In this series, the First Things junior fellows share mini-essays on their current reading endeavors.
Most of us have occasion only rarely in this anesthetized age to reflect at length on death. But death strikes all in due season, and from time to time we find ourselves confronted by our finitude, as if awakened from some dreamless slumber. We think about death at funerals, in hospitals, when a doctor calls after a routine test, when a child stays out past curfew, when a friend stops returning phone calls. A fog clears to reveal our true surroundings, and it disorients us. But time passes and seasons change, and we learn to think of our medicated state as “normal.”
The Greeks did not enjoy this privilege—if it is right to call it that—of diversion from the first and last things. In a way that is now hard to fathom, death weighed on them so heavily as to acquire a god-like power. It poses an absolute barrier to natural reason; it brings all human undertakings to an end; it makes a mockery of artifice. The Greeks knew the soul to be immortal, but they made no definitive claims about the afterlife: When the body decays and returns to dust, a man must become either nothing or something else. If the former, who can admit it without despair? And if the latter, who can comprehend its meaning unless it is revealed to him from above?
Sophocles ends his play Ajax with these lines:
What men have seen they know;
but what shall come hereafter,
no man before the event can see
nor what end waits for him.
This knowledge of a void waiting beyond the horizon of life lies at the heart of the Greeks’ melancholy. The darkness touches almost every aspect of their art, their literature, their philosophy.
Our own therapeutic regime tends to dull, with distractions and disinfectants, our sensitivity to the fundamenta of human experience. But St. Benedict counseled Christians to “Keep death daily before your eyes,” lest we slip into the complacency of one who treats Christ’s triumph over death as a foregone conclusion. That is why, today more than ever, it is difficult to grasp the truly revelatory aspects of Christian doctrine without some sense of the sadness of the Greeks, whether acquired through classical culture or simply intuited by conscientious attention to things made manifest.
The light of Christ illuminates a pit which it is perfectly reasonable—for who is more rational than the Greeks?—to consider impenetrable. Only when we know that we do not know where we come from or where we are going can we hear the wisdom of one who says with authority: “Although I give testimony of myself, my testimony is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go: but you know not whence I come, or whither I go. You judge according to the flesh: I judge not any man. And if I do judge, my judgment is true: because I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me” (John 8:14-16).
I was heartened recently upon seeing a New York Times Magazine feature titled “The Art of the Dinner Party.” Offering five essays from Times food critics—each replete with personal anecdotes and advice from years of hosting banquets and parties—the series argued for a revival of communal eating. Despite the advent of solo munching-on-the-go (the “Pret a Manger age” Dan Hitchens aptly described in a recent column) these chefs and columnists persist in believing that food ought to bring folks together, that a meal should go hand-in-hand with conversation, and that the universal act of eating merits distinct rituals and traditions.
But in her introduction to the series, food columnist Gabrielle Hamilton bemoans the dinner party’s decline: Somewhere along the line, “guests started coming to dinner with their phones, the glow of those screens as lethal to the conversation as empty seats had been.” It’s easy to relate to her dismay. Entranced by an immaterial digital world, humans today often seem detached from physical reality. The advent of VR porn threatens to finish the job that old-fashioned porn began, utterly severing sex from the physical union of man and woman. Genders prescribed by biology are now discarded and transformed at whim according to the dictates of our disembodied wills. And of course there is the siren call of the smartphone—the ever-present temptation to check out of our physical surroundings whenever we cannot bear reality. Detached from our own bodies, confused about the relationship between flesh and feelings, we end up increasingly detached from one another—a connection Hamilton seems to grasp when she notes how seldom we eat together these days. But she has no solution for this state of affairs nor any real explanation as to why communal suppers matter, concluding only that the survival of the dinner party “depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon.”
Another kind of detachment from the physical world threatens dinner parties in Babette’s Feast, the short story by Karen Blixen immortalized in Gabriel Axel’s 1987 Oscar-winning Danish film. In the pietistic Lutheran community of Berlevaag, Norway, the villagers have adopted a subtle variety of Gnosticism that leads them to renounce all worldly pleasures. As Blixen writes, “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.” Martine and Philippa, the spiritual leaders of the little congregation, never marry, for “earthly love, and marriage with it, were trivial matters, in themselves nothing but illusions.” The villagers’ renunciation of the body for the spirit, of the illusion of the flesh for a “higher and purer life,” becomes a renunciation of marriage, family, and friendship that leads to the gradual fragmentation of the community.
A society’s beliefs about the physical world are often reflected at the table. Unsurprisingly, Berlevaag seems to observe a perpetual fast of “split cod” and “ale-and-bread soup.” Food isn’t something to be celebrated in the little Norwegian town; “luxurious fare,” after all, is “sinful.” When Babette, the sisters’ “papist” housekeeper and a former professional chef, wins 10,000 francs in a lottery and decides to throw the congregation a “real French dinner,” the villagers are suspicious of the sensual attractions of gourmet dining. They agree that on the day of the feast they will “be silent upon all matters of food and drink.” As one parishioner declares, “The tongue is a little member and boasteth great things. The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. … We will cleanse our tongues of all taste and purify them of all delight or disgust of the senses, keeping and preserving them for the higher things of praise and thanksgiving.”
The villagers seem to miss that their Creator united the faculties of tasting and speaking within the mouth by design, intertwining the rational and the animal, the spirit and the flesh, in one organ. There are no sacraments in Berlevaag, no Eucharist; perhaps a more robust conception of Christ’s flesh and blood made manifest in bread and wine would lead them to take more delight in the act of eating and all the world’s physical pleasures. Human flesh is now enthroned at the right hand of God, and the earthly food of grain and grapes have been redeemed on the altar in a foretaste of the Lamb’s wedding feast; but without this ultimate dinner party, the villagers of Berlevaag see little reason to delight in food.
By the end of the tale, the villagers are altered by the luxurious fare in spite of themselves. Babette’s magnificent banquet proves it is possible to turn an earthly dinner “into a kind of love affair—into a love affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite and satiety.” As Blixen seeks to illustrate, there are times to feast and there are times to fast (something we ought to be contemplating in earnest now that Lent is upon us). Gabrielle Hamilton and her fellow NYT chefs may be correct that we need to have more dinner parties “with abandon” in order to connect humans to physical reality. But any kind of perpetual feasting for its own sake, for the celebration of material food, will fail to satisfy their deeper yearnings. The chefs behind “The Art of the Dinner Party” are as Gnostic as the Norwegian villagers. But instead of fixing their gaze upon a heavenly Jerusalem, or even something akin to Platonic ideals of truth or goodness, they have only their individual feelings and wills. Without rooting their celebration of earthly festivities and food in a transcendent realm where real truth provides standards for behavior and gives meaning to gatherings around tables, I fear they will remain as atomized as ever—and that their resolve to have ever more dinner parties in hopes of slowing the evaporating of modernity will do little to help.