Out of Africa

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,”

And so in the lilting Danish accent of Meryl Streep, opens Out of Africa, a 1986 film directed by Sydney Pollack.

With sweeping plains of East Africa in view, an attractive cast including Streep and Robert Redford, bolstered by a beautiful musical score by John Barry, ‘Out of Africa‘ went on to win 7 Academy Awards and box office earnings of over USD $227 million.

Based on the memoir with the same title by Danish author Karen Blixen, [Isak Dinesen] the original book was first published in 1937, and recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa. The film script was adapted with additional material from Dinesen’s book Shadows on the Grass and other sources.

The book’s title is probably an abbreviation of the famous ancient Latin adage,

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.

Pliny, The Elder

Out of Africa, always something new.

The book and film are a lyrical meditation on Blixen’s life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It provides a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire.

Noted for its melancholy, nostalgic and elegiac style, biographer Judith Thurman describes Out of Africa using an African tribal phrase:

clear darkness.

The tale covers the deaths of at least five of the important people in Blixen’s life, and is a meditation on her feelings of loss and nostalgia. She describes her failed business, and comments wryly on her mixture of despair and denial, of the sadness she faces there. A brave and hard working woman for whom almost nothing flows smoothly: marriage, love, business, health. Everything is challenging, even crushing.

Why then is such a story, so sad and so melancholy, yet so enduringly popular among movie goers and readers?

Perhaps in true modernist and existentialist style, Blixen captures the feeling of living, the sights, smells, and sensations of a foreign land and the strange and diverse people she meets there. The bitter-sweetness of existence is shared with us through her experience, marked by love, loss, desire, knowing, holding and surrendering.

Blixen was admired by her contemporaries including Ernest Hemingway, who is reported to have said on winning his own Nobel prize in 1954,

I would have been happy – happier – today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the Modernist “ache”

Upon reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, one feels distinctly manipulated. The text is so melancholy, the characters so pitiable, society so repressive and unjust. One wonders “what essay is Thomas Hardy writing through his novel about his world”? Why does he wish to make his readers so miserable?

The story is set in the 1870s in county Wessex. Tess Durbeyfield is a saintly rural maiden, misunderstood by her poor parents. Her uneducated father believes they have connections to aristocracy through the name “D’Urberville”.  She is sent to “claim kin” and  finds work to help support her family and  watched over by the rather abrasive landowners son Alec Stoke.

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Alec, on pretense of helping her one day, leads her into the woods where he rapes her. She returns home and  cannot talk of the crime or of the sickly child she bears and buries in an unmarked grave. Several years pass and she finds herself working as a milkmaid for a local farmer, and is courted by the parsons son, Angel Clare. Fearful to tell Angel the truth, she conceals it until the day of their marriage. On the night of their wedding,  he confesses to her a previous relationship with an older woman and so she in turn she tells him of the misdemeanour. He promptly disowns her and sails for Brazil, but not without propositioning Tess’ milkmaid friend to accompany him as his mistress. She declines.

Hard on her luck, Tess is forced to become the mistress  to wealthy Alec. In Brazil,  Angel suffers failures with his farming ventures and repents of his angry impulses. Sickly with yellow fever, he returns to England and confesses his love for Tess, She cannot have him and turns him away. As he leaves however, Tess murders Alec and pursues Angel. The novel closes with the couple at Stonehenge, where Tess rests upon an ancient altar. As the police descend to take Tess to prison and certain and death, she states she is glad, for Angel loves her and she him.

Hardy was an educated Victorian man concerned with the injustices of his day. Tess is almost an image of Hardy’s beautiful pastoral England, raped by the landed gentry, abused and managed by those using the name of the church. When she lies upon the pagan altar, she is at her happiest. The narrator concludes the novel with the statement:

“‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess,”

Justice, however,  is not really just at all. What passes for “Justice” is in fact one of the pagan gods enjoying a bit of “sport,” or a frivolous game.  The fates are frivolous. This is the ache of the modern view – there is no dream. Just reality, bare and stark.

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Not only is society in transition between an ancient pastoral land, to industrial urbanisation, but also from the enlightenment certainty to modern melancholy. Unlike classic tragedy, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tale does not allude to a “norm” against which the tragedy occurs. Romeo and Juliet’s families acknowledge that their warring houses could have prevented the deaths. The court of Macbeth acknowledge that powerlust and hubris brought about the decline of the kingdom and so forth.

One feels with Hardy, that with the decline of enlightenment certainty, comes a decline in confidence in redemption of any kind. The modernist ache is to contemplate society and its evils without affirming an alternative ending. Other than to aspire to compassionate humanism, we cannot ultimately hope but to avoid the sport of the gods.