On “Ida”, movie by Pavel Pawlikowsky, and “Ich ruf zu dir”, chorale prelude by J.S.Bach.
At the end of “Ida”, the latest movie of Pavel Pawlikowski, Ida makes a surprising choice. Or perhaps she does not and the surprise is in the eye of the beholder ? Perhaps we should keep in mind that this movie, as most others, is just a story with a plot twist carefully planned in a script. Clearly the director puts us on the wrong track so we all expect that other “happy end”.
So, the choice of Ida. What is her choice about ?
The main character in the movie, Ida, is an orphan that grew up in a Polish monastery. At the age of a young adult, just before initiated as a nun, she is sent outside the convent to find out what happened with her parents. Together with her aunt, the events taking place during the last years of the communist regime in Poland, she finds out.
What happened with her (Jewish) parents is the guide line in the story, but moreover her decision at the end seemed more interesting to me. During her search she falls in love with a handsome musician. First ignoring and restraining her feelings, later doubting or perhaps because of curiosity, she postpones her inauguration as a nun. Already close to the end of the movie, she spends a night together with him. It appears as the movie will turn out into an ordinary love story. We all think she chooses for the young man, and so for the “ happy end”. But so she does not. At the very end she goes back to the cloister to continue her life as a nun.
The Homo dubitans (doubting man).
“Ida” has a high “Little Red Riding Hood”-content. The city as a big overwhelming forest, the alcoholic aunt, finding out that her parents were murdered, her first sexual intercourse, …
It is my interpretation however that she takes the unexpected decision, not because of the rather dull answer the boy gives to her question what will happen after “the night”, neither because she shouldn’t have appreciated the one night stand …
The choice is made because of the music ; the girl hears heavenly voices. Speaking tongues tell her she has to dedicate her life to a spiritual practice. In black and white photography, grayish lights and tempered contrasts, a voice sings “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”. It is this music that tells her. Surely it is not the voice of an outer superior, an omnipotent will, we hear. It is Ida herself, singing into the unknown, the humble Bach singing to his Lord.
The voice we hear in the movie is the Busoni-transcription for piano of this “Lied ohne Worte”, the chorale prelude that Bach composed for organ as an introduction to the choral. Chorals, simple notes and native language, sung by the Lutheran communities, the people themselves in the church.
Ida walks confidently back, determined, the camera focusing on her softly smiling face, back to the cloister. The music is answering her question. At the side, unclear, cars drive into the other direction, towards what seems to be an ignorant outer world. Daily life with its daily worries and routine.
We hear this gentle song, the calling. Divine notes that touch heart and soul. Passion and devotion. What a relief to hear. How these silent words do comfort.
Back to the cloister, back to the protecting walls, the protecting veil. An inner closed world, an inner voice, an embroidered Hortus Conclusus ; a spiritual garden with a small wooden fence. A medieval representation of paradise ; flowering trees, fruits, the innocent naïvité, pale with a reddish blush, white lilies with red spots, the fountain of life, a white unicorn, platonic love and longing, a lot of rabbits hiding in the herbs and the weed.
In the movie Willem Kempf plays Bach in a slow way, but there is still a slower version by Tatjana Nikolayeva, woman and Russian, soft touch and Slavic nostalgia.
Tarkovsky used the same music in its original version for organ. “Sorry, I was lost in my thoughts”, says the woman. She died before, but she is there, in the room, on the spaceship, speaking these few words. A bit dreamy, but yet present and vivid, perhaps in the mind of her husband. The figurants in a winterscape of Breughel the Elder appear to gossip from a neighbouring room. Small distant dots playing and having fun on the ice. Common small talk. In the cozy room, melancholic atmosphere, present and past events seem to gather. During this enigmatic moment, while encircling Solaris, memory, dream and some (historic) artifacts mingle in time and space, the levitating spouses embrace and we hear the Bach choral.
In this case the music doesn’t answer. Face to face with our deceased beloved, it is man calling, appealing ; “Ich ruf zu dir”, I call to Thee.
No answers, but questions.
Analogous to Plato’s allegory of the cave, we could consider moviemaking as just one framed perspective, one limited point of view on a “reality”, the actors being puppets in the hands of the directors, the narrative developing towards a denouement already known from the beginning by its makers. I can imagine it was this kind of predictability that Tarkovsky wanted to avoid, his movies immersing us into cryptic worlds of the surreal. Time collages in which personal clues, memories of the childhood and visual references interfere. Opposite to that complexity “Ida” is a simple straight forward story with one thread, one plot, all possible ambiguity evaporating in the black and white poetry. But let’s imagine, let’s regard Ida as an independent character with a free will, let’s believe in the wonder of cinema and identify with her. And moreover talk, discuss, question.
Let’s rewind and question again.
After a lot of hesitation Ida goes to bed with the gentle boy. Because it took some time and effort we think that will be her decision, but so it is not. So it seems as she first wanted to check, to taste life before the retreat. That “trying out” of both, feels a bit like compromising the absolute choice or the choice for the absolute.
The absolute thought cannot be more than an utopian longing, becoming inhuman and contradictory to evolutionary processes once one tries to establish it. It is on the contrary human to taste the forbidden fruit and as a coward make decisions afterwards. To act first, driven by intuition, impulsive behavior, bad temper, curiosity, … and then to reflect. As we are not in paradise, where that choice was fatale and irreversible, the “risk” is not too dangerous. Additionally, by the physical experience, Ida is strengthened to make that other decision, already taken or taken during that one night. She is more conscious now, aware. Obviously the choice becomes more decisive and motivated.
But does it really ?
For the sake of the movie the answer is yes, because it’s all about that alternative decision and that is where the movie ends. That is the point of the movie ; confronting us with the fact that somebody is strongly influenced by the medieval thought of revelation, by the poetics of heavenly notes. This is the point where we are confused, being used to accomplish knowledge and synthesis by rational method, statistic analyses and monetary formulas.
But, still regarding a “real” Ida, life continues. Perhaps she will remember the moment of that night and secretly long for it ? Perhaps she will desire to embrace the boy again ? Perhaps she will even cultivate that thought, the absence, the mental pain.
If we would experience the movie from the point of view of the young man we could get a complete other opinion. Perhaps he hates her, because she left without saying anything. Ida’s choice could come across as very selfish …
So here we are, every decision that is taken, is taken in time and so has consequences. Because of our awareness of time, we can imagine what could have happened if taken another decision. We realize when we took wrong decisions and because of time we cannot alter them anymore.
We experience by catharsis, lessons in life, tempus fugit.
So choices were not irreversible in paradise, they were irreversible from that moment of expulsion on. Frozen in time, merely a movie still, every choice implicates doubt. Doubt emerges before making a right decision, doubt occurs after having taken it. Sometimes, depending on the matter, this doubt is difficult to handle. When a decision tends to exclude others or other possibilities, it puts us and the others into a vulnerable position.
Doubt is regarded as a weak and unproductive characteristic, opposite to the straightforward, clear and fast decision making. But when expressed, could it lead to a more humble attitude, a mild discourse, a more open and honest dialogue ? And by that, based on a better mutual understanding, towards slower but sustainable processes ?
The Homo responsabilis (responsible man).
What made Ida deciding ? Was it a sudden fact, a moment or a process ?
The choice of Ida questions the whole history of philosophy. It questions the free will of man. On the one hand she prepares her final decision by still checking the “earthly desires” and so doing, stating her voluntary wishes. On the other hand her choice looks determined. She is predestined to become a nun because a soft voice calls her to do so. How easy it is when an “outer” voice guides you. A voice, out of the blue, giving you good and convincing advice. How peaceful and comforting it must be to believe and trust this calling, these speaking guardian angels. This belief in tutelary spirits, patron goddesses and guardian angels, seems to be of all ages and it must root in the feeling of being lost in universe, of simply not being able to answer fundamental questions. It could even be seen as a response to the (existential) fear (for the unknown), the fear to be alone. But still, without being explicable, guardian angels must exist, as fabulous winged creations of the human mind, referring to (pre-)archaic times, giving shape to the desire to be accompanied and to shake off our gravity, fly away, beyond and both.
To love and to run away, to unite and to separate, to sense and to dream.
Being part of the whole, unable to overview, as so many other issues, the free will of man is something relative. So let’s not waste too many words on this absolute but volatile matter, and even distrust the ones who proclaim an absolute theory. The matter of the free will doesn’t belong to the determinists, neither to the libertarians. Big chance the truth is somewhere inbetween. The matter of truth, another slippery discussion …
We are born genetically programmed and so determined to develop certain features, attitudes, behavior, …. As a baby we are not conscious of what we do, but happily these preprogrammed reflexes, as sucking, grabbing with the palm of the hands, … guide us, help us to discover space and time, learn us how to see the world.
These reflexes are programmed in time and so disappear by age. In the sixties Benedetto Strampelli, Italian professor, developed eye surgery (Osteo-Odonto Kerato Prothesis) in order to restore the vision of patients suffering corneal blindness. By means of this surgery blind born people got back the sight in a physical way (by means of an implanted glass cylinder). After the first experiments severe problems occurred. Adult patients that as a baby had never learned to see, experienced the new sense, “seeing”, as the sense of touch, thinking small particles were being stuck on the retina. Patients could not even differ the space inbetween the fingers and the fingers themselves. Not being able to interpret the new sensory experiences, the OOKP-procedure often led to panic and mental disorder. Because the reflexes enabling sight disappeared, learning how to see became quite difficult.
So we are preconditioned because we are part of nature and its cycles. We belong to the species of human mankind, the genesis of life is stored in our genes. We all are reality. As individuals, we are part of reality and “the other” is essential to us.
But there is apparently another process, a strange step in Darwinian evolution ; once the “seeing” is accomplished and the programmed, rather primitive, reflexes have faded out, from child to adult, consciousness replaces unawareness. We become aware and we can question ourselves and our futures. We don’t live with the threat, but we realize at some point we will die.
Bit by bit, by age, by evolution, and perhaps history, we develop(ed) capabilities to create and make choices ourselves. Since Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche accomplished the Faustian revolution, these possibilities interfere more and more with life itself, the malleable life. The “Götterdämmerung”, the twilight of the gods, took place. Let’s say the gods went underground and using a Nietzschean image*1, their shadows dwell in Plato’s grotto. The Promethean fire is in our hands now and soon we will be able to interfere in the codes of evolution, soon we will be able to manipulate the genetic composition of our children. On the bigger scale, if there is any evolution, than for sure it is one towards the capability to destroy all civilization on earth in one stroke by mankind itself.
The free choices of religion, speech, travelling around, … root in the Greek democracy. Politics were the matter of the citizens who lived together in the Polis. Etymologically democracy means power (Kratos) of the people (Demos). Since the French revolution (Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen”) and the independence of some American United States (“Bill of rights”) the male white bourgeoisie obtained free rights. Later women, labourers, and much later black people joined. Finally rights became “equal” ; one man one vote, at least in our Western societies, and, not to forget, after troubled periods of wars and crises enduring till the middle of the 20th century.
Nowadays freedom of speech and press, free exercise of religion, … are included in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and the Amendments of so many Western constitutions emphasizing the individual and its uniqueness. We could inquire the role of these typical Western values, announced as “universal”, in regard of other, more group-orientated, cultures. As Oscar Spengler already outlined in his “Decline of the West”*2, that some of these standards are very linked with our Western tradition ; “Dramas of uncontrollable longings for freedom, solitude, immense independence and of giantlike contempt for all limitations. These dramas are Faustian and only Faustian. No other culture, not even the Chinese knows them”.
The freedom of will, and in extend the freedom of making own choices, has clearly to deal with the “living together” in the Polis. Freedom is guaranteed as long as our decisions do not offend the other. Freedom and democracy require a kind of balance between the wishes of the individual and the common interest. There are many nuances in the relationship between the individual and society, which differ and shift a lot depending on the culture. It is in this field of tension, between individual and community, that ethics appear.
So multiple options not only raise doubt, they also implicate responsibilities towards others. We have to limit our personal desires for the benefit of the other, the community, the future.
In this context, we could, we should, criticize the Western contemporary attitude putting all emphasis on the development of the greedy individual in such a way and by those wasteful and polluting means that chances and choices of next generations are simply neglected, overruled.
Democracy enables the individual to intervene in governance. In the frame of living together and the general interest of the Polis, individual rights of the civilians are preserved. The democratic processes of decision making are however set under big pressure. On the one hand clearly defined concepts, of e.g. cities, have transformed into complex and even amorphous, continuously changing vivid organisms, tending to the chaotic and difficult to handle. On the other hand and possibly as a reaction to the information overload, a rigorous simplicity appeared ; in one liner-populism, banal media coverage and eye catching marketing, …
Our lack of time, the impossibility to deal with the overall complexity of things, obliges us to think in often stigmatizing clichés. In order to communicate faster, new short “Morse”-languages are introduced. All kind of abbreviations, short message services, smileys, emoticons, … appear in our small talk. With the new means of communication we are all the time everywhere and we have to be more speedy in order to maintain the networking. This fast communication often results in misunderstandings, the short messages becoming unintelligible. The slower, but more intense or reflective ways to respond, as writing a letter, a diary, have fallen into abeyance. Nuances and semiotic richness disappear.
In this hectic fuss, world in turmoil, it seems difficult as an individual to act responsible. It looks like democracy lost its aim, its purpose. As if democracy continuously fails to achieve its objectives ; supporting the people, giving them confidence and significance, here and now, but also elsewhere and in the future, taking care of the past. Demokratia, as the Athenians depicted her as a woman, on the carved stele with their decree against tyranny, crowning and protecting old man Demos, the people.
Nowadays, it looks as if it doesn’t matter anymore to be responsible. In the Polis that has become a globalized world, a world wide web, we have to scream louder to be understood. Screaming for heroes, forgetting easily the disasters of yesterday, ignoring the upcoming disasters, cocooning, we have fun and are continious on the search for new thrills, we get entertained, we game faster, screaming for our own 15 minutes of fame. Despite equal rights, decades of peace, luxury and an overwhelming amount of possibilities, here in our Western society, all kind of new mental disorders turn up ; stress, anorexia, ADHD, depression, burn outs, all kinds of addictions …
When Ida walks back to the convent, she turns her back to this world. Not in despise, keeping a good memory of her “earthly trip”. She walks whilst the cars hurry in the other direction. She walks further, towards, and she takes her time, follows her own rhythm, tempo. She chooses not to take part in an emblematic world.
In her decision the origin of the word “crisis” appears and makes sense again ; “krino”, the Greek word for judging, being able to take important decisions, distinguishing and differentiating.
Choices evoke crises. Crises oblige us to take decisions.
For me her decision is not religiously motivated. I admire her choice because it is simply based on some magical notes, music. By music we can distinguish and differentiate. It is that music that inspires. Simply.
In her choice for a simple life, Ida is responsible.
The Homo fallibilis (fallible man).
By making choices we develop our identity, as individuals and as groups. As we make choices every day, our identity is a continuous work in progress. We position and differ ourselves comparing and relating us to the other, to other groups.
We work out our personalities by choosing profession and activities, the people by whom we want to be surrounded, with whom we want to communicate, groups to which we want to belong, languages we learn and speak, places we visit, books we read. Not at least we want to be creative and develop personal work. So many ways to express our individuality.
In this ocean of possibilities a paradox appears. We have more means and options to study, to travel, to communicate, to be entertained, …, but on the other hand our choices result in bigger limitations. The moment we have chosen, we risk to be trapped in a very specialized and specific job, being just a small part in a production process or a Kafkaesque administration.
More and more all possibilities of travelling make us feel we ain’t seen nothing yet, making the “to do-list” longer and longer. The amount of tempting possibilities, of products and services we can sell, make it more difficult to decide and to stay on our own track of what we want, or really need. The choosing itself, buying and consuming, became a kind of surrogate for obliged happiness.
The paradox is more sophisticated. Often, in order to sell, new or improved products are strategically combined with shortcomings, defects, imperfections that marketers detected in our lives and appearances, the innovations being the solution for the suggested problems. Buying these solutions is then also buying the problems … Advertisements show us what can go wrong without the promoted merchandise, what is wrong with us … Advertisements dictate lists of requirements which we have to fulfill in order to be happy and successful citizens. But very tricky, the abnormal, the superficial, the cliché or the disproportional, are often promoted as the standard, which makes us buying endlessly, never achieving the final aim …
Furthermore, in order to buy products, to maintain and keep them updated, not only financial means have to be at disposal, but we also need extra time and other accessories. We have to protect our properties by walls, fences, cameras, barking dogs, … But also the fences have to be kept shiny, the lenses of the cameras clean, the dogs have to stay fit, … In the meanwhile we have to stay happy. It sounds like slapstick, but apparently we like to be fooled …
Could it be, that the choices defining our identity have nothing to do with this kind of buyable happiness and it’s royal household ?
Could it be that beyond the new emerging mental illnesses, feelings of fundamental dissatisfaction hide ? Feelings of loss ? The loss of time, the loss of dialogue and hospitality, the loss of our roots, our identity ?
Could it be that, as a sign of the times, the rhetorics of flags and uniforms, easily to identify with, gain importance ?
Ida not only chooses to dedicate her life to contemplation, she also chooses for a simple life, with its daily cycles and repeated rituals. To speak in simple words ; to share milk and bread. Her choice is very accurate ; it was not on display in a show window, she made it herself pointing out where to go, by her own means, on foot.
The black and white photography of the movie gets sense now. It emphasises the light and its nuances, or better, the light emphasises what is really important, often by obscuring in darkness ; a curve, reflecting water, wrinkled skin. Poetry and poverty meet. Arte povera.
Light as the metaphysical source of life. The silence of the light. Light revealing empty space, creating shady corners to stay and to observe. Observing small particles of dust wandering around in the rays of light. The light in the Romanesque Notre-Dame de Thines. The more exuberant light of La Tourette.
It is the light, accompanied by the sound of the birds that announces the day in the small rectangular cells for the monks or visitors in Le Corbusier’s cloister of La Tourette. I personally will not easily be attracted by communal life, but the stay in La Tourette was breathtaking. Breathtaking in the literary sense ; being more aware of one’s breath.
The low morning light infiltrating along the slope and the top of the trees, via the inner courtyard, pointing out the breakfast in the refectory. Playful light that turns these raw and brutal concrete walls into a handwritten poem, and I have to admit, even if it sounds contradictory to the international style Corbu was aiming for, into an ode to the Genius Loci, the local spirits ; slope, sounds and smells from the forest, landscape, the cycle of the day, seasons, view, the small villages down far. The sunlight, penetrating through the building all day long, from east over south to west, caresses the people inside and make them feel present. Shadows moving slowly over the concrete surfaces, creating continuously changing juxtapositions of geometrical shapes, shades, rhythms, patterns. Simple joy of light, humble joy of life. When Ida walks back to the convent, as a young and independent woman in the spring of her life, I had to think about the stay in La Tourette and I could understand.
It is not clear when Ida takes her final decision. Leaving the sleeping boy in the early morning comes as a surprise to the public, but doesn’t mean she decided all of a sudden. Choices are sometimes made because of crisis situations. Crucial choices create critical moments. In periods of war scientific progress is often made, due to rude experimenting and the availability of (human) Guinea Pigs. Cruel mistakes turn out into interesting results. Sounds very Darwinian, death and error being the dreadful companions of evolution. But yes, mistakes, failures, coincidence and destruction are a perfect breeding ground for new inventions, developments and … creativity.
Nature also experiments ; handicapped are born, unsuccessful mutations, children die, … But because of that, there is differentiation and evolution, despite Walt Disney.
So besides doubt and responsibilities, making choices also imply mistakes.
Making mistakes, taking the wrong decisions, make us angry or sad. Feelings both able to function as powerful engines for creativity. The possibility to make mistakes allows creativity. As reflective beings we can learn from our mistakes, misfortune, disappointments and hopefully become better and more empathic humans.
The capability to forgive, to accept our own mistakes and the ones of others, makes us more human. It is a conditio sine qua non to coexist and to love.
Another contradiction shows up now. On the one hand we aim for the ultimate development of the individual as an essential component of “being happy”, but on the other hand making mistakes costs time and money, mistakes are regarded as unproductive and not efficient. Making mistakes is delaying personal success. We are judged by our mistakes. Failure and poverty provoke social exclusion.
According to this scheme, two new castes joined our society ; the misfits and the losers, the ones who made wrong choices and “lost”, and the successful, the quick and decisive entrepreneurs who found the key to success.
The loss, the loss of our childhood, the loss of our beloved ones, feelings of loss, are however inherent to life.
When a choice implies a loss, when a decision effectuates an elimination that we don’t really want, when saying “yes” also means a “no”, when a “hello” also means a “goodbye”, when there is no inner voice to help, when there is no guardian angel standing by, no time to think things over, to try out and check, …
To process misfortune we need time. Time to mourn and to recall.
In the loss, love and death reunite. Eros and Thanatos.
In the loss of the other we question our own existence, we remember and feel displaced, uprooted. We feel “unheimlich”, without home. Lost and alone. Our house was the other.
Eros, god of love and the desire for beauty. Beauty to answer indifferent death, death without reason, without mercy.
Thanatos, god of death, son of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebos), twin brother of Sleep (Hypnos). We have a strong instinct to survive, to live and to create, but we’re also thrilled by dangerous challenges and act (self-) destructive.
One way or another, there is always a loss present in art.
Friedrich Rückert, German Romantic poet, wrote hundreds of poems to cope with the death of his two children, five of them being set as “Kindertotenlieder” by G. Mahler. Four years after Mahler composed them, his daughter Maria died due to scarlet fever.
In “Das Abschied”, one of the “Vier Letzte lieder”, R. Strauss says farewell to live.
The sonata for violin solo, the last finished work of Bela Bartok, was written in the U.S. in a kind of exile after the Bartok family had fled from their homeland, Hungary, in 1939.
The first sentences of “L’étranger” by A. Camus ; “Aujourd’hui, mamam est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : “Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.” (…)”.
“De Vleespotten van Egypte” by Marnix Gijsen, “Die letzte Welt” by Christoph Ransmayr, …
Before the death of his Ophelia becomes clear to Hamlet, the two gravediggers (called clowns), shoveling out her grave, are joking about death ;
“First Clown :
What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter ?
Second Clown : The gallows-maker ; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.
First Clown : Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating ; and, when you are asked this question next, say ‘a grave-maker: ‘the houses that he makes last till doomsday. Go, get thee to Yaughan: fetch me a stoup of liquor.
Exit Second Clown.
He digs and sings :
In youth, when I did love, did love,
Methought it was very sweet, To contract, O, the time, for, ah, my behove,
O, methought, there was nothing meet.
HAMLET : Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making ?”
The urge to reproduce and the desire to destruct are so strong motives in our lives, that so many wanted to control them in order to gain power. Sex and violence became the content of many taboos. Since we are expelled from paradise we all bear the burden of original sin. Natural born sinners, penance, obedience …
Only art appears to be able to deal in an affecting and touching manner with death and love, only art can cope with taboos. We need poetry and music to express our grieves, singing and dancing to accompany our rituals. And vice versa, in our search for simple beauty, death and error, feelings of loss and melancholy, are our guides.
The awareness of time and its triple consequences ; doubt, responsibility and making mistakes.
Here we could close the circle for a first time. Not with the character of Ida that accompanied us willingly while writing and reading this text. (I hope she made a mistake.) We could frame this essay by referring to the music of Bach and the work of Tarkovsky.
Bach lost his father and mother before his tenth. Tarkovsky’s father left the family when he was still a young boy. Bach lost his first wife, completely unexpected, whilst travelling. Tarkovsky divorced his first wife. Both Bach and Tarkovsky remarried. Bach lost ten of his twenty children. Tarkovsky was not able to see his son for longer periods due to his stay in Italy and France and the refusal of the Sovjet regime to let his son travel.
Bach revises on his deathbed his last organ chorale on the hymn “When we are in utmost need”, and renames it into “Before Thy Throne I Now Appear.” (BWV 641). Painful doubt and the choice to believe. Preparing for death, Bach doesn’t assume his art as unique, before “His Throne” he wants to appear as a humble and loyal craftsman.
The ultimate loss, feelings of loss, are continuously present in the work of Bach and Tarkovsky.
How autobiographical art can be. How therapeutic writing can be.
The circle encloses. The final calling.
This text is dedicated to two persons I lost recently, in the meanwhile some days, weeks, months ago. Appearing if all happened yesterday, that yesterday will also vanish.
One took himself the decision. He left us. We studied together years ago. We met in Japan last summer, by chance. He was on his own, we were two. We wanted to visit a library, but it was closed for non-members. As he had some contacts there, he managed to get us in. One day later, just before his flight back to Belgium, he still wanted to meet us, so we went to a house of another renowned Japanese architect, owned by a popular Japanese cook who let us friendly in.
We drunk tea and said bye.
We met again at the opening of an exposition in his gallery next to the sea. Ugly Belgian coastline, grayish sea. We were two (plus one) again. He was surrounded by people, friends, visitors, … so we left and had French fries on the beach. Sunset. (While buying the French fries for both of us, I missed the sunset.)
I still met him at school at the very end of last year, 2013. Then, some weeks ago, he posted a short message. I read it and was confused. Some days later it was erased.
(Voor E.F. en S.G.)
In our Western tradition and the way its architecture developed, we can uncover a main evolution ; a tendency towards, or better into, the more specialized.
We are used to analyze and organize by dividing in parts, elements, sections, fragments, chapters, …, by separating things into even smaller particles, by framing data in even longer tables and complicated formula’s, by explaining in a vaster amount of academic literature using endless lists of new abbreviations … This Western kind of reasoning by dividing and separating, traces back to the Greek philosophers and the medieval dialectic thinking ; “these” and the “antithese”, the good and evil, the intra muros and extra muros. In other cultures there is more often a broader view and a holistic approach.
We deal with knowledge by categorizing and classifying it in encyclopedias, libraries and archives. We deal with history by arranging periods and styles, sorting out main events, dates, and hero-like figures. It looks like we want to control by naming things, listing them in all kinds of systems, collections and “Wunderkamer”. As it finally appears now, all things are labeled by a price, the value of things being a financial matter. All things have become tradable goods ; raw materials, natural supplies and even water, but also surface, space, paintings, beauty, health. And all get their place in a global system of demand and supply.
Due to these processes of selecting, sorting out, classifying, naming, labeling, … great progress was possible, but to continue, in all fields of practice, we have to zoom in, to specialize … losing the overview, sometimes the common sense, thinking reductive.
The ideal of the Homo Universalis is not achievable anymore (although it still could be an attitude). The amount of knowledge and information became too overwhelming. Since Goethe and Newton, and as both were, scientists cannot be alchemists anymore, writers cannot practice science anymore. We are trapped in our specializations.
From the mythological “primary hut” to the parceling of landscapes into rectangular plots “ready to sell” as a certain amount of square meters, in the way we have build and organized our living spaces during ages, we can find the same parallel ; the trend towards specialization.
Multipurpose single spaces transformed into conglomerates of classified functional “rooms”. Invisible and open territories being replaced by physical borders, walls and facades, and other means of deterrence. The more organic shifting to the more organized.
The functional thinking in architecture culminated in the famous slogan of the Modernists ”Form follows function” and in the Cité Radieuse by Le Corbusier in which the historical urban fabric had to be erased and replaced by a new concept of city with its zoning and strict division into segregated commercial, business, entertainment and residential areas. The usage of the car, required to move from one zone to another, introducing speed and efficiency. The house and city designed as a “living machine” with technical components.
Controllable during the day ; Metropolis.
Sleeping during the night ; deserted and troubled suburbs, forgotten people …
As the surgery and interventions in Paris during the Haussmann era, these futuristic visions of Le Corbusier also had a less nobler aim than initially announced. As we know by now some of the residential designs and the segregation itself, not only of functions but also of people, had a problematic influence on societies. The Modernists’ theories were easily manipulated in the pursuit of profit and the “International Style” reduced to real estate exchange. With modernism, standardization, internationalization, globalization, we started losing our historical roots, our cultural backgrounds, our identity. In the meanwhile, the Genius Loci belong to the “endangered species”, some of them imprisoned in artificial historical sites, locked up in Unesco world heritage sites.
The house was once a temple, according to Vitruvius organized around the fire ; “Therefore it was the discovery of fire that originally gave rise to the coming together of men, to the deliberative assembly, and to social intercourse “ *3.
The temple of Vesta, the Roman virgin goddess of the hearth, the house and the family, depicted on these early Roman coins could easily have been “la Cabane Primitive” visually interpreted in Italian Renaissance by Filarete (1465), Cesariano (1521), Caporali (1536), … and later by Perrault (1673) and Marc-Antoine Laugier (1753) ; trees as columns or wooden poles, archetypical roof, people gathering in circles around the fire.
In some Mediterranean houses along the Adriatic we still find small shrines, altars, niches, incorporated in the living spaces. Small reminiscences of the household gods who protected and took care of the daily bread.
Vice versa, in early times, churches being houses for the community, offering physical protection. The underground gatherings of the early Christians in Rome, the early medieval fortified churches and their brick towers in which the villagers could withdraw when attacked by hostile intruders.
The bed was once the place where we were born and died. The bed was a closet, a closed cabinet, a room in a room, a house in a house. The sarcophagus being our last “house” with a “last roof”, the last temple. The graveyard and its deceased were always close to the community. The old and the death were not forgotten, but embraced by the city.
Due to social customs, the need for formal representation and the development of a whole range of necessities, activities, (technical) possibilities, … we created both inside and outside the “house” plenty of specialized areas devouring surface and space. Functional rooms, compartiments for limited, but yes, optimized usage.
For every specific activity there is a separate room or building now. A place to be born, a place to die, a final place far from the living suburbs.
Interference, coincidence, links and dialogue get lost. Every “room” gets its borders and rules, every historic era its stereotypical imprints, every political class its stigmas.
Whereas in other (Turkish) culture(s) the dead are ritually washed by the family, we have to leave the hospital room and the bodies of our beloved are washed by nurses.
We are trapped in specializations, but also our lives are fragmented.
When urban planners design public places, a certain chronology of activities, mostly linear in time, functions as a backbone. People are on the move, people arrive and park the car, people enter, … That chronology is often translated in a formal path, which is, the moment we leave the car, nearly always grid aligned, following borders of all kind of zones. Entrance paths in the threshold zones of private houses are also designed in that very representative way.
In reality we see people don’t follow these paths or routes, they make diagonal short cuts and go straight to their goals. Or as curious beings we want to go astray and not to be caught in a main stream (although we sometimes like to hide in the mainstream …). So rules and punishment, fences and cameras, have to complete public urban design otherwise some of its architecture could be dismantled soon. A signage board with the message “Keep off the grass” has to assure we cannot cross the grass.
Occasionally the orthogonal design gives profit ; some events have such an importance that the urban lay out becomes part of a rather artificial symmetrical scenography. Even if these events nowadays have a ceremonial character, it is here where some real and mostly unspoken interests are revealed. It is here where architectural rethorica and institutionalized power meet. It is since Baroque times and Contra Reformation, when the fragmented look on life became prevalent, that Western architecture and “urban planning” shifted from the organising and organic structures to the controlling and the propaganda.
Opposite to the panopticum, M. Foucault’s model and metaphor for society, we could put the labyrinth, G. Bataille’s architectural metaphor.
We know labyrinths mostly as unicursal constructions ; when we found out the one and only way to go, we achieve satisfaction, salvation, … After returning from some “cul de sacs” we reach Jerusalem, the tree of wisdom, the fountain of life, a tower with the overview, a love bench, …
We forget that once the Minotaur was, even not in the centre of the labyrinth, but errant and threatening all intruders. In “Against architecture” Denis Hollier describes Bataille’s labyrinth as “not a safe place, but the disoriented space of someone who has lost his way, whether he has the good fortune to transform the steps he is taking into a dance, or more banally has let spatial intoxication lead him astray : the labyrinth is drunken space.” *4.
The choices to be taken in this kind of architecture, inside the labyrinth, involve doubt, responsibility and mistake.
It is this vulnerability, the getting lost, the getting drunk, that calls us to halt and obliges us to take a breath, and makes us reflect. “The key to the labyrinth, if there is one, is a drunkenness with Galilean cosmic implications : “What did we do (asks Nietzsche’s madman) when we detached this world from its sun ? Where is it going now ? Where are we going ? Far from all the suns ? Are we not endlessly falling ?””.
The way we deal with space, how people appropriate (private) spaces is what we nowadays merely could call “decoration”. Spaces and utensils are designed as finished materialistic objects. Readymades transformed and multiplied into ready to sell, “prêt à porter”, fast food, take away, all-in formulas, “sleutel op de deur”.
How should we upgrade our living spaces ?
How to introduce again doubt, responsibility and mistake (in our surroundings) ?
How to be vulnerable and receptive at the same time ?
How to develop communicative interiors and participative exteriors ?
How can we find our hospitality back and share ?
How to create a labyrinthine model of architecture.
Yes, we could be inspired by the ethnographic past as Aldo Van Eyck was, by nature and its organic growing processes as the Japanese Metabolists were, by our history and more specific, the collective memory shared by people with a same cultural identity, as Aldo Rossi tried to assemble in his Analogue City (La città analoga”), by reconciling with the Genius Loci as Christian Norberg-Schultz suggested in his writings *5
We could be inspired by other cultures whose architecture is more about filtering and processing, than raising representational facades and defensive borders. We could be inspired by the Arte Povera-movement, by the Manifesto of the Dogma 95-group, its Vow of chastity and especially its final dogma ; “10.The director must not be credited.”.
The architect as an anonymous craftsman, humble and grateful.
When the signature of the architect is too present in the design, as a formalistic representation of his own style, when all the work has been done, people can just consume it. And besides that it has to be maintained and kept clean … It becomes a museum, a sterile place.
The reason we love ruins, abandoned places, structural shell works, ateliers, … is because the signature, the functions and its “machinery”, have been erased or are not established yet. What’s left, or is present, is construction, in a structural sense, and empty space possibly with its historical scars and anonymous traces. Both, the emptiness and the scars, teasing imagination.
Bernard Rudofsky writes in 1964 in “Architecture without architects”, in the frame of the MOMA-exhibition about vernacular architecture : “The present exhibition is a preview of a book on the subject, the vehicle of the idea that the philosophy and know-how of the anonymous builders presents the largest untapped source of architectural inspiration for industrial man. The wisdom to be derived goes beyond economic and esthetic considerations, for it touches the far tougher and increasingly troublesome problem of how to live and let live, how to keep peace with one’s neighbours, both in the parochial and universal sense.” *6.
Despite the efforts by the mentioned sixties and seventies contra movements, Modernism seems still to be alive and kicking. Its ghost survived, not unexpectedly, in the commercial worldwide approach by salesmen and investors, in the technocratic and reductive thinking by politicians and planners, in the usage and presence of the car, regrettably also in the ego’s of some who regard architecture as a personal brand. Modernism was prolongued in the “fragmented spaces” and the very “presence” of the design of the so-called deconstructivist architects, despite the (theoretical and phylosophical) “absence” they were aiming for, despite presenting themselves as opponents of Modernism and Post-Modernism.
The segregation of activities is culminating in the endless realization of artificial shopping malls, desolated sleeping suburbs, air conditioned administration towers, higher and higher and more twisted skyscrapers, towers of Babylon, … But also entertainment paradises, tourist resorts, all kinds of glasshouses*7 in which we expose our wealth to the outside world. And also separate cemeteries and crematories for different kinds of believers and non believers, …
Still nowadays architects and planners are inspired by the so-called “Ring culture”, knowing that, due to vehicle emissions, the air next to these highways is of such a quality increasing the risk to harm people and causing asthma attacks by children living nearby. Knowing that, by the amount of surface taken by parked cars, our thresholdzone’s disappear. Knowing that highways and roads connect cities and segregated zones, but divide neighbourhoods and exclude safe outside places for children to play. Knowing that we develloped a cinematic and speedy view towards things and others, loosing the feeling of proximity, loosing empathy for the outside once inside the car.
No wonder we get delirious …, no wonder our identities are in continuous crisis.
But finally, we should be responsible ourselves.
We should make choises ourselves. To create empathic and touchable spaces again, spaces we can “identify with”, to speak in theatrical terms, we have to get rid of so many ballast. We have to empty our living spaces as we have to empty our minds. We should think as nomads, think what we really need ; basic needs and the need to be together and to fly. To be able to fly away, to take risks and perhaps fall.
We will have to live with less means, less luxury, less technology, less design, less garbage.
This is the conditio sine qua non, the FIRST DOGMA, to create new surroundings, new neighbourhoods. Fragility and sustainability lie in our deeds, in our responsible acts, not in architectural wishful thinking, not anymore in some technological positivism. Empty our spaces and create empty spaces open for imagination. Spaces in which it is allowed to touch, in which we can make our hands, again, dirty.
Here we can finally close the circle.
We should do as Ida does. Choose for a simpler life, with less (unnecessary) possibilities, less choices.
We should do as the monks in La Tourette do. Enjoy the essential, the sun (how Le Corbusier shaped and moulded it).
Enjoy the silence of the light.
Enjoy the music appearing and disappearing as “fernorchester”.
(Trying to) be together.
In simplicity and unpretentious beauty.
Nomads. No Format. NO4mad.
January – April 2014, Jan Dekeyser.
- “Die fröhliche Wissenschaft”, Drittes Buch (108-144), Friedrich Nietzsche (1882).
“108. Neue Kämpfe. – Nachdem Buddha todt war, zeigte man noch Jahrhunderte lang seinen Schatten in einer Höhle, – einen ungeheuren schauerlichen Schatten. Gott ist todt: aber so wie die Art der Menschen ist, wird es vielleicht noch Jahrtausende lang Höhlen geben, in denen man seinen Schatten zeigt. – Und wir – wir müssen auch noch seinen Schatten besiegen !”
- “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”, (“The Decline of the West” : Vol. I, “Form and Actuality”), Oswald Spengler (1918/revision1922) ; 335-337.
- “De architectura”, (“Ten Books on Architecture” : Chapter 1 “The Origin of the Dwelling House”), Vitruvius (15bC.) ; 2.
- “La prise de la Concorde” (“Against Architecture : the writings of Georges Batailles” : “The Labyrinth and the Pyramid”), Denis Hollier (1974) ; pages 58 and 59 (English translation ISBN 0-262-08186-5 (hb).
- “Existence, space & architecture” : “Landscape” Christian Norberg-Schulz (1971 / Studio Vista 1972 London).
- “Architecture without architects”, Bernard Rudofsky (Academy Editions London 1964 – ISBN 0 902620 73 8) ; last paragraph of the Preface.
- Referring to the book of Peter Sloterdijk “Im Weltinnenraum des capitals. Für eine philosophische Theorie der Globalisierung” (Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2004), translated in English as “The Glasshouse” (Phaidon Press 2005).
- “And I had forgotten how to read music”, Francesca Woodman (Rhode Island, 1976).
- “Les Contes de Perrault”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, illustration by Gustave Doré (Paris, 1867).
- “Mir i filmy Andrieya Tarkovskovo”, Iskusstvo, (Moscow 1991).
- Movie still from “Ida”, Pavel Pawlikowsky (2013).
- Movie still from “Faust”, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1926).
- Marble stele with Demokratia and Demos (Agora Museum Athens 337 BC.).
- Movie still from “Solaris”, A. Tarkovsky (1972).
- Movie still from “The Trial”, Orson Welles, based on the book of F. Kafka (1962).
- Untitled, Francesca Woodman (New York, 1979-1980).
- Movie still from “The Mirror”, A. Tarkovsky (1975).
- Unfinshed score for a fuga by J.S. Bach (°1685-+1750).
- “Hunters in the snow”, Pieter Breughel the Elder (1565).
- Frontispiece of Marc-Antoine Laugier’s “Essai sur l’architecture” (1755).
- Roman marble sarcophagus, Lerapetra / Crete (British Museum 200-300 AD).
- “The Minotaur”, graphic art by P. Picasso.
- Colllage “La Città Analoga”, Aldo Rossi (1976).