Category Archives: words

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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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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Wonder

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

Wonder

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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Work

In honor of what would have been his 86th birthday, a translation of one of his ‘dear words’, touching on his own love of work.

Work

One of the most beautiful and interesting meanings in which the word ‘work’ is used, seems to have to do the least with the activity and toiling that usually comes to mind when we hear that word. In this case it’s more so used for an undergoing than for a doing. Wood, for example, has been said, in Dutch, to always keep ‘working’. I can still hear a wood specialist sneeringly add to it that it’s because wood is not a civil servant. In that expression ‘work’ does not represent the execution of a more or less productive activity, but rather the undergoing of outside influences. Wood working means it is not as unchangeable as a lifeless piece of stone, but that it reacts to for example drought or warmth in its environment by shrinking and moaning. This working is a putting to work of what occurs and the reality is that which can be put to work. With such a word all kinds of deep thoughts can present themselves about the essence of things. Just the mere fact that it is used for both the active influencing or bringing about effects, as for the passive undergoing of influences, is a compelling reason for that.

With both one and the other, the accomplishing and the undergoing, we usually appear to think of big efforts and moaning and therefore more of the process of toil and sweat than of work the result of which can fill the hard worker with exceptional pride and that can surprise him as an unexpected gift. Perhaps toiling invokes such sad associations because nothing in the process points unequivocally in the direction that the result of the work will be something to be proud of. You cannot indicate a necessary connection between the amount of effort and the quality of the result. I think that even the human desire to work, to toil and to abide, cannot be completely explained with the certainty that it will ever lead to something exceptional. Humans too are in their nature not civil servants. Getting acquainted with the obstinate reality in the form of putting it to work and undergoing it is no less dear to them than the glory of the result. Their hands’ work is also dear to them by the efforts they have put into it, or by the fact that, despite all insecurities, it has succeeded. This is where a comparison between sport and work becomes obvious.

Where work, as opposed to sport, is exclusively seen as a groaning expended effort, it also becomes obvious that the work sooner or later ends up in the rather uninspiring social context of coercion and slavery. There it loosens from the stimulating chance of succeeding, ahead of time others are already counting on the results and the word starts to mean something like: painful servitude to another who will pluck the fruits of your labor, who himself will not have to work to the sweat of his brow, or: belonging to the labouring class that would rather not work, for they are not working for themselves. For also the history of labour and the words for it are full of sweat and moaning in favour of another who is the boss and employer. The phrases that go with it are if possible even more ruthless than the harsh reality itself. In them, labour is a curse or a fate granted only to mankind. Work is not desire, but duty. And whoever is allowed to quit working or gets a holiday, returns according to a new version of an old myth, back to a paradisiacal state.

Cornelis Verhoeven

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Spirit

The words that are most dear to us are often the most difficult to elucidate. With that also comes some hesitation when asked to do so or voluntarily offering. This might be a matter of sentiment, a resistance against every analysis of dear emotions. It can also be a consequence of a historical awareness of the complicated knots in which such a word has been tangled and from which whole clusters of meanings have sprouted forwards. With the word ‘spirit’ those metaphorical clusters can be unraveled in a great number of associations, all of which are interesting and hard to understand. I think I can distinguish two groups, one that has to do with the spirit that is in us, which makes us spiritual and spirited, and one that is about the spirit outside of us and there for example blows where it will. I further think that in a language like ancient Greek there were separate words for this too, one that can be translated as ‘awareness’ and that is derived from ‘exhaling’ and ‘blowing’. ‘Spirit’ is a translation of both and that’s one of the reasons why its meaning has become so complicated.

In the first cluster ‘spirit’ refers to an ability within us, a principle of life that makes us live and be aware of that. There is a certain preference for an upward movement in the development of this word. Spirit is not only higher than dust and from that level opposite to it, but also within the inner self there seems to arise an opposition between ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ in which spirit is granted a higher place, more chance of eternity and a greater intellectual weight. But no matter how high it rises, ‘spirit’ in this meaning is within us as a property. About what I have in that area I can speak of as ‘my’ spirit and I can try to use that as an instrument in my attempts to formulate what stirs my spirit with this word. I can then only hope that it stirs the same in other spirits, for what only stirs my spirit is a precarious property. If my spirit and my awareness aren’t windows that provide a view to a shared inhabited word, then they only represent my particular insanity.

In the second cluster, which is even more dear to me, ‘spirit’ doesn’t refer to an ability or something that is within me, unless I settled for the lower part of it, as it were. In the Greek ‘pneuma’ and the Latin ‘spiritus’ that is ‘breath’, something warm and dear that we have within us and every once in a while can communicate with others. But on the upper side of its meaning, where it is its most beautiful, its most divine and its most enigmatic, the spirit withdraws itself totally from our possession, our disposal and our temperature. There, it isn’t ‘my’ spirit, but ‘the’ spirit, the wind, that blows where it wants -in any case not where we want it to. It might be opposite to the letter that kills, but it is just as much an unexpected gust of storm that can swipe away letters and literalness. That spirit we don’t posses, but we say of it that it can come over us as a force we don’t know and of which we are not the proud owners. Precisely at the moment when ‘spirit’ evades our grip and sooner relates to our inabilities than to what we might be able to do, exactly there where our activity becomes an awaiting stance and a passivity, the word reaches its zenith in the development of its meaning.

 spirit

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Soul

‘Soul’ is, in my eyes, the most dear, most helpless, most ambiguous, most misused and most ridiculed word in our language. When someone acknowledges the existence of the separate soul, next to and above the body, they’ll probably be met with some skepticism. For we can’t see the soul and what we can’t see, we’re better of doubting or denying, according to a popular way of thinking, even if this denial would only contribute to the bareness of our existence. Then the soul quickly becomes, as a product of systematic and constructive thinking, one of the superfluous hypotheses. But when we call a diligent and enthusiastic person the ‘soul’ of a company, we can count on some understanding. For then we don’t use the word with the crushing literal-mindedness that always instigates some skepticism in thinkers. For they are most critical about anything they suspect they could have come up with themselves and they seem to prefer living with a barren truth than with an illusion. But we can only dream up such a choice.

So in order to be taken seriously ourselves we have to, remarkably, not take the word ‘soul’ too seriously or literally and therefore also distance ourselves a little from the word’s weight and gravity. It means that we in our use of the word already take into account the skepticism that it might incur. So what can this intellectual offer mean, when we don’t regard it as a simple concession to the triumphantly ruling, but on closer inspection arid banality, that without any reflection seems to come to the same findings? Perhaps ‘soul’ is in its literalness too big a word to simply reduce it to worn out coins of change in conversation. But it doesn’t seem too absurd to me to think, that the word precisely in its literalness, as an indication of the core of a person, as a principle of life or even as an immortal element, doesn’t do justice to what we mean when we for example talk about the ‘soul’ of a company or a beloved one, that the word therefore is always an image. It indeed seems too big for literalness, for its meaning always goes royally above and beyond that.

Does this mean, that ‘soul doesn’t denote reality? Thinking in terms of a living core and a separately existing substance, it to me seems fairly dubious. But when we think with the word about the unique character and inconvertibility of every individual person and especially of the fact, that a living being is not just a convertible part of a whole, an item on a long list, but something that exists outside of our thoughts and is a living, unthinkable reality, the case changes and then the emphasis isn’t on the word as a product of thought and order, but on something that evades that, on an element of inconceivability in an existence of which we in the end are merely surprised witnesses. That is pre-eminently what we call existence. There is therefore a lot to say for the thesis that the skepticism surrounding the word ‘soul’ is not based on realism or a desire for reality, however it may turn out to be, but on the contrary on the will to manipulate it and to deny the existence of everything that resists that, first and foremost the soul.

Cornelis Verhoeven

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If

In my opinion ‘if’ is the most philosophical and at the same time also -and perhaps precisely because of this- the most honed conjunction. It is often regarded as a little word for dreamers who want to put up a border around reality in its coincidental appearance against everything that could just as well be possible, or would be. With ‘if’ we preface assumptions that have to do with that. That way it contributes to a dislocation of obviousness, which is a pre-eminently philosophical activity. Sometimes all that’s needed for it is a trifle. If for example Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, Pascal thought, the whole face of the earth would have changed. People with a sense of reality, or at least with a sense of the way they have to come across as though they have a realistic view of things, don’t want to hear of such talk. They refuse to entertain questions that begin with ‘if’ and they’ve learned from their grandparents that if the skies fall, we all wear blue hats. Especially vigorous administrators have a dislike of questions that start with ‘if’. Even though the word belongs to the verbal package of the foresight that government is supposed to be, they prefer to just see to it when we get there and therefore to dispense of foresight and prefer to decisively react in the moment itself, so to improvise rather than to foresee.

There is an ‘if’ as in ‘in case of’ in which the future and its foresight are the subject; and there is an ‘if’ that relates to the past, so two types of ‘if this happens’ and ‘if this happened or had happened’. The first one is called realis, not because it really happens, but because the speaker leaves open the possibility that it will happen sooner or later, and the second is called irrealis, because the speaker is convinced that it hasn’t happened and can not happen anymore. He complies with its inevitable consequences, but is aware that it might as well could have happened. In the case of Cleopatra’s nose, Pascal was speaking in the irrealis. And when I say ‘if I lived in the middle ages’, I thereby express that I can only dream of that, but it also gives me a certain perspective on the life I lead now, not on the way I should arrange it, but on the fascinating coincidences that make it like it is now. Sentences with ‘if’ are always about the present. They give relief to a reality against a background of possibilities of which we’re trying to form an image.

Because decisive and practical realists appear not to dream and because they mix up dreaming and contemplating and realis and irrealis, to them everything that seems to be reality also seems to be obvious, and thoughts of all that is not reality, are then also nonsense. In their eyes nothing could have been different from what it became. That it, coincidentally or not, is what it is, means that it must be that way too. That it was a hair’s width and everything would have been completely different or hadn’t existed at all, does not seem to matter to them; that it does exist and is what it is, they undergo without any trace of surprise. Or maybe, I think in an attempt to save a piece of their soul, they just pretend, to restrain others from plunging into the abyss of wonder?

moth

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