tears - not too tiny to paint

Is it with a hint of disapproval that Friedländer thus describes the manner of Bernard van Orley  (painter in Brussels around 1520) : 

"Schmerz und Klage  sind mit der dem Zeitgeschmäck zusagenden Sentimentalität in gerunzelten Stirnen und geöffneten Mündern ausgedrückt. (1)"

But not a word about the tears (2) – which I am staring at, fascinated.

The gestures & cries of lamentations are universal – these days the media are full of them.       
People are shown crying, for sure, but their tears? Their tears are too silent, too tiny for TV.
Not too tiny to be painted though, at least not for the old masters, who never disdained detail.     

And so, across generations, one can find consolation in tiny blobs of paint, more permanent than we are, preserving things as fleeting as a tear rolling down a nose.


(1) "Pain and lamenting are expressed, according to the sentimental taste of the time, through wrinkled foreheads and open mouths."  (Friedländer -  Altniederländische Malerei VIII)

(2) Orley could of course draw on a rich heritage - notably on the work of Rogier van der Weyden, who painted "the most beautiful tears in our art history" (Leen Huet - "Mijn België")

(3) apologies for the dark photos - painting tears may be feasible, photographing them is yet another matter. Especially in a the dimmed light of a museum room, and with Orley's dark/light "to heigthen pathos and to facilitate his own job" "Das Pathos dadurch steigernd verhüllt er mit Dunkelheit Schwächen der Form und erleichtert sich die Arbeit."

"our beloved country, Belgium"

Calimero Against the Conceited Anglo-Saxons

Old & new Belgians do share a common trait – a certain sulking Calimero attitude, feeling wronged by the bigger boys.

Unfair – all this Belgium & Brussels Bashing. Unfair – all this Molenbeek & Muslim bashing.

The Anglo-Saxon press is the worst! – with their conceited condescendence!  Knowing next to nothing of our country (1)! even less of our history! let alone of our ‘glories’ (past or present (1))!  
Always mocking & criticising us! It's not fair!

But instead of being lectured by others, let’s do our criticism ourselves, having a candid look at how "it" could happen, at what we can do better. (I'm being very constructive here - almost sounding like my boss when he tries to align the troops for another company battle -  pas d’états d’âme. Il faut avancer dans l’ordre, ne pas se lancer des fusés  entre nous »)

Brussels (my beloved city?)

Take for instance Brussels – a cosmopolitan tolerant haven for misfits of all sorts.  That has always been its charm, even in the 19th century when French rebels of all stripes found refuge here. I too, as the misfit of the family, was irresistibly attracted.  So diverse a place, so indulgent that even I could feel at home. 
But so diverse a place, so indulgent that also each & every criminal can hide out here?  

Brussels’ governance is probably ill adapted to contemporary challenges. Its position makes it a logistic centre of Europe, not only for regular trade, but also for criminal gangs and for illegal weapons (which flooded the market when the iron curtain came down). 

It's a city governance struggling with the complexities of preserving a precarious balance between Flemish & Walloon claims, and with 19 boroughs doing their own thing. A city suffering from both the ‘Flemish’ drive to dismantle central power, and from a certain unhappy neglect of “integration” issues by some ‘french-speaking’ parties.  Compulsory integration courses (focusing on learning the language, learning the ropes of how things work) for instance were long seen as “stigmatising” for newcomers.  Based on some absolute principle of total diversity, this was a well-meaning but terribly ill-guided reaction against a far right discourse of absolute assimilation.

Someone had blundered, or not? 

And what about Belgian security blunders?  Naiveté, underestimation of the challenges? Maybe. Peut-être.Misschien. Het kan zijn. I now read that Belgium’s security budget per capita is about 3 times below that of neighbouring countries.

Could it simply be that the influx of newcomers has been too big and too fast for Belgium to absorb? Could it be that the systematic exploitation of the “back-door-entry” of family reunification (marrying a young girl or boy from the initial home region) has brought Belgium almost by stealth far too many people ill equipped for a post-industrial labor market? Could it be that too many of the newcomers too easily settled in their cosy Arabic speaking community,  watching only home country TV channels, listening to Arabic sermons by imported Moroccan or Saudi imams.  Sermons that may be peaceful enough, but that, removed from contemporary Belgian customs, feed the alienation of the youngsters.

“our beloved country, Belgium”

The Molenbeek imam in the Al Khalil mosquee reportedly fought against his tears during the Friday prayers (He spoke in Arabic, but his discourse was translated in French). “We must unite against radicalism. We all live in a single boat that we must protect and defend. […] May this attack be the last one for our beloved country, Belgium”.

The leader of the party-with-the-independence-of-Flanders-in-its-statutes,  since Tuesday twice spoke of “our country” .  I never heard him say that before, it was always (with a smirk) “this” county  - Belgiekske Nikske.

So, shall we be more united after this catastrophe? Defending “our country”? Maybe, peut- être, het kan zijn, misschien. I do hope so.

On the other hand, could this catastrophe be a catalyst for the acceleration of centrifugal forces?    In Belgium. In Europe (Brexit).  Well - maybe, peut-être, het kan zijn.  I do hope not. 

And the victims?

We don’t know much yet.
What we do know: the wounded are severely wounded, with ripped off limbs, with livers & lungs punctured by nails & shrapnel, brain trauma’s . And the dead are so unrecognizably dead that identification is progressing only very slowly.

What we do know: the victims are as diverse as Brussels – of all nationalities & religions. 

  1. The number of gross factual errors in the international press are a sobering reminder of how the press merely shows us a shadowy distorted image of reality. 
  2. The perfidious Anglo-Saxons even stole the God particle from us! Surreptitiously calling it the Higgs boson,  while it was a Brussels professor (François Englert) who first found it and published about it. “Oh, Charlemagne, you say he was from the region around Liège? That is now in Belgium? Really?” “Oh , Van Dyck, was he yours?” "Oh really,  did you lot paint landscapes before Turner & Constable did?”“Oh really,  did you play polyphonic music before we gave te world Purcell and the Beatles?
  3.  How about the political & socio-economic aspects of a partially failed integration? Belgium used to get good marks for political integration of immigtants (full civic rights, good representativeness in local councils etc.)  Social housing with minimum standards of comfort is ensured, there’s a comprehensive social security.  Molenbeek for instance has heavily invested in urban renewal over the past decade.  Last summer a friend who lives there, proudly walked us around, showing the new town square (very welcoming, almost Italian), the new park, the new businesses springing up, …    Schooling is free for all – but schools struggle with the influx of too many pupils speaking neither French nor Dutch at home. The drop-out rate is alarming. Another challenge we have probably underestimated. And racism? Yes alas, there is racism in daily life, and there is only so much that laws can do against that. But anti-racism laws do exist and they are being enforced. Local press and TV-channels do more and more efforts to be multi-coloured.
  4.  So far "the Belgian reaction" has been very dignified - mourning. But today, on Easter day, apparently a bunch of drunken Vilvoorde football hooligans descended upon  the city centre . 

bleak thoughts on a foggy day

Circle the wagons – and keep the equipment dry

It was a foggy morning when I cycled to the centre. Grey & still – at last a reprieve from the wailing sirens.  Very much a White Thursday (“Witte Donderdag” - Maundy or Holy Thursday) I thought, briefly cherishing the mirage of Easter tranquillity … until I got to the Wetstraat – where local television crews and press had gathered in front of the parliament – looking for local political responsibilities for the catastrophe.  (Is it because it offers an illusion of control, this tendency of self-blaming when evil strikes? The illusion that we can pursue politics as usual.) 

The city-centre felt hung-over, looking shabby and lost. Aha, the place to be for the international press : la Bourse / de Beurs,  where the night before people had gathered to light candles and to chalk messages of peace & love on the pavement.  The crowds were gone now – a dozen of people loitered aimlessly on the porch of the building, with behind them colourful international flags flapping listlessly. But the international press was perky & alert, going about their business in orderly fashion.

Circle the wagons!  About twenty different TV crews formed a neat circle around a bunch of fading  flowers and a handful of locals. Each crew was set up with a heap of coffers & equipment under a  marquee tent (rainy Belgium), a technician/operator , a camera on a tripod + one journalist in front of it, busy commenting or interviewing whoever was available. 
An eager journalist looked my way – I quickly mounted my bike, before Telewisja Polska could stick a mike under my nose.

Later I watched on the web a BBC video on Molenbeek  - the journalist had difficulties finding someone who would speak up, apparently it didn't for a moment occur to him to ask his questions in a language other than English.

“Could you please open your rucksack?“

Later that day, in the afternoon, I had picked up my laundry at the Polish laundromat and doggedly continued my way to the local supermarket. Head in hood against the drizzle, my thoughts were bleak.
Silently I was delivering incendiary speeches. Railing against all those predictable opinions so predictably voiced again.   Railing against the tiring usual right wing and left wing discourses – both equally inadequate. What an unholy alliance – divisive right wing discourse and naïve ostrich left wing discourse.

My glasses were getting fogged and I was seething –  brimming with bloody thoughts. But then I sternly admonished an inexistent audience that we should keep our heads cool. Yes, that’s what we must do!  Step back, regroup, analyse what went wrong - dispassionate, objective analysis, without right wing or left wing blinders.  Let each (Right, Left, Middle, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Atheist) look in his own sphere of influence and do his bit.  And stop telling me that Islam is peace – but please do keep telling it to those whose words and deeds shout out to the world that it is not.

I sped up my step  – Yes!  That’s what we should do! And we should wake up, too!  We are no longer one of the safest cities in the world, as we were 30 years ago (oh yes we were, once).  We must realise that “those who have chosen to be our enemies are not like the homely CCC-terrorists of old,  who spread flyers with “ attention –voiture piégée’” around the car they booby-trapped.  Today, “those who have chosen to be our enemies” put nails in their bombs – determined to kill and maim as many as possible.

I entered the supermarket resolutely.  The young Securitas guard (at terror level 4, BXls supermarkets now put private guards at their doors) was clearly taken aback by my apparent grim resolve – bravely he stopped me and asked “Could you please open your rucksack? “.
My combativeness deflated, I took off my hood, opened my rucksack and showed him my laundry.  The guard was embarrassed (I could almost see him thinking: is this how I’m going to prevent a terror attack, by checking people’s laundry?).  And I was embarrassed – suddenly aware of the futility of my thoughts.  

 But we smiled at each other, this young 'Mediterranean-looking' guard and I, as he waved me through with a polite  “merci bien madame , bon après-midi!