Karin Boye

Illustration by Emma Roulette


Miss Jansson dresses the mannequins in the major fashion house’s boutique window. This year’s trend is tweed, blue speckled, black and white speckled, brown speckled. Light attire for strolling, practical and simple, with a small, sleek sports hat—self-sufficient, diligent, businesslike, for the office, but also for a stroll along the boulevard and a lap of the boutiques before lunch.

A trend does not arise by chance. It is the spirit of the age, which reflects itself in shifts of fashion, the distinctive disposition and ideals of the times and of the younger generation. The simple morning skirt, which should not be too long, speaks of the skilled woman; man’s companion in work and sport. The discreet colours—and yet so refined!—whisper of earnestness and a sense of duty. But the little cape, which falls ever so softly over the shoulders, waves in a breeze from the blue land of romanticism, though not a family romance, which flourished ideally on old manors beneath blossoming apple trees, but rather another, darker, harsher, one which encompasses even journey and adventure. Does it not have a certain hint of wings, this little cape? The traveller is a mysterious bird with many a secret in its sharp eyes. From where does this stranger come? What has he seen, and what has he been up to in foreign lands?—But it is not just the traveller, who has borne the cloak of age—it is also the adventurer—the gentleman thief, who sneaks up the dark staircases of criminal novels, the avenger in the night, who stands outside the law and society but, by his gold, is powerful like no other . . . Gone was the practical earnestness. It is possible, that the straight lines deceive. The green hat, “pour le sport,” does it signify simple practicality? The slender, sweeping sports car, is it a triumph of hard work?

Upon the gilded female figure’s graciously lifted arms hangs tweed in popular nuances, warm, soft woollen in artful fabrics. Matte red and matte green deepen the element of matte gold and emit a warm wave into the first chill of autumn.

Far away, amidst the weeping fog of the Scottish highlands, flocks of sheep are out at pasture. The little bell rings out through the calm, at once dreary and familiarly calming. Long and calm and grey, raw summer hours, the sky is even and grey, the silence even and soporific. There is a fragrance of wet grass and wet thyme and wet earth, a fragrance of cool and damp, and turn your nose, an odour of sheep, herds and safety.

The sheep have old faces, and they are old. When they bend their necks backwards and bleat, their bleating comes like a melancholic echo from grey, prehistoric times. Flocks of sheep, back-to-back like waves in an ocean, already there when Abraham and Lot moved their tents slowly over the plains of Mesopotamia, day-long journey after day-long journey, that already then drank in those fresh fragrances, gazed with calm eyes out over the fading hills and bleated gently out across the tranquillity, while man drove them further and further towards new, impatiently longed-for lands just waiting to be occupied. One grassland was as blessed as the next, the eternal now was escaped by no longing, it was only man, the insatiable, who forced creation to follow on an endless trek towards the Promised Land. One day the shepherd took hold of the masticating animals one after the other and bound their legs together. Fear was upon them! But after the initial frightened throes, as the cold metal pressed against their warm hides, they lay still, and the wool was shorn off in great flocks, without them even understanding why this should take place or even understanding enough to wonder. And the men came one evening and selected lambs and rams from the herd and carried them to the makeshift altar made of gathered stones, the sheep trembled equally violently and bleated equally helplessly, and would now never manage to find calm, for it was now a matter of life. But the sheep didn’t suspect the meaning of the thin trail of smoke, which rose up from the pile of stones and towards the amassed storm clouds, they didn’t even know that there was something to suspect. Thus their wool was sheared and thus their lives were taken for higher purposes, and the gentle and obedient sheep was called forth as the image of enduring self-sacrifice. But what is this to speak of? Their sacrifice was not great. Since for them one grassland was as blessed as the next, and the eternal now was escaped by no longing.

And South Africa’s hills and Australia’s plains are red with sheep’s blood and white with sheep’s wool. During shearing season the woollen flocks fall like greasy yellow snow and are packed in great bales and loaded on great ships. Out across the ocean!

When we hear mention of the distance between solar systems, we do not feel faint. The numbers are too large to be comprehended by thought, and when we say: “Just imagine!” we feign a surprise, that we do not feel. As it is with the vast depths of the ocean. We know, that beneath a surface thrashed by storm, there lies an abyss of windless twilight, and we stare down into the layers of water, where the light gradually loses itself, as if we were seeing into the dreams of a sleeper.

Now and then monsters are brought up into the light: blind or luminescent creatures from the eternal darkness, predatory fish with giant teeth, mythical beasts with sinuous tentacles. They are the ocean’s dreams! And we open our eyes wide, but in reality the monsters do not frighten us, for aren’t we all dreamt up by forces about which we will believe anything, forces that create the most peculiar forms in living matter, in flesh and blood?

But more curious than the sea creatures are the great ships. For they are composed of dead matter, iron girders, armour-plating and rivets, and yet they still live their own lives, wandering aimlessly, swerving without vision, hooting without pain, feeding on black coal without feeling hunger or sensing any taste. This is not the ocean’s dream, it is Man’s. And the strangest and most frightening thing about these great ships is that, themselves lifeless, they are masters over thousands of lives.

Almighty Man! The wanderer by the harbour sees vessels glide in towards the wharf like giant, triumphant beings on their way to load and unload, and his heart swells with pride: the behemoth’s greatness is his, Man’s! The winches lower over the coal trucks, rummage in the coal, guzzle a gigantic mouthful, rise with firmly closed jaws and wrench out over the waiting vessels in order to, without volition, open wide once again and spew forth their prey with accurate precision. And a single man wrenches the machines, a man who wouldn’t have the strength to carry more than a fraction of the winch’s haul. The wanderer regards him with fond admiration: there stands Man, master over the forces of nature.

What does it matter that he has a blue work shirt and coarse black hands. A master can afford such extremes, when he is certain of his power. Rather, it is the very insignia of power. But he does not have the face of a ruler. Sullen subservience is not an attribute befitting a lord. And that crooked posture means more than just temporary fatigue. Who in fact is master here, the man or the machine?

It now grows dark—the green and red lanterns shine from the sides of the vessel, and the harbour reflects the lamps on the wharf and the light from the portholes. The seamen now seek their way into the brothels, to the love permitted them by the ship and the sea. Towards those black hulls, where they arise from the water like impregnable haunted fortresses, the harbour’s small, squalid waves lapping at their reverent songs.

But, from the harbour towns to industrial parks, the bales of wool are transported by train, along burnished rails, and the embankments are black with soot. The coal forests, which once thrived through millions of long, lazy years in the steamy heat, when amphibians wallowed in the mire round wide rivers, have been given a purpose: to be gathered up to feed the most diligent of cultures and to spread their heat-saturated dust like a filthy grey fog over a landscape with far stranger vegetation than that of the Carboniferous period—the straight, well-masoned pillar forests of the factory chimneys, with their roofs of heavy grey sky, perpetually operating monuments to the triumphs of human thought and human will. Thought? Will? And Man once more? But it is not the victor, who treks to the factories, when the whistles whine in the semidarkness of the mornings, and it is not the victor, who tends the looms with feverish eyes and humble movements. What’s the yarn like today? On that the day’s earnings rest. The spools fly like swallows, like arrows, faster than both swallows and arrows, faster than the eye is able to follow. The yarn is good today, it holds. Thank you, God! Thank you, spider in the spinnery! Thank you, intricate and incomprehensible, pounding and droning powers! Remember, all-powerful machine, that both my husband and my father-in-law are out of work, for how long? Perpend, almighty steel construction, that my sister is going to have a baby, Great Scott!, what should they do about it now?

Miss Jansson dresses the mannequins, and tweed is this year’s trend. It is the spirit of the age, which reflects itself in the simple, sleek designs, an everyday practicality, complemented by a faint waft, from the cape, of the romanticism of sport and crime. Do you want to decipher the spirit of the age, do you want to see the disposition of the younger generation, then cast a glance at the big shop windows! There, woman’s emancipation is sketched in speckled grey woollen, there, technology’s triumph shines forth from straightforwardly strict lines. And so beautiful is the spirit of this age, that no woman goes past without a little glance of longing at its flared magnificence . . .

translated from the Swedish by Nicholas Lawrence