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Satire and Danish Romanticism

Postdoc-stipendium i Danmark | 02/05/2016

The goal of this project is to explore and interpret the meaning of the almost forgotten genre or mode of writing we refer to as satire in Danish romanticism. Traditionally, Danish romanticism is defined as the period roughly covering the first half of the 19th century. A decisive occurrence takes place in 1799 and 1800 when P. A. Heiberg (1758-1841) and Malthe Conrad Bruun (1775-1826) were expelled from Denmark by the king for criticising and satirising absolutism. Censure was reintroduced in 1799 and the king wanted to ‘pacify’ any sort of political satire. The national crises of the Napoleonic times and the Danish State default in 1813 meant that satiric critique of the royal institution largely disappeared. In the history of Danish literary satire, you see a decisive shift away from the political satire of the 1790s to what we may call aesthetic satire in the first decades of romanticism in the new century. This meant that Danish satirical writers turned away from the tradition of French enlightenment to the German classical tradition of Goethe and Schiller and the German romantics. This project therefore sets out to explore, inspired by Steven Jones’ brilliant Romanticism and Satire (2000), the close connections between romantic canon formation and literary satire.

First Case Study

The Carlsberg Foundation postdoc grant has made it possible for me to problematise and revise the traditional account of the beginnings of Danish romanticism. In an article in the Danish journal Danske Studier [Danish Studies] from 2014i, I have argued that the satirical confrontations between the first major Danish romanticist and the older Jens Baggesen in the 1800s is crucial. Traditionally, the basis of the conflict is seen as one between the young romanticist Oehlenschläger and the older classicist Baggesen. I argue, rather, that an idea of the classical, deriving mainly from Goethe’s Weimar classicism of the 1790s, is at the centre of the satirical argument. This is important because the conflict has a transnational dimension in that Oehlenschläger indirectly accuses Baggesen, who was in fact a truly international writer, of not being a writer of European stature. From then, the conflict intensifies during the 1810s into something that polarised the literary and public spheres in Denmark. Oehlenschläger is often referred to as national romantic poet and indeed romanticism is often discussed as the period of rising nationalism. While this is not wrong, this outlook tends to brush aside the humour, wittiness, and satirical nature and indeed the essential international contexts of the texts of the romantic period.

Second Case Study

One of the overarching perspectives that bind my project together is the decisive role of Goethe in Danish satirical writings of the romantic period. The Carlsberg Foundation postdoc grant has given me the possibility to research the close relationships between the reception of Goethe’s Faustian writings in Denmark and literary satire. In an article from 2014, I have interpreted Andersen’s famous tale “The Shadow” from 1847 as a complex satire of Goethe’s Faust, Part 1 (1808).ii Clearly, Goethe related Faust’s personality to the question of an emerging secular modernity in the wake of The French Revolution. The German scholar Michael Jaeger has called Faust “a modern archetype”iii who wants to break with all sorts of traditional authorities, be it religious, political, or philosophical. The devil Mephistopheles joins him in this adventure in the sense that his job is to seduce Faust into a life without any metaphysical preoccupations. Margrethe, on the other hand, represents pre-modern feminine religiosity who is bound to be destroyed by the forces of masculine atheism and hedonism. In “The Shadow”, H. C. Andersen completely inverts the tragic logic of Goethe’s Faustian myth: “”The Shadow” is Andersen’s anti-Faust. I do not wish, thereby, to say that Andersen did not appreciate Goethe. He did, but I suggest that Andersen’s fairy tale stages a indirect parody of the three main characters in Goethe’s poem“iv I argue that the reader is introduced to a post-Faustian world where both the Shadow (a parody of the devil) and the figure of the learned man (a parody of Faust) and the princess (a parody of Margrethe) have lost all charisma. When Andersen in “The Shadow” empties the Faustian myth of its content, he very much encapsulates this new awareness in the middle of the 19th century that the search for higher learning – the Bildungsideal - is not necessarily an envious way of life. Andersen’s central irony may very well be that materialism and atheism is here to stay.v

Third Case Study

Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-1859). Danish soldier and illustrator of H.C. Andersen’s work. Pedersen was Andersen’s contemporary and to many scholars the best Danish illustrator of Andersen ever. Pedersen had a clear sense of Andersen’s unique satire of human sexual disillusionment.

Another crucial German author in Danish romanticism is E.T.A. Hoffmann. In the late 1810s, Hoffmann’s works began to be translated into Danish and many Danes also read him in the German original. His romantic tales of phantasy and the uncanny played a central role in the different prose experiments that began around 1815. In an article from 2015 I have argued that H.C. Andersen’s so-called ‘thing fairy tales’, beginning with the “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” in 1838, evolves through an intertextual and complex satire of Hoffmann’s famous Christmas tale “The Nutcracker and Mouse King” from 1816.vi The genre of thing fairy tales is characterised by two ‘rules’. Firstly, the main character is an animated thing. Secondly, the reader sees the world through the eyes of the thing, so to say. In “The Nutcracker and Mouse King”, the heroine is a seven year old girl Marie, who on the night of Christmas is transported into a world of living and fantastic things and grotesque animals. In his well-known essay on the uncanny from 1916, Sigmund Freud uses Hoffmann as a sort of inventor of the modern uncanny. I argue that H.C. Andersen in breaking with the Hoffmannesque metaphysics of the uncanny in his thing fairy tales in a certain way invents what Freud in another famous essay from 1930 called “Das Unbehagen in der Kultur”, that is the sense of sexually related discontent in modern culture. Andersen was clearly ahead of his time in diagnosing its maladies and he did so by way of satire.

H.C. Andersen’s analysis of human frustrations and claustrophobia is continued in “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep“ (1845) where the heroine is trapped in a world defined by the masculine gaze, brilliantly depicted in Wilhelm Pedersen’s illustration.

Vilhelm Pedersen: “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep”, woodcut, 1848.

Scientific Social Responsibilty

The project emphasises the essential role German and European literature played in Danish romanticism. In regards of scientific social responsibility (SSR), the main ethical impetus in my research is to make the public aware of how the most important Danish writers have always been transformed by their European contemporaries. I have been giving lectures at Danish gymnasiums and societies like the Alumni Association at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) in order to fulfil my obligation to transmit knowledge to the public sphere on my research subject. Danish romanticism is often portrayed as a nationalist movement. While it is true and important to bear in mind that nationalism was on the rise in the 19th century, this reading strategy tends to become hegemonic and neglect how differentiated literary texts are. In Oehlenschläger, for example, there is a truly international dimension to everything that he does: there is humour, wit, and an European context and indeed his aesthetic projects cannot be completely understood without this knowledge. My project is about showing the public that this is the case for most of the Danish satirical writers in the first half of the 19th century.

Academic Career

The postdoc grant from the Carlsberg Foundation has been crucial in terms of securing the continuation of my research career in that my research on Andersen brought me into contact with the Hans Christian Andersen Centre in Odense, which is part of the University of Southern Denmark. Three of my articles on Andersen have been published in the volumes published by the centre. I also have taken part as a speaker at a conference held at the centre in 2015. My research on Andersen funded by the Carlsberg Foundation thus was the important groundwork that made it possible for me to successfully apply for a new postdoc project at the centre which I began on the 1st of June 2015. The project title is “Andersen and Russia”. I am in charge of a large collaboration between American, European, and Russian scholars on the subject of H.C. Andersen’s deeply fascinating influence across Russian culture and art forms. At the centre, we will host an international seminar on this topic on 26-27 May this year for which we have received generous support by the Carlsberg Foundation. Our end goal is to produce an anthology consisting of up to 16 high quality and peer reviewed articles on Andersen’s Russian reception history to be published in 2017. The project is also about engaging in meaningful and important cultural cooperation between countries that are now facing highly difficult political relationships. We will also build bridges between scholars whose main focus falls within Scandinavian and Slavist studies. Without my first postdoc grant from the Carlsberg Foundation I would never have become project leader of “Andersen and Russia” which will terminate at the end of 2017.


i Mads Sohl Jessen: ”Det naive og sentimentale geni. Oehlenschlägers og Baggesens satiriske konflikt 1802-07” i: Danske Studier 2014, s. 149-172. Public access to the article: http://danskestudier.dk/materiale/2014/Danske_Studier_2014.pdf

ii Mads Sohl Jessen: ”’Al Theori er Graa’. ”Skyggen” læst i satirisk relation til Goethes Faust” i: H.C. Andersen og det moderne samfund, red. af Anne Klara Bom, Jacob Bøggild og Johs. Nørgaard Frandsen, Syddansk Universitetsforlag 2014, s. 35-47 

iii Michael Jaeger, Global Player Faust oder Das Verschwinden der Gegenwart. Zur Aktualität Goethes, WJS Verlag: Berlin, 2008, p. 14. 

iv Mads Sohl Jessen: ”’Al Theori er Graa’. ”Skyggen” læst i satirisk relation til Goethes Faust” i: H.C. Andersen og det moderne samfund, red. af Anne Klara Bom, Jacob Bøggild og Johs. Nørgaard Frandsen, Syddansk Universitetsforlag 2014, s. 37 [my translation]. 

v See A. D. Nuttall: Dead from the Waist Down. Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination. New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2003. 

vi Mads Sohl Jessen: ”Ubehaget i tingene. Andersens satire over det hoffmannsk uhyggelige i ”Den standhaftige Tinsoldat” og ”Hyrdinden og Skorsteensfeieren” i: H.C. Andersen og det uhyggelige, red. af Jacob Bøggild, Ane Grum-Schwensen og Torsten Bøgh Thomsen. Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag 2015, s. 85-102.