Academic journal article Style

A Recipe for Mourning: Isak Dinesen's "Babette's Feast."

Academic journal article Style

A Recipe for Mourning: Isak Dinesen's "Babette's Feast."

Article excerpt

When director Gabriel Axel's film version of "Babette's Feast" hit American movie screens in 1988, restaurants in major cities around the country offered the chance to enjoy the sumptuous feast served up in the movie.(1) For a hefty price, film-goers could complete the cinema experience by heading off to a restaurant and savoring the delights of turtle soup, Blinis Demidoff, and Cailles en Sarcophage, accompanied by Veuve Clicquot champagne and Clos de Vougeot Burgundy. These well-attended dinners became rich fodder for some social observers, who critiqued them as an example of 1980s yuppie self-indulgence. While film reviewers debated the problems of translating Dinesen's narrative for the screen and discussed the aesthetic issues of the plight of the artist and the transformative power of art, these pundits considered the diners' response symptomatic of the me-decade's materialist culture of conspicuous consumption (see Schickel; Kauffmann). Once again, they lamented, excessive disposable income was serving the insatiable and emptily narcissistic desires of a thin slice of society. While there is no concrete evidence to suggest that readers of Dinesen's short story have indulged in similar acts of consumption over the years, the possibility should not be dismissed out of hand. After all, the story was first published in the Ladies' Home Journal in June 1950 when Dinesen, in need of money and eager to break into the lucrative American magazine market, took up the advice of a friend who urged, "Write about food. Americans are obsessed with food."(2) If the story is indeed "about food," we may ask precisely what it says about food, and whether what it says invites a different reading of the collective "eater-response" of a segment of the movie-going public.

Dinesen scholars, while certainly not ignoring the culinary aspects of the tale, have tended to concentrate their analyses on the question of artistic creation, on the conflict between the aesthetic and the ascetic, and, more recently, on the specificity of the woman as artist and creator. Food has tended to be viewed allegorically in the story as representing, for example, the schism between the ethical, Norwegian, puritanical sect of Protestantism, nurtured on split cod and ale-and-bread soup, and the aesthetic, sensuous inclinations of French Catholicism, nourished by haute cuisine and epitomized by the master chef Babette. The miraculous dinner Babette prepares at the story's end serves, in this reading, to reconcile the ascetic with the aesthetic, the spiritual with the carnal (Langbaum 248-55). Another view holds that Babette is an "artist-priest" and benevolent "witch" who heals the dissension in the aging congregation with the "communion feast" or "Last Supper" she prepares, revealing through this Dionysian repast that spiritual fulfillment is obtainable only through acceptance of fleshly values (Stambaugh 79-81). In still another, feminist, approach, Susan Hardy Aiken argues that the Quail in Sarcophagus Babette cooks represents "woman's own body that is offered up, in displaced form, through her Eucharistic culinary corpus" (254). In this reading, Babette is exhausted at the dinner's end because she is "emptied out, . . . in effect consumed by her own artistic production" (254). Moreover, Aiken sees female artistic creation as inseparable from feminine sacrifice, and she views the text as showing that the production of narrative implies the author's "simultaneous self-annihilation and self-creation" (254).

There is no denying that Babette's sumptuous feast and its aftermath offer a reflection on religion and on the opposition between the spiritual and the carnal, while also raising the questions of artistic creation and identity. But these issues do not fully represent the text's concerns. The reading that follows aims to show that the dinner has above all a psychoanalytic function. It allows for a communion in loss by enabling loss to be talked about and the process of its mourning to begin. …

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