Monday, April 12, 2010

"an elegant deception"

I spent Sunday afternoon not in the park with George, but at a play with a couple of people.

The play, "John Gabriel Borkman," was the 2nd to last one Henrik Ibsen wrote before being thoroughly debilitated by a stroke. You wonder if he saw it coming.

Despite having been written in the 1890s, there was a lot of it that was still perfectly topical. One part of the second act, however, particularly spoke to me. (The theater did its own adaptation, and I had to find this online from another source, so it's not exact, but you get the idea. Borkman is a disgraced financier ala Bernie Madoff and Foldal is a mousy little writer friend of his.)

BORKMAN. [Restlessly.] Yes, time flies: the years slip away; life---- Ah, no--I dare not think of it! [Looking at him.] Do you know what I sometimes feel like?


BORKMAN. I feel like a Napoleon who has been maimed in his first battle.

FOLDAL. [Placing his hand upon his portfolio.] I have that feeling too.

BORKMAN. Oh, well, that is on a smaller scale, of course.

FOLDAL. [Quietly.] My little world of poetry is very precious to me, John Gabriel.

BORKMAN. [Vehemently.] Yes, but think of me, who could have created millions! All the mines I should have controlled! New veins innumerable! And the water-falls! And the quarries! And the trade routes, and the steamship-lines all the wide world over! I would have organised it all--I alone!

FOLDAL. Yes, I know, I know. There was nothing in the world you would have shrunk from.

BORKMAN. [Clenching his hands together.] And now I have to sit here, like a wounded eagle, and look on while others pass me in the race, and take everything away from me, piece by piece!

FOLDAL. That is my fate too.


BORKMAN. [Interrupting.] Well, well--let us say no more of these stupid old stories. After all, neither of us got into the Cabinet, neither he nor I.

FOLDAL. But he rose high in the world.

BORKMAN. And I fell into the abyss.

FOLDAL. Oh, it's a terrible tragedy----

BORKMAN. [Nodding to him.] Almost as terrible as yours, I fancy, when I come to think of it.

FOLDAL. [Naively.] Yes, at least as terrible.

BORKMAN. [Laughing quietly.] But looked at from another point of view, it is really a sort of comedy as well.


(following a discussion on the merits of women or whether they're all evil. Foldal comes to their defense, as a whole.)

BORKMAN. [Moving impatiently on the sofa.] Oh, do spare me that poetical nonsense.

FOLDAL. [Looks at him, deeply wounded.] Do you call my holiest faith poetical nonsense?

BORKMAN. [Harshly.] Yes I do! That is what has always prevented you from getting on in the world. If you would get all that out of your head, I could still help you on in life--help you to rise.

FOLDAL. [Boiling inwardly.] Oh, you can't do that.

BORKMAN. I can when once I come into power again.

FOLDAL. That won't be for many a day.

BORKMAN. [Vehemently.] Perhaps you think that day will never come? Answer me!

FOLDAL. I don't know what to answer.

BORKMAN. [Rising, cold and dignified, and waving his hand towards the door.] Then I no longer have any use for you.

FOLDAL. [Starting up.] No use----!

BORKMAN. Since you do not believe that the tide will turn for me----

FOLDAL. How can I believe in the teeth of all reason? You would have to be legally rehabilitated----

BORKMAN. Go on! go on!

FOLDAL. It's true I never passed my examination; but I have read enough law to know that----

BORKMAN. [Quickly.] It is impossible, you mean?

FOLDAL. There is no precedent for such a thing.

BORKMAN. Exceptional men are above precedents.

FOLDAL. The law knows nothing of such distinctions.

BORKMAN. [Harshly and decisively.] You are no poet, Vilhelm.

FOLDAL. [Unconsciously folding his hands.] Do you say that in sober earnest?

BORKMAN. [Dismissing the subject, without answering.] We are only wasting each other's time. You had better not come here again.

FOLDAL. Then you really want me to leave you?

BORKMAN. [Without looking at him.] I have no longer any use for you.

FOLDAL. [Softly, taking his portfolio.] No, no, no; I daresay not.

BORKMAN. Here you have been lying to me all the time.

FOLDAL. [Shaking his head.] Never lying, John Gabriel.

BORKMAN. Have you not sat here feeding me with hope, and trust, and confidence--that was all a lie?

FOLDAL. It wasn't a lie so long as you believed in my vocation. So long as you believed in me, I believed in you.

BORKMAN. Then we have been all the time deceiving each other. And perhaps deceiving ourselves--both of us.

FOLDAL. But isn't that just the essence of friendship, John Gabriel?

BORKMAN. [Smiling bitterly.] Yes, you are right there. Friendship means--deception. I have learnt that once before.

FOLDAL. [Looking at him.] I have no poetic vocation! And you could actually say it to me so bluntly.

BORKMAN. [In a gentler tone.] Well, you know, I don't pretend to know much about these matters.

FOLDAL. Perhaps you know more than you think.


FOLDAL. [Softly.] Yes, you. For I myself have had my doubts, now and then, I may tell you. The horrible doubt that I may have bungled my life for the sake of a delusion.

BORKMAN. If you have no faith in yourself, you are on the downward path indeed.

Borkman was a flaming narcissist and clearly mad, but at least he believed in himself. I, on the other hand, am feeling really Foldal-like these days. Chalk it up to impending milestone birthday melancholy, I guess. There's more behind me than ahead at this point and I don't have a tremendous amount to show for it.

I swear: Next time I step foot in a theater, it's going to be for something light and fluffy. And if it's not, they're going to sell something stronger than coffee at intermission. ;-)

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