"I Do Not Understand Anything,"

The title of this talk derives from what might have been Andersen's next to last words. Elias Bredsdorff reports in his biography of Andersen that the dying man to Mrs. Melchior spoke thus, "I do not understand anything." In Danish: "Jeg veed slet ingenting."1

That statement I am going to use - you may say exploit - by making it a theme for this talk. Of course, I realize that those were the words of an enfeebled mind who was losing touch with life, but permit me to project that statement onto Andersen's tales and use it as a critical tool on those narratives that Andersen created about his life through his various autobiographies and several autobiographical tales. In those, Andersen claims to harbor an understanding of life, his life has meaning and purpose - after all, his life and career was entitled The Fairy Tale of My Life (Mit Livs Eventyr) - and such tales as "The Ugly Duckling" ("Den grimme Ælling") or "The Janitor's Son" ("Portnerens Søn") demonstrate that after many hardships, you find your genuine, deserved, lasting home. Erik Svendsen, summing up much Andersen research, lets Andersen himself state, "It is hard to be a stranger and alone in the world."2 Those are hardly the words of a person who feels at home in the world. Svendsen also astutely points out that "it was in his tales that Andersen found his imaginary home",3 and it can hardly be surprising that such a home is a confusion of rooms that hardly seem to belong in the same apartment or house.

If one looks at the body of Andersen's tales, one will see that a world view (en livsanskuelse) is hardly in place, for tale contradicts tale. Of course, Andersen expressed opinions and revealed attitudes that, more or less, remained the same throughout his career, but they hardly add up to a world view.

Andersen's tales may, however, be seen as embodying a thirty-seven year quest for making sense out of life. That may sound like an ambitious undertaking, but Andersen was immensely and intensely ambitious - beyond the level of social intercourse.

Andersen may not use terms like epistemology or ontology, but the insects that flutter around in his tales, as well as the inanimate objects that act, feel, and speak, and, of course, his human beings as well, are often engaged in a struggle to find or establish meaning. That may sound pretentious, but consider for a moment the fickle butterfly that could not decide on a mate, but finally - and too late - realized that it would not be enough to be in a warm parlor, and that, then, was caught by human beings and stuck on a pin to be admired. As the butterfly reviews the narrative of his life, his conclusion is that he has failed to create a meaningful existence. In "The Dung Beetle" ("Skarnbassen"), that obnoxious myopic, little egotist plods through the world in search of someone to appreciate him truly, and finally, against all reason, he realizes that he is, of course, the cause of the emperor's horse being given golden horseshoes. He is utterly wrong - Andersen had a keen sense of such self-aggrandizing fools, for he knew by heart such self-centered egoism - but the dung beetle, constructing his life's narrative, ends up with a sense of there having been a purpose in his life. That may be a mock narrative to others, but for the individual who seeks meaning no mockery exists. One fool, the butterfly, understands that he has failed; another, the dung beetle, fully believes in his delusions. Such contrasts are common in Andersen.

Profounder examples of dichotomies can be found in "The Dead Child" ("Barnet i Graven") and "The Story of a Mother" ("Historien om en Moder"). In both stories the mothers manage to reestablish meaning in their shattered lives through belief, and in "The Dead Child" textual authority guarantees the mother that her child now is with the Lord, whereas in "The Story of a Mother", the grieving mother may return home resigned to God's will - having constructed a narrative for herself to renew meaning to life - but we, the readers, realize that her regained belief is undermined by the way in which the figure of Death speaks of the "thereafter". The word used is "unknown" - the phrase "the unknown land" is mentioned twice and concludes the tale.4 I know that one can allow the spirit of Biedermeier to inspire one to harmonize the latter story into something akin to the former, but that would hardly be in Andersen's spirit. And it would be an example of critical reductionism.

I can offer many more examples of such dichotomies, and the mass of examples make it clear that it is almost impossible to construct an Andersen world view. I said almost impossible, for any such clever attempts would remain a construction. Let me invoke Kierkegaard's objection to Andersen's lack of world view - but I will do so as briefly as possible -for that objection is becoming too true and tried. Let me put it differently: Andersen had no taste whatsoever for an either-or stance, but provided many both-and's. Kierkegaard's either-or world view, does not, after all, fit Andersen's dealings with existential problems. And let me refer to another grand author of the nineteenth century, namely Ibsen, who had a predilection for the either-or. If Ibsen transports his characters either into the valley or to the mountain heights,5 Andersen's characters are all over the place, so we encounter not a stringent either-or, but a muddled both-and. And both-and world views of life - if they can be called world views at all - are problematic to describe. They are contradictory, inconsistent, irritating, and frustrating, but also fascinating, for they refuse to offer closure, and they force the reader to start anew with every text.

At this point, the folklorist - and at an Andersen conference that field ought to be represented - would interrupt and say: that kind of inconsistency is also a hallmark of the type of folktale that is called legend - in Scandinavian sagn (to that particular topic I shall return in a short while). That combination, however, of the frustrating and the fascinating captures my experience of reading and teaching Andersen. It is frustrating not to be able to formulate his world view, but it is fascinating that he uses the tale as means of probing into existence in most different ways. Perhaps it is misleading to say that he was trying to "understand" - to formulate a world view - for he never sets himself up as the philosopher in search of a system, but his coping with existential issues suggests that an incessant philosophical probing nevertheless took place.

And he was not very successful. That intimate observer of Andersen, Topsøe-Jensen, has pointed out that it is startling that the stories "The Snow Queen" ("Sneedronningen") and "The Pine Tree" ("Grantræet") can be found next to each other, for in a sense one negates the other: blissful Biedermeier Christianity, with a magic tale happy ending, is contradicted by a withering away into ashes, into nothingness - or the unknown.6 I have to admit that I find "The Pine Tree" to be an artistically better text than the famous "The Snow Queen". I explained why I found fault with the latter text five years ago here in Odense.7

But let me again bring in the voice of someone who would not be dumbfounded by Andersen's inconsistencies, namely that folklorist mentioned above: that fictional person would realize to a higher degree than most others Andersen's profound debt to folk tradition, and such a person might say that there is no reason to be puzzled by fluctuations in world view, for Andersen is projecting world views from the folklore genres he was imitating or from which he was borrowing. Even if that imitation grew less conspicuous as the years went by, Andersen's reliance on folklore was one that was retained to the end. He imitated the magic tale and the trickster stories, and proved his talent by creating texts that simultaneously relied on folk narratives and were very much his own - for example "The Janitor's Son" follows the structure of the magic tale, and "The Flying Trunk" ("Den flyvende Kuffert") exhibits a trickster protagonist and the facetious discourse of the skæmteeventyr. Even in texts that are less reliant on folk tales, folk beliefs are still most visible. Else Marie Kofod's De vilde Svaner og andre folkeeventyr. Sidestykker til syv af H. C. Andersens eventyr (1989) clearly demonstrates that Andersen knew how to imitate folk tradition and use it for his own purposes. The book convincingly shows that Andersen, in his creative way, imitated both trylleeventyret and skæmteeventyret. And, of course, those two subgenres have in terms of world views little in common: compare "The Wild Swans" ("De vilde Svaner") and "The Travelling Companion" ("Reisekammeraten") with "Little Claus and Big Claus" ("Lille Claus og store Claus") and "The Emperor's New Clothes" ("Keiserens nye Klæder"), and tell me how these texts can form a coherent view of life. One genre's harmonious world view is negated or contradicted by the next one's carnivalesque perception of life.8 A question comes to mind: where, in terms of world view was Andersen, when he created these contradictory texts? Was he merely imitating folklore in his playful way, adding details galore, or was he exploring world views? Or, for that matter, both?

Andersen's playing with folklore is so independent that most of the times one cannot explain, of course, a single text's world view by chalking it off to an imitation of folklore. Andersen must assume responsibility for these texts. He was not a collector of folklore; he was the innovative storyteller who used the traditional texts for his own purposes. He used the magic tale as a model for his widely divergent "The Little Mermaid" ("Den lille Havfrue") and "The Garden of Eden" ("Paradisets Have"). In the former spirituality is clearly chosen in favor of sensuality, whereas in the latter the young protagonist's spiritual striving must prove to be easily abandoned for the sake of one sensual moment. Some readers may see that moment as a severely failed test, but less Victorian readers will detect by it a felix culpa, a fortunate fall, through which the protagonist learns of and confirms his humanity. Andersen used the magic tale in such a way that his imitation of the tale, made the Märchen a much more varied form of literature, one in which a given structure could be recrafted to reflect world views that would have little in common. That was an artistic feat.

But it was not enough for Andersen to use the magic tale and the trickster story to the hilt and for his own purposes. After all, those subgenres do not capture the intensity of a fear and trembling in life - or if you prefer: horror and pity. Andersen skillfully pushed his imitations of the magic tale and the trickster narrative - skæmteeventyret - to their outer limits, but he needed another genre as vehicle to capture or voice the troubled visions he entertained. In short, as suggested above, he needed the amorphous legend - sagnet - a genre of which scholars have not fully recognized his use.

The legend is custom-fitted to Andersen. As a genre it holds no world view,9 and it is less recognizable, when imitated, than the magic tale or the trickster story, and it is therefore much harder to detect as the model Andersen used for many of his own stories. The legend embodies an ad hoc exploration of existence, and even if some legends are predictable, others offer an unpredictability that is unknown in the magic tale and the trickster story. And therefore the legend was exactly the vehicle that Andersen needed more than any other folk narrative genre. Individual legends may seem to offer an impressive array of existential answers, but as a rule these are particular or partial answers that do not add up philosophically, and the world remains open-ended and without closure. The other genres, such as the magic tale and the trickster tale, offered world views that were too confining, and therefore Andersen had to rely on the legend as a model. And there is one more reason why he had to imitate that genre: both magic tale and trickster story operate with world views that exclude tragedy. Tragedy is most certainly a part of Andersen's world, please recall "The Story of a Mother," a brilliant literary imitation of a legend.

Let me remind you of another chilling text that Andersen himself called a legend, namely "The Evil King" ("Den onde Fyrste"). The initial scene of that story is as ghastly as can be: a mother cradling a baby in her arms is trying to hide from some brutish soldiers, and it is not difficult to imagine what happened when the soldiers found them. No deity prevents the soldiers from what they do. We may not mind that the brutish soldiers laugh at their master in the end of the story - shades of that appear in the ending of the "Tinderbox" ("Fyrtøiet") - but can we forgive the deity for not intervening in the very beginning? What might be Andersen's criticism of a deist view suggests that no one really is looking out for the suffering human being. Does anyone really care? Which easily leads to the question: is there really anyone out there?

In an assorted number of the tales, that divine being is most surely there and cares - and that list of tales is a long one - but Andersen's divine being is an illusive one if we consider the body of Andersen's texts. The divine being who demands that you humble yourself in the dust in "The Red Shoes" ("De røde Skoe") seems to have little in common with the caring deity in "On the Last Day" ("Paa den yderste Dag") - or the pantheistic presence or essence in "The Bell" ("Klokken"). If you ask me to define the Christian outlook in Andersen's tales - that is, in the tales that are Christian - I will have to return to that utterance of the old, ailing Andersen and say: "Jeg veed slet ikke." I do not understand.

Let me finally cut to the story that Andersen wanted his readers to consider his last, namely "Auntie Toothache" ("Tante Tandpine"). Even if I am quite uncertain about much of Andersen, I have the distinct hunch that he wanted his audience to experience that text as his farewell not only to his vocation, but also to his audience. It is a tale of rare honesty. The trickster author, who a few years earlier had written one of his trickiest stories, the witty and wicked "The Flea and the Professor" ("Loppen og Professoren"), wanted to leave out trickery, finally.

The farewell to the audience may not seem to be a part of this paper - a peculiar digression, perhaps - but it would be unrealistic not to include Andersen's relationship to his audience as that thin-skinned author undoubtedly had his readers in mind as he prepared that yearly volume of tales for thirty-seven years. Many tales reflect his view of his audience, those who applauded and booed and who pulled him in various directions as he tried to prepare each new batch of tales. He had to please, and it may be conjectured that his constant gauging of his readers's reactions and expectations was one of the reasons why he found it impossible to formulate a world view. He wanted to please and he wanted to criticize, and he did both, and he hit so many positions in-between.

In "Auntie Toothache" two representatives of the audience are present, the two aunties, Mille and Toothache, and both receive a scathing send-off by the old author. Auntie Mille fails to grasp what the student is writing - she wants first and foremost to be entertained - and Auntie Toothache causes pain, and she informs the student that an artist is prone to feel excruciating pain. If that is your audience, what do you do?

Try to please or depict the pain or both? That audience may be an exasperating and confusing one to write for; when Auntie Mille hears the "stories" that the student has made up, her response to them is an artist's nightmare, for they reveal her complete miscomprehension of them. The other representative of the audience, Auntie Toothache tells him to stop writing; otherwise, he will suffer a mean toothache. Metaphors for pain, of course, are present in many Andersen stories - but, finally, through the voice of the physically and existentially tormented student, Andersen says "no more". Let me suggest that an old artist bids goodbye to a quest for understanding that could not be completed.

The two audiences may suggest why that quest ended in such a way, and in such a sad tale. Andersen, when writing, felt pulled in two directions - to say the least. Such a situation hardly permits an author to construct a world view. Rather, Andersen engaged in a dialogue or a dialectics, using the various genres that he knew from narrative folk-lore, to represent the voices speaking from within and without. In "Auntie Toothache" the voice from without is that of a Biedermeier audience that wants to be entertained, no matter what, and tragedy can be very entertaining, offering discount catharsis. The voice within, then, is that of the specter, who reminds him that his vocation is one that means pain and pain and pain; and such pain being existential means that the poet never can achieve any peace of mind.

So, finally, let me return to the phrase, "I don't understand anything," by commenting on some passages in "Auntie Toothache". Early in the text, the student sees an insect crawling on a leaf, and he writes a comment on human ignorance the point of which is that in spite of the fact that people tend to pontificate on God, the universe, and immortality, they know next to nothing about those monumental matters.

Perhaps that statement can be called banal, but it is honest: here are no grand visions of the afterlife, only human ignorance. When that statement is read to Auntie Mille, it becomes clear that she does not fathom its implications, and, as mentioned, that lack of comprehension must be disturbing to the writer. Then he writes a passage about the nights spent in his rented rooms. The poet's writing is quite eloquent here, quite realistic, and quite haunting, but Aunt Mille once again fails to comprehend the point of it. Let me be precise: she sees the passage as being merely a prop for a dramatic event, and she wants the poet to add unhappy people to that stage set. She fails to grasp that the nightly scene described is that of a mental reality and that an unhappy person - the author of that narrative - is very much present. That insufficient response on part of the audience may have been galling, and elsewhere Andersen created stinging portraits of that audience, such as in "The Flea and the Professor" and "The Flying Trunk".

Audience and author could not work together to form a world view. Productive poets like Oehlenschläger, Grundtvig, Ingemann, and Heiberg suffered little from such a problem, and consequently it was a good deal easier for them to write in such a way that we - their critics and undertakers - could capture their world views. As "Auntie Toothache" ends, the poet falls off to sleep, and his dreams provide the third text within the tale: after his minimalist visions of life, he turns to death: he imagines with joy death by water, and as the poet sinks into the water, he wrestles with all the great issues of life - and gives up on them. These lines clearly express a desire for peace, one that can only be obtained through death. One can hardly find a more explicit death wish in Andersen's works.

We construct a lot of ideas and narratives - and Andersen knew about those clever constructions - and he knew that they may all be bunk; we may finally have to admit that they are silly illusions.10 In "Auntie Toothache" these scribbles end up in the garbage can anyway. So who understands, who knows? Andersen tried, tried extremely hard, to present and cope with world views that were incompatible. Not all 156 tales are splendid, but some of them are, and some of them are surely an undertaking to understand. But they did not add up; we cannot construct an Andersen world view. That can be called a failure, but it can also be seen as artistically mesmerizing, and as a gateway to the modern. "I do not understand anything", he said. Fine, Mr. Andersen, join the modern club, the modernity for which you helped set the stage.


1. Elias Bredsdorff, Hans Christian Andersen. The Story of His Life and Work, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975, p. 274. H. C. Andersens Dagbøger 1825-1875, Copenhagen: Det danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab, 1971-76, X, p. 482. back

2. Erik Svendsen, "Han duede ikke. Om H. C. Andersen og biedermeier", in Anderseniana, 1994, p. 32. back

3. Svendsen, p. 13. back

4. Patricia L. Conroy & Sven H. Rossel, eds., Hans Christian Andersen's Tales and Stories, Seattle/London: University of Washington Press, 1980, p. 165. back

5. That contrast can be found in both early and late texts, from Brand to When We Dead Awaken (Naar vi døde vaagner), and it seems that Ibsen was caught, throughout his life, between a Kierkegaardian either-or and a desire for the both-and. The protagonists of Brand and When We Dead Awaken are idealists who nevertheless attempt to realize both-and lives, and both fail. Andersen is never that clear-cut. back

6. Topsøe-Jensen, Helge, "Sneedronningen", in Buket til Andersen. Bemærkninger til femogtyve Eventyr, Copenhagen: Gad, 1971, pp. 92-102. back

7. Niels Ingwersen, "Genredialektikken i H. C. Andersens eventyr", in Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen & Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen, eds., Andersen og Verden, Odense: Odense University Press, 1993, pp. 166-69. back

8. See Jens Aage Doctor, "H. C. Andersens karneval", in Andersen og Verden, pp. 410-19. back

9. Bo Hakon Jørgensen maintains that the folktale offers no world view. That opinion can be contested, but it is correct that it is impossible to predict what view of the world the legend will offer. See "At tænke i eventyr", in Mogens Brøndsted, ed., H. C. Andersen og hans kunst i nyt lys, Odense: Odense University Press, 1976, pp. 53-68. back

10. Finn Barlby is, of course, right when he assesses "Auntie Toothache" to be euphorically good art, but the euphoria is on part of the reader, not on part of the protagonist - except when he imagines himself fading away into oblivion. Protagonist and reader must be kept apart; we enjoy Steen Steensen Blicher's tragic stories for they are artistically splendid - as is Andersen's "The Shadow" ("Skyggen") - but we shudder at the thought that we share the protagonists ghastly experiences. An excellent performance of Shakespeare's King Lear is a mesmerizing experience, but we ought to realize that we have been denied catharsis. It is correct that "Auntie Toothache" is told well, and Barlby's clever and intricate analysis reveals that in detail, but it fails to register the fatigue and the admission of ignorance that transcends the witty and scathing exposure of audience and vocation. See Finn Barlby, Det dobbelte Liv. Om H. C. Andersen, Copenhagen: Dråben, 1993, pp. 77-83. back

Bibliographic information about the text:

Ingwersen, Niels: ""I Do Not Understand Anything," Andersen Said" , In: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen and Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (ed.): Hans Christian Andersen. A Poet in Time. Papers from the Second International Hans Christian Andersen Conference 29 July to 2 August 1996. The Hans Christian Andersen Center, Odense University, Odense University Press. 576 pages, Odense, Denmark 1999.