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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).

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)

The Rime of the Ancient Environmentalist

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Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge.jpgTo my knowledge, Samuel Taylor Coleridge never heard of climate change.  Yet his brilliant, influential Rime of the Ancient Mariner - written apparently to illustrate the power of unknowable invisible forces - functions effortlessly as a warning about the suffering wrought by environmental degradation.

In Rime, the Ancient Mariner stops a man on a way to a wedding party and regales him with the story of the Ancient Mariner's last sea voyage.  He describes how his ship became trapped in South Pole ice.  The appearance of an albatross coincided with a fissure in the ice that permitted the helmsman to steer the ship to safety.  Thereafter, the albatross followed the boat.

Then the Ancient Mariner took his crossbow and killed the albatross.  This crucial event is rendered in a mere line-and-a-half, a scant seven words (one hyphenated), in the context of a verse dominated by the wedding guest's exclamations:

"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! -
Why look'st though so?" - With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.
No motivation for this act of violence is ever requested or offered.  As Barbara Everett, writing in the London Review of Books observed, "It is still often asked why the Mariner shoots the albatross. The only answer is that Mariners did: these heroic New World discoverers killed and culled everywhere they went."  As she colorfully expands, "There is a taste of rottenness, a dead albatross, underneath the history of discovery."  One might add, under the history of development as well.

This example of environmental plunder - as convenient, unthinking and reckless as our current interface with the environment - generates some unpleasant consequences.  Returning to England, the ship hits a dead spot in the Pacific and is stuck without a wind, "As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean."  The sailors become parched for lack of water; some are afflicted with fevered dreams of a spirit "[n]ine fathom deep" that has followed them from the South Pole.

A skeleton ship emerges from the sky.  This ghost ship's crew consists of Death and his female companion, Life-in-Death.  They are playing dice for the lives of the men aboard the Ancient Mariner's ship.  Death wins the crew; Life-in-Death gets the Ancient Mariner.  The ship's crew - 200 men strong - drops dead on the deck.

Seven days elapse, during which the Ancient Mariner is stuck on the boat with 200 corpses.  He finally spies some water snakes

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
Because of the Ancient Mariner's connection with these "living things," his condition improves.  He is able to pray and sleep and, when he awakes, rain pours onto the ship's deck, saving him from dying of thirst.  Even more extraordinarily, angels embody the corpses of the 200 crew men, raising the dead and getting to work sailing the ship.

But the Ancient Mariner still belongs to Life-in-Death.  He learns that, although he will be returned to his homeland, his life will not be his own.  He will serve a terrible penance, which is the vengeance of the spirit "nine fathom deep"

. . . who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.
Were it that every endangered species had a guardian spirit to avenge its killing!  We'd be in a much stronger position, biodiversity-wise, if this kind of incentive structure were in place.  But it's not.  Poachers and real estate developers (among others) whose actions cause the destruction of countless animals find themselves richer and unrepentant; Life-in-Death has yet to call.  

Instead, we're left with the Ancient Mariner's lesson.  Returning to England, the Ancient Mariner experiences periodic "agony" that compels him to recount his tale.  Such agony had possessed him when he saw the wedding guest.  Now he warns

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The wedding guest is understandably shaken by this dark tale of the consequences of wanton environmental destruction, and he turns away from the wedding party:

A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
At this historic moment, with oil poisoning the Gulf of Mexico, and myriad other environmental catastrophes unfolding, an environmental reading of Rime of the Ancient Mariner is especially poignant.  Given the difficulty of conveying through traditional journalistic and public information channels the consequences of climate change, perhaps Coleridge can impress upon a denying public that Life-in-Death (or Death itself) awaits environmental degraders and their cohorts.

That Coleridge was a religious man, the son of vicar, might make him especially persuasive to climate change doubters.  As Everett emphasized, "Coleridge was an 'anima naturaliter Christiana', a mind born Christian, who said that the 'strongest argument' for Christianity is that it 'fits the human heart'. It fitted his, at any rate." 

Nonetheless, as exegesis of Rime makes clear, Coleridge did not believe (as present-day Christians often espouse) that God made humans the caretakers of animals such that they might dispose of animals as they pleased.  Coleridge's pro-environmental Christianity is a powerful refutation to arguments like, "let's wreck the planet to bring on the rapture."

I am not, of course, idealistically optimistic that the 176-years-dead Coleridge will enjoy a resurrection as an environmentalist of note.  Not on the Al Gore scale, anyway; certainly Coleridge won't be winning any Nobel prizes.  Whatever potential long form Romantic poetry has as an instrument to influence world-wide climate change policy, that potential is deeply buried.

Nonetheless, mash-ups are super popular these days.  If we can have an Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, if readers want Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, why not Rime of the Ancient Climate Change Eco-Terrorist?

(Image of Samuel Taylor Coleridge from The Guardian)

Ready for the shovel

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Somalia.jpgI wonder if anyone else has the experience of wanting to visit a place in exact proportion to the awfulness of its description.  I no sooner hear that a location is subject to such severe flooding that it can only be accessed on alternate Thursdays from October 1-12, and that, upon arrival, the locals will serve me a dish of fermented yak intestines, and I think: I have to go!  I can't hazard a guess as to how and when I drank from the tainted well from which this peculiar response springs, but I can attest to the pain it causes those who care about my well being.  For those of you thinking of describing your hells on earth to me, you'll do my mom a favor if you shade your account along the following lines: "Oh, Brazilian favelas?  They're lovely.  Quiet places where people sit outside on cleanly swept streets, drinking tap water and playing wholesome card games, like Go Fish."

Gerald Hanley's Warriors pushed my "must go to hell on earth" buttons.  Warriors is a memoir of Hanley's experience being posted in a variety of remote areas in Somalia during World War II.  The isolation was extreme, and he suffered many deprivations of food, intellectual stimulation, companionship, pay, etc.  His colleagues were committing suicide with a frequency that would have been impressive in a looney bin that'd run low on its meds.  So searing was his experience, that the first paragraph of his book asserts that,

it is in solitude that one can best understand that there is no solution, except to try and do as little harm as possible while we are here, that there is no losing and no winning, no real end to greed or lust, because the human appetite for novelty can only be fully satisfied by death.
(p. 7.)  Yet, despite his success in conveying viscerally the reality of his misery, I can't resist being charmed.  He makes the insanity he confronted sound so appealing:  

After the Somali troops under his command mutinied for the third time (they hadn't been paid in almost half a year), he gave an order that they could only mutiny on Fridays.  "They took it seriously," he reports (p. 13).  More on his troops:

Like white troops without cigarettes, they talked about ghee all day and night, but unlike white troops, held conferences about it, drew up statements, compiled measurements of the ghee they had not had, and must expect from me when the time of ghee came again, and some of them would come trembling with fury to me about the ghee, after having worked each other up over the camp-fire.
(p. 156-57.)  Then there was the case of the sleepwalking girl, staggering across the village in the dark hours, past curfew, because the elders had summoned her by means of magic.  "I gave [the matter] meticulous examination and was satisfied it was magic," says Hanley.  "I had to tell the askaris [the soldiers] to let this girl walk in her sleep whenever she was called, until the end of the curfew."  (p. 113.)    

Or the case of one of his colleagues who was trying to broker a peace between rival chiefs ready to send their tribes to war.  Beaten down by fruitless negotiations that rehearsed decades-old arguments that had been as useless then as they were now, and watching the chiefs depart to summon their warriors, the colleague said,

"'Remember that it is the elephant asleep in the long grass which defeats the greatest men."  He had no idea what he meant . . . and told me he had said it cynically, out of weariness, exhausted anger, but the chiefs stared at him, exchanged glances with each other, and nodded, went on nodding, and sat down, saying, "let us thrash this matter out again.  That is a splendid thing you have said."
(p. 154.)  And, speaking of saying splendid things, how about this "genealogy" insult hurled by Hanley's cook at his servant:  "'Son of a sick hyena, grandson of a noseless thief, descendant of vultures, father to be of a hermaphrodite baboon, filth and refuse untouchable, animal without religion' - and so on."  (p. 168.)

I love it!  I want to go!  Sadly, the Somalia of World War II doesn't exist anymore, and the one that currently occupies the horn of Africa is so explosive that breathing next to it is a hazard.  But never mind the impossibility: Hanley's hell is on my list of places to visit.

Why?  Undoubtedly, Hanley's storytelling skill and compelling authorial voice is part of the reason.  A good storyteller draws in the audience, even as he or she is saying, "Go away."  Go away, forsooth!  I want to know why I should, tell me more . . .

But even crap storytellers inspire my wanderlust: I've heard perfectly foul storytellers recount information about Senegal, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand - half the globe, really - and I still want to go.  Hanley would understand.  As he says towards the end of Warriors:

There is an enormous difference between the man who emerges from a safely ensconced segment of society, and the one who is flung into a world in which the shovel is waiting for him.  I recommend the latter to all as a far more exciting world to be thrown into.
(p. 201.)

(Map of Somalia from the UN website)  

Of wisdom and imperial ambivalence

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Gerald_Hanley_by_John_Huston.pngGerald Hanley's Warriors is an extraordinary book for many reasons, including the ambivalence it expresses about colonialism.  

Warriors was published in 1971.  To get a feel for the sentiments about colonialism in that era, consider a statement by Charles Miller, in his author's note to The Lunatic Express, a book about the construction of the Uganda Railway across Kenya, also published in 1971:

[I]t is hardly possible not to have an opinion about the British Empire. . . . For the record, I think that the British Empire, with all its horrendous failings, was on balance a good thing.  I mourned its passing.
(p. viii.)  On the other side of the issue, here's James Beauttah, a leader of the Kikuyu Central Association, quoted in Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham's book, The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya, published in 1966:

"Our society had [been] broken down [by colonialism] and the unity that we had in our old structure had been replaced by everyone fighting for himself, everyone on his own against all the troubles that had been brought to us.  There was a fundamental growing disunity that was our weakness. . . . [W]e had had so many wishes and ambitions awakened in us and then always the door slammed in our face.  This is worse than never having the ambitions wakened in the first place, far, far, worse."  
(p. 243.)  Now here's Hanley, distilling his observations about colonialism, gathered during his military service in Somalia during World War II:

[T]here is nothing fine or noble about savagery and illiteracy and superstition, no matter how splendid looking the warriors and the women.  After a good long dose of savagery it is interesting how much one has learned to prefer the gentle and the sophisticated.  Primitivism is a very much overrated way of life, and is merely pitiful in essence, no matter how fascinating the carvings and the masks and the quiet zoomorphic ravings on stone and wood, those endless circles in which the tribe has wandered and lost itself, waiting for the stranger to come with the message, even when it leads to the atom bomb.
. . . .
After the enormous orgy of torture and massacre in Europe and Asia [during WWII], I felt it was impossible for any white man to preach again, self-righteously, about goodness and peace, to any non-white man.  And that shame may have been the reason, bigger than African and Eastern restlessness, which caused the white man to pack his kit and go home after the second world war.  We must have all felt something of that shame, I think, and acted upon it without really knowing why.
. . . .
Yet ironically enough, while the conquered everywhere resented losing their country and their freedom, they nearly always took advantage of the policed peace forced upon them, nearly always relaxed, their swords left at home, yet they wanted their country back for themselves, while enjoying the "peace of the grave," as Pandit Nehru once called it, in which they now toiled under aliens. . . . [T]ime is always on the side of the original owners, if they can only survive.
(p. 73-74, 86.)  Later, Hanley quotes a Somali chief:

"We are lending you the labourers," he told me.  "But only because you are living with us here on the river, and because you have spoken well, and not because we recognise this new government which has replaced the Italians.  We do not want to be ruled by any strangers anymore.  They beat us with cannon, but ever inch of this land is ours.  Ours.  It can never belong to any strangers.  Men cannot live under strangers who have taken their lands.  Never.  If I had a spear and you had nothing and I came and took your house from you, and made you work in your own garden for me, you would not like that.  That is what they have done, these governments.  And it must come to an end now.  You can tell them that, for that is what we all feel."
Hanley was moved by the chief's speech.  "I agreed with every word he said," Hanley admits, concluding, "All these people everywhere would have to be let free, left alone, lectured to no more, or this war would be as useless as the last one."  (p. 91.)

Taken together, these excerpts from Hanley reveal a multi-faceted understanding of colonialism that glitters with accuracy.  Eschewing both the "on balance" opinion-drawing of Miller and the focused accusations of Beauttah, Hanley sees: (1) opportunities for a modern life, in contrast to traditional, pre-modern living, as being a good thing, despite the risks, (2) colonized peoples enjoying the benefits of those opportunities, despite resenting having these benefits and risks forced upon them, (3) white men as having no legitimacy to press those opportunities and risks upon non-whites, and (4) the inevitability of white men having to give up trying.  In essence, Hanley achieves the same understanding as Tayeb Salih, who - writing about colonialism in the Sudan in his masterpiece novel Season of Migration to the North - typically offered his insight with more poetry and concision: "[T]he [British] coming too was not the tragedy as we imagine, nor yet a blessing as they imagine."  (p. 60.)

The conflict inherent in this position - I cannot bestow benefits without costs too high; I cannot receive benefits without losses too great - is wrenching.    A mere glance at the current states of constant war in Somalia and the Sudan, and the abysmal governance in Kenya - and at the thousands of refugees, impoverished, starving and violence-traumatized people  in these countries - confirms that, had a resolution to this fundamental conflict been possible, people on both sides of the colonial equation would have been better off.

But to say that is a little like saying (I don't want to push the analogy too far) that, had Communism been able to work out its kinks, the world would have been a better place.  On balance, colonialism wasn't (and isn't) a blessing, any more than Communism was (and is) a blessing.  They are both systems that can be shown viable in abstract form, but the models can't be applied in practice.

The reason is that this basic conflict of being unable either to convey or receive benefits without costs and losses being unacceptable is a dynamic that pervasively poses obstacles to human engagement.  It's not merely the fly in the ointment of colonialism; it's a feature common to all aspects of the the human landscape, be they familial, professional, economic, sexual, creative, political or ecological.  Negotiating this conflict is an integral part of human engagement with "others" - be they our parents, our neighbors, our employers, our creditors, our lovers, our collaborators, our politicians or our environmental resources.

And negotiations notoriously end, neither in victory nor defeat, but in compromise: neither tragedies, nor blessings, they are simple enablers to living.  Hanley's wisdom comes in accepting this fact with ambivalence.

(Drawing of Gerald Hanley by John Huston, 1970s, from Warriors)    
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