In a week when what you could call Western civilization has taken a few hits, not least from ‘useful idiots’ who bask within its cultural and geographic confines, it’s worth reflecting on the magnificence of its heritage, whether intellectual, spiritual, artistic, technological …. the lot.
Here is Paul Valery, the French poet, philosopher and writer, in 1926:
The spiral of a winding stair descending from the shadows and the glimpse of a deserted gallery imperceptibly give the viewer the impression that he is examining the interior of a strange shell inhabited by a little intellectual animal…the idea of withdrawal into oneself, of depths, of a richness of understanding born within the individual self, are suggested by this composition, which in some vague but inexpressible way, has a spiritual content
…and Valery is writing about one of Rembrandt’s most perfect compositions, usually called The Philosopher in Meditation, although there is no certainty as to Rembrandt’s intent with the subject matter. The various details add to its enigma, though there’s a great deal of analysis out there on the web. It’s actually a tiny painting, 11 x 13 inches, which in my mind adds to its perfection.
In an odd way, I read it as a rebuttal of atavistic violent belief systems, of the kind that we’re all becoming horribly familiar with, and, frankly, scared into inaction. I prefer the optimistic approach – combined with a bit more robustness – exemplified by Matthew Parris, whose skill in constructing a written argument is unsurpassed.