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February 17, 2013 · 18:20

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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a tree of knowledge

if you think about your earliest memory, something i’d like to attempt now, you probably won’t get much further when putting it into words than a crumbly anecdote full of names that nobody out of your own circle recognizes, and allusions that don’t mean anything to anybody. And you’re drawing from an inner life which no one will ever be able to see. For our memory awakes within a context that we share with very few and in a consciousness that is accessible to no one. And it is our memory and our possession particularly, because it doesn’t coincide with the knowledge and the story of anyone else. It is therefore also the place where we can lie to our heart’s desire.

Now that i’m attempting the impossible with my own history, I have to start with some effort to detach my story from what others have said about it as their story. Even if I was the main character in their story and would have had exciting adventures, even if it was completely true, that still wouldn’t have made it my story. For my story, like I recollect it and like I tell it, is not determined by the words of others that i’ve heard and remembered and even not by what really happened to me, but by what comes to mind as my own experience. It is never satisfying to be an absentee in your own story. Like I was told that as a four year old I got convulsions and fell on the garden path, where our mother was walking with visitors. I was held under the tap of the pump and ever since our mother was very worried. That is something that happened in my life, but it is not my story, because it can’t be my lie.

In fact my own story doesn’t even appear to be an orderly story, like the ones that can be told, passed on and remembered as an educational history. It also isn’t important enough for that, or the importance that caused me to remember it, is so hopelessly private, that I couldn’t make it important to anyone outside of myself without immensely aggrandizing and puffing up myself and my history. The embarrassment about its triviality is a part of my history. I therefore have to begin by making it smaller. When I call it a ‘story’, that already is a form of literary affectation, because with that I allude to the official norms imposed upon the genre, by amongst others educational institutions that calibrate everything until it is manageable, but impersonal.

And just in order to raise the topic a bit of affectation is needed. My earliest memory, of which i’m certain that it’s mine, if only because nobody could have told it to me, is not even a story, because it doesn’t have a structure; nor is it a movie with speed and rhythm; it is no more than an old photograph, a stationary picture without captions, an image that exists only in my head and not in somebody else’s. And it is not at all spectacular or worth your while of telling it. I might as well not tell it and I could have just as well forgotten it if it hadn’t become the base and the trousseau of my private memory that could have just as well not existed because it only holds what was from the outset superfluous.

I was, I assume, four years old and came back with my older sisters on that day in the early autumn of 1932 from the nursery school from which they had picked me up. That I had resisted going there with spectacular and embarrassing intensity I remember maybe more from the stories that my hysterical behavior abundantly provided, than I do from myself. So that also isn’t my own story. I don’t recall, for example, carefully having weighed the pros and cons of this sheepish form of education and based on those considerations coming to an utmost negative decision, to which I felt I had to respond adequately by frothing with my mouth and stamping with my feet.

By the way, I hardly remember that from any situation in later times. I fear that I have, also in this regard, few things to remember, for most of the time the decisions preceded the motives and the considerations or were made by others, who were of the more resolute type. I usually concocted my freedom with the slavery I accepted. To be honest i’ve more often given permission to the initiatives of others and to what had to be done anyway than undertaken something myself. But at that time I wasn’t yet so wise -or so cowardly. I must have still cherished the illusion that resistance would achieve something, at least some day and in principle.

In any case, on that day I climbed, when we finally got home, onto the bare stump of a palm tree that stood just before the window of the living room. That was the only way I could look inside. That little tree, perhaps put there to prevent looking in, had probably been stumped because three people before me had used it as a step, maybe for the same reason.

What I saw was absolutely not spectacular. And all I had to do was just look at it with my own eyes to be sure that I was home again. Maybe that’s why in my memory the image stands still and isn’t a movie: it is a destination and a goal. In there, our mother was talking to a man who went door to door with dry goods in a big chest that he transported on his cargo bicycle. A piece of cloth was being held in the direction of the light. The image in my head, not forced onto me by anyone and not shared with anyone, my inalienable and precarious possession, shows little more than an apparition of my mother and a rim of ginger hair on the skull of the merchant. That is indeed not material for a story and cannot compete in levels of epic with even the scent of a cooky, about which Marcel Proust wrote his masterpiece.

But what is especially connected to it is the look backwards from that unexciting scene to myself and the rickety stump I was standing on, in that moment the navel of the earth, and the realization: i’m standing here, and there behind that window something is visible which I’m looking at now and which I fiercely want not to be a delusion, but evidence of my return home. From that fierce will my me as witness of my own life was born. Suddenly and permanently I couldn’t see anything without seeing at the same time that I saw it and that I was watching it, or: without knowing that I knew and recognizing my knowledge as mine. I saw everything double, there where it was and in my head.

A whole system of axis between here and there or between me and others, between what I think and what’s going on in the world, with myself as a dubious center that can’t be forgotten away or moralized to death, must have at that moment -at least that’s how I imagine it now- been installed definitively in my head. The fact, in itself too insignificant to be the subject for even an anecdote, too embarrassing for weighty words, represents in my private existence, seen and reconstructed from my own recollection, a decisive moment, my identity as an object of memory, not a fabrication. If some kind of ruthless but thankfully impossible to execute research would show that I had made up the whole image, or merely dreamt it, that it is not an effect of what was already there, I would be an incurable solipsist.

sculpture ‘een boom van kennis’ by Jeanne Schouten

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Interview Cornelis Verhoeven 1979

There’s a bit of a backstory to this interview; not only had the interviewer never heard of Verhoeven, this was also during a difficult time in Verhoeven’s life. He was getting divorced, and there was some backlash to winning the most prestigious literary price in the Netherlands -the critics were rather nasty. This combination temporarily left him without ideas to write about, but he didn’t think that was a reason to be deaf to the ideas of others, so also to keep busy he translated Seneca’s letters -the handwritings of which he shows in the video.

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