On paintings and books
3 de September 2017
Two paintings and one book that lead Jaume Terradas to think about how historical changes and human nature often don’t coincide with art and with the preservation of the natural world.
A few years ago, in a session of the former Aula d’Ecologia of the Barcelona City Hall, which then I was coordinating with Anna Àvila, the architect Felip Pich-Aguilera began his presentation with a famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838, of the great Joseph Mallord William Turner, exhibited at the National Gallery of London. It depicts the glorious sailing ship HMS Temeraire as a pale ghost when it was being towed (to be scrapped) by a steamboat whose chimney was emitting a dense black smoke. This is an excellent metaphor for the most radical historical change in the ecological metabolism of human societies, which I confess to have used sometimes afterwards.
This summer, among my readings, there has been one, following a Marina Mir’s enthusiastic recommendation, that reminded me a lot of the nostalgia of the world of sailing so well expressed by Turner with a sunset light. I have read the Spanish version (splendid, by Javier Marías) of The mirror of the sea, El espejo del mar, by Joseph Conrad. The book is reminiscent of his life as an officer and captain of the merchant navy. The richness of the terminology made the translation very hard, and perhaps this explains why no publisher, as far as I know, has ventured to make the Catalan version, a pity. The reading of the original requires, or a lot of nautical knowledge in English, or much patience in the use of specialized dictionaries.
One of the chapters, prodigious, speaks of sailing, and when compared with that of steam, it says: “… But such sea-going has not the artistic quality of q asingle-bonded struggle with something much greater than yourself; it is not the laborious, absorbing practice of an art whose ultimate result remains on the knees of the gods. It is not an individual, temperamental achievement, but simply the skilled use of a captured force, merely another step forward upon the way of universal conquest”. Effectiveness (not efficiency) against art.
The extraordinary integration of man and artifact with nature that Conrad describes when talking about sailboats and about those who command them, already in his last years, was only possible in sport sailing. The advantages of being independent of winds for regular transport are very obvious. In another extraordinary chapter, Conrad tells us about the West and East winds, especially when sailing between the United States and England, and how, sometimes, after a very fast course through the ocean under the powerful push of stormy West winds, large amounts of ships full of desperate men were forced to wait for days and weeks, their food and fresh water reserves exhausting, stopped by the wall created by the East wind practically at the gate of the English Channel.
The great sail transport will not return. Attempts have been made to build some ships which, while maintaining the use of fossil fuels, complement it with sails when conditions are favorable, but so far these hybrid models have not been accepted and very few of them exist: they are strange machines, without anything of the majestic elegance of the old sailing ships. However, freight vessels constitute a very considerable source of pollution, one-fifth of the world’s fuel consumption. According to NGO Transport & Environment, marine fuel is 2,700 times more polluting than diesel from cars and is tax free, while auto diesel pays 35 billion euros in taxes in Europe. In addition, the health costs of diseases caused by marine emissions in Europe are about 58 billion, with an estimated 60,000 deaths a year. So, while we continue to emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases and global warming is a well-known fact, we have not found a way to reapply the immense force of the winds to the maritime traffic. Perhaps the reason is the same that make us still to use, for most cars, explosion engines that are mere refinements of those created more than a century ago: fossil fuels are still so cheap that it is not profitable to look for alternatives. The habanera says in Catalan “Bufa ventet, bufa brn fort” (blows tiny wind, blows strongly wind), but that does not matter anymore. We’re still burning oil.
I have often quoted in my lectures a quote from the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood who says that, unfortunately, misery and greed have always been able to do with everything, meaning that these two things (complementary, since the misery of many is related with the greed of a few) make it very difficult the preservation of natural spaces and other things. Since the fall of the USSR and the triumph of a de-regularizing neoliberalism, economic differences have exploded across the globe. The values that are imposed are those of economic success far above those related to solidarity. It is not a new problem.
Finally, taking advantage of a comment by Franz de Waal in Bonobo and the Ten Commandments, I would like to recall another extraordinary painting, The haywain Triptych, by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1516), which is at the Prado Museum. The Dutch word hoy means ‘hay’ and also ‘vanity’ and the picture is a representation of all evils derived from vanity and greed. Probably, it is inspired by a flemish saying: the world is a hay cart and everyone takes from it as much as he can. Nobles, clergymen, rich, poor and miserable people, a multitude surrounds and follow the cart doing all kinds of atrocities on the road that leads to hell, which is the last table in the triptych. This seems to be the path we have taken as a species. If we still do not see the flames, we already feel the heat.