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Life as a Thing

Written by: Anne Birgitte Richard |

In the short story “Voksdukken” (Eng. tr. “The Wax Doll”) from Hvis det virkelig var en film (1978; Eng. Tr. If It Really Were a Film), a young newly-wed wife tells the story of her life in a domestic triangle where the fatal third character – the only one with a name – is the doll Jan. Towards her slightly older, dominating husband, she feels nothing, only that she is a being that he constantly criticises. The doll, which combines Hellenic

In “Poppaeas billede” (Poppaea’s Image) from Modellen Coppelia (Coppelia the Model) and “Vestalinden” (The Vestal Virgin) from Hvis det virkelig var en film, (1978, Eng. tr. If It Really Were a Film), Dorrit Willumsen uses antiquity to present both beautiful and terrifying images of gender as fate. In the former, a young man is transformed into a woman to act as the Emperor Nero’s ‘wife’, while in the latter a young girl whose family destined her for the chaste life of a vestal virgin becomes pregnant and is subsequently buried alive. Their bodies become their fate, not as biology but as metaphor.

ideals of beauty with those of modern culture, allows her to develop her own desire, to be herself. The drama culminates when she discovers on the first morning of her honeymoon that her husband has been stabbed to death – did she do it? Did the doll?

Holting, Lulla: Illustration from Dorrit Willumsen’s poem »Isabella«. In: Fælleden, nr. 1, 1977, Gyldendal

The combination of an almost lyrical language and tone with a monstrous plot is characteristic of the special reversal technique of Dorrit Willumsen (born 1940). The young woman does not truly find herself until she can mirror herself in the doll’s gaze, where she sees a reflection of herself just as she finds her dreams and her desires in the life she bestows on the doll. Neither the boundless love of her parents nor the cautious desire of her husband could give her the identity which her soul paradoxically finds in the meeting with the outer, non-human form that never asks questions or criticises.

The nameless woman in the story finds the form outside herself, but often this reified existence is the life form forced upon women by the views of man and culture. As early as the title story in her debut collection Knagen (1965; The Coat-hook), the woman is reduced, in the man’s consciousness, to an ‘it’, a thing. And a long series of texts depict the interaction between man’s, culture’s, and woman’s portrayal of the female sex. “Modellen Coppelia” (Coppelia the Model) from the collection with the same title (1973) tells the story of the man who dramatically opens the short story by placing his wife’s breasts on the kitchen table. The tragedy of the absurd is about a woman who, through torment and torture, frees herself from her sex to become a man, ultimately ending up as pure form, as a grotesque reflection of her husband’s expectations of a normal marriage with children and bath towels. He is the one longing for a transformation of her “clingy female language” and of her peculiar cooking, and he is the one who gives her the “doll’s name Coppelia”. Instead, Coppelia moves in an even more radical direction away from the animal, the feminine, and finally the human element. As a form, Coppelia and her ‘sisters’ are uniform beings – the negation of both androgyny and life.

The Body and Gender in Modernity

Throughout Dorrit Willumsen’s oeuvre, it is the image of women that becomes the primary symbol of the conflict between outer and inner. In her first novel, Stranden (1967; The Beach), a spineless man runs away from his unsuccessful life and, especially, from his wife Hanne, whom he describes in metaphors from the world of animals and inanimate objects. August is a modernist anti-hero with no control over his life and characterised by a loathing of sex, the body, and old age. The interplay between the sexes and their despondent attempts to reach each other continues as a theme, and is given its own text and title in the poetry collection Umage par (1983; Odd Couple), where the title poem emphasises the impossibility of forming couples.

Even in the slant of their writing
they contradicted each other
her sentimental leaning
to the right
his stubborn drifting
to the left
her quick loops
and swings
his down strokes’
They should have given it all up
long ago
simply grazed each other
in dreams with the very outermost joint
of a ring finger
And yet
they kept on
kept on

Title poem from the poetry collection Umage par (1983; Odd Couple).

The Danish modernism of the 1960s, of which Dorrit Willumsen was a part, had turned, in terms of cultural criticism, towards the modern consumer and mass society and its influence on the existence of the individual. Modernity in the form of commodity society removes the ‘I’ from the self, rendering it a stranger to itself. In Dorrit Willumsen’s texts, the woman is portrayed from the very beginning as the primary victim and the preferred form of expression of modernity; she is both the antithesis and the quintessence of culture. In The, krydderi, acryl, salær, græshopper (1970; Tea, Spices, Acrylics, Fees, Grasshoppers), commodity society materialises in the form of a department store as a force both divine and violent, which kills the animal-human aspects of the young Ivy Yvonne, a “non-rooted eighteen-year-old typist”, and transforms her into a doll and mask. And while such a scene can be read as the suppression of an as-yet-unestablished, “rooted” female identity, its meaning grows with each work in which the female body is the incarnation of the contradiction between the unseemly animal and perfection in the form of an unchanging body – a hardened, empty shell.

The dream of a woman becomes the terrifying answer to the dream of happiness, and it also becomes women’s answer to their own search for identity. Alienation’s name is woman, and release becomes a question of the art form’s images of new meanings, not – as in the emancipation literature of the 70s – of replacing the image with authentic, free femininity.

The other half of the “odd couple” is the man, the anonymous, empty centre in Manden som påskud (1980; Man as Pretence).

“He wanted to make them happy. He has really tried. He has always done his duty. Mortgages. Instalments. Hairdresser’s bills. Maintenance payments. Gramophone records,” he thinks on his way to death. Like a nameless God, the man is a reflection of the image of woman, he is the symbol in relation to which women have defined their existence and who now turns out to be an empty symbol, a pretence. The man’s importance is like the woman’s, a purely external form; his existence in the ironic story is even more dubious than that of the women, and any notion of well-founded manly transcendence is dissolved as an illusion.

Manden som påskud (1980; Man as Pretence).

The lives of five women revolve around a nameless man, husband, ex-husband, lover, father. He stops them in their lives, or they allow themselves to be stopped, imprisoned by their expectations of him – expectations which also lead to perpetual disappointment. When he suddenly dies from a heart attack in his car, the women find themselves without their point of reference, but also without any sense of loss.

Programmeret til kærlighed (1981; Programmed for Love) is the story of a woman, the scientist Liv, who creates a perfect woman in a scene with references to both the story of Frankenstein and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The perfect doll, Bianca, comes into the world at the same time as the scientist Orff creates a perfect, poisonous, and deadly monster, an ‘animal-child’ that in self-defence kills Orff’s real son, with whom he has a much more distant relationship. The two monsters are the result of their creators’ well-intentioned, passionate, and altogether perverted desire to improve on and create life. Science becomes a metaphor for the failed strategies within a programmed life, which those involved seek to correct through even more programming. Thus, Bianca’s purpose is to fulfil any man’s dream of the perfect woman and put an end to the marital violence which Liv sees as an expression of an unfulfilled need in the man. However, her changelessness instead provokes the man, causing him to become violent out of frustration – she does not eat, she does not give birth – and to flee at the prospect of marriage. And Orff’s love for life causes him to fail his wife and child and to love a being that could procreate and kill without guilt: “To have a head – far too smooth and small to understand any hate”.

Kleivan, Nina (b. 1960): Måneskinsbadning, Hawaii, 1989. Private collection

The consequence of the reversal strategies is death – not only does the son of Orff and Dica die, but death also becomes Orff’s solution after he does not dare in his grief to turn to Dica/Eurydice. “If he, like the animals, had remained within his boundaries, would this even have happened?” Orff wonders before leaving the house and in that act abandoning the monster to its fate – death. In Dorrit Willumsen’s reworking of the relationship between the mystical couple, Dica searches for Orff and meets him in the house of the dead. Bianca also searches for Liv and the young man who had lived with Bianca. And as Bianca falls to pieces, the couples look at each other, as in a repetition of the final scene of the novel En værtindes smil (The Smile of a Hostess) from 1974.

“Let’s be happy robots that smile to the clouds and pick flowers”, Thinks one character in the novel En værtindes smil (1974; Smile of a Hostess), in which a group of friends mirror themselves in each others’ outer skins of happiness, while the internal is only expressed in two scenes of vomiting that frame the sequence of events.

Within this horror story, Dorrit Willumsen has placed the utopia of an ecologically friendly and non-violent society. The chapter entitled “Noter omkring et opbrud” (Notes on an Upheaval), in which a woman in a letter to her husband reports on life in a utopian society, is a slightly reworked version of the text “Nødvendigt opbrud” (Necessary Upheaval) published in the series Krise og utopi (1979; Crisis and Utopia) in a themed issue on growth. This is the home of the story’s fourth child, who also becomes a metaphor for the future and the continuity that technology has destroyed: “For the first time, I think that Marie has a life ahead of her”.

Historical metaphors

While the present and adult life are closed to change and historicity, the historical family sagas Da (1968; Back Then) and Suk hjerte (1986; Sigh Heart), as well as the biographical novels Marie (1983)

Marie (1983) was a huge success for Dorrit Willumsen, in Denmark and internationally – it has been published in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, and the UK.

and Klædt i purpur (1990; Dressed in Crimson), possess a presence and personal development within which the characters are interconnected. The little girl in Da has an extra dimension in her life in the form of the maternal grandfather’s colourful stories about the family’s past; the childhood and the story have sensuality, depth, and a future that stiffens in the now of modernity.

The historical biography about Marie is a dramatic, epic, and sensual tale that also becomes a story about the living conditions of women artists – and about art as a way to place the form issue outside the self, like Marie who exhibits her figures in elaborate settings while living as unspectacular and private a life as possible. Marie creates her wax figures during the turbulent upheaval of the French Revolution, when she both observes and participates in the events as an artist. Before the revolution, she does the portraits of the royal family, during the revolution she creates masks of both the living and the dead, and at one point she is imprisoned and meets Napoleon’s future love, Josephine. But she is also a woman who longs for, and achieves, a life with children and a husband, for whom she loses respect. For many years at the end of her life, she is finally a self-supporting woman who makes a name for herself with her son in England, where she fights the male-dominated society and, in order to earn money, is also forced to follow the whims of fashion.

With the Marie character, Dorrit Willumsen also portrays an art form that resembles her own. After the murder of Marat, Marie visits the prison with the painter David to do a portrait of the murderess. And while David reinterprets and heroises the young girl in order to use her later in another work, Marie seeks to depict her as she sees her.

“Marie inserted the two straws very carefully in her nostrils and explained how she should breathe to experience the least possible discomfort. There was a faint smile on the girl’s lips, as if the straws tickled her – or perhaps she really was looking forward to seeing a cast of her own attractive face. While the plaster hardened she sat straight as a statue in her red silk dress. Perhaps she had actually dressed up for the murder in Marat’s dirty kitchen. David drew sketch after sketch: one of the Fates, marble-skinned, with flowing locks; a Valkyrie with hair like a smooth golden helmet; the girl’s eyes, at once distant and sharp; the light shining on her skin like raindrops.”

Marie (1983).

After making a wax impression, she goes home to shape the raw impression. Marie “worked with pencils, charcoal, chalk, steel, kapok, glove leather, wax, human hair, glass and silk, seeking to reach the soul through the skin as she applied the final colours to the wax faces”.

She seeks to animate the external and reflect the internal through the meticulous tooling of surface, material, and form. As in Dorrit Willumsen’s own texts, the aesthetic and decorative is both an impression of the time, and a technique that fights to say more, to give the vacant mask a soul.

The Empress Theodora (500-548) in Klædt i purpur (Dressed in Crimson) combines art with gender by turning self-presentation into identity. It becomes a way to express her fate as a woman as well as an effective mode of wielding power. As a young girl, she performs pornographic dances of her own invention, in which birds pluck grain from her groin – at the end of her life, she is represented in the famous Ravenna mosaics, and after her death she is carried away as an icon.

It is also in the form of mosaics that she recalls on her deathbed her dramatic life, from her fatherless days as a child prostitute until, in the image of innocence, she becomes the emperor’s wife and an important and powerful political figure. Her strategy is geared towards men’s desire and becomes a balancing act between intoxication, money, and power, and the violence and limitations on freedom that men’s excessive desire can lead to. The course of her life progresses from an adolescence of lust and decay, with abortions and illegitimate births, to her childless marriage, her sympathy for the eunuch Narces, and the chance to direct the sexual fates of others.

Throughout the mosaic is woven a series of stories that form the motifs and epic sequences of the mosaic pictures. The story of Theodora takes place in antiquity, far from the modern view of women, however her path through life has much in common with the life of a modern woman. It is a story of success that unites the Cinderella motif with the image of a modern career woman. It is also a story of a woman’s life in which sexuality and the body are the terms and the tools, and throughout the novel runs the mournful tale of a mother who gives birth at the age of fourteen to a son who is then adopted by the father and whom she follows afterwards only sporadically. Finally, her story becomes a myth in which references to the figure of the Madonna and son contrast with life as a whore; a story that is brought together in a monastery where she is cared for briefly, and where she falls in love with the bishop without being able to mould her desire into something spiritual: “But no matter how much I knelt, sang or fasted, the territory of my soul was and remained the skin”.

The portrait of Theodora is that of the culture’s framework for a woman’s life, but it is also a portrait of a woman who consciously and adeptly – and at extreme personal cost – elaborates on the image. The tale of her life brings together the three aesthetic themes of Dorrit Willumsen’s entire body of work. In an ever-changing process, she represents the animal, the human, and the mythical. Her life points towards the mortality of the body, the laws of human life, and a heavenly, divine order. Woven into these layers of meaning is the aesthetic in the form of beauty, fantasy, and self-presentation, which in turn are spun together with the social fate of the sexes and of women. Like other women characters and texts created by Dorrit Willumsen, Theodora is perpetually shifting among the different meanings. Epic lines can be drawn through her life, but she also lives within the fragments of the mosaics of Dorrit Willumsen’s texts, where prose often takes on more lyrical aspects. Association and metaphor drive the narrative just as much as causality and chronology; in contrast, her poetry often comprises little stories. Images and fragments are what the individual has at her disposal. However, the artist possesses the ability to see and create the image outside herself, and in so doing also manages to show how it comes into being – in culture and in history.

Dorrit Willumsen’s Bang. En roman om Herman Bang (1996; Bang. A Novel about Herman Bang) focuses on the artist’s ability to visualise, and on the source of this ability in passion and the body, as well as on the artist’s meeting with his public – a meeting that serves as a driving force in the artistic process, but which also contains the insurmountable, paralysing fear of self-revelation.

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd