This is a slightly edited version of a post I published a long time ago at The American Conservative. The original has disappeared — removed, I suspect, by someone who has a different interpretation of Babette than I do. Well, this is another reason for me to own my own turf!
Rod Dreher calls our attention to this post about cooking the central dish from Babette’s Feast. The movie is rightly legendary among food lovers and cooks, partly for reasons specified by J. Bryan Lowder here:
Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.
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.”
Indeed, Babette’s art gives great pleasure to others — but she does not care. How other people feel about her work is a matter of complete indifference to her, because she knows herself to be a great artist and therefore to be utterly superior to them, to be made of different stuff. Lowder writes, “The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care” — but nothing could be farther from the truth for the Babette of the original story.
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 I guess 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 consideration, and when the importance of our pleasure is suggested to her she responds with contempt.
The movie of Babette’s Feast is lovely, I think, but it takes, or can be read to take, Philippa’s view of the matter: “It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.” It is therefore something of a sentimentalizing of the story on which it is based, which does not care about gift and grace but rather limns the peculiar character of the capital-A Artist.
For me, his great gift – on the page and in person – was visual generosity. He made you see different things and look at things differently. It was not works of art in galleries that interested him so much as objects, particularly those from which a story could be extracted. On the wall of his attic room in Albany, the apartment block in Piccadilly, was the king of Hawaii’s bedsheet: apricot-coloured, patterned with a shoal of jumping fish, looking like a Matisse. Chatwin had turned up at Christie’s on his bike to buy it in the 1960s. In the small Eaton Place flat designed by John Pawson – pleated like origami to hide his books – he hung pictures he had made by cutting coloured drawings from the catalogue of a broom manufacturer: rows of pinky-red-and-white toothbrushes, elegant and comic. In all his houses, he kept a prayer inscribed in Latin by the artist-poet David Jones: “May the blessed Archangel Michael defend us in battle lest we perish in the terrible judgment.” When he fell ill he took it with him in and out of hospitals.
Many years ago now John Updike noted his response to much modern art: “we feel in each act not only a plenitude (ambition, intuition, expertise, delight, etc.) but an absence — a void that belongs to these creative acts: Nothing is preventing them.” Art thrives, Updike believed, on resistance, on something pushing back hard against the artistic impulse. So, for Updike, this is what the city of Dublin as it was in 1904 did for James Joyce: it resisted him, it demanded to be accounted for and respected. And the greatness of Ulysses derives at least in part from Joyce’s willingness to reckon honestly with that resistance.
You can see this principle at work in big ways and small, in famous artists and less-famous ones. I’ve often told the story — for instance, here — about how Miles Davis’s beautiful and influential style of playing the trumpet arose largely from his simple inability to compete with the brilliant virtuosity of Dizzy Gillespie.
But here’s a story I haven’t told before. One of the most sadly neglected of singer-songwriters, I think, is Richard Thompson, who first came to public attention fifty years ago (!) as the leader of Fairport Convention. Thompson has never been a really big name, and whole he has continued performing all these years, he has typically done it as a solo act. And that of course limits the kinds of sounds you can produce — it offers resistance to what you imagine your songs sounding like. Thompson has responded to this challenge by developing one of the most distinctive guitar styles I’ve ever heard, one that couples rhythmic propulsion and a clear bass line with articulate melodies on the high strings. He’s become sort of a one-man band, though not in a flamboyant way (that would obscure the character of his beautifully crafted songs).
There are many examples online — look for performances of “Dimming of the Day” or “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” — but my favorite song of Thompson’s is “Keep Your Distance.” The best version of the song I know is on his new release, Acoustic Classics II, but you can get a close-up look at him at work in this fine performance:
I often think I’m the only person in the world who cares about this, but … here’s a very nice piece on dystopian fiction that uses the terms “sacrament” and “sacramental” far too loosely. It’s an unfortunately common trope (especially but not only among Christians) to use “sacramental” as a synonym for “meaningful” or “comforting” or “reassuring.” Experience or objects can be deeply meaningful, even life-transforming, without being sacramental. Sacrament requires not just meaning but the divine promise of meaning: the Eucharist is a sacrament because God promises to be present in it. And the same is true of the other sacraments. Where there is no promise, there is no sacrament, though for the attentive person there will often be deep meaning.
I’m trying to make myself stop talking about politics, for the most part — I will make the very occasional exception for the two issues I am, personally and professionally, deeply invested in: religious freedom and higher-education policy. And even then I want to speak only after a waiting period in which others may be able to state my position more knowledgeably and wisely than I can.
As I explained to a friend earlier today, I’m taking this path (or hoping to) because I worry about the health of many of the good things that politics, properly speaking, exists in order to protect and nurture. I thus find myself remembering this famous letter from John Adams to Abigail, written from Paris:
I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelain, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.
We can be thankful that John Adams made that decision. But it is not a decision to which we should apply a categorical imperative, because if every person of his time had made the same choice, then several generations could have gone by without the production of Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain (and most of these are not the sorts of arts that are readily learned from the mere observation of existing examples). I worry about a society that has so lost the taste for such things that it will no longer know what it’s missing when they’re gone. I worry about a politics that has become an all-encompassing end in itself — an endless series of victories and losses and more victories and more losses — rather than a means by which, as Adams understood, room is to be made for pursuits far better than partisan disputation and maneuvering.
The best of the human order is damaged by these political obsessions. The artist who neglects his craft in order to agitate full-time will soon have no craft to exercise — or to pass down to younger artists. The scholar who abandons the archive for the protest march may return — if she ever does return — to find the archive abolished, its contents destroyed, because when the time of decision came there was no one present with the knowledge and love necessary to protect it. Auden once wrote in praise of those who forget “the appetitive goddesses” in order to take the momentous step of pursuing their own weird private obsessions:
There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,
to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,
the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.
Likewise, there should be some people in our land unsure who the President is, wholly unaware of the latest legislative wrangle — even when such matters directly affect them — because they are absorbed in something else that they love, that they can’t help focusing on, that they can’t manage to turn aside from. I don’t know how many such people there should be, or whether you should join their company. But I strongly suspect that there ought to be more of them than Facebook and Twitter currently allow. And I want to be one too.
Another item of note is a gold pin shaped like a bird. [Says Dr. Martin Goldberg,] “It is an incredibly striking object. Gold items like that are unusual, often single finds…This is one of the real curiosities, as far as I can tell it’s unique. Nothing gives away where it came from.”
Another photo from that NYT story on the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece. I have long dreamed of writing a comprehensive theology of culture — one to replace Richard Niebuhr’s overrated and conceptually rigid Christ and Culture, one founded in a truly thick theological anthropology, one that reckons with the full inheritance of modernity. So, so much of what I would want to say in such a book is already said by this image.
This head depicting the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis is from a colossal statue that stood over 4 metres tall. The statue is thought to be from the Temple of Serapis, a huge sanctuary measuring 101 metres by 78 metres, which once stood in the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus. The impressive remains of this sanctuary were recently discovered by underwater archaeologists led by Franck Goddio.
In this statue, Serapis wears his characteristic headdress, a corn measure known as a kalathos, symbolising abundance and fertility. Alongside his funerary and royal roles, Serapis was worshipped for his healing powers, which according to ancient historians were particularly potent in Canopus. People came from afar to sleep within the temple complex in order to be healed by ‘incubation’, when miraculous cures were delivered in a dream.
The god Serapis is said to have been introduced to Egypt by the ancient Greek ruler Ptolemy I. Serapis was aimed at Greeks living in Egypt and his worship developed where Greek presence was prevailing, notably in Alexandria and Canopus. The popularity of this universal god also flourished outside Egypt in the Greek Mediterranean world, then later in the Roman Empire.
Colossal head of Serapis. Canopus, c. 200 BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk.
© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
John Ruskin, La Merveille, Mont St Michel, Normandy, 1848.
Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, 26.5 x 25 cm
Source: Robert Hewison, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, 2000.
so-called ‘magical stela of Horus’ (a stela is a large tablet, usually made of stone) depicts the god Horus in the conventional Egyptian form for a youth: nude and wearing his hair in a side lock. He is portrayed here as Harpokrates, the Greek version of Horus-the-Child. The story told on this stela refers to the episode in Horus’ life when he grew up hiding from his evil uncle Seth in the marshes of the Nile delta. Protected by the magical powers of his mother, Isis, he was saved from a venomous animal’s mortal bite.
This slab shows the infant god as a conqueror of dangerous beasts. He is standing on a crocodile, holding a snake, a lion, a scorpion and a gazelle. These kinds of stelae were inscribed with magical spells and were thought to possess healing properties and used to protect people from dangerous animals. Water was poured over the stela to charge it with magic, the water was collected in the basin and the victim drank it.
This particular stela shows the popularity of ancient Egyptian gods even among people from elsewhere. It features a Phoenician inscription of the person who dedicated it – Paal-Astarte, son of Chemrebi, a man of Phoenician origin who believed in ancient Egyptian magic!
This stela is on display in the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds (19 May – 27 November 2016).
In a memorable scene from her memoir The Florist’s Daughter, Patricia Hampl describes what it was like, when she was a child, to watch her father arranging flowers:
He emerges from the walk-in cooler with an armload of flowers — tangerine roses and purple lisianthis, streaked cymbidium orchids, brassy gerbera daisies and little white stephanotis, lemon leaf, trailing sprengeri fern, branches of this, stems of that. He tosses the whole business on the big table, and stands in front of what looks like a garbage heap. An empty vase is set in front of him. He appears to ignore it. He just stands there, his pocketknife in his hand, but not moving, and not appearing to be thinking. He doesn’t touch the mess of flowers, doesn’t sort them. He just stares for a long vacant minute. He’s forgotten I’m sitting there.
Then, without warning, he turns into a whirlwind, Without pause, grabbing and cutting, placing and jabbing, he puts all the flowers into the vase, following some inner logic so that — as people always said of his work — it looks as if the flowers had met and agreed to position themselves in the only possible way they should be. He worked faster than anyone else in the shop, without apparent thought or planning. I could distinguish his arrangements — but they weren’t anything as artificial as an “arrangement” — from across the room from the dozens lined up on the delivery table for the truck drivers.
This is the art of arrangement: a discernment of the inner shapes and forms of things, followed by a self-effacement. So too with arrangement in all the arts.
Also universally true: that limited resources bring out the best, or worst, in an arranger. My friend Father Martin Johnson was a set designer in a previous life, and he commented to me once that a spare set was much more expensive to design than a busy one, because when the objects of our attention are few, every one of them has to be precisely right.
I am especially fascinated by musical arrangement, in which simple effects, when created by people who know what they’re doing, have extraordinary power. I could illustrate this point solely by reference to the work of Billy Strayhorn, who did more than almost anyone realizes to make the sound of Duke Ellington’s band, but let me instead take three examples from varied musical traditions.
Start with Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose choral settings are close to unparalleled. Listen to “Loch Lomond”:
Notice how in the third stanza and chorus he creates tremendous emotional power by the simple tactic of switching the roles of the lead tenor and the chorus: the rich weave of the choir in that verse is succeeded by the keening solo: “You take the high road….” And then in the closing notes the bass sinks down to notes we might expect in Rachmaninoff’s Vespers but that seem almost shockingly tragic in a performance of a Victorian imitation of a folk song.
The tragic element in Radka Toneff’s definitive version of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” — no one else should ever sing this song — is intensified by Toneff’s death, probably by her own hand, at age twenty-nine. But there is more than enough tragedy in her performance: I don’t know that I’ll ever quite get over the way she sings “The sky’s made of stone” in the last stanza.
Every note, every inflection, of her rendering of the song is masterful — but so too is the piano of Steve Dobrogosz, so spare that he can’t afford to put one foot wrong. And he doesn’t. The vocal and the piano walk the same tightrope, and do it with such apparent effortlessness that you can’t imagine the song being different in any way. It’s “not anything as artificial as an ‘arrangement’” — it’s just heartbreaking.
That’s too dark a note to end on, and anyway it’s time to turn to another genre. Here’s Bill Withers singing “Use Me” (apologies for the dopey video — close your eyes while listening, please):
In addition to Withers’ urgent vocal, we have acoustic guitar, bass, percussion, clavinet — that’s it. (Plus three skillfully-placed handclaps — listen for them.) Spare in a very different way, everything driven by that funky beat and the unforgettable clavinet riff — if you can call a sequence that long (alternately 12 and 15 notes) a riff. I call it a riff, and one of the best I’ve ever heard.
Obviously, this is a very different musical experience than the first two, but it has in common with them that uncanny perfection of limited resources arranged in such a way that you couldn’t add anything without compromising the power of the song. That’s the power of great arrangement, whether of flowers or objects on a stage set or musical instruments and notes: the power to make you think Don’t touch it — please don’t take anything away, and for God’s sake don’t add anything. It’s as if all these things have “agreed to position themselves in the only possible way they should be.”
I willingly accept the ascendancy of the object which the artist has conceived and which he lays before my eyes; I then abandon myself unreservedly to the emotion which in him and in me springs from a same beauty, from a same transcendental in which we communicate. But I refuse to accept the ascendancy of an art which contrives suggestive means by which to seduce my subconscious, I resist an emotion which the will of a man seeks to impose upon me. The artist must be as objective as the man of science, in the sense that he must think of the spectator only in order to present him with the beautiful, or the well-made, just as the man of science thinks of his listener only in order to present him with the true. The cathedral builders did not harbor any sort of thesis. They were, in Dulac’s fine phrase, “men unaware of themselves.” They neither wished to demonstrate the propriety of Christian dogma nor to suggest by some artifice a Christian emotion. They even thought a great deal less of making a beautiful work than of doing good work. They were men of Faith, and as they were, so they worked. Their work revealed the truth of God, but without doing it intentionally, and because of not doing it intentionally.
— Jacques Maritain, from Art and Scholasticism
January 10, 1946: The General Assembly of the United Nations met for the first time in Westminster Central Hall in London, England
The colors and illustrations featured in this map are pretty spectacular!
Map: MacDonald, Gill. The time and tide map of the United Nations. London: George Philip & Son, 1948.