The Summer Pursuit of Happiness




Nothing like a sunny Summer Saturday in Belgium to watch humankind’s stubborn pursuit of happiness (1) in action.  It had been raining for days with temperatures nearing winter levels, but now, 25 degrees were imminent.  So overnight the inundated staying-at-homers had switched from coats & pullovers to sprightly summer attire, and found themselves optimistically thronging the train platforms to board a train for a suitable summer day trip.(2)

Luckily, from my commuter days a long time ago, I still knew how to manoeuvre to get a seat in a chock-full train.  The elderly couple opposite me looked equally content to be seated – he was spelling out the sports-pages, regularly sharing comments with his wife who made approving noises without for a moment letting her intent gaze stray from the pictures in the Ikea-catalogue.

Jealously, I tried to emulate this woman's unperturbed concentration amidst the clamour of elated people on a summer train.  In order to contribute to the happiness of this summer day, I carried with me a small booklet:  “The Beautiful”  “Het Schone” - a stately Dutch translation of an un-apologetically convoluted analytical German  philosophical text (3) .   
Mustering all my (rather fading) powers of concentration, here's what I read about the work of art:

 “Wat betekent het dat hier niet iets werkelijks wordt vervaardigd, maar iets waarvan het ‘gebruik’ geen werkelijk gebruiken is, maar wat zich karakteristiek verwezenlijkt in het beschouwend verwijlen bij de schijn? “ (4)



Het beschouwend verwijlen bij de schijn”!


"The Contemplative Dwelling on a Mere Image"!


What a lovely phrase to dwell on indeed. And the perfect permit for my contemplated day of happiness! 
While everybody was storming beaches, forests, amusement parks and zoological gardens, I was going to stroll through the deserted summer streets of Antwerp; I was going to do dwell in (for sure) deserted art galleries; losing myself and finding the world in images. (5)

And indeed it was happiness: to walk aimlessly through a city that had slowed down, with people lazing about on terraces, sharing an illusion of carelessness - with summer stillness reigning outside the shopping streets and with the elation of hearing cyclists whizzing by rather than cars roaring by.



 And happiness it was indeed : to wander about the rooms of a small but carefully arranged exhibition with few acclaimed masterpieces, but with many more petits maîtres to discover or to meet again (6). Ah, so that is how Fantin-Latour (with his so very still paintings - often depicting women painting or reading) looks like: an intense yet introverted presence.
Happiness it was, to look at the photos in the exhibition (7) which boldly claims to want to instil in its visitors the same disinterested elation as  experienced by a walker “bevrijd van de druk van werk, zorg en haast”. (8)    


And then, of course, this being Antwerp – there is always the river.  The grand river Scheldt – bringing the ways and the smells of the great outdoors.  A huge Russian ship lay moored to the quay, a  container boat chugged along, a speedboat speeded up. There was  the sun, the water, the wind – fragments of music drifting from the other side of the river (ah the wistfulness of Arab music), mingling with the screeches of seagulls, with the deep bass of a ship’s horn, and, faintly, coming from the city, the sound of a church’s carillon joining in.





Happy Notes

  1.   Happiness depends on shutting off empathy, I recently read. Or just shutting off global newsfeeds.
  2. It would be really bad taste to compare the storming of trains by frenzied day-trippers to the storming of the Calais channel tunnel by frantic migrants. 
  3.  “Het Schone” –  Hans-Georg Gadamer
  4.  "What does it mean that not something real is manufactured here , but something of which the “use” is not an actual use, but the contemplative dwelling on a mere appearance/image” [translation suggestions are very welcome] 
  5.  " Dankzij het schone lukt het op den duur zich de ware wereld opnieuw te herinneren. Dat is de weg van de filosofie."  “Thanks to the Beautiful, one can in due course again remember the real world. That is the way of philosophy” 
  6. Exhibition TourDeFrance    (Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts Extra Muros)
  7.    Fotomuseum Antwerpen  Exhibition Fotomuseum Anwerpen ;  
  8.  "freed from the pressure of work, care and haste”


reflections on the vexations of power




Status-anxiety at work

I remember this interview with a (brilliant) violinist on the radio : asked why he had chosen the relative anonymity of playing in a quartet instead of pursuing a more grandiose solo-career, he answered “I guess I prefer to battle for a collective cause, if it were only about my own career, I’d feel awkward, I would lack the motivation “.   

What a contrast with the attachment to personal status and the self-aggrandizing that seem to be the hallmark of successful men in the private sector.  Well, maybe it’s my education or maybe it’s my twisted character (which bizarrely, really against all proof, keeps seeing self-doubt as a virtue) , but in any case, it’s with unceasing astonishment (and abhorrence)  that I watch the displays of this sense of entitlement of the powerful.   

Jamais de ma vie” a highly ranking director spat out in disgust when the possibility was uttered of him taking public transport in order to avoid the 2 hours of traffic jam he had to endure in his classy car.  And suggesting to a CEO that he could take the metro (just 4 stops, especially during rush hour arguably faster and more reliable than a taxi, but indeed involving mixing with the hoi polloi), was rewarded with a withering stare, as if the mere suggestion was a mark of disrespect. 

I’ve also watched with astonishment how ruthless these men of power can be, how quick to launch reprisals against those they suspect of disrespect. Are they so insecure?  Is it because all pretence to power inevitably implies a deep-seated fear of being challenged?  Is that why power by its very nature demands and expects submissiveness? 

 In any case, the anger of those who presume their authority has been slighted, often seems disproportionate to the cause. Their vindictiveness does not seem a rational reaction to, for instance, a threat of the well-functioning of the company.  It’s really about a primitive, instinctive reaction to defend their own challenged authority by violence. 

In a contemporary work-context, the violence of course does not become physical –  it’s mostly limited to firing – a very effective method to remove alleged unruly elements (and to instil fear-induced respect in those that remain).


Looking at the wider world

In the wider world abuse of power can become much uglier.
This blog does not often comment on current affairs (too much injustice and suffering out there anyway, and far too many comments swirling about already), but it’s just that I happened  to watch this American police video of how a minor traffic incident resulted into the arrest and ultimately the death of a young black woman. 

What a nightmare. You’re stopped for failing to signal a lane change, so the police officer explains. While waiting for the officer to write out the ticket in his car, you light a cigarette, perhaps tapping the wheel with irritation, perhaps shaking your head. The officer comes back and asks what’s wrong. Since you’re being asked, you somewhat curtly answer you’re indeed a bit annoyed because in fact you switched lanes precisely to make way for the police car.  This reply apparently incenses the police officer who orders you to extinguish your cigarette. But hey, you know your rights, this is your car.  How unfair, all this. The situation then escalates to the point that the officer physically attempts to yank you out of your car and threatens to “light you up” with a taser gun.  “Wow” you say, and you swiftly get out of your car, complaining loudly. You’re being arrested. “Arrested? Arrested for what???” you yell in disbelief. Etc.Etc. 

 I have no idea what happened afterwards in that prison.  But how can this be considered a lawful arrest  in the first place? In what way did the smoking pose a threat? In what way is curtly expressing (when asked) an understandable annoyance, a threat? 
Frankly, what else can one see in this but a tragic escalation triggered by a man who felt his authority was being challenged, a white man who was deeply disturbed by the lack of submissiveness displayed by a young black woman.