INVENTING PEACE What can Vermeer teach us about Bosnia?  Athree-hundred-year-old lesson about fashioning order in a world of chaos. BY LAWRENCE WESCHLER The New Yorker, November 20, 1996

I was in The Hague several weeks ago, sitting in on the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal--specifically, those related to the case of Dusko Tadic, the only one of more than forty accused war criminals whom the Tribunal has actually been able to get its hands on (the main portion of Tadic's trial will be getting under way sometime in the months ahead). While there, I talked with some of the principal figures involved in this unprecedented judicial undertaking.

At one point, I was having lunch with Antonio Cassese, a distinguished Italian jurist who has been serving for the past two years as the president of the court (the head of its international panel of eleven judges). He was rehearsing for me some of the more gruesome stories that have crossed his desk--maybe not the most gruesome but just the sort of thing he has to contend with every day and which perhaps accounts for the sense of urgency he brings to his mission. The story, for instance, of a soccer player. As Cassese recounted, "Famous guy, a Muslim. When he was captured, they said, 'Aren't you So-and-So?' He admitted he was. So they broke both his legs, handcuffed him to a radiator, and forced him to watch as they repeatedly raped his wife and two daughters and then slit their throats. After that, he begged to be killed himself, but his tormentors must have realized that the cruellest thing they could possibly do to him now would simply be to set him free, which they did. Somehow, this man was able to make his way to some U.N. investigators, and told them about his ordeal--a few days after which, he committed suicide." Or, for instance, as Cassese went on, "some of the tales about Tadic himself, how, in addition to the various rapes and murders he's accused of, he is alleged to have supervised the torture and torments of a particular group of Muslim prisoners, at one point forcing one of his charges to emasculate another-- with his teeth. The one fellow died, and the guy who bit him went mad."

Stories like that: one judge's daily fare. I asked Judge Cassese how, regularly obliged to gaze into such an appalling abyss, he had kept from going mad himself. His face brightened. "Ah," he said with a smile. "You see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town, so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers."

For the next few months, Judge Cassese will have to find some other form of surcease.

All the Mauritshuis's Vermeers, along with a majority of all other extant Vermeers-- twenty-one out of a total of thirty-five pictures attributed to the incomparable Dutch master, gleaned from museums all over the world--will be at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., from November 12th to next February: another unprecedented event, and one that may prove to be among the most memorable exhibitions of our generation. Next spring, on the other hand, should prove a bit easier for Judge Cassese, as the entire exhibition will arrive back at the Mauritshuis (March 1st to June 2nd). Washington and The Hague will constitute the show's only two venues, and in all likelihood nothing anywhere nearly as ambitious, in terms of Vermeer, will ever be attempted again.

Sitting there over lunch with Cassese, I'd been struck by the perfect aptness of his impulse. I, too, had been spending time with the Vermeers at the Mauritshuis, and at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, as well. For Vermeer's paintings, almost uniquely in the history of art, radiate "a centeredness, a peacefulness, a serenity" (as Cassese put it), a sufficiency, a sense of perfectly equipoised grace. In his exquisite "Study of Vermeer," Edward Snow has deployed as an epigraph a line from Andrew Forge's essay "Painting and the Struggle for the Whole Self," which reads, "In ways that I do not pretend to understand fully, painting deals with the only issues that seem to me to count in our benighted time--freedom, autonomy, fairness, love." I've often found myself agreeing with Snow's implication that somehow these issues may be more richly and fully addressed in Vermeer than anywhere else.

But that afternoon with Cassese I had a sudden further intuition as to the true extent of Vermeer's achievement-- something I hadn't fully recognized before. For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just been): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation. To be sure, the sense of Holland during Vermeer's lifetime which we are usually given--that of the country's so-called Golden Age--is one of becalmed, burgher like efficiency; but that Holland, to the extent that it ever existed, was of relatively recent provenance, and even then under the continual threat of being overwhelmed once again.

Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632, sixteen years before the end of the Thirty Years' War, which virtually shredded neighboring Germany and repeatedly tore into the Netherlands as well. Between 1652 and 1674, England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands went to war three times, and though most of the fighting was confined to sea battles, the wars were not without their consequences for the Dutch mainland: Vermeer's Delft, in particular, suffered terrible devastation in 1654, when some eighty thousand pounds of gunpowder in the town's arsenal accidentally exploded, killing hundreds, including Vermeer's great contemporary the painter Carel Fabritius. (By the conclusion of those wars, the Dutch ended up ceding New Amsterdam to the British, who quickly changed its name to New York.) These were years of terrible religious conflict throughout Europe--the climaxes of both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and their various splintering progeny. And though the Dutch achieved an enviable atmosphere of tolerance during this period, Holland was regularly overrun with refugees from religious conflicts elsewhere. (Vermeer himself, incidentally, was a convert to Catholicism, which was a distinctly minority creed in the Dutch context.) Finally, in 1672, the Dutch fell under the murderous assault of France's Louis XIV, and were subjected to a series of campaigns that lasted until 1678. In fact, the ensuing devastation of the Dutch economy and Vermeer's own resulting bankruptcy may have constituted a proximate cause of the painter's early death, by stroke, in 1675: he was only forty-two.

Another preliminary session of the Tribunal was scheduled for late in the afternoon of the day I had lunch with Judge Cassese, and, following our conversation, I decided to spend the intervening hours at the Mauritshuis. On the taxi ride out, as I looked through a Vermeer catalogue, I began to realize that, in fact, the pressure of all that violence (remembered, imagined, foreseen) is what those paintings are all about. Of course, not directly The literary critic Harry Berger, in his essays on Vermeer, frequently invokes the notion of "conspicuous exclusion," of themes that are saturatingly present but only as felt absence--themes that are being held at bay, but conspicuously so. It's almost as if Vermeer can be seen, amid the horrors of his age, to have been asserting or inventing the very idea of peace. But Hobbes's state of nature, or state of war (Hobbes: 1588-1679; Vermeer 1632-75), is everywhere adumbrated around the edges of Vermeer's achievement. That's what the roaring lions carved into the chair posts are all about--those and also the maps on the wall. The maps generally portray the Netherlands, but the whole point is that during Vermeer's lifetime the political and geographic dispensation of the Netherlands, the distribution of its Protestants and Catholics, the grim legacy of its only just recently departed Spanish overlords, and the still current threats posed by its English and French neighbors all these matters were still actively, and sometimes bloodily, being contested. When soldiers visit young girls in Vermeer's paintings, where does one think they have been off soldiering--and why, one wonders, does the country need all those civic guards? When pregnant young women are standing still, bathed in the window light, intently reading their letters, where is one invited to imagine the letters are coming from?

Or consider the magisterial "View of Delft"--as I now did, having arrived at the Mauritshuis and taken a seat before the magnificent canvas up on the second floor. It is an image of unalloyed civic peace and quiet. But it is also the image of a town only just emerging from a downpour, the earth in the foreground still saturated with moisture, the walls of the town bejeweled with wet, the dark clouds breaking up at last, and the sunlight breaking through, though not just anywhere: a shaft of fresh, clean light gets lavished on one spire in particular, that of the radiantly blond Nieuwe Kerk, in whose interior, as any contemporary of Vermeer's would doubtless have known, stands the mausoleum of William the Silent, one of the heroes of the wars of Dutch independence, assassinated in Delft at the end of the previous century by a French Catholic fanatic.

For some reason, I was reminded of a cautionary comment made to a group of us well over twenty-five years ago-- in the midst of some frenzied political crisis or other--by a medieval historian visiting from England. Observing our hyperventilating excitement, this fellow calmly cited the story of Jesus on the waters (Matthew 8:23- 27), going on to note sardonically how it had always seemed to him that the point of the story was that in moments of crisis one mustn't allow the storm to enter oneself but should, instead, find peace inside oneself and then breathe it out.

And it now seemed to me, sitting among the Vermeers that afternoon at the Mauritshuis, that was precisely what the Master of Delft had been about in his life's work at a tremendously turbulent juncture in the history of his continent, he had been finding--and, yes, inventing--a zone filled with peace, a small room, an intimate vision . . . and then breathing it out.

I t's one of the great things about great works of art that they can bear--and, indeed, that they invite--a superpleniude of possible readings, some of them contradictory. One of the most idiosyncratic responses to Vermeer I have ever encountered was that of the Afrikaner poet and painter Breyten Breytenbach during a walk we took one morning through the galleries of New York's Metropolitan Museum. Breytenbach, who was a clandestine anti-apartheid activist, had only recently emerged from seven years of incarceration in the monotone dungeons of the apartheid regime, and most of his comments that morning had to do with the lusciousness of all the colors in the paintings we were passing. For the most part, though, we were silent, moving at a fairly even pace from room to room--that is, until we came to Vermeer's painting of the young girl in the deep-blue skirt standing by a window, her hand poised on a silver pitcher, the window light spreading evenly across a map on the wall behind her. Here Breytenbach stopped cold for many moments, utterly absorbed. "Huh," he said finally, pointing to the gallery's caption giving the date of the painting: circa 1664-65. "It's hard to believe how from all that serenity emerge the Boere. Look." He jabbed a finger at the little boats delicately daubed on the painted map's painted coastline. "That's them leaving right now!" (And, indeed, Cape Town had been founded by the Dutch East India Company only a decade earlier, and would soon start filling up with some of the Huguenots who had flooded into Holland following a fresh upsurge of repression back in France.)

Edward Snow, for his part, makes quite a convincing case that Vermeer's art is above all about sexuality and as such provides one of the most profound explorations of the wellsprings of the erotic in the entire Western tradition. It is about female reserve and autonomy and self-sufficiency in the face of the male gaze, Snow suggests, or even in the seeming absence of such a gaze.

In this context, the piece de resistance in his argument is a brilliantly sustained twenty-page close reading of Vermeer's magnificent (though uncannily diminutive) "Head of a Young Girl"--sometimes referred to, alternatively, as "The Girl in a Turban" or "The Girl with a Pearl" (at the Mauritshuis, it happens to face "The View of Delft," just across the room). Snow's approach to this overexposed and by now almost depleted image is to ask Has the girl just turned toward us or is she just about to turn away? Looked at with this question in mind, it does seem that such immanence, one way or the other, is of its essence. As Snow points out, if we momentarily blot out the face itself, everything else conspires to make us expect a simple profile of a head--so that afterward, as we allow ourselves to look again on the face unobstructed, the girl does seem to have only just now turned to face us. But if we look for a moment at the pendant of cloth cascading down from the knot at the top of her turban, it seems at first as if that pendant ought to fall behind her far shoulder; in fact it falls far forward, provoking a visual torsion precisely opposite to that of the one we'd surmised earlier: no, on second thought, she seems to be pulling away. The answer is that she's actually doing both. This is a woman who has just turned toward us and is already about to look away: and the melancholy of the moment, with its impending sense of loss, is transferred from her eyes to the tear like pearl dangling from her ear. It's an entire movie in a single frozen image.

The girl's lips are parted in a sudden intake of breath--much, we suddenly notice, as are our own as we gaze back upon her. And in fact an astonishing transmutation has occurred. In the moment of painting, it was Vermeer who'd been looking at the girl and registering the imminent turning-away of her attention (the speculation among some critics that Vermeer's model for this image may have been his daughter renders the conceit all the more poignant); subsequently, it was, of course, the painted image that would stay frozen in time, eternally attentive, while it was he as artist who'd eventually be the one turning away; and, still later, it would be Vermeer himself who, through the girl's gaze, would remain faithful, whereas it would be we viewers, casually wandering through the museum and tarrying before the image for a few, breath-inheld moments, who would be the ones eventually turning away. "The Head of a Young Girl" thus becomes a picture about presence and eternity, or, at any rate, posterity.

For many years, Vermeer's works were seen primarily as instances of the various types of moralizing genre imagery then current in the Netherlands-- superb examples of which grace the walls of some of the adjoining rooms there at the Mauritshuis. The Metropolitan's "Girl Asleep" was thus cast as yet another castigating allegory of feminine sloth and drunkenness, while Berlin's 'Woman Putting on Pearls" was folded into the tradition of vanity motifs. The Frick's "Officer and Laughing Girl" was assigned to the tradition of vaguely unsavory prostitution images (as, naturally, was Dresden's "Procuress," from earlier in Vermeer's career); conversely, the Louvre's "Lacemaker" was seen in the context of more positively tinged illustrations of industriousness, and the Rijksmuseum's "Milkmaid" was cast as yet another prototypically Dutch celebration of the domestic virtues. All of which misses the essential point, because in each of these instances and in virtually every other one of his paintings Vermeer deploys the conventional iconography precisely so as to upend it. No, his paintings all but cry out, this person is not to be seen as merely a type, a trope, an allegory. If she is standing in for anything, she is standing in for the condition of being a unique individual human being, worthy of our own unique individual response. (Which is more than can be said, generally, for the men in Vermeer's paintings, who do seem, hovering there beside the women, to stand in for the condition of being somewhat oafishly de trop.)

Or so, anyway, I found myself thinking in the taxi as I returned to the Tribunal--of that and of the way in which the entire Yugoslavian debacle has been taking place in a context wherein the Other, even one's own neighbor, is suddenly being experienced no longer as a subject like oneself but as an instance, a type, a vile expletive: a Serb, a Croat, a Turk and, as such, preordained for an ages-old, inevitable fate. (Note that such a construction has to be as assiduously "invented" as its obverse: people who've been living in relative peace for decades have to be goaded into seeing one another, once again, in this manner.) No wonder that Cassese flees to Vermeer for surcease.

A Dutch journalist named Alfred van Cleef recently published a remarkable book, "De Verloren Wereld van de Familie Berberovic" ("The Lost World of the Berberovic Family"), in which he traces the downward spiral of the last five years in Yugoslavia through the shattered prism of one Bosnian family's experience. Early in his narrative, he recounts how the war came to the Berberovic family's village, how for many months its members had been picking up the increasingly strident harangues welling out from the Belgrade and Zagreb television stations but hadn't worried because theirs was a peaceful village, where Serbs and Croats and Muslims lived equably together, with a high degree of intermarriage, and so forth. Then the war was just two valleys over, but still they didn't worry, and then it was in the very next valley, but, even so, no one could imagine its actually intruding into their quiet lives. But one day a car suddenly careered into the village's central square, four young men in militia uniforms leaping out, purposefully crossing the square, seeming to single out a particular house and cornering its occupant, whereupon the leader of the militiamen calmly leveled a gun at the young man and blew him away. The militiamen hustled back to their car and sped off. As van Cleef subsequently recounted the incident for me, "They left behind them a village almost evenly divided. Those under fifty years of age had been horrified by the seeming randomness of the act, while those over fifty realized, with perhaps even greater horror, that the young man who'd just been killed was the son of a man who, back during the partisan struggles of the Second World War, happened to have killed the uncle of the kid who'd just done the killing. And the older villagers immediately realized, with absolute clarity, that if this was now possible everything was going to be possible."

Yugoslavia today has been turned back into one of those places where people not only seem incapable of forgetting the past but barely seem capable of thinking about anything else: the Serbs and Croats and Muslims now appear to be so deeply mired in a poisonous legacy of grievances, extending back fifty years, a hundred years--indeed, all the way back to the fourteenth century that it's almost as if the living had been transformed into pale, wraithlike shades haunting the ghosts of the long-dead rather than the other way around.

Which is to say that we're back in the moral universe of epic poetry: the Iliad, Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, the Mahabharata, and, of course, "Finnegans Wake"--a modernist recasting of the entire epic tradition, composed during the thirties by James Joyce, who once characterized history as "two bloody Irishmen in a bloody fight over bloody nothing." Not so much over bloody nothing, perhaps, as vengeance for vengeance for vengeance for who-any-longer-knows-what? That's the heart of the epic tradition: those twinned themes of the relentless maw of vengeance and the ludicrous incommensurability of its first causes recur time and again, from one culture to the next. It's worth remembering how, also during the thirties, when the great Harvard classicist Milman Parry was trying to crack the Homeric code--to determine just how the ancient Greek bards were able to improvise such incredibly long poems, and what mnemonic devices they had devised to assist them--he scoured the world for places where such oral epic traditions were still alive, and the place he finally settled on as perfect for his purposes was Yugoslavia.

Vermeer was not a painter in the epic tradition: on the contrary, his life's work can be seen, within its historical moment, as a heroic, extended attempt to steer his (and his viewers') way clear of such a depersonalizing approach to experiencing one's fellow human beings. It was a project, I now realized, as I took my seat in the visitors' gallery facing the Tribunal's glassed-in hearing room, not all that dissimilar from that of the Tribunal itself.

The day before, I'd spoken with Richard Goldstone, the eminent South African jurist who has been serving as the Yugoslav Tribunal's lead prosecutor. (He is serving the same role on the Tribunal that has been established to prosecute the war criminals in Rwanda.) I'd asked him how he envisioned the mission of the Tribunal, and he'd described it as nothing less than a breaking of the historic cycle of vengeance-inspired ethnic mayhem. He does not believe in the inevitability of such violence. "For the great majority of their histories, the Croats and Serbs and Muslims, and the Tutsis and Hutus, have lived in relative peace with one another and they were all doing that relatively nicely once again until just recently," he told me. "Such inter ethnic violence usually gets stoked by specific individuals intent on immediate political or material advantage, who then call forth the legacies of earlier and previously unaddressed grievances. But the guilt for the violence that results does not adhere to the entire group. Specific individuals bear the major share of the responsibility, and it is they, not the group as a whole, who need to be held to account, through a fair and meticulously detailed presentation and evaluation of evidence, precisely so that the next time around no one will be able to claim that all Serbs did this, or all Croats or all Hutus--so that people are able to see how it is specific individuals in their communities who are continually endeavoring to manipulate them in that fashion. I really believe that this is the only way the cycle can be broken." The preliminary hearings now resumed. Tadic was seated in a sort of aquarium of bulletproof glass, a panoply of high-tech gadgetry arrayed all around him and around the various lawyers and judges: instantaneous-translation devices, video cameras and monitors, computerized evidence screens, and so forth.

Inventing peace: I found myself thinking of Vermeer with his camera obscura--an empty box fronted by a lens through which the chaos of the world might be drawn in and tamed back to a kind of sublime order. And I found myself thinking of these people here with their legal chamber, the improbably calm site for a similar effort at transmutation.

I looked up at the TV monitor: the automated camera was evidently scanning the room. It caught the prosecutors in their flowing robes shuffling papers, the judges, the defense table, and now Tadic himself. The camera lingered on him--a handsome young man, improbably dapper in a navy-blue jacket and a gleaming white T-shirt--and then zeroed in for a closer shot of his face.

There he was, not some symbol or trope or a stand-in for anybody other than himself: a quite specific individual, in all his sublime self-sufficiency, a man of whom, as it happened, terrible, terrible allegations had been made, and who was now going to have to face those allegations, stripped of any rationales except his own autonomous free agency.

For a startling split second, he looked up at the camera. And then he looked away.

 


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