Alan Jacobs points out that there’s a meaningful contrast between the lesson the Slate writer J. Bryan Lowder drew from “Babette’s Feast” — that the joy of cooking is in making others happy by a job well done — and the lesson taught in the Isak Dinesen short story on which the film “Babette’s Feast” is based. In the book, Alan says, Chef Babette concedes that she did not create the great dinner for the sake of the old sisters who gave her shelter, and the townspeople, but for the sake of art, and herself. From Dinesen’s conclusion:

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.”

But Lowder did not misinterpret the final scene of the film. Take a look at that final scene again on this YouTube link. The key part starts at around the 9:00 mark. This dialogue comes at the 10:00 mark:

“But dear Babette, you should not have given all you owned for us.” [says one of the old sisters]

“It was not just for you.” [says Babette]

“Now you’ll be poor the rest of your life.”

“An artist is never poor.”

“Did you prepare that sort of dinner at the Cafe Anglais?”

[Babette nods.]

“I was able to make them happy when I gave of my very best. Papin [a famous opera singer who dined at her table] knew that.”

“Achille Papin?”

“Yes. He said, ‘Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.'”

That’s a slight but very significant change from the original. In the film version, Babette acknowledges that she cooked the dinner for the old women and the villagers, but also for herself. In the book’s passage quoted by Alan, she did it only for herself. Naturally I prefer the lesson of the film version, because it makes Babette out to be a more generous person. The film version also shows the sacramental power of art to affect both the creator and his audience. That is, Babette, the artist, was satisfied both by working at the utmost capacity of her creative gift, and by seeing that gift gratefully received by those who ate her cooking. Both artist and audience achieved satisfaction from the act of creation. If Babette cooked that meal and no one was there to eat it, would it have still been a work of beauty? Yes, but how would she have known it? For a communication to exist, there must be one who communicates and one who receives. In that is communion.

I must disagree with TAC’s Noah Millman on this point regarding Babette’s Feast (the film). Noah writes:

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.

Noah misremembers the film, as a viewing of that clip above will show. I think his interpretation is valid for the Dinesen original version, but not for the movie. In fact, in the film the pious, poor country Protestants at Babette’s feast were in fact closed off to Babette’s artistic genius. They were frightened to try this strange, sensual food cooked by the foreigner. Indeed, as Noah points out, the only guest at the dinner who was capable of understanding the true grandeur of the feast was the visiting General, who had traveled far in the world and learned much. Nevertheless, we see the simple villagers opening up to the food as they eat. They cannot deny the experience of their taste buds — and the fine wine Babette pours for them also opens their minds.

Just prior to the dinner, we saw that the elderly villagers were at each other’s throats, asserting past grievances and grudges against each other. But at the end, they leave Babette’s feast merry and harmonious, and dance again in a circle around the village well, harmony and fellowship restored, praising God. All because of the grace that came to them through Babette’s feast. They had no idea how precious was the food that they had been served. All they knew was that it tasted delicious, and made them happy and grateful. Only the General understood the full scope of the gift they had all received — and it changed him as well. Babette channeled her love for the old sisters and the village that had given her shelter after she escaped political violence in Paris into an act of beauty that transmitted that love, via material substances changed by her talent, into their own hearts.

My point is that judging from the film, Babette’s feast had a beneficial, life-changing effect on the diners even though they didn’t fully grasp what they were tasting. Similarly, a farmer may find himself changed by encountering the beauty of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, even though he doesn’t understand and appreciate it at the same level as a professor of music.

This is how sacraments work in the older Christian traditions: they convey divine grace through matter that has been properly consecrated by a validly ordained priest. For Christians of these traditions, the sacraments don’t convey grace symbolically; they do it literally. But here is where the analogy fails, or at least finds its limit — and if I am wrong about this, I welcome correction from the theologically educated among my readership. For sacramental grace to work on a soul, the soul has to be open to it. To receive, say, the sacrament of Holy Communion when not properly disposed is to at best be immune through ignorance to its spiritual effects. What is intended to be conveyed through that Sacrament is not conveyed at all; the “message” lacks a receiver. Put another way, the pious villagers at Babette’s table could not appreciate in all its fullness the grace (in a non-divine sense) available to them through Babette’s feast, but they did receive as much of it as they could accept, given their own limitations — this, simply because the wine opened them to it, and the deliciousness of the food could not be denied. They at least had a faculty of comprehension through their tongues and their noses. If a Danish atheist walked into a Catholic or Orthodox church and received Holy Communion, he would be like a guest at Babette’s feast who had no sense of smell or taste, and who drank only water. The grace may be there, but the communicant is incapable of receiving it.

I suppose it would have been possible for one of the pious Protestants at Babette’s table to have believed so strongly in his or her principles that they refused to open themselves to the deliciousness of Babette’s food. Maybe the wine had an affect on this rigidity, though. I wonder: in the Dinesen story, which I have not read, did the squabbling, grudge-holding visitors leave the dinner party once again reunited, and happy?