That Which Breaks, That Which Bars

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Karin Boye’s most inspired poems are born at the juncture of “the world of appearances – a world that depicts”, and “the other world, the heavy, transformational world that did not ask for superficial flourishes”. Their tension oscillates between “that which breaks” and “that which bars” and is instantaneously released in a euphoric cry of freedom, for “fear can live no longer”, and the ego surrenders unconditionally to “the trust that creates the world”.

Her suicide in 1941 has affected the way that people look at her life and her art. She has been portrayed as “tragic” and “consecrated to death”. Her work has been interpreted throughout as that of someone who struggled heroically against her “death wish”. Her writing often resides between sleeping and waking, an unreal kingdom in which dream and desire reign, a place that human beings never completely leave and always yearn for deep within.

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  • Holst, Agda (1886-1976): Self-portrait. 1929. Oil on canvas. Regionmuseet Kristianstad. Photo: Geert Nicolai Vestergaard-Hansen

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That Which Breaks, That Which Bars

Written by:  Birgitta Svanberg

“Sunset is the waiting hour. It makes your breast hurt. It binds you with endless sorrow, which pinches your throat and makes your forehead ache with tears that can’t come out. You want something, but you can’t have it and don’t even know what it is. But you want it.” – “Preludium” by Karin Boye (1900-1941), based on a memory from early childhood.

The story is about four-year-old Birgit and her first revolt. She has been seized by the irresistible urge to go into the poultry house and hug the chickens, “to bury her hands in their warm, white, smooth down.” She suspects that she is not supposed to do it: “She could never tell anyone about her secret and forbidden desire, because it was too deep and too primitive and dwelled in realms that you couldn’t get to with words.” When dusk arrives, she hides from the nursemaid who puts her to bed. She is defiant for the first time in her life. “And that’s why she wonders if it is real: how did she dare?

“She never dares to do anything. She obeys. She’s a good little girl. But now she has finally dared […] Disobedience and rebellion swirl around her like a furious wind. Dusk is not really the same as wakeful reality. It is the threshold to the world of dreams, where anything at all can happen.”

Birgit’s feelings seem to inhabit a diffuse, painful vacuum left by release from symbiosis with her mother. Her longing for regression, repressed sorrow over a world forever lost, arises in a state of melancholy between sleeping and waking, an unreal kingdom in which dream and desire reign, a place that human beings never completely leave and always yearn for deep within.

"Preludium” appears in Uppgörelser (1934; Reckonings), Boye’s first short story collection. Her other books of short stories are Ur funktion (1940; Out of Order) and the posthumous Bebådelse (1941; Annunciation).

Boye’s writing often resides in the vicinity of this place. The theme of the fragile ego’s struggle for existence, including its courageous affirmation of desire, becomes an archetypal scene for her, as in De sju dödssynderna (1941; The Seven Deadly Sins):

Thus we are driven, lost souls,
from camp fire to camp fire,
knowing nothing about our next stop
or the destination of our journey,
but feeling that our hearts are drawn
irresistibly, without our choosing
towards an unknown native sea
that roars deep inside the mollusc shell.

Her most well-known and oft-quoted poem, dedicated to Elin Wägner, is “Ja visst gör det ont” (Yes, Of Course It Hurts):

Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking.
Why else would the springtime falter?
Why would all our ardent longing
bind itself in frozen, bitter pallor?
After all, the bud was covered all the winter.
What new thing is it that bursts and wears?
Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking,
hurts for that which grows
and that which bars.

Yes, it is hard when drops are falling.
Trembling with fear, and heavy hanging,
cleaving to the twig, and swelling, sliding–
weight draws them down, though they go on clinging.
Hard to be uncertain, afraid and divided,
hard to feel the depths attract and call,
yet sit fast and merely tremble–
hard to want to stay
and want to fall.

Then, when things are worst and nothing helps
the tree’s buds break as in rejoicing,
then, when no fear holds back any longer,
down in glitter go the twig’s drops plunging,
forget that they were frightened by the new,
forget their fear before the flight unfurled–
feel for a second their greatest safety,
rest in that trust that creates the world.

För trädets skull

The Great Battle between Power and Rebellion

Holst, Agda (1886-1976): Self-portrait. 1929. Oil on canvas. Regionmuseet Kristianstad. Photo: Geert Nicolai Vestergaard-Hansen

Holst, Agda (1886-1976): Self-portrait. 1929. Oil on canvas. Regionmuseet Kristianstad. Photo: Geert Nicolai Vestergaard-Hansen

Kris (1934; Crisis), Boye’s Bildungsroman, finds itself like “Preludium” in the force field between the ‘lower’, secret, and forbidden world of desire and the reality of law and convention. Kris could, like Fredrika Bremer’s Hertha (1856; Eng. tr. Hertha), have had the subtitle “En själs historia” (The History of a Soul). Boye concentrates on a very limited period of a young woman’s life, focusing her searchlight on an inner conflict. The novel is based on autobiographical material from 1920-1921, when she attended a training college in Stockholm.

Karin Boye underwent psychoanalysis shortly before writing the book. Retelling and interpreting the events from the perspective of depth psychology more than ten years after the fact lends the story an inherently dual point of view. Past and present co-exist. The retrospective is a creative act of processing the past while preserving a subtext of memories and feelings that had been repressed.

The book uses bold, experimental prose, interspersed with inner monologues, dream scenes, and fictional debates that illuminate and comment on the protagonist’s development from various angles. The dialectic composition discloses that the emphasis of the novel is on inner processes and wrangling with ideas. That approach revolutionised the genre of autobiographical novels in Sweden. The modernist structure of Kris most resembles that of Hagar Olsson’s Bildungsroman Chitambo (1933; Chitambo), which Boye had favourably reviewed in the magazine Tidevarvet.

At the beginning of Kris, twenty-year-old Malin Forst is studying to be an elementary school teacher. She is sitting in the prayer hall of the training college, surrounded by symbols of suffering and submission: the goblet, cross, and lamb. Her authority has become the Christian God, to whom she addresses her prayer for total obliteration of personal desire. A dream has shown her an unadorned, totally white room filled with light. She cries: “What is the Mysterium Magnum?” and a voice answers: “It is when human life becomes God’s life."

Malin longs for that symbiosis with the absolute. But such yearnings are perilous. Diffuse, imaginary figures from early childhood materialise, vibrating with wordless feelings, alternating between sexual desire and fear of annihilation. Like her four-year-old alter ego in “Preludium”, Malin is both frightened and attracted by the longing for regression. Her anxiety catapults her into a deep depression, cleaving her consciousness to the point that she can no longer concentrate on anything. She blames herself – her will is “evil”. The external plot follows Malin’s day-to-day life. Boye’s descriptions of the training college’s female milieu, its high-strung idealism, are sharp as a knife, with a razor-thin but effective ironic distance.

Malin chooses the path of rebellion; she defiantly affirms that which is forbidden. A parliamentary motion in 1933 that demanded milder punishment for homosexual acts aroused widespread debate in Sweden. Until 1944, a person convicted of committing “crimes against nature” could be sentenced to imprisonment for up to two years.

Terms like crime and perversity have little meaning for someone like Malin, who experiences ardent, life-affirming love for a woman her age. She rejects them completely: “There is no name for the miracle of rejuvenation.”

Emancipated Desire

“We must entrust ourselves to our longing.” (Kris). Malin finally has the strength to bring her repressed desires to the surface and acknowledge that she is in love with a pretty classmate. And suddenly a metamorphosis occurs. A new world appears right before her eyes. Beauty as perceived by the senses infuses reality with vitality and meaning.

Oh! living apprehension of things!
Oh! secret of emotion and reason!
Who grasped you, Beauty? – nobody
Except the one who can love.

Johan Henric Kellgren’s “Den Nya Skapelsen” (1789; The New Creation), which parallels the depiction in Kris of love’s regenerative power. Malin’s class discusses the poem one day. The strong-willed rector calls it “a tempest in a teapot”. But Malin thinks that it expresses exactly what she is experiencing. Love’s gaze re-creates the world.

She has no choice but to re-examine her values. She undergoes a ‘backwards’ conversion from Christianity to faith in life, from ‘saint’ to ‘heathen’. Because the desire she affirms is forbidden and repudiated by the symbolic order of the Law of the Father, she must rebel against it. In a flash of insight, she understands the difference between word and thing, between the namer and the named. “Stammering, she begins to grope her way towards a new language of the senses and worldly objects.” She pledges never again to obey the will of others, only her own. “The world seemed to echo with the great battle between Power and Rebellion”, and she consciously joins the “side of rebellion”.

Kris was published in the autumn of 1934. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor in January 1933. Boye wrote the novel against the backdrop of events in Europe: the rise of Fascism and Nazism, war fever, racism, and oppression of dissidents. Tightly scripted Nazi rallies demonstrated the appeal of an ideology based on blind obedience and subservience to authority. Boye’s novel draws a contrasting picture: a young person who shapes her own life based on inner experience while respecting the individuality and uniqueness of both herself and others.

Language beyond Logic

Boye’s most inspired poems are born at the juncture of “the world of appearances – a world that depicts”, and “the other world, the heavy, transformational world that did not ask for superficial flourishes and was intended to be that way” (Kris, last chapter). Their tension oscillates between “that which breaks” and “that which bars” and is instantaneously released in a euphoric cry of freedom, for “fear can live no longer”, and the ego surrenders unconditionally to “the trust that creates the world”.

“The underground world of meaning in a poem, the secret and personal language within logical language, determines whether it has the capacity to grip the reader or not.”

“Språket bortom logiken”, Spektrum Issue no. 6, 1931

Härdarna (1927; The Heaths), Boye’s third collection, begins with a sequence of untitled love poems in which unsatisfied desire throbs painfully underneath the words and cadences, inexorably trapped behind “ice-walls and ice-silence”. The heavy chain of form around delicately vibrating content is captured not only by the suggestive imagery, but by the distinctive rhythm that often places two accented syllables next to each other:

By ice-walls and ice-silence
is peace protected in my daybreak land,
where the air trembles, pale with hunger
for sun-life and sun-brand.
The thorn-thickets in fearful waiting
in hollow trunks hard round close in
all the flames that pray and beg
to soon burst forth in blossoming.

The love poems in Härdarna are addressed to a woman who is inaccessible to the narrator. The overriding themes are absence and distance. För trädets skull (1935; For the Sake of the Tree) on the other hand, contains poems of sexual consummation. A language “beyond logic” describes an ecstasy of the senses, so boldly modernist that critics had difficulty understanding it and pleaded for the return of the old, austere, “Valkyrian” poet.

Ripe as a fruit the world lies in my lap,
it ripened last night,
and its rind is the thin blue membrane that stretches
bubble-round,
and its juice is the sweet and fragrant,
streaming, burning torrent of sunlight.

And out into the transparent universe I leap like a swimmer,
submerged in a baptism of ripeness and born to a power of ripeness.
Consecrated to action, light as a burst of laughter
I cleave a golden sea of honey
that desires my hungry hands.

A supremely observant, active female subject manifests in these poems. Any trace of passive victimhood, subservience, or a mystique of suffering is gone.

The poems of unabashed sensuality have not, however, banished the theme of captivity from her repertoire. “Under skin and blood and inside the marrow / heavily heavily imprisoned sea-eagles move” in “Min hud är full av fjärilar” (My Skin Is Full of Butterflies), and the narrator asks: “How would your tumult be in the sea's spring storm?” A key poem begins with the macabre statement: “A tree grows beneath the ground” and continues:

Anxiety follows me.
It trickles from the ground.
In it a tree is in agony beneath heavy layers of soil.
Oh wind! Oh sunlight!
Feel the agony:
the promises of the scent of paradise miracles.

The underground tree is Boye’s most painful and suggestive metaphor for the desire, dynamism, and creativity that are inexorably suppressed by the established systems of the logical, sanctioned order. The title of För trädets skull, her last book of poetry, was the object of much hesitation before she finally settled on it.

Dream of a New World

After completing training college in 1921, Boye went to Uppsala, where she studied the humanities and received a master’s degree in 1928. As part of her revolt against established values, she joined Clarté, a radical left-wing group, and contributed to their magazine from 1927 to 1931. She joined some of the other members on a study tour of the Soviet Union in 1928. From 1929 to 1931, she was married to Leif Björk, also a member of Clarté.

Boye was a prime mover behind the radical cultural magazine Spektrum, which was published in 1931-1933, apparently modelled after the Finland-Swedish Ultra and Quosego. The magazine printed her best essays, including “Dagdrömmeriet som livsåskådning” (Daydreaming as a Philosophy of Life), “Tendens och verkan” (Tendency and Effect), “Rädslan och livet” (Fear and Life), and “Språket bortom logiken” (Language beyond Logic), all of which introduce the modernist view of humanity and literature in Sweden. Her translation with Erik Mesterton of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which appeared in Spektrum in 1932, also represented a major contribution.

Boye stayed in Berlin in 1932 and underwent psychoanalysis. Upon returning to Sweden, she settled down with Margot Hanel, a young German Jew, which saved her from the Nazis. Her love poems to Hanel exhibit warm, maternal feelings for the first time, such as “Du är fröet” (You Are the Seed), “Idyll”, and “Din värme” (Your Warmth) in För trädets skull and “Till dig” (To You) and “Min stackars unge” (My Poor Young Thing) in De sju dödssynderna.

Boye got to know Elin Wägner and the Fogelstad group around that time. Her inspired essay about Wägner in the cultural magazine Ord och bild in 1936 stressed the ideal of motherhood: the hope that the “mothers would be the women’s issue of the future.”

The article is a harbinger of Kallocain,the great dystopian novel that she published in the autumn of 1940. The female protagonist describes her dream of the world’s salvation: “Perhaps a new world can come into being through those who are mothers – whether they are men or women, and regardless of whether they have borne or not.”

Meanwhile, a technocratic dream has materialised in a nightmare world of steel and concrete. The Worldstate and Universal State monitor each other in a posture of permanent alert. Suspicion, prohibitions, and strict control are the guiding principles, and government surveillance reaches into the remotest corner of private life. Everything is subservient to the authority of the state – even sex, whose only purpose is to breed “fellow-soldiers”.

After a chemist by the name of Leo Kall invents a truth drug, which becomes known as Kallocain, ideas and emotions can be manipulated and controlled as well. Subversive, “disloyal” thoughts and feelings are criminalised: “Thoughts can be judged”. The superego, the authority, demands absolute deference at every level of the psyche and appears to have obliterated any remaining scrap of individual spontaneity. The goal of life is to create robot-like, dutiful fellow-soldiers.

Experiments with Kallocain reveal that most people harbour secret, repressed worlds of unfulfilled longing, anxiety, and irrational feelings. To his dismay, Kall realises that everyone is trapped – even he, a loyal servant of the state, sees himself in the stories of the experimental subjects. After he forces his wife Linda to receive an injection, she confesses her hidden desire for love and unconditional devotion.

As a mother, Linda has suspected that “there is another communion than that of the State […] That creation takes place in us.” When she was bearing and giving birth to her children, she experienced a mystical affinity with “a green depth in the human being, a sea of undefiled growing-power.”

On her trips to Germany and the Soviet Union, Boye had seen totalitarian control at first hand. She wrote Kallocain – “with anxiety and inner disgust”, according to a letter to a friend – during the first dark year of the war. The only salvation from tyranny, she appears to say, is in the human potential for disobedience, for rebelling against “that which bars” by being receptive to our innermost needs. “I have seen the powers of death spread through the world in ever widening waves – but then must not the powers of life also have their waves?”, the condemned Rissen asks at the end of the book.

Boye experienced the thrill of reading from Kallocain before a large, mesmerised audience at a meeting of authors in occupied Denmark in January 1941. The pacifist and anti-Nazi themes of the novel turned out to be so well camouflaged by the science fiction genre that the Germans did not confiscate it as Boye had feared. The book was sold out the next day.

Kallocain is the one book by Boye that has become a classic. Although many editions have now been printed, the novel has lost none its relevance as a warning about a future ravaged by violence, destructiveness, and contempt for human life. The antidote is the will for change and renewal that the imprisoned Kall expresses at the end of the book: “I cannot, I cannot erase that illusion from my soul that I still, in spite of all, participate in creating a new world.”

Boye wrote three novels in addition to Kris and Kallocain: Astarte (1931; Astarte), Merit vaknar (1933; Merit Awakes), and För lite (1936; Too Little). Astarte is a social satire on modern commercialism. The other two are about ethical issues: truth and falsehood, trust and suspicion.

Boye committed suicide in April 1941, only a few months after Kallocain was published. Anita Nathorst, whom she had loved all her adult life, was terminally ill with skin cancer. Boye had been taking care of her for the past year. And that was when her hope finally failed her. She wrote to a friend: “Life is evil – not accidentally evil, but evil at the core, irremediably.”

Boye died in the woods in the early morning of 24 April 1941 from an overdose of sleeping pills. Her suicide has affected the way that people look at her life and her art. Margit Abenius’s major biography Drabbad av renhet (1950; Stricken with Purity) portrays her as “tragic” and “consecrated to death”, interpreting her throughout as someone who struggled heroically against her “death wish”. Tragic heroism is also the theme of Hjalmar Gullberg’s poem “Död amazon” (Dead Amazon), which equates Boye with the Spartan heroes of ancient Greece.

She wrote her last passionate love poems, posthumously published in De sju dödssynderna, to Nathorst.

You are the resurrection of my soul
to ecstasy in what is real,
so the air touches me hot as fire
like a sea of glass that I feel,
and the power of my eyes,
so that numbly they catch a glimmer
of how all the colours flame out
in a drunken shimmer.

The symbol of the tree, which Boye had used throughout her career, finds its ultimate expression. The underground tree – smothered desire – is finally released:

What are these depths in us, where the past exists, all?
Or is it only your being, your voice I recall?
You were my life’s fulfilment. How has its ripening passed?
A choked tree, a tree of agony, burst into leaf at last.

Translated by Ken Schubert