principium non-identitatis

Excerpt from ‘Surrounding the void’

When I concentrate on A, and therefore make A into a centre, I discover B; when I concentrate on B, I then discover C. The centre moves in a continuous adultery of thought. Thought turns from concentration to movement without end.

Thought is the mobility of that concentration. In as far as thought has to do with truth, the truth is never separately available in the sense that it can be met in some steady centre somewhere: it is situated in the mobility of thought itself. And this in turn starts with the denial of a centre. The motion of thought itself, the road surrounding the things, is thought. Method here is a question of choice in a multitude of prepositions. Thought is a movement around or from a random, perhaps illusionary centre, in which the concern is the movement itself. The centre is the mythical feeding ground of thought, to which it owes its tension. It indeed concerns the being or not being of the things, for what is, is a centre and what isn’t a centre, is not. Thought rushes from one midpoint to the next, it is a circular movement with a skipping midpoint, in which every previous midpoint is mythical with regards to the next. The frontier of thought is that the things completely evaporate into space. Thinking about, surrounding them takes away the identity of the things. One is being sacrificed for the other, being equated with it. Thought starts as an explosion of an identity that has suddenly been percolated as banal. An intense presence evaporates. Thought presupposes non-identity. As long as identity is valid, love and speechless contemplation, care and dedication can play their part, but thought can not get going. The first principle of thought therefore is not the principium identitatis (A=A), but the principium non-identitaties (A≠A). ‘The poverty of thought is the identity principle: A is A.’ (Leopold Flam, Thought and Existence, p. 144) The principium identitatis is an invitation to stop thinking, to jubilantly and while watering the flowers say that what is, is, and to be happy with this indeed grandiose discovery, but it is not an engine of thought. Only when I assume that whatever the things might be, they are not identical, then I can think. Whatever A may be, it is not A; when A=A, the world shrivels down to an eroticism-free, drift-free, amorphous mass of banalities. It is only when we pass through the negation that we can be speechless contemplators of the great Presence, for which we live. God can only exist for those who have absolutely no vested interest in him. Love kills and conquers death.

george bubble ring edit 2-7306

Editor’s note: 58 years ago today Cornelis Verhoeven obtained his doctorate from the University of Nijmegen for his thesis ‘Symbolism of the foot’. He’d celebrate this day every year; this translation is a continuation of that tradition.

Leave a comment

Filed under essay

an eye in the mist

It was an autumn evening to get real melancholy about, which is what happened to me. I was alone in a house too big for me alone and the empty spaces were filling up with flimsy spectres. Outside the mist had taken on the density of the buttermilk porridge that gave me shivers as a child: sour with little spiders of barley that would crawl down the soft palate and nestle into what is the most private. Even the curious reptile that is the tongue was scared off by these intruders.

That’s approximately what I was thinking, standing in the place where the cows used to stare into space. ‘Dreamy’, we call that, but that is far too poetic. There is little to dream about for cows. The columns, which remained upright during the remodelling of the farm and were spared as monuments, still carried the traces of a bored scratching that had only rubbed the uniformity deeper into the skin.

I fell back into my old habit of looking at cows in the front, into their eyes, ridiculous and urban, for the rear is where it is at. That is where the experts say a cow’s life unfolds. Perhaps, I thought, farmers avoid looking cows in the eyes because it would make them melancholy too, staring so vacantly at a life that takes place entirely outside of them. The cows also don’t ask for being looked in the eye and invoking compassion; they ask for nothing and look at nobody. You never know what they see, let alone how they see you and what interests them in you. Dogs leave little misunderstanding about that and even cats have their ways to establish a reciprocity. The floaty eyes of cows are merely there as the mirrors of a resigned soul, an outward bulging melancholy. There is no form of curiosity behind them, no enterprising spirit and no plea. They are not leering at a chance and want nothing from the world. All they do is being there and without surprise see that there would still be all manners of things to see, if they wanted to look. With calves you sometimes see a trace of wantonness and interest. They still seem to practise something they’ll never be able to do. Cows already know this and it makes them disheartened.

I was standing there for a while and wasn’t specifically thinking of something. A cow’s eye in the mist has little to digest. It ruminates pictures with which nothing can be done and that are therefore also not images of something. In the mist everything shrinks to a wraith in vague fumes. In this misty realisation of empty presence I opened the outside door to smell the autumn. The nose can sometimes bring a bit of life to the eyes. The soggy scent of fallen leaves could only amplify the mistiness of the realisation. It seemed especially made up for it. It is the scent of stillness and definite completion, ripeness without fruit.

Life came from the other side and unexpectedly. From underneath the leaves a brown rat, misguided by the light and warmth, shot inside. There, she immediately started to find a way out, when she smelled a cat. The cat saw her and panicked too. For a moment she apparently contemplated a ruthless hunt, but she changed her mind and sufficed by arching her back. To my surprise I was quite happy with a bit of life in my house and started, because there was no one there to make fun of me anyway, to talk to the intruder encouragingly. That seemed to help, for the animal slowed its senseless speed down and didn’t flee into the columns. It walked a couple of rounds through the hallway and went back outside almost with dignity.

I was in front of the door again. Nothing had happened. The eye had gone along into the mist to bare witness that there was still nothing to see. It had only aroused the appearance of a small occurrence that meant nothing. I could have imagined that I was looking at cows or that a rat had come to visit. What happens in the mist, is erased immediately, dissolved in wisps: it has not been there. There is nothing to say about it.

cow in mist

Leave a comment

Filed under essay

Without a sigh

Night

At midnight, just as we have gone to bed, there is a phone call. The end seems to be near now. After a quick trip through the night we find him still in death throes. It can take hours more. Gradually the others go home, only we remain. The unrest passes into an unrestful sleep, panting and difficult, punctuated now and again by imminent silences. Each time we think it is the end and we bend over him, but then from the inside the respiration is propelled again and the panting surges.

At six thirty, just after the bells have rung for the first mass on sunday March 5th, the quick rhythm falters, but now in a very different way than we have become accustomed to in the last few hours. Back then you could hear it going into depths where it would take a turn, as it were, to come back moments later. Now it terminates like a stalling engine; there is no more echo in nearby life and no promise of a new beginning. We have no experience in these matters, but we don’t have to say a word to both know that this is the end. Without a sigh he stops living. His sighs have always marked the transition to another phase in his existence or the rhythm of the day. Now there is nothing left to sigh. He moves his mouth once, seems to want to swallow, and then lies motionless, his eyes almost all the way closed, his mouth open.

Because i’ve read about it often and because I now too feel the need for a final ritual, more than because it is necessary, I close his eyes. As I press his limp chin upwards, another superfluous gesture, my eyes soak in the last images of his stiffening face for minutes. To my surprise I feel no need to still talk to him or call him to order. I just want to keep looking at him till he’s disappeared at the horizon. Then I press the button next to the bed to warn the nurse. From now on we give him out of our hands and within 5 minutes a living father is a dead and stiff thing.

Not a trace of the famous smile in which the finally found peace would be expressed or even a vision of the happy afterlife. He just looks dead, removed from us at an infinite distance, mute and unreachable. He is even too far to be mysterious. He leaves not a single sign. It is impossible for me to guess what he thought or saw before him in that last moment. All week i’ve been trying to get contact with him about such things, but it has yielded nothing. Probably dying is very prosaic and the absence of every thought and vision belongs with it. There is no contact because there is nothing to report. Could the mystery of death, like so many other mysteries, consist of this, that there is nothing behind it, not just no other life, but also no wisdom, no resignation? Mystery could be the product of our resistance against the banality of life and death.

We drive back home on one of the most beautiful spring mornings I have seen in years. It is quiet on the road and we don’t say much. We’re not bothered by sleep. I almost have a feeling like I did on a day in April when I came back from the seminary, a farewell combined with a mission.Up till now i’ve often had the idea, against my better knowledge, that father also lived a bit for me, or that my life wasn’t definitively my own. It wasn’t completely in my name. It didn’t take place in the front lines and there was still a generation between us and the grave seriousness, a buffer zone. On the way home, with the dead face of my father printed deeply into my eye sockets, for the first time I feel owner of my life, but also heir. What constitutes it has been largely determined by him.

blijven

Leave a comment

Filed under essay

March 4, afternoon

The priest, diligently busying about to offer spiritual assistance, comes to pray the prayers for the dying. We all join in bravely, in the hope father will notice and will believe that his children will remain on the path of righteousness. I hold his chilly hand and breathe on it. I’ve just had a few drinks at a reception and am getting very emotional. For hours I have watched him the last few days and studied every movement. And now I still don’t know if there is anything I understand about him. Because I see his lips move -which indicates a conscious presence with the situation- I try another exam after the prayer. ‘Are you tired?’ He nods yes. ‘Would you like to die?’ No reaction. ‘Shall we come with you a bit?’ Yes. ‘Is it far?’ Yes. ‘You’re over halfway there by now.’ Nods vehemently yes. ‘Will you see our mother?’ Sigh. ‘Is all well?’ Yes. ‘You’ve been a good father.’ He shakes his head and seems sad. ‘We’ll always stay with you.’ He nods and sighs. Then he closes his eyes. It is enough for today. I squeeze his wrinkled, skinny hand, of which the skin keeps getting looser. The folds that I make in them remain, like in leather. When he opens his eyes again, he seems to stare of into a distance where nobody can follow him. I don’t know whether he sees anything at all; I really believe he doesn’t.

Leave a comment

Filed under essay

March 3, afternoon

‘There is a lot of aggression around the dying’, I read yesterday in an article. I believe that this is true and I notice that it also applies to our situation. We’re beginning to resent father’s weakness. We’re on the verge of thinking it is affection when he recognises others but not us, when he is confused and doesn’t behave like we expect him to. But the aggression goes much further and I hesitate to acknowledge this. Weakness cannot last too long; people have to be strong or disappear. It becomes more and more hard to put up with our powerlessness. The situation seduces us to impatience. Tired out by the wake we keep on wishing out loud, that it won’t be much longer. Maybe there is more aggression in that wish than we dare to admit to ourselves. I still don’t know if it is that good for father to die. Dying is never good. Nobody seems to know exactly what happened to him and how far recuperation is possible. But the thought that he would survive treatment and would remain a wreck -and therefore a burden- scares me, not just out of pity for him, but also for myself. I’m getting a deep distrust against the noble talk about euthanasia, because I suspect that there is a lot of aggression behind it that is being kept quiet. People become aggressive when they think they have to do something while in effect they experience that they are powerless. Sometimes they want to kill because this is for them the only way to keep believing in their activism.

Father does not want to eat and only seldom drinks. Again i’m under the impression that he has decided to die. The doctor says we shouldn’t do anything against that. None of us also feels anything for artificially prolonging this life through IV’s etc. Here, amongst his children, in his own room and his own bed, father apparently wants to die. We will look on powerlessly, without the pretension to be able to do anything for him or have control over whatever, including our dubious wishes.

I have to laugh a bit when the rector comes by again and very solemnly asks if he could ‘speak in private for a while’ with father. Very surprised, I retreat and try to eavesdrop from behind the door how this expert will succeed in getting him to talk or even confess. I suspect that he wants to bless away the last remaining bits of sinfulness from him. Out of sheer excitement I hear nothing of what he says. When he comes outside again within a minute and admits that he too cannot make contact with him, I feel a great relief. When father doesn’t talk with us, he may talk to no one.

It strikes me that many people that ask about his situation, talk about him in the past tense. They ask for example ‘how old was he?’ I’ve noticed this before. This peculiar use could potentially be explained this way, that the past tense doesn’t refer to the past, but it is a careful and soothing indication of the present. In the way some people say ‘I thought’ when they want to discretely indicate what they are thinking that moment. They are prepared to, as it were, take back their thought. ‘How old was he?’ can mean: how old was he again, I did know, but I can’t think of it this moment. The same way they often asked in stores: what was your name, what was your size?

For me, I have the tendency to explain it differently and connect it to the aggression surrounding the dying. By using the past tense the dying is written off even before his death, deleted from the attendance list and removed from the area of attention. When someone asks me ‘how old was he?’, I understand that this person doesn’t count him amongst the living anymore; and it feels like a little murder when people get ahead of the facts like that.

Leave a comment

Filed under essay

March 2, afternoon

There is little change in the situation. It’s just that father keeps getting thinner. His words become more confused and the hope of a meaningful ‘last word’ is getting to be a bit childish. The reality of dying is different than what I thought. I had imagined a fairly romantic scene in which the dying, held up by pillows, addresses his children for the last time. Probably that never happens and is one of the many lies surrounding the elementary things in life. Father never addressed us, so how would he be able to at such a moment?

Everyone, it is said, has his own way of living and of dying, but I fail to see a connection between this life and this deathbed. Maybe just the silence. Father has told us little about his inner life, for example how he dealt with the death of our mother, thirty six years ago, or if he felt lonely, thought about getting remarried etc. I would also like to know, how he managed in those years of crisis, without the help of an insurance agency, to pay for the costs of a couple of years of care in a sanatorium. In mother’s old letters, which i’ve sneakily taken out of the safe and read in the past, she mentioned now and again that it all cost so much, that he had so many worries and missed so much care himself, but that happened, if I remember correctly, very sporadically. He never complained about it himself and only very rarely expressed himself about the loneliness after her death. Clear answers he has always dodged with proverbs and generalizations, no matter how big and concrete our curiosities and questions were. Answers that weren’t valid for everyone at any time and therefore weren’t suitable for endless repetition, didn’t seem to satisfy him. Usually he’d quote an old saying, that with some good intentions could be interpreted in the direction of the situation. The special case, even if it was himself, seemed to be outside of his attention. I sometimes doubt whether his emotions, conditioned so differently and especially more restrained, can be compared with ours. In any he had a greater acquiescence, and maybe he felt less at the time than we think now and precisely because of his acquiescence a lot of things passed him by. But that is hard to believe with such a sensitive man. I sometimes think too that he didn’t talk with us about all that misery because we were still little children when it all happened, and that where it concerns those occurrences, we remained little children in his eyes. With outsiders he was always more talkative than with us. From my side, I too never told him that in all those years of going to church, I passed the time judging women on their qualities as a potential second mother.

My respect for him grows despite all doubts and complaints to a mythical size. By going outside of all reasonable proportions, I seem to want to make up for all the ways I felt him short. I think I haven’t been a good son and have hurt him a lot. I can’t take that back and there’s hardly sense in trying, for example by becoming extremely religious. Still I think that I am at this deathbed beginning to swerve right, at least inasmuch that I feel a fiery hate towards the propagandists of a revolt against fathers and for a fatherless society. Even a bad son can’t abnegate his father and ignore his heritage without maiming himself deadly.

People still moan about the crisis years and they always depict it as though the crisis only struck the workers. The small tradesman that lies dying here was hit much harder and who knows how many others like him. I remember from that time that we would occasionally have a can of ‘crisismeat’ at home, the same meat that the sons of workers of my age still complain about now. Compared to the rancid bacon that was our daily food, this meat seemed to us a treat for rich folk. But father was a bit embarrassed by it.

He did not, like some other farmers, profit from the war to become rich. He came out of it poorer than he went in it, at least I suspect as much, for he wouldn’t mention it much. That one time he dared to do something, selling some gold coins from an inheritance he had to split up, he got caught. Furthermore he was a little too scared to undertake much. The radio was turned in diligently and even a pistol which was at least 100 years old was not allowed to stay in the house. But that fear wasn’t enough reason to give away as much as he did. After the war he was involved with the currency reform and found out pretty precisely who had enriched themselves. He never wasted another word on the subject; still we noticed that certain farmers he founded harder to respect.

Even though he was often involved with monetary matters, I don’t believe that he was really knowledgable with them. His discussions on the rates of interest and such things impressed me as a child, but far more than the business side of the money it were the moral aspects that stayed with me. Those had only to do with his money, the money I cost him. The small allowance that he gave me so I could study, barely a hundred guilders a month, but i’d have to let him know if I needed more, always made me emotional and brought about a sense of debt that had nothing to do with finances. If he had been a bit more businesslike, i’d probably not have had that feeling. But when communication is a tad deficient, the few things that are fairly clear in and off themselves, and which are calculable, like money, become burdened with an unbearable heavy symbolism. Every penny was a sigh from father, part of my great debt.

Leave a comment

Filed under essay

February 29, night

He is calmly asleep and we are reading a book. In as far as we had hoped for recuperation, we have abandoned that hope by now. He refuses to eat and only rarely wants to drink. It is apparent he wants nothing more than to die. But we don’t know what is going on inside of him. We interrogate him sternly in search for words that can give us any meaning. But he is confused and tired, far away from us.

When we lift him into his chair, he stares vacantly and bewildered into space, with an open mouth and dangling head. He is a shade, a rest of the father we had. But that is precisely why, because it is the last opportunity, that I still want to ask him a lot of questions. Today he recognised and named people that he hasn’t seen in years. He responds more to certain voices than to ours, especially those of old acquaintances and authority figures. I don’t know what that is. We exchange suppositions about it that according to our mood imply accusations towards or excuses for him. Perhaps in his condition older memories come up quicker and we fall outside of his horizon. It is also possible that our presence and our names are too self-evident and because of that are left out. Then it would be our mistake to want to examine him. But it appears as though an emphatic and authoritative voice appeals to his politeness or his obedience. With the doctor he almost talked normally. ‘I’m a bit lazy,’ he said and I have to assume that within this statement lies some reflection about his state. When Janine, after a somewhat sternly formulated request from her side, gives him something to drink, he take more than usual and says ‘dank ouw’ (thank thou). That is a very old-fashioned and rather emphetical form of ‘dank oe’. He is living in a different time, we’re not there yet.

I’m writing a letter to Sjaak in America to report to him. When I ask father if I should send his regards, he clearly says ‘yes’. ‘Should I say anything else?’ ‘Not much.’ Does he mean that he’s ‘not much’ anymore or does he only want to convey that, where he is concerned, everything has already been said? I’m beginning to suspect that he means much less than we are inclined to think and than what we have a need of. Words that cannot be illustrated and explained also have nothing to mean. We can mull it over and think about it endlessly, but in communication with the one speaking them they have no function anymore.

Leave a comment

Filed under essay