for The Joint (2016)
This is your story.
You are running on the beach.
Reaching your turning point,
you face the sea and say:
C’est fort beau.
It is not long. It’s not great literature. But everything you have to say is there.
It starts with you: this is a personal story.
You are running: it is about a physical experience.
It happens on the beach: the space between land and sea. A shifting place: the coming and going of the tides makes it both part of the land and the sea. It is a frontier, a limit, a joint where things meet. And that is what your story is about: limits, joints, as vague as they can be.
You reach your turning point: this is how it goes when you run on the beach. You cannot run forever, there is a moment when you have to decide to turn back. It is the middle that is also an end and a new beginning. It is a limit you set for yourself: if you go further, you may not be able to get back.
You face the sea. Or: you turn your back to the land. It is a clear, intuitive decision: to turn away from the land and look at the sea. It is a romantic movement, a romantic turn. To face the sea is your sublime moment. You are in front of infinite space where fear and joy are very close: repulsion and attraction for the unknown and what lies beyond.
There and then you open your mouth and say: you utter these words. Something in you drives you to put this sensation into words. That is where you start rationalizing your feelings.
And then these strange words come out of your mouth – in French: c’est fort beau. It is not your language. Your mother spoke French. It is the lingua franca of Brussels, the city you live in. It is a language that you are confronted with all the time. But it remains the language of the other, even if that is your mother – the first other. It is the language of philosophers you like to read, the language of the thinkers of difference, of what is other. These philosophers and their followers who write theory as if it is poetry, use this expression, as in: fort bien, as in fort beau. You want to be part of this language, to join it, slide into it, become other.
Start again. Go deeper.
It is personal (you) and about experience (running on the beach). It is about things that move you (running?), that touch you deep inside (runners high?). And while you are running back, you start thinking about things that touch you, that move you, that you find fort beau. You think of things that move you so deeply that they could possibly make you cry. Your first thoughts – this is about you – lead to art.
The story gets even more personal when you say you never cry for art. Not in the museum, not in the cinema, not with music. It is not that you are not emotional: you get scared, you laugh, you get intrigued, but you never cry. You are jealous of friends who do. Most people you meet cry for beauty. The moments you cried in your adult life can be counted on the fingers of one hand. A broken love affair (or two). Total loneliness after periods of hard work that disconnected you from life. The death of your mother. These are the moments when you lost control over yourself. It can happen anywhere, and the beauty of the experience only comes after the event.
There are other moments when you loose control: moments of happiness, of laughing, of physical or drug-related ecstasy that are similar to the moment on the beach when you utter these words that are not really yours. In such an ecstatic moment you are not yourself anymore. You are outside yourself. You are displaced: a subjective experience of total involvement. It comes close to what you called a few years ago the highest form of imagination: to place yourself into the other. Become other. It means joining what is other. But these ecstatic moments never go as deep, touch you as profoundly as the moments when you cried (for life).
When you think back to the moments you cried, it is not difficult to see them as personal, as limits that are endings, but also new beginnings, as turning points from which your life takes a new direction. And even as language. The wordlessness that comes with it: how to put this in words? How to talk about what you experienced? How to share this with others? The crying comes because of the wordlessness, the inability to put feelings into words. The crying is the joint between event and reason.
How twisted are you to turn these moments of sorrow into moments of joy. What can grief possibly have to do with beauty? Go back to the beginning: beauty is personal, it is physical, it is an experience, it comes as – and not only at – a turning point. Beauty is a tension between fear and desire. Think of the figures in paintings of Friedrich on the mountain, facing the abyss of the valley. Think of the sublime in philosophy, where you have terror as a source of aesthetic enjoyment. The sublime is what is simply and purely great (Kant). It transforms fear into delight (Burke). It deals with the invisible, the unlimited, the unknown, the infinite. It leaves you speechless.
This is what you are thinking on the beach while running back after your brief moment of epiphany, your turning point, the moment you come to a standstill (and here your epiphany takes a religious dimension – a standstill as a messianic moment, the aim of many religions). You start searching for similar experiences in art. The first moments that come to mind have to do with an end or (and? as?) a new beginning, with turning points, the moments and places where things come together. It is the same with erasure, the blank page you need for a new start and the fear, the abyssal feeling that comes with it.
When you share your thoughts people think that beauty, for you, is something negative. You realise that this goes against common notions of beauty. Not that you want to go against the grain, you simply want to keep it personal. This is what matters, beauty is a feeling and feelings are always personal. There is nothing universal, nothing common, about beauty. Harmonic composition, golden ratio, ideal form, Leonardo, Michelangelo: it doesn’t move you. There is nothing perfect about beauty, nothing average. Beauty is outstanding.
The negative feelings associated with the notion of endings, or erasure, only lead to potential new beginnings. It leads to other spaces. It is this feeling of otherness that you search for in beauty: moments that change your life, that set you free (from/for a lover, from/for your mother, from/for the other).
The freedom of the end as a potential new beginning is symbolized by the turning point in your very short story. You are in the middle (
commencer au milieu
: start in the middle, become part of the environment – le milieu – as a moment of ecstasy). You are in the middle of your jogging, but also in the middle between land and sea, in this no man’s land known as the beach, where before you make your U-turn back home you stand still for a few seconds, your back to the land, looking at the horizon and this infinite depth, the abyss of the darkness under water. The sea that gives and takes, the promise and the fear.
(The other day you found yourself on the very same beach again with fourteen thousand others to let your voices be heard against climate change. It is one of the most joyful manifestations you participated in lately: not so grim as the one against the war on Gaza, less serene than the march in response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. This is a manifestation of hope. But it is also a manifestation of fear. And therefore the place fits perfectly on the beach, where the fear of the rising sea levels is the most present – and the hope of course, to stop this fear. There is a lot of beauty in a shared, common, experience. Yet it is very difficult to share beauty, to make it common. This common space of the beach as a place to gather, to shout, to protest, seems very far from the contemplative experience of the beach where once, you were alone with yourself.)
To face the sea is simultaneously to turn your back to the land, to the common space. It is a moment of looking and of saying – of input and output. Input: the run, your breathing body, the air, the sound, the sun. Output: c’est fort beau. These strange words from your lips. These words from the stranger in yourself. These words that come by themselves, without thinking. But still, this is where you start rationalizing this feeling of beauty. It was always already there, something you always already carried in your body, waiting for the right moment to let it out. And of course there is more to say than these few words in French. You are writing it right now. But you start thinking it right there.
Even if the French you use is not your language, it is a language you are not unfamiliar with. As a child already, you liked to listen to your mother using words you didn’t understand. You listened to the songs she listened to. You learned to sing them with or without her, and most of the time without really knowing what you were singing. It is the attraction to the other: the potential of another language. But also – and maybe you only understand this much later – the fear and the hope in what is different. This language makes you part of a minority. One of many minorities in Brussels that use the language to communicate: Arabs, Turks, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish people in Brussels all speak French. You like to speak French from time to time, to have the feeling that you are part of that city too. What all these minorities in Brussels who speak French have in common is a desire to become other, to slide themselves into the language of the other (and today that language is more and more English: the language of everybody and nobody, the language of gentrification, the language of globalization, the language you are using here and now). That is also what your favourite thinkers of difference and the thinkers inspired by these thinkers write about: about becoming other, about joining the other.
Beauty is an event. It is something that happens. As soon as you try to grasp beauty, it turns into a cliché. To determine beauty, makes it disappear. That too is a form of becoming.
Beauty is where worlds meet. It is the fertile ground for altered states.
Beauty is a chemical reaction. It is something you fall into, like falling in love. It is a relation between you and something or someone else. It is where things join, where they merge.
That too is part of your feeling of beauty. Becoming other as becoming part of the ones you admire. It can also mean becoming part of the things or the spaces you admire. Your wish as a child, standing in the garden of your grandfather, to live in the nearby city of Brussels, just a few hundred meters down his street, fits in this longing for beauty. There is as much fear in it as there is desire. Which finally and many years later brings you to your attraction for the spaces of otherness: dark spaces, queer spaces, other spaces that are also limit spaces, limit experiences, turning points, moments of erasure. It is all there in your story on the beach. This story is you.
Fort Beau – june, 2016
(text for THE JOINT – The Beauty Issue, June 30, 2016. Published by Cabinet, as part of De Voeg / Le Joint, an exhibition with Paul Casaer, CutMe, Lieven De Boeck, garage64, Tatsuya Inuikawa, Theo Kooijman, Carine Lauwers, Gorik Lindemans, Els Opsomer, Pieter Van Bogaert, Jan Vromman and Ann Weckx. June 30 – August 31, 2016)