The Tao of Literature

Life as it is, according to Patricia de Martelaere

She herself is unwilling to provide any detailed explanation of her novels. She refuses to give interviews and declines TV appearances. Patricia de Martelaere (1957-) is first and foremost a professor of philosophy, as well as being a brilliant essayist who writes lucidly and inspiredly about the very essence of life itself, about love and death. At the end of 2004, she published The Unexpected Answer (Het onverwachte antwoord), a bizarre love story which no-one can quite make head or tail of. Six women are in love with the same man and talk incessantly about their feelings and thoughts. Transparent as De Martelaere’s essays are, just as ‘unexpectedly’ obscure and sometimes even irritating is this literary tour de force, full of associations, philosophical plays on words and lyrical asides. And yet in a certain sense The Unexpected Answer, her fifth novel, is her ultimate book. Not just because it is twice as thick as her four previous novels. There is also a gap of twelve years between this symphony of ideas and The Tail (De staart), her penultimate novel from 1992. Why did she wait so long before embarking on a new novel? Anyone who browses through the essays and readings she produced on the literary sidelines will gradually discover the oriental ideas that lie behind the new De Martelaere. If prior to 1992 her writing was rational and Western, since then she has been oriental and inspired in equal measure. What does the path look like that this philosopher wielding a literary pen has followed until now?

Futile and fatal

De Martelaere is not only a trained philosopher; she also won a First Prize in Solfeggio at the Brussels Academy of Music. In 1971, when she was only fourteen, she had already published a book for young people, King of the Wilderness (Koning der wildernis), in which things went badly for the main character. Even as a teenager De Martelaere was alternating between philosophy and art, between reflection and music or literature. In 1984, she gained her doctorate with a study of the philosophy of the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume.

Anyone wishing to understand De Martelaere’s literary work will find a good starting-point in her fascination with Hume. Hume’s ‘Moderate’ Scepticism: Futile or Fatal? was the title of her doctoral thesis. Since then De Martelaere has continued to publish on his work. In masterly fashion, Hume deconstructed the way in which we humans form our idea of reality. He warned us that the reality we perceive and call objective is in actual fact a highly personal construction. It happens to be part of the nature of things, according to Hume, that people believe in the existence of an objective reality, but there is no real proof. Our picture of reality, according to De Martelaere along with Hume, stands or falls by the ‘vividness’ of our perceptions. There is no philosophical basis that can transmute this ‘vividness’ into truth.

After this sober observation, De Martelaere certainly did not proceed cheerfully to the order of the day. In the four novels she published between 1988 and 1992 the ‘futile’ cares and worries of the main character always prove more or less ‘fatal’. In Night Diary of an Insomniac (Nachtboek van een slapeloze, 1988), her first novel, the protagonist finds a rather drastic means of overcoming the ‘cold fire’ of his despair. Unable to come to terms with himself and thus doomed to fret all night long, he finally commits suicide. In The Painter and His Model (De schilder en zijn model, 1989), De Martelaere has two lovers attract each other and, mainly, repel each other. This mini-novel could possibly be seen as a preliminary study for The Unexpected Answer. In Scars (Littekens, 1990), the most successful of her small novels, Eva, a medical student, is secretly in love with an older man. While occasionally making love with a fellow student, she thinks of the cold perfection of corpses on a dissecting table. The Tail (1992), her last small novel before the great (literary) silence, was yet another confirmation of the fact that De Martelaere’s main characters are condemned to lifelong loneliness. Theo, a young man who has difficulties in dealing with the unfaithfulness of his friend, tries to console himself by means of an imaginary conversation with himself. The moral of De Martelaere’s solipsistic story: we all happen to be imprisoned in our own self. So it is a question of fantasising ourselves out of that prison as ‘vividly’ as possible. The supreme fantasy is love. But it is also the most dangerous fantasy, as the fathers of the church knew long ago. Postcoital melancholy is the fate of the lover. De Martelaere attempts in these first novels to compose musical variations on this theme, with varying degrees of success.

To experience truth

After The Tail, silence falls on the house of the novelist De Martelaere. She applies herself to writing essays – and does so with great virtuosity and success. In A Longing for Inconsolability (Een verlangen naar ontroostbaarheid, 1993), for which she received the Jan Greshoff Prize, she elaborates further on the huge question that preoccupied the heroes and heroines of her novels: How can I escape from my own head? And here again she stands up for drastic solutions, as in the essay ‘The connoisseur of the art of living. Towards an aesthetics of suicide’, where she comes to the conclusion that while there’s life there’s not hope but death. Four years later De Martelaere brings together new soundings about life, art and death in Surprises (Verrassingen, 1997), for which she received the Triennial State Prize for Essays and Criticism. Here too she explores the contradictory nature of loss and illness, of murder and incest. The positive attraction of what at first sight would seem to be negative phenomena becomes almost engagingly clear in De Martelaere’s limpid prose. In her cerebral, unsentimental view, isolation and dying acquire a strange grandeur. But her insights in this last collection were no longer really ‘surprising’. In a certain sense, she had landed up in a cul de sac. De Martelaere’s philosophical imagination, however, proved versatile enough to find a way out of the impasse of Hume’s philosophy of perception. If you cannot argue philosophically for the objectivity of reality, you can perhaps always experience it.

After all, Ludwig Wittgenstein had already announced that the inexpressible, the unnameable – in short, truth – will eventually show itself: ‘What cannot be put into words, makes itself manifest.’ Via Taoism, De Martelaere now gains a Pauline experience that has definitely set her on the path towards her new, emancipatory novel. Lao Tse, with his collection of sayings Tao teh King, forms a natural link to the rather cryptic way in which Wittgenstein ‘shows’ the ‘right way’ (tao) to truth. Taoism, just like Buddhism and other oriental techniques of meditation, does not immerse itself in human thought or the subject, as do Hume and traditional Western philosophers. On the contrary, in the oriental vision only at the point where thinking stops do life and reality start. Oriental philosophers, according to De Martelaere in Unworldliness (Wereldvreemdheid), seek via certain techniques of perception first to totally empty or depersonalise the human being. Then, from the emptiness that has been created, reality can flow into the purified human being as into an empty vessel. The individual who is able to reset his mind to zero gets the chance of plugging into the world around him: ‘Creative writers and artists, just like magicians, are constantly and in the most intimate way aware of the immense, nameless force-field […] that governs us and of which we are a part.

Stop thinking

De Martelaere, who sided with Hume and was thus unable to recognise any objective basis for subjective impressions and ideas, now sees the chance, thanks to oriental philosophy, of getting firm ground under her feet even so. The only condition is: to stop thinking. Plug into the cosmic force-field and you will discover the forces within yourself. The oriental techniques of perception call on the individual to open up to the other (person) by adopting a waiting attitude.

Not by passively keeping one’s hands in one’s lap but by actively keeping a lookout, in the sense of concentrating on what is about to happen. Whenever the spark jumps across and contact with reality is made, according to De Martelaere in Who’s Afraid of Death? (Wie is bang voor de dood), it is a question of having the faith and the nerve to let everything go, ‘not for the sake of an external reward but for the sake of the force itself that is released in this letting go’. Anyone learning to swim jumps confidently into the deep water and is rewarded by the buoyancy of the water.

After Unworldliness De Martelaere, who in her early work deploys characters who are looking in vain for a way out of the perplexities of life, chooses the tao of life and literature. She professes ‘a cold art’ in which the writer and the characters rid themselves of their sentimental, subjective humanity in order, in so doing, to be able to make contact with the impersonal, energy-filled forcefield of full, natural life. Or, as De Martelaere herself says in Unworldliness: ‘The highest attainable form of involvement: not an involvement towards a person but towards the World (with a capital letter].’ That De Martelaere minimalises the position of the human being in the world is not solely due to her discovery of Taoism. The laconic way in which Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche relativised the human ego into a plaything of voluntaristic forces had always appealed to her. But what for these philosophers was the work of the anonymous will has in the work of Charles Darwin a more precise, analytical content. Through systematic study of the way in which Darwin perceived nature, De Martelaere felt keenly aware of humanity as merely one of the numerous products of natural selection, alongside all the other life-forms. Darwin convincingly demonstrated that man was not the measure of all things. On the contrary, it was the things and nature that constantly took the measure of man. Man only had one option – to adapt to the laws of Mother Nature or disappear.

The Unexpected Answer is a love story without the classic psychological or relational ups and downs. In her novel, De Martelaere shows how you can let women love without lapsing into melodramatic or emotional language. At first sight the layman cannot make head or tail of it. But the six women in search of cosmic love are six different ways of providing such a love with a shape or form. What is more, they sometimes speak with the same voice, as if we were dealing with the same woman. It is indeed striking how certain aphorisms constantly recur in some sort of mantra. It is intriguing to make a small anthology of these which reveals just how perceptually oriented De Martelaere’s vision remains. Not thanks to Hume this time but thanks to Taoism. ‘Listening is a form of looking’, ‘stroking is looking with the hands’, ‘drawing is stopping thinking’, ‘feelings do not exist’, ‘writing is (…) a matter of looking (…) it has to do with the whole world through my eyes’. It is probably no coincidence that the character who paints and, in the Chinese tradition, draws with charcoal, supplies the female voice extremely frequently: ‘Painting is a relation with reality, not with the onlooker. The onlooker is ridiculous – just as ridiculous and fatuous as the voyeur who peers through the keyhole while you and I are screwing.’ That is not how an average woman speaks in an average Dutch-language love novel. But then, The Unexpected Answer is an exceptional novel.

Professor of love

The object of this female longing is also completely out of the ordinary. Godfried H. is the man whom all the female protagonists are crazy about. He epitomises the wait-and-see manner used in Taoism by the individual in order to empty himself and let go of everything (wu wei) so as to be able to participate in a new total experience. In Unworldliness De Martelaere typifies mystical receptiveness as follows: ‘It requires a great exertion to arrive at the letting go of all exertions; you have to do a great deal for it before you succeed in doing nothing more and become nothing more than an antenna, a focus of rays that converge and meet and are able on the spot and “of themselves” – to catch fire.’ Godfried H. is in a certain sense De Martelaere’s Taoist professor of love, the Lao Tse of longing. And, as is fitting for a mentor, he prefers to stay silent rather than offer explanations, unless in lines by Rainer Maria Rilke or T.S. Eliot. Godfried H. is De Martelaere’s Pied Piper of Hamelin, the mate siren who turns the heads of the female characters and thereby offers them the chance of being seized by authentic love.

The novel ends with a passage that gives a description of the concentrated energy of the enlightened person who is rewarded with an instantaneous life fulfilment: ‘And once more it is not clear from where one is standing looking, tense, almost breathless, at the formless shadow under the bushes. If it is the cat, or a form carved like the body of a cat – and if it is still alive and purring inside, or already completely dead, dissolved and discharged – but then it finally breaks through the door, and the answer is yes, no matter how, completely, utterly: yes.’ So De Martelaere grants her character a happy ending. She embraces the tao of life, the ‘right path’ that is also often hinted at as a ‘formless form’. She endorses the pulsating energy of reality. In other words, this is a completely different De Martelaere from that of her earlier work. She allows her character to acknowledge the amor fati: be happy with what nature has to offer you. She accepts life as it is, also and above all in its negativity: ‘Whatever maybe, there is much more nothingness than what there actually is’.

East and West

Does that mean that De Martelaere has renounced her earlier rationalism and foresworn Hume’s philosophy of perception? No, on the contrary, she has deepened her original philosophical position and saved the mentor. It is just that the Western philosophy of perception has been transformed into an oriental technique of perception and the associative ‘vividness’ of Hume’s theory of perception has been turned 180 degrees into the animating link of a nature practice interpreted in a Taoist way. To watch keenly and alertly remains the point of departure for both Hume and the Taoist doctrine. Only the person who observes reality coolly and impersonally can ever dare make the leap into its unfathomable depths. In Unworldliness, De Martelaere allows herself to forget that East and West are fire and water to each other: ‘To think, feel and act are the three great pillars of Western culture. To stop thinking is one of the great devices of the oriental search for wisdom. East and West are incompatible because it is simply impossible to think and not-think at the same time.’ To think and not-think at the same time: this is the new paradox that De Martelaere wishes to work on in this novel. So De Martelaere is actually trying to reconcile East and West with each other, although Rudyard Kipling once wrote that the two cultures would never manage to reach out to each other: ‘For East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ That also explains why this book is so difficult to understand. Maybe also for the writer, who after all is trying to sweat out an ‘inhuman’ work of art by transforming herself while writing and associating into the focus of the world. So she reveals as in a mirror what cosmic love can and cannot do, although this time the positive aspect gains the upper hand. Could it be that De Martelaere, after this experiment in ‘cold art’, will consider the novel as an art form as having been definitively examined? Most likely she will not be prepared to admit it. She can only go with the flow as she experiences it. Perhaps next time she will make a collection of quintessential sayings?

While De Martelaere was acquiring inspiration for a new, Taoist turn in her writing, she wrote a number of poems that she later collected under the title Nothing that Says (Niets dat zegt, 2002). In its colophon, she talks about a ‘completely one-off collection of occasional poems. Not all the poems are equally successful, though some of them reveal well on a small scale what De Martelaere is trying to achieve in her latest novel on a large scale. How does the tao of literature work? ‘In the Garden’, the love poem quoted below, is by no means as solid as her ambitious love story, but it is certainly no less hungry for reality. It reads like an ecological plea for a life in harmony with nature. Could that be what the tao of literature is all about: an ethos that listens to the voice of everything that lives and has ever existed and modestly seeks its own place there?

In the Garden

We in this great grass-patch, clover, dandelions

and what teems here, what gets

involved: the caterpillar, the grapevine. Us underneath,
all in a mess once more, a jumble once more. We’re
similar Completely. More tangled than ants, in
this presence of the garden, in which included:

this wilderness. What hesitates there, water falls
over it, plunges, gathers force.

By Frank Hellemans
Translated by John Irons

First published in The Low Countries, 2006