Friday, January 27, 2017

Travelogue 736 – January 27
The Accident, the Substance

He’s speaking Dutch, so I don’t catch every word, but I understand enough. ‘You should watch where you’re going,’ he’s saying. ‘What?’ I shout. I decide to offer him a personal lesson in English invective, my face very close to his so he catches every inflection.

It has taken two bystanders to help me free my leg from underneath his car. My bicycle is destroyed, wheels and frame bent. This driver has stayed inside the car until now, and his first words are accusation.

Later, I tell the police the worst of it. He wouldn’t stop. ‘How long,’ the policeman asks. I say I don’t know. I hadn’t thought to trigger the stopwatch. But long enough, I tell him, that I’m yelling, ‘Stop the *** car!’

I survive, even if the bicycle doesn’t. My leg is bent. I can’t walk on it without a lot of pain for a day or two. But I’m fine, and the leg will recover. This won’t stop me from running my race in March.

As hardy as the body, so fragile is the spirit. I am shaken. I ask myself, was I wrong to react with so much anger? I don’t think anyone would blame me, but that doesn’t make it right. I don’t have an answer, but I do decide that it might all have played out differently if the driver had begun with expressions of something more human. ‘Are you all right?’

It’s sobering to think this way, how powerful is the discourse, how powerful the force of forgiveness. I see it everywhere. It would be impossible for me not to extend the concept outward, given the tenor of world events, when America reaps the fruit of several generations of rage and polarization.

It’s astonishing how fragile we are, how sure we think we have to be. The man emerges from his auto with no thought but for his righteousness. It’s astonishing how fragile our world view has become when we deny, without qualification, that there can be any view but ours. We become weak. The police confront him with the likely facts, and the driver is rattled. All he can do is repeat his objection, until the policeman feels he must check whether he is hearing properly. Outside, the driver’s wife is illustrating her version of the story to passers-by.

The police here are trained in objectivity. They stay calm. They speak rationally. They analyse situations; they isolate the basics. They repeat and re-direct, maintaining focus on those basics. I admire them. I reflect how rationality is a learned skill. I reflect that it’s a skill we expect from our police, but not from ourselves. There was a time when we expected it from political leaders.

These days, we question the value of objectivity. We find it suspect. In truth, it challenges us. We have fallen for righteousness. We are seduced by the idea that one side in a conflict is one hundred percent right, and the other side is one hundred percent wrong. If we are unsettled by a doubt, we cannot expect reason to come to the rescue. Reason will moderate, and will humble.

Because I am puzzled by this, I have been reading. I am curious about the history of reason during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment in early modern European history. It’s a great heritage. (No civilization owns reason, of course. You can find stories of the triumph of reason in Islamic, Chinese, African history. But I’m a sucker for European history. I have been since I was an impressionable bachelor’s student in university.)

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Francis Bacon

‘I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.’ Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Travelogue 735 – January 22
Reading Romania

Only a few days later, I have my proofs. I have seen the ice. I have seen the children playing hockey on the surface of a canal. That was over by the Zestienhoven Park. I was half an hour into a run and crossing over the canal and into the park. My body has been struggling with the long freeze. I feel sluggish. The muscles are tight; I need to stop for a stretch. My joints complain. But my spirits are high; the sun is out. I start across the small, arching bridge, and I spot them a hundred metres down the canal, skating feverishly, swinging hockey sticks. As quickly as I spot them, they are hidden by the reeds attending the canal. It was a glimpse, an imprint like a vision of Breughel.

Then this morning, it’s even colder. I’m surprised by the reading on my phone. It was supposed to be warming up. The sun is up by the time I leave the house. It’s Sunday. I’m free to wait for sunrise. It’s a bright morning, and as I cross the River Schie, I can see quite clearly that the ice has claimed it, forming one delicate surface from bank to bank. Only birds test the strength of it. They stand and turn their heads, as though still assessing the risk, as though listening for tell-tale crackling under their feet.

Yesterday was the women’s march in Washington, and in other cities. It was a day for us to share our pain. Citizens are protesting political systems that have broken with their people, systems intent upon their own interests. Their interests diverge more boldly with every generation from even the broadest definitions of the public good. Leaders name themselves elected, and they follow their will. The new administration issues ‘alternative facts’, and it makes for great comedy. But it’s governance only in the sense of power.

Eventually, the high gestures of history filter down to the personal. They impact us at home. That seems easier for Europeans to understand, even as the Second World War recedes into the past. We see refugees from the Syrian civil war in our cities. The Dutch Turks debate Erdogan’s rule, more aggressive as every week passes. Students at my school were born among the debris of the Bosnian war. Putin seems more of a menace here. To Americans, he is still a curiosity, the bear at the circus. We won the Cold War, after all.

I have some students from Romania. They look like the other teenagers, going to the same lengths to fit in and have fun, displaying their references to pop culture in clothes, style, word and gesture. The kids from the smallest villages show the same savvy nowadays. There are no country rubes.

When I mention that I’m reading a famous Romanian author, Bogdan lights up. He knows the author, cites the controversies he stirred so many years ago. He goes on to recommend other authors from his homeland. He is a patriot.

The book is called ‘For Two Thousand Years’, and it was written by a Romanian Jew who lived during the first half of the twentieth century. The story is based on his own experiences as a student in the years following Romania’s experiment with a liberal constitution. Modern Romania came into being in the aftermath to the First World War. In 1923, it voted on its first constitution. The document declared universal male suffrage and equal rights. Apparently, this was a bitter pill for many people. Rights for the Jews seemed particularly provocative. The right reacted with riots. At the university, they called for a cap on numbers of Jewish students.

The book begins with a litany of beatings the character and his friends submit to in order to attend classes at the law school. He’s ordered mid-lecture to leave, by fellow students. ‘I slide out of the desk and slip towards the door between two rows of onlookers. It all happens decorously, ritually. Someone by the door lashes out with his fist, but it is a glancing blow. A late punch, my friend.’

The students live together in abject poverty. They walk together to the university, looking for safety in numbers. They escape from unexpected mobs intent on violence. Every day is an experiment in hope. This is the loneliness of oppression.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Travelogue 734 – January 19

There is ice on the small canal behind our building. Temperatures have not broken freezing for several days. This is the coldest stretch since I moved here. The ice covers the whole canal. But it wouldn’t hold anyone’s weight. When I see ice, I think of complaints I’ve heard among the older Dutch people I know. They say that winters aren’t what they used to be. Ice skating on the canals has become a fond memory.

Cycling beside the Schie in the early morning, I think I see the curdled sheen of thin ice on the surface of the river. Hard to say without light. Was there a day when locals skated on this river? I’m sure there was.

There were times the Thames froze over in London. Apparently, the eighteenth century witnessed an exceptional number of harsh winters in Europe, particularly in the 80s. One of those winters is generally recognized as a contributing factor in the outbreak of revolution in France in 1789.

Yes, I’ve continued my reading about the Enlightenment. The events of the day move me to read more. They were prolific writers, those men in wigs, and their ideas are foundational to our systems even today. They inform how we think about human rights and citizenship. They inform how we form governments. Their essential optimism about human nature has nourished philosophy ever since.

Lately I can’t escape the feeling that some consensus has been reached among the people who shape our times that those ideas have outlived their usefulness. Chinese leaders and Muslim extremists mock ‘Western values’. Democracy is lumped in with crass consumerism and moral decline. Trump and Putin make a mockery of democracy, serving older ideas of tribe and empire.

‘Co-o-old,’ Baby says, and she dances a variation of the shivers. We don’t go outside much anymore. I miss that. It was one of my favourite activities with her. She shivers and she makes a face, a mask of surprise at the big cold world out there. I say it with her. ‘Cold!’ And I shiver. She laughs.

I can’t help it. Her face is a sign of hope to me. It’s hard-wired into my father’s brain, something biological, I imagine. Maybe it’s this advent of new hope into the world, my baby, someone whose life span may encompass the rest of this pessimistic century, that compels me to contemplate hope.

She watches me suit up to go out. I’ve had to make one concession to winter this year. I was forced to buy full finger gloves. Twenty minutes on the bicycle has become too painful without them. I’m waiting before I take on the bulky wool coat. I’m fine like this to 5C below. But there is still a lot of winter left.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Travelogue 733 – January 14
Night Comes in the Mail

Winter brings us night. It drops night in the mail slot of the door, delivering it before dinner. We turn the lights on, and the long evenings are yellow with dim incandescence. Winter ought to be a season of reflection. But we work. I do my thinking on the bicycle, pedalling in the dark, pedalling across town to school.

I’ve succeeded in making Baby laugh tonight. We’ve played some of her favourite games. She tugs on my shirt, so that I’ll chase after her. Once I’ve caught her, I swing her in the air and I tickle her. She hides behind the drapes, and I pretend to look for her. We sit together on the floor, and we draw swirling lines on an A3 sheet of paper. She leaves marks on her hands and on her new clothes.

I’m having to make up to her. During the week, I was distracted. Classes were on again after winter break. At home, I corrected old assignments and I prepared new ones. Baby shot me hurt looks. I smiled and I invited her to sit with me while I worked. But still my attention was quickly diverted. I’ve had no time of my own.

This complex was built in the 1920s, and the flats were originally half the size. They’ve been expanded, but our place still has two front doors. One of them we never open. But since both have mail slots, we get twice the junk mail. One door is just beside my desk. Suddenly, in the early evening, there will be a sudden noise as the metal slot is opened, and then a packet of sales material in a plastic bag is shoved through. It hangs suspended there, never making it all the way through. Baby opens her eyes wide and covers her mouth in a gesture of surprise. She points.

The house is a hungry economy. Everything is used. The little sales booklets from the super market chain, those become magazines for Batu. She sits in her chair in the dining room and leafs through them for hours. While Menna cooks, Batu gossips with her about prices. The rest of the junk mail becomes play material for Baby. She arranges them on the floor. She tears them. She throws them to see them flutter.

I used to take Baby for regular walks. It was her favourite part of the day. But now there’s little time, and the weather rarely cooperates. Baby points to the window, and she repeats her first word, ‘Cold!’ She shivers theatrically. ‘Cold!’

I pick her up, and we look out the window. ‘Look, Baby, it’s winter!’ She touches the glass with one finger, and she whispers something to herself.

Home starts to look like night to me. Most of my time there is zonder zon, time without light. When I pick Baby up, and we go to the window, there’s little to see outside. We see lights in the windows. We see a portion of dark sky. She whispers, and she peers out into the world without sun. We turn back inside.

Winter brings us night. The mailman slips it through without effort. There is no noise to announce it. Darkness enters with the same ease as light.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Travelogue 732 – January 5
Reading David
Part Three

The philosopher works at the café where I do most of my writing. We discuss books. He has made me interested in philosophy again. He awakened an interest in those naughty existentialists again. My first loan from the Leeskabinet was ‘Nausea’, which has been a guilty pleasure over a pint when I’ve had time.

I appreciate philosophies framed in stories or practical exercises. I told the philosopher that my tastes in philosophy generally ran to dialogues. It was perhaps no surprise that a playwright would say that. The characterization makes a literary exercise of it, keeps an author honest. And it offers the philosopher diverging voices in which to explore differing angles on a question, keeping the scientist honest.

I had started David’s dialogue about Natural Religion, written as a dialogue among three characters. Appropriately, it starts with the question of how children should be educated. Appropriate because Greek philosophy began as a pedagogical exercise. Of course, as debates among consenting adults will do, it meanders, and the three men jibe each other about their religious beliefs. Erudite mid-eighteenth-century gentlemen that they are, their thoughts about religion are laced with scepticism and attempts at scientific method.

My café philosopher’s interest was piqued. He commented that David was a very important link in the chain that was the history of Western philosophy, and, what was more, he himself hadn’t read him yet. He suggested we tackle the seminal work together, the hefty Treatise of Human Nature. We would meet in reading club style and discuss.

Our first two meetings have been something like David’s dialogue, meandering and effective only in releasing a dizzying variety of tangential thoughts. But how could David object?

The work itself begins with a somewhat airy examination of the activities of the mind. He starts by saying,

All the perceptions of the human mind
fall into two distinct kinds,
which I shall call ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’.

David wrote this work – running in my edition over six hundred pages – before he was thirty. He had dreamt about this achievement since he was a teenager, studying at the University of Edinburgh. He gave up the study of law to read philosophy. He conceived a plan for a scientific study of human nature. His generation grew up in the shadow of Newton. Humanity seemed poised to decipher all the laws of the universe. Some forays had been made into explaining the human thought and character by way of the new scientific method, but never comprehensively. He would be the one. He fled to France. He wrote. He consulted with the Jesuits at the college where Descartes studied as a boy.

‘And as the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences,’ he wrote, ‘so the only solid foundation we can give to this science itself must be laid on experience and observation.’

He set himself in mild opposition to the rationalists, like Descartes himself, asserting that the most successful scientific inquiry was not solved through mathematical thought but by observation.

‘We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life,’ he says, ‘and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures.’

He is ambitious. ‘Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science, which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.’

His method places him among the empiricists. His book earns him a high rank in that company. David goes on to write more. He goes on to regret the big book he wrote in his youth, though it only continues to grow in stature. It goes on to inspire a young man in Germany who will do much to undermine poor David’s naïve thought, and the naïve hope of the eighteenth century.