241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Cornel Bierens is art critic and writer. He published among others Commissieleden!, about an artist who solely wants to make art which will not be recognized as art and Sex doet een weekje nex, on the week off of the head of Centrum voor Mooie Uitgewassen (Centre of Beautiful Extremities). Bierens regularly publishesd in NRC Handelsblad.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist
Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Ladies and gentlemen, little artists!

When I was asked to speak to little artists today, I immediately thought of Wilhelm Reich. Rede an den Kleine Mann (Listen, Little Man!) leapt from the deep recesses of my memory. It had been years since I’d thought of this text, the heart-cry of a Polish-Austrian sex therapist. It wasn’t so much the starting point of the text (the little man suffering under the big man,) that made an impression on mebut rather its approach. By speaking directly, man-to-man, Reich ingrains into the little man that his trivial life of servitude is wholly self-inflicted.

Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist
Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist

Little man! Reich calls out, you close your eyes because you’re frightened to death of how small you are, you despise yourself and are most at ease in the role of the beloved slave. You’ll take what you’re given, but you, you only give what is demanded of you. The truth irritates you, and you dislike those who strive for freedom. Instead, you spend all day practicing life tactics. You don’t believe that anyone sat at your table could ever be capable of achieving greatness, yet you’ll believe what you read in the paper without scruples. If you were given the choice between a visit to the library or witnessing a fight, you’d choose to see the fight. And of the big men, you don’t see the truly big men, just the quasi-big who surround themselves a lot of little ones. “Rede an den Kleine Mann” continues on this tangent throughout the whole text. Reich empathises with the addressees because within him, too, resides the little man. However, he sees no worth in half-hearted methods and so he positions himself as a severe yet just father. And that’s just as well, because Rede an den Kleinen Mann thanks its quality to this strictness, despite it hardly being read anymore now that the little man is near extinction.

How different the situation is for the little artist is! The little artist truly is alive, and speeds himself to the auditorium when he hears of a talk especially for little artists.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Little artist! I call out, every dream of a becoming a grand artist will be met with a hundred cold showers! It’s far easier to rid yourself of the little man in you than the little artist. The little woman in you can be made into a hundred big ones, but the little artist in you won’t ever even be made into one big artist.

Do you remember, little artist what you said at that party, on the boat, after your graduation? “Now I’m an artist,” you said, with that strange combination of self-ridicule and pride. The relativity of your words was obvious, the realisation that this was only just the beginning, that the word artist was still too pretentious and that you only meant it in the sense of the comedian, the singer of songs, the actor in the cabaret. At the same time, you sounded so sure of yourself, as though you’d already moved on and only spoke in literally translated English sentences like “Now I’m an artist.” As if you’d mentally crossed the borders of this puny Dutch city-state, and were already well on your way to becoming a global artist.

This conflict you showed there, dear little artist, is not coincidental or only applicable to you; it seeps through all that is art. There’s the little art, the drudgeries that are mocked, cursed and hushed; and then there’s the big art, declared holy to the extent that it’s beyond reach. The no man’s land between the two is vast as an ocean and impossible to oversee in its totality. The one art is seen as absolutely worthless, and any investment in it seen as money wasted. And the other art is so costly that the even the largest fortune pales in comparison.

You, little artist, might try to cross that ocean in a rowboat. But even if paradise descends on Earth, you’ll still have to make do with what you have as a little artist. You’ll always be kept little with an iron fist without mercy, without sympathy. Herein lies the difference between the little artist and the little man. The little man stayed little because he was poor and powerless. He was able to climb up the ladder, pull himself together, and expand his power and market value. In this way, he could overcome the little man in him.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Little artists, on the other hand, will never be able to overpower the little artist in them. They'll stay little forever, because they have to start all over again with every new artwork.

True art is invented artwork by artwork. Art refuses to climb, is indifferent towards power, and refuses to pull itself together. Those little artists who think themselves capable of influencing their own market value are victims of the Great Postmodern Misunderstanding that claims artists to be tradesmen.

Not a hundred workshops in art management, nor a hundred networks, oh little arts, can exceed your market value past the size of a lottery ticket; only the lottery owner and the notary could influence it. Little artists who can't understand this haven't overcome the little man in them yet. The little man did useful things, these useful things could be magnified and used in transactions.Art, however, is of no use. Useful art is not art.

Nevertheless, from time to time, a little artist in his rowboat will unexpectedly arrive at the shores of the big art. After all, the prize money has to fall at some point on one out of every hundred thousand lottery tickets. But generally speaking, the little artist will have to rack himself just like the little man: he'll have to slave away, to sweat, and to toil. For eternity, because the little artist will never disappear. That's just the way it is, the little artist will suffer forever and ever. And all this suffering is no guarantee for great achievements, however much a pity this may be for the Tenacious Romantic Misunderstanding. The one that says that blood, sweat, and tears suffice to make an artwork regardless if no one sees it, understands it, or buys it.

Little artist! No life is more frustrating, thankless, yes, inhumane than yours! You're at the very bottom rung, holding on to the top and there's absolutely nothing in the space between. All that keeps you going is hope, "hope, the wings of all time," as the little poet says. But hope for what? Don't say you hope for greatness, dear little artist; or worse yet, that you hope for fame. You cannot strive to be great, greatness emerges all on its own. Instead of trying to defeat the little artist in you, you're probably better off dispelling the great, famous artist stuck inside your head.

All you can really want is to live for art, to work, to make something, then make something better, invent an artwork, and then invent another artwork. The only thing you have to want, is to want to know. Wanting to know, knowledge, the rest is irrelevant. The nature of that knowledge or where it comes from is irrelevant. There's as much to learn from a good fistfight as there is from the library.

The legendary world champion boxer, Muhammed Ali, once delivered a speech to the students of Harvard University. He said: 'In my own way, I've studied a whole lot. But that's not what people pay for, people pay for follies. The wise man can play a fool, but the fool can't play a wise man. I play a whole lot."

Please understand little artist, Muhammed Ali, he’s a great artist,..


Ladies and gentlemen!

I don’t have any images to show you, as I was too late in realising that I should have brought some. However, this might be a blessing in disguise, because those listening carefully will experience a flurry of images.

I’ll be frank: I don’t think that we live in an era in which illegality should be considered art’s driving force. Art itself is weak, she is not a factor of social importance and thus isn’t improved by illegality. This is not to say that one should not take a critical stance on world developments—but critical thinking is not the same as illegality. Illegality is necessary when hefty, oppressive laws are being enforced by hefty, oppressive law enforcers. But our problem is not that the political and social structures in which we live press too heavily upon us. Our problem is that the wielders of power can get away with far too much. Our model of democracy has been fine tuned to minute detail and it grows finer and finer yet. The level of bureaucracy that almost naturally ensues is a blessing for the powers that be. Within bureaucracy lies a turning point in which all is still democratic on paper, but no longer so in spirit.

It becomes increasingly difficult to see the forest for the trees amongst the thicket of rules created to cater to each group and subgroup’s fair rights. And this is when profiteers and fraudsters strike. Bureaucracy is the illegality of power. This is where the cloaked retaliation takes place, where the tax collector’s alleged thievery is compensated, like when the areas that were agreed upon to stay leafy and green become construction sites, health and safety norms are ignored, and so on and so on.

Bureaucracy has made power schizophrenic. Although she may speak through the official language – the vocabulary of democracy – she thinks in outright ‘me, myself, and I’-terms. This is why their mouths are always dripping in deception, always the false smiles, that badly concealed inner pleasure at knowing that the herd of listeners is being fooled once again, with eyes wide open. You merely have to watch Bush speak for a few moments to see through him. I won’t even begin to say anything about our own leaders.

What it boils down to is that democracy isn’t as much a tool to prevent the imbalance of power, as it is a tool to make power something that’s unattainable. In the end, who truly holds the power? You could say it’s “the big countries” or “the multinationals,” but who are they? Power is more impersonal than ever and is no longer tied to certain political ideas or ideas about society, nor is it bound to tradition. The only idea still linked to power is money. At least, this is what it’s like in the West. We like to think that outside of the West, power is still based on tradition. Religious tradition, for example, which scares us to death. And we shudder to think that they might come here and take what they can of all that we’ve “built,” as they say!

Because we’re all too aware of how ruthless and greedy people can be. After all, we ransacked half the world in our glory days in the name of God and the motherland. But now the tables have turned, we’re none too confident, our population is largely aging, albeit with a great openness towards the world (we say,) but ultimately, we’re mostly defenceless and vulnerable from every angle. Are artists the ones to offer enlightenment through their illegal actions in this political landscape, which is generally seen as unsteady and threatening, where people prefer to keep themselves high and dry well before the skies erupt? That seems unlikely, to put it mildly.

Ambiguity about whom they’re targeting is the first problem. What is it they’re rallying against? I’ll name two examples of artists who are equally unsure of how to answer the question:

Last year I was invited to participate in a symposium about uprisings at the art academy at Enschede, AKI. As I approached the building in the morning, students were building a gigantic artwork out of dozens of shopping carts stacked on top of one another. While speaking to one of the tutors inside, we were interrupted by one of the students. He came to tell us that they wanted to merge the school with the artwork, but in order to do so; they’d have to shatter one of the windows. “Is that allowed?” he asked the tutors. “Throw in a window? I don’t think so,” was the reply. “Okay, then we won’t,” the student responded, before meekly wandering off.

And with this incident, the level of upheaval (or lack thereof) was set. The symposium continued with little but tepid mumblings. Out of sheer insubordination I yelled out: “There must be more authority!” The next day I received an enthusiastic email saying that they had highly appreciated my talk, and that I’d said many “valuable” things. Out of gratitude, my face was plastered on the cover of the AKI’s yearly report, published in book form. That’s just how easy it is to be famous; all you need to do is declare that the revolt won’t be happening. Tonight I’ll say it once again, but I hope this time will result differently, and Mister Motley will retain its honour.

The second example of an aimless form of illegality comes from the Venice Biennale, also from last year. I visited the Biennale with art critic Anna Tilroe, and it’s her poignant description of the experience that I’ve included in her words, with her permission, of course.

“An international curator pushes a ragged looking pink newspaper at us. Survival Guide for Demonstrators, is printed at the top. The paper is full of tips for demonstrators: where to find the best demonstration spots in different cities, train and bus routes, safety precautions, your rights if you should be arrested. In a corner, a thank you is printed to a few big curators and a very contemporary museum. Aha! This is art! It lacks any explanation for what we should demonstrate against. That would make the paper a political statement, and that’s not the point. “I like demos,” the artist, Jota Castro, mentions. “The more alternative, the merrier.”

Yeah, fun, demonstrate! It doesn’t matter what we’re rioting against, because this is a conceptual work, and that means we basically only care about the idea, in this case of being playful and alternative. This is how we should interpret the Utopia Station. It’s a corner of the Biennale, overtaken by a chaos of poster, folders and information stands. In a whole, the work is reminiscent of the action years of the sixties, but in this contemporary case it lacks any sort of goal. Nothing refers to actual Utopian ideals. A vision of a future world is nowhere to be found. What we do see is that art wants very badly to engage itself. It just doesn’t know how to or with what cause.

The aforementioned condition is what the theme of this night likewise touches upon. We’re asked to speak about phenomena like graffiti, stickering, stealing exhibitions, but it’s not clear what graffiti we’re talking about, nor what the art stickers say, nor which exhibitions should be stolen. Or are we implying that graffiti art is already inherently artistic and illegal enough by its nature? Now, there have been many beautiful graffiti works, like those that embellish the iron shutters that otherwise turn our cities into rodent holes at night. But there’s also an enormous amount of graffiti shit that has contributed to the degeneration of our cities.

Like so many others, I too, am of the opinion that the privatisation of the Dutch rail company has been mostly detrimental, however I don’t feel that the artist who sprayed FUCK HELL all over the seat I sat across from the other day made any impact whatsoever. FUCK HELL, God forbid, how does one come up with that? These actions are nothing more than a reflection of the lack of taste that have been pumping junk architecture (predominantly) into the outskirts of our cities, besmirched our inner cities with a wildfire of advertising. A few years ago, the city of Paris made the wise decision to ban all street advertising at the Champs Élysées. But then again, France is a rather authoritative nation where the authorities still execute their decrees. In our thoroughly democratic nation, we handle things differently. The city of Rotterdam, for example, has urged its businesses to plaster more advertising to their streetlights. It seems that the city housing the biggest harbour in the world is unable to pay for its lighting, and so the MP deemed it fit to set up an advertising construction to compensate. Brillliant, the city council must have thought, solved!

Thanks to government encouragement, the city is being saturated with images that are wholly vacuous and empty. As if we won’t eventually be collectively affected by the emptiness. As if this visual environment won’t slowly drive us towards a mental vacuum. You could call this the legal illegality of power—now, there’s something artists should revolt against.

But that’s easier said than done. After all, we’re trapped in a world of exponential impatience, in which images that don’t stick to our retinas for more than a nanosecond are deemed nearly worthless. The answer that artists seem to have proposed to this concerning development, is to express themselves in the same language as the images that they are trying to combat: fighting fire with fire. An artist who consciously applies this strategy is the Italian-Swedish director Erik Gandini, who won the Silver Wolf last year with his documentary, Surplus. Gandini promisingly claims – and this is also the subscript to his film – that we are being “terrorised into consuming.” Surplus is what you could call a visual manifesto against globalisation. In fact, an important spokesman for the anti-globalisation movement, John Zerzan, also appears in the film.

Surplus is a collection of beautiful and often surprising images. For example, an utterly hysterical obese person on stage, riling up a room full of Microsoft employees. We see a location in India where 40.000 labourers demolish gigantic ships to recycle steel, conjuring beautiful rust-coloured images. We’re shown world leaders who, with the correct movement of their lips (Gandini knows his special effects,) churn out anti-globalist slogans.

And yet the film, Silver Wolf or not, has failed as the analysis of a certain world condition. As poignant as Gandini is in finding images and digital manipulation, he fails to direct the images towards a specific standpoint, leaving one questioning if he even has a vision at all. The ringer lacks a bell. He sketches Cuba as paradise on Earth, completely naïve, as though we’re living forty years in the past, in the time that Harry Mulisch returned from Cuba golden bronze and praised Castro to the heavens. Could it be that Gandifini’s intentional use of advertising language is exactly that which hampers the film? After all, doesn’t advertising contain the fable-like ability to manoeuvre highly aesthetic images with the most gruesome content to political neutrality (like Benetton)?

These are important questions for Mister Motley, if you ask me. Because the magazine, with its focus on beautiful and attractive images, also seems to have been affected by the fear that only the visual cortex grants access to our brain. This is dangerous, because if you’re not careful you’ll be completely immersed into the free and happy image culture, even if your initial intent was illegality,

I thank you.

Spoken in Amsterdam on February 12th, 2004.

Zwart licht, 1984

Zwart licht, 1984

Art Unlimited made a postcard out of “Nightlight” that sold well. Philips had objected greatly and made many attempts to take the postcard off the market. The following correspondence between lawyers covers the, lawful or not, use of cliché.

Mr. M.J.M. van Kaam, Letter to Mr. PR.M. van de Kroft

Philips International B.V. Corporate Patterns and Trademarks Eindhoven
Subject: Philips shield emblem

Dear Mr. van der Kroft,
(...) Regarding the Philips shield emblem, Philips possesses two trademarks registered within the Benelux. (...) The said trademarks both include, among others, class 16 to where the postcards in question belong. On the basis arising from the rights of the above mentioned trademark, which derive from 1938, and on account of the Philips brand’s great worldwide reputation and renown, we are of the opinion that Philips can, within right and reason, oppose your client’s use of the Philips shield emblem.
In this case, we have established that your client, without the permission of Philips, is selling postcards depicting the Philips shield emblem and is thus profiting from the appeal of this brand. Therefore, your client is making use of the Philips shield emblem for promotion of his own merchandise in addition to the sale of this merchandise (...). Furthermore, we must reject your view that, besides for scientific and informative use, artistic use is an additional legitimate use…
On the grounds of the above, we believe that your client must cease the offending use of the Philips shield emblem. Moreover, we trust that you will understand our position. A firm such as Philips should at all times prevent its brands from possible damage to their primary function as distinguishing feature.

Mr. PR.M, van der Kroft, Letter to Mr. M.J.M. van Kaam, 23.10.1987

(...) Of course, my client understands that Philips, in principle, takes action against each use they deem infringement of trademark. The question that divides us is whether this is, concerning this case, justified (...)
I am aware that Philips produces and distributes a multiple of goods within the Benelux. However, I am unaware of Philips manufacturing and distributing printed matter, in particular, postcards. For this reason, I must rely on non-usus in the merchandise concerned. In my opinion, my client is not using the brand to promote her business nor the sales of her own merchandise. (...)
In regards to neutral and non-offensive use of the Philips emblem, I would like to compare the postcard with the use of the image or word Philips within a literary publication, against which action would neither be taken, so long as this occurs in a non-offensive manner.
How interesting this question may be theoretically – and I remain curious of your opinion concerning aforementioned, I consider it wiser to choose a practical solution. From my client, I have understood the edition to be very limited. I will request from her a proposal, which I hope to promptly present to you.

Mr.P.R.M. van de Kroft, letter to Art Unlimited, 23.10.1987

(...) I hope to somewhat stretch the discussion, until your edition has been sold out. Could you give me an indication of how long this might last? After this, we’ll dutifully promise Mr. van Kaam that we won’t print any new editions, on the premise that the artist will be allowed to exhibit the work freely and include it in exhibition catalogues.

Zwart licht, 1984

Douglas Gordon, Black Star, 2002

Zwart licht, 1984

The most interesting artists are always those who attempt the impossible. For example, they might hear someone from the largest lamp factory of the world say: “It’s impossible to make grey light, we’ve tried it in every way possible, but it’s impossible!” and immediately they’ll think, “Oh really? We’ll see about that!” The American James Turrell is one of these artists. He quite easily managed to succeed where Philips failed. He threw together a few fluorescent tubes, light bulbs, filters, and then— lo and behold! Light of the purest grey.

Of course, this is no small feat and it immediately poses the question if the same is possible with black light. The likelihood of this possibility is quite slim because “black” insinuates “to absorb light.” How could one ever create a light that absorbs light?

Dutch artist Rob Scholte once made a painting of black light (Nachtlicht, 1984). A large Philips logo is depicted, and through its round hole a desk lamp is visible, emanating a black smudge as though it were a soot-spewing chimney. It’s an interesting image but it remains a painted representation, whereas Turrell manages to create actual light. Nevertheless, Scholte’s black light became slightly more real when a postcard of the painting found its way to Philips, upon which the company ignited in anger. Ridiculously, the multinational’s lawyers demanded that the postcard be taken off the market. As if they could forbid artists to play on the grounds that they had left in frustration.

Philips did, by the way, successfully develop a Black Light that differs from the above connotation of black light. Black Light is the name for lamps that only emit a very small portion of the colour spectrum, namely theultraviolet range. Everyone knows these lamps from discos, for example. But in the disco, this light reflects offa multitude of people and objects. This will make you experience the light as strange, but definitely not as black. To experience the light as black, you’d have to empty the entire room and even cover the walls.

Douglas Gordon, Black Star, 2002

Douglas Gordon, a Scottish artist, did something similar in his installation Black Star (2002). The light in this room is extremely frightening; it’s almost like looking through an X-ray where every hair on your clothes, every flake of skin, every other visitor seems like a spectre. The artist’s voice resonates from hidden speakers and reads from the 19th century horror novel “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” by James Hogg. The space seems formless and without a single thing for your vision to latch onto, until you’re standing in the exact centre of the room, and you find yourself in the middle of a five-pointed star—the symbol of the devil. It’s literally and figuratively a black artwork.

For a while, it seemed as though the scientists would provide a clever answer to the black light question. On September 9th, 1987, the American James DeLucas published an article titled, “Definition of a Darkbulb”. The first sentence was: “The Darkbulb is an electronic device that produces darkness”. The rest of the article describes the specific workings of the black bulbs, which new and which old technology it uses, that the invention would allow one to take a nap in the middle of the day in the dark by pressing the light switch and so on.

Ugo Rondinone, The Third Hour of the Poem, 2005

Unfortunately, it turned out that the article came from the Journal of Irreproducible Results, and so nothing more was ever heard of the Darkbulb. Apparently, we shouldn’t expect anything from scientists or the lamp factories, meaning we have only the artists to rely on. This is actually very logical, since the greatest desire for the black light has been within circles of artists. Last year, the Swiss Ugo Rondine expressed this desire by building a two-meter high black light bulb, as if to say: if I can’t make a lamp that fills the room with darkness, I’ll make a dark lamp that fills the room with itself.

There’s a great chance that given the time, the artists will eventually produce an unexpected and inventive solution. Although scientists and light technicians have a much more extensive theoretical basis, artists are more flexible in their approach and dare to oppose conventional thinking. Some day, artists might just decide to create black light by placing the light switch on the person instead of on the wall. One press of the button and your eyes would roll backwards and immerse you in a delightful darkness. You’d be like the man in Blind Ernest (White), a photograph by Douglas Gordon, whose eyes are white, without iris. Ernest smiles happily, in complete contention in his black light.

There’s still no definitive answer to the problem, until now every solution is based on excluding white light, and black light still isn’t being made. But that’s the way it goes in art, the problem stays, it never stops, it never ends.


It was the groom himself who rang me. “We’ve decided,” he said, “that you’ll be saying a few words at our wedding.”

“At your wedding? Speak? But why? I’ve never even been married. What do you say, because of art? Don’t you know that in art most marriages fail sooner or later? A good marriage easily slips into the realm of the kitsch—how do you make art out of that?”

He merely laughed, showing that he wouldn’t relent. He knew all too well that I’d feel too honoured to decline.

“So you’ll do it!” he concluded.

“Alright. One word,” I said, and immediately began to think.

The first image that occurred to me was the marriage portrait of the Arnolfini’s, painted in 1434 by Jan van Eyck, a world famous painting that hardly ignites the desire to wed. The newlyweds stand soberly, sunken deeply into their own thoughts, nearing a state of melancholy. They make no eye contact with one another, they do not embrace; in fact, their only contact is made through their outstretched hands. And there, at that sole point of contact, does the painter place a small detail on a “coincidentally” positioned piece of furniture: a grinning monster, the quiet witness gloating at a depiction of hypocrisy.
The grinning crony, in turn, brings to mind another image, a photograph shot by Elliot Erwitt in Siberia in 1967. A young bridal couple is seated in a row of chairs in what seems to be a waiting room, poised respectably next to one another, freshly starched and groomed. Although we see the man and woman on the most beautiful day of their lives, their body language gives away their inability to make themselves the main attention of the events. With a mixture of distrust and admiration they look at the one who succeeds in overtaking the limelight: a young man seated one chair further radiating an air of freedom and independence, his expression hinting at some inside joke that threatens to burst into wild laughter at any given moment.

Although these images speak a thousand words, I was fairly sure that they would fail to bring me closer to my wedding word.

I decided to call in an expert, someone I knew well, who not only had been married for more than fifty years but who had also for years, as a sort of hobby, conducted a number of weddings every week. During these ceremonies, he’d also spoken, but about what exactly?

“About love, of course!” he exclaimed through the telephone. “Love is everything, stronger yet than faith and hope. Believing in what you will and hanging on to hope until you whither away essentially takes place within a vacuum. Love, on the other hand, is oxygen, breathing, and letting breathe. One thing I always say during a marriage is: the art lies in allowing the other to be their own person, and all you need for that is love.”

“Aha, all you need is love!” I said.

“Yes, that’s how you could summarise it.”

I thanked him heartily and thought for an instant that my problem was solved. After all, couldn’t I just step forward when my turn came at the wedding, look at the bridal pair, say “All you need is love,” and leave it at that? Every guest would understand me instantly regardless of his or her age, martial status, or nationality. I’d avoid testing anyone’s patience and all could feast themselves on cake with that great universal truth still resonating in the back of their heads.

But I’d conveniently forgotten something: all you need is love had already been sold twenty-five years previously! Yes, in a fit of anti “love” and Beatles, I’d dumped all my LPs, EPs, and singles at the second hand record shop, including Magical Mystery Tour, on which All You Need is Love is the closing song. From one day to the next, their song suddenly sounded excruciatingly weak, yes, even whiny. The saccharine swooning on I Want to Hold Your Hand, for example was boiled down to kindergarten love.

Not long afterwards, the effectiveness of my manic clearing session proved itself when a crazy American calling himself Captain Beefheart, shouted “Rather than I wanna hold your hand, I wanna swallow you whole,” on his record.

During those days, although there were many people who rejected the “love cult,” they couldn’t prevent “love” turning into one of the most democratised word of all time. In time, the letters were substituted with a heart so that even the most seasoned illiterate could easily write and recognise the word, read it on cars, clothing, kitchenware, and everywhere else:I ♥ New York, I ♥ my dog, I ♥ Ponypark Slagharen, and so forth into infinity.

“Love,” was holding one another’s outstretched hands like the Arnolfinis. It was the love of that wedding couple in the Siberian waiting room, a love that had yet to be constructed, but whose foundations already shook at the mere grin of their happenchance neighbour. The Beatles sang “love is easy,” and it was indeed as such, as easy to get involved in as to subvert.

How vastly the difference was with the love that yearned to envelop the other in his or her entirety. That love was so much more worrying and full of risk, but likewise great and grand, yes, more royal than “love” had ever been. This was the love that, deep at heart, wanted nothing more than to possess and to be the other. It was a love that refused to “let the other be their own,” that ship had sailed miles before. Instead of “easy,” this love lacked compromise and could never live up to expectations.

It was all too clear: there was no way I could use “love” for my wedding word. If I wanted to communicate something truly valuable to the newlyweds, to wish them a love of the second sort that, of course, was related to and in conversation with, but far exalting, “love.” But how would I name this love? There was no word for it!

What could I do?

Extend my thoughts beyond fine art and pop music into the world of language, of literature.

I stepped into a small bookstore and struck up conversation with the sole salesperson.

“But sir,” she said, after listening to me patiently, “it must be obvious that the word you’re looking for doesn’t exist. After all, if it did, these giant tomes on the subject of this love of yours would never have been written. It’s because love doesn’t allow itself to be captured in one word. Even the greatest literary genius, let’s say Shakespeare, if he’d ever found that word, would have quit writing immediately.

“Are you sure about that?” I answered, suddenly full of desire to buy something from her. “I’ll have one of those tomes!”

“You ought to take this,” she said, “Married Life by David Vogel.”

Once at home, I immediately began to read. From the start, I identified with the protagonist, accountant Gurdweill, and held onto that for as long as I could. How hard he tried to fight his way through life, and how much he suffers for the Barones he married! I had never read a book before in which a husband wants his wife be to her own person to quite the same extent. He wants this to the extent that he allows her to bully, humiliate, and taunt him after she returns home from one of her private parties.

At a certain point, out of the blue, I shouted: “ Do something, numbskull!” But just as that thought begins to enter him, his wife tells him she’s pregnant. And because there’s nothing he desires as much as a son, he uses this revelation as an opportunity to throw himself once again into a sea of sacrifice.

The sense of foreboding is beautifully sketched within the novel, the sense that all will only worsen—and it does. After caring for and cherishing his son for some time, he discovers what the rest of the village knew all along: the child isn’t his. And the worst part is that this discovery refuses to enter his consciousness, for the simple reason that he cannot believe it. It seems that, rather than being a master in sacrifice, he’s a master in self-deceit.

This wonderful book, Married Life, is all about love that lacks a word. Because the greatest love is not Gurdweill’s, to which 450 pages are dedicated, but it’s the love of Gurdweills acquaintance Lotte, to whom few words are granted. Even Lotte hardly speaks of love, not because she wishes to spare her fiancée (with whom she shares a simple “love” relationship,) but because she wants to respect the marriage of the man she truly loves, Gurdweill. Her wordless love is the grandest, not because of her suicide through which she proves her self-sacrifice to be even greater than Gurweill’’s, but because she offers him insight into his own existence through that ultimate act. Her death grants him life, and he finally awakens. Ultimately, on the very last page, he takes action. What he does is horrible, but at least it’s something.

When I walked past the little bookshop again some days later, I saw the sole shopkeeper unpacking boxes. I went in and hesitated. Suddenly I said, “That book wasn’t very festive.”

“No,” she laughed, “great literature rarely is. Even a genius like Shakespeare is never festive for long, and especially not when it comes to married life! But, wait a minute, something just came in. It might just be something for you.”

She held up In-House Weddings by Czech author Bohumil Hrabil.

Across from the little bookshop lay a park, and because it was the first sunny day in a long while, I crossed the street. As I sat on a bench between the trees I thought to myself: wouldn’t this be a fine day for a wedding? And in the best of moods I began to read.

It was immediately clear that In-House Weddings was about that certain type of love that I knew no word for. It seemed that the writer had been especially aware of that essential problem in all great love affairs: the impossibility to ever become one. The author attempted to find a solution and by wonder and sheer ingenuity, he succeeded.

Hrabal writes this autobiographical novel in the first person but the “I” is not him, but the woman he’ll marry at the end of the book. Thus, he crawls into the persona of his fiancée to describe himself, and in doing so demonstrates that it’s just about two things: possessing the other and being the other. In the book, he not only is his wife, he ultimately has her too.

The writer has his fiancée (who consistently refers to him as “the doctor”) speak of the things they undertake together in the time before their marriage. In one of the many beautiful scenes, she speaks of how he shows her around the area. On a sunny day they board a train, where the legs of travellers dangle from the coaches. The constriction of the overflowing balcony drives them to find the only free space—the toilet. Their lips meet in a passionate kiss for the first time there, above the cracked and grimy toilet bowl. Tender words follow, like: “’I always feel so fine with you” the doctor whispered in my ear.’ ‘As do I,’ I said./ ‘Because when I’m with you, it’s almost like you’re not even there,’ he mumbled.”

How grand! To be so intertwined with your lover that their presence is no longer felt: in other words, to no longer be perceived as the other. How superior compared to the meagre “allowing the other to be their own!”

More than anything, the wedding party is a beer drinking party for the doctor. The neighbours explain to his fiancée that, as a sort of hobby, the doctor scans the wedding announcements each Friday and always invites the guest for a wedding party at his house. In other words, “that they’ll be drinking, they’ll drink and sing without abandon…”

Yes, In-House Weddings was definitely a festive novel. Forgetting the time, I’d sat through many moving and optimistic moments on the bench that summer’s day. But while I made my way home, something began to gnaw it me. Because, although I knew more than before about married life and wedding parties, I hadn’t thought of that one word for a moment. In fact, Vogel and Hrabal had mainly distracted me. Oh well, that solitary saleswoman was right: the word didn’t exist. Just forget about it, I told myself, get that idea out of your head.

I got home, opened a beer, sat myself in front of the television, opened another beer. Being bored to death – and I’m still unsure how it happened – I suddenly held The Complete Works of Shakespeare in my hands. Against my nature, I began leafing through it backwards. Printed on the last pages were a few poems, and a word immediately caught my eye after a few lines, the word “love.” Shakespeare and “love,” I thought immediately, poor Shakespeare! But as I continued reading I realised that in these sonnets “love” did not rhyme with words like “glove” and “above,” but on “prove” and “move!”

I read how the poet takes his fiancée on a stroll. He takes her to the top of a hill and shows her various points of interest in the landscape. And then, in the last two lines:

And if these pleasures may thee move
Then live with me and be my love.

It was unbelievable, Shakespeare had found it! That word that was related to and in communication with but far exceeding ‘love’.


I closed the book and opened yet another beer, as though the wedding festivities were already well on their way. What a relief that I hadn’t had to plough through all of Shakespeare to find that decisive word written on those last pages. I haven’t a single doubt that love only appeared as “love” in these last sonnets. In fact, I was convinced that Shakespeare, once he’d made his discovery, must have stopped writing once and for all.