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Updream, part I

Considerations about a childlike element in philosophy


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.


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.


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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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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In Honour of what would have been his 87th birthday, a translation of one of hist most dear words and concepts.


About the provenance of the word ‘wonder’ only vague suspicions are uttered, according to dictionaries. I won’t list them, even if it is to prevent me from getting seduced into attaching consequences as to what the ‘real’ meaning of the word should be. That isn’t necessarily connected to its provenance. But it doesn’t escape me that the same thing happens with the word as with the matter that it relates to. For with what we call ‘wonder’, too, the provenance and the explanation withdraw from our eyes and we don’t succeed in including them into a series of causes and effects. Even more: those are completely irrelevant. Wonder breaks away from any framework. All attention falls on the pure fact that it is there and that it is like it is. Any explanation that would turn it into, remarkably, something usual and self-evident by being reducible to something else, is superfluous and fairly unwelcome when it concerns something we call a wonder. We don’t want it to be recalled into the ranks of mediocrity, in which it would disappear.

‘To wonder’, making something into wonder, is the name we give this attitude or this occurrence. Sometimes we also used the word ‘amazement’ and that too appears to express a certain speechlessness, an inability or unwillingness to declare something as usual. Wonder starts in any case with a delay of every explanation and that delay is its territory. On that territory we are purely contemplative and we remain that for a while that can’t be determined by us. Not only is every explanation suspended, but also every form of interfering. The wonder that we witness is stronger than us and our plans. It quiets us, not just in the sense of being ‘speechless’, but also in the meaning of ‘motionless’. In wonder we lose our grip on the world. And the wondrous thing there is that the moment of forced contemplation, in which the world gets a grip on us, we experience more as an enrichment and a relaxation than as a paralysing poverty. It is difficult to get used to that, for also getting used to things makes them ordinary, maybe to a higher degree than an explanation that reveals the cause.

Wonder is often explained out of a sort of habit as a a question and the word is understood, as is customary in English, as ‘to question wonderingly’. That seems a bad habit to me, for in wonder the question too falls silent. It is an undetermined delay of the question and it doesn’t originate as a question. Between speechless wonder and the question an attempt quickly shuffles in, mostly with impatient and not very contemplative people who can’t stand an ’empty moment’, to for the time being just find some connection to all that we are used to or that has already been explained. That reaction looks like the panic that breaks out as soon as there is an accident. Nobody knows what he needs to do, but everyone is convinced that something needs to be done.The question to the how and the why is an extension f our tendency to include the new as quickly as possible into the frame of what is already familiar. It assumes that there will be an answer in a short term and that wonder will give way again to the safe certainty that gives us grip on the world instead of handing us over to it.

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Pausing by water

There are in the world a number of things that, to the extend in which they can spontaneously grab our attention, can compete with the most sensational occurrences. A burning fire, a sleeping child, a spinning wheel, rolling waves, streaming water, falling snowflakes and raindrops on a window irresistibly draw our gaze towards them and keep hold of it so long that we forget time. They are movements that invite a passer-by to pause and place him outside of the stream of history for a moment. They completely take hold of us without being in any way sensational.

drops on window

They only have this in common with sensational occurrences, that at every moment there are changes in the spectacle; but those changes are minimal, random, never ending and in no way contribute to a predictable or a tensely awaited end, The happenings that occur don’t add anything to the spectacle and do not change the totality. A maximum of movement coincides with a minimum of change. They occur within a fairly limited frame. The sensation does not lay outside of the spectacle and the tension isn’t caused by the expectation of a shocking occurrence, which will break out of the frame, or a decisive turn in the history of what is happening. Nothing happens, or: the very little that does happen more affirms the status quo than that it creates spectacular changes within it. There is an intense dynamic, but it has its terrain within a frame that seems more static; what happens bends back into a horizon, in which it is no longer a happening, but regular order.

Still these movements interest us no less than an exciting match. This fact in and of itself is wondrous. Apparently the repetition of almost identical movements can be fascinating and in a certain sense spectacular, regardless of any thought of a decision or an end. Spectacular in a literal sense is what is a spectacle en invites us to watch. A classic tragedy was interesting for spectators and compelled them to watch, even though in most cases they knew exactly how the play would end. The tension was created more by a balanced building up than by the question what would happen next.

That causes a thought to rise, that also the tension of a decisive match is determined more by the structure of the happening itself than by perspectives on what will happen next, therefore more by the present and the presence than by the future. The more equal the teams are, the more stringent the rules to which the players must adhere, the more then the forces keep each other in equilibrium and make a surprising result unlikely, the more interesting can the match be and the more the spectacle will tie the spectators to the present.

To the same extend the back and forth movements tend to resemble more the rolling of the waves or the flickering of a flame within a balanced frame. The tension of a match consists of the repose of the decision and repose means: absence at this moment. The moment itself is being occupied by other thoughts, it fills itself with the lyrical presence with an endless movement. To watch is just to be witness, gazing at what happens over there, in the water, in the fire, or on the field. New flames flicker, new waves roll in, new resistance delays the victory.

These things seem to differ so much, that it appears to be nonsense to join them. That this happens anyway has a meaning. For with all too much fervor staring into the fire or water is labeled as a somewhat introverted musing, while watching a game is seen as stout, extraverted engagement with brave deeds and perhaps also as a preschool of the willingness of actually participating in those activities. This way of seeing things can be questioned , which will immediately relate to other discrepancies that are taken for granted, such as between activity and passivity, the outside world and the inside world, doing and thinking, labor and leisure.

Whoever stares into the fire or gets enthralled by the endless roughing of the waves more easily gives off the impression to be lost within his own thoughts than the spectator at a match. It is likely that this is caused less by a deep difference in the symbolical meaning of the movement towards which the attention is geared, than by the circumstance that at a competition, a spectator is not alone, but amidst a large mass, that with loud yells encourages the competing parties in the hope to influence the outcome with it. That can provide the illusion of activity. But when the supporters are as equally divided as the players, in the incoming waves of encouragements too a balance will arise. In this case, nonetheless, it is clear that the centre of attention is outside of us, there on the field.

But also when we are musingly staring into the fire or being enthralled by streaming water, we don’t think of ourselves. We think of nothing, or of something that is too large to think about it in detail. Thought seems to stand still in wonder of something that it can’t comprehend. Maybe the movement of fire, water and breath is so fascinating, because for us it is a symbol for the restlessness of our own inner being, but it exudes calm, because it exists clearly and undoubtedly outside of us. Attention for that movement frees us from ourselves and directs itself to an outside world, which engrosses us by its own qualities.

There are not too many things which can, in this way, without the promise of a decisive outcome, fascinate us and rip us away from our own centre. We could say, that it concerns elemental things. In the elements a number of characteristics are present in a focused way, that keep being of interest to us: omnipresence, eternal returning, recovery of balance, irreplaceability, concreteness, in short everything that makes them suitable to be the carriers of endless symbolism. Elements make us spectators. We pause by them and wonder about their pure presence. For a moment the matter-of-factness of an outside world made manageable falls away and we focus out attention on a secret. Musings by the fire, water and other elements don’t let us sink into the own inner self, rather than that it places us with a soft shock in the outside world, of which we –until now perhaps thoughtless users- suddenly become surprised witnesses.

By speaking of ‘elements’ we don’t exactly bring the secret of the world within our own reach, but we acknowledge that for the time being it is outside of this reach and cannot be reduced to a function of our own power. The word is an attempt to indicate within the multifaceted reality a structure or a skeleton, or rather: to verbalize a suspicion of a structure. ‘Elementa’ –a word with an obscure origin- was used by the Romans to denote the letters of the alphabet made out of ivory, and later also the raw materials, of which the world in the antique’s point of view was composed. Elements, letters are not the literature, materials are not the world. The word ‘element’ is no more that a coat rack for our willingness to penetrate deeper into the world, a temporal but un-omitable repose for our wonder. The inexplicable word explains nothing; it just says that man, faced with an interminable multitude, wants to bring order to it so not to be perplexed forever.

 water cascade

Earth, water, air and fire, ranked according to density and mass, were in the minds of the Presocratics thought of as raw materials, of which the vis­ible world consisted and to which all matter could be reduced. Elements are at the beginning and end of everything; they survive the fortunes of what is build up out of them. Between arising and perishing a whole history occurs, in which the elements get mixed in the most diverse ways and form complex structures. The way up goes in reverse order through the same stages as the way down.

This whole symbolism seems to deduce to a great wonder about the elements, but it represents at the same time a certain phase in the history of attempts to articulate this wonder and make it into an instrument. The thinking of the Presocratics has defied the myth, in which elements and forces of nature were represented as gods. It is a decisive step in the history of the human emancipation to from now on give a god or nymph the name ‘water’ or ‘earth’. This secularization brings the manageability of the world closer. Earth, water, air and fire are no longer only being worshiped, like Demeter, Poseidon, Zeus and Hephaestus, but principally also engaged in human activity. Gods are outside of that. They diverge to an invisible world, where they cannot be reached. The classic school of elements has maintained its validity for so many centuries, because it functioned as an attempt to replace the focal point of an explanation of the material world from outside that world to within it, and to make its substance accessible for human efforts.

Wonder brings things closer. It does invite us to pause and to postpone immediate action, but we pause ‘by’: the strangeness is discovered in our own surroundings, like an element beneath our feet, before our eyes and in our hands. The process of demystification and rationalizing, which started with the Presocratics, does not get stuck in introverted musings, but becomes the technical manageability of things. Rationalizing appears to be for a large part operationalizing; we have learned to connect the extend in which we understand and can explain something, to the extend in which we master it technically.

One of the Presocratics, Thales of Miletus (640 – 550) thought of water as the most important element. ‘All is water’, he said, but also accredited to him is the maxim ‘all is full of gods’. There are anecdotes about his life that illustrate his absent-mindedness, and others that must prove, how sober and practical this ancient engineer was in several fields: astronomy, economics and hydraulics. He predicted a solar eclipse and a bad wine harvest and was able to make profit from this knowledge. He cut off a bend in a river to let an army go through. His dream of the all-explaining water apparently went alongside a practical mastery of this element. When everything is water, everything has to be predictable and manageable according to the laws of water; but when everything at the same time is also full of gods, the wonder about this primal element will never find a definitive way out to a complete technical submission or a total self-evidence.

Elements remain things that we pause by. That means in the first place, that they grab our interest and incite our wonder. A meeting with the elements perplexes us and makes us contemplative. Pausing means furthermore, that we for some time halt our activities and our urge to intervene. ‘Elementary’ we call those things, that by their own quality ask for our respect. It is not without reason that they were once represented as untouchable gods. An element is that which resists further treatment, what must be left to its own wisdom and structure and cannot with impunity be subjected to our capriciousness.

Also in that sense water is an element by which we have to pause; it makes us hesitate. Historically that hesitation can be interpreted as a certain conservatism in dealing with the elements. From Thales till the eighteenth century not much has changed therein. The classic symbolism of water does not end with in antiquity, but also outside of the classical culture has a historical validity and exemplary worth. The attention water as element asks and the respect it demands, are defined by the convincing way in which it manifests itself as an independent world and an impressive force.

In musing about water the mind experiences the human powerlessness against elemental occurrences. Elementary is what refutes the illusion of human omnipotence with its own manifestation. The wonder about water is a realization of the limits that come with the manageability of the elements, and of the multiple uses it has within those limits.

water dance

Translated in terms of technology this wonder means a focused attention for the particularities of the element and is respect: the willingness to obey the elements own laws when using it. ‘Nature can only be conquered by obeying it’, Francis Bacon wrote in a time in which the immerging sciences could not yet dream of replacing nature. The discovery of systematic laws is an invitation to obey them and to consult with the matter. The ‘soft technology’ is determined in this consultation and is besides some human cleverness also a tribute to the elements. In ancient times this respect had taken the shape of a cult.

The ancient technology of sailing, to name one example, does not only let be the divine power of water, but seems to be imbedded in expressions of pious reverie for the powers that control water. Sailing has never been taken for granted. It always coincided with the feeling, that something daring was undertaken, not only in relation to one’s own life and personal safety, but also in the sense that it remained an expression of over-confidence against an element, that invites us to pause and limits the human expansion.

In the first century before Christ, Horace says after quite an innocent sea trip to Greece, that the human species, cheeky enough to endeavor anything, is plummeting itself into a prohibited venture by going to sea. Mortals have mastered air and fire and also for water they won’t stop. ‘In vain God has in his wisdom separated the lands by the ocean as a border, when the godforsaken ships still dare to jump over waters that should have been inaccessible.’ If we weigh this maxim without poetical exaggeration and a conservative pathos, then still remains a starting point, with which contemporaries could agree: the wariness for the sacredness of the elements.

Water is a force that needs to be reconciled with this way of exploitation. ‘Sailing is necessary’, but it needs to continually be paired with excuses to the forces, like the primitive hunt too and the rituals of hunters are not without a salute to the wild animals. Libations were poured out and prayers directed to the winds. Without their benevolent cooperation the bold technological undertaking of seafaring would be doomed to failure. With all his haughtiness and power man still is dependent on the elements. According to an ancient legend the Persian king Xerxes, driven by a very high esteem of his own power, but also conceding to the coercion of an archaic representation, had the Hellespont tortured, when a storm there had destroyed his ship bridge and his plans had fallen into water. The god acted against another, a windy ego against the elemental force of the storm.

The symbolism of the holy water is as complicated as the element is all around. In it, the violence of the waves has a place together with the depth of the sea, the clarity of the lake, the squishiness of the puddle, the velocity of a mountain creek and the innocence of the source. Water is a living element. When Thales said that everything is water, he must have had living creatures in mind in the first place. In the ancient symbolism water is the element that brings forth and renews life. Life is a gift from water. Living water means new life and a renewal of the old life.

The ritual use of water is steeped in the same respect for the element as its technical exploitation. The ritual washing in living water is more an invitation to symbolical thinking about the element than an effective cleansing. The ritual cleansing activates the symbolism of the stream that passes and carries away. The cleansing water, according to this symbolical way of thinking, takes with it all that is alien to the one being submerged into it; it gives him back his proper and undivided identity, the one he had before he got smudged by history. As an element water makes a fertile connection with the primal time and the beginning. ‘All is water’ can mean not only that everything arose from water, but also that everything can be renewed by the element that represents the primal time and with it the model with which everything should be measured. Washing is, like many old rituals, an attempt to wipe away the accretions and the alienation of history and to connect with the pure beginning. In the depth of water history is broken down and the innocence of the prehistoric times restored.


It probably is a too romantic illusion to think that in a technological age this archaic symbolism of water still has any serious and practical meaning. The question is, how seriously it was taken in old times, so before the time that a romantic interpretation had laid itself like a second skin over the symbols. When we can speak about something like a ‘lost identity’, it cannot be restored in a symbolic way. It is doubtable, if this was literally the meaning of the ancient rituals, and even if such terms were even conceivable in an archaic context. Maybe there is more of a homage to the elements than a searching for the own identity. Unmaking history in a symbolical way isn’t necessarily an expression of an irrational desire to start anew and to give up the achievements of reason. The gesture can also be seen as a re-evaluating of human actions by the laws of the elements.

The ancient rituals can be interpreted as a constant precaution to, as the Stoic philosophers would say, live in accordance with nature, in harmony with and parallel to the seasons, the movements of celestial bodies and the elements. The rhythm of life in this symbolism isn’t determined by a self-powered decision of man, who regards himself as the centre of the universe, but in dialogue with a rhythm outside of him. The world does not revolve around man, but man is a late-comer in an already revolving world and needs to adjust to its rhythm and laws to maintain himself. He is more the witness and careful inhabitant of the world than a master of it.

The ritual cleansing with living water fits in the same frame as the careful consulting of the phase of the moon and the stars in agricultural and nautical enterprises of decisive importance, as the studying of the flight of birds or listening to the predicting rustle in the tops of trees. This whole technology of cautiousness, embedded in a contemplative stance in the world, represents a respect for the elements, that in later times was perhaps neglected too much for the benefit of a maximum of exploitation, which more and more took on a character of overtaxing. The way in which in our youngest past streaming water is used as a self-transporting sewer, in hindsight bares all the characteristics of what was considered hubris in ancient times.

An example of that is told by Ovid in his playful frame tales surrounding the mythical metamorphoses, in which water plays a strikingly large part as a medium of transformation. When the goddess Latona, floating over the earth with her two children in search of a cool drink had arrived at a clear lake, she wanted to scoop the water with her hand. But the Lycian country-folk, who were working in the vicinity, prevented the goddess from quenching her thirst. ‘One sip of water would be as nectar to me, and I will feel, that with it I’ve been given life again’, she assured them. But without hearing the warning nestled within the word ‘nectar’ –an indication, that the woman knew this drink of the gods by experience- and from the consideration that the elements could be no one’s personal property (usus communis aquarum est –water is for common use) the herders kept the goddess away from the water. They even jumped into the lake to muddy the water with their stamping feet and make it undrinkable. As a punishment for that, the goddess turned them into frogs, sentenced to forever flounder in brackish water and quack without being understood.

The temptation is great to use this story as an instructive fable on modern relationships, and point out spiteful Lycians in our own environment, that muddy the elements. The question has been talked about often and there’s no shortage of accusatory pointed fingers. But whoever should be transformed into a frog, it is clear, that the symbolism of water, which until recently had a distinctly poetic character, has in the last few years undergone a thorough change. No natural disaster has caused that, nor a sudden change in symbolical thinking, but human neglect in regards to the side-effects of a somewhat too hasty and messy technological development. Running water no longer seem to be the source and image of life, but of death, not of cleansing, but of decay. The clear beginning phase has become a brackish end stage. Instead of an element, water is in danger of becoming a waste-product with the fortunate characteristic, that it takes care of its own transportation. A communal property degenerates into a public sewer. The friendly babbling brook of yesteryear flees the scene ashamed and bubbling with poison. The nymphs that gracefully danced on the shores have changed into wrinkly furies with snake-hair; drooling slime and venom they preach death and destruction.

 water falling

Still, the attention for elements has not disappeared in a technological age. That is only in a very little part the merit of man. What is elemental will maintain itself through the entire history. If it is forgotten, it will return and present itself again. The historical, history-making man can only separate himself from the elements a couple of steps. When he goes too far, he lapses into an uninhabitable artificiality and he will be haunted by furies. The history of technology is a continuous, haughty experiment with the length of that distance. Water too is involved in it and it’s been made mostly subordinate to technology and the will to reduce the world and the elements to means. But the archaic, cautious dealing with the element has as it were spliced off the technological existence and taken a place in a ‘second life’, that hasn’t been caricaturized by our will, namely recreation. What water was in ancient cleansing rituals, it has become again in the modern way of spending time off: a recreating, recreative element. In the time in which we relax, we can afford a pace of life, in which elemental things get a place they’re more entitled to. The tension of a match is part of it, but also the disinterested interest in movements that do not lead to anything spectacular, but only invite us to contemplate.

The place that water takes in recreation, is a sign of its elemental indispensability. Elements cannot be passed by in history. If they are passed over, history has evaporated into poisonous clouds. When they are driven out of technology and economy, they’ll return in luxury, like for example the fire place or in the alternative life of time off, and give those more content. The further we are separated in our ‘first life’ from the elements, the greater is our need for recreation. In recreation the technological alienation from the elements is being undone and on a small scale the history of the human position to water repeats: the surprised contemplation of the element, the battle against the waves and the wind, waged with the most primitive of means, the relaxed succumbing to their overpower and the endless, goalless drifting on the back of the water. In this recreational match the means are reduced to the elemental.

Psychologists might be a bit too quick in talking about a ‘regressus in uterum’ and a drifting on the amniotic fluid. But when we emphasize the elemental character of water, by this interpretation man again seems to become the centre of the contemplation too much. That water is an element means that man could attribute an endless amount of meanings to it, but only based on the fact, that the water itself is the centre, and not subjected to an ‘egotrip’. It’s not man that makes water, it’s water that makes man and invites him to contemplation. Drifting on water, listening to the waves or with his eyes following the stream he is confronted with something that in force and duration surpasses his own existence and on which he depends.

will and the whole hole

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The detour of words

In honor of what would have been his 84th birthday

It happens to me at least once a year that i sink through everything. With everything, i mean, as an industrious verbalist, in the first place the world of words that proliferates like an enormous jungle on a bottom, of which at that moment it’s not clear whether that is the world or yet another substrate of words. For one word invokes another, leans up against it and makes an alliance with it. Finding support with each other they create the suggestion of a robust reality that can exist on its own. What is said so seriously and repetitively gets the same density as a solid object. When the word ‘well-being’, to name a random example, is pronounced seriously and with some display of noble concern is placed against something like ‘welfare’, it soon takes on the same fleshiness and and we start thinking that well-being is something that can be realized by our efforts. And in the meantime all that has become clear is that we can have discussions and meetings about it, but not that it has its own existence outside of language and conference rooms and can be the object of meaningful efforts. And it is that way with a lot of other words, most of all with the most expensive, the fattest, the noblest.

Apparently there is still a border above which words, no matter how fat, lose so much of their relative density, that they can’t descent anymore to a reality where their meaning can still be checked. They then maintain each other somewhere high in the sky and form a verbal universe that competes with reality -or even: they suck up all the other words to their own vacuum until it coincides with the world.

The periodical collapse of that world is something very different than a sudden attack of skepticism, more vital and more elementary. It causes a merry mood more than it does a sombre one. It therefore has more to do with springtime than with fall, more with Easter than with All Souls Day. From underneath a crust of meaningless words and things that have become obvious an elementary reality breaks through. About this reality poets and philosophers sometimes speak. But they have done this so often in the course of centuries, that this repetition of their words seems to be contributing to the rampant verbalism. We continuously need new words to express old experiences. And especially within the expression of those elemental experiences lurks the kitsch. This is what makes them inexpressible.

The inexpressibility of things that arouse our wonder is not the consequence of a shortage of words, but of an excess. Inexpressible is not what is new, but what is being suffocated under a repetition of words from the past. Language itself is a barrier, the cliche an obstacle. The most elemental things become inexpressible, because they’re snowed in, packed in a layer of words that can easily be repeated that only refer to a former use of those same words. Especially that which has been said so well, that it appears to have been put into words definitively, can only be used for a ritual repetition which no springtime can break through. Speaking becomes quoting, referring to numbers in a storage room. ‘We deeply regret’, ‘We’re deeply shocked’, ‘It is with great joy that we’, says the spokesperson, but there isn’t anybody who can think of sadness or joy with those statements anymore. It’s just referring to a certain register in the common way we use language.

To avoid kitsch we are almost forced to remain silent about elemental experiences or to speak about them in a language in which we decline any reference to either the outside or the inside. Poetry will have to become an autonomous art. If there’s still a poet that writes about springtime, he’ll have to write about poetry about springtime and about poets writing poems about springtime. His creativity is sent on a detour from which no one has ever returned. Like a monkey he climbs in the paper trees of a superfluous jungle. This happens in the name of a sophistication built of the shards of many failures and rejected sentiment. Every guileless directness is doomed to lead to kitsch.

The taboo on elemental things has almost become an obviousness. Out of fear for sentiment their existence is ignored, so it has to hide in a fairly obscure corner of amusement. Only when packed between frolics, piquancy and stunts may the springtime, a mother’s love, and sorrow be brought up. Outside of that they’re endlessly tinkering on a universe of words about words, solidified lava around a volcano that must have worked some time ago.

Even activism, heir to the ancient grim resoluteness, has developed its own verbalism, the most misleading one that can be thought of. Few expressions are as purely verbalistic as the thousand times repeated phrase, that it is not about the words, but about the deeds and that something finally needs to happen. Dozens of words have come into circulation that are being used with a certain volition, but exclusively relate to deeds and happenings that never took place and lay far beyond our powers: changing society, revolution, progressive policy, to make aware and even: upbringing. Has anyone ever been brought up? The so-called people of deed have become the biggest verbalists. For them words are not just the means to make a career, but also to maintain the illusion that the world is completely manageable, as manageable as language. By ruminating words they get the satisfying feeling of putting their teeth into reality.

It is an elemental joy and a small wonder to see this world crumble, silent as wet cardboard, to look outside without a mist of words before your eyes, to hear a blackbird sing without thinking of music or poetry, to see old things as new without a revolutionary interference and without an accompanying commentary track. Language is a detour to speechlessness. At a real occurence, we have nothing to say.

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Against violence II

“Violence is a philosophical primal problem. The annoyance about violence is one of the many shapes that wonder, the beginning and principle of thought, can take. And like wonder cannot be abolished by thought, the annoyance also cannot be abolished. Against a reality that it can’t make its own thought sees itself to its annoyance placed in a dialectic of a bad discord. It cannot end itself, also not by moving to deeds; it is a prisoner of its own infinity. The best thing that can come from this situation, if the self-powered ending of violence is ruled out, would be a new reflection on thought itself and its powerless infinity; in no other way can the infinity of the dialectic be ended, once it has begun its interaction of violence and annoyance, or being and thinking.”

-from violence as inspiration in ‘Against violence’

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Against violence I

“Facing a compact occurrence such as violence some modesty is appropriate. For all types of pretense already are forms of violence, while thinking about violence has as its ultimate goal or ideal not so much to know what exactly it is, but more to contribute to its liquidation. Wonder has already taken the shape of annoyance before it started. A philosophy of violence is the opposite of a way of thinking that would justify violence. The conviction that violence is is superfluous and thoughtless makes for a necessary preconception. That necessity must be explicit: we don’t speak ‘about’, but ‘against’ violence.”

-from the introduction of ‘Against violence’

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