According to the Indian-Australian scholar Vijay Mishra in his study The Gothic Sublime (1994), the sublime – which since Kant is usually coupled with High Romanticism and its aftermath – may also pertinentiy be associated with darker recesses within the Western Canon, such as we find them, for instance, in Gothic fiction from Horace Walpole right up to the twentieth century: “… the Gothic offers an alternative narrative of heterogeneity in which the subject embraces, in spite of reason’s interdiction, the lawlessness of the sublime”.
This “lawlessness” likewise disrupts the monolithic rule of patriarchal power, insofar as we come across precisely such a mental andfor serniatic breakdown, for instance, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), where “Manfred, the terrorizing patriarch, is presented as an agitated and highstrung occupant of a eastie that he eannot contain within his consciousness … The Gothic is centrally a discourse of instability, of the impossibility of representation … it is always on the verge of madness, the state of complete dissolution of logic and categories of difference’. The eastie threatens to turn inward on itself, encrypting’, if need be, all its occupants. The various underground passages [i.e. those we come across in The Castle of Otranto] are relics, traces, metonyms in faet, of the larger encrypting’ potential of the castie”. Somehow it appears in this connection that a paternal figure is always hiding in the wings. Anyway, parentage
– the question of where you come from – remains an essential thematic concern in early as well as later examples of Gothic fiction. And easdes from Walpole right up to Kafka and his literary successors tend to remain hidden from all curious onlookers, from applicants with their misgivings and likewise from any rebellious spirits, who attempt to defy the law of the father: this appears to be the situation from time immemorial to this very day.
Somehow patriarchal power in Gothic fiction as well as elsewhere may very well be hidden (“encrypted”) in more or less inaccessible “underground passages”, just as texts may hide their true meaning behind a more or less impenetrable surface of mysterious signs, such as it is pointed out in Shawn James Rosenheim’s ingenious study of secret writing, The Cryptographic Imagination. Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet (1997). According to Rosenheim, “after 1839 [Edgar Allan] Poe’s writing was dominated by the cryptograph’s model of the text as a code. lnstead of attempting to ground the arigin of language (and of humanity) in the hieroglyphic mirraring of the human body, Poe increasingly thought of language as a refuge from the world’s distressing materiality, penetrable only by those who possessed the key”. Thus the “crypt” – or narrative space – may solely be explored or opened adequately by readers who possess the proper conceptual tools, and in a similar manner Gothic fiction as such (or the Gothic sublime) only remains approachable to the happy few.
Actually, we may link up thematic issues such as those just discussed with a number of prototypical narrative elements that we come across in Hans Christian Andersen’s as well as Karen Blixen’s (Isak Dinesen’s) fiction, for here a kind of sublime “lawlessness” as well as the precarious position of a number of their exiled characters is frequently on the agenda. Thus we come across what Mishra has termed “the genealogical sublime” already in Hans Christian Andersen’s novel O.T. (1836), where the main character Otto Thostrup’s own initials appear to be tattoed on his shoulder, but it later turns out that these initials actually refer to his place of birth (“Odense Tugthus”, i.e. “Odense Prison”) and thus contains a hidden reference to his highly problematic parentage. In Andersens’ fairy tale “The Shadow” (1847) genealogy is once more problematized, when the learned man’s shadow (or his double) by and by usurps his position and in the end kills him, exemplifying in this manner a kind of low-key Oedipal misdemeanour. A similar emphasis on the Gothic sublime may be traced in Karen Blixen’s “The Supper at Elsinore” (in her Seven Cathie Tales, 1934), where the two sisters’ ghost-brother Morten returns to the family circle for a short while, but invariably must go back to where he came from, i.e. the Otherworld, for the great Nietzschean No overrides everything else. And in “The Caryatids, An Unfinished Tale” (1938, reprinted in Last Tales, 1957) genealogy is once again disrupted, insofar as an incestuaus relationship tends to dominate the plot, and witchcraft and the idea of water as a daemonic element gradually infiltrates the tale’s sinuous narrative thread.
According to Karin Sanders, in an artide published in Scandinavian Studies (Spring 1993), “[i]n H.C. Andersen’s novel O.T., the genealogy of proper names and paternaland maternal inscriptions are confronted and problematized in a way [camparable to what we come across in the contemporary Swedish author CarlJonas Love Almqvist’s drama Ramida Marinesca (1834)] … The initials O.T. are directly inscribed on the body (the shoulder) of the protagonist. The gradual decoding in the text of the tattoo reveals a double meaning, that of the proper name, Otto Thostrup [but on the other hand, it also refers to Odense Tugthus / Odense Prison] … The first meaning of the inscription refers to a socially acceptable paradigm via the reference to the last name of his high ranking paternal grandfather Thostrup. The second part of the initials – the abject part – refers to the defilement or disgrace of the prison in which his mother gave birth to him and a twin sister after having taken upon her the sins (a theft) of Otto’s father. She dies in childbirth, and some years later Otto (but not the twin sister) is acknowledged by the wealthy grandfather. Upon learning the hidden meaning of the initials later in life, Otto’s primary project becomes the erasure of this other, shame-ridden meaning. It is this process of eradication, that is the center of Andersen’s novel”.
In O.T. the second, “abject” meaning of the initials is revealed to the protagonist in one of the episodes where he comes across an old acquaintance, the German juggler Heinrich, and the latter diseloses his own role in the plot as the person who long ago tattooed this inscription on Otto’s shoulder; actually, the tattoo makes Heinrich aware of Otto Thostrup’s identity: “… Had you not shown me your shoulder, on which I saw the letters O and T which I myself had etched, it would never have occurred to me that we knew each other! But a light suddenly fiashed across me. I should have said Otto Thostrup; but I said Odense Tugthuus’. That was not handsome of me, seeing you are such a good gentleman!”
According to Bjarne Thorup Thomsen in an artide published in Tidskrift for litteraturvetenskap, what characterizes the topography of the novel is that geographic positions are frequently synonymous with mental positions: “What is characteristic of the construction of space in O.T. is … that geographic positions are often likewise mental positions. This applies to the moors and the west coast of Jutland as well as Odense, the most important of the literary-geographical achievements’ of the novel [to quote Johan de Mylius’ formulation]” … Concurrently with Otto Thostrup’s itinerary right through the moorish desert, as it is called, at the end of the First Part of the novel, [and all the way across the peninsula] towards the “dead, mournful coast” of the North Sea, as it is called, landscape and soul coalesce in the following manner: The further west Otto came, the further his mind turned out to be tuned in the direction of seriousness; it was as if the desolate natura!setting and the cold sea fog were incorporated into his very soullife'”.
Actually, the symbolic geography of the novel can be related to age-old mappings of the world, such as we come across them in Christian iconography: “As one of the four cardinal points, the west signifies the seat of darkness and the abode of demons. To those sitting in the darkness, the rose high up on the western side of the church was said to make the light of the gospel visible” (as it is formulated in George Fergusan’s Signsand Symbols in Christian Art, 1966). And according to the medieval theologian Pierre Bercheur (ca. 1290-1362) in his Repertorium, vulgo Dictionarium morale (written some time befare 1355), the sinner always intends “to go to the East, i.e. to Paradise, and nevertheless he constantly goes to the West, i.e. to Heil …” On one level of meaning Otto Thostrup’s westward journey towards the “dead, mournful coast” out there may thus be interpreted as a kind of night journey, where the death of his grandfather just before his arrival may be said to signalize the breakdown of patriarchal orderas such and possibly likewise a kind of diabolical turn towards “the seat of darkness and the abode of demons”, such as it is presented to us in Christian iconography (see above).
In Chapter 24 in the English version of O.T. (i.e. in Chapter 4 in the Second Part of O.T. in the Danish version) Otto himself reflects on the contrast between his friend Wilhelm’s joyful childhood and the sadness or ingrained tristesse of his own family background: “Among the sand hills of the west coast my days glided away: my grandfather was gloomy and passionate; our old preacher lived only in a past time which I knew not, and Rosalie [the housekeeper] regarded the world through the speetades of sorrow. Such an environment might well cast a shadow upon my life-joy”.
However this may be, in O.T. we also notice narrative elements where a higher degree of merriment and joie-de-vivre appears to dominate, and in particular such a mood prevails in one of the episodes set in Copenhagen, where Wilhelm, Otto and their fellow students party and even through their behaviour demonstrate a predilection for carnivalistic excesses, such as these have been taken up and theorized at great length by the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin in his study entitled Rabelais and His World (1965, 1968). According to Bakhtin, “carnival is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter. It is a festive life. Festivity is a peculiar quality of all comic rituals and speetades of the Middle Ages”. Cross-dressing is in accordance with the general bias of carnival festivities, where the world is repeatedly – over and over again – turned upside down. This means that the role(s) of the sexes – or gender identity as such – is likewise turned upside down. Or as it is formulated by Bakhtin: “The androgyne theme was popular in Rabelais’ time”
In O.T. the Students’ Club (Studenter-Foreningen) makes room for such festive celebrations, and because there are no female students at the University, male students have to dress up as Jemaies for the festivities: “Many of the youngest students who had feminine features were dressed as ladies; some of them might even be called pretty. Who that then saw the fair one with the tambourine can have forgatten her? The company crowded round the ladies … Otto was much excited; the noise, the bustle, the variety of people, were almost strikingly given … A young lady, one of the beauties, in a white dress, and with a thin handkerchief over her shoulders, approached and threw herself into his arms. It was Wilhelm! but Otto found his likeness to [Wilhelm’s sister] Sophie stronger than he had ever noticed it to be; and therefore the blood rushed to his cheeks when the fair one threw her arms around him, and laid her cheek upon his: he perceived more of Sophie than of Wilhelm in this form”. In Antiquity cross-dressing is frequently characteristic of the turbulence of the Dianysian festivities, but in O. T. – in a more down-to-earth manner – we also notice the unmistakable homo-erotic overtones, imbuing the setting with its own peculiar atmosphere.
In two episodes, placed at the beginning and at the end of the novel respectively, water plays an essential thematic role in the plot. In the first episode Otto, swimming further out into the Sound than it makes sense to do, is rescued in the last minute by Wilhelm and his friends: “Otto had lost all power; his head disappeared berteath the water. The friends had nearly reached him; Wilhelm and several of the hest swimmers flung from themselves boots and coats, sprang into the sea, and dived under the water. … Wilhelm and the three others now appeared with Otto; the boat was near oversetting as they brought him into it. Deathly pale lay he there, a beautifully formed marble statue, the pieture of ayoung gladiator fallen in the arena … He breathes!’ said Wilhelm”.
But at the very end of the novel, Otto’s arch-enemy, the German juggler Heinrich and his daughter Sidsel, on their way from Capenhagen to Jutland, both drown, as their vessel goes down: “The water rushed more and more into the ship. Heinrich thrust his arm through the cabin-window, he grasped about in the water within; suddenly he caught hold of a garment, he drew it toward him; but it was only the captain’s coat, and not his daughter, as he had hoped … The ship whirled round with the boat and all. Air and water boiled within it, and, as if in a whirlpool, the whole sunk into the deep … No wreck remained to tell any one of the struggle which there had been with death”.
On the outskirts of the plot we may thus possibly catch a glimpse of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault has termed “the sea’s great madness”: according to Foucault, “[a]t the end of the sixteenth century, [the French witch-hunter] De Lancre sees in the sea the arigin of the demonologicalleanings of an entire people: the hazardous labor of ships, dependence on the stars, hereditary secrets, estrangement from women – the very image of the great turbulent plain itself makes man lose his faith in God and all his attachment to his home; he is then in the hands of the Devil, in the sea of Satan’s ruses”. But whereas Otto is finally rescued by his (male) friends in the open sea, Heinrich and his daughter on the other hand appear to succumb to “the sea’s great madness”; and whereas Otto at the end of the novel is still enmeshed in the “hereditary secrets” a Gothic protagonist like himself always has to come to terms with, he has nevertheless found a more reliable soulmate than Sophie, who has long ago married another man, in Sophie’s sister Louise: the Gothic villain Heinrich has earlier tried to convince Otto that Heinrich’s own daughter Sidsel is actually Otto’s long-lost sister, but in the end Ottofinds out that his true sister is Eva – a veritable femme fragile, who unfortunately dies young like so many other nineteenth-century heroines from the Bronte sisters to Adda Ravnkilde and their fictional female characters.
Thus parentage is problematized in O.T. and remains so to the very end, insofar as Otto remains unaware of the Gothic villain Heinrich’s death – and at the end of the novel Heinrich is therefore still supposed to be able to disturb Otto’s peace of mind, insofar as his knowledge of Otto’s and his family’s “hereditary secrets” still appears to pose an uncanny threat to Otto’s status and self-awareness. Anyway, such a profound unease on the part of the protagonist(s) with regard to his/her/their own family background is in accordance with the rules of the game in Gothic fiction.
In connection with these reflections on the general atmosphere of O.T. it is worth while bearing in mind that both the Gothic and the carnevalistic elements of the plot can be said to maintain a kind of precarious balance between antagenistic poles: according to the scholar Ronald Paulson in his impressive study Representations of Revolution (1789-1820) a certain type of grotesque – and by implication therefore also the carnivalesque-grotesque – can be characterized as “a defective twin of the sublime” (including in this case likewise the Gothic sublime). The dangers of the deep – exemplified in the plot by Otto’s hazardous swim in the Sound as well as the final shipwreck – are counterbalanced by the carnivalesque episode in the Students’ Club, where the social andfor semi-erotic connection between the two friends (Otto and Wilhelm) is emphasized. Later women step in, but in this early episode their male stand-ins have taken over completely.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Shadow” (“Skyggen”, 1847) parentage is problematized or deconstructed in a scrnewhat different way, insofar as the relationship between the protagonist, the learned man from the cold countries (presumably Denmark), and his own shadow, who goes independent and establishes a separate career for himself, is no longer a family relationship in the proper sense. Nevertheless, as I have pointed out earlier, when the shadow finally gets his former master kil/ed, it could be characterized as “a kind of low-key Oedipal misdemeanour” (see above).
What we come across in “The Shadow” is also a kind of displaced love triangle, where the learned man sends his shadow to the house on the other side of the street in order topayavisit to the beautifullady over there (Poetry herself), whom he (the learned man) has caught a glimpse of, but is afraid of contacting himself. In classic versions of this love triangle, such as we find them, for instance, in Shakespeare’s sonnets or in Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Paustus (1947), the end-result is invariably the same, namely that the messenger-rival runs away with the beloved woman. In Andersen’s fairy tale we are presented with a version of the same plot, where some elements nevertheless appear to be missing, or the whole scenario has been sarnewhat re-structured. Thus the shadow does not conquer the woman on the other side of the street, turning her into his bride, but on the other hand he later marries a king’s daughter, whom he has met at a spa, at this point accompanied by the learned man, whom the shadow has hired as his shadow! When the shadow tells his former master about his experiences in the house on the other side of the street, he certainly appears to overdo sarnewhat the kind of intellectual profit his visit over there has entailed, but at the same time the interior portrayed by the shadow bears a certain resemblance to the underground passages or encrypted space we come across so aften in Gothic texts like Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and its literary successors. Anyway, thisis how the shadow subsequently describes this place: “Then I was in the antechamber,’ said the shadow. It was the antechamber you were always sitting there looking at. There were no candles, it was a kind of twilight, but one door after another stood open to a long row of rooms and halls. And all of them were brightly lit. I would have been killed by light if I had gone right in to see the maiden. But I was level-headed, I took my time, and that’s what you have to do'”
We notice that this whole set-up is somehow over-exposed, and according to the shadow, unlike what we come across in most Gothic fiction, it is not darkness, but contrariwise light that represents a threat to the observer (“I would have been killed by light if I had gone right in to see the Maiden”). The shadow appears to be over-sensitive with regard to the would-be aura of the project of enlightenment, or as it has been formulated by two French literary historians, Roger Bozzetto and Arnaud Huftier: “The sleep of reason certainly produces monsters [such as it is pointed out by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya in one of his Caprichos from 1797-98, published as an album in 1799 (i.e. in Number 43 in this series of prints)], but when its radiance is excessive, it bedazzles us and does not allow us to perceive those other outlines of reality, which such texts as those basedon fantastic effects attempted to grasp”. When we approach what looks like an inhospitable shadowland, reason for all that seems to be at the end of its tether.
The scenario portrayed by the shadow – who never gets further into House of the Beautiful Maiden (Poetry herself) than into the twilight zone of the antechamber- may also remind us of a much later text written by Franz Kafka, entitled “Befare the Law” (written in December 1914), where a man from the country attempts over and over again to be admitted to the law, but is never given access to this place or institution by the doorkeeper, who incessantly prevents him from crossing the threshold. After many years and after all his futile attempts to be admitted to the law, the man from the country in the end begs even the fleas in the doorkeeper’s fur collar “to help him and change the doorkeeper’s mind. Finally his sight begins to fail and he does not know whether it is really growing darker around him or whether his eyes are just deceiving him. But he can indeed perceive in the darkness a radiance that streams unquenchably from the doorway of the law. Now he has not much longer to live …” Thus it appears that even the man from the country in Kafka’s story – like Hans Christian Andersen’s shadow – might possibly in the last resort be killed by overmuch light!
In “The Shadow” the learned man from the cold countries – just like Otto and Wilhelm in O. T. – is to begin with confronted with a carnivalesque spectacle, when he visits the deep South (presumably Italy), and maybe it is even this excessive joie-de-vivre, characteristic of street life down there, that makes him overstretch his resources beyond what he is capable of (presumably this is really the case, when the learned man makes his shadow stretch itself so far in the direction of the house opposite his own that it disappears inside the house). Down in the street, when evening approaches, “[e]verything grew quite lively, both upstairs and down. Shoemakers and tailors, everybody moved out into the street. Tables and chairs appeared, eandies burned. Over a thousand eandies were burning, and one person would talk while another sang. People strolled, carriages rolled past, mules walked along with a clinga-ling because they were wearing bells. Bodies were burned with hymns, street urchins set off firecrackers, and the church bells rang. Oh, yes, it was very lively down in the street”. What Andersen focuses on here is really what Mikhail Bakhtin has termed “the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter. It is a festive life”.
But we also notice in this street scene how evenhuman mortality (where “Bodies [are] burned with hymns”) is incorporated into the festive spectacle, just as it happens to be the case in the Roman carnival, ending with the Fire Festival, such as it is portrayed by Goethe in his Italienische Reise (1813-17), and later taken up at great length on the basis of Goethe’s travelogue by Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World: “Each participant [in the Fire Festival] … carries a lighted candle: Sia ammazzato chi non porta moccolo! Death to anyone who is not carrying a candle!’ With this bloodthirsty cry, each one tries to blow out his neighbor’s candle. Thus fire is combined with the threat of death, but the louder the cry, the more does the threat lose its direct threatening meaning. The deeply ambivalent nature of the wish for death is disclosed”. A similarly joyful, but at the same time deeply ambivalent mood appears to dominate at the very beginning of Andersen’s “The Shadow”.
However this may be, the learned man in Andersen’s story has not really grasped the meaning of the spectacle he has witnessed down there, and when he returns to the cold North his rather facile idealism is easily overeorne and dismissed out of hand by his shadowy successor, who over the years has become his powerful opponent. And in the end the shadow – together with the femme fatale of the story, the princess – is capable of getting rid of his former master once and for all.
Thus the atmosphere of the wedding edebrations of the royal couple is scrnewhat different from the festive pranks and jubilant tone characteristic of the street scene at the beginning of the story (or the Fire Festival deseribed by Goethe), for in this case the pomp and circumstance of the spectacle appears to have given up the earlier joyful ground swell altogether, replacing it by a kind of bombastic militancy: “That evening the whole city was lit up. The cannons were fired, boom! And the soldiers presented arms. Now that was a wedding! The king’s daughter and the shadow came out onto the balcony to be seen by all, and receive another round of hurrahs. l The learned man heard none of it, because bythen they had taken his life”.
What is presented here to the cheering crowd is actually the death of carnival! At the end of the story the hollow men of the brave new world have taken over the scene. According to the New Historicists, the hollow man or woman plays a crucial role in our culture since the Renaissance, and Hans Christian Andersen’s shadow fits this description exceptionally well. He is and remains one the hollow men, the stuffed men, headpiece filled with straw, and when he presents himself to his former master for the first time, the learned man envisages “such an exceedingly thin person that [the protagonist] was quite taken aback”. The learned man never recovers fromthis shock, where he first comes across what might be termed the mal du siixle, in this case a sickness which he is very soon toget under his skin for good!
Bearing in mind Vijay Mishra’s statement concerning Gothic fiction quoted earlier, it may be worth while attempting to trace Karen Blixen’s / Isak Dinesen’s narrative method in her tales and novellas on the basis of such an approach: “…the Gothic offers an alternative narrative of heterogeneity in which the subject embraces, in spite of reason’s interdiction, the lawlessness of the sublime”. In connection with her writings we may also recall David Punter’s classic definition of the Gothic: “When thinking of the Gothic novel [and presumably this applies to all Gothic fiction], a set of characteristics springs readily to mind: an emphasis on portraying the terrifying, a common insistence on archaic settings, a prominent use of the supernatural, the presence of highly stereotyped characters and the attempt to deploy and perfect techniques of literary suspense are the most significant. Used in this sense, Gothic’fiction is the fiction of the haunted castle, of heroines preyed on by unspeakable terrors, of the blackly lowering villain, of ghosts, vampires, monsters and werewolves”.
As I have already made clear, here I shall take up two of Karen Blixen’s sarnewhat longer narratives: “The Supper at Elsinore” from her Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and “The Caryatids, An Unfinished Tale”, originally written for the 1934 volume of Gothic Tales, but first published in Sweden in March 1938 in Bonnier’s Magasin and later inelucled in her Last Tales (1957). Robert Langbaum in The Gayety o[ Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen’s Art (1964, 1965) refers to an interesting headnote in the Swedish version, “in which the editor, who suggests that the story may have been left unfinished on purpose, quotes Isak Dinesen’s reply to his question on this point: It is hest that the story ends where it does. Best for the characters and best for us. I did not dare to continue”‘.
What mayhave made Karen Blixen hesitate, when it came to finishing the story in question, may have something to do with the way w
itchcraft is presentedin the narrative, where a small boy (the female protagonist Childerique’s son) is supposed to be involved – but this episode is only anticipated in the text, and the author breaks off the account before this critical point is reached. In other respects Blixen likewise challenges conventional narrative decorum, insofar as she takes up the theme of incest in a quite literal and not only a metaphorical sense, such as it had been the case in some of her earlier stories. In “The Caryatids, An Unfinished Tale” we also notice that the heroine (Childerique) to the very end remains unaware of the faet that her marriage to Philippe is an incestuous relationship, insofar as he is her half-brother. He knows that this is the case, but she does not. Anyway, incestuous relationsbips are frequently on the agenda in Gothic fiction – from Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1796) right up to the twentieth-century British author Angela Carter’s novels and short stories (in her Afterword to Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces from 1974 Angela Carter characterizes Gothic fiction as follows: “Its great themes are incest and cannibalism”).
In “The Supper at Elsinore”, published in Seven Gothic Tales (1934), the overall Gothic plot is basically a ghost narrative, and here we may bear in mind that according to David Punter, Gothic fiction is, among other things, the fiction “of ghosts, vampires, monsters and werewolves”.  The two ageing sisters of the wealthy De Coninck family (Fernande and Eliza, or Fanny and Lizzie) have long ago taken up their abode in their Capenhagen residence, even if the old family home is situated in Elsinore. To begin with this mansion appears to represent nothing but bourgeois solidity and respectability: “Upon the corner of a street of Elsinore, near the harbor, there stands a dignified old gray house, built early in the eighteenth century, and looking down reticently at the new times grown up araund it. Through the lang years it has been worked into a unity, and when the front door is opened on a day of the north-north-west the door of the corridor upstairs will open out of sympathy. Also when you tread a certain step of the stair, a board of the floor in the parlor will answer with a faint echo, like a song”. Of course, we notice here that the house somehow appears to be alive, and in a certain sense we may regard such an echoing door or board, presented to us in the very first paragraph of the story, as representing a premonition of much more spooky events to come.
In Capenhagen the two elderly sisters are having a party, when all of sudden their housekeeper in Elsinore, Old Madam Bæk, arrives to tell them that their brather – lang since dead, after having been hanged as a common criminal (a pirate) in Havana – “is at Elsinore. He walks in the house”. Madam Bæk sees the ghost several times, and when she observes him studying the two pietures of his sisters for a long time, she realizes that their brather wants to see them, and she goes to Capenhagen (no easy trip in the middle of the winter) in order to call them back to their residence up there. In a corner room of the house in Elsinore, “from which there was a view of the old gray eastie of Kronborg, copper-spired, like a elenehed fist out in the Sound”,  this spectral encounter finally takes place: “They did not have to wait long. Just as they had paured out their tea, and were lifting the thin cups to their lips, there was a slight rustie in the quiet room. When they turned their heads a little, they saw their brather standing at the end of the table”.
We may reckon that there is a reason why all these spooky events take place at Elsinore, for Elsinore (and its castle, by Blixen represented by Kronborg) is where Shakespeare’s Hamlet (probably written between 1599 and 1601) takes place. And the precursor text behind a great many modern and/or postmodern ghost narrativesis precisely Hamlet – we can, incidentally, likewise discern this play as a possible source of inspiration behind quite a few attempts to come to theoretical terms with the ghosts of modernity or with the notion of spectrality itself. An example of such a philosophical approach is Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1994, 1995).
In Hamlet the ghost (Hamlet’s father’s ghost) makes the prince acutely aware of his stepfather’s treachery and murder of his own brather (i.e. Hamlet’s father). In “The Supper at Elsinore” family matters are also on the agenda, even if there is no fratricidal villain here like Claudius in Shakespeares’ play. The theme of incest is likewise touched upon (just as it is the case in a more straighdorward sense in “The Caryatids”), for here Master Morten gives up everything, including his fiancee on the very day of their wedding (which therefore never takes place), to become an outlaw with no steady habitation anywhere; and this is how he explains things to his two sisters in their conversation in the corner room, after he has returned to the family mansien as a ghost: “I fell in love. It was the coup de foudre of which Unde Fernand spoke so much. He knew it to be no laughing matter. And she was somebody else’s, so I could not have her without cheating law and order a little. She was built
in Genoa, had been used by the French as a dispatch-carrier, and was known to be the quickest schooner that ever flew over the Adantic … She was the loveliest, yes, by far the loveliest thing I ever saw. She was like a swan”.
But while Morten and his sisters discuss this topic, we are made indubitably aware that the stolen schooner is narned after his younger sister: La Belle Eliza. Their love may thus be considered as something approaching an incestuous relationship, even if it is not so in the physical sense. And after their brother has left them again to go back to hell where he came from, Eliza recapitulates her beloved brother’s words about what was on his mind during his final minute on the scaffold in Havana: “To think,’ says she, to think, with the halter around my neck, for one minu te of La Belle Eliza”‘.
In “The Caryatids, An Unfinished Tale” “the subject [in this case the female protagonist Childerique, like so many other Gothic agents] embraces, in spite of reason’s interdiction, the lawlessness of the sublime”. In her study Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative Susan Hardy Aiken offers a reading of “The Caryatids”, where the gypsies – representing whatever escapes from the tyrannous rule of normality and is placed on the outskirts of civilized space – play an important role: “Associated with both the natura! and the supernatural, they haunt the margins of the dominant social order, inhabiting a wild, liminal space like that of the forest … Not surprisingly, given women’s comparable association with divergence, marginality, and disruption, the most powerful figure of this untamed world is a woman. Like the river, the graceful’ young gypsy witch Simkie appears to the lord of Champmesle as an unstable, sinuous being who defies proper piacement …”
The story begins with a pastoral scene, where the Gothic undertones are hardly discernible: “The mother of the three children [i.e. Childerique], a tall and willowy young woman with a a narrow face and big starlike dark eyes, had tied a lace handkerchief round her head, and was holding her naked littie son down in the water, and scolding a sturdy young woman in a peasant’s dress of the province, who was standing barefooted in the middle of the stream to receive the child. The littie boy stared at his mother with her own big dark eyes, very skeptical about the undertaking, and wondering whether the women really did mean him to go”.
But later in the narrative, in particular in one of the last episodes of the plot, where the gypsy woman Simkie, the miller’s widow, is visited by Childerique in the mill house, Simkie manages to get Childerique convinced that the world of witchcraft is immensely attractive to her: “Childerique walked out on a littie gangway near the wheel [of the mill], holding on to the rail. She was at once splashed all over by a delicate sprinkle of fresh drops – this was a joke on the part of the water … She had indeed to wait long, before anything else showed itself to her. Then it was as if by a sudden jerk her own position was changed; she was no longer gazing down, or there was no longer any up and down in the world” [and in a vision she sees the remote past quite near, until she can finallyreturn to the mill again]. What she also sees in the water is a rendez-vous between her own mother and father (though she is still not aware that the lover in this case is someone else, namely Philippe’s father).
The experiences in Simkie’s mill house convince Childerique that her former life style is highly problematic and possibly not worth while upholding, for “[i]t was as if the house and garden of Champmesle and all the life awaiting her there were pale and cold now compared to the glowing earth and air of an hour ago. Had the warmth and color gone from her live husband to remain with the vision lovers, even with the vision animals of a burning sky and a forestof a thousand years ago?”
In “The Caryatids” water may thus connote pastoral serenity as well as Gothic horror, and here we may once more bear in mind Michel Foucault’s reflections on the dangerous liaison between water and witchcraft, where Simkie’s activities in the mill house fit perfectly in: both Simkie and Childerique appear to be taken in by “the sea’s great madness”, insofar as “[the French witch-hunter] De Lancre [saw] in the sea the origin of the demonologicalleanings of an entire people: the hazardous labor of ships, dependence on the stars, hereditary secrets, estrangement from women – the very image of the great turbulent plain itself makes man lose his faith in God and all his attachment to his home; he is then in the hands of the Devil, in the sea of Satan’s ruses”. In particular the “hereditary secrets” of the two noble families and the compact with the Devil that Simkie herself refers to more or less directiy are certainly relevant thematic elements in this horror story. However, in this case the Foucauldian pattern has somehow been turned upside down, for it is the women, who willingly get involved with what ordinary people would regard as horrible or diabolical, and finding an odd pleasure – or even cultivating a kind of Lacanian jouissance – in doing so.
Same of the readings of the present paper are based on earlier approaches on my part to the texts in question. On “The Shadow” (“Skyggen”) I published an artide in 1998: “Skyggebilleder fra en rejse til Syden: H.C. Andersens Skyggen’ (1847), Platans huleallegori og Chamissos Peter Schlemihl’ (1813) – en romatisk splittelsesf igur set i lyset af et platonisk tema”, in Det dæmoniske spejl: Analyser af H.C. Andersens “Skyggen“, Finn Barlby (red.), Træsnit af Lena Bay (København: Dråben, 1998), pp. 43-76. On Karen Blixen’s “The Supper at Elsinore” and “The Caryatids, An Unfinished Tale” (plus other texts by Karen blixen) see: Ib Johansen: “Le sphinx et la sibylle Karen Blixen et le fantastique”, in Karen Blixen et l’art du recit, Edite par Rene Rasmussen (Odense: Odense University Press, 1997), pp. 18-39. Thisartide is translated into French by Pascale Audibert and Per Bundgaard.