In his anti-literary 1890s, August Strindberg took to the laboratory to experiment in alchemy, and some of his thoughts led to a peculiar book published in Germany in 1894 called Antibarbarus I: oder Die Welt fĂŒr sich und die Welt fĂŒr mich (YA.1990.a.22668). His discovery of the process of transmuting lead into gold was conjecture and anti-scientific, if anti-anything, but 13 years later, this simple pamphlet, first published in Germany, transmuted into one of the finest luxury editions printed in Sweden.
Cover of August Strindberg, Antibarbarus: Det Ă€r en vidlyftig undersĂ¶kning om grundĂ€mnenas natur och ett nytt betraktelsesĂ€tt af de kemiska operationernas fĂ¶rlopp enligt den rĂ„dande monist-teorien om naturens allhet & enhet, sĂ„dan den af Darwin och HĂŠckel tillĂ€mpats pĂ„ de andra naturvetenskaperna (Stockholm: 1906) Cup.408.I.20.)
Strindberg composed Antibarbarus as a series of letters written in the second person, addressing an unidentified correspondent on diverse scientific principles. His first letter was entitled, âThe ontogeny of sulphurâ, the second, âOn the transmutation of matter, transformist chemistry, or everything in everythingâ, the third, âThoughts on the composition of air and waterâ, and a fourth, simply âParalipomenaâ. He himself thought he âsimply drew all the logical conclusions inherent in Transformism and Monism,â (letter to Torsten Hedlund, 23 July 1894) that is, the belief that all matter has a single shared substance and elements differ only in their properties and not as entities, to paraphrase his first letter.
What he did not account for was the mixture of bemusement and vehement criticism that the publication received. In a letter to Georg Brandes, soliciting the great criticâs help in reviewing it favourably in Denmark, Strindberg writes that his work âhas caused the Swedes to depict me as a rogue and a madman [âŠ] There is in fact not a single paper in Sweden honourable enough to print a word in my defenceâ, ultimately surprised âto see a whole countryâs chemists so blinded by jealousy that they cannot acknowledge their own views when they see them put forward by someone they find offensive!â (31 May 1894). Even his friend and the translator of his Swedish manuscript into German, Bengt Lidforss, reviewed it harshly in Dagens Nyheterâalbeit under a pseudonym, which was scant consolation.
Five years later, the magazine Nordisk Boktryckarekonst (Stockholm, 1900-1925; PP.1622.h.) was established by Hugo and Carl LagerstrĂ¶m, who subsequently set up a publishing house, with aim of inaugurating an authentic Nordic style of book design. They sought a work with which to begin a series of bibliophile editions and Arthur SjĂ¶gren was enlisted both to produce the book and to convince Strindberg to volunteer the first idea for the series. SjĂ¶gren, who had worked with Strindberg, arrived at Strindbergâs studio to find a chemistâs laboratory in disarray and the author-cum-goldmaker deep into experiments. With Strindberg only thinking about scientific works, they eventually landed on Antibarbarus. The Antibarbarus manuscript had been under perpetual revision and expansion since 1894 and, with Strindbergâs encouragement, the LagerstrĂ¶ms decided to take it on.
Taking nearly a year to produce, Antibarbarus had a limited print run of 299, each copy priced at 30 Krona. To put it in context, very few books cost over 10 Krona and Strindbergâs luxury edition of Ordalek och smĂ„konst, which came out a year earlier in 1905, cost 8.50. No expense was spared from the light-brown leather binding incorporating the same decorative coils and knots that frame the text throughout, to the thick hand-made paper from Grycksbo with a specially designed watermark by SjĂ¶gren, depicting a four-leaf clover over a three-leaf clover. The coiled dragon-tail ornamentation that envelops the title-page is derived from Viking picture stone iconography, which speaks to the National Romantic ethos of the new publishers, but by no means renders William Morrisâs decorative influence any less obvious. The portrait of a Faustian Strindberg facing the title-page takes us back to SjĂ¶bergâs encounter with the author in his laboratory, while drawing comparisons with Goethe, as a similar polymathic genius.
Like his illustrated works before this, Strindbergâs manuscript influenced the artistic design and the drop capitals and annotations set within the body of the text appear to be original to the author. Notes are literally indicated by a red hand pointing and paragraphs are marked by red pilcrows, rather than spaced out. Connoisseurs did not particularly warm to these latter innovations in the layout but the book has been acknowledged to be one of the most exquisite Swedish books ever produced. Georg Svensson considers it SjĂ¶grenâs best.
Ultimately, we might say the design is in harmony with the content. One critic, G. Bargum, reads the work as the creative scientistâs labyrinthine search for a greater truth where each path is a dead end. He suggests that what is stabbed in the final ornamental image is a many-headed Hydra, who constricts the courageous opponent, so that he will never escape. A review in Dagens Nyheter (cited in Samlade Verk) prefers to see the dragon finally slain by a Sigurd figure and the obstacles triumphantly overcome. While Strindberg never made gold and never did conquer the world of science as his anti-barbarian persona might have wished, his creative genius â with all its delusions and idiosyncrasies â is still wonderfully celebrated in this book, paradoxically ensuring a legacy for his failure.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
August Strindberg, Naturvetenskapliga skrifter I [August Strindbergâs Samlade Verk, vol. 35] (Stockholm, 2009), YF.2011.a.4183
August Strindberg, Strindbergâs Letters [selected, edited and compiled by Michael Robinson] (London, 1992), 92/19967-8
G. Bargum, âDer neue Antibarbarusâ, in Zeitschrift fĂŒr BĂŒcherfreunde (10:6), 1906, p. 253, P.P.6548.c.