Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Isak Dinesen and Catholicism

Isak Dinesen, otherwise known as Baroness Blixen, is an author's author. Her style is inimitable, carefully crafted yet flowing effortlessly; easy to read but latent with mystery. Her difficult private life, not always edifying but endlessly tragic, only fueled the beauty of her words. Her stories express sorrow without being morbid or depressing. She was born into a Danish Unitarian family and married her horrid cousin. While living in Nairobi she was drawn to the local Catholic mission and went to Mass there every Sunday. In Out of Africa, she describes the Fathers as her "best friends." I do not know if she ever formally converted.

In Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen describes the time she took some Moslem girls with her to Mass:

At the French Mission there is a life-size statue of the Virgin, all in white and light blue, with a lily in her hand, and beside her another of Saint Joseph with the infant on his arm. The girls were struck dumb in front of them, the beauty of the Virgin made them sigh. Of Saint Joseph they knew already, and they already thought highly of him, for being such a loyal husband and protector to the Virgin, now they gave him deep thankful glances because he carried the child for his wife as well. (Out of Africa, Modern Library Edition, 1992, p 193)
Dinesen speaks of the mystery of Transubstantiation, and how it was an easy concept for her native African friends to grasp, since they were so in tune with the mysteries of the universe at large. She writes:

We of the present day, who love our machines, cannot quite imagine how people of the old days could live without them. But we could not make the Athanasian Creed, or the technique of the Mass, or of a five-act tragedy, or perhaps not even of a sonnet....There was a time when the hearts of humanity cried out for these things, and when a deeply felt want was relieved when they were made....The minds of the young Kikuyu may now be walking on the shadowy paths of our own ancestors, whom we should not disown in their eyes, who held their ideas about the Transubstantiation very dear. Those people of five hundred years ago, were in their day offered higher wages, and promotion, and easier terms of life, even sometimes their very lives, and to everything they preferred their conviction about the Transubstantiation. (Ibid. pp.302-303)
Dinesen was a master story-teller, able to pull the reader into her world and thoughts, with power and reticence. She is one of my favorite writers. Share


Anonymous said...

I know she loved the kikuyu people because of the purity of their convictions.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, she loved them.

Alexandra said...

On of my favorite authors too! What an interesting person she was, and so authentic and full of integrity. Beautiful inside and out. What a full life she had.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, very full indeed. Her short stories are so beautiful and usually quite profound.