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Drinks and dinner with Kierkegaard.

APPLYING SOREN KIERKEGAARD'S "aesthetic," "ethical," and "religious" categories to the interpretation of literature can be revealing; in some cases they are truly illuminative. Not that the authors of the works had to be directly inspired by Kierkegaard, or even know anything about his way of sorting human lifestyles. These Kier-kegaardian ideas not only turn out to be dramatic lenses exposing the meaning of choices the literary characters make; the stories and plays in turn may enlarge and deepen the categories. I want to offer such an approach to T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party and Isak Dinesen's Babette's Feast, where something like Kierkegaard's three "stages" are strikingly present as dramatic determinants.

All that in due time. First we must grasp, basically, what the celebrated three labels mean in the works of Kierkegaard.

Aesthetic, Ethical, Religious

The "aesthetic" way of being sounds attractive and it is, but it is at the same time severely limited. As its name implies, it is related to the life of the senses, and just for that reason, quite able to appreciate the beautiful in many of its forms. It is where we think of freedom as keeping all options open, and where we live for what is pleasant, where good times are most important, and where we thirst for the new and interesting. The pursuit of pleasure, or conquest, or the new, or all of the above has its heroes, such as Don Giovanni. Kierkegaard writes a compelling commentary on Mozart's opera by that name where he claims that the music perfectly expresses the wonderful energy and high spirits of the erotic quest as lived by the hero, who flies above all questions about paying the piper. (1) The seduced women, to say nothing of the Comendatore, do line up to force payment, and Don Giovanni has to run faster and faster to stay ahead of them all. Yet the women, like all of us, are attracted to this life-force, this ebullience, and prefer it to bourgeois doldrums.

There are darker expressions of the aesthetic, such as the chilling "Diary of a Seducer." (2) Or, adding our own example by anticipation, there are less energetic, simply more compromised versions, as in a settled bourgeois style that finds what meaning there might be in diversions such as cocktail parties. Naturally there are "commitments" here, but they are weak and not of the essence. The key point is that the aesthetic is a fundamentally selfish style where people are easily wounded and equally easily elated by the sensuous immediate. Time is a string of interesting, amusing, or pleasant events, the continuity supplied only by a controlling ego that inevitably fears death as the end of the string. The aesthetic person has not grown up to the ethical.

It is just the ethical grown-ups who would make that judgment of course, and we might want to take it cum grano salis. The ethical level, however, is not as boring as it might sound. It is where we dig in, in serious commitment, where that commitment is deep and honest enough to completely redirect life toward the fruitfulness that can result. Marriage and family are the paradigm here, and Kierkegaard's most well-known exposition, indirect as usual, is found in the second volume of Either/Or. The loyalties of the ethical can go quite far, a long way past the comfort zone we might think of as characteristic of it in its bourgeois aspect. Kierkegaard considers Greek tragedy the highest expression of the ethical, as in Antigone's fierce determination to bury her brother whatever the cost. Her life is not, to put it mildly, about having a good time; it is about fidelity to a deeply held value. Time here is not measured out in coffee spoons; it gathers to greatness through the unfolding of a commitment to a deeply held value.

The "religious" is something else again, though it is in a way prepared for by the ethical so that sometimes Kierkegaard will speak of the "ethico-religious." If on the aesthetic level we live from an egoistic point of view, the ethical takes us into the realm of law and the universal, the Kantian imperative: if I don't think others should be doing "x" then I shouldn't do it either. And if the ethical as the sphere of duty takes the individual into the service of something higher than ego, religious existence continues that orientation but adds the adventure of a quite specific mission, tailored to the individual and so specific to him that he cannot explain himself to anyone, not fully anyway. Abraham serves as the hero of the religious dimension, the knight of faith who sacrifices everything in the hope of the fulfillment of the divine promise. Time here is the ever-new of the divine disclosure, pressing always toward new depths of sacrifice and recompense, a human sequential participation in the eternal. (3)

Each way means loneliness--and communion.
Both ways avoid the final desolation
Of solitude in the phantasmal world
Of imagination, shuffling memories and desires.

The motto for the little group of friends gathering in Act I of Eliot's drama might be: When you don't know what else to do, have a party! As the play opens we find the guests enjoying one of the regular cocktail parties Edward and his wife Lavinia would throw for the usual group, only now Lavinia has gone away mysteriously--no one really believes Edward's tale about an aunt taken ill--and Edward must carry on as host. Peter confides to Edward that he is interested in Celia, who unbeknownst to him is having an affair with Edward, while Peter himself has been carrying on with the missing Lavinia.

These folks are operating on the aesthetic level, where wit and frivolity cover an underlying boredom, and deeper still, the pathos of unsuccessful relationships and futile communications. Yet back up on the surface there are interesting elements. The apparently most frivolous of them all, Mrs. Julia Shuttlethwaite, appears the more we know her to be really having fun, and seems somehow to hold everything together by her strangely centering presence. And then there is the Uninvited Guest: No one knows how he got there; he's not familiar with any of their mutual acquaintances, and he drinks gin and water--and even sings a little song, for which Eliot has supplied the music, about one-eyed Riley drinking the same drink and falling for the landlord's daughter. There is also Alex, apparently unentangled erotically, slipping in and out throughout the play, cheerfully offering his impossible gastronomic concoctions.

The mysterious Uninvited Guest plays more and more prominently, and by the end of Act I he has switched his drink to straight water, challenged Edward regarding his whole life, and arranged a frank meeting between Edward and Lavinia.

In Act II it turns out that Julia, and Alex also, are in cahoots with the Guest, alias Doctor Reilly, the benign manipulator and gambler in personal interventions. The rest of the play is about how this preternatural trio manages to bump Edward and Lavinia up to the ethical level and Celia to the religious, to move them all from "solitude in the phantasmal world of the imagination" to loneliness and communion in the two ways our opening quote above mentions. A strange marriage counseling session for Edward and Lavinia, and a solemn send-off for Celia are part of the program.

Act III presents a matured Edward and Lavinia about to host yet another of their periodic cocktail parties, shouldering its inevitable agonies, "I know I'll be glad when it's all over," and so on, and committing to it as a common work, a subtle and perhaps ambiguous mission. In this context they learn that Celia, who had taken the veil, has died a martyr in a strife-torn mission field.

Clearly Edward and Lavinia have chosen a version of the ethical life, with its seriousness and its commitment to each other and the values they hold and the people they will nurture. And Celia has chosen the better part, with its single-minded celibacy and its martyrdom. For our couple the way to the highest level is blocked, for now, by their own inadequacies, singly and together. He has never really loved anyone and she has never imagined that she could be loved, so that Reilly must say:
If I had sent either of you to the sanatorium [where he sends Celia]
In the state in which you came to me--I tell you this:
It would have been a horror beyond your imagining,
For you would have been left with what you brought with you:
The shadow of desires of desires. (4)

With Celia it is different. Coming with an honest quest for love, and a recently developed sense of solitude--everyone is alone, she says--and a feeling of sinfulness in the sense that she knows she is out of it somehow, not in communion, she is offered two paths: the first, a way of living in the world and forgetting one's loneliness, and the second, the one she chooses, the radical path of renunciation, where she must "journey blind" moving "towards possession of what you have sought for in the wrong place."

Someone might object that this is only Catholicism, with its elevation of the religious life in the Catholic sense, and not Kierkegaard, who as a good Lutheran thought all such monkishness passe. Yet despite the illumination and the limitation of Eliot's framework, everything here is cast in an existential mold, which justifies seeing it as Eliot's Anglo-Catholic version of Kierkegaard. Edward and Lavinia's occupation of the second level is not merely an objective state of life but a subjective decision occurring at a point well into their marriage.

The deep thought of The Cocktail Party is undeniably Kierkegaardian. For instance, Kierkegaard tells us that the life of faith may be lived in the most unassuming circumstances; the mail carrier might be a knight of faith. Julia (whose status as human or angelic we will not inquire into) demonstrates one of its features: it is often invisible. Julia appears to be on the aesthetic rung with the others, even to be an extreme case of the cocktail party kingdom. She is frivolous, telling us, for example, how much Lady Klootz did after all enjoy herself. She looks for adventures and the interesting. "Tell the story about. ..." Yet we cannot help but notice that Julia is aware of each person's gift, such as the "harmless" brother who could hear the cry of bats and repair clocks. Alex, for his part, is as abnormally normal as anyone in this crowd would want, certainly unsuspected in his high mission.

True, the "Guardians" are not exactly human and might be thought suspect for our purposes as representatives of a human way of life. But Reilly makes it clear to Celia that some humans who choose the radical way of faith live invisibly in the world. "Some of them return, in a physical sense. ... They lead very active lives, very often, in the world."

As for the ethical, Edward and Lavinia choose it with eyes open. Marriage is, after all, Kierkegaard's prototype of the ethical level. We may find Reilly's description of the way of marriage a bit bleak:
Two people who know they do not understand each other,
Breeding children whom they do not understand
And who will never understand them....
It is a good life. Though you will not know how good
Till you come to the end. (5)

Yet it is good to see how Edward and Lavinia are assuming their "burden" at the end and serving others through their parties, with ambivalent emotions. They have to consciously choose this way--there is a fork in the road for anyone who would leave the aesthetic, reminiscent of Either/Or.

Reilly describes Celia's higher way in unmistakably Kierkegaardian terms (see The Sickness unto Death): "The second [way] is unknown, and so requires faith--The kind of faith that issues from despair." (6) What differentiates this "religious" life from the ethical level is that here commitment becomes utter risk, risking everything to gain everything.

Kierkegaard makes much of the problem of repetition, writing a famous difficult work which goes by that name. If we were to put the problem in postmodern terms, it is this: How is a repetition possible since the copy must be unlike the original in some way? The insight is that the same is broken open by difference even and especially when it is most perfectly the same. All visions of recovery and rest in the same are shattered; identity is nonidentity. Be that as it may, the existential problem for Kierkegaard is how to live the dialectic of sameness and difference in a way that hooks up with eternity, not dissolution and destruction. On the aesthetic level the problem is first, in its most naive expression, how to repeat last week's party. The young man in Repetition tries to repeat an excursion, returning to Berlin and his former lodgings there. Of course he is disappointed--everything, though in a way the same, turns out differently. (7) The more sophisticated aesthetic issue then becomes the "rotation of crops," how to introduce into a habitual and therefore comfortable pattern enough novelty to keep it interesting. Of course the deadly ceiling of the same spreads over the whole project.

The ethical life takes on repetition in a different way: it wills it. Forsaking the quest for variation and novelty it heads into the sameness of the everyday, finding there the perpetual renewal of subtle freshness and originality. Unlike Don Giovanni, who wants to wake up with a new woman each day, if he stays that long, the solid citizen of the ethical wills to wake up with the same partner every day for the rest of life, and finds her ever new.

Religious existence discovers the repetition of faith, which essentially consists in letting everything go, in the crazy hope of getting it all back--with a difference. Craggy Job already embodies an imperfect approach to this faith dimension with his surrender to the rhythm of possession and dispossession; Abraham realizes it prototypically in his willing and outrageously trusting sacrifice of the most dear, believing in the promise, and becomes the father of faith.

In The Cocktail Party aesthetic-level repetition is all about how to have the same party differently, as succinctly expressed by Julia:
It's such a nice party, I hate to leave it.
It's such a nice party, I'd like to repeat it.
Why don't you all come to dinner on Friday? (8)

The reformed Edward and Lavinia however are grinding away at the ethical, committed to endless cocktail parties, reconciled to repetition.
LAVINIA: What you should have done was to admire my dress.
EDWARD: But I've already told you how much I like it.
LAVINIA: But so much has happened since then. And besides,
one sometimes likes to hear the same compliment twice.
EDWARD: And now for the party.
LAVINIA: Now for the party.
EDWARD: It will soon be over.
LAVINIA: I wish it would begin.
EDWARD: There's the doorbell.
LAVINIA: Oh, I'm glad. It's begun. (9)

As for Celia, she has left all, believing that she will get it all back--for the first time!

Tweaking the Categories

We do not hear too much about mutual love or joyous ecstasy in Kierkegaard, at least not at the religious level. More accurately, Kierkegaard may talk a lot about spousal love but he does not really represent it. His celebration of marriage, with its quiet happiness, is strangely solipsistic in its expression. And the religious level is just the unrelieved loneliness of the individual. Eliot on the other hand stresses the loneliness and solitude of the aesthetic and the communion of the ethical and religious, giving us a new definition of the aesthetic level: "solitude in the phantasmal world of imagination, shuffling memories and desires." Of course in both authors, and in reality for heaven's sake, each way has its solitude--the original solitude of Adam is never lost--yet Kierkegaard could be accused of shortchanging communion. (10)

Eliot introduces a corrective. In Kierkegaard the married life involves communion perhaps by implication, yet he doesn't stress it and we are not sure that Judge William transcends the smug and self-satisfied complacency of the bourgeois, while certainly the tragic hero has in common with the knight of faith a breakdown in communication with those most dear. It is not that Kierkegaard never talks about love; he extols a completely self-emptied Christian love of the other and the unlovely, a unidirectional agape. Kierkegaard is on to something of course; Christian love is solidly other-directed, and the loneliness of the garden of Gethsemane and the Cross must become part of any serious subjectivity. Yet there is the complement, the Catholic side, the communion of saints, which is where the justifying joy is, to which Eliot faithfully points. Edward and Lavinia find a new level of communio personarum that involves honest confrontation, and for Celia the new life is characterized by a love whose discovery is fueled by a quest for communion.

Eliot, in other words, has introduced a many-splendored love into the Kierkegaardian landscape: he has brought earned mutuality into the bourgeois comfortable routine, and desire for union into a region Kierkegaard tried to clear for only the most austere disinterested service of the other. Gingerly to be sure, Eliot represents the dynamic of reciprocity and communion.

We can begin to see what Reilly's little song might be about. One-eyed Riley knows the landlord's daughter isn't the answer, but she sets up a fierce longing in him, one that can only find temporary relief in gin and water. Two-eyed Reilly, in his Guardian way, knows about the deeper reach of eros, or, if you like, amor in its capacity to be assumed into caritas. Celia gets the last word. "I couldn't give anyone the kind of love--I wish I could--which belongs to that life."

 Mercy and Truth have met together; Righteousness and Bliss have
 kissed one another.

All we got to eat in The Cocktail Party were the potato crisps Julia was crazy about and a few olives. In Babette's Feast, as everybody knows, there is a wondrous dinner. In the Eliot drama everyone is nibbling and imbibing as a habitual way of passing the time socially. In the Dinesen story, banqueting is something the guests, or most of them, never do. "A plain supper with a cup of coffee was the most sumptuous meal to which they had ever asked any guest to sit down." Their version of the ethical (we might as well make the connection right now) entails a parsimonious temperance, a modesty of manner befitting a stern religion of duty and sobriety.

The Action

Into this Protestant sect of the wind-driven North comes a Catholic invasion from the South. There is no mistaking it; Monsieur Papin would be unmistakably "Papist" without saying it, but say it he does under the interrogation of the founder of the sect, the father of Philippa, who sings like an angel. "For a moment he forgot himself, for when the Dean asked whether he was a Roman Catholic he answered according to truth, and the old clergyman, who had never seen a live Roman Catholic, grew a little pale." Papin establishes himself as singing tutor and all goes well until, in his exhilaration at the end of the "seduction duet" (La chi darem) from Don Giovanni he kisses his radiant Zerlina and earns his dismissal. The window of opportunity for Phillipa's international career closes, and her sister reflects:
 In the Dean's house Martine felt that the matter was deeper than it
 looked, and searched her sister's face. For a moment, slightly
 trembling, she too imagined that the Roman Catholic gentleman
 might have tried to kiss Philippa. She did not imagine that her
 sister might have been surprised and frightened by something in
 her own nature. (11)

This was not the first invasion. A handsome young lieutenant had insinuated himself into the home in hopes of Martine's hand, but the hold of the sect on its daughter had proved too much for Lorens Lowenhielm and he had to leave in defeat. He entered a new life, forswearing the "gay life in his garrison town" that had led him into debt, and impressing his family with a new "happy moral standpoint," he advanced to great honors and to marrying a lady-in-waiting to the queen.

The sisters do not marry, and many years later, long after the death of the Dean, Babette shows up on a stormy night, bearing a letter of recommendation from Achille Papin. Babette is escaping political reversals in France; she has nothing, and in their mercy the sisters take in the stranger, who in exchange will cook for them and their ill and dependent village charges.

Years later, Babette wins the lottery with the annual ticket she numbers among her few possessions. Of course everyone thinks she will return to France with her huge sum of money, but she begs a chance to cook a "real French dinner" for the folks gathering for the Dean's anniversary commemoration. Preparations take months and machinations, and when the day arrives, by a coincidence that works in Dinesen's magic world, the old soldier, now a general, is present at the feast. In a sect where such sumptuousness, particularly accompanied by wine, is feared as the work of the devil, he is the only person there who can appreciate the work of Babette, who turns out to be a once-famous chef. He gives an inspired speech at the dinner, where, aided by the wine, the guests are finding new levels of mutual appreciation among themselves. The event ends with a wonderful, holy transfiguration of all in the eyes of all, as Babette labors tirelessly and invisibly to make it all happen. The General leaves with a last, acknowledged promise to be with Martine in spirit every day and every evening.

Babette, it turns out, has spent her last penny, and by her act of total gift has sealed herself into a life among unimaginative people who eat dried fish--people, however, whom we understand she has come to love. In the final sentence of the story Philippa embraces her: "Yet this is not the end! I feel, Babette, that this is not the end. In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. ... Ah, how you will enchant the angels!"

The Analysis

In a nutshell, the ethical life of the good people of a small religious sect is disturbed and challenged by the aesthetic, wildly and wonderfully by the charismatic Papin, mildly by the northern soldier. They both bring eros, accompanied by vision. Even after his rejection, Loewenhielm is beset by a picture he struggles to forget, and in fact eventually manages to suppress. "Was it the family madness which made him still carry with him the dream-like picture of a maiden so fair that she made the air round her shine with purity and holiness?" As for Papin, "Like Lorens Loewenhielm he had a vision." That visionary level is directly operative for Babette, the artist who can incarnate it. Babette, prepared by early training and even fame in the exercise of her gift, and now by years of disciplined purification under the constraints of this narrow life, responds to an inner call to do what she alone can do, and bursts into flame on the religious level. She is on her mission and her willingness to be on it makes all the difference for those she touches.

An objection to this saintly construal of Babette's action might be that the author herself heads it off in the final pages.
 Dear Babette, [Philippa] said softly, "you ought not to have
 given away all you had for our sake."

 Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance.
 Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?

 "For your sake?" she replied. "No. For my own."

 She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the
 two sisters.

 "I am a great artist!" she said...

 "A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something,
 Mesdames, of which other people know nothing." (12)

We must dismiss the suggestion that Babette is being ironically modest. She is making a point emphatically.

With all due allowance for what might be Dinesen's own tilted cult of the artist, there is something important here related to the sea of spiritual questions we are swimming in. Perhaps the "selfishness objection" will halt before a quote from Blessed Mother Teresa. In the face of admiration for her selflessness she said, "I get much more from these people than they get from me."

By analogy, the artist goes out of herself, into the excellence of the work, drawn toward that excellence and toward whoever can appreciate the incarnation of that excellence. Ego is out of the picture, at least until in a reflective mood the temptation to bask in praise takes over. But that is accidental. In Babette's Feast we are in the atmosphere of the platonic eros, missing in Kierkegaard. Josef Pieper describes it:
 Eros, ascending to the contemplation of archetypal beauty, will
 also, in Plato's conception, be transformed into an attitude that
 leaves far behind all selfish desires and is most appropriately
 called a form of "worship." The conclusion of Diotima's discourse
 in the Symposium can hardly be interpreted differently. (13)

The connection of this ascending eros with Christianity's radical personalism and with the humility and self-gift of the Cross is a matter for much thought, and practice! That they are connected has been a Catholic principle all along, right up to the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI. (14) Affirming this connection opens up possibilities of ascent within the aesthetic, which must lie undeveloped in Kierkegaard.

Of course it would be foolish to elevate eros and the aesthetic this way without awareness of the attendant pitfalls. (15) Grace is needed, to be sure. But that is so much the point of the General's inspired speech at the dinner. "Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it in confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude" and so on.

Babette is full of grace. It is almost too much that Dinesen tells us there are twelve guests around the table. But it does indicate the seriousness of that identification, underscored in the film by the heavy cross Babette wears around her neck. Babette, the friend of Monsieur Papin, knows an ecstasy in creation that fructifies in the lives of all she touches. We cannot relegate the aesthetic exhilaration of Mozart or the gastronomy of the Cafe Anglais to a sealed-off realm of the sensuous immediate. (16) It is buoyed by a platonic visionary eros that flowers in life-giving generosity and joins the grace of the religious, a grace that builds on nature.

All this theological elucidation of the story depends on real analogy. There is to be sure only one perfect Eucharistic action; Jesus fulfills the religious with divine perfection, qualitatively better than Abraham, to say nothing of Job. But, as von Balthasar teaches, that prototype just clears the way for all other dramatic action to participate in the one embracing action, at whatever level, to whatever degree. (17) It is in this way that we can see Babette as a Christ figure.

Babette is not the only one who reaches transcendence. The General finds his own way, drawn also by love. Before he came to the celebration
 an absurd thing had lately been happening to General Loewenhielm:
 he would find himself worrying about his immortal soul. Did he have
 any reason for doing so? He was a moral person, loyal to his king,
 his wife and his friends, an example to everybody. But there were
 moments when it seemed to him that the world was not a moral but a
 mystic concern. He looked into the mirror, examined the row of
 decorations on his breast and sighed to himself: "Vanity, vanity,
 all is vanity!" (18)

Having responded to the shock of his failed suit with Martine, instead of drowning his remembrances in the pleasures of the aesthetic style, he had allowed the seriousness of life to impel his reform and moved to the ethical, a move that had also involved a certain forgetting. Now, recollecting the early vision, he is opened to a larger dimension and is apt for a rebirth into the higher mysteries of love.

Yet it is Babette who powerfully manifests the religious level. This becomes clear when we realize that she is an emissary of Papin, who has introduced a concept that links the aesthetic and the religious. The little eschatological speech with which we find Philippa trying to console Babette at the end is a direct quote from Papin who had said to her in the recommendation letter (ending with an inscription of the first two bars of La chi darem!):
 And yet, my lost Zerlina, and yet, soprano of the snow! As I write
 this I feel that the grave is not the end. In Paradise I shall hear
 your voice again. There you will sing, without fears or scruples,
 as God meant you to sing. There you will be the great artist that
 God meant you to be. Ah! How you will enchant the angels. (19)

Papin has built a bridge: when you find what you are called to do, you find what you want to do forever and what you will do forever if you stay on line. Babette is doing what she is called to do, she is on her mission with all its risks and surprises, knowing the aloneness of it all, and that is the essence of the religious level.

The eschatological note sounds everywhere in the story. For instance, the members of the congregation are always singing about the New Jerusalem. This is only natural because it is just as Kant said: if you believe in the ethical you more or less have to believe there is something more than this (phenomenal) life. But for the sect the "more" is over there, "totally other," joined to this life by no bridge of deep analogy. For them the delights of the aesthetic are so many temptations to the idolatry of identifying something in this world with the greatness of the world to come. This is a religion in which there can be no real sacraments. The people are perhaps Kierkegaardians on this point; they certainly are not Catholics.

Babette's Feast is about incarnation and about both/and transcending either/or. The aesthetic, as the realm of the appearance of the lovely, is not simply opposed to the religious or for that matter to the ethical. It has its dangers, the way it can close in on itself in an ego-serving manner--but so does the ethical, where self-righteousness and brittle fear of being lurk. The aesthetic harbors a platonic eros beholding a vision of the good and the beautiful, a vision ultimately eschatological but realizable here and now in bits through grace. And without eros and its vision, the ethical founders were dying in dry Pharisaism. The religious, where "righteousness and bliss kiss one another," absorbs both the aesthetic and the ethical.

Eros, we might say, integrates the whole Jacob's ladder, leading under the impulses of grace to a freely giving agape that, lured by vision and buoyed by delight, is so much more than a bare determination to do good. (20) The tale represents the connected rungs of the ladder in the person of Babette, who is bringing the gift down from heaven into the kitchen, and in so doing, raising the dinner to heaven.
 Of what happened later in the evening nothing definite can here
 be stated. None of the guests later on had any clear remembrance
 of it. They only knew that the rooms had been filled with a
 heavenly light, as if a number of small halos had blended into
 one glorious radiance. ... Time itself had merged into eternity.
 Long after midnight the windows of the house shone like gold, and
 golden song flowed out into the winter air. (21)

Retrieving Kierkegaard

To return to my original claim, Soren Kierkegaard's aesthetic, ethical, and religious categories can help in the interpretation of literature. At the very least, they point to a persistent analogous idea about three basic ways of living. Particularly in confrontation with these analogous developments we learn how to keep Kierkegaard's labels while filling them out and making them more Catholic. This could be put in terms of a feminine or Marian element. Kierkegaard is a very stony son of the Reformation for whom the feminine appears mainly as a challenge and never as a philosophico-religious underpinning or matrix. W.H. Auden, in a little book of four liners, Academic Graffiti, wrote: Soren Kierkegaard, tried awfully hard, to take the leap, but fell in a heap. The accompanying drawing by Filippo Sanjust is priceless in its depiction of the leaping figure. We don't know that he fell in a heap but we wish for him, suspended out there in his leap, participation in a more sustaining element.

The writers we have looked at have added a note of teleology. What is everyone hoping for, at any level, even where they mess it up terribly? Eliot inserts relationship and communion; Dinesen adds beauty to the mix. This stirring and striving for the higher is active at all levels, even, or especially, the aesthetic. The striving is an aspect of love, and without it nothing at all would be happening. Both writers find it expedient to get to it and to present it through the feminine. Eliot gives us strong women characters: Lavinia is not just someone's wife, but a real person who, precisely as a woman, has a better handle on the complexity of relational issues than does Edward. And Celia with her search for love makes a fine knight of faith. Then Dinesen's Babette, transcending the categories, consecrates herself to a mystery she explains in terms of art, but which for the guests and for us points to the heavenly banquet.

To treat Kierkegaard's categories as I have here, putting their inventor in dialogue with writers holding a more Catholic, or at least more catholic, outlook is to begin to set right something I think we sense as we read him; it is the absence of--what?--the cosmos, the relational, the feminine. What we are really doing from a philosophical point of view is placing him within the analogy of being, where there are analogous levels of love up and down the cosmos, all the way to the interrelational trinitarian perichoresis. Then, having rendered them more flexible and interrelated, we can find in the ideas of the aesthetic, ethical, and religious a useful scheme. They become stages or phases in the process of love, vision, and fruitful action, drawn by what Dante called "Love that moves the sun and the other stars."


(1.) Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 84-135.

(2.) Ibid., 301-445.

(3.) Naturally there is so much that can be said about these categories, and anyone who wants to get into them is invited to study Either/Or, Stages on Life's Way, and Fear and Trembling, with their thousands of pages of illumination.

(4.) T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950), 356.

(5.) Ibid., 364.

(6.) Kierkegaard describes faith as the surmounting of a consciously affirmed despair in The Sickness unto Death, trans. Alistair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 43-58.

(7.) Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 75-80.

(8.) Eliot, Complete Poems, 303.

(9.) Ibid., 387.

(10.) As does Martin Buber, "The Question to the Single One," Between Man and Man (New York: Macmillan, [1936] 1948), 40ff.

(11.) Isak Dinesen, Babette's Feast (New York: Random House, 1974), 12.

(12.) Ibid., 46-47.

(13.) Josef Pieper, Divine Madness (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 55.

(14.) Deus caritas est, December 25, 2005.

(15.) Pieper is clear: "The possibilities of corruption, adulteration, dissimulation, pretension, and pseudo-actualization lie dangerously close." Divine Madness, 37.

(16.) Dinesen gives Mozart a key role. We know Kierkegaard struggled to find the place of the "musical-erotic" within the seriousness of faith. One of Kierkegaard's greatest twentieth-century admirers, his theological systematizer Karl Barth (the same Karl Barth who thought that the analogy of being is indeed the Catholic principle, and is the invention of the Antichrist), experienced conflict around the Mozart question. Barth loved Mozart dearly, played him daily, but exclaimed once in protest, right in the middle of his Church Dogmatics, in complete bafflement: How could this frivolous Roman Catholic write the music of Heaven? Thomas Merton was quick with the answer, suggesting that in his active fascination with Mozart, "Barth is perhaps striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology." And that he is looking for "a central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, even by eros." Thomas Merton, "Barth's Dream," Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1968), 11.

(17.) See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theodrama vol. III (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 263-82.

(18.) Ibid., 32.

(19.) Dinesen, Babette's Feast, 14.

(20.) Pope Benedict XVI says in reference to this charity toward the neighbor that "I have to become like someone in love." Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 197.

(21.) Dinesen, Babette's Feast, 41.
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Author:Duncan, Roger
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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