The Thinking 

Happy Thanksgiving

November 22, 2012


A Pennsylvania German reward of merit, 1810-1830

IN THE Danish author Isak Dinesan’s short story, “Babette’s Feast,” the story upon which the well-known and remarkably faithful 1987 movie of the same name is based, General Loewenhielm rises at the end of the spectacular feast that Babette, the former French chef, has prepared in the rustic, ascetic home of the two pious Lutheran sisters who took Babette in as a servant after she fled revolution and the events of Bloody Week in France. Loewenhielm is deeply moved and wants to deliver a toast. The meal, so improbable and sublime, has profoundly affected him.

It has affected the other guests too. The elderly religious friends of Martine and Philippa are unaccustomed to sensual pleasures of this kind. They normally dine on simple fare such as split cod and bread-and-ale soup. They had been alarmed as Babette prepared for the feast, which was to be in honor of the ladies’ deceased father, the leader and prophet of their sect. They had wondered if Babette intended to use the beasts and various herbs in the kitchen to bewitch them. Instead, under the influence of Blinis Demidoff, Cailles en Sarcophage and Veuve Clicquot, they experience a joy and delight they had rarely, if ever, known. They are rejuvenated and their various enmities magically evaporate. Instead of being bewitched, they are filled with a child-like innocence and purity. They laugh under the effects of this mysterious convergence of spiritual and bodily forces.

But for the worldly Loewenhielm, the decorated military figure who counts the queen herself among his friends, the feast has a clear philosophical meaning. He had been suffering in recent days with thoughts of the emptiness and vanity of his life, of the successful career he had built beyond Berlevaag, the Norwegian coastal village where the meal takes place.

Under the influence of Babette’s meal, his disquiet and self-recriminations dissolve. He has a revelation: No matter what course he had taken in life, God’s grace would have been awaiting him.

Here is his toast before the gathered guests as told in the story:

“Man, my friends,” said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble …” Never till now had the General stated that he trembled; he was genuinely surprised and even shocked at hearing his own voice proclaim the fact. “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

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