A Cultural History of the Modern Age
The wide public's standpoint towards Andersen is more or less the same as that of the subaltern who thought that Julius Caesar could not really have been a great man because he only wrote for the lower forms. Since, in fact, Andersen was so great a poet that even the children could understand him, the grown-ups regard him as not good enough for themselves. But the genuine poet is a King Midas: what he touches turns to gold and—there is about him, too, a trace of the ass's ears, of the child's simplicity.
Moreover, Andersen's works have a dual basis. Seen outwardly, they appear to be nothing but simple fairy-tales, and they can be read as such, as children do read them every day. But they ought not to be read as such, for in their innermost essence they are satires that have chosen the form of the fairy-tale. Andersen, it is true, gave himself out as a story-teller talking to children, but this is only an assumed standpoint; naivete is not his condition, but his role, and this art-form can quite justly be described as ironic in the sense that Socrates gave to the word. It is given only to rude mankind and to genius to produce the impression of simplicity, but that does not mean that we should confuse these two, for they stand at the extreme opposite poles of human expressive faculty. And it was precisely through his plainness and artistic realism, which enabled him completely to vanish inside his objects, that Andersen was so profound and effective a satirist.
At bottom, indeed, every poet is a satirist. The poet looks on the world with unprejudiced and keen-sighted eyes and so naturally discovers a great many things that, it seems to him, are important, but have been insufficiently observed, or wrongly observed, or, for that matter, are false themselves. And so there awakens in him a need to remedy these evils by bringing them into the light with all possible distinctness. The best means to this end was, and is, satire. Deep ethical seriousness, reforming goodwill, and the gift of seeing correctly are the roots of genuine, vitalizing, poetic satire.
Andersen's fundamental theme is the eternal conflict of genius with philistinism, soulless materialism, sated complacency, intolerant narrowness, the inertia of habit of the average man. All shades of human limitedness, untruth, and egoism are mirrored in these tales, save that they are usually displayed, not in men, but in animals, plants, and domestic utensils, more or less in fable fashion. Nevertheless, no one would even think of calling these poems fables, for a fable is something that essentially speaks to the reason—when the fabulist relates to us the stupidity of the goose, the conceit of the peacock, the cowardice of the hare, we always feel that he is cocking an eye on us and asking: 'Whom does that remind you of?' It is always too transparently obvious that he is talking allegorically. With Andersen, on the contrary, we forget entirely that the phenomena are really only carriers of human thoughts and feelings. The fox of the fable is at bottom nothing but the idea of wiliness, he is not a definite or individual fox, nor really for that matter a fox at all. Andersen's beings, on the contrary, are not personified virtues and vices, but living originals. We are firmly convinced that the cucumber is blase, the weathercock is conceited, the money-box pig insolent, the necktie vain, the pen jealous, the garter prudish. All these fantastic creations condense to realities, become our personal acquaintances. One of the chief characteristics of the philistine is that he regards himself as the mid point of the world, and his affairs as the most (indeed, the only) important thing in it. He estimates the value of his fellow-creatures merely according to the degree in which they are like himself and assumes that everything which differs from him is, by that very fact, worth less. Consequently we find professional futility a constantly recurring motif in Andersen. A second trait, related to the first, is that of professional arrogance; most of Andersen's creatures are pure bureaucrats, who start from the position that their job exists for them and not they for their job. The snail family is entirely convinced that the burdock is only in the world for the purpose of feeding it, and the rain to give it a little drum music, and when none of the family is any longer boiled and eaten, it concludes that the human race must have become extinct. The tomcat declares that a creature which cannot arch its back and spit fire is wholly unqualified to give opinions, and the muckworm has only one thought on seeing the tropics: what incomparable vegetation and how good it will taste when it decays. But the philistine character contains yet another trait, that no philistine is content with the place that Providence has assigned to him; every one of them pushes beyond his natural gifts, imagining himself to be more than he is. The darning-needle assumes from the very start that it is a sewing-needle, and in the end that it is a breast-pin; the smoothing-iron thinks it is a steam engine that can go on the rails and pull a train; the hand-cart declares that it is a coach and four because it runs on wheels; and the rocking-horse talks of nothing but training and breed. Every one has his pet life-lie, all want to live beyond their condition, cut a dash, throw dust in one another's eyes.
From these types, which taken together constitute a wide cross-section of everyday life, Andersen passes on to a still higher sort of satire that often contains a whole philosophy of human nature in a nutshell. For example, is not the situation of the Goblin in 'The Goblin and the Shopkeeper' the situation of all men; do we not all oscillate between love of porridge and good butter and love of poetry, which one cannot eat? And 'The Emperor's New Clothes,' does it not contain a whole sociology? All maintain that they are seeing the Emperor's robes, although he has none on, for the word has been given that if anyone does not see them, he must be entirely stupid or unfit for his office. And the story of 'The Ugly Duckling' is at bottom nothing more or less than that of the destiny and course of genius, for genius is marked before all the world precisely by its humility; because it is different from the rest, it regards itself as less, as particularly inferior, and the rest in turn mock it, hate it, and suppress it. 'It is too big and uncommon,' say all the ducks, 'and so it has to be whacked,' until it finally appears that the reason why it possesses none of the accepted virtues and beauties of a duck is that it happens to be a swan. Almost all Andersen's tales admit of an extended interpretation. One could even write fat books about them, just as the Chinese savants did about the nightingale—and about as usefully, for Andersen's poems, at bottom, tolerate no elucidation. What gives them their high charm is precisely the apparently complete spontaneity of the narrative, which presents one impression after another, and the understanding love that only wants to show and no more.
These qualities enabled Andersen to read all things. It is as though he possessed the magic stone of Maeterlinck's Blue Bird; he only needs to turn it to entice the souls of things, and out they come at once—the souls of cats and dogs and even dead things, milk, bread, sugar. And all became more beautiful and handsome. The hours leave the clock and become bright maidens stretching out hands to one another. Nothing is without soul or without life. The whole world is full of ideas and sensations, and all that is necessary is to know how to read. And the poet reads them. He reads the tender and loving thoughts of the nightingale, the false and cruel thoughts of the cat, the soft and modest thoughts of the rose, the noble thoughts of the hound, the proud thoughts of the poppy, the envious thoughts of the mole. But the humming-top too, and the ink-pot, the clothes-brush, the grandfather clock, the teacup, all have their various sensations that can be deciphered.