tragedy or farce?

Joyous Brass Music in a Luscious Park

Nothing like a brass band melody wafting through a sunlit park, to stir memory and desire.  It was a jazzy melody, invigorating but mixed with languorous notes of regret.  I was supposed to get back to the office, having already used up the allotted lunch break time for a book-buying spree ahead of the Easter Weekend.  But the music was irresistible, luring me on, up a little hill, where,  half hidden in the lush spring green, a band was playing. Putting down my  satchel filled with books, I sat down on one of the sun-dappled benches, looking at the podium. 
And what a sight it was!  Neatly dressed in their burgundy red uniforms, the band members blended wonderfully into their elegant surroundings:  a splendid  19th C bandstand, built of  cast iron and wood.  The  conductor, vigorously leading on her troops, stood out visually too – her glaring white shirt contrasting with wavy red hair.

The audience on the benches was an accidental hotchpotch – office workers eating their lunch in the park, tourists consulting maps, elderly people resting, kids plotting their next exploits – but they all looked enchanted, tapping their feet, clapping appreciatively at the end of each tune.

Now, dear blog reader, don’t be fooled by the music and the greenery – rest assured, this blog has not succumbed to the frivolous entertainments of Spring!   To know what’s really on the mind of a Flâneur : look rather to the books she’s carrying... And that satchel, thrown  down so nonchalantly on the bench,  contained  quite some ominous titles: “The War That Ended Peace, How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War”. “The Sleepwalkers, How Europe went to War in 1914”. Literature to complement other recent readings such as “De Groote Oorlog”,  “The Price Of Glory, Verdun 1916”. (1)

 And the above evocation of joyous brass music in a luscious park?  It resonates suspiciously with  Stefan Zweig’s description of a peaceful summer day,  June 29th 1914, in his desperate autobiography "The World of Yesterday"  :  a happy and carefree crowd is promenading to the sound of music in the Spa park of Baden. The band  abruptly stops playing, a communiqué about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand has just been pinned up on the bandstand...

Ravages and Myths

C. was off sailing for the weekend,  so I could freely indulge in my customary sombre Easter reflections. And with the commemorations of the first World War in full swing, I didn’t lack books nor exhibitions to further nourish my native pessimistic assessment of human nature & history.  

Take for instance the Louvain exhibition, Ravage.  It not only documents the destruction of the historical university town of Louvain by vengeful German soldiers in August 1914: killing civilians, setting fire to  houses and churches, and burning down the world-famous library with 200.000 precious books going up in flames. The exhibition also evokes the fate of other martyred cities, across the ages, both mythical and real: Troy, Dresden, Beirut, ... 

The exhibition further shows how generations of artists tried to make sense of this eternally recurring destruction and suffering.  Versed as our scientific age is in evolutionary biology we know that spiteful behaviour such as harming non-kin is just one of the human strategies to raise the proportion of related genes. 
But we also know it is a costly strategy -  calling forth revenge and counter attacks – a strategy which in the end proves to be non-rational and sub-optimal, harming all those involved. (eg 10 million dead across the belligerent parties  in WWI)
But perhaps our scientific age is not that much better at making sense of war & wanton destruction than previous generations, who took recourse to myths.   Do not those allegories featuring fickle deities tell stories as revealing as the scientific accounts of selfish genes and game theory ?  

Like the allegory (2) of Mars, the God of War - killing, maiming, trampling the arts - being held back (in vain or temporarily at best)  by Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, or by Venus, Goddess of Love.
Or take Charles Le Brun, court painter of Louis IV, who dared to depict his king torn between Mars and Minerva: on the one side a magnificent chariot - the image of  military glory - on the other side a stark desolate landscape with desperate war victims.  Louis IV usually chose Mars (and inter alia reduced Brussels to rubble in 1695). 

And what do myths tell us about coping with the ravages of war? Venerable bible stories tell us to not stand still in horrified stupor, to not look back, to not mourn all that is lost.  Rather they advise us to turn our back to the past, to get drunk, to rejoice and reproduce.  This at least seems to be the message of the bible story about Lot and his daughters (3) who escape the destruction of Sodom and who get merrily drunk while Lot’s wife, on the other hand, is turned into a pillar of salt because  she turned back to watch and grieve over the city being destroyed.

Riding a Tandem Bike in a (previously) Ravaged City

Louvain is a thriving university town now, long rebuilt,  and boasting a prosperous, young population.   One of whose representatives managed to get a brooding flâneur joyously participating in a tandem bike race.  I was indeed approached by a young woman about to get married, who needed help for one of the playful tests invented by her marriage witnesses. She solicited passers-by to help bring seven tandem bikes from point A to B.  It was great fun - try taking a sharp turn with something as unwieldy as a tandem!

But back to July  1914:  “And in Le Coq, the little seaside resort near Ostend [...] the mood was equally carefree. Visitors enjoying their holiday lay on the beach in brightly coloured tents or bathed in the sea , the children flew kites, young people  danced outside the cafés [...].All imaginable nations were gathered companionably there.
After all, we had had these diplomatic conflicts for years, and they were always satisfactorily settled at the last moment before anything really serious happened. So why not this time too?” (4)

Surely our diplomats have learned the lessons of the past? Surely Ukraine will get sorted out? Surely Poetin is merely flexing muscles?  And isn’t  Syria a long way off?  (No photos of ravaged Homs or Aleppo at the Louvain exhibition , but they did get duly mentioned in the catalogue introduction. )

I may well have become too defeatist...  Though I do agree that “optimism is a moral duty”.  And isn’t  humanity advancing towards less violence and suffering?  Well, perhaps. But this advance then is marked by many regressions indeed.


  “[...] it is a sight quite unfit...even for the most ordinary but honest man to see the human race advancing over a period of time towards virtue, and then quickly relapsing the whole way back into vice and misery. It may perhaps be moving and instructive to watch such a drama for a while ; but the curtain must eventually descend. For in the long run, it becomes a farce. And even if the actors do not tire of it – for they are fools – the spectator does, for any single act will be enough for him if he can reasonably conclude from it that the never-ending play will be of eternal sameness. “ (5)

Notes shored against the ruins
1   1)   WWI books respectively written by: Margaret MacMillan, Christopher Clark, Sophie DeSchaepdrijver, Alistair Horne
2   2) " Ravage, Kunst en Cultuur in tijden van conflict" – Hoofdstuk “Een Allegorie” – Koenraad Brosens, Goedele Pulinx
3   3)    A shuddering note of bible exegesis about Lot and his daughters, a horrendous tale really : having escaped from the fire, Lot’s wife turned into a column of salt, beholding from a distance Sodom&Gomorra’s hellish demise.  Lot himself and his daughters walked merrily on, accompanied by angels.  At night,  Lot gets drunk and incestuously proposes to  his daughters.  The old testament story quite repulsively presents this  as “blameless  Job being seduced by his scheming daughters” .
4   4)      Stefan Zweig:  “The World of Yesterday”   
5   5)      From Kant’s political writings (as cited in Hannah Arendt Lectures on Kant’s political philosophy) 

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