Square Liberalism: Ibsen’s"Enemy of the People"


The plays of Henrik Ibsen dominated European drama for half a century, and to this day much of theatre can be thought of dialectically as “anti-Ibsen”. James Joyce in his teens was an Ibsenist who taught himself Dano-Norwegian in order to read the plays in the original, and in the stories in Dubliners (to say nothing of some of his youthful works) you can still see signs of Ibsen’s realism — though without Ibsen’s reformist message.

According to Kenneth Rexroth the slang word “square” came from “squarehead” — the seaman’s ethnic slur for the relatively-stodgy Scandinavians among them — and Ibsen was the squarest person in the world. For him right was right, truth was truth, and if there’s a problem, something should be done about it.

The Enemy of the People was probably Ibsen’s squarest play. Doctor Stockman, a highly-respected M.D. and community leader in a small Norwegian town, discovers that the mineral waters of the town’s soon-to-be-opened health spa have been made toxic by bacterial contamination. He starts to get the word out and proposes a solution, but as the play progresses, his friends and allies — including the moderate reformists and liberals — turn against him one by one. At the end of the play he stands alone, having been officially declared “an enemy of the people”.

Recently the dramatist Christopher Hampton retranslated the play. From his Introduction:

“However sympathetic he feels for Dr. Stockman’s cause, Ibsen is too subtle and profound a dramatist not to know that there are few figures more infuriating than the man who is always right. Stockmann’s sincerity, naivety, and courage co-exist with an innocent vanity, an inability to compromise and an indifference to the havoc caused in the life of his family and friends, as well as his own, by his dogged pursuit of principle.”

Hampton is wrong. Ibsen was a square, and he wrote the play to show that Doctor Stockman was right, and that his cowardly, corrupt, thuggish enemies were wrong. Everyone in town except Stockman was willing to market a toxic health spa to sick people. An Enemy of the People is a square play. Partly for that reason, it may not be Ibsen’s best play — but “the moral of the story” is absolutely clear.

Like a parson bowdlerizing Shakespeare, Hampton felt the need to misrepresent Ibsen in order to make him palatable to the cynical modern audience. I have speculated elsewhere that we may now be living in a post-ethical age. I didn’t say in so many words that I think that this is a bad thing — but it is.

Democrats and liberals have found it very difficult to make a strong moral statement to the voters, and this is because the so-called Left has been dominated by a combination of shrewd, careerist inside players, and hedonistic personal liberationists preaching relativism. It should have been possible to achieve tolerance and diversity without making moral relativism into an absolute principle, but that’s the strategy that ended up being chosen.

The outcome has been crippling. There are square arguments for liberalism, but in the world of today, only the cynical Rovian right can to appeal to squares.

(Note: This is a cross-post from my less-political site, Idiocentrism.com. I’m still in retirement.)