by John Lobell
As we await Cloud Atlas, let’s look at a more modest spiritual movie from the past, Babette’s Feast, a 1987 Danish movie directed by Gabriel Axel, staring Stéphane Audran as Babette, and based on a story by Isak Dinesen.
Babette’s Feast looks at the dual nature of out existence. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes:
“Ever desiring, one can see the manifestation. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.”
At Fallingwater, the weekend house he built outside of Pittsburgh for the Kaufman family, Frank Lloyd Wright integrated the house into the landscape, placing it not on the top of the hill, but on the side with a stream running under it. Wright referred to his approach as Organic Architecture, which includes the idea of humans being one with nature. Wright tells of being given The Book of Tea by the Japanese ambassador. In it he read a quote from Lao Tzu stating that the reality of a room is to be found in the space enclosed by the walls, and not in the walls themselves. Wright says, “Well, there was I. Instead of being the cake I was not even dough. Closing the little book I went out to break stone on the road, trying to get my interior together. I was like a sail coming down; I had thought of myself as an original, but was not. It took me days to swell up again. But I began to swell up again when I thought, ‘After all, who built it? Who put that thought into buildings. Laotse [Lao Tzu] nor anyone had consciously built it.’ When I thought of that, naturally enough I thought, ‘Well, then, everything is all right, we can still go along with head up.’” Wright constructed buildings and through them sought to engage and change the world. And he desired recognition for his accomplishments. So while Wright was strongly influenced by the East, he was a Western person. But suppose they are the same thing. Lao Tzu continues:
At the end of the story of Indra and the ants, Indra seeks spiritual wisdom, but also remains engaged in the world. The great Indologist, Heinrich Zimmer, writes: “Indra repented of his pride and vowed a life of celibacy and meditation. When Indra’s wife Shuchi objected, the priest Brihaspati taught Indra how to seek wisdom and still fulfill his husbandly and kingly duties.”
In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, an Indian religious document from around 100 CE, Vimalakirti lives in the duality of spirituality and worldliness. In Western terms, we would say he was a lay saint. In the translation by Robert Thurman we read:
“He was liberated through the transcendence of wisdom…. He wore the white clothes of the layman, yet lived impeccably like a religious devotee. He lived at home, but remained aloof from the realm of desire, the realm of pure matter, and the immaterial realm. He had a son, a wife, and female attendants, yet always maintained continence….”
The architect Louis Kahn said:
“I likened the emergence of Light to a manifestation of two brothers, knowing quite well that there are not two brothers, nor even one. But I say that one is the embodiment of the desire to be, to express, and one (not saying “the other”) is to be, to be.”
In Babette’s Feast, Babette, a great woman chef, has to flee Paris during the French Revolution. She becomes the servant of two elderly sisters, distant friends of friends in a small ocean side village in Scandinavia. The sisters who head an extremely acetic protestant sect that had been founded by their late father. If their father had been originally motivated by a deep spiritual insight, that insight is now mostly lost, and the unfortunate villagers struggle with their asceticism.
One day Babette wins the lottery and decides to spend her winnings to prepare a great gourmet meal for the villagers. Babette does not join those eating, she slaves in the kitchen preparing course after course. The villagers all try to suppress their sensory enjoyment of the meal, but fortunately the village is being visited by a sophisticated military officer who had spent time in Paris, and he declares that, “Only one person could have prepared this meal,” so there is recognition for Babette.
Babette has spent all of her winnings to prepare the meal, and she will remain in the village. The film tells us that asceticism can be a spiritual path, but so can sensuality. Both are valid. The mythologist Joseph Campbell would quote a verse from the Vedas:
One, eating the fruit of the tree,
The other, not eating, just watches.”
The two birds, “fast friends,” are two aspects of ourselves. We should struggle to win in the world, eating the fruit of the tree, and at the same time hold to the perspective of seeing the world dispassionately from the outside, just watching .” Louis Kahn said:
“A work is made in the urging sounds of industry, and, when the dust settles, the pyramid, echoing Silence, gives the Sun its shadow.”
A note: At the time of the movie, a New York restaurant offered the meal served in the movie. Anyone partake? What was it like?