dinsdag 27 januari 2015


“British integration means tolerance for each other’s idiosyncrasies”, says correspondent Titia Ketelaar. By that she refers to publicly exhibited peculiarities like the refusal to give a hand, or wearing a kipah or a headscarf.

Conversely, you could say: French integration means absolute equality before the law and limited tolerance for each other's peculiarities in the public space. Because French integration consists largely of agreement with the ideology of laïcité, that is, the idea that the state and the public space keep away from religion, precisely to ensure neutrality and equality. Therefore, unlike in Brittain, acceptance of public religious expressions in France is surrounded with more conditions. You keep your peculiarities indoors.

This difference between the two countries is explained by history. The French have long suffered from a sovereign regime of the Church, strengthened by the alliance of the church with the absolute monarchy of the 17th and 18th centuries. England, on the contrary, started already at the end of the 17th century its experiments with serious parliamentary and democratic institutions. Large class differences there - until today - remained, but the English have not known already for a long time the almost totalitarian repression and censorship such as existed in France.

Which difference makes it clear why dealing with satire is so different. In France there was more at stake. The regime was harsh and repressive, satirists were constantly on the run from police and censorship, and that naturally provoked the most caustic prints and texts. The liberating laughter was partly excited because it was hard against hard.

In England, says Simon Schama, satire was rather part of the political game. There was as much laughter as in France, but bare existence was not at stake. English satirists did not have to go underground - the most famous of them, James Gillray, was arrested only once.

This difference may also explain why the English, with all their satire, gave more attention to the injuries that can be caused by cartoons, such as insult and humiliation. The French waged a struggle of life and death, which not for nothing led to the French Revolution; they did not feel space to worry about manners. The British did.

On a deeper level, I believe, something else plays a role here as well. The French way of thinking, more generally taken, focuses heavily on clair et distinct, is rational, seeks the bright sunlight of reason. English thinkers – as well as tragedy writers like Shakespeare –  always gave also basic human feelings and emotions a place in their writings. These included anger and indignation - the fuel for their satires - but equally feelings of insult and humiliation.

Unmistakably Charlie Hebdo is in the French tradition.

Also see Je suis (pas) Charlie

donderdag 22 januari 2015

Je suis (pas) Charlie

A strange feeling of kinship with the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo lives in me.

Strange because I – unlike Charlie Hebdo – don’t like provocations so much. Instead, I tend to prefer to bridge divergent interests and disagreements through discussion and mutual understanding. Definitely different from what the murdered cartoonists used to do.

Does it perhaps have to do with the fact that except cartoonists also Jewish targets are high on the Muslim Terrorist targets lists? Then my sense of kinship would arise out of a shared threat. Solidarity by an accidentally shared situation.

But then, I think, is this shared first place on the list of targets so accidental really? Isn’t it possible to designate Jews in European cultural history as the freethinkers of the West? They already started being so in the first millennium of the Christian era, when the Jews were so rude to reject the so-called universal Christian truth. That was experienced by the surrounding society as outrageous and offensive. Perilous, but they did it, the Jews.

And they persevered, despite many persecutions, during the second millennium. Even when, from the 18th and 19th century secularization struck, Jews, accustomed to cherishing their own socio-inner life, kept drawing therefrom. They often contributed in an original way to Western music, philosophy and literature. Different from the (Victorian) mainstream, not constricting their hearts and sexual lifes, and therefore sometimes offensive again.

Today (Western) Christians are bothered much less by the Jewish free-mindedness than before, when the universal Christian truth pretensions were still intact. But now some Islamic movements have elevated many of these universal pretensions to ruthless truth and, again, transverse Jews don’t fit in. That may explain why their reputation for stubbornness, fanned by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, makes Jews into top butt for Muslim Terrorist attacks.

So, although I do not go on the streets with “Je suis Charlie” – I do feel that way.

Also see Parrhesia

donderdag 15 januari 2015

Sacred Imagination

As long as I hear people use the word ‘imagination’, an exalted tone is connected with it. Imagination stands on a pedestal. But, I asked myself many times, why is that?

It may be because imagination helps people – writers and readers – to, if only temporarily,  escape the unruly reality and to experience a rush of oblivion. Publishers seem to aim at that effect when promoting new books, as happens now with a new book by Leon de Winter that is touted as “a dance on the high wire of imagination”. And writer Adri van der Heijden once told that in his youth he was so bored at home that he fled in imagination.

Nice that it exists that way, but a second explanation appeals to me more. It associates  imagination with nurturing and enhancing the inner human space. In the same vein as philosophy can broaden your horizons by presenting new ideas, literary imagination can produce that effect by the portrayal of emotions and psychological complications.

But what I think is less appealing of this valuation of imagination is that it often in one go is linked to a useful side effect of imagination: the latter would help improve interpersonal communication because people learn better to empathize in each other’s situation. Even, some philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty say, in order to really improve the world, you should employ literature.

I do not like that argument. Firstly, because between the study room, where imagination unfolds, and reality in a disturbing way light remains. Something of irritation thereabout was voiced lately by critic Rob Schouten in his cautious appreciation of novelist Arnon Grunberg. Who refuses to reassure us in his novels, and his reversal of the feel-good-Swiss-Life-sentiment does not leave Schouten unscathed. “His work has to do more with human trauma than with sacred imagination”.

Secondly, and related, I do not like the idea of world-improving manufacturability that is expressed by Nussbaum’s and Rorty’s plead for instrumental imagination. Of course, one can never be against broadening horizons in the philosophical or literary field, that is only too right. But the underlying idea is wrong, because it argues that if only you think and feel broadly enough, you can eliminate misperceptions. And that thought is counterproductive in an insidious way.

Indeed, the range of human thoughts and emotions is infinitely large. To think that all that can in advance be made to fit in your imaginative world, by definition does not reflect the reality of people and is therefore, in its pretensions, potentially violent. Because how will a self-conscious large imagination deal with a reality that yet appears to dwell outside of it? Something múst be wrong with that.

And this last conclusion I would not draw too quickly. But that means that, conversely, there is something wrong, not so much with imagination itself, but with the pretensions of imagination. We will, in spite of the pretensions of Nussbaum and Rorty, keep being surprised time and again by the reactions of others, however big our imagination is. Because the other is different, by definition.

All things considered, we need to know – or, if you prefer, to imagine – only one from the whole range of human emotions: grief. Because then you will usually be able to recognize the situations in which you have hurt someone else, notwithstanding all your imagination.

zaterdag 10 januari 2015

What happened in the West?

I’d like to figure out that in an exact way some time. Because thát in Western Europe over the last three or four centuries a particular development has taken place, I am quite sure thereabout.

By which I mean the fact that the two religious currents that Western Europe knew during that period – Christianity and (at a distance) Judaism – fundamentally changed character during that period.

For both religions applies that they started out on the basis of axioms which could not be doubted. For Judaism, for example, those were the teachings that the Torah is the literal text of God’s word to Moses, and that the Jewish people is chosen. For, Christianity, for example, that Jesus is God’s son and that his death on the cross redeemed the world.

And for both religious traditions it holds that large groups within each tradition exchanged the idea of axioms (indubitable truths) for the idea of hypotheses. That is, for concepts that provide orientation but can be adjusted according to progressive insight.

How revolutionary this development has been, can be read on the fate of those who cling to the axioms. Within the Jewish community in Europe, Orthodoxy has a big problem with its intellectual credibility, and they find it hard to keep up numbers.

Within the Christian community, I came across recently a telling example of axioms that have become obsolete. Namely in the person of Joseph van den Berg, a former puppeteer who has experienced an iconic Christian conversion. Iconic in the sense of old-fashioned axiomatic: he discovered Jesus as the truth, left his wife and children, became a hermit and from that moment knew inwardly only one desire, namely “to learn the other, who says it’s not true, that he is wrong”.

As classic as can be, and Van den Berg enjoys great public interest. Yet he had to join the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the West, people prefer hypotheses.

Also see Mission Completed