Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 4


2. 1923-1932

As a student of humanities at Uppsala University, her plans to become a teacher abandoned, Karin Boye began with the study of Greek, as she 'wanted to read Plato in the original'. In the Uppsala of the 1920's, with its receptivity to European influences and the readiness of a new generation to experiment with unfamiliar lifestyles and ideas, the passionate 'Teo', as Karin Boye soon came to be known by her fellow female students, was the subject of much interest and distant adulation. She made a striking visual impression on many who encountered her: there was something boyish about her, something inward-turned in a pre-Raphaelite manner, and it was an effect obviously achieved with conscious purpose. Though she could not be said to be beautiful in a conventional way, her face had an openness and a sensual prettiness that were given added fascination by the sense of intellectual clarity and emotional depth that lay behind them. She herself had certain reservations about her appearance, and beneath them lurked feelings of inferiority. These, Margit Abenius writes, 'concerned not her face but her figure, which she would have liked to be more supple and masculine. "It's a pity I'm so ugly," she told her friend Agnes. When Agnes Fellenius got engaged and the two were about to go their separate ways, she took a farewell photograph of Karin standing in bright sunlight against a white wall. Karin placed a hearth cushion over her feet because they were "so ugly", adding: "I want everything to be beautiful!"'

The second subject studied by Karin Boye was Nordic languages. In particular, she undertook the study of Icelandic, and thoroughly relished the prose and poetry written in it. The songs of the Edda made a lasting impression on her, and she wrote that the lectures about them were 'the only ones that go too quickly... the translation of a description of a chieftain: "Helgi rose high above chieftains as the nobly-born ash-tree above the thorn-bush or as a young deer, dew-sprinkled, rises above all other deer, and his horns burn high to heaven itself." It sounds better in Icelandic. And then, in the midst of it all, come barbaric, brutal similes, especially from the battlefields and their atrocities, but it is so magnificent, in spite of its nastiness, that one shivers with devotion...'

As her third subject, Karin Boye studied the history of literature, which she came to with great expectations but began to dislike because of the over-systematized nature of the teaching and its discouragement of independent thinking. She failed the first term examination in this subject, an experience that shocked her, who had never failed an examination before. In fact, her time at Uppsala University seems to have been spent less in formal study than in activity of an extra-curricular nature. In particular, she was secretary and later president of the students' union, where she also helped to organize discussion groups and theatrical events. At this time, too, she had a brief love affair with the poet Nils Svanberg. She was an eager participant in the activities of the students' 'messes'(matlag), which performed the function of societies, and were an important feature of Uppsala student life at this time. Karin Boye and Anita Nathorst belonged to the same society, and both were by now adherents of Freudianism. Many of the discussions held in the society concerned psychoanalysis, and although there is no evidence that Karin Boye was psychoanalysed at this time (though she was later), it would not have been surprising if she had made some experimental moves in this direction. She was also interested in the ideas of Adler.

During her last year at university, Karin Boye joined the idealistic peace organization Clarté, which counted Ellen Key and Selma Lagerlöf among its members, and had a decidedly left-wing and anti-religious orientation. Many of those who knew her, including Anita Nathorst, were surprised at this step. It seems to have been motivated in part by Karin Boye's desire to assert herself as a 'normal' young woman, in tune with the progressive movements of her time. This desire for 'normality' almost certainly received impetus from her growing awareness of her inverted sexuality, which imparted an ever darker and more tragic note to the poems she was writing. She lived an emotionally strained existence, was prone to attacks of weeping, and came to rely more and more on Anita Nathorst for support and sympathy. Margit Abenius writes that 'Anita was able, in her austere way, to tell Karin a few home truths when her urge for unhappiness made itself felt. It could take strange forms of expression, as though she were positively looking for burdens to take upon herself. Was it the basically harmonious need of the one weighed down by guilt to 'create happiness out of what one has broken' or merely the flagellant's desire for the lash, or was it the wish of a heroic soul armed with great strength to bear heavy woes, the certainty that in the hard and difficult one comes close to life's heart? Perhaps it was some of all this at the same time. Anita Nathorst brooded a great deal abouyt how life was going to work out for Karin. It seemed as though she considered a marriage founded on friendship with a fatherly oriented man as the most practicable path. "But he will have to be understanding," these worried conversations concluded. "Good Lord, how understanding he will have to be!"

The collection Gömda land ('Hidden Lands') was considered both by the critics and by the poet herself as somewhat 'better' than Moln, and indeed many of the lyrics make a stronger, less hesitant impression, though their tone is predominantly sombre. The influence of Freud may be seen in the concept of the 'hidden lands' which the poet makes it her task to discover - the journey is one towards the interior of the psyche. A key poem is 'Spring Song', with its assertion of a 'natural' freedom:

In springtime, in sprouting time,
the seed its shell destroys,
and rye becomes rye and pine becomes pine
in freedom without choice.

The poem is related to two diary entries about inner freedom, one from 1919, the other from 1920: 'Precisely in the freedom of the will (to choose) does our unfreedom lie. Freedom is to act in full accordance with one's nature: thus, true freedom has no choice, only one way to go.' 'Every action is unconditionally caused by inner or outer circumstances. But for that reason to call every action unfree is shortsighted. The will that is the deepest foundation of our being is naturally a natural product and none the less our own ego. Outside of this we possess no being. An action is unfree that is enforced not by our being's own nature but in conflict with it. But an action that is caused by myself, my will, is free.'

(to be continued)

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3

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