No dark Satanic mills here. Not any more. I’m driving through the pleasantly unambitious landscape around Liège in east Belgium. It’s a road frequently taken, mainly by people in a hurry to go somewhere else: Brussels, for example, or Cologne. Not Liège itself. Liège is re-branding as a tourist attraction. But from the motorway, it’s mainly silent chimneys and post-industrial sprawl. Today, I do turn off the E40. Just west of Liège, northwards into the acreages of happy cows, stone-cottaged villages and scattered churches. Leaving the commune of Bassenge, the road winds through the small valley of the Geer river, lined with ribbed poplars.
Branching off to the left, a wooded lane curves up the slope. Levelling out onto the hilltop, views onto denuded quarry faces glow whitely in the late autumn sun. And then, suddenly and improbably, a tower comes into view: square but proportioned to appear tall, its 33 meters are pinnacled with four monumental sculptures bearing down over the valley from the crenellations. Backlit, they hover over the fields and copses, considering the demure heresies of comfort and complacency below.
This is the Tower of Eben-Ezer, built by Robert Garcet (1912 – 2001) stone-cutter and esoteric. Born in Ghlin (near Mons) in 1912, Garcet comes to the Geer Valley aged 18. A self-taught student of the bible and enthusiastic numerologist he survives the war as a pacifist and conscientious objector. He finds work and like-minded enthusiasts for his project in local stone-cutting sites. The tower’s founding stone is set in 1948, on the grounds of an old quarry, and building continues using flint from local pits. Stone by stone, the tower mounts on foundations measuring 12 by 12 meters, calibrated to recall the 12,000 x 12,000 furlongs of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation – the place of new and enduring peace. Every aspect of its design is freighted with significance: four walls and turrets (evangelists, riders of the Apocalypse, points of the cross etc.), enclosing seven levels (days of creation, Christian virtues, seven Churches of the Revelation etc.). It is named for Ebenezer, the commemorative “stone of help” set (according to the First Book of Samuel) between Mizpah and Shen following Samuel’s victory over the Philistines.
It is a rare thing, La Tour Eben-Ezer. On the outside, it appears as a building constructed not as symbol but as meaning. A tangibility of concept, the coincidence – in linguist’s terms – of sign and reference. Poetically, it is a dream realized and made flintily impenetrable.
Yet inside, all is piecemeal and makeshift, soft and somehow fallible. There are hand-printed signs, leaflets, a couple of shelves displaying Garcet’s self-published autodidactic writings on pacifism, anthropology, geology, biblical interpretation (the Apocalypse) and prehistoric man. Hidden in ring-bound pamphlets, visitors find information on museums and institutions that have passed through: reputable Belgian galleries, the 1984 Venice Biennale – no less a disciple than Jarvis Cocker, former Pulp front man, putting together material for a film “Journeys into the Outside” on outsider art and environments.
A friendly multilingual assistant is taking group bookings (4000 visitors annually), and since this is “A Flint Museum”, there’s also a room dedicated to flint quarrying (www.musee-du-silex.be/). There is a toilet-come-tool-cupboard. Rooms on the upper floors present Garcet’s interpretative writings. Looped films echo. In the basement, four coarsely crafted cherubim stand back-to-back. Like the winged figures on the ramparts, they represent Garcet’s pacifist-inspired interpretation of Ezekiel’s Old Testament vision: “Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim.” They look burdened by responsibility.
Not far from what used to be the vast and belching “satanic mills” of Wallonia, Garcet’s tower is barely a dot on the landscape. The inspiration and genesis of his New Jerusalem has long since been overtaken by history. But as a marker of one man’s spot in time and place, rising from the particular to the universal it stands quite stoutly. A prodigy of quest and self-realization.
Is such a man ever satisfied? I’m inclined to think he might have been.