A strange sight, the allegorical bronze sculpture called 'Verity' by Damien Hirst looking out to sea in the North-Devon coastal town of Ilfracombe. Standing on law books and holding the traditional attributes of Justice, sword and scales (though hidden behind her back and off-balance), this symbol of truth is also very pregnant. A perhaps unintended effect of her placement is that the westering sun hides the controversial anatomy lesson of her exposed right side.
Names, science, history... not even the most adamantly down-to-earth botanist thinks of species and ecologies when he or she first stands at Wistman's Wood. It is too strange for that. The normal full-grown height of the common oak is thirty to forty metres. Here the very largest, and even though they are centuries old, rarely top five metres. They are just coming into leaf, long after their lowland kin, in every shade from yellow-green to bronze. Their dark branches grow to an extraordinary extent laterally; are endlessly angled, twisted, raked, interlocked, and reach quite as much downward as upwards. These trees are inconceivably different from the normal habit of their species, far more like specimens from a natural bonzai nursery. They seem, even though the day is windless, to be writhing, convulsed, each its own Laocoön, caught and frozen in some fanatically private struggle for existence.
The clitter of granite boulders, bare on the windswept moors, here provides a tumbling and chaotic floor of moss-covered mounds and humps, which add both to the impression of frozen movement and to that of an astounding internal fertility, since they seem to stain the upward air with their vivid green. This floor like a tilted emerald sea, the contorted trunks, the interlacing branches with their luxuriant secondary aerial gardens... there is only one true epithet to convey the first sight of Wistman's Wood, even today. It is fairy-like.
But it is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here - a drama, but of a time-span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent.
- John Fowles, 'The Tree' (1979)
In his novella-length essay 'The Tree' John Fowles explores his relationship with nature, wilderness, and above all trees and woods, which he called "the last green churches and chapels outside the walled civilization and culture we have made with our tools."
Its climax is his evocative description of a visit to the Dartmoor high altitude oakwood copse Wistman's Wood, whose name perhaps derived from the old Devon 'wisht', meaning haunted.
Here is an impression of Wistman's Wood today, the trees just coming into leaf...
There runs, between Lyme Regis and Axmouth six miles to the west, one of the strangest coastal landscapes in Southern England. From the air it is not very striking; one notes merely that whereas elsewhere on the coast the fields run to the cliff-edge, here they stop a mile or so short of it. The cultivated chequer of green and red-brown breaks, with a kind of joyous indiscipline, into a dark cascade of trees and undergrowth. There are no roofs. If one flies low enough one can see that the terrain is very abrupt, cut by deep chasms and accented by strange bluffs and towers of chalk and flint, which loom over the lush foliage around them like the walls of ruined castles. From the air ... but on foot this seemingly unimportant wilderness gains a strange extension. People have been lost in it for hours, and cannot believe, when they see on the map where they were lost, that their sense of isolation - and if the weather be bad, desolation - could have seemed so great.
The Undercliff - for this land is really the mile-long slope caused by the erosion of the ancient vertical cliff-face - is very steep. Flat places are as rare as visitors in it. But this teepness in effect tilts it, and its vegetation, towards the sun; and it is this fact, together with the water from the countless springs that have caused the erosion, that lends the area its botanical strangeness - its wild arbutus and ilex and other trees rarely seen growing in England; its enormous ashes and beeches; its green Brazilian chasms choked with ivy and the liana of wild clamatis; its bracken that grows seven, eight feet tall; its flowers that bloom a month earlier than anywhere else in the district. In summer it is the nearest this country can offer to a tropical jungle. It has also, like all land that has never been worked or lived on by man, its mysteries, its shadows, its dangers - only too literal ones geologically, since there are crevices and sudden falls that can bring disaster, and in places where a man with a broken leg could shout all week and not be heard. Strange as it may seem, it was slightly less solitary a hundred years ago than it is today. There is not a single cottage in the Undercliff now; in 1867 there were several, lived in by gamekeepers, woodmen, a pigherd or two. The roedeer, sure proof of abundant solitude, then must have spent less peaceful days. Now the Undercliff has reverted to a state of total wildness. The cottage walls have reverted to ivied stumps, the old branch paths have gone; no car road goes near it, the one remaining track that traverses it is often impassable.
- Jown Fowles, 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (1969)
Here's the Undercliff today, a well-trodden part of the South West Coast Path, though it continues to be unstable ground, and the track indeed proved impassable near Axmouth, blocked by ample warning signs...
These days a new Banksy piece might just be whisked off to the museum right away. This one, 'Mobile Lovers', is now on display at Bristol Museum. Here it was in the wild.
Elsewhere in Bristol (Clifton) the message is even more direct...
After all these landscape odes, here is a Dutch poem that has acquired a distinctly urban connotation, Lucebert's 'the very old one sings' ('de zeer oude zingt', 1954), its reputation depending mainly on a single line.
In fact, most people probably won't be familiar with the source of its famous aphorism, so here is the full poem, in the translation by Diane Butterman:
there is not more in little
nor is there less
still is uncertain what was
what is to be will be will-less
first when it is it is serious
fruitless it recollects itself
and stays in great haste
everything of worth is defenceless
grows rich from touchability
and equal to everything
like the heart of time
like the heart of time
The line that has become immortal is "everything of worth is defenceless", or "alles van waarde is weerloos" in the original Dutch, which for decades has towered over the centre of Rotterdam in red neon. Along with Zadkine's statue 'The Destroyed City' ('De verwoeste stad', 1953), it has come to symbolize Rotterdam's World War II destruction and its postwar struggle to find a new heart. Acting as a kind of 'memento mori', the quote reminds the city of the transience of all things – including its own newly erected futuristic skyline.
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For a more fundamental view on technology and its discontents, what better source to turn to than French sociologist Jacques Ellul's classic work 'The Technological Society', which in the 1950s laid out what he termed "the stake of the century" with uncanny prescience.
The book's French title is 'La technique', translated into English after Aldous Huxley introduced it to the USA. But the English title is a bit confusing, as one of Ellul's central ideas is the distinction he makes between technology and technique. Technology denotes tools and machines, whereas technique encompasses the much larger sphere of methods and systems guiding the use of technology - what we today would call technocracy.
For instance, one of the great technologies that defined progress in the nineteenth century, the train, should be understood as embedded in a web of technique, including engineering, industry, economics, administration, propaganda, etc. The quintessential technique is not the train but the timetable.
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Time is now a subjective matter. You decide in your mind when day breaks, or when the moon fades. After a while you probably lose the numeric calendar as we once knew it. New York is now a city of suspended gardens that reach the sky. The wild colors they strike you in full force, and the people are so beautiful, so young and radiant, exuding serenity and beauty and sexuality.
There is no more ego. Thanks to chemistry we've been redeemed. There's no ego, no competition, no violence, no war, no strong or weak, no secrets. Everyone is... what they are. Everyone is what they want to be.
From 'The Congress' (2013), Ari Folman's flawed but fascinating mix of animation and live-action. Very loosely adapted from Stanisław Lem's novel 'The Futurological Congress', it weaves into Lem's chemical science-fiction a whole extra (semi) autobiographical story about actress Robin Wright. The resulting plot is complex and full of loose ends, but contains many thought-provoking ideas.
And visually it's absolutely stunning, including one moment - the transition from its animated, hallucinated world where "everyone is what they want to be" back to grey old, inflexible reality - that not only defines the whole film but also sums up all of its critique of escapist entertainment and pharmaceutical delusion.
Here's an interview with Folman on the making of 'The Congress' and exploring "the boundaries of human identity" in a world of virtual reality.
And here are two music videos / extended trailers of Robin Wright performing 'Forever Young' and 'If It Be Your Will'.
A more serious discussion of the progress trap was provided on Monday, when internet critic Evgeny Morozov gave a talk in the Balie in Amsterdam for the launch of the Dutch translation of his 2013 book 'To Save Everything, Click Here'.
Morozov's lecture on "the pathology of solutionism" was followed by responses from and a debate with other guest speakers, which was characterized by almost total agreement between the participants. Surely Morozov's message was timely and urgent, but it also seemed to reflect the rather autocratic style of reasoning that's found in his book as well.
'To Save Everything, Click Here' addresses the current promise of using the proliferation of connectivity, apps and big data to solve any kind of problem, from obesity and crime to climate change. On one level, this is a matter of bringing Silicon Valley's giddy hyperbole back to earth, but on another, scarier level it reveals how politicians are increasingly being seduced by this technological form of solutionism, which conveniently bypasses such complications as the systemic nature of these problems, while tacitly blaming them on the irrational behavior of consumers.
Thus, as Morozov describes in his essay 'The Real Privacy Problem', which offers a comprehensive introduction to the issue:
...the new digital infrastructure, thriving as it does on real-time data contributed by citizens, allows the technocrats to take politics, with all its noise, friction, and discontent, out of the political process. It replaces the messy stuff of coalition-building, bargaining, and deliberation with the cleanliness and efficiency of data-powered administration.
It's the familiar idea of eliminating friction, which inspired both social media and e-commerce, that's now being applied to politics. Relying, as it does, on ever more revealing data streams, concerns over data gathering and government 'nudging' are often framed in terms of privacy. But the larger issue here, as Morozov stressed, is one of politics – this is not about privacy but about democracy. "We can't hack our way out of this."
The wider implications of what Morozov called the "Foucaultian hypervisibility of individuals", exposed to both data-hungry companies and surveillance-happy governments, become clear when contrasted with the growing invisibility of institutions. Governments increasingly claim that what they do is classified, while globally operating corporations elude nationally organized oversight (see, for example, 'the biggest company you've never heard of'). What's worse, many corporations actively pursue strategies of producing public ignorance (as in the case of climate change denial).
Ultimately, this leads back to Zygmunt Bauman's analysis of how power has shifted from national governments to global companies, leaving representative politics empty-handed. The result is that it takes a lot of political guts to fight any issue on a systemic level. Nudging people's behavior when it comes to, say, limiting carbon emissions, seems just so much easier than taking on the global industries whose emissions represent a much larger share of responsibility.
Hence Morozov's repeated urging that we need to take debates over apps and data out of the technological sphere and into the political arena:
As long as we regard technology as the primary discursive framework, creating camps of technophiles and technophobes, the politics behind it remain hidden. The price we pay at a social and political level for these efficient technological solutions is not being discussed.
Or in ideological terms, the starry-eyed promise of innovation increasingly obscures a very conservative agenda of leaving the system as is. Corporations will not suffer interference, while the behavior-reduced-to-data of citizens-reduced-to-consumers can be endlessly tinkered with.
This year's Dutch Electronic Art Festival raised expectations with its intriguing theme, 'The Progress Trap', marking the first time this biennale questions rather than celebrates its own technological focus.
Progress has become a means to an end in itself and has been decoupled from the cultural, ecological and social advances that it was supposed to help achieve. However seductive quick gains from technological solutions are, their temporary victories in the short term may cause much worse and bigger problems in the long run, luring us into The Progress Trap.
(It would seem this program statement means to say that progress has become an end in itself, though on another level its confusion of means and ends does show how deeply entrenched our ideas of progress really are...)
In any case, the works exhibited, at Het Nieuwe Instituut and V2, had trouble living up to the theme, unless by illustrating how (electronic) art doesn't escape this trap either. A work like 'Preppers Room' - a replica of a fully stocked survival cellar for those who anxiously await doomsday - by caricaturizing the issue really dismisses it as something concerning only eschatological shoppers.
In this respect a more thoughtful piece is Alicia Framis' 'Departure Board', which collects utopian destinations from world literature and popular culture on a flight departure board, cleverly undermining its own 'flight into fancy' with the technological infrastructure it assumes.
And while we're still here, the visually soothing 'Spawn', an outdoor light art piece by Jonas Vorwerk, offers gently floating colored light balls that are really just that...
After Slauerhoff's sarcastic sketch of Holland's social landscape, here are two more visions of Holland, pitting the idealized landscape of Marsman's 'Memory of Holland' ('Herinnering aan Holland', 1936) against the dismal 'slough of dreary pap' of P.A. de Génestet's 'Boutade' (1851).
Both these poems were part of the David Reid Poetry Translation Prize, which published all contenders' versions online, so there's a wealth of English translations.
Marsman's ode to the Dutch river landscape is one of the best-known poems in the Netherlands, endlessly visualized in photos. Its opening lines have become proverbial (and have often been parodied), while its cautionary ending continues to resonate with a people living below sea level. Bert Haanstra's documentary 'De stem van het water' ('The Voice of the Water', 1966) also takes its name from Marsman's poem.
Here is the poem in the translation by Renée Delhez:
Thinking of Holland
I see broad lazy rivers
flowing through infinite
rows of incredibly
like plumy feathers
on the horizon, and
sunken and small in this
space so stupendous
clumps of trees, villages,
squat stumpy towers,
churches and elm trees,
in one grand layout.
The skies hang low
and grey, multicoloured
mists slowly make the
and in every region
the voice of the water
with its endless disasters
is heard and is feared.
Like Slauerhoff, Marsman lived abroad when he wrote the poem (in the south of France), but that's about the only similarity. While Slauerhoff damned the suffocating conformism of its people, Marsman saw only the tranquility of the open Dutch river landscape with its vast skies and its tiny, humble inhabitants.
This nostalgic and idealized landscape is in Marsman's poetics also, and crucially, a landscape of the soul. Comparing 'Memory of Holland' to another of his poems, written around the same time, 'Brief aan een vriend' ('Letter to a Friend'), helps bringing out this aspect of the poem. It also reminds us of his earlier dedication to vitalism, a Nietzschean philosophy of energy which in the 1920s brought a younger Marsman uncomfortably close to fascism.
Here's an excerpt of the poem, modernistically without capitals, in a rough translation:
yet within us will be a quiet fire,
hidden in bone and marrow.
wandering the infinite land
we will be stronger and more tranquil,
received into the flowing totality
of the seasons, intimately connected
with its space and changing weather.
The link between the two poems is in the word 'verband' - the 'one grand layout' ('het groots verband') versus 'the flowing totality' ('het stromend verband') - which makes for a tricky and rather abstract word to translate, connoting context, interrelationship, the way things are connected in a larger whole.
In the translations of 'Memory of Holland' the phrase is variously translated as 'all wondrously planned', 'in grandiose conjunction', 'in one great bond', to name a few. In some versions it suggests the human design of the landscape - or even its divine plan, which would be too theistic for a vitalist, expressionist poet. Delhez's 'one grand layout' works better in evoking the natural order of the landscape, which in 'Letter to a friend' is even more clearly the 'totality' Marsman wishes to feel himself a part of.
However, what Marsman left out of his lofty design was the Dutch weather that will bring back to earth any landscape of the soul through sheer drizzle.
Almost a century earlier, preacher and poet P.A. de Génestet wrote a great tirade on the Dutch climate, probably unique in emphasizing that its poet has a cold. His 'Boutade' stands out in his late Romantic, mildly humorous theologian's poetry, and is probably his best-remembered poem.
Its exaggerated disgust of this 'land of fogs and frogs' culminates in denouncing the entire lowlands wrested from the sea, 'but not at my request' ('maar niet op mijn verzoek') - in other words, thanks a lot, o masochistic forefathers! Indeed, as the DRPTP jury noted, "the key to translating De Génestet's ode to the Dutch weather is hyperbole and mock outrage."
Here is the winning translation by Francis Jones, who renders the title 'Boutade' (which has a slightly different meaning in English than in Dutch) as 'Pique'.
O land of fogs and frogs, of dung and dirty rains,
Dew-sodden scrap of soil, bone-cold, miasmal, damp,
Awash with unplumbed sludge, with roads like open drains,
Awash with mould and gout, umbrellas, toothache, cramp!
O slough of dreary pap, dominion of newts,
Galoshes, cobblers, splodgers, muddy deities,
Of marsh-fowl great and small, in all their feathered suits,
Take pity on your son: this autumn, hear him sneeze!
Your soggy climate slows my arteries to mires
Of mud: I have no song, no hunger, joy or rest.
Put your galoshes on, o hallowed land our sires
Have lifted from the sea - but not at my request.
A great contrast with Marsman, his bird's-eye lyricism countered with a frog's-eye call to 'put your galoshes on' and come down to catch cold. The real nature of the relationship of the Dutch with their watery delta is not, De Génestet seems to say, in heroically withstanding 'endless disasters', but in the much more mundane, daily battle with 'mould and gout, umbrellas, toothache, cramp'.
So whenever someone starts quoting 'Thinking of Holland...' the preferred retort is 'but not at my request!'