New - Archives - Profile - Notes - Email - Design - Diaryland

incomplete stuff
2002-07-29 - 5:04 p.m.

It's kind of short and not finished, but I felt quite pleased with the work I did today, so I thought I'd share it with you. Um. I felt it, for a moment, the stuff I was writing about as I was writing it; this is the whole measure for me of the success of writing, but sadly it usually fails me. Ah well, a moment a day, today, is enough for me.


Near the end of the film Babette’s Feast, the General stands up and gives a speech about choices. We tremble at the risks we take, he says, but oughtn’t. It’s vanity to imagine our decisions are so important. For what we choose is granted to us, and what we reject, also, will be given.

The general is at the feast in order to settle with his younger self the question, did I make the right choices in my life? When I decided to leave Jutland, as a young man, to go seek social advancement in the court, was I doing the right thing? It’s easy for any of us, I imagine, to live in nostalgia and regret over the opportunities we threw away, and wonder what might have been if only we’d chosen differently. We don’t know exactly what has befallen the general in the time since he went to court, except that he has been successful in pursuing his goals. But now he’s old, and wonders, were the goals that young man chose for me the right ones? Is this where I should be?

This is the mirror image of the question that Agnes Heller discusses in her essay “On Being Satisfied in a Dissatisfied Society”. The young person, looking forward to all the different places that they might end up, has to decide, where do I want to end up? Which ladders do I want to climb, which goals should I be chasing? Just as the general is unhappy when he confronts the young man that he was, so we might imagine him young and facing all the old men he might be; which of these is best?

In this state of mind, a person “trembles at the risk they take”. This “trembling” describes very well, I think, the weakness and disquiet of a person loaded with choice and responsibility which they do not know how to carry. The body betrays the spirit in a double sense. That is, strong hands suddenly are incapable of holding a pen or lifting a sack; they are no longer servants of intent. But also, they betray in the sense of yielding a secret; this sign of fear is visible to others, and must be hidden or they will give us away. We cannot act without our hesitation becoming visible.

The answer that Heller offers is a way to choose between options, a criteria for better choices, to allay our fear at taking risks. But what the General suggest is far more radical; our choices don’t matter! The trembling hand which chooses between misery or salvation becomes instead a trembling leaf, which will fall from the tree either this way or that, gently to the ground.

Many people react with horror to the idea of predestination. When Luther proposed his theory of predestination, it provoked the response, “better to be damned than saved by such a cruel and capricious God!” But perhaps there is another way to understand destiny, as a kind of mercy. In the end, the General decides not that he made the right choice or the wrong choice, but that he was a fool to believe that his choice mattered. Here, though, is a dangerous possibility; if his choice doesn’t matter, then is his life without meaning? In the atmosphere of the bountiful feast, we can feel with the General that no, destiny is not a cruel trick whereby some are saved and others are damned and nothing can be done. Instead, “everything is possible”. God’s mercy and love are such that we all matter, we all have meaning, and so… salvation is by grace, by gift. Our choices affect only the way we come by those gifts. This leaf falls quickly to the earth, and that leaf falls slowly. The tremor of the breeze of them may feel like uncontrollable chaos, but it is only a messenger, a teacher, transient. If the General hadn’t been a fool, and rejected what was most precious to him, how could he have known how precious was the gift that was given back to him?

In this picture, it is possible to see that choice is a gift that is given to us, not in order to test us, to judge our worthiness, but instead to allow us to learn our own foolishness. That trembling is a hint… because, it implies also steadiness. That is, the trembling leaf is noticeable because it is attached to a sturdy trunk. So, if what we choose trembles, doesn’t this also imply that what is unchosen is sturdy, has real weight?

Previous / Next