“Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!” –Babette’s Feast
I came to Babette’s Feast eagerly. I’d seen it years before – multiple times. I’d studied it in a course and given a presentation on it. I’d read the short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), perhaps even before I first saw the film. I’d read the short story again many times since. I’d taught it in a course. I’d recommended it to friends. I thought a few years back to buy the DVD and discovered to my horror that it would cost me nigh on $50 for a DVD produced in the mid-90s. I bided my time.
Then the word came. The Criterion Collection was releasing a new DVD. They know how to celebrate good art. It was satisfying news. The cost would be reasonable. And I settled in to count the days until I could get my hands on a copy.
Early this summer – almost late spring – I sat on my friend Julie’s back porch in Charlotte, North Carolina and we talked about Jeffrey Overstreet’s book Through a Screen Darkly. I was aware of it; I’d followed Jeffrey as a movie reviewer for years. I’d heard good things about the book, but hadn’t yet invested the time or energy to read it.
Jeffrey was on the list of speakers for a conference Julie and I plan to attend this fall called Hutchmoot. I was excited. His book was on the recommended reading list. Julie had begun it.
“I’m loving it,” she said. “I’m wondering if we should think about using it as the next book in our reading group. What do you think?” She sketched out a few ideas of how it could be divided up nicely for discussion. I glanced through the table of contents. I skimmed a few pages. I concurred.
She floated the idea of asking Jeffrey to join the discussion. A book discussion with the author? I encouraged the thought.
I got more out of Through a Screen Darkly than I could have imagined getting. It did not just, as the subtitle predicted, look closer at beauty, truth, and evil in the movies; it looked at them in all of art. It challenged me to watch movies differently, to approach art more carefully, to be a better recipient of art, and therefore a better creator of it.
Julie had the brilliant idea of pairing each week’s reading with one of the movies Jeffrey mentions in the section we were discussing. The movies were optional. I did a terrible job of keeping up with them. Interestingly, as I read the book, I found myself watching movies less.
I knew now they deserved my close attention, and the glare of the computer screen and the Facebook alerts coming in on my iPhone should not be constantly present while I experienced them.
But the final week, after we finished all the chapters of the book, I knew I’d watch the movie: Babette’s Feast was planned.
I remember telling Julie when she suggested that we could end with a week discussing Babette’s Feast that the timing would be perfect. The planned week was immediately following the new DVD’s release. Then our discussion got delayed a bit along the way and we ended up with Babette a week later than planned – for me, immediately following a writer’s conference.
I keep thinking about art lately. About what it means to create art. About what the role of the artist is. About art in the contemporary culture. About art industries. About the relationship of the artist to the industries.
Ken Gire spoke at the Greater Philadelphia Writer’s Conference where I was on faculty this past week. He reminded us that we as writers are lovers of words. He speculated that there was a time for each one of us when we were reading and something inside of us said, “Follow me.” And now, 20, or 30, or 40 years later, we were there at a conference, pen and sheaf of paper in our hands, in hopes that our words will do for someone else what words did for us.
He called the handing over of a manuscript to an editor a sacred moment. “Something of your heart is mediated in the thin, white, wafer-like paper,” he said. And then he went on to challenge us: “Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t reduce art to paint-by-numbers….Aspire to something true: from the depths of your heart to the depths of another.”
I wrote recently that the best thing about Joss Whedon’s new Much Ado About Nothing was that it got made at all – “that a group of friends decided they wanted to do this, made the time for it, and did it well. Limited release or no, it’s encouraging to see that something like this movie can still happen [in the contemporary art industry].”
I called Whedon’s choice to make the movie a risk. He had no financial backer when he chose to make the film. He had no method for distributing it. Sure, he had connections, but there was no guarantee that his art would ever see the light of day.
Makoto Fujimura uses the ancient Japanese technique of nihonga in his painting. Nihonga uses precious stones and metals to create the pigments with which the artist paints. Mako’s paintings have colors made from lapis lazuli, from gold, from corals, from malachite.
He points to Jesus’ commendation of Mary in John 12 when she brings the costly perfume and anoints him with it. “That is an amazing commendation for someone like me who tends to work from the heart, who tends to work with precious and costly materials. I remember that the extravagance of Christ’s love for me prompted an extravagant response. Eventually, I came to connect what I do as an artist with Mary’s devotional act. Maybe that is the one act we can look to as the centerpiece for a paradigm of creativity.”
I asked Christine if we could approach Babette’s Feast without the distractions. We put our computers in other rooms. We turned off, really off, our phones.
She’d never experienced the story. I had.
It has been years since I watched Babette’s Feast. I almost saw it with new eyes. I knew what was coming, but the visual portrayal was dim and faded in my mind. I watched Babette learn how to make bread and ale soup from the sisters, patiently learning words as she went, and I knew that they had no idea that they were teaching Shakespeare how to write plays.
I watched Babette win the lottery, cash the check, and put the money carefully into a wooden box. I watched her carry the box, clutched close to her heart, to her room, then sit down and look at it. I watched her walk the heaths and beaches. I knew the decision she would make. I knew the sacrifice that was coming.
I watched her thrill as she unpacked the ingredients. I watched her eyes alight as she created the dishes. I saw the industry with which she worked to prepare the meal, up to the very moment the platters went to the table. She did not touch the wine until the guests were in the later courses. Her sharp eyes kept all in order.
And then I experienced again the beautiful revelation at the end of the story, that Babette has spent her entire fortune, ten thousand francs, on the meal the sisters and their friends have just consumed. When they protest that she should not have given away all her money for their sake she gently tells them, “It was not just for your sake.” When they ask if she will now be always poor, she says, “A great artist is never poor.”
Philippa understands, to some small extent, the heart of an artist. She comes closer to Babette and continues to press: “Was this the sort of dinner you would prepare at the Café Anglais?” Babette nods, saying she could make the people happy when she did her very best. Then she quotes Achille Papin, the opera singer who once taught Philippa, “Through all the world there goes one cry from the heart of an artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”
“But this is not the end, Babette,” Philippa says. “I feel sure this is not the end. In Paradise, you will be the great artist God meant you to be.” She walks forward and embraces the cook. “Ah, how you will enchant the angels!”
We sang a song in church this morning that struck me anew.
And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God fall on my knees
I will rise
And I hear the voice of many angels sing,
“Worthy is the Lamb”
And I hear the cry of every longing heart,
“Worthy is the Lamb”
There is a cry that goes out from the heart of the artist.
It’s the cry that says, “Take the time to experience deeply.”
The cry that says, “Don’t sell yourself short.”
The cry that says, “Take a risk.”
The cry that says, “Extravagant art is worship.”
The cry that says, “It is worth spending everything.”
The cry that says, “Give me leave to do my utmost.”
The cry that says, “Worthy is the Lamb.”