Brussels in Winter, or : Things to Brood upon while Riding on a Bus

Under the familiar weight
Of winter, conscience and the State,
In loose formations of good cheer,
Love, language, loneliness and fear,
Towards the habits of next year,
Along the streets the people flow,
Singing or sighing as they go
[….] (1)

An Office Clerk Looking Out Of The Window

From my desk on the 21th floor I could see the long trails of light formed by the many cars slowly advancing in the Friday night rush hour. A giant green neon X-mas tree was glowing on the office building across the road. And my own floor was rhythmically flooded by flashing green, blue and red lights, all embedded in the glass façade of our building – to produce a 449 ft high colorful tribute to the Winter Season.

An equally colorful and wintry scene, though in a rather more somber mode, could be observed at the nearby railway station, Brussels-North, where a few dozens of so-called asylum seekers camped out, huddling under gaudy sleeping bags and plaids, surrounded by a motley bunch of plastic bags, bottles and cans. Each day they could see the streams of commuters hurrying by, the latter mostly averting their eyes (and noses) from the unruly spectacle. (2)

A Friday Evening Downtown Stroll

As to me, my daily commute to work is usually done by bicycle, which , apart from the ongoing struggle with menacing cars , is in fact a less confrontational urban mode of mobility than walking or using public transports is. But on this particular Friday evening in December, snow and ice had made cycling too hazardous, so I did walk to the underground station hoping to catch a train home. At the turnstile a growing crowd of impatient people was kept from entering by a couple of policemen – “there has been an accident”. They gave no further explanations but diverse rumors spread fast … “ a desperate homeless man jumped from the platform ” or “ a woman trying to get in at the last second got stuck in the closing doors”…

It didn’t look like there would be a train coming through soon, so I left the station and started walking to the city centre, to find alternative transport.
The crowds in the main shopping streets had already thinned out, the ‘out of towners’ were mostly gone, which left just the locals. (3) There were the youths hanging out in little groups, bragging and yelling in high Friday night spirits. The earnest hand-holding couples, hurrying home, looking forward to a cozy dinner. And of course there were the giggling duos of girlfriends, with or without headscarves, comparing purchases while leaving the shops, where the doorguards stood fidgeting, biding their time till the closing hour.

With the shopping frenzy fizzled out, the street started looking a bit forlorn – no escaping from the gracelessness of the neon lit displays, from the garish uniformity of all these chain stores. A sneaking sense of shabbiness hovered around the street corners. This is not a rich part of town, materialism here is not redeemed by elegance. (4)

Music to the Rescue!

And yet , a full outbreak of closing-time desolateness was kept at bay by unexpectedly cheerful music. Not the usual bleary loudspeaker-music, but real, uplifting brass-music performed by a swinging bunch of young musicians who braved the seeping cold with their tubas, drums and trumpets. A modern secular version of the Salvation Army, saving our souls both from drab materialism and from willful sadness.

Thus cheered up, I arrived at the bus stop, not even minding the wait of 20 minutes. I'd found a window sill to sit on, and from this privileged observation post I could leisurely observe a sample of Brussels inner city diversity: young student lovers, so earnestly & innocently kissing; a sexy coquette on very high heels, caressing her shopping bags; a young urban muslim couple, she with an elegant headscarf, he with a neatly trimmed beard and a leather vest.
An older man, mumbling, reeking of beer. Three hipper than hip youngsters with baggy trousers, carrying skateboards. And your usual early evening batch of weary but relieved looking office workers, sprightly shoppers , sensible housewives and dependable husbands with groceries, all returning home, most of them happily blabbing. And all apparently equally unperturbed by the variety of ways of being on display at this bus-stop.

Dozing & Brooding on the Bus

Once on the bus, I was almost lulled to sleep by the hot air and the multi-language buzz around me. But at each bus-stop the opening doors brought in blasts of cold air as well as a change in passengers: a load of rowdy students got off at the Central station, a pack of panting tourists got in at the Royal Palace, and the European Parliament - stop was signaled by the sheer sartorial elegance of Europe’s finest & brightest getting on the bus. Apart from the gloomily mumbling, beer-reeking older man in the pathway, all my transient travel companions were conspicuously cheerful.

Friday night fever in the unlikely capital of Europe …

As round me, trembling on their beds,
Or taut with apprehensive dreads,
The sleepless guests of Europe lay,
All formulas were tried to still
The scratching on the window-sill,
All bolts of custom made secure
Against the pressure of the door.
O none escape these questions now:
The future which confronts us [now]
An earth made common by the means
Of hunger, money and machines,

But did they, my merry fellow travelers, did they then not wonder about the future of this city, about the future of this Europe of ours? The insouciant young European officials on this bus, blithely discussing their next city-trip or a trendy restaurant tip, did they not lie awake at night contemplating the possible demise of the Euro, worrying about Europe’s debt dilemma? (5) .
Did they not toss and turn at night wondering how to manage Europe’s newly dangerously divisive demographic mix : retiring spendthrift natives withdrawing their skills from active labor life and a growing reserve of inadequately skilled youngsters and immigrants, some of them full of resentment at being at the bottom rung of the social ladder, seeking alternative ways to assert their identity and sense of entitlement.

For we are conscripts to our age
Simply by being born; we wage
The war we are, […]
but how To be the patriots of the Now?
O all too easily we blame
The politicians for our shame
The politicians we condemn
Are nothing but our L.C.M.;
The average of the average man

Ha! “conscripts to our age”! “Patriots of the now”! We’re all more likely to be mere collaborators with whatever system we happen to find in place.

We’re all more likely to be baffled bystanders, watching events unfolding, events driven by “hunger, money and machines”. …

But the real me is, as always, snugly nested in the notes:

(1) When Winter stirs, it’ s time to get the Xmas decorations down from the attic, or , failing that, to re-read that ominous philosophical-political winter poem by WH Auden, “New Year Letter”, written in “January – April 1940” … (by the way, “Brussels in Winter”, is the title of yet another poem by Auden, written in 1938).

(2) As a rich (well, for the time being) Western country, lacking a real government to grapple with pressing contemporary issues (because we rather act out anachronistic tribal Flemish-Walloon jousts) – Belgium is invaded by the world’s economic and political refugees, who understandably hope to get access to Europe’s freedoms & filthy riches via the crumbling Brussels gate. Being a small, ill-governed country, this means ‘native’ Belgians in Winter see their cozy daily TV soap opera of native tribal disputes interrupted by news- images of asylum seekers living in the streets at minus 5° Celsius.

(3) In the mainstream downtown Brussels shopping streets , the “locals” are a mix of different generations of immigrants (mostly Maghreb), ‘native’ working classes, rowdy teenagers, a sprinkle of outsiders of all sorts, and a low dosage of trendy youngsters and yuppies spilling over from the hipper downtown quarters and the nearby mega book&CD store. In uptown Brussels the mix is more tilted towards “Core Europeans – (immigrants or EU officials temporarily residing in Brussels), university students and a few remaining Belgian bourgeois. But the richer and older strata of both Belgian bourgeois and European officials have rather moved on to the wealthy green suburbs around Brussels.

(4) “materialism redeemed by elegance” – well, it does sound good as a phrase, but frankly, my heart isn’t into it. In fact I can’t see what’s redeeming about expensive designer clothes, jewels, furniture , cars … Granted, there’s the sensual thrill of quality materials and of elegance as it is on display in upscale shops – but somehow the sheer expensiveness of it all makes the underlying primal status-seeking motive all the more embarrassing. And as to beauty, well, if ain’t got meaning, if it ain’t disinterested, it ain’t worth a thing ..? If there’s no sliver of emotional truth, no insight to gain, no sheer disinterested, useless beauty – then aesthetic qualities draw a blank with me. (See, I’m not a real flâneur, well anyhow, not in the dandy-esque 19thcentury sense of the term). And I feel slightly repulsed, both by the discreet privileged splendour of, say, a Paris upscale shop as well as by the gaudy greed in a Brussels Rue Neuve chain store.

(5) Allow me a tribute here to an anonymous small brass band which I heard & saw performing on the square in front of the Beaubourg in Paris, on a cold dull Saturday in February 2004. Neither the subtlest luminous grays and greens of Corot in the Louvre, nor the more contemporary combativeness of a Beaubourg exhibit had managed to restore my quite low spirits at the time. Even the always sublime spectacle of the bluish-grey Paris rooftops, viewed from the xth floor, had failed to produce any enthusiasm. And then, then there was that infectious rhythm, the sheer sassy joy of a throbbing tuba, a vèry trumpeting trumpet and a big fat drum. Just swinging & swaying … swaying & singing….

(6) Europe’s debt dilemma : the interests of both the recklessly spendthrift crickets and the industrious ants are so interwoven that any overly harsh punishment of the crickets might just serve to topple the entire European banking system. But helping out the reckless crickets is not only resented by the industrious ants but also creates a moral hazard of free-riding crickets always counting on their bills being paid by others. But beyond this injustice in grocer's terms, there’s the even scarier baseline that in many European countries the fundamental drivers of growth (active population, social and political stability, skills & innovation & productivity ) may have gone in reverse, which means that these countries will be unable to generate enough economic growth to repay the gigantic accumulated debt (let alone to service their pension-promises) … After about 5 decades of rising economic wealth, the prospect of a reversal in economic and social fortunes has gotten very real. And in fcat the past 20 years were nothing but an irresponsible splurging feast by generations (including my generation) in all respects too shortsighted and feeling too entitled to even realize they might irresponsibly be depleting resources, building card-houses and, in short, preparing disaster for future generations. But undoubtedly I’m being too pessimistic. Yeah, surely, everything ‘s gonna be allright! The naive utopist in me even dreams of a future in which the loss of conventional resource-guzzling, and oh so ugly, economic output, is compensated by more room for moral and cultural refinement. Concretely: less cars but more bicycles and more art and more books (on recycled paper or on iPad?).

a lovely day to bask in irrelevance

ah, the things people do on a sunny Saturday

Well, let’s face it: this blog will not earn me any points for contemporary relevance (1). And this particular post won’t help either ….

In a world facing the challenges of migratory and demographic pressures, in a world threatened by a bloated capitalist system in globalizing overdrive, in a world of dazzling scientific and technological complexity… In such a world, what did I do, on a sunny Saturday in October, AD 2010?

Reader, I confess I took the train to a provincial Flemish university town (2) to go and see a precious 14th century illuminated manuscript, the Bible of Anjou , temporarily released from its dark abode.
How out of step with one’s own time (& with the lovely weather) can one get? The sunny street-terraces were full of people eating & drinking, staring mockingly at the fool entering a museum. Even inside the museum itself, I felt as if my peculiar longings were met with contempt.
While awaiting my turn to ask for directions, I heard how an interestingly-artistic looking, casually-trendily dressed woman, who was inquiring about the different museum-levels, clicked her tongue impatiently when the official listed all exhibits, saying with peremptory disdain: “no, I am not interested in the Anjou Bible!”.

Feeling personally chastened, and darkly brooding on the irrelevance of my loves in art, I made my way through the rooms with the permanent medieval collections.
But ah, I soon stopped sulking, because there was that room with the medieval religious statues! Worn wooden statues, with faint polychromatic traces, expressing various degrees of pathos - solemn or rather hand-wringing suffering, grave or rather cloyingly sentimental mother love.
Statues telling the stories of an all but extinct religion, conveying the messages of a faith I do not share, invested with now long renounced collective beliefs, lacking all modern interest in artistic expression of highly individual emotions, far removed from my own daily pre-occupations and struggles. And yet, wasn’t the whole gamut of fundamental human emotions there?

And so, though these statues have nothing to do with me or my world, I felt connected and deeply moved. Also, I felt somehow soothed, perhaps because these statues offer a retreat from my being just trapped in my own transient hopes & fears & emotions. It felt like when hearing a far-off echo, or the distant cries of children playing in a school yard, …. or like when staring in the distance, at a receding, bluish-simmering horizon.
And only then did I really notice the sounds in the room, sounds forming so naturally a part of the setting … melancholy echoing cries of crows like one can hear in the country side in late autumn. The sounds, capturing & expressing so well this sensation of age-old echoing, turned out to come from an audio-installation by a contemporary artist,
And thus, I felt somehow vindicated: wasn’t this indeed proof enough that my sensations, my loves in art are not merely a matter of isolated idiosyncratic taste … that these medieval statues are indeed not yet dead… since they could still inspire a contemporary artistic dialogue?

An infidel humanist poring over a bible

Hey, but how about the Anjou bible, the alert reader (3) may wonder. Well, it was in yet another room, and it was lovely! Peering into the glass cases, I marveled at those folios with beautifully traced Latin letters, with texts framed by intricately interlacing curves, illuminated by pious bible-scenes and by droll figures tumbling in the margins.
I couldn’t decipher the Latin words, the precise significance of many of the bible-scenes eluded me. Mine was in part naïve marvel as well as awe at the precarious preciousness of it all. And a chuckling fascination for the irreverent menagerie of little figures in the margins: diverse naked little men (with an astonishing range of oddly shaped hats (4) ), Christian knights on horses affronting Muslim fighters on camelback, writhing dragons and other fable monsters, …

The leaflet I had picked up reassuringly showed that scholars were able to trace back each bible-scene, to identify each reference. My own cultural equipment to meet the splendor of these folios was limited to a shallow primary school religious education, to a general curiosity about the diverse manifestations of the human imagination, and to a amateur interest in western art history. A passionate amateur interest in art history!

Art history for me is about a “humanist” interest in how the human mind tirelessly (& uselessly) develops intricate systems of meanings & ideas (all destined one day to crumble & to become irrelevant) . (5) And it is about an aesthetic interest in the history of representation, of form & color & composition, the visible traces of the many splendored variations spawned by human minds. Thus, Art history bears witness to the wide range of human sensibilities & reflective possibilities as they have been realized throughout the ages. (6)

We’re all provincial postmoderns now, without any claims to universality or eternity, but no one may mock  my genuine love! (7)

Art history is obviously suffused with cultural relativity, relativity in terms of space and time. Works of art are determined by man-made social values and customs, by man-made religions and philosophies that all come and go.
Art history is about the coming and going of human ways of seeing and of representing the world. And with some of these ways of seeing I feel deep affinities, some leave me indifferent and yet others merely amaze me by their sheer exoticness. But, with some effort of the imagination, and by some learning, and by some un-learning too (of one’s own received ideas), one can arrive at some sort of connection, some sort of appreciation of human artifacts of whatever age or region.
After all, we do all share the basic human equipment of our eyes and hands, and neither has the human condition of fragility fundamentally changed.

So, both as an aesthete and as a humanist I love art history, not to impose the unaltered continuation of standards once deemed classical, nor to block artistic innovations. This love of mine is rather a love of the eye for the many formal realisations of beauty and it is a respect of the mind & the heart for traditions as fragile records of what humans once valued and thought. And these traditions are worth studying, “not [as] a review of bygone concepts”, but because they are a "precious [reminder] of [once living] men’s experiences and values, a human record".
Thus art historical studies help to enlarge one’s own limited frame of reference, and help to revive & recover something of the meaning of these human records from the past. (8)

“For the essence of humanism is that belief […] that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality – no language they have ever spoken, […], no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal” (9)

Not entirely irrelevant notes
(1) neither for past or future relevance, come to think of it.
(2) And on the train I was woefully escaping from the present daunting world in a book, written by an early 20th C medieval art scholar, about (fading & flaking) wall paintings in Romanesque churches …
(3) Rashly assuming a reader made it till here
(4) If ever I were to be endowed with the necessary time, opportunity and skills – I’d write two thematic art histories: one about shadows and the other about the representation of hats throughout the ages.
(5) Erwin Panofsky – “Art as a Humanistic Discipline” : “It may be taken for granted that art history deserves to be counted among the humanities. But what is the use of humanities as such? Admittedly they are not practical, and admittedly they concern themselves with the past. Why, it may be asked, should we engage in impractical investigations, and why should we be interested in the past? “ A rhetorical question … If we ourselves are not interested in the past, don’t we then seal the total annihilation of everything men ever thought and aspired to, including our own aspirations and ruminations?
(6) “Impractical and useless”, this obviously applies to aesthetic interests as well as to any interest in the past. But so what, in any case, “l’homme est une passion inutile”
(7) Nè nè nà nè naa, catch me if you can! – of course I can brandish an irreproachably postmodern quote to back-up this last ditch retreat : Thierry De Duve, Au Nom de l’Art- “Vous n’êtes plus rien, rien de spécial. Vous n’êtes plus un spécialiste, vous êtes vous-même, sans qualification particulière, un simple amateur. […] Vous n’avez pour tout savoir que votre certitude et pour toute certitude que votre sentiment. Il est irrécusable à vos yeux, il est sa propre preuve. […] Votre goût est un habitus esthétique, mais c’est le vôtre »
(8) Erwin Panofsky – “Art as a Humanistic Discipline” : “The humanities […][have the task of] enlivening what otherwise would remain dead . […] the humanities endeavor to capture the processes in the course of which those records were produced and became what they are” -
H. Focillon – [l’histoire de l’art est une] “histoire de l’esprit humain par les formes”
G. Lukàcs – « conscience- de- soi de l’évolution de l’humanité »
Good Old Hegel : « Geistesgeschichte »
(9) Walter Pater, Studies in Art and Poetry, : “Pico Della Mirandola”
(10) The images of landscapes that illuminate this post are details from ancient paintings (Joos De Momper, Tiziano, Matsys). In two cases they formed only modest backdrops to the main subject. But how much I love to gaze at these little landscapes in teh background, at the blue and green hues, at the shimmering horizons, at the golden browns of leaves, at the dazzling splendor of a sinking sun… how dearly I love wandering through these landscapes…

contingent conversations (or: continuous self-doubt)

“His collections are the practical man’s answer to the aporias of theory” (1)

"And I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious and independent citizens "(2)

“she has radical and continuous doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered” […] “always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies and thus of their selves” […] “ continuous self-doubt” (3)

“He was austere with himself […] But he had an approved tolerance for others ; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds” (4)

“All purposeful manifestations of life, including their very purposiveness, in the final analysis have their end not in life, but in the expression of its nature, in the representation of its significance” (5)

“Anything from the sound of a word through the color of a leaf to the feel of a piece of skin can […] serve to dramatize and crystallize a human being’s sense of self-identity. […] It can symbolize the blind impress all our behaving bear. Any seemingly random constellation of such things can set the tone of a life. Any such constellation can set up an unconditional commandment to whose service a life may be devoted – a commandment no less unconditional because it may be intelligible to, at most, only one person. “ (6)

« A supposer que Ruskin se soit quelquefois trompé, comme critique, dans l’exacte appréciations de la valeur d’une œuvre, la beauté de son jugement erroné est souvent plus intéressante que celle de l’oeuvre jugée » (7)

« Cicero says “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents”. It is a matter of taste to prefer Plato’s company and the company of his thoughts even if this should lead us astray from truth. Certainly a very bold, even an outrageously bold statement, especially because it concerns the truth. […] for the true humanist neither the verities of the scientist nor the truth of the philosopher nor the beauty of the artist can be absolutes; the humanist, because he is not a specialist, exerts a faculty of judgment and taste which is beyond the coercion which each specialty imposes upon us” (8)

“The thinking ego is sheer activity and therefore ageless, sexless, without qualities, and without a life story.” (9)

« Situé hors du temps, que pourrait-il craindre de l’avenir? « (10)

10 contingent contributions
(1) Walter Benjamin - Eduard Fuchs, Collector & Historian
(2) Robert Louis Stevenson - Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
(3) Richard Rorty – Contingency, irony and solidarity
(4) Robert Louis Stevenson - Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
(5) Walter Benjamin The Task of the Translator
(6) Richard Rorty – Contingency, irony and solidarity
(7) Marcel Proust – Traduction de “la bible d’Amiens”
(8) Hannah Arendt – The Crisis in Culture
(9) Hannah Arendt – The Life of the Mind
(10) Marcel Proust – A la recherche du temps perdu

from rocket science to the poetry of peeling wallpaper

It was a bright day in August,at last sparkling with enough sunlight to restore our summer mood after a string of rain-soaked days. The kind of day to joyously set out on a trip (1).

A small digression about cars & trains

Traffic was smooth since not that many people hit the road for Northern France on a summer day. Traffic … car traffic! While certainly not about to burst into a laudatory post about cars, I confess not being entirely immune for car-travelling romance: imagine driving along highways through vast planes, under wide skies, on the tunes of “born to be wild”.
And, from a visual point of view: how seducing is the always receding vanishing point of a long,long road stretching out in front of you (train travelers usually don’t get to enjoy this frontal viewpoint) (2)

A car also allows you to visit many “worlds” in a single day – you can for instance go to an ancient rocket launch base & war memorial in the morning, admire the landscape from a charming old French town on top of a sunny hill at noon and participate in a Flemish art& poetry happening in late afternoon.

Mixing worlds & moods may offend a sense of propriety or of due concentration (3), but is of course quite the stuff of vigorous life itself with its diversity of appeals to our attention.

Into the rocket base!!!

But so, on a bright August day this melancholy flâneur was unleashed in the ancient underground WWII rocket base of La Coupole (4)

It could easily have become a sheer amusement park where one can gleefully reenact scientific & military adventures , drooling over engine replica’s, technical drawings and real life weaponry. But this ancient base was also turned into a historical remembrance center, evoking the sufferings of war in Northern France.

Our visit took over 2.5 hours – wandering through chilly underground corridors enlivened by “James Bond” like missile launch simulations, paying close attention in educational rooms explaining the basic physics & mathematics of rocket science, watching the documentaries with testimonies, old photos & drawings evoking the horrors and the human sufferings during war time....

What a despicable species we are ...

Thus, for the more impressionable amongst us, this visit is not merely a history tour, but becomes a vivid evocation of the alternating urges that have always ruled human behavior:
• there’s the sheer intellectual fascination for scientific &technical exploits, for facts & figures that are logically combined in a rational discourse
• there’s the vivacious zest for adventure and action and heroic deeds
• there’s the appeal to our reflection and empathy, the impotent acknowledgement of so much – far too much - suffering & pain & death, materializing in a mute cry of horror, in the upwelling of dry tears

And obviously, immersion in scientific adventures and heroic action is much more fun than impotent reflection and empathy (5).
But, maybe just maybe, with a bit more reflection and empathy, those V2 rocket-engineers would have had some qualms of conscience? Instead of standing there grinning …. as shown by that unforgettable photo: a bunch of grinning brilliant nazi engineers , proudly cheering the successful trial-launch of a rocket, seemingly oblivious of the death & destruction their contraption will bring about.

But the sun is shining brightly in the sky!
Yet upon leaving the memorial center, we ourselves too, as healthy, fun-loving specimens of the human race disposing of a car, sought out more joyful stimuli for the rest of the day. Happily we motored through a lovely landscape: so soothing, so forgetful, so beautiful, so indifferent to human follies ....(6).
And we enjoyed the wide view from the top of a hill, we sipped from our drinks on a terrace in the pretty town of Cassel and took full pleasure in all the lovely sights, in the sweet breeze and the benign sun.

Art to the rescue?

Yet a ponderous flâneur can of course not leave it at that, she couldn’t possibly finish this post upon so bucolic and hedonistic a note!

And as a matter of fact the same day still brought other sensations too: poetic fragments & artistic interventions in the streets and houses of a little Flemish town in the country . And perhaps for the first time that day I felt like coming home, to be amongst kindred spirits: reflecting & remembering humans, restoring some dignity to the transience of human lives and their earthly homes.
One artist let a light beam illuminate the old fashioned , peeling wallpaper in a vacant parsonage, other artists would gently invade an abandoned rest home and amidst the echoes of declining retired lives one could slowly read poems, or be startled by loose wires and tubes (which were fake but evoked so well the undoing of abandoned houses). Ah, how soothing I found this tender play of imagination and understanding …

Will art save the world? No. Can art redeem suffering? No. Is art an escape from worldly duties? Perhaps (but a necessary one, to restore our spirits, so as not to pass too pessimistic a judgment on the human condition). Are aesthetic pleasures as a-moral as strictly sensuous and intellectual pleasures? Possibly. But still. And yet. Art at least is not as indifferent to human presence and experiences as a landscape is. Art at least is not as oblivious of human sensibilities as purely intellectual-technical reasoning is.

But ah … it was getting late …. time for another meal on yet another lovely terrace …. time to walk back to the car in the setting sun …. and cast a glance on the local 1914-1918 monument, smiling at those old-fashioned engraved names and noting with amazement, oh three brothers who all perished in the same month.

good thing there are the notes to harbor more brooding
(1) As distinguished from days when one dutifully sets out for a trip, eg when it’s the first day of your summer holidays and the rain is pouring down.
(2) So far this tribute to “rock ‘n roll car romance” from one a> who has to swallow anti car sickness pills to limit the rocking & rolling car damage to a mere headache, b> who thoroughly resents not being able to read while just sitting there, c> who draws elation & consolation from the unplugged sensuous purity of intertwining melodies rather than from beats & guitar screeches. And the obstinate train lover in me furthermore wants to point out that a train traveler gets something even better than “the frontal vanishing point”: the mysterious glimpses of a far off horizon whenever the train wheezes through a hard bend.
(3) The insufferable train purist in me wants to point out that “visiting many worlds in a single day” leads to a deplorable scattering of attention & concentration. The curse of shallowness is not far off!
(4) As a matter of fact this German rocket base never quite managed to fire a rocket in WWII since it was discovered by the Allies before it could get fully operational.
(5) and of course reflection& empathy are impotent and merely depressing and so may seek release in rage, rage at all those human specimens who oblivious of human suffering, blithely engage in scientific projects without ever pondering consequences. This rage, not wanting to remain impotent, will then itself enlist action and scientific exploits to crush the objects of its rage. Yah. The human species in action! Take the single-minded , brilliant
Wernher von Braun , oblivious (was he?) of the gruesome exploitation of the forced laborers in his base, undisturbed by the death & misery brought about by his V2 combat rockets. And living happily ever after, never ever brought to justice since the American military was all too keen to enlist this rocket-scientist for its own space programs. …
(6) Anyone who has ever visited the world war I memorials in Flanders Fields will have been struck by the contrast formed by the photos of war-torn battlefields (deserts strewn with barbed wire & dead bodies, towns and trees burnt down) with the present day prim & fertile Flemish landscape, with its neat little towns brimming with economic activity.
(7) Art …. reenacting both stark crucifixions and the endearing dalliances of colour & light …. As Bernard Marcadé wrote on the Belgian artist James Ensor : « Citoyen du « pays solitaire de narquoisie » Ensor a consacré l’essentiel de sa vie à la lumière et aux couleurs, en même temps qu’il pourfendait de façon acerbe les vilenies et petitesses de la nature humaine. […] La double exigence d’un homme partagé entre le plaisir voluptueux de peindre et la nécessité de faire rendre gorge aux turpitudes humaines. […] Les auréoles du Christ ou les sensibilités de la lumière. »

for the love of trains

“I love trains, and they have always loved me back. What does it mean to be loved by a train? Love, it seems to me, is that condition in which one is most contentedly oneself. If this sounds paradoxical, remember Rilke’s admonition: love consists in leaving the loved one space to be themselves while providing the security within which that self may flourish”.  (Tony Judt)  (1)

Sitting contentedly in a train, absorbed in some abstruse book, or engrossed in the erratic dance of light-patches…. enveloped in the “sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours” ….

Yes, certainly,I love trains, and they have always loved me back.

My enduring love-affair with trains probably dates back to childhood, in particular to the yearly family holiday to the South of France. Our train-trip would start in a sooty but still grand Brussels station (quite impressive for the provincial little girl I was) , where we would board a night train from the venerable “Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-lit” (2)

Of course, the objects of my travel-contentment were not the same as now: at that time I doted on the comic-books and peaches my parents dealt out to keep us quiet, and even on the cute little plastic cutlery that went with the packaged meals distributed by the train attendant. My elder sisters, while also keen on comics & peaches, did not compete for the cutlery, but rather swooned over the male attendant.

As to the “sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours”, instead of a poetic incantation, it was a most sensuous and sleepy rhythm indeed back then: to my great delight, at night, the seats of our compartment were transformed into 6 sleeping bunks with real sheets & blankets & pillows.

Round about 9PM my parents invariably would start worrying about the train attendant not showing up in time to perform this remarkable transformation . My 2 sisters and I further added to my parent’s stress by quarreling over who would get the top-bunk. But in the end all the family members would join in the merry hunt for the diverse light switches, with my father authoritatively seizing control of the main switch.

In the morning I would excitedly climb down out of my bunk and look out of the window to discover a southern sunlit landscape with beige-colored houses having wooden shutters. My parents would be swapping sleepless stories of all the nightly stops & shouts & murmurs that had kept them awake, but which for me had only been enchanting echoes to my train dreams. And then of course started the big morning rush to the lavatories & washing facilities, with each family egoistically monopolizing a washing facility for all of its members.

After the washing ritual, my sisters would be allowed to wander about the train, taking stock of the other teenagers, peeping into the attendant’s compartment , starting to plan their activities at the holiday resort. I would stand in the narrow passage way just outside our compartment, looking out of the window (with the beloved “e pericoloso sporgersi” admonition and the red sign prohibiting the throwing of bottles). And I would feel, already then, the seductive transience of travelling, with its mixture of great expectations and melancholy.

(1) Tony Judt In love with trains NYRB March 2010 Issue
The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits also operated the Orient Express

one could also go to Saint-Tropez

Summertime, holiday time !!! For sea, sun and sand, please click here. (1) For meandering musings, do read on.

As you may have noticed, dear reader, I suffer from a particular nervous affliction: while sorely lacking all natural zest for useful practicalities, I definitely perk up amongst dead spirits and fantasies (2).
Not that I haunt cemeteries or study the Kabbalah – no, mine is a very humanistic kind of spirituality, finding elation (almost) only (3) when layers of man-made signs allow my imagination to reconstruct meaning & beauty.

Thus, strolling through the Parc Monceau in Paris, I could not but revel in all those traces of a certain (past) Parisian “haute bourgeoisie” way of life. There is the little pseudo-roman temple at the park-entry (which houses quite decent lavatory services - honoring the Paris habit to offer public services in style).
There are the magnificent wrought-iron gates, the stately broad park avenues with their worn iron name plates commemorating the great French writers of the past (la Comtesse de Ségur!).
And the kiosk … an iron& wood & glass construction in the best public garden tradition which sells classical (4) garden toys in merry colors alongside ice cream and lollies (& delicious croissants!).
The whole conjures up images of nannies wearing starched aprons, keeping an eye on the amusements of the well behaved local bourgeois children. The adult bourgeois locals (as well as my retrograde imagination) would of course have been enchanted also by some of the more adventurously winding garden paths, by the enigmatic Egyptian pyramid on the lawn, or by the ponderous pond surrounded by a melancholy Antique colonnade.

The surrounding broad, tree-lined streets with their marvelous mansions ooze an effortlessly elegant Parisian grandeur. A worthy neighborhood for the Cernuschi museum, which houses the (very rich) private collection of Asian art gathered by the (very rich) 19th C banker Henry Cernuschi.
The vestibule is chic and hushed, making one at once feel a privileged visitor (but entry is free!). Then, there’s the elation of mounting those regal stairs, which are flanked by two huge & exquisite Chinese vases. Only to be dumb-struck a bit later by the formidable presence of a larger than life Buddha. Then, the sheer wonder of gazing at artifacts spanning continents and millennia….
And all the time: the soothing presence of large windows looking out over a very green garden, allowing tired eyes to drift off for a while amongst sunlit foliage.

Still under the impression of the Cernuschi-plendor, aimlessly ambling on in the neighborhood, I soon stumbled on another sublime mansion turned into museum: le Musée Nissim de Camondo.

Here one is enchanted to discover the lavish tribute a Turkish born (in 1860) French banker ( from a Sephardic Jewish family who made their fortune in Constantinople) pays to the French 18th C decorative arts, the life-long object of his collector’s passion .
The interior, abounding with époque furniture, draperies, objects and paintings, is luxuriant, sumptuous …. and yet delicate & graceful – the spirit of the 18th C French decorative genius captured. And the imagination is treated to yet an extra dimension in time and space …. by an exhibit of sepia photographs of a mysterious 19th C Constantinople and of the Camondo ancestors in exotic traditional dress.

Yet, amidst all this marvel, heart & eyes are moved perhaps most by some quiet light filtering through a gauze curtain, a fleeting reflection on a glass pane, by an empty chair standing by a window looking out into the garden, or by a mere shadow in a hall-corner.
This fabulous museum is also a reminder of the vanity of riches; tinged as its history is with melancholy. Moïse Camondo, the rich passionate collector, ended up giving his collection and his house to the French state, demanding it would be named after his son and alas never-to- be heir: Nissim de Camondo, who at age 25 died in an air battle in the first world war.

Ah, pondering & wondering at signs …
Now I don't ponder & wonder only in consciously aesthetically contrived surroundings. There’s for instance this other image from my Paris-visit that lingers on: in those “Roman-temple”-lavatories in the Monceau park, behind an iron gate fencing off the service quarters from the public area, one could spot a small stock of cleaning materials, a bucket & brush-with-towel ànd a flaming red plastic toy tractor, about toddler-size.
I was captivated by that little scene, framed by pseudo-roman columns, because it was a slice of suspended life, looking as if at any moment a child would burst in and mount its toy tractor, while its parent would grab the bucket and go on about his or her cleaning chores.

Also, I could not ignore that most (not all!) of the strolling or jogging park visitors as well as most (not all!) of the museum visitors where white or Asiatic while the majority (not all!) of the attendants (in lavatories, in the kiosk, at the ticket office) were black or of Maghreb-descent. Neither could I fail to notice, on signs in the window of a nearby real estate agency, that the quoted price of, say, a 50 square meter studio in the Monceau-neighborhood is above 400.000 Eur.

But does this mean that the aesthetic and imaginative delights of this neighborhood should be shunned? Written off as mere play-things of the ruling classes, discounted as the despicable fruit of social exploitation and ill gotten capitalist riches?

No. I mean: oh please, for chrissakes no!!

What a cruel waste of potential joy & happiness that would be! However embedded in a bourgeois culture, these are still aesthetic and imaginative delights that can be tasted by all, if only given the chance and some kind of introduction by a mentor (alive or in book-form).

This is written in all honest naiveté and I do hope to prove my good faith by the story of my own late conversion.
Actually, I became sensitive to (classical) aesthetics rather late. For a long time , in my youthful city explorations, I spurned ‘officially’ picturesque sites or famous “old masters” museums , preferring to explore more neglected neighborhoods (5) .
It was an almost chance encounter with some ‘old master’ paintings (6) which “hurt and connect”, that made me curious about this powerful effect of aesthetics and high art.
And I am not ashamed to confess that it is the reading (at age 30 or so) of the best-selling book by Gombrich, “The Story of Art” (written in fact for teenagers) which marked the beginning of my passion for art history books.

Now to further appease lingering doubts of anxious post-colonial blog-readers out there, yes after my Monceau-tour I also went to visit the Quai Branly museum built to embody President Jacques Chirac's politically correct dream of French multiculturalism “. And yes, I did come under the spell of those wondrously ponderous masks.

Notes including an opinion poll about Brigitte Bardot and a question about multi-coloured propeller toys

(1) Sun, Sea & Sand: yes, prudishly eluding that other S-Word , convinced as I am that my blog readers don’t need the web for thàt. This being said – I do want to attract attention to the Saint-Tropez Tourist Office announcement of a
Brigitte Bardot exhibit. (But then again, are there any Bardot-fans amongst my select blog readership? Do let me know!)
(2) This rumination about dead spirits & fantasies of course echoes the Proust passage I read this morning: « Qui a raison du fossoyeur ou d’Hamlet quand l’un ne voit qu’un crâne là où le second se rappelle une fantaisie? La science peut dire : le fossoyeur ; mais elle a compté sans Shakespeare, qui fera durer le souvenir de cette fantaisie au-delà de la poussière du crâne. » (La bible d’Amiens, préface du traducteur)
(3) “Finding elation (almost) only amidst man-made signs” - Sorry C, that’s of course without counting you – (and anyway, there’s the “almost” qualification , dedicated to you and to sensual autumnal breezes, rays of sunlight on a tile floor, the sun hot on my skin, the smell of a park after the rain, crisp croissants et j’en passe)
(4) “Classical” in the sense of some happy form that has hardly changed since it was perfected long ago: such as red balloons, pink hoops, multi-colored mini-propellers-on-a stake - which -turn-dizzyingly-in-the-wind. (How on earth are these things called? Please let me know , together with your feelings about Brigitte Bardot)
(5) And I will always remain sensitive to the poignancy of “neglected neighborhoods”; partly out of melancholy disposition and partly out of an acute realist observer’s interest in signs of urban life & decay. Witness my Flickr-photostream dedicated to
Charleroi ….
(6) Notably, Caravaggio’s “David with the head of Goliath” and Titian’s “Noli me tangere”
(7) Quote from concierge travel guide

On art history, philosophy, lingering longings and the decline of plumbing standards (see note 6)

It is a big book, weighing 5 kilos at least! A standard work of art education I suppose: Gardner’s "Art through the Ages". (1) Very thorough and instructive, lavishly illustrated but in its scrupulous objectivity also a tad boring. It’s just too impartial a reference work while, for me, the irresistible attraction of art history books lays in their loving labor of imagination to revive what is lost – as exemplified by those great art historians who, combining passionate erudition with imaginative understanding , were on a quest to resuscitate the beauty & meaning of the artifacts from bygone ages. (2)

But still, melancholia too is in the eye of the beholder, and so, even with as impassive & impartial a guide as the Gardner book, I cannot but intensely feel the pathos of the history of art. Those time-lines with their accompanying images of ancient art works …. how could one not see them as witnesses of the glorious rise and inexorable fall of civilizations? (3)

In the chapter about the art of troubled late antiquity there’s this one picture I keep returning to, in awe and wonder. It’s a reproduction of an ivory plaque from around 400 AD.
It shows a woman of noble bearing, calmly picking grapes from a bowl offered to her by a boy (4). Her pose is serene, exuding graceful gravitas. The whole scene, her figure, and the folds of her classical robe are carved with precise fluency .
And the choking poignancy of it, is that this image of striking classical beauty appears in 400 AD, amidst the chaos of a crumbling empire, at a time when confident primitive Christianity had banned all ancient pagan cults and when society’s taste had long turned towards cruder images, to “archaic, abstract and bluntly expressive” forms , oblivious of classical aesthetic ideals.
In fact, one has to turn back almost 200 pages in the weighty Gardner book to find images of similar beauty and the diligent (& melancholy) reader can then ponder how the beauty of a 400 BC Parthenon frieze was briefly recaptured in the amazing grace of a lone 400 AD ivory.

But, surprise, dear blog-reader: I will not now launch in a lamentation about how our own 21st Century has definitely forgotten all about greco-roman gracefulness. I will not now grieve over the loss of authority of classical aesthetics (5). And l will even refrain, for now, from end-of-civilization prophecies (6).

Instead I will rejoice in some rowdy cross referencing between epochs, seeking consolation in the wayward afterlife that transient human expressions do have.

Take Emile Mâle’s “the Gothic Image”, a book written around 1910 (and now more or less out of print) to raise understanding and appreciation of the then largely despised art of the middle ages. Mâle’s book offers such a lovingly-detailed and evocative insight in medieval Christian art - its chief aim being to try and understand the spirit of those medieval artifacts around whom had “gathered a whole world of hopes and longings, and they appeal to us to-day as do all things on which men’s thoughts have lingered.

This book is a passionate apology of Gothic Christian art, and therefore definitely not into the lamenting of lost classical standards. But Mâle none the less faithfully records the dim classical memories that did survive – like the iconographical origins of the allegorical statue of “Lady Philosophy” , figuring in the series of statues representing the liberal arts in gothic cathedrals. The statue of “Philosophy" appears there with “the attributes given to her by Boethius” .

Boethius (7) …. “living on the confines of two worlds, […] at once the last of the Romans and the first of the mediaeval doctors”. Ah, Boethius …. writing his “The Consolation of Philosophy” in prison, with stoic courage ….. (or with pathetic heartbreaking bravery?), while awaiting his execution. Boethius … striving to preserve classical wisdom in a world where greco-roman traditions were fading fast.

And once a great tradition has declined and faded, it cannot ever come back exactly as it was – but it can have a strange, wayward afterlife – it can be revered and desired even without being really understood or mastered. And it is Mâle, this zealous apologist of the mediaeval christian spirit, who so lyrically captures the full poignancy of late-classical Boethius’ influence in the sturdy middle ages :

“[Boethius] had seen Philosophy and had talked with her, the Middle Ages took him at his word and had no wish to represent her otherwise. […] His vast learning no doubt aroused admiration, but it was the vague sadness, the subtle symbolism, the sudden bursts of poetry which mingle so strangely with his dialectic, in short all that there was of disquietude in this latterday philosophy, which made the strength of his appeal to men”. (8)

Vague sadness , late sensitivities – in our blind race towards some collective future (and a private death) , amidst the always recurring onslaught of new generations who render old traditions irrelevant, we humans have this stranges capacity of nostalgia, of a longing for what is lost.

A longing that itself seems to be more permanent throughout the ages than the objects which it longs for. (9)

Consolation of Notes
(1) hard cover; 28 X 24 X 8 cm , 1198 pages; I do cherish this Gardner – book, not only because of its impeccable instructiveness, but also because, at a certain period in my life, it was a most welcome weighty & tangible proof both of the durability of Art (despite a world ruled by economical priorities) and of the dedication of my long distance lover (who at her PC in Detroit asked Amazon to deliver this doorstopper at a Brussels address - and I still remember the excitement of fetching this gift at the post office, evading clandestinely from my bank desk during the lunch break)
(2) Winckelmann, “the first art historian” is unapologetically melancholy in his evocation of all that has been lost (see note 9) , and Emile Mâle (perhaps the Winckelmann of the gothic image) is on an almost fanatical mission to produce a work summarizing the iconography of the gothic cathedrals (as thorough & comprehensive as a medieval “summa” )--- ah, what could be more moving then these attempts to recover a lost language of the eye
(3) and as sad proof that “L’homme est une passion inutile” (Sartre) – with what passionate energy have humans devoted themselves to transient enterprises of no use whatever for our survival or reproduction … (Darwinians of course argue that displays of useless splendor& complexity are an honest sign of a surplus of health & energy and thus yet another evolutionary ploy to attract mates keen on giving their off spring the best chances of survival – I beg to differ, too many men & women ruined themselves while devoted to enterprises “entirely gratuitous in terms of life-preservation; far transcending what may be deemed necessary for sexual attraction “ (Arendt))
(4) Gardner tells me it is a priestess celebrating the rites of Bacchus
(5) I shall always retain a nostalgia for this 19th C - Grand – Tour - type of reverence for antiquity. A self-conscious, ironical nostalgia of course. Besides, my recent reading about pathetic Ruskin has further dented my belief in the edifying effects of worshipping the arts of the past. Though, still...., mental and physical health cannot but benefit from a habit of regular art-holidays, or so I wistfully (& jealously) noted when reading in this Ruskin-biography: “ In poor spirits, he set off almost at once for a restorative trip to the Continent” ( France, Italy, etc, and this from May to September , dear reader, not just a hurried weekend city-trip. )
(6) This being said, I cannot deny having a keen “decline-and- fall of the Roman empire” sensibility – it may even be a family trait. A great-great-great uncle is reported to have had religious end-of-times visions. And, on a more prosaic note, close relatives of mine glumly take the dearth of qualified plumbers as an omen of the decline of western civilization skills. (which may not be that wide off the mark, the nigh uncontrollable Gulf of Mexico oil spill does show the catastrophic consequences of a slippage in sound plumbing prudence at deep-water levels , as Moss pointed out to me).
(7) on Boethius "Boethius's best known work is the Consolation of Philosophy (De consolatione philosophiae), which he wrote most likely while in exile under house arrest or in prison while awaiting his execution, but his lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy."
(8) Doesn’t this echo Bonnefoy’s insight about classical longings and about « meditations sur l’exil, […] parce que 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 ». « the nostalgia inherent to such a late sensibility can be more truthfully perpetuated than the heroic illusions of a so called great epoch
(9) great opportunity to quote again from that sublime concluding paragraph in Winckelmann’s "History of the Art Of Antiquity" (18th C itself) : “[…] although contemplating the collapse of art has driven me nearly to despair, […] I could not keep myself from gazing after the fate of works of art as far as my eye could see. […] we have as it were only a shadowy outline of the subject of our desires remaining. But this arouses so much the greater longing for what is lost. […] In this, we often are like individuals who wish to converse with spirits and believe they can see something where nothing exists. […] One always imagines that there is so much to find…"

« rappelle-toi, on s’était croisé, une journée de pluie » (1)

The church was already well filled that Sunday morning, some 15 minutes before the Bach-cantata-recital would start. I had only just managed to find a seat, squeezed in between two bulky men. Around me there was the usual pre-concert noise of people meeting & chattering and of chairs scraping over tiles. And within my head there was the even louder, anxious whirl of practical and sentimental worries.
So I could barely concentrate on the program-notes which were explaining how Bach’s music expressed the libretto’s message that the Lord always comes to the aid of his hapless creature. But while futilely browsing the erudite explanations, a phrase uttered by a woman behind me snapped me out of my own hapless fretfulness.

“Rappelle-toi, on s’était croisée une journée de pluie”, said this woman, talking to her neighbor.
And in a flash all of my worries were dissipated by this ordinary image of two friends meeting in the street, on a rainy day in the city, chatting under their umbrellas, amidst passersby hurrying along in the pouring rain. (2)

Still under the spell of this phrase, I gasped when the choir started singing “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir”/ “Fear not, I am with you” . Just as almost 300 years ago a faithful peasant attending Mass must have gasped, also with tears in his eyes, deeply stirred by this music. (3)

Bach’s genius is often described in terms of contrapuntal complexities, producing music that would only appeal to the intellect. How very wrong! His cantata’s and his Passions are profoundly moving, expressing the whole gamut of human emotions. They bear no trace of romantic navel-gazing, nor do they vainly flaunt their undeniable complexity – but there’s a touching humility to them, expressing as they do shared human doubts, joys and fears, all momentarily redeemed by sheer musical perfection. And there’s humility, and heartbreaking beauty too, in the way a human voice intertwines, in companionable sonority, with, for instance, an alt-violin in a Bach-aria (4).

After the concert, while queuing to leave the church, I passed in front of the podium where the musicians were preparing to leave. And as I was watching how the alt-violinist lovingly put her instrument back in its case, I mused about the many different manifestations of beauty and art. How they can range from sumptuous displays of glory to humble marks of caring attention for the quotidian (5).

Ah, the consolations of the quotidian! That Sunday-afternoon I could rejoice all I wanted in the marvels of a rainy day, which had even turned into a stormy one.

But instead of cozily watching the rain lashing the windows, philosophizing about Art, I had to go out again and brave the wind-swept streets on foot.
Because C, who was visiting, had alas encountered the sorry Brussels habit of well hidden temporarily no-parking signs, which are then scrupulously enforced by the police-forces. So we had to venture out, first to a local police post manned by a police-woman from the provinces doing a tour of duty in depraved Brussels (and who was positively happy to speak Flemish to a pair of naïve women having had their car towed away).
And then on we walked, fighting gusts of rain, to a bleak garage in a bleak street, looking so very shabby & drab that it did acquire a certain urban romance. Behind a high fence there was the yard with forlorn looking, towed away cars . The garage-office itself, with a lone woman behind a large counter, was protected by a makeshift plexi-glass door with bell and looked like a perfect setting for some noirish police series.

Sitting there on a worn bench, while C was negotiating the administrative and financial details of car release with the lady in charge, I counted the stains of cigarette-burns on the furniture which, together with the musty stench of old smoke, belied the big no-smoking sign on the door. There was a big clock on the wall and many shelves with surprisingly neatly arranged dossiers. Sometimes a voice crackled from a radio and the lady behind the counter then spoke in a microphone to give directions, all the while continuing to fill out the multiple forms for car release. She had a briskness of voice and manners which was quite astonishing in so drab an environment.
Quite a bracing example I thought: definitely temperament over matter! (6)

By the time we got back outside, the elements were really unchained.
And truly, there’s a special elation and companionship in braving together adverse weather, just as encounters in rainy streets can be of a heart rending coziness.
Amongst the saving graces of life certainly have to be counted: rough weather walks, rainy flâneries and Bach-cantatas.

Fear not, the footnotes too are with us
(1) “remember, we had come across each other in the street, on a rainy day”
(2) The extraordinary appeasing power of this ordinary image surely has something to do with the element of simple shared humanity in it and with its consoling evocation of the many ordinary struggling lives that are lived in a city. As Orhan Pamuk writes in “The Museum of Innocence”: “The city was teaching us to see the ordinariness of our lives, teaching us, too, a humility that banished guilt; There was a consoling power I felt mixing with the city crowds in shared taxis and buses”
(3) And I am always touched too by the torch-song- naïveté of some of those Bach cantata-libretto’s, so endearingly & trustingly evoking an informal intimacy between a frail & frightened human and his almost motherly- reassuring God. “Herr, […] du bist mein, ich bin dein, niemand kann uns scheiden ” sings the Choir …. Though not a believer myself, I can of course very well relate to this longing for an all-understanding source of consolation and support. And somehow, from time to time at least, the music produced by the happy conjunction of this longing and a human genius, is in itself redemption and consolation enough.
(4) Tricky word, humility. Before you know it people might think that I, the proudly promethean autonomous human, am promoting self-abasing submission to some authority. No no! I speak of humility as very humanely defined by the OED: “the quality of not thinking that you are better than other people” – or as the 1st connotation offered by Merriam Webster: not proud or haughty , not arrogant.
(5) There’s the writhing splendor of a Rubens with his “assez vain déploiement d’une illusion de triomphe” (Y. Bonnefoy) and there’s the endearing attention paid by a Van Eyck not only to the rendering of sumptuously rich materials, but also to all the tactile details of a simple chair (on which a angel-musician sits in a panel of the famous Ghent altar piece) or of a pair of homely slippers (in the Arnolfini painting).
(6) Actually, I collect such edifying and bracing examples, being always in search of evidence of human resilience and dignity ( perhaps out of a desire for self-improvement, by putting my own all too often frail and willfully sad ways to shame)

Düsseldorf, Winter 2006

It’s an odd, but cherished, collection: those highly personal memories of moments of harmony with the world. Memories of uneventful moments, neither boisterously happy nor deeply introspective. But rather meditative moments, with the self temporarily released from the selfish burdens of living and worrying. Memories of moments (1), or of places (2), which permitted some sort of reconciliation with the world and with the self.
These moments and their consolations are fugitive alas, but at least they yield the kind of soothing images to which a restive mind can cling, when for instance seeking rescue from the travails of a wakeful night.

Lately this collection has thrown up memories of a wintertrip to Duesseldorf. And how consoling they are, how strangely sheltering they feel, these images of wet, foggy streets and of myself wandering about them.

It was during those dark & drizzly days adrift between Xmas and New Year, and Duesseldorf seemed to have lost its wealthy arrogance. One could nearly believe that its much publicized Winter “Art Quadriennale” had been set up out of a genuine, melancholy need rather than to merely spur the art-tourist-trade.

It was raining when I got out of the station, and despite the late morning hour the streets looked almost nocturnally desolate. The wet pavements glistened with the reflections of flickering red and yellow signs, which pointed to at least some human activity in the Döner-Kebab restaurants, Wurst-stalls and sex-cinemas. (3)

My hotel was located on an empty, shabby square not far from the station. The curtains of the windows of the neighboring Balkan restaurant were closed and no red lights were flashing on the façade of the sex-shop opposite the hotel.

I mounted the narrow staircase to the reception and was greeted only by the twinkling lights of a small Xmas tree. The reception desk itself was empty, but from the open door behind it came the shifting sounds and luminosity of a TV-set. The cramped semi-dark reception-area, the dimly blaring TV, the worn wooden desk, the gaudy Xmas-decorations: they were all of a pathos that moved me profoundly.

I rung the bell, and the receptionist came out, gauging me warily before extending a cautious welcome. But her initial suspicion soon turned into a more amiable curiosity about the motivations of a lone winter traveler. She seemed reassured both by my ’Art-Quadriennale’ travel-motive and by my city of residence, Brussels.
She had been there, she said, and enthusiastically launched into a brief comparative lecture about the Brussels shopping streets versus their Duesseldorf equivalents. But then, taking in my sober winter outfit and battered bag, she checked herself and apologetically said: ‘but you’re here for art, not for shopping’. She gave me my room’s key, and pointed out the corridor with the old, iron cage elevator.
While I stood there waiting, I felt her absentmindedly gazing at me. Then she smiled wistfully, looking suddenly so very lonely and vulnerable, and went back into the TV room.

When I left the hotel again, the heavy rain had turned into a foggy drizzle. Walking along one of the main thoroughfares, I got in thrall to the urban romance of neon signs shimmering in a suggestive haze, of cars swooshing by with sweeping lights. And somehow, in this wintry cityscape, my solitude wasn’t disagreeable to me. (4) Especially since I had not to mingle with the fur-coated ladies in the profusely lit shopping streets, which were full to bursting with silly luxury goods on shiny display.

Skirting the shopping district, I could walk through dark & wet streets, to find a harsh sort of cover in the austerely neon-lit Kunsthalle. With its unadorned concrete and its stark oversized rooms, this building would not obviously please nor give any kind of sentimental shelter.

In this indifferent setting, one was fully exposed to the extreme poignancy of Berlinde De Bruyckere’s sculptures , some occupying the full height of a nine meter high room : “figures in which human and creature-like forms nestle up to and melt into [high] columns, as well as horse torsos, which stretch upward from a wrought iron pedestal”.

These creatures, suffering alone atop pillars and pedestals, show all the deformations of vulnerable flesh, of “flesh through which a conscience of pain has torn and which thus has also suffered in the untraceable soul”. One gasps, one suppresses tears, one falls silent. And feels profoundly for these creatures, who represent a suffering that has been or can be or shall be others' and our lot one day too. “When utterly powerless and helpless, humans resort to reflection and meditation upon what has been suffered”.
While not being able to bring material relief, one thus can at least give suffering a place in the world, give it some human significance through our empathy. (5) (6)

No material relief? Ah, but some of those creatures do seem to find warmth and protection under rough woolen blankets … Yes, about vulnerability, about our yearning for shelter De Bruyckere is never wrong …

odd, but cherished, collection of correlations
(1) of moments and places - Albert Hourani – A History of the Arab Peoples – from the chapter “The language of poetry” (read on Jan 1st 2010)
“The poem tended to begin with the evocation of a place where the poet had once been, which could also be an evocation of a lost love; the mood was not erotic, so much as the commemoration of the transience of human life”
(2) of moments and places - Proust – A la recherche du temps perdu – read and reread since Xmas 1995)
“le souvenir d’une image n’est que le regret d’un instant"
(3) Orhan Pamuk – Snow ('In Frankfurt') – read in March 2007
“It was the middle of the day, but, looking into the dark, dense mist, I could still see the deathly yellow glow of streetlamps. Still, it cheered me to see – in the streets surrounding the central train station, along the pavements lined with döner-kebab restaurants and travel agencies and ice-cream parlours and sex shops – signs of the energy that sustains all big cities”

(4) John le Carré - diverse espionage novels – read somewhere between 1985 and 1988
Le Carré (especially in his cold war novels) surely is one of the most melancholy of thriller writers, bestowing dignity and a sense of gravitas on his often rather lonely and reflective characters. Somehow the following sentence of his has stayed with me over the years.
"She realized being quite alone in the world. But somehow in the wintry landscape her solitude wasn’t disagreeable to her. "
Trying to locate this quote, I leaf through my yellowing Le Carré pockets (compulsively read as a procrastinating student). But instead of yielding the searched for sentence, the thickly printed pages offered an unexpected memento senescere : I wince at the very small font which obviously didn’t pose yet any problem in younger days.
(5) paraphrasing Stefan Hertmans’ reflections about “Schmerzensmann V , Een sculptuur van Berlinde De Bruyckere” – essay read between 23 dec and 28 dec 2009
[…] De verfijning van verdriet […] behoort integraal tot wat de beschaving met de existentie van de mens heeft aangericht; de ingehoudenheid, de beheersing, de melancholie die op deze uiterts verfijnde gezichten te lezen is – zij behoort wel degelijk integraal tot de wereld die zijn zin sticht in het gedenken en de empathie
[…] Wat daar ontstaat is onze meditatieve afgezonderdheid, een hulpeloosheid die zich omzet in meditatie over het geleden leed. Verstilling is een essentieel element geweest in het oproepen van een mogelijke catharsis bij het afbeelden van lichamen die omkwamen door pijn.
[…] Het besef dat er bewustzijn van lijden door dat vlees is gegaan, maakt het definitief en categorisch tot spiritueel vlees: tot vlees dat bewustzijn heeft gedragen en dus ook geleden heeft in de onvindbare ziel

(6)Seeking cover under the weight of ponderous reflections(intersecting with afterthoughts about “The Sacred made Real”, a National Gallery exhibit, and with Erwin Panofsky’s “Peinture et devotion en Europe du Nord” , essays about the iconography of the “Man Of Sorrows” and “Ecce Homo”)

Trying to give a human significance to suffering, may have to be distinguished from the mystical or religious significance which many of the great Western rituals have tried to bestow on it.

Western religious iconography is full of images of suffering. Take all those crucifixions, with Christ writhing in agony on the cross, and with lamenting figures beneath. But these images of a suffering Christ offered (and still offer) quite another appeal to the empathic imagination than do De Bruyckere’s sculptures.

Religious images appeal to the transcendent beliefs of the faithful: Christians believe that Christ’ suffering was meant to eventually redeem all human sins and suffering. In the Passion-story, Christ did take upon him a genuinely human fate of suffering, but his divine nature of course meant that he was not trapped in the human fate of an agony ending in a mute death.

De Bruyckere’s suffering creatures cannot invoke this kind of redemption, cannot find release in a religious transcendence.
They are suffering quite alone on their pedestals and pillars or stakes. And yet, and yet....

The sheer fact that an artist has so carefully molded and assembled these creatures, has so meticulously given them this tangible material presence. The fact that we stand at the foot of these crucifixions: lamenting, mourning, meditating.

This human community in empathy and mourning, this shared human significance given by art, this shared commitment of ours to thus give shelter to suffering - isn’t it consolation enough?