Face to Face with the Dalton Terror

Philosophy between University and journalism

The Dalton Terror is one of the newest attractions in the Belgian theme park Six Flags, just south of Brussels. You are strapped into a chair, hoisted to a height of sixty metres and then dropped, sitting in the chair, like a stone to the ground. Some people find it awful; others find it a fantastic experience. For the Flemish author and philosopher Patricia de Martelaere the Dalton Terror is first and foremost an exercise in dying.

As is usually the case with De Martelaere, you should not take this too straightforwardly or literally. Of course a fall of sixty metres has something to do with being scared to death, but that is not what she means. It is more the unpredictability of her own reaction, waiting in the queue with her children for the attraction, that makes her think about dying. After all, you do not know how you will behave in your last hours either. Only the experience itself can count as a touchstone of character.

From this everyday scene of queuing for a theme park attraction De Martelaere glides smoothly, in her newest collection of essays Unworldliness (Wereldvreemdheid, 2000), into a philosophical reflection in which the Stoics, Nietzsche and the Tibetan Book of the Dead criss-cross as a matter of course. The common-or-garden is not a springboard to the eternal, exalted realm of philosophy, a badly camouflaged attempt at seducing the reader. Philosophy exists for De Martelaere first and foremost in the commonplace. Her essays belong there too; like those from her earlier collections A Longing for Inconsolability (Een verlangen naar ontroostbaarheid, 1993) and Surprises (Verrassingen, 1997) they had previously been published in newspapers, weeklies and popular magazines. She understands the gift of letting everything melt into one logical amalgam, in which the commonplace leads to something less than banality and directness of speech to something less than simplicity.

In this De Martelaere belongs to the small group of Dutch-speaking philosophers (she teaches at the universities of Brussels and Leuven) who realise that philosophy cannot afford to remain locked up in academic institutions. Not only does philosophy have — like any other science — the task of becoming real, which it can only do by addressing a public that itself belongs to the broadest social reality, but she cannot imagine her own intellectual activity without the questions and problems which society puts to philosophy and which ultimately provide its final source of inspiration and its raison d’être.

That is a role that philosophers have to get used to but few are really successful in. In the past, it was the ologians rather than philosophers that traditionally conducted philosophical discussion, particularly in the Netherlands. In Flanders too only a few philosophers have managed to play the public role traditionally fulfilled, especially in France, by philosophers. With the diminishing influence of the Church and religion, the field has gone untilled in both countries and increasingly over the last decade the public has looked hopefully towards philosophy as the most suitable discipline to fill this gap.

Philosophical periodicals like the Dutch monthly Filosofie Magazine have achieved circulation figures that until recently were unthinkable and philosophers are much sought-after speakers in a continuously expanding circuit of lectures and discussion forums with a philosophical bias. The journalist Antoine Verbij, who recently described this development in his book Thinking behind the Dykes (Denken achter de dijken, 2000), subtitled the book: The Advance of Philosophy in Holland. Verbij refuses to see philosophy as a sort of substitute for a diminished religion. Although on the ragged edges of this very diversified terrain the necessary mystical woolliness and neo-religiosity can be found, he noticed on his travels that most of the people involved draw a very clear distinction between clear philosophical rationality and the grubbier desires of the philosophical underbelly.

Verbij writes this with a noticeable sigh of relief, which is justified because in general the academic world largely ignores this ‘wild’ interest in philosophy and does little to give it proper guidance. The universities have put all their money on pure scholarship, which means they expect their philosophers to converse mainly amongst themselves and publish articles (nearly always in English) in international journals. This soon puts paid to any exchange of ideas with the wider public, all the more so because such activity yields hardly any credits in the university points system, even if it does not immediately discredit any academic who engages in it.

Thus we are faced with the paradoxical situation that philosophy in the Low Countries is more popular than ever, but the institutions where it traditionally belongs make every effort to steer clear of or even frustrate this popularity. The place where philosophy carries out its social function and duty is thus gradually shifting to a sort of philosophical midfield where philosophically-trained publicists, authors and journalists congregate together with the odd academic who does not care about the universities’ stuffy attitude.

De Martelaere is one of those philosophers who know how to combine scholarship with social presentation. Just how welcome this is, can be seen from the fact that some of her volumes of essays (a genre which seldom makes for a large circulation in the Dutch language-area) even appeared in paperback. But then De Martelaere is a hybrid figure; she also writes novels, and so is by nature attuned to the broader literary readership.

In this she has a counterpart in the Flemish author Stefan Hertmans, an emphatically non-academic poet and novelist, who has likewise achieved success in the field of the philosophical essay. His impressive collection Fugues and Blue-Tits (about current events, art and criticism) (Fuga’s en pimpelmezen (over actualiteit, kunst en kritiek)), published in 1995, gained a sequel in a book-length essay Dubious Matters (Het bedenkelijke, 1999). In this Hertmans embarks on a quest — inspired by present-day French philosophy — for the paradoxes of the obscene and enigmas of the indecent that we usually prefer to hide under the carpet — a quest as uncomfortable as it is profound.

Hertmans’ essay appeared in the series with which the philosophical publishing house Boom has recently sought to give this suspect genre a wider forum and more prestige in the Netherlands. The increasing popularity of philosophical reflections written for a wider public and linked to topical subjects formed the starting-point for this series, in which Boom stretched the ‘essay’ concept to a generous hundred pages. Besides Hertmans, others published in the series included the philosophers Hans Achterhuis, with The Politics of Good Intentions (Politiek van goede bedoelingen, 1999), a critical audit of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, Harry Kunneman, in a personal reckoning with his tutor Jurgen Habermas entitled Postmodern Morality (Postmoderne moraliteit, 1998) and Henk Oosterling with Radical Mediocrity (Radicale middelmatigheid, 2000) a reflection on globalisation, new media and post-modern philosophy.

The question is, whether all these attempts succeed as philosophical essays. The genre demands much of philosophers, who sometimes still find it hard to distance themselves from jargon and philosopher’s style. Thinkers who can write well, express themselves in simple terms and who also have their own ideas, are rare at present. However, the future of a vigorous philosophy in the Low Countries is more crucially dependent upon this than university governors want to recognise. Slowly it is taking shape, defying the oppression, as a new genre, halfway between journalism and science. This kind of essay embodies a ‘wild thinking’ and writing in which philosophical passion continues, even — or perhaps precisely — when face to face with something as improbable as the Dalton Terror.

By Ger Groot
Translated by Derek Denné

First published in The Low Countries, 2002