In this third installment of our summer series, we consider the possibilities and pitfalls of belief in God with the help of two European classics: the Danish novel Havoc (1930) by Tom Kristensen and the French New Wave film My Night at Maud’s (1969) by Eric Rohmer.
Catch up on our first installment, on Italian fascism, here, and our second installment, on race in America, here. Check back in a few weeks for our final conversation, on Simone Weil’s landmark essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and Costa-Gavras’s Greek masterpiece, Z.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s the sordid social practice of “getting drinks.” It’s not just because I don’t drink much myself, or because I despise the dark, cacophonous locales where people typically imbibe. It’s that “getting drinks” almost always transforms people into the worst versions of themselves: they gossip, snipe, and dissimulate, performing a parody of real communion.
So imagine how I felt reading Tom Kristensen’s Havoc, first published in 1930. I confess I struggled to make it all the way through the 500 pages of this Danish cult classic, much of it set behind the thick drapes of Copenhagen’s debauched Bar des Artistes. It’s a dive, a wretched hive of scum and villainy if there ever was one: “The room was obscured in a thick blue cloud of tobacco smoke...and the sound of crackling ice came incessantly from the cocktail shaker.” What a depressing space, bleary with booze, populated mainly by balding, overweight men: “Red and glistening bald pates. Craniums with twenty white hairs, carefully parted...men and more men...only men.”
At the center of this manly swamp is the book’s anti-hero, Ole Jastrau, a young, successful Danish poet and literary critic who (at least at the start) has everything he could conceivably want. But for reasons we’re never really told, at some point his beautiful wife, Johanne, his young son, Oluf, even his spacious Copenhagen apartment and plum job as literary editor at Dagbladet (like the Danish New York Times) cease to satisfy him. Anxious, afraid, and unhappy, Jastrau wakes up one day and decides, of his own free volition, to “very quietly—and very slowly—go to the dogs.”
Kristensen’s depiction of Jastrau’s downfall is brutal and unflinching. (In his introduction, critic Morten Høi Jensen aptly describes the book as “a Danish Inferno, a tortured descent through every circle of hell—and then some!”) At various points we witness Jastrau spend the night in jail, run a character’s head through a glass door during a drunken fistfight, and sleep with a colleague’s wife in broad daylight. It’s awful, yet Kristensen somehow manages to render it compellingly, even giddily attractive. That’s partly because Jastrau’s drunken antics are often hilarious—as when, hoping to be converted instantaneously, he bangs down the door of a local Catholic church in the middle of the night. It’s locked, and the Jesuit pastor is asleep. So Jastrau jumps the fence, smashes a window, then retreats, ending up with nothing more than a “Catholic rip in his pants” before heading back to the bar—unconverted and unrepentant.
Still, it’s not all silliness, and there’s a deeper dynamic at work in Havoc too. The title comes from a verse written by Jastrau’s younger frenemy (and temporary roommate), a poet named Stefan Steffensen: “I have longed for shipwrecks / for havoc and violent death.” It’s an ode to the creative power of chaos, and as Kristensen repeatedly makes clear, for Jastrau the disintegration wrought by his drinking and carousing is tinged with the theological, providing “peace, peace” and respite from “all this emptiness.” What’s more, it’s evidence (to him, at least) of his union with Christ: “He is close to me,” Jastrau declares, “in all this havoc.”
Christ is a constant presence throughout the book, popping up in Jastrau’s evening blitzes and morning hallucinations alike. Sometimes the visions are funny, as when Jastrau glimpses his pudgy face and bloodshot eyes in a mirror and sheepishly declares “Ecce homo!” More often, though, they’re frightening, as when he awakes to find a triune “Jesuitical hydra” standing over him and spitting, the face of Christ more demon than human: “a young pale-faced man with a distinguished oval face and dark ecstatic eyes—a reproduction of one of El Greco’s idealized male figures.”
If Jaustrau is haunted by competing Christs, he’s also caught between two other rival doctrines, capitalism and communism. What these two ideologies (and their caricatured representatives in the novel, the business writer Herr Kryger and the aptly-named student revolutionary Bernhard Sanders) have in common is that both, at least for Jastrau, distort reality by simplifying it, paving the way for repression and unfreedom. Christianity, though, is otherwise, since it breaks down categories and distinctions (human-divine, secular-eternal, living-dead) and prioritizes the utter inviolability of free will. And that’s just what Jastrau’s after. His hard-won “freedom to go to the dogs” becomes a kind of spiritual practice—a path, however imperfect, to the infinite. As he puts it: “There is something I want. And when I drink, I sometimes feel for a moment I’ve captured it. Liquor is the only substitute for religion.”
It’s hard to know whether to take Jastrau seriously, since the whole book unfolds as a kind of parodic anti-hagiography, with Jastrau’s deliriums and depravities and comic exploits all mixed together in a cocktail of contradictions and ironies and double entendres. Reading the book isn’t just metaphorically “intoxicating.” Havoc’s disjointedness, and its recursiveness, actually makes you feel as though you’re drunk.
So what did you think, Tony? Maybe Jastrau’s on to something? Do you, too, want to “go to the dogs?” And how does Jaustrau’s understanding of Catholicism compare with that of Jean-Louis, the French bachelor (and devotee of Blaise Pascal) from Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s?
A few weeks ago, Tropical Storm Isaias left me without power for three days. The faint smell of rot coming from a fridge that I was afraid to open; the sweltering heat of my fanless apartment; the maddening sound of my neighbor’s generator running day and night: yes, I was ready to go to the dogs.
Luckily, my descent was short-lived. By contrast, what makes Havoc such a discomfiting read is the seeming endlessness of Jastrau’s journey to hell. Jastrau’s decision to go to the dogs remains a mystery, as you say, but it surely results in part from his sense of a world evacuated of beauty and meaning. He looks at existence and finds it barren: “The emptiness was audible, and the sound of the ventilator took on a symbolic significance. Emptiness. Emptiness!” Jastrau tries to fill this void with drink; drink turns out to be so much more nothingness.
Toward the novel’s end, Jastrau thinks, “It was the same thing over and over—a constant recurrence. It was hell.” In Havoc, actions recur: Jastrau gets blotto, wakes up hungover, then heads back to the bar. Images repeat and refrains do too (“Ecce homo!”; “Greetings to all good fellows from Peter Boyesen”). What a genius formal decision by Kristensen: to court boredom and disgust in an attempt to get us to feel what the unsympathetic Jastrau feels. If only the next drink would bring me to a new, better place, the drunk hopes; if only this book would display forward momentum, the reader of Havoc wishes.