Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Travelogue 601 – February 25
What Resounds

I’m walking through the oorlog. There is a lot of debris. Though it is organized and catalogued, it is still debris. Oorlog means war in Dutch.

They have finally completed the work around our Metro station, which is called Coolhaven. For months, the road and sidewalks were ripped up, and sections fenced off, where bricks were piled and where heavy machinery stood mostly idle. The sandy ground underneath Rotterdam lay exposed. Now the brick promenades along the water are restored and clean.

Coolhaven Station is a ten-minute walk from home. It sits beside the Schie River, where the river pools before the locks that allow ships into the Maas River. The station stands below a bridge that crosses the little Schie and offers a nice prospect of Delfshaven to one side and downtown, still a few kilometres away, on the other side. There is a small road that runs underneath the bridge and passes before the station entrance. That is where the brick promenade provides access to the water, accompanying the small road. This is where all the debris lies during construction.

Built into the bridge, so that it is across the road from the Metro station, is a small museum. In front of the museum is a sculpture in grey stone of a fighter plane standing on its tail. The museum is small, fit snugly under the bridge. It documents the experience of the city during WWII, or WOII in Dutch, the O for oorlog.

I’m walking through the oorlog. There is little more than debris on the brightly lit shelves. The museum itself is in great shape, just re-opened after renovation. The debris is also in good shape, cleaned and catalogued. Curators have organized it into displays, and yet debris remains in its nature an accident. Total war leaves behind the pieces of things, melted and bent household objects, shells, bits of stone and brick, paper strewn and burned to ash. War leaves items of its own element, uniforms and weapons.

So the first impression is one of life reduced to rubble. The second impression is one of time. I grew up in a world definitively ‘post-war’. The war was past and removed, but never so ancient and alien as it suddenly seems to me now. The weapons look antique. The uniforms are small and awkward. The posters and signage and headlines make civilization seem such a small endeavour, channelled along such narrow channels. Our contemporary world is something of a different order, made more of complexity and polish.

There are two types of people attending the re-opening, children and the old. The debris registers with each in markedly different ways. That is apparent. For the children it will never be other than history, as alien in essence as the Roman Empire. For the old, there is some personal connection, in memory or in family experience.

The museum volunteers proudly invite us into a room where we will be treated to the ‘Experience’. It’s a multi-media presentation meant to bring the bombardment of 1940 alive. We sit at tables with touch screens. There are projections on the wall. There are tablets programmed with catalogues of exhibits. However nice the media, though, the challenge is the lack of data. For example, there is no film stock of the bombardment, so instead we are given a collage of pre-war photos interrupted by sounds of planes and explosions, images of fire. The sound system is strong, and the media are choreographed well, but I’m disappointed in the interpretation of impact. In an effort to make numb post-moderns feel something of the significance of the event, they turn to the explosions. Terrifying as the bombardment itself was, I question whether the cinematic moment, the fire and screams, is the one that really captures the horror of the event. I would guess that the silence afterward might be more horrible, the shock and the collective effort to assimilate what had happened.

Levi-Strauss writes that some of the islanders on Martinique believed that Hitler was Jesus come back to punish the white race. Funny, sobering. Made sobering most by the ocean, perhaps. It’s the long reach of trauma, the kind of trauma visited on humanity by men like the Nazis, that finally makes the biggest mark.

One leaves the Experience to return to the collection. Maybe it’s the debris itself that offers the hope of most impact, the scanty collection a testament to human lives treated like trash, the scantiness of the collection itself a statement. This is what’s left of a city, it says. One’s mind rebels. One is tempted to smile. It’s not real. But it follows you out the door the way that simulated noise of bombs will not.

Outside, the city is restored. The humble promenade beside the river is neatly composed of its tiles and stones, and it’s been cleared and swept for the city’s families. The spring is coming. Some teens anticipate it, gathering on the benches, shivering in their coats, sharing cigarettes, talking about the silliest things possible.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Travelogue 600 – February 20
Rounding Sums

The skies are teasing us with a semiotics of spring. The clouds are big and fleecy, dodging among the winds as though in spring frolic. There is enough blue there behind them to trigger the cheeriest hormones. And yet one also senses the false promise, uneasily, despite the most sincere exertions to deny it. Winter hasn’t let go of us.

In the morning, there are trails of salt spilled along the roads. The bike paths crunch with salt and ice. There is a sheen to the surface of bridges, and one slows and wobbles on one’s bike, trying to avoid upset. The swan coughs vapours. She drifts quietly on the quiet river, the somber colours of which deny the sky’s dry ruse.

The ride is bracing. I am alert by the time I sign in at my morning café. The temperatures lend vitality to my work. I spend the early morning hour editing, and the work is a net spread wide to catch the whole room. The topic lies in the past, but the writing is present. The writing is woven from a hundred impressions in this moment, becoming past, becoming merged with the topic of the past. There have been so many edits by now the narrative rings with a mélange of captured moments.

I’ll finish the story now, my little memoir, and I’ll put it between some covers, with Troy’s help. And then what? The only result I can imagine is embarrassment. The story is incomplete. Stories never round neatly as sums. And the edits would not be complete in another ten years.

I am made to think again of poor Maximilien, victim of his own strange lights, an intelligence lacking all wisdom, a life rounded so succinctly and dramatically. Perhaps I’m all right with my indistinct story, illogical and starved of violence.

Belloc would hesitate to attribute even intelligence to young Robespierre. He has a poor opinion of the boy, repeatedly asserting his mediocrity. He asserts it so often, one wonders if there is a code to the assertion. Does he resent the boy’s impact on history as undeserved? Does he feel the times were corrupt, as evidenced by their worship of the boy-king?

Belloc is writing in 1905, a time still reverberating with the impact of the Revolution, the post-Napoleonic order beginning to break down, Russia facing its first revolution, European powers positioning themselves for mutual destruction. Einstein is opening a window onto true uncertainty; Freud is opening his window into the unconscious. But political science clings to Enlightenment certainties.

And isn’t that Robespierre’s sin, his certainty? It’s a transgression particularly galling to Belloc, I would think, proud public Catholic intellectual that he was, modern mystic. ‘The Incorruptible’ they called Robespierre in his day, code for consistent, rational disciple of the philosophes. Even when he opposed the most popular initiatives, like war, like the death penalty, he did so with the arguments of the philosophes.

Thinker of dry thoughts, and in over his head, poor Robespierre. Belloc has such a low opinion of him, as most everyone has. What might the unfortunate himself think if a shutter opened for him onto 2015, if he were suddenly present in the bland age of Hollande and Cameron, present to read his biographers? I have a sense he would encounter it with a shrug, with an irritatingly smug smile. ‘I made history,’ he might say. ‘I was right.’ He would find his place. He would dress well. He would work in the courts. He would have the best coffee maker.

‘We knew we may die,’ he would say. I wonder why they didn’t imagine themselves an honourable after-life, these writers of the new order, writers even of religion. It was one of Robespierre’s last acts to re-write the nation’s religion, creating the ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’. To be fair, he didn’t start that game. His colleagues had first introduced the Cult of Reason.

It could be they did legislate a place of rewards for good revolutionaries, and he sits there now, reading the Contrat Social one more time, nodding and saying, ‘We were right.’

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Travelogue 599 – February 19
Whether Ends Define

It’s all too sobering a feeling, this business of finishing stories, and on a sober morning, a morning that follows yesterday’s beautiful spring day with fog and chill. The grey has returned, and I have forced myself, against a foggy sleepiness as deep as the heart, to get out of bed. My routine propels me outside and onto the old cycle in any weather, to face into the chill winds and the morning’s torpid half-light.

My weekdays start the same. Before the sun has risen, I have to call Addis, or at least attempt it. That done I’m free to write for an hour or so before office hours begin.

I’m finishing the memoir. It’s been a project for years, and now Troy and I will publish it. I’m on the last edit, the last words. It’s a sobering feeling to bring a memoir piece to conclusion. It’s a memoir that begins with a closing. Many do, I suppose. This one opens with Leeza’s passing, so many years ago now.

The seed contains its end. Classical wisdom tells us this, and it goes further. It wants to tell us that the end envelopes the beginning. A story is essentially false until the end has been recorded. We cannot assess a person’s worth until we know the manner of his or her death.

That seems like the philosophy of a hungry people to me. I’m more forgiving myself. I attribute stories with more complexity, composed of multiple strands, some extending beyond the evident beginning and evident end. But that might be facile thinking. I tend to think that most thinking is a matter of convenience.

Certainly I see the application of the end-makes-the-story principle in reading the biography of Robespierre. I know the end already, as most readers would. Indeed, it’s impossible to escape it. The author, one Hilaire Belloc, writing over one hundred years ago, cannot escape it. How does the story arrive here, he asks. It serves as his organizing question.

That the demise of the man defines him in this unsentimental study makes me sad. It’s not that I sympathize with the man’s cold nature, his cold-hearted logic, but I regret that the cold world makes it so with such unheralded regularity. Robespierre stands in for all of us in our coldest hearts, figure of dramatic moment, standing in for all macabre ideologues, in offices and assemblies, school halls and pubs, the dandies with tight smiles that describe our fates.

I continue in my fascination with the French Revolution. Belloc does a decent job of describing the indescribable, the all-encompassing power of it, the purity of the fury. It might be the closest analogue in human movement to looking into the bursting and changing light of the atomic blast.

Is the image too dramatic? It’s a metaphor driven, I suppose, by the mechanism of released energy and power. One pictures the light, intense and consuming. One sees the rings of destruction expanding outward, people bracing for them.

I pause among my edits to study the thin elderly man, regular to this café, dressed impeccably in an autumnal coat, black shirt, and tie checkered in orange and brown. He wears a black fedora. He is reading a newspaper. His lips inside the grey Van Dyck move as he reads, and it seems clear he’s of jolly temperament.

As I enjoy this sight, the café’s music shifts. Lou Reed is voicing his way through ‘Wild Side’. The old man takes no notice. He has lived through Lou Reed’s moment. I want to know what that meant to him then. I won’t know. Chances are, for him, as for the majority of humanity, the moment and the moment’s mood passed with little to remark upon. It’s a trigger for a passing personal nostalgia, if anything.

How strange it is that music was Revolution for my generation and even more so for my older brothers’ generation. How odd that is, how strange it makes our societies appear. Does it imply that our times are more nuanced than Robespierre’s, or perhaps just more watered down? Maybe they did all our work back then, and we are left with the work of adjustments. Mr. Marx might object. Mr. Reed might object.

This is Revolution at its most attenuated, subversion in poetry, undermining order in painted words. The words never quite fade. They change. Generations after pick them up. When perversity has little of old challenge to it, the words still go on. The sign becomes pretty. No one looks up.

Mr. Robespierre did not mince words. Metaphor was a blunt instrument. “Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible,’ he famously said.