Performing ‘Guernica’

In the new Trocadéro Gardens, in the middle of Paris between the Eiffel Tower and the Palais de Chaillot, the gigantic ‘International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life’ opened in the Spring of 1937. Visitors entering the Spanish pavilion there could not miss the hugh painting that soon would be known all over the world: Picasso’s Guernica. The artist, obviously not following the ‘just in time’ principle, had finished the painting about a week too late. He was fortunate that the completion of the pavilion itself, like several others, was somewhat delayed.

On April 25th, Picasso still had had no definite idea as to his subject (although he had received his commission from the leftwing Republican government of Spain to produce a substantial painting for the pavilion already in January). The next day, the 26th of April, to assist General Franco’s reaction against revolutionary republicanism, Hitler’s Junker and Heinkel bombers practised their demonic skills on the small Basque town of Guernica. For three hours on end they threw incendiary bombs on defenseless Guernica, killing hunderds of men, women and children and turning the place into an inferno. Picasso read about it in L’Humanité and Ce Soir and, like so many others, was enraged. Although Hitler’s propaganda machine came up with a ludicrous story – a poisoneous fairytale stating that Bolshevik arsonists from the Spanish Left were to blame for the massacre – Times-correspondent George Steer made sure the world soon could read the real story.

Picasso and Guernica in studio

Working on Guernica

Picasso almost immediately knew what to do and, on symbolic Labour Day, May 1st, began preparing his painting inspired by the Guernica tragedy. He was 55 and at the peak of artistic fame. That year there were no less than six exhibitions, showing his work in Paris, London and New York. In order to cover the wall of the entrance hall to the Spanish pavilion the painting had to measure about 3,50 m. high and 7,80 m. wide. Picasso had the enormous canvas installed in his spacious but rather cold new studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins. For five weeks he worked here, intensely, to complete the painting, undisturbed as far as I know. Still, it must have felt to him as if, besides the Spanish Republican government, indignated world consciousness was looking over his shoulder. Many of his friends knew what he was working on. (The moment he had finished, a whole group of them came to the studio to applaud their Pablo).

Picasso Guernica 1937

Guernica in the Spanish pavilion, 1937

Imagine Guernica to be created in our time, instead of 1937: most likely the whole painting process would be recorded by one or several cameras, and the resulting video would for sure be put on Youtube. Would it not be fantastic to be able to relive (and repeat to one’s heart’s content), with just one ‘click’ as we’re now used to, ‘the making of’ Guernica, step by step?

What would we see? The best clue is in the photographs of Dora Maar – a professional photographer whom Picasso had got to know the year before – made in the Grands-Augustins studio. The ultimate subject of her pictures is not ‘Picasso at work’, but the emerging painting as such. This way she has documented seven stages of Guernica’s development, from May 11 onwards, when the first complete sketch covered the canvas. Miss Maar inadvertantly produced a short Youtube-film avant la lettre of the birth of Guernica. Her photo’s, soon published in the Cahiers d’art, substantiate the impression that world famous Picasso was, more or less publicly, performing his abilities as a painting genius. He didn’t mind the world to see he was sometimes groping in the dark.

These photo’s also provide us with valuable information on Picasso’s creative process (in addition to the trivial facts that he needed a ladder to reach the upper regions of the canvas and used artificial light in the rather dark studio). He made more than fifty separate sketches before tackling his enormous canvas. Dora Maar’s reportage shows that, from the start, he had made up his mind on at least three things: working in black, white and gray, limiting the drama of his picture to seven figures (the Pieta, the bull or Tauro, the Pegasus-like horse, the slaughtered male, the female messenger, the running woman, the woman in flames) and filling up the whole of the canvas with these figures, leaving almost no space for depicting the environment. Guernica stubbornly ignores the aeroplanes, the bombs, the inhuman attackers.

The Pieta to the left seems to have been the first figure to appear, more or less in its definitive shape. More important still is that, in comparing the different stages, we can see Picasso has been ‘struggling’ to find the most convincing (now so familiar) composition. The body of the bull at first was on the righthand side of its head, Picasso turned the beast around, making the ‘plume’ of its upright tail appear on the upper left of the painting. The now iconic head of the screaming horse used to be much lower; bringing it to the top strongly enhanced the painting’s expressive power. The dismembered male, like the bull, has been turned (the head was on the right in the early versions) and, in this case too, Picasso only gradually seems to have found the expressive shape. Similarly we see how the figure of the running woman, panic stricken, in the creative proces is gaining expressive strength, step by step, by stretching and enlarging her legs to give her a painful dragging appearance.

The artist needs the imperfect shape, line or colour to find, ‘in the rebound’, a better version. Drawing the first line is like throwing it into a nondescript open space, without coordinates. But immediately this first line will begin to tell you what to do next. The first line is a pioneer, a pilot in uncharted waters. After drawing it, it is, on the spot, evaluated and corrected if needed. In a similar way, the first figure introduced to a canvas will act as a pilot too, offering valuable clues as to the other figures to be created. This dialectic of creation is often taken for granted, but it really is essential. Of course, Picasso can also just have changed his mind, but even then this will often have happened, I assume, according to a pattern of action and reaction.

It is comforting to see that even Picasso begins with less than perfect lines and shapes, needing one or more trials in a creative proces of optimization.

We can also learn from Guernica, both as ‘end product’ and creative process, a valuable lesson on style. We know that Picasso was enraged (because of the massacre against his own people) as well as engaged in a political sense (supporting the Spanish Republicans and feeling sympathy for Communism). However, the style of Guernica is pure Picasso; rage nor engagement caused him to alter his style. Picasso’s personal style – embedded in the collective styles of lyrical cubism and abstraction – seems to work as Apollonian form, effectively balancing the Dionysian impulse of rage. We can see the modernist style taking control and not losing its grip, even when emotion, political struggle and ideology are keen to take over. Besides, modernism in painting acted, in this famous case and, I believe, in many others, as an antidote to the politicising of style. This particular strength of modernism is undervalued.

To comprehend this, we just have to look around on the terrain of the Trocadéro exposition. The nazi architect Albert Speer designed the German pavilion and with his plans succeeded in convincing his reluctant Führer that Germany should not only participate, but should also surpass the nearby Soviet pavilion. So Speer erected an enormous stone building that looked like a vertical mausoleum, with an Arian eagle on top, holding a swastika in its greedy claws. The Soviets built something of similar height, not very pavilion-like either. They topped their building with two enormous metal statues, representing a Soviet labourer and a Kolchoz woman, true working heroes whose heroism implied they abstained from decent earnings. Both the German example of Speer mythology and the Soviet exercise in social realism – so out of place in Paris – were stone totems of combative nationalism; the artistic consciousness here had to comply to the doubtful ambitions of nation-politics.

Trocadero Paris Exhibition German pavilion Speer

The German ‘pavilion’ at the Paris 1937 exhibition

This situation shows how special the light-weight and relatively simple Spanish pavilion, designed by Sert and also containing work of Juan Miro and the American Alexander Calder, was. Above all it proves a few points about Guernica and modernism in art. Picasso’s painting, surrounded by the German and the Soviet pavilion, was very much out of tune with the new ‘trend’ of cultural nationalism and xenophobia. So was the whole school of modernism. Surrounded by the cultural nationalism of 1937 Guernica was a truly brave statement, ruffling the feathers of all those who felt modern art was degenerate and that Spain had to be brought into fascism’s plight. Picasso’s protest named Guernica really drove its message home, since the ‘inhabitants’ of Speer’s nazi-pavilion only had to cross a few hundred yards to see it, in all its autonomous glory. Probably they would, however, not have been able to perceive and understand the moral and stylistic integrity of this painting – since these were values from a different planet to them. It was Speer, by the way, who won two medals in Paris: one for his pavilion, and one for his architectural achievement of designing the Nuremburg grounds the NSDAP used for its massive party rallies.

Paris 1937 exhibition Trocadero Soviet pavilion

The Soviet ‘pavilion’ on the opposite

Some three years later Hitler, after his troops had occupied it, visited Paris and, in triumph, stood in front of the Eiffel Tower, his back turned to the Palais de Chaillot and the former exposition terrain of the Trocadéro Gardens. Speer accompanied him. Picasso and Dora Maar had left for Royans, but on August 25 they returned to Paris. During the war, Picasso will again work and live in his studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins, where the spirit of his Guernica, as a universal protest against the cruelties of war, is then still present. The Germans knew he was there, but it would have been senseless for them to interfere: Picasso was all over the world, he could not be stopped.

Painting with Helen

She certainly is not the only modern painter who preferred to work on the floor. But, judging from the photographs taken in her studio, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) brought a passion to ‘floor-painting’ that had not been there before, not even with Pollock or Motherwell. In her case ‘to paint’ often meant: to crawl around on a large flat canvas (or an enormous stretch of paper) ‘tilling’ it with her colours as if it were a piece of land. ‘Colour-field painting’ applies well to what she did.

She knelt on her large canvases as if they were islands about to be flooded by coloured waters that only she could direct properly to follow the streams of beauty. (‘Beauty’ had become an incendiary word, she once said in an interview; she went on using it anyway). At some time in her career she had lost the habit of working with brushes, replacing them with sponges and other tools to rub and wash the paint onto her canvas-field. With her very fluidly applied paint she made space and colour meet in a way they had never met before.


The remarkable elegance that distinguishes her work, where does it come from? It is a purely abstract elegance. This raises the question what elegance actually is, if, indeed, it is not just a human quality, appertaining to abstraction as well. I believe it is the movement of her painting arm – of her intensely painting body – that produces this elegance. So it is basically a gestural elegance we’re looking at, but one that spills over into the shapes, the lines and colours she creates.

Helen Frankenthaler can only be called an ‘action painter’ if that concept allows for circumspection. There always is caution in her work, even when it gets quite experimental. Her shapes interlock with tact. Her running wet colours seem to behave almost diplomatically. Apart from gesture, there is also an elegance of thought in her work. Or rather, an elegance of pictorial thoughtfulness.


After all these years her paintings still seem to be as wet as they were at the moment of their creation; her gestures are still flowing, still streaming – a few inches above the surface. Looking at her work I keep seeing her in her studio, kneeling, trying to control the lake of wet paint she had, just seconds before, herself created.

These giant blots behaved like a flock of nervous sheep, moving in all directions, while she acted as the diligent sheepdog, working hard to keep them in check. This is how she brought her paintings home, safe and sound. The process of herding is still there, it can be seen within the confines of each frame: her paintings are, in the true sense, works of art.

Ardouane and its old volcano

Not far from buoyant Olargues (one of Languedoc’s most beautiful villages, blessed with a medieval ‘devil’s bridge’) there is a hamlet called Ardouane. A narrow and almost vertical road leads up to the tiny church. It looks shabby and one doesn’t have to be an expert to see that it badly needs some love and some money to restore it. My guess is that the few inhabitants left in Ardouane will not be able to take care of this themselves.

Opposite the church there is a massive building, locked away behind a fence with an official warning to ‘keep out’. Compared to the deplorable state of advancing ruin this huge building finds itself in, the fading little church no longer seems to have the moral right to complain of neglect. After the roof of one of the building’s side wings has recently collapsed, the rain and wind can enter freely to speed up decay. The sign on the fence only tells us that this is the ancien collège of Ardouane. Entering the wrecked building is easy, since everything that could stop us is open or missing: the fence, the front door, the windows.


The many rooms of the collège are full of discarded stuff; the villagers obviously have decided to assemble all of their products that have lost their use in this sad and broken building, being the largest local symbol of the useless. This present state of futility is a sharp contrast to the elevated position and noble function the collège once had. Many children and young adults from all over the south of France – boys and girls – received their education here and in the process were saturated with the values of traditional Catholicism.

The useless has a strange aesthetic attraction. In decaying buildings and constructions of any kind (mansions, villas, castles, convents, towers, and bridges) resides a mystic beauty that is unique to their category. All over Europe photographers – more than any other species – are in love with the tragedy of crumbling stones and cracking arches. Their pictures show us how the trees that once were the building’s trusted green companions have now gone wild, their intruding branches pushing through a wall, their roots bursting the floor.

The situation of the ancien collège of Ardouane is not yet as dramatic as this. And we would be wrong in thinking that nobody cares. What to do with it has been much debated in the adjoining communities of Riols and St.-Pons de Thomières. The main reason for this seems to be that so many people in the region do not only remember the building in its former glory, but the institution as well. This used to be the ‘Ancien collège Saint-Benoît’, also called the ‘École libre’. In 2007 a plan was launched to restore the building and turn it into a complexe touristique: a hotel, a spa or an equestrian centre.

But a serious investor could not be found, which should not surprise us. This is a relatively poor region. Besides, the tourists would surely be disappointed that the Mediterranean is a one hour drive away. Even to get from here to the fashionable winegrowing area of St. Chinian will take you half an hour. The attraction of nearby picturesque Olargues seems, by itself, not enough to fill a large hotel for most of the year. Still, the council of Riols (of which Ardouane is a part) at the time believed the building could be sold for a very decent price.

Ten years later all hope seems to have gone. The building has much deteriorated and as a result the costs of a possible restoration have risen. The pessimist’s view is that even tearing it down would, because of its substantial size, be too expensive. Just leaving it there as it is and “let it in the hands of time to complete its job” (as a local website somewhat poetically suggests) seems the only way to go. Unless some kind of miracle will occur, the inevitable will happen: miles of cobweb will be woven in every corner of the old building, the mosses and the fungi will thrive, while stone and chalk will crumble to dust and wooden beams will, in the end, crack like match sticks.


In the old days a train connected Ardouane and the collège to the rest of the valley, but the track has been transformed into a route verte for hikers and bikers. That is a fine example of a useful transformation. But, of course, it cannot make the glorious past return to Ardouane. Nevertheless, as long as the remains of the collège are still standing, there will be a visual incentive to remember and to retell its history. Long ago, in 1823 to be precise, Monseigneur Fournier (the bishop of Montpellier) acquired a monastery in St.-Pons de Thomières in order to establish a seminary there. This seminary was later, in 1907, moved to Ardouane, to the abbey the Benedictines had founded here in 1860. That is how Ardouane came to its Catholic collège, devoted to “the holy heart of Mary”.

The abbey-collège had its own vineyards and cherry orchards and, enclosed in the middle of the square building, there used to be a wonderful monastery garden. Nothing of these wonders – engraved in the memories of thousands of pupils who had their education here – has survived. Even the many dairy farms for which the region was known, producing their own brand of cheese, have disappeared. Decline has been rather merciless in the case of Ardouane.


Rumour has it that, if anyone were interested, he or she could now buy the whole building for the symbolic price of one euro. But unless a useful and viable idea is formed on the building’s future destination, this bargain will not bring along the desired miracle. Even a basic restoration will need substantial funding of a million or more. After a short revival around 2011, the plans to restore and rebuild seem to have come to a complete standstill. The ancien collège is now in a time zone of its own, or rather in a zone of timelessness since it has no function left to connect it to time’s processes.

Ne me quitte pas, Jacques Brel sang. These could very well be the words of the ancien collège, moribund but, in a way, still speaking to us. Ne me quitte pas. Here is, from that great chanson, Brel’s ray of hope for the rekindling of a lost love: Don’t leave me now/We’ve so often seen/the rebirth of fire/in the ancient volcano/everyone believed to be too old/And is it not true/that the earth when scorched/will give more wheat/than April at its best?

As always, the original is to be preferred:

Ne me quitte pas/On a vu souvent/rejaillir le feu/de l’ancien volcan/qu’on croyait trop vieux/Il est, paraît-il/des terres brûlées/donnant plus de blé/qu’un meilleur avril.

Through the eyes of the writer

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) felt he wanted to live the life of a hermit. It was 1919 and the desecrating practices of the First World War at last had come to an end. So had, rather tragically, his first marriage. He decided to move from Bern to Montagnola in Ticino, just south of Lugano, where you are still in Switzerland but where the language and culture are decidedly Italian. From what we know it is not at all clear what Hesse meant when he said he wanted to be a hermit here.

No doubt he wanted to be close to nature and regain contact with the mystery of nature’s timeless powers. He could not stop talking about it. His ideal was to be surrounded by the natural greatness of majestic old trees and by the indisputable beauty of mossy rocks. Here he could escape forever from social conventions and obligations, leaving the aggressive world far behind him. Montagnola, with its forest-covered slopes overlooking Lake Lugano, in many ways could fulfil his rustic needs.

However, the luxurious city of Lugano was within walking distance (certainly for a fit outdoor man like Hesse). Besides, he had his lodgings in the Casa Camuzzi, a rather spectacular baroque palace, the most impressive building in Montagnola. He stayed here until 1931. Even if we take into consideration that the region was less populated then, it is an exaggeration to present the village of Montagnola or its surroundings as a hermit’s refuge. Unless we are prepared to see things through the eyes of Hesse himself.

To begin with he was a mystic. His interest in Buddhism (inspired by Schopenhauer) had intensified during a long journey to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Burma in 1911. His intellectual friendship with Carl Jung further stimulated his penchant in this direction. Mystic contemplation, absorbed by nature, became his way of seeing the material world in the light of eternity. He did not need a real wilderness to experience the timeless idea of wilderness and its liberating and purifying effects. He could have his lodgings in a luxurious little palace and at the same time stay for days on end in a nearby forest, sleeping there under the bare sky of night, only covered with some branches or a simple blanket.

His mental need to be one with nature is also expressed in his lifelong admiration for St Francis of Assisi. In 1904 he had published a monography on him, and it seems that he died with a poem of St Francis in his hands. Therefore to live in Montagnola ‘like a hermit’ also meant to him: to follow the Franciscan ideal of a most harmonious relation to the world of animals and plants.

Shortly before moving to Montagnola Hesse had gone through the personal drama of leaving his wife Maria Bernoulli, who was suffering from schizophrenia. He took the rather drastic step of also leaving his children behind. Living like a hermit therefore may also refer to this choice to go on alone; to leave home and hearth to concentrate on a higher cause. It was his deep conviction that the world’s history and personal life both moved in cycles; after an old cycle had been completed a radical break to start a new cycle was asked for. This belief in 1914 had made him think for some time that the Great War was the long awaited signal that the old and decadently tired world was finally collapsing, to make way for a new beginning. One should not resist such a rebirth but rather assist the old world in finding its end. Leaving behind his family in Bern and coming to Montagnola was a similar rift. A hazardous jump from the well-known but restrictive world of home to the strange and challenging world ‘out there’. It made him feel as guilty as hermits doing penance often do. He immediately began to write a novella, Klein und Wagner, in which the bank employee Klein finds himself in an express train heading south, fleeing from the devilish impulse to kill his wife and children, an idea that keeps haunting him. His real crime is that he stole money from his bank to finance his escape. Klein is a criminal fugitive as well as an emerging artist undertaking a journey into a new dionysian life. He decides to use the name Wagner as an alias, and thus turns into a dual personality.

In the Museo Hermann Hesse in Montagnola several material relics of this most spiritual writer can be seen. His typewriter, part of his book collection, letters, a white jacket (including the original stains), as well as the characteristic straw hats he liked to wear. Apart from all this the museum’s collection makes it abundantly clear that Hesse liked to paint outdoors. His aquarelles connected his worlds: Licht und Farbe schwingt von Welt zu Welt.

However, roaming this small museum didn’t give me the sought after sensation of coming real close to Hesse. That is, not until I stood before a showcase that contained two of his glasses, both round, one with black rims, the other gold-coloured. It occurred to me that, in a way, they could represent Hesse’s view of the two worlds, old and new. One pair to look at the old world – not cleared away by the Great War, as Hesse later must have realised – and one pair to see sharply into the hoped for alternative world, the golden one.


Even more interesting was a modest glasses case I spotted. It had a small sticker on it that Hesse himself must have put there, obviously to remind himself of something he could not afford to forget. On this sticker he had written: die gute Zwischenbrille, ‘the intermediate glasses, just right’. I was more than prepared to believe this proved that Hesse, in the end, was not interested in dualistic views as such; he wished to connect his two worlds of old and new, of the moral and the immoral, of West and East, of the material and the spiritual. Isn’t that what ‘in between glasses’ are for? And then I knew: there lived a realist in Montagnola.

Simone in Avignon

My memory already had failed me twice that morning in July. I had expected that, from our hotel near the Avignon railway station, we could walk to Saint Véran cemetery, on the other side of the medieval part of the city, in about half an hour. It took us more than an hour. Even at eleven the old streets of Avignon were bustling with activities, all related to the annual theatre festival. My wife and I were tempted to think that all citizens had received special instructions to wear an appropriate costume that day, be it a rococo dress, a Donald Duck suit or some Lady Gaga showpiece. They all tried to convince us that, later that day or in the evening, they would be on stage somewhere in the city and would be even more impressive then. (Does anybody know how many stages there actually are in Avignon? And why everybody who is on stage there will always claim to be off stage?).

Our destination was the grave of John Stuart Mill. I had visited the great liberal philosopher, forever resting at Saint Véran just outside the ramparts, several years before when I was working on my book to highlight Mill’s many French connections. Now, a decade later, it turned out that the cemetery no longer was in the exact location my memory was telling me that it should be. We were lucky: the digital maps on our mobile phones knew where to look. On entering the old and vast cemetery the same cycle of mental torture repeated itself: being sure you know where the grave is to be found – repeating to yourself that you remember it well but …. it all looks so different now – denying to yourself that you have forgotten the location – having to admit to yourself you forgot – admitting it to your wife. This was my third memory lapse that morning.

Are there any cemetery apps yet? Again we were lucky: the cemetery staff (the one member present) was most helpful and gave us a copy of a simple drawing. A few minutes later we were right in front of the grave of monsieur Stüwaaar Meal. I have always loved the way the French pronounce his name, respectfully leaving out the ‘John’.  Of course, it is the grave of Harriet Taylor, his wife who was buried here first, in 1858. The white marble is hers, her grieving husband selected it to do justice to her greatness. He remains a guest under that same stone.

We walked back to the old city, desperately in need of lunch. We took the Porte Thiers. Soon we were surrounded again by theatre lovers from all over Europe, and the joyous fuzz of every French individual promoting his or her own show. Everyone who appears on stage has a small poster printed, making their announcement. Masses of all these posters are mounted on cardboard and then tied, all with the same simple brownish cords, in endless strings on fences, along the pavement, so afterwards they can easily be removed. This festival of posters is an important contribution to the theatrical anarchy of Avignon summers.

Walking towards the Halles, I suddenly saw her face, on the pavement, stepped on by hundreds of most friendly feet: Simone Weil, printed on an Avignon poster. I immediately recognised her reluctant smile, the owlish glasses, the hair like two black wings alongside her cheeks. They had used a photo from around 1935, but because it had been colourised mademoiselle Weil looked much happier than I had ever seen her before, despite here awkward position of being run over on an Avignon parcours. The poster’s announcement didn’t excite me: Simone Weil, la Passion de la Vérité. Had it been a real play on the basis of her ascetic life, or a good documentary, I would have been interested. This, however, was about some lecture on stage, and an ensuing debate in the best tradition of political feminism.

Simone Weil

The Weil poster from Avignon

Still there was meaning in this moment I met Simone Weil. I had just paid my respects to John Stuart Mill, subject of my previous book. And on the way back I ran into Simone Weil, who together with Kafka fills a chapter in my new book. My two writing projects were wonderfully stringed together in the way Avignon connects creative concepts both familiar and diverse. As defective as my memory may have been this day, past and present now interlocked.

Weil would not have been surprised. “Let the soul of a man take the whole universe for its body” she wrote. Isn’t this what Avignon is doing, at least once a year in July: to let the soul of the city take the whole theatrical universe for its body? And she continued: “We have to change the relationship between our body and the world. We do not become detached, we change our attachment. We must attach ourselves to the all.” Here Weil and Avignon meet to converge. “This irreducible ‘I’ which is the irreducible basis of my suffering – I have to make this ‘I’ universal.” We are all attached by millions of strings to universal space, making us one.

A lion leaping from the brushwood

Quite miraculously he survived the muddy hell of European battlefields, the deadly labyrinth of the trenches and the storm of shelling that mashed men and earth alike. Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) will always be, first of all, the German soldier who kept escaping the clutches of death. In 1918, the war at last ended, he suddenly found himself centre stage, a national hero, a heavily decorated young Spartan. He then could have become a true champion of nationalist revenge and political ‘frontism’. Many wanted the bravest of veteran soldiers to stand up as the new leaders of the beaten fatherland. But Jünger wanted to be a writer.

Considering his background as one who so often had stared into the empty face of death, it comes as no surprise that the subject of nihilism fascinated him for many years. It is not the nihilism of endless trench warfare he addressed, though, but the nihilism he found in modern culture. This can be seen in Über die Linie, the long essay he published in 1950, after another world war had raged and Germany had, more or less, forgiven him for serving the Nazis as a military man.

Nobody could escape from nihilism, Jünger wrote in his essay, but still it was hard to define its essence. He began by explaining what it is not. Nihilism should not be confused with chaos. In fact, it strongly prefers a disciplined order, a strong state and an elaborate bureaucracy. However, this political order of the nihilistic state completely lacks an ethos of any kind. Nihilism needs such a power-based political order because it can no longer revert to the binding force of (Christian) values.

Nor should nihilism be called a disease, Jünger felt; it is not the result of decadence. Quite the contrary: it promotes physical health and cultivates the strong performance in both work and sports. The physical hardening of men, the relentless training to achieve an ‘automated’, machine-like strength and tireless capability, these are nihilism’s goals. Jünger used to speak of the “total mobilization” of the workforce to describe the strategy of the nihilistic state.

Next he tried to make it clear that, although nihilism results in the degradation of all the higher values, is should not be associated with evil as such. What nihilism does, instead, is to blur right and wrong. It propagates its own indifference towards all ethical questions of good and evil.

Many of nihilism’s characteristics Jünger mentioned in his essay are a consequence of this non-ethical position. ‘Holiness’ no longer exists for the nihilist, in whose eyes nothing (neither in the realm of religion, philosophy, art, or nature itself) could represent an absolute value. The last reason for veneration had evaporated. Because of nihilism all values and rules became provisional and instrumental, and it remodelled life after the image of the factory or the working space.


Jünger reached the conclusion that nihilism had developed into a style. A style of order and physical discipline, of competitive spirit and athletic strength, but also of cold mechanics and technology. It is the style of industrial man and the anonymous masses in the modern extended cities. But most of all, he thought, it was the style of reduction.

The world of nihilism is a sharply reduced world, in which beauty, truth and the moral good are stripped of their deeper meaning. Scientific theories lose their rich complexity and are simplified to one or two laws or patterns. The polymorphic character of the world is ignored, reducing reality to economic prosperity, speed, and machine-power. Men are forced to adhere to a strict specialisation in their labour or study, and to make sure everything is measured and quantified, as well as reduced to pure causality.

Jünger told his readers that he was convinced nihilism was the main theme in literature and history ever since 1850. Nevertheless, in the year he published Über die Linie – 1950 – he perceived certain signs indicating a turning point. Mankind was moving away from “the line”, the “primary meridian”, of nihilism. Following Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky he stressed that, from the start, nihilism had been a phase in cultural development, not a permanent situation. The first sign of the turn was, in his view, that the spell of radical political ideologies was beginning to wane. Simultaneously the power of Leviathan – the monstrous state of totalitarian nationalism – was becoming less powerful because of globalization.

Why did he believe globalization to be an anti-nihilistic force? He saw it as a development that stimulated the people’s concern with the future of the planet as a whole and that could lead to a world state. The then emerging unified Europe, as a “third force” on the world’s stage, would stimulate globalization, he expected. Besides, astronomy, physics and biology were expanding our general knowledge to such a degree that fundamental levels were reached, which could no longer be reduced to some simple laws or quantifiable relations. These findings demanded interpretations of a theological kind and, as a parallel, he saw “theological themes” emerge in literature.

He made sure to underline that nihilism had not been overcome yet. The deep wounds of the two world wars would have to heal first. The economic singleness of mind and the moral indifference of later-day liberalism were still in place. So was the wasteful exploitation of “the world of machines and automatons”. These destructive and levelling tendencies would still have to be adjusted.

But most of all the inner emptiness people experienced, as well as the existential fear it caused them, had to be remedied. As long as this void had not been ‘filled’, modern man would be tempted to flee in the expansion of political power and nationalist conquest, or in the speed and efficiency of transport and large-scale production.

What was most needed, however, was a new “turn to Being” (Zuwendung des Seins). This is the formula of Heidegger that Jünger adopted. The very moment the line of nihilism would be crossed, such a turn to Being would take place. It would be the confirmation that the nihilistic phase had been left behind. At this point Heidegger firmly disagreed (though he much respected Jünger’s view on the topic). He took the trouble to write a brochure to answer Jünger, explaining that nihilism went deep, being at the core of the whole philosophical tradition the West had established on the basis of Greek metaphysics. To leave nihilism behind, the basic traits of Western philosophy would have to be redrawn according to Heidegger, creating a philosophy of being.

Jünger kept to his belief that, with the great political ideologies and their monster states gradually losing control, the individual would reclaim its liberty. He felt sure that, since liberty could not be found in the emptiness nihilism had created, the individual would choose to live in the ‘oases’ outside the state’s order. The metaphors he used to depict this newly found freedom were the ‘wilderness’ and the ‘forest’.

These were not places of exile, but of a proud retreat from the terrain the state controlled. In the forest (the Wald) the independent individual would be reunited with the primeval grounds of his existence. Jünger didn’t mean all free individuals would, literally, have to go and live in the woods. One could find one’s own ‘wilderness’ within social and creative life: the ‘areas’ of love (Eros), artistic creation, and the personal relation to one’s own death could not be controlled by the state. The day will come, he predicted with some drama, that truly free man will suddenly step forward from such ‘wilderness’ places, “like a lion leaping from the brushwood”.

Jünger’s essay begs the question where we stand, more than 65 years later. Is our mainstream culture still nihilistic? If we accept Jünger’s elaborate defining description of nihilism, the answer probably would have to be affirmative. The absence of the higher values in modern lives, the daily roundelay of immoral and amoral actions, the heavy claim of work and rule-based living in large organizations striving for ‘lean’ efficiency, the domination of the economy and the omnipresence of economic reasoning, the attraction of speed and thrills as substitutes for a meaningful existence, the enduring emptiness inside and, above all, the lead modern technology has taken over everything: it all strongly resembles an extension of the cultural situation Jünger described in 1950. Is being constantly ‘on line’ not basically a kind of ‘total mobilisation’?

Of course, we could (in Nietzsche’s way) revalue the values set by Jünger. Does it make me a nihilist when I frequently participate in sportive activities? Doesn’t the internet offer new possibilities for meaningful personal education and development? Can not the same be said of the enormous speed in the global interchange of information we have achieved? Still, the fact remains that technology has gained more and more control over our lives. We have developed over the past decades a culture that is profoundly technological, becoming more data-driven and mass-controlled every year. This seems to be exactly the kind of culture Jünger (as well as Heidegger) was anticipating with quite some anxiety. Are we in the process of selling our souls to a new Leviathan? What freedom is left to us when every lion hiding in the brushwood is permanently monitored from above by drones and a whole army of security satellites?

Ptolemy and a Plane

The night sky over the Languedoc was very clear that evening. It was mid-September, we were on the terrace of a B&B and we could see as many stars as one could wish for. Even moving ones, or so it seemed. I spotted a moving star with a nice straight tail of smoke behind it, as if it were falling. It was a plane, of course, but the illusion, lasting about two seconds, of seeing a falling star gave me a rash feeling of childish happiness.

This high dome of the dark sky filled with stars was once scrutinized by Ptolemy. The sky and stars were, basically, the same as they had been then. Some things in life just don’t change. The star catalogue Ptolemy assembled on the basis of pure observation and mathematics was geocentric, not heliocentric (so digital and printed encyclopaedias tell us). It has to be admitted that this does constitute a difference with our present views. But the constellations themselves meet our natural eye the same way as they did Ptolemy’s.

As I mused along these lines one of the other guests informed me that the moving star was a Boeing 747, that it was heading for Girona, that its speed was 510 knots, that its altitude was 11 kilometres, and that it came from Amsterdam. She even added the name of the price fighter the plane belonged to. I had been teasing her, knowing that she was an experienced amateur pilot who, with her husband, proudly owned a small ‘Pelican’ aircraft. Well, I had mockingly asked her, you as an expert must be able to see from a distance what type of plane is now crossing our night sky? Indeed, she could! Soon it turned out that several other guests had the same magic ability of telling all the specifics of a passing plane, as well as the basic characteristics of that flight, just by looking at the starlike blinking light high in the darkness of the universe.


We all began to gaze, quite fanatically, into the high blackness of the night, informing each other immediately whenever a shining spot came in sight that it was an Airbus, a 737, or an Airjet. Most flights were to Majorca, Barcelona, or Perpignan. The human powers of observation obviously had increased dramatically since Ptolemy’s Alexandrian days, some nineteen centuries ago. It dawned on us that a fundamentally new way of observing had fallen into our hands. Peering the skies definitely had entered a new phase. It all came down to a simple app, which several guests had on their mobile phones, so it turned out. You only had to allow the app to know your location, and then it would tell you, ‘real-time’, many details of the planes and flights that, high above your head, would be crossing your path.

That afternoon there had been a fire in the surrounding mountains. Fortunately it could soon be stopped from spreading downhill. Several guests had seen the special planes that had extinguished it by dropping tons of water on the surrounding woods. They were Bombardiers, our pilot friend told us, a plane with the remarkable ability of taking in water from a nearby lake by flying over it, and then dropping the water on the flames and the environment. A tall young man, who had been listening in on our conversation, then turned the screen of his mobile phone in our direction. And there it was: the Bombardier skimming the lake to take in the water. In full colour and full sound. It was not just some example, but one of the real Bombardier planes the French authorities had sent in to combat ‘our’ fire that afternoon. It was on YouTube, already, for all the world to see, documented for eternity.

Though grateful for the extra information, nobody of the guests seemed surprised. The tall young man himself did show some pride, it seemed to me, in being able to make us all a part of his prompt digital discovery. But only slightly. Omnipresence is nearing the state of normality.

Thomas Mann and the Other Sanatorium

Imagine your memory having turned into some sort of Google database, and then type in the words ‘Thomas Mann sanatorium’. You would expect Mann’s The Magic Mountain immediately to pop up on your mind’s screen. In that novel the elevated sanatorium Berghof in Davos completely takes in its inhabitants; it becomes their world, closing them off from the real world in the lowland. At 1600 meters above sea-level they live through their special epoch of recovery from tuberculosis, or await impending death, while redirecting their sense of time and being.

There is, however, another sanatorium that played its role in Thomas Mann’s complicated life. In Riva del Garda, a small but elegant town on the most northern tip of Lake Garda in Italy, there used to be a Kurort of great renown. It was founded by the Viennese doctor and homoeopath Christoph Hartung von Hartungen (1849-1917), who settled in Riva in 1888. He called his health resort a ‘psychiatric sanatorium’, a Naturheilanstalt, and a ‘Reform sanatorium’.

It is important to remember that this area of northern Italy used to be part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Riva then was like an Austrian Riviera. This may explain why Kafka and Rilke (both born in Prague, also part of the empire) went to Riva, hoping to find recovery there. Kafka first came to Riva as a tourist in 1909, and returned in 1913 to take the von Hartungen cure. Earlier even Nietzsche, always on the look-out for the best conditions Europe could offer him to lighten his heavy head, came to Riva. From the Mann-dynasty it was Heinrich who was the first to discover the sanatorium here. Until 1908 Heinrich Mann would be a regular guest. Brother Thomas, like a true Hans Castorp, would several times come to visit him.

It all started in 1893, when Heinrich, plagued by high blood pressure and bronchial disorders, consulted Hartung von Hartungen, who sent him to yet another sanatorium in Mitterbad (Tyrol), near the Italian border. In the years to come he would often return here. In July, 1901, Thomas Mann joined his brother for another stay in Mitterbad (Ulten), after he had gone through the ordeal of correcting the galley proofs of his Buddenbrooks. In February he had begun writing a story called ‘Tristan’ after Wagner’s opera. He was still working on this story when he went to the Mitterbad sanatorium, and ‘Tristan’ developed into his first attempt at making a literary theme out of sanatorium life. In several respects it is a dress rehearsal for The Magic Mountain.

For a large part of the year 1901, Thomas felt “permanently weak”. So after his Buddenbrooks had appeared in October, following doctor von Hartungen’s advice, Thomas went to Riva in November. He stayed here at the Villa Cristoforo (nowadays called the Villino Campi), just outside the sanatorium. The doctor prescribed physical exercise and forbade him to read or write in order to preclude any mental strain.

Thomas would return several times to von Hartungen’s sanatoria in both Mitterbad and Riva, where he stayed both in 1902 and 1904. In a sense he was a hypochondriac who cherished his overly sensitive condition because, he believed, it offered him literary inspiration. Disease and general weakness were accepted reasons to withdraw from active and noisy society and live the self-centred and marginal life of the artist. However, it was his wife Katia who, in 1912, had to be treated ‘for real’ in a Davos sanatorium because she was suffering from tuberculosis. Thomas himself, again, was cast into the role of the patient’s visitor. His experiences as an observer and relative outsider, contemplating sanatorium life, went directly into The Magic Mountain.


The Villino Campi

The Villino Campi, just about a hundred yards from the lake and its small beach, has been restored and nowadays is in relatively good condition. The main building of the former sanatorium on the other hand, although still standing, is a wreck. It could be a grandiose hotel if someone would invest the money to bring it back to its former glory. All the right conditions for a resurrection – a successful ‘cure’ for the sanatorium itself – seem to be present.


The former sanatorium in Riva del Garda

Will it live to see another belle époque? Our troubled times could do with some extra havens of retreat, where pampering the body is the shortest road to ‘inner emigration’.

Brancusi’s spine

Soon after Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), who grew up in Romania, came to Paris in 1904, he was offered the opportunity to work with Rodin in his atelier. Rodin then probably was the most famous living sculptor. To work under the guiding hands of this established genius really was a piece of luck. Of course Brancusi knew this, but nevertheless he decided to leave Rodin’s studio after having worked there for barely two months. He is reported to have said, in explaining his remarkable step: “Nothing can grow under big trees.” He wasn’t being disrespectful, it was just his natural self-confidence coming to the surface. He knew it was his own talent he wanted to develop. Thus a pattern was established: Brancusi would go his own way, relying on the creative wisdom of his bare hands.

He would have his own studio at Montparnasse, in the Impasse Ronsin, first at no. 8, and from 1927 onward at no. 11. He would stall in his studio, as in an open depot of creativity, the sculptures he made, be they in stone, marble, bronze, or wood. This way he made sure he was permanently surrounded by his own work, in all its diversity. There would always be sleeping muses, birds in space, kissing goblins or high totems wherever he rested his eyes.

The studio had a glass roof, so in the daytime the sun shone on his creations, while at night the moon, when it was bright and full, would light the dark workshop with is milk-white magic, giving the bronzes a mysterious golden glow. Instructed by Man Ray, he often photographed and filmed the ensemble of his sculptures. He never tired rearranging them. Many of his avant-garde friends came to see him here, drawn as they were by this modest, workman-like, sacral place.
The American photographer Edward Steichen came to Brancusi’s studio in 1920 to have his camera capture some of its majesty. Although the studio certainly could not be called small, it represented Brancusi’s intimate world, where the creations he carved and moulded with his robust hands lived together, en famille, like happy children who, even after growing up, don’t ever think of leaving the parental house.

In 1997 the Atelier Brancusi was reconstructed in a separate little building just outside the gigantic Centre Pompidou in Paris. A whole collection of Brancusi’s works is grouped there, so the visitor can leave with a fair impression of the original studio. Still, like most reconstructed studios this one too somehow seems to be drenched in the sadness of futility. In general the workshops of artists long deceased only express desertedness: an empty cocoon with the butterfly long gone.

The most noticeable sculpture Brancusi created is far away from the crowded intimacy of old Montparnasse, or the lifeless reconstruction outside the Centre Pompidou. It is the tallest thing he ever made, the Endless Column, and it is reaching for the open Romanian sky, almost 30 meters high. It was erected in 1938 in Targu-Jiu, in the vicinity of Brancusi’s birthplace. The Endless Column (or ‘Column of the Infinite’ as it is also called) is, in fact, a war memorial. It celebrates the infinite sacrifice of the Romanian soldiers who defended their fatherland during the battle on the Jiu river.

Constantin Brancusi Endless Column InfinityThe Communist government, favoring social realism and thinking that Brancusi’s work represented bourgeois cosmopolitanism, for some time thought of simply destroying it, but instead chose to neglect it, and was most succesfull in doing so. It was only at great costs that the majestic column (made of cast iron and steel) could be restored, around the year 2000. It is, in fact, a stack of 17 heavy modules, held together by an invisible metal ‘spine’ on the inside, a spine within a spine. Although Brancusi supplemented the column with two other sculptures nearby – the ‘Table of Silence’ (a circular stone table symbolizing time) and ‘The Gate of the Kiss’, as a symbol to unity – it is the tall column that matters.

But what, apart from its ‘memorial’ quality, does it stand for? It certainly is not a stairway to the Romanian heavens, since the somewhat bulky segments will not allow one to climb it. Whereas his famous Bird in Space is streamlining the air and even cutting into it, the Endless Column slowly penetrates the air, step by step, putting one segment on top of the other. In this it resembles a cathedral, whose ancient builders went on piling stones until heaven was in sight. And like the cathedral’s tower it seems to rise from the earth, making dirt and ether meet. As a result it is cubist and organic at the same time.The regularity of its elementary form gives it the character of a lament, or a prayer, following in slow rhythm the plump beads of an enormous rosary.