M.G. Piety

Ibsen (and Kierkegaard) at Temple

In Conference news, Publishing News on May 12, 2013 at 10:17 pm
Henrik ibsen

Henrik ibsen

One of the nice things about living in Philadelphia is the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium. The consortium is made up of the philosophy departments of local colleges and universities (including The University of Delaware). The member institutions share information about events of interest to philosophers. Given the number of institutions in the consortium, there’s nearly always something good going on.

On Friday, May 2, I attended a symposium at Temple. Sponsored by Temple’s Department of Philosophy, the Center for Ibsen Studies of the University of Oslo, and The Center for the Humanities at Temple, the two-day symposium was entitled “Staging Skepticism: Ibsen and the Drama of Modernity.” Kristin Boyce and Susan Feagin presented papers on Thursday morning entitled, respectively, “The Method of Doubt and the Willing Suspension of (Dis)belief in Little Eyolf” and “Are Play Scripts Literature?” Frode Helland and Kristin Gjesdal presented papers in the afternoon entitled “The Use and Abuse of Truth: Skeptics and Skepticism in Ibsen,” and “Doubting the Past: Tragedy, Tradition, and Modernism in Ibsen’s Ghosts.”

Unfortunately, I was not able to make the event on Thursday. Fortunately, I was able to make it on Friday and was treated to two very stimulating presentations. The first, by the dashing and handsome Leonardo Lisi, was entitled “Ibsen and the Metaphysics of Doubt,” and the second, by the lovely and sophisticated Toril Moi, was entitled “Hedda’s Silences: Reading, Philosophy, Theater.”

It’s easy for those of us in the fields of philosophy and theology delude ourselves that we have a monopoly on scholarly work on Kierkegaard. This symposium demonstrated clearly, however, that Kierkegaard is of great interest to people in the field of literary theory. I don’t know to what extent Kierkegaard’s thought figured into the presentations the first day, but references to Kierkegaard were much in evidence on day two.

Lisi, whose first book was entitled Marginal Modernity: The The Aesthetics of Dependency from Kierkegaard to Joyce (Fordham, 2012) is hard at work on two new book projects, both of which involve Kierkegaard.

There was a stimulating discussion after Moi’s paper. It ranged far and wide, but the part that I thought would be of particular interest to readers of this blog concerned a problem of translation. Danish has two words that can be translated as “silent”: “stille” and “tavs.” The former is used to refer both to nature and to people. That is, one speaks in Danish of a wood (i.e., forest) being “stille,” just as one could in English refer to it as “still.” But “stille” can also be used to describe people. The expression “ti stille” means “be quiet,” or “be still,” as we also often say in English.

Tavs,” on the other hand is never used to refer to nature alone. There is, as Moi explained, an “element of agency” to it. People, not nature, are “tavs.” The Ferrall-Repp dictionary defines “tavs” as “silent, hushed, discreet,” and the expression “ubrødelig taushed” as “inviolable secrecy.”

This is important because during the discussion after Moi’s paper, one of the participants in the seminar pointed out that while Moi had referred repeatedly in her paper to Hedda’s “silences” in Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, Hedda is not really silent at all but speaks throughout, and at least occasionally on precisely the topics on which Moi had described her as “silent.” Moi conceded the point but then explained that although Hedda speaks throughout the play, her speech fails to reveal important truths that are relevant to the plot.

To my mind, Moi didn’t need to concede anything to her critic. Hedda is “silent” in the sense in which we often use the expression in English. That is, she is not forthcoming with information that is important to the circumstances of the play. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following as the second definition of “silent”: “Omitting mention of or reference to, passing over or disregarding, something in narration; containing no account or record.” “Unmentioned, unrecorded; marked by the absence of any record” is also given as a definition.

Another point that may interest readers of this blog. One of the participants mentioned to me during the break between Lisi’s and Moi’s papers that she was curious concerning whether Ibsen’s plays would have been performed in Norwegian in Norway. Many people don’t realize, I suspect, that though Ibsen was Norwegian, he wrote in Danish. Even fewer people realize, however, that all Norwegians at that time wrote in Danish. Danish was simply the written language of Norway. That’s why modern Norwegian (in contrast to “new Norwegian”) is known in Norway as “bokmål.” Modern Norwegian, which is effectively Danish with a few spelling changes, is the language of books (bøker). There were a few spelling differences even in Ibsen’s day, but so few that one could get all the way through a book from that period without realizing that it was actually Norwegian and not Danish. (New Norwegian, or nynorsk, is an attempt to reconstruct a common Norwegian language from the many dialects that were spoken in Norway before the Danes took over there in the sixteenth century.)

So yes, Ibsen wrote in Danish, but that’s basically the same thing as saying he wrote. Even today Danes and Norwegians rarely bother to try to speak one another’s language. Modern Norwegian, though it sounds very different from Danish, is more like a dialect of Danish than a different language.

Finally, I may have said this before, but it bears repeating. One of the benefits of learning Danish is that when you get very good at it, you’ll be able to read Norwegian. I keep forgetting that. I had such a good time at the symposium, though, that I’ve decided to read some Ibsen!

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  1. Yes it is a person, who is ‘tavs’ – but in poetry it is often used for the forest too – and I thougth it should be fun to try this on Google ‘den tavse skov’ [the silent forest] and got a lot of interesting results!

  2. Thanks for this. It’s very interesting. Perhaps descriptions of forests as being “tavs” involve implicit references to the fact that the animals one presumes are there are silent. I think your point is very well taken though in that language tends to be messy. It is probably always better to say that a word is “rarely” used in a particular way, rather than that it is “never” used in that way. I wouldn’t have said “never” even in this case if Moi hadn’t made that remark about agency.

  3. I don’t think you need a password to post a comment. Thanks for that correction. One correction like that is easy to make. I made it already.

    I’m glad you were pleased about being invited to England. I thought you would be!

    M.G. Piety Department of English and Philosophy Drexel University 3250-60 Chestnut Street Philadelphia, PA 19104 Phone: 215-895-2879

    Website: mgpiety.org Blog: http://pietyonkierkegaard.com

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