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.

symbolism of the foot

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


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

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

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

george lotus-8634

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