While Relishing Random Gifts

 

There are many good reasons to no longer write lengthy blogposts.

For one, they are not 15secs videos, so where’s the fun for the scrolling audience? Two, there’s  a war going on in Europe. Three, there are famines threatening in the world.  Four, this planet needs to be saved from climate change. Five, I’ve more pressing private issues to deal with. 

But then again, there’s no harm either in blogging & meandering melancholy musings.

And, right now, instead of dissecting the many perils of the human condition, I feel the strange need to count my blessings – and to evoke some unexpected gifts of harmony.   

 1) The un-solicited emergence of lovely little purple flowers 

“la vie ne fait pas de cadeaux “ : very true indeed!  And yet, these lovely purple flowers just popped up like that, one morning, spreading  their joyous colour & smell all over the small and not particularly well tended front-garden of our building. 

 2)  Finding essential books one didn’t even know that existed


“Rien sans peine” : definitely!  But I was just absentmindedly browsing the shelves in the music section of my beloved second hand bookshop Pêle-Mêle, when, without any merit,  I stumbled upon two  books – each in their way perfect to deepen the insights of a devout albeit unschooled classical music lover.   A small pocket book in perfect condition by Aaron Copland (indeed, the composer!) :  “What to Listen for in Music”. And a beautifully edited art book about “Flemish Polyphony” by Ignace Bossuyt.      

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3)  An impromptu cello-concerto in the museum garden – by a future winner of the Queen Elisabeth competition

"There’s no such thing as a free lunch” :  undoubtedly! And yet. It was a sultry Sunday summer afternoon in June last year and we had gone for a stroll in the rose gardens of the Museum van Buuren. A woman asked whether we wanted to attend a cello-recital, for free? It was given by a young German-Korean cellist, who was exploring some of the historical surroundings of this music- loving queen who gave her name to an eminent musical competition.  Hayoung Choi’s playing was dazzling.  And on a Sunday morning one year later, scrolling through the news on my phone, I could nod with smug satisfaction: the rose-garden cellist won the 1st prize of the Queen Elisabeth competition.      


4.      4)  “Incident at Saint Guidon” and an unforeseen city walk

The plan was to efficiently insert a medical examination in the midst of the day, with a well-timed metro trip up and down to the hospital, all without causing so much as a ripple in my work performance.  Well, that didn’t go according to plan – on the way back, after only 10 minutes, the metro halted and all travellers were kindly requested to leave the train: because of an incident at the St Guidon station all metro- traffic was stopped.  

Above the ground people scurried around in all directions, trying to board overflowing buses or hailing already occupied taxis.  Right.  But, that’s when a Flâneur gets going.   Sunny, sweltering hot streets, a walk of about 1.5hours to get back to work.  It’s an unexpected gift to  just walk and walk, along the busy Chaussée de Mons, alongside an unexpectedly peaceful park with children playing, crossing a pittoresque square with a church, slaloming though groups of boys hanging around in Kureghem, traversing the canal, walking past illegal workers gathering behind the Southstation, dodging frantic shoppers at the Place Louise, overtaking strolling dandy’s with nifty dogs along the Toison d’or, speeding up a little, and yes there’s the office building.      

 

5.      5)  Youthful energy in the metro at 7.10AM

“metro-boulot-dodo” – not an uplifting prospect, now that for 3 weeks I have to join the daily commuters to get my treatment in a hospital at the edge of Brussels.   Most people in the metro are rather subdued at this early hour. Looking around I see rows of people uniformly bent over their smartphones. Others are dozing off, like that young slender man, carefully dressed (with red  shoes, red belt and red shirt) snuggling up ever tighter in his corner.  The school-going youth though, bristles with energy. When a girl spots a friend in the next car, she grins & phones :  “look around you!!” , laughing out loud when the friends turns around , surprised. The friend comes over, and until the final metro-stop they sit side by side, grinning & chatting & beaming & oh so happy about their unexpected encounter. 

6.      6)  Greeted by a friendly face at the Erasmus-metro exit

When Ieaving the metro at the ‘Erasmus’ station, apprehensive about the first of 15 radiotherapy –sessions, there is a familiar face that greets me amidst the crowd of commuters. On a bill-board there is Vivian Maier, intently gazing  in her lens, happily capturing her reflection in a mirroring surface, hair unruly, behind her a non-descript building and dappled summer light through tree-leaves -  a joyous reflected self-portrait.  As un-connected & isolated as she may have been – here she is, so many years later, on another continent – on  bill-boards announcing an exhibition of her photos.   



Reflections on human influence

 

I was intending to write a blogpost about "paideia" or “humanitas” – in the sense of seeking individual ‘salvation’ not in material riches, but in an ideal of self-education, in order to participate (however modestly) to the best that human culture has produced.  I was going to reach back 2000 years to bolster my confidence in the relative permanence of this humanistic ideal.  

But I was distracted from my nostalgic musings by the red alert of the IPCC : “Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least  the last 2000 years.

Human influence has likely increased the chance of compound extreme events since the 1950s. This includes increases in the frequency of concurrent heatwaves and droughts on the global scale (high confidence); fire weather in some regions of all inhabited continents (medium confidence); and compound flooding in some locations (medium confidence).” (IPCC August 2021_ AR6 WGI – p41))


 

 May human ingenuity (technological, behavioral) now help us to mitigate our influence, and to adapt to its consequences, lest we turn into pillars of salt, gazing, transfixed, at the unfolding disaster.  



Reflections on a Permanent Book

 



“with numerous music examples” - introduction

It was just an unassuming paperback I’d picked up some time ago for a mere €2 in the second hand bookshop : “Monteverdi – His Life and Work” (1)

The frontispiece carried the promise “with numerous music examples”, a bit like an art history book touting the number of colour illustrations. 

One of the joys of reading an art history book, is of course to have eye and mind happily consorting, creating meaning while making the joyful connection between descriptive text and visual image. (2) 

 It’s quite different for music – literary descriptions are either very general glorifications of music or else very subjective outpourings. And objective musicological descriptions, including score extracts with keys & notes, often scare off the un-initiated with their technical terms. (3)  

 

a small digression on learning music as an adult - 2021

As to myself, having never had a musical education, the connection between musical score and actual sounds used to elude me. So my listening (however intense, attentive and profoundly impacting) remained mostly intuitive, and in CD-booklets I routinely skipped paragraphs with technical music terms. 

Luckily, however, my book-buying has always been more ambitious, overreaching my actual abilities, and so not shying away from books including staves and notes  -  implicitly assuming that one day I could still teach myself how to read sheet music. 

Which has proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy :  now at last, with the help of a limpid educational book (5) (which in 70 pages patiently explains the basic musical elements) and following many many hours of repetition, I’m now at a point that I can decipher (ever so slowly, ever so laboriously) what is happening on the lines of a musical score.  Ah, the joy of recognising a b flat! The pride  of identifying an augmented fifth! (4)  I’m like a former illiterate, painstakingly deciphering a sentence word by word, letter by letter.  

 

a modest meditation on the passing of time and the soul of a sentence - 1926

With my recently acquired humble musical knowledge I can now slowly read “Monteverdi – His Life and Work” and, for instance,  ponder the timeless meaning of  the frequent use of augmented fifths produce effects of voluptuousness and melancholy”.

But a rather casual, non-technical sentence sets off my melancholy musings, making me wonder about the passing of time and styles. The book’s author, musicologist Prunières, pays a tribute to Romain Rolland (his former music teacher)(6)  as follows: “With an intuition bordering upon genius, he has entered into Monteverdi’s very soul and defined synthetically the essential characteristics of his art.”

Who, these days, would still write a sentence like that? Where (apart from in self-help tutorials) does one still find words such as “intuition, genius, soul” used in one breath?  An entire world of   high art, of cultural reverence, of exquisite sensibilities, is evoked.  While reading  the historical/biographical notes or the musicological commentaries, I didn’t wonder about the date of writing of the book , but this one reflective sentence made me pause and realise that the book was written in another era, almost 100 years ago.      

 

permanent by design - 1972  

As mentioned in the opening paragraph – this book I’m blogging about really is just an unassuming paperback, published back in 1972 by Dover books (7).  But it ages particularly well, withstanding the vagaries of human use and of  the elements (8) for close to 50 years.

On the back cover I read that this longevity was indeed aimed at by the publisher, who devotes a full paragraph to their efforts to “make the best book possible”, from choice of paper to method of sewing and binding, firmly concluding with “This is a permanent book”. 

They were quite right to add a proud exclamation mark to the heading ”A Dover edition designed for years of use!” : their bold claim of permanence has held true so far. 

They were truly  ‘circular by design’ avant la lettre. Quite an achievement, because, just think of it, which TV-set produced in 1972 would still be used today? Which smartphone bought today will still be in use in 2071?      

 

 

Free Notes without a Stave

(1)    by Henri Prunières, Translated by Marie D. Mackie – 1972 republication of the original 1926 English language edition.

(2)    Ekphrasis,  “Greek for the written description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined” (Wikipedia)

(3)    “Parrot may not learn to sing, but at least he’ll know what singing is” (J. Winterson)

(4)    When asking Google about “literary descriptions of music”  it  brings me to this very relevant blogpost : http://nachumschoffmanthoughts.com/?page=DESCRIPTIONSOFMUSICINLITERATURE

(5)    Ignace Bossuyt : ”Van noten en tonen – Wegwijs in muzikale begrippen”

(6)    When asking Google about ‘Romain Rolland et la musique’ :  https://association-romainrolland.org/image_articles13/Jeanneret13.pdf   « Le nom de Rolland, qui suffisait entre les deux guerres à évoquer un modèle littéraire et social est tombé dans l’oubli », « figure effacée de l’Europe  »   « le modèle d’écrivain-musicien »

(7)    Dover books still exists, but in a ‘restructured’ and slimmed down form, apperently focusing now on colouring books for adults. And I’m not the only one paying tribute to their former sustainable publishing ethos : https://contingentmagazine.org/2020/02/23/this-is-a-permanent-book/        

(8)    “the natural  elements” – we’d almost forgotten about them in our advanced societies. To our horror we now discover our fragility, our helplessness, for instance,  in the face of floodings. The human death toll, the destroyed houses and infrastructure of course command our first concern, but how pitiful, too, those muddy heaps of books and paper files spoiled by the water.

(9)    photo-disclaimer & additional book : this is a photo of two books, the Dover book (as mentioned) and another lovely book on Monteverdi by Actes Sud– published back in 2004, and bought second hand, still in great condition, 17 years later.  My PC from that the early 2000s is long in the scrap yard, and the ZIP drives on which I prudently  saved my back ups are inaccessible now.  


 

Landscapes on the Window Sill

 

Still lives and landscape paintings do have a lot in common.  For one, books about them amiably share space on my window sill, equally exposed to the spring light filtering through the curtains.

More to the point, they both do invite contemplation - not needing a story to unfold, nor showing a human character to be assessed. They just let the self quietly watch, observe and love its surroundings.

To my great joy I recently found another book on Jacob van Ruisdael ("Windmills and Water Mills" by Seymour Slive) to complement  the old The Hague catalogue (pictured) that  I once picked up in a second hand bookshop.    


I have vivid & happy memories of the spacious Van Ruisdael paintings I could see over the years in continental European museums. So in this new book I discovered with all the more wonderment  pictures of paintings in UK and US collections I had never seen before.

Look, how Van Ruisdael paints this man in a red jacket on a background of silvery greens,  anticipating Corot’s happy red & shimmering grey chromaticism. (see: Two Undershot Water Mills with an Open Sluice  )

 And there, what an amazing riverscape –  like a busy , industrious vedute painted by an Italian. (see: Panoramic view of the river Amstel looking toward Amsterdam )






murky harmonies (a feeling for snow)

I had even dreamt about it …. about thick layers of snow keeping us inside, about the whole world turned white.  So I woke, filled with expectation, not even minding the early hour which ruined my Sunday rest.  I pulled back the curtains, and … bof …. some white patches here and there – on rooftops, in gardens -  some melting snow flocks twirling in the light of the street lamps. 

But nothing like the avalanches of snow forecast the previous day.  The young woman in the bakery shared my disappointment:  “all that fuss and then that “, she said, while putting my croissants in a bag, and then pointing dismissively at the wet drizzle outside.


But in these muffled, restrained times, we collectively try to make the most of what little pleasures the weather does bestow on us. In the Bois de la Cambre, adults and children alike had decided that even a millimeter of snow allowed to slide down slippery slopes on a sled. Slithering & tumbling, their excited cries echoed amongst the trees. 

And I too came to appreciate this particular wintry & wet mixture – not the dazzling white of a snowy landscape, but the murky harmony of earthy browns & grey mixed with broken white.  The kind of scrambled dusky landscape the 19th century painter Guillaume Vogels was so keen to render.       





An Alchemy of Fragments

 

“As we know, the fragment, the never-ending promise of Romanticism, is still the influential ideal of the modern age.”


While aimlessly browsing in the bookshop (a recognised ‘essential activity’), my eye fell on a small hardcover book, quietly appealing with its hushed tones of black & silvery greys.   It had an old black&white photo on its cover - maybe of a 19th century museum room, high-ceilinged and empty but for a man wearing a black coat & a hat, standing stiffly next to the entrance doorpost.  A greyish circle was superposed on the top corner of this photo, looking like the pitted surface of the moon (?), almost fully covering another brilliant silver circle underneath.  Enscribed in silvery letters within the circle,  the title stated dryly "Inventaris van enkele verliezen"  ( "Inventory of losses" ). 

The  author’s name (Judith Schalansky) was unknown to me - but somehow seemed to fit the aura of bygone erudition which exuded from the little book.

And what a treasure the little book proves to be! It’s a pleasure to handle, with its firm cover and its pages of a heavy, smooth paper. The chapters are marked by pitch-black pages, each showing a darkly shimmering ghostly picture evoking the chapter’s subject. While manipulating the book to catch the light under different angles, peering into the black, one can with some effort make out the picture of some ruin, or the fragments of some text, or the remains of an ancient map.

“Out of the revealing debris, the architect, who will not build a single house in his entire life, designs the floor plan of a dreamed past and at the same time the vision of an entirely new creation, which fascinates more people in its copper engravings than any structure chained to the ground and the soil ever would.”



The book feeds on the human fascination with past civilizations and long lost cultural artefacts, it cherishes how a few rare remaining fragments can nourish the imagination of generations to come.   Schalansky’s own imagination and dazzling command of language can resurrect a lost tiger species, minutely describing a fight during a Colosseum spectacle in ancient Rome (1) , she can lead us into the minds of 18th century engravers and painters of antique ruins (2), or vividly evoke the lost books & visions of a perished world religion (3).



Only the writing will be proved right and will survive, will weigh as much as the material which records it : a lump of black basalt, a table of burnt clay, the squeezed fibers of the papyrus plants, of the stiff leaf of a palm

The book embodies the human condition of transience, meditating on the sheer impossibility to remember everything forever  – not even when hewn in stone, nor when kept in bits&bytes, and not even in an archive on the moon (4).   But at the same time, her book is a tribute to libraries and museums and archives, noting how “on periods of extraordinary negligence follow phases of excessive care”.   Her book is also living proof of how the human imagination can travel through the ages and around the globe, only feeding on some lingering old texts & images,  without ever leaving one’s home town. 

Sharing the intrepidity of the explorers & philosophers of bygone ages, Schalansky does not eschew  eschatological visions, including the ultimate end of our universe (5). But for now, here on earth, Schalansky’s own writing, her playful gravitas (6) glimmering with wisdom & beauty, makes one hope that at least the language will remain, as an enduring repository of all human experience. (7)  

 

Fragmentary Notes

  1.     Kaspische Tijger – Het Oude Rome / Caspian Tiger – Ancient Rome
  2.     Villa Sacchetti – Valle Inferno (on Piranese, Hubert Robert)
  3.     De Zeven Boeken van Mani – Babylonië / The Seven Books of Mani - Babylonia
  4.     Kinaus selenografieën – Lacus Luxuriae / Kinaus selenographies - Lacus Luxuriae
  5.    « het verre uur waarin de centrale ster zal opbranden en samen met de zon al de bij haar ingedeelde hemellichamen zullen verdampen » « the distant hour in which the central star will burn up and together with the sun all the celestial bodies around  it will evaporate
  6.    Schalansky’s melancholy evocations of losses remind one of course of WG Sebald – but her tone is more cheerful, because the losses are from a more distant past and therefore less laden with regret & guilt.     
  7.    repositories of words brought to life in a conspiracy between writers & readers – together silently reviving entire lost worlds   
  8.    all quotes are from the Dutch version “Inventaris van enkele verliezen”, shamelessly using Google  for the English translation.

In Praise of a Patient & Weighty Book

 


The reigning tech aesthetic is all about gleaming smoothness (1) and instantaneous sensations, with algorithms creating a digital universe tailored to our impulsive needs. (2)

The book laying before me, was, on its own, a formidable counter-weight (3) to the fleeting lightness of our virtual lives. It weighed at least 3 kilos, its cloth cover was rough to the touch and its pages made of heavy paper were stitched by thread.  Merely leafing through the book was a slow tactile experience of a reassuring gravity.

This weighty book had been very patient, before at last getting my full attention.  Published in 1964, I has acquired it in 2013 in a second hand bookshop, where it has seduced me by its title, “Le message de l’Absolu” (4) and by its bulkiness, giving weight to whatever message it might convey.        

The book had been close to being discarded as ballast last summer, during one of those fateful fits to get rid of too many accumulated things in order to create a tabula rasa,  if not in one’s life, then at least in one’s home. Those are perilous moments,  when one might disavow everything one ever valued  -  throwing it out a as being irrelevant, no longer in tune with the times. (5)  

But the book had survived the clean-up rage, and on this stormy autumn day, it proved to be just the grave companion that I needed in these uncertain times.

Written in 1964 by Germain Bazin, a French art historian born in 1901, the book combines a classical erudition with a very modern sense of anxiety and doubt.  

Having studied with the eminent French art historians Henri Focillon and Emile Mâle (6), and having gone on to make a distinguished career as curator at the Louvre, Germain Bazin was of course well placed to tell once again the fascinating story of western art from its earliest beginnings, as a succession of different formal expressions of human meanings & longings, each capturing the essence of an era, and all part of a single history of art (7)  … until the 20th Century.    

Having lived through two wars and witnessing a rapidly changing world, Germain Bazin combines an understanding of the inevitability of modern art’s radical break with tradition with the nostalgia of someone who realizes that all he has valued most during his life is disappearing fast.  He captures the implosion of western art mirroring the upheavals of the 20th century. He evokes the perplexities of art, and of all humanist exercises in imagination & understanding, in an era in which science has lifted as it were the lid on the world’s phenomena – confounding our intuitions. And finally, he wonders about the contemporaneity of our lost belief in transcendence (be it of the divine or humanist kind) with the end of high art’s pursuit of harmony and beauty.

 

« de la figure humaine éclatée comme par l’effet d’un explosive, le peintre rassemble les morceaux ne suivant d’autre loi que l’incongru. 

Ces puzzles ricanant sont peut-être les expressions les plus typiques de cette discontinuité chaotique […]

 que des fragments de formes en liberté que rien ne convie à l’unité d’où naît l’harmonie » (8)

          

 Que des fragments

  1.     « Sauvons le beau: l'esthétique à l'ère numérique ; l’esthétique du lisse» de Byung-Chul Han / « Saving beauty » – « aesthetics of the smooth »
  2.   algorithms do not second-guess our needs as humans might do – they systematically crunch our behavioural data, compare these with huge pools of other peoples’ data and then predict what we’re most likely to click on, what will most likely grab our attention. These algorithms weren’t designed out of a disinterested motivation to get to know us, nor in order to deepen the understanding of human behaviour – but with a purely commercial motive, selling advertising with the most views and the highest click-through rates.    See the blow-by-blow , page-by-page dissection by  Shoshana Zuboff in  «Surveillance Capitalism»
  3.    Germain Bazin – « Le message de l’Absolu »
  4.   The message of the absolute …. lacking a religious belief in the divine, the slumbering human longing for transcendence, has long pinned its hope on human art or ethics to transcend our struggling condition.      
  5.  Western civilisation at large has often had these destructive moments, if only to afterwards expiate the destruction & oblivion by painstaking historical research and the building of museums.  
  6.  in the early chapters one still can catch that whiff of lyrical art history, seeing the artist as a sublimation of human longing : “du fond de sa nature exilée dans l’imparfait, il entend sourdre l’appel vers la perfection”[…] “pour évoquer en eux un élan vers les sublimes clartés”.  But there’s  also of course the stern admonishing of a rigorous ageing art historian defending the seriousness of his trade against purely subjective art appreciation: “ […] se fiant à son goût elle exerce son choix par la sensation pure. […] sentir ne suffit pas pour aimer, encore moins pour connaître et lorsque l’âge amenuise cette faculté de sentir, il ne reste plus dans l’âme que la cendre des souvenirs »
  7.   in a way art history has invented itself , producing an after the fact synopsis, a string of meaningful variations on a fundamental human ‘kunstwollen’ , instead of a mere accumulation of random trials & errors .  
  8. of the human figure, which is shattered as if by the effect of an explosive, the painter brings together the pieces following no other law than the incongruous. These sneering puzzles are perhaps the most typical expressions of this chaotic discontinuity [...] as fragments of loose shapes,  which nothing invites to the unity from which harmony is born

Cherish the light





It's official, in order to make it through the long & dark Corona autumn, we are advised to cherish the light. 


 

 

Heatwave in the City

 The city had been smoldering for days. All that concrete, all that asphalt, all those stones - absorbing and compounding the heat. All those damned cars adding hot fumes to the hot air.


Those city dwellers who hadn't escaped to the seaside, stayed inside, motionless behind drawn curtains. Only a few masked people dared to venture outside.  One felt infinite gratefulness for any tree offering some shade, for any bush of roses, however lonely,  able to conjure up visions of the Provence in an overheated brain.


But then, at last, the wind picked up and rain started pouring down.  One could almost hear a city wide  sigh of relief,  everybody throwing wide open their windows - in all streets and neighborhoods, from  cramped basement flats to lavish lofts.     

      

The Sea! The Sea! (or : Escape from an overheating city)


There's more boulevard than sea, in this most urban of seaside towns. But the lines are dizzying - vanishing, whether sinuous or straight, whether earth bound or swirling in the sky. And the light, ah the light - benignly golden in the evening, from a sun  hovering between sky and sea, after a day of mercilessly beating down on us.  
 


Rain at last - vaporizing on the hot tiles - saturating the air with water. Cooling tempers and soothing frayed nerves. What a strange summer it is, with a heatwave compounding the sense of being trapped.