Tag Archives: autobiography

February 29, night

He is calmly asleep and we are reading a book. In as far as we had hoped for recuperation, we have abandoned that hope by now. He refuses to eat and only rarely wants to drink. It is apparent he wants nothing more than to die. But we don’t know what is going on inside of him. We interrogate him sternly in search for words that can give us any meaning. But he is confused and tired, far away from us.

When we lift him into his chair, he stares vacantly and bewildered into space, with an open mouth and dangling head. He is a shade, a rest of the father we had. But that is precisely why, because it is the last opportunity, that I still want to ask him a lot of questions. Today he recognised and named people that he hasn’t seen in years. He responds more to certain voices than to ours, especially those of old acquaintances and authority figures. I don’t know what that is. We exchange suppositions about it that according to our mood imply accusations towards or excuses for him. Perhaps in his condition older memories come up quicker and we fall outside of his horizon. It is also possible that our presence and our names are too self-evident and because of that are left out. Then it would be our mistake to want to examine him. But it appears as though an emphatic and authoritative voice appeals to his politeness or his obedience. With the doctor he almost talked normally. ‘I’m a bit lazy,’ he said and I have to assume that within this statement lies some reflection about his state. When Janine, after a somewhat sternly formulated request from her side, gives him something to drink, he take more than usual and says ‘dank ouw’ (thank thou). That is a very old-fashioned and rather emphetical form of ‘dank oe’. He is living in a different time, we’re not there yet.

I’m writing a letter to Sjaak in America to report to him. When I ask father if I should send his regards, he clearly says ‘yes’. ‘Should I say anything else?’ ‘Not much.’ Does he mean that he’s ‘not much’ anymore or does he only want to convey that, where he is concerned, everything has already been said? I’m beginning to suspect that he means much less than we are inclined to think and than what we have a need of. Words that cannot be illustrated and explained also have nothing to mean. We can mull it over and think about it endlessly, but in communication with the one speaking them they have no function anymore.


Leave a comment

Filed under essay

The moment

Never before has it been this quiet here. Four weeks I’ve been in this little summer home and there’s always been something that emphatically reminded me of the outside world and my prehistory, even if it was only my own homesickness and the throbbing of my rancour. Now there is a dome of peace over my dwelling. The silence is total and massive. There is no sound and there is no movement. It swallows up everything, including me and my paltry history. There is only this moment, a saturated standstill and a heaven on earth.

Everything has gathered under this bell jar of peace, my drunken thoughts, memories and furtive desires, but especially the breath of my children. My boy lies asleep with his little butt up on the couch and the little girl, her bear pressed against her, is dreaming in the open loft. In a while I’ll go to sleep there too. Slowly I’m already drifting in that direction by the peacefulness of this instant, after all those weeks of storm a reservoir of calm.

daan slaapt zw (1 of 1)

It was only this afternoon that I was waiting by the garden fence for the miracle. I had been put in the nuthouse and longed at the gate for the wide world and real life; I was in boarding school and my frivolous mother no longer thought of me. I was ashamed of my lunacy. Just in case someone would pass by, I repeatedly bent forward as though I was diligently weeding. A goddess would appear to tell me that everything had been the consequence of a misunderstanding; she would touch me with a magic wand and end the nightmare. She came when I had realized the impossibility of my desire and had locked myself in again. She hasn’t changed anything, but also hasn’t infected the moment with homesickness. All is well and my head is full of Händel.

The dogs, formidable guardians of this domain, didn’t raise their voices when she came. Suddenly she stood inside with the light of the autumn afternoon surrounding her like a nimbus. I didn’t know what to say and stared speechless at an angel from heaven. It turns out she already knew my story and well, it isn’t that special. She left, like she had appeared, just as mysterious, and it seemed as though she’d been erased. I’ve already forgotten the colour of her eyes: was it amber or the underside of a fresh hazelnut? The image fades and in the movie gets replaced by the wave of a lisping weeping willow.

The mist makes the world small; but what I don’t see is not there. There is nothing and there shall be nothing; everything is now and it is here. For the absurd happiness of a meagre existence it suffices that it is. The lamp above the table marks a space that fits around us precisely, a circle in which everything that is elemental is collected and saved. This space I can fill with the remnants of my heroism. Two beings entrust themselves blindly and with joy to my poor protection. I owe my strength to the fact that they don’t know my weakness, a blessed misunderstanding and the greatest gift of children.

The twinges of misplaced resoluteness which have plagued my existence for years as a gout of willpower, ebb away in a world that is no longer there. I search in vain for words that are small enough for the ineffability of this situation. I wish I could hush about it with someone in the same language.

At their arrival, late in the afternoon at the agreed hour, the children looked at me inquisitively again, like puppies gauging their owner’s mood. What they understand of the situation is primarily that I look forward to their arrival for six days and don’t always succeed in hiding the feelings that are connected to it. Today their insecurity didn’t have to last long and we could start immediately with the familiar rituals of walking, eating and playing. They enjoyed themselves exuberantly, even with my primitive cooking, and feel completely at home in this little house. For them this is vacation and luxury. I’ve succeeded in keeping it that way and not to speak of what moves me. My story is not theirs; my job now is not to let them know who I am, but to share their blessed superficiality and to save my life.

I have two anchors that hold me in the harbour or two balls chained to my leg that prevent me from leaving, depending on how I want to look at it. Now they are the anchors that guard me from being blown away. Their weight keeps me on the surface. I’m still something thanks to the fact that they hold on to me. Their childlike trust gives substance to my existence. Never before have I understood what an anchor has to do with hope. Now it becomes clear to me that that hope needn’t be geared towards a distant future or another world, but that it also is a certainty about a moment that bears closest resemblance to captivity.

I’m sitting at the table and via a long detour of enforced maturity come back to myself. I think of what the angel said at my grave: “You can’t even be unhappy.” It sounded a bit like mocking, not a reproach connected to one of the many things I turn out not to be able to do, but more as the observation of a curious fact. I often have the feeling that I was cast from sheer melancholy, but I still, also in this recent situation, can’t really believe in my sadness, nor in my anger. With big emotions I always think of an opera. Even the most bitter thoughts at this moment are more something I can randomly think of or an arrow that I can shoot at others than a breach in the indestructibility of my own minimum.

Is there a hand that protects us here? I know it’s not mine, though I wish it were. I also can’t picture a divine hand and feel less religious than ever, unless religion suddenly became something else than it’s ever been. There would be room for a goddess, but she appears in too much light and disappears into the mist. I wouldn’t even want to know the address of whoever I’d potentially be grateful to for the mercy of this moment. That knowledge alone would puncture the bell jar and suck me away to a space in which I’d get lost or get alienated from the little beings with whom I share this space. There are no threads from this moment to another time or place, it cannot be traced back, held in place or repeated. If it could, I am not interested in it now. I hardly move, for I want to let sleeping dogs lie.

For a brief moment there is movement in the bump on the couch. I am ready to spring into action, but it is no more than a reassuring sign of life, a sigh that confirms presence. The smile on his face seems the greeting of a passing angel, a ripple over a still fen. For the first time in all this while, I don’t feel pity, but sooner something like jealousy, now that I look at him and try to surmise what stirs in him. Anyone that can doze that blissfully, I assure myself, does not feel betrayed and extradited to an incomprehensible arbitrariness. He rubs in his nest and has no idea yet of the dizziness that can wash over him when he starts to look over the edge. Now there is no edge, for all is round and closed; there is nothing outside the sphere of this small universe.

The silence is definitive and takes hold of me. The lisp of the weeping willow is no more than the sigh of a sleeping child and the graveyard is a spot of endless trust, kept awake by the living listening to the willows.

At the borders of my own silence stirs still the watchfulness of the nightly worrier who imagines himself the shepherd of the world, the only light in a massive night. The old and dear cliché blends with the dying music in my head. Everything that ever was is there now and I am the only one to witness it.

I catch myself whispering the word ‘pettifoggery’ and hoping that it exists. To me it means that the measly tossing and turning of the why of all these painful occurrences stops torturing me. The why is outside of the instant of pure presence. The tormenting question of the blame of this separation now has no relevance. The answers, as innumerable as random, can no longer hurt or please me. They no longer appeal to an urge for deeds that has given me so much disappointment already. Under this bell jar all I have to be is the motionless witness to my situation and do I no longer have to pretend to have manners reasonably in hand.

Can a moment of happiness be the balance between a shameful past and a worrisome future, a quiet between storms and therefore no more than a natural occurrence? The question is in front of my eyes as though printed, a somewhat impertinent title for a mandatory assignment, but it doesn’t interest me and brings nothing into motion. Any answer is fine by me, but even the most weighty one won’t impress me. I don’t want to know what happiness is and I’ve got nothing to do with it. For me it never has to be about anything more than what’s happening here now on this island in the mist.

I am slowly disappearing and shrivelling into the minimum that is necessary to still be witness and identify traces of happiness. The inflated me-soufflé with all its pretensions crumbles without a sound; but what remains is still big enough to contain no less than everything. For that, it turns out no more is required than a little spot of light that is saved from the mist. Never was what I did or presented good enough, but now, while I do nothing and shrink to a minimum, I am completely content with what I did and neglected to do.

It is a liberation to lose all that can be taken away and then to see what remains, how little that is, how essential and how sufficient. The more I’m thrown back to myself, the less I think about myself. Whatever now still stirs in me as worries is the almost solemn translation of superfluous problems into a very small certainty. I don’t have to make any more resolutions, nor transfer some exalted feeling into an expensive oath, for there is nothing anymore outside of this instant.

Something moves underneath the roof tiles, a mouse or a sparrow. The rustle moves to above the loft and draws a scratch over the bell jar. There has to be a leak somewhere through which guileless but awake life penetrates to take over my space. My space? I’m here by coincidence and nothing is mine.

Yesterday, to console myself, I bought a pocket knife, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Knives are one of my old passions, one I can’t understand or eradicate. As a child I’d often go searching randomly, hoping to find a knife; sometimes that worked. The little knife now lays open on the table, its aggressive pike mouth jauntily forward, ready to bite. I can still throw it with a flat hand into a tree trunk. I’ve often wondered, what pulls me so irresistibly to such a hostile thing. Now I seem to see, that it must be its perfection. Pocket knives are like cats. We wouldn’t find those as sweet either if they didn’t have, next to the soft fur, also such dangerous nails. The perfection of their organisation exists in that they combine what seems to exclude each other, and that they succeed in it in a guileless way and on a scale that is manageable.

What is not here now, is outside the reach of my will and my memory. What seemed unimaginable has happened, but also afterwards it remains so unimaginable, that I can not only not understand it, but I also can’t remember it. Never before have I had to listen to more wisdom about the human soul and its deep stirrings than in the last few weeks; but now they all seem like fabrications from another world that has nothing to do with reality. Now that my eyes have finally opened, it strikes me, how little can be seen.

Upstairs my little girl is dreaming. Has she heard the rustle? She turns around in her sleep and mumbles something incomprehensible. I’m under the impression that it sounds a bit worried and make myself even smaller so not to wake her. Even the onset of panic could disturb the precarious balance. The mumble moves onto a sigh and she starts comforted with the next section of her journey through the night. When she wakes, she’ll immediately know where she is and she’ll greet the day full of life. I will never know what stirred in her and neither will she.

‘Fragmentation’ is the word for that which I feared the most all that time. It is a loss of unity, style and loyalty, caving into the temptation of countless moments, a vague intent to someday come back instead of staying, eternal provisionality. Maybe it is exactly what I’m doing now, but then for the first time, and what almost makes me happy now. It is too much, Händel in the head, an apparition in front of the eyes, elegiacally staring into the mist, becoming nothing and still having the pretence to be everything for two children. Only the fact that it all happens at the same time gives it unity.

If there is anything I understand about anglers, it’s that they too at the water front have such moments of inner peace and total detachment. Usually those are discussed in terms of enjoyment and relaxation; but that might be no more than a way of translating into a language of what is allowed and can be strived for, well-earned rest, hobby or recreation. In that language they have a right to it, and they are active with it. They can incorporate the moment into a program, or have to say that they can. But the core of their relaxation and of almost all recreation to me seems the contemplation.

The sound of an airplane, barely audible in the compacted sky, reminds me that there still has to be a busy world out there. It is so vague and so far away, that I wonder if I’m not making this up too. Yesterday I dreamt that all people had been evacuated to another planet, but that I hadn’t been warned, because I wasn’t registered. This afternoon it looked for a little while like it was so. Now it may be so, for there is a dome that protects us. When the occupiers come, they will not wipe out this circle.

papa neeltje daan zw (1 of 1)

Leave a comment

Filed under essay

and that language is ‘poes’


For the second time i’m witnessing from up close that a child learns how to talk. And despite all my efforts and focused attention I haven’t been able to catch the phenomenon on a decisive phase that I would like to call ‘origin’. Daniel’s language too seems to have been brought from a secretive, prenatal existence. Only the slowness of its development forces me to assume that he is learning it from us, gradually and in a way that’s not dictated by us.

He started later than his sister, Neeltje. That’s apparently normal for boys: hard wood grows slowly. How he started, I don’t know. I suspect in the same way as all babies and I think that is: by listening to the rhythm and sound of our sentences. Even before he could say one word, he would talk in a tone that he knew from us, but without filling in the rhythm with words.

He now says three or four words: poes (cat), papa, da, sometimes mama. But he knows a lot more of them. What he says is only a fraction of his passive vocabulary. I know that, because I experiment with it. This morning I said: ‘Daantje, give the doll a kiss.’ He crawled through his stall, took the doll and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Other assignments too he appears to understand well.

I’m not sure he uses his limited vocabulary in a truly targeted fashion. He says ‘papa’ too when the word doesn’t refer to me. Neeltje did the same thing for a long time. At this moment ‘poes’ is his favorite word, and has been for two weeks. He has practiced it for months. First it was pf… followed by lots of blowing, then ‘poe’ and only recently ‘poes’. He uses the word very targeted, that is when he sees a cat, also on television. I really should say that in those moments, he doesn’t use another word or squeak, but immediately says ‘poes’. But he calls a lot of other animals that too. When a dog was here two weeks ago, he kept saying ‘poes’ and would not be corrected. He seemed to make it into a game to keep saying ‘poes’ and did so with a malicious and triumphant laugh. ‘This is a dog, dog.’ ‘Poes.’ ‘No, dog.’ ‘Poes, poes, haha.’

I think something is going on here that I noticed too late with Neeltje. I thought of it when I went to get him from his bed yesterday afternoon and this morning. He was already standing upright, looked around his room and pointed imperatively -his little index finger not straight ahead, but in an angle of 145 degrees to his hand- to all sorts of objects, and with it said ‘poes’ every time. I can’t assume that he saw all that stuff and those plants as cats. Apparently he wants to greet me into his world and to do so, he wielded the only word he has the hang of. He greeted me in his language and that language is ‘poes’. The word doesn’t only refer to the cat, but more than that it means that he wants to start communicating. With ‘poes’ he informs us: ‘I can talk’. Corrections such as ‘no, dog’ he resolutely rejects because they literally threaten to dumbfound him.

With Neeltje I used to initially think, as the faithful reader of treatises in which the beginning is always represented as very simple, that such words for concrete things could only relate to those things themselves. Now I notice that ‘poes’ includes all sorts of meanings, amongst which also something like a reflection on language. The latter happens mostly when a word is repeated over and over: there occurs something like a greenhouse process in which that one word becomes a whole language and metalanguage. ‘Poes’ coming from Daniel’s mouth means:

  1. that cat there,

  2. that animal there,

  3. look over there,

  4. I want to talk

  5. I have already learned to talk

  6. I want to keep talking,

  7. I talk like I want to.

‘Da’ is sometimes ‘daag’ (bye), sometimes also ‘dank je’ (thank you). Often he says ‘da da’ when he wants to have something. Thanking then becomes an order.


Leave a comment

Filed under birdy

Wisdom and books

wisom and books

Leave a comment

February 17, 2013 · 18:20

a tree of knowledge

if you think about your earliest memory, something i’d like to attempt now, you probably won’t get much further when putting it into words than a crumbly anecdote full of names that nobody out of your own circle recognizes, and allusions that don’t mean anything to anybody. And you’re drawing from an inner life which no one will ever be able to see. For our memory awakes within a context that we share with very few and in a consciousness that is accessible to no one. And it is our memory and our possession particularly, because it doesn’t coincide with the knowledge and the story of anyone else. It is therefore also the place where we can lie to our heart’s desire.

Now that i’m attempting the impossible with my own history, I have to start with some effort to detach my story from what others have said about it as their story. Even if I was the main character in their story and would have had exciting adventures, even if it was completely true, that still wouldn’t have made it my story. For my story, like I recollect it and like I tell it, is not determined by the words of others that i’ve heard and remembered and even not by what really happened to me, but by what comes to mind as my own experience. It is never satisfying to be an absentee in your own story. Like I was told that as a four year old I got convulsions and fell on the garden path, where our mother was walking with visitors. I was held under the tap of the pump and ever since our mother was very worried. That is something that happened in my life, but it is not my story, because it can’t be my lie.

In fact my own story doesn’t even appear to be an orderly story, like the ones that can be told, passed on and remembered as an educational history. It also isn’t important enough for that, or the importance that caused me to remember it, is so hopelessly private, that I couldn’t make it important to anyone outside of myself without immensely aggrandizing and puffing up myself and my history. The embarrassment about its triviality is a part of my history. I therefore have to begin by making it smaller. When I call it a ‘story’, that already is a form of literary affectation, because with that I allude to the official norms imposed upon the genre, by amongst others educational institutions that calibrate everything until it is manageable, but impersonal.

And just in order to raise the topic a bit of affectation is needed. My earliest memory, of which i’m certain that it’s mine, if only because nobody could have told it to me, is not even a story, because it doesn’t have a structure; nor is it a movie with speed and rhythm; it is no more than an old photograph, a stationary picture without captions, an image that exists only in my head and not in somebody else’s. And it is not at all spectacular or worth your while of telling it. I might as well not tell it and I could have just as well forgotten it if it hadn’t become the base and the trousseau of my private memory that could have just as well not existed because it only holds what was from the outset superfluous.

I was, I assume, four years old and came back with my older sisters on that day in the early autumn of 1932 from the nursery school from which they had picked me up. That I had resisted going there with spectacular and embarrassing intensity I remember maybe more from the stories that my hysterical behavior abundantly provided, than I do from myself. So that also isn’t my own story. I don’t recall, for example, carefully having weighed the pros and cons of this sheepish form of education and based on those considerations coming to an utmost negative decision, to which I felt I had to respond adequately by frothing with my mouth and stamping with my feet.

By the way, I hardly remember that from any situation in later times. I fear that I have, also in this regard, few things to remember, for most of the time the decisions preceded the motives and the considerations or were made by others, who were of the more resolute type. I usually concocted my freedom with the slavery I accepted. To be honest i’ve more often given permission to the initiatives of others and to what had to be done anyway than undertaken something myself. But at that time I wasn’t yet so wise -or so cowardly. I must have still cherished the illusion that resistance would achieve something, at least some day and in principle.

In any case, on that day I climbed, when we finally got home, onto the bare stump of a palm tree that stood just before the window of the living room. That was the only way I could look inside. That little tree, perhaps put there to prevent looking in, had probably been stumped because three people before me had used it as a step, maybe for the same reason.

What I saw was absolutely not spectacular. And all I had to do was just look at it with my own eyes to be sure that I was home again. Maybe that’s why in my memory the image stands still and isn’t a movie: it is a destination and a goal. In there, our mother was talking to a man who went door to door with dry goods in a big chest that he transported on his cargo bicycle. A piece of cloth was being held in the direction of the light. The image in my head, not forced onto me by anyone and not shared with anyone, my inalienable and precarious possession, shows little more than an apparition of my mother and a rim of ginger hair on the skull of the merchant. That is indeed not material for a story and cannot compete in levels of epic with even the scent of a cooky, about which Marcel Proust wrote his masterpiece.

But what is especially connected to it is the look backwards from that unexciting scene to myself and the rickety stump I was standing on, in that moment the navel of the earth, and the realization: i’m standing here, and there behind that window something is visible which I’m looking at now and which I fiercely want not to be a delusion, but evidence of my return home. From that fierce will my me as witness of my own life was born. Suddenly and permanently I couldn’t see anything without seeing at the same time that I saw it and that I was watching it, or: without knowing that I knew and recognizing my knowledge as mine. I saw everything double, there where it was and in my head.

A whole system of axis between here and there or between me and others, between what I think and what’s going on in the world, with myself as a dubious center that can’t be forgotten away or moralized to death, must have at that moment -at least that’s how I imagine it now- been installed definitively in my head. The fact, in itself too insignificant to be the subject for even an anecdote, too embarrassing for weighty words, represents in my private existence, seen and reconstructed from my own recollection, a decisive moment, my identity as an object of memory, not a fabrication. If some kind of ruthless but thankfully impossible to execute research would show that I had made up the whole image, or merely dreamt it, that it is not an effect of what was already there, I would be an incurable solipsist.

sculpture ‘een boom van kennis’ by Jeanne Schouten

1 Comment

Filed under essay