“It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
– Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times
According to Arendt, it is through action – and all action is but acts of speech – that human beings disclose themselves in their whoness rather than merely on the basis of their whatness. Her indebtedness for storytelling comes from a two-fold source: The Greek world on the one hand – the poets and the historians, and on the other the writings of Isak Dinesen.
Arendt devoted no theoretical effort to pass Dinesen under the lens of theory, other than some occasional mention and a literary profile in the book that Auden called her most German book – because of the form of epic legends in which the stories of the anti-heroes, under the shadow of dark times, are told.
Herself a talented storyteller, her books can be read better against this background of storytelling than on theoretical impetus; this is not because Arendt wasn’t a vehement defender of the life of the mind but because of her insight about the inability of intellectual traditions and history to understand and comprehend the events of her century.
Her reading of Dinesen conforms to the difficulties of understanding Totalitarianism. Spanish philosopher Fina Birulés puts in the following words: “While storytelling does not solve any problem and does not master anything forever, it adds yet another element in the repertory of the world, it is a way for human beings to leave a lasting presence in the world, not as species, but as a plurality of who’s”.
The relationship between storytelling and reconciliation is laid out by Arendt through Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: “When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence”. To let go is an act of reconciliation.
Arendt writes the story of this anxiety and melancholy of her own through Dinesen: “That grief of having lost her life and lover in Africa should have made her a writer and given her a sort of second life was best understood as a joke, and “God loves a joke” became her maxim in the latter part of her life”.
Agnes Heller writes that Arendt knows in advance what it is that she wants to find in her storytelling, in spite of – often – finding something unexpected.
Dinesen becomes a reflection of mirrors for Arendt who in writing about Dinesen’s own storytelling that seems artificial and blurs the distinction between truth and fiction, finds the detachment necessary to comprehend the world, temporarily: “To become an artist also needs time and a certain detachment from the heavy, intoxicating business of sheer living that, perhaps, only the born artist can manage in the midst of living.”
The flight into imaginary worlds at the hand of Dinesen’s pen isn’t simply a performance and re-enactment of the Gothic – as is for example William Beckford’s “Vathek” – but rather a coming to terms with the present by telling a story about its burdens.
It is nothing but an anchoring on the present at a time when the foundation of the present itself – the past – seems irrevocably lost. A similar example of storytelling through mirrors would be, for example, Susan Sontag’s review of Anna Banti’s “Artemisia” for The London Review of Books in 2003.
“Artemisia” is a novel written late in the Second World War about the life of Artemisia Gentilenschi, a 17th century Italian painter: Banti, trained as an art historian, is meticulously careful about her treatment of sources on Gentilenschi’s life and writes in what Sontag calls “a double destiny”; according to her, Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia and is careful enough to write in the detachment of the third person, only available to the truly committed storyteller in a game of hide and seek: “We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I”.
More than a biography or a historical novel, Artemisia is a deeply emotional but sober and detached portrait of a woman in the early 17th century, tainted by the scandal of a rape that disgraced her family and haunted no more by her total commitment to art, than by the immense loneliness of living as an artist in a male-dominated world – but told with more grace than resentment.
The story about Banti and Artemisia that Sontag is telling is one of permanent displacement and loss; not only because of the female story being told but because the original novel was lost under the ruins of Banti’s house in Borgo San Jacopo when the mines detonated by the Germans wrecked the houses near the river, including hers.
Without knowing as much, Susan Sontag is writing about Banti in the same way that Arendt is writing about Dinesen: Behind a story of loss and womanhood, there is an affirmative and rather reckless anchoring in the present – in Sontag’s case, the world after Totalitarianism: The Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. It is against this background that she is writing about a “phoenix of a novel”, which is in itself a testimony to Sontag’s own work.
What both writers learnt from their own writers is a bitter lesson in contemporary history, as eloquently put by Arendt about Dinesen:
Thus, the earlier part of her life had taught her that, while you can tell stories or write poems about life, you cannot make life poetic, live it as though it were a work of art (as Goethe had done) or use it for the realization of an “idea”. Life might contain the “essence” (what else could?); recollection, the repetition in imagination, may decipher the essence and deliver to you the “elixir”; and eventually you may even be privileged to “make” something out of it, “to compound the story”. But life itself is neither essence nor elixir, and if you treat it as such it will only play its tricks on you.
When Lebanese writer Mira Baz left Yemen in 2011, in the course of the revolution and just before the deadly “Friday of Dignity” massacre, after nearly a decade teaching and writing in the mysterious land – similar to Dinesen’s Africa seen through Arendt and Banti’s Florence seen through Sontag, a sort of paradise lost and not without heavy taxes levied by the status of paradise, she was to become displaced and would turn her poetic travelogue of Yemen into a vast vault of memory.
In March 2012 she wrote – exactly a year after the massacre – about the experience of the displacement, invoking the following lines from Dinesen:
“If I know a song of Africa,
Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,
Of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,
Does Africa know a song of me?”
After which she writes:
The house and the garden had quickly become my home, where in the mornings I fed my regular guests Bulbuls and Serins, and found serenity when, through watching them, I meditated on existence, on cycles, on life, on everything and nothingness. Out there was Yemen. Within the garden walls, and all the walls, was me, inside my head.
Through reading and writing, life cannot be changed, but it can be made understandable and livable, after the same fashion of John Updike when he described the prose of Bruno Schulz: “The harrowing effect of Schulz’ prose is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnamable disaster”. The disaster is always the turbulence of history and the unnamable is the loss, but here storytelling becomes a privilege, a sign of truth, and the burden of a presence – entering the world once again, even if it had been lost once.
Fina Birulés concludes her timely meditation on Arendt and Dinesen: “The political function of the narrator – historian or novelist – is to teach the acceptance of things as they are. From this acceptance, that might be called as well veracity, is born the faculty of judgment, by means of which, in words of Isak Dinesen, in the end we will have the privilege to see and to see again, and that is what is called Day of Judgment.”