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SOURCE: "Isak Dinesen's Fine Record of Life on an African Farm," in The New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1938, p. 3.
[In the following review, Woods enthusiastically praises Out of Africa.]
The book [Out of Africa] which Isak Dinesen has made from her life on an African farm is a surprising piece of writing to come from the author of Seven Gothic Tales. After dazzling the public with what Dorothy Canfield called "the strange slanting beauty and controlled fantasy" of the first book, this amazing Danish master of English prose has stepped now into the clearest reality, the utmost classic simplicity, the most direct—yet the most exquisitely restrained—truth. But it is an incandescent simplicity; the reality is of the spirit as well as of object and event; the truth is a cry from the heart. And after all the books that we have had out of Africa, I think this is the one we have been waiting for.
Like the Ngong hills—"which are amongst the most beautiful in the world"—this writing is without redundancies, bared to its lines of strength and beauty. "There was no fat on it, and no luxuriance anywhere," she says of her African landscape; so in the book there is no sentimentality, no elaboration. It is an autobiographical book: in one sense, only partly an autobiography; in another sense, doubly autobiographical. This is not a chronological record; and until close to the end it touches almost casually the course of the author's life. It is peopled with other characters, every one of them alive. And the author knows how the hills look just before the rains come; and how the bleak wind runs over the land and the scents and colors die when the rains fail; and how often the bright air will bring illusion, as if one were walking on the bottom of the sea. She can make a sudden parable of the resignation of the oxen, and understand the tragedy of the captured giraffes, so proud and innocent; and the ancient African forest, she says, is like an old tapestry. She knows the practical details, the hard work, of this farm life, too.
But before one has read many pages in her book one realizes how, in a deeper sense than that of mere chronicle, these clear objective details from a farm in Kenya are themselves wholly personal. Once, looking back on an evening errand in wartime in the Masai Reserve, she shows the reason:
The plains with the thorntrees on them were already quite dark, but the air was filled with clarity—and over our heads, to the west, a single star which was to grow big and radiant in the course of the night was now just visible, like a silver point in the sky of citrine topaz. The air was cold to the lungs, the long grass dripping wet, and the herbs on it gave out their spiced astringent scent. In a little while on the sides the cicada would begin to sing. The grass was me, and the air, the distant invisible mountains were me, the tired oxen were me. I breathed with the slight wind in the thorntrees.
This is more than mere understanding. And Africa lives through all this beautiful and heart-stirring book because of that simple and unsought-for fusion of the spirit, lying behind the skill which can put the sense of Africa's being into clear, right, simple words, through the things and people of the farm.
The farm was a coffee plantation, but much of it was grass land and...
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part was primeval forest, and native squatters lived, by law and custom, on 1,000 of its 6,000 acres and had their own gardens and herds there. Across the river was the country of the Masai, a proud people who had been great fighters but were now a dying race. Hunting country was roundabout, and two missions were a few miles away (in opposite directions), and it was not a long drive to Nairobi, even in the early days by cart. Other Europeans came and went, and some lived in these same hills. That complex scene, that unpredictable cast of characters, of the European colony in Africa, can be found in this book. But Baroness Blixen (not yet known under her penname of Isak Dinesen) was very close to the native peoples and to all the immemorial life of the African wild. It was not easy to get to know the natives, she says: they understood her better than she understood them; but she felt a great affection for them, from the first.
She used to doctor them, from her simple knowledge. She had an evening school for them, with a native schoolmaster. She studied their language, and told them stories to which they loved to listen. They came to her—even the Masai across the river—to complain when a lion was taking their cows, and she would go out and shoot it; one night she and Denys Finch-Hatton shot two of these marauding lions, and the children came out from their school near by and sang a little song of triumph, which ended "in an intoxicated refrain, 'A-B-C-D,' because they came straight from the school and had their heads filled with wisdom." And the little herd-boys brought their sheep to graze on her lawns. She was the friend of the Kikuyu chief, and he sent for her to come to him when he was dying. And once when a serious dispute among the Kikuyu on the farm had gone beyond the power of her peace-making, she asked the chief to render judgment for her on the important matter of cows and witchcraft; for she was a sort of judge among them, too; the Elders held their council meetings before her house, and used to ask her for final decisions.
So, as the years went by, she came to know them: their justice which is so different from the white man's justice; their untroubled acceptance of life's uncertainties which is so different from the white man's shrinking from risk; their courage, which is "unadulterated liking for danger"; their strange dancing imagination, and their stillness and their hardness and their mocking mirth; the way, too, in which they could be "unreliable and yet in the grand manner sincere." And she came to know how the African natives will make of some certain European, for some certain reason, a symbol—a brass serpent lifted up in the wilderness—and even to see that she had become such a symbol, herself. In these and other ways she knew the African peoples among whom she lived, and whose friend she was. And unforgettably, through her book, she draws the portraits, and tells or suggests the stories of individuals—natives, Europeans, animals.
In this personal record out of Africa, so sincere and natural, so direct and clear, there is that penetration, restraint, simplicity and precision which, together, mark the highly civilized mind, and that compassion, courage and dignity which mark civilization, in the best sense, in the human heart. This writing is poignant and exquisite, it has an echoing reticence, it is swift in profundity or insight or tenderness or irony. And no description of this book, highly as it may praise its solid substance, can in itself do justice to its effortless, expressive, wholly individual beauty of form, or even list the evocations and suggestions that lie within, or are touched by, its very simplicity. Out of Africa is something rare and lovely, to read again and again.
At the last, it tears the heart with its disaster and its simple gallantry. Isak Dinesen had planted her own deep roots in this soil, long years before. And the roots were broken at last. She had to sell the farm, and leave Africa. After tedious effort she was able to assure her villages being kept together, when she had gone. But the farm was lost and divided. She tells the story with quiet and noble beauty. And one knows that her wish for life as a whole has been fulfilled by Africa: she did not let it go until it blessed her.
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Isak Dinesen 1885–1962
(Born Karen Christentze Dinesen; also known by her married name Karen Blixen; also wrote under the pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Andrézel). Danish short story writer, autobiographer, novelist, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Dinesen's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10 and 29.
Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel Den afrikanske farm (1937; Out of Africa). Acclaimed for her poetic prose style, complex characters, and intricate plots, Dinesen was concerned with such themes as the lives and values of aristocrats, the nature of fate and destiny, God and the supernatural, the artist, and the place of women in society. Hailed as a proto-feminist by some critics, scorned as a colonialist by others, Dinesen is chiefly regarded as a masterful storyteller. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that the Nobel Prize for Literature he received in 1954 should have been awarded to her.
Born in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen was the daughter of an army officer who was a friend of Hans Christian Andersen and who wrote a book about his experiences as a fur trapper among the Indians of the northern United States. Dinesen studied English at Oxford University and painting at the Royal Academies in Copenhagen, Paris, and Rome. Following her marriage to Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, a cousin, in 1914, Dinesen moved to East Africa as the owner and manager of a coffee plantation near present-day Nairobi, Kenya. Following the death of her lover Denys Finch-Hatton and the eventual sale of her farm in 1931—events that are dramatized in Out of Africa—Dinesen returned to Denmark, where she completed her first book, Seven Gothic Tales. Subsequent works included several more short story collections, and numerous essays and novels in both Danish and English. Although she suffered from chronic spinal syphilis, emaciation, and the physical frailty attendant to these conditions, she continued to lecture and give interviews. She became a founding member of the Danish Academy in 1960. Dinesen died in Rungsted in 1962.
Seven Gothic Tales is a collection of short stories written in a romantic style, employing fantasy to explore aristocratic sensibilities and values. For example, in "The Deluge at Norderney," a Cardinal directs his high-born com-panions to give up their places on a boat to save peasants during a flood. Out of Africa presents Dinesen's experiences as a British East African coffee plantation owner, her relationship with the Africans who lived and worked on and around her plantation, her divorce from Baron Blixen, her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, and the failure of her coffee enterprise, which precipitated her return to Denmark. The short stories in Winter's Tales (1942), with their simpler narrative style and attention to landscape, history, and life of Denmark, solidified Dinesen's standing in the Danish literary community. "Sorrow-Acre," for instance, is based on a medieval Danish folktale and is set in eighteenth-century Denmark. The story examines the inevitable social consequences of the master-servant relationship: how aristocratic values and traditions govern the attitudes and actions of a landlord toward a thieving serf and his mother. During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Dinesen wrote The Angelic Avengers (1946), a mystery-thriller about two orphaned girls. The manuscript was smuggled out of Denmark and published under the pseudonymn Pierre Andrézel. Dinesen continually denied authorship of the book, however, because she was unsatisfied with its literary quality. Last Tales (1957) is a collection of short stories that are divided into three sections—New Gothic Tales, New Winter's Tales, and Tales from Albondocani. These works represent a return to her earlier literary style, themes, and characters. In "Echoes," for instance, Pellegrina Leoni, who first appears in Seven Gothic Tales, is an ex-opera star, devastated by the loss of her voice. Consequently, a disgruntled Pellegrini uses elaborate disguises to ensure her anonymity. She remarks that when it comes to fate and life, God can be both a charlatan and "jokester" with his human creations. Skygger paa Graesset (1960; Shadows on the Grass) recalls Dinesen's African experiences. In this nonfiction work she focuses on the lives of several of the African servants and friends whom she first wrote about in Out of Africa. The novel Ehrengard (1963) was published posthumously and was Dinesen's last work. Its themes include the notion of the artist as creator and interpreter of life. The story follows the artist Cazotte's lust for Ehrengard, while she sits for a portrait. Cazotte's objective is to humiliate her, and in the process diabolically usurp God's role as the ultimate and defining artist of creation and master of life. Among Dinesen's other posthumously published works are Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (1977); Breve fra Afrika 1914–31 (1978; Letters from Africa: 1914–1931), which contain her correspondence with family and friends during her years in Africa; and Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (1979), containing the well-known "Bonfire Speech," which presents her thoughts on many feminist issues.
Dinesen's writings have been widely praised and enthusiastically received. Critics applaud her prose style, her facility with complicated plots and characters, and her "natural" gift for storytelling. While many scholars have claimed that her picture of Africa in Out of Africa is romanticized, they note that the story is engaging, well-structured, and presents a detailed picture of life among British expatriots in Africa. Several commentators have noted similarities between Dinesen's views on identity, spirituality, and meaning and those of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; others have detected the influence of Aldous Huxley and Sigmund Freud on the development of Dinesen's themes and characters, particularly in such works as "Carnival." Finally, many critics have recognized humor as an integral part of Dinesen's literary style and agree that her stories consistently reveal a positive attitude and "passion for life," which embraces life's challenges and adversities as well as its triumphs and joys.
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SOURCE: "Isak Dinesen, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Present Age," in Books Abroad, Vol. 36, No. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 20-4.
[In the following essay, Johannesson examines the similarities between the philosophical views expressed in many of Dinesen's works and those of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, notably themes relating to human identity, human interdependence, and passion for life.]
To compare Isak Dinesen and Søren Kierkegaard may seem a rather frivolous undertaking particularly to those who see in the former a sophisticated and witty Danish Baroness who likes to tell decadent and bizarre tales about a bygone era or produce elegiac memorials to a vanished Africa. The world of Isak Dinesen whose stories grace the pages of Harper's Bazaar and Ladies Home Journal and whose histrionic face peers at us in Life magazine seems far removed from that of Søren Kierkegaard, whose efforts to reawaken the individual to a passionate awareness of his own existence drove him to martyrdom. Yet the two are not as far apart as it might seem. While Isak Dinesen has often been regarded as merely an expert in the elegant art of pastiche, Kierkegaard in the opinion of his age was a wealthy playboy with ambitions to become a writer. If the mask of Kierkegaard deceived his contemporaries and obscured the real significance of his works, the mask of Isak Dinesen has sometimes obscured the depth of feeling and meaningful order which underlies her fictional world. For though they chose to express their visions of life in very different modes, Kierkegaard in his "mimic essays" so well suited to his lyric-philosophical style and his desire to explore certain attitudes to life in their purest form, and Dinesen in her unique form of storytelling, both are essentially artists of the mask. Kierkegaard's masks were many: Victor Eremita, Johannes Climacus, Frater Taciturnus, Constantin Constantius. He showed an uninhibited love for literary mystifications, taking great pains not to have the identity of any one of his masks mistaken for his own. Isak Dinesen is, as everyone probably knows by now, a pseudonym for Karen Blixen-Finecke, but it is only one of Karen Blixen's masks. There are at least two others: Osceola, and Pierre Andrézel (author of the little known Gothic novel The Angelic Avengers).
What is the reason for this play of masks? The reason is, first of all, to be sought in a sense for the histrionic: a love of theater and opera. Kierkegaard wrote perceptive studies of several actors and actresses, as well as of the great archetypal figures of the stage, a Don Juan, a Faust. Isak Dinesen's heroes and heroines are often theatrical personalities, and the spirit of Shakespeare's comedies pervades the tales. But while this shared inclination to mask play has its simple motivation in a love for the stage, it is deeply rooted in a genuine sense for the multiple possibilities of the self. Thus Kierkegaard explored through the various pseudonyms pure forms or "stages" of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, the demonic, the humorous, the religious. This mode of presentation he referred to as indirect communication, the only mode of expression suited to his purpose: to initiate the reader in the art of becoming subjective, of becoming an individual. By carrying the description of each stage to its extreme form, i.e., despair, he sought to awaken the individual to the necessity of choice and thus to that passionate sense of his own unique existence which characterizes the art of becoming subjective. In an age of reflection he sought a return to passion. Dinesen's mask play is also deeply rooted in her view of life. In her stories the adoption of a mask is contrasted to the contemplation of the self in a mirror. Like Yeats, Dinesen regards the adoption of a mask as an active, passionate and self-mastering state, making for greatness, while the contemplation of the self is seen as a source of passivity and melancholy. To don a mask is regarded as an aristocratic manner: to play the lover, the hero, the saint, requires the aristocratic virtues of courage and imagination, and a passionate affirmation of destiny. Thus it is opposed to the bourgeois virtues: being true to one's own self, sincerity, and security. Thus the mask play is a defense of the aristocratic virtues in a bourgeois age. It is here that Dinesen and Kierkegaard have their basic affinity: both view the present in the light of a vanishing age, whether from the vantage point of the revolutionary age of Napoleon or from the vantage point of l'ancien régime.
Kierkegaard's reflections on his age have found their most succinct and delightful expression in his review, written in 1846, of the novel To tidsaldre (The Two Ages) by Thomasine Gyllembourg. In this review Kierkegaard compares what he calls "the revolutionary age" with the present age, a comparison which does not present the latter in any favourable light. "Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose". [Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 1940]. This is the beginning of the attack on the age of reflection, an age in which one is, as Kierkegaard puts it, "tempted to ask whether there is a single man left who, for once, commits an outrageous folly." It is an age in which "not even a suicide kills himself in desperation," but "deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with the thought." Being an age without passion it has no values, and produces "no hero, no lover, no thinker, no knight of the faith, no proud man, no man in despair" [The Present Age], since these cannot exist without complete personal commitment to a set of values. When a man of the present age happens to make a decision which saves him from evil one can no longer tell, says Kierkegaard, whether the decision is reached "after thorough consideration, or whether it is simply the exhaustion resulting from reflection which prevents him from doing wrong."
In this age the spirit of rebellion which characterizes a revolutionary age is transformed "into a feat of dialectics: it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance" [The Present Age]. Thus the state of tension which characterizes the interplay of opposites in a relationship is lost: "For example, the admirer no longer cheerfully and happily acknowledges greatness, promptly expressing his appreciation, and then rebelling against its pride and arrogance." To be a subject now means "to be a third party": the subject no longer has a "direct relation to the king but simply becomes an observer and deliberately works out the problem; i.e., the relation of a subject to his king." The young student is no longer afraid of his master, or going to school to learn: going to school "rather implies being interested in the problem of education." Thus the relationships of father and son, man and woman, and master and servant are destroyed from exhausted tension. The result is a general levelling, a loss of individuality, and a rule by the anonymous phantom called the public, and its organ, the press. In this situation, says Kierkegaard, the only salvation lies in religion, in becoming an individual.
Isak Dinesen has left us no doubt as to her aristocratic sympathies, sympathies molded by her own family background and by her years in Africa. They are reflected in many of her best tales, in "The Deluge at Norderney," and in "Sorrow Acre," for instance. In these and in several other tales the aristocratic figure is contrasted with either the Hamlet figure given to contemplating himself in the mirror or the anxious bourgeois, both shrinking from action either from excess of reflection or from fear or the lack of imagination.
In "The Deluge at Norderney" Dinesen has placed a few of her most delightful aristocratic figures on a precarious and symbolic hayloft where they carry on some interesting conversations and tell tales, most of them relating to mask play and the virtues of aristocracy. Here we are in the age of Louis Philippe (the year is 1835), and Kasparson does not hide his contempt for the bourgeois king. The trouble with Louis Philippe, says Kasparson, whose motto is "Disguise yourselves," is that he lacks charlatanry, "he is genuinely reliable all through" ["The Deluge at Norderney"]. In the modern world, Kasparson laments, greatness of imagination is sadly lacking. But on the Day of Judgment man is to be judged by his mask, that is, by the range of his imagination. To adopt a mask, play a great role, is the aristocratic way of life, requiring passion, courage, energy and imagination, leading to an affirmation of destiny. The mask is the destiny which the proud man chooses for himself.
With the others on the hayloft is also a young man, a bourgeois from Copenhagen, referred to as Timon of Assens. He is a Hamlet figure, the melancholy hero, so frequently the hero of Dinesen's tales. Like Count Augustus von Schimmelmann in "The Roads Round Pisa," Axel Leth in "The Invincible Slaveowners," Charles Despard of "The Young Man with the Carnation," and Adam in "Sorrow Acre," he is an observer of life, contemplating himself thoughtfully in the mirror, wondering about his identity, unable to commit himself to any course of action. The stories in which these melancholy and reflective heroes become involved, or the stories that are told to them, are often designed to present them with an insight, an insight which will help them regain their faith in life and embrace their destiny. Thus, Adam in "Sorrow Acre," imbued with the new humanitarian and sentimental ideas of the nineteenth century, cannot abide the suffering of the old Marie who is trying to save the life of her son. When he upbraids the uncle for his inhumanity, telling him that he will go to the United States, the uncle says: "Take service, there, with the power that will give you an easier bargain than this: That with your own life you may buy the life of your son" ["Sorrow Acre"]. Adam finally comes to accept the values of the feudal aristocratic world, realizing that all which lives must suffer, that there are no easy bargains in life. He also realizes that suffering confers greatness, and comes to accept tragedy—not as a misfortune—but as a human privilege. Other bourgeois figures receive similar insight. Lady Carlotta in "The Roads Round Pisa," the parson in "Alkmene," Emilie Van Damm in "The Dreaming Child," Jensine in "The Pearl": they are made to realize that they have not had faith in life, they have been in the words of Prince Pozentiani, "too small for the ways of God," (Seven Gothic Tales), having tried to arrange matters so as to obtain maximum security instead of entrusting themselves to destiny.
Related to the aristocratic code in Dinesen's world is the principle of interdependence, the tension between opposites, as it is expressed in the relationship between master and servant, or between man and woman. In the account of her Somali servant Farah, in Shadows on the Grass, Dinesen speaks of the master-servant relationship that existed between them in Africa. The relationship was an ideal one, because she and Farah were separated by such great differences. The relationship was like that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, in which the noble knight was highly dependent upon his servant, but Sancho Panza would never have become immortal on his own. In a little fireside talk some years ago Dinesen also expressed her "faith in the importance of interaction and her conviction about the great riches and unlimited possibilities that are contained in the correspondence and interplay of two dissimilar entities." In this talk she spoke of the relationship between men and women, stressing that women should not try to imitate men: in Dinesen's words, women should be, men should act.
The theme of interdependence runs through many of Dinesen's tales. "The Invincible Slaveowners" deals with the master-servant relationship, and "A Consolatory Tale" and "The Young Man with the Carnation" deal with the relationship between the artist and his public, and between the artist and God. In "The Deluge at Norderney" Kasparson chides King Louis Philippe for trying to be "just like a plain ordinary citizen," abhors this "humane God" and feels a longing for the time "when in the nights of Mexico, I felt great traditions rise up again of a God who did not give a pin for our commandments" (Seven Gothic Tales).
The concept of interdependence is one of the basic concepts of Dinesen's world. As such it is no solution to the world's ills, but rather an attempt to preserve the tension of opposites which gives order, harmony and value to human relations. Its underlying principle is best expressed in the words of Baron Brackel in "The Old Chevalier": "to love, or cherish, the pride of your partner, or of your adversary, as you will define it, as highly as or higher than your own."
Dinesen's world-view is aristocratic, but deep down it is aesthetic in nature. When the Baron in "The Old Chevalier" loses the young Nathalie as the result of his fidelity to the knightly code of chivalry, he observes the rules of an elegant game, and by respecting the pride of his partner he ends the relationship as it began: within a magic circle of freedom, grace, and beauty. Thus the aristocrat becomes an aesthetic type, and the laws governing human relations come to resemble the rules governing the composition of a fugue or a symphony. There is seemingly a gulf between this basically aesthetic view and Kierkegaard's belief that religion alone can restore individuality and prevent the abstract levelling process. And yet there is, once again, a deep affinity of outlook between the two writers. For, though Isak Dinesen rejects the doctrine of Christ's expiatory sacrifice, she often expresses her admiration for the Old Testament and its religious values, and, in particular, for the Book of Job, which has a central place in her work. Kierkegaard's religious views are also much closer to the spirit of the Old Testament, though he regards the belief in the paradox of Christ as the real criterion of a Christian. It is significant that Kierkegaard in his representation of the religious stage chose Abraham as his hero, and in his novel Repetition the figure of Job is constantly invoked by the young man. It is about the figure of Job that Dinesen's and Kierkegaard's views again converge.
Though the great theme of Dinesen's works is the theme of acceptance, this acceptance is usually preceded by rebellion. Her characters are often engaged in discussions like those between God and Job, or they are involved in stories in which they learn the art of acceptance. The God against whom the characters rebel is a God whose nature transcends human imagination, and from whom anything may be expected. He cannot be appeased if he is angry or cajoled into doing man's will. If he loves you, he may destroy you. If you are good, he sends you afflictions. In Africa Dinesen learned to know God as an arbitrary, gratuitous figure who does not "give a pin for our commandments," a God who does not justify himself by any arguments of right and wrong: whose argument is the whirlwind. To believe in this God on account of his righteousness or goodness is absurd, but then the primary distinction of a God is greatness, not goodness. Like the natives in Africa, Dinesen recognizes only a God who is gratuitous, who acts capriciously, and whose imagination always transcends human understanding, these being the virtues which make him great and set him apart from human beings. Thus the principle of interdependence is preserved in the religious sphere, for the relationship between God and man is one of tension. Man's greatness lies in his proud defiance of God and in his equally proud acceptance and yes-saying to whatever life might bring, in an affirmation of his essentially tragic destiny.
In Kierkegaard's Repetition the young friend of Constantin Constantius praises Job because there is passion in his speech, because he is "a mouth for the afflicted, and a cry for the contrite, and a shriek for the anguished," a voice that dares to contend with God. "The Lord is not afraid, He is well able to define himself, but how might He be able to speak in His defense if no one ventures to complain as it is seemly for a man to do? Speak, lift up thy voice, speak aloud, God surely can speak louder, He possesses the thunder—but that too is an answer, an explanation, reliable, trustworthy, genuine, an answer from God himself, an answer which even if it crush a man is more glorious than gossip and rumor about the righteousness of providence which are invented by human wisdom and circulated by effeminate creatures and eunuchs" [Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition]. The greatness of Job lies in his contention that he is in the right, and in his refusal to accept the fact that he has suffered because of his sins.
The story of Constantin Constantius in Repetition is, as Kierkegaard himself called it, a "story of suffering." So is the story of Quidam in Stages on Life's Way, and so is the story of Kierkegaard's own life. When Kierkegaard realized that he had to sacrifice his love for Regine Olsen he saw himself in the image of Job, and like Job he sought to retain his faith in the miraculous recovery of what he had lost. In his life as well as in his works, suffering and absolute faith in the paradox and the absurd point the way to the recovery of inwardness and passion in an age of reflection.
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Seven Gothic Tales (short stories) 1934Sanhedens Haevn [The Revenge of Truth] (drama) 1936Out of Africa [Den Afrikanske Farm] (autobiography) 1937Winter's Tales (short stories) 1942Farah (novel) 1950En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse [Bonfire Speech Fourteen Years Delayed] (essay) 1953Last Tales [Sidste Fortaellinger] (short stories) 1957Anecdotes of Destiny [Skaebne-Anekdoter] (short stories) 1958Skygger paa Graesset [Shadows on the Grass] (autobiography) 1960Osceola (short stories and poetry) 1962Ehrengard (novel) 1963Essays (essays) 1965; also published as Mit livs mottoer og andre essays [enlarged edition], 1978Breve fra Afrika 1914–31. 2 vols. [Letter from Africa 1914–31] (letters) 1978Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (essays) 1979Samlede (essays) 1985
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SOURCE: "In Memoriam Karen Blixen: Some Aspects of Her Attitude of Life," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXI, No. 4, October-December, 1963, pp. 585-604.
[In the following essay, Hannah examines Dinesen's major works—the autobiography Out of Africa and several of the short stories—focusing on their depiction of the past and evocation of nostalgia.]
It was perhaps typical of that elusive, even enigmatic figure, the late Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke, that she was most widely known by her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen. But this is the least of the paradoxes with which the reader of her work is faced. Karen Blixen, a Dane, wrote most of her short stories first in English, and then "translated" them into her native language. The deep vein of fantasy and imagination in her work is matched by a rigorous process of selection and control. She was the great story-teller in an age where the story-element is considered one of the less important aspects of fiction. But possibly the most striking side of her work lies in her treatment of the past; it exercised a very strong fascination for her, and it is the dimension in which her imagination seemed most at home. Nevertheless, although her stories are set in the past, in general, spanning the period from the end of the eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth, they can be considered as historical fiction in only a very limited sense.
When one turns to the details of her work, the impression of paradox is strengthened. She was both Isak Dinesen, the detached, impersonal story-teller, seldom, if ever, entering into her work to comment upon the action, and Karen Blixen, the author of an autobiography in which comment and action are of equal importance. As Isak Dinesen, she published four collections of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), Winter's Tales (1942), Last Tales (1957), and Anecdotes of Destiny (1958). These are her chief works of fiction, but to these should be added her novel, The Angelic Avengers, published in 1974 under another pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel. This was written, as a diversion, during the German occupation of Denmark, but except for the fact that it too is set in the past, in mid-nineteenth century England, it lies outside the main scope of her work. Her autobiography, Out of Africa, was published under her own name in 1937. This was supplemented by a small volume, Shadows on the Grass (1960), published under her usual pseudonym.
Karen Blixen was born in 1885 at Rungstedlund in Denmark; just before the first World War she went out to Kenya. She spent the next seventeen years of her life there as the owner of a large farm near Nairobi. Then she returned to Denmark to begin a new life as a writer, living again at Rungstedlund until her death on September 7, 1962, after a long drawn-out illness which she bore with characteristic courage.
Karen Blixen and Isak Dinesen. Her own story and her tales. Her life and her art. How are these related to one another? Karen Blixen's work is, in fact, the expression of firmly held convictions and a sharply individual attitude to life, shaped and moulded by personal experience. To discover something of the basis of this experience, one must turn to Out of Africa, for it was during the period recorded there that the connecting link was forged between Karen Blixen's life and her art. During her latter years in Kenya, her life was shadowed by personal tragedy and by incessant struggle against debt and failure of harvests. From life she turned to fiction, from the present to the past:
I began in the evenings to write stories, fairytales and romances, that would take my mind a long way off, to other countries and times.
[Out of Africa]
In 1931 the farm had to be sold. The moving and restrained account of her grief at this and at the tragic death of her beloved friend, Denys Finch-Hatton, should be read in its entirety for no isolated quotation can do it justice.
But her life in Kenya was not all tragedy:
Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air … you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.
"Looking back … where I ought to be." The two phrases suggest the whole tone of the book and the mood underlying it. For if the predominant impression left on the reader is one of the splendour of Karen Blixen's life in Africa, there is also a persistent undertone of deep sadness. Out of Africa has been written and is read in the shadow cast by the title.
The great attraction of Kenya for Karen Blixen was not only the splendour of the surroundings, but also the way of life on the farm. As the owner of much land, she had many duties to perform, as law-giver, doctor, hunter, for the Africans living on it. She carried these out with great sympathy and insight, as both Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass bear witness, but she was also happy in doing so. "Life out there," she once said, "was, I believe, rather like 18th Century England: one might often be hard up for cash, but life was still rich in many ways." Not only the short stories are set in the past: Out of Africa too recalls a vanished epoch:
The Colony is changing and has already changed since I lived there. When I write down as accurately as possible my experiences on the farm … it may have a sort of historical interest.
Writing of the death of Berkeley Cole, one of her close friends, she says, "When Berkeley died, the country changed…. Up till his death [it] had been the Happy Hunting Grounds, now it was slowly changing and turning into a business proposition." The book describes a society before the full effects of this change were felt. Inevitably, when the farm was sold, Karen Blixen's life in Kenya came to an end, and the Africans living on the farm were similarly uprooted when they were given six months' notice to get off the land. Seen from this point of view, the fact that the farm was parcelled out as building-plots, and that her house was turned into a club for the new residential quarter, acquires an almost symbolic meaning. The departure from the farm was the signal for the full establishment of the "business proposition" and the consequent disruption of the settled, determined, and ordered life of the past. The semi-feudal conditions of life on the farm meant that she had actually lived in the past and felt deeply attracted to it. It was natural, therefore, that Karen Blixen should return to the past in her fiction, although actually not with her mind "a long way off."
This is not to suggest, however, that, as a process of nostalgic wish-fulfilment, Karen Blixen simply transposed into her short stories the details of her own story in Africa. It is true that Out of Africa has some "sort of historical interest," but of equal importance is the way in which that historical interest is coloured by the personality of Karen Blixen herself. This is also true of the short stories. The paradox of the contrast between them and Out of Africa is not really so great, for despite the apparent elimination of the personality of the author by the technique adopted for the narration of the tales, despite the substitution of the figure of Isak Dinesen for the personality of Karen Blixen, the attitude to life and the personality behind them can be clearly traced, and it is that of the author of Out of Africa. In the stories an historical period is recorded; yet an imaginative world, based upon personal experience, is also created.
The ruling principles of this world are firmly held convictions which determine its every constituent element. Karen Blixen's short stories are the result of a completely disciplined and a completely conscious artistry. There is no chance or triviality in the world she creates; all irrelevant incident and detail is either eliminated or is later shown to be an integrated and connected strand woven into the total pattern and thus contributing its part to the completed design. There is no figure in the carpet; the figure is the carpet itself. The narrative pattern of the story and the life which is described and traced out by this pattern become one and the same thing. A world is created by her art, where it is possible for a character to play an accepted and ordained role, which is accepted by the character himself, is ordained by the demands of the story, and where the choice of the role is made both possible and necessary by the period in which the story is set. This conception of playing a role is fundamental both to Karen Blixen's art and to her attitude to life. The parallel which this offers with Karen Blixen's own life as the great landowner in Kenya does not need stressing. It was a role which she accepted for herself, and which the conditions in Kenya at that time made it possible to play and necessary to accept.
The world described in Out of Africa, set and rooted in the past, is intertwined with Karen Blixen's own; and this is also true of the stories. Nowhere do these aspects eventually become clearer than in the short story "Sorrow-Acre," included in Winter's Tales. This story represents in a small compass many of the major aspects of her work; it also marks what is probably Karen Blixen's greatest single achievement in fiction.
"Sorrow-Acre" is based on a folk-tale from the south of Jutland. The details of the folk-tale vary, but the most important version for our purpose is given in F. Ohrt's Udvalgte Sönderiydske Folkesagn (Selected Folk-Tales from South Jutland), published in 1919. This version runs as follows:
During a flood with high tidal waves, a good deal of flotsam drifted ashore near Ballum. Amongst it, a young man from the town recognised some pieces belonging to his family and started salvaging them. Whilst he was doing this, one of the robbers from Skaerbaek came and wanted some of it. They started fighting and the young lad unfortunately killed his opponent. At that time, however, these beachrobbers were so powerful that they had him condemned to death at the court-house. His mother, deeply distressed by this, went to the Count at his castle of Skakkenborg, told him of her grief, and implored him to show mercy towards her son. The Count promised her to do so on the condition that she must mow a field of barley between sunrise and sunset. This field was so large that four men would have had much labour to cut it in one day. If she could do it, her son would be set free. The mother accepted the task, and did finish it. When she had cut the last handful with her sickle, she said,
Now the sun will set Now God's mercy I will get
But at the very moment when she raised herself from her bent position, her back broke and she fell dead. The mother was buried in the churchyard at Ballum. On her grave, a stone has been laid on which she is drawn with a sheaf and sickle in her arm. The field where she cut the corn is still shown. To this day it is known as Sorrow-Acre.
The date of the events giving rise to the folk-tale can be determined with some accuracy, since the flood took place in 1634.
In March, 1931, the Danish writer Paul la Cour published a much longer version of the folk-tale in the periodical Tilskueren. The original version, as found in Ohrt's collection, was also included. Karen Blixen had already published some work in this periodical, which occupied a prominent place in Danish cultural life, but although this contribution to Tilskueren therefore was probably the actual source of "Sorrow-Acre," her short story, nevertheless, differs considerably from both la Cour's version and from the original folk-tale itself.
Paul la Cour follows the details of the original story very closely. But considering these bare details as "schematic and too condensed" he lengthens them very considerably, mainly by dwelling on the feelings of the mother, through whom much of the story is presented. The focus of the tale is consequently shifted, and the final result is an emotionally heightened elaboration in which the feelings receive as much emphasis as the events. Karen Blixen's short story, however, contrasts sharply with la Cour's since the stress falls on the narration of the actual events, while the details of the narrative, as found in the folk-tale, are extensively changed.
In "Sorrow-Acre," a young man on the estate of a Danish lord has been accused of setting fire to one of the barns. Anne-Marie, his widowed mother, intercedes for him, and, like the mother in the folk-tale, is told that if she can cut a field of corn between sunrise and sunset her son will be set free. But if she fails, the case against her son will go through and she will never see him again. To this agreement the lord pledges his word and Anne-Marie accepts the conditions. We learn of this in retrospect, since "Sorrow-Acre" begins with the thoughts and reminiscences of the lord's young nephew, Adam, newly returned from a long stay in England. It is through his eyes that much of the action is presented, and the conflicting ideas forming the centre of the story emerge from the conversations which take place between the two men when Adam entreats the lord to retract his word, thereby annulling the agreement. He refuses to do this, and the rest of the story follows the folk-tale, with the mother dying just as she has completed her task. The son is freed, and the field afterwards is named "Sorrow-Acre."
From this, some of the changes made will be apparent; two, in particular, are very significant. A completely new character, Adam, is introduced, and his importance in the story is stressed by the method of narration. The other major change from the folk-tale is that the date at which the events take place has been altered by well over a hundred years. This date is just as firmly given as it was in the folk-tale, though in a more indirect way. During the course of the story, Adam lends his uncle a book which has recently been published. Since it is described as a tragedy by Johannes Ewald dealing with the gods of Nordic mythology, it is clear that the work is Balders Död, first published in 1775. The introduction of a new main character and a shift in time from about 1634 to 1775—why are these changes made?
These two major alterations are connected and together they point to one of the major themes. The story is set in the period when the long-established, semi-feudal, landed society of the eighteenth century is beginning to face the challenge of new ideas. Moreover, the fact that Balders Död gives rise to the discussions is clearly intended by Karen Blixen, not only to give the period in which "Sorrow-Acre" is set, but also to cast further light upon the opposing attitudes. Ewald's drama centres on Balder, who in this work is a Nordic demi-god driven to his death by the irresistible force of his love for Nanna, a mortal woman; although a demi-god, he is powerless to control his emotions. The main significance of Balders Död for the old lord is that it marks the emergence of a new era, which "has made to itself a God in its own image, an emotional God" ["Sorrow-Acre"]. and is thus in complete opposition to his own ideal of omnipotence upon which he bases his conduct and which is represented for him by the ancient gods of classical mythology. The setting of the folktale has been deliberately transferred by Karen Blixen, so that now her short story stands near one of the great turning-points in Danish and European social and cultural history, and the figure of Adam is introduced to be the voice of the new age. The two ways of life confront each other in the impassioned appeal made by Adam:
"This woman is ready to die for her son,—will it ever happen to you or me that a woman willingly gives up her life for us? And if it did indeed come to pass, should we make so light of it as not to give up a dogma in return?"
"You are young," said the old Lord. "A new age will undoubtedly applaud you. I am oldfashioned, I have been quoting to you texts a thousand years old. We do not, perhaps, quite understand one another."
A ready sympathy is aroused by the views here expressed by Adam. But, perhaps, the sympathy is felt a little too readily and the identification with one character made too swiftly. For part of the greatness of "Sorrow-Acre" lies in the fact that the reader is gradually forced from this identification with one character to a clearer perception and imaginative understanding of the old lord's role, and everything which this represents. In particular, we are made to realize the full implications of what is merely "a dogma" or "a whim" for Adam. The conflicting issues in "Sorrow-Acre" are not simply presented in abstract terms in discussions; they take on a life of their own and are embodied by the complete story. They are strands which are woven into the completed pattern, and which must be related to the whole; indeed, we are compelled to relate them by the narrative method adopted, the deceptive simplicity of which really conceals much artistry.
The artistry by which we are made to look on the old lord's role with a maturing sympathy and a gradually quickened understanding needs to be stressed, since it can be so easily overlooked. The method of narration is actually used in order to weight the scales against the lord, since we see him mainly through the eyes of a highly critical Adam. It is a criticism which is presented with scrupulous honesty and to which full weight is given. And although Anne-Marie dies at the supreme moment of her love and glory, her sacrifice, which has been exacted by the conditions imposed by the lord, is not minimized in any way. On the contrary, it has been counted against him in the beautifully rendered description of Anne-Marie's death at the end:
At the sound of [her son's] voice she lifted her face to him, a faint, bland shadow of surprise ran over it, but still she gave no sign of having heard what he said, so that the people round them began to wonder if the exhaustion had turned her deaf. But after a moment she slowly and waveringly raised her hand, fumbling in the air as she aimed at his face, and with her fingers touched his cheek. The cheek was wet with tears, so that at the contact her finger-tips lightly stuck to it, and she seemed unable to overcome the infinitely slight resistance or to withdraw her hand. For a minute the two looked one another in the face. Then, softly and lingeringly, like a sheaf of corn that falls to the ground, she sank forward on to the boy's shoulder, and he closed his arms round her.
With all these factors apparently weighing so heavily against the old lord, how is the reader brought to an understanding of the part he plays and the ideals he represents?
The simplest answer to this question is to consider the way in which his character is conceived and presented by Karen Blixen. His attributes of firmness, stateliness, and nobility are clearly brought out by the manner and style with which his speech and his actions are presented. They compel the reader's admiration. But he is not really individualized in the story, not even given a name; he remains from first to last "the old lord." And this lack of individualization in terms of the story reflects his position in the particular period of history in which the story is set. Describing the life of the great country houses, the author remarks:
To the King and the country, to his family and to the individual Lord of the manor himself it was a matter of minor consequence which particular Rosenkrantz, Juel or Skeel, out of a long row of Fathers and Sons, at the moment in his person incarnated the fields and woods, the peasants, cattle and game of the estate.
The reader's understanding of the character of the old lord also extends to the part he has to play. His character in the story is his part in life; the two cannot be separated, for they are made one by the way in which he is presented. An understanding of the lord's character clarifies what he stands for; by her way of representing him, Karen Blixen has succeeded, against all modern predilections, and against all odds, in investing his duties with nobility, grandeur, and understanding. He is seen as the embodiment of the duties of the great land-owners of the past, both to their land and to the people living on it. This fact offers an indication of the part which the superb evocation of the Danish landscape at the beginning of the story contributes to the whole. The pen in Karen Blixen's hand is here used like a brush (as a young girl she attended courses in painting and art in Copenhagen and Paris), but the details painted in so deftly and delicately, stroke by stroke, are not merely there to provide local colour. Like the splendour of the description of the surroundings in Out of Africa which convey something of the same quality to the account of her life there, these details in "Sorrow-Acre" contribute to the total effect of the story. The description is of a landscape—but of a landscape with figures; rendered in terms of the people and society which inhabit it, it ceases to be merely this, and becomes a land where life falls into an ordered pattern, drawn by generations of people, traced by stability, marked by tradition and order, and maintained throughout the centuries by these same qualities:
A child of the country would read this open landscape like a book. The irregular mosaic of meadows and cornlands was a picture, in timid green and yellow, of the people's struggle for its daily bread,—the centuries had taught it to plough and sow in this way….
… But where, amongst cupular woods and groves, the lordly, pyramidal silhouette of the cut lime-avenues rose in the air, there a big country-house lav … as firmly rooted in the soil of Denmark as the peasants' huts.
In this description and rendering of a way of life, country-house and peasant hut, peasant and lord, are parts which together form the complete whole. The old lord's word—to Adam only a dogma and a whim—is the principle of this land upon which the maintenance and continuation of this whole order and way of life rests. "Sorrow-Acre" itself is but one field in the whole pattern drawn in the landscape. Much more is at stake for the old lord than Anne-Marie's individual fate and destiny, or even his own.
None of the characters are individualized, standing out in bold relief from the story; instead they are made to play their parts which are fitted into the design depicted at the beginning. Representation of the complete pattern of this life becomes the total design of the story—design in every sense—which is reaffirmed at the close, when, in the evening-light, the people left in the field after Anne-Marie's death bind up the corn she has cut, "imitating and measuring her course from one end of the rye-field to the other." The unity between the old lord and the people has been maintained; "the old Lord stayed with them for a long time, stepping along a little, and again standing still. As it grew darker he could walk up quite close to them or move amongst them, without being recognised."
The old order has been re-affirmed and maintained, the unity of this life has been continued—but for how long? Ultimately history itself breaks into this stable world, set in the past and enclosed by the story. Adam too has his destiny to fulfill. There is no heir to the land; the lord's son has died, and while Adam was in England, it was predicted to him that a son of his would inherit the estate. His relationship to the lord's young wife and its implications are not elaborated, but they also form part of the events and point symbolically to the future. The setting in the past, which causes the conflict between the two ways of life, also indicates the way in which the issue will be decided. And it is one which heightens the stature of the old lord into that of an indomitable figure defending a dying order.
One final point remains to be made about the old lord, for behind this figure can be discerned much of the attitude which shaped Karen Blixen's whole life and work. For him, "tragedy is the privilege of man, his highest privilege," whereas "the true art of the Gods is the comic." He develops this belief by saying, that here on earth, "we, who stand in lieu of the Gods … should leave to our vassals their monopoly of tragedy, and for ourselves accept the comic with grace," and he acts accordingly by leaving to Anne-Marie her monopoly of tragedy. But if she is made a tragic figure by the old lord's actions, he, in turn, is made into something rather different by the author. By implying that the old lord will be made a cuckold by his young wife and Adam, Karen Blixen has thus turned him into one of the most traditional figures of comedy; moreover, by doing so, she has implicitly endorsed the validity of his attitude and belief. In fact, she has revealed, simply through the narrative events of the story and the turn given to them, how closely she herself is to be identified with his ideas. The old lord remarks that "the very same fatality which, in striking the burgher or peasant will become tragedy, with the aristocrat is exalted to the comic. By the grace and wit of our acceptance hereof our aristocracy is known." If these beliefs govern his attitude and behaviour in "Sorrow-Acre," they also define, with equal force, the attitude and behaviour of Karen Blixen herself as revealed in Out of Africa.
Adam, however, remains unconvinced by his uncle's point of view, as indeed he must as a character in the story with an historical role. Nevertheless, there is a point, where suddenly, he seems to perceive the meaning of life, and to see a concord arising out of the conflict:
All that lived must suffer, the old man, whom he had judged hardly, had suffered, as he had watched his son die, and had dreaded the obliteration of his being,—he himself would come to know ache, tears and remorse, and, even through these, the fullness of life. So might now, to the woman in the rye-field, her ordeal be a triumphant procession. For to die for the one you loved was an effort too sweet for words…. As the song is one with the voice that sings it, as the road is one with the goal, as lovers are made one in their embrace, so is man one with his destiny, and he shall love it as himself.
The concept of destiny expressed here is a theme which echoes again and again in Karen Blixen's work, for it voices some of her most deeply felt convictions. In Out of Africa, a passage which has rightly been described as "quintessential Blixen," offers a close parallel to Adam's thoughts:
Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realize it. He does not strive towards a happiness, or comfort, which may be irrelevant to God's idea of him. His success is the idea of God, successfully carried through, and he is in love with his destiny. As the good citizen finds his happiness in the fulfilment of his duty to the community so does the proud man find his happiness in the fulfilment of his fate.
People who have no pride are not aware of any idea of God in the making of them, and sometimes they make you doubt that there has ever been much of an idea, or else it has been lost, and who shall find it again? They have got to accept as success what others warrant to be so, and to take their happiness, and even their own selves, at the quotation of the day. They tremble, with reason, before their fate.
[Out of Africa]
This passage illustrates very clearly the attitude and beliefs which have created the figures in "Sorrow-Acre," and accounts for the way in which they are conceived and presented. Their role is their destiny successfully carried though and they become at one with it. Adam sees the actions of the people in "Sorrow-Acre" as an illustration of the general destiny of human life. Because the story is set in a particular period, the conflicts, reflected in it, cannot be reconciled in those particular historical terms. Nevertheless, they are brought into concord; not, however, in terms of the past, but in those of Karen Blixen's own attitude to life. The old lord, Anne-Marie, Adam, all fulfil their destiny, and just as these characters are not individuals, but part of a total whole, so too are the events in the field, "Sorrow-Acre." "All that lived must suffer" …; man is "one with his destiny." The story illustrates the general law of human existence for Karen Blixen, and one which is independent of a particular time and a localized place. As in other stories, she establishes, the world of this story in an age and society of the past, but uses it to illustrate the law of her own world. "Sorrow-Acre" is only one short story and one small field; it is, however, large enough to stretch out to a farm in Africa and to span the world of Karen Blixen's fiction.
To realize fully how much of this world it does span, one must go back at least a decade further than Out of Africa to a short play, Sandhedens Hævn (Revenge of Truth), first published in Tilskueren in May, 1926, but probably written many years before. In a letter to me, Karen Blixen once said, "I wrote it when I was a young girl, my sisters and brothers and myself acted it here at Rungstedlund."
The play is short, it was written in Danish, and it has not been translated into English. It is subtitled "A Marionette Comedy," but this description can be misleading. As Karen Blixen's letter indicated, it was originally performed by her brothers and sisters and herself. The play, therefore, was not written for puppets acting as human beings; it is, rather, the human beings in it who act as puppets. They are turned into marionettes by the plot, which tells how a witch casts a spell over the characters staying at an inn so that any lie they tell eventually becomes the truth, and they are unable to prevent this from happening. Thus the subtitle, "A Marionette Comedy," does not so much describe the type of play as indicate its major theme. Undoubtedly, here in this early play can be seen the genesis of much of her later work.
Sandhedens Hoevn itself is brought quite explicitly into a short story, "The Roads round Pisa," included in Seven Gothic Tales. In that story, the main figures, like those in the play, are brought together at an inn, and during the evening some of them watch the performance of a marionette comedy. This play is actually Karen Blixen's own earlier work:
The play which was being acted was the immortal Revenge of Truth, that most charming of marionette comedies. Every body will remember how the plot is created by a witch pronouncing, upon the house wherein all the characters are collected, a curse to the effect that any lie told within it will become true…. At the end the witch appears again, and on being asked what is really the truth, answers: "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, and now that I have at last come into a marionette play, I will never go out of it again. But you, my fellow actors, keep the ideas of the author clear. Aye, drive them to their utmost consequences."
[Seven Gothic Tales]
If the three passages, Adam's thoughts in "Sorrow-Acre," Karen Blixen's own attitude as expressed in Out of Africa, and this last extract, where two works overlap into one, are compared, some striking parallels immediately become apparent. Man is "one with his destiny—and he shall love it as himself…. "—"His success is the idea of God, successfully carried through, and he is in love with his destiny"—"keep the ideas of the author clear. Aye, drive them to their utmost consequences." Obviously, these are much more than verbal echoes. What we witness here, in fact, is the intersection for Karen Blixen of her life and her art, the point where her attitude to life becomes her attitude to her art, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen merge into one figure, and life and literature meet and become one single entity.
"The truth," says the witch in Sanhedens Hoevn, "is that we are, all of us, acting in a marionette comedy." And this is true, not only for that particular play, but also for Karen Blixen's work in general—with one essential qualification. The choice for her figures is not whether they should be in a marionette comedy; they are already in it, by being figures in the stories. The choice lies in whether they should act in it or not. The persons in Karen Blixen's stories can be divided into two main categories. There are, first, those who choose a role and play it so successfully that they become their role. We have already seen this process in "Sorrow-Acre," and similar figures can be found in many other stories. In several tales, the parts which they succeed in playing are even suggested by the titles—"The Invincible Slave-Owners," "The Old Chevalier," "The Heroine." The persons in this category are those who have "faith in the idea that God had, when he made us," and having faith, they "keep the ideas of the author clear." Secondly, there are those who are unable to play a role, who "are not aware of any idea of God in the making of them," persons such as "The Dreamers," who do nothing to choose their own ways, or like Count Augustus von Schimmelmann in "The Poet," who has "to accept his happiness according to the quotation of the day."
Even from this brief summary, several implications will be clear. The two main categories, to which Karen Blixen's characters conform, are those set out in the two paragraphs on pride in Out of Africa. If these paragraphs are "quintessential Blixen," they also establish the central tenets of Isak Dinesen. They not only record an attitude to life, they are also the expression of an artistic creed.
Behind Karen Blixen's attitude is the firm belief that there is a purpose in life, that we have been created with a particular design in mind. Our function in life is to realize what this design is, and to carry it through. It is also possible, however, to refuse this role, by being unaware of the idea underlying our creation, in which case we lose any sense of purpose in life. This is precisely the choice with which the persons in her stories are confronted; we have already noted how the figures in "Sorrow-Acre" accept their roles and play them to a conclusion. The persons in her stories are not individualized; they are stylized to a type and simplified to a basic idea—their role. They are personifications of the ideas of the author, and their purpose is to trace out her design.
This conception of fulfiling one's destiny by playing an allotted role, however, is not one of passive resignation. Although there is little choice of the type of part, nevertheless, the true choice for Karen Blixen, both in her own life, and for the figures in her stories, is always one between active acceptance and passive refusal. Both persons in real life, and the figures in the stories, may be marionettes—but it is also possible for marionettes to get the strings entangled. Her stories are concerned with the attempt to unravel them.
Possibly, by thus analyzing Karen Blixen's attitude and beliefs, one has also reached the position from which the true perspective of the setting in the past can be seen. The world of her short stories is both the reflection of a particular historical period, and, at the same time, a mirror in which can be discerned her attitude to life. And this is true even for "Sorrow-Acre," possibly the short story where the historical setting figures most prominently. As important as the historical past, in which the stories take place, are the past years of Karen Blixen's own life spent in Africa.
Finally, there is a rather curious analogy with Karen Blixen's attitude to life, particularly towards her life in Africa, which may also help to define her beliefs more clearly; the analogy is with that of W. B. Yeats in some of his poetry. If she had her farm in Africa, Yeats also stayed often at Coole Park, and for both of them, these places represented much more than simply large landed estates. Yeats's feeling that here "Life overflows without ambitious pains; / And rains down life until the basin spills" ["Meditations in Time of Civil War—Ancestral Houses," in Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1950] is also a constant theme in the account of Karen Blixen's life in Africa, and it is one which gives the book some of its characteristic tone. Even the fate of both estates was the same; Coole Park was also sold. "All that great glory spent" ["Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931," Collected Poems]; Yeats's remark could easily afford an epigraph to Out of Africa. There is also an analogy between Karen Blixen's idea of choosing a role and Yeats's theory of the "Mask," even though in his work, of course, the theory is much more complex. Moreover, if Yeats, as a poet, felt himself to be one of the last Romantics, in a poetic tradition going back many thousands of years:
We were the last romantics—chose for theme Traditional sanctity and loveliness; Whatever's written in what poets name The book of the people; whatever most can bless The mind of man or elevate a rhyme; But all is changed, that high horse riderless, Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood. ["Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931"]
Karen Blixen was equally conscious, as a story-teller, of belonging to an age-old tradition, of possibly being one of the last representatives of it. On a record, which she made in Denmark, she prefaced telling some of her stories by saying:
I belong to an ancient, idle, wild and useless tribe, perhaps I am even one of the last members of it, who, for many thousands of years, in all countries and parts of the world, has, now and again, stayed for a time among the hardworking, honest people in real life, and sometimes has thus been fortunate enough to create another sort of reality for them, which, in some way or another, has satisfied them. I am a storyteller.
["Karen Blixer Fortaeller …," Louisiana Grammofonplader]
If the passage on pride in Out of Africa was the key-stone of Karen Blixen's life and work, Yeats's own "pride like that of the morn" ["The Tower," Collected Poems] is part of the foundations upon which "The Tower" is established. And what better summary of Karen Blixen's work is there, than Yeats's own epitaph?
Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by!
It is obvious that Karen Blixen's short stories, based on these beliefs, will never gain an easy popularity—nor do they court it. They are the expression of an attitude and controlled by certain convictions, which are, perhaps, hard and uncomforting; indeed, they reflect a world where happiness, ease, and comfort are simply irrelevant considerations. No one reading Out of Africa can doubt that these beliefs were reached at the cost of much personal suffering and endurance. Formed and confirmed by hard and bitter experience, they were tenaciously and uncompromisingly carried through until the end both in life and in fiction. But the result is an achievement which wins our respect—and deserves our admiration.
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Aiken, Susan Hardy. "The Uses of Duplicity: Isak Dinesen and Questions of Feminist Criticism." Scandinavian Studies 57, No. 4 (Autumn 1985): 400-11.
Examines the short story "The Cardinal's First Tale" from a feminist perspective and addresses the issue of women's selfhood within patriarchal culture.
――――――. "Writing (in) Exile: Isak Dinesen and the Poetics of Displacement." In Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, pp. 113-31. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Discusses the role of "woman as artist and exile" in the short story "The Dreamers."
Arendt, Hannah. "Isak Dinesen: 1885–1963." In her Men in Dark Times. pp. 95-109. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.
Discusses Dinesen's development as a writer. The essay, originally published in The New Yorker in 1968, is a review of Parmenia Migel's Titania: A Biography of Isak Dinesen (1967).
Bjørnvig, Thorkild. "Who Am I? The Story of Isak Dinesen's Identity." Scandinavian Studies 57, No. 4 (Autumn 1985): 363-78.
Explores the theme of identity and its relation to the depiction of animals in a number of Dinesen's works.
Bogan, Louise. "Isak Dinesen." In her A Poet's Alphabet, pp. 104-06. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
Brief overview of Dinesen's main themes in Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa, and Winter's Tales. The essay was originally published in The New Yorker in 1943.
Cate, Curtis. "Isak Dinesen." Atlantic Monthly 204, No. 6 (December 1959): 151-55.
Overview of Dinesen's life and literary career which focuses on her work in the short story form.
Davenport, John. "A Noble Pride: The Art of Karen Blixen." The Twentieth Century CLIX, No. 949 (March 1956): 264-74.
Surveys Dinesen's life and works and examines the autobiographical aspects of her writing.
Green, Howard. "Isak Dinesen." The Hudson Review XVII, No. 4 (Winter 1964–1965): 517-30.
Survey essay on Dinesen's main thematic concerns.
Høyrup, Helene. "The Arabesque of Existence: Existential Focus and Aesthetic Form in Isak Dinesen's 'The Roads Round Pisa.'" Scandinavica 24, No. 2 (November 1985): 197-210.
Examines "The Roads Round Pisa," from Seven Gothic Tales, as a philosophical work that reveals Dinesen's "urgent need to interpret existence from the viewpoint of the individual."
Langbaum, Robert. The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen's Art. London: Chatto & Windus, 1964, 305 p.
Focuses on Dinesen's development as a writer, the tragicomic elements in her work, the theme of identity in Seven Gothic Tales, the autobiographical and mythic elements of Out of Africa, and examines the themes and literary styles in Winter's Tales, Last Tales, Anecdotes of Destiny, and Ehrengard.
Lee, Judith. "The Mask of Form in Out of Africa." Prose Studies 8, No. 2 (September 1985): 45-59.
Investigates the extent to which Out of Africa can be considered a "hybrid text," both autobiography and fiction.
Lydenberg, Robin. "Against the Law of Gravity: Female Adolescence in Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales." Modern Fiction Studies 24, No. 4 (Winter 1978–1979): 521-32.
Discusses the ways in which Dinesen's writings celebrate the "freedom and potentiality" in adolescent girls and the "surprising affinity [they share with] the spirited old crones who often dominate her stories."
Mishler, William. "Parents and Children, Brothers and Sisters in Isak Dinesen's 'The Monkey.'" Scandinavian Studies 54, No. 4 (Autumn 1985): 412-51.
Asserts that the short story "The Monkey" is a profound and enigmatic allegory on sexual identity.
Schow, H. Wayne. "Out of Africa, The White Album, and the Possibility of Tragic Affirmation." English Studies 67, No. 1 (February 1986): 35-50.
Comparative analysis of Dinesen's Out of Africa and Joan Didion's collection of essays, The White Album (1979).
Stambaugh, Sara. "Imagery of Entrapment in the Fiction of Isak Dinesen." Scandinavica 22, No. 2 (November 1983): 171-93.
Examines Dinesen's interest in the way nineteenth-century women were required to "mask" their individuality by using socially accepted manners of dress and standards of behavior.
Van Doren, Mark. "The Eighth Gothic Tale." The Nation, New York, 146, No. 11 (12 March 1938): 306.
Favorable assessment of Out of Africa.
――――――. "They Do as They Like." The Nation, New York, 138, No. 3589 (18 April, 1939): 449.
Favorable review of Seven Gothic Tales.
Walter, Eugene. "Isak Dinesen." Paris Review 4, No. 14 (Autumn 1956): 43-60
Discusses Dinesen's life and career in light of her works.
Wescott, Glenway. "Isak Dinesen, the Storyteller." In his Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism, pp. 149-63. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1963.
Examines Dinesen's storytelling ability in Out of Africa and Last Tales.
Whissen, Thomas. "The Magic Circle: The Role of the Prostitute in Isak Dinesen's Gothic Tales." In The Image of the Prostitute in Modern Literature, edited by Pierre L. Horn and Mary Beth Pringle, pp. 43-51. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984.
Examines the role of the prostitute in "The Old Chevalier" and "The Monkey," suggesting that "there is more of the geisha than the streetwalker in Dinesen's image of the prostitute…. In her obedience to the laws of myth, to the spontaneous appropriateness of her behavior, she comes … to symbolize woman at ease with her own mystery and strangely empowered by it."
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SOURCE: "Isak Dinesen: An Appreciation," in The Southern Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, March, 1966, pp. 297-314.
[Lewis is a novelist, poet, editor, educator, and librettist. In the following essay, she discusses Out of Africa and the short stories in Seven Gothic Tales, Winter's Tales, and Last Tales, noting the thematic and stylistic differences between Dinesen's fiction and nonfiction.]
When you have read Out of Africa you will have learned a great deal about Isak Dinesen. There remains a certain amount of mystery, however. She centers her attention on the African aspects of the farm. Even the account of that down-at-the-heels, fugitive actor Emmanuelson, which seems at first to be an episode concerning the Baroness and her European guest, turns out to be primarily a comment on the Masai, those natives who were at once both aristocrat and proletarian, and therefore capable of recognizing and sympathizing with tragedy. But, although the Natives and the African world appear under special scrutiny, and it is upon these that the intensity and the illumination of her nostalgia falls, the picture of a young Danish woman of noble birth becomes increasingly complete with every page. She seems to be alone, save for an occasional visitor, and one wonders how this came to be.
Her maiden name was Karen Christence Dinesen; she is sometimes called, and sometimes has signed herself Tanya. She was born in Denmark, April 17, 1885, and in 1914 she married the Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, her second cousin, who was also a cousin of the King of Denmark. Before that she had studied to be a painter, in Paris and in Rome. She wrote a little comedy for marionettes—just when, I don't know. It was not published, I think, until 1960, and then only in Danish. From the world of Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, she went with her husband to British East Africa, which later became the Kenya Colony; there her family had bought for her a coffee plantation. In 1921, after a divorce from the Baron, she took over the management of the plantation. In 1931, the year of the Depression, she was forced to sell the farm because of financial losses, and she returned to Denmark, to her family home of Rungstedlund, where she died at the age of seventy-seven, September 7, 1962. Her father, "an officer in the Danish and French army," was also once for three years a trapper in Minnesota; the Indians there gave him the name of Boganis, which he used as a pseudonym to sign his book about these adventures. This was in 1872. His Indians were the Pawnee and the Chippewa.
Out of Africa, Mr. Wescott says in his Images of Truth, is her only "truthful" book, that is to say, the only book of hers which is not fiction. To this must be added the volume called Shadows on the Grass (English edition, 1960), which consists of four stories or sketches which become marvellous footnotes to the first work. It is hardly just to call them footnotes. They are properly a part of Out of Africa, and the reader who comes to them without knowing Out of Africa will lose a great part of their value and poignancy. This book is illustrated not only by photographs of Isak Dinesen, but by line drawings and paintings from her hand of a number of her people at the farm. Her training in Rome and Paris was not wasted.
We learn in Out of Africa that she began to write on the farm to lessen the loneliness. What she wrote on the sheets which Farah thought could never be brought together into anything solid, like a real book with blue covers, was published in 1934 as Seven Gothic Tales. In these she returns to Europe, to a world of infinite conversation. The scene is almost purely European, except for the framework, or setting, for the story told in "The Dreamers." Here the setting is aboard an Arab dhow as it approaches Mombasa. It carries a wandering Englishman and a Mohammedan storyteller. Yet even here the story which is told is of Europe, and the teller is the Englishman. In all these tales, it seems to me, there are many things, many ways of thinking, which she learned at the farm. If she observed Africa with the eyes of a European, she also remembered Europe with a wisdom not unrelated to the wisdom of the Kikuyu, and it becomes a fascination to trace the interweaving of thought between these two books.
Out of Africa was written in Denmark. She spent seventeen years in Africa. The book is written at a great distance in time and space from its scene and its events. It has been filtered through memory, and suffused with longing. "'Tis more than love that looketh on / What it no longer hath." I am quoting from a poem by Elizabeth Daryush. The book partakes therefore of the quality of fiction, not because it is untrue, but because it is the result of the creative method of which Henry James spoke, to distinguish it from the method of the reporter. Details which have been filtered through the memory have more truth in them than facts in general because they carry an emotional content; because they are the essential things to be remembered.
When I again read Out of Africa after a very long time this was what struck me more sharply than before, this immense nostalgia for what was gone, and the awareness of change. For the change had begun around and about Nairobi even before Karen Blixen left the farm. In "The Dreamers," which is one of the Seven Gothic Tales, Mira, the Arabian story-teller, says, "I have been trying for a long time to understand God. Now I have made friends with him. To love him truly you must love change, and you must love a joke, these being the true inclinations of his own heart." Change was not easy to love when what was being changed was the park of Africa, the forest within view of her house into the suburbs of Nairobi.
In the autumn of 1963 I was talking with an Englishman, a man in his eighties, who had come out to Canada many years before, and had been living for a long time in British Columbia. He had a brother in Africa—this is the story of the British Empire, this dissemination of families. He said that his brother had experienced no trouble with the Natives so far; he lived in Kenya, and there he was on good terms with the Natives. His brother had, in fact, a coffee plantation about twelve miles out of Nairobi. He had bought it from a Baroness, about 1931. My friend had not heard of Baroness Blixen, but his brother surely must have known whose acres he bought, for in 1951, when Bernardine Kielty visited the farm, although it had become in part a suburb of Nairobi, it was called Karen Estates, and Karen House was the center of it. It is pleasant to think that in 1963, at least, the descendants of Isak Dinesen's friends, the Kikuyu, were friends with the new occupants of the farm.
When Dinesen says, in the person of the Arabian, Mira, "to love God you must love a joke," I seem to hear the laughter of the Kikuyu of which she tells us in Out of Africa, their "shrill delight in things going wrong." They expected not the reasonable of God, or of Fate, but the impossible, the imaginative, the unexpected. They expected Him to act in a large way, and without regard for their personal convenience. She relates this feeling of the Kikuyu to the latter part of the Book of Job. I don't know whether her deep understanding and empathy—if we hesitate to call it sympathy—with the Kikuyu was a natural thing to her, and a part of her own disposition and training, but I have a feeling that she learned some of this fortitude and gallantry from the Natives of Africa. Perhaps also some of it from the thinking of the Arabs, which had filtered into the tribal thought of many Africans. The old Kikuyu women who had walked many miles to her house for a gift of tobacco on a day when she had no tombacco for them, laughed uncontrollably at the joke on themselves, and for a long time after, when they met her, they said, "Do you remember, no tombacco, Msabu? Ha, ha."
When the bad days came on the farm, and Kinanjui was dead, and her great friend Denys Finch-Hatton was dead, with the lions pacing or lying above his grave, and she had come to the end of her courage, she asked for a sign from the Powers of the universe. Then came that battle between the white cock and the chameleon, when the cock snatched the tongue from the mouth of the chameleon, leaving it more than disarmed—leaving it doomed, unable to catch the insects which were its food. She was frightened, this woman who had faced lions. Farah brought her tea at the stone table before the house.
"I looked down on the stone and dared not look up, such a dangerous place did the world seem to me. Very slowly only, in the course of the next few days, it came upon me that I had had the most spiritual answer possible to my call…. The powers to which I cried had stood on my dignity more than I had done myself, and what other answer could they then give? This was clearly not the hour for coddling, and they had chosen to connive at my invocation of it. Great powers had laughed to me, with an echo from the hills to follow the laughter, they said among the trumpets, among the cocks and chameleons, Ha, ha."
Whether learned from the Natives of Africa or the peasants and pastors of Denmark, courage can do no more than this. Whoever said that the universe was a safe place for Man? Jehovah did indeed make some promises to some special people, and Kamante, after he became a Christian, put a little faith in them—not too much. He talked a good deal about setting his heel upon the serpent's head; when the serpent appeared it seemed better to call for help and have it shot. After all, as he remarked, it was on the roof, an inconvenient spot in which to set his heel.
Though Out of Africa was written in Denmark the Seven Gothic Tales, her first book, was for the most part written in Africa. In these she dreamed of Europe, and to Dinesen in Denmark the memory of writing the Seven Tales must of necessity have been a part of her experience on the farm. When in Out of Africa she wrote of Farah's women and their wonderful clothing—ten yards of material to a single dress—and when she quoted Baudelaire (I think it is Baudelaire) on how their bodies moved under all that drapery, was she not remembering The Old Chevalier, and his comments on the dress of women in her own story of that name? When she wrote the words of the Old Chevalier, was she not writing with Farah's women under her eyes?
Neither the Tales nor Out of Africa could be what they are, unless their author had seen each world through the eyes of the other. And probably it would be true to say that you could not have a full appreciation of Dinesen without reading at least the Seven Gothic Tales as well as Out of Africa. But Out of Africa remains for me, and for most of us, her best book. This is not merely, I think, because we like to know that it is "true"—and she vouches elsewhere for its complete factual truth—and because it is personal, but because it is simpler, closer to the bare bone of what she wanted most to say. It is about the things that mattered most to her, the problems projected upon the people and things nearest to her, nearest in every way. God knows it is not a simple book in the sense of being simpleminded. It is more simple in structure, more economical in thought and language than any of the Tales. There is less of that elaborateness with which she amused herself in the lonely evenings on the farm. It is almost completely objective.
Linguistically she disproves Jespersen's theory that truly bilingual people never become great writers in either language. She grew up learning French and English, by preceptors, as well as her mother tongue of Danish. I mean that she was tutored in these languages, while, presumably, she drank in Danish with her mother's milk. But I can detect practically nothing of the foreigner in her use of English, and she surely is a master stylist. She does ungrammatically misuse lay for laid, and so do many English speaking persons. And she does invent words, which have an odd and delightful sound, as for instance, instead of salvaged she invents salved, with slightly medicinal overtones. Almost all her work exists in both English and Danish. Some of it, I think, was translated into Danish by her secretary, Clara Svendsen. I cannot imagine that anyone but Dinesen herself translated any of it into English. Very likely the scholarship of Mr. Robert Langbaum (The Gayety of Vision, Random House, 1965), can identify which work was written first in which language. Certainly none of it which I have read in English bears the stamp of being a translation. This alone is an extraordinary achievement.
The style is that of the storyteller. The voice is quiet. The rhythm is the long easy one of an unhurried narrative, spoken aloud. It almost has the long easy lope of a runner across a great plain. It never, that I can remember, becomes breathless. What she tells us of the beginning of her stories, how she told them to Denys Finch-Hatton, herself seated cross-legged on the floor like Scheherazade, makes this observation easy to arrive at; but I think one would come to that observation anyway without difficulty. You have only to read a page of it aloud, and you might begin with page 43 in the Modern Library Edition of Out of Africa, where in three paragraphs she gives us a poem about the rain, except that it is in prose, true prose, and not in verse, either scannable or so-called free.
The structure of this book at first seems casual and accidental—just sketches, strung together as her fancy pleased. On a second look we see that it is really not so. The fact that we can pick from it, like plums from a pudding, at almost any page, an anecdote, an epigram, a fine phrase, tempts one to think that it is loosely put together. The progress of the book, which is roughly that of a progress through time, intensifies the nostalgia, the affection which Dinesen felt for the farm. She looks more and more closely at what she will come to lose, at what she has lost. The book ends as a tragedy, almost a five act tragedy, but it is also triumphant. She sums up this strange feeling of triumph in a short bit in the chapter she calls "From an Immigrant's Notebook." The short bit is called: "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me," and it is to the house that she is speaking, to begin with. But she says this too, of the things and people on the farm, remembering a year of drought: "You also were there. You also were part of the Ngong Farm. That bad time blessed us and went away." And in the end she says, "My life, I will not let you go except you bless me, but then I will let you go."
Upon consideration one says, this is a very sad book surely; and yet its sadness is equalled only by its joy. For Dinesen as for Colette, sorrow, pain, joy, were all great treasures of experience, all to be valued, perhaps equally. Colette said, during her last illness, when the pain from arthritis was constant, "Par chance, j'ai douleur." Fortunately, I suffer. As if she said, "I still feel; therefore I still live."
Dinesen is like Colette in this appreciation of the experience of being alive, unlike her in her great concern with the metaphysical, and unlike her in the long narrative rhythm, which makes every episode into a recounting, a story told, not an action presented en scène; on stage. If you wish an example in contrast of the extraordinary ability of Colette to present her subject en scène, you might consider the opening of almost any chapter in The Other One (La Seconde) by Colette, scenes which usually begin with a voice, the speaker unnamed, for the moment, so that you mentally prick up your ears, turn your head and listen, being there in person as audience. Or remember the first words in the first story in My Mother's House (La Maison de Claudine)—"Where are the children?" Or think of the child in the garden at nightfall seeing through the window in the safe circle of the lamplight, a hand, her mother's hand, moving back and forth, the middle finger capped with a silver thimble. The immediacy is poignant. In Dinesen, we hear the voice of the narrator, and the remoteness of the subject is poignant.
When Seven Gothic Tales was first published in this country the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen was a great mystery, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, writing the introduction to this book, apparently did not know whether the author was a man or a woman. Mrs. Fisher was almost equally mystified by the stories, in their quality of being unclassifiable. Her praise was rapturous, although she endeavored to speak like a Vermonter in her last sentence, when she said: "It will be worth your while to read them." The English edition of Out of Africa appeared under the signature of Karen Blixen, and from then on the pseudonym remained as a kind of décor, which did not attempt to conceal anything. However, she remained for a long time a mystery in this country, and when she did appear in person, in 1959, finally, she caused a good bit of a sensation. She was much photographed for the news magazines, and her fragile, elegant, heavily wrinkled face with the great luminous eyes reminded the reviewers and interviewers of spells and enchantments. One article about her began with a quotation from her story, "The Old Chevalier."
"I myself," said the Old Chevalier, "do not think I could really love a woman who had not, at some time or another, been up on a broomstick." In her last years she lived almost exclusively on raw oysters and champagne, and she was so frail that she did not move about without the supporting arm of an escort. And if, Mr. Wescott reported, that arm failed her for any reason, she simply sank to the floor. But she was no great weight to lift again.
She came to this country to raise funds for the future of Rungstedlund, which she planned to leave to the state as a bird sanctuary, and also as a sanctuary for certain literary memories beyond her own life, because the Danish poet Ewald had once lived there, before her time. "I hear his steps," she said, "as he wanders from room to room."
Her visit to this country was not a lecture tour but a tour of storytelling, and she did not range very far from New York, no farther than to Washington and to Cambridge, I believe. Mr. Wescott accompanied her a part of the time, and he reported that the story which she told most often was that of the King's letter. It is the second story in Shadows on the Grass, and it is called "Barua a Soldani." It takes about forty-five minutes to read aloud. The first time he heard her tell it he had the impression that she was inventing word by word as she spoke. After that, since she told it in almost exactly the same words each time, he realized that she had memorized it. Perhaps in the writing it had memorized itself for her, or perhaps she had told it many times before she wrote it down, thus putting a high finish on it in the time-honored manner of true folk tale tellers. It is a fine story, and I will not spoil it by trying to retell it in a reduced form.
The first story in Shadows is the story of Farah, her Somali servant, who was with her for almost eighteen years, walking, she says, five feet behind her, a vigilant shadow; or, on a safari, handing her a gun, or, on the farm, managing her household and her finances. Leaving him, when she left the farm for Denmark, was like losing her right hand.
In this account of Farah she has a good deal to say about the time-honored relationship between servant and master. This theme of the felicitous relationship between servant and master runs through all her work. It is an essentially feudal point of view; it belongs to a time gone past. I cannot think of this point of view in Dinesen as condescending or—crime of crimes, as undemocratic—because of her profound appreciation of what the master owes the servant, that is, for all that for which the master is truly indebted to the servant. The servant takes pride in the relationship equally with the master. This attitude of hers is part of an aristocratic turn of mind. It is this quality of mind that must have suggested to her that a letter from the King might have a curative power. It is moreover a part of her metaphysics of the universe, a metaphysic of relationships, in which opposites are paired, and become one.
In what she has to report of Africa, it is natural to find this master-servant relationship in existence continually. She was the lady of the manor, the healer, the director, the European. Her devotion to her servants is always accompanied by her realization of the beauty and strangeness they brought into her life. Indeed, she speaks of this at length at the very beginning of her story of the farm. In the Tales—[Seven Gothic Tales or Last Tales]—when she is writing of an invented world, a world of fantasy in the highest form, the theme underlies some of her strongest and finest stories—"Sorrow Acre" is a most notable example—and almost all these stories are removed from us, backward in time by a generation or so, if not father. In Africa she found herself moved backward in time in her actual living. She might not find in Africa today that paradisiacal relationship. In the United States she would find it but rarely; but one can hardly consider the history of Europe (the literary history) without brushing against it in one form or another. Don Giovanni and Leporello, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are the literary descendants of Arthur and his Knights, Charlemagne and his Peers.
One should not let oneself be put off by a remark which Dinesen is quoted as having made during a conversation: "If I were rich I think that slaves would be the great thing to have." She also said, at the same time, "I do believe in democracy, although I think it has been misused." She understands quite well that the age of the slave owners is past—she would not have it any other way—and she writes of it as a part of the past.
Another major theme of Dinesen's which fascinates her almost as much as the feudal lord and servant theme, is that of the disguise, the assumed role, the form-changing, and, what is in itself a form of the assumed role, the power of vicarious experience. This theme turns up constantly in the Tales, more than in the "true" stories, and it assumes most devious and changing aspects, as indeed one might expect it to do. "Sorrow Acre" is a combination of these two major preoccupations of her imagination. I don't know whether it is absolutely the finest of her Tales, but it is probably the most haunting, and certainly as characteristic a piece of work as one could find. It is from Winter's Tales.
She begins this story with a description of the earth of Denmark; she gives us immediately the theme of the peasant and the feudal lord, and she presents this relationship as giving strength to the country, the people, the very earth. The land, the church, the big house, the people appear in this order. She says: "A human race had lived on this land for a thousand years, had been formed by its soil and its weather, and had marked it with its thoughts, so that now no one could tell where the existence of the one ceased and the other began."
We are well prepared, by the time the young man Adam appears, for his feeling about the land which he had almost inherited, and for the grief of the old Lord, who had no living issue to inherit that land. The cousin of Adam, the son of the old Lord, had died before reaching manhood. The old Lord has married the destined bride of his son.
We have in the understanding of Adam, who has been abroad, in England, an answer to all the protests that will arise in the mind of a non-feudal reader; that is to say, it is Adam who will realize and resent the seeming blasphemy of the old Lord before he will succumb to his own feeling for the land, and agree with the ultimate action of the old Lord. That action is one of vicarious experience. The son of one of the peasants of the old Lord, an old woman called Anne-Marie, has been accused of arson. The Lord has it in his power to forgive the boy or to send him away to rot in prison, and he has promised Anne-Marie that he will spare her son if she will harvest all alone in the space of one day an acre of rye. He is quite aware that this is one day's work for three men, and he is aware that the labor will certainly kill the old woman. He gives her this great chance to die for her son, which is the great chance that his own life denied him.
She completes her harvest just as the sun dips below the horizon. She is assured by the old Lord that she has saved her son, and she dies. The old Lord, like a kind of spiritual vampire, absorbs into his own spirit the joy of her sacrifice and triumph. I doubt if Dinesen would care to have me use the phrase, spiritual vampire. I think she means to say that even at the cost of being cruel the old Lord has been magnificently kind.
Meanwhile Adam, who is not idly called by this name, remembers the song which the young bride of his uncle has been singing—essentially a love song, and of sexual love. "Mourir pour ce qu'on aime, c'est un trop doux effort." It is too sweet a struggle, to die for what (or whom) one loves. And he thinks: "the ways of life … are as a twined and tangled design … it was not given to him or any mortal to command or control it. Life and death, happiness and woe, the past and the present, were interlaced within that pattern." Then there comes to him a moment in which he feels that he perceives the unity of things. "As the song is one with the voice that sings it, as the road is one with the goal, as lovers are one in their embrace, so is man one with his destiny, and he shall love it as himself."
He terminates with this his quarrel with his uncle the old Lord. He does not depart for America in anger and disillusion, as he had intended. He accepts the old woman's death for what the old Lord meant it, a moment of triumph and sweetness for her, and he accepts his destiny, which is to marry the young bride after the death of his uncle, to remain and carry on the tradition of his land.
Now I read this story without the shock of protest that I first felt, but I hold it at a certain distance from me. I think I understand and credit Dinesen's intention; but I also still feel that no human being is justified in making such a tremendous decision over the life of another, in playing God, in directing destiny. The action of the old Lord, although indicative of the depth of his personal loss, is tyrannical; his assumption of power, to me, blasphemous. None of this invalidates the story as a work of art. We are not required to approve of the conduct of King Lear. We remain quite free to disapprove of the action of the old Lord.
There is in Adam's vision of unity, especially the unity of lovers, a theme that carries us back to Out of Africa. In the Modern Library edition, on page 230, she tells of finding, in company with Denys Finch-Hatton, the carcass of a giraffe on which a lioness was feasting. Denys killed the lioness, and a little later, on that same day before dawn he handed his gun to Karen Blixen so that she might kill the lion which had succeeded the lioness at the feast. She says:
"I was never keen to shoot with his rifle, which was too long and heavy for me … still here the shot was a declaration of love." And this declaration was by no means a declaration from Denys to Karen Blixen. It was the declaration of the hunter to the quarry. The entire passage, with the description of the magnificence of the lion makes this quite clear. She concludes, "should not the rifle then be of the biggest calibre?"
This sort of thinking may have come to her from the Far East.
The idea of the efficacy of the vicarious experience occurs notably in the story of "Alkmene". In this tale Alkmene, a child of unknown and mysterious origin, brought up by good, sober foster parents in the country, a child of gay, imaginative, and alien temperament, destroys her true self in order to become what she believes her foster parents wish her to be. To this end she requests her friend, the young man who is the narrator of the story, to escort her to a public execution. As the unfortunate condemned man loses his head, Alkmene grows very pale, and it is understood that she has herself died vicariously at that moment, and by her own will. Thereafter in the story she speaks of Alkmene in the third person, as of some one who no longer exists. This is too bare an account of the plot. There is also the matter of the girl's devotion to the young man, who, unaware at the time of his true feelings, rejects her. But it is not merely a story of unrequited love.
Again, in the character of the great diva, Pellegrina Leoni, we have both the theme of the disguise and the theme of the vicarious experience operating, and in more than one story. Pellegrina appears first in "The Dreamers," in Seven Gothic Tales, in the story within a story told by the young Englishman who has been her lover, not knowing at that time who she was. He tells the story to Mira, the Arabian, on the dhow approaching Mombasa, which I mentioned earlier. Pellegrina lost her voice in an illness following a fire on stage, and although she did not die then, she had it given out that she had died, since Pellegrina the singer was in fact dead. She wandered incognita thereafter all over Europe, existing as many different personalities, and disappearing whenever the danger of discovery became close. In this story she meets her actual death, also. In Last Tales Dinesen gives us one more of her adventures during the period between the professed death and the actual one. The story is called "Echoes".
In the time of her wanderings, just after she had fled from the young Englishman in order to retain her anonymity, she comes to a village in the Italian mountains, and there she hears a young boy sing with the voice that had once been hers. She becomes his teacher, determined to send back to the world her lost voice, and to make of the boy a great and successful artist. She adores the boy, and he, knowing her to be the great Pellegrina, adores her also. She absorbs him in her will, in her great plans for him, until suddenly, through a clever and symbolic device in the plot, he becomes convinced that she is a witch; and he revolts over her dominion of him. When he runs away from her, she follows him, and he hurls a rock at her.
This is, again, an unjustly bare account of the plot; but this is the essential of it. The vicarious experience this time is for the sake of life, not death. The servant-master relationship has become the teacher-pupil relationship, and the relationship of the enchanter and enchanted. And it is very sad that the beautiful relationship could not continue. But there is more going on in this story than the episode between Pellegrina and the boy with her voice. There is also the story of Niccolo, the fisherman, who once ate human flesh, and his relationship with God, and Pellegrina's ideas about God, which recall the remark by Mira the Arabian.
If we are to believe, as the psychiatrists tell us, that the dreamer himself is all the characters in his dream, those who frighten him as well as those who help him, then even more certainly we can trust that all the characters in a story are in a way the writer himself. Therefore the boy who was in danger of being taken over by the personality of Pellegrina is as much Dinesen's spokesman as is Pellegrina. And it occurs to Pellegrina that she had no right to take over the privilege to which every human creature should be born, that of creating himself, or at least of assisting at the creation of himself. Like the old Lord in "Sorrow Acre," she was taking upon herself a part of the prerogative of God. This intricate story, "Echoes," ends with Pellegrina's quoting to herself the words of Niccolo, the fisherman. "One can take many liberties with God which one cannot take with men. One may allow oneself many things toward Him which one cannot allow oneself toward man. And, because He is God, in doing so one will even be honoring Him."
The theme of God as artist, poet, creator, is constant throughout her work, and of God the aristocrat, the unreasonable, whose ways must not be questioned, for if He were always reasonable, He would be merely human. Shakespeare and Goethe are the Gods of the worlds which they created.
These favorite themes of hers, and others which I have not space to discuss here, reappear together with many characters in story after story, so that it needs an effort, after much reading of her work, to keep the stories, all of them, distinct. They tend to merge, but, when you return from them to reading Out of Africa, you find it illuminated by the stories. After the many tales of actors, the story of the fugitive actor Emmanuelson, in Out of Africa, has a greater significance. You are more aware of her understanding of Old Knudsen and of how he played the part of Old Knudsen, almost to his last breath. Old Knudsen of the farm, and the Cardinal who was in fact a valet, in "The Deluge at Norderney"; the Prioress who was from time to time a monkey; and the old Councillor, in the story called "The Poet," who stumbled, dying, into the world of the poet Goethe and there was safe, as Lear was safe in the hands of Shakespeare, these are all of the same stuff.
Whether Out of Africa is her greatest book I am not prepared to state flatly, but I prefer it, still, and so do most readers of whose opinion I'm aware. It is, as I've suggested, her most nearly objective book. In the Tales she seems to move in a world almost purely the creation of her own imagination. In Out of Africa she is meeting directly a world created outside herself and by a greater imaginátion, the last, the final Imagination. I have a feeling that she would not object to this comment. In the Tales there seems to me often a faint note of mockery; it is the voice of Scheherazade seeking to entertain herself, and her listener. It is in the last words of "The Deluge at Norderney," which seem to leave us forever ignorant of the fate of these people in the loft, although we know their triumph which would be impossible without their death. "À ce moment de sa narration, Schéhérazade vit paraître le matin, et, discrète, se tut."
Once this mockery is accepted, the Tales remain as serious as you like, to the point of heartbreak.
There is one more work by Karen Blixen which should be taken into consideration in any total picture of her strange and fascinating genius. She mentions it briefly in Shadows on the Grass, pages ninety-four and ninety-five. This is a Gothic novel to end all Gothic novels, called The Angelic Avengers, and published first to the best of my knowledge in 1944 and almost certainly in Danish. It appeared in English in this country in 1946, under the pseudonym of Pierre Andrézel. The dates are significant, especially in the light of the foreword to the story, which is a quotation from the story itself. Thus:
"You serious people must not be too hard on human beings for what they choose to amuse themselves with when they are shut up as in a prison, and are not even allowed to say that they are prisoners. If I do not soon get a little bit of fun, I shall die."
These are the words of the more rebellious of the two young girls of the story, the more vengeful, righteously, of the two angelic avengers, and she speaks in this fashion at a time when the girls have become aware that they are prisoners, detained by two evil persons, and treated very kindly, like imprisoned canaries, in order to become witnesses unwittingly against the truth, that is, against the evil of their captors. The kindness of these evil people is to be their defense, their moral alibi, against any accusation of evil deeds committed by them earlier.
This is a characteristically devious situation for a story by Karen Blixen. Everyone is pretending. The face of evil is kind, the face of vengeance, is submissive and innocent. No one knows quite who is who, but never fear. The author will untangle everything in due time, evil will be vanquished by grace. The enemy is destroyed by forgiveness. But the book was written, as indicated, to give the author a little bit of fun. It was written in Denmark under the Nazi occupation, and the words quoted give one a little chill along the spine, quite apart from the Gothic tale. "Shut up as in a prison and not even allowed to say that they are prisoners."
She says, in Shadows on the Grass, that when she began the story she had no intention in mind, no idea what form it might take, and that when the Nazi persecution of the Danish Jews began, she abandoned it, having no heart to compete with greater and actual horrors. When the Danish Resistance began to take force, she regained courage, gave the book a happy ending, and published it. For us the book stands as a demonstration of those compelling interests and attitudes which underly all her work, and the very fact that she had no plans at all for the book when she began it, indicates how freely she let those interests take possession.
For the rest,—the story begins with a heroine and a situation so standard that it was long since given over to the most deplorable and innocuous works of fiction. A heroine excessively young and pure, with long golden ringlets, an orphan and a governess in the house of a rich man to his little blind son. The language, though correct, is also pure cliché for a while. It is so good an imitation of the impossibly dull that I almost lacked the courage to go on with it. I would not have read beyond the first chapter except for the knowledge that Andrézel was Blixen, and except for the foreword which warned the reader that this book was a spoof. However, it soon turned out to be much more than that. Somewhere along the line it became a genuine thriller. It remains in my memory as a sort of Christmas pantomime, an allegory of good and evil, truly a fairy tale for adults. It is filled with impossible coincidences; it contains most of Dinesen's favorite tricks, of disguises. The theme of the devoted servant is there, witchcraft is there, the truly noble aristocrat is there; and paradox upon paradox. The reader has only to keep the foreword firmly in mind, and to read on, trusting to the wit and integrity of the author. All will be well in the end.
And this leads me back to the phrase so often employed by commentators on Dinesen—fairy tales for adults. When she leaves the world of fact, as she writes of it in Out of Africa, she becomes closer to her compatriot, Hans Christian Andersen, than to any other writer I can think of, except in a way, to Shakespeare. When one remembers the vast world of fantasy of Shakespeare, his divine disregard for historical fact, for geography, his lighthearted trust, even in his greatest tragedies, in the efficacy of disguise, it is easy to see a relationship with the Gothic Tales.
In conclusion, I return to Out of Africa as my preferred book; I read it with the greater pleasure, and I trust, with the greater comprehension, because of the privilege of having shared in the diversions of her imagination, the Tales.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5222
SOURCE: "The Bow of the Lord: Isak Dinesen's 'Portrait of the Artist,'" in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 47-58.
[In the following essay, Whissen examines the theme of the artist in several of Dinesen's works. He contends that she sees the artist as God-like, but that the human artist "is not the master of the situation, for he has an adversary in the greater artist, God."]
In a little play, 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 towards life and art. At the end of the play, the witch 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, and now that I have at last come into a marionette play, I will never go out of it again. But you, my fellow actors, keep the ideas of the author clear. Aye, drive them to their utmost consequences.
Such critics as Aage Henriksen, Eric Johannesson, and Robert Langbaum have explored the ramifications of this statement, have noted its indebtedness to Heinrich von Kleist's "Dialogue on the Marionette Theater," and have argued convincingly against the oversimplified interpretation of the statement as advocating either determinism or blind acceptance. I mention it here, not to add unnecessarily to that discussion, but to point out that Isak Dinesen does believe that man has a primary possibility in life which it is his duty to discover and to exploit. He is equally free not to discover this possibility and not to exploit it, but his greatest happiness comes from believing that there is an author and a play and that the role he is to assume is the only possible one for him.
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. Although both God and the artist are authors, the artist is not master of the situation, for he has an adversary in the greater artist, God. 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." For Isak Dinesen, God is the greatest artist; it is He who will finally read the last proof. As Johannes Rosendahl puts it: "God is the poet, the artist in whom man must put himself" [in Karen Blixen: Fire Foredray, 1957].
It is not surprising, then, that Isak Dinesen should see the offices of priest and poet as reverse sides of the same coin. In "The Cardinal's First Tale" (Last Tales) she affirms the inseparableness of the two offices in the character of Cardinal Salviati whose personality contains a strong mixture of both. When the lady in black asks him, "Who are you?", he must tell her a strange story in the midst of which he asks: "Who, Madame, is the man who is placed, in his life on earth, with his back to God and his face to man, because he is God's mouthpiece, and through him the voice of God is given forth? Who is the man who has no existence of his own—because the existence of each human being is his—and who has neither home nor friends nor wife—because his hearth is the hearth of and he himself is the friend and lover of all human beings?" The lady's reply to this question is "the artist," to which the Cardinal adds that it is also the priest.
The Cardinal is well qualified to talk about the poet-priest relationship because he was trained to be both. He and his twin brother were intended at birth to be, one an artist and the other a priest. But the death of one brother in a fire and the resulting confusion of identities led to the other's being educated officially for the priesthood but unofficially as an artist. Through this man Isak Dinesen is able to express not only the Apollonian-Dionysian tension in both artist and priest but also to reveal 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 humanity. 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 mouthpiece, 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. "Certain spiritual benefits granted to other human beings, are indeed withheld," says the Cardinal, but he also reminds the lady in black that the Lord indemnifies his mouthpiece. "If he is without potency, he has been given a small bit of omnipotence." And he adds:
Calmly, like a child in his father's house binding and loosening his favorite dogs, he will bind the influence of Pleiades and loose the bands of Orion. Like a child in his father's house ordering about his servants, he will send lightnings, that they may go and say to him: 'Here we are.' Just as the gate of the citadel is opened to the vice-regent, the gates of death have been opened to him. And as the heir apparent will have been entrusted with the regalia of the King, he knows where light dwells, and as to darkness, where is the place thereof.
It is in such stories as "Sorrow-Acre" (Winter's Tales) and "Converse at Night in Copenhagen" (Last Tales) that Isak Dinesen includes the aristocrat in her category of God's mouthpieces. "Of all people in Copenhagen," says the poet, Johannes Ewald, in "Converse," "very likely you and I, the monarch and the poet, are the two who come nearest to being almighty." Lonely and slightly mad, young King Christian VII, whom Ewald is addressing, is the poet's perfect counterpart. In their vastly different ways both men bear a burden of responsibility to man and God that is not shared by either man or God. The inclusion of the aristocrat in the triumvirate of those who stand in lieu of God is important because it points up the fact that even those who rule in God's place are not free from the exigencies of mortality. The old lord in "Sorrow-Acre" explains patiently to his impatient nephew Adam that although the aristocrat bears the same responsibility to those beneath him as the gods do to those beneath them, the aristocrat is still subject, like all men, to the will of the gods.
Isak Dinesen makes the sharpest distinction between the functions of God and the artist when, in "The Deluge at Norderney" (Seven Gothic Tales), the valet disguised as a Cardinal refers to God as the arbiter of the masquerade and to the artist as the arbiter on reality. As arbiter of the masquerade, God has a taste for disguises and prefers his creatures to respect his mask and their own rather than attempt to give back to him the truth which he knows already. To reveal the truth is his prerogative, and the day on which he chooses to reveal the truth will be the day of judgment—"the hour in which the Almighty God himself lets fall the mask," as the disguised valet puts it. The masks behind which God conceals the truth are everywhere present in nature, but they are not always readily apparent to man. The person best equipped 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.
The process of discovering the masks within reality is somewhat like the children's game in which one is asked to study a drawing and find as many faces as he can in what looks at first glance to be merely a landscape. It is the artist who is most adept at discerning these faces, and when he points them out to us to our satisfaction, we find that we can no longer look at the landscape without seeing the faces. After a while it may even be difficult for us to see the landscape at all or believe that we ever could have seen it and nothing else. The faces then become more important than the landscape; the landscape exists only to contain the faces; and although we know no more about the truth behind the drawing than we did before, we cannot deny the presence of the masks nor the effect they give to the drawing, which is to make it seem whole and proper only when they are in it. God, as arbiter of the masquerade, draws the faces and then obscures them in the landscape; and the artist, as arbiter on reality, fills in the drawing in such a way that the landscape reveals the faces.
Part of the risk inherent in this distinction is that of failure on the part of the artist to perceive the mask or, perceiving it, not to re-create it authentically. Or he may go the other way and see more faces than are really there, thus misrepresenting God with false images. A much greater risk, however, stems from the artist's disadvantage of not knowing any more of the truth behind the mask than any other man. As Johannes Rosendahl says, the decisive factor is: will the artist tell his own story or God's? The artist is not master of the situation as God is; thus he must work without the assurance that God has that he is doing the right thing.
The weight of the risk is heavy, and in a character such as Charlie Despard who appears both in "The Young Man with the Carnation" Winter's Tales and "A Consolatory Tale" Winter's Tales, Isak Dinesen portrays the artist in the throes of wrestling with his responsibility and in danger of lapsing into despair. "I have had to read the Book of Job, to get strength to bear my responsibility at all," says Despard to Aeneas Snell in "A Consolatory Tale." "Do you see yourself in the place of Job, Charlie?" asks Aeneas. "No," says Despard solemnly and proudly, "in the place of the Lord."
Hans Brix, in Blixens Eventyr, feels that Isak Dinesen identified very closely with the character of Charlie Despard. His very initials suggest her own (Karen Christentze Dinesen), and his situation in "The Young Man with the Carnation," the story that introduces her second volume of stories, Winter's Tales, resembles her own just prior to its publication. He is a writer whose first book was a success and who is now worried about his second. "A Consolatory Tale," which concludes Winter's Tales, shows a still questioning but more confident Despard fusing his ideas with those of the equally adept story-teller, Aeneas Snell. Their ideas about story-telling, although different, are really merely two ways of arriving at the same end.
By identifying the artist with the Lord in the story of Job, Isak Dinesen further isolates him from the society of common men and establishes him as a person of extraordinary obligations. Developing his analogy, Despard explains his theory to Aeneas Snell. "I have behaved to my reader as the Lord behaves to Job," he says, "I have laid a wager with Satan about the soul of my reader. I have marred his path and turned terrors upon him, caused him to ride on the wind and dissolved his substance, and when he waited for light there was darkness."
What Despard does not say, but what we, as readers, remember, is that the artist as man is not spared Job's lot. There is, therefore, a double burden upon him. For while he may hold with the valet/Cardinal in "Deluge" that the mask of God will fall away on the day of judgment and the voice in the whirlwind take on meaning, he knows that the answer to the mysteries which his art presents are also locked in that voice and behind that mask, and it is not in his power either to know or to dispense secrets.
When the lady in black, in "The Cardinal's First Tale", sighs at the lot of the artist, the Cardinal tells her not to have pity on him.
The servant was neither forced nor lured into service. Before taking him on, his Master spoke straightly and fairly to him. 'You are aware,' he said, 'that I am almighty. And you have before you the world which I have created. Now give me your opinion on it. Do you take it that I have meant to create a peaceful world?' 'No, my Lord,' the candidate replied. 'Or that I have,' the Lord asked, 'meant to create a pretty and neat world?' 'No, indeed,' answered the youth. 'Or a world easy to live in?' asked the Lord. 'O good Lord, no!' said the candidate. 'Or do you,' the Lord asked for the last time, 'hold and believe that I have resolved to create a sublime world, with all things necessary to the purpose in it, and none left out?' 'I do,' said the young man. 'Then,' said the Master, 'then, my servant and mouthpiece, take the oath!'
A similar dialogue with the Lord in "The Young Man with the Carnation" brings Despard to the point where he is ready to accept the Lord's covenant. Again, the Lord's preliminary questioning is rendered by Isak Dinesen in the manner of God's dialogue with Job.
"Who made the ships, Charlie?" he asked. "Nay, I know not," said Charlie, "did you make them?" "Yes," said the Lord, "I made the ships on their keels, and all floating things. The moon that sails in the sky, the orbs that swing in the universe, the tides, the generations, the fashions. You make me laugh, for I have given you all the world to sail and float in, and you have run aground here, in a room of the Queen's Hotel to seek a quarrel."
It is at this point that the Lord makes it clear to Despard that the artist creates not for himself or his public but for God because, as Peter says, in "Peter and Rosa" (Winter's Tales): "If the work of God does not glorify him, how can God be glorious?" Aage Henriksen says that this question is an assertion and that the assertion immediately has consequences for the poet who, in his works, has put himself in the place of God. The story-teller, says Henriksen, is providence for the persons that he tells about and can see to it that they get what they deserve. "However," Henriksen asks, "what does man deserve, and what can he in reality get? An explanation? Justice? Grace?" These questions, Henriksen goes on to say, cannot be answered except by what he calls "artistic evidence" [Aage Henriksen, Guder og gulgefugie, 1956].
Artistic evidence is much like the Lord's answer to Charlie Despard. It is not an answer at all, really, but an injunction not to expect answers; and before it Despard is silenced. With the discussion thus ended, Despard is ready to enter into a pact with the Lord in which the Lord makes it clear that the purpose of art is not to explain Him but to glorify Him.
"Come," said the Lord again, "I will make a covenant between me and you. I, I will not measure you out any more distress than you need to write your books." "Oh, indeed!" said Charlie. "What did you say?" asked the Lord. "Do you want any less than that?" "I said nothing," said Charlie. "But you are to write the books," said the Lord. "For it is I who want them written. Not the public, not by any means the critics, but ME!" "Can I be certain of that?" Charlie asked. "Not always," said the Lord. "You will not be certain of it at all times. But I tell you now that it is so. You will have to hold on to that." "O good God," said Charlie. "Are you going," said the Lord, "to thank me for what I have done for you tonight?" "I think," said Charlie, "that we will leave it at what it is, and say no more about it."
["The Young Man with the Carnation"]
In addition to the Lord's insistence that Despard write for Him, there are two important points in this last dialogue that are fundamental to Isak Dinesen's concept of the artist. One has to do with the "measure of distress" that the Lord promises to dispense in quantities just sufficient to result in the production of art. The other is Despard's reluctance to thank the Lord for what the Lord has agreed to do. This last point is pertinent here in clarification of the relationship between God and artist. In not allowing Despard to show gratitude to God, Isak Dinesen is denying the artist the comfort of common piety. What she implies is that the distresses measured out to the artist balance any rewards. One does not show gratitude for a dearly purchased gift.
Besides bestowing the gift of creativity on the artist, God also supplies him with the raw material out of which he can create fictional characters that can outlive God's own mortal ones. In a story within the story, "The Roads Round Pisa", the librettist Monti is replying to a Monsignor Talbot who has just asked Monti if he really does believe himself to be a creator in the same sense as God.
"'God!' Monti cried, 'God! Do you not know that what God really wants to create is my Don Giovanni, and the Odysseus of Homer, and Cervantes's knight? Very likely those are the only people for whom heaven and hell have ever been made, for you cannot imagine that an Almighty God would go on forever and ever, world without end, with my mother-in-law and the Emperor of Austria? Humanity, the men and women of this earth, are only the plaster of God, and we, the artists, are his tools, and when the statue is finished in marble or bronze, he breaks us all up. When you die you will probably go out like a candle, with nothing left, but in the mansions of eternity will walk Orlando, the Misanthrope and my Donna Elvira. Such is God's plan of work, and if we find it somehow slow, who are we that we should criticize him, seeing that we know nothing whatever of time or eternity?'
In creating such imaginative and enduring characters, the artist is, however, not exceeding God's imagination but rather entering into it. Erik O. Johannesson says that in Isak Dinesen's world "God is the greatest artist because He has the greatest imagination…. When her characters … recognize their limitations and affirm the power of God, they affirm the artist and the story, for God is the greatest story-teller of them all" [The World of Isak Dinesen, 1961].
When an artist is at his best, he is exhibiting what the valet disguised as a Cardinal in "Deluge" calls the "tremendous courage of the Creator of this world." The artist is closest to God and to the creative spirit when he is exercising, in the words of Adam in "Sorrow-Acre," "Imagination, daring, and passion." "Your stories are over our stories," says Charlie Despard; and this acknowledgment leads Johannes Rosendahl to note the obligation on the part of the artist to rise above the triviality of life and its banal claims and to make his stories rival God's own.
God's envy of man's creation as expressed by Monti in "Roads" is balanced by what the valet/Cardinal goes on to say about man's envy of God.
Every human being has, I believe, at times given room to the idea of creating a world himself. The Pope, in a flattering way, encouraged these thoughts in me when I was a young man. I reflected then that I might, had I been given omnipotence and a free hand, have made a fine world. I might have bethought me of the trees and rivers, of the different keys in music, of friendship, and innocence; but upon my word and honor, I should not have dared to arrange these matters of love and marriage as they are, and my world should have lost sadly thereby. What an overwhelming lesson to all artists! Be not afraid of absurdity; do not shrink from the fantastic. Within a dilemma, choose the most unheard-of, the most dangerous, solution. Be brave, be brave! Ah, Madame, we have got much to learn.
The idea of creating a world himself occurred also, we know, to Satan who did not shrink from absurdity or the fantastic. 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. Even Cardinal Salviati in "The Cardinal's First Tale" must confess to the lady in black that he is not sure it is God he serves.
It is probably the painter Cazotte in Ehrengard who best illustrates the presence of the diabolical in the artist. While in the midst of a scheme to humiliate Ehrengard, he betrays his peculiarly mixed loyalties in a letter to the Countess von Gassner.
P.S. Walking in the garden this evening Prince Lothar said to Princess Ludmilla: "So here is Paradise." And with her head upon his shoulder his young wife echoed: "Paradise." I smiled benevolence on them, like an archangel assisting the Lord in laying out the garden of Eden, and smiling on the first human male and female. But the great landscape architect himself, when his work had been completed, on looking at it and listening to the Gloria and Hallelujah of his angelic chorus, will have felt the craving for a clear, unbiased eye to view it with him, the eye of a critic, a connoisseur and an arbiter. With what creature, in all Paradise, will he have found that eye, Madame? Madame—with the Serpent!
If the Serpent had been content to be nothing more than critic, connoisseur, and arbiter, he would very much have resembled the artist who, as the old artist in "Copenhagen Season" (Last Tales) tells his drawingroom audience, would not have been shocked by the nakedness of Adam and Eve. But there is a vital difference between the two. The artist turns his passive observations into action by recreating what he sees; the Serpent steps out of his role as passive observer into the role of active manipulator by interfering in what he sees.
Thus, Cazotte might resemble an archangel when he is busily arranging the Eden-like retreat at Rosenbad, and he is the balanced artist when he is painting scenes and portraits; but the diabolical begins to overpower him at the time he is painting Ehrengard's portrait without her knowledge and for impure reasons; and it consumes him completely once his plan to seduce Ehrengard—albeit symbolically—is put into practice. In so doing, however, Cazotte leaves himself vulnerable to the prophecy in the Garden which foretells that the woman shall conquer. His plan fails, and the victory goes to Ehrengard.
To say that Cazotte has confused life with art, has tried to mix the two, has endeavored to alchemize art into life is to say that he has tried to usurp God's role as arbiter of the masquerade. Life, Isak Dinesen insists, is God's story, and he will dress it as he sees fit and with greater imagination. Any attempt to invade his domain will result in surprise and failure for the interloper. Out of the raw material of His imagination God has fashioned creation and given it to man as the raw material out of which man, as artist, may fashion art. As God respects the artist by refusing to turn reality into art, so must the artist respect God by resisting the temptation to turn art into reality.
The efficacy of this mandate is the express concern not only of Ehrengard but also of "The Immortal Story" (Anecdotes of Destiny) and "The Poet" (Seven Gothic Tales). "The Immortal Story" is the tale of an old man, Mr. Clay, who deliberately sets about turning a traditional sailor's yarn into reality. For years sailors have told each other about how, during shore leave, they were picked up by an elderly man, carried to his lavish home, plied with the finest food and wines and then given five pounds to sleep with the old man's lovely young wife. When Mr. Clay is told this story by his faithful clerk, Elishama, and it is explained to him that the story has no truth in it, Mr. Clay will not rest until he sees the story enacted before his eyes with himself in the role of the impotent old man.
With the able assistance of his clerk, Mr. Clay manages, not without some difficulty, to hire the services of a prostitute and to pick up a young sailor from the waterfront. The fact that old Mr. Clay must hire a prostitute because he does not have a wife is only the first of many ways in which the story changes as it is brought to life. Two attempts to pick up a sailor fail, and when they finally do find one who will cooperate, it is one who is more interested in the money than in the adventure. The sailor is on the point of leaving several times during dinner, but he is persuaded to stay only to surprise everyone by falling in love with the prostitute. The following morning he finds it difficult to see any resemblance between what has just happened to him and the story he has heard (and told) many times at sea. But once he does see the connection, he insists that he will never tell what happened to him because surely no one would ever believe it.
The yarn as it has always been told is a mask visible by the story teller through his arbitrary use of reality. But once that mask is violated, is forced to become real, it vanishes and a different mask takes its place. The new story is a totally different story. It is not the story of a sailor's dream but of an old man's desire to impose his will upon life. Ironically, the old man dies during the night, and his death reveals that a greater imagination than his is directing the story.
As an imaginary arrangement of incidents and characters to conform to the ideas of the story-teller, the story is safe. But the moment the story takes life, the moment the imagination of the artist comes in conflict with the imagination of God, the artist loses control over it and usually suffers in the bargain. I think the evidence is clear that Isak Dinesen would scorn those who would take her views on aristocracy and acceptance too personally and try to pattern their lives in accordance with those of any of her characters. 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.
Councilor Mathiesen in "The Poet" (Seven Gothic Tales) repeats Cazotte's and Mr. Clay's mistake but with direr consequences. To compensate for his own failure as a poet, Mathiesen meddles in the life of the genuine young poet, Anders Kube. He hopes by interfering to guide Kube towards higher poetic powers and thereby experience vicariously the fruits of success. In order to accomplish this end, Mathiesen decides to marry the young widow, Fransine, because he knows that she and Kube have fallen in love, and he feels that such a melancholy romantic situation will stimulate Kube to new lyrical heights. As his plan takes shape, however, a greater imagination than his assumes control and brings about a quite different story. Mathiesen does not know that Kube plans to commit suicide on the day of the wedding. Nor does he anticipate that his scheme to have Fransine disrobe before her lover on the night before the wedding will result in disaster and death.
The idea for the midnight disrobing is an idea which Mathiesen has taken from a currently popular and highly controversial German romance. By so doing, Mathiesen is giving another turn of the screw to the theme of life imitating art. Life, of course, departs radically from art when Kube spurns Fransine and then uses the suicide gun to shoot the voyeur Mathiesen. Bleeding profusely, the Councilor crawls back to the house to which Fransine has fled and tries to convince her with his dying breath that the world is still beautiful and good. Because it suits him that the world should be lovely, he means to conjure it into being so. But Fransine knows that the world of which he speaks is really the world in which Anders Kube will be hanged for murder, and in her anguish she lifts up a large stone and crushes Mathiesen's head. "You," she cries at him. "You Poet!"
The epithet is bitterly ironic because Mathiesen is the antithesis of Isak Dinesen's true artist. He has usurped God's role by taking Kube into his own hands, and he has violated the mask by forcing reality upon it. Mathiesen dies with his hand outstretched to touch Fransine's heel while she stands above him, the conquering woman. The scene is Isak Dinesen's most graphic illustration of the Biblical prophecy and her own relentless assertion of the evil of exceeding the limits of art. In Ehrengard and "The Immortal Story" only the perpetrators suffer, but in "The Poet" the suffering extends to others. The innocent lovers become murderers.
The true artist keeps the ideas of the author clear. Once he has found his way into a marionette play, he will never go out of it again.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096
SOURCE: "A Saga of Africa," in The Observer Review, September 6, 1981, p. 29.
[Burgess was an esteemed English novelist, essayist, playwright, and short story writer best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962). In the following review of Letters from Africa: 1914–1931, he favorably assesses Dinesen's writing style, contending that she "never fails in grace, sharpness, and humanity."]
At the end of 1913, Karen Dinesen left Denmark and sailed to Mombasa. She disembarked to marry immediately Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke of Näsbyholm, to whom she had been engaged for a year. Baroness Karen Blixen and her husband then went to Nairobi to manage a Swedish-owned coffee plantation called MBagathi.
They were not the only Scandinavians in East Africa, and the tradition of sending the skills of the Northmen, and their Lutheran conscientiousness, to Kenya continues: at a dinner table last night in Oslo I heard good Swahili spoken. But only Karen Blixen, under the name of Isak Dinesen, has enriched Scandinavian literature with a classic book made out of the impact of Africa on a complex Nordic sensibility. As she wrote an English as well as a Danish version of Out of Africa (in Denmark 'The African Farm'), she may also be said to have enriched Anglo-American literature. These letters [in Letters from Africa, 1914–1931] are the immediate record of the African life she not only enjoyed but endured. The book is mostly lyrical; the letters are both lyrical and sombre.
Shortly after her marriage to Blixen-Finecke, the 29-year-old Karen discovered that he had infected her with syphilis. Mercury treatment proved ineffectual. The First World War began, and she and her husband, despite their work for the Allied effort, were accused of pro-German sympathies. The Baron was inefficient as an estate manager and unreliable over money. The marriage broke up but the legacy of disease continued. Karen struggled, with little success, to become a published writer. She took an English lover, Denys Finch Hatton, and this relationship engendered fresh agonies as well as social problems, especially when the Baron reappeared in the tight gossipy English colony with a new Baroness.
Hatton was killed in an air crash in Tanganyika. Karen wound up the coffee enterprise, which was in financial chaos, and went back to Denmark to live in poverty with her mother. In 1934 she published Seven Gothic Tales under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. It was a Book of the Month Club choice in America, and her position as a major writer was established. In 1954 Ernest Hemingway named her as the most suitable candidate for the Nobel Prize: she did not get it, though, of course, he did. How much she is now read in Britain I do not know; in the rest of the world, meaning mostly America, she is considered a major voice of the century.
These are mostly family letters, long and lucid, full of information and atmosphere. Anne Born has translated them from the Danish, underlining the many English phrases and thus giving a typographical impression of emphasis alien to the unemphatic style. Young Karen, not yet a writer, has the unifying gift of the writer, finding something of the Danish landscape in Kenya and hearing in remembered Danish folksongs a lyricism appropriate to the African scene.
In 1928 she is writing to her mother about the 'concept of Angst … with due respect to Kierkegaard,' and proclaiming (in English) that there is nothing to be afraid of, not even the belligerent natives who could enter the house and kill her with the indifference proper to the killing of a deer. 'All terror is more or less terror of the dark: bring light, and it must of necessity pass.' But there was plenty to fear—disease, the failure of an estate, the collapse of love, loneliness. In 1931, when the letters come to an end, aware of near-total defeat, she is still able to write:—
Of all the idiots I have met in my life—and the Lord knows that they have not been few or little—I think that I have been the biggest. But a certain love of greatness, which could not be quelled, has kept a hold on me, has been 'my daimon.' And I have had so infinitely much that was wonderful. She may be more gentle to others, but I hold to the belief that I am one of Africa's favourite children. A great world of poetry has revealed itself to me and taken me to itself here, and I have loved it. I have looked into the eyes of lions and slept under the Southern Cross, I have seen the grass of the great plains ablaze and covered with delicate green after the rains, I have been the friend of Somali, Kikuyu and Masai, I have flown over the Ngong Hills—'I plucked the best rose of life, and Freja be praised.'
Not God but a Northern goddess. This is the lyricism of the great memoir written five years later.
Hemingway had the effrontery to consider himself a fellow-African, but for him Kenya was only a safari park, with twilight opportunities for 'feeling good' after the day's slaughter and contemplating patches of false lyricism for a book inferior to hers. Karen Dinesen was no mere tourist with a gun. She had a stake in Kenya, though she knew from the start it was a false one. In 1914, a few months after her arrival, she saw the 'end approaching—chiefly through the influence of Christianity.' The mission schools turn out thieves and liars, she says, but Islam instils a stoic fatalism which denies the need for fear.
A few days ago when a man at Swedo fell ill and died, of plague it was thought, all except the Somalis ran away. I asked Fara if they were not afraid of infection; he shrugged his shoulders and replied that they knew better; if God decided they were to die, they would die—if they were to live, they would live….
The English, as one expected, do not come out well; they evince less intelligence than the natives. They cannot distinguish between the tribes, they don't trouble to learn Swahili. At the Oslo dinner party the other evening my blonde companion went into great philological detail about the language, a thing I have never heard an English Kenyan do. The English have never, I suppose, been sufficiently serious. The seriousness of this young Danish woman in Africa is undoubted, but it is not stodgy. How beautiful she was, before disease gnawed at her…. The letters themselves never fail in grace, sharpness and humanity
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6434
SOURCE: "Witch as Quintessential Woman: A Context for Isak Dinesen's Fiction," in Mosaic, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 87-100.
[Stambaugh is an educator, novelist, and critic whose works include The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen (1988). In the following essay, she examines Dinesen's "complex" relationship to feminism, drawing mainly on her letters published in Letters from Africa, 1914–1931.]
In Isak Dinesen's "The Dreamers" Lincoln Forsner begins his tale of Pellegrina Leoni by saying, "You must take in whatever you can, and leave the rest outside. It is not a bad thing in a tale that you understand only half of it." The major approaches to Dinesen's work so far, I think, have taken in "only half of it"; by focusing upon esthetic issues, critics have overlooked the fact that her subject is almost always the role of women. Eric Johannesson perceived it when he observed: "The Gothic tales of Dinesen deal with individuals who are trapped in one way or another, by sex, by class, by history…. [They reveal] a strong feeling on behalf of the author for those who are trapped by life, particularly for women who are forced by social conventions to live on the edge of life" [The World of Isak Dinesen, 1961]. Writing in 1961, however, Johannesson was not equipped to realize just how important the conditioning of her sex is to the female writer or the extent to which women of Dinesen's generation had learned to disguise their real concerns. Nor was it until 1981 and the publication of Karen Blixen's Letters from Africa that Hans Lasson called for a study of "Karen Blixen's opinions on the liberation of women and the relationship between the sexes …" [from the introduction to Letters].
Lasson's call for a feminist approach might have jolted Karen Blixen, as Dinesen is known in Denmark, because she was caught between two worlds and had a complicated opinion about women's role. She examined it again and again—if only as the bottom layer in fiction of the sort Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe in The Madwoman in the Attic: "a palimpsestic or encoded artwork, concealing female secrets within male-devised genres and conventions" [The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, 1979]. Similarly, what Anthea Zeman says about serious women writers of earlier generations applies to Dinesen as well: "these writers held fast to their subject, [which was] not society, but women's relationship to it" [Presumptuous Girls: Women and Their World in the Serious Woman's Novel, 1974]. Although Dinesen's fiction derives its strength from the fact that she does not ignore the larger context, her ultimate concern is with "what a woman is faced with in her time because she is a woman" (Zeman).
It may therefore be well to begin this discussion by examining the way in which some of Isak Dinesen's subjects have typically been treated by male critics. "The Blank Page," for example, is perhaps her central esthetic statement about the art of storytelling. It ends the first section of Last Tales, the opening story of which—"The Cardinal's First Tale"—is also concerned with the nature of art. Robert Langbaum examines the opening story in some detail, describing it "as Isak Dinesen's explicit defense of her own apparently anachronistic art" [The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen's Art, 1964]. His treatment of "The Blank Page," however, is limited to two sentences, in which he mentions that it deals with the same theme as the opening story and that it "offers a diagram of the perfect story as the exceptional and enigmatic case, as the story written upon the blank page." Johannesson ignores the story, and Thomas Whissen—though he discusses it in some detail because his subject is Dinesen's esthetics—concludes that it makes a comment about "the fall of man and his subsequent suffering" [Isak Dinesen's Aesthetics, 1973]. Diametrically opposed to such interpretations, therefore, is the recent reading of the tale by Susan Gubar. Focusing upon the Freudian implications, Gubar regards the story as central to her thesis that women resent being treated as blank page/vagina by the male pen/penis. Her discussion emphasizes female resentment of male "rending" and of "the blood of menstruation which presumably defiles like a curse …" ["'The Blank Page,' and the Issues of Female Creativity," Critical Inquiry, No. 8 (Winter 1981)]. In spite of its value in placing Dinesen within the tradition of women who write about women, however, Gubar's reading would probably have made Dinesen uneasy.
The story of "The Blank Page" is told by an ancient woman who has "told many tales, one more than a thousand," and who is thus associated with the archetypal female storyteller Scheherazade, as well as with Dinesen herself. She relates her storytelling to the time after "I first let young men tell me, myself, tales of a red rose, two smooth lily buds, and four silky, supple, deadly entwining snakes." The art of storytelling has been passed down to her, she says, from her grandmother, who learned it in turn from her grandmother, who "as a little girl was the pet of an old Jewish rabbi, and the learning she received from him has been kept and passed on in our family." She describes the art of the blank page as representing the highest art of storytelling, the point at which "silence will speak"; it is "the old women who tell stories, [who] know the story of the blank page." In other words, the female can become the highest kind of artist after she has undergone her apprenticeship in sex and living and mastered esoteric knowledge passed down the female line.
To explain the meaning of the "blank page," the old woman describes a convent where "labor-hardened virginal hands" grow and weave the finest linen in Portugal whose seed came from the lands which Caleb's daughter begged of her father along with "the upper springs and the nether springs." The sheets woven by the nuns are given to the royal house and displayed after a royal wedding to prove that the bride was a virgin, after which the stained sections are returned to the convent and framed. The old storyteller continues, "Within the faded markings of the canvases people of some imagination and sensibility may read all the signs of the zodiac: the Scales, the Scorpion, the Lion, the Twins. Or they may there find pictures from their own world of ideas: a rose, a heart, a sword—or even a heart pierced through with a sword." Again, "Each separate canvas with its coroneted name-plate has a story to tell, and each has been set up in loyalty to the story," although the one framed, unstained square tells the most powerful story of all and is "The Blank Page" of the title.
Dinesen, then, has presented the subject of her art as explicitly female and connected with women's private sexuality: stories written in the blood of women's "nether springs." It is also noteworthy that the convent is "High up in the blue mountains" and reflects a totally female society permeated with stories from which men are excluded. Besides the nuns who live there, the convent is visited only by royal ladies and occasional old maids, who come here "on a pilgrimage which was by nature both sacred and secretly gay."
Pride in female sexuality is also shown in other stories in Last Tales. In the opening story, for example, the Cardinal remarks to his listener, "But your sex possesses sources and resources of its own; it changes its blood at celestial order, and to a fair woman her beauty will be the one unfailing and indisputable reality." "Tales of Two Old Gentlemen" goes further. As they consider "the complexity of the universe in general," one of the old gentlemen presents his grandfather's theory that the "originator and upholder" "of the Cosmos" is female and describes God as a shepherdess, to whom
tears are convenient and precious, like rain—as in the old song il pleut, il pleut, bergére—like pearls, or like falling stars running over the firmament—all phenomena in themselves divine, and symbolic of the highest and the deepest spheres of human knowledge. And as to the shedding of blood, this to our shepherdess—as to any lady—is a high privilege and is inseparably united with the sublimest moments of existence, with promotion and beatification. What little girl will not joyously shed her blood in order to become a virgin, what bride not hers in order to become a wife, what young wife not hers to become a mother?
Even though the speakers in these two stories are male, both see female sexuality as completely admirable, and in the second story as closely associated with divinity.
A central problem in approaching the subject of Dinesen's feminism is her own complex attitude toward women's role and what it should be—which is perhaps one of the reasons she returns to the subject time and again as if to examine it from every possible angle. The complexity of her stance is reflected in the only essay she published about feminism, "Oration at a Bonfire, Fourteen Years Late." According to Langbaum, this essay was originally a speech delivered at a Women's Rights Congress in 1953; it was fourteen years late because, as Dinesen explains, she had been asked to speak about feminism to an international women's congress in 1939 and had declined:
"I cannot accept this assignment, for I am not a feminist." "Are you against feminism?" asked Mrs. Hein. "No," I said, "I can't say that I'm that, either." "How do you stand upon feminism?" asked Mrs. Hein again. "Well, I never thought of it," I answered. "Well, think of it now," said Mrs. Hein.
A letter written to her Aunt Bess during Dinesen's African years provides an interesting gloss on this description: "Like most people I am too slow witted to have my arguments ready at hand in a discussion and am therefore often obliged … to resort to the excuse of saying: I haven't thought about it. But afterward, of course, one tries to give the subject serious thought and to clarify it, and then one may wish to resume the discussion …" (Letters). Dinesen's disclaimer, therefore, should not be taken to mean that she had not previously thought about feminism.
In fact, the thrust of her speech repeats a point made in Out of Africa in which she discusses "the fascination of things wholly different from themselves," a point she later elaborates in Shadows on the Grass when she describes her relationship with her servant Farah: "In order to form and make up a Unity, in particular a creative Unity, the individual components must needs be of different nature, they should even be in a sense contrasts. Two homogeneous units will never be capable of forming a whole, or their whole at its best will remain barren." As she comments later in the same passage, "A community of but one sex would be a blind world."
The point of her belated Bonfire Speech is that men and women are different and should not try to be alike. She speaks of "my old belief in the significance of interaction, and … my conviction regarding the opulent and unlimited possibilities which arise from the fellowship and interplay of two different individuals," an interplay she describes as "the reciprocity between man and woman." What makes them different is that "A man's center of gravity, the substance of his being, consists in what he has executed and performed in life; the woman's, in what she is." As she sees it, therefore, "woman's function is to expand her own being," and she gives as examples Maria Theresa, Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, the Maid of Orleans, and the Virgin Mary, all of whom, she says, are known for what they were rather than for what they did. Paradoxically, this means that "the average woman is more of an artist than the average man," for even though "few women have been great artists," if "they do not create a work of art, they can themselves be said to become works of art—that is, as actresses, singers, or dancers."
Apparently aware of the offense she may be giving to her feminist audience, Dinesen pauses to give a kind of apology in which she praises "the older women of the women's movement now in their graves' and acknowledges that her own freedom "to study what I wished and where I wished … to travel around the world alone … put my ideas freely into print … [and] stand here at the lectern" stems from "the grand old women [who] struck the first blow for us." But Dinesen's point is that the battle has been won, and women no longer have to act like men: the woman of today "has certainly such a firm footing in the old strongholds that she can confidently open her visor and show the world that she is a woman and no disguised rogue."
Her assumption, of course, would be opposed by many feminists. In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir specifically denounces several of Dinesen's stances. In her introduction, de Beauvoir uses Dinesen's favorite analogy of master and servant, which de Beauvoir presents as "master and slave [who], also, are united by a reciprocal need, in this case economic, which does not liberate the slave." She concludes that "Even if the need is at bottom equally urgent for both, it always works in favor of the oppressor against the oppressed."
De Beauvoir also denounces Dinesen's contention that women exist for what they are, because, according to de Beauvoir, dependence upon an indefinable essence makes women too lazy to be, for example, serious literary artists. De Beauvoir says about traditional women: "In order to seduce, they know only the method of showing themselves; then their charm either works or does not work, they have no real hand in its success or failure. They suppose that in analogous fashion it is sufficient for expression, communication, to show what one is…."
But if Isak Dinesen rejected some feminist stances, a further look at her Bonfire Speech shows that she cared about women and insisted upon their right to be different from men because of her strong assumption that the sexes were equal. She describes the early feminists as "sly" because, in effect, they disguised themselves as men to break down sexual barriers and enter the professions. But now that they are free to be doctors, she wonders why women should not bring to that profession their traditional skills as midwives and clairvoyants. The implication is that women have special talents which transcend the roles devised by men.
A key phrase in the Bonfire Speech is Dinesen's reference to "the reciprocity between man and woman," because reciprocity can exist only between equals. Dinesen is wickedly witty, for example, in dismissing "the attitude of various past eras" that "one half of the race should devote itself to preservation and procreation while the other half took on the task of development and progress." To illustrate her point, she describes Kaiser Wilhelm's view that woman's place was "Kirche, Kinder, Küche—the church, the children and the kitchen." Commenting on the Kaiser's view, she says:
Personally I would say that, were this seriously meant, it would be an offer worth considering. But it never was seriously meant. Had the church really been a woman's field of endeavor we might naturally have had woman priests and bishops and also woman popes—but about such one knows only of Pope Joan, who is unfortunately said not to have been a favorable representative of her sex and has been sadly reduced by later, skeptical times to a legendary figure. The officials of the church have always been exclusively male and the woman's role has been limited to that of the churchgoer—which nobody could very well refuse her. Had Kinder been put into the hands of women, had schools and the educational system been their domain, the world would probably look rather different than what Kaiser Wilhelm imagined or wished it to be. For him the concept was presumably most nearly associated with cradles and diapers, a realm for which there has never been any zealous male competition. As far as the third K, the kitchen, is concerned—the area where women can be assumed to have been more or less sovereign—they seem to have displayed an admirable unselfishness. It is the male taste which dominates both the family table and the restaurant—when women eat together and can themselves decide the menu, it has quite a different, lighter, and more varied character. Here I may interpose the remark that Negro and Somali women are clever about poisoning their men by the dishes which they put before them, and that as a consequence they enjoy quite peculiar respect.
As this passage shows, however uncongenial her views might be to some feminists, Isak Dinesen was no simple reactionary.
In fact, the central point of her essay is that the world needs to be feminized. As she says, "our own time can be said to need a revision of its ambition from doing to being", in other words, from masculine to feminine values as she has defined them. She goes on to compare women to trees and men to machines in a feminist revision of a favorite figure of the nineteenth century:
At times it can seem that our day, proud of its mighty achievements, would claim the superiority of the motor over the oak tree, the machine over growth. But it is also conceivable that in such an evaluation we have been misled by an interpretation of the theory of the survival of the fittest. It is clear that the motor can destroy the oak tree—while the oak tree cannot be thought capable of destroying the motor—but what follows? That which itself has no independent being—or is without any loyalty to such a being—is unable to create. Now I have not meant that women are trees and men are motors, but I wish to insinuate into the minds of the women of our time as well as those of the men, that they should meditate not only upon what they may accomplish but most profoundly upon what they are.
Her speech ends with a call for people "who are agriculturists," "who are sailors," "who are teachers," and "who are poets", in other words, for a world infused with the quality of "being" which she considers fundamentally feminine.
If Isak Dinesen rejected conventional feminism, it was not through lack of familiarity. In fact, she was raised in a family bristling with militant feminists. After her father's suicide when she was nine, she spent most of her life until her marriage at twenty-eight in a matriarchal society dominated by her maternal grandmother, her mother and her mother's sister, Mary Bess Westenholtz. All three had strong personalities. In addition, as Dinesen's brother Thomas comments, "All the Matrup family had always been involved in political problems and disputes of the day. They were all pronouncedly to the left, and amongst other things, were very much in favour of votes for women" [Thomas Dinesen, My Sister, Isak Dinesen, 1975]. Dinesen's Aunt Bess, for example, was known for her invasion of Parliament in 1909 when she seized the podium and denounced the male legislators as cowards—after which, Thomas comments, "a large deputation of women gathered at Folehave to thank her for her courage and resolution." Dinesen's mother was also a political activist. When Danish women were granted the vote in 1916 she was elected "to Hørsholm Parish Council, and when it turned out that she was the eldest of the elected members, for a few days she had the honour of being Denmark's first woman parish councillor." Isak Dinesen, then, grew up watching the fight for women's rights, because "the grand old women [who] struck the first blow for us" included her intimate relatives.
As her Bonfire Speech indicates, however, Dinesen apparently thought that in fighting for equality her female relatives had sacrificed something of their femininity; perhaps she had them in mind when she referred to early feminists as disguising themselves as men. Dinesen has been accused of disliking "her aunt, and the maternal wing of her family in general" [Judith Thurman, "Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen: A Very Personal Memoir," MS II, No. 3 (September 1973)]. but as one might expect of Isak Dinesen, her letters indicate a more complex relationship. Her letters to her mother, for example, are filled with endearments such as "my beloved little Mother," "My own beloved Mother," and "My own beloved beloved wonderful little mother" (Letters). Writing to her grandmother, she wonders "whether … I'm not rather like you" (Thomas Dinesen), and in another letter to her mother she comments that she is certainly fonder of her Aunt Bess than her sisters are (Letters). In all, the letters show a warm family feeling on the part of Isak Dinesen—but not one which is uncritical.
Although Dinesen loves the members of the family matriarchy, she makes clear that she rejects their values. As she remarks to her mother, "I think that to a certain extent all of your family lack the ability to 'amuse themselves,'—or, to express it symbolically: 'to enjoy the wine of life,' and are inclined to think that happiness is to be found in a diet of bread and milk." Elsewhere she says to her mother, "recently I have come to see that your way of thinking is completely foreign to me; I will never belong to it." Of her grandmother, aunt and the maternal uncle largely responsible for financing her stay in Africa she complains: "They are always trying to change me into something quite different; they do not like the parts of me that I believe to be good." In a letter to her brother in which she discusses her plans to leave Africa and expresses her dislike of moving into her mother's house, she writes, "the atmosphere at home has never suited me," and she indicates that she "married and put all my efforts into emigrating in order to get away …" (Letters). It would seem that her rejection of feminism is part of a reaction against the wider system of values she associates with it.
Apparently Dinesen judged feminism to be bourgeois and rejected it along with the other maternal values she opposed to the aristocratic ones associated with her father. As she mentions in a radio talk, she was her father's "favorite child, and I know he thought I resembled him" ["Rungstedlund: A Radio Address," in Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays]. If she considered herself alien to the maternal world, one reason was her conviction that she was her father's daughter, so much so that her first pen name was Osceola, the Indian name of her father's dog [see Parmenia Migel, Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen, 1967], and her house in Africa was first called Bogani House in tribute to her father's pen name of Boganis. The idealized values she associates with him permeate her work, just as aspects of his life appear, for example, in the failed love affair described in "Copenhagen Season." As a result of her identification with her father, the values she embraces are those likely to be associated with a masculine system, the belief in risks, for example, or in the grand gesture. A friend says that when Dinesen was a girl, "She looked down upon the female—bearing, consoling, surviving—for in her experience, the female was only the survivor…. In most cases, she defined the difference between women and men as the difference between goodness and greatness: the prudence that respects life versus the extravagance that defies death. It was the same distinction she made, on another level, between the bourgeois and the aristocrat …" (quoted by Thurman). Whether or not the friend is to be trusted, Isak Dinesen's identification with her father and rejection of her mother's values influenced her views of feminism.
To complicate things even more, the youthful Dinesen thought herself the victim of a sexist society, the instruments of which were her maternal relatives, whose concern that women should vote did not include a belief in equal education. In a fairly general way, Thomas deplores that in his sister's youth young women were not trained for anything but marriage, when "all that could be hoped for and helped with was to ensure that they found the right husband…." In a 1927 letter his sister is more explicit in speaking of her own "bitterness where the old laws and ideals are concerned" and in assigning blame: "For instance, where the case of the emancipation of women is concerned, I myself feel, despite my affection for much that was beautiful and graceful in the old ideals, despite my gratitude toward those old women who struck the first blow for our freedom and independence, that the accounts have not been quite settled with a world, a system (not, of course, with any individuals at all), that with a perfectly clear conscience allowed practically all my abilities to lie fallow and passed me on to charity or prostitution in some shape or other …" (Letters). Whether or not her assessment is just, it helps to explain, for example, her reference in "The Monkey" (in Seven Gothic Tales) to the fury sealed in the breasts of old women "by the Solomonic wax of their education". It also illuminates what happens to the heroine of "Alkmene," who is a good Greek scholar until her lessons are stopped when she is confirmed because masculine learning is unsuitable to a woman. Even if she grew up in a feminist household, Isak Dinesen had a fair share of grudges because of the repression she felt in it—one of the reasons, perhaps, that according to Thomas, "for years [she] looked with enthusiasm on the French Revolution and its characters: 'I wonder if I could ever be a person like Robespierre?' she said".
Isak Dinesen, then, was fully aware of the limitations she faced as a woman in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although just how resentful she was has been made clear only with the publication of her letters. In one, for example, she describes "the shooting parties at Näsbyholm," the estate of her paternal uncle, from which women were excluded and "did not exist until the men came home from shooting and they could begin to be charming for them at dinner" (Letters). (Apparently commenting on this letter, Naomi Bliven remarks that Dinesen's "pleasure in shooting wild animals [in Africa] … arose at least in part from resentment of European shooting parties she recalls, from which women were excluded" ["A Woman and a Foreigner," The New Yorker, September 7, 1981]). Even more noteworthy is Dinesen's outspoken defense of women's independence, particularly in her epistolary debates with the more and more reactionary Aunt Bess and in her less defensive letters to her sister Ellen. Writing to the latter in 1928, she confided: "Incidentally, I think that there is a really fine time ahead for women and that the next hundred years will bring many glorious revelations to them. For there is hardly any other sphere in which prejudice and superstition of the most horrific kind have been retained so long as in that of women, and just as it must have been an inexpressible relief for humanity when it shook off the burden of religious prejudice and superstition, I think it will be truly glorious when women become real people and have the whole world open before them" (Letters). To her Aunt Bess she writes elaborate defenses of the current generation of women, who "desire and are striving to be human beings with a direct relationship with life in the same way as men have done and do this" (Letters). In a later passage—that must delight Gilbert and Gubar, who devote a chapter of The Madwoman in the Attic to "Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers"—Dinesen develops her argument by refuting Milton's "'He all for God and she for God in him'" (Letters). To her mother Dinesen writes of her delight in learning to drive a car and in cutting her hair: "For centuries long hair has been a sort of slavery; suddenly one feels freer than words can express…. And as nobody wears corsets out here you can really move as a man's equal" (Letters). She adds that she would wear shorts if she had better legs.
The letters I have quoted were written during Dinesen's African years and reflect her joy at independence, especially after her separation from her husband. But the marriage itself, as she indicates in a letter quoted above, was contracted as a bid for independence. Before her letters were published, her brother wrote: "To me it seems likely that Tanne [Dinesen's family name] had felt it absolutely vital to seek a totally new form of existence, perhaps different from the Victorian life imprinted on her home, which she had come to find intolerable". The joy she found in the freedom of her African life is beautifully attested to in Out of Africa, but her reaction at her freedom is perhaps most succinctly stated in an excerpt from an unpublished lecture of 1938: "Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams. It was like beginning to swim where one could stretch out in all directions, it was like beginning to fly where one seemed to have left the law of gravity behind. One might get a little dizzy, it was a little dangerous as well, it took courage, as it always does to recognize the truth. But it was glorious, intoxicating" [quoted by Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality, 1971]. As Dinesen remarks to her brother in another letter, "I prize my freedom above everything else that I possess …" (Letters).
If Africa offered her freedom, however, it also allowed her to explore its limits. "Life here … has many features in common with life in Denmark two hundred years ago," she wrote; "the roughness of the conditions shows up the difference in the physical capacity of men and women …" (Letters). Although Dinesen ran a plantation in Africa (none too efficiently, it appears), she fell into the role of Victorian woman, raising flowers to please her anachronistic sixteenth-century gentlemen callers and apparently extending her being to entertain them, especially Denys Finch Hatton, whom, like Scherherazade, she amused by telling stories. Like her relationship with her father, the one with Finch Hatton may have contributed to the complexity of her sexual stance, because according to his biographer [Errol Trzebinski, in Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and His Relationship with Karen Blixen, 1977], Denys "claimed to have inherited [his 'talent for writing verse'] from his blue-stocking ancestor, Anne Finch, Lady Winchilsea"—a writer currently regarded by feminist critics as a pioneer feminist. According to Naomi Bliven, the idealized Denys is "like a more polished and magnetic version of her husband," with both being "a thousand years behind the times" but paradoxically, "agents of modernization" in East Africa. Bliven concludes that Dinesen "failed—perhaps inevitably—in her attempt to assert the rights of twentieth-century women in an existence imagined by nineteenth-century men."
Dinesen's stance on feminism, then, is especially complex because on the one hand she wants absolute independence and thinks that the relationship between the sexes will have to be revised in the twentieth century. She writes her brother that nineteenth-century versions of marriage and the relations of the sexes represented "a very brief and myopic period of exception in the history of man" probably brought about by Romanticism which managed to "[confuse] realities and feelings in a hitherto unknown manner" and ended by "[muddling] up a code that was probably none too clear previously" (Letters). She even wrote a monograph, Modern Marriage and Other Considerations, sent to her brother in November 1924 but so far—unless perhaps in Danish—unpublished (Letters [the work was published in 1986 as On Modern Marriage, and Other Observations]).
On the other hand, Dinesen apparently enjoyed the idea that women embodied special qualities and deserved special tribute as women. In a 1928 letter to her sister Ellen she laments "that the idea, so to speak, has disappeared from womanliness, of what it is to be a woman." She continues:
I think that the women of the old days, and especially the best of them, felt themselves to be representatives of something great and sacred, by virtue of which they possessed importance outside themselves and could feel great pride and dignity, and toward which they had a weighty responsibility. Neither the arrogance of the young and beautiful girl or the majesty of the old lady was, after all, felt on their own behalf; they were without any element of personal vanity, but were borne as something to take pride in, a shield or a banner. Where a personal affront might well be pardoned, a violation of that womanliness whose representatives they were could never be forgiven….
In her fiction, of course, Dinesen loves to examine such past attitudes, but to some extent, at least, she seems to have shared this one. She was personally vain. Migel, for example, comments upon her feminine vanity and "desire to charm and conquer, which was even more essential to her than to most women", and Eugene Walter describes an encounter in Rome between Dinesen and an Italian princess, who "achieved only an exquisite springtime chilliness with each other." He concludes, "both ladies, at heart, really liked to be surrounded only by males" ["Isak Dinesen Conquers Rome," Harper's Magazine, February, 1965].
Apparently Dinesen finally decided to enjoy independence yet at the same time to cultivate a special feminine mystique. The stance is uncomfortably close to the reactions against feminism by early twentieth-century writers as described by Elaine Showalter, who remarks that "many women writers of this generation seem to have retreated from social involvement into a leisurely examination of the sensibility, into the cultivation of a beautiful womanly Unlikeness" [A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, 1977]. Dinesen certainly insists on "womanly Unlikeness." What separates her from such anti-feminists as Marie Corelli is that Dinesen rejects the idea that "'the clever woman sits at home'" and controls men by her passivity [Corelli quoted by Showalter]. To the contrary, Dinesen's female characters as often as not are powerful, independent and free of sexual restraints, like the Danish noblewomen she often describes or, particularly, like Pellegrina Leoni. If from one perspective Dinesen's stance can be considered a reaction against feminism, from another it might be considered an example of what Showalter posits as the third and truly liberated stage of women's writing, the "phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity." More recently Judith Finlayson has suggested that "there may be means of achieving and using power that do not conform to the male model…." ["An Introduction to Women and Power." Homemaker's Magazine, No. 17, January-February, 1982.]
To Dinesen, the admirable men of the world are those who honor and acknowledge the superior wisdom of the one woman who never conformed and who never had to earn her independence, the witch. In the title work of her collected essays Dinesen speaks of three groups in which an "older generation [of men] viewed women," who "were for them either guardian angels or housewives or, in a third group … what I here, to use a nice word—for there are a good many that are not so nice—shall call the bayadères." After describing each type she adds that "the men of the nineteenth century viewed their women from these points of view, or in three groups, officially," but "in reality they had in their consciousness still another type of woman which for all of them was very much alive and present but was not mentioned or recognized by the light of day…. [L]ong before the words 'emancipation of women' came into use, [she] existed independently and had her own center of gravity. She was the witch" ["Daguerreotypes," in Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays]. Describing the witch, Dinesen allegedly quotes a friend from Africa:
"Even though the witch is a lonely figure," said my friend, "she has a good relationship with her sister witches. She is a black guardian angel, a bat on a dark night filled with Northern lights as a flickering reflection from the time that Lucifer was the morning star. She is a housewife to the hilt: fire and fireplace are precious to her and the cauldron is indispensable. She is a bayadère and a seductress even as a Sibyl or a mummy:
black from Phoebus's pinch of love and wrinkled deep by time …
And if the learned gentlemen feel their masculine dignity is affronted by the thought that she prefers the devil to a man, then the layman and outdoorsman find some compensation in another remark: the basis, indeed the prerequisite for the witch's entire activity is the circumstance that the devil is masculine.
The witch, then, embodies the characteristics Dinesen associated with ideal womanhood: friendship with other women, masculine independence, the rebelliousness associated with Lucifer, housewifely skills, seductiveness and a strong attraction to men. If her attitude toward feminism is complex, in the figure of the witch Dinesen found a means of expressing it.
It is not surprising that the witch is a central figure in her fiction. Not only is the witch quintessential woman, but she reflects as well the superior powers associated with women through the ancient moon goddesses and their descendants, the medieval practitioners of the Craft of the Wise. Like the moon goddesses, she has a double aspect and can appear as primordial mother, crone and loathly lady or else as Kore, captive princess and benevolent fairy. The witch Sunniva of "The Sailor-Boy's Tale" is both hag and, it can be argued, the nubile young Nora, who rewards the hero with a kiss. But like the Lapp witch Lahula of "The Bear and the Kiss," she is most often misunderstood and reviled by men who fear the power of the independent woman. Thus she not only expresses the power of womanhood in a particularly feminine form but also reflects the difficulties the emancipated woman faces in the twentieth century.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6309
SOURCE: "Karen Blixen's 'Carnival,'" in Scandinavica, Vol. 22, No. 2, November, 1983, pp. 159-70.
[In the following essay on the short story "Carnival," the critics examine Dinesen's literary style, characters, and use of fantasy, while exploring the themes of aristocratic life and the role of the artist. They also discuss the influence of Aldous Huxley, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, and E. T. A. Hoffman on Dinesen's work.]
'Carnival', which is among the most recently published of Karen Blixen's tales, dates from the 1920s—presumably around 1926, just after she had completed the shorter marionette comedy entitled Sandhedens Hævn. Originally, 'Carnival' too, was planned as a marionette comedy. The comedy was rewritten as a tale and was intended to be included in a collection to be entitled 'Nine Tales by Nozdref's Cook', which contained the material for Seven Gothic Tales (1933). In 1961, the year before Karen Blixen's death, she contemplated revising the manuscript of 'Carnival'. 'Carnival' warrants close study because its thematic and structural patterns prefigure those of her subsequent tales.
With the publication of Karen Blixen's letters from Africa in 1978, much of the conjecture about her development during the years between 1914 and 1931—and consequently about her posthumous tales from that period—has been eliminated or is at least now based on a more reliable body of material. The background of her artistic achievement can now be understood in terms of her private life. In reading the letters, we realize how greatly her correspondence resembles ideas that are expressed in her essays and fiction, in particular, with regard to the individual's attitude toward social codes. Although Karen Blixen's letters comment relatively infrequently on her literary efforts, they nevertheless reveal the interplay of truth and fiction and relate the origins of her fantastic tales. Letters to her mother, Ingeborg Dinesen, her Aunt Mary Bess Westenholz, and her brother Thomas Dinesen contain references to persons, books, and events that have been helpful in restructuring the myriad of her personal and literary activities that were essential to the creation of 'Carnival'.
The most difficult period for Karen Blixen coincides with the years that lead to the composition of 'Carnival'. It is instructive to consider events in her personal life between 1919, the year in which it becomes certain that her marriage with her cousin Bror Blixen Finecke cannot continue, and 1926, when she returns to Kenya from Denmark and experiences a number of personal crises. In 1920, Karen Blixen returns to Africa after her second visit to Denmark. She is accompanied by her brother Thomas, who is to assess the financial state of the coffee farm of which she later is appointed manager. In 1921, she separates from her husband. She is disappointed in her first expectation of pregnancy by her English companion Denys Finch Hatton in 1926. The following year Karen Blixen begins to write a lengthy essay on the institution of marriage entitled 'Moderne AE gteskab og andre Betragtninger' (first published in 1977). The finished manuscript is sent to Thomas Dinesen in 1924. Karen and Bror Blixen are divorced in 1925, after which she returns to Denmark in order to establish literary relations there. Her unsuccessful attempts lead her back to Kenya in 1926 when Sandhedens Haevn is published. During this year, Karen Blixen again takes up the tales and comedies begun in her youth, along with 'Carnival', one of the first gothic tales. In a letter to Thomas dated 16 May 1926, she writes, 'Jeg er ved at skrive paa to smaa nye Marionette Komedier for at trøste mig, men det er en daarlig Trøst….'
Documents from the years between 1919 and 1926, that attest Karen Blixen's preoccupation with ethics are her comments in the letters from Africa on marriage, sexuality, and morals and her essay on marriage. The common theme in the letters, the essay, and the tale 'Carnival' is society's axiomatic assumption that love—for which marriage is a symbol—represents a source of value. Karen Blixen believed that relationships between men and women had been construed traditionally as necessarily linked to sexual morality, so that morality associated with sexual behaviour also threatened to become one of the foundations of modern society. In reshaping her ideas about individuality and democracy, Karen Blixen protested traditions of the age that made eroticism the foundation of everyday life, 'som har regnet med at bygge virkelig praktiske og reale Forhold i Livet,—Hjem, Slægt, økonomiske Forhold,—op paa denne farlige og usikre Magt: Erotiken' [Breve for Afrika, 1914–34, edited by Frans Lasson, 1978]. In this connection Karen Blixen recommended to her brother Thomas, Bertrand Russell's book Principles of Social Reconstruction (first printed 1916), in which he discusses the weight that reactionary opinions carry in the consideration of moral problems. Russell's aim is to suggest a philosophy of politics that is based on creative impulse and not on materialistic values of human experience. In a chapter on marriage, Russell outlines the ills of this—to use his term—political institution. Karen Blixen's own essay on marriage is, incidentally, very much in tune with the ideas in Russell's book.
Karen Blixen confesses the unsuitability of marriage for herself and in this context, advances the theory that modern love is 'Homosexualite,—opfattet paa samme Maade som naar man bruger Udtrykket i homogen,—som mere tager Form som en lidenskabelig Sympathi, et Fællesskab i Kærlighed til Ideer eller Idealer, end som en personlig Opgaaen i, og Hengivelse til hinanden;…' 'Aldous Huxley', writes Karen Blixen, 'har et Udtryk; 'The love of the parallels,' som han rigtignok anvender i en temmelig tragisk Betydning, men som jeg vel kan have Lov til at opfatte som jeg vil.' (Blixen rephrases, incidentally, Huxley's title—'The Loves of the Parallels'—to her own advantage. Her interpretation of Huxley's phrase is that 'one does not "[løbe] 'ud i', gaar ikke 'op i' hinanden; men kommer maaske ikke hinanden saa nær som de Mennesker, der har Evener til en saadan Opgaaen i hinanden, og man er sletikke hinandens Maal i Livet, man mens man er sig selv og stræber mod sit eget fjerne Maal, finder man Lykken i Overbevisningen om i al Evighed at løbe parallelt".' She proposes that the relationship between men and women be one of 'parallel moving' beings.)
On 13 July 1927, Karen Blixen continues the discussion of man's search for values with her Aunt Bess by arguing that 'bourgeois happiness' is not what people search for in life; neither is it 'bourgeois happiness' which satisfies them. She feels that in determining one's raison d'être, misconceptions about marriage and the development of the self arise. Accordingly, she fails to understand why one cannot live for oneself in marriage. She finds the practice of free relations a more nourishing alternative. The configurations of free relationships in 'Carnival' is, consequently, not a symbol for immorality, but rather for friendships that are void of the conflicts of marriage and that are maintained by the mutual tastes, work, and interest of spiritually self-sufficient individuals. That Karen Blixen should choose adventures of the heart as a central issue in the tale is consistent with her belief that society of her day substituted amorous inclinations for hazardous passions. In retrospect, she relates the idea of comfort to the style of life characteristic of 1925, thus borrowing from her contemporary Aldous Huxley ideas about the materialistic philosophy of 'le moderne comfort'.
In her letters from Africa, Karen Blixen cites Huxley as an author whom she liked very much. Her literary attraction to Huxley grew into a personal friendship that continued even after she had returned to Denmark permanently. (Karen Blixen's companion Denys Finch Hatton was, moreover, a personal friend of Aldous Huxley's brother Julian.) Huxley's popularity during the twenties, which presumably reached Karen Blixen through her circle of English friends in Kenya, was symptomatic of the times. Besides themes of decadence and materialistic philosophy, Huxley's works from the twenties—Chrome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925)—demonstrate a search for values. In these novels, Huxley draws references from various disciplines—science, philosophy, psychology, religions, art, and music.
We know that Karen Blixen did not always attempt to be original with regard to themes, symbols, and archetypes in her stories. Not only does she quote from individual authors—classical and contemporary—but she also consciously creates a mosaic of her sources. With 'Carnival' Karen Blixen set out to write a certain kind of tale. Huxley's own discussion of his narrative technique throws some light on the spirit in which 'Carnival' was created.
All you need is a sufficiency of characters and parallel contrapuntal plots … You alternate the themes. More interesting, the modulations and variations are also more difficult. A novelist modulates by repudiating situations and characters. He shows several people falling in love … in different ways … In this way, you can modulate through all the aspects of your theme, you can write variations in any number of different moods. Another way: The novelist can assume the god-like creative privilege and simply elect to consider the events of the story of their various aspects—emotional, scientific, economic, religious, metaphysical, etc.
[Huxley, Point Counter Point, 1928]
An essayist and novelist, Huxley engages a fluidity of form that allows him to comment on a wide range of subjects. Any given subject may serve as a starting point for discussing something else. His reader's task is to reconstruct order.
Comparisons and narrative devices used by Blixen and Huxley can be made with regard to the sudden shift of ideas and the repetition of themes and their variations. Karen Blixen writes, for example, in the tale 'Carnival' about a diplomat's reassignment from Copenhagen to Egypt; this remark is followed by an excerpt from a fairy tale, an exchange in blank verse between lovers, and an artist's discussion of colours. All of this within a single paragraph. Throughout the tale, seemingly unmotivated anecdotes of events that occurred in remote lands interrupt the story. The recurrence of themes is observed in parallel love affairs, searchings for a source of value by all of the characters, dual personalities, and desires to experience seduction.
In this study, Aldous Huxley, A Study of the Major Novels (London, 1968), Peter Bowering points out that Huxley's first major novel (Crome Yellow, 1921) is a house party novel, that is (as we shall witness in 'Carnival'), a tale which employs as its point of departure the meeting of a circle of social and artistic dilettantes at a secluded house party. In Huxley's tales, the characters, each of whose personalities characterizes a particular set of values, are exposed one by one. The polemical element of his narrative allows for a dialectical discussion that concerns the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the postwar era. Like Huxley's, Karen Blixen's tales are intellectual dialogues couched in satirical moralities on love and art.
Up until the 1930s, the period of Karen Blixen's development that is of interest to us, public and private and morality was a chief consideration in Huxley's fiction and nonfiction. Karen Blixen and Huxley question love as a source of value. The relation between men and women, the social versus the personal self, the fruits of self-denial, the harsh gaiety of the twenties, and the overindulgence of aristocratic society were central issues in their tales.
A certain perception of the aristocratic world is inherent in Karen Blixen's metaphor 'carnival'. Although Baroness Blixen was not born into the aristocracy, she married into it and managed to enjoy the style of life it maintained. Blixen's characters were, too, 'rich, disillusioned, and hungry'. They were at once themselves and impersonators in a world that was not their own. The 'carnival' is a fitting introduction to the tale, as the metaphor defines the scene ('the great Opera Carnival at Copenhagen of 1925') to which the players were to return after an evening in the manner of the past—masquerading as caricatures—superimposing a sense of substance on their own empty lives.
We are reminded of Thackeray's use of the carnival as a symbol of the warped state of society in his novel Vanity Fair (1847–48). Like the message in Blixen's tale, Thackeray's social novel of the previous century holds up hypocrisy, greed, pretence, and moral insensibility to ridicule. Both works strive to suggest that a lack of self-knowledge contributes to the superficiality of aristocratic society and that man can progress from moral insensibility to self-knowledge. Unlike 'Carnival', however, Vanity Fair is a social satire in which characters' weaknesses are unmasked. The strength of 'Carnival' lies not in its derision of superficiality, but rather, in the simple statement that 'life itself is a true carnival'. Life of the aristocracy too, is a marionette comedy in which a player has no soul, no conscience, and no values. Karen Blixen regards the aristocracy as separate from ordinary society in that aristocratic and artistic values are much the same.
'Carnival' is set on the outskirts of Copenhagen in the mid-1920s. The story involves members of a supper party who decide to draw lots that will allow one of them to live on their pooled income for one year, while the others forfeit their wealth. The party takes an unexpected turn when an intruder who poses as a Negro page holds up the assembled group and demands money. The dinner guests persuade the intruder to take part in the lottery, that is ended when one of the original guests draws the winning card and elects to take on Zamor, the page, as an artificial shadow.
Personalities in 'Carnival' are disentangled only through the reader's careful separation and matching of figurative and literary pseudonyms with given names. One is best served by arranging a list of characters subsumed under the headings: Christian name, masks, and relation (to the other characters). Masks and given names are referred to interchangeably in the tale. Females play male roles but also their own roles as women. The pronoun 'she', for example, may sometimes refer to the female masked figure, when, in fact, the actual male person is being referred to. Moreover, complex relations between marriage partners and friends may lead to confusion.
The nine characters in 'Carnival' include four women and five men. Mimi ('Watteau Pierrot') and Polly ('Arlecchino') are sisters. Mimi is married to Julius ('The Venetian lady'), who has twice been in love with Fritze ('Camelia'). Tido, the male futuristic Harlequin is in love with Annelise ('Søren Kierkegaard'). Her divorced husband is, incidentally, married to his divorced wife. The foreigner among the dinner guests is Charlie ('The Magenta Domino'). Rosendaal, the painter, is the eldest among them. Finally, Zamor (whose actual given name is not imparted), Madame Rubenstein's salesman and adopted son, pretends to be a Negro page.
Much of the narration in the first half of the tale deals with the manner in which the disguise of the other self is manifested. Costumes have been carefully chosen, and persons who don them play the roles that are dictated by their masks. Camelia is dressed in pink satin that accentuates her indeterminate character—'at whatever place you cut her slim body … you would have got a perfectly circular transverse incision.' Søren Kierkegaard—'that brilliant, deep, and desperate Danish philosopher of the eighteen forties was admired for her rare grace.' The sisters 'Pierrot' and 'Arlecchino' are likened, not to 'a congenial up-heap of heterogeneous atoms, but to a heterogeneous up-heap of congenial atoms.' We witness with them 'a scoffing expression which one finds in the faces of Japanese dolls.' 'The Venetian lady' wears heavy luminous silver cloth and brocade. The futuristic Harlequin is dressed in clothes of soft metallic materials in pale shades of jade, mauve, and grey. The Magenta Domino, whose face is not fully concealed—is played by an Englishman; as a foreigner, he perceives the events with some degree of disinterest. Rosendaal is dressed in yellow to challenge the belief that 'yellow is a colour which has no depth.' Zamor's colour is 'unmistakably a fake.' The black of his skin is described as an 'unmixed, sooty darkness.'
'Carnival' convincingly recalls the traditions of commedia dell' arte, the theatre of improvisation originated in sixteenth-century Italy in which players—referred to as 'masks'—work from a plot outline and fulfill inherited or invented roles. Stock players generally wear disguises or comic make-up; they include among others, old men, lovers, and comic valets. Although Karen Blixen employs familiar stock types as well as historical figures, her general design in 'Carnival' remains loyal to improvised theatre.
Two elements account for the fundamental structure of 'Carnival': first, Karen Blixen's use of fantasy and second, her questioning of the compatibility of traditional ethics and modern society. The interplay of these elements (which underscores a convergence of the artistic, psychological, and social parts of Karen Blixen's philosophical convictions) is emphasised here. 'Carnival' is a symbolic expression for how Karen Blixen dealt with the various forces that moulded her view of life. Metaphorically speaking, the tale is as well a sketch of her later paintings.
Some stories of Karen Blixen—or 'Isak Dinesen' to use her English pseudonym—dramatise a theme of ambiguous identity that is at first reminiscent of tales by E. T. A. Hoffmann or Edgar Allan Poe. The distinguishing motif in Karen Blixen's tales is, however, the theatrical quality of life that manifests itself in the mask. Her tales involving the mask range from the years before she was to achieve fame until recently when her posthumous tales were published. Karen Blixen's early fiction—some tales considered by her to be incomplete—contains basic ideas for her later, major stories. The marionette comedy Sandhedens Hævn—The Revenge of Truth—which was published in 1926 in the Danish cultural monthly Tilskueren illustrates her attempt to dispel the theatre's traditional verisimilitude. In the play, characters reveal consciousness of their roles and their audience. Comic awareness is emphasised by impromptu stage directions, improvisations, and the characters' ability to alter their established roles. As a result, the play can be perceived not merely as a world of marionettes, but also as a world in the tradition of commedia dell'arte, where players enjoy relative freedom of action—a freedom which conforms to Karen Blixen's idea that art and life are reconciled in the mask.
That Karen Blixen should employ the mask as one of her chief symbols is not arbitrary. The manner in which she herself chose private and public roles shows her own need to have had at her disposal various facets of personality. In the short story 'The Roads around Pisa' (in Seven Gothic Tales), Karen Blixen—'Isak Dinesen'—epitomises consciousness that can tolerate ambiguous identity. The essence of this consciousness is the ability deliberately to choose among several roles or modes of behaviour. Such a choice is governed by the integrating force of a unique and permanent self. The capacity to assume a new role at will without losing the sense of continuity of the self (that is, without displaying signs of pathological processes that threaten the psyche) defines the attitude of the actor. In 'The Roads around Pisa', the protagonist becomes an actor in a play within a play and the work's narrative structure is understood in terms of the theatre. In 'The Cardinal's First Tale' (Last Tales) the reader is confronted by a character whose personality is a blend of a metaphorical God and of man, as it were, of priest and poet. The ambiguity of identity appears again in 'The Dreamers' ('Drømmerne'), where the opera singer Pellegrina Leoni poses in a succession of diverse disguises, but also vows never again to limit herself to being only one person.
As Donald Hannah points out in an essay entitled 'The Latter Phase: "Isak Dinesen",' Karen Blixen considered the name 'Isak Dinesen' not a deception, but a mask [see Hannah, 'Isak Dinesen' and Karen Blixen, 1962]. The public face was a mask that permitted and nourished her artistic concept of the self and was to superimpose the identity society had chosen for her. Karen Blixen's dissatisfaction with society's expectations—which defined the boundaries of her conventional identity—stemmed from an awareness that the exploration of the inner self constitutes artistic freedom. The idea of making explicit a hidden facet of one's self by creating a new role and a new outward appearance is illustrated vividly in Kasparson's words from 'The Deluge at Norderney' (Seven Gothic Tales): 'the witty woman chooses a carnival costume which ingeniously reveals something in her spirit or heart which the conventions of everyday life conceal'. By using a mask deliberately, it is possible to become detached from one's assigned role on the 'stage of life'.
The donning of masks—as portrayed in Karen Blixen's tales—distinguishes itself from classic depictions of the double—or double identity—to be found in the works of Hoffmann, Poe, or Maupassant. Instead of allowing her characters to be intimidated by their alternate roles (as Hoffmann does in his tales), she allows the characters playfully to engage in conversation about the ability to create and choose roles. Instead of portraying incidents of pathological processes in which individuals are incapable of distinguishing their doubles from their permanent selves, Blixen injects an intentional contradiction of the consciousness of the artistically created identity (signified by the mask) and the function of the created identity. Blixen's players as well as her readers are aware that the personae may simultaneously reveal multiple facets of their identities. The nature of disguise—costumes with half masks, no masks, or, as in the case of 'Pierrot', a floured face that reveals her conventional identity but that cannot be unmasked—enhances the idea of conscious conflict and the conflict of consciousness. In Karen Blixen's tale, the purpose of the mask is not motivated by a desire to escape fear. There are no doppelgänger among Blixen's multiple identities. In Karen Blixen, the reader perceives an alternate spiritual identity and not a physical double. 'Masks' in Karen Blixen's tales do not function as ethical contrasts, but rather as caricatures in their own right. The ambiguity of identity may be contained in a single person. The masks in 'Carnival' are not used to obscure the identity of the wearers entirely; on the contrary, certain comic effects in the tale are attained by contrasting the wearer's still visible, banal appearance with the highmindedness revealed by the choice of the mask. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, for example, must coexist with the shallow figure of Annelise, whose brilliance is defined only by her outward appearance.
Among the most striking 'masks' in 'Carnival' are the Chinese painter, Arlecchino and Pierrot. The painter assumes the personality of stock types known as 'the old men'; this type wears a mask of dignity, but Rosendaal, as Blixen states, would shed his skin 'with the ease of an old snake which believes it has got something better underneath.' 'Arlecchino' appears in 'Carnival' as the 'genuine classic figure of the old Italian pantomime.' Blixen's 'Pierrot' is expressly labelled 'Watteau Pierrot', recognisable by admirers of works by Antoine Watteau. Karen Blixen, who herself studied art, achieves a refinement of the mask by attending to artistic principles that suggest three-dimensionality through the use of shadows and defined luminous sources.
The combination of light and colour, atmospheric effect, and linear drawing are essential to 'Carnival'. The costume of the Venetian lady is compared to a great waterfall of moonlight. 'Moonshine' is the password of Blixen's sister masks and rivals, 'Arlecchino' and 'Pierrot', and is a symbol for the 'enhanced lustre, the gentle reflection of a coveted admiration with which the happy rival would shine in the unhappy rival's eye.' As the dinner party begins Karen Blixen remarks on a 'meeting and mating of light and colour.' Arlecchino complains of the vulgarity of being three-dimensional and considers making a shadow theatre. Zamor is saved from an 'embarkment to Cythere', clearly an allusion to a painting that is characteristic of Watteau's style: L'embarquement pour Cythere is a delicate courtly fantasy represented in warm and shimmering tones.
Donning a mask is not only a matter of masquerading. All of the dinner guests are aware of their costumes; this makes it possible for them to develop conversation about the superficiality of their society—the ethos of Karen Blixen's tale. They talk of the fundamental falsity of the traditional idea of covering up the body and leaving the face bare. Pierrot remarks: 'but to be your own caricature—that is a true carnival', and thus concedes the theatrical qualities of our own age. Mimi considers taking a job as a mannequin—'[to be] twelve different mannequins to twelve different houses, and to create twelve different styles.' A preoccupation with masks—in defence of deception—is further revealed in Arlecchino's command to her sister: 'change your face now, for here comes your husband.' The mechanical act is to effect a change of disposition as well as a change of person. And in Julius' apology to Polly, 'I beg your pardon, it was your costume misleading me', the character's subconscious response becomes clear.
Karen Blixen also dramatises ambiguous identity in the character's adaptation to social forces. As in 'The Roads around Pisa' in which the protagonist finds his identity mirrored in the minds of others, so too in 'Carnival' do the personae find their traits reflected in objects that serve to complement—in concrete and abstract terms—the inadequacies of the ego. The reader is struck by the structural similarity of Karen Blixen's technique in portraying alternate identities with principal ideas in Freud's explanations in psychoanalysis; yet, there is not sufficient evidence among her biographical writings to confirm that Karen Blixen intended to write or have her works interpreted in light of Freud's teachings. When 'Carnival' was written, Karen Blixen had been living in Africa, and except through a circle of European friends, had little opportunity to learn about contemporary movements in psychology in Western Europe. She complains frequently in her letters about her lack of current sources and books. That she is aware of Sigmund Freud's contribution is, however, clarified in at least one interview with the Danish journalist Bent Mohn. Mohn remarked: 'You spoke of the unconscious. What do you think of Freud?' Karen Blixen replied by saying, 'I really don't know enough about Freud to express myself about him … I believe that Freud did his time a great service by acknowledging complexes or facing up to them and thereby freeing people of much worry and anxiety. But I also believe that those who came after him frequently carried his ideas too far, or that they misunderstood him.'
The distinction that Karen Blixen makes between Freud and 'Freudian' is also fundamental to the present discussion. Karen Blixen's allusions to ideas historically associated with Freud illustrate merely that she was affected by the assumptions of her time. She was a contemporary of Freud and Carl Jung, as well as of authors of imaginative literature whose works reflected a consciousness of new perspectives inspired by psychoanalysis.
The source of Karen Blixen's allusion to Freud's teachings in a scene involving Tido and Camelia:
Your mask would give you at least that release from self … Your centre of gravity is moved from the ego to the object; through true humility of self denial you arrive at an all comprehending unity with life.
is confirmed in Freud's explanation of the mechanism that involves a shift of energy from the ego to the object. In Freud's terms, the 'ego is regarded as a great reservoir of energy' that maintains a fluctuating balance between ego and object. Otto Rank, among the most prominent of lay theorists of psychoanalysis, provided a psychoanalytic interpretation where the ego is indistinct from its object; the imagined outward projection of the ego is, in other words, its 'double'. Infatuation of the ego with itself perpetuates an exact copy of itself in the outer world. The double relays guilt and death impulses toward the person. On a psychological level, resulting murderous and suicidal impulses are equivalent because object and ego are perceived as identical.
Karen Blixen's expansion of the self through the creation of a personality which reveals a hidden facet of the original self surpasses the idea of mere infatuation with the self. The confrontation of the social self and the artistic concept of the self provides a springboard for the question 'Who am I?' 'Masks' in 'Carnival' are in each case visibly different personalities—even though the personalities represented by the masks contain psychic energy that has been displaced from the original self. The altered outward appearance of the 'masks' underlines Karen Blixen's attempt to utilise knowledge about the self by exploring its many possibilities.
The process of 'moving one's centre of gravity from the ego to the object' takes on thematic and structural importance in 'Carnival'. The moral insufficiency that predominates in 'Carnival''s social institutions causes individuals to forfeit self-realisation. Early in the story Mimi and Polly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of marriage and, in general, relations between the sexes. By being married, Mimi denies her own desires for the sake of deception—deception that is assumed to bring about happiness. 'All my existence becomes nothing but being in love … nothing at all has got any meaning except for his sake and for the sake of what he thinks of me.' Mimi refers to her existence in terms that recall visual perspective; her life runs parallel with Julius'. Mimi shifts her interests to those of her husband. 'My thoughts turn around a single person.' Mimi compares her dilemma to that of nuns who live for God; she suggests that God dislikes their inability to find their own lives interesting. Mimi longs for a relation with Julius in which their lives intersect, that is, 'to be Julius' shadow.' She remarks to Polly, 'God, how sorry one ought to feel for all parallel lines which want to intersect as badly as I do.'
The conversation between 'Pierrot' and 'Arlecchino' foreshadows symbols and ideas explored philosophically in the events leading to the lottery's execution. 'Carnival''s two-fold purpose—to contemplate human existence in a society that lacks values and to consider a means of acquiring moral sensibility—is expressed with references to colour, two-dimensional images such as the shadow and the silhouette, as well as mirror images. Superficiality and artificiality are the characteristics of aristocratic life symbolised. A striking aspect of Blixen's descriptions is her assignment of sensual qualities to colours. Pastels are 'flat and greasy'; 'they have no depth'. Black, by contrast, possessed substance—'a little piece of night itself, containing all its mystery, depth, and bliss …;' black is hard, dry, and light. The pastels and black are frequently juxtaposed. Pierrot insists on not wanting to be black and remarks that had she known what to do with her legs, she would have come to the carnival as a rainbow. Blixen tells us that Camelia is dressed in pink satin and has blackened eyelashes. When speaking of her visit in Paris, Camelia refers to her moments there as glowing bits of black, against the flat pink faces of the new houses. And finally, Rosendaal explains to Zamor the treat of being the one central little shadow in a world of artificial rosy lights. Blixen's aim in each case is to impress upon the players and the reader the necessity of getting a little black into life. The street 'Vognmagergade' was the 'black spot upon the clean face of Copenhagen.' The time had almost come when it would be necessary to have government grants in order to protect society from pastel coloured 'fatty degeneration'.
The contrast of black and white in 'Carnival' is discussed in conjunction with the shadow as a symbol for the conscience. The insinuation—in keeping with the painter's insistence on the superior nature of black—is, of course, contrary to traditional ideas. The paradox is, for example, witnessed in Arlecchino's remark 'Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars' shadows.' The shadow can be interpreted as the soul or alter ego; it may symbolise as well a split personality. Losing one's shadow, as recalled by Karen Blixen in the case of Peter Schlemihl, connotes a loss of one's soul. By contrast, the prospect of being able to acquire a shadow—'they must be marketable goods', says Arlecchino—results in her decision to take Zamor, who only pretends to be black, as her artificial shadow—her artificial conscience. Similarly, black and the shadow are employed in more subtle contrasts: the black mole at the small of Camelia's back is likened to 'the little shadow of a wick within the alabaster lamp'. The verole is described as a strong black, like a shadow throwing itself forward and backward.
Airiness and transience of life are intimated in Blixen's use of mirror images. The two sisters, dancing, stop before one of the long mirrors. The law of gravitation has been done away with for the night. In 'Carnival' mirror images are enticing. They are able to bring out the inner significance of the person but do not grin back or frighten.
Karen Blixen's use of reflections as symbols is strengthened by manipulations of visual perspective. While the actors maintain a passive role—they do not react to each other's frequently nonchalant metaphors containing sudden changes of visual perspective—the reader realises that the subtle references to depth, direction, and intensity contain clues to the ethos of the tale. The watchful reader proceeds in active anticipation of such references. A frequent means of keeping the matter of perspective in the reader's mind is the juxtaposition of the concrete and the abstract or of the subjective and the objective. During the course of Polly's conversation with Mimi we are, for example, directed abruptly from subjective contemplation to a perceptible, trivial act.
When I think, said Arlecchino very slowly, of all the people who envy you your modern silhouette. Yes, said Pierrot sadly. The silhouette of your mind, Arlecchino went on with great force, might be a Masaccio. Yes, said Pierrot. She dived into her large pocket for her cigarette case.
Later a moment of insight is compared to a sensation of distance. The idea of Zamor's taking part in the lottery
suddenly gave new importance to their gamble … In Pierrot herself it produced the sensation when you get in an aeroplane, when you have for some time kept your eyes inside the machine, and then turn to look down—an apprehension of distance, a perspective.
In each of these examples there is a sharp contrast of subjective and objective realms of experience. Although the lottery really does take place, it initially involves a gamble of aristocratic possessions and not those of the lower class. The inclusion of Zamor redefines the effect of the lottery's outcome. The swift transition from the elevated to the mundane also speaks to the artificiality and shallowness of conversation and attitude in 'Carnival'. Karen Blixen addresses the aristocratic society's superficiality as well in the physical features of the persona: Rosendaal—although 'a brilliant person'—has 'a little full-moon face, with no features, hair or expression to speak of, indeed most of all like the posterior of a baby.' And Julius had the capacity of drowning his observer's eye in his own being, and of remaining forever unseen.
The concept of the self is also a primary theme in Karen Blixen's later gothic tale 'The Deluge at Norderney'. The story contains many metaphors derived from 'Carnival', which Robert Langbaum suggests was the preliminary version of the gothic tale. One recalls among other themes and images, the tenuous line separating truth and deception, the practice of disguising the truth and of playing roles, the donning of the mask, the virtue of black, the contrast between the virtues of the bourgeoisie and the vices of the aristocracy, and characters who are by profession actors. Kasparson, the protagonist in 'The Deluge', exemplifies yet another manifestation of ambiguous identity, achieved not through the alteration of the self or the transference of the self to an object or person, but rather, the replacement of the self; the individual takes on the identity of another but is at the same time conscious that he is playing a role. When Blixen remarks, 'I suppose you have understood that the two figures, the Cardinal and Kasparson, are really one and the same person' [Aage Henriksen, Det quddmelige barn og andre Essays on Karen Blixen, 1965], she implies not that Kasparson sees himself in the Cardinal, but rather, that Kasparson has played this particular role well. The earlier mentioned distinction that Karen Blixen makes between Freud and 'Freudian' is demonstrated by her use of multiple possibilities of the self—not for a pathological interpretation where characters are overwhelmed by distortions of the mind, but rather, as an exercise in self-knowledge for which the character's conscious recognition of his social and artistic roles is requisite. Karen Blixen is concerned less with the psychological mechanisms that lead to ambiguous identity than with the possibilities for behaviour granted by the mechanisms. Her portrayals, moreover, underscore the trend of her generation of writers to acknowledge subconscious processes as an explanation for some of our behaviour. Kasparson's impersonation of the Cardinal is psychologically distinct from that of the person who sees the double as a reflection of the ego—a threat to the integrity of the self—and who tries to kill the double in spite of his knowledge that he is simultaneously killing himself. Kasparson's murdering the Cardinal brings, in fact, the opposite result; indeed, his disguise and future existence depend on the Cardinal's death. Art and life are reconciled in the mask of the Cardinal. Reminiscent of sentiments expressed in 'Carnival', Kasparson warns: 'Not by the face shall the man be known, but by the mask.'
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4351
SOURCE: "The Fantastic in Karen Blixen's Osceola Production," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 4, Autumn, 1985, pp. 379-89.
[In the following essay, Black describes Osceola as a collection of "three kinds of fantastic tales" whose "interrogations of reality" satirize bourgeois values and sensibilities.]
Until recently, the only examples of Karen Blixen's juvenile works were to be found in the little known collection Osceola, in the marionette comedy Sandhedens haevn, and in the Karen Blixen Archives at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. In 1977, however, "The De Cats Family" and "Uncle Theodore" appeared, and in 1981 and 1983, several other stories in greater or lesser degrees of completion were made available through the pages of Blixeniana. Unfortunately, the newest material remains in its original Danish. And still more incomplete but lengthy fragments such as "Doris Alvarez. En spøgelseshistorie" remain in manuscript form. The relative obscurity and inaccessibility of these materials for American readers and scholars has served to effectively block a firsthand evaluation of their worth and their relevance to the rest of Blixen's authorship.
Osceola was a teller of ghost stories, thrillers, and love stories. These tales are not opaque but straightforward, and they are mainly either ironic and humorous or more serious and rather frightening. But the streak of supernaturalism that runs through them all and the sheer fun of Osceola's authorship links it to a curious quality about Karen Blixen's authorship that has either been quietly ignored or taken for granted.
Karen Blixen herself acknowledged that her production was made up of essentially two kinds of works: those she considered serious literature and those told for the sake of entertainment. That Karen Blixen's readers derive a great deal of pleasure from Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa, Winter's Tales, or the stories collected in Last Tales does not detract from the fact that she saw a fundamental qualitative difference between these works and the stories she wrote for the Ladies' Home Journal. It is a sad irony that the Baroness was dismayed when the sensational Gothic thriller The Angelic Avengers, which she had dictated off the cuff and published under the new pseudonym Pierre Andrézal, was accepted as a book of the month along with her serious contributions. In a newspaper article, Blixen, without acknowledging Gengoedelsens veje as her own, wrote that Pierre Andrézal perhaps wrote his book:
[U]nder en Undtagelsestilstand, at lade sit eget Arbejde vaere, saa at sige, en Undtagelse. Hvis det skulde forholde sig saadan, at han før har skrevet og udgivet andre Bøger, under sit virkelige Navn, har han ikke villet have dem sammenstillet eller sammenlignet med 'Gengaedelsens Veje.' [D]uring a state of emergency, letting his own work be, as it were, an exception. If it should be the case that he has before written and published other books under his real name, he has not wanted to have them held up to or compared with The Angelic Avengers.
[Karen Blixen, "Om pseudonumerog Gengaedelsens veje," Berlingske Aftenavis, 23 November 1944, translated by Casey Bjerregaard Black]
In fact, critics have taken her at her word and until recently have either not been too concerned with the minor and lesser known works and very little with The Angelic Avengers, or they have glossed over the whole issue of Blixen's pseudonyms. For example, several stories that date from the Osceola period were collected in the volume entitled Carnival under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. And in the most recent edition of The Angelic Avengers, the pseudonym Pierre Andrézal was replaced, again, by Isak Dinesen.
I do not mean to overemphasize this distinction even though it was recognized by Blixen herself. Nor should the pseudonymous character of the authorship be overexaggerated in light of the fact that, with the exception of The Angelic Avengers, Karen Blixen wrote under her own name in Denmark. After all, the authorship does not neatly divide into two camps. But the entire authorship could be said to balance between the classic desire to delight and instruct. The morality of the instruction may be suspect, especially in the mature works of Isak Dinesen, but the entertainment value is universally accepted. Writing in a fantastic mode allowed her to captivate and entertain by virtue of the gothic's appeal as a popular genre, but it also gave her the freedom to question, criticize and put into doubt the moral conventions of her age.
The most powerful synthesis of the two poles of Blixen's authorship remains Seven Gothic Tales, the first work published under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. It was neither Blixen's first nor last attempt at writing in the Gothic style, for Karen Blixen's relationship with the fantastic stretches throughout her production. But if we look at the character of her authorship up to the time when she began work on the tales that would eventually become Seven Gothic Tales, we see that Osceola's Sandsynlige historier were in fact very unlikely stories. Osceola was a writer of fantastic tales. Looking beyond the Osceola production and Seven Gothic Tales, however, it is clear that the mode of fantastic expression varies throughout the authorship. If it can be assumed that these differences are not merely due to a greater or lesser degree of indulgence in the art of pastiche, then we must know what the fantastic is and what it does if we are to account for the role of the fantastic not only in the Osceola production but throughout the entire authorship.
This task has been made considerably easier by contributions made on both sides of the Atlantic in the last decade or so by critics and researchers of fantastic literature. The breakthrough came in 1970, with Tzvetan Todorov's Introduction à la littérature fantastique. For Todorov, the genre of fantastic literature was a way for the nineteenth century to write about the unconscious and the taboo. It was a means of combatting personal and institutional censure.
Irène Bessière's Le Récit fantastique explains that the fantastic is more than a condition of hesitation on the part of the protagonist and the reader when confronted with the apparently supernatural. It is a language of uncertainty that attacks social norms but in the end reasserts them.
In The Literature of Terror David Punter concentrates on the double movement within Gothic terror that both attacks and reasserts predominently middle-class values. Punter includes a chapter on modern perceptions of the barbaric in which he treats Isak Dinesen as a maverick. He points to the irony in her use of the term "gothic." And even as he points out those qualities that make her archaic, he recognizes that they are countered by a pervasive and ironic female self-consciousness. Punter criticizes Blixen's terrorless fantastic as suffering from this inner contradiction between the archaic quality of her style and the modern tone of her subject matter. His reservations are puzzling because the crucial element in his definition of the gothic is that it is both a bourgeois and an anti-bourgeois literature. This very tension has long been recognized by Blixen scholarship, and the Letters from Africa further substantiate this conflict between Blixen's realms of Paradise and Lucifer.
Rosemary Jackson's Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, concentrates on the fantastic as a mode of literature in counterpoint to realism. Just as realistic genres reflect the values and the reality of an age, so does its fantastic counterpart change in the expression of the unreal and the immoral. Its role in modern western culture is not escapism but subversion of middle-class values, sexual repression, and capitalism. It is a psychologically necessary antipode. The fantastic is not a retreat from reality, but an aggressive, revolutionary interrogation of it.
Tzvetan Todorov, Irène Bessière, David Punter, and Rosemary Jackson oppose the idea that fantastic literature is essentially a form of escapism, and they assign to it a more dynamic and generally more provocative role. In The Romantic Fantastic, Tobin Siebers links the fantastic to the logic of superstition so that the violence and exclusion directed towards the fantastic character and the Romantic poet herself are understood as mechanisms of self-identification.
For these critics, fantastic literature is not mere entertainment. Its essence, lies not in sensational Gothic gimmickry. The fantastic fascinates not through its ability to divert, but by its ability to subvert the laws of the real world, to express desire and oppression, and to act, as does the logic of superstition, as a mechanism of self-identification. It is with this understanding of the fantastic that we must approach Karen Blixen as not only a writer of Gothic tales but as a writer in the fantastic mode.
The fantastic is a highly malleable mode of expression, but its essence is transgression. In the March 1926 letter to her brother Thomas, Blixen claims Lucifer as her paradigm for enlightened rebellion. "Paradise" was the unlimited goodness, love, and kindness of her home which made it impossible for her to show opposition. Lucifer, rather than something wild and demonic, she conceived of as meaning:
[T]ruth, or the search for truth, striving toward the light, a critical attitude,—indeed, what one means by spirit. The opposite of settling down believing that what one cares for is and must be best, indeed, settling into the studied calm, satisfaction and uncritical atmosphere of the Paradise. And in addition to this: work …—a sense of humor which is afraid of nothing, but has the courage of its convictions to make fun of everything, and life, new light, variety.
[Letters from Africa]
She also describes her sense of failure and loss in her inability to live or write up to her luciferian ideal:
Can you remember us talking about Lucifer in Knuthenborg Park?—Well, I am convinced that Lucifer is the angel whose wings should be hovering over me. And we know that the only solution for Lucifer was rebellion, and then the fall to his own kingdom…. Now I am able to see many opportunities when I ought to have made a break with that special Paradise…. I should have run away with some man or other in Rome. It was simply contemptible of me not to do so, and lack of Lucifer's vision; but at the time I could not see this…. The same is true of my pathetic "authorship." I cannot, I cannot possibly write anything of the slightest interest without breaking way from the Paradise and hurtling down to my kingdom. "The Revenge of Truth" is a miniature of that, you know; I wrote that in Rome.
[Letters from Africa]
In her next letter to Thomas Dinesen she writes that she can now get on with her marionette plays: "I was feeling so uncertain and could not do anything about it until I had heard my own voice, seen myself in that mirror that is the person to whom one is speaking." She took up again the marionette comedy La Valse mauve and recast it as the story "Carnival" in English. It was to be included along with "Caryatids" and the seven other gothic tales in a collection called Nine Tales by Nozdref's Cook. But "Carnival" was never published until after her death.
"Carnival," then, is the product of a period of transition. Like The Revenge of Truth it has its origins in the Osceola period, and its plot structure is still a series of vignettes. But "Carnival" clearly belongs to the Seven Gothic Tales with respect to subject matter, characterization, and imagery. As her letters to her brother indicate. "Carnival" was recast after she had mastered her own uncertainty and found her own identity. The Lucifer ideal—the striving for truth and light, the critical attitude, the sense of humor and fearlessness—was not new to Blixen. Satire and rebellion to some degree and in some fashion are at the heart of the Osceola production. But in 1926, Blixen revolts against Paradise and hurtles herself down to her own kingdom. Henceforth, her authorship will bear the stamp of this sea-change. And conversely, her former "pathetic 'authorship'" is marked by the author's inability to see or to choose unequivocably the luciferian path.
The Osceola works are thus predictably different from the post-1926 period. They are not just less interesting, less intricate, shallower, less skillful, or less mature. They are fundamentally different because the nature of the fantastic in them is qualitatively different. Whereas the revolt, satire, humor, fearlessness, and the search for truth and self-knowledge is unrelieved in "Carnival" and in Seven Gothic Tales, in the Osceola stories, these transgressive and self-identifying qualities of the fantastic are recouped. The real world, that is, Blixen's Paradise, maintains the upper hand.
In "Eneboerne" Osceola tells the story of an eternal triangle consisting of Lucie and Eugene Vandamm and a ghost, Cristobal Christmas. When her husband abandons her for the book he is writing, Lucie draws ever closer to the world of the supernatural; she falls in love with Cristobal. The demon is associated with Christian love and rebirth while the new husband is associated with the satanic storm that rages about their deserted island. Just as Lucie succumbs to the ghost's embrace, she awakens from her dream world and turns to her husband and reality, but too late, for she dies the next morning, which happens to be Christmas. The ending is equivocal because we sense that Lucie by dying chooses the world and the man closest to her, namely the world of imagination and Cristobal Christmas. On the other hand, by giving up corporeal life she loses exactly what Christmas wishes he had and the husband whose reawakened attention she required. By dying, she opts for imagination just as she seems to have gained in reality what she imagined. Lucie's death becomes the embrace of imagination.
But such an evaluation of her fate runs counter to the overtly tragic and horrific nature of her death. On the surface level of the ghost story. Osceola condemns Lucie's death as a retreat from real life. However, the vacillation within the narrative voice places reality and imagination on an equally ambiguous footing. In this way Lucie is allowed to hold faith with the two sides of an ideal man whom she can not have in real life. With "Eneboerne" Osceola revolts against the male-dominated reality and embraces the world of imagination, but only in a fantastic space that is created beside the tale's plot. Thus the fantastic in "Eneboerne" functions as a release valve; the rebellion is within, dominated and overcome by objective life.
In "Pløjeren" [in Osceola] Lea is confronted by a man caught between two worlds. Anders Østrel is the son of a man and a witch. Because of his disappointment in a love affair, he curses the hour he was born and in turn is cursed by his mother. All his desires are to be fulfilled and his faults and wrongs will be loved equally with his good deeds. Thus he is both supernaturally powerful and tainted with human morality. He is the personification of the wild primeval forest evoked in the opening pages—a forest criss-crossed with roads and paths in the daytime but haunted at night. His power has given him wings and freedom, but an unfulfilled love has perverted his power into coldness, anger, bitterness, hate, and arrogance. For his crimes he begs Lea for judgment. She refuses. She tells him bluntly that error must be punished, but a wave of feeling for him prevents her from passing sentence.
Lea's confrontation with this spirit of the forest is nothing less than an emotional earthquake:
[I] en ukendt Verden sank hendes gamle kendte og urokkelige Verden og gik tilbunds i et uhrye Mørke.
(Her old familiar and unshakable world sank into an unknown world and went to the bottom of an immense darkness.)
She returns home in despair as towards her harbor. But shelter can no longer be found there:
Hun havde troet, at i den varme oplyste Stue var Redning, og nu haendte det hende, som en ny Raedsel den Aften, idet de talte til hende, idet hun kom ind og følte den hjemlige Luft i Stuen, at noget i hende rejste sig og forvandledes, det var som om denne hjemlige Verden voldsomt og afgørende vendte sig fra hende, og som om hun vendte sig fra den. Imod hendes Vilje, imod hvad hun havde troet muligt, greb denne Følelse hende, hun kunde ikke holde det ud, hun troede, at hvis hun blev staaende et ørjeblik, vilde hun dø. Hvor var der Fred at finde, var den ikke herhjemme, saa var den ingensteds…. det var forfaerdeligt at vaere paa disse kendte Steder, i hendes Hjem, Verdens Grundvold og saa saaledes forstødt, forskudt.
(She had thought that she would find refuge in the warm, lighted room, and now on this evening a new terror befell her, for as they spoke to her and as she felt the cozy feeling of home in the room, something in her rose up and was transformed. It was as if this familiar world turned violently and decisively away from her … and as if she turned away from it. This feeling came over her against her will and against what she would have thought possible. She couldn't stand it. She thought that she would die if she should remain there even a moment. If peace were not to be found at home, then it was not to be found anywhere…. It was horrible to be in these familiar places, in her home—the foundation of her world—and be so cast-off and displaced.)
What is most frightening to her is not the contact with supernatural powers but the necessity of thinking of her own feelings. She must fight for lucidity, and after a long sleepless night of the kind "forbeholdt Forbrydere og Folk med ond Samvittighed" [reserved for criminals and people with a bad conscience] she finds a foothold: "[I]mod alle den gamle Verdens Love og imod, hvad der havde vaeret muligt i den, tog hun sin stilling op og erklaerede sig tilfreds med den" (Against all of the laws of the old world and against what had been possible in it, she accepted her position and declared herself satisfied with it) ["Pløjeren"]. Her compassion is like that of her maternal ancestors who "havde ligget saaledes vaagne on Natten af Bekymring og Fortvivlelse over deres Maends Lidenskaber og var staaet saaledes op om Morgenen, for at hjaelpe dem" (had thus lain awake at night from worry and despair over the passions of their men and thus had risen in the morning to help them) ["Pløjeren"].
She is determined to help him, and without realizing it, an inherited maternal instinct instructs her to put Anders to work plowing the rolling fields. Peace, triumph, and calm come to her. She has been transformed, and he is cured and has found his equilibrium. He falls to his knees, kisses the hem of her dress, and calls her "Du velsignede" (blessed one). But the cure and the blessing have come from the earth. He claims her for his own. When he smiles her pride is overcome, the uncertainty in their relationship ends, and he kisses her.
"Pløjeren" is patently the story of an emotional crisis brought on by the confrontation between pride and sensuality, of everyday laws and morality versus wild freedom. Anders Østrel is clearly a fantastic projection of Lea's own feelings of desire, frustration, rebellion and guilt. That she has refused to confront these feelings until he appears is proof that not even to herself has she given voice to her dissatisfaction with her home and the old world's laws of what is possible. Her despair is not caused by her recognition of Anders, however; it is grounded in the disappearance of the foundations to her real life. The solidity of reality has given way to uncertainty. If Anders' despair is caused by his bad conscience and his salvation comes through Lea's compassion by way of the boundless pity of mother earth, then Lea's peace, too, is won through compassion. Not the self-pity that Anders displays, but a recognition of and a feeling for her own earthly passions and anti-paradisical longings.
In "Pløjeren" Osceola has again written a fantastic story that allows her to have her cake and eat it. The element of uncertainty in the story is both explicit and understood. On the one hand, the reality of the supernatural events is never questioned. The fantastic is consequently threatened by a shift towards the marvellous. On the other hand, a cursory analysis of the story reveals that the supernatural dimension is a mask for a psychological investigation, and when the fantastic is psychologized, the hesitation on the part of the reader vaporizes and the fantastic is replaced with the real. Passion, sensuality, pride, revolt, and guilt are all expressed, but only in indirect and archetypal forms. The reader must assemble the psychological puzzle; otherwise, the story ends as a simple gothic tale with a happy romantic ending. Thus the illuminating elements of the fantastic are placed within a frame of gothic romance whose distance from the real weakens their disruptive force. As in "Eneboerne," Osceola shoots from cover.
"Familien de Cats" [in Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales, 1977] is even more straightforward than "Eneboerne" and "Pløjeren." Here the supernatural plays a relatively minor role. The extraordinary virtue of the de Cats family is due to the fateful circumstance that the entire sum of their vice is concentrated in a single member of the family. Unfortunately the current scapegoat, Jeremias, reforms, and the entire family begins to engage in scandalous behavior. The brothers Petrus and Coenraad endeavor to make him revert to his former state. They give him money, arrange for an actress named Jacobina to tempt him, and end up paying her yet more when she refuses to believe their fantastic scapegoat story. Jeremias interrupts a family council to volunteer that he take up again his role—for a princely sum. The family's honor is saved. When the scapegoat, true to his nature, voluntarily reassumes his naturally dishonorable role, he exchanges the family's bourgeois honor for an honor that is not of the Paradise, but which is, nonetheless, no less legitimate.
"Familien de Cats" relies on sustained irony. On the surface the narrator tells the story as if the wealthy bourgeois family really suffers from a demonic curse. But the irony is transparent. The outcasts, Jeremias and Jacobina, share in their names a prophetic and revolutionary character. The Old Testament Jeremiah made enemies even in his own family with his strict judgments, his preaching, and his continual prophecies of the fall of the kingdom and the temple. The significance of Jacobina's name is self-evident. These two are the characters who really belong to the "no bility consisting of honest people" ["Familien de Cats"]. Ironically it is they who are truly honorable, since they are true to their roles as the necessary evil antitheses to the family's bourgeois virtue. The family's virtue is no more than bourgeois reputation to be bought at will. Petrus's initial insistence on justice towards Jeremias—including punishment—without mercy is visited in full upon the family when Jeremias, the agent of Nemesis, demands his 100,000 guilders to take up his role as scapegoat and leave them to theirs.
The satire of bourgeois virtue is relentless. Family honor, chastity, sanctity, pecuniary responsibility, and pride are mercilessly ridiculed. Osceola saves her bitterest moment for the young Dina de Cats, who renounces her intended, Jeremias, if to take him means the ruin of the foundation of her life since childhood: "I will not betray my family which has stood firm for a century…. For Jeremias I could sacrifice my own happiness, yes; but not even for his sake will I lower myself to the level of the people I look down on." The attack on the bourgeois Paradise could not be more luciferian.
The polemic is blunted, nevertheless, by three mitigating circumstances. First, Jeremias and Jacobina are not actively retributive; they are agents of Nemesis. The de Cats brothers' machinations are unnecessary; they bring on their own miseries. Moreover, the notions of justice, mercy, and fate are enunciated by Petrus and Coenraad. Truth comes from the mouths of these pitiable, narrowminded men of the bourgeoisie. Thirdly, the narrator refuses to condemn these two members of the family and in general declines to pass judgment. The opening paragraph claims that the story has no other merit than an excellent moral. This moral can only be the virtue of mercy. Petrus and Coenraad deny Jeremias forgiveness for his past sins, and their seductive maneuvers deserve punishment, but fate is merciful. As Jeremias explains at the final family conference, he understands why Jacobina refused to believe their story: "[S]he believed there was something hidden behind it all, but that was because she does not know you. I who know you, I who (so to speak) am one of you, understood at once that there was nothing hidden behind it: you simply meant it." Jacobina expects deceit and unreliability where only literal reality is to be found. Jeremias—and Osceola—are yet members of the guilty party. They can see both the letter and the spirit of the World. The merciless satirical attack is moderated by Osceola's ultimate acknowledgment of her own place in the Paradise.
In the three original published Osceola stories, the young Karen Christentze Dinesen wrote three kinds of fantastic tales. "Eneboerne" is a ghost story; "Pløjeren" a gothic love story, and "Familien de Cats" a humorous and ironic anecdote. In all three she either attacks the bourgeois status quo, expresses an inner conflict between pride and sensuality, or revolts against the male order. But the fantastic in the texts is controlled and subordinate. Osceola's fantastic tales are interrogations of reality and of her own place and role in that reality. She yearns for Lucifer and rebellion, but her sympathy ties her to Paradise. It is not until Karen Blixen becomes Isak Dinesen that the luciferian rebellion breaks out and seeks revenge.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2232
SOURCE: "Seven Gothic Tales: The Divine Swank of Isak Dinesen," in The New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1986, pp. 3, 37.
[Updike is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, dramatist, and critic. In the following essay, adapted from the "Introduction" to a special edition of Seven Gothic Tales published in honor of The Book-of-the-Month-Club's 60th anniversary, he presents an overview of Dinesen's life and discusses the main stylistic and thematic features of the collection.]
When the Book-of-the-Month Club offered Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen, as its selection for April of 1934, its newsletter said simply, "No clue is available as to the pseudonymic author." But even then, with some detective work by the newspapermen of Denmark, this utterly obscure author was emerging into the spotlight as one of the most picturesque and flamboyant literary personalities of the century, a woman who had "style" as well as a remarkably grave and luminous prose style, and whose works as they followed her veiled debut seemed successive enlargements of her dramatic persona. She relished what she called "the sweetness of fame" and the company of the great and glamorous; she received in her native Denmark and while traveling elsewhere the attention due a celebrity. In her frail last years, on her one trip to the United States, she went out of her way to meet Marilyn Monroe, and recently has herself become a movie heroine, as played by Meryl Streep in the stately adaptation of Out of Africa. Since her death in 1962—the cause of death was given as "emaciation"—the many-named woman known to the world as Isak Dinesen has been the subject of a number of biographies, including a truly excellent one by Judith Thurman [Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, 1982], from which I have drawn most of the following clues.
Karen Christentze Dinesen was born in April of 1885, in a manor house near the coast, 15 miles north of Copenhagen. Her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, the younger son of a Jutland landowner (who had once traveled through Italy with Hans Christian Andersen), was a soldier, adventurer and writer, whose epistolary memoir, Letters From the Hunt, ranks as a minor classic of Danish literature. Karen's mother. Ingeborg, came from a family of wealthy traders and merchants. she married Wilhelm in 1881 and within five years was the mother of three daughters, of whom Karen, nicknamed Tanne, was the second. Two more children, both sons, followed in the next decade. Tanne was her father's favorite and confidante; all the greater the blow, then, to the little girl when Wilhelm, whose careers in both politics and literature had taken discouraging turns, and who had a history of restlessness and "soul-sickness," committed suicide, by hanging, shortly before Tanne's 10th birthday.
Karen grew up, in the strongly feminine company of her mother and sisters and servants and aunts, as the family fantastic, who from the age of 10 or 11 concocted plays that were performed within the domestic circle, the children and their friends taking the parts of Columbine and Harlequin, Blancheflor and Knight Orlando. In adolescence she became obsessed with the figure of her dead father and the notion that his ideals and romantic spirit had descended into her. When, in her early 20's, she published a few tales in Danish magazines, it was under the pen name Osceola. Osceola was the name of Wilhelm's dog, with whom the father and daughter used to take their walks. In 1934 Isak Dinesen explained to a Danish interviewer that she had taken a pen name "on the same grounds my father hid behind the pseudonym Boganis … so he could express himself freely, give his imagination a free rein…. In many things I resemble my father." And when, in early 1914, at the near-spinsterish age of 28, she married, it was to a Swedish aristocrat, her cousin Bror Blixen, who like her father was restless, impractical and cavalier. Though he was to be an unfaithful husband, he gave her two wedding gifts beautifully faithful to her sense of herself: he made her a baroness, and he took her to Africa.
Baroness Blixen's time in Africa—1914 to 1931—has been much written about, most splendidly by her. Her main memoir, Out of Africa, published in 1937, has been called the greatest pastoral romance of modern times. It is a severely smoothed account of 17 bumpy years, her prime as a woman, spent coping with a recalcitrant and illconceived coffee plantation, with her rich Danish relations as they reluctantly financed this losing venture, with an errant and often absent big-game-hunting husband and then a lover (also a big-game hunter) even more elusive, and with a painful and persistent case of syphilis contracted from Bror in the first year of their marriage. From the standpoint of her writing, two crucial developments might be noted. In British East Africa, English became her daily language; and in the person of her handsome, Etonian, Oxonian lover, Denys Finch-Hatton, she for the first time encountered a fully involving intellectual partner, a brilliant and playful stimulant to her own intelligence and her storyteller's gift. She liked to think of herself as Scheherazade, and in Denys she met her Sultan. Also, in the Kenyan highlands she encountered two societies, the African and the white settlers', colorfully imbued with the aristocratic notions of honor, fatalism and daring that had always attracted her. Many of the 19th-century exotics of Seven Gothic Tales, in fact, are based on originals met in the semifeudal world, simultaneously raffish and posh, rough and luxurious, around Nairobi.
Her situation, when at the age of 46 she was at last compelled to return to Denmark, might be described as ignominious. Her marriage long ended, her farm bankrupt and sold to a real estate developer, her lover recently dead in the crash of his airplane, her body tormented by the complications of tabes dorsalis (syphilis of the spine), she was received into her mother's household as a prodigal daughter, a middle-aged adolescent. Setting up shop in her father's old office, she picked up notebooks and ideas she had been toying with for 10 years while in Africa.
The manuscript of Seven Gothic Tales was ready by the spring of 1933, but, rich and strange and free as it was, had difficulty getting into print. Several English publishers rejected it; Thomas Dinesen, however, had befriended an American writer, Dorothy Canfield, who was on the Book-of-the-Month Club's first board of judges, and sent his sister's manuscript to her in Vermont. Miss Canfield was impressed, and urged the book in turn upon her neighbor, Robert Haas, a publisher whose firm later merged with Random House. He published the book in January of 1934, and the Book-of-the-Month Club offered it to its members, Miss Canfield writing in the newsletter the report that memorably begins, "The person who has set his teeth into a kind of fruit new to him, is usually as eager as he is unable to tell you how it tastes." The new fruit met critical acclaim and, unexpectedly, commercial success as well. The club printed 50,000 copies, and was ultimately to select books by Isak Dinesen five times. This Danish woman who had lived among the English had her breakthrough in the United States, and a special warmth continued to exist between Isak Dinesen and her American audience. Not only were her American royalties much the most munificent, but the reviewers treated her without the note of cavil and suspicion often heard in England and Denmark. When at last, amid immense enthusiasm and excessive festivity, the wraithlike author visited the United States in 1959, she told a Danish reporter, "When I compare the American and Danish reviews of my first book I cannot help but think how much better I have been understood and accepted in America than in Denmark."
That same year she spoke to another interviewer about Seven Gothic Tales with what he reported as embarrassment. It was "too elaborate," she said, and had "too much of the author in it." Last year, Pauline Kael, film critic of The New Yorker, took the occasion of the Meryl Streep movie to tell us, with her customary verve and firmness, that Isak Dinesen's "baroque stories are lacquered words and phrases and no insides. Some seem meant to be morality tales, but you never get the moral…. Seven Gothic Tales are a form of distraction; they read as if she had devised them in the fevered atmosphere of all-night debauches." This verdict echoes the prim censoriousness of the young Danish reviewer Frederick Schyberg, who wrote when the book was new, "There are no normal human beings in Seven Gothic Tales. The erotic life which unfolds in the tales is of the most highly peculiar kind … There is nothing, the reviewer finds … behind [the author's] veil, once it is lifted."
Well, as Dorothy Canfield advised half a century ago, "Take a taste, yourself." Enter a deliciously described world of sharply painted, dramatically costumed heroes and heroines posing, with many a spectacular gesture and eloquent aria, in magnificent landscapes maintained by invisible hands as a kind of huge stage set. This operatic Europe, like opera itself, would call us into largeness. One character is "hurt and disappointed because the world wasn't a much greater place than it is," and another says of himself at a moment of crisis, "Too small I have been, too small for the ways of God." Though Isak Dinesen's leisurely and ornate anecdotes, which she furnishes with just enough historical touches to make the stage firm, have something in them of the visionary and the artificial, they are not escapist. From the sweeping flood of the first story to the casual and savage murder of the last, they face pain and loss with the brisk familiarity of one who has amply known both, and force us to face them, too. Far from hollow and devoid of a moral, the tales insistently strive to inculcate a moral stance; in this her fiction especially suggests that of Hemingway, who thought well enough of her to interrupt his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with a regret that she had not received it. Both authors urge upon us a certain style of courage, courage whose stoic acceptances are plumed with what the old Cardinal, in the first Gothic Tale, calls "divine swank." Dinesen even called this quality "chic," ascribing it to the costumed Masai warriors who, "daring, and wildly fantastical as they seem, are unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal." She also admired, in Africa, the Moslems, whose "moral code consists of hygiene and ideas of honor—for instance they put discretion among their first commandments."
This admiration of the warrior's code surprises us in a woman. She was a feminist, but of an oddly unblaming kind, who includes within her ideal of the energizing sexual transaction what is heedless and even hostile in the male half of the sexual dichotomy. The three men she most loved—her father, her husband, her lover—all conspicuously failed to shelter her, and she took their desertions as a call to her own largeness. This call, which reverberates throughout her tales in all their abrupt and sternly mysterious turnings, was, it would appear, more easily heard and understood in the land of Emerson and Whitman than in tightly inhabited England and Denmark. America played the role of Africa for an older Europe: a place of dangerous freedom, of natural largeness and of chic, discreet natives. The discretion in Dinesen's writing, the serene and artful self-concealment even in her memoirs, is an aspect of the personal gallantry which, in the social realm, masked her frightful bouts of pain and debility with the glamorous, heavily made-up, in the end sibylline persona who sought to be entertaining.
The teller of tales would ennoble our emotions and our encounters with divine fatality. Isak Dinesen wrote that we must take "pride in the idea God had, when he made us." She was a theist of a kind (and was much twitted about this by her brother Thomas, a sensible Danish atheist). For there to be "divine swank," after all, there must be a divinity. She placed these Gothic Tales in the Romantic era when God, no longer housed in churches and institutions, was thought to be outdoors, in the mountains and sunsets. But even this evaporated divinity seems in the tale-teller's 20th century too benign to be credible, too unironical a guarantor of our inner sense of honor. In "The Dreamers," the storyteller Mira Jama asserts of God, "To love him truly you must love change, and you must love a joke, these being the true inclinations of his own heart." Such a deity feels pre-Christian—a vitality at the dark heart of things. One of the many magical atmospheric sentences in "The Poet" runs, "The stillness and silence of the night was filled with a deep life, as if within a moment the universe would give up its secret." The brand of stoicism which these tales invite us to share is not dispassionately Roman or of the pleasure-denying Protestant variety; it has Viking intoxication and battle-frenzy in it. Intoxication figures frequently in Isak Dinesen's work, and mercilessness was part of the storyteller's art as she construed it: the story must pursue its end without undue compassion for its characters. Combat lies closer than compassion to the secret of Seven Gothic Tales, and its exhilaration is their contagious mood.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5614
SOURCE: "The Other Woman and the Racial Politics of Gender: Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham in Kenya," in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 410-35.
[In the following excerpt from an essay in which she examines Beryl Markham's West with the Night (1942) and Out of Africa, Smith considers the ways in which Dinesen's autobiographical persona reflects the influence of western colonial and patriarchal power in Africa.]
Africa meant a variety of things to the Europeans who settled there in the early decades of the twentieth century. For representatives of the British Empire, the land was an outpost of national expansion, a source of natural resources and inexpensive labor necessary for the defense and expansion of the empire. For the average citizen, the land represented the possibility of wealth and privilege unavailable in the home country. For the wealthy who had squandered their inheritance at home, Africa represented a place of new beginnings. For the truly wealthy, Africa represented a new kind of playground, "a winter home for aristocrats," as one Uganda Railroad poster advertised. In its unknown and unmapped expanses, "man" could test himself against the elements, the animals, and time. "Untamed" and "undomesticated," it seemed a frontier of relaxed mores and unimaginable adventures not yet contaminated by bourgeois conventionality and emasculating comforts. The Africans, decentered and disempowered in their own space, watched as they continued to lose ownership of their land, labor, and culture.
Coming to this land, European settlers brought with them the "discursive territory" of Africa. And so, before turning to the autobiographical texts of Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham, I want to follow one strand of the ideology of blackness that emerged in the nineteenth century as prelude to the great colonializing moment of the early twentieth century. Until it was abolished in the early nineteenth century, the slave trade reflected and effected certain justificatory discursive practices pertaining to black sexuality. Categorized as less civilized, located closer to nature, black Africans were identified with reproductive capacities that serviced the slave economy. Significantly, after the slave trade was abolished and imperialist expansion into the continent gained momentum, Europeans shifted their locus of identification, linking black Africans increasingly to "uncivilized" practices. "When the taint of slavery fused with sensational reports about cannibalism, witchcraft, and apparently shameless sexual customs," suggests Patrick Brantlinger, "Africa emerged draped in that pall of darkness that the Victorians themselves accepted as reality" [Brantlinger, "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent," in "Race," Writing, and Difference, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1986)]. In identifying the physical characteristics of black sexuality as markers also of prostitutes (the most sexualized of white women) and in describing the sexual practices of primitive tribes as forms of prostitution, medical anthropologists during the century linked black sexuality and prostitution as two sources of social corruption and disease (syphilis in particular).
European scientists and scholars thus projected onto the native African abnormal sexual appetite, that "dark" force lurking inside "civilized man," threatening the very basis of Western culture. Yet this "Africa" beckoned to Europeans, inviting the adventurer and the missionary into its vast spaces with its promise of illicit pleasure and imperial power. Journey into the jungle in search of treasure became journey into "the heart of darkness," as treasure and pleasure, economic and erotic desires, tangled. The image of Africa constructed by Europeans both invited and justified colonization, on one hand the project of "civilizing" the native Africans, on the other the aggressive expression of the will to power, the desire to dominate, appropriate, and transform. Thus Africa itself became, as did the Orient, a space effectively "feminized" by an imperial Europe.
There are resonances here between colonial ideologies of race and patriarchal ideologies of gender, as well as radical differences. Western discursive practices assigned to woman the potential for a contaminating and disruptive sexuality that it ascribed also to the very body and the body social of the African. Thus both (black) African and (white) woman threatened to lure Western man into some forbidden, unholy, sexually clandestine place. Tellingly, Freud invoked the Victorian phrase describing Africa as "the dark continent" in his twentieth-century metaphor for the inscrutability of female sexuality. Coupling sexuality and Africa in this way, argues Sander Gilman, "Freud ties the image of female sexuality to the image of the colonial black and to the perceived relationship between the female's ascribed sexuality and the Other's exoticism and pathology" [Gilman, "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature," in "Race," Writing, and Difference]. This discursive conjunction of the erotic, exotic, and pathologic points to the specular bases upon which the (white, male) subject of Western humanism identifies himself as disembodied. "Masculine disembodiment," argues Judith Butler, "is only possible on the condition that women occupy their bodies as their essential and enslaving identities…. From th[e] belief that the body is Other, it is not a far leap to the conclusion that others are their bodies, while the masculine 'I' is a noncorporeal soul" [Butler, "Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytical Discourse," in Feminism/Post-modernism, edited by Linda J. Nicholson, 1990]. The patriarchal assignment of embodiedness to woman, mapped by Butler, parallels the colonial assignment of primitive sexuality to the African. As a result of in/corporation, woman and African remain other-than-fully human, on the one hand childlike and on the other monstrous. And always, they require some kind of "parental" oversight.
Yet despite or, rather, because of this essentializing gaze, both woman and African remain the potential site of disruption—subjects waiting to speak. As Hélène Cixous warns: "The Dark Continent is neither dark nor unexplorable.—It is still unexplored only because we've been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable. And because they want to make us believe that what interests us is the white continent" ["The Laugh of the Medusa," in New French Feminisms: An Anthology, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, 1981]. What interests me here is "the white continent" of autobiography and the way in which two white women living on the frontier of colonial Kenya traversed the discursive borderlands of gender, race, and autobiographical practice. Since canonical Western autobiography functions as one of those discourses that inscribe white male subjectivity, Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham of necessity engaged the colonial discourses of African otherness as they engaged the androcentricity of Western autobiography.
Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham knew each other, if casually. They loved the same man at the same time. As white women in colonial Kenya, however, they shared more than a lover. On the one hand, they shared their privileged status vis-à-vis the native Africans, a privileged status manifest throughout their texts in the offhanded assumptions and conventional rhetoric of colonialism. (Of this, I will say more later.) On the other, they shared a marginal positionality in relation to white men, caught as they were in their embodiment; and this embodiment they shared with the Africans, who vis-à-vis Europeans were cast in the essentialism of race as surely as the women were cast in an essentialism of gender. (I do not mean to imply here that they experienced the same degree of marginalization as the Africans. They did not.) Chafing at the confinements of female embodiment, they discovered that residency on the colonial "frontier" provided them an arena of resistance. At the margins of the empire, far from the European center's hold, they could as white women break through the borderland of female embodiment and achieve a mobility of autobiographical script unavailable to them in the "home" country. Thus both Markham and Dinesen claim to be born "out of Africa" to use the phrase as horse trainers such as Markham use it. Attesting to the mystery that for them is "Africa," both represent the space of this mysterious otherness as a territory in which to escape the kind of identity that would have been theirs had they remained in Denmark or England. And yet, while both wrote haunting autobiographical accounts of their African experience, they offer the reader radically divergent readings of subjectivity in and through Africa. I want to read West with the Night and Out of Africa against one another, and to read them in ways attentive to the textual figure of the indigenous African woman, in order to explore the complications of colonized place, gender, and race in the politics of self-representation….
"In my life at the farm," [Dinesen writes in Out of Africa], "I saw few women, and I got into the habit of sitting, at the end of the day, for a quiet hour with the old woman and the girls in Farah's house." Dinesen figures the Somali women as mothers, wives, and sisters sequestered within patriarchal institutions and systems of meaning, what she elsewhere called "ancient citadels of males." Furthermore, the women are physically enclosed within yards of elaborate clothes, signs of male ownership of and in/vestment in them. Embodied testaments to male privilege, they are "luxuries," commodified in systems of exchange. Yet Dinesen insinuates into this locale of enclosure a politics of agency by foregrounding the other woman's sources of power: her intelligence, her cunning, her sophisticated manipulation of male investments. Most important, she identifies the other woman, as she identifies herself, with Scheherazade, the colonized woman who escapes literal and symbolic death by fabricating bold and imaginative tales. "Sometimes, to entertain me," she writes, "they would relate fairy tales in the style of the Arabian Nights, mostly in the comical genre, which treated love with much frankness." Only apparently passive, the Somali women stake out a locale of female desire, empowerment, subversive laughter: "It was a trait common to all these tales that the heroine, chaste or not, would get the better of the male characters and come out of the tale triumphant."
Dinesen identifies the old Somali mother with a former dispensation characterized by matriarchal rule. A "Sibylline" figure "with a little smile on her face," she is the wise witch, the living trace of an earlier dispensation. "Within this enclosed women's world," she writes,
I felt the presence of a great ideal, without which the garrison would not have carried on so gallantly; the idea of a Millennium when women were to reign supreme in the world. The old mother at such times would take on a new shape, and sit enthroned as a massive dark symbol of that mighty female deity who had existed in old ages, before the time of the Prophet's God.
The old mother becomes the great mother, to use Erich Neumann's phrase [from The Great Mother: An Analysis of an Archetype, 1963], a matriarchal witch-goddess predating the great prophet Mohammed. And her subversive smile signals the residual matrilineal linkage backward in time through this maternal heritage. It also points forward to a fictive Millennium, an already and always deferred possibility, yet an always potential site of laughter's disruption.
While Dinesen elsewhere presents herself as entertainer and her guests as entertained, in this scene the white woman reverses the pattern, presenting herself as the listener who sits at the feet of the other woman. The reversal signals not the subordination of white woman to black woman, but rather membership in a sisterhood of female storytellers, in a community of women who "remember" the time past when the great goddess reigned supreme. For Dinesen too has lost "the forest matriarchy" she figures in her representation of Africa. In 1931, after seventeen years in colonial Kenya, the Danish woman was forced by bankruptcy to return to her family home in Rungstedlund, Denmark, where she would remain the rest of her life. Describing the circumstances in which the Ngoma about to be danced in honor of her leaving is canceled, Dinesen writes toward the end of her narrative: "Perhaps they realized at once how completely the Ngoma was off, for the reason that there was no longer anybody to dance to, since I no longer existed" (emphasis mine). Abjection, the dispersal of "identity," attended expulsion from the paradisiacal Africa. And so, "out of Africa," Karen Blixen experienced the loss of autobiographical story that comes from returning to the same old story of bourgeois embodiment. Enclosed in her mother's house, she could only dream of the past and in dreaming create the myth of an "African" identity. Like the Somali women, then, she is forced to tell stories to save her very "life," to abandon herself to writing in an elegant dance of loss.
"The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world," Dinesen writes early in the text. In this expanded universe she claims to have discovered a truer "home" than the one she left in Denmark: "In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be." Figured as a place of sensual pleasure, a garden of delight profoundly different and distant from the repressive, cold environment of Denmark, this "Africa" invites Dinesen to luxuriate in a rich, thick sensuality—a sensuality whose traces are then deployed throughout the text from the very first pages when she immerses the reader in descriptive passages ranging across the landscape and through the smells, colors, sounds, sights, the very feel of Africa. Sensuality resonates through the music of Africa and the music of the text's voice: "When you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find that it is the same in all her music." Africa's very air is a sensual medium. Walking in the morning, she writes, "you are not on earth but in dark deep waters, going ahead along the bottom of the sea." Living becomes "swimming" as life takes place inside a global amniotic fluid always washing across the body.
Learning from the Africans how to live "in accordance with [the landscape]" this white woman represents herself as being at one with Africa in a powerful commingling of subjectivity and place: "The grass was me, and the air, the distant invisible mountains were me, the tired oxen were me. I breathed with the slight night-wind in the thorntrees." Geographically her farm blurs seamlessly into the wild space of Africa. She writes of the adopted Lulu that she "came in from the wild world to show that we were on good terms with it, and she made my house one with the African landscape, so that nobody could tell where the one stopped and the other began." Boundaries between human and animal are likewise blurred. Animals take on attributes of human beings; human beings are identified through animals. And metaphysically good and evil blend into one another. She writes of the Africans that their "assurance, [their] art of swimming, they had, I thought, because they had preserved a knowledge that was lost to us by our first parents; Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you: that God and the Devil are one, the majesty coeternal, not two uncreated but one uncreated, and the Natives neither confounded the persons nor divided the substance." In Dinesen's "Africa," human beings, animals, space, metaphysical forces commingle with one another in revelries and reveries of interdependence and nondifferentiation.
"Africa distilled" thus signifies for Dinesen a space outside the menacing borders of a European "enlightenment" that brutally disjoins "self" and "other," a space uncontaminated by patriarchal arrangements and representational repertoires with their self-splitting repressions, an "Eden" uncalibrated by "man's" time and its gendered autobiographical scripts. Identified with animism, sensuality, transport, pleasure, mystery, music, laughter, power, "she" is the great goddess, nourishing "matrix space," locale of union and of jouissance, all that Julia Kristeva ascribes to the semiotic and Dinesen herself to female sexuality ["Women's Time," in Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology, edited by Nannerl O. Keohane, Michelle Z. Rosaldo, and Barbara C. Gelpi, 1982].
In this space Dinesen positions herself as the great goddess's daughter, recovering from patriarchal representations of female subjectivity through reclamation of the repressed body and enactment of an empowered autobiographical script. "To ride, to shoot arrows, to tell the truth" reads the inscription that opens the text—a manifesto of a mythical Diana, the active, effectual, independent woman, not the enclosed woman of bourgeois domestic scenes. Throughout the narrative "the lioness Blixen" assumes by turns the roles of empress, creatrix, healer, priest, protector, judge, genie (or jinn, in Islamic mythology). Figuring herself as honorable, resourceful, courageous, dependable, hardworking, and socially responsible, she identifies herself as a hybrid of "manliness" and "womanliness."
The desire to posit an independent subjectivity suggests why Dinesen says little about her relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton. In fact, the little she presents of the relationship is purposefully cast in an idealized mold as she makes of that relationship one of coequals, based on the classical Greek model of homosexual liaisons. Their hunting experiences, for instances, become metaphors of idealized lovemaking. In the first lion-killing adventure Finch-Hatton lends her his rifle so she can participate actively in the action rather than remain a passive observer. Dinesen describes his gesture as "a declaration of love" and asks: "Should the rifle not then be of the biggest caliber?" The experience of shooting takes on the quality of orgasm: "I stood, panting, in the grass, aglow with the plenipotence that a shot gives you." In the second scene the man and woman meet the male and female lions alone in the moonlight. There, in a gesture of reckless courage ("risk[ing] our lives unnecessarily";), they enter "the centre of the dance," where two human beings face two animals, male and female together. Life, death, silence, darkness, pleasure, coalesce in a scene of unity: "We did not speak one word. In our hunt we had been a unity and we had nothing to say to one another." Precisely in this imaginative Africa, Dinesen finds the opportunity to contest the Old World arrangements between men and women, to refigure herself against the conventional cultural assignments of gender, and to celebrate a unification that collapses the binary opposition of male and female into silence and elides consciousness and animality.
Like Markham, Dinesen contests conventional gender assignments. Unlike Markham, however, Dinesen situates her empowerment in the recovery of female sensuality. In this text the female body is not the source of evil and contamination; female labor is not alienated but a source of pleasure; woman's body is not what Christine Froula calls "the symbol of patriarchal authority." "No longer divided and no longer inscribed with the designs of an external mastery," body and spirit commingle [Christine Froula, "When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy," Critical Inquiry 10, December, 1983].
But, of course, this "life" is but a dream, for Dinesen's tale is ultimately the tale of loss. Once again domesticated in Denmark, Dinesen can only revisit in fierce nostalgia and lyrical imagination that "preexilic state of union" and that former dispensation, the reign of the goddess's daughter [see Bella Brodzki, "Mothers, Displacement, and Language in the Autobiographies of Nathalie Sarraute and Christa Wolf," in Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography, edited by Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, 1988]. Now, this invocation of nostalgia leads me to ask of Dinesen …: Does her intervention in traditionally engendered autobiographical scripts imply an intervention in Western ideologies of race and the old arrangements between black and white?
On the one hand, Dinesen, as Susan Hardy Aiken argues, quarrels with the very ideologies of race that stabilized colonial regimes in early twentieth-century Kenya and does so through her narrative practices [see Aiken Isak Dinegen and the Engendering of Narrative, 1990]. For instance, she contests the old autobiographical arrangements sexualized in the androcentric ideology of the autonomous individual by deploying her speaking voice fluidly through the "I," the "you," and the "we," especially in the first pages of the text. Opening this way, she signals an alternative autobiographical practice, one that testifies to the ways in which her subjectivity emerges "out of Africa" and the Africans. She describes how the Africans name her "Lioness" Blixen, assigning to her the power identified with the "king" of the beasts. Making of her "a brass serpent," symbol to them of one who bears burdens, they elevate her above other Europeans. With this belief in her, she writes home, the natives effectively cast a "spell" on her, constituting her identity as Lucifer, light-giver, rebellious angel [Letters from Africa]. They also create her as storyteller by laying their stories before her. Moreover, the African environment intensifies existence, alchemically changing the mundane into the poetic, the mythic. Only here, she seems to suggest, can she bring to light the "dark continent" of her sexuality and the full resources of her hybridized subjectivity.
Recognizing the mutuality of identifications between herself and the native Africans, Dinesen in turn re-creates the mystery of Africa as mythic space, in turn elevates the Africans above the mundane by turning their stories and their land into poetry through a thick web of allusion and compelling prose. And she does so without making a spectacle out of them, without serving a voyeuristic reader. In fact, as Aiken elaborates, she undercuts any voyeurism on the part of narrator and reader by rendering "Africa" narratively unmasterable: "As with Africans, so with the book-as-Africa: no more than the colonists can we finally 'know its real nature' or subject it to hermeneutic mastery." It can never be contained in a Western gaze.
Other narrative practices in Out of Africa destabilize colonial gestures of power. Dinesen often directs the focus of her text away from herself to those people inhabiting what Lord Delamare and his fellow colonists would label the "margins" of the "civilized" world—to Kamante Gatura and Kinanjui. Surrounding them with majesty, mystery, and power, she ennobles rather than denigrates Africa and Africans for failing to meet the measures of Western practice, experience, and identity. Honoring the orality of African culture, she "speaks" in the sonorous storytelling voice that resonates with the elegant rhythms and tonal richness of Africa. As her letters indicate, she adopts from Farah Aden, her Somali house servant, the metaphor of life lived underwater. She takes her worldview from the Africans, discovering in their philosophical conjunction of good and evil a compatible orientation to the world and experience. Unwilling to make her narrative the totalizing whole of a unitary self, she joins together bits and pieces of African life, allowing Africa and herself to exist in fragmented, multiple forms, refusing the clear boundedness and certainty of the Western "I." She also multiplies the specificity of native Africans by differentiating the tribes and incorporating the diversity of peoples into her text. Implicitly rejecting European rationalism, she contests the denigrating embodiment of native and of woman by turning the ideology of sexual contamination on its head, ennobling the body—of the African, of woman. Celebrating African culture, she resists the colonizing tendency to stabilize, explain, judge, and hierarchize the other's differences, as if to recognize that to do other/wise would be to suppress the story of the great mother, to oppress the racial other, and ultimately to repress her own subjectivity.
Dinesen's keen consciousness of her own marginality as a woman who sought to "achieve something as myself" [Letters from Africa] and of the larger cultural politics of gender, and her consequent positioning of herself as an "outsider" in the British colony, encouraged her to embrace native African culture in more sympathetic ways than the British colonials who assumed their privileges and their cultural superiority unquestioningly. Unlike other European settlers, whose racism was reflected in such pronouncements as that of Lord Delamere that "the British race … was superior to heterogeneous African races only now emerging from centuries of relative barbarism" [quoted in Elspeth Huxley, White Man's Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya, 2 volumes, 1968], Dinesen expressed what other colonists at the time termed "pronative" sentiments, implemented "pronative" practices. And yet, Dinesen was herself one of the colonizers, a woman who participated in the appropriation of native land, who hoped to profit from native labor, who enjoyed native service and idolization. Thus other of her narrative practices collude in the exploitative agenda of colonialism. The recurrent possessive ("my farm," "my boys"), the generalizations about native tribes, position her as a "European" speaker and reinscribe colonial relationships. By embedding native Africans rhetorically in an intricate web of literary allusions, she textually contains Africans and Africa in Western discursive nets of meaning and reference. Beyond these rhetorical gestures, however, lies a more complex ambiguous colonial practice. Dinesen's nostalgia works to constitute "Africa" as a romanticized territory, inhabited by romanticized "natives" and "animals." "Africa" functions therefore as a kind of "Afro-disiac." The distanced setting ("I had a farm …"), the achronological rather than linear time, the elegance and distance of the narrative voice, the "artifice" of a text that constantly insists, through its dazzling display of metaphor, on its imaginative status, all aid and abet Dinesen's romanticism. Certainly it is a different kind of romanticism from Markham's cavalier and stoic brand, but it is a brand nonetheless. And so, without dismissing the very real practices of subversion in the text, I want to pursue certain problematic implications of Dinesen's autobiographical practices.
Since the native Africans name her with the natural aristocratic title of "Lioness Blixen" as replacement for the derived nobility of "Baroness Blixen," Dinesen in turn must maintain their nobility as essential to her own by resisting the conventional racial stereotypes of the white settlers. Thus she privileges a certain alignment of African "difference." Dinesen assigns imagination, bondedness with nature, elegance of style, and sensuality to the native Africans as she pursues her conspiracy of nobility in the face of bourgeois philistinism. She thereby distances native Africans and herself from the repressive, prosaic, paternalistic culture of the white settlers and situates herself as romantic outsider whose bravado and rebellious excess are evident in her identificatory gesture, "I am a Hottentot," a gesture she directs defiantly at white passengers on a ship returning to Africa, not at black Africans. Dinesen invokes the politics of race to engage in her own class resistance because it is within bourgeois institutions that she experiences imaginative, economic, and sexual oppression. But as class disidentification encourages her to align difference along a certain axis, it also leads her to participate in a mystifying essentialism.
Dinesen's positioning of the body in the text reveals the potentially conservative effects of mystification in the midst of colonialism. Pressing the patriarchal myth of Christianity in the crucible of her African experience, Dinesen locates the source of female oppression in male mastery of the female body and promotes the recovery of that body as the beginning of a liberated female subjectivity. Doing so, she celebrates the body and its pleasures, the romanticized identification of woman with nature and the maternal body. Thus when Dinesen identifies herself as a "Hottentot," she invokes a body politics that "extolls" the "shadowy, nocturnal, oneiric domain" of the great goddess as "the interior locus of mystery and creativity" [Domna C. Stanton, "Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva," in The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern Philosophy, edited by Jeffner Allen and Iris Marion Young, 1989]. This return to the body through maternal metaphorization becomes what Domna C. Stanton calls "a heuristic tool for reworking images and meanings" ["Difference on Trial"]. A strategy of subversion, it works to "countervalorize the traditional antithesis that identifies man with culture and confines woman to instinctual nature" to the primitive and childlike. But the problem is that, in pursuing this "enabling mythology" as "a negation/subversion of paternal hierarchies" ["Difference on Trial"]. Dinesen takes the Africans with her into the textual forest. The African is once again allied with the natural world, nativistic alliance already deployed in the justificatory discourses of racism and colonialism. Thus, in the historically specific context of early twentieth-century colonialism, the assignment of animal names to native Africans as part of her mythography operates racially, not just mythically. It is one thing for a white woman to be positioned metaphorically in the "black continent" of her sexuality and for her to identify herself and other white settlers with animals. It is quite another for the black Africans, no matter how regal and untamed the animals with which they are identified, to be positioned metaphorically where they are already positioned literally and discursively. The material realities of racial politics disrupt the largess of metaphorical politics.
Furthermore, any utopian myth of unification, even if an admittedly failed one, is problematic. In Denmark the exiled Dinesen crafts her imaginative return to Africa as a return to an empowering origin, "the maternal continent," and the effect of that return is the mythification of the mother, the figure Luce Irigaray has called "the dark continent of the dark continent" [Luce Irigaray, Corps à corps avec la mere, 1981]. But mythification of a paradigm of maternal origins, warns Bella Brodzki, even as it contests hegemonic myths, potentially betrays the same "inherent dangers of privileging principles" as patriarchal mythification ["Mothers, Displacement and Language"]. There are many motherhoods, not just one reified "motherhood." Mythification, however, wears everything to a patined homogeneity; it universalizes. Dinesen's dream of imaginary at-oneness requires the erasure of multiple and calibrated differences among and between people, races, and classes, between women, between mothers. Thus the textual identification of the narrator and the Somali women, while acknowledging certain realities of female oppression, glosses such complex material realities as their doubled colonization.
She also takes the native Africans into an oneiric realm that, however effectively it disperses coherent and totalizing interpretive possibilities, distances the Africans from history itself. Such "nativism," as Edward Said cautions, "reinforces the distinction [between colonizer and colonized] by revaluating the weaker or subservient partner. And it has often led to compelling but often demagogic assertions about a native past, history, or actuality that seems to stand free not only of the colonizer but of worldly time itself" [Edward W. Said, "Yeats and Decolonization," in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, 1990]. There was such a past, certainly, but that past was past long before Dinesen journeyed to Africa. While Said cautions specifically against the excesses of nativist nationalism, his admonition captures my own concern about Dinesen's passionate countervalorization of native culture, which seems to abandon specific countervalorization of native culture, which seems to abandon specific histories in favor of oneiric and aestheticized myth.
Moreover, her powerful evocation of the sense of loss and dispossession that supports her ethics of self-dispersal seems to suggest that only by losing does one gain, an ethics of love as letting go elaborated by Aiken [in Isak Dinesen]. Yet this reverence for loss and dispersal leads the narrator to position the native Africans in an irrecoverable past, to identify them with an inevitable loss, to ennoble them certainly but also to contain them. Distilling native Africans through specific axes of identification, she locates them in an exoticized and timeless place, in a nostalgically crystallized past, even as she acknowledges the historical changes being wrought on the land and on native culture through the historical march of colonialism. Positioned in such spaces, they function as passive subjects of history's corrupt and corrupting march into the future. Thus they are positioned as victims of history, not as active agents within vibrant, ongoing, complex histories.
Dinesen's fictive "Africa" becomes an imaginative map on which we see projected a white woman's desire for an irrecoverable past of empowered subjectivity. Mapping can be disruptive; it can be complicit. It is not innocent, as Dinesen herself understood. The romanticized cartography of "Africa distilled" in an expression of an "artistic primitivism" that in its reification of the other reveals certain totalizing investments in an imperialist autobiographical practice. Against what might have been her own best intentions, and certainly in tension with very real and sophisticated contestatory practices, Dinesen's "I" participates in the "imaginative opportunism" that characterizes all manner of imperial projects.
In an essay titled "Changing the Subject" [in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, edited by Teresa de Lauretis, 1982], Nancy K. Miller elaborates a central strand of current feminist practice: "The formula 'the personal is the political' requires a redefinition of the personal to include most immediately an interrogation of ethnocentrism; a poetics of identity that engages with the 'other woman.'" Gayatri Spivak, in "French Feminism in an International Frame" [in In Other Words: Essays in Cultural Politics, 1987], argues too for "a simultaneous other focus: not merely who am I? but who is the other woman? How am I naming her? How does she name me?"
The concern for the "other woman" that now weaves throughout feminist theory in the West derives from a profound rethinking of a hypostasized sexual difference, a homogenized "woman." It is a rethinking that problematizes with postmodernism generally the Western notion of a sovereign "self," but also a rethinking insists that historical specificities are the "grounds" outside the text that position us complexly and relationally in consciousness, behavioral practices, and politics. The shift derives also from a rethinking that rejects any simplistic or romanticized notion of "marginality," recognizing instead that positions of marginalities and centralities are nomadic, that each of us, multiply positioned in discursive fields, inhabits margins and centers. Thus the call for reading the other woman requires that we consider the multiplicity of differences between one woman and another, the multiplicity of differences within each of us. It is an acknowledgment that the other woman troubles Western theories. It is a recognition that the other woman also troubles generic rules that function to govern and discipline identifications, and that she forces us to remap the ideology of identity and the horizons of subjectivity within autobiographical texts.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3760
SOURCE: "Cultural Multiplicity in Two Modern Autobiographies: Friedländer's When Memory Comes and Dinesen's Out of Africa," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 205-18.
[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he discusses both Out of Africa and Saul Friedänder's memoir of the Holocaust, When Memory Comes (1978), Foster examines the ways in which Dinesen's autobiographical persona represents an amalgamation of the cultures she experienced: her native Danish culture, the British colonial culture in East Africa, and the native African cultures.]
The phrase "cultural multiplicity" in my title is a deliberate variation on "multiculturalism," whose core meaning raises issues of curricular choice, educational philosophy, and public policy. "Cultural multiplicity," by contrast and for the purpose of this essay, refers to a more intimately personal cultural site: to the conflicts, the feelings of tension, the revelations of affinity, or the sense of triumph that can come from living among several cultural traditions and to some degree internalizing their diversity. Though this condition of multiplicity is not limited to border regions, states of exile, or diasporas, it is obviously one that has flourished at such points of cross-cultural contact. But multiplicity, I should stress, can only arise when more than two cultures meet at once, so that binary strategies of either polarization or synthesis must yield to more complex processes of negotiation, shifting alliances, and interplay.
Autobiography, and especially modern autobiography, provides fertile ground for exploring the varying ways people experience cultural multiplicity. As we all know, the twentieth century has witnessed a vast number of cultural migrations and displacements. The life story of someone who has undergone such large-scale change, even if seen as just the retrospective account of a personality formed by several cultures, can already reveal a great deal about multiplicity. But such an autobiography should not be read merely for the author's explicit thesis or conclusions. In particular, the writer's delight in transcribing certain memories can lead to a saturation effect, to an excess of detail about the past that can ultimately convey more than the author is willing to state outright.
At the same time, moreover, no autobiography concerns itself solely with the past events that are its ostensible subject matter. Unlike other forms of life-writing, such as letters or a diary, an autobiography has been composed at a certain temporal remove from the events it records, so that the author's present self can deeply influence such elements of the narrative as point of view, choice of events, and style. Some theorists of autobiography even hold that in the last analysis the genre deals with the authorial present more than the remembered past. As a result the texture of the writing can act as a gauge of the author's current state of multiplicity, at least to the extent that one's cultural identity is registered in words, as opposed to gestures, clothing, eating habits, and the like. Readers of autobiography thus gain access to a realm suspended between the written past and the writing present, a realm that ambiguously interweaves the story of an experience that the author views as formative with a provisional settling of accounts at the time of writing.
For an example of how saturation and temporal ambiguity can combine to reveal cultural multiplicity, let me turn to Vladimir Nabokov, whose work first alerted me to these issues and thus helped guide my approach to the two books I shall be discussing in this essay, Saul Friedländer's When Memory Comes and Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa. At one point in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Nabokov recalls the bedtime ritual of his pre-World War I Russian boyhood, which in his multilingual family culminated with prayers recited not in Russian but in English. Then, as the remembered scene sharpens in the telling, and thus becomes "saturated," some pictures come to mind. Nabokov recalls an icon above his bed, then the nearby water-color of an "eerily dense European beechwood." This memory, in turn, reminds him of the English fairy tale of a boy who actually entered such a picture, and Nabokov rounds off the scene by stating that in time he too visited that enchanted beechwood.
In cultural terms, what is most striking about this passage is the infusion of English elements into a Russian childhood. Beyond this documentary element, Nabokov has located a retrospective basis for his switch in the late thirties from writing in Russian to writing in English, as shown by the very fact that a decade later he composed most of Speak, Memory in English. Yet the detail of the European beechwood lingers as a mysterious third term. As the book develops, aspects of this motif will reappear to complicate the Anglo-Russian dualism in several ways. As a beechwood in Vermont, it calls attention to Nabokov's glide from a British to an American sense of English, while as an explicitly European setting it foreshadows his exile in Germany and France in the twenties and thirties. As a visual artifact, finally (and here we should note that in Russian the words for icon and image are the same), it implies that European as well as Russian models have guided Nabokov's interest in image-making throughout his literary career.
The dense textuality of this passage thus conveys both the cultural multiplicity of a certain childhood moment and the even more complex outcome known to the author as he writes. Nabokov's basic attitude in reviewing his life story deserves attention as well. It is emphatically triumphant, with the mature writer now realizing that he has indeed earned the fairy-tale privilege of entering an enchanted picture—one that permits unexpected new developments and rich juxtapositions in the cultural realm. As we turn to Friedländer's and Dinesen's autobiographies, we shall encounter similar experiences of cultural multiplicity, which nonetheless contrast with Nabokov's in two key respects. First, Friedländer's dramatic religious odyssey and Dinesen's two decades among the peoples of East Africa involve more drastic cultural challenges than even Nabokov's passage from Russia through western Europe into the English-speaking world. And second, although Nabokov's cultural multiplicity depends upon his being a refugee from Lenin and then Hitler, When Memory Comes and Out of Africa both grow out of and bear more immediate witness to even harsher historical conflicts—to the Jewish Holocaust and to African colonialism. Still, both books address the reader in ways that recall a major border-crossing built into the very words on the page of Speak, Memory. Neither the original French of Friedländer's autobiography nor the English that Dinesen used to compose one version of hers is the language spoken at the time of writing by those authors in their intimate, everyday lives….
Cross-cultural interaction [leads to] complex negotiations in Dinesen, but let me begin by acknowledging a certain falsity to her position in East Africa, where the British colonial regime was then seeking to create an area of exclusive European settlement in the Kenyan highlands. Thus the unintended irony of an ad recently cited in Public Culture, under the heading "Out of Africa 1906": "Between the years 1906 and 1939, a trickle, then a light rainfall, then a downpour of Englishmen, Germans, Scots, and some remarkable women began to fall upon the immense gorgeous plateau of East Africa" [Public Culture, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1993]. Such prose raises troubling questions about the popular reception of Dinesen's book, or at least about the movie that borrowed its title. But if the ad undercuts the justification of Dinesen's very presence in Africa as well as some of her romantic attitudes about the landscape, her life story also includes situations whose rich cultural multiplicity points in a very different direction.
In fact, if we bracket the overarching colonial dichotomy which (as her autobiography makes clear) Dinesen herself learned to question, the multiplicity in Out of Africa surpasses even the triadic patterns in Speak, Memory and When Memory Comes. Thus in one key passage Dinesen reviews the great variety of cultures that mingled in East Africa in the 1920s, then concludes that "[a]s far as receptivity of ideas goes, the Native is more a man of the world than the suburban or provincial settler or missionary, who has grown up in a uniform community and with a set of stable ideas". The third of her book's five units, called "Visitors to the Farm," clearly identifies with this East African responsiveness to diversity, for she arranges her experiences in a broad panorama that includes the Kikuyu, the Masai, Asian Indians, Somalis, Scandinavians, and British, to name only the leading groups. And if the progression among these peoples seems to replicate the colonial hierarchy, it should be noted that when this unit closes by evoking the thrill of flying in the early days of aircraft, it circles back to an old Kikuyu, whose skepticism about the enterprise gets the last word.
Perhaps because Dinesen wrote this autobiography some years after the failure of her coffee farm in 1931 forced her back to Denmark, she can imagine herself as "out of Africa" in a sense quite different from that title's main implication of a direct, documentary account. Thus she knows that alongside the colonial order, and never totally displaced by it, there exist the cultural orders of the East African tribes, who have other interpretations for her presence in Kenya. In the unit called "A Shooting Accident on the Farm," in which the Kikuyu request her help in an inquiry into damages, she realizes that she also functions as part of their cultural system, in a process she calls "brass-serpenting." "They can turn you into a symbol," she remarks, then concludes, "in spite of all our activities in the land, of the scientific and mechanical progress there, and of Pax Britannica itself, this is the only practical use that the Natives have ever had of us." As this episode continues, however, Dinesen discovers that beyond accepting this passive role in the Kikuyu system of justice, she cannot help taking a more active part as well. Thus a key insight about the dispute flashes on her in Swaheli, and she takes steps which help settle the case. In a book the very existence of which depends upon the author's bilingualism in Danish and English, this further crossing of linguistic boundaries must be seen as a key token of cultural multiplicity.
One might be tempted to simplify Dinesen's East Africa by speaking of three main groups—the Europeans, the Muslims, and the local Africans. Certainly the community which forms on her coffee farm suggests as much, since it consists of Dinesen's British and Scandinavian friends, of her major-domo Farah and his Somali relatives, and of the so-called Kikuyu "squatters," led by their chief Kinanjui. But such a scheme overlooks both some gaps in Dinesen's coverage and the strong tensions within two of these groups. Regarding the gaps, though she clearly knew Arab, Indian, and local African Muslims, she gives far more attention to the Somalis, an interest which might repay closer study than is possible here. Such a discussion would have to consider the chapter on Farah in Shadows on the Grass (1960), a second African memoir written more than twenty years later.
My purpose, however, is to consider tensions within the European and African groups. The bearing of these tensions on cultural multiplicity can be hard to see, given Dinesen's reticence about herself in Out of Africa, which is emphatically not an autobiography in the confessional mode. Thus, though she does show conflicts among different groups, she does not explain their personal relevance, except through saturated details whose connection with her personal life remains deeply encoded. This relative silence follows the narrative logic suggested by her portrait of old Knudsen, a fellow Dane who normally told grand stories about himself in the third person, but who only admitted "I am very sick" on the single occasion that he spoke in the first person. As a result, though Out of Africa describes the multicultural variety of East Africa with much zest, it obscures how Dinesen identifies with or negotiates among these traditions while coping with personal experiences of isolation, illness, and distress. The route to interpreting her cultural multiplicity, though finally rewarding, is thus a tortuous one.
Dinesen alludes to her problems as a Scandinavian in a British colony at the very end of her narrative. The occasion is the day when everyone in Nairobi avoided her because her lover Denys Finch-Hatton had just died in a plane crash, and she was the only person who did not know. Dinesen gets a nightmarish feeling that "I myself was somehow on the wrong side, and therefore was regarded with distrust and fear by everyone." She explains that this mood recalled her experiences some twenty years before, at the start of World War I, when she was mistakenly considered pro-German.
What she does not say is that her later feeling of separation probably included separation from Denys himself. Her book has already indicated that when visiting her farm he liked to hear her retell the stories she was then writing, thus he acquired a certain responsibility for Dinesen's crucial transition from writing in Danish to writing in English. But subsequently, when her money problems had decisively worsened, he recited a poem that shows his unwillingness to get too closely involved: "You must turn your mournful ditty / To a merry measure, / I will never come for pity, / I will come for pleasure." This is the most explicit trace in the book of what Dinesen's biographer Judith Thurman says probably happened, that Dinesen and Finch-Hatton had ended their affair just before his death [see Thurman, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, 1982]. But rather than giving a direct account of their relationship, Out of Africa acts this story out on a literary plane: Denys' gift of English in the storytelling sessions ironically turns into the medium for a warning to "come no closer." This revelation of aloofness is then mirrored in the British who avoid Dinesen in Nairobi after her lover's death just as they shunned her in World War I.
A pointed answer to Denys' poem of disengagement appears in a final scene from Out of Africa, where Dinesen "cites back" at the British. Her farm has gone bankrupt and she must sell; but then she discovers that the Kikuyu squatters have no legal rights to the land. Not only will they lose their homes, but they will be resettled piecemeal, with no regard for their standing as a community. When she pleads for some compromise (which comes at the last minute, but only as an unprecedented exception to colonial policy), she thinks of Shakespeare. "You can class people according to how they may be imagined behaving to King Lear," she reflects, and, to the officials who cannot understand why the community should be preserved, she inwardly protests, "Oh reason not the need." Yet unlike Lear with his daughters, she suddenly realizes, "the African Native has not handed over his country to the white man in a magnificent gesture." Only when she has lost her own land, and with the added irony that it is the very land she is now disputing on behalf of the Africans, does Dinesen reconsider a vaunted achievement of the English, so that instead of offering an alibi for the civilizing mission of colonialism, she attacks the whole enterprise.
A Scandinavian counterweight to Dinesen's disillusionment with the British appears in the chapter describing the Swede Emmanuelson in "Visitors to the Farm." Dinesen overcomes her dislike for this former waiter at a Nairobi hotel when she learns that he was once a tragic actor and that he plans to walk to Tanganyika, a week-long journey through the harsh lands of the Masai. His passionate love of tragic drama implicitly sets him apart from the emotionally neutral British, and she also admires his affinity with the Masai, with whom he can communicate only by pantomime but who, it turns out, still show him "great kindness and hospitality." In fact, Emmanuelson clearly functions as an alter ego for Dinesen, not just because his isolation amidst a group of Africans echoes her isolation in World War I, but also because one of his favorite tragic texts is Ibsen's Ghosts. This saturated detail looks ahead to Dinesen's situation while writing Out of Africa, when she learned that the syphilis she had contracted from her womanizing husband had not, as she had once thought, been cured, but had become her fate, thus mirroring Ibsen's Osvald Alving, who similarly returned to Scandinavia after a long period abroad.
Dinesen does not write of her illness or of her husband in Out of Africa, but traces of this painful experience do mark her treatment of the two African tribes she knew best. In general she draws distinct contrasts—the proud Masai warriors versus the humbler Kikuyu agriculturalists, the slave takers versus the victims in the Arab slave trade. But despite strong tensions between the tribes in the past, the Masai have begun to intermarry with the Kikuyu, since, as Dinesen puts it, "the Masai women have no children and the prolific young Kikuyu girls are in demand." It is here that Dinesen's personal situation comes closest to the surface. For, as Thurman tells us, the Masai were infertile due to widespread syphilis, and it was from a Masai woman that Dinesen's husband probably got the disease that he then passed on to her. This history, I think, underlies and helps explain the evolution of Dinesen's sympathies for the local Africans, from a rather facile admiration for Masai warriors to a deeper identification with old Kikuyu women.
On the one hand, the young Dinesen was greatly taken with her Swedish husband's noble title. Though he is banished from her book, she nonetheless calls herself "Baroness Blixen" in a key passage, and once even indicated in a letter to her brother that the title was worth a case of syphilis. In her identification with the Africans, she sees this aristocratic mystique embodied in the Masai men. Their "rigid, passive, and insolent bearing" gives them the look of "creatures trained through hard discipline to the height of rapaciousness, greed, and gluttony," and, in a less lurid passage, their sense of freedom is said to be so strong that they cannot survive three months in prison.
However, the older Dinesen, who has lost her land and writes with the knowledge that she suffers from an incurable case of spinal syphilis, prefers to identify with the old Kikuyu women. Early in Out of Africa she pays tribute to these women, "who have mixed blood with Fate, and recognize her irony, wherever they meet it, with sympathy, as if it were that of a sister." Read hastily in the context of Dinesen's status as mistress of a coffee plantation, these words may seem condescending; what gives them a deeper resonance is the temporal ambiguity implied by the image of "mixing blood with Fate," which surely reflects the author's awareness of her illness as she wrote the autobiography in Denmark.
Somewhat later in the book, in a naming scene that contrasts "Baroness Blixen" with another, quite different Dinesen persona, the old women call her "Jambo Jerie." But this phrase, once spoken, will remain an enigma until much later: writing of her departure from Africa, Dinesen explains that "whenever a girl is born to a Kikuyu family a long time after her brothers and sisters, she is named Jerie." Dinesen clearly prizes this acknowledgment of honorary kinship from her elders. Not only did it give her the strength to face the distress of involuntary displacement—one of her last African memories is of an old Kikuyu woman carrying part of her dismantled house on her back—but even now, as she writes, it steels her against the arrival of old age. Her tribute is too long to quote in full, but here are some key phrases: "The old Kikuyu women have had a hard life, and have themselves become flint-hard … they were afraid of nothing. They carried loads … of three hundred pounds …, they worked in the hard ground … from the early morning til late in the evening…. And they had a stock of energy in them still; they radiated vitality…. This strength … to me seemed … glorious and bewitching." In a set of cross-cultural exchanges that began when her husband consorted with a Masai woman, Dinesen's narrative suppresses this all-too painful personal event only to highlight another symptom of the same situation, the syphilis-enforced intermarriages between the Masai and the Kikuyu. Identifying with both tribes, she thrills at first to the aristocratic warrior ethic of the Masai but settles in the end for the toughness of her self-described sisters, the old Kikuyu women.
Thus in Out of Africa, for all its studied reticence, as well as in the more directly confessional When Memory Comes, the upheavals of twentieth-century history thrust the autobiographer into situations where it becomes possible to take part in three or more cultures. Saul Friedländer as boy and youth experienced central-European secular, French Catholic, and Israeli Jewish cultures; Isak Dinesen as an adult woman experienced Scandinavian, British, and East African cultures, with East Africa opening up to reveal both the Kikuyu and the Masai. In each case, as the autobiography develops, the author comes to occupy a complex multicultural site where the binary logic of simple biculturalism no longer applies, where even the two-dimensional concept of boundary lines may appear inadequate.
Instead, as the autobiographical persona passes through these worlds, the multicultural vision of external diversity turns inward, leading to what I call cultural multiplicity. In the intimacy of such questions as "Who do I admire?" or "What do I believe?" or "Where do I belong?"—questions which, amid the flux of experience, challenge and sometimes alter or widen one's deepest cultural affiliations—the autobiographer identifies with and assimilates certain specific traits of the multicultural world that he or she portrays. The result is an autobiographical text which projects a polycentric field of cultural forces, forces which interrelate across a spectrum of options from tension to negotiation, from conflict to triumphant resolution. Such an autobiography, moreover, communicates these possibilities to its readers, who as they read learn to share to some extent in the author's multiplicity. At our present moment, with its heightened and often polarized sense of cultural identity, this kind of cultural literacy seems well worth cultivating; for rather than associating identity with certain monolithic, unchanging traits, it acknowledges both the many-sidedness of experience and the capacity of that experience to stir complex sympathies.