Essay On Out OF Africa: A Different Kind OF Love Story
“Out of Africa,” by Isak Dinesen, is a grand, sweeping, epic tale of one woman’s fully coming of age in a land that, by rights, might have felt foreign to her, but into which she fits, as she says in her own words, “Here I am, where I ought to be.”(Dinesen 4). The book is autobiographical, but she has left out of it many aspects that one might have expected her to tell, such the details of her love affairs with the Baron Bror Blixen (to whom she was married) and with Denys Finch-Hatton, and focused instead of the details of her love affair with Africa itself, and its people and animals. Indeed it is a powerful love story, but a very unusual one. From page one of the book all the way through to the very end, Africa is the main character, and Isak (A.K.A. Karen Blixen) tells a story which is sparse with details about her personal life. The story is told in little segments that are not sequential and certainly not all-encompassing; thus it is storytelling of a selective and non-sequential kind. Eudora Welty said Dinesen's fiction embodies "the last outreach of magic," in an article in The Nation by Joanna Scott. (N. pag.).
Dinesen’s love affair with the land is evident from the very first pages of “Out of Africa.” She describes the land as having, “No fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere,” with “a heroic and romantic air like full-rigged ships with their sails clewed up, and to the edge of the rood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating.” (Dinesen 3). The views were, “Immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.” (Dinesen 4). Her romance with the land continues all throughout the book; it is as
though nothing: drought, fire, murders, or onsets of grasshoppers, could sour her feelings about Africa itself. To her, it is paradise, and described in language so beautiful that at times it took my breath away!
At the beginning, it feels like Karen has lived on this farm all of her life. We learn nothing about how she came to be there, and why, and with whom, if anyone. It feels a bit like the farm has existed forever, and Karen has been there forever too. She has become a part of the landscape, of the Native cultures, and of the animal life on the farm, in particular, and in Africa in general. From the very beginning of the book, we are not informed of any of the background of how this young, apparently single woman has come to own a large coffee plantation at the foot of the Ngong Hills in equatorial Africa.
Because of the wildly popular academy-award winning movie based on the book, and also because of all my research into Karen Blixon’s life for this paper, I know many details of her story that she chose not to share with us in this book. For example, I know that Karen--the Baroness--and the Baron von Blixen, bought the farm together with funds supplied by both of their families, and lived together there for several years before he left her—a separation that she reportedly did not want. But in the book, there is a timeless quality that seems to make some major parts of her life story extraneous to the “love affair with Africa” that she is describing. As such, “Out of Africa” is a very unusual autobiography. It is more like the spinning of a great tale than a true autobiography.
Karen became fascinated with the local Native cultures, and I believe I was halfway through the book before another aristocratic colonial white person appeared on the scene. Her stories are of Kamante, a young Kikuyu boy with dreadful sores on his legs which Karen tries to nurse, of
Lulu, a young gazelle fawn who was introduced into the household and stayed until she reached maturity, of Farah, her houseman who became a close friend, of the Kikuyu and the Somali and the Masai tribes, and similarities and differences between them that she came to understand.
“As for me,” says Karen,
feeling that embraced all ages and both sexes. The discovery of the dark races was to
me a magnificent enlargement of all of my worldIt was not easy to get to know the
Natives. They were quick of hearing and evanescentOn out safaris and on the farm,
my acquaintance with the Natives developed into a settled and personal relationship. We
were good friends. I reconciled myself to the fact that while I should never quite know
or understand them, they knew me through and through. (Dinesen 17 & 19).
Karen may be one of first aristocrats on the Kenyan social scene who did not treat the Natives as if they were her own property. She was fascinated by them—enough as to write almost an entire book about them—and she spent much of her time getting to know them and their ways, and divining what their methods and motivations were. To the Natives, Karen took on several roles: mistress of the farm, doctor, teacher, and renderer of justice. That they trusted her, I have no doubt, and I would go far as to say that some, if not most of them, genuinely loved her. The Natives became her principle society, because visitors to the farm were few and far between. Karen was also a little different from the British Colonial Aristocrats of the time, because she was Danish by birth and upbringing.
The entire book is so lyrical and mesmerizing that it is tempting to quote the whole book in this paper. Obviously, I cannot do that, but I will quote from Katherine Woods, who wrote in the New York Times Book review of 1938,
runs over the land and the scents and colors die when the rains fall; and how often the
bright air will bring illusion, as if one were walking on the bottom of the sea. She can
make a sudden parable of the resignation of the oxen, and understand the tragedy of the
captured giraffes, so proud and innocent; and the ancient African forest, that she says, is
like an old tapestry. (N. pag.).
Karen’s relationship with the animals of Africa is another sweet love story. Perhaps the most compelling tale is that of Lulu, a bushbuck fawn who moved right into the farm’s homestead and took over! She was small as a cat when she first appeared on the scene, and had to be bottle-fed.
As Lulu matured, she became elegant and stubborn and bossy with Karen’s Scotch Deerhounds, which Karen similarly loved, and she fit right into the house as if she had always lived there. But there came the time, of course, when Lulu felt the call of the wild, and she went off into the bush to get “married,” said Kamante. (Dinesen 69). Lulu hung around the property for a long time after that, first with her husband and then with her fawn, and Karen said that, “The years in which Lulu and her people came round to my house were the happiest in my life in Africa. For that reason, I came to look upon with acquaintances with the forest antelopes as upon a great boon, and a token of friendship from Africa.” (Dinesen 74).
She went on to say, “All of the country was in it, good omens, old covenants, a song. ‘Make haste, my beloved and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon a mountain of spices.’” (Dinesen 74).
One rather bizarre and almost supernatural conclusion that Karen reach about the Masai tribe was that they could will themselves to die whenever they needed or wanted to. Masai, it is said, cannot survive in captivity and will die naturally after a time of two or three months. She went on to extrapolate this concept to two young giraffes that she saw in captivity down by the shipping docks, on their way to “civilization” to become show animals. To them, Karen said, “Goodbye, goodbye, I wish for you that you may die on the journey, so that not one of the little noble heads that are now raised, surprised, over the head of the caseshall be left to turn all alone in Hamburg, where no one knows of Africa.” (Dinesen 289). I suppose from this that she assumed that African animals would have the same ability as the Masai to die at will, when necessary.
Throughout all of this loving and learning and growing and giving to the land, the people, and the animals, Karen’s own life was actually quite emotionally and physically fraught and distressing, but she chose to leave most of the emotional and physical distress out of the book. The Baron von Blixen had turned out to be a philanderer and a poor businessman and money manager, and after several years, he left Karen alone on the farm. I don’t believe that it had ever been her intention to be a solitary female farm manager, but that is what she became. I believe that there is one place in the book where she mentions “my husband,” but then she doesn’t go on to say much of anything about him. In addition to leaving her with the farm to run alone, the Baron also gave her a case of syphilis, with which she struggled for many, many years. (Burgess
N. pag.). This she also left out of the book, preferring not to focus on her illness, which seriously debilitated her, but on the land and its inhabitants, which provided that overwhelming sense of grandeur. In making this decision, the storyteller is giving free rein to her freedom of choice as to what to include and what to leave out. The book is about Paradise Found (and later lost), and I suppose that she did not want to intrude on its paradisiacal qualities. Instead of writing about the fallacies of man, she focused mostly on the aspects of living in Africa that worked well.
There is an oddly distant quality to all of “Out of Africa” that seems to derive partly from these choices she made of subject matter. Sometimes I sensed Karen Blixen to be more like an observer of life than a participant. In the “Observer” Review, Anothony Burgess excerpts from and comments on a letter she wrote to her mother in 1928, in which she proclaimed, “That there is nothing to be afraid of, not even the belligerent natives who could enter the house and kill (her) with the indifference proper to the killing of a deer. ‘All terror is more or less terror of the dark; bring light, and it must of necessity pass.’ But there was plenty to fear—disease, the failure of an estate, the collapse of love, loneliness” (N. pag.).
Even at the end of the book, Karen Blixen presents as a woman of great courage, independence, resiliency, and curiosity, with a strong sense of self. If spite of her love of animals, she seems to have had no difficulty shooting lions, particularly when the Masai came to ask her to shoot a particularly dangerous lion on their preserve, or when she was out hunting with Denys Finch-Hatton. During the war, she put together a party that was herself and all Natives, to deliver supplies to outlying war zones. Of this experience, she wrote, “The air of the African highlands went to my head like wine. I was all the time slightly drunk with it, and the job of
these months was indescribable. I had been on a shooting Safari before, but I had not ‘till now been out alone with Africans.” (Perkins, N. Pag.).
And Drabble has said of Blixen: “Witch, sibyl, lion hunter, coffee planter, aristocrat and despot, a paradox in herself and a creator of paradoxes, a desperately sick but indestructible woman, she steps forth from these pages with all the force of legend and all the human detail and frailty of a real person made by real circumstance.” (N. Pag.)
Two main topics remain to be discussed in this paper, I believe, and I am trying hard to get the images of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep out of my head before I address the issue of Denys Fitch-Hatton. Denys was an aristocratic big-game hunter, a philosopher, and man of highly developed aesthetics and intelligence who brought Karen a gramophone as a grand gift that changed the quality of their time together forever, especially their dinners. Although Denys was reportedly the great love of Karen’s life, once again she uses sparse language to describe their relationship—referring to Denys merely as her “friend,” and mentions very casually at one point, “Denys Finch-Hatton has no other home in Africa than the farm, he lived in my house between his Safaris, and kept his books and his gramophone there.” (Dinesen 217). That they were actually living together as passionate lovers, there is no doubt, but Karen pared the story down to the bare bones in order to recount it. The liberty of the storyteller again! It seems that the more personal and intimate the story she tells, the more she strips down the language. From other memoirs, letters, essays, biographies, and reviews, we know that the writer's relationship with Finch-Hatton was one of, if not the most important, personal bonds of her entire lifetime—and perhaps it is for this reason that she chose to keep it private? Perhaps she thought that she could not find words significant enough to convey the depth of this relationship and its meaning in her life, and so she chose to leave the
emotional aspects of it out of the book? That she had great affection and high regard for Denys does come through quite clearly, as does the fact that they spent considerable time together. One can only imagine that the scenes of the two of them lying in front of the fireplace while Karen regaled him with long imaginative stories could indeed have become quite romantic, but nowhere does she state that.
What she does focus on with great enthusiasm is their experiences flying together. For Karen and Denys and most fliers, being up in an airplane is a life-transcending experience, particularly in an old open biplane of the sort that Denys would have flown. Karen writes, “To Denys Finch-Hatton I owe what was, I think, the greatest, the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm: I flew with him over AfricaFlying opens up a world.” (Dinesen 229). A sneak peak creeps in from the movie, of the two of them flying over massive flocks of pink flamingos, which Karen describes with awe in her book. Never were she and Denys more alone together than they were up there, and they had views and visions that few got to experience back in those days. Interestingly, though, Karen still chooses not to admit what the real meaning of Denys was in her life; in this case, it was the airplane, and it the next went on to become the killing, together, of two dangerous lions.
So Karen continued on in her pared-down way, giving her heart to Africa, to its people, and its animals, but never confessing the depths of her love for a white man. Her admiration, yes: she wrote, “When he came back to the farm, it gave out what was in it – it spoke When I heard his car coming up the drive, I heard, at the same time, all the things of the farm telling what they really were.” (Dinesen 217). A lot of her life seems to have been devoted to finding out what
things really are, which is kind of an existential concept that can be a bit hard to explain, but is a large part of the mystery and the majesty of “Out of Africa.” Towards the end of her story, when she knows she is giving up the farm, a lady friend comes to visit and stay and they spend some of their time simply “naming” things on the farm, as if naming them would anchor them in reality and/or memory.
At the same time that it has become clear that financial hardship is going to make it impossible for Karen to keep the farm, and she has come to grips with that as best she can, Denys goes out flying anddoes not come back. Everything collapses fairly quickly towards the end of the book, as if getting it over and done with were a thing to be done expediently and unemotionally, although Karen exhibits more emotion around Denys’s death than she did over his life, in a peculiar way. Everyone accepts her as if she is Denys’s widow, and it left to her to choose the right burial site for him. She is already kind of beaten down by then, but she writes a tribute to him:
Here in the hills, I had seen him only a short time ago, standing bare-headed in the
afternoon sun, gazing out over the land, and lifting his field glasses to find out
everything about it. 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. And
now Africa would receive him, and change him, and make him one with himself.
Still, there is no apparent weeping. Karen confesses that she goes to the gravesite often, but apparently not to keen and wail, since she often takes the children. It is as if Denys was there one day, and simplyvanisheda few days later.
The last true act of heroism that Karen Blixen takes on before she leaves Africa is to fight for the rights of her beloved Kikuyu people. She is determined that they will move to good land, if they must move, and that they will be allowed to stay together as a group. The White Colonials think that this cohesiveness is of no importance, but Karen understands “her” Kikuyus. She spends many days trekking back and forth between the farm and Nairobi, meeting with government officials--until finally the government agreed to give out a part of an old forest reserve to the squatters from Karen’s farm, so that they could maintain their group identity and form their own community in a place not far away. Such a force had Karen become in Africa by that time that she could not be turned down.
I referred earlier to “paradise found and lost,” and without knowing much of the Bible, I still perceive “Out of Africa” as a parable for paradise. Never have I heard a landscape described so poetically, races of people so highly respected, and species of animals so revered as in this book. Of course, the land, people, and animals did go on without her, but when Karen Blixen left Africa, I believe that a large bit of life went out of it. She herself questions this reality towards the beginning of the book, when she asks,
If I know a song of Africa-I thought-of the giraffe and the 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? Would the air over the plain quiver with a color that I had on, or the
children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the
gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?
Whatever Africa remembers of Isak Dinesen, she has introduced the reader to a luscious, sensual world of colors and sights and feelings, of tribal customs and animal behaviors, and to a large slice of African life that is gone now forever. For that, I personally feel deeply enriched and I thank her immensely.
“Outside the canon of modern literature, like an oriole outside a cage of moulting linnets, Isak Dinesen offers to her readers the unending satisfaction of the tale told: ‘And then what happened? Well, then ’ Her storyteller’s, or ballad maker’s, instinct, coupled with an individual style of well-ornamented clarity, led Hemingway, accepting the Nobel Prize, to protest it should have gone to Dinesen.” (Walter, N. Pag.).
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KULT 11: Made in Denmark, December 2013
Karen Blixen’s Challenges to Postcolonial Criticism
Susan Brantly* http://postkolonial.dk/files/KULT%2010/Brantly_Karen%20Blixen%27s%20challenges.pdf
A TALE OF DESTINY—New York Times
In the Theater of Isak Dinesen
A reconsideration of the fictive truths behind a storyteller's many masks.
August 12, 2009 |, The Nation
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