Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Pull of the Ideal

    Who doesn’t feel the pull of the Ideal? If the Ideal is the perfect goal of life, then all people feel its pull. We may not agree on the identity of the Ideal: Is it God? Comfort? Power? Love? Peace? But we can’t help feeling its pull; whatever draws any one person is for him the Ideal.
    People stir up trouble, though, when they start insisting on the Ideal. The word is too vague, to begin with; it represents an abstraction of an abstraction. Five people agreeing in so many words to pursue the Ideal can, and probably will, have five different goals. Henrik Ibsen’s Wild Duck shows some of the problems caused by a devotion to an ill-defined Ideal.
    At the beginning of the play, Gregers Werle, son of the local capitalist, returns to his hometown after several years, claiming to have discovered the “pull of the Ideal.” He naturally shares his happy discovery with his childhood chum, Hialmar Ekdal, and Hialmar can’t argue against the idea of living life in honest, truthful expressions of love. His wife, though, has a secret, a secret Gregers finds out. So what is Hialmar to do? Gregers thinks he should get the (not actually very) sordid history out in the open: if the marriage falls apart, then it wasn’t worth saving anyway. Oh, and by the way, having a daughter doesn’t make any difference; truth is the Ideal, and we must live for the Ideal.
    I’m not sure what Ibsen meant for his audience to get out of the tragedy that ensues; he may have had no goal in mind other than deconstructing some assumptions. I reach two conclusions: (1) A well-kept secret concerning an action taken seventeen years ago that hasn’t recurred since, has no chance of recurring, and doesn’t hinder a current life of devoted love is better kept unexposed. (2) Knowledge is not the same as Truth. A devotion to Truth doesn’t mean having to make sure everyone knows everything.
    Another character, Dr. Relling says that the Ideal is a life-lie, an illusion. Like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Relling thinks people should give up on their pipe dreams. Perhaps inconsistently, but all-too-humanly, Relling tells his patients and friends lies, providing them with other illusions that he thinks will give them a zest for life. So, in opposition to Gregers and his unswerving devotion to truth, Relling has faith in illusion. But this way of life brings no less tragedy than Werle’s: Hialmar’s illusions erect a wall between him and his daughter and set her to thinking of sacrifices she has to make in order to prove her love. I can’t help thinking along the path of infinite regression from Relling’s stance: if illusions are good lies that give us zest for life, how do we know the zest for life itself isn’t an illusion? Or even more pointedly, if the good things we live for are unreal, why have any zest for life?
    Ibsen doesn’t seem to preach any one clear view in Wild Duck. He just puts characters in an interesting situation of intertwining dilemmas. It seems at times that he wants to dismantle some common assumptions of love, family, truth, and sacrifice. But the success of the play depends on its audience’s absolute adherence to one traditional thought: when a teenager shoots herself to prove her love to her father, something somewhere is far, far from the Ideal.

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