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The Life of the Soul: Vitalism and the Invisible in the Norwegian Fin de Siècle


This dissertation examines the Norwegian literary culture of the 1890s, a decade often described with labels such as nyromantikken [neo-romanticism] and decadence. Rather than perpetuating the conventional literary-historical narrative that the foremost literature of the 1890s represented an absolute break with literary naturalism, I show that naturalist materialism persisted, even as the literary optic was shifted from the realm of social realism to a representation of the inner forces at work within the modern individual. Combined with materialism, this shift in focus from the external to the internal realm resulted in the crucial concept of the embodied soul, a seemingly contradictory combination of ideal and the material that I argue was characteristic of this literary generation. Looking forward to the form of literary and artistic vitalism that became central in Scandinavian culture after the turn of the century, I show how this tendency toward vitalism actually began with the depiction of the material soul in the literature of the 1890s.

Using three canonical authors as case studies, this dissertation examines how and why scientific materialism became combined with a vitalist interest in invisible natural forces toward the end of the century. Knut Hamsun, who was a brash young literary provocateur at the outset of the decade, depicted the individual soul as an embodied phenomenon that manifested itself in basic physiological functions, as well as in the momentary workings of the individual mind. Hamsun also made sensory perception a topic of debate, critiquing the way in which vision was commonly deployed in ways that implied objectivity, disembodiment, and distance; hearing, on the other hand, Hamsun depicted as an immediate and subjective mode that adhered much more closely to his preference for vital embodiment over detached objectivism. Arne Garborg, a much more well-established author and intellectual at the time, focused on the conflicts between science and religion that arose around 1890, and showed how a new kind of idealism informed all manner of cultural pursuits. Spiritualism was of particular interest for Garborg, in part because of the way in which it reflected a contemporary tendency toward “re-enchantment.” Sigbjørn Obstfelder also focused on the relationship between religion and science, and showed how the scientific expansion of vision—achieved through technologies such as microscopes, telescopes, and the X-ray—was redirecting religious energies into a more scientifically-based search for the invisible forces that shape the universe and populate the earth with life. Obstfelder depicted a kind of vitalist “conversion narrative,” revealing how scientific naturalism was a necessary precursor to the shifting terms of religious devotion in the modern era, from the transcendent power of God to the immanent, life-giving force of the sun.

In all of these cases, vitalism grew out of a fixation on the invisible. Since previously invisible phenomena had become “visible” through the mediation of modern visual technologies, there was a broad sense that there were material forces at work beyond the visual horizon. Scientific naturalism was thus a necessary precursor to vitalism, because it provided a sense that there were undiscovered natural forces at work all around us and within us. Vitalism simultaneously critiqued the disembodiment and detachment that scientific vision was predicated upon, however, and instead advocated for a fully embodied mode of investigating and experiencing the vital force.

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