Andersen and Aesthetics

May 24, 2022

Hans Christian Andersen almost psychologically destroyed us.

Let us explain.

Lo these many years ago, we were but wee PhD students, staring down the barrel of our candidacy exams. At OSU, that meant that we each had to read something like 135 texts: scholarly books, articles, novels, edited collections, etc. There were some doozies on each of our lists. Sara had to read a lot of phenomenology theory, and Brittany had to deal with mildly terrifying 19th-century occult practices.

We did not anticipate that the hardest part would be reading the collected works of Hans Christian Andersen.

Look at his face. He knows exactly what he did.

Before you’re like “these girls were nearly smacked down by ‘The Ugly Duckling’? What is wrong with them??” allow us to state our case.

Hans Christian Andersen is a wizard. August Strindberg said so, and we agree.

That’s it, that’s our case. Byyyyyyyeeee!

Ok, fine. We’ll elaborate.

Andersen is an aesthetic wizard. In other words, he understood how to construct beauty – enchanting, striking, memorable beauty – with his words. And he knew how to heighten that beauty even further by contrasting it with the lowest lows – with incredible suffering and pain, both physical and psychological. In the same story, sometimes in the same sentence, he’ll dazzle you with aesthetic rapture and haul you into a pit of despair.

It’s absolutely a kind of magic.  

Think of his little mermaid, who comes from a world of wonder in the sea and then experiences chronic pain and bodily mutilation when she bargains her way to the world of the humans. Or how the aesthetic rapture of a nightingale’s song can win a man back from the shore of death.

And those are just two of the most famous ones. There are a LOT more, with a lot more suffering. (Yeah, they’re probably NOT as famous for a reason.)

Don’t get us wrong – we love us some Andersen. We just don’t recommend trying to read everything he’s ever written in 48 hours, especially if you’re already under a lot of stress. That fairy-tale wizard generates a lot of whiplash.

His stories are so intense, so incredibly vivid, and they provoke strong reactions. Mostly, we’ve found people love or hate Andersen – very few are like “eh, he’s fine.” Usually, it’s more like “‘THE LITTLE MERMAID’ SPEAKS TO MY SOUL” or “‘THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL’ TRAUMATIZED ME, WHY IS THIS ALLOWED,” with very little in between.

Wherever you find yourself on the Andersen spectrum, we’d love you to join us tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 25th) at the SMITHSONIAN online from 6:45-8:15PM ET for our talk about Andersen and some of his fairy tales. Please note that they close ticket sales pretty early, so we recommend getting them ASAP if you want to come! Click here to grab yours!

We’ll be talking more about aesthetics and also fairy-tale fashion, disability, Andersen’s fraught personal life and context, and so much more.

See you soon!

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