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Brandes' magnum opus 'Main Currents' had worldwide repercussions

The magnum opus of Danish literary critic Georg Brandes provoked in Denmark and made an impact far beyond the Danish borders. Professor Lasse Horne Kjældgaard is leading a research project that revitalises 'Main Currents'.
Georg Brandes - Photo: Holger Damgaard
'Hovedstrømninger i det 19. Aarhundredes Litteratur' was published from 1872 to 1890. Photo: Holger Damgaard / Det Konge Bibliotek (The photo has been cropped)

In 1871, the Danish critic and literary scholar Georg Brandes began a series of lectures which were published in book form in six volumes from 1872 onwards for 18 years. The work covered the history of literature in three large European cultural nations, Germany, Great Britain and France, and when comparing that to the Danish literary scene, Brandes left no doubt that in his opinion, Danish culture and intellectual life were lagging behind.

The lectures and publications were considered controversial and caused a stir in Denmark, and at the same time, they heralded the period which Brandes named 'The Modern Breakthrough'. It was a breakaway from norms and tradition-bound morality, and Brandes was an advocate of free thought – a freedom which led to a critical attitude towards institutions, such as church and marriage.

Not many figures from the 1800s still cause so much difference of opinion as Georg Brandes does

Lasse Horne Kjældgaard, Professor of Literature from Roskilde University, has carried out research into Georg Brandes' magnum opus and its importance.

»Brandes wanted to show how underdeveloped and distant from reality Danish literature was during the same period. In his opinion, Danish literature did not relate to the contemporary world or contribute to the public debate. His ambition was to awake Danish authors, but because of all the stir that 'Main Currents' brought about in Denmark, the importance of Brandes in other countries may have been overlooked,« says Lasse Horne Kjældgaard.


One of the few voices remaining from the 1800s

The thoughts of Georg Brandes still come up in the public debate.

Members of the Danish Parliament, such as Morten Messerschmidt from the Danish People's Party and Sofie Carsten Nielsen from the Danish Social-Liberal Party are just recent examples of persons who have used Georg Brandes and his ideas in different contexts.

In a feature article on kristeligt-dagblad.dk in the summer of 2019, Morten Messerschmidt took a critical view of Georg Brandes by using him as an example to comment on current trends in society which the politician considers unfortunate, whereas Sofie Carsten Nielsen et al. have published a pamphlet on social-liberal values in the autumn of 2018, in which they make links from Brandes and his thoughts to current social-liberal policy.

»Not many figures from the 1800s still cause so much difference of opinion as Georg Brandes does. He has had a significant impact on cultural radicalism, which saw several great periods in the 20th century, and he has been a scapegoat of various national conservative figures and movements,« says Lasse Horne Kjældgaard.

One of the reasons why Brandes is still relevant is that his criticism of Danish culture in 'Main Currents' heralded a new departure.

»He has had major influence on Danish self-understanding. Fierce debate followed in the wake of 'Main Currents' and some were insulted by his criticism of Danish culture, but at the same time, many authors were really inspired by his lectures and he became a standard bearer for a new direction within literature. It is still a phenomenon that creates supporters and opponents,« Lasse Horne Kjældgaard explains.

The professor believes that the current use of Georg Brandes and his views might tend be characterised by ideas of what he stood for rather than what he actually wrote.

»Therefore, this version of 'Main currents' is important as it provides a reliable textual basis for discussion. In that version, you can read yourself what he actually wrote,« he concludes.

Drawing: Julius Lange / Det Kongelige Bibliotek (The photo has been cropped)

Lasse Horne
Professor Lasse Horne Kjældgaard. Photo: Eva Lykke Jørgensen, RUC Communications & Press

'The good European'

The famous author and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann labelled Georg Brandes' magnum opus 'Main Currents in 19th Century Literature' 'a bible for young European intellectuals' while the influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Brandes 'the good European'.

Digital Currents

For the very first time, a digital, scientific version of Georg Brandes' magnum opus 'Main Currents in Main Currents in 19th Century Literature' has been created.

The basis of the digital version, which can be found on georgbrandes.dk, is the first version which was published in print, and which in Georg Brandes' own lifetime alone was published in five different versions.

The digital version makes it possible to track the change that Brandes made between the various versions because the team has compiled the various versions. For example, Georg Brandes tried to moderate his language along the way.

"There are some important passages in the first version of the work that he leaves out in later versions because they were too offensive, Lasse Horne Kjældgaard explains.

Lasse Horne Kjældgaard and the other members of the research team behind the new digital version of 'Main Currents' have commented on the texts. In addition, georgbrandes.dk also contains different tools to facilitate the reading of the original text. For example, the text has been linked to online dictionaries, and indices of people, works and places occurring in the text have been compiled. georgbrandes.dk also has digital versions of those of the volumes that were published in German, English and French.

Photo: Frederik Riise / Det Kongelige Bibliotek (The photo has been cropped)