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”