Karen Blixen was born on 17 March 1885 as the second daughter of a well-to-do and well-connected family in Denmark. That means that from the very first start of her life she belonged to high society, but not the most elevated part of it, i.e. one of the noble families which may count their ancestors far back in time. Her family tree could boast nobility on her father’s side, but not in a direct hereditary line, making her and her siblings Sirs and Ladies.
However, early on the life style of the families of the large Danish and Swedish noble houses had a great appeal to her. A snob she was, no one can deny it, but the snobbery was more for a special kind of nobility of character than for the sheer hereditary distinction. With her it’s not enough to be born a nobleman to become one of those noble characters whom she admired, some of them actually belonged to the poorest of the poor or were revolutionaries like the heroes from The French Revolution.
Her mother’s family was well-to-do merchants. However, when her father committed suicide in her childhood (1895) and they raised her as well as her brothers and sisters she felt exposed to the bourgeois and religious ideals which they represented. She came to resent most of what they stood for – or rather, she came to resent them for the ideas she attributed to them: Prudish, puritan, pragmatic, unimaginative, non-idealistic, materialistic and not in accord with their own inner-most instincts. With her instincts mean something like “connected to God or fate by one’s very soul” and in reality it takes a wild animal to have the perfect form of this instinctual connectedness. Or as it’s put by the young man, Peter, who has an inherited drive (i.e. his God-given instinct) to become a sailor, but is being urged to be something he has no inner drift for (“Peter and Rosa” from “Winter’s Tales”):
“I saw a fox the other day,” he took up his theme, after a long silence, “by the brook in the birch-wood. He looked at me, and moved his tail a little. I reflected, as I looked back at him, that he does excellenctly well at being a fox, such as God meant him to be. All that he makes or thinks is just foxlike; there is nothing in him, from his ears to his brush, which God did not wish to be there, and he will not interfere with the plan of God. If a fox were not so, a beautiful and perfect thing, God would not be beautiful and perfect either.”
In the writings of Karen Blixen the nobleman – or the one in the other end of the social scales, the destitute and according to her thus totally free man – is considered an equal to the wild, untamed and instinctual animal who lives in accordance with God’s plans for him. To be compared to e.g. a wild animal is a real compliment with her. On the other hand, domestic animals equal the bourgeois of her mother’s family. If one is compared to these animals one is not living by one’s inherent instincts, or put in another way, the direct connection to God has been broken or at least twisted: Man doesn’t live like he was meant to, but like he finds fit to in order to obtain the non-instinctual, social security of e.g. farm animals.
You may ask, now what has all that to do with racism? Well, in her beautiful book on her time in Kenya, “Out of Africa”, Karen Blixen compared everyone to animals, but most certainly not in a derogatory way, but simply to mark them for their inner qualities as she saw them. She herself was very proud that she was being called “Lioness” because that spoke of bravery and fortitude which were ideals with her. Her best friends, young noblemen and great huntsmen from England and Scandinavia, belonged naturally in this group and so did some of the natives: Both the devout and very strict Muslim Somalis and the warlike Masai whom she sees as free in body and spirit because they have never been slaves are compared to birds of prey. The Masai are being her absolute favourites because they simply can’t survive slavery (“Out of Africa”): “This stark inability to keep alive under the yoke has given the Masai, alone amongst all the Native tribes, rank with the immigrant aristocracy.”
The Kikuyus who have been enslaved, and who have reputedly hunted down and sold each other, are being compared to farm animals, but more to describe their relationship with each other than anything else. One must admit that the Somalis and Masai are her favourites, yes, even human ideals with her, but she has a soft spot for the Kikuyus and she is not derogatory of them when she compares them to rodents which just are another kind of free animals. In their relationship with each other she sees the Somalis as faithful sheepdogs guarding the valuable sheep, i.e. the Kikuyu.
The use of animal categories to describe people go very far back in time. We meet gods as animals and animals as gods all over the world and this tradition of comparing humans with animals live on in fairy tales and fables, but also in Heraldry. In the noble families of Scandinavia many had animals in their Coat of Arms. The heraldic animals were accepted as valid names for members of these families in their addressing each other so it hasn’t been unnatural to Karen Blixen to think along these lines with the natives of Kenya and with herself and her friends. First and foremost it hasn’t been derogatory to talk of someone being like a “sheepdog”, guarding “sheep” and others being “birds of prey”.
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