Babette’s Feast 9781911239673, 9781838719906, 9781911239680

On the face of it, Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast (1989) is a film in which the eyes – and mouths – of religio

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Table of contents :
1 Mortal Illusions
2 Love
3 Pleasure
4 The Artist
5 Grace
Conclusion: The Religion of the Immanent
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Babette’s Feast
 9781911239673, 9781838719906, 9781911239680

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BFI Film Classics The BFI Film Classics series introduces, interprets and celebrates landmarks of world cinema. Each volume offers an argument for the film’s ‘classic’ status, together with discussion of its production and reception history, its place within a genre or national cinema, an account of its technical and aesthetic importance, and in many cases, the author’s personal response to the film. For a full list of titles in the series, please visit


Babette’s Feast Julian Baggini

THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA BLOOMSBURY is a trademark of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in Great Britain 2020 by Bloomsbury on behalf of the British Film Institute 21 Stephen Street, London W1T 1LN The BFI is the lead organisation for film in the UK and the distributor of Lottery funds for film. Our mission is to ensure that film is central to our cultural life, in particular by supporting and nurturing the next generation of filmmakers and audiences. We serve a public role which covers the cultural, creative and economic aspects of film in the UK. Copyright © Julian Baggini, 2020 Richard Weight has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as author of this work. For legal purposes the Acknowledgements on p. vi constitute an extension of this copyright page. Cover artwork: Kate Baylay Series cover design: Louise Dugdale Series text design: Ketchup/SE14 Images from Babette’s Feast © 1987 A-S Panorama Film International All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. ISBN: PB: ePDF: ePUB:

978-1-9112-3967-3 978-1-9112-3968-0 978-1-9112-3969-7

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Acknowledgementsvi Introduction1 1 Mortal Illusions


2 Love


3 Pleasure


4 The Artist


5 Grace


Conclusion: The Religion of the Immanent73 Notes84 Credits86 Bibliography89




The ideas in this book were in part developed in a series of talks from 2014 to 2018. I’d like to thank the Rev Diana Glover for inviting me to give an Amersham Millennium Lecture; Eliana Corbari, Jon Coutts and all at the Bristol Theological Society; Karen O’Donnell, Imogen Adkins and all at the Society for the Study of Theology. Thanks also to Antonia Macaro for comments on the draft and to Linda Fisher for turning the imperfect manuscript into the less imperfect final text.


Introduction This woman, this head chef, has the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair. A love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.

A casual viewing of Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud) reveals a film in which the eyes – and mouths – of religious zealots are opened to the glories of the sensual world. The film faithfully adapts Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen’s nom de plume) short story about two devout sisters, Martine and Filippa, who live an austere life of religious devotion and charitable work in a remote village in Jutland, Denmark. They take in a French maid, Babette, who has fled France following the counter-revolutionary bloodshed that saw the fall of the Paris Commune. Unbeknown to the sisters, Babette is a celebrated chef and after a chance windfall, thanks to a lottery ticket her friend in Paris has been renewing, she cooks the somewhat unwilling locals an incredible, revelatory French dinner. Ironically, this is to celebrate what would have been the one hundredth birthday of the father of the sisters, who founded their Lutheran sect in which culinary indulgence is a sin. The film could be read as a critique of what Nietzsche called life-denying religion in favour of life-affirming sensuality. Were it that simple, Gabriel Axel’s magnificent film would not be the enduring masterpiece it unquestionably is. For Axel, the film, which he both wrote and directed, was a labour of love which took fourteen years to bring to the screen. Axel brings a sensuousness to the film lacking in the source story, even as he follows it remarkably faithfully. What reads as a kind of parable in print becomes on film a much more rounded, warm human story. Released in 1987, the following year it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (beating the hot favourite Louis




‘This woman, this head chef, has the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair. A love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.’

Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants); the Baftas for Best Film not in the English Language, Best Actress and Best Screenplay (Adapted); and the London Film Critics’ Circle Foreign Language Film of the Year award. The film regularly appears in lists of all-time greats, and is number ten in the journal Image’s list of Top 100 Arts & Faith Films. It stands head and shoulders above all Axel’s other work. To view the film as a simple dramatization of the conflict between worldly pleasure and other-worldly salvation is to get it profoundly wrong. As General Lorens Löwenhielm says in the film, Babette’s genius is her ‘ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair. A love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.’ Babette’s Feast is not about the battle between religiosity and secularity but a deep examination of how the two can come together. It shows how the traditional distinctions between the spiritual and the secular, the transcendent and the immanent, are a lot less clear than is assumed, and in many cases non-existent. That is what made it possible for Pope Francis, when still plain Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, to name it as one of his favourite films.1


Babette’s Feast merits reading as an example of what philosopher Stephen Mulhall calls film as philosophy, in which films ‘think seriously and systematically … in just the ways that philosophers do’.2 The idea that films can actually do rather than merely dramatize philosophy might seem a strange one. Everyone generally accepted as a canonical philosopher – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume – has written prose texts which develop lines of argument from premises to conclusion. This kind of written, reasoned argument has become the default mode of doing philosophy to such an extent that even imagining other ways of philosophizing has become difficult. There are three ways in which films tend to be thought of as philosophical, none of which captures this idea of film as philosophy. The first kind are ones in which much of the characters’ dialogue comprises philosophical argumentation and commentary on the action, such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) or Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). The second are straight documentaries, such as Astra Taylor’s Zizek! (2005) and Examined Life (2008). The third are when the action of the film can be seen as a thought experiment working through the consequences of a philosophical idea. Most famously, many books have been written about philosophy and The Matrix, which explores the sceptical possibility raised by Plato, Descartes and others that what we perceive as the real world is actually a systematic, comprehensive simulation. When any of these three kinds of film do philosophy they are generally putting what we generally recognize as philosophy into cinematic form. The kind of film as philosophy that most interests me, however, does more: it actually does philosophy in a uniquely filmic way. All philosophy is an attempt to make coherent, truthful sense of the world and how we ought to live in it in the absence of an agreed empirical method for getting at the answers. That is why in a sense philosophy today is left with the questions that science can’t answer but which still must be asked.




Western philosophy addresses these questions through systematic prose argument. But this does not exhaust the potential modes of doing real, proper philosophy. In Japanese philosophy, for instance, there is more of a recognized role for art and poetry. The Shintō scholar Fujitani Mitsue eloquently explained the rationale for this when he wrote, ‘When I cannot take just what I am thinking and use either direct language or metaphor but I also cannot refrain from speaking, then of necessity I compose a poem.’3 What makes any mode genuinely philosophical, whether it is a poem or an argument, is whether it is reason-giving. That is to say, it doesn’t just present a way of seeing the world on the basis of authority, or in a take-it-or-leave-it way. Rather, it offers reasons for the way of understanding it advocates, reasons that others can understand, assess and critique. This is the sense in which philosophy is dialectical: it requires at the least the possibility of two or more points of view becoming engaged in a constructively critical dialogue. In practice, philosophical texts – be they books, poems or films – tend to represent only one voice. But if they are appropriately reasongiving they invite a dialectical process to begin between the author and reader, listener or viewer. Arguments are only one way of offering reasons. Another, equally powerful and important, is by showing or attending. This, rather than arguing, is in fact what a lot of the best philosophers spend a lot of time doing in their great texts. Descartes is most famous for three words: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). This looks like an argument but in fact its force comes from Descartes’s invitation to attend to what happens when we doubt and so observe that the very act of doubting requires an existing doubter. Hence in his Meditations he has no ‘therefore’ but simply says that the one thing he cannot doubt is ‘I am, I exist.’4 Similarly, Hume’s challenge to Descartes’s conclusion that this ‘I’ is single, simple and indivisible is to ask us to attend to what happens when we are conscious in order that we observe the absence of a single unified self and see that we are all merely bundles of perceptions.5


Films can do philosophy by showing and inviting us to attend. Babette’s Feast does not present a systematic argument for collapsing the sacred/secular distinction, rather it shows us why the distinction is a false one. Similarly, it does not systematically describe what is sacred in the sensual world but it does very carefully attend to it. Furthermore, we can reflect upon and debate what is being shown, to assess whether it is a truthful showing or a distorting one. Film as philosophy at its best is not merely an alternative way of doing what philosophy does by conventional means anyway. There are some philosophical questions that are better dealt with by methods other than prose argument, as Babette’s Feast illustrates. It is in large part a philosophical investigation of what it means to live a religious life in full recognition of our mortality and corporeality. The film is the best philosophical ‘text’ on the subject, this book a mere commentary on it.




1 Mortal Illusions Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Part of what motivates the religious sensibility is a sense of how all mortal endeavour ends in dust. From this realization springs the longing for salvation or redemption, something that will stop our lives being lived in vain. Understanding, coming to terms with, and overcoming this sense of futility is arguably the central concern of every major philosophy and religion. In the Western tradition, the two main strategies for dealing with this are either embracing our mortality with all its flaws or to look to a life to come. Babette’s Feast shows us the perils of both alternatives by examining the key divergences in paths taken by its main protagonists. When young and beautiful, the two sisters both have suitors, whom they ultimately spurn. Filippa is a gifted singer who is taken under the wing of a great French singer, Achille Papin, who acts as her tutor. Papin goes to the Jutland coast following acclaimed concerts in Stockholm, in search of solitude and untamed nature. Papin’s embrace of the passion and sensuality of music, however, proves too much for Filippa’s puritanical sensibilities. One clumsy kiss and Filippa cancels her music lessons, turning her back simultaneously on a man who loves her and a potential career as a singer capable of bringing immense pleasure to many. The candlelit living room after the decision to end the lessons is a sorry, wordless scene. Filippa is unable to concentrate on her knitting. Her father, the ‘Pastor and prophet’ who founded the Lutheran sect they belong to, looks up from his book at her, a frown perhaps indicating disapproval that she clearly has some regret.


Sparks between Lowenheim and Martine fall on damp ground.

Her sister looks at her with more sympathy though without clear understanding. Seeing her gaze, Filippa is uncomfortable and turns back to her knitting. She has chosen to let something powerful pass and the decision does not sit entirely comfortably. Martine’s young love is an evidently mutual attraction with the young soldier Lorens Löwenhielm, sent by his disappointed father to stay with his aunt in an attempt to shake him out of his indisciplined, dissolute, debt-ridden ways. What stands between them is simply Martine’s devotion to the religious mission of her father. Without ever explicitly discussing the possibility of marriage, it becomes evident that it just can’t happen. We’ve already seen her father turn away suitors saying ‘In this calling of mine, my two daughters are my right hand and my left. Would you rob me of them?’ When Löwenhielm leaves Martine and the village to pursue his military career, he tells her with more regret than resignation, ‘I am going away for ever and I shall never, never see you again. For I have learned here that life is hard and cruel, and that in this world there are things that are impossible.’ Martine looks troubled by this, seemingly aware that something bad is happening but not able to fully comprehend it. On hearing his declaration, she turns her gaze




‘I am going away for ever and I shall never, never see you again. For I have learned here that life is hard and cruel, and that in this world there are things that are impossible.’

away from him, as though she is not able or willing to look the meaning of worldly love itself in the face. We have reason to believe she never quite overcame her longing. When on the day of the feast, Filippa reads a letter from Mrs Löwenhielm saying that she has received an unexpected visit from her nephew, Lorens, it is as though Martine awakes from the mechanical trance in which she has been preparing a wreath, looking briefly into the distance as though it were the past. She brings some of the wreath’s foliage to her nose, as though the sweet fragrance of the sensuous world had suddenly come back to her. Does Filippa have any similar regrets? This is less clear. When Papin writes to them many years later, Martine begins to read his letter out loud but when he starts a sentence ‘For 35 years, Miss Filippa …’ she stops and passes it to her sister to continue. Filippa reads, ‘I have deplored the fate that kept your voice from filling the Grand Opera House in Paris.’ Throughout this, Filippa remains calm and seemingly unaffected. It is Martine who takes off her glasses and looks into space with an expression of such deep sadness that it seems the only reason she is not crying is that she has been long resigned to her losses.


The two sisters chose their celibate, religious life, the only one they had been prepared for. Anything else would have been a betrayal of their father, who was named after Martin Luther and his fellow reformist Philipp Melanchthon. And yet they had seen a glimpse of something else and could not forget it. ‘Do you remember that silent young man who appeared so suddenly, and vanished just as suddenly?’ Filippa asks her sister one day as the still young girls are preparing for bed. Martine turns round, pausing for several seconds before she replies ‘yes’, clearly remembering very well indeed. Again, it seems Martine is the one who finds it hardest to accept what has passed them by. The two men pursue their worldly ambitions, but without full conviction. When the Pastor delivers the note ending Filippa’s singing lessons, Papin is still singing and dancing for joy alone in his room. As the Pastor trudges back home, the singing stops, telling us Papin has read the note. We next see him sat at his table, still singing, but now with sadness. ‘Goodbye, my life. Goodbye, my heart.’ He adds, no longer singing, ‘Goodbye, my hopes.’ When we next see him he is setting off in a little rowing boat for the port of Frederikshavn, the waves beating him back as though the sea itself were reluctant for him to leave.

‘Goodbye, my life. Goodbye, my heart. Goodbye, my hopes.’




‘I will think of nothing but my career, and some day, I shall be an important figure in the world.’

Löwenhielm had seen a glimpse of something purer and could not return to his soldier’s life unchanged. We have seen snippets of his life, and the world of the officers’ mess looks one of boredom, routine and petty plays for status. He is no longer like the other young officers, able to boast about their love affairs. Seen through others’ eyes, it seems pitiful to him that he had been ‘defeated and frustrated by some pious melancholics who can’t even afford salt for their porridge.’ And so he resolves to forget it all, to look forward, not backward. ‘I will think of nothing but my career, and some day, I shall be an important figure in the world.’ Many years later, both these men come to see their achievements as somewhat hollow. Papin’s initial despondency at Filippa’s rejection seems to be vindicated. In his letter to the sisters many years later, he writes that he is ‘a lonely, greying old man, forgotten by those who once applauded and adored me’ and asks ‘What is fame? The grave awaits us all.’ But implicit in this is the suggestion that Filippa was perhaps not mistaken to turn her back on a musical career. ‘I feel that it is you who chose the better path in life,’ he writes, albeit on the mistaken assumption that she would now be ‘surrounded by a


happy swarm of children’. Yes, she would have thrilled audiences and become famous. But she too would have become forgotten and ignored as she aged and other younger singers came behind her. Papin’s excitement at her youthful promise would have turned to disappointment at its passing from potentiality, to actuality, to history. All dreams of worldly success seem vainglorious.

‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.’; ‘I have achieved everything you dreamed of, and satisfied your ambition. But to what purpose?’




Löwenhielm’s military life seems equally empty to him as he prepares for the film’s climactic feast, quoting the famous line from Ecclesiastes – ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ – as he looks at himself in the mirror. The image says it all. He is in the full uniform of a general, a man of power and prestige. His life seems to have been a success. He is popular in the royal court, where piety has become fashionable and he is able to make use of the Pastor’s teachings. (A book of his collected sermons is among the Queen’s favourite reading.) He has married a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and seems very happy with her. Yet the pomp cannot disguise his wrinkling skin, his greying beard, and the sadness in his eyes. For all he has achieved, he is now back in his aunt’s house, as alone as he ever was, only with more of his life behind him than ahead of him. Addressing his younger self, he says ‘I have achieved everything you dreamed of, and satisfied your ambition. But to what purpose?’ However, the hollowness of the men’s achievements does not vindicate the choices of the Lutherans. Their faces too speak of doubt and disappointment. Their sacrifices have not given them a better life on earth. They were made on the promise of a better one to come. ‘We will be rich in the next life,’ says one of the faithful at the feast. Even to say this suggests that a rich life is the ultimate good and therefore they have missed out on something by living life as austerely as they have. For most of the Western, twentieth/twenty-first century audience, this is a loss without future compensation. The sisters have staked their life on a false hope and so have missed out on much of what this world has to offer. The equal and opposite impossibilities of a life that denies the temporal or the eternal, and the impossibility of asserting them both, comes straight from the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, who we know influenced Dinesen. Kierkegaard described two spheres of existence, the aesthetic and ethical. The aesthetic is characterized by the philosopher Alastair Hannay as ‘a life ensnared in or dedicated to


immediacy’.1 It is a life concerned with the immediate and the instant, with what is finite in the human condition. Kierkegaard gives us a snapshot of such a life in the chapter in Stages on Life’s Way entitled ‘In vino veritas’. Here we see young men feasting at a banquet but deeply unfulfilled. Their love affairs are empty because they are unable to make any sort of commitment, as that would require going beyond the now. In the ethical sphere, the moment is of no consequence, only the eternal is. Living the ethical life requires a consciousness of and obedience to ethics as universal law. In realizing that we are proper subjects for these laws, we acknowledge the eternal within ourselves. But this is as unsatisfactory as the aesthetic because we cannot uproot ourselves from the temporal. The infinite and the universal are beyond human reach. Whenever we see an attempt to grasp the ethical and universal we actually see only something finite and particular, such as commandments engraved in tablets of stone delivered from Mount Sinai. For Kierkegaard, the tension between the aesthetic and the ethical represents a paradox in the human condition that cannot be resolved rationally. The only way to meet our needs as both ethical and aesthetic subjects is to take a leap of faith into the irrationality of Christian religion, which asserts the impossible marriage of the two, embodied in the figure of Jesus Christ, God and man, finite and infinite, mortal and immortal. Kierkegaard’s ‘spheres’ are like different parallel worlds coexisting on the same globe. In Babette’s Feast, it is almost as though they are given physical reality, with the sea as the unbridgeable chasm between them. The aesthetic is always across the waters. It is where the gastronomic delights arrive from, bringing the pleasures of immediacy to those who have rejected life in the moment. It is where Papin and Löwenhielm come from and go back to, after they have found themselves unable to make their accommodation to the ethical world of Jutland. It is where the sisters cannot leave, bound by their commitment to the absolute, the eternal.




‘10,000 francs!’; To stay or to go?

The sea’s most Kierkegaardian moment, however, is the brief scene where we see Babette walk down to the shore after her lottery win. She looks out to sea, no doubt thinking of France. Then she seems to make her decision. She turns around, back towards the village to ask the sisters’ permission to cook a celebration dinner for the Pastor’s anniversary, a ‘real French dinner’. In time we will understand that this is the moment when she makes the choice not between the aesthetic and the ethical, but to attempt the kind of


paradoxical fusion Kierkegaard described. Her French dinner will be a marriage of mind and body, the religious and the secular. The heroism of this endeavour is made evident from the unhappy ways in which Martine, Filippa, Papin and Löwenhielm confront Kierkegaard’s impossible paradox. Their plights suggest that the only alternatives to despair are the vanities of earthly ambition or the illusions of heavenly reward, and that neither option is satisfying. The sisters are left with the lingering sweet fragrance of worldly pleasures not taken, while the men are left feeling hollow, with the unsettling scent of something purer and higher they saw in the sisters. This, at least, is how it seems before the feast begins. We have yet to see fully how it is possible to deny the choice between the sacred and the secular in the first place, to take the leap into something like Kierkegaard’s paradoxical religious sphere. But we have been given glimpses. Early in the film, the melancholic Papin, seeing himself as an old man at the end of his career, is drawn into the church by the sound of Filippa’s singing. His vitality is instantly restored, and yet what she is singing is a reminder of the transience of all mortal life: Highest mountains and deepest vale will vanish Heaven and earth will perish Each height and peak will be no longer But the Lord’s glory will rise again in a thousand hearts.

‘She is a diva. She will soon have Paris at her feet’.




Papin gives thanks to God for ‘She is a diva’ who ‘will soon have Paris at her feet’. (Axel made sure this line was credible by overdubbing Filippa’s singing with that of the acclaimed Danish soprano Tina Kiberg, a gold medalist at the Benson and Hedges international voice competition whose recordings include Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim.) There appears to be a contradiction in Papin’s elision of divine and worldly glory, but music itself is of its nature temporal and impermanent, yet at the same time capable of stirring the most exalted emotions. The marriage of the secular and sacred is proposed by the very sensuous pleasure evoked by the pious church hymn. Here we have an early hint of the great irony the film will later reveal: that the right way to live is suggested all along by the teachings of the religious community, but it takes a French chef’s gourmand meal to understand what they truly meant.


2 Love Do you remember what he taught us? Little children, love one another.

The community, in keeping with standard Christian teaching, elevates love to the highest ideal. ‘Little children, love one another,’ is one of their founder’s homilies the congregation repeats with approval. The New Testament word for love is best captured by the Latin caritas or Greek agape. This is not romantic love, or even primarily a feeling, but a kindness to our fellow humans. Hence they address each other as brother and sister, relationships that entail kinship and mutual obligation whether there is personal affection or not. Although the faithful aspire to love, there is something evidently lacking in their attempt to do so. They have become somewhat fractious and disharmonious. One woman, Anna, tells another ‘Even though it was a long time ago, Solveig, I remember very well how badly you once treated me.’ Spite is met with spite, as her erstwhile friend replies ‘You were anything but nice to my poor mother.’ Even as the sisters try to gloss over the feud by starting to sing a hymn, one man tells another ‘you cheated me that time’ only to be told ‘You can’t even remember what you had for supper yesterday.’ Another pair blame each other for the affair they had many years ago. All of this leads to very little real love between them. What is missing is precisely the virtue most effectively promoted by joyful communal eating: conviviality, from the Latin com (together) and vivere (to live). But conviviality is more than just the sum of these two parts, living together. The verb convivere means ‘to carouse together’, the noun convivium ‘a feast’. Conviviality is thus being together with warmth, pleasure and joy. The congregation comes together in worship, in prayer and even links hands to say a grace. But such a superficial, physical




‘As time passed, the pastor’s disciples became somewhat tetchy and quarrelsome.’

gathering of bodies is not enough for the richer coming together of conviviality in which we share our full humanity. Food is a powerful means of facilitating this, which religious traditions have almost invariably recognized. For instance, Father Christopher Jamison once told me that the high value placed on meals in Benedictine monasteries ‘is to do with the communion aspect. This is an opportunity for service, it’s an opportunity to be together as a community, and to listen together, because the meals are in silence.’ During festivals, meals are also opportunities to express joy ‘because you have special meals where you might have talking, and then you have a feast day meal and so you choose to eat a lot and you choose to do that together’. What is really important about this form of communion is that it is on a fully human plane. ‘When we come together for the meal we’re together both spiritually but really physically as well, sharing food together, a very human thing to do,’ said Father Joseph of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire. Similarly, Downside Abbey’s Dom David said, ‘In the refectory it’s just human beings doing human things, like eating and helping each other and wiping up puddles of water and messes. Just very human things.’


However, the official rationale for this kind of monastic conviviality is very different from that of the secular variety. As Dom David put it, the sharing of meals is done ‘in order to cultivate at a human level a sense of God’s presence in each of us and a sense of being together in him’. And yet surely what it most cultivates is rather a sense of each other’s presence and a sense of being together? If this feels divine it is because such coming together touches the very highest parts of us, and we mistake reaching the heights of humanity with touching something of the transcendent. Perhaps monks have learned to value the conviviality of mealtimes despite rather than because of their religious calling. Much as they aspire to leave behind secular life, mealtimes are a reminder of the sacredness in it. It takes a feast for the puritans in Babette’s Feast to discover the true meaning of conviviality and it takes shared meals in a monastery for nuns and monks to keep hold of the human aspect of communal living. The sharing of food also reminds monastics that religion is not only about the transcendent world of the eternal but the immanent world of the here and now. Religion has both other-worldly and this-worldly aspects and it is unfortunate that the other-worldly too

‘Do you remember what he taught us? Little children, love one another.’




often takes precedence. For Christians, this should be particularly embarrassing since the gospel of Jesus is very much focused on love, charity and sacrifice in this world. Sikhs have a tradition that makes it harder for them to lose sight of their religion’s this-worldly aspect. Langar is the preparing, serving and eating of shared meals by volunteers (sewadaars). At the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, 130,000 people are served food every day. Go to any Sikh Gurdwara and you’ll find langar practised. The tradition dates back to the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, back in the fifteenth century. Central to the tradition is the principle of equality between all people regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status. Everyone sits together irrespective of social rank. You could be offering langar one day and receiving it the next. This means it is not so much charity as mutual service. The importance of service is shown several times in the film. When Babette throws herself on the mercy of the sisters she tells them, ‘If you won’t let me serve you, I will simply die.’ This literal, stark truth is the cousin of a more metaphorical one about the human need to serve as well as be served. It’s also reflected in the fact that when the sisters initially refuse Babette’s request to pay for the dinner

‘Your kindness is second to none you keep us clothed and fed never would you give a stone to the child who begs for bread.’


from her own money, she replies that this is the first thing she has asked for in the fourteen years she has been there. That she needs permission to give shows something about how the puritan mentality even limits the extent to which people are allowed to serve others, lest they indulge them too much. When the sisters say that they were only intending a ‘modest supper’ with coffee afterwards, they remind her ‘we never offered our guests anything more than that’ as though anything more generous would have been absurd. But true service does not limit giving to what you think is merely enough. When the Lutherans sing ‘never would you give a stone to the child who begs for bread’ they are quoting from a Gospel teaching that emphasizes God’s generosity. ‘If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?’1 At langar, secular and sacred conviviality meet. Shared eating has a unique power to do this. It takes the softening of hearts by food and drink to make the pious residents of Jutland get over their petty feuds and squabbles. The Sikhs would not approve of the role drink can play in this but even that most austere of philosopher, Immanuel Kant, could see, ‘People who are otherwise hard-hearted





‘Are you a papist?’

become, through intoxication, good-humoured, communicative and benign.’ Drink ‘opens the heart’ and is ‘the material instrument of a moral quality, namely candour.’2 One reason Pope Francis likes the film is because it shows the capacity of joyful eating to engender love. ‘Its protagonists are people living according to a Puritan Calvinism exaggerated to the point that the redemption of Christ is taken as a denial of the things of this world,’ he told an interviewer (misdescribing them as Calvinists when they are in fact Lutherans). It takes a ‘wasteful’ dinner for them to be transformed. Until that point, ‘the community did not know what happiness was. It lived crushed by pain. … It was afraid to love.’ (The Pope would surely have been pleased that Papin, a sensuous character clearly immune to this puritanism, is a ‘papist’.) At their best, religions teach love for humanity, not as a practical quid pro quo or for divine salvation or some other pragmatic end, but as being good in itself. Again, the Gospels echo this. Jesus instructs his followers to help people in the here and now, not only to have the bare minimum to survive. He provides wine when people have already drunk a lot at the wedding feast at Cana and he defends Mary anointing his feet with precious oils.


Of course, in many ways the puritan community was already full of love. But it was imperfect and misdirected. Their obsession with the transcendent rather than immanent aspects of religion meant they were too concerned with preparing people for a life to come, not doing the best they could to bring them comfort and joy right now. This is beautifully illustrated in the food the sisters prepared for the poor of the village before Babette’s arrival. This is simple and sustaining but not a source of much pleasure. Early in the film we see two of the poor receiving their soup. The first accepts his with a polite but flat ‘tak’ (thanks). The second is seen hungrily devouring his, but without any evident attention to the flavourless food. With her culinary skill, Babette is able to make delicious food the poor actually enjoy, at less cost than the gruel they used to get. We see one in delighted prayer, thanking God for giving Babette to them. Another is seen eating with a dignity that he seemed to lack when the recipient of austere charity. When she goes away to France to get the ingredients for the feast, however, the sisters take over the cooking. The man’s disgusted face when he sees his øllebrød (a rye bread porridge) says it all. For the puritans, however, even to acknowledge the difference between delicious and bland food is to pay too much attention to our mortal, corrupt bodies. Hence they resolve to act at the feast ‘as if we

Poor food for poor people.




‘Thank you, Lord, for sending Babette to us.’; In Babette’s absence, øllebrød is back on the menu, alas.

never had the sense of taste’. This denial of one of our five senses is actually a denial of our humanity. And when humanity is denied, true human love becomes impossible. To assert our humanity requires looking at the mortality and frailty of all of nature in the face. This the film does. We see the live, chirruping quails arrive; their dead, plucked carcasses tossed in a barrel; Babette carefully butchering them, and their cooked meats


‘It will be as if we never had the sense of taste.’

served on the table as cailles en sarcophage (quail in sarcophagus). Even then, Babette puts the birds’ decapitated skulls back, hanging over the side of the pastry, as though to remind diners that the pleasures of life cannot be separated by the terrors of death. We see the living turtle that later becomes a soup. In the middle of the table with all the sumptuous ingredients is a pig’s head, staring up at the ceiling. This echoes the memento mori of still life vanitas paintings but with food that is at its peak, not decaying. Humans are part of nature and nature is but one vast cycle of life and death. The divide between the dehumanized love of the puritans and embodied love is most stark when Papin and Filippa are singing the seduction duet in the second act of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which sings of ‘hand and heart uniting’ and ends with ‘Love will unite us.’ Papin is visibly, physically moved by this, getting too close to Filippa for her comfort. When the duet is over, he plants an affectionate but not predatory or erotic kiss on her forehead and skips out in the streets still singing with joy, dancing into the grocer’s with whom he is lodging, spinning her around and giving her a peck on the cheek too. This, however, is all too much for Filippa. ‘I do not wish to continue my singing lessons,’ she tells her father and sister at dinner, plainly.




Definitely not mock turtle.; The way of all flesh.

The Pastor is visibly pleased. ‘The Lord’s paths also run across rivers, my child,’ he replies, a version of one of his teachings we hear earlier: ‘God’s paths run beyond the seas and the snowy mountain peaks, where the human eye sees no path.’ He means that the Lord moves in mysterious ways, with the implication that whatever has happened this time, God has ensured a happy outcome, avoiding potential catastrophe.


‘God’s paths run beyond the seas and the snowy mountain peaks, where the human eye sees no path.’; ‘Love shall unite us.’;‘I do not wish to continue my singing lessons.’




The gospel of love which the Lutherans preach cannot find its best expression all the time that their focus is on the transcendent at the expense of the immanent. Love requires a recognition of human beings as fully physical with needs that must be met in the here and now. Being fully attentive to people’s needs on Earth is more morally admirable than having one eye on eternity. Indeed, the hope for personal salvation is the most egotistic desire one could have. Many religions promise it but all are keen to stress that it should not be the motivation to love one another. Babette acts out this ethic of love. She cooks not only to delight herself but to delight others. Indeed, she spends her entire winnings on this one feast, as though it were to give the puritans a once-only chance of salvation from their misguided life of renunciation. Here we see an interesting example of how Babette’s immanent feast better fulfils supposedly religious values than a life focused on the transcendent. One of the Pastor’s teachings is ‘All we can take away from this earthly life is that which we have given away.’ This is precisely why we share food with love. Babette gave everything away, leaving herself with nothing. But what she gave away was greater than just ameliorating charity: it was a chance to enjoy life to the fullest.


3 Pleasure Man shall not merely refrain from, but also reject any thought of, food and drink. Only then can he eat and drink in the proper spirit.

It’s one thing to make the case that the true spirit of Christian love requires fully embracing the physicality of the human being. But Babette’s Feast asks us to do more than this. The sensual world is to be relished, not just accepted. It is not only permitted to drink wine but wonderful to sip expensive amontillado, 1845 Clos de Vougeot Pinot Noir and 1860 Veuve Cliquot Champagne. Religiosity is to be found at a banquet table as well as at the altar. This is a radical piece of theology. The pursuit of pleasure is often seen in religious terms as empty. The Lutheran sect take this to extremes. Babette’s Feast shows us beautifully that there is a role for pleasure in life that does not lead us to a futile grasping for delights that are merely fleeting.

‘The finest Amontillado I have ever tasted!’




The right place to start thinking about the role of pleasure in human life is with an accurate model of human nature, as it really is, not what we imagine or hope it to be. General Löwenhielm captures the difficulties of giving such an accurate account of human nature in his comment about how enjoying Babette’s food enables us to make ‘no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite’. To say there is no distinction between the bodily and the spiritual sounds paradoxical but it in fact gets to the heart of what it is to be human. Kierkegaard suggests this in his distinction between the aesthetic and the ethical.1 It is not just a difference between competing ways of life but between two mutually incompatible ways of understanding human nature. In the aesthetic sphere, a person is nothing more than a conscious animal, tied to the now. In the ethical sphere, a person is an immortal soul, belonging to the eternal. Kierkegaard’s distinction might be too extreme, but it captures the very real tension between the fact that we are only ever present in the moment and that we also live over time. We are both trapped in the now and also somehow transcend it. Any satisfactory description of human nature must account for this apparent paradox. Any such model of human nature today has to start with a full and complete acceptance of our mortal corporeality. Much as belief in immaterial souls persists, there is simply no good reason or argument to accept this. Anyone who cares to look can see that even the purest among us are made of flesh and blood. ‘As young girls, the beauty of Martine and Filippa had been extraordinary,’ says the narrator in Babette’s Feast, ‘akin to flowering fruit trees.’ You cannot even describe human beauty without reaching for metaphors that link us with the organic, corruptible world. And even the most chaste will stir the bodily desires of even the most devout. The young men who went to church because it was their only chance to see the girls reveal the futility of trying to shield the spiritual from the physical. Interestingly, a strong case can be made that the early church fathers did indeed accept this. The Gospels are very clear that Christ’s resurrection was a bodily one and there is no suggestion at all of a


soul leaving his body. The Platonic idea of the immaterial soul only entered Christianity later and has never been universal orthodoxy. Belief that human beings are essentially physical endured in many ways. It is why cremation was for a long time forbidden, as there had to be a body to be resurrected on the day of judgement. Corpses were buried with their feet facing the east so that on the dawn of this day the resurrected would sit up to face the rising sun. Even the future Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, who believes in some kind of immaterial soul, does not believe it can be separated from the body. ‘We have discovered anew the indivisibility of man,’ he wrote. ‘We live our corporeality with a new intensity and experience it as the indispensable way of realizing the one being of man.’2 To insist then that we must do justice to our animal nature is arguably a return to original Christian teaching. However, we do not accurately understand human nature if we take ourselves to be nothing but animals. We are animals but incredibly sophisticated ones, with rich intellectual and emotional lives. This is what is often called our ‘spiritual’ side. The challenge any materialist conception of human beings faces is not to reduce us to mere animals. Unfortunately, that is often exactly what they do. We are often explicitly told to be more like animals, who live only in the moment. As one typical blog put it, ‘Animals are indeed great mindfulness teachers, if we take the time to notice them.’ Living for the moment is not enough because life is not a moment. And although it is in one way comprised of moments, it is not simply a series of moments but a pattern made up of the relations across them. Consider the difference between, for example, spending a year simply enjoying one experience after another, ticking off the bucket list of things to do before you die, and one when you engage in some kind of project, with a beginning, middle, end and result. Both years are made up of moments, but one is a mere series, an aggregate, whereas the other is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The simplest way of interpreting the call to live for the moment is the crude hedonism that urges us to ‘seize the day’. But carpe diem




is a fool’s injunction since the day cannot be seized. Time flows like water and the tighter we try to grip it the less we are able to hold. Yet so often this is what we are told to do, especially by those who have cheated death and now appreciate life even more. Nando Parrado was among seventeen who survived a plane crash in the high Andes after an eleven day trek out of the mountains. He says his motto is ‘Eat every sandwich, kiss every girl.’ But we should not take him too literally, or else we would be fat, nauseated and incapable of holding down a serious relationship. What he surely means is appreciate every sandwich, kiss, moment of beauty or kindness that we have an appropriate opportunity to experience. That, rather than desperately leaping on every potential pleasure, is the secret of enjoyment. Pleasure does not store well, so when you make it your quarry, you are condemned constantly to hunt to keep up the supply, and if it is cut off, then you are left with nothing. To be properly in tune with our finitude we should not therefore try to seize the moment but to feel time run through us more profoundly, neither being so distracted by what is most immediate nor so fixated on an unattainable eternity that we don’t notice it. The aim is to navigate a path between an empty hedonism and a life-denying asceticism.

Löwenhielm in his dissolute, debt-ridden youth.


‘At this very moment, he had a mighty vision of a higher and purer life.’

Babette’s Feast exemplifies this path. Despite the centrality of the feast, the film clearly shows the pitfalls of the shallow pursuit of pleasure. When we first see Löwenhielm as a young man, for example, he is introduced as living a ‘merry life’ but it is clear from the start that his gambling and drinking is making him far from happy. Standing to attention as the captain enters the mess, he is a shambles, belching involuntarily, disgracing himself. His colleagues look at him with dismay, imploring ‘Get a grip on yourself,’ which provokes a dismissive grunt. When he first sets eyes on Martine, her beautiful smile radiates a purity and goodness which almost seems to trouble his more world-weary visage. He is not simply meeting another pretty girl but seeing someone whose attractiveness stems from her living a very different kind of life from his own, decadent one. As we are told in voice over, ‘at this very moment, he had a mighty vision of a higher and purer life.’ It looks for a while as though the worldly hedonism of the soldier is misguided, not the simple asceticism of the Christians. And yet the film is obviously also a challenge to the life-denying asceticism of the puritans. For them, food is at the bottom of the hierarchy of goods, as reflected in their grace:




May the bread nourish my body May my body do my soul’s bidding May my soul rise up to serve God eternally

Food’s only role is to nourish the body so it can follow the will of the immaterial soul and serve God. This contains a mistake, reflected in how they understand a saying of their founder: ‘Man shall not merely refrain from, but also reject any thought of, food and drink. Only then can he eat and drink in the proper spirit.’ One of the faithful, Anna, says this during the third course of the meal, believing that it means she should not be paying any attention to how wonderful her meal is. It is, however, evident both from her face and the fact that she reaches for another sip of wine as soon as she finishes speaking that she is as much trying to convince herself as she is others. The way she understands the injunction betrays a mistaken belief that humanity’s true nature is spiritual, not corporeal. To accept food and drink only as fuel and to reject it as food to be enjoyed is to divide human nature against itself, as though the evolved necessity to eat and the pleasure we take in doing so have nothing to do with one another.

‘May the bread nourish my body / May my body do my soul’s bidding / May my soul rise up to serve God eternally.’


‘We have exposed ourselves to dangerous, or maybe even evil, powers.’; ‘It must be some kind of lemonade.’

Their puritanism turns into a deep fear of all bodily pleasure. One worries, ‘we have exposed ourselves to dangerous, or maybe even evil, powers.’ In Dinesen’s text, however, it is clear that the guests were only able to enjoy the meal once they actually followed their founder’s principle properly. Anna’s words are not ironic but paradoxical. In order to eat in the right spirit it is necessary to forget that this is food




and drink and allow oneself to fully immerse oneself in the sensory experience the meal provides. Instead of the meal making them feel heavier, as is natural when we eat to fill up our fuel tanks, Dinesen says the ‘convives grew lighter in weight and lighter in heart the more they ate and drank’.3 These remarks in the source story suggest a way to make sense of the film’s most baffling moment. As Löwenhielm says his last goodbye to Martine at the end of the feast, he tells her, ‘You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul.’ How can he say that the body ‘is of no importance’ when he, more than anyone else at the table, fully embraces his corporeality and savours the pleasures of the table? How can a film that delights in the culinary, directed by a gourmand, leave us with the conclusion that the body is of no importance? The answer is that, paradoxically, it is only by fully accepting our embodiment that we can let go of it. Löwenhielm realizes that the body is important only for what it makes possible, not in itself. To eat and drink in the right spirit we have to care about what we are experiencing, not the vessel that makes that experiencing possible. In the aesthetic sphere, people are too attached to their bodies, to the moment. In the ethical, they are in conflict with them. In the religious, our bodies find their proper place, both absolutely essential for our existence and absolutely unimportant in themselves. So when Löwenhielm says his body is of no importance, he is not turning his back on the material world. Indeed, there is a profound sense of ingratitude in the refusal to take the pleasures that the world and those who do wonders with it offer. They determine to act as though the food and drink wasn’t there at all, promising ‘no matter what happens, not to say a single word’ about them. This is not only incredibly ungrateful to the woman who has created it for them but also an insult to the divine creator who gave them the capacity to cook and enjoy such delights. The British polymath


William Kitchiner captured this idea with incisive humour in The Cook’s Oracle of 1830: ‘Those cynical slaves who are so silly as to suppose it unbecoming a wise man to indulge in the common comforts of life, should be answered in the words of the French philosopher. “Hey – what, do you philosophers eat dainties?” said a gay Marquess. “Do you think,” replied Descartes, “that God made good things only for fools?”’4 The rejection of bodily pleasures commended by many religions does not, however, entirely rest on a straightforward denial of our corporeal nature. It often rests instead on a denial of the importance of what is fleeting and temporary. It is the transience rather than the physicality of most of our pleasures that makes them not worth valuing. This is an idea that is not confined to the religious. The more-or-less secular Stoic philosophers believed, as Seneca put it, that ‘the frail body … is to be regarded as necessary rather than as important; it involves us in vain pleasures, short-lived, and soon to be regretted, which, unless they are reined in by extreme self-control, will be transformed into the opposite’.5 For the Jutland puritans, everything of this world is transient, over in the blink of eternity’s eye. So even human attachments should not be valued. ‘In the Pastor’s flock,’ we are told, ‘earthly love and marriage were considered to be of scant worth and merely empty illusion.’ Pleasure does not last and so we should not seek it nor value it. The Pastor’s flock are extreme in their renunciation but they follow the mainstream direction of most religious thinking. For example, Ajahn Karuniko, a monk in the Theravada tradition, told me that although we should not be afraid of pleasure, clinging or grasping to pleasure causes problems. For him, ‘Perfection of mindfulness when you’re eating’ is when ‘you know it’s pleasant, you know it’s good,’ but once the eating is over, so does the awareness of the pleasure. This becomes impossible the moment you start to allow thoughts of the food’s goodness to have any importance. ‘As soon as you have that thought [this is really




delicious], you’re clinging to it’ so ‘when you go somewhere that food’s not available, you’re always wanting it.’ But must love of earthly, temporal pleasures inevitably lead to such craving and clinging? It doesn’t in Babette’s Feast. Babette shows there is another way to relate to pleasure. In her new, austere life, she shows no signs of wanting to cling on to the one she left behind. When she first tastes the unpalatable øllebrød, we might expect her to show disgust. Instead, she simply eats it mindfully, perhaps considering how to improve the recipe. She certainly goes on to make the most of what is now available to her, foraging for herbs and wild foods, getting the best fish from the local fishermen for the best price, and preparing it as well as she can. This is not about luxurious excess. Her culinary skill actually saves money. ‘Amazing,’ say the sisters. ‘Since Babette came, we have more money than before.’ Babette could have been following the advice of the thirteenth century Zen Buddhist Dōgen who in his Instructions for the Tenzo (Zen Cook) wrote that when receiving ingredients, the tenzo should ‘never complain about its quantity or quality but always handle everything with the greatest care and attention’.6 Babette’s clothes

Babette gathers herbs.


‘Amazing. Since Babette came, we have more money than before.’

also suggest what this kind of attitude makes possible. Her costumes are designed by Karl Lagerfeld, one of the twentieth century’s greatest fashion designers. Yet they never feel incongruous in the poverty of the Jutland village. They are brilliantly cut and designed but are also simple, in tune with the peasant vernacular. Even modest clothes can be made beautiful if the tailor is sufficiently skilled and careful. The attitude that Dōgen is commending is most commonly called mindfulness. Mindfulness here is not a form of meditation apart from life but rather a way of meditatively doing the tasks of life. It requires care and attention to whatever it is that you have to do without attachment, without desiring that the thing never end. If we cook and eat mindfully, then we should be able to both deeply appreciate and savour it but also not feel craving for more once it is done. So whereas the wrong, clinging form of taking pleasure goes with the attitude ‘I don’t want this moment ever to end,’ right, mindful savouring implies ‘I don’t want to miss anything this moment has to offer.’ Taking appropriate pleasure in food is not about greed and grasping, but appreciation and giving. Babette’s feast is a one-off, a gift to be enjoyed and then let go. The meal shows to the




parishioners, and to us, that it is no sin to open your senses to what the mortal world has to offer. On the contrary, it is inhuman not to. This Zen mindset transforms the nature of routine from drudgery to a kind of religious devotion, just as in Christian monastic life all tasks are a form of prayer. In Zen Buddhism ‘there are no large tasks and no small tasks, they’re all of equal importance’, so whatever you do in life, you must dedicate yourself to doing it as best you can. This attitude appears in secular form in Japanese society as whole. The sushi master Jiro Ono, for example, is a true craftsman, a shokunin. ‘The way of the shokunin is to repeat the same thing every day,’ says one of Jiro’s former apprentices. With this mindset, there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane, the trivial and the important. Babette exemplifies this in the way in which she goes about her daily duties with diligence, care and attention. For the sisters, however, cooking became the wrong kind of dull routine. The first things they show Babette are how to soak, slice and boil the dried fish and how to cook øllebrød. There is no relish in the preparation or the eating: both are joyless jobs that they do as though they had no importance, except as a means to the end of serving God and nourishing the poor.

Øllebrød (rye bread porridge).


‘You should not have given all you owned for us.’

The fact that Babette spends all her money on the feast emphasizes her ability to savour without attachment. The sisters are horrified when they discover that Babette spent so much on just one meal: all of the 10,000 francs she won in what could have been a life-changing lottery. (That, she tells them, is what dinner for twelve at the Café Anglais costs anyway.) But it is the very transience of the feast that makes it such a challenge for those who look only to the transcendent, not the immanent. Babette displays a rare capacity to enjoy and let go, to live in the moment but not for the moment. She never appears so light or happy as when she is interrupted early in the feast’s preparations, in the midst of a mammoth effort for a brief meal. There is a kind of religiosity here that has echoes with Buddhist mindfulness: a deep appreciation of the world that we rightly call reverence. The difference is that Buddhism embraces an otherworldly asceticism whereas what I call the ‘immanent religiosity’ portrayed in Babette’s Feast fully embraces this world and all its wonders. By the end of the film it seems the sisters have learned to appreciate at least some of the value of Babette’s skills. ‘In paradise … How you will delight the angels!’ they say. They are




‘In paradise, how you will delight the angels!’

halfway to understanding, because if it would be good to delight the angels in heaven, why would it not be equally as good to delight mortals on earth? Indeed, their remark betrays the fact that many who renounce earthly pleasures are in effect the greatest hedonists of all, since it is happiness that they anticipate in the afterlife. Far from rejecting happiness and pleasure, they actually want it even more than those who settle for this life, since they demand eternal, perfect happiness and are not satisfied with the temporary, imperfect varieties. Babette’s mindful enjoyment challenges the ways in which pleasures have been traditionally categorized in Western thought. Almost all other thinkers, religious or secular, have distinguished between higher and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures involve art, music or the intellect, while lower pleasures are to do with the body and are also enjoyed by other animals. The founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham is one of the few to deny this distinction, arguing that the pleasure given by a simple bar game such as push-pin could be as valuable as that given by poetry. His godson John Stuart Mill dissented, claiming that ‘the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments’ have ‘a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation’.7


This entire historical debate rests on a mistake. The distinction between higher and lower pleasures is made on the basis of what they take pleasure in: sculptures or scallops, paintings or pasta, ballet or Barolo. It is clearly true that some things contain more potential for higher pleasure than others. But the orthodox assumption in philosophy and in Western culture as a whole appears to have been that any experience with a strong sensuous component is by its nature irredeemably base and so only has potential for lower pleasure. In fact, what elevates or debases a pleasure has a lot to do with how we enjoy it, not just what we enjoy. Someone reading with an ear for language can get more out of a Dr Seuss book than a careless reader gets out of War and Peace. Snobs who go to the opera for show appreciate less than a student of design walking around an Ikea. And a gourmand can get more aesthetic pleasure from a truly good meal than a bored tourist dutifully walking around the Louvre. Orthodoxy is blinded to this because, like Mill and Bentham, it thinks of pleasures as being either bodily or intellectual. In fact, the richest are both. Even the respectable arts are obviously deeply sensual. It’s simply that the sense of sight and hearing are given more respect than those of taste, smell and touch because the latter are more obviously connected to our animal natures. But sight and hearing are just as much animal senses as the other three, rooted in physiology and evolved to help us navigate around the physical world. As is often the case, the faithful themselves say things that capture a truth they miss in them. One talks of the tongue as a ‘strange little muscle’ that ‘has accomplished great and glorious deeds for man. But is also the source of unleashed evil and deadly poison.’ It should be used for prayer, not sensual indulgence. This acknowledges that all that humans do we do only thanks to our bodies. Speech can be good or bad and so can eating. It is not what we do with our tongues but how we do it that matters. The richest pleasures are not those that manage per impossibile to detach themselves from the body but are those that bring together




mind, heart and body into a unified, harmonious experience. All five senses are embodied but they also involve our minds and our emotions. That is why it has been credibly argued that culinary art is at its best the highest art of all, since it is the only art form that engages all five senses. The meal Babette serves becomes just such an occasion when the entirety of our human nature is engaged. It is not just about taste and smell but memory, artistry, comradeship. It is even a prompt to some theology, as the General is moved to give his speech. No unthinking brute could have enjoyed such a feast. The very same meal could have been eaten by gluttons, stuffing their faces inattentively, behaving boorishly. Only humans with discernment and skills of attention could appreciate just what a marvel the evening was. The General is the diner who has learned best how to appreciate fine food and wine. The measured way in which he eats illustrates how mastering the art of pleasure requires self-restraint, not selfindulgence. This is what fasting at its best teaches us. There are forms of religious fasting which are about the mortification of the flesh or penance. But others are more exercises in self-control, breaking the link between desire and action. Especially when food is ubiquitous and plentiful, we become used to eating when we want, as soon as we want. This appears like a kind of freedom but it is better thought of as a kind of slavery to our desires and impulses. True freedom requires not just the ability to act on our desires but not to act on them too. Paradoxically, therefore, by accepting constraints on eating, we can gain more freedom over it. This is the real merit in the rules for monks and clerics in many religions that only allow them to eat certain things at certain times. This becomes a way of countering our tendency to slavishly follow our desires, breaking the link between desire and action, impulse and acting on it. As Abbot Christopher Jamison put it, ‘It’s a way of exercising choice very knowingly.’ However, for most monastics, the goal is not so much to take control of our desires but to make them as impotent as possible.


Rather than seek to become free to act or not act on our desires, we aim to become free from desires – or at least their influence – altogether. That is why monastic food is usually so simple: soup, cheese, bread. Anything too delicious might stir our desires, which would not be good even if they remained under our control. Many mendicants in history have gone further. St Francis of Assisi, for instance, would mix ashes and cold water into his food to make it as unpalatable as possible. Such was his disgust for corruptible flesh (carnis corruptela) and its ability to distract us from the divine that he advised the subjugation of sexual desire by seeking the pains of ice water, ropes or thorns. The parishioners struggle with similar revulsion, such as when Martine covers her mouth after seeing Babette work on the feast, as though gagging at the mere sight. However, there are historical elements to religious fasting that suggest it has sometimes been used to tame rather than to kill desire. One of the most observed religious fasts today is the Muslim month of Ramadan, in which it is forbidden to eat during daylight hours. In this month, however, many Muslims enjoy their eating even more and the sunset dinner becomes a daily feast. Some studies have suggested that many actually gain weight during the fast. The self-control of the day leads to even deeper enjoyment at night. Nor have monasteries always been as austere as their current reputation suggests. St Thomas Aquinas was notoriously corpulent and the stereotype of the fat friar owed at least something to truth. Lisbon’s most famous custard tarts, pastéis de Belém, were created in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Many other cakes and pastries also had monastic origins, just as the most delicious mole sauces in Mexico were cooked up in the cloisters. Monasteries and convents have also often been among the best breweries, with the Benedictine Dom Pérignon giving his name to one of the world’s most famous champagnes, having developed many of the key methods of its production. The Rule of Benedict, which governs much Christian monastic life, allocates monks half a bottle of wine every day and ‘all tables with two kinds of cooked food’. At Buckfast Abbey, for




example, the brothers are still provided with beer or cider at every meal, should they choose it. Self-control cannot and should not require the complete suppression of desire and the elimination of pleasure. This does not result as much in mastery of the self as a disfigurement of it, control gained at the price of losing an essential part of our humanity. One function of religion has been as an institution external to the self to help us in the process of self-mastery. It might be thought that we need others to set limits for us, as if we set them ourselves, who says we must stick to them? But the purest kind of autonomy is precisely that in which the only person proscribing your action is yourself. The highest kind of freedom is to be able to control and regulate your own behaviour simply because you have realized that it is good to do so. In contrast, to follow a fast because your religion demands it is to submit your will to another. You don’t so much gain mastery of yourself as permit mastery over yourself by others. Babette’s Feast does not say much about where self-control comes from, but it does show it in both the right and wrong forms. Both the General and Babette eat and drink with careful relish rather than greed and gluttony. The Lutheran flock, in contrast, exercises too much self-control, denying rather than controlling their desires. In its dissection of the nature and role of pleasure, Babette’s Feast is not so much dramatizing a conflict between religion and secular philosophy but a conflict within religion itself. Religion is rooted here on earth yet reaches for heaven. The best religious thinkers have always tried to manage this paradox, keeping one eye on the immanent and the other on the transcendent. The worst kinds of religion fail to maintain this split vision. They either end up corrupted vehicles for worldly success and power or lose all sight of the mortal realm and become life-denying, other-worldly delusions. But maintaining the right double vision is difficult and can lead to contradiction. The current pope, for example, named himself after


the arch mortifier of the flesh, St Francis, while also celebrating the religious message of Babette’s Feast. The divide between religions, which include or exclude the immanent, maps imperfectly onto another fundamental split, between faiths of fear and faiths of joy. Faiths of fear speak of God’s punishment, terrorizing people into belief. The Lutheran sect founded by Filippa and Martine’s father is clearly a religion of fear, something that came directly from the Pastor. At the very start of the film we are told that he was ‘well-respected, and perhaps also a little feared’. Even when all descend on the sisters’ home for the celebration dinner, they look like a crowd of mourners, all dressed in black. Fear is most evident early in the film when Filippa, one of the then young puritan sisters, is discovered to have a talent for singing and takes lessons from the French maestro Papin. They are shown singing a segment from Don Giovanni, in which Papin, in the eponymous role, sings A voice within me calls you It calls you from my heart. Come now don’t fight it It is the voice of Joy.

Filippa, in the role of Zerlina replies: I tremble yet I listen I’m fearful of my joy.

Listening in the other room, her sister and father look fearful too, holding hands, uncomprehending of the passions the music can clearly stoke. ‘My soul weakens already,’ she sings, leading them to cast down their faces. Any world-denying outlook that rejects the immanent is fearful of joy when joy is found in an unstable, temporary world. Fear of




‘I’m fearful of my joy.’

joy recurs throughout the film. Watching the lavish ingredients being unloaded from the boat, Filippa tells her sister ‘I am rather worried about all this,’ to which Martine replies ‘I am not too happy about this French dinner either.’ After seeing the live turtle that has arrived from France, Filippa withdraws from the room backwards, as though afraid to turn her back. Martine even has a nightmare in which the feast turns out to be a demonic plot to poison everyone, with blood pouring from a wine pitcher spilled, knocked over by a collapsing diner. In Dinesen’s book we’re told that Babette seemed like a witch to them when she was preparing the feast, an idea that the film takes up as we see her lead the party carrying her ingredients to the sisters’ house, her head covered with a black hood, as though leading a heathen procession. Martine worries that her father is looking down on them ‘seeing his daughters use his home for a witches’ sabbath!’ They even remove his portrait from the wall as Babette begins to set the table, as though to save him from the horrific sight, making a small shrine of it in the reception room. Faiths of joy emphasize the positive rewards of the path, such as contentment, fulfilment, tranquillity. Unlike shallow hedonism, however, faiths of joy tell us that in order to have that joy, we have


‘I am rather worried about all this.’; Something wicked this way comes?

to follow a path, not just our desires and instincts. They claim that the good life requires effort, that we have to bring a kind of moral seriousness to our living, or else life ends up hollow and shallow. In Babette’s Feast, the greatest joys come from arts that take years of devotion and mastery. An attitude of immanent religiosity takes all the joy there is to be found, without illusion. Dōgen instructs anyone ‘working in any position of responsibility, not only as tenzo’ to




‘Surely that’s not wine?’; Nightmare of an evil temptress.

‘strive to maintain a spirit of joy and magnanimity, along with the caring attitude of a parent. A joyful spirit is one of gratefulness and buoyancy.’8 This can be religious. Babette may seem demonic to the puritans but when all the ingredients for the feast arrive safely she says ‘Praise the Lord!’ with more genuine gusto than the parishioners dutifully do in church.


If we understand the real value and nature of pleasure, abandon its direct pursuit and instead focus on what the most rewarding, satisfying way to live is, we find that it involves neither grasping the moment or hanging on for eternity. Nor is it essentially selfish. Indeed, when we truly appreciate what is good, we find ourselves wanting to share the pleasure of it. Babette’s own satisfaction in cooking is largely due to seeing the pleasure it gives others. Papin’s desire to teach Filippa springs from an understanding that with coaching she could produce music to delight thousands. There are selfish ways to pursue pleasure but to give pleasure to others is also one of the most generous and selfless acts it is possible to do. In Babette’s Feast, there is no conflict between religious and earthly joys and pleasures. The conflict is between a puritanical religion that denies the importance of the immanent and more expansive forms of religiosity that assert it. Very similar theologies look very different depending on where the emphasis lies: is salvation primarily an escape from damnation or entry to paradise?




4 The Artist An artist is never poor.

Many who find themselves unable to believe in religion find something of a replacement in art. Both art and religion seem to offer us a path to transcendence: a sense of something real, important and greater than ourselves. The assumption that art is concerned with the transcendent is one reason why the idea of cooking as a genuine art form has not been taken more seriously. Babette’s Feast challenges this, not by showing how food can achieve transcendence but by showing how the profoundest art and religion is actually concerned with the immanent. Art transforms the material world so that it achieves something of the taste of the divine. Yet this is not by allowing us to escape from the immanent world into the transcendent one but to enter more intimately into the here and now. This is more evident in East Asia, where visual art has always had nature as its primary subject. The great Daoist nature paintings, for instance, do not provide the viewer with an escape from the material world into a spiritual one but rather facilitate a deeper engagement with the natural world. They enable us to attend to features of nature that we miss with our everyday eyes, to stimulate the sense of wonder and mystery that the here and now is often able to provoke, if only we approach it in the right spirit. In the West, the association of art and the transcendent is surely largely due to the overbearing influence of Christianity on art for nearly two millennia. For centuries the only proper subjects for art were religious. Painters depicted Bible stories and lives of the saints, musicians wrote hymns and devotional music, the greatest architectural wonders were churches and cathedrals. Moved by Latin


mass in a sacred building, no wonder people came to associate the profound emotions stirred by great art with the divine. We now know that this link is accidental, not essential. Think, for example, of the stirring use of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Picasso’s Guernica is one of the most moving paintings of the twenty-first century and its subject is nothing more nor less than terrible human suffering. We don’t need a sense of the transcendent to be profoundly moved by the majority of great art. The Jutland faithful, however, cannot dissociate great art and the divine. At several points in the film, characters describe the artistic gifts of others as worthy of heaven. In Papin’s letter to Filippa, he says ‘In paradise, I shall hear your voice again. There you will forever be the great artist God intended you to be. Oh how you will enchant the angels!’ Until this moment, Filippa’s face has been only sadness. At this thought, however, a small, glassy-eyed smile appears. But is this because of the thought of heaven or merely that her talent will one day find its expression again? Whatever the answer, the words stay with Filippa who borrows them for the last lines of the film, telling Babette, ‘In paradise, you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight

‘In paradise, I shall hear your voice again. There you will forever be the great artist God intended you to be. Oh how you will enchant the angels!’




the angels!’ And yet what the film has shown is that we do not need to wait for heaven. The inference we are invited to make, which is logically impeccable, is that if these gifts are good enough for heaven, then they are a means to achieve some heaven here on earth. We can attain the goods of the transcendent here in the immanent world. Culinary art especially shows the full potential of the glories of the sensuous world. You would be extremely fortunate to sit down to Babette’s menu of Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup), Blinis Demidoff (buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream), Cailles en Sarcophage (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce), Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and candied cherries). If you did, you would not doubt that food can provide some of the most memorable and extraordinary experiences a human can have. Axel was both a great artist and a gourmand and knew that it was possible to be both at the same moment. The feast itself was no mere cinematic simulacra. Axel brought in the Michelin-starred chef Jan Cocotte-Pedersen as the film’s gastronomic consultant. (Stephane Audran, who played Babette, complained that his team took away all the food at the end of each shoot and the cast and crew never got to eat any of it.)

Cailles en sarcophage.


‘You have enough talent to distract the rich from their wealth and comfort the poor in their misery.’

Art draws us to what matters in life, away from the distractions of wealth and the burdens of poverty. As Papin tells Filippa, ‘You have enough talent to distract the rich from their wealth and comfort the poor in their misery.’ The joy she brings makes everyone pay attention to the true wonder of life, not its illusory promises of wealth nor the regrettable suffering of poverty. Yet when Papin tells her this she seems more troubled than delighted. Perhaps this is because it goes against every assumption she has made about the path to virtue and salvation. The poor need feeding to survive in this world and piety to be saved in the life to come. The idea that they could be in any redemption here and now by something as sensuous as singing can only be a challenge to the path in life she has chosen. Babette is shown to have the same ability to make people forget their material and social status. At the feast, it does not matter who is rich or poor, weak or powerful. All are equally able to appreciate the meal and when they allow themselves to do so, they have no thought for their own rank or that of others. Indeed, the two people who most appreciate the cooking are the highest and the lowest: the General and his aunt’s coachman, who Babette




invites in from the cold and feeds as though he were sat at the table with the rest. That food can be so powerful is especially remarkable because it is at the same time the most basic stuff of life. Great cookery transforms a quotidian necessity into something special and extraordinary that we eat not because we have to, but because we love to. As the great French food writer Brillat-Savarin put it, ‘Only Animals feed; man eats.’ 1

And the last shall be first.


Culinary art, like all art, does not therefore provide us with liberation from the flesh to the transcendent. It rather transforms the sensuous from something merely animal to something fully human, shattering the divide between the carnal and the spiritual. That is surely why the duet Papin and Filippa sing together is from an opera, an art form that is sensuous but in the hands of a composer such as Mozart also exalted. The song is from Don Giovanni, which combines the most refined of art forms with the most base of subject matters as if to prove that the two are not in opposition. It is therefore a true waste when she gives up her lessons, fearful of the sensuality it stirs. Cooking is usually placed below art not just because it is seen as providing mere physical pleasure but because it offers nothing more than pleasure. Many philosophies and religions deny that happiness is a coherent or desirable ultimate goal in life. Aristotle is often quoted to the contrary, but he saw the highest good as eudaimonia, which is better translated as flourishing rather than happiness and certainly is not a kind of good feeling, or what psychologists call ‘positive affect’. Many of the things we find most valuable, worthwhile or interesting, are often not pleasurable in any obvious sense. Family life and creative work, for example, have their pleasures but also their toils. This invites the question of what we seek beyond happiness or pleasure and whether art can provide this. In the case of Babette, what she pursues first and foremost is her art, for that is how she sees her cooking. ‘The long cry from the heart of the artist,’ as Papin calls it, is not ‘give me pleasure’ or ‘make me happy’ but ‘give me a chance to do my very best.’ For Babette, she flourishes only when her art flourishes. As long as she has that, she has all the riches she needs. As she tells the sisters when they realize that her generosity will leave her in financial poverty, ‘An artist is never poor.’ That is why the meal provided her own kind of redemption. Although everyone in the village thought that afterwards she would return to Paris, she tells them, ‘I have nothing to go back to. They’re all dead.’ Both her husband and son were shot. The Pastor’s centenary was her chance to do once again what she does best, given the impossibility of going back to a time now lost.




‘Through the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist … give me the chance to do my very best.’; ‘An artist is never poor.’

In Dinesen’s short story, her pursuit of her art above all else comes across as almost selfish. Whereas Axel has her say of the feast, ‘It was not just for you,’ in Dinesen’s original she says more bluntly, ‘For your sake? No for my own.’ When she says this, she is described as giving the sisters a look of pity or even scorn, whereas Axel shows her kinder, almost apologetic. Dinesen also has her say ‘I am a great artist!,’ a proud declaration also missing in the film.


Axel makes her practice of her art an act of giving as well as taking, something that brings a great deal of pleasure to others as well as herself. ‘I was able to make them happy when I gave of my very best,’ said Papin, and Babette says exactly the same when recalling her time at the Café Anglais. Axel’s tweak more accurately reflects the truth that a flourishing life would in normal circumstances include plenty of happiness and pleasure. The key is that this is the result, not the goal or definition of living well. We pursue what is of value and that in turn brings pleasure. For example, raising children brings intermittent pleasure because it is valued so much; it is not valued because it brings pleasure. Indeed, the pursuit of a good that is not pleasure itself actually tends to result in better, deeper happiness than the hedonic pursuit of pleasure. The best pleasures are generally not so much sought but found when we live according to the virtues. We are made happiest by activities that we undertake for reasons other than their pure hedonic potential, when we see and understand what is of value in them. If we do that, we find that we are naturally not grasping at pleasure in the ways the Buddhists rightly argue is counterproductive. Giving pleasure its proper place, behind valued activity, makes it easier to neither cling to the moment nor hang on for eternity but to live in and through the here and now, fully accepting its impermanence. Giving pleasure its proper place also requires giving it its proper moment. It is not something that we can expect or indulge in at any time. It takes years of practice to become good enough to create a really satisfying work of art, and often hours, days, weeks or years to then produce it. Anyone in a hurry for the pleasures it produces would not be able to enjoy them. It took years of Babette working in kitchens – often very unpleasant environments – to become good enough to cook her feast. The meal itself took weeks of organization and a whole day to prepare. No detail is spared: she even irons the tablecloth. While she is cooking and serving, the most important thing is concentrating on getting it right, not enjoyment. She herself takes




‘All we can take away from this earthly life is that which we have given away.’

her first sip of wine – her first for fourteen years – once all the cooking has been done and only the cake, fruit, cheese and coffee remains to be served. When she does so, she takes her time and really takes it in. When Erik the serving boy is offered a sip by the coachman, Babette rebukes him with a sharp ‘no, no, no’ but once everyone is served he too is allowed to eat to his evident delight. And when the last drink is served Babette is seen in the kitchen, savouring another sip, with a look of deep satisfaction at a job extraordinarily well done. To put the pursuit of art or some other non-hedonic good above pleasure is not to reduce pleasure to a mere side effect of living well with no value in itself. That would be to make the mistake of thinking of pleasure as a discrete part of life that either should or should not be valued in itself. The key point is that pleasure is indeed a human good but that in its most valuable forms it is tied to the ways in which we best live. To give an example, to live well is to be attentive and appreciative to all that is wonderful in the world (and all that is not and needs changing). If you live in this way you will take pleasure and delight in many things. There are times, however, when all pleasure and happiness goes but some of what makes life valuable remains. Take as an


example Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking film Amour.2 This charts the cognitive decline of an intelligent, vivacious woman, and her husband’s struggle to take care of her. In this desperate situation, love is what matters most and it lives on when it ceases to bring any happiness. This does not show, however, that happiness has no value after all and that only love has. For most of their life together, love brought the couple a lot of happiness and pleasure. If love never brought that, it would not be the wonderful thing that it is. In that sense, happiness and pleasure are intimately tied up with love. But in extremis they can be separated. The fact that happiness and pleasure cannot last forever has often been used as a reason not to value them. But to reject what does not last as lacking value is to deny our human nature, which is to be impermanent and transitory. The fact that even those we love might cease to bring us happiness is all the more reason to cherish the happiness we have with them while we can, while accepting that it cannot last forever. This is captured in the Japanese concept of mono no aware, often translated as the pathos of things. It captures the bitter-sweet sense of beauty and happiness that does not last, most obviously reflected in the brief spring blossoming of the cherry tree. At that time of year the Japanese go out to admire the blossom with what is rightly called religious devotion. There is a deep reverence for life and nature that is part of what I have been calling immanent religiosity. This is also reflected in the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, in which transience and imperfection are celebrated rather than mourned. We get a sense of this right at the end of Babette’s Feast when Filippa sings: The sand in our hourglass will soon run out The day is conquered by the night The glories of the world are ending So brief their day So swift their flight




‘The time for us to rest approaches.’

And an old couple kiss, tenderly, lingering, lips on lips. The song is at once mournful but delicately beautiful, Filippa’s voice still angelic. As they listen, the flock smiles even amidst its sadness. Everyone has been brought to the moment in exactly the right way: appreciative, mindful, grateful, not grasping or clinging. As if to show that this is not a denial of the villagers’ religiosity but a better undertaking of it, they link hands and dance around the well singing: The clock strikes and time goes by Eternity is nigh. Let us use the time that remains to try To serve the Lord with heart and mind So that our true home we shall find.

And then a final ‘Hallelujah!’ To serve the highest good is to make the most of time and to find our true home, perhaps the only one we have, here on earth.


‘The sand in our hourglass will soon run out / The day is conquered by the night / The glories of the world are ending / So brief their day / So swift their flight.’; True fellowship at least.




5 Grace Mercy and truth are met together.

Life in the Jutland of Babette’s Feast often looks as ‘hard and cruel’ as the young Löwenhielm came to believe all life was. Axel transposed the location from the Norwegian port town of Berlevåg, shooting near Lønstrup in Denmark, partly for practical production purposes and partly because he thought Berlevåg was simply too picturesque for the story. The faithful are seen hurrying to church wrapped in shawls as the cold bites. Hardly an outdoor scene is free of a soundtrack of incessant wind. It is little wonder that so many of its inhabitants look for grace, mercy and salvation in religion, for the secular world looks short of all three. But this world is not all harshness. The opening shot sets the scene well. We see a grey-blue sea, a cloudy sky with some blue, fields of green and brown, panning out to show simple houses with smoke rising from chimneys. This is neither a romantic idyll nor the end of the world. It is, perhaps, what we make of it. Think of the fish we see hanging out to dry. This is simple food for people who need to preserve whatever the season brings for the hard long days of winter. When we first see it in the first scene it is one among many indicators that this is a poor village. But we also know dried fish has great culinary potential and now is considered as something of a delicacy, if cooked well. So when Martine later comes to collect some immediately after Babette’s arrival with a smile on her face we are seeing a suggestion of better times ahead, with the same ingredients. When Löwenhielm returns for the feast many years later he changes his mind about the irredeemable harshness of this world, even though the world hasn’t changed. ‘I have been with you [Martine]


every day of my life,’ he says. ‘Tell me you know that.’ She replies, ‘Yes, I know it.’ He continues, You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

Neither a romantic idyll nor the end of the world.; ‘I have been with you every day of my life. Tell me you know that.’




‘This evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.’

Something about the meal has been redemptive. But what? And how can the purely secular world provide redemption? Isn’t that the prerogative of the divine? The three terms grace, mercy and salvation all have specific religious meanings, tied to beliefs in a theistic God. However, it is possible to drag each back down to earth and show how something of the promise of religion can, in the world of mortals, be more than just a promise. Mercy is the most human of the three, being concerned with benevolence, forgiveness, and kindness of all forms. God’s mercy is the highest and the most powerful. Humans can offer goodness, but only God can offer goodness itself, pure and unlimited. Humans can forgive but only God can forgive all. Grace, in contrast, is for God alone to grant. Grace is God’s free and voluntary offer of salvation to undeserving sinners. Salvation itself has been conceptualized in many ways, but in its most traditional form it is, in the words of the Nicene Creed, ‘the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’. Without a God, without heaven, mercy, grace and salvation would seem impossible. At best we could have thin surrogates


for the real thing: temporary relief from our anguish, individual acts of kindness and forgiveness. They might help rub some of the rough edges off life but they would not save us from its ultimate harshness. Babette’s Feast suggests otherwise. It shows how the religious gifts of mercy, grace and salvation can be attained in this world, not the next. Mercy in this life is found whenever people offer each other forgiveness or kindness. We can also experience grace when through chance or the acts of others we are granted what we do not deserve through our own efforts, things that we often believed would always be denied us. Salvation is not provided via an escape to another world but by this flawed one being redeemed, by coming to see how it alone can be enough after all. In Babette’s Feast, every character apart from the eponymous chef makes choices that were in effect rejections of worldly grace and mercy, so denying themselves salvation. Grace and mercy, however, prove to be too powerful and the chance to accept them more graciously in later life comes to them all, who accept the opportunity, however reluctantly or imperfectly. Papin’s arrival in Filippa’s small village and his willingness to teach her was a gratuitous offer of good fortune from a cold, purposeless universe. But she was unable to receive it, closed in as she was by her misguided sense of devotion. Löwenhielm and Martine’s meeting was also pure grace. To meet such a perfect match in a world in which finding a true soulmate is so difficult is a kind of miracle. But again, grace was wilfully rejected in the name of a higher value than human love. The sisters’ lives in one way exemplified mercy, with their devotion to the material needs of the poor and what they believed to be the spiritual needs of all. But this was an imperfect mercy because it was an abstract one: not rooted in simple human compassion and kindness but a rigid religious conception of what God requires of us. This is why for all the official love the congregation shared, it ended




up as a sterile community where real bonds of humanity have not been forged. But the capricious universe granted grace once more, and this time no one could refuse. The portents of Babette’s nighttime arrival in the middle of a thunder storm did not look good. But she came with a letter of recommendation from Papin, who begged the sisters to take her in. Once accepted, she diligently set about doing her work the best she could, according to her standards, not those of the sisters. She took more care to buy the best food possible while actually reducing the household food budget. She offered the poor not just sustenance but brief moments of pleasure in their mostly grim lives. She offered grace in the form of a free and undeserved offer of salvation from a life of grey drudgery. The person who accepts grace most graciously is Löwenhielm. On tasting the cailles en sarcophage he tells the diners that this was a dish created by the great female chef of the Café Anglais, the only woman in Paris worth fighting a duel for. When he finishes, he turns with astonishment to his neighbour and says, ‘But this really is a cailles en sarcophage!’ He must then know, or at least strongly suspect, that the great chef herself is somehow, miraculously cooking

Babette’s arrival.


behind the scenes. Babette certainly seems to know who he is, instructing Erik to refill his glass whenever it is empty and to leave the bottle of Clos de Vougeot on the table beside him. This suggests a mutual familiarity but, remarkably, Löwenhielm doesn’t seem to want to get to the bottom of the mystery and verify his deduction. He simply accepts that this miracle has happened. The sisters, like the rest of the flock, become more gracious as the meal progresses. Until that evening, however, they had not been prepared to receive the grace Babette’s arrival had offered them. They endured more than enjoyed their improved diet, evidently worried that such sensuality might be corrupting their immortal souls. To expect them to see easily that salvation can come from the base and quotidian rather than from the eternal and elevated would be too much. Such ideas were alien in Western Christendom. In East Asia, however, Babette would have been knocking on an open door. The kind of salvation she offers is remarkably close to that described by Kakuzo Okakura in his 1906 The Book of Tea.1 Okakura’s book is a celebration and explication of what he calls the ‘cult of teaism’ surrounding the Japanese tea ceremony. Central to this cult is a worship, not of the transcendent but of the immanent. ‘Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’ These few sentences resonate with so much of what Löwenhielm says that it seems remarkable to believe it is pure coincidence. They marry his earlier disillusionment with the ‘impossible’ ‘sordid’ world with his later re-enchantment with its beauty and possibilities. Tea would seem to be far too humble to provide any kind of salvation, but it is precisely its humility that makes it so potent. ‘When we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is,’ writes Okakura, ‘how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to




the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.’ To embrace Teaism we have to give up the ‘quenchless thirst for infinity’ and accept instead the imperfection of this transient world. This sense of imperfection is essential if we are to understand the ways in which the villagers all receive grace, mercy and salvation imperfectly. Of course, no one gives up the Christian faith that has created their excessive puritanism. We don’t know what happens the morning after the feast. Perhaps their sense of sin has become so deep-rooted that they awake filled with guilt and disgust for the sordid events of the night before. If this seems unlikely it is equally improbable that their worlds and outlooks change completely. Nonetheless, imperfectly, the experience has transformed them. First of all, whatever they go on to think or do, they had that one magical night and nothing can take it away. Just as each tea ceremony provides a short period of purity and light in an impossible world, so that feast provided a few precious hours of pure, undiluted delight in what a creative human being can do with the most basic stuff of life: food. As Dinesen wrote in her story, through the meal the flock were exalted, not by their own merit but by that of the cook.

‘Man shall not merely refrain from, but also reject any thought of, food and drink. Only then can he eat and drink in the proper spirit.’ The refutation.


They ‘had seen the universe as it really is. They had been given one hour of the millennium.’ Even the woman who had warned of the sins of the tongue is seen finally drinking the wine with delight and licking sticky fruit juices from her fingers. This grace facilitated mercy. Hearts softened and opened up, old animosities were set aside. Per Nørgård’s musical soundtrack subtly accentuates this. His understated score, performed by a string quartet and/or a piano, is used sparingly throughout. When they begin to open up at the feast, fondly remembering the Pastor, we hear the first really lyrical, romantic movement, the Pastorale Moderato. A little sweetness and light is introduced, but not too much, with hints of sadness and melancholy clearly there. It is another way in which the film’s sensibility of mono no aware, the bitter-sweet pathos of things, shines through. Anna and Solveig make up with an exchange of ‘God bless you.’ The man who once fiercely complained to the other that he had cheated him reminds him of this misdemeanour with a roguish smile, as though remembering a childish jape. His ‘brother’ admits to this and worse but is implicitly forgiven not only by the nonchalant reaction of the other but a new confession of his own: ‘I played a trick on you which you never discovered.’ Far from reigniting the feud, the reply is a simple ‘Then I deserved it, dearest brother.’ Their change of attitude is not a rejection of their founder’s creed but a fuller, more human realization of it. He had said ‘Mercy and truth are met together, my dear brothers and sisters. Righteousness and delight shall kiss one another.’ Löwenhielm repeats these lines, adding that ‘Grace is infinite.’ Gratitude is another religious virtue that the villagers came to fully understand only once it was pulled back down to earth. Most religions teach, correctly, that it is important to cultivate gratitude and that an effective way to do this is through rituals such as grace, which the congregation meticulously rehearse. They also teach that gratitude rests on seeing good things as blessings, not entitlements. But religion is an imperfect teacher of appropriate gratitude, not least because it posits a mistaken divine object of gratitude. In




fact, no supernatural object is needed to express gratitude. Gratitude is a combination of thanks to our fellow human beings to whom we are indebted and a sense of good fortune that the indifferent universe made good things possible. Rituals of gratitude such as grace can also become hollow and robotic. No one said grace more than the Jutland puritans but their niggardly nature suggested this had not succeeded in making them feel fortunate and grateful to each other. Their kind of humble gratitude to the creator can also tend to an excessive feeling of unworthiness. It’s not just that our good fortune is unearned, it is that we positively deserve punishment. But does the worldly grace and mercy of the meal bring anything deserving of the name salvation? If we accept that nothing is forever, then it follows that there can be no ultimate salvation, if that means a happily ever after. The only kind of salvation that remains, therefore, is the kind that makes life worth living after all, despite all its hardships and sorrows. We are saved not from our mortality and the fate that necessitates but from our mortality preventing us from living full, worthwhile lives. Religious salvation is a kind of miracle and as Audran said of the film ‘At the end there is a miracle.’ This miracle is not the suspension of the laws of nature, an intrusion of the supernatural. The miracle is that people who have forgotten what it means to truly be alive as mortal human beings in the immanent world remember once again before it is too late. They received this salvation as a pure act of grace, summed up in critic Geoff Andrew’s description of the film as ‘a serenely joyous hymn to human creativity, all sorts of love and the small glories of life on earth’.


Conclusion: The Religion of the Immanent Babette’s Feast shows that the goods sought by the religious in the life to come are fully available to us here in the life we have. In doing so, it makes a philosophical case for immanent religiosity better than any prose argument could. So often in the film, images speak louder than dialogue. Perhaps most impressively, so much is conveyed by the characters’ eyes. In Martine and Filippa’s we see genuine faith and kindness, albeit with moments of flickering doubt. There is overall, however, a clear sincerity and goodness that challenges any simple notion that their religion is simply foolish and without merit. The sisters, however, are exceptional. For instance, we see them giving comforting counsel to an elderly couple. ‘You who seek Christ, turn your eyes on the vault of heaven. There you will see the sign of his infinite kingdom,’ they say. The old woman nods and looks into the distance but she can’t really see it. At best she imagines a glimpse of a joy elsewhere. Likewise, when the old man says ‘hallelujah’ his face is sad. Throughout the film there is a kind of hollowness in the gaze of the faithful when they are professing their faith. Singing around the table at one of their meetings at the start of the film, they seem to be going through the motions, their stares vacant. The smiles that they sometimes wear seem more obligatory than genuine, as though they believe their faith ought to make them happy but they can’t really see why it should. In contrast, when we see the eyes of those tasting Babette’s delights, there is no qualification or doubt. Real joy is here, as proclaimed in the most genuine and heartfelt ‘hallelujahs’ of the film: one shouted at the feast’s end. For atheists and agnostics, a religiosity that is fully immanent has the advantage over one that also holds on to the transcendent in being undeniably present and real. One of the sect, for instance,




‘You who seek Christ, turn your eyes on the vault of heaven.’

tells a story of how the fjord froze over, allowing the Pastor to get to a far flung corner of his flock, as though this were a miracle. To many a modern, educated person their faith in God’s supernatural intervention is naive and foolish. But does this mean we are denied the marvel of a world where miracles happen? The very next shot suggests otherwise. The general’s coachman is seen trying the blinis, his eyes rolling to heaven, his head shaking in disbelief. This is a true miracle, one which doesn’t defy the laws of physics but does defy our comprehension of what humans can make possible with bits of plant and animal. ‘This is good,’ he says, echoing God’s words at creation in Genesis. That deceptively simple sentence points to how we do indeed see the good all around us and do not need God to understand what it is. This constant bringing us back to the immanent is not an anti-religious message. There are forms of religion that deny this life for the sake of the one to come. Yet there are others that take the here and now much more seriously, such as those Christians who emphasize Jesus’s claim that ‘I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.’ Such religionists may well believe a better afterlife is to come, but they can also see that it is a sin to reject


Experiencing a miracle.

the life we have been given here too. Hence Pope Francis’s criticism of the ‘exaggerated’ puritanism as ‘a denial of the things of this world’. No one is shown to have lost religious faith as a result of the meal. Rather, they have been shown what it means to bring a truly religious attitude to the goods of the here and now. The film repeatedly draws out the ironies in the ways in which the faithful live in ways that actually undermine the best interpretation of their own creeds. This is perhaps most evident in the hymns that we hear sung, one of which we hear three times. Jerusalem, my heart’s true home Your name is forever dear to me Your kindness is second to none You keep us clothed and fed Never would you give a stone To the child who begs for bread.

This is a hymn about kindness, centred on Jerusalem, a place on earth. It speaks not of spiritual needs but essential human ones for clothes and food. Although they would indeed never give a stone to




a child who begs for bread, they lack the generosity of spirit to see that the greatest gift is to offer food that can be enjoyed, not merely ingested as fuel. Kindness that is ‘second to none’ does not stop at the most basic amelioration of physical need. The words of another hymn sung in the church are even more ironic. O Lord, allow thy kingdom To descend upon us here So that the spirit of mercy May wipe out all trace of sin Then we shall know in our hearts That God lives here with us And that thou art dwelling With those that trust in thee.

The central idea here is of God’s kingdom here on earth. But a truly incarnate God is not one who resents his embodiment. If God truly dwelt amongst us he would not be merely passing the time before returning to the heavens. The incarnation of God in Jesus is a divine message that this world is worthy of him. The secular is sacred. This message is a challenge to many religious people but not to religion itself. It is certainly, however, an unorthodox one. Perhaps that is why although Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina chose Babette’s Feast as one of his favourite films in 2010, when asked to pick just one after he became Pope in 2013 his choice was Fellini’s La Strada. Mainstream religion has always been engaged in an internal debate as to how much it focuses on the world to come or the world as it is. Judaism, for instance, says little about the afterlife whereas Christianity has tended to be more eschatologically focused. Thinking about immanent religiosity is one way for religions to reconsider whether they have the balance right. In the history of Christianity, there have been plenty of theologians who have tried to bring Christianity down to earth,


reminding us that its founding story is after all God fully becoming man. One example of this is the Christian theology of N.F.S. Grundtvig, whose thought was a deep influence on Denmark in general and Isak Dinesen in particular. Niels Lyhne Jensen says of Grundtvig that ‘Life is to him the supreme value in every sphere . … Just as death to Grundtvig does not mean merely physical death but a feeling of existence as barren and negative, in the same way “to live” is not just being but to be in contact with strength, warmth, and love.’1 As Grundtvig himself wrote in his poem ‘The Land of the Living,’ ‘My land, says life, is on earth and above, my Kingdom of love.’2 Grundtvig does not embrace the immanent at the expense of the transcendent but he is critical of any religion that embraces the transcendent at the expense of the immanent. ‘The question of salvation cannot possibly be an integral part of eternal life without having an appreciable influence on the temporal life of man,’ he wrote. ‘For if Christ’s gospel was no more than a so-called “word of eternal life” that made the temporal human life even deader than it was before, then no truth-loving person either could or need believe in such a gospel.’3 He is critical of the Lutherans who wrote that ‘the temporal life of man, as in fact ungodly and irredeemable, must be cancelled out in the name of salvation, and that we must think only about a “blessed death”.’4 Hence he writes in his poem ‘Open letter to My Children’ that ‘A plain and active joyful life on earth’ is what ‘I seek for all mankind.’5 An essential part of this valuing of the immanent is seeing human beings as creatures of flesh and blood rather than as souls trapped in bodies. Like the early church fathers, Grundtvig believed in ‘the resurrection of the flesh’ rather than some kind of Platonic afterlife for the immaterial soul.6 This creates the possibility of a more humane religion in which a person is ‘A human being first, a Christian later. That is the order of nature.’7 Much of the value of religion comes from how it orientates us towards the immanent. It fosters an acute awareness of our own




smallness in the grand scheme of things, a smallness that does not deprive human life of meaning but which demands of it a humility before the universe. This in turn leads to a reverence for life and the mysteries of our existence. One such wonder is that we are able to connect with others and things greater than ourselves, not by transcending the material world and our own experience but by seeing ourselves as a part of a greater whole, threads in a tapestry, not isolated atoms in a void. This also leads to a certain kind of submission, an acceptance that we are not the measure of all things, that we must try to judge ourselves and truth by some more objective standard. Babette’s Feast is the most eloquent and insightful examination and explication of this kind of immanent religiosity I have ever come across. It is a religiosity based on humility, reverence, mystery and submission in the face of the natural world, more than the supernatural one. It is a curious kind of religiosity, however, in that it speaks as much to atheists and agnostics as it does to traditional believers, perhaps even more so. It is a challenge to atheists who think that, having dispensed with belief in God, there is nothing left in religion worthy of their attention. This invites the question: does the film point to the possibility of a genuine form of immanent atheist religiosity? I think it does. This immanent atheist religiosity is characterized by a mindful attentiveness to the world and others. This attentiveness fosters an appreciation of the physical, animal nature of humans but not in a reductive sense that denies their emotional, intellectual and social aspects. It also fosters a deep awareness of the passing of time which encourages a savouring of the moment without any grasping for it. It also encourages conviviality, love and kindness. We see that our own pleasures are no more valuable than anyone else’s but also that in a transient, imperfect world, the comforts that it offers are truly precious. In making its case of a religion of the immanent, Babette’s Feast challenges the widespread view that the most important thing religion offers us, and what we need, is the possibility of transcendence.


Transcendence can be defined in various ways but is minimally a connection with something greater than ourselves. The idea that humans have a need for transcendence is so seductive that many atheists suffer from what I call ‘me-tooism’. Atheists see that religion satisfies an apparent need for transcendence and so they say ‘me too’, claiming that their worldview offers the same, just as well. When transcendence is defined simply as a connection with something greater than ourselves, it is not difficult to find atheistic routes to it, most obviously through art or through collective endeavour for the greater good. However, this thin definition seems to me too permissive, allowing virtually everything that is not purely solipsistic into the realm of the transcendent. A more reasonable (and traditional) definition is that the transcendent is something over and above the universe described by natural science and/or that which lies beyond human experience. The immanent is what is contained within the natural world and human experience. Understood in that way, there is simply no atheist route to transcendence. The ‘me too’ claim therefore ends up conceding too much to traditional religion, implicitly accepting that it has access to a transcendent realm that the atheist must either access some other way or be left bereft. This leads to two serious problems. First, it means the claim of ‘me too’ does not always convince. No matter how much we admire the immanent dimension of religion in Babette’s Feast, we can see that the believers also have the additional comfort of a life to come that the atheist does not. Atheists cannot be reassured that the angels will hear them sing or eat their food once they have gone. More importantly ‘me too’ makes people look more towards the grass on the other side than at the lush clover in their own fields. It seems to me that a robust and confident atheism should assert its unqualified commitment to immanence rather than argue that it has an alternative route to transcendence. The eagerness to adopt ‘me too’ transcendence stems in part from a mistaken belief that a purely naturalistic worldview must




somehow be emaciated or shallow. Atheists themselves sometimes fuel this perception. A few years ago, a group of atheists put adverts on London buses that said ‘There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ This slogan has a certain flippancy, trivializing life so that it is nothing more than about getting on and enjoying it. It assumes that once you give up religion you also give up existential seriousness. To counter this we need not ‘me too’ transcendence but an immanence that is properly understood in all its complexity and marvel. It is not a world broken down under the microscope into mere atoms but a world in which the rich relationships between seemingly brute pieces of matter create something incredible. To give a few analogies, a piece of music is not just a collection of notes. The whole is made up of nothing but its parts but it becomes more than these parts in isolation could ever be. Similarly, human beings are made physically of nothing more than atoms but each arrangement of atoms is infinitely more complex than any of those atomic parts. Likewise, human societies are made up of no more than individual humans but complexities are introduced by such societies that just don’t exist in individuals alone. If this is right, when atheists claim that their worldview allows for all sorts of connections with things greater than ourselves, they are correct but they are not saying that it allows for transcendence. Rather they are saying that the immanent world is richer and more complex than the caricature of a cold universe made up only of atoms suggests. The natural world and human experience contain within them all the wonders that we need to give us elevated experiences of awe, compassion, belonging, beauty. Babette’s Feast shows that such an immanent atheist religiosity is possible. But the kind of religion it ultimately defends goes beyond what most atheists would countenance. Near the end of the film, Löwenhielm stands up to make a speech that is in some ways a kind of summing up the correct way of understanding religion they have all come to. He starts with the words of the Pastor: ‘Mercy and truth


are met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.’ What follows is a kind of theological commentary on their meaning. Man, in his weakness and short-sightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he must take. We know that fear. But no. Our choices are of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened. And we come to realise at last that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And see! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we renounced has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we threw away. For mercy and truth are met together. And righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

This is an expression of faith in divine providence that no atheist could embrace. It echoes many things the Pastor and his flock say, such as Martine’s ‘God’s will be done’ before the dreaded dinner. What atheist religiosity lacks that other forms of religiosity have is faith that ultimately everything is for the best. Atheism is, in contrast, without hope, as Sartre put it, meaning not beyond any belief that the future might be better and that things might work out, but without

‘Mercy and truth are met together, my dear brothers and sisters. Righteousness and delight shall kiss one another.’




any reassurance that it will, and with the sobering knowledge that it often won’t. If this is the fault line between religion and a fully naturalistic worldview, Babette’s Feast ultimately comes down on the side of religion. However, as a philosophical ‘text’, its conclusions invite critique and discussion, and while the case it makes for immanent religiosity is compelling, its suggestion of some kind of divine providence is not. In a fiction, coincidences can be contrived, lottery wins fixed and everyone can be redeemed. In the real world, we know that this is sadly far from always the case. We cannot afford to await mercy with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Our greatest chances of the only form of salvation open to us is to be ready to receive whatever grace presents itself to us with gratitude and to show mercy to our fellow human beings with love. But if the faith of the believers in the film seems too much to ask, it does suggest that even immanent atheist religiosity requires a kind of faith. It does not require faith to be an atheist. Faith is required to believe what there is insufficient evidence to believe. No faith is required to withhold belief in the absence of evidence, even if that absence is not conclusive. But it does take a kind of faith to

The final shot.


believe that the imperfect, godless world can be enough, if we give it the reverence it deserves. This is truly faith since from a purely rational perspective, the world is cold, empty, meaningless, as it seemed to the young Lorens who discovered that ‘life is hard and cruel’. Like any work of philosophy, Babette’s Feast leaves us with questions, debates to continue. Its enduring achievement as philosophy is that by emphasizing the immanent dimension of religion it provides an opportunity for faith and atheism – mercy and truth, perhaps – to meet. The last second of the film shows the last dinner candle finally go out. Whether or not we have religious faith in a posthumous life to come, we can all now see that something beautiful has come to an end – and how beautiful it was.




Notes Introduction 1 Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti, Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), pp. 25–26. 2 Stephen Mulhall, On Film (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 2. 3 Fujitani Mitsue, ‘Fujitani Mitsue 富士 谷御杖 (1768–1823)’, in James W. Hesig, Thomas P. Kasulis and John Maraldo (eds), Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011), p. 501. 4 René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. John Cottingham, second edition (1641; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), §27, p. 21. 5 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book One (1739; London: Fontana, 1962), bk 1, pt 4, §6, pp. 301–302.

Chapter 1 1 Alastair Hannay, Kierkegaard (London: Routledge, 1982), p. 56.

2 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to ­Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 347. 3 Isak Dinesen [Karen Blixen], Babette’s Feast and Other Stories (London: Penguin, 2013), pp. 57–58. 4 William Kitchiner, The Cook’s Oracle; and Housekeeper’s Manual (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1830). 5 Epistle 23. 6 Doˉ gen, How To Cook Your Life (Boston: Shambhala, 2013), p. 28. 7 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1859; Fontana, 1962), ch. 2, pp. 258–260. 8 Doˉ gen, How To Cook Your Life, p. 45.

Chapter 4 1 Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Pleasures of the Table (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 1. 2 Amour [Film]. Dir. Michael Haneke (France/Germany/Austria: Les Films du Losange, X-Filme Creative Pool, Wega Film, France 3 Cinéma, and Canal+, 2012).

Chapter 5 Chapter 2 1 Mt. 7.11, and very similarly, Lk. 11.13. 2 Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, eds. Heath and Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 373.

Chapter 3 1 Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way, trans. W. Lowrie (1845; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940).

1 Okakura Kakuzo,  The Book of Tea (1906; London: Penguin, 2016), pp. 3–4.

Conclusion 1 N.F.S. Grundtvig, A Grundtvig Anthology, ed. Niels Lyhne Jensen (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co.; Viby: Centrum, 1984), p. 150. 2 Grundtvig, A Grundtvig Anthology, p. 190. 3 Grundtvig, A Grundtvig Anthology, p. 150.


4 Grundtvig, A Grundtvig Anthology, p. 150. 5 Grundtvig, A Grundtvig Anthology, p. 192. 6 Grundtvig, A Grundtvig Anthology, p. 131. 7 Grundtvig, A Grundtvig Anthology, p. 23.




Credits Karen Blixen’s Babettes gæstebud/Babette’s Feast Denmark/1987 A film by Gabriel Axel Producers Just Betzer Bo Christensen Screenplay by Gabriel Axel based upon Karen Blixen’s [Isak Dinesen] novella Babettes gæstebud Director of Photography Henning Kristiansen Production Designer Sven Wichmann Film Editor Finn Henriksen Music Composer Per Nørgård © 1987. A-S Panorama Film International Production Companies produced by A-S Panorama Film International (Copenhagen) in collaboration with Nordisk Film and Det Danske Filminstitut (The Danish Film Institute) by special arrangement with the Rungstedlundfonden (Denmark)

Just Betzer presents a film by Gabriel Axel Production Manager Lene Nielsen Unit Manager Karen Bentzon Production Assistants Thomas Lydholm Sonja Vesterholt Production Secretary Marianne Vollmer Assistant Director Tom Hedegaard Script Supervisor Annemarie Aaes Extras Coordinator Sanni Sylvester Petersen Camera Operator Birger Bohm Camera Assistants Rasmus Arrildt 2nd Unit Photography Peter Klitgaard 2nd Unit Camera Operator Jesper Find Stills Photography Peter Gabriel Key Grip Gunner Nielsen Gaffer Michael Sørensen Electricians Michael Wils Jensen Jacob Marlow Assistant Editors Liselotte Havmøller Mette Schramm Properties Ena Eisel

Torben Bækmark Pedersen Props Assistants Gary Møller Arvid Berg Jørgensen Rikke Raben Construction Manager Leif Stoltze Carpenters Kristian Bro John Hansen Erik Klein Hansen Henning Johansen Michael Larsen Hans Mark Bent Nielsen Gunnar Rosen Painters Pia Hansen Peter Obeling Johansen Palle Nielsen Costumes Annelise Hauberg Costume Assistants Pia Myrdal Merete Engbæk Nielsen Else Prangsgaard Stéphane Audran’s Wardrobe designed by Karl Lagerfeld (Paris) Stéphane Audran’s and Jean-Philippe Lafont’s Costumes made at the workshop of La Société Française de Production (Paris) Make-up Artists Lydia Pujols Bente Møller Elisabeth Bukkehave


Make-up Assistants Birthe Lyngsøe Sørensen Sanne Dandanell Grethe Holleufer Åse Tarp Laboratory Johan Ankerstjerne A/S Colourist Verner Frandsen Opticals Poul Kristensen Subtitles International Film Teknik Piano/Organ Finn Gravnbøl [Graunbøl] Musicians for Court Ball Københavns Kammertrio piano: maestro Julian Turber Musicians Lars Holm Johansen Anne Øland Gert Mortensen Henrik Olesen Mogens Durholm Music Recordist Hans Erik Ahrn Film Teknik (Stockholm) Music Recording Sweet Silence Studios ApS Sound Michael Dela Sound Assistants John Nielsen Bjarne Risbjerg Carl Aage Hansen [as ‘Nalle’] Foley Artist Gerard Jacky Dufors Det Danske Filminstitut (The Danish Film Institute) Consultant Claes Kastholm Hansen

Gastronomic Consultant Jan Pedersen (Restaurant La Cocotte) Limoges Crockery by Haviland Dance Teacher Niels Bjørn Larsen Unit Publicist Christan Have Publicity Photographs Roald Pay Thanks to Garderhusar Regimentets Hesteeskorte (Næstved) Vendsyssel Egnsteater the residents of Vigsø and the surrounding areas Cast Stéphane Audran Babette Hersant Bodil Kjer old Filippa Birgitte Federspiel old Martine Jarl Kulle General Lorens Löwenhielm/his father Jean-Philippe Lafont Achille Papin Bibi Andersson lady-in-waiting, court of Sweden Ghita Nørby narrator Asta Esper Andersen Anna Thomas Antoni Swedish lieutenant Gert Bastian poor man

Viggo Bentzon fisherman in rowing boat Vibeke Hastrup young Martine Therese Højgaard Christensen Martha, the maid Pouel Kern priest Cay Kristiansen Poul Lars Lohmann fisherman Tine Miehe-Renard Löwenhielm’s wife Lisbeth Movin widow Finn Nielsen Larsen, the grocer Holger Perfort Karlsen Else Petersen Solveig Erik Petersén young Erik Ebbe Rode Christopher Bendt Rothe Old Nielsen Preben Lerdorff Rye captain Hanne Stensgaard young Filippa Axel Strøbye Löwenhielm’s driver Ebba With Löwenhielm’s aunt Gudmar Wivesson young Lorens Löwenhielm Tina Kiberg singing voice of Filippa




Production Details filmed in the summer of 1986 on location in Vigsø, Lønstrup, Herlufmagle and Næstved (Denmark) and at the studios of Nordisk Film Production A/S (Valby, Copenhagen, Denmark) 35 mm // 1.66:1 // in colour: Eastmancolor // sound: stereo (Dolby). budget: 13 million Danish krone Release Details Danish theatrical distributor: PathéNordisk (released on Friday, 28 August 1987). Certificate: A (for all). Running time: 103 minutes. UK theatrical distributor: Artificial Eye Film Co. Ltd (released on Friday, 4 March 1988 at the Lumière Cinema in London). Certificate: U. Running time: 103 minutes 26 seconds = 9,309 feet +11 frames // in Danish with English subtitles. US theatrical distributor: Orion Classics (released on Friday, 4 March 1988 at the Cinema Studio in Manhattan, New York). Rated: G. Running time: 102 minutes.

UK theatrical re-release distributor: BFI Films (re-released on Wednesday, 14 November 2012). Certificate: U. Running time: 103 minutes 16 seconds = 9,294 feet +0 frames. Credits compiled by Julian Grainger


Bibliography Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Pleasures of the Table (London: Penguin, 2011). Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. John Cottingham, second edition (1641; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). Dinesen, Isak [Karen Blixen]. Babette’s Feast and Other Stories (London: Penguin, 2013). Doˉ gen. How To Cook Your Life (Boston: Shambhala, 2013). Fujitani, Mitsue. ‘Fujitani Mitsue 富士 谷御杖 (1768–1823)’, in James W. Hesig, Thomas P. Kasulis and John Maraldo (eds), Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011), pp. 493–508. Grundtvig, N.F.S. A Grundtvig Anthology, ed. Niels Lyhne Jensen (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co.; Viby: Centrum, 1984). Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard (London: Routledge, 1982). Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Book One (1739; London: Fontana, 1962). Kakuzō, Okakura. The Book of Tea (1906; London: Penguin, 2016). Kant, Immanuel. Lectures on Ethics, eds. Heath and Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Kierkegaard, Søren. Stages on Life’s Way, trans. W. Lowrie (1845; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940). Kitchiner, William. The Cook’s Oracle; and Housekeeper’s Manual (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1830). Available online: files/28681/28681-h/28681-h.htm (accessed 15 September 2019).

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism (1859; London: Fontana, 1962). Mulhall, Stephen. On Film (London: Routledge, 2002). Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004). Rubin, Sergio and Ambrogetti, Francesca. Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013).