Tag Archives: family

A leak in your own existence

The subjects of this contemplation almost prevent me from being contemplative. They continuously call me to action. A little son of one year old and a daughter of two and a half fill up my space with their claims and unabashedly make it their own space. And few things are as contradictory as a contemplation about fatherhood from which the children have to be removed in order to write it. Pedagogical contemplations too take too high a flight when they can take off without the ballast of children being physically present. Essential for fatherhood is that your space needs to be shared, not according to reasonable, contractually laid down deals, but always and for better or worse.

Still I don’t think this is why far less fathers than mothers reflect on their parenthood. Customarily mothers share their space more generously and without rancour with the children than fathers. In the mean time, they appear to reflect, to talk and to write more often about their situation than men. It probably has to do with the well-known roles, that deals the card to women as the caregiver and with it a permanent presence with the children. Maybe that’s why there’s something female about discussing children seriously.

For a ‘real’ man -whatever that may be: some think about a constructive mind or an alert businessman with this word, I for one usually about a dynamic creep- it is somewhat embarrassing to talk about his fatherhood, as long as the kids are still small. They still belong with the mother at that point.

That might be an old inheritance, for Caesar says that for the Gauls it was a disgrace for a man to be spotted near his children before they were ripe for military service. Anyway, fatherhood proves in our culture to be much more of a sideshow than the deeply profound, lyrically flooded, but to eternal availability doomed motherhood. In general very little changes in life. The flip side of that is that the young father is more or less an outsider and looks a bit like a fool, a situation for which he has been prepared a bit by a wedding and a childbirth, happenings that elevate the woman to a holy and radiant center. In our culture too it only happens rarely, that we see a father behind a pram, by himself. I only dared to do it a few times and got the distinct impression that it was ‘not done’ to see such an old man walking behind a pram, murmuring, burbling and cooing “who is the baby?”. We’re still Gauls a little.

To a certain degree therefore, all this applies to me as well. I didn’t have to quit my job, and my avocations more or less just continue. But almost all other occasions force me to a continuous amazement and reflection. Because I got married late and because it took eight years of going against the odds -a change of air, say the experts, but I think: a stop to the eternal doctoring- to get our first child, we don’t take our parenthood for granted at all. If I, to refrain the indiscretion to myself, am allowed to continue in the first person singular, then I have to admit that I still always experience myself from a situation and an age, in which fatherhood represents a form of seriousness that might suit others, but not me, the bachelor. If you become a father before you involuntarily fixate your self or the image you have of you on a past, on an age that isn’t yet tortured by the doubtful pleasures of reflection, you will probably only know this amazement, when your children are already grown up. You might only start to wonder “damn, is this me?” when you are astonished that you are a grandfather, far from the point of no return and much too old to call for your mother. Elementary decisions like marriage and fatherhood are being made ‘insane in the membrane’, so therefore not really as decisions, and the wonder comes afterwards. From the first moment onwards, for me it has been a strange and confusing feeling to be a father. I still can hardly believe that there are two little beings that take my existence so completely seriously in a way that I myself, with respect to the image I have of me, could not. There is something ridiculous and worrying to find the little boy, that I once was, as a father now, and see him burdened with responsibilities meant for grown ups and real men.

On the other hand, fatherhood has been from the first moment on and unabashedly a lyrical affair. Or maybe it is not the other hand, but is it one of the build-in laws of life. Waves of lyricism and tenderness have to continuously roll in to wash away the scepticism and the fear. Nature has coerced me with great enthusiasm to disinterestedly take care of those tykes, to rock their cradle half the night and fill the rest with nightmares, in which they fall to their deaths or burn alive. Fathers are even crazier than lovers. They desire nothing more than to, in the middle of the night, in a snowstorm, on an untamed horse, ride to a distant village to get some healing herbs or even just a sweet for their darling. I wouldn’t mow the lawn for anyone in the world, not for the good reputation and not for the aesthetics, but when She started walking, all of a sudden the grass had to be short, a carpet for her little feet.

The lyrical feeling makes the burden into a joy, also against our better knowing. “When they are small, you could just eat them,” said a father of ten children, “and when they are grown, you regret not having done that.”

Of course it is possible that enthusiasm always leads to regret, that it is nothing else but the blindness with which the gods strike us when we start to suspect that life is a dupery. But I think that this suspicion too belongs to fatherhood, to the slow induction to the secret of life, in which words like ‘pleasure’, ‘joy’ and even ‘happiness’ still sound a little too frivolous and individualistic in the end. Soon as we too keenly or emphatically start talking about ‘happiness’ or ‘love’, I fear we come short in maturity and, which is worse, elementary melancholy.

I don’t know if there is, concerning this, a difference between fatherhood and motherhood. In all the freeness that we have emancipated ourselves towards, there remains something like a taboo on this subject. The reason for that is probably not that it is such a common subject -everyone has children-, but because it is located on the border of egoism en disinterestedness. And we have been so conditioned into admitting egoism, that we are left a bit dumbfounded soon as this fails as an explanation. And it fails, when it concerns elemental things like parenthood. But I think a lot of mothers stand even closer to the ego-diminishing position of admitting egoism and therefore sooner dare to speak about their parenthood. In a way they offer it as an extrication and in exchange for that they are allowed to bring it up in conversation.

They say then that motherhood is ‘nothing but’ love of own, reinforcement and the stroking of ones own identity.With a bit of ill will and sagacity it can be deducted to a selfish pleasure, or brought to somewhere close to that. In those terms it is negotiable. On condition of that extrication they are even allowed to be lyrical about it.

Fathers, less inclined to monkeylove, remain awkwardly silent and pull a face as though they’ve gotten trapped in a net, but regretfully lack the right to complain about it. My wife and I often exchange ideas about this over a nightcap. Then it still appears that she experiences motherhood more when feeding a baby, and the thought that it is completely dependent on her, while I enjoy my fatherhood most when our daughter says ‘no’ and ‘bad daddy’, so when she poses as independent, as it were. How that will go when she no longer says ‘bad daddy’ but ‘old bastard’ or words of that kind, and then draws conclusions from her independence, I don’t know. I just hope for the best. For me love is, I think, distance, for my wife it’s unity. It is inconsequential who is right, I don’t really value being right and would rather win an insight than a competition. I also don’t know if I can generalise this difference in feeling to all men and women, and how I should state it further: it could, if we are both integrant products of our culture, be an interiorising of the existing roles we play as father and mother; it could also be determined biologically. In any case it means for my fatherhood that it cannot be explained with egoism or the desire to reproduce myself. Children are not improved re-prints of their parents; they continue their existence here. Fatherhood is a lyrical affair precisely because children are very different from the father. What is mine, is too well known to me, too transparent and too self-evident to make me lyrical. My child represents more a leak in my own existence than that she confirms its solidity. There is an underlying cosmic sloppiness to my life as a construction, because of which I never succeed in closing the circle of my identity around myself. Not next to my own me, but in the center of it, in the womb of my own life, nestles another. ‘Boss in your own belly’ is the slogan of sterile self-righteousness.

A life isn’t fertile through consequent autonomy, but by the infringement made upon it. There is no continuity between what I think or program and what really happens, neither between my dream of self-confirmation and the reality of my child. Time and again I ask myself bewildered “Is that really our little child?”, and that then has no relation to the theoretical possibility that someone else could be her biological father -one of the reasons, I think, why there is a taboo also on this question, like there are on almost all wonders of fatherhood-, but to the fact that she is totally and decisively different to what I had imagined as a reproduction of my own me in my guileless egoism. Her existence is a repudiation of my self-righteousness; and if there was ever within me the desire for fatherhood -subject of much silence- then I have to interpret that in hindsight as a desire for this sweet repudiation that has grown from my own loins, a historical being proven wrong that doesn’t make me superfluous, doesn’t degrade me to a hatch, but replaces my center. Or really I don’t have a center, because the circle of my existence isn’t closed and at a decisive point transfers into a spiral, that postpones the center and shifts it into eternity.

papa neeltje daan zw (1 of 1)

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March 3, afternoon

‘There is a lot of aggression around the dying’, I read yesterday in an article. I believe that this is true and I notice that it also applies to our situation. We’re beginning to resent father’s weakness. We’re on the verge of thinking it is affection when he recognises others but not us, when he is confused and doesn’t behave like we expect him to. But the aggression goes much further and I hesitate to acknowledge this. Weakness cannot last too long; people have to be strong or disappear. It becomes more and more hard to put up with our powerlessness. The situation seduces us to impatience. Tired out by the wake we keep on wishing out loud, that it won’t be much longer. Maybe there is more aggression in that wish than we dare to admit to ourselves. I still don’t know if it is that good for father to die. Dying is never good. Nobody seems to know exactly what happened to him and how far recuperation is possible. But the thought that he would survive treatment and would remain a wreck -and therefore a burden- scares me, not just out of pity for him, but also for myself. I’m getting a deep distrust against the noble talk about euthanasia, because I suspect that there is a lot of aggression behind it that is being kept quiet. People become aggressive when they think they have to do something while in effect they experience that they are powerless. Sometimes they want to kill because this is for them the only way to keep believing in their activism.

Father does not want to eat and only seldom drinks. Again i’m under the impression that he has decided to die. The doctor says we shouldn’t do anything against that. None of us also feels anything for artificially prolonging this life through IV’s etc. Here, amongst his children, in his own room and his own bed, father apparently wants to die. We will look on powerlessly, without the pretension to be able to do anything for him or have control over whatever, including our dubious wishes.

I have to laugh a bit when the rector comes by again and very solemnly asks if he could ‘speak in private for a while’ with father. Very surprised, I retreat and try to eavesdrop from behind the door how this expert will succeed in getting him to talk or even confess. I suspect that he wants to bless away the last remaining bits of sinfulness from him. Out of sheer excitement I hear nothing of what he says. When he comes outside again within a minute and admits that he too cannot make contact with him, I feel a great relief. When father doesn’t talk with us, he may talk to no one.

It strikes me that many people that ask about his situation, talk about him in the past tense. They ask for example ‘how old was he?’ I’ve noticed this before. This peculiar use could potentially be explained this way, that the past tense doesn’t refer to the past, but it is a careful and soothing indication of the present. In the way some people say ‘I thought’ when they want to discretely indicate what they are thinking that moment. They are prepared to, as it were, take back their thought. ‘How old was he?’ can mean: how old was he again, I did know, but I can’t think of it this moment. The same way they often asked in stores: what was your name, what was your size?

For me, I have the tendency to explain it differently and connect it to the aggression surrounding the dying. By using the past tense the dying is written off even before his death, deleted from the attendance list and removed from the area of attention. When someone asks me ‘how old was he?’, I understand that this person doesn’t count him amongst the living anymore; and it feels like a little murder when people get ahead of the facts like that.

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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)

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and that language is ‘poes’

21-3-’76

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.

 poes

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Narcissus

My son was kneeling in front of a tub filled with rainwater and was looking attentively at the little animals swimming in it. The sunlight, which had to make its way through erratically moving bushes, kept changing his view. I saw how he weighed his chances and tried to find the right balance between light and shadow. His hair was almost hanging in the water. Sometimes he would hold that curtain to the side to get more light on the water and the animals, but that seemed to hinder him more than it helped. He was endlessly fascinated by the display and I by his attention. For an outsider who would have witnessed this scene, it must have been a very complicated game of looking at something and looking at looking. And merely by looking they would have made the tableau even more complex.

I wanted to take a picture, from an overhead diagonal, to capture the reflection of his serious face amidst the little beasts. I didn’t, because in all likelihood it wouldn’t have become the masterpiece I momentarily had in mind, something like a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an impossible unity of refinement and innocence. And for sure my technical actions would have disturbed the scene which fascinated me so much even more drastically than the observing eye of a third party. Why don’t events pause themselves for a while when they reach their zenith?

It is always fascinating to watch children being busy and concentrated, especially when a maximum of activity is paired with a minimum of movement. The miracle seems to happen that they are completely outside of themselves, engrossed in something that is more interesting than their ego. But it does not happen completely, for they too get in the way of themselves, strain themselves trying to lift their own weight, and cannot suspend their presence for a while to become all eye and to see without making themselves visible.

I thought of the mythical hunter Narcissus, who for the first time in his life saw his own image reflected in water en became fascinated with it. With my own little Narcissus I had the idea I was watching the opposite, since he only had attention for what was moving in the water, and therefore his mirror image was an obstacle from which he cunningly tried to liberate himself. He kept bowing deeper to cover that reflection with the shadow of his hair, but the further he went, the darker it got, the less he could witness the captivating life in the water. The closer he came to it, the further his efforts removed him from it and the more his presence weighed in.

He didn’t seek his own image and neither did Narcissus, who discovered it by accident and only then started paying it attention; but he in effect wanted to turn off his reflection to fully concentrate on the things themselves that he was seeing. He didn’t succeed in making his own presence undone and still remain observer in front of the treacherous mirror that is water. I was surprised that he didn’t for a moment lose his patience and willingly disturbed the scene so he would no longer have to be a witness to his failure. He kept attempting the impossible.

His mythological predecessor did not smash the mirror –for it moved with him- but disappeared in it. This Narcissus, since long used his own image, tried to filter out the disturbance by half closing his eyes and gazing through his eye-lashes. It looked like he was leering at prey that would show up if he’d pretend not to pay attention. Is that too the big trick of sleepy carnivores? They can be at the same time lost in contemplation and preparing to pounce, a wondrous combination.

What I saw before me was the enigma of contemplation in the very concrete shape of an attentive child. He was completely with himself and completely lost in the things. At that moment he was to my eyes more of a child than ever, but at the same time I saw in him too the classic paradox of the philosopher as a weight that wants to weigh itself. I Understand less and less why psychologists have made this elemental given into a paradigm of a deviation. Do they even know the story of Narcissus?

The parents of narcissus, both born out of water, were promised that their son would reach old age, as long as he wouldn’t get to know himself. And he didn’t show any signs of being interested in himself. The hunter is completely geared towards the outside world. His eyes are focussed on everything but himself. So when Narcissus saw his own image reflected in the water, he did not know that he saw himself and not some prey. Narcissus’ error was not that he mistook an image for a reality or himself for another, but that he approached the subject of his perception as a hunter and tried to grab it instead of seeing it.

Narcissus is the one who flees into action the moment contemplation is needed. In his attempt to identify with his own actions he dissolves in the shapeless water, his origins. Contemplation discards ownership. It only wants to be an eye and only wants to see. But sometimes the eye sees itself and then it sees too little.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘A parable of Love’

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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

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Mature

“I’d rather be dead than mature.”

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