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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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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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Love

‘Love’ has become, no matter how humble in its origin -for originally the word does not aim much higher than ‘desire’- far too big a word, with which after centuries of abuse hardly anything serious can be done. Who uses it lightly, presents himself as a dimwit. Really it’s deplorable, that this word has become laughable and that ‘I love you’ has started to mostly resemble a hollow declamation. Whoever wants to say anything in connection to love, has to say something small and lean; and it preferably has to sneak in through a side-entrance to still be believable in a world of show-offy inflation. Solely as a side issue can love survive, for the main issues have all already choked on emphasis and imitation. The vulnerability that ‘love’ and other words for affection must once have had has disappeared completely in noisy kitsch, as far as it hadn’t been already waltzed down under the weight of a moralism that wants to replace all the blessings of vulnerability with the certainties of duty and regulations. For also as a duty and a commandment love seems to be chanceless. Only the appearance of it can be prescribed.

The most beautiful, most elementary and most touching among the endless lot that has been said about love is, to my feeling, the dry definition by Spinoza, translated as: “Love is happiness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause”. In this description it boils down that love, in its most essential form, is a happiness, aroused by the existence of someone else who is regarded as both its source and its subject. The description is so elementary and at the same time so touching because it is minimal and stripped of all noise and all fatty nobility. Love in the Ethics of Spinoza is not a a commandment or an expensive duty we fulfill, perhaps against our will and as an offer; it is also not a power that spins a slimy thread around the other and dominates, but a simple happiness because of the pure fact that the other is there. For example, people love their children, and them maybe the very most, because they are glad those exist, just the way they are. There’s nothing possessive in love and loving according to Spinoza. On further consideration, the minimum he describes is at the same time the highest and most altruistic level that affection can reach, almost divinely one-sided.

Only the difficulty is again, that this all too can be easily repeated purely verbally and can be forged. Even the happiness, that is the elementary basis of love with Spinoza, can, once it has been integrated into the pressing packet of duties and exaggerations, be easily imitated and be thrown into a window display as an infectious smile. There probably is on no terrain as much annoying fake and forgery as right here, on the ground of nativity itself, one of the few things of which only the authenticity is worth something and should have meaning. Of course Spinoza did not mean that happiness is mandatory or that it should be produced artificially, but that it, when it is there and somebody catches himself -so to speak- involuntarily being happy, it turns itself as a warm affection towards its source in the other, outside of the circle of all we can decide over. It discovers itself as a form of gratitude for the existence of that other one and it cannot be more, for this is the highest.

pam and howard-8859

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