Jun 16, 2017

When Henrik Ibsen's play A doll's house was published and staged in 1879, it caused great controversy for pointing light at and showing an alternative to the existing way of living. Though this story is over a century old, it is just as relevant today. Relationship constructions may seem to be different today than in the 19th century, but overall we still live in the same world as then; a world of blindly accepted and hollow structures that make a true life impossible.

The play reveals the story of a woman, Nora, living a life generally accepted at the time. First and foremost she is a loyal wife and mother. With the idea of having a happy marriage which is opening up to new opportunities, both Nora and her husband are adamant that anything that could interrupt the reputation of the family or their peace has to be kept silent. When new circumstances come about and withheld secrets nevertheless start to arise to the surface, so does Nora's feelings about being stuck in an empty and meaningless situation. This striking depression, that is Nora's moment of realization that she wants a different kind of life, will later in this and other texts here on Väggen försvinner be referred to as “the Nora moment”.

She realizes that all along her pleasant life has been an illusion; she has played a role out of expectations from the surroundings, her husband and herself, of what a happy and respectable life should look like. She finds that she does not have a real relationship with her husband. Because he cannot imagine a life without her, as an empty role, he wants her to always be around and to fulfill his wishes. While she has always taken on his opinions and manners, he knows nothing about her. Conversations about the foundation of things have been entirely absent between them.

Nora comes to the conclusion that she does not have the opportunity to be, do or give anything valuable, because she has no understanding of life; and she decides to leave her life as the doll she has found herself to be, and set out on a journey to discover herself.

A doll's house has been turned into several screen adaptions. This is the trailer for one of three versions released in 1973, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Jane Fonda, David Warner and Trevor Howard.

We still blindly accept the norms

The established structures in the society of this story from the 1870's are only different from today on the surface – the foundations are still the same. Denied today as they were denied then. Then, as well as now, it is official that there are norms that we need to follow to function in society. At the same time we cannot fully understand what these norms actually are; and any questions are only on a superficial level, since the norms generally seem to be a natural state. As long as we do not know what these norms are or what they are based on, we cannot understand what it is we see as the only possible or reasonable way of living.

In fact the structures in our society do not have a substantial base, but rests on concepts that cannot completely be explained. In other words, if you try to understand them you will face a wall; you will have to simply accept and adjust to the existing structures, or end up as an outsider.

In conclusion, it is extremely hard to even become aware of that in order to take part of life as it is around us, we have to live like slaves under a pre-conceived concept with a meaningless and empty foundation. Without that awareness we do not understand that there are ways of living that the existing structures exclude. And if our comprehension of the world says that there are no options that are excluded, how can we possibly imagine what they could be?

How could it be like?

An example of a concept without concrete meaning is the freedom of speech. You get told you can think what you want and that what you do is your own choice. But as long as the structures prevent the ability to see outside what is accepted, thinking is not free. So how free are actually the words we are ”free to speak”? And even if you would have and express ideas that do not fit into the concepts of society as it is now, they will be disregarded as your ”subjective” thoughts and have no real effect on the so called ”objectivity”. Terms like these, that sound boring and complicated, are only there to protect the established norm by making us believe that they are the only possible truth. The terms simply seem to represent the constant scientific conclusion, and are therefore never questioned.

As long as we do not break out of the wheel of inevitable ignorance, the world will remain as it is. Because the existent structures make us very limited in our ability to imagine another perspective than the one we already have, we never learn how to build a bridge between what we already know and what we yet don't know. In other words, we cannot imagine or take ourselves to something completely new, neither with internal thinking or in exchange with someone else. We simply never learn to communicate, since all we think or say has to fit into the already accepted perspective. This means that the structures that become part of everyone who grows up in the Western world keep a wall between the people and their opportunity of meaningful relationships that help create an actual good life.

What is the function?

If we take a closer look at this, we understand that it is not the constellations of relationships that are constrictive, it is their function. The necessity to live up to the pre-determined relationship concept, independent on content or purpose, takes away the significant opportunity and meaning that relationships could give us. We get stuck with having to accept to live on the surface without substantial exchange, since no matter what, ”it just has to be the way it is”.

Within the current structures the partners of a relationship can keep their imagined comfort and security, while they are in fact being very vulnerable in their dependency on that everyone and everything around them has to stay the same. The function of a relationship becomes to create a space where we can avoid everything we do not understand, since contradictory perspectives is something we never learn how to handle or use for our benefit. A situation where everything goes the way we already know it is therefore what makes us feel safe and comfortable. This turns the function of relationships away from being a means where we can explore and come to new vital understandings that will take us forward.

By simply having to be loyal to the generic structures, or fit into the so called normalcy, we are kept at a distance from ourselves and our opportunities; we do not know how to use our own thought processes, how to explore what we want or do what we discover. We simply live as in a play where all actions are for show, though we are not even aware of it; in order to live up to never-talked-about structures that has to be seen as the only possible way of living. As long as we accept this, we will never get out of the treadmill of meaninglessness. We will never have real relationships or be free to live the lives we can dream of.

Below first a Swedish quote from the autobiographical novel The Son of a Servant (1886), or in Swedish Tjänstekvinnans son, by August Strindberg about the norms that simply have to be blindly obeyed. 

... den kristna sedeläran, med offerskyldighet och 
pliktkänsla. Och så kröp begreppet synd in igen. Att 
njuta var synd, att öva sin plikt var plikt. Varför? 
För samhällets skull, till vilket man stod i 
tacksamhetsskuld? Nej, därför, att det var plikt.

And here another longer quote in English from the same book, under a paragraph named “No Happiness without Virtue; no Virtue without Religion. 1864”:

"What is happiness? Most worldlings regard the possession of great wealth and worldly goods, happiness, because they afford them the means of satisfying their sinful desires and passions. Others who are not so exacting find happiness in a mere sense of well-being, in health, and domestic felicity. Others, again, who do not expect worldly happiness at all, and who are poor, and enjoy but scanty food earned by hard work, are yet contented with their lot, and even happy. They can even think 'How happy I am in comparison with the rich, who are never contented.' Meanwhile, are they really happy, because they are contented? (...) They go to church every Sunday, they honour God and His Holy Word, but yet they have not been born again of the Holy Spirit. Now, are they happy, since they are virtuous? (...) They think themselves better than other men, and righteous in the eyes of the Most Holy. These Pharisees (…) think to win everlasting salvation by their good deeds.”

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