Column: Ode aan de taal – en Drs. P

Afgelopen zaterdag overleed op 95-jarige leeftijd een van de grootste woordkunstenaars van het Nederlandse taalgebied. Drs. P stond voornamelijk bekend om zijn karakteristieke liedjes over de meest uiteenlopende onderwerpen, maar staat voor mij toch vooral symbool voor correct en werkelijk taalgebruik. En voor de schoonheid van precisie. Door Nicole des Bouvrie. Eerder geplaatst op Zinweb.
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The Soundtrack of Writing

It’s dangerous to reflect once it’s finally going the way you hope. Writing seems like a delicate balance of happiness, frustration and a sense of urgency. Is it me, did something change, or I am I just (finally!) ready to write my PhD, after two-and-a-half years of reading and preparing?
Building momentum, struggling through meters of books, reading complete oeuvres and random books that happen to exist. Reading systematically and hap-snap, but most importantly: taking notes. My notebooks don’t only provide the background that help me now, but will also be the most valuable archive of my own thinking, my development. Future-me will laugh at them, recognising turns in my thinking due to Agamben, Wittgenstein, Badiou, Blanchot.

Working at the library, early, the first to arrive...
Working at the library, Staatsbibliothek Berlin, early, the first to arrive…

An interesting aspect of writing is rhythm. Everything is music (sorry, Jim, not sound). The importance of a rhythm to propel one’s writing forward, music without words, music that is more than background, more than closing off the world around. It’s a beat that moves, the lets the words flow. It keeps out the superego, that would refuse every single word as none reflect the truth that is to be said. That cannot be said. Which is precisely why one needs to go on, either in first person singular, or in the formal we/they.
The present-me is happy. Is only concerned with this moment, one word at the time. Reaching the end of this project, already thinking and constructing the next. Always continuing, faithful only to the illusion of the philosopher-me.
Language. Always language. Something that I don’t understand, which is always beyond understanding, always framing us. Which makes me want to re-read Benjamin. Again. Always already again. While I spend my days here, speaking German and English, writing in English, thinking in Dutch/English/German, reading French/Dutch/German/English.
But always dreaming of the beyond.

Danton's Dood – Poetry and the French Revolution in the Theatre

Sometimes it is impossible not to go and see something. To be part of something. Toneelgroep Amsterdam and also their newest piece, Danton’s Dood [Danton’s Death], is no exception. It is exceptional, provocative and captivating. How to explain this, without giving anything away? (As it only opened this weekend, I do implore everyone to go and see it for herself…) Some things to consider…Halina Reijn, Hans Kesting Foto:© Jan Versweyveld
First of all, language. Perhaps it’s me, but language – the words and the manner they are conveyed – are for me one of the most important parts of what makes a play. Death, revolution, love – strong feelings that require strong language. Poetry and silence, slow thoughtful murmuring and bright exclamations: this play could even be great with one’s eyes closed.

Halina Reijn & Hans Kesting – rehearsal photo

Second of all, Halina van Reijn. A great actress, playing four characters in this play, one male, three female, each role showing another face of femininity. The seductress, the rational one, the loyal one, the lover. It is truly wonderful to see how involved she is, how her faces lights up and her eyes sparkle whenever she loses herself and finds herself confronted with the woman she is, also.
Thirdly, the scenography. Everything breathes French revolution. From the hundreds of candles, to the way Halina lifts her skirts when she walks. (Only too bad about the velcro [klitteband] on Hans Kestings’ shoe…) But mostly I was impressed by the way the decor was designed as an intimate place, easily embraced by the audience, while the stage was at the same time watched by the people of France, nothing would go unnoticed. Everyone had to give up their air of innocence, sometimes even literally their clothes, in order to save their selves, their souls, their ideals.
Finally, I want to mention that I was very pleasantly surprised to recognise the words of Camus – a long monologue by Halina. Of course it is an excellent choice – and I don’t just say that because I am a fan of Camus – as Camus knew how a true revolution is not about saying ‘no’ to something. Revolutionary Man, the true essence of man who chooses life, is to say ‘yes’ to something that is inalienable to herself. I wish Robespierre and Danton had listened to that speech, that they would have been able to read Camus during the time of the French revolution, for things might have been different then, better. Quoting Camus extensively as Toneelgroep Amsterdam has done, in a context of revolution in a time in which revolutions are self-proclaimed and designated too easily, is very brave. To show it is not the overthrowing of the elite, but the raising of consciousness of the one who revolts to knowing what she wants to say ‘yes’ too that makes a revolution.
foto:© Jan Versweyveld Bart Slegers, Dragan Bakema, Hans Kesting, Halina Reijn

The Act of Writing

Some days seem to revolve around a certain topic. Although many things might have come up, there is this one insistence that doesn’t escape even the most feeble mind. Today this concerned writing.
Writing. Also known as vomiting, editing, pausing, spitting it out, a bridging of the void. It still seems weird to me that some refer to people who write as writers – as if not everyone is involved in the translation of reality into the fantastic state of language, before forgetting everything and starting from scratch once more.
The style of what one writes should reflect what is being said. I always think of Ovid and his metamorphisms that I once had to translate from the Latin. The teacher forced me to undo, to translate this beautiful Latin rhythm, in which the human turned into the frog, the quam qua quem qua etc turned into a song. The part of me that is a poet still has this secret desire to write a poem like that, in which you can hear the river flow, unrelated to what is signified by the same words.
I guess it is at this moment also relevant to mention I’ll be leaving to go to Venice, just for one day, to visit that city that cannot be separated from language. Thomas Mann, Hemingway, Goethe, Proust. If I do not return, please look for me in the Inferno, as I’ll be going to the Arsenale…
“In the 21st canto of the Inferno, Dante describes Venice’s Arsenale, at the time the greatest “industrial complex” in the world: “Quale ne l’arzanà dei viniziani, bolle d’inverno la tenace pece…” (As in the Arsenal of the Venetians, In wintertime they boil the viscous pitch).”

Consequence of Writing in English

Stamp Hannah Arendt
Stamp Hannah Arendt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often wonder which language I should use. I used to be obsessed by the English language, trying to learn it as fast and as good as I could. Until I realised that whatever I would do, I would never be considered a native speaker, even when my command of that language would be well-above average. I even met native English speakers who were not pleased when I confronted them with their poor command of their own language. So, I decided to stop my obsession, and recognise my being Dutch above all. I even write plays in Dutch again. Who would have guessed!
But now I find myself writing my PhD in English. I actually prefer it over Dutch, my own native language, as it forces me to think more carefully. Dutch is still my high school language, anyone who tries to talk philosophy in Dutch, seems funny to me. Unless it is of course Heideggerian-language translated from German to Dutch. That can be considered the highest form of nonsense available in the Dutch philosophy circles, according to my humble opinion, of course.
So, I write in English. I translate my thoughts constantly. It makes my writing a little slower and more precise, if that is even possible in continental philosophical circles… And it makes me look up words that I write in the dictionary, words of which I don’t actually know the meaning, but seem to fit perfectly. So far, this has always been the case.
Writing in any language is problematic. Maurice Blanchot even says that language is killing the thing named (Work of Fire, chapter “Literature and the Right to Death”). But he was not the first. Plato’s agitation of focussing on the reflection on the Ideas on the wall of the cave and Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author play around with the same theme. And let’s not forget Walter Benjamin’s lovely reflection on translation.
Somehow I am still attracted by Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, recently (2002) published in full (2 parts). It is extremely interesting even if just from the point of view of the use of language and translation. As she wrote her diaries only for herself, she writes an entry in the language that is most available. She does not translate. Greek quotes are commented upon in German. English entries become more frequent as Arendt resides longer in the US. Interesting how language works. But it would be extremely interesting how language works on thought. Exactly.

Crying & Style

In the end it must be as it is and has always been: great things are for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined and, in sum, all rare things for the rare…” Friedrich Nietzsche

This quote has stayed with me, for many years since I first read it. And it is applicable again today.
I am reading Alain Badiou’s Ethics. It is one of those books, that make me cry. Inside. Tremendously, as I feel the words connecting to what I call myself. It is incredible to read words that describe my own struggle with life so precisely and to the point, formally even, and put into syllables those things I have found exceptionally difficult to say. Without falling back into nihilism. Without closing an eye to the impossible. “Nothing dispenses with the need for courage.” (Verso, 2012, p.50)
Although there remain many things that I continue to be skeptical about. And some things Badiou has apparently not understood in the same way I do. But that makes it even more precious to continue reading this small, yet biblical book. After having struggled my way through ‘Being and Event’ and ‘Logics of Worlds‘, I can breathe his sentences and choice of words. It’s like take a lavender bath. It makes me cry.
And it also creates a longing in myself to find my own voice, to acknowledge myself and the courage I need, and take up my pen and stop quoting other people to give strength to my own arguments.
Let’s think the impossible.