Attention

In his book ‘The direction of reality’ Marc Schabracq said something about attention that struck me. Namely that he doesn’t so much connect it to the raising of the ears, like we see in dogs, but more so the focussing of the eyes on a certain point; and he is of the opinion that it concerns a goal oriented process here. Consequentially, the foundations of this seem to be a deliberate selection from the multitude of things that are discernible within the bandwidth that limits our perception. For we cannot see everything that is in principle visible and we can’t raise our ears to what we can’t hear. I quote a short piece: “In everyday life attention is a goal oriented process. (…) We usually don’t just pay attention to something and we don’t just divide the world into separate occurrences and objects. The object of our attention represents for us a meaning that can have consequences for us in the light of our own goals and actions.” What is of importance in this description seems to me the assumption that the initiative for attention comes from the observer himself and not from striking things that involuntarily draw our attention by alarming or fascinating us.

It seems unmistakable to me that attention always has this ordering function, or serves it, but I doubt if it’s always this goal-oriented and actively chosen and used as a means. There is within the waiting and waking that attention is always also room for the unexpected that, as the object of attention, remains undetermined. And the way we usually use the word does not exclude, but moreover seems to imply, that attention isn’t our own product or a deed from our will, but that it is drawn from outside and is commanded by something that stands out by its own importance, without us having to do anything for it. Attention can also overtake us and be imposed upon us. The object of our chosen attention can be supplanted by something else that draws the first attention away. The effect of which is that our image of a whole doesn’t become any clearer, but in fact gets disrupted. We can no longer make sense of it and the necessity of a completely other and no less temporary ordering of the whole can suddenly present itself. In attention as a form of wonder the things suddenly lose their matter of factness and ask for a renewed estimation.

Attention is, I think, not an instrument we can use at will.For a practical life, in which we strive for our own goals with a certain stubbornness -also a form of attention- this can have its drawbacks. It seems more like absent-mindedness than concentration. But for a contemplative attitude or for a way of thinking that isn’t directly geared towards a product, that change of perspective can be very fascinating and even very fertile after some time. It is that especially because almost all other perspectives lead to new insights. Or, in less relative terms, attention, whether produced from within or imposed from without, always pays off. Reality derives a large part of its meaning from the fact that it is the subject of concentrated and dedicated attention. Things apparently thrive in a form of attention in which they are allowed to be present and not be neglected.

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Don’t forget the whip

Notes on a statement by Nietzsche.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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Relationships with the dead

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

5

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.

6

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.

7

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.

8

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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Cradle

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’.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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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.

chickens

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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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