04.09.2018

The Angel and the Copy Error, #1 – 2018

Let us, obeying the gloomy times, lament: Not what is appropriate, only what we hle, say. The elder was given the hardest lot, We disciples will never experience so much.
Shakespeare, King Lear (Transmission by Wolf Count Baudissin)

Let us imagine that the 20th century has written its testament. What would it bequeath to us? What would the 21st century inherit from its predecessor? Or we look for another picture. Imagine the 20th century as a patient on the couch of a psychiatrist. From what point of view would it talk about itself? In what voice? About what traumas? About what traumas? Or, more specifically, imagine that during a therapy session the 20th century would be asked to express itself in a single image. What picture would that be? Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, perhaps, which the German philosopher Walter Benjamin of his ninth thesis on the philosophy of history:
“It depicts an angel who looks as if he is about to move away from something he is staring at. His eyes are wide open, his mouth is open and his feet are stretched out. The angel of history must look like this. He has turned his face to the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees a single catastrophe that incessantly heaps rubble after rubble and hurls it at his feet. He wants to linger, awaken the dead and recover what has been smashed. But a storm blows from paradise, caught in its wings and so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him unau altsam into the future, to which he turns his back, while the pile of rubble before him grows to the sky. What we call progress is this storm.”
History as an accumulation of ruins and disasters. This was written in 1940, a few months before Benjamin’s alleged suicide on the French-Spanish border on the run from the Nazis, and the image of the angel of history has lost none of its disturbing power even in the 21st century.

Urbain Joseph Emile Martien, the grandfather of the Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans, died in 1981, the same year that Hertmans made his debut as a writer. Before his death, his grandfather gave his grandson two well-stocked notebooks in which he wrote down part of his life story. More than three decades later the novel “War and Turpentine” emerged from these writings. Urbain Martien is one of the voices through which the 20th century speaks, although he himself never lay on the couch of a psychiatrist. Urbain Martien was still too much of a 19th-century resident for this, a relatively stable and cohesive time that could preserve its decaying foundations until the Serbian Gavrilo Princip collapsed the whole house with a single shot. The catastrophe of the Great War was also the first major turning point in the life of Hertmans’ grandfather.

Most of the notebooks he filled were an attempt by an aging man to deal with the horrors of his youth. The second great tragedy in his life, indirectly linked to the war, was the premature death of his great love, Maria Emelia, from the devastating Spanish flu. This was probably brought to Europe by American soldiers and spread in large numbers by the large gatherings held to celebrate the end of the war. Urbain later married Gabrielle, Maria Emelia’s sister, and gave his daughter the name of his dead lover. He dealt with his traumas by painting still lifes and writing in the notebooks that his grandson was to inherit.

How does an era inherit its heritage? A culture survives through its characteristic patterns in which its knowledge of the world and the rituals of the previous generation to overcome crises are stored in order to be passed on as completely and intact as possible to the next generation. […] How do we stay connected to the past? How do we preserve a historical consciousness? Modernity is the break or the copy error in this transmission. In this day and age, the gap between generations has become so great that there is no way to pass things on intact. We no longer inherit the experiences or proven insights of our fathers, but we consult data. History is an unpredictable and anonymous digital archive that can be visited around the clock. This means when we are online. We are no longer the children of our fathers, but the children of our time. We modern people don’t want to inherit any more (and probably can’t). At the beginning of the 21st century, however, we are increasingly aware of the cultural and ethical poverty of an existence limited by a purely “pragmatic” history. Our so-called freedom is locked. We live in a culture that constantly mobilizes, perverts and commercially exploits our desires. Pleasure in the truest sense of the word has become compulsion. Freedom is a must. “Protect me from what I want” is a slogan that the American artist Jenny Holzer uses in her visual work. It is also the title of a 2003 song by the English band Placebo that begins with this verse: “It’s that disease of the age / It’s that disease that we crave / Alone at the end of the rave / We catch the last bus home”.

[…] When asked what literature is for, the German writer W.G. Sebald replied “Perhaps only to help us remember and understand that there are connections that cannot be fathomed by any causal logic”. Hertmans adds: “Literature is not a form of description for the sake of description, but of description in order to preserve it and consequently also to understand it, in order to feel deeply how time really was”. […] What is expressed here is a poetics of resistance to forgetting, of the search for connection with the past and with a community. Art as a “work of memory” and as a “work of connecting”. A form of loyalty to the past, but without conservatism and a form of belonging to a collective, but without loss of individuality. The ethical and political obligation to commemorate history, to dig it up and save it from oblivion, in order to talk about the present and the future, is more topical and urgent than ever.

[…] In an interview Hertmans quoted a sentence he read in the Jewish Museum in Warsaw: “If you listen to the witnesses long enough, you become one yourself. The testimony is passed on through faithful listening. But remaining faithful is not only a question of repetition or imitation, but also a question of choosing a new perspective. Hertmans chose a historical and psychological interpretation of his grandfather in the form of essay-like passages and remains a pronounced author’s presence in the novel. We get to know the grandfather through the eyes of his grandson.

But Lauwers, the theatre-maker, in his production urges the thoughtful Hertmans to remain silent. However rich and refined the author’s thoughts may be, they have been removed. There is no place on stage for explicit historical and psychological interpretation. The communication there is more direct, physical, visual. The passages Lauwers has chosen from the novel are descriptive, sensual and physical: the fatal accident the young Urbain sees in the smithy, his hard and dangerous work in the iron foundry, the first time he sees a naked girl in a pool, times he spent with his father, who was a fresco painter, the horror of war … Lauwers retains the three parts of Hertmans’ novel – the early years, the war years and the post-war years – but chooses a completely different perspective. […] With the choice of Viviane De Muynck as narrator Lauwers not only brings about a change in the narrative perspective, but also makes room for the tragedy of Gabrielle, the woman who had to live in the shadow of her dead sister. In addition, Lauwers lets her speak from the afterlife. The dead often remain present in Lauwers’ productions as guardians and witnesses of the past.

The production includes a character who does not appear in the novel: a nurse (Grace Ellen Barkey). In the interview, Stefan Hertmans interprets her as a figure of melancholy. In her desire to alleviate suffering, she is like the angel of history who wants to reassemble the ruins into a unified whole and bring the dead back to life. Does it thus also make visible the possible (or impossible) figure of an art from the other side of break and alienation? Art as a rediscovery of the lost connection between world and empathy? The angel who is still trying to correct the copy error of modernity?