Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dinner at the Volkshaus

As the academic year draws to a close last night a small group of teachers from my department decided to have dinner together. As the historians numbered three and economists only one, we decided to dine somewhere that offers good food and a sense of history (as opposed to the stock exchange). We picked Zurich’s recently renovated Volkshaus (People’s House) Restaurant. Founded over a hundred years ago to provide organized labour with a place to gather, during World War One it played host to a number of meetings involving Lenin, Kamenev, Zinoviev and other Bolshevik revolutionaries, as well as the Menshevik Trotsky (with a great feeling for timing, Trotsky switched to the Bolsheviks during the summer of 1917).  The Volkshaus is featured in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel Lenin in Zurich.

Volkshaus Restaurant in Zurich: Did Lenin Eat Here?

Originally the restaurant was alcohol free (the philanthropic financiers of the project had decided that alcohol was bad for the workers), and served wholesome but cheap food.  These days the food is rather good, and anything but cheap. The building still hosts May Day meetings every year, and the square outside the building witnesses the occasional riot when the world's very concerned and very rich jet in for World Economic Forum in nearby Davos; but these days most people come for rock and jazz concerts, the disco, the sauna, the bookstore and the excellent food. From my observations of the well heeled clientele last night, the restaurant is no longer so popular with communist revolutionaries.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cuno Amiet in the Kunsthaus

Some time ago I wrote about a visit to the Kunsthaus in Zurich and I showed this beautiful room, with the two Bonnards lining the entranceway and the Degas just beyond.

Last year the Kunsthaus celebrated its centenary and had this room restored to its original 1910 state. The Bonnards have been moved to a room nearby and the walls now display the paintings that hung here when the museum opened. The paintings are a series form the Swiss artist Cuno Amiet. The Degas can still be seen facing the entranceway. When Amiet's paintings were orginally exhibited they were considered to be very avant-garde and described by the local press as "hateful, brutal and sick".

Now it is as if the room has been frozen in time. I love the skylight, the carpet, the pillars, and though the paintings are less colourful than the Bonnards, the room does have a great sense of Jugendstil wholeness.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Speechless Gray Horse

The horse's eyes are sown shut. Its mouth too. Its body is tightly bound with thin rope. Parts of its legs are missing. This horse lies, dismembered, yet peaceful, almost comforting, yet nightmarish, on the floor in Zürich's Kunsthaus. It is a work of art, "Speechless Gray Horse" (2004)  by the Flemish artist Berlinde de Bruyckere. Her pseudo-anatomical works, like this one, evoke thoughts of abuse and suffering. I am reminded of Picasso's Guernica. But Picasso's horse is screaming in silence, while Bruyckere's is almost sleeping.

Our newspapers fills our days with examples of abuse, our television news offer us glimpses of dismemberment, but we can simply switch channels. One moment it is a bomb in Pakistan or the war in Afghanistan, next it is Desperate Housewives.  Bruyckere's work is disturbing. There are people who find her "Speechless Gray Horse" disgusting, but have no opinion on NATO's war in Afghanistan; a war fought in their name, financed by their taxes.  Now, that is disturbing.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Anselm Kiefer's Parsifal in Zurich

To my delight, my nine year old suggested last Saturday that we should visit the Kunsthaus together. Saturday morning turns out to be an ideal time to visit; it was like we had the museum to ourselves.  Here is a photo of my daughter standing next to a great painting: Parsifal by Anselm Kiefer, painted on paper using oils and blood. You can see that it is a very large, monumental work. It is from a series of four, the other three being in the Tate Modern in London. Though photographs of the other three are widely available, this one, the largest, is more rare.

Those of you who read my blog regularly (I think that's a total of one or two) will know that I am a fan of Richard Wagner. So I was happy when I discovered some years ago this painting, that brings together one of my favourite composers with one of my favourite artists. Parsifal is, of course, Wagner's last opera, the idea of which, by coinicidence, he concieved on Good Friday in Zurich in 1857.

Anselm Kiefer's Parsifal, is not a light, joyful painting; none of his work is.  Indeed I suppose you could accuse Kiefer, like Wagner, of being a bit on the heavy side.  Kiefer was born in the Year Zero of German history, that is, 1945, just a month before the suicide of Adolf Hitler.  As Kiefer once said, his life is the story of Germany. The painting is of his atelier, marked by ominous shadows in the foreground, and the immense wooden rafters and planks leave one in no doubt that this is a space constructed of wood. The painting has got great texture, tempting one to reach out and touch it.  If I did, I imagine I would feel the splinters from the wood. For me, the space represents the primeval wood or mythical forest from which German legend and history arose. All of Kiefer's work is about this - what it means to be German, the roots out of which Germanhood arose, and the pivot around which all of German history revolves - the Holocaust.  All German kultur - the stories collected by the Grimm brothers, the philosophy of Hegel, the operas of Wagner - lead to the twelve years of insanity, when Germans gave away their freedom and the greatest crime in Europe's bloody history was committed, and scarred the continent's past, present and future.

At the top of the painting Kiefer has painted the name Parsifal, while in the bottom left hand corner he has painted the name Amfortas,scrawled like the signatures of forgotten prisoners locked in some nightmarish attic space.

According to medieval German legend Parsifal, the innocent, wonderful fool, sets out to find the Holy Grail. Amfortas, the sinner, is suffering from a spear wound that bleeds continuously. For Kiefer, the genocide of Jews and Gypsies remains the open wound that still festers and poisons our view of German history. In the centre of the painting we find the Parsifal's Holy Grail.  Kiefer has painted the closing words of Wagner's Parsifal:  "Höchsten Heiles Wunder! Erlosung dem Erloser!" or "Highest Miracle of Salvation! Redemption of the Redeemer" above the Grail. But Kiefer's Grail mock's Wagner's words, as it sits on a wooden stool, dripping blood, real blood. The unredemptive blood spilt by German history.

Like any great artist, Anselm Kiefer is an alchemist. He breaks down the boundaries between myth and history, the past and the future, literature, music and politics, and turns them into something more precious than gold: art that goes to the core of the human condition.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Running From Boredom

Few things are worse than to be labeled boring. Better to be dishonest and interesting, inept but funny, than honest, competent and boring. Bores automatically lose the opportunity to be sexy, which puts them fairly low on the evolutionary scale. 

None of us wants to be considered the source of boredom. Boredom is the sickness of the age, from which we all continue to flee, like our ancestors fleeing the plague. The internet is filled with bloggers who scream I AM NOT BORING and readers who demand SAVE ME FROM BOREDOM. After all, why are you reading this, except that you are seeking distraction from the inevitable, always looming boredom?

It wasn’t always so. In the past people were usually far too busy making ends meet than to have the luxury of being bored. The first use of the term “bored” in English literature appeared in a work from the Earl of Carlisle in 1768: “I pity my Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen”. Ah those Frenchmen, boring even then (according to Englishmen, but not, apparently, according to Englishmen's wives). It was Byron who first used the word as a noun in 1823, inventing that label that we now all shun:

“Society is now one polished horde,
Formed of two mighty tribes,
the Bores and the Bored”

Some decades later a reference to our contemporary ailment, boredom, first appeared in published writing, in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, from 1852: “His chronic malady of boredom”. Today boredom lurks everywhere, and it’s a killer. Math is boring; Switzerland is boring; Desperate Housewives is boring; the iPad is boring. Face to face conversation risks being confronted by a bore, and that is by definition boring. But luckily you have an electronic anti-boredom device of some sort close at hand. With the touch of a remote control, or the click of a mouse, we can flee from boredom and find something to entertain us.

Alas, the spell that instant entertainment casts grows increasingly fleeting. We live in an entertainment saturated culture, yet we all seem to be so bored. We seldom reread novels (do we still read novels?), especially not old ones (i.e. boring ones). And even if we are forced to do something that is boring, like homework, at least we can break it into doable chunks, by interspersing it with checking email, chatting on Facebook, clicking on a YouTube link that someone has sent us. That keeps the boredom briefly at bay.

But as Jonathan Franzen put it in an article in The New Yorker last month: “The more you pursue distractions, the less effective any particular distraction is”. He also said that no great novel will be written in a house that has a broadband connection – maybe that’s why it took him nearly ten years to write his most recent one – Freedom. The science writer James Gleick described our predicament in Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything: “You are bored doing nothing, so you go for a drive. You are bored just driving, so you turn on the radio. You are bored just driving and listening to the radio, so you make a call on the cellular phone. You realize that you are now driving, listening to the radio, and talking on the phone, but you are still bored. Then you reflect that it would be nice if you had time, occasionally, just to do nothing”.

Technology was supposed to save us time. We now know that’s a myth. We get in the elevator and search quickly for the Door Close button, because we’ve got no time to waste. We enter a fast food outlet, and look for the express lane, because we’ve got no time to waste. We send a text message, and grumble when we haven’t received a reply within minutes. We never turn off our computers ‘cause we need to stay connected. In a word, we’re manic. James Gleick again: “Maybe boredom is a backwash within another mental state, the one called manic – defined by psychologists as an abnormal state of excitement, encompassing exhilaration, elation, euphoria, a sense of the mind racing. Maybe our hurry sickness is a simple as that.” ‘Hurry sickness’: I like that. What did the song say? ‘Slow down, you move to fast’. Fat chance.

Article first published as Running from Boredom on Technorati.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Oeroeg - a novel that is a site of memory

Since the early 1930s a Dutch organization called the “Collective Propaganda for the Book” has had the wonderful habit of giving away a new work of literature during a 10 day long so called “Week of Books”. Nearly a million copies of the “Week of Books Gift”, a specially commissioned novella, are given away and on the Sunday of the Week of Books one can travel for free the length and breadth of the Netherlands by train for free if one has a copy of the free Book Gift instead of a ticket. During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s the book appeared anonymously and the reading public could enter a competition and submit their guesses as to the identity of the author.

In 1948 nineteen novellas were submitted anonymously to the committee that would eventually choose the winner. The committee chose a novella by the name of Oeroeg, which had been submitted under the Malay pseudonym of Soeka toelis (Like to write). Consequently, 145,000 copies of Oeroeg were given away as the Book Week Gift. Over 24,000 readers participated in the competition to guess the author, though how many had the correct guess is not clear. It was to prove to be the most successful Book Week gift ever. The novella has been reprinted 50 times, has been anthologized on numerous occasions, has been included in pre-university school exams and has been the subject of Master’s thesis and Doctoral dissertations; it formed the basis of a successful movie in 1993 and in October 2009, to celebrate an event called “The Netherlands Reads” one million copies of Oeroeg were distributed free of charge in Dutch libraries and schools while in Jakarta an Indonesian translation was presented. By now it would seem that every Dutch and Flemish household must own a copy of what has become an undisputed classic of Dutch language literature. Indeed one could argue it has become the single most successful piece of Dutch prose of the 20th century.
The anonymous author of Oeroeg turned out to be the little known 30 year old Hella S. Haasse. Born and raised in the Dutch East Indies but an inhabitant of the Netherlands for a decade, Oeroeg was her debut novel. She would go on to author over twenty more novels, as well as collections of short-stories and works of non-fiction. She would win every major literary prize in the Dutch world and a clutch of foreign prizes. Today she is generally regarded as the Grand Dame of Dutch Letters.
Hella S. Haasse
Yet, despite her long and illustrious career as a writer, it is her first slim novella of little more than 60 pages, for which she is best remembered, not least because of the social and historical significance of the book. For Oeroeg is not simply a work of literature; the historical context in which the novel was written and the historical conflict that it came to embody has meant that Oeroeg has become what the French historian Pierre Nora has called a lieux de memoire, a place “where memory crystallizes and secretes itself.” That is to say, Oereog is now more than a novel: like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York or the War Monument that marks Dam Square in Amsterdam, it is a place where national memory has become anchored and embodied, while at the same time, it remains the site of battles and conflicts regarding national memory and, ironically, national forgetfulness.

When Oeroeg was published in 1948 the Netherlands had become enmeshed in what would turn out to be a nasty and ultimately futile war of decolonization. The disastrous German occupation of 1940-’45 involved the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Dutch citizens, including the near total destruction of the county’s large Jewish community. The Japanese occupation of Dutch East Indies of 1942-9145 included the imprisonment of the entire white Dutch population (the totoks), and great hardship for Dutch citizens of mixed Indo-Dutch relationships (the Indos). The end of the war brought peace to the European Fatherland, but the Japanese surrender was quickly followed in the Dutch East Indies with a violent uprising led by nationalist youths. Totoks in the camps now found that their former captors, the Japanese, had almost overnight become their protectors against Indonesian nationalist violence. The Indos outside the camps, unprotected, became the main targets of nationalist violence during this so called Bersiap period. British troops attempted to stabilize the situation, unleashing military attacks that caused great numbers of casualties among Indonesians, until the Dutch were eventually able to return an army to their colony. By 1946 the Dutch hoped things would soon return to at least a semblance of the pre-war situation. But Indonesian nationalists led by Sokarno and Hatta had other ideas and in 1947 the Dutch began what they euphemistically called a “Police Action”. This would be followed by a second Police Action in 1948. Nevertheless, after 100,000 fatal causalities among the Indonesians and about 5,000 among the Dutch, the government of The Netherlands was forced to concede independence to the Republic of Indonesia in 1949.
Dutch Police Action
It is against this background of instability and violence in the Dutch East Indies that the novella Oeroeg, which is set in the Dutch East Indies and tells the tale of the childhood friendship between a Dutch boy and his native Indonesian friend called Oeroeg and how this friendship collapses as they grow older and Oeroeg becomes an Indonesian nationalist, found its way to the Dutch reading public in 1948. A novel set in the war of decolonization appears in the middle of the war of decolonization. It couldn’t have been more topical.

The book opens with words that can hardly but strike us today as being prophetic: “Oeroeg was my friend. If I think back to my childhood (…) Oeroeg returns to me” and “Oeroeg is burnt like a seal into my life (…) more than ever at this moment when every contact, every meeting has been reduced forever to the past.” Furthermore: “Maybe I am stimulated by his (Oeroegs’) irrevocable, incomprehensible otherness, that secret of spirit and blood, that for child and lad created no problem but that now seems all the more tormenting”. The young narrator paints a picture of life in the Indies that borders on the Rousseauesque, with Oeroeg being the admired embodiment of the young Noble Savage while the narrator feels ashamed of his own ‘freckles, and my reddening and peeling in the sun and I envied Oeroeg his even dark colour”.

The narrator’s father is the chief of the tea plantation and he worries about his son’s relationship to the local Oeroeg. “You are going native (Je verindischt), that worries me”. No doubt the Dad suffered from the common worry of Dutch colonials, described by Stoler and Strassler as “the contaminating influence of servants on European children.” But the narrator and Oeroeg find and befriend another Dutch adult, the plantation manager Gerard Stokman, who loves the wild nature of the Indies, who has “sold his heart to Java, the hunt and the outdoor life.” One day Gerald tells the narrator: “To be different – that is normal. Everyone is different to everyone else. I am different than you. But to be worth less or more because of the colour of your face or because of what your father is – that is nonsense.”

As teenagers the boys remain best friends and Oeroeg is one of the few natives to receive a good secondary education. During these years we learn that Oeroeg “did his best to undo anything that reminded him of the past. He only spoke Dutch, his clothing was obviously western (…) he did his best to pass for a half-blood” But the narrator adds: “Neither clothing nor attitude could make him what he was not; one of us.”

Oeroeg gradually discovers he can never become Dutch. Instead, he steadily migrates towards the new anti-Dutch nationalism, and the boys grow apart. The narrator travels to Holland for his studies just before the outbreak of World War Two, survives the German occupation without incident, is then called up for his military service and is sent back to the Dutch East Indies to help quell “the disorderly situation there.” He finds himself in the vicinity of his childhood home, dressed in Dutch military uniform, visits a small lake, the Telaga Hideung, which holds strong memories for him, as it was here that years earlier Oeroeg’s father had drowned while saving the narrator’s life. Then, amazingly, he comes face to face with Oeroeg, now an armed Indonesian nationalist. The confrontation could have been fatal, but Oeroeg disappears. The novel closes with the narrator’s words, like the opening words of the novel, uncanny in their sense of presentment: “It goes without saying that I didn’t understand him. I knew him, like I knew Telaga Hideung – as a mirrored surface. I never fathomed the depths. Is it too late? Am I forever a stranger in the land of my birth, on the ground from which I never want to be moved. Time will tell”. Of course time did tell, and within two years of the publication of Oeroeg the Dutch had lost their colony and Hella Haasse, together with 300,000 other totoks and Indos, found herself permanently transplanted, away from the land of her birth.