Ephemeral Stores of Memory

It was a bright Sunday afternoon with a bitterly cold wind sweeping the streets. Not many people about, not even in the lively university neighbourhood. The local second hand book store was open though, as always a comforting haven on cold & bored Sunday afternoons. 

Half of the shop window now was plastered over with the gaudy signs of spectacular price promotions “minus 20% on top of all discounts!”.  But no dopamine-shot of  potential gain for me,  only the sinking feeling of loss, because it also  read “ liquidation totale avant fermeture définitive”.  Total” selling out! “Final” closing! No appeal possible against those adjectives.   

I’d always loved this book shop – it had the typical French university flavour of longwinded verbose humanities, but also sections that testified to the idiosyncrasies of its managers (or owners).  Such as a DVD section filled with classical ‘golden age’ Hollywood films - the man running the DVD section  boasted an absolute memory of all film titles & editions.  I myself was mostly drawn to the art history section, well stuffed with late antique & byzantine art books. Once I willingly let the manager convince me to acquire one of those door stopping art books ( this one about Christian art from Late Antiquity) weighing over 10 kilos (L:35,W: 20, H: 8 cm ), if only because it contained the close-up of a particularly dignified angel, from an obscure  mosaic high up on the wall of Santa Maria Maggiora in Rome (to which I once peered up in situ without however seeing anything).   

They also had an intriguing Middle East section with a merrily diverse offer of  books, covering  Pagan, Jewish, Christian  and Islamic thought, ancient & modern history, rationalist, religious and esoteric thinkers.   While browsing the Middle East shelves I overheard the student worker who manned the shop on Sundays, explaining to his friends that with the lease of the shop coming up for renewal,  the owners had had to face a steep increase in the rent .   He briskly summed up the shop’s financial situation “revenues down because of the likes of Amazon or Netflix etc – rent up -  so no way to turn a profit any longer. The owners have 2 more second hand book shops in Brussels, also nearing the end of their leases. So now they are re-thinking the entire concept.  They might go for ephemeral stores only”.  

Well in fact he said “magazins éphémères” –  endearingly lyrical French for “pop-up store” (I assume). The young man and his friends, all 20 somethings, did bemoan the unrelenting market pressures chasing out bookshops at the benefit of yet another café or restaurant  -- but they also sounded curiously upbeat.  Somehow excited about the change, welcoming perhaps the arrival of a new trendy, concept.

Meanwhile, squatting in front of the book-shelves, I had spotted an interesting book cover –  with a picture of antique arches  and capitals, bathing in golden sunlight and a title in pseudo old fashioned lettering  “Syrie - carrefour des civilisations”  (“Syria – crossroads of civilisations”).  A lavishly illustrated book : full of glossy pictures of glorious ancient buildings, undulating landscapes, cityscapes full of unsuspecting people leisurely going about their business (selling tea in the streets, lurking at water pipes, kneeling in mosquees and churches). At the back of the book I found the publishing date : October 2011.

When I handed my find at the young man at the counter, we  also chatted briefly about the closing of this shop. He tried to cheer me up:  “I’m sure they’ll open up some new venue in the neighbourhood”. He was routinely handling the transaction, but then stopped and started leafing pensively  through the book.  He looked up at me – “beautiful pictures. So much has been destroyed. My father is from the region.  From his expression I gathered that he himself had never been there, only knew  the region’ through pictures.  

 For a moment we gazed together at the sunlit glorious images –  muttering something about “human folly” and  morosely agreeing that “at least it’s all still there in books”.  But then he perked up and enthusiastically started telling about how scholars are painstakingly reconstructing all ancient buildings with 3D computer models. “They will rebuild everything!” he stated with all the endearing confidence of youth.
And that’s of course how humanity keeps carrying on despite all the catastrophes – with always new generations beginning anew, not yet dragged down by too much knowledge of ever recurring human folly. 

Pondering history from the periphery

I’ve always been quite biased in my historical readings.

For one, I’ve spent a lot more time pouring over art history books than that I have been reading ‘regular’ history.  I’ve always found art history a marvellous, consoling invention, weaving a story of meaning & aesthetic sensibility, reaching beyond the furies of  human history.  (1)

And, secondly, when I do read history books I tend to ignore established precedence & chronology. For a couple of years now  I’ve been reading greedily about Late Antiquity and Byzantium, with ever more books on the subject piling up on shelves & window sills.  The Byzantine readings in particular, probably testify to a fascination for a tradition that is irrevocably lost, surviving only in disjointed fragments, without a real established heritage. (2)

Only now, having amply toured the fragmentary remains of “Late Antiquity”, I have at last turned to “Antiquity” itself, at its full victorious heights, reading “SPQR”, a best-selling history of ancient Rome.  The book is vivid and well written, quite instructive.  Names & dates faintly resonate with old high school memories, but the book offers a far more kaleidoscopic image and, contemporary history writing oblige, also a view of Rome through the lens of our current preoccupations. (3) 

But, however instructive the book & however relevant for our times, having turned its final page,  still “I have no love of Rome”. No fascination for this Rome that so utterly destroyed Carthago,  this Rome where even a philosopher-emperor didn’t hesitate to erect a column with images of “conquered, bound and trampled barbarians“ .  

It’s probably my sentimental “slave morality” (in Nietzschean terms) which recoils from ruthless victors; or my “peripheral” mindset which distrusts the centres of power.  No wonder I avidly underlined following passage in yet another book, recounting a parallel history:   

“I know that Rome created Europe and that her law, language, literature, architecture, and engineering are part of the heritage of western man. I know she served as a conduit through which the warm-weather civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent were passed to the dark worlds beyond the Alps. But […] I have no love of Rome. “ (4)

piling up notes against the ruins
  1.  I’ve come to think that much of art history is some sort of 'after the fact synopsis', carefully pulled together by the more thoughtful & sensitive souls  of our species – painstakingly extracting artefacts from the debris, lovingly conserving fragile human relics, tirelessly interpreting & transmitting beauty & meaning across generations.
  2.   Maybe reading about lost worlds also satisfies a certain sense of poetic duty – piling up books against obliteration? Or is mine the attention of a scavenger, morbidly attracted by decay? Only when Palmyra and Apamea are threatened by utter destruction, I start tracking them down in books and museums.  Only when Christianity has all but disappeared from the Middle East, do  I trudge faithfully to an exhibition“les Chrétiens de l’Orient – 2000 ans d’histoire”  ( an exhibition which turned out to be a poignant elegy for a millenary tradition now about to disappear forever, indeed perhaps surviving only in books & museums).  Or probably it’s just the dismal imagination of a melancholic, trying to make sense of a confusing contemporary world by pondering the fate of lost civilisations.
  3. "SPQR - A History of Ancient Rome", by Mary Beard   The book makes much of the extra-ordinary openness of Rome , right from the start, and throughout its history -   By the end of the second century CE more than 50 % of the senators were from the provinces. […] In effect, the provincials were now ruling Rome.”  Is it the polytheistic tolerance which made that so many ‘conquered’ people so swiftly wanted to become part of the ‘Roman project’? And isn’t it then a sublime paradox that monotheist Christianity would grow and spread thanks to the very extent, openness and mobility of the Roman empire?  And what lessons can we draw for our own times? Still pondering that ...  
  4.    Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews  – Wanderings 

gazing at a picture

"I'm more in the mood for looking at things than for speaking" (1) 


Dionysus raised by Bacchantes 

" [..] The implicit response to Christianity  in pagan motifs is equally apparent in [...] depicting the infant Dionysus.[...]
[Christian echoes] in the redemptive role of Dionysus:  "Bacchus our lord shed tears, so that he might bring an end to the tears of mortals."
 Pagan gods had certainly not traditionally taken upon themselves the tribulations of mortals." (2)

(1) from "Pictured" by C.P. Cavafy
(2) from "Hellenism in Late Antiquity" by G.W. Bowersock