people watching

That 7-year old kid at the fun-fair was quite a charmer, despite his quirky mood-swings. Or maybe, he charmed thanks to those shifting moods, because, truly, they were a delightful spectacle to watch. The boy was the youngest of a bunch of kids which had been set loose (under benign parental guidance of course) amongst the attractions of a local summer fair. As small as he was, he looked very brave amongst the bigger kids.
But then, as swift as a cloud passing over the sun, his face would fall, his lips would tremble, tears would start rolling. And soon he'd be sobbing as the unhappiest little boy in the world. To be all smiles again five minutes later, eyes sparkling and ready to go for it. Oh and then how combative he would look, with anger flaring up in his eyes, when he didn’t get right away the coveted red football…

As adults too, we get bombarded all the time by multifarious emotions of frustration, despondency, anger, elation, … but thick layers of self-control smother most of those emotions, before they even make it to the surface of our face. Haven't we all had years & years of training in self-control. Dignity! Restraint!

Indeed, “could anything be more puerile than a mankind howling because it isn’t happy” (1) - surely we all have been told something to that effect at some stage in our education (even if only by our own, sterner alter ego).

Therefore, watching adult people in public spaces, is usually not very exciting. Adult people have perfected strategies of non-expressiveness, routinely deployed when they're on their own in, say, trains, waiting rooms etc.

When I first started working (oh, ‘the horror the horror’ (2)) all those years ago, I had to commute each day by train & underground. If I wasn’t reading, I used to watch people – trying to guess their lives. But all those silent people on the 7.12 morning train, wrapped up in their thoughts or their newspapers ..... – it was impossible to guess what they thought or felt.

It was on that same morning train, wrapped up in my own somber Monday morning thoughts, seeking support in a book (3), that this brilliant passage (about people in a train-compartment) by Virginia Woolf struck me:

“Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of – what? That life’s like that, it seems. Five faces opposite – five mature faces – and the knowledge on each face. Strange though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket-book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth – the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game – do, for all our sakes, conceal it!”

trying to confine the footnotes to credits only
(1) From the “Lost Girl” by D.H. Lawrence – must confess I never finished reading that book. But well, I did retain this piece of dour-governess- morality at page 60 : "Happiness is a sort of soap-tablet – he won’t be happy till he gets it, and when he’s got it, the precious baby, it’ll cost him his eyes and stomach. Could anything be more puerile than a mankind howling because it isn’t happy: like a baby in the bath!”
(2) 'Ever so useful, Joseph Conrad' – as Moss would put it. She (Moss) also coined the brilliant expression “life’s penitential status” which, coming to speak of it, was indeed how I thought of life when first being subjected to the harsh and inimical discipline of working life.
(3) Virginia Woolf: An Unwritten Novel (as published in ‘the complete shorter fiction’)

a picture at an exhibition

Perhaps we do not only guess and project when we read, but also when we see…..

Take this painting (1) that attracted me right from the moment I entered into that room. It was the integrity of that pose, the graveness of that look that impressed me – the non-frivolous, non-religious, not-seeking-to-please quality of it. A mature, rather careworn but unyielding, woman looking at life.

But then, what does the official description state: “sweetly contemplative look”.
Sweetly ….????? I can’t see anything sugary cute in this portrait…

(1) Joos Van Cleve: Katlijne van Mispelteeren (c. 1530-1535)

“we guess as we read, we create; it all starts with an initial mistake” (1)

This is a confession. I am guilty of a wrongful appropriation. For over a year I have unjustly enlisted a borrowed phrase as a private talisman to ward off distress. It was an error of projection and a sad case of not finishing reading a sentence.

But let’s put you to the test, dear reader. Let’s see whether you are as tempted as I was to project stoic acceptance into this phrase:

“People who have ceased to hope that they will be fully understood express themselves with something of the torment of the deaf mute” (2)

What kept on echoing in my mind was “people who have ceased to hope” - and I thought of it as people who have wisely shed unrealistic expectations and who therefore would no longer be anguished about being (mis)understood. Stoically consoling, somehow.
But I had completely ignored the subsequent “torment of the deaf mute” (3)…. I had not understood that “ceasing to hope” does not equal “ceasing to need” … And so I had blithely skipped the essential, tormented part of the phrase.

Let me warn you that I’m wrongfully appropriating again: the above are not my own coffee-cup and glass of water. I just found them like that, left behind on a café-table. I myself am a stolid tea-drinker, not a sophisticated, wired espresso-sipper. But somehow an espresso-cup seemed more glamorously melancholic than a sensible tea-mug, and hence also more suited to illustrate this post. (4)

Trying to get more words into the footnotes than in the main body of text
(1) Proust - La fugitive : « “On devine en lisant, on crée; tout part d’une erreur initiale […] Une bonne partie de ce que nous croyons, et jusque dans les conclusions dernières c’est ainsi, avec un entêtement et une bonne foi égale, vient d’une première méprise sur les prémisses »
(2) The art historian Max J. Friedlaënder when describing the
portraits painted by Quinten Metsys (Flemish 16th C painter)
(3) I’m all the more not to be forgiven for ignoring the second part of that sentence, since one of my favorite books is “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson Mc Cullers. A poignant account of the appeal a deaf mute exerts on a set of lonely people in a small village in the American south. Each of them turns to the deaf-mute to express their hopes and anguishes – his silent smiling seen as proof of his understanding. (Whereas the deaf-mute in reality is rather politely puzzled by the emotional gushes of those people and in his turn ardently communicates in sign-language with the only other deaf mute in town, who is a simpleton addicted to sweets)
(4) a puzzling difference in image really, the one between tea- and coffee- drinking.

old books & newspaper scraps

Once, during a late night bookish discussion, as grave and fervent as they get at the impressionable age of 20, a friend held forth that at 40, people not only get grey hair but also start rereading their favorite authors. How awed I was by this "rereading" ….. it seemed to evoke erudite wisdom, and some sort of discerning maturity which returns to but a select few authors after a lifetime of reading.

As so often, the predicted banal facts proved more reliable than my own accompanying idealistic projections. Hence, Erudite Wisdom and Discerning Maturity have kept eluding me (so what - they’d already lost their luster in these postmodern times anyway) but the part about the grey hairs (just a few of them tho’) and especially about the rereading is quite true.

I’m alas not gifted with a comprehensive memory nor with powers of concentration that easily rise above the distractions & demands of the humdrum business of living. But still, over the years every once in a while a book, a painting, a piece of music has managed to pierce through this shell of dullness - offering an insight, a poetic intuition, some fragment of wisdom or beauty that stayed. And now, having indeed arrived at re-reading age, I love to go back to the writers and painters who have moved me, and love to amass further tokens of their world.

Amassing …. there’ s something of that in all book buying (and this mass becomes quite tangible when eg cycling uphill with the latest book-acquisitions, or when moving house). Now I’ve never been a true book-collector, nor an old-and-rare books connoisseur. (Am not enough of an object-fetishist for that I guess. And perhaps too much of a content-over-form person? )

But when chasing books out of the latest fashion-scope, one inevitably ends up in second-hand book stores where both the time-bound and the very material qualities of books become apparent, so much more so than in shopping malls stocked with piles of new books. Lately I‘ve even surprised myself with buying different editions of the same book . Mind you, am still not into the pursuit of officially famous or rare editions. But I am somehow moved by how different editions testify to the life of a book, how a book is subject to the vagaries of cultural reception and lay-out styles.

Take a book by, say, an old-school art historian like Panofsky : how tellingly different is an early 70s edition from a 2000 edition. Qua content, the main text is the same of course, but how revealing are the differences between the learned fore- (or after-) words in the respective editions– how endearingly dated they can be, thus unintentional proof of the transient quality of cultural interpretation.

And then , take the lay-out, the font, the sheer material quality of paper …. How I love for instance those 30s and 40s art books, with their B&W photo-reproductions almost resembling charcoal-drawings, their heavy paper and their black fonts in slight relief…
There’ s of course also the mere fact that a book has had successive owners, who have left their traces. The well-thumbed library books, sometimes still with their inventory -card of loans made. Or the almost pristine books where suddenly, after pages of immaculate printed text, a pencil-annotation or an underlined sentence signals the attentive presence, once, of a previous reader. (With my own filthy habit of ample underlining and marking I doubt any of my books will ever get an after-life in a second hand shop).

The book I found yesterday had everything to make my heart miss a beat. A 1934 edition of a monograph about a little known pre-impressionist Belgian painter whom I love dearly: Hippolyte Boulenger. He was a painter of landscapes and brought into this world a certain hue of stormy-weathered blue, especially irresistible in combination with his unique tone of very earthly, brownish greens. In whatever museum room – whenever my eye is drawn to a certain blue and a certain green, I know there’s no need to go and check the name.

Boulenger is not very present on the internet and the few available color-reproductions completely miss the so very material, painterly quality of his colors. Strangely enough, the black & white reproductions in this 30s book don’t disappoint me as modern reproductions do – their manifold hues of grey being so respectfully suggestive of the original color-nuances.

While contentedly leafing through the book back home, a newspaper-scrap falls out. 23 May 1943 … an announcement of a Boulenger exhibit in the Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts. On the other side of the scrap – more art news and a column with reminders of events on the same 23rd of may in history. Jeanne d’Arc sold to the English for 10.000 pound on may 23rd 1430, decease of Rockefeller on may 23rd 1937. At first I’m charmed and delighted by this authentic scrap of time. Then chilled, when I realize what year it was . 1943 …. the war in full swing, Brussels occupied by the Nazis. And in this city “whose terrible future had arrived” (1) – frivolous art columns were written, sweet landscape exhibits were organized. (2)

Just two glum footnotes
(1) Paraphrase on a line from a December 1938 poem by Auden about Brussels: “a city whose terrible future may have just arrived”.
(2) Ok, I’ll keep the morbid brooding contained to a single gloomy footnote. For one like me, who has always so sincerely revered the civilizing program of humanist education and high art – it is bitter to have to admit that this humanist tradition of high art has not ever managed to be “a barrier against barbarism”. According to the (ever so dismal) George Steiner this failure of high culture to effectively “humanize” humanity was catastrophically proven in the 20th century and is one of the reasons of the demise of high culture’s standing after WWII… “Where culture flourished, barbarism was , by definition, a nightmare from the past […] We now know that this is not so. […] We now realize that extremes of collective hysteria and savagery can coexist with a parallel conservation of the institutions, bureaucracies, and professional codes of high culture. […]Libraries, museums, theatres can prosper next to concentration camps”