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Photographs by Tony Maniaty. Essay by Raimond Gaita. A Unique Collaboration between a photographer and a philosopher. Together we set out to create a work that would take the Covid pandemic away from the scientific and the medical, away from politics and relentless media coverage, and place it somewhere closer to the human heart. (Tony Maniaty and Raimond Gaita)

Extract

Raimond Gaita

Our Hearts are Still Open

At the beginning of the pandemic – when London, Paris, New York, Milan and other great European cities were locked down – my wife and I watched footage of mass graves, of hospitals and morgues overrun. We saw doctors weeping because day after day they had to decide who would live and who would die. Doctors and nurses held the hands of patients who died without loved ones beside them, or at their graveside. We couldn’t bear to watch films featuring those cities as they were before the pandemic. We grieved for the people who suffered and died in them, and for the actual cities, not only for the Parisians and Londoners.

Across this devastating period, Tony Maniaty was posting his Paris photographs on Facebook. I liked them, in both senses of the word – although in its primary sense, ‘liked’ is too shallow to describe my admiration. Tony was planning a book of his images and asked if I would write a preface. I accepted the invitation hesitantly since I’m not an art critic of any kind. When he sent me the introduction he’d written, with its epigraph from Camus, it became difficult to resist. Camus’ work has been a significant influence on both of us. As a student I loved him, and Tony has been a lifelong follower. Reading Camus recently, I loved him again. And when I read Tony’s story of where the words that provide his wonderful title came from, resistance became impossible.

I already knew from reading Shooting Balibo, amongst other of his works, that Tony Maniaty was a humane person. I wasn’t surprised by the unabashed humanism glowing in the photographs he posted on Facebook. But only when I saw them collected on his website did I realise that they constituted as much a photographic essay on humanism as a reflection of street life in Paris during the plague.

At a time when humanism seems, as Sebastian Smee put it, “exhausted and tattered”, images like these enable us to recover and render more secure an understanding of the importance of our humanity to what we essentially are, to our ethical core. They make us see that our humanity is something to which we must rise, individually and collectively, that the requirement to do so is intrinsic to our humanity and has no end. That it has no purpose beyond itself, and it can never come to an end, even if we were to live forever.

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Who hasn’t been told that love is blind? One of the great torch songs of the last century warns, “When your heart’s on fire / you must realise / smoke gets in your eyes.” But a heart on fire isn’t necessarily burning with love. Parts of our tradition tell us there are some things that only love sees truly. To see the reality of another person, said Iris Murdoch, also deeply influenced by Weil, is “a work of love, justice and pity.” There are times when we see something is precious only through the eyes of love, ours or someone else’s.

Certain cities matter profoundly to us, not for what they offer by way of goods and opportunities, including cultural ones, or because they are home to us. They offer a gift at once particular and universal: particular because of qualities that are inseparable from the city’s distinctive identity; universal because that gift is offered to all of humankind. Paris is one of those cities. We might come to such a city for work or because of its tourist attractions but discover, unexpectedly, a treasure – like a student who comes to a university for a particular purpose, perhaps for a career, who thinks he knows what he wants and how to get it, but discovers he has entered a space in which he’s invited to form new desires and ideals in the light of values he hadn’t dreamed of, and certainly never fully understood before.

Like great art, these cities – I’ll call them great cities, as people talk of ‘the great cities of the world’ – can transform our understanding of reality, of what exists in the world. They offer themselves as objects of love, sui generis, which, if we accept and love them critically and truthfully, deepen our understanding of what humanity has achieved, and of what it means to be human.

A great city can become irreplaceable, not only to those rooted in it, but also in the hearts of those who dream of it although they’ve never lived in it, whose imaginations have been inspired by it, and to those who’ve visited it only briefly but will never forget it. If these cities are destroyed, in whole or significant part, people the world over mourn them. Their intentional destruction is a crime against all humankind and is listed in international law as one of the crimes against humanity. The faithfully reconstructed hearts of Warsaw or Dresden, whatever they offer, cannot be food for the soul. Indeed, they please the eye only when it’s detached from the soul, when seeing is only a visual experience rather than a response of one’s whole being.

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