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Sunday afternoon

On a hot summer afternoon, especially on Sundays, I’m always compelled to think back on one specific experience from my early childhood. I must have witnessed it often and it must have made, despite its endless dullness, a big impression, for otherwise I cannot explain why I keep thinking back on it. It was always pretty silent around where we lived; there was hardly any traffic, besides the occasional cyclist. But on summer’s Sunday afternoons that silence could suddenly become an entity on its own. Then it wasn’t silent, but there was the silence. That silence was present and besides that there was nothing except for heat. Or perhaps I should say that there was only that languid heat, hot silence over a dusty world. A summer afternoon back then still was: a dome of silence over warm sand and breathless trees, so rural that nobody knows about it, because it is yet to be discovered.

Those summers are gone and that rural character has been broken open, made productive for recreational purposes. Only the memory is still there and it keeps coming back. But my memory is not one of a tourist who has experienced a siesta in an Italian village; it is one of a native who didn’t know what he had until he lost it. That is a tremendous difference. We know nothing as well as that which we can remember from very early on. And it is precisely that which we’ll never find back, no matter where we look for it, for we only know it thanks to the fact that it is no longer there.

But the scenery, which so far has been written and thought about often, has to be supplemented with a sole, essential trait. With that silence, that heat and that dust, went the continual, yet somewhat languid cackle of chickens. To my ears it didn’t sound triumphant or liberated, as when they laid eggs, but more moaning, complaining and powerlessly protesting. While the people and the trees were resting and waiting, it appeared as though the chickens got the feeling they were left alone and that panicked them. They were sitting in the warm sand to deliberately make themselves dirty and then repeatedly stood up again to shake their feathers. Others were in the henhouse, grumbling and whimpering. But their protest against the silence completely belonged to the warm Sunday afternoon, it was a built-in disruption that only confirmed order. That dumb and droning cackle was the network in which the silence was being caught and held.

From such afternoons came an endless, but summery dullness. That happens, I think, because there was such an abundance of it. The hour did not need to be taken advantage of, it was there anyway, like lost time between lunch and praise. It wasn’t really in the program, it was more of a leak in closed time. We didn’t impatiently wait for it to be over, but underwent it without realisation of time.  On such a hot afternoon time stood still for a while and nobody knew with certainty whether it would start up again afterwards. Maybe that’s why the chickens panicked a little and with their cackle started to count the seconds of a lost hour, a misplaced rest of activity in a moment saturated with boredom.

For me, I don’t remember what I did in those afternoon hours and whether I did anything. Looking back I believe that I had my hands full with undergoing the situation and had no need to do anything with it. The consideration that the elderly shouldn’t be disturbed in their much-needed rest did not play any part in it, as far as I can remember. Existence in its entirety had suddenly become static. Compared to that tremendous silence the dumb cackle of the chickens was almost nothing, no more than the classical barking of the dog in the distance. But that was at night.

The strange part of such a recollection is that it, no matter how personal and individual it seems, can be shared so easily. Then it turns out to be a possession of many. Our own autobiography coincides for a surprisingly large part with that of others. It all seems very subjective, but in the end it relates to the same world with sun, sand and chickens. People are in touch with each other through the things, more than directly through their feelings. So the summer afternoon is a given that keeps coming back in literature.

Friedrich Nietzsche has based his philosophy of ‘the great afternoon’ on this and about that one books have been written also. It has something to do with the experience of a Southern afternoon, dangerous and blissful, with the completion of the times and the eternal return. A somewhat touristy homesickness to the far and idealised South marks a part of these thoughts -to my taste- as book wisdom and scholarly foolery. Without autobiographical recollections there is no wisdom to be expected from the great afternoon, only statements such as these: ‘That is the great afternoon, in which man stands in the middle of his trajectory between animal and Übermensch.’ When I read something like that, I suddenly hear cluck, cluck, cluck. With Nietzsche, there are no chickens cackling through it; sir does not wish to be disturbed in his dream. To my ears these disrupting false notes of dumb chickens sound like the most beautiful music: they keep the Übermensch at bay.

chickens

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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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The course of life

When you, in the evening of your life, look back on its course, you’ll almost certainly see something completely different than what you’d possibly imagined in the morning of it. And perhaps those differences are greater the richer your life was in experience and the evening richer in memories. The course of life is a river that seeks its way through a capricious terrain, while the plan that we had designed probably more resembles a canal that we want to dig, a straight line that ignores the landscape. The plan exists within our head, the course of occurrences is the reality outside of it. Looking back on the course of life is gaining perspective for the difference between the two, and possibly contributes to our wisdom. The course of events is with some rights called the course of events because it is not our own course. Things ride a different track than our train of thoughts. And we say, that they went their own way or came tumbling down, because they are not in our hands.

Also in the expression ‘walk of life’ there is a commitment to a road as a metaphor for life. But here it concerns the way in which we, on our own steam and according to plan, move through life or walk through life as though it was a road, hesitating or determined, exemplary or offensive, but as the legitimate owners of that life and as subjects of that walk. The phrase suggest in its moralising use the existence of a line that we hold onto as a guideline, or a plan that we execute in our talking and walking. In ‘course of life’, life is the subject of the verb ‘to course’, and the living, whom life takes on its course, are the witness of the way it courses. Their resume, even if it is drafted for the purpose of the continuation of a pre-programmable career, is only for a small part the result of an outlined plan. My walk of life is what I do and how I do it, the course of my life is what happens to me or what happens with what I do. That too is not determined by my plan and not even by my walk of life.

Perhaps someone who is looking back does not see any line at all between all those points, and the line even is the great mistake of our imagination, as connection between two points, as the trace of a road that we intend to take and even as a reconstruction of the road we have walked and the course of life we can look back on. I think that Arthur Schopenhauer, who still had a good eye for what happens to people despite their plans, made far too brisk a statement on the course of life and the walk of life, when he seemingly forbade even a glance at by-roads and magnificent panoramas, that can be the gifts of a windy road: “In the same way that our physical way on earth is always a line, not a plane, so we must in life, if we want to achieve and own one thing, waive countless other things left and right and leave them. If we don’t make that decision, but like children at the fairground reach for everything that stimulates us, then that is a misdirected attempt to change the line of our road into a plane. We then walk in a zigzag, wander to and fro and come to nothing.” It would be that way, if the course of our life was our program, it it didn’t take us through a landscape, and if we didn’t have eyes to look about in it. The field of vision of the walker makes even a point into a plane. Who looks back, does not see a road, but what he saw along that road.

symbolism of the foot

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Meditation on a nail

In front of me on the table lies an old, forged nail of seventeen centimetres long and half a centimetre wide, with an irregularly shaped head of about 20 millimetres; on the top of that head you can see imprints of a hammer that struck it flat in four blows, so that in the middle of that pockmarked, rusty head a sort of cross was formed, not geometrically correct but haphazardly and by chance. The whole nail is this way; with archaic but accurate craftsmanship it was shaped in a way that made it fit for purpose without allowing it even a millimetre of geometrical tedium. That is why there isn’t a second nail like this one.

nail-01886

It lies here now, displaced; I found it in a beam in the attic of my father’s house. How far it had been driven into that beam can be seen exactly; the iron there is less weatherworn and smoother. Above that its skin has been eaten by rust; it is a moon landscape with countless craters and shadow spots. When I carefully and admiringly palpate it with my fingers, over and over again they get held up by the interesting irregularities to the lyrical slowness of the inappropriate user. For that nail isn’t here to be looked at. It was probably hammered into the beam in that attic by my grandfather to hang a scythe or a flail on, not to be looked at in rapture. That is what I am doing now; they are the actions of a later-day aesthete or an observer. I have pulled out the nail that had become useless and cleaned it. Now it shines like an antique in a shop window; everything that is that old, is grateful for a coat of wax; thereby it immediately gets a patina of happiness and rest after a turbulent existence. The nail now has become an antique; I can imagine it in a shop window and a snob asking about it. “Early piece of iron, sir, the work of an anonymous village blacksmith from the early 18th century; this one would be 12 dollars and 50 cents.”

I The thing

Nails aren’t made for looking at. But the fact is, that there isn’t a second nail like this. If a work of art is something to look at, then this simple nail at least has something very essential in common with it, namely that it is in-exchangeable. And stripped of its useful function and made to be the object of a contemplation, it moreover gets the impartiality of the work of art. And it has the advantage over the work of art that it is indubitable. The work of art has added so many pretensions on to itself by the tradition of art history, such a towering block of merely assumed values and truths, that it almost by mere appearing already evokes reluctance and scepticism. A nail is without pretence, but it is so hard and irrefutably a thing, that all scepticism must ricochet off of it. I can doubt a work of art; I can find the whole civilization, of which it is a late product, so wearisome that I reject it. My scepticism can brake away the suppositions below it, so that it ends up hanging in the void. But this nail, just as much the individual work of an individual human, does not need those suppositions. Its existence is as clear as that of smooth pebbles, though less elementary. But its suppositions do not lay within the ‘artistic’ field with all its weary pretences; they lay in life itself.

That nail, that I now find so beautiful that I muzzle and palpate it as a small work of art, still roots in the harsh substratum of the laborious artisan life. Even though it isn’t made for being muzzled and contemplated, but for being used by a farmer, the fact remains irrefutably, that it is something that may be seen; it doesn’t need to be hidden in the technical substrate on which we lead our comfortable lives. It is even difficult to look past it, not just because it is so big, but more so because all by itself it is a characteristic variation on a theme of nail. Of each newly manufactured nail there are millions. Nobody made them and nobody gives them a second glance. It can therefore never become the object of a contemplation. It is in no way a piece of work and hardly a utensil. Where it fulfils its humble function, it has to be invisible; its visibility would be a dissonant. Also before and after its function is it invisible, stowed or thrown away. But this nail here is before everything a thing unto itself. Also in its function was it visible. It has the hard consistency of the definitively thing-ness. There is no negotiating with this thing-ness. It does not come to me. When I want to have contact with it, I have to move from my identity to the demanding autarchy of a piece of iron. By seeing the nail in front of me, by wondering about it and palpating it I transcend my identity and venture into a world that is fatally and irrevocably different than the pliable softness of my me and everything that I could think up from there. Now the human no longer rules, but the other, the thing, a clogged up piece of otherness, and touching it I feel an alienation on my skin that penetrates as a revelation into the loose nest of my identity. It is a shock to discover the thing and it is a long process to include it into my world. For there it is a continuous impingement on my autonomy and my self-righteousness: just by its presence, its visibility alone. That is an experience that enriches existence and to grow this enrichment into a possession, the things have to be maintained in their visibility.

II Invisible technique

In a certain sense the technique is a force, that threatens the visibility of the things. The most industrial utensils have become invisible and the element or frame, in which they are used, has completely disappeared from our field of vision. At the moment that we use those objects, we don’t pay attention to them. I simply do not see the electrical razor, with which I shave myself. Only when it declines, do I look at it. ‘To look at something’ in the technical era means : trying to fix something. If it never needs repairing, we never look at it; it doesn’t need, as we say, looking after. When a thing functions well, it is like a healthy body, a transparent mediator of useful energies. It gets connected to an invisible technical framework, e.g. the electrical grid, and nothing indicates that with that connection, a wonder of ingenuity and energy happens. Not a festive circumlocution nor decoration may accompany and welcome the wonder. Nobody wonders that it happens. It’s made completely invisible and hidden in the walls and floors of the houses we live in. Whoever would let the power lines in his house be installed visibly and would paint them red, or make them silver, would be regarded as eccentric. Our technical achievements are becoming an increasingly broad base, which we increasingly take for granted and live on with more jadedness. They are completely built into a frame that remains invisible, and within that frame too the things are under threat to become so invisible, that they are no longer things to us.

This minimum of visibility goes along with a minimum of of effort in operating the things. We don’t want to pump or hurl to have light or water, or to grind coffee. We just want to press a button. The effect is in no proportion to the effort. A whole mythology of power has grown around the invisibility of the technical frame and the pressing of the button that operates it. In the end this mythology is based on the expectation of total mechanization, a maximal discrepancy between effort and effect. With a push of a button we command the visibility and invisibility, the audibility and inaudibility of the world; with a push of the button we can make the world perish. The road between effort and effect seems so short because it is invisible.

This, the invisibility of the technical thing and the comfort, has a deep meaning in our lives. What is invisibly present seems to have been given to us like the elementary, air, earth, water. It stops being a blessing for which we could optionally be grateful, at least in as much that we look at them. It also stops being a history in which we are involved ourselves. For what is being made, is no longer made to be seen, but to be overlooked. It is therefore made in the same indifferent way with which the underside of the floor is treated. Production evades from our perception and responsibility and the product is there in the way of something that isn’t made, but already there, something that is supposed to be self-evident. That is how the thing drifts away from our world and how it stops being a property; the thing becomes invisible and the property becomes abstract. The owner has an interest in the things, but he does not own the things. The more heated the production works, the more the thing disappears into the production process itself.

If the thing has become invisible, then for the eminently made thing, the work of art, we have to either lift ourselves a little above the floor on which we live and venture into the often pretentious world of modern art, which has distanced itself quite a bit from usability and had to do so, in order to remain visible. It continually has to dissociate itself from the industrial usefulness and the utilitarian world in order not to fall into invisibility along with industrial products. That’s why it has to be noteworthy and pretentious, to the point of affectation. Or: to experience production we have to go back to the time before the industrial revolution and the division of labor, when one man still made a whole product. Such a product of one man, made by hand, is now a work of art. More than a century of invisibility has opened our eyes to the antique utensil, no matter how humble. Every nail or even just a needle, made outside of the factory, has become a work of art.

The more a thing disappears into invisibility, the less it is a thing, and the less we own it. For in its dependence on a framework its is no longer a complete, independent thing and therefore not a thing to own. A television is an important and useful instrument, as is a car. But they are, no matter how expensive, not possessions, where the worthless nail is. They are not because they cannot be separated enough from the technical frame of which they are attributes. The television disappears into the network, by which it’s fed: apart from that it is an embarrassing piece of furniture. A car is a useless thing without a road network, really already when it stands still. That’s why they are possessions in an economical sense, that is in our economy, but not in an anthropological or psychological sense. I can get attached to a painting, not to a car. Thing, possession, can only be what has meaning in and of itself.

III ‘Handmade’

The industrial revolution has changed the things, taken away its character of possession. It is therefore not only an interference in human life, but also in the existence of the things. In his book Life in Multiples Van de Berg demonstrates this abundantly clearly with the examples of the production of needles, leaning on data by Adam Smith and Marx. “The division of labour, that was made possible by the industrial revolution, made a labourer able to, instead of the twenty needles, that he could make himself in a day, make hundreds of thousands. Or really he doesn’t make them anymore; his hand is drawn back from production; the production becomes invisible. You cannot tell by the needles anymore that they’ve been made and how they’ve been made. The needles might have become more useful, but they are no longer things. Throw a thousand needles into a bowl, and there is not a single one that is different from the others. Sprinkle the twenty from yesteryear into the palm of a hand: they are all disparate. The numbers suit this difference -as does the gesture… How many needles have been made across the world since Marx? I don’t know the number, don’t have to know the number, to realise, that this number far exceeds the need. -One cannot say, that needles get worn out? The needles from before Smith, those were being worn out. Needles from the time of Smith, I suspect, were being used frugally. But no one handles needles frugally since Marx. They don’t wear them out. They drop them. For they are worthless.

Multiple, equal, worthless and throw-away. This foursome belongs together and it is surely not just the case with needles. Scarce, unequal, valuable, for wearing out or keeping. This foursome also belongs together, also not just in the case of a needle.

They are two time periods. We live in the second time period (p. 173).” We live in the time period of worthless, invisible things. The things from an earlier period are essentially different. A modern nail is for using or for throwing away, in any case not for being seen. A nail that was made by the village blacksmith a hundred and fifty years ago, to us is a thing, a possession, a work of art.

This is peculiar enough in different aspects. What is now so much desired, namely the somewhat dubious predicate of ‘handmade’ in an industrial world, hasn’t always had this prestige. Before the industrial revolution it was the normal course of events, that the things were made by hand. There wasn’t any other way of making them, also not for artworks. If only for that reason the arts and the crafts were much closer together, or were more or less identical. The step into a mythical past that we make now by admiring handmade work, was a step back into prehistory back then. What was made by human hands did not have prestige, but what was said to be acheiropoietos, made without hands, that is given by the gods to man, fallen from the heavens in perfect completion, did. There are icons that enjoy this prestige. The idea probably harks back to the thought, that in prehistory the things suddenly arose, created by a god in an exemplary way. The things from history are repetitions, imitations of these things from prehistory, which are models. What remains from this prehistory, therefore naturally has a special, divine value. Every thing is the representation and the repetition of a primal thing. And that primal thing, not made by human hands, enjoys the prestige that the idea enjoys with Plato. That is why man shouldn’t create which isn’t already there in a primal shape; it is hubris to design something new. That is why the industrial revolution is so revolutionary; it moves the primal thing from the heavens to the machine. Not the new thing, but only the new machine adds something to the file of the things. The things themselves no longer have an identity.

IV Nature and history

The nail is all the more ‘made’, a product of human hands, albeit an elementary product, because iron, from which it is made, does not have a shape of its own. Iron is without character, amorphous. It does not exist outside of the form, that man gives it. Technique or craft actualises the iron to the thing that it has to become. With marble or wood, as noted by Alain, we can muse about the shapes that slumber in a block. ‘Le fer n’a point de noeuds ni de fibres; la forme qu’il reçoit lui est étrangère.’ (Iron has no knots or fibres; the form it receives is foreign to it.) The veins in marble and the rings in wood can inspire the sculptor to ‘liberate’ certain slumbering shapes. In any case they keep the nature of the material in account. The material has its own beauty, which helps actualise the product. A marble statue is very different from a wooden statue, even if it is carved from an equally big block and from the same model. Material here is to such a high degree important, forming and shaping, that it determines the product. Iron does not have this characteristic. It is completely technical, that is to say dependent on the possibilities of the technique and determined by it. To name a clear example: without fire there is no iron. An enormous leap was made in history, before iron could be handled. When you touch iron, you hold a piece of human history and hubris, a chunk of characterlessness that has been put to the service of man for its often aggressive intentions. It’s not for nothing that in the hierarchy of ages iron was put in the last place; it represents the biggest progress, but also the deepest misery. With iron we think of weapons, of stabbing, penetrating, splitting and carving. It is a human, historical material, that to a certain degree lies outside of nature and what it has to give directly. A piece of iron represents a piece of history. This ascertainment can be specified in several ways. In and of itself it is too elementary to say much at all.

In his book Forgerons et Alchémistes (p. 26) Eliade talks about the ‘holiness’ of iron. ‘Qu’il passe pour tombé de la voûte céleste, ou qu’il soit extrait des entrailles de la Terre, il est chargé de puissance sacrée.’ (‘Whether it is thought to be fallen from the heavenly vault, or is extracted from the bowels of the earth, it is charged with sacred power.’) This holiness in its turn is too all-encompassing to be determined globally. It can contain both the falling from the sky as the being dug from the lap of the earth. Pointing towards the first could possibly be the etymology of the Greek word for iron, ‘sidèros’, that shows kinship to the latin word for star ‘sidus’, genitive: ‘sideris’. Iron is a matter, that falls outside of the normal order, whether it comes from the heavens, whether it just received that name simply because it shines like the stars. For it is this shine that the word indicates. It is a notable accomplishment, with which man steps outside of the order given to him by nature. That is why iron is holy in a different sense than old trees are holy; it is holy in this sense, that it places man opposite himself and his own history. With iron he acquires a responsibility of his own, with which he can target the established order. The archaic shudder for iron is completely comparable to how modern man feels about the immeasurable powers of atomic energy: for that shudder is too, no matter how modern we are, charged with magic and holy. The holiness of iron is a historical fact and has historical suppositions; it hasn’t been given with the form and the nature of the material.

In nature we find iron ore, not iron. Iron doesn’t belong to the trousseau of history, but is one of its most prized accomplishments. The formlessness of the material brings relief to the skills of the Promethean, technical man. An iron object impresses, because it is the fruit of a visible technique. Plastic, on the other hand, just as amorphous as iron and perhaps of even greater use, does not impress: it is the fruit of an invisible technique. It doesn’t pose, the way iron represents the achievements of fire and metalwork. It not just too recent to evoke archaic historical images, but it is also too concealed. In this concealment it is withdrawn from our historical consciousness. And there is another thing: since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the technique has made so many rapid achievements, that it is very difficult in this accelerated progress to make distinctive caesuras, which determine an era. The possibility to split an atom is undoubtedly such a caesura, and we rightly say, that we live in the atomic age now. Until recently we lived in the iron age. A simple nail can awaken our historical consciousness.

The formlessness of iron therefore has a special meaning, inasmuch as it makes us realise history in a special way. However, it doesn’t only make us aware of that history as human hubris and human adventure, but also as a source of realities. The fact that iron isn’t a natural product, and so not like wood and stone been given a certain articulation and form by nature, by which it can be known and to which the operator has to conform to a certain degree in a form of serfdom towards the material and towards the nature which provides it, is connected to the way it was given us, namely as a historical achievement. With ‘given’ we think of a power that determines our being and having and we call this power nature. We find ourselves determined by nature and in nature, as the world we live in we come across the things as given. There is however another world we live in that gives us things, like we have them, that shapes human being and having. That is the world of history. We often say that our existence and our behaviour is culturally determined, and by that we mean that in different cultures and periods, other forms of behaviour and work can be observed. The term nature already loses in this antithesis to culture something of its magical prestige. Man is, we say, to a certain degree free of nature.

History as a determining power goes further. It gives, just like nature gives, and it gives a lot of which it was long thought, that it was given by nature. The prestige of nature, the way it applies in a mythical and essentialist thinking, merges more and more into that of history. One of the most clear examples of this is the theory of evolution. It teaches as history, what was thought to be nature. Evolution is history. The development of species and the burgeoning of higher forms of life is not a given of nature, but of history. Everything is history. But wood and marble are given of the prehuman or besides human history; iron is a given of the human history. It is whole history, conquest of myth. That’s why it sets history present.

V Magic and Symbolism

There is a curious Roman ritual, in which we can see, according to a certain interpretation, a dramatisation of the history-making function of the iron, the nail. At the end of a lustrum, at new years and at centennial, a nail was solemnly beaten into the wall of Jupiter’s temple in the Capitol. According to a very old law, only the highest magistrate, a dictator appointed especially for this, dictator figendi clavi causa, could perform this rite. The historian of religion W. Brede Kristensen gives the following interesting explanation for this. ‘The meaning of this action had apparently been completely forgotten in the time of the writers, which mention it. For nobody would probably settle for their explanation, that the nails were hammered in, so that the next generations could count the number of periods by the nails’ heads. For such work you didn’t need a praetor maximus or a dictator clavi figendi causa. Moreover, the ceremony wasn’t just held periodically, but also on the occasion of self-contained occurrences which had caused great unrest, such as contagious diseases or unheard of crimes. For the calculation of times the nails hammered in then would have been of little use. The action must have had a different use.

It was the last ritual at periodical feasts. That it indeed marked the ending is almost certain, as the nail, clavus, from claudere ‘to close’, in the consciousness of the Romans was a ‘closer’. One could say that the ritual hammering of the nail would be explained by that. But the case is not that simple… No period was simply closed, for it was the form of a imperishable life, including the fall and the rise. In the period the feared divine life order manifested itself, which superseded human interests. Romans called that order fatum… And now it turns out that the nail was the Roman symbol for that.’ (Collected contributions, p. 246) Kristensen does not explain how the nail becomes a symbol of the Fatum, probably because he limits himself too much to only the nail. There are different explanations of the ritual possible, that shed a more clear light on this.

It doesn’t just concern the nail, it concerns a ritualistic action that involves the nail. The nail get hammered into a wall in a ritualistic way. Not the nail as such is a symbol of fatum but more: the nail ritually hammered into a wall. Hammering a nail is a decisive action, to which quite a few religious and magical ideas can attach themselves. An enlightened man like Lichtenberg still wrote: ‘Wenn ich einen Nagel einschlage, nur um etwas anzuheften, so denke ich immer: was wird geschehen, ehe ich ihn wieder herausziehe?’ (‘When I strike a nail just to attach something, I always think: what will happen before I pull it out again?’) The ritualist, therefore emphatic and solemn hammering of a nail, has, like all rituals, a very complex meaning, which can’t be discharged with a simple explanation.It could very well be, that two opposite explanations can be given, neither of which can be dispelled by the nature of the ritual itself. In that case it is also useful to do that, because it sheds light on the nature of the rite. A rite is necessarily poly-interpretable, not just because it consists of a number of consecutive actions, each of which is interpretable in itself, and makes use of things and symbols, each of which are interpretable in themselves, but mostly because it, as a coagulation of all that, is not an efficient action towards a goal, but a fairly desperate action of expression, that comes from the willingness to do something, more than the knowledge what to do. It dramatises the willingness to do something into an imaginary action, which no matter how it is interpreted still remains an action. The hammering of a nail from which nothing is hung, is a decisive action. It forcefully ends a period. The period is as it were nailed to the wall and held in place, to be made clear, rounded to a past whole. The ritual hammering is a marking of historical decision, a way out of a crisis, a decisive turn. That is why most interpretations of the ritual mentioned earlier go in this direction. They see applied in the nail an apotropaeic magic, a means to ward off disaster, an aggressive weapon against demons. But on an Etruscan mirror the inevitable doom Atropos is depicted still as a winged creature with a nail in its hand. Fatum itself handles the nail, to emphasize its irrevocability. Magic, on the other hand, uses the same means, the plague can just as well be hammered as a period.

In magic the nail plays an important role, primarily as an aggressive weapon. Its name ‘nail’ invokes the association with the claw of an animal, ‘spike’ seems to be connected to all kinds of words that have to do with stabbing. In apotropaeic magic nails are used often. They do not only ward off disaster, but also wound the enemy. Instead of directly attacking someone, with the same effect one can stab nails into his footsteps or pierce his likeness with nails. The nail is used to fix a prayer or curse in place. Handling a hammer and nail is such an elementary action, that the useful targeted action it can be, is completely pushed to the side and washed away by primitive dreams of power and aggression, which accompany the action and, given a certain degree of desperation, that turn it into a action of pure expression. That a nail is used in the action of expression, means, that it has been completely integrated into the lives of humans, as it was made by history. It has become completely human and this has a deep meaning for its symbolical value.

That iron naturally does not have its own shape, but is handled in historically grown and confirmed shapes, doesn’t meanwhile imply, that those shapes haven’t also been determined by nature. This happens in two ways. Firstly by human ‘nature’, the fundamentals of man. The nails gets its shape from man and it is inevitable that its shape would get human characteristics, as it were. All of the archaic technique is anthropomorphic, thanks its shape and existence not just to its efficiency, but also to the human world, to which it is added as a visible historical achievement. The archaic, still visible technique is a proud extension of the human body and has been designed after its analogy. A hammer is a stronger and harder fist, a shoe is the sole of a foot, a jug is a belly. Man’s responsibility for its technique is easier to bear, the more it fits to the world of his physique, therefore when it isn’t completely designed by himself, but in consultation of what has already been given. That especially the genitals have had an important meaning in this, has been made very clear from numerous psycho-analytical researches, especially relating to weapons of attack like the sword and the spear, but also with ‘aggressive’ tools like the plough. It is certain without a doubt, that the human body itself has inspired technical shapes. That is also obvious, for it is with his body that man stands within and in front of the world, it is his first and most technical given. It is therefore too very much a possibility and even a probability, that the shape of the nail has been co-determined by the phallic symbolism that the psycho-analytics emphasise in the first place, and that it owes its magical prestige to that for a large part.

But that is still not all. The shape is also determined by the nature of the material, with which it is brought into contact, for example wood. That shape is not a self-powered fantasy of a narcissistic dreaming, but a product of a consultation with the nature of wood etc. This is where tool and art differ. But it is precisely this archaic efficiency, which so clearly shows a remainder of symbolism, which fascinates us so much in old tools. They are the paragon of humanised, historicised matter. That is why they are so fascinating to look at.

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Updream, part I

Considerations about a childlike element in philosophy

1

The beginning of my exposition seems not to matter much, for isn’t the beginning doomed to be offset by the continuation and by what it concerns in the end? If there is, in the area that I now set foot in, a core of the matter, and if that takes a central place, then there must be lots of ways and entrances to reach it, a bit like how all roads are said to lead to Rome. And if that core isn’t there or if it’s too puny, too wide or too vague to point out, then the long loop of the detour around the area in which it is located, the detour we have to make in life and thought to return to the obviousness that we started from and that we tried to replace with a reflexive certainty, despite its futility has still been an unavoidable Odyssey to the place we already were when we started the detour. The question of the point of something which turns out to be necessary, is superfluous and reaches above our capacities. No one can know how much winding up is needed, or even must be mobilized purposely, to ever unwind and be content with what little we can dispose of from the outset.

From the beginning into which I want to tie this consideration, I’m not even sure if it’s just an expression of astonishment about existence or a question about the point and the meaning of all. It stems from a childlike train of thought that might have already taken the linguistic shape of a question, but perhaps would sooner like to share the question with whom it is asked to than that it expects a definitive answer to it.

One evening, when I was bringing my son, who was six years old at the time, to bed, he suddenly asked: “How can I know that I’m not dreaming everything now?” The question sounded guileless and didn’t give the impression that it was the product of a long mental struggle with questions too big and too precocious and probably not just for him. I even thought, in a surge of maturity that kids can provoke, that it more suited his age than mine. For grown ups are supposed to not even mention anymore the questions they don’t know the answers to.

His day had been, as far as I could tell, sooner been saturated by pleasures than that it could have been cause to a quick forgetting or a writing off. He’d rather wanted to hold on to the day and what had happened than see it disproved as a mistake. And apparently he was experimenting at that moment with a possibility that adults are ashamed of, that is to believe in an existence he didn’t share with anyone, that existed solely in his imagination and from which that outside world had been thought away or in which it had conversely been made up. In the mean time it didn’t seem at all, not in the least from his drowsy sleepiness, that the dream he had made up seemed like an oppressive nightmare from which he’d like wake right at the point of going to sleep. It sooner belonged to the rituals that would have to be rigged just so he could sleep without worrying about the continuity of his world. He wouldn’t have to be the sole wakeful watchman in a sleeping universe.

2

On second thought, is this a question that demands a serious answer, so an answer that is more than a comforting adjuration? And can anybody ever answer it in a sufficiently businesslike manner? We could probably dismiss it as childish, but with that we’d only say something truly meaningful if at the same time it was also clear, that all childishness as the initial phase of human life has the status of provisionality and is doomed to disappear without trace from a life and a way of thought that claim to have real validity and have reached a definitive stage. Then all of childhood would be superfluous and every memory of it pointless. I sooner have the tendency to regard that time and the memories of it as normative and decisive. Then indeed would this decisive beginning be random and could it be crossed out against the continuation.

In the mean time I didn’t know the answer and therefore just said, that we, if it did concern a dream, probably dreamt the same thing. We went through some of the details and soon came to the conclusion that it had to be that way. We also dreamt the same father, the same son, the same house on the same address, the same room and the same bed. And moreover we had to assume that others too, who would see us there, for example his mother and his sister, would come to the same conclusion at the same moment as us.

If that was the case, at least there would be a familiar circle around him which in very different heads dreamed the precise same thing as he did. Within that circle there was a communal world. If we now assumed that the world limited itself to that circle, then within it he could feel relatively safe and talk about anything that went on inside him. But outside it he could also discover, on the street and in school, that apparently everyone sees the same things, hears the same sounds, and gets out of the way for the same cars by the same brand.

The easiest way to explain why it is that we have the impression that we all experience the same things, is to assume that all those things are real and aren’t dreamt by all the people at the same time and in the same way. For then the differences in all those dreams would have to be so big that people couldn’t talk in the same language. And the things are just there, when we are awake; they remain while we sleep, and they don’t change, no matter what we dream.

3

That’s how he could know, I explained, that he didn’t dream. He seemed to be very content with that and fell asleep peacefully. But I had to think a bit more about the word ‘how’ in his question. For that doesn’t just mean ‘in what way’, so that the answer can be ‘so’, but also ‘to which degree’, so that gradations of probability and certainty can be given.

In what way and how certain can I then know that I’m not dreaming and that the things outside of me and which I’m concerned about, actually exist? For a shared experience of a communally observed world too can be dreamt. There are no possibilities, no matter how unlikely, that can be thought of where the realization cannot be dreamt. The dreamer isn’t accountable for the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the things he dreams. He just sees them before him, and what we just see before us without understanding it and without being able to relate to it actively, of those things we could start to think that we’re dreaming them too.

Once that possibility has been discovered, there appear to be no more limits, not to dreaming, and not to the doubting that the suspicion that we are dreaming can give way to. His dream did that too. It was a dreamed, thought up dream, a dream without images or certainties, a reflected dream in parentheses and within a loop, in which at the same time also the whole world and the mutual coordination of all things and thoughts were included.

His question also could have been: “does anything really exist, apart from myself?” ‘Dream’ would then have been another word for a way of thinking, in which we realize that thinking is a precarious affair and that we are only thinking and not knowing for sure. Then I should have maybe told the story of “I think therefore I am” and the fantasies of René Descartes (1596 – 1650), about an eventual evil genius, who presents us with a whole world, including our thoughts about it.

The question did assume the ‘I’ and the certainty that can be reached from this point, but the existence thereof wasn’t in question -everything else was. For a six year old child the own existence seemed sufficiently embedded into a ‘we’ that could guarantee a jointly habited world that could be regarded as the real world, even if only because that world is shared with others.

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philosophy and freediving

Cornelis’ son Daan Verhoeven talks about how his father’s philosophy influenced his underwater photography:

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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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