We are happy to present the contributions by two of the lecturers at The Ibsen & Hamsun Forum 2017 at the University of Agder 20th of August. The two are professor in Nordic Litterature Unni Langås and infant psychiatrist Indra Simhan.


From Left:  Unni Langås, Siri Hustvedt, Indra Simhan and Finn Skårderud.

From Left:  Unni Langås, Siri Hustvedt, Indra Simhan and Finn Skårderud.


In 1890, after the publication of the novel Hunger, Knut Hamsun wrote the article “From the Unconscious Life of the Mind”. As his point of departure, he takes an instance of how his brain so to speak works on its own, outside his conscious and deliberate control. He tells a story of how he one night as usual puts pencil and paper by his bed, and how he during the night writes two small texts, which he in the morning reads with astonishment.


The texts are a kind of hunting yarns, and hunting is something that he doesn’t understand and never has had on his mind. One of the stories is about a rooster, the other about a rabbit. In both cases he does not recall having written the text, nor read anything like it before.

After a while he discovers that the inspiration for one of the stories is taken from the Norwegian-American magazine Varden, which he only occasionally reads. He seems to have copied the text, but also improved it. The way he solves the riddle is through associations. Starting with the letter V, which he has put as a title on top of his nocturnal writing, he concludes that, via the sight of a v-formed leaf and a reminder of all the newspapers he has stored, he may have seen something in Varden.

As to this magazine, he was not interested in hunting yarns, but potentially critical articles about himself since he had given polemical lectures in America. The result was, as he sees it, that this hunting yarn, which did not interest him at all, had been stored in his unconscious part of the mind and turned up again while he was asleep.

With this story about his own experience of the hidden activities in the brain, Hamsun intends to promote a literature that makes the unconscious an important concern. He criticizes what he sees as a superficial character description in realist literature, and calls for a deeper analysis of mental life. The achievement of this new literature would be, and I quote:

“We would experience a little of the secret movements which are made unnoticed in the remote places of the soul, the capricious disorder of perception, the delicate life of fantasy held under the magnifying glass, the wanderings of these thoughts and feelings, out of the blue; motionless, trackless journeys with the brain and the heart, strange activities of the nerves, the whispering of the blood, the pleading of the bone, the entire unconscious intellectual life” (Hamsun 1994).

Hamsun’s account of the creative process that leads to the two stories written in sleep is in many ways similar to Sigmund Freud’s ideas of the unconscious. Not only did Freud design the mental life of a human being in a hierarchical system (id, ego, super-ego), and identified the dream as the royal road to the unconscious, but he also pointed at the associative technique as a suitable method to help find the meaning of a dream.

Freud also suggested that authors produced literary texts by using their own unconscious life as a resource, and that prominent works in world literature (for instance Sophocles’ drama King Oedipus) can be read as a manifest representation of latent unconscious content.

Henrik Ibsen was one of Hamsun’s targets in his critique of contemporary literature. But as early as the 1880s a turn toward the working of the mind took place in the older author’s works.

A Doll’s House from 1879 still had its focus on the social structures around marriage and women’s lack of autonomy and freedom; Ghosts from 1881 deals with sexual desire and the devastating consequences of an immoral and unfaithful life, not only for the man himself and his partner, but also for the next generation; Oswald fatally repeats his father’s behavior and suffers from the syphilis inherited from him.

In Rosmersholm (1886) Ibsen continues to investigate the human psyche when he in Rebecca West creates a woman who turns out to be forceful, but destructive in her actions. The implied reason behind her actions in the present is suggested when information about her past slowly emerges.

In 1916 Sigmund Freud wrote an essay about the play where he interprets Rebecca’s complicated psyche as the result of a sexual relationship to a man who turns out to be her father (Freud 1962). The feeling of guilt because of this incestuous bond governs her later life and her relation to Rosmer, as well as her behavior when she slowly recognizes what has happened.

Ibsen’s way of dramatically disclosing past events, usually called his ‘retrospective method’, has many common characteristic traits with Freud’s idea that present problems can be explained by experiences in the past and the hidden drives they have produced. The psychoanalytic theory and the aesthetic work take part in a shared epistemological culture.

In his later dramas, Ibsen stages persons in a present situation who through their dialogues make evident the impact of the past. In his prose writing, Hamsun is concerned with the inner life and how unconscious drives can be represented in a narrative text. Both authors try to develop literary forms to express a mental condition that has no language.

The paradox being, that as soon as the unconscious is verbalized, it is not unconscious anymore. Together with the founder of psychoanalysis they participate in an intellectual and aesthetic process to illuminate, interpret and understand the most intimate processes of the human mind.

The question of literary inspiration and creativity is a central part of these three writers’ elaboration on mental life. In his essay, “From the Unconscious Life of the Human Mind”, Hamsun is not only concerned with mental life, but with the relationship between the unconscious and his writing process.

One interesting point is that he seems to deviate from Freud’s ideas about primary and secondary processes. The primary processes are, according to Freud, unconscious ideas that make up the material for artistic work. The secondary processes are conscious work with an aesthetic product governed by intentions and conventions. Hamsun’s account of having unconsciously improved the hunting yarn blurs the distinction between primary and secondary processes.

In his novel Hunger, literary inspiration is a critical issue. But in fact, it doesn’t really imply a psychoanalytic or even psychological theory of creativity. Its focus on the body, its descriptive attitude, as well as its subversive irony is closer to phenomenology than to psychology. Hamsun’s hero struggles to become an author and a man who can make a living out of his writing. We learn about his plans and ideas, but they seldom end up in a complete manuscript.

Parallel to the novel’s focus on the starving body, material things are a main concern in the hero’s writing projects. His goal is usually to write a text that the newspaper editor would buy, and this desire to please the editor and the mainstream readership certainly has an ironic touch.

On the one hand, he strives for a text production that could be profitable, and has no reservations regarding its form and content. On the other hand, he seems to be overwhelmingly pleased when he has produced something marketable, and even thanks for the divine inspiration. A materialistic approach collides with a romantic-religious belief in inspiration, but both are embedded in irony.

“I knew, oh I knew so well, that the inspiration and holy breath I had just experienced and written down was a wonderful working of God in my soul, an answer to my cry of need of yesterday. It is God! It is God! I cried to myself, and I was so moved over my own words I sobbed; now and then I had to stop and listen a moment to hear if anyone should be coming up the stairs. At last I stood up and left; I slipped noiselessly down all the flights of stairs and made it to the outer door unseen” (Hamsun 1976, p. 50).

If we look at Ibsen, he rarely made an artist the main character of his plays, but in his last drama, When We Dead Awaken, 1899, the protagonist is Professor Rubek, a celebrated sculptor who has achieved great international fame with his sculpture "The Day of the Resurrection". The model for this sculpture was Irene, who offered him her naked body.

However, he refused to consider Irene as anything more than his model, believing that his creative power would diminish if he had sex with her. This reservation hints at a Freudian idea of sublimation, meaning that the drives take different paths such as scientific or artistic creativity instead of sexual satisfaction.

Ibsen’s text touches quite explicitly upon this notion of artistic achievement at the expense of sexual pleasure. Rubek admits that he was forced to keep Irene at a distance to concentrate on his artwork, and he explains why he could not touch her physically:

“To me, you were something sacred and untouchable, fit only to be worshipped. I was still young then, Irene. And I was convinced that if I touched you, if I desired you sensually, my vision would be profaned so that I would never be able to achieve what I was striving after. And I still think there is some truth in that” (Ibsen 1991, p. 233).

The irony in this case is that Rubek creates his masterpiece, modelled on Irene’s naked body, but that he also later destroys it and places himself in the forefront of the work. Then Irene comes back, like a haunting memory, and accuses him of having ruined her life, stolen her soul and killed their child, the masterpiece.

For his part, he begs her to come back to him so that he can regain his creative power. But this reunion ends with their ambitious and tragic mountain climb, where they ultimately die in an avalanche.

We can read this play as an ageing author’s elaboration on sources of inspiration, and as a site where he exposes notions, typical of the period, of the relationship between unconscious drives and the power of creativity. In the center of this picture stands the naked female body as an ambivalent signifier of both sexual attraction and the fair of losing artistic vigor.

Through the destructive staging of the enigmas of male creativity and hidden drives, Ibsen dramatizes the question of the unconscious in a critical and ambivalent way.


Sigmund Freud 1962: «Some Character-Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work: Those Wrecked by

Success II.” Translated by James Strachey, Standard Edition, Volume 14, The Hogarth Press, London

Knut Hamsun 1976: Hunger (1890), translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly, with Introductions by

Robert Bly and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Picador Edition, Pan Books Limited, London

Knut Hamsun 1994: «From the Unconscious Life of the Mind» (1890). Translated from the Norwegian by

Marie Skramstad De Forest. Published in Heaven Chapbook Series # 48, White Fields Press, in support of

the literary renaissance Louisville, Kentucky

Henrik Ibsen 1991: When We Dead Awaken, Plays: Four (1899). Translated from the Norwegian and

introduced by Michael Meyer, Methuen Drama, Michelin House, London


Oral presentation by:

Indra Simhan, consultant specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry, Dept. of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Sørlandet Hospital HF


Indra Simhan discussing with Siri Hustvedt and Finn Skårderud before the lecture.

Indra Simhan discussing with Siri Hustvedt and Finn Skårderud before the lecture.

I would like to share some perspectives from infant psychology. These perspectives relate to questions Siri Hustvedt raises in her essay (2016), namely about “what happens underground” inside the author, why a reader feels novels to be true or lies, and what a reader brings to the text.

An important topic around literature and the unconscious are the nonverbal contributions into the writing and reception of texts. This topic is shared by infant psychology, which is interested in that which is mainly embodied and not (yet) symbolized, both from the infants and from their caregivers (Schore, 2012).

The writing of a text, the reading of a text and the exchange between child and caregiver all have intersubjective aspects. As Hustvedt says, for the writer, the telling of ideas and stories “is always directed at another”, it is relational.

She places fiction on an “axis of discourse” from inside the “realm of the I” into the domain of the “you”, a sort of “between-zone” which is shaped by our earliest relational experiences.

We have today convincing evidence that, right from infancy, all human beings are oriented towards relating to each other, and that our Self cannot develop without the Other. Long before we begin to symbolize, we make contact and build a sense of Self through bodily experiences, which we do not forget (Ammaniti 2014).  These early experiences are woven into our bodies, in how they feel, how they are regulated and how they join the rhythm of exchange. To look more closely at the between-zone, we have to look at these implicit processes of the body.

Hamsun describes embodied processes in his article From the unconscious life of the mind (Hamsun & Slavin, 1994). They “can be most inexplicable perceptions” he says, “a bliss without words or reason; a gasp of psychic pain; […] an apprehension of impending danger in the midst of a sorrowless moment”. These phenomena, he says, “…are often too fleeting to be grasped […] but they have left a mark… before they disappear. And out of these subliminal … movements in the soul… there can arise thoughts that later become conclusions and actions.”
Hamsun links “states of the mind […]” to the “…strange processes of the nerves, the whisper of the blood, the pleading of the bone marrow, the entire unconscious mental life.”  He thus places the subliminal processes in the body and sees in them a starting point for thoughts and actions.

The idea that mental phenomena arise from the body has been confirmed by modern neurobiology. The late eminent neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp saw “our mental life critically linked to primal viscero-somatic representations of the body situated …in the brain” (2005; my italics). As his colleague Antonio Damasio put it “The brain is constantly receiving signals from the body, registering what is going on inside of us. It then processes the signals in neural maps... Feelings occur when the maps are read and it becomes apparent that emotional changes have been recorded—as snapshots of our physical state...” (Lenzen, 2005).

Hustvedt makes the most crucial observation that “meanings in a novel are not limited to dictionary definitions. They are also found in the muscular, sensory, emotional realities of the human body. And it is from there that we recognize the rights and wrongs of fiction.” Her statement places the body in a central position. This position would traditionally be held by reason. Her statement mirrors the current paradigm shift from the dominance of cognition, towards the central function of the relational, embodied unconscious.

The body has a capacity to hold reality and can make meaning. It can discern, as Hustvedt puts it, “the rights and wrongs of fiction”.  So we not only have the body, or the brain-body axis, as a central participant in early experiences, into which those experiences become woven, we also have the body as an agent to make meaning.

Traditionally, we would see individuals as minds inhabiting bodies, looking at the world, or other people, or texts and understanding them through reasoning. But it seems that this is just a small part of the human picture.

The very skin around our bodies is wired to touch that which is not us, to explore, and to make contact. A soothing hand on our skin is touching us on the outside and deep inside, but it also makes our reasoning function better.

Provocatively, neuroresearcher Ian McGilchrist describes the relation between our implicit meaning-making and our intellect as that of a “master and his emissary”, the master being our largely nonconscious, body-connected functioning, while reason merely has a specialized task in this framework (2009).

Our networks between brain and muscles are wired not only to act, walk, grasp, but also to understand other people acting, walking, grasping, and to grasp their intention of doing so. Thus, our brain-muscle networks can actually make meaning of what other people intend to do, not on a symbolized, but on an embodied level.

In a similar way, our own brain-body systems for having sensations and emotions are also wired to understand what other people might experience and feel. This means that our body has a relational understanding that is unconscious and non-verbal. Our own experiences and those we understand in other people are intertwined, and out of them we make meaning, and develop and construct important parts of our Self (Ammaniti 2014).

Modern neuroscience calls this ‘intercorporeality’, a term originally coined by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty. Vittorio Gallese, a leading scientist on mirror neurons, calls it a “shared we-centric space” that takes place on a pre-verbal bodily level (2010). We see the parallels to Hustvedt’s between-zone.

As I pointed out, right from the beginning when our Selves are being formed, we always have a relational turn. When we get the chance, as some twins do, we have social intentions even before we are born. We need to experience another being, its rhythm, its smell, its voice, and centrally, it seems, it looking at us, to develop a sense of Self.

Prolonged, mutual gaze contact between infant and caregiver stimulates the growth of nerve cells, stimulates hormones of attachment, increases and releases our internal opiods and makes us feel intensely happy in our entire body (Schore, 2003). We learn and get wired to remember that contact is good. Gazing at another’s face makes our facial muscles become more alive, and aware of expression and feelings. We learn about feelings by feeling, by experiencing other’s having feelings, and by sharing this experience. This takes place before we attach symbols to our feelings. These early experiences form internal models in the body, models of our encounter with the world, and of the other. It is from these models that we make our inferences (Ammaniti 2014).

Time is too short to go into this more deeply, but I would like to touch briefly on two aspects of our embodied development of the Self. The first aspect is vitality, the second is coherence.

The concept of vitality describes the experience of intensity, shape and temporal structure, and the innate musicality of interaction. From it we can draw an important line into creative expression. Vitality forms “characterize [both] personal feelings and dynamics of movement”, as psychoanalyst Massimo Ammanitti points out (Ammaniti & Ferrari, 2013). They develop as a co-creation out of the rhythm of the infant and the rhythm of the caregiver, to a joint dynamic of interpersonal happenings in the between-zone.

Vitality affirms the sense of identity and coherence, and that of agency. It is a “constant and underlying lived experience” which, as Daniel Stern put it (2010), “emerges from the theoretically separate experiences of movement, force, time, space and intention” .  Because infants have a so-called amodal capacity, they can connect experiences appearing in different modalities - like sound, location in space, direction, contour and tactile structure.  These experiences become woven into their core Selves.

When infants begin to develop symbols, their amodal capacity still remains an underlying function throughout their lives, and we can imagine that they shape how structure, rhythm, prosody, onomatopoiea and images both flow into a text, from the writer, and are experienced, by the reader.

Hustvedt says, “The reader animates a novel…[he] feels a work’s meaning in his body.” I can relate that when reading Hustvedt’s book “What I loved” (2003), I experienced one scene of sudden, but subliminally not unexpected, disillusionment as a jolt and a sense of nausea and confusion in my body.

I wish I had more time to connect what I have talked of to Hustvedt’s writings, as I find many things we discuss here also woven into her texts. But I have just enough time to touch coherence.

In her essay, Hustvedt describes how while writing fiction she is steered by feeling what is “right”, and how the characters she writes about direct her and refuse to be forced into what is not right. She tells of “states of extreme openness and relaxation to whatever comes along…a permissive fearless state in which one gains access to stuff one didn’t know was there”. She cites the concept of ‘aesthetic illusion’ by Ernst Kris. Aesthetic illusion allows access to different subliminal internal states “without ego disintegration”.

This can be linked to ideas by Philip Bromberg, a psychoanalyst who has written about traumatic disintegration of self-aspects (2008) . He points out that a “multiplicity of Self [is] normal”. There is “an ongoing dialectic between separateness and unity of one’s self-states, allowing each self to function optimally without foreclosing communication and negotiation between them”. Bromberg coined the term of “standing in the spaces” as the ability to move between and share different self-states, in the interface between one’s own experience and that of the other (Bromberg, 1998).

Connecting this to Hustvedts between-zone, one can think that in the permissive writing state she describes, an author can explore the length of this “axis of discourse” through several self-states without losing the connection.

This may enable the reader to follow and explore his own between-zone, in what Bromberg calls a “safe but not too safe way”. Reading could be seen as an intersubjective venture in the spaces of own and other’s self-states.



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