Saturday, May 03, 2014


First Friday Lecture

ON Friday afternoon last, May 2, I attended a lecture in the First Friday Lecture Series of The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults.  The lecture was titled: 
"Two Transformations:  Isak Dinesen's / Gabriel Axel's Babettes's Feast and Willam Butler Yeats's "Among School Children""

That title is a mouthful and as the speaker, Claudia Traudt, admitted during a lecture on Robert Frost's poetry the previous weekend, she is wont to recommend longish titles for her talks that sometimes must be edited down to presentable form.  
This title alone spans a double discussion of a significant concept as presented in three separate works of art, a short story, a foreign film, and a famous poem by one of the greatest poets of the twentieth, or any, century.  In the printed introduction to the her talk she states:  "I will be speaking about stirrings, and about change, exploring two great works of art [three if you count, as I do, the film adaptation of the story as a separate work of art]: "  Among the aspects to be considered are transformations "in full spate;  transformation continuing -- consciously , and beyond cognition . . . some modes of transformation or change as the subject matter of the works," and more.

I will comment on my impressions from this wide-ranging presentation that, unfortunately, was somewhat truncated due to time considerations.  That this occurred is not surprising as the concept of transformations alone, as suggested by the length of the entry in the OED which Ms. Traudt referenced to commence her talk.  My own first thought turned to the transformative modes explored by Ovid in his great poem Metamorphoses.  But of the various types of transformation discussed in the entry I would point to the example drawn from Hamlet, (II,ii,5ff), where we find, "Something you have heard / Of Hamlet's transformation;"  In the lecture she referenced Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan where, in chapter six, he discusses the passions including imagination and the possibilities for transformation.  This reference led her to the epigraphs for the lecture which appear in the last lines of the Dinesen and Yeats works.

"Ah! How you will enchant the angels!"
"How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

The first quotation, from Babette's Feast, refers to the expectation of Phillipa, for whom Babette had been cook for many years, that Babette would truly be among the angels due to her transformative impact on Phillipa and her sister and the others from the small village of Berlevaag who attended the feast she had prepared.  But to understand these transformations one must return to the beginning of Dinesen's story where the first paragraph introduces this town that in its fairy-tale like existence resembles nothing more than "a child's toy-town of little wooden pieces".  With the introduction of two elderly sisters, Martine and Phillipa, and the presentation of their stories as background to the advent of Babette, an escapee from the violence of the Paris Commune of 1871, we have the makings of a story of love gained and lost, memories, and a gradual realization that the passions of the inhabitants of this small town would be permanently changed by the presence of Babette.  In section V. titled "Still Life" Babette arrives and,
"Her mistresses at first had trembled a little . . . They silently agreed that the example of a good Lutheran life would be the best means of converting their servant.  In this way Babette's presence in the house became, so to say, a moral spur to its inhabitants."(pp 31-32)

A dozen years transpire and due in part to a fortuitous joining of Babette's good luck at winning a French lottery and the plans of the sisters to celebrate the birthday of their father, Babette is allowed to prepare a feast for them and their guests.  It is a feast that is transcendent in many ways and proves to be the culmination of the transformation of many lives.  This is the most beautiful section of the short story but by no means the only one in a story that demonstrates the ability of the process of art to reach an apotheosis for which we reserve words like enchantment and angelic. 

The depths of beauty in Dinesen's short story are matched and exceeded by those in Yeats's famous poem.  The remarks of Ms. Traudt on the poem were brief but suggested the momentous power that emanated from Yeats's ability to structure words in a way that blended public spectacle with private memories and led to an apotheosis in its final two stanzas.   Perhaps it would be best to end with some of these lines and suggest that, based both on my own experience reading these works and on the brilliant presentation on Friday last, that readers everywhere would benefit from their own exploration of these transformative works.   

"O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, 
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

-  W. B. Yeats, Among School Children

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