Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, Isak Dinesen.


Les grandes passions sont rares
comme les chefs-d'oeuvres.

THE Baroness Karen Blizen née Karen Christentze Dinesen — called Tanne by her family and Tania first by her lover and then by hear friends — was the Danish woman author of rare distinction who wrote in English out of loyalty to her dead lover's language and, in the spirit of good old-fashioned coquetry, half hid, half showed her authorship by prefixing to her maiden name the male pseudonym "Isak," the one who laughs. Laughter was supposed to take care of several rather troublesome problems, the least serious of which, perhaps, was her firm conviction that it was not very becoming for a woman to be an author, hence a public figure; the light that illuminates the public domain is much too harsh to be flattering. She had had her experiences in this matter since her mother had been a suffragette, active in the fight for women's franchise in Denmark, and probably one of those excellent women who will never tempt a man to seduce them. When she was twenty she had written and published some short stories and been encouraged to go on but immediately decided not to. She "never once wanted to be a writer," she "had an intuitive fear of being trapped," and every profession, because it invariably assigns a definite role in life, would have been a trap, shielding her against the infinite possibilities of life itself. She was in her late forties when she began to write professionally and close to fifty when her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, appeared. At that time, she had discovered (as we know from "The Dreamers") that the chief trap in life is one's own identity — "I will not be one person again. ... Never again will I have my heart and my whole life bound up with one woman" — and that the best advice to give one's friends (for instance, Marcus Cocoza in the story) was not to worry "too much about Marcus Cocoza," for this means to be "really his slave and his prisoner." Hence, the trap was not so much writing or professional writing as taking oneself seriously and identifying the woman with the author who has his identity confirmed, inescapably, in public. That grief over having lost her life and her lover in Africa should have made her a writer and given her a sort of second life was best understood as a joke, and "God loves a joke" became her maxim in the latter part of her life. (She loved such mottoes to live by and had started with navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse est, to adopt later Denys Finch-Hatton's Je responderay, I shall answer and give account.)
       But there was more than the fear of being trapped that caused her, in interview upon interview, to defend herself emphatically against the common notion of her being a born writer and a "creative artist." The truth was that she never had felt any ambition or particular urge to write, let alone be a writer; the little writing she had done in Africa could be dismissed, as it had only served "in times of drought" in every sense to disperse her worries about the farm and relieve her boredom when no other work could be done. Only once had she "created some fiction to make money," and though The Angelic Avengers did make some money, it turned out "terrible." No, she had started writing simply "because she had to make a living" and "could do only two things, cook and ... perhaps, write." How to cook she had learned in Paris and later in Africa in order to please her friends, and in order to entertain friends and natives alike, she had taught herself how to tell stories. 'Had she been able to stay In Africa, she would never have become a writer." For, "Moi, je suis une conteuse, et rien qu'une conteuse. C'est l'histoire elle-meme qui m'intéresse, et la façon de la raconter." ("I, I am a storyteller and nothing else. What interests me is the story and the way to tell it") All she needed to begin with was life and the world, almost any kind of world or milieu; for the world is full of stories, of events and occurrences and strange happenings, which wait only to be told, and the reason why they usually remain untold is, according to Isak Dinesen, lack of imagination — for only if you can imagine what has happened anyhow, repeat it in imagination, will you see the stories, and only if you have the patience to tell and retell them ("Je me les raconte et re-raconte") will you be able to tell them well. This, of course, she had done all her life, but not in order to become an artist, not even to become one of the wise and old professional storytellers we find in her books. Without repeating life in imagination you can never be fully alive, "lack of imagination" prevents people from "existing." "Be loyal to the story," as one of her storytellers admonishes the young, "be eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story," means no less than, Be loyal to life, don't create fiction but accept what life is giving you, show yourself worthy of whatever it may be by recollecting and pondering over it, thus repeating it in imagination; this is me way to remain alive. And to live in the sense of being fully alive had early been and remained to the end her only aim and desire. "My life, I will not let you go except you bless me, but then I will let you go." The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: "When the storyteller is loyal ... to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence."
       This, to be sure, needs skill, and in this sense storytelling is not only part of living but can become an art in its own right. To become an artist also needs time and a certain detachment from the heady, intoxicating business of sheer living that, perhaps, only the bom artist can manage in the midst of living. In her case, anyhow, there is a sharp line dividing her life from her afterlife as an author. Only when she had lost what had constituted her life, her home in Africa and her lover, when she had returned home to Rungstedlund a complete "failure" with nothing in her hands except grief and sorrow and memories, did she become the artist and the "success" she never would have become otherwise — "God loves a joke," and divine jokes, as the Greeks knew so well, are often cruel ones. What she then did was unique in contemporary literature though it could be matched by certain nineteenth-century writers — Heinrich Kleist's anecdotes and short stories and some tales of Johann Peter Hebel, especially Unverhofftes Wiedersehen come to mind. Eudora Welty has defined it definitively in one short sentence of utter precision: "Of a story she made an essence; of the essence she made an elixir; and of the elixir she began once more to compound the story."
       The connection of an artist's life with his work has always raised embarrassing problems, and our eagerness to see recorded, displayed, and discussed in public what once were strictly private affairs and nobody's business is probably less legitimate than our curiosity is ready to admit. Unfortunately, the questions one is bound to raise about Parmenia Miguel's biography (Titania. The Biography of Isak Dinesen, Random House, 1967) are not of this order. To say that the writing is nondescript is putting it kindly, and although five years spent in research supposedly yielded "enough material ... for a monumental work," we hardly ever get more than quotations from previously published material drawn either from books and interviews of the subject or from Isak Dinesen: A Memorial, which Random House published in 1965. The few facts revealed here for the first time are treated with a sloppy non-workmanship which any copy editor should have been able to spot. (A man who is about to commit suicide [her father] cannot very well be said to have "some premonition ... of his approaching death"; on p. 36 we are instructed that her first love should "remain nameless," but he doesn't, on p. 210 we learn who he was; we are informed in passing that her father "had sympathized with the Communards and had leftist leanings" and are told, through the voice of an aunt, that "he was profoundly saddened by the horrors he had witnessed during the Paris Commune." A disabused man, we would conclude, if we did not know from the above-mentioned memorial volume, that he had later written a book of memoirs "in which ... he rendered justice to the patriotism and idealism of the 'communards.'" His son confirms the sympathies with the Commune and adds that "in parliament his party was the Left.") Worse than the sloppiness is the wrong-headed délicatesse applied to the by far most relevant new fact the book contains, the venereal infection — the husband from whom she was divorced but whose name and title she kept (for "the satisfaction of being addressed as Baroness," as her biographer suggests?) had "left her a legacy of illness" — from whose consequences she had suffered all her life. Her medical history would indeed have been of considerable interest; her secretary relates to what an extent her later life was consumed by a "heroic fight against the overwhelming odds of illness ... like one human being trying to stem an avalanche." And worst of all is the occasional, rather innocent impertinence, so typical of the professional adorers to be found In the surroundings of most celebrities; Hemingway, who quite generously had said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize that it should have been given to "that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen," "could not help envying [Tania's] poise and sophistication" and "needed to kill in order to prove his manhood, to extirpate the insecurity which he never did really conquer." All this would not need saying and the whole enterprise would best be passed over in silence, if it were not for the unhappy fact that it was Isak Dinesen herself (or was it the Baroness Karen Blixen?) who had commissioned, as it were, this biography, had spent hours and days with Mrs. Migel to instruct her, and, shortly before her death, reminded her once more of "my book," exacting a promise that it would be finished "as soon as I die." Well, neither vanity nor the need for adoration — the sad substitute for the supreme confirmation of one's existence which only love, mutual love, can give — belongs among the mortal sins; but they are unsurpassed prompters when we need suggestions for making fools of ourselves.
       No one, obviously, could have told the story of her life as she herself might have told it, and the question why she did not write an autobiography is as fascinating as it is unanswered. (What a pity that her biographer apparently never asked her this obvious question.) For Out of Africa, which is often called autobiographical, is singularly reticent, silent on almost all the issues her biographer would be bound to raise. It tells us nothing of the unhappy marriage and the divorce, and only the careful reader will learn from it that Denys Finch-Hatton was more than a regular visitor and friend. The book is indeed, as Robert Langbaum, by far her best critic, has pointed out, "an authentic pastoral, perhaps the best prose pastoral of our time," and because it is a pastoral and not dramatic in the least, not even in the narration of Denys Finch-Hatton's death in an airplane crash and of the last desolate weeks in empty rooms on packed cases, it can incorporate many stories but only hint, by the most tenuous, rarefied allusions, at the underlying story of a grande passion which was then, and apparently remained to the end, the source of her storytelling. Neither in Africa nor at any other time of her life did she ever hide anything; she must have been proud, one gathers, to be the mistress of this man who in her descriptions remains curiously lifeless. But in Out of Africa, she admits her relation only by implication — he "had no other home in Africa than the farm, he lived in my house between his Safaris," and when he came back the house "gave out what was in it; it spoke — as the coffee-plantations speak, when with the first showers of the rainy season they flower"; then "the things of the farm were all telling what they really were." And she, having "made up many [stories] while he had been away," would be "sitting on the floor, crosslegged like Scheherazade herself."
       When she called herself Scheherazade in this setting she meant more than the literary critics who later followed her lead, more than mere storytelling, the "Moi, je suis one conteuse and rien qu'une conteuse." The Thousand and One Nights — whose "stories she placed above everything else" — were not merely whiled away with telling tales; they produced three male children. And her lover, who "when he came to the farm would ask: Have you got a story?," was not unlike the Arabian King who "being restless was pleased with the idea of listening to the story." Denys Finch-Hatton and his friend, Berkeley Cole, belonged to the generation of young men whom the First World War had made forever unfit to bear the conventions and fulfill the duties of everyday life, to pursue their careers and play their roles in a society that bored them to distraction. Some of them became revolutionists and lived in the dreamland of the future; others, on the contrary, chose the dreamland of the past and lived as though "theirs was ... a world which no longer existed." They belonged together in the fundamental conviction that "they did not belong to their century." (In political parlance, one would say that they were antiliberal insofar as liberalism meant the acceptance of the world as it was together with the hope for its "progress"; historians know to what an extent conservative criticism and revolutionary criticism of the world of the bourgeoisie coincide.) In either case, they wished to be "outcasts" and "deserters," quite ready "to pay for their wilfulness" rather than settle down and found a family. At any rate, Denys Finch-Hatton came and went as he wished, and nothing was obviously further from his mind than to be bound by marriage. Nothing could bind him and lure him back but the flame of passion, and the surest way of preventing the flame from being extinguished by time and inevitable repetition, by knowing each other too well and having already heard all the stories, was to become inexhaustible in making up new ones. Surely, she was no less anxious to entertain than Scheherazade, no less conscious that failing to please would be her death.
       Hence la grande passion, with Africa, still wild, not yet domesticated, the perfect setting. There one could draw the line "between respectability and decency, and [divide] up our acquaintances, human and animal, in accordance with the doctrine. We put down domestic animals as respectable and wild animals as decent, and held that, while the existence and prestige of the first were decided by their relation to the community, the others stood in direct contact with God. Pigs and poultry, we agreed, were worthy of our respect, inasmuch as they loyally returned what was invested in them, and ... behaved as was expected of them. ... We registered ourselves with the wild animals, sadly admitting the inadequacy of our return to the community — and to our mortgages — but realizing that we could not possibly, not even in order to obtain the highest approval of our surroundings, give up that direct contact with God which we shared with the hippo and the flamingo." Among the emotions, la grande passion is just as destructive of what is socially acceptable, just as contemptuous of what is deemed "worthy of our respect," as the outcasts and deserters were of the civilized society they had come from. But life is lived in society, and love, therefore — not romantic love, to be sure, that sets the stage for marital bliss — is destructive of life too, as we know from the famous pairs of lovers in history and literature who all came to grief. To escape society — couldn't that mean to be granted not just passion but a passionate life? Hadn't that been the reason why she left Denmark, to expose herself to a life unprotected by society? "What business had I had to set my heart on Africa?" she asked, and the answer came in the song of the "Master" whose "word has been a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path" —
Who doth ambition shun
And loves to live i' the sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleas'd with what he gets,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see
No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

If it do come to pass
That any man turn ass
Leaving his wealth and ease,
A stubborn will to please.
Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame:
Here shall he see
Gross fools as he.
And if he will come to me.

[As You Like It, Act II Scene 5]
       Scheherazade, with everything the name implies, living among Shakespeare's "gross fools" who shun ambition and love to live in the sun, having found a place "nine thousand feet up" from where to laugh down "at the ambition of the new arrivals, of the Missions, the business people and the Government itself, to make the continent of Africa respectable," intent upon nothing except preserving the natives, the wild animals, and the wilder outcasts and deserters from Europe, the adventurers turned guides and safari hunters, in "their innocence of the period before the Fall" — that Is what she wanted to be, how she wanted to live, and how she appeared to herself. It was not necessarily how she appeared to others, and particularly to her lover. Tania he had called her, and then he had added Titania. ("There is such magic in the people and the land here," she had said to him; and Denys had "smiled at her with affectionate condescension. "The magic is not in the people and the land, but in the eye of the beholder. ... You bring your own magic to it, Tania ... Titania.") Parmenia Migel has chosen the name as title for her biography, and it wouldn't have been a bad title if she had remembered that the name implies more than the Queen of fairies and her "magic." The two lovers between whom the name first fell, forever quoting Shakespeare to each other, knew of course better; they knew that the Queen of fairies was quite capable of falling in love with Bottom and that she had a rather unrealistic estimate of her own magical powers:
"And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
  That thou shalt like an airy spirit go."
Well, Bottom did not transform into an airy spirit, and Puck tells us what is the truth of the matter for all practical purposes:
"My mistress with a monster is in love. ...
  Titania wak'd and straightway lov'd an ass."
The trouble was that magic once more proved utterly ineffective. The catastrophe that finally befell her she had brought about herself, when she decided to stay on the farm even when she must have known that coffee growing "at an altitude so high ... was decidedly unprofitable," and, to make matters worse, she "did not know or learn much about coffee but persisted in the unshakable conviction that her intuitive power would tell her what to do" — as her brother, in sensible and tender reminiscences, remarked after her death. Only when she had been expelled from the land that for seventeen long years, supported by the money of her family, had permitted her to be Queen, Queen of fairies, did the truth dawn upon her. Remembering from afar her African cook, Kamante, she wrote, "Where the great Chef walked in deep thought, full of knowledge, nobody sees anything but a little bandy-legged Kikuyu, a dwarf with a flat, still face." Yes, nobody except herself, forever repeating everything in the magic of imagination out of which the stories grew. However, the point of the matter is that even this disproportion, once it has been discovered, can become the stuff for a story. Thus, we meet Titania again in "The Dreamers," only now she is called "Donna Quixota de la Mancha" and reminds the wise old Jew, who in the story plays the role of Puck, of "dancing snakes" he once saw in India, snakes that have "no poison whatever" and kill, if they kill, by sheer force of embrace. "In fact, the sight of you, unfolding your great coils to revolve around, impress yourself upon, and finally crush a meadow mouse is enough to split one's side with laughter." In a way, that is how one feels when one reads on page after page about her "successes" in later life and how she enjoyed them, magnifying them out of all proportion — that so much intensity, such bold passionateness should be wasted on Book-of-the-Month-Club selections and honorary memberships in prestigious societies, that the early clear-headed insight that sorrow is better than nothing, that "between grief and nothing I will take grief" (Faulkner), should finally be rewarded by the small change of prizes, awards, and honors might be sad in retrospect; the spectacle itself must have been very close to comedy.
       Stories had saved her love, and stories saved her life after disaster had struck. "All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." The story reveals the meaning of what otherwise would remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings. "The silent, all-embracing genius of consent" that also is the genius of true faith — when her Arab servant hears of Denys Finch-Hatton's death, he replies "God is great," just as the Hebrew Kaddish, the death prayer said by the closest relative, says nothing but "Holy be His name" — rises out of the story because in the repetition of imagination the happenings have become what she would call a "destiny." To be so at one with one's own destiny that no one will be able to tell the dancer from the dance, that the answer to the question, Who are you? will be the Cardinal's answer, 'Allow me ... to answer you in the classic manner, and to tell you a story," is the only aspiration worthy of the fact that life has been given us. This is also called pride, and the true dividing line between people is whether they are capable of being "in love with [their] destiny" or whether they "accept as success what others warrant to be so ... at the quotation of the day. They tremble, with reason, before their fate." All her stories are actually "Anecdotes of Destiny," they tell again and again how at the end we shall be privileged to judge; or, to put it differently, how to pursue one of the "two courses of thought at all seemly to a person of any intelligence ... : What did God mean by creating the world, the sea, and the desert, the horse, the winds, woman, amber, fishes, wine?"
       It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the "day of judgment." And yet, if we listen to Isak Dinesen's "philosophy" of storytelling and think of her life in the light of it, we cannot help becoming aware of how the slightest misunderstanding, the slightest shift of emphasis in the wrong direction, will inevitably ruin everything. If it is true, as her "philosophy" suggests, that no one has a life worth thinking about whose life story cannot be told, does it not then follow that life could be, even ought to be, lived as a story, that what one has to do in life is to make the story come true? "Pride," she once wrote in her notebook, "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." From what we now know of her early life it seems quite clear that this is what she herself had tried to do when she was a young girl, to "realize" an "idea" and to anticipate her life's destiny by making an old story come true. The idea came to her as a legacy of her father, whom she had greatly loved — his death, when she was ten years old, was the first great grief, the fact that he had committed suicide, as she later learned, the first great shock from which she refused to be parted — and the story she had planned to act out in her life was actually meant to be the sequence of her father's story. The latter had concerned "une princesse de conte de fées whom everybody adored," whom he had known and loved before his marriage, and who had died suddenly at the age of twenty. Her father had mentioned it to her and an aunt had later suggested that he had never been able to recover from losing the girl, that his suicide was the result of his incurable grief. The girl, it turned out, had been a cousin of her father, and the daughter's greatest ambition became to belong to this side of her father's family, Danish high nobility to boot, "a race totally different" from her own milieu, as her brother relates it. It was only natural that one of its members, who would have been the dead girl's niece, became her best friend, and when "she fell in love 'for the first time and really forever,' [as] she used to say," it was with another second cousin of hers, Hans Blixen, who would have been the dead girl's nephew. And since this one took no notice of her, she decided, even at the age of twenty-seven, old enough to know better — to the distress and the amazement of everybody around her — to marry the twin brother and leave with him for Africa, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. What then came was petty and sordid, not at all the stuff you could safely put into a story or tell a story about (She was separated immediately after the war and received her divorce in 1923.)
       Or was it? As far as I know, she never wrote a story about this absurd marriage affair, but she did write some tales about what must have been for her the obvious lesson of her youthful follies, namely, about the "sin" of making a story come true, of interfering with life according to a preconceived pattern, instead of waiting patiently for the story to emerge, of repeating in imagination as distinguished from creating a fiction and then trying to live up to it. The earliest of these tales is "The Poet" (in Seven Gothic Tales); two others were written nearly twenty-five years later (Parmenia Migel's biography unfortunately contains no chronological table), "The Immortal Story" (in Anecdotes of Destiny) and "Echoes" (in Last Tales). The first tells of the encounter between a young poet of peasant stock and his high-placed benefactor, an elderly gentleman who In his youth had fallen under the spell of Weimar and "the great Geheimerat Goethe," with the result that "outside of poetry there was to him no real ideal in life." Alas, no such high ambition has ever made a man a poet, and when he realized "that the poetry of his life would have to come from somewhere else" he decided on the part "of a Maecenas," began to look for "a great poet" worthy of his consideration, and found him conveniently at hand in the town he lived in. But a real Maecenas, one who knew so much about poetry, could not very well be content with shelling out the money; he had also to provide the great tragedies and sorrows out of which he knew great poetry draws its best inspirations. Thus, he acquired a young wife and arranged it so that the two young people under his protection should fall in love with each other without any prospect of marriage. Well, the end is pretty bloody; the young poet shoots at his benefactor, and while the old man in his death agony dreams of Goethe and Weimar, the young woman, seeing as in a vision her lover "with the halter around his neck," finishes him off. "Just because it suited him that the world should be lovely, he meant to conjure it into being so," she said to herself. "'You!,' she cried at him. 'You poet!'"
       The perfect irony of "The Poet" is perhaps best realized by those who know German Bildung and its unfortunate connection with Goethe as well as its author did herself. (The story contains several allusions to German poems by Goethe and Heine as well as to Voss's translation of Homer. It could also be read as a story about the vices of Bildung.) The Immortal Story," on the contrary, is conceived and written in the manner of a folk story. Its hero is an "immensely rich tea-trader" in Canton with very down-to-earth reasons for having "faith in his own omnipotence," who only at the end of his life came into contact with books. He then was bothered that they told of things that had never happened, and he got positively outraged when told that the only story he knew — about the sailor who had come ashore, met an old gentleman, "the richest man" in town, was asked by him to "do your best" in the bed of his young wife that he might still have a son, and was given a five-guinea piece for his service — "never has happened, and ... never will happen, and that is why it is told." So the old man goes in pursuit of a sailor to make the old story, told in all harbor towns the world over, come true. And all seems to go well — except that the young sailor in the morning refuses to recognize the slightest similarity between the story and what had happened to him during the night, refuses the five guineas, and leaves for the lady in question the only treasure he possesses, "one big shining pink shell" of which he thinks "that perhaps there is not another one just like it in all the world."
       "Echoes," the last one in this category, is a belated sequel to "The Dreamers" in Gothic Tales, the story about Pellegrina Leoni. "The diva who had lost her voice" in her wanderings hears it again from the boy Emanuele, whom she now proceeds to make into her own image so that her dream, her best and least selfish dream, should come true — that the voice which gave so much pleasure should be resurrected. Robert Langbaum, whom I mentioned before, noticed that here "Isak Dinesen pointed the finger of accusation against herself" and that the story, as the first pages suggest anyhow, is "about cannibalism," but nothing in it bears out that the singer had "been feeding on [the boy] in order to restore her own youth and to resurrect the Pellegrina Leoni whom she buried in Milan twelve years ago." (The very choice of a male successor precludes this interpretation.) The singer's own conclusion is, "And the voice of Pellegrina Leoni will not be heard again." The boy, before starting to throw stones at her, had accused her, "You are a witch. You are a vampire. ... Now I know that I should die if I went back to you" — for the next singing lesson. The same accusations, the young poet could have hurled at his Maecenas, the young sailor at his benefactor, and generally all people who, under the pretext of being helped, are used for making another person's dream come true. (Thus, she herself had thought she could marry without love because her cousin "needed her and was perhaps the only human being who did," while she actually used him to start a new life in East Africa and to live among natives as her father had done when he had lived like a hermit among the Chippeway Indians. "The Indians are better than our civilized people of Europe," he had told his small daughter, whose greatest gift was never to forget "Their eyes see more than ours, and they are wiser.")
       Thus, the earlier part of her life had taught her that, while you can tell stories or write poems ahout life, you cannot make life poetic, live it as though it were a work of art (as Goethe had done) or use it for the realization of an "idea." Life may contain the "essence" (what else could?); recollection, the repetition in imagination, may decipher the essence and deliver to you the "elixir"; and eventually you may even be privileged to "make" something out of it, "to compound the story." But life itself is neither essence nor elixir, and if you treat it as such it will only play its tricks on you. It was perhaps the bitter experience of life's tricks that prepared her (rather late, she was in her middle thirties when she met Finch-Hatton) for being seized by the grande passion which indeed is no less rare than a chef-d'oeuvre. Storytelling, at any rate, is what in the end made her wise — and, incidentally, not a "witch," "siren," or "sibyl," as her entourage admiringly thought. Wisdom is a virtue of old age, and it seems to come only to those who, when young, were neither wise nor prudent.