Isak Dinesen Dinesen, Isak (Pseudonym of Karen Blixen) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Thomas R. Whissen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, 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….

(p. 19)

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...

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Joan Palevsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.


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Thomas Whissen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Michael Irwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Maureen Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Elizabeth Ely Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rosemary Dinnage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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