what I was thinking about ...

“that philosophy and poetry were indeed closely related; they were not identical but sprang from the same source – which is thinking” (1)

At some stage, both poetry and philosophy did hope to find truth. But then, they always have been confronted with the infuriating gap between words and reality…. With the frustrating powerlessness of words to grasp the workings of the world and of the creatures of this world .
However abstract & 'un-wordly', mathematics at least get to reveal the laws of nature.

But words …., the very medium in which we think..., words have proven so inadequate to produce scientific knowledge, all they have produced are Great Metaphysical Fallacies and Untrue Stories.

Just as “poetry makes nothing happen” (2), thinking “does not bring knowledge as do the sciences” nor “does it produce usable practical wisdom”(3).

But then, as humans we crave meaning. And meaning is about thinking. And thinking is about meaning, not about knowing .

[…] thinking and knowing are two altogether different concerns, [corresponding] with meaning in the first category, and cognition in the second. […] The need of thinking is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning . And truth and meaning are not the same. “ (4)

Religion (allegedly (5)) reveals both truth and pre-ordained meanings, sanctioned in hallowed formulas & ready-made rituals, shared by a community. All very comforting & soothing & unchanging. No exhausting thinking needed. And only one Book to read.

Poetry & philosophy – ah, no truth is revealed, nothing’s pre-ordained, much less is sanctioned (even the Canon of writers has crumbled). So much thinking to do for so elusive a morsel of meaning.

But is the alternative then to go without individual thinking, to go without this dialogue with the many tentative stories woven throughout the ages? What kind of meaning-less society would that produce? (6)

Stories constitute together, and referring to each other, the proof of our presence “ (6) (7)

Thinking inevitably produces footnotes:
(1) Hannah Arendt – The Life of the Mind
(2) Says the Poet: W.H. Auden
(3) Confesses the Philosopher: Heidegger
(4) Hannah Arendt – The Life of the Mind
(5) Allegedly – such a lovely word!
(6) Marc Reuyebrink
(7) It’s only in a footnote that I would dare to quote Baudelaire’s pathetic outcry in “les phares” (about how the great artworks troughout the ages are « ardent sobs”, and the best testimony of human dignity): “car vraiment seigneur, c’est le meilleur témoignage que nous puissions donner de notre dignité, que cet ardent sanglot qui roule d’âge en âge et vient mourir au bord de votre éternité »

in praise of snow and folly

It had been announced, snow …. By weathermen and snow-crazy correspondents alike. So expectations were high when I rode out on my bike in the morning.

The park seemed particularly still, the sky particularly grey & expectant. And yes, after a brief feint outbreak of the sun, the world suddenly grew dark and filled up with a mixture of sleet and snow. Ah – the exhilaration of it – being immersed in this dizzying and lacerating sleet.

Then, out of the park, back among the traffic, peering through misty glasses into a hazy world with twirling flocks, trailing red tail-lights, refracting yellow head lights. Around me, the swooshy sound of cars slowly driving through melting snow. Feeling cold water seeping into my shoes, trickling down my neck, mouth & nose watering from intrusive icy flocks.

I’m elated when I get home, feeling so very smug & cozy when I can change into dry clothes and bask in the domestic warmth.

And who knows why, around noon, I formed the firm & crazy resolve that on this fine day I would not take weather-proof public transport to go to that exhibition in the castle of Gaasbeek. Nope I would go there by bike – some 16 km into the country, in unknown territory, with weather forecasts unwaveringly bad.

So after lunch, with a childish sense of adventure, I gleefully set out on my bike, duly wrapped & buttoned up against the raging elements.

The hardest part was getting out of the city – pedaling through murky neighborhoods, along car-infested highways, through post-industrial nowhere areas….

But then at last hitting indeed a country road – aptly called “Postweg” . Riding through villages and along wet fields planted with mysterious crops. On some farm-houses there are handwritten posters with solemn announcements - “witloof uit diepe grond”/”chicory from deep out of the ground” – “aardappelen van ‘t veld”/”potatoes from the field” . And on and on I pedal – every once in a while checking maps at bus-stops to monitor my advance in the right direction.

After some hesitation on a crossroads, while it starts icely raining again – I firmly take a right turn, and lo & behold, there is the park surrounding the castle of Gaasbeek.

Obviously, on this fine November day, not too many visitors are thronging at the entry. The woman at the ticket-counter is solicitous & friendly – offering to take care of my helmet & other biking paraphernalia. Insisting that I take a reduced price entry ticket, even after having ascertained that I did not belong to any of the many reduction-qualifying groups.

The castle & the exhibition deserve better than a bantering post. Suffice it to say that the exhibit wanted to celebrate with contemporary art works the last lady of the castle, a scintillating woman of taste & smartness and with many fascinating personas (bourgeois, aristocratic, connoisseur & collectioneur, subversive, artistic, ...).
Suffice it also to say that I loved wandering through this labyrintic castle with both ancient cultural artifacts and startling, imaginative contemporary tributes to this headstrong woman.
And the last thing that it is sufficient to say is that this castle managed to play upon the whole range of childhood-castle associations: from shivering gloomy corridors over grand dining rooms to winding staircases up mysterious towers.

It’s getting dark when I get back at my bike in the court yard. The woman-of-the ticket-counter is standing outside, looking probingly to the sky. That’s a lot of snow coming this way, she remarks , pointing out heavy clouds at the horizon. You could wait here till that snow-storm has passed by.
Then she grins , but I guess you want to be in it.
How right she was, of course a snow storm had been part of the plan all along.

the folly of hope

When are you going to blog about Obama, X asked, while we headed for the Underground. Ah, a good question (1) , instantly appealing to my sense of duty. Of course one should not just revel in morbid-November-autumnal-melancholy, but also engage with the world’s pressing affairs (2).

Boarding the metro and finding a seat gave me some reprieve before answering X's question. So yes, why had I not yet produced an elated blog about the Obama-victory, I asked myself, smugly seated now opposite my companion and feeling quite content in this multilingual carriage full of Saturday people, from all walks of life, of all colors & persuasions (3).

Of course I had felt awed – awed by Obama’s dogged perseverance – awed by the portentous symbolism of his victory (4) . And amazed – it wàs possible – a book-reading, intelligent man of mixed race, with Hussein as his middle name, becoming president of the United States. And moved, oh definitely, I had been moved by the victory of someone who had also known about life at the margins, about not fitting in.
And who in his victory speech, in the very first paragraphs celebrated inclusiveness : “ young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled “. (5)

But despite all that …. , well I guess I did feel a bit weary around all this audacity of hope. The sheer tediousness of that tiresome, stirring battle cry “yes we can”. Partly this weariness is due to a genuine concern about the current rotten state of the world: it will need more than hope and rousing rhetoric to set things right … (be it economically or politically).
But mostly it is because of the deeply ingrained pessimism of my philosophically inclined nature that I feel so ambivalent about this Institutionalized Hope and Optimism.

Oh let’s be clear about it: I know that “optimism is a moral duty”(6) , a prerequisite for all human enterprise (7). I know that if we let ourselves being crushed under the weight of horrible truths, if we meticulously imagine the perils of the daunting tasks ahead, nothing ever will get done. So it is against one’s own better knowledge that one should , that one ought to be optimist: hope & unfounded over-optimism (8) as an adaptive trait in the struggle for life.

But still, the diligently truthful mind may find it degrading to dupe itself by hope ( or maybe this diligent mind is only cowardly protecting itself against the pain of dashed hopes? ‘thus conscience does make cowards of us all’ ….) (9) .

Sartre cunningly resolved this existential ambivalence by recommending “a pessimism of the mind combined with an optimism of the will”. And Obama may very well have both: a commanding intelligence which does not hide from the distressing facts of the world, and a powerful optimism of the will which can take on the most daunting of tasks.

But personally, as an eternally self-doubting pessimist, when having to force hope&optimism down my own throat, I find William James’ rhetorical question much more useful: “what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? “ .

Yeah, useful dupery, that’s what hope is….

In the meanwhile (10) we had again emerged above the ground, finding ourselves in a charming part of the Brussels- neighborhood Anderlecht: a place where one could live - with that pleasantly bent row of early 20th century Brussels brick houses (designed in toned down but still playful art nouveau) reminding one of an epoch when the Brussels petite-bourgeoisie had both zest and taste; with those engagingly swooshing gleaming curves of the tram-rails (11) ; with the very Belgian- Bourgundian-Proletarian taverns ; and all this Brussels couleur locale saved from smug provincialism by a most varied set of native & non-native inhabitants. (12)

But I digress – because this urban peregrination did have a philosophical destination! The Erasmus house, tucked away in a quiet enclave behind an endearingly somber church, under a gloomy sky.
There one can roam through rooms with creaking floor-boards, admire heavy leather-bound books , smile ruefully at the crude censorship of inked out sentences.
Or dream away at Erasmus’ time-worn wooden desk, near a glass-in-lead window looking out in the garden, savoring this scholarly stillness, cloaked by the rustling of autumn leaves.

And there one can wander around in Erasmus’ garden – assembled with such loving care to rejoice philosophically & flowerly inclined visitors.

But I digress again – praising gardens instead of folly.

Because, getting to my point, Erasmus, in all his wisdom, knew of course all about the necessary dupery of overconfidence & hope; about this so expedient & useful & indispensable folly of hope …

“ First then, if wisdom (as must be confessed) is no more than a readiness of doing good, and an expedite method of becoming serviceable to the world, to whom does this virtue more properly belong? To the wise man, who partly out of modesty, partly out of cowardice, can proceed resolutely in no attempt; or to the fool, that goes hand over head, leaps before he looks, and so ventures through the most hazardous undertaking without any sense or prospect of danger? In the undertaking of any enterprize the wise man shall run to consult with his books, and daze himself with poring upon musty authors, while the dispatchful fool shall rush bluntly on, and have done the business, while the other is thinking of it. For the two greatest lets and impediments to the issue of any performance are modesty, which casts a mist before men’s eyes; and fear, which makes them shrink back, and recede from any proposal: both these are banished and cashiered by Folly, and in their stead such a habit of fool-hardiness introduced, as mightily contributes to the success of all enterprizes.” (13)

This is as pedantic as footnotes can get: quoting Hamlet, and copying Latin.

(1) that’s the trouble with intelligent & inquisitive companions – they ask all the questions one avoids to ask oneself. Questions one avoids , not only to dodge duties but also because sometimes an honest answer would be too pathetic. Like this other question X asked: why do you blog? How on earth could one admit it is to gather proof to one’s defense. Proof that one is more than the publicly documented persona of a (perhaps soon to be un-employed) bank-economist. (If the 19th C had its sensitive upper classes reading Ruskin to prove they had a soul, now we may have a community of soulful & soul-searching bloggers).
(2) ah “l’engagement” – that politically rousing heritage of my teenage leftist reading of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Goldman et al.
(3) being rather defensive about my beloved Brussels (I know how filthy & chaotic it can seem) I was quite glad that X approvingly noted the diversity of the Brussels population and that she even granted a whiff of New York urban-ness to Brussels’ quite ugly metro-carriages.
(4) I remember how back in March 2008 an American business acquaintance (a white male) had dismissed Obama’s chances, peremptorily stating “America is not yet ready for a black president” – aha … guess who’s coming to dinner my lad ….
(5) Hey why did he not include “men and women” in that all embracing sentence? (And this footnote will be the only & the faintest of hints to the fact that I maybe, just maybe, might be sulking because America was not yet ready for a female president. )
(6) Karl Popper
(7) Cfr Keynes’ animal spirits!
Overconfidence, locus of control and depression: "Overconfidence bias may cause many individuals to overestimate their degree of control as well as their odds of success. This may be protective against depression - since Seligman and Maier's model of depression includes a sense of learned helplessness and loss of predictability and control. Depressives tend to be more accurate, and less overconfident in their assessments of the probabilities of good and bad events occurring to them. This has caused some researchers to consider that overconfidence bias may be adaptive and/or protective in some situations."
(9) Hamlet:
“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action”
(10) These citations-backed reflections are of course entirely post-factum. Never ever did I during that metro-ride reply thus to my companion (who herself did however already during the conversation dare to oppose truthful & dignified pessimism to propaganda-tainted hope). And, um , actually the Obama question was maybe not even asked at that precise point of our Brussels-walk – but for blog-compository reasons it’s handy to situate it there.
(11) Someone ought to write a treatise, or at least a poem, about the romance of tramrails and tramways. The blog-pic is one of Brussels tramrails by night, though not at Anderlecht.
(12) And that this charm is not a just a figment of my Brussels-Partial imagination was so gratifyingly proven by X’s instant enchantment with the spot.
(13) My Latin has long lapsed , but X’s hasn’t – so here’s to you, X!
"Principio si rerum usu constat prudentia, in utrum magis competet eius cognominis honos: in sapientem, qui partim ob pudorem, partim ob animi timiditatem nihil aggreditur, an in stultum, quem neque pudor, quo vacat, neque periculum, quod non perpendit, ab ulla re deterret? Sapiens ad libros veterum confugit, atque hinc meras vocum argutias ediscit. Stultus adeundis comminusque periclitandis rebus, veram (ni fallor) prudentiam colligit.
Sunt enim duo praecipua ad cognitionem rerum parandam obstacula: pudor, qui fumum offundit animo, et metus, qui ostenso periculo, dehortatur ab adeundis facinoribus. At his magnifice liberat stultitia."

Ambiguous Autumn: Grey

Autumn soothes me – with its calming greys , its sheltering fogs. This is a season that knows how to reflect about time passing. A season slowly ‘withering into truth’.

Come autumn so pensive, in yellow and grey

And soothe me with tidings of Nature’s decay (1)

Ah the wisdom of the catholic church, to schedule days of mourning, days of remembrance.

Waking on a 1st of November, one can feel the stillness of a foggy day. Such exquisite relief – this stillness. And looking out of the window, one drinks in the hues of greys dappled with the soft yellow of twirling leaves.

I confess I now love Sundays (and all Catholic holidays) – once I dreaded their boredom, now I gladly surrender to their repose, their official release from all practical duties. No Saturday shopping, no Weekday toiling. No useful activities, no brooding about practical survival. (2)

Memory, memory, what do you want of me? Autumn

makes the thrush fly through colourless air,

and the sun casts a monotonous glare

on the yellowing woods where the north winds hum.(3)

But in fact - most autumn poems are too languorously melancholy to my taste - because, frankly, I find the season exhilarating – the wetness, the greyness, the fogginess, the seeping cold – I revel more in them than in the most sprightly Spring.
Yes, in Autumn I feel quite literally in “my element” .

And I go

Where the winds know,

Broken and brief,

To and fro,

As the winds blow

A dead leaf. (4)

Falling Notes
(1) Robert Burns
(2) a propos Sundays: since there are Sunday painters and Sunday writers, it should not come as a surprise there are also Sunday bloggers.
(3) Paul Verlaine ; Nevermore (Poèmes Saturniens: Mélancholia II)
Souvenir, souvenir, que me veux-tu ? L'automne
Faisait voler la grive à travers l'air atone,
Et le soleil dardait un rayon monotone
Sur le bois jaunissant où la bise détone. translation
(4) Paul Verlaine ; Chanson d’automne,(English translation: Arthur Symons)
Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Ambiguous Autumn: in Yellow, Brown and Green (1)

Well, with age, one does get a tad blasé about yet another blazing summer, yet another sprightly spring etc. Those eternally returning budding trees and buzzing bees. But I would never want to miss yet another Autumn. I’ve already (see above) sung the praise of its soothing greys, but then, there’s still Autumn’s glorious light, its glorious colours, and ah the glorious chaos of leaves set loose!

Over the years I’ve taken quite some autumn pics – the above is a November 1998 favorite. It was a Sunday, and I remember I was feeling drowsy and weak, what with an upcoming cold and a dreaded workweek ahead. But I did manage to kick myself out of the door for a reluctant autumn walk. And alongside a busy road, there was this closed up mansion, with its grey stones looking even more precarious than the brilliantly yellow leaves of the old trees in the garden. I shot pics feverishly, holding the camera between the bars of the rusty iron gate. Even now I still remember the rush of happiness.

A neo-classicist’s autumn.

Nothing like neo-classical pilasters and statues amidst autumn leaves . Not sure it’s a very PMC (PostModern-ly Correct) taste , but I just love these 19th C parks in autumn …

A Reluctant Romantic’s Autumn

(“what is the late November doing with the disturbance of the spring” – TS Eliot)

A Barking-up-Trees Autumn

A cyclist’s autumn

the crispy crackling of leaves under one's bike’s wheels …. or the swooshy wooshing through gleaming wet leaves.

(1) and see here for some really slow, sad but golden light