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 ….