What Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck tells us about Anders Behring Breivik and his false understanding of the world.
By **Julia Grønnevet**
The last victim was buried on August 18th, and the international media is long gone from Norway. But Norwegian media are still compulsively following every development in the Anders Behring Breivik case. While the rest of the world is consumed with the 9/11 anniversary, the Norwegian papers are writing that the gunman who shot 68 kids on Utøya and set off a massive bomb in central Oslo wanted to wear white tie and tails to his court date on August 19th. “This is the most formal dress for men,” his lawyer Geir Lippestad writes in a letter to the police, “and will not be offensive to the court, or demeaning or disturbing. On the contrary, the dress will show that the accused takes the process very seriously, and wishes to be presentable as he faces the court.” The article is accompanied by one of those pictures of Breivik that has become so familiar by now, the pale face, blond hair and queasy smile of a satisfied Norwegian man. The photo appears to have been taken indoors with a flash, the colors are over bright and the details are crisp in the wrong way. If this photo were taken with a camera using black and white film it would be a picture of a 1940s gentleman. Most Norwegians my age grew up with that sort of photo hanging on the wall, photos of our grandparents and their generation, the ones who faced The War. Our ancestors’ blue eyes turn colorless in grayscale.
There was only one War when I grew up, and it marked my grandparents so strongly it was the explanation for their every eccentricity. The slices of bread at their house were thin and crumbly, because during The War they had had to save on the food. Their multi-room walk-in pantry, and my aunts’ pantries (they remembered rationing) were always stocked with incredible amounts of food that they bartered for with their fisherman neighbors. Dead bodies could have fit into the industrial freezers that were in the basement of my grandparents’ farmhouse, the ancestral home of the Grønnevets, Sunnmøre on the northwest coast of Norway. Forget about buying German cars—where I grew up, German tourists were not to be spoken to and The War was remembered at every meal.
I remember my shock when I discovered that The War was not the only war that had ever been, that there were wars still going on in the world. At the moment, it strikes me as unusual among modern societies that Norway was and continues to be so scarred by the German invasion that even for someone born in 1981, the worst thing imaginable is still the Nazis. Breivik is older than I am. What was his experience of moral absolutes? How did his personal background, whatever the mood was at his grandparents’ house, negotiate growing up and inevitably seeing the moral certainties of childhood threatened? He’s from the east of the country too, so his background is as different as it could be given that we are both Norwegian. But one thing we almost certainly have in common is being forced to read Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in junior high school.
My school was next to a vocational school, and around half the kids in my class were destined for careers as mechanics and hairdressers. Our teachers thought we were barely worth teaching, and they weren’t far off: one of my classmates, aged 14 or 15, thought she looked people up in the encyclopedia by the first name of the person concerned. But we had to study Ibsen and after my class skipped around the scenes we watched a video of an over-acted screen version produced by Norwegian Television Theatre. The story is simple: Gregers Werle returns home after a long absence, and realizes that his family and friends are living their small lives based on a variety of untruths, so Gregers sets out to clear everything up because he believes truth has an inherent value. I hated Hedvig, the one unambiguous victim of the play, who was clearly just a grown woman in a stuffy stiff costume dress. I liked Gregers Werle slightly better and sympathized with his strong drive to tell everyone the truth, but for reasons that escape me now my I liked Doctor Relling best—he is the character who believes in propping things up with a “life-lie,” a false understanding of the world that makes it bearable to continue existence.
Considering the two sides of this equation, when one side is evil fascism the other must be good social democracy. Can fascists exist in 2011, and can they continue to commit World War II war crimes, if that is what Utøya was?
Contemporary Norwegian society has conveniently forgotten that Ibsen hated Norway and lived most of his life in exile in Rome and in Germany, writing plays that criticized Norwegian society’s strangulating narrowness and the tyranny of the majority. When today’s Norwegian 15-year old school kids study Ibsen’s plays in junior high school, the image of Ibsen they are given is that of a universally admired great national poet, a patriot who improved society by putting our difficulties on display so they could be exorcised through national discussion. The result is that Ibsen’s phrases and concepts have entered Norwegian language but in many cases without their context. When the Norwegian newspapers write of Anders Behring Breivik’s “life-lie,” it is without mentioning once that the phrase comes from Ibsen, who ultimately withheld judgment on whether life should be lived based on a happy lie or an unhappy truth.
Breivik’s life-lie is considerable and unlike in the play, it endures even after the gun went off. His lawyer, Geir Lippestad, told interviewers that Breivik’s world view remains unchanged after his actions. The Wild Duck’s Hjalmar Ekdahl is lying to himself about nearly everything, but he isn’t insane, and the proof is that when innocent Hedvig ends up shot dead, her death brings Hjalmar a new understanding of how he loved her despite the truth that she was not his daughter. So a sane person can maintain a life-lie, but when it crashes with lived reality—life and death—the lie crumbles. Only a person who has no contact with his actions’ effect on reality can continue to maintain the life-lie. Is Breivik insane? Lippestad told the world press so, but later told the Norwegian press that he should perhaps have said “mentally disturbed” instead. (Lippestad blamed the slip on his English language skills, which are so bad he accidentally named his sailboat “God Life” when intending to call it “Good Life.”) Lippestad says he finds it difficult to have any kind of dialogue with Breivik on anything beyond the basics. “He has this demand, what I’ve generally termed a revolution in the Norwegian social structure, where he sees himself as a central figure. At the same time he understands that this won’t happen now, but perhaps in a few years. He has a worldview nobody else shares.” Lippestad then takes care to add, “This is something that will be looked at in the mental assessment report.””
Does Breivik perhaps see himself as a fascist soldier still fighting communists in World War II? The aesthetic cues are there; his self-portraits make me think of how Susan Sontag described fascist aesthetics: “Fascist aesthetics… flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: …the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force.”
Considering the two sides of this equation, when one side is evil fascism the other must be good social democracy. Can fascists exist in 2011, and can they continue to commit World War II war crimes, if that is what Utøya was? Whatever the case, parts of Norway reacted by slipping into The War’s mentality all over again. We rallied patriotically around King Harald just as we had celebrated his grandfather, King Haakon, who fled to London to lead the Norwegian government in exile. (In a famous picture, he posed with his son Crown Prince Olav, sheltering under a birch tree as German bombers flew overhead in 1940.) We carried red items as silent symbols—during the war, red knit beanie hats; in 2011, red roses as our Facebook pictures. But the strongest proof is the reaction of the collective unconscious, that all of Norway started singing one specific song without being prompted, Nordahl Grieg’s “Surrounded by Enemies.”
The hallways at the United Nations where I work are very reverberant. If you work late, and there is no one else around, they are ideal for belting out songs that are on your mind. Back in New York a week after the massacre, I sang “Surrounded by Enemies” constantly as the funerals were going on back home. The song, Grieg’s most famous poem set to music, is a call to arms for secular humanists to resist the Spanish Civil War’s fascism. The Norwegian resistance poet par excellence, Grieg was shot down over Berlin on a bombing raid with the RAF in 1943—martyred for the anti-Nazi cause. His clear, rhythmic lines of poetry, read out on the secret wartime BBC, were repeated by Norwegians as a way to give themselves strength to resist the occupation. Sung a cappella it sounds like a psalm, though, and that’s how it was sung at most of the 77 funerals for Breivik’s victims, many of them held in small, bare Lutheran churches around the country. “Surrounded by enemies,” the song begins, “enter your time!”
Julia Grønnevet was born in Bergen, Norway. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she is a staff reporter on the United Nations beat for the Asahi Shimbun. She has also written for The Guardian and n+1. Her work was included on The Atlantic’s list of the best non-fiction of 2010. She lives in New York.
Photograph by Daniel Hernandez.