Lies, I know, can be so furbished
And disguised in gorgeous wrappings
That their skinny carcasses
Not a soul would recognize.
That’s what you’ve been doing now,
With your wonderful adventures
Eagles’ wings, and all that nonsense
Making up a pack of lies,
Tales of breathless risk and danger
Till one can no longer tell
What one knows and what one doesn’t.
Aase to Peer Gynt, Scene I, Act One
Sinclair Peters, I blame you! I have been unable to get this tune out my head since I read your comment aluding to the Phantom and corruption! I have been on a quest to find the best version of Edvard Greig’s Opus 23 and in this one I was rewarded with an intense emotional reaction. Simply superb.
Greig’s Peer Gynt suite was written to give song to Henrik Ibsen’s poetic tale of corruption of the spirit, the protagonist being Per Gynt, son of the widowed Aase and the late John Gynt, a layabout who always seeks the shortest route to success and an easy life. Ibsen himself was somewhat frustrated by the satirical interpretations of his contemporaries, stating that, “… in Denmark they have discovered much more satire in it than was intended by me. Why can they not read the book as a poem? For as such I wrote it. The satirical passages are pretty well isolated. But if the Norwegians of to-day recognize themselves, as it would appear they do, in the character of Peer Gynt, that is the good people’s own affair.” (Heinrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt: Introduction.)
And wonderful poetry it is, not to mention fabulous music from Greig. Nevertheless, in any folklore such as that which Ibsen has built upon there is generally a moral tale and hence there is no avoiding the similarities between Peer Gynt and the Inquisitor. So, with apologies to Ibsen let us, with stealth, steal down into the Hall of the Mountain King to see where the similarities lead.
Peer Gynt is a braggart who believes himself entitled to more than he is truly owed. His life is spent building on the conquests of others, taking the short route to anything of value, gaining nothing through his own efforts. His life is built on lies and deception. Drunk on his own sense of self he claims to be a Christian, but in reality Narcissus is his god.
Peer’s sense of entitlement comes from family money, long ago squandered by his father. Over indulged by his father when making buttons as a child, he was given:
“Not tin … King Christian’s coin!
A silver coin to melt, and show
That you’re the son of rich John Gynt.”
Although the money has long gone, Peer sees himself as still being entitled to the same privileges and rights as “the Good John Gynt”, yet those around him see him as he truly is, a liar with torn britches who cannot hold his liquor. Not unlike the Inquisitor, drunk on his own sense of self, believing himself entitled to adulation for a minor achievement many years past, gained not independently but on the back of many others more deserving than himself.
Peer wiles his way into the heart of a beautiful maiden, the daughter of the Troll King who takes him back deep into the mountains to meet her father. The Troll King is rich, master of all he surveys, ruler of the court of trolls and whilst they may not be attractive, they are honest in their self absorption. ‘To thy self be enough!’ is the troll’s maxim, one that Peer adopts and pursues throughout the rest of his life. ‘Enough’ and ‘go around’ underpin Peer’s approach to adversity or challenge. He is completely incapable of living up to man’s maxim, ‘To thyself be true.’ It is this last that is Peer’s undoing, for when he is called by the Button-Moulder (the Angel of Death) to account for his sins in his dotage, he can find none to confess, because he is, in all things, blameless.
|Peer Gynt:||I deserved something a little kinder.
I’m not so bad as perhaps you think;
I’ve done some little good in the world.
At worst I might be called a bungler,
But certainly not an out-and-out sinner.
|Button-Moulder:||But that is just the point, my man.
In the highest sense you’re not a sinner
So you escape the pangs of torment
And come into the Casting-ladle
No sins so serious as to be counted on the ledger of life. In any accounting there must be credits and debits, but Peer in his self-absorption, believes that he is blameless and therefore should be afforded a more favourable accounting at his final judgement. The Button-Moulder refuses to be corrrputed by Peer who fails to understand that in claiming no sins at all, is in fact claiming to be divorced of the human condition, of the mistakes that all men granted free will must inevitably make.
Peer’s panic grows when he realizes that when he courted the Troll King’s daughter and became ‘Prince Peer’, he traded the ledger that counts his soul’s deeds for one used by trolls.
|Peer Gynt:||Yes, you tempted me;
But I resolutely made up my mind
That I would not give in.
And that’s the way
A man shows what he’s worth. A song
Depends on its concluding verse.
|Old Man:||But the conclusion, Peer, was just
The opposite of what you think
You took away
My motto graven on your heart
|Peer Gynt||What motto?|
|Old Man:||That compelling word.|
|Old Man:||That distinguishes a Troll
From Mankind: ‘Troll, to thyself be
|Old Man:||And ever since,
With all the energy you have,
You’ve lived according to that motto.
Not long after, Peer, is met again by the Button-Moulder. Desperate, Peer asks the Angel of Death what it is to be true to thyself.
|Button-Moulder:||To be one’s self is to slay one’s self.
But as perhaps that explanation
Is thrown away on you, let’s say:
To follow out, in everything,
What the Master’s intention was.
|Peer Gynt:||But suppose a man was never told
What the Master’s intention was?
|Button-Moulder:||Insight should tell him.|
|Peer Gynt:||But our insight
So often is as fault, and then
We’re thrown out of our stride completely.
|Button-Moulder:||Quite so, Peer Gynt. And lack of insight
Gives to our friend with the Cloven Hoof
His strongest weapon, let me tell you.
Finally, Peer comes across the ‘friend with the Cloven Hoof’ and pleads his case to be taken to hell. In a sheer twist of irony, to save his imperfect soul, Peer recounts his failings; at first the minor incursions, before increasing in severity as Satan rejects each as suitable reason for inclusion in his other-worldly realm.
|Thin Person:||… Begging your pardon, what’s the good
Of all this talk of half a sin?
Who do you think, in these hard times,
Is going to waste expensive fuel
On worthless rubbish such as that?
… everything that you can recall,
Whether you judge it with your head
Or with your heart, is nothing more
Than what our Swedish friends would call
‘Very poor sport.’ There’s nothing in it
That’s worth a tear or worth a smile,
Worth boasting or despairing of,
Nothing to make one hot or cold
Only, perhaps, to make one angry.
The Thin Person goes on to discuss man’s soul in terms of photography, recently invented at the time of Ibsen’s writing, where the positive is the good side, the negative the less so, but still recognizable as the same soul. These are the souls of people who have been entirely themselves, who take responsibility for their actions. The plates that hold the negatives, explains the Thin Person, are taken by him to effect a transformation to bring out the positive, the truer likeness. In the case of a soul such as Peer’s, the Thin Person explains that transformation is impossible, because the image is already half rubbed out.
The tale finishes with Peer, still trying to prove that he has been himself, sheltered only by one who truly loved him, but not found as yet to have a truly human soul. The Button-Moulder is awaiting again at the next crossroads. Peer has not escaped his accounting, he will meet with judgement and the fate of his own making.
Ibsen’s poem portrays the soul as a thing to be put to use, not placed on a shelf for safe keeping or packed in a box out of sight as a thing of annoyance. The soul is the seat of conscience, the bellwether of thought and the ledger of transactions. In the Hall of the Mountain King that is the ACT Department of Treasury, laden with gold and silver, the Inquisitor has wielded deceit to bargain for the hand of the Troll King’s daughter, in this sense the position of the ACT Commissioner for Revenue. Peer goes only so far, but is failed in the end by his own cowardice when he will not see things for what they truly are. Similarly, the Inquisitor, having defiled man’s maxim in pursuing the Troll King’s daughter, has been denied the role of ACT Commissioner of Revenue himself and has remained haunted by his jilted lover and the offspring of his deceit, namely the ghost of a Wiradjuri man we all know as Pat.
Having traded his soul for the ways of the trolls, even if he has not signed the final deed of ownership, both Peer and the Inquisitor fail not only to meet the requirements of humanity, but have left their own souls so irreparably damaged that they cannot be transformed by the Cloven Hoofed one. Parts of the self have been rubbed out, leaving only a partial being that is not truly the self. In the Halls of Treasury, the Inquisitor has lived as the troll that he is, abiding by the concept of ‘enough’ and always going around any problem, rather than working hard to gain advance upon his own merit. In all aspects the Inquisitor could be considered Peer Gynt, one with a soul malformed, corrupted by his intents and deeds. Unlike Peer’s childhood buttons, the Maker’s design for the soul in Christian belief, which is referred to several times throughout the poem, must always be perfect, the newly cast form without dent or blemish. Therefore, Peer’s soul can only have been damaged through his own corrupt efforts, through abuse of the concept of free will, namely that with choice comes accountability.
Curiouser and curiouser, is the tale of Peer. I have no doubt that as time marches on, the Inquisitor will reinforce my belief that he and Peer share much in common, for they both live in the dream world of self adoration and blameless fantasy. It seems nice when you are there, but in reality there can be no accounting if you have no goods to tally, no sins on the debit sheet. Even saints concede their humanness laying out all the ways in which they have failed, not simply on their deathbed, but constantly throughout their lives. That is the insight that the Inquisitor seems to completely lack, a man who destroyed the life of Pat, the former ACT Commissioner for Revenue, because he coveted the position himself, because he wanted to call the Troll King’s daughter his own. Yet, when it came to the crunch, he did not have the nerve to go all the way, to gain what was needed, including completing his own accounting studies. Go around, Inquisitor, you are Enough as you are, you have done enough and for your efforts you shall be forever denied that which you seek and be haunted by the ghost of your deceit. Your day will come when you too reach the crossroads and the Button-Moulder will be standing there to collect your soul. I wonder if there will be anyone to vouch for your humanity when your hour comes?