The moment

Never before has it been this quiet here. Four weeks I’ve been in this little summer home and there’s always been something that emphatically reminded me of the outside world and my prehistory, even if it was only my own homesickness and the throbbing of my rancour. Now there is a dome of peace over my dwelling. The silence is total and massive. There is no sound and there is no movement. It swallows up everything, including me and my paltry history. There is only this moment, a saturated standstill and a heaven on earth.

Everything has gathered under this bell jar of peace, my drunken thoughts, memories and furtive desires, but especially the breath of my children. My boy lies asleep with his little butt up on the couch and the little girl, her bear pressed against her, is dreaming in the open loft. In a while I’ll go to sleep there too. Slowly I’m already drifting in that direction by the peacefulness of this instant, after all those weeks of storm a reservoir of calm.

daan slaapt zw (1 of 1)

It was only this afternoon that I was waiting by the garden fence for the miracle. I had been put in the nuthouse and longed at the gate for the wide world and real life; I was in boarding school and my frivolous mother no longer thought of me. I was ashamed of my lunacy. Just in case someone would pass by, I repeatedly bent forward as though I was diligently weeding. A goddess would appear to tell me that everything had been the consequence of a misunderstanding; she would touch me with a magic wand and end the nightmare. She came when I had realized the impossibility of my desire and had locked myself in again. She hasn’t changed anything, but also hasn’t infected the moment with homesickness. All is well and my head is full of Händel.

The dogs, formidable guardians of this domain, didn’t raise their voices when she came. Suddenly she stood inside with the light of the autumn afternoon surrounding her like a nimbus. I didn’t know what to say and stared speechless at an angel from heaven. It turns out she already knew my story and well, it isn’t that special. She left, like she had appeared, just as mysterious, and it seemed as though she’d been erased. I’ve already forgotten the colour of her eyes: was it amber or the underside of a fresh hazelnut? The image fades and in the movie gets replaced by the wave of a lisping weeping willow.

The mist makes the world small; but what I don’t see is not there. There is nothing and there shall be nothing; everything is now and it is here. For the absurd happiness of a meagre existence it suffices that it is. The lamp above the table marks a space that fits around us precisely, a circle in which everything that is elemental is collected and saved. This space I can fill with the remnants of my heroism. Two beings entrust themselves blindly and with joy to my poor protection. I owe my strength to the fact that they don’t know my weakness, a blessed misunderstanding and the greatest gift of children.

The twinges of misplaced resoluteness which have plagued my existence for years as a gout of willpower, ebb away in a world that is no longer there. I search in vain for words that are small enough for the ineffability of this situation. I wish I could hush about it with someone in the same language.

At their arrival, late in the afternoon at the agreed hour, the children looked at me inquisitively again, like puppies gauging their owner’s mood. What they understand of the situation is primarily that I look forward to their arrival for six days and don’t always succeed in hiding the feelings that are connected to it. Today their insecurity didn’t have to last long and we could start immediately with the familiar rituals of walking, eating and playing. They enjoyed themselves exuberantly, even with my primitive cooking, and feel completely at home in this little house. For them this is vacation and luxury. I’ve succeeded in keeping it that way and not to speak of what moves me. My story is not theirs; my job now is not to let them know who I am, but to share their blessed superficiality and to save my life.

I have two anchors that hold me in the harbour or two balls chained to my leg that prevent me from leaving, depending on how I want to look at it. Now they are the anchors that guard me from being blown away. Their weight keeps me on the surface. I’m still something thanks to the fact that they hold on to me. Their childlike trust gives substance to my existence. Never before have I understood what an anchor has to do with hope. Now it becomes clear to me that that hope needn’t be geared towards a distant future or another world, but that it also is a certainty about a moment that bears closest resemblance to captivity.

I’m sitting at the table and via a long detour of enforced maturity come back to myself. I think of what the angel said at my grave: “You can’t even be unhappy.” It sounded a bit like mocking, not a reproach connected to one of the many things I turn out not to be able to do, but more as the observation of a curious fact. I often have the feeling that I was cast from sheer melancholy, but I still, also in this recent situation, can’t really believe in my sadness, nor in my anger. With big emotions I always think of an opera. Even the most bitter thoughts at this moment are more something I can randomly think of or an arrow that I can shoot at others than a breach in the indestructibility of my own minimum.

Is there a hand that protects us here? I know it’s not mine, though I wish it were. I also can’t picture a divine hand and feel less religious than ever, unless religion suddenly became something else than it’s ever been. There would be room for a goddess, but she appears in too much light and disappears into the mist. I wouldn’t even want to know the address of whoever I’d potentially be grateful to for the mercy of this moment. That knowledge alone would puncture the bell jar and suck me away to a space in which I’d get lost or get alienated from the little beings with whom I share this space. There are no threads from this moment to another time or place, it cannot be traced back, held in place or repeated. If it could, I am not interested in it now. I hardly move, for I want to let sleeping dogs lie.

For a brief moment there is movement in the bump on the couch. I am ready to spring into action, but it is no more than a reassuring sign of life, a sigh that confirms presence. The smile on his face seems the greeting of a passing angel, a ripple over a still fen. For the first time in all this while, I don’t feel pity, but sooner something like jealousy, now that I look at him and try to surmise what stirs in him. Anyone that can doze that blissfully, I assure myself, does not feel betrayed and extradited to an incomprehensible arbitrariness. He rubs in his nest and has no idea yet of the dizziness that can wash over him when he starts to look over the edge. Now there is no edge, for all is round and closed; there is nothing outside the sphere of this small universe.

The silence is definitive and takes hold of me. The lisp of the weeping willow is no more than the sigh of a sleeping child and the graveyard is a spot of endless trust, kept awake by the living listening to the willows.

At the borders of my own silence stirs still the watchfulness of the nightly worrier who imagines himself the shepherd of the world, the only light in a massive night. The old and dear cliché blends with the dying music in my head. Everything that ever was is there now and I am the only one to witness it.

I catch myself whispering the word ‘pettifoggery’ and hoping that it exists. To me it means that the measly tossing and turning of the why of all these painful occurrences stops torturing me. The why is outside of the instant of pure presence. The tormenting question of the blame of this separation now has no relevance. The answers, as innumerable as random, can no longer hurt or please me. They no longer appeal to an urge for deeds that has given me so much disappointment already. Under this bell jar all I have to be is the motionless witness to my situation and do I no longer have to pretend to have manners reasonably in hand.

Can a moment of happiness be the balance between a shameful past and a worrisome future, a quiet between storms and therefore no more than a natural occurrence? The question is in front of my eyes as though printed, a somewhat impertinent title for a mandatory assignment, but it doesn’t interest me and brings nothing into motion. Any answer is fine by me, but even the most weighty one won’t impress me. I don’t want to know what happiness is and I’ve got nothing to do with it. For me it never has to be about anything more than what’s happening here now on this island in the mist.

I am slowly disappearing and shrivelling into the minimum that is necessary to still be witness and identify traces of happiness. The inflated me-soufflé with all its pretensions crumbles without a sound; but what remains is still big enough to contain no less than everything. For that, it turns out no more is required than a little spot of light that is saved from the mist. Never was what I did or presented good enough, but now, while I do nothing and shrink to a minimum, I am completely content with what I did and neglected to do.

It is a liberation to lose all that can be taken away and then to see what remains, how little that is, how essential and how sufficient. The more I’m thrown back to myself, the less I think about myself. Whatever now still stirs in me as worries is the almost solemn translation of superfluous problems into a very small certainty. I don’t have to make any more resolutions, nor transfer some exalted feeling into an expensive oath, for there is nothing anymore outside of this instant.

Something moves underneath the roof tiles, a mouse or a sparrow. The rustle moves to above the loft and draws a scratch over the bell jar. There has to be a leak somewhere through which guileless but awake life penetrates to take over my space. My space? I’m here by coincidence and nothing is mine.

Yesterday, to console myself, I bought a pocket knife, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Knives are one of my old passions, one I can’t understand or eradicate. As a child I’d often go searching randomly, hoping to find a knife; sometimes that worked. The little knife now lays open on the table, its aggressive pike mouth jauntily forward, ready to bite. I can still throw it with a flat hand into a tree trunk. I’ve often wondered, what pulls me so irresistibly to such a hostile thing. Now I seem to see, that it must be its perfection. Pocket knives are like cats. We wouldn’t find those as sweet either if they didn’t have, next to the soft fur, also such dangerous nails. The perfection of their organisation exists in that they combine what seems to exclude each other, and that they succeed in it in a guileless way and on a scale that is manageable.

What is not here now, is outside the reach of my will and my memory. What seemed unimaginable has happened, but also afterwards it remains so unimaginable, that I can not only not understand it, but I also can’t remember it. Never before have I had to listen to more wisdom about the human soul and its deep stirrings than in the last few weeks; but now they all seem like fabrications from another world that has nothing to do with reality. Now that my eyes have finally opened, it strikes me, how little can be seen.

Upstairs my little girl is dreaming. Has she heard the rustle? She turns around in her sleep and mumbles something incomprehensible. I’m under the impression that it sounds a bit worried and make myself even smaller so not to wake her. Even the onset of panic could disturb the precarious balance. The mumble moves onto a sigh and she starts comforted with the next section of her journey through the night. When she wakes, she’ll immediately know where she is and she’ll greet the day full of life. I will never know what stirred in her and neither will she.

‘Fragmentation’ is the word for that which I feared the most all that time. It is a loss of unity, style and loyalty, caving into the temptation of countless moments, a vague intent to someday come back instead of staying, eternal provisionality. Maybe it is exactly what I’m doing now, but then for the first time, and what almost makes me happy now. It is too much, Händel in the head, an apparition in front of the eyes, elegiacally staring into the mist, becoming nothing and still having the pretence to be everything for two children. Only the fact that it all happens at the same time gives it unity.

If there is anything I understand about anglers, it’s that they too at the water front have such moments of inner peace and total detachment. Usually those are discussed in terms of enjoyment and relaxation; but that might be no more than a way of translating into a language of what is allowed and can be strived for, well-earned rest, hobby or recreation. In that language they have a right to it, and they are active with it. They can incorporate the moment into a program, or have to say that they can. But the core of their relaxation and of almost all recreation to me seems the contemplation.

The sound of an airplane, barely audible in the compacted sky, reminds me that there still has to be a busy world out there. It is so vague and so far away, that I wonder if I’m not making this up too. Yesterday I dreamt that all people had been evacuated to another planet, but that I hadn’t been warned, because I wasn’t registered. This afternoon it looked for a little while like it was so. Now it may be so, for there is a dome that protects us. When the occupiers come, they will not wipe out this circle.

papa neeltje daan zw (1 of 1)

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Work

In honor of what would have been his 86th birthday, a translation of one of his ‘dear words’, touching on his own love of work.

Work

One of the most beautiful and interesting meanings in which the word ‘work’ is used, seems to have to do the least with the activity and toiling that usually comes to mind when we hear that word. In this case it’s more so used for an undergoing than for a doing. Wood, for example, has been said, in Dutch, to always keep ‘working’. I can still hear a wood specialist sneeringly add to it that it’s because wood is not a civil servant. In that expression ‘work’ does not represent the execution of a more or less productive activity, but rather the undergoing of outside influences. Wood working means it is not as unchangeable as a lifeless piece of stone, but that it reacts to for example drought or warmth in its environment by shrinking and moaning. This working is a putting to work of what occurs and the reality is that which can be put to work. With such a word all kinds of deep thoughts can present themselves about the essence of things. Just the mere fact that it is used for both the active influencing or bringing about effects, as for the passive undergoing of influences, is a compelling reason for that.

With both one and the other, the accomplishing and the undergoing, we usually appear to think of big efforts and moaning and therefore more of the process of toil and sweat than of work the result of which can fill the hard worker with exceptional pride and that can surprise him as an unexpected gift. Perhaps toiling invokes such sad associations because nothing in the process points unequivocally in the direction that the result of the work will be something to be proud of. You cannot indicate a necessary connection between the amount of effort and the quality of the result. I think that even the human desire to work, to toil and to abide, cannot be completely explained with the certainty that it will ever lead to something exceptional. Humans too are in their nature not civil servants. Getting acquainted with the obstinate reality in the form of putting it to work and undergoing it is no less dear to them than the glory of the result. Their hands’ work is also dear to them by the efforts they have put into it, or by the fact that, despite all insecurities, it has succeeded. This is where a comparison between sport and work becomes obvious.

Where work, as opposed to sport, is exclusively seen as a groaning expended effort, it also becomes obvious that the work sooner or later ends up in the rather uninspiring social context of coercion and slavery. There it loosens from the stimulating chance of succeeding, ahead of time others are already counting on the results and the word starts to mean something like: painful servitude to another who will pluck the fruits of your labor, who himself will not have to work to the sweat of his brow, or: belonging to the labouring class that would rather not work, for they are not working for themselves. For also the history of labour and the words for it are full of sweat and moaning in favour of another who is the boss and employer. The phrases that go with it are if possible even more ruthless than the harsh reality itself. In them, labour is a curse or a fate granted only to mankind. Work is not desire, but duty. And whoever is allowed to quit working or gets a holiday, returns according to a new version of an old myth, back to a paradisiacal state.

Cornelis Verhoeven

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The devils’ question chapter III: rebellion

Such an unmasking of the taboo of the question, with in itself enough probability to be inspiring for some time, can lead to a persisting of the question and an entering of a road that might be called ‘independent investigation’, which is deemed to lead to a more solid form of maturity than the one that is prospected by following tradition. Instead of a direct growth, there now is a process in which a crisis, a negative phase or a detour is included.

In this investigation the world loses its obviousness for the time being. The devil’s question works like a crowbar. It does that merely by being a question, opposite to an affirmation. It pushes aside the ever-ready ‘because’ and strikes a breach in the massive world. The continuity with tradition, ancestry and community is put on the line. That is a great risk, but it is better that the world perishes than that it continues to exist unexplained. The question is an adventure of which no one knows how it will end. For no outside force can determine the course of one who critically investigates and breaks through the taboo of the question. And even uncertainty and goose chases at ones own risk are preferable above the most safe dependence on authority and tradition.

The ‘I’, bedded in traditions into a tight community and a continuation of generations, comes loose of that pinching connection. It gets more worth and responsibility. If you carry through the why question, you affirm yourself against the tradition and the community. You voluntarily risk isolating yourself in exchange for the chance of becoming more mature and realising more human possibilities in your own existence than your ancestry. Attached to the question why there is the fame and the symbolism of lonely heroism, adventure and rebellion. And it remains stuck to it even when the hero of this story has long since started an existence of civil service, because the revolution has succeeded and has become a bureaucracy.

Rarely has hero-worship been put to words more eloquent and rhetorical than by the young Karl Marx, who in his preface to his dissertation on the natural philosophy of Epicures says that philosophy mirrors itself to the rebellion of Prometheus, who brought fire from the heavens to earth, and resists all gods in heaven and on earth who do not acknowledge human consciousness as the highest deity, next to which no other god should be tolerated. ‘Prometheus is the most important saint and martyr on the philosophical calendar.’ No wonder Marx too ended up on that calendar.

Cornelis Verhoeven

 

* Translator’s note: on the 19th of october 1956 Cornelis Verhoeven defended his thesis ‘Symbolism of the foot’ successfully, obtaining his doctorate. He celebrated this day every year in a small way. This translation is a continuation of that, but the subject matter and language of the thesis are a bit above the abilities of the translator/son, that’s why this essay, a personal favorite, was picked.

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What is the devil’s question?

devil's question

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Shadow

It’s not entirely clear why the word ‘shadow’ has called into life so much sombre symbolism. Even the denomination ‘sombre’ alone is an example of that. For ‘sombre’ is ‘subambratus’, ‘where it is cast over by shadow’. But we only have to give the word a little proverbial tap and it is ‘shade’. Then it suddenly becomes all idyllic romance in the shade of a gazebo and the word takes back its meaning it once had attached to it in sunny countries: coolness and protection from merciless sunlight and scorching heat, and besides ‘the shadow of death’ we can also think of texts like ‘protect us under the shadow of your wings’. Because both one and the other meaning come from southern countries, I don’t think it’s correct to view the sombre symbolism of the shadow simply as a result of its export to northern regions. It has to be the case that the symbolism itself too, like all things, has its ‘shadow side’ and that precisely that one has become an object of reflection. And that is then not about the cool shade, but about the shadow as an image and a derived phenomenon.

Perhaps platonism, as a certain explanation or as a taking Plato’s philosophical metaphor literally, has contributed dubiously to this. In that the shadow has been detached from the things that caused it. For, according to the sombre language of summaries and overviews, the things down here on earth are but weak and perishable shadows of the real things, like they are in the heaven of ideas, eternal and immutable. In this language, in which no one would recognize Plato, the shadow is indeed an image of the thing, a silhouette, and not the thing itself. And if we were only to see the shadows of things, provided this were possible, we wouldn’t see the things themselves in the full light. But what this gloomy language leaves unsaid, is the unmistakable fact that the thing itself cannot be far removed from the shadow that it causes by its own existence. It is bound to it like a doppelganger. It therefore also doesn’t get a second’s worth of opportunity to divert to an other and higher world. The mistake that this platonistic use of language has brought into this world, seems to be that it has separated siamese twins and granted the shadow its own, separate existence in another world. A genius author like Plato would not come up with something like this. All it is is late parrots piffling. In Plato the shadow points towards the immediate proximity of the things themselves in their substance.

In antique symbolism the shadow is also the wraith of the deceased, the mirror image, the doppelganger or the silhouette that is supposed to remain when someone dies and that lives on in a subterranean realm of the shadows. The shadow, that which we see of ourselves, has become a derived and secondary ‘me’, a soul outside of us that we can’t think away because we can’t abolish our own existence and our identity. From the moment of that separation it can be localized in any random place in our imagination, above in the light or below in the dark , and it can also wander around restlessly on earth, like a fluttering butterfly, another symbol of the soul that has become detached from the body or a shadow that has been granted its own and unsatisfactory existence.

shadow

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Spirit

The words that are most dear to us are often the most difficult to elucidate. With that also comes some hesitation when asked to do so or voluntarily offering. This might be a matter of sentiment, a resistance against every analysis of dear emotions. It can also be a consequence of a historical awareness of the complicated knots in which such a word has been tangled and from which whole clusters of meanings have sprouted forwards. With the word ‘spirit’ those metaphorical clusters can be unraveled in a great number of associations, all of which are interesting and hard to understand. I think I can distinguish two groups, one that has to do with the spirit that is in us, which makes us spiritual and spirited, and one that is about the spirit outside of us and there for example blows where it will. I further think that in a language like ancient Greek there were separate words for this too, one that can be translated as ‘awareness’ and that is derived from ‘exhaling’ and ‘blowing’. ‘Spirit’ is a translation of both and that’s one of the reasons why its meaning has become so complicated.

In the first cluster ‘spirit’ refers to an ability within us, a principle of life that makes us live and be aware of that. There is a certain preference for an upward movement in the development of this word. Spirit is not only higher than dust and from that level opposite to it, but also within the inner self there seems to arise an opposition between ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ in which spirit is granted a higher place, more chance of eternity and a greater intellectual weight. But no matter how high it rises, ‘spirit’ in this meaning is within us as a property. About what I have in that area I can speak of as ‘my’ spirit and I can try to use that as an instrument in my attempts to formulate what stirs my spirit with this word. I can then only hope that it stirs the same in other spirits, for what only stirs my spirit is a precarious property. If my spirit and my awareness aren’t windows that provide a view to a shared inhabited word, then they only represent my particular insanity.

In the second cluster, which is even more dear to me, ‘spirit’ doesn’t refer to an ability or something that is within me, unless I settled for the lower part of it, as it were. In the Greek ‘pneuma’ and the Latin ‘spiritus’ that is ‘breath’, something warm and dear that we have within us and every once in a while can communicate with others. But on the upper side of its meaning, where it is its most beautiful, its most divine and its most enigmatic, the spirit withdraws itself totally from our possession, our disposal and our temperature. There, it isn’t ‘my’ spirit, but ‘the’ spirit, the wind, that blows where it wants -in any case not where we want it to. It might be opposite to the letter that kills, but it is just as much an unexpected gust of storm that can swipe away letters and literalness. That spirit we don’t posses, but we say of it that it can come over us as a force we don’t know and of which we are not the proud owners. Precisely at the moment when ‘spirit’ evades our grip and sooner relates to our inabilities than to what we might be able to do, exactly there where our activity becomes an awaiting stance and a passivity, the word reaches its zenith in the development of its meaning.

 spirit

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Soul

‘Soul’ is, in my eyes, the most dear, most helpless, most ambiguous, most misused and most ridiculed word in our language. When someone acknowledges the existence of the separate soul, next to and above the body, they’ll probably be met with some skepticism. For we can’t see the soul and what we can’t see, we’re better of doubting or denying, according to a popular way of thinking, even if this denial would only contribute to the bareness of our existence. Then the soul quickly becomes, as a product of systematic and constructive thinking, one of the superfluous hypotheses. But when we call a diligent and enthusiastic person the ‘soul’ of a company, we can count on some understanding. For then we don’t use the word with the crushing literal-mindedness that always instigates some skepticism in thinkers. For they are most critical about anything they suspect they could have come up with themselves and they seem to prefer living with a barren truth than with an illusion. But we can only dream up such a choice.

So in order to be taken seriously ourselves we have to, remarkably, not take the word ‘soul’ too seriously or literally and therefore also distance ourselves a little from the word’s weight and gravity. It means that we in our use of the word already take into account the skepticism that it might incur. So what can this intellectual offer mean, when we don’t regard it as a simple concession to the triumphantly ruling, but on closer inspection arid banality, that without any reflection seems to come to the same findings? Perhaps ‘soul’ is in its literalness too big a word to simply reduce it to worn out coins of change in conversation. But it doesn’t seem too absurd to me to think, that the word precisely in its literalness, as an indication of the core of a person, as a principle of life or even as an immortal element, doesn’t do justice to what we mean when we for example talk about the ‘soul’ of a company or a beloved one, that the word therefore is always an image. It indeed seems too big for literalness, for its meaning always goes royally above and beyond that.

Does this mean, that ‘soul doesn’t denote reality? Thinking in terms of a living core and a separately existing substance, it to me seems fairly dubious. But when we think with the word about the unique character and inconvertibility of every individual person and especially of the fact, that a living being is not just a convertible part of a whole, an item on a long list, but something that exists outside of our thoughts and is a living, unthinkable reality, the case changes and then the emphasis isn’t on the word as a product of thought and order, but on something that evades that, on an element of inconceivability in an existence of which we in the end are merely surprised witnesses. That is pre-eminently what we call existence. There is therefore a lot to say for the thesis that the skepticism surrounding the word ‘soul’ is not based on realism or a desire for reality, however it may turn out to be, but on the contrary on the will to manipulate it and to deny the existence of everything that resists that, first and foremost the soul.

Cornelis Verhoeven

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