where I want to be (for a while)

A little over 4 hours of travelling, 2 trains, 1 book – that’s all it takes for an escape. And 1 battered, easy-to-carry bag. That old bag is actually a vital requisite in my personal fiction of a casual traveler: saunter out of a station into the white glare of a burning midday sun, briefly pause for orientation in front of a city-map, then pick up again your bag in one nonchalant sweep and walk gaily off.

Well, we’re all entitled to our own cherished fictions – even if they would crumble under any scrutiny. Because obviously, a contemporary sophisticated traveler does not carry bags but elegantly pulls a sleek suitcase-on-wheels behind her. And neither would any truly blasé traveler set off for a 30-minutes march in the heat to her hotel, she would take a taxi.

But hey, that sophisticated traveler would then miss out on the sheer essence of a French provincial town post 14th of July (1) – it’s just lovely to walk down these hushed, sun-flooded streets, past lazy roadside cafés (with but a few lost tourists passing through on their way South), lovely to chuckle at street names which, so utterly without irony, evoke France’s past military prowess (Avenue de la Première Armée, Place de la Légion d’Honneur). And one just has to veer off one’s route, to stroll into one of these quiet parks with fountains and monuments, pompously commemorating more past French glories.

The hotel lay in a modest, residential part of town. Streets with mom&pop shops (mostly closed), local cafés, artisanal looking warehouses or garages, and a varied set of houses ranging from turn-of-the century bourgeois town-houses to unassuming workmen’ s houses. There was nothing flashy or pretentious about the hotel – but, being located in the “Rue des Fleurs” (street of flowers), the owners had clearly decided to live up to their street’s name. The façade was painted in a soft earthly ochre and the window-sills were all overflowing with red flowers (2).

Entering from the glare outside, the hotel-lobby, slumbering in a semi-darkness, felt pleasantly cool. And it looked all so endearingly neat and sober. The bare furniture and the sparse decorations showing years & years of use and of meticulous care. Red tiles on the floor. An old clock ticking. And a hotel-clerk in keeping with his environment: meticulous and genuinely friendly.

Ah, and those stairs – with that copper-colored iron hand-rail not even attempting at kitsch glamour! Those corridors, with the worn but carefully groomed carpet, with those few pieces of unassorted furniture gathered over many decades. And the room – the room was perfect. Minimalist in the most engaging way - without any trace of trendiness, without gaudy decorations, without any pretentions. A simple room scrupulously furnished with what a guest needs: space, white walls, a bed, a chair, a table, a no-frills bathroom.

Also … a room with a window. A window with white wooden shutters, slightly ajar - dazzling light pouring in through the creaks - and with a transparent white muslin curtain rippling softly in the breeze.

One stretches out on the bed – soothed by so much sober soft whiteness. Soothed too by the peaceful murmurs seeping in – far-off laughter, twittering birds, some muffled city-noises (3).
Yes – this is a good place to stay. This is where I want to be.

3 peaceful footnotes
(1) “French provincial town” means here: any town that is not Paris, not located in the south and neither sea- nor mountain resort. Post 14th of July (France’s national holiday and kick-off date for massive summer-holiday migrations) these towns go into a slumber until their sun-tanned inhabitants return from holidays. One may of course wonder what the hell any sophisticated traveler would be looking for in such a town. One may even question the predicate “traveler” for anyone going to so unadventurous a destination.
(2) Don’t expect any more suggestive detail from me when it comes to describing flora-specimens. “Red flowers” will just have to do.
(3) « Mon dieu Mon dieu. La vie est là. Simple et tranquille, cette paisible rumeur-là vient de la ville. » (Paul Verlaine) / “my god my god – life’s out there – so simple & calm – that peaceful murmur comes from town”

little ode to provincial museums

Provincial(1) ...!

All the energy people spend so as not to appear provincial! Cosmopolitan, sophisticated, cynical, world-wise and post-modern city dwellers on top of the latest global trends (phew) – isn’t that what we all should want to be? Whereas local, unsophisticated, unfashionable, simple, outmoded surely are the kind of adjectives one definitely would not want any of one’s posts to be tagged with?(2)

But look, since we now know that we are all “lonely provincials” (3) anyhow, that none of us lives in the center of the world, why not also succumb without qualms to the genuine charms of provincial museums?

Many of those museums tend to live in a time-warp – embodying still a 19th century European Romantic spirit, oozing this outmoded stern respect for Antiquity & History & High Art but also being plain um, provincial, in their endearing urge to display local artists of dwindling repute.

Broadly speaking, these provincial museums come in two sorts: with and without pretension.

Provincial museums with pretension

Though usually harshly critical towards any kind of pretense – I do make an exception for pretentious provincial museums, because theirs is such a bygone pretense, such a threatened pomposity.
There we have these bloated buildings with neoclassical pillars, grand staircases and pompous statues of self-important (now mostly forgotten) white males. The rooms with either a creepily creaking parquet or a dusty musty carpet (often dating from a renovation-stint several decades earlier). (4)
And if one’s lucky – these rooms still have those old, oval-shaped central seats in the middle of the room, with faded upholstery, upon which many a lady and many a gentleman have rested during their promenade through high culture’s temple.

These rooms then are usually filled with works carefully chosen to flaunt specimens from every art historical period - blithely glossing over the fact that too many of them are second rate.

But shhh …. I’m being excessively unkind here! Perhaps these minor works set off all the better the dozen or so “masterpieces” these museums usually do harbor and to which the ambling visitor at least can devote the attention they merit (undisturbed by thronging fellow visitors and hundreds of competing masterworks) .
And besides, “minor works” or “second rate” are unduly condescending terms - it are not only the ‘universally validated’ masterworks of a certain era that can capture our imagination.

These “minor masters” plied themselves with great skill and dedication to their trade, thus exemplifying how their age saw and represented reality. And sometimes, precisely because they did not create “undisputed masterpieces” – we feel less awed, less boxed in by art historical formulas and we can freely savor this scarcely known painter’s sensitivity to light, or that secondary painter’s obsession with blue skies. Somehow they make us feel more entitled to personal affinity and even affection.(5)

Provincial museums without pretension

Now here the ode becomes an outright love letter … These little, struggling museums (6) with just a couple of rooms, with their “slightly embarrassed antiquities” (7) stemming from local archeological finds , their humble paintings’ collection based on gifts from the town’s richest businessman or from the local artist himself. With these endearing cards accompanying each work – typed in 70s fonts – carrying thoughtful commentaries by a local curator who has spend his or her entire life (oh well, at least a number of years) studying and cherishing these works .

Take the Beaune Musée des Beaux Arts – where I discovered a painter of whom I’d had never heard before. A Hippolyte (8) Michaud (1823-1886) – who of course painted within all the cliché 19th C categories: exalted-historical ; haunted-symbolical ; romantically tormented. But beyond musty historical categories, a vividly moving personal presence emanated from these paintings.

And not in the least from that fascinating self-portrait : a bold modeling and chiaroscuro making for a very tactile presence, a sensitive observation and rendering making us lock eyes with this inquisitive but shy looking young man – wondering about that soupcon of hurt, of despair in his eyes.

And blessed be the considerate curator who has noted some biographical facts for us: only after years of poverty and struggle this Michaud attained “a relative serenity, after his nomination as curator of the Beaune museum” (9)

There’s also an intriguing portrait by his hand of a woman – “in between two ages/ entre deux ages ” as the accompanying card nicely notes. And one cannot but agree with the curator incisively remarking upon the painter’s “subtlety of which he is capable when he is moved by a face” .

And then that arresting pathos in a painting of the dead Christ, which far from being melodramatic sentimentality, may rather be a sign of deep commiseration (10) – the curator again (11) : “a bathos witnessing of his sensibility”.

They’re strangely moving – these unexpected affinities found in small museums – these encounters with unknown dead painters and anonymous curators …

The usual full set of fake scholarly footnotes
1: of, relating to, or coming from a province
2 a: limited in outlook : narrow ; b: lacking the polish of urban society : unsophisticated
(2) Um, yes I have this thing for Microsoft Word’s list of synonyms
(3) Richard Rorty : “lonely provincialism” [...] stemming from the “admission that we are just the historical moment that we are, not the representative of something a-historical” . According to Rorty the bourgeois postmodern individual cannot but be a lonely provincial with continuing self-doubts, aware of the relativity of his or her perspective. Deeply aware of the fact that no cultural Canon, no way of life can claim any binding or lasting authority.
(4) Sometimes these rooms attempt a reconstruction of epoch furniture and decoration - which in France of course means a room full of Versailles- like pomp & frills - epoch curtains, mirrors, tapestries, do-not-touch tables & stuffed chairs on precariously thin legs– the whole lot often exuding a stale, moldy smell which, I’m afraid, puts off from future museum visits entire generations of whining children (dragged along by their parents).
(5) Examples in this category, starting with those who are located in a ‘province’ but whose collection is scarcely provincial: Antwerp, Lille, Liverpool. (not sure whether I should add Brussels – how provincial is Brussels? Hmmm). Then those with less Major Names on display: Bristol, Manchester, Caen, Reims, Rouen, Dijon, Ghent . & j’en passe.
(6) Cherished examples of small museums without pretence: Bath, Verviers, Laon, Chartres, Autun, Beaune, …
(7) Credits go, again, to Moss for this lovely expression
(8) I so regret that the first name “Hippolyte “ has fallen in disuse
(9) « une relative sérénité, après sa nomination au poste de conservateur du muse des Beaux Arts de Beaune »
(10) perhaps quite incongruously it reminded me of Bellini’s « dead Christ supported by angels”
(11) “effet de pathétisme qui témoigne de sa sensibilité” - don’t know who he or she is, but I’m filled with loving respect and gratitude for the person who wrote those thoughtful notes.

Miscellaneous Objections to Life

“Struggle for Life most severe between Individuals and Varieties of the same Species :

Each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio; each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life and to suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply” (1)

No fear is felt?? Death is generally prompt? Wow, what a consolation for life’s conditions … !
But perhaps Mr Darwin was not (primarily...) referring to human organic beings, but rather to nature’s multitude of fearless swallows, intrepid thrushes, healthy bees and frivolous fruit flies, all vigorously vying for food & residence? And of course, it’s not up to science to lament the human condition. Better leave the moaning and meaning-seeking to philosophers and other unproductively reflecting organic beings.

But so, there we have the human species, composed of a great many assertive varieties – there we have the “plurality of man, out of which arises the whole realm of human affairs – in its grandeur and misery”. (2) And, finally, there we have Darwin’s observation that “competition is most severe between allied forms, which fill nearly the same place in the economy of nature”. So are we humans doomed to blindly struggle and compete, to live a life of “intense and uninterrupted contest of all against all, of ceaselessly showing oneself to be the best of all” (2) ?

In classical jargon this is called the “agonal spirit” (3), nowadays one might euphemistically speak of "peer-pressure".

In polite, political terms, the plurality of man is expressed in the many opinions that reflect each man/woman’s particular position in the world. Opinions that are competing for supremacy - and it is a matter of force which opinion will be eventually be imposed on the multitude. Force which can be exercised either through persuasion and rhetoric or through violence. But whatever way - one opinion will try to get the better of another

And yet, amidst the clashing assertions of subjective desires and opinions there’s also man’s ability to reflect and to dialogue, to understand another man’s position. Instead of trying to push through one’s own opinion one might strive to find the truth in each opinion – not by practicing the political art of persuasion, but rather by indulging in the eminently philosophical art of dialectic speech.
It’s a famous topos in western philosophy of course: the Socratic tradition as recorded in Plato’s early dialogues . These dialogues, 'merely' talking through a subject from diverse viewpoints, end inconclusively. They yield no result, except perhaps to have arrived at “understanding how and in what specific articulateness the common world appears to the other”. It’s the kind of exchange “most appropriate for and most frequently shared by friends” . (2)

But of course this post could not yet end on such a promising, albeit inconclusive, note of human dialogue.
Nope – there’s still more moaning to endure! If only because I won’t let go of the opportunity to introduce in this blog the gloriously-abundantly pessimistic Schopenhauer with his view of life as sheer hell.
In quite Darwinian terms (4), Schopenhauer identifies each individual’s selfish will to live & reproduce as the basis of human misery. As long as we’re at the mercy of this tyrannical drive, we will vacillate forever between the stress of asserting our individual will in an inimical world and the boredom of being at rest without any stimuli to keep us busy. A bit more of this individual will to live, he states, and life would altogether have been too hellish to sustain (quite Darwinian undertones again!(5) )

Is there no escape then, no deliverance from this dreadful condition? Ah, but yes, there is – in the aesthetical state of being, in our enjoyment of and engagement with art, when we exercise all our faculties of feeling, intellect and imagination without suffering the stress of real life battle. When we do not have to “will” anything at all – when we can merely bask in the pure delights of the mind & the senses – without any individual selfish assertion in the world. It’s perhaps in art that we get the closest to substituting our limited individual perspective for a universal one. But these moments of aesthetical escapism are only transient, and offer no enduring redemption.

So is there then no true way out, short perhaps of a superhuman (and eventually self-defeating) self-negation?
Well, deliverance from this continuous strife might start with the simple realization that others have this individual will too, “l’autre est un je / the other is an I“. Call it empathy (yes, a bit of a recurrent theme in this blog – and besides, Schopenhauer himself thought of loving kindness and compassion as the basis of all morality (6)). Or call it ‘piercing through the illusion of the individual self’ . Anyway, here we have Schopenhauer’s precepts for a good life: devote thyself to the life of the spirit & art ; transcend the illusion of thy individual will through compassion.

Anyone familiar with Indian philosophy will of course be nodding her head off by now - and yes, Schopenhauer was profoundly influenced by the great Indian writings (7) and his ideas echo their teachings (8) .

Now what was the point of this particularly ponderous post? Is there at least a conclusion? Or have I merely been frivolously indulging in an inner dialogue? (But mind you: a dialogue with long dead writers and sages, as well as with a very alive and kicking correspondent (9)) .
But actually, yes, there is a point I did want to make: that the world with its inexorably brutish facts may be adequately explained and controlled only by objective science but that we as human beings cannot and will not be content with truth only – we will always seek meaning. And this quest for meaning (however unproductive and inconclusive) reverberates throughout the centuries and across continents, – be it in a 20th century political philosophy like Arendt’s, or in 19th century pessimist-humanist ruminations ( Schopenhauer) or in the ageless ideas of Indian philosophy.

quite a serious series of footnotes
(1) Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species – Chapter III Struggle for Existence
(2) Hannah Arendt – The Promise of Politics
(3) Agonal – Agony – I picture gladiators relentlessly fighting for victory (or a heroic 4.5 hours battle between two top-tennis-players?)
Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote his main works before Darwin had published his magnum opus (1859) – another instance of a philosophical intuition anticipating scientific theories based on elaborately ascertained facts
(5) And thus the seeming mystery of altruism (in evolutionary terms, that is) may precisely lay in the fact that too relentless and too aggressive an egoism of competing varieties might eventually result in extinction of the whole species.
(6) But alas, alas, this wise, compassionate philosopher, who so eloquently promoted art and loving kindness, in other writings saw fit to vent the most blatant misogyny. Fearlessly this brilliant philosopher contradicted his own moral teachings when denouncing as a 'defect' women’s allegedly greater sympathy for human suffering.
(7) He qualified the “Upanishads” as the solace of his life (and death)
(8) I’m not very well acquainted myself with Indian philosophy , but luckily there’s Phoenix summarizing the gist of it all in a single sentence: it’s about “balancing the business of living, your 'karma' and the 'maya' ( i.e. the superficial things that are illusory - life itself actually) with the life of the spirit.” And the upbeat conclusion of this savoir-vivre is that this balancing act “is pretty much doable and is the only way to be, or rather become...”
(9) Actually, this post may be a reply to a mail by Phoenix ….