Out of Africa | Critical Essay by John Burt Foster, Jr.

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Out of Africa.
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Critical Essay by John Burt Foster, Jr.

SOURCE: "Cultural Multiplicity in Two Modern Autobiographies: Friedländer's When Memory Comes and Dinesen's Out of Africa," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 205-18.

In the following excerpt from an essay in which he discusses both Out of Africa and Saul Friedänder's memoir of the Holocaust, When Memory Comes (1978), Foster examines the ways in which Dinesen's autobiographical persona represents an amalgamation of the cultures she experienced: her native Danish culture, the British colonial culture in East Africa, and the native African cultures.

The phrase "cultural multiplicity" in my title is a deliberate variation on "multiculturalism," whose core meaning raises issues of curricular choice, educational philosophy, and public policy. "Cultural multiplicity," by contrast and for the purpose of this essay, refers to a more intimately personal cultural site: to the conflicts, the feelings of tension, the revelations of affinity, or the sense of triumph that can come from living among several cultural traditions and to some degree internalizing their diversity. Though this condition of multiplicity is not limited to border regions, states of exile, or diasporas, it is obviously one that has flourished at such points of cross-cultural contact. But multiplicity, I should stress, can only arise when more than two cultures meet at once, so that binary strategies of either polarization or synthesis must yield to more complex processes of negotiation, shifting alliances, and interplay.

Autobiography, and especially modern autobiography, provides fertile ground for exploring the varying ways people experience cultural multiplicity. As we all know, the twentieth century has witnessed a vast number of cultural migrations and displacements. The life story of someone who has undergone such large-scale change, even if seen as just the retrospective account of a personality formed by several cultures, can already reveal a great deal about multiplicity. But such an autobiography should not be read merely for the author's explicit thesis or conclusions. In particular, the writer's delight in transcribing certain memories can lead to a saturation effect, to an excess of detail about the past that can ultimately convey more than the author is willing to state outright.

At the same time, moreover, no autobiography concerns itself solely with the past events that are its ostensible subject matter. Unlike other forms of life-writing, such as letters or a diary, an autobiography has been composed at a certain temporal remove from the events it records, so that the author's present self can deeply influence such elements of the narrative as point of view, choice of events, and style. Some theorists of autobiography even hold that in the last analysis the genre deals with the authorial present more than the remembered past. As a result the texture of the writing can act as a gauge of the author's current state of multiplicity, at least to the extent that one's cultural identity is registered in words, as opposed to gestures, clothing, eating habits, and the like. Readers of autobiography thus gain access to a realm suspended between the written past and the writing present, a realm that ambiguously interweaves the story of an experience that the author views as formative with a provisional settling of accounts at the time of writing.

For an example of how saturation and temporal ambiguity can combine to reveal cultural multiplicity, let me turn to Vladimir Nabokov, whose work first alerted me to these issues and thus helped guide my approach to the two books I shall be discussing in this essay, Saul Friedländer's When Memory Comes and Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa. At one point in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Nabokov recalls the bedtime ritual of his pre-World War I Russian boyhood, which in his multilingual family culminated with prayers recited not in Russian but in English. Then, as the remembered scene sharpens in the telling, and thus becomes "saturated," some pictures come to mind. Nabokov recalls an icon above his bed, then the nearby water-color of an "eerily dense European beechwood." This memory, in turn, reminds him of the English fairy tale of a boy who actually entered such a picture, and Nabokov rounds off the scene by stating that in time he too visited that enchanted beechwood.

In cultural terms, what is most striking about this passage is the infusion of English elements into a Russian childhood. Beyond this documentary element, Nabokov has located a retrospective basis for his switch in the late thirties from writing in Russian to writing in English, as shown by the very fact that a decade later he composed most of Speak, Memory in English. Yet the detail of the European beechwood lingers as a mysterious third term. As the book develops, aspects of this motif will reappear to complicate the Anglo-Russian dualism in several ways. As a beechwood in Vermont, it calls attention to Nabokov's glide from a British to an American sense of English, while as an explicitly European setting it foreshadows his exile in Germany and France in the twenties and thirties. As a visual artifact, finally (and here we should note that in Russian the words for icon and image are the same), it implies that European as well as Russian models have guided Nabokov's interest in image-making throughout his literary career.

The dense textuality of this passage thus conveys both the cultural multiplicity of a certain childhood moment and the even more complex outcome known to the author as he writes. Nabokov's basic attitude in reviewing his life story deserves attention as well. It is emphatically triumphant, with the mature writer now realizing that he has indeed earned the fairy-tale privilege of entering an enchanted picture—one that permits unexpected new developments and rich juxtapositions in the cultural realm. As we turn to Friedländer's and Dinesen's autobiographies, we shall encounter similar experiences of cultural multiplicity, which nonetheless contrast with Nabokov's in two key respects. First, Friedländer's dramatic religious odyssey and Dinesen's two decades among the peoples of East Africa involve more drastic cultural challenges than even Nabokov's passage from Russia through western Europe into the English-speaking world. And second, although Nabokov's cultural multiplicity depends upon his being a refugee from Lenin and then Hitler, When Memory Comes and Out of Africa both grow out of and bear more immediate witness to even harsher historical conflicts—to the Jewish Holocaust and to African colonialism. Still, both books address the reader in ways that recall a major border-crossing built into the very words on the page of Speak, Memory. Neither the original French of Friedländer's autobiography nor the English that Dinesen used to compose one version of hers is the language spoken at the time of writing by those authors in their intimate, everyday lives….

Cross-cultural interaction [leads to] complex negotiations in Dinesen, but let me begin by acknowledging a certain falsity to her position in East Africa, where the British colonial regime was then seeking to create an area of exclusive European settlement in the Kenyan highlands. Thus the unintended irony of an ad recently cited in Public Culture, under the heading "Out of Africa 1906": "Between the years 1906 and 1939, a trickle, then a light rainfall, then a downpour of Englishmen, Germans, Scots, and some remarkable women began to fall upon the immense gorgeous plateau of East Africa" [Public Culture, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1993]. Such prose raises troubling questions about the popular reception of Dinesen's book, or at least about the movie that borrowed its title. But if the ad undercuts the justification of Dinesen's very presence in Africa as well as some of her romantic attitudes about the landscape, her life story also includes situations whose rich cultural multiplicity points in a very different direction.

In fact, if we bracket the overarching colonial dichotomy which (as her autobiography makes clear) Dinesen herself learned to question, the multiplicity in Out of Africa surpasses even the triadic patterns in Speak, Memory and When Memory Comes. Thus in one key passage Dinesen reviews the great variety of cultures that mingled in East Africa in the 1920s, then concludes that "[a]s far as receptivity of ideas goes, the Native is more a man of the world than the suburban or provincial settler or missionary, who has grown up in a uniform community and with a set of stable ideas". The third of her book's five units, called "Visitors to the Farm," clearly identifies with this East African responsiveness to diversity, for she arranges her experiences in a broad panorama that includes the Kikuyu, the Masai, Asian Indians, Somalis, Scandinavians, and British, to name only the leading groups. And if the progression among these peoples seems to replicate the colonial hierarchy, it should be noted that when this unit closes by evoking the thrill of flying in the early days of aircraft, it circles back to an old Kikuyu, whose skepticism about the enterprise gets the last word.

Perhaps because Dinesen wrote this autobiography some years after the failure of her coffee farm in 1931 forced her back to Denmark, she can imagine herself as "out of Africa" in a sense quite different from that title's main implication of a direct, documentary account. Thus she knows that alongside the colonial order, and never totally displaced by it, there exist the cultural orders of the East African tribes, who have other interpretations for her presence in Kenya. In the unit called "A Shooting Accident on the Farm," in which the Kikuyu request her help in an inquiry into damages, she realizes that she also functions as part of their cultural system, in a process she calls "brass-serpenting." "They can turn you into a symbol," she remarks, then concludes, "in spite of all our activities in the land, of the scientific and mechanical progress there, and of Pax Britannica itself, this is the only practical use that the Natives have ever had of us." As this episode continues, however, Dinesen discovers that beyond accepting this passive role in the Kikuyu system of justice, she cannot help taking a more active part as well. Thus a key insight about the dispute flashes on her in Swaheli, and she takes steps which help settle the case. In a book the very existence of which depends upon the author's bilingualism in Danish and English, this further crossing of linguistic boundaries must be seen as a key token of cultural multiplicity.

One might be tempted to simplify Dinesen's East Africa by speaking of three main groups—the Europeans, the Muslims, and the local Africans. Certainly the community which forms on her coffee farm suggests as much, since it consists of Dinesen's British and Scandinavian friends, of her major-domo Farah and his Somali relatives, and of the so-called Kikuyu "squatters," led by their chief Kinanjui. But such a scheme overlooks both some gaps in Dinesen's coverage and the strong tensions within two of these groups. Regarding the gaps, though she clearly knew Arab, Indian, and local African Muslims, she gives far more attention to the Somalis, an interest which might repay closer study than is possible here. Such a discussion would have to consider the chapter on Farah in Shadows on the Grass (1960), a second African memoir written more than twenty years later.

My purpose, however, is to consider tensions within the European and African groups. The bearing of these tensions on cultural multiplicity can be hard to see, given Dinesen's reticence about herself in Out of Africa, which is emphatically not an autobiography in the confessional mode. Thus, though she does show conflicts among different groups, she does not explain their personal relevance, except through saturated details whose connection with her personal life remains deeply encoded. This relative silence follows the narrative logic suggested by her portrait of old Knudsen, a fellow Dane who normally told grand stories about himself in the third person, but who only admitted "I am very sick" on the single occasion that he spoke in the first person. As a result, though Out of Africa describes the multicultural variety of East Africa with much zest, it obscures how Dinesen identifies with or negotiates among these traditions while coping with personal experiences of isolation, illness, and distress. The route to interpreting her cultural multiplicity, though finally rewarding, is thus a tortuous one.

Dinesen alludes to her problems as a Scandinavian in a British colony at the very end of her narrative. The occasion is the day when everyone in Nairobi avoided her because her lover Denys Finch-Hatton had just died in a plane crash, and she was the only person who did not know. Dinesen gets a nightmarish feeling that "I myself was somehow on the wrong side, and therefore was regarded with distrust and fear by everyone." She explains that this mood recalled her experiences some twenty years before, at the start of World War I, when she was mistakenly considered pro-German.

What she does not say is that her later feeling of separation probably included separation from Denys himself. Her book has already indicated that when visiting her farm he liked to hear her retell the stories she was then writing, thus he acquired a certain responsibility for Dinesen's crucial transition from writing in Danish to writing in English. But subsequently, when her money problems had decisively worsened, he recited a poem that shows his unwillingness to get too closely involved: "You must turn your mournful ditty / To a merry measure, / I will never come for pity, / I will come for pleasure." This is the most explicit trace in the book of what Dinesen's biographer Judith Thurman says probably happened, that Dinesen and Finch-Hatton had ended their affair just before his death [see Thurman, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, 1982]. But rather than giving a direct account of their relationship, Out of Africa acts this story out on a literary plane: Denys' gift of English in the storytelling sessions ironically turns into the medium for a warning to "come no closer." This revelation of aloofness is then mirrored in the British who avoid Dinesen in Nairobi after her lover's death just as they shunned her in World War I.

A pointed answer to Denys' poem of disengagement appears in a final scene from Out of Africa, where Dinesen "cites back" at the British. Her farm has gone bankrupt and she must sell; but then she discovers that the Kikuyu squatters have no legal rights to the land. Not only will they lose their homes, but they will be resettled piecemeal, with no regard for their standing as a community. When she pleads for some compromise (which comes at the last minute, but only as an unprecedented exception to colonial policy), she thinks of Shakespeare. "You can class people according to how they may be imagined behaving to King Lear," she reflects, and, to the officials who cannot understand why the community should be preserved, she inwardly protests, "Oh reason not the need." Yet unlike Lear with his daughters, she suddenly realizes, "the African Native has not handed over his country to the white man in a magnificent gesture." Only when she has lost her own land, and with the added irony that it is the very land she is now disputing on behalf of the Africans, does Dinesen reconsider a vaunted achievement of the English, so that instead of offering an alibi for the civilizing mission of colonialism, she attacks the whole enterprise.

A Scandinavian counterweight to Dinesen's disillusionment with the British appears in the chapter describing the Swede Emmanuelson in "Visitors to the Farm." Dinesen overcomes her dislike for this former waiter at a Nairobi hotel when she learns that he was once a tragic actor and that he plans to walk to Tanganyika, a week-long journey through the harsh lands of the Masai. His passionate love of tragic drama implicitly sets him apart from the emotionally neutral British, and she also admires his affinity with the Masai, with whom he can communicate only by pantomime but who, it turns out, still show him "great kindness and hospitality." In fact, Emmanuelson clearly functions as an alter ego for Dinesen, not just because his isolation amidst a group of Africans echoes her isolation in World War I, but also because one of his favorite tragic texts is Ibsen's Ghosts. This saturated detail looks ahead to Dinesen's situation while writing Out of Africa, when she learned that the syphilis she had contracted from her womanizing husband had not, as she had once thought, been cured, but had become her fate, thus mirroring Ibsen's Osvald Alving, who similarly returned to Scandinavia after a long period abroad.

Dinesen does not write of her illness or of her husband in Out of Africa, but traces of this painful experience do mark her treatment of the two African tribes she knew best. In general she draws distinct contrasts—the proud Masai warriors versus the humbler Kikuyu agriculturalists, the slave takers versus the victims in the Arab slave trade. But despite strong tensions between the tribes in the past, the Masai have begun to intermarry with the Kikuyu, since, as Dinesen puts it, "the Masai women have no children and the prolific young Kikuyu girls are in demand." It is here that Dinesen's personal situation comes closest to the surface. For, as Thurman tells us, the Masai were infertile due to widespread syphilis, and it was from a Masai woman that Dinesen's husband probably got the disease that he then passed on to her. This history, I think, underlies and helps explain the evolution of Dinesen's sympathies for the local Africans, from a rather facile admiration for Masai warriors to a deeper identification with old Kikuyu women.

On the one hand, the young Dinesen was greatly taken with her Swedish husband's noble title. Though he is banished from her book, she nonetheless calls herself "Baroness Blixen" in a key passage, and once even indicated in a letter to her brother that the title was worth a case of syphilis. In her identification with the Africans, she sees this aristocratic mystique embodied in the Masai men. Their "rigid, passive, and insolent bearing" gives them the look of "creatures trained through hard discipline to the height of rapaciousness, greed, and gluttony," and, in a less lurid passage, their sense of freedom is said to be so strong that they cannot survive three months in prison.

However, the older Dinesen, who has lost her land and writes with the knowledge that she suffers from an incurable case of spinal syphilis, prefers to identify with the old Kikuyu women. Early in Out of Africa she pays tribute to these women, "who have mixed blood with Fate, and recognize her irony, wherever they meet it, with sympathy, as if it were that of a sister." Read hastily in the context of Dinesen's status as mistress of a coffee plantation, these words may seem condescending; what gives them a deeper resonance is the temporal ambiguity implied by the image of "mixing blood with Fate," which surely reflects the author's awareness of her illness as she wrote the autobiography in Denmark.

Somewhat later in the book, in a naming scene that contrasts "Baroness Blixen" with another, quite different Dinesen persona, the old women call her "Jambo Jerie." But this phrase, once spoken, will remain an enigma until much later: writing of her departure from Africa, Dinesen explains that "whenever a girl is born to a Kikuyu family a long time after her brothers and sisters, she is named Jerie." Dinesen clearly prizes this acknowledgment of honorary kinship from her elders. Not only did it give her the strength to face the distress of involuntary displacement—one of her last African memories is of an old Kikuyu woman carrying part of her dismantled house on her back—but even now, as she writes, it steels her against the arrival of old age. Her tribute is too long to quote in full, but here are some key phrases: "The old Kikuyu women have had a hard life, and have themselves become flint-hard … they were afraid of nothing. They carried loads … of three hundred pounds …, they worked in the hard ground … from the early morning til late in the evening…. And they had a stock of energy in them still; they radiated vitality…. This strength … to me seemed … glorious and bewitching." In a set of cross-cultural exchanges that began when her husband consorted with a Masai woman, Dinesen's narrative suppresses this all-too painful personal event only to highlight another symptom of the same situation, the syphilis-enforced intermarriages between the Masai and the Kikuyu. Identifying with both tribes, she thrills at first to the aristocratic warrior ethic of the Masai but settles in the end for the toughness of her self-described sisters, the old Kikuyu women.

Thus in Out of Africa, for all its studied reticence, as well as in the more directly confessional When Memory Comes, the upheavals of twentieth-century history thrust the autobiographer into situations where it becomes possible to take part in three or more cultures. Saul Friedländer as boy and youth experienced central-European secular, French Catholic, and Israeli Jewish cultures; Isak Dinesen as an adult woman experienced Scandinavian, British, and East African cultures, with East Africa opening up to reveal both the Kikuyu and the Masai. In each case, as the autobiography develops, the author comes to occupy a complex multicultural site where the binary logic of simple biculturalism no longer applies, where even the two-dimensional concept of boundary lines may appear inadequate.

Instead, as the autobiographical persona passes through these worlds, the multicultural vision of external diversity turns inward, leading to what I call cultural multiplicity. In the intimacy of such questions as "Who do I admire?" or "What do I believe?" or "Where do I belong?"—questions which, amid the flux of experience, challenge and sometimes alter or widen one's deepest cultural affiliations—the autobiographer identifies with and assimilates certain specific traits of the multicultural world that he or she portrays. The result is an autobiographical text which projects a polycentric field of cultural forces, forces which interrelate across a spectrum of options from tension to negotiation, from conflict to triumphant resolution. Such an autobiography, moreover, communicates these possibilities to its readers, who as they read learn to share to some extent in the author's multiplicity. At our present moment, with its heightened and often polarized sense of cultural identity, this kind of cultural literacy seems well worth cultivating; for rather than associating identity with certain monolithic, unchanging traits, it acknowledges both the many-sidedness of experience and the capacity of that experience to stir complex sympathies.

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