'The Shipwreck', by French artist Delacroix, is one of the most poigant treatments of human yearning that Western culture has yet produced. It hangs in the Louvre, and shows a raft afloat on an almost empty ocean. In the distance, over the threatening waves, is a tiny sail, and as a viewer you don't know whether the ship is coming towards the survivors - spelling rescue - or going away, meaning certain death for the fifteen-odd figures which crowd the raft.
The most striking thing about the picture is the appearance of the people who survived this 1816 shipwreck (a real event). They're all muscle and flexed sinews, and strain towards that tiny sail with an energy unlikely to be found among castaways who have been adrift without adequate rations for the better part of two weeks. Therein lies the painter's statement - how great the depths of human yearning, and how faint the response; how steep the waves and how uncertain the future.
Yearning, of course, isn't limited to castaways, but it's among those people who have been neglected by Providence that it assumes its purest form.
Almost a thousand Slovak orphans were brought together at a Bratislava concert called Úsmev ako dar ('A Smile as a Gift') on December 11 in Bratislava's PKO Hall. They were regaled by national pop stars and honoured by the presence of government officials, but the attention of a large number of children was caught by a far less obtrusive presence - a married couple sitting in the aisle with a small baby. As the mother hugged and kissed her child, and the husband blushed in the glare, almost a hundred heads turned to take in the scene.
The yearning in those eyes - for a family, for the love that was being lavished on the baby - was staggering in its power. As music stars mounted and left the stage, those furtive eyes took in every caress and swept the faces of the parents for a clue as to why love is meted out with such mean justice.
It's almost certain that most of those children will not soon find the love they need. It's also clear that the response to their yearning is no more immediate than it is for the country's adults, who yearn for better jobs, greater personal safety and the feeling of security that they have lost. Put simply, few of us ever have our deepest desires answered, however vigorously we wave at ships on our personal oceans.
For Slovakia, several sails have recently been sighted on the horizon, offering the promise of EU integration and foreign investment. But just as the British frigate in Velacroix's painting never noticed the French castaways, it's quite clear that Slovakia is not going to be rescued by investment or integration for years to come. In the meantime, unemployment, uncertainty and crime will continue to plague citizens as they wait for help to arrive.
It has grown unfashionable to ask whether capitalism really brings the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number of people. The question is particularly unwelcome in former communist countries like Slovakia, which must be absolutely unswerving in their dedication to a free market, corporate tax incentives and cheap labour if they hope to survive in a world ruled by international corporations.
And yet, when one looks at the social and economic misery that has been created over the 10 years since communism ended, one has to wonder when life in the country's regions is going to return to even a semblance of what it was 10 years ago. The recent December Helsinki summit may have answered the prayers of a government desperate for a foreign policy success, but as a response to the yearning of Slovak people for a decent standard of living, it was a very small sighting indeed.
20. Dec 1999 at 0:00