The texts collected in several different editions under the description “essays” were in their original form either lectures, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts or essays in journals. “On Modern Marriage and Other Observations” is an exception, being a written continuation of discussions Karen Blixen had with her brother, Thomas Dinesen, while he stayed with her on the farm. She wrote it in Africa and sent it to him in 1924, titled “On the Ideal and Nature”. The other essays were written between 1938 and 1959.
The first collection entitled Essays was published in 1965; the second version contained the same texts and was published in 1978 under the title Mit Livs Mottoer og andre Essays; in 1985 three essays were added to the collection (“Moderne ægteskab”, “Sorte og hvide i Afrika”, “Til fire kultegninger”) which was then published as Samlede essays. A selection of the essays was published in an English-language translation in 1979, entitled Daguerreotypes and Other Essays.
THE BATTLE BETWEEN THE SEXES
The role of women in marriage and the community, and the relationship between the two sexes, are the subject of a number of Karen Blixen’s essays. It is interesting to see the extent to which her attitude to these issues had changed since she was young. In “On Modern Marriage and Other Observations”, written around 1923, Karen Blixen compares women’s role in marriage past and present. Previously, she wrote, the woman had a fixed and meaningful role in marriage. Modern marriage is a dubious institution for which to sacrifice one’s life. Marriage presents the woman with unreasonable conditions and makes her “unfree” for no good reason. The essay from 1923 concludes that love thrives best as “free love”, i.e. a relationship without marriage.
“ORATION AT A BONFIRE, FOURTEEN YEARS LATE”
In “Oration at a Bonfire, Fourteen Years Late”, written 30 years later, Karen Blixen is of the opinion that feminism is by and large a thing of the past. A central thesis in the oration is that men and women are essentially different, a fact which affords a positive basis for interaction and inspiration. She refers to the British author Aldous Huxley, who in one of his novels uses the expression the love of the parallels about “a sterile and painful relationship”. “Love of the parallels,” writes Karen Blixen in her bonfire oration, is “that hopeless love between two parallel lines which stretch out simultaneously but can never meet.” (my emphasis, ed.)
In 1926, however, she was of the opposite opinion. In a letter to her brother, Thomas Dinesen, written on August 5 1926, she uses the same Aldous Huxley expression: “Aldous Huxley has an expression: ‘The love of the parallels’, which he uses in a somewhat tragic context, it is true, but which I must surely be permitted to construe as I like, – which to a certain extent expresses what I mean by this: one does not ‘become part of’, become ‘devoted to’, the other; perhaps one is not as close to the other as in those partnerships that are able to encompass such merging, and there is no question of each being the aim and goal of the other’s life, but while one is oneself and striving for one’s own distant aim one finds joy in the knowledge of being on parallel courses for all eternity.” (my emphasis, ed.)
These completely different attitudes on the part of the young and the older Karen Blixen are an example of the way in which it is possible to gain a wrong impression of the tales if the older woman’s essays are taken as a guide to the interpretation of the much younger woman’s stories.
In “Daguerrotypes” Karen Blixen draws two portraits of people from the past, i.e. her parents’ generation, their ideas, conceptions and outlook on life. The first deals with the women of this earlier era who fell into three categories defined by their role in relation to men: housewife, guardian angel, bayadère. The fourth category – the witch – stood alone, because she was the one who “existed independently of a man and had her own center of gravity”. The second daguerreotype concerns Miss Sejlstrup, the housekeeper on an estate in Jutland, and discusses, inter alia, the concept of equality and the understanding in different eras of the “boons of life”.
“ON MOTTOES OF MY LIFE”
In “On Mottoes of My Life” Karen Blixen goes through the mottoes she has chosen at various periods of her life and their significance. When very young she chose “Essayez!” and “Often in difficulties, never afraid”. Under the motto “navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse!” she and Bror Blixen set off for Africa. They translated Pompey’s words – that it is necessary to sail, not to live – to their own situation: “It is necessary to farm, it is not necessary to live.”
In Africa, Karen Blixen took on a motto from Denys Finch Hatton: “Je responderay.” I will answer. She stressed the ethical content of the motto: “I will answer for what I say or do; I will answer to the impression I make. I will be responsible.”
Having returned to Denmark, she set store by Nietzsche’s “I am a yea-sayer, and I have been a fighter”, alongside “Pourquoi pas?” – why not? About this last motto, she writes: “‘Why’ by itself is a wail or lament, a cry from the heart; it seems to ring in the desert and to be in itself negative, the voice of a lost cause. But when another negative, the pas, the ‘not’, is added, the pathetic question is turned into an answer, a directive, a call of wild hope. Under this sign…I finished my first book.”
DAGUERREOTYPES AND OTHER ESSAYS, 1979:
- On Mottoes of My Life
- Oration at a Bonfire, Fourteen Years Late
- Letters from a Land at War
- Reunion with England
- On Orthography
- H.C. Branner: The Riding Master
- Rungstedlund: A Radio Address