a­ture. Itha­ca: Cor­nell UP, 1990. Print.

Ibsen, Hen­rik. Ros­mer­sholm. Penn State Elec­tron­ic Pub­lish­ing, 2001. PDF file. http://​www2​.hn​.psu​.edu/​f​a​c​u​l​t​y​/​j​m​a​n​i​s​/​h​-​i​b​s​e​n​/​r​o​s​m​e​r​s​h​o​l​m​.​pdf.

Jaspers, Karl. Strind­berg and Van Gogh: An Attempt of a Patho­graph­ic Analy­sis With Ref­er­ence to Par­al­lel Cas­es of Swe­den­borg and Hölder­lin. Tuc­son: Ari­zona UP, 1977. Print.

Lager­crantz, Olof. August Strind­berg. Trans. Anselm Hol­lo. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986. Print. .

Rick­els, Lau­rence. Aber­ra­tions of Mourn­ing: Writ­ing on Ger­man Crypts. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988. Print.

Stock­holm Stadark­iv. Död- och begravn­ingskok 1748-1860 M-S. PDF file. http://​www2​.ssa​.stock​holm​.se/​b​i​l​d​a​r​k​i​v​/​e​g​e​n​p​r​o​d​u​c​e​r​a​t​/​k​y​r​k​o​b​o​k​/​K​1​3​0​O​0​4​8​1​-​0​5​0​0​.​pdf.

Strind­berg, August. East­er. Trans. Gre­go­ry Mot­ton. Lon­don: Oberon Books, 2005. Print.

-----. Let­ters of Strind­berg to Har­ri­et Bosse. Trans. Arvid Paul­son. New York: Thomas Nel­son and Sons, 1959. Print.

-----. Miss Julie and Oth­er Plays. Trans. Michael Robin­son. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

-----. Plays from the Cyn­i­cal Life. Trans. Wal­ter John­son. Seat­tle: Wash­ing­ton UP, 1983. Print.

-----. The Red Room: Scenes of Artis­tic and Lit­er­ary Life. Trans. Eliz­a­beth Sprigge. New York: Dut­ton, 1967. Print.

-----. Select­ed Essays. Trans. Michael Robin­son. New York: Cam­bridge UP, 1997. Print.

-----. Select­ed Plays. Trans. Evert Sprin­chorn. Min­neapo­lis: Min­neso­ta UP, 1986. Print.

-----. The Son of a Ser­vant. Trans. Evert Sprin­chorn. Gar­den City, NY: Dou­ble Day and Co., 1966. Print.

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