September 2010 Archives

Maya Alexandri talk at the Karen Blixen Museum

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On 24 September 2010, I gave a talk at the Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark, about my process of researching Karen Blixen's life for purposes of writing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  In my talk, I emphasized the differences between historical research to establish verifiable facts and literary research to spark the imagination.  I described the reading, travel and blogging that formed the better part of my process, as well as the issues that arose in the course of my research and how I resolved them.  You can listen to my talk here (the full talk is an hour and thirteen minutes).

Making the audience work

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Throughout time, authors have found ways of challenging their audience, as if the egotism of authorship had caused writers to feel that the price paid for their books was insufficient to earn the entertainment gleaned from their pages.  

Laurence Sterne, for example, intersperses the text of Tristram Shandy with blank pages.  Samuel Beckett's Watt drags on interminably with redundant sentences.  Most people die without getting through all (or even any) of the volumes of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Time Past.

But no author, I believe, has ever posed a greater challenge to the reader than René Descartes.  I do not refer to his extremely long sentences with extended use of subordinate clauses.  I am talking about his demand, in Discourse 5 of Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences, that readers do the following prior to perusing his description of the circulation of blood:

I would like those who are not versed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading [further], to have cut open in front of them the heart of some large animal which has lungs, because it is, in all of them, similar enough to that of man, and to be shown its two ventricles or cavities.
(p. 66.)

The only other creator, in my awareness, who requires his audience to sacrifice animals in conjunction with the partaking of his words is God.

Then again, the man who wrote, "I have hardly ever encountered any critic of my opinions who did not seem either less exacting or less equitable than myself," has never, to my knowledge, been accused of modesty.   

(Image of dissected cow heart from University of Utah site)

The line from literacy-enabled logic to immortality

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For the first time, I am reading two books together to experience the way they illuminate and duel with one another.  The two books are Walter J. Ong's, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word and René Descarte's Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences.  The result of this experiment in parallel reading is interesting: the experience is like setting my brain on fire. 

One aspect of Ong's book that reliably throws sparks is his overview of characteristics of people from primary oral cultures - that is, societies that don't write or know of writing.  Ong explains:

[A]n oral culture simply does not deal in such items as . . . formally logical reasoning processes [or] . . . articulated self-analysis . . . which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought.
(p. 55.)  In respect of articulated self-analysis, Ong elaborates:

[I]lliterates [have] difficulty in articulate self-analysis.  Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking [typical to people from primary oral societies]. . . . Externals [e.g., amount of land farmed, success of crops planted] command attention [in lieu of internal qualities]. . . . Self-evaluation [gets] modulated into group evaluation ("we") and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others [e.g., no one would respect our group if we were otherwise] . . . . Judgment bears in on the individual from outside, not from within.
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(p. 54-55.)  Reading this passage, I immediately thought of Descartes, whose self-analysis as it pertains to the quality of his mind after it emerged from his education is one of the earliest important examples (second, possibly, to Montaigne) of the expansion of human capacities enabled by literacy.  Here is Descartes describing his change in thinking about his education:

I was brought up from childhood on letters, and, because I had been led to believe that by this means one could acquire clear and positive knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely anxious to learn them.  But, as soon as I had completed this whole course of study, at the end of which it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned, I completely changed my opinion.  For I was assailed by so many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my ignorance. 
(p. 29.)  In this short passage, Descartes illustrates the opposite of the characteristics Ong earmarks.  Internals (ignorance vs. knowledgeability) matter.  The self-evaluation is not modulated into a group assessment; on the contrary, Descartes distinguishes himself from the group and societal expectations: whereas "it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned," Descartes doesn't think he belongs there.  Judgment doesn't bear in on Descartes from the outside (society would consider him "learned"), but from inside (he has discovered his own ignorance).

Formal logic, as much as self-analysis, is foreign to the consciousnesses of people in primary oral cultures.  According to Ong,

[I]lliterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive procedures at all - which is not the same as to say that they could not think or that their thinking was not governed by logic, but only that they would not fit their thinking into pure logical forms, which they seem to have found uninteresting.
. . .
A highly intelligent person from an oral . . . culture might be expected normally to react to [questions that require abstract thinking to answer, like syllogisms] . . . not by answering the seemingly mindless question itself but by trying to assess the total puzzling context . . . Is it a game?  Of course it is a game, but the oral person is unfamiliar with the rules.  The people who ask such questions have been living in a barrage of such questions from infancy and are not aware that they are using special rules.
(p. 52.)

Descartes, of course, was familiar with formal logic.  He was also critical of it:

[R]egarding logic, its syllogisms and most of its other precepts serve more to explain to others what one already knows, or even . . . to speak without judgement [sic] of those things one does not know, than to learn anything new.
(p. 40.)  Of course, Descartes' criticism is focused on the output of formal logic, not on the fact of its methodology.  Descartes is in favor of such methodology: he has developed one himself that he hopes will replace the logical methodology of the ancients.  Descartes goes on to eliminate all his received opinions in order to replace them with ones that were true, and not merely true, but

to include in my judgements [sic] nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt.
(p. 41.)  But I went in a different direction.

My brain is not as airlessly sealed off from outside influences as Decartes, which no doubt explains why I wandered off track.  These other influences include the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, where research curator Jan Stubbe Østergaard recently showed me around the museum's impressive collection of Greek and Roman statues.

In discussing Roman copies of Greek statutes,
Østergaard revealed that the Romans copied only the heads.  The Greeks didn't sculpt body-less heads; they believed that a head was not enough to reveal the man.  The Romans, on the other hand, prioritized the head (and the ideas within it) over the body (and the viscera it encases).

I began to wonder if the prioritization of heads and ideas might parallel the literacy-related changes in consciousness between the Romans and Greeks.  The Greeks, after all, transitioned from orality (in the time of Homer, 750 BC) to literacy (in the time of Plato 350 BC).  The Romans were literate.

And then, because I've also been reading Jorge Luis Borges, I began to wonder about the connection between literacy, prioritizing ideas and immortality.  Ong mentions a fascinating aspect of primary oral societies:

[They] live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.
(p. 46.)  The written word, of course, makes sloughing off memories more difficult. 

The potential for the eternal preservation of memory takes humans a step closer to immortality: our bodies may fade, but our ideas can live forever.  No wonder prioritizing ideas over viscera seems appealing.

Indeed, in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "The Immortal," the race of immortals make this same choice.  (If it were me, and my body could endure eternally, I wouldn't be prioritizing thought over bodily pleasures - quite the opposite; nonetheless, in Borges' world, immortals aren't hedonists.) 
The immortals were

immune to pity. . . . [A] man fell into the deepest of . . . pits; he could not be hurt, could not die, and yet he burned with thirst; seventy years passed before he was thrown a rope.  Nor was he much interested in his own fate.  His body was a submissive domestic animal; all the charity it required each month was a few hours' sleep, a little water, and a scrap of meat.  But let no one imagine that we were mere ascetics.  There is no more complex pleasure than thought, and it was to thought that we delivered ourselves over.
(p. 14-15.)  Taken to its logical extreme, delivering oneself to ideas extricates oneself from one's humanness.  We cannot be separated from our bodies, however tempting the notion may be.  And immortality fundamentally severs a human from her body.

Only after I followed my thoughts in the manner described above did I understand this passage from "The Immortal":

In Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a man's life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the number of his deaths.
(p. 5.)  Contrast Borges' insight with Ong's description of the paradox inherent in "writing['s] . . . close association with death":

The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers.
(p. 81.)

Immortality is for the books. 

(Image of Father Walter J. Ong, S.J. from Wikipedia; image of René Descartes from The Telegraph)

Love in the Time of Maladjusted Behavior

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In Catherine Shoard's 2008 Telegraph review of the film version of Gabrielle García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, she asks a critical question:

Should our hearts flutter in the face of a love this enduring [the love Florentino Ariza harbors for Fermina Daza through the 50 some-odd years of her marriage]? I'm not sure. As with many literary adaptations . . . , what seems swoony on the page can seem plain sinister on screen.
In fact, what seems plain sinister on screen seemed just as creepy on the page to me.  Two examples suffice:

(1)  When Florentino Ariza seduces a married "pigeon fancier," Olimpia Zuleta, her husband discovers her faithlessness and slits her throat.  Florentino Ariza has sent Olimpia Zuleta signed love notes, and García Márquez reports,

For many years he [Florentino Ariza] thought with terror about the signed letters, he kept track of the prison term of the murderer [Olimpia Zuleta's husband], . . . but it was not so much fear of a knife at his throat or a public scandal as the misfortune of Fermina Daza's learning about his infidelity.
(p. 217.)  A woman is dead because of your sexual desires, and your main concern is that another woman not find out that you've had sex?  That's not touching.

(2)  Florentino Ariza's penultimate lover, América Vicuña, is 14 (to his 76) and his ward.  He abruptly dumps her at the death of Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza's husband, and in her inability to comprehend this rejection, América Vicuña kills herself.  Florentino Ariza reacts as follows:

The only thing he could do to stay alive was not to allow himself the anguish of that memory.  He erased it from his mind, although from time to time in the years that were left to him he would feel it revive, with no warning and for no reason, like the sudden pang of an old scar.
(p. 336.)  Another woman is dead - this one a teenager - because of your exploitative sexual desires, and you erase her memory?  Not romantic.

More than once, García Márquez describes Florentino Ariza as a "man who gave nothing and wanted everything" from his lovers (p. 216).    The fact that he's treating women so harshly while he bides his time waiting for his "true love" is, again, not sympathetic. 

A man who knows love for a woman ought to - we'd like to think - treat her sisters with dignity and respect.  Otherwise, what is his love for "Miss Right"?  Whether on the page or in the movie, Florentino Ariza's love for Fermina Daza is the enabler of a life lived at an emotional and moral distance from beloveds; it is the romantic fig leaf that fails to justify a misogynistic reality.

To return to Catherine Shoard's perceptive question, Florentino Ariza's "love enduring" provokes, not a flutter, but a shudder.

(Image of Javier Bardem as Florentino Ariza in Mike Newell's film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The New York Times)

Overemphasizing ideas in art

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In the last four days, I've seen Israeli videographer Yael Bartana's show, "and Europe will be stunned," at the Moderna Museet Malmö in Sweden and Anselm Kiefer's self-titled show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.  Between those two exhibits, I've been taken with the impression that contemporary art privileges ideas over artistic skills to its detriment. 

Yael Bartana has great ideas, but from a film-making perspective much of her work looks rough and amateurish.  Anselm Kiefer also has great ideas (I laughed out loud at "Martin Heidegger," a book depicting a brain partially black with rot), but neither his drawing, sculpture, composition or use of color strikes me as particularly exemplary. 

I can't help thinking, having recently been in Italy, that Renaissance painters and sculptors wouldn't have countenanced this divorce of concepts from skilled execution.  Of course, during the Renaissance, the ideas animating the paintings were less varied (e.g., mostly related to religion and patrons), and the importance of a human's artistic capacity was paramount: the glory of human capabilities was the point of the Renaissance.

Now, however, when photographs can render life more exactingly than a painter, and film can capture life even in movement and over time, viewing a human's artistic capacity as superfluous is tempting: why not use the technology?  Similarly, now that art has been unshackled from religion and (for the most part) from private patronage, why not prize the ideas over the the execution?

The reason is that ideas without aesthetics aren't art.  Art (when it's good) operates on an intellectual and visceral level simultaneously.  It presents ideas that activate the mind, but it also - through aesthetics - engages the viscera.  (The effectiveness with which Renaissance art accomplishes these twin objectives contributes to its overwhelming beauty; contemporary art's ignoring of the visceral is surely a cause of its often numbing ugliness.) 

This visceral engagement is neither fanciful nor a luxury: it is necessary.  Without it, a work is not art, but argument.  Without the visceral engagement, artworks communicate not intuitively, but rationally. 

Moreover, much of the rational communication must be conveyed, not visually, but through verbal texts that explain the ideas undergirding the work.  But explanatory texts, be they on the wall of museums, or published in exhibition catalogs, ought to be unnecessary.  Works should speak for themselves. 

Nonetheless, very little contemporary art speaks for itself.  Without textual explanation, the circumstances of Bartana's works, "Summer Camp," and "Wild Seeds," are opaque.  Kiefer takes the trouble to write words (often the title of the work) on his canvases; Louisiana provided a "Kiefer dictionary" to explain Kiefer's common references.  Going to these contemporary art exhibitions requires an awful lot of reading; so much reading, in fact, that a visceral (that is to say, irrational) response is practically suppressed.  

Moreover, the tone of the text is exhortatory:  viewers will be questioned about . . .; viewers will confront . . . ; viewers are made to feel / think . . . .  When I read what I'm supposed to be thinking and feeling, all I can think is: bullshit.  The text is telling me what to think and feel because extracting that experience from the art itself is too difficult.  Often, the work is too boring to hold my attention.  I have to exert my will to stay and look at it.  Aesthetically engaging work doesn't encounter this problem.

I am struck, as well, by the difference between contemporary visual art and literary art.  While visual art seems to be losing its aesthetic capacities, literary art is refining them.  In fiction and poetry, the way an idea is expressed is often more important than the idea.  "Half of a Yellow Sun," Chimimanda Ngozi Adeche's novel about the Biafra war, is hampered by dull ideas; but it's well written.  Kay Ryan doesn't tell me anything I didn't know in her poem, "Turtle"; but the poetry is transporting. 

Good ideas presented in bad writing is only acceptable (and only unofficially so) in non-ficton (and explanatory texts for art exhibits); in the realm of fiction or poetry, scintillating ideas encased in bad writing isn't called art.  It might be a guilty pleasure; it might be a commercial success; but it's not art.

I don't see anything wrong in expression of rational argument in broad varieties of media, be they films, performances or paintings.  I'm not suggesting that Yael Bartana or Anselm Kiefer are unworthy of their audiences. 

But humans need art as well as argument, aesthetics as well as ideas, visceral as well as cerebral engagement.  The systematic preference for ideas to the detriment of aesthetics in contemporary art reflects a painful imbalance in our modern lives.  While this message may correspond to reality, humankind has known eras when art was more than a cry for help.

(Image of Anselm Kiefer's statue, "Das Sonnenschiff," from White Cube)

Trees, not flags

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Today I went to Sweden.  You should, too.

I went to the Moderna Museet in Malmö, where I saw an exhibit of five films by the Israeli video artist, Yael Bartana.  The show is called, "and Europe will be stunned."  I was stunned, too.

One of the films, called "A Declaration," involves a man rowing out to Andromeda's rock, off the coast of Jaffa near Tel-Aviv, on which stands an Israeli flag.  The man has an olive tree in his boat.  He docks the boat by the rock, takes down the flag and replaces it with the olive tree.

The swap - plant for flag - is deeply moving, despite its apparent ambiguity.  As curator Joa Ljungberg observes in the exhibition catalog,

To exchange the Israeli flag for an olive tree can mean to remove a national symbol in favor of a universal symbol of peace.  But the olive tree is also closely associated with Palestinian nationalism and thus the gesture can mean to replace one national symbol with another.  As an integral part of the Israeli national emblem, the olive tree could furthermore represent two nations, or two peoples in one nation.
(p. 15.)  I realize that "ambiguity" is the watch-word of today's pluralistic, multi-perspective, globalized society, but I think you have to place too-heavy emphasis on the conceptual to find ambiguity in "A Declaration."  My own interpretation is rooted in the aesthetics of the film, which is visually gorgeous.

I was inspired by the arresting images of the man rowing an olive tree out to sea.  A man, a boat, an olive plant: I saw Noah, as Noah might have been in a different narrative. 

Say that, instead of landing on Mount Ararat, Noah had kept sailing.  Naturally, others on the boat - like the animals in their two-by-twos and the other humans on board - objected, so Noah dropped them off and kept going: "Sorry guys," he said, "but I'm a sea dog by nature.  This whole flood episode helped me find myself, and I can't give up this hard won self-knowledge just because some of the water is drying up."

So Noah keeps going, just him and the olive branch brought to him by the dove.  And eventually the ark suffers some wear-and-tear, until it's reduced to a dingy.  But Noah's unfazed; he just starts rowing.  And the olive branch keeps growing because it's a hardy creature.  And Noah's pleased; he's grateful for the company, even if it is a plant.

So Noah sails on - and since 6,000 years is a long time for anyone to live, even a Biblical character caught in a fanciful alternative narrative, let's have him sail through a time portal that transports him to the Med coast, off Israel, in 2006, in time for Yael Bartana's video shoot.

And so there he is: Noah, the last good man on earth, pre-flood, pre-Abraham, pre-Ishmael and pre-Isaac, pre-nation state politics.  Noah is back-to-basics humanity, our common ancestor returned to remind us that what every inhospitable rock needs is a plant, not a flag.

Seems pretty straightforward to me.

(Still image from "A Declaration" from Artnet)

Note to Self

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If I am ever crafting a romantic male lead in a novel, I'll do well - both for character and for reader - to spare him the indignities of chronic constipation. 

I don't get what Gabriel García Márquez was doing, in Love in the Time of Cholera, when he saddled poor Florentino Ariza (as played by Javier Bardem in Mike Newell's movie version, pictured left) with this debility.

Granted, I recognize that the problem is common.  Also, that people who suffer chronic constipation have just as much entitlement as the rest of us to passionate love affairs.  Also, that they can screw a lot.

But I don't like to dwell on it.  When García Márquez conflates constipation and screwing, as he does Florentino Ariza first meets Leona Cassiani, I cringed:

Florentino Ariza remembered a phrase from his childhood, something that the family doctor, his godfather, had said regarding his chronic constipation: "The world is divided into those who can shit and those who cannot." . . . But with what he had learned over the years, Florentino Ariza stated it another way: "The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not."
(p. 183).  Please!  Gabriel!  Spare us!

Throughout, I had problems believing Florentino Ariza as "one who screws" because I just couldn't reconcile the openness required for sexual release with the closedness required for chronic constipation.  And when one of Florentino Ariza's lover takes his enemas with him, I found myself regretting the compassionate capacities of my gender: ladies, there are limits!

Later, when Leona Cassiani gives the aged Florentino Ariza his enemas, I had a hard time with the humiliation and emasculation that redounded to Florentino Ariza from this interaction.  He's going to get up off the enema bed and go woo Fermina Daza?  Really?

When it comes to enemas and a romantic male lead, my feeling is that there's too much realism and not enough magic.

(Image of Javier Bardem in the film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The Telegraph)

What The Witness saw

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At the Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark, floral arrangements complement the displays of furniture, paintings and tchotchkes from Karen Blixen's house.  The flowers come from a special garden, specifically tended to provide fresh flowers for the Museum's arrangements.  (After a slug invasion in the early nineties, a special, shin-high, slug-proof metal fence was erected around the garden to protect the flowers.) 

The care and attention paid by the Museum to the details concerning the flower arrangements are because Karen Blixen herself was an accomplished floral arranger and considered arranging flowers a form of art.  Photographs were taken of arrangements she'd made during her life, and the Museum claims that it "recreates" her arrangements.

Learning of this attempt at recreation, I thought of the Jorge Luis Borges story, "The Witness."  In this slender piece, a man dies in a stable.  He dies in the Kingdom of England,

but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners.  Before dawn, he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again.  The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.
(p. 161.)  Borges goes on to remind us that,

one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man's or woman's death . . . . In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.
(Id.)  He wonders, "What will die with me the day I die?  What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world?"  (Id.)  His proposals, in contradistinction to the preceding examples, are intimate, personal and apparently historically insignificant:

The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
(Id.)

Perhaps Borges believes that he has written down everything he witnessed worth preserving, so that when he dies all that remains will be meaningless outside his personal context.  Or perhaps Borges believes that he lives in a time that cannot parallel the greatness of the ancients, so that anything he witnesses cannot be of historical significance.  In any event, nothing in "The Witness" suggests a propensity on Borges' part to preserve his bar of sulfur in the drawer of his mahogany desk, and to project over it (on an endlessly repeating loop) an image of a bay horse in the vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, accompanied by a soundtrack of the voice of Macedonio Fernández.

In contrast to Borges' modesty, the efforts of the Karen Blixen Museum to ensure that Karen Blixen's flower arrangements do not die with her suggest a certain hubris that often accompanies hagiography.  Immodest and immoderate love cannot distinguish the important from the trivial aspects of the beloved. 

Similarly, the Karen Blixen Museum doesn't seem to appreciate that recreating Karen Blixen's floral arrangements is the kind of silly tribute that obsessives pay their objects of attention.  The effort doesn't present itself as an obvious priority for a museum dedicated to preservation of and promotion of a legacy that, like Karen Blixen's, is thoughtful, subversive, humorous, and controversial.  Rather, the emphasis and labor expended on the flowers suggests a focus on the fleeting and the decorative aspects, a preference for the pretty over the challenging.

In this respect, if not others, the world is a little poorer for Karen Blixen's death.
  
(Photograph of a flower arrangement in the Karen Blixen Museum gift shop taken by Maya Alexandri)

A voice of her own

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Visiting the Karen Blixen Museum today in Rungstedlund, Denmark, I took advantage of the opportunity to listen to a 27-minute recording of Karen Blixen reciting her story, "A Letter from a King," in English, before an audience.

I had known, from Judith Thurman's biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, that Karen Blixen intended her stories to be read aloud and listened to.  Hearing Karen Blixen tell her own story in her creaky-resonant voice with her old-lady inflection, I understood why.  The story on the page was two dimensions to the oral form's three.

Karen Blixen had a sense of humor, but - unlike Rabelais - it wasn't primarily scatological, physical or premised on misunderstandings.  These types of humor are sturdy vehicles that can survive the abuses of time and transmutations into different formats. 

Karen Blixen's sense of humor, on the other hand, is a fragile tone, easily lost in the migration of form and context.  On the page, I could understand why Karen Blixen might be thought to have been funny.  Hearing her tell her story, it was funny.  She earned her laughs from the audience. 

Moreover, in the oral form of the story, I realized that she was poking fun at herself with her account of how her friends in Denmark thought she was a snob for sending a lion skin to King Christian X; her self-deprecation - obvious in the oral form, muted on the page - made her likable.  Listening to Karen Blixen's tale, I was transported to a younger time, when I sat at my grandmother's kitchen table, listening to her tell stories with gentle punch lines.  (For this reason, I selected a photo of Karen Blixen, above, that reminds me of my grandmother.)
  
Beyond the restored humor, however, the oral form of the story took on a completely different meaning.  "A Letter from a King" begins by recounting an event that Karen Blixen describes in Out of Africa: a New Year's Day outing that ends with Karen shooting a lion perched on the carcass of a giraffe.  When they see the lion, Denys Finch-Hatton hands Karen his rifle and tells her to shoot it.  She doesn't like to use his gun; it's too big.  But, she says, the shot is for love, so shouldn't it use the largest caliber weapon?

The anecdote is a significant one to Blixenania lore.  Karen Blixen herself repeats it in both Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass.  Errol Trzebinksi begins her biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Silence Will Speak, with a retelling of the episode.  Judith Thurman interprets the shot of love as being for Denys Finch-Hatton. 

But when Karen Blixen tells the story, the love is unquestionably for the lion.  Hunting, she insists, is like a love affair.  Usually, she admits, the passion is one-sided.  The hunter is in love; the prey, not so much.  But with lions, she insists, it's different: they want to kill her as much as she wants to shoot them.

This meaning (and its attendant humor) were largely lost on me when I read Shadows on the Grass and Out of Africa.  I was busy focusing on where the text betrayed clues of her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (who she refers to as her "friend" in "A Letter from a King"). 

But this subtextual obsession is exactly what Karen Blixen's oral performance obviates.  Reading from the page, I capitulated to the temptation to wander from her path, to sniff - like a pig hunting truffles - for buried treasure, to read with my own agenda.  Listening to Karen Blixen tell her tale, however, I was led where she wanted me to go, directed to the treasure before my eyes, engaged by her story in her voice.

For whatever reason - whether the clamor of her personal life has deafened readers to her literary voice, or whether English is too foreign a vehicle for her voice to carry on the page, or whether she's simply a storyteller in the ancient model of epic poet, and her tales work better orally - Karen Blixen's storytelling voice only emerged fully for me when I heard the recording.

It's a voice worth hearing.

The Karen Blixen Museum would do well to make her oeuvre available, where possible, in podcast.

(Photograph of Karen Blixen by Hugo Hellsten, taken at Rungstedlund, in 1957, on Kulturplakaten)

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