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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Symbolism of the foot, 1956

60 years ago today Cornelis Verhoeven got his PhD on his thesis Symboliek van de voet (symbolism of the foot). He describes how he came up with the idea of the book as follows; he had written three essays of together more than 300 pages, the third and most lyrical being the one for history of religion, called ‘symbolism of the foot’:

“The idea for which i’d come up with a few years earlier, walking in the street behind a girl who had something devine in her movements and who also in other ways highly fascinated and confused me. I was surprised that the asphalt under her feet remained indifferent, that it wouldn’t wave under the clatter of her sandals, and that no flowers sprouted forth from it, such as it happens in mythology when a goddess approaches and strides past. Of course i fell in love with this goddess, followed her ways and found her address, but my careful and shy advances were not appreciated. And with the first surly glance i had already set for the horizon. Maybe she dreamt of a young god in a red sports car  who would take her with him to the full life on beaches far away. As far as i know he never appeared. I myself started to suspect that also in amorous ways i was not born for a grand and thrilling life. But my enthusiasm about the idea of a carpet of flowers underneath the feet of a goddess did not suffer from it; it had in the mean time gained its own meaning and undisturbedly followed its own dynamic. A bit of a broken heart is also intellectually interesting.”

From ‘De glans van oud ijzer’ (‘The shine of old iron’), Cornelis Verhoeven.

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Updream, part I

Considerations about a childlike element in philosophy


The beginning of my exposition seems not to matter much, for isn’t the beginning doomed to be offset by the continuation and by what it concerns in the end? If there is, in the area that I now set foot in, a core of the matter, and if that takes a central place, then there must be lots of ways and entrances to reach it, a bit like how all roads are said to lead to Rome. And if that core isn’t there or if it’s too puny, too wide or too vague to point out, then the long loop of the detour around the area in which it is located, the detour we have to make in life and thought to return to the obviousness that we started from and that we tried to replace with a reflexive certainty, despite its futility has still been an unavoidable Odyssey to the place we already were when we started the detour. The question of the point of something which turns out to be necessary, is superfluous and reaches above our capacities. No one can know how much winding up is needed, or even must be mobilized purposely, to ever unwind and be content with what little we can dispose of from the outset.

From the beginning into which I want to tie this consideration, I’m not even sure if it’s just an expression of astonishment about existence or a question about the point and the meaning of all. It stems from a childlike train of thought that might have already taken the linguistic shape of a question, but perhaps would sooner like to share the question with whom it is asked to than that it expects a definitive answer to it.

One evening, when I was bringing my son, who was six years old at the time, to bed, he suddenly asked: “How can I know that I’m not dreaming everything now?” The question sounded guileless and didn’t give the impression that it was the product of a long mental struggle with questions too big and too precocious and probably not just for him. I even thought, in a surge of maturity that kids can provoke, that it more suited his age than mine. For grown ups are supposed to not even mention anymore the questions they don’t know the answers to.

His day had been, as far as I could tell, sooner been saturated by pleasures than that it could have been cause to a quick forgetting or a writing off. He’d rather wanted to hold on to the day and what had happened than see it disproved as a mistake. And apparently he was experimenting at that moment with a possibility that adults are ashamed of, that is to believe in an existence he didn’t share with anyone, that existed solely in his imagination and from which that outside world had been thought away or in which it had conversely been made up. In the mean time it didn’t seem at all, not in the least from his drowsy sleepiness, that the dream he had made up seemed like an oppressive nightmare from which he’d like wake right at the point of going to sleep. It sooner belonged to the rituals that would have to be rigged just so he could sleep without worrying about the continuity of his world. He wouldn’t have to be the sole wakeful watchman in a sleeping universe.


On second thought, is this a question that demands a serious answer, so an answer that is more than a comforting adjuration? And can anybody ever answer it in a sufficiently businesslike manner? We could probably dismiss it as childish, but with that we’d only say something truly meaningful if at the same time it was also clear, that all childishness as the initial phase of human life has the status of provisionality and is doomed to disappear without trace from a life and a way of thought that claim to have real validity and have reached a definitive stage. Then all of childhood would be superfluous and every memory of it pointless. I sooner have the tendency to regard that time and the memories of it as normative and decisive. Then indeed would this decisive beginning be random and could it be crossed out against the continuation.

In the mean time I didn’t know the answer and therefore just said, that we, if it did concern a dream, probably dreamt the same thing. We went through some of the details and soon came to the conclusion that it had to be that way. We also dreamt the same father, the same son, the same house on the same address, the same room and the same bed. And moreover we had to assume that others too, who would see us there, for example his mother and his sister, would come to the same conclusion at the same moment as us.

If that was the case, at least there would be a familiar circle around him which in very different heads dreamed the precise same thing as he did. Within that circle there was a communal world. If we now assumed that the world limited itself to that circle, then within it he could feel relatively safe and talk about anything that went on inside him. But outside it he could also discover, on the street and in school, that apparently everyone sees the same things, hears the same sounds, and gets out of the way for the same cars by the same brand.

The easiest way to explain why it is that we have the impression that we all experience the same things, is to assume that all those things are real and aren’t dreamt by all the people at the same time and in the same way. For then the differences in all those dreams would have to be so big that people couldn’t talk in the same language. And the things are just there, when we are awake; they remain while we sleep, and they don’t change, no matter what we dream.


That’s how he could know, I explained, that he didn’t dream. He seemed to be very content with that and fell asleep peacefully. But I had to think a bit more about the word ‘how’ in his question. For that doesn’t just mean ‘in what way’, so that the answer can be ‘so’, but also ‘to which degree’, so that gradations of probability and certainty can be given.

In what way and how certain can I then know that I’m not dreaming and that the things outside of me and which I’m concerned about, actually exist? For a shared experience of a communally observed world too can be dreamt. There are no possibilities, no matter how unlikely, that can be thought of where the realization cannot be dreamt. The dreamer isn’t accountable for the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the things he dreams. He just sees them before him, and what we just see before us without understanding it and without being able to relate to it actively, of those things we could start to think that we’re dreaming them too.

Once that possibility has been discovered, there appear to be no more limits, not to dreaming, and not to the doubting that the suspicion that we are dreaming can give way to. His dream did that too. It was a dreamed, thought up dream, a dream without images or certainties, a reflected dream in parentheses and within a loop, in which at the same time also the whole world and the mutual coordination of all things and thoughts were included.

His question also could have been: “does anything really exist, apart from myself?” ‘Dream’ would then have been another word for a way of thinking, in which we realize that thinking is a precarious affair and that we are only thinking and not knowing for sure. Then I should have maybe told the story of “I think therefore I am” and the fantasies of René Descartes (1596 – 1650), about an eventual evil genius, who presents us with a whole world, including our thoughts about it.

The question did assume the ‘I’ and the certainty that can be reached from this point, but the existence thereof wasn’t in question -everything else was. For a six year old child the own existence seemed sufficiently embedded into a ‘we’ that could guarantee a jointly habited world that could be regarded as the real world, even if only because that world is shared with others.


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philosophy and freediving

Cornelis’ son Daan Verhoeven talks about how his father’s philosophy influenced his underwater photography:

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To wait

It is questionable if, by contemplation on the word ‘wait’, the impatience of those waiting in a line or on a list would be quelled. When there is also an encouragement to be patient and forbearing tied into it, the suspicion becomes obvious that such a contemplation is in service of those in power, who would intently make us wait to press upon us our dependence. For this is the type of thought we involuntary get when confronted with a respite we don’t understand the reason for. Impatience isn’t always the tyrannical demand to immediately be served: it can also be a clear insight into the tendency of some people to measure their weight by the laborious inertia with which they let all the rotors of their apparatus turn with each other, so that it does make an audible industrious crunching and humming, yet there is no detectable progress. ‘This slowness fits large affairs’ said Vondel, and he must have had in mind the ritual delays that bring those who wait to such rage and that are applied mostly by sectors that so humbly call themselves ‘care’ and ‘service’ to derive their sense of gruff importance from it.

If we in the meantime, doomed to wait anyway, dig deeper into the sound and provenance of the verb ‘to wait’, then we can imagine that there have to be two forms of ‘wait’, the one of those waiting in line and the other of ‘waiters’. Those who wait think they know what they’re waiting for, even if it is just the moment that a new time of waiting begins; and they’d like to reduce the time of waiting, the respite of fulfilment, to zero, for they see it as a loss and a needless delay. The other waiters are the waking, those who are awake. They don’t know what they are waiting for, or: in reality they are solely waiting for the unexpected that can occur at any time. Their attention isn’t geared towards time passing, but to a world where something unexpected, something dangerous or something wondrous, can happen. Our consciousness exist by the grace of such a wakefulness to the world; and wise people therefore also say that life is waiting, aimed at the opportunities that the moment will allow us and at what the future will bring us in surprises also without our interference. It can happen at any time; we never know when; we live in a lifelong postponement and in continuous dependence on forces we don’t know.

Possibly the intriguing difference between one waiting and the other or between waiting for and waiting on lies precisely in that knowledge and perception. That knowledge makes our respite into a useless room of which only boredom can be expected. It is harder to act patient and tolerant towards powers we think we know, that are comparable to us, and that we don’t want to subjugate ourselves to, than it is to take a wait-and-see stance facing the superiority of the anonymous reality and the impenetrable laws of nature or fate, that we are subject to without knowing how or why. An alert openness to an unknown future that cannot be filled in by us is more passive than to join a long and measurable queue, but it leaves less room for impatience, because there is no single way to actively get involved in it. Vigilant waiting seems to derive its contemplative purity from the powerlessness of the contemplator, from his willingness to succumb to a force majeure that always turns out to be more fascinating than something we can come up with ourselves.


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Persistence (from ‘Against Violence’)

      1. Persisting

In the ideology of activity, the phraseology of the postponed, misunderstood fury, the necessity of activity is elevated to a virtue and every form of passivity is degraded to a vice. With this, thought is denied its contemplative character, for contemplation is yielding to the violence of reality. A power is demanded of philosophy that it does not have and could not have without denying its own inspiration. That power would be the consequence with which it would assert itself practically. But the only way thought is directly in touch with practicality, is the annoyance. It is preferable to chose technique as mediation over fury. Thought has to be expressed with faith in the word, even though it is considered as ‘nothing but’ the ‘phonetic shadow of the deed’, an indication with which Trotsky, as is a long Marxist custom, reverses an old way of thinking. For Plotinus calls the practicality in which active people flee because they’re too weak for contemplation ‘a shadow of contemplation and reason’. [6] But thought should not venture into the infinity of this contradiction. For the time being the word is its product, the term of its activity. Thought can not add to that the deed as its product, nor can it oppose the deed. It can not directly persist as a deed, because in its powerlessness it cannot command the respite. Even designing a Utopian framework is of a dangerous arbitrariness, when it inspires deeds and that inspiration does not have technical means. The continuity in a goal-means-diagram, in which the means are an appeal to the activity and the goal an appeal to passivity, contemplation, can be guarded by thought, but not guaranteed.

Violence is also an occurrence that becomes a suffering by blind persistence. When persisting makes the practical consequence into an absolute by denying passivity, it can only become a furious perseverance and therefore violence. As a temporary bridging of passivity by activity, persistence always has to maintain a large resilience so that it will not result in a meaningless jump over the void. As a partial and temporary suspension of lust it can not become its complete denial or poisoning. From a goal-means-diagram point of view that holds that the means are never totally and solely means, but can also be the lust object of passive yielding or a suffering. Violence then is an activity that makes something into solely means, and persisting is a meaningless, dispassionate and hurried passing by of everything that lies between the start and goal. Like activity and passivity are indivisible, but together form life and thought, so goal and means, making good use and selfless enjoyment, are never clearly divided and the path of life can never be determined by any form of ‘persisting’ without it leading to morbidity and self-destruction.

The cult of activity, use and persisting creates suspicions towards the lingering lust and makes it as much an impossibility as yielding to suffering. This way lust and perseverance become opposite valuation principles that in their hypothesized form poison ethical life, and therefore all of life. For where persisting turns against lust and contemplation out of principle, it can only justify itself in a phraseology of perseverance and the deed itself, and it can only double its disastrous effects in a circle of insanity, in which it would irrevocably end up. For like lust and sorrow are a product of contact with reality and affirm that contact, so persisting as a suspense of lust and denial of sorrow is an alienation. Here, impotence reaches its definitive absurdity.

persistence III-3840

Translator’s note: on October 19th, 1956, Cornelis Verhoeven received his doctorate after successfully defending his thesis ‘Symbolism of the foot’. He normally wouldn’t celebrate his birthday (unless forced to), but this day he did.

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Without a sigh -last part

March 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 7

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

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

March 8

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


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