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Intellectual Cruelty, Part Two: Why can’t we just read Tove Ditlevsen?

in Ark Review/Essays by

If you’ve flipped through the literature sections of Politiken, Weekendavisen, or Information over the course of the past few months, or taken a stroll past Møllegades Boghandel on your way to Ark Books, you’ve likely seen the face of Tove Ditlevsen (1917-1976), one of Denmark’s most widely-read twentieth-century authors, who just a few months ago celebrated her would-have-been 100th birthday. Born and raised in the working class neighborhood of Vesterbro, Copenhagen, Ditlevsen wrote approximately thirty books of poetry, novels, short stories, memoirs, and essays, as well as an advice column in the Danish magazine, Familie Journalen. Much of her writing centers on the anxiety and despair of her working class characters, many of whom suffer within the claustrophobic confines of marriage and the domestic space.

You would be hard-pressed to find a Dane–even if only slightly–interested in literature who did not know her name. Ditlevsen’s work, however, has tended to be disregarded by large factions of the Danish literary and academic communities as popular and sentimental. Her use of rhyme well into the 1960s, when modernistic free verse was first taking hold in Denmark, made her particularly unpopular among her modernist contemporaries. And in the early 2000s, she was famously not included in Denmark’s official national canon.   

…we consider Ditlevsen not just as a working-class author (a label that usually comes in the same breath as Ditlevsen’s name when introduced), but also as worker’s author. By this, Ravn suggests that we consider reproductive and domestic labor as a legitimate form of labor, and recast the domestic space as a workplace.

This pervasive view of Ditlevsen as simplistic, overly emotional, and not quite serious enough is nicely summed up in a short documentary on her life and works from 2005, where her friend and frequent interlocuteur, the late Klaus Rifbjerg, offers a quick gloss of her prolific authorship:

She wrote poems in rhyme, which were well-crafted and well-formulated, but she wrote them with a certain corset on which she had squeezed herself into…as one did in a tradition that goes all the way back, not just to the previous, but to the previous-previous century, which is to say that long tradition of love/nature poetry, where sorrow rhymes with morrow [hvor hjerte rimer på smerte] and so on. A little old fashioned!*

In a way that is perhaps surprising, given the tone of reverence common to such biographical projects, a number of other voices in the documentary pile onto this patronizing label. Another Danish author, for instance, emphasizes the apolitical nature of her desire to represent domestic labor and marital relations in her prose works: “She wanted to write about what was close to her. She didn’t want to write about politics.” (As if the personal were not also political). And later, the same author places her firmly “outside the modernist project.”

Working against these fairly commonplace perceptions, the contemporary Danish poet, Olga Ravn, has suggested an alternative reading of Ditlevsen’s work. In the afterword to a small collection of poems, which she edited to celebrate Ditlevsen’s centennial celebration, she makes two quite small interventions. First, she proposes we consider Ditlevsen not just as a working-class author (a label that usually comes in the same breath as Ditlevsen’s name when introduced), but also as worker’s author. By this, Ravn suggests that we consider reproductive and domestic labor as a legitimate form of labor and recast the domestic space as a workplace. Second, Ravn addresses the aforementioned use of rhyme, and argues that we might read this anachronistic style as “both a working class poet’s fuck you to the high-modernists and, at the same time, a way to resurrect a language that’s been cast aside” (144).* In essence, two quite modest claims, analogous versions of which, in the field of literary criticism, have been made countless times in countless forms and about countless different texts.

Ravn’s afterword follows years of work, as an editor and public figure, in shifting the perception of Ditlevsen. These efforts have been in part responsible for a small wave of critical and scholarly attention, the likes of which Ditlevsen–the apolitical, anti-intellectual, anti-modernist–has never before received. Many of Ditlevsen’s works have been reprinted over the last five years, and slowly, more and more articles, both academic and journalistic, are starting to supplement the biographies from the 90s and high school textbooks. This little rush of media attention also seems to have sparked a slight shift towards the texts themselves, rather than Ditlevsen’s (albeit intriguing) biography. It appears to be the case, however, that a number of critics do not believe that this particular author warrants such engagement, and would rather we, who might be so tempted read or re-read her writing, direct our efforts and attention elsewhere.

The week before last, for example, the Danish critic, Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg offered his opinion on the matter:

A scary number of years ago, I read Tove Ditlevsen’s Ansigterne and I thought that it was excellent. I also read some of her poems, and found some of them to be sentimental, banal, and very mediocre. All of this is still true. For that reason, I’ve regarded the [recent] canonization of Saint Tove of Vesterbro with mixed emotions. Spearheaded by the magnificent sales and branding expert, Olga Ravn, who is also the co-founder of [the Scandinavia-based feminist creative writing school] “Hekseskolen”, where young women can learn how to fight against pater familias , and where students should, preferably a few times a day, take a selfie and slap it on Instagram; thank goodness for “selfies against patriarchy”, and suddenly, pouting lips and doe eyes become blazing weapons courageously borne in the fight against the arch-enemy.*

This bizarrely aggressive passage arrives a few paragraphs into a piece that uses a Tweet as its launching pad for a diatribe against, as far as I can tell, any consideration of identity in the reading of literary texts. In one particularly thorny passage, for instance, Zangenberg rails against what he calls the “simplistic and war-like rubric” of the present that unjustly privileges those who fall under the category of “female, handicapped, LGBTQ, preferably also working class, or at least an ethnic minority, ideally also angry, misunderstood, or oppressed.”* All of this militant fury, he warns us, is resulting in the relegation, for no good reason, of all of our most valuable literature to the margins.

Zangenberg appears to be attempting to discredit this growing interest in Ditlevsen, not by way of any engaged critique of her writing or her literary legacy, but rather by personal attack on another author and a number of other young writers.

Many aspects of this article are shocking: the use of military language throughout the piece to refer to any and all action performed by those who exceed the bounds of heterosexual, white male; the way Zangenberg talks about “valuable literature” as if it were some kind of disembodied ether or rather, something created by people without the influence of any particular racial, gender, and sexual identities; and finally, the way in which those who fall under the crude subdivisions of “other” enumerated above are implicitly placed outside this realm of “valuable literature.” Zangenberg tells us, for instance, that we should be wary of the“dubious, often unspoken criteria” that might result in us choosing to read Ditlevsen, Chris Kraus, Lone Aburas (a fantastic contemporary Danish author who was recently awarded the prestigious Montana Prize for her brief agitprop, Det er et jeg der taler) instead of Henrik Stangerup or Knud Sønderby. As his point seems to be, we shouldn’t buy a book just because its author is from a certain marginalized background: better we just stick to the good, old classics. A list, apparently, which may or may not include Ditlevsen.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this article, however, is the way in which personal preference and opinion, rather than textual engagement, here become acceptable grounds for dismissing entire bodies of work which, in this case, engage with questions of identity formation from the perspective of race, gender, sexuality, or disability. It is at this point, for instance, that we come to the aforementioned paragraph, wherein Zangenberg appears to be attempting to discredit this growing interest in Ditlevsen, not by way of any engaged critique of her writing or her literary legacy, but rather by personal attack on another author and a number of other young writers. It seems important to note here that we get no substantive analysis of Ditlevsen’s writing—only his opinion (that he finds some of her writing good, some bad), an assessment we are to take on faith without argumentation. And then, all of a sudden, we move on to this image of a brigade of selfie-armed youngsters rushing forward in bad faith, with whom Ditlevsen has somehow suddenly become entangled.

Looking back to a piece Macon Holt wrote some time ago, this article could be seen as employing one instantiation of what he terms “intellectual cruelty” or “a performative discourse that seeks to, if not formally, consider intellectual capacity as a quantifiable absolute.” Knowledge, as quantifiable absolute, becomes something localizeable in individuals with formal educations, who, once the degree is awarded, are permitted and entitled to spread and proliferate this Knowledge however they please. A friend of mine who is also my personal authority on radical pedagogy would, drawing on Paulo Freire, say this particular form of intellectual cruelty relies on a “banking model” of knowledge, which understands the teacher (or in our case, critic) as a repository and the student (or reader) as a passive receiver or collector. Under this conception of knowledge, to quote my friend, “the teacher amasses authority and ownership over knowledge while bankrupting the student’s capacity for creativity and critical consciousness.”

Bukdahl reminds us readers who might have gotten our Danish literary history confused, modernism only first came to Denmark in the 1960s. This would mean, according to his reasoning, that Ditlevsen’s writing before this time could in no way be experimentally anachronistic, but is actually, in his words, “totally mainstream”; or, as he borrows from a friend’s Facebook post, “pop, but not in a cool way.”

In another recent article from Weekendavisen, the Danish critic, Lars Bukdahl, also goes after Olga Ravn in his similarly skeptical response to the rise in (critical) attention Ditlevsen has experienced, particularly for her early poetry. (It should be said at some point that Ditlevsen’s later prose works, especially Gift and Ansigterne are generally well-regarded). Bukdahl’s critique is a little more pointed and fleshed out, though the condescending tone is hardly absent here. Specifically, he argues that Ravn misses the mark in her afterword when she suggests that we might read Ditlevsen’s somewhat antiquated use of rhyme in her poetry as working actively with the Danish language, against a certain kind of hyper-intellectual modernism. In fact, Bukdahl reminds us readers who might have gotten our Danish literary history confused, modernism only first came to Denmark in the 1960s. This would mean, according to his reasoning, that Ditlevsen’s writing before this time could in no way be experimentally anachronistic, but is actually, in his words, “totally mainstream”; or, as he borrows from a friend’s Facebook post, “pop, but not in a cool way.”

Even adjusting for the fact that this rebuttal relies on a quite monolithic conception of modernism, which also fails to account for the long list of—one could say—“modernist” names that were floating through both Denmark and Ditlevsen’s social circles long before the 60s (Baudelaire, Rilke, and Strindberg to name a few), I find it somewhat difficult, as I did reading Zangenberg’s article, to trace the motivation for this critique. What, I wonder, does a critic, or their potential reader, gain from declaring that a particular author is or was old-fashioned, mainstream, or uncool? Do such vague and subjective labels give us any better or more nuanced understandings of texts? What is at stake, moreover, in pointing out, as Bukdahl does at the start of his article, a single instance of “quite awkward” word choice in an early poem by an author who wrote many, many other poems and novels and essays and short stories? How, as Zangenberg’s article presumes, can one individual’s personal preference for literature that is less socially or politically engaged become the grounds for a tirade against a group of young women, and a creative writing course? And finally, what could possibly seem so offensive or dangerous about Ravn’s underlying premise, namely that we try to approach old texts in new ways?

When Zangenberg calls Ravn a “magnificent sales and branding expert,” he is referring to the intense labor Ravn has spent, both as an editor at Gyldendal and as co-convener of the radical feminist writing school, Hekseskolen, in the field of what, generally, is termed canon revision. Quite simply, canon revision is an academic practice that attempts to unsettle both the accepted lists of works we read and the methods and criteria we use to read and evaluate—i.e., to accept or reject—these works. From the more practical standpoint, canon revision proposes that those who teach make some edits to that undergraduate syllabus that only includes dead-white-male authors (and maybe Virginia Woolf) to redress historical biases. It proposes those who run literary presses make a more concerted effort to publish more works by women and people of color. And it involves an effort on the part of those who read and write both criticism and literature to bring lesser-known works from marginalised groups to a broader readership, who might also gain something from them.

Canon revision could, for example, take the form of a critical afterword which presents a more radical, politically-engaged interpretation of a female author who has been continually dismissed as sentimental and apolitical. It could mean trying, as is so seldom done, to approach the work of a female author without also bringing her biography into the picture. It could involve adding Tove Ditlevsen or Lone Aburas or Chris Kraus to a syllabus, and taking out a single work by Kafka or Joyce or Beckett. It could take the form of translating or editing works that haven’t yet reached a wider audience. It could even take the form of (the horror!) designing a trendy book cover, or writing a little blurb in a newspaper or the back of book. And maybe, just maybe, it can take the form of a selfie.

When Zangenberg calls Ravn a “magnificent sales and branding expert,” it’s in a tone thick with condescension. But this dig perhaps fails to grasp the full extent of what branding encompasses, and misses the fact that the same mechanisms that branding draws on play a vital role in the formation of all of our preferences, which is also to say the construction of our identities (even that of a white male literary scholar). Whether they make their way to us from a beloved university professor, an article we read in The New Yorker or Weekendavisen, a poster in a bookstore, or an excited friend, these preferences and understandings are bound to a complex network of social and professional relations. No one, and not least a critic writing for a commercial publication, exists outside of these pervasive dynamics.

So the question persists: what’s being sold, to whom, and at whose expense?

 

Notes

*My translation

Works Cited

Bukdahl, Lars. “Kontroversen: Skt. Tove.” Weekendavisen, 22 December, 2017, 3.4.

Ditlevsen, Tove. Der bor en ung pige i mig, som ikke vil dø. Edited by Olga Ravn. Gyldendal, 2017.

“Tove Ditlevsen.” Store Danskere, season 3, episode 3, DR, 2005.

Zangenberg, Mikkel Bruun. “Kvindekampen Genoptaget.” Weekendavisen, 26 January, 2018, 3.16.

 

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