Tag Archives: melancholy truth

an eye in the mist

It was an autumn evening to get real melancholy about, which is what happened to me. I was alone in a house too big for me alone and the empty spaces were filling up with flimsy spectres. Outside the mist had taken on the density of the buttermilk porridge that gave me shivers as a child: sour with little spiders of barley that would crawl down the soft palate and nestle into what is the most private. Even the curious reptile that is the tongue was scared off by these intruders.

That’s approximately what I was thinking, standing in the place where the cows used to stare into space. ‘Dreamy’, we call that, but that is far too poetic. There is little to dream about for cows. The columns, which remained upright during the remodelling of the farm and were spared as monuments, still carried the traces of a bored scratching that had only rubbed the uniformity deeper into the skin.

I fell back into my old habit of looking at cows in the front, into their eyes, ridiculous and urban, for the rear is where it is at. That is where the experts say a cow’s life unfolds. Perhaps, I thought, farmers avoid looking cows in the eyes because it would make them melancholy too, staring so vacantly at a life that takes place entirely outside of them. The cows also don’t ask for being looked in the eye and invoking compassion; they ask for nothing and look at nobody. You never know what they see, let alone how they see you and what interests them in you. Dogs leave little misunderstanding about that and even cats have their ways to establish a reciprocity. The floaty eyes of cows are merely there as the mirrors of a resigned soul, an outward bulging melancholy. There is no form of curiosity behind them, no enterprising spirit and no plea. They are not leering at a chance and want nothing from the world. All they do is being there and without surprise see that there would still be all manners of things to see, if they wanted to look. With calves you sometimes see a trace of wantonness and interest. They still seem to practise something they’ll never be able to do. Cows already know this and it makes them disheartened.

I was standing there for a while and wasn’t specifically thinking of something. A cow’s eye in the mist has little to digest. It ruminates pictures with which nothing can be done and that are therefore also not images of something. In the mist everything shrinks to a wraith in vague fumes. In this misty realisation of empty presence I opened the outside door to smell the autumn. The nose can sometimes bring a bit of life to the eyes. The soggy scent of fallen leaves could only amplify the mistiness of the realisation. It seemed especially made up for it. It is the scent of stillness and definite completion, ripeness without fruit.

Life came from the other side and unexpectedly. From underneath the leaves a brown rat, misguided by the light and warmth, shot inside. There, she immediately started to find a way out, when she smelled a cat. The cat saw her and panicked too. For a moment she apparently contemplated a ruthless hunt, but she changed her mind and sufficed by arching her back. To my surprise I was quite happy with a bit of life in my house and started, because there was no one there to make fun of me anyway, to talk to the intruder encouragingly. That seemed to help, for the animal slowed its senseless speed down and didn’t flee into the columns. It walked a couple of rounds through the hallway and went back outside almost with dignity.

I was in front of the door again. Nothing had happened. The eye had gone along into the mist to bare witness that there was still nothing to see. It had only aroused the appearance of a small occurrence that meant nothing. I could have imagined that I was looking at cows or that a rat had come to visit. What happens in the mist, is erased immediately, dissolved in wisps: it has not been there. There is nothing to say about it.

cow in mist


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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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Falling leave

As soon as the first leaves start changing color, I always get a bit homesick. It is barely large enough to notice, but it presents itself unsolicitedly and unmistakably. I’ve had it for as long as I know I exist. Apparently it isn’t a major source for concern and I actually find it more agreeable than bothersome. It gives me a bit of a poetic feeling; at least it means that you’re not made of stone and that despite a hard life there’s still a sensitive spot in your soul.

It’s just that I’d finally like to know, what this feeling is all about and where I’m homesick for. I can’t seem to find out. It always turns out to reach further than I thought. I’m almost never homesick for other places, where I used to live. My homesickness always concerns the place I feel most at home and that just happens to be the house I live in now. When I’m not there for longer than a day, I already get homesick and know fairly accurately what I’m homesick for.

I also don’t get homesick for the past, as far as I can fathom my stirrings. I’m not one of those people who find everything was better and more jolly in the past. On the contrary, every day I’m glad that the past is over and will never return. There are no highlights I’d like to return to. I can’t bare the thought of being a child again, of going to boarding school again, or of having to go through the horrors of the always glorified student days. The present time is the best one and also happens to be the only one; the place where I live now meets all my needs.

So I couldn’t be homesick, not even to a mild degree, for I’m not homesick for other times nor for other places. For -bravely carrying on this line of reasoning- if you are to be homesick, you ought to be homesick either for the past or for another place, and you have none of the two, so you’re not homesick. If you’re homesick, you’re surely homesick for something. Ergo I’m not homesick. That’s how it is: what can be reasoned away, may also not exist.

So maybe, for the sake of reason and communication, I’d have to give a different name to what I unmistakably do have, just so I can keep it and keep treasuring it. But I know of no better name than this dear word. It indicates exactly what I feel and what I’ve recognized on countless occasions clearly as homesickness, an empty feeling around the stomach, attention for the sky and fluttering thoughts that lead to nothing. But now, with the falling of the leaves, I’m homesick in my own familiar home. It is directed towards nothing and therefore it is not allowed to be, but it seems as though it becomes a little more doleful by this solemn prohibition, because it sees itself robbed of its subject and right to exist.

Maybe I’m just homesick for the homesickness that I used to have that was the real homesickness, like there apparently are people who fall in love with falling in love, when there’s nobody left to really fall in love with, or who mourn the sadness they once treasured and remember vividly, but they can’t believe in as something that really touches them any longer. What we remember, we can as well imagine and excessive use of common sense and willful efforts of self-discipline punish themselves with the most horrible paradoxes in your inner life. What is irrevocably in the past drags its existence out in an undetermined and impossible to fulfill desire that doesn’t care a thing about its superfluity and starts to toss more the stricter it is prohibited.

To try something else, I don’t believe at all, that summer is the highlight of the year, and that the autumn, which is a downturn, is a reminder of the mortality of all life and therefore makes us melancholy. I sooner think summer represents the illusion that we could ever complete anything and that autumn liberates us from that illusion. But being liberated from an illusion is not at all a happy occasion. Of every past and disproved illusion shreds remain to haunt us, and before we cave in to sobriety, we have to cherish them as a dear relic of a past that would have been better of never to have existed. Maybe that’s why it’s a more or less prohibited subject, to be diminished as moaning or endlessly repeated cliche. But there is so little resolute to a falling leave, to a rustle on the ground and to the misty sky, that it also can’t truly be a threat. Therefore it’s also not worth the effort of refuting or prohibiting.

So it turns out to still be the past, at which this vague and slyly sneaking in homesickness is aimed, not an assignable point of time within it, but the promise it seemed to hold then and that could never be fulfilled. Illusions aim too high and reach too far. They conjure a completion that isn’t even thinkable, let alone achievable. What we achieve will forever lag behind what we desire. Looking back from the point where we are to where we started from, all we see is an insurmountable distance. Homesickness to me seems an attempt to measure that distance, to gauge its haziness. That attempt, light as a falling leave, leads to nothing and as such passes quickly.

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Melancholy is a vague suspicion about the truth

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