a tale of two apples

Medieval monks, living far from the hustle and bustle of worldly life, were, amidst all that solitary stillness, threatened by “acedia”. They were advised to combat the bane of acedia through a strict ascetic discipline of study and labor.
The 19th C & early 20th C urbanite upper classes , exposed to the full competitive stress of a busy society life, were rather prone to “neurasthenia” . Thus diagnosed, neurasthenic ladies & gentlemen were sent off for rest cures in sanatoria on the seaside or in the mountains (that is, if they were lucky enough not to fall in the hands of an electro-shock experimenter or, perhaps worse, of some Freudian quack).

But let it be clear that neither “acedia” nor “neurasthenia” are still in official use as scientific-medical terms. Which is excellent!!! It means we can let therapists, psychiatrists and the entire pharma-industry earn their living by futilely grappling (1) with ‘official’ ailments such as stress, burn-outs (= neurasthenia) and bore-outs (= acedia) , etc.

And we (2) , on the other hand, can calmly claim “acedia” and “neurasthenia” as ours, allowing us to wallow undisturbed in a rich Saturnine history stretching back to Aristotle.
We can thus seek the imaginary company of famous melancholiacs, hypochondriacs, neurasthenics, .... We can surround ourselves with heavy tomes of no scientific medical value whatsoever but whose humanistic erudition and mere bulky presence offer solace : Burton’s "The Anatomy of Melancholy" , : “Saturn and Melancholy” by the illustrious trio Klibansky, Panofsky & Saxl . We can languorously heed the ancient advice to hide in sweet musicke .
And instead of abusing painkillers to deal with multifarious aches, we will bravely endure while reciting Proust: “la neurasthénie est un pasticheur de génie”. ("neurasthenia is a genius of pastiche") As to existential anxiety attacks, they can of course be countered by following (again) Proust into the a-temporal realms of Art & Memory : “situé hors du temps, que pourrait-il craindre de l’avenir?” ("being outside time, what could he fear from the future?")

Since neurasthenia is a nervous exhaustion associated with the continuous onslaught of ugliness, pettiness and discordance (both mental and material) in a competitive & materialist society (3) , it is not surprising that rest would be recommended as a remedy. But since one also has to avoid succumbing to boredom or acedia, listlessly lying on a deckchair in a mountain sanatorium (see 19th-20th C remedies above) is not the cure I personally favor.

I much rather pack my bag and board a train for a French provincial city, say Bordeaux. The appeasing effect of the French sense for aesthetics and savoir-vivre is amazing. You already feel stress seeping away when you step out of the train into a beautiful old station hall, which comforts your senses with honest materials such as glass, brick & iron and with just the right sort of relaxed travelers’ bustle. And isn’t it wonderful that you can actually leave the Bordeaux-station without being instantly assailed by the roar of cars. Instead you can sip un verre de rosé on a terrace and savor the muted city sounds while watching sleek silent trams gliding by.
You can then explore the city by tram or by foot , your headaches vanishing thanks to the sheer soothing harmony that oozes from the city; from its lovely squares, its churches (going from sturdy Romanesque over Gothic to ecstatic Baroque) and its many neo-classical buildings, with their beige stones warmly glowing in the autumn sun.

Neurasthenics can also travel on to nearby Poitiers to challenge their delicate decadent broodings by a dose of ardent medieval Christian aesthetics.
The sheer tear-jerking shock of it ….. to turn a corner and to suddenly look up at the stone façade of Notre-Dame-la-Grande, so white & robust against a pure blue sky. Not the soaring heights of a gothic cathedral but all the awesome sturdiness of a Romanesque church. And never mind the icy winds on the square, one stands there gaping and staring, staring & gaping - completely in thrall to the utter abundance & variety of sculptures on the façade – there are grimacing beasts and monsters, stern old testament prophets, engagingly human scenes out of the life of Mary, and, ah, the never failing grace of an Annunciation angel.

There are still many other churches and museums in Poitiers and Bordeaux to delight the heart and the senses. But perhaps, during this trip, I have been moved most by a simple act of random kindness.
Getting hungry from all the walking in Poitiers I had gone into a small grocery shop to buy two apples. The grocer took the apples from me, saying, with all the loving appreciation of the connoisseur: ah des reinettes…. While weighing the apples on a grocer scale, he inquired whether I wanted to eat them right away. Upon my nodding confirmation he said oh, but then I’ll wash them for you, and off he went to the back of the store. When he handed me back the apples, still dripping with water, I could only mumble how very kind he was. (4)

And truly, when I will be reluctantly engaged again in the routine struggles of a competitive & materialist world (5) , I will, even more than the consoling harmonies of art, cherish this memory of the humble washing of two apples.

more mumbling in the notes

(1) Disclaimer: this post should not in any way be construed as doubting the need for professional aid in cases of severe mental turmoil. At the very most this post might aim to lighten the workload of the over-stretched psycho-medical profession by keeping mild cases of spiritual discontent out of medical waiting rooms and away from anti-depressants.
(2) “we”: assuming there is a community of combative melancholiacs
(3) Since I said I’d claim “neurasthenia”, I may coin my own definition
(4) If I could only gratefully mumble, it was because my more articulate & philosophical self was utterly dazzled by this proof of the existence of altruism. I mean, you see a one-time tourist sauntering into your shop to buy apples worth 90 cents. Someone whom you’ll never see again, someone who can’t even recommend your store to the shopping masses. And you kindly take the trouble to go & wash those apples. Your only reward being an astonished
(albeit grateful) look and a mumbled thanks.
(5) We all know human nature has been molded by the selfish struggle for survival and reproduction. We all know that success in our world is not only a matter of autonomous talent or skills but also [alas] of being able to use one’s resources as efficiently as possible while relentlessly competing amidst peer pressure. We all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And then, there is the true “otherworldliness” of goodness. “Otherworldly” in the full Arendtian sense because [the] “specific character of goodness” [is that it is] being done for nothing but goodness’ sake”. “Good works, because they must be forgotten instantly, can never become part of the world; they come and go, leaving no trace. They truly are not of this world." Re-reading the startling Arendt-passages about the un-worldliness of goodness, I realized yet again how incisive (though sometimes depressing) her analysis of the human condition is. Disinterestedly kind Poitiers grocers will indeed never reap public fame & material riches in this world of ours. At the most they’ll receive a fond anonymous tribute in a futile, unworldly blog. (But I suspect – I hope - that disinterestedly kind Poitiers grocers are well loved and lead rich, loving lives)

reading Hegel on Sunday

Sundays (and all holidays for that matter!) are a challenge for the combative melancholiac. Because too much peace & quiet lulls the combative reflexes into sleep. And oh oh the dull drowsy depths a non-combative melancholiac might sink into! Not to mention the endlessly ruminating reflections he or she might engage in!

It is thus in keeping with age-old remedies for “acedia” that on a grey Sunday morning combative melancholiacs can be found, not contentedly snoring away in bed, but straining their brain to fathom , say, Hegel’s philosophy of art.
A paradoxical occupation , this stern philosophizing about art. Because isn’t art precisely the domain where we want to escape from all this “somber self-concentration of thought” ? Don’t we (1) seek in art the sensuous immediacy of imagination, rather than the twists and turns of an “intelligence devoid of plastic shape” ?

We need art to “drag our hearts through the whole significance of life” , without resorting to scientific analysis & deduction. We have a “cherishing interest for the art object” because it represents universal, intangible thoughts & feelings via the most individual, sensuous existence .
A reconciliation of senses, heart and mind in one living synthetic intuition, yes that’s what art achieves. And that’ s why it offers such a reprieve for all those who have either despaired of meaningless sensual pleasures or have tired from the dry “abstract endlessness of reflective thought”.

But of course our dictatorial ruminating reason cannot ever be content with the mere concrete evidence of our actual pleasure in art, and demands a serious theoretical justification. Hence the whole discipline of Philosophy of Art! Now of course, one can always trust Hegel to produce page after page of serious theoretical thought, also in his very ponderous introductory lectures “On Art” (2) .

And yet, doesn’t he get closest to “the meaning of art” when he lapses from dry theoretical discourse into metaphor? (3) And isn’t the power of metaphor in fact related to how art functions: conveying a truth through a sensuous image which induces the happy collusion of imagination and understanding. Now I wonder, dear reader, whether you spotted Hegel’s lovely evocative sentence (already furtively inserted above) [art] “drags our hearts through the whole significance of life” . And indeed; whether we’re watching a film, listening to music, contemplating a painting … : although we’re not actually engaged in living action, our heart is being dragged through the whole range of feelings that make up the significance of a human life.

Fortified by these theoretical insights, my combative inner self thus decided to engage in some Sunday-afternoon art therapy (4) . Regular readers of this blog may now sigh and think they’re in for yet another ode to ancient Madonna’s and Crucifixions – but no! Even an un-postmodern, contemplative flâneur does participate in contemporary art events (5). And so, on this windy greyish afternoon I cycled to a former warehouse, now converted into a space for 'creative interventions'.

I do like wandering around in these old buildings, with their bare walls and floors, their sturdy brick and iron, their many rooms & stairs & corridors, all full of disorderly traces of past occupations. And thus deambulating I am ready to suspend all disbelief and to let random artists try out on me whatever installation or performance they see fit.

Like that room where I first stood hesitating on the threshold, because a woman was lying in bed, and only at a second glance I spotted the notice which invited individual visitors to take off their shoes and join the woman in bed to swap “scar stories” . (7) As I read afterwards in the artist’s (Michel Yang) statement: “Scars whether physical or emotional mark the presence of the external (past or present) [..] unlike birthmarks which are innate. What were those external events? The story of the scar is inscribed in the scar. I propose to take an intimate look at our personal physical scars. We will describe and reproduce/rewrite our scars. And in doing so, leaving traces of the events behind.”

On the wall of the room-with-the-woman-lying-in-bed, white paper sheets were pinned with the typed out scar-stories of anonymous previous guests. There were cute childhood stories, there were banal stories, there were scary and there were moving stories ,…. Tales of the many little catastrophes lives are littered with, and which usually attract no public attention at all. But pinned here on the wall, these ordinary scar stories acquired some broader interest, appealing most powerfully to our senses, our imagination, our heart….

And, in fact, our dear solid Hegel would have very well grasped the artistic intention of this performance. In his analysis of romantic art he speaks of “aspects of external existence committed to contingency and left at the mercy of freaks of imagination” and “whatever can find room in the human heart […] can make its appearance in the realm of art, if only it [is endowed] with affinity to thought and feeling”.

anti-theses buried in the notes
(1) “we”: assuming there is a community of likeminded, ponderous people , who are saved from the perils of auto-ruminating by the grace of sensuous aesthetics
(2) Quoting the title of the first chapter should suffice as proof of the serious laboriousness of this Hegel-lecture: “DIVISIONS OF AESTHETICS AND REFUTATION OF SOME OBJECTIONS AGAINST THE PHILOSOPHY OF ART”. The second chapter’s title is promising too! “SCIENTIFIC WAYS OF TREATING THE BEAUTIFUL AND ART”. But my favorite (sub-) title is to be found in the third chapter: “The Historical Deduction of the True Concept of Art”.
(3) I can easily disprove the need for lyricism or metaphor to “explain” art: Kant explains art brilliantly in his critique of aesthetic judgment . And what he writes there about the beautiful and about taste is as dull and dry as analytical thought can get, and yet never have I gained more understanding about how peculiar the disinterested aesthetic judgment is for a human being otherwise ruled by “appetitive interests” .
(4) not that my heart really needed any more dragging around, it already being the scene of very live emotional turmoil over the past weeks. But that’s of course the whole soothing and redeeming point of art: its form, its beauty, its purely imaginary presence may allow us to come to terms, if only in the imagination, with emotions and events under whose stress we crumble in real life.
(5) I said I would refrain from an ode to ancient art in the body-of-the-post, but notes are obviously not held by that promise. And how to forget that only yesterday, I stood rapt with attention in front of a 15th century Annunciation (by Rogier VanDerWeyden or his workshop). Cherishing the magical presence of a detail, painted with painstaking attention: a little glass flask with the light refracting in the liquid it contains, the dull gleam of the glass itself modulated by the soft shades of its ribbed texture and the shadow thrown by the little flask on the wall almost liquid in its fleetingness. In the presence of this little glass flask, so lovingly painted (6), how could I not but lament the West’s relentless drive for creative destruction, having made us wantonly dismiss representative painting. But Hegel, expert in all things of the Mind and the Spirit, of course foresaw the West’s evolution to abstract and conceptual art, an evolution which was to emancipate Thought and the Ideas from the fetters of unreliable, material aesthetics. “The reflective culture of our life of today […] is not favorable to art [and misleads the artist] into putting more abstract thought into his works themselves” […] the spiritual has withdrawn into itself out of the external and its immediate oneness therewith. For this reason, the sensuous externality of concrete form is [regarded] […] as something transient and fugitive. […] For this external element no longer has its notion and significance, as in classical art, in its own sphere .”
(6) ah precious echo of one of my favorite Proust-passages in which Bergotte, ignoring health problems, goes sout to see again a Vermeer painting he loves. Standing in front of it, while enthralled by a brilliantly painted detail (“le petit pan de mur si bien peint en jaune”) , he questions his own fundamental choice of having always preferred art to life... ("Dans une céleste balance lui apparaissait, chargeant l'un des plateaux, sa propre vie, tandis que l'autre contenait le petit pan de mur si bien peint en jaune. Il sentait qu'il avait imprudemment donné la première pour le second")

(7) no, I did not myself climb into bed to tell my own scar stories : a question of holes in my socks (so I could not take off my shoes!), natural reserve (gosh, public display of my scars!?) and a self-imposed interdiction to look back (because there are scars and scars and not all scars merely evoke innocent accidents)
(8) a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, on how we don’t pay much attention to the calamities that are not momentous and unique, but rather all too frequent and usual in life, even though they may be the very stuff of suffering : “That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency , has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk well wadded with stupidity”

meditations on a "problematic quote"

A. signalled the following “problematic quote”, found in Hannah Arendt’s “On Humanity in dark times: Thoughts about Lessing”:

"All this is another way of saying that the humanitarism of brotherhood scarcely befits those who do not belong among the insulted and the injured and can share it only through their compassion. The warmth of the pariah people cannot rightfully extend to those whose different position in the world imposes on them a responsibility for the world and does not allow them to share the cheerful unconcern of the pariah. But it is true that in "dark times" the warmth which is the pariahs' substitute for light exerts a great fascination upon all those who are so ashamed of the world as it is that they would like to take refuge in invisibility. And in invisibility, in that obscurity in which a man who is himself hidden need no longer see the visible world either, only the warmth and fraternity of closely packed human beings can compensate for the weird irreality that human relationships assume wherever they develop in absolute worldlessness, unrelated to the world common to all people."

A problematic paragraph indeed, one that can be linked to Arendt’s alleged lack of compassion (one of the more controversial aspects to be found in her writings). It is a troubling paragraph, but chilling and incomprehensible only at first sight.
Because Arendt’s apparent shrinking from compassion and from “the warmth of the pariah” becomes altogether less revolting when put in the context both of her writings about the political consequences of marginality and of her revolt against being denied a place in the world.

One of Arendt’s first books was the intensely idiosyncratic biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a “meditation on marginality” as it has been called. (1) Varnhagen, a Jewish woman living in early 19th C Berlin, had a brilliant mind and personality, but her race, gender and lack of wealth condemned her nevertheless to a life on the fringes of official society. Cut off from solidly sanctioned means to express her talents in the public sphere, she ultimately had to “live her own life altogether inwardly”(2), escaping into ‘worldlessness’, frequent flights of fancy and in convoluted, self-pitying introspection.

Arendt, also a brilliantly intelligent Jewish woman, living in the inimical Germany of the 30s, profoundly identified with Varnhagen and seems to have taken her life as a personal cautionary tale. Arendt did not want to get trapped in the “inner consequences of marginality”(1) which at best might gain “sympathy of the compassionate observer”(1), but would not ever permit one to claim one’s rightful place in the world.

In this light one can understand how Arendt proudly adopted a tough morality and upheld, for herself and others, strict standards of ‘hardening oneself against self-pity’ (not wholly unlike the Nietzschean aristocratic pride...).

Arendt's shrinking from sentimentality and compassion can also be traced back to the quite valid political insight which she gained from the Jewish plight in Europe: ‘soft’ human rights are not enough, compassionateness is not enough to guarantee people’s dignity. Political action is required to obtain full civil rights and full citizenship. For Arendt “soft” qualities such as warmth, empathy or even sympathetic art can not be a substitute for ‘hard’ political justice. Thus Arendt is very sceptical about the capacity of fleeting sentiments, however lofty or compassionate, to form a durable basis for either moral or political justice.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (3) Arendt picks up again the theme of societal marginality and its consequences, and describes how “defamed people and classes” are not granted a place in the world as a matter of fact but are forced to make a gruelling choice: choosing the way of either the pariah or the parvenu.
The choice between on the one hand “the privileges of pariahs [...] : humanity, kindness, freedom from prejudice, sensitiveness to injustice” and on the other hand “the qualities which the parvenu must acquire if he wants to arrive – inhumanity, greed, insolence, cringing servility, and determination to push ahead”. And Arendt wistfully concludes “Since Rahel Varnhagen’s unique attempt to establish a social life outside of official society had failed, the way of the pariah and the parvenu were equally ways of extreme solitude, and the way of conformism one of constant regret” .

So Arendt’s insights into the plight of pariahs is not about revolting callousness as opposed to compassionate understanding, but rather about a revolt against being marginalized and cast out of the world. It is about claiming the right to play a role in the world, also for those who do not belong to the dominant societal “castes”.

Humanity in the form of fraternity invariably appears historically among persecuted peoples and enslaved groups [...] This kind of humanity is the great privilege of pariah peoples; it is the advantage that the pariahs of this world always and in all circumstances can have over others. The privilege is dearly bought, it is often accompanied by so radical a loss of the world [...] that in extreme cases [...[ we can speak of real wordlessness”. (4)

And to understand why Arendt thinks this “loss of the world” so catastrophic, we only have to bring to bear upon the discussion Arendt’s love of the “world”, her “amor mundi”.
She attached a supreme importance to the world as a public sphere where people in all their diversity meet, act and compete as equals. Against the sheer transience of human organic life she posited this relative permanence of the world.
The world - with its political institutions, its public space, its cultural artefacts and manifestations – offers an “interspace”, i.e. a realm which, precisely thanks to the distance it puts between people, permits constructive interaction between a variety of viewpoints and people who, in all their diversity, meet as equals.
But to appear and act in this world, in this ”interspace”, one needs a certain measure of courage, the courage to abandon the safety of one’s private life amongst loving family and soul-mates.

In fact, in her depreciation of the private sphere vàv the public sphere of the world, Arendt goes perplexingly far (which, just as her alleged lack of compassion, is one of the more controversial aspects of her work).
And thus it remains one of the fascinating paradoxes in Arendt’s oeuvre how her career of writing and thinking about politics, action and about the World as a public 'interspace' is framed by, at the outset, the biography of Rahel Varnhagen ( “a meditation on marginality”) and, at the end, by an impressive tribute to “The Life of the Mind” .


(1) Peter Baehr – Introduction to the Portable Hannah Arendt
(2) Hannah Arendt – Rahel Varnhagen, The Life of a Jewess
(3) Hannah Arendt – The Origins of Totalitarianism
(4) Hannah Arendt – On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing

« J’aime, j’aime la vie » (Antwerp, Summer & Fall 1986)

At 20 one can still blithely ignore the lure of blazing summer days. And thus, on that sunny Saturday-afternoon in July , I found myself, deprived of any direct sunlight, lazing the day away in a ground floor flat somewhere in an Antwerp suburb. Lounging about in bed, reading Agatha Christie and with on the background the radio playing again & again the Belgian Eurosong winner of that year : “j’aime j’aime la vie”.

I had arrived there at 7 AM , with a girl I had befriended only a few hours before in a shady nightclub. Amidst the smoke & noise & general drunken bawdiness we had bonded at the counter over lines of tormented poetry we had been scribbling on stained beermats. Scribbling instead of reciting had been in order because of the thumping music, which forced my newly found friend to switch off her hearing aid if she wasn’t to be tormented with unbearably screeching sounds.

At closing time of the night club, we had left together, blinking at the bright morning light, and headed for the tram stop where decent early rising citizens were already gathering. She had asked whether I liked chicken and coca cola for breakfast, assuring me she still had plenty in supply at her place. So, instead of taking a lonely train back home after my night out (I lived in Louvain at the time, some 60 km from Antwerp) I joined her on a local tram, enjoying the rattling ride through early morning streets where I had never been before.

While seated at our 7AM meal of cold chicken and coke, she had happily explained she had to go to work in a store at 10 AM, but that I was very welcome to stay at her place until her return later in the afternoon. This capacity of hers to live through an entire weekend, fuelled only by chicken and coca-cola, ice-cold showers and the shortest of naps, never ceased to amaze me and surely contributed to my admiring fondness of her. Ah yes, she did seem to have so much surer a grasp of the good life than I had, but then, after all, she was already 25!

So there I was, lounging about on that summer Saturday, quite content with life, though slightly dazed for lack of sleep , waiting for her to return. I started exploring discreetly my surroundings, browsing books (lots of suspense novels, but also geography), looking at the photos placed on cupboards. Photos of friends, family and of herself at different ages. Funny how different she could look , depending on the haircut at the time of the snapshot , now brash & tomboyish with a short crew cut, then again sweet & girly with longer hair.

Having got bored with Agatha Christie and with “j’aime la vie” on the radio, I did venture outside the flat for a short while, looking for a store to replenish the coca cola reserves. Clutching the key she had entrusted to me, I strolled through unknown streets, dazzled by the white summer glare . But soon I took refuge again in the cozy semi-darkness of her flat, where the only light came in through French doors which opened to a small walled court.

Wanting to make myself useful I had done the dishes and was just clumsily vacuuming when with a start I heard the front door opening. She seemed happy to still find me there, laughing at my zealous, though rather incompetent, dash at household tasks. That night we did not go out again, but instead stayed in, drinking coke and talking, talking, talking the hours away.

She told how it had taken years before her incipient deafness had been recognized as such. As a child she had long lived in her own bubble, quite puzzled by the world and the people around her, who in their turn were puzzled by her strange ways, thinking she had autistic tendencies before at last discovering that hearing troubles were at the root of her isolation. In a very matter- of- fact tone she explained how she had learned to navigate the world with its speech and its myriads of sounds, using a combination of lip-reading and hearing-aids of ever increasing strength to match an ever declining hearing ability.

She was very attached though to the sounds that she did capture – I remember how she always got all excited when catching the far-off drone of a plane, she would interrupt whatever she was doing and run out into the little court, scouring the sky for a glimpse of that plane. And on her night-table she had a huge black ghetto-blaster alongside piles of Mike Oldfield music-cassettes. “Tubular Bells” – that was the music apparently best tuned to the reach of her hearing aid.

And all through our talking, she also listened intently to me, not ever getting impatient with me, not even when, as the night wore on, I got lost in over-cerebral ruminations about life, philosophy , Bach and the universe. She explained that she loved watching my face and eyes while I went on like that, thus gauging my genuine love of all I talked about rather than being concerned with the increasingly abstruse quality of my ranting. Which was really a very sweet thing of her to say to the naive -ponderous person I was (and still am).

Oh, we sure saw a lot of each other that summer! Broadening the roaming circle of our nightly escapades also to other cities and other dubious venues. We would for instance take the last train to Ghent together, spending the night there, a night full of encounters with other youthful nighthawks. And sometimes extending our night-city-trip into the day. I remember us walking about bleary-eyed In Ghent, on a Sunday morning in August, only barely escaping arrest by a overzealous policeman when doing something foolish with a national flag we had been prying loose. Sometimes we would be lounging about until the afternoon, basking in the sun on crowded terraces, fending off exhaustion with an extra dose of greasy fries.

In September I went for a 3-week holiday in Portugal with friend. So contact was broken for almost a month, though never was she nearer to me than when I was watching a small boy playing alone on a pier in some port-city in Portugal. It was not just his blond crew-cut that reminded me of her, but also the intense concentration of this little boy, his passionate self-absorption in his lone playing - very much, I think, like the lonely kid she had been.

And then came the new academic year in Louvain with its much dreaded stress of both a hostile curriculum (economy) and a set of particularly intimidating bourgeois fellow-students. In the meanwhile, she, having broken her leg (I can’t for the life of me recall how and when) went to stay with her parents for a while.
So circumstances didn’t facilitate our communications, it moreover still being the era of slow letters, with their unnerving tendency to fatefully cross each other. Thus it happened that, once upon a very cold weekend in late November, I went to Antwerp only to find she wasn’t home.

Still having her key, I let myself in. The flat was cold, a half-empty thermos and a coffee-cup trailed on the table. How strange it was to be alone again in her flat, full of traces of her habits which I had come to know so well. I stayed there for the night, laying awake most of the time - partly because of the cold ( not knowing how to light the gas radiator) and partly because I was so alert to any noises, vaguely hoping to hear her coming in after all.

The next morning I left a note on the table and took the tram to the center of Antwerp to have breakfast in a riverside-café.
Drinking cup after cup of coffee I watched the gray foggy river, with a boat slowly sailing by, accompanied by screeching seagulls. Peering into that gray expanse, wondering about a blank future, I could not know that many years later I would be shocked by someone saying with a shrug about a withered friendship ” oh well, people come and go”.
And still less could I know that, even more years later, I myself would have come to terms with this coming and going of people, not out of cynicism, but because I would have learned that at least in our memory these transient human relations enjoy some relative permanence.

on reading a "treacherous, deceitful and pernicious book"

Ooopps, it was not a pastiche!

Well, am still recovering from the shock that I may have spent some summer time in the company of a “treacherous, deceitful, and pernicious book” [which] “ manufacture[s] a narrative that will enable and justify the global arrogance of [a] predatory empire and its pathetic claim to civilizational authority.”

Have I been manipulated by a horrendous sadistic neo-conservative careerist? Hamid Dabashi, a Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City, certainly thinks so:

“ the author of RLT is a well-known, well-connected, and well-funded neocon, employed by the principle doctrinaire of neo-conservatism Paul Wolfowitz [...], endorsed by the most diabolical anti-Muslim neocon alive Bernard Lewis, and promoted by a scandalous PR firm like Benador Associates, and many other similar indications are all entirely tangential to the substance of my critique which as you read in my essay is the tenor and diction, message and narrative of RLT itself -namely the portrayal of a figment of imagination called "the West" as the arbiter of truth and salvation, and the dismissal of "non-Western" cultures as banal and diabolical” (1)

The above quote concerns the book “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, a semi-fictionalized memoir by Azar Nafisi (an Iranian professor of English literature), who left the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1997 to settle in the US. In her book she recounts her personal experience of the momentous events in Iran and of daily life under a fundamentalist Islamist regime. Her tale focuses on a group of female students who come together in a sort of clandestine weekly book-club to discuss novels by writers such as Nabokov, Henry James and Jane Austen.

Nafisi then contrasts the complex moral climate of novels (full of ambiguities, giving a voice to everyone, focusing on individual happiness and unhappiness, putting empathy first) with the cruel oppression of individual freedoms (in particular those of women) by a totalitarian society that imposes the commandments of a single religious morality on all.

Frankly, upon first reading Dabashi’s review I thought it was a pastiche on the typical jargon of post-modern deconstruction of the dominant imperial discourse. The review definitely excels in drowning any possibly valid points in preposterous venom.

But still, in the light of the catastrophic consequences of the politics of the ill-famed American neo-conservatives (the war in Iraq…), further investigation of the charges against RLT is warranted. Also, I can't wait to unleash on my unsuspecting blog-readership my very first public attempt at deconstruction! (2)

Deconstructing “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

There’s no denying that in RLT the complexity and freedom of mostly Western works of fiction are opposed to only Islamist totalitarianism. And there’s no denying either that Nafisi is steeped in American culture and that she displays woefully little critical attitude vàv American power politics.

But the book doesn’t depreciate Persian culture, quite the contrary as I recall (I was moved by its glowing paragraphs on Persian poetry). And Nafisi does start her tribute to the imagination with a reference to “ Scheherazade [who] breaks the cycle of violence by choosing to embrace different terms of engagement. She fashions her universe not through physical force, as does the king, but through imagination and reflection.”

However, the question remains – does Nafisi act as a “native informer” on behalf of the US by contrasting the liberating joys of Western literature with the sorrows of an Islamic Republic? Is Nafisi some sort of "colonial agent" who wrote her memoir to promote American-style democracy and to justify an Iranian regime-change brought about by US military means?

Ah yes, definitely, she does promote democracy! ! Let’s bring to the witness-stand following incriminating paragraph from her book:

“A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice; in this way a novel is called democratic – not that it advocates democracy but that by nature it is so. Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels – the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains. […] A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil. “

Hum, well, surely US warships will not be deployed in the Persian Gulf to defend the honour of “the good novel”, “empathy” and “the complexities of life” ? And, really , these days, how many of the western power-brokers in command of the economic and military apparatus give a damn about the “civilizational authority” of Henry James...?

Ok, but still, but still – let’s not let Nafisi that easily off the hook. Does her book show the full complexity of individuals she advocates? Does she create enough space for all these characters to have a voice?

No, indeed, I must admit, she does not always.

Actually, she’s not a consummate novelist. In this semi-fictionalized memoir she does not always manage to give true depth to all of her characters. Some of them are clearly fabricated to represent different points of view in a rather artificial (& thus superficial) way. She is for example rather clumsy at representing different viewpoints regarding the headscarf. And she doesn't brim with empathy to render the possible inner motivations of for example members of revolutionary Islamic groups. (3)

But frankly, this book does not need any cunning deconstruction, because what you see is what you get: you see a (self-avowedly Americanized) Iranian Professor of English literature, who is not a novelist, who's more inclined to reading & teaching than to political analysis, who eventually flees to the US and who then writes a memoir centered around her genuine love of English novels and of teaching. And who in the process tries to give meaning to this love of novels against the background of the oppression of individual liberties by the Islamic Republic.

So of course you’ll get then a relatively biased work. And of course you’ll get a memoir that itself is not always fully up to the literary standards of complexity and nuanced polyphony which it celebrates in the great novels. But you will get some great literary criticism!

Deconstructing my own summer-reading experience of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

While recognizing its flaws, I still must say I have loved reading this book. And, obviously, not as a manifestation of American "civilizational superiority". But nor, to be honest, as the subtlest of novels. Nor as the most balanced of documentaries about life in Iran. Though it is an interesting, and at times moving, account of life in an Islamic republic, as described by an intelligent and sensitive woman.

But most of all, I must confess, I loved it for a host of subjective and aesthetic-subversive reasons. The kind of reasons often “condescendingly called ‘bourgeois’ and ‘decadent’”.

So I’ll duly deconstruct the full suspicious set of my motivations:

I) firstly I loved RLT because of its thoughtful, old-fashioned analyses of a handful of novels (4)

RLT has for instance offered me insights into the ambiguities of Nabokov’s Lolita which have at last helped me to come to terms with my own profound ambivalence vàv this book. With great nuance Nafisi shows how the book Lolita is a study in cruelty and blindness to others, which are the crimes committed by Humbert, Lolita's disgusting & yet sophisticated protagonist. I came to understand how Nabokov's Lolita potentially exposes that same selfish & cruel arrogance in some of its readers who might revel in Humbert's sophistication, with all his witty depreciation of a certain sort of common way of life, and take it as a justification of his hideous behavior. (5)

Also to mention in literary analysis- department: thanks to RLT’s discussion of Henry James's novels, I have now finally mustered enough patience to actually read a Henry James novel, to keep up with all its intricacies and subtleties, and with all of its affectations, right through to page 425! ( and even enjoying it!) (6)

II) Secondly, and perhaps mostly, I loved reading RLT because, admittedly, it catered to my naïveté : the sentimental naiveté of the non-professional, non-academic, non-post-modern art-lover ( a naiveté shared perhaps with those numerous other readers?)

It is the naiveté of one who needs the beauties & complexities & harmonies of art to make up for the prevailing shallowness & dissonance & ugliness . The naiveté of one who has grown up in a milieu where novel-reading was considered as a sheer waste of time, and of one now working in a milieu where art is simply dismissed as irrelevant. For such a naïve art lover , this book, RLT, with its unashamed celebration of the useless novel, does come as a most welcome vindication of all that one cherishes.

And if Nafisi pitches in her book the consolation of novels against the “texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world full of false promises”, then I confess that I transplanted that consolation to my own circumstances, living in a highly materialist Western society, in an “illusory world full of [materialist] false promises” .

So, what I personally retain from RLT is its ardent plea for an immersion in the slow, attentive world of great novels, its acknowledgment of the desire for beauty and of the need for an “ affirmation of life against the transience of life, an essential defiance, [..]” .
What I retain is its portrayal of reading as “ an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection of beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter”.

Thus I did not even primarily take this book as a grand showdown between liberating Western literature and oppressive Islamist fundamentalism. And if some see RLT as "a literary raft on Iran's fundamentalist sea" (Margaret Atwood), then I personally cherished this book, including its flaws, as a small token of the immaterial, useless things I value , a token not yet swallowed by the sea of Western materialism.

III) And then, lastly, I loved reading RLT because of these two paragraphs when she discusses Henry James (and for the quoting of which this entire laborious post may merely have been an excuse) :

  • One paragraph, about how personal empathy trumps more traditional concepts such as heroism:

    “Thus, Dr Sloper commits the most unforgivable crime in fiction – blindness. Pity is the password [..] This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. […] This, I believe, is how the villain in modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance”

  • And another paragraph, which gives the notion of “ integrity” its full due , recognizing the value of this sense of personal integrity, even if you, in the end, have nothing to show for it to a disparaging world: no material rewards, nor even a triumphant happiness.

    A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost. […] so many of [James’s] protagonists are unhappy in the end, and yet he gives them an aura of victory. It is because these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within oneself, a movement inward that makes them whole. Their reward is not happiness […] What James’s characters gain is self-respect.”

So there, the full extent of my sentimentalist, individualist and utterly naïve engagement with art has now been woefully exposed…

notes under deconstruction

(1) I confess to selective quoting. I chose to relegate the following quote to these obscure notes so as not to completely de-credibilize Mr. Dabashi. ---- “I have said before and I have argued that here is an organic link between what Lynndie England did in Abu Ghraib and what Azar Nafisi did in RLT -and what holds these two underlings in the service of George W. Bush's war on terror together is no over-riding ideology, but a mere Kafkaesque careerism” --- The "organic link" Mr Dabashi posits there is pre-posterous and banalizes the horrors of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib. One would almost suspect Mr D to be a neo-con agent bent on undermining all authority of anti-american discourse through his ridiculizing inflation.

(2) "Can we please deconstruct deconstructionism as a male, Western invention and be done with it?" if I had found this post earlier , I could have skipped the deconstructing and instead have spent the sunday-afternoon reading in the park ....
(3) It was breathtaking to see how the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in his novel “Snow”, was able to evoke all those different strands & perspectives in a society grappling with local or traditional customs versus western ones, in a society boiling with a variety of political sentiments ranging from political islam, over traditional-nationalist, over leftist-communist to westernized-bourgeois.
(an aside : not that it helps, you know, helplessly understanding all points of view, sometimes it merely exposes the intense tragedy of the condition of human plurality)
(4) it took me quite some time to find a blog focusing on the quality of literary criticism in RLT

(5) RLT has thrown light for me on one of those never fully clarified scenes of my own teenage years: the encounter with a stylish 35 year old man, well read and well travelled, dazzling me with his cultivation and paying me lavish attention while professing his love both of the book Lolita and of teenage girls. A man using the book Lolita as a tool for the seduction of inexperienced, impressionable teenagers. At that time, luckily, my natural reserve and a vague sort of alarm have kept me out of harm’s way, but only now have I understood how intellectual & artistic sophistication can go hand in hand with cruelty and abusive, selfish lust.

(6) I am so grateful to RLT for drawing my attention to the pathetic but intensely moving human type of the "perfectly equipped failure", as introduced by Henry James in "The Ambassadors"

a very short guide to Frankfurt (not for business travelers)

Lazy August heat mollifies even the busiest financial centers , so I noticed with relief, walking out of the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. Not that the numerous bank-skyscrapers had lost any of their towering arrogance (1) , but they could now be treated as a mere backdrop for the soothing spectacle of people loitering & cycling & licking ice cream cones. And they made for a nice skyline too, looking up from one’s book, sitting on a terrace on the river bank.

It is not a beautiful city, Frankfurt. Too much of an architectural hotchpotch with its 50s Wiederaufbau buildings, its restored pseudo medieval Altstadt architecture and its aggressively soaring high-rises. And its extensive pedestrian areas, devoted to gaudy chain-store shopping, are oppressively consumerist.

The lone literary pilgrim may also feel slightly abashed by Frankfurt’s Goethehaus: the visiting crowds are all too efficiently processed in a modern entry-hall crammed full with Goethe-merchandising , and the same crowds then march (but certainly don’t wander) through the painstakingly restored but oh so sterile rooms of the Goethe-family. (2)

But still, it is an interesting city, Frankfurt, with many a redeeming feature. Of which the river Main is certainly not the least, giving air and space to the city and offering a most pleasant river bank for walking, cycling, reading & the drinking of Apfelwein. It is also near this riverbank that the museums and art galleries are located which were a sufficient reason for my imagination to make me book a Frankfurt-bound train. (3)

And my imagination was not disappointed – on the sturdily-elegant Museumsufer I found those grand bourgeois mansions that I love, dedicated to the arts with an earnest 19th C devotion. Special thanks go to the Städel-museum for generously offering space and time to contemplate that magnificent Poussin painting – a large and darkly brooding painting of nature in the violent throes of a thunderstorm, with a tumultuous sky shot through by lightning bolts, with humans fleeing in all directions – all echoing the fore-ground drama of a tragic death (as told by Ovid in his Pyramus & Thisbe story).

My wayward imagination had however more difficulty to adjust itself to the prosaic reality of the Spa-resort of Bad Homburg . I guess I had been imagining a dignified grandeur déchue, a somnolent elegance. Or at least a whiff of imperial or aristocratic romance. But Bad Homburg was merely sleepy & only moderately cute. No romantic decay, but just a badly maintained spa illusion: a Kurpark with benches in synthetic materials! A Kurpark- grand café with plastic chairs!
At least the map of the park could still stir my imagination with its little drawings of the baths, of the casino, of the golf-courts and of classy monuments ( amongst which a Siamese temple offered by the king of Siam who was a Kurgast there in 1907).

I didn’t manage either to fully penetrate the mysteries of Wiesbaden. Surely the wealthy spa-patrons live their lives far from the gazes of casual visitors. But here at least I could bask in some of the splendid Spa-architecture I had been hoping to see.
Stately grand hotels where Magic Mountain guests might gather for philosophical discussions or amorous intrigues... And, behind tall dark-green pines, one could catch a glimpse of glaringly white mansions where discreet waiters would serve calming quellwasser to despairing duchesses …

Oh well, how much of the joy of travelling isn’t just about chasing in reality some of the images the imagination has long cherished?

just a few notes ( slightly melancholy)
(1) will then nothing humble “the industry that failed”? No near-collapse? No humiliating state bail-outs?
(2) but the lone literary pilgrim will have to qualify her harsh judgment later, softened by the ‘pathos of the past’. For instance when peering into a glass display, somewhat hidden in a corner: a 1944 photo of the devastated street with a pile of rubble where once the Goethehaus was, and a 50s photo of the proud re-opening of the restored Goethehaus. Further softening takes place in the rooms with paintings from Goethe’s contemporaries, filled with so much longing for an ideal, antique arcadia and with Goethe quoted as having said about his Italianische Reise that he later never had found again the happiness of that journey (“nie mehr so vollkommen glücklich gewesen” ).
(3) I sometimes suspect that the true goal of my trips is to find suitable trains & (outdoor) cafés for reading. Unless my true goal is just to be moved by the transience of travelling (to which, as a combative melancholiac, I am as sensitive as to the above mentioned 'pathos of the past'). Ah yes, the transience of travelling, which sometimes yields the oh so precious & poignant kindness of strangers or the amazing grace of an instantaneous affinity with someone you will never see again.


A memorial, according to the dictionaries, is something that keeps remembrance alive. It can be a monument or a commemorating ceremony. It can be a record, a memoir.

“Memorial” is thus a very apt name for a human rights organization which aims to record the Soviet Union’s totalitarian past, to keep alive the memory of its victims and to monitor the present human rights in the area.

Natalia Estemirova worked for “Memorial” in Chechnya , documenting cases of abductions and murders by (allegedly) government backed militias. A friend of the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya , she was quite aware of the dangers of seeking to elicit and record the truth in that brutal region. But she stubbornly continued to investigate human rights abuses, not wanting them to be ignored and forgotten . On July 15th Natalia Estemirova was abducted and murdered herself.

Any daily reader or spectator of the world news is continuously exposed to stories of abuse and suffering. Often one would want not to know what one is thus forced to know. Often one feels utterly enraged and powerless. But most often in fact, we just take all those human catastrophes in our stride and get on with our lives.

But some stories hurt and connect, some stories continue to haunt. And one feels that the very least one can do is to remember the story, to commemorate the human suffering and the courage of which it speaks.

Like the story of Natalia Estemirova… How can one not be haunted by it?
With quiet but breathtaking courage she “only” wanted to document, to record, to remember, thus restoring some justice – she didn’t carry any arms, she didn’t pose a physical threat to anyone. On the photo in the paper, against a background of bombed out, bullet-riddled houses you see a woman of calm, unpretentious authority, with sad gentleness smiling a half-smile.
And this gentle courageous woman was murdered. Brutal violence prevailed (“Memorial” said it was compelled to suspend its operations in Chechnya in view of the threats to its collaborators.)

Stories that hurt …. stories that haunt … I shall not recount all of them here. But there’s this one story ( totally unrelated to the Chechnya story) that keeps troubling me. I read it in a NYRB article by Caroline Moorhead about human trafficking and forced prostitution.
The journalist told the story of a young, well-educated African woman, who after having escaped Hutu-killers in Rwanda fell victim to a trafficker and ended up being prostituted in the UK, (almost inevitably) contracting HIV. She eventually did manage to be released and to get hold of a false passport. She was even able to find a job and to get antiretroviral medicine. But upon discovery of her false passport she is sentenced to some time in jail. I now quote these harrowing paragraphs from the article:

“Mary was arrested and sentenced to eight months in jail. What followed she told me, was not so bad; it was something like boarding school. She worked hard, studied computing and information technology and felt secure”
“When she was released [she unsuccessfully applied for asylum, staying in the UK being crucial to continue to have access to the antiretroviral drugs] She had no choice: she went underground, dropped out of sight. Today she has a job, for which she is paid in cash, no questions asked. Desperately anxious to draw no attention to herself, she makes no friends, talks to no one, lives alone. If stopped by the police, she knows that she will be deported.
” I live,” she told me when I met her in July in London, “from day to day.[…] I don’t know any longer what to hope for””

How could one not be haunted by this story? How could one not be haunted by this woman speaking of prison as a place where she felt secure, working and studying. By this woman, living the most solitary of lives, so as to avoid extradition.

And no, I have no answer to the question what to do with those stories. Join Amnesty International? Contribute to human rights organizations? Well maybe, yes , maybe that is indeed the only way a powerless individual can react.

aesthetic notes on cathedrals, café-interiors and a BlackBerry

On Friday, a softly somber summer day, I rose with considerable resolve (1) : this was my day off and I was going to a cathedral, oh yeah (2). It was to be the Tournai-cathedral, that wondrous, awe-inspiring building, combining Romanesque gravitas with Gothic splendor. From a previous visit I still remembered the sheer delight of that silent space, a space rhythmed by pillars & arches, and shot through by dancing diagonal shafts of light.

But it was an overcast day without any frivolous sunrays. So in the train I had already shifted my aesthetic expectations from limpid luminosity to muffled hues, if only to better appreciate the somber greens and inky grays of the landscape outside.

Tournai was as muffled and subdued as the weather, and as provincially quiet any town can get. But nothing, no banal red-tiled roofs, no trite baskets of red & white flowers on poles in the shopping street, no commercial neon signs, not even the pervasive provincial ennui could diminish the ominous power of those spires. Yes, walking those streets, it was impossible not to look up, not to succumb to the pull of those spires, so immemorial and harsh against a stern grey sky.

But as immemorial as the cathedral might seem, it was obviously not immune to the ravages of time, and thus still subject to a vast restoration program. So not only did the overcast weather preclude any picturesque shafts of light, the extensive inner scaffolding also woefully obscured the grace of columns & pillars.

So I had to renounce my cathedral-spaces-yearnings, and seek pleasure elsewhere. Such as reading complex Borges on a bench in a provincial park, near an old, but still vigorously spraying, fountain, surrounded by tired red roses.

However, Tournai did yield an unexpected aesthetic insight – signaled by the one moment that I instinctively halted and drew my camera before I knew what I was seeing .
It was a café interior, a simple empty café interior, which I spotted through an open door. A tiled floor, wooden tables and chairs, a dark-green plant in the corner, a bench and wainscot with old-green upholstery. All equally & un-dramatically lit by a pale light. A sturdy & solid still life, in muted browns and greens. Utterly uneventful and unassuming, but somehow so striking in its quiet, authentic solidity.

And if I was struck by these muted browns & greens, by the humble solidity of that interior, it was undoubtedly thanks to Chardin, the painter of simple sensuous still lifes without a trace of ostentation. (3) (4)

more about Chardin & BlackBerry in the notes

(1) Please note that I do rise each day, but with varying degrees of resolve – on workdays the rising is done with dutiful resolve : thou shall make thyself useful, in accordance with prevailing rules of usefulness (but not necessarily in accordance with your own impulses).
(2) a desperate longing for cathedral spaces had engulfed me earlier in the week, while facing a very angry colleague at work. He was deeply hurt and indignant, not about the latest round of redundancies at our company, but about the fact that he hadn’t yet been awarded a corporate BlackBerry . And the worst of it was that I knew I had to suppress my annoyance with his gadget-obsession, since his longing to possess this state-of- the- art tool is in fact far less misplaced in productive company life than my own shameful contemplative longings.
(3) Later at home, I gazed for a long time at a couple of Chardin-reproductions. And realized how immensely subtle his hues are, how tangible his atmosphere, and how his unobtrusive light refracts rather than reflects. His humble, muted still lifes are a far cry from the richly attired, scintillating 17th century Dutch stil lifes with their opulence of silver & crystal & lobsters & fruits. And yet, Chardin’s world of simple durable objects possesses a suggestive richness of texture and tactility which our own disposable world of synthetic materials utterly lacks. Who would ever lovingly contemplate the picture of a BlackBerry? (see above)
(4) Too good an occasion not to quote Proust on Chardin: « prenez un jeune homme de fortune modeste, de goûts artistes, assis dans la salle à manger au moment banal et triste où on vient de finir de déjeuner […] L’imagination pleine de la gloire des musées, des cathédrales, […] c’est avec malaise et ennui [qu’il observe ] la banalité traditionnelle de ce spectacle inesthétique. […] Si je connaissais ce jeune homme, [je l’emmènerais au Louvre et] je l’arrêterais devant les Chardin. […] il serait ébloui de cette peinture opulente de ce qu’il appelait la médiocrité, de cette peinture savoureuse d’une vie qu’il trouvait insipide »

Summer Soapbox Series, part 1: respect for human diversity

binary reasoning ignores human diversity

It ‘s always neat of course, to be able to classify entire variegated populations in a simple binary opposition: such as “male” versus “female” . And this binary gender opposition is then all too often fed into an equally binary intellectual debate : biological determinism ( biological sex completely determines gender behavior) versus cultural determinism (there are no biological differences, only cultural ones) . All of that binary thinking only serves to woefully reduce the potential richness of a highly diverse humanity.

Biological and cultural factors interact in the most complex ways to produce what is then perceived as either “male” or “female” behavior. Take for instance an important biological factor: the influence of testosterone on brain-formation and behavior. Yes, “on average” a human male body will have higher testosterone levels than a human female body. And, yes , testosterone plays a role in how the brain functions.
But speaking of “average” testosterone levels masks the fact that “the overall [testosterone] ranges for males and females are very wide, such that the ranges actually overlap at the low end and high end respectively” .

So even strictly biologically speaking, any purely testosterone driven cognitive and behavioral differences are not strictly binary (either male or female) , but are situated on a continuous scale.

Furthermore, this testosterone level is not an entirely endogenous biological phenomenon causing certain behavioral effects, the testosterone level itself can be influenced by social & cultural factors . For instance, in a male who has been defeated in battle, testosterone levels will subsequently drop, while they will rise in the winner.

And then, importantly, the brain itself is not only formed by endogenous biological factors. To a certain extent the brain is plastic : human experience and learning will modify existing neuron connections or form new ones. “thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain's physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) from top to bottom”. “new findings [suggest] all areas of the brain are plastic even after childhood”

So there we have humankind in all its diversity, with male and female humans possessing varying doses of biological determinants coding for so-called “masculine” or “feminine” behavior. And the wide range of possible dosages makes that instead of all men and women naturally displaying respectively either “100% masculine” or “100% feminine” behavior, individual men and women are rather dispersed on a continuous gender-scale, with quite some behavioral overlap between the sexes.
Also, the members of this diverse human species are not once and for all formed by immutable, inborn biological factors, they will continue to evolve in function of their diverse experiences, surroundings and education.

totalitarian patriarchies squash human diversity

Totalitarian patriarchal societies relentlessly squash this human diversity in a two-step process.
First, a totalitarian patriarchy will allow for only one single all-encompassing definition of respectively masculinity and femininity. These definitions will then uniformly regulate all forms of permitted behavior for men and women, be it in the public or the private sphere. All natural overlapping and ambiguity is suppressed : “average masculine characteristics ” apply to all men and “average feminine characteristics” apply to all women, always & everywhere. It is also crucial to note that all characteristics leading to autonomy, power and authority will be the strict preserve of men.
No woman can ever be a judge or a doctor or an engineer, or be passionate about sports and no man can ever be selflessly caring or not like football. This merciless conditioning obviously strengthens the binary definitions and becomes self-fulfilling.

In a second step, the totalitarian patriarchy (*) will then further depreciate any typical “average feminine characteristics” vàv the “average masculine characteristics”. And thus it permits persistent oppression not only of women as individuals (who in 'step one' were already denied any of the highly praised "masculine characteristics") but also of “feminine characteristics” in general. This oppression takes place, again, both in the public and in the private sphere and it can range from simple disrespect and scorn for “feminine”, ”soft” qualities such as kind-hearted sympathy, to outright economical & political repression, and to private violence and unpardonable cruelty vàv women.
In some of these totalitarian regimes women, only because of their sex, are denied freedom of movement and expression, are denied access to education, are denied economic independence, are denied political voting rights – women are thus in effect stripped of personal, political, civic and economic rights, in short: deprived of essential human autonomy.

a moral appeal ….

And it is a continuing moral disgrace for our times that these crimes against individual women, these crimes against human plurality in general, are not denounced with more vigor, neither locally nor on the international political scene.

Why is the battle against the persistent systematic sexual violence against women in DR Congo, in Sudan, (and elsewhere … !) not placed higher on the world political agenda? Why is the persistent violation of human rights in Saudi Arabia not a matter of UN action? It is of course depressingly instructive that the above two questions definitely sound politically naïve.

(*) In the “Origins of Totalitarianism” Hannah Arendt describes a crucial totalitarian feature: “total domination”. “Total domination, which strives to organize the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings as if all of humanity were just one individual, is possible only if each and every person can be reduced to a never-changing identity of reactions” . “The problem is to fabricate something that does not exist, namely, a kind of human species resembling other animal species whose only ‘freedom’ would consist in ‘preserving the species’” --- It’s the kind of total domination to which fundamentalist patriarchies indeed subject half of their population ….

A couple of things I wanted to say about cities & rivers & trains & trams, but didn’t bring up during the conversation.

We’d only met 2 hours before, at a Sunday matinee-concert. And during after-concert -lunch with our mutual friends we had not really spoken to each other, though we did share a few indecently boisterous laughs.

It was still early afternoon when our party broke up and after the general goodbyes I headed back home on foot alone, enjoying the touristy bustle of the city-centre and looking forward to an undisturbed afternoon of reading.

But when I heard running steps behind me, the fast click-clacking of high-heeled boots on cobble stones, I knew it was her even before I turned.

She chattered happily along - about the National Geographic documentaries she watched late at night, about the importance of fresh vegetables for a healthy stomach-tissue , about the parties at which she liked to dance till dawn - often making me burst into helpless laughter by the utterly unexpected humorous associations she’d make.
And though we hardly knew each other and though I could only relate to the fresh vegetables story (being neither a National Geographic addict, nor a party-goer, but quite partial to fresh tomatoes), the fact is that we walked those streets in a merry, companionable aimlessness.

Spotting from afar some intriguing allegorical statues we wandered into a small park, facetiously speculating about the Egyptian & Roman symbols on display. And when upon passing the Musée des Beaux Arts I mentioned my predilection for its 19th C entry-hall, she promptly made us veer off for a quick improvised visit, so that we found ourselves arguing in front of a grand but rather uninspired painting of the 1830 Belgian Revolution (I thought it was so endearingly 19th C pompous, she found it merely so idiotically pompous).

Now for all our impromptu shared enjoyment & delightful connectedness, it was truly amazing how little we had in common qua interests and likings. In the highest of spirits we subsequently discovered how we disagreed about a stunningly wide range of topics : be it about the merits of different cities (Antwerp versus Brussels versus London versus Paris) , or regarding our penchant for early or rather for late rising, a fondness of trains & trams versus one of cars, the importance or not for cities to have a resident river, ….

Now obviously, at the speed we were walking & talking, and with only little time left before we had to go our separate ways – I could not really go into all the subtle ramifications of my taste for trains, trams and city-rivers. Neither do real life conversations allow for footnotes to back up one’s arguments. Hence the present blog-post as an indispensable afterthought to make my point with all due elaborateness.

Though I wouldn’t want to rob anyone from “their car = their freedom” and though I (grudgingly) acknowledge the existence of a kind of “route 66” car-travel romance, I myself do stubbornly stick to the romance of trains.

Trains are so solidly part of the world and yet so inspiring for the imagination: undauntedly spanning their railway-network over the globe, generously offering grand stations as both destinations and places of transit. What would the unpractical, contemplative (but restless & combative!) melancholiac be without their faithful logistic support?

Ah, how grateful I am for the urgency and the sense of purpose that trains offer to eternally doubting would-be travelers ( 1) : punctually leaving at a particular hour for a particular destination along a particular track, while at the same time firing on the imagination with a tantalizing list of possible stops and transit-combinations.

And the caring solicitude of trains! yes, you may read a book, yes, you may dream, you still will be brought to your destination. And don’t worry about catering and hygienic stops, each station is a harbor providing for all possible needs. Not to mention the irresistible train-aesthetics: I so love the sights & sounds & smells of trains, tracks and stations. And also, obviously, I like the fact that they are so intimately linked with cities – yes, stations are eminently representative of their cities (2) .

And trains, however banal, still ooze the glamour of the great traveling adventures of a bygone age. Even their modest urban cousin, the tram, retains something of this particular traveling aura (3) (which neither individual cars nor collective urban buses posses)

So I wonder, has it something to do then with the fact that trains & trams are wedded to tracks? These tracks shooting off into teh distance, don’t they combine the re-assurance of purposefulness and of being embedded, with the promise of dizzying vistas…? Yes, aren’t train-tracks like rivers, flowing in a bedding?

Which, at last, brings us to rivers, and how important it is for a city to have one. In fact, in my inner atlas cities are referenced by their rivers, stations, cathedrals & art galleries. Cities of course are in continuous transformation, many an urban landmark does not even span the lifetime of a mortal (4) .
But then there is the immemorial permanence of a river, and the relative permanence of cathedrals, museums and stations. ( And the deplorable self-destructive character of Brussels is pitifully illustrated by its having torn down its magnificent 19th Century ‘Gare du Midi ‘ and its burying underground, as were it a vulgar sewer, of the river Senne.)

But so, a river – yes a river does grant an immemorial dignity to a human settlement. Apart from all commercial motivations for communities to settle alongside rivers, what remains is their sense of history, of openness, their promise of escape to far-off destinations, even a whiff of the great vast oceans. And the great bridges spanning them, so intimately related to the history of the city….

And their soothing streaming movement, whether or not it carries ships…... Seducing the wanderer to keep walking along the shore, hoping to attain some far-off vista. Or inviting the weary city-dweller to sit down on the quay and watching it flow, to sit down and be dazzled by the light sparkling on the water …

A couple of quotes I couldn’t bring up during the conversation
(1) Proust – « Noms de pays: le nom » : “J’aurais voulu prendre dès le lendemain le beau train généreux d’une heure vingt-deux dont je ne pouvais jamais sans que mon cœur palpitât lire, dans les réclames des Compagnies de chemin de fer, dans les annonces de voyages circulaires, l’heure de départ : elle me semblait inciser à un point précis de l’après-midi une savoureuse entaille, une marque mystérieuse à partir de laquelle les heures déviées conduisaient bien encore au soir, au matin du lendemain, mais qu’on verrait, au lieu de Paris, dans l’une des villes par où le train passe et entre lesquelles il nous permettait de choisir ; car il s’arrêtait à Bayeux, à Coutances, à Vitré, à Questembert, à Pontorson, à Balbec, à Lannion, à Lamballe, à benodet, à pont-Aven, à Quimperlé, et s’avançait magnifiquement surchargé de noms qu’il m’offrait et entre lesquels je ne savais lequel j’aurais préféré, par impossibilité d’en sacrifier aucun.
(2) Proust : « 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 »
(3) Amélie Nothomb – « Biographie de la faim » : « […] Bruxelles. C’était une ville remplie de trams qui quittaient le dépôt à cinq heures et demie du matin dans un crissement mélancolique, croyant partir pour l’infini. »
(4) Baudelaire : « la forme d’une ville change plus vite hélas que le cœur d’un mortel »
(5) Stefan Hertmans – “Steden, verhalen onderweg” : [Steden met een] “stroom in hun binnenste gesloten” [of] “steden die zich langs de stroom hebben geschaard” . [Rivieren die ]“openheid bieden in beslotenheid”. [steden] “zien door hun hectische bezigheden een ader stromen die zuurstof aanvoert, een vergezicht, een bron van wereldbewustzijn en geschiedenis, een altijd voorhanden zijnde mogelijkheid om te ontkomen - zowel voor de reiziger als voor de thuisblijver een geruststellende gedachte”
“cities with a stream enclosed in their centre or cities ranging themselves on the side of a river. […] rivers offering an openness in the inner-city. […] right through their hectic activities streams an artery providing oxygen, a vista, a source of world consciousness and history, and an always available possibility to escape – a reassuring thought both for the traveler as the sedentary local”

Milan, October 2004

It’s not the worst state to explore a city in, the flu-feverish one. It’s a state which warps the imagination and hones the sensitivity.

In normal 37°C body-temperature conditions, would that Bellini Madonna have drawn tears from my eyes? Would an Italian night porter have managed to break my heart...?

My arrival at Milan-airport, with a headache & a deep fatigue, didn’t augur too well. And then that spooky underground, with its flickering neon-lights hardly relieving the darkness, and with its sickly green signs fostering sea-sickness. Add to that a London-like fog and Parisian-style traffic above the ground , and only the strictest flâneur- discipline could keep me from getting straight into bed upon arriving at the hotel.

So I walked and walked these bustling Milanese streets, to the rhythm of intense traffic. Cars competing with motorbikes in narrow passageways, incongruously old-fashioned streetcars grinding their way through the city. But most stressful perhaps were the lavish shopping streets, with the throngs of fashion-conscious shoppers hurrying by.
My head was buzzing, exhaustion washing over me , I was craving for some peace & quiet, when, all of a sudden, at a chance sideways look through an arched entrance, a fata morgana appeared: a lush palazzo-garden with a peacefully murmuring fountain.

Apart from these delightful palazzo’s strewn all over the city, there are also the many churches to offer relieve to weary travelers. Most of them are of the thick-walled, low-ceilinged Romanesque sort. And more than any triumphantly soaring cathedral, these semi-dark & brooding churches are a harbor for lost & confused souls . They offer protection, like a Madonna della Misericordia spreading out their heavy cloak over the huddled pilgrims…

Though the fog didn’t ever dissipate that first day, the greyness was redeemed when at night the lights came up. Coughing & sneezing I marveled at this Milan by night. The foggy haze had turned a mysterious blue grey, pairs of street-lamps started glowing like little moons, light refracting a hundredfold on the wet pavements and a smell of wet autumn leaves was released by the drizzle.

I stayed at a small hotel on a piazza, where the friendly welcome had soothed my feverish nerves. The grey-haired woman at the reception desk, perhaps the owner, had that friendly-aloof look of one who, though without remaining illusions about the world we live in, has not succumbed to cynicism but has developed instead a wary compassionateness.

I had a corner-room, fully exposed to the roar of a busy Milanese crossroad. In the evenings, exhausted after a full day of roaming, I usually collapsed on the bed, turning on the TV-set to drown out the traffic. So there I lay, leafing through the Brera Pinacoteca catalogue, contemplating thoughtful, unsmiling Madonna’s while every once in a while I glanced up to the TV-screen where quite another kind of feminine appearance – shrieky, bosomy & scarcely-garishly clad- was flaunted .

In the mornings I rose early. While early-rising is obviously a typical trait of the combative melancholiac (who has learned to fear the consequences of sleeping-in: indolence & sinful sloth), I must admit that during this stay in Milan there was another motivation to get me at the breakfast table before 7.30 AM ...

Breakfast for early guests was served by the hotel’s night-porter, who was dark, tall and elegant. . .

But however graciously and obligingly breakfast was served by this night-porter, I was at first mostly struck by the attitude of cautiousness and reserve vàv the clients (who were single business men & happy couples), as if they needed to be screened for possible bad reactions.

So handsome a person, moving about with such grace and dignity! And yet no doubt daily exposed to reactions ranging from curiosity to contempt, or worse. Because he was a she, or she was a he, or someone in-between. Her tall build and strong hands did betray “biological maleness” . But the way she moved & spoke, her sheer way of being was of a delicacy “usually identified as ‘female’” .

(rhetorical aside : isn’t it rather instructive, and a pity, that not more men have claimed “traditionally female prerogatives” in the wake of women tentatively seizing “traditionally male prerogatives”?).

But mind you, she displayed none of the over-the-top feminine camp often associated with transvestites. No, she was merely, discreetly & elegantly ( and quite attractively indeed) , being her vulnerable unclassifiable self.
And yes, meeting her was quite heart-breaking, though perhaps not in the conventional romantic sense ( but then, breaking hearts are quite beyond conventions, aren’t they - well, my breaking heart is in any case).

I suppose there was an element of mutual recognition – different variations of androgyny? (mine is just the run-of-the-mill tomboyish one) . Or perhaps, as a lone Bellini-chasing traveler, I stood out as much amongst the business men and happy couples as she did? Or was it the sight of all these Madonna’s and Pietas in churches and galleries, which had sharpened my empathy? Anyway, we did connect and there was something about her that moved me deeply.

But apart from smiling “buongiorno’s”, meaningful glances and exchanges regarding tea to be served with or without lemon we didn’t even speak till Sunday, my last day in Milan. I was up early again and this time no business men were around.
When I walked in, she looked up and positively beamed at my ‘buongiorno’. We eyed each other nervously , discussed again the tea and then I read on in my “Proust à propos de Baudelaire” while she shuffled some papers at the desk in the entry hall.
I was cursing myself for my silence, but then she came back into the breakfast room, clumsily busying herself with this and that, looking my way. So I finally mustered enough courage to speak to her, enquiring about her night duty, about her life... We spoke for maybe 10 minutes, until her colleague for the day shift came in.
And then we shook hands (hers a quite manly handshake), looking each other questioningly in the eyes. And she wished me a good day and I wished her a good night.

And that was that. That afternoon I flew back to Brussels.

(about three months later, waking dismally early on a Sunday, I looked up the phone-number of the hotel, and … dialed the number. But again & again, the line was engaged . So it was not to be.)

sundry appropriations & reflections

First, the appropriation (1) : Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), founder of the essay-genre, was the first blogger! (2)

Because blogs, really, are nothing but variations on the essay-genre: private persons’ honest attempts to make sense of their miscellaneous observations. Blogs, just as essays, espouse a personal viewpoint to examine the many perplexities spawned by our daily intercourse with the world (and with ourselves). In fact they are dialogues, with the self and with the world, strewn with quotes & links & tentative insights.(3)

Montaigne was both modest and confident about the purport of his essays. He “only paints himself” (4), he says , for the sake of friends and family, oblivious of glory, proposing “an unimportant life without luster”. But still, he deems himself a worthy subject to write about, since “each man carries the entire form of the human condition”. He blithely confesses that he knows nothing, “que sais-je” , but that should not keep him from writing about “matters that he does not understand, because it is not these matters themselves but his ignorance of them that is his real subject”. (5)

Montaigne did love to quote his ancient authors – his collected essays could well carry the subtitle “quotations for all occasions”. And the fact that these quotes are in Latin bestows an irresistibly grave authority upon them:

“Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius” .

No need to understand Latin to be impressed by such thunderous, calamitous wisdom! (compare this to the pedestrian admonition “Miserable is the mind which is worried about the future”. (6))

But so, there we have Mr. de Montaigne, withdrawing from family and public obligations into his private castle-tower-with-library. Surrounded by a thousand books, conversing with the great authors of antiquity, meditating and thinking. All very private and individual, these ruminations, bound not to leave a single trace, if he had not arrested these most fleeting and perishable thoughts, and had not tried to give them some relative permanence in his essays. Now isn’t this, in one way or another, what most bloggers attempt to do too? (7)

But speaking of fleeting & perishable things – this spring outside…., oozing the sheer bliss of being alive, this blazing sun, mocking the very idea of either essays or blogs. (8) Time to let myself out – there’s this twisting path in the forest, cutting through ferns in a deep shadowy vale. With a suddenly accelerating slope, where you have to release all gears on your mountain-bike, stand upright on your pedals, and keep furiously moving, moving, else you’d slip & fall.


(1) Appropriation: “to take or make use of without authority or right” – this is, by the way, the blogging dilettante’s main vice
(2) we moderns & post-moderns are só self-centered and conceited: praising the past for its supposed “modernity” whenever we spot some trait deemed characteristic of our own age. If we were humbler, we'd rather bemoan the lack of originality of our 'modern' age, and we'd just sigh “nothing new under the sun”.
(3) The potential interactivity of the blog also confers to it some aspects of the “salon” (credits go to Antonia for this insight) - the salon! that lovely societal realm, somewhere in-between the private and the public, a realm where speech reigned .
(4)"[dans ce livre] je ne me suis proposé aucune fin, que domestique et privée. Je n’y ai eu nulle considération […] de ma gloire. [...] Je l’ai voué à la commodité particulière des mes parents et amis : à ce qu’[…] ils y puissent retrouver aucuns traits de mes conditions et humeurs, et que par ce moyen ils nourrissent plus entière et plus vive, la connaissance qu’ils ont eu de moi. […] car c’est moi que je peins. […] Ainsi, lecteur, je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre : ce n’est pas raison que tu emploies ton loisir en un sujet si frivole et si vain. "
(5) Charles Rosen in his Feb 2008 NYRB article « The Genius of Montaigne»
(6) quite true!
(7) “we only see what we look at” – I’m aware of my own tunnel-vision, enthusiastically zooming in on any contemporary incarnations of humanist dignity. There’s of course nothing Montaign-esque about the millions of techie-blogs and specialist blogs out there. And also, obviously, most of us do not have a “castle-tower-of-our-own” nor the unrestricted leisure of the gentleman-essayist. What we have at our disposal is, at best, the spare time of the animal laborans.
(8) Am avidly collecting Spring quotes these days: here’ s one from Baudelaire: “Et le printemps et la verdure , Ont tant humilié mon cœur” – “Spring and greenery, have so humiliated my heart”

magically murky moments (1)

Let me first express my gratitude to nuruL H: the sheer zest of her buoyantly alliterative posts & titles is justification enough for alliteration, this lovely linguistic mannerism (in which I too like to indulge).
In many contexts, however, alliteration has a bad reputation (just as rhyme has): it is considered as frivolous & superfluous. A silly ornament, distracting from the message.

I’m of course quite used to accept humbly society’s strictures on the aesthetic (2) , but as far as language is concerned, I do beg to differ, & to grumble: there’s more to alliteration than a silly play!

Looking for a smack of serious science to back this up, I found a reference to the
memory-enhancing benefits of alliteration.
Which may suggest that our brain not only stores words as symbols or signs, but also according to their sound. (3)
But of course I would prefer alliteration to be just a bit more than a cerebral storage & retrieval trick, I would want it to have meaning!

Daniel Tammet (a high-functioning autistical savant, with extraordinary fluency in both numbers and language) claims just that: words are no mere arbitrary conventions to denote reality. Words, or more precisely, how words sound, have intrinsic connotations .
It is no meaningless coincidence that following words start with “b”: ball bean bubble balloon.

But I must admit, my objective judgment in these matters is totally compromised by my own love of language which is so intimately bound up with my longing for meaning. So of course I would project magical meaning in alliteration.

Anyway, it gives me a good excuse to quote (again) Adam Kirsch, from his wonderfully insightful article about Walter Benjamin’s poetic longing for meaning.

“Of course, secular reason holds that human languages are purely conventional, but Benjamin would not countenance the idea that words are arbitrary. […] The vision of language that Benjamin advances here is moving precisely because it is beyond logical proof, and because it expresses so eloquently his longing for meaning in a world that usually presents itself as mere chaos. [..]

“Quod in imaginibus, est in lingua” . How crucial the notion was to Benjamin’s thought […] he felt that names and things belonged together, that a rhyme had revealed a reality."

(1) In fact, this post was just going to display the two photos. Evoking some dear moments, filled with ambiguous light: one taken once upon a spring evening, lost in thoughts on a train and another, coming home from work late, rejoicing in the magical mix of artificial and natural luminosity ( “l’heure entre chien et loup”). But then the ‘murky moments' title popped up and then there was nuruL’s ‘may messages’ post. Too many signs to ignore – hence the mutation into a ponderous post about alliteration.
(2) I always have to run a thorough alliteration-purging check on memos I produce in a work context, since the merest hint of playfulness would of course ruin the memo’s credibility.
(3) It never ceases to amaze (& depress) me how different the conventions of “efficiently communicating a message” in a business context are from the conventions of “conveying meaning and insight” in the artistic & philosophical realm.
(4) Personally, I’m significantly more inclined to exuberant alliteration in English than in my mother tongue. Perhaps because I’ve acquired so much of my English by looking up words in an alphabetically organized dictionary? And that would be why my brain has stored the word “fragment” quite close to the word “frivolous”?