This long passage from “The Roads Round Pisa,” one among Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, is for three of the most beautiful women in the world, all of whom I know to read this blog: one who goaded me to this with Simone Weil, one who recently wrote about a game of dress-up that made me ache with longing for home, and one who recently lent me an excellent book containing lore about a gentleman's handkerchiefs.
The reader unfamiliar with Isak Dinesen may find this passage informed by a few observations:
- Seven Gothic Tales, Dinesen's first book, was originally published in 1934.
- “Isak Dinesen” was a male nom de plume which Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke adopted, fearing that as a woman she would not be published.
- The passage takes place at a roadside inn in Pisa sometime hazily around the late 19th century. “Count Augustus von Schimmelmann, a young Danish nobleman of a melancholy disposition” has been talking to a young Italian carriage-driver. “The boy seem to feel that he had here met a brother of the unhappy Danish Prince [Hamlet], and to open his heart to the stranger on this account.“ At this point, the two have been talking about the Italian's reasons for abandoning poetry in favour of the study of astronomy.
“.... I want to turn to the infinity of space, and from what I have heard it seems to me that the roads of the planets and stars, their elipses and circles within the infinite space, must have the power to turn the mind into new ways. Do you not think so, Signore?”
Augustus thought of the time, not many years ago, when he had himself felt the spheres his right home. “I think,” he said sadly, “that life has its law of gravitation spiritually as well as physically. Landed property, women—” He looked out through the window. On the blue sky of the spring evening Venus stood, radiant as a diamond.
The boy turned toward him. “You do not,” he said, “really think that I am a man? I am not, and under your favor, I am happy not to be. I know, of course, that great work has been achieved by men, but still I think that the world would be a more tranquil place if men did not come in to break up, very often, the things that we cherish.”
Augustus became confused to find that he had been treating a young lady as a boy, but he could not apologize for it, as it was not his fault. He made haste to introduce himself and to ask if he could be of any assistance to her on her journey. The girl, however, did not alter her manner toward him in the least, and seemed quite indifferent to any change in his attitude toward her which her information might have caused. She sat in the same position, with her slender knees crossed under her cloak and her hands folded around one knee. Augustus thought that he had hardly ever talked to a young woman whose chief interest in the conversation had not been the impression that she herself was making on him, and he reflected that this must be what generally made converse with women awkward and dull to him. The way in which this young woman seemed to take a friendly and confident interest in him, without apparently giving any thought to what he thought of her, seemed to him new and sweet, as if he suddenly realized that he had all his life been looking for such an attitude in a woman. He wished that he could now himself keep away from the conventional accent of male and female conversation.
“It is very sad,” he said thoughtfully, “that you should think so little of us, for I am sure that all men that you have met have tried to please you. Will you not tell me why it should be so? For it has happened to me many times that a lady has told me that I was making her unhappy, and that she wished that she and I were dead, at a time when I have tried hardest to make her happy. It is so many years now since Adam and Eve”—he looked across the room to a picture of them—“were first together in the garden, that it seems a great pity that we have not learned better how to please one another.”
“And did you not ask her?” said the girl.
“Yes,” he answered, “but it seemed to be our fate that we should never take up these questions in cold blood. For myself, I think that women, for some reason, will not let us know. They do not want an understanding. They want to mobilize for war. But I wish that once, in all the time of men and women, two ambassadors could meet in a friendly mind and come to understand each other. It is true,” he added after a moment, “that I did once meet, in Paris, a woman, a great courtesan, who might have been such an ambassador. But you would hardly have given her your letters of credence or have submitted to her decisions. I do not even know if you would not have considered her a traitor to your sex.”
The girl thought for a time of what he had said. “I suppose,” she then said, “that even in your country you have parties, balls and conversazione?”
“Yes,” he said, “we have those.”
“Then you will know,” she went on slowly, “that the part of a guest is different from that of a host or hostess, and that people do not want or expect the same things in the two different capacities?”
“I think you are right,” said Augustus.
“Now God,” she said, “when he created Adam and Eve”—she also looked at them across the room—“arranged it so that man takes, in these matters, the part of a guest, and a woman that of a hostess. Therefore man takes love lightly, for the honor and dignity of his house is not involved therein. And you can also, surely, be a guest to many people to whom you would never want to be a host. Now, tell me, Count, what does a guest want?”
“I believe,” said Augustus when he had though for a moment, “that if we do, as I think we ought to here, leave out the crude guest, who comes to be regaled, takes what he can get and goes a way, a guest wants first of all to be diverted, to get out of his daily monotony or worry. Secondly the decent guest wants to shine, to expand himself and impress his own personality upon his surroundings. And thirdly, perhaps, we wants to find some justification for his existence altogether. But since you put it so charmingly, Signora, please tell me now: What does a hostess want?”
“The hostess,” said the young lady, “wants to be thanked.”