Resting on Doubt

The editorial board of If I knew anything, I would no longer do it. If I knew what follows death, I would probably never die or else not live to finish this sentence. But as I grow older and get closer to the dark, I begin to spew more and more messages in all aspects of my work: art, poetry, science, English and Dutch. I see myself as a child not only because in these few lines I have already used the word ‘I’ nine times (though including this last one is unfair), but also because I want to stay up. Imagine a kid at bed time: ‘The cat is wearing my nightgown.’ ‘Now she is dancing the polka.’ ‘All the little aliens have come back and are watching.’ ‘They want me and the cat to come with them when they take off in a minute.’ ‘Will someone please open the window for them?’ You need a well-calculated increment of urgency until people react. Will I be depressed when, finally, some critic will write: ‘Leo, go to bed!’?
What message? Love, of course. Always love, ever since I started loving first animals, then people (mostly girls), then plants, and now, finally, earth with all of its mountains, lakes, oceans and idiots. How obviously lucky we are, not living on any one of the other planets in our solar system, or even on one of those thousands of other planets that support life but hopelessly far from our world, planets where all these unfortunately fingerless aliens are standing in line for water. And probably paying through the proboscis for it.
Further trying to avoid mentioning myself, let me generalise. Of course one wants to reach a maximum number of people with the message of love, or of Love or even LOVE.

1) Art is rather international. The knowledge that there is beauty on earth should help to lift people one step up out of their misery, especially if you can show that misery may be beautiful too so that it becomes self-rewarding. Sketches made in a prisoner-of-war camp, showing emaciated friends, the lack of furniture and of cameras, become documents that with additional help from wrinkles, dried-up remains of squashed bedbugs etc. gain the beauty of age and of distance in time.
More helpful, perhaps, is the art of breaking: draw a thing with a part broken or missing, and what is left gains the beauty of what unappreciated entity there once was. This is no joke. The beauty of wounded and of sick children can be overwhelming, and once witnessed remains a rich source of love so deep it hurts us back to health. No wonder there is a special joy in drawing for children. Flying sphinxes, deep-diving dogs, a longhaired elephant with a hand at the end of its trunk … anything that will make a child say ‘Oh’ or ‘och’ will do.
But how international is art? We have shocked our neighbour, a well-educated recently immigrated Russian, when he asked to see some of our art books and we showed him one of Picasso’s posters, beautifully reproduced. The ‘distortions’ horrified him, the abstracts were meaningless to him, and the pictures of nudes shocked him and his daughter. He retorted with a beautiful book of Russian treasures, some great, several Impressionist works unknown to us, and many romantic Russian statues of revealingly well-dressed women on their way to some sacrifice or other, none of whom would be welcome in our house either before or after their adventure. This was a few years ago. Now, the daughter is painting in previously unthinkable ways. Time, time. We may be able to reach farther to children with fairy tales not too unrealistically illustrated, or not illustrated at all: I think most of us have been disappointed by illustrations unless they were, even to adults, of lasting beauty. The warmth of telling sleepy kids that no, there are no wolves under the bed, there is no Snow Queen out to get you, and yes, even an Emperor can be stupid. But now we are drifting into speech.

2) Language in the form of poetry (for example) seems very direct, but wait till you start translating it. Why translate from the Dutch? Well, Dutch is great, but English is larger. For those of you who do not read Dutch, I cannot explain the difference between the two in words of one of the two. I mean that would be like trying to describe the difference between the taste of a tomato and a doughnut in terms of the taste of the doughnut only: and after tasting each, who needs an explanation?

A nice example of the cultural gap between the two – no, it is not a macroscopic gap, it is more a porosity formed by countless tiny gaps through which a meaning may sink away. Take for example the sentence: ‘He cut his pancake into four pieces with his teaspoon and stuck one piece in his mouth.’ Translated into Dutch, that would be: ‘Hij sneed zijn pannekoek in vieren met zijn theelepeltje en stak een stuk in zijn mond.’ A normal action in the United States becomes an insanely time-consuming and then dangerous action in Dutch. In prose, an explanatory note would be tolerable. But a poem like:

He took his teaspoon and cut
his thick pancake in four,
then he ate each piece but
asked for seven more

bad enough as it is, would be further ruined by the two needed footnotes.
Many poems are full of locally, ethnically normal expressions that seem highly original when translated. Who knows how many literary awards have been handed out on the basis of such fruitful misunderstandings. Of my first efforts in writing poems in English (using a fat rhyming dictionary, a thesaurus, a fat Webster, and an even fatter and misplaced self-confidence), six were accepted and published by Poetry Magazine in 1950, and many much later ones were refused. Those early ones were thought more fresh and original. When I re-read them, I discovered that I had used wrong words, even words that I thought existed but never did until then. Our love of quaintness, and of broken language, may be like our love for other broken things, revealing what could have been.
Having slipped into the use of self-reference again, let me tell you how wonderful it is to be obscure as a poet in this country. A good friend of ours, Stanley Barkan, has published my ‘Liefde, Sterk Vergroot’ with my own re-writing of it, ‘Love, Greatly Enlarged’. He has made me read poetry in public, once in a park at night, a few times in corners of bookstores with audiences of about ten, sometimes four people. Each time after such a meeting of minds I became deeper involved in anything else. Here, my poetry is not obscure but I am. Sure, we know some poets: Adrienne Rich, Josef Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg. Do they form a family or community? We never visit any, and very very rarely call any of them. I don’t even know if there is the kind of talk among poets here that exists in other families or in the family of Dutch poets, such as ‘did you know that A and B broke up?’ We, my wife Tineke and I, don’t know whether or not we are part of that Dutch family. We are surrounded by obscurity.
Of course there is charm in obscurity as there is in the dark and in the dense jungles of our world and of our minds. The miracle of our ability to understand each other is eclipsed only by the greater miracle of not understanding – as long as it feeds wonder. We can listen for hours to a mocking-bird, or even to a bunch of crows, possibly because we do not understand them. If we understood they were always talking about food, sex, and privileged space, we would wish them to shut up. But now we are slipping into the world of science.

3) Science, especially ‘hard’, number-hungry science, can be quite international. Superficially, you might think it is because it has no message and therefore cannot be misunderstood. If I say that I found that blood plasma deposits a sequence of proteins onto glass, I do not think I am saying anything that would offend the Torah, Allah, Buddha, or the Queen of England. (The Queen of the Netherlands is too wise to be offended by anything.)
Things change when I decide to append a message, like: ‘You should learn to love a drop of blood more passionately than any body containing it.’ This leads to the conclusion that I love the total contents of an insane dictator more than I love the city of New York, or that I love anybody more than I do anyway. This would offend the dictator’s slaves as much as it would offend common logic. It may offend most scientists as well: they believe in cold rather than warm reason. Objectivity is thought of as the gateway to universal understanding. If you have three cows and you sell one, how many do you have left? According to a professor I had half a century ago in Utrecht, an uneducated farm boy could not solve that problem because it was an impossibility: nobody with only three cows would sell one. Abstract numbers may not be universally understood. Neither are abstracted gestures. A scientist I met had an image engraved to send into outer space, to assure aliens of our friendliness. It showed a man, a woman and a child, I think, perhaps to show off our fertility. The man held one hand up, the palm facing the alien. Why, I asked. To show we are unarmed, he said. What, I asked, if these aliens have a five-tentacle weapon from the palm of which a deadly ray can be shot, and probably will? Well, it’s too late now. Included with the disc, fortunately or not, were recorded numbers that only an intelligent organism, say the kind that could have designed this rocket to begin with, can put together. Tough. After all, what can you say to prove that you can talk?
There are certainly some differences in the ways scientists are regarded and awarded in different countries. In this country, scientists appear to be respected and suspected, but rarely inspected, because what a researcher does is, almost by definition, beyond the understanding of other people, including those who seem to be close colleagues. One lives (I have lived for almost fifty years) on grants that are awarded if your work sounds promising enough to those most likely to understand some of it. But the award will cover no more than five, and usually no more than three years. Raising a couple of children that way is as easy as living in a desert and migrating with the kids where you have reasons to expect water. Whether or not your children will look up to you depends on the ability to avoid collapsing. Scientists will therefore tend to sound more and more optimistic the worse their data look. And yet, I think dishonesty remains rare. Some famous and less famous people are each other’s enemies of course; nothing special.
I don’t know how things are exactly in the Low Countries: I have been away too long. At least for a while, there was a different attitude. For example: we were asked to try and put an outline of a liberal arts education together for a university in the Netherlands. Tineke did most of the work. When we came to that city, her first question was: what kind of job should the equivalent of a degree in liberal arts give access to? Job?! was the answer, we were not thinking in terms of any jobs, just in terms of education (but things change).
Here, college and university students will take any job if needed to pay for their education sooner or later. In summer, ask any waiter or waitress in a restaurant if they are doing this work full-time. The answer is always interesting. I found it is rarely ‘I want to do basic research’, though. The word ‘basic’ itself means less basic here than it does in the Netherlands: any research that does not immediately lead to industry and money is called basic. I got an award for basic research without knowing the basics that my work is based on. But now I am getting into the need to be awarded or even to be understood or just to be needed.

4) Please, need me! Obviously I am back to using ‘I’ again, but with a good excuse this time: I cannot talk for anyone else when my opinions under discussion are based on my own experience or the other way around. A good poetry review, a good review of exhibited drawings, or a good review of a scientific grant application, all give me the same sense of having done something right, of course, but that to me means just a warmth of being understood. All three areas, in both countries, are closely related fields of experimentation, answering these questions: if I do this, will you be more understanding and thereby happier with the world you are living in? Will you do the same to make others happier? And have we together contributed something helpful to the universe, lasting even after the earth is destroyed?

By Leo Vroman

First published in The Low Countries, 1995