Chair no. 17 - Horace Engdahl

Horace Engdahl, born 30 December 1948 in Karlskrona. Writer, literary historian and critic, Adjunct Professor of Scandinavian literature at the University of Århus. He was elected to the Swedish Academy on 16 October 1997 and admitted on 20 December 1997. Engdahl succeeded the writer Johannes Edfelt to Chair number 17. He was Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy from 1999 to 2009.

During the late 1960s Engdahl studied literary history at Stockholm University and took his B.A. in 1970. As a doctoral student he was an assistant at the Department of Comparative Literature between 1971 and 1974. In 1977, together with his colleagues Arne Melberg and Anders Olsson and others, he published the anthology Hermeneutik (‘Hermeneutics’), which introduced the continental tradition of modern literary scholarship, then neglected in Sweden. The same year, and together with the same circle of literary scholars and critics and some writers and artists, he published the journal Kris (‘Crisis’), the importance of which for the renewal of the Swedish view of literature in the 1980s can scarcely be overestimated. Working mainly on the French pattern, Kris laid bare territory at the borders of literature, art and philosophy then unexplored and, by introducing important thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Theodor W. Adorno, Maurice Blanchot and Roland Barthes, brought new blood to Swedish comparative literature, literary criticism and literature. Not least, the approach to Romanticism, Engdahl’s own primary research field, was renewed. During this period he was also active as a translator, e.g. of Heinrich von Kleist’s two plays Amfitryon and Penthesilea in Två damer ('Two ladies')(1987).

In the same year he defended his thesis, an “essay in nine sections” entitled Den romantiska texten (‘The Romantic text’), a pioneering re-evaluation of Swedish Romanticism. By replacing the hitherto fairly universal biographical and history-of-ideas perspective on Romanticism with a rhetorical one, and by close-reading its texts, Engdahl coaxes forth the suppressed side of Romanticism, its textual side. His attention to the text as such formed a school: “The unconfined energy of Romanticism will be released only when we read it as texts and not as a world view.” By reading texts closely, both on the outskirts of enlightenment (Oxenstierna, Kellgren, Thorild, Lidner) and in more pronounced Romantics (Atterbom, Stagnelius, Almqvist, Tegnér), Horace Engdahl locates “a new state of language”, the primary feature of which is “the drastically reduced paraphrasability of the poetic text. If there is still anything that may be called a subject for what is written, this can seldom be separated from the images that are the most important means for realising the subject poetically”.

A number of hivings-off from Romantic research were published successively: Om uppmärksamheten (1988; ‘On attention’) with a point of departure in Tegnér, the anthology Minnets svanar (1988; ‘The swans of memory’) with a personal selection of Swedish Romantic poetry, and the concise commentary (1996) on Erik Johan Stagnelius’ poem “Kärleken”, Stagnelius Kärleken (‘Stagnelius' Love’).

Engdahl remained on the editorial staff of Kris until 1988. Shortly thereafter the same circle started the “critical library” Kykeon, so far represented by some ten volumes including Novalis, Heraclitus, Lichtenberg, Jünger, Perec and Blanchot, a part of whose Essäer ('Essays') Engdahl translated (1990). Within the framework of Kykeon he was also responsible for the anthology Obegripligheten (1992; ‘Incomprehensibility’) where, among other things, he translated Friedrich Schlegel’s essay Om oförståeligheten “On incomprehensibility”.

During the whole of the 1980s Engdahl was active as a literature and dance critic, first in the evening newspaper Expressen, then in the daily Dagens Nyheter. Between 1989 and 1998 he was employed in the Dagens Nyheter cultural department. Always controversial, he was for a decade or so looked on as Sweden’s leading literary critic, and his criticism of dance was something new in the genre. What Horace Engdahl has so far written on dancing is still largely unpublished, but a hint of his ideas on choreography is given in the English volume Swedish Ballet and Dance (1992).

His literary criticism is largely available in published form, partly in the weighty collection Stilen och lyckan (1992; ‘Style and happiness’). These concentrated essays offer a view of Engdahl’s, the literary critic’s, full wing-span, with texts from various perspectives on e.g. Chamfort, Montale, Barthes, Hoffmann, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Poe, Calvino, Björling, Virgilius Maro Grammaticus and Erik Beckman. Earlier available only in dispersed form, these essays now evince appreciable uniformity, which can be better summarised as a style than as a doctrine. It is an observant style of reading that also becomes an observant style of writing – with intellectual wit and at the same time a clarity all its own, clear but not simple. Although Engdahl may now be said to be on the other side of theory he must still be characterised as a demanding writer.

In Beröringens ABC (1994; ‘The ABC of touch’) the tendency to develop a genre of his own – without national predecessors but with international ones – is even more apparent. This is a genre that moves freely in the field between literary research, literary criticism and literature, the main literary patterns being Barthes and Blanchot. The meeting with the literary text is artistic and scholarly to equal extents. By alighting in an already established Engdahlian canon (Goethe, Schlegel, Stendhal, Poe, Mallarmé, Björling, Arno Schmidt, Joyce, Beckett, Gunnar Ekelöf, Blanchot) he sets out to hunt down “what is most elusive, most difficult to define in language”, namely its “tone” – “the wholeness of a literary work emerges as a tone”. Or with a somewhat more shaded quotation: “Each literary work specifies a point from which the whole causes itself to be thought. Reading a work is the same thing as listening for an ultimate tone or note cutting into all intonations, an absence of irony possessed by every text, if only outside itself, like an elliptical centre, situated in the unspoken.”

In the collection of fragments Meteorer (1999; new ed. 2003; ‘Meteors’) Horace Engdahl took yet another step in the direction of fiction. This is a frank mixture of shorter and longer texts, severely reduced and concentrated, in an aphoristic tradition that spans from Pascal via Chamfort, Lichtenberg, Schlegel, Wallace Stevens. The genre is perhaps best described in the following lines: “The poem shuns thought as the fencer dodges the rapier’s point. The aphorism permits itself to be pierced but without shedding a drop of blood.”

In Ärret efter drömmen (2009) (The Scar Left by the Dream), articles and esssays from the years 1989 to 2004 are brought together. Here Horace Engdahl writes on, among others, Byron, Wagner, Madame de Staël, Almqvist, Atterbom, Runeberg and his own colleague at the Academy, Ulf Linde.

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Tim Crosfield)