Went to a lovely exhibition yesterday in Ghent, or as the French call it "Gaw(n)" or as the Dutch atrociously call it, "Hxxxxhentt." You remember that scene in Splash when Tom Hanks asks the dewy and delicate Darryl Hannah what her name is in her own language, and she yelps out a shocking, painful series of unfiltered dolphin cries? That's the way I feel whenever a Dutch person says anything. Anyways, we went to Ghent to see an exhibit at their splendid gallery called British Visions - lured in by the promises of Lucian Freud, who the F-word loves, and Turner, who I love, and lots of others - David Hockney, who I never feel is faking it - Hogarth, who's just so heartbreakingly funny - and a bunch of Francis Bacons; poor Francis Bacon. I guess you can't tell much about a man from his work but when I look at anything he's painted I feel he's sure he's going to hell when he dies - an unsympathetic dread of his own future, an uncensored vision of his own futile present. It makes neat paintings but I would not have traded brains with him for anything. And then lots of Stanley Spencer, who was new to me but very appealing, even in the way his second wife's breast wrinkled in the painting of them together.
Anyhoo, we were mostly there for the newer stuff, but it did occur to me as we looked at the older stuff that we don't fully appreciate what Europeans have achieved, culturally. Oh sure. We put the past in museums and we traipse the schoolchildren through them, struggling to instill greater regard for our own narrative than the narratives of our historical enemies or underlings. We protest when newcomers don't slot into our molds, we watch absurd period piece movies, and we devote the economies of cities like Bayreuth, Florence and Stratford to celebrating the glories of the past. But we never consider all the hurdles that our European predecessors had to overcome to create our patrimony, principal among which in my mind today was that they were drunk from dawn until dusk, from being weaned to being shriven. They were drunk, drunk, drunk.
Everybody was full of something that had been fermented or distilled in an effort to kill all the bad bacteria that was swimming around the water in those days, everybody was tolerating sieges where the enemy would chuck corpses into your water supply, everybody was paranoid about Jews or heretics or witches poisoning wells, or whoever. So everybody was pissed out of their tree. They went from their mother's tit to the bottle and they stayed there until they died. And despite this, somehow we had the Renaissance, Goya, the Van Eyck brothers, opera, orchestras, Gothic architecture, the postal service, Yorkshire pudding, colonialism, Shakespeare, guns, the re-invention of the novel, and all the other things that make us go 'how did they do that!?!' when we ponder what our ancestors achieved without laptops, GPS, or a life expectancy much beyond 30. Who knows how they did it, but do it they did, and they did it all drunk.