The artist as peacemaker: "Babette's Feast" as a narrative of reconciliation.
The split between mind and body, depicted by Rilke as characteristic of the modern period, is a fundamental source of discord in our time. Various feminist theologians associate it with the subordination of women and disgust for the female body which is endemic in patriarchal religious traditions. (2) They maintain, as does Rilke, that redemption, for modern individuals, does not consist in the attainment of an other-worldly ideal, but in the realization of wholeness. However, feminist thinkers tend to divide on the question of how wholeness is to be achieved--specifically, on whether its sufficient condition is to be understood in terms of appropriation or, borrowing a term from the artist's vocabulary, mastery.
Representative of the former point of view is the thinker Audre Lorde who equates our lack of wholeness with the suppression of the erotic. According to Lorde, our chief responsibility to ourselves is to "begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic ... and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us" (Plaskow and Christ 212). Similarly, theologian Beverly Harrison argues that contemporary Christians (women, especially) can begin to liberate themselves from the tradition's "dominant, other-worldly spirituality" (Plaskow and Christ 214), by claiming the power and importance of their suppressed anger. As the formula for wholeness for both these thinkers involves taking ownership of drives and feelings which had previously been denied, so the chief fruit of wholeness for them seems to be authenticity.
Feminist thinkers who view the work of wholeness as a kind of mastery of the conscious and unconscious components of the self are seeking, beyond authenticity, a unifying focus for heart and mind. We find this quest in the writing of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman whose diary from the time of the Holocaust describes a journey from interior chaos to peace. "There is still not room enough inside me for all my inner and outer conflicts," she writes (Hillesum 69), and, several pages later, "let me feel at one with myself ... let me perform a thousand daily tasks with love, but let every one spring from a greater central core of devotion and love" (Hillesum 71-72). The divided self that Etty portrays is not simply caught in a case of repression, where the object of one's desire is known but feared, but rather, in a crisis of identity, where what one thinks one desires--in Etty's case, a man--is unsatisfying and what one really wants is unknown. It seems to her that resolving the conflict would not only bring about peace of soul within individuals, but also ease the tensions causing bloodshed in the world: "Why is there a war? ... Because I and my neighbor and everyone else do not have enough love ... we could fight war and all its excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live (Hillesum 99).
In a vision such as Etty's, we can see, the quest for personal wholeness contributes to reconciliation in society through the effort of giving expression to what she calls, "the love that is shackled inside us." Like Rilke (by whom Etty was strongly influenced), she sees the contemporary period as a time of emergence, so that the most important question, for individuals and society, is whether one is going to aid or resist the un-shackling of this love. A Northern European compatriot of Etty's, Isak Dinesen, writing later in the twentieth century, seems to share her and Rilke's conviction that ours is a time of trans-personal renewal. Her most famous story, "Babette's Feast," combines Rilke's themes of the split between mind and body and the return of God by earthly means with Etty's emphasis on the imprisonment of the power of love within us. However, the story's association of a wholly other-worldly spirituality with an austere Christian sect and the redemptive function of a turn to the earth with a female character who is an outsider to the sect can make it appear that Dinesen belongs to the camp of feminists who view wholeness in terms of appropriation. Sarah Stambaugh, for example, in her book, The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen, argues that "Babette's Feast" describes the triumph of the feminine values of the French cook Babette over the masculine values of her Christian benefactors (Stambaugh 79-81).
Stambaugh's type of interpretation fails to note, however, the extreme tension between mind and body which is present throughout "Babette's Feast" and resolved in the meal of the story's title. The tension is expressed right from the beginning in the contrast which Dinesen sets up between the little town of Berlevaag, which is home to the sect, and the world beyond it. Because of this tension, the joyfulness of the feast which Babette prepares must be understood as due not simply to a re-appropriation of long repressed feminine or fleshly values but rather, to the integration of mind and body through the power of love. It is true that Babette's redemptive act originates outside the customs and culture of the Christian sect to which her benefactors belong, but instead of negating the sect's values, it seems to encompass them in a vision which is at once more transcendent and more human. As H. Wayne Schow has said, "Dinesen is the poet of wholeness and coherence" (Stambaugh 112). In "Babette's Feast," her objective is not to celebrate one set of values over its opposite, but to bring the reader to a realization which frees one from having to identify with any one set of values or ideology.
Toward the end of the story, one of the main characters reflects that "the world (is) not a moral, but a mystic concern" (BF 32). This is the chief clue, I would say, to what "Babette's Feast" is meant to accomplish. Dinesen is trying to bring her readers to an awareness of soul--the point of unity in the person--which cuts through the impasse of mind and body. Such an awareness (as Etty Hillesum has already reminded us) can also overcome the divisions between people. Babette the outsider and her Christian benefactors are united in a shared longing at the end of the story. Thus, a close reading of "Babette's Feast," would seem to have social as well as personal relevance. In telling the story, Dinesen is mapping for us, as it were, the path to the standpoint where harmony within gives rise to a vision of harmony without. In the remainder of this paper, I will endeavor to trace the steps of that journey. After summarizing the story, I will discuss the nature of the tension between mind and body which "Babette's Feast" portrays and the way Dinesen shows how this tension normally divides people; the figure of Babette as the one who masters this tension and is capable of bringing people together; and the vision which emerges from the standpoint of wholeness.
As "Babette's Feast" begins, two sisters, Martine and Philippa, have lived in the little Norwegian town of Berlevaag all their lives. They are members of an austere Christian sect, of which their father, long since dead, was the Dean. Though beautiful as young girls, the women have never married, but both have known the pangs of love. Martine's lover, Lorens Loewehielm, had been a lieutenant of the hussars when he met the girl on a visit to Berlevaag. Captivated by her "almost supernatural fairness" (BF 4) he had envisioned a pure life for himself with her as the guiding angel at his side. But her purity had proved too much for him and he had returned to military life, resolved to forget her by forging a spectacular career.
Philippa's lover, Achille Papin, had been a French opera singer who had fallen in love with Philippa's voice on hearing it in her father's little church. With visions of Philippa as the next reigning diva of Paris, he had persuaded the Dean to agree to singing lessons for his daughter. But the girl had sent him away when, at the climax of the seduction duet in Don Giovanni, he had taken her in his arms and kissed her. For the next fifteen years, the sisters had lived quietly; then a mysterious French woman had appeared on their doorstep.
Babette was a refugee from the French Commune; in her letter of introduction from Achille Papin, he had mentioned that she had been a petroleuse--one of the women who had set fires throughout Paris during that period. In Berlevaag, she quickly assumed management of the sisters' household, allowing them to devote themselves, even more than before, to charitable works. For twelve years, life has been uneventful for the now elderly sisters and their foreign cook, but one day she announces to them that she has won the French lottery. She begs permission to prepare a fine meal for them and their guests on the occasion of the Dean's one hundredth birthday.
Preparations for the dinner proceed although Martine and Philippa, sure that all extravagance is sinful, have misgivings. The night of the feast they are joined once again by Lorens Loewenhielm, now a General. Of all the assembled guests, he is the only one to recognize the meal as a masterpiece. Before leaving, he makes a speech to the party about the path we choose in life and the path we do not choose. Bidding farewell a second time to Martine, he tells her that they have never been apart from each other.
In the aftermath of the meal, the guests are joyful. Long-standing divisions in the congregation have been healed. As they go out into the night, they hold hands like little children to make their way through the snow. Remembering Babette, the sisters find her, totally spent, in the kitchen. When she tells them that she has used all of her fortune to pay for the meal and they are aghast, she refuses their pity by declaring that she is a great artist and "a great artist ... is never poor." (BF 47) Quoting Achille Papin, Babette tells Philippa, "Through all the world, there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist, 'Give me leave to do my utmost.'" (BF 48) The story ends with Babette and Philippa in each other's arms.
As if hinting at the transcendent perspective to which her story of the emergence of soul will bring us, Dinesen presents, in the opening paragraph of "Babette's Feast," an aerial view of the Norwegian town where the story takes place:
At the foot of the mountains, the small town of Berlevaag looks like a child's toy-town of little wooden pieces painted gray, yellow, pink, and many other colors (BF 3).
The drama that will subsequently unfold, it is suggested (unlike many modern dramas), will not occur solely in the minds of the characters. Each of the individuals portrayed in "Babette's Feast" is a presence--something which most of them scarcely realize--and their encounters resonate with trans-personal significance. "You will see the characters of the true story clearly, as if luminous and on a higher plane," (LT 24) Dinesen writes, in "The Cardinal's First Tale." The encompassing love which the characters will experience in the meal at the end of "Babette's Feast" is foreshadowed by the encompassing vision of the author.
At the same time, Dinesen's description of Berlevaag as a "toy-town" begins to establish the tension that propels the story. Through the association of toys with a child's world, Berlevaag is set apart from other places as a kind of enclosure, pure and pristine. This line that is immediately drawn between Berlevaag and the "outside world" expresses the opposition human beings experience between the desire for an ideal which our minds conceive and the attraction of the things of this world. The inhabitants of Berlevaag--at least, the members of the sect--lead an austere existence in anticipation of the "New Jerusalem" promised in the Bible. Martine and Philippa have never worn any colors besides gray and black, spend their days performing works of charity, and follow a diet which consists almost entirely of "split cod and ale and bread soup" (BF 16). "Filled" with "the ideal of heavenly love," they have renounced the consolation of husband and family, not wanting to be "touched by the flames of this world" (BF 5).
The tension between the ascetical life of the people of Berlevaag and the worldly orientation of outsiders to the sect comes to the point of conflict in the figure of Lorens Loewenhielm, the young officer who had fallen in love with Martine on a visit to Berlevaag thirty years earlier. We feel the clash between the drawing power of an other-worldly ideal and one's desire for the things of this world in the story within the story which describes his visit. Although he is clearly enraptured by her, Loewenhielm is unable to express his love for Martine. She strikes him as so pure that on each of his visits to the Dean's house, he seems to become "smaller and more insignificant and contemptible" (BF 6). His farewell outburst expresses his despair at the unbridgeable gulf between them: "I am going away forever! ... I shall never, never see you again! For I have learned here that Fate is hard and in this world there are things which are impossible" (BF 7).
The same conflict is experienced from the other side of the tension by Philippa, who awakens to sexual desire through her relationship with the opera singer Achille Papin, though she subsequently retreats from the relationship. In her case, it is fear of her sub-conscious or "other self' which causes her to withdraw from the object of her desire: "Surprised and frightened by something in her own nature" (BF 12), when Papin kissed her, Philippa tells her father that she will not see the opera singer again. Both Loewenhielm and Philippa make what we may think of as the "common sense" choice when confronted with the conflict of mind and body. Both choose the way of life that is familiar to them, even though the path which they are rejecting seems mysteriously beautiful.
The numinosity that can be projected by an unclaimed "other self" such as we see in Lorens Loewenhielm and the Dean's daughters is prominently featured in Dinesen's description of the sisters' attitude toward the Frenchwoman Babette who comes to live with them. The pious Lutherans "tremble" at receiving a Roman Catholic into their household and immediately instruct her that the "luxurious fare" she had been accustomed to prepare as a chef was "sinful" (BF 16). Even when her prowess at managing the sisters' affairs earns her the admiration and, significantly, the "awe" (BF 17) of the townspeople, the woman's worldly past (besides being a chef, there was that reference to her as a petroleuse) hangs like a dark curtain in the sisters' minds. They come to regard Babette as the "cornerstone" of the house, but "their cornerstone," they felt, "had a mysterious and alarming feature to it, as if it was somehow related to the Black Stone of Mecca, the Kaaba itself" (BF 17). Their projections become demonic when Babette is given permission to prepare the feast. Martine is terrified when she sees the turtle Babette has ordered and that night dreams that the cook is buying provisions for a "witches' Sabbath" (BF 26) at which she plans to poison all the guests.
The depiction of the narrowness of the sisters' piety and the superstitious fears to which it gives rise is another way in which Dinesen prepares the reader, by contrast, for the genuinely sacramental experience of the feast which climaxes the story. In a letter to her mother, Dinesen defines goodness as "mobility of the soul" (Stambaugh 69), a concept which would seem to have more to do with an expansion of heart that embraces the whole of life than with adherence to an ideal. A passage from "Deluge at Norderney, "another Dinesen story, is a striking criticism of the sisters' kind of religion: "Wash your faces, the Lord is continually telling us," the Cardinal declares. "For if you will do the painting of them yourselves, laying on humility and renunciation, charity and chastity one inch thick, I can do nothing about them'" (Langbaum 60). In this respect, the symbolism of the sisters' village as a "child's toy-town" hints at the spiritual immaturity of its dwellers. The human heart must be broken open, Dinesen suggests, to be whole and capable of real love.
Turning to Babette, the middle-aged Frenchwoman who has depended on the sisters' hospitality since fleeing France twelve years earlier, we find what at first seems to be an unlikely candidate as an instrument of grace. Having participated in the Commune, there is violence in her past, and in Berlevaag, she holds herself aloof from the Christian fellowship enjoyed by the sect. Yet Babette's self-possession bespeaks a knowledge of soul which the villagers lack. In her presence, Martine and Philippa are made aware of a dimension of life to which they themselves lack access:
... she would sit immovable on the three-legged kitchen chair, her strong hands in her lap and her dark eyes wide open, as enigmatical and fatal as a Pythia upon her tripod. At such moments they realized that Babette was deep, and that in the soundings of her being, there were passions, there were memories and longings of which they knew nothing at all (BF 18).
Babette's interior capaciousness is what qualifies her as a mediating figure. "Always we fail because we are too small," the Prince laments in another Dinesen tale, "The Roads Round Pisa." "Too small I have been, too small for the ways of God" (Langbaum 14).
Babette is deep because she is an artist. Unlike people such as General Loewenhielm and Philippa, who accommodate the tension between mind and body by suppressing it, the artist embraces the tension and is brought face to face with the darkness which surrounds our conscious existence. To create is to unite form and matter, to give order to the stuff of one's experience, but this precludes identifying with either form or matter. Such identification--in Loewenhielm's case, with his career, in Philippa's, with the New Jerusalem--shields us from the darkness which surrounds our conscious existence. Since the artist has no shield, she discovers her soul, her own unique self- as she fashions something in the darkness. Babette's proud isolation is probably her defining characteristic. She reveals the reason for it at the end of the story when, in telling the sisters that she is an artist, adds "(artists) have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing" (BF 47). Awareness of soul--the point of unity of mind and body--we can say, is the artist's gift. If we are drawn to works of art, it is because they connect us to our own souls--they mediate the darkness for us.
The feast which Babette prepares, however, is more than a work of art. The acts of reconciliation which occur at the dinner--one man admitting that he'd cheated his old friend and begging forgiveness; a pair of estranged lovers enjoying a long kiss; two women recovering their friendship after years of slandering each other--are the result of grace, the "infinite grace" (BF 40) to which General Loewenhielm refers in his climactic speech. In traditional terms, the feast which Babette prepares is a sacrament. The guests' participation in the meal becomes a participation in the love which is the divine life. Dinesen underscores this by referring to Jesus's first miracle as the feast is about to begin:
"They were sitting down to a meal," (the guests thought) "well, so had people done at the wedding of Cana. And grace had chosen to manifest itself there, in the very wine, as fully as anywhere" (BF 35).
In calling Babette's feast sacramental, we are identifying it as one of those events which, according to Dinesen, are peculiarly the work of artists or "artists-in-life" (Langbaum 24) but which transcend the artist's intention. As Langbaum puts it, for Dinesen, the artist can "set in motion events that take over of themselves" (Langbaum 52) so that "miraculously, he has stepped from his own story into God's" (Langbaum 24). He becomes, in other words, an instrument of grace. Dinesen seems
to think that this happens when the artist's desire to make something beautiful becomes the overwhelming desire of her soul, when it becomes the desire to commune with the darkness that surrounds our conscious existence. Babette refers to her artistry in religious terms: she tells the sisters that her longing to prepare a feast for them is her one prayer, a prayer she is making "from the bottom of her heart" (BF 23). (The film that was made of "Babette's Feast" emphasizes the religious aspect of Babette's cooking. In the scene prior to the one in which Babette begs the sisters for permission to prepare the anniversary meal, we find her sitting alone, pondering her situation. Then, fingering the cross which she wears around her neck, she gets up to tell the women her plans.)
Thus it happens that the artist makes her greatest gift to others when she yields completely to her own inmost desire. "Dear Babette," Philippa says, when she learns that the Frenchwoman has spent her entire fortune on the meal they have just enjoyed, "you ought not to have given away all you had for our sake." "For your sake?" Babette replies. "No, for my own" (BF 46). Just as we come to a glimpse of soul through the artist's mediation of the darkness that surrounds our conscious existence, so our souls are opened by the artist's love of the darkness. "God cannot have his way in every heart," Meister Eckhart says, "for though God is almighty yet he cannot work except where he finds readiness ..." (Mourant 165) By being true to her inmost desire, the artist allows God, as Dinesen demonstrates, to have his way in the hearts of those who rejoice in her work.
It remains to General Loewenhielm to communicate the vision which arises from an experience of grace such as Babette mediates. That his insight is equivalent to her artistry can be seen from the way that the General, like Babette, comes to embrace the tension between this world and the other world--in his case, after having long suppressed it. In choosing life as a hussar over Martine, the young Loewenhielm had not only rejected the angelic love he had imagined he would receive from her, but his own spiritual gifts as well. There was a legacy of second sight in the Loewenhielm family and it had manifested itself in Lorens on his visit to Berlevaag. Thirty years later, on the eve of his return visit, the lack of a connection to the other world in the life he has chosen makes him question the wisdom of that choice. It even seems to him that his young, idealistic self is mocking the man he has become, negating all his worldly success.
By admitting his "other self" into consciousness, the General enters the arena of spiritual conflict. His determination to silence his alter ego by going to the sisters' dinner (which he assumes will be a sorry affair and hence proof of the rightness of his long-ago choice) underscores the threat to his worldly identity. But being locked in combat with your other self is a way of embracing it. Without fully realizing it, Loewenhielm arrives at the dinner in that state of metaphysical confusion which accompanies spiritual displacement. He leaves the dinner with a luminous self-understanding through which the conflict of his former standpoint is resolved.
The General's speech at the end of the meal reflects the insight that the fundamental cause of the conflict we experience between mind and body, the other world and this world, is fear: "We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong" (BF 40). What makes us tremble, it seems, is the unmediated awareness of the darkness which surrounds our conscious existence which is implicit at every crossroads. But when the heart opens up in the experience of grace, we realize that we have nothing to fear, that we are beloved. The General's speech expresses the standpoint where the heart is open to the surrounding darkness so that the divisions caused by fearful projections are gone: "the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite ... that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us" (BF 40). Loewenhielm had thought that by choosing a worldly path, he had cut himself off forever from a relationship with Martine. But open now to the surrounding darkness and available, thereby, to the action of grace, he realizes that she has always been with him.
What Loewenhielm comes to is the idea of the essential unity of human beings in the divine life. Without negating the difference between this world and the other world, himself and Martine, he can affirm that the heart which is open to God finds all the persons whom it loves in God. This is paradoxical, of course, that two human beings, separated by space and time, should be one in their essence, but when the world is seen through eyes illumined by grace, we realize, as Loewehielm says, that "anything is possible" (BF 42), that our heart's deepest desire is not in vain. "I have been with you every day of my life," Loewehielm says as he leaves Martine, "And ... I shall be with you every day that is left to me" (BF 42). Our heart's deepest desire is to love and be loved. But it is only when we have ceased to identify with this world over against the other world, oneself over against one's beloved, that desire for the other becomes communion with the other in the divine life.
"Babette's Feast" would seem to be a depiction, then, of what Rilke calls, "God's coming again ... through the dark earth and the warm darkness of human hearts" (Rilke 88). By being true to what is in ourselves, by embracing the tension between mind and body, Dinesen is saying, we can come to participate in the integral life of loving. The artists among us, those who shape from the "dark earth" something beautiful, assist in this process by freeing our hearts of the fear which accompanies an unmediated experience of reality. "Shackled" (to use Etty Hillesum's term) by fear, we see the other as threatening, the path not taken as temptation. From the standpoint beyond fear, there arises a vision of communion. "Last night," Etty Hillesum writes in her diary, "(with) all my good friends around me ... I felt a great bond with each of them in a different way, a bond that was not a chain" (Hillesum 105). It is only the individual in whom soul has awakened--in whom mind and body are integrated--who can know this kind of connection to others. "Babette's Feast" calls us to the task of recovering soul and participating, thereby, in the work of reconciliation.
Dinesen, Isak. "Babette's Feast" and other Anecdotes of Destiny. New York: Random House, Vintage Books Edition, 1988.
--. Last Tales. New York: Random House, 1957.
Hillesum, Etty. An Interrupted Life. New York: Washington Square P, 1981.
Langbaum, Robert. The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen's Art. London: Chatto and Windus, 1964.
Mourant, John A. ed. Readings in the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Thomas A. Crowell Co., 1954.
Plaskow, Judith and Christ, Carol, eds. Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Stories of God, tr. by M.D. Herder Norton. New York: Norton, 1963.
Stambaugh, Sara. The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen, a feminist reading. Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Research P, 1988.
(1) This is how the theologian John Dunne re-tells Rilke's story. (A Search for God in Time and Memory, Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1977 edition, pp. 177-78.)
(2) See for example, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-talk: toward a Feminist Theology, Boston: Beacon P, 1983, and Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, Boston: Beacon P, 1973.
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|Author:||Gagne, Laurie Brands|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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