Out of Inferno

August Strindberg, Sweden’s greatest writer, had a brilliant, restless, erratic and experimental career. In its first phase, 1884-1892, he wrote naturalistic plays, such as MISS JULIE (english, 1912) and CREDITORS (english, 1910), which concentrated on the battle of the sexes. Then came a mental breakdown lasting almost six years, a profound spiritual crisis which Strindberg himself called his inferno period, after the title of the harrowing diary he kept during it. Strindberg emerged from this extremity with a wholly new outlook: Rejecting the masculine mentorship of Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Emile Zola, he now sought out more compassionate teachers with a mystical or supernatural vision.

Harry G. Carlson examines the various forces in the late nineteenth century cultural climate that spurred Strindberg to restart his creative powers. These influences included the painters Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin, Buddhist theologians and Hindu philosophers, and occult, Symbolic writers like Maurice Maeterlinck. Perhaps the most inspiring mentor was the eighteenth century Swedish scientist-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who saw correspondences between the natural and a visionary world.

Carlson traces these teachings in such late, great works as A DREAM PLAY (english, 1912) and THE GHOST SONATA (english, 1916). He insists, however, that Strindberg balanced the poetic-fantastic aspects of symbolism and expressionism with an ethical concern for society’s contradictions and injustices. OUT OF INFERNO: STRINDBERG’S REAWAKENING AS AN ARTIST is unfortunately cluttered with far too many quotations from, and other references to, a large number of other texts, depriving the reader of a clear path and guiding vision through these scholarly thickets.