BLACK AND WHITE

 

The real threat to Paradise, then, is not dead matter, but a living being that would like to live in or on a carpet, along with cats, birds, fleas and butterflies – the moth.

Sierksma, Paradise

__________

With on the tongue a coffee of Italian allure – drunk from the still breathtaking Rosenthal bowl, once the gift of a beloved ceramist – for a while ‘the eye’ (the Dutch writer Bordewijk’s always singular eye) is resting on the picture above a row of unread books beside me on my left. It has been waiting for this moment, the destination of both eye and image (the Greek philosopher Aristotle). Coincidentia oppositorum – the concurrence of opposites (the German philosopher Cusanus).

After all, one has been a would-be philosopher – what!

 

Paul Strand, Market Day, Luzzara, Italy 1953

The view of a street scene, a market town in azure Luzzara, made in the year of Our Lord 1953. Its maker, Paul Strand, was one of the last gods of ‘black & white’ photography. On such pictures you can touch the creases in the laundry on the wash line. Alas and obviously so, such precision is missing in a picture again taken of a picture once already reproduced in a photo book.

‘Black and white’ in between apostrophes. Prints from this period were often done in sepia, that metaphor-free colour which grants what is past that extra touch of finality.  I give therefore Strand’s picture a sepia touch:

 

 

Coincidentia oppositorum. After all, the camera’s eye registers everything in the picture just as razor sharp as anything else in it, whether it stands at a distance of a hundred meters, or is close up to the camera eye. At least, this is what Strand’s camera achieved. The folds in the boys’ pants there stand out razor sharp, so do the spokes of the bicycles on which lazy, yet sporty young men sit or hang around.

My eye by contrast – a human eye – cannot help but watch according to Gestalt laws. In our gaze something is always on edge, in the centre of our attention that is – in the foreground, at the end of my line of sight. The rest of what is in front of us, or for that matter in a picture we look at, becomes mere background, a ‘surrounding’ more or less blurred. Looking at the dolls in her eyes, you miss that glance, and her hair and the rest of her face.

This happens even when viewing a picture like the one of Paul Strand, my copy printed in dimensions of only 22 x 18 centimetres. Perhaps only the viewing of the image format of a passport photo provides a sharpness even of what is in the corners of the image.

However, there is in Strand’s picture not only a coincidence of opposites, but also the concurrence of equals, of the same with the same, no matter how different they may be – Ditto and ditto.

Sierksma, Différence et répétition (after Deleuze), 1985

In me things go wrong, life announcing its end. Idem becomes iDem and thus it remains. Although not become morbid, the eye nevertheless gets a preference for what then was and what still is in decay. This has always been my case, however, it becomes more and more so.

Ai, the beauty of remote Luzzara on this bright winter afternoon in the year 1953!

The year of our Great Flood. I myself was just a lad then, only seven and starting to look around. These young men with their bikes have already started adulthood: Grown-up jackets, long trousers, that air of know-it-all-seen-it-all. Especially in this Italian manner, bravado seems the keyword.

In 1953 I had given up wearing shorts and donned those ludicrous trousers, in the official language of fashion called plus fours. ‘Poop catchers’ it was amongst us boys, a surer definition you won’t get. ‘Waggish’ is what a postmodern personage might call it, a prejudice shared with young people from the sixties who revolted against everything they considered fini – that is, the things beautiful we see in this picture, all of a divine lethargy.

A brat I was. Yet this picture is breathing an atmosphere of the world I was then living, in that last half year in Groningen. In our street the only automobile ever to be seen was the one owned by my Pake, my Frisian granddad who became ‘Ford-dealer for All of Friesland’ and always drove the latest and the largest model. He arrived weekly from Dokkum, to pick up us four. It is also the Groningen where every Friday the old man gathering potato peels came along with horse and cart, which in retrospect now becomes the symbol for that delicate inertia which belonged to the silent two-wheelers on which all and sundry moved around in those days.

An inertia, which belonged to the calm walking pace of my other Friesian Granddad, with whom I occasionally walked around the entire city. I think of Goethe’s Takt des Schrittes, that smooth and civilized saunter of the garden visitor on which he wrote in 1810, in his novel about naughty love, Die Wahlverwandtschaften.

Consider also the intense conversation of the women at a small market stall – an exchange about nothing and thus about everything. The meaninglessness of cosmopolis radiates from Strand’s picture. Here in Luzzara provincialism reigns, deliberately celebrated as life itself, a provincialism of small loyalties as well as all the great little things that make mankind happy.

For one moment it just seems – I know, an illusion, but let me be… – that good old Marx’ splendid phrase, written down in the middle of the 19th century, still applies to 20th century Luzzara. In his Communist Manifesto the old Master wrote: All that is solid melts into air… In the pressure cooker of Capital literally everything evaporates and vanishes, like snow in the sun. The lot – from loyalty to meaningful employment, from distance to involvement.

But not yet, here in 1953 Luzzara. Italy looks, once again, like it has been left behind by History. Heine could better have shot the arrow of his famous quip at that country. However, he said it about the Netherlands: Once this world perishes, flee to Holland – after all, everything there happens fifty years later…

In my gaze on Strand’s photo a past dies, that for me has always embraced ‘the good old days’. How I hate what came about! What a plague I consider people generally! A professional misanthrope is what I became.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, with my eyes glued to this market place, the varicose vein in my oesophagus would spontaneously burst. We would have become actually one, the picture disappearing in a dying eye.

Sierksma, La Roche 8.10/2015

In the series Death no. 6

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Author: rjsiersk

contact: rjsiersk@xs4all.nl Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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