Peer Gynt and Oedipus: Ibsen on Hegel's Precursors of Modernity

Hegel Bulletin 43 (1):121-143 (2022)
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G. W. F. Hegel sees Oedipus as an epitome of the philosophical quest for self-knowledge. In Hegel's readings of Oedipus, the latter becomes a distant reflection of the modern and mature Hegelian self, who consciously takes on this quest. Yet unlike Oedipus, whose search for the truth about his past is characterized by both metaphorical and literal blindness, the modern self knows itself, precisely because it understands its past and can thus appropriate and situate itself in relation to the present. For Hegel, self-understanding entails grasping the proper relationship between past and present, which in turn necessitates acknowledging his own relationship to Oedipus. This essay examines Henrik Ibsen's turn to the Hegelian engagement with the past, by focusing on one of the most enigmatic scenes in his 1866 drama, Peer Gynt, where the Norwegian protagonist is cast as Oedipus. The scene examines the drama's own past—through an engagement with a dramatic ancestor—and focuses on the influence of the past on fashioning modern European identity. Moreover, it offers a critique of how the past is utilized in the creation and consolidation of that identity. With this, Ibsen offers an implicit critique of Hegel's understanding of Oedipus, and his encounter with the Sphinx in particular. Revisiting Oedipus through its modern reception, Ibsen questions the act by which the past is revealed as such and is put to work in the service of a particular present.



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Lior Levy
University of Haifa

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