James Ensor to Albert Einstein

March 16th, 2011 § 1 comment

“Between us, allow me to salute a guest of substance, a neighbor haloed in importance. Block of science wreathed in flowers by a colleague of the coast, perched atop a dune. To you, great thinker, handsome caster of convincing rays, your silver mane emits millenary illuminations.
Yes, celestial bodies irradiate the paradise of Rotarian relativities, light the limited field of our table where glasses, cups, crystalware, decanters reflect the sequins, the cries of silk and delight from tipsy young stars; where firecrackers, candles, rockets set our senses ablaze and burn the spirit of our thoughts.
But you, man of light, you reflect suns, inventory the planets, invent moons, invite comets, illustrate the constellations. Moreover, and better yet, you douse the lazy stars, rein in the asteroids straying from their descents.
Mesdames, Messieurs, please forgive my free expression, my humbly pictorial language, my inappropriate words, shrill or ambiguous, anti-mathematical; I’ve always condemned boring worlds and their multiplicity.
Our Rotarian brethren in China and America belch while smoking; we muse while eating, and think while drinking.
Here, dear friends, let us drink and fraternize beneath a sun glazed with the gray of indecisive weather.

*

Alas and alack! Painters, slaves to vision, remain resistant to positive rays as they do to positive reason, to calculations, to probabilities; between reason and understanding, between the appearance and the content of things, a deep discrepancy remains.
And you, eminent scientist, will tell me 6 isn’t 9. And I will say, ‘When with a little kick I upend a 6 that makes a 9,’ and when you tell me that 6 and 8 make 14, I will reply that 6 and 8 make 68; in this case, Mesdames and Messieurs, all is relativity.
We have always said ‘There are more relative truths than absolute truths.’
Let us justly appreciate the old opportune Belgian motto: ‘Light bursts forth from the collision of ideas.’

*

Dear great master, accept my salutations. Forgive these words flavored with feeling.
To you, my friends, thanks from my heart and my hand with its curved line of life and joy.
From the great incandescent hearth of my heart, which sometimes muddies matters by striking two at noon, but a masterpiece, no less, of the divine watchmaker.

*

Let us all promptly praise the great Einstein and his relative orders, but condemn algebraism and its square roots, the surveyors and their cubic reasons.
I say that the world is round, like god the sun and the lady moon, round are cheeks, round are smiles, round are pupils and round posteriors, round are pastries and round plates, round are goblets but let us sing out squarely this time, Mesdames and Messieurs, all together if you please:
‘Einstein alone reigns in the heavens.’ ”

First appeared in Le Littoral, 8/26/1933. Found in My Writings, or Self-Important Swaggerings, ed. Hugo Martin (Éditions Labor, 1999)

I don’t know enough about the state of Ensor studies, or his English publications, to know if this piece has been translated before (in a collection of his miscellaneous writings, I imagine, or in a coffee-table book opposite selections from his art); I just found it interesting. In his memoir The Factory of Facts, Luc Sante mentions the literary Ensor in passing, saying that any “accounting of the nineteeth century would also include… the bristling incidental writings of Rops and Ensor.” I thought it worth looking into and found a collection of his, composed primarily of such popular forms for the era as toasts, letters to editors, and speeches for all occasions (dinners, awards). I found a man in love with light (“Let us celebrate light! The painter’s wholesome bread… Light, more beautiful than our daughters and mothers!”), a deliberately indulgent and flowery rhetorician (“I love masks, the ocean is my nourishment, Paris is a total stranger to me.”) given to long lists riffing on sound and spelling, a friend effusive with his praise, an enemy of public pools and baths, an ardent scholar of his own country and its mores: in short, every bit the ornery, Shavian, opinionated public intellectual of the era. Man of letters Jean-Baptiste Baronian praises Ensor’s “verbal jubilation” and “genius for invective,” the “madness pulsating through his words,” calling him “a crater constantly aflame.” He writes, “I believe that with his verve, his rough syntax, his words forged from spare parts, James Ensor wrang the neck of academicism, the incurable disease of Belgian letters,” concluding with this Ensor quote: “We must laugh a little. My apologies.”

Some further context:

Early 1933 saw Einstein reside in Belgium for a few months before taking up his appointment at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In a detailed critical and biographical article on Ensor at 3quarksdaily (from which the group photo at the top is taken), Elatia Harris gives some background on their meeting:

That’s Einstein on the far left, Ensor, in the black hat, on the right. In August of that year, the German Jewish philosopher Theodore Lessing had been murdered by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia, where he had fled for his safety. Einstein and his wife, traveling in Southern California, got wind that their home in Germany had been ransacked. Belgium seemed a safe enough place to stop and think what to do. King Albert provided a little villa at De Haan, and the Belgians did everything possible to make Einstein welcome. That included arranging a luncheon with James Ensor. As befits a man likely wondering what new alliances might save his life, Einstein is engaged, leaning into the group. Ensor, whom the camera always set apart from any others present, leans back, almost ceremonially displaying the large bony hands that had for decades done nothing but knot cravats and noodle on the harmonium. If the two visionaries had a conversation amounting to more than pleasantries, it was not transcribed, but much Belgian speculation has gone into making it a substantive affair.

In an interview for the Ostend Tourist Office, musician and Ostend native Arno Hintjens recalls, from his childhood, a photo of “Ensor, Einstein, and Magritte, together before the station at Ostend. Magic.” The Flanders tourist site urges visitors to

The ‘Concession’, a charming Belle Époque area, is the heart of De Haan. The beautiful and surprising architecture is a must-see. In the past, important people such as Ensor, Einstein, Blomme, the Austrian author Stefan Zweig and politician Paul-Henri Spaak resided here. Their houses, restaurants and favourite places are still open for the public.

The Libre Belgique also adds (my translation):

On the invitation of Professor Arthur De Groodt, he [Einstein] accepted lodgings for three days in Mortsel, at the Château de Cantecroy. He renounced his German citizenship. The headlines read, “In Belgium did the voice of Einstein, who ceased being German, become universal.” De Groodt’s wife went to Coq-sur-Mer and rented the Villa “Savoyarde” there for the Einsteins, who moved in on April 1st. His stepdaughters, his secretary Helen Dukas, and his assistant Walther Mayer joined them on the 12th. Einstein stayed in Coq-sur-Mer for six months, until leaving permanently for America. He worked there, and received a few notable guests, including a lunch in Coeur-Volant with the minister Anatole de Monrie and James Ensor. He spent the month of June in England and Scotland, and on his return in early July, found himself mixed up in the Dieu-Campion affair: two Belgian pacifists convicted for conscientious objection. The King consulted Einstein, known for his pacifism, who, taking stock of the Nazi menace, refused to support Dieu and Campion. Romain Rolland and Bertand Russell were to hold it against him. Einstein gave one more violin concert at the Kursaal in Ostend, before Queen Elizabeth. A local painter, A[lphonse] Blomme, painted his portrait and harbored him out of consideration for his safety, since a price had been put on his head. He left Belgium in September.

§ One Response to James Ensor to Albert Einstein

  • fiorilli says:

    Hi,

    is it possible to receive today the picture of breakfast Einstein/Ensor in high resolution? we’ll publish it in Le Vif/L’Express. Tell me about the rate and copyright. Thank you.

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