Thursday, May 9, 2019

happiness lay in, what else, a renunciation of this world - trying to take the ideas seriously in Lucky Per

I think or fear that the psychology of Lykke-Per is driven by philosophy, and not vice versa, meaning that Henrik Pontoppidan expects you, the reader, to work through Lucky Per’s successive stages of development at a pretty abstract, philosophical level, just like Per does.  Maybe just like Pontoppidan does.

But the more he read, the more confused he became.  Throughout his steadfast search for the touchstone of that final and incontrovertible phrase or word that for all time would banish every superstitious belief in the existence of ‘the other side,’ he staggered around as if in some mental game of blind man’s bluff played in the dark of his own confusion…  With the implicit faith in books, which every autodidact develops…  (Ch. 13)

I had better stop there.  Too painful for this autodidact to continue.  I hope that Pontoppidan means that “faith in books” stuff ironically.  This whole passage has to be ironic, right?  But this is where the most Nietzschean section of the book launches, so I am not sure.

Pontoppidan scholar Flemming Behrendt, in the Afterword of the Paul Larkin translation, writes that Pontoppidan had a crisis midway through Lykke-Per, which is why there is no publication during 1900.  He spent the time reading Friedrich Nietzsche, which cured his writer’s block, not only allowing him to continue the novel but inspiring him to begin rewriting earlier parts to include more Nietzsche.

Thus the amazing climax of Chapter 13, in which Per shoots, with a revolver, a Tyrolean statue of Jesus, a truly peak moment of Zarathustranism, is not in the early 1899 version of the chapter but was added later.  Per is hiking with his Jewish girlfriend Jakobe, who herself is awfully Zarathustran.  It is at times like reading an Ayn Rand novel, with Per’s ludicrous harbor plans in place of Roark’s awful buildings.  Are the blasphemers punished, by the way?

And on they went, slowly downwards, embracing the glorious sunshine that bathed the valley as they went, overwhelmed by the heady scents of spring.  (end of Ch. 13)

Since this is just the middle of the novel, there is a lot of development still to come, including a temporary return to Lutheranism, albeit a sunnier version that that of his childhood, and a passage through what I think is a set of ideas drawn from Kierkegaard.  Per succumbs to the Sickness Unto Death, and has what people will later call an existential crisis – “[n]ow that he fully appreciated and understood his aloofness and dread of life” (Ch. 26), that sort of thing.

What I think is going on at the end of the novel is, over the course of several chapters, a synthesis of ideas.  Christianity, the slave religion, is rejected in all forms, and Nietzsche’s excesses are rescued by Kierkegaard (or is it the other way?).  The ultimate answer turns out to be the usual one of the German Bildungsroman:

Right down through the history of mankind the same command: the denial of the self, the expunging of the I – because happiness lay in a renunciation of this world.  (Ch. 25)

“Renunciation,” that’s Goethe’s word, his answer, although in practice it does not look like Per’s.  One must “either pledge oneself to the cross or the champagne glass,” Per fears, but he still has several chapters to find another way.

Maybe some or all of this is meant ironically.  Jakobe, the heroine, takes her Nietzschean ideas down a different path, but of course she does not have to struggle out from under the weight of Danish Lutheranism.  Maybe she is a step or two ahead of Per.

Maybe Pontoppidan means every word.  Maybe I have trouble taking Novels of Ideas seriously.  Tomorrow, let’s at least glance at Pontoppidan’s art.  Aesthetics, Per tries and rejects that early in the novel.


  1. I think we in this ironic age are far too prone to see irony in earlier literature. I remember having to explain to someone that a newly discovered poem by Sappho was definitely not ironic. Not saying irony didn't exist in Pontoppidan's day or that he couldn't possibly be exhibiting it, just that one has to dial back one's 21st-century expectation of universal irony before trying to decide such questions. Obviously I haven't read him and you have, but based on the excerpts you provide it doesn't sound the least bit ironic to me.

  2. Pontoppidan works in Big Ironies. The harbor plan that takes up so much space in the novel eventually fizzles. Rome turns out to be a failure. I guess in a sense the renunciation idea is ironic. What looks good is actually bad!

    But, right, I think Pontoppidan is more or less sincere at the philosophical level. Nietzsche is far more of an ironist than his student here.

    I was surprised, because the French read everything, to discover that there is no complete French translation of Lykke-Per (there's a partial from 1942). Especially near the end, the novel is proto-Existentialist. But it is perhaps too sincere for the French.

  3. It's been five years since I read Lucky Per but I believe that in my reading of the novel, Per was the personification of Pontoppidan's Denmark, and his Bildungsroman was an example less of education acquired than of hubris and failure. Per's engineering projects are all derivative and he never gains either the connections or the money to start any of them (there's just the--what is it?--diverting a ditch on a rental property in the middle of nowhere or something). Per attempts to force himself on the nobility and the moneyed classed and is mocked for it (I love the bit about how tight his pants are when he's hobnobbing in Copenhagen); he remains a troll, a rustic with ideas above his station (even though his ideas aren't necessarily even good ideas). His relationship with Jakobe mirrors that of Denmark to Jews: one allows them to do work in and for Denmark, but one never really considers them to be Danes. Per ends up forgotten and idle, dying of cancer (an internal rot, yes?) on a rocky coast on the corner of Denmark. Pontoppidan, I think, warns that Denmark is in danger of the same fate, forgotten and useless and mockably derivative, rotting to death on a rocky corner of Europe. Denmark, in the Middle Ages, was a rich and powerful kingdom, respected by all of Europe, with Danish kings sitting on the English throne, etc. Not so much in Potoppidon's time. I guess I didn't see Per renouncing ambition so much as having ambition beaten out of him by reality. A lot of the philosophical writing in the book is pretty clunky, so maybe my eyes were just glazed over during the crucial passages.

    I read Twilight of the Gods about thirty years ago, so the only Nietzsche I remember is something about how the weak will die off and it's the duty of the supermen to help that process along. I am vaguely aware that there's a lot more to Nietzsche than that, but I can't read any of it into Lucky Per because, happily, I'm blind to it.

  4. If Per is Denmark, then Denmark did a good job of no longer being him. Pontoppidan was a poor prophet.

    Per's renunciation of ambition may be all talk, but at the end there he also renounces some other things that will, I predict, horrify some of the readalongists. When Per renounces, he is thorough.

    The book is full of Nietzsche, the writing about it is often quite poor, the ideas derived from it quite weak.

    Pelle the Conqueror is a much better novel. It's dedicated To Pontoppidan, but it is the anti-Lykke-Per. It is particularly anti-(novel you described in your comment). Well described!