"if to be gentle in an age of violence denotes decadence".....

 It’s 3.30 in the morning  – on my way back to bed with a glass of water, I glance out of the window and am startled by “the mute, melancholy spectacle out there”(1)  :  the foggy stillness, the haunted haloes of the streetlamps, and, ach, another lonely lit window up there.

It could be a good time to read Walser – some delicate little piece of writing, devoid of pretence. Vulnerable gentleness relieved by magical wit. His writing a “delicate, prowling, sibilant fog (1) in which all “was soft and seemed lost(1).

Gazing at a 1000 years

Or I could leaf again through “Art of the Byzantine Era” (2) – gazing at pictures gleaned from a thousand years’ history.  An illusion of permanence,  until that passed away, too.  At first sight a remarkable stasis, looking closer – subtle transformations: from classical elegance over hieratic magnificence to humanist delicacy. 

It’s a rather dry and scholarly book. The reproductions too small for devout contemplation, the erudite commentary lacking aesthetic subtlety (with gradations going from ‘lovely’ over ‘very lovely’ to  'exceedingly lovely').

" But art is not always a true mirror of its time"
Then all of a sudden the analytical scholar gives way to a melancholy connoisseur – and writes a beautifully pensive passage to ponder:  

“The last phase of Serbian art was a distinctive one. [….] there was developed a new style of painting, intimate, delicate, tender, […]  It is curious that this delicate style should have come into being in Serbia at this time, when one considers that the Serbian kings were fighting for their very existence.

But art is not always a true mirror of its time, and the art of the nation which went under fighting like a lion had all the characteristics of a lamb. It has been called decadent, the art of this last phase, and if to be gentle in an age of violence denotes decadence, then the designation is correct.  […]

Gentleness was not, perhaps, a universal facet of all Byzantine art, but it characterized all the great works of the last phase, Nerezi, Kariye Camii, and Mistra, so that the art of the Morova Valley does not stand alone. It brings our story of wall-painting in Serbia to a close on a note of beauty, elegance, and delight, and it is to be regarded as not one of the least of the Byzantine contributions to the story of the world’s art.” 

In troubled times, 'the violent bear it away'.     

So indeed:  how about gentleness & art & delicacy  “in an era when delicate persons have the most indelicate heaps of cares piled upon their shoulders (1)”.   

nocturnal notes

  1.    From “A Painter” by Robert Walser  (transl. Susan Bernofsky)
  2.   p213, p216  “Art of the Byzantine Era” , by David Talbot Rice

notes in perplexing times

As a combative melancholic  I am always looking for positive stories to make up for my congenital pessimism. Nothing as invigorating as the ‘audacity of hope’.   

So for me, one of the rare hopeful events in 2015 had been Germany’s voluntarism in the face of the refugee crisis.
Not merely because it was a rare display of humanity in times of crisis.  But even more because it looked like they could pull it off, with their Deutsche grundlichkeit:  not just temporarily hosting war refugees in segregated camps, but integrating them as members of German society & economy (1).  In spite of all the difficulties, hope sprang it was possible to live up to an essentially moral decision (2) of welcoming refugees without sacrificing social cohesion.

In a human species driven by selfish genes - is goodness a naïve strategy, bound to be abused? (3) 

Many good people in Germany must now be asking themselves that question. Their disillusionment is but one of the woeful effects of the criminal events on New Year’s eve in Cologne. That unthinking, drunken mob serially attacking women, the mocking cruelty of those gangs … it taps into the worst fears of any woman.  It was indeed an assault on the most basic of human rights : the right to move freely about without fear of being  molested. (4)

Two weeks on, we’ve had the predictably repulsive populist reactions. And we have a debate raging (with varying degrees of quality & objectivity) about the feasibility (and even the desirability as such) of integrating huge numbers of people (with a majority of young men) coming from war-torn countries with a very different socio-economic and cultural background.  (5)
It’s not an easy debate (6), but we must have it, as “people may legitimately differ on the correct policies”.  (7)

the greater the perplexity, the lengthier the notes

(1)    After all, though not brilliant, up till now the German integration record of migrants was better than many others in Europe. A  lot better than Belgium’s integration record at any rate –

(2)    The German welcoming stance was in essence a moral one (hoping to redeem nazi-history?). Some point to the economic/demographic rationale for welcoming refugees in an ageing society with a declining population. 

This economic rationale clearly holds in the case of selective migration policies (eg as in Canada), when only well trained immigrants are accepted, only those with a background that can easily fit in.  There is little or no selectiveness in the current European refugee policies. As to the stories of highly educated Syrian refugees – yes, they are certainly there, but they are a minority. Recent Flemish statistics showed that max 30% of 2015 asylum seekers describe themselves as ‘higher educated’.  

The demographic rationale is certainly relevant – 80% of 2015 refugees were younger than 35.   But this demographic “boon” comes with its own challenges: 75% of current asylum applicants are male. (latest figures in Belgium) .  Throughout the ages and across cultures there’s one common recipe for trouble:  having an excess of unattached, unemployed young men. So better bring in the migrants’ families? And thus multiply again the number of newcomers? That’s exactly the policy followed with previous waves of immigrants, not with huge success alas, because of the continuous starting all over again of the integration efforts.  

(3)    As a misanthrope, one might expect me to say yes. But, in fact, experience has proven me wrong. At work I have learned how a positive, trusting attitude (even faked!) combined with empathy can do wonders to motivate a team.  Feeing trusted makes most people both loyal and driven to surpass themselves (and vice versa). Most people, not all. There’s the rub: there are always free-riders. There are always those who see empathy as a weakness to be exploited. And based on the limited sample of my experience, it’s more often men than women who will abuse goodness. Vigilance is always needed to identify the free-riders, the selfish egos. Just like pure self-interest must be tempered by “enlightened” regard for the rights of others, so altruism needs to be “enlightened” by cautiousness.     

(4)    Subsequent condemnations and shocked reactions by innocent refugees were accompanied by assurances to the “dear women of Germany” that all women should be respected as if they were “one’s sister, daughter or mother”.  I’m sure they meant well, but it’s the kind of reaction that only adds to my dismay: can’t a woman be respected just because she is an individual human being? Is respect only due to women in function of their being some man’s sister, daughter, or mother?   

(5)    It’s interesting to look at some  statistics to understand where countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (top 3 countries of origin of asylum applicants in Belgium)  stand in terms of male and female literacy rates,  female participation in the labour force, women’s rights .

In Syria, for instance, according to World Bank figures there is still a 12% literacy gap between men and women (the gap is 31% in Afghanistan, 15% in Iraq). http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.FE.ZS 
Female labour participation rates are very low, around 15%,  in all three countries.  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS  ; versus 60% overall female labour participation rate in Flanders/Belgium,(80% in age bracket 25-49) and coming from 40% in the 70s(http://www.rosadoc.be/joomla/index.php/kwesties/arbeidsparticipatie/in-vlaanderen )

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, in Iraq 92% of Muslims mostly agree that a woman should always obey her husband (94% in Afghanistan, no figures available for Syria)
I’ve no survey results for Belgium - I’m quite naturally & happily assuming that a wife is no longer expected to “obey her husband”. But I was surprised to find how recent this  (legal) equality really is.
Only in April 1958 (!) a law was approved to end the legal incapacity of married women. The Belgian Civil Code was adapted in order to change an article 214 previously stipulating that “de vrouw moet de man gehoorzamen” (“ a wife should obey her husband”) into “het huwelijk wijzigt de burgerlijke bekwaamheid van de echtgenoten niet” (“ marriage does not change the legal/civic competence of the spouses”). (source: "En de vrouwen? - Denise De Weerdt, 1980"). 
This date is a sobering reminder, which I also take as a call for vigilance. (History knows too many phases of regression).

(6)    One can and should invoke moral imperatives, but countries do have a right to consider whether there are limits to their absorptive capacity and whether refugees can also be helped in ways other than definitively integrating them in the host countries. Can a European consensus be found in so existential a  debate? 

(7)    from Martin Wolf’s  (economic) opinion column in the FT (September 2015).
“Yet migration  is not just about economics. Immigrants are people. They bring in families, for example. Over time, large-scale immigration will transform the cultures of recipient countries in complex ways.

Immigrants bring diversity and cultural dynamism. At the same time, as Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling notes, substantial segregation might naturally emerge. People might then live quite separately, without many shared loyalties.

Immigration has economic effects. But it also affects the current and future values of a country, including its concern for foreigners. People may legitimately differ on the correct policies”. 

(8)    A final, unattached note: Mass immigration is a social experiment – in fact no one can predict what the consequences are.  And the way "we" behave now, will itself influence the course that future events will take.  "We" will need the right balance of realism and goodwill. And "we" will need goodwill and voluntarism coming from all involved parties. Otherwise there is not and never will be a “we”.  At this point  I am quite apprehensive. How much turmoil still lays ahead? And how much of what I value in European culture will survive?  But then again, I do continue to take comfort from the day to day “multi-cultural” living together  as  I experience it at work or in my neighbourhood. Not all is lost yet.     

of ports and books, and images of escape

Although contemporary ports are a rational economic affair – the imagination is fortunately slow to adapt. Who would not project onto ports, a promise, if not of happiness, then at least of travel & escape? 

My actual naval experience is limited to a train tour (25 years ago on a cheap youth eurorail ticket) of Europe’s port cities. Maritime romance was, alas, in short supply everywhere, but among the visited cities, Hamburg, even though bustling with commerce & industry, did appeal most to the imagination. 

I now read (1) how the busy commercial people of Hamburg came rather late (& reluctantly) to culture & artistic education. And if they did,  it was partly thanks to the  "Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg"  : this wonderful joint venture of the entrepreneurial & dazzlingly wealthy Warburg banker brothers and the eldest, melancholy & nerve wracked,  non-banker brother, Aby Warburg. 

In 1933 the library escaped from the Nazis by boat, via the port of Hamburg.

“He came back from Italy with four thousand books. Seven years later, in 1911, he has fifteen thousand books. 
In 1933, more than sixty thousand books will leave Hamburg for England, aboard of two steamships."

The kind of sentence to keep alive the immemorial lure of ships on the horizon.  


  1.     « Aby Warburg ou la tentation du regard », by Marie-Anne Lescourret
  2.  The link of the text with the photos is admittedly tenuous – one is a picture of the river Scheldt taken from the MAS building in Antwerpen, and the other is a photo (detail) from a Netherlandish painting, taken in Suermondt museum in Aachen.  In fact, there only is some  subjective contemporaneousness, in terms of reading & photographing – both camera & Warburg book accompanied me on my year-end escapist trips.