An ample stock of feel-good tales with a melodramatic twist may well be essential equipment for living. These tales come in all shapes & sizes: ‘from-rags-to-riches’ stories spur on the ambitious poor, tales of glorious sportsmen conquering insidious diseases teach perseverance, legends of debauched heretics eventually turning into saints remind us, poor sinners, that we still may correct our dissolute ways.
As to me, I dote in particular on those many instances of art (or beauty, or goodness) that have sprung in conditions of hardship. Somehow they reconcile me with our quite pathetic human condition. Maybe because belief in the autonomy of the mind & the heart appeals to a naïve trust in ‘mind over matter’? Or perhaps, more pessimistically, because it is a last-ditch defense for anyone fearing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. A bit like the Stoics, who anxiously tried to console themselves by proclaiming the independence of the moral self from the wretched worldly conditions: “though I can’t be happy, I can be good”.
But this penchant for “beauty-in-hard-times” is not merely about spineless escaping in dreams of happiness and success (with the eventual rude awakening). It’s rather about a quite stubborn affirmation of the self, the will to practice our most cherished faculties despite all adversities.
It reminds me of an exhibit of ancient Chinese drawings and aquarelles I went to a while back – these most delicate studies of clouds and trees had been made in a period of great upheaval and hardship in China. I myself was at the time struggling with a whole set of petty assaults (ranging from nasty practical problems, over minor health issues to a general emotional malaise). And so what could be more wonderful than concentrate for an hour or so on these fragile and yet so powerfully beautiful images. The accompanying commentary read “ the artist felt it was important to still be able to create beauty, also in these hard times” . Yes. Yes. Indeed.
But I can recommend even stronger consolatory stuff! Nothing like a good story of an unhappy artist, preferably isolated and/or infirm, who still manages to create great works of art, and who by the end of his or her life achieves recognition and fame. (I must admit I’m a bit less keen on stories of posthumous fame – I do wish people to have their morsel of happiness in their own lifetime).
Now I’m definitely not talking here about self-assured ego-trippers chasing glory – no, in this context I prefer my unhappy artists to be rather unassuming. It is then all the more vindicating when glory finally strikes.
For me, one of these exemplary artists is Clara Haskil
(1895-1960) , a Roumenian born pianist and Mozart-specialist. After a flying start as a child prodigy she was beset by ill health and long bouts of depression. It is only at age 55 (!) that she is rediscovered and then she goes from one acclaimed performance to another, recording Mozart sonatas and concerto’s, Beethoven sonatas, …
For a few years she receives her due from the world, in terms of recognition and happiness. But then, at this, improbably belated, height of her career – fate strikes again: “a fall on the steps of the railway station at Brussels ended a life that had [seldom] known optimism or a sense of victory, had been ill-equipped to face everyday life, and was ruled by self doubt, self-hatred, and depression”(1) . But now, almost 50 years later, her few recordings are still devoutly cherished. Because of that resilient piano-play that comes to us, through all the crackling recording imperfections, so dashing, dazzling & delicate.
And then there’s this Finnish artist, Helene Schjerfbeck (1862- 1946)
– who now, after all this time…,has a deserved retrospective in the Paris Museum for Modern Art. Hers is also a tale of ill health, impoverished living conditions and decades of isolation.
But ah, how she sublimates a childhood wretched by infirmity in that sparkling and endearing portrait of a convalescing child. … There is so much light there and so much stubborn life ….
Apart from these delightful impressionist exercises, she comes most into her own when rendering tranquil scenes (of women sitting while reading or sewing or talking) in a formal language of great economy, focusing on shapes and shades, almost Chinese-flat & subtle if it weren’t for a persistent attention to the stray variations of light (by the way – that is my single greatest objection against abstract art: bluntly shutting out the enchanting play of light and atmosphere, how dare they!) .
But most impressive perhaps are her self-portraits … As a young adult they show a classical northern beauty , but with already a disturbing gaze of persistent inquiry. By the time she has turned 60 she starts a courageously confronting series of self-portraits – portraits concentrating on the stark lines of an emaciated face, on the persistent gaze of staring eyes, on the expressive lines of lips. And always that fierce expression …….
Yes, one is haunted by these old age portraits – because they have attained the haunting bareness of truth.
“Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.” (2)
(1) CD-sleeve-notes by Uwe Kraemer
(2) WB Yeats
Well, I must admit, from a Francophile youth I’ve evolved into quite an anglophile. With even a soupcon of amused disdain for the persistent French “délusions de grandeur”. But nevertheless, part of me does remain loyal to my youthful infatuation.
And infatuated with Paris I was! Oh how I fantasized at age 15 about life on the Paris left bank. Sitting in cafés, clad in black, smoking gauloise cigarettes, drinking coffee, reading the papers and feverishly discussing the latest events in the political and intellectual world. Yes, that definitely seemed like an alluring life program at the time. But despite having spent in my early twenties quite some hours sitting in those cafés, drinking black coffee and smoking numerous cigarettes, no exciting bohemian life has ever revealed itself to me. So maybe it’s because of those spurned youthful advances that I turned my back to Paris for so many years.
I rediscovered Paris in my thirties – in a more detached and aesthetical mode. Because really, about urban aesthetics the Parisians are never wrong. It’s a city of an amazing beauty. Just take those boulevards, such harmony of colors (the soft beige stone of the façades, the black of the balustrades, the luminous grey of the rooftops) and the sheer orderly rhythm of the façades! The soothing regularity of windows and balconies saved from blandness by all those slight variations that are so entertaining for the eye.
And then, how astute the French are with their use of red (1) everywhere - from the “Tabac” signs to the many awnings. And how elegantly that perpetual Xmas red contrasts with the distinguished grey & beige of buildings & plane trees alike. Not to mention the many red reflections on wet pavements. And that soothing skyline of grey-blue rooftops against a grey sky - how caressing those delicate variations of grey and blue (worthy of a Whistler painting). Oh yes, trust the Parisians to turn northern gloom into another opportunity for refined color-harmonies.
So it’s a good city to wander about in these dark December days. With its illuminated café-windows so generously open to the streets.
And though I no longer feel like emulating Simone De Beauvoir, and even though I’ve quit smoking, I still love sitting at one of those little round tables in a smoky café, reading a French paper, looking at the people hurrying by in the streets.
And I wonder whether it’s the French commitment to politics with passion that made the French articles about Benazir Bhutto’s death so much more empathic than the British ones. With even a tremolo of drama and moral indignation in the comments (notably the Bernard-Henri Lévy comment in La Libé).
And for one who cannot bear much Glühwein cozy-ness or Xmas-markets bustle, the Paris way of spending those December days at art exhibits seems so heartwarmingly civilized. Even if it means queuing outside a museum for an hour and getting chilled to the bone. One feels solidarity with one’s fellow-queuers, equally red-nosed and stamping their cold feet, trying to hold a book with numb fingers. And how welcomed one feels then in the warm buzz of the museum – the murmur of muffled voices and shuffling feet. Roused by the expectation of a major cultural Event, which is always faintly thrilling in the Paris air. Yes, I suppose I do love Paris more than I usually care to admit….
(1) red, the city said
Those sheltered days, they “can’t come again, but are for others undiminished somewhere”.… (1) It’s lovely to watch now children engrossed in their Xmassy activities. Or take those teenagers loitering about the streets: their un-Xmassy bravado so very much a reminder of the schools’ Xmas vacation and the cozy Xmas trees at their homes.
But for an adult, these dark December days between Xmas and New Year hold other charms. Like travelling by train from Brussels to Paris. No, a car-ride won’t do, it’s the station-atmosphere you want in these December days. Whole families in thick overcoats and scarves, hauling big suitcases, are thronging in the station’s hall, anxiously watching train announcements on the screens. Yes, it’s another kind of travelling than in the ski-season or during summer – it’s less frivolously exotic, more family related and that’s perhaps why it feels more poignant. All those uprooted people travelling back home to their families for the holidays….. (2)Oh, I love to wander about stations in this period of year.
On the train, people then settle in their seats with their provisions for the journey: fruit, papers, books. I myself plunge into a book and shut out children’s cries & old ladies' chatter by hiding in headphones full of Mozart.
But then, when I look up from my book, staring vaguely into the compartment, my attention is arrested by that tragic portrait filling the entire first page of a fellow traveler’s paper: Benazir Bhutto… Brutally murdered during an election rally the night before.
I had been shocked upon learning the news on Internet. To me she had always seemed the embodiment of intelligence, grace and courage. Here was an educated, determined woman, loyal to her country and her faith but a secular democrat, the first female prime minister ever of a Muslim country. I had considered her return to Pakistan as an act of bravery, one offering some hope for the region. “Praying for the best, preparing for the worst”, as she had said herself.
Of course she was such an icon, and I only knew of her via articles and one or two appearances during debates on TV. So maybe I have always projected too many fine qualities in her. And of course there were the dubious family dealings, there was the whiff of corruption, there were the allegations of being manipulated by the US into returning to Pakistan.
So, granted, there is a shady haze surrounding the Bhutto dynasty and thus Benazir Bhutto herself . But still, this stubborn fact remains: she abandoned a comfortable life in London & Dubai to go back to Pakistan. She went back, knowing the risks. All for the sake of participating in the public debate and in the democratic election process. This is an act of bravery that no blinded kamikaze can suppress, that no slander campaign can ever squelch. Yes, Benazir Bhutto had this foremost of political virtues: courage.
And perhaps we can come to terms with her tragic ending by seeing it as an example of secular courage, of courage without bigotry or violence. Yes, maybe she gave an example that may inspire others … Or am I being too naively hopeful … Reading the papers now, the talk is of revenge, rioting, chaos …
But no, I do want to believe that the legacy of her actions during these last weeks will bring some good, proving as it were that rational proponents of democracy can muster more courage than any blinded zealot or despot. Benazir Bhutto as a symbol of democracy. So, I prefer to conclude with these TS Eliot lines as a tribute: “What [she] had to leave us – a symbol: a symbol perfected in death”
(1) From some poem by Philip Larkin – I’ve forgotten which one
(2) lo and behold, this might well be a bible flash back- the nativity story – didn’t Joseph and Mary have to travel to their ancestor’s home for a census?
“art works are the worldliest of all things” (1)
A phrase that raised my hackles some 10 years ago. Art? Worldly!? Art works mere Things? Was not art part & parcel of the life of the mind, unsullied by the base materialistic connotations of words like “worldly” and “things”?
It has taken me quite a few years and quite a few Arendt reading sessions to understand that Hannah Arendt’s “world” is neither base nor materialistic. For Arendt the “world” is the sum-total of cultural, technological and political artifacts that lend a degree of permanence to our transient human existence.
That “world” is meant to outlast the short lifespan of each succeeding generation. It is meant to resist the forces of living that consume and devour without leaving a trace. And so we can for instance contrast the world’s cultural objects with life’s entertainment.
“Entertainment, like labor and sleep is irrevocably part of the biological life process. A metabolism feeding on things by devouring them”.
We consume entertainment.
Whereas the excellence of the world’s cultural objects is precisely measured by their durability. “The cultural world, which, insofar as it contains tangible things – books and paintings, statues, buildings, and music – comprehends, and gives testimony to, the entire recorded past of countries, nations, and ultimately mankind. As such, the only nonsocial and authentic criterion for judging these specifically cultural things is their relative permanence and even eventual immortality. Only what will last through the centuries can ultimately claim to be a cultural object.”
And what is the factor that ensures this relative permanence? It is not functional usefulness…. Use-objects are prone to become obsolete and to be discarded. Not many contemporary spectators stand in awe of highly useful medieval horseshoes. …
So is not beauty then the ultimate criterion? That “most important and elemental quality, which is to grasp and move the reader or spectator over the centuries.”
Why can I, agnostic 21st century city-dweller, still be moved by a medieval cathedral? Why am I, Brussels-based dilettante, moved by photos of 15th century indo-islamic buildings?
Because in that cathedral I am dazzled by the elaborate music of pillars & arches & light& shade (2). Because the buildings in the New Delhi Lodhi Gardens are “treasure troves of light & shade & shapes & incredible soul” (3).
And so yes, I now fully agree with Hannah Arendt :
“art works stay longer in the world than anything else, they are the worldliest of all things”
But this is a highly contested affirmation these days … in an art world that distrusts aesthetics, that values concepts and processes over objects.
Just by way of exemplary contrast – here are parts of the Wikipedia entry on Artur Barrio , a contemporary Brazilian artist:
“Artur Barrio is seeking to create an experience. He uses both ephemeral and precarious materials […] . His use of inexpensive materials (garbage, toilet paper and urine) was a rejection of the aesthetic elite and the art world they controlled”
He repudiates any aim of permanence:
“Barrio has no interest in the preservation of his pieces since the art he is interested in is the experience of creating the art and the experience of interacting with art. To Barrio, the artifacts that are used to create these experiences are not the art and do not need to be preserved. […]
This and the fact that so much of the materials used in creating his works are perishable and decay means that there is very little work of Barrio’s in existence in permanent collections.”
But in the end, the artist’s yearning to leave a trace in the World of durable objects does seem to win out – or so I conclude from the fact that durable replica’s of the artist's eminently perishable works were made to ensure a more enduring afterlife in art galleries.
Wikipedia about Barrio’s legacy:
“Artur Barrio has become more accepting of the greater art community. His work (or replicas created as examples of his work) is now exhibited with increasing frequency”
But whereas I can feel sympathy for Barrio’s initial passionate plunge into transience and for his wish to defy elitist standards, I am deeply suspicious of the motives of an artist like Damien Hirst.
After a rich career of shocking and un-aesthetic installations (diverse animals on formaldehyde), he recently went for the permanence of a richly decorated object (to be precise: “a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds, including a pear-shaped pink diamond located in the forehead of the skull”).
I suppose the title he gave to his decorated skull, “For the love of God” is meant to cynically echo the dedication “ad maiorem Dei gloriam”(4), which motivated generations of anonymous cathedral builders (1) and sublime composers (Bach).
But no doubt this 50mln pound skull should be interpreted as a courageous statement of the artist exposing the mercantile and materialistic ways of the contemporary art world.
footnotes, again, not to be missed
(1) Hannah Arendt “The Crisis in Culture”
(2) “The cathedrals were built ad maiorem Dei gloriam, while they as buildings certainly served the needs of the community, their elaborate beauty can never be explained by these needs. […] Their beauty transcended all needs and made them last through the centuries; but while beauty […] transcends needs and functions, it never transcends the world. On the contrary it is the very beauty of religious art which transforms religious and other-worldly contents and concerns into tangible worldly realities. In this sense all art is secular […] it reifies and transforms into an ‘objective’, tangible, worldly presence – what had existed before outside the world, whereby it is irrelevant whether we localize this ‘outside in the beyond of a hereafter (traditional religion) or in the inmost recesses of the human heart” (from: "the Crisis in Culture”)
(3) see this Flickr Photostream treasure trove
(4) to the greater glory of God
Well, I could start by listing some names & titles (1) :
- John Armstrong: “Why Beauty Moves Us to Tears”
- Hannah Arendt: “Jews and Society – between Pariah and Parvenu” ; “Stateless Persons – Jewess and Shlemihl”
- Edward Said: “Intellectual Exile : Expatriates and Marginals”
- Marc Chagall: paintings with people floating in the air
So what could they have in common: the settled British Philosopher of Aesthetics (still alive), the combative Palestinian Intellectual & Professor of Literature (died in 2003) and the Jewish Political Philosopher (died in 1975)?
Well, they seem to share a common sensibility to the condition of exile and marginality.
Now you can take exile in an actual political or geographical sense, indicating the dislocation of whole communities and the flows of migration. There’s also exile as a literal individual banishment from one’s home or community . And then you can take exile as a metaphor, indicating a state of un-at-homeness in a personal or even poetical sense.
But whether it be the fate of a community or an individual, an actual or a metaphorical state, exile always means “existing in a median state […] beset with half-involvements and half-detachments, an adept mimic or a secret outcast". It is “the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives”.
Said’s "secret outcast or adept mimic" seems like a variation then on Arendt’s account of the choice faced by those who live on the fringes of mainstream society: either remain a Pariah or become a Parvenu.
Said sees exile as a potentially fertile ground for a critical intellectual because of the “double perspective” exile offers: the exile’s ambivalent position means that for him or her “an idea or experience is always counterposed with another”, he or she incorporates multiple points of view. Arendt then sees as the “privileges of pariah’s : “ humanity, kindness, freedom from prejudice, sensitiveness to injustice”.
Being an exile, marginal, pariah, …. might almost seem a highly romantic fate, rewarded with a heightened sensibility and a unique outside glimpse of the world. And perhaps exile is an opportunity indeed …. well, for a few lucky individuals that is. For those lucky enough to be endowed with innate self-confidence and talents so as to be able to reconcile their own inner contradictions and at the same time take on an indifferent or hostile world.
But more often exile, whether coped with as a pariah or as a conformist parvenu, is alas a condition of utter solitude and isolation. And it is striking that both Said and Arendt (1) , when getting into personal instances of exile, mention the demand that “ one harden oneself against self-pity”, that one should not fall into the trap of “envying those around one who have always been at home”.
And what on earth could the settled professor of aesthetics have to tell about exile? Ah, he knows about exile too, as we all do. He gently reminds us of all those moments when we are moved to tears by beauty – be it in the serenity of an evening sky, in the sweet welcoming smile of a medieval Madonna, or in the wisdom of some lines of poetry.
Does not this beauty hurt, because it reminds us of those better (wiser, more serene, more warm and welcoming) parts of us we all too often neglect while getting on with the strenuous business of life? Does it not feel then as if these moments of beauty are intimations of a home we have been forced to relinquish? And aren’t we all exiles from this home, exiles from our better soul , only every once in a while reminded by beauty that our aimless wanderings are (2)
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
Or take the Russian-Jewish expatriate painter Marc Chagall, what he had to show about exile, with his dreamy anguished paintings of violinists floating in the air above cozy houses and gardens. He wrote (3) :
“the houses have been demolished since childhood. Their inhabitants rove about in the air, in search for a home. They dwell in my soul.”
As always, there’s truth to be found in bulky footnotes
(1) this is no name-dropping! Allow me to quote from a previous post: I don’t drop names, I recite them , reverently & lovingly. Somehow those names serve like talismans – “reminding me of what I value”, evoking a world of wisdom & wit & beauty where I alas cannot often dwell.
(2) There is for instance Hannah Arendt’s book on Rahel Varnhagen (a Jewish woman having lived in Berlin from 1771 to 1833, looking for “recognition and a morsel of happiness” in a society that valued very lowly indeed a sensitive Jewish woman without particular beauty or wealth). This curious book (so uncharacteristic for Arendt’s oeuvre) is a “meditation on human marginality”, showing the inner consequences of it, how it makes a person vulnerable to alienation, how it may drive one inward. How a person may seek refuge in the realm of abstract ideas and art, so as not to confront a concrete personal reality of unhappiness. “Objective and impersonal thought was able to minimize the purely human, purely accidental quality of unhappiness - thus the power and the autonomy of the soul are secured” – but at a high price …
(3) And here’s more of the Wordsworth verse – I put it in the notes, because I feel awkward about its religiosity. I’m not a religious person, but of course I dote on the metaphor of a glorious home we would have left behind.
"Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home. "
(4) Chagall, extracts from “Ma Vie”:
« Les maisons ont été détruites dès l’enfance,
Les habitants vagabondent dans l’air
A la recherche d’un logis.
Ils habitent dans mon âme. »
Ha, I bet you didn’t take me as a pink, polka dot kind of person! Well, there you see, the liberating and mind expanding effects art can have.…
It was out of a sense of cultural duty, and dragging my feet, that I went to the opening exhibit in the brand-new Wiels-centre of contemporary arts in Brussels (housed in a former brewery).
I mean, an obscure (to ignorant me, that is) Japanese Icon of Sixties Pop-Art and Fluxus movement. An installation of pink balloons, an artistic oeuvre inspired by a crazy obsession for polka dots? What could that kind of irrelevant tripping possibly teach me about the state of the world, the depths of the soul, or the intricate beauties of the senses? These woolly frivolous creative hippie sixties types …. Polka dots! ?!! Pink Balloons????No really ….
Well …. I must say … there I was, drawn into a fairy-tale… as anxious and obsessive and primal and enchanting as fairy-tales go.
Imagine a huge white industrial space, lit by a golden afternoon sun. Entirely filled by giant pink inflatable balloons, covered by black polka dots. And some of the balloons you could enter, seeing yourself endlessly reflected along with even more polka dotted balloons….
Yes, there I was, slaloming and dancing amongst the balloons – dazed and dazzled – and happy, I guess.
And then moved, when I read about the artist, Yayoi Kusama, who for 40 years obsessively has filled an entire aesthetical universe with polka dots. Tormented by neuroses and anxieties. Living, since 1972, in an apartment in a psychiatric hospital in Japan. And still working, still inventing, still piloting exhibits of her work. Well cared for, there in her hospital, I hope. And happy among her dots, I hope.
(*) Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Manifesto, 1960
Anyone suffering from bouts of insomnia knows the trick: when you lay there wide awake, it is of the utmost importance to control your thoughts. No way you can have them straying leisurely into the vast plains of past failures and present fears. Neither is 2AM the time to ponder the state of the world or the sufferings of humanity.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”
Or, to placate those who might think I have sold out to mindless optimists, here’s Pascal’s precept to allay fears of death and misery: ne point y penser …. (2)
“Since man has not managed to abolish death, misery, ignorance – he has, in order to be happy, resolved himself simply not to think about it”
(1) Gosh, do I really believe this myself?
(2) « Les hommes n'ayant pu guérir la mort, la misère, l'ignorance, ils se sont avisés pour se rendre heureux, de ne point y penser »
Take that cleaning service across the street, with a busy ladder outside – surely the harbinger of some very useful activity about to be performed. There’s not a shred of self-doubt in this whole set-up. It is just there . It is reality. It is solid.
Or take that house with adjacent garage. That door, so very accomplished a door – you can imagine the light filtering through its glass windowpanes into the silent corridor. And that garage : so perfectly closed a garage! You can just hear the rusty rumble when the garage-shutter would be raised.
I really really should do a lengthy post on my favorite author, whose writings I mostly do not really understand, but whose books are such a consoling presence in my library (2), and to whom I always return: Walter Benjamin .
“the allure of his thought lies in his imagination of a perfected world, in which objects would be redeemed from their imprisoning silence”.
And don’t we all (well those of us that aren’t astrophysics scientists, or theologians, or even mere non-nonsense civil engineers), so don’t we all long to find meaning in a chaotic reality – and finding meaning through the scarce modes of understanding we have at our disposal: words, images, … . Grasping reality poetically …
And so Kirsch concludes (one of the many sentences in his article I feverishly underlined):
Oh and I should also do a ponderous post on “marginality” and “exile” and what Edward Said (1935-2003 Palestinian intellectual ) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975 Jewish intellectual) had to say about that.
And then I should definitely do a post to fend off any accusations of name-dropping : I don’t drop names, I recite them , reverently & lovingly. Somehow those names serve like talismans – “reminding me of what I value”, evoking a world of wisdom & wit & beauty where I alas cannot often dwell.
Yes, many posts call out to be written, and yet what’s foremost on my mind now: an image of a still, moon-lit garage-court.
Tonight, getting up and looking out of the window, I was startled by the intense moonlight. So clean, so pervasive a light, projecting sharply delineated shadows. And that garage-court so empty and so very still and aloof. . . so completely self-sufficient, not needing any spectators. (5)
(1) You’ll need some patience, but just read on, and in the closing paragraph you’ll be duly rewarded with moonlight
(2) Please allow me to call this collection of ramshackle book-cases of mine “my library”, if only to indulge in visions of noble hushed bourgeois interiors
(3) Ha! Indeed, fragments …. Maybe this phrase is also a source to quote for my blog-title
(4) We all know Benjamin never found an intellectual home, lived in poverty in Paris, has never finished his magnum opus, had to flee the Nazis and, when failing to cross the French-Spanish border, committed suicide “in despair and exhaustion”
(5) I’m cheating, this is not a pic from last night’s moonlit vision – it’s a melting snow man in that same court-yard, two years ago – but the self-sufficient stillness is the same
Yes, economic productivity demands impersonal spaces, air-conditioning, artificial light, clear objectives, formal organization charts, impersonal dress-codes. A whole universe set-up to squelch irrational human behavior and censor disruptive human needs.
Just imagine the dramatic plunge efficiency & productivity would take , should human sympathy intervene in the objective assessment of an employee’s worth, should personal likes and dislikes interfere with company-projects.
And imagine all the wasted time if people would bask in a shaft of sun-light instead of working calmly in a neon glow, if people would be gazing at the skies instead of their screens, would sniff the autumnal air instead of breathing air-conditioned nothingness.
Well yes, how to get people with the most diverse persuasions, sensibilities and interests working together efficiently, if not by subordinating the subjective and the personal to a system of shared rational calculations?
Gosh, I wouldn't even dare to rebel against so marvelous a system. Great system. Really.
But oh oh oh .... even after all these years … how often do I mumble this Proust-quote at my desk: “I was trapped in an alien reality, one that was not made for me and against which appeal was not possible” (*)
(*) "Je me trouvais dans une réalité qui n’était pas faite pour moi et contre laquelle il n’y avait pas de recours"
“one should treat humanity in oneself and others always as an end and never merely as a means” (1)
'Humanitas' signifies “man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-approved and self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjection to illness, decay and all that is implied in the word ‘mortality’” (2)
“humanism is an attitude [suffused by] the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty): from this two postulates result – responsibility and tolerance” (3)
Humanism, in this interpretation, takes the ambivalence of the human condition fully into account: on the one hand we are but a product of a chance combination of genes. Our deepest emotions, our loftiest thoughts are nothing but chemical interactions and electric charges in our brain cells. We are driven by our selfish genes in the struggle for life. And we are amongst the feeblest creatures of nature – a mere gust of wind or a banal bacterial infection can wipe us out.(4)
And yet, on the other hand, as human beings, we have feelings beyond our primal survival-urges, we can reflect on our condition, we are endowed with sensitivity, reason and empathy.
Therefore we cannot merely hide behind biological or cultural determinism – we can observe and sense, we can learn, we can reflect: so we can and have to take up responsibility for our lives.
And we may not exploit others for our needs, nor physically or mentally hurt or humiliate (5) them - should they be in our way, or should they be in our view too different from us, or too fallible or too frail: because we know that ultimately the other is a self too, who at the very least shares with us a common human vulnerability and sensitivity that our empathy asks to spare.
So no, I don’t in the least see how this humanist attitude of responsibility, tolerance and empathy should be threatened by the findings of genetics or of neuro-science. Humanism is not about the adulation of the Human Being as some perfect metaphysical divinity, humanism is on the contrary very pragmatic in its acknowledgement of our limitations as well as of our possibilities. The materialist basis of our being does not take away the fact that we have these 'feedback systems' - reason, sensitivity and empathy - that create our responsibility towards ourselves and others.
Speaking of “reason”, “sensitivity” and “empathy” as the foundations of this humanist attitude, I hope to avoid being caught in the fallacious dualism of “emotions” versus “ratio”. A dualism that may be obsolete (6), now that is shown that 'good' decision- making involves both emotions and ratio. And what matters, is how 'we' (we = our self-reflective feedback-systems) deal with our emotions, what we do with our rational intellectual capacities. Both emotions and ratio can be used for evil ends.
So this is where the humanist moral imperative enters: the imperative of respect and responsibility towards ourselves and others, a call to summon up whatever grace and dignity we can muster, even when defeated, even at death (7).
(and this is where trumpets should blaze, violins should swell, a choir should burst out in a Beethovenian ode!)
But so, though I don’t at all see positivist science as a menace for Humanism – I fear some moral interpretations of Darwinism and of economic rationalism do pose a threat.
We all know that we are creatures governed by selfish genes that are bent on their survival & reproduction. We all know that in the end only those traits and genes survive, that, well hum that survive, at the expense of other les well adapted, less aggressive variations.
We all know how economics got hold of this “survival of the fittest” principle and of the rule of self-interest to posit a Rational Man and a system of “laisser faire” in which the sum of all these individual pursuits of self-interest in the end produces the best results, as if directed by an “invisible hand” . We all know now that utopian state controlled economics did not work.
And so, yes, evolutionary biology and classical economics alike wrestle with the problem of “altruism”. Altruism! Moral Values! Shock! Horror! The menace of Irrationality!
Indeed, how to explain altruism, how to explain morality in a conceptual framework which posits the selfish struggle for life or the maximization of self-interest or profits as the ultimate driving forces? Self-interest as the one principle that guarantees the most efficient system to arrive at the best results, so the one and only principle that any rational person should heed.
Oh yes, biologists and economist alike are at great pains to find somewhere some selfish reason for altruism - not a year goes by without another theory showing how display of some altruistic behavior might be good to attract potential mates (because it’s a sign of abundant strength, or of good caring skills for off-spring), a theory that therefore can unmask altruism as yet another ploy of the selfish gene. And ah the relief when yet another economic theory shows that “trustworthiness” is nothing but a good strategy to optimize economic interactions and thus to maximize wealth – so yes, yet again rational enlightened self-interest at work!
And here, as a humanist, I disagree. I object to “rational behavior” being exclusively claimed as a utilitarian strategy. I don’t accept that taking a moral stance would only be acceptable if there’s a utilitarian value to it, be it in biological survival terms or in economic profit terms. I object, in the name of humanism, in the name of the humanist concept of human dignity and responsibility. Maximization of wealth is not the only end. I even dare say that for a humanist not even sheer personal survival is the only end … not at whatever price. … not when human dignity, of ourselves or of others is at stake (8).
Empathy may well have evolved as a useful social skill to help along the selfish gene – but now it also presents us, sensitive and pensive humans, with a responsibility that goes beyond the mere self-interest. There is man’s amazing “ability to step out of the food-chain”, to have an altruistic “affection for his fellow creatures of chance’s kingdom”. (9)
So I’d like to conclude with a quote from Richard Dawkins ( the evolutionary scientist par excellence), from his book “The selfish gene” ( the Darwinian book par excellence) :
“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”.
(trumpets, violins, choir!)
Edifying quotes & notes (so please, do read them!)
(1) yes, this is one of Kant’s famous categorical imperatives!
(2) Erwin Panofsky in “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (a 1940 essay collected in “Meaning in the visual arts”
(4) Paraphrase of Pascal’s pensée : “L’ homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser: une vapeur, une goutte d’eau, suffit pour le tuer. Mais, quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, parce qu’il sait qu’il meurt, et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui ; l’univers n’en sait rien. Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée »
(5) On human vulnerability to cruelty and humiliation as a shared human condition that we always ought to be sensitive to, I would like to quote Richard Rorty in ”Contingency, irony, and solidarity”. RR is so post-modernly relativist that he shies away from admitting the existence of any universal values, but he does accept this physical and moral vulnerability of the human being as a universally shared trait. I’m happy to quote him at length, so as to prove that postmodernism does not need to preclude humanism!
So here goes: “The idea that we all have an overriding obligation to diminish cruelty, to make human beings equal in respect to their liability to suffering, seems to take for granted that there is something within human beings which deserves respect and protection quite independently of the language they speak. It suggests that […] the ability to feel pain, is what is important, and that differences in vocabulary are much less important. […] Metaphysicians tell us that unless there is some sort of common ur-vocabulary, we have no “reason” not to be cruel to those whose final vocabularies are very unlike ours. […].
The morally relevant definition of a person, a moral subject, to be “something that can be humiliated ”. [Our] sense of human solidarity is [thus] based on a sense of a common danger. So [we] need as much imaginative acquaintance with alternative vocabularies as possible, not just for [our] own edification, but in order to understand the actual and possible humiliation of the people who use these alternative vocabularies […] . What unites [us] with the rest of the species is not a common language but just susceptibility to pain and in particular to that special sort of pain which the brutes do not share with the humans – humiliation."
(6) As far as I am aware of the findings of neuro-science as they get reported in the popular press, it seems that “emotions” and “ratio” collaborate far more in judging and deciding than traditionally was posited. For instance, there’s the case of a man whose brain got damaged in an accident. The damage was done to a part of the brain associated with the emotions. After this accident the man was no longer able to take decisions: he could analyze a problem, draw up long lists of determining elements and of arguments for and against – but he could no longer reach a decision.
(7) This is a paraphrase on some sentences out of Fay Weldon’s “Letters to Alice” . I can’t right now locate them exactly, ….maybe a fine reason to read that book again! I remember it as so erudite and moving a plea for the reading of novels as exercises in empathy and in the finding of moral significance, + its’ an excellent introduction to Jane Austen . Someone who made it all through the Richard Rorty footnote, will have noted note that RR too pleads for the widening of our empathy (through, amongst other things, the reading of novels).n
(8) of course the smart Darwinian can here suffice with a single smug remark: being a humanist then does not seem to be such a good survival strategy amongst the selfish, so in the end these naïve humanist variations will simply get extinct. Euh.Well. Should anyone have a suitable retort, thanks for sharing!
(9) Richard Powers in his “The Goldbug Variations”
“Literature does not allow a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save [his] day”.
And then he recalls a critical theory speaking of an “implied reader” through whose reading the meaning of a novel truly emerges.
By analogy he muses that “for every unwritten but dreamed novel there must be an implied author. […]”. But since so many practical interruptions and earthly trivialities conspire every day to keep one from becoming the dreamed book’s author, he concludes:
“It is not difficult to dream a book. […] The difficult thing is to become your dream book’s implied author”
Now for any pensive reader this begs of course the variation:
“It is not difficult to dream a life. […] The difficult thing is to become your dreamed life’s implied author”
And then there’s the landscape one gets to admire through the taxi-window : desolate highways and uniform glass buildings with on top the neon-signs of all the global brands of the world (ah how reassuring, they have Nokia here too, and Samsung!, and Philips!).
One is dropped off in front of a hotel, makes one’s way to the reception. Where one is greeted by smiling hotel staff – their professional friendliness in my case mixed with a hint of cautiousness and surprise. Well it’s true, I don’t particularly dress the business part. And whenever I do try to act like a self-important business-person, something horribly exposes me as a fraud: either the lack of credit card as such (which happened on my first business trip) or the sheer lack of decorum (once when I smugly drew my credit-card in a restaurant, my companion giggled “oh, is that your bus-pass?” upon seeing the neat blue plastic card holder).
In the hotel-room a flickering screen announces “Welcome Mrs XXX” . One takes a shower and then, finally, the day’s duties fulfilled, one can let slacken discipline. Lying stretched out on the bed, escaping from worldly worries and oneself in a hesitating, groping, and ultimately redeeming Bruckner-symphony (blessed be portable CD-players, yes, mine is a Philips :))
In the morning one pulls the curtains and is surprised to look out over a harbor – rippling water, a luminous grey sky tinged with an orange glow. And oh yes, what a nicely renovated room, with those wooden beams, and hey is that a true ship’s chest.
Clearly, here’s a hotel that does play its part, as stated on their website
“ With its exposed beams and thick walls, Admiral Hotel’s listed warehouse building from 1787 creates a unique setting for exquisite cuisine, a lounge designed in international style and rooms with a true atmosphere of timeless quality.”
Breakfast in the restaurant at first does not feel very timeless, what with all those keen early-rising businessmen taking in calories and caffeine to fight their business-battles. But hey, isn’t that a little canon there in the corner? A replica or real one? How cute. Would I be allowed to pat it on its back? This little canon surely is there to remind us of the “barrage of British naval attacks” the hotel’s brochure mentioned when describing the site’s momentous history.
Over breakfast I browse though the TS Eliot book I smuggled in. And chance upon an essay on Tradition in the arts. How moving, poetry’s outstanding modernist pleading for “the historical sense”, involving “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”. So yes, now I begin to understand how the postmodernist attitude differs utterly from the early 20th century modernist sensibility. Modernists like Eliot and Proust were radical innovators, but intimately familiar with the traditions whose passing they mourn .
Whereas postmodernism merely plays with the fragments of the past – frivolously quoting without empathy, and certainly without mourning.
Postmodernism is a renovated hotel “decorated in international style” , with a few rustic beams here, a canon in a corner there.
That chaos in the Florence airport 10 years ago has nothing to do with the memory of a near deserted, dimly lit Uffizi by night. The 6 hours wait in a Frankfurt airport is now a hazy memory of killing time and smoking cigarettes outside eternally opening & closing glass doors, but which trip was that again?
This time the 4 hours wait due to a delay was spent wandering about the many covered corridors and spaces in this European airport. All those people walking by, all those languages, but despite their variety of origins they all seem to look & act the same, pulling their hand-luggage on wheels with one hand, holding their mobile in the other. The stream of loudspeaker announcements spewing out international destinations and names in polite airport- English, it could be anywhere.
At airports people uniformly seem to fend off boredom by eating, drinking, shopping and shopping (they're not even allowed to smoke anymore). Brightly lit shops with international brands. Brightly lit eating areas offering an international range of fast foods ( granted, with the occasional local flavor or attempt at sophistication).
Most airports have given up all aesthetic pretense and are just content to be blatantly transient structures. They are the nowhere places par excellence, lacking individual style and identity. But as such they are emblematic for the driving forces of the present age: Business, Pleasure, Shopping.
And it is no doubt symptomatic of my own temporal out-of-step- ness that I still get slightly depressed by the harsh truths airports thus flaunt:
1) Shopping is our ultimate need, vindicated by our innermost hunting and gathering instincts.
2) We clearly prefer to spend endless waiting hours in gaudy shopping halls instead of withdrawing in a quiet, pleasantly decorated room (to read Proust, for instance).
3) The main legacy of western civilization to the world is frantic consumerism (and not Proust, for instance).
A naïve lament, I know. But once upon time higher hopes were cherished for the human race. They say that such luminaries as Bertrand Russell and Hannah Arendt really thought that thanks to our higher economic productivity, people would wisely spend one half of their day working and then dedicate the other half to the contemplative life. Well, it didn’t quite turn out like that…
(*) Proust – Noms de pays : le pays : “l’opération mystérieuse qui s’accomplissait dans ces lieux spéciaux, les gares, lesquels ne font pas partie pour ainsi dire de la ville mais contiennent l’essence de sa personnalité de même que sur un écriteau signalétique elles portent son nom »
No really, I’m endlessly fascinated by the different layers of life a city has on offer. Not only in terms of the available range in contemporary life-styles but also in terms of the past modes of thinking and living that have shaped a city.
And Bristol surely is a fascinating case in point. Now I only spent a day there, so I can merely relate the most fleeting of impressions, which are set in a framework consisting of a few haphazardly collected commonplaces about Bristol and a personal penchant for cities marked by the 19th Century.
So, armed with these prejudices, I boarded the train from Bath to Bristol. Upon alighting there I was met by the invigorating hustle & bustle of a busy station on Saturday (clearly to be distinguished from the commotion on a Workday! Oh yes, even without calendar one could sense the typical mood of a “station-on-Saturday”, just by the sheer expectant joyousness thrilling in the crowds).
A guide book had already alerted me to the fact that the Old Station nearby had been designed by the flamboyant 19C engineer Brunel and overall I knew that Bristol had triumphantly come upon prosperous times again, after struggling with the inevitable decline of a port city that acquired its riches with 18C trade (including the ignominious slave trade) and 19C industry.
And you just have to leave the station and walk for a mile to see it all with your own eyes – the pompousness of a station that resembles a medieval castle, part of the original station now housing a British empire and Commonwealth museum hosting an exhibit “empire and us” with huge photos outside of smiling contemporary people those who might have second thoughts about said empire (ie a skeptical looking black man, an innocently smiling white girl and other non-whites and/or non-males).
Walking on there’s a desolate feel for 5 minutes or so – the comprehensive urbanistic program has not yet managed to domesticate this piece of no-man’s land: a fenced off burnt-out gas station, weeds growing in cracks in the concrete, deserted warehouses not yet converted into something trendy or entertaining, hideous 70s buildings and road works which force pedestrians out onto the road with cars speeding by. But this impression or urban desolateness doesn’t last long – one soon is met by friendly tourist signs pointing out the sites and giving directions. Pavement & road & sidewalks become trim & neat, all houses seem recently renovated.
And then there’s already the Queen’s Square – a stately and charmingly green square, with signs to alert the innocent pedestrian to its momentous history. Just before getting to the real heart of the city there are the quays – old docks duly reconverted into a leisure paradise – with walking- & cycling-paths and terraces and a tourist office and bars bars bars.
Now of course I welcome this kind of positive urban development, resurrecting docks and buildings fallen into disuse – there’s just a sense of wonder, musing about how all the toil & sweat & suffering of the Industrial Revolution has permitted us to now drink frivolous cocktails and go on pleasure trips in former industrial areas.
Well, I didn’t drink a cocktail, and just ate a proletarian sandwich and drank a sensible cup of tea to fortify myself for the steep uphill climb through a busy shopping street towards the City Museum and Art Galleries . On my way there I was charmed by this typically English cathedral, in grey-brown stone so well-matched with the leafy square in front of it. (autumn really suits English cities! ). And of course I gaped at a posh hotel, so sturdy and solid and with, richly decorated lamps (obligingly lit) behind the bay-windows.
And so many young people around here! and this pervasive sense of activity and optimism! yes an engaging city indeed. But my heart only really did a flip flop upon entering the City Museum – ah, truly a quintessential Victorian museum building!
With just the right measure of pompousness and spaciousness and many stairs and galleries and landings from which to look down and up and sideways. And gleaming copper balustrades, and wide staircases and arches and the names of great painters in bas relief on the walls, surrounded by sculpted laurels. And of course a universal museum: going from Dinosaurs to British Mammals over Assyrian and Egyptian artefacts to a fine collection of Old Master paintings. And how cozy this grand building felt: the radiators oozing warmth, the lamps illuminating dusky interiors, kids swarming about (yeah, when there are dinosaurs to be seen!), people come to see an exhibit on the abolition of slavery also wandering off to the galleries with paintings of dead white males. Yes, a heartwarming museum …
Now I did not go to see the British Mammals nor the Egyptian mummies, I just roamed about the art galleries, enchanted by their dusty Victorian feel : the fading velvety wall-coverings (there is a green room, a bordeaux one, a yellow and a blue one), the creaky wooden floor boards, the shining wooden benches …. The air of genteel poverty in these sublime rooms…. And the quality of those paintings, which this museum hardly touts – no postcards, no catalogue – so one just has to confine to memory those rhythmic contour lines of Holbein, that limpid Venetian landscape on the background of a Solario alterpiece, the Jesus descending into limbo from Giovanni Bellini, that lovely domestic scene from Isenbrandt , the Venetian veduta’s … and much much more.…
So I hardly had any time left for the lovely (& again: deliciously yellowy-leafy) Georgian streets, the laid-back and trendy atmosphere in Clifton (a mix of bohemian chic, student life, and gently decayed bourgeois houses) and the awesome Clifton Suspension Bridge : this amazingly elegant bridge, designed by Brunel, spanning a valley whose depths kindle a dizzying vertigo and whose coloring trees make one sigh yet again with sweet autumnal melancholy.
Yes, Bristol has charmed me, with its regained confidence, with its acknowledgment of its history, with its beauties, with its range of sights & sites, with its bustling activity. A real city indeed.
Walking via a winding road from the small station to the centre, there’s the vivid impression of lots of “busy little things” – narrow streets & alleys fanning out, lopsided one story houses, little shops – yes, this is a piously industrious medieval market town. But, finely drawn against the grey sky, there’s the silent slender silhouette of the Cathedral spire to remind us of things more spiritual.
Despite dominating the town, the Salisbury Cathedral is clearly separate from it. You have to pass a Gate to get to the calm of a Close that is located in its own space with a square and a lawn. The houses of the Close are placed at a respectful distance of the cathedral and convey an air of tranquil gentility. Discreet dwellings that do not disturb the autumnal enchantment of the place: a silent sturdy cathedral, mixing its beige-greys with the autumn hues of the adjacent old trees. A soft drizzle envelops everything in an in-temporal haze…..
How it all fits, one muses, standing on the wet lawn, taking it all in: the mellow grey sky, the black dots of a flight of birds, the old trees, the even older cathedral, the silence ….. It could be autumn here always …. .
Not a bad moment to recall these lines: “come autumn, so pensive, in yellow and grey, and soothe me with tidings of nature’s decay” . And in this case also: tidings of human zeal creating works of art whose relative permanence does not only console the faithful .
A noble paragraph to end with, isn’t it? With an ever so slightly hint of romantic exaltation …
So I’d better not go on then describing the lovely walk to Harnham Hill, along a river path, through gardens and with an idyllic view of the cathedral across the meadows. With sheep grazing (or whatever sheep do in meadows) peacefully, a fisherman throwing out his line in the river, swans congregating at a lock . Etc. Etc.
All very bucolic indeed, which is not my natural blogging mode at all!
Then my Eyes were to be dazzled: those honey-colored houses, bathing in limpid autumn light and set against a background of lavish old trees with changing colors – patches of golden yellow, soft brown and deep red amongst the tender decaying green. Oh, and hazy hills in the distance, and a bridge over a river! And there: stone stairs flanked by sculpted banisters leading to a park, with elegantly traced paths and full of well tended flower beds.
And more was to come – like the calm & harmonious Great Pulteney Street with its beige neo-classical façades, drawing the eye to the imposing porch and columns of the Holburne museum at the end of it .
But since straight lines, as calmly neo-classical as they may be, can still be too harsh on the eyes of an exhausted urbanite – the Bath architects, in all their wisdom , introduced Curves and Crescents in the cityscape. According to the guidebooks, we owe these curves to the eclectic interests of the leading 18th century Bath-architect, John Wood , who was not only formed by neo-classical tradition but also passionate about Celtic and Druid culture – centered on the Moon and magic circles etc).
And what a soothing delight it is, to take in those gentle curves and those subtly varied neo-classical façades. Be it on a square (well a round square) dominated by a giant plane tree (the Circus), or on a curving street (the Royal Crescent) looking out over an undulating lawn …. One wanders about, feasting one’s eyes, futilely brandishing one’s camera to capture the delight of rhythmed space . Yes, this truly is “architecture of happiness” !
And how about the sense of Touch? Oh it is stimulated all right, and tantalizingly so …. There is something so tactile about that soft limestone used in the Bath houses. Now as to Taste: hmm, I will not comment on the English Cuisine, so suffice it to say that it is lovely to drink English Tea in a refurbished Georgian tearoom.
Exhaustiveness now demands I cover all the senses - So there: Hearing, well, actually: the silence! The relative silence of course, in comparison with other, car-infected cities. And the joy to hear the echoing cries of a couple of seagulls (seagulls yes, would they follow the river land-inwards from the sea?)
And the Sixth Sense! Well, if that is the sense of imagination, of Memory & Desire, then Bath’s the place to be. You can imagine Romans taking their Hot Baths or worshipping in their temple (the “Roman Baths" – a fascinating trip into history).
Or, just walking around in town, you can imagine a Jane Austen character strolling about – pensively (if it’s Persuasion’s Anne Elliot who “watched, observed , reflected” – or full of eager delight (if it’s Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland who “was come to be happy, and she felt happy already”). Truth be told: according to Austen scholars, Jane Austen herself, despite enjoying previous visits there, did not like actually living in Bath.
Anyway, you could also flash back to the consummate Dandy and 18th Century social trend-setter Richard “Beau” Nash . Or you could just walk and walk and breathe and look and see and stop brooding and just picture yourself as a happy person enjoying the “Bath season”.
Take Verviers for instance, a city located between Liège and the Ardennes, 1.5 hour away from Brussels by train. The city knew its heyday in the 19th Century, when the introduction of new industrial techniques propelled its Wool industry to international prominence. But from the 1950s onwards global industrial competition provoked the inexorable decline of Verviers’s industries. And it’s only in the nineties that economic activity has slowly regained ground in the services sector. But even now unemployment in the Verviers districts remains above 15%.
Visiting an Industrial Revolution city is of course best done by rail – if only to be impressed by the grandeur & beauty of its station. Oh yes, once upon a time engineers wanted to emulate cathedrals when building stations, once upon a time engineers still had an aesthetic sensibility…. The Verviers station, built in the twenties, is a case in point. Its monumental grandeur is imposing, the texture of its materials is heart-warming. Ah, how charming are those dully gleaming tiles, how tantalizingly tactile the porous-ness of those bricks. And the sheer strength & elegance of iron! The warmth of that glowing wood …. Hmmm, & then that soupcon of art deco grace in the station hall …
Upon leaving the station, one is at once conquered by Verviers’ particular charm: its mix of bourgeois sturdiness and Spa-frivolousness (the eponymous Ardennes-town, Spa, is only 30 minutes away!) . There’s a certain Spa architecture that recalls sophisticated pleasures of times past as well as simpler & fonder childhood memories ( well at least for all those who as a kid modestly went on vacation in the Belgian Ardennes, as I did).
Ah, and everywhere the remains of that Belle Epoque architecture. Buildings whose pompousness is redeemed by the playfulness of their decorations, the sensual roundness of their forms. Buildings full of reminiscences of a bourgeois culture with hints of bohemian artfulness. And the slight touch of neglect and decline of course atones for any associations with rapacious capitalism.
And then, oh really one does fall in love on the spot! : a little park next to the railway tunnel. Smelling very much like autumn, with its wet leaves and its damp earth. And with of course endearingly irrelevant statues celebrating the worthy burghers of the past.
And for those with a weak spot for Belgium and the symbols of its unity: in the park there’s a puny little tree, well fenced off, and with a sign that tells us it has been planted there in 1994 by “the Verviers section of the dynastic movement at the occasion of the 1st anniversary of the passing away of his majesty King Baudouin I” – especially poignant in these troubled times , with Belgium’s sheer existence threatened by separatism (Flemish versus Walloon)….
And yes, The Economist got it all wrong when writing that Belgians are completely indifferent to the demise of their State, witness the silent statement of more and more Belgian flags adorning the houses of a people not usually prone to flag-waving. But then, The Economist has been wrong before (predicting further oil price declines when it was at 10$ a barrel, supporting the Iraq war, ….).
And well, The Economist just shares this peculiar British blindness for all things Belgian. In blatant ignorance of the origins of Charlemagne, Charles Martel, the emperor Charles V, the Flemish Primitives (with for example Rogier de la Pasture/Rogier van der Weyden ), the Franco-Flemish Polyphonists (eg with Josquin des Prez, Orlando Lassus, …), Rubens, Van Dyck (Sir Anthony taught the British how to paint) they gleefully repeat these territories have hardly ever spawn anything noteworthy . (ok ok they did mention the saxophone, Tintin and surrealism - but not mentioning Justine Henin, the global nr 1 in women's tennis, is clearly proof of their bad faith!).
Anyway, perhaps it’s due to a certain imperial British-ness, this incapacity to grasp the attraction of the Belgian concept: a specimen of 19th century nation building, hosting within its borders a rich and varied history which continually spills over into other countries’ histories (is it the Netherlands ? Is it Burgundy? Is it the Holy Roman Empire? Is it the seat of the Spanish empire?). Utterly lacking chauvinism, without delusions of grandeur (except once, with Leopold II … ), but bustling with diversity and inner contradictions – the Belgian nationality is a truly ironical nationality. So yes, I sincerely hope the currently competing streaks of Flemish nationalism and Walloon stubbornness will not rob me of my cherished non-nationality!
But I digress - back to Verviers, with its terraces on a leafy square, its fountains, surrounded by hills, sparkling in soft autumnal light. Yes, enough to entertain that pleasing illusion of a civilized savoir-vivre, Belle Epoque style. But having lunch in a run-down tavern that oozes grandeur déchue, overhearing conversations, watching people’s style and gait in the suspiciously crowded streets during a weekday, one senses the struggle with unemployment and poverty. . . This is no longer a bourgeois town, nor an elegant Spa….
But it does have a delightful municipal museum (musée des beaux arts) in an old hospice. Nothing dusty or ramshackle about this provincial museum, its collection of European paintings and sculptures (and of internationally ceramics, but I am not a ceramics person at all) is carefully & lovingly presented. Oh what joy to stand face to face with a Pietro Lorenzetti , one of those Madonna’s with angels and fathers of the church against a gilded background. Or fall under the spell of the bluest of night blues on a Patinir landscape. Be touched by the fleeting flair of a child’s head painted by Joshua Reynolds. Find comfort in the maternal gaze of a sturdy, seated wooden Madonna …
The tale of the two guards of this endearing little museum was all the more pathetic. They had received me with all égards, quite impressed by a visitor all the way from Brussels …. When asking me to leave my bag at the desk, they explained how they had been robbed twice. One of the guards, following me in all my steps, told with trembling voice how the robbery had taken place, during just 2 minutes of his being on another floor …. Ah, the world is unjust, robbing this sweet little museum of one of its treasures and this dear man of his night rest…
Imagine Paris on a brilliant autumn day …… and picture yourself sitting in a quiet garden, sipping your tea while a whiff of Chopin drifts by. This is possible, also for the communs des mortels, in the Musée de la Vie romantique (“Museum of Romantic Life”).
To go there, I advise you (by way of contrast & to augment your subsequent pleasure) to get out at the Pigalle metro-stop. Take in the traffic-noise, savor the shabby looks of all the sex-shops & cabarets congregated there (& gaudy neon lights do look particularly pathetic in crisp autumn light). Cast a pitiful look at the bleary-eyed tourists having their petit déjeuner amidst the exhaust-fumes, and head then down the Rue de Pigalle.
Following the signs to the museum, you’ll soon end up in the Rue Chaplet, where you will see a big old tree sheltering an alley. Going through the cobble-stoned passageway you’ll then find yourself in the quiet of a courtyard, looking at a charming little house with green blinds and awnings. It’s the house of a French romantic painter (Ary Scheffer) who received fellow romantic artists there such as the composer Chopin, the painter Delacroix, the writer (and his neighbor) George Sand.
Ah, George Sand – such an icon of artistry, romanticism and feminism alike. George_Sand. ....A woman strolling about Paris in men’s clothes, writing a host of novels, having affairs with Chopin, Liszt .... So it’s only fitting that this house, now turned into a museum of the Romantic Life, dedicates most of its rooms to souvenirs, portraits and furniture having belonged to her.
And don’t anybody now dare to imagine a stuffy boring old-fashioned museum! Even those who’ve never heard of George Sand will not fail to fall under the spell of this lovely little house. It is a spell of romantic make-believe – light softly filtering through the blinds, creaking wooden floors, pastiche époque decorations on the wall …. . The eye is seduced by flickering candle light (the candles are electric, but they do flicker! and I swear there’s a true candle smell hanging about …) and mysterious reflections in gilded mirrors. The heart is stirred by cascading piano-notes – Chopin nocturnes & berceuses playing on the background.….
This enchanted place also offers a garden – a “Salon de The” with iron tables & wooden chairs, where you can sit and meditate & imagine George Sand opening the blinds while Chopin plays the piano ….
Now maybe you think that one enchanted garden is not enough to redeem stressed out & noisy Paris city life. Well, there’s yet another isle of calm to discover - this one situated in the busiest district on the left bank.
The Rue de Furstenberg is right off the devilishly hectic Boulevard Saint Germain. Behind a little church you’ll find a street and a little square dominated by a tree – and with an almost magical atmosphere of quiet . At nr 6 is a small Delacroix-museum, housed in his former atelier. The house is renovated, the collection competently curated (though not that many noteworthy pieces are on display) – in all its neatness it somewhat lacks the playful charm of the Vie Romantique Museum. But it has a garden,...…. with big trees, and walled in by other houses – all blocking out urban noises. A delicious place to go and sit on a bench, look at the clear blue sky and listen to a leaf falling down….
Tips on other isles of calm in Paris are of course very welcome – we could then compile “un guide parisien du calme (et du luxe et de la volupté) ”
A foggy early morning, waiting for the bus, lost in thoughts, staring at the neon lit interior of a sandwich bar. How warmly it lights up in the grey drizzle, that harsh neon light. How soothing & familiar, this pantomime of people ordering breakfast, of a waitress swiftly operating the coffee machine. Two traffic wardens in orange vests are sipping their coffee at the counter, leaving the nearby crossing at the mercy of the rush hour.
The fading painted sign above the bar’s window reads “L’Etoile du Nord”/ “The North Star”. Whoever called this bar like that? Did he or she foresee that its glow might indeed one grey morning fortify a weary bus traveler?
Over a cup of tea I then miserably read a few pages of a revoltingly ugly post-modern text on art history – no, I don’t want my love of art history deconstructed! Art history is not just a plot of the ruling classes to fabricate a glorious past … it is about diving for beauty and meaning in the past. But granted, even this laboriously post-modern text yielded some nuggets of wisdom, such as, “the past framed as an object of historical desire”. I like that, “historical desire”!. And what about the “semantic carrying capacity” of art objects - endearing really, art objects as containers with a certain carrying capacity for meaning.
But still, not yet the kind of dazzling insights that would make my day. That was reserved for a fellow Flickr- member. Not only she faved & commented kindly upon some of my photos there, but also she was the first to not assign me straight away to the female-gender-box.
Let me explain: I had been delighted that Flickr allowed for not identifying one’s gender (or even opting for the delightful category “other”). And those remotely self-portraying photos I had posted, had been carefully selected for their gender-ambiguity. I had wanted my Flickr-persona to consist of nothing but fleeting, un-gendered shadows and reflections. But up till today the ambiguity seemed to exist in my mind only … fellow-Flickrites unfailingly referring to me as “sis”, “lady” etc….
Until Hurray! Hurray! , this morning’s reply that read “thank you good Sir”. Well, we ain’t there yet of course, because my aim after all was to be un- identifiable as either man or woman. But even so, this “Sir” after the “Sis” is just the kind of confusion I like!
– Surely y’all now fondly remember that iconic street-photo of a lonely sailor ambling through rainy Brest (“Il pleuvait sur Brest ce jour-là), huddled in his sailor-coat, a wet cigarette dangling from his lips. In my early twenties (on a train tour of European port-cities) I actually went to Brest, looking in vain, alas, for port-romance in a very unromantic city – but I did redeem my stay there by sending a sailor-postcard to a love-sick gay friend back home. –
But well, back to the present day rain and over to riding a bus, packed with people & umbrellas. Hmmm the romance of a bus on a rainy day! J With its clouded windows through which one glimpses trails of shimmering lights. And with its cozy silence – people do seem to be less unpleasantly boisterous when it rains, folded as they are into their coats, absorbed in their head-phone music, already bracing themselves to step out again in a gust of rain.
So I admit, to me this dark and dripping world feels quite sheltering, benign even in its glimmering hazy-ness, so different from the inquisitive glare of a brighter day. What could be more soothing than the permanence of that swooshy rainy noise that envelops everything? And what more elegant than the spectacle of people moving gingerly through the streets, avoiding puddles & umbrella clashes …
I’d set out for an Antwerp gallery tour, and this one brave gallery had not joined its peers in the gentrified Southern part of town, but had settled closer to the Northern districts, near to the former port (the actual port is now so hugely industrial that it has moved out of the roaming circle of a pedestrian Antwerp visitor).
It had been some 20 years since I last wandered through this neighborhood (am again referring to my twenties’ infatuation with the romance of urban decay) and I was surprised to see how little it had changed. Yes, some streets had been overhauled, some squares spruced up – but there was still that peculiar atmosphere of oddly provincial cosmopolitanism: cafés catering to locals and seamen, bric à brac stores hovering between old-fashioned grocery stores and discount import-export stores. Not at all the aggressive & anonymous atmosphere of for example run down station districts full of temporary shops and thrills. Rather a typically Antwerp, folksy local flavor - from the lopsided two story houses over the Flemish shop signs to the Antwerp dialect spoken by un-hurried passers-by.
Wandering about, I managed to get lost for a while, ending up in a no man’s land of criss-crossing highways, car dealer showrooms, bland-faced buildings. A desolate landscape under a threatening sky, cars noisily speeding by. And on came a strange elation, almost akin to the sensations triggered by the spectacle of a thunderous fiery sea. I felt happy too, in these stark surroundings, unburdened by expectations.
Then I drifted back to town, shivering in the grey drizzle, hands in coat pockets, just like the lonely men prowling these streets. Um, rather many lonely men prowling these streets … Well, either they were heading for the red-lights district or else just innocently taking a stroll from the nearby seamen’s house (7.5 EUR for lunch and 22 EUR for a room, prices “on presentation of a valid seamen’s book).
Oh I did get to take my gallery tour too! And it was lovely to discover the latest work of Bert De Beul: small black watercolor images arranged in pairs. He paints the presence of objects and rooms and buildings when we are not there, their contrasts and shadows. And he paints them with such a caring attention …. charging their banality and emptiness with meaning, or longing, or remembrance?
I loved peering at those intensely silent images, arranged slightly askew in their frame. If comparisons have to be made: something like a cross between Hopper (but in B&W) and Xavier Mellery (early 20th century Belgian artist who drew and painted l’âme des choses).
And then I finally ended up in the trendy South-district, did some galleries there too. And had to flee from one: with its gaudy red carpet, its loud Astor Piazzola music, a gallery keeper who stuck out the price list at once, and feeling closed in by paintings of archetypical seductive women in pastel colors or reddish hues.
I took refuge in a trendy café, that is actually more welcoming to unhip people than its trendiness would suggest. With its old-time wooden furniture, the floor tiles, the lamps it has retained a relaxed atmosphere. And the sound-mix is just right for a reader ensconced in his or her book : a blend of music and chatting voices and the general clank & clamor from dishes and cutlery.
And then the rainy day ended with some splashes of late-evening sun, grazing rooftops, dazzling windows and almost drowning out the city’s neon lights.
By way of introduction, a brief explanation about my Blog’s title which was chosen for many good reasons, the main ones being:
- No one can resist a good alliteration, especially on the Very Frivolous Fr
- Frivolous: a perfect qualifier for any blog of mine; because I am indeed overly serious and so have to camouflage my ponderousness!
- Fragments: because I lack the brainpower for anything else but fragments & because it reminds me of a favourite line from a poem: 'these fragments I have shored against my ruins' and because it sounds so very post-modern ( so another good camouflage for my true pre-modern persona)
Alas, my delight in having found such a suitable blog title abated somewhat when a Google-check revealed there’s already a 1927 film with that title. So let me just state here that I have nothing to do with that film.
Now would any of the 1927 film stakeholders object to having a Blog namesake, please step forward! And I will then revert to my fallback Blog- title: “Frivolous Refractions”.
“Refractions” is definitely a more ponderous term, but it does convey nicely how I see my Blogging vocation: have fragments of the world (material & cultural) refracted through my (frail but frankly never frivolous) mind into words & pictures. And as something of a visual arts amateur I of course dote on the visual/optical origin of the word “Refraction”.