In sleeping dreams I played with other chaps
But really envied nothing – save perhaps
The miracle of a lemniscate left
Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft
Bicycle tires.

Nabokov, Pale Fire


Around two I break my bread with the dead.



In my ears, here in the cemetery of Montparnasse, are the sounds of Simeon ten Holt’s Lemniscate, after all the sign of infinity the inhabitants of this cemetery hoped for. A sign also, with which Nabokov plays in his poem Pale Fire , transforming the print in wet sand of a fallen bike’s tires into the mystical hereafter itself.

Ten Holt’s music – perhaps his best composition – is set in a sober tonality. There’s that name Lemniscate, there is the suggestion of all ‘minimal music’, as if it would go on indefinitely, even if it stops. Yet, Ten Holt knows how to end things well – he knows that at any given moment time may be up.

After my attempt to sup with the dead, I start walking along the Avenues of Death, followed by a roller case and weighed down by my cross of a too heavy backpack of which, this very morning, one of the slings broke off.



With such baggage, these lanes feel endless.

Fame here is finished and has become irrelevant. I’m not looking for final resting places of well-known people, something I still did last year at that other great place, the Cimetière Pere Lachaise. Here and there the eye falls on names of the nameless, only stored in their stony memorial. There is no living soul left who ever thinks of them.

In this French country they tend to call their water towers châteaux d’eau – after all, noblesse oblige… A little less noble are all these comical, now disused little houses, still hidden in the hinterland of countless farms, to which one, in the middle of icy nights, used to sped to defecate. They are also called châteaux, so why not call them châteaux de shit?



And why not call these cemetery buildings châteaux des morts?


What vanity, yet also what moving bombast of people who, perhaps at the expense of the less fortunate, thought they could already reserve a place in heaven through building such burial structures. A heaven, the existence of which nowadays seems quite improbable

Now, as all around me these edifices do have a streak of the picturesque, what a good reason there is for taking their picture.

Here and there, on this miserable rainy day, another lost living being appears.


After my return from this limbo, to feel a bit better, I moor myself at a heated dockside, a terrace with a small sky and artificial orange suns. As if no ecological crisis is on – ozone layers and all that sort of things…



A chocolat chaud is ordered to get a not altogether healthy soul and a corrupted body working again – and this pen writing. A generous smile of a beautiful, older waitress even warms the heart, which after all is the source of everything good. Once again a Mensch – even if one only the lonely version.

Irresistibly, after all these tombs and death palaces, I come to think of my own death foretold. A little fire, a bit of flame and then some dust – it will do for me. With perhaps this full stop behind my sentence: a small urn, containing a spoonful of those ashes and chiseled on it:

I was a nonentity

Irresistible, also, is to quote the lines I just read on the high-speed train from Poitiers to Paris, lines by Theroux about a man who is always sauntering down the streets with a large paper bag in his hand.

It was hard to tell what was in the bags…
Often the paper bags contained nothing more
than many carefully folded paper bags.

This, more or less, is how I felt my presence in the Cimetière Montparnasse, where I shared bread with the dead. Not like Il Commmendatore in the Don Giovanni, already in heaven, but still sitting with both buttocks on a hard wet bench.


Post Scriptum


Once returned to the world of the living – though you never really know with these dead monuments of modernity all around, this tower a real mythem – suddenly, in broad daylight, I see a vagrant lying on the side of the street. Say, a special species of what in France they use to euphemistically call les gens de voyage, also Roma.



Up closer he appears to have left his haunt.



Still present are a mattress, a crumpled blanket, a pillow and his green backpack. The land of the living dead in which there is no mistrust…


Post-Post Scriptum

Lately, and increasingly so, I think that I recognize what must surely be a new, thus unknown face as familiar to me: ‘That face I’ve seen before’. A kind of obnoxious, while oppressive and permanent phénomène de déjà vu.

Could it be that the living only appear to be my neighbors, more or less like that departed vagrant? Could it be that the dead on the cemetery prove to be old acquaintances – my true neighbors?

Sierksma, 04/17/16 Paris – Outside the Montparnasse cemetery


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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