Friday, March 2, 2018

The Birth of God by Verner von Heidenstam

Romantic longing for classical antiquity
Verner von Heidenstam
Swedish author Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1916. Though primarily known as a poet and novelist, he was also a playwright. His drama The Birth of God is a one-act play that would likely take up less than 15 minutes of running time on the stage. Nevertheless, it was translated into English and published in 1920 as a stand-alone book of 32 pages. This English translation is now in the public domain and available for free at HathiTrust.

A modern man, known only as Stranger, travels to Egypt. There, among the ruins of Karnak, he meets a seemingly ancient, possibly immortal man named Dyskolus, with whom he engages in conversation. In the background, idols of ancient Egyptian gods, with their animal heads, dance and occasionally speak. The Stranger tells Dyskolus that he has travelled the world looking for a god. He feels trapped by the “daily sham” of modern life and seeks true meaning and purpose. Dyskolus acts as an intermediary for the old pagan gods, who, now long forgotten, yearn for new worshippers to restore them to their ancient glory.

As you can tell from the plot description, with its heavy-handed symbolism and reverence for ancient Egypt, The Birth of God is about as romantic as romanticism gets. Because Heidenstam’s career crept into the age of modernism, his writing style is late enough in history to be called neo-romanticism. The Birth of God paints modern life, represented by the Stranger, as empty and meaningless, while classicism is held to be pure and profound. Modern man longs for a new deity to rescue him from his vapid life of industry and commerce. Heidenstam doesn’t really seem to be advocating that man should believe in these pagan gods; rather, he expresses an envy towards the ancients’ lives of superstition and worshipful purpose. There is veneration in this view, but also a hint of condescension: If only I could be as ignorant as these primitives, my existence would at least seem meaningful! The dialogue includes a brief mention of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was executed for heresy, perhaps suggesting that pantheism may be the answer to modern man’s spiritual crisis, but this thread is never followed up and the play just proceeds to an ending that’s not only rather simplistic and silly but also describes imagery that would have been difficult to pull off with the special effects of 1920. If a pantheism worthy of Bruno were established in modern times, it would have to be a pantheism that embraces science, yet Heidenstam seems to reject science along with the rest of modernity in favor of a nostalgia for more primitive superstitions.

If you are looking to sample Nobel Prize winners of the past, reading The Birth of God is probably the quickest way to get an idea of Heidenstam’s writing, since only a few of his works have been translated into English. Another brief play from 1919, The Soothsayer, is also available in the public domain. I’m sure there’s more to Heidenstam than what’s indicated by these 32 pages, but reading this play doesn’t really make the reader eager to invest a lot of time and energy into one of his longer novels.
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