Out of Africa
Out of Africa
Isak Dinesen 1937Introduction
Isak Dinesen's autobiographical novel, Out of Africa, recounts the years she spent on a coffee plantation in East Africa. Published in 1937, the book garnered critical and popular acclaim, especially in Britain and the United States. The award-winning 1985 film version, which won an Oscar for best picture, prompted a resurgence of interest in the book and helped place it on the best-seller list several years after her death.
Out of Africa comprises a series of Dinesen's observations of the African landscape and the character sketches of the East Africans and transplanted Europeans she met there. In her article in the New York Times Book Review, Katherine Woods maintains, "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."
Yet, Out of Africa is not just an account of what the author found in Africa; it is also the story of how an independent and courageous woman came to understand and define herself. Woods concludes that Dinesen "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."
Dinesen was born Christentze Dinesen on April 17, 1885, in Rungsted, Denmark. Her love of painting prompted her to study art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where she developed an eye for landscape details—a talent that would be reflected later in her writing.
She continued her studies in Oxford, Paris, and Rome and began to write short fiction and novels. In 1907, a literary magazine in Denmark published her short story "The Hermits" under the pseudonym Osceola.
After a failed love affair with her cousin Hans Blixen-Finecke, Christentze (she preferred to be called Karen) announced to her family that she planned to marry Hans' twin brother, Bror, a big-game hunter and writer.
The couple married and moved to Kenya, where, with financial aid from her family, they purchased six thousand acres of land. Her marriage to Bror did not survive (they were divorced in 1921), but her love of the land and the people of Africa endured through the hardships she faced as a woman managing a coffee plantation on her own.
While in Africa, Dinesen wrote letters and composed stories that she shared with visiting friends. She left Africa in 1931 after financial problems forced her to sell the farm and returned to Denmark, where she completed her first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1934).
In 1937, Out of Africa, a memoir of her life in Africa, was published; she used the pseudonym Isak, which is Hebrew for "laughter." From 1931 until her death in Rungsted on September 7, 1962, this prolific author produced short story collections, essays, novels, poetry, plays, and memoirs written in both Danish and English.
Part I: Kamante and Lulu
Out of Africa opens with a description of East Africa—of its "views immensely wide" and its "heroic and romantic air." From 1913 to 1931 Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym of Karen Christentze Dinesen Blixen) owned and operated a coffee plantation on the outskirts of what is now Nairobi, Kenya, until financial problems forced her to sell it and return to her home in Denmark. Her six thousand acres of land are used for several different purposes: six hundred for the coffee beans and one thousand for the East African "squatters" who work the farm a set number of days for the right to live there. The remaining acres include a wide expanse of forest.
Dinesen finds it difficult to get to know the East Africans who work on her farm but eventually becomes friendly with them. Moreover, she is impressed with their courage, sincerity, and closeness to the land. She admits, "The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world."
One day on the farm, she meets Kamante, the nine-year-old son of one of her squatters. She tries to treat the sores covering his thin legs but is unsuccessful and so sends him to the Scotch Mission hospital, where he stays for three months while his legs heal. Kamante is "a wild creature" when she first meets him, "so utterly isolated from the world, and, by a sort of firm deadly resignation, completely closed to all surrounding life."
After he returns from the Mission, Kamante becomes one of Dinesen's trusted servants and friends. He helps her care for Lulu, a young antelope who causes the house to become "one with the African landscape." In this section, Dinesen also introduces two other servants, Farah Aden and Ismail, and an old, eccentric Dane named Knudsen.
Part II: The Shooting Incident
One night Kabero, the seven-year-old son of an old squatter named Kaninu, accidentally shoots two boys. One soon dies, while the other, whose lower jaw has been shot off, slowly recovers in the hospital. The old men on the farm decide to set a Kyama on the case, made up of an assembly of elders authorized by the government to settle disputes among the squatters. The men, however, have trouble resolving the case and, after a long period of disruption among the families, which includes accusations of sorcery, Chief Kinanjui is called to pass judgment. The matter is finally settled.
Part III: Big Dances
Native dances called Ngomas are held and soon become "the greatest social functions of the farm." One night, warriors from the neighboring Masai tribe attend the Ngoma and fighting erupts. To keep the authorities out of the incident, Dinesen nurses the injured men back to health.
Foreign visitors to the farm include some of Farah's Indian friends, members of his wife's family, and Emmanuelson, a Swede who is befriended by the Masai. Dinesen enjoys the company of these guests, as she learns of their culture and experiences.
Two visitors who become great friends are British expatriates Berkeley Cole and Denys Finch-Hatton. They bring her fine wine, gramophone records, books, and good conversation about their African adventures. She in return offers them the comforts of home and recites the stories she has written for their entertainment. Both men help her get to know the people and the landscape of her new home.
Part IV: The Wild Came to the Aid of the Wild
This section includes fragments of Dinesen's comments on her surroundings. In these brief tales and verbal snapshots, she reveals her appreciation of the independence, resilience, and beauty of the people and animals she observes. She also notes the harsh existence suffered by many.
When World War I comes to East Africa, she travels the rough terrain, bringing provisions and ammunition to the British troops on the border, and forges a special bond with the Africans who accompany her. When Denys flies her in his plane over the landscape, she marvels at its beauty.
Part V: Farewell to the Farm
Seasons of drought and falling coffee prices force Dinesen to sell the farm. During the long departure process, she gradually disengages herself from the land and its people. She sells most of the contents of the house and refuses to allow Chief Kinanjui to end his life at her farm, fearing the wrath of government officials. At this point Dinesen admits, "I had not got it in me any longer to stand up against the authorities of the world."
Her two closest friends have died—Berkeley of heart failure and Denys in a plane crash. Yet she does fulfill two promises before she leaves: she buries Denys on a hill overlooking the farm and within view of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. Later, when she hears reports of lions standing or lying on his grave for long periods of time, she finds it "fit and decorous" that the lions should "make him an African monument."
When the squatters on her land come to her with fears about being forced to relocate after the farm is sold, she helps them find a place to live. She explains, "it is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose native land you take. It is their past as well, their roots and their identity." As she prepares to depart, her friend Ingrid Lindstrom and the women on the farm give her comfort. She watches the landscape disappear from the window of her train out of Nairobi.
Farah is Isak Dinesen's Somali servant. He remains with her the entire time she is in Africa and serves as her interpreter with the squatters.
Belknap is Dinesen's American mill manager, an "exceptionally capable, inspired mechanic, but of an uneven mind." His mood swings are "a kind of emotional daily gymnastics to a lively temperament, much in need of exercise, and to which too little was happening."
See Isak Dinesen
Old Mr. Bulpett, also known as Uncle Charles, often comes to the farm for dinner. Dinesen regards him as an ideal English Victorian gentleman, noting that he had swum the Hellespont, climbed the Matterhorn, and been romantically involved with a famous woman.
Like Denys Finch-Hatton, Berkeley is a British expatriate who becomes good friends with Dinesen. From his neighboring farm on Mount Kenya, he brings her fine wine, books, and conversation, while she offers him "a chosen, comfortable corner of the world." Like Denys, he is an outcast. A good judge of people, he harbors no illusions about life. Although he suffers from heart problems, he is also "a source of heat and fun." He dreams of running off with Dinesen to have adventures in foreign countries, but their lack of money keeps them in Africa. During his time in Africa, he became intimate with the Masai and so could speak with them "of the old days in their own tongue." Before Dinesen leaves the farm, he dies of heart disease.
Out of Africa is Dinesen's autobiography of her life in Kenya, where she owns and operates a coffee plantation. She also acts as doctor, teacher, judge, and friend to those who work for her and live on her land. During her eighteen years on the farm, she develops a great love of the land and its people and forges strong friendships with them that last a lifetime. This love is evident in the stories, character sketches, and observations that she begins to record during lonely nights at the farm. After a series of financial setbacks, she is forced to sell the farm and leave her beloved Africa.
Emmanuelson is a gregarious Swede who works at a hotel in Nairobi. He asks Dinesen for a loan to help him journey to Tanganyika after losing his job. He explains that he is an actor and hopes to find work there. She worries he will perish in the hot sun or be attacked by lions and/or Masai warriors. Six months later, a letter arrives with her money and the news that he reached Tanganyika, ironically, with the aid of the Masai.
Esa is a servant on the farm. When his brother dies and leaves him a black cow, the once gentle and unassuming Esa determines "that from now fortune was going to smile on him," and so begins to develop "a terrible confidence in things." He decides to take a second wife, but she is young and headstrong and keeps running away from him. Eventually, she poisons him and he dies.
The fathers are a group of priests who live in the nearby French Roman Catholic Mission. When Dinesen attends Sunday Mass, they provide news of the colony, "like a small lively group of brown, furry bees,—for they all grew long, thick beards." While showing keen interest in the life of the colony, they are "in their own French way exiles, patient and cheerful obeisants to some higher orders of a mysterious nature."
- Dinesen's Out of Africa, as well as her Letters from Africa, was adapted to the screen by scriptwriter Kurt Luedtke in the 1985 film Out of Africa. Directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and Klaus Marie Brandauer, the film won the 1985 Academy Award for best picture. It is available on video from MCA/Universal Home Video.
- Out of Africa was recorded in an audio version, read by Julie Harris and produced in 1988 by West Audio.
Finch-Hatton is an athlete, musician, art lover, and fine sportsman. When he decides to stay in East Africa, he moves in with Dinesen. He teaches her Latin, encourages her to read the Bible and the Greek poets, and brings her a gramophone that becomes "the voice of the farm." They enjoy the land together, whether on safari or from his plane. The East Africans admire his "absolute lack of self-consciousness, or self-interest," and his "unconditional truthfulness." After he dies in a plane crash, Dinesen notes that:
he had watched and followed all the ways of the African Highlands, and better than any other white man, he had known their soil and seasons, the vegetation and the wild animals, the winds and smells … their people. He had taken in the country, and in his eyes and his mind it had been changed, marked by his own individuality, and made part of him.
Ismail is a strict Mohammedan Somali gun bearer who works for Dinesen during her first years in Africa.
Kabero is the seven-year-old son of Kaninu, an old squatter on Dinesen's land. While playing one day, Kabero accidentally shoots two boys and runs off to live with the Masai. When he returns, he is a young man, "a Masai from head to foot," with a "rigid, passive, and insolent bearing."
Kamante is the nine-year-old son of one of the squatters. Dinesen tries to treat the sores covering his thin legs, but is unsuccessful; subsequently, she sends him to the Scotch Mission hospital, where he stays for three months. Kamante is "a wild creature" when she first meets him, "so utterly isolated from the world, and, by a sort of firm deadly resignation, completely closed to all surrounding life.… He had no wish for any sort of contact with the world round him, the contacts that he had known of had been too cruel for that." After he returns from the hospital, Kamante works as Dinesen's servant for the next twelve years until she leaves the country. He takes care of her dogs, assists her doctoring, and becomes her cook.
Kaninu is Kabero's father.
Chief Kinanjui rules over more than one hundred thousand Kikuyu, the tribe that lives on the farm. He helps Dinesen settle disputes among the squatters.
Dinesen tells the story of Kitosch, a native man who dies from being flogged by his white master. After being tied up all night, Kitosch decided that he wanted to die, which he did shortly thereafter.
An old blind Danish man, Knudsen is allowed to remain on Dinesen's farm for six months until his death.
Ingrid is Dinesen's neighbor and friend. She comforts Dinesen during her final days in Africa, understanding "to the bottom of her heart, with great strength, with something of the strength of the elements themselves, what it is really like, when a woman farmer has to give up her farm, and leave it."
Search for Self
The predominant theme of Out of Africa is the search for self. Soon after Dinesen relocates to East Africa, she finds herself alone in a foreign land with the enormous responsibility of trying to operate a successful coffee plantation. To accomplish this, she must get to know the land and the East Africans who work for and with her. In the process, she learns more about herself.
During her time in Africa, Dinesen transforms herself from a Danish aristocrat to a woman who forges a spiritual union with her new home. At one point she asks: "If I know a song of Africa … of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me?" Later, she answers that question when she acknowledges, "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."
Individual versus Nature
One way Dinesen explores her self-identity is through her relationship with the land, which she finds challenging yet beautiful. She learns to stand her ground with lions and to cross a desert. When she decides to take provisions to British troops on the border at the outbreak of World War I, she travels for three months through rough terrain with a caravan of East Africans. She remembers, "The air of the African highlands went to my head like wine, I was all the time slightly drunk with it, and the joy of these months was indescribable."
She also finds incredible grace in the landscape. When a young antelope she names Lulu decides to take up residence at her farmhouse, she determines that "Lulu 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." She later maintains that "the years in which Lulu and her people came round to my house were the happiest of my life in Africa. For that reason, I came to look upon my acquaintance with the forest antelopes as … a token of friendship from Africa."
Dinesen finds "infinite freedom" in Africa, explaining that "it is there that things are going on, destinies are made round you, there is activity to all sides, and it is none of your concern." While on the farm, she experiences a kind of freedom not usually allowed a woman at that time. Through her interactions with the land and the people of Africa, Dinesen acts as a farmer, a doctor, a teacher, a judge, a storyteller, and a friend.
To live and flourish in Africa, Dinesen exhibits much courage. She deals with lonely nights on the farm by composing stories that she later relates to friends who visit. She learns how to survive the harsh environment and shoots game when necessary. She also shows courage when she accepts her failure to keep the farm and her departure from the land that she has grown to love.
In Out of Africa, Dinesen records the clash of cultures between the European settlers and the East Africans, which involves issues of class conflict and racial prejudice. In fact, she compares the treatment of the Africans to the treatment of oxen: "the oxen in Africa have carried the heavy load of the advance of European civilization … all of that we have taken away from the oxen, and in reward we have claimed their existence for ourselves." Unlike most of her fellow Europeans, Dinesen embraces the differences she finds between herself and the East Africans and often adopts their customs and attitudes. Her relationship with them evolves into friendship.
Point of View
Dinesen—or Karen Blixen, as she identifies herself in the work—serves as narrator/storyteller throughout Out of Africa. This narrative method not only brings the African people and landscape to life; it also provides a chronicle of the narrator's journey of self-discovery.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the colonization of Kenya. Discuss how East Africans were treated during the first part of the twentieth century. How has the situation changed?
- Read Dinesen's Letters from Africa, and compare it to Out of Africa. What details did Dinesen omit from the latter work? Why do you think she omitted them?
- Investigate the cultures of the Masai and of the Kikuyu. How does your research compare to Dinesen's characterizations of these tribes in Out of Africa ?
- Some critics find examples of racism in Dinesen's autobiographical novel. Summarize their arguments and defend or refute them.
One of the work's focal points is the harmonious relationship the African people have with the land. Dinesen also comes to enjoy this type of connection, as evident in the following passage:
The plains with the thorntrees on them were already quite dark, but the air was filled with clarity 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.
Dinesen's details about Africa create a mythic vision of the land. By the end of the book, the setting becomes a reflection of her mood. As she prepares to leave, she insists "the attitude of the landscape towards me changed. Till then I had been part of it.… Now the country disengaged itself from me, and stood back a little, in order that I should see it clearly and as a whole." This final vision is symbolic of all she feels she is leaving behind.
Out of Africa's unique structure contains fragmented yet interrelated stories, character sketches, and observations of Africa and its people.
Dinesen's story fragments and character sketches, as well as the details of the setting, are often symbolic. In one story, she writes of a time when her manager, while trying to break an ox for the farm, tied it up for the night. The next morning they discovered that a leopard had attacked it, and so the ox had to be destroyed. When Dinesen concludes, "he would not be yoked now," she alludes to the strong desire for freedom that she found everywhere in Africa.
In another episode, she explains that she once shot an iguana, thinking that its multicolored skin would make "pretty things" for her. She discovered, however, that once dead, all the color drained from it. Later, she bought an embroidered bracelet from a native that looked lifeless when she put it on her own arm. These incidents show her the importance of the individual spark of life and the importance of preserving that uniqueness.
British East Africa
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, European countries, especially Britain and Germany, began to colonize an area of East Africa that is now called Kenya. The Europeans realized that the sparsely populated land promised political and economic opportunities.
In 1887, the Imperial British East Africa Company, a trading organization under government control, rented the land from the sultan of Zanzibar, who ruled over the area. By 1895, the influence of the British government in East Africa increased when it established a "protectorate," a system often established in colonized countries. A protectorate established an official relationship between the colonizers, usually powerful Europeans, and then colonized in an area that had not yet established a political system of its own.
In an effort to secure political and economic control of the land, the British planned the construction of an extensive rail system. When the costs of the project began to mount, the government encouraged settlers from other countries to buy large parcels of East African land. The British had a difficult time, though, convincing Europeans to travel such a long distance and settle in a foreign land under harsh conditions.
Some settlers did come, especially middle-and upper-class Europeans who could afford to set up a comfortable lifestyle and to take financial losses as they learned new farming techniques. These settlers maintained a distance from the East Africans and relegated them to an inferior, servant status. The number of settlers increased dramatically in the early part of the twentieth century from approximately six hundred in 1905 to more than five thousand in 1914. Farmers made up the largest part of this population, followed by government officials and missionaries.
The Kikuyu people lived in the area of East Africa where Karen Blixen had her farm. Marshall S. Clough in Fighting Two Sides: Kenyan Chiefs and Politicians, 1918-1940 observed that the Kikuyu's customs were influenced by the mountainous African landscape. He maintains that "the first pioneers settled the land ridge by ridge—Kikuyu families staking their claims and others moving on to stake theirs—and the ridges, easily defended and dangerous to assault, developed into self-sufficient little communities."
This lack of central government helped the European colonizers set up their own system. Settlers were able to take over East African land from the Kikuyu with the aid of the British Protectorate. After suffering a wave of smallpox, drought, and insects that destroyed their crops, the Kikuyu put up little resistance, holding onto the false assumption that the presence of the Europeans would be temporary.
In the nineteenth century, the Uganda Railroad made Nairobi an important trade center and the center of British East Africa. The city offered relatively comfortable accommodations for European settlers, who had brought many of their customs with them. While they enjoyed betting at the racetrack and relaxing at the Muthaiga Club, where they could play polo, golf, and tennis, impoverished East Africans and Indian immigrants lived in shacks on the edge of the town.
Dinesen recounts in Out of Africa:
During all my time, Nairobi was a medley place, with some fine new stone buildings, and whole quarters of old corrugated iron shops, offices, and bungalows, laid out with long rows of eucalyptus trees along the bare dusty streets.… And it was a live place, in movement like running water, and in growth like a young thing, it changed from year to year, and while you were away on a shooting safari.
Isak Dinesen gained worldwide acclaim for her literary achievements. The autobiographical Out of Africa enjoyed popular and critical success, especially in the United States and Britain. Most reviewers applauded her lyrical style.
Katherine Woods, in her 1938 article for the New York Times Book Review, finds Dinesen's prose in Out of Africa"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."
Compare & Contrast
1895: The British government establishes the East Africa Protectorate, which controls the political and economic life of the people of what is now called Kenya.
1963: Kenya gains independence.
Today: Kenya remains an independent republic with a parliamentary form of government.
Late 1890s: The Uganda Railroad makes Nairobi an important trade center and the center of British East Africa. The city offers relatively comfortable accommodations for European settlers, who bring many of their customs with them.
Today: Nairobi is the capital of Kenya, with a population of approximately 1.5 million people.
1910s: In the patriarchal cultures of Europe and America, women's roles are strictly limited; they have few legal rights. In Dinesen's case, as a woman settler in British East Africa, she is afforded more freedom and opportunity.
Today: As a result of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, women in the Western world have more freedom, legal options, and opportunities.
As a result, Woods concludes that Dinesen presents a clear vision of Africa, which "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." Furthermore, Woods asserts:
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.
In his article in the Saturday Review of Literature, Hassoldt Davis describes her style as being "as cadenced, constrained, and graceful as we have today." In the same review, however, Davis finds fault with the book's structure, insisting that "the tale of increasing tragedy which fills the latter half of the book seems not quite so successful as her earlier chapters."
Another criticism of the book is that it presents a romantic colonialist portrait of Africa and its people. However, some critics disagree. Anthony Burgess contends that the work "never fails in grace, sharpness, and humanity." In fact, most commentators find that the book expresses a genuine joie de vivre and confirm Woods' claim that it is "something rare and lovely, to read again and again."
Dinesen's literary success continued after the publication of Out of Africa, but none of her works became as popular. Her highly regarded body of work and standing as a masterful storyteller earned her two Nobel Prize nominations. When Ernest Hemingway received his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, he stated that it should have been awarded to her.
Dinesen acknowledged her gift when she wrote (as quoted by Donald Hannah):
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 hard-working 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.
Perkins, an associate professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland, has published articles on several twentieth-century authors. In this essay, she focuses on Dinesen's portrait of herself as an independent, nontraditional woman in Out of Africa .
The film version of Out of Africa presents Karen Blixen as a courageous woman who can shoot lions alongside her lover Denys Finch-Hatton and withstand the long separations from her husband, Baron Bror Blixen. The film portrays Blixen/Dinesen as an independent woman, but one who has had that independence thrust on her after first her husband's and then her lover's desertion, leaving her to fend for herself on her African coffee plantation. Several scenes show her pleading with one or the other to stay and help her adapt to her new home.
In her autobiographical novel, however, Dinesen refuses to define herself through her relationships with the men in her life. In Africa, she takes on a very nontraditional female role during the early part of the twentieth century, finding her identity not through romantic relationships but through her relationship with the land and its people.
The screenplay was adapted from several of Dinesen's works, including Letters from Africa, which provides details about her relationships with her husband and with Finch-Hatton. The film portrays her difficult relationship with her husband, including a bout with syphilis, which she contracted from him. During the Baron's frequent absences, Dinesen began an affair with Finch-Hatton.
Yet the Hollywood version of the romance between Dinesen and Finch-Hatton overshadows the romance Dinesen records in her autobiography—with the people and land of Africa. In the book, she mentions her husband only in passing and provides no details of their relationship. She writes of a strong friendship between herself and Finch-Hatton. The depth of her feeling for him becomes evident only at the end of the book, when her sorrow over his death intermingles with her sorrow over leaving Africa.
Unlike the film version, Dinesen's autobiography is a selective, perhaps idealized, memory of her life in Africa, constructed as a portrait of a woman who strips off her traditional feminine identity so she can more fully embrace her experience there.
Dinesen's love affair with the land becomes evident from the first pages of the book. She describes the landscape as having "no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere." Its "tall solitary trees" and "views immensely wide" give it "a heroic and romantic air." She writes, "everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom." She finds "infinite freedom" in the African night, claiming, "it is there that things are going on, destinies are made round you, there is activity to all sides, and it is none of your concern."
As she interacts with the land, she discovers her own sense of freedom. Her independent spirit, denied European women during this period, emerges as she adopts traditionally male roles. Dinesen hunts big game alongside Finch-Hatton, manages a coffee plantation, and transports arms and supplies across harsh terrain to border troops. Of this last experience she writes,
The air of the African highlands went to my head like wine, I was all the time slightly drunk with it, and the joy of these months was indescribable. I had been out on a shooting Safari before, but I had not till now been out alone with Africans.
At one point, she struggles with her own identity in her new world, asking, "If I know a song of Africa, of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me?" After living and working on the land, however, she is able to define herself in relation to it:
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.
More evidence of her growing relationship with the land emerges in her story of Lulu, a young antelope that becomes "a member of the household." Dinesen notes:
The free union between my house and the antelope was a rare, honourable thing. Lulu 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.… The years in which Lulu and her people came round to my house were the happiest of my life in Africa. For that reason, I came to look upon my acquaintance with the forest antelopes as … a token of friendship from Africa.
Dinesen's relations with the East Africans also help define her nontraditional identity. As she interacts with them, she becomes a teacher, a doctor, an employer, a judge, and a friend. Sidonie Smith, in "The Other Woman and the Racial Politics of Gender: Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham in Kenya," argues that "figuring herself as honorable, resourceful, courageous, dependable, hardworking, and socially responsible, [Dinesen] identifies herself as a hybrid of 'manliness' and 'womanliness."'
In "Isak Dinesen: An Appreciation," Janet Lewis concludes that in Out of Africa Dinesen views the "world through the eyes of the other" and thus is able to define herself in relation to it. Lewis writes, "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." Smith adds, "Learning from the Africans how to live in accordance with [the landscape], this white woman represents herself as being as one with Africa in a powerful commingling of subjectivity and place." Thus, as she opens herself to the experience of learning from them, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery.
What Do I Read Next?
- Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa (1935) is a stirring account of a safari he and his wife joined in 1933. Hemingway reveals what the experience taught him about Africa and about himself.
- In Letters from Africa (1981), Dinesen provides more details about her life in Africa.
- Beryl Markham's West with the Night, published in 1942, chronicles her exciting life as an African bush pilot in the 1930s.
- Anecdotes of Destiny, a 1985 collection of short stories by Dinesen, includes "Babette's Feast," a tale of a woman's struggle to define herself in a new and harsh landscape.
Only at the end of the book does Dinesen identify her feminine qualities. Of her last weeks on the farm when her friend Ingrid Lindstrom comes to spend time with her, Dinesen writes:
Ingrid understood and realized to the bottom of her heart, with great strength, with something of the strength of the elements themselves, what it is really like, when a woman farmer has to give up her farm, and leave it.… We closed our two minds round the disaster of the hour. We walked together from the one thing on the farm to the other, naming them as we passed them, one by one, as if we were taking mental stock of my loss, or as if Ingrid were, on my behalf, collecting material for a book of complaints to be laid before destiny. Ingrid knew well enough from her own experience that there is no such book, but all the same the idea of it forms part of the livelihood of women.
At this point, Dinesen expresses a strong connection with the women who worked the land with her and who were the most sorry to see her go. Unlike with her friend Ingrid, however, she identifies with them in nontraditional ways. She describes them as having "a hard life" and becoming "flinthard under it … wilder than the men.… They were afraid of nothing." Her portrait suggests that these women found similar qualities in her, for they had "always been friends."
As Dinesen prepares to leave Africa, she seems to lose a sense of herself as she starts to break her connections with the land and the people. She admits:
When I first began to make terms with fate, and the negotiations about the sale of the farm were taken up, the attitude of the landscape towards me changed. Till then I had been part of it.… Now the country disengaged itself from me, and stood back a little, in order that I should see it clearly and as a whole.
She also becomes "disengaged" from the people. When she fears legal repercussions over allowing Chief Kinanjui to die in her home, she refuses his request. Yet, she could not disengage herself completely from Africa. During the Ngoma held in her honor in her last days on the farm, she realizes that "the people were with me, and I with the people, well content."
In her record of her observations of the people and landscape of Africa, Dinesen defines herself in relation to what she sees. Ironically, she gains a sense of individuality as she becomes part of the landscape.
Out of Africa omits the details of Dinesen's life during her years on the farm that identify her in traditional ways, foregrounding instead her independent spirit. The resulting work creates a poetic portrait of her relationship with Africa and its people and an idealized, but perhaps truer, vision of self.
Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Out of Africa, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Judd is a freelance writer and book reviewer for Salon and the New York Times Book Review. In the following essay, she discusses Dinesen's notion of the aristocracy and how it informs her sense of the tragedies she and others encounter in Out of Africa .
In Out of Africa, Dinesen does not mention many of the most basic biographical details surrounding her life on a four-thousand-acre coffee farm in Kenya; but she does reveal one fact about herself: she is a baroness. So enamored is Dinesen of her title that she ends the second section, "A Shooting Accident on the Farm," with the signing of a settlement decree in which she isolates and italicizes two words: "Baroness Blixen." And although Dinesen's marriage to her second cousin Baron Bror Blixen was a disaster that resulted in her contracting syphilis, a debilitating disease with which she was afflicted for the rest of her life, she clings to the title her marriage brought her. In a letter to her brother Thomas, which was written in 1926, Dinesen admitted: "If it did not sound so beastly, I might say that, the world being as it is, it was worth having syphilis in order to become a 'Baroness."' Dinesen takes her title seriously, but she also believes that being an aristocrat is not simply a matter of possessing a blood or marital relationship to royalty, a point that she raises several times and in different guises in Out of Africa.
It is striking that Dinesen crystallized her notions of aristocracy, a quintessentially European idea, in Africa, where the natives would have had little or no appreciation of the term. Dinesen's vision of aristocracy encompasses the notion of blood, a mysterious refinement of character that's passed from generation to generation. When Dinesen's dear friend Berkeley Cole presents the Masai with medals from the English government, Dinesen writes that "The ceremony could only have been carried through so well by two parties of noble blood and great family traditions; may democracy take no offence."
"As she interacts with the land, she discovers her own sense of freedom. Her independent spirit, denied European women during this period, emerges as she adopts traditionally male roles."
Dinesen never systematically lays out a definition of aristocracy; instead, she refines the term through example. The opening section of the book, "Kamante and Lulu," reflects Dinesen's concern with two natural-but-unlikely aristocrats. One is a small Kikuyu boy, the son of a squatter on Dinesen's plantation; the other, an antelope. In Dinesen's world, it's possible to be an aristocrat without being human. Dinesen adopts the antelope Lulu and raises her on a sucking bottle, allowing her to roam freely inside her home. Lulu soon learns to walk on polished floors, and captivates Dinesen with her loveliness, her moodiness, and her marvelous strength. "Lulu was the pride of the house," writes Dinesen. Lulu's ability to bridge two worlds—that of animal and that of human being—is one of the sources of her greatness.
Kamante also enters Dinesen's world although his greatness is evidenced in his isolation and his own personal stance toward tragedy:
His fortitude of soul in the face of pain was the fortitude of an old warrior. A thing could never be so bad as to surprise him, he was, by his career and his philosophy, prepared for the worst.
All this was in the grand manner.…
One clear proof of Kamante's specialness is his intuitive mastery of European cuisine. Dinesen describes Kamante as so extraordinarily talented a cook that she suspects that if he'd been born in Europe, he would have become world famous. And yet his ability to create light omelettes and sauces comes with no appreciation of European food, which he never eats. Thus, aristocracy is the profound ability to cross thresholds of taste, of culture, and even of species; both Kamante and Lulu possess the imagination to maintain their own true natures and yet become strong and memorable fixtures in the alien life of Dinesen's household.
Neither Kamante nor Lulu would widely be regarded as an aristocrat, but Dinesen's notion of aristocracy contains a strong element of paradox. "When the Natives," writes Dinesen, "felt safe with us from abrupt movements and sudden noises, they would speak to us a great deal more openly than one European speaks to another. They were never reliable, but in a grand manner sincere." The "grand manner," a manner she also ascribes to Kamante, is Dinesen's way of indicating a deeper truth that's not readily or superficially apparent. The idea that someone can be unreliable yet sincere is a seemingly contradictory one, since reliability would seem to be an essential aspect of sincerity. And yet sincerity is, for Dinesen, a more exalted virtue than reliability. Dinesen suggests that an aristocrat, someone who operates in the grand manner, wouldn't necessarily be reliable in mundane matters but would be deeply and abidingly faithful to his or her own nature and therefore would possess genuine sincerity. "A Masai warrior," writes Dinesen, "is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic;—daring, and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal."
A whole group of people, like the Masai, can be deemed chic or aristocratic (a term Dinesen later explicitly applies to the Masai) because some aristocrats are formed through having undergone powerful experiences. Dinesen remembers one safari with particular fondness, and she says that those "who had been with me then came to look upon themselves as a Safari-aristocracy." Partaking in a life-changing event is a way that individuals bond, are ennobled, and form lasting associations; thus, singular experiences are a sort of foundry in which aristocrats are forged. In some sense, Dinesen's entire memoir can be viewed as a multi-faceted account of a series of such formative experiences. Just as a coming-of-age novel concerns itself with how an individual becomes an adult, Out of Africa could be viewed as the story of how one Danish woman becomes an aristocrat.
"In 'Sorrow-Acre,' one of the stories in Winter's Tales, Dinesen writes: '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."'
In some sense, being an aristocrat is a stance, a God-like perspective on the world. All of the beings that Dinesen calls aristocrats possess an ability to see the grand plan and are therefore elevated above the mundane or merely mortal details of life. This sweeping perspective is illustrated by what Dinesen describes as "the greatest, the most transporting pleasure of the farm": flying over Africa in an airplane with Denys Finch-Hatton. "Every time," she writes, "that I have gone up in an aeroplane and looking down have realised that I was free of the ground, I have had the consciousness of a great new discovery. 'I see': I have thought, 'This was the idea. And now I understand everything."' This stance—this ability to experience "the full freedom of the three dimensions"—allows an aristocrat to majestically accept suffering that would be devastating to someone with no imagination or a less fully-developed sense of pattern and perspective.
In "Sorrow-Acre," one of the stories in Winter's Tales, Dinesen writes: "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."
Aristocrats bear fate better than others and are not frightened by tragedy. When Dinesen learns that Emmanuelson, a destitute European who prides himself on being an actor of Shakespearean tragedy and who embarks upon a dangerous seven-day trip on foot, seeks refuge with the Masai, she sees this as "fit and becoming." The Masai are, in Dinesen's world view, both aristocracy and proletariat, and they are therefore at home with painful realities.
The true aristocracy and the true proletariat of the world are both in understanding with tragedy. To them it is the fundamental principle of God, and the key,—the minor key,—to existence. They differ in this way from the bourgeoisie of all classes, who deny tragedy, who will not tolerate it, and to whom the word of tragedy means in itself unpleasantness.
Dinesen's story of her life in Africa, which unfolds in five separate sections, could be viewed as a classic Shakespearean tragedy, which is always written in five acts. Her story certainly ends on a tragic note. The final section—"Farewell to the Farm"—describes the various misfortunes that lead Dinesen to sell her coffee plantation and return to Denmark. In one of her last letters from Africa, written in 1931, Dinesen writes as a person who accepts her own sorrowful fate and feels exalted by it:
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."
Dinesen seems to say that suffering, even the loss of a lover and of a farm, is trivial when compared to the internal resources that the real and natural aristocrat can always command—in the grand manner. Life in Africa has made Dinesen far more than a titular baroness: it has taught her to be faithful to her own nature, to accept tragedy, and to view life from the elevated perspective of the true and enduring aristocrat.
Elizabeth Judd, Critical Essay on Out of Africa, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
In the following essay, Gunnars asserts that, because of her "disconnectedness" from her life and narrative, Dinesen "'victimizes' her own narrative in the same way Africa itself was colonized by Europeans."
Out of Africa has been considered generically elusive. As Susan Hardy Aiken writes in her recent book Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative, Out of Africa is
[s]ituated between the discourses of history and myth, fact and fiction, prose and poetry; partaking generically of forms as diverse as pastoral elegy, classical tragedy, autobiography, memoir, and travel tale; compounded of narrative, philosophical speculation, aphorism, parabolic reflection and song …
Rather than take the lack of generic distinctiveness as a weakness, Aiken celebrates the complexities of Dinesen's prose as an example of a woman's text. Rather than consider the author's either inability or refusal to stick to one way of telling about her coffee farm in Africa, she quotes Mary Jacobus to say that writing on the boundaries of literary genres, as Dinesen has done in Out of Africa, is a form of defiance. It is a subversive act. In Reading Woman, Mary Jacobus says
[t]he transgression of literary boundaries—moments when structures are shaken, when language refuses to lie down meekly, or the marginal is brought into sudden focus, or intelligibility itself refused—reveal not only the conditions of possibility with which women's writing exists, but what it would be like to revolutionize them … [A] refusal of mastery, an opting for rupture and possibility … can in itself make women's writing a challenge to the literary structures it necessarily inhabits.
Let me pursue this idea of "a woman's text" for a moment. There is some consensus among feminist critics that the gap between the author's body and her writing is, in the case of women, smaller than what the texts of the established literary canon would indicate. In her essay "'The Blank Page' and Issues of Female Creativity," for example, Susan Gubar uses Isak Dinesen's short story "The Blank Page" to illustrate the idea that women, in fact, write with their bodies. "The Blank Page" concerns a convent which weaves such fine sheets that they are used for royal wedding nights. In the morning the sheets are brought back to the convent with the stains on them that prove the bride was a virgin. These sheets are then framed and hung up for viewing with the appropriate name plates attached, as works of art of a kind. Gubar reflects that
[t]he stained pages are therefore biographical remnants of otherwise mute existences, a result of and response to life rather than an effort at producing an independent aesthetic object. Indeed, were the female community less sensitive to the significance of these signs, such stained sheets would hardly be considered art at all. Dinesen implies that woman's use of her own body in the creation of art results in forms of expression devalued or totally invisible to eyes trained by traditional aesthetic standards.
Gubar goes on to talk about the deflection of women's creativity from art to their bodies and how the woman's body becomes, for all practical purposes, a text or a canvas to paint and draw on. Aiken devotes an entire chapter of Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative to the ways in which Karen Blixen herself worked on her own body for aesthetic purposes. But what is of interest in relation to Out of Africa is the further insight that makes the closure of aesthetic distance one reason why women have been attracted to autobiographical writing. Gubar makes this connection explicit and writes that
[f]or the artist, this sense that she is herself the text means that there is little distance between her life and her art. The attraction of women writers to personal forms of expression like letters, autobiographies, confessional poetry, diaries, and journals points up the effect of a life experienced as an art or an art experienced as a kind of life, as does women's traditional interest in cosmetics, fashion, and interior decorating.
Looking at the relation of life to art, the logical assumption would be that the autobiographical writer would allow her artistic structure to resemble, in some way, the structure of life. At this juncture it is a short step to poststructuralism. To continue with a kind of description of a "woman's text," then, some critical observations may be useful. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, in her recent book Writing a Woman's Life, while discussing the writings of Patricia Spacks of eighteenth century women's autobiographies, notes that "the only acceptable models for women 'involve self-deception and yielding."' The autobiographies in Spacks' study all "'exploit a rhetoric of uncertainty."' In discussing Adrienne Rich, Heilbrun also notes "her belief that it is only the willingness of women to share their 'private and often painful experience' that will enable them to achieve a true description of the world …", because "[w]e know we are without a text, and must discover one."
She adds an interesting note on women's fiction and power. Since women have generally engaged in forms of alterity, or of putting someone else into the centre of their lives, such as a man or a child, they do not experience life as a situation in which they themselves are central. This is why they enjoy Romances. Romances focus on the courtship period, and only during this time in a woman's life does she become a central figure in a story. As Heilbrun puts it:
For a short time, during courtship, the illusion is maintained that women, by withholding themselves, are central. Women are allowed this brief period in the limelight—and it is the part of their lives most constantly and vividly enacted in a myriad of representations—to encourage the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality.
There is a lucid essay by Craig Owens on "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism," where he echoes Nancy Miller's assertion that "'the plots of women's literature are not about "life" … They are about the plots of literature itself, about the constraints … of rendering female life in fiction"'. Craig Owens notes that
… many feminist artists have, in fact, forged a new (or renewed) alliance with theory—most profitably, perhaps, with the writing of women influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis (Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Montrelay …)
This is to say that much of women's art incorporates their reflections on the process of creating the work at hand. The sometimes disconcerting feature of women's art, namely that it seems to be going in many directions at once, is explained as the juncture where women's writing and postmodernism meet. Craig Owens asserts that "… the kind of simultaneous activity on multiple fronts that characterizes many feminist practices is a postmodern phenomenon." In relation to the writing that proceeds "on multiple fronts," he discusses the loss of continuous narrative that characterizes postmodernist writing and the loss of the grands récits of modernity. Speaking of Fredric Jameson, Owens also notes that "[f]or Jameson, the loss of narrative is equivalent to the loss of our ability to locate ourselves historically; hence his diagnosis of postmodernism as 'schizophrenic."'
Perhaps this condition is often exaggerated for women writers, given the observation that they have a power problem concerning the centrality of their lives. If a woman does not find herself in the centre of her life, and by extension, of her life narrative, she must be hovering at the margins in a nonspecific way. This is an observation many have made of Dinesen's place in Africa. She was an immigrant, a foreigner, both to the British elite and the Native Africans. She was a woman doing a man's work, running her farm, and a writer of stories of whose audience she was unsure. It is not surprising that Aiken would make a special note of the problem for her reader, that "[w]herever one seeks to place Dinesen, she is always also elsewhere." Aiken goes so far as to describe Dinesen's narrative as a kind of Fata Morgana when she writes that
[t]he whole scene is one of continual flux and mobility, of figures that appear and accumulate density and mass only to "dissolve" and "vanish" like the "clouds … travelling with the wind," or that "change their character many times."
"The act of writing becomes an attempt to close the immense gap between the life lived and the life narrated and understood. The writer becomes the Colonist and the subject becomes the helpless, resigned Native who, like a prisoner, entertains private, subversive thoughts that are never spoken. The subject/Native/prisoner's voice is appropriated by the dominating writer."
This description of Dinesen's narrative structure in Out of Africa, therefore, has some relation to what critics describe as "women's texts." There is a further relationship between the discontinuous, dislocated, decentred, disempowered and partly metafictional narratives of women's autobiographical writings (as observed by Heilbrun, Aiken, Owens, Gubar and others), and aspects of postmodernist and poststructuralist writings in general. My general question concerns the ways in which Dinesen uses her life in the service of certain narrative techniques that will lift her life writing to the level of fiction without sacrificing the verity she wants to maintain. In the process she "victimizes" her own narrative in the same way Africa itself was colonized by Europeans. To show this, I wish to focus on the way in which Dinesen uses the concept of destiny and where destiny fits into her world view and narrative scheme.
Early on in Out of Africa, Dinesen writes about the outlook of the African Natives with whom she shares so much of her life on the farm. Her observation concerns fate and destiny. When Dinesen discusses ideas like this, she is engaging in her peculiar metafiction. This is where she incorporates some of her theories about her own narrative, and where much of her stance is explained. In this passage, she notes a difference between the Africans and the Europeans and claims that
[t]he Kikuyu are adjusted for the unforeseen and accustomed to the unexpected. Here they differ from the white men, of whom the majority strive to insure themselves against the unknown and the assaults of fate. The Negro is on friendly terms with destiny, having been in her hands all his time; she is to him, in a way, his home, the familiar darkness of the hut, deep mould for his roots. He faces any change in life with great calm.
Dinesen returns to this theme again and again. What is behind the idea that nothing surprises the person who is at home, is her sense of her own dispossession and dislocation and her consequent envy of the Natives who have nothing to lose because they never left their home. She appears to desire a comfort with life she does not have at the time of writing.
In mythic terms, perhaps, she is in the position of the traveller who has found the "Navel of the World" and then been forced to abandon it. Once you are in the "Navel of the World," nothing can touch you. Once removed from that centre, which is her farm, the dislocation is ironically reversed. As Aiken also notes, Africa is home for Dinesen, and Denmark is the foreign country. In her chapter "Farah" in Shadows on the Grass, Dinesen describes clearly what such a "Centre" means for the wanderer through life. She tells of a discussion she had in England with the painter John Philpot. Philpot claims that he had a nervous breakdown during the First Wold War and went about with uncertainty,"constantly in flight, an exile everywhere." In Morocco, however, he was taken to a small village where he immediately felt at home. He explains,
… at the moment when I had come through the gate in the wall I felt that this was a place of refuge. There came upon me a strange, blissful calm, a happiness like what you feel when a high fever leaves you. "Here," I thought, "one can remain."
John Philpot emerges as a prototype for Dinesen herself. Dinesen is portrayed in her own work as a similarly "shell shocked" person who found a "refuge" of "calm" in her farm in Africa. The Natives, however, are there all the time, and the Colonist's dream of the nobility of the untouched paradise of the new Colony is played out. That paradise contains all of destiny. When you are expelled from paradise, as Dinesen was for economic reasons, destiny goes on without you, as if you no longer matter. Such an outlook is perhaps a profound inscription of the author's isolation from her own text, and her own life.
Aiken locates Dinesen's text in that geographic and spiritual centre where the inhabitant remains unmoved and untouched by destiny. That centre is also connected to the narrator herself. To Aiken, there is a crucial "… intermingling of 'I' and 'Africa' at the pivotal site marked by the 'farm'—which is also the text—that conjoins them." The farm is the locus of the narrator's self description and identity. Losing her land is losing her Self. As Aiken observes,
… seen in overview, as if "from the air," Out of Africa describes a relentless trajectory of loss and death, leading to the narrator's ultimate alienation from the land whereon she had grounded her sense of self …
So there is a "peculiar relation between the 'self' that writes and the elusive place by which that self is constituted."
Being comfortable with destiny, or feeling at home with whatever destiny befalls, as Dinesen describes the Kikuyu people as being, has something to do with resignation. She argues for a kind of inversion of all the Europeans stand for. What is construed by Europeans as a weakness becomes a strength in the home territory of the Kikuyu. Dinesen likens the Kikuyu to sheep and explains that
[t]he sheep themselves, the patient nations, with no teeth or claws to them, no power and no earthly protector, got through their destiny, as they get through it now, on their immense gift for resignation. They did not die under the yoke, like the Masai, or storm against fate, as the Somali do when they believe themselves injured, cheated, or slighted. They were friends with God in foreign countries, and in chains. They also kept up a peculiar self-feeling in their relations to those who persecuted them.
This is one of Dinesen's more outrageous comments, and the passage shows how sick at the core Colonialism and Romanticism are. For here she implies that some people have a greater capacity for suffering than others, so the Kikuyu, presumably, do not feel pain the way Europeans do, or some other Africans might. By extension it would imply that it is less heinous to inflict pain on people who have a capacity for taking it, than on others.
Dinesen commits the "indecency" of speaking for others here. It is worth taking a look at the question of appropriation in literature, especially since "speaking for others" is something to which a narrator suffering from a loss of personal identity, an inability to locate herself at the centre of things, is subject. This is a problem attributed to women's writing. Appropriation in narration is part of the postmodernist debate. When the postmodernist writer relinquishes all control and refuses to speak militaristically, she is turning down the modernist invitation to mastery. When one says modernism is dead, it is the master narrative that has lost its significance, and the narrative of mastery with it. Craig Owens, referring to Heidegger, and speaking of representational art as oppositionistic to postmodernist art, asks: "For what is representation if not a 'laying hold and grasping' (appropriation), a 'making-stand-over-against, an objectifying that goes forward and masters?"'.
The phrase he uses, "the indignity of speaking for others," comes out of an interview with Michel Foucault by Gilles Deleuze. Here also the notion of "a counter-discourse" arises. Foucault states in this interview, speaking of his work with the "Groupe d'information de prisons":
When the prisoners began to speak, they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquents—and not a theory about delinquency.
"Speaking for others" becomes a form of linguistic Colonialism and domination, in which Dinesen herself engages.
To be resigned to destiny, and to be at home with destiny, therefore becomes a way of being dominated, or colonized, or imprisoned. Being at home with destiny is also a way of being silenced. For those with no complaints will not complain. There is no counter-discourse in resignation. There is no discourse at all. Peculiarly, therefore, Dinesen's narrator's longing for the farm, the Centre of the World, the locus of the "I," is a longing for silence. It is a narrative that desires its own end. Or more obscurely, Out of Africa presents a narrative that attempts to colonize and dominate its own desire. It is perhaps for this reason that this book shows a proliferation of deaths and demises and why it has been labelled a "tragedy" among other things. As Aiken so aptly puts it, "… the text is about the decomposition of her plots, both literal and literary."
The end—both of the farm and text—is predetermined, she implies, not merely because of the practical considerations of climate, altitude, weather, or financial pressure that brought about the demise of Karen Coffee Company, but because of the ultimately unmasterable nature of Africa and the inadequacy of the representational systems with which Europeans seek to configure it.
What has been described as a "trajectory of loss and death," is perhaps a tragedy because it wills itself to be one. However reluctantly, it might be possible to speak of a linguistic "death wish" operating in the narrative of this book, just as its author exercised a formal self destruction on the theatre of her body.
Unlike the Kikuyu, who are, supposedly, at home with their fate and resigned to their history, at the centre of their own world where she would like to be, those who dominate have an entirely different relation to destiny. In speaking of her friend Denys Finch Hatton, Dinesen writes that "[h]e never did but what he wanted to do." This implies that he has the power to do what he wants to do. The European, unlike the Native, dominates destiny and designs his own fate. For the same reason he flies an airplane and acquires an overview the people on the ground do not have. It is in her relations with Finch Hatton that Dinesen relates the jouissance of experiencing Africa. Aiken sees the episodes of flying as a trope for the act of writing and speaks of Dinesen's "ecstatic dislocation." For this reason she reads Out of Africa as a "text of transport." But such a reading does not take into account the narrator's own powerlessness in relation to that jouissance. The pleasures described, like the pains, are not in her control. Dinesen's own relation to destiny is much closer to that of the Kikuyu than of Finch Hatton.
A significant passage concerning that relationship occurs late in the book, when Dinesen describes her selling the farm and all its contents and settling with the authorities for the people living on her land. She knows intellectually that she is leaving, but emotionally the acceptance of an ending does not come. She writes that during her final months in Kenya:
I formed in my own mind a programme, or system of strategy, against destiny, and against the people in my surroundings who were her confederates. I shall give in, I thought, from this time forward, in all minor matters, to save myself unnecessary trouble. I shall let my adversaries have their way from day to day in these affairs, in talk and writing. For in the end I shall still come out triumphant and shall keep my farm and the people in it. Lose them, I thought, I cannot: it cannot be imagined, how then can it happen?
This is the talk of Foucault's prisoner before the counter-discourse is allowed. The prisoner knows he must move carefully so as not to anger the authorities, but privately there is no limit to thought.
As the story progresses, the narrator is more and more removed from her own fate until she is completely separated from destiny. Not only does she not control her life, but she no longer understands what is happening. It is no longer "imaginable." What she is not imagining, she is not resigning herself to. Her own life becomes a story, dislodged from the body and the experience of the one who is telling it. The use of the first person pronoun is charged with what Jameson has called the postmodern "schizophrenia." She is neither the dominated nor the dominating. She has been shot off, like some missile off a spaceship, to fly in her own direction without connection to anything. "It seemed to me that I must have, in some way, got out of the normal course of human existence, into a maelstrom where I ought never to have been." In the end she loses her comprehension of what is happening. It is the reaction of severe grief. The speaker stares in disbelief at her own life as if it were something entirely incomprehensible. She says: "Things are happening to you, and you feel them happening, but except for this one fact, you have no connection with them, and no key to the cause or meaning of them." She is experiencing the condition described in Shadows on the Grass by John Philpot, who sees himself as "constantly in flight, an exile everywhere."
In the end, when her lack of comprehension is complete, the narrator resorts to superstition and goes out to "look for a sign." Somehow she thinks that if you "wake up" and look at things from another angle, you will see "the grand slam in the cards" staring you in the face. She sees an encounter between a white cock and a grey chameleon, where the rooster takes out the chameleon's tongue. This becomes the great "sign" for Dinesen, but she does not interpret the event. For her critics, however, the scene is significant. The removal of the chameleon's tongue is central to the idea of being silenced and of longing for silence. The story of Dinesen's life in Kenya is a story of progressive silencing, and so in spite of herself, she may feel at home with destiny and resign herself to it.
In her disconnectedness from her own life and the life narrative she is subsequently creating, Isak Dinesen has given us a typical "woman's text." The act of writing becomes an attempt to close the immense gap between the life lived and the life narrated and understood. The writer becomes the Colonist and the subject becomes the helpless, resigned Native who, like a prisoner, entertains private, subversive thoughts that are never spoken. The subject/Native/prisoner's voice is appropriated by the dominating writer. This Colonialist literature provides an index to the study of autobiography in general. Here we find there is a risk of appropriating one's own voice, especially when the experience portrayed is that of the Colonist, the colonized, the immigrant and the woman all rolled into one.
Kristjana Gunnars, "Life as Fiction: Narrative Appropriation in Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa," in Isak Dinesen and Narrativity, edited by Gurli A. Woods, Carleton University Press, 1990, pp. 25-34.
In the following essay, Langbaum traces how Dinesen formed Out of Africa by marrying "her African memories to the myth of the fall."
Seven Gothic Tales is a great book about Europe, because Isak Dinesen's experience of Africa stands behind it; and Europe stands, in the same way, behind every word of Out of Africa. That is why Out of Africa is literature and not just another memoir of an interesting life.
While a great deal of Seven Gothic Tales was "thought of," as Isak Dinesen says in the foreword to the Danish edition, "and some of it written in Africa," Out of Africa was, as she made clear to me, entirely conceived and written after she got back to Europe. In assuring the Danish readers of Seven Gothic Tales that the parts about Denmark "have to be considered more as the fantasies of a Danish emigrant than as an attempt to describe reality," she is saying that a Denmark conceived from the standpoint of Africa is not everybody's Denmark. But the apologetic tone is an attempt to forestall hostile criticism; for the imagination works by just such reconciliation of opposites, and there is no doubt that she considers her imagined Denmark more real than the Denmark of ordinary observation.
Her Africa is not everybody's Africa, either. It is an Africa of certain romantic expectations come true—expectations as to the possibility of recovering in primitive places that unity of man with nature which yields psychological and social unity as well: expectations as to the possibility of recovering a kind of life that prevailed in Europe before the Industrial Revolution, that unique event, cut Europeans off from nature and the past, and consequently from all other civilizations. Her Africa is also seen retrospectively, as something already lost even to her. It is seen in a way she herself could not have seen it while she was in the midst of the experience and did not know it was to end. It is because Africa figures as a paradise lost—both in Isak Dinesen's life and in the life of Europe—that Out of Africa is an authentic pastoral, perhaps the best prose pastoral of our time.
Because it is divided into five parts, Out of Africa has been compared to the five-act French tragedies Isak Dinesen loved. Although there are similarities, its structure is not quite that of tragedy; for tragedy takes place in a fallen world where we see from the start those seeds of trouble that give a moral rationale to the final catastrophe. In Out of Africa, however, we have four acts of pure idyl, followed by a fall which is unaccountable except on grounds of physical necessity—the necessity by which things change and we grow up and die. The seeds of trouble, in other words, lie outside the story; there is a breaking in of the fallen world upon the unfallen. Adam and Eve lost Eden because Satan had already fallen from heaven. And adverse forces of nature and historical change cause Isak Dinesen to lose her African Eden. It is because she assimilated her African memories to the myth of the fall that Isak Dinesen made a unified book of what started out to be a series of disconnected anecdotes.
A letter of hers provides an interesting clue to the genesis of Out of Africa. Writing to her American publisher, Robert Haas, on March 24, 1934, just before the American publication date of "Seven Gothic Tales," she authorizes him to reveal to the American public, if and when he sees fit, that Isak Dinesen is a pseudonym of the Danish Baroness Blixen. She then concludes as follows:
Now that this secret is out in any case, I have got a few short, quite truthful recounts of my life on the African farm, particularly about my relations with the Natives. I have to have these published under my real name, as they deal with real facts and people. I should like to get them out in a good magazine, if possible, and I suppose that this can not in any way interfere with our contract, since the stories can not in any way be classed as a book. Will you give me your kind assistance to find such a magazine, if you think it could be found?
The emphasis on the truthfulness of the account raises the interesting critical question. For Out of Africa makes such an immediate appeal that the critic does not need to explain it as he does the stories. He has, on the contrary, to complicate the obvious in order to demonstrate the book's artistry—to dispel the idea that, because the book is autobiographical, all Isak Dinesen had to do was write down what happened. The book renders the "feel" of Africa, takes us inside an experience of it, by making us take Africa inside us. It does this by making Africa part of an intensely personal experience, in which we participate, of growing up morally—of arriving at a new settlement with reality after the old one has been smashed. The personal story emerges, at the same time, as a re-enactment of every profound European story of moral development, just because it takes place in an Africa which is at once so "real," so different from us, and yet, miraculously, the materialization of European myths about otherness—about nature, the past, and the unfallen world. To render all this, the facts about Africa, and about Isak Dinesen's life there, have had to pass through a very special imagination and to be set forth with a great deal of conscious art.
"The book renders the 'feel' of Africa, takes us inside an experience of it, by making us take Africa inside us. It does this by making Africa part of an intensely personal experience, in which we participate, of growing up morally—of arriving at a new settlement with reality after the old one has been smashed."
Oddly enough, the publication of Out of Africa in 1937 did little to dispel the mystery about Isak Dinesen. In America and England, where she went on publishing under the name of Isak Dinesen, people went on asking who she was. And even in Scandinavia where she began, starting with The African Farm (as it is called in the Scandinavian editions) to publish under the name of Karen Blixen, she remained a legend whom people did not know as they knew other people. Out of Africa is largely responsible for creating her legend. For while it personifies the voice behind Seven Gothic Tales, giving it a history that accounts for its knowledge and its point of view, it tells us little not relevant to that voice. It is remarkable how the author manages to keep her name out of the book (it appears only three times); and you would have to look hard to gather from the book that she was married and divorced while in Africa. She is vague about chronology in order to separate out the idyl from the fall. There were troubles with the farm all along, since it was too high up for profitable coffee growing. But these did not fit the shape given to her experience of Africa by the succession of catastrophes which finally separated her from what in retrospect figures as an unalloyedly golden time.
The biographer who tried to gather material from Out of Africa would find that it does not answer many questions he would have to raise. It does not tell us whether Denys Finch-Hatton was more than a friend, or what the people around her, black and white, really thought of her. We have only her own feeling that she was surrounded by a circle of adoration, just as we have only episodes that tell to her advantage. That this does not offend us is a sign that the book operates in the manner of art—that its validity and general significance derive from the personal nature of its vision. Because we recognize Isak Dinesen's Africa as a personal dream come true, we recognize it as a cultural dream come true. In our psychic life, the golden time was the time we remember, or dream we remember, when people saw us as we see ourselves, in our full potentiality, and consequently stood in the relation to us that we most deeply desire. And in the cultural tradition, the Golden Age was the time when all our potentiality was manifest, when we were like gods. This does not impugn the truthfulness of her account. She has achieved the main aim of romantic autobiography which, whether in verse or prose, is to pull the ideal out of the real by calling in as witness not the authority of traditional myths but one's own experience. The aim is to achieve a perfect union of fact and myth, to show how the myth came to pass in one's own life; but to do this, the writer must arrogate to himself a humanity grander and more intense than ordinary. We accept this because we know he is acting out for us our own potentialities, that he is walking through the paces of his life to make the myth come to pass, to make us see the mythical outlines around the naturalistic person.
There is no danger of a paranoiac atmosphere as long as the writer knows precisely what he is doing. To show that Isak Dinesen knew what she was doing in Out of Africa, one has only to point to her portrayal, in The Dreamers, of Pellegrina Leoni as a woman who had deliberately turned herself into a myth. Two people are described as doing this in Out of Africa. The first is an old, blind, down-andout Dane to whom Isak Dinesen gave a bungalow on her farm. Old Knudsen was a man after her own heart, who must have gone into the making of many of her fictitious characters. For he was a born rebel in the cause of the old lost heroic tradition. "He liked to talk of kings and royal families, jugglers, dwarfs and lunatics, for them he took to be outside the law … But for the good citizen he had a deep contempt, and law-abidingness in any man was to him the sign of a slavish mind." He always spoke of himself in the third person, as Old Knudsen, and with much boasting. His boasting, however, was not like the boasting of people who represent only themselves. For the impotent old man before her was the servant of the mighty mythical figure of Old Knudsen. His was the boasting of people who pay allegiance to powers outside themselves. Isak Dinesen describes in The Old Chevalier that "Particular pride and modesty characteristic of the representative of the great powers"—such as you find in artists, noblemen, and ladies of the old school who paid allegiance to the idea of Woman. Understood in connection with people who have managed to make others see them as they see themselves, Old Knudsen's case helps explain the relation between the author of Out of Africa and the lady in the book.
The second case is that of an artist, the Swedish actor, Emmanuelson, a shady character who gets periodically run out of places for what we gather to be homosexual practices. Known to Isak Dinesen only as headwaiter in a Nairobi hotel, he appears one evening at the farm and announces his intention to start the next morning on a three-day walk through the Masai Reserve, where there is no water and the lions are bad, in order to reach Tanganyika. It is almost certain death, but he has clearly to get out of Nairobi. He asks to dine with her and spend the night on the farm. She becomes interested in him when he reveals that he is by profession a tragic actor.
When she tries to console him by suggesting that he may get a lift from a lorry, he shows himself unwilling to be deprived of any fraction of his tragic destiny.
"Yes, but there are the lions," said Emmanuelson, "and the Masai."
"Do you believe in God, Emmanuelson?" I asked him.
"Yes, yes, yes," said Emmanuelson. He sat in silence for a time. "Perhaps you will think me a terrible sceptic," he said, "if I now say what I am going to say. But with the exception of God I believe in absolutely nothing whatever."
That last sentence makes Emmanuelson a man after Isak Dinesen's own heart. After he says it, she offers him money and determines to drive him the next morning the first ten miles of his way. Her question is the one Carlotta asks Count Schimmelmann in Roads Round Pisa, and it shows Schimmelmann's inadequacy that he is not ready to answer it. Emmanuelson's answer expresses Carlotta's position and Isak Dinesen's. For Isak Dinesen's question really is: Do you believe in the significance of life, do you believe that your death will have significance? And Emmanuelson points to the grandeur of the imagination, or to the grandeur of the world as perceived by the imagination, to show that life has significance, though he does not know what that significance is.
We are to understand the meaning of his answer from the scene where she lets him out of her car the next morning. We are to understand that he has, through the power of his imagination, turned himself from a shabby fugitive into a mythical figure, an archetype of all heroic wanderers. "I believe that the dramatic instinct within him was so strong that he was at this moment vividly aware of being [seen] leaving the stage, of disappearing, as if he had, with the eyes of his audience, seen himself go."
I do not think the transformation quite comes off. To understand what Isak Dinesen saw in and through Emmanuelson, we have to consider the fictitious character who is clearly modeled after him. I mean Kasparson of Deluge at Norderney, who helps give significance to the death of himself and his companions in the way Emmanuelson gave significance to his own death—by turning it into an artwork, assimilating it to deaths already seen and understood under the aspect of imagination. To do this, both men need an audience, for the transformation into significance takes place in the eyes of the beholder. It was probably to secure a worthy audience that Emmanuelson made his way to the farm.
The combination in Emmanuelson of shady character and actor-charlatan is enhanced in Kasparson, who is both more criminal and more brilliant, and who acts the part of hero and saint. The shady character who can bring to life our highest ideals typifies for Isak Dinesen the mystery of all value, all transcendence—in which there is always an element of charlatanism because transcendence is by definition not justified by the facts. The other kind of person, the kind who claims no grandeur not justified by the facts, but is "genuinely reliable all through," is King Louis Philippe, whom Kasparson brilliantly condemns. Louis Philippe is the predictable, law-abiding citizen whom Old Knudsen despised. The same distinction is made in this episode when we learn that Emmanuelson did after all get through to Tanganyika, having been taken in by traveling Masai whom he entertained, by some trick of pantomime, with stories of his adventures. Isak Dinesen reflects that Emmanuelson had found with the Masai his proper audience, for the same reason presumably that he had found it with her.
The true aristocracy and the true proletariat of the world are both in understanding with tragedy. To them it is the fundamental principle of God, and the key,—the minor key,—to existence. They differ in this way from the bourgeoisie of all classes, who deny tragedy, who will not tolerate it, and to whom the word of tragedy means in itself unpleasantness. Many misunderstandings between the white middle-class immigrant settlers and the Natives arise from this fact. The sulky Masai are both aristocracy and proletariat, they would have recognized at once in the lonely wanderer in black, a figure of tragedy; and the tragic actor had come, with them, into his own.
Aristocracy, proletariat, and Africans have the tragic sense, while the bourgeoisie do not, because the former see the world as symbolic (in the way the Masai saw as symbolic the lonely wanderer in the shabby black coat) and therefore recognize in it a grandeur of which tragedy is a manifestation. For the bourgeois, however, a fact is just a fact (Emmanuelson would have been a man in want of a ride and a new coat), and tragedy is therefore an unpleasantness which might have been avoided by better social arrangements and an improved technology.
In writing about the feudal society of her farm in relation to the rhythms of Africa—to the slow-moving apprehensions of its people, the special stillnesses of its wild animals, and its shimmering landscapes—Isak Dinesen is reconstructing that organic life of the European past projected by the romantic mythology. When the modern world breaks in and she loses her farm through bankruptcy, we see re-enacted in miniature the crisis of modern Europe, the breakup of a social organization based on love and mutual obligation. In the end she goes back to Denmark to become the author of stories about the difference between the old order and the new—thus completing the myth of fall and redemption, by recovering in the imagination what has been lost in the external world.
We see the relation of nature, the old order and the sense of tragedy in the story of her people's insistence on remaining together after she sold the farm. They were to be resettled in the Kikuyu Reserve, where there was not a stretch of unoccupied land big enough for all of them. She spent her last months in Africa haunting government offices in their behalf; and when the authorities suggested that there was really no need for them all to remain together, she thought of King Lear and his reply to the ungrateful daughters who wanted to strip him of the last few symbols of his royal identity. "'Oh reason not the need,' I thought, 'our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous."' This is the essence of the tragic view, that it is symbols not things that matter to human beings.
"All my life," Isak Dinesen continues, "I have held that you can class people according to how they may be imagined behaving to King Lear"—according to how well, in other words, they understand the importance of symbols. "You could not reason with King Lear, any more than with an old Kikuyu, and from the first he demanded too much of everybody; but he was a king." The African had not, as Lear had, given his land away; he had had it taken from him. But like Lear he knew who he was through familiar sights and circumstances, and now the world around him had changed. The connection between place and the sense of identity is even more important among primitive than modern people, because the former have not learned to abstract subject from object. When the outside changes, they do not know where to look for the inside, and it was consequently their very existence that Isak Dinesen's people were demanding when they insisted on retaining familiar faces around them.
It has been observed that Lear is the stupidest of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Isak Dinesen's treatment suggests that he is the most primitive, and therefore the most kingly and the most tragic. Lear's emotion is as unreasonable and irresistible as the storm in which he rages, because there is at stake in it his existence as a king and therefore—his kingliness being what it is—his existence as a man and an animal. Such an emotion is possible only in a world where one's human and social identity is as sure and firmly rooted as one's biological existence.
It is knowledge of such a world that Isak Dinesen brings us in Out of Africa. It is a sign of her artistry that she makes it at once familiar and remote. We are allowed to know it, but never to confuse it with our world. The humanity of her Africans is very real, just because we are so aware that their sense of themselves is quite different from ours, that they move to a different drummer than we do. The most striking example is their extraordinary capacity to communicate through silence and stillness. Waking up in the morning, she would know by "the concentrated stillness outside the house" that a group of Africans was waiting to see her. At the time she was going to Nairobi in their behalf, "there were always a number of squatters stationed by my house, when I came back, but they never asked me for my news, they kept watch there in order to communicate to me, by some Native magic, stamina on the course." When she was victorious and the Government made available to her squatters a piece of land in the Dagoretti Forest Reserve, the news "was received on the farm with deep silent emotion. It was impossible to tell from the faces of the Kikuyu whether they had all the time had faith in this issue of the case, or whether they had despaired of it."
Our general impression of the Africans is of just such expressive yet enigmatic stillness. It is a sign of their otherness, for they communicate throughout the book as nature does, without ever yielding their final secret. Her characterization of the Africans bears out her statement that they "were Africa in flesh and blood."
It was not easy to get to know the Natives. They were quick of hearing, and evanescent; if you frightened them they could withdraw into a world of their own, in a second, like the wild animals which at an abrupt movement from you are gone,—simply are not there… If we pressed or pursued them, to get an explanation of their behaviour out of them, they receded as long as they possibly could, and then they used a grotesque humourous fantasy to lead us on the wrong track … When we really did break into the Natives' existence, they behaved like ants, when you poke a stick into their ant-hill; they wiped out the damage with unwearied energy, swiftly and silently,—as if obliterating an unseemly action.
Wordsworth has a poem, called "Anecdote for Fathers," in which a child obliterates the unseemly action of his father as the Africans do here. The little boy expresses an instinctive preference for one beautiful place over another. When the father asks for a reason, the boy blushes with shame, and finally, after being pressed for a reason three times, puts his father off with just such a grotesque humorous fantasy of a "reason" as the Africans give the Europeans.
The thing the Africans feared from the Europeans is indicated in the 1961 African memoir, Shadows on the Grass, where we are told of the Africans deadly fear of hospitals. "They had deep roots to their nature … which, like all roots, demanded darkness." "Their hearts in an instinctive deadly nausea" turned from the spirit of the hospitals, which is the spirit of the floodlight, of a civilization which has not feared "to floodlight" its "own inmost mechanisms." Again we see how the Africans were trying to maintain their identity by maintaining that "umbilical cord of Nature" which, as Isak Dinesen says in Out of Africa, "has, with them, not been quite cut through."
Their morality, as a consequence—which is based on the knowledge "lost to us by our first parents … that God and the Devil are one"—approaches the morality a rock would have were it conscious that it was taking the same attitude toward the sun that shines on it or the storms that batter it. This attitude gives the Africans their tremendous strength in passivity and their ability to endure the hardest lot of any race in the world. Their moral simplicity is the point to which the highest moral sophistication comes back full circle; so that Isak Dinesen can speak of "the unprejudiced Kikuyu" who "know of no code. They have it that most people are capable of most things, and you cannot shock them if you want to … The very poor people of Europe, in this way, are like the Kikuyus. They judge you not, but sum you up."
By combining what she heard from old people with her own observation of Danish peasants and aristocrats, Isak Dinesen acquired an almost personal memory of the European past, the range of which she extended in Africa. She saw in Africa the myth-making mind still in operation—in the way the Africans turned the Europeans into myths by giving them characterizing names, usually of animals (they named her Lioness), and by turning them into brass serpents or talismanic cure-alls. Her friend, Lord Delamere, "was a brass serpent of the first magnitude." When the grasshoppers came and left not a blade of grass behind them, the Africans were in despair until she told them she had seen the hoppers on Delamere's farm. They then "became quiet and almost at ease. They asked me what Delamere had said of his misfortune, and again asked me to repeat it, and then they said no more."
In her evocation of that moment when "the world of the written word was opened to the Native of Africa," we see how she extended her personal memory both in Europe and in Africa. For she realized, from stories she had heard from "people who were very old when I was a child," that this was what it had been like for the plain people of Denmark a hundred years ago. She tells the charming and touching story of the illiterate Jogona, who in connection with a legal dispute had to dictate to her an account of his life. When in reading it back to him, she read out his name,
he swiftly turned his face to me, and gave me a great fierce flaming glance, so exuberant with laughter that it changed the old man into a boy, into the very symbol of youth … Such a glance did Adam give the Lord when He formed him out of the dust, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. I had created him and shown him himself: Jogona Kanyagga of life everlasting. When I handed him the paper, he took it reverently and greedily, folded it up in a corner of his cloak and kept his hand upon it. He could not afford to lose it, for his soul was in it, and it was the proof of his existence. Here was something which Jogona Kanyagga had performed and which would preserve his name for ever: the flesh was made word and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.
Her accounts of the Africans have always this light, tender touch that sets strings vibrating. She makes comedy of their passion for cows:
The people of the farm did not have it in them to remain silent where a cow and calf were being discussed. Everyone present gave out his opinion. The old men seized one another by the arm and shook out their last asthmatic breath in praise and condemnation of the cow. The shrill voices of their old women fell in and followed them up, as in a canon. The young men spat out short deadly remarks at one another in deep voices. In two or three minutes the open place by my house was boiling over like a witch's caldron.
But she also makes poetry of it when she says that their passion for livestock "smells of the stone-age, like a fire you strike with a flint."
We get a sense of the stone age, too, in her description of the Ngomas or big dancing parties where the dances were of immemorial antiquity. The young men were stark naked but very formal, with elaborate coiffures and bodies covered by a pale red chalk that gave them "a strangely blond look." She speaks of the dancers' "sweetness and fire," and says of a dance where the girls stand demurely on the men's feet, clasping them round the waist, while the men make protective motions, she says that "as the dance went on for hours the faces of the dancers took on an expression of angelic ecstasy, as if they were really all ready to die for one another."
What she manages to suggest is not how barbaric but how civilized—that somehow this is the essence of civilization, man's earliest expression of the social principle. With her own eyes she saw the dance symbolize that which it symbolizes in her fiction and in so much modern fiction and poetry. One recalls Yeats's dancers "dying" into the unity of the dance in "Byzantium," and Eliot's vision in "East Coker" of society in its unchanging aspect as a dance of rustics around a bonfire ("The association of man and woman / In daunsinge"), keeping time to the rhythm of the natural cycles. Here, too, the social unity of the dance derives not only from the biological association of man and woman but also from adherence to the rhythm of nature. The night Ngomas were only held during the period of the full moon: "When the moon did her best, they [the Africans] did theirs." The Ngomas, where all ages and conditions had their appointed places, become the model of society as it has always existed—not only in its unchanging rhythm but in its texture, in its many sweetly intimate human details.
It was all like that glorious sight—in the middle of a very hot day, at the center of the Ngong Forest—of the rarely seen Giant Forest Hog. "He came suddenly past me, with his wife and three young pigs, at a great speed, the whole family looking like uniform, bigger and smaller figures cut out in dark papers, against the sunlit green behind them. It was a glorious sight, like a reflection in a forest pool, like a thing that had happened a thousand years ago." The whole of "Out of Africa" presents just such a glorious sight. For Africa is used to give us both an acute sense of history and a sense of the timeless life of nature at the unseen heart of things, where men and animals merge with each other and the landscape and the seen event merges with all its unseen occurrences. The glorious sight is a transformation of the author's very particular vision of otherness, of life as it is in itself apart from human perception. The forest pool is the absolute eye referred to by the showman of "In the Menagerie" (Out of Africa, Part IV), when Count Schimmelmann doubts the reality of wild animals in a wild landscape where nobody sees them. "God sees them," says the showman. All the elaborate technique of the stories is designed to project the glorious sight—to project absolute through relative vision.
Because Out of Africa gives evidence that Isak Dinesen has been at the heart of things, both as an historical and an ever-present perceptual condition, it justifies the ageless and authoritative voice behind the stories, the voice of the archetypal storyteller who knows all the stories and has therefore all the memories and wisdom of the culture. The voice is one answer to the main technical question of fiction—the question of how the narrator knows the story and is in a position to judge it. In the early novels, the author, speaking in his own person, offered himself as the criterion of knowledge and validity. But he seemed an intruder who broke the illusion, and since he was just another person like you and me he offered a criterion of only relative validity. The solution was to make a virtue of necessity, to invent the point-of-view character through whose knowledge and judgment the novel could be filtered, and thus make the novel acknowledge through its form its characteristically subjective and relativistic view of life.
For an absolute view, the author must still speak out in his own voice. But to do this, he must speak not as an ordinary, but a mythical person. The voice must have character, so we can discern in it a whole spectrum of memories and values that will give meaning to the story. But it must be larger than life. Hence that voice which was perhaps the most exciting thing about Seven Gothic Tales when it first came out—a voice individual to the point of strangeness and yet so impersonal that it hardly seemed as though it could belong to any one person. Continental and aristocratic, it seemed to be the voice of European civilization. Out of Africa, when it appeared, explained the other thing about the voice—that it seemed at once so primitive and so civilized and that the one quality seemed to derive from the other. Out of Africa accounted for the character of Isak Dinesen's voice; and it is interesting to see how in her Danish radio talks, in her American recitals in 1959, and in Shadows on the Grass, she has been able to do what few writers nowadays can do—speak directly and intimately to an audience whom she can rely on to know her legend as set forth in Out of Africa.
The case is instructive, and should make us revise our ideas about the relation of an author's life to his work. The old, simple idea was that the work is an expression of the life, and the current reaction is to say that there is little connection between them. The fact is that the connection is more important in some writers than in others. But where it is important, the work has as much effect upon the life as the life upon the work. One thinks of Byron who made his life into the legend required by characters like Childe Harold and Don Juan. Yeats moved into a ruined medieval tower in order to give himself the setting required by the speaker of his poems, in order, as he says in "Meditations in Time of Civil War," to grow his symbolic roses in his own garden. It was as he brought his life and art into conjunction and made of his personal voice a mythical voice that he was able to write the increasingly personal poetry of his later years. Isak Dinesen in the same way made her life a part of her oeuvre. Using Africa and her Danish estate, Rungstedlund, as appropriate settings, she made herself into the combined figure of the aristocrat and artist that she so consistently admired in her writing—a figure of extraordinary, indeed sometimes frightening, force for so frail a lady, because representative of the great powers outside herself, the powers of a tradition so profoundly understood that it reaches back through cultural memory to the point where culture has its origin in nature.
When in one of our conversations I asked Isak Dinesen what qualities she thought the aristocracy served as models for, whether she thought they were more virtuous than other people, she said they certainly were not more virtuous. What they had above all was courage, that was the main thing, and after that taste and responsibility. It is because Isak Dinesen had courage—both courage in the ordinary sense and the existential courage to be one's self and to follow the logic of one's own nature—that her life and work are all of a piece: that she was able to write stories distinguished by the courage that in art we call style, and to create for herself a life and personality as audacious, extravagant, surprising, and, yes, as shocking, too, as her stories.
Robert Langbaum, "Autobiography and Myth in Out of Africa," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter 1964, pp. 64-80.
Burgess, Anthony, Review in Observer Review, September 6, 1981, p. 29.
Clough, Marshall S., Fighting Two Sides: Kenyan Chiefs and Politicians, 1918-1940, University Press of Colorado, 1990.
Davis, Hassoldt, Review in Saturday Review of Literature, March 5, 1938.
Hannah, Donald, "Isak Dinesen" and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality, Putnam, 1971.
Lewis, Janet, "Isak Dinesen: An Appreciation," in Southern Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 1966, pp. 297-314.
Smith, Sidonie, "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. 410-435.
Woods, Katherine, "Isak Dinesen's Fine Record of Life on an African Farm" in New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1938, p. 3.
Bjornvig, Thorkild, "Who Am I? The Story of Isak Dinesen's Identity," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 4, Autumn 1985, pp. 363-378.
Bjornvig examines the relationship between identity and animals in Dinesen's work.
Bogan, Louise, "Isak Dinesen," in A Poet's Alphabet, McGraw-Hill, 1970, pp. 104-106.
Bogan explores the autobiography's main themes and compares them to Dinesen's other works.
Davenport, John, "A Noble Pride: The Art of Karen Blixen," in Twentieth Century, Vol. CLIX, No. 949, March 1956, pp. 264-274.
This essay explores the autobiographical aspects of Dinesen's works.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Lynn Davis, Wonders of the African World, Knopf, 1999, p. 275.
Gates recounts his journey through contemporary Africa, from Ethiopia to the lost city of Timbuktu and the fabled University of Sankore.