Christensen, Inger (1935—)
Christensen, Inger (1935—)
Danish poet, dramatist and novelist whose works are concerned with the issue of how we may be free while living in community. Born Inger Christensen in Jutland, town of Vejle, Denmark, in 1935, where she grew up and graduated from high school in 1954; daughter of a tailor; received her teaching diploma, 1958; married to Poul Borum (a Danish author) for several years. (Christensen is shy and slow to give out biographical information.)
Awarded a three-year stipend from the Danish Art Foundation (1966); received the Danish Critics' Award (1969), the Golden Laurels (1970), the Aarestrup Medal (1973), the Kjeld Abell Prize and Tagea Brandt's Travel Award (1978); became member of the Danish Academy (1978).
Selected works: (poems) Lys (Light, 1962); (poems) Gras (Grass, 1963); (novel) Evighedsmaskinen (The Perpetual Movement Machine, 1964); (novel) Azorno (1967); (poems) Det (That, 1969); (play) Intriganterne (The Schemers, 1972); (novel) Det malede varelse (The Painted Room, 1976); (poems) Brev i april (Letter in April, 1979); (poems) Alfabet (Alphabet, 1981); and numerous essays.
Inger Christensen grew up on an ordinary street in Vejle, a middle-size town on the eastern coast of the Jutland peninsula. She was a child of the working class—her father was a tailor—and she cherished the experiences to which that position in society gave her entry. Writing about the summers of her childhood, spent partially in Vejle and partially in the summerhouse owned by the tailors' union, she has described her encounter with the heat of a summer's day; because the air and her own skin had the same temperature, she felt one with the universe.
From these summers, the poet recalls three events that taught her of aesthetic experiences: viewing a broad meadow of cress, bouncing a huge rubber ball against a hot wall at high noon, sitting in the kitchen eating strawberries during an evening thunderstorm. Trivial incidents in themselves, for Christensen, these moments conveyed the meaning of beauty: openness without limits, energy spent to no purpose, and the safety in knowing we are not alone. All three situations relate to the major theme found throughout her writing: the question of how we become free human beings even as we live in community with one another.
Like other writers of her time, Christensen is preoccupied with contemporary people and their alienation from self and nature. We have invested our brains in technology, she argues, but forgotten to embrace "in a fragrant meadow/ in a sun warmed bed" despite our deeper knowledge that only as lovers and children can we regain the doubly lost paradise. Her poetry shows that the road to our loss is caused by misguided choices, and it suggests a corrective to a reality built on a false premise. The means of that poetry is language, whose function is to make meaning.
The language of greed and economic power, Christensen writes, is restrictive; consequently, the language of the poet must liberate the imagination by being open, like a meadow, encouraging writer and reader to let go of prejudices to explore the unknown. Only by raising our consciousness to a vision and acceptance of passion can we hope to break down the chains that prevent us from being free. Understandably, Christensen's first two collections of poems, Light and Grass, deal with her own process of liberation, demonstrated in their form; Grass, especially, explores methods of invention of a new language to express and embody love.
The immediate contrast between the titles Light and Grass suggests the contrast between the poems of the former, which focus on cosmic and visionary themes, and the latter, which celebrates the concrete, earthbound world. Light shows the cold ice-bound landscapes of the writer's unconscious and her relationship with people in the world, both of which undergo a change as the poems progress from winter to summer, evening to morning, darkness to light in a shifting array of colors from white-black to blue and finally red. Christensen sees the anxiety that attends the writer's—and humankind's—sojourn in the chilling land of ice as the condition for change and continued development. It affords the individual the opportunity to see the condition in which he lives, and it gives birth to his anxiety, which is both his condemnation and his salvation.
Like her compatriot Søren Kierkegaard, the existential philosopher, Christensen sees anxiety, or angst, as a condition for change. The ability to tolerate this angst, provoking polarities of destruction and creation, she sees as sustained by love, because only love can engender new and continuous life. "Light" and "grass," the cosmic and the earthly, she finds co-existing in the act of love between a man and a woman. She seeks erotic love as an awakening. It is no lasting panacea; rather it must be experienced over and over to make the poet—and the reader—ready for change, and for the repeated encounters with the lies and deception that are part of everything human. Those must be confronted and fought and relationships of love started over both in terms of human intercourse and poetic expression.
Beginning with her novels, Christensen expands her area of concern to include society itself. She focuses on the roles people play—mandated by themselves or by others—and shows their debilitating effect. With The Perpetual Movement Machine and Azorno, she dramatizes the frustration of the artist's relationship to society. Her main character in Perpetual Movement Machine is a Christ-like figure, a mythical incarnation of love. For those in power, Ulrik Kent serves as a lightning rod for the increasingly vocal dissatisfaction of the oppressed; for the writer, he is a savior with connections to a world the powerful have denied him. Eventually executed and buried, he claws himself out and lives in isolation near the town dump. Again he is beaten and raped, and again executed, and subsequently resumes life by the river at the outskirts of town. There, people flock to hear his tale about a perpetual movement machine that goes round and round, indifferent to up and down, like a life in which beginning and end are uncertain. Only after the individual has set himself outside society, Christensen suggests, does he make connection with utopia, a connection that for Ulrik Kent is facilitated by his love of the character Coy. Their love initiates him into the cosmos as an individual and a collective being, "not just a man, but everyman," who appears and reappears in a variety of figures and professions, emblematic of the process of human life.
Azorno, Christensen's second novel, shows how we choose to plot our lives as main characters, just as we play minor roles in the dramas of others. We shape lives and we are shaped in turn. At our peril, we assign roles to one another in our love relationships that are too narrow, because as Christensen shows, not only society, but individuals and lovers may imprison one another.
I am passionate about continuation.
Liberation, in the language of Inger Christensen, clearly does not mean separation from others. It means voluntarily seeking and building community while being tolerant of other people's individual needs and characteristics. "I believe we put too much emphasis on self realization," she writes. "As a counterbalance to the complexity of the world, we start cultivating the individual and the complexity of the individual," a direction that she is concerned may lead to self-sufficiency and subsequently to the destruction of the world in which we live. In contrast, she urges, it should be humanly possible to engage in the lives of others, even of strangers, and to become curious about what is going on in the world, asking questions about what we are about and what constitutes a mass society: "What is this city, is it a piece of art, a mobile, building blocks or what?"
A highly reflective writer of essays, Inger Christensen voices her awareness of the difficulties inherent in human communication. Verbal intercourse she finds problematic because:
only very few things are worth talking about—and those we don't talk about. Those we cannot talk about; for instance, life, death and love. We are afraid to be alone and afraid to be together, afraid for what is past, what has stopped and what is all too orderly and afraid of that which is not past, what is floating along and what is messy—and we are afraid of our sexuality and afraid of death. … [W]e make war be cause we are afraid to tell one another we are afraid of each other and everything. It seems to me that we obstinately insist on walking into the rain—and equally obstinately continue to refuse inventing rubber boots and rain coats. … We must change if the world is going to change.
She urges her readers to talk about things ordinarily left unspoken, even to themselves. As a writer, she sets herself the task of thinking about the impossible, the "incomplete" and "irregular," attempting a classless language that does not yet exist.
The collections of poems titled Det (That), from 1967, is a demonstration of Christensen's artistic development as well as a response to the 1960s and its demands for a liberation of the imagination and celebration of the senses. "I have tried to write about a world that does not exist so that it may exist," she comments. Det is a poetic drama, divided into three parts, "Prologos," "Logos," and "Epilogos," an amalgam of the literary genres Christensen has been exploring. As such, it reflects the world as in a mirror and demonstrates, in the balance of formlessness and structure, the author's center of energy and insights. The published text appears "typed," suggesting the ongoing artistic process taking place even as we read.
This dramatic poem reveals the writer's uncertainty and angst as she invests her artistic powers in promoting the collective liberation she espouses. She writes that we must live in the "interregnum" of the unconscious, where the transformation of the soul, triggered by our anxiety, must take place. The poem attacks the church, the military, and capitalist society, which suppress human sexuality and creativity and exploit their energies. In that world, lovers and lunatics have the greatest revolutionary powers; the former due to their talent for transformation, the latter because of their inability to adjust to a sick society, both of which bespeak their basic health.
In the poems Letter in April, Christensen's belief that we must trust liberation of ourselves and others as the basis on which we can build human relationships and stake our future brings her to a confrontation between adult resignation and childlike capacity for wonder. She concludes that she must create her own sense of wonder or die. The mature poet realizes that, unlike the child who wonders at the unknown, the adult must wonder at the repetitive nature of the world and its phenomena, and experience her renewal through experiencing those.
With a shift in focus to ecological issues, Inger Christensen signals her sensitivity to the concerns of the late '70s and early '80s. The poems titled Alfabet (Alphabet) speak of the lethal rays and general pollution that are endangering the earth and that have afflicted words as well. The sequence is systematically structured, beginning with the letter "a," "apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist" and advancing through the letters of the alphabet. Increasing numbers of lines and words denote destruction, until the poem ends with "n," leaving the reader with a feeling of descent into horrors too great to list.
Our antidote to those horrors, according to Christensen, is care, care for people and all living substances, including air, water and the earth, "care which prevents fabrication of elements which threaten those of which people are made, care which cannot be ignored, neither with money or arguments." With utmost logic, she argues that if accident rules, we could be anyone else; consequently, we are responsible for the actions of everyone else.
Inger Christensen's writing is considered difficult reading. In a striking example of the intricacy of her thought, she explains her use of "systems" in her poetry:
By using a system you are trying to reveal the rhythm of the universe. In the Creation story, there is silence, and then there are patterns. … And a useful benefit of a system is that you can't just write the first thing that comes into your mind; because of the resistance in the system, you get onto the track of something that you wouldn't otherwise have thought of. The gift is that you're forced to put much more of the world into the poem. Sometimes it feels as though the poem is carrying you along. You have access to a universe that begins to carry you. It carries you into something that you otherwise would never have been able to see or write. For me there was a shift from "I" to "it." The important thing became not "I" and psychological considerations but collective concerns: the way the world is set up. Boundaries between different individuals dissolved through osmosis, that's how I experienced it. You can express your own experience and emotions more effectively by starting somewhere else.
Christensen's ideas challenge the reader's expectations, forcing the viewer to see his or her imprisonment in the world of machines, and Christensen's experimentation with different forms of expression bring additional and demanding surprises. Yet the effort to understand her work is well rewarded. As one of her critics put it, "She is an intellectual, she is a philosopher, a philosopher, even, who deals with the most essential things in life. Of people like her we do not have too many."
Christensen, Inger. Del af Labyrinten. Gylling: Narayna Press, 1982.
Dansk Litteraturhistorie. Edited by Torben Brostrom and Jens Kistrup. Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag, 1977.
Danske Digtere i det 20. aarhundrede. Vol. 4. Edited by Torben Brostrom and Mette Winge. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gads Forlag, 1982.
The Nordic Poetry Festival Anthology. Edited by Kajsa Leander and Ernst Malmsten. Sweden, 1993.
Tegnverden. Ed. Iben Holk. Aarhus: Centrum, 1983.
Inga Wiehl , Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington