A material breach, as all life,
ripens slowly, but is always sudden;
An imperfect parting it knows not:
One turns the whole ship, not just the stem.
Leo Vroman, Amputation
Old photographs are like a time machine. They make you older.
Because the Englishman H. G. Wells spoke in The Time Machine about actual machinery, his stories become all too soon all too real and thus a little kitschy. His book, published in 1895, was designed for adult reading, it now seems more suitable for the adolescent. As is true for Jules Verne’s famous science fiction novel Autour de la Lune, which by the way appeared already in 1870. The 19th century was the same time great, yet also suffered from puberty. Youthful overconfidence one might say.
Old photographs, especially the black and white version, quickly become rather unreal, if not surreal.
During the removal of the rubbish from the parental home, I stumbled over hundreds of kilos of old bird, bridge and other types of magazines.Occasionally there was also a photo album. In one of them I found this little picture.
Watching portraits from the past makes for a strange miracle. For an elongated moment one coincides with the eye looking through the lens; thus one suddenly becomes part of the time of their recording. Simultaneously they are also miles and ages away from you. Watching such an old and often faded portrait puts you in a split; your gaze becomes a pragmatic paradox.
While observing you age – you get the age of the people in them. Which may be very old, especially when those portrayed are no longer alive. You actually die in the confrontation. People vicariously looking through the lens are alive and dead in the same moment. The living dead.
Photo’s in picture yearbooks are always dated and accompanied by a caption, by contrast album photos are mostly undated and anonymous. They tend to show you people of whom you have no idea as to their identity. After all, the owner of the album knew them, exactly that knowledge made them land in the album.
The effects of estrangement and of artificial aging are even stronger when in someone else’s photo album you do recognize the persons portrayed. This is the case with these three people in the snapshot salvaged. Between those two men stands my father, as always the tallest and perhaps for reasons of composition placed in the middle – so to say, singing dee diddle diddle and isn’t he a pretty thing. To his left stands Willem Frederik Hermans, later to become the famed Dutch novelist; on the right you see my Uncle Remmelt, an agricultural economist.
When you look more precisely at the background in the picture you recognize a landscape which certainly is un-Dutch. My head off if we are here not somewhere in Luxembourg. In this case my personal acquaintance with these three men and a bit of inside knowledge makes my guess about the where and when of this image more probable – the very knowledge that also brought the photo into this album and that now made me remove it. Even now, however, I’m not sure as to the precise year.
This must indeed be Luxembourg. I infer this from the fact that Wim Hermans defended his PhD on July 6 1955 at the University of Amsterdam, a thesis titles Description genèse des Dépôts et meubles de surface et du relief de l’Oesling. This had to be in French; after all, France was according to the future literary celebrity the only country with any civilization. My father did tell me at the time that Uncle Wim, as I called him, ‘was chiselling rocks somewhere in a far away country.’
Earlier, in October 1952, Hermans was appointed researcher and lecturer at the University of Groningen. There he met Uncle Remmelt. My father and my mother he already knew from editorial meetings of the literary journal Podium which my father edited. I went regularly to Uncle Wim and Aunt Emmy to play with their cats.
November 28, 1953 he wrote a letter to my father Fokke Sierksma in which he talked about the serious limitations that science imposed on his literary expression: It is remarkable, moreover, that I can make use of the natural sciences in my literature, but not vice versa. As a man of science only a part of me speaks, a very different personality. His lectures were therefore quite often dried out. My irony then leaves me almost completely.
That this photo was probable printed in Luxembourg, might be deduced form its backside. So here ‘place’ again may indicate ‘time’.
So, sometime in ’53 Remmelt and Fokke must have visited him in Luxembourg. There may have been a Fourth Man in the game. While Hermans was both a maniacal collector of type writers and camera’s, it does not appear that a timer device was used in this case. For this, all three men seem to stand there too relaxed. But I’m not certain.
Somewhere in my house stacked with a large collection of unordered books and folders there must be hidden two letters Hermans wrote to my father – with a ball point and from Luxembourg, a dissertation on the serious differences in aesthetic understanding between the two. They originated in these same years.
For me this picture, except producing alienation and being a miracle of a time machine, is also a surprise. All this time I thought that my father, disabled by a piece of bone got stuck in the hip-joint, had only left the Netherlands three times: once to travel to Geneva; once with his family for a summer East-Anglia; and a third time together with me in Brussels. Now it turns out he left the country a fourth time – for Luxembourg.
What I’m very envious of are these two pairs of gorgeously pleated pants that my father and Uncle Remmelt are wearing. For decades I wore for these myself, until suddenly they fell from grace and to my great sorrow ‘got out of fashion’. The pants, by contrast, which Willem F. Hermans is wearing were certainly ahead of time – tacky tight around his hips and ass, with that ugly horizontal drawn bulge, even further exacerbated by the tasteless vest he dons. He could certainly write better than wear cloths, so it seems.
But I realize that time is irreversible. This view of old photos makes no Romanticist out of me – or maybe just a little.
Sierksma, December 2016