(*) title appears courtesy of Flickr-contact Gumshoe in Heels
How corrupted has my view on the world become? Tainted by over 25 years in a competitive corporate environment, coping with the screeching pitch of urban life.
Thus I wondered, sitting in a regional bus that took me into the countryside. Questioning my own surprise at people simply being friendly and patient.
How was it possible that I had been startled by the mere fact that people said “thanks, goodbye” when getting off the bus, that I had been astonished that the driver answered, too! And this was not just about the cosy familiarity of lifelong village-neighbours. Because, actually, the public on the bus was quite varied: Polish and Asian women riding out the city to their cleaning job in the suburbs, commuting schoolchildren, elderly couples doing their daily shopping.
How was it possible that I was amazed at the bus driver’s patience with an old man’s perilous procedure to get off. The old man was dressed as if for an outing ( incl. a neatly starched “pochette” handkerchief) and one could only admire his daring. Because simply leaving the bus was quite a feat for him – slowly shuffling to the exit, ensuring a firm grip of the door’s handle bar, cautiously descending the steps, foot by foot, then doing an elaborate rebalancing on the ground, turning and finally grinning victoriously before sedately moving on.
And all the while the bus driver had been intently watching the old man’s manoeuvres in his rear view mirror, making sure the doors didn’t close before he had gotten safely out.
Later on, at the annual corporate seminar in a lakeside hotel, I was to engage in earnest discussions on how to improve productivity and performance. I was to publicly worry about project-deadlines, privately worry about not being up to scratch, about not being able to play the corporate game for another 15 years, at least.
But in the evening that same bus would be waiting for me at the local station. It would take me home though dark forests, an illuminated capsule propelled by a considerate driver. And when I would get off at the first Brussels bus stop, I would wave and shout “thanks, good night!” to the driver.
The old man had some trouble pushing the door open. It was a heavy door too, made out of cast iron & bronze. A duly imposing gate to this monumental villa, built with weighty and noble materials: “marble, polished granite, bronzes, wrought iron, glasses and precious woods”.
The door looked all the more massive for the frailty of this elderly visitor. But both did share an aura of formality and refinement, belonging to a bygone era.
Though looking pathetically shrunken in his grey suit, the old man was indeed impeccably dressed, and leaned on his umbrella as if it were an elegant dandyish cane.
The sumptuous villa hosted a contemporary exhibition "a book between chairs" . Dedicated to two objects which have been perfected throughout the ages, becoming essential companions of humankind: books and chairs.
It testifies to the resilience of the "book-as-concept" that it still can be the trendy subject of a contemporary art exhibition – investigating its uses, its texts and its materiality - with only little harking back to past glories. It also testifies to the sturdiness of the "book-as-object" that it can patiently endure various contemporary art mistreatments – such as having its words blotted or cut out, having its pages torn and turned into strings of beads, suffering burned holes, shredding and colouring etc etc.
And, finally, it testifies to my own irredeemable respect for traditions & books that I only got really excited in the room with precious books & manuscripts. Peering reverently into the dimly lit showcases: an illuminated bible (Latin), manuscript on parchment , southern Netherlands, 2nd half of 13th century. A Book of Esther, (bible, Hebrew) 17th century). Venerable Qur’an commentaries (15th C), A frail evangeliary scroll (Armenian) 18thcentury.
In another age I might well have been a scholar devoted to commenting on the meanings & revelations of a revered book. As it is, I’m an ever doubting sceptic, perhaps even a (reluctant) post-modern relativist. But however disabused I am, however resigned to the inexistence of final truths and irrevocable wisdom – books, for me, continue to carry an aura of authority and of relative permanence that no on-line resource can match.This is obviously not the attitude of the emperical scientist – it is rather the state of mind of a melancholy humanist, looking for wisdom in humankind’s age old libraries (and privately lamenting about how discredited erudition in the humanities has become – unable as it is to show the kind of practical results and progress produced by proficiency in natural sciences and technology).
But back to the exhibition, and back to the old man. He moved very slowly, almost gingerly through the rooms. He regularly sat down on an attendants’ chair, head bowed in concentration, guidebook on his lap – thus graciously offering the one iconic image that this exhibition oddly lacked: a man on a chair, reading.
A spurt of optimism
Was it a momentary lull in the world’s hostilities? Or just a matter of the day’s papers publishing their backlog of harmless local updates instead of the reports of various horrors?
In any case, this media ceasefire allowed me to temporarily lift my pessimistic guard, too. It had been a while, but now I tumbled with a spurt of cheerfulness into the day. A day off, too. And a lovely, sunny day to boot, after days of incessant rain.
As I had planned a daytrip to Cologne, I left home early. And found such a wonderful world outside! Streets and rooftops lay scintillating in the early morning light. At the bus stop people gave each other a friendly nod, before quietly gazing at their smartphones again.
Everything so peaceful and still, except for the loud screeching noise of a garbage van slowly riding by. But ah, look at the speed and agility of the garbage men! And how admirably coordinated did this garbage collection process unfold!
The bus arrived - almost exactly on time. All passengers duly badged, took their seats and then watched their smartphones again. Most were dutifully going to work, probably. I started musing enthusiastically about the amazing organisational feat of getting a city started for the day. The whole complex logistics of public transportations shuttling people to their respective destinations! The many departments devoted to keeping streets safe and clean! The gas and electricity grid companies distributing energy in order to let people brew their tea and switch on their computers!
I also reflected on the goodwill and mutual tolerance of all these urban actors playing their part, on their amazing diversity, as displayed by this morning’s sample. Deeply grateful towards all these well-intentioned people, who were ensuring such a perfect urban organisation, I got out of the bus at the metro-station stop, switched to the underground, arrived at the train station and boarded my train at the designated time. Yet another example of seamless efficiency!
Still basking in my untroubled state of grace I plunged into a book (1) about medieval notions of sacred time – liturgical, ‘sanctoral’ and eschatological – without any relevance whatsoever for today’s world, but nicely fitting my planned visit of the Romanesque churches of Cologne.
It had been a while since I last was in Cologne. I didn’t remember there were that many bicycles the last time I was here? I’m of course quite partial here - but I do feel that having so many bikes around, instantly makes a city more welcoming - the rhythm and intensity of traffic are slowed down, there’s less noise and one can at least breath. (2) Not a bad setting, then, for this aesthetic pilgrim to set out on a tour-on-foot of Cologne’s churches. Romanesque churches, not Gothic, or at least not full-blown Gothic.
For all the splendour and architectural bravura of high Gothic churches, I have come to appreciate the earlier specimens even more. Not the dark, oppressive early Romanesque churches that have barely risen out of the dark depths of underground crypts, but those in-between churches with their sober elegance: lighter and more graceful than the militant early churches, simpler and purer than the later Gothic cathedrals. Already espousing rib vaults and pointed arches – injecting rhythm, illuminating space –but as yet without soaring haughtiness (3).
The rhythm of lines and curves, the strength of pillars, the grace of light streaming in : what more would a soul need to feel both sheltered and exalted, to take flight?
Of the 12 Cologne churches, the St Andreas church has perhaps the most perfect balance of lightness and gravitas. The others impress too, but not without a certain oppressiveness.
A case apart is the Schnütgen-museum of medieval art housed in the St Cecilia church. Showing fragments – pieces of stained glass, sculptures – that are no longer part of a once sacred whole, but dispersed witnesses of a bygone art, a bygone world. And a flâneur hunting for fragments, can only be grateful to this Mr Schnütgen who carefully gathered these remains.
“Sammelt die Stücklein damit sie nicht untergehen” was Alexander Schnütgen’s maxim ( “collect the little pieces so that they will not perish “)
The rest of the afternoon I spend wandering around Cologne - how laid-back and agreeable a city this has become ..... especially on this late August say, lulled by an end-of-summer calm.
The truce has ended
Waiting at the station to catch the train home, I look up at one of those screens with continuous newsfeeds. The (perhaps illusionary) media truce has ended and I learn about the day’s bombings and beheadings.
During the long trip home, my pessimist self is back on duty. So I cannot help brooding. About the world in general, and, egoistically, about my hometown, Brussels, in particular. History and current affairs show how quickly things can go awry. How quickly goodwill and mutual tolerance can evaporate. 45% youth unemployment in some Brussels boroughs, that makes for quite a reserve of idle and frustrated youth. How easy is it to seduce youngsters with the heroics of horror? I don’t know.
Then again, perhaps "we" (all BXLs citizens) do feel that we have too much at stake, perhaps we all do realize what a great good a peaceful, well-functioning city is. And so we can just go on, as we do now quite successfully, to live and let live in all diversity.
(But worried I am.)
Notes about books, bicycles and churches
- Jacques Le Goff – "A la recherché du temps sacré"; a book about a 13th century book ," La légende dorée" by Jacques de Voragines, a book full of acpocryphal stories about the lives of the saints that has inspired many a medieval painting. “L’entreprise de Jacques de Voragine était : en s’appuyant sur le temps, enchanter, sacraliser le monde et l’humanité".
- Ok I admit, I just love to have them around, bicycles - it makes me feel relaxed – whether they wheeze by or even when they’re just parked (in which case I have taken up the obsessive habit to always checking out how and with what kind of lock they are attached).
Much as George Duby writes about the Cistercian
churches: "L’église cistercienne est incarnée. Mais elle est aussi décharnée, réduite à la musculature, au squelette. Et
c’est bien là ce qui nous touche en elle, au plus profond."