Climate of freedom


Voor de Newsletter van het NIAS (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences) schreef ik het volgende stuk over mijn verblijf aldaar:


When I told a fellow author that I was to be Writer-in-Residence at NIAS, he said jealously but with a hint of irony in his voice: “How nice! Isn’t that a bit like the Pauwhof?”.

Indeed, the Pauwhof is also located in Wassenaar, that exclusive village for the riche nestled between the trees, dunes and the sea.

Likewise, the Pauwhof is also a country house. It was built in 1912 by the Overvoorde-Gordon couple. He was a registrar for the district council in Leiden and she was a woman of means. He loved science and she loved arts. Between them they loved arts and sciences.

Because the couple had often heard the argument that a peaceful environment was necessary to encourage great intellectual or artistic achievements, the idea rose to turn the Pauwhof into a cultural centre. In 1940, ten years after the death of Mr. Overvoorde, just a month before the war broke out, the Pauwhof welcomed its first guests. Later well-known poets such as J.C. Bloem and Martinus Nijhoff arrived and stayed there in a state of contemplation, usually behind a glass of jenever – the Dutch gin.

Not just poetry and novels were written at the Pauwhof, doctoral theses and sundry scientific writings were brought to life there. But, at some point in the 1970s the Pauwhof began to lose its way. Theses were no longer written and those writers who did come, only came to conquer a severe bout of writer’s block , which usually involved a generous dose of the hair-of-the-dog at breakfast.

It was only just recently that the Pauwhof finally closed its doors. In her novel, The last guests, the Dutch writer Mensje van Keulen describes the decline of a degenerate clientele who no longer even dreamed of producing a great work of art.

“No”, I said, “NIAS is nothing like the Pauwhof.”

I also told a sinologist friend that I was going to NIAS. He had been at NIAS himself a number of years ago and he still had vivid recollections of his stay.

“I wonder if they still drink sherry there”, he said screwing up his nose in disgust.

My friend the sinologist spent several years teaching in Paris and, not altogether without justification, now sees himself as quite a wine connoisseur. To him sherry is not wine, it is not whiskey, it is just cheap supermarket plonk introduced by Albert Heijn for the benefit of Dutch housewives. My friend the sinologist strongly advised me not to take part in any of the social festivities organized at NIAS.

“Before you know it”, he said, “you’ll find yourself wandering around some church in Zwolle that happens to have an obscure relic, you’ll be forced to take part in a talk on the railways between 1867 and 1869, or you’ll have to sit listening to a recital of work by Telemann while you don’t even like Telemann and you would much rather spend your time working on the project you actually came to do. Above all, tell them that the doctor has forbidden you from ever playing volleyball and never agree to write anything for the NIAS Newsletter. You’re not there for them, you’re there for yourself!”

I took these wise words to heart, although I must immediately say that I have never seen anyone drink sherry at NIAS. It seems this custom has died a natural death just like the Pauwhof.

Jonathan Israel.jpg
(Met Jonathan Israel)

Not long after my friend the sinologist imparted his wisdom to me, I bumped into my friend the psychologist. He too had been a fellow at NIAS and for him too his stay had not passed by without leaving its mark.

“Have they got phones yet?” he asked.

This question puzzled me and I checked if I had heard him correctly. Nowadays everyone has a phone, even in the most underdeveloped areas of the world. My six-year-old son already has plenty of school chums at his primary school who are proficient mobile-phone owners, so that they can be traced at all times by their working parents.

Did the NIAS fellows really not have phones? Surely we are talking about an Institute of Science and Research. How could this be possible? Are these people not the successors to Bell and Einstein? That they had no phones at NIAS seemed virtually inconceivable to me, but, of course, you never know. Scholars are traditionally know for being other-wordly; the next thing will be that NIAS can only be reached by steam train and that you have to be fetched from the station by a horse and carriage.

My friend the psychologist was able to clarify the matter.

“The Institute”, he explained, “maintains a strict policy that the fellows may not be disturbed at any time, for anything, no – not for anything.” It was this ideology that laid the foundations for the banning of telephones from NIAS studies.

“Are you allowed to go to the toilet?” I asked.

My friend said that toilet visits were permitted. He also said that if you really needed to there was also a way to make a phone call. Downstairs in a corner of the hallway hung three phones each under its own little roof. Unfortunately these cubicles were nearly always occupied by male fellows phoning home to their wives to say that they would certainly not be home for several months and no there was definitely not another woman – honestly.

Alarmed by all this I checked – by phone – with a staff member, Jos Hooghuis and I was relieved to hear that NIAS had since moved with the times and now everyone had a telephone in their room. When I asked if there was also a television in the room there was a deathly silence; although I am sure I heard the thudding sound of someone falling off his chair. After a while, when the shocked recipient of my request had regained his composure, I was politely informed that NIAS still maintained that too many worldly distractions were bad for one’s concentration but that nowadays it seemed that anything was possible, certainly when dealing with strange folk like writers and journalists.

Indeed in turned out not to be a problem and I was granted a television, although ever since fingers have been pointed at the odd fish who appears to be interested in something as vulgar as the daily news.

When I arrived at NIAS weighed down by my books, my laptop and my televisondecoder, I discovered that the institute indeed lay right behind the dunes of Wassenaar. It is quiet and peaceful and a dedicated staff do all they can to ensure that fellows can carry out research and write books.

Everyone proved to be extremely scholarly and I think of all of them I am the least academic. On the second day someone knocked at my door and in walked a cultured and very refined gentleman who, it turned out, was a professor of Judaism. He did not wish to begin by admonishing me but what I had recently said about Jesus in the newspaper Trouw was perhaps incorrect. Before we knew it we were sitting there, away from the madding crowd, closely examining a passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Later it turned out that this shy gentleman was in fact Pieter van de Horst, a theologist who like most theologists no longer believed in God, but this aside.

Officially I succeeded Thomas Rosenboom as Writer-in-Residence. He also worked on a book here, a book that according to the writer himself is, “gentler and more positive” than his previous work. In Wassenaar Rosenboom discovered that he was not a misanthropist after all.

Such a discovery is always good news and you will understand that it is a recurring pleasure for me to walk into a room where Thomas Rosenboom renounced cynicism. I walk on tip toes holding my breath. The room looks out on a little copse and when I stood in front of the window on the first day, I saw a butterfly flitting by. In February, it had to be a sign! The Netherlands confused, Thomas Rosenboom confused, nature confused. What would happen to me here?

I had enquired if Rosenboom had brought his rabbit with him. He is very fond of the creature, but the Administrator had immediately emailed him, “No pets”. Pity, I would have liked to find a blade of hay or a nibbled piece of carrot under the desk, and perhaps donate it to the Museum of Literature. I did find a biro mark on the desk’s surface ending with a flourish. The Great Writer’s hand must have slipped – I will cherish it.

I also sleep in the room Thomas Rosenboom slept in. As I stood in front of the bed on that first night I remembered an article my colleague Martin Bril wrote about Rosenboom’s habit of eating chili-con-carne every day. Bril wrote “It might just be me, but you can’t help but look at someone differently when you know they eat chili-con-carne every day. If he strolls by, there – right in the middle of Amsterdam, you think: he’s walking off his chili con carne. If you see him coming out of Albert Heijn carrying a plastic bag, you think: he’s just bought a pot of kidney beans, a pound of minced beef, a tin of tomatoes and a net of onions. Mmm, another feast tonight – chili-con-carne. And, if you see him on the bus in the morning you think twice about sitting next to him”.

Bed Thomas.jpg

And it was in front of the bed of this great cannon that I now stood. I stared at it with some trepidation, even though it was neatly made. But once I managed to convince myself that sacrifices have to be made in the name of literature I drew the curtains and slid between the sheets, the very same sheets Thomas Rosenboom had slept under. It was not long before I drifted away dreaming I was a butterfly gently alighting on a tin of kidney beans. The next morning I awoke clear-headed and refreshed.

The first day I laid claim to my study I began by looking out of the window. Well, what next? At home, I usually play a quick game of chess on the internet before settling down to work. For me this is the same as a smoker’s early morning cigarette. It wakes me up and the way I play is usually a excellent predictor of the way I wil performe during the rest of the day. But here at NIAS – what if Wim Blockmans suddenly knocked on my door and came in just as I was clicking my mouse to make the final move and checkmate my opponent. Worse still: what if Prof. H.L. Wesseling himself was suddenly looking over my shoulder.

“What’s that you’re doing Max?”

“Nothing, ermm nothing… Professor, it’s not what you think, really.”

The fear of being caught out doing something other than what I ought to be doing, even a cycle ride to the beach, troubled me for a long time at NIAS. This fear was absolutely unfounded, of course, as neither Blockmans nor prof. dr. H.L. Wesseling are in any way the slightest like generals who inspect the troops or like a Mother Superior checking whether you have done your homework and cleaned your teeth. It says something about the climate of freedom at NIAS.

My study is at the end of a long passageway, with modern but cloistral study cells on either side. Doors are often left open and I can peek inside. That a great deal of work is being done is clearly obvious as the fellows are all at their desks, usually with their backs to you. An open door does not necessarily mean you are welcome to go in, it is more a declaration that the fellow is free to get out – should he or she really want to.

But they usually don’t.

As the months passed, I became more and more fascinated by my neighbour, Anne Marie Legaré. Her door is always wide open; the spirit needs space and air. She works like a Trojan. Often when I left at half past eleven in the evening she would still be at her labours. I am not quite sure what her research is exactly about. I think it is something to do with the Burgundians. But this doesn’t seem to be the main task. Most of the time she seems to be working on indexes and records. Colossal amounts of scientifically sound indexes and records. When I see her toiling away, I see that indexes and records can be as all consuming as the hectic of the world. Later she told me she is also the mother of four children. Knowing this I got even more impressed by what science really can achieve.
Translation: Petry Kievit