something else

ah, “something else” – so un-assuming, so endearingly groping a term (1). It was its clumsiness that had attracted my attention, oddly out of order in these thoughtful, elegantly elaborated texts written by two eminent intellectuals. Meaningfully, they were discussing meaning, Hannah Arendt and Erwin Panofsky, when they resorted to this “something else”.

They were writing about “meaning” in altogether different contexts, and totally independent from each other. Because, apart from being both German-speaking 30s Nazi-refugees in the US, I don’t think there was any link between them. One was a political thinker/philosopher, the other an art historian. But anyway, I was so excited to discover these echoing passages, to discover this secret affinity between two beloved authors. Yes, a most gratifying find, “in particular for a certain inner philosopher who was only happy when he had discovered , between two works, between two sensations, a common element” .(2)

two lengthy quotes

Hannah Arendt on the “the meaning of human affairs” (3) :

“Is it not true that “something else” results from the actions of men than what they intend and achieve, something else than they know or want?” […]
It is not through acting but through contemplating that the “something else”, namely, the meaning of the whole, is revealed. The spectator, not the actor, holds the clue to the meaning of human affairs – only, and this is decisive, Kant’s spectators exist in the plural, and this is why he could arrive at a political philosophy ”

Erwin Panofsky on “intrinsic meaning or content” of a work of art (4):

“As long as we limit ourselves to stating that Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco shows a group of thirteen men around a dinner table, and that this group of men represents the Last Supper, we deal with the work of art as such. […]
But when we try to understand it as a document of Leonardo’s personality, or of the civilization of the Italian High Renaissance, or of a peculiar religious attitude, we deal with the work of art as something else which expresses itself in a countless variety of other symptoms , and we interpret its compositional and iconographical features as more particularized evidence of this “something else”. The discovery and interpretation of these ‘symbolical’ values (which are often unknown to the artist himself and may even emphatically differ from what he consciously intended to express) is the object of what we may call “iconology” as opposed to “iconography”.

humanism, politics and aesthetics

I said there was no link between Arendt and Panofsky, engaged as they were in different disciplines, but of course they did share something quite fundamental: the humanist attitude. They represent humanism at its erudite & sensitive best: a humanism aware of human frailty & depravity (5), and yet unfalteringly upholding human responsibility. A humanism with a ‘passion for understanding’, deeply interested in human affairs. And more particularly, interested in that fascinating margin of freedom humans have – or at least, the possible margin of freedom humans have, freedom from necessity. Which means freedom, not only from our daily metabolic needs & lusts, but also ( even …) from the despotic constraints of logical reasoning or of irrefutable scientific cognitions. (6)

This freedom is not to be seen as an excuse for obscurantist, irrational revolt against rationality.
But rather, this freedom is a realm of free interaction that humans can create, in their diversity & plurality. A realm where humans determine what they value, what goals they want to pursue and where they try to convince each other of these goals and values – well beyond efficiently providing for life’s necessities. It’s the kind of freedom that (ideally of course, ideally …) is the hallmark of democratic politics; a realm where humans can only hope to convince each other by argumentative persuasion, and by appealing to common human tendencies, but without compulsion by force and without being able to resort to some ultimately sanctioned truth, be it theologically or scientifically.

Or you could define this freedom as the realm where humans can indulge in “the free play of understanding and imagination”, where they can reflect and contemplate. Indeed, the realm of aesthetics, where humans can freely exercise their faculty of taste.
And where they can debate for ages amongst each other on these matters of taste, trying to convince each other, by argumentative persuasion and by appealing to common human tendencies, but without compulsion by force and without being able to resort to some ultimately sanctioned truth, be it theologically or scientifically.

Nope, dear reader, the above is not a frivolous copy-paste-error : I indeed manipulated those two passages in order to attribute some of the same characteristics of human freedom to both politics and aesthetics …. ! (7)

And perhaps that curious correspondence may also explain why Panofsky (the most thoughtful of art historians) and Arendt (the most aesthetic of political thinkers) converge in their respectively art historical and philosophical writings on this “something else”, this “meaning”.

the emergence of meaning

“Meaning” itself is of course eminently a product of human freedom. It is not a fixed attribute of a deed or of a work of art. Meaning emerges only in the encounter between a human subject on the one hand and a deed, or a work of art , or a text on the other hand. (8)

And meaning cannot be analytically dissected into objective components. Yes, of course – when contemplating a work of art, on a first level you can determine what the primary ‘meaning’ of a certain blob of paint is (eg, it represents a loaf of bread), then you might decipher any conventional ‘meanings’ (eg, the religious symbolism of a loaf of bread) – but the overall intrinsic meaning of a work of art?
Ah, but that is “something else” As Panofsky said, to grasp this intrinsic meaning , one needs “a faculty that cannot be described better than by the rather discredited term “synthetic intuition”.

And of course it helps to know the socio-historical background of the artist, it’s good to be acquainted with the history of styles, but in the end – in the end it is not by methodical analysis but by attentive contemplation and by the letting freely play one’s powers of “understanding and imagination” that this “something else”, that “meaning” dawns.

So meaning is subjective, or rather, meaning is inter-subjective – because, as Arendt notes, we are all members of an audience (be it as spectators of the worlds’ affairs at large, or of a particular spectacle or work of art.) And as members of an audience of spectators , we might judge from an “enlarged mentality” , or at least confront our own understanding of meaning with that of our fellow-spectators.
Thus meaning is potentially universal. But also potentially evolving & thus transient : “[…] that even if the spectacle were always the same and therefore tiresome, the audiences would change from generation to generation; nor would a fresh audience be likely to arrive at the conclusions handed down by tradition as to what an unchanging play has to tell it” (9)

Hidden agenda of this post: show that meaning had already been deconstructed - but not ditched! (10) - by humanism before the advent of post-structuralists.

We all know with what relish post-structuralists have debunked the authority of traditions and canons. While doing so they pictured themselves as bravely rebelling against western bourgeois humanist consensus. They allegedly discovered there was no such thing as a fixed meaning and went on to deconstruct the meaning of meaning in convoluted verbosity.
“the meaning of meaning … is infinite implication, the indefinite referral of signifier to signifier”. “ we now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space”. “Meaning, in so far as it can be established at all, exists in the space between the reader and the text”.

Well, the above post-structuralist passages did not teach me anything that I hadn’t yet read, though more poetically and more humbly formulated, in the works of bourgeois humanists like Arendt and Panofsky. And as far as my personal meaning of meaning is concerned, I’ll fondly stick to the clumsy quest for “something else”.

the indefinite referral of footnotes to text
(1) But as plain as it may sound, this “something else” can be quite subversive and revolutionary. “something else” : as opposed to everything that has been neatly defined by the mainstream.
“something else” : to be used when there’s not even yet a vocabulary to denote what one wants.
“something else, I only knew I wanted something else” : can be used by anyone wrestling with stiffling social constraints , but I’ll always remember it as how this transsexual woman explained her childhood gender-transgressive longings
(2) Proust in « La Prisonnière » : «
[Des petits personnages intérieurs qui composent notre individu il en restera encore 2 ou 3 qui auront la vie plus dure que les autres] notamment un certain philosophe qui n’est heureux que quand il a découvert, entre deux œuvres, entre deux sensations, une partie commune »
(3) Hannah Arendt : The Life of the Mind – Thinking and doing : the spectator
(4) Erwin Panofsky: Meaning in the Visual Arts – Iconography and Iconology: an introduction to the study of renaissance art
(5) With their Jewish heritage, living in those dark decades of the 20th century, they could of course hardly not know about human depravity
(6) HA:
« Truth compels with the force of necessity […] ‘Euclide’, as Mercier de la Rivière once noted, ‘est un véritable despote’. » and « the opposite of necessity is not contingency or accident but freedom »
(7) As Hannah Arendt , rhetorically- surprised, muses in “The Crisis in Culture”:
“Could it be that taste belongs among the political faculties?”
(8) I am of course paraphrasing Kant on beauty. And a lot of what has been said about “beauty” can be said about “meaning” – but there is an intriguing difference in degree where the criterion of “disinterestedness” is concerned. Even when, as spectator, we are not directly participating in an event or a spectacle, our own self-interest will taint out interpretation, our understanding of its meaning far more than it would taint our experience of its purely aesthetical qualities. Fascinating pair, meaning & beauty …. The stuff of which all art is made…
(9) Hannah Arendt : The Life of the Mind - Thinking and doing: the spectator

(10) It’s an interesting New Year exercise to make a list, not of good resolutions, but of things one would gladly ditch. Xmas is eminently ditch-able, meaning is not!!!

"the meaning of flowers" (1)

“[…] Darwin […] cracked the secret of flowers , by showing that their special features […] were all ‘contrivances’: they had all evolved in the service of cross-fertilization. What had once been a pretty picture of insects buzzing about brightly colored flowers now became an essential drama in life, full of biological depth and meaning”.

Actually, I don’t know much about flowers. Am more a tree-kind of person; the upward surging kind of trees that is, the cathedral ones. And I like them best when they’re all wintry spires and naked branches, having shed any associations with lust for life.

And yes, I’ve always been rather wary around spring flowers, with their sheer abundance of colors & smells & voluptuous flowery shapes … all that organic ostentation … So, far from me to feel affronted by the Darwinian exposure of flowers’ colors & smells as mere reproductive ploys, adapted to insects’ senses.
And I’m definitely no crypto-creationist irked by evolutionary interpretations.

“Flowers required no Creator, but were wholly intelligible as products of accident and selection, of tiny incremental changes extending over hundreds of millions of years. This, for Darwin, was the meaning of flowers, the meaning of all adaptations, plant and animal, the meaning of natural selection”

But hey! Now, really. I do object! Twice!!

1) Such an abuse of the meaning of the word “Meaning”!!! And worst of all, coming from so eminent & meaningful a humanist as Oliver Sacks. That cries out for a brave post to save the word “meaning” from the clutches of functional- utilitarian teleology.


2) subsidiary object of ire: how dare they posit flowers as merely obsessed with their own reproduction & the seduction of cross-fertilizing insects , how dare they rob flowers of their capacity to freely please human spectators.

Actually, I think Sacks just succumbed to the facile attraction of a good title such as “the meaning of flowers” (a title which I promptly borrowed for this post). Of course he wouldn’t need to consult Merriam Webster (2) for the meaning of meaning. In fact, he qualifies his use of “meaning” himself , describing Darwin as one who “[…] asked why, […] seeking meaning (not in any final sense, but in the immediate sense of use or purpose.)”

But so, should you ask me about the meaning of flowers – then I’d rather express surprise , surprise at the enormous variety of flowers, and of animal and plant life in general. At the sheer excess and seeming superfluity. Surprise at all this sound & fury, all these blazing urges of self-display.
This “urge to appear” (3) that seems to outstrip by far “what may be deemed necessary for life-preservation and sexual attraction”.
Wondering indeed about final meanings, about the question of all questions, the “why is there something and not rather nothing”. All that energy gratuitously spent at being, at appearing. But well yes, I can see the survival & reproductive value of ostentation – & yes, surviving takes at least wanting to survive, takes at least some lust for life… whatever survives is what survives.

But over to the second objection then. What about the meaning of flowers for loving human spectators. What about their beauty as experienced by humans? Meaning, neither in a final sense, nor in the immediate sense of use – meaning rather as a human appraisal which is as (inter-) subjective (and as potentially universal!) as taste.

Humans, though of hardly any cross-fertilizing use to flowers, are as attracted as insects are by flowers’ colors & smells. And flowers, though of no reproductive or survival value to humans, are loved dearly by said humans.

So thàt mystery of the beauty of flowers remains – the fact that humans, in a wholly dis-interested way, find so much pleasure in their beauty. (4)

a rose is a rose is a rose
(1) Oliver Sacks in a
NYRB article
(2) meaning
1 a: the thing one intends to convey especially by language : PURPORT b: the thing that is conveyed especially by language : IMPORT2: something meant or intended : AIM 3: significant quality ; especially : implication of a hidden or special significance 4 a: the logical connotation of a word or phrase b: the logical denotation or extension of a word or phrase

(3) Hannah Arendt : from the chapter about ‘the value of the surface’ in The Life of the Mind
(4) Elisabeth Prettejohn in “Beauty & Art” about Kant’s theory of aesthetical judgment :
“[when we make a reflective judgment of taste] we do not expect to gain anything from it. It is a disinterested judgment. […] Kant is determined to preserve the possibility that human beings can do this paradoxical thing, and evaluate an object without reference to the interests or purposes it may serve”.

what I was thinking about ...

“that philosophy and poetry were indeed closely related; they were not identical but sprang from the same source – which is thinking” (1)

At some stage, both poetry and philosophy did hope to find truth. But then, they always have been confronted with the infuriating gap between words and reality…. With the frustrating powerlessness of words to grasp the workings of the world and of the creatures of this world .
However abstract & 'un-wordly', mathematics at least get to reveal the laws of nature.

But words …., the very medium in which we think..., words have proven so inadequate to produce scientific knowledge, all they have produced are Great Metaphysical Fallacies and Untrue Stories.

Just as “poetry makes nothing happen” (2), thinking “does not bring knowledge as do the sciences” nor “does it produce usable practical wisdom”(3).

But then, as humans we crave meaning. And meaning is about thinking. And thinking is about meaning, not about knowing .

[…] thinking and knowing are two altogether different concerns, [corresponding] with meaning in the first category, and cognition in the second. […] The need of thinking is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning . And truth and meaning are not the same. “ (4)

Religion (allegedly (5)) reveals both truth and pre-ordained meanings, sanctioned in hallowed formulas & ready-made rituals, shared by a community. All very comforting & soothing & unchanging. No exhausting thinking needed. And only one Book to read.

Poetry & philosophy – ah, no truth is revealed, nothing’s pre-ordained, much less is sanctioned (even the Canon of writers has crumbled). So much thinking to do for so elusive a morsel of meaning.

But is the alternative then to go without individual thinking, to go without this dialogue with the many tentative stories woven throughout the ages? What kind of meaning-less society would that produce? (6)

Stories constitute together, and referring to each other, the proof of our presence “ (6) (7)

Thinking inevitably produces footnotes:
(1) Hannah Arendt – The Life of the Mind
(2) Says the Poet: W.H. Auden
(3) Confesses the Philosopher: Heidegger
(4) Hannah Arendt – The Life of the Mind
(5) Allegedly – such a lovely word!
(6) Marc Reuyebrink
(7) It’s only in a footnote that I would dare to quote Baudelaire’s pathetic outcry in “les phares” (about how the great artworks troughout the ages are « ardent sobs”, and the best testimony of human dignity): “car vraiment seigneur, c’est le meilleur témoignage que nous puissions donner de notre dignité, que cet ardent sanglot qui roule d’âge en âge et vient mourir au bord de votre éternité »

in praise of snow and folly

It had been announced, snow …. By weathermen and snow-crazy correspondents alike. So expectations were high when I rode out on my bike in the morning.

The park seemed particularly still, the sky particularly grey & expectant. And yes, after a brief feint outbreak of the sun, the world suddenly grew dark and filled up with a mixture of sleet and snow. Ah – the exhilaration of it – being immersed in this dizzying and lacerating sleet.

Then, out of the park, back among the traffic, peering through misty glasses into a hazy world with twirling flocks, trailing red tail-lights, refracting yellow head lights. Around me, the swooshy sound of cars slowly driving through melting snow. Feeling cold water seeping into my shoes, trickling down my neck, mouth & nose watering from intrusive icy flocks.

I’m elated when I get home, feeling so very smug & cozy when I can change into dry clothes and bask in the domestic warmth.

And who knows why, around noon, I formed the firm & crazy resolve that on this fine day I would not take weather-proof public transport to go to that exhibition in the castle of Gaasbeek. Nope I would go there by bike – some 16 km into the country, in unknown territory, with weather forecasts unwaveringly bad.

So after lunch, with a childish sense of adventure, I gleefully set out on my bike, duly wrapped & buttoned up against the raging elements.

The hardest part was getting out of the city – pedaling through murky neighborhoods, along car-infested highways, through post-industrial nowhere areas….

But then at last hitting indeed a country road – aptly called “Postweg” . Riding through villages and along wet fields planted with mysterious crops. On some farm-houses there are handwritten posters with solemn announcements - “witloof uit diepe grond”/”chicory from deep out of the ground” – “aardappelen van ‘t veld”/”potatoes from the field” . And on and on I pedal – every once in a while checking maps at bus-stops to monitor my advance in the right direction.

After some hesitation on a crossroads, while it starts icely raining again – I firmly take a right turn, and lo & behold, there is the park surrounding the castle of Gaasbeek.

Obviously, on this fine November day, not too many visitors are thronging at the entry. The woman at the ticket-counter is solicitous & friendly – offering to take care of my helmet & other biking paraphernalia. Insisting that I take a reduced price entry ticket, even after having ascertained that I did not belong to any of the many reduction-qualifying groups.

The castle & the exhibition deserve better than a bantering post. Suffice it to say that the exhibit wanted to celebrate with contemporary art works the last lady of the castle, a scintillating woman of taste & smartness and with many fascinating personas (bourgeois, aristocratic, connoisseur & collectioneur, subversive, artistic, ...).
Suffice it also to say that I loved wandering through this labyrintic castle with both ancient cultural artifacts and startling, imaginative contemporary tributes to this headstrong woman.
And the last thing that it is sufficient to say is that this castle managed to play upon the whole range of childhood-castle associations: from shivering gloomy corridors over grand dining rooms to winding staircases up mysterious towers.

It’s getting dark when I get back at my bike in the court yard. The woman-of-the ticket-counter is standing outside, looking probingly to the sky. That’s a lot of snow coming this way, she remarks , pointing out heavy clouds at the horizon. You could wait here till that snow-storm has passed by.
Then she grins , but I guess you want to be in it.
How right she was, of course a snow storm had been part of the plan all along.

the folly of hope

When are you going to blog about Obama, X asked, while we headed for the Underground. Ah, a good question (1) , instantly appealing to my sense of duty. Of course one should not just revel in morbid-November-autumnal-melancholy, but also engage with the world’s pressing affairs (2).

Boarding the metro and finding a seat gave me some reprieve before answering X's question. So yes, why had I not yet produced an elated blog about the Obama-victory, I asked myself, smugly seated now opposite my companion and feeling quite content in this multilingual carriage full of Saturday people, from all walks of life, of all colors & persuasions (3).

Of course I had felt awed – awed by Obama’s dogged perseverance – awed by the portentous symbolism of his victory (4) . And amazed – it wàs possible – a book-reading, intelligent man of mixed race, with Hussein as his middle name, becoming president of the United States. And moved, oh definitely, I had been moved by the victory of someone who had also known about life at the margins, about not fitting in.
And who in his victory speech, in the very first paragraphs celebrated inclusiveness : “ young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled “. (5)

But despite all that …. , well I guess I did feel a bit weary around all this audacity of hope. The sheer tediousness of that tiresome, stirring battle cry “yes we can”. Partly this weariness is due to a genuine concern about the current rotten state of the world: it will need more than hope and rousing rhetoric to set things right … (be it economically or politically).
But mostly it is because of the deeply ingrained pessimism of my philosophically inclined nature that I feel so ambivalent about this Institutionalized Hope and Optimism.

Oh let’s be clear about it: I know that “optimism is a moral duty”(6) , a prerequisite for all human enterprise (7). I know that if we let ourselves being crushed under the weight of horrible truths, if we meticulously imagine the perils of the daunting tasks ahead, nothing ever will get done. So it is against one’s own better knowledge that one should , that one ought to be optimist: hope & unfounded over-optimism (8) as an adaptive trait in the struggle for life.

But still, the diligently truthful mind may find it degrading to dupe itself by hope ( or maybe this diligent mind is only cowardly protecting itself against the pain of dashed hopes? ‘thus conscience does make cowards of us all’ ….) (9) .

Sartre cunningly resolved this existential ambivalence by recommending “a pessimism of the mind combined with an optimism of the will”. And Obama may very well have both: a commanding intelligence which does not hide from the distressing facts of the world, and a powerful optimism of the will which can take on the most daunting of tasks.

But personally, as an eternally self-doubting pessimist, when having to force hope&optimism down my own throat, I find William James’ rhetorical question much more useful: “what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? “ .

Yeah, useful dupery, that’s what hope is….

In the meanwhile (10) we had again emerged above the ground, finding ourselves in a charming part of the Brussels- neighborhood Anderlecht: a place where one could live - with that pleasantly bent row of early 20th century Brussels brick houses (designed in toned down but still playful art nouveau) reminding one of an epoch when the Brussels petite-bourgeoisie had both zest and taste; with those engagingly swooshing gleaming curves of the tram-rails (11) ; with the very Belgian- Bourgundian-Proletarian taverns ; and all this Brussels couleur locale saved from smug provincialism by a most varied set of native & non-native inhabitants. (12)

But I digress – because this urban peregrination did have a philosophical destination! The Erasmus house, tucked away in a quiet enclave behind an endearingly somber church, under a gloomy sky.
There one can roam through rooms with creaking floor-boards, admire heavy leather-bound books , smile ruefully at the crude censorship of inked out sentences.
Or dream away at Erasmus’ time-worn wooden desk, near a glass-in-lead window looking out in the garden, savoring this scholarly stillness, cloaked by the rustling of autumn leaves.

And there one can wander around in Erasmus’ garden – assembled with such loving care to rejoice philosophically & flowerly inclined visitors.

But I digress again – praising gardens instead of folly.

Because, getting to my point, Erasmus, in all his wisdom, knew of course all about the necessary dupery of overconfidence & hope; about this so expedient & useful & indispensable folly of hope …

“ First then, if wisdom (as must be confessed) is no more than a readiness of doing good, and an expedite method of becoming serviceable to the world, to whom does this virtue more properly belong? To the wise man, who partly out of modesty, partly out of cowardice, can proceed resolutely in no attempt; or to the fool, that goes hand over head, leaps before he looks, and so ventures through the most hazardous undertaking without any sense or prospect of danger? In the undertaking of any enterprize the wise man shall run to consult with his books, and daze himself with poring upon musty authors, while the dispatchful fool shall rush bluntly on, and have done the business, while the other is thinking of it. For the two greatest lets and impediments to the issue of any performance are modesty, which casts a mist before men’s eyes; and fear, which makes them shrink back, and recede from any proposal: both these are banished and cashiered by Folly, and in their stead such a habit of fool-hardiness introduced, as mightily contributes to the success of all enterprizes.” (13)

This is as pedantic as footnotes can get: quoting Hamlet, and copying Latin.

(1) that’s the trouble with intelligent & inquisitive companions – they ask all the questions one avoids to ask oneself. Questions one avoids , not only to dodge duties but also because sometimes an honest answer would be too pathetic. Like this other question X asked: why do you blog? How on earth could one admit it is to gather proof to one’s defense. Proof that one is more than the publicly documented persona of a (perhaps soon to be un-employed) bank-economist. (If the 19th C had its sensitive upper classes reading Ruskin to prove they had a soul, now we may have a community of soulful & soul-searching bloggers).
(2) ah “l’engagement” – that politically rousing heritage of my teenage leftist reading of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Goldman et al.
(3) being rather defensive about my beloved Brussels (I know how filthy & chaotic it can seem) I was quite glad that X approvingly noted the diversity of the Brussels population and that she even granted a whiff of New York urban-ness to Brussels’ quite ugly metro-carriages.
(4) I remember how back in March 2008 an American business acquaintance (a white male) had dismissed Obama’s chances, peremptorily stating “America is not yet ready for a black president” – aha … guess who’s coming to dinner my lad ….
(5) Hey why did he not include “men and women” in that all embracing sentence? (And this footnote will be the only & the faintest of hints to the fact that I maybe, just maybe, might be sulking because America was not yet ready for a female president. )
(6) Karl Popper
(7) Cfr Keynes’ animal spirits!
Overconfidence, locus of control and depression: "Overconfidence bias may cause many individuals to overestimate their degree of control as well as their odds of success. This may be protective against depression - since Seligman and Maier's model of depression includes a sense of learned helplessness and loss of predictability and control. Depressives tend to be more accurate, and less overconfident in their assessments of the probabilities of good and bad events occurring to them. This has caused some researchers to consider that overconfidence bias may be adaptive and/or protective in some situations."
(9) Hamlet:
“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action”
(10) These citations-backed reflections are of course entirely post-factum. Never ever did I during that metro-ride reply thus to my companion (who herself did however already during the conversation dare to oppose truthful & dignified pessimism to propaganda-tainted hope). And, um , actually the Obama question was maybe not even asked at that precise point of our Brussels-walk – but for blog-compository reasons it’s handy to situate it there.
(11) Someone ought to write a treatise, or at least a poem, about the romance of tramrails and tramways. The blog-pic is one of Brussels tramrails by night, though not at Anderlecht.
(12) And that this charm is not a just a figment of my Brussels-Partial imagination was so gratifyingly proven by X’s instant enchantment with the spot.
(13) My Latin has long lapsed , but X’s hasn’t – so here’s to you, X!
"Principio si rerum usu constat prudentia, in utrum magis competet eius cognominis honos: in sapientem, qui partim ob pudorem, partim ob animi timiditatem nihil aggreditur, an in stultum, quem neque pudor, quo vacat, neque periculum, quod non perpendit, ab ulla re deterret? Sapiens ad libros veterum confugit, atque hinc meras vocum argutias ediscit. Stultus adeundis comminusque periclitandis rebus, veram (ni fallor) prudentiam colligit.
Sunt enim duo praecipua ad cognitionem rerum parandam obstacula: pudor, qui fumum offundit animo, et metus, qui ostenso periculo, dehortatur ab adeundis facinoribus. At his magnifice liberat stultitia."

Ambiguous Autumn: Grey

Autumn soothes me – with its calming greys , its sheltering fogs. This is a season that knows how to reflect about time passing. A season slowly ‘withering into truth’.

Come autumn so pensive, in yellow and grey

And soothe me with tidings of Nature’s decay (1)

Ah the wisdom of the catholic church, to schedule days of mourning, days of remembrance.

Waking on a 1st of November, one can feel the stillness of a foggy day. Such exquisite relief – this stillness. And looking out of the window, one drinks in the hues of greys dappled with the soft yellow of twirling leaves.

I confess I now love Sundays (and all Catholic holidays) – once I dreaded their boredom, now I gladly surrender to their repose, their official release from all practical duties. No Saturday shopping, no Weekday toiling. No useful activities, no brooding about practical survival. (2)

Memory, memory, what do you want of me? Autumn

makes the thrush fly through colourless air,

and the sun casts a monotonous glare

on the yellowing woods where the north winds hum.(3)

But in fact - most autumn poems are too languorously melancholy to my taste - because, frankly, I find the season exhilarating – the wetness, the greyness, the fogginess, the seeping cold – I revel more in them than in the most sprightly Spring.
Yes, in Autumn I feel quite literally in “my element” .

And I go

Where the winds know,

Broken and brief,

To and fro,

As the winds blow

A dead leaf. (4)

Falling Notes
(1) Robert Burns
(2) a propos Sundays: since there are Sunday painters and Sunday writers, it should not come as a surprise there are also Sunday bloggers.
(3) Paul Verlaine ; Nevermore (Poèmes Saturniens: Mélancholia II)
Souvenir, souvenir, que me veux-tu ? L'automne
Faisait voler la grive à travers l'air atone,
Et le soleil dardait un rayon monotone
Sur le bois jaunissant où la bise détone. translation
(4) Paul Verlaine ; Chanson d’automne,(English translation: Arthur Symons)
Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Ambiguous Autumn: in Yellow, Brown and Green (1)

Well, with age, one does get a tad blasé about yet another blazing summer, yet another sprightly spring etc. Those eternally returning budding trees and buzzing bees. But I would never want to miss yet another Autumn. I’ve already (see above) sung the praise of its soothing greys, but then, there’s still Autumn’s glorious light, its glorious colours, and ah the glorious chaos of leaves set loose!

Over the years I’ve taken quite some autumn pics – the above is a November 1998 favorite. It was a Sunday, and I remember I was feeling drowsy and weak, what with an upcoming cold and a dreaded workweek ahead. But I did manage to kick myself out of the door for a reluctant autumn walk. And alongside a busy road, there was this closed up mansion, with its grey stones looking even more precarious than the brilliantly yellow leaves of the old trees in the garden. I shot pics feverishly, holding the camera between the bars of the rusty iron gate. Even now I still remember the rush of happiness.

A neo-classicist’s autumn.

Nothing like neo-classical pilasters and statues amidst autumn leaves . Not sure it’s a very PMC (PostModern-ly Correct) taste , but I just love these 19th C parks in autumn …

A Reluctant Romantic’s Autumn

(“what is the late November doing with the disturbance of the spring” – TS Eliot)

A Barking-up-Trees Autumn

A cyclist’s autumn

the crispy crackling of leaves under one's bike’s wheels …. or the swooshy wooshing through gleaming wet leaves.

(1) and see here for some really slow, sad but golden light

Howling winds at Haworth

Going to a manufacturing town

It was a perfectly windy & foggy day for a pilgrimage into Brontë-country. Taking a gleaming train at touristy-amiable York to commercially-prosperous Leeds, and then changing there for a shabbily rattling & puffing train to Keighley, the Yorkshire manufacturing town close to Haworth village where the Brontës lived.

Riding that train amongst particularly surly & rough looking men I read what Elizabeth Gaskell had to say (1) on the nature of Yorkshire people and on the looks of Keighley:
“the practical qualities of a man are held in great respect […] and if [virtues] produce no immediate and tangible result, they are rather put aside as unfit for this busy, striving world”. “Nothing can be more opposed [to] any stately, sleepy, picturesque cathedral town in the south than […] such a new manufacturing place as Keighley in the North. […] Nearly every dwelling seems devoted to some branch of commerce.”

Leaving the train-station I immediately exult in the sheer grimy fogginess of it all, avidly taking in the vista of brick chimneys, mills and rows of greyish-yellowish work-man’s houses. But mind you, this is not some miserable decaying industrial town – oh no, it literally thunders with activity, what with the continuous flow of lorries and vans roaring by.
Walking to the center I am struck by the peculiar nature of the many shops – how very no-frills, how eminently useful &practical their trade seems: “tailor & clothing alteration”, a furniture shop , a vacuum-shop and, by far my favorite, “Tools Solutions for Trade and DIY”.

The center of town does have some stately dignity – not the pompous parvenu buildings as in Leeds or Liverpool, but earnest buildings in tune with this un-assuming, industrious town. As Mrs Gaskell perhaps a tad over-optimistically (2) remarked: “ Yet the aspect of Keighley promises well for future stateliness, if not picturesque-ness. Grey stone abounds; and the rows of houses built of it have a kind of solid grandeur connected with their uniform and enduring lines. […]”

Meekly queuing at the bus-station I almost have to giggle at how in character with the town my fellow-travelers are: sturdy men & women clad in sensible rain-wear and carrying bags out of which protrude sensible wares such as leek, onions, screwdrivers etc. How utterly un-bookish, un-romantic, un-gothic and un-oversensitive they seem – in short, what a perfect no-nonsense backdrop for the simmering Brontë-genius…

To Haworth!

But on drives the bus to Haworth, on that winding road through foggy valleys … leaving me to imagine Mrs Gaskell’s evocation of the Brontë-sisters’ return home from a Keighley-book-trip: “they were allowed to get books from the circulating library at Keighley; and many a happy walk, up those long four miles, must they have had, burdened with some new book, into which they peeped as they hurried home”.

And then, there is Haworth …. saved from touristy cobble-stone romance by the grey-ness and wetness of the day, by the sheer solidity of all those thick bricks which have weathered many a storm, by the uncompromising surrounding vastness of foggy vales & hills.
I climb on foot to the top of the hill, to the Brontë-parsonage and the graveyard. It’s a genuinely English-gothic graveyard with congregations of old moss-covered gravestones, pushed aside by age-old trees . And yet, I did not find it sinister, not even in the silently pouring rain. No not sinister at all, rather melancholy- peaceful, perhaps thanks to the tranquil resignation those worn stones and ancient trees inspire.

None of the Brontës are buried in the graveyard, but on my retina lingered the memorial inscriptions reproduced in Gaskell’s book (3). They all died so young …. only the father grew old, surviving his wife, his children …

Inside the church (not the one the Brontës knew, it was rebuilt in the late 19thC) there’s a gilded memorial tablet with some dried flowers another pilgrim has left.
And in the half-dark lights up the imposing presence of a bible …. opened on some pages out of Genesis, listing a whole genealogy of “names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt” .

The moors ....

But my true Brontë moment came, standing in a field near the parsonage, looking out into vast grey spaces, listening to the howling winds.
Standing there, slightly swaying in the blowing gale, unconsciously almost adopting that pose of Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, one leg straight, the other slightly bent to brace myself against the pounding winds. And yes, the pure power of those sights & sounds – one can well imagine those moors being a great resource for the imaginative Brontës.

“This is an autumn evening, wet and wild. […] The wind cannot rest ; it hurries sobbing over hills of sullen outline, colourless with twilight and mist. Rain has beat all day on that church tower. “ (4)

The parsonage

Seeking refuge from the rain in the parsonage, it indeed looks welcoming & bright & cheerful – and so full of books & letters testifying to the irrepressible imagination & creativity of the Brontë children. As Gaskell evokes: “the sound of the night-winds sweeping over the desolate snow-covered moors, coming nearer and nearer, and at last shaking the very door of the room where they were sitting – for it opened out directly on that bleak, wide expanse – is contrasted with the glow, and busy brightness of the cheerful kitchen where these remarkable children are grouped”.

And yet, there’s the sofa upon which Emily died ….and there’s the “gnawing pressure of daily-recurring cares” – the stints as governesses (5) to make up for a lack of a stable, sufficient source of income, a debauched brother, a father going blind, ….

Afterwards ...

Afterwards, in a tearoom, eating some very English pie and drinking (of course) tea with milk I read on in Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. What a tribute from one great woman writer to another! And such empathy and loving insight Gaskell shows when she writes of Charlotte: “The deep and exaggerated consciousness of her personal defects – the constitutional absence of hope, which made her slow to trust in human affection, and consequently slow to respond to any manifestation of it – made her manner shy and constrained”. (6)

And yes, CB’s was undoubtedly a shy, sensitive and melancholy nature but she also had a ferocious sense of integrity & autonomy as well as great resources of perseverance and determination in the face of adversity . Both of her great novels, Jane Eyre & Villette feature heroines with such precious internal resources. Though they may well be too sensitive and impressionable for their own good, they do show great resilience and self-respect (ie respect also for the “self without society”).

However dejected and powerless and at times hopelessly depressed Villette’s Lucy Snowe may be, never ever does she relinquish her integrity (7).
And ah, Jane Eyre, emerging from all travails “unbroken in spirit and integrity” . Blessed be this Jane Eyre who, far beyond melodrama and conventional morality , stubbornly maintains :

“I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give”

“The more solitary, the more friendless, the more un-sustained I am, the more I will respect myself”

Note that the Oxford edition has Gaskell’s text supplemented with 10 (!) pages of Explanatory Notes & with at least 10 (!) notes per page (obviously this blog's footnotes' apparatus still has some way to go)
(1) Elizabeth Gaskell – The Life of Charlotte Brontë
(2) Or rather it’s Gaskell’s admirable ability of doing justice to both “North” (manufacturing & commerce) and “South” (cathedrals & colleges) ; not only does she lack any condescending attitude vàv the “North”, she has a real appreciation of the North’s merits, all the while being an insightful critic of the social abuses its commercial drive spawned (cf also her excellent novel ‘North & south’
(3) Maria Brontë (mother): ‘departed to the savior in the 39th year of her age’; Maria Brontë (daughter of the aforesaid) died in the 12th year of her age ; Elizabeth Brontë who died in the 11th year of her age; Patrick Branwell Brontë who died aged 30 years ; Emily Brontë who died aged 29 years; Anne Brontë, died aged 27 years; Charlotte Brontë, she died in the 39th year of her age
(4) Out of CB’s “Shirley”, as quoted by EG in The Life
(5) And governess life being so uncongenial to the sensitive yet staunchly autonomous natures of the Brontë –sisters.
(6) In modern parlance this “absence of hope” , this absence of natural “buoyancy of expectation” would be called a lack of “sense of entitlement” (thanks for the formulation, Moss, yet again). And yet, also without hope, without arrogance or presumption, enterprise and perseverance are possible …
(7) Yeah well – I so love Villette, therefore I ‘ll indulge in lavish quotations even though they’re not quite fully relevant to the post (or are they ….?)
- Lucy Snowe soliloquy: “a sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. […] If [hopes] knocked at my heart sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn. […] I dared not give such guests lodging. So mortally did I fear the sin and weakness of presumption”
(& when pondering going for a walk or not on a secluded path: ) “For a long time the fear of seeming singular scared me away; but by degrees, as people became accustomed to me and my habits, and to such shades of peculiarity as were engrained in my nature – shades, certainly not striking enough to interest, and perhaps not prominent enough to offend, but born in and with me, and no more to be parted with than my identity”
“and in quarters where we can never be rightly known, we take pleasure I think, in being consummately ignored”

&also in Villette, the outdoorsy moors-girl CB writes thus passionately about wandering about in London: “Prodigious was the amount of life I lived that morning […] I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got – I know not how – I got into the heart of city life. I saw and felt London at last: […] I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure. Since those days, I have seen the West-end, the parks, the fine squares; but I love the city far better. The city seems so much more in earnest: its business, its rush, its roar, are such serious things, sights, and sounds. The city is getting its living – the West-end but enjoying its pleasure”

merciful gloom

Northern weather can at times be so mercifully gloomy - nothing like darkness & rain & sweeping winds to offer a reprieve from the daily obligation to be cheerful (1). The murky London weather, upon my arrival there last Sunday, was particularly welcome – só in tune with the dismal economic news. I’d been feeling quite uneasy about taking a holiday break in the current conditions, but then, at least it was not going to be an insouciant sunny vacation! (2)

Eurostar disruptions had already complicated my trip’s planning, having had to search on the Web for an extra night of London accommodation at very short notice. Extra train delays further helped to mess up my schedule, so it was an acutely stressed out & glum traveler who descended into the Tube. To make her way to far-out Kensington, where the (oddly ominously named) Centaur Lodge (3), was located.

I got out at the wrong tube-station, Earl’s court, and so still had to walk a couple of miles in the pouring rain. Along the kind of busy road not designed for pedestrians, with ferocious cars roaring by, occasionally spraying the hapless hiker with murky puddle-water. At last I did arrive in more quiet quarters with leafy streets – though they did not look leafy-residential but just leafy-wet. Also, the great number of 'for-sale' signs added to a certain demoralizing atmosphere.

But, at last, there it was! The Centaur Lodge did exist and its front-garden gate swung open creakily. Upon my ringing a little boy opened the door, looking puzzled at my claim of having a reservation. He called his father, who after having stumbled down the stairs, effusively pressed my hand, calling me at once by my first name. Then he apologetically explained the prevailing mess : “why, you see, we’re re-doing the carpets, but your room will be done in an hour”. All the while he was smiling broadly and observing me with an almost insulting fascination, as if I were a particularly peculiar specimen of the human race. (4)

I used the idle hour to replenish calorie-reserves in a small diner off West-Kensington tube station. And I don’t know what restored my spirits more – the cozy diner-activity around me, the heartening tea-with-milk and cheese-sandwich or the reading of a dozen of pages of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Anyway, afterwards my lodgings did look a bit less sinister & I could set my mind on more congenial stuff – such as whiling away my time at the British Museum and meeting up with a friend later .

Ah, the British Museum on a rainy day – so sheltering in its 19th Century pompous hospitality. And how consoling to wander about amongst the remnants of civilizations past, in their inexorably logical museum presentation creating an illusion of historical necessity. All those cultural artifacts testifying to humankind's capacity for both savagery and civilization. All those figments of the human imagination ….of which the multifarious winged creatures are definitely my favorites (be they assyrian or egyptian, be they eagle-headed protective spirits or human-headed winged lions).

Given my apocalyptic set of mind, always bent on seeking historical reminders of the rise & fall of civilizations, I was obviously greatly pleased to supplement my stock of decaying empires examples (5) with following notes copied from an educational panel: ”the collapse of the Mycenean civilization in the 12th C BC was followed by a time of cultural poverty, a ‘Dark Age’ that lasted two to three hundred years. During this time […] many of the arts and crafts of the previous era, including writing, were forgotten”. ( Including writing….!) .

Thus my very real present fears could recede and make way for an almost scholarly disinterested fascination with the eternal ebbing & flowing of humankind’s fortunes.

Of course I had to end my museum visit in the great Ancient Greek galleries. Indulging in antiquated feelings of awe and gratitude at that miracle of the Greek aesthetic moment – that unique blend of order and naturalness, that saving grace of beauty, which fuses both ‘quiet grandeur’ and ‘tragic unrest’.

going easy on footnotes
(1) Cf the dreaded ‘rise & shine!’
(2) A very judeo-christian reasoning – thou shall pay with sweat & tears for any enjoyment that possibly might come your way. Well, I did fret about it being irresponsible to not stay at home & shiver real-time at the dismal news – (fear & trembling alas not only out of empathy with the global financial system: my own employer is teetering on the brink of collapse too.)
(3) read & see here why the name Centaur should not necessarily (despite all the deep sympathy & affinity I have with liminal & ambiguous creatures) inspire confidence in a weary traveler
(4) That kind of vaguely disrespectful & over-familiar approach which a lone woman traveler alas often inspires in certain male specimens. And which makes me feel very uncomfortable indeed. (Or could it be that the reserved & wary northerner that I am routinely mis-interprets effusive friendliness?)
(5) I am absolutely fascinated with the ”decline & fall” of the Roman empire – how a whole body of customs, arts, scientific & technical knowledge, how a whole culture could unravel. And as a contemporary cultural pessimist I obviously like to compare the present age’s decadence & turmoil in the Western world with the Roman empire round about AD 350.

the iconography of reading

Well, the grave title may raise expectations this post will not live up to. You’re in for a disappointment if you expect a thoroughly researched, art historical scholarly article on the iconography of reading. (1) But perhaps you’ll bear with my choice of title if it had you fondly envisioning images of people reading. Because that’s exactly what I want to celebrate in this post – those truly heartening sights of people reading, oblivious to the hustle and bustle around them.

We’re obviously not talking here about people perusing papers or magazines – no, it must be a book, and the reader must be absorbed in it, forgetting his surroundings, and thus offering the sight of a rapt stillness in the middle of whirling activity.

Over the course of many years I have built a valued imaginary collection of ‘vignettes’ of people reading in the midst of turmoil. Images I found in stations or on the street, as well as images encountered in books or in paintings. Somehow these images serve as edifying examples, as talismans reminding me of what I value.
Precious reminders, since (terrible confession!) I can be such a sloppy reader – all too easily distracted, not only by the claims of the ‘real’ world, but also by my own limitless capacity for brooding (2).
Therefore I cherish these ‘reading icons’, those inspiring examples humbly asserting the autonomy of the reading self. (4)

Only last Saturday (eaten by existential job-stress related to ongoing financial meltdown) I was cheered by the sight of this middle aged black man queuing in front of me at a busy sandwich bar in the station. He obviously had a cold, witness his coughing and the thick red scarf he wore. And he was holding a book, and reading, ah so intently and with such relish …. Oblivious to the bleary neon lights, to the shouting, to the crushing people around him.

Or another favorite image: once upon a sunny but still chilly spring day, in a busy but rather poor neighborhood in Brussels. This old, slender man was sitting on a bench, wrapped up in a thick coat (looking rather threadbare), wearing fingerless gloves. And he was reading, utterly absorbed in his book, only every once in a while looking up pensively to the sun.

And then this description of Hannah Arendt I encountered in some book (have completely forgotten where). The passage described how in the midst of fearful chaotic refugee scenes in France, Arendt was sitting under a tree, reading, engrossed in a book.

No doubt I find these images so uplifting & soothing because they testify of a certain human dignity that cannot be suppressed by even the most adverse worldly circumstances. It’s the kind of hope needed by the sort of people to whom neither religious consolations nor hedonist oblivion can offer shelter . It’s in fact your typical, naïve mind-over-matter hope (5).

Escapism for humanists…. (6)

But no escaping from the footnotes!
(1) actually, I’m unrepentant. This is the title I wanted, precisely because of its overtones of scholarship in the word “iconography” and precisely because of its association with my favorite art historian Erwin Panofsky. And for those who do want to read some solid art historical stuff, I can highly recommend this article by Elisabeth Losh I stumbled upon while checking the use of the expression “the iconography of reading” (the term yields only 15 Google hits) – it ‘s a wonderful exploration of the imagery of Annunciations :
women between a book and an angel. The sheer title!!! “Between the Angel and the Book: The Female Reading Subject of Early Modern Flemish Annunciation Painting”
(2) The unique characteristic of reading is that, brain-processing- wise, it uses up relatively little brain-volume and leaves still ample brainpower for the reader to reflect on what he reads, to “integrate more of her own thoughts and feelings into her [reading] experience “ . (this comes from a fascinating article that really deserves its own footnote 3). But alas, the neurasthenic reader may abuse this extra available brainpower to keep going a simultaneous stream of nagging brooding & worrying.
(3) Caleb Crain's
article in the New Yorker Dec 2007 – Mary-Anne Wolf “Proust & The Squid” - it’s about brain-science backing another Proustian intuition: ““to receive a communications with another way of thinking, all the while remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude and that conversation dissipates immediately”
(4) “attention is another form of freedom”, as A. wrote in a comment to her
post. To rid oneself of all pettiness, of all distractions and to choose to concentrate on a sight, or on a thought is indeed a supreme assertion of the freedom and the autonomy of the self as a perceiving and thinking subject . No mere compulsive reaction to stimuli, but chosen attention. It feels as an empowerment of the self – this kind of attention that may well be an instance of the Kantian “ free play of the imagination and the understanding” (= the aesthetic experience). And yes, whenever I’m helplessly at the mercy of worries & dread, the best remedy to get out of that rut is to go to a museum and to concentrate fully and totally on a painting.
(5) It’s such a great tradition, that of the (rightly) deeply pessimistic philosophers living in troubled times, hoping to re-assert by mere thought their dignity vàv the crushing material circumstances they cannot master – like good old Boethius writing “with all the integrity & dignity he could muster” in the face of tyranny and death. & not to forget good old Pascal who wrote “l’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature, mais c’est un roseau pensant. Alors toute notre dignité consiste en la pensée »
Escapism = “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine”. Obviously I here refer to escapism-with-dignity (‘otium cum dignitate’), with the reader actively imagining and reflecting. To be distinguished from escapism-through-entertainment, which while it lasts can make you forget yourself and your worries (no mean achievement!) but which will not have shored you up, neither your self’s autonomy nor its confidence when you have to return to the scary world outside.

heroic materialism - the sequel

In the previous episode our contemplative economist left New York thoroughly humbled and humiliated. In the face of such display of wealth and success, who would still dare to doubt the superiority of this system, driven by “the deep selfishness of competition” (1) and supported by mathematico-financial wizardry.

The success of free market capitalism may well lay in its smart, illusion-less exploitation of humankind’s selfish urges: innovation and productivity apparently thrive best when spurred on by self-interest. The US success is furthermore propelled by the Americans’ perpetual optimism and urge to action (2).
Whereas centrally planned economies are said to suffer from a certain naïveté: an unwarranted belief in people being productive & innovative also when there’s no personal gain and an equally unwarranted belief in some central intelligence which through rational calculations would be able to steer the economy as a whole.

Animal spirits (3) , selfish greed and even speculation may be great drivers for economic enterprise – think of the 19th C railway mania, the 1990s dotcom and telecom bubbles: without the greedy thirst for great riches, no one would have been ready to venture his capital for these hazardous enterprises.
And though these bubbles in the end ruined the speculators (especially the naive ones who joined the gold-rush last) they did add to society’s tangible wealth (railway-systems, internet & telecom innovation etc).

But of course, free market apologists usually gloss over the social costs associated with the wild mood-swings, the booms and busts, so typical of untrammeled free markets. They also neglect to point out that unrestricted free enterprise can be unrestrictedly selfish and irresponsible . In short, public institutions and regulation are needed to temper the mood swings and especially to make sure that individual greed works at the profit of society as a whole.

And that’s where it went spectacularly wrong over the last decades. An absolute belief in free markets and in auto-regulation by the private sector made us forget that greed never ever regulates itself . A sacred awe for the sophisticated mathematical models of high finance made us forget that mathematics never ever rein in greed. Statistical confidence intervals lulled us into sleep, making us forget that a statistically improbable event, however improbable, is still not impossible.
Finance no longer humbly supported real economic enterprise but had become a self-feeding industry (the financial sector has been the fastest growing industry over the last 20 years, representing an ever growing share of world economic output)(4) .

In the end, this whole disastrous “liquidity and credit crisis” , replete with sophisticated instruments whose outcome can only be calculated by complex mathematical models, is nothing more than the result of a vicious circle of human vices. A shrewd insight in human nature would have done more to prevent it all that the most advanced of quantitative models.

It was the toxic combination of over-optimism, greed and moral hazard (+ plain stupidity?) that got us into this mess. The mathematic-financial wizardry then diligently worked towards amplifying it all and towards distributing its effects all over the globe(5) (6) .

And either governments (ie all of us) will now bail out the troubled financial institutions (at great cost, we speak of more than 700 bln dollars) or else those financial institutions will auto-destruct by an exaggerated fear of lending to each other (now belatedly overcompensating for the complete evaporation of any sense of credit or liquidity risk beforehand).
And though some might cheer at the demise of great and mighty financial institutions, the sad truth is that when they go – people’s savings go, credit goes and we all might as well go back to growing vegetables on a plot of land.

And the culprits? Can they be identified? Will they be punished for their irresponsible greed? Hmmm, the clever ones undoubtedly got out in time, taking with them all the money they made. Laughing all the way from their shaky bank to their lavish homes.

And what are they doing with those heaps of cash? Well, this week while the financial world was burning, stocks and bonds tumbling – millions were forked out for Golden Calves and Sharks at an auction of Damien Hirst works.

This then may be the free market’s ultimate justice : those who made millions by selling stinking Mortgage Backed Securities to unsuspecting investors may now be splurging that money on Dead Animals in Formaldehyde…. (7)

This was yet another solid Footnotes-Backed-Post!
(1) Elizabeth Gaskell – North and South. The week that one of the world’s leading brokers went bust and that the US government had to bail out the world’s largest insurer, the week that panic gripped the financial markets, raising the specter of a total collapse of the global financial system in the wake of “the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America”. That week our contemplative economist contemplated all worst case scenarios and, though partially choked by fear, was even more enchanted by the uncanny parallels between this unfolding 21st century financial panic and a 19th century economic bust as described with such insight & empathy in Gaskell’s 1855 novel …
(2) Some even venture to say that American optimism and hyperactivity (easily apt to veer into mania) are linked to a gene-variant typical for migrants who left everything behind to start a new life : American mania – when more is not enough
(3) John Maynard Keynes – the only economist with a keen sense of metaphor (frequenting Virginia Woolf may have helped) was also equipped with a good deal of psychological insight. He wrote: “Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive […] can only be taken as a result of animal spirits – of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities. “
(4) JMK : “speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation”
(5) Bubbles are nothing new – every decade has had its shameful example – but the sheer vastness of this particular boom&bust is mind-boggling.
(6) *** Over-optimism & greed of prospective home-owners: house price are rising, good, they will go on rising! So if I borrow and buy a house now, even if I haven’t got the means, I can sell on my house at a higher price later so , yay let’s go and get a mortgage even I can’t really pay the interests. *** Over-optimism & greed of lenders: oh, a whole new consumer-segment to tap! Let’s go and offer them mortgages – never mind they’re not the most creditworthy borrowers, those mortgages are backed with a house , so we can always sell that one if the borrower can no longer pay what’s due. And who cares about people thus losing their home*** Moral hazard --- oh all those low quality & high risk loans we’re getting on our books – no reason at all to limit that activity, since I can bundle them all in a security, call it a Mortgage Backed Security, get a mathematico-financial smokescreen to make it all look safe and then sell it on to staid investors too impressed with the sophistication of these instruments to critically look into what’s behind it all.
(7) Each epoch has the artists it deserves - our shallow, greedy, manic free-market era definitely deserves Damien Hirst.
Actually, Hirst may be an essential part of today's financial eco-system, offering expedient ways to evacuate the system's excess money.

green - the sequel

Not only it's ruining my reputation, all that green. But also, this particular kind of bright green só clashes with the otherwise hushed up hues of this blog.
About time I did an 'abandoned factories' series.

Late Summer

A late afternoon in late summer … like all "late" expressions (late works, late style, … ) redolent with delicate wistfulness.

The sun at noon was still burning hot, but lost strength fast. And in the park the late afternoon brought long shadows and a breeze full of autumnal scents.

It felt so soothing, the decaying light amongst the trees, the crisp haziness of the air.

Mid Summer (or: l'Hôtel de la Gare / the Royal Station Hotel)

Ah, the day was saved, stumbling on these banal pictures (taken back in July, in a small French town). Contemplating them, all anxiety and self-doubt were miraculously quelled. How absolutely re-assuring, how solid, how invigorating even, these images seemed.

Ceci est la Place de La Gare . This is the Station Square.

With flapping flags, obviously. And naturally with the Station Hotel (with shuttered windows and a neatly tiled roof) , and of course with a statue of a local famous 18th Century writer.

And with everything so very quiet and still and self-assured – an eternal fragment of French provincial life.

a lunch concert

A 19th century concert hall is not a bad location to muse about classical longings. Imagine a hall with two stories of balconies - each balcony pompously sculpted in the round, and flanked by velvety red curtains. Imagine rows of creaky seats with fading red upholstery. And light streaming in from a frosted glass ceiling, illuminating four graceful figures on the podium: three humans and a grand piano.

The pianist caresses the keyboard with swift fluidity and in front of the imposing black piano the soprano-singer in evening-dress sways ever so lightly to the melody. The tuxedo-clad violinist seems to stand guard, resting his bow on the violin’s strings, before launching into animated action.

And for a while all is harmonious perfection – the music of course, the pleasing ensemble of two instruments and a human voice. But also the visual grace of it, of those three figures gathered around the gleaming black piano. Formally (musically and visually), it’s a matter of a pleasing unity in multiplicity, of melodious lines, of variations. Emotionally it is about unrest and longing sublimated in melody. It is “rest tempered by movement – movement tempered by rest”(1).

Of course, it is about nostalgia too. A nostalgic longing for a cultivated society of noble taste & gracious urbanity, although such a society, in that ideal, pure & disinterested form may never have existed. Bourgeois snobbery & display and stifling etiquette surely have always been part & parcel of classical concert life. And granted, it’s also a nostalgic longing for the cultivated connoisseur I myself am not.

Frankly, I don’t know where and why I contracted that kind of classical longings – “ce désir en moi qui cherche sa patrie” (2). After all I lack a fully-fledged classical or aesthetic education and belong to the post-punk generation. And what with “classical culture” having become so discredited … But even though I'm aware that classical ideals may never have really existed as we imagine them, I do feel that the longing for them remains valid. The longing for a reconciliation between unrest and order as exemplified by classical aesthetics.

As Bonnefoy remarked upon the often derided neo-classical art: « la nostalgie que portait en soi cette sensibilité tardive est plus véridiquement perpétuable que l’héroique illusion de ce qu’on appelle une haute époque » (3).

And so I sat musing in-between the pieces. My classical longings fulfilled for awhile.
Even though this was just a 35 minutes lunch-concert, with French songs I do not really care for (4) ( and with even a few cloyingly sentimental operette lieder). And despite the very old lady exclaiming very, very, loudly at each good tune “ah, ça … ça c’est jolie!” (5) . And even though afterwards I had to cycle back to work through the pouring rain.

might there be such a thing as notes nostalgia?
(1) Panofsky’s definition of classical contrapposto in the visual arts
(2) Yves Bonnefoy , “that desire within me, searching for its home”
(3) in “Un rêve fait à Mantoue – L’humour, les ombres portées » - « perhaps the nostalgia contained in a late sensitivity/sensibility can last more truly than the heroic illusion of a so-called high period". You can imagine how I cherish that Bonnefoy phrase - it has become something of a talisman to me.
(4) hmmm, the sheer bourgeois frivolity of those 19th C. song-titles! – “Le Bonheur est chose légère” (Happiness is so light a thing - well fleeting I'd personally say or elusive, but light?? ) and “Violons dans le soir” (violins in the evening) , or still “Chanson de l’adieu”
(5) Ah, but she was sweet, really
(6) About the photo: not quite the grand piano in the above described concert hall, but a beautifully gleaming piano all the same, standing in the Liège Musée d’art Moderne, in a corner of the hall, in front of large windows looking out into a very nostalgic bourgeois park. The museum-building itself was the Belgian pavilion for the 1905 World Exposition. So qua mood and intention I dare hope the photo is in tune with the above musings.

apology for the ascetic aesthete (3)

yes, both need an apology - the (allegedly) sour & severe ascetic (1) as well as the (allegedly) effete aesthete (2).

Though ostensibly opposites, the ascetic and the aesthetic attitude are often looked upon with similar suspicion. Perhaps because at times, however different, they do seem equally to disregard basic human urges. Thus both came to be seen as an elitist insult to our common, instinctive sense of pleasure.
But, looking closer, it’s not only as victims of a certain public contempt that these apparent opposites meet. In fact, the aesthetic and the ascetic might very well not be mutually exclusive categories at all. Nay, it’s precisely where the ascetic and aesthetic attitudes intersect that it gets really exciting …. because that’s where springs joy.
Yes, joy! - pure, gentle, disinterested joy (4) .

Like the joy felt upon entering the Fontenay Abbey – a French church & cloister built according to the soberest & severest of principles – as promulgated by the redoubtable ascetic abbot , Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Call it joy , or call it an aesthetic shock. Its habitual symptoms are: tears (almost) welling up, a surprised shudder, a slight trembling - awe followed by feelings of silent euphoria & humble gratitude - speechless wonder followed by an avid urge to take it all in, every single minute detail - the desire to stay there forever, contemplating, basking indefinitely in that state of grace.

It’s the kind of shock also felt in the great Gothic cathedrals, which however, in all their upwardly soaring grandeur, in all their complexity of decoration & iconography seem so far removed from the sober Fontenay abbey, with its bare, uncluttered architecture.
And indeed, habitually, the ascetic Saint Bernard (sponsor of simple & serene architecture) is pitched against the undauntedly & lavishly aesthetic Abbot Suger of St Denis (spiritual father of sumptuously decorated & illuminated Gothic churches).

Art historical lore has it that St Bernard was “simply blind to the visible world and its beauty”. He was in pursuit of an austere ideal of monastic life (5) and is still famous for his (suspiciously eloquent … ) diatribes against the profusion of decorations & grotesque sculptures in Romanesque churches .
Erwin Panofsky (6) does nuance this image of the sour & stern St Bernard – but still sees him as bitterly opposed to aesthetic delights. Panofsky speculates that St Bernard’s articulate tirades against art were not so much a sign of his insensitivity to its charms but rather show that he was keenly aware of art’s temptations which would distract humans (& monks in particular) from their higher, spiritual calling (7).

And then we have Abbott Suger, credited with both an ardent aesthetic sense and a shrewd understanding of how ecclesiastical authorities’ fear of art’s sensuality could be assuaged: by persuading them that “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material”.
In several memorable poems he launches into ecstatic odes of splendor & light, which reunite material sensuality and spiritual elation (8).

Now, taking as proof only my own senses’ humble impressions (9) – impressions gathered in the bare Fontenay-abbey, in the sumptuous Reims & Chartres cathedrals , I’d say that the ascetic and the aesthetic do meet in the transcendence (10) of lines and light .
And that austerity can very well acquire its own profusion of aesthetical delights. Those pure lines of arcades & pillars & vaults & arches ... that pure light streaming in through many windows ....

Thus sheltered by rhythmed space, enveloped in ravishing light – who would worry still about the world, who would not feel elevated and certain in his joy?

So perhaps one should envy those monks … with their regime of simple productive manual work and prayer, their walks around the cloister-garden, their holy masses in that sheltering abbey-space (maybe also with soaring chants? ), undisturbed by any rousing or disquieting images (neither hell nor heaven are depicted in Fontenay).
Watched over only by a single graceful Madonna-statue, basking in her unconditionally loving & welcoming gaze.

a flourishing abundance of ornamental notes of which St Bernard surely would have disapproved.

(1) "ascetic 1 : practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline 2 : austere in appearance, manner, or attitude"
& “self-denial” : in this case I suppose it concerns denying to the self any indulgence in facile sensuous & bodily pleasures
= “one having or affecting sensitivity to the beautiful especially in art". That “or affecting” captures of course the negative connotations of the fussy, effete artificiality associated with the term “aesthete”
(3) makes one wonder what “aesthetic ascetic” might mean: an attractive, good-looking ascetic person?
(4) I had first written “ecstasy” – but that would not do at all, no, no, a simple & pure word is needed here – not a heavily loaded term as ecstasy
(5) “a life of utter self-denial with respect to personal comfort, food and sleep”. “Silence and a perpetual remoteness from all secular turmoil compel the mind to meditate on celestial things” . (quotes pertaining to St Bernard found in Panofsky’s essay “Abbot Suger of St.-Denis”)
(6) Erwin Panofsky: the most insightful, sensitive and erudite art historian ever
(7) “St Bernard disapproved of art, not because he did not feel its charms but because he felt them too keenly not to consider them dangerous. He banished art, like Plato[…], because it belonged on the wrong side of a world that he could see only as an unending revolt of the temporal against the eternal, of human reason against faith, of the senses against the spirit.”
(8) “For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright,
And bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light, Which stands enlarged in our time”,
“Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work. Bright is the noble work, but, being nobly bright, the work should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, to the True Light […]. In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines, the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material. And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.”
(9) And if you won’t take my word for it, dear reader, maybe (well, just maybe) this post’s pictures ( taken at Fontenay) may convince you of my thesis that this supposedly austere abbey does appeal to our most sensual & exalted sense of light.
(10)Transcendent! Suspicious word isn’t it, not quite tangible at all & with an equally doubtful list of semi-synonyms: inspiring, inspirational, uplifting, awe-inspiring, moving, magnificent