PERVERSE

  

Strange manners nature has,

not only changing life for death,

but boldly mixing fauna up with flora,

wildly perverse, thus never boring.

A unicorn with many horns,

and yet a tree – quite white and dead,

wearing as wig the leaves of other trees.

Beauty in the eye of a beholder,

as is the weird, the skewed,

the obvious, the silly, the sublime,

all frozen in a single still –

to see all this in just one view,

is losing all one’s sense of time.

Sierksma, September 2019

 

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PRIZE GAMBIT

Having reviewed, here in La Roche, all issues of the BBC-series Dad’s Army may have influenced my reading of the face of one of the masters of chess-composition, Comins Mansfield.

 

He is of the right age and has indeed a face to sing ‘Who do you think you’re kidding Mister Hitler?’, the song with which each issue of the Dads begins. During World War II he himself may even have been a member of the Home Guard, older men sort of waiting for the Nazi invasion in one of the coastal towns of England.

 

Waveridge in Devon seems to have had the sleepy non-entity quality ‘Walmington-on-Sea’ in which the old fools under Captain Mainwaring were clowning around as would-be soldiers guarding Southern England. Like Sergeant Wilson, played by elegant Le Mesurier, Mansfield had first fought in World War One, as a gunner.

 

Convinced I am, that for someone having fought the ghastly trench war, playing chess and composing chess problems must have been an ideal escape for Mansfield. They must also have seemed to him the right way in which political conflict should be solved – by way of peaceful battle on sixty-four squares. Just have those so-called leaders sit at a chessboard and play a few games to decide who is boss – for the time being…

 

In 1936, many years after that war, Mansfield had become a professional chess master. He sent in a contribution for the Olympics Tournament for Chess Problems, held in Berlin. After he had won the first prize, the Nazi authorities subsequently informed him that, alas, ‘restrictions’ prevented his prize money to be send to England. The German consul – it could easily have been the same Nazi bureaucrat – advised him to take a holiday on one of the Frisian Islands and spend his prize money there, or give it away to someone in Germany.

 

The family Mansfield, though, lived off the money the husband and father of three was earning with his chess problems, which were published in papers and journals, or handed in for competitions. Apart from Mansfield’s unwanted holiday abroad in the trenches, it seems unlikely that his family had many such overseas outings, which may have escaped a more well to do Consul’s mind. In Book II of his collected work, it is noted that in 1937 he wrote ‘a carefully worded letter’ which began thus: ‘His excellency, Herr Hitler…’, to continue with a plea for his prize money.

 

That very same year, in January 1937 commemorating the rise to power of the NSDAP, Hitler had given one of his famously endless political speeches. He told his audience of devotees that he would like to speak ‘just a few words’ to them. Dictators share this deep desire for boundless talk and for the applause received for it. Reading it through a few days ago was quite a bore.

 

Hitler stressed the socialist aspect of his National Socialism, arguing against class-privileges. He praised Germany for its peaceful approach without bloodshed, not forgetting to mention that Nazi’s ‘are manly enough to look at blood.’ Relations with many European states were said to be ‘normal’, however England he considered an exception. The British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eden, is mentioned time and again and is said to be a nuisance, demanding from Germany an attitude of collaboration, in the eyes of Hitler something he should have done much earlier. Now it was too late.

 

Here is the surprise which, given what has been written above, may not be such a surprise at all. On the 19th of June 1937, a banker’s draft arrived at Mansfield’s home, containing the sum of his prize, translated into English money: 20 Pound, 4 Shillings and 10 Pence.

 

Mansfield had played the gambit of his life, appealing to the socialist side of Herr Hitler, more or less making it impossible for the dictator not to send him the prize money, after all not being one of the ‘privileged classes’, but a poor composer of chess problems. Hitler’s response was also a deed of showing Mr. Eden that Germany was acting in good faith and could be trusted.

 

So, in fact, Mansfield had been kidding Mister Hitler.

 

Sierksma, La Roche 19.9/2019

 

 

ARCHIVE

Our period seems to be given over to the demon of speed and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self. Now I would reverse that statement and say: our period is obsessed by the desire to forget, and it is to fulfil that desire that it gives itself over to the demon of speed.

Milan Kundera, Slowness

Right he is this time, Milan Kundera: Postmodernity is forgetful. I am not so sure that, as he suggests, this necessarily implies an addiction to the demon of speed. There is always the danger of mixing up the two different periods of Modernity and Postmodernity.

Driving through Germany, occasionally one gets the distinct but unexpected impression that nothing around us is as old as it would like us to believe it is. In the Second World War whole German neighbourhoods, even whole towns had been obliterated, disappearing from this earth, so after that war whole towns have been rebuilt, often as a replica of their past.

Flattened by bombardments, such towns had been attacked from the air. Sebald has written a scorching book about this history. The restoration of the towns, however, is only apparent; it can never be anything else but the restoration of what has been destroyed forever.

The effect of such a would-be resurrection is an uneasy cosiness, very much reminding one of Walter Benjamin’s criticism of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois interiors at the end of the 19th century. They seemed to be so over-full and all too comfortable, that no place was left for a visitor, perhaps not even for those who inhabited such quarters… It implies what Benjamin phrased as the poverty of experience, produced by an overload of impressions that do not leave any room for a person’s imagination. One also is reminded of Marshall McLuhan who would later describe this as a hot medium. Instead of a solitary, alienated or rather orphaned object in a room, demanding our gentle attention, we are flooded by their overdose.

When this happens, it contrasts with what Kundera is suggesting: we seem to be witnessing an extreme form of deceleration, as if nothing has happened at all, as if the whole Second World War never took place. Das Jargon der Eigentlichkeit.

In Dresden it was, that I saw a whole church as one single Found Object. Not so much a church, as what once had been a building, wiped away in The Great Firestorm of February 1945. Slaughterhouse Five is what Vonnegut so aptly called it. Next to enormous piles of ruins there was erected a complete archive of stones. In large wooden frames, huge blocks as well as smaller pieces of stone were neatly stored in a certain order. Much in the same way as an archaeologist would, first of all, write numbers on his fragmented finds, then arrange these in the baroque manner of display, the well-ordered tableau.

Much later, when doing some research on Dresden’s history of Romanticism, I saw the same image on an old photograph, this time taken from afar. Only at that moment did the connection of the stone archive, the piles of ruins and that obliterated church became clear to me. Since the day it was taken, long ago, and the day I visited the place not all that much had changed.

When I first saw those stacks, I had no idea that they had once constituted a whole church, the Frauenkirche. At the time, I had come to Dresden to visit Semper’s rebuilt opera building; the rest of what I saw, was mere circumstantial evidence of the British war crimes.

That collection of ordered stones, seen as a whole, was my Found Object, a thing mysterious in its aimless size. There seemed to be no connection whatsoever between the ordered debris in front of me and the ruined piles that lay around. This Dresden was and, by the way, still is horrific. When in the 1990’s I made my visit to the city, at various places a number of grand edifices had once again been fully rebuilt, as if by magic placed almost circularly, a Walpurgis ring of dancing witches. Photos of the town, in glamour folders prepared for tourists, suggest that all of Dresden looks like… a picture.

When the visitor has arrived in its impressive railway station where at two different levels, under three beautiful, enormous hoods, trains arrive and leave, a building by a miracle not flattened during the Great Bombardment, he will leave it to suddenly find himself thrown into a chilly, desolate desert. In the near distance one is confronted with massive battleships of hotels, and all around the ghastly, concrete-grey, extravagant high-rise of East-Germany’s tenement housing obscures the horizon. Everything in that Dresden of the 90’s was too open, too big, too bald, too grey – simple too. Yet, an ideal find-spot for Orphan Objects.

Meanwhile, having grown older, I discover that my own home in Haarlem has also been transformed in an unspoilt ruin of the past. When looking for one thing, I meet with other things that I had completely forgotten, sometimes things of which, initially, I did not know the origin or the meaning. Second-hand Found Objects.

One such find was a forgotten packet of the cigarette brand Gladstone Silk Filter/Gold Leaf Virginia, which according to the little print was imported by Louis Dobbelmann N.V. Holland. It was produced in times when they did not yet know of the vicious connection between nicotine consumption and lung cancer. Provides a cool and smooth smoke. At the time, surprisingly so, 20 cigarettes cost you only 1 Dutch Florin, say less than half a dollar or for that matter, half a pound as they stand now. This packet might well have the same age as I have now.

However, after the little description of Dresden’s Stone Archive not so much this packet is of interest, as its contents. Carefully stored inside, wrapped in the silvery paper that once enclosed the cigarettes, I discover a few small, flat stones.

One thing seems to be certain: these stones are a lot older than their wrapper. I have not an inkling of what I see in front of me. The colour is intriguing, as are the little black inscriptions on a few of them, perhaps signs for people of a strange tribe, codes for a foreign spy… After some pondering, I begin to remember. These are Neolithica, given to me by I know not whom; however, I recall that it was an acquaintance of my father. These are arrow-heads and little cutting tools, found on a spot very much like a miniature version of the area around what was once the site of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Just as in those German stone archives, a few of the stones have been given a number, even some lettering to indicate their find-spot – Ter, Te, I.

I love to surround myself with such things and little objects, often a riddle, things I find difficult to pinpoint and interpret, quite often so much older than myself that only for this reason do I consider them agreeable companions. Perhaps, for the same reason I prefer the company of people quite a bit older than myself. Anonymous friends they are, those objects that accompany me on my life’s journey, like the trees I love. They must make a much longer journey, from far back, a time when I was not there, yet with a future much longer than mine.

The Thing and I. We exist in asymmetry, as of the two of us it is only I that may bestow meaning on them.

Sierksma, some time ago

IN AWE

 

Mirage rested,

between reality and the sublime,

the limits tested.

Not art, yet nature is her master,

torn by our lust and contemplation,

the eye suspended, so is disbelief,

it cannot last, this treat.

Betwixt these cheeks her sieves,

funnels of life, love and elation,

filled with the varied tastes of slime,

the sour, the bitter and the sweet.

 

Sierksma La Roche

15.7/2019 Assumption Day

HANDS

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens; only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

e e cummings

____________

 

Years ago, one of our Dutch comedians did a show in which he used a rubber hand, attached to a small pole. As the hand seemed to move of its own accord, this was somewhat eerie. Of this I was reminded when I visited the Albertinum in Dresden, known for its Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister. Not having expected to meet Napoleon there, I suddenly stood face to face with the Great Emperor on the famous 1810 canvas painted by Gérard – Napoleon I Dressed for his Crowning.

 

Pompous as ever, even now, after two hundred years, the small potentate is as always making his sublime fuss, his kapsones, still usurping all your attention. Was it Paine who wrote that the screen between the sublime and the ridiculous is only wafer thin?

 

I approach His Majesty. On the settee, on his left, a little behind the Imperial Sergeant, something rather curious is to be observed: a little hand made of porcelain, set on a golden staff, just as that Dutch comedian’s rubber version. Lonely as lonely alone can be. A sceptre of sorts, a sinister right hand without a body.

 

In his book Body Watching Desmond Morris has written a series of chapters, dedicated to each of our body parts. Whenever a member allows for gestures, they are analysed. However, strangely enough, the chapter on the hand does not mention the shaking of hands, which taken our social nature into account, seems to be its most important gesture.

 

Opening, then extending one’s own hand in order to shake the other man’s hand, this has always been explained as a gesture indicating that one is not hiding a weapon.  Accepting that hand, the other man is reciprocally telling you the same thing. Body language this is, even though it is not really a language in the proper sense of the word, lacking both a defined vocabulary, as well as, and more importantly so, a grammar. Yet, the extending and shaking of hands is a signal of mutual trust, or rater a civilised form of distrust.

 

Emblematic is the intense surprise on the face of the nephew of gangster boss Michael Corleone, when confronted with the small-time hood and his enemy, Joey Zaza. One may also understand the intense anger of this Joey, when the nephew instead of shaking Zaza’s extended hand, extended on the express invitation of Michael Corleone, fakes a hug and then bites off a piece from his ear. He is bleeding like a pig.

 

Later in life, I acquired this little object, not a rubber hand, nor one of porcelain, yet again a hand severed from the body. A steel knocker, reminding us of the vital importance of the gestures of hands in social traffic with friends and strangers.

 

Sierksma, Haarlem 1995/2019

BROKEN

 

This rosy stone,

antediluvian – old as Methuselah,

what else could crack it,

but a farmer’s engine,

loud mouthed, shaped like a giant.

Behold its sad beheading,

showing its core,

what just before,

had been eternity encapsulated,

still young and clean,

now ready to be spoiled,

when other tractors pass,

to soil what is not theirs.

 

Sierksma, La Roche 28.8/2019

HEADSTRONG

Seagulls all soon to be turned to stone

That seeking I lose beyond the trail

In the woods that I and my ignorance own…

       Malcolm Lowry, Nocturne

__________

‘You see, now, this gentleman is clever. He has an interest in stones’. He took some pebbles from his pocket, and put them in front of him.

       Hansjörg Schneider, Tod einer Ärztin

The day on which, after some thirty years, together with Son No. 2 we return once more to the beach under Britany’s Pléneuf, I encountered this stone. A grey, sombre day it was, so totally different from all those glorious summer holiday months the family spent here.

 

The others decided to remain at the entrance to the beach, at the bottom of the steep little road which had led to it; weather for a beach walk it was not, it just started to rain, which gave the cost a miserable impression. Being a conservative at heart, I decided just like all these decade ago to make such a walk, if only for a quarter of an hour. After all, we did bring rainwear.

 

Having gone over the ‘first beach’, separated from a second more intimate one by two large rock formations with a leeway between them – Scylla and Charybdis indeed – a typically Breton beach, an immense, flat plain stretching towards an almost invisible sea which had retreated, so it seemed, all the way to Britannia.

 

The flat expanse of sand, an enormous mirror in which the rather limited drawing in the sky was reflected. On my way back, I chose for a route that kept close to the high cliffs. There it was, that I found this object, a large stone, its width some thirty by twenty centimetres, and of an incredible weight.

 

What immediately struck me, was the strange dark-red coloured ‘stain’ which, on the spot, made me think of the Russian politician Gorbatsjow, even though this object did not remind one in the least of his political project Glasnost, the ‘thawing’ of the state’s frozen mass. This ominous, bad sign it was, which transformed the stone into my found object – a something, unpredictable, screaming to be named or to be given some meaning, with no meaning at hand.

 

A good reason to bring it along, even though I knew that it had to be carried for another ten minutes, while I trudged another three hundred meters through the wetted, yet still loose sand, then heave it towards the car, up the steep little road. Dead-tired I came to the car, where the other had been waiting all this time as I was the one with the car key in my pocket.

 

For quite some time, back in Haarlem, it remained that thing. It travelled back with me, all the way to La Roche where for a long time coming it stayed outside, considered a curiosity decorating the cour.

 

Bertus Aafjes, a Dutch catholic poet, once wrote in his At the Outset the following: What is nameless is making us namelessly sad… It was deliverance from what had been unsaid… Naming a thing makes it into what it is.

 

I beg to disagree, namelessness of things, their anonymity so to say, is a joyous condition; it creates the opportunity for an encounter with something, which up till then seemed impossible. Even though, as a man, I cannot escape the urge to name and to give meaning, it yet feels as if naming such a nameless, mysterious and thus free thing is equal to making it my slave – that moment, when I start to associate the unknown with something I already am acquainted with.

 

Before the fact of naming, the thing was free, like before I named it I myself was still free, in a certain way. In the very first impossibility of truly naming a thing, there is still contained an endless set of names, which we dare not discover, let alone abuse. Let them be! Things should never be delivered from their anonymity of the unsaid. Alas, we must, even though some philosophers claim that we might escape from language… However, let me add this:  Let us be poets and let us when phrasing is inevitable phrase it beautifully, gracefully and gently. Let us say things in a manner that allows them a rest of their namelessness, a little of the thing it was before it was grabbed by our plain language.

 

Thus, it was with my red-stained stone from the beach. Till, one day, I changed its position, gave it a new attitude – as it were. Promptly the thing turned into a something – a symbol of a sudden, of my decaying brain and an already lousy memory getting disappointingly Alzheimer Light. The beach stone had, from one moment to the next, become a petrified brain, of course needing its own little pedestal in my French room.

 

It is true, its skull is missing, the brain-pan. They are a bit greyish and bloody. Unprotected, one might say, like I often feel here in Lonesome La Roche where the would-be hermit. For all his worth writing and listening to music, against the chosen solitary existence he has chosen for himself.

 

Sierksma