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Amongst The Gnomes of Zurich
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2010-09-10 07:28:53
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When a population can be guaranteed to be more extreme than its government, democracy has become a majoritarian excess.  Switzerland, a country so conservative it attracts both its keen admirers and passionate loathers, is surely such an example.  It imports foreign currency and exports mercenaries.  It fosters a brand of unfashionable patriotism in Western Europe.  It is famously chauvinistic, having publicly voted against the establishment of minarets in the state.  It has proven reluctant to give women the vote (the date was 1971), with such areas as Appenzell Innerrhoden holding out till the late 1980s.  The state is a modern attempt to forge a brand of autarky in a global market.  (One drinks and eats Swiss products at all stages, at least as far as possible.  Note their whisky.)  And then, there is the financial hub, Zürich, with its obsessive cleanliness, regulated lanes, and sinister bastions of power.

Zürich’s own origins are of interest for the student of saints and the entire field of martyrology.  These particular saints were not keen on staying put, and proceeded to walk, with their heads in hand, after their decapitation.  The Romans had evidently been remiss in their efforts.  Felix, Regula and Exuperantius have much to explain in terms of their demise from the 4th Century.

This laid the basis for Zürich’s more extreme tendencies.  Religious fervour has been a fairly constant companion in its affairs.  It was the home of the zealous preacher Ulrich Zwingli, who attempted a frontal assault on the Catholic Church in an age when it was popular to do so.  Reform usually meant destruction, and Zwingli’s efforts in the 1520s were directed against liturgical objects, stained glass windows and sculpture.  The Hans Asper portraits of the thick-set religious men of the time – Oswald Myconius, Jakob Werdmüller  - who continued the Zwingli legacy, all provide ample proof that religious austerity was king in this city of finance.

What has struck scholars is that this was and is not a city for the poor replete with wash days for beggars.  In truth, there is little evidence in this clean swept city of the poor as such.  The saints identified with the city were noted for their martyrdom, not acts of charity.  Notes on the art existing in Zürich prior to the reformation drive in the sixteenth century did little to depict the poor, something that has struck art scholars as distinct even to different parts of Switzerland.

That said, the artist has not been neglected in Zürich.  The city appealed to James Joyce, who spent years writing his epic Ulysses there.  A foundation named after him can be frequented by scholars and visitors, should they wish to delve into the collections.  There are five remarkable stain glass windows by March Chagall from 1970 in the spare but elegant Fraumünster, and a a nine metre complement in the North transept by Alberto Giacometti from 1940.

Individuals such as Dr. Alfred Schaefer, chief of the Union Bank of Switzerland, complained some years ago about how he and his banking brethren have been termed ‘Shylocks, gnomes, sinister manipulators – even greedy thieves’ (Time Magazine, Mar 12, 1965).  But there is something sinister about the banking network, where accounts without names, merely digits, are acceptable.  Along many of Zürich’s leafy streets stretch villas with stories of vast wealth stowed away, assets kept for a rainy day.   Many have fortifications more impressive than Fort Knox.  Art collections abound, though these are by no means foolproof from various thieving enthusiasts. 

The spectacular theft of valuable art works in 2008 shook the Swiss penchant for security to its core.  The director of the E.G. Buehrle Collection was relieved when Claude Monet’s ‘Poppies Near Vetheuil’ and Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Blossoming Chestnut Branches’ were recovered in the back seat of a white Open Omega car parked outside Zürich University’s psychiatric clinic in February 2008.  When the thefts took place, that particularl museum went into a state of mourning.  The barricades went up, and are still there to the prying observer.  Indeed, that same street is replete with surveillance junkies and strategically positioned mirrors.  Their motto is surely to trust no one.

Underlying the regulatory mind of officials in Zürich and other parts of the country is a certain contained hysteria.  Like all authorities insistent on following rules by the book, the inner fascist is never far away, exploding with enthusiasm when the time is right.  Consider the speeding fine regime.  An overly keen driver recently had his $220,000 Mercedes SLS AMG impounded and a fine of $835,000 levied for excessive speeding.  The feature of the fine system there is not merely the driver’s speed, but the income that duly determines the penalty.  Merely being identified as a Swedish national, a police spokesperson did flatter the offending individual.  ‘We have no record of anyone being caught travelling faster in the country’ (CBS News, Aug 13).

A final personal reflection.  At a friend’s house on Seefeldstrasse, I find myself walking on tiptoe, as if afraid of waking the dead.  This is hardly surprising. The neighbour has revealed he has a ‘device’ monitoring our foot movements.  ‘You are not to walk about till after nine, every morning.’  Rude notes are left in the letterbox explaining his state of mind.  Such excitement at keeping a note on minute noise levels is surely a sign of ill health.  But in Zürich, people find all sorts of ways of minding the business of others.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and was recently in Zürich. 

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Emanuel Paparella2010-09-10 11:34:20
Indeed, iconoclasm against artistic objects for religious motive is sister to extreme political fanaticism. In a Graham Greene novel there is a conversation between a priest and his interlocutor who compares Switzerland to Italy to make the point that Switzerland is so much more orderly and prim and proper and Italy is so chaotic; to which the priest answers that while chaotic Italy has given us Michelangelo and Leonardo, Switzerland has give us watches, chocolates and the cukoo clock. Actually the priest forgot another irony: the papal guards which are all Swiss.

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