One of my favorite pastimes here is getting into discussions with my fellow TAC bloggers.
Alan Jacobs properly corrects the impression from Rod Dreher’s post on “Babette’s Feast” that Babette was pleased that she had given pleasure to her diners:
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.”
My recollection of the movie is that, similarly to the story, Babette’s motivation isn’t to give pleasure to anybody, but simply to show them what she can do. Indeed, a good part of what she’s doing is showing her superior talent to people who will never appreciate it – who, in fact, have never appreciate what it means that they have a great artist living with them and working for them, and never will. But primarily, she isn’t even trying to show that to them – she wants to show herself, once more, just what she is capable of.
But I can’t go along with Jacobs’s conclusion, reflected in his title, that this desire of Babette’s is selfish:
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.
Allow me to quote my friend against himself. But first, let me quote the Auden poem that him himself quotes:
You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,
you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon
making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,
wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.
How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.
About which Jacobs comments:
Czeslaw Milosz says somewhere that in circumstances like those of the Warsaw Ghetto in the Nazi era “poetry is as necessary as bread.” But the poet didn’t know that when he was making his poem, and probably the people around him thought he was wasting his time. But he paid no attention to them; nor did he pay attention to himself. It was the poem that he had to get right, and on that task he turned the whole of his attention. Only “that eye-on-the-object look” is capable of achieving true greatness.
“[T]he people around him thought he was wasting his time. But he paid no attention to them . . . It was the poem that he had to get right, and on that task he turned the whole of his attention.” Isn’t that what Babette was doing?
We should recall that Babette is an exile, forced into her demeaning position by revolution and war in which she had no personal stake. Once upon a time, she had an audience that actually could appreciate her cooking – but she didn’t cook for the appreciation; she cooked because she was a great artist. And now, in exile for years, she not only has been unable to exercise her art, she has been stuck among people who wouldn’t understand her art if it hit them over the head. And they don’t! But still, she wants to cook a great meal again, because she can.
Is that selfish? Inhuman? Then so is art itself.
Of course, there is one person in the movie (and I believe in the story as well, though I don’t have it ready to hand to check) who does appreciate the meal: the soldier, who left to see the wide world and comes back to this little village to discover that in this backwater resides an artist worthy of the greatest tables in Europe, and that everyone in town is blasé about it (because they can’t bring themselves truly to taste the food that they are terrified of). The dinner changes his life, precisely because he cannot comprehend it except as a miracle.
Which I think says something about how we, when we are open to it, receive truly great art. Not merely with appreciation, or enjoyment; not really with any social emotion. But with life-shattering awe. Because we can’t imagine how such things could come to be. Because their origins seem – well, inhuman.