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A lady of a certain age

December 12th, 2009 by Charles Esche

By Charles Esche

I’m on a plane flying to Alicante. God knows why really, it is not necessary for much that I cherish but I said yes once to some invitation and here I am, not wanting to think about it further. At least I get to listen to God Help the Girl

The flight is, not surprisingly, a holiday flight to escape the cold Dutch winter. It is only half full and I’m sleepy with a precious seat between me and my neighbour. I take a look across…and that’s where it begins to get interesting or maybe better troubling.

Sitting by the window is a woman, late middle aged, silver rimmed glasses that could almost be described as baroque, lace blouse, silver chain, pendulous earrings, purple jacket and a mouth that purses up in disgust every time I reach into the bag that I placed on the empty seat between us. I’ve seen this face before, I think. Not this one specifically maybe, but a certain type of Northern European bitterness that twists the features into misalignment with the world and especially with the other humans who always fail her expectations.

I try to imagine her life and admit that all the clichés start falling into place. She married money I guess, enough anyway to pay for a house in southern Spain. Engagement and wedding rings (big ones) are stuck firmly on her left hand but I still think she’s divorced, nastily abandoned for a younger woman by an incompetent but lucky man who left her with enough cash to be comfortable. She doesn’t really like the sun but enjoys telling her friends back in Haarlem about the broad terrace of her Alicante apartment with its beautiful southern prospect of hills and a glinting sea. Equally she doesn’t like the Spanish, except for the occasional youngster who passes through her bed on the way to a new future. Of course, she makes him have a shower before and after and changes the bed sheets as soon as she can. Back in the Netherlands, I can only imagine her as a PVV voter, someone who would happily send the foreigners back to where they came from so she can visit them on holiday. She’s been on a Nile cruise and to Antalya but neither lived up to the pictures on the website. In fact life is in general disappointing, even though she has everything her ancestors dreamed of and built a country to provide.

Oh god….this terrible…

I feel so unfair condemning her, but there it is, it’s how I feel. I see in her face the author of the letter to the newspaper that says the Van Abbemuseum should close and the money be spent on what people want, or the Dutch art critic who is so concerned about preserving his ‘critical objectivity’ that he seems to have forgotten how to act as a human with passions, enthusiasms and friendships, or the local Eindhoven artist who uses the word “rape” to describe Lily van der Stokker’s playful “reeducation” of Don Judd’s obsession with purity.

This is so bad. The woman is innocent afterall, perhaps she is even friendly, I don’t give her a chance. So, how do I overcome these prejudices, these ignorant fantasies based on nothing more than appearances? How to not be angered, almost repulsed by her apparent provincialism in my arrogant, cosmopolitan eyes? And how to avoid that anger turning into bitterness, prejudgement, closing communication off before it can even begin?

Because isn’t what I am doing now, sitting on this plane, just what we ask people coming to the museum not to do. We ask them to give us a chance, to overcome their initial rejection, wait, look, think again – don’t judge a book by its cover. All that stuff.

So, how do we create the openness that we need as a society (and as a museum), the generosity that doesn’t condemn but empathises. What’s the use of judgement when the judgement’s already made before the experience has begun? Indeed, what’s the use of judgement anyway…shouldn’t we try to be understanding even when we don’t understand? Ultimately, how do we embrace the PVV voter, put our arms around the unhappy visitors, at least metaphorically, without trying to convince then they are wrong and we are right?

I don’t know how, as is pretty obvious from the speculation about my poor, innocent neighbour but I am pretty certain it has to do with two qualities – generosity and confidence. Let’s learn generosity not only in terms of hospitality but it terms of giving space and time and energy to those who don’t want to take it and let’s be confident that we are the ones who make the decision anyway, and we can only do that better if we love a bit more and condemn a bit less.

So, I am going to help get my neighbour’s bag down from the overhead compartment when we land, and I’m going to try and not dismiss the artist or criticise the critic. You doubt it? Well, so do I a bit…but I do promise to get the bag…and that’s a start at least.

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2 Responses to “A lady of a certain age”

  1. Kate Taylor Says:

    “I have long believed that it is unnecessary to understand others, individuals or nationalities; one must, at the very least, simply tolerate others. Tolerance can lead to respect and, finally, to love. No one can ever really understand anyone else, but you can love them or at least accept them. “

    And Jim Haynes should know.


  2. Clare Says:

    I’m not sure if the last comment was intended with seriousness or irony. I am however very wary of this term ‘Tolerance’. Earlier this year we came across a Gutenburg Press book from the 15th or 16th Century, it summarised the world as it was then – by nation – the Germans, the British, the French, the Dutch…and the Dutch were defined, even then, by this ‘tolerance’. It surprised me, not being completely familiar with the Netherlands’ multi-national history. However, it got me thinking. How has it managed to maintain this reputation beyond the 1960s and into the 90s and 2010s when the playing out of migration and nationhood have radically changed goalposts? The ‘verzuiling’ of a society means that we can easily run for the touchdown, commiserate over a defeat, or hold rallying pep talks in the lockerroom (just to flog a literary image here) – but all within our own team, our own pillar. The protective helmets, shin guards and tactics around us keep us from directly encountering other teams, or even subsections of the same team (defense, attack, coach, waterboy). Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of the equalising capacity of a good Haynes-ian Sunday Dinner, but this empathy idea – the ability to physically feel the situation of another – can only come with an active effort for understanding. However misguided or presumptuous that might end up being on our part, that’s where the generosity is. That’s the playing field we’re on in the first place.

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