‘This diary must never be printed!’: Playwright August Strindberg and The Occult

The Swedish playwright August Strindberg was, amongst other things, a mercurial talent, artist, occultist, husband and father. He is also frequently accused of, amongst other things, misogyny, anti-Semitism and insanity. In this exclusive article, published to coincide with the paperback publication of Yale’s acclaimed biography of Strindberg, author Sue Prideaux responds to queries submitted by followers of the Yale Books Twitter account.

The questions and answers that follow focus on Strindberg’s fascination with the occult and his Occult Diary in particular. Zola, Baudelaire and Mallarmé had all attempted to follow the example of the master Edgar Allan Poe, but ‘there had still been no great novel, no literary successor’ to the great American occultist. Yet when Strindberg immersed himself in the otherworldly, he sought not to imitate those that had gone before him, but instead to ‘find the story within himself, to write a record of his life as he surrendered himself completely, without reservation, to the Occult’.

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Strindberg and the Occult: How would you characterise Strindberg’s relationship with the Occult?

People always get a bit apocalyptic round the turn of a century and 1900 was no exception.  Some fifty years after Darwin, people had fallen out of love with the idea that science held all the answers but Nietzsche had declared God dead so post-Christian Europe was scampering in all directions to fill the spiritual void.  Tables turned, devils danced, occultism flourished. Strindberg was one of some fifty thousand practicing alchemists in Paris where even Marie Curie was a convinced Spiritualist.  Strindberg galloped down occult avenues with the same vigour he pursued the quest for meaning through reason and science.   Riding both horses enabled him to write realist plays as well as the experimental ones like The Ghost Sonata and A Dream Play that embraced the irrational and included talking shadows and flashbacks.

In particular, the Swedenborg Society would like to know what kind of a role Swedenborg played in his life?

Being Swedish, Strindberg couldn’t fail to be aware of Swedenborg. At university, he thought him  ‘daft’ but during his friendship with Gauguin, Swedenborgism was taking Paris by storm and Gauguin re-introduced him through Balzac’s novel Séraphita.  He studied Swedenborg intensely while writing the Occult Diary  and Inferno.

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The following is extracted from Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux:

At that time [1896] there was much literary seeking of Zola and the occult. Although there had been numerous mystical, Symbolist and decadent poets and writers such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé, artists such as Moreau, mystics and mages and founders of new religions such as Madame Blavatsky, there had still been no great novel, no literary successor to Poe. Huysmans came close. Balzac had attempted it with Gauguin’s favourite book Séraphita but he had got carried away by the Swedenborgism and a large chunk of the book was simply an explanation of its doctrine. Strindberg saw the challenge, not simply to tell fairy tales of angels and hermaphrodites, as Balzac in Séraphita, or spine-shivering horror stories of Black Masses, as Huysmans had told in Là-bas, or even to update the fantastic and grotesque beauty of the master himself, Edgar Allan Poe, but to find the story within himself, to write a record of his life as he surrendered himself completely, without reservation, to the Occult within himself, exploring the shallowness of sanity by giving priority to the deeply irrational within the mind and the psyche. He would tell the tale as he moved through everyday life surrendering himself to superstition and allowing himself to be guided by signs and omens.

At the start of February, he moved into the Orfila to begin the experiment. He bought a huge, blank-paged book so hefty that it weighs nearly four kilos. Bound in rose-red cloth, the colour symbolising enlightenment for alchemists, damnation for some, for others erotic love and for himself the colour of disappointed love. Also, as he notes, the colour of Sweden’s torture chamber in the old days which was known as the Rose Room. Altogether a suitable colour for recording his journey through inferno. On the cover, in black ink, he wrote its title, Occult Diary, and when he ceased to keep it, in 1908, he wrote on the cover ‘This diary must never be printed! This is my last will! Which must be obeyed!’ For fifty years it lay inviolate, an object of superstitious awe, sealed with a double seal in the Royal Library where first he had encountered occultism as a young man working under the odd, haunted mystic Gustaf Klemming.

Inside, on the first page he wrote quotations from the Bible, Shelley, Eliphias Levy and the Talmud – ‘If you wish to discover the invisible, pay great attention to the visible’ – and above them all in bigger letters, possibly added later when he repented of this dangerous flirtation with magic, the words ‘Ne fais plus cela!’ The diary records dreams, strange coincidences, correspondences such as Swedenborg recorded (the resemblance between a crab’s shell and false teeth, for instance) and inexplicable events, recording the peculiar journeys of the subliminal mind when released from conscious control. Soon he realises that ‘From my former atheism I had relapsed into the deepest superstition.’ At which point nothing is too banal to become an omen. As he moves through a world of omens and symbols, it is but a short step for them to become message from ‘the powers’. The mission then becomes one of interpretation, a decoding of messages to see where the powers want to send him and in this way to show him the meaning and purpose of his life.

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