The Making of a Cynic
“To go in quest of God and to find the Devil- that is what happened to me.”
Arvid Falk as a novel protagonist is a queer one. Strindberg made it seem that Falk just happens to be the character whereupon he spent a little more ink than upon the others, as if Falk is only a part of a more universal and inclusive protagonist, whose personality is shared by Rehnhjelm, Olle, Sellen, Lundell and many others who lead an “artistic and literary life”. He might well have made a successful protagonist out of Rehnhjelm, whose initial idealism and later disillusion have much in common with that of Falk’s (even the tragedies of their love affairs go down the same course- and are caused by the same woman! ); or out of Olle, which might, in my opinion, have made a more interesting novel. In that Falk is not a typical protagonist, for there’s little “writer’s necessity” in him. At the same time, can any protagonist be more typical and representative than he? Who else, but a former “Mr. Assessor” and poet, a nonce journalist and writer, get access to such detailed information about governmental bureaucracies, parliamentary meetings, the field of publishing as well as the artistic circle? Falk is not special in spirit, but special in temperament and circumstances. This duality forms part of the charm of Strindberg’s characterization.
In "A Dream Play" Strindberg wrote that “Meeting each other and leaving each other, leaving and meeting. That’s what life is.” Parting and reuniting is one of the themes of The Red Room, each time showing members of “the Red Room group” respectively higher or lower upon the social ladder. The novel starts with Falk meeting Struve near Mosebacke. That scene is nothing less than a farce. The two parties have very different interests and concerns, which coincide in Falk’s description of his adventures at The Board for Payment of Civil Service Salaries- in a strange way, though- the speaker wants to justify his leaving the government machinery- a Kafkaesque hell in his eyes, filled with messengers that spend an entire day in the bathroom and officials that devote a whole week to the task of peeling pencils, with an invisible “president”- while the listener is disappointed at losing a “friend” who can otherwise advance him better, but later noses out potential materials for a sensational report and is cheered up again. They end up in little sympathy with each other. At that time Falk is the perfect idealistic bohemian: not without a trace of hesitation, nor so sure about the future, but is nevertheless confident of his cause. When Struve preaches to him that a writer’s position is outside the society, his answer, that “well, that’s his punishment for wanting to be above it” (Strindberg 1967: 13), contains pride, the kind of pride that belongs to a prison-breaker.
And that confidence underlies his first two rebellions wherein he successfully maintains his dignity and integrity as a true writer, though the success by no means comes easily. The dilemma Falk faces at Smith’s Publishing House is a typical one for a young writer newly into the real world: to write, and to become a liar, an automaton that can be bended to serve any filthy political or economical purposes; or not to write, and remain a nameless free thinker, a self-crowned literary figure. Publish or perish, that’s the question. Falk is deeply troubled. Not only is he in urgent need of bread and butter, but he also vaguely acknowledges the righteousness and venerability of “doing a job well enough, be it noble or base, dear or cheap .” (p 72) After four hours in hell, racking his brains to write a sixteen-page biography for Queen Ulrica Eleonora, he only manages to finish seven pages and a half, and has drained all thinkable sources（he even spends one and a half page on attacking her royal brother and husband!）. With a painfully satiric tone, Strindberg vividly depicts the plague of having to write on a topic toward which one has neither concern nor emotion, a situation all too familiar to us. The torture is even greater for someone who used to be, or at least used to redeem himself to be, an ingenious writer. For Falk who fantasizes about challenging and changing the society with his pen, this is sheer catastrophe. Falk in Chapter Five being still more of a daring idealist and less a pessimistic accommodationist, decides in favor of his writer’s conscience and against his stomach. After that first trial, the next conquer comes more readily. When Falk leaves the overbearing pseudo-minister Scolay, who has trusted him to write a pseudo-biography (since most part of that is written by the subject, namely Scolay himself), he simply throws the scripts into a basement louver window. However, we still notice that throughout these two acts of rebellion, Falk has always been hesitant, irresolute and super scrupulous: in the first case he only gives up after failing to finish the task smoothly, in the second he isn’t tough enough to refuse Scolay to his face. That says a lot about Falk’s personality, which Strindberg concludes at the end of Chapter Seven that “has caused him great harm when he deals with people and the world”. (p 105)
Yet Falk’s self-assurance, his faith in leading the life of a conscientious intellectual that fights for the cause of people begins to wear out as he witnesses the filthy reality in almost every field of the society. The insurance company alleged as “noble” is founded upon nothing; the charity institutions undertake no charity work except to appease the conscience of their proprietors, to convince them that they’re not as avaricious and heartless as they’ve vaguely sensed themselves to be; the parliamentary conferences are downright farces, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing; and newspapers twist the truth as if it’s the most inconsequential marionette and change positions as readily as the west wind(when it goes to extremes, even the name of the paper is changed, from The Farmers’ Enemy to The Farmers’ Friend). From an omniscient perspective, Strindberg painted a bitterly entertaining Yamato-e for us, which, though lacking the grotesque subtlety of a Fellinisque film, has as penetrating a satirical power and as great an aesthetic glamour as one.
But does that mean our Falk is a doomed chevalier? That the odds against him are so formidable and overwhelming which, like the python of Midgard, is simply not to give way to human will? That Falk, like a carrousel horse, is predestined to return to the starting point? I don’t think this is the case. I’m not saying that a better equipped man can change the social reality of the then and there Sweden. But I do believe that Falk could have advanced further, or at least have come to better terms with himself, but for some of his fatal flaws in personality. "The Red Room" is every bit as much a personality tragedy as it is a social tragedy.
For one thing, Falk is a giant in faith, but a dwarf in action. In other words, in the arduous fight for his ideals, he is way too rigid, too much of a doctrinarian. He keeps focusing on whatever individual (and, if I might say, minor) problem that happens to be under his nose at the moment, rather than on seriously contemplating what can be done to bring about some fundamental changes. He lacks far-sight, so that his counteractions are often passive, firm at a first glance, but always susceptible to counterblows in the end. For instance, shortly after he has attacked the Triton Company in a report by calling their shareholders’ meeting an act of “swindle”, The Grey Cape publishes such a clear and logical editorial defending the company that he eventually begins to doubt and even blame himself. Have he had more insight into the social reality, he would have predicted such a reaction on the part of the media (remembering that one of Triton’s sponsors is the publishing tycoon Smith) and such emotions would have been unthinkable. He is all good intentions and no tact.
For another, he talks about ethics and morality all the time without truly understanding it. And that is why he could at best become a shouting bohemian, touching others’ heart by his sincerity and valiance, but never a great reformist. What he thinks is his opinion is more often than not jut borrowed, and he has swallowed a cento of beautiful voices and sublimate ideas without truly digesting them. There’s an argument between Falk and Ygberg in the beginning of Chapter Sixteen that I find most interesting. When Falk accuses Ygberg of having no sense of morality and justice, Ygberg rebuts that many people stick to their belief simply for the sake that this is their belief, and that a man’s first and foremost vocation is to survive- that alone is required of man both by earthly and heavenly creed. Ygberg’s opinion might be crude, unsophisticated, or in Falk’s word, “unappealing”, but is mostly educed from his own life experience, unlike Falk, into whom such concepts as perfect morality and impeccable integrity have been infused and forced, ever since he was a child, by those who themselves don’t believe a bit of it (for example, his elder brother Nicolas). Falk’s understanding of human nature is too clear-cut, bookishly square. He tends to demand perfection both in himself and in others, so that his disappointment is almost inevitable. Man is a weak species, susceptible to both the magnificent and the base, and above all, to the vicissitudes of life. The best of them endeavor to become better throughout their life, but there’s no guarantee that any of them would fight for one cause and one cause only, though firmness and steadfastness are generally regarded as virtues. If Falk could recognize this, first embrace the imperfection that is himself, then set out to improve this imperfect world, things could have been different.
In his letter to Ygberg, Rehnhjelm thus refers to the actor Mr. Falander: “…he’s a truly odd fellow! …kind-hearted, willing to sacrifice, sincere and tolerant, you cannot exactly tell the bad qualities in him. It’s only that he is immoral, and if someone is immoral, he is after all a bad fellow, am I not right? ” (p 213) This naïve statement much reminds me of Falk. In a sense, Rehnhjelm is the spiritual brother of Falk. They both diverge from their own social class for an idealistic cause, but are both badly accepted in the lower class. They are in between the classes, belonging nowhere. Italo Calvino wrote at the end of "The Invisible Cities" that there’re two ways to resist Hell that is modern life, “…the first one is easy: just accept it, and become a part of it till you cannot feel its existence. The second is risky, and requires persistent caution and learning. ” Falk and Rehnhjelm are better than the vast majority that have come to terms with Hell, but as rebels they are in lack of persistence, caution and profound wisdom. Their respective disillusion exhausts them in a relatively short period of time, and they both return to where they belong by birth at the end of the novel. In Falk’s case, though, the idealistic fever is barely quenched. Marriage, a teaching career and numismatics will not tame him. He’s still floating on the sea of possibilities. Here we see the greatness of Strindberg as a novelist: the book is finished, the story never closes down.
In "The Red Room", Strindberg caricatured exaggeratedly the characters without simplifying them (that is to say, without simplifying the male characters- there is not even one lovely, or at least interesting, woman in this novel!). Not all of them have lost the battle, not even Falk, Obedient only in words and actions at the end of the novel, Arvid Falk is more, after all, than a leering cynic.
(English quotations of "The Red Room" rendered by blavatsky from the Chinese edition of the book, which is in turn rendered from Swedish by Shi Qin-E and Si Wen)