Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Teil 3/Part 3: Literatur(en)/Literature(s)
Moderation / Chair: Gloria Withalm

Conviviality, Gender and Love Stories: Plato's Symposium and Isak Dinesen's (K. Blixen's) Babette's Feast

Madeleine Schechter (Tel Aviv)


Summary: In a basic sense, conviviality is a social form of human interaction, one pattern of which consists in a group of people sitting at the same table and sharing not only gastronomic pleasures but also the pleasure of conversation, and in a subtle, implicit way, a certain Weltanschauung. Along this line, conviviality is also a metonymical expression of cultural co-existence, i.e. sociability, in a particular historical context. This is attested to by the central place held by feasts, one model of which is the ancient Greek symposion, in the cultural discourse dedicated to sociability. - Scientific research into the historical, sociological, anthropological and cultural aspects of conviviality, however, still pays little attention to the cardinal role played by gender, and to its complex relation to sex, both in the description and interpretation of the feast as such, and in the cultural discourses about it. - In this article I shall suggest a comparison between two feasts, or modes of conviviality, as they are presented in two texts, namely Plato's dialogue Symposium and Isak Dinesen's (Karen Blixen's) Babette's Feast.



In a basic sense, conviviality is a social form of human interaction, one pattern of which consists in a group of people sitting at the same table and sharing not only gastronomic pleasures but also the pleasure of conversation, and in a subtle, implicit way, a certain weltanschauung. Along this line, conviviality is also a metonymical expression of cultural co-existence, i.e. sociability, in a particular historical context. This co-existence also involves a certain link between the material sustenance and the spiritual one, and therefore a sharing of tastes, ideas, values and beliefs. This is attested to by the central place held by feasts, one model of which is the ancient Greek symposion, in the cultural discourse dedicated to sociability.

Françoise Thelamon, in her article on "Sociabilité et Conduites Alimentaires", notes:

Manger ou boire ensemble, dans un cadre plus large que celui de la famille, est traditionellement considéré comme le symbole même de la sociabilité. [...] Boire et manger ensemble n'est certes pas la seule conduite alimentaire qui fonctionne dans le champ de la sociabilité, mais elle est la plus révélatrice: la sociabilité trouve son expression la plus complète dans la convivialité, dont le repas en commun est la manifestation, comme l'indique le terme de conuiuium; et le terme même de convivialité apparaît au XIXe siècle, sous la plume de Brillat-Savarin, lié au plaisir de la table avec une idée de joie, mais il a pris un sens plus large (Thelamon 1992: 9).

Thus the sharing of a certain kind of food and/or drink can be seen as a way to create and reinforce a societal group through a positive feeling of "togetherness" (being included in/or part of the group), on which the community's awareness of its identity is based.

Au symposion par exemple, autour de la consommation ritualisée du vin, se constitue une véritable structure de sociabilité et les règles que fixent les participants y définissent le partage du plaisir. Cena - romaine, symposion grec: les modèles greques et latins ont de fait longtemps et beaucoup servi (Thelamon 1992: 10).

In what follows we shall see how the question of pleasure and its related terms, such as happiness, desire and love, connected to the idea of well-being, become the main topic of philosophical inquiry in Plato's Symposium. (I use symposion for the real, classical Greek feast, and symposium, for Plato's dialogue, as it appears in the English translations; M.S.).

Scientific research into the historical, sociological, anthropological and cultural aspects of conviviality, however, still pays little attention to the cardinal role played by gender, and to its complex relation to sex, both in the description and interpretation of the feast as such, and in the cultural discourses about it (from philosophy, ethics, religion and sociology to literature, and the visual arts, etc.).

In an article published a few years ago, Gerald Prince showed that,

[i]f narrative poetics [and semiotics, my specification; M.S.] ought to be more alert to the implications of the corpus it privileges, it also ought to be more sensitive to the role of context - and, in particular, to the possible role of gender - in the production of narrative meaning. [...] Still [...] since one of the goals of narratology is to explain the functioning of narrative, narratologists must not only characterize the general pragmatic/contextual principles affecting this functioning, but also devise ways of testing the possible influence of factors like gender on narrative production and processing (Prince 1996: 163-164).

Concerning the nature of such categories as male/female and masculinity/femininity, it might be said that early feminist theory (the second-wave feminists) maintained that sex is a biological category, while gender is a cultural construct and can be seen as a system of human relations, beliefs and values that are deeply embedded in every aspect of any particular culture.

Briefly, one can observe that a gender-neutral description of a feast as a participatory context (with the term "participants" understood as a universal human category) actually implies the category of man (not of woman). Consequently, it neglects the sex differences, codified as social/historical roles of men and women in daily life, and their symbolic roles in texts/cultural discourses.

The universal albeit archaic term "convive" responds to the basic assumptions of Western metaphysics and epistemology, expanded to other fields of culture, and together reflecting what has been defined as the patriarchal paradigm. The hard core of this view is still adopted by the current post-postfeminist theorists, who consider that:

[w]ithin this patriarchal paradigm, women become everything men are not (or do not want to be seen to be): where men are regarded as strong, women are weak; where men are rational, women are emotional; where men are active, women are passive; and so on. Under this rationale, which aligns women everywhere with negativity, women are denied equal access to the world's public concerns, as well as of cultural representation (Gamble 2000: vii).

In this respect, the topic of symposion, or feast, demands a more differentiated analysis of its contents and representations, in order to unveil the male or patriarchal bias as a traditional characteristic of Western thought. Thus, by adopting a deliberately gendered view, feminists have revealed not only the evident but also the deep and generally disregarded institutionally grounded, or symbolic, devices of gender, and as such, the invisible relationships between women, sex, gender and patriarchy. How these issues are relevant for a better understanding of conviviality as a paradigmatic manifestation of sociability, is the subject matter of this article.

I shall suggest a comparison between two feasts that constitute two modes of conviviality or participatory contexts, as they are presented in two texts and a movie, namely Plato's dialogue Symposium and Karen Blixen's (more generally known as Isak Dinesen) Babette's Feast. The comparison is based on a common denominator, which is the text (in both cases written in the form of a narrative). In this respect, the movie will also be considered as a cinematic text. For reasons of space, I shall not go into the main differences between the texts, which are: 1) the philosophical vs. literary, fictional status of each one; and 2) and probably the most complex differences, the Greek vs. Christian meanings, which each of these texts discloses.

Rather, I shall refer to the ancient feast (symposion) and to the modern one (Babette's) as forms of sociability, evolving around the same subject-matter, viz. love as a force connecting people and, as such, leading their souls to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This philosophical potential of the feast was noticed even in the Ancients' writings, such as those of Cicero (quoted in Thelamon), who underlines the aspect of the well-being of those who (while sharing food, drink and conversation) discover in a pleasant way how to concomitantly enrich the mind and the soul. The latter observes:

Lieu de partage du plaisir sous de multiples formes, du plaisir des saveurs à celui des manières de table, le repas festif [...] a été vécu et pensé comme l'expression même d'une sociabilité qui s'épanouit en convivialité, au point d'être le symbole d'un bonheur plus que terrestre (Thelamon 1992: 15).


A feminist approach to Plato

To begin with, we should consider that Plato is describing a male type of interaction, which turns into a multi-layered philosophical inquiry, which is essential for an understanding of Plato's theory of Forms. The setting is a symposion, a dinner-cum-drinking party (of men), in which the drinking would normally have been the more important element. Agathon, the host, and his guests however, decide to talk rather than drink, on the subject of Eros, desire or love. The event lasts all night and develops through the conversations of the participants in the form of narratives into a pursuit and celebration of love, the great demon. With Socrates' intervention, the talk takes a philosophical turn, which includes a new dimension, i.e. the quest for Beauty and Knowledge and the Form of the Good. As Friedländer remarks in his article "Demon and Eros":

Why is Eros not called a god, but a great demon? What is the common element of demon, daimonion, Eros? [...] Eros, too is part of the world of metaxy, transition to a beyond of the soul in a double sense, first uniting the "I" and the "thou" in dialogue, and then raising them both to the level of the Eidos (Friedländer [1954]1958: 53).

However, when examining Plato's Symposium, one should bear in mind that the masculine bias lies not so much in the sex of the participants but rather in their way of thinking. This is reflected in the prevalent role played by reason, which is identified with men, in acquiring knowledge (episteme), while the emotions have, traditionally, been seen as the attributes of women. After the 17th century, this view, which had gradually led to a disembodied view of rationality, became the basis of the modern concept of "masculinity", whose origins can be found in the Cartesian "masculinization of thought" (Bordo 1996: 640-663).

Finally, only men - as rational humans - all of them historical and even famous dramatis personae, such as Socrates, Aristophanes, Agathon, Alcibiades, etc., take part as active "convives" (English - convivialists) in this event, i.e. Plato's Symposium, which is a quasi-fictional description of a real symposion. The absence of women "convives" codifies the cultural tradition from Classical times, and underlines the marginal, passive, even decorative role played by women in the public sphere. Even Diotima, the wise woman, doesn't participate in the feast proper. Her narrative (appearing as a separate part of the dialogue) is usually approached as an independent text. Diotima, as described by Plato, is revealed as the real philosopher (since she is the one who teaches/initiates Socrates into the mysteries of love and beauty).

 Anne-Marie Bowery, a feminist scholar, soundly acknowledges that Diotima's narrative strategy provides an illuminating alternative to the hegemonic discourse (cf. Bowery 1996: 175-194). However, within the fictional world of the dialogue, Diotima is spatially and temporally separated, as a symbolic delimitation of the men/women social territories.

In the feast organized by Babette, on the other hand, a woman is both the artist and a sui generis philosopher (a typical combination for feminist thinking, and one which undermines the traditional dichotomies and boundaries between different fields), articulating another model of conviviality. This latter model, although it cannot be defined as feminist or matriarchal (in terms of an intentional, conscious ideological position of the writer, as far as I know it), nevertheless fits the main assumptions of feminist epistemology. This kind of epistemology, in various and inconclusive ways, claims for a re-humanized knowledge, belonging to embodied and gendered persons, and having a "perspectivist", "standpoint", or "positional" character. Therefore the neutral, detached knower can no longer count as the hero of the story. Subjectivity is produced in social class-ethnic-cultural-religious circumstances so diverse that any attempt to tell a "story" becomes a useless exercise.


Babette's Feast: An alternative

Babette's Feast first presents many voices of narrators and implicitly many narratives, all of them leading to the main event, which is the great gastronomic-artistic performance that becomes the earthly embodiment of Heaven. The event itself is conceived of as a lived human experience, based on a continuity between the outside and the inside; high (the dining room) and low (the kitchen); between making, tasting, feeling, thinking, talking and, as we shall see, finally touching. As such, the feast becomes the space in which a lost unity between sensuality and intellect is recreated, in a way that can only be described by using a paradoxical formula, according to which the beautiful is the infinite represented in finite form. In this respect, Babette's feast reveals a link between gastronomy, sharing of ideas, and aesthetic pleasures, leading to an ethics of caring (as defined by feminists), in which the love for the other as an embodied subjectivity is (in this case), the highest expression of the love of God.


A gender-based analysis

In the following part of this article, I describe gender as a useful analytical tool in the interpretation of culture (Scott 1998: 42-65), and attempt to further briefly clarify the connection between gender and conviviality (in the reading of the Symposium and Babette's Feast). Before doing so, however, I want to underline that concepts such as male/female, femininity/masculinity, homosexuality/heterosexuality, sexism, and so on are, historically, culturally-tied. In this respect, I concur with the theoretical positions currently held by feminist scholars, as a reaction to the earlier feminist radical view, whose goal was primarily to evaluate past theory and schools of thought in the light of present standards of equality, or to highlight the encoded sexism of philosophical texts. That approach, whose outcome was a merciless criticism of Western intellectual history (starting from Plato and Aristotle), has been gradually replaced by more differential, historical or contextual interpretations, which continue to recognize the male bias of classical/Western thought, yet situate it in a historical framework, and also suggest some ways in which these classical views can be considered as fruitful resources for feminist theorizing too.

For example, Jean Grimshaw, while writing on the "maleness" of philosophy, notes:

I think that it is right to say that much of philosophy has been "male" in some important senses, but it is not at all easy to say what those senses are. [...] In general, then, there is no single or homogeneous "Western" ideal of masculinity or femininity [...] Such beliefs are related to changing conceptions of the relation between the "private" and "public" spheres of life and to changing notions of things, such as "home" and "family", and they cannot always easily be mapped from one historical period onto another (Grimshaw 1986: 36 & 65).

In the same spirit, I shall try to compare certain gendered aspects of the philosophical/fictional descriptions of conviviality, while focusing on two central interrelated topics in Plato's Symposium and in the historical symposion: one, the topic of episteme (knowledge); and the other, that of love/desire, as the guide in the Symposium, that can lead us to the knowledge/revelation of Forms. The topic of love also raises the question of pleasure and of Beauty as Idea, as it is conceived in the classical context and specifically in Plato's Symposium. The question of the Beautiful which is also the paradigmatic aesthetic value, provides the opportunity to follow the changing views concerning the aesthetic and aesthetic senses (within the relation between reason, perception and the senses).

An analysis of Plato's philosophical inquiry on the one hand, and the ancient feast on the other, reveals that Plato's dialogue has deep roots in the ancient symposion and its cultural significations. First, concerning the episteme, Wolfgang Rösler in his article "Wine and truth in the Greek Symposion" emphasizes a particular relationship between wine and truth, i.e. in vino veritas, as one of the cardinal cultural significations of the Greek symposion. The latter was a unique type of social event and regarded not only as the right place to encourage mutual acceptance, and as such limited to personal problems, but particularly as an initiation, a transition to a different state of existence, by means of which pleasure instruction, and the arts were connected and the participants achieved a higher state of consciousness. According to Rösler, the sympotic conversation, which included poetry and drinking of wine, had

a natural tendency [...] to proceed from immediate experience to more general questions. "To tell everything" implied to speak about gods and men, life and death. Thus the symposion was not least of all the place of wisdom (Rösler 1995: 110).

Second, Oswyn Murray in "Histories of pleasure" discloses the ludic or autonomous aspect of pleasure in the classical symposion, beyond the functionalist (i.e. religious and social) role of drinking, as the main activity in which the convives were engaged. According to Murray, the theory of culture as play provides

the most satisfactory ways of analyzing the Greek symposion, which in its developed form saw itself as a world apart, separate from the external world of the polis; its aim was pleasure, its rituals were rules designed to enhance pleasure by complicating it; many of its customs were distinct from and in opposition to the conventions of society (Murray 1995: 13).

This description of the symposion in terms of autonomy of pleasure affords a consideration of the feast as a certain kind of aesthetic experience. Thus, it connects the signification of this specific form of conviviality with the questions raised by Plato, and vice versa; when one sees Plato's dialogue within the cultural context it emerged from, one better understands why the questions of knowledge, and of Beautiful as the paradigmatic aesthetic quality, are at stake.

Thus, like the historical symposion, Plato's feast too is a meeting of men, and the way in which the topics of knowledge, beauty and love are discussed is characteristic of traditional Western thought and, after gender has been established as a basic category of culture, this way reveals a male bias. However, as Grimshaw underlines:

But it is not simply that Plato had an ideal of masculinity which differs from our most contemporary ones. The sort of detailed interest that we now tend to have in the differentiations between male and female psychological characteristics, the idea of a clear contrast or polarisation between masculine and feminine qualities or the idea that they are complementary is foreign to the work of both Plato and Aristotle. These philosophers had indeed strong views about what a man should be like, but they were basically very uninterested in woman (Grimshaw 1986: 63).

I shall briefly dwell here on the topic of episteme, as it appears in Plato's Symposium. Terence Irwin in his book Plato's Moral Theory: The Early and Middle Dialogues (1977), while analyzing the signification of the Symposium, underlines the connection between desire (i.e. rational desire), beauty and good.

I shall also summarize Irwin's demonstration, especially concerning the ascent theory of desire, which is meant to show there can be a rational choice of components of the Good, and that it requires progress through various candidates to what is ultimately worthy in itself; thus the right candidate is reached. The ascent of desire has six stages with corresponding objects, from the lower to the higher ones: from a single beautiful body to the beauty in all bodies; then to the beauty of souls to the beauty of practices and laws; later on to the beauty of sciences; and finally to Beauty itself (Irwin 1977: 166-171, résumé). In short, the process is from down upwards, while, in Gosling's view, the final goal of reason is knowledge (episteme):

In other words, the progress is at least partly to more synoptic understanding. The hierarchy is probably a first sketch of the overall ordering. Bodies are subjects to souls, the virtue of souls requires reasoning and knowledge - this is directed to ordering things, and the kallos, fineness, of knowledge is seen when we see the total order of which souls are governing parts (Gosling 1973: 67).

From the aesthetic point of view, this "enlightenment", or the contemplation of the Beautiful, also fits the traditional approach to senses as being "higher", i.e. cognitive or "lower", i.e. bodily. Sight and hearing are elevated above taste, smell and touch because they appear less intimate with the body and are more distant from our physical body. As a terminology of modern aesthetics, while the bodily senses can offer sensorial pleasures, the eyes and the ears are considered to be the principal aesthetic senses, capable of providing aesthetic experience. Thus, from a gendered vantage point of conviviality, it might be said that Plato's Symposium, as a philosophical elaboration of the historical symposion's interrelated focuses (which are pleasure, education and knowledge), reveals the male bias of Western tradition, i.e. the elevation of mind over body, of man over beast and culture over nature, as well as of the masculine over the feminine.

In contrast, the literary text Babette's Feast exemplifies an approach to knowledge and the aesthetic that I would describe as "feminist". As such, as an alternative to the "disembodied" or conceptual knowledge of the universals, the "embodied persons" as "knowers" turn to the empirical or "natural" realities that constitute their environment and inform their experience.

The feminist "standpoint" theories assert that rationality requires taking subjectivity into account; and that persons' subjectivity is interactive, dialogic and socio-culturally embedded. Moreover, as Lorraine Code notes that the standpoint theorists'

project is not to aggregate women within a single, unified, or putatively representative standpoint. It is rather, to honor the material, domestic, emotional, intellectual, and professional labors that women engage in as knowledgeable practices, radically constitutive of knowledge and subjectivity (Code 1998: 180).

In this respect, in Babette's Feast, knowledge (in any sense of the word): whether of people, identity, world, culture, or truth, is mediated by understanding. To know is to understand in a certain manner that can be shared by others who form with you a community of understanding, which is also a gendered community. At the beginning, the reader discovers two mediating structures of embodied understanding, based on two mutually strange, almost hostile gastronomical models, the French and the Norwegian, that encapsulate two different modes of conviviality, culture and life conceptions. Gradually the understanding, and also the knowledge, change and evolve toward a newer and richer level, as it is "processed" in a "feminine" way by Babette and her feast.

In the same way, and unlike in Plato's Symposium, there is also a reversal of the sensorial hierarchy from the higher, i.e. cognitive or "male" senses to the lower, i.e. bodily or "feminine" ones. Consequently, the aesthetic experience moves from the sight to smell, to taste, in order to achieve its climax in the act of touching, when the Brothers and Sisters find in this re-embodied and holistic experience the shortest way to each other and to God. And I quote from the text:

It was to each of them blissful to have become as a small child; it was also a blessed joke to watch old Brothers and Sisters, who had been taking themselves so seriously, in this kind of celestial second childhood. They stumbled and got up, walked on or stood still, bodily as well spiritually hand in hand, at moments performing the great chain of beatified lanciers.

"Bless you, bless you," like an echo of the harmony of the spheres rang on all sides [...]

"The stars have come nearer" said Philippa.

"They will come every night" said Martine quietly (Dinesen [1953]1958: 63).



This article is a plea for the long-neglected but, as we have seen, highly useful tool of a gender-based approach to analysis. As Lizbeth Goodman puts it:

Reading with "gender on the agenda" offers one way on focusing on literary texts. It encourages us to see aspects of the texts and the contexts of their creation and reception which we might not otherwise notice. You may find it difficult to "read gender" at first. It might seem awkward, or seem to obscure other aspects of the text. But once you get used to paying attention to gender in literature, it is a bit like wearing a new pair of glasses: suddenly you notice all kinds of things you hadn't noticed before. This enhanced vision does not stop you seeing all you previously saw, but rather enlarges your scope of vision and intensifies and enriches the experience of seeing or reading (Goodman 1996: 8).

© Madeleine Schechter (Tel Aviv)


Bordo, Susan (1996). "The Cartesian masculinization of thought". In: Cahoone, Lawrence E. (ed.). From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 640-663

Bowery, Anne-Marie (1996). "Diotima tells Socrates a story: A narrative analysis of Plato's Symposium".. In: Ward, K. Julie (ed.). Feminism and Ancient Philosophy. New York-London: Routledge, 175-194

Code, Lorraine (1998). "Epistemology". In: Jaggar, Alison M. & Iris Marion Young (eds.). A Companion to Feminist Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 173-184

Dinesen, Isak ([1953]1958). Anecdotes of Destiny. London: University of Chicago Press

Friedländer, Paul ([1954]1958). "Demon and Eros". In idem. Plato: An Introduction. Vol. I. New York: Bollingen Series LIX, 33-58

Gamble, Sarah (ed.)(2000). The Routledge Critical Dictionary of Feminism and Postfeminsim. New York: Routledge

Goodman, Lizbeth (ed.)(1996). Approaching Literature: Literature and Gender. London: Routledge and The Open University

Gosling, J.C.B. (1973). Plato. London et al.: Routledge &Kegan Paul

Grimshaw, Jean (1986). Feminist Philosophers: Women's Perspectives on Philosophical Traditions. Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books

Irwin, Terence (1977). Plato's Moral Theory: The Early and Middle Dialogues. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Murray, Oswyn (1995). "Histories of pleasures". In: Murray, Oswyn & Manuela Tecusan (eds.). In Vino Veritas. London: British School at Rome et al., 3-17

Plato (1937). The Dialogues of Plato. (1892[1937]). Trans. & ed. B. Jowett. 2 vols. New York: Random House

Prince, Gerald (1996). "Narratology, narratology criticism, and gender". In: Mihailescu, Calin-Andrei & Walid Hamarneh (eds.). Fiction Updated: Theories of Fictionality, Narratology, and Poetics. Toronto-Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 159-154

Rösler, Wolfgang (1995). "Wine and truth in the Greek Symposion". In: Murray, Oswyn & Manuela, Tecusan (eds.). In Vino Veritas. London: British School at Rome et al., 106-112

Scott, Joan W. (1998). "Gender: a useful category of historical analysis". In: Shoemaker, Robert & Mary Vincent (eds.). Gender& History in Western Europe. London-New York et al.: Arnold Publishers, 42-65

Thelamon, Françoise (1992). "Sociabilité et conduites alimentaires". In: Aurell, Martin; Dumoulin, Olivier & Françoise, Thelamon (eds.). La sociabilité à table: Commensalité et convivialité à travers les ages. Rouen: Publications de L'Université de Rouen, 9-15

Teil 3/Part 3: Literatur(en)/Literature(s)

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Madeleine Schechter (Tel Aviv): Conviviality, Gender and Love Stories: Plato's Symposium and Isak Dinesen's (K. Blixen's) Babette's Feast. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 3.7.2004    INST