Of Soldiers & Mystics, or: from Guns to Tears

"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

(Walt Whitman - Song of Myself)

Well, dear blog-reader, I bet you would never have pictured me going to the "Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History".  Granted, C. did drag me along, but I didn’t put up much of a resistance either. Furthermore, we didn’t just visit the innocent exhibition documenting the Belgian presence in Germany after WW II.  Nope, I must confess that we devoted most of our time to the permanent collections of guns and cannons throughout the ages.

While C. was eager to explain how everything (from cannons to revolvers) worked, I was no less eager to grasp guns’ basic operating principles and pushed for ever more details and examples.
And truly, when it comes to arms human ingenuity is boundless! How ingenious indeed, automatic machine guns that recycle the gun’s own recoil force to increase its fire ability! Yah, and how devilishly smart those shrapnel shells were: self-exploding canisters widely dispersing bullets above enemy grounds!

At this point C. and I did look rather shamefacedly at each other – how smart, and how mean and diabolically destructive this all indeed is ...
And I promptly remembered a similar shameful realisation in childhood. As a true tomboy I had always favoured toy weapons and little soldiers over dolls. But round about age 11 or 12 I did experience a sudden burst of empathy (thanks to voracious reading? or female hormones at last getting through? ) and started worrying about my militarist games. After a transition period ( in which I would only wound but no longer ruthlessly kill my imaginary enemies), I then radically decided to throw out all the toy guns and to pursue more peaceful occupations (ie even more reading).

And as it happened , on the very same day the visit to the Military Museum would find a startling counterpoint. Outside the Cinquantenaire park, just across the road, in a church which I hadn’t even noticed before, ran an exhibition whose title had piqued my curiosity when earlier browsing a cultural agenda:
Mystical Gardens of the Heart of Europe / Les Jardins Intéreurs du Coeur de l’Europe.

After all the , um, virile sound and fury, the contrast couldn’t be greater when entering that church – a half dark space filled with ethereal (albeit recorded) vocal music (1).  Only a few people were wandering about , looking at a dozen of exhibition panes with reproductions of drawings & gravures, accompanied by sober texts.
The works and thoughts of the great European mystics (2) were evoked : Hildegard von Bingen, Meester Eckhart, Jan van Ruusbroeck, Hadewijch van Antwerpen, Marguerite Porète, Angelus Silesius, ... and, more recently, Etty van Hillesum, Edith Stein, etc.

And I don’t know at what point exactly it happened – perhaps while stirred by a particular ephemeral & pure passage in that music? Or perhaps while reading some of those accompanying texts, speaking of “inner gardens” and of the ideals of solitude and contemplation in a “collapsing world”?
Anyway, I felt tears welling up, first because it all had felt for the briefest of joyous moments like some sort of homecoming. And then, immediately, because of an all engulfing sadness, a keen sense of fragility and loss. It was about personal loss: hadn’t I renounced my own contemplative inclinations - though rather philosophical & aesthetic than religious- to become a useful member of a utilitarian world?(3). And, worse still, it also was about a general loss: a whole world, a whole human culture of reflective thinking bound to disappear.

But later on, by the most ambiguous of reasoning, I did manage to feel a certain paradoxical and defiant pride about the sheer stubborn persistence of this most useless, this most irrelevant, this most fragile of human inclinations: contemplative thinking. (4)
An inclination, apparently bestowing no evolutionary advantage whatsoever in the struggle of life, producing neither guns nor bread, but still sticking around.... Yah, was not thinking a freedom from necessity, and thus a source of human pride in the face of the overwhelming practical imperatives of our genes?

Always in for some crisp critical notes
(1) Oh beware, do beware of recorded religious music in churches! Insidious tearjerkers, that’s what they are. And not the real thing!
(2) At this point I still owe some sort of apology to A. regarding a discussion about religion we had a couple of years ago. In my over-zealousness to denounce the hypocrisy of established religions, and wishing to save “moral awareness” from the clutches of the church, I did not fully appreciate the nuances A. introduced. She (rightly, I now concede) drew attention to the depths of thinking and the moral integrity attained in the Christian mystical tradition.
(3) And I cannot honestly blame “the” world or my parents for this early exile from the gardens of contemplation. (Well, not completely at any rate). It has been an ongoing (and, frankly, quite exhausting) warfare going on in my own head: on the one side an admiration for the “true” & “useful” knowledge brought by the natural sciences as well as for the impressive technological advances (and this admiration is then accompanied by frustration about the eternally recursive and “useless” nature of reflective thinking). On the other side, a simply irrepressible need for beauty and meaning (“ a life without reflection is not worth living”)
(4) But about “thinking”, Arendt of course was never wrong, and perhaps she has said all there remained to say in her “The Life of the Mind” ( which may well be the ultimate Elegy for Philosophy).


Anonymous said...

The Musée de l'armée has undeniable charm - I like Archduke Albert's stuffed favourite horse (an eerie visitor from the seventeenth century) and King Leopold I's campaign bed. And the great mystics, somehow one couldn't do without their presence, as an indication of the possibilities of the mind and the idea of love.
Like a true Luddite i have until now failed to get my comments on your beautiful musings posed, I hope I now may succeed for once.

ffflaneur said...

100% comment success rate achieved. :-)
And I just checked, but , no, the Musée de l'armée is not covered by your "Belgisch Museumboek"! (which, by the way, is the guide that has introduced me to the wonderful world of lesser known but all the more charming Belgian museums)

Anonymous said...

A Luddite must, of course, leave a typo - I meant to write "posted".
Ah, so nice to find a reader of our good old Belgisch Museumboek. Your reference takes me back - how we drove around the country in a little Simca from the Seventies, orange-coloured and with an orange interior, no less! There were a lot of small museums neglected because of current political trends and hypes. I particularly remember the poignantly dusty Musée du chanoine Puissant, full of drawings, textiles and architectural fragments, in Mons. Fortunately it still exists, although I don't know in what condition.

ffflaneur said...

ah, a Simca!!! my grandfather had a Simca!
Het "Belgisch Museumboek" could perhaps get a sequel - unless of course the sheer title would now already be too much of a political provocation...

Anonymous said...

At the moment I'm pondering a book on the intermingled presences of Flemish and French literature in our country - and reading some of the ancient chroniclers from Hainaut; oddly enough, (partially) avaliable as French classics in a Pléiade-edition, nowhere to be found in Dutch translations. Huizinga based his Herfsttij on them, his French must have been very good. Your mentioning him made me reread him - a very ambitious undertaking, the history of mentality!

ffflaneur said...

aha, I'd indeed seen popping up Froissart in your posts!
I have just finished the Herfsttij, and am still reeling - it is beautiful of course, and awesome, and impressively erudite but also somehow depressing ... Perhaps because of a whiff of vanitas vanitatis? Or because of its grim image of human nature? (in stark contrast with the superbly contemplative late medieval art).

Anyway, there was also an uplifting sentence there, announcing the renaissance, which reminded me of your post about taking latin lessons! “Voor de intrede van het humanisme was niet anders nodig, dan dat een geletterde kring zich wat meer dan gewoonlijk bevlijtigde op zuiver Latijn en klassieke zinsbouw.” – Misschien (hopelijk) is voor het behoud van het humanisme nu ook niets anders nodig dan dat enkele geletterden zich ‘bevlijtigen’ op zuiver Latijn.

En wat die Vlaams-Franse mix in onze contreien betreft - ja , ik wist eigenlijk niet dat de Vlaamse & Franse lotgevallen zo nauw verbonden waren geweest. (Schrijf ik nu als Nederlandstalige in Brussel die op het werk, op straat en op het web doorgaans in het Engels of het Frans communiceert ...)

Anonymous said...

Het lijkt inderdaad een sombere tijd, die Huizinga oproept - en toch, als je dan bijvoorbeeld dat heel delicate voorwoord leest dat Boccaccio schreef bij de Decamerone, of de liefde die spreekt uit zijn korte biografie van Dante, dan lijken sommige gemoedsaandoeningen weer heel ontroerend.
Ah, mijn lerares Latijn is erg geduldig en ik bevlijtig me niet genoeg. Het heeft wel iets van een geestelijke oefening, je voor een uur of twee uitsluitend in grammatica te verdiepen.

Roxana said...

after becoming more intimate with the japanese ways, both in art and thought, i have grown more painfully acute about the limitations of our european dualism, why does it have to be always 'either-or', either the hardcore truth of science and pragmatism or contemplation and beauty? how did the japanese achieve a perfect combination of terre-a-terre pragmatism and aesthetics and spirituality in zen? (though not _our_ pragmatism, i agree, yet a similar ethics of work).

and though i am aware of their utopian aspirations, i cannot help but admire the german Romanticists for their project of uniting science and art and religion, in something encompassing and transcending everything, Poetry...

your post made me want to revisit this favourite poem of mine:

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth, -the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

ffflaneur said...

ah dear R - thank you for bringing the wisdom of Emily Dickinson to thios blog ... E.D - always there to enlighten and redeem.
but yes indeed, if only one could get beyond the "either-or"...

But i wonder about those romantic.. Perhaps in the 19th century the shock of science was so great, it opened such thrilling, new vista's that it couldn't but make more sensitive minds boil with romantic fervour?