Adriaan Verheule, Herfst/Autumn, 1980


There are those autumns,

Looking very much like spring,

Deceitful greens of trees,

Though dulled, still promising

Next morning’s bright beginning,

The sky, full of deceitful blue.

Not yet that splendid hue

Of slow and glorious death.

No sing-song, though, of birds,

The angle of sun’s light, also,

Betrays the end of time.

Sierksma, April 2018

Study Art 14



Having just left the hospital, where they inserted a catheter into the heart to prove that I am not destined for Eternal Life, I shall now disprove this disheartening idea, paradoxically using the experience in the hospital’s operation room to bear the onus of my argument.


Deep thinkers have debated the so-called Arrow of Time: the notion that time is irreversible. Only make-believe, resulting in for instance H. G. Well’s Time Machine, could suggest that we might go back in time. At the back of this wishful thinking is of course the desire for resurrection – for eternal life. Death in Reverse.


Let me give a proof of this reversal of Death, against all odds and against my own thorough atheism and sober sadness. After all, one should live one’s life according to Popper’s dictum: Always trying to falsify your very own prejudices.


Latter-day cosmology seems to involve a certain qualification of the irreversible Arrow of Time. However, Hawking the Great, now passed on, claimed that even in a phase in which the former explosive cosmos will contract again and entropy or the evening out of energy sets in, there will not be a complete reversal of the Arrow of Time. There will not be a full return to a complete stasis in which all energy is spread evenly over space.


Yet, in Stephen Hawking’s analysis, only the expanding phase of ‘our’ cosmos is intelligible to us simple human beings, who have that notion of the Arrow of Time in only one direction. He calls this the ‘weak anthropic principle’. A philosophical extremist like Baudrillard has taken this very seriously: he does not want to be a weak man and a weak philosopher. Thus, he claims that – even applied to personal existence and society – the relation of cause and effect should be reversed. The cause coming after the effect – the precession of the effect.


Normally, I appreciate the Hawkings of this world; what I do not like is this existential and sociological metaphoring which applies insights from astronomy to personal and social phenomena. However, today – at least this once – I join the extremists.


So, what happened? On a hospital chair I am wheeled from my bed into the ante-room of the operation theatre. I wait, while the patient who went before me is wheeled out, back again into his bed. After all, this is a repetitive operation – I am just a bit of matter on the medical assembly line. After some five to ten minutes, they wheel me in. Everything is prepared – sheets, covers, scalpels and what not, all lying ready. Within a quarter of an hour, they are inserting the little tube through the artery, all its way into the secret chambers of my heart.


After the operation, with the assembly line something must have gone wrong. The little surgery has been a success; however, I am left in my wheelchair inside the operation room and not being wheeled out again into the ante-room. During those ten minutes, wrapped in a misty grey neon light and feeling very chilly, I observe the two persons who have been assisting my surgeon take away all implements, sheets et cetera used during my operation. Then, from cupboards and instrument tables, they take out brand-new sheets, covers, scalpels, a catheter, et cetera, et cetera.


Time reversed! The operation theatre is now ready for my surgery, in the precise shape and condition in which I found it when I arrived here the first came. I have been operated upon – yet I am now going to be operated. There is death before life and there is, obviously now, life after death. Nothing is impossible. The Arrow of Time, shot by the Zen Bowman, has taken the hunter into its flow. He will end up where the arrow will go. It will never stop, perhaps circling cosmic space for ever and ever.


We have seen Chaplin in Modern Times. The poor man is almost grinded into extinction, as the assembly line he is working on is speeded up. Poor Chaplin! We know, however, that some of the most violent as well as funny scenes in other Chaplin movies were done in precisely the opposite manner.


We observe Chaplin being forcefully hit by for instance a hammer swung by an opponent, or by the end pf a plank of wood on we he has stepped by mistake.  Ai, what force, what pain! How did they do this? They shot such scenes in reverse. Someone placed the hammer on the head of the ‘victim’, the camera starts running, slowly the hammer, in a fine theatrical span of light, is lifted from the head. When the actual production and cutting of the film is done, they run this piece of film backwards – and fast so. Chaplin seems to be fatally hit. Yet, he always resurrects.


Sierksma 18.4.18


Forman, a great cineaste, is dead. Someone who saw his screen-version of Kesey’s book about a psychiatric institution, One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, knew it immediately: A Master. Amadeus came later, a movie I have seen some twenty times by now. I shall return to it.


At the ceremony in 1976, when he received his Oscar for the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forman said this:


“There are two reasons which made that I stand here now. The first one is that I have spent more time in psychiatric institutions than any other nominee. The second reason is that America is still a great, hospitable and open country.”


This second ‘reason’ seems to me a misunderstanding. However, one may understand Forman’s mistake,  taken into account the fact that he just managed to escape from the so-called communist regime of Czechoslovakia.


Alas – America is, and was at the time when Forman spoke, a small-minded, puritanical and aggressive society in which people were particularly hospitable for those with success, yet rücksichtslos hard and unkind for those who missed the boat, so-called losers, or for  those now agreeing with its ideology. Love it or leave it! – bumper stickers in my years over there… By now, this is widely known; someone who lived there in those days, could experience it himself more closely.


How ironical can you get. While accepting his Oscar and praising the United States for its openness, Forman did not yet know that the very same puritanical America would ruin his magnificent movie Amadeus. In the version for the cinema theatres in the States, anybody watching was highly surprised, if not outright puzzled by the scene in which, after Mozart’s death, his widow becomes furious when talking to Mozart’s competitor Salieri. Not to be understood at all, this scene.


This is the result of the cut Hollywood/the censors made in the movie, taking out a long scene in which Salieri demands that Mozart’s wife undresses in front of him – and perhaps more – in exchange for a job she could secure for her husband this way. Salieri treats her like dirt. Eliminated!


Now, I have never heard Forman touch upon this cinematic slaughter. Perhaps, he has been blinded forever by the fierce ideological light which America shines into the eyes of fugitive newcomers and pious adepts – presenting itself as the source of freedom for all mankind.


Sierksma 16.4.18







Inanimate objects are always correct and cannot, unfortunately, be reproached with anything.

Zbigniew Herbert, Objects


There’s too much out there not to feel tempted. The lure of particulars, I mean, the seductions of the thing-in-itself. Just pick a thing, and chances are a case can be made for it.

Paul Auster, Timbuktu





This curious image of – well, of what?


Surely the representation of an animal, I would say – at least something animal like. The thing was found between withered grasses and dry shrubs. I was rambling about on the vast terrain of what had been the grounds of a large grain silo, once neighbouring the former station of Le Blanc, also defunct now and lately transformed into a Music School.


The station gone, the distance between Poitiers and Chateauroux is now covered by stage coach; what once was a railroad, has been redesigned into a voie verte, a trail for bikers and walkers, running all the way through the Parc naturel de la Brenne.


To give an impression of this object as I had first found it, I took it from its small pedestal in the sitting room and, once more placed it on the courtyard gravel, between the weeds. When I first saw it, I left it lying like this, afraid to look too much like a thief in broad daylight, also a bit stunned at its sight.



My real objective that day was to make photos of the rust-red parts of the roofing and the air shafts of the defunct silo. Ever since I became a conscious human being, I have been in love with decay, with decadence and with older women; almost everything rusted has an enormous attraction. Perhaps, always as a memento mori?



This proclivity for what most people consider as imperfect, is surely more aesthetical than ethical. When I first heard the story about a Japanese ceramist who had created his perfect porcelain bowl and subsequently, before it disappeared in the oven, haphazardly dropped a spot of contrasting glaze on its surface, this struck me like lightning. Uglyfying a perfect work of art, the little splash highlighting its faultlessness even more so, playing with our ever-active Gestalt perception – successfully so.


Perhaps, being focused on rust that day made me notice this strange piece of reddish-brown steel, as – much more so than in the picture made in my courtyard – its colour indeed faded into the surface of the brownish clay, the rusty pebbles and the dry grass of the silo grounds. On that not too sunny day, however, hidden like this it was easy to miss.


From the start, the thing has puzzled me, when found, it was a pure mystery. Once, brought into my house, and depending on the lighting as well as on its position, I see an abstract dog’s head now, then again the face of an elegant little deer. The thing pur sang, which had been merely astonishing, simply had to be pressed into the known, the familiar.


We cannot but give meaning to things, even if they are barren and meaningless as such. With a word only Germans manage to invent, Arnold Gehlen aptly called this the Kommentarbedürftigheit of things; things in need of our urge to give them some sense and import.


That nobody else had noticed it and did not pick it up to take it away, wow! – such a precious object! Could it be, that only a short while ago, strange beings had visited this barren field and had left this incomprehensible thing lying around, just for me, as a sign signalling something? Sure enough, I must discover its code.



Already out there, shooting my pictures of other corroded objects, after I had picked it up its heaviness struck me, also a set of intriguing numbers that indeed looked like a code, decorating the hollow cavity in this mat-brown piece of steel with what had, at first glance, looked merely like poisonous green stains. This rather grand code did indeed give the Corten-steel dullness of the rust an extra glow.


It took me quite some time before the animal metaphors were substituted by a soberer, thing-like hypothesis. Aren’t the ways of the brain inscrutable! Enjoying its view for the umptieth time, without any warning, the image of a bulldozer flashed through my mind – the more robust version, with its broad grabber up front. The kind of oversized shovel executed with two ‘points’ at the corners, which make the tool slide more easily over a harder surface.


Never before, as far as I know, did I think about such things; I had not the slightest notion that images like these were stored in the vaults of my brain. I am not a technical person, all the more am I awed by machines, by their sometimes-sublime sizes and shapes – and doings.


At most, I am a bricoleur, using pieces of unused wood and a few nails, to make for instance a little table for a glass of wine on my court yard, or a bookcase for a friend. Yet, by some mysterious roundabout route, an image of a bull dozer must have got stuck inside me – ‘subliminal’ is what such memories are called. There it was, suddenly freed, now covering that former image of the little deer.


What had been a Kantian Ding an sich, had transformed itself into a mysterious object, seriously in need of meaning. So I had childishly projected animal life into it. Now, of a sudden, it had become a utilitarian instrument, a tool on which I had fixed my conjectures as to its function.


Call it degradation. In this case, perhaps the better word is: Revaluation. It is certainly about the vicissitudes of Words and Things – about the umbilical cords of meaning between them.


Sierksma, La Roche 2014



Marc Chagall, Jacob, luttant avec l’ange/Jacob fighting with the Angel

Chinese ink on brown paper, 1949


Would I, then, borrow Jacob’s ladder,

which leads into uncanny heavens,

or, rather, Ludwig’s rugged steps,

which end in facts and sober wisdom,

and then are thrown away?

The steps of Jacob stand forever,

a treadmill for the angels of the Lord –

up and down, in never ending

growth of holiness and fiction.

I’d rather wrestle with all nonsense,

than have my reason die

in listless myriads of  lies,

like sticks in water, seemingly bending.

Never take a nomen for an omen,

be named by angels, not by men:

Israel, instead of Jacob, then be damned

to fight that ground until eternity,

as if the ladder only ends

in places from which people stem.

Sierksma, Study Art 12

April 2018


The act of lust and the act of love are the same; it cannot be falsified like a sentiment.

Graham Green, Our Man in Havana


Linguistic inflation – the economic metaphor. Perhaps, linguistic erosion – a natural metaphor… Both intend the same thing.


Lately, for instance, under the pressure of great political organisations like the United Nations and The European Parliament, words vital to the political debate cannot be used seriously anymore.


Anti-Semitism – meaningless, since any critical remark about the Israeli settlements on the West Bank is taken to be a sign of anti-Semitism. Racism – useless word, completely eroded, since anti-Semitism is considered the same as racism, and race and ethnicity have completely lost their distinction. Or, for that matter, the notion of ‘gender’, which seems to have taken any biological connotation of man and woman out of the equation, as being irrelevant as such.


Just a few days ago, I read a little piece in a journal by a ‘person’ who – perhaps creating some self-importance – told her public that, forthwith, she would like to live according to ‘serendipity’. With this word, so it seemed, she meant a kind of happy go lucky existence, outside the boundaries of ‘norms’, ‘being free’ et cetera.


Now, if serendipity does mean one thing, it certainly has nothing to do with ‘existence’ or with that sort of pseudo-anarchistic, perhaps even Bataille-inspired type of O-la-la transgression.


What is funny, though, perhaps even self-referential, is the way in which I learned the meaning of that very notion of ‘serendipity’. At the time, being a student of 18th-century gardening, I was roving through some of the massive volumes of the Collected Works of Horace Walpole. Somewhere, I had read, that this man had written about the subject.


Apart from his famous essay which I had already found, I was glancing through some of these weighty tomes, hoping to find other, separate little references to gardens. Then, my eye fell on the word Serendip, used in one of his letters, this one written in 1754 to a friend – Horace Mann. Never saw the word before.


Walpole explained to his friend how he had found out something about a painting, while he was in fact researching something completely different. He then mentions a Persian fairy tale, The three Princes of Serendip, of which I am still not sure whether this is an invention of Walpole. He was a rather fanciful man, re-inventing his home as the Neo-Gothic ‘castle’ of Strawberry Hill; however, the Serendip tale may well be historical. Those Princes were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Thus, serendipity means an unplanned, fortuitous discovery. It is, to use a NASA expression, an unexpected spinoff from research that is aiming to diligently find something different.


So, serendipity has nothing to do with that woman’s freedom of wilful transgression, which in her case was the only thing she obviously ‘was after’. She has simply corrupted Walpole’s gorgeous word. Let us hope, the woman has no following; if so, erosion would set in; I could not use the word any longer. Let me hasten!


Funny all this is, because my finding the word serendipity was a perfect example of… serendipity. For a while, I lost all interest in gardens. And strangely enough – something which is also essential to the true meaning of serendipity – I could subsequently use the concept in my work on gardens.


Now for another case, one which is very recent. While I was rereading Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana – a cute little edition, given to me as a birthday present by my wife –  the early spring sun shone in my eyes, and I decided to change position on my little sofa.


My new edition of Out Man in Havana


This meant that I had to rearrange books from what had been the foot-end of the couch, to what now would be the new foot-end. As I always read a book, snug amongst other books all around me, on the shelves, but also as comforting friends on the little sofa, there were quite a few lying around.



One of the smaller tomes dropped from between its larger brother and sister right on the floor. An index of my very poor memory: I had no idea I owned it or how I had acquired it; it must have been there for quite a while. Obviously, though in perfect shape and never read, it was second-hand. A name was written on the blank first page, together with some mysterious scribbling:



I opened it, and the first thing I saw was a photograph, a portrait of a serious, though friendly looking person. He turned out to be the writer: Gerrit Mannoury.


Gerrit Mannoury


Never heard of the man. Though the text is in English, I suspected him to be French, at least by the sound of his name. Perhaps a Huguenot. He turned out to be a Dutchman, a mathematician and a philosopher. The title of this little volume: Mathesis and Mysticism, written in 1925. Being ‘into’ Greene’s Man in Havana, I would not have started reading in Mannoury’s curious volume, had my eye not fallen on this dedication:


In memory of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)


He erred sometimes it’s true, was full of meditations which lifted out of pain the weeping generation.


He lashed with cutting words, attained much adoration

From all who long ago lost sense of veneration.


Both friend and foe impressed by what he gave

They saw his truthfulness, his serving till his grave.


Having been myself an ill-advised as well as an ill-tempered member of the Communist Party of The Netherlands [CPN], this after pondering for quite some time membership of the Trotskyite Fourth International, such lines, though perhaps not good poetry, urged me to look up Mannoury’s pedigree.


He became a member of the Communist International in 1919, opting for the Bolshevik, pacifist side of the movement, that is: after, in 1914, at the outbreak of WO I, his own social-democrats had decided to become cannon fodder for the various national Capitalist interests. In 1932 he was expelled from the Party, after defending Leon Trotsky over against the Stalin Party-line. Since then, he remained politically active, fighting amongst other things against the death penalty.


So, serendipity took over. I began to read his book, of a sudden also finding the reference to Lenin’s ‘truthfulness’ most befitting my reading of Greene’s story on his Havana fake spy. On page 73 we read, what may be considered a summa of Mannoury’s Spinozist philosophy of life, added a pinch of Nietzschean salt:


Nourishment, respiration, propagating yourself, and truth, beauty, fight; they are the most primitive and direct life-giving instincts of every adult and healthy human being, still better expressed: two sides of one and the same urge too live. Do you want to keep calling the one matter, and the other spirit? All right, but then admit that spirit is the spirit of matter. 


How could I not be seduced by this, having always started my lectures with this thesis: The so-called Higher, is never anything but the Higher of the Lower. And sure enough, there she is again: Truth, and why not, her soul-sister Truthfulness.


The one thing which may be wrong in the passage quoted, after all a translation, is the word fight. Either – methinks – it should have been struggle, as the translation of the Dutch word strijd; quite possibly so. Or Mannoury may have written: angst – the Dutch for fright, or the will for flight; so perhaps an l is missing. After all, the biology from the late 19th century up till now, has tried to analyse organism’s behaviour in terms of Sex, Aggression and Flight.


Anyway, this serendipic roundabout made me decide to write this little essay on trust, on spies and on the Soul of the British Nation. I have always been quite obsessed by spies, having read through a library of spy novels. This has been a cause of wonder and puzzlement. How come, is what I asked myself time and again, that someone as obsessed with truthfulness and trust as I am, can also be obsessed and in love with the reading of spy novels, books thriving on distrust?


And, mind you, obsession is the word. Even my own wife has always told me that it is not necessary to be so American; to always tell everybody ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. Just the truth is enough. She was not interested in my confessions of not being all too faithful to her.


Now, rereading Greene – who, in his splendid novels, has often touched on the spy theme as well as on the vicissitudes of truthfulness – there came my Eureka moment.  It is because I am obsessed with trust and truthfulness, that I have become obsessed with spies and, for that matter, with masks and their impenetrability and anonymity.


Of my two Songye masks the friendliest


What I have been doing, while reading about spies, is to find proof for the goodness of my obsession. Perhaps, I am one amongst many millions. After all, is what people often consider their God not precisely the ideal-typical spy: All-seeing, yet The One Unseen? Perhaps, the Spy is the atheist’s version of the Deity… Strangely enough, this first ‘Eureka’ brought forth a second one: the true source of the sorrowful break-up with my British maîtresse. I shall touch upon this drama later on. First, what concerns us here are spies.


In Our Man in Havana, Greene plays two versions of loyalty against each other: loyalty to organisations, versus loyalty to an individual. He writes about a fake spy in Havana, the man who invented his facts as well as his contacts, to get them payed for by the British secret service in order to pay for his daughter’s horse riding. At the end of the story, this counterfeit spy, Mr. Wormold, tells the reader: “Let me love or hate as an individual. I don’t care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organisations…”


And talking about serendipity: Greene, the master storyteller, has his protagonist Wormold invent an agent and give that man a name and a mission. When the Service in London begins to push him to get real information instead of his vague, bogus reports, he can’t deliver and would rather he had never invented this agent. Then, a pilot with the same name, a man whom Wormold does not even know, gets involved in a car accident and dies precisely in the zone of the phantasy rocket base… The luck of the Bodkins!


To be a spy – that is the real message from Greene – is to always mask oneself and to live off distrust. For Wormold, who has become a fake-spy by accident, trust always has been his normal habitus, while the love for his daughter and the real sympathy for a German friend is the lukewarm bath in which he had always been swimming. Now, of sudden, all has become a lie, and everybody has to be distrusted.


Involved in the dialectics of trust and distrust, this during a meeting where ‘they’ are planning to assassinate him, out of the pure need for at least someone to trust, he befriends the one whom he first considered to be his would-be assassin. “…and Wormold was back in the territory of trust. He felt a kind of tenderness for the neighbour he had suspected.”


We see this same pattern in the work of John le Carré, the grandmaster of the spy-novel. It cannot be coincidence that le Carré has written a ‘remake’ of Our Man in Havana, a book which is as cynical about both the spy trade, as it is about being British: The Taylor of Panama. However, it is in his novel A Perfect Spy, that Le Carré, really goes the full length of dissecting the web of trust, loyalty and betrayal. And what fine, literary scalpels he has chosen for himself!


About one thing we can be assured: A spy is no anarchist; he is a kind of petty-bourgeois bureaucrat, doing his duty as if he were Eichmann himself. The spy is wearing the robe of evil banality. Le Carré’s protagonist, Pym, tells us at the end of his career, which is also the end his life, how good it felt, “this pleasure of being well-run.” An element of the automaton is present in a true spy. Could he be Kleist’s marionette, manipulated by the puppeteer, his feet only slightly touching terra firma, thus feeling free like a bird, sinless and guiltless…? Could the spy be the symbol of what Erich Fromm so beautifully coined as “the fear of freedom”?


The hinge on which A Perfect Spy turns, is the passage at the very end of the book, where Axel, the Man from the East who has ‘turned’ Pym, and who is always addressing him as ‘Sir Magnus’, tells him this:


Sir Magnus, you have in the past betrayed me but, more important, you have betrayed yourself. Even when you are telling the truth, you lie.  You have loyalty and you have affection. But to what? To whom?… Maybe you have put your love in some bad places now and then. Yet, you also have morality. What I am saying is this, Sir Magnus: for once nature has produced a perfect match. You are a perfect spy.


So, what then is this ‘nature’ Axel is speaking of, the sum of the conditions that perform the trick of producing the ‘perfect spy’?


All the junk that made you what you are: the privileges, the snobbery, the hypocrisy, the churches, the schools, the fathers, the class systems, the historical lies, the little lords of the country side, the little lords of big business, and all the greedy wars that result from them, we are sweeping that away for ever. Because we are making a society that will never produce such sad little fellows as sir Magnus.


Mind you, we are talking British spies here! Now, I do know that not all perfect spies are British, neither are all Brit spies. Though – reading this – one is very much reminded of the Boris Johnsons of this world… The masking and the lying and the distrust are world-wide traits of the trade of snooping secrets. However, what Greene merely seems to have suggested – not only in his Man in Havana, but also in his other masterpiece: The Comedians – Le Carré is putting to us rather directly: The Brit – and I would add: perhaps male and female, the Brit as ‘person’ – is the Ideal Type of the Spy. And another serious question: How come, so many of England’s famous novelists did write spy novels? How come, so many of them were indeed spies themselves, before they became writers? Greene, Le Carré, Muggeridge, Maugham, Orwell, Compton Mackenzie…


It has been my well-worn prejudice, that British society is a militarised one. Over generations, its long history as a colonial power of rather an invasive kind, has enlisted in almost all families men who ‘served their country’. Perhaps not only in England, but there very much so, people who have long since left the army are still called by their former military rank and title. Together with its long and obnoxious tradition of so-called public schools, combined with a class divide which is wider and has remained wider than on the continent, British colonial history has produced a civil culture of an intense, militarised reserve and of a stern self-discipline. Why not call it stiff upper lip?


The thing which strikes anyone who is not English – a foreigner, so to say – is the general code of non-conflictual, everyday life social intercourse on the British Isles. The accepted row is reserved for various institutionalised circles, in which one is allowed to be rude and blunt as hell – like debating societies and the House of Commons. For the rest, the Englishman always shirks from immediate conflict and even from open controversy. There is also an element of xenophobia; do not get stained, don’t get involved with what is foreign. And ‘foreign’ is everything which is not peaceful Britannia, so everything conflictual even inside British society.


This has produced a generalised culture of hypocrisy: Whatever you say or do, keep the peace! As a result, the outsiders, in particular – so it seems – the Dutch, are considered rude and blunt. The Dutch consider themselves rather as direct; their directness is robed in an element of humour, or in statements to the effect that one may very well have a civil fight amongst friends. The Brit does not understand this. Blunt is blunt as blunt comes.


The foreigner may be at an English party, leaving and thinking that the person he has been talking to agreed with him; to find out – often much later – that this is not so; even to the contrary. In most cases one does not even get the chance to really discuss things at English parties, as the guests are supposed to mingle constantly – an ideal tactics of keeping the peace.


The issue here is tact. One may be very direct and yet have the tact of making clear that a ‘conflict of opinions’ is but a conflict of opinions; and that the conflict can be friendly fun – no harm meant, merely jesting. If, however, the cultural make-up of the other is such, that he or she is over-sensitive to any disagreement, such subtle signs of tact are not registered. The Brits confuse tact with being uptight and (w)holy correct, never giving offence.


The British do indeed conform to what I quoted from Le Carré’s Perfect Spy. Their world is one that produces ‘sad little fellows like Sir Magnus’, who are perfectly able to camouflage their true feelings, if they do indeed have these feelings, somewhere hidden in their deep inside. They prefer to be ‘well-run’. In A Fish called Wanda, John Cleese summed it up, when he almost cried out to his foreign lover:


Wanda, do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing…


Thus: not escaping the fact of what it is to be British, but merely stating it… That ‘fact’ is the source of those wonderful books on spies written by the Greenes and Le Carré’s.


In Greene’s case, an added complication is his life-long struggle with a conversion to Catholicism, once again, an index of what I am talking about. Rather comply to the wishes of your future wife and her family and become a catholic, than just stand up for your atheism or whatever. My claim would be, that the really perfect spy not only fits Axel’s description in A Perfect Spy; he must also be a British catholic. How perfect can you get? Why not reread Brideshead again…


Now back to what is a stake in the consideration of spies: Trust, loyalty, truthfulness. There is a dilemma of sorts in the making. The great Niklas Luhmann has spent a life-time analysing the essential value of trust in a society: both the trust in other persons, as well as trust in its institutions. The simple use of money is already a matter of trust:  that this silly piece of paper, or even this push on the button of the credit card machine, ‘stands for’ stable economic value, is purely a matter of trust.


We may also distinguish between confidence based on past experience, and trust, which we may have in strangers whom we never met before. Confidence we have in the garage which has up till now serviced our cars well –  we think; for a just price – we think. Things, however, may change… Trust has no basis in past experience, it is just there.


To bring up my own obsession with honesty once again: I have always lived according to trust, thus expecting and also demanding that same trust of others in me. The slightest indication to the contrary has always ended any relationship which I have had, pushing someone whom I trusted before, out of the inner circle, which is perhaps my soul – a small piece of territory indeed.


Actually, I may have even suffered from basic trust all my life, basic trust being the belief in the good of mankind. As the science of biology seems to have proven that such basic trust is an idiosyncratic ideology, a personal misunderstanding rather than a true state of affairs, it is not a coincidence that I have felt duped quite often.


According to Luhmann, trust is the structure of existence, not so much a characteristic of an act. In order to cope with the ever-presence of complexity, in order to reduce it we need history, which is the ordering of complexity in types. Trust, here, is an essential medium – as is a certain amount of distrust. Our Gestalt-brain is always ordering what surrounds us in a background and a foreground. Trust as well as mistrust fit in; they are both of great help.


By now, I should know that all organisms are somehow a little bit greedy and a little bit egoistic, and that some kind of cheating-game is always being played. Trust is the most we may have in an Other, with always in the background a pinch of distrust; basic trust is asking too much – it is asking for trouble.


On the other hand, I would like to claim a little respect for my basic trust, a thing at best acquired in the inner niche of a safe upbringing, which – curiously enough – I did not enjoy… If not ‘basic’, how else could we accept the goodness of strangers whom we have never met before, this implicitly so? Then again, Luhmann has argued quite succinctly, that learning to trust others can even be taught; all things of trust, then, are not just of the family. And perhaps, it is less basic than I would like it to be.


Here comes that famous definition of a dilemma in handy: The situation in which one is approached by the attacking bull; stepping to the left, one is taken by its right horn; stepping to the right by the other one. Or another fine one: A dilemma is a situation in which there are two possibilities, both of them impossible, et cetera. So, for the dilemma involved:  The problem is, that all of us are always already feigning somehow.


Mencken defined conscience as “the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking.” However, this seems to be more the description of everyday fear in a shame culture, a situation in which behaviour is determined by the attitude of onlookers and by their quality of being considered others who are relevant in that situation. People in a shame culture are other-directed people. True conscience has always been the accumulation of inner-directed norms and values; that is: past experience in capacity, which makes a person do what he morally thinks best to do – whatever others may think. That is a guilt culture thing.


However, there is always a mix of shame and guilt around. It is perhaps a good thing to consider each one of us at least a little wicked – anyways. If this is correct, it is indeed obsessive to demand 100% truthfulness of others, to just deny the also mask-like quality of each person. Persona – the Greek word for a role played; a mask. Nonetheless, the difference between a culture with a shame dominant and one with a guilt dominant stands.


British culture is one with a shame dominant. Thus, it has produced the ideal genesis and habitat for perfect spies. Theirs is an existence not of basic trust, not even of trust; worse: not even of confidence. It is one of basic suspicion and distrust.  For such a society to survive itself, stern and strict institutions of rigid discipline and of hypocritical self-discipline must be in place.


Of course, we all know that this world is changing fast; nations become more alike. A shame culture is gathering at all horizons. Perhaps even the Dutch may produce perfect spies in the near future; and perhaps the Brits will lose their indifferent pacifism. These developments may also end in total disaster. Lately, the Dutch have indeed become more blunt than direct; the Brits lose all their shame, once they leave their island to support a soccer team. To just name two developments. The whole world may very well become rude and crude and blunt. Perhaps, real spies will become useless, as cyber snooping is becoming the thing.


Sierksma March 2018