‘Understanding is a concept we cannot understand’

On the Bridge between Poetry and Science: Conversations with Leo Vroman and Jan Lauwereyns

Slightly more than half a century: that is the gap that separates Dutchman Leo Vroman and the Fleming Jan Lauwereyns. In other respects, the two gentlemen have a great deal in common: both are poets, both are also scientists, and both live at least one ocean away from the country of their birth.

Leo Vroman was born in 1915 and spent his childhood in Gouda. Via the Dutch East Indies and Japan, he ended up in the United States, where he has now lived for some sixty years. He trained as a biologist and specialised in haematology, the field of biology that deals with the properties of the blood. He made his debut as a poet in 1946. In the sixty-plus years since that debut he has become famous for his fresh, lively verse with its focus on his fascination with all things alive. His wife Tineke, for example, of whom his heart is so full that his pen still overflows with his love for her. Or the blood platelets that he has studied in detail in his scientific career.

Vroman’s poems are anything but hermetic: they rhyme, they are often humorous, they do not make it unnecessarily difficult for the reader. It is precisely this combination of an accessible style, a great deal of humour, and a clearsighted approach to the most human themes (love, finiteness) that has made Vroman’s some of the most important Dutch poetry of the second half of the twentieth century. His work is widely acclaimed and has won many awards. At 80 years of age he wrote his best known, and perhaps his best, poetry, Psalmen (1995), in which he transforms the psalms we know from the Bible in a highly idiosyncratic way. Each poem begins by invoking a ‘System’ – with a capital letter – a sort of absolute deity, a personification of the wondrous structure of reality. In the meantime, Vroman had also written an autobiographical book, Warm, Red, Wet and Agreeable (Warm, rood, nat en lief, 1994), in which he describes his life thus far and his fascination with science. A follow-up to this autobiographical prose was published recently, in 2004: Dark Earlier Than It Was Yesterday (Vroeger donker dan gisteren), an ‘autumn diary’ that he kept in 2003 at the request of publisher De Prom. His diary entries from subsequent years, Until Tomorrow, Perhaps (Misschien tot morgen), were published in 2006 by Querido. Vroman’s autobiographical prose, like his poetry, is light-as-a-feather, moving and witty: ‘I’m going to carry on stopping to keep a diary, because otherwise I don’t think about things enough,’ he wrote in the introduction to his latest published diary. His latest publication, in late 2006, was The Most Beautiful Poems. Poems from Hollands Maandblad (De mooiste gedichten. Gedichten uit Hollands Maandblad). A new collection of poetry appeared early in 2008.

Jan Lauwereyns’ oeuvre is less extensive than Vroman’s, but in view of his age it is still considerable. Lauwereyns was born in 1969. He spent his childhood in Berchem near Antwerp. After studying at Leuven, he moved to the United States and Japan. Nowadays he lives in New Zealand, where he works as a neuropsychologist. Shortly before the millennium, at thirty years of age, he made his debut as a poet with the collection Posthumous Sonnets (Nagelaten sonnetten), described by fellow-poet Dirk Van Bastelaere as ‘the best and most interesting poetry debut in years’. The collection consisted of poems that were not always easy to understand, and sometimes just plain cryptic, but always focussed on how our knowledge is structured by perception and memory. In his second collection Blank Verse (Blanke verzen, 2001) Lauwereyns also uses elliptical, analytical verses to shed light on the processes that take place in us as we read, look, interpret and live. The narrator in this filmic collection goes in search of the poetic soul. He does so very literally, by means of a scientific experiment which is remarkably similar to the experiments Lauwereyns was carying out in his scientific work: ‘The poetic soul has learned / to direct its gaze (…) Therefore, to understand the poetic soul / I had to / measure the movements of its eyes’. In his next two collections of poems, Flexibilities (Buigzaamheden, 2002) and Antipodean, Two-legged (Tegenvoetig, tweebenig, 2004), his poetry evolved towards a purely sound-based and language-based lyric with a strong experimental slant. That evolution reaches its peak (thus far) in Lauwereyns’ latest collection, Anophelia! The Mosquito Lives (Anophelia! De mug leeft, 2007). In this work, science, biology and lyrical poetry merge to form a remarkable entity that one can only fully appreciate by surrendering to the passion of the game the poet is playing with language.

However, Lauwereyns is not best known for his poetry, but for his first – and to date only – novel: Monkey Business (2003). In this work too, Lauwereyns’ own scientific research plays an important role. The novel is written from the point of view of a monkey that is being used in neuropsychological experiments. In 2005, in addition to poetry and prose, Lauwereyns tried his hand at essay writing. In Splash, a ‘lyrical suite about biology, ritual and poetry’, in which, from the perspective of his neuropsychological background, he responds to (and opposes) the Dutch cultural scientist J.H. de Roder’s views on the evolution of poetry. In less than ten years, then, Jan Lauwereyns already has five collections of poems, a novel and a long essay to his name – not counting his two bibliophilic publications and his articles in literary and cultural journals.

We brought Jan Lauwereyns and Leo Vroman together for a dialogue. We had several conversations with Lauwereyns while he was in the Low Countries, and we continued to correspond by email. Because of his age, Leo Vroman no longer travels overseas. Fortunately, he does reply to emails – and, at 92, he does so faster and more alertly than anyone else: ‘We won’t be crossing the Atlantic Ocean again. The journey is too long and too taxing. Email is fine. I will wait for your questions – I hope I’ll still be here to answer them when they arrive. If not, I’ll do it later.’ Fortunately, fate has been kind to him and to us. What follows is a montage of conversations and correspondence between Jan Lauwereyns, Leo Vroman and the editors of the journal Ons Erfdeel. A double interview about living in another linguistic area, about art and science and how to reconcile them, and about the commitment and motivations of scientists and writers.

In the meantime this interview has already produced a tangible artistic result. After our initial contacts, Leo Vroman and Jan Lauwereyns also began to correspond directly with each other. This resulted in the idea of a collaboration. That happened quickly: in June 2007, the Ghent bibliophile publishing house Druksel published their joint collection I, System, Reality (ik, systeem, de werkelijkheid).

From the Low Countries into a foreign language

Leo Vroman’s story is one of a war, ships and internment in prisoner-of-war camps; one of personal uncertainty but also of enduring love – in short, a story of Homeric proportions. It begins on 14 May 1940, the day on which the Germans bombed Rotterdam, leading the Netherlands to capitulate. At the time Vroman was studying biology at the University of Utrecht. Two years earlier he had become engaged to his girlfriend Tineke (Georgine Marie Sanders). At the time of writing they are still together. ‘I think that I have often made / many others seasick with our love’, he once poeticised. On that 14 May Vroman escaped to England on a sailing boat. On 7 August 1940, he arrived at his final destination: the Dutch East Indies. With the help of Tineke’s father, who was an inspector with the Netherlands Ministry of Education, he was able to complete his studies there. Yet even on the other side of the world he was not safe from the turmoil of war. When Japan entered World War II he was conscripted into the Netherlands East Indies Army, which capitulated soon after. Vroman became a prisoner of war and spent the rest of the war in camps, first on the island of Java and later in Japan. ‘I never really felt at home there,’ he tells us in an email, with the feeling for understatement that makes his texts so fresh and recognisable. After the liberation he had intended to return to the Netherlands, but new career prospects emerged and he changed his plans. Vroman was offered a place researching the coagulation of blood at a hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the United States. He took up the offer. Leo and Tineke were reunited one day in 1947, and they were married on the next day. In 1961, the couple moved to Brooklyn, where Vroman went to work at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital.

At the time of writing, Vroman lives in Fort Worth, Texas. ‘We have two daughters: Geri in England and Peggy in Texas. One day in 1995 or thereabouts, when we were visiting Peggy and her husband Bob in Fort Worth, they went to look at a retirement home with Bob’s parents, to see if it would suit them. When we’d seen and heard all about it, Tineke decided it would be ideal for us, and we moved within two years. As Tineke often says: in Brooklyn we were so far away from both our daughters, so why not move closer to one of them?.’

The overseas adventures of Jan Lauwereyns are also prompted by love and by professional considerations – but only by love and professional considerations. They took place long after the Second World War, in a period when even the Cold War was already shrouded in the thick mantle of history. After a couple of unsuccessful years studying film in Brussels, in the mid-1990s Lauwereyns graduated in psychology from Leuven University. That is when his wanderings began. Between Flanders and New Zealand, where he would eventually settle, there were three stepping-stones: the US, Japan, and the US again. ‘After I graduated from Leuven I was awarded a research grant, which meant that I could go to America. I had two options: the Beckman Institute in Illinois where, among others, the American writer Richard Powers works, and Michigan State University. I tried to meet Richard Powers to find out if we were on the same wavelength, but couldn’t manage it. I already knew a researcher at Michigan State who had once given a guest seminar in Leuven, so I chose that university. Michigan is also where I met my wife Shizuka, who is a Japanese linguist.’ In September 1997, Lauwereyns returned to Leuven to write up his thesis, a neuropsychological study of selective attention in visual perception, but less than a year later he was working overseas again, this time in Tokyo, Japan. ‘In December 1997 I went to Japan for a month to meet my wife’s parents. While I was there I visited a lab to ask if I could work there for a short time as a sort of “visitor”. But Professor Hikosaka, the head of the lab, promptly offered me a two-year post-doctoral research project.’ At the end of the two years his research, which is fictionalised in Monkey Business, was still not complete. In the end Lauwereyns spent four years in Tokyo. After that, he went overseas again. He followed Professor Hikosaka to his new place of employment: the prestigious National Institutes of Health, near Washington DC. Lauwereyns realised that his experience at that institute would stand him in excellent stead when applying for the permanent post that he was beginning to aspire to at that time. ‘I started applying for jobs, and eventually had two offers to choose from in New Zealand. I chose Wellington, which had the most to offer in terms of culture. Since 1 January 2003 I have been a Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington.’

Things from outside

So Jan Lauwereyns has been living overseas for over ten years now, Leo Vroman for about sixty years. Has their perception of their native country changed in that time? ‘Now that we no longer travel overseas, and we no longer receive newspapers from the Netherlands, my view of the country has become rather vague’, explains Vroman. ‘That in itself is quite a change. It’s hard to say whether I would find it easy to live there again; the most difficult thing would certainly be the journey to get there in the first place. And that awful habit of looking round to see whether people recognise me. Here in America no-one notices you, however famous you are.’

Jan Lauwereyns is less troubled by this ‘awful habit’. He pays regular visits to Flanders. In his view, a great deal has changed over the past ten years. ‘It has become so much less Flemish, so much more international. There are many more ethnic restaurants; there is more interest in things from outside. It seems as if, in those ten years, Flanders has really arrived in the twenty-first century, much more so even than New Zealand or Japan or the United States.’ So he isn’t struck by the Flemish ‘narrow-mindedness’, which is sometimes an object of criticism in Flanders itself? ‘No, not at all. The country I live in is much more narrow-minded. In my view, Flanders really isn’t all that narrow-minded. New Zealand is very self-oriented. People pay very little attention to what’s going on in Europe. If there is news from abroad, it’s usually about what’s happening in Britain.’ If New Zealanders do not even know much about Europe, what do they know about Flanders? ‘Nothing, “Flanders” is not a household word in New Zealand. About half of all New Zealanders have heard of “Belgium” or “Brussels”, and approximately 25% know that there is a country between France and Germany. The other 25% couldn’t care less about overseas geography.’

‘And it always gets really complicated when I have to explain what language is spoken in Flanders. “Do you speak Belgian?” they ask me. Then I have to explain that there’s no such thing as Belgian. “Flemish, then?”. No, not that either: in Flanders they speak Dutch. But this confuses the New Zealanders even more: “but people talk about Flemish painters, don’t they?”. And then I explain that there is one Dutch language area, and the dialects in the north differ to a greater or lesser extent from those in the south, although they have many features in common, and that within those large dialect groups there are many smaller dialect areas.’

‘Incidentally, I think the Dutch language has really changed in those ten years. I regularly read Dutch newspapers online, and I notice many neologisms. And it seems to be more acceptable to use an English word here and there.’ Leo Vroman agrees that the Dutch language is evolving. ‘Vernacular Dutch is changing faster than I can read it. I notice the differences when I’m reading a blog, for example, and I have no idea what they’re talking about. And compound words are being formed much more readily than they used to be. Words are getting longer and longer.’

Vroman knows what he is talking about, because he still speaks Dutch every day. ‘My everyday language is Dutch. That’s what I speak with Tineke when there are no American native speakers around.’ Jan Lauwereyns hardly ever speaks Dutch in his day-to-day life in New Zealand. ‘I speak Japanese as often as possible with my wife. I learned the language when I was working in Japan because most of my colleagues spoke only Japanese, but obviously I’ve mastered only a fraction of the many ways of expressing yourself in it. My wife tried to learn Dutch during the three months it took me to finish my doctorate in Leuven. That wasn’t a success, and she blames it partly on the teaching method and the fact that everyone spoke English to her instead of Dutch. She found it very frustrating that, as a linguist, she wasn’t able to master the language. So it would be difficult to introduce a third language into the family.’ Third language? ‘Yes, third language – we speak English as well as Japanese. We live in New Zealand, after all. We are bringing up our children Nanami and Shinsei to be bilingual, but we make a clear distinction: within the family we speak Japanese and outside it we speak English. That consistency is important: a child needs to know which language it should speak with whom.’

Between two (or more) languages

For Jan Lauwereyns, then, Dutch really is his language, the language in which he writes. But by writing in his mother tongue, he remains an outsider in the linguistic area in which he lives. Doesn’t he ever feel the need to write in English? ‘Oh yes, but I do write in English too – scientific texts, but prose and poetry as well. For a long time I was reluctant to do that because, for me, writing is mainly about enjoying language, the pleasure of constructing a handsome sentence, and obviously I can do that best in my native language. I’ve been living in an English-speaking environment for more than five years now. I meet a lot of English-speaking writers who know I’m a poet but can’t read my work because I write in Dutch. That began to frustrate me, so I’ve decided to work as far as possible in both languages, depending on the project. At the moment I’m working on two collections of poems, one in English and one in Dutch. Perhaps at some point it will be possible to link the two collections. Often my choice of language is based on purely functional considerations. If I’m writing an essay that responds to Dutch viewpoints, such as Splash, then it has to be in Dutch. If I’m writing a scientific essay, it has to be in English. And I’ve noticed that, in my everyday language use, sometimes I’ll speak Dutch and throw in an English word from time to time, if that is the word that first occurs to me. Actually, I try to make the most of the differences between languages: sometimes when I’m speaking English I use a train of thought that derives from Dutch, or the other way round.’

In a poem in Flexibilities we find in the Dutch one of those strange words that seems to be borrowed from English: ontgratie. Is that an example of the language game he described earlier? ‘Yes, absolutely. But the stanza in which the word is used is actually just a list of my favourite books. And Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is one of the thirteen.’

Leo Vroman too regularly writes in English as well as Dutch. What is his preferred language for each type of text? ‘If I had to write a scientific piece, I would definitely do it in English, just as they did it in Latin in the Middle Ages. I write my diary partly in English too. When my Dutch editor offered to publish it, I had to translate a couple of the seasons so that the work as a whole would be more Dutch than English. Now I occasionally write in Spanish, because I don’t know Spanish, and so I wrote, I hope, in Spanish that I expected to make glorious mistakes. We’ve been going to Spanish classes once a week for a few months now. But however well I can remember the French and German verbs I learned more than half a century ago, I can’t remember the Spanish ones from last week. Recently I’ve written a lot of poems in Dutch and none in English. I don’t know why that is. Probably something to do with my amygdala or hypothalamus. I’ve translated one of them from Dutch into Spanish, and I hope it will give me a good laugh later on.’

From art to science, or vice versa?

At the beginning of the twenty-first century homo universalis seems to have given up laughing. These are difficult times for the multitalented. Increasing specialisation in the sciences and compartmentalisation in education make it more and more difficult for those in the arts to become acquainted with the sciences, and vice versa. Today it seems as if the worlds of art and science do not intersect at all.

Yet there are always people who succeed in building a bridge between the two. Both Leo Vroman and Jan Lauwereyns are examples of such dual talents. Vroman specialised in haematology, Lauwereyns in neuropsychology. In haematology there is even an effect known as the Vroman Effect. Jan Lauwereyns refers to it in I, System, Reality. So does he know all about the Vroman Effect? ‘I typed the term into a search engine for scientific papers. That put me onto some recent articles that are re-examining the Vroman Effect. So it’s clearly a concept that means something in haematology, but as for what it is exactly? Something to do with how the blood reacts to foreign bodies. But I’m not familiar with the details.’

Obviously, Leo Vroman can explain his effect in every last detail, but some knowledge of blood is required to understand the finer points. ‘It used to be thought that when blood was brought into contact with glass, for example, it would deposit a particular protein known as Factor XII. This would then combine with another protein, initiating a series of reactions that would cause the blood to coagulate within a few minutes. So I’d bought a large piece of apparatus and tried the experiment. It worked beautifully, as if I had immediately proved the whole thing. But when I gave a lecture about this experiment in Würzburg, someone said that I had not explained which protein was responsible for my results, and that it might be fibrinogen rather than Factor XII protein. When I looked into it, it did indeed turn out to be more complicated than I had thought. We discovered that when blood touches a surface such as glass, it first deposits albumin, then globulin a few seconds later, then fibrinogen, and only after 30 seconds of contact was that replaced by a couple of true clotting factors, including Factor XII. This discovery was named the Vroman Effect by colleagues of mine who finally confirmed it more than ten years later. In theoretical terms it may be of some significance because the time factor in this kind of research had not yet been investigated. In practical terms it is significant because blood platelets will only adhere to a surface on which they detect fibrinogen. This has implications for all applications in which blood comes into contact with materials that are foreign to the body, such as an artificial blood vessel or an artificial kidney.’

As yet, no scientific phenomenon has been named after Jan Lauwereyns. ‘No, there isn’t a Lauwereyns Effect. My research relates mostly to the brain mechanism involved in ‘wishful seeing’ – what happens in the brain when you’re waiting for a friend on a station platform, and you think you see him getting off the train, when in fact it’s a total stranger. If ever a Lauwereyns Effect finds its way into the literature, then it will be something to do with “wishful seeing”.’

What makes someone specialise in a particular field? What prompts someone to work on visual perception, or blood? ‘Pure chance’, says Leo Vroman. ‘Blood is no more fascinating to me than any other phenomenon. It is certainly touching, especially when you look at those white blood cells under the microscope, still busy protecting the body they’re no longer part of. But I specialised in blood because that’s just the way things turned out.’ Jan Lauwereyns too arrived at his specialism – selective attention in visual perception – largely by chance. Yet it was an ‘enforced’ chance, because, if there is one thing that strikes one about Lauwereyns, even in conversation, then it is the almost monomaniacal passion with which he pursues the things that interest him – the passion and drive that took him via America and Japan to New Zealand. In the context of his organisational psychology course in Leuven, with its emphasis on practical applications, his final-year dissertation was highly theoretical. When he embarked on postgraduate research, he combined his interest in science with his other interest: poetry. ‘My thesis was on the eye movements of a poetry expert. I tried to find out, by following what the expert was looking at, whether I could discover what he would think of a verse, and whether that judgment applied to other readers too. That research led to my first scientific publication.’

The Garden of Proliferating Questions

This was before Lauwereyns had made his poetic debut, but clearly he was already involved with poetry. His interest in poetry did not stem from his scientific research, or vice versa: both interests developed at the same time. Leo Vroman’s interest in science also evolved at roughly the same time as his interest in poetry. Are poetry and science then such different worlds? Is there a link connecting the two domains, that makes it possible to develop an interest in poems and in scientific experiment simultaneously?

Leo Vroman’s answer is a heartfelt ‘Yes’. ‘I believe that both science and poetry are instruments that help us to better understand and accept reality. For me, writing a poem is a scientific experiment; the feeling that a poem exists and that I must express it as accurately as possible. An experiment begins with a theory, which, if it’s a good theory, must be beautiful and poetic, and tested by experiment for deficiencies. Or so I think. But the need for scientific accuracy does constrain the need to be ‘poetic’. It’s simply impossible for me to write that a loved one is in my heart. The heart is a fantastic pump, but the love is in my brain.’ So Vroman does not agree that science and knowledge take away the ‘magic’, the ‘mystery’; and the ‘beauty’ of things. ‘For me, scientific knowledge continues to be a revelation, not just because of the new world it opens up, but also because of the unknown world within it. I just glanced at a wooden box. Think how enriching it would be if the tree from which it was sawn could show itself to me! And the effect that bears my name – what a joy to have been able to discover it! The baffling initial results, finding the solution, and now the different theories about them. The more deeply we look into nature, the more puzzles our solutions create. For me, the deepest and most mysterious thing is the behaviour of atoms that display ‘entanglement’: how a particle can be split and one half be moved miles away, and yet the two halves continue to behave as a single entity. For me, that is the ultimate and totally mysterious raw material of all existence.’

Jan Lauwereyns too does not agree that science strips away the magic of the world. ‘Quite the opposite: the beauty and mystery grow. The answer to a question leads to new questions. I see science as the Garden of Proliferating Questions. Science is the search for knowledge, but above all it is a particular way of searching. It is a way of systematically focusing one’s attention on all manner of phenomena. You start from reality. Based on what you see there, you formulate a hypothesis. You carry out experiments to test that hypothesis and find out whether reality really does behave as you think it does. From the clarity of the hypothesis you return to the obscure world of observable reality. Now and then this thinking results in knowledge, formulae, but often it is largely a question of shedding light on something, of enlightenment. And that has more to do with amazement and wonder than with reducing it to tedious formulae.’

‘Unlike Leo, when I write poetry I don’t have the feeling that the poem already exists. I do not believe that, before I begin writing, the language contains one perfect poem – like the cliché of Michelangelo carving away the unwanted stone to reveal the perfect image. A text can always evolve in different directions, and the direction depends on all sorts of circumstances: the possibilities within a particular language, the writer’s emotional world, where his attention happens to be focussed. In my view, this is where the similarity with scientific experiment lies: in seeing how all the different circumstances and influences come together in a text, and checking whether the text works; what is possible and what is not. Sometimes that process does indeed produce surprises – how lovely that line sounds, what a splendid image has been created here – a certain truth, goodness or wisdom perhaps.’

If science, like poetry, moves from the light to the dark rather than vice versa, as Enlightenment optimists have believed for centuries, can it render total reality knowable, comprehensible or controllable? Is there any likelihood at all that this will ever be possible? ‘It can’t do it now, at any rate,‘ Jan Lauwereyns replies. ‘But a more interesting question is whether it will ever be able to. What is knowable? What is controllable? How could we ever control death, for example? Does acceptance of death count as the answer? I can see a new chaos of questions appearing instantly. What escapes the eye of science? Nothing and everything. If science is indeed the Garden of Proliferating Questions, everything will evade science – every time a new question is asked, a few things slip through the fingers of science – and yet nothing does, because the questions get asked again, and one can ask questions about anything.’

Above all, Leo Vroman has reservations about the idea of science making the world more understandable. ‘The example of “entanglement” tells me that science may well be able to render a small piece of total reality knowable and controllable, but that is not the same thing as understanding it. I can get to know my hands and use them, but that doesn’t mean I understand them. Understanding is a concept we cannot understand, I fear.’

Commitment and motives

Painful – even lethal – experiments are carried out on living creatures in the name of science. Do Leo Vroman and Jan Lauwereyns believe that science has the right to investigate everything, using every possible method? Or should there be boundaries, with restrictions? Leo Vroman: ‘As far as I’m concerned, science can investigate anything using any method that doesn’t cause pain – although science itself can shift the pain threshold.’ During his postdoctoral research Jan Lauwereyns carried out brain research on live monkeys. He felt increasingly uncomfortable about this, and incorporated his experiences into Monkey Business, in which he described his experiments from the point of view of a monkey, which through that personification came across in an intensely human way. The book caused a furore in the media and among Lauwereyns’ fellow scientists, who didn’t appreciate Lauwereyns’ ‘treachery’.

‘It took me a long time to decide whether I should publish Monkey Business. Mainly because I was worried about how the scientific world would receive it – and the reaction wasn’t a mild one – and also because it’s a very emotional book that some people perceived almost as a polemic. As soon as the book was published, I was telephoned by all kinds of media, even TV magazines. The widespread media attention resonated as far as the National Institutes of Health, where I used to work. At one point, there was even a pirate English translation of my novel in circulation – at the time it had only been published in Dutch. The problem is that in neuroscientific circles Monkey Business was never read as a novel, but as an account of reality and a betrayal of the type of research they were engaged in, whereas it was very clearly and explicitly a work of fiction. In any case, many of my colleagues didn’t thank me for writing the book.’ But it was appreciated by Leo Vroman, who was fortunate enough not to need to experiment on animals during his career: ‘I thought Monkey Business was an excellent way to show the suffering of the monkeys. Many experiments that I and others have carried out have caused me a great deal of sorrow. It was a great relief to me when I could confine my studies to human blood, without causing much pain – except very occasionally by accident.’

Lauwereyns has now ironed out his differences with his colleagues. ‘It’s about four years since the book was published, and since then I’ve talked things through with the neuroscientists, so I’m on speaking terms with most of them again. I made it clear to them that I am fully committed to science and that, for me, the emotion in Monkey Business is primarily a matter of literary style. The voice in that novel is only one of the many voices inside me. And I don’t find it a problem to shift into my professional persona at times, when necessary. However, I do believe that research on living creatures should be avoided as far as possible, and that when it is absolutely necessary it should be done on rats rather than monkeys, and on single-celled organisms rather than rats, if at all possible.’

Treachery or not, Monkey Business was undeniably a committed novel. Does Lauwereyns regard commitment as essential for a writer? Ought writers to make their voices heard in public debates? ‘This is no more the task of “the” writer than it is of anyone else. I don’t think that all writers need to be heard, but they should have the opportunity if they want to. And we should welcome it, because writers often know more than the average person about certain subjects. In many cases, they have read a great deal and thought hard about certain things, so they have a right to speak out – if only to separate correct from incorrect information. Personally, I am always prepared to talk about animal experiments in science – with colleagues, with people from other disciplines, politicians or lobby groups such as animal rights organisations. In general, a democracy benefits from listening to the views of people who have specific or unique information about a particular subject. Society should listen more often to people who know what they are talking about – and that doesn’t only mean writers.’

When it comes to listening, Leo Vroman is more sceptical. ‘Some time ago I cancelled my membership of the Poetry Society of America and the PEN Club. They just cost money, and the only people they talk to are each other. Would someone who hates poems bother going to a poetry evening to see if maybe there’s something in it? Does a Republican ever listen – really listen – to a Democrat? And me, do I ever listen to a hunter or a fisherman or an economist?’ These are rhetorical questions, but Jan Lauwereyns picks up on them anyway: ‘I don’t agree with Leo on that point. Actually, I do listen to a fisherman quite often – my good friend and fellow cognitive psychologist Todd Jones – and recently I had a very interesting discussion with an economist. I like to talk to people who see reality from another angle: chemists, theologians, rugby fanatics, five-year-olds.’

Love of language

If the writer does not necessarily have a duty to society, why does he write? What is his motive? Does he write to satisfy a psychological or physical need? Does he write to win approval and praise? To leave something for posterity? To live for ever in his work?

In answering this question Jan Lauwereyns uses the phrase ‘in love with language’, which has to be interpreted in an almost physical sense: he writes from ‘a lust for language, a love of sounds and rhythms, a love of thinking through language’. This is also reflected in the way he organises his life: ‘My daily routine is almost ritualistic. Every weekday I have to have a bit of time for writing, otherwise I suffer physical discomfort, a feeling of irritation when on a particular day I can’t put pen to paper.’

Leo Vroman too says that writing is almost a physiological necessity for him. ‘Once it starts I can’t do anything else, and while it’s in progress it’s even more difficult to stop. I’m very relieved when I’ve finished; I just read the piece through once and send it off as soon as possible.’ And then? ‘Then, very childishly, I wait for approval and praise from whomsoever’, the 92-year-old much-celebrated poet replies. His younger colleague also admits to writing to gain recognition: ‘Being appreciated is an incentive that can eventually become very addictive. It gives me a buzz if someone likes my poems; I can immediately feel more energy flowing through my body, and I want to continue – go further and produce more – as if the approval confirms that I am on the right track, that I am doing something important. That might be an illusion, but the feeling is real. But when I’m busy writing, my feelings are more personal. Then it’s about the adventure of the writing process itself, with its intrinsic incentives; the brief moments when I feel I’ve come close to truth, goodness and beauty. This intrinsic “meaningfulness” of writing allows me to be rather less sensitive about what readers think of my poems. There is no such thing as poetry that everyone likes. Ultimately, I am probably looking for a particular audience with my texts, people who I think share my approach to poetry. Obviously, I want to know whether those people appreciate my poems, but I don’t think I’d make a conscious effort to please them with new scribblings.’

If your work does not please anyone, there is obviously a risk that your scribblings will end up buried deep in the coffers of history. Do Leo Vroman and Jan Lauwereyns aspire to leave something permanent behind them through their literary work? Do they believe that their art can save them from oblivion? And what about their scientific work? Will that endure?

‘In a way, I’m quite happy just to see my work play a part in both domains, and make a contribution in its modest way,’ says Jan Lauwereyns. ‘Somehow I even allow myself to think that, actually, that hope has already been fulfilled, and that it’s now a matter of doing as much as I am able to do. Indirectly I could claim that my contribution will endure for as long as science and literature continue to exist. I am part of the system, and the part can’t be lost unless the whole system collapses. But in terms of a specific contribution, with my full name on it, then I suppose I will be remembered longest as someone who stood on the bridge between science and poetry.’

The bridge between science and poetry: that is precisely where this dialogue took place, and that is where Jan Lauwereyns and Leo Vroman met. Their stories have a great deal in common, but they are not the same. That also applies to their oeuvres, their lives and the things that motivate them. Their meeting has in any case produced a joint collection of poems, and this conversation. Both have increased the likelihood that they will ‘endure’, in whatever form. For as well as their common enthusiasm for their work and their curiosity about everything that exists, they most certainly share that hope too. ‘I hope – but I don’t think – that my literary work will contribute something substantial,’ says Leo Vroman, ‘but to be on the safe side, I define substantial as broadly as possible – material, for example – so that I can hope that my books will leave books for posterity.’ And his scientific work? ‘It already makes me happy when from time to time I come across a scientific article that mentions the Vroman Effect, even without any further reference to me. When that happens, I think: yup, there I go, into Eternity.’

With thanks to Geerdt Magiels

By Bart Van der Straeten
Translated by Yvette Mead

First published in The Low Countries, 2008