- Isak Dinesen Reading Søren Kierkegaard: On Christianity, Seduction, Gender, and Repetition by Mads Bunch
It is well known and well documented that Isak Dinesen (1885–1962), known as Karen Blixen in Denmark, was in continual conversation with other literature and that some of her stories were constructed as "counter-narratives" to texts that inspired or—as was more often the case—provoked her. Her texts are replete with an almost provocative amount of intertextuality, explicit or implicit references to a large number of other texts, and her dialogue with these other works is rarely "polite" or reverent. She is more interested in parody, mimicry, subversion, and irony than in admiration and reproduction. [End Page 145] In 1990, feminist scholar Susan Hardy Aiken published a groundbreaking, poststructuralist study Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative (University of Chicago Press), in which she suggests that many of Dinesen's tales can be read as subtle and sophisticated re-readings and rewritings of major patriarchal "master" texts, with the Bible as a starting point. Under her English half-pseudonymous nom de plume "Isak Dinesen," Blixen masquerades as a male writer using her father's name, thus enacting her subversive technique, according to Aiken (xix): "Yet as a public fiction of masculine authority, the counterfeit designation of a putative 'father' for literary off-spring that were in fact fatherless, such a name by its very misnaming hints at an illegitimacy, a duplicity in both senses, within the texts."
In 1986, German Dinesen scholar Bernhard Glienke meticulously gathered a Referenzinventar (inventory of references) of all references in Dinesen's work. Danish Dinesen scholar Mads Bunch refers to this as a useful tool but is also critical:
This gives us a good idea of the huge role that other literature plays in Dinesen's work but for the most part Glienke is not able to coherently analyze how Dinesen in her narratives, through these allusions, inverts characters and plots from the works she alludes to, which means that the potential the allusions have, as keys to understanding Dinesen's works in relation to her literary precursors, is not fully developed.(p. 1)
Bunch's comparative study focuses on a narrow aspect of Dinesen's literary dialogue: her reading of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. His book, an extended and rewritten version of three published studies on the theme, focuses on Dinesen's letters and the tales "Carnival," "The Dreamers," "The Poet," "The Pearls," "Babette's Feast," and—last but not least—"Ehrengard," the posthumous tale that most explicitly rewrites Kierkegaard, in this case, his "Seducer's Diary." Bunch is able to document that Kierkegaard was a writer and thinker who influenced Dinesen all of her life from her earliest marionette comedy Sandhedens Hævn (The Revenge of the Truth) to her last piece. The book meticulously studies how, why, and when Dinesen may have read the Danish philosopher and, also, what introductions she may have used, particularly studies by literary critic Georg Brandes and philosopher Harald Høffding. This ostensible biographical-archival recovery accounts for Bunch's most valuable contribution to Dinesen scholarship.
Bunch is a careful scholar who does not push his argument. Thus he repeatedly qualifies his assertions with such phrases as "may derive" (p. 50), "seem to be" (p. 61), "it also seems no coincidence" (p. 55), and "Dinesen could also have gotten the idea" (p. 51). Despite this cautionary [End Page 146] language, Bunch offers little concrete proof of Dinesen's engagement with Kierkegaard. In consequence, the main part of his argument is built on (careful) conjecture. For this reason, I find Bunch's comparative investigation to be methodologically thin and unconvincing.
Bunch endeavors to use his philological and biographical evidence, such as it is, to re-read and re-interpret a number of Dinesen texts. The result, again, is equally thin. He reads the famous tale of "Babette's Feast" as a reversal of Kierkegaard's hierarchies, where Dinesen puts the aesthetic above the ethical and the religious, thus replacing "God" with the Artist, Art...