Tag Archives: contemplation

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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principium non-identitatis

Excerpt from ‘Surrounding the void’

When I concentrate on A, and therefore make A into a centre, I discover B; when I concentrate on B, I then discover C. The centre moves in a continuous adultery of thought. Thought turns from concentration to movement without end.

Thought is the mobility of that concentration. In as far as thought has to do with truth, the truth is never separately available in the sense that it can be met in some steady centre somewhere: it is situated in the mobility of thought itself. And this in turn starts with the denial of a centre. The motion of thought itself, the road surrounding the things, is thought. Method here is a question of choice in a multitude of prepositions. Thought is a movement around or from a random, perhaps illusionary centre, in which the concern is the movement itself. The centre is the mythical feeding ground of thought, to which it owes its tension. It indeed concerns the being or not being of the things, for what is, is a centre and what isn’t a centre, is not. Thought rushes from one midpoint to the next, it is a circular movement with a skipping midpoint, in which every previous midpoint is mythical with regards to the next. The frontier of thought is that the things completely evaporate into space. Thinking about, surrounding them takes away the identity of the things. One is being sacrificed for the other, being equated with it. Thought starts as an explosion of an identity that has suddenly been percolated as banal. An intense presence evaporates. Thought presupposes non-identity. As long as identity is valid, love and speechless contemplation, care and dedication can play their part, but thought can not get going. The first principle of thought therefore is not the principium identitatis (A=A), but the principium non-identitaties (A≠A). ‘The poverty of thought is the identity principle: A is A.’ (Leopold Flam, Thought and Existence, p. 144) The principium identitatis is an invitation to stop thinking, to jubilantly and while watering the flowers say that what is, is, and to be happy with this indeed grandiose discovery, but it is not an engine of thought. Only when I assume that whatever the things might be, they are not identical, then I can think. Whatever A may be, it is not A; when A=A, the world shrivels down to an eroticism-free, drift-free, amorphous mass of banalities. It is only when we pass through the negation that we can be speechless contemplators of the great Presence, for which we live. God can only exist for those who have absolutely no vested interest in him. Love kills and conquers death.

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Editor’s note: 58 years ago today Cornelis Verhoeven obtained his doctorate from the University of Nijmegen for his thesis ‘Symbolism of the foot’. He’d celebrate this day every year; this translation is a continuation of that tradition.

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The devils’ question chapter III: rebellion

Such an unmasking of the taboo of the question, with in itself enough probability to be inspiring for some time, can lead to a persisting of the question and an entering of a road that might be called ‘independent investigation’, which is deemed to lead to a more solid form of maturity than the one that is prospected by following tradition. Instead of a direct growth, there now is a process in which a crisis, a negative phase or a detour is included.

In this investigation the world loses its obviousness for the time being. The devil’s question works like a crowbar. It does that merely by being a question, opposite to an affirmation. It pushes aside the ever-ready ‘because’ and strikes a breach in the massive world. The continuity with tradition, ancestry and community is put on the line. That is a great risk, but it is better that the world perishes than that it continues to exist unexplained. The question is an adventure of which no one knows how it will end. For no outside force can determine the course of one who critically investigates and breaks through the taboo of the question. And even uncertainty and goose chases at ones own risk are preferable above the most safe dependence on authority and tradition.

The ‘I’, bedded in traditions into a tight community and a continuation of generations, comes loose of that pinching connection. It gets more worth and responsibility. If you carry through the why question, you affirm yourself against the tradition and the community. You voluntarily risk isolating yourself in exchange for the chance of becoming more mature and realising more human possibilities in your own existence than your ancestry. Attached to the question why there is the fame and the symbolism of lonely heroism, adventure and rebellion. And it remains stuck to it even when the hero of this story has long since started an existence of civil service, because the revolution has succeeded and has become a bureaucracy.

Rarely has hero-worship been put to words more eloquent and rhetorical than by the young Karl Marx, who in his preface to his dissertation on the natural philosophy of Epicures says that philosophy mirrors itself to the rebellion of Prometheus, who brought fire from the heavens to earth, and resists all gods in heaven and on earth who do not acknowledge human consciousness as the highest deity, next to which no other god should be tolerated. ‘Prometheus is the most important saint and martyr on the philosophical calendar.’ No wonder Marx too ended up on that calendar.

Cornelis Verhoeven

 

* Translator’s note: on the 19th of october 1956 Cornelis Verhoeven defended his thesis ‘Symbolism of the foot’ successfully, obtaining his doctorate. He celebrated this day every year in a small way. This translation is a continuation of that, but the subject matter and language of the thesis are a bit above the abilities of the translator/son, that’s why this essay, a personal favorite, was picked.

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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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Resurrection

We say that someone ‘rises’ when he gets up from a seating or laying position by himself. When that happens from a bed or a chair, we simple call it ‘to rise’, when it happens from a situation of subjection, we call it ‘rise against’, and when it happens from death, we speak of ‘resurrection’. And for this last and most mysterious word we have to follow the most complicated trains of thoughts to comprehend it a little. All metaphors of rising have to be called in, those of sleep from which we rise, those of rising against and those of resurrection from death. In waking up we deny sleep, in rising against we deny subjection, and in the thought of resurrection death is denied. And because death seems to be the most definitive of all those horizontal situations, denying it is our toughest job and the rising from the dead is for us the most incomprehensible miracle. We can think for a long time about the old analogy of death with sleep, and we can, like Pascal did, consider that rising from the dead is no greater miracle than birth, but we can’t get so far as to think of it as self-evident.

Why do we for the length of history deny death or compare it to the sleep from which we rise again every morning? We apparently have a compelling motif for it that doesn’t exactly coincide with the attachment to our own existence. Shall we call it love? When we love someone, do we do anything else than to confirm the existence of that person so absolutely that we can’t think of our own existence without them? ‘To love someone’, said Gabriel Marcel, ‘is to say: you shall not die.’ And when the impossible happens still and we see that person laying there, cold and powerless, we can’t just revoke that absolute statement. When we love someone, they have to stay. When it has all appearances that they have left, they will have to return sooner or later and death can at most be a provisional state. The thought of the resurrection and the return seems to have been prompted by hopelessness or hope against all odds. But what do we know of death and what reasons do we have not to rise against it?

We rise from sleep by ourselves, when we wake or are awoken by someone else. From what we think we know of death in any case is that it is a total powerlessness and that the deceased, crushed by an ascendancy, won’t wake up and rise by their own powers. We can try to keep them alive in our memories, but in doing so we give them a vague and shadowy existence which depends on us and after at most a generation of loving remembering is doomed to sink into oblivion. We would like to perform the miracle of resurrection and rising from the dead, but we are as powerless against death as the dead themselves. And whether we are deeply religious, skeptic or agnostic, as the biggest miracle we can think of the resurrection is never a self-evident matter. The thought of it or the believe in it is more a resistance against against every form of self-evidence. If it concerns a dogma here, it is about time that this dogma too rises from the dead as an object of thought. Any belief that becomes an automatism, is a disbelief.

*Translators note: ‘to rise’, as in to get up, is ‘opstaan’ in dutch; to rise against, as in to revolt, is ‘opstand’; and the resurrection, rising from the dead, is ‘opstanding’. The three words are in Dutch more connected than they are in English, but I think the thread and theme are strong enough to warrant translation.

blijven

from the diary Cornelis Verhoeven kept on the language of his children.

“You are sweet, papa, you have to stay alive”

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