Respect for the Mystery

The Works of Willem Jan Otten

In December 1999 Willem Jan Otten (1951-) received the Constantijn Huygens Prize, the prestigious Dutch literary award given for an entire oeuvre. The author was 48 years old at the time, which made him the youngest winner in the history of the prize. In spite of this relatively young age, the jury was unanimous and the press also thought the award was well-deserved. For Otten had followed his debut in 1973, the poetry collection A Swallow Filled with Sawdust (Een zwaluw vol zaagsel), with an impressive body of work. He had published high-quality texts in every literary genre, all of which had attracted attention. He had won awards three times over for his poetry. For The Letter Pilot (De letterpiloot, 1994), a collection of essays and short stories, he had been given the Busken Huet Prize. His long reflection on pornography, Thinking is Lustful (Denken is een lust, 1985), effortlessly reached the level of Barthes’ essays. In the late seventies he worked as the theatre critic of the weekly Vrij Nederland and from 1982 till 1984 as a dramatist. His works for the theatre, such as A Snow (Een sneeuw, 1983) and The Night of the Peacock (De nacht van de pauw, 1997) tackle universal questions about freedom and fate through big subjects like suicide, abortion and euthanasia. The public at large knows him mainly for his novels, intriguing puzzles that keep the reader continually in suspense through their clever construction and thoughtful wording.

The ultimate stage-management

All of Otten’s work has something of a puzzle about it, a puzzle that is never solved and therefore remains exciting. In the poetical introduction to A Snow, Otten quotes approvingly something Lars Gustafson once said: ‘Only as a mystery is man sufficiently explained.’ Each work by Otten can be seen as a quest for the mystery that is man, but the explanation the writer is after is not a scientific one. He doesn’t want to destroy the mystery in order to find an explanation. If one wants to fathom something so baffling, one mustn’t, according to Otten, put it under the harsh light of one-dimensional understanding, for it will disappear. True understanding, to Otten, is respect for the mystery. This respect has taken different forms in the different literary genres. In his poetry the intangible is shown in seemingly clear and simple images, that suggest so many things that it would be impossible to understand them completely. In End of August Wind (Eindaugustuswind, 1998) the impotence of a living creature witnessing death and the impotence of a dying creature taking a last look at life, are captured in the image of the dying perch. This image, through the association of the fish with Christ (hence the ‘wound as big as the palm of a hand’), among other things, expresses a lot more than the words contain:

The perch with its belly upwards
motionless bleeding from a wound
as big as the palm of a hand
floated right under the dock,
and suddenly clenched itself into a fish
that wanted to jump
into the incurably thin light –

I heard the splash of its tail
and saw that it was motionless again.

The one it saw with one unblinking glance
existing still, was, raised high above him
on the dock, was I.

‘In the end, what you remember about a poem is that you don’t understand it,’ Otten writes in The Letter Pilot. That sentence comes from an essay and explains what is shown in the poem, although the explanation remains an attempt, an essay, and what is explained is still not understood. ‘The true essayist,’ says Otten, ‘is able to explain what it is like not to understand.’ In his novels the incomprehensible is usually presented through actions and dialogue. Otten’s characters often make a very deliberate impression, both in their actions and their speech. There is seldom a spontaneous outburst. That way their existence comes to resemble a directed play, which raises the crucial question who the director is: the character (which means man can take control of his own life), the narrator (others directing our life), or fate (in which case the Other would be the highest authority)?

This question, who the ultimate stage director is, not only governs our life – death also confronts people with the problem of fate and free will. Otten’s novel Nothing Wrong with Us (Ons mankeert niets, 1994) revolves around the question whether the death of a retired doctor is suicide and whether the new doctor, Justus Loef, could have done anything to prevent the death. Another question dealt with in Otten’s plays is whether life and death are a matter of choice or are forced on us. Here the difficult questions are pointedly presented in a theatrical way, with quite a few explicit discussions full of tragic and sometimes even melodramatic reflections.

A bridge between wanting to and having to

With the ‘mystery’ and the question who the stage manager is, Otten’s two main themes have been established. They can be divided into two pairs: knowledge versus ignorance and choice versus coercion. The first pair is central to Otten’s early work and is related to the paradoxical longing of man. He wants to know everything and at the same time keep things secret. For he is afraid that knowledge won’t make him any happier. Love is blind, and someone who sees clearly is no longer capable of loving. The ultimate knowledge is knowledge of the last things, of death. And such knowledge can be seen as a directive. ‘Knowledge is a sentence,’ says doctor Loef. ‘That someone is incurably ill is not only a fact, but also a decision. It has to be carried out.’

This immediately brings us to the second pair, the tension between wanting to and having to, that has been a central theme in Otten’s work since 1997. In his lecture, Pascal’s Trap (De fuik van Pascal, 1997), Otten criticises the modern belief in free choice and the omnipotence of the individual. He advances the possibility that man is not ‘his own creation’, that is to say, that there are powers that are beyond him. This leads, in 1999, to Otten’s decision to become a Catholic. His conversion, described in The Miracle of the Loose Elephants (Het wonder van de losse oliphanten, 1999) attracted much critical comment in the Dutch press. The essayist Rudy Kousbroek condemned Otten with extraordinary harshness and the novelist Atte Jongstra portrayed him as the ridiculous zealot Jan-Willem in his bulky novel The Counterpart (De tegenhanger, 2003). For Otten religion is the bridge between wanting to and having to – the religious person wants to believe that there are powers that are beyond him, that compel him to live and to die. But this wanting is not the same as free choice, for the believer thinks he has to want it.

In this way the believer creates his own God, while he is, equally, being created by Him. This is something the believer has in common with the artist, who only becomes an artist through the art he creates. Thus he too is created by his own creation. In Specht and Son (Specht en zoon, 2004) the writer tries to approach this twofold creation from the perspective of the work of art. In other words, he abandons the traditional point of view of the so-called free and creative individual and looks through the eyes of the so-called passive, created object. For in this novel it is a canvas that is speaking, a canvas that has to be painted. And for that it is dependent on Felix Vincent, the painter who, with quite unmistakable symbolism, is called ‘the creator’ by the narrator.

The painter doesn’t really want to, but he has to. He has been commissioned by the wealthy Specht, who wants a portrait of his dead son, Singer. He hopes the painting will bring him back to life. The boy would rise up under the gaze of the artist, which symbolises the gaze of the other – which might even be that of the Other, the Creator. The painting will give the subject the chance to see himself through the eyes of the other. But how would this be possible when Singer is already dead? And why is it that the boy, unlike his father, has such a dark skin? Those are the mysteries that compel the painter to accept the commission, even though he fears there is something wrong. He is constrained by the mystery and will paint the portrait of the dead boy because he wants to know how he has lived. He feels he has to accept this work.

But the gaze of the artist who wants to know, proves unable to bring things back to life. Through the journalist Minke Dupuis Felix discovers that Singer wasn’t Specht’s son, but a heroin-addicted sex-slave who tried to commit suicide. The gaze the artist directs at his painting, should be the loving gaze the father directs at his son. By extension it would be the gaze which God the Father directs at mankind. But Felix can’t see Specht as a father any more. He knows too much to be able to paint the innocence of the boy and the love of the so-called father. When Oedipus realised what he had done he blinded himself. When Felix discovers the true state of affairs, he burns the painting and so destroys the gaze of the creator. It has now become impossible for the canvas and its subject to exist in the eyes of the other. ‘How does a creature like myself ever get to see itself?’ the canvas had wondered. At the end of the story it can no longer see itself. The desperately ill Specht begs Felix: ‘Paint him again. The way he is. He is alive. One day he will come to look at himself.’ Those are the novel’s last words. They ask for the restoration of the work of art, a renewed belief in the mystery, and in so doing they symbolise Otten’s own art, which sees literature as the respectful exploration of the mystery, searching for an understanding gaze. A gaze that doesn’t want to resolve the incomprehensible, but to embrace it.

By Bart Vervaeck
Translated by Pleuke Boyce

First published in The Low Countries, 2008