The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Excruciating Silence in Isak Dinesen’s “The Blank Page”


By Raúl Bravo Aduna, Mexico (Published in Issue 12)Henry David Thoreau once stated, “silence is the universal refuge, sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment” (272). And he was right: silence is ubiquitous, basically part of every human experience. Conversely, human experience obliterates silence, a paradox revealed by Wisława Szymborska in her poem “The Three Oddest Words”: “When I pronounce the word Silence,/ I destroy it” (261). This seems suggestive, since silence, besides being omnipresent, bears the power to devastate human experience as well, or at least make it rather unpleasant, almost insufferable, as depicted by Isak Dinesen in “The Blank Page.”

The destructive (since both have the power to cancel each other) relationship between humankind and silence is contained by “the miraculous outrage of human speech” (36), according to George Steiner. In his famous essay “Silence and the Poet”, Steiner explores the power man has through speech, his “singular eminence above the silence of the plant and the grunt of the beast” (36). Nevertheless, this ability, “the human voice harvesting echo where there was silence before, is both miracle and outrage, sacrament and blasphemy” (36). For Steiner, the acquirement of speech is the basis of man’s great defiance to the gods; the way in which mankind allows itself to create as well. And among men, the poet—or even the writer in general— holds this faculty even more: “His song is builder of cities; his words have the power which, above all others, the gods would deny to man, the power to bestow enduring life” (37). However, language does have limits. Those limits are the points where art thrives the most, especially written art. Steiner argues that, “because speech so marvelously fails us, we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours,” language borders on three modes of statement: light, music and silence (39).

In relation to the first of language’s limits, Steiner argues that “where the word of the poet ceases a great light begins” (39), taking into consideration a tradition of mysticism. In this case, the writer moves upward on a sort of spiritual stairway until he reaches a point in which words cannot keep up with the journey. Language becomes not only impossible, but unnecessary as well. The poet returns to an infant state, where he has not mastered words, and words are impractical: the world is understood as shown, a revelation of sorts.

Concerning the second limit, Steiner abstracts one theme that has permeated the relation between poetry and music for centuries: “the notion that poetry leads toward music, that it passes into music when it attains the maximal intensity of its being” (42). In this sense, when language gets to its frontier with music “the poem strives to escape from the linear, denotative, logically determined bonds of linguistic syntax into what the poet takes to be the simultaneities, immediacies and free play of musical form” (43). When language becomes music, it intermixes with everything, literally dancing with the air, playing freely with other the elements. Language turned into music composes, examines and understands the world, and that is why “through music the arts and exact sciences may reach a common syntax” (Steiner 46); if I might add, that is why poetry can become so systematic and profound and incisive, just like the purest mathematical formula, articulated like the most precise combination of physical particles.

Things change a bit when Steiner moves to the third border, which is the one I am interested in: “There is a third mode of transcendence: in it language simply ceases, and the motion of spirit gives no further outward manifestation of its being. The poet enters into silence. Here the word borders not on radiance or music, but on night” (46). In this case, the poem—or the short story or the novel—is locked and encaged, retrained, when put into words. Paradoxically, only silence can unleash the full power of language and art. Silence unfolds the language contained by the work of art, reveals what is underlying it.

This disclosing of the word and meaning is present in Isak Dinesen’s short story “The Blank Page”. The story begins with a very brief narrative frame:

By the ancient city gate sat an old coffee-brown, black-veiled woman who made her living by telling stories.

She said:  (Dinesen)

This first narrator seems very distant, and her narration feels like the stage directions of a play: very minimal, stating just what is necessary. For example, her next intervention simply declares: “Now if she is well paid and in good spirits, she will go on”; and her last one is not very different: “The old beldame for a while says nothing, only giggles a little and munches with her toothless mouth.” The fact that her last intervention is given almost at the beginning of the story is quite interesting, because she never comes back to give a closure of sorts to the narration, and the voice of the narrator ends, precisely where the story-teller is about to begin her story, which is a story within a story within a story (and the reader stays in it without, let us say, resurfacing to the original narrative frame).

            Dinesen’s style is quite peculiar, and quite playful, just like Tamar Yacobi argues:

In the spirit of her own parable, the Dinesen plots do manipulate gaps and opacities, forward and backward glances, often to disturbing effect; but they draw the line at overall chronological scrambling, let alone disintegration, of the kind increasingly favored by the new novelists as a weapon against the story.  (452)

And in this manner the next story, which can be considered the storyteller’s monologue given to a “sweet lady and a gentleman”, is embedded in “The Blank Page”. Here we can find an exploration into “the art of story telling”, in which a storyteller has to be loyal to the story, according to this woman

Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. (Dinesen italics added)

Silence becomes the greatest storyteller of all, and one can find the greatest stories in its “physical” counterpart: the blank page.

Then, she proceeds to tell the story of the origin of the blank page. Since “the very first germ of a story will come from some mystical place outside the story itself,” according to the storyteller, she talks about the Portuguese convent in which the finest flax was grown and manufactured, which provided bridal sheets for young princesses of the royal house. Afterward, we learn of the Portuguese tradition that will precisely be that “germ” of the story of the blank page:

One the morning after the wedding of a daughter of the house, and before the morning had yet been handed over, the Chamberlain or High Steward from a balcony of the palace would hang out the sheet of the night and would solemnly proclaim: Virginem eam tenemus – “we declare her to have been a virgin.” Such a sheet was never afterwards washed or again lain on-“ After that, the story-teller tells us, the convent has received back the central piece of the sheet that was witness to the honor of the royal bride. (Dinesen)

Nevertheless, and here lies the origin of the blank page, according to the storyteller: “in the midst of the long row there hangs a canvas which differs from the others… on this one plate no name is inscribed, and the linen within the frame is snow-white from corner to corner, a blank page” (Dinesen). Precisely, in front of this blank page is where the most profound thoughts have been conceived in that place.

Intriguingly enough, the ending is quite self-explanatory and cannot be fully explained: through silence, silence is explicated. In the words of Lynn R. Wilkinson: “The silence of the blank page is echoed in that of spectators, who, like the Mother Abbess described at the very end of the tale, ‘sink into deepest thought’” (85). This echoing silence stands precisely in the third border of language described by Steiner: silence explodes in a myriad of words that, paradoxically enough, cannot be put into words.          

Works Cited

Dinesen, Isak. “The Blank Page.” Last Tales. 1957. Web. 5 November 2011.

Steiner, George. “Silence and the Poet.” Language and Silence. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. Print.

Szymborska, Wisława, Poems New and Collected. New York: Harvest Books, 1998. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Web. 5 November 2011.

Wilkinson, Lynn R. “Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen: Between Storytelling and Theory.” Comparative Literature Vol. 56, No. 1 (Winter, 2004), pp. 77-98. Print.

Yacobi, Tamar. “Plots of Space: Word and Story in Isak Dinesen.” Poetics Today Vol. 12, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 447-493. Print.

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