Thursday, November 21, 2013



Georg Morris Cohen Brandes (1842 – 1927) was a Danish critic and scholar who had great influence on Scandinavian and European literature from the 1870s through the turn of the 20th century. He is seen as the theorist behind the "Modern Breakthrough" of Scandinavian culture. 

At the age of 30, Brandes formulated the principles of a new realism and naturalism, condemning hyper-aesthetic writing and fantasy in literature. According to Brandes, literature should be an organ "of the great thoughts of liberty and the progress of humanity". His literary goals were shared by many authors, among them the Norwegian realist playwright Henrik Ibsen. 

When Georg Brandes held a series of lectures in 1871 with the title "Main Currents in 19th-century Literature", he defined the Modern Breakthrough and started the movement that would become Cultural Radicalism.

 "The Young Brandes Lectures at Copenhagen University" 
by Harald Slott-Møller (1864-1937)

In 1884 Viggo Horup, Georg Brandes, and his brother Edvard Brandes started the daily newspaper Politiken with the motto: "The paper of greater enlightenment". The paper and their political debates led to a split of the liberal party Venstre in 1905 and created the new party Det Radikale Venstre.

Georg Brandes was born in Copenhagen in a non-orthodox Jewish middle-class family, the elder brother of prominent Danes Ernst Brandes and Edvard Brandes. He became a student at the University of Copenhagen in 1859 where he first studied jurisprudence. From this, however, his interests soon turned to philosophy and aesthetics. In 1862 he won the gold medal of the university for an essay on The Idea of Nemesis among the Ancients. Before this, indeed since 1858, he had shown a remarkable gift for verse-writing, the results of which, however, were not abundant enough to justify separate publication. 

Brandes did not collect his poems until as late as 1898. At the university, which he left in 1864, Brandes was influenced by the writings of Heiberg in criticism and Soren Kierkegaard in philosophy, influences which continued to leave traces on his work. In 1866, he took part in the controversy raised by the works of Rasmus Nielsen in a treatise on "Dualism in our Recent Philosophy". 

From 1865 to 1871 he traveled much in Europe, acquainting himself with the condition of literature in the principal centers of learning. His first important contribution to letters was his Aesthetic Studies (1868), where his more mature method is already foreshadowed in several brief monographs on Danish poets. In 1870 he published several important volumes, The French Aesthetics of the Present Day, dealing chiefly with Hippolyte Taine, Criticisms and Portraits, and a translation of The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, whom he had met that year during a visit to England.

In the midst of these polemics, Brandes began to issue the most ambitious of his works, Main Currents in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century, of which four volumes appeared between 1872 and 1875 (English translation, 1901–1905). The brilliant novelty of this criticism of the literature of major European countries at the beginning of the 19th century, and his description of the general revolt against the pseudo-classicism of the 18th century, at once attracted attention outside Denmark.

The tumult which gathered round the person of the critic increased the success of the work, and the reputation of Brandes grew apace, especially in Germany and Russia.

Det moderne Gjennembruds Mænd" (The Men of the Modern Breakthrough), composed of J.P Jacobsen, Holger Drachmann, Edvard Brandes, Erik Skram, Sophus Scandorph, and Norwegians Henrik Ibsen and Bjornstjerne Bjornson, but a conservative reaction against his "realistic" doctrines began around 1883, headed by Holger Drachmann. 

Among his later writings must be mentioned the monographs on Soren Kierkegaard (1877), on Esaias Tegner (1878), on Benjamin Disraeli (1878), Ferdinand Lassalle (in German, 1877), Ludvig Holberg (1884), on Henrik Ibsen (1899) and on Anatole France (1905). Brandes wrote with great depth on the main contemporary poets and novelists of Denmark and Norway, and he and his disciples were for a long time the arbiters of literary fame in the north. 

His Danish Poets (1877), containing studies of Carsten Hauch, Ludvig Bodtcher, Christian Winther and Frederick Paludan Muller, his Men of the Modern Transition (1883), and his Essays (1889), are volumes essential to the proper study of modern Scandinavian literature. He wrote an excellent book on Poland (1888; English translation, 1903), and was one of the editors of the German version of Ibsen.

"Mit første længere Udenrigsophold"

"Mit første længere Udenrigsophold" - således karakteriserer Georg Brandes selv i Levned rejsen til Paris, som varede fra november 1866 til sidst i januar 1867. 

Georg Brandes' første rejser bl.a. til Paris i 1870-71, var "blevet til som et Surrogat for den Dagbog, han ikke gad føre, for senere at kunne tjene til Støtte for hans Hukommelse." 

Litt.: Morten Borup: Georg Brandes. Breve til Forældrene, I-III, Kbh. 1978.

Henning Fenger: Den unge Brandes, Kbh. 1957.

Jørgen Knudsen: Georg Brandes. Frigørelsens vej, 1842-77, Kbh. 1985.

The most important of his later works was his study of William Shakespeare (1897–1898), which was translated into English by William Archer, and was highly acclaimed. It was, perhaps, the most authoritative work on Shakespeare not principally intended for an English-speaking audience to have been published in any country.

He published Main Currents in Nineteenth-Century Literature in 1906 (six volumes). This book was among the 100 best books for education recommended by Will Durant. Durant and Brandes were both contributors to the Mother Earth magazine. In Volume 2 he says the following about Kierkegaard: "It is not merely in name that this irony bears a fundamental resemblance to Kierkegaard's, which also aristocratically "chooses to be misunderstood". 

The Ego of genius is the truth, if not in the sense in which Kierkegaard would have us understand his proposition, "Subjectivity is the truth", still in the sense that the Ego has every externally valid commandment and prohibition in its power; and, to the astonishment and scandal of the world, invariably expresses itself in paradoxes. 

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Irony - The lap of Nature! There is an echo of Rousseau's voice even in this wanton tirade. We seem to hear the trumpet-call of revolution; what we really hear is only the proclamation of reaction. Rousseau desired to return to the state of nature, when men roamed naked through the pathless forests and lived upon acorns. Schelling wished to turn the course of evolution back to the primeval ages, to the days before man had fallen. Schlegel blows revolutionary melodies on the great romantic "wonder-horn".

In the late 1880s, Brandes fought against what he saw as the hypocrisy of prudish sexuality, which caused a rift with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Between the years of 1886 and 1888 Brandes was engaged in a relationship with the Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson, who wrote Penningar and Fru Marianne under the male pseudonym Ernst Ahlgren. Victoria Benedictsson committed suicide in a Copenhagen hotel room, and the relationship with Brandes has later been blamed as the cause for the death.

In the late 1880s, Brandes turned to concentrating on "great personalities" as the source of culture. In this period, he discovered Friedrich Nietzsche, not only introducing him to Scandinavian culture but indirectly to the whole world. The series of lectures that he gave on Nietzsche's thought, in which he described Friedrich Nietzsche's thought as "aristocratic radicalism", were the first to present him as a world cultural figure in need of full intellectual notice. 

Of Brandes' description of his philosophy Nietzsche himself remarked: "The expression 'aristocratic radicalism', which you employ, is very good. It is, permit me to say, the cleverest thing that I have yet read about myself".

In 1909 the lectures were edited and published as the monograph Friedrich Nietzsche, which included the complete Nietzche/Brandes correspondence as well as two essays in homage to the late Nietzsche's life and thought. Translated into English by A.G. Chater, the volume was published by Heinemann in 1911 and Nietzsche's thought was thus able to reach a significant English language audience before World War II. Interestingly, it was Brandes who, in an 1888 letter, wrote to Nietzsche advising him to read the works of Soren Kierkegaard, with whom his Existentialist thought had much in common. There is no evidence that Nietzsche ever did read any volume by Kierkegaard.

Brandes 75th anniversary with Peter Nansen

The key idea of "aristocratic radicalism" went on to influence most of the later works of Brandes and resulted in voluminous biographies Wolfgang Goethe (1914–15), Francois de Voltaire (1916–17), Gaius Julius Caesar 1918 and Michelangeo (1921).


In the 1900s, he fought the Danish political establishment on several occasions, but eventually had to curb his acidic attacks. However, his international reputation was growing. In many ways he emulated his own assessment of Voltaire, as an author against habitual thinking, hypocrisy and the thin veneer of morality. He condemned the maltreatment of national minorities, the persecution of Alfred Dreyfus etc. 

During World War I he condemned the national aggression and imperialism on both sides and his last years were dedicated to anti-religious polemic. In this late period he made new connections to intellectuals like Henri Barbusse and Romain Rolland when he was co-signer in the foundation of Clarte as well as E.D. Morel.