Alan Jacobs

Dialogue on Democracy, Part 3

"The Conversation" Paramount Pictures
"The Conversation" Paramount Pictures

(The previous installment of this dialogue may be found here; the first installment here.)

A. There’s nothing to be afraid of — but yes (since you’re wondering) my conviction that democracy is a failed experiment does stem, in part, from my reading of the neoreactionaries, especially Moldbug. But I’m not with him all the way — for instance, as you can tell from my earlier comments, I have a good deal more respect for the U. S. Constitution than does Moldbug, who has commented, “The basic nature of constitutional government is the formalization of power, and democracy is the formalization of mob violence.” Nah. But in many other respects his diagnosis of where we’ve gone awry is spot on.

B. Is it? I don’t think so. In fact, hearing that your thoughts have been shaped by Moldbug’s does more to discredit them than anything else you’ve said.

A. Why? Moldbug is a very smart guy — he’s just saying the kinds of things that most people are afraid to say.

B. Maybe. And sure, he’s smart. But he’s not especially knowledgable about things he needs to be knowledgable about in order to offer a compelling alternative to the existing political order. For instance, in one of his most-read posts he writes, “Thomas Aquinas derived Catholicism from pure reason. John Rawls derived progressivism from pure reason. At least one of them must have made a mistake. Maybe they both did” — which is absolutely nonsensical. He has no idea what he means by “Catholicism,” “progressivism,” “pure reason,” or “derived.” He has no idea what either Aquinas or Rawls would have made of those terms, or why they would have described their projects in wholly different ways. I distrust Moldbug because Moldbug clearly doesn’t understand — does not have even a minimally competent, first-year-undergrad comprehension of — many of the positions he rejects.

A. All right, so let’s grant, per argumentum, that Moldbug is not an expert in the history of political philosophy. But he doesn’t have to be in order to present a coherent and useful vision of a new direction in which we can go — a new direction I think you’ll agree we very much need.

B. A new direction, I’m not so sure; but a different direction, yes. Anyway, please remember that I’m not asking Moldbug to be an expert, but I do think he needs to have at least a basic understanding of the views he’s rejecting — precisely because he’s grounding the need for his ideas is the conviction that those other ideas are wrong. However, his acquaintance with those ideas is too superficial, and he’s too incurious about what Aquinas and Rawls really think, for me to take seriously his claim that he can offer a compelling alternative.

A. I don’t think that follows — you’re placing too much emphasis on the need to understand some pre-existing tradition of political thought. You’re trying to hold Moldbug accountable to the very system he’s repudiating: you’re rejecting the red pill because it’s not the blue one.

But in any case, let’s not belabor this question. I still have an argument I want to make.

B. Fair enough — as long as I get a chance to make an argument of my own before we’re too old to care.

A. Of course! But now I want to get back to this notion of — as you divined — aristocracy. The word means “rule by the excellent,” or the “best,” and the primary reason people dislike it is that they know that aristocracy never lives up to its name: it is never rule by the most excellent, but by the rich and powerful who in order to justify their rule designate themselves as excellent. That’s why it’s so absurd when people try to overcome resistance by replacing “aristocracy” with “meritocracy” — the words are synonyms, and “merit” can be faked and then justified as easily as can any other claim to excellence. By meritocracy people usually mean “rule by those who have been academic high achievers” as opposed to the popular use of aristocracy to mean “rule by those of high social status” — but given the enormously strong correlation between social status and academic performance, this is a distinction virtually without a difference.

B. So anyone, like you, who wants to make a case for aristocracy/meritocracy in preference to democracy has one big job at the outset: to show how it’s possible for a society to produce genuine aristoi — and put them in charge.

A. Exactly.

B. But even if you do that, you won’t have proved that such an aristocracy would be superior to democracy.

A. Sure. But one thing at a time. And don’t forget, if rule by the aristoi can be a fiction, rule by the demos can be too.

B. No doubt.

A. Okay, so back to work. I think the model we want to consider — though perhaps not to imitate slavishly — is imperial China’s examination system.

(to be continued…)

Assisted Suicide and “Reasonable Medical Judgment”

Damon Linker likes California’s assisted-suicide bill. After rejecting religiously-based arguments against suicide, he writes,

The arguments raised by disability-rights activists are more powerful, since they’re based less on appeals to absolute (and unconvincing) moral strictures than on the law’s potential to lead to bad consequences and abuse. One of those consequences is a kind of soft eugenics in which the terminally ill are subtly pressured to do the “selfless” thing of ending their lives to save their loved ones from the financial and emotional burdens of caring for them. One could also imagine a future attempt to expand the law to include not just terminally ill and suffering patients, but also people with chronic and debilitating but not fatal or excruciating illnesses. Finally, there’s the possibility of the law being changed so that it permits not just the patient but also family members or friends to request the lethal dosage. That, too, could lead to the exertion of pressure on a patient to end his or her life.

These are legitimate concerns that should be taken seriously, especially in light of a recent disturbing New Yorker article about how Belgium allows euthanasia for people suffering from depression. But the California law is written to avoid being applied in anything like the ways feared by most disability activists. So yes, let’s beware future amendments to the law that could lead to abuse. But that’s no reason to oppose its current, limited, and responsible form. (One doesn’t normally oppose a law based on the ways it might one day be changed, revised, or amended.)

I just want to make two comments about this. First, having read the text of the proposed law, I can’t see anything in it that would warrant Linker’s claim that “the California law is written to avoid being applied in anything like the ways feared by most disability activists.” It seems to me that it would be very easy for an attending physician and members of the dying person’s family to practice “a kind of soft eugenics in which the terminally ill are subtly pressured to do the ‘selfless’ thing of ending their lives to save their loved ones from the financial and emotional burdens of caring for them.” In fact, I don’t see how a law could be written to prevent that kind of pressure from being brought to bear on the dying.

Second, and in a spirit of theoretical disputation, I note Linker’s claim that “One doesn’t normally oppose a law based on the ways it might one day be changed, revised, or amended.” Doesn’t one? Shouldn’t one? It seems to me that there are cases in which it would be sensible to look at possible future extensions of a proposed law while evaluating its current form — and this could be one of them.

The law opens the choice of physician-assisted suicide to persons with a “terminal disease,” and defines “terminal disease” as “an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in death within six months.” Surely someone will say, “Why six months? Why not a year — or more — if ‘reasonable medical judgment’ concludes that death is overwhelmingly likely?” That is, there’s an arbitrariness in the choice of six months as the (pardon the term) deadline for this choice which makes it likely that there will soon be pressure to extend it.

Moreover, there’s a great deal of wiggle room in the phrase “reasonable medical judgment.” One doctor may deem a disease fatal that another finds eminently treatable; and even when fatality is for all intents and purposes certain, people often surprise their doctors. Some cancer patients have lived far beyond the utmost time predicted for them; others die much more quickly than expected. (My father was one of the latter.)

So it seems to me that the law in its current form is already ripe for abuse; and it seems extremely likely that strong arguments will be made for extending the time frame in which suicide may be assisted — in the name of the same compassion that causes Linker to endorse the current bill. So even on non-religious grounds the proposed law seems to me far more questionable than Linker allows.

Visible, Invisible

Ralph Ellison at literary symposium at University of Iowa University of Iowa Digital Library/Flickr
Ralph Ellison at literary symposium at University of Iowa University of Iowa Digital Library/Flickr

I want to consider some stories I have read recently — juxtapose them to one another. Let’s begin by looking at this story:

Last year I told a gay black male who wrote a story about a gay black male that I didn’t care about race or gender, and the class gasped. Even though I explained that I cared more about what happened to the character and about the elegance of the prose, my comment could have been a signal to erect a guillotine on the campus lawn. Nonetheless, the student thanked me after class. He said, “No one looks at my stories. They just look at me.”

And this post on “microinvalidations”:

Microinvalidations are characterized by communications or environmental cues that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of certain groups, such as people of color. Color blindness is one of the most frequently delivered microinvalidations toward people of color.

“People are just people; I don’t see color; we’re all just human.” Or “I don’t think of you as Chinese.” Or “We all bleed red when we’re cut.” Or “Character, not color, is what counts with me.”

And then this story:

Academics of color experience an enervating visibility, but it’s not simply that we’re part of a very small minority. We are also a desired minority, at least for appearance’s sake. University life demands that academics of color commodify themselves as symbols of diversity — in fact, as diversity itself, since diversity, in this context, is located entirely in the realm of the symbolic. There’s a wound in the rupture between the diversity manifested in the body of the professor of color and the realities affecting that person’s community or communities. I, for example, am a black professor in the era of mass incarceration of black people through the War on Drugs; I am a Somali American professor in the era of surveillance and drone strikes perpetuated through the War on Terror….

It’s not that we’re too few, nor is it that we suffer survivor guilt for having escaped the fate of so many in our communities. It’s that our visibility is consumed in a way that legitimizes the structures of exclusion.

Skin feeling: to be encountered as a surface.

And finally, Ralph Ellison from Invisible Man, where so much of this discourse begins:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

It’s easy — especially for anyone who discounts racism and the effects of racism as major shapers of the American cultural experience — to throw up one’s hands and say “It’s impossible to win with these people! It’s white people’s fault if they’re visible, it’s white people’s fault if they’re invisible! Heads they win, tails we lose!” Indeed, it’s not just easy, it’s inevitable.

But you know, it has to be hard to be either invisible or hyper-visible; and white America really does oscillate between casual clueless racism and genuine heartfelt desire to achieve colorblindness. (Though probably there has been a general drift towards the latter, which could be taken advantage of rather than resented.)

I would love to have a clear answer to this conundrum, but I don’t — except to note that it is a conundrum, an insoluble puzzle, a rhetorical circle — it’s the Mister Bones’ Wild Ride of political rhetoric. So maybe this is a good point at which to remind ourselves that, in this context, both “visibility” and “invisibility” are largely metaphorical. And then look through and beneath them for the more complex reality that they fail to capture — even if they may have been at times in their history conceptually useful and powerful. I think many critics of American racism have attached themselves to a vocabulary that just drops them in a ride that never ends.

Dialogue on Democracy, Part 2

2001: A Space Odyssey. MGM
2001: A Space Odyssey. MGM

(The first installment of the dialogue is here.)

B. But you’ve totally shifted ground here! What you’re offering now is not a critique of self-government, or even representative democracy, but of a corrupt electioneering system which couldn’t serve plutocracy better if it were designed to do so – and really, it is designed to do so, come to think of it.

A. And every “informed voter” knows that that’s the case, and expresses much tut-tutting disapproval, and occasionally even raises his or her voice in outrage — but keeps re-electing the same corrupt and/or weak-willed losers, or their newest clones. I have complained about American voters being ignorant, but even when they’re not ignorant they are thoughtless. Every opportunity they have to address the corruption of the system— and they have that opportunity every two years — they squander. They listen to the empty promises of politicians that flatter them, and pay not the slightest attention to the needs of society as a whole or those who come after them — that’s the selfishness, their third item of my indictment. They have repeatedly abused the privilege of voting, and they deserve to have it taken away from them.

B. Well, it’s a powerful indictment. According to your argument, then, this nearly universal abdication of democratic responsibility has led (one must assume) to the collapse of American society, widespread poverty, and internal and external powerlessness. Because clearly it wouldn’t be possible to a political system as corrupt and inefficient as the one you’ve described to produce even a mediocre social order — let alone an enormously wealthy and powerful society, a global hegemon such as the world has rarely if ever seen. So perhaps you’re living in the universe next door to mine….

A. No, I think we’re in the same universe, though I might want to argue whether a country’s achieving the status of “a global hegemon such as the world has rarely if ever seen” is, as you seem to think, a good sign. But let’s set all that aside and cut to the chase. As I read current events, and the history that has produced them, American power is chiefly the residual result of decisions made long ago by a much smaller electorate, a kind of aristocracy in all but name. Insofar as that aristocracy excluded women, people of color, and (at first) poor white men, it was unjustifiable; but another way to look at it is that the power went to the best-educated in society, the least vulnerable to the pressures of external forces. We are at work dismantling the brilliant edifice they constructed, though perhaps not fast enough for some; but it was so magnificently built, so delicately balanced— “a machine that would go of itself” — that it has proven exceptionally difficult to dismantle. But it will be dismantled, and just as we are continuing to benefit from the wisdom of our ancestors, our grandchildren will suffer from the stupidity of voters today.

B. You realize, I trust, that your historical argument could be challenged, and seriously challenged, at every single point.

A. Yeah. But we’re having a conversation, I’m not writing a treatise.

B. You also realize, I trust, that where you’re headed would constitute a more radical dismantling of the Constitution than anything else on the table?

A. No. I absolutely deny that. It would be a way to re-articulate and re-implement genuinely Constitutional principles in a new social order, one in which ignorance, thoughtlessness, and selfishness are no longer impediments to political power and influence.

B. I’m going to do you the honor of assuming that you are not going to argue for confining the franchise to white males who make more than $100,000 a year….

A. Much obliged.

B. But this is going to be an argument for a New Aristocracy, isn’t it?

A. Yep.

B. I was afraid of that.

(to be continued…)

Dialogue On Democracy, Part 1

A. It’s time to accept a simple and yet profound fact: democracy is a failed experiment. People throughout the Western world — well, hold on: let’s just confine this discussion to America. Democracy in America is a failed experiment. Americans have demonstrated conclusively that they are too ignorant, thoughtless, and selfish to be trusted with self-governance.

B. Ignorant, thoughtless, and selfish! What a trifecta! Hyperbole much?

A. It’s not hyperbole. Let’s take my charges one at a time. Surely I don’t need to recite the dark litany of polls and studies that demonstrate how grossly misinformed Americans are about the basics of our political system, current laws and policies, the most elementary facts of world geography—

B. No, no, you don’t have to recite that litany — I have it by heart. But do you think that’s a new thing? Are you under the impression that our ancestors were learned and wise, spending their evenings discoursing on the subtleties of recent Supreme Court decisions?

A. I’m tempted to say yes. After all, they weren’t sitting around watching American Idol or hammering out wrathful comments on YouTube videos. They attended lectures and chatauquas, they participated in town halls and debating societies —

B. “They” did? You mean a handful of the wealthier and better-educated white men did, I think.

A. As I said, I’m tempted to say yes — and I really do believe the situation was more complicated, and better, than you have suggested. But for now I’ll waive the point. Let’s posit that Americans today are at least as knowledgable as their ancestors were. Okay?

B. Well … okay. For now. I reserve the right to debate this point later.

A. Fair enough. So what I want to say is that ignorance today matters more than it did in the past, because the role of government in our lives is so much greater. A hundred and fifty years ago it was possible to live a full and happy life with minimal experience of government. About a hundred years before that it was possible for Samuel Johnson to write, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Such innocent times! Now “laws and kings” have insinuated themselves so deeply into all our lives that ignorance of their power and influence can exact horrifying costs.

Plus, we have so many more educational opportunities than our ancestors —

B. Hang on, hang on — this is a dialogue, remember?

A. Sorry. Please go on.

B. Thanks. I think you need to stop and reflect on the fact that there is so much more to be ignorant of now than there was 150 years ago — and the increased complexity of government is a function of the increased complexity of the world. The transportation and communications technologies that arose in the 20th century have created a “global village” the very existence of which creates a need for wide-ranging knowledge that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined — to blame today’s people for —

A. I’m not blaming anyone.

B. Well, you kinda are.

A. I’ll try not to, because it’s not necessary to my argument. People may not be at fault for being too ignorant for self-government — but they still are too ignorant for self-government.

B. But isn’t that why we have a representative democracy? People elect representatives who can devote their full time and energy to mastering the complexities that we aren’t able to master.

A. Try watching C-SPAN for a while and tell me if you think those are people capable of “mastering complexities.”

B. Well, I have watched a good bit of C-SPAN and I have seen some pretty wonky Congresspersons — I think your critique is a lot more applicable to the politicians who make a point of saying and doing things that will land them on CNN and in the big newspapers.

A. Okay, that’s a fair point. But I think there are two other points you’re neglecting. First, even the wonky members of Congress tend to be selectively wonky. They have their one little area of expertise — or what they flatter themselves is expertise — and in other matters they just take their direction from their party’s leadership. And second, look at what actually gets done in Congress: certainly not intelligent and reasonable laws crafted by deeply knowledgable people to whom their colleagues defer! Rather, it’s pork-laden overstuffed monstrosities stitched together in order to please the whims of party leaders, big donors, and lobbyists for the hyper-wealthy corporations to which both major parties are equally indebted.

(to be continued…)

Safe Space

Brownstone on Upper West Side, New York City, New York, used for exteriors of the A&E TV series "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" W. Finch/Wikimedia Commons
Brownstone on Upper West Side, New York City, New York, used for exteriors of the A&E TV series "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" W. Finch/Wikimedia Commons

There’s a great deal of talk about “safe spaces” these days, but I put the phrase in quotes because rarely do these conversations refer to actual spaces. Instead, people seek social environments in which they’re proteced against verbal assault, or confrontation, or mere discomfort. Place as such doesn’t enter into it.

In stories, though, the idea of the safe space is a powerful one — even if the safety often proves illusory. (“The calls are coming from inside the house.”) And when there is genuine safety it’s rarely complete or permanent. In The Lord of the Rings Tom Bombadil’s house and Rivendell and Lothlorien are places of absolute refuge for the beleaguered characters, but we are reminded that none of them could hold out forever against the evil of Sauron. Perfect rest can be found in them; but only for now. The contingently safe space is a curiously strong theme in the Harry Potter books: living in the Dursley house grants Harry protection from Voldemort — until he comes of age; 12 Grimmauld Place protects members of the Order of the Phoenix — as long as they manage to prevent anyone from seeing them enter or leave; Hogwarts itself is invulnerable to Voldemort and the Death Eaters — but only as long as Dumbledore is present and in charge.

There are of course genuinely safe spaces in literature, and perhaps many readers will have favorites. I certainly know what mine is: it’s Nero Wolfe’s brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan.

Of all fictional series, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories have the most ingenious and fertile conceit (with the possible exception of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books). It is twofold: that the enormously fat Wolfe never willingly leaves his house, preferring to solve crimes simply by application of brain power; and that the man who moves for Wolfe, who serves as a kind of mobile prosthetic body for him, Archie Goodwin, narrates all the stories. There’s much to commend about this double conceit’s power to generate good stories — and about Rex Stout’s ability to conjure a consistently delightful narrative voice for Archie — but I want to talk about the house.

If you climb the steps and knock on the door, it will probably be answered by Fritz, Nero Wolfe’s chef — simply because Fritz’s kitchen is on the first floor, along with the dining room and Wolfe’s enormous office. The rest of the house is described at the Nero Wolfe Wikipedia page (linked above):

Nero Wolfe has expensive tastes, living in a comfortable and luxurious New York City brownstone on West 35th Street. The brownstone has three floors plus a large basement with living quarters, a rooftop greenhouse also with living quarters, and a small elevator, used almost exclusively by Wolfe. Other unique features include a timer-activated window-opening device that regulates the temperature in Wolfe’s bedroom, an alarm system that sounds in Archie’s room if someone approaches Wolfe’s bedroom door or windows, and climate-controlled plant rooms on the top floor. Wolfe is a well-known amateur orchid grower and has 10,000 plants in the brownstone’s greenhouse. He employs three live-in staff to see to his needs.

A back door, rarely used and treated as something of a secret, leads to a small garden where Fritz grows herbs and which features a vaguely described way out onto 35th Street (which seems also to be a secret, and is probably invisible from the outside, like 12 Grimmauld Place.)

The brownstone possesses an aura of self-sufficiency: I suppose Fritz has to shop for the food he cooks, but his larder seems magically full, and the meals served in that kitchen or in the adjoining dining room are in my imagining conjured more than made. (Fritz’s rooms are in the house’s basement, where he keeps an extensive collection of cookbooks.) The little world of the greenhouse, with its custodian Theodore Horstmann who lives among his orchids at the top of the house, is like a chunk of Faerie that one enters not by walking through a strange forest but by taking Wolfe’s little elevator.

Often in the books one of Wolfe’s clients finds himself or herself — usually herself — in danger and is brought by Archie to the house, whereupon the doors are locked and all creatures of evil intent are excluded. In one story a woman tries to stab Wolfe as he sits in his custom-made desk in his office; she dies instead. Wolfe is invulnerable there; I’m reminded again of Tom Bombadil, though in darker and more cynical form, utterly safe “within limits he has set for himself” and making others safe there too.

All of this is of course merely a dream of refuge dreamed by someone (me) who is one of the safest people in the world. As I write these words, refugees from the Middle East are pouring into Europe, and someone posted on Instagram images of notices that the city of Vienna has put up in all the transportation centers. The one in English (I saw Arabic ones too) begin with the word “WELCOME,” and go on to explain the various services the city provides for refugees, and to instruct visitors how to find help. Then, at the end, there is a single three-word paragraph:

You are safe.

“You are safe.” Could there be more powerful, more important, more consoling words? I have never needed to hear them in the way those thousands of refugees need to; and yet they answer to the deepest of all needs. For even water and food can wait for a while.

I have thought sometimes of finding myself in New York City, pursued by evil people who will do terrible things to me before they kill me. Somehow, against all odds, I make my way to the house of West 35th Street and rush up the steps and knock. Archie Goodwin opens the door a crack, then ushers me in. Up we go to the guest bedroom on the third floor, down the hall from Archie’s own room. The room is clean and quiet, and an orchid from Wolfe’s greenhouse stands in a vase on the bedside table. Once alone, I take off my clothes and turn out the light. In the morning Fritz will make a delicious breakfast, and there will be plenty of hot strong coffee. In the meantime, I sleep soundly and peacefully. Because here I am safe.


Damon Linker is right to say that the person now known as Kentucky Clerk should resign if she can’t fulfill the law the terms of her job require her to fulfill.

Mollie Hemingway is right to say that the attacks on Kentucky Clerk are utterly malicious and utterly mendacious.

There are really two significant stories here: one concerns Christians who think that they ought to be able to dissent from government and get paid by it at the same time; the other concerns secular liberals whose one principle in relation to the repugnant cultural other is “Any stick to beat a dog.”

UPDATE: I tried to comment on Noah’s response to this post, but WordPress didn’t let me. Or I don’t think it let me. Anyway two things: first, did I really sound “outraged”? I didn’t feel outraged. Perhaps I need to work on tone management.

Second, about the question of “significance:” if Kim Davis is a unique figure, then Noah is right, the story isn’t significant. But she may not be a unique figure. There seem to be a number of conservative Christians in America with a complex (possibly contradictory) attitude towards this country: on the one hand, a default patriotism and law-and-order mentality, often rooted in the belief that America is a “Christian nation,” that makes them comfortable with holding government jobs;  and on the other hand, a belief that like the Apostles they should “obey God rather than man” and therefore should always be ready to dissent from the powers that be. This leads to someone like Kim Davis thinking that it’s possible for her to swear to uphold the law — but to refrain from upholding the law when it’s one her conscience disagrees with. If a large number of Americans, even in just a few states, feel the same way, then that will have consequences for elections, for laws, for the social fabric. And such consequences would be significant. Enough people have spoken out in support of Kim Davis to make me think that it’s not a trivial story.

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Stepping Away

Dear readers, I’m going to be — once again — stepping away from this blog for a while. I enjoy writing it, and thought I would be able to keep it going, but the many complications introduced into my life by moving to a new city to take up a new job in a new university where I will teach new classes . . . well, it’s all more than I can keep up with, at least for now. I hope to check back in eventually, and in the meantime: Thanks for reading!

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The Selfish Babette

This morning Rod calls our attention to this post about cooking the central dish from Babette’s Feast. The movie is rightly legendary among food lovers and cooks, partly for reasons specified by J. Bryan Lowder here:

Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.

But: in the great story by Isak Dinesen on which the movie is based, Babette isn’t cooking for anyone else at all. She knows that when she cooks she makes people happy, but that isn’t why she cooks. At the end of the story, when the women who employ her learn that she spent all her savings to buy the ingredients for the magnificent meal they and their friends have just eaten, they are deeply moved. But they get a response from Babette they don’t expect.

Philippa’s heart was melting in her bosom. It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.

“Dear Babette,” she 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.

She waited a moment and then repeated: “I arn a great artist, Mesdames.”

Again for a long time there was deep silence in the kitchen.

Then Martine said: “So you will be poor now all your life, Babette?”

“Poor?” said Babette. She smiled as if to herself. “No, I shall never be poor. I told you that I am a great artist. A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing.”

Babette’s art gives great pleasure to others, but she does not care. How other people feel about her work is a matter of complete indifference to her, because she knows herself to be a great artist and therefore to be utterly superior to them, to be made of different stuff. Lowder writes, “The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care” — but nothing could be further from the truth for the Babette of the story.

There is, from our point of view, which is necessarily that of the sisters, something inhuman about Babette. “Philippa went up to Babette and put her arms round her. She felt the cook’s body like a marble monument against her own, but she herself shook and trembled from head to foot.” Lowder believes, and perhaps the movie believes, and certainly I believe, in the beauty of a gift that is both given and received in love. But that is not what happens in the story. There Babette loves only her art. That that art pleases us is not, in her view, worthy even of contemplation.

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Boomers and E-Reading

Photograph by André Kertesz, from an essay by Sven Birkets on reading

I bought my first e-reader some years ago in a curious but skeptical frame of mind. But gradually over the years I have read fewer and fewer codexes, more and more electronic versions. I might have gone wholly digital by this point except for two things. First, many of the books I read I read in order to teach, and I have never gotten comfortable with navigating through an electronic text in class. It’s slow and awkward for me. And second, I started buying electronic books from Amazon and so am locked into their e-reading ecosystem, and I don’t like that. (Yes, I know how to extract the books from their DRM prison, but that’s a tedious and time-consuming process.) So I remain a regular purchaser of codexes.

But you know, like many people my age, I don’t see quite as well as I used to: even with trifocals, finding the right distance for text can be challenging. And light-sensitivity decreases with age, so I find myself looking for brighter lamps under which to read. Reading on an iPad or a Kindle Paperlight solves both of these problems: I can get text the size I want and plenty of light in every environment.

And I suspect that as I age the conveniences of e-readers will only become more appealing. When my back hurts I might want to lie on my side for an extended period, and we all know how awkward that can be with a codex. Or maybe my eyes will get tired more often, at which point I can put on my headphones and let the machine read the book to me for a while. I might become more forgetful, leaving the books I need behind more often, in which case having just one object to remember will make life easier.

So perhaps it won’t be young people but rather older ones who bring about the decline of the codex. Almost everyone I know who plays vinyl records on a turntable is thirty years younger than I am; maybe something similar will happen with books. Twenty years down the line, the retirement homes will be lit by the glow of screens, while the young hipsters in their coffeeshops will be savoring the tactile and olfactory pleasures of well-printed cloth-bound books.

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