When speaking of analogies between food and the arts, appetite and creativity, digestion and consumption, Isak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast’ (1950) remains an unavoidable reference. Yet Babette, the protagonist of the story, can hardly be considered a ‘hunger-artist’; hunger is in fact carefully banned from the Lutheran community for which the French cook prepares her magnificent dinner. Rather, the narrative presents us with an appetite that develops against a background of acquiescence, a craving that is passed on like intoxication and that challenges the values of frugality and contention. In this essay, I address the notion of mimesis as implicitly developed in the villagers’ beliefs and its implications for their perception of art. I then draw attention to the use of images of silence and forgetting, as well as of ingestion and consumption. I argue that mythical allusions, as well as references to silence and communal eating, are used as metaphors to describe the artist’s potential to transcend the limitations of language, but also the ephemeral nature of any artistic pursuit.
The story is set in nineteenth century Norway and begins with the description of Berlevaag, ‘a child-town of little wooden pieces painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colors’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 23). This theatrical setting prepares us for the encounter with the members of the community, who in the monotony of their lives and in the blind commitment with which they follow their minister assume marionette-like features. If their town is described as a toy, thus as a miniature shaped after a ‘real’ location, the villagers also look at their lives as an imperfect variation of a ‘truer’ model. The narrator informs us that ‘they renounced the pleasure of this world, for the earth and all that it held to them was but a kind of illusion, and the true reality was the New Jerusalem towards which they were longing’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 23). From the outset, we are thus presented with a dualistic conception in which the physical world is a worthless shadow of the eternal.
In accordance with the Protestant doctrine of predestination, the villagers see life on earth as a demonstration of one’s calling and indulgence in pleasure as a sinful temptation; they take pride in their frugality and in their resistance to luxury, which they see as a prerequisite for the pleasures they will be granted in heaven. This view is reflected in their attitude towards food. The congregants take particular care in sharing food provisions with the poor, preventing every member of the community from experiencing hunger, but have never known abundance and carefully avoid indulgence. Their recipes are based on local products and designed to be economic and nutritious; typical dishes, such as ‘split cod’ and ‘ale-and-bread-soup,’ have the dual function of sustaining the body and avoiding excitement of the senses. While the villagers shelter their community from suffering, it is against their interest to experience delight; any pleasure is seen as a distraction from the right path, and any renunciation as a step that leads closer to real bliss. ‘What nabobs would not the poor, simple maidens become in the next world!’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 59) reflects a villager summarizing the community’s Weltanschauung.
Babette is introduced as a fugitive who arrived from France ‘almost mad from grief and fear’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 24), emotions that are unknown in the highly regulated life of Berlevaag. The narrator defines her presence in the Lutheran community as a ‘strange thing’ and emphasises her status as an outsider, hinting at the fact that her arrival is linked to a mystery. An immediate explanation is, however, delayed by the story of Martine and Philippa, the two women who take Babette into their house. We are told that the two sisters had been very beautiful in their youth and had had many suitors, but their father, the minister of the village, had argued that the girls ‘did not let themselves be touched by the flames of this world’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 29).
Martine and Philippa never marry, leading, for the most part, lives of quiet monotony. Their lives are, however, disrupted three times by the visits of strangers. The first is the young Lieutenant Loewenhielm, who is sent by his parents to the village to meditate upon his irresponsible conduct. Struck by the beauty of Martine, Loewenhielm attends her father’s sermons and the community’s meetings with the hope of getting closer to her. But when he finds himself alone with the young girl, he is unable to find words to express his feelings. He returns to Stockholm, determined to redeem his reputation and to concentrate on his military career; incapable of finding a common language with Martine, he is likewise unable to share his experience with his fellow officers, never revealing his feelings of unrequited love. Yet he never forgets the girl, and several years later, when he has become a well-known general, he returns to Berlevaag, and is invited to participate in Babette’s Feast.
The second visitor is the opera singer Achille Papin, who, after a series of performances in Stockholm, decides to explore the wild coast of Norway. Alone in the unfamiliar countryside, the singer is unable to appreciate its beauty until he visits Berlevaag’s church, listens to Philippa’s voice and finds ‘the snowy summits, the wild flowers and the white Norwegian nights, translated into his own language of music, and brought to him in a woman’s voice’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 29). He immediately envisions Philippa as an operatic prima donna, and, in order to gain permission from her father to instruct her in music, he translates his ambition into the villagers’ language and argues that she will sing beautifully in the church to the glory of God. The minister, although suspicious of dealing with a Catholic, is pleased to speak French, and gives Papin his consent. The singer rehearses with Philippa the duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which the Don successfully seduces the young Zerlina, and inspired by the music, draws the girl towards him and kisses her. At once Philippa asks her father to terminate her lessons, and Papin must return to Paris.
The episode of Martine and Lieutenant Loewenhielm illustrates the ephemeral value that the villagers attribute to earthly love and pleasure, which are seen as shadows, as poor copies of the real love that awaits them in the next life. In the villagers’ minds these pleasures, as imitations, are inferior in nature, and can be a dangerous distraction. While Loewenhielm, himself a Lutheran, is unable to argue against this view, and feels his words ‘stuck in his throat,’ Papin, a Roman Catholic, offers with his Gallic eloquence a different perspective. He defines Philippa’s voice as ‘divine and angelic,’ and by suggesting that she will sing to the glory of God, he links art both to earthly and heavenly pleasure and implies that music can have an educational purpose, as a pointer to the beauty of the eternal (Dinesen 1953, p. 29).
The matter at the heart of Dinesen’s story echoes the Platonic question of art as mimesis. The Berlevaag villagers see the physical world as a poor copy of a perfect original; they consider art an imitation of the physical world which, in turn, is an imitation of the world of the eternal and thus, in Plato’s words, an imitation ‘thrice removed from the truth’ (Plato, Republic, X 597 e). In the Republic, Plato suggests that the artist has no real knowledge of the eternal world he is imitating; that he only knows appearances, and that imitation is therefore a ‘phantom’, a form of play or illusion (X, 602 b-c). He reflects that if the real artist truly knowledgeable about the things he is imitating, he would dedicate himself to the latter, and not to the imitations (X 599 b). Following a similar logic, the minister’s congregation is sceptical of Papin’s explanation of art as a pointer to the eternal; if the artist had knowledge of the sacred, he would in fact no longer need to create a poor copy but would directly contemplate the original. Papin’s art is opera and, as such, it tells a tale, in this case the seduction of Zerlina by Don Giovanni, and imitates emotions which, as earthly passions, are themselves inferior imitations of higher love and thus lead man away from the truth towards a world of illusions. Just as Plato expels the artist from his republic, the Berlevaag congregation is relieved when order is restored and Papin leaves the village, taking with him his disruptive art.
The narrator’s words also suggest an interpretation which recalls another Platonic dialogue, theIon, in which Socrates humorously suggests that since the artist has no real knowledge of the things about which he speaks or sings, he must be possessed by a god. Papin is similarly described as a skillful singer who, rather than mastering his art, is mastered by it, driven by the music to actions he is not fully aware of nor able to control. As he is singing with Philippa, the narrator, who never abandons a hint of satire, comments on how the singer is ‘swept off his feet’ by the ‘heavenly music.’ Later, Papin cannot recall the kiss, as if he had been driven to it by a force which took a temporary possession of his body: ‘I have lost my life for a kiss,’ he laments, ‘and I have no remembrance at all of the kiss! Don Giovanni kissed Zerlina, and Achille Papin pays for it! Such is the fate of the artist!’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 34). We are not told that Philippa opposes Papin’s kiss, which allows the reader to wonder if the girl too had, at least for a moment, given herself to the ecstasy of singing. Dinesen invites the reader to consider the possibility through Martine’s reflections on her sister’s sudden termination of the lessons. When Philippa returns home, Martine ‘cannot imagine that her sister might have been surprised and frightened by something in her own nature’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 32), and thus implies that her sister has been confounded by forces beyond her disposition, grasp or understanding; not so much by Papin, with whom she has grown acquainted through her lessons, but by the unreasonable and unaccountable powers that Papin, as an artist, is able to conjure and transmit, leading both to a loss of control. When Papin leaves, we are told that the sisters do not talk of the stranger, since they ‘lacked the words with which to discuss him’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 32). By emphasizing that the language they use to praise God is not sufficient to describe the artist, the narrator suggests that, finding no place for him in their symbolic system, the sisters conclude that art must be linked art to dark, rather than heavenly forces.
Babette is the third stranger who brings a significant change in the life of Martine and Philippa. She arrives in Berlevaag several years after Papin’s departure, when the two sisters are no longer young, and brings with her a letter written by Papin. In this letter, the singer explains that Babette has fought on the barricades and set houses on fire during the violent suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. He praises the cook’s resources, and begs the sisters to take her into their house and save her from the revenge and almost certain execution that awaited Commune supporters. From the beginning, Babette is thus presented in an ambiguous manner, an effect that is reinforced by the narrator, who alternatively adopts the perspective of the other characters, but never of the cook, thereby enveloping her in mystery. On the one hand, Babette is a faithful and skilled servant. She ‘mysteriously’ reduces Martine and Philippa’s household expenses, prepares food that has a ‘mysterious power to stimulate and strengthen the poor and sick’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 36) and is compared by the villagers to the Biblical character Martha, who attends to the household while her sister Mary listens to Jesus’ preaching (Dinesen 1953, p. 37).
On the other hand, the ‘speechless stranger’, as the narrator calls Babette, never learns to speak proper Norwegian, is constantly referred to as ‘dark’ and described upon arrival as ‘haggard and wild-eyed like a haunted animal’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 35). The sisters know her to be linked to the violent uprising of the Paris Commune, and while the villagers consider her to be the ‘head stone of the corner’, the sisters wonder if the ‘stone’ is not related to ‘the Black Stone of Mecca, the Kaaba itself’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 37), an image through which Dinesen conflates the building sacred to Islam and the relic it contains. This use of metaphors alerts us that while Dinesen makes a pervasive use of Christian imagery, the latter is inscribed in a wider framework which includes imprecise references to the Koran, to local folklore and Greek mythology. After imagining the possibility of Babette as a Muslim, thus as an unknown, potentially threatening ‘Other,’ Martine and Philippa begin to worry about her silence. They are often puzzled by how they speak to the servant only to receive no answer, and by her posture as she sits ‘immovable on the three-legged chair, as enigmatic and fatal as a Pythia upon her tripod’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 38).
Walter Burkert, in Greek Religion, thus summarizes the role of the Phythia, the priestess of Apollo at Delphi: ‘ …over a round, well-like opening in the ground, the tripod cauldron is set up; the cauldron is closed with a lid and it is on this that the Pythia takes her seat. Seated over the chasm, enveloped by the rising vapours, and shaking a freshly cut bay branch, she falls into a trance’ (1985, p.116). Babette and the Pythia are both women associated with a tripod, with a boiling cauldron and with the presence of the ecstatic; as Apollo took possession of the Pythia and spoke through her, Babette is ‘inspired’ throughout the preparation of her dinner; like the Phythia after her performance, she is also left exhausted. Through the comparison the narrator, who in this episode takes the point of view of the two sisters, therefore reiterates the idea of the artist as inspired and possessed by a higher force. Furthermore, according to the Greek tradition, the temple at Delphi where the Pythia resides is both the site of Apollo and his half brother Dionysus (Burkert 1985, p. 223-225) and indeed, although the Pythia is the priestess of Apollo, Babette assumes in Dinesen’s story alternatively Apollonian and Dionysiac features. She is at once associated with prophecy, in the Apollonian sense of communication with divine truth, and with wine, madness, frenzy and ecstatic possession. 1 In the Ion, Plato uses the metaphor of a magnet to explain how the artist is possessed by the divine and, as a consequence, able to extend this inspiration to other people. This effect is compared to the inspired dances in which both the performer and audience are carried beyond themselves, overpowered by obscure forces (Plato, Ion, 533 d,e; 534 a). In Dinesen’s story Babette, too, is described as having ‘magnetic qualities’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 35), and the power of her art on other people is made manifest as it brings upon General Loewenhielm a sophisticated state of ‘intoxication.’ Loewenhielm, who in turn shares a magnetic power (we are told that he ‘attracted dreams and fancies as a flower attracts bees and butterflies,’ p. 52), is the first to be inspired by Babette’s art and, as through a chain of magnets, passes on the intoxication to the other guests.
Babette, who has so far been characterized as a silent stranger, speaks for the first time in the story to announce that she has won a lottery, and begs the sisters to allow her to prepare a French dinner on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. Martine and Philippa, who had grown accustomed to their servant’s broken sentences, are astonished to listen to a speech delivered in ‘queer Norwegian’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 43), but with ‘classical French eloquence,’ a combination that proves their servant’s transformation from an outsider into a master of both cultures. As Papin had done in order to obtain permission to instruct Philippa, Babette translates her personal wishes into a religious language familiar to the villagers. And just as their father, moved by the pleasure of speaking a common language, had consented to Papin’s request, the sisters agree to their servant’s plea. Babette’s culinary art has the characteristic of not being imitative; thus in the villagers’ logic it stands one degree closer to the truth than Papin’s, but it is also based on taste, touch, smell and vision, therefore on bodily experiences that emphasise earthly passions at the expense of control and rationality. When the ingredients arrive from France, delivered first by an old man, then by a ‘grinning,’ ‘red-haired’ young man (Dinesen 1953, p. 45), the sisters begin to worry. They perceive that their servant is undergoing a metamorphosis, appearing alternatively beautiful or terrifying, ‘swelling,’ ‘growing’ in dimensions like a ‘bottle-demon’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 45). Martine glimpses among the ingredients a ‘greenish black stone’ with a moving, terrifying ‘snake-like’ head;’ she does not recognize a tortoise, and runs away in terror. We are told that she had ‘seen pictures of tortoises, and had even as a child owned a pet tortoise,’ but that she cannot match these mental images with what she perceives a monster (Dinesen 1953, p. 45). At night, she has a nightmare in which she sees Babette poisoning the congregation.
The tortoise assumes a symbolic dimension and is associated both with Christian and non-Christian imagery. Its resemblance to a stone echoes the metaphors through which Babette is compared both to the ‘head stone of the corner’ and to ‘the black stone of Mecca’, and its transmutation into a snake, an animal associated with evil in the Bible, also recalls again the Pythia, who was said to have replaced the python which originally inhabited the temple of Delphi and who was often referred to as the ‘Pythoness’ (Fontenrose 1978, p. 196-7). With the preparations of the soup, Babette’s bubbling pot, like the Pythia’s cauldron, becomes the site of a transformation through which, in the eyes of the sisters, Babette becomes a vehicle for the supernatural. She and Philippa become afraid of entering the kitchen, and refer to Babette and her red-haired assistant as a ‘witch with her familiar spirit’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 48). Moreover, Babette’s cooking is linked to a mysterious language unknown to the villagers, who are thus unable to argue against it. ‘What is there in this bottle, Babette?’ Martine asks suspiciously, ‘not wine?’ Her attempt to modify the dinner’s plan is immediately defied by Babette’s specific terminology: ‘No Madame. It is Clos Vouget 1846!’ Martine, who ‘had never suspected that wines could have names to them,’ is left without an argument and immediately silenced (Dinesen 1953, p. 45). She encounters a similar difficulty when she glimpses the tortoise, and is unable to find a name for it within her familiar references. It is the failure to address Babette’s ingredients, the lack of vocabulary to describe her art that most upsets and terrifies the villagers. To defend themselves, they decide not to utter a word about the food they will be given to taste. Silence, in their view, assumes a similar function to fasting: if they do not discuss what there are given to drink and eat, they do not have to face the failure to articulate it, and can thus ignore the link between evil and the inexpressible. The association between fasting and silence is reiterated by one of the villagers who suggests that, to guarantee a purification, one means should follow the other: ‘The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison,’ he declares. ‘On the day of our master we will cleanse our tongue of all taste and purify them of all delight or disgust of the senses, keeping and preserving them for the higher things of praise and thanksgiving’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 47).
Babette’s feast has often been interpreted in Christian terms, with the dinner standing in for the Last Supper and for the ritual of communion (Podles 1992, p. 558; Langbaum 1964, p.252), a reading that is encouraged by the repetition of symbolic numbers. The number of disciples present to Christ’s last supper, for example, is echoed through the frequent use of the number 12: the narrative has 12 chapters, Babette spends 12 years in Berlevaag, and there are 12 guests at the dinner, eleven brothers and General Loewenhielm, who has come back to the village to reflect on his life. Babette’s dinner has 3 courses, a number which recalls the trinity. Finally, the feast takes place in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the sister’s father, recalling the number 10, the symbol of perfection. Yet the text remains ambiguous. One could, for example, build a parallel between the three strangers which disrupt the sisters’ lives and Jesus’s temptations in the desert (Like 4:1-13), a parallel that would make Babette’s role as a ‘priestess’ unlikely. Moreover, as indicated, the Christian references are part of a wider mythical frame, and the sisters’ household preparations, such as the weaving of garlands and burning of twigs, are reminiscent of traditional methods used to scare away witches, as well as of the fumigations practiced at Delphi before the supplicants were permitted to consult the Pythia (Burkert 1985, p. 116). Babette’s dishes are accompanied by abundant wine, a symbol of Christ but also of Dionysus, and when Martine, after the dinner, is astonished to find out that the cook has spent all of her winnings, this extravagant generosity reminds her of an episode of cannibalism. The story is, more precisely, that of a missionary who, invited by an African chief, finds out that ‘what he had partaken of was a small fat grandchild of the chief’s’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 66). In Martine’s eyes Babette, by spending all of her money on a dinner in the memory of the sisters’ father, has acted in a similar manner as the African chief, who sacrificed his grandson to be able to offer a meal to honor the missionary. Thus Babette’s sophisticated cuisine is equated with the most ‘savage’ of foods, and the meal acquires a blasphemous connotation that hints at unsettling commonalities between the sacrament of communion and more ancient, mysterious rituals.
While her guests enjoy the inebriation of wine and a ‘second childhood,’ a feeling of rejuvenation associated with Dionysiac worship, 3 Babette does not partake of the dinner and is left alone among black and greasy pots, ‘white and deadly exhausted’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 64). Yet her art works as a magnet that, through the mediation of General Loewenhielm, inspires the villagers. As a ‘warrior and courtier’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 59), Loewenhielm is accustomed to the aristocratic world and has been trained to appreciate Babette’s culinary art; on the other hand, his Norwegian origins and knowledge of the Berlevaag community enable him to translate his experience into the language of the villagers. He alone recognizes the quality of the food served at the dinner, and remembers that he had tasted such a dinner long ago in Paris, in a café where the chef, ‘the greatest culinary genius of all ages,’ was capable of turning a dinner into an experience ‘in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite and satiety’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 58). He shares the names of the precious dishes with the villagers, but the latter, while enjoying the food and drinks, refuse to acknowledge them and to make a single comment on what they are tasting, limiting themselves to familiar biblical quotes. By maintaining silence, they keep their focus on a future reward rather than on their current experience, avoid the frustrating attempt of describing something they lack the words for, and also refrain from acknowledging that they are partaking of a ritual beyond their religious frame of reference. When the General, after drinking abundant wine, stands up to deliver an enigmatic and solemn speech in a manner ‘new to himself’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 60), his words lead the villagers to experience a shift in their perspective. ‘See!’ he explains, using the very words of the minister, translating his intoxication into the villagers’ language, ‘That which we have chosen is given to us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 60-61).
The villagers do not understand the General’s speech, but are comforted by the use of familiar language and interpret the words in the only way they can, that is, in Christian terms as a longed-for prophecy of salvation. They remain silent about Babette’s dinner, and do not wonder whether her culinary achievement has anything to do with their present inebriation and with the General’s perception of a miracle. Yet this very silence, through which they intend to resist the experience Babette’s offers them, is reminiscent of the silence required of those who participate in the mysteries of Dionysus 2 and facilitates their own ‘initiation’ to a world of sensual appetite and satisfaction. The intoxication they derive from the most sensual form of art is no longer seen as a dangerous distraction, but as a means to lift them ‘off the ground into a higher and purer sphere,’ as a ritual through which illusions are dissipated and the truth suddenly unveiled, enabling them to see ‘the universe as it really is’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 62) – an experience, once again, common for those who experience initiation in Dionysiac Rituals. 4 Art is no longer seen as a poor form of imitation, but as an epiphany through which the villagers experience the truth and the presence of the divine. The inexpressible is now associated with truth and the villagers feel for a moment that, as General Lowenhiem suspects, ‘the world is not a moral, but a mystic concern’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 52).
Throughout the narrative, the characters fail to find a common language and are thus condemned to silence. Their world-views are apparently reconciled through a culinary ritual that does not require verbal communication and paradoxically encourages it. Yet the ending shows that Babette and the villagers continue to speak different languages while the differences in their world views remain unresolved. When Martine gently reproaches Babette for having spent all of her money, the cook denies that the dinner has been an act of sacrifice, and proudly states that she is a great artist and, as such, has cooked the dinner for her own sake, revealing her identity as the famous chef of the Café Anglais. Philippa is moved by Babette’s comment, puts an arm around her and, echoing Papin’s words, promises her that her art will be fulfilled in Paradise. Yet the servant does not return the embrace, and Philippa feels her body ‘as a marble monument against her own’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 68). Moreover, the sisters perceive in Babette’s look ‘pity, even scorn’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 66). In order to make sense of the conclusion, we must remember that the reader has only a limited access to Babette’s thoughts, and that the compromise between an earthly and a divine conception is the fruit of the villagers’ interpretations only. On the one hand, Babette demonstrates the power of art to merge the physical and the spiritual, and her dinner allows a glimpse of the sacred in everyday life, giving the villagers ‘one hour of the millennium’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 62). On the other hand, if the artist is no longer imitating the sacred, but conjuring ecstatic experiences with a force compared to the divine, we can also read the story as a demonstration that ‘perfection’ does not lie beyond earthly existence, but within it, and that its quality is so ephemeral that it can be attained only momentarily, fleetingly, in a manner hardly controlled by the artist. As Berlevaag looks more and more like a toy-town populated by childish, marionette-like figures, Babette assumes complex, contradictory features that enable her to transcend the strict morality of the villagers and to enter a mythical dimension. As indicated, she is compared to the priestess of Apollo, but she also reveals a Dionysiac side as she takes pride in the violent crimes she committed as a Communard, as she fought against the French nobility. Yet she laments the loss of the public she herself helped to exterminate: ‘those people belonged to me, they were mine. They had been brought up and trained […] to understand what a great artist I am. I could make them happy. When I did my very best I could make them perfectly happy’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 67).
Dinesen’s story has also been read as an account of the problem of separation of an artist from its public (Gossman 1963, p. 319-326). Yet several hints suggest that a public fully able to understand the artist’s endeavor has always been and remains an illusion. Papin, in his letter to the sisters, describes himself as ‘gray and lonely,’ forgotten by the public who once adored him (Dinesen 1953, p. 36). General Loewenhielm, although touched by Babette’s art, does not consider the possibility that she may be the author of the dinner and interprets it as a miracle. The villagers enjoy the effects of the inebriation, but later have no ‘clear remembrance’ what they tasted (Dinesen 1953, p. 61). Martine and Philippa cannot recall ‘any of the dishes which had been served’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 64). As the congregants consume the dinner, they also consume an artistic product which, through the process of swallowing and forgetting, is eliminated in a material and spiritual way; what remains is a sense of inebriation no longer connected to the art that triggered it, interpreted by the villagers according to their own wishes and beliefs. Babette’s performance, just like Papin’s, achieves a powerful effect on the audience and creates an ‘unforgettable evening’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 66), but is after a few hours already ‘vague and far away’ (Dinesen 1953, p. 64). ‘Babette’s feast’ is a story of misunderstanding and missed communication, a parable that describes the fleeting effects of any artistic pursuit, and also the artist’s inability to control her own artistic creation: Papin does not remember Philippa’s kiss, Babette does not take part in her own feast. The metaphor through which Dinesen compares Babette to Apollo’s priestess and the oracular quality of Loewenhielm’s prophecy, as well as the imagery associated with Dionysiac rituals, silence and inebriation remind us that art, like Babette herself, contains mysteries, that is can be seen as an imitation as well as an epiphany of the truth, but that its quality remains ephemeral and cannot be grasped or retained. ‘It is terrible and unbearable to be an artist,’ concludes Babette, echoing the words of Papin (Dinesen 1953, p. 68).
(1.) One could argue that Dionysus is also, as we read in the Bacchae, the “god of prophesy” (The Bacchae 188-90, translation by William Arrowsmith). More generally, Babette is associated with prophecy and the ecstatic possession.
(2.) In Euripides’ Bacchae, Cadmus, the aged former king of Thebes, comments as he joins the cult of Dionysus: ” I could dance night and day, untiringly beating the earth with my thyrsus! And how sweet it is to forget my old age.” His companion, the elderly prophet Teiresias, replies, “I too feel young, young enough to dance” (The Bacchae 188-90, translation by William Arrowsmith).
(3.) See for example the exchange between Pentheus and the disguised Dionysus in the Bacchae: P: What form do they take, these mysteries of yours? D: It is forbidden to tell the uninitiate. P: Tell me the benefits that thos who know your mysteries enjoy. D. I am forbidden to say. But they are worth knowing (The Bacchae 471-5, translation by William Arrowsmith).
(4.) In Europides’ Bacchae, after Pentheus has been initiated by Dionysus and is being led off to his death, he comments on the strange reality he sees, in which that which is hidden beneath the surface is now revealed to him (921-24).
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