Out of Africa The extraordinary story of the fall and rise of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)

Few movies have affected me so deeply and profoundly at an emotional level as Sydney Pollack’s wonderful film ‘Out Of Africa’ starring Merle Streep and Robert Redford.
After seeing the movie for the first time in my late 30s ,I was emotionally wasted,rendered numb with feeling ,plunged into an emotional odyssey ,journeying through feelings of love grief amazement awe and disbelief (in no particular order )as I pondered the dimensions and ramifications of Karen Blixen’s remarkable larger than life story .

Out of Africa was a tale of cross cultural adventures,failed fortunes and grand passion set against a backdrop of the incredibly beautiful and powerful African landscape and at the heart of the story Karen’s deep and abiding love for the African people and the African landscape and its flora and fauna .

The movie raised big cosmic questions for me .When I considered God/Goddesses seeming unkindness that the cruel hand of fate could seem to deal so cruelly and harshly with a woman who despite her foibles and eccentricities was obviously a truely good person with deep moral virtue and innate decency and a kindly spirit .
By the time she left Africa, Karen’s Health had been weakened by Syphilis unfairly contracted as a result of her husband’s philandering (not her own )She had endured the loss of her farm and coffee plantation and had to part with her beloved Kikuyu tribe and devoted household staff although she had managed to relocate the Kikuyu tribe due to the compassionate intervention of Nairobi officials .

On top of this, she then had to endure the tragedy of the death of her big love ,safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton who was killed in a plane crash shortly before she was to return home to Denmark.
People who saw Karen shortly before her final departure from Africa remarked on her shrunken demeanour ,her frail frame and seemingly broken spirits describing her in pathetic terms as the ‘poor little failed Baroness ‘ Similarly her brother who greeted her upon her return to Denmark remarked on seeing his sister as such a fragile shadow of her former self something to the effect of “so this is the end “

Through reading the book ‘Out of Africa’ and watching the movie it is obvious that Karen was at her core a deeply spiritual and reflective and highly evolved woman .Though one extraordinary anomaly I couldn’t get my mind around was why given her obvious reverence and appreciation for the value of life Karen Blixen was unashamedly enamoured with big game hunting often citing with pride her hunting trips when she managed to take the life of not just one but a number of full grown lions .

In one safari alone she unashamedly boasted of taking down six lions ,four leopards , a cheetah as well as myriad other smaller game . Janine Bourke the writer of the book ‘Source’ natures role in Art and Healing offers up a few clues which are worth considering to explain this .Karen Blixen being at heart an unconventional and expansive soul was very fortunate to have as a role model and to be very close to her father Wilhelm who was not just her father it seemed but a kindred free spirit and an ally in that cloistered burgoise Danish society in which Karen grew up.Wilhelm was something of an explorer and adventurer himself .He spent time during his life exploring North America and living in Canada on the ancestral homeland of the Ojibewa(Chippewa ) living at close quarters with a native American Indian community known as the Sokaogon Chippewa Community .

He no doubt recognised in the young Karen a daughter after his own heart and he regaled her with tales of travel and adventure imparting to her his respect and affinity for the indigenous peoples.”The Indians are better than the civilized peoples of Europe .they are closer to nature and more honest .Their eyes see more than ours and they are wiser “ he told her .He himself went on to went on to build bridges of cultural understanding between European and Native American society as Karen herself was later able to do between African and European cultures ..
Wilhelm also imparted to his daughter from an early age ,a love and appreciation for the natural world taking her regularly for nature walks in the woodlands surrounding ‘Rundstedlund’ her family home in Denmark .It was then the most unthinkable tragedy when Wilhelm contracted syphilis and not wanting to experience the ravages of the latter stages of the disease such as a descent into madness he chose to commit suicide when Karen was only ten years old .

It’s hard to imagine how the young girl responded to such a psychologically and emotionally brutal and tragic event (which by all events must have seemed like the most terrible betrayal to the young Karen) Janine Bourke in her wonderful book makes a good argument for the idea of this early encounter with psychological and emotional brutality finding its eventual outlet in Karen Blixen’s anomalous’ thrill of the kill’ and passion for big game hunting in Africa .

There is an interesting parallel which Bourke brings to our attention in that the writer Ernest Hemingway also renowned for his passion for big game hunting lost his father to suicide also .Janine Bourke poses a thoughtful and insightful hypothesis that perhaps the violence of the suicidal act by the beloved parent who had introduced their children to the natural world had somehow enured Karen and Ernest to the brutality of killing and the incongruous acts of violence exacted in taking out top predators in the natural kingdom especially Karen loved so well.Bourne suggests these acts of violence have acted in some way to appease within the two had a writers the original acts of violence by the fathers who had so wounded them .

Despite this extraordinary anomaly there is absolutely no doubt that Karen was possessed of a deep appreciation and reverent awe for the beauty of the African landscape and its flora and fauna .She also clearly held a deep appreciation for the value of life and was a caring and compassionate person as evidenced in her solicitous care of the of the Kikuyu peoples who lived and worked on her farm .She was clearly well liked by most peoples both black and white and once Bror her philandering husband had withdrawn his interest in managing the farm ,Karen singlehandedly ran the plantation managing hundreds of male workers at various times .

Karen Blixen was a deeply reflective intelligent and insightful woman with a wry wit and a penetrating insight into the deeper spiritual workings of things and in her book reflected aloud on the paradoxes of life ..as when her lover Denys Finch Hatton with whom Karen yearned in vain for the permanence and stability of a more conventional partnership arrangement asked her if he might leave a few possessions at her home indicating that it meant that he would return to her home between safaris .Karen remarks “When God wants to punish you he answers your prayers “
If Karen had a particular foible, she was noted for her possessive nature towards both people and possessions .She referred to the Kikuyu peoples as ‘her Kikuyu’ She took great pride and pleasure and set great store by her house full of beautiful possessions eg her crystal and china and fine silverware . In the movie Denys chides Karen for her possessive nature and encourages her to become less possessive and more detached .However one of the attachments she most hankers after is a more conventional romantic arrangement with the freespirited Denys who keeps elusively slipping the noose of a more conventional partnership although there was clearly big passion and an extraordinary spiritual and emotional and intellectual connection between the two.

When Denys was was tragically killed in a plane crash only a short time before Karen was due to leave Kenya she poignantly declares at his funeral ” Now take back the soul of Denys Finch Hatton He was not ours ,he was not mine “
It seems that the Gods and the Goddesses might have agreed with Finch Hatton that Karen needed to learn a lesson in letting go of attachments because the hands of fate were to rain apon her what seemed to be a series of cruel and senseless blows .Seeing her finally lose everything she loved most e.g. her marriage,her farm,her kikuyu,her health,her life in Africa and her lover so that in no uncertain terms Karens Arican adventure simply had to be over at that point .

As events were to unfold however it was not the end of her life but rather just the closing of a chapter as i was eventually relieved and gratified to discover .I didn’t know this though up until recently .I knew that Karen had returned home to Denmark under very sad circumstances and clearly must have gone on to write ‘Out Of Africa’ from which Sydney Pollack’s wonderful movie was made but my impressions of her were shrouded in sadness and regret for what I felt at the time was the unjustness and unkindness of her fate .

However recently Janine Bourkes wonderful book ‘Source’ seemed to fall off the shelves in a public library recently and open itself just at the chapter devoted to Karen Blixen’s story and I was able to read with surprise and delight that Karen did not tragically fall on the sword of her losses and failures in Africa dying in misery and obscurity but rather under the protective patronage of her mother back in Denmark in the cloistered bosom of the family home Karen had once fled to Africa to get away from now under different circumstances Karen found rest and sanctuary .As she recovered her health she rose like phoenix from the ashes to go onto become one of Denmark and the world’s best loved and most celebrated writers .

While circumstance now curtailed her adventurous spirit from physically returning to Africa or jettisoning off to the new frontiers as she might have been characteristically wont to do ,the the sanctuary of her childhood home afforded her a peace and stability which enabled her imagination to travel and soar as she used her African experiences as grist to the mill to weave the most wonderful tales of which she published a number of volumes .Apart from the autobiographical ‘Out of Africa and Leaves Amongst The Grass ’she wrote as well as numerous books of short stories including Taels of destiny which includes the wonderful story Babettes Feast also made into a fine movie .Dinesen also wrote ’ Winters tales’ “7 Gothic tales “ and the Angelic Avengers amongst other stories .
Bourke remarks on Karen’s love of the sensual and the perverse and fantastical,themystical and the magical …as reflected in her writing She is a consummate storyteller with that same intelligent penetrative wisdom which sees beyond apparencies and appreciates the extraordinary paradoxes which underlie life at its deeper levels .Writing under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen Karen Blixen became famous and was celebrated as an author both in her native Denmark and abroad especially in America where she was feted and kept illustrious company with writers like Truman Capote ,Ernest Hemingway ,and John Steinback.

More than her fame as a writer though which is well deserved is her radiant and compelling larger than life story as told in the biographical ’ Out of Africa ‘ that inspired Sydney Pollack to make the most wonderful movie and through both the book and the movie Blixen and Pollack have gone on to inspire and delight and inform generations of readers from across the world .

Karen was undoubtedly a feminist ,a feisty spirit , a woman ahead of her time who threw off the mantle of cloistered bourgeois spinsterhood that might have been her lot to set off on an audacious adventure marrying the brother of the man who jilted her and thereby acquiring a title as a Baroness to farm coffee in the highlands of Kenya .While her life was buffeted and shaped by the men in her life Karen nonetheless stood her ground and went on to live a rich and deeply authentic life in Africa ,

She singlehanded ran the plantation managing 100s of male workers and formed lasting and meaningful friendships inspiring deep devotion from both whites and blacks and from her African male housestaff in particular. She was deeply interested in the variety of different African tribes and cultures languages and customs with whom life brought her into contact and concerned for the welfare of the Kikuyu people on her farm for whom she built a school and attended to their medical needs and saw to it that when she had to leave Kenya the Kikuyu were provided by Nairobi officicials with a reserve on which to live …

Her writings resonate with a deep deep love and appreciation for the African landscape and its poeple flora and fauna.Karen Blixen as Isak Dinsenen sheds her own gentle wry penetrative and radiant light on to the dark continent for her readers and her writing has built a bridge of cultural understanding between European and African cultures so that through her and because of her we know and understand and appreciate Africa so much better .
I’m sure the lady in crescent moon lying on her back in the Kenyan night skies which Karen writes about nostalgically and longingly in out of Africa looked lovingly and approvingly down on Karen through all her trials and challenges and knew as we the readers know that Kenya was graced and blessed to have such a remarkable woman and special soul walk upon African soil and take it to her heart as she did..

Wendy Buss

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