Overhearing two nurses in the hospital lounge
They were taking a short break from their caring duties, the empty sandwich boxes on the table testifying to a quick lunch. They briefly interrupted their conversation for a kindly nod while I sat down with my book about the 18th C painter Watteau, cautiously handling my right arm in a sling (1).
“She did seem more competent than him. More responsible. How can they trust that guy?” the youngest nurse wondered.
The elder nurse shrugged : “it’s always the big shots with the biggest mouths that win.”
The youngest nodded vigorously “yeah, like that bunga bunga guy in Italy. I never understood how the Italians could put up so long with him. “ She fiddled with her smartphone “ hey , look here , photos from his apartment in New York – 'the interior architect wanted to recreate a Versailles atmosphere' - jeezes, does that guy think he’s Louis XIV or what? “
Flashing a weary smile, the elder nurse replied “well, he sure has the puffy pride to match. But we’d better hurry now, time’s up”
Contemplating a picture of Louis XIV
I was reading about Watteau’s pictures of unheroic, introverted soldiers– an interiority far removed from the pump & circumstance of the Versailles court. But showing Watteau in context, the book also explained about his contemporary, Louis XIV, who with his reckless wars caused hundreds of thousands people to die and plunged France into a deep debt crisis.
So, sitting in that hospital lounge, plunged into art history, I was quite startled by the nurse’s comparison of a 21st Century, democratically chosen US president with an 18th Century French autocrat.
But contemplating the famous Louis XIV portrait (by Hyacinthe Rigaud) , I couldn’t but conclude: yes, indeed, there’s the same conceit, the same narcissism, the same strutting on the stage.The same quest for personal glorification.
Does this mean that Democracy cannot do a better job at protecting us from the sense of entitlement of these strutting males than the Ancien Régime?
A horribly defeatist thought – which I must & will banish. (But then again, pugnacious Putin was democratically chosen, too)
A jubilant Reagonomics enthusiast
In a financial paper I read an illuminating interview with a jubilant Arthur Laffer (former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan). At last again a man to his liking in the White House! “This is brilliant, especially since the Republicans also control the Congress. This means lower taxes, abolishing Obamacare, scrapping the Dodd-Frank banking regulation”
Aha, so that’s why Wall Street kept its nerves – greed is gonna be good again!
Elsewhere I read about how leading conservative business men are eagerly lining up to offer their services to the new president “he may have said some rash things during the campaign, but he’s a real business man, he’ll take our sound business advise”.
It will be interesting to see what happens: lower taxes combined with higher infrastructure spending, higher import tariffs on, say , Chinese imports, higher inflation, a soaring budget deficit (with the snubbed Chinese probably less inclined to continue financing it). After an initial boost to growth, how can this recipe durably boost standards of living? Will this bring back factory jobs to the US? (And what about the rest of the world). Will this bring the lower & middle classes what they hope for?
Will the new administration care at all? Or shall we find the winners rather among the above mentioned leading conservative business men, including the new president (who, so I read, owes his fortune more to inherited wealth & relations than to superior business acumen & entrepreneurship).
On the ethical & social front, too, it will be interesting (and scary) to see what will happen. Indeed, how convenient for the new president to buy the loyalty of the evangelicals by pursuing their agenda.
So, now what?
How to domesticate globalisation and complexity? Why can’t we have more responsible politicians addressing the current discontents & fears, without resorting to the usual political party-mantra’s? Why must reckless, self-interested, conceited politicians take the lead - irresponsible politicians who cater to our most dangerous instincts.
Can we no longer escape a clash of extreme standpoints? Have we perhaps reached such a level of bewildering complexity & frustration that we now all just recoil and massively reject nuance and gradualism?
But if change cannot be gradual, it will come with a bang. We only need to look at the 1st half of the 20th century to be very afraid of that.
1) Explanatory Note : on what I was doing in that hospital, overhearing a political conversation and contemplating a picture of Louis XIV.
My cycling days are over (my heart sinks as I type this). Neither caution nor a fluorescent yellow helmet & vest could shield me from another accident. It happened on a lovely autumn Saturday, while I was cycling on a quiet road along a park. All of a sudden a car materialised where it shouldn’t have been – cutting a corner. So I braked violently, my wheel slipping on one of those lovely gleaming yellow autumn leaves. I was projected forward and made a brutal smack on the tarmac, right on the tip of my elbow. Then a second smack on my head, luckily amortized by the helmet.
I sat on the ground, dazed for a moment. Then I did manage to scramble back on my feet. The car driver had braked too and got out of his car, apologetic & full of concern. Picking up my bike, he inquired whether I was ok. I thought I was, hoping it was just a bruised elbow, just a matter of pulling myself together. I let the chauffeur drive off and tried to mount my bike again – a sharp pain in my elbow signalled this was not a good idea. I called C, whose phone battery was apparently down. So I walked all the way home, an hour’s walk, a miserable walk, bike at hand. Home at last I took off my jacket and saw a swelling the size of a giant premium pear.
Only then I realized I had to concede defeat. Again a broken limb, only 4 years after the previous accident. No way to escape from the rational conclusion: henceforth no more cycling for me in Brussels..
Arriving at the hospital, I felt crushed and most of all ashamed, having to call upon their services again with a broken limb. But praise be (again, too) to this hospital staff – friendly, professional, efficient. They gave me a provisional plaster on Saturday and swiftly arranged for an operation the next Tuesday so as to mend me again.
Despite all the inevitable pain & discomfort linked to the accident and the surgery – this hospital stay was also an uplifting reminder that diversity doesn’t need to be the fateful menace to social cohesion, as it has come to be perceived in these perplexing times. Far from me to pitch the Ixelles hospital as a social Utopia in the middle of “hellhole Brussels” (infamous epithet coined by the future US president). But the fact remains that I’ve been treated there (again) with outstanding kindness & professionalism by a staggeringly diverse hospital staff, all working together harmoniously.
Apart from the swift action of the emergency doctor with an Arab sounding name and the unflappable calm of the surgeon of German descent , I’d like to mention specifically the hilarious sense of humour of the anesthesiologist – a black female doctor who managed to make me shake with laughter while I lay helplessly on the operating table, waiting to be put to sleep.
And heartfelt thanks, too, to the quiet male nurse of Mediterranean descent who all along a miserable night refilled the drip with glucose and painkillers and assuaged my worst nightly fears. Not to forget the Asian nurse who taught me how to put my arm in a sling without breaking it again.