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