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 »


Roxana said...

"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."

but this alone would be enough to make a perfect Friday, wouldn't it, dearest ffflaneur? and to think that you were so fortunate as to discover that amazing cafe as well... such a delight, being able to retrace your steps through your words and images...
* when i say 'words', a big part of it goes to 'notes', of course, of course :-) such as: the precious gem which is note 1, 'please note that i do rise each day' :-) i have to say that i am impressed by that dutiful resolve of working days, perhaps it is my own inability to deal with 'what is expected of me', or plain laziness (of course i could try to justify that by a sophisticated description of our 'lazy' - read 'contemplative' - Balkan world, in which people just sit on a bench in the street, in front of their gates, gazing at time passing by, or better, right into the heart of time standing still :-), as opposed to Western protestant work mentality). so even if i also rise, it is always cursing or succumbing to melancholia, nostalgia for a life in which i would be free not to do that - no trace of 'dutiful resolve' :-)

Roxana said...

ps. and i wouldn't have any guilt feelings about Blackberries either :-)
speaking of which, i remembered this poem that i love:

Meditation at Lagunitas

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

--Robert Haas

now, who could say 'blackberry, blackberry, blackberry' in this way, looking at that thing?

ffflaneur said...

yay! “Roxana also rises”!:-)
if only to write a delightful (and oh so tempting….) miniature about “gazing into the heart of time standing still”.

Well it is true that i am not only impregnated by protestant work ethic but also cursed by a catholic sense of guilt : an unbeatable combination when it comes to rein in innate longings.

But ah, one day, one day, the contemplative temptations might become irresistible …. dull bridges will start floating …. startled colleagues will briefly stop thumbing their BlackBerries when i , pricked by a blackberry- bramble , cry out “blackberry blackberry blackberry “!

PS thanks so much for that poem – with that marvelous line:

“ Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies”

words as elegies ... yes, i like that..., a lot

roxana said...

you are welcome, i am happy you liked it! but you are the one with the wondrous gifts, for example this:
"when i , pricked by a blackberry- bramble , cry out “blackberry blackberry blackberry “!" - have some mercy with me, dear ffflaneur, i have a hunch that too much laughter may lead to bridges collapsing? no? :-))

ffflaneur said...

dear R., your hunch about laughter leading to bridges collapsing seems to be borne out by the amazing physics of resonance (i suppose the only condition being that the laugh is laughed at a specific resonating pitch) :-)

however, i have a hunch that only solidly suspended bridges would be at risk, not the flexibly floating ones!!

Roxana said...

but, fff, how could such poor physics laws apply to ffflaneur-magic? there is no doubt there that even floating bridges are at risk - assert(s) my non-cartesian part(s) :-)

ffflaneur said...

ok ok , i'll stop arguing. :-) You are the expert re. floating bridges!

(" always there
waiting to welcome
anyone who crossed over