Pär Lagerkvist

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3142


"I constantly conduct a dialogue with myself," Pär Lagerkvist once said in a talk on his works, "one book answers the other".

Despite the constant varying of the answers, the dialogue is always concerned with the same thing, a search for the meaning of existence. Lagerkvist has experienced more intensely than most the central dilemma for twentieth-century man within the Christian sphere of influence: where can we find a foothold when we no longer believe in God?

The whole of Lagerkvist's creative work can be said to spring from a fundamentally divided experience of existence. We learn from the autobiographical description with the significant title "Gäst hos verkligheten" ("Guest of Reality") how the child and young man experienced two alternative worlds, the home, with the mother as its central support, and life outside. He himself stood apart from both, unable to commit himself fully to either.

His mother's world, illumined by Christian faith, represents meaningful coherence with a metaphysical superstructure and a firm system of values. Life implies a blind, biological, natural process in which man is merely an involuntary element with inescapable annihilation awaiting him. This is the meaning of the formula "things as they are" ("så som det är"), which recurs with minor variations throughout Lagerkvist's work, whereas the formula for his mother's world is "that which does not exist" ("det some inte finns").

These are the two poles in Lagerkvist's imaginative world, and he constantly swings between them. But it is always his mother's world that is the positive pattern. Most of the female figures in his work are formed in her image, and it is also from her world that he derives his two key words "light" and "peace". Even though Lagerkvist cannot by any means be said to have attained a firm faith in God, it is the two transcending forces in human life, the longing for spiritual reality and the longing for love, that always constitute the meaningful and controlling factors in his attempted solutions to the problem of life's significance. They are the very foundation pillars in "the world of the human heart" that he has mapped out for us.

The sense of alienation from existence is a major theme in twentieth-century literature, and as one of its interpreters Lagerkvist is akin to writers like Kafka and Camus. He belongs among those whose struggle against the dehumanization of mankind has led them to seek for the hidden God, a solution to the metaphysical riddles of life.

This has been particularly marked in the last two decades; from "Barabbas" onwards the magnetic power from the pole of "what does not exist" has been decisive in Lagerkvist's work. (pp. 57-8)

Lagerkvist's power to create images is perhaps his most characteristic gift as a writer. I do not think that Lagerkvist's books spring to mind primarily as quotations, but it is as pictures—of people and situations—that they remain in our memory. We need only think of figures like "the Hangman" and "the Dwarf", leading representatives of a one-dimensional world, "things as they are".

In his more recent phase Lagerkvist has given us a sequence of images for man in relationship to the hidden God. The pictures are taken in a peculiar twilight which often gives us plus and minus variants at one glance; it is the deep truth of paradox that they convey. (p. 58)

Lagerkvist's work from 1950 to 1964 constitutes a closely connected sequence, of which the five prose works, "Barabbas" (1950), "The Sibyl" (1956), "The Death of Ahasuerus" (1960), "Pilgrim at Sea" (1962) and "The...

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Holy Land" (1964) are interlinked entities within a five-part picture, while "Aftonland" (1953) provides a lyrical background.

"Mariamne" (1967) … provides a more independent epilogue.

"Aftonland" is a fruitful place to begin our short survey precisely because the collection of poems acts as a sounding-board for the themes found separately in the novels.

The collection is divided into five sections, with varying themes, but the atmosphere is more or less the same throughout, and this gives the collection a powerful unity. The posing of the problems, or more accurately of the questions connected with man's relationship to God, also contributes to this effect.

After the first three sections have led us into "aftonlandet", the land of the preparation for death, and have emphasized man's eternal, unquenchable longing, we are confronted with the fourth and in every way the most powerful section. In twenty-four poems Lagerkvist here gives as many variations on the same theme, the relationship between mankind and the two powers, death and god.

It is also here that we find the most suggestive expression of the major dilemma, in the poem "En främling är min vän": "Vem är du som uppfyller mitt hjärta med din frånvaro? Som uppfyller hela världen med din frånvaro" ("Who are you who fills my heart with your absence? Who fills the whole world with your absence?"). This might be called the formula for man's relationship to the hidden God. (pp. 58-9)

The hidden God passes by, acting as it were absent-mindedly, without attention or consideration for the "victim" who is being overwhelmed, as is so often the case with Lagerkvist. (pp. 59-60)

The sense of alienation is dual: for the poet, God is alien, unattainable and incomprehensible, but at the same time the experience of him has such power that the poet is also a stranger in his surroundings. This is perhaps the heart of Lagerkvist's creative writing, most markedly so in his more recent period. It is a recurring theme in "Aftonland", and it distinguishes most of the characters in the prose works, especially Barabbas, the Sibyl and Ahasuerus….

God's power over man is stressed in more aggressive, almost hostile images of man overwhelmed by God, man in God's violent power, another major theme in Lagerkvist's later work.

The main image in [the "Aftonland" collection], the spear, has been prepared for in a previous poem ("Säg mig du eviga stjärna"), where the hostility of the transcendent is clearly expressed in the image "the spearpoint from eternity". (p. 60)

The main stress can be laid on the non-existence of the spear-thrower God, while the spear-faith does exist irrespective of this: man's longing for the transcendent and his religious need are independent of the existence of God….

The power which overwhelms man from outside is, however, so strongly stressed in the image of the spear, which must after all have been thrown by someone outside mankind, that it seems to me absurd not to place the greatest emphasis on this.

The paradoxical, and catastrophically devastating, power that the hidden God has over men even when they do not believe, is given expression in a number of poems…. (p. 61)

The final section in the collection is introduced by a poem in which Lagerkvist again approaches the language of the mystics…. The dark spring in this poem foreshadows a major symbol in the subsequent prose works and one particularly associated with Ahasuerus and Tobias.

It is also in this section that there appears the splendid sequence "Skapelsemorgon" ("The Morning of Creation") where nine poems give variations on the relationship between the Creator and creation and where loneliness and a sense of alienation are recurring motifs.

In the very last poem in the collection God's face has been reflected in "den stilla aftonfloden" but the wind in sorrow erases the reflection and the speaker of the poem sits abandoned in darkness…. The paradoxical bond between man and the hidden God provides the last chord of "Aftonland".

The most rewarding approach for the understanding of "Barabbas" is in my opinion to see the archetype in the protagonist's situation: that of the redeemed in relation to the redeemer. Who can illustrate man's relationship to the God of Christianity better than the convict in whose place (taken in a quite literal sense) Christ died?

The number of traits Lagerkvist has given him in common with his own alter ego Anders in "Guest of Reality" is, however, striking: a marked isolation within his own ego, an equally marked alienation from the world around him, an overmastering anguish at the thought of death, and an inability to believe, to name only the most important. One could even say that Lagerkvist has found in Barabbas his richest and fullest symbol for his own feelings about life, dominated as these are by the shadow of Christ on the cross, in whom he cannot believe and from whom he is unable completely to free himself.

The universally valid and archetypal is interwoven with the personal in the novel. This is true both of the main characters and the world in which they move. We find a similar interweaving in Lagerkvist's subsequent prose works, especially perhaps in "The Sibyl".

The ambivalence of irony is used as a creative device throughout "Barabbas" from the presentation of the man who was set free by Christ's death—and failed to recognize the hidden God!—right up to the scene of his death where, like Christ, he hangs on the cross and speaks into the darkness the words addressed by the redeemer to his Father. (pp. 61-2)

Barabbas is a man who really has met the hidden God, has indeed been given back his life by him, and the rest of his life is filled with God's absence. It is quite logical that darkness, the absence of light, should be a symbol for Barabbas throughout the book from the opening scene on Golgotha, where darkness is the only thing he experiences, to the death scene mentioned above. But the light is there, through its absence, just as the hidden God is….

In "The Sibyl" man's experience of God is viewed in a richer and more complex perspective.

At the centre there are once again human beings who have actually met the hidden God, although their initial situation is quite unlike Barabbas's. The Sibyl is chosen, Ahasuerus is condemned. The result of their meeting with God is, however, the same as the result of Barabbas's. Each in his own degree illustrates the same formula from "Aftonland".

There is something akin to the fate-directed dramas of the Ancients in the Sibyl's life. She is presented as a human being utterly overmastered by the gods. But if the framework for the Sibyl's life is almost classical, the psychological portrait of her reveals a modern being who shares many important traits with the writer himself, not least his nature as writer and seer.

In the Sibyl Lagerkvist has described a human being who has not only been chosen and possessed by God, but who has known Him within herself, in the literal sense, by being raped—can one come nearer God than this?! And what is the result? First and foremost loneliness, and this despite the fact that the Sibyl's experience of God is one of the most complete ever described by Lagerkvist. The whole gamut of "Aftonland" chimes in with this.

The Sibyl has experienced God as a terrible, frightening, punishing power, but in ecstasy she is able to "dela guds lycka över att vara till"; she has experienced him as the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. (pp. 62-3)

As opposed to the Sibyl Ahasuerus experiences only the terrifying God, akin to the spear-thrower in "Aftonland", the rejecting, annihilating God….

They have in common an eternal unrest, these three who have in varying measure suffered the power of the hidden God: Barabbas, the Sibyl, and Ahasuerus.

They also share a deeply ironic fate. Barabbas has received a new life thanks to Christ, but what happiness has he gained by that? The Sibyl has come as near to God as is possible for a human, but what loneliness is greater than hers? And Ahasuerus with his anguish at the thought of death—he is condemned to eternal life and knows it to be a death sentence! The lives of all of them are marked by the dual sense of alienation which is the result of meeting the hidden God….

In "Ahasverus död" Lagerkvist breaks the consistency of the legend and allows Ahasuerus to die. (p. 64)

Recognition is a moving force in the book, and the recognition of his fellowman (Tobias) as a brother and of Christ as a brother, accorded by Ahasuerus in his great monologue towards the end of the book, seem to be important steps on the road towards his final expiation and release in death. His great sin in the legend was precisely the elementary one of not recognizing God.

It is, however, indicative of Lagerkvist's ambiguity that in the final monologue he makes Ahasuerus arrive at another symbol for the experience of God which again stresses God's hidden nature: the dark spring. There is much to indicate that this symbol of the spring is nearly related to the one we noted in "Aftonland", and that it expresses a purely mystical longing for something that is truly "bortom gudarna", but which is something other than man. Lagerkvist calls it "det gudomliga".

In this book there appears a new character who "takes over" the wandering pilgrimage after Ahasuerus, and that is Tobias. He and Giovanni, who appears in the next book "Pilgrim på havet", represent new variants of man in relation to the hidden God: they have not themselves met him. (pp. 64-5)

Dream-illusion as opposed to reality-truth constitutes for me the innermost core of "Pilgrim på havet". Two symbols are central here, the sea and the empty medallion that Giovanni always wears.

The irresponsible, indifferent sea, which adopts no attitude to anything and has no aim, but is self-sufficient, as Giovanni puts it, represents blind life where uncertainty is the only certain thing. To give oneself up to it is to choose the truth devoid of illusions…. We are again faced by one of the most central of the problems formulated in Lagerkvist's work.

When Tobias realizes that the sea is, after all, not everything, that there is also a shore, an aim, this is especially caused by the medallion that Giovanni has shown him, the one that carries with it the power of love, even though it is empty.

These two symbols merge into each other as images for the strongest forces in human life, the longing for a meaning to believe in, an aim to strive for, and the longing for a human being to love, forces so strong that they are independent of whether the goal, the object, exists or not. They are two paradoxical symbols that say "yes" and "no" at the same time, and they belong to the same type as the spear that "no one" has thrown, as He who fills the world with his absence….

In the last of the pilgrim novels, "Det heliga landet", Giovanni and Tobias also attain the same death in "peace" and "light" as Ahasuerus had done earlier.

Shortly after his arrival in the strange, barren, coastal country Tobias digs up an ancient image of a god, a carved stone face with a scornful smile…. This is Lagerkvist's well known, averted god.

The inhabitants of this country know nothing of God, but worship a little child. Giovanni states, somewhat drily, that there are also other divine children whose fate has been bound up with shepherds, a clear allusion to Christ. The child's mother is dead, and Tobias's meeting with the child primarily revives the memory of his own decisive betrayal of his beloved in his youth. At the end of the book Tobias meets the Virgin Mary in a vision and she tells him that she was unwittingly the mother of God's son. Later she merges with the beloved of Tobias's youth, who gives him freedom in death.

The hidden god is hinted at in this passage, most clearly in the reference to the unwitting mothers of God (compare the Sibyl).

It is striking throughout how much power woman gradually acquires in this land, which is otherwise only populated by old men….

The mysterious woman with the poisonous snake is central here. She has several important functions, among others to give Giovanni freedom in death and to awaken Tobias's feelings of guilt, and she is clearly associated with the sacred, with higher powers. Is she perhaps a kind of intermediary—or substitute—for the hidden god?

Like Ahasuerus, Tobias reaches a spring at the end of his wanderings. It is not dark,… nor is it deep, but it slakes one's thirst for ever. It is giving and redeeming like Ahasuerus's spring.

The image of the empty medallion, taken over by Tobias from Giovanni, reoccurs in the last scene in the book. The woman from Tobias's youth, his Beatrice, takes from him the medallion, which she also sees is empty, and puts it on her own neck…. Love gives it significance and Tobias can die. (pp. 65-6)

Love also has the last word in "Mariamne".

The protagonist of the book is Herod, another dark figure in the drama of the Christian passion, like Barabbas and Ahasuerus. But Herod is not struck by God like these, he is struck by love. (pp. 66-7)

[It] is clear that Herod belongs to a different race from the eternally restless pilgrims fleeing from or seeking for the hidden God. He belongs rather to the race of the condottiere Boccarossa in "Dvärgen", the one-dimensional and earthbound.

It is thus not to be wondered at that his main symbol should be the desert, a recurring symbol in Lagerkvist's more recent work for a condition of separation from God (see, for example, "Barabbas", "Aftonland", "Det heliga landet"). Nor is it to be wondered at if the star, with its unmistakeably transcendent significance in Lagerkvist's writing, accompanies Herod as a kind of negative "counter-symbol". The "cold spear" of the stars recurs like a refrain in the descriptions of him, and we are reminded of the poem about the star as "spjutspets ur evigheten" in "Aftonland".

Herod does not recognize the hidden God either when he has the chance. The three wise men come and show him the star which tells them that a royal child has been born, but Herod cannot see anything remarkable in this star….

So far [Herod's] picture has been unambiguous and negative. Self-contradiction, duality come in with his building of the temple and his love for Mariamne, two motifs which recur throughout the narrative. It is really what is paradoxical and ambiguous in Herod's nature, his urge to build a temple for a god he does not believe in and his compulsion to love someone who does not love him, which make him "en bild av människan".

Seen in this way "Mariamne" is also a variation on the major themes of Lagerkvist's most recent work. (p. 67)

Gunnel Malmström, "The Hidden God," in Scandinavica (copyright © 1971 by Academic Press Inc. (London) Limited; reprinted with permission), Supplement to Vol. 10, May, 1971, pp. 57-67.

Kenneth Rexroth

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

One of Lagerkvist's earlier books was called Angest, (Anguish) and it might be thought from this that he was influenced by Kierkegaard. On the contrary, his dominant influence was Left Socialism….

Anguish was published in 1916 and its emotional and moral subject is the profound anguish that overwhelmed the revolutionary Socialist movement with the betrayal of the Second International and the participation of the Socialist Partys in the capitalist war they had unanimously vowed to prevent. It wasn't just political disillusionment, as with Lenin, but an awakening to the duplicity in the heart of man. The War taught Lagerkvist the truth of the "Socratic Dilemma"—when faced with a choice between a greater ultimate good and a lesser immediate good almost all men will choose the latter, and furthermore, in the face of reason many men will choose positive evil. It took Hitler to teach these self evident truths to the liberal and radical intellectuals of the world, who then, once the smoke of the gas ovens had blown away, almost immediately forgot.

The irrational corruption of mankind can be made much easier to bear if one believes in God and Original Sin. Lagerkvist believed in neither. Early on he referred to himself as a deeply religious atheist. Now the only large number of deeply religious atheists in the world are Buddhists, so it is not surprising that Lagerkvist's poetry and most especially the poems in Evening Land resemble certain of the most highly developed speculations of Mahayana Buddhism, just as the poems of Gunnar Ekelof owe so much to the great mystical poets of Persian Sufism. Ekelof consciously modeled himself on poets like Hafidh, and many of his poems read like translations. It is hard to tell just how much Lagerkvist was actually influenced by reading Mahayana Buddhist texts…. [There] is not the slightest echo of such terminology, not the slightest hint of exoticism. His "Doctrine of the Void" is not a doctrine at all, and the Void is there in Sweden, not in Kyoto. The transcendental Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the immense pantheon of Buddhism are admittedly "conceptual entities," that is imaginary, part of the unreality of universal illusion behind them lies the Void known to Mind Only. In Evening Land Lagerkvist is continuously seeking identification with the Void behind an imaginary diety.

     Surrounded by a void      as a constellation is by space      with infinite distance between its luminous points,      its timeless manifestations of itself.      So in complete calm,      in dead perfection,      lives the Truth about the great Nothing.      The soul of the void.      Like a constellation      named after an utterly forgotten divinity….

The religious experience itself is all the Reality there is, an idea not just theologically but emotionally unacceptable to Jews, Christians, and Muslims….

All the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, like the deities of later Hinduism, have both beneficent and wrathful aspects—and yet they are "conceptual entities". So too is the divinity of Lagerkvist, even, or even more so, as revealed to the mind in his wrathful aspect.

All through the poems the narrator appears as "the Wanderer". The empiric ego, in the flux of time and space, in the crystal Swedish winter night under the immense geometrical winter constellations as fluxtuant as the Wanderer himself. "Shadows glide through my lands, quenched shapes of light … the mountains raise their desolate summits". "The combinations of the world are unstable by nature strive without ceasing." Nirvana.

It is extraordinary that a view of existence just now so extremely fashionable could be presented totally as the experience of one man in one place dealing only with the most objective poetic materials…. Lagerkvist's voice is a voice out of the far Northern forests like the Kalevala of Finland or like the darker and more cryptic poems of the Poetic Edda. He is one of the most sombre writers in modern literature. I am not particularly an admirer of Sibelius, but it is this quality that he sought in his music, the sound of a far away long wooden horn coming through the snow bound, low, sub-arctic forests, the cry of an unknown bird from the middle of a lake, white in the white night. Ibsen and Strindberg achieved moments of this. Lagerkvist didn't need to achieve it; it was there all the time, a habitude of soul.

Kenneth Rexroth, "On Lagerkvist's 'Evening Land'," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1978 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Kenneth Rexroth), January//February, 1978, p. 46.


Lagerkvist, Pär (Vol. 10)


Lagerkvist, Pär (Vol. 7)