Born: April 17, 1885
Died: September 7, 1962
Karen Blixen, known under the pen-name Isak Dinesen and in Africa as Tania, was born in Denmark to a well-off Unitarian family. Her passionate author/adventurer father committed suicide when she was a girl, possibly after discovering he had syphillis. Rejecting her mother's more conventional outlook on life, Dinesen early on sought the estatic in life. She attended the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, and studied in four European countries before marrying her cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, in 1914. The two ran a coffee plantation in Kenya until they divorced in 1921, and Dinesen ran the plantation herself until 1931, when she returned to Denmark. Her African adventures are recounted in her book, Out of Africa (1937), the subject of a 1985 film of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton, with whom Dinesen had an affair. (Streep, by the way, passed a joint around a car with Kurt Russell and Cher in Silkwood (1983), and she sniffed a plant hallucinogen in Adaptation (2002).
Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales published in January, 1934, was an immediate critical and commercial success in the U.S. It was chosen by the Book-of-the Month Club as its February selection, with a print run a 50,000 copies. Anecdotes of Destiny includes "Babette's Feast," originally written for a magazine, which also became the basis of a movie. Dinesen wrote in English, then translated her writings back into Danish, and she was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. "I suddenly understood everything" was a phrase Dinesen used "almost liturgically" in her writing. "It stands for the recognition of a great mystery about oneself, long buried and suddenly come upon again by surprise. It describes a moment whe it is possible to see the obscure but decisive moments of joy or loss that are the scaffolding of identity."
According to Isak Dinesen, The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman, Dinesen and Finch Hatton were great fans of Baudelaire, and "Friends remember that Denys and Tania liked to experiment with the sensations hashish, opium, or miraa could give them. Denys arranged the cushions on the floor before the fire and reclined there, playing his guitar. Tania sat 'cross-legged like Scheherazade herself' and told him stories." Miraa is kava, an indigenous African herb that has a mild hallucinogenic effect. Dinesen refers to it in her story "The Dreamers" by its other name, murungu, an herb whose dried leaves "keep you awake and in a pleasant mood" (Seven Gothic Tales, p. 272). The name Mira Jama itself seems to be a play on the word miraa. Lincoln Forsner, the other storyteller in the tale, also has the name of an intoxicant; the Africans call him Tembu, which is the Swahili word for alcohol.
In 1935 Dinesen tried to get work as a war correspondent in Africa and traveled to Geneva to the League of Nations that was meeting to condemn Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Dinesen "wept over every . . . mile of lost [Ethiopian] ground." During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, an underground network was formed that smuggled 7,200 Danish Jews by boat to Sweden. Dinesen let friends in the Resistance have keys to her kitchen, and "There were Jews in the kitchen and Nazis in the garden," she told her biographer. At night she went to bed in her clothes and when the Germans arrived to inspect the house she held them at the door, "assailing them with sarcasm and rude taunts." Though some German soldiers let the Jews escape, the German army retaliated by burning the Tivoli Gardens, murdering writer Kaj Munk, and organizing "bands of criminals to commit acts of terrorrape, assault, and the random murder of passersbyin Copenhagen."
Coming to New York shortly before she died, Dinesen was feted by the likes of Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe and Carson McCullers and took amphetamines to energize herself. Suffering from the effects of syphillis, she wore kohl under her eyes and belladonna in them to make them shine. Thurman writes, "In August, 1961, Aldous Huxley visited Dinesen in Denmark, accompanied by Timothy Leary, who was still teaching at Harvard and had come to attend a conference. Dinesen had met Huxley in the 1930s, and told him then that his novels were among those which had meant the most to her in Africa. The two men discussed their experiments with mind-altering drugs, speaking with great enthusiasm; and Huxley, whose eyesight was failing, described the joy that the visions brought him. Dinesen had herself chewed miraa in Africa with Denys and had enjoyed its mild hallucinogenic effect. . . . Now she listened to them with interest and accepted a rose Leary had been given at a seance and which he said 'came from the world of the spirits.'" But she reportedly declined their invitation to try peyote on the grounds "that she was willed with enough fantasies. . . without any external stimulus."
Dinesen wrote to her mother from Africa in 1924, "The greater part of humanity needs excitement, some slight intoxication, pleasure, and danger too. I think that if it were in my power to do anything at all for humanity, I myself would like to amuse them. I think it is wonderful that such delightful peacable people as you exist; but there is need for more than this, and I shall allow myself to make use of Shakespeare's words: 'Dost thou think, because thou are virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? Yes, by St. Anne, and ginger shall be hot I' the mouth too."
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