Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wagner and Buddha, Tristan and Isolde

Just over one hundred and fifty years ago Richard Wagner finished Tristan and Isolde, a work that many consider to be the greatest opera ever composed.  Less well known, is the fact that Tristan and Isolde can also be considered the first great artwork of western Buddhism.

From 1849 until 1858 Wagner spent almost ten of his most creative years in Zürich, Switzerland, as a German political refugee.  It was there in 1854 that he encountered Buddhism, via the work of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  Schopenhauer was the first mainstream European philosopher to take Hindu and Buddhist ideas seriously. His The World as Will and Idea had initially appeared nearly four decades earlier, in 1818, but had been all but ignored.  According to Schopenhauer’s Buddhist inspired ideas, behind the world of phenomena is one vast, timeless will.  All else, the world of perception and plurality, of space and time, objects and actions, is an illusion, the result of a process of individuation.  Schopenhauer even used the Buddhist term, “Maya” to describe this illusion. What is real is will, not phenomenal representations or Maya.  Most people live their lives within the veiled illusion of what is temporal and never discover reality. A blind attachment to temporal phenomena keeps the subject locked within the veil of illusion. To break free from this is possible, according to Schopenhauer, by means of detaching oneself from desire through the act of renunciation.

It is no exaggeration to say that Wagner reacted to this as if he had experienced an epiphany. His philosophical encounter with Schopenhauer and then Buddhism, changed the course of his career and, consequently, western music.  Many years later Wagner himself remembered his introduction to Schopenhauer’s thought as being “decisive for the rest of my life”. 
Wagner quickly threw himself into the study of the few primary works and secondary commentaries on Buddhism that were then available, reading not just in German but in French too.  Within a year he wrote that the deepest truths in history were those “purest revelations of most noble humanity in the old Orient”.  He followed Schopenhauer’s example and kept a statue of Buddha in his living room.  In 1856 he read Eugene Burnouf’s Introduction a l’histoire du bouddhisme and, in his memoirs, he remembered that “I even distilled from it the material for a dramatic poem which has remained with me ever since.”  This was, in fact, nothing less than a plan to write an opera about the Buddha, which he called The Victors.  He made a prose sketch of the three acts and it was clearly a work close to his heart, a project he would never quite give up on, but which would remain incomplete at the time of his death.  According to some recent commentators, however, he integrated most of the ideas that he had planned for The Victors into his final masterpiece, Parsifal. In 1883, while visiting Venice, he returned to his beloved project, The Victors, but died while writing at his desk.  His final words referred to the Buddha: “There is something pleasing about the legend which tells how even the Victorious and Perfect One (the Buddha) was persuaded into admitting women followers.”
There is no doubt that Wagner believed western civilization was suffering from the disease of materialism and its virtues had been warped through the pursuit of power.  He firmly believed that Eastern ideas, and in particular Buddhist thought, could save the west.  On a personal level he found consolation in Buddhism as he wrote: “Only the deeply wise postulation of the transmigration of souls could show me the consoling point at which all creatures will finally reach the same level of redemption”.  This belief in transmigration, an “appealing Buddhist doctrine” according to Wagner, came to influence his music. He perfected the use of leitmotivs, sequences of notes and chords that would be repeated throughout a work.  This is evident in his 16-hour opera The Ring of Nibelung, but became an essential part of his last, most metaphysical work, Parsifal.  By the time he came to compose this last work, he explained the use of the leitmotiv: “For the spirit of the Buddha, the previous lives of every being he meets are just as accessible as the immediate present…. I immediately recognized that this double existence could only be made clear to the feelings through the constant presence of audible musical reminiscences”.  As his wife, Cosimo Wagner, reported him as saying: “Only music is capable of rendering this, the mystery of reincarnation”.
By the summer of 1857 Wagner had reached the conclusion that to achieve nirvana would involve a turning away from the world of phenomena, with its senseless trivialities, and a renunciation of desire, especially sexual desire, would bring about salvation. Desire, including sexual desire, was something of which Wagner had plenty of experience. Although married, he had long been a serial adulterer.  His newest love, Mathilde Wesendonck, was young, intelligent, beautiful and married to Wagner’s multi-millionaire benefactor.  It is the happy confluence of Schopenhauer’s and Buddhist ideas, together with his increasingly erotically charged relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck, and the opportunity that this gave to practice renunciation, that led Wagner to Tristan and Isolde.  In the summer of 1857 Wagner commenced work on this, the greatest of operas. 
Mathilde Wesendonck by K. F. Sohn

Although the story is a medieval, Germanic tale, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is infused with Buddhist ideas.  The music alone is a lesson in Buddhist thought as it produces an aching desire in the listener, a yearning to satisfy this desire that is never fulfilled, but continually postponed until at last, with the final sound, discord is resolved and only silence remains. The opening chord, perhaps the most analyzed chord in music history, is known simply as “the Tristan chord”.  It produces two dissonances, evoking in the listener an inevitable aching desire for resolution, but this does not quite arrive.  Instead, one dissonance is resolved with the following chord, but not the other, and so one is left with the desire, the painful yearning for resolution, and a partial satisfaction that only leads to a growing, desire. And on it goes, an agonizing journey with partial fulfillment but never ending desire producing the suffering that is, according to Buddhists, a part of the fabric of the phenomenal world, until, at last, resolution is achieved, but only with the very final chord.  The music itself is Buddhist philosophy, not in words, but in musical chords.
Tristan and Isolde by J.W. Waterhouse

The lovers, Tristan and Isolde, attempt to achieve nirvana, or redemption, by fleeing the world of day and entering permanently into the world of night, a metaphor for the Buddhist act of renunciation or detachment. At first the lovers inhabit the phenomenal world of daylight, the world of illusion.  This light of day, the veil of illusion, in true Buddhist style, is the source of all pain.  As Tristan describes it:
               is there one grief
               or one pain
               that it does not awaken
               with its light? 
Night, a metaphor for the act of renunciation, is the place where the infinitude of will, and consequently the non-self, can be experienced.  Night lies beyond space and time, where knowledge and reason can be seen as nothing more than the veil of illusion.  Isolde sings to her lover how they will live in the night and experience:
               an end to deception
               where the presaged dream
               of delusion would vanish 
If one gives oneself to the dark, then those things of the daylight, like the pursuit of wealth and power, are scattered, in Tristan’s words:
             like barren dust in the sun 
The selfless love for each other that Tristan and Isolde feel in the realm of night is a metaphor for the discarding of the illusory, individual self.  They enter into the Buddhist realm of non-self. The opera ends when, with Tristan already dead, Isolde sings her now famous death song and is transfigured by a feeling of bliss as she enters into the vast wave of the world’s breath.  Her words must constitute one of the first times that Buddhist thought speaks in western art:
               In the surging swell
               in the ringing sound,
               in the vast wave
               of the world’s breath –
               to drown,
               to sink
               unconscious –
               Supreme bliss. 

Wagner finished Tristan and Isolde in Lucerne, Switzerland, in August 1859. The following year, in Paris, his new work was met with bafflement.  He felt alone and misunderstood and it had been years since any new work of his had reached the public. In a state of melancholy, he wrote to his muse, Mathilde Wesendonck: “I often turn my gaze towards the land of Nirvana.  But for me Nirvana turns rapidly to Tristan”.  In other words, for Wagner, to hear this exquisite music comes close to experiencing Nirvana.  We might disagree, but we can hardly doubt that Wagner was genuinely grappling with the Buddhist concepts that were than available to westerners.  He had started down a path that some are still following.

Wagner first recited the libretto for Tristan and Isolde and played the entire music on piano in Mathilde Wesendonck’s palatial villa overlooking Lake Zürich.  Today that villa, now known as the Rietberg Museum, is open to the public.  It is a museum of non-western art. By happy coincidence, this place that once saw the birth of the first great work of European Buddhist art, is now the home of an incomparable collection of Buddhist art. 
Villa Wesendonck, Zurich, 1857

For more on Wagner in Zurich see my A Stroll Through Wagner's Zurich

Friday, February 26, 2010

Death in Dubai: Deja Vu

Those who take an interest in the Middle East can be forgiven for feeling a gradually growing sense of déjà vu as revelations concerning the killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai continue to unfold in the international media. It seems certain that this assassination was executed by the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, possibly with help from anti-Hamas Palestinians. The sense that we have been here before stems from the similarities with the Mossad’s failed attempt to kill Hamas political leader Khalid Mishal in Jordan in 1997 as described in Australian journalist Paul McGeough’s Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas. McGeogh’s excellent analysis of the birth and growth of Hamas, with the failed assassination attempt on Khalid Mishal as its centerpiece, appeared in 2009 and the paperback was released this week - almost uncannily appropriate timing. I highly recommend the book if you are at all interested in Israel and Hamas.

In 1997 the new prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netenyahu, decided to have the political leader of Hamas, Khalid Mishal, killed in Jordan. But Jordan had just signed a peace treaty with Israel and was one of Israel’s few friends in the neighbourhood, so the Mossad had to kill Mishal using a method (slow working chemical poisoning) by which it would seem that he died of natural causes. To make a long story short (something extremely difficult for me to do), the attempt failed and it caused a major international diplomatic crisis. Within hours of the bungled assassination attempt Israel’s top priority swung from wanting to kill Mishal to wanting to save his life as he struggled in hospital close to death. Such was the seriousness of the diplomatic fallout that nearly half of Israel’s government ministers piled into one helicopter (what a risk to national security that was) and flew in top secrecy to a farm in Jordan for an emergency meeting with the Jordanian top brass. And such was the anger of King Hussein of Jordan that he deliberately forgot his renowned hospitality: as McGeough tells it “even though the prime minister of Israel had flown into the night to see him, such was Hussein’s still incendiary anger that he chose to have no part in this visit, quite calculatedly snubbing Netanyahu… When the Israelis straggled into the farm, they were not invited indoors. They were offered nothing to eat, not a bowl of nuts, not even a drink.” Canada was outraged when it was revealed that the would-be assassins had used Canadian passports. (McGeough explains how Mossad makes use of stolen identities.) Within days Bill Clinton was forced to receive a top ranking Jordanian delegation in the Oval Office and he acquiesced in their demands.

The Jordanians, determined to ensure that a foreign government would no longer attempt to act with impunity on the streets of Amman, exacted painful concessions from the Israelis. Danny Yatom, the head of Mossad was forced to resign and dozens of Hamas activists imprisoned in Israel were released. Most humiliating of all for Israel was being forced to release the notorious Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the paraplegic founder and spiritual leader of Hamas. (They managed to kill him in Gaza with a rocket attack in 2004.) This, as McGeough puts it, “ was the massive price Israel was forced to pay for the rush of blood to the head that had made Benjamin Netanyahu think he could pull off an assassination in the streets of Amman”.

Netanyahu’s failure ensured that Hamas became keys players in the Middle East. Few had heard of Mishal before this time; now he was transformed into an iconic leader of Islamic and Palestinian resistance, a position he still retains. Today he leads the struggle from his headquarters in Damascus.

Once again Benjamin Netenyahu is prime minister of Israel. Once again it seems that he has ordered an assassination. Once again Israel has chosen another friendly Arab state, the United Arab Emirates, as the place to eliminate an enemy. Once again there are loud calls for the resignation of the head of the Mossad. Once again the operatives used stolen identities, much to the chagrin of the British, Irish, French, German and Australian governments (but they avoided Canadians this time round). And once again, the operation was done in stealth – no shooting in the streets or bombs exploding; suffocation rather than slow working chemicals was the choice this time. Just like in 1997 a moderate Arab state is calling foul, western powers are expressing their outrage and there are demands for resignations.

But history, despite popular notions to the contrary, rarely repeats itself. This time few in Israel are demanding resignations. This time the assassins were safely out of the country by the time Dubai woke up and found a suffocated corpse lying in a bed in an expensive hotel. This time Israel succeeded.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sissi visits Switzerland

When they were small my three children, daughters all, had only one DVD.  Admittedly a long one – six hours long in fact.  And they watched it again and again and again.

The German classic Sissi (1957) starring Romy Schneider, tells the story of Elizabeth of Bavaria who, as a sweet fifteen year old met the Austrian emperor and within a year had become Empress.  Unusually for royalty, these two actually loved each other, though this did not ensure fidelity.  Fleeing from the stifling protocol that characterised Viennese court life Sissi spent much of her life travelling.  She frequently visited Hungary where she enjoyed riding horses with ardent Magyar noblemen.  Unfortunately the movie leaves some of the best bits out – like her love affairs and her visits to Switzerland.

Sissi first visited Zurich in January 1867.  Never one for drawing attention to herself, she had travelled incognito, though arriving in her own private train must have been a dead giveaway.  She booked into the best hotel in town, the Baur au Lac.  In fact she booked the entire hotel! Though she might have been a simple girl at heart, her retinue of over 60 servants certainly made her conspicuous.

                                             Hotel Baur au Lac, Zürich

The Empress could be occasionally glimpsed enjoying an ice or fruit juice at Sprungli’s chocolate store on the Paradeplatz.  She occupied her time mainly with taking in the fresh air during long walks at the lakeside and visiting her sister who was living in exile in the Zürich suburb of Enge. The poor sister (well, not literally poor) and her husband, a Neopolitan prince, had been chased out of Naples by  Garibaldi and the revolution that had created Italy – but that’s another story.

Two months later Sissi was back in Switzerland.  She stayed in Schaffhausen, where the beauty of the Rhine combined with the luxury of the Schweizerhof Hotel so much delighted the Empress that she sent for her husband who duly and dutifully joined her. The first written description of the Rhine Falls, Europe’s biggest waterfall, by a traveller dates back to the 12th century but it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that romantics, enthralled by nature’s wildness, began to arrive in significant numbers.  Goethe and Wordsworth came and saw and captured in verse.  With the invention of the steam train and the construction of luxury hotels, European nobility followed poetic suit.

                                                  The Rhine Falls

In Schaffhausen, Austrian entrepreneur Franz Wegenstein had bought a modest hotel and added a fourth floor, including a loggia with an incomparable view of the Falls.  He later added another wing that included a veranda restaurant.  Wegenstein had a verdant walkway constructed that lead from the railway station directly to the entrance of the hotel.  The entire area around the hotel was landscaped and the wealthy patrons were pampered with every conceivable luxury.  Visconti’s movie, Death in Venice, gives us an idea of what life must have been like in these hotels of La Belle Epoque. The hotel no longer exits today, but the falls are still there.

When the emperor arrived Sissi was waiting for him at the station.  Eyed by a small number of locals they and their retinue made their way, in a procession of open carriages, to the hotel.  The fact that royalty was in town was recorded in the newspaper the following day.  Although Sissi had a reputation that she mixed well with the “lower classes”, the next Sunday she couldn’t bear to attend public mass.  The abbot of the Reichnau abbey across the border in Germany was hastily sent for and mass was said for her majesty in the privacy of the hotel.  Always generous, Sissi rewarded the abbot with a golden cross on a golden chain.  Upon his death he left the cross to the monastery in Einsiedeln where, in gratitude, a portrait of Sissi was hung in the Fürstensaal, where it hung until recently.

In 1892 Sissi returned to Switzerland, spending a night at the luxurious Baur au Lac again and a day sightseeing in Lucerne before taking Europe’s first cog-wheel train up Mount Rigi where she stayed three nights at the Hotel Bellvue at Rigi-Kaltbad.  From there she travelled to Interlaken where she stayed at the Hotel Regina-Jungfraublick.

                        Europe's first cog-wheel train on Mount Rigi

The beauty of the mountains, (and the luxury of the hotels), kept calling her back.  In 1898 she set out on what was to become her very last earthly journey.  The suicides of her love sick, bi-polar disordered, syphilitic and morphine-addicted son and his mistress (the so-called Mayerling Tragedy) had left her deeply depressed. Once considered to be Europe’s most ravishing beauty, her legendary hair had become dry, her teeth had yellowed and anorexia had left her emaciated and weighing under 46 kilos.  Coming from a visit to her friends, the Rothschilds, she was about to board a ship on Lake Geneva when an Italian anarchist stabbed her.  Carried to the nearby Hotel Beau Rivage this regaled but ultimately lonely woman died, much as she had lived, amidst the opulence of one of Europe’s great hotels. The hotel is still open for business and Sissi’s death chamber can be reserved by those who have money and enjoy combining luxury with morbidity.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk.  The Museum of Innocence. Faber and Faber, London, 2009

What does a writer do when, at quite a young age, he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature?  Well, if he is Orhan Pamuk, he writes The Museum of Innocence.  I have spent most of my free time during the past week reading this, Pamuk’s newest novel and his first since winning the Prize.

At one level it is a fairly straightforward love story, a tale of rich, 35 year old, aristocratic Kemal’s obsessive love for 18-year-old Küsun in Istanbul during the mid-seventies.  He sacrifices his engagement to a wealthy beauty, and consequently his reputation in upper-class society, in order to pursue his protracted and unusual courtship of his beloved.  Along the way he secretes thousands of objects that Küsun once touched, such as 4,213 cigarette butts, in order to build his Museum of Innocence. By the end of the book Kemal has amassed a huge number of items, has visited 5,723 museums around the world and is about to open his own real Museum of Innocence, dedicated to his beloved Fasün.

But at another level the book forms a dissection of the two Turkeys – on the one hand the Turkey of the westernized and secularized, wealthy and European oriented elite and on the other hand the traditional and religious, poor and “headscarfed” Turkey.  Many western history books refer to Istanbul (or Constantinople) as a bridge between east and west, but Pamuk’s Istanbul is the point at which modern Turkey and traditional Turkey encounter each other. These days when in Istanbul Pamuk is under the protection of bodyguards, to protect him from Islamists, but in The Museum of Innocence he exposes the terrible hypocrisies and snobbery that underlie the society of the city’s wealthy, westernized elite. He is a brave man indeed, as well as a masterful storyteller. As always, Pamuk writes with painterly detail of his beloved Istanbul.

At a third level the book can be read as a meditation on the compulsion of collecting and, even, on the act of writing itself.  For what is writing fiction but an obsessive collecting and rearrangement of memories.  The story is filled with intertextual references to the works of some of Pamuk’s favourite European authors: Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and, above all, Proust. It could easily have been entitled In Remembrance of Things Past. It also contains self-referentiality. The key chapter falls at about one third of the way through the novel and consists of a long description of an engagement party.  This is the hinge upon which the narrative hangs.  Many characters, described in lavish and vivid detail, populate the party. One minor character is a young introvert called Orhan Pamuk.  He reappears hundreds of pages and decades later as a famous novelist and we discover the protagonist, Kemal, has commissioned Pamuk to write a catalogue for his museum, the book that we are now reading.

The Joyce of Istanbul and the Proust of Turkish memory, Pamuk has assembled hundreds of corners and textures and scents and sounds and characters of his home city and these are remembered, savoured and distilled in words – collected, rearranged and exhibited.  The novel contains a map that indicates where the Museum of Innocence can be found.  Apparently Pamuk has really bought a building and filled it with thousands of objects that illustrate modern Turkey.  Luckily for me I will be visiting Istanbul this coming May.  The Museum of Innocence will be my first stop.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From the Enlightenment to the War in Afghanistan

Since the Age of Enlightenment we Europeans and our cousins the Americans have been inflicted with the notion that ours is the best of all possible lifestyles, the true path to happiness.  The burden ever since, has been how to persuade others to agree.  Being convinced that our way of doing things is the summit of historical progress, and the only way of ensuring the protection of individual freedom and security while enjoying economic growth, we feel impelled to replicate our system among other peoples.  While methods vary from soft persuasion to the use of hard force, the question is not should we interfere, but when and how should we intervene in order to destroy cultures that permit or sanctify objectionable behaviours.

To hear some tell the story, the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its star French cast led by Montesquieu and Voltaire, gave the world the gifts of democracy, equality and human rights.  There is some truth to this, but let’s not forget that Montesquieu and Voltaire (don't get me wrong, I love those guys) were both monarchists and opposed to democracy.  The first real application of Enlightenment thought was the foundation of the United States of America and the articulation of the idea that all men are created equal and should be free to pursue happiness. But it was a revolution that was, in the words of Simon Schama, “first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery”. Its chief ideologue, Thomas Jefferson, was an intellectual steeped in European Enlightenment values.  Nevertheless, Jefferson was a reluctant slave owner and racial segregationist, though the latter didn’t stop him from having sex with female slaves and thereby fathering numerous children - slaves one and all.

The ultimate Enlightenment Project was the USSR – an experiment based on the progressive idea that a few tough but enlightened social engineers could manipulate citizen’s minds and produce the ultimate democracy where private property, the state and all other such evils would evaporate and a happy citizenry would dwell eternally in a utopia of sharing.  As John Gray has put it: “Marxism is only a radical version of the Enlightenment belief in progress”. The residue of this failed experiment lives on today in the cynical governments of North Korea, Vietnam and China, though none, so far, has produced a happy citizenry.  The failed experiment caused about 100,000,000 deaths, though some still say it should be given a second chance.

            The newest chapter of the Enlightenment Project began to unfold in 2003 when the USA and UK, along with the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (remember them?) invaded Iraq.  The reason given for the invasion was the invisible Weapons of Mass Destruction, though this turned out to be a Weapon of Mass Deception.  Only very determined victims of self inflicted double-think failed to notice that the only countries involved who actually possess weapons of mass destruction are the USA and UK, as well as their main Middle Eastern ally.  I recently read in the British conservative monthly Standpoint, that the war in Iraq has been won by the west: did I miss something?  Did they find the WMDs after all?

            The main legacy of the 18th century Enlightenment today is the concept of unlimited progress through the application of science and reason:  all of history is the history of the struggle between, on the one hand, the forces of progress and reason, and, on the other hand, the forces of reaction and irrationality.  Enlightenment thought assumes that progress will lead to happiness and those who oppose change are destined for the rubbish bin of history.  This view, powerfully articulated by Hegel and Marx in the 19th century, has been described by Isaiah Berlin in “The Pursuit of the Ideal” as “The drama would have a happy ending… Men would no longer be victims of nature or their irrational societies: reason would triumph”.

When states that have undergone the Enlightenment, that is, states where the citizens are no longer victims of nature or irrational societies, decide to project their power and overwhelm rogue states where the unhappy subjects are victims of nature or the irrational whims of religion or dictatorship, this can be described in a progressive manner as “regime change”, “democratization”, “nation building” and a list of other reasonable sounding euphemisms.  The result of this, we are lead to believe, will be friendly Middle Eastern citizenries of happy and reasonable folks dressed in jeans and t-shirts, willing to share their oil and become chummy with Israel while they guzzle their Starbucks and anesthetize themselves with shopping and the newest downloaded Hollywood blockbuster.  After all, at the root of Enlightenment thought is the belief that deep down inside, despite our superficial differences, we are all the same, and we all want the same thing – which turns out to be, for want of a better description, the American way of life.  Those who deny this must be fanatical. The Enlightenment means progress, modernization and globalization. Insurgents who oppose this must be reactionary, anti-modernist and irrational – in other words, fundamentalist.  Today’s Enlightenment warriors, operating out of ‘think-tanks’ in the US East Coast, have happily discovered that the USSR got it wrong by equating the Enlightenment Project with equality, and that progress means a war against closed minds (those who oppose our democratic values) and against closed markets (those who refuse to buy our subsidized products), especially the latter. Ultimately, progress means an iPhone in one hand, a Starbucks in the other.
                                                              Starbucks in Dubai

In classrooms all over the western world we still teach our children that the European Enlightenment brought nothing but goodness into the world.  Consequently, those who oppose it today must be opposed to goodness.  Yet the Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its myth of human perfectibility, led to the Imperialism of the 19th (bringing progress and civilization to our less fortunate, that is, non-European, coloured cousins).  The European reaction against the Enlightenment stress on  the equality of all humans saw the birth of modern racist theories in 19th century France.  The 20th century saw a battle between the disciples of Enlightenment in their communist incarnation, against the anti-Enlightenment converts of racial inequality, embodied most profoundly in Nazism.  But a longer, more low level, but also more protracted, war was fought out between two factions of the Enlightenment Project throughout the 20th century and in all regions of the world, eventually led by the USSR on one side with the USA leading the other.   

The first decade of our present century continues to be fought out within the discourse laid out by the Enlightenment, particularly in Iraq, where people are still being killed by the dozens, and Afghanistan, whose Taliban are regarded almost unanimously in the west as evil, despite the fact that the Afghani Taliban have never committed an act of violence against a westerner outside of Afghanistan; meanwhile our armies kill thousands of Afghani civilians in their own country.  Clean-shaven men in suits appear at press conferences in front of TV cameras and selected, obedient journalists: they are the voices of reason and progress.  Their soldiers are patriotic and ethical and when they kill they do so reluctantly and selectively.  When the innocent are killed by their cluster bombs it is regrettable but accidental.  Meanwhile, bearded men in robes and turbans appear in caves or shoddy rooms before hand-held video cameras and speak to the Internet: they are medieval and mad. Their combatants are fanatical and brutal and when they murder they do so indiscriminately. It is always the innocent who they target. One group represents reason and progress, the other fundamentalism and reaction. Luckily the forces of reason have a far bigger military budget.  Such is the discourse created by the Enlightenment Project and such is the blindness that we inflict, or allow to be inflicted, upon ourselves.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet: The Bührle Collection

                Van Gogh: Blooming Chestnut Branches

Late on a February afternoon in 2008 three masked gunmen walked into a villa on Zürich's affluent Zollikerberg, ordered the few staff and visitors to lie on the floor and walked away with four paintings. The world’s biggest art theft, worth nearly 180 million dollars, was over in minutes.  A week later two of the paintings, Vincent van Gogh’s Blooming Chestnut Branches (above) and Claude Monet’s Poppies near Vétheuil (below), were found in the back of an abandoned car not far from the crime scene.  The other two masterpieces, Edgar Degas’ Ludovic Lepic and His Daughters and, the pride of the collection, Paul Cezanne’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat have vanished without a trace.

              Monet: Poppies near Vétheuil

The old villa above the lake had housed one of the most precious private art collection’s in the world, that of the E. G. Bührle Foundation.  The foundation has kept its collection closed since the robbery, that is, until this weekend when the collection, in almost its entirety, went on exhibition in its new home, Zürich’s Kunsthaus, under the title “Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet”.  The giant exhibition kicks off the Kunsthaus’ centenary and runs until 16th May.  Then the collection will disappear again until it reopens permanently in a new extension of the Kunsthaus, designed by David Chipperfield, in 2015. At that time Zürich will become one of the world’s greatest cities for Impressionism, second only to Paris.

My advice is don’t wait until 2015.  The line for tickets today was long , but the exhibition is a big one and I found it to be surprisingly uncrowded.  Then again, it is ski vacation week in Zürich, so most of the locals will have been on the slopes.  But what a collection this is: a small number of Venetian and Dutch precursors of impressionism, all the greats of the 19th century French artworld – Delacroix, Ingres, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley, Signac, Courbet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, as well as the Nabis, Fauvists, Cubists and the School of Paris, - this exhibition could rightly be called the signature representation of impressionism and 20th century French modernism.  Only French symbolism, represented by a single small Odilon Redon, is lacking. This is an exhibition of ‘ahs and oohs’ as one comes face to face with the likes of Van Gogh’s The Sower (not to be confused with the version in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam), Renoir’s The Source, Cezanne’s Self-Portrait, three of Monet’s giant Water Lilies, Braque’s Violin Player, not to mention the Bonnards, the de Vlamincks, the Picassos. And the arrangement of paintings allows for surprises. Where else will one find the opportunity to admire an Ingres portrait flanked by a Frans Hals portrait on one side and a Renoir portrait on the other, all stared at by a couple of Courbet portraits?

                                             Van Gogh: The Sower

                                        De Vlaminck: Barges on the Seine

Renoir: Little Irene

                                                     Gaugain: The Offering

                                                    Modigliani: Nude

The collection was put together by local art lover and businessman E. G. Buhrle, who unfortunately earned his money manafacturing and selling weapons.  The early years of the Cold War were particularly good for business and found Mr. Bührle investing huge amounts of his profits in his art collection.  He had earlier made a killing buying “degenerate” art from the Nazis. 

This exhibition makes Zürich most definitely worth a detour this spring.

Still missing Ludovic Lepic and His Daughters by Degas

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Cafe and the Crime of the 9th Century

The great abbey church of Einsiedeln, in central Switzerland, attracts students of sacred architecture from around the world.  Some actually claim to like it.  My mother for instance: I remember showing her around and when I asked if she was enjoying it she looked at me with a face grown rigid with ecstasy and whispered, “Paul, it is the most magnificent experience I’ve ever had”.  Well, life must have been fairly dull when my mother was growing up in catholic Ireland.  Personally the church always reminds me of a lavish wedding cake – ostentatious, an inexcusable source of debt and no guarantee of faithfulness.

In Zürich city we can connect, in a simpler manner, to “The Einsiedeln Experience” in the form of a café whose history reaches back over one thousand years – now how many establishments can boast that?  The whole shenanigans originated in the 9th century when a hermit called Meinrad settled in Einsiedeln and became famous for his simplicity, wisdom and holiness.  One day two robbers visited him.  They may have been fairly new at the job because even I know that robbing a hermit will not make you rich.  They killed poor Meinrad, stole his wine and bread and then they fled to Zurich by nightfall.  They might have been novice thieves, but they were certainly fast walkers!

They would have taken a boat for the final stretch arriving at what is now called the Schifflande, where they checked into an inn.  But Meinrad’s two trusty pet ravens, who had followed the thieves, cawed loudly, pounced upon them and dive-bombed the murderers. Witnesses of the attack, helped by an acute sense of Swiss justice, concluded that black ravens pecking viciously at two scoundrels must mean that Meinrad is dead and these are his killers.  They put an immediate end to the thieves’ criminal ways and strung them up on the spot.

All of this turned out to be very good for business.  A simple chapel was erected above the spot where Meinrad had been put to rest.  Pilgrims began to flock to the scene of the notorious crime of the century. Hotels were opened. The chapel grew bigger. Meinrad was made a saint.  The stream of pilgrims turned into a river.  The chapel grew much bigger and in the 18th century became the grand Baroque edifice that still stands today. The flood of pilgrims also wanted to see the place of the miraculous feathered attack, and so Zurich became a part of the Einsiedeln experience.  The famous inn was rechristened “Gasthaus zum Raben” or “Guesthouse of The Ravens”.

                                                     The ceiling at Einsiedeln
Not many cafes can boast a lineage that stretches back a thousand years.  The foundation walls of the present day building date from the 9th century. In 1317 zum Raben was joined under one roof with the inn next door, zum Hecht.  In the 18th century the two inns were rebuilt as one and the building is now known locally as the “Rabenhaus” or “Raven’s House” (though not many actually know why).  The inn eventually closed down but the Rabenhaus again became a focal point of life in Zurich when the author Robert Humm and his Scottish wife, artist Lili Crawford moved into an apartment on the first floor in 1934.  The Humms organised regular literary evenings at their home.  These famous get togethers became a sort of melting pot for German immigrants, left wing political activists and writers like Arthur Koestler, Bertolt Brecht, Klaus Mann and Max Frisch.  The Humm’s children entertained the intellectuals with puppet shows.  Dare I say, these evenings at the Humns must have been humming with original and daring ideas. The Rabenhaus had again become the meeting point for pilgrims, this time of a literary and political sort.

Today the ground floor houses a small newsagent and, in place of Café Raben, a new branch of Zürich’s popular Lebanese restaurant “Cedre” has recently opened. They have kept Café Raben’s old emblem of the black raven on the outside wall, as you can see in the photo, a distant memory of the great crime of the 9th century.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Layered": A Poem by Esther de Vries

The online literary journal nthposition has just published an interesting poem by Esther de Vries.  Maybe I'm biased, simply because the poet is my wife :-), but I think it is a multi-layered, beautiful poem that reveals the complexity of modern motherhood.  To read the poem click here.