Wednesday, June 15, 2005


The Wall Street Journal / Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Great Dane
Hans Christian Andersen wrote dark, timeless fairytales--for children and grown-ups.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005 12:01 a.m.

Did Michael Jackson read as a boy, or have read to him, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen? One is tempted to ask that question as the many dimensions of Mr. Jackson's real and imagined childhood are raised in public trial. Many Americans still read Andersen's tales, whether as children or to their children, but tend to confound him with the amiable dreamer played by Danny Kaye in a not very adequate film biography. The actual Andersen composed an extraordinary range of stories, as much addressed to older readers as to children.
The 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth was very recently upon us. He was born in Odense, then a poor town. His family was of the humblest, his putative father a cobbler, and his mother a washerwoman compelled by hard circumstances to something like prostitution.

Though Andersen was a grand original in his fairy tales, he eagerly accepted from folklore its stoic acceptance of fate. Nietzsche argued that, for the sake of life, origin and aim had to be kept apart. In Andersen, there was no desire to separate the two. It cost his life much fulfillment: He never had a home of his own or a lasting love, but he achieved an extraordinary literary art.

Like Walt Whitman's, Andersen's authentic sexual orientation was homoerotic, though his longings for women were more poignant than Whitman's largely literary gestures towards heterosexuality. But Whitman was a poet-prophet, who offered salvation, hardly Christian. Andersen professed a rather sentimental devotion to the Christ child, but his art is pagan in nature. His compatriot, Kierkegaard, sensed this early on. From the perspective of the 21st century, Andersen and Kierkegaard strangely divide between them the aesthetic eminence of Danish literature. What is it about Andersen's stories that make them so imperishable? Kierkegaard rightly analyzed his own project as showing how difficult it is to be a Christian in an ostensibly Christian society. Andersen had a rather different project: how to remain a child in an ostensibly adult world.

I myself see no distinction between children's literature and good or great writing for extremely intelligent children of all ages. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King are equally bad writers, appropriate titans of our new Dark Age of the Screens: computer, motion pictures, TV. One goes on urging children of all ages to read and reread Andersen and Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, rather than Ms. Rowling and Mr. King. Sometimes when I say that in public I am asked: Is it not better to read Ms. Rowling and Mr. King, and then go on to Andersen, Dickens, Carroll and Lear? The answer is pragmatic: Our time here is limited. You necessarily read and reread at the expense of other books.

Andersen called one of his memoirs "The Fairy Tale of My Life." It makes clear how painful his emergence was from the working class of Denmark in the early 19th century. The driving purpose of his career was to win fame and honor while not forgetting how hard the way up had been. His memories of being read to by his father from "The Arabian Nights" seem stronger than any other. Absorbing the biographies of Andersen is a curious process, and I have the impression of a remarkably direct teenager, marching into Copenhagen and collapsing upon the kindness of strangers. This peculiar directness lasted all his life: He went throughout Europe introducing himself to Heine, Hugo, Lamartine, Vigny, Mendelsohn, Schumann, Dickens, the Brownings, and others. A hunter of big names, he hungered to become one himself, and won through the invention of his fairy tales.

Anderson was outrageously prolific in every genre: novels, travelogues, poetry, plays, but he mattered, and always will, entirely because of his unique fairy tales, which he transmuted into a creation of his own, fusing the supernatural and the common life in ways that continue to surprise me, more even than the tales of Hoffmann, Gogol, and Kleist, setting aside the sublimely dreadful but inescapable Poe.

Sexual frustration is Anderson's pervasive though hidden obsession, embodied in his witches and icy temptresses, and in his androgynous princes. D.H. Lawrence bequeathed us a superb critical motto: "Trust the tale, not the artist." Andersen told us that his stories were the history of his life, and his critics and biographers largely follow him, yet I am skeptical. Like Whitman, Andersen's work seems easy but proves difficult. What allies them most are their mutual evasions of their own apparent projects. Whitman proclaimed himself the poet of democracy, yet his poetry is hermetic and elitist. Andersen invented what the last two centuries have called "children's literature," but after some early stories he is no more available just to children than are Kafka and Gogol. Rather, Andersen wrote for extraordinarily intelligent children of all ages, from nine to 90.

Sometimes I find that, for a moment anyway, my favorite Andersen story is "The Collar," an apparent trifle of just two pages, but these are as rammed with life and meaning as a fragment of parable of Kafka's, like "the Bucket Rider" or "The Hunter Gracchus." Composed in 1848 after an English visit, "The Collar" ironizes both Andersen himself, an obsessive self-promoter, and the Danish newspapers, intensely annoyed by the playing abroad of this one-man band.

One of Andersen's weirdest and greatest gifts is that his stories live in an animistic cosmos, in which there are no mere objects whatsoever. Every tree, bush, animal, artifact, or item of clothing has an anxious soul, a voice, sexual desires, need for status, and a terror at the prospect of annihilation. Andersen's episodes of alternating grandiosity and depression are very much at variance with this created world, where mermaids and ice maidens, swans and storks, ducklings and fir trees, collars and garters, snowmen and wood nymphs, witches and toothaches, all possess consciousness as capacious, cruel, and desperate for survival as our own.

Ostensibly a Christian, Andersen from the start was a narcissistic pagan who worshipped Fate, she being for him a sadistic goddess we could name as Nemesis. His genius is deeply founded upon an ancient animism, older than "The Arabian Nights." Shakespeare, most universal of geniuses, doubtless influenced him with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where charming fairies become Bottom's retainers, the wonderful fourfold of Mustardseed, Moth, Cobweb, and Peaseblossom. So Andersenian are these little fellows that we might think that, reversing time, Shakespeare took them from the Dane, except that they would be darker beings in the Odense storyteller. Andersen's universe is totally vitalistic, but more malign than not.

Andersen was like Blake and Whitman, who lived in realities that had no inanimate objects, only sensibilities in every pebble and weed, every scab on a stone fence. But these were prophets of apocalypse, urging all things to reassume the forms of the human. Andersen, like his fellow-Dane Hamlet, is a prophet of annihilation. A tiny story like "The Collar" is as much a self-study as a Hamlet soliloquy. Like Andersen, the collar keeps proposing marriage, and is turned down by a garter, a hot iron, a scissors, a comb. All goes merrily along until the collar ends up in the rag-bin of a paper mill, resignedly saying: "It's about time I was turned into white paper." By then, I have become fond of the collar, and so am shocked by the story's final paragraph:

And that's what happened. All the rags were turned into white paper but the collar turned into this very piece of white paper that we're looking at now, the one on which this story is printed. That's because he boasted so terribly afterward about things that had never happened. That's something we should remember, so we don't behave the same way, because we never can tell whether we too might one day end up in the rag bin and be turned into white paper and have our whole story printed on it, even our innermost secrets, and then have to run around talking about them, just like the collar.

Among his contemporaries, Andersen can be situated between Dickens, who dropped the Dane after he overstayed his welcome on what became a five-week visit, and Tolstoy, who loved the simplicity and directness of Andersen's narrative mode. To be located between Dickens and Tolstoy ought to destroy any composer of short fictions, but Andersen survives, as blithely insouciant as the indestructible soldier of "The Tinderbox." And yet neither Dickens nor Tolstoy is cruel, except insofar as nature and history are cruel. Andersenian daydreams, being largely free of history and nature, frequently are cruel, even sadistic, perhaps because of androgynous drives. In Freud's project, the labor is to free thinking of its sexual past, or the sexual curiosity of children. Andersen, whose project was to remain childlike, tapped into the energies of the sexual past and received the verve of his art.

All his biographers stress that there were two of him, the Dane in Denmark, vulnerable and obsessed by supposed underappreciation, and the showman abroad, the wunderkind of Weimar and London, the endlessly wandering Dane sailing to Byzantium. Childlike in Denmark, Andersen was childish abroad, living his daydreams, as much an international celebrity as Byron before him and Hemingway later. Byron and Hemingway, we know, were as androgynous as Andersen, though much more sexually active than the reluctant Dane, who attended bordellos only to pay for a gazing upon the wares, while never touching. Andersen's real analogue was Whitman, whose sexual career, bar an encounter or two, was altogether with himself.

Andersen was both an international and domestic flirt, and like Kierkegaard a theorist of seduction, yet actually a monument of narcissism. Denmark's two major writers of its Golden Age were self-obsessed monomaniacs, Captain Ahabs pursuing a White Whale, but unlike the American protagonist of Moby-Dick, both Danes were too shrewd to attempt harpooning what each rightly understood was their own solipsistic vision. This is to commend the twin Danes: Kierkegaard's subtle intellect rivals the insights of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud, while an ancient wisdom out of the folk abides in Andersen, who will say and imagine anything, while evading or obliterating the pragmatic consequences of his own narrations.

Mr. Bloom is an emeritus professor at Yale.

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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