Saturday, July 16, 2016

Life, Infinitely Rich and Beautiful

I think that these 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.

- Karen Blixen, letter to her brother, April 1931

Just about now, a Blixen moment courtesy of dear Mr. Beaton is about all I can manage, my loves.  It's been that kind of week, hasn't it?

The quote above is often bruited about without much context, but seen in its own place, in the remarkable letter that Blixen wrote to her brother back at home in Denmark just as she was about to take the crushing step of leaving her home in Kenya, it becomes even more striking.  Taken together with the passage that follows, her words define her world view and set the stage for the rest of what became her momentous and unexpected life as a writer, sibyl, and sage (not to mention jet-set intellectual party girl):

The wider one can manage to get one’s overall view of life to become, —and that is about the most vital thing to aim for in life, —the more one comes to see the magnificence and multitudinous facets of existence. But this also involves a real and true freedom from prejudice, so that one does not at the same time try to go on maintaining that this or that is of immense importance, for it is not.

She's laying out for her family the terms on which she'll consider their longstanding suggestion (amounting, as bankruptcy approached, to an edict) that she give up her dream - her farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills - and come home. And what she's saying, basically, is that it's my way or no way: liberty or death. Yes, she'll return to Denmark, but only if it's clear that she's no longer just a prodigal daughter, but her own person:

You know me so well that I don’t need to tell you that I am not cheap. There are so many things that I can do without perfectly well; I can live on bread and water quite easily, but that doesn’t alter the fact. I think we must get this quite clear because it would be terribly upsetting if there should be misunderstandings later on. I can’t live without fun in life; fun is what I am in need of even now.

Even as she was about to lose everything she cherished - along with the last of her own cash and a fair amount of her family's - she was setting her own terms, and those terms include not just a living, but life: fun.  Given her circumstances - beyond dire - it is if nothing else an astonishing feat of sheer nerve. Fun, to Blixen, was was something rather more serious than just a good time; it was to a very great extent the heart of a life worth living. What she meant was diversion of a deeper kind. What was the point of returning to Europe, to the long and unrelieved darkness of the Danish winters, if it wasn't going to include "the magnificence and multitudinous facts of existence": the opera, ballet, theatre, music, even (despite her protestations) something beyond just bread and water (she was, after all, notably fond of both oysters and Champagne, neither of which I suspect came especially cheap, even in Copenhagen in 1931)?

In the end, of course, she got all of that and more: worldwide fame and little extras such as portraits by Beaton.  He captures her relatively early on in her celebrity years, not yet the otherwordly, attentuated Pierrot of her old age, but already armed invincibly in the air of bemused, birdlike observation that became her trademark.

So even in these difficult times, when new atrocities and anxieties seem to come at us from every angle, it becomes ever more important not to lose sight of the vital things to aim for in life: a real and true freedom from prejudice, and a healthy respect for fun, in its most fundamental and rewarding forms.

So fun is what we're after hereabouts, if mostly of a quiet and undemanding nature. The Mister is home safely from his travels, delivered on time and in good form by Lufthansa (having very nearly altered his booking at the last moment earlier this week, as Turkish Airlines had a tempting special; thank goodness he didn't get stuck yesterday in Istanbul!). The dogs, of course, are in transports, but if they let us we'll spend a fair amount of time by the pool, down among The Widows bobbing in the deep end and perhaps seeking out a little spell of sociability with the The Retired Bikers on Sunday evening. Perhaps we'll even venture out and see a silly summer picture at the cinema. It's not much, but it should help keep our minds off "worrying about things that are of no importance whatsoever," of which it really does seem that there are far too many just about now...


  1. Fun indeed.
    life is so short, I'm reminded every day.
    We're all reminded of it, I should say.

  2. She also said: “You know you are truly alive when you're living among lions.” Not sure if The Widows or The Retired Bikers count as such? Jx

    1. I wonder if she would have accepted the substitution of terriers for lions? As for the Widows, well, they certainly can be fierce...

  3. Thank you for this, only the latest, lovely thought. x