looking for companions (a phrase, an angel, three camels & a deer)




A companion-phrase  

There’s  this sentence  that keeps popping up in my head – in fact almost every time I check the news:

  "the extraordinary frailty of human affairs"

Arendt coined the phrase in the context of unpredictable human action and political affairs .

In my head it has turned  into an incantation whenever despairing of human fragility, of the failings of our human condition.


A companion-angel

It’s such a wonderful landscape painting (1) – a winding path, magnificent trees, a river, animals, loitering little figures, a hazy horizon with bluish mountains – a complete worldscape.

And in this worldscape Tobias and a companion-angel walk & talk animatedly,  with a dog running joyously ahead.   It’s a very helpful angel, too - a bit later, handily in the same picture space, he points out to the man how to catch a fish.


What more could one wish for, a friendly,  solicitous angel accompanying us on our wanderings in the world.



Accompanied by three camels and one deer


Another painting shows the journey home of young Tobias through a wooded mountain scape. 

He’s still accompanied by his angel and his dog.   
But in his wake now also follows a magnificent party on camel back (carrying Tobias’  new found wife & servants & gifts).






The landscape reminds me of the Belgian Ardennes – and sure enough, a familiar deer can be spotted in the shadowy woods. 

So that makes for three camels and one deer, quite improbably but joyously inhabiting the very same  woods - (however , maybe not that improbable: some sources indicate that  "both roe and fallow deer roamed widely through the Middle East during Biblical times"). 







References and a reality check

  1.   Landscape with young Tobias and angel / Landschap met jonge Tobias en engel ,  Denis van Alsloot (Mechelen 1560/15802 – 1626/1628) en Hendrik de Clerck (ca 1560 – Brussel 1630) (KMSKA)    (& how lovely to read that the painter found inspiration in the forêt de soignes/ Zoniënwoud, Groenendaal, Ter Kameren)
  2.  Wooded mountain scape with the return journey of Tobias / Bebost berglandschap met de terugtocht van Tobias, David Vinckboons (Mechelen 1576 – Amsterdam <1633 dresden="" i="">both paintings are on show in the Rockox House in Antwerp :"The landscape in the Netherlands")


  • Checking out the Old Testament story on the web, I learn that Tobias’ father was “Tobit, a pious man living in exile in Nineveh (modern Mosul, Iraq)”.   Mosul  : unexpectedly behind the scenes of an age-old story of angelic succour (lovingly painted in the Low  Countries ), these days a city trapped in the miseries of war. 


  • Intermezzo





    When I’m not worrying about the extinction of the sun in 7 billion years’ time, or about the rise of global sea levels by 74cm by the end of the century or about globalisation, migration, robotisation, work and next week’s elections, I tend to be a fairly happy person. 



    Content with an hour of reading a day, enchanted by pictures from all ages, grateful for the music – happiest when I ‘m on my feet, ready to be charmed by whatever fragments the streets have on offer.


    And isn’t it wonderful that there’s even a formal musical tempo for the moderate walking pace : 

    “mässig, in gehender Bewegung”




    “I have no idea what is actually going to happen …”




    I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist, or communist, is going to smash and probably deserves to.

    Like the third century, [ours] is an age of stress and anxiety. In our case, it is not that our techniques are too primitive to cope with new problems, but the very fantastic success of our technology is creating a hideous, noisy, over-crowded world in which it is increasingly difficult to lead a human life.  […] as for our public entertainments, the fare offered by television [and internet]  is still a shade less brutal and vulgar than that provided by the amphitheatre, but only a shade, and maybe not for long.

    I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it.” (1)

    All I did was adding a mention of internet and deleting “the twentieth” – so as not to spoil the startling illusion of topicality.   Because this is actually a piece written in 1966, drawing parallels between the 3rd Century Roman empire and the 20th Century.  To complete the comparison, following topics could of course have been added : migrations, shifting identities, religious fermentation – to name but a few.





    (1)     from  “The Fall of Rome” by W. H. Auden. (written in 1966, published  in Bowersock’s “From Gibbon to Auden -  Essays on the Classical Tradition”)


    tantalising books





    It’s not the least of the Late Antique & Byzantine attractions – the mosaics, these delicate fragments delivering such powerful visual & tactile illusions.

    So praise be to the producer of Averil Cameron’s book “Byzantine matters” - with its rough cloth cover inviting to be touched, with its  pictured mosaic bird offering such a boisterous sight for sore eyes.






    However lost the classical tradition may be - the longing for a lost classical past has a long life.

    So praise be to the producer of G. W. Bowersock’s book “From Gibbon to Auden – Essays on the Classical Tradition” .  The cover image of Hubert Robert’s "Roman Ruins" is unmatched in its wistful depiction of tiny people amidst decayed grandeur. ( Hubert Robert!  even when imprisoned during the French revolution, faithfully imagining & painting the grandest of ruins.)




    Note for b.
    You sharp eye may have noticed it, just below the above mentioned books , tantalisingly close to the touch & the camera:  the surviving gods on the cover of Peter Brown’s “Late Antiquity“