The cemetery of the village of Ruffec le Château turns out to be a perfect measure of local time.
Yesterday, we buried my French friend Roland Pain. More than twenty-two years ago I came to live here on this little chalk pedestal of La Roche, this for six month per year. The little hamlet, three kilometres away from Ruffec, was still full of people. Not many people. La Roche is so small that, to fill it, you needed only a few, all together six, including me. Today, in its inner court, I am the last one standing. Roland was the last one to go before me.
Only two days earlier, I took him in my car to the office of the notary where, together with the remainder of his family, he was to sell me the house of his mother which is neighbouring mine. Without Roland, she would have been transported to a ‘home’ – here she could spend her last years, taken care of by her son before she finally died at the age of 104. I shall connect the two gardens.
Already on our trip to the notary, Roland seemed to be in bad shape, yet, we had high hopes as to a blood transfusion the following day. Even after Madam the Notary had made the roll-call – All present? – he made one of his pointed jokes, and answered: I am not here… In the rear-view mirror, this acquires the qualities of a darker vision.
When we met, those decades ago, for those living here and for the friends visiting them, I was L’Étranger, Le Hollandais, Le Professeur de l’Université, which for those in the village a little further away I remain to this day. Yet, only two weeks it took for Roland and me, to become friends and to discover that all differences in culture, profession and mother tongue get lost in true friendship. As friends we began to enjoy and to celebrate our dissimilarities, learn from them.
His gardens were always de index of his spiritual wellbeing. After he lost the wife he adored, the garden in front of their house, a long corridor full of beautiful flowers, soon began to deteriorate; he began to cut bushes here and there, whole trees… An expression of his existential dismantling. When the cruel disease hit him – on the very day of his joyous 80th anniversary party – his personal Paradise of the fruit and vegetable garden soon began to diminish. Now it will not be there.
The picture above shows you a rather large cemetery, or so it seems – a garden of death. In fact, it is an image of time gone by, all those twenty-two years, a mere twenty-two years… When I came here, this was an empty plot, perhaps even a meadow. A year later, workers began to develop it into an extension of the existing cemetery; since then, it has even been enlarged a second time… What is displayed in the photo is Death’s harvest of twenty-two years.
Local time I wrote. In a metropolitan area such growth would not be visible; there, cremation has become the norm. Over here, in la France Profonde, even those with no faith left in their souls are given the final religious ceremony, to be subsequently carried out of the church onto the cemetery, there to be buried by their family and the close friends left.
The male hat seems to be primarily a male affair. Shoe fetishism is quite another thing: the widespread insatiability of women as far as shoes are concerned and the male fantasy in this respect, seem to be complementary.
No feminist can argue a case for male shoe fetishism: the triggering of shoe voraciousness which is obliging many women to continuously buy new shoes. And no man will deny that nymphomania may have to do with men having done something to the women concerned. Curiously enough, many women buy precisely those kinds of shoes which feminism, in its by now wild variety of versions, has been severely criticising, claiming for instance that precisely this kind of shoes has expressly been invented by men, to deny women their escape from the male species hunting her: high-heeled shoes.
That many men do indeed have these shoe-fantasies seems to have become an accepted fact amongst psychiatrists. Not so much those abhorred fantasies of women being caged by their high-heeled shoes, as the ever-returning image of the female calf which, thanks to those high heels, will show a stunning tension in its muscles, a curving, perspectival pointer indicating higher heavens of the female body – thus sexually exciting.
What surely must be called a fetish, this fantasy of steep, high-heeled shoes may acquire far-reaching forms and proportions. Consider, for instance, Hans Bellmer’s obscene drawing of the contours of a shoe with a stiletto heel, which coincides with the generous contours of a woman, bending over, thus showing the observer her arse. Or another Bellmer picture, once more showing the artist fascinated by the connection between the female body and the shoe:
Woman plus Shoe, an intriguing combination. Balancing on her high heels, she goes through life with her hips swinging, thus more especially Woman. Instinctively, her now seemingly broader hips refer the male mind to her unique capacity of child bearing and giving birth.
That in the very same movement this also gives her an extra dose of sex appeal is what feminists do not like, the ass becoming a fetish considered to be the orphaned reduction of all that she also is to that ass, in fact separating her true self from her ass. This, even though women who like to wear high heels might tell you they might win the marathon on them. And the next day another one… Thus, Sarah Jessica Parker.
What I once coined as postmodern shoppism, the acquisition of things for the sheer reason of the buying, all utilitarian use value of the commodity disappearing in the act of its acquisition, quite often turns on shoes. The moment, Keira Knightley saw a pair of such stiletto shoes she simply felt the need to possess them, even though they did not fit. Subsequently she placed them on the mantel piece. Agreed – this might still be considered practicing a kind of utilitarianism aesthetics.
However, consider this: Research has uncovered the fact that many female shoppist addicts go out hunting especially for shoes, then – after having come home – not to op the bag with inside the shoe box, but to place the unopened bag in a special little room for this very purpose, in which are waiting the newcomer a series of other unopened bags with shoes.
Thus, not only is Woman a riddle to Man, she quite often is a mystery to Herself – insoluble. Was will das Weib? – Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous, if not infamous question. The answer is obvious: Shoes! Perhaps even shoes-as-such, disconnected from their use, as the male shoe fetish seems to be disengaged from the women he purports to love. Perhaps, it was even that German philosopher’s name which made me invent the neologism of shoppism.
Is the hypothesis too far-fetched when I suggest that – with in our mind’s eye Bellmer’s drawing of the shoe contours coinciding with those of a woman sitting on her heels – that the shoe-shopping woman is in fact collecting herself? An ellipsis it would be, with its two centres – Woman and Shoe.
My former wife has, as she herself has always been claiming, an ideal shoe size. Thus, on French brocantes she finds used pair after used pair of great shoes in perfect condition as, by the way, she finds new pair after new pair during Dutch bargain sales. Irresistible they obviously are – and she has only worn perhaps three pairs of them ever.
To state that we witness more fat-asses (male/female) than ever before is a platitude. However: why? As far as my observation stretches out in time, it seems that, geographically, the beginning of this explosion began in the USA, then spreading over the globe; time-wise it began in the seventies of the last century. The beginnings of the social system of Postmodernity can also be dated in those same seventies.
Since those days, the abundance of the wrong kind of food and liquids has certainly been a cause of the New Obesitas – and of its disastrous consequences like diabetes, aesthetic horror in the streets, psychological dysfunctions et cetera. One other known factor is being poor: by a cruel twist of fate, the worst kind of diet Postmodernity provides, turns out to be also the cheapest and the most addictive – sweet drinks, salty snacks and ready-made prepared food.
However, one needs a certain type of person to drink and eat these refreshments. My claim is that Postmodernity is also conducive to what I have termed elsewhere Panzer Paranoia (for those interested in my analysis, see tudelft.academia.edu/RypkeSierksma). Postmodernity – with amongst other phenomena its intense ‘flexible economy’ dominated by Milton Friedman’s neo-liberalism and over-hasting; the breakdown of the nuclear family; the vicious influence of ‘the media’ – has produced a vacuous ego in the many, resulting in a need for surveillance, i.e. the desire to be inspected. This porous self is equipped with a set of defense mechanisms which prop up a psychological panzer, suggesting to someone in him the presence of a full Ego: from tattoos to clothing brands, from senseless violence against others to short-term clubbing and sectarianism – and, of course, eating too much.
Crucial to this experience of a vacuous ego is the mentioned paradox of postmodern paranoia: self-willed surveillance plus a vague fear of it. This produces a permanent state of depression. Now – to bring in this tale a personal experience, the experience of a yet Modern old man, not post-modernised because he was born before the fact – I would like to state the following hypothesis: Modern depression was already causing a greed for food; Postmodern depression causes that greed for food doubly so, as eating too much is also felt as the periodical, short-lived filling up of the vacuum which is Postmodern Man.
Since I have come to France, there have been reasons to be cheerful. However, oppressing me continuously is the French State with its endless chain of bureaucracies, its insistent formalism and its love of stamps and documents. After one and a half year I am still not properly insured medically; I still do not have my French driver’s licence; I am still not accepted as a tax-paying citizen… To get doctor’s treatment one has enter a mad medical carousel, being on the phone for days on end with huge waiting lists. There is more, but let it be. Just read Enzensberger’s great treatise Ach Europa! on the yet modern version of all this: the genesis of the oppressive Swedish bureaucratic state and its production of depression and alcoholism.
All this drives me crazy – makes me feel depressed. I am now constantly eating chunks of French baguette, copiously spread with deliciously salted butter – it shows… I think, I now understand that what is happening in me and to me individually, even though my psyche is still Modern, is similar to that mass phenomenon of Postmodernity. People are trying to save themselves by eating and drinking too much, then frantically to reduce weight and jogging in their obnoxiously coloured lycra (normally till they are thirty, at most forty), or visiting wellness centres where things are only getting worse. One is reminded of the vicious circle of those sufferers of cyclic bulimia/anorexia – now however on the scale of a whole society.
Machado de Assis, the Brazilian writer, notes that from a genealogical perspective virtue is the daughter of fear. Methinks, he is right; however, this pedigree goes back somewhat further. Fear is the son of terror – being intimidated by some code that has been interiorised. Guilt is her sister; shame their twin. Only someone who succeeds in designing his own code and who is capable of living according to it, may rid himself of his family. To grow up is: to rid oneself of one’s family. What remains is diffidence, a certain shyness which is nothing but a respect for another man’s code. Yet, it is having lonesome scruples, complacency of the right kind, or – as you like it, my sweet reader – self-sufficiency as arrogance: not to be affected by other people’s prejudices. How difficult it is, to leave one’s family behind; how many remain stuck in their family history – always their gaze in the rear-view mirror – at all times with their back against the wall of the future!
Travelling from my French hometown – and what, after all, is a ‘hometown’ that one has only inhabited for a year and a half, after having left one’s Dutch hometown of some forty years… – to our little country seat, you pass a barren field, surrounded by a tree here and there. A sign indicates that this is a meadow for Gens de Voyage. This is the French Newspeak for Roma or Gypsies, one of its euphemisms referring to people who are allowed by communities to stay there for a while, then to ‘move on’ – after all they are People who Travel….
What a difference with those who are also on the road, yet travelling the inner map of the mind, not knowing where it may lead them: The Roads of the Poets. This kind of Gens de Voyage live the Bard’s paradox, well phrased by Czeslaw Milosz:
… I keep silent, like it becomes
a man who knows that the heart
can suffer more than our language…
I speak to you silently,
Like the clouds do, or the tree…
One is reminded of the last, quite often misunderstood paragraph of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” At least, I think I have understood this. This is not the austere, almost Mondrian kind of abstract Modernism, stating that what cannot be grasped within the confinement of ‘positive’ empirical-logical thought, should simply not be spoken of. Wittgenstein, methinks, was seeking refuge in the arts.
Wittgenstein would have applauded Milosz’ verse. The Austrian philosopher is merely warning us that we should beware of blah blah, stating notions of so-called knowledge in ostensibly clear language, but in fact resulting in nothing but blah blah. He we would have trembled and shuddered in this age of conspiracy idiots and wayward religious emotions. When things are unclear, perhaps not yet clear, not to be stated and thus not comprehended as communicable knowledge, we should indeed not utter nonsense instead.
However, “there are more things between heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy…”. Things ineffable. No ‘mysteries’, no ‘higher beings’ – not the guru’s nonsense. I mean mysteries, perhaps even miracles of a cow standing with its legs on a blanket of ground fog; a high-speed swallow diving onto the waters, merely touching the surface with the tip of its little beak, while snatching away an insect; a Douglas Fir caressing the heavens…
What is needed here is the eye of the painter, the words of the poet, those Gypsies of an inner world, silent, yet speaking to us of such wonders. The arts’ paradox.
From the beginnings of its existence, The Church – written with two capitals to indicate that The Church of Rome considered itself and is still considering itself as the sole true Church – instructed the world, rather radically, that Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus; that outside that Church no one can expect any salvation.
As a solid follower of Karl Popper, I am now in the position to actually falsify this general statement – once and for all. Out here in sweet Morthemer, a kilometre away from its huge castle, so maltreated by the Romantic followers of Violett-le-Duc, we find the little chapel of its name. Approaching it, most visitors stop to inspect its backside which is how it is offered to them; the backside as a sort of front. So, they pass on. Curious this is, as the actual front, with its Gothic little porch, is hidden from the outside world and resides in an altogether other world. One must be enterprising enough to enter a narrow, if not forbidding little ally between its wall and the wall of neighbouring houses.
What one finds there, looks like this:
Hidden, enclosed by a wall, is a small hortus conclusus, the ideal site to drink a glass of something good, have a bite of something tasty, or even to make love. The chance of being disturbed is minimal. This is Paradise. I, instead of driven out of it by a grim Godhead, I have entered it and enjoyed its wholesome effects on body and soul – this, many a time.
Here, then, outside its walls, is the salvation The Church wants to deny the infidels who do not want to be part of the club and remain outside – here is the true salus gained in conclusu, under an open sky That is: Salvation outside the Church. Though – true enough – we need its building’s mighty cover. The Church building hides us from the unpleasant world we have just left. We are left to our food and drink, the caresses of the loved ones and the aesthetic contemplation of a tower both simple and sublime – the result of a contrast between the very small space of the court we’re in, and its relative height.
Having been inspired by the name of the establishment, Hotel du Nord, I sat waiting in the car for the ice creams my love was buying for me in the little grocery shop in the village of La Trimouille – in the middle of France.
In an early spring, the weather was certainly not summery, so the motive for eating an ice cream – or for that matter eating two, one straight after the other – must have been the association of time and place with the word Nord; a polar desire took hold of me, strengthened perhaps by the fact that I am from the North – a stray Dutchman.
The building does no longer house a hotel; it serves pizza’s, though passing through the village, I have never seen any taken out. Some second-hand owner must have tried to bring it back to live, once again; he had the name repainted on a white-washed stone doorframe, in the process also whitewashing the first word Nord.
As it took my woman some time to buy the cold sweets, for the first time in my life I used the stint to ponder the traffic signs on the other side of the road, visible from behind the steering wheel – visible, that is, in a rather fuzzy way.
So, what I did was: make my phone a close-up shot, then enlarging it.
Something strange is going on here. The town of Le Blanc, printed vaguely on the sign left of the bigger one, is indeed situated North of La Trimouille; so is, by the way, the Hotel du Nord. However, the town of Montmorillon is lying in the opposite direction, more or less south of here.
How lucky I am, knowing all this before taking my bearings from these traffic instructions. Perhaps a forlorn tourist, not that well versed in the geography of the departments of the Creuse and the Vienne, nor in the curious lay-out of the La Trimouille road system, might easily get lost, being confused by the contradiction between such ambiguous signs and compass bearings of the atlas in their lap. They might need some ice creams and take their time to ponder the puzzle.
Here in France, I live together with an English woman, in a town colonised by Brits. I have often reduced our personal Krachs to a clash between her Englishness and my Duchness. My Dutch inner soul demands to be direct, to confront and to be utterly honest; her English bent of mind is to keep things ‘nice’, agreeable and a little bit shady. Of course, I am considered to be ‘blunt’ or ‘rude’, whereas in my eyes she is often a hypocrite, scared to bring it all out into the open.
Being confronted, in the literal as well as in the littoral sense, with English neighbours on the other side of our river, thus gives me abundant subject matter to think about these differences. Not only do I need to find an explanation for the glaring lights they installed this winter on their platform at the river side, lights which blind me every night, in all the rooms, even when our shutters are closed – Venetian blinds, with their delicate slits meant to let in the day’s sunlight, transforming it into a soft chiaroscuro…; I now also need to understand the hideous contraption which has just been installed by the male part of the couple, someone out there, always noisily constructing something.
Seeing something new, on the right side of their ‘court yard’, I thought: What the hell is going on this time!
Later, observing more closely, it turned out to be a sort of small préau – a covered little court inside the court-yard. Ugly it is, its wall higher than the stone wall, more particularly the roof having the wrong tilt, its proportions awkward.
A true French préau always opens up, unfolds itself into the yard, its roof not gloomily ‘eaving’ downwards, but proudly and honestly looking upwards to the sky. Like, for instance, the préau in the court of my little country house in La Roche:
So, I knew, I had to get out my hardbound, the illustrated copy of J. B. Priestley’s book on Englishness, more especially its chapter on the special characteristics of the British common man, the vulgus. Mind you, vulgus in Latin was a neutral term, not something deprecating. Priestley considers the English variety of the common people as uncommon, this due to its Englishness; they differ from the common man on the continent. What is specific about them, compared with the vulgus on the European continent, is their lack of fanaticism – in the 1930’s, for instance, the were never seduced by either fascism or communism. The men were far more interested in Football, cricket etc.; their women were wondering how to live decently on far too little money… Triviality is the word our writer uses for this, thinking it better than manufacturing fanatics.
Now, re: ugly préau on the opposite river bank, Priestley’s next sentence is enlightening: The greatest weakness of this style of life is – and possibly still is – that it removes so many people, not necessarily stupid and insensitive, from the challenge, excitement an inspiration of the arts. So true! We are entering the territory of The Vulgarians. To be honest, I personally also find the so-called Houses of the British upper-class, built after the 17th century, extremely ugly, certainly to be compared by the préau presented above.
Priestley may be rather good in pinpointing what is Englishness; yet, he does not give a good answer to my questions as to the obnoxious glaring of those lamps through my blinds, or the why of the visibility of this new horrid contraption. I shall try to give my own explanation.
An important characteristic of Anglo-Saxon society – yes England and the USA – is the dominance of the individual over the citizen. In latter-day capitalist society, each one of us is both an individual and a citizen, our two main aspects; thus, the question is not whether in a society people are either individuals or citizens, but which aspect in them is dominating the other one. Our individuality refers to the ethical, convivial part of our social life, with partners, friends, colleagues and acquaintances – the zone of existence where we meet eye to eye and judge one another morally. Our citizenship is linking us institutionally to one another in a web of solidarity, for instance, collective insurance systems, and a system of political representation of diverse class interests. On the European continent the citizen in us has always dominated the individual – that is till the Thatcher’s of this world tightened their ghastly grip of neo-liberalism, and took over. But in the Anglo-Saxon world they were always already prepared for this, whereas on the continent this onslaught of liberalism and the dominance of the individual over citizenship was against the grain of its society.
Thus, in England the definition of what is public space differs from what it was in the long history of the continent. My home is my castle, an ultimate British notion, implying also that the exterior of that ‘castle’ is delivered to the caprice of its owner. Thus: the glaring lights which bother neighbours, and contraptions which are an eye-sore in what Europe has always considered public space. When in someone the individual dominates his citizenship, he tends to make his individuality weigh on others in public spaces: for instance, talking too loud in a café, as if his opinion is as such relevant to others…
Strangely enough, Priestley stresses the passionate adherence to traditions as one element in Englishness. Combined with the dominance of individualism, this produces what I have coined elsewhere as conservative anarchism: the not giving a damn what others think, or whether one’s behaviour is hurting or damaging other people’s interests. Brexit, with its curious mix of ‘sovereignty’, ‘ruling the waves’ and so-called ‘personal pride’ in being an English individual, has been one of the results. The basso continuo of racism in British culture is another.
That this once British dominance of individual privacy over citizen publicity has now also imprinted itself on continental mores, may be read from the installing of ghastly sun panels on the roofs of gorgeous, old houses in la France profonde. Thus, the British river-neighbours fit in all too well in their new homeland and in the postmodern development of the continent. Why not say, that Englishness was postmodern long before it became modern and then, subsequently, Postmodern? The conservative anarchism of the Anglo-Saxons has always been… rude, though the essence of Englishness, so Priestley, is to be nice, strife evading in convivial situations. Inner contradictions galore. After all, Englishness is summed up by the author as being reasonable, yet not strictly rational.
Living like a dog – Diogenes’ ideal of Being. Pissing in public, at times even urinating on his fellow men, shitting in the theatre while watching a play, jerking off in full view of women and men. And – as it is said with horror by those who watched him – eating in public; that in particular was not done in those days.
Diogenes was called a cynic, derived from the Greek word kunos for dog. Then again, he was merely living in the 5th century, so quite a while before even the slightest bit of civilisation was peeping around mankind’s corner.
As the historian-sociologist Norbert Elias has shown in his great discourse On the Process of Civilisation, we’ve come a long way in restraining ourselves. Feelings of shame have been cultivated for about any zone of social life; the more people around, the closer the contact between them, the greater the social distancing from bodily functions and from immediate physical contact with others, the more finicky one gets – at least in our public space, in which the social web is always woven.
Yet, in his days, Diogenes was really over the top: already in Antiquity he was obnoxious to his fellow men, who reacted to his behaviour with a certain disdain and shock. Their reactions show what those who, at the time, were part of the good society considered as ‘normal’, as part of their web of accepted convivial relations.
Harold Garfinkel must have met Diogenes – if not in the flesh, at least in the mind where, according to Antique philosophy, at least according to Sokrates, the true meeting of men should take place. Garfinkel, though, was not so much a cynic as a good sociologist, interested in the nitty gritty of social codes. He did not send his students out into San Francisco to actually piss on other people; that would have cost him his professor’s job, surely in the puritan US of A.
However, he did ask them to write a paper on, for instance, the following experience: Get into the Frisco tram (by the way, you send San Franciscans sky high when you nickname their town like this, thus already doing a little Garfinkeling…); when the ticket seller comes to you, act as if you have just descended from Mars, not understanding anything he says or whatever it is he wants from you. Your negative behaviour creates a small social crisis; other passengers react and will act out the hidden codes of acceptable tram behaviour – and much more. Garfinkel called his approach ethnomethodology. In short: a society in crisis lights up, gives up its inner workings, as well as the limits of its survival capacity; think of any post-war society…
When jerking off in public, dog-like Diogenes may not have had this in mind; but, he surely has been an inspiration for some critical sociologists.