Welcome back to the Literary Helpdesk, where on occasion we fill more than one prescription with the same book. And why wouldn’t we? Nearly every worthwhile book is worthwhile for more than one reason. This week we are once more gorging ourselves on Babette’s Feast by Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen, but this time with a piquant accompaniment of Kierkegaard.
Karen Blixen and Søren Kierkegaard are probably the two Danish writers best known outside of Denmark. It is widely acknowledged that Blixen was influenced by Kierkegaard, but there is little written on the literary relationship between the two. In my searches I have found only one substantial study on the topic, a recent monograph by a Danish academic that points to a broad and deep critical engagement with Kierkegaard in Blixen’s work, including in Babette’s Feast.
Either/Or is almost the only philosophical work I regularly re-read for pleasure. But if one is going to pick it up, one needs to be prepared to arrive at the end of the book without fully understanding what is going on in its intricate story. Kierkegaard isn’t difficult in the way James Joyce, for example, is difficult. With Joyce it can feel like one has to wrestle with each sentence to wring meaning from it. Ulysses is the very definition of a tough read. Well-translated Kierkegaard, on the other hand, is pleasant to read in itself, but getting hold of the over-arching is a sideways sort of task.
Either/Or is presented as having been edited by a Victor Eremita and containing essays and letters of diverse authorship that Eremita claims to have found in a writing desk he purchased. The first half of the book is composed of the papers of a young man known only as A, but there is some ambiguity as to whether A wrote all the various essays himself, or merely edited some of them from other sources. The second part of the book is a series of letters from a second writer, B, or rather Judge Wilhelm, to A.
Without completely untangling the issues raised by pseudonymous authorship it’s easy to pick out a few major themes in Either/Or. One of the ideas Kierkegaard is best known for is his philosophical psychology that picks out three stages of life, or perhaps ways of being in the world is more accurate: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic and the ethical are contrasted in the voices of A and Judge Wilhelm, respectively. These two outlooks on life take as their foundation a dichotomy. For the aesthete it is boring vs interesting; for the judge it is good vs evil.
The essays of A form a portrait of a self-absorbed, voyeuristic, ironic young man. He is not a pleasure-seeker in a sensualist way. He is rather abstracted, mercurial, the kind of man you imagine smirking knowingly on the edge of a crowd. The categories of good and evil, of commitment, permanence, and responsibility do not feature in his reasoning. The opening lines of the essay Crop Rotation capture this: “People of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle. I grant them that and start with the principle that all men are boring. Or will someone be boring enough to contradict me in this?”
In a collection of long (some have even argued boring) letters, Judge Wilhelm attempts to argue the young man into an ethical life, one defined by the dichotomy of good and evil. He is calling the aesthete to a sort of conversion, one in which he accepts responsibility for himself. Page after page he fills with cogent argument and striking images. One doesn’t get the impression from the series of letters that he made much headway. Nonetheless, there are many who think the Either/Or of Kierkegaard’s text is the aesthetic versus the ethical.
In Babette’s Feast, Blixen imagines the mechanism of movement from the aesthetic to the ethical in a rather different way. There is no silent starlit night in which the self is gloriously alone before God and “the personality receives the accolade of knighthood which ennobles it for an eternity.” The wastrel Lieutenant, Lorens Lowenhielm, falls in love with a girl, the ethereal Martine. Having been sent away to his aunt’s dull household in punishment for bad behaviour, he is surprised to encounter anything so captivating. In Martine’s presence he is tongue-tied, unable to give an account of himself or profess his love, unequal to seduction. Her beauty and otherworldly goodness reflect back the Lieutenant’s inadequacy, and he is utterly diminished. What brings an aesthete to his knees, if not beauty?
In despair he leaves, and surrenders Martine and all his dreams and all hope, to the only possible refuge for aesthetic disappointment: sobriety, responsibility, respectability, achievement. To Kierkegaard’s aesthete he becomes the mythical Unhappiest One: he whose only hope lies beyond reach in memory. Talented, he advances quickly in his career, travels, marries a member of the Queen’s court. Judge Wilhelm would approve. When we meet Lorens again he is General Lowenhielm, a surprise guest at Babette’s feast.
A pious courtier and bon vivant, as was the fashion at the royal court, the General has recently come to an uncomfortable realisation: he is not perfectly happy. In Blixen’s words “He was a moral person, loyal to his king, his wife, 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.”
There is a temptation to attribute to Judge Wilhelm and General Lowenhielm the rectitude their positions suggest, but both Kierkegaard and Blixen suggest they are not the exemplars they appear.
The Judge in Either/Or eventually loses his triumphalism, indeed all together surrenders the final word to another — in his final essay. He offers his correspondent a sermon written by a friend of his with the words “Take it, then, read it. I have nothing to add except that I have read it and thought of myself, and thought of you.” The sermon is entitled The Edifying In The Thought That Against God We Are Always In The Wrong, and posits the impossibility of holding God in your debt, of placing Him in the wrong. Therefore grace must be a gift, not a choice. In the face of this lesson the aesthete and the Judge are side by side in the schoolroom.
So it is too in the General’s speech at the feast. Rather than a staid toast, it is shot through with mysticism, a paean to grace: it is not choice that brings good into our lives, but grace that bestows it, or indeed removes it. Grace does not wait upon our command.
This is the other side of the allegory of grace shown in the great artist, Babette, who gives freely and for her own glory: her gift is bestowed, not earnt, and accepted rather than chosen. It is the General who knows just how wondrous Babette’s feast is, but his meal is no different from that given to the other simpler, silent guests at his side. (Though, in a telling theological touch, his glass is continually refilled with fine wine, unlike the glasses of the brethren–the life of grace is not wholly without distinctions.) The General was an undeserving young man who went on to earn many honours and a high position in public life, but at the table in a poor house, seated across from a woman he has loved all his life, he receives something he has not earned, something unbidden and wholly unexpected, something impossible. We could call it a sacrament, or we could call it a mystical reality. Blixen’s own word for it may be the most apt of all: a feast.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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