Pär Lagerkvist World Literature Analysis - Essay

Pär Lagerkvist World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The one artistic movement to which Pär Lagerkvist publicly lent his support was cubism. This support took the form of his praise, in his criticism, of cubist art and his relation of cubism to literature. His approval is detailed initially in two works that he published in 1913. The first is his monograph, Ordkonst och bildkonst: Om modärn skönlitteraturs dekadens, om den modärna konstens vitalitet (Literary Art and Pictorial Art: On the Decadence of Modern Literature, on the Vitality of Modern Art, 1982). The second is his review of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Peintres cubistes (1913; The Cubist Painters, 1944). Two movements to which he never gave his blessing or commitment—expressionism and existentialism—are nonetheless reflected in his work and are entirely consistent with his artistic aims. Expressionism was in vogue when Lagerkvist entered the literary scene. Like cubism, it emphasizes individuation and a reorientation of artistic perspective. This emphasis is consistent with the existentialist emphasis on authentic individualism and personal responsibility. A chronological reading of Lagerkvist’s works discloses his passage from expressionism to cubism and existentialism.

The socialist fervor of his earliest poems and sketches finds a receptacle in the rebelliousness of expressionism. His first novel is expressionistic in its abruptness of transitions and its interjectional style. His first play, Sista mänskan (1917; The Last Man, 1989) is as expressionistically somber as Människor and shares its concern with the inner evil of human beings, but it is more conventional in plot and dialogue than the German expressionist drama of the time. Den svåra stunden (1918; The Difficult Hour I-III, 1966) is closer to German expressionist drama. The three one-act plays that constitute The Difficult Hour I-III produce a multiple perspective on the human experience of the moment of death, and the setting of each act is cubist in its disregard of spatial logic.

Structurally, cubism informs much of Lagerkvist’s drama, poetry, and fiction of the five decades of his mature work. He provided literature with an equivalent of the cubist translation of four-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional plane. In The Dwarf, for instance, he translates the complexities of the human world into the dimensions of evil and love, represented by, respectively, an evil dwarf and the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The characters, like the segmented and rearranged units of a cubist canvas, display the fragmentation of human intentions and emotions. The dwarf, who cannot love, murders the only man whom the Mona Lisa can love; he also engineers the deaths of a pair of teenage lovers who are reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. The varieties of love and the subjectivity of evil are placed within the context of a simple narrative, much as different points of view are integrated on one visual plane in a cubist painting.

Da Vinci appears in The Dwarf as Messer Bernardo, an artist and scientist committed to the studious observation of those who love or do evil, or both, without any predisposition in himself to do either. In this regard, Messer Bernardo is an existential hero; he maintains his integrity by accepting that he is without an innate destiny. All of Lagerkvist’s later fiction exhibits his affinity for existentialist thought.

Barabbas is the first novel in what became a cycle of five, the narrative of each of which focuses on the event of Christ’s crucifixion. The cycle of novels presents, through the characters of Barabbas, Ahasuerus, and Tobias, the human quest for a spiritual satisfaction that is tenable only to the extent that the individual releases the inner self to the object of the quest. The release, achieved by Tobias, corresponds to Martin Heidegger’s Gelassenheit (1959; Discourse on Thinking, 1966), which, as contact of the inner self with the realm of conceptualization, is the highest degree of thought, the spiritual level at which the thinker is at one with being. Tobias finds the Holy Land to be the Gelassenheit of his pilgrimage.

The Eternal Smile

First published: Det eviga leendet, 1920 (English translation, 1934)

Type of work: Novella

A group of the dead in eternity learn in the course of their pilgrimage to God that the value of life is its conceptual uniqueness.

The eternal smile is the smile of the skull, or the grin of the death’s head, as well as the expression of deity in its indifference to the living humankind from which it always distances itself. It is, in other words, something that in divinely preceding or physically surviving human life has nothing to do with actual human life. Life is its own unsmiling conception of itself. It encompasses human beings within its conceivability; the intensity of an individual human life is directly proportional to the individual’s experience of this conceivability.

As the dead in the story compare their previous existences, twenty-six brief biographies unfold. One of the dead who had been quite satisfied with earthly life is an old man, who took a menial job, handing out paper in a subterranean restroom, as a stopgap until he could find his real vocation. He discovered with the passage of years that the menial job was in fact his real vocation, so he determined to perform his task with perfection, and this resulted in his finding happiness in life. Collectively, the biographies invite the inference that life is its own, and the only, value.

The twenty-first tale is the most significant. A man relates his love for a woman who learned that her destiny was to die after she had borne a child. After she gave birth to his child and died, the man held the newborn infant to his breast, and as he did so he gained a sense of meaning—the realization that life means but has itself no meaning: “Life has no love for you, tree; life has no love for you, human; for you, flower; for you, swaying grass, except when it means precisely you. When it no longer means you, it loves you no more and annihilates you.” Life has no abstract or absolute meaning that can be apprehended by inquiry; instead, life means each existing individual. To live is to be meant by life.

The residents of eternity are perplexed. They contemplate the peace of all-becoming-one and find it empty. They take no pleasure either in the prospect that life’s purpose may be only the perpetuation of life. They seek out God, who turns out to be an old man sawing wood by lantern light....

(The entire section is 2745 words.)