Karen Blixen

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To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.

Karen von Blixen-Finecke (17 April 18857 September 1962) was a Danish author; born Karen Christence Dinesen, she is also known under her pen name Isak Dinesen.

Quotes[edit]

I think it will be truly glorious when women become real people and have the whole world open before them.
  • I have a feeling that wherever I may be in the future, I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong.
    • Letter to her mother (26 February 1919)
  • There is hardly any other sphere in which prejudice and superstition of the most horrific kind have been retained so long as in that of women, and just as it must have been an inexpressable relief for humanity when it shook off the burden of religious prejudice and superstition, I think it will be truly glorious when women become real people and have the whole world open before them.
    • Letter to her sister Elle (1923); later published in Letters from Africa: 1914-1931 (1981) edited by Frans Lasson, translated by Anne Born.
  • All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.
    • As quoted in The Human Condition (1958) by Hannah Arendt. This appears as part of a statement in a 1957 interview where she speaks of a friend's comments about her:
      I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.
      • Interview with Bent Mohn in The New York Times Book Review (3 November 1957)
    • Paraphrased variant : All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.
  • Man reaches the highest point of lovableness at 12 to 17 — to get it back, in a second flowering, at the age of 70 to 90.
    • Shadows on the Grass (1960)
  • God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road.
    • As quoted in obituaries (7 September 1962)
  • The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.
    • As quoted in Reader's Digest (April 1964)
    • Variant: I know a cure for everything. Salt water … in one form or another, sweat, tears or the salt sea.
  • "Do you know a cure for me?" "Why yes," he said, "I know a cure for everything. Salt water." "Salt water?" I asked him. "Yes," he said, "in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea."
    • "The Deluge at Norderney"
  • It is little silly to be a caricature of something of which you know very little, and which means very little to you, but to be your own caricature — that is the true carnival!
    • Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (1971)
  • A fashion always has some meaning. The fashion, or style, of renunciation really meant something then. It was inspired by the war, or it ran parallel to the war, and could not have been conceived without the war... It stood for the will to sacrifice — if the unlimited will to throw away can be called the will to sacrifice. It was arrogant and elegantly cynical — because it is arrogant and elegantly cynical when the symbol of the élite becomes hunger. The superfluous here threw away the necessary quite simply. In its inner essence it was the disdain of death.
    • Daguerreotypes and Other Essays (1979) This has also been abbreviated and quoted as "The will to sacrifice . . . was the disdain of death."
  • Real art must always involve some witchcraft.
    • Letters from Africa: 1914-1931 (1981) edited by Frans Lasson, translated by Anne Born.
  • I don't believe in evil, I believe only in horror. In nature there is no evil, only an abundance of horror: the plagues and the blights and the ants and the maggots.
  • The best of my nature reveals itself in play, and play is sacred.
    • On Modern Marriage and Other Observations (1986)
  • Of all the idiots I have met in my life, and the Lord knows that they have not been few or little, I think that I have been the biggest.
    • As quoted in Journey Through Womanhood: Meditations from Our Collective Soul (2002) by Tian Dayton
  • I think Marilyn is bound to make an almost overwhelming impression on the people who meet her for the first time. It is not that she is pretty, although she is of course almost incredibly pretty, but she radiates, at the same time, unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence. I have met the same in a lion-cub, which my native servants in Africa brought me. I would not keep her, since I felt that it would in some way be wrong...I shall never forget the almost overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness which she conveyed. I had all the wild nature of Africa amicably gazing at me with mighty playfulness.
    • Written of her experience with actress Marilyn Monroe in a letter to the American author, Fleur Cowles Meyer, in 1961. As quoted in Fragments, by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment (2010)

Seven Gothic Tales (1934)[edit]

  • "Do you know a cure for me?" "Why yes," he said, "I know a cure for everything. Salt water." "Salt water?" I asked him. "Yes," he said, "in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea."
    • "The Deluge at Norderney"
  • During the first quarter of the last century, seaside resorts became the fashion, even in those countries of Northern Europe within the minds of whose people the sea had hitherto held the role of the devil, the cold and voracious hereditary foe of humanity.
    • "The Deluge at Norderney"
  • God made the world, My Lord, and looked at it, and saw that it was good. Yes. But what if the world had looked back at him, to see whether he was good or not?
    • "The Deluge at Norderney"
  • I do not know if you remember the tale of the girl who saves the ship under mutiny by sitting on the powder barrel with her lighted torch … and all the time knowing that it is empty? This has seemed to me a charming image of the women of my time. There they were, keeping the world in order … by sitting on the mystery of life, and knowing themselves that there was no mystery.
    • "The Old Chevalier"
  • My love was both humble and audacious, like that of a page for his lady...
    • "The Old Chevalier"
  • Love, with very young people, is a heartless business. We drink at that age from thirst, or to get drunk; it is only later in life that we occupy ourselves with the individuality of our wine. A young man in love is essentially enraptured by the forces within himself.
    • "The Old Chevalier"
  • What is man, when you come to think upon him, but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine?
    • "The Dreamers"
  • The consolations of the vulgar are bitter in the royal ear. Let physicians and confectioners and servants in the great houses be judged by what they have done, and even by what they have meant to do; the great people themselves are judged by what they are. I have been told that lions, trapped and shut up in cages, grieve from shame more than from hunger.
    • "The Dreamers"

Out of Africa (1937)[edit]

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills...
  • I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.
    • First lines.
  • It was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet like the strong and refined essence of a continent... The views were immensely wide — everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.
  • Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you: that God and the Devil are one, the majesty coeternal, not two uncreated but one uncreated, and the Natives neither confounded the persons nor divided the substance.
  • In the Ngong Forest I have also seen, on a narrow path through thick growth, in the middle of a very hot day, the Giant Forest Hog, a rare person to meet.
  • White people, who for a long time live alone with Natives, get into the habit of saying what they mean, because they have no reason or opportunity for dissimulation, and when they meet again their conversation keeps the Native tone.
  • There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne — bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.
  • I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long stemmed spackled gigantic flowers slowly advancing. It was, in giant size, the border of a very old, infinitely precious Persian carpet in the dyes of green, yellow and black-brown
  • The true aristocracy and the true proletariat of the world are both in understanding with tragedy. To them it is the fundamental principle of God, and the key, the minor key, to existence. They differ in this way from the bourgeoisie of all classes, who deny tragedy, who will not tolerate it, and to whom the word tragedy means in itself unpleasantness.
  • People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will. The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of...
  • I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizard, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river-bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful than their colouring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the color seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet's luminous tail.
    Once I shot an Iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never afterwards forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying dead upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was grey and dull like a lump of concrete. It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal, which had radiated out all that glow and splendor. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the Iguana was as dead as a sandbag.
  • Often since I have, in some sort, shot an Iguana, and have remembered that one in the reserve. Up at Meru I saw a young Native girl with a bracelet on, a leather strap two inches wide, and all embroidered over with very small turquoise-coloured beads which varied little in colour and played in green, light blue and ultra-marine. It was an extraordinarily live thing; it seemed to draw breath on her arm, so that I wanted it for myself, and made Farah buy it from her. No sooner had it come upon my arm that it gave up the ghost. It was nothing now, a small, cheap, purchased article of finery. It had been the play of colors, the duet between the turquoise and the "negre", — that quick, sweet, brownish black, like peat and black pottery, of the Native's skin, — that had created the life of the bracelet. ...I stood in Meru and looked at my pale hand and the dead bracelet, it was as if an injustice had been done to a noble thing, as if truth had been supressed. So sad did it seem that I remembered the saying of the hero in a book that I had read as a child: "I have conquered them all, but I am standing amongst graves."
  • In a foreign country and with foreign species of life one should take measures to find out whether things will be keeping their value when dead. To settlers I give this advice: "For the sake of your eyes and hearts, shoot not the Iguana."

Winter's Tales (1942)[edit]

  • Tragedy should remain the right of human beings, subject, in their conditions or in their own nature, to the dire law of necessity. To them it is salvation and beatification.
    • "Sorrow-Acre"
  • Human talk is a centrifugal function, ever in flight outwards from what is on the talker's mind.
    • "The Invincible Slave-owners"
  • Man and woman are two locked caskets, of which each contains the key to the other.
    • "A Consolatory Tale"

Anecdotes of Destiny (1953)[edit]

Our longing is our pledge, and blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home.
  • I first began to tell tales to delight the world and make it wiser...
  • Nobody has seen the trekking birds take their way towards such warmer spheres as do not exist, or rivers break their course through rocks and plains to run into an ocean which is not to be found. For God does not create a longing or a hope without having a fulfilling reality ready for them. But our longing is our pledge, and blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home.
    • "The Diver"
  • Of what happened later in the evening nothing definite can here be stated. None of the guests later on had any clear remembrance of it. They only knew that the rooms had been filled with a heavenly light, as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance. Taciturn old people received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened to it. Time itself had merged into eternity. Long after midnight the windows of the house shone like gold, and golden song flowed out into the winter air.
  • When later in life they thought of this evening it never occurred to any of them that they might have been exalted by their own merit. They realized that the infinite grace of which General Loewenhielm had spoken had been allotted to them, and they did not even wonder at the fact, for it had been but the fulfillment of an ever-present hope. The vain illusions of this earth had dissolved before their eyes like smoke, and they had seen the universe as it really is. They had been given one hour of the millennium.
    • "Babette's Feast"
  • When soon I sail from here, I may again run into such a storm as the one in Kvasefjord. But this time I shall clearly understand that it is not a play in the theatre, but it is death. and it seems too that then, in the last moment before we go down, I can in in all truth be yours...
    • "Tempests"
  • It never has happened, and it never will happen, and that is why it is told.
    • "The Immortal Story"

Last Tales (1957)[edit]

  • 'Are you sure,' she asked, 'that it is God whom you serve?'
    The Cardinal looked up, met her eyes and smiled very gently.
    'That,' he said, 'that, Madame, is a risk which the artists and the priests of this world have to run!'
    • "The Cardinal's First Tale"
  • The entire being of a woman is a secret which should be kept.
    • "The Cardinal's Third Tale"
  • Why, you are to become a story teller, and I shall give you the reasons! Hear then: Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. Whether a small snotty lass understands it or not.
    • "The Blank Page"
Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before, how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.

Quotes about Blixen[edit]

  • As a Nobel Prize winner I cannot but regret that the award was never given to Mark Twain, nor to Henry James, speaking only of my own countrymen. Greater writers than these also did not receive the prize. I would have been happy — happier — today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.
    • Ernest Hemingway as quoted in The New York Times Book Review (7 November 1954)
  • Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. I like that.

External links[edit]

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