It was a bright day in August,at last sparkling with enough sunlight to restore our summer mood after a string of rain-soaked days. The kind of day to joyously set out on a trip (1).
A small digression about cars & trains
Traffic was smooth since not that many people hit the road for Northern France on a summer day. Traffic … car traffic! While certainly not about to burst into a laudatory post about cars, I confess not being entirely immune for car-travelling romance: imagine driving along highways through vast planes, under wide skies, on the tunes of “born to be wild”.
And, from a visual point of view: how seducing is the always receding vanishing point of a long,long road stretching out in front of you (train travelers usually don’t get to enjoy this frontal viewpoint) (2)
A car also allows you to visit many “worlds” in a single day – you can for instance go to an ancient rocket launch base & war memorial in the morning, admire the landscape from a charming old French town on top of a sunny hill at noon and participate in a Flemish art& poetry happening in late afternoon.
Mixing worlds & moods may offend a sense of propriety or of due concentration (3), but is of course quite the stuff of vigorous life itself with its diversity of appeals to our attention.
Into the rocket base!!!
But so, on a bright August day this melancholy flâneur was unleashed in the ancient underground WWII rocket base of La Coupole (4)
It could easily have become a sheer amusement park where one can gleefully reenact scientific & military adventures , drooling over engine replica’s, technical drawings and real life weaponry. But this ancient base was also turned into a historical remembrance center, evoking the sufferings of war in Northern France.
Our visit took over 2.5 hours – wandering through chilly underground corridors enlivened by “James Bond” like missile launch simulations, paying close attention in educational rooms explaining the basic physics & mathematics of rocket science, watching the documentaries with testimonies, old photos & drawings evoking the horrors and the human sufferings during war time....
What a despicable species we are ...
Thus, for the more impressionable amongst us, this visit is not merely a history tour, but becomes a vivid evocation of the alternating urges that have always ruled human behavior:
• there’s the sheer intellectual fascination for scientific &technical exploits, for facts & figures that are logically combined in a rational discourse
• there’s the vivacious zest for adventure and action and heroic deeds
• there’s the appeal to our reflection and empathy, the impotent acknowledgement of so much – far too much - suffering & pain & death, materializing in a mute cry of horror, in the upwelling of dry tears
And obviously, immersion in scientific adventures and heroic action is much more fun than impotent reflection and empathy (5).
But, maybe just maybe, with a bit more reflection and empathy, those V2 rocket-engineers would have had some qualms of conscience? Instead of standing there grinning …. as shown by that unforgettable photo: a bunch of grinning brilliant nazi engineers , proudly cheering the successful trial-launch of a rocket, seemingly oblivious of the death & destruction their contraption will bring about.
But the sun is shining brightly in the sky!
Yet upon leaving the memorial center, we ourselves too, as healthy, fun-loving specimens of the human race disposing of a car, sought out more joyful stimuli for the rest of the day. Happily we motored through a lovely landscape: so soothing, so forgetful, so beautiful, so indifferent to human follies ....(6).
And we enjoyed the wide view from the top of a hill, we sipped from our drinks on a terrace in the pretty town of Cassel and took full pleasure in all the lovely sights, in the sweet breeze and the benign sun.
And as a matter of fact the same day still brought other sensations too: poetic fragments & artistic interventions in the streets and houses of a little Flemish town in the country . And perhaps for the first time that day I felt like coming home, to be amongst kindred spirits: reflecting & remembering humans, restoring some dignity to the transience of human lives and their earthly homes.
One artist let a light beam illuminate the old fashioned , peeling wallpaper in a vacant parsonage, other artists would gently invade an abandoned rest home and amidst the echoes of declining retired lives one could slowly read poems, or be startled by loose wires and tubes (which were fake but evoked so well the undoing of abandoned houses). Ah, how soothing I found this tender play of imagination and understanding …
Will art save the world? No. Can art redeem suffering? No. Is art an escape from worldly duties? Perhaps (but a necessary one, to restore our spirits, so as not to pass too pessimistic a judgment on the human condition). Are aesthetic pleasures as a-moral as strictly sensuous and intellectual pleasures? Possibly. But still. And yet. Art at least is not as indifferent to human presence and experiences as a landscape is. Art at least is not as oblivious of human sensibilities as purely intellectual-technical reasoning is.
But ah … it was getting late …. time for another meal on yet another lovely terrace …. time to walk back to the car in the setting sun …. and cast a glance on the local 1914-1918 monument, smiling at those old-fashioned engraved names and noting with amazement, oh three brothers who all perished in the same month.
good thing there are the notes to harbor more brooding
(1) As distinguished from days when one dutifully sets out for a trip, eg when it’s the first day of your summer holidays and the rain is pouring down.
(2) So far this tribute to “rock ‘n roll car romance” from one a> who has to swallow anti car sickness pills to limit the rocking & rolling car damage to a mere headache, b> who thoroughly resents not being able to read while just sitting there, c> who draws elation & consolation from the unplugged sensuous purity of intertwining melodies rather than from beats & guitar screeches. And the obstinate train lover in me furthermore wants to point out that a train traveler gets something even better than “the frontal vanishing point”: the mysterious glimpses of a far off horizon whenever the train wheezes through a hard bend.
(3) The insufferable train purist in me wants to point out that “visiting many worlds in a single day” leads to a deplorable scattering of attention & concentration. The curse of shallowness is not far off!
(4) As a matter of fact this German rocket base never quite managed to fire a rocket in WWII since it was discovered by the Allies before it could get fully operational.
(5) and of course reflection& empathy are impotent and merely depressing and so may seek release in rage, rage at all those human specimens who oblivious of human suffering, blithely engage in scientific projects without ever pondering consequences. This rage, not wanting to remain impotent, will then itself enlist action and scientific exploits to crush the objects of its rage. Yah. The human species in action! Take the single-minded , brilliant Wernher von Braun , oblivious (was he?) of the gruesome exploitation of the forced laborers in his base, undisturbed by the death & misery brought about by his V2 combat rockets. And living happily ever after, never ever brought to justice since the American military was all too keen to enlist this rocket-scientist for its own space programs. …
(6) Anyone who has ever visited the world war I memorials in Flanders Fields will have been struck by the contrast formed by the photos of war-torn battlefields (deserts strewn with barbed wire & dead bodies, towns and trees burnt down) with the present day prim & fertile Flemish landscape, with its neat little towns brimming with economic activity.
(7) Art …. reenacting both stark crucifixions and the endearing dalliances of colour & light …. As Bernard Marcadé wrote on the Belgian artist James Ensor : « Citoyen du « pays solitaire de narquoisie » Ensor a consacré l’essentiel de sa vie à la lumière et aux couleurs, en même temps qu’il pourfendait de façon acerbe les vilenies et petitesses de la nature humaine. […] La double exigence d’un homme partagé entre le plaisir voluptueux de peindre et la nécessité de faire rendre gorge aux turpitudes humaines. […] Les auréoles du Christ ou les sensibilités de la lumière. »