Without a sigh -last part

March 6

There could be a beautiful, integrant and almost happy sorrow about a life gone, if we didn’t have to become so active. There are so many things to take care of and so many things to be thought of. People are never busier than when they’d do nothing rather than staring ahead. Especially surrounding death and funerals there is a frantic urge to organise and moreover a strangling etiquette. Hundreds of regulations determine every step we take and the more fearful we are, the more we get trapped in the fyke of funerary commerce. For every degree of ‘piety’ there are adjusted rates.

Then there are the expressions of sympathies that consist mostly of speaking in cliches. ‘How old was he?’ ‘Eighty five.’ ‘Well, then you can’t complain. I’d sign up for that.’ ‘Yes, yes, you can say that.’ ‘But it’s not in our hands.’ And then they tell you to ‘stay strong’, which you really only need to stay nice amidst all those well wishes.

There are endless considerations about what has to be, should be, is done frequently, would be greatly appreciated etc. What I would love to do most is to take father with me and bury him in the orchard. There is a beautiful, melancholy spot there that i’ve long considered as a graveyard. The hedge makes a turn there and the grass seems tender. The ground underneath it would have mercy on him.

In the evening there was a stations of the cross and a rosary in the chapel of the old age home. Visiting this ceremony is a part of the innumerable obligations. My hands were sweaty when it was done. Fortunately one of the little ones yelled ‘it stinks’ out loud when one of the attendees wasn’t able to suppress a fart. I think father would have laughed too, for in the field of farts he had a finely tuned sense of humour, almost as imperative as his piety. When we used to sit behind him on the bicycle, he’d sometimes fart loudly and yell ‘catch ‘m’.

The stations of the cross were just like when I was young, an incomprehensible mixture of mysticism, sadism and moralising. In between there were as good and as bad as they could songs of an old Dutch version of the Stabat Mater, sung with sheer, senile voices. It didn’t surprise me at all that none of us participated and I felt most connected to the kids that took every opportunity to giggle or to imprint comical details so they could repeat them at home.

Father is now in an open bier. I scare more from the fringes and tassels that decorate the coffin than from his hollowed face and his blue nails. I never understood what this fuss was all about. Apparently it is a commercial expression of great affection or something. Now that nothing can be achieved anymore, you suddenly have to spare ‘no expense’, even at the cost of your own taste, for someone who is no longer there and thought it all nonsense when he was there.

The residents of the old age home condole us, beautifully, without small talk and sincere. Only old fold should really be allowed to use cliches. Some of them have tears in their eyes. Someone said: ‘We lose a lot with him.’ I belief his housemates were very fond of him, even though he was a bit withdrawn. He’s had a few happy years here.

I don’t think he would have had as much freedom and rest in the houses of any of us. We were never very good at hiding the smaller and larger annoyances he caused: his proverbs and sayings, the drumming of his fingers on the armrest of his chair, his coughing fits, the matt, submissive tone of his rosary and the way he ate or really not that, but the introverted smile with which he held each bite in front of his mouth for a moment and looked at it or really not that either, but the total absorption with which he stared ahead or really not that either etcetera. Those are the things that we now, when we are amongst each other, are starting to talk about, not without regret and shame, but still with the certainty that we never could have done it differently, that it didn’t change a thing in the situation and that the next generation will have the same tricks. It’s like a competition in which we surpass each other in making risible confessions and reminiscing painful moments.

March 7

When I’m looking at him, as he lies there endlessly absent in his coffin, i’m having difficulty imagining that this is meant to be taken seriously. We’ve known him for so long as a presence that a definitive farewell is unthinkable. That’s why I have this crazy thought that he’s sleeping and not really dead. Fathers remain alive forever; they are immortal because they are inevitable and determine our whole life. Only others die; they die because we don’t care about them.

Sometimes I feel the ridiculous urge, like I used to do sometimes in a lonely spot, to try out all my magical abilities, my dormant forces, with a resolutely spoken command. Then suddenly the great wonder would occur. Jesus could do that so beautifully and he managed to pull it off every time too. I would like to take his dead hand: ‘Jan Verhoeven, I tell you; rise’ and then bring him back to the surprised family. It is my old priesthood dream. Perhaps the rector had something similar in mind when he wanted ‘to speak with him alone’. But he couldn’t even make a living person talk. Such is all of life full of a shameful primitivity that we can’t always hide. We make them into solemn rituals, so they seem official and acknowledged.

March 8

The condolences and the funeral, which we had dreaded quite a bit, went by without difficulties. Someone said by accident or out of ignorance ‘congratulations’ and we were very curious if he’d persevere in that eleven times. He did so indeed and we all managed to keep looking serious. The church was full, the service was well taken care of and not as lugubrious as it used to be. The pastor that sang the preface, although in Dutch, is a former classmate. Tea afterwards, where we had about a hundred family members and acquaintances, was even very convivial. The sun was shining as cheerfully as on the Sunday morning he died. The kids ran to and fro from the cafe to the grave to check if it had filled up completely yet. We had a few drinks and agreed to see each other more often. But probably that won’t happen until another member of the family is buried.


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In Honour of what would have been his 87th birthday, a translation of one of hist most dear words and concepts.


About the provenance of the word ‘wonder’ only vague suspicions are uttered, according to dictionaries. I won’t list them, even if it is to prevent me from getting seduced into attaching consequences as to what the ‘real’ meaning of the word should be. That isn’t necessarily connected to its provenance. But it doesn’t escape me that the same thing happens with the word as with the matter that it relates to. For with what we call ‘wonder’, too, the provenance and the explanation withdraw from our eyes and we don’t succeed in including them into a series of causes and effects. Even more: those are completely irrelevant. Wonder breaks away from any framework. All attention falls on the pure fact that it is there and that it is like it is. Any explanation that would turn it into, remarkably, something usual and self-evident by being reducible to something else, is superfluous and fairly unwelcome when it concerns something we call a wonder. We don’t want it to be recalled into the ranks of mediocrity, in which it would disappear.

‘To wonder’, making something into wonder, is the name we give this attitude or this occurrence. Sometimes we also used the word ‘amazement’ and that too appears to express a certain speechlessness, an inability or unwillingness to declare something as usual. Wonder starts in any case with a delay of every explanation and that delay is its territory. On that territory we are purely contemplative and we remain that for a while that can’t be determined by us. Not only is every explanation suspended, but also every form of interfering. The wonder that we witness is stronger than us and our plans. It quiets us, not just in the sense of being ‘speechless’, but also in the meaning of ‘motionless’. In wonder we lose our grip on the world. And the wondrous thing there is that the moment of forced contemplation, in which the world gets a grip on us, we experience more as an enrichment and a relaxation than as a paralysing poverty. It is difficult to get used to that, for also getting used to things makes them ordinary, maybe to a higher degree than an explanation that reveals the cause.

Wonder is often explained out of a sort of habit as a a question and the word is understood, as is customary in English, as ‘to question wonderingly’. That seems a bad habit to me, for in wonder the question too falls silent. It is an undetermined delay of the question and it doesn’t originate as a question. Between speechless wonder and the question an attempt quickly shuffles in, mostly with impatient and not very contemplative people who can’t stand an ’empty moment’, to for the time being just find some connection to all that we are used to or that has already been explained. That reaction looks like the panic that breaks out as soon as there is an accident. Nobody knows what he needs to do, but everyone is convinced that something needs to be done.The question to the how and the why is an extension f our tendency to include the new as quickly as possible into the frame of what is already familiar. It assumes that there will be an answer in a short term and that wonder will give way again to the safe certainty that gives us grip on the world instead of handing us over to it.

george lotus-8634

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Symbolism of the veil

“The veil places itself between two worlds, the observable world and the transcendental world. To veil oneself is to place oneself behind the veil, in the world covered by the veil, therefore in the world of the imperceptible, from which revelations come to us.”

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Photo by Daan Verhoeven, model Brittany Trubridge.

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Death always has a cause; nobody dies of their mortality.


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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.

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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.

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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

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Without a sigh


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.


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