Hedda Gabler is not a fan of specialization: not in the professor she has married, and his esoteric scholarly interests; not in domesticity, and the specialized affections required by marriage and motherhood; not in any lover’s infatuated specialization in her; and perhaps not in the form of specialization arguably required by life itself, with its finite and confining possibilities. Is there any way, short of suicide, to transcend such limits? Wes & Erin give an analysis of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.
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Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Erin: So Wes, I’m going to start us off by asking a very… somewhat basic question, but which I think is interesting. As terrible as Hedda is, is she actually the best of all of the characters of the play? Because I’ve got to tell you, even though she’s a villain, I pretty much hate every other person on the stage, except for Hedda.
Wes: You’re not even a fan of Tesman’s aunt? [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] No. She’s a nice lady, but also she really needed to, like, have some children of her own or something because she’s obnoxious. I can understand why Hedda is so annoyed by these people. Maybe that doesn’t say something great about me, but Aunt Julie just is a… she’s a one trick pony.
Wes: Yeah. Well, her husband is kind of a buffoon.
Erin: Hedda’s husband, Tesman.
Wes: Yeah. What interested me when I reread and, well, I looked at several different productions. So the version I liked best was a recent production with Steven Rae and Fiona Shaw, so I can’t recommend that highly enough. But I did look at some of the different productions that you had recommended. One of them is with Ingrid Bergman. There’s another one with Diana Rigg.
Erin: Yeah, recommend is probably the wrong word for that Bergman one, but…
Wes: Yeah, we recommended that one. Yeah, not that you think they’re great, but… And then there’s another one with… um…
Erin: There’s one with Glenda Jackson, the movie Hedda, that she was nominated for an Oscar for. But I haven’t watched that. I found an incredibly poor transfer of it on YouTube that was so bad that it was unwatchable. So I don’t know if it’s available elsewhere if I could have paid for it or something… And I wasn’t able to watch the Fiona Shaw one, so… But every time I’ve seen a production of Hedda, whether in person or film production or TV, whatever, I’m always dissatisfied, like there’s always something wrong with it. And it seems like Hedda is one of those roles that has some really little traps in it, and even the other roles, too, are… I think that the Ingrid Bergman adaptation is… I mean, I love Bergmann. She’s one of my favorite actresses, but I think that that suffered from really poor direction. And so there’s a lot of histrionics on Bergman’s part where she just seems very unhinged from the very beginning of the play, whereas I think she’s supposed to have more of a cool detachment at the beginning. And also the other characters are such dull types, there’s such stereotypes, really, that it makes them even more obnoxious than they already are. Like Thea is presented as basically being this true idiot, like someone who would be incapable of even being dictated to. And Tesman is, in the Bergman adaptation, he’s really portly, and he acts like there is something kind of wrong with him. He really acts extremely stupid. So everybody has a little bit heightened in that. It is a TV adaptation and it’s compressed. So that I thought had a lot of flaws. That actually kind of revealed what would happen if the play is done really poorly or kind of too obviously. And the Diana Rigg, I thought, was better in general. And Rigg was more like, composed, more restrained, at the beginning, though you see the underpinnings of what’s happening beneath the surface, which is really good. But that is a very English Hedda Gabler, so that has kind of its own flaws there.
Wes: So I kind of got us off on a tangent there in the middle of what I was going to say in response to your thing about the unlikability of all the characters in the play. What struck me on re-watching, re-reading was that Judge Brack is really a pretty significant villain in the play, and I hadn’t thought of him that way at first. But it’s a slow moving extortion of Hedda into an extramarital affair, into a sexual relationship. And, of course, it’s at the very end, when he finally traps her, that she commits suicide. So I just thought it was weird that I didn’t really get the significance of him as a villain at first.
Erin: With your reading of the play or watching it?
Wes: Well, what I did was I watched the Fiona Shaw version. Then I read the entire play and I was looking at snippets of other versions. And then I watched the second half of that version. So that’s how it progressed. I was slow on the uptake and getting the significance of him as a villain and the extremity of the threat, because I found it difficult to understand Hedda Gabbler’s motives and her level of desperation. You know, we understand that to some extent, as a desperation with domesticity and with being kind of well, I think, as she puts it, right, doesn’t she put it as she danced herself out, and then so she ended up with this kind of foolish scholar of a husband. She does find herself in stifling social circumstances, and that just might be the stifling social circumstances of that sort of middle class, I guess you would call it life. But on the other hand, she is facing a significant threat, a significant antagonist, a significant villain. And I think Judge Brack seems… in many ways he seems somewhat benign and he’s flirting, and he’s making suggestions about something. So it’s this weird, hard-to-decipher line between his flirtation and his justiveness and the sense that he may be trying to coerce something out of her in the end.
Erin: I would say she’s more of a villain than Brack until the last scene. I mean the whole idea of the triangle, which all the more pathetic for Tesman’s being an unwitting point on that triangle. The idea of the triangle is kind of used by Hedda to entertain herself and to keep Brack under her thumb a little bit, maybe as an escape route from her from her terribly dull husband. And then it’s kind of turned back around on Hedda, to control Hedda. So she’s the one, I think, who is responsible for kind of instigating that because she’s toying with people and because she’s constantly figuring out ways to get what she wants from people. And I think that what her motivations are, which said before, that is what makes her such a fascinating character is that we really don’t know what her motivations are, and we maybe still don’t know at the end of the play. And that’s kind of the mystery I think, is what exactly is motivating her to be quite so terrible. And we don’t really get her true nature or her true personality until she talks to Brack. Then we seem to get a little bit more, because she’s more open with him about the fact that she has just tortured poor Aunt Julie for no reason. She gives him insight into what she’s feeling and seems a little bit more honest with him. But even still, I think that she’s toying with him and even using him in a way for her own entertainment or to flatter herself.
Wes: We get the sense that he’s a kind of benefactor who’s somehow facilitated the purchase of the house.
Erin: He’s secured all these loans for them, maybe.
Wes: Yeah. And then also that, as we get into the second act, you get the sense that she and him have been pretty close friends and perhaps there’s already been an affair of some kind in the past. It’s hard to say exactly his arrival and her playing this crazy game, “now I’ll shoot you Judge Brack” and firing the gun. And even though he’s flustered by that, his reaction is not as extreme as you might expect. And I think he knows that she plays around with those pistols. So just pointing to your point about her kind of introducing the subject of her dissatisfaction with monogamy, she’s, you know, she talks about being everlastingly in the company of one and the same person. And then there’s talk of Tesman being a specialist, so there’s this interesting double entendre about someone’s being a… intellectual specialist, and then the specialization that comes with monogamy and being devoted to one person. And the triangle that Judge Brack describes kind of stands in contrast to that. She’d also say things like, you know, love is kind of a sickening word to her. And it’s, ironically, the domestic industry of the Middle Ages that Tesman is studying. So it’s a good metaphor for us, stifling an image of domesticity as you could get and then Brack will say he has respect for marriage ties as an institution. So I’m just thinking about evidence that maybe they’ve had an affair. She’ll say she never cherished any hopes with respect to him. So whether it’s just a flirtation or an affair, I don’t know, but there’s something there and then he makes a lot of very suggestive remarks. So I don’t know if we’re supposed to take those as completely new or if there’s something that’s been going on before, but you know, he’ll say, all I require is a pleasant and intimate interior where I can make myself useful in every way and I’m free to come and go as a trusted friend, and there’s lots of talk about being good comrades and being able to talk in confidence and talk frankly, which sounds to me like a euphemism for friends with benefits, basically, and then Judge Brack will make it more explicit by talking about a triangular friendship that’s of convenience for all parties. And the one thing she does to suggest that she’s not interested in that is she… talking in terms of a metaphor of getting in and out of a carriage, but she’ll suggest that she would rather continue talking and that in a way, she does want a third person to jump in the carriage with her, but she wants conversation in all sorts of lively topics rather than specialization. That’s the interesting tension there, I think, where he’s trying to push things into this realm of an extramarital affair, and she seems to want something outside of the marriage. But it’s not that.
Erin: So I don’t think that they had an affair prior to her marriage, and I don’t think that she had an affair with Lövborg either, though that is, I think, a little bit more ambiguous than the fact that she didn’t have an affair with Brack. I can attribute my certainty on that to her obsession with convention. So in a strange sort of way, her marriage makes possible the idea that an affair with Brack would now actually be more acceptable as a married woman having an affair than if she were a young virgin having had an affair with this older judge. But that’s kind of my speculation about that in terms of her now being a married woman, more established and, you know, people then have relationships outside of the marriage. But it’s almost like once it establishes you as a person in a partnership, in a domestic arrangement, then that sort of makes the prospect of having a roving eye almost more attainable. However, I don’t think that she intends to have any kind of affair with him. I think you’re right. She keeps holding him off. She’s flirtatious. She’s obviously purposefully engaging him in a way that is going to deliberately pique his interest. So she’s playing with fire there…
Erin: …and she thinks that she’s in control because she’s so much smarter than everybody else in the play. And when he then gets the jump on her because she makes the mistake of lending Lövborg her father’s pistol, she realizes that she’s pushed things too far that she’s been toying with him and thinking that she’s in control. Now the tables have turned and he‘s the one who is in control, and he’s basically saying, “OK, now you’re going to make good on this promise.” And his desire, I think to attain her is essential in their flirtation, in that he has not yet attained her. He hasn’t yet had an affair with her. So this is part of, I think, Hedda’s own kind of domestic industry. I think Tasman doesn’t understand that Hedda has engaged in her own little, uh, little games here. All of which, of course, pretty much take place in that one room. So it’s very limiting and you do feel a kind of… at least I do feel a kind of claustrophobia for her, where one understands being tied to this one extremely boring guy for the rest of her life, that this has been a big mistake on her part, and she stuck. She settled down with exactly the wrong person, almost, maybe deliberately, so we could talk about that in a second, that he’s actually the only guy who she could have settled down with because he’s so maybe easily manipulated and she can toy with him the way that she wants. But the idea, for instance, that like Thea, while she’s waiting for Lövborg to return from his, you know, what turns out to be an orgy so that she can be walked home, when he doesn’t return, that she has to stay the night at the Tesman house because she can’t be walking home alone, like she needs a man to accompany her home. Little indications like that kind of remind us of the… a very stifling and sort of provincial nature of this place, which I think is important to keep in mind when we’re considering the fact that Hedda is looking for any kind of entertainment she can get. And Brack, though really slimy and unappealing in a lot of ways, is some new fresh person to interest her.
Wes: Right. That’s well put. Yeah, I think playing with fire is a good way to think about this.
Erin: Speaking of playing with fire, too, I also just wanted to say that he’s not surprised, you’re right, he’s not surprised by her playing with the pistols, but I don’t think it’s because she’s done that before. I think it’s because she’s a woman and she’s playing with pistols, and it’s not like she’s going to actually… like it’s taken for granted several times in this play that people don’t do things that they end up doing. So he is taken aback by her when he sees her playing with those, but then he’s like, “Oh, well, she’s just a woman. She’s not really going to shoot that” and that’s kind of the irony of it, I think, is that she’s deadly serious and nobody else understands how serious she is.
Wes: Yeah, just thinking about the pistols here. They belonged to her father, General Gobbler, and you get the sense that she is enamored with the idea of military glory and the sorts of things that go on with the life of a soldier and the opportunity to win glory and to risk one’s life and to be courageous. Courage will be a big thing with her. I guess the pistols, in a way, are a connection to that. And when she’s threatening to shoot Judge Brack, in a way, it’s because he really is, right, he is actually a significant threat, and he’s coming in the back way, which is an indication of what he’s trying to do. And so coming in the back way like a thief. I’m just looking here to see how he actually reacts to… gently takes the pistol out of her hand. “I know this pistol well, where is the case?” I guess maybe that’s what I was reacting to, the point where he says… and then he says, “No, we won’t play at that game anymore today.”
Erin: Right. But prior to that, he says, “Are you out of your senses?” “I wish you would let these pranks alone.” “No, no, no, Don’t stand aiming at me.” I think that by the time he approaches, she’s probably lowered the gun.
Wes: Yeah, I think it’s just like the… when he says, “I wish you would let these pranks alone” and he says, “I know this pistol well.” I’m not sure, but that’s why I got the sense that he was kind of familiar with her propensity to use the pistols. Otherwise, his reaction just doesn’t seem to be in proportion to what she’s doing.
Wes: He kind of knows that she’s an eccentric character who would do something like that. If someone had tried to point a pistol in my direction, and even if they shot into the hair or… then I… yeah, I’d have a much different reaction than the judge does.
Erin: Well, it’s funny, too, that he takes it as a prank, you know, because it’s like…
Erin: …very much not a prank. Um… [laughter] it’s… you know, she’s deadly serious, but that kind of assigning the sort of benign motives to her because she’s a beautiful woman and she can’t possibly mean anything is, you know, maybe part of her frustration.
Wes: Yeah, and it’s interesting because she is so eccentric, and I don’t know if she’s obviously nuts. I think you can play this in different ways. Different productions can play this differently. She could be made to seem obviously crazy, but I don’t think you have to do that. I think you can downplay that. I think you could make her charming. You know, I think, of course, she’s thought of as cold and sociopathic, but I think you could make her charming and sociopathic. She does a lot of manipulative things. It could be suggestive of some level of charm, but whatever the case. The other characters don’t, for the most part, seem to notice that, right. They’re pretty oblivious to her as a manipulator and bad actor.
Erin: Yeah, actor, too, You know, she’s different things to different people at different times, which is why it’s so interesting that she does let her guard down a little bit with Brack. But I think that her honesty with him is just yet another way to kind of ingratiate herself with him, like this is maybe what he finds interesting. So maybe she’s even kind of playing the part of the honest confident in her most honest moment there. But, like with Thea, you know, she comes in and… or even just in the first time we see her within just a couple of seconds of her being on stage, she obviously pretends to, you know, mistake on Aunt Julie’s bonnet for the servant’s and deliberately embarrasses Aunt Julie by saying, “Oh, you know, Bertha has left her ugly hat lying on the chair.” And Aunt Julie has just said, too, that she’s bought this hat, especially to please Hedda who, I guess, has you know more discriminating taste than Aunt Julie and she’s also, I think it’s important to note, is of a higher social class than Tesman and Tesman’s background and his aunt. So she’s known for being, like, difficult and she has an issue with the fact that Aunt Julie has opened the window and let in all this light and air and everything, and has to have everything just so. But I think there’s also a kind of… I don’t know why she turns her dagger on Aunt Julie at that moment. Partially, it’s for sport. But I also think that there is a kind of… like a marking of the territory that’s happening there. She maybe thinks it’s presumptuous of Aunt Julie to have taken off her bonnet and just thrown it on the chair as if she kind of owns the place, or as if she has more of a familiarity with Hedda than Hedda thinks that she actually does. Plus, there’s probably some class distinction in that, where normally Hedda would want a butler or liveried servant to take a hat and coat at the door so that it’s not just strewn around the room, and then Aunt Julie’s kind of opening the window or tampering with the curtains or something. I think Hedda is kind of letting her know that she’s the one who is running the house. It’s not Aunt Julie. I think that there’s kind of a sport and everything that Hedda does, but it also has a kind of a logic too, or some sort of deeper meaning that is coming out through, whether consciously or not in Hedda’s case, you know, through these aggressions.
Wes: Yeah, and I think she’s reacting in a way to Tesman’s childishness and his having been pampered, right.
Wes: So the other thing that the aunt does is she brings Tesman’s slippers back to him. I guess she’s repaired them. I… has the aunt raised him? Is that?
Wes: It sounds like the aunt has raised him and spoiled him, and that she will find out that she lives for others, and now she’s taking care of Aunt Rina, who’s desperately ill. There’s something wrong with that whole… with that whole family dynamic, and it’s left Tesman himself in a kind of state of arrested development. So we might expect him to be more sophisticated, since he’s a professor, you know, it is a pretty standard stereotype, of course, to make the professor out to be absent minded and impractical, and so that’s not surprising. But I think Ibsen gives us a bit of a twist on that, because it’s not just a kind of professorly absent mindedness that we get in him, but a childishness, a naivete, obliviousness, we might call it. And I think… so the aunt is a representative of the formative conditions that led to that, and… because the aunt is not the mother but is playing a kind of mother role. That’s part of the dynamic that’s made Tesman who he is. It’s as if he’s failed to fully extricate himself from his family situation. If he had failed to extricate himself from anything but a surrogate family, it might have led to a very different kind of personality. It’s somehow this combination of having a relative raise him but having her be so… spoiling. What I was trying to say is, Hedda is reacting against that, I think, And so when she does that to the aunt, she’s pushing back against that whole dynamic.
Erin: Well, one of the things that’s so distasteful about Tesman is how feminine he is. You know, the fact that he’s been raised by these old aunts is uh… it’s funny that you say “arrested development” because he’s like Buster Bluth only…
Wes: Mm-hmm. There you go.
Erin: …with none of his charm. Like, isn’t there even a part where Buster comes in and sees Gob wearing… like trying to get inside someone’s head? And he’s wearing someone’s robe and slippers, like a woman’s robe and slippers and Buster comes in and says, “What are you doing in her robe and slippies?” [laughter] or something like that. It’s like very, you know, Tesman with his robe and slippies. It’s very distasteful in a way, because it’s there’s, like, something weird about it, and then Hedda is sort of like strangely masculine because being raised by her father, there’s no mention of a mother, and having the pistols and having this kind of energy and feeling pent up in a house and all that she’s not really cut out to be somebody’s wife, which is maybe why she’s trying to push Tesman into politics. She’s kind of like hoping that he’s going to grow some teeth, or at least that she will… she’ll have something to do, some way of influencing.
Wes: She wants a social life.
Erin: Yeah, but even just to have a kind of… an ambition, a way of influencing and manipulating people on a larger scale than just in her living room and even, you know, using Tesman as a pawn to enact her own ambitions, whatever those may be, though, I don’t think that she has very many ambitions because I think they’ve all been thwarted by the fact that she’s a woman and then on top of it, she’s made this bad marriage, and she has nothing to do now. So I think…
Erin: …the political thing is a fleeting thing but shows that there’s still some verve in her, hasn’t entirely died, maybe, and maybe all of that. All of her little petty toying with people is evidence of this pent up energy that’s kind of escaping.
Wes: Yeah, I think we get the sense right. She danced herself out and she rejected… it sounds like she rejected Eilert, which might have been true love if she were capable of that. Maybe it was. Maybe it just turned out she’s not capable of that sort of thing. I think you’re right. She doesn’t want him to be a politician because she has real ambitions for him or herself. I think it’s purely as a means to not being bored, to having some sort of social life. So it’s more desperate and abject than having these big ambitions. It’s not what it makes her tick. And oddly enough, the ambitions belong more to Tesman and his aunt, so she’ll say… one of the first things she’ll say, is how everything has turned out for the best, and it’s turned out for the best, you know, she’ll say, “Now we have reached the goal, George. Now you have nothing to fear” and I think he says “Yes, it’s marvelous. Everything has turned out for the best” and she’ll say “Now you have them at your feet, your most dangerous rival, his fall was the worst.” So which is… who’s Eilert, right? So despite their seeming innocuousness, they can be conspirators in their own right, and they think they’ve won a big victory in two senses. One is that they’ve gotten Tesman married to someone who is of a higher class than him and to a beautiful woman, which is all that seems to matter. Of course, he hasn’t really vetted her personality properly. And then, secondly, that he’s about to be appointed to be a professor. So what’s interesting here is the ambition belongs to the people you might not think it would belong to, and it doesn’t really belong to Hedda herself. So what’s driving her? She’s not a tragic figure in the sense that she’s driven by big ambitions or along with some fatal flaw that thwarts them and ruins everything. She is, in many ways, I think, just trying to get by, so that when she manipulates and when she does all these very destructive things, it’s not in the same way that one of Shakespeare’s resentful bastards or other villains who are who are filled with envy or something like that. It’s not the same sort of motivation. There’s much more coldness about it. You get the sense. Maybe she’s doing it for sport or not to be bored. But also there’s a sense of desperation about it, an attempt to survive, in a sense. What’s so hard about establishing her motivations as what survival means to her is a little hard to decipher. And I mean, in some ways, it isn’t having some stimulation and some socialization outside of the marriage. Avoiding specialization, let’s say, thematically, is part of what drives her. So (ultimately we can talk about what that means) one theory is, you could say the honeymoon has driven her crazy.
Erin: And why wouldn’t it?
Wes: Six months of hanging out with Tesman while he plays the scholar and ignores her, probably, and she’s bored and she runs into no-one to talk to, and… So you could even, if you wanted a different alternative theory of the play, you could say, “Oh yeah, maybe what… the reason why people are so oblivious to her manipulations is that she was a… perfectly fine (I don’t think this is true, but it’s interesting to entertain) perfectly fine up to the point of the honeymoon, and then that just drove her stark raving mad. [laughter]
Erin: I think that she has greatness in her, and I think that her… what holds her back is her love of convention or rather, her fear of breaking convention. She is very attracted to things outside of convention, in fact, so I don’t think she loves Lövborg. I think that the attraction there for her was basically for her to… what? Listen to… Lövborg’s tales of degradation. She’s like the anti-Kitty from Anna Karenina, you know, when Levin makes her read his diaries of all of his sexual exploits, and they’re extremely disgusting, and Kitty, like, has a breakdown and says, “Why the heck did you tell me all of this? This is disgusting.” Hedda would love that. Hedda wants to read that diary really badly. And so she gets this, like, sort of cheap thrill out of this kind of vicarious living through Lövborg and Lövborg’s escapades, I think, represent something unavailable to Hedda. Again, this is kind of her… sort of… like repressed masculinity, in a way, that she must have all of these ambitions and have all of these desires, but they’ve all been like, thwarted and turned in on themselves, and so she must live within social convention. So she figures, “Okay, I’m getting old, so now I have to get married.” So she has this admiration for living on the outside of that. But not the courage to carry it out. And yet, it seems that she does kind of make good on that in the end. So I find Lövborg to be an obnoxiously kind of passive character. I also don’t like Thea, which we could talk about too, because I think that the two are intimately related. I mean, we look at Thea as a person who has actually had the courage to leave an unhappy marriage and break convention in a way that Hedda would never do. But in terms of Lövborg, like he’s ruled by his passions, he doesn’t have the… coldness that Hedda has to control himself. He has obviously this great intellect because he’s been able to come up with these two books. But he didn’t even write the books himself. He got this woman to… and I think this is kind of important. In fact… Sorry. I’m going in all these different directions because I have a bunch of different thoughts about this, but when Tesman looks at his manuscript, at Lövborg’s manuscript, Tesman notices that it’s not written in Lövborg’s own handwriting, which is interesting because first of all that says something about Tesman…
Wes: And then he says he dictated it.
Erin: Right. Right. And that says something about Tesman because you wonder, when they were in school together, did Tasman really acquaint himself with Lövborg’s handwriting, like probably cheating on/ off him, on all sorts of exams and things. So that’s something interesting. That kind of speaks to Tesman’s sort of envy, though Tesman is so toothless, it seems like he can’t even properly envy Lövborg.
Wes: He does at one point admit to that.
Erin: He does, but in such an obnoxiously limp, wristed way.
Wes: Yeah. And then Hedda makes any excuse about burning Lövborg’s book by saying, “I, you know, I did it for you.”
Wes: Which he… first he says, “why, I didn’t mean that literally, when I said I envied him.” [laughter]
Wes: But then he does. He sort of eats that up, as a sign of her love and is… actually rejoices so she gets induced by her sociopathy a little bit.
Erin: Well, because he’s so clueless with that. I love that, too, when he like… when he rejoices because he’s like, “Oh, she does love me.” It’s like, okay, so maybe in the back of your mind, you’ve understood that this woman hasn’t been that fond of you this whole time, but not in any kind of active, recognizable sense. But anyway, so Lövborg has dictated this manuscript through this woman who is just this adoring little person at his feet who is basically throwing her body and then breach between him and his own vices. So he doesn’t have to bother, really, to reform himself in any kind of real way because he’s gotten this woman to basically be his keeper. Okay, so that really bothers me. But then also, when he, for instance, loses the manuscript, he passively kind of… the manuscript is often referred to us as a baby in the play. So people who are familiar with the play will know: there’s this idea of he kind of, like, kills the manuscript. This was like killing a baby.
Wes: A child of him and Thea. A child of him and Mrs Elvsted.
Erin: Yeah. And he admits that Thea, as… you know, it’s as much Thea’s child as his, so at least he gives her some credit for that, even though I think all she’s done is been kind of like his warden to keep him away from drink so that he could have his senses with him long enough to dictate this. So anyway, he kills the baby, or the manuscript, by neglect, in one sense, like he’s left it in the middle of his drunken night. And he said that this… I gotta find the part where it is.
Wes: It’s worse than killing the child. It’s like losing your child at the mall. [laughter]
Erin: …and letting it get into the hands of bad people. And so, in response to his.. like he kind of doesn’t want to admit that his neglect has been what’s divorced him from this manuscript. So then he lies and says that he’s torn it up, and that’s how he doesn’t have it anymore,
Wes: He says, “Listen. I have been here and there, in this place and that, and I have taken our child with it…” (talking about “him” entails child) “to this place and to that, and I have lost the child, utterly lost it. The devil knows into what hands it may have fallen, who may have had their clutches on it,” and it will turn out that he thinks that the red-haired woman, as they call her, Mademoiselle Diana, that he’s left it there that she’s stolen it and part of how he gets shot as he goes back to her establishment, whatever kind of establishment that is…
Wes: …I don’t know if it’s a bar, brothel, okay, accuses her of having stolen it, and there’s a fight and he gets shot somehow. So, yeah, I just wanted to fill in the details, there, of your train of thought about him, having lost the book as opposed to having destroyed it. But I think you were trying to get at something about his relationship to Thea.
Erin: Yeah, though Lövborg is obviously some kind of a genius, his flaw is the fact that he is not active in any of his virtues. So everything is passive, everything is out of neglect and negation. And Hedda, even though she’s bored, and that’s kind of an inactive, inert force to be bored, right, to not have anything actively engaging your attention, she, actually, as it turns out in her relationship with Lövborg, is a lot more active than he is. And I think that that represents actually a kind of a virtue, even when she’s using that activity, and that tremendous energy that she has, and that tremendous will, to carry out vices. My point with Lövborg leaving his manuscript is this idea that he kind of kills the child out of neglect. Well, what will Hedda do? She’ll actively kill the child in a way that kind of almost makes good on the promise that Lövborg has introduced. And then Lövborg also passively accidentally kills himself in a way that Hedda finds disgusting. So what’s she going to do? She’s going to actively kill herself in the proper way. And so there is something ultimately, I think, kind of courageous about what she doesn’t… even, dare I say, virtuous in the fact that everybody is sort of passively being carried along by whatever they’re a little, you know, I’ll use the term against specialization is. And ultimately, though she fears convention so much, Hedda decides to, for once, live courageously in the way that she was hoping Lövborg would, but which he’s ultimately incapable of doing. So ultimately he’s a coward, and she turns out to be quite redeemed in her manner of murder and then suicide, which is a strange thought, which I’m not endorsing at all, but, you know, there’s a strange kind of logic in it, and a kind of courage, I think.
Wes: Yeah, that’s interesting. So I think Lövborg… you get the sense that he’s grandiose, right? The play doesn’t deliver on this, but he’s written one book that’s become popular, so he’s become a public intellectual. He stands in contrast to Tesman’s specialization in an esoteric subject. And then the second book… you know where he’s… the first book he’s talking about how civilization progresses, and the second book is about what will happen, like using his… whatever laws he’s figured out about the progression of civilization to make predictions, which is really grandiose. It’s really… it sounds completely impractical, and it makes him out to be a kind of profit. But that’s left unclear. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to conclude that he’s… the second book is insane or not. But what’s interesting about him is you can see why he was self destructive, right? So people who are grandiose will have to, you know, use something to keep themselves under wraps, in a way, to keep that grandiosity from leading to a complete breakdown or to complete psychosis. So the way he was doing it was to drink to excess and to do it in a way that would make sure that he remained a failure. And when he was able to neutralize that, he was actually able to be productive. So by finding Thea and having her help with the book and do whatever it is that she was doing, I think it’s unclear whether she’s just not a very bright person who’s just following his instructions or whether she has more to do with the book than we might think. I think that’s left purposely unclear. He could neutralize some of that desire to be great and to achieve glory and all the things that Hedda is still obsessed with. But what I was going to say about her courageous acts, you know, you get the sense that maybe even life itself, for her, is too much a form of specialization, where again specialization means being confined, whether it’s to one subject, to narrow, very narrow, overly rational forms of conversation as opposed to sort of the wide ranging, passionate, more freely associative conversations that you might have with friends over drinks or dinner. So there’s that, there’s the form of specialization that… involved in being married and devoted to one person for the rest of your life. You can argue that those things always represent forms of cowardice, right? What would we do if we were completely courageous? What would we do if we weren’t afraid of being alone, for instance? We might be more martial in our attitude towards life, we might behave more like soldiers and less like people who are afraid of their own mortality and have to engage in all these various defenses against it, a lot of which involve the stifling sort of social life. The point I’m trying to make is, the question isn’t why would she commit suicide but why does anyone stay alive? [laughter] One can approach it that way, like Camus does, for instance, in the Myth of Sisyphus, it becomes a… ultimate philosophical question. Why would anyone do it when life seems so ultimately pointless? And Camus has his answer, of course. But for Hedda, life per se might be a form of characters, life per se might be a form of specialization, and so the only way to truly transcend that and to truly achieve glory and true courageousness is to commit suicide.
Erin: That’s really good. And I was thinking, too, about what you were saying with the future, Lövborg’s book is predicting the future and the fact that Hedda does seem to kind of long for specialization, in a sense, because she longs to influence the fate of one human being.
Wes: Yes, let’s talk about that. That’s very important.
Erin: Yeah, which is contrasted with her obsession with denying that she is pregnant, which seems to me to be…
Erin: …the most obvious way that you could influence another human being.
Wes: That’s important contradiction. So not just influence of a human being, but how… the way she puts it is that she wants to be able to shape someone’s soul, something like that. And she envies Thea for having been able to do that. At one point, she will notice that Thea has done that with Lövborg and envy that. She’ll say something like, “wow, you’ve really had that kind of influence on him” and there’s the whole thing where she’s… before she induces Lövborg to drink and to go out drinking. She… when she tries to offer him a drink and she’ll say, “Don’t I have any influence with you?” And he’ll say, “Not in that respect.” And then she notices Elvsted’s influence, and that’s when she says, “All right, I’m gonna… I’m going to get this guy [laughter] to destroy himself or put him to…” It’s unclear to me. She’s really trying to get him to destroy himself, or she really is putting him to the test and hopes that he will resist it and come out glorious with vine leaves in his hair and so on. So I suppose it must be the latter. But on my first reading, I thought, “Okay, she’s just trying to destroy him.” On the second, I thought, “OK, she’s trying to test him, but she wants him to pass the test.”
Erin: What we discover is that Thea actually hasn’t had any real effect on Lövborg, right? [laughter] I don’t know why, (but I just… I really don’t like Thea) but she hasn’t had any kind of permanent effect on him because really, she’s just there… like I said, like she’s there to be almost like his warden or his keeper. And the minute that he’s tested… and it’s not just this intimacy between the two of them in which she’s telling him what to do, and he’s obeying her, the minute a third person is added in, who has not so great motivations, he falls, he crumbles. And in fact, she’s nervous about the fact that he’s going to break at any moment. That’s why she comes to Hedda.
Erin: But this desire to influence someone’s fate, I think, is really related to the subject of Lövborg’s general knowledge, which is this knowledge of the future, which, though he has written this book about the future, he doesn’t have the foresight, let’s say, to anticipate that he’s going to crumble, that he’s going to lose the manuscript, that all this stuff is gonna happen. But Tesman, especially, thinks “how can you possibly know the future?” And he’s so limited in his capacity to understand. He’s only looking backwards. He can only, you know, when he thinks that he’s lost his university position to Lövborg, he freaks out because the only reason why he’s married Hedda and entered into all of this dead is because he had the assurance of the future, the assurance of this university post that was going to set him up for life. And so he’s not a gambler, he doesn’t have any kind of foresight or insight into anyone. And his, um, cul-de-sack of specialization seems to me to be the narrowest of all of the characters. Like Aunt Julie, at least has Aunt Rina to take care of and is at least concerned with babying Tesman and then constantly suggesting pregnancy to Hedda. But Tesman seems to be his own little sad person with no future and no vision outside of the present. So Hedda basically wants to influence Lövborg, I think, and so she wants to control the guy who can see the future and therefore have this kind of, like, double effect on the future, because I think Lövborg is supposed to be this great intellectual. Hedda maybe thinks that he’s worthy of her attentions, in this regard, and wants to bend him to her will and to have this fantastic end or something where she basically goads him into committing suicide. Ultimately, what the play is arguing about this, I’m… I haven’t quite worked out yet, but it’s almost as though she’s discovered that pregnancy represents something that she doesn’t like because it represents a continuation of life. And ultimately, I think what she… how she wants to influence someone’s… what was it?… someone’s fate…
Wes: So she’ll say, I want, for once in my life, to have the power to mold a human destiny. That’s what Hedda would say.
Erin: Mold the human destiny. Yeah.
Wes: That’s right. After she’s gotten him to go out and drink and said, “And I have no power over you” and he says “Not in that respect.” and then she’s trying to convince Elvsted that he will have regained control over himself, that he will be a free man for all of his days after he passes this test that she’s put him through. And then Elvsted accuses her of having a hidden motive in all of this and getting him to do all this, and she says, “Yes, I have. I want for once in my life to have power to mold human destiny.”
Erin: Yeah. So that’s almost as though she’s trying to get Lövborg to take off his training wheels. You know, like Thea has put on these training wheels for him and she’s saying “No, if you let him go out and be in control of himself, then he’ll be set forever.” In the same way Tesman is controlled and has this nurturing, constant sort of mother figure in Aunt Julie, and that’s kind of like his training wheels, in a way. But he’s beyond help. So she thinks that Lövborg, that she could get him to finally stand on his own two feet and get out from… So in a curious way, I think she’s kind of trying to enable his freedom and his ability to stand on his own two feet and influence his destiny in that way. And then she thinks that suicide maybe is the only way to have this kind of ultimate control, because then you end all the variables, you end the things that are outside of your control.
Erin: I think that her desire to control Lövborg is, in a strange way, you know, the desire to control someone’s destiny, who understands about destiny, who studies destiny in the future. And so she’s kind of like trying to kill or control the entire future by controlling Lövborg. But ultimately, I think what the novel shows at the end is that he was kind of the wrong person to pin her hopes and dreams on, and that really the only destiny she can control is her own. And that’s why the suicide is kind of inevitable or something. I haven’t worked all of this out, so I don’t know how interesting her stupid any of that is, but it seems like the only way you can control someone’s will is by ending their will.
Wes: What Thea says early on, I think Hedda gets triggered in various ways. She’s kind of got a genius for free association. Like her idea about burning the book. I think she picks up on Thea calling it their child or something like that, or worrying about the child being destroyed, and that’s where she gets the idea to actually destroy it. I forget… we’ll come back to that, I forget where that is. Thea herself will say “I gained a sort of influence over him, so he gave up his old habits because of me basically” and then Hedda will respond, “You have reclaimed him.” And then Thea will talk about how they shared the work. And he never wrote anything without her assistance. So, yeah, I think you’re right. In a way, Thea constitutes his training wheels, and there’s definitely something about Hedda wanting him to stand on his own two feet. On the other hand, she seems to want to, as she puts it, mold human destiny and to have power over someone. And it’s interesting… So she doesn’t want to do that by having a child, which is, as you said, the obvious way. The other way, I think people get that same sort of satisfaction, the satisfaction of having some kind of control over human destinies. I mean, it’s part of what Ibsen is doing, right? It’s part of what any author does. They’re playing around with human destinies, they’re molding characters, they’re molding people. You get it not just by having children or through love, but you get it through work, through the creating of the (quote-unquote) “child” that is the book. Hedda can’t get that same sort of satisfaction. For her to mold a human destiny, for some reason, it can’t be constructive, right? It can’t lead to a child. It can’t lead to a book. It has to ultimately be destructive and suicidal. Perhaps that’s because, again, any product is too much of a specialization. It’s too… she wants a kind of glory that transcends that sort of thing. And it may be inherently lacking in courage, right? These sorts of routes that we go there, curtailments of our instincts, and that is what civilization is per se. So instead of going out and raping and murdering and doing all the sorts of things one might do if you were in the army of Attila the Hun or something like that, if you were truly let yourself be free and unconfined by civilization and by conscience, which is the internalization of civilization, we live according to conscience. So maybe that’s… if we think of her as a sociopath and without conscience -maybe it’s… that conscience is also a form of cowardice- so she wants out of that. She can’t deal with civilization in these sorts of compromises and acts of influence that are creative because they ultimately seem to be too specialized and too cowardly.
Erin: That’s really interesting. I have so many thoughts about this. So we talked before about the idea of her, like, shutting things down because any kind of product, as you say, is a kind of a specialization. So I think of her in this play as being almost like an animal in its death throes, like she’s already, from the beginning of the play, committed a form of suicide by marrying Tesman. She’s shut down the potential avenues of possibility by choosing to marry one man and closing off other options available to her. And she’s basically going to reduce or shut down everybody else’s possibilities around her until she ultimately ends her own life and shuts down completely. So she is this destructive, this sort of like anti-creative, as a way of avoiding specialization, and she, you know, she’s kind of like turning out all the lights in the house until there’s until you know, the house is completely dark. So having a child… that would represent a new wellspring of possibilities and variables which are not controllable by you, that you may think that you can have a child and mold it, and then that would be a way of molding your destiny. But as you say, first of all, any product is a kind of a specialization. And second of all, that child is in itself a bunch of infinite possibilities and variables, which may in fact be uncontrollable. Not only that, but a child, whether a really physical child, the result of her pregnancy or the brainchild, the manuscript, is a result of collaboration, so the child isn’t going to be just her. I think the reason why she’s so disgusted by it is because it isn’t just her. It’s not as if it sprang from her brow like Athena from Zeus. It’s part Tesman, too, and she’s disgusted by the manuscript, maybe because it’s this… it’s not just Lövborg. It’s this combination of Thea and Lövborg.
Wes: Mm-hmm. She’s disgusted with any form of collaboration. It’s inherently not glorious.
Erin: Right, and not selfish and not purely her, and therefore not, like, if she could… I mean, I don’t know what she would get out of, say, like cloning herself, if that would be an alternative. I don’t think she would get anything to that, because I think she just wants to foreclose all possibilities until there are none left, and even a perfect reproduction of herself in the form of a child would be more variables than she wants to deal with. But that’s interesting, though, that she doesn’t like collaboration. And what you say about Ibsen, you know, the playwright as molding people’s destiny’s. Maybe Hedda, by killing herself and by meddling in this way and causing so much destruction, is actually like the ultimate creative. She’s actually the playwright because she’s been able to kill off everyone or, you know, eliminate possibilities in this satisfying way that is truly her own and involves no collaboration or help from anybody else. Just as when you’re writing something like Ibsen and you’re creating all of these characters, it’s an individual assertion of the will.
Wes: Yeah. Any time we see a manipulative villain in a play, a person who seems to be making everything happen, we should think of that as a possible stand in for the author, right? And we can always see this sort of villain as a… an attempt by the author to reflect on authorship and creativity and what it means to be an author. So whether it’s Richard III, or in a play like The Tempest, where it’s not… Prospero isn’t a villain exactly. No, he’s not the villain. But he’s, um, doesn’t turn out to be a tragic hero, either, but is in control of the events of the play and is more obviously standing for Shakespeare and more obviously, reflection on authorship and creativity. But what’s interesting is that towards the end, when she commits suicide, there’s a chain of events that leads to that, and one of them is the fact that Thea and Tesman have become collaborators, and they’re going to resurrect the child of Thea and Lövborg. They’re gonna put it back together. And there’s also this recurring theme about inspiration, about Thea having inspired Lövborg, and now there’s talk here at the end of Thea says, “You know, I’m gonna inspire your husband in the same way that I inspired Lövborg” and Hedda responds with something like, “Oh yes, that’ll come in time as well.” And there’s the hilarious line by Tesman, “arranging other people’s papers is just the work for me.” [laughter]
Erin: I literally was… I had my thumb on that page…
Wes: Yes. [laughter]
Erin: …because I was like that… we have to say that. Yep. [laughter]
Wes: You gotta love that. But the other factor that’s going on here is she is finding out that she is going to be subject to Judge Brack’s power and Judge Brack’s influence, right?
Wes: In a very… what seems like probably a sinister way, even though he says, “Oh, I would never abuse this,” but he’s, you know, he’s implying that he can extort and blackmail her into sex. So you get two things at the end there. One is that she doesn’t like collaboration and the idea of Thea influencing her and inspiring her husband in the way that she inspired Lövborg. But then also, you get her desire to be devoid of any influence, right, because that’s what it means to be free and not to be a slave, as she puts it to Judge Brack,not to be under his power, despite the fact that she’s in a real predicament there, and Brack has become quite the villain and a sinister obstacle for her. I think we could read that more largely as her also not wanting to be a creature, not wanting to be the product of any sorts of formative influences. I think, as you’ve already pointed out, the only way to do that, right, is to cease to exist [laughter] because… in other words, she doesn’t want to be specialized in either. She’s like… love is a dirty word to her, right? And that’s what love means, right, specialization. You found your one object to the exclusion of all others. He doesn’t want to be the object of love. It’s disgusting to her, and she doesn’t want to be influenced. So she doesn’t want to be specialized in. She doesn’t wanna herself to be a kind of product. She wants to have power and to mold and to influence. But it has to be destructive and not constructive. And the same thing goes for not wanting to be a product of influence.
Erin: I almost wonder if her specialization, then ultimately in the end, if that is… you know because suicide, of course, is ultimately a bad thing, if that also… I see it as a kind of heroism at the end, but maybe that also represents a kind of evil specialization, specialization in oneself or in death like there’s no escaping it.
Wes: I see suicide is the ultimate way to be a generalist.
Erin: Oh, because you’re dispersing yourself into oblivion.
Wes: Exactly. You’re dispersing yourself into oblivion, you no longer have to make choices, you no longer have to choose one thing to the exclusion of others, which means being disappointed by those exclusions and mourning them and saying goodbye to them as the things that you lose out on different paths in life, different opportunities, different futures. You give those things up as you make choices, you kill those things off. You engage in little acts of many suicide, right? You kill off different potential future selves, and you’re always on the one future that you’re choosing by acting in a certain way. Performing certain acts is a form of specialization. You take a very special route through all the different, practically infinite terrain of possibilities. And so to kill yourself is simply to return to the realm of possibility and potentiality. You’re doing nothing. You’ve made no particular choice, and you can’t do that anymore. You’re not actualized in any particular instance, but by virtue of being in a pure realm of possibility, which is the way we may construe nothingness. You’re free and you’re no longer a specialist. All options, in a bizarre way, are now open to you again. Yeah.
Erin: Yeah, that’s kind of… I think what I was trying to say with the idea of her foreclosing options of other men by choosing Tesman and putting death to those other possibilities and then… yeah, I guess the, you know, the opposite of suicide is reproduction. So then, like to have a child would introduce those thousands of other potential lives, possibilities, potentials. And then maybe this is why I… Because I do want to get to Thea and why I have this sort of like violent reaction against Thea. Thea is like a serial specialist. That’s maybe why I don’t like her. It’s interesting, because in one of my favorite essays about Hedda, which I recommend to people, is by my favorite essayist, my all-time favorite essayist, Elizabeth Hardwick, who has this great book called Seduction and Betrayal. She writes about a couple of Ibsen heroines in there, including Nora, but she has a real affinity for Thea, which makes sense, because Hardwick, of course, in real life, was married to Robert Wool and was basically like his co-collaborator on… not on any of his works or anything, but, you know, he was manic depressive genius poet that she was constantly trying to, like, help, tend to control, keep out of trouble, all the stuff. And so she, I think, sees Thea in a more positive light than what I would have expected, though I should have expected it. But what I dislike about is the fact that she has certain things in her favor. She lives courageously. She does leave an unhappy marriage and devotes herself to someone. However, she’s really naive. I mean, she has to be pretty dumb to be so easily manipulated by Hedda so quickly. I think she’s probably inherently unequal to the task of holding a man like Lövborg, because she is not intelligent enough to deal with him, and she seems to be one of those women who needs a relationship with a man in order to function. She was the housekeeper, I think, and then governess for Elvsted, her husband, and then ends up getting married to him. So it’s, like, in the process of basically, like, taking care of his house and children. She becomes his wife, and then she latches onto Lövborg and then becomes his collaborator. And then, as soon as Lövborg is out of the picture, we immediately know -and Hedda immediately knows- that she’s going to glom onto Tesman and be his collaborator. So she’s… her lack of independence, maybe, is what I find so annoying. This idea that she’s just this mousey little person who follows a man around and cleans up after him makes her much less… though she seems to be a reasonably nice person and obviously devotes herself to other people. It’s just funny that if we met these people in real life, of course, like I hope we don’t meet Hedda in real life, because that would be scary, but Thea would be, an obviously like a good and relatively virtuous person, Hedda a, you know, semi evil one. And yet Thea, in contrast to Hedda, is so mousey, so uninteresting, so lacking in independence and so lacking in autonomy that the contrast between the two of them really makes, I think, Hedda look heroic, oddly enough.
Wes: Yeah, well, it’s interesting to ask the question of whether… are there circumstances under which she could be happy, or something like that, other than the circumstance of not existing, of returning, as I said, to the pure realm of possibility, potentiality. You know, and I think we’re inclined -and critics of… from what I’ve read- have been inclined to say that she’s a psycho. [laughter] So in that case, the answer would be no. And I think there’s plenty of evidence for that, or that the circumstances would have to be pretty extraordinary. So it wouldn’t be enough, right? Just to… that society be reformed so that women are not in this particularly stifling position. Because everyone in the play, in a way, is in a stifling position. They’re all dependent and specialized and cowardly. And there’s something inherent in civilization in that, I think. So if we could rig things in an extraordinary way to… I’m kind of implying that there’s a little bit of Hedda in all of this, and that we all end up with Tesmans in the end, right, because there’s a little bit of Tesman in everyone. We’re all going to end up with inglorious domestic circumstances and people at best. But if we could rig circumstances optimally, whether for ourselves or for Hedda, it’s interesting to think of what they might look like. I mean, in her case, what if she had married Lövborg? There must have been good reasons why she couldn’t do that. Maybe that would have led to their complete self-destruction. [laughter] That would have been their collaboration, right, to self-destruct together. So the real reasons why those solutions don’t work… You could imagine other circumstances where there wasn’t a six month honeymoon, where Tesman gets his appointment quickly, where she’s able to have a footman and a horse and whatever it was she was talking about in the beginning, and she’s… gets able to entertain people and… or the circumstances in which she didn’t end up marrying Tesman, she ended up marrying at her own level, even if it wasn’t someone is romantic and artistic, in a way, or intellectually gifted as Lövborg. She might have married a politician, right? She wants Tesman to be a politician. So I really haven’t thought this through, but I’m trying to think through if there are any circumstances where Hedda would not have self-destructiveness in this way. Because, obviously, there are strong forces in her that make her ill suited to the compromises required in life. But there certainly better circumstances that she might have found herself in.
Erin: Yeah, if she had been… gotten a high school superlative she and Lövborg, as a couple, would probably have been, you know, [laughter] most likely turned up dead in a bunker. You know, having both killed themselves.
Wes: Yeah. Might have been like Bonnie and Clyde or…
Erin: Oh, yeah, yeah, sure. Well, and what she wants to annihilate in him… I mean, let’s let’s talk a little bit about her instructions to Lövborg. So she gives him the pistol, and she wants him to do it beautifully, to kill himself beautifully. So specifically, she wants him to shoot himself in the temple, and then when she hears that she’s… that he shot himself in the breast -which turns out to be a new invention on Brack’s part- but when she hears that, she kind of says, “Okay, well, that’s good, too.” But she kind of settles for it as the second best scenario.
Wes: Yeah, yeah.
Erin: And then, of course, what it turns out to be is that the gun is accidentally gone off and he’s shot himself in the bowels, which is, like, so disgusting. But of course… so the accident of the gun discharging and him shooting himself there, of course, that’s actually no accident. I mean, it’s not an accident because Ibsen’s making all this up, but it’s also no accident in that Lövborg is… because he’s an alcoholic and has all these issues of consumption, I guess you could say, he’s a creature of appetite, I guess, so the bowels are his weakness, but Hedda specifically wants him to obliterate his mind, his intellect, and shoot himself in the temple. Which is interesting because the fact that she places that act above shooting himself in the breast and the heart seems significant to me in a way but I don’t quite know how… She doesn’t want to kill his passions, she wants to kill the colder, cooler part of him, the part of the will, maybe. But then, of course, the ultimate irony with Lövborg’s that he has no will. He has no self control. He has no determinacy to influence his own fate. He needs other people to manage that for him and ultimately his death, his accidental death, is also like his will has failed to exert itself.
Wes: Well, I think you’re getting at a good point here, which is to shoot yourself in the temple was to destroy your mind, right? Rather than your… simply your body. She wants to think of this in a sort of disembodied way. And the more embodied it is, the more disgusting, the more you get to something like the bowels.
Erin: Oh, I like that. Yeah. So yeah, she wants this particulate dispersal to happen in this, almost like the realm of abstract forms, like…
Wes: The mind has to disappear as well, not just the body. Because, yeah, the mind is its own form of limitation, right? There’s a limitation of being material beings, which include the instincts and include our desires and our mortality. But there are, in particular, the limitations of having a mind. So for philosophers that, the mind, is the locus of autonomy by virtue of being the locus of rationality. Presumably, we could be free by virtue of our capacity to reason about things and to make choices based on those reasons, as opposed to simply being driven by our desires. But I think what Hedda recognizes is that those are ultimately constraints. To be subject to reasons is to be subject to yet another form of influence and form of constraint. And philosophers historically recognize this. This is the paradox of freedom, which is that to be free just means to be subject to reasons as opposed to desire and other circumstances like that. The idea of shooting yourself in the temple gets at the idea that you know, we must transcend even the constraints involved in so-called autonomy, right? And those represent themselves in social existence in the mores, the stifling mores and customs of the time, right, because ultimately they’re ethical. When philosophers talk about autonomy, the ability to obey reason, what they mean is the capacity to be virtuous and to obey a set of ethical norms, and that maybe, you know, well and good, but the way those things are manifested in real life, you know, they don’t manifest themselves as the kind of norms that Nietzsche in Übermensch sets for himself, right? That’s not that kind of virtue that ends up being at stake in the real world. It’s the rules and stifling expectations of society that are the representatives of those ethical norms and what is supposedly the realm of autonomy. So autonomy, so-called autonomy manifests itself as just the sort of thing that Hedda finds enslaving and so-called autonomy itself must be destroyed if one is to have the… what would you call it, the “Gablerian” form of freedom.
Wes: The “Gablerian” form of freedom is all about potentiality and possibility. It can’t be about any form of actuality, and it can’t be about any sort of stale philosophical version of autonomy.
Erin: One of the things I struggle to reconcile, until having this conversation with you, is her desire for Lövborg to shoot himself in the temple and her obsession with the image of him with the vine leaves in his hair, which is something we should talk about, too. So, I guess, until this conversation, I was thinking that these two things were kind of contradictory, in a way, like…
Erin: …the vine leaves are related to, you know, the idea of… like she wants him to get drunk and it seems to me like a celebration of, you know, like a bacchanal or a celebration of the sensual, which seems to be contradicting the temple shooting obliteration of the body.
Wes: I might have misunderstood this, and I never felt like I fully understood it, but I was thinking of the vine leaves in the hair, being something like the triumph of an ancient Greek athlete or something like that, being crowned with something. Or a playwright…
Wes: …an ancient Greek playwright in one of those contests. But now you’re making me think of, yeah, Dionysius and the way someone might be attired at a bacchanal. So I was thinking that she was thinking that he would resist temptation. Of course, she’s just practically shoved two drinks down his throat, so it makes no sense. So that… I couldn’t figure that out. Like I said before, I couldn’t figure out if she was hoping for him to destroy himself or if she was hoping that he would resist and that that resistance was what I was associating the vine leaves with, the victoriousness over his impulses and the fact that he wouldn’t end up drinking himself into oblivion.
Erin: So I guess I was thinking it was the bacchanal but that I was thinking that that was… what was contrasted with the temple thing is the celebration of the body pitted against the destruction of the mind. But now that I thought about it a little bit more, so there’s something also, like of death and destruction, of course, in drunkenness, like… so what is drinking? It’s a temporary escape from reason. It’s also flouting of a social convention. If you wanna be, you know, in your right mind and not get too drunk, and if you get too drunk, then you’re flouting some norm, some social norm. So it’s another kind of intellectual degradation. After a while, it limits your intellect, it impairs your moral choices, it shuts down your brain in a way, and it’s… it is a kind of obliteration of the intellect, I guess. But it’s also, paradoxically, like related to appetites. And it’s also kind of… it’s kind of oblique in the same way that everything that Lövborg does is kind of oblique, like passively or negatively, leaving behind his manuscript rather than actively ripping it up as he fancies in the retelling of it. So it’s like you can get drunk accidentally, you know, could have a boiling-the-frog effect, like it makes things kind of foggy, it makes the edges of the world maybe a little bit hazy, and it’s something that affects your mind, though it goes by way of the bowels, right, like it infects your body, in a way, and then, therefore, like affects your mind, as almost like a kind of a side effect. And, of course, then if you get drunk enough, you could black out right, which is like a kind of, ah like a pre-figurement of suicide in a way. So when Hedda kind of goads Lövborg into drinking, she’s happy because he seems to have made a deliberate choice to obliterate his mind, maybe. But what’s interesting about drinking is that you do so by way of the bowels, like by way of the body, rather than like just shooting yourself in the temple. So it’s kind of like this indirect way to get at a mental obliteration, which she then is going to say, We’ll make good on this and then just shoot yourself in the brain. So yeah, it’s complex, but I think I’m… I guess I’m thinking of the vine leaves more as this bacchanal that’s not ultimately life affirming but rather death affirming and not sensual but mental.
Wes: Yeah, I think I agree with that because I think she, you know, deep down, she knows that Lövborg is not gonna resist the drinking. What she’s saying to Elvsted, I think, is not just a lie. She’s basically suggesting to Thea that she wants him to resist temptation and to succeed and come back with vine leaves in his hair as a representative of that triumph. But as Thea points out, you don’t… Thea says, “Well, you don’t really believe all that, that’s BS.” So I think it is and it isn’t BS. She does ultimately want him to destroy himself and not to succeed in resisting temptation because destroying himself is the only way to achieve the kind of glory that she wants. Because otherwise, you know, you might think that she’d be excited by Lövborg being a great author, right, and want to connect herself to that. That’s one of the interesting things about the play, is that she has the opportunity to connect herself to a guy who looks like he’s on the track to being a big success into being the anti-Tesman. But that’s not enough for her. That’s not what she wants. Like I said, you know, the constructive thing is just not an option for her. It has to be the destructive.
Erin: Yeah, good.
Wes: All right. Do we have anything else to say? I wanted to mention one thing, which is the verbal… Tesman’s verbal tics with the fancy that… fancy that! Think of it.
Erin: Oh, yeah. Gosh!
Wes: …as a way of…
Erin: What an idiot!
Wes: Yeah! It’s as if his version of thinking and fancying, which might normally convey some capacity for depth, is actually all just very superficial. He registers things with a kind of surprise or interest, but there’s no capacity for deeper understanding. The suggestion seems to be that that’s the way his scholarly interests operate, right? It’s always, “Oh, look at this.” It’s “fancy that” and that there’s this little more than that.
Erin: So Hardwick has a lot of great insights on all the characters in her essay, but there’s a little bit about Tesman in here, which is, I think, really useful. So, she writes, “There is very little pathos and George Tesman’s feelings for Hedda Gabler, and that is one of the most interesting things about Ibsen’s vision in the play. This is one of those dim, loveless marriages on both sides. When Hedda kills herself, Tesman cries out, “Shot herself. Shot herself in the temple. Fancy that!” [laughter]
Wes: Yes, yes.
Erin: “She is a stranger to him. The truth about her is that all of her suitors, including Judge Brack, who was still on the scene, were attracted to her but aware that there was something deeply menacing to happiness in her nature. She is not marriageable. What, except personal charm can she offer? There is vitality in her, but it is all horses and shooting and emptiness. She does not move forward, go deeper with anyone, even with Lövborg, who in his own recklessness had tempted her to feeling, she will not admit that there was love at the bottom of their seductive friendship. No, not quite,” she says. And then she compares this to Tesman, actually, and she says, “Tesman is too inexperienced and too cut off from appropriate feelings to size up these things. He has been doing his dissertation on the Domestic Industries of Brabant during the Middle Ages, and that study did not teach him to back off from Hedda. Instead, he goes on trying to believe that disaster is good luck, that debts and indifference will vanish. The only hope he could reasonably have hidden in his mind is that the heartless Hedda would gradually show herself to be like the other women he had known, the devoted, sacrificing, adoring old aunts and nurses. There is something almost sordid in Tesman’s willful inanity.”
Erin: And that I really love because it is… It’s like he, too, is kind of destructive in his own stupidity and his own bad choices, which is an interesting parallel between the two of them, I guess.
Wes: Yeah. And I also recommend the essay on Hedda Gabler by Henry James, in New…
Erin: Oh! Henry James wrote one? I didn’t even know this. And I’m a Jamesian.
Wes: Yeah. It’s called On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler, and it’s superb. It’s just so, so good.
Wes: Maybe I’ll just… can I read a little bit?
Erin: Please! Love to hear some naughty pros from James.
Wes: “In his satiric studies of contemporary life, the impression that is strongest with us is that the picture is infinitely noted, that all the patience of the constructive pessimist is in his love of the detailed character and of conduct in his way of accumulating the touches that illustrate them. His recurrent ugliness of surface, as it were, is a sort of proof of his fidelity to the real in a spare, strenuous democratic community. Just as the same peculiarity is one of the sources of his charmless fascination, a touching vision of strong forces struggling with the poverty, a bare provinciality of life. I call the fascination of Ibsen charmless for those who feel it at all because he holds us without bribing us. He squeezes the attention till he almost hurts it, yet with never a conciliatory stroke.” Three entire essays… is that level? Wonder wonderfulness. [laughter]
Erin: He’s the best!
Wes: Yeah. All right! That was fun!
Erin: It was fun!
Wes: Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.