The Heavenly City and the Damaged Throne

March 5, 2003

Per Olov Enquist, The Visit of the Royal Physician, London: The Harvill Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Claudio Bozzi

physicianThe Visit of the Royal Physician, Per Olov Enquist’s sixth novel, confirms a shift from the existential concerns of his early writing to an exploration of society and politics, in which he thematises the materialist paradigm that ‘humanity does not exist as Humanity, but must always be related to historical and political realities.’

Enquist has adapted the influences of post-Existentialism to the tradition of Swedish documentarism. The documentary novel saw literature as a research into reality committed to reaching behind perceptual and experiential conventions and was premised on a direct involvement with the social conditions it sought to unveil. Its critical and analytical activity was held out as the opposite of realism’s problematic ambition to ‘portray’ reality, with its concomitant idealisation of the role of the observer.

Enquist’s critics have accused him of mistaking radical undecideability for an incompletely worked out understanding of the relationship between historical documents. Enquist has responded saying that the real mistake is to ‘believe that the document is in some sense truer than fiction’ – thereby pointing once again to the realist’s fantasy that they are dealing with empirical rather than social facts.

The Visit of the Royal Physician is like earlier works in that it is an historical novel based on seemingly real documents. It goes further, however, in drawing its characters and events directly from one of the best known episodes of Danish history – the rise and fall of Johan Friedrich Struensee – to address concerns about agency and history.

Set during the reign of Christian VII, King of Denmark and Norway, The Visit of the Royal Physician concerns the appointment of Johan Friedrich Struensee as Royal Physician upon the king’s ascension in 1766. Struensee was appointed to manage and, if possible, cure the king’s madness. As Christian’s condition worsened, his dependence on Struensee grew, effectively giving the physician control of the kingdom. The novel follows his appointment as minister, his rise to prominence and power, and his execution for high treason in 1772.

Royal Physician is an historico-political novel in the sense that the events with which it is concerned are directly relevant to the possibility of a rational politics, and directly concerned with the durability of forms of feudal government and repression.  Struensee attempts to practice an enlightened politics, and takes up his post, encouraged by Count Rantzen, to ‘realise his noble dreams.’ But the new force of Enlightenment – its progressivism based on principle and visionary potential rather than historical precedent– encounters an entrenched culture of politics – the sober and traditional ‘art of the possible.’ From this encounter the battle over the power to redraw the boundaries of the just society, and to draw the line over which reform staggers into chaos, is waged.

But enlightenment is not a simple or unitary phenomenon. The author does not apparently accept Foucault’s reduction of the historical Enlightenment to innovations in the techniques of power. However, Enquist illuminates his narration of this discrete episode in the history of liberal reforms with the paradoxical figure of the ‘black torch.’ The black torch may refer either to Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ – reason’s spontaneous self-transformation into terror – or to a less extreme ‘suspicion’ of Enlightenment. In the first case the torch is carried by the opponents of Enlightenment. In the second, adherents may equally entertain doubts about the orientation of the movement and the means it employs.

For Guldberg, the pietistic enemy of progress, the black torch is a figure of nihilistic vacuity, and not a paradoxical figure of illumination: ‘I cant see God’s love in the darkness, but only despair and emptiness,’ he declares. Guldberg is the novel’s converted ‘free-thinker’. The conversion is an indication of the absolutism in the positions he adopts. Lacking the negative capability for life outside the Court, Guldberg must try to eliminate the paradox of representation: ambiguous social reality cannot impinge on a political framework governed by the dichotomy of good and evil.

The necessary outcome of Guldberg’s understanding of the world is to divide it into friends and enemies, and to see politics as the putting into practice of means of strengthening the ties with one, and eliminating the other. Anything else is, as Carl Schmitt would say, political romanticism: wherein the spheres of society and culture are subjected to aesthetic contemplation rather than practical analysis.  The romantic, according to Schmitt, does not attempt to resolve the conflict arising from the encounter between contemplation and reality. Conflict is positively valued as a stimulus to selfhood, and is only resolved in the imagination by means of the perfect symbol which suspends and incorporates the antithesis into a higher harmony: poetics replaces politics.

For adherents the power of enlightenment controls the individual. In the kingdom of the mad prince, power is deformed by personality: ‘Everything was clarity and reason, but illuminated by the king’s insanity.’ Diderot convinces Struensee to see his appointment as the chance to move Enlightenment from the realm of discourse into the machinery of policy. Contrary to Guldberg’s view of ‘free-thinking’ as political romanticism, Struensee will position himself in the networks of power in order to release reason as the motive power of history beyond the subjective will.

Struensee devotes himself to carrying the ‘black torch’ of enlightenment through the country, unmasking historical structures parading as metaphysical truths, imagining a state of future well-being, and giving up his more immediate problem-solving work in Altona. The dark torch simultaneously shines and casts a shadow because enlightenment cannot do its work without seizing power, but works against the very mechanism which it seizes control of. Struensee, who wants to make the abuses of intolerable systems of work and social relations transparent, must work by subterfuge.

Ultimately, however, historic opportunities are overtaken by personal interest. Struensee cannot manage the transition from the ‘silent one’ at the outset of the events that propel him from backwater to capital, from obscurity into history, to ‘the royal physician’. The movement from indifference (silence) to awakening is experienced as a contradiction which proves his downfall, necessarily of his own making. Guldberg, too, appears on the stage of history as a character traversed by contradictory desires ending only with the substitution of an illusion for recognition and self-understanding.

Characters fail to adjust themselves to the requirements of the time. It is the mad prince Christian who demonstrates that the self achieves reality through representation in others during his remarkable transformation from inchoate idiot to self-controlled ruler in the role of Voltaire’s Zaire. The theatre provides him with what the Court cannot: self-realization through self-distancing.

The Court must in fact obscure the king’s dependence in order to construct him as absolute, as if to say that only by imaging a fixed pole of power can society and sovereignty relate in an ordered fashion. But Queen Caroline articulates the blind spot in the operations of power when she realises that the coherence of the palace garden can only be viewed from one spot: the royal position. The coherence is only formal, and absolutist politics is trapped within an abstract perspective which facts, rather than substantiating, would only shatter.

The queen is a threat to the Court because she knows ‘there is a world outside the Court; and when I say this, the membrane splits, terror and fury flare up, and I am free.’ Similarly, the king, hungry for reality and enclosed within the formalities of politics imaged as a garden maze, bursts through the labyrinth rather than attempting to solve it (thereby not conceding to its logic). He gladly bears the scars of the thorns that have lacerated him in the process.

The king’s gesture vindicates Struensee’s appreciation of his weird acuity, and seems to justify Struensee’s efforts to create a rational world in which there was as much place for the mad king as for anyone. The novel, however, is sanguine about the ambitions of Enlightenment. ‘What is the ultimate goal of those … men of the Enlightenment?’ wonders the Machiavellian dowager craftily. Struensee openly replies: ‘To create a heaven on earth.’ The idealist reformer is yet to encounter real limitations. Things become complicated when Struensee tries to reconcile a rational society with one having a place for the mad prince. Moreover, the heavenly city has to be constructed directly on the power emanating from the damaged throne.

Struensee must either agree with traditional wisdom in finding the Christian a complication to be hidden, or else discover a certain irony to imagine the mad king on the throne of the kingdom of reason. The Ascheberg Gardens, ‘an illusion of a natural state,’ reveal that courtly power only exists in its romanticised form. However, Struensee enlists the figure of complication to the service of classical order as he and the king will form ‘a splendid pair’, and harmony emerge from discord – with Struensee acting as Socratic midwife to the birth of reason from its dark other. Irony succumbs to romanticism however as Struensee commits an evil to eradicate evil. By allowing the peasant boy on the horse to die at the hands of the villagers in order to impress the king sufficiently to enlighten him, he loses sight of morality for the purpose of establishing it. The future cannot be the altar on which the present is offered: what is hoped for does not supply the form for its own content.

The novel explores the many forms of power: sexual, charismatic, hieratic, political and ultimately democratic. The multiple points of power are concentrated by force into the singular form of the politics of the Court. At the end of the novel, however, power is redefined spontaneously by the formation of the will of the people from its disillusionment with the arrogance of the courtiers who seem able to dispose of lives as if troublesome individuals were only so much ethical garbage.

As pious counter-revolutionaries promote the myth that the temple has been cleansed, the people fly into a rage, setting Copenhagen ablaze, sparking purifying fires burning offerings to the gods. Pietism, then (like reason) can be dialecticised into paganism, revealing itself as political myth. From the ruins of the conservative façade a revolutionary potential can be constructed: ‘… the contagion of sin … that black glow from the torches of Enlightenment had not been extinguished.’

The spectacle of Struensee’s execution becomes an aperture for the politicisation of society. ‘The crowd’s’ spontaneous recharacterisation as ‘the people’ represents the true alternative to centralised power emanating from the Court – but it is an alternative that is unimaginable without the difficulties caused to authority by the multiple forms of power it has encountered and suppressed.  These multiple forms essential to the development and emergence of the proto-democratic face of society include Struensee’s strange power of ‘quiet reluctance’, his ‘oddly passive’ resistance to temptation, both of which resonate with the tension of temporality, of change. They also include Queen Caroline’s sexual allure, and the power of reason or unforced assent.

Caroline becomes the most threatening force in the novel as a woman who desires power – not the traditional power over side-bars of the Court of immensely capable women such as the dowager, but the immediate power of being at the source of actions on a universal scale. The power of reason is both resisted and abused. Struensee fears corrupting it by involvement in politics. Guldberg, the novel’s ultimate political animal, undermines it by reference to the most famous of all formulations of Enlightenment – Kant’s sapere aude, or ‘dare to know’. For Guldberg, politics – or to him life – is all thrust without reflexivity: ‘I dare’ (all aude, and no sapere) is the most revealing thing he says about himself; and ‘it’s true, but imagine that he dares to say so’ the most damaging thing he can think to say about Struensee.

Emancipation from illusion, suggests Enquist, is a project for the people and by the people:

Is it the darkness that is light, or the luminous that is dark? A choice must be made. The same is true of history, people choose what to see, what is light and what is darkness.

The people now face the choice first offered to Struensee: the opportunity for an individualisation which had been denied them in the dynastic past. Struensee may ultimately have failed politically. The novel, however, counters the pathos of the personal narrative with the formation of a new consciousness forged from the same pathos. The impediments to the enlightened reconstruction of the relationship between autonomy and the strategies of government, suggests (but only suggests) Enquist, can overcome the embattled condition of the people, and their political apathy conditioned by the unchanging machinery of state.

In Enquist’s novel of 1978, The March of the Musicians, the political worker Emblad dreamed that he was enchained on a square mountain in the middle of the sea. A bird lights on the mountain and sharpens its beak against the rock. He tells Emblad: ‘Before the Swedes become socialist, the mountain will be worn away by my beak.’ Emblad, despite his fatiguing battles against popular apathy, learns to interpret the dream not as a sign of the futility of his mission, but as a warning against destructive indifference.

Emblad represents Enquist’s belief in the need for the writer to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Whilst the people are the agent of socialist change, the slogan ‘knowledge is power’ indicates that the masses lack of understanding is the enemy of reform. Emancipation is linked to education, but education itself does not emancipate. As Liebknecht noted:

Only in the free people’s state can the people achieve knowledge. Only when the people wins the struggle for political power, will the gates of knowledge be opened to it.

Freedom therefore precedes knowledge, since knowledge gained under the conditions of the state is the substance from which the chains of servitude are forged.

In The Visit of the Royal Physician, the people have not yet found a voice but they have acquired a certain gaze, a certain framing. The nocturnal Copenhagen is the setting for a dream, but the actors are awake – they are yet to speak, but the death of Struensee provides the pre-conditions for the emergence of a popular voice.

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