Always welcome, some gentle Flemish mockery directed at the unsuspecting passerby. To decipher and translate: "Ge maakt u eigen belachelijk" - "You're making a fool of yourself".
Spotted in Leuven.
Always welcome, some gentle Flemish mockery directed at the unsuspecting passerby. To decipher and translate: "Ge maakt u eigen belachelijk" - "You're making a fool of yourself".
Spotted in Leuven.
Discovering this story resembles its narrator, walking "in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence" and stumbling on 'The Man Who Planted Trees', or 'L'homme qui plantait des arbres'. That is, like unexpectedly finding a green oasis in a parched land, which turns out to be the life's work of a single man.
It was his opinion that this land was dying for want of trees. He added that, having no very pressing business of his own, he had resolved to remedy this state of affairs.
There's great simplicity and wisdom in this short story by Jean Giono, written in 1953, both in its rather prescient theme of ecological restoration and as a meditation on humility, patience and singleminded devotion. It's also a story to return to, like the narrator to the growing forest, with entire World Wars in between, and marvel at its "magnificent generosity".
When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understand that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.
The story was adapted into a beautiful and lovingly crafted animated film (1987) by Canadian director Frédéric Back, which narrates pretty much the full story, and in its sketched, dreamlike style manages to capture its timeless quality.
As a pair of small masterpieces, 'L'homme qui plantait des arbres' reminds of Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea', which was also faithfully animated. It's interesting to compare the two, as both are about man's relationship with nature, and both involve heroic struggle, though of a very different kind, by stubborn, taciturn and solitary men. The Old Man in one glorious questing battle with a beast, and learning humility from the sea. And Elezeard Bouffier, "indetectable" in his slow, methodical treeplanting project, imitating the ways of nature itself. The one North-American, in tragic and bloody confrontation with wilderness. The other European, written soon after WWII, when Giono had to convince himself "that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable".
(English translation by Peter Doyle.)
The International Film Festival Rotterdam presented the European premiere of German director Nicolette Krebitz' new film 'Wild', which she introduced to the audience as "potentially morally shocking, but don't worry, we can talk about it".
'Wild' follows a young woman, Ania, whose lonely office-screen-sleep life is ruptured when she finds herself confronted with a wolf in the local park. Staring into its wild eyes, her vague discontent and its civilization gain focus, and she starts radically, instinctively changing her life.
Without spoiling too much, what follows is an intensely imagined story of transgression and liberation that progressively feralizes her, making her break away from the artificiality of human society while bringing her closer to a state of sensual wildness. By contrast, the character of Ania's alpha male boss seems just as caged as she is, but he hasn't found a way out except through alcohol abuse. A question the film ends up posing is to what extent liberation is possible in today's society, when, needless to say, Ania's behavior creates disturbance all around.
As Krebitz explained at the after-screening Q&A, for her the story centres around the theme of control.
Becoming wild for me doesn't imply losing your humanity. It has more to do with overcoming our fear of losing control, of letting go. This is something we all need to confront - surely not in the way Ania did, though I do think we need a more powerful break than just a wild night clubbing.
This recalls Krebitz' earlier film 'Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald' (2007), which explored transgression in the relationship of a middle class couple - with a wild party providing the climax.
In 'Wild', however, the central relationship is with a ferocious animal. The return of the wolf in Europe in recent years has received much attention: they have been roaming Eastern Germany again, and are moving west. There have even been sightings in the Low Countries, where the ensuing media hysterics illustrated the current need for some element of undomesticated otherness, even if only on a blurry wild cam.
The film's premise also recalls George Monbiot's recent book 'Feral' and its diagnosis of our ecological boredom. Monbiot advocated rewilding, especially through reintroducing large predators like wolves (still not reintroduced in the British Isles). More symbolically, his plea was for a rewilding of human life - what he described in Orwellian style as our "small and shuffling life" in a technocratic world where consumerism sustains the illusion of freedom.
...rewilding of the land permits, if we choose, a partial rewilding of our own lives. It allows us to step into a world that is not controlled and regulated, to imagine ourselves back into the rawer life from which we came...
Which is what happens in 'Wild', down to the emphasis on an uncontrolled world. However, apart from its ecologically realistic context, the film takes human rewilding in a very different direction. Ania's project takes place mostly in an empty apartment - an increasingly uncomfortable and even cruel confinement of the very wildness she is after.
Krebitz related how the story of 'Wild' came to her in a recurring dream:
I was running and had the feeling of being chased, and when I turned around I stood facing a wolf. It was strange to me because I didn't really have any connection with wolves.
Indeed, the wolf in 'Wild' is better viewed as a Freudian image of repressed desire than as a genuine engagement with natural wilderness. Ultimately, the film is concerned with questions of female identity and sexual transgression, for example in its theme of shifting roles of predator and prey, with Ania experimenting with the role of hunter, a traditionally male domain.
The film's open ending could indicate either Ania's acceptance of having reached a point of no return, or a state of satiety of her wild adventure. While the former would be the more disconcerting, Krebitz seemed to hint at the latter interpretation:
Being human means that at any point she can say stop.
Perhaps that's the undecidedness at the heart of this film: while it pushes its protagonist to extremes of wild behavior, involving lots of bodily functions, there remains something inconsequential about it - an experiment which will be over after a shower and hot milk.
By that time the wolf is long gone.
Here is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.
This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the seawind
Lets no tree grow,
Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.
I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death; the falcon’s
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive
Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.
- Robinson Jeffers
The 2009 Dark Mountain Manifesto revived interest in Jeffers' work, which had been somewhat forgotten after enjoying great popularity in the U.S. in the 1930s. His long, epic poems are rather grotesque Greek tragedies, made up of "one part Sophocles, one part Lone Ranger, a dash of William Faulkner, and plenty of bitters," as a 1948 review had it.
But his shorter nature poetry, inspired by the California coast at Carmel where he lived, proved a revelation for 21st century disillusioned environmentalists who embraced its nature mysticism as well as its outsider perspective of sombre aloofness on the scourge of mankind.
Defiantly ecocentric and anti-anthropocentric, Jeffers' poetry developed a philosophy he called Inhumanism, and which he described in 'The Double Axe' (1948) as:
...a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist (...) It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.
In 'Carmel Point' he expressed the same attitude:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
But what we must do is really an afterthought for Jeffers. Nature itself is the real protagonist here, spoiled by encroaching suburbia but enduring man patiently. From this natural perspective Jeffers asks:
...does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve.
What Jeffers stressed was "neither misanthropic nor pessimist" comes to sound more like a kind of cosmic stoicism, a "mysticism of stone" reminiscent of Ecclesiastes rather than the Book of Revelation. Dark Mountain, however, certainly seems to flirt with a more apocalyptic mood - after all they titled their manifesto 'Uncivilisation'. It earned them criticism of fatalism and despair, which media-rhetorically left them rather cornered, but artistically opened up some interesting uncharted territory.
Some more of Jeffers' short poems: 'The Answer', another declaration of inhumanist principles, avowing the holism and "divine beauty / of the universe" to conclude: "Love that, not man / Apart from that". 'Vulture', where Jeffers turns his inhumanism upon himself, envisioning his own death in Tibetan fashion as "what an enskyment". And 'Rearmament', which gave the Dark Mountain Project its name.
...there is the promise of meeting a freedom head-on as an outer limit of the self and of the human, an internal overflowing of a rebellious Nature that goes beyond you. Walking can provoke these excesses: surfeits of fatigue that make the mind wander, abundances of beauty that turn the soul over, excesses of drunkenness on the peaks, the high passes (where the body explodes). Walking ends by awakening this rebellious, archaic part of us: our appetites become rough and uncompromising, our impulses inspired. Because walking puts us on the vertical axis of life: swept along by the torrent that rushes just beneath us.
In treating walking as a philosophical and spiritual activity, French philospher Frédéric Gros follows in the thoughtful footsteps of H.D. Thoreau and Ton Lemaire (whose work, alas, remains untranslated). But 'A philosophy of walking' ('Marcher, une philosophie', 2009) also evokes the riotous ramblings of the Beat poets.
Indeed, in his most inspired moments, Gros writes of walking as a kind of secular mystical experience, drawing on Western and Eastern religious traditions alike. And capturing the universal, perennial appeal of walking.
The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemmorial life.
Walking, as Gros stresses at the outset, is not a sport but one of the most basic human ways of experiencing the world, by simply, slowly, without the help of much technology, moving from one place to another - preferably a full day's march away. Besides imposing simplicity and slowness, walking invites sensorial experience of the natural landscape, which he prescribes as an antidote to today's familiar experience of abstraction and screen-life.
"The network has no horizon," Gros said in a Le Monde interview, succinctly summing up both the numbing quality of cyberspace and the attraction of going out the door, into the open.
'A philosophy of walking' follows two meandering paths, one tracing the role of walking in the life and works of classic philosophers and writers, the other reflecting on the nature of walking. The latter really proves the most interesting, as the stories of these classic walkers have been told before elsewhere, often in their own words.
There is Nietzsche's mountain walking, "6,000 feet beyond man and time", only to come down to tell the world that God was dead. Or Kant's daily stroll, like clockwork, through the park in the town he seldom left. Or again Rousseau's hikes in nature, away from civilization and discovering his natural self.
Then there's the nervous walking of French poets, from Rimbaud's perpetual flight, on foot, until even his death registry said he was "passing through", to Nerval's melancholic wanderings through Paris, ending with his demise in an obscure alley. The romantic wandering of English poets like Wordsworth. And the American tradition of self-sufficient wilderness hiking, starting with Thoreau - who wrote extensively about walking in 'Walden', 'Walking' and other essays - and continued by Snyder and others.
And ultimately there is Ghandi's walking, which is of yet another kind, an act of political subversion as well as spiritual expression - both summed up in his concept of satyagraha.
One absentee in this walking canon is Petrarch, whose ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336 has been considered the start of recreational walking - his sole motive "the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer". In 'Filosofie van het landschap' ('A philosophy of landscape', 1970) Ton Lemaire wrote of this moment as a first European discovery of the world as both an aesthetic and spiritual landscape. Here's a short excerpt (in my translation):
Here, on the peak of Mont Ventoux, (...) a dramatic encounter takes place between Augustine and Petrarch, between the spirit of the Middle Ages and the modern age, between introspection and expansion. Petrarch's journey articulates these two world views: that of traditional christianity which considers human self-realization to lie in contemplation, in introspection, and which fears to lose itself in the great expanse of the world; and that of the burgeoning modern spirit which seeks salvation in 'extraspection', in expansion and exploration of the other, and for whom the world expanse is the range in which it enthusiastically finds itself.
It is this sense of extraspection which Gros explores in his more phenomenological chapters, devoted to such aspects of walking as slowness, solitudes, silences and eternities. And just as the extreme introspection of the Medieval mystics produced visions of transcendence, the extreme extraspection of long, arduous hikes may lead to a kind of immanent mysticism.
...walking causes absorption. Walking interminably, taking in through your pores the height of the mountains when you are confronting them at length, breathing in the shape of the hills for hours at a time during a slow descent. The body becomes steeped in the earth it treads. And thus, gradually, it stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape. That doesn't have to mean dissolution, as if the walker were fading away to become a mere inflection, a footnote. It's more a flashing moment: sudden flame, time catching fire. And here, the feeling of eternity is all at once that vibration between presence. Eternity, here, in a spark.
(For absorption, the French has 'imprégnation', which has more of the connotation of something worked upon, like wood, until it reaches saturation.)
Over the course of the book, the emphasis shifts from walking's sublime moments to the more ascetic aspects of its practice. Walking - which only needs "a mouthful of bread, a draught of cool water, and the open country" - eliminates superfluous bagage of many kinds. Useless stuff accumulated from mindless consumption, weighty intellectual ideas that become absurd next to the sheer thereness of a wildflower or a rock, and most of all "the dissipation of our language" in the silence of walking.
In one chapter, Gros asks the quintessential walker's question, "the same question, over and over again: do I really need this?" Because walking always means you have to carry what you (think you) need... And so Gros proceeds to peel off layers from the useful to the necessary and finally to the bedrock of the elemental, "whose consistency can hardly be felt, for it yields itself in pure form only to one who has, at some time, got rid of the necessary."
If this sounds like heavy going, the practice of mendicant monks perhaps, Gros makes the same point more playfully in a chapter on strolls. It is similar to what John Fowles described in his essay 'The Tree', that words and ideas tend to prevent immediate experience. And walking, adds Gros, by eroding the accumulated ideas from our minds, is a way to bring back the capacity for naive experience - for elemental seeing.
...we oughtn't to be contrasting the imaginative, dreamy outlook of children with the realism and objectivity of adults. It is children who are the true realists: they never proceed from generalities. The adult recognizes the general form in a particular example, a representative of the species, dismisses everything else and states: that's lilac, there's an ash tree, an apple tree. The child perceives individuals, personalities. He sees the unique form, and doesn't mask it with a common name or function. When you walk with children, they enable you to see the fabulous beasts in tree foliage, to smell the sweetness of blossoms. It isn't a triumph of the imagination, but an unprejudiced, total realism. And Nature becomes instantly poetic.
(Quotes from the translation by John Howe. The English edition also contains some great illustrations by Clifford Harper.)
For its retrospective exhibition of French artist Guy de Cointet's visual work, M Leuven has reprinted 'ACRCIT', an oblique newspaper originally published in Los Angeles in 1971.
In plain black and white it brings together a range of his language, pattern and number designs. Some of these are puzzles and some just abstracted signs - and often it's hard to tell whether there's a meaning to be decrypted, or whether the medium is the message. Not surprisingly, De Cointet included a reference to Marshall McLuhan's 'Understanding Media' (a quote about radar).
One interesting visual puzzle is a double-crescent emblem described (in mirror script) as the Prophet Muhammed's signature, which he would write with his sword in the sand in one stroke.
Also included are a few of his esthetical math formulas, one using binary, another a combination of binary and numerical notation, to create deceptively simple patterns of numbers.
De Cointet's work has been compared to Mallarmé's experimental poetry, but these number games seem to come from a very different register - closer to, say, the work of Stefan Themerson. It's perhaps the most fascinating strand in his varied work, which in LA would branch out in less austere, more colorful and pop-arty directions. The exhibition in Leuven includes several other of such earlier, 'avant-sudoku' works.
A large campaign of hundreds of spoof ads in Paris exposes the corporate capture of the COP climate talks. Special target are the COP21 sponsors who are misleadingly branding themselves as part of the solution, in what amounts to UN endorsed greenwashing.
Larger images and hundreds more in the Brandalism COP21 Gallery.
Update: A much darker vision of the kind of "situational lobbying" that goes on at COP21 is presented in the short film 'La Fête (est Finie)' ('The Party (Is Over)'), directed by Mark Donne and Massive Attack's 3D.
To follow up yesterday's oil baron, here's some more planetary conscious street art...
Describing the climate talks as a "greenwashing heaven", it exposes the overwhelming corporate presence at all levels of this crucial event. Invited by the UN as partners, many of the world's worst polluters are offered a superbly credible podium to greenwash their activities, present false solutions and engage in ever new variants of denial, diversion and procrastination.
The era of blatant climate change denial may be over (or is it? Shockingly, anno 2015, 'One in five Flemings doesn't believe climate change is caused by humans', this in what has been called 'A failed state when it comes to climate policy'). But at least by now the tactics of the fossil fuel industry of systematically creating doubt through the dissemination of disinformation have been comprehensively documented. The book (2010) and documentary (2014) 'Merchants of Doubt' provide an overview, with admirable sanity in the face of so much cynicism.
However, the major polluters of the world - including besides fossil fuel also the transport and agro industries as well as, indirectly, the finance sector - have merely updated and diversified their tactics. Using a variety of subtle and obfuscating arguments, all are weighing in to be allowed to continue polluting as usual.
These dangerous and short-sighted approaches also represent denial, not of climate change itself, but of the real action needed to deal with its consequences.
Instead, CEO concludes soberingly:
Meaningful change is impossible as long as industry is seated at the table and treated as a partner. We know that the only real solution is to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to make a just transition towards truly renewable - and not corporate-dominated - energy.
For even without corporate insinuation, the "soap opera of global climate talks" is complex enough. Let's hope this 21nd episode will offer more than just politics as usual.
(Photo: 'Sucking the Earth Dry' by Os Gêmeos & Blu, Lisbon.)
Dersu Uzala was a Siberian nomadic hunter whose friendship with Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev inspired a book and two films. The films combine Dersu's wilderness lore and animistic cosmology with nostalgia over the inevitable arrival of modernity, which will destroy his world.
The best-known version of the story must be Akira Kurosawa's 'Dersu Uzala' (1975), produced in the Soviet Union on epic 70mm widescreen. It tells of Captain Arsenyev's expedition to the easternmost part of Siberia in the early 1900s and their chance meeting with the hunter Dersu Uzala, who becomes their guide in the wilderness. Adopting a meditative pace, the film devotes much attention to their daily survival in the taiga, while the stunning nature photography emphasizes how the small hiking party is enveloped in and merges with the landscape.
The heart of the film, however, is the endearing character of Dersu, whose survival skills and simple wisdom continue to amaze the Russian soldiers. He teaches them what Gary Snyder, in 'The Practice of the Wild', called the "etiquette of the wild world", which combines skill and spirituality in an unbroken whole. Though Snyder's own experience was more of North-American wilderness cultures, his description fits Dersu perfectly:
People of wilderness cultures rarely seek out adventures. If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual rather than economic reasons. Ultimately all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole, not as some private quest. The quiet dignity that characterizes so many so-called primitives is a reflection of that.
Thus in Dersu's worldview there are people all around them: the wild animals, the water, wind and fire, to him all are people. Now the word may be an imperfect English translation of Dersu's imperfect Russian, but it's clear what he means: men, animals as well as the elements are spirited beings which must be respected in order to survive. Part of the film's power is in the matter-of-fact way it illustrates this animistic philosophy with Dersu's actions along the way.
Most spectacular is the scene where Dersu and Arsenyev get lost on an icy plain and are forced to spend the night there. Dersu manages to save them by building a makeshift hut of reeds. But equally memorable is the small gesture he makes of leaving a bundle of food, wood and matches in a cabin where they have stopped, not because he plans to come back but because "Others come this way. Find dry wood there. Food to eat. People no die."
The other, earlier film version, 'Dersu Uzala' (1961) directed by Agasi Babayan, tells much the same story yet is also strangely at odds with Kurosawa's version. It follows the same narrative structure, though more condensed (the film is only 80 minutes long, against Kurosawa's 140). It tells many of the same anecdotes about Dersu, and adds a number of spectacular scenes involving a forest fire, a bear fighting with a bee hive and a sable hunting a deer.
About halfway through, however, the film takes a bizarre turn, in what looks like an effort to incorporate Communist doctrine in the story. It happens when Captain Arsenyev finds a coal seam, which he marks on his map as "easy to dig" before explaining with sudden feverish excitement:
Someday, people will come here, build houses, factories... The city will grow. And all that, thanks to this coal here.
To which Dersu, who can't understand the excitement about this "black rock", replies with genuine concern:
Captain, you are a little sick. You need to rest for a while. And the sickness will go away.
But of course the sickness will not go away. With this scene the film - probably unintentionally - voices all of modernity's civilatory zeal and ideals of progress, which were just as strongly part of socialist as capitalist ideology. To be sure, Kurosawa's film contains this ideology as well. It is implied in Arsenyev's very mission: to survey uncharted territory and thus prepare the way for people, houses, factories.
But Kurosawa inserts this tension much more slily, and fully intentionally. As in a classic tragedy, the theme is introduced in the opening scene. Arsenyev is looking for Dersu's grave amidst the construction work of a new village. As he remembers it, "there were huge trees here, a cedar and a fir". A local thinks they were probably chopped down to build the settlement. And Arsenyev is unable to locate the grave.
It sets an elegiac tone for the rest of the film, which recounts in a long flashback Arsenyev's memories of Dersu, and their adventures in the wilderness. The tension between wilderness culture and encroaching civilization only resurfaces towards the end of the film. Dersu is getting old, his eyesight is failing, and Arsenyev has taken him to live with his family in town. Dersu is unable to adapt to 'civilized' life, complaining he "can't understand how people can live in a box". The divide between their two ways of life becomes painfully clear when Arsenyev, misunderstanding Dersu's complaint, suggests redecorating the room, "change the wallpaper, make it more comfortable".
In the end Dersu returns to the wilderness, where soon after he is murdered over the new rifle Arsenyev gave him as a present. This in itself a sign that the old "etiquette of the wild" is disappearing.
The final scene shows Arsenyev at Dersu's burial, marking his grave with a forked stick in a pristine landscape of falling snow. Just three years later people, houses, factories have appeared, Dersu's grave is gone and the land has become part of the Soviet frontier.
To conclude with Snyder, whose description of the American frontier is universal:
A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzle, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds. It is a strip where there are pelts and tongues and tits for the taking. There is an almost visible line that a person of the invading culture could walk across: out of history and into a perpetual present, a way of life attuned to the slower and steadier processes of nature. The possibility of passage into that myth-time world had been all but forgotten in Europe. Its rediscovery - the unsettling vision of a natural self - has haunted the Euro-American peoples as they continually cleared and roaded the many wild corners of the North American continent.
In a Eurasian context especially, the story of Dersu is a rare and memorable example of such a "passage into the myth-time world". But told in flashback, as of a possibility of the past.
Update: For more on the historical background of both Russian and Japanese imperialism, see the essay 'What Was Kurosawa Silent About in Dersu Uzala?'