Babette and the Seducer
Babette from “Babette’s Feast” and the seducer Johannes from The Seducer’s Diary are both artists. Both have mastery in demonstrating the esthetic beauty of the material world to others. Babette shows the people of her tiny village how to enjoy food and good company. Johannes shows his women how to love passionately and erotically. Despite the similarities, there remains one major difference between the two artists. Babette’s selfless display of beauty and art brings freedom to the people she helps and reveals an ethic of grace to the people. Johannes, however, is selfish and does not bring freedom to his victim Cordelia. Johannes perceives a freedom in Cordelia that is only in his own mind, not one that the girl actually experiences. The selfishness exhibited by Johannes makes him unheroic, whereas Babette’s art makes her a hero to those that she reveals the ethical through the esthetic.
When Babette came to the home of Martine and Philippa, she had nothing in this world to bring with her. Babette came from the beautiful and worldly city of Paris to this small community of religious believers intent on eschewing the life of materialism. Every person dressed very plainly, “Its members renounced the pleasures of this world, for the earth and all that it held to them was but a kind of illusion, and the true reality was the New Jerusalem toward which they were longing” (“Babette’s Feast” 23). Despite their righteous behavior, the little congregation began to lose peace and happiness in their simple way. Babette arrived to the little community just when they so desperately needed rejuvenation. Babette used her art of cooking to bring a message of grace to her patrons. When Babette arrived in the small village, the sisters were aware from Achille Papin’s letter that Babette could cook. Yet from the very start the sisters made it clear to Babette that they wished only simple meals, “The first day after Babette had entered their service they took her before them and explained to her that they were poor and that to them luxurious fare was sinful” (“Babbette’s Feast” 36). Even with this restriction placed on her, Babette could not help but use her art. The sisters noticed that after Babette’s arrival, the household saved more money and was much more efficient even with time. Babette’s ability to show esthetic beauty through the material world never ceased to bring ethical or spiritual benefit to the sisters.
Johannes also possessed the art of bringing out beauty in the world around him, more specifically, in the women around him. Just as Babette was picky when selecting ingredients for the feast, Johannes was also selective in choosing a woman to be the object of his artistry. He would only choose a girl who was capable of an esthetic and intellectual awakening. Johannes was very aware of his art; he did not seduce a woman and inspire erotic love within her by accident or with a cruel intent:
What am I doing? Am I beguiling her? By no means—that would be of no avail to me. Am I stealing her heart? By no means—in fact, I prefer that the girl I am going to love should keep her heart. What am I doing then? I am shaping for myself a heart like unto hers. An artist paints his beloved; that is now his joy; a sculptor shapes her. This I too am doing, but in an intellectual sense. (Kierkegaard 122)
Johannes enjoyed the esthetic qualities of women and of erotic love. He did not wish to marry the girls that he courted, he only wished to awaken the erotic love within them and he thought by doing this he gave them a new freedom. Johannes was much more interested in studying love than in studying the object of his love: “How beautiful it is to be in love; how interesting it is to know that one is in love” (Kierkegaard 46). While around Cordelia, Johannes remained conscious of how his movements and words affected her in order to bring out the erotic love within her.
Babette’s art serves to bring freedom to those that she shares it with. The members of the small congregation had started to quarrel and be unhappy with one another. The sisters tried reminding them of love and forgiveness, but their reminders had little affect on the villagers. It was not until Babette’s dinner that the congregation was able to be free from the bitterness that bound them. After the meal, “Taciturn old people received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened to it” (“Babette’s Feast” 61). The congregation was able to talk of past grievances and to grant forgiveness to one another. When the little group left the sisters’ home that night, it was with joy and lightheartedness because they had been freed from their resentment:
The guests from the yellow house wavered on their feet, staggered, sat down abruptly or fell forward on their knees and hands and were covered with snow, as if they had indeed had their sins washed white as wool, and in this regained innocent attire were gamboling like little lambs. It was, to each of them, blissful to have become as a small child; it was also a blessed joke to watch old Brothers and Sisters, who had been taking themselves so seriously, in this kind of celestial second childhood. (“Babette’s Feast” 63).
While each of the congregation members felt a great freedom as they left the dinner, General Loewenhielm was the most in need of this spiritual grace. As he had prepared to return to this small village and to confront the sisters once more, he worried over the life he lived and wondered if there was any spiritual hope for his life. Babette’s beautiful feast revealed a spiritual grace to the general through the esthetic art that Babette employed. Babette used the material world to reveal ethical freedom to General Leowenhielm. In his speech to the dinner party, the general admits, “But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite” (“Babette’s Feast 60). Babette’s art not only brought freedom to those who partook of it, but she also shared her art selflessly. The sisters are shocked to discover that Babette had spent all of her money on the dinner, but Babette was happy with the sacrifice that she had made.
In contrast to the freedom that Babette brings to the people at the feast, Johannes did not bring freedom to the victims of his passion. Johannes spoke of Cordelia as if he could recognize an intellectual awakening within her: “…she is amazed—not at herself but within herself. She is being transformed within herself” (Kierkegaard 109). Johannes credited himself with stimulating Cordelia to recognize erotic love within herself and felt that once he had granted her this freedom she would be thankful. Not once did Johannes admit that he could be hurting Cordelia by creating a false engagement between the two; he only saw the benefit that the relationship brought to his own esthetic being and assumed that their “love” would bring the same benefit to Cordelia. The reader may assume that Johannes was correct, that Cordelia felt the same joy in erotic love as Johannes and that the relationship had made her free to become a master of this art. The diary does give this impression; however, the diary presented Cordelia only through the eyes of the seducer. The opening section contains three letters from Cordelia to Johannes as well as discussion of conversation between the man who found the diary and Cordelia. This section reveals that Cordelia did not have the same experience as Johannes. The narrator remarked, “Poor Cordelia—for her, too, it will prove difficult to find peace” (Kierkegaard 11). Even Cordelia’s own letters to Johannes expressed an inability to ever be free from him: “…and yet I do call you ‘mine’: my seducer, my deceiver, my enemy, my murderer, the source of my unhappiness, the tomb of my joy, the abyss of my unhappiness…” and the letter ended with, “Yours I am, yours, yours, your curse” (Kierkegaard 15-16). The following letters went on to ask for forgiveness and to express an undying love for Johannes. His art, therefore, had not brought freedom and peace to Cordelia but had trapped her. Cordelia longed for the unattainable, marriage to Johannes, and was not free to love erotically as Johannes had thought. Because his art did not bring freedom to its victims but rather trapped them, Johannes was unethical. This is the contrast that exists between Babette and Johannes. Babette’s selflessness and gift of grace and freedom brought both esthetic and ethical pleasure to herself and those around her whereas Johannes’ art brought esthetic pleasure only to himself and was not ethical at all. Babette was heroic and Johannes was selfish and unheroic.
The seducer is not a likeable character. His way of using women to provide esthetic pleasure for himself makes the reader uneasy. Yet, when looking closely, Johannes is not so different from other artists such as Babette. They both have a passion for their art and demonstrate the esthetic beauty of the natural world. The one thing that separates the two artists, and that makes one heroic and one not, is the effect their respective arts have on the people around them. Johannes does not bring freedom to Cordelia in the way Babette brings the message of grace to free the congregation and General Loewenhielm. This lack of ethical beauty prevents the seducer’s character from being heroic.
“Babette’s Feast.” Anecdotes of Destiny. (New York: Vintage, 1958).
Kierkegaard, Søren. The
Seducer’s Diary. Trns. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1987).
by Erika LiaBraaten
Expected Graduation Date: May 2006
Hometown: Kelso, WA
While reading The Seducer's Diary, I noticed that the seducer Johannes is very similar to Babette from "Babette's Feast." Both are artists devoted to finding beauty in the natural world. At the same time, the reader feels differently about these two characters; Babette is heroic and selfless whereas Johannes is eccentric and selfish. It is not enough of an explanation to say that Johannes is merely an unlikable character. The challenge for this paper was to determine why Babette and Johannes, while so similar in one respect, are really very different characters.