Don’t forget the whip

Notes on a statement by Nietzsche.


Probably the most quoted words from Nietzsche’s work go like this: “Are you going to the women? Don’t forget the whip!” “Du gehst zu Frauen? Vergiß die Peitsche nicht!” Those words, behind which the exclamation point alone already worked like a little whip, seem to suit the mouth of a woman-hater like Arthur Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche admired for a long time and one of the last philosophers to have claimed that it is woman’s natural destiny to be obedient. When she isn’t so voluntarily, she must be tamed, and the whip is the appropriate instrument for it.

Understood that way, Nietzsche’s statement can quickly and easily be placed in a long tradition of male dominance and virile toughness. The intention of these notes are to question the self-evidence of this understanding by placing the statement in its context and trying to do it some sort of hermeneutic justice. To do so i’m assuming that here, too, as is usually the case with Nietzsche, the situation is more complex than it seems at first sight.


The first task is fairly simple. The infamous word can be found in the first part of ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’, written in the fall of 1882 and published in 1883. The dates will turn out to be of importance. The chapter that ends with these words has the somewhat forced naughty title ‘About old and young little women’, ‘von alten and jungen Weiblein’, and seems to paraphrase the title of Schopenhauer’s ‘über die Weiber’ from the second part of ‘Parerga und Paralipomena’.

Zarathustra is talking and tells that he was asked, why he was sneaking so skittishly through the slumber and what he was so cautiously hiding under his cloak. Is it a treasure he received, a new born child, or is he out thieving? Yes, he says, it is a treasure, a small truth that he carries on him. But it is as uncontrolled as a little child, and if he doesn’t hold his hand to its mouth, it will scream far too loud.

He then tells that he met a little old lady who said to him that for once, he shouldn’t talk to men, but to a woman about women. She was after all old enough to immediately forget again everything he said. Zarathustra then puts a page worth of wisdom, too much to quote here, about real men, therefore warriors, and real women, therefor the mothers of soldiers, on display. “And women should be obedient, so to find a depth in her surface.”

Now I quote: “Then the little old lady answered me: ‘Lots of courtly things did Zarathustra say, and especially for her young enough for them. Curious that is. Zarathustra barely knows women, yet still he is right, when it concerns women. Is this the case, because nothing is impossible with women? And now, as a token of gratitude, you have to accept a small truth. After all, i’m old enough for it! Wrap it in your cloak and hold your had in front of its mouth; otherwise it screams far too loud.’

‘Give me, woman (‘Weib’) your small truth, said I’. And thus spoke the little old lady: ‘Are you going to the women? Don’t forget the whip!’

Thus spoke Zarathustra.”1


Thus Nietzsche, in a context that doesn’t seem to let any misunderstanding in existence about who is talking here: Nietzsche himself, his character Zarathustra, or the old lady, a character of his character, therefore Nietzsche to the third degree. In any case, we cannot say that it isn’t Nietzsche talking. ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ is completely his own text and Nietzsche thought of this text as his main work. Zarathustra speaks the language of Nietzsche and he proclaims his message. In that aspect, he can sooner be compared to the figure of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues than to the main character in a novel or a play.

Decisive is that Zarathustra is contradicted or schooled in this chapter, and that he cherishes the result of this as a valuable wisdom. The old lady must have the pretension to tell a deep truth, enigmatic in its formulation, easily misunderstood as a loud cry, and to be handled carefully. This has been announced already at the beginning of the chapter.

It is not very probable that the old lady only wants to acknowledge Zarathustra’s statements concisely. That would not be very enigmatic. Without any tension in regards to the previous, the statement remains a far too simple a summary and that would make the caution with which it is made nonsensical. The old lady only makes her statement after Zarathustra has proclaimed his wisdoms, but it is difficult to plainly call the statement a ‘truth’. After all, it doesn’t claim anything, but asks a question and gives an encouragement: then don’t forget the whip. That encouragement can only be considered a wisdom, if there is a truth or wisdom connected to the whip that is about to get lost.

The lady therefore did not say: “Don’t forget to bring the whip to tame those women with it’. There is no question of bringing at all and of taming neither. The intention of ‘going to the women’ isn’t elucidated, and there is no reason to assume that this is, for example, about visiting a brothel, in which case the whip would allow for an easy phallic interpretation.

It is likely that the woman is portrayed as old and wise to precisely at this point guarantee a bit of detachment.

We can therefore assume that the woman is talking about dealing with women in general. And when ‘forgetting’ does not have to mean ‘to not think about bringing’, the only remaining or the most obvious meaning is ‘to not lose the memory of something’, ‘to hold the truth of a prior experience in your mind and cherish it like a treasure’. And apparently it concerns a truth with a somewhat esoteric character here, one best served if it remains the object of attention without it being proclaimed with too much emphasis.


Understood that way, the enigmatic words of the wise old lady don’t mean the women want to be suppressed by men, like Zarathustra had suggested in his inexperience. The words are enigmatic and secret because they contain a truth that is under threat of being forgotten: that women, just to speak in the same category for the time being, occasionally handle the whip, the slab or the slipper to tame men and to keep them in line. The precious truth is then on second reading just a reversal of what Zarathustra had just proclaimed.

It is worthwhile to pay some attention to this possibility. There is moreover a clue to be found, that this interpretation is absolutely not nonsensical. Nietzsche, as we can assume, worked on this text in the summer of 1882. In that summer he had made acquaintance with the Russian girl Lou Salomé and he had fallen in love with her. He had asked her to marry him, but she had discretely made it understood that she didn’t feel that way. From their letters it shows that Nietzsche did his best to introduce this sister soul to his work and he inundated her with notes from it.


There is a well-known and slightly embarrassing photo from 1882, found in the archives of Lou Salomé, in which Nietzsche, together with his friend Paul Rée, is hitched to a cart, a ladder car that on this occasion had to service as a victory cart or a chariot. On that cart Lou is seated. With some effort she seems to balance herself on the standing edge of the cart. She has a little whip in her right hand, apparently to spur on the pair of philosophers to obedience or hurry.


The thought that this concerns a simple and spontaneous holiday snap cannot even arise in us. In 1882 the exposure of a photo was too long to make facile snapshots. For everything you’d have to pose. And of course there wasn’t accidentally a chariot or ladder cart available. Everything, up to the painted décor with the Jungfrau in the background, points to a careful arrangement of the scene and that the threesome is firmly posing in the direction of the camera and audience.

It is fairly obvious that whoever handles the whip can be suspected to have taken charge. In her memoirs, Lou Salomé herself said that Nietzsche orchestrated the tableau down to the details, for example the lilac branch on the whip, and that Paul Rée was resisting quite a bit.2But Curt Paul Janz adds to that in his monumental Nietzsche biography: “Really it was Lou who wanted to tie both men in front on the cart and both the philosophers complied.”That is how the woman born for obedience was once again ‘die Herrin der Herren’ (the mistress over masters), and it remains unclear, in which head the lines from Wagner’s ‘Walküre’ were buzzing that Janz quotes here: “Fricka naht, deine frau im wagen mit Widdergespann. Hei, wie die gold’ne geißel sie schwingt.”(“Fricka approaches, your wife in a car pulled by rams. Hey, how she swings the golden scourge!”)

The gentlemen are therefore sniggering a little at this drastic reversal of roles. Rée seems to be very embarrassed indeed, while the master of the Zarathustra looks like he has decided he finds it funny. All together the image sooner makes a pious than a sensual impression.

And is it really a whip that the girl is holding? It looks more like a scourge or a karwats, an instrument of chastising, also of one’s own body. Which frisky flesh is being chastised here and what could be the relation between this chastisement and the subjection of the woman to the man or vice versa? Which lesson is the spectator taught in this allegory?

Both the pose as the composition can evoke the suggestion that a famous depiction is being parodied here. But also the thought may rise that both classicists wanted to playfully portray the story by Herodotus about Cleobis and Biton, who brought their mother, priestess of Hera, with an ox cart to the temple. That thought doesn’t provide many leads for an interpretation of the tableau and mostly: it forgets the whip.



It is not impossible that the tableau in Luzern wants to evoke memories of the painting by Annibale Carracci that Nietzsche admired, ‘the triumph of Bacchus’.The god, or allegorically explained, the Dionysian, lets himself be pulled, surrounded by enthusiastic supporters, in a cart drawn by panthers. But it is dubious that the woman in the photo would play Bacchus or the Dionysian, and the men wild animals. It is more obvious to think of a beast of burden or a draft animal, to leave to woman for all eternity the woman, and mostly to not forget the whip.


That whip was, according to a tradition that has its comical sides, long before Lou Salomé, handled by Phyllis, a lady from the circles of Alexander the Great. According to a late story, she wanted to teach Aristotle, tutor of the great conqueror, a lesson in an area where he was as inconversant as Zarathustra, that of dealing with women. Phyllis managed to get such power over the philosopher, that he let her mount him as an animal.


The story fits in with lots of other myths and sagas in which, according to Nietzsche’s contemporary Johann Jakob Bachofen, contain the remains of an old gynaecocracy, or in which women take revenge for suppression and maltreatment. For example, that’s how tough guy Heracles was tamed by the Lydic Omphale, who took from him his attributes, club and lion skin, to decorate herself with them, and who threatened him with the karwats.5

In countless images the situation of the humiliated philosopher is depicted to the audience. In a woodcarving by Hans Baldung Grien from 1515, Phyllis sits, not astride, but like an amazon, on the back of a crawling Aristotle, and holds in one hand a whip or karwats, and in the other the bit she has put on the ancient sage. He too does not look happy or frisky, but sooner totally washed out.


A closer comparison between the wood carving from 1515 and the photo from 1882 shows that Lou too holds in her left hand a sort of bit or bridle, to which the reins of the span are attached. Those reins in turn have been attached in a fairly dilettante way to the arms of the pulling couple, as though it were strands. The comparison also brings to light that the lady in the so-called chariot, just like Phyllis on her mount, is in the Amazon position, as though she isn’t carrying out the regime over two mounts, but over one mount. Demands of composition and watching the birdy do not explain this detail: this is the depiction of an Amazon, a ruling woman.

So if Nietzsche in his explanations about little women was leaning on his iconographic memory and if the photo from that same year is a product of staging, then it seems to sooner qualify for the painful tableau of Aristotle and Phyllis than for the triumphal march of Bacchus.

In the meantime, one more similarity has to be pointed out. Both the woman in the photo and Phyllis in the wood carving seem to ready the whip to viciously eviscerate with it, but at the same time, in their pose the distance between the whip and the span is a big as is possible. They keep the karwats more in reserve than in preparation, and remind the span or the mount more of its existence than that they are preparing to actually use it. They seem to use the whip, in the picture adorned with flowers, more as a symbolic and iconographic attribute than as an instrument of subjugation or chastisement. It is enough to not forget the whip and the distance it creates.


In the fragments that make up the Nachslaß from 1882, in part VII.I of the big Colli-Montinari edition are collected the statements that Nietzsche wrote down for his correspondence with Lou Salomé. In that same time he listed almost all wisdoms about women that he puts in the mouth of Zarathustra. Between those notes we can also find the small truth of the old woman, which here is still completely Nietzsche’s own truth, without narrative veils. But here it is followed by an enigmatic addition, which is included by the publishers under the same number: “Du gehst zu Frauen? Vergiß die Peitsche nicht! In der Art, wie und was man ehrt, zieht man immer eine Distanz um sich.”(“Are you going to the women? Don’t forget the whip! In the way of how and what you honour, you always draw a distance around you.”)

‘Distanz’ (‘distance’) is a word that Nietzsche also uses in connection to women in ‘Die frölische Wissenschaft’, also from 1882. “Der Zauber und die mächtigste Wirkung der Frauen ist, um die Sprache der Philosophen zu reden, eine Wirkung in die Ferne, eine actio in distans: dazu gehört aber, zuerst und vor allem -Distanz.”(“The magic and the most powerful effect of women is, to speak the language of the philosophers, an effect far afield, an action in distance: but that includes, first and foremost, distance.”) In ‘Zur Genealogie der Moral’ and ‘Götzendammerung’ he uses the apt term which he formulated ‘Pathos der Distanz’ a couple of times, to indicate the force which carries and maintains the tension between extremes and opposites.8

When the whip then is an instrument with which a respectful distance is created, ‘drawn’, or is used as a reminder of such, the addition loses some of its enigma. ‘Don’t forget the whip’ then means ‘stay at a respectful distance’, and that advice fits, when added to the question ‘are you going to the women?’, very well in the mouth of a wise woman.


Why does Nietzsche put so much emphasis in the quoted chapter on the fact that Zarathustra hears the wise words about the whip from an old woman? Is that to let it compete in its dignity with the priestess Diotima, who initiated Socrates in the secrets of the eros? There can be another reason, namely that Nietzsche wants to hide this way that it concerns a young woman, namely Loe Salomé, with whom he had immortalized himself shortly before under the sign of the whip and distance. Not an old woman, but a girl twenty years old had taught the philosopher to remember the fate of philosophers of old, of Thales, who was laughed at by a slave girl with whipping words, of Socrates and his Xantippe, of Aristotle and Phyllis, and of all those intellectual henpecked heroes from countless farces.

Possibly Nietzsche is talking about himself when he writes Lou in August 1882: “Erst hat man Not, sich von seinen Ketten zu emanziperen und schließlich muß man sich auch von dieser Emanzipation emanziperen! Es hat jeder von uns, wenn auch in seht verscheidener Weise, an der Ketten-Krankheit zu laborieren, auch nachdem er die Ketten zerbrochen hat”9. (“First one has need to emancipate oneself from his chains and finally one must also emancipate oneself from this emancipation! Every one of us, albeit in a different way, has to suffer from the disease of chains, even after he breaks his chains.”)

Is this emancipating the forgetting which the old woman mentions twice in the text? The first time she is old enough to listen to the wisdoms of Zarathustra and to forget them again. The second time she is old enough to put a valuable wisdom opposite them that Zarathustra may not forget, but has to cherish carefully without proclaiming it too emphatically.


Now when the forgetting can be explained as the neglecting of distance and the loss of tension, the old woman places herself with her first words outside of the terrain where there is that tension and emancipates herself from it, but she advices Zarathustra not to follow her in that.

Concerning that repetition of ‘forgetting’, all sorts of Freudian and Heideggerian speculations are possible, which I will leave behind now. Derrida says what is necessary and even a bit more than that in his ‘Eperons’10.

More interesting is what Nietzsche himself wrote on November 7th 1872 to Malwilda von Meysenbug: he often forgot to write letters to the ones he thought of most. She then had to explain that as favourably as possible and then forget about it. “Es gibt so viel Irrationelles gegen das man sich durch vergessen hilft. Mit diesem dunklen Spruche will ich heute schließen.”11 (“There are so many irrational things against that it helps man to forget. With these dark words I shall close for today.”)

Here he recommends, in the name of friendship, forgetting: after all, to forget is to cover things up with the mantel of love. In the text of Zarathustra something might be covered with a mantel, but this precisely contributes to saving and retaining.

When the whip then indeed symbolises the pathos of distance, and represents the tension of opposites, we can understand this. For without those oppositions there is also no life anymore. Oppositions are supposed to keep each other alive. Is that what Nietzsche means with his glorification of the distance?


One detail which we haven’t paid attention to yet and which gets a bit of relief from the preceding, is that Nietzsche in the text continuously speaks about ‘woman’ and ‘little women’ as ‘Weib’ and ‘Weiblein’. Not until the final sentence, which is the subject of this study here, because it’s so often been explained as denigrating, does he say ‘Frauen’: “Du gehst zu Frauen?” And no matter how it is exactly with the connotations of the words ‘Weib’ and ‘Frau’ around 1880, it doesn’t seem premature to me to assume that ‘Frau’, as it is in contemporary German, not just relates to a married woman, but is also a more respectful denomination, and indicates a person of the other sex more as a ‘lady’, while ‘Weib’ more appoints the woman as a representative of a species than as a human person. In the proverbial notes that Lou Salomé wrote during the time of her encounters with Nietzsche, and which might be representative of her talks with him, she appears to reflect on this difference: “Die Liebe macht das Mädchen zum Weibe, die Heirath zur Frau”12. (“Love makes a girl into a female, marriage into a woman.”)

So when Nietzsche or Zarathustra or the old lady had wanted to sprout some banal wisdom about visiting the happy little women, or about male suppression, they would, as we may assume, have chosen the less lady-like moniker ‘Weiber’.

So again it becomes even more improbable that the whip was really handled, by whomever, and that it here represents anything other than a metaphor of the distance that respect creates around itself.


In the context of the story it is not made explicitly clear, why the little truth had to be hidden underneath a cloak. On the one hand the cloak has to protect the treasure against curious looks or the greed of the outside world. And on the other hand, that outside world seems to need to be protected from the uncontrollability of the screaming child to which this truth is being compared. And for that a cloak alone is not enough: there is also a part for a hand that, like a sort of bridle, restrains the boisterous little mouth.

No matter how, the cloak is like a curtain or a veil between the valued truth and the spectator who addresses Zarathustra. It represents at least a delay of the disclosure and that in turn gives it the opportunity to gain importance. The truth itself seems to want to open the curtains, throw off the cloak or veil, and make itself known unequivocally.

When this can be read as a reference to the daughter of king Herod and namesake of Lou, who threw of her veils as she was dancing, then Nietzsche has hid it very deep. But his cryptic text compels the reader to fetch far. He then finds, too, that the keeper of the treasure does not want to unveil it, but, like it says in an addendum in the ‘Nachlaß’, he wants to remain at a respectful distance from its direct workings, so that this indeed becomes an actio in distans.


Zarathustra is asked, what he is hiding under his cloak, and if perhaps he has stolen something. Nietzsche creates the impression that the valuable truth, which has to be protected by darkness, cloak and silence this way, must be smuggled into his life by him. Its value won’t allow that it becomes a public possession. Zarathustra too has borrowed it -or still has to get used to possessing it. For the time being, as it appears too from his wisdoms about women, he cannot integrate this truth in the whole of his own insights. It was then revealed to him by a priestess or a higher authority.

What its name was, we can guess from a note by Lou Salomé, written in August 1882: “Liebe ist für Männer etwas ganz Anderes als für Frauen. Den Meisten wohl ist die Liebe eine Art von Habsucht; den übrigen Männern ist Liebe die Anbetung einer leidenden und verhüllten Gottheit. Wenn Freund Rée dies läse, würde er mich für toll halten.”13 (“Love is something completely different for men than it is for women. For most men, love is a type of greed; for the rest of them, love is the worship of a suffering and veiled deity. When our friend Rée reads this, he’ll think me mad.”)


1 Nietzsche. Werke. ed. K. Schlechta III. 328-330

2 Ernst Pfeiffer e.a. Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Rée, Lou von Salomé. Die Dokumente ihrer Begegnung. Frankfurt a.M. 1970. pg. 110

3 Curt Paul Janz. Nietzsche, Biographie. Bnd. II. Vienna 1978. Pg. 130

4 Jeroen Stumpel, in: Gerrit Jan Kleinrensink (red.) De zaak Nietzsche. Nijmegen 1986. pg. 74 and on

5 Ovid. Heroides. IX. 82

6 Colli-Montinari. KGA VII. I. pg. 97-98 no. 367

7 Werke. II. 80

8 Werke. II. 866. 1014

9 Werke III. 1187

10 Jacques Derrida. Sporen. De stijlen van Nietzsche. (Traces. Nietzsche’s styles) Translated, introduced and noted by Ger Groot. Weesp 1985. pg 233

11 Werke III. 1079

12 E. Pfeiffer. a.w. pg. 210

13 E. Pfeiffer. a.w. pg. 212



Filed under essay

Relationships with the dead


In order to not too abruptly start with such an impossible subject, I would like to approach it from three images that we are familiar with from classical civilization. This has the advantage for me that I know a little bit about that culture and therefore talk about it easily, also when in the end it really concerns our own problems.

In the ninth book of the Odyssey the main character himself says that in a battle with the Kikonians a number of his friends have perished. “From each ship,” says Odysseus, “six well armed men fell. I evaded fateful death with the others. From there we sailed on, deeply saddened by the loss of our buddies, but grateful to have escaped death ourselves. My gracefully arched ships did not continue on their travels, until we had called each of our unfortunate friends three times by their names.” (Od. 9.60-66)

This is an image that everyone, I think, can understand because it is based on an impulse that we can hardly suppress: to call back someone who dies, to call them to order, three times, to give them every chance to undo the irrevocable. Only after this attempt can death as a merciless fact be accepted. Even in an as rationalised and institutionalised establishment as the catholic church this magical impulse has not been suppressed: deceased popes too are called three times by their name, and get three taps with a little silver hammer. The magical borders on the exalted and that in turn borders on the comical.

A second image I find in the oldest Greek images on graves, from the sixth century BCE. Almost always do we see a smile on the face of the deceased. In the arts that is called the ‘archaic smile’: offerers to the gods, gods to the offerers, the deceased who smile to the living. A lot can be said about that, but the essential must be that in this ripple across the face, the belief in a relationship and a living, moving contact is expressed, more quiet than the magic of calling, but also more lasting, more debilitating, and less willing to immediately sail on. It almost seems as though something of another world or another dimension of this world is revealed in it. Whether in that time there was a connection to the then immersing thought of immortality, I don’t know. I actually think that that thought hardly played a role in the true relationship between deceased and relatives. For that ‘immortality’ is too easy a word and too swift a denial of reality.

A following image is another two centuries younger. On an Attical tomb relief from the fourth century BCE a deceased young man is portrayed who stares vacantly ahead in the direction of the viewer. Across from him and unable to catch his eye stands his old father, leaning on a cane. Parallel to that cane and the straight folds of the garb there is an empty plane between both figures: that plane keeps them irrevocably separated. Maybe they are thinking of each other, and in any case, the father looks at the son, but they don’t know it of each other, and the father can only look back, in undivided melancholy.


With these images i’m not concerned about a line of a historical development, for example from a momentary magical attitude of resistance to a melancholy resignation, or as a preparation for a christian, theological approach from biblical data like the promise of a resurrection, but as types of attempts to shape contact with the dead or the impossibility of that. The historical order of those attempts is certainly not without meaning, for a change in culture also brings with it changes in our behaviour and even in our emotions. We can’t escape to react and feel differently than people from other times and cultures. The eternally humane is orchestrated differently in every period and in every culture. Grief in antiquity was different than our own is. We have to overcome a sort of shame to admit, that we understand parts of it.

That’s why I think that, behind our more or less imposed uniformity of talking and reacting, we are still searching for an individual solution. That is not a rational undertaking, nor one that’s culturally stylised as rationality, one that assumes determined certainties or cliches, but it is a searching of a way out or many ways out. We are in this situation less comparable to an animal that acts faultlessly like it’s been programmed to do by instincts and inherited behavioural patterns, but more like an animal that’s been locked in a cage. It can’t trust its instincts in finding a way; it finds many small openings through which it can stick a paw or a nose outside, but none through which it can get out completely. The animal relinquishes its attempts and the friends sail on. I think that we can’t discuss a relationship with the dead without using a word like ‘resignation’. For whatever we think about death and however beautiful we formulate that thought, it is an occurrence in the face of which we ultimately stand passively, and that we can’t ignore without dying from it ourselves.


This occurrence that cannot be imagined and cannot be grind finely by any thought, this hard fact that most resolutely crushes and refutes our thoughts, also determines the nature of our relationships with the deceased. A relationship with a deceased is essentially an existing human relationship that has changed character because of death, in which certain possibilities have been excluded by the most radical occurrence, without clear new perspectives being opened. There is, like in the Attac tomb relief, a line through it, there is a crack in the reciprocity. It is impossible to ignore death to such a degree that the human relationship beyond death remains something matter of fact; I think it will, from itself and always, have a problematic character precisely because of the fracture that was caused by death and that at least demands an adjustment, a new ordering of possibilities and a discarding of impossibilities. I speak of course solely about a reciprocal relationship that already existed before death and that was concrete, not about something like contact with complete strangers in a different world; it concerns changes that occur in an existing relationship between the living. Of these we have to say that they exist by the grace of a potential and preferably frequently realised meetings and interactions. Meetings are made possible by the presence and reciprocity of living persons.


Where one of the conditions is missing, the will to create or keep a connection can still exist, but we can then only speak of a curtailed relationship at best. It seems to me, for example, that in our contact with small children there is too little a case of reciprocity to speak of a real human contact. For that, the share of our own interpretation, almost behind the other’s back, is too great. Nevertheless, of course it can be a joy to mix with children; it’s just that, I believe, they only enlarge our loneliness, rather than annul it, and that we already have to be fairly happy to enjoy this presence without reciprocity.

Also the relationship who is temporarily or permanently absent is curtailed by this absence; to think a lot about someone or merely have written contact necessitates us to, as it were, fill up the relationship with our own mental activities to an integrality of which we can never be sure if it is a product of reciprocity or one of our own imagination and interpretation. The presence of the other is so important, because it refutes our imagination and brings us back to the reality that we share with the other. For that reason I never really understand that people can have a relationship with God, and can address him as though he can answer at any point.


The dead too are not present in the usual sense of the word. They are no longer capable of the reciprocity that determined our meetings with them. For those are precisely the things their death has ended. Death refutes our thoughts, for example the idea that relationships last eternally, and with that it challenges our imagination, too, for example to think that ‘in a certain sense’, ‘on a different level’ etc the contact still remains. I don’t want to speak about this in an unmasking way, for I would degrade myself to a henchman of death. Anything we can salvage from the hands of death is a great gain and eternal possession, no matter how little it is.

But we do have to say, I think, that the change in relation that occurs with death, is in any case a curtailment of its potential; otherwise there wouldn’t be any sadness and grief. Grief is a process in which we get used to a withering of a relationship: the presence and reciprocity shrivel into a past and a memory, and the painful thing is that this minimum is too little for us. We call the dead by their name to invite them to give a sign of their existence and presence. We almost see ourselves obliged to keep them alive in our thoughts and memories, and to pull them away from the abyss with our activities. If we don’t call them, they will disappear forever.


In the stage of grief where we haven’t yet succumbed to the reality of death and to the stylistic compulsions of our culture, including the Christian use of language, we are at our most magical. That finds its way in the fairly poetic expressions about love being stronger than death, or the description that Gabriel Marcel gives of love: “To love someone is saying: you shall not die.” These expressions are touching, but also typical for the overconfidence of life and imagination. They only apply till death refutes it all. Nietzsche said that we are immortal as long as we live.

I’m not concerned here with an unmasking, rather with a purification and with the measure in which we can accept a difference between our way of talking and our awareness of reality. A way of thinking and talking that can not be calibrated by some reality, seems infertile to me and moreover I have the feeling that in the end, we can only be consoled by reality, not by our lonely and powerless imagination. The relationship with the dead is not a denial of death, but an acknowledgement of it, like solace isn’t a denial of sadness, but an acknowledgement. The magic of addressing, greeting, the rituals surrounding a feigned presence are necessary to prepare us for an unimaginable fact. Only after this acceptance can we maybe interpret this fact in a new way and from that interpretation continue our relationship or what’s left of it. The reality of death doesn’t just make our lives and thoughts different; also death itself can, when it occurs, be something else than we thought it would be.


There is a very drastic interpretation in which death is seen as a transition into another life and a temporary separation. On the Attic tomb reliefs that i’ve mentioned, this concept seems to be depicted. Both the living and the dead are visible and physically present, it’s just that the reciprocity has been suspended. But perhaps it is exactly the same with depictions as it is with words; we can imagine and say more than we can reasonable justify. Death as a transition to another life can be a way of speaking that we use, without accounting for the fact that we are talking about something that is almost unthinkable.

More realistic is another interpretation, one that death invites us to itself, because it is connected to the reality itself of the occurrence. Death imposes an inwardness upon us we might not have known before. What we carry around by means of an inward life in ourselves consists partially of unspoken thoughts surrounding death. Its reality redirects our relationship with fellow humans to the one active pole that remains. At the same time as the reciprocity ends the ambivalence that usually characterises a living contact. The possibilities of the deceased have been fulfilled, they have become past and now nothing can happen to them anymore. What they were for the time being, they are now definitely and eternally. Their goodness, the reason why we mourn them, can only now truly permeate us. The wisdom to ‘speak no ill of the dead’ might come from this realisation and from the guilt about a lack in appreciation , rather than from a magical fear of revenge. The problem of a relation with the dead only occurs after all in connection with loved ones who are suddenly no longer there; it teaches us at the same time that we don’t have a relationship with most people, or a very meagre one: most people aren’t there for us. Some dead are, despite their absence, more present in our lives than most living.


So partially the relation consists of a missing and of the awareness that our possibilities of contact have been curtailed. The missing is the way in which the absent stays present. We don’t miss what we don’t have, but what we’ve had and wanted to keep. Missing is, coming from us, an attempt to hold onto the past and make it into the present. In this missing sometimes the past becomes the reality pre-eminently, the sum of all that is already been realised no longer needs to be dreamed. But also from itself the past continues to work on, probably more than we can rationally calculate and in a way that we hardly chose ourselves. My relationship with my deceased father, if I may be so personal, is not just missing and memories from my side, a late guilt, unuttered gratitude, a hundred questions of things only he could still know, he is also still, even against his wishes, present in my life by the effect of his earlier presence, by traces of his influence on my behaviour, and probably not in the least by the message of a inherited disposition. The more i’m growing aware of that, the more I remain connected to him and feel related to him, and the more I’m inclined to something like an ancestral cultus, in which the weight of existence is not so much placed in the perilous moment of life than in the solid presence of a whole ancestry. I think that this feeling of solidarity with people who have lived might be the vaguest relationship we can have with the dead, but it is also the most important one in our own lives, which are after all mortal in every sense.

Portrait of Cornelis Verhoeven by Wim van de Voort

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For hours I could sit by her cradle to look at her. All other things seem to serve this one goal: just to look, without doing anything and without any thoughts whatsoever. Thinking and looking don’t go well together; people who have to think, often close their eyes. When i’m just looking, I cannot even formulate my thoughts other than by saying: look. I think, that there is nothing higher than the point at which thought merges into just looking.

Sometimes I succeed or am I granted to reach this point. But most of the time a swarm of associations buzzes around my head. They come flying in from the big world, from my worries and ambitions, and from the language that has laid a blockade of cliches around the cradle and the child. At least ten speakers muddy the simplicity of my thoughts. The first is asking me, if in the middle of all these world shocking affairs, the birth of a child can be called a major event. I can’t answer him because I don’t exactly know what determines the scale of an event. It is a very lame question, but it does distract.

A second angel at this cradle, on the other hand, is humming in my ears all the cliches of the wonder of life and of young joy. That too muddies my sight, because it forces me to look through the eyes off another, and use too many words. When we see a wonder we don’t speak, we just say: look.

A third angel is full of useful advice and warnings and even flows over from them. He means well with the child and the parents, but he poses too many conditions to me and imposes too many obligations on me to be welcome as a viewer. Number four raises an admonishing finger and says that a child like that might be a gift, but also a task. That might be so, but it is not always relevant. In the mean time, there is also someone singing songs by Emiel Hullebroeck, the one where a sunny light plays through my dwelling, and that I see it as my great duty to trestle wife and child on my strong youth -something that’s not quite conforming reality.

And within me awakes as the sixth angel a never before known ambition with regard to the future. My thoughts are muddied by the question what will become of this child and how far she will make it. At the same time an extensive defence apparatus starts to operate. This seventh angel wants to avert all enemies from this cradle with a burning sword, and because there are no enemies, he creates them. I’m starting to believe that people are not aggressive creatures, but just completely defensive.

Fortunately, sometimes they go out for lunch, those angels. Then I forget the admonitions, the actions and and the social burdens that already press upon this young existence. Looking is the highest that there is. Thoughts barely have any content and completely no structure. Nothing proceeds it and nothing follows from it; nothing can be done with it and there’s no need to, either, for everything is here already. I believe nobody has ever formulated what can go on in a person at such a moment better than Chesterton. In ‘The everlasting man’ he says: “…staring at the sky or the grass or the truths of mathematics or even a new-laid egg, he has a vague feeling like the shadow of that saying of the great Christian philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘Every existence, as such, is good’.


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Sunday afternoon

On a hot summer afternoon, especially on Sundays, I’m always compelled to think back on one specific experience from my early childhood. I must have witnessed it often and it must have made, despite its endless dullness, a big impression, for otherwise I cannot explain why I keep thinking back on it. It was always pretty silent around where we lived; there was hardly any traffic, besides the occasional cyclist. But on summer’s Sunday afternoons that silence could suddenly become an entity on its own. Then it wasn’t silent, but there was the silence. That silence was present and besides that there was nothing except for heat. Or perhaps I should say that there was only that languid heat, hot silence over a dusty world. A summer afternoon back then still was: a dome of silence over warm sand and breathless trees, so rural that nobody knows about it, because it is yet to be discovered.

Those summers are gone and that rural character has been broken open, made productive for recreational purposes. Only the memory is still there and it keeps coming back. But my memory is not one of a tourist who has experienced a siesta in an Italian village; it is one of a native who didn’t know what he had until he lost it. That is a tremendous difference. We know nothing as well as that which we can remember from very early on. And it is precisely that which we’ll never find back, no matter where we look for it, for we only know it thanks to the fact that it is no longer there.

But the scenery, which so far has been written and thought about often, has to be supplemented with a sole, essential trait. With that silence, that heat and that dust, went the continual, yet somewhat languid cackle of chickens. To my ears it didn’t sound triumphant or liberated, as when they laid eggs, but more moaning, complaining and powerlessly protesting. While the people and the trees were resting and waiting, it appeared as though the chickens got the feeling they were left alone and that panicked them. They were sitting in the warm sand to deliberately make themselves dirty and then repeatedly stood up again to shake their feathers. Others were in the henhouse, grumbling and whimpering. But their protest against the silence completely belonged to the warm Sunday afternoon, it was a built-in disruption that only confirmed order. That dumb and droning cackle was the network in which the silence was being caught and held.

From such afternoons came an endless, but summery dullness. That happens, I think, because there was such an abundance of it. The hour did not need to be taken advantage of, it was there anyway, like lost time between lunch and praise. It wasn’t really in the program, it was more of a leak in closed time. We didn’t impatiently wait for it to be over, but underwent it without realisation of time.  On such a hot afternoon time stood still for a while and nobody knew with certainty whether it would start up again afterwards. Maybe that’s why the chickens panicked a little and with their cackle started to count the seconds of a lost hour, a misplaced rest of activity in a moment saturated with boredom.

For me, I don’t remember what I did in those afternoon hours and whether I did anything. Looking back I believe that I had my hands full with undergoing the situation and had no need to do anything with it. The consideration that the elderly shouldn’t be disturbed in their much-needed rest did not play any part in it, as far as I can remember. Existence in its entirety had suddenly become static. Compared to that tremendous silence the dumb cackle of the chickens was almost nothing, no more than the classical barking of the dog in the distance. But that was at night.

The strange part of such a recollection is that it, no matter how personal and individual it seems, can be shared so easily. Then it turns out to be a possession of many. Our own autobiography coincides for a surprisingly large part with that of others. It all seems very subjective, but in the end it relates to the same world with sun, sand and chickens. People are in touch with each other through the things, more than directly through their feelings. So the summer afternoon is a given that keeps coming back in literature.

Friedrich Nietzsche has based his philosophy of ‘the great afternoon’ on this and about that one books have been written also. It has something to do with the experience of a Southern afternoon, dangerous and blissful, with the completion of the times and the eternal return. A somewhat touristy homesickness to the far and idealised South marks a part of these thoughts -to my taste- as book wisdom and scholarly foolery. Without autobiographical recollections there is no wisdom to be expected from the great afternoon, only statements such as these: ‘That is the great afternoon, in which man stands in the middle of his trajectory between animal and Übermensch.’ When I read something like that, I suddenly hear cluck, cluck, cluck. With Nietzsche, there are no chickens cackling through it; sir does not wish to be disturbed in his dream. To my ears these disrupting false notes of dumb chickens sound like the most beautiful music: they keep the Übermensch at bay.


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A leak in your own existence

The subjects of this contemplation almost prevent me from being contemplative. They continuously call me to action. A little son of one year old and a daughter of two and a half fill up my space with their claims and unabashedly make it their own space. And few things are as contradictory as a contemplation about fatherhood from which the children have to be removed in order to write it. Pedagogical contemplations too take too high a flight when they can take off without the ballast of children being physically present. Essential for fatherhood is that your space needs to be shared, not according to reasonable, contractually laid down deals, but always and for better or worse.

Still I don’t think this is why far less fathers than mothers reflect on their parenthood. Customarily mothers share their space more generously and without rancour with the children than fathers. In the mean time, they appear to reflect, to talk and to write more often about their situation than men. It probably has to do with the well-known roles, that deals the card to women as the caregiver and with it a permanent presence with the children. Maybe that’s why there’s something female about discussing children seriously.

For a ‘real’ man -whatever that may be: some think about a constructive mind or an alert businessman with this word, I for one usually about a dynamic creep- it is somewhat embarrassing to talk about his fatherhood, as long as the kids are still small. They still belong with the mother at that point.

That might be an old inheritance, for Caesar says that for the Gauls it was a disgrace for a man to be spotted near his children before they were ripe for military service. Anyway, fatherhood proves in our culture to be much more of a sideshow than the deeply profound, lyrically flooded, but to eternal availability doomed motherhood. In general very little changes in life. The flip side of that is that the young father is more or less an outsider and looks a bit like a fool, a situation for which he has been prepared a bit by a wedding and a childbirth, happenings that elevate the woman to a holy and radiant center. In our culture too it only happens rarely, that we see a father behind a pram, by himself. I only dared to do it a few times and got the distinct impression that it was ‘not done’ to see such an old man walking behind a pram, murmuring, burbling and cooing “who is the baby?”. We’re still Gauls a little.

To a certain degree therefore, all this applies to me as well. I didn’t have to quit my job, and my avocations more or less just continue. But almost all other occasions force me to a continuous amazement and reflection. Because I got married late and because it took eight years of going against the odds -a change of air, say the experts, but I think: a stop to the eternal doctoring- to get our first child, we don’t take our parenthood for granted at all. If I, to refrain the indiscretion to myself, am allowed to continue in the first person singular, then I have to admit that I still always experience myself from a situation and an age, in which fatherhood represents a form of seriousness that might suit others, but not me, the bachelor. If you become a father before you involuntarily fixate your self or the image you have of you on a past, on an age that isn’t yet tortured by the doubtful pleasures of reflection, you will probably only know this amazement, when your children are already grown up. You might only start to wonder “damn, is this me?” when you are astonished that you are a grandfather, far from the point of no return and much too old to call for your mother. Elementary decisions like marriage and fatherhood are being made ‘insane in the membrane’, so therefore not really as decisions, and the wonder comes afterwards. From the first moment onwards, for me it has been a strange and confusing feeling to be a father. I still can hardly believe that there are two little beings that take my existence so completely seriously in a way that I myself, with respect to the image I have of me, could not. There is something ridiculous and worrying to find the little boy, that I once was, as a father now, and see him burdened with responsibilities meant for grown ups and real men.

On the other hand, fatherhood has been from the first moment on and unabashedly a lyrical affair. Or maybe it is not the other hand, but is it one of the build-in laws of life. Waves of lyricism and tenderness have to continuously roll in to wash away the scepticism and the fear. Nature has coerced me with great enthusiasm to disinterestedly take care of those tykes, to rock their cradle half the night and fill the rest with nightmares, in which they fall to their deaths or burn alive. Fathers are even crazier than lovers. They desire nothing more than to, in the middle of the night, in a snowstorm, on an untamed horse, ride to a distant village to get some healing herbs or even just a sweet for their darling. I wouldn’t mow the lawn for anyone in the world, not for the good reputation and not for the aesthetics, but when She started walking, all of a sudden the grass had to be short, a carpet for her little feet.

The lyrical feeling makes the burden into a joy, also against our better knowing. “When they are small, you could just eat them,” said a father of ten children, “and when they are grown, you regret not having done that.”

Of course it is possible that enthusiasm always leads to regret, that it is nothing else but the blindness with which the gods strike us when we start to suspect that life is a dupery. But I think that this suspicion too belongs to fatherhood, to the slow induction to the secret of life, in which words like ‘pleasure’, ‘joy’ and even ‘happiness’ still sound a little too frivolous and individualistic in the end. Soon as we too keenly or emphatically start talking about ‘happiness’ or ‘love’, I fear we come short in maturity and, which is worse, elementary melancholy.

I don’t know if there is, concerning this, a difference between fatherhood and motherhood. In all the freeness that we have emancipated ourselves towards, there remains something like a taboo on this subject. The reason for that is probably not that it is such a common subject -everyone has children-, but because it is located on the border of egoism en disinterestedness. And we have been so conditioned into admitting egoism, that we are left a bit dumbfounded soon as this fails as an explanation. And it fails, when it concerns elemental things like parenthood. But I think a lot of mothers stand even closer to the ego-diminishing position of admitting egoism and therefore sooner dare to speak about their parenthood. In a way they offer it as an extrication and in exchange for that they are allowed to bring it up in conversation.

They say then that motherhood is ‘nothing but’ love of own, reinforcement and the stroking of ones own identity.With a bit of ill will and sagacity it can be deducted to a selfish pleasure, or brought to somewhere close to that. In those terms it is negotiable. On condition of that extrication they are even allowed to be lyrical about it.

Fathers, less inclined to monkeylove, remain awkwardly silent and pull a face as though they’ve gotten trapped in a net, but regretfully lack the right to complain about it. My wife and I often exchange ideas about this over a nightcap. Then it still appears that she experiences motherhood more when feeding a baby, and the thought that it is completely dependent on her, while I enjoy my fatherhood most when our daughter says ‘no’ and ‘bad daddy’, so when she poses as independent, as it were. How that will go when she no longer says ‘bad daddy’ but ‘old bastard’ or words of that kind, and then draws conclusions from her independence, I don’t know. I just hope for the best. For me love is, I think, distance, for my wife it’s unity. It is inconsequential who is right, I don’t really value being right and would rather win an insight than a competition. I also don’t know if I can generalise this difference in feeling to all men and women, and how I should state it further: it could, if we are both integrant products of our culture, be an interiorising of the existing roles we play as father and mother; it could also be determined biologically. In any case it means for my fatherhood that it cannot be explained with egoism or the desire to reproduce myself. Children are not improved re-prints of their parents; they continue their existence here. Fatherhood is a lyrical affair precisely because children are very different from the father. What is mine, is too well known to me, too transparent and too self-evident to make me lyrical. My child represents more a leak in my own existence than that she confirms its solidity. There is an underlying cosmic sloppiness to my life as a construction, because of which I never succeed in closing the circle of my identity around myself. Not next to my own me, but in the center of it, in the womb of my own life, nestles another. ‘Boss in your own belly’ is the slogan of sterile self-righteousness.

A life isn’t fertile through consequent autonomy, but by the infringement made upon it. There is no continuity between what I think or program and what really happens, neither between my dream of self-confirmation and the reality of my child. Time and again I ask myself bewildered “Is that really our little child?”, and that then has no relation to the theoretical possibility that someone else could be her biological father -one of the reasons, I think, why there is a taboo also on this question, like there are on almost all wonders of fatherhood-, but to the fact that she is totally and decisively different to what I had imagined as a reproduction of my own me in my guileless egoism. Her existence is a repudiation of my self-righteousness; and if there was ever within me the desire for fatherhood -subject of much silence- then I have to interpret that in hindsight as a desire for this sweet repudiation that has grown from my own loins, a historical being proven wrong that doesn’t make me superfluous, doesn’t degrade me to a hatch, but replaces my center. Or really I don’t have a center, because the circle of my existence isn’t closed and at a decisive point transfers into a spiral, that postpones the center and shifts it into eternity.

papa neeltje daan zw (1 of 1)

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The course of life

When you, in the evening of your life, look back on its course, you’ll almost certainly see something completely different than what you’d possibly imagined in the morning of it. And perhaps those differences are greater the richer your life was in experience and the evening richer in memories. The course of life is a river that seeks its way through a capricious terrain, while the plan that we had designed probably more resembles a canal that we want to dig, a straight line that ignores the landscape. The plan exists within our head, the course of occurrences is the reality outside of it. Looking back on the course of life is gaining perspective for the difference between the two, and possibly contributes to our wisdom. The course of events is with some rights called the course of events because it is not our own course. Things ride a different track than our train of thoughts. And we say, that they went their own way or came tumbling down, because they are not in our hands.

Also in the expression ‘walk of life’ there is a commitment to a road as a metaphor for life. But here it concerns the way in which we, on our own steam and according to plan, move through life or walk through life as though it was a road, hesitating or determined, exemplary or offensive, but as the legitimate owners of that life and as subjects of that walk. The phrase suggest in its moralising use the existence of a line that we hold onto as a guideline, or a plan that we execute in our talking and walking. In ‘course of life’, life is the subject of the verb ‘to course’, and the living, whom life takes on its course, are the witness of the way it courses. Their resume, even if it is drafted for the purpose of the continuation of a pre-programmable career, is only for a small part the result of an outlined plan. My walk of life is what I do and how I do it, the course of my life is what happens to me or what happens with what I do. That too is not determined by my plan and not even by my walk of life.

Perhaps someone who is looking back does not see any line at all between all those points, and the line even is the great mistake of our imagination, as connection between two points, as the trace of a road that we intend to take and even as a reconstruction of the road we have walked and the course of life we can look back on. I think that Arthur Schopenhauer, who still had a good eye for what happens to people despite their plans, made far too brisk a statement on the course of life and the walk of life, when he seemingly forbade even a glance at by-roads and magnificent panoramas, that can be the gifts of a windy road: “In the same way that our physical way on earth is always a line, not a plane, so we must in life, if we want to achieve and own one thing, waive countless other things left and right and leave them. If we don’t make that decision, but like children at the fairground reach for everything that stimulates us, then that is a misdirected attempt to change the line of our road into a plane. We then walk in a zigzag, wander to and fro and come to nothing.” It would be that way, if the course of our life was our program, it it didn’t take us through a landscape, and if we didn’t have eyes to look about in it. The field of vision of the walker makes even a point into a plane. Who looks back, does not see a road, but what he saw along that road.

symbolism of the foot

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Meditation on a nail

In front of me on the table lies an old, forged nail of seventeen centimetres long and half a centimetre wide, with an irregularly shaped head of about 20 millimetres; on the top of that head you can see imprints of a hammer that struck it flat in four blows, so that in the middle of that pockmarked, rusty head a sort of cross was formed, not geometrically correct but haphazardly and by chance. The whole nail is this way; with archaic but accurate craftsmanship it was shaped in a way that made it fit for purpose without allowing it even a millimetre of geometrical tedium. That is why there isn’t a second nail like this one.


It lies here now, displaced; I found it in a beam in the attic of my father’s house. How far it had been driven into that beam can be seen exactly; the iron there is less weatherworn and smoother. Above that its skin has been eaten by rust; it is a moon landscape with countless craters and shadow spots. When I carefully and admiringly palpate it with my fingers, over and over again they get held up by the interesting irregularities to the lyrical slowness of the inappropriate user. For that nail isn’t here to be looked at. It was probably hammered into the beam in that attic by my grandfather to hang a scythe or a flail on, not to be looked at in rapture. That is what I am doing now; they are the actions of a later-day aesthete or an observer. I have pulled out the nail that had become useless and cleaned it. Now it shines like an antique in a shop window; everything that is that old, is grateful for a coat of wax; thereby it immediately gets a patina of happiness and rest after a turbulent existence. The nail now has become an antique; I can imagine it in a shop window and a snob asking about it. “Early piece of iron, sir, the work of an anonymous village blacksmith from the early 18th century; this one would be 12 dollars and 50 cents.”

I The thing

Nails aren’t made for looking at. But the fact is, that there isn’t a second nail like this. If a work of art is something to look at, then this simple nail at least has something very essential in common with it, namely that it is in-exchangeable. And stripped of its useful function and made to be the object of a contemplation, it moreover gets the impartiality of the work of art. And it has the advantage over the work of art that it is indubitable. The work of art has added so many pretensions on to itself by the tradition of art history, such a towering block of merely assumed values and truths, that it almost by mere appearing already evokes reluctance and scepticism. A nail is without pretence, but it is so hard and irrefutably a thing, that all scepticism must ricochet off of it. I can doubt a work of art; I can find the whole civilization, of which it is a late product, so wearisome that I reject it. My scepticism can brake away the suppositions below it, so that it ends up hanging in the void. But this nail, just as much the individual work of an individual human, does not need those suppositions. Its existence is as clear as that of smooth pebbles, though less elementary. But its suppositions do not lay within the ‘artistic’ field with all its weary pretences; they lay in life itself.

That nail, that I now find so beautiful that I muzzle and palpate it as a small work of art, still roots in the harsh substratum of the laborious artisan life. Even though it isn’t made for being muzzled and contemplated, but for being used by a farmer, the fact remains irrefutably, that it is something that may be seen; it doesn’t need to be hidden in the technical substrate on which we lead our comfortable lives. It is even difficult to look past it, not just because it is so big, but more so because all by itself it is a characteristic variation on a theme of nail. Of each newly manufactured nail there are millions. Nobody made them and nobody gives them a second glance. It can therefore never become the object of a contemplation. It is in no way a piece of work and hardly a utensil. Where it fulfils its humble function, it has to be invisible; its visibility would be a dissonant. Also before and after its function is it invisible, stowed or thrown away. But this nail here is before everything a thing unto itself. Also in its function was it visible. It has the hard consistency of the definitively thing-ness. There is no negotiating with this thing-ness. It does not come to me. When I want to have contact with it, I have to move from my identity to the demanding autarchy of a piece of iron. By seeing the nail in front of me, by wondering about it and palpating it I transcend my identity and venture into a world that is fatally and irrevocably different than the pliable softness of my me and everything that I could think up from there. Now the human no longer rules, but the other, the thing, a clogged up piece of otherness, and touching it I feel an alienation on my skin that penetrates as a revelation into the loose nest of my identity. It is a shock to discover the thing and it is a long process to include it into my world. For there it is a continuous impingement on my autonomy and my self-righteousness: just by its presence, its visibility alone. That is an experience that enriches existence and to grow this enrichment into a possession, the things have to be maintained in their visibility.

II Invisible technique

In a certain sense the technique is a force, that threatens the visibility of the things. The most industrial utensils have become invisible and the element or frame, in which they are used, has completely disappeared from our field of vision. At the moment that we use those objects, we don’t pay attention to them. I simply do not see the electrical razor, with which I shave myself. Only when it declines, do I look at it. ‘To look at something’ in the technical era means : trying to fix something. If it never needs repairing, we never look at it; it doesn’t need, as we say, looking after. When a thing functions well, it is like a healthy body, a transparent mediator of useful energies. It gets connected to an invisible technical framework, e.g. the electrical grid, and nothing indicates that with that connection, a wonder of ingenuity and energy happens. Not a festive circumlocution nor decoration may accompany and welcome the wonder. Nobody wonders that it happens. It’s made completely invisible and hidden in the walls and floors of the houses we live in. Whoever would let the power lines in his house be installed visibly and would paint them red, or make them silver, would be regarded as eccentric. Our technical achievements are becoming an increasingly broad base, which we increasingly take for granted and live on with more jadedness. They are completely built into a frame that remains invisible, and within that frame too the things are under threat to become so invisible, that they are no longer things to us.

This minimum of visibility goes along with a minimum of of effort in operating the things. We don’t want to pump or hurl to have light or water, or to grind coffee. We just want to press a button. The effect is in no proportion to the effort. A whole mythology of power has grown around the invisibility of the technical frame and the pressing of the button that operates it. In the end this mythology is based on the expectation of total mechanization, a maximal discrepancy between effort and effect. With a push of a button we command the visibility and invisibility, the audibility and inaudibility of the world; with a push of the button we can make the world perish. The road between effort and effect seems so short because it is invisible.

This, the invisibility of the technical thing and the comfort, has a deep meaning in our lives. What is invisibly present seems to have been given to us like the elementary, air, earth, water. It stops being a blessing for which we could optionally be grateful, at least in as much that we look at them. It also stops being a history in which we are involved ourselves. For what is being made, is no longer made to be seen, but to be overlooked. It is therefore made in the same indifferent way with which the underside of the floor is treated. Production evades from our perception and responsibility and the product is there in the way of something that isn’t made, but already there, something that is supposed to be self-evident. That is how the thing drifts away from our world and how it stops being a property; the thing becomes invisible and the property becomes abstract. The owner has an interest in the things, but he does not own the things. The more heated the production works, the more the thing disappears into the production process itself.

If the thing has become invisible, then for the eminently made thing, the work of art, we have to either lift ourselves a little above the floor on which we live and venture into the often pretentious world of modern art, which has distanced itself quite a bit from usability and had to do so, in order to remain visible. It continually has to dissociate itself from the industrial usefulness and the utilitarian world in order not to fall into invisibility along with industrial products. That’s why it has to be noteworthy and pretentious, to the point of affectation. Or: to experience production we have to go back to the time before the industrial revolution and the division of labor, when one man still made a whole product. Such a product of one man, made by hand, is now a work of art. More than a century of invisibility has opened our eyes to the antique utensil, no matter how humble. Every nail or even just a needle, made outside of the factory, has become a work of art.

The more a thing disappears into invisibility, the less it is a thing, and the less we own it. For in its dependence on a framework its is no longer a complete, independent thing and therefore not a thing to own. A television is an important and useful instrument, as is a car. But they are, no matter how expensive, not possessions, where the worthless nail is. They are not because they cannot be separated enough from the technical frame of which they are attributes. The television disappears into the network, by which it’s fed: apart from that it is an embarrassing piece of furniture. A car is a useless thing without a road network, really already when it stands still. That’s why they are possessions in an economical sense, that is in our economy, but not in an anthropological or psychological sense. I can get attached to a painting, not to a car. Thing, possession, can only be what has meaning in and of itself.

III ‘Handmade’

The industrial revolution has changed the things, taken away its character of possession. It is therefore not only an interference in human life, but also in the existence of the things. In his book Life in Multiples Van de Berg demonstrates this abundantly clearly with the examples of the production of needles, leaning on data by Adam Smith and Marx. “The division of labour, that was made possible by the industrial revolution, made a labourer able to, instead of the twenty needles, that he could make himself in a day, make hundreds of thousands. Or really he doesn’t make them anymore; his hand is drawn back from production; the production becomes invisible. You cannot tell by the needles anymore that they’ve been made and how they’ve been made. The needles might have become more useful, but they are no longer things. Throw a thousand needles into a bowl, and there is not a single one that is different from the others. Sprinkle the twenty from yesteryear into the palm of a hand: they are all disparate. The numbers suit this difference -as does the gesture… How many needles have been made across the world since Marx? I don’t know the number, don’t have to know the number, to realise, that this number far exceeds the need. -One cannot say, that needles get worn out? The needles from before Smith, those were being worn out. Needles from the time of Smith, I suspect, were being used frugally. But no one handles needles frugally since Marx. They don’t wear them out. They drop them. For they are worthless.

Multiple, equal, worthless and throw-away. This foursome belongs together and it is surely not just the case with needles. Scarce, unequal, valuable, for wearing out or keeping. This foursome also belongs together, also not just in the case of a needle.

They are two time periods. We live in the second time period (p. 173).” We live in the time period of worthless, invisible things. The things from an earlier period are essentially different. A modern nail is for using or for throwing away, in any case not for being seen. A nail that was made by the village blacksmith a hundred and fifty years ago, to us is a thing, a possession, a work of art.

This is peculiar enough in different aspects. What is now so much desired, namely the somewhat dubious predicate of ‘handmade’ in an industrial world, hasn’t always had this prestige. Before the industrial revolution it was the normal course of events, that the things were made by hand. There wasn’t any other way of making them, also not for artworks. If only for that reason the arts and the crafts were much closer together, or were more or less identical. The step into a mythical past that we make now by admiring handmade work, was a step back into prehistory back then. What was made by human hands did not have prestige, but what was said to be acheiropoietos, made without hands, that is given by the gods to man, fallen from the heavens in perfect completion, did. There are icons that enjoy this prestige. The idea probably harks back to the thought, that in prehistory the things suddenly arose, created by a god in an exemplary way. The things from history are repetitions, imitations of these things from prehistory, which are models. What remains from this prehistory, therefore naturally has a special, divine value. Every thing is the representation and the repetition of a primal thing. And that primal thing, not made by human hands, enjoys the prestige that the idea enjoys with Plato. That is why man shouldn’t create which isn’t already there in a primal shape; it is hubris to design something new. That is why the industrial revolution is so revolutionary; it moves the primal thing from the heavens to the machine. Not the new thing, but only the new machine adds something to the file of the things. The things themselves no longer have an identity.

IV Nature and history

The nail is all the more ‘made’, a product of human hands, albeit an elementary product, because iron, from which it is made, does not have a shape of its own. Iron is without character, amorphous. It does not exist outside of the form, that man gives it. Technique or craft actualises the iron to the thing that it has to become. With marble or wood, as noted by Alain, we can muse about the shapes that slumber in a block. ‘Le fer n’a point de noeuds ni de fibres; la forme qu’il reçoit lui est étrangère.’ (Iron has no knots or fibres; the form it receives is foreign to it.) The veins in marble and the rings in wood can inspire the sculptor to ‘liberate’ certain slumbering shapes. In any case they keep the nature of the material in account. The material has its own beauty, which helps actualise the product. A marble statue is very different from a wooden statue, even if it is carved from an equally big block and from the same model. Material here is to such a high degree important, forming and shaping, that it determines the product. Iron does not have this characteristic. It is completely technical, that is to say dependent on the possibilities of the technique and determined by it. To name a clear example: without fire there is no iron. An enormous leap was made in history, before iron could be handled. When you touch iron, you hold a piece of human history and hubris, a chunk of characterlessness that has been put to the service of man for its often aggressive intentions. It’s not for nothing that in the hierarchy of ages iron was put in the last place; it represents the biggest progress, but also the deepest misery. With iron we think of weapons, of stabbing, penetrating, splitting and carving. It is a human, historical material, that to a certain degree lies outside of nature and what it has to give directly. A piece of iron represents a piece of history. This ascertainment can be specified in several ways. In and of itself it is too elementary to say much at all.

In his book Forgerons et Alchémistes (p. 26) Eliade talks about the ‘holiness’ of iron. ‘Qu’il passe pour tombé de la voûte céleste, ou qu’il soit extrait des entrailles de la Terre, il est chargé de puissance sacrée.’ (‘Whether it is thought to be fallen from the heavenly vault, or is extracted from the bowels of the earth, it is charged with sacred power.’) This holiness in its turn is too all-encompassing to be determined globally. It can contain both the falling from the sky as the being dug from the lap of the earth. Pointing towards the first could possibly be the etymology of the Greek word for iron, ‘sidèros’, that shows kinship to the latin word for star ‘sidus’, genitive: ‘sideris’. Iron is a matter, that falls outside of the normal order, whether it comes from the heavens, whether it just received that name simply because it shines like the stars. For it is this shine that the word indicates. It is a notable accomplishment, with which man steps outside of the order given to him by nature. That is why iron is holy in a different sense than old trees are holy; it is holy in this sense, that it places man opposite himself and his own history. With iron he acquires a responsibility of his own, with which he can target the established order. The archaic shudder for iron is completely comparable to how modern man feels about the immeasurable powers of atomic energy: for that shudder is too, no matter how modern we are, charged with magic and holy. The holiness of iron is a historical fact and has historical suppositions; it hasn’t been given with the form and the nature of the material.

In nature we find iron ore, not iron. Iron doesn’t belong to the trousseau of history, but is one of its most prized accomplishments. The formlessness of the material brings relief to the skills of the Promethean, technical man. An iron object impresses, because it is the fruit of a visible technique. Plastic, on the other hand, just as amorphous as iron and perhaps of even greater use, does not impress: it is the fruit of an invisible technique. It doesn’t pose, the way iron represents the achievements of fire and metalwork. It not just too recent to evoke archaic historical images, but it is also too concealed. In this concealment it is withdrawn from our historical consciousness. And there is another thing: since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the technique has made so many rapid achievements, that it is very difficult in this accelerated progress to make distinctive caesuras, which determine an era. The possibility to split an atom is undoubtedly such a caesura, and we rightly say, that we live in the atomic age now. Until recently we lived in the iron age. A simple nail can awaken our historical consciousness.

The formlessness of iron therefore has a special meaning, inasmuch as it makes us realise history in a special way. However, it doesn’t only make us aware of that history as human hubris and human adventure, but also as a source of realities. The fact that iron isn’t a natural product, and so not like wood and stone been given a certain articulation and form by nature, by which it can be known and to which the operator has to conform to a certain degree in a form of serfdom towards the material and towards the nature which provides it, is connected to the way it was given us, namely as a historical achievement. With ‘given’ we think of a power that determines our being and having and we call this power nature. We find ourselves determined by nature and in nature, as the world we live in we come across the things as given. There is however another world we live in that gives us things, like we have them, that shapes human being and having. That is the world of history. We often say that our existence and our behaviour is culturally determined, and by that we mean that in different cultures and periods, other forms of behaviour and work can be observed. The term nature already loses in this antithesis to culture something of its magical prestige. Man is, we say, to a certain degree free of nature.

History as a determining power goes further. It gives, just like nature gives, and it gives a lot of which it was long thought, that it was given by nature. The prestige of nature, the way it applies in a mythical and essentialist thinking, merges more and more into that of history. One of the most clear examples of this is the theory of evolution. It teaches as history, what was thought to be nature. Evolution is history. The development of species and the burgeoning of higher forms of life is not a given of nature, but of history. Everything is history. But wood and marble are given of the prehuman or besides human history; iron is a given of the human history. It is whole history, conquest of myth. That’s why it sets history present.

V Magic and Symbolism

There is a curious Roman ritual, in which we can see, according to a certain interpretation, a dramatisation of the history-making function of the iron, the nail. At the end of a lustrum, at new years and at centennial, a nail was solemnly beaten into the wall of Jupiter’s temple in the Capitol. According to a very old law, only the highest magistrate, a dictator appointed especially for this, dictator figendi clavi causa, could perform this rite. The historian of religion W. Brede Kristensen gives the following interesting explanation for this. ‘The meaning of this action had apparently been completely forgotten in the time of the writers, which mention it. For nobody would probably settle for their explanation, that the nails were hammered in, so that the next generations could count the number of periods by the nails’ heads. For such work you didn’t need a praetor maximus or a dictator clavi figendi causa. Moreover, the ceremony wasn’t just held periodically, but also on the occasion of self-contained occurrences which had caused great unrest, such as contagious diseases or unheard of crimes. For the calculation of times the nails hammered in then would have been of little use. The action must have had a different use.

It was the last ritual at periodical feasts. That it indeed marked the ending is almost certain, as the nail, clavus, from claudere ‘to close’, in the consciousness of the Romans was a ‘closer’. One could say that the ritual hammering of the nail would be explained by that. But the case is not that simple… No period was simply closed, for it was the form of a imperishable life, including the fall and the rise. In the period the feared divine life order manifested itself, which superseded human interests. Romans called that order fatum… And now it turns out that the nail was the Roman symbol for that.’ (Collected contributions, p. 246) Kristensen does not explain how the nail becomes a symbol of the Fatum, probably because he limits himself too much to only the nail. There are different explanations of the ritual possible, that shed a more clear light on this.

It doesn’t just concern the nail, it concerns a ritualistic action that involves the nail. The nail get hammered into a wall in a ritualistic way. Not the nail as such is a symbol of fatum but more: the nail ritually hammered into a wall. Hammering a nail is a decisive action, to which quite a few religious and magical ideas can attach themselves. An enlightened man like Lichtenberg still wrote: ‘Wenn ich einen Nagel einschlage, nur um etwas anzuheften, so denke ich immer: was wird geschehen, ehe ich ihn wieder herausziehe?’ (‘When I strike a nail just to attach something, I always think: what will happen before I pull it out again?’) The ritualist, therefore emphatic and solemn hammering of a nail, has, like all rituals, a very complex meaning, which can’t be discharged with a simple explanation.It could very well be, that two opposite explanations can be given, neither of which can be dispelled by the nature of the ritual itself. In that case it is also useful to do that, because it sheds light on the nature of the rite. A rite is necessarily poly-interpretable, not just because it consists of a number of consecutive actions, each of which is interpretable in itself, and makes use of things and symbols, each of which are interpretable in themselves, but mostly because it, as a coagulation of all that, is not an efficient action towards a goal, but a fairly desperate action of expression, that comes from the willingness to do something, more than the knowledge what to do. It dramatises the willingness to do something into an imaginary action, which no matter how it is interpreted still remains an action. The hammering of a nail from which nothing is hung, is a decisive action. It forcefully ends a period. The period is as it were nailed to the wall and held in place, to be made clear, rounded to a past whole. The ritual hammering is a marking of historical decision, a way out of a crisis, a decisive turn. That is why most interpretations of the ritual mentioned earlier go in this direction. They see applied in the nail an apotropaeic magic, a means to ward off disaster, an aggressive weapon against demons. But on an Etruscan mirror the inevitable doom Atropos is depicted still as a winged creature with a nail in its hand. Fatum itself handles the nail, to emphasize its irrevocability. Magic, on the other hand, uses the same means, the plague can just as well be hammered as a period.

In magic the nail plays an important role, primarily as an aggressive weapon. Its name ‘nail’ invokes the association with the claw of an animal, ‘spike’ seems to be connected to all kinds of words that have to do with stabbing. In apotropaeic magic nails are used often. They do not only ward off disaster, but also wound the enemy. Instead of directly attacking someone, with the same effect one can stab nails into his footsteps or pierce his likeness with nails. The nail is used to fix a prayer or curse in place. Handling a hammer and nail is such an elementary action, that the useful targeted action it can be, is completely pushed to the side and washed away by primitive dreams of power and aggression, which accompany the action and, given a certain degree of desperation, that turn it into a action of pure expression. That a nail is used in the action of expression, means, that it has been completely integrated into the lives of humans, as it was made by history. It has become completely human and this has a deep meaning for its symbolical value.

That iron naturally does not have its own shape, but is handled in historically grown and confirmed shapes, doesn’t meanwhile imply, that those shapes haven’t also been determined by nature. This happens in two ways. Firstly by human ‘nature’, the fundamentals of man. The nails gets its shape from man and it is inevitable that its shape would get human characteristics, as it were. All of the archaic technique is anthropomorphic, thanks its shape and existence not just to its efficiency, but also to the human world, to which it is added as a visible historical achievement. The archaic, still visible technique is a proud extension of the human body and has been designed after its analogy. A hammer is a stronger and harder fist, a shoe is the sole of a foot, a jug is a belly. Man’s responsibility for its technique is easier to bear, the more it fits to the world of his physique, therefore when it isn’t completely designed by himself, but in consultation of what has already been given. That especially the genitals have had an important meaning in this, has been made very clear from numerous psycho-analytical researches, especially relating to weapons of attack like the sword and the spear, but also with ‘aggressive’ tools like the plough. It is certain without a doubt, that the human body itself has inspired technical shapes. That is also obvious, for it is with his body that man stands within and in front of the world, it is his first and most technical given. It is therefore too very much a possibility and even a probability, that the shape of the nail has been co-determined by the phallic symbolism that the psycho-analytics emphasise in the first place, and that it owes its magical prestige to that for a large part.

But that is still not all. The shape is also determined by the nature of the material, with which it is brought into contact, for example wood. That shape is not a self-powered fantasy of a narcissistic dreaming, but a product of a consultation with the nature of wood etc. This is where tool and art differ. But it is precisely this archaic efficiency, which so clearly shows a remainder of symbolism, which fascinates us so much in old tools. They are the paragon of humanised, historicised matter. That is why they are so fascinating to look at.


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