Meditations on crutches (moral lessons from a cycling accident)

The kindness of strangers

One moment you’re cycling (on a nice, broad cycle path) and the next moment you look with baffled horror at a giant wheel under which your leg has disappeared. You scream and scream, at the top of your lungs.
Then you find yourself sitting on the ground in the pouring rain, with your left hand supporting a foot that is lying there in a bizarre 90° angle to your leg. There are people around you.

A woman is holding my hand, urging me to look into her eyes, speaking in a soothing voice each time I start panicking again (“but ma’am, do you see my foot? I’m going to lose my foot! I’m going to lose my foot! ”). A man holds me by the shoulders so can I sit up straight. Another bystander takes care of my bicycle and locks it. Yet another man shows up, explaining he has seen the whole accident happening from behind his window.
And all those people are waiting patiently in the rain for the ambulance to arrive, consoling and supporting me. All those people acting out of sheer concern... I don’t have their names (though perhaps the witness may show up in the police report) so I can only thank them, anonymously, here on this blog.

A hospitable hospital

After 20 minutes or so the ambulance arrived and they shoved me into it after having carefully wrapped my leg in a protective cylinder. The ambulance man did his best to cheer me up, allaying the worst of my fears. In the mean time I had also managed to contact C. and to alert my employer.
Now I shan’t recount every single step of the subsequent hospital procedure and medical treatment, but in any case, all along I was impressed and moved by how I was being “processed” with both swift efficiency and much, much kindness.

In a neon-lit emergency room they first did some preliminary checks and administrated pain killers via an intravenous drip. Then I was wheeled through endless corridors and lifts to a cavernous room for a radiography (“awful fracture” , the operator whistled admiringly) . After that I was wheeled back again to the emergency room with the doctor already consulting the picture of my leg’s bones on a screen and announcing peremptorily “this has to be operated, tomorrow at the latest”.

While laying dizzily, feeling slightly nauseous, on a bed, the door opened and I was over-happy to see dear C. coming in. Next a police officer arrived (busy places, these emergency rooms) to take my declaration (she looked definitely smug, saying “I’ve got two witnesses, and they’re telling the same thing too!”). Then my mobile buzzed again with my sister calling worriedly. And meanwhile the hospital’s administration had been churning on efficiently: they had already booked a surgeon, an anaesthetist and a surgery crew for an orthopaedic operation, all that on the very same Friday night.

C. had to leave, taking all my belongings with her (hospital personnel had advised not to keep mobile or any other valuables on me) and then yet another orderly wheeled me through corridors and lifts again , this time to the antechamber of the operating room. And there I lay for about two hours, alone, tired&thirsty , but oddly contented (that painkiller drip?), clutching a piece of paper with C’s phone number, watching my surroundings.

Ah, to the right a wall full with old pictures of kids, childhood pictures of the operating team members? ( yes indeed, a passing nurse confirmed). To the left another room, with an old woman sleeping in a bed, and a nurse waking. And every once in a while, some doctors and nurses passed, removing caps and aprons, chatting. Looking forward to the weekend no doubt. The anaesthetist dropped by, she looked into my dossier and reassured me I was still to be operated on tonight.
At last I was rolled into the operating room –the anaesthetist was telling a funny story to the nurse while approaching me with a big cylinder-needle.

The operation


A hospital bed with a view: rooftops, clouds, co-patients, nurses, doctors and dear visitors.

did everything go alright? “ I asked, when opening my eyes again. It was 10 PM and I was in a regular bed in a hospital room with a nurse arranging a pillow under my foot. She gently touched my sole, (“do you feel this?yes, I do!) ” and asked me to wriggle my toes (which proved harder). I was still clutching the paper with C’s phone-number and the nurse was kind enough to give her a reassuring call. My room-mate (with an impressive bandage on her nose) peeked around the curtain to inspect the new arrival and we briefly exchanged the state of our respective pains and ills.

It was a night of tossing and turning, for both my room-mate and me. I often woke with a start, looking out of the window at a dark cloudy sky, rooftops, and far off some buildings with Xmas-lights. At 6AM the nurse checked again upon me and then gradually the hospital came to life with the day’s procedures being launched: checking temperature & blood pressure; washing; changing IV drip & bandages & bed clothes; feeding etc etc.
The ward doctor and a trainee doctor came by and looked at my wounds (looks good!), the surgeon came by and looked at my leg (looks good!). The physiotherapist came by and took note of my worry that I couldn’t move around my foot. Later yet another ward doctor came by and made me move my foot (I couldn’t ) and duly added this fact to my file.

In the afternoon, while still being condemned to bed, I found myself again in the rare position of being the centre of attention , this time of my dear visitors laden with fruit and periodicals.
In the evening my room-mate moved out, leaving silence behind her - a flamboyant woman she was, with a dashing allure making one all but forget the huge bandage on her face. She had been speaking a mixture of beautiful French and rapid Arabic with her visitors and had been equipped with the latest of (very audible!) visual & audio electronic gadgets.

The next room-mate came in only on Monday morning . An elderly woman wearing a scarf and accompanied by worried relatives. She didn’t speak French and looked initially quite frightened, seeming to find solace only in her string of prayer beads. She did revive when an Arabic speaking nurse came in or when chatting on the phone and when her daughter and son in law (both looking quite hip and entrepreneurial) came over during their lunch hour. (Daughter & son came also kindly to my rescue with a plastic teaspoon when I enthusiastically tried to attack a smuggled in yoghurt without the necessary equipment).

Meditations on crutches

How relieved I was when I finally received a couple of crutches and a 10 minutes’ course of “walking on crutches”. At last a modicum of mobility and autonomy again, be it hobbling and limping.
While sitting in a chair by the window, waiting for dear C. to bring me home again, I gazed outside – over the rooftops, to the rapid clouds in the sky and then down, to a man doing some paintwork on his balcony, a woman cleaning the windows, a cyclist passing by in the street below. How peaceful and reassuring it all looked.

I had been having regular flashbacks of that horrendous wheel on my leg, I couldn’t yet move my foot, was still in some pain, felt slightly feverish and very tired. But I also felt calm and thankful, definitely thankful, yes. And much less of a pessimist misanthrope than I usually am. Because indeed, so much care and kindness had been bestowed on me ... belying so many of my gloomy views.

Brussels a tough city full of indifferent people? What about those accidental bystanders then, who promptly helped me and then patiently waited in the rain for the ambulance to arrive...?

Belgium a society crumbling under inefficiency and lack of social cohesion? What about the smooth functioning of ambulance+ police+ hospital then? ( and I had ‘merely’ been receiving standard treatment). What then about the amazing diversity of people (a startling range of colours and native languages) at that hospital, all getting along and doing their bit? As a citizen I’m often fretting about how all these different strands are to merge into a coherent whole, as a patient I have now only seen collaboration.

However, one injustice remains glaring. Hospital nurses are truly to be admired – their work is hard, with irregular shifts and is both physically & emotionally demanding . Their care means so much for anyone who is ill, helpless or in pain. And yet they’re underpaid, earning much less than selfish self-important bankers...

When diligence is due ...

"Due Diligence" , “Binding Offers”, “Exclusive Negotiations” , “Sale and Purchase Agreement”, ...

Not the kind of Investopedia jargon I usually burden this blog with. Well, I haven’t been burdening this blog with anything else either for the last month... Apologies to my blog readers! The Diligent Worker has indeed eclipsed the Frivolous Flâneur. That’s how it goes when the company you work for is about- to-be-sold . And as these Merger&Acquisition processes tend to be highly inefficient in their use of Diligent Worker -resources, normal business hours are way too short to reach, let alone properly announce, a deal.

But blog readers need not worry (1) ... even in full M&A fury, I have kept up the good flâneur-habits. Such as paying lavish attention to the changing lights and skies of the unfolding season, from shimmering autumn to frosty winter.

And all along I have been accompanied by a wonderful book to wake up to each day: Eugène Fromentin : “Les maîtres d’autrefois. Belgique – Hollande.” It was a delight to have this 19th century French Romantic painter making me appreciate anew the startling diversity in ways of seeing (from the glorious apotheoses of a Rubens to the pensive chiaroscuros of a Rembrandt).

Note - publicity
(1) a reassuringly long & winding post is upcoming! (about landscape paintings on show in Lille)

The Brussels Autumn Cycling Series (in rain & fog)

nebulous notes
Pretty atmospheric bridge, isn't it?
It's a railway bridge called " La Rampe du Lion" (lion's ramp). You get there by the avenue Zénobe Gramme (inventor of the industrial dynamo).
The romance of industry ...?
Don't be fooled - the smoke you see is no genuine smokestack industry stuff. That eternal smoke plume is rather a constant reminder of the waste we produce (those are exhaust fumes of an overworked waste incinerator).

Football and Sehnsucht on a Foggy Day

autumn leaves

What a ravishing autumn gift: this foggy world so dashingly illuminated by heaps of yellow leaves! Or so I enthused while cycling through Brussels’ derelict canal-zone, which is not habitually associated with lyrical outbursts.

I was on my way to the romantic Gaasbeek castle in the Flemish countryside, for a melancholy exhibition on the theme of Sehnsucht. But to get there I first had to negotiate my passage through the rougher outskirts of Brussels – under sooty railway bridges, across a misty canal, along semi-industrial terrains and all the length of the grimy Chaussée de Mons. These are supposedly mean streets pockmarked by poverty, unemployment (1) and rising religious assertiveness (2).

But on this particular Sunday all was peace & quiet : the gloomy housing blocks, the canal, the ships – they were all enveloped in the stillness of the fog. A soothing luminous stillness, not sombre at all - illuminated as it was by yellow leaves everywhere, yellow leaves rustling on the trees, yellow leaves spiralling in the air, yellow leaves in soft, thick layers on the ground.

the urban jungle on Sunday

Near a metro-station of ill-repute I had to wait at a traffic light – while cautiously looking around, my alert gaze was captured by ... the innocent Sunday-morning spectacle of a baker’s shop window full of cakes & pies (lavishly dotted with red cherries & swimming in whipped cream). Ever so watchful, I had also warily been registering a young black man in training suit and with a small backpack who had been vigorously jogging in my trail for the last 10 minutes or so. Riding on, I spotted even more brawny young men! in little groups! in training suits! with hoods!
But then I saw the two signposts with: “R.S.C. Anderlecht” ; “Constant Vandenstock Stadium”. Obviously, all were heading with great hopes & ambitions to their Sunday morning football-training.

Hopes & ambitions.... somehow, for all their poverty and social problems, these Brussels boroughs do not exude the resigned hopelessness that has come to reign in some of those ailing towns mercilessly abandoned by Industry. (3) Here one does still sense brimming resourcefulness and reservoirs of youthful energy – because around here there are indeed so many young? And so many new arrivals? (4) But then again, pent-up energy can easily become explosive if it lacks suitable outlets. And they can’t all become football-stars. (5)

getting there!

But anyway, on I courageously cycled, as next I had to traverse the most dreaded and damned of urban circles: commercial suburbia with its eternally congested highways and its sprawl of ugly shopping centres (6). A flâneur’s nightmare! (But thankful thoughts do go to the benevolent public space planners who, even in this car-infested purgatory, provided for cycling paths.)

And then I did at last reach the calm of the Flemish countryside. No immense arcadian vistas welcomed me, but rather residential villa areas (7) alternating with the remains of nature. Nevertheless, a roving eye directed by imagination will soon merely see foggy fields and woods, with their autumnal stillness punctured only by big black birds surging up in the mists.


An endearing conspiracy of the imagination was at work too at the domain of the Gaasbeek-castle. Only love, judiciously blended with gentle irony, can thus preserve and revive the ambiguous historical longings of a 19th century marquise widow (Marie Peyrat, alias Marquise Arconati Visconti ). In the surrounding park one revels in the classically romantic alleys lined by age-old trees and one cannot but fondly smile when glimpsing a phantom marquise galloping by on horseback (8). In the castle itself, awe and fascination dominate while one wanders through the labyrinthic neo-renaissance interior that our Marquise conceived of : at times grandly severe and sombre, at times testifying of an utterly bourgeois horror vacui, stuffed with heavy antiques and art objects.

But our dear Marquise’s spirit is perhaps best revived by the contemporary art exhibitions organized here (9) as they echo and comment the startling personality of this ambiguous woman .
A woman who would deliberately chose the Autumn season to live in this northern castle (while also owning Italian palaces). Often dressed as an androgynous renaissance page, an insatiable collector, dilettante, copious letter writer... A republican upstart spending an inherited aristocratic fortune to realise historical fancies...
Not quite a revolutionary or responsible life – but so melancholy an enterprise, so pure an example of turn-of-the-century sehnsucht ... and then so sturdily embodied in this castle!

Yes, melancholy flâneurs can only be grateful to the imaginative keepers of this castle and its phantoms.

Statistical and sociological notes
(1) The Brussels Institute for Statistics furnishes a fascinating wealth of facts and figures
(2) A recent rather funny example – some panels with explicit publicity for D-cup black bra's were covered up with chaste white paper. (I must admit I’d been shaking my head at that add too, but then I do shake my head at most publicity, insofar as I notice it at all)
(3) A poignant remark from a worker at the condemned Ford motor company in Genk (Limbourg): “10.000 people soon out of work... this place is going to become as desolate as Charleroi or la Louvière, soon we’ll all be slouching about in sloppy training suits”
(4) In Anderlecht, for instance, 28% of people do not have the Belgian nationality (to be added to those with Belgian nationality but recent, foreign roots). The average age is 37, to be compared with 42 in Flanders.
(5) In these boroughs about 25 % of the young leave high school without a proper degree, deficient in both linguistic and technical skills. And in an economic context where appropriately paid unskilled jobs are rare... this means rocketing youth-unemployment figures
(6) And yes, I count Ikea amongst the dismal joyless shopping centers, although I must confess my own books are almost all housed on Ikea shelves. But ah, these neon-lit, rectangular structures, conceived only to expose the shopping hordes to as many wares as possible in the shortest timeframe ... Is it an un-escapable law of economics that every gain in efficiency must entail a loss in grace?
(7) Sight-seeing cyclists with a sociological bent might speculate about the contemporary correlation between heaps of money and outrageous tasteless eclecticism, as exemplified by this huge, rambling Spanish hacienda-like villa structure crammed full with neo-classical ornaments. (But these sight-seeing cyclists should not let slip their traffic attention while gaping at monstrous villas! They should continuously be prepared for the sudden appearances of packs of cyclist-amateurs in tight suits, ruthlessly wheezing by.)
(8) smartly positioned mirrors with a marquise silhouette cut out in black
(9) my favourite remains the 2008 exhibition which I visited on a dark and snowy November day (quite suited to dark mysterious castles). But as to theme and title (“Sehnsucht”!) this year’s exhibition is of course a winner

Plastic Buckets at the Museum (and other fragments)

Entering a museum on a rainy day, one feels confident to find shelter from both pouring rain and crushing banality. There’ s even nothing like rain pelting down on a majestic glass roof to heighten one’s spiritual concentration while contemplating, say, a formidable Rubens panel.
Unless... unless in front of aforementioned panel stand two plastic buckets. drip ..... drop...... drip...drop. One anxiously searches the glass expanse far above, feeling slightly vertiginous – as if one were a perilously falling drop.

Vertigo too, gazing into the depths of grief and compassion in that Van Der Weyden pieta.
This still yet ardent scene of grief, set against a startling sunset.
Maria desperately clutching her dead son – St John, with red-rimmed eyes, supporting both Maria and Jesus’ dead body - at some distance, the Magdalene rapt with quiet grief.
Not intended as a blasphemous remark, but this painting gives me a vertiginous sense of god-forsakenness ... , redeemed only by the sheer intensity of human compassion.

Intensity – is that what distinguishes Zadkine’s expressionist cubism from its more formalist cubist peers?
An anthropomorphic statue symbolizing a bombed out city ... Reality shot to pieces, shattered – and yet there’s an inexplicable solidity to this cubist re-assembly of fragments. As if geometry and verticality combine to offer a tangible structure to hold on to.
“Perhaps given the material’s aspiration for permanence, the best subject for a monument is indeed destruction” (1)

The next day, no apocalyptic rains to drive me into a museum. And the light (“but this light, oh Jesus Christ! this light!”(2)) dispelled all melancholy thoughts I may have had.
No more futile craving for permanence, no more vertigo, even not while blinking at the brilliant fleetingness of the October light.
It’s enough, more than enough, this slanting light, and the long shadows of a cyclist wheezing by.

(1) Joseph Brodsky – Homage to Marcus Aurelius
in all its haphazardness, even an as fragmented life of the mind as mine can spawn its deeply satisfying correspondences: on the very same day that I happened to chance upon the Zadkine statue at the museum, I was reading a completely unrelated Brodsky-essay in which this brilliant insight about sculpture, referring to precisely Zadkine (!), turned up.
(2) William Bronk – Where It Ends (finder’s credits for Bronk poems and heartfelt thanks go to A! )

the bravery of integrity (or: why Romola is no less of a heroine than Jane Eyre)

“Because literature is [...] a compendium of meanings
for this or that human lot, for this or that experience” (1)

“Dismiss the heroines without sympathy”? (3)

Why have George Eliot’s heroines been catching all that flak? (2) Even Virginia Woolf, though lavishing praise on Eliot, seems to do so rather despite Eliot’s heroines. (3) "Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her"

So what's supposed to be wrong with these heroines? Are they not assertive enough? Are they too meek, too reflective? Do they perhaps commit the cardinal sin of not pursuing personal happiness single-mindedly enough? Does their behaviour smack too much of the sentimental-stoic ” though I can’t be happy – I can be good” ? (4)
Let’s simulate the prosecutors’ case, to find out what exactly these heroines are charged with (and to prepare their defense).

There is of course Dorothea in Middlemarch, who, for all her ardent personality does not rise to greatness. She first wastes her youthful energy on the vain scholarly efforts of a dour husband, and then, widowed, marries again the wrong sort of man.
So what does Eliot give her as a fate: “perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity”.
And then, at the end, Eliot does not only keep alive her un-heroic heroine , but even seeks to justify this “blundering life”!

“Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive”.

Yeah .... you see, lots of self-sacrifice and doing good without ever attaining glory or even personal happiness.

Or take Romola (from the eponymous novel) – here’s a fine, honourable and well-educated woman in 15th century Florence, who however has the misfortune to marry a dishonest opportunist. (5) The scoundrel-husband, Tito, is charming and ingratiating enough, but does not feel bound by any moral obligations and sees life merely as a “game of skill and luck”.
When Romola becomes aware of his moral failings, she is repulsed and resolves to flee. She briefly envisages a grand, though lonely, future “to go to the most learned woman in the world, Cassandra Fedele, at Venice, and ask her how an instructed woman could support herself in a lonely life there”.

But just when a chapter bravely concludes with “She was free and alone”, just as the sympathizing reader feels like cheering her on, wishing her the best of luck, the plot takes a stern turn with Romola being called back to her domestic and civic duties by Savonarola himself (that ancient Florentine paragon of Christian virtues).

So, reading on, we cringe to see Romola going back home to her husband, obeying him but living a parallel life of selflessly tending to the poor and the sick in pest-ridden Florence .
Meanwhile, Tito has been putting his charms and duplicitous skills to good use, making headway in the complicated Florentine political world (in the process disowning his old and needy foster parent and also managing to father a couple of children with an unsuspecting naive mistress).

So again, a case of feminine self-sacrifice and doing good , easily outwitted by selfish duplicity which single-mindedly pursues its own goals.
Depressing, really. How the reader yearns for a more indomitable and “fierily egotistical” heroine – such as the saucy Jane Eyre, fighting rejection with the proud battle cry: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself”

At the end of the Romola-novel, some sort of justice is done though: Tito’s double-dealing is exposed and he’s killed by the foster father he had disowned. In the epilogue we find a placid Romola (“an eager life had left its marks upon her” ), in her well-furnished Florentine study, surrounded by friends, teaching Tito’s son. But this “happy-ending-of -sorts” has not placated the detractors of Eliot’s virtuous heroines .
For them, it is precisely the unlikely, far-fetched way in which Tito gets his final just desserts which confirms that George Eliot did not wish to grant to Romola herself the personal strength and guts to prevail but instead resorted to outrageous, near supernatural, twists of the plot to set things right.

A harsh verdict...: guilty because not happy?

Encapsulating the prosecutors’ case, here’s a very selective quote of Virginia Woolf on Eliot’s heroines – seemingly harsh (but perhaps already containing the seeds of the defense) (5):

“Each has the deep feminine passion for goodness [...] In learning they seek their goal; in the ordinary tasks of womanhood; in the wider service of their kind. They do not find what they seek and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. [...]
Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself.”

Summing up the accusations: why couldn’t George Eliot give us more combative heroines - who could both fulfill their personal ambitions and find domestic bliss with a suitable mate? Heroines who find what they seek, heroines who are happy for all the world to see!
Especially since such a happy fate was not utopian, as George Eliot herself had shown through her own, brave, choices in life.(6)

“the greatness that belongs to integrity”! (7)

But let me now, at last, rush to the defence of Dorothea and Romola !

First of all, why blaming Eliot for writing novels with a realistic, though pessimistic, assessment of the human condition? Isn’t it a fact of life that “the unscrupulous are more likely to succeed in any struggle for power” (8)? Do not examples abound of the fact that “ virtue, after all, is far from being synonymous with survival; duplicity is” (8).

And yet, and yet, despite all our disillusioned realism don’t we indeed carry some idea, some desire of justice within us? And isn’t longing (9) integral to the human soul, and not to be dismissed as a mere fancy even if it is not within our power to realize it? So again, why blaming Eliot for novels that evoke exactly this ambiguity of the human condition?
“Justice is [...] not without us as a fact, it is within us as a great yearning”.

And then, secondly, I personally cannot find that much fault with Eliot’s heroines. I don’t think they’re that downtrodden, actually I find them far braver than many of their more cheeky sisters in literature. They may not find a suitable mate, they may not rise to fame (10) – but they do retain their full personal integrity. In fact, they cope with life’s adversities, with the world’s “meanness of opportunity” and , not least, with their own limitations with “all the grace and dignity they can muster”.
Why would Jane Eyre be worth more just because she finds “perfect concord” with Mr Rochester?
And speaking of depressing literary heroines ... please spare me the female figments of 19th Century male imagination. Spare me the likes of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, even Effi Briest ... victims of their presumed irrationality, mercilessly convicted to death by their creators.

Really, I very much prefer Eliot’s heroines. Because of their genuine though unsuccessful yearnings, their reflectiveness, their tenacity, their honesty and, most of all, because of their unfailing integrity...

They may not triumph on the world’s stage , but at least they stay alive, they potter on, they don’t go mad – which is actually quite an achievement for a 19th century female literary character!

Notes & Quotes
(1) Joseph Brodsky
(2) discussing the worth of fictional characters (beyond technical considerations), boils down to assessing possible ways of being as represented by the writer – so these are inevitably highly subjective discussions ...
(3) Virginia Woolf on George Eliot , article first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 20th November, 1919.
(4) “though I can’t be happy, I can be good” : an exhortation that indeed, throughout the ages, has kept too many a good woman from rebelling against crushing conditions
(5) But then, VW’s text is delightfully brimming with nuances and ambiguities – a text worth reading and savouring again and again
(6) from the introduction to Romola by Dorothea Barrett: “None of these heroines is permitted to find the answer that George Eliot found for herself”
(7) Romola, p 582
(8) Joseph Brodsky
(9) Ah, Longing! How I cherish longing.
Longing in its most ineffective form, as an agnostic but metaphysical desire. Desires for instances of beauty, goodness, justice, ... that are not of this world.
Surely there must be many profound philosophical treatises on the subject. But for now I’ll stick to a couple evocative quotes:
- “The narrator declares her agnosticism, but at the same time describes human desires that history and reality cannot accommodate, desires that find their fulfillment only in the imaginative world of romance. “Justice is like the Kingdom of God – it is not without us as a fact, it is within us as a great yearning” “(again Dorothea Barrett in her Romola-introduction)
- “[Eliot’s heroines] demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence” (again VW on GE)
- (nothing to do with Eliot but a great occasion none the less for one my favourite Walter Benjamin quotes): “the new is mythic because its potential is not yet fully realized – the old is mythic because its desires never were fulfilled “
(10) And, frankly, isn’t Romola’s 15th Century fate somehow consistent with Virginia Woolf’s own historical hypothesis in “if Shakespeare had a sister”?

From a Passion for Pavements to Medieval Scholastic Thought

A flâneur is of course bound to have a passion for pavements – those solid tracks reliably carrying her on her way to nowhere in particular.

But for a weary and dull mind there’s also the transcendental lure of banal grey pavements, when they turn into scintillating refractors of light...

There are indeed certain slants of light, in late summer or early autumn, that set pavements truly ablaze, making one’s heart jump with joyful expectation (though of what, one does not know).

The metaphysics of light... Medieval scholastics knew all about it, as did medieval architects – building Gothic cathedrals which, through their luminous splendour, could elevate even the dullest spirits to eternal truths.

“Mens hebes ad verum per materialia surgit,
Et demersa prius hac visa luce resurgit”(1)

(1)“The dull mind rises to truth, through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion” (Abbot Suger of St. Denis)

Flâneur on the Beach!

There was some reason for smugness: gregarious normality finally beckoned!
After years of dodging holiday questions from colleagues and family (so as not to embarrass them nor myself – see note1) I at last wouldn’t need to remain discreet about my holidays.
I too was going to storm a beach, spending a July week with C in a cottage at the French coast. But ah – I’d gotten it wrong again, having chosen the North of France (Nord-Pas-de-Calais) , which, so I learned from bemused reactions, is not nearly Exotic or Southern enough to be acceptable as a Summer Holiday Destination. “Ecoute, je ne vois vraiment pas l’intérêt”, a genuinely baffled colleague exclaimed.

Obviously, C and I did see the interest of the place, and from our customary, widely differing perspectives at that. C was enchanted by the maritime vistas offered by the busy ship-routes in the straight between Calais and Dover. From the terrace of our temporary abode on the Wimereux-coast (in between Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais) she could watch for hours the ships sailing by - huge oil tankers seemingly motionless on the horizon, the steady traffic of ferries doggedly going up and down the Canal, the frivolous little triangles of leisurely sailing yachts. With an annoyed grunt I ‘d look up from my book (2) whenever she would excitedly pass on the binoculars , “hey look – you can see the lights of the Dover Patrol Memorial over there on the English coast!”.

From the Jurassic to hard sour Napoleon candy

With more shared enthusiasm we explored the Cap Griz Nez landscape on foot, such as that marvellous coast from Cap Blanc Nez to Cap Gris Nez . How not to be awed by the millenary geological grandeur of those shores! Humbly seen from below on the beach, by two tiny mortals caught in between an ageless sea and towering cliffs dating from the Jurassic period. Or triumphantly standing on top of a majestic cliff (where surprisingly sweet pink flowers grew and sheep & cows calmly grazed) exulting in the view of a scintillating sea-surface stretching all the way to the white cliffs of Dover.

Man, alas, has also entertained many grand military visions here.

In the nearby planes of Boulogne-Sur-Mer, Napoleon assembled his troops, first pondering an invasion of England (which never happened) and then marching his Grand Army on from there to Austerlitz – a battle considered by some as his supreme tactical military masterpiece (and by others as just another European carnage).
A column at the site of the Boulogne camp was erected to commemorate the distribution of medals (“la légion d’honneur”) by Napoleon to his faithful warriors. Nowadays it is the familiar silhouette of the “little corporal” that is perched on top of the 53 metres high triumphal column: an almost endearing silhouette cherished from childhood as it figured on the wrappers of my favourite hard sour candy, the “napoleons”.

However, the initial statue, now kept in a building on the site, is undoubtedly closer to the pompous ways of a megalomaniac emperor. Wandering into the building, the unsuspecting visitor feels suitably dwarfed by this towering figure in coronation costume with full regalia including a laurel crown worthy of a roman emperor. A tribute-poem by Victor Hugo (yes, the Hugo of Les Misérables would also glorify France’s military prowess) is equally revealing of the delusions of imperial grandeur once harboured by the French. Delusions by which no French president, however republican, has ever been entirely untainted.

Into the bunkers!

And then, of course, all over Northern France, one can still see the traces of the battlefields of the worldwars I and II. There are the cemeteries with rows and rows of graves of young men killed in their prime (nearby the fashionable seaside resort of Le Touquet, one can visit the harrowing Etaples Commonwealth cemetery , with almost 11.000 burials of the first world war ...)

And then there are the bunkers, the many bunkers and fortifications that have pockmarked the coast of the Pas de Calais.
More often than not they were useless feats of outstanding military engineering – since invasions of course never took place how and where the cunning generals had prepared for it. The French had their useless “Maginot line” along the German border, the Germans had their inadequate “Atlantic wall” in the west , also built along the Pas de Calais.

One of these huge bunkers has been recycled as a military museum, the “Batterie Todt”, so named after the highly productive civil and military German engineer Todt. Boasting a “superb arms collection” this museum also merchandises military paraphernalia (genuinely historical! exclaims a yellowing card ), amongst which demilitarized grenades, still fearsome knives as well as rolls of vintage WWII bandages. One does wonder about the motivations of its eager visitors: what about those short cropped, blond and blue eyed Scandinavians ...? An apology for my own interest in these matters (as dubious as it is ambivalent) can be found here(3).

Many bunkers have been dynamited, their concrete debris mixed up on the beaches below with natural rocks, both covered now by shells and green algae. Yet other bunkers still stick out of the cliffs, or lay there in the fields above , abandoned, half overgrown with weeds. Cautiously venturing into one of them we were met with a penetrating smell of paint and the clicking sounds of paint spray cans - two young men (looking quite cool in their baggy jeans and leather jackets) were busy spraying tags and grotesque figures on the few areas of walls that were not yet plastered with graffiti. They looked very annoyed at our intrusion, boldly staring us off from their turf.

Ah, bunkers, graffiti... – aren’t both about aggressively claiming territory? Leaving one’s marks, appropriating space...

Oh no, not about angels again...

Post-moderns have of course extensively argued that all art is about imposing the values of the dominant classes or about selfish individual assertiveness in a never ending struggle for supremacy. I humbly (and stubbornly) beg to differ. I’m not denying that art is dependent on the means furnished by the ruling classes (be it spendthrift kings and bourgeois or compulsively consuming masses) and I'm aware that art is a profession also sometimes sought out by egomaniacs pursuing fame and riches only.

But still, I do feel that art definitely can reach beyond petty individual interests. Because it is so intricately bound up with our aesthetical and moral sense it does seem to impose laws defying banality and self-interestedness. Both in theocratic and agnostic eras, art can express the human, all too human yearning for transcendence. And only art, in its utter concentration on human sensibilities, may capture and record the subtle hues of our so fleeting sensations and emotions.

All this to introduce the two art gallery visits of my beach-holiday!

I hadn’t thoroughly researched the cultural must-sees of this beach-holiday so the “Château-Musée” of Boulogne-sur-Mer came as a surprise.
Minutes before I had still been cycling along the sunny and crowded Boulogne-quays, and there I found myself staring at an Egyptian sarcophagus, having contained the remains of a Grand Egyptian Lady (so the accompanying card read) : Nodjenmout, Grande Musicienne de la chorale de Mout, Maîtresse d’Isheroy, Joueuse de sistre, Dame du Ciel.
In another room I could peer down at a Greek vase showing the tragic moment when Ajax, “abandoned by men and gods” prepares to throw himself on a sword. Elsewhere I looked, baffled and moved, at ritual expressive masks from Alaska Eskimos , all neatly tagged : “He Who Does Not Know”, “He Who Is Sceptical" ,”He Who Is Sad”, [and what about she? ] . More usefully: “He Who Announces The Weather” and, intriguingly: “Different, Not Like Us”.

By contrast, a temporary exhibition sought to reconcile us with our transience, from Claudio Parmiggiani’s spectral afterimages (the shadowy contours of books on a wall – drawn by the deposits of soot and smoke) to Patrick Neu’s renaissance angels drawn with Chinese ink on iridescently blue butterfly wings.
The relative permanence of respectively books and ancient masters’ paintings, made hostage to the most fragile and fleeting of mediums...

But while Neu’s butterfly angels kept nagging at my failing memory (which renaissance angels did I exactly recognize?), the wooden angels in the museum of Arras (visited on the way back home) had no such torture in store.
They just smiled their benevolent smiles, like their sibling at Reims.

Notes on holiday
(1) For years I have been cheerfully avoiding sun, sea & sand to embark instead on thematic holidays (with the themes reflecting whatever my heart and mind was pre-occupied with at the time). Thus have I travelled by train to the great port cities of Europe, did I almost devoutly visit the French cathedral cities and have I obstinately sought ways to arrive by ways of public transports (complemented at times by a rented bike) at the small French towns with Romanesque churches. European cities with hallowed ancient art museum have also consistently been a beloved target. But what really really exasperated a well-meaning family-member inquiring about my holidays, was when, after I had been visiting for two consecutive annual holidays a friend amongst the improbable ruins of Detroit, I then enthused about a recent trip to English cities such as Bristol and even, up North, Liverpool and Manchester (these paragons of lost 19th century industrial grandeur! The Parallels with Belgian formerly industrial cities! Those sublimely stuffy Victorian museums!): “why can’t you ever take a normal holiday?
(2) Clarice Lispector – "La découverte du monde" – I’m enchanted and intrigued, though the book I read is just a collection of columns she published in papers and magazines (perhaps accounting for an intermittent, annoying whiff of banality). But on the whole there’s a melancholic and reflective bent to her writings that makes me very eager to discover her ‘serious’ books
(3) Alarmed blog readers can rest assured – I’m not into buying WWII grenades

The Optics of Tangible Reading Materials

The Optics of Green

Compact digital cameras and Green .... it won’t ever work.... On the other hand, something beautiful may be blossoming between a self-declared hard-core city-flâneur and Green. And this is not just about the pearl-grey shimmering greens of a Watteau... No, I must confess: I have gotten under the spell of real full-blown summer Greens!

Wandering Books

There’s much to mourn in present day trains – gone are the little red curtains on copper railings, gone the iron luggage racks, not a splinter of wood nor a single shred of faux-velvet remains on the seats. All has been replaced by PVC and polyester. Even a summer railway breeze has become a thing of the past, what with air-conditioning and handleless windows.

But luckily a train still rolls on rails! Thus yet producing enough rattling and swaying to accompany a roving mind. And as handleless and tainted they may be, train windows do faithfully go on fulfilling their essential function of revealing fleetingness, be it of landscapes rushing by outside or of shimmering reflections inside.

Settling down with a book in a train, for me, still remains one of the most appeasing rituals – with both book and train offering a reassuring forward movement (and, at least for the length of a voyage, some purpose and a destination ) while still generously allowing one’s thoughts to wander off.

The book-specimen I was holding on these photos may well have been particularly conceived to enlighten the train-travelling masses – it’s a pocket, having once cost a handful of shillings only. But quite nicely designed (PHAIDON press oblige), and with a hardcover proudly announcing a “hundred plates” inside.

The bizarre resilience of high art ... three years after a bloody war the English were reading a book by the nifty Goncourt brothers about French 18th century painters? I could of course have acquired this book in French, and more lavishly illustrated with reproductions of much better quality at that. But I found it quite moving, this sturdy 1948 pocket with its delicately rustling pages. (Oh I do dread the day I’ll be fingering a smooth i-Pad’s touch screen instead of sensuous paper).

The reflection of an open book in a train window ... a quite joyous vision really. But photos (even digital ones) sometimes express an unexpected mood. How grave and ominous these reflections seem, dark letters floating in the sky....

“[Ils] vagabondent dans l'air - A la recherche d’un logis - Ils habitent dans mon âme” (Chagall)

(Showing off my 1948 pocket!)

Coincidental Correspondences (or: the Russians are coming!)

Braving Hail & Rain!

It was a dangerously vacant April Sunday – I was in between books and had felt too drained after the work week to briskly plan for any outings. C, sprawled out on the coach, did not brim with energy either and looked dubiously at the blackening sky when I suggested a walk in the country side.

The weather had been capricious all day – hail storms and gushing outpours alternating with brilliantly sunny intervals. Hmmm – so think of the dramatic skies above Brussels ... Think of the whole range of light effects, the hazy counter light, the glistering & blistering refractions and reflections: on pavements & in gutters, in window-panes & on rooftops.... Think of the smells – all the lingering exhaust fumes at last vacuumed out by rainy humus vapours!

Yes!!! Exit the worn out bank employee – enter the hard core flâneur (1), ready to reclaim her city and the drowsy Sunday afternoon. So an orange rain jacket (along with watertight overshoes, trousers and gloves) was put on, chain & pedals of the mountain bike were oiled and a helmet was securely fastened on the head.

The timing was perfect – the first heavy drops started falling just when I set out, and soon enough rain was lashing out, having me sputtering & snorting while swooshingly racing down a hill. By the time the sun broke out again, I was strenuously pedalling & panting , climbing to one of the higher spots in Brussels, “altitude 100”, where a nearby park offers a grand view of the tumultuous skies above and the city below.

The City Below ...

The city below .... so different from the residential neighbourhoods above.
The city below, adjacent to former industrial areas, spreading out along the railway, with its boroughs struggling against poverty and various stages of neglect. But these neighbourhoods have also been given a boisterous new lease of life by the successive waves of immigrants that have turned Brussels into such a melting pot of minorities. In these streets rooftops and balconies have blossomed into a surreal forest of white satellite discs and the air is filled with unfamiliar accents & intonations ( Arabic? Slavic?) .
Luckily, a cycling flâneur can insouciantly revel in this avalanche of urban sensations and contrasts, while a reflective citizen must rather worry about how all these different new strands are to be woven in one cohesive whole.

But no time to brood, because by then I had already reached the South station where cars honked and slalomed amongst the remains of the Sunday morning market. I slalomed likewise and took pride in beating them all in the last straight line to the traffic lights. At a more leisurely pace I then rode through an amazingly mixed part of town, in between the poor and overpopulated canal zone and the historical city centre. There you can see tea-houses filled with gesticulating bearded men as well as trendy cafés with relaxed male and female youngsters sporting i-pads. There you cycle by run-down garages with shady going ons while on the next corner you can find an über-hip contemporary art gallery.

Closer to the centre you at last get to the areas where more traditional Belgian-Brussels trades & customs assert themselves – be it fish restaurants, traditional beer-and-cheese shops, elegant antique shops & galleries or the full-blown tourist attractions at and near the Grande Place.

Coincidental Correspondences

I was getting tired, legs cramping and brain overflowing with stimuli, when my eyes were arrested by a shop front.
It was an up-market antique shop and its main window displayed a painting in a gilded frame, something 18th Century French perhaps, showing a finely dressed lady playing the piano in a lavish interior, with a man reverently gazing at her. “Contemplation” said the title-sign on the frame . It was a curiously anachronistic sight after my wild ride through Brussels’ contemporary cityscape. Anachronistic, curious – and yet, tand yet... the picture did strike a chord ....

But before I could explore whatever memories & associations were drifting up, my attention was caught by the lettering on the wall above the shop window. What kind of alphabet was that? The shop was called l’Egide and sported 2 helmeted Greek heads on its sign board ... but this was not the Greek alphabet, was it? Rather Cyrillic Russian or something? Russian letters on a Brussels antique-shop? Why Russian??? Russian owners? Or Russian signs in deference to superrich Russian oligarchs descending upon Brussels to buy expensive antiques and 18th Century frivolous French paintings? No idea.

But so, getting back to that painting – stripped of its French frivolous niceties & innuendo’s , it did remind me of another, beloved picture. A pensive, melancholy painting that was, showing a bourgeois interior in which a woman, seen from the back, is playing the piano and a man, sitting in a chair with his legs crossed and his head slightly turned, listens almost devoutly. It was by Ensor, from an early period when he was still doing these haunting interiors in which dusty light is dimly refracted, as if it were gnawing at the material world.
What was its title again...? Something with music. Musique... Musique russe? – Russian music, yes!

Russian letters - reminiscences of “Russian music”. How utterly amusing – trapped in a fragmented world which tosses up an uncontrollable variety of sensations and meanings, my own plodding mind neatly weaves correspondences (2), however accidental and unrelated.

19th Century annotations to a 21st Century post

(1) There is the dandy-esk, elegant Flâneur, gingerly leaving his carriage to stroll, armed with cane, umbrella & hat, along elegant tree-lined avenues in 19th century Paris. And then there is the hard-core 21st C urban flâneur who
a) needs to cover larger distances in sprawling cities ,
b) also passes through rougher neighbourhoods not a priori designed for bourgeois strolling and
c) must be attentive to a variety of menaces on the road: such as stray glass shards & bottles and, especially, far too many & too speedy cars.
Therefore, though still graceful in the deepest of her thoughts, this hard core flâneur has had to shed all pretence to elegance in both means of transport and clothing in order to adapt to her environment.

(2) Baudelaire – extrait de “Correspondances” (EN in note 3):
“La Nature [ou plutôt la ville, dans ce cas-ci] est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,[…]"

(3) Baudelaire – extract from “Correspondences” (translated by William Aggeler)
“Nature [or rather the city, in this case] is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity, [...]”

Brussels sightseeing in variable weather

capricious clouds ("altitude 100")

cycling street views

wings of desire (der Himmel über B.)

Of impetuous Jesuits, a plastic cleaning spray bottle and the Passion

Why one should not avoid churches in one’s home country (even when childhood-memories object)

“Mais on se croirait en Italie – toutes ces églises qui renferment tant de trésors d’art, tant d’histoire! ”(* EN below) - so I overheard some years ago an elderly French lady whispering excitedly to her husband in the cathedral of Antwerp.

And I must confess that I myself too have first travelled to Italy, to France, to Germany, ... to stand there in awe of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, before it ever crossed my mind to go and see their counterparts closer to home. These ‘domestic’ churches were perhaps too tainted by unhappy associations with the hours of boredom spent as a child in Sunday mass, feeling oppressed by the heavy wooden culprits and confessionals and the nauseating smell of incense drifting in a small town baroque church. And, back then, what was I to make from the outrageous altar painting showing fat babies twirling around a garish scene of a swords man slaughtering a frightened woman (1)?

Fortunately, my love of art history has since much widened my appreciation of the many different forms & meanings which the human imagination can spawn. And while the basic chords of my own sensibility are rather attuned to contemplative gravitas and sober harmonies, I can now also admire the turmoil of Baroque art, in which formerly static classical forms so splendidly reach a boiling point (2) . And no need to go to Rome to be swept away by the histrionics of Jesuit propaganda. Also in the (now) drowsy little town of Malines/Mechelen (3), you can savour the full visual splendour of the Jesuit missionary zeal in the saints Peter and Paul church (4). And then there is the Jesuit “heaven on earth” in Antwerp: the Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk / St Charles Borromeo’s church with its magnificent high altar, where the theatrical genius of the Jesuits has even conceived of a cunning system allowing the altar paintings to alternate, in keeping with the religious theme of the season. (5)

A sulking pagan aesthete begrudges worshippers their yellow narcissuses
But I suppose that this appreciation of the religious art & architecture of churches qua temporal art only, must be a source of annoyance and grief for the few remaining faithful in our low countries. Consider their fate after 2000 years of history: outnumbered by pagan tourists tramping about with guidebooks & cameras in their holy places of worship, during religious service huddles together in conspicuously outsized spaces, still hardly sustained by the surrounding magnificent visuality. Ah, the poignancy of this humbled contemporary religious practice! How emblematic, those few dozens of plastic chairs I noticed in the cathedral of Tournai ... worshippers confined to a space fenced off by ugly gas heaters and makeshift chipboards (6).

And elsewhere, in those monumental churches with their grand history, the heart-rending pettiness of it all: peeling feel-good posters with cloyingly sentimental slogans, pathetic attempts to contemporary decorations and language, the pottering about with vases filled with homely yellow flowers – so puny & banal in those huge spaces. Or so I gloomily mused while visiting on Holy Saturday the famous Antwerp church of St. James. It was somehow disappointingly sombre, with the sun hiding behind the clouds, the walls so dull and grey, and the high altar and Rubens chapel just then closed to visitors (tourist visits obviously being curtailed in preparation of the Easter-service).

While thus grumbling & sulking (beware the ire of ascetic aesthetes who are being denied their portion of high art ecstasy!) I reluctantly toured the remaining parts of the church and suddenly stood face to face with a small kitschy Madonna statue in a folkloristic dress. Set on a small pedestal, she smiled benevolently, surrounded by fresh yellow narcissuses, and with a big plastic cleaning spray bottle standing guard behind her . I instantly felt deeply ashamed to have judged so harshly the unsophisticated efforts of people lovingly tending to what they value . Haven’t Catholics been bashed enough (7) – nowadays often with an unsavoury glee, like a collective spitting on anything or anyone aspiring to something beyond the fulfilment of material needs. And as grumpy & unsentimental & atheist & art-elitist as I might be, didn’t I much rather wander about here, among the naive yellow flowers in a chilly church, instead of having to brave the unbridled consumerism in the nearby gaudy shopping streets?

“Positive psychology” or the Passion?
And instead of reading cooking books or “wellness” & “positive psychology” books (8) , didn’t I much rather explore the captivating history of the human imagination, our “Geistesgeschichte”, be it as a history of art forms or even as a history of theological significations (9)? And so it was with loving concentration that during the Easter-weekend I read “The Passion in Art” , written by Richard Harries, an English bishop, in the series of “Ashgate Studies in Theology, Imagination and the Arts”. (10) However, I fear the bishop might not approve of my mindset which is one that interprets everything in terms of the human, all too human, quest for meaning and consolation and transcendence beyond “this vale of tears”. In the Passion story I thus see the crucifixion as a deeply moving, universal human tragedy, with the resurrection an expression of the human longing for redemption of unredeemable sufferings.

These qualifications made, I admit being fascinated by this Christian theological possibility of “showing Christ dead on the Cross, indicating that he was indeed fully human, going through a death as ours”. (11) In the book the erudite art-loving bishop quotes a tenth century priest who pithily and movingly resumes the theological “divinity ànd humanity” Passion - doctrine :
“From his assumption of humanity, he was affected by fasts, overcome with sleep, oppressed by insults and jeers, bound, taken captive, scourged, cuffed round his ears, held in derision, crucified at the end, pierced with a lance, kept down for a space [of time] by death, buried, and then on the third day, having conquered death, he was raised again. This we confess by our catholic faith” (12)

How outrageous in fact, showing even a God as weak and suffering, inspiring pity, promising mercy for us poor sinners. How far removed from the Antique gods, both mischievous and stern, with their utter indifference to the fate of mere mortals, how opposed to the ideals of stoic heroism of classical antiquity! Having grown older, sadder and milder I now tend to see this evolution towards pity, tolerance and empathy as progress. (Obviously no longer railing together with Nietzsche against a sentimentalist 'slave-moral').

A grumbling conclusion
How to conclude this Easter post? Not with a joyous declaration of faith – I remain as atheist as I ever was. But with a brooding interrogation – we may have gained enormously in scientific understanding and technological prowess, we can think more freely than ever, released from the shackles of stale, worn out traditions – but how come then that we (“we” – “on average”, ” in majority”) are so utterly shallow, almost frantically avoiding to think or to reflect about our human condition? Who, say in a thousand years time, will ever bother to read all our cooking and wellness books which seem to reflect our current main spiritual occupations.

The tolling of Easter-notes
(*) "But this feels like Italy! All those churches, full of art treasures and with such rich history!"
(1) so at least I seem to remember this outrageous altar painting depicting a martyrdom of Saint Barbara (according to an amateur Web-page I found)
(2) “émotion et mouvement à tout prix” – Jacob Burckhardt
(3) Malines / Mechelen – Margaret of Austria once ruled the whole of the Netherlands from there!
(4) you also may encounter there the four (then known) continents being represented by exotic figures and “savages” and be taught, in 10 instructive scenes, the tasks of Jesuit missionaries travelling around the world
(5) ok this provisional set-up was due to the Tournai cathedral being restored, but even allowing for that, the worshippers could not ever fill the vast nave.
(6) “To fulfil its role as an eye-catcher the painting above the high altar can be replaced. This change can be effected by a unique mechanism installed by the Antwerp Jesuits. Behind the altar immense slots have been placed to accommodate four paintings. A painting is placed into position by means of a hoist, according to the theme needed in the liturgical calendar.” See
(7) My ambivalence towards all things religious has already been discussed elsewhere on this blog. There’s religion’s suspicion of rational human reasoning, there's its immense oppressiveness once it has become a totalitarian system imposing its immutable doctrines and crushing all “heretics” and minorities. But on the other hand – religions are the age old repositories of much of human thinking about morality, the world and the human condition. It has inspired the deepest, most subtle meditations and the kindest of commiserating acts just as it has alas led to the crudest, most crushing of dogma’s and the cruellest of tortures.
(8) In an online Belgian/Flemish Non-fiction books top 10, I today counted 7 cooking books, 2 wellness books and, oh dear, 1 political essay
(9) Whether one stares at the swarming figures and scenes in those religious “ mirrors of nature, learning, morals and history” which the Gothic cathedrals truly are , or whether one finds oneself dumbfounded by the twisting and turning intricacies of mediaeval scholastic thought - it is both awe-inspiring and incomprehensible how much human energy and ingenuity has gone into theological constructs and interpretations. Not to mention how much animosity these have spawned, and how much blood has been shed to defend them. All for nought? Not from a humanistic point of view – “records of human thought do not age” ...
(10) A book I stumbled upon in the bookshop Procopius (in Louvain) : a soothingly sober bookshop with an unsurpassed offer of slightly off-beat but great “human documents”. Where else can you pick up, in a single short browsing session, a reprint of a Victorian socio-biological book on “evolution and ethics”, a thorough study of the "Passion in Art" and a National Gallery catalogue of Northern Renaissance painters? Heartfelt thanks go to LH for having pointed out the Procopius bookshop to me.
(11) The Resurrection is of course a glorious victory over death and in his book the bishop keeps insisting on the fact that Crucifixion and Resurrection always have to be seen together. He also very eruditely explains why the first depictions of Christ on the Cross were made only around 420 AD, and even then showing “no defeated Christ: his eyes are open and head upright”. The initial reluctance to images of the crucifixion would be due to the fact that “The crucifixion was, quite simply, a form of public execution, a horrible judicial torture. To an onlooker, crucifixion conveyed not only agony but disgrace. [...] Emperor Constantine abolished crucifixion as a form of public execution when he became a Christian some time after 312” . But still, there’s no denying that over the centuries the “Christ-suffering-on-the-Cross” has become the most powerful Christian symbol, not withstanding the also rich iconography of the Resurrection - mostly scenes of humans witnessing an empty grave or a Christ returned, because it’s rather hard of course to depict something as transcendentally transformational as a Resurrection! (Though perhaps the images of the Harrowing of Hell come closest? )
(12) Reads as the ‘libretto’ of Bach's Matthaeus passion ...

From Bandstands to Baudelaire (blogging about "Kiosques à Musique"/"Muziekkiosken")

How I felt let down by the English language, and by Google, and by Wikipedia and by the whole worldwide web. There I sat, longing for images of romantic 19th century summer parks, with elegant cast-iron pavilions sheltering brass bands playing invigorating music... Full of nostalgic expectations I had typed “Music Kiosk” , the literal English transcript of a most charming Dutch word. But ach, Google promptly led me to a horrendous collection of gleaming digital music vending machines. Wikipedia did mention “Kiosks” as open garden pavilions in ancient Persia and India but then brutely switched to kiosks as banal sales booths in more recent times. When trying “Music pavilion” instead, Google threw up some futuristic Arkansas music stage.

An ordinary dictionary brought help : “Bandstand” was the word! “Bandstand” .... what an utterly disappointing word, so entirely without grace.
Just as dull and basic as the stingy page that Wikipedia devotes to bandstands.
So is this then a mainly continental European enchantment? At any rate, not only are the Dutch ("Muziek Kiosk") and French words ("Kiosque à Musique") far nicer – the subject also seems to raise more affectionate interest on the European continent than in Anglosaxon regions. The French Wikipédia page about Kiosques & Kiosques à Musique is as instructive as Wiki comes (1). And I found many Dutch and French webpages testifying of impassioned individual initiatives to save local Kiosques à Musique/Muziekkiosken from sad neglect and disrepair.

Thus, for the briefest of moments I pictured myself, travelling all over Europe, on a exalted mission to photograph and document all those charming 19th century kiosques à musiques / muziekkiosken/ music kiosks (2). But my ailing employer needn’t worry about losing a diligent (albeit disheartened) worker to so frivolous a project. Because the project is no longer needed: a comprehensive kiosk-inventory has already been put on line – please see “kiosques du monde” for a brief history , a bibliography, literary references and many many pictures. On that site I furthermore learned that the ultimate book about kiosques à musique has also already been written, by Marie–Claire Mussat: La Belle Epoque des Kiosques à Musique (3)

Whence this sudden infatuation with “kiosques à musiques / muziekkiosken/ music kiosks” (2), the puzzled reader may ask. Not sudden at all, and obviously much more durable than an infatuation. It is part of my fascination for the 19th Century – so materialistic and positivist and ruthless an age – and yet, how tangible its architectural heritage, how exalted still its reverence for culture, how aesthetically minded its engineers and architects (whether they were building sturdy railway stations, bridges, or rather more frivolous bandstands).

And then, last week, I happened to be moved by an endearing example of such a bandstand, while wandering about in Tournai, a sleepy provincial Walloon town - with however a grandiose past, as witnessed by its formidable Romanesque cathedral, its bulky 19th Century railway station and various other remaining civil buildings and public spaces. Tournai is also home to one of the most charming museums I know (4).
On my way to this museum, I strolled through an austere looking public park, surrounded by dignified though worn-out neo-classical buildings, the whole looking rather desolate with the flowerbeds still empty and the fountains dead. In an adjacent, wooded public garden the trees still looked very wintry, and there, through the bare branches, I caught a first glimpse of it.

This kiosk (2), so rusty and decaying, so abandoned - and yet, by its sheer form and materiality evoking blissful summers past, careless gaiety and frivolous garden pleasures enlivened by arousing brass music ...

« Pour entendre un de ces concerts, riches de cuivre,
Dont les soldats parfois inondent nos jardins,
Et qui, dans ces soirs d'or où l'on se sent revivre,
Versent quelque héroïsme au coeur des citadins. »(5)

(1) Britannica: One can only wonder how the formidable Encyclopedia Britannica and Larousse Encyclopédie would treat the subject. Not on-line I mean, but in their heavy weight book version. I bet they’d illuminate the reader with nice little époque drawings of “kiosques à musique” and with cross references to lemma’s about light music and about military music and about “belle époque” leisure habits? But alas, recently a news flashed by on the internet announcing the end of the Brittanica as a book . This is what The Independent writes: “On a sad day for knowledge, metaphors, and door-to-door salespeople, Encyclopaedia Britannica announced last week that it will no longer publish its print edition, and henceforth it will only be available online and as an app.”
(2) Bandstand: The word, alas, is “Bandstand” - OED: “ a covered platform outdoors, where musicians, especially a brass or military band, can stand and play”
(3) Belle Epoque - the hunt is open to find a physical copy of this book - Marie-Claire Mussat: La Belle Epoque des Kiosques à Musique
(4) Beaux Arts : Le Musée des Beaux Arts de Tournai was built early in the 20th Century by the art nouveau architect Horta, displaying a fascinating mix of styles, hesitating between sinuous art nouveau and much sterner and geometric art deco. When you push open the heavy doors of this outwardly rather austere looking building, you cannot but gasp from sheer delight and happiness. There you are welcomed by sheltering spaces, lavish ceiling light and many an enchanting perspective. It’s a museum with a small but beautiful collection ranging from a Madonna by the local painter Roger de la Pasture (aka Rogier van der Weyden) to some famous impressionist paintings.
(5) Baudelaire

A Toothache for the Weekend

Up till now I had been spared from serious toothache.
Up till Friday night that is – when a robust toothache declared itself with a vengeance, firmly resolved to stay with me all weekend. And viciously spreading throbbing pain not only in teeth but also in head, jaw and ear.

Awaiting Monday’s visit to the dentist there has been plenty of time to ponder the ineffectiveness of prescription-free painkillers. And neither did reading offer an escape, as pain messes too much with concentration.

But Mozart has been soothing, as has been a walk in the woods.
Browsing through old pictures has proven a fine distraction too – especially when engaging in a game of guessing the season purely from the quality of the light.
So that explains the presence here of two unseasonal urban autumn light pictures. One was taken on the yearly car-free Sunday in September, mid to late afternoon. The other one was taken on a train, on a late October or September afternoon.

"so much the greater longing for what is lost"

“[...] one of the most important aspects of the symbolic register of the classics: that sense of imminent loss, the terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity (always in danger of rupture), the fear of barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value . [...] Tracts on the decline of the classics [...] are in part the expressions of the loss and longing and the nostalgia that have always tinged classical studies. [...]

The truth is that the classics are by definition in decline: even in what we now call the “Renaissance”, the humanists were [...] [rather] for the most part engaged in a desperate last-ditch attempt to save the fleeting and fragile traces of the classics from oblivion. [...] The sense of imminent loss, the perennial fear that we might just be on the verge of losing the classics entirely, is one very important thing that gives them [...] the energy and edginess that I think they still have”

Notes & Attributions
(1) Title : from the last paragraph of Joachim Winckelmann’s “History of the Art of Antiquity”
(2) Lengthy Quotes : from Mary Beard’s NYRB article “Do The Classics Have a Future”
(3) Photo: taken while searching the skies for signs of Spring

Oblivious to the world - between reading & sleeping

I had never really looked at it before – at this painting of an old woman reading, by a certain Cornelis Bisschop. Well, I had certainly glanced over it before – labelling it as the work of a minor Dutch master of the Golden Age before moving on. The painting shows a rather darkish interior with clair-obscur contrasts - light focused on the woman reading and on some (possibly symbolic) objects while the rest of the interior is receding in darkish tones. All typical artifices indeed of Dutch 17th C art.

But then, what made me look so intently this time? Possibly I had now felt attracted to the look of concentration on the woman’s face , and to the way she sat there, reading. Because she sat there, not in any coquettish nor devout reading pose, but rather with the true bearing of one who is absorbed in her reading – with the mixture of corporal nonchalance and dignity bestowed on those intensely engaged in the life of the mind. And then there were the books – not just any books it seemed, not the family-bible either. No, these books were worn and weighty, filled with the wisdom of ages.

There are of course quite a lot of reading women to be seen in art history – what with all those Annunciations (the Virgin Mary looking up from her book, startled, when the divine messenger rushes in) and all those Saint Barbaras reading. But in those paintings the atmosphere is limpid and tranquil, the women are devout and the books undoubtedly holy. Thus they display none of the intense curiosity and concentration, none of the superior nonchalance that had struck me in this old Dutch woman’s bearing.

However, on closer inspection of the objects in this particular painting, I had to admit that the impression of active concentration was belied by the objects’ symbolism. The sculpted head on the wall, with the head drowsily inclined , ... that must be Hypnos (the God of sleep). And what’s with that key, so prominently hanging on the wall ... a key to the kingdom of sleep?

In the same room I was startled to see yet another painting with a similar iconography – a woman with a book on her lap, other worn books piled on a table, a key on the wall. But this woman was ungraciously snoring, her mouth slightly open. So it was only a superficial similarity – gone were the look of concentration, gone the dignified posture of reading which had so enchanted me.

But browsing on the web, I moreover learned that the subject of a woman-falling-asleep- with-a-book-on-her-lap is something of a standing theme in 17th C Dutch genre-painting.

So was my fascination for this particular painting a sorry case of hineininterpretierung? Was I projecting a longed for mood of concentration and dignified wisdom in a painting that merely shows a woman-nodding-off-above-her-book? And then this painting would not be a rare and happy celebration of the intent absorption of the reader, oblivious to the world?