Speech for the presentation of my book Nestgeur – read by an atheist from the pulpit of an age-old little terp church in Blessum, Friesland, eye to eye with a hall full of Frisians, proud of being it.
Beine hat uns zwei gegeben,
Gott der Herr, um fortzustreben,
Wollte nicht, dass and der Scholle
Unsre Menschheit kleben solle.
Um ein Stillstandsknecht zu sein,
Gnügte uns ein einzges Bein.
Heine, Zur Teleologie
I would like to present you my collection of little essays Nestgeur with a little speech that I baptized ‘Frisian Exoticism’. The title will be explained.
In a distant past – as gray as my remaining hair is gray now – my parents emigrated from northern Friesland to The West – from Groningen to Leyden, where my father began his university career. They took me with them. Already before this, when I was only a year old, we departed from the Frisian capital Leeuwarden to Groningen City – incremental betrayal as it were…
Perhaps, such forced emigration at the age of seven turned you into a marginal man – someone living on edge, dancing to the tunes of two contrasting cultures, always torn by discord and in quest of a way of life that might glue the shards.
It is a bit like the transvestite living in the beautiful Proveniershof in Haarlem. Always dressed in a long outfit plus matching blouse, he plants one leg, sometimes merely a foot, outside the gate of the courtyard where he lives, skirting the limits of the busy street. This man/woman plants the other leg firmly on familiar soil – like Rumpelstiltskin almost risking a split. Sometimes he bends over, a stretched arm holding on to the steel porch. A daredevil.
A marginal man soon becomes a sensitive plant, a ‘Touch-me-not’. Or for that matter a shaman or a ruthless warrior. His fate lies in the hands of disunity. As a schoolboy of thirteen I translated voluntarily an essay by Pascal, Différence entre l’esprit de géométrie et l’esprit de finesse. No idea why and without understanding all too much of it. The teacher looked surprised, so was I.
When in those years there were guests at our house, they often spoke Frisian, a language that I would never learn. From social idealism my parents left me free to become a Groninger street urchin. Upon arrival in Leyden I spoke a heartbreaking dialect, not even a dog that understood me.
Frisian by birth, Groninger through early childhood, Leyden did not feel like homecoming. As Makine described it in his French Testament: “She handed down her French sensibility to me, a Russian, and thus condemned me to live in an unpleasant manner between two worlds.”
One might say that in the West I was nothing – a non-entity, an empty sea between strange continents. The other pupils at the new school did not fail to rub it in. In schoolyards I made minced meat of classmates. For a long time I felt a strong urge to fight all of them, which indeed I did with both fists. Teachers did separate me from victims just in time…
Was my father a ‘first generation’ marginal man, I was ‘second generation’. Perhaps this explains why I call him an exoticist and myself a cultural renegade. Let me explain.
Exoticism is the difficult to define preference for what is dissimilar, distant and strange – also the expression of a desire to be different from what one is, perhaps more pure, more beautiful.
The word exotic has its roots in the Greek notion of exootikos. For nineteenth-century Romantics to be exotic implied an aesthetic attitude. They searched for the unknown, for the unfamiliar couleur local with which they larded their paintings and books.
Colonials who, from the beginning of the 19th century, locally administered newly occupied areas, were not all too fond of this alien world. They complained bitterly about incest, stubbornness and laziness of the nations they dominated. A non-commissioned officer of the British navy reported on the occupants of one of the Gulf territories: “As to their manners – they do not have them. Regarding their habits – they are very brutal.” Occasionally, a wild native was shipped to Europe and exhibited there in a cage.
This abject colonialism did not prevent ‘Romantic’ artists from embracing their own more idyllic exoticism, artists may even have been critically inspired by that petty bourgeois attitude. They explicitly celebrated the foreign as extra nice – as much more original than their own world. Clothing played an important role in this appreciation. In the middle of Switzerland J.J. Rousseau, an 18th-century forerunner of the Romanticists, dressed up in a caftan. The Romantic painter Delacroix traveled to Morocco and deplored how Westerners “constrict themselves in corsets, in very tight footwear and in tubular garments.”
Such 19th-century Romantic poets and artists had little use for the factories and railways which at that time began to destroy their own European landscape and their old towns. In 1844 Wordsworth wrote a poem in which he stated that English soil is no longer safe from sudden attacks by trains.
Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ‘mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish;—how can they this blight endure?
Voilá, so much about exoticism – and Romanticism for that matter!
My audience can imagine how an emigrant forced to leave – not a traveler for aesthetic pleasure, rather an exile who had to leave the native land to get work somewhere else – may over time fall in love with the former fatherland which first has become a stranger to him. Such person was my father, Fokke Sierksma – more and more he began to suffer from such exoticism in reverse.
While I was living for two years in America, my father towards what turned out to be the end of his life wrote me sentimental letters about the Frisian countryside and on how he helped give birth to a calf. In reply I blamed his ‘Frisianism’ and his ‘peasant mysticism’ – both made of the purest Wadden Water, that small sea above our part of the Netherlands.
In Holland having strayed from The Source, he became more Frisian than when he was still living there. The atheist he was, he looked like a silly Calvinist in Dutch colonies like the one in Michigan State USA. They are more Catholic than the Pope.
A second generation immigrant, I mirrored his curious exoticism. This made of me a cultural renegade. Whatever my father embraced in Friesland, on the rebound became anathema for me. Heroically I tried to be a Westerner. However, as that New Earth out there was not exactly pleasant, I never felt at home anywhere – not even in my father’s house.
Thus I withdrew into myself.
Acquaintances spoke of my sharp tongue. When much later I went on to play for intellectual my often harsh criticism of almost anything was in direct line with this homelessness. By now, having grown older, my look on things may have become somewhat milder, perhaps it is not less sharp.
Some years ago a befriended art historian and I made a visit to Leeuwarden where I was born. We went there to see the paintings of an for us unknown Frisian painter: Bouke van der Sloot. During the trip we made many a quip about Frisian identity. The art historian’s wife also stems from these regions.
Frisians are reliable and adhere to honesty – I suggested. My travelling companion found them particularly blunt, irascible and occasionally sentimental, however, in a dry way sometimes ironic. Because we decided that such characteristics are not mutually exclusive, we concluded that perhaps Frisians are reliable, honest, blunt, irascible, dry, ironic and sentimental.
This exchange prepared us for the exhibition of Bouke’s work, according to the catalogue ‘Painter of Friesland.
Thank God I’m neither a connoisseur nor an art historian – a lover at most. Shamelessly I allow myself the straightforward expression of what I think of art. “What a mess!” I whispered a little too hard. “Only the three still lives and these two dune-scapes are not bad. The rest is just bad painting.”
A room further we stood face to face with some young guys’ heads – “tough and hard, yet sensitive” the Dutch and gay writer Gerard Reve could call them. In the background: Really Frisian-looking fields and farmsteads. Close by I saw a horribly painted village.
“Rather too much Zeitgeist” I mumbled, “Maybe not Blut und Boden, but at least Boden.” Some of the works would not have been out of place in a German exhibition Entartete Kunst. Curiously enough, the most Aryan-looking canvas was signed in 1942, during the war.
However, Van der Sloot was still ‘pretty good’, or rather ‘not fault’ as Dutchmen judge people’s behavior during the war – so many grades of collaboration. Immediately after the war he went to Cologne where, by way of Widergutmachung (reconciliation), the work of Max Beckmann was exhibited. Bouke was a blasphemer, his mouth full of “Damn, how beautiful! Jesus Christ, what great!”
Screaming with excited enthusiasm he walked through room after room with Beckmanns. When he entered a hall in which a “typical German woman”, as he called her, was explaining in a gnawing manner some of the canvasses to a group of art lovers, Bouke walked past, turned and shouted “Sieg Heil”, his arm stretched. The ‘Painter of Friesland’ was harshly removed from the museum.
Why I put Bouke van der Sloot on my little stage? To make clear how unclear is everything to do with ‘identity’. You are part of the time in which you live – so was Bouke, part of the history between the World Wars. You can see this in his work.
There are however also contradictory versions of that Zeitgeist. You can be a Blut und Boden right-winger, yet there is also a little left-wing version of soil and blood. Bouke may indeed be considered a little on the left, perhaps as many an artist is an anarchist. However – now I come to my point – one does not forget all that easily the accusation, made by the family Vaatstra against immigrant asylum seekers, of the murder of their girl Marianne. The murderer turned out to be a full blooded Frisian farmer, a neighbor. Frisians tend to be a little ‘in crowd’ minded when it comes to the point.
Someone who does not know me will undoubtedly find something in me of these Frisian roots, even though I do not recognize them myself and even though I do not like them. Yet, my renegadism can certainly not have destroyed them.
You can now imagine how special it was for me – that is, after Goasse Brouwer agreed to publish my Nestgeur – to sign the contract entirely made up in the Frisian language, that is without having understood most of it. Perhaps this silly man, your speaker, ignorantly donated all his physical and intellectual property to his Utjouwerij (Frisian for publishing house…)
It was also rather a shock to my Dutch friends to receive an invitation for this afternoon, entirely phrased in Frisian, incomprehensible to them.
That much is certain. A marginal man is probably a better observer than someone who coincides with his so-called ‘identity’.
A marginal man never suffers from provincialism. Exactly that is the risk of the instinctive resident.
Maybe marginality sharpens the pen.
BEKIJK OOK MIJN NEDERLANDSE DAGBLOG –sierksma.wordpress.com
Sierksma, Haarlem March 2013