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The rebel and his martyrdom

Jens Bjørneboes Semmelweis at the National Theater.


Orientering NOVEMBER 22, 1969

For posterity, the 1960 years will probably stand as a new breakthrough in Norwegian literature. Then the generation from Jens Bjørneboe to Stein Mehren broke through with such convincing power that we have to go back decades to find something similar. At the same time, Borgen and Vesaas created some of their finest works, and the 1940 generation made its appearance with a massive settlement with the traditional novel form, with psychology and its schematic small-world. Literature was – in the broadest sense – politicized.

There can be little doubt that Bjørneboe's violent outbursts against prison authorities and the police, his joy at mocking what is sacred to the bourgeoisie, his meticulous revelations of everything from girl butts to the Justices' punishment cells and methods of execution – and on the other hand: his reluctance to submitting to any party or any set of authoritative opinions has made him enemies in virtually every camp. He has gradually become a lonely man; he is not popular, and the mere thought of being there seems to fill him with such anxiety that he immediately turns against any appealing crowd of new opinions. What do they have to hide.

A recurring paradox, for me personally, I know nothing so much about a friendly person as Jens Bjørneboe. The great mocker and denier is in fact a kind man. But thus a public unpleasant person, and this relationship has undoubtedly colored the view of his poetry. In other words, it is difficult to explain that recognition has primarily flowed from abroad poet Bjørneboe. He is today an author of international format, and that he should take care of when little Norway has decided that role should be Vesaas!

Authorities are comparing sick and dying cells and the rebel to a surgeon.

Bjørneboe has been rude enough not to take that kind of consideration. With unabated energy he continues his description of the history of bestiality, of the abuse of authority and spiritual cowardice. Devilhood must be acknowledged. If we are not willing to see, we cannot act either. Therefore, this brutal confrontation is important and necessary.

But bestiality has a counterpart: goodness and rebellion in the service of good. Also, there is room for them in this cancerous bomb crater that could actually be a rather paradise globe. And it is hardly surprising that it is precisely the lonely anti-authoritarian deniers and rebels who are closest to Bjørneboe.

Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis, the man who dedicated his life to the fight against childbirth, is one of them. Abandoned by the medical authorities, persecuted and tormented, he continued his lonely struggle until he broke down and blasted, at the age of 47 years, cutting his finger during a dissection. No one knew better than Semmelweis how dangerous this was. But so exhausted, so far away was he, that he barely registered the accident. He contracted a streptococcal infection that characterizes maternal fever – and he died of it shortly afterwards in a completely insane state; the year was 1865.

It is primarily the conflict between the rebellion and the faithful Bjørneboe portrays in "Semmelweis", which premiered on Wednesday at the National Theater. And for security, he has provided it with the subtitle "An Anti-Authoritarian Play". After all, it was possible that Aftenposten would present the play as a party performance in honor of the pioneers of medical science. Although predominantly likely it is not.

Indeed, it is clearly the rebel and his martyrdom that are the real theme of "Semmelweis", his struggle against the established authorities and institutionalized authorities, more than the fight against a damning contemporary.

Today, of course, it is easy to see that these authorities were a hierarchy of cowardly idiots, concerned with guarding their own little sphere of interest. The authorities as priesthood for the permanent are always visible to posterity. For the present, the natural parts of the body of society itself are of the existing order that each new generation must crush to move forward. Or in Bjørnebo's language: The authorities are to compare sick and dying cells and the rebel to a surgeon. Therefore, Semmelweis is a person unbound by time and place – a symbol of the rebel in any society where humanity and new thoughts are suppressed.

At that time the authorities refused to listen to Semmelweis, refused to test his theories, refused to use his method. It would undermine their own position, and that – after Semmelweis could document the effectiveness of the method – would mean admitting that, by so fiercely fighting him, they had sent tens of thousands of women to death.

In other words, when the doctor sat on the edge of the bed with the mother, he was not the doctor, but the disease itself!

Author. Parents: Shipowner and Belgian Consul Ingvald Bjørneboe (1875 – 1939) and Anne Marie Svenson (1895 – 1990)
Jens Bjørneboe

Up to 30 percent of women born at the Wiener Allgemeines Krankenhaus then died of childbirth fever. On one occasion, Semmelweis discovered that the symptoms of this disease were the same as those incurred in wound infections after dissecting the bodies. The infection was transmitted from the dead to the birth via the hands of the doctors and students. NåIn other words, when the doctor sat down on the bedside of the child, he was not the doctor, but the disease itself!

Semmelweis experimented for a long time to find a solution that could remove the odor from his fingers, thus removing the danger of infection. And he discovered that Vienna's decades ago had used a chlorine lime solution to get rid of annoying smells. This resolution proved particularly effective, and in a short time the mortality rate at Semmelweis' department from 30 to 0 dropped. But he was soon accused of falsifying the statistics, ridiculed for being in charge of doomsayers, and almost displaced from Vienna during the counter-revolution following the uprising in 1848.

- Chlorinated lime, says Semmelweis' defender, Dr. Skoda, – The Great Chlorinated lime… yes, I believe in it because it burns… it burns… it burns… Chlorinated lime – it has a strange resemblance to something else that also burns: it resembles the truth – because the truth and the chlorinated lime etch… and the chlorinated lime is similar to the truth because you learned it from a daughter carpenter and not from a professor medicinae.

A historical replica – and yet a replica that points forward. Never before has Aftenposten obtained its truths from a tie-breaker or a worker broken down by silicosis and respiratory infections.

But the problem that Semmelweis raises in the conflict between rebellion and the belief in authority, between unrestricted free criticism and the consideration of unity and power, are also vital problems for socialism. It concerns nothing less than the question of its spiritual life-nerve, its inherent vitality and ability to liberate and renew.

It was this spiritual lifeblood of Stalinism with all its petty-bourgeois, spiritual brutality damaged, and the result – the top-tiered, bureaucratized and intellectually crippled society – should serve as a warning to European socialists for the next 200 years.

It is Jens Bjørnebo's merit that he has managed to make these problems intrusive and at the same time bring the characters to life. "Semmelweis" is his most widely performed work to date; it has everything one associates with international drama at its best: materiality, nerve, perspective and a condensed force that will carry it far beyond the borders of our own country.

More effective drama is rarely written today.

More articles about and by Jens Bjørneboe can be found here.

Kjell Cordtsen
Kjell Cordtsen
Cordsen was previously editor of Orientering, and included in the name change to New Time in 1975.

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