Isak Dinesen: The Dreamers

Dinesen was Danish, moved to Africa for a spell, and, under a pseudonym, wrote fiction in English that evokes German Romanticism more than any English precedent. Dinesen admitted the willfully anachronistic quality of her writing, and yet it is still surprising just how greatly her work involves characters who are pretending to an ideal, and how they strive after a Romantic ideal analogously to how Dinesen pursues the Romantic and gothic qualities in writing.

The two greatest stories in Seven Gothic Tales are the two longest: The Deluge at Norderney and The Dreamers. Both involve people telling tales of themselves and others in nested layers, a la Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Both feature characters who, through an act of pretending, become greater than they otherwise would be, though this pretending ultimately kills them as well. Both subordinate the idea of a healthy and loving relationship to one containing moments of absolute intensity.

The Dreamers is the more interesting, though, because of the self-consciousness of the characters and of the author in writing it. It is about a beloved opera singer, Pellegrina, capable of transfixing audiences and earning their devotion and adulation, which she relishes. After a fire in the theater, she loses her voice, and, devastated by the loss of her ability to compel attention from others, she vows:

I will not be one person again, Marcus, I will be always many persons from now. Never again will I have my heart and my whole life bound up with one woman, to suffer so much. It is terrible to me to think of it even. That, you see, I have done long enough. I cannot be asked to do it any more. It is all over.

And so, it is revealed at this point, it turns out that Pellegrina is all three of the women in the earlier tales told by the three men in the story, each of whom was enraptured by a woman who then disappeared at the moment of their greatest passion. The stories are quite diverse, the positions of the women completely different, but the course of the love affairs is the same.

In the absence of her ability to compel people wholly through art, Pellegrina chooses to do so by acting. The situations that each of the men describe are intense, melodramatic, and even contrived. Pellegrina has orchestrated these scenarios so that she can bring about passions at the level of those of her past audiences. But the difficulties of life mean that she works on one man at a time, and because she is acting, the situation is always asymmetric. He feels love; she feels the devotion that she previously felt onstage. And because it is a pretense on her part, she must flee the scene before too long, or else the entire purpose of the pretense would disappear as reality bled through.

So there is a peculiar relationship portrayed between art and life here. The ultimate mode of passion is not between lovers, but between spectator and performer. The Romantic ideal of intensity is possible only in a contrived setting, be it explicitly artistic or merely socially engineered. This ideal doesn’t just emerge out of the pretense of Pellegrina; it requires it. Being an actual person, an ordinary human being, negates the intensity of the Romantic experience. And such intensity is only possible for a limited time while there is a performance. It is these moments that provide satisfaction of the ideal, while returning to ordinary life is disappointing but for the memories of those moments.

I think that this fits exactly with why Dinesen wrote in tribute to and in imitation of forms that were long past: it is her form of pretending, without any prejudice associated with the word. In life, as with Pellegrina’s men, it’s necessary not to know that there is a pretense, but in art the spectator can experience transcendence with full knowledge of the pretense of the artist.

3 thoughts on “Isak Dinesen: The Dreamers

  1. “ it is her form of pretending, without any prejudice associated with the word. In life, as with Pellegrina’s men, it’s necessary not to know that there is a pretense, but in art the spectator can experience transcendence with full knowledge of the pretense of the artist.
    “ yes… we cannot dismiss the subversive in the superficially convential… no more need be said

  2. Really? You don’t think The Roads Round Pisa rates a mention? That one was always my favorite from that collection, with Deluge running second. Never could get The Monkey, though. But the novella Ehrengard is, I think, her clearest artistic statement.

  3. I don’t have it in front of me, but I remember The Monkey as being something like a macabre version of James’ Portrait of a Lady. The older woman works to destroy the younger woman’s freedom for almost no reason at all—which is to say that female freedom is intolerable to the older woman.

    This snicks into what I would add about the notion of Dinesen writing in the Romantic tradition. The Romantics, again and again, got women very wrong, and you can hear in Dinesen a particular kind of feminine voice speaking with absolute authority and setting matters straight. (Bronte in Wuthering Heights had a similar project, but her voice is less declarative, more ironic.) The poisonous relations between women on display in The Monkey would never have been the subject, successfully, of a Romantic text. It may be classicism, but she takes her form forward.

    Apropos of nothing, The Deluge is among the most exciting, surprising stories I have ever read. “Tale” is a perfect description of what Dinesen wrote.

Leave a Reply