zaterdag 5 juni 2010


Stultifying and oppressive, these are since the nineteenth century rather common characterizations of the straitjacket into which our regulated bourgeois culture constrains us. We control our affairs fairly well, but that straitjacket constricts us and sometimes threatens our joy of living, energy and creativity. The gray veil of a tough labour rhytm and mirroring office buildings would sometimes suffocate our soul.

This explains why, also since at least the nineteenth century, there were so many deliberate efforts to escape the constriction and boredom. Romantic music could serve that goal and compelling novels played a major role. It is not accidental that the novel as a genre from that time experienced an unprecedented boom, while frequently the regulated life and boredom themselves were the subjects (think of Madame Bovary or Oblomov). But also the rise of the sports may be related to it and maybe even the incidentally occurring enthusiasm for war and violence.

In our family we used to have our own kinds of escape. One was the large supply of money. That gave us a big house and a big garden, containing even a "paradise" with a pond and feasants and peacocks. And it permitted us an exuberant lifestyle that could keep the greyness at some distance.

A second form of escape was through religious transcendence. However well cared for our material life might be, the spirituality of ‘another, deeper reality’ never was far away. There were ascetically living reverend uncles and pious aunts and my mother loved meditation and study. Also in the table conversations the 'higher' world got attention regularly, usually contrasted against the 'lower' material world. Very dualistic and pulled apart indeed, but it was there.

And then there were the "soldiers", a table ritual which was carried out at the end of festive meals for birthdays and such. It was a question of hammering with your hands and fists on the table in order to produce as much noise as possible. For maximum effect first the glasses, serving spoons and cutlery were placed on the plate edges so they could well rattle. My father then announced the coming of the soldiers who had decided to convey their birthday congratulations. If you listened well, you could hear them coming in the distance, and so it was because he hit his hands gently on the table in a regular rhythm and everyone followed him in that. You could hear them coming closer, the hand slaps became stronger. Until at once they were there, then you could get loose banging your fists on the table, with maximal noise, for a few minutes. Then it had to still be finished, the soldiers went back, hand strokes became softer again, until the soldiers were back in the barracks.

This ritual was carried out family-wide, and not just for the kids. Generations back someone in the family must have experienced the irresistible urge to break out from the formal, regulated atmosphere to which at that time dinners were subjected. The ceremonious rigidity must have felt like a straitjacket, and the soldiers as an escape from it. Is it strange that finally I end up with a philosopher whose first really original book was titled: "On escape"?

See also Il-y a