Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 103
Dinesen, Isak (Pseudonym of Karen Blixen) 1885–1962
A Danish short story writer, novelist, poet, dramatist, and essayist, Dinesen is best known for her tales which reveal an intricate and unique prose style, sometimes baffling in its complexities. She spent seventeen years living on an estate in Kenya, an experience reflected in her published reminiscences, Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. She did not begin her writing career until her return from Africa in 1931, publishing her stories in both English and Danish. Dinesen's pseudonym derives from the Hebrew word for laughter, Isak. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4482
It may seem … [that Isak Dinesen is] merely moralizing and that she conceives of art merely as the expression of some traditional religious doctrine…. It would be closer to the truth to say that she is offering art as a substitute, rather than as an apology, for religion. No one has been able to assign her beliefs to any single known religion. All that can safely be said is that she believed in a creative force which, for the sake of convenience, she called God. (p. 8)
[There is] an unmistakable religious feeling behind her stories, a feeling which carries over into her critical thinking. It is a pervasive, albeit vague, religiosity…. (pp. 8-9)
What interests her is an attitude which she finds compatible with what life and art have taught her…. [She] does not make art justify religion but religion justify art. This idea is central to Isak Dinesen's thinking;… it explains those heretical inversions of doctrine that shock the reader of her tales into sudden awareness. (pp. 9-10)
Isak Dinesen sees the artist as one who, in surrendering himself to God's will, becomes an implement (bow) in God's hand whereby the divine origin of art (Logos) is manifested in the work of art (Mythos) which will leave in the mind of the audience an impression (blank page) that will reflect the divine origin of the art. (p. 11)
Isak Dinesen is constantly relegating the artist to an inferior position by referring to him in such terms as servant and implement…. In the sense that the artist is a "go-between," it can be said that, as Isak Dinesen conceives of him, he goes between God and man—or, more accurately, between Logos, the divine source of his creativity, and the blank page, the residual effect that the audience infers. (pp. 11-12)
In the sense that [the artist] absorbs from God the creative impulse, he is master; but he is also God's medium. God and the artist share the role of creator, but the artist alone is the medium of creation; and the stringed instrument on which he both plays and is played is the means whereby Logos becomes Mythos.
The artist is mute until "played," but then, too, so is the stringed instrument. Not until the latter is played upon does it send forth all the music that it contains. And even this music is inferior to the idea that produced it…. What emanates from Logos, then, is not the same as Logos but an approximation of it—an imitation of it—what Isak Dinesen means, apparently, by the term Mythos. (pp. 12-13)
Mythos, as the earthly reflection of heavenly existence, is synonymous with art and can be applied to any visible or audible manifestation of the Logos by which, as the poet says, all things were created. (p. 13)
[Within] the tales themselves Isak Dinesen is intensely concerned with the artist, even though the ultimate obligation of the artist is to disappear from the scene,...
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to return to the state of the "mute implement" and let silence speak.
This [deliberate] contradiction between a preoccupation with the artist within many of the tales and an emphasis on effect as the purpose of the tale can be resolved, I think, if we make a distinction between the artist as subject matter and the artist as intruder…. The effect of the eloquent blank page will not be achieved if the artist intrudes himself into the work, draws attention to himself, or in any way interferes with his function as the "bow of the Lord." When the bow is drawn across the strings, it is not the bow that is to be noticed, nor even the strings; it is the music—and beyond that, the effect of the music which is something other than the music itself. Isak Dinesen, therefore, is concerned that the artist remember his modesty and allow nothing to hinder the communication between the Logos and the blank page.
To retain such modesty he must remain loyal to the Logos, or story, as I think Isak Dinesen defines it. "Be loyal to the story," says the old hag in "The Blank Page" to her storyteller daughter. "… Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence." (pp. 15-16)
In a little play, Sandhedens Haevn (The Revenge of Truth), written long before she was to achieve fame with her first collection of tales, Isak Dinesen expresses an idea that most critics have interpreted as the governing principle behind her attitude toward life and art. Early in the play, the witch Amiane comes forth to state this idea in a speech which is also included in "The Roads Round Pisa" [Seven Gothic Tales] as the central motif of that story.
The truth, my children, is that we are, all of us, acting in a marionette comedy. What is important more than anything else in a marionette comedy, is keeping the ideas of the author clear. This is the real happiness of life….
The author to whom the witch refers is specifically the human author of the marionette comedy, but it is obvious … that she is also referring to God as the author of life. The fusion of the two meanings in the single word is the beginning of Isak Dinesen's critical thinking, for stemming from this comparison between God and the artist are all the principles by which she judges art…. The artist is, himself, a character in God's greater story, and as such he is as much obliged as anyone else to "keep the ideas of the author clear." (p. 20)
["The Cardinal's First Tale," in Last Tales, expresses] not only the Apollonian-Dionysian tension in both artist and priest but also [reveals] how both share, along with the aristocrat, a separation from ordinary society as well as an obligation to a destiny that differs significantly from that of the rest of mankind. In fulfilling their own destinies, these are the only persons who consciously lead others to fulfill theirs. In a world where all destinies were obvious, the artist, the priest, and the aristocrat would have no reason to exist.
Because his back is to God and he serves as God's mouth-piece, the artist, as well as the priest and the aristocrat, must share something of God's loneliness and risk; and he is denied certain advantages that other men are free to enjoy, among these the possibility of remorse and the possession of honor. (p. 21)
The person best equipped, it seems, to perceive the masks that pervade reality is the artist; and it is his function, as the arbiter on reality, to make these masks apparent as masks, in a way that leads not to any explicable truth behind the masks, but rather to an acceptance of the presence behind the masks of a truth which we are not privileged to understand. Thus, mask stands between truth and reality, and the art that makes these masks apparent is a higher reality because it is closer to truth. (pp. 22-3)
In Isak Dinesen's concept of the artist there is a trace of the diabolical, and Louis E. Grandjean points out in Blixens Animus that she shared with Nietzsche the belief that the satanic are preferable to the good who do not create, since the diabolical create more than they destroy. (p. 29)
The artist's job, as she sees it, is not to show man how to live but to heighten his consciousness of the life he is already living. (p. 31)
In "Ehrengard" and "The Immortal Story" only the perpetrators [of the evil of exceeding the limits of art] suffer, but in "The Poet" the suffering extends to others. In the confusion of mask and reality, the innocent lovers become murderers. The true artist knows that masquerade and reality are antithetical, and he strives to keep them separate by infusing his masquerade with a higher reality that is in direct contrast to the reality of the senses. (p. 33)
Isak Dinesen is fond of dealing in antithetical terms …; she looks upon opposites as locked caskets, each of which contains the key to the other. The dialectic of pride and humility is one of her most profound concepts, for the artist's relationship to these poles determines what he shall do with the part of God's nature which he shares. Pride, as Isak Dinesen sees it, is understanding the work of God as being the "right arrangement"; humility is understanding that within this arrangement God has no favorites. She excludes no man from the possibility of sharing in God's nature; she says simply that the man who is most sensitive to the rightness of things, who is equally proud and humble before such rightness, is the man we call an artist. (pp. 34-5)
[She is concerned with] the temptation to believe that the creative talent carries with it its own assurances of success and its own protection from despair. As she sees it, such an attitude can only lead to despair and failure, for it misleads the artist into expecting certain benefits without suffering—or into interpreting his suffering as a promise of forthcoming benefits. In renouncing faith and hope at such moments of temptation, the artist is putting himself in a position to be "inspired." (p. 36)
The artist who considers himself favored is, in effect, presuming that he knows God's plan in advance. It is one thing to believe that there is a plan and that it is right, but quite another to believe one can anticipate that plan; or, sensing at any given moment one's part in that plan, to assume that that part will not change. Such foreknowledge would violate the mystery of existence, and certainly, as Isak Dinesen conceives of it, the function of the artist is not to violate but to vindicate the mystery. (pp. 36-7)
Isak Dinesen believes firmly in inspiration as the transmission of the will of God to the artist by means of the Holy Ghost. In "The Deluge at Norderney" she implies that art is the book of the Holy Ghost, and in "The Cardinal's First Tale" … she describes the Holy Ghost as the sire of the artist. "I am not blaspheming, Madame," Cardinal Salviati tells the lady in black, "when I express the idea that any young mother of a saint or great artist may feel herself to be the spouse of the Holy Ghost." (p. 41)
In the tales of Isak Dinesen, the artist is the consort of loneliness and longing and is excluded from the society of common humanity in that he cannot enjoy the benefits either of honor or of remorse. Denied most of the prerogatives of either God or the devil, he is forced, nevertheless, as a man, to wear their immortal masks in a theatrical that lacks even the dignity of tragedy…. Isak Dinesen holds that those who function on this earth in lieu of God (artist, priest, aristocrat) can never be truly tragic figures. Tragedy is the privilege of ordinary mortals alone, and the gods and their agents must never condescend to be pitied; for to pity them is to annihilate them…. (pp. 49-50)
Denied the pleasures of ordinary human intercourse, the artist can find compensation in the creation of works of art; but there is a longing of the sort that leads beyond human existence and which can only be described in terms of a longing for a union with God, a oneness with the essence of creation. (p. 51)
Honor [being based on remorse] and remorse are irrelevant qualities to the artist; he has no need of them. But adversity and distress, poverty and sickness, even the harshness of his enemies, are the realities of which he is arbiter. Here, if anywhere, can be seen the peculiar power of Isak Dinesen's theory of submission. It is gay and glorious and not the least craven. We get from life, she says in one of her tales, both what we ask for and what we reject. Both are gifts, and the artist, in not separating them, acquires dominion over them. (p. 55)
Aside from personal preference, she revered the tale as a pure and original genre. She saw in it, I believe, an unbroken link with man's prehistoric beginnings. By reminding us, as she does so often, that in the beginning was the story and that stories have always been told, she is, in effect, placing the tale first in the ranks of literature and on a level with those art forms which anthropologists have traced to prehistory and which they have designated as spontaneous, archetypal expression—dance, music, drawing.
Isak Dinesen tried her hand at just about every literary genre—drama, poetry, novel, essay; but it would be foolish to say that she returned to the tale because she thought it superior. She returned to it, without a doubt, because she excelled at it. (p. 63)
To Isak Dinesen, God is not a painter or a poet or a musician. He is above all a teller of tales. The divine art is the story, the primary pattern of all art. Creation is a story, and we are told this story step by step, as the story progresses. There is a beginning and a middle and an end (the seventh day), and the characters appear in the story on a given day.
It is the unfolding that is important to Isak Dinesen. What matters is not what happens to man so much as the way in which it happens. It is only in the working out of the story that all men participate. There can be no story without man, yet man is subordinate to the story…. As the means whereby creation is unfolded, the story, it seems, is the artistic counterpart of creation, and the other art forms are but parts of this greater art.
The elevation of the tale to the highest art form is a departure from the romantic tendency to exalt music above all other art, but Isak Dinesen still [has] … the romantic fondness for using musicians as serious subjects for literary treatment…. It is interesting to note … that the one character in her tales who bears the most obvious resemblance to herself is Pellegrina Leoni, a renowned opera singer. In [Winter's Tales], the first story in which Pellegrina Leoni appears, her identity is deliberately confused as she moves in and out of the story in a succession of widely varying disguises. One purpose of the story seems to be an attempt to show that the personality takes on meaning only in the context of the role it is playing—when, in other words, character is subordinate to plot. (pp. 65-6)
Her settings and characters are idealized; they are seen not through the distortion of a mirror but through the perception of a mind which orders things to conform with the dictates of a higher reality—a higher imagination. They are, in a word, dreamlike in that they seem to have had an existence even though they could never really have existed.
The relationship between art and dream figures importantly in Isak Dinesen's attitude toward reality. In Shadows on the Grass she writes: "For we have in the dream forsaken our allegiance to the organizing, controlling and rectifying forces of the world, the Universal Conscience. We have sworn fealty to the wild, incalculable, creative forces, the Imagination of the Universe." I think it can be shown that this statement is far from a cry for artistic anarchy. Anarchy lies in the opposite direction from such concepts as identity and metamorphosis, submission and destiny, that [are] as central to Isak Dinesen's thinking. The organizing, controlling, and rectifying forces mentioned in this passage are simply the bourgeois virtues that [Erik] Johannesson lists as sincerity, security, and being true to one's own self. These are the ingredients of the universal conscience and have nothing to do with art, which puts the mask above sincerity, uncertainty above security, and loyalty to the story above loyalty to one's self. The wild, incalculable, creative forces are the daring, passion, and imagination of the Word that Adam praises in "Sorrow-Acre" [Winter's Tales]. They are the principle of art, not the law; and when one swears fealty to them, he is yielding to authority, not anarchy—he is being loyal to the story and keeping the ideas of the author clear.
The imagination of the universe is the source of art, not the structure. When, farther on, Isak Dinesen speaks about shifting over "from the world of day, from the domain of organizing and regulating universal powers, into the world of Imagination," she is talking, I think, about a movement away from bourgeois values toward divine ones. The domain of organizing and regulating universal powers, since it is contrasted with the world of imagination, obviously refers to the sort of worldly reality by which we may mistakenly judge art. The dream can neither be argued not explained. It must be accepted on its own terms. And if this dream, which derives from the imagination of the universe, is reflected in art, then art must also be accepted on its own terms. This is a plea, I think, not for disorder in art, but for order of a kind different from that of reality.
The order of reality excludes compression and expansion. Every moment is of the same duration as every other, and one moment inexorably follows another. The order of art, like dream, lengthens some moments and shortens others. The relationship of one event to another is dictated by the inner logic of the work and is not bound by chronology. (pp. 71-2)
Isak Dinesen allows that dreams may have nightmarish qualities, but she does not believe that there is a place for nightmare as ultimate vision in art…. For her, apparently,… nightmare can only be a partial vision….
By assigning the dream an exalted position, Isak Dinesen is moving away from the interpretation of dreams as a means to a better understanding of the human personality and in the direction of dream as myth, as collective unconscious, and, therefore, as a basis for art and for the understanding of art. (p. 75)
God's art, and the art of those who are loyal to God's art, is, in contrast to human art, the art of continuance. In change only will it find its value; and its truth, reality, and order will be concealed within the mask, dream, and disorder that argue change. This means, apparently, that there can be no absolute truth, reality, or order in art except the absolute truth, reality, and order of change. Art that implies anything else, it seems, is false—or human—art.
This concept of the absolute value of change is an important affirmation of the value of an organic theory of art. If each separate work of art contains its own truth, reality, and order, then there is no external standard that can be brought to bear upon it other than the condition that the work of art conform to its own standards and not suggest that those particular standards are applicable to any other work of art. This is an assertion of the uniqueness of individual works of art, for duplication would be not only unnecessary but contradictory. This is why Isak Dinesen cannot talk about the specific nature of the mask, dream, or disorder that might appear in a work of art. All she can do is to insist that these elements be taken on their own terms, and that whenever they appear, they affirm the value of change. (pp. 76-7)
Isak Dinesen makes a distinction between tragedy and comedy which is similar to the one she makes between the novel and the story. Tragedy, like the novel, is a human art; comedy, like the story, is a divine one….
According to this distinction, tragedy cannot be an earthly reflection of the divine creative force unless it is considered as a part of comedy—much as Isak Dinesen considers nightmare as an incomplete dream. Northrop Frye has said that we reconcile ourselves to tragedy because it leads by implication to comedy. This implication Isak Dinesen would call the comic vision, I think; and I think she would insist that it be present before a work with tragic elements could truly be labeled the highest form of art. (p. 91)
Tragedy, then, can be defined, according to what Isak Dinesen has said, as a human phenomenon in which man, out of a sense of honor, rebels against the conditions brought about by the Fall by contrasting them with the Edenic ideal in an attempt to regain his innocence. Or she might prefer to say, simply, that tragedy is the imitation of lost destiny. Man cannot regain this lost destiny, as Isak Dinesen sees it, through tragedy alone, however. The ultimate purpose of all art is to reflect cosmic intent, and the ultimate effect is to regain naiveté through submission to destiny. Neither this purpose nor this effect can be achieved except through the comic vision. (pp. 93-4)
Isak Dinesen's one truly tragic figure is Councilor Mathiesen in "The Poet" [Seven Gothic Tales] and it is to him that we can look for some illumination on the question of tragic flaw. His idyllic life is interrupted by the knowledge that he can never be the poet he has always dreamed of being. The necessity of being something else he finds tiresome, and as a countermeasure against this dull condition, he undertakes to arrange the lives of others in accordance with a plan which will afford him a vicarious success as a poet. This decision to meddle in his own destiny—and the destiny of others—to appoint himself as the best judge of what should be, is … his fatal mistake…. [On] the basis of Isak Dinesen's insistent comment on the subject, I would suggest that a tragic hero commits his tragic error at the moment when he takes destiny into his own hands. (p. 94)
It is in keeping with Isak Dinesen's general philosophy … to say that those who willingly submit to their destinies are comic figures and those who do not are tragic figures. Such a definition does not afford tragic figures the exalted station that Aristotle assigns them. Isak Dinesen's tragic hero is more pitiful than pitiable. For one thing, she excludes the nobility from the role of tragic hero; and for another, she specifies no moral qualifications. "Here on earth," says the old lord in "Sorrow-Acre," "we, who stand in lieu of the gods and have emancipated ourselves from the tyranny of necessity, should leave to our vassals their monopoly of tragedy, and for ourselves accept the comic with grace." Pity, for Isak Dinesen, is a degrading emotion, not to be directed, it would seem, towards God or His mouthpieces. "In pitying, or condoling with your god," says the old lord, "you deny and annihilate him, and such is the most horrible of atheisms." Moreover, the effect of an action differs between those who stand in lieu of the gods and their vassals. "Indeed," says the old lord, "the very same fatality, which, in striking the burgher or peasant, will become tragedy, with the aristocrat is exalted to the comic." (p. 95)
The part which Isak Dinesen assigns to the audience in the realization of a work of art is as demanding as that which she assigns the artist. It is not surprising, then, that the listeners in Isak Dinesen's tales are usually storytellers themselves, for to participate fully in a story, a listener must be able to involve himself in it as deeply as the teller, to assist the teller, as it were, in the creation of the story—just as man assists God in the creation of the world. The point at which the interdependent roles of author and audience merge is that point beyond the work of art which Isak Dinesen calls the blank page. It is at this point that the story which has been properly told will unfold its deeper meaning in the mind of the audience—will, in the silence that speaks, bring about the reconciliation of opposites which is the highest effect of art. (p. 101)
The concept of interdependence is one of Isak Dinesen's most fundamental and far-reaching attitudes towards both life and art. We [note] its importance in the relationship between God and artist, pride and humility, reality and dream, truth and mask, Logos and Mythos; and we have seen it offered as a clue to the understanding of the paradoxes of life and death, man and woman, rich and poor, artist and public. [Further,] interdependence culminates in reconciliation—that grand effect to which Isak Dinesen insists all art should, and great art does, aspire. (p. 115)
If the work of art is successful, it will convey intact the sense of the unity and necessity of all things in such a way that the audience will recognize and accept the truth of this unity and necessity without asking why it is so or why it must be so. In fact, if harmony has been achieved and transmitted through the work of art, the audience will feel that such harmony is right and proper and is itself the answer to the seeming diversity and whim of isolated experiences. It will understand that "everything, even the pain and the evil, is esthetically necessary." (p. 119)
However it is given to us, balance must be present in a work of art, it seems, before we can respond to it. We know that balance has been achieved once we see that opposites are interdependent. Out of this interdependence arises a concord that makes alternatives unimaginable. Once we have reached this point, we have arrived at the moment of reconciliation—the blank page. This is the moment in which the half that we have been given unites with the half which we can project, and question and answer become one. (pp. 120-21)
It is the rebellious tendency of romanticism to posit art at the extreme opposite of existing concepts of sensually perceptible reality. Isak Dinesen is merely reaffirming this tendency by constantly dealing in terms of paradox and resolution, in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Nowhere are such terms more applicable or more appropriate, it seems, than in this ultimate achievement of art—to join with reality in a reconciliation that transcends both. In her own life and art Isak Dinesen repeatedly insisted on an equal acquaintance with art and reality for this very reason, and not on an understanding of one by means of the other. (p. 122)
Thomas R. Whissen, in his Isak Dinesen's Aesthetics (copyright © 1973 by Thomas R. Whissen; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1973.
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[Carnival, Entertainments and Posthumous Tales] are of a piece with her already published works. But, since they are the last we shall have of Dinesen, certain observations come to mind about her and her art. All has probably been said already; yet we cannot leave it at that. She is too good a writer.
It is striking, for example, how at home Dinesen was in the past. In this volume, the stories go back and forth between Holland, Italy and France in the early 19th Century to Denmark and England in the 20th. Why the past? Because, of course, the past lends itself to strange happenings and odd personages. And also to violent passions. Dinesen was, in many respects, a true Romantic.
Yet in Dinesen, paradoxically, there is a kind of old-fashionedness in the modern tales and a timelessness in the tales of the past. One realizes that Dinesen actually created a world unto herself, a world of her peculiar shadow and light, a literary world as much her own as Proust's was his. To do this requires, if one thinks about it enough, an immense fund of general culture, of historical background, of literary instinct above all, to be able to write so convincingly of past times in countries foreign to one's own….
The adjective "gothic" which clings to Dinesen's memory is supremely apt. There is an underlying mysteriousness in her tales …, subtly suggested by innocent, off-hand remarks about her characters. Thus, her characters tend to be contradictory and not easily dismissed at the end of the story as totally explained.
There is often an uneasiness in the reader's mind about motives and even about events in a Dinesen tale. In "The Bear and the Kiss," in the present volume, the eeriness of Northern Norway and a deserted island contribute certainly to the mystery, but the characters themselves—Joshua and his Finnish wife—have been given mythical and mystical qualities long before we meet them….
Even more harrowing, in a modern sense, is "The Ghost Horses," set in an unsinister England of the 20th Century. The tale deals with a nice, middle-class child who refuses to recover from an illness. Her uncle believes he is leading her back to normal life until he discovers the real cause of the child's reluctance to leave her shadowy world. After the reader had been lulled into feeling that in this comfortable milieu all will end happily, he is shocked (and puzzled) by the story's last paragraph. The story is every bit as gothic as those of the Frozen North, perhaps even more so for its familiar setting. One realizes, too, that Dinesen is not only poking ironic fun at the pat diagnosis of the doctor … but reminding us also, we post-Freudians, that there are sinister elements at work in children. Here is Dinesen at her very best.
Lest one remember only the dark side to Isak Dinesen, it is good that this volume includes a youthful "entertainment" called "Uncle Theodore." Set in France in the early part of this century, it is a light-hearted story, with its characters given appropriately humorous names like Vieusac and Petitsfours. The juvenile vicomte is sympathetically portrayed with the affectionate irony of a Colette. Indeed, the story in its setting and treatment reminds us very much of the French writer …, yet this is not a Gallic work. A sober note underlies the story. But what is so rare and so appealing is its lack of sinister elements and its happy ending. It is a tale so well told that it is difficult to remember that it was written … at the beginning of Dinesen's career when she was just discovering her talent. (p. 20)
This brings us to the question of the style of these tales and of the famous, published ones. One might think that the stilted, old-fashioned language was that of a foreigner writing in English. But we know from Out of Africa that Dinesen was capable of writing perfectly modern English…. One realizes then how suitable the style is which she created for the tales of fantasy. It was a perfectly conscious way to bind them into a unity in their various geographical and chronological settings…. The style is very personal (as, again, was Proust's) to fit that personal literary world of her imagination. It is really a kind of never-never language in a never-never world.
It is, nevertheless, vigorous and rich in strong images. If the reader were not told who had written these tales, he would still know from the very first lines, so identificably special is Dinesen's manner. The first paragraph of "The Last Day" in this collection could be used as a textbook example of the superior art of establishing a mood for the narrative that follows. (pp. 20, 36)
Joan Palevsky, "Tales of the Past," in Books West (copyright © by Books West Magazine and Book Fair, Inc.), Vol. 1, No. 7, 1977, pp. 20, 36.
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Dinesen lovers will rejoice over Carnival, a collection of eleven Dinesen stories that either have been out of print or never before published…. The stories, spanning half a century of creative effort, are of mixed quality, but all bear the inimitable Dinesen touch. All the familiar Dinesen themes are there: the double, the reality of the imagination, sorcery, the fusion of impulse and action, and above all, the joyful surrender to merciless destiny.
Two stories written in 1909 anticipate Dinesen's skill at plot twists. "The de Cats Family" develops the idea that a respectable family needs a black sheep to keep it respectable, and "Uncle Theodore" tells of an impoverished young nobleman who "invents" a rich uncle who turns out to be real. Both stories have a charm and clarity that is unfortunately missing from "Carnival," the title piece. This story of eight people who pool their incomes and then draw lots so that the winner may live for a year as he pleases is too contrived and digressive.
Probably the best tale of all, in terms of sheer storytelling, is "Anna." Set in Sicily in the last century, this story has everything—sharply defined characters, intrigue, romance, mystery—everything, that is, but an ending. Dinesen left it unfinished, but those who know and love Dinesen may prefer it that way. She herself has suggested that the last page should be blank, for upon the blank page all is revealed.
Two stories in the collection pose problems for Dinesen enthusiasts. "The Ghost Horses," one of her "dreaming child" stories, reinforces the suspicion some have that she was obsessed with royalty; and "The Proud Lady," the story of a persecuted aristocrat at the time of the French Revolution, tries but fails to justify tyranny in the name of divine necessity. "The Bear and the Kiss" is more of a puzzle than a problem. A curiously obscure story, it lacks the power but not the imagination of her Seven Gothic Tales.
The volume ends with the very last tale Dinesen ever wrote, "Second Meeting," a lean and moving story of Lord Byron's second meeting with his double, just before Byron is about to go off to Greece to die. It is Dinesen at her best and fitting conclusion to a collection of tales that rank among her best. (pp. 77-8)
Thomas Whissen, in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), January, 1978.
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Fifteen years after her death Isak Dinesen seems to be little read in this country. She has become a cult figure without a cult. Few modern writers of comparable status can have been so neglected. No doubt her work has proved hard to place because it is eccentric in kind. But more than that, the stories on which her reputation must rest, while superficially accessible, demand, if they are to be properly understood, a degree of attention and interpretative effort only likely to be accorded to a writer of acknowledged "importance"….
[Dinesen's short stories] can differ greatly in emphasis and effect, but they tend to be roughly similar in mode. The opening sentence will be a fine romantic flourish…. The characters will be exotic: princesses, cardinals, poets, actors, painters, singers, seafarers. But the developing tale will lack the simple narrative thrust that these elements seem to promise. An extravagant plot, plainly metaphorical in intention, is made to accommodate interpolated stories, poetic descriptions of nature, and stylized conversations, heavy with aphorism.
The most obvious critical problem posed by Isak Dinesen does not concern interpretation, though her meaning is often obscure, but rather a seeming discrepancy between means and ends. Can a tale so elaborately wrought, so resolutely artificial, shed light, as the author manifestly intends, on some fundamental theme—justice, love, sex, religious belief, social organization? She poses the question herself in the title Anecdotes of Destiny. The risk she runs is that her stylized fictions might seem no more than portentous whimsicalities….
[Robert Langbaum] speaks of her taste for "the extremely natural and the extremely artificial", and claims that she herself categorized her work accordingly: "Isak Dinesen considered that her stories fall into the two classes of Gothic and Winter's tale, which seem to divide along the lines of art versus nature—with the Gothic tale on the side of art: witty, extravagant, cosmopolitan; and the Winter's tale, Danish, provincial, natural." Up to a point the distinction is a useful one; but in fact most of the individual tales express both tendencies, and are centrally concerned with the need to reconcile them….
"Sorrow-acre" is one of a number of stories by Isak Dinesen that seem to celebrate a pre-democratic mode of life, in which people could guide their actions by ancient certitudes. It was chiefly the survival of such patterns of response that she found appealing in the life of her African natives. But she was not content to celebrate times past….
[Isak Dinesen carried the romantic] tradition a step forward by showing how selfconscious, analytical modern man can regain his "lost unity of perception". He is to regain it through artifice. By seeking to impose a pattern on his own life, or on the lives of others, however arbitrarily, he is daring God to frustrate him, and in doing so to grant him a glimpse of that greater, divine pattern that informs creation….
Isak Dinesen's philosophy poses two main problems. One concerns the character of the playful, unpredictable God that we are invited to laud and to emulate. (p. 25)
The greater problem, however, because it ultimately affects one's response to the very technique of her stories, concerns the nature or status of the artifice that she recommends. In Out of Africa she shows an attractive admiration for the dandyism of … derelict characters…. She celebrates their proud individuality. But how, within an intricate fiction, is a writer to make sense of the changing whims of a wayfarer or drunkard? Frequently, as in "Sorrow-acre", Isak Dinesen implies that the dandyism she is describing is not merely random because it expresses a tradition. The whims of aristocrats are somehow special. This is not a sympathetic idea; and occasionally it seems to betray Isak Dinesen into a surprisingly crass kind of snobbery. But it makes for coherence within a given story. Since the seemingly arbitrary elements of the tale in fact derive from, and disclose, a basic social and psychological pattern, the tale itself, for all its extravagances, can be patterned. Without this implication of structure the story and its moral must fall to pieces. The point is more important than it may at first appear. For Isak Dinesen the storyteller himself enacts the process she recommends. His artifice mimics God's artifice. His control over his tale suggests God's control over his world. But whence does the story-teller derive his authority? Only from the power and persuasiveness of his narrative.
This reflexive argument poses again, in rather different form, the problem of the artificiality of Isak Dinesen's stories. Characteristically a moral story, or fable, tends to gain power from the simplicity that implies general applicability, general truth. This would hold true of "Sorrow-acre", which was apparently based on a Danish folk-tale. But I was unable to provide anything like a full explication even of "Sorrow-acre"; and the great majority of Isak Dinesen's tales are far more allusive. For all the extremity and artificiality, every detail is calculated and relevant. Her stories are all meaning…. [In] fact it would be virtually impossible to discuss Isak Dinesen without painstaking synopsis. If you subtract the "meaning" almost nothing remains. Yet it is the story that must persuade you that the meaning matters. (pp. 25-6)
I have mixed feelings about the stories. Several of them—notably "Babette's Feast"—are brilliant. Most of them include notable flashes of wit and passages of exquisite description. But some of the literary substance, some of the pseudo-archaism, seems to me mere plastic or tinsel. And above all I do not see how most of her stories, however much they entertain or intrigue the reader, could move him. The dandyism can impress but it rarely persuades. A typical tale by Isak Dinesen is a complex, very personal statement: the lovingly articulated skeleton of a purely private truth. (p. 26)
Michael Irwin, "The Pattern of Creation," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 13, 1978, pp. 25-6.
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The best of Dinesen's tales have always held a fine balance of a storytelling method derived from literary models—sagas, fairy tales—and her own piercing sense of psychological reality. In "Anna," to my mind the finest piece in [Carnival], there is a remarkable interlocking set of stories like an intricate puzzle toy that is pleasurable to the touch and equally pleasing to decode. (p. 183)
When the sentiment works in Dinesen's fables as it does in "Anna" she achieves the simplicity of line that we admire in good story ballet. It is her rhythms, her pairings, her quick character studies that support the romance and never let it go soft at the center. (pp. 183-84)
Maureen Howard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Spring, 1978.
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As one would expect in a collection of this kind, most of the tales [in Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales] do not compare in vision and quality with the collections for which Dinesen is rightly best known: Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa, Winter's Tales, and some of Last Tales. Yet they are of interest because they give us new insight into her best work, some by showing us her beginnings and the context of her art, and some, when they break off unfinished or sound a false note, by showing us the directions her art could not take once she found her true beginnings.
The true beginning of Isak Dinesen's art is where the art of many modern writers end. Two of Dinesen's earliest works, "The de Cats Family" and "Carnival" (in Carnival), in their very different ways, show the earliest starting points of her art. They are both characteristically outrageous, but delightfully so. In "The de Cats Family," the author incisively marks out the territory of her future art by way of negative reference. The opening lines clearly raise the issue of art's purpose and method: "Dear readers, I should not like to trick you into reading anything which you would later deplore. Here is a story which has no other merit than its excellent moral." Spurred by these words, the story proceeds by a simple strategy almost devoid of style and characterization, to beguile the reader into believing a moral he or she would initially have deplored….
The moral of the story on the face of it is that vice can be an excellent thing. But the way in which the de Cats family explain this principle to themselves and accept it—that to collect the guilt of many onto one and condemn him to save the rest is a sound business principle; that scapegoating is the guarantor of virtue and, indeed, the foundation of Christianity; and that one must do one's duty—points to another moral: most of the tenets we live by are colossal lies….
"The de Cats Family" is purely literary in that it proposes no meaning of its own but serves as a tool to destroy swiftly and economically what Dinesen sees as a limited notion of the law held by what has become a predominantly bourgeois world. It is as if Adam, ariving in Paradise, found the animals already named, incorrectly; and before he could name them he had to say ceremoniously to each: Thou art not named this, not named that…. In one sense the members of the de Cats family are level-headed bearers of Dinesen's ironic message that truth and morality do not work the way we think they do. In another sense, being a bourgeois family themselves, that they prudently turn their revelation to coin and only a certain kind of virtue is a further irony.
Having so clearly accomplished its purpose, this demolition strategy does not reappear as the focus of later works, but is absorbed into her style: sudden and quick turns of plot and dialogue take us through seeming improbabilities to reach a world with unfamiliar, though strict, laws of its own….
Unlike "The de Cats Family," "Carnival" has a very loose structure. Set in 1925 the characters of the story are a group of contemporary young Danish men and women, wealthy and bored, who have come from a masquerade ball to the house of two of the characters for a midnight supper before returning to the ball. The supper becomes a symposium on various topics that soon focus on what will be Isak Dinesen's three principal themes: love, the meaning of life, and art. In the course of their discussions, they express in germinal form ideas that will be central in her mature work. For example, an old painter's theory about black will become her theory of tragedy: the disillusionment that besets the younger generation stems from their ignorance of the color black. (p. 14)
Instead of providing a harder mask for the character's soft faces, the story turns the moment of real harshness—the real face that opposes their pink and blue masks—into simply a pastime of the decadent lives lived by what have now become indistinguishable as masks or faces. The story doesn't work because it has not found its true beginning, and therefore ends by simply stopping.
But "Carnival" is interesting because it provides the contemporary context for the Gothic settings of Dinesen's later work. The contemporary world is pink and blue and needs black, but in this world, the only act recognized as harsh is a bloody one. Therefore she must go back to past ages to find tools for her expression, to find a harshness that, cast in a fantastic past, avoids the question of real violence. This strategy may be interpreted by some as an act of cowardice, but the dilemma is real. (pp. 14-15)
In Dinesen's latest and best works, the carnival or mask principle is replaced by the principle of the obstacle. For the mask is not really a principle, but a strategy. It doesn't do any good, in Yeats's words, "To set your chisel to the hardest stone" ("Ego Dominus Tuus") if you are not driven to do it, if you are merely bored and restless. "The de Cats Family" is a strong story because it is destroying a false mask. But "Carnival," though more creative, lacks a strong and focused impulse. And here, in a word, is the problem of the modern writer: what impulse can he fashion or find to inform his art?…
It is in the principle of the obstacle, or destiny, that Isak Dinesen finds her true beginning. To put it one way, her theme is the consummation to be found in unconsummated or unrequited love. To put it differently, it is that tragedy is the principle of joy. Or, it is that a young girl, pondering as she dresses for a ball on the choice between comfort and beauty, will choose beauty because she knows that it will offer her perhaps a greater comfort, and if not, then a greater joy. Power, grace, and truth proceed only from a confrontation to the death with a force greater than oneself. The force may be loss, pain, or refusal. It may be honor. It may be love itself….
For Dinesen, as seen most clearly in the first Gothic tale, "The Deluge at Norderney," the true God is a charlatan. "There never was a great artist who was not a bit of a charlatan; nor a great king, nor a god. The quality of charlatanry is indispensable in a court, or a theater, or in paradise." The problems of the modern world stem not from the fall of man but from "a fall of the divinity. We are now serving an inferior dynasty of heaven."
It is Dinesen's conception of God, destiny, and man's relation to them that explains her conception of the aristocratic. Her frequent choice of aristocratic themes, settings, heroes, and heroines is not a consequence of social snobbery or political views but of spiritual and artistic convictions. The aristocrat in her stories is a superior human being because only he and his servants truly understand the principle of service. The greatest servant proclaims the greatest master, and the aristocrat is the greatest servant because he serves a prince or master without considering questions of justice and virtue. He serves a creator.
As many of Isak Dinesen's characters say, and as her art form demonstrates, it is not the character who is primarily important, but the story….
Even the body itself is a work of art, not a personal concern. The beautiful Heloise in "The Heroine" (Winter's Tales), trapped in a German inn with the group of French and English travelers at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, is offered by the young commanding Prussian officer her freedom and the freedom of the others if she will show herself to him as the naked Venus. She refuses. Enraged, the officer orders their execution at dawn. At dawn, however he sends a letter of permission for the group to cross into Luxembourg and to Heloise a large bouquet of roses with the message: "[my] compliments to a heroine."…
In her tales after "The Deluge at Norderney," Isak Dinesen shows that death is not the only obstacle; destiny, like honor, comes in many other forms with almost equal power. As her storytelling gift sharpens and strengthens, she makes us feel the power and pain of these many forms of destiny….
As the old lord in "Sorrow Acre" explains to his young nephew, Adam, the highest art is comic. The art of the gods is comic, and the art of the aristocrat must also be comic. Tragedy is a noble phenomenon, nobler than the art of the bourgeois, but still only human. The tragic artist and the tragic vision are bound by strict laws, but the comic artist has a freedom as unbounded as that of the gods, as long as he accepts the comic situation with grace. This acceptance demands the acceptance of tragedy, and the grace not to interfere in another's tragedy, and even, at times, the acceptance of being or providing the obstacle that will set the stage for another's tragedy. Thus Heloise risked her life and the lives of others to allow for a tragedy that would have been spiritually superior to what would have been in their eyes the low comedy of buying life cheaply.
If the informing principle of Isak Dinesen's art is that it is destiny that forces from us an exertion that will yield us tragic stature on the one hand or comic freedom and joy on the other, the confrontation between the tragic and the comic is an equally important theme; indeed the first principle depends on it. In the perspective of our yearnings, the obstacle is unnecessary, and therefore tragic—painful. In the perspective of the high comic, it is the absoluteness of the obstacle—its illogicality and its pain—that exalts comedy to its heights and saves it from low comedy….
Though it may be impossible to give priority to either tragedy or comedy, it is possible to give a high priority to the issue itself. Thus the function of many of Dinesen's tales is to raise their characters out of innocence or low comedy by confronting them with a passion or yearning powerful enough to lead them into the tragic dilemma. Thus, for some characters passion itself is the obstacle to an inferior complacency. (p. 15)
The stories, and the collection as a whole, are constructed like a complex kaleidescope. Each character and each event works as a little bit of mirror reflecting another character or event, and then turning slightly to catch some other reflection. To reinforce this overall plot structure, Dinesen uses mirror images and similes repeatedly as the characters muse on their own nature and on their relation to others. To any one of them, the story may make no sense, but taken as a whole, the stories, like a piece of music or a minuet, form a complete pattern of movement. This structure is similar, in concept and form, to some of Borges's stories. In "The Garden of Forking Paths," for instance, two plots and two notions of time are proposed and are so fit together through the action and thought that follow that at the end the reader is left puzzling which conception is the container and which the contained.
Although the struggle between human tragedy and divine comedy is never in any real sense resolved, there are moments in Isak Dinesen's tales when the characters seem to attain a point of release from their conflicts, a higher state, short-lived though it may be, in which they leave the personal perspective behind to unite with the very forces of existence themselves. This is a liquid state in which the substance and fixity of ideas, ideals, and social and personal forms have each yielded into their truer substance—force and energy. It is as if they have confronted and embraced the obstacle itself with such strength that it assumes clarity and liquid movement. It is a kind of reversal of Odysseus' wrestling match with Proteus. In these moments, the sea under Charlie's boats and the flood waters at Norderney have become spiritual principles: water is not outside but inside. Thus Lincoln loves Pellegrina because of the great strength she has attained in her new second life: like a well-sailed ship, she has not resisted but rather "allied herself with all the currents and winds of life…. There never seemed to be to her much difference between joy and pain, or between sad and pleasant things. They were all equally welcome to her, as if in her heart she knew them to be the same."
For Isak Dinesen, the reality of change is a truth and a principle of art, but as we have seen, not always an ecstasy. Perhaps, if we do not consummate our consciousness of the truth by so fully yielding to the forces of love that we drown in the literal waters of the sea, the only way, as beings both human and divine, that we can live in consonance with the truth is by alternating between what in our state must be two truths: between the flow of yearning and the obstacles of pain and denial.
Isak Dinesen's vision and art are expressed in their fullest maturity in Seven Gothic Tales and Winter's Tales. On either side of these two collections, so to speak, stand Out of Africa and her later tales. Out of Africa, though written after Seven Gothic Tales, looks back to a time in Isak Dinesen's own life when the two principles informing her work, a liquid oneness and confrontation, somehow seem magically to coexist or even reinforce each other.
We have the sense not of returning to our first paradise but of stumbling into a second paradise where the acceptance that God and the devil are one and that both love change has destroyed the low comic obstacles civilization has erected to kill the truth rather than risk the tremendous power of its joys, and has thus returned us to a more conscious innocence not separate from evil but somehow served by it. Both the passivity of the Kikuyu and the arrogance of the Masai allow them to bypass the efforts and laws that would prevent them from enjoying and experiencing the underlying unity that is Africa, though her manifestations may be eccentric and wrenching.
In facing the harshness of destiny, Dinesen found the creative principle that had been lacking in her early tales—she found her beginning. Forced to experience the extreme vision that Africa gave her—that God and the devil are one—she brought this truth, her sole possession, back to Europe and to European literary forms, and wrote her masterpieces, Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa, and Winter's Tales.
The tales she wrote after these three works, among them Last Tales and many of the selections in Carnival, seem to fall away from her central vision. There are exceptions: "A Country Tale" and "Converse at Night in Copenhagen" in Last Tales and "Second Meeting" in Carnival. But many of these later tales become Gothic in the usual sense of the word, what might be called bourgeois Gothic—shrill, like "Echoes"; grotesque, like "The Cardinal's Third Tale" and "The Blank Page"; intellectualized, like "The Cardinal's First Tale"; or confused and overly personal, like "Copenhagen Season" (all in Last Tales).
Yet reading these tales makes clearer the truly magical quality of Dinesen's best work. A story such as "The Cardinal's Third Tale" might be a brilliant statement of the doctrine that the story is more important than the characters, but is no more than a heartless doctrine if we have not read "The Roads Round Pisa." A story such as "The Fat Man" (Carnival) is perhaps a brilliant piece of psychological realism and a deftly told tale, but psychological realism and an ending with a twist are poor fare if we have read "The Monkey" or any number of her other tales. "Copenhagen Season" might be romantic and touching, but after reading "Sorrow Acre" we find the conception of the tragic in the later work unconvincing, a rationalization of a failure of nerve. "The Caryatids" and "The Bear and the Kiss"—except for its inner story, "The Glove"—might be appealing as thrillers of witchcraft and incest in the true Gothic vein, but the forces in Isak Dinesen's best tales are not those of witchcraft, but of the spirit. In these later tales, destiny seems to have lost its own destiny. (p. 16)
Elizabeth Ely Fuller, "Isak Dinesen: A Tale of Beginnings and Endings," in New Boston Review (copyright 1978 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Spring, 1978, pp. 14-16.
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Throughout [Dinesen's tales] runs a theme of common humanity surrendered in exchange for something else—pride? power? above all for the ability to turn life, with its muddle and pain, into art—exquisite where life is confused, heartless where life is passionate. (p. 15)
In Carnival and in The Angelic Avengers … we have the sweepings of Dinesen's work: the former made up chiefly of stories she discarded as not good enough for publication, the latter an "entertainment" written under a pseudonym during her time in Nazi-occupied Denmark…. [For] those who find the ruthlessness of her more serious work oppressive, The Angelic Avengers is a delightful romp, a Daphne du Maurier novel rewritten by Hans Andersen. The sultry presence of evil is there, as usual…. There is a touch of voodoo, a pact with Beelzebub, and some cannibalism; it is a romp nevertheless, for virtue triumphs, the charity of a virgin exorcises evil…. More seriously, the fact that it moves with pace and feeling, unlike some of Dinesen's more ambitious work, might be because she found herself happy with a fable about the redemption of the corrupt, i.e., the syphilitic [Dinesen suffered from syphilis]. The effect of her illness on her view of the writer as a dedicated being, yet cut off from common humanity, surely cannot be overestimated.
Carnival is chiefly for the Dinesen devotee, since most of the stories in it were rejected by the fastidious author. The usual ingredients are there, but often without the imaginative fusion of her best stories. The first two, however, written in Danish before she married, are interesting in showing that her early attempts at writing were fully in the vein of her later work: both are lightweight, ironic fables with the barest touch of cruelty. (pp. 16-17)
Will Blixen/Dinesen … come to be known more for her life than for her works? Of the books, Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, the one with its extreme artifice and the other with its directness, will probably last the longest. But the pattern of her life is at least as remarkable a creation…. The survivor—quod fecit, fecit—is sometimes more frightening than the suicide. (pp. 17-18)
Rosemary Dinnage, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 NYREV, Inc.), May 4, 1978.