Hans von Maree, Self-Portrait with Lembach, 1863
Watching Pierre Morel’s exciting 2008 film Taken (a sort of “emblem movie” for appropriately protective fathers of daughters) two nights ago, I was reminded of what is, for me, the ugliest phrase in the English language when Gerard Watkins, the actor who plays the “white slave” trader Patrice Saint-Clair, explains to Liam Neeson that abducting and selling his daughter Kim wasn’t “personal”; it was “just business”.
The Saint-Clair character soon receives his just deserts, but the dialogue summed up for me our current three-years-and-counting Depression zeitgeist, where what I used to consider normal and acceptable behavior has been abandoned completely and so many people seem to have shed and exchanged their human skin and affect for something rough, horny and caustic. This “new normal” seems to dominate interpersonal relationships, including especially business relationships, where the former customary courtesies have largely disappeared, as well as attitudes expressed in the media (including, I find, the new so-called “social media”), where snideness, sarcasm and a fixation on the grotesque have become the lingua franca across all genres.
James Ensor, Intrigue, 1911
Business cycles work themselves out, of course, over time (the tide does come in, the tide does go out), but I wonder whether this violent, malevolent and denaturing outlook and approach to life will ever change. As my wife sometimes observes, leaving your house often seems like stepping into a wildlife survival show on the Discovery Channel.
Still, when I pause and try to think calmly, I find that this has been the usual year of miracles for us. That isn’t an overstatement and I feel blessed to be able to breathe, see, take them in and occasionally appreciate them enough. To more than compensate for some of the era’s damage there have been some precious new friendships that I know will last me the rest of my life, ones that I really needed to have, and even a couple of old, shattered links that have mended. There’s more than that, a lot more, but discussing the miracles in one’s life seems and is unseemly, at least in a large group.
Fernand Khnopff, Still Water, 1894
Apart from the pictures that frequently cross my mind, entertain and surprise me, I often find myself thinking of and sustained by these words:
The first is very short, the few lines that conclude Tom Clark’s poem Nimble Rays Of Day Bring Oxygen To Her Blood, that go:
A leaf spins itself
The leaf's a roof
Over the trembling flower
Everything's safe there
Because nothing that breathes
Air is alone in this world
The second is the (surprising) conclusion of Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, which reads:
“Farewell to savages, then, farewell to journeying! And instead, during the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labours, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society; an essence that may be vouchsafed to us in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man: in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding , one can exchange with a cat.”