Why write when there are so many brilliant quotes to share?
One could for instance quote from W.G. Sebald’s ‘A place in the country’ (Logis in einem Landhaus) - who weaves fascinating stories around over-sensitive writers, ill- equipped for an age of unfolding rationalism and competitive capitalism.
There’s a world of understanding of the average human lot in this brilliant, pithy phrase of his:
“The gap between our longings and our rational strategy for living”.
And here’s how his poetic insight deals with the economics of traded goods :
“[...] and sometimes on the perilous lonely peaks of this bric-a-brac mountain, here an ornate rococo clock and there a waxen angel lead a quiet and as it may be posthumous life. In contrast to the continuous circulation of capital, these evanescent objects have been withdrawn from currency, having long since served their time as traded goods, and have, in some sense, entered eternity.”
(I doubt our electronic devices will not be granted so long an after-life)
Why post photos when one can also link to the extra-ordinary street photos by Vivian Maier ( 1926-2009).
It’s an intensely satisfying romantic story, too. (Well, if it’s true, whispers the sceptic in me). A nanny roaming the streets on her days off, taking obsessively photos. Keeping hundreds and hundreds of unpublished prints and undeveloped film-rolls in a locker storage, unseen by anyone but herself until they’re discovered at an auction by a local amateur historian. And now, (after her death, alas) her photos are exhibited all over the world.
But seated on a little foldable chair!!! And yet, dear blog readers, this is the position in which the (blurred) picture to the right has been shot (clandestinely and thus without flash) – from a frog’s perspective as it were.
At the same level as the two mysterious frogs (toads?) on this engraving of the allegorical dame “Dialectica”.
She sure has attitude, this Dialectical Dame. How self-confidently is she counting off the arguments on her fingers! Not to mention the exquisite nonchalance with which she rests a foot on a pile of venerable books (Aristoteles, Zenon, Gorgias, Lucianus)...
(This is but one of over 200 delightful prints and engravings on show at an exhibit featuring the output of a prolific 16th Century Antwerp print-shop "The Four Winds" , which was exploited with both commercial shrewdness and artistic insight by an endearingly entrepreneurial couple, Hieronymus Cock and Volcxken Diericx.)
Awaiting dazzling spring-light effects and pending the vibrant pulse of sprouting buds (in woods that are anyway not crutch-friendly), one cannot but courageously chase signs of grace in dull streets.
But it does happen, apparently, dancing in the streets. For instance, when you press the shutter just when a person takes off to cross a doorstep.
Easter Music – Passions, Lamentations, Responsories and Lessons of Darkness
Centuries of Easter music have produced many worthy companions to ponder the pathos of our species. No need of course to mention the Bach Passions (on occasion I have felt they may be the closest that western civilisation came to atone for the wretched human condition).
One could choose Charpentier’s ominously called “Leçons des Ténèbres”, but these might be too worldly & pleasing for the ear to produce in the soul the requisite ”holy and salutary sadness” (as a 17th C Parisian priest complained).
One may also have qualms, for very different reasons, about seeking musical redemption in the Holy Week Responsoria / Tenebrae by Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613), a ruthless prince and unpunished murderer. Unless it would take a vicious murderer (penitent & guilt-ridden, one hopes) to lament and pray with the rawness of the blood & nails of an imminent crucifixion?
Anyway, perhaps better entrust one’s musical meditations to the Spanish composer, Tomàs Luis de Victoria (1548-1611),who reaches in his lamentations an exalted pitch of intensity and mysticism, without being devoid of the serenity appropriate for a later resurrection. And isn’t that what the Easter pathos is about - a tragic but ultimately hopeful story of a son of god fully sharing our human misery ; a god betrayed, humiliated, ignominiously dying – all to redeem our sins; and then resurrecting.
Evolutionary Theory - “Genetics of Original Sin“
The evolutionary account of the human lot offers, alas, no such divine redemption for our sins. But it does confirm the religious intuition of an original, fatal flaw in human nature. The culprit is natural selection itself, this most powerful process for maximising short term selfishness.
This is brilliantly argued in the book ““Genetics of Original Sin” (1) by Christian de Duve, a biochimist. With the calm authority and unswerving logic of a Nobel-prize winning scientist (medicine/biology), hallowed to boot by the wisdom of a very advanced age, de Duve first exposes the history and natural mechanisms of ‘life on earth’, to then explain how, if nothing is done, humanity is “headed for disaster”:
• “Natural selection has indiscriminately privileged all the personal qualities that contribute to the immediate success of individuals” [...]“[Apart from] intelligence, inventiveness, skilfulness, resourcefulness, and ability to communicate [...] the selected traits have also included selfishness, greed, cunning, aggressiveness, and any other property that ensured immediate personal gain, regardless of later cost to oneself or others”
• “Natural selection has not privileged the foresight and wisdom needed for sacrificing immediate benefits for the sake of the future”
• “Taking advantage of the powers of their brains, humans have proliferated beyond all measure and exploited a major part of the planet’s resources for their own benefit”
• “If it continues in the same direction, humankind is headed for frightful ordeals, if not its own extinction” (think of climate change, pollution, resource depletion, think of over-population and ferocious competition (i.e. wars) for ever scarcer resources, etc)
In short: if nothing is done, we’ll fall victim, not of an external menace, but of our own adaptive success. De Duve does not mention capitalism explicitly, but that has of course been the system that, by exalting greed, avarice and acquisitiveness as powerful motivations for entrepreneurship , has served us so well in exploiting scientific progress and natural resources to raise material standards of living for increasing numbers of people. And which will also contribute to our ultimate downfall as long as it does not put a limit on greed. (And Economics? Economics is merely a hand-maiden, priding itself on its amoral teaching of efficiency, the optimal use of scarce resources. (2))
“The only possibility of redemption from the genetic original sin lies in the unique human ability to act against natural selection”
de Duve coolly points out that humanity’s survival as a species is at risk if we do not manage to “act against natural selection” by controlling or adjusting deeply ingrained traits (such as greed, aggressiveness, acquisitiveness - traits that have served our ancestors so well in their struggle for life but that in the present conditions, amplified by technology and by the sheer number of humans, have become destructive.) As George C. Williams puts it:
“The evolutionary process is immensely powerful and oppressive, but, [...] it is abysmally stupid. It can reliably maximize current selfishness at the level of the gene, but it is blind to future macroscopic consequences of current action.” (3)(4)
Scientific thoroughness obliging, de Duve explores several options to ‘save humanity’ . He comes up with the usual answers such as ‘Protect the Environment’ and ‘Control Population’ (both already requiring quite some self-control over innate selfish urges), there’s the intriguingly formulated option ‘Give Women a Chance’ (because ‘several unfavourable human traits singled out by natural selection are largely associated with maleness ’, e.g. aggressiveness ).
Some other options he proposes are worthy of much speculative pondering: ‘Improve Our Genes’ (highly controversial - who will be the ultimate arbiter, what would be the population to experiment with ?) , ‘Rewire The Brain’ (education & brainwashing to teach us better manners) and ....
‘Call On Religions’ ! : not as an act of faith in divine powers, but rather to use them as a means to an end: i.e. call upon whatever moral authority or capacity for inspiration they have left, to assist in the improving of our manners .
But so, in order to save humanity, there we are back to what religions and ethical systems have tried to do for ages: teaching us charity (within the own group at least) and restraining our boundless greed and avarice.
“Evolution and Ethics”
de Duve’s book is a straightforward, utilitarian discourse, rationally appealing to our medium and long-term interests as a species. And when he mentions “morals” or “ethics”, it is to enlist them as means to ensure humanity’s long term survival. So it’s all about human self-interest, albeit within an extended timeframe and also with an enlarged mentality, trying to minimise pain and suffering.
The 19th century biologist & philosopher T.H. Huxley, too, thought that humanity’s only hope was to “rebel against the cosmic process”, by individual restraint and also by social and technological initiative. But his awareness of the workings of natural selection and of the ensuing “fatal flaw” in human nature found a much more anguished, almost poetic, expression in his lectures about Evolution and Ethics.(5)
His call for rebellion was inspired by sheer moral indignation, “repudiating the gladiatorial theory of existence”: “brought before the tribunal of ethics, the cosmos might well stand condemned. The conscience of man revolted against the moral indifference of nature” .
Cherishing a humanist concept of human dignity, he refused to give any moral authority to the principle of evolution (such as social Darwinism did). Huxley did fully recognize that moral man was a product of nature, and that also the ‘good’ moral ‘instincts’ such as sympathy and altruism had “incidentally” emerged from natural selection mechanisms (e.g. nepotism or self-seeking deals with others). (6)
But he adamantly maintained that “while cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man have come about”, Nature is not the arbiter of what is good and what is evil. And, quite movingly, Huxley associated human notions of the good with an aesthetic faculty, which by intuition distinguishes what is beautiful from what is ugly.
So here we have both a 20th/21st Century biochemist and a 19th century biologist/philosopher inciting us to rebel against our own genes, “a biological absurdity .... no more possible than the natural selection of the unfit.” (7) How can there be such a gap between Ethics and Nature, if humans (including their morality) are a product of nature?
George C. Williams: “I can think of no more fitting response than Huxley’s to this same challenge: “If the conclusion that [the natural and the ethical] are antagonistic is logically absurd, I am sorry for logic, because, as we have seen, the fact is so” (5)
Honing our ethic and aesthetic faculties ( for instance in the Procopius bookshop in Louvain)
So here’s our absurd mission: blithely combating our genes to save humanity. Obviously, we’ll need all the help we can find.
There is indeed religion, that great promoter & instigator of ethic and aesthetic values, but religions have alas a long history of promoting violence against presumed heretics and infidel tribes. Secular humanism then, for all its reverence for our ethic and aesthetic faculties, has not avoided any of the 20th century disasters. And yet, entrusting relentless scientific & technological progress to humans ruled by Palaeolithic emotions seems more than ever a recipe for disaster.
So after all, could not a wizened secular humanism, one disabused of its former grand illusions, fit the bill to offer an “ethics without [fundamentalist] doctrine” ? And while art will not save the world, could not some of its concomitant habits (of reflection, of understanding & imagination, of empathy and not least, of taste) help us to ‘enlarge our mentality’, help us to hone disinterested moral intuitions?
In 1943, Johan Huizinga ( the great historian renowned for his “Autumn of The Middle Ages / Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen”) wrote a book “Mutilated World” ( “Geschonden Wereld” – posthumously published after the war). Despairing of the then prevailing barbarism, he “reflects on the chances of repairing our civilisation”. In these reflections « he continues the defence of disinterested [cultural] exercises, of ennobling forms , without which the world perhaps loses both its meaning and its value”. (8)
I heard of this out-of-print Huizinga book only last week, while reading a collection of essays by the art historian André Chastel, whose own books now seem largely out of favour too. But judging by the few Chastel-books I already managed to find, he may well have been a prime example of that wise and disabused humanism we are looking for. (9)
Now for anyone looking for a fine selection of books to hone his or her ethic and aesthetic faculties, it is warmly recommended to spend some time in the Procopius bookshop in Louvain. It is a very selective kind of second hand bookshop, not at all crammed full with stacks of books. Its collection betrays a wayward kind of selectivity – offering a choice assortment of some of the finest writings (not limited to the usual famous landmark books, but with unexpected finds of unjustly forgotten gems).
It’s the kind of bookshop where you will find for instance this huge, beautifully illustrated, book by André Chastel on the Age of Humanism (the book as such could already serve as a bulwark against barbarism). You’ll find there too a fine selection of books on Evolution (both the de Duve book (this year) and the Huxley book (last year) I found there). And it is only there that, with great astonishment, one can discern, just on the shelf above the one with the Evolution books, the Huizinga-essay “Geschonden Wereld” about whose existence one had learnt only a week earlier...
(Praise also to the handy location of Procopius, less than 1.5 km from the Louvain-station, well within roaming range of even a crutch-assisted, train-travelling flâneur)
Fateful Credits & Notes
(1) Genetics of Original Sin – The Impact of natural Selection on the Future of Humanity
Christian de Duve (with Neil Patterson )
(2) But how about Technology: is it a potential redeemer of the human condition or rather humanity’s Nemesis? Science and technology have obviously immensely eased the harshest aspects of the struggle for life. But they have also greatly increased the impact of humans - some speak of a new epoch with humans able to change the planet: the Anthropocene . Humanity being a species notorious for its inability to properly discount the long-term consequences of its actions, this is rather worrisome. However, perhaps we have reached a point where it is only further progress in science and technology that can solve the problems we have created. But to use technological progress well, we’d need a more responsible and forward-looking human species.
(3) George C. Williams, an evolutionary biologist, in an essay accompanying the re-edition of T.H. Huxley’s “Evolution and Ethics”
(4) A frivolous non-expert speculation: the selfish gene is bent on its perpetuation, requiring not only its current carrier to survive and to procreate but also its current carrier’s offspring to be able to go on reproducing. So the selfish gene might well have a longer term perspective on survival than its individual carrier who is finite anyhow. Hence genetic coding for caring for one’s offspring and perhaps even for a concern to leave a viable world to later generations...
(5) Thomas Henry Huxley : T.H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (1894)- 1989 edition expanded with New Essays on Its Victorian and Sociobiological Context, by James Paradis and George C. Williams
(6) Those entertaining the romantic notion of a “noble savage”, a pristine state of nature characterized by love & cooperation , would shudder of present biological explanations of all seemingly altruist or social behaviour in nature - Loving care for off-spring? : ‘determined by coefficient of relationship, so an investment by the donor in its own genes’ ; Altruist behaviour without benefit for donor or its kin? : ‘provoked by deception and exploitation by a manipulator’; Rendering services to one another: ‘a calculation of reciprocity’ ; Gregariousness: ‘hide among companions so that evil will befall a companion instead of oneself’
(7) Gunter S Stent: “ the idea of any organism, including man, transcending its genes is a biological absurdity [..] transcendence of genes is no more possible than natural selection of the unfit.” – as quoted by George C. Williams.
(8) André Chastel, « l’image dans le miroir - chroniques artistiques - historiens et critiques, Johan Huizinga (1946) »: “Son livre posthume, Geschonden Wereld, Le Monde Mutilé (1945), poursuit [...] la défense des exercices désintéressés, des formes ennoblissantes, sans lesquels le monde perd peut-être à la fois son sens et son prix »
(9) André Chastel – an non-classifiable, in-between art historian (which may be why I find him so appealing): he’s neither one of those great humanist art historians still comforted in their idea of a glorious progression of the spirit in western art history, but nor is he amongst the joyless, destructive post-modernists cynically relegating the history of art to the exploitative activities of the rich & the powerful. Chastel fully acknowledged that the post-modern suspicions vàv the « world of art and its smugness” could be justified “by the naïvetés and the hypocrisies of academic discourse, by the imposture of hero-fications and glorifications”, but at the same time he continued to insist on the value of the aesthetic experience, on the dignity of artistic forms.
« On comprend bien que cette suspicion à l’égard du « monde de l’art » et des complaisances qui l’accompagnent se justifie par rapport aux naïvetés – et aux hypocrisies – des discours académiques, aux impostures de l’héroïsation, de la glorification, de la simplification idéaliste. Oui, mais au terme de la dénonciation, on ne fait que renouveler, au nom d’une critique plus ou moins politique, la condamnation platonicienne. Elle reste malencontreuse, puisqu’elle transporte définitivement la conscience à l’extérieur de phénomènes dont l’intérêt n’est que saisissable qu’à travers l’expérience qui en réactive les ressources émotives et sensibles. » « […][aujourd’hui] la démarche artistique […] est mieux représentée par le commentaire que par le résultat provisoire d’un objet »
(10) André Chastel - The Age of Humanism - Europe 1480-1530 (Published under the auspices of the council of cultural co-operation following teh 1st art exhibition of the Council of Europe “Humanist Europe” organized in 1954 in Brussels by the Belgian Government)
So I sighed blissfully, loving life, the world, and this hospital in particular. Like that cute gown they had make me put on, with little green flowers!
Oh, and there was that nice surgeon again! Who benevolently was going to give me the smallest of cuts in my leg, to kindly remove one of the bolts from the iron bar that kept my leg together. Oh yes, what a perfect day! It was Friday, I had the day off thanks to this operation and I was to return home still today.
The next day, I woke exhausted after a night plagued by nightmares (starring a giant spider with a swollen larva-like body and 8 spidery legs, flying through the air, dodging the knives I was throwing at it to eventually land elegantly on the kitchen sink).
The daily health walk was a flop – after 500 meters I miserably hobbled home again. The world was a crummy place. My entire life was a fiasco. I was a pathetic dud. Dear C was soon to leave for Spain, for an indeterminate period. Things sucked, the walls were closing in on me . I had to get out. Something had to be done! Such as going out and lighting a candle in a church? Well no, not really, but speaking of churches .... checking out the Walloon heritage pages on the web..... what was this: the Collegiate Church of Saint Gertrude - I hadn’t ever visited that supposedly marvellous Roman church in Nivelles.
Only 30 kilometres away ... and C was easily persuaded for a little outing by car.
When we left the building, we were greeted by pelting rain. And where was everybody? The city centre looked neat enough, but the shopping streets were near empty.
One shop drew our attention, second-hand stuff - peering in we saw an anarchistic disorder of piles of books, paintings, DVD’s... A handwritten notice on the door informed us that if the shop was closed, this meant that the owner was working on his Network. But the shop was not closed. While I was gingerly picking my way amongst the heaps of merchandise – putting a crutch here, a foot there – the owner (a young man, still in his twenties I’d say) was eager to explain:
- that the disorder was only temporary (he had just unloaded his truck),
- that he was in fact a “collector & connoisseur” ,
- that he was developing a Network of likeminded collectors,
- that he was building a Database,
- that he had a Business plan and was going to make enough money out of this to fund his leisure activities,
- that we had to watch out for “caravan collectors” coming on the Web soon (but he may have been bluffing there, he definitely looked hesitating) and.....
- that next week a load of superb art catalogues from Christies’ (or Sotheby’s – I don’t remember) was to be delivered! (as I write this, it is ‘next week’, and I’m sitting here car-less, unable alas to reach those loads of art books arriving in Nivelles) .
When the sun finally did peak through, I insisted on a final limping walk to the local park before going home. I was rewarded with an infinitely sombre, wintry park, pathetically dull with its empty benches, its vacuous allegorical statues, its pompous gates . Immensely endearing, really. So much so I could leave all my gloom & doom right there and then.
While of course the mind can always go after what the feet can’t reach, I do value my feet bringing me again to what I set my mind on (1).
The current 1.5 km (hobbling) roaming range already opens up vast horizons since I have, when venturing out on foot (heading respectively North, North West and South East), three second hand bookshops (2) within reach .
Selective use of the city’s public transports had already been mastered early on after my accident (brandishing a crutch to secure a seat) in order to reach my place of daily diligence. But now also intercity train travel has been added to my expanding mobility range. Which allowed a visit to an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts in the Plantin Moretus museum in Antwerp, one of the world’s oldest printing shops.
The printed book ... now there’s an example of a new medium which quickly caught on, spread everywhere, evolved and kept up with the changing times to remain nearly unchallenged for hundreds of years.
Well, there was the advent of TV, grabbing a lot of people’s attention, but it never proved quite fatal for books.
Books remained in a category of their own, either as beautiful & venerable carriers of wisdom or else as easily transportable & user- friendly stores of knowledge & entertainment. Yes, books continued nearly unchallenged, until today’s handheld devices... Would they herald the end of the printed book?
But even then, a new carrier- technology need not also mean the end of a particular civilisation’s founding texts. Have not all ‘great human documents’ been digitalised by now? So is not in any case the “content” saved for many future generations to come?
Hmm, the “content”, perhaps, but what about the appreciation of these texts, what about their understanding by the general public? Who, outside university experts, is still reading these texts with care and respect? The past 50 years of advances in positive science and technology may have compromised the very notion of ancient texts bringing wisdom. And at the same time our ability and willingness to concentrate and spend time with a complex non-utilitarian text have declined. It’s of course not just because of smartphones and i-pads which invite to surfing & tweeting rather than to deep analysis . Perhaps it’s the sheer complexity of today’s world, with its high demands on our limited brainpower, which has simply used up our spare capacity for disinterested contemplation and thinking?
But back to the early printing days ... The printed book itself was of course a major technological innovation , which crowded out the illuminated manuscript and killed the delicate delightful art of miniatures (3).
Yet what this Plantin-Moretus exhibition endearingly shows, is how much the traditional authors and texts continued to be revered in those early printed book days, how meticulously printers would strive to faithfully reproduce ancient texts. Neither were the old illuminated manuscripts discarded, on the contrary : they were avidly collected as “things of beauty” to be carefully preserved.
The early age of the printed book was a time of bold explorations and discoveries in all domains – geography, anatomy, ....
A time too of religious unrest and ferocious reformations and counter-reformations. And yet in those complex and troubled times a fine humanist culture blossomed (in the wealthy Antwerp classes at least), lavishing loving attention on the authors and the arts of antiquity.
Going back home by tram, train and tram again, I obviously cannot fail to notice how many of my fellow passengers are distractedly caressing the touch-screens of their smart-phones . Conspicuous smart-phone-holders seem to outnumber discreet book-readers by 15 to 1 (hmm, book readers may of course very well be smart phone holders too). There’s no denying the fun those smartphone-holders have with their device, but I still find that, aesthetically speaking, their eye-finger movements, however agile, are no match for the flipping of rustling pages by a traditional reader.
Not to mention the supremely attractive look of concentration of a reader absorbed in a book-passage of particular beauty.
Such a passage perhaps as this one, in defence of classicism:
“[...] The joy to understand, bringing some support to the art of living. All that classicism leading to [mere]intellectual satisfaction? Certainly, but an intelligence then which is much broader than abstract reasoning, one that is capable of clarifying and purifying the life that goes by, capable of giving more courage to the heart. That harmony between formal appeal, human spiritual faculties and the experience of life , furnishes the secret of the aptly called ‘ interior classicism’, which has nothing to do with the formal academism with which it is all too often confounded. “ (4)
Notes & a little booklist
(1) Paraphrasing Walt Whitman “My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach”
(2) These hobbling health walks to the bookshop resulted in:
* 3 out-of-print André Chastel volumes, for a ffflâneur irresistibly titled: ‘Fables, Forms, Figures’ 2 volumes Henri Focillon on the Middle Ages,
* a small introduction to the Baroque by Victor-L. Tapié,
* a bundle of essays on the Jew as pariah by Hannah Arendt and the latter’s correspondence with Heinrich Blücher (I long hesitated to acquire that book of personal letters, since Arendt wrote so often about the difference between public and private persona and how the private should remain private),
* a little studious leaflet about ‘Joachim Le Patinier et Henri Blès – Leurs vrais visages’ (published by “ le Centre d’action culturelle de la Communauté d’expression française ayant pour objet d’assurer, dans le respect de la personne humaine, la promotion et le rayonnement culturels de la Communauté d’expression française en Belgique – “ ah, how a sentence can smell of the 70s )
(3) Though Panofsky in fact speculated that the traditional craft of illumination may rather have committed suicide by an overdose of painterly perspective – whose realistic illusionary depth was ill fitted for two dimensional book decorations . “On a dit que la miniature avait été tuée par l’invention de l’imprimerie ; en réalité, elle avait déjà commencé à se suicider en se transformant en peinture. Même sans Gutenberg, elle serait morte d’une “overdose” de perspective. “
(4) Victor L. Tapié, Baroque et Classicisme : ““[...]Le plaisir de comprendre apportant un secours à l’art de vivre. Tout ce classicisme conduisant à une satisfaction de l’intelligence? Assurément, mais il s’agit d‘une intelligence plus vaste que celle que du raisonnement abstrait, capable d’éclairer et de purifier la vie qui passe, de donner au coeur plus de courage. Cette harmonie entre les faculties spirituelles de l’homme, l’expérience de la vie et l’attrait de la forme fournit le secret de ce ‘classicisme intérieur’ [...] qui n’a rien à faire avec l’académisme formel [...] avec [lequel] on le confond trop souvent.”
(5) again ..... smuggling in an autobiographic note: an apology for classical longings
wonderful Hopper catalogue) because of their shared melancholy bent.
When discussing Hopper’s poignancy of places,for instance, Emily Dickinson is aptly quoted with these lines:
– One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
And the tension in Hopper’s paintings between the sombre inertia of solitary figures and the formalist balance of their surroundings graced by light, calls of course for ample quoting from Julia Kristeva ‘s “Black Sun” ( “an oxymoron she coined as a metaphor for the negative-positive pull of melancholic creativity”).
Indeed, how not to agree with her assertion that “beauty constitutes the [melancholic’s] other realm” :
“fullness and formal order arising from some potent lost focus of longing, visual grace wrested from dejection” .
“someone passing by, withdrawn from engagement in the world the better to observe and understand it”
[...] “finding meaning in the fragments” (3)
Straying away from the Hopper catalogue I then stumble upon a little book in my library, with the unassuming title “What is Baroque?”. And there I find a phrase I‘m most eager to borrow (rashly pulled out of its context) as a personal definition of the flâneur :
“C’est un homme parmi les autres, un peu incongru seulement” - “it’s a man amongst others, just a tad incongruous perhaps”(4)
“the baroque age presents the paradox to be the moment when a force, vital for exuberant expressions, reverses into a profoundly pessimist contemplation of life” (5)
There’s for instance the paradox of the “vanity- paintings” with their virtuoso rendering of the sensuous delights of a material world while inserting the memento mori of decay (or, not so subtle: a skull).
“Thus the ‘vanity’ resumes the contradicting pre-occupations of the Baroque age: the disquiet in front of the fragility & frailty of all earthly life, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, the faculty of wonder, faced with the generosity of the world and the talent [of artists to render it](6) .
But still, being Flemish and brought up with Rubens (7) , I do continue to associate the Baroque, in painting at least, with jubilant apotheoses... So, how about the melancholy and the anguish of the Baroque period then .... ?
In painting there would be Rembrandt I suppose, and Caravaggio, and yes, in a way, those Dutch still lives & vanities.
In literature and poetry there’s Shakespeare of course (Hamlet - “Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought” ), and apparently (I didn’t know them) the French Baroque poets – witness this poignant solitary complaint (Antoine Favre):
If the soul is but wind, what breath do I have? “(8)
Nods & Notes
(1) Nod towards a blog (now alas) hidden from view: Black Sun
(2) Note of impatience
(3) Nod to self
(4) Note & Link : “Qu’est-ce que le Baroque?” by Henriette Levillain – a brilliant little book containing effortlessly erudite texts which calmly explore and explain the many contradictions of “Baroque” , be it as a general notion , or as a style, or as a particular (art ) historical period encompassing not only the visual arts but also poetry, theatre and music.
(5) Henriette Levillain: “l’âge baroque présente le paradoxe d’être le moment où un élan vital aux expressions exubérantes s’inverse en une contemplation profondément pessimiste de la vie”
(6) Ibidem: “Ainsi la “vanité” fait la synthèse des préoccupations contradictoires de l’époque baroque: l’inquiétude devant la fragilité et la corruption de la vie terrestre, d’une part, mais, d’autre part, la faculté d’émerveillement devant la générosité du monde, et le talent [des artistes pour décrire ce monde]”
(7) One of Levillain’s many interesting insights, contrasting the protestant and the catholic “vision” : “Loin d’être le support materiel d’une idolâtrie, ‘La Descente de Croix’ de Rubens demande en effet au spectateur de compatir à une souffrance qui, tout en s’exposant sous les traits de la meurtrissure du corps abandonné, porte déjà l’éclat de la Résurrection. Elle revendique, par ailleurs, par l’exemple donné de l’action conjuguée des personages regroupés autour de la croix, femmes et hommes, jeunes et vieux, pauvres et riches, la possibilité pour tout homme de coopérer à sa façon au salut du monde. [...] Mais, au delà [de ça, le message] s’opposait au pessimisme des calvinistes quant à la possibilité donnée à l’homme d’ajouter de la beauté au monde”
(8) “Si l’âme n’est que feu, pourquoy suis-je sans flamme? / Si l’âme n’est que vent , quel souffle est-ce que j’ai? “
But now, while the radiator is whirring and clucking, a gloomy silence reigns outside.
Are it the grimy window and the snow-laden sky or is it, paradoxically, the sheer muffling dizziness of whirling snow-flocks that explains this sombre stasis?
The snow has obviously reinforced my house-arrest. Though I am already shuffling through the apartment at an amazing speed (and with a single crutch!), outside I still struggle to keep a perilous balance, panicking at the mere sight of icy sidewalks.
But this less-valid persona of mine has also uncovered unexpected reservoirs of sociability: I now blithely chat with taxi-drivers ( whose experience encompasses an astonishing range of medical and legal aspects of traffic accidents). And I have speedily shed deeply ingrained inhibitions to solicit the help of unknown passers-by – if only to be able to cross one of those slippery sidewalks.
earlier light-hunting strolls.
This is also a good time to revisit past exhibitions, letting the catalogue of the 2004 Hopper retrospective making up for this winter’s missed exhibition in Paris.
These paintings of sullen people sitting or standing in bare rooms – staring, brooding – depressingly inert, if it weren’t for the bravura of light patches on the wall and the floor.
Those blind walls, stern buildings, empty streets - all quite inhospitable, if it weren’t for the generosity of that nonchalantly stroking light.
And it must be a good book, which quotes Hopper as saying “There is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of the house. You know, there are many thoughts, many impulses, that go into a picture ...I was more interested in the sunlight on the buildings, and on the figures than in any symbolism.”
Besides, how utterly satisfying, to read a catalogue text that officially endorses quiet, clandestine affinities:
“the similarity between Hopper’s Parisian stairway and Xavier Mellery’s same subject”)
Thus I continued my tour of cherished books and images, invigorated by their grace, their bravura - (their sprezzatura? ).
Quite grateful for these sentences, pictures, sights & memories that act “like subtle gold threads in the fabric of one’s life. Given the right slant of light.”(1)
[delayed posting about an able-bodied flânerie 2 months ago ]
“the lost fable speech of painting”
His description conveyed a sense of drama – the dramas of a lost fable speech of painting (2) , of the forgotten lives of minor masters (3) , of the human calamities hidden in fabulous landscapes.
“the occasional pastoral arrangement with , somewhere in the background, the chance catastrophe – the painted town in the nonchalant process of being lost “. (4)
I set out to discover these landscapes in the local Belgian museums and fell in love with their hues of brown and green and blue, with their scraggy rocky landscapes, but most of all with their shimmering blue-white panoramas of ports & oceans & faraway mountain rims.
“foreground in brown, submerged sea-green middlescape, and background of serene mineral-and-linseed blue (5), wandering out of the available frame and off the edge of the visible spectrum”
Lovely little panels... , containing the widest of world vistas while meticulously recording the smallest of details. Panels inviting the spectator to follow the sinuous paths winding through hills and pastures, populated with brave little figures on their perilous way through the world. Or landscapes featuring some Holy family on their Flight to Egypt, or a penitent Saint Jerome, a Magdalene in ecstasy, a Saint Anthony being tempted (yet again) (6) , or a Saint Christopher crossing the river and succumbing under the weight of the slender Jesus child on his shoulder.
And yet, hidden in the coulisses of the landscape, there are also the calamities to behold – such as a massacre of innocent children in an otherwise peaceful pasture somewhere further on. Or take those hellish panels plunged in deep red, with in the back the extravagantly burning cities of Sodom & Gomorrah , while in the foreground the survivors walk on almost leisurely, accompanied by angels on their righteous path. (7)
“a journey of discovery, full of varied interest”
the “Flemish Landscape Fables” exhibit bringing together hundreds of these fascinating paintings.
Established critique has it that the exhibit shows too many paintings and lacks a single clear story – well, perhaps ... but I for one enjoyed the meandering wandering in the labyrinth of pictures which the curators had created - quite happy to discover hitherto obscure painters and paintings.
A Kerstiaen de Keuninck for instance (the sheer alliterative & rhyming qualities of that name!) who specialised (with relish, apparently) in catastrophes, especially those involving fire. Or the many startling nocturnal paintings – with a mastery of clair-obscur and of drama that felt almost baroque ( e.g; an amazing nocturnal “Fall of Lucifer” by Herri met de Bles).
True bliss I found in the contemplation of Joachim Patinir’s little panels – with their vast layered landscapes stretching all the way into the far-off distance of blue oceans and white skies. “Patinier surveys the land from the mountain peaks” and thus offers “naive delight in the sheer quantity of the area surveyed” (8) and “a journey of discovery [...] full of varied interest”, as Friedländer puts it.
However, I don’t feel Patinir gets his rightful due from Friedländer. While admitting Patinir was unique in making landscape “resound [...] with [...] pathos” Friedländer dismisses this as “idyllic sentiment”.
In doing so he misses out on (9) the near ‘transcendent’ escapism that Patinir’s paintings offer , with their aura of distance, both spiritual and physical. His paintings are magnificently “centrifugal” (10) - leaving behind this world - inciting the eyes and the mind to take flight , or rather, to set sail with one of the those meticulously painted, ‘expensive delicate’ ships that sail on Patinir’s oceans.
from metallurgy mines to Babel
But pending my definitive blissful sailing away into Patinir’s shimmering blue vistas, I (have to) remain interested in the more earthly doings of this world.
And so I revelled with astonished curiosity in the completely unexpected depictions by Herri met de Bles of ... metallurgy mine activity, with highly realistic details of mine-pits and furnaces . The catalogue mentions it is the faithfully painted translation of a poem by a Nicolas Bourbon, “ Ferraria” , which thoroughly explains the best practice technological processes for metals exploitation and treatment. Just as Virgil incorporated lengthy discourses about agricultural technique in his Georgics... (11)
Speaking about 'Landscape' and 'Progress' and 'Human Hubris' ... then Bruegel and the Tower of Babel cannot be far off!
And indeed, in all its curatorial wisdom the Lille museum organized , alongside the ancient “Flemish landscape fables” a “contemporary exhibition on the theme of the most famous of architectural allegories in art history : the Tower of Babel.”
Going by the innumerable paraphrases throughout the ages, this 16th century painting by Bruegel is a very powerful image indeed .... of a very powerful myth. A myth with two faces: on the one hand the classical tale of overconfident human civilisation & technical progress punished by jealous gods and on the other hand the fall from grace from a single original language into a Babylonian confusion of tongues. (12)
landscape fables indeed
Dystopias abound, some of them more horrifying than the most hellish of Boschian hells. Other works disconcert by their shrewd turning upside down of the poetics of classical landscape painting.
And as landscape painting traditions go, few are more poetic than the Asian landscape scrolls . So it is with an anticipation of melancholy beauty that the visitor approaches the apparently misty phantom landscapes of the young Chinese artist, Yang Yongliang. Only to discover that on closer inspection the mountains are a jumble of concrete high-rises, the spruces are in fact pylons and the clouds are obviously nothing but billowing smoke.
Ah, ... landscape fables indeed. .. Lost fables, while perhaps “all the attention once lavished on the past [is] now requisitioned by the unrealized future?” (13)
But I have “no better response to looming contemporarity”(14) than to return to my Patinier-panel and to gaze once more into the bluish shimmering distance...
(1) Richard Powers – The Gold Bug Variations
(2) “The fablespeech of pictures was doomed by the creeping success of new prose” [...] “Paint enjoys its last few years in the lost kingdom of parable before its exile. Years when the eye for the last time, alarmed by the discovery of what actually lies outside the window, still has half a retina full of the afterimage of pre-existent places.” Richard Powers
(3) Herri Met de Bles (v.1500-v.1560) , supposedly a cousin and disciple of Joachim Patinir (Dinant v. 1480 – Antwerp v. 1524) , one of the first ‘dedicated’ landscape painters, of whom not that much is known either (except that Dürer admired him a lot)
(4) Cfr Richard Powers + from the “Flemish Landscape fables “ catalogue: a very Nordic worldview “[...] in which the insouciance of daily activity can run alongside drama” +again Richard Powers (paraphrasing Auden ) “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Even the minor ones. Even met de Bles, or Blesse. With the blaze. Or wound.”
(5) Sylvie Germain : “[Patinir]a peint avec du silence, avec la transparence de l’air, avec la luminosité de l’espace, et avec l’âme du Bleu même”. “Le ciel, toujours immense, est la source de l’éblouissante lactation qui baigne les lointains de ses tableaux”
(6) Being tempted by odd arrangements of hideous monstrosities and luscious women (are creepy monsters and seductive women supposed to be equally scary for a tempted male?)
(7) Righteous path...righteous path, I was abhorred by the story of “Job and his daughters”. Having escaped from the fire, Job’s wife turned into a column of salt, beholding from a distance Sodom&Gomorra’s hellish demise. Job himself and his daughters walked merrily on, accompanied by an angel. At night, Job gets drunk and incestuously proposes to his daughters. The old testament story quite repulsively presents this as “blameless Job being seduced by his scheming daughters” .
(8) This was for Europeans also the time of the great geographical explorations and discoveries – cf Colombus
(9) Friedländer: “The moment we take Gerard David and Jerome Bosch in consideration Patenier’s achievement appears limited. We cannot credit the first landscape painter with a single new discovery but we can discern in him a prophetic intuition of the value of this new field of art, which he cultivated which such devotion. Not only did Patenier make landscape predominant, he made it resound and – within the limits of descriptive landscape – imbued it with idyllic sentiment and pathos that touches our emotions. “
(10) From the “Fables du paysage flamand” catalogue, an essay by Patrick Le Chanu: the Italian “centripetal” approach versus the Flemish “centrifugal” approach – “”la peinture italienne présente souvent, aux antipodes de la vision nordique, un univers centripète dans lequel le monde qui nous entoure et la nature sont comme mis au service d’une concentration de l’attention du spectateur sur les personages. “[...]”Au Nord, c’est Joachim Patinir [dans l’oeuvre duquel] le paysage envahit encore un peu plus les tableaux, repoussant les personages de l’histoire sacrée au plan median et les plongeant en son sein. [...] cette innovation [...] exprime le triomphe d’une vision éclatée et centrifuge de la place de l’être [...]”l
(11) It does not seem that today’s painters and poets would so joyfully engage in expounding technological or agricultural processes... They’d rather question technical progress and its discontents.
(12) And the interpretation of this myth is not politically neutral, not even (or especially) these days! Some stress the “Babylonian confusion” as a divine punishment and hence imply that too much diversity is a curse. And others maintain that it is precisely “la pénsée unique” (The Single Discourse) which brings on all misery (while the multifarious flourishing of cultures is a blessing) . In any case, this confusion of tongues looks in fact rather agreeable in one of the art works on show in Lille : a tower of Babel built up from books, lots of books from many places & in many languages.
(13) Fables , escapism ... – perhaps even a Herri met de Bles was already irrelevant in his own time in the Netherlands. With his Northern pastures and rocks and seas .... when Columbus had already set foot in America.... when great discoveries were being made. And all those penitent saints with their apocryphal legends when in Wittenberg Luther had already launched his austere reformation... This is how Richard Powers captures the contradictions for a landscape painter in the Netherlands of that time : “All the attention once lavished on the past was now requisitioned by the unrealized future” “Me and my Antwerp master: no better response to looming contemporarity than to set up on a distant hill and catch the conflagration in oils”
The risk of me turning into a day-TV-watching couch potato is luckily averted by the absence of a TV. It’s just at night that I watch DVD’s on an old monitor - a whole set of 70’s French crime-films which my sister gave me to pass time (blame her teenage crush on the handsome Alain Delon).
I almost crow with pleasure at the sight of those cute French 70’s cars, the haircuts, the trench-coats! But I cringe at the degradingly narrow range of female characters with minimal text: one naked woman in bed (luscious but mute), one adulterous wife being hit with the belt by her husband, one waitress in a bunny-costume, a dozen of half-naked female dancers in a cabaret.
André Chastel for an introduction to his unfinished final project, “l’art français”.
It’s a collection of reflections and interrogations, soothingly melancholy & pensive. And remarkably (for a French art historian that is) humble about the position of French art, in particular French painting.
“One should definitely avoid to reduce the history of French art to painting. [that would be ] only an echo of the resounding dominance of French painting in the 19th century. [...](1)
"Apart from Poussin and Claude, France plays only a secondary role in [17th century] painting in comparison with the extraordinary European concert: Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez” (2)
Perhaps the uniquely French artistic genius is located rather in “monuments” (the great cathedrals, the romanesque churches, the castles) and in the decorative arts? (hm, apologies to Poussin, Claude, Watteau, Chardin,all the impressionists & j'en passe).
“ Wherever there are construction and ornament, there is something else to behold than the oppression and misery of which each age seems to be made up. [...]
From the point of view of the fabricating activity, history is no longer entirely a nightmare and the locus of all conflicts. [...]
Art, for us, redeems the miserable human condition. One should not be fooled by the historical chronicles, always written to praise the great.[...]
But by adding to each period the mass of objects and relics which belong to it, one can restore some measure of dignity to it. “ (3)
Notes en Français
(1) Il faut surtout ne pas ramener l’histoire de l’art français à celle de la peinture. [ce serait] seulement l’écho de l’éclatante domination de la peinture française au XIXième
(2) Poussin et Claude à part, la France joue un peu les seconds rôles en peinture quand on regarde l’extraordinaire concert européen: Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez
(3) Là où il y a construction et ornament, il y a autre chose à observer que l’oppression et le malheur dont il est bien vrai que chaque époque semble faite.
Vue sous l’angle de l’activité fabricatrice, l’histoire n’est plus tout à fait le cauchemar et le lieu de tous les conflits [...]. L’art est pour nous la rédemption de la malheureuse condition humaine. Il ne faut pas être dupe de la chronique, toujours faite pour l’éloge des grands. [...] Mais en ajoutant à chaque temps la masse d’objets et de vestiges qui lui appartient, on lui découvre une dignité.
(*) the photos are literally views from my sofa! (well for the 1st one I stood on crutches)
The kindness of strangers
One moment you’re cycling (on a nice, broad cycle path) and the next moment you look with baffled horror at a giant wheel under which your leg has disappeared. You scream and scream, at the top of your lungs.
Then you find yourself sitting on the ground in the pouring rain, with your left hand supporting a foot that is lying there in a bizarre 90° angle to your leg. There are people around you.
A woman is holding my hand, urging me to look into her eyes, speaking in a soothing voice each time I start panicking again (“but ma’am, do you see my foot? I’m going to lose my foot! I’m going to lose my foot! ”). A man holds me by the shoulders so can I sit up straight. Another bystander takes care of my bicycle and locks it. Yet another man shows up, explaining he has seen the whole accident happening from behind his window.
And all those people are waiting patiently in the rain for the ambulance to arrive, consoling and supporting me. All those people acting out of sheer concern... I don’t have their names (though perhaps the witness may show up in the police report) so I can only thank them, anonymously, here on this blog.
A hospitable hospital
After 20 minutes or so the ambulance arrived and they shoved me into it after having carefully wrapped my leg in a protective cylinder. The ambulance man did his best to cheer me up, allaying the worst of my fears. In the mean time I had also managed to contact C. and to alert my employer.
Now I shan’t recount every single step of the subsequent hospital procedure and medical treatment, but in any case, all along I was impressed and moved by how I was being “processed” with both swift efficiency and much, much kindness.
In a neon-lit emergency room they first did some preliminary checks and administrated pain killers via an intravenous drip. Then I was wheeled through endless corridors and lifts to a cavernous room for a radiography (“awful fracture” , the operator whistled admiringly) . After that I was wheeled back again to the emergency room with the doctor already consulting the picture of my leg’s bones on a screen and announcing peremptorily “this has to be operated, tomorrow at the latest”.
While laying dizzily, feeling slightly nauseous, on a bed, the door opened and I was over-happy to see dear C. coming in. Next a police officer arrived (busy places, these emergency rooms) to take my declaration (she looked definitely smug, saying “I’ve got two witnesses, and they’re telling the same thing too!”). Then my mobile buzzed again with my sister calling worriedly. And meanwhile the hospital’s administration had been churning on efficiently: they had already booked a surgeon, an anaesthetist and a surgery crew for an orthopaedic operation, all that on the very same Friday night.
C. had to leave, taking all my belongings with her (hospital personnel had advised not to keep mobile or any other valuables on me) and then yet another orderly wheeled me through corridors and lifts again , this time to the antechamber of the operating room. And there I lay for about two hours, alone, tired&thirsty , but oddly contented (that painkiller drip?), clutching a piece of paper with C’s phone number, watching my surroundings.
Ah, to the right a wall full with old pictures of kids, childhood pictures of the operating team members? ( yes indeed, a passing nurse confirmed). To the left another room, with an old woman sleeping in a bed, and a nurse waking. And every once in a while, some doctors and nurses passed, removing caps and aprons, chatting. Looking forward to the weekend no doubt. The anaesthetist dropped by, she looked into my dossier and reassured me I was still to be operated on tonight.
At last I was rolled into the operating room –the anaesthetist was telling a funny story to the nurse while approaching me with a big cylinder-needle.
A hospital bed with a view: rooftops, clouds, co-patients, nurses, doctors and dear visitors.
“did everything go alright? “ I asked, when opening my eyes again. It was 10 PM and I was in a regular bed in a hospital room with a nurse arranging a pillow under my foot. She gently touched my sole, (“do you feel this? “yes, I do!) ” and asked me to wriggle my toes (which proved harder). I was still clutching the paper with C’s phone-number and the nurse was kind enough to give her a reassuring call. My room-mate (with an impressive bandage on her nose) peeked around the curtain to inspect the new arrival and we briefly exchanged the state of our respective pains and ills.
It was a night of tossing and turning, for both my room-mate and me. I often woke with a start, looking out of the window at a dark cloudy sky, rooftops, and far off some buildings with Xmas-lights. At 6AM the nurse checked again upon me and then gradually the hospital came to life with the day’s procedures being launched: checking temperature & blood pressure; washing; changing IV drip & bandages & bed clothes; feeding etc etc.
The ward doctor and a trainee doctor came by and looked at my wounds (looks good!), the surgeon came by and looked at my leg (looks good!). The physiotherapist came by and took note of my worry that I couldn’t move around my foot. Later yet another ward doctor came by and made me move my foot (I couldn’t ) and duly added this fact to my file.
In the afternoon, while still being condemned to bed, I found myself again in the rare position of being the centre of attention , this time of my dear visitors laden with fruit and periodicals.
In the evening my room-mate moved out, leaving silence behind her - a flamboyant woman she was, with a dashing allure making one all but forget the huge bandage on her face. She had been speaking a mixture of beautiful French and rapid Arabic with her visitors and had been equipped with the latest of (very audible!) visual & audio electronic gadgets.
The next room-mate came in only on Monday morning . An elderly woman wearing a scarf and accompanied by worried relatives. She didn’t speak French and looked initially quite frightened, seeming to find solace only in her string of prayer beads. She did revive when an Arabic speaking nurse came in or when chatting on the phone and when her daughter and son in law (both looking quite hip and entrepreneurial) came over during their lunch hour. (Daughter & son came also kindly to my rescue with a plastic teaspoon when I enthusiastically tried to attack a smuggled in yoghurt without the necessary equipment).
Meditations on crutches
How relieved I was when I finally received a couple of crutches and a 10 minutes’ course of “walking on crutches”. At last a modicum of mobility and autonomy again, be it hobbling and limping.
While sitting in a chair by the window, waiting for dear C. to bring me home again, I gazed outside – over the rooftops, to the rapid clouds in the sky and then down, to a man doing some paintwork on his balcony, a woman cleaning the windows, a cyclist passing by in the street below. How peaceful and reassuring it all looked.
I had been having regular flashbacks of that horrendous wheel on my leg, I couldn’t yet move my foot, was still in some pain, felt slightly feverish and very tired. But I also felt calm and thankful, definitely thankful, yes. And much less of a pessimist misanthrope than I usually am. Because indeed, so much care and kindness had been bestowed on me ... belying so many of my gloomy views.
Brussels a tough city full of indifferent people? What about those accidental bystanders then, who promptly helped me and then patiently waited in the rain for the ambulance to arrive...?
Belgium a society crumbling under inefficiency and lack of social cohesion? What about the smooth functioning of ambulance+ police+ hospital then? ( and I had ‘merely’ been receiving standard treatment). What then about the amazing diversity of people (a startling range of colours and native languages) at that hospital, all getting along and doing their bit? As a citizen I’m often fretting about how all these different strands are to merge into a coherent whole, as a patient I have now only seen collaboration.
However, one injustice remains glaring. Hospital nurses are truly to be admired – their work is hard, with irregular shifts and is both physically & emotionally demanding . Their care means so much for anyone who is ill, helpless or in pain. And yet they’re underpaid, earning much less than selfish self-important bankers...
"Due Diligence" , “Binding Offers”, “Exclusive Negotiations” , “Sale and Purchase Agreement”, ...
But blog readers need not worry (1) ... even in full M&A fury, I have kept up the good flâneur-habits. Such as paying lavish attention to the changing lights and skies of the unfolding season, from shimmering autumn to frosty winter.
And all along I have been accompanied by a wonderful book to wake up to each day: Eugène Fromentin : “Les maîtres d’autrefois. Belgique – Hollande.” It was a delight to have this 19th century French Romantic painter making me appreciate anew the startling diversity in ways of seeing (from the glorious apotheoses of a Rubens to the pensive chiaroscuros of a Rembrandt).
Note - publicity
(1) a reassuringly long & winding post is upcoming! (about landscape paintings on show in Lille)
Pretty atmospheric bridge, isn't it?
It's a railway bridge called " La Rampe du Lion" (lion's ramp). You get there by the avenue Zénobe Gramme (inventor of the industrial dynamo).
The romance of industry ...?
Don't be fooled - the smoke you see is no genuine smokestack industry stuff. That eternal smoke plume is rather a constant reminder of the waste we produce (those are exhaust fumes of an overworked waste incinerator).
autumn leavesWhat a ravishing autumn gift: this foggy world so dashingly illuminated by heaps of yellow leaves! Or so I enthused while cycling through Brussels’ derelict canal-zone, which is not habitually associated with lyrical outbursts.
I was on my way to the romantic Gaasbeek castle in the Flemish countryside, for a melancholy exhibition on the theme of Sehnsucht. But to get there I first had to negotiate my passage through the rougher outskirts of Brussels – under sooty railway bridges, across a misty canal, along semi-industrial terrains and all the length of the grimy Chaussée de Mons. These are supposedly mean streets pockmarked by poverty, unemployment (1) and rising religious assertiveness (2).
But on this particular Sunday all was peace & quiet : the gloomy housing blocks, the canal, the ships – they were all enveloped in the stillness of the fog. A soothing luminous stillness, not sombre at all - illuminated as it was by yellow leaves everywhere, yellow leaves rustling on the trees, yellow leaves spiralling in the air, yellow leaves in soft, thick layers on the ground.
the urban jungle on SundayNear a metro-station of ill-repute I had to wait at a traffic light – while cautiously looking around, my alert gaze was captured by ... the innocent Sunday-morning spectacle of a baker’s shop window full of cakes & pies (lavishly dotted with red cherries & swimming in whipped cream). Ever so watchful, I had also warily been registering a young black man in training suit and with a small backpack who had been vigorously jogging in my trail for the last 10 minutes or so. Riding on, I spotted even more brawny young men! in little groups! in training suits! with hoods!
But then I saw the two signposts with: “R.S.C. Anderlecht” ; “Constant Vandenstock Stadium”. Obviously, all were heading with great hopes & ambitions to their Sunday morning football-training.
Hopes & ambitions.... somehow, for all their poverty and social problems, these Brussels boroughs do not exude the resigned hopelessness that has come to reign in some of those ailing towns mercilessly abandoned by Industry. (3) Here one does still sense brimming resourcefulness and reservoirs of youthful energy – because around here there are indeed so many young? And so many new arrivals? (4) But then again, pent-up energy can easily become explosive if it lacks suitable outlets. And they can’t all become football-stars. (5)
getting there!But anyway, on I courageously cycled, as next I had to traverse the most dreaded and damned of urban circles: commercial suburbia with its eternally congested highways and its sprawl of ugly shopping centres (6). A flâneur’s nightmare! (But thankful thoughts do go to the benevolent public space planners who, even in this car-infested purgatory, provided for cycling paths.)
And then I did at last reach the calm of the Flemish countryside. No immense arcadian vistas welcomed me, but rather residential villa areas (7) alternating with the remains of nature. Nevertheless, a roving eye directed by imagination will soon merely see foggy fields and woods, with their autumnal stillness punctured only by big black birds surging up in the mists.
An endearing conspiracy of the imagination was at work too at the domain of the Gaasbeek-castle. Only love, judiciously blended with gentle irony, can thus preserve and revive the ambiguous historical longings of a 19th century marquise widow (Marie Peyrat, alias Marquise Arconati Visconti ). In the surrounding park one revels in the classically romantic alleys lined by age-old trees and one cannot but fondly smile when glimpsing a phantom marquise galloping by on horseback (8). In the castle itself, awe and fascination dominate while one wanders through the labyrinthic neo-renaissance interior that our Marquise conceived of : at times grandly severe and sombre, at times testifying of an utterly bourgeois horror vacui, stuffed with heavy antiques and art objects.
But our dear Marquise’s spirit is perhaps best revived by the contemporary art exhibitions organized here (9) as they echo and comment the startling personality of this ambiguous woman .
A woman who would deliberately chose the Autumn season to live in this northern castle (while also owning Italian palaces). Often dressed as an androgynous renaissance page, an insatiable collector, dilettante, copious letter writer... A republican upstart spending an inherited aristocratic fortune to realise historical fancies...
Not quite a revolutionary or responsible life – but so melancholy an enterprise, so pure an example of turn-of-the-century sehnsucht ... and then so sturdily embodied in this castle!
Yes, melancholy flâneurs can only be grateful to the imaginative keepers of this castle and its phantoms.
Statistical and sociological notes
(1) The Brussels Institute for Statistics furnishes a fascinating wealth of facts and figures
(2) A recent rather funny example – some panels with explicit publicity for D-cup black bra's were covered up with chaste white paper. (I must admit I’d been shaking my head at that add too, but then I do shake my head at most publicity, insofar as I notice it at all)
(3) A poignant remark from a worker at the condemned Ford motor company in Genk (Limbourg): “10.000 people soon out of work... this place is going to become as desolate as Charleroi or la Louvière, soon we’ll all be slouching about in sloppy training suits”
(4) In Anderlecht, for instance, 28% of people do not have the Belgian nationality (to be added to those with Belgian nationality but recent, foreign roots). The average age is 37, to be compared with 42 in Flanders.
(5) In these boroughs about 25 % of the young leave high school without a proper degree, deficient in both linguistic and technical skills. And in an economic context where appropriately paid unskilled jobs are rare... this means rocketing youth-unemployment figures
(6) And yes, I count Ikea amongst the dismal joyless shopping centers, although I must confess my own books are almost all housed on Ikea shelves. But ah, these neon-lit, rectangular structures, conceived only to expose the shopping hordes to as many wares as possible in the shortest timeframe ... Is it an un-escapable law of economics that every gain in efficiency must entail a loss in grace?
(7) Sight-seeing cyclists with a sociological bent might speculate about the contemporary correlation between heaps of money and outrageous tasteless eclecticism, as exemplified by this huge, rambling Spanish hacienda-like villa structure crammed full with neo-classical ornaments. (But these sight-seeing cyclists should not let slip their traffic attention while gaping at monstrous villas! They should continuously be prepared for the sudden appearances of packs of cyclist-amateurs in tight suits, ruthlessly wheezing by.)
(8) smartly positioned mirrors with a marquise silhouette cut out in black
(9) my favourite remains the 2008 exhibition which I visited on a dark and snowy November day (quite suited to dark mysterious castles). But as to theme and title (“Sehnsucht”!) this year’s exhibition is of course a winner
Entering a museum on a rainy day, one feels confident to find shelter from both pouring rain and crushing banality. There’ s even nothing like rain pelting down on a majestic glass roof to heighten one’s spiritual concentration while contemplating, say, a formidable Rubens panel.
Unless... unless in front of aforementioned panel stand two plastic buckets. drip ..... drop...... drip...drop. One anxiously searches the glass expanse far above, feeling slightly vertiginous – as if one were a perilously falling drop.
Vertigo too, gazing into the depths of grief and compassion in that
Van Der Weyden pieta.
This still yet ardent scene of grief, set against a startling sunset.
Maria desperately clutching her dead son – St John, with red-rimmed eyes, supporting both Maria and Jesus’ dead body - at some distance, the Magdalene rapt with quiet grief.
Not intended as a blasphemous remark, but this painting gives me a vertiginous sense of god-forsakenness ... , redeemed only by the sheer intensity of human compassion.
Intensity – is that what distinguishes Zadkine’s expressionist cubism from its more formalist cubist peers?
An anthropomorphic statue symbolizing a bombed out city ... Reality shot to pieces, shattered – and yet there’s an inexplicable solidity to this cubist re-assembly of fragments. As if geometry and verticality combine to offer a tangible structure to hold on to.
“Perhaps given the material’s aspiration for permanence, the best subject for a monument is indeed destruction” (1)
The next day, no apocalyptic rains to drive me into a museum. And the light (“but this light, oh Jesus Christ! this light!”(2)) dispelled all melancholy thoughts I may have had.
No more futile craving for permanence, no more vertigo, even not while blinking at the brilliant fleetingness of the October light.
It’s enough, more than enough, this slanting light, and the long shadows of a cyclist wheezing by.
(1) Joseph Brodsky – Homage to Marcus Aurelius
in all its haphazardness, even an as fragmented life of the mind as mine can spawn its deeply satisfying correspondences: on the very same day that I happened to chance upon the Zadkine statue at the museum, I was reading a completely unrelated Brodsky-essay in which this brilliant insight about sculpture, referring to precisely Zadkine (!), turned up.
(2) William Bronk – Where It Ends (finder’s credits for Bronk poems and heartfelt thanks go to A! )
for this or that human lot, for this or that experience” (1)
“Dismiss the heroines without sympathy”? (3)
Why have George Eliot’s heroines been catching all that flak? (2) Even Virginia Woolf, though lavishing praise on Eliot, seems to do so rather despite Eliot’s heroines. (3) "Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her"
So what's supposed to be wrong with these heroines? Are they not assertive enough? Are they too meek, too reflective? Do they perhaps commit the cardinal sin of not pursuing personal happiness single-mindedly enough? Does their behaviour smack too much of the sentimental-stoic ” though I can’t be happy – I can be good” ? (4)
Let’s simulate the prosecutors’ case, to find out what exactly these heroines are charged with (and to prepare their defense).
There is of course Dorothea in Middlemarch, who, for all her ardent personality does not rise to greatness. She first wastes her youthful energy on the vain scholarly efforts of a dour husband, and then, widowed, marries again the wrong sort of man.
So what does Eliot give her as a fate: “perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity”.
And then, at the end, Eliot does not only keep alive her un-heroic heroine , but even seeks to justify this “blundering life”!
“Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive”.
Yeah .... you see, lots of self-sacrifice and doing good without ever attaining glory or even personal happiness.
Or take Romola (from the eponymous novel) – here’s a fine, honourable and well-educated woman in 15th century Florence, who however has the misfortune to marry a dishonest opportunist. (5) The scoundrel-husband, Tito, is charming and ingratiating enough, but does not feel bound by any moral obligations and sees life merely as a “game of skill and luck”.
When Romola becomes aware of his moral failings, she is repulsed and resolves to flee. She briefly envisages a grand, though lonely, future “to go to the most learned woman in the world, Cassandra Fedele, at Venice, and ask her how an instructed woman could support herself in a lonely life there”.
But just when a chapter bravely concludes with “She was free and alone”, just as the sympathizing reader feels like cheering her on, wishing her the best of luck, the plot takes a stern turn with Romola being called back to her domestic and civic duties by Savonarola himself (that ancient Florentine paragon of Christian virtues).
So, reading on, we cringe to see Romola going back home to her husband, obeying him but living a parallel life of selflessly tending to the poor and the sick in pest-ridden Florence .
Meanwhile, Tito has been putting his charms and duplicitous skills to good use, making headway in the complicated Florentine political world (in the process disowning his old and needy foster parent and also managing to father a couple of children with an unsuspecting naive mistress).
So again, a case of feminine self-sacrifice and doing good , easily outwitted by selfish duplicity which single-mindedly pursues its own goals.
Depressing, really. How the reader yearns for a more indomitable and “fierily egotistical” heroine – such as the saucy Jane Eyre, fighting rejection with the proud battle cry: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself”
At the end of the Romola-novel, some sort of justice is done though: Tito’s double-dealing is exposed and he’s killed by the foster father he had disowned. In the epilogue we find a placid Romola (“an eager life had left its marks upon her” ), in her well-furnished Florentine study, surrounded by friends, teaching Tito’s son. But this “happy-ending-of -sorts” has not placated the detractors of Eliot’s virtuous heroines .
For them, it is precisely the unlikely, far-fetched way in which Tito gets his final just desserts which confirms that George Eliot did not wish to grant to Romola herself the personal strength and guts to prevail but instead resorted to outrageous, near supernatural, twists of the plot to set things right.
A harsh verdict...: guilty because not happy?
Encapsulating the prosecutors’ case, here’s a very selective quote of Virginia Woolf on Eliot’s heroines – seemingly harsh (but perhaps already containing the seeds of the defense) (5):
“Each has the deep feminine passion for goodness [...] In learning they seek their goal; in the ordinary tasks of womanhood; in the wider service of their kind. They do not find what they seek and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. [...]
Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself.”
Summing up the accusations: why couldn’t George Eliot give us more combative heroines - who could both fulfill their personal ambitions and find domestic bliss with a suitable mate? Heroines who find what they seek, heroines who are happy for all the world to see!
Especially since such a happy fate was not utopian, as George Eliot herself had shown through her own, brave, choices in life.(6)
“the greatness that belongs to integrity”! (7)
But let me now, at last, rush to the defence of Dorothea and Romola !
First of all, why blaming Eliot for writing novels with a realistic, though pessimistic, assessment of the human condition? Isn’t it a fact of life that “the unscrupulous are more likely to succeed in any struggle for power” (8)? Do not examples abound of the fact that “ virtue, after all, is far from being synonymous with survival; duplicity is” (8).
And yet, and yet, despite all our disillusioned realism don’t we indeed carry some idea, some desire of justice within us? And isn’t longing (9) integral to the human soul, and not to be dismissed as a mere fancy even if it is not within our power to realize it? So again, why blaming Eliot for novels that evoke exactly this ambiguity of the human condition?
“Justice is [...] not without us as a fact, it is within us as a great yearning”.
And then, secondly, I personally cannot find that much fault with Eliot’s heroines. I don’t think they’re that downtrodden, actually I find them far braver than many of their more cheeky sisters in literature. They may not find a suitable mate, they may not rise to fame (10) – but they do retain their full personal integrity. In fact, they cope with life’s adversities, with the world’s “meanness of opportunity” and , not least, with their own limitations with “all the grace and dignity they can muster”.
Why would Jane Eyre be worth more just because she finds “perfect concord” with Mr Rochester?
And speaking of depressing literary heroines ... please spare me the female figments of 19th Century male imagination. Spare me the likes of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, even Effi Briest ... victims of their presumed irrationality, mercilessly convicted to death by their creators.
Really, I very much prefer Eliot’s heroines. Because of their genuine though unsuccessful yearnings, their reflectiveness, their tenacity, their honesty and, most of all, because of their unfailing integrity...
They may not triumph on the world’s stage , but at least they stay alive, they potter on, they don’t go mad – which is actually quite an achievement for a 19th century female literary character!
Notes & Quotes
(1) Joseph Brodsky
(2) discussing the worth of fictional characters (beyond technical considerations), boils down to assessing possible ways of being as represented by the writer – so these are inevitably highly subjective discussions ...
(3) Virginia Woolf on George Eliot , article first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 20th November, 1919.
(4) “though I can’t be happy, I can be good” : an exhortation that indeed, throughout the ages, has kept too many a good woman from rebelling against crushing conditions
(5) But then, VW’s text is delightfully brimming with nuances and ambiguities – a text worth reading and savouring again and again
(6) from the introduction to Romola by Dorothea Barrett: “None of these heroines is permitted to find the answer that George Eliot found for herself”
(7) Romola, p 582
(8) Joseph Brodsky
(9) Ah, Longing! How I cherish longing.
Longing in its most ineffective form, as an agnostic but metaphysical desire. Desires for instances of beauty, goodness, justice, ... that are not of this world.
Surely there must be many profound philosophical treatises on the subject. But for now I’ll stick to a couple evocative quotes:
- “The narrator declares her agnosticism, but at the same time describes human desires that history and reality cannot accommodate, desires that find their fulfillment only in the imaginative world of romance. “Justice is like the Kingdom of God – it is not without us as a fact, it is within us as a great yearning” “(again Dorothea Barrett in her Romola-introduction)
- “[Eliot’s heroines] demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence” (again VW on GE)
- (nothing to do with Eliot but a great occasion none the less for one my favourite Walter Benjamin quotes): “the new is mythic because its potential is not yet fully realized – the old is mythic because its desires never were fulfilled “
(10) And, frankly, isn’t Romola’s 15th Century fate somehow consistent with Virginia Woolf’s own historical hypothesis in “if Shakespeare had a sister”?