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Rhetoric of Desire

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

The Norwegian writer Cora Sandel is especially celebrated by readers and reviewers alike for her novels about Alberte, an artist whose story is told in three volumes published from 1926 to 1939. It might therefore seem paradoxical that Cora Sandel herself declared that she was absolutely not the writer of ‘epics’. No, not in the traditional sense. Recent analyses of her work reach the conclusion that Cora Sandel renews the form of the realistic Bildungsroman. Her prose has a playwriting style to it, and she most subtly plays off past, present, and future against one another. “The end is nigh for her. Whatever it be like,” we read at the end of the short story “Kunsten å tigge” (The Art of Begging) from her collection Carmen og Maja og andre noveller (1932; Carmen and Maja and Other Stories). The paradoxical point, however, is that the down-at-heel actress of the story has long since been sent out into the darkness both in human and artistic terms, emphasised by telling the story in the past tense. The end is thus history. Her final exit remains, however – as a topic of conversation for the headmistress and the small-town ladies, in their present-tense gossip. And this technique results in a thought-provoking point about the relationship between time and ending – in life, language, and story.

“[…] Severine is a free spirit. She had been one all the years her husband lived and was constantly away at sea, and she wished to be one still. Nobody should believe anything other; nor should the parson, who once called to make this lost parishioner listen to reason. Severine’s torrent of words on that occasion will be forever imprinted in the neighbours’ memories. The parson retreated, followed all the way out to the road by Severine, who there within earshot of everyone ended her speech by declaring she was no worse than that she could take pity on him, though barely.”

Cora Sandel: “Amors veie” (1922; The Ways of Cupid)

Fischer-Hansen, Else (1905-1996): <em>Tirsdag</em>. 1940. Oil on canvas. Silkeborg Kunstmuseum. Photo: Lars Bay

Fischer-Hansen, Else (1905-1996): Tirsdag. 1940. Oil on canvas. Silkeborg Kunstmuseum. Photo: Lars Bay

Cora Sandel launches her writing career with visual art and the art of the short story. Her past occupation as impressionist painter comes through both in her early literary works – short stories – and in her novels. Her prose is characterised by a distinctive nerve to the language and a clear-cut emphasis when it comes to situation, dialogue, figures of speech, and imagery. “Life is curious and the ways of Cupid are past understanding. Severine has lovers,” states the programmatic opening to the story “Amors veie” (The Ways of Cupid), included in the collection En blå sofa og andre noveller (1927; A Blue Sofa and Other Stories). Having read this introduction, one would have to be an uncommonly apathetic reader not want to find out what it is all about; moving through three dashes, we learn that Severine’s mouth is “large and toothless, with blue, turned-out lips. It is like a massive cavity in Severine […]” – and by now we are immersed in Cora Sandel’s particular form of suspense. Her early short stories have already found a tone, style, and narrative form that display her main theme – human desire – in all its diversity. Cora Sandel shapes her version of the rhetoric of desire that is a fundamental, yet varied, context in Nordic literature written by women during the inter-war period.

“Yet what happened to me? How did I free myself from disgust? Who rejuvenated my eyes? How did I fly to the height where the rabble no longer sit at the well?“Did my disgust itself create wings and water-divining powers for me? Truly, I had to fly to the extremest height to find again the fountain of delight!”

Friedrich Nietzsche: Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-85; Eng. tr. Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

AnneMarie Mai

Heroic Appetite for Life

Kærlighedens Aarstider can be seen retrospectively as a preliminary study for Agnes Henningsen’s memoirs, and together the two works document an exceptional appetite for life, the prerequisite for which is a guiltless assimilation of gender. The ‘appetite for life’ theme is central to her entire writing career, but it is in the later part of her oeuvre that Agnes Henningsen really perfects her aesthetic mode of expression. In retrospect, her trilogy can be cited as one of the most important contributions to inter-war literature, a cultural-radical composition that links two eras’ – that of the Modern Breakthrough and that of the inter-war years – thematisation of desire and the requisites for love.

Kærlighedens Aarstider (Seasons of Love) is the first volume in Agnes Henningsen’s fiction trilogy, followed by Det rige Efteraar (Luxuriant Autumn) and Den sidste Aften (The Last Evening) (trilogy published 1927-30).

The Rich Life

“But life is rich, when even a separation from the loved one feels like something … intoxicating. When I think of everything I have felt today, so varied, so wonderful, yes, life is rich.”

These words are spoken by Milli Hahn, the central character, at the beginning of Kærlighedens Aarstider; it is 1893, she is seventeen years old, believes herself to be pregnant, and she is talking to her fiancé, twenty-seven-year-old graduate Vilhelm Thorsen, when he forsakes her – having first seduced her. Milli’s promise to herself – to be magnanimous and not pitiful – means that she gives Vilhelm the freedom that he, in response to her question, admits he wants back.

This heroic magnanimity and the continued insistence that life is rich, and also that loss and pain can be an intoxicating experience, is the driving force and tenor in Agnes Henningsen’s account of Milli Hahn’s norm-breaking life from 1893 up until around 1920.

For Milli, the first seven years of marriage with Vilhelm – they get married after all – are supportable thanks to her euphoric delight in the smell of baby; a delight which she maintains by giving birth every other year. But when the family’s poor finances mean that she cannot renew the marital elixir of life by means of a fourth child, the marriage and the lovingly boring husband lose their charm. Agnes Henningsen uses the seasons as symbols for the chronological phases in a woman’s love life: spring signifies the period of Vilhelm’s seduction, and Milli’s two summers are the period of her maternity/matrimony plus her extra-marital affairs when she is in her twenties. In the autumn, characterised as “luxuriant”, Milli is in her thirties, a divorced, independent woman with free love relationships, and in the third volume of the trilogy, Den sidste Aften, Milli has remarried.

In broad outline, the trilogy is based on Agnes Henningsen’s own life story: from marriage with Mads Henningsen to divorce followed by a period living as a free and self-supporting woman with various men and as mother of four children, and on to her final marriage, with Simon Koch.

Divine Sensuality

In Det rige Efteraar and the first part of Den sidste Aften it is largely through the aesthetic form – Agnes Henningsen’s particular use of fiction’s potential for varying perspectives – that Milli’s identity as liberated woman emerges with a strength that carries conviction for the reader. The image of the sexually liberated woman’s identity is thus more sustained by Milli as seen than as seeing, given that the perspective often shifts from Milli to others, particularly to the men’s view of her. It is, for example, the abandoned husband who, while visiting Milli in her flat in the town, has to concede that “The lady had grown in her freedom”. And it is through his eyes that the reader learns how this freedom and independence eroticise and beautify the female body:

“And it struck him that her teeth, hair, eyes, everything had become shining with healthiness during the years in which she had not had anything else to think about than her coquettish writing. When she was seventeen years old, ‘pretty’ was the biggest word that could be used of her, now around thirty years of age she blazed at her best like the forest on an autumn day.”

Kjær, Kirsten (1893-1985): <em>Kromandens datter fra vestkysten</em>. 1947. Oil on canvas. Trapholt. Photo: Knud E. Jensen

Kjær, Kirsten (1893-1985): Kromandens datter fra vestkysten. 1947. Oil on canvas. Trapholt. Photo: Knud E. Jensen

However, Agnes Henningsen does not only use the changing perspective to reflect Milli’s body and beauty. The men’s outlook is used to an even greater extent to throw light on Milli as bearer of something “brilliant”, “elegant”, and “distinguished”; it is precisely Milli’s brilliance, as reflected by the men, that is her real attraction. This is what binds the men to her and explains and substantiates their desire. Seen through the eyes of her lover, Hake, Milli is far and away superior to the perfect body of her rival – strikingly beautiful Kristel Dahl, whose proletarian touch and lack of brilliance cannot threaten Milli.

In pointing up brilliance while presenting Milli as sensual and pleasure-loving, Agnes Henningsen is deliberately disputing the perception of women that dominated in her day, and to which the way she lived her own life was a provocation: the classic dualistic perception of woman as either madonna or whore.

Agnes Henningsen is particularly mindful to resist the ‘madonna’ image, this being dependent on disdain for and contempt of the woman as sexual being. Milli’s appropriation of sexual desire, after years spent as one of the “army of cold women”, is also a realisation “that what is noble is not the most beautiful thing in the world”. And Agnes Henningsen trumps the perception of woman that she wants to undermine when she says of Milli “that the [sexual] experience made her look like a being from the heavens”.

This canonisation of the sensual woman is a further development of Agnes Henningsen’s insistence on women’s right to sexuality on equal terms with men. Where the mature Milli in Kærlighedens Aarstider openly acknowledges her pleasure-loving nature, the central character in Lykken (1905; Happiness) has to resort to dissimulation and, like a “mimosa”, hide her sexual desires because she is aware of the man’s contempt. Unlike many female writers’ thematisation of sexuality, however, this oeuvre’s painful insight in – and repeated thematisation of – male ambivalence to woman’s sexuality, with resulting rejection, disappointment, and loss, does not lead to disillusion and self-destruction. This is connected to the way in which appropriation of sexuality – discovery of “being able to desire a man so strongly” – is presented and maintained as a feeling of “proud happiness” that expands identity and potential rather than reducing and destroying them.

Tom Kristensen, a writer who is also more than conscious of men’s madonna complex, dedicated this poem to Agnes Henningsen on her sixtieth birthday, 18 November 1928:

To fight against men is to fight against darkness,
’gainst benighted souls, ’gainst sinister savagery,
for men created of man and of woman
two hideous monsters of twisted fantasy.

For men created the alien world,
where women are frigid and men become beasts,
a world macabre as troubled dreams
and the chasing phantom clouds of the storm.

Then a woman appeared who was no Madonna.
She marched on the darkness, confronting the storm.
A radiant vision drawing our wrath,
for she was naked and her naked self.

Control of Disillusion

In the trilogy, Agnes Henningsen takes on the heroic project of controlling disillusion and of sustaining appetite for life as a ruling principle for Milli’s actions.

The project is facilitated by, among other factors, Milli’s easy disposition, her mobility of attitude, of mood and choice of approach. When defeat looms or is a reality – as is the case when, after many years resisting marriage with Hake, she proposes to him and is turned down – Milli actively avoids disillusion by changing her approach and taking action. Through her spirit of self-sacrifice, she gives herself a feeling of heroic magnanimity, which will release them both from the state of abject misery she cannot endure: “A sacrifice, action was necessary for both of them to be rid of this wretchedness.”

Her sacrifice in the self-imposed role of generous giver is to comply with Hake’s ardent wish for custody of their daughter, Eva.

Agnes Henningsen’s resistance to stories of disillusion, her ability to turn and shift the perspective from the tragic and melancholy, encroaches on the form. When the young lover, Steensen, drops Milli in favour of a more ‘decent’ match, the novel uses his viewpoint to rehabilitate wounded and forsaken Milli – we learn that he does not get off emotionally cost-free either:

“She is awfully natural and modern, he thought. And I love her still in the good old-fashioned way.”

This perspective shows that the man is victim of his own madonna-whore complex, and thus he fails and betrays his own emotional life. For it is Milli, the modern and free woman, to whom his lasting feelings are bound, and not the ‘virtuous’ future wife he has chosen in preference to Milli.

When Den sidste Aften opens, the male perspective is abandoned and Milli is now seen from a female perspective, the function of which is to cast light on her as the centre of and solicitous helper for her family and the suicidal foster daughter, Asta. This shift in perspective gives notice of the reduction in erotic opportunities that comes with increasing age. Nevertheless, to the last, Agnes Henningsen maintains women’s right to sexuality.

Agnes Henningsen’s achievement is that she has the courage to insist on this, also when age sets limits to the liberated woman’s options:

“‘Yes, life is rich,’ she said, without sarcasm, without sharpness, she was at her post. There is a little winter sun for the old folk everywhere, also in Canada.”

Agnes Henningsen’s heroic project, to insist on life’s opportunities, does not fail her.

In the last part of the trilogy, Milli spends a summer in Norway with Kristel Dahl; the two middle-aged women here compete over a young charlatan, with the concomitant risk of loss and ridicule. The frank and matter-of-course presentation of female desire with no age limit takes the story into a taboo area.

Bodil Holm and Lis Thygesen

At the Centre of the Literary Spectrum

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edith Södergran and Selma Lagerlöf had, in each her genre, introduced a liberation of the literary language and the cultural depiction of woman. The new departure and the modernity they each represent, continue to leave their marks in literature written by women during the inter-war period. And the density of sense perception that characterises the language and form of experience used by many writers in the early years of the twentieth century, from existential Agnes Henningsen to Jugend writer Ragnhild Jølsen, become the sounding board for writers in the decades that followed.

Five women and one man. Year unknown. Photograph. Kvindemuseet, Århus

Five women and one man. Year unknown. Photograph. Kvindemuseet, Århus

Taking human desire as a key theme in the literature of the period, it becomes clear that women writers are at the centre of the overall literary picture. For a number of these women writers, the endeavour to seek out and describe the deepest forces and longings in humankind leads to a thematic and rhetoric make-over of the literary traditions, often in a more pronounced and bold fashion than in the work of their contemporary male colleagues. Thus, large sections of Nordic inter-war literature still have Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of culture, his diction, and his notion of challenging the ‘old’ and conventional human being, of power and desire, as a weighty basis. Furthermore, there is also a pronounced influence from Freud and psychoanalysis. However, the women writers often use Nietzsche’s universe in a more radical and innovative way than their male colleagues do.

In Denmark, the first book from Karen Blixen’s hand, published in 1934, was seen by a number of male reviewers to be an utterly perverted collection of stories: Seven Gothic Tales. It is here, in Danish literature, that we find the period’s most ferocious critique of bourgeois man’s and woman’s denial and repression of desire – in a narrative form that in itself awakens the reader’s desire for interpretation. The critique and psychological inquiry in Karen Blixen’s writing has a depth and danger unsurpassed by any other Danish pen of her day. Tom Kristensen’s spectacular alcohol-soaked novel Hærværk, (Eng. tr. Havoc) about a failed literary critic’s confrontation with his mother fixation and desire for death, resembles a pleasant stroll in the park compared to the labyrinths of desire and lost purpose and identity into which Karen Blixen sends her reader.

Turning to Sweden, Karin Boye’s novel Kris (1934; Crisis) employs the rhetoric of desire to experiment with the continuities and discontinuities between various levels and methods of narration. She lends a new existential interpretation to the theme of desire and its manifestations in relation to the self and others. Desire is associated with a linguistic dimension that Malin approaches, impelled by of crisis and searching. The customary garb of gender falls away with the emergence of this dimension, which turns out to be her passion for another woman.

 Boye’s famous essay in Spektrum, “Språket bortom logiken” (Language Beyond Logic), refers to “symbolic language” or “the subterranean significance of a literary work, the secret and personal language wrapped inside of the logical one [that] determines whether or not it touches the reader.”

Female authors with widely disparate social and ideological backgrounds explored the many facets of desire. Moa Martinson had an entirely different outlook than Boye, eluding the pitfalls and alienation that citizens of modernity stumble across in their relationship to desire. Impoverished rural Sweden used folk music, ballads and story-telling to interpret and portray the twists and turns of human passion. The “subterranean world of significance,” the rhetoric of desire, turn into fragments of sagas, family chronicles and songs, as in Martinsson’s novel Drottning Grågyllen (1937; Queen Goldengrey). The heroine merges with nature and folklore. As a primeval wanderer, she becomes one with the local legends. “She makes a bed for herself among the herbs, unbuttons her wrinkled boots, takes off her threadbare shawl and crawls into a hollow that she has dug in the hay like a tiny rodent. She is an old and weary creature. The lids close over her teary eyes.

Her sore bones, which have grown numb from pain through the years, fall asleep before her brain; a glorious serenity filled with visions and memories descends on her as she lies among dried lady’s bedstraw and chamomile.” Martinson’s narrative effortlessly shifts from the symbolic description of love as a magnificent briar bush to a children’s conversation about nature to a breathless panorama of a year-long battle between the old rural gentry and the new businessmen to an admonitory voice that interprets and intervenes in the plot. The permutations of form and tempo make it clear that a central perspective and ordinary symbolism are insufficient to depict the desires of men, women and children. Desire in Martinson’s novel can be the longing for a gulp of whole milk, the bliss of physical exhaustion, the presence of a loved one or the dissolution of personal consciousness in local tales and legends.

Oral storytelling and folk tales played a key role in the transformation of traditional literary realism that Martinson and other female authors helped shape during the inter-war years.

Nordic women writers naturally find different aesthetic paths in their work on life past and present, with changes in the family after the First World War and against the background of the rise of Nazism. Also typical, however, is that these women assume a central position on the literary spectrum. The literary innovation of the day also flows from the pens of a number of women writers. It would be absurd to claim that women writers such as Norwegian Cora Sandel, Danish Karen Blixen, or Swedish Moa Martinson and Agnes von Krusenstjerna are of secondary importance to their male colleagues such as Sigurd Hoel, H. C. Branner, or Artur Lundkvist. The new departures and directions in women’s writing – with regard to familiar narrative patterns, lyrical imagery, and the rendering of femininity – are insistent, sometimes subdued, but always very surprising: as in Cora Sandel’s play between tenses, as in the uncommon sexual constellations and destinies in Karen Blixen’s tales, or as in the changeable tone of voice in Moa Martinson’s prose. One sign of the truly key significance of this literary change can be seen in the reaction by large sections of the contemporary male reviewing staff: they threw the book at them, branding women’s writing as perverted – as was the case with Karen Blixen’s first book and on a larger scale during the Swedish Krusenstjerna Feud.

However, posterity has continued to have difficulty comprehending what is going on in the women’s oeuvres and individual texts. The both heated and strained inter-war debate makes it hard to turn from the way in which the woman artist was rendered by the public forum or by the writer herself and put the focus on the actual literature as artistic text. Danish Thit Jensen’s zealous and effective spin on herself as media event is in itself worthy of a thorough study, but her controversial public persona has sometimes obstructed insight into the aesthetic complexity of her writing. In particular, the centrepiece of her historical novels, Stygge Krumpen (1936), benefits from being read more with an eye to the contemporaneous European literature than to Thit Jensen’s public image on Danish soil. As literary work of art, the book can be categorised and read as a significant and central contribution to the new inter-war literature, with kinship to European surrealism.

The Nighttime Grain

Thit Jensen’s voluminous historical novel Stygge Krumpen was published in 1936, the 400th anniversary year of the Danish Reformation. This extremely popular and much-read novel has often, and justifiably, been interpreted by modern scholarship as another attempt by Thit Jensen, and from a different angle, to revisit and revise the issue of desire that was also the theme and driving force in her extensive series of contemporary writings.

“The historical works are an act of surrender to the past, the mystery, the adventure, the larger-than-life characters, the daring deeds and intense passions. It is a past far more open to interpretation than a troublesome present, and it is also a willing battlefield for the issues and ideologies of the present. By looking back in history, moreover, Thit Jensen releases herself from the considerations of realism that were crucial to the account of women’s situation in her contemporary novels”, writes Elisabeth Møller Jensen of the relationship between Thit Jensen’s writing on contemporary themes and on historical subjects: “Thit Jensen”, Danske digtere i det 20. århundrede bd. I (1980; Twentieth-Century Danish Writers, vol. I).

Stygge Krumpen is set in sixteenth-century northern Jutland, during the dramatic era of the Reformation in which the Catholic Church in Denmark collapsed. The novel describes how the Catholic Church perverts desire and sexuality, while the Reformation aims to create a new concord between man and woman. It turns out, however, that this concord also channels sexual instincts and desire into destructive power. In the novel the young bishop Stygge Krumpen tries in vain to bring the Catholic Church to its senses and morality before it is too late. But he, too, is struck by “the blood’s mysterious call from sex to sex” even though he tries to interpret his love for the noble maiden Elisabeth as spiritual and divine. It is, however, perfectly obvious that Thit Jensen as an artist cannot muster any particular interest either for her somewhat bland hero, for the heroines, or for the storyline. Battle and conflict lose meaning, and the culmination of the novel is not the final encounter between Lutheran King Christian III and faithful Catholic Stygge Krumpen. The culmination comes in chapters describing the Catholic clergy having their wild orgies, the raving mad parties held by bishop “Svantevits”, and the chapters describing how Satan, war, and abomination under the Count’s Feud

A Danish civil war over succession to the throne, which eventually brought the protestant King Christian III to power and brought about the 1536 Reformation in Denmark.

advance through the Jutland landscape. Here, the novel takes the form of surrealist prose poetry. A wild image universe emerges, the most obvious parallels to which are found in the respective works of André Breton and Federico García Lorca.

“Have you heard, Bishop Niels Stygge of Børglum transforms himself into an elephant every morning. Then all the false maidens, those who have recently given birth and have milk, are put in a row. Niels Elephant in chasuble and mitre goes behind each of the maidens, thrusts his trunk over her shoulder and sucks her breast, causing her to swoon, thus they swoon in rows […] In Palittelunde this is called “The Bishop’s Morning Mass”.

Thit Jensen: Stygge Krumpen

A Danish civil war over succession to the throne, which eventually brought protestant King Christian III to power and brought about the 1536 Reformation in Denmark.

The climaxes of the novel are thus shaped by the expressive and surprising imagery, into which the very loosely-spun story slips. So the novel does not focus on the death of the heroine, Elisabeth, but lets the blazing finale to the Cybele convent end in colour-saturated metaphor: “The black enamel of the fjord rims a fiery-yellow topaz, luminous against the heavy October sky. The first breaking of dawn pales the horizon, smoke-smeared walls and charred boughs are reflected in the shining eye of the inlet […] another convent has gone up in flames, the spirit of war also found its way to nature’s loveliest flower basket. Not a living thing in sight, neither men nor women, no defiler of virgius escaped with his life from daring to go against the infamous hounds of Fuur Island. Light-grey day colours the waters of the harbour, even the jetty has burned, the boats have burned, the sky unfurls its first white feather fan before its blue face […]”.

“Death comes to Aalborg […] Death comes so strangely, for it comes from both north and south. Can Death be two? Death comes like a female corn reaper, in black attire, gliding past most swiftly. It is not a skeleton, it is a woman with black breast […]”.

Stygge Krumpen

Thit Jensen’s death allegory stems from medieval church art, but the allegory is more complex than the familiar image of the skeleton. The woman with the black breast recalls surrealism’s compound allegories.

This alternation between loose storyline and prose poetry that allows the metaphor to grow from associations and image formation, to double-expose in unexpected juxtapositions and word formations, is characteristic of the novel. The imagery breaks free and takes up the most prominent position in the novel’s universe. “Every evening the ocean in the west bends like a radiant rainbow […] as though it had before been arched in a golden handle over the bawl of the Earth, and God’s finger had pushed it over to lie along the rim. There it lies under the sky and gilts the gently trembling ocean […] until the day is done and the water breathes in the darkness, it sounds like the heavy arms of a windmill turning, slowly turning as they grind the nighttime grain” we read by way of introduction to a spiritual tryst between Stygge and Elisabeth. Grain, ocean, and sky are recurring elements in the imagery, and the way in which Thit Jensen uses them can be compared with surrealism’s scrupulously realistic while disconnected, unexpected, and double-exposure image formation, as in, for example, André Breton’s poem “L’Union Libre” (1931; Free Union): “[…] My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit / And Midsummer Night / That are hedges of privet and resting places for sea snails / Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea / And a fusion of wheat and a mill […]”.

“Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.”

Thus writes André Breton in Le Manifeste du Surréalisme (1924; First Surrealist Manifesto).

“What is imagination other than more or less trained capacity for listening – for receiving reports from unexplored space,” states Thit Jensen in a 1941 interview.

There are also similarities with Lorca’s folklore-inspired surrealism in Romancero gitano (1928; Eng. Tr. Gypsy Ballads), of which some poems were written against the background of atrocities committed by the Guardia Civil against poverty-stricken countryfolk in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War. His poems pin down the tableaux of violence and concentrate on the figurations of horror. A very young woman, whose breasts have been severed, is a central image in Federico García Lorca’s poem about the Civil Guard’s descent on a gypsy village; she is also a key image in Thit Jensen’s account of mercenaries rampaging through the Jutland countryside.

[…] But the Civil Guard
advance, sowing flames,
where young and naked
imagination is burnt out.
Rosa of the Camborios
moans in her doorway,
with her two severed breasts
lying on a tray.
And other girls ran
chased by their tresses
through air where roses
of black gunpowder burst.

Federico García Lorca: “Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard”, Romancero gitano (1928; Eng. tr. Gypsy Ballads)

In Stygge Krumpen the grain, ocean, and sky imagery is repeated and developed in a number of variations. New forms and figures are continually born of these images; crests of waves are rendered as white poodles, the sky fills with butterfly-snow, the wind transforms the poplars into thin women, but the grain becomes ears of people and animals with which Death fills his basket. Blood pours like water, the eyes of a dead horse roll under a millipede, the advancing army of mercenaries looks like flying ants. The fierce and physically grandiose images of Death fade away with the little butterfly, the symbol of Stygge’s and Elisabeth’s love, that falls in flames into Death’s basket to join all the other creatures: sows, wolves, and human beings. Thit Jensen’s landscape tableaux, which are on the borderline between reality and vision, also have parallels in some of the innovative Swedish poets such as Greta Knutson-Tzara and Rut Hillarp, in whose poems Edith Södergran’s “land that is not” is a topic which still has potent force.

“Why is such a very young woman sitting so still, leaning on a tree resting on the embankment by the watermill? The multi-coloured October forest whispers above her; bare from the waist up, she still has the remnants of a wreath of flowers in her hair. Her arms fall limply, her slender, childlike knees jut out, the small breasts are bleeding… oh no, they are gone […]”.

Thit Jensen: Stygge Krumpen

Thit Jensen was of course neither staunch nor avowed surrealist, albeit her explanations about spiritualist inspiration and dictating voices might occasionally sound like the surrealist account of dream and subconscious expression through automatic writing. Stygge Krumpen is also highly reminiscent of gory and bold nineteenth-century popular fiction, which was fashioned in such a way as to titillate the imaginations of a growing readership without crossing the boundaries of propriety. But the novel is perhaps nevertheless about as close as we get to surrealism in 1930s’ Danish literature, because Thit Jensen as creative artist utterly admits to her own fascination with all forms of desire, from Svantevit’s oral sucking of women and sugar and the delight he takes in his own farts, to the nuns’ sadistic sexual fantasies and masturbation; from a drunken peasant’s slobbering paedophilia to the mad king’s unbridled bloodthirstiness and maiden Elisabeth’s wan masochism.

The complex of issues around the roads and off-roads of desire does not lead to a sexual policy or a women’s manifesto. But desire becomes the source of a world of imagery the fascination and intensity of which is felt in the very first scenes of the novel. Thit Jensen frees the text in her rhetoric of desire.

AnneMarie Mai

Translated by Gaye Kynoch