The Arabesque and the Grotesque- Hans Christian Andersen Decomposing the World of Poetry
It is a well-known fact that Hans Christian Andersen made his début as a writer three times during his youth. The first time he published a book was in 1822, when Youthful Attempts came out under the name of William Christian Walter. This small book contains "Alfsol", a tragedy in blank verse, and the story "The Ghost at Palnatoke's Grave". By means of a primitive magic the young man tried to tie his destiny to two of the most famous poets of European literature, William Shakespeare and Walter Scott. He had felt prompted to use a nom de plume by Sir Walter Scott, whose novels during these years were being translated into Danish.
How immature the tragedy "Alfsol" and the tale of the ghost might seem, they paved the way for him to further education. He was 17 years old, penniless and in need for help, but the main part of the circulation ended up in the paper mill, and for some time the young poet rendered himself guilty with regard to the printer's widow. To this first painful experience one may trace back the ever recurring motifs in his narratives that all poetry end up in the rubbish bin.
The second time he made his début was in 1829, when he published Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the Eastern Point of Amager, a book which can hardly be classified as a travel book. To me it seems a subtle and humorous arabesque and a literary satire. This book was published in the year after he had left grammar-school and was qualifying for the entrance examination to academic studies at the university. It can rightly be regarded as a key, which enables us to understand the entire development of his later production, just like Love on Saint Nicholas's Tower, a parodic vaudeville published in the following year, indicates the starting point in his career as a playwright.
It was Carl Bagger, his friend from the school days, who had instigated him to cultivate his inborn talent for satire, and during the same year he published Journey on Foot they met regularly together with a third mate in the "Serapionsclub" to which Andersen showed up with a piece of paper sticking out of his pocket. As a free writer it was the fantastic arabesque à la E. T. A. Hoffmann, which came into the centre of their poetic endeavour. What he had learned from Bernhard Severin Ingemann, his fatherly friend, talked about to Carl Bagger and read in Hoffmann, Jean Paul and Ludwig Tieck, he laid out in his book, which as a mixture of an autobiography in disguise and an allegorical satire contains all the basic motifs of his poetic world as a raw material.
The third time Andersen made his début was in 1835, when after his return from Italy he published his first novel, The Improvisatore, and the first small collection of fairy tales. If we prefer to stick to the traditional portrait of the artist as the world-famous writer of fairy tales, it is his début in 1835, that indicates the real breakthrough. In the course of the following fifteen years from 1835 to 1850 he established himself as a European celebrity and as a classical fairy tale teller.
The first two attempts from 1822 and 1829 have always been brushed aside by the critics and scholars as immature and unoriginal. The entire production from 1822 to 1835 has been labelled as a loutish period of immature writing, and the poet who had acquired a reputation in world literature as the unrivalled master of the fairy tale was only known by his domestic audience as a man perpetually causing scandals at the Royal Theatre.
It became the classical poet, Hans Christian Andersen, the successful author of "The Nightingale" and "The Emperor's New Clothes", that could be used for literary exportation, whereas the split romanticist and the modernist was kept in at home. Everywhere in Andersen's production one finds a current showdown between the aesthetic values of classicism and romanticism. There was an ever ongoing dispute between the classicist's claim for clarity, harmony, truth, nature, and reason on the one hand and the romanticist's demands on a colourful and occasionally confused mixture of everything, variation, imagination, emotion, and even irrationalism on the other. Today, the general view held by Andersen researchers is that his works should be considered a whole. Classical, romantic and even modernist elements are present here and there in his entire production, and above all there is a continuously experimenting feature about his artistic practice, which highly fascinates his mature readers. Therefore I dare put forward the allegation that the conflict between classicism and romanticism becomes crucial as a problem of genre, because the genre as a literary mould reflects the author's psychical condition and the social and cultural state in the society he lives in. With the retold folk tales, which from a linguistic and an artistic point of view lived up to the expectations of his readers, the author succeeded in meeting a demand for a mixture of romanticism and realism present in the audience of the 1830's. As long as Andersen remained on the safe ground of tradition, he could keep upright even with the fairy tales of his own making. This argument is valid for tales like "The Little Mermaid" and "Thumbelina", which most certainly are romantic as far as their contents are concerned, but yet classical to their form. But what are we going to do with the narrative defying all the claims of good taste? In Hans Christian Andersen's writings the concept of the unchangeable qualities of the human nature so familiar to the Christian and to the classical writer collide with the romantic ideas of an ever ongoing evolution and a steady historical progress, which are so crucial to him. The concept of a cultural and moral evolution of mankind is so important to him that the most severe sin he can imagine is to deny evolution and to reject all renewal. But new ages, new ideas call for new forms, and it is seen from this angle the philosophy of genres is lending us a hand as a literary midwife.
All the texts by Andersen describing the contrast between the old and the new, between destruction and rebirth, between order and chaos, could possibly be characterized as arabesques. By doing so the arabesque has not yet been established as a poetic genre of its own in line with the fairy tale in the poet's production, but as a category of texts sanctioning an element of aesthetic and philosophical significance in which the poet himself, art and life in general, are central themes and the narrative as such less important.
The deepest layer in Andersen's production is neither the folk tale nor the German artistic tale. If we insist that Andersen had made his début twice before he appeared as a fairy tale teller, then the true source of his poetry stems from his social background. It is the formless, proletarian chaos, from which all the archetypes emerge, still capable of conceiving images - the mythical store of the human race, as Johannes V. Jensen once said. In the arabesque the child's simple song has become the starting point of thought, and the arabesque permeates all Andersen's writings from the very beginning to the end.
To the conception of the arabesque is linked a notion of life as a travel in time and space. Ceaseless departures, variation, restlessness, longing, worry and metamorphosis are thus necessary ingredients. The arabesque works of Andersen are generally characterized by being composed of a heterogeneous material such as on-the-spot reports, anecdotes, episodes, literary digressions, genre pictures and prose poems - all the disjecta membra poëtae. They do not make up a scrap heap of the fairy tale, as generally believed, they rather tend to account for an independent structure of short prose writing, a transition of poetry to prose. The arabesque works are closely connected to the travel books, which they break up and decompose from within, because Andersen's itineraries tell only very little about the social life of the countries he paid visits to. Politics, history and social conditions mattered little to him as a writer. He was aiming both at higher and lower targets. Lower in the sense that it is the instant, the drops of time and the significant details of life, which fascinate him; higher in the meaning that the philosophical and the religious dimensions rarely disappear from his field of vision for a long time.
If one imagines that it is possible to record the arabesque part of Andersen's works separately, there would hardly be any of his world-famous fairy tales among them. Consequently, the arabesque section is made up by the following major works:
Journey on Foot to Amager, 1829
Shadow Pictures, 1831
Picture Book without Pictures,1839
A Poet's Bazaar, 1842
In Sweden, 1851
These books are all well-known, major works in their own right by virtue of other values than those normally ascribed to the fairy tales. They are primarily characterized by being rhapsodies, i.e. torn pieces, fragments, which have been sewed together, just like the Greek folk singers recited fragments from Homer. The work of a mixed breed, but from a musical and a literary point of view characteristic by its use of popular motifs, a kind of instrumental invention across well-known songs, compiled or sampled from everywhere like a fabric. The underlying, aesthetic concept is that the single work of art is a piece of patchwork - thus the large text Journey on Foot looks like a colourful tapestry of ever changing small scenes. In the 8th chapter of this book the poet portrays himself as a rhapsodist on Amager watching a royal parade in which all the famous works of world literature take part on their way to the huge dumping ground of history. Amager is also illustrated as the flat island of an everlasting process of poetic recycling, an island always in a position to deliver fresh cabbage heads for the consumers in the capital. The world literature is represented as an army of tired and worn out volumes followed by ambulances, stretchers and hearses on their way to the pantheon of poetry also located on Amager and allegorically depicted as the barracks of the spirit. This vision has nothing in common with a triumphal procession. It is a defeated army and the temple of poetry does not look like the one in Greece. "Your travel will never belong to heaven or hell, but Amager forever", the Amager-woman tells him, and as a representative of classicism and reason she is able to foresee his destiny.
Journey on Foot is a grotesque and serious satire foreseeing the deluge of letters in a mass society, and this issue is in my opinion not only superior as a motive in Andersen's first book but also an overall theme in his entire production. A kind of grotesque humour is one of the characteristics of the arabesque, and if we take a look at the collected tales we may easily sort out a series of narratives typical of the same fluttering, self-ironical and even prophetic style as for instance
"A Good Temper", 1852
"Ole, The Tower Keeper", 1859
"The Muse of the New Century", 1861
"The Will-o'-the-Wisps Are in Town", 1865
"The Puppet Theatre Director", 1868
"Auntie Toothache", 1872
and a lot more. None of these odd tales are particularly well-known, but many of them have their style and tone in common with Journey on Foot. They carry the same use of language, the euphoria and the gallows humour of a 23 year old student. Journey on Foot and "Auntie Toothache" close the circle of Andersen's story-telling and being arabesques both of them one may tend to believe that the arabesque young man was the true Andersen, who was subdued by the demands of the surrounding society. It is in fact not as simple as that. Like the trend of modernism in general the arabesque has its particular share in European tradition and does not mean a rupture with it. The narcissistic character of Andersen's early writing is herited from Lawrence Sterne, Jean Paul and Jens Baggesen, who were Andersen's admired models of humorous style. The eye, which sees, the hand, which writes, are reminiscent of Baggesen, but Andersen's world is neither a maze, nor is it a cheerful round in the scrolls of his ego, it is much more a bazaar with an open display of multicoloured webs from the global loom of poetry.
The question I should like to discuss in this paper is the following: Is the arabesque just an artistic element going back to the aesthetic thinking of Immanuel Kant and J. Winckelmann or is it a literary genre in its own rights? As a satirical allegory dealing with the poet's self, his destiny and the state of literature in general, Journey on Foot comes close to Jens Baggesen's marvellous rhymed epistle The Ghost and Himself or Baggesen about Baggesen from 1806. The decline of poetry and of good taste is a universal theme of the classical satire, and Baggesen's eminent talent for using well-known Copenhagen localities as metaphors of a philosophical impact was carefully copied by Andersen. When Johan Ludvig Heiberg reviewed Journey on Foot, he tried to encircle the essential capacity of the young writer by saying: "The poetic colouring, the stylish keynote are the fundamentals." Heiberg pointed out that the prevailing quality of Andersen is a union of the poet's brilliant inspiration with the sense of grouping. Heiberg went on saying: "The author finds himself in the same position as a painter, who before he dares take on strong compositions, practise on making arabesques; for in the arabesque the elements are casual, heterogeneous and indifferent to each other, but the originality and the grace by means of which they are fused, endow them with an artistic value." Journey on Foot can be regarded as a musical fantasia.
Heiberg and Andersen both make use of the word arabesque as a term of genre. In The Fairy Tale of My Life, his autobiography from 1855, Andersen wrote: "Having passed my examinations, the multicoloured fantasies and inventions by which I had been haunted on my walking tours back from my coach, flew like a swarm of bees out in the world in my first publication: Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the Eastern Point of Amager, a humours, weird book, a kind of fanciful arabesque, yet perfectly indicating my whole personality and my views at that time."
Whereas Heiberg just looked at the book as a successful aesthetic achievement, Andersen regarded it as a serious book dealing with a young man of talent, lingering at the doorstep, taking a deep breath before he finally enters the public room of literature. In The Fairy Tale of My Life he also mentions the models he had in mind writing Shadow Pictures, explicitly stating Jens Baggesen and his admired travel book The Labyrinth. Just like Baggesen's descriptive book had been intended as the first part of a series of literary foot walks, so Andersen would like to take on the fulfilment of the late poet's task. He went on from where Baggesen had let go. A short time before his death, Baggesen had made plans for a literary magazine entitled Ironia, which he intended to publish together with a nephew of Jean Paul, but it never came into existence. The ironical-arabesque line in Andersen's works is a continuation of Baggsen's plans with all its disrespect to the literary establishment. Many years later, while staying in Weimar, Andersen met one of Jean Paul's former female friends who told him that he reminded her of this great poet, but being a critical admirer of Jean Paul and his chattiness, Andersen did not feel really flattered. Still Jean Paul had been amply quoted in Journey on Foot, and the texts he has sponsored in Andersen's production are easily pinpointed. In "Auntie Toothache" Andersen deliberately dismisses Jean Paul by saying that as a writer he was not really exciting.
Journey on Foot has never been intended as a presentation of localities in Copenhagen and Amager, as Johan de Mylius has put it, but this small book is nonetheless in line with Baggesen's attempts to continue the spiritual, aesthetic debate. Only the rhymed epistle, which since the days of the Roman poet Horace had been the true vehicle for literary satire, had been transformed into a prose arabesque. All the drastic, queer and even grotesque elements in Baggesen's writings assimilate with Andersen's rich ingenuity and his underlying seriousness. The arabesque taken as a mentality in the aesthetics of the romantic philosophers means the square of poetry. Poetry is regarded as a lyrical reflection and a philosophical allegorization of man's existence. The arabesque is considered a text of double articulation just like the fairy tale, but it addresses only the adult reader, who can read between the lines. In the arabesque text comical and tragical elements are mixed and man regarded as a very limited and yet very infinite being, ridiculous and eternal at the same time.
The absurd humour in Journey on Foot winds through other narratives by Andersen. The vision of the defeated army of wounded writers and poets on their way to the recycling ground reappear in "Ole, The Tower Keeper", form 1859, where the evil powers of chaos get the upper hand on New Year's eve. "Isn't it a delightful experience to get reset to zero now and then, when you are sitting as high as I am and then remember that we all of us just are short-lived ants on the hill of this earth, even if we are highly decorated ants." Ole recollects the flight of the furious army of dead ancestors heading for Amager during the times of literary flood.
A metatext of the same kind is to be found in "The Will-o'-the-Wisps Are in Town" from 1865. In my view this arabesque is Andersen's comment on his entire collection of fairy tales depicting his desperate feelings, when Denmark had been defeated by Germany in 1864 and the civilised world he had lived for was blown into bits. Here the scrupled poet enters the purgatory at the risk of reappearing in the shape of a will-o'-the-wisp or a runner in front of the devil's coach.
During all the history of Danish literature no other writer has ever been as doubtful about his own work and the value of poetry in general as Hans Christian Andersen. Texts like "Ole, The Tower Keeper", "The Will-o'-the-Wisps" and "Auntie Toothache" come up to his worst expectations and anxieties so evidently disclosed in his first book. These are the tales, where the fairy tale is demolished and his own activity as a writer rejected.
"Auntie Toothache" is the last tale in the fairy tale collection, and it is closely allied to Journey on Foot. Søren Kierkegaard claimed that his entire production had been made according to a preconceived plan. As for Andersen, the same thing has no need of getting proved. After more than forty years of writing he fills in the empty space left for chapter 14 in Journey on Foot with his last tale. In the arabesque way, "Auntie Toothache" deals with the fall of civilised man and with the whole process of cultural formation in terms of a tangible and metaphorical toothache. By doing so Andersen returns to the starting point in the first chapter of Journey on Foot where the pact with the devil of civilisation was signed. Now at the journey's end he is able to draw up the balance sheet and tell about the young student, who died with an unfinished manuscript among his belongings, what would have become of him, if he had survived. At the end of the crossroad there are only three characters left: the poet himself decomposed into two - the young student, who was a hopeful poet dying from a toothache, the old man suffering from a nervous disorder and throughout all his life subject to Auntie Mille, who together with Mr. Rasmussen, a late master brewer, are Andersen's most charming and subtle representatives of the serpent and Eve from the Old Testament. About the master brewer it is said that he was older than Auntie Mille and had no teeth left apart from a few black bits. It is a common feature about al the tales mentioned above that they are grotesques causing confusion and uncertainty in the readers and therefore generally have been ignored. It causes problems to read them aloud even to an adult audience, because they play ball with representatives of archetypes deeply rooted in unconscious layers of the human mind or because the listener just feels baffled. Nevertheless the theme of an ever deteriorating world of poetry is repeated many times. In "The Will-o'-the-Wisps" the true incarnation of a national legend, Holger Danske, is replaced by "Mosekonen", a former elf maid, who has fallen off and now is providing poetry in bottles. Each nation has its own soup. There is the old German blood soup with robber balls, English governess novel soup and the French potage à la Kock, but the best of all soups was the Copenhagen soup claimed by the family. The language used by Andersen in these tales is loaded with grotesque metaphors and long strings of words. Instead of finding the fairy tale again, the poet has to content himself with preparing a stew of the devil. Eventually, the fictitious world loses its validity, and the spontaneity of the storyteller disappears.
The arabesque does not seem able to replace the fairy tale, because it decomposes the epic world of noble action. It remains a welted sewing and a marginal note, a kind of infinite, alternately satirical and lyrical reflection on poetry itself. When the settling day comes, the poet calls himself to account for the way in which he used his talent, and there the arabesque forms are circular and encircling sketches with lines of an infinite abundance and emptiness in which the contrasts of existence are linked together and plus and minus are flashing with equal strength.
I have come to the conclusion that the arabesque in Journey on Foot means a breakdown of the poet's idealism and the beginning of a decomposition of his fictitious writing. In Andersen's case he felt compelled to take up the serious themes of the Fall and the Flood and treat them from a satirical point of view. We shall not forget that a free, open and unrestrained discussion of poetry and its meaning has been part of a European tradition since the writers of old attic comedy assailed the vicious with the uttermost freedom. Still young Andersen as a writer of literary satire had to learn that men do not like to hear about their weaknesses.