Brian Gingrich

Babette's Feast,' With Dinner, At Atheneum - Baltimore Sun
Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud, 1987), dir. Gabriel Axel. Reproduced here for educational purposes only.

There is a moment in “Babette’s Feast,” one of the best-known stories by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), when a character named General Lorens Loewenhielm stands up, slightly drunk at the end of a lavish dinner, and gives a speech to the other guests, all elderly members of a pious religious sect. The reader may not have noticed, but hardly one instance of actual dialogue has taken place in the story’s first thirty pages. And here too the speech is one-sided. The General delivers a monologue:

“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together,” said the General. “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

He spoke in a clear voice which had been trained in drill grounds and had echoed sweetly in royal halls, and yet he was speaking in a manner so new to himself and so strangely moving that after his first sentence he had to make a pause. For he was in the habit of forming his speeches with care, conscious of his purpose, but here, in the midst of the Dean’s simple congregation, it was as if the whole figure of General Loewenhielm, his breast covered with decorations, were but a mouthpiece for a message which meant to be brought forth.

“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. [. . .] (Anecdotes 52)

The speech goes on a bit longer, but it does not become more coherent. It is brilliant, in fact, in its hollowness; cliché and cryptic. One’s eyes glaze over, yet it seems to contain something important. The response of the other guests at the dinner suggests that the author is aware of the effect and intends it: “The Brothers and Sisters had not altogether understood the General’s speech”—and yet, “his collected and inspired face and the sound of well-known and cherished words had seized and move all of their hearts” (53).

It is difficult to characterize this effect among other speech acts and presentations of thought in literature. It is not soliloquy, parody, travesty, free association . . . It may bear a likeness to something in drama (the speech of the madman or fool) or something in epic (the rhapsodist inspired by Muses), but the genre and occasion are different. The General speaks, his voice is clearly his own, and yet the words and his manner of speaking are unfamiliar to him. He is possessed, we might say—his speech is possessed, he himself remains conscious—but that only raises more questions. How? certainly comes to mind; but still more: By whom? and From where?

In fact, small hints in the story suggest that the words come from the “Dean,” the now-deceased founder of the sect to which the Brothers and Sisters belong, who earlier in the story spoke a similar phrase: “Mercy and Truth, dear brethren, have met together. Righteousness and Bliss have kissed one another” (23–24). The suggestion is that the General, enraptured by the feast and in the Dean’s pious circle, becomes a fervent “mouthpiece” for a “message” sent forth by the Dean himself. Loewenhielm can only look on with surprise as the dead man’s words now flow out of him.

But it can’t be that simple. For one thing, the Dean is not mentioned here, not by the General and not by the narrator. His influence is far from explicit. The repetition of his phrase suggests not so much that he is its source as that a common source stands behind both him and the General. Both men would seem to be mouthpieces for a divine message. And the General is not even simply a mouthpiece. The more he speaks and reflects on the message, the more he seems to interfere with it. He talks at such length and in such a searching manner that the words fall together in a confusion that is evidently his own. His very utterance of the word “grace,” a word that would seem to stand for the message meant to flow through him, becomes, as he utters it, an object for his own befuddled regard. And then, one must reckon with the fact that the General is, thanks to Babette, pretty well intoxicated. His ecstasy is both grave-immortal and comical-worldly. The audience of his speech cannot not know which parts are the divine message and which are his wine-drunk distortions.

Technically, the problem here is a matter of written speech attribution. A matter of quotation marks. Say that there is an inverse correlation between, on the one hand, the number of inverted commas surrounding a speech and, on the other, the degree of distortion and the extent to which the speaker “owns” the words in it. Quotation marks promise minimal distortion, minimal claim to ownership by the speaker. If one were to take seriously the suggestion that the presentation of Loewenhielm’s speech is a quotation (of the General) of a quotation (of the Dean) of a quotation (of some greater divine message), one would transcribe it as not “Mercy and truth . . .” but “‘“Mercy and truth . . .”’” The words are marked as borrowed property transmitted verbatim, displaced but not appropriated or distorted. The General would be an active agent consciously quoting someone else. Yet in the story itself the General is charmingly clueless. No extra layers of inverted commas demarcate his speech; no degree of ownership, agency, or distortion is specified. We just know that he is speaking strangely—in abstractions that, because they do not suit his character, do not cohere—and we know that he knows it. Meanwhile, the source of the message remains hidden, and we can still do little better than call his speech possessed.

This effect of possession defines, to some extent, nearly everything spoken by characters in Dinesen’s stories. To a great extent, it defines speeches like those in “The Immortal Story,” where humans performing a fictional tale speak dialogue that the reader cannot identify as the tale’s or their own; or speeches in “Tempests,” where a young actress finds that she can communicate best with her mentor by speaking to him in the role of Ariel—both the Ariel of The Tempest (whose words she speaks in italics) and Ariel from the book of Isaiah (whose voice she seems to assume). To a broader extent, possession defines the many stories-within-stories that Dinesen narrates in the manner of the Arabian Nights, introducing tellers offering tales whose contents are repeated indiscriminately, with or without quotation marks, later on. Still more broadly, however, this effect is to be seen in Dinesen’s very concept of a character in a story. Her characters remain at a distance, not quite on our level, not quite human. They open their mouths to utter words that seem only partly their own. They speak as if they were, to an unknowable degree, possessed by another discourse—as if they were reciting fragments from a foreign, sacred, or ancient script.

Dinesen herself seems uncertain where this script lies. She voices her uncertainty through her characters. At the end of “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” the person to whom the cardinal has been speaking, listing the virtues of stories as opposed to novels; the person who has heard the cardinal proclaim that it is only the story which can answer the cry in all of our hearts—“Who am I?”—; this person asks the cardinal how he knows whom he, as a storyteller, actually serves; the cardinal has no clear answer. And then, the end of “The Immortal Story”: a clerk picks up a large seashell and lifts it to his ear; he hears a low and deep surge—something, one may say, without origin, carried by the ocean between ships and sailors, fluid and timeless or immortal—; the clerk realizes that he has heard the sound before, long ago, and he asks, “But where?”

Where? Who? To ask this of a piece of writing seems, for Dinesen, to confer upon it the proper status of story. Her script is one that, invisibly, possesses, but one that, elusively, is never wholly recited, performed, or possessed.

Works Cited
Dinesen, Isak (Karen Blixen). Anecdotes of Destiny. 1958. New York: Vintage, 1993.
—Last Tales. 1957. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Summary in Portuguese

Há um momento em “Babette’s Feast”, um dos contos mais conhecidos de Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), em que o personagem do General Lorens Loewenhielm se levanta, um pouco embriagado no fim do sumptuoso jantar, e oferece um discurso aos restantes convidados, todos eles membros idosos de uma seita religiosa. O leitor pode não ter reparado, mas não houve quase nenhum diálogo efectivo nas primeiras trinta páginas da história. E também neste caso o discurso é unidireccional. […] É difícil caracterizar este efeito entre outros actos de fala e representações do pensamento em literatura. Não se trata de solilóquio, paródia, disfarce, associação livre… Pode aparentar algum traço do drama (o discurso do louco ou do idiota) ou da épica (o rapsodo inspirado pelas musas), mas o género e a ocasião são diferentes. O General fala, a voz é claramente a sua, e, no entanto, as palavras e a sua maneira de falar não lhe são familiares. Ele está possuído, podíamos dizer — o seu discurso está possuído, enquanto ele permanece consciente —, mas isso só levantaria mais questões. Como? é a pergunta que nos ocorre, certamente; mas também, ainda mais: Por quem? e De onde?