Babette’s Feast, by Isak Dinesen

I was just thinking, before reading Babette’s Feast, that if you wanted a good example of why not all c20th literature which isn’t modernist (concerned with “the disenchantment of the world” / “the death of God” etc.) is worthless, you couldn’t choose a better one than Isak Dinesen. Not merely do her books not seem to reflect the grave difference in our conception of the world that took place during the c20th / some-time-since-the-Enlightenment; they seem not even to acknowledge any notable literature being written since the Arabian Nights.

So it was nice, reading Babette’s Feast, to discover that, even in its complete lack of the necessary “formal adventurousness”, it was still aware that the artist’s place in the world had changed with the onset of modernity / social revolution; – though, in this case, this is not the artist as writer-writing-a-book but the artist as character-in-a-book-being-written-about, which I find thankfully much less irritating (entertaining even) – the artist as … er … gourmet chef.

And what is our gourmet chef’s reaction to the onset of modernity? – Does she (for it is a she) attempt to recreate this new conceptualisation of the world within her culinary delights, so that perhaps, when her patrons eat her food, their thoughts – in the manner of a Proustian epiphany – are drawn to a peculiarly modern understanding of things. – No, quite the contrary: the onset of modernity, the collapse of the traditional structure and basis of the authority of society, brings our gourmet chef to realise that there is in fact no place in a truly modern culture for gourmet chefs, since the very people she cooked for, her only patrons, the aristocracy – the only people whose tastes have been cultivated through aeons of culture to appreciate her output – are no more (extinguished in the Paris Commune)*.

Could we make a cross-over here to literature? To a particular kind of literature, perhaps, which wilfully seeks to distance itself from the average reader, which spices its dishes in a manner calculated not to appeal to the untutored palate of the average modern man? Perhaps we have got all this wrong: perhaps modernity isn’t characterised at all by what we term modernism, with its overly elaborate (if sometimes obscure) intellectual constructs and insistence on esoteric subjects which frankly not all that many people seem much bothered about. Perhaps modernity is characterised largely by its complete opposite.

Perhaps we might wonder too why it’s often so many Marxist literary critics who encourage a form of literature which seeks to be the very antithesis of populist, why it is they who insist that literature should be driven by intellectual ideas which your average man hasn’t the slightest acquaintance with or interest in and which, to be frank, you’d be pushed to argue are even mainstream or representative of modern views, why they connect it specifically with a questioning of authority, with the death of a feudal order and its replacement with a philistine capitalist anarchy – you know, in that nice sort of way of a Marxist dialectic – the economic base of society has changed so the ideas (and therefore the literature) of a society should change to fit in with it (even though this “should” seems a bit of a misunderstanding on their part: for surely we don’t need to be told how to write: if it were really so that intellectual ideas and literature were a superstructural epiphenomenon of the underlying social order, then we should naturally write that way; we would be able to write no other)? – Well, yes; I’m sure you can answer that for yourself.

So, you’re not much the wiser about Babette’s Feast? – Ah well, perhaps you should read it for yourself. I’m sure you’ll find in it very little of the above, since Isak Dinesen is, above all, a consummate storyteller – one of its greatest exemplars (as I’m sure I mentioned at the beginning somewhere).

*That there still are gourmet chefs – and they seem to be doing a fine trade – might perhaps suggest that in truth not much has really changed.

Another book I’m reading – Paolo Volponi’s Last Act in Urbino – suggests that there has been a viable alternative discovered since the Enlightenment to the authority of God: that is, extreme violence. Volponi is something of an anarchist in his political views.


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