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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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Spirit

The words that are most dear to us are often the most difficult to elucidate. With that also comes some hesitation when asked to do so or voluntarily offering. This might be a matter of sentiment, a resistance against every analysis of dear emotions. It can also be a consequence of a historical awareness of the complicated knots in which such a word has been tangled and from which whole clusters of meanings have sprouted forwards. With the word ‘spirit’ those metaphorical clusters can be unraveled in a great number of associations, all of which are interesting and hard to understand. I think I can distinguish two groups, one that has to do with the spirit that is in us, which makes us spiritual and spirited, and one that is about the spirit outside of us and there for example blows where it will. I further think that in a language like ancient Greek there were separate words for this too, one that can be translated as ‘awareness’ and that is derived from ‘exhaling’ and ‘blowing’. ‘Spirit’ is a translation of both and that’s one of the reasons why its meaning has become so complicated.

In the first cluster ‘spirit’ refers to an ability within us, a principle of life that makes us live and be aware of that. There is a certain preference for an upward movement in the development of this word. Spirit is not only higher than dust and from that level opposite to it, but also within the inner self there seems to arise an opposition between ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ in which spirit is granted a higher place, more chance of eternity and a greater intellectual weight. But no matter how high it rises, ‘spirit’ in this meaning is within us as a property. About what I have in that area I can speak of as ‘my’ spirit and I can try to use that as an instrument in my attempts to formulate what stirs my spirit with this word. I can then only hope that it stirs the same in other spirits, for what only stirs my spirit is a precarious property. If my spirit and my awareness aren’t windows that provide a view to a shared inhabited word, then they only represent my particular insanity.

In the second cluster, which is even more dear to me, ‘spirit’ doesn’t refer to an ability or something that is within me, unless I settled for the lower part of it, as it were. In the Greek ‘pneuma’ and the Latin ‘spiritus’ that is ‘breath’, something warm and dear that we have within us and every once in a while can communicate with others. But on the upper side of its meaning, where it is its most beautiful, its most divine and its most enigmatic, the spirit withdraws itself totally from our possession, our disposal and our temperature. There, it isn’t ‘my’ spirit, but ‘the’ spirit, the wind, that blows where it wants -in any case not where we want it to. It might be opposite to the letter that kills, but it is just as much an unexpected gust of storm that can swipe away letters and literalness. That spirit we don’t posses, but we say of it that it can come over us as a force we don’t know and of which we are not the proud owners. Precisely at the moment when ‘spirit’ evades our grip and sooner relates to our inabilities than to what we might be able to do, exactly there where our activity becomes an awaiting stance and a passivity, the word reaches its zenith in the development of its meaning.

 spirit

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and that language is ‘poes’

21-3-’76

For the second time i’m witnessing from up close that a child learns how to talk. And despite all my efforts and focused attention I haven’t been able to catch the phenomenon on a decisive phase that I would like to call ‘origin’. Daniel’s language too seems to have been brought from a secretive, prenatal existence. Only the slowness of its development forces me to assume that he is learning it from us, gradually and in a way that’s not dictated by us.

He started later than his sister, Neeltje. That’s apparently normal for boys: hard wood grows slowly. How he started, I don’t know. I suspect in the same way as all babies and I think that is: by listening to the rhythm and sound of our sentences. Even before he could say one word, he would talk in a tone that he knew from us, but without filling in the rhythm with words.

He now says three or four words: poes (cat), papa, da, sometimes mama. But he knows a lot more of them. What he says is only a fraction of his passive vocabulary. I know that, because I experiment with it. This morning I said: ‘Daantje, give the doll a kiss.’ He crawled through his stall, took the doll and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Other assignments too he appears to understand well.

I’m not sure he uses his limited vocabulary in a truly targeted fashion. He says ‘papa’ too when the word doesn’t refer to me. Neeltje did the same thing for a long time. At this moment ‘poes’ is his favorite word, and has been for two weeks. He has practiced it for months. First it was pf… followed by lots of blowing, then ‘poe’ and only recently ‘poes’. He uses the word very targeted, that is when he sees a cat, also on television. I really should say that in those moments, he doesn’t use another word or squeak, but immediately says ‘poes’. But he calls a lot of other animals that too. When a dog was here two weeks ago, he kept saying ‘poes’ and would not be corrected. He seemed to make it into a game to keep saying ‘poes’ and did so with a malicious and triumphant laugh. ‘This is a dog, dog.’ ‘Poes.’ ‘No, dog.’ ‘Poes, poes, haha.’

I think something is going on here that I noticed too late with Neeltje. I thought of it when I went to get him from his bed yesterday afternoon and this morning. He was already standing upright, looked around his room and pointed imperatively -his little index finger not straight ahead, but in an angle of 145 degrees to his hand- to all sorts of objects, and with it said ‘poes’ every time. I can’t assume that he saw all that stuff and those plants as cats. Apparently he wants to greet me into his world and to do so, he wielded the only word he has the hang of. He greeted me in his language and that language is ‘poes’. The word doesn’t only refer to the cat, but more than that it means that he wants to start communicating. With ‘poes’ he informs us: ‘I can talk’. Corrections such as ‘no, dog’ he resolutely rejects because they literally threaten to dumbfound him.

With Neeltje I used to initially think, as the faithful reader of treatises in which the beginning is always represented as very simple, that such words for concrete things could only relate to those things themselves. Now I notice that ‘poes’ includes all sorts of meanings, amongst which also something like a reflection on language. The latter happens mostly when a word is repeated over and over: there occurs something like a greenhouse process in which that one word becomes a whole language and metalanguage. ‘Poes’ coming from Daniel’s mouth means:

  1. that cat there,

  2. that animal there,

  3. look over there,

  4. I want to talk

  5. I have already learned to talk

  6. I want to keep talking,

  7. I talk like I want to.

‘Da’ is sometimes ‘daag’ (bye), sometimes also ‘dank je’ (thank you). Often he says ‘da da’ when he wants to have something. Thanking then becomes an order.

 poes

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Absurd

Although the word ‘absurd’ was introduced to Dutch already in the 16th century, probably from French, it was only included into the first supplement of the Dutch Dictionary in 1956. Perhaps it was too obviously a borrowed word to be allowed in without a fight. And the word still sounds a bit scholarly now, no matter how contemptible it is usually meant. And that is also what is nice and refined about the word: It seems to locate the nonsense that it relates to on a higher level, or give it a second change by indicating it in a scholarly way with a Latin term. And of that Latin word ‘absurdus’ the meaning is very mysteriously and perhaps also adequately described by the gorgeous dictionary of Van Wageningen and and Muller as: ‘who or what deviates from the usual hum’. It could therefore also relate to who or what makes a remarkably clear and sensible sound amidst the hum, but in Latin it was long since used to go below the already dubious borderline of everyday buzz and to expose that as just noise. It then no longer concerns a normal and natural process, but something with pretensions that distance it from the norm.

The borrowed word will therefore be introduced to distinguish an excess of non-sensical and meaningless buzz from the usual portions of it, to which the ear has gotten used in the mean time. And because in the Dutch language ‘absurd’ is a scholarly word, its usage must come from circles where such diagnoses could be made or where the excess probably occurred the most. So we’re not talking about regular and incidental nonsense, but about a higher and better organized form of it, cultivated in circles where everything that has been said and regulated, is regulated again, so that this surplus of of rules totally disrupts everything again. The population is thank god healthy and malicious enough to take over such a term and apply it to the very circles where the disease arose and the diagnosis was made. And in that way the meaning of the word ‘absurd’ must have been related to bureaucratic actions, a hum that indeed deviates quite a bit from the sounds caused by the usual and what is considered efficient activity. It is more the sound of little preambles and buzzing preparations than of progress.

The strict rule that seems to be underlying this development, could in the spirit of the word be described as following: everything that has already been regulated must on a higher level be regulated again in such a way that the regulations become not only more complicated, but also less efficient. And within that development there is increasing absurdity. The perfect organizations seems to strive for a maximum of absurdity; and that can only be reached when there is nothing at all outside of the agency, or nothing else is recognized and the machine hums in a completely empty space. The machine then works at full speed, but it doesn’t produce anything anymore. For the law of maximum absurdity will not allow that it produces anything else than this sort of spinning rumble. And as long as that ideal has not yet been reached and the organization, as a sort of industrial accident, makes a product, the machine will have to be perfected further until such an accident is ruled out and the buzz will sound to the enthusiasts as absolute music.

absurd sign

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Wisdom and books

wisom and books

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February 17, 2013 · 18:20

Love

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

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

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

pam and howard-8859

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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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