Sunday, February 14, 2016

Homage to the Strong and Lonely

Ibsen's 'Enemy of the People' - scene from a 2014 production staged in Singapore 

Introducing K. Das’ nostalgic account of his boyhood encounter with Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (Books Page, Jan 4), the editorial note asked the question: “How many of us remember the first book we read as we stood on the threshold of adulthood?” I remember mine, read 34 years ago, very vividly. The book was a minor work by of the world’s major writers. It struck me so deeply that 34 years later, I could recall it as if I had only read it yesterday. I can even remember the book as a distinct physical entity; the size, shape, colour of the cover (yellow and white with the title in black type), the name of the publisher (Heinemann), and I sometimes fancy I could still recall the special smell of the paper too.
Before writing this piece, I got hold of a copy from the university library to check my memory against the text. Reading it again after so long, it was quite amazing how much I could anticipate, not so much the story (that was nothing) but the dialogue. And my memory these days isn’t quite what it used to be. I can think of a number of reasons why the book had such an impact on me. I acquired the habit of reading very late – not until my late teens. Until then, I was totally uninterested in books. I was about 16 when I opened up the thing; and proved to be the one that seduced me into becoming a lover of its kind for life.
Why this particular book, and not other encountered at about the same time? The subject and theme of the book had a lot to do with it. It was what you might call an “adult book,” about adults and with an “adult theme.” And I, being a late developer, encountered it at just the right time, when my mind was beginning, somewhat belatedly, to awaken. Unlike many compulsive readers, my first “real book” wasn’t Alice in Wonderland, Grimm or Andersen (all of which I only read for the first time as an adult discovering them together with my children). My childhood was almost totally unblessed by the presence, the sight and smell of books. My father was an avid reader but of nothing other than newspapers; the only book in the house, other than school texts, was the Quran. I therefore had no childhood so far as reading was concerned. The first real book I read was also the first important book encountered as I stood “on the threshold of adulthood.”
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)
The book was a play by the 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It’s called An Enemy of the People. Compared to the plays which Ibsen is best known to the world – Ghosts, Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck, The Master Builder, Peer GyntAn Enemy of the People is, considered strictly as dramatic work, very minor. But to me, 34 years ago, it was a sheer masterpiece and thematically a real eye-opener. It was probably the first play I ever read; and I rather like the idea that a play with such a ringingly ironic title, An Enemy of the People, should have had such an impact on my adolescent mind. Looking back from the vantage point of my half-century, and succumbing for a moment to the temptation of the pretentious, I wonder if there wasn’t an element of “provincial prophecy,” and ironic too, in that teenage encounter between the Norwegian apostate,” whose controversial plays like Ghosts drew the wrath of his countrymen on him, and the kampung boy from Malacca who at that age had only one conscious notion concerning the purpose of education – to obtain the passport to social success and thus become “one of them.”
An Enemy of the People (written in 1882, and first performed in Christiania the following year) is about a “water crisis” not unlike the one my poor old Malacca had to suffer for so long only recently. The “water crisis” in the play is the catalyst of the moral drama of integrity versus corruption, truth versus lies, courage versus cowardice, moral independence versus spineless conformity, the lone individual versus the compact majority. It tells the story of Doctor Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer at a small Norwegian spa, who discovers that the Baths, on which the prosperity of the town and the power of the ruling class depend, are contaminated. Being a man of integrity, charmingly full of faith in his fellow-men and naïvely stubborn in some ways, it is obvious to him what is to be done. To the Mayor, who happens to be his brother, what is obvious is something else entirely. He knows what making public the doctor’s discovery would mean – to his position as Mayor who was responsible for the actual construction of the Baths and the way the pipes were laid, and to the prosperity of the town especially of the middle class to which the Mayor belongs.
The editor of The People’s Herald and his printer are at first on the side of the doctor. But it is hinted fairly early in the play that their motives are dubious, as events subsequently prove. In the name of public opinion, they turn overnight from being the would-be champions of integrity and accountability to being the leaders of the pack that hounds the doctor.
The play, in part inspired by two actual incidents, was written at a furious speed, without the usual lengthy period of gestation characteristic of Ibsen’s writing habit. He was obviously in an uncompromising mood, the speed of the writing dictated by red-hot fury at and contempt for the mass mind; the mob hysteria in the Press that greeted the publication the previous year (1881) of Ghosts, a play essentially about servitude to meaningless conventions, must have haunted the writing of An Enemy of the People. The state of mind in which the play was written probably accounts for the relative crudity of its dramatic development, the use of some rather heavy-handed ironies (dramatic as well as verbal) and the simplistic characterization of some of the secondary characters (Arthur Miller when asked to do his own American version of the play in 1950, at a time when the freedom and integrity of the American theatre itself was under threat from the tyranny of the mob, felt compelled to reword the play to strengthen its dramatic texture.)
But, crude and simplistic though the Ibsen play may be in some ways, that very crudity is paradoxically part of its appeal; it has the rawness and immediacy of passionate commitment, of the thrill of taunting topicality, minimally mediated by the distancing refinement of art. Perhaps, innocent as I was of art on the fateful day 34 years ago, Ibsen spoke to my adolescent self with a directness that went straight to the hati (liver) of my mind.
I can still remember quite strongly the innocent thrill with which I thundered to the kerbaus (water buffalos) in the kampung sawah (paddy fields) Doctor Stockmann’s passionate declaration of faith in spiritual elitism that concludes the play: “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.” (Miller’s version of the line is much better: You are fighting for the truth, and that’s why you are alone. And that makes you strong – we are the strongest people in the world … (Crowd noises build) And the strong must learn to be lonely.”) I thundered the line to the kerbaus as if it was a revelation just granted me, quite unaware of its implications in the actual world. Perhaps that was the moment when my mind became contaminated by the foreign virus of arrogance and plain speaking. I was naïve then, and the naïvety perfectly answered to Stockmann’s own brand of naïvety, one that moved from the populist, with its faith in the “compact majority” and the so-called “progressive and independent Press,” to its opposite: an elitist arrogance or hubris, an utter contempt for the forever changeable mass mind and the equally changeable “liberal Press.” (An Enemy of the People really makes the words “liberal” and “progressive” sound quite obscene.)
But naïve though Doctor Stockmann is at the beginning of the play, and disturbingly elitist he may perhaps be at the end, he remains essentially a character the intelligent and sensitive reader can empathize with. He dominates the play with the sheer energy of his passion – naïvety, arrogance and all. And it is worth noting that, unlike many fighters for a cause, Stockmann isn’t shy of what his puritanical brother would call “hedonism” and self-indulgence”; he loves good food and drink, and loves to see others enjoying themselves. In some ways, Stockmann is Ibsen himself, one of the world’s most uncompromising playwrights. It is no wonder that the role is the favourite of Stanislavsky, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest actor-directors. 

29 January 1992

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