That time Karen Blixen made a pact with the devil

Eyes of Karen Blixen - CultureNordic

INTERVIEW. The Danish author Karen Blixen was a woman with many personas. Her storytelling was not limited to pure fiction, but also contained more autobiographical elements about herself and her personal life. Sometimes fiction and truth would be hard to tell apart. Like the story of how she made a pact with the devil.

I, your humble CultureNordic reporter, had decided to revisit the The Karen Blixen Museum and I found myself with the literature student Anne Pilegaard Petersen walking past naked trees along a muddy path leading to the museum, which is also the author’s former home. This is the secret short cut when coming from the train station. Anne knows this path because she has been a very dedicated Karen Blixen fan for years and is now working at the museum, giving introductions to curious visitors. We walk under a heavy sky talking about her job. I ask Anne what there is to know about Blixen that people do not usually talk about.

– Well, Karen was a complex person and there was a wild side to her. She had her dark days, especially when she was ill. At the museum we do not talk much about that time Blixen made a pact with the devil. It is briefly mentioned in our current exhibition, but we do not really go into depth with it.

Seeing how enthusiastic I become hearing this Anne tells the story. During he stay in Africa Blixen is suffering severely from syphilis. She tells her good friend the poet Thorkild Bjørnvig that the illness makes it impossible for her to make love. It was unbearable for her being a young woman not to be able to be loved and held. During this time she makes a visit to Denmark where she in her misery makes a pact with the devil that would guarantee all her life experiences to become great stories. All of this, of course, came true. The Devil kept his promise.

– Blixen would often refer to this incident in her letters, simply calling it “the pact”, Anne tells me.

In Blixen’s library you would find books written by authors such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner, all of which had written stories within the gothic genre. Their stories fascinated Blixen and she borrowed a lot from authors such as these for her own narratives, as well as the Bible and other myths.

The appearance of the story about the devil is not surprising as it is a common cultural motif and not far from the gothic tales. If Karen Blixen meant the story to be understood as truth or fiction, Anne does not know. But perhaps this is not important, and in that respect the story is very much in the Blixian spirit: There is always a certain playfulness within the text and you are not suppose to feel sure about the truthfulness of what you are reading. The incident with the devil does however tell us something about Blixen’s relationship to art. In her mind there is a connection between artistic practice and pain. As a person who suffered a lot through her life, and was kept from close physical contact, she would draw creativity from her torment. In other words: Losing your soul to the devil is the price you have to pay to write soulfully.

We have now reached the end of our muddy track and through the trees we behold The Karen Blixen Museum. The pretty white building seems remarkably undevilish. I take the tour and afterwards Anne sweetly waves good-bye at the door.

Have a look at our products from The Karen Blixen Museum here.

Anne + Karen Blixen - CultureNordic