241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Stevijn van Heusden (1945, Weimar) was graphic designer but above all director of multiple art related organizations. Stevijn studied at the Institute of the Arts (ArtEZ) and has been a graphic designer after that for a short while. An important service has been his managing director role at the Stedelijk Museum next to Rudi Fuchs. After his function at the Stedelijk van Heusden was among others management consultant of mayor Job Cohen en held managing functions at multiple culture instances and organizations like Kunsten '92 en board member of Holland Festival. In the 80's and 90's was Van Heusden director Arts at the formerly known ministerie van Welzijn, Volksgezondheid en Cultuur (Ministery of Well-Being, Public Health and Education) and later the ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (Ministery of Education, Culture and Science).

Reading the Essais by Michel de Montaigne is an addictive pastime. You constantly feel as though you’re conversing with him, with an extremely sharp and intelligent person. Someone you’d like to be friends with.

What characterises Montaigne's style in the Essais?

A striking feature of the Essais is the enormous amount of quotes that, incorporated within his argument, are essential to the structure of the work. The Essais is also teeming with anecdotes that mostly illustrate previously treated subjects, but often veer away from the initial point until logical connections become unclear. Within the Essais there is no form of construction whatsoever, and he starts without a plan. It’s not uncommon that the titles to his essays cover little to none of the actual content. In response to what he reads, he attempts to form an image of himself, and subsequently of man. He’s an associative, sometimes nonchalant, thinker. For this reason, an essay is never finished and is always open for new stories, comments, and additions that by their inclusion change nothing of the structure.Montaigne writes in a ‘style naturel’, and sentences follow each other accordingly; he attempts to avoid any sort of cliché or preconceived notion. His method of thinking is a form of protest against overly organised rationalised thinking. With this, he erodes the ‘assumed’ power of the simplification of pure systematic thinking, doing so far before Descartes.

What is the Essais about?

The emptiness,



the inconsistency of our actions,


the art of debate,

how one can judge our happiness only after our death,

that philosophising is learning how to die,

about a custom on the island Cea,

about how to judge another man’s death,

about the experience,

about several verses from Virgil,







about cowardice as the mother of cruelty,

about the punishment of cruelty,

about carriages, cripples, scholars,

about education, a parent’s affection for their children,

about children resembling their parents,

about our emotions that reach further than life,

about our mood and our emotions vented at the wrong target,

about liars, predictions, and the power of imagination,

about he who thinks himself capable of telling truth from fiction,

about what a fool is,

about laughing and crying,

about the vanity of words, empty quibbles,

about that tomorrow is another day,

about books,

about denial,

about what is useful and honourable,

about how to make good use of your willpower,

about different methodologies that can lead to the same result,

about fortitude,

about one man’s fortune being the other man’s misfortune,

about customs and the mistake of suddenly changing the status quo,

about the same goal leading to different results,

about modestly judging God’s ways,

about Fortune keeping pace with reason,

about inequality amongst us human beings,

about prayer,

about the time of our lives,

about how the mind becomes caught up within itself,

about desires increasing the more they are denied us,

about fame,

about thumbs,

about a monstrous child,

about three forms of interaction,

about distraction,

and about the disadvantages of a high position.

Galina Ustvolskaya is no ordinary hero. She is an anti-hero. She’s done everything to keep herself from becoming known, let alone famous. She was unsuccessful. Ustvolskaya’s music is too unavoidably overwhelming to not be remembered.

Galina Ustvolskaya

Twenty-five works of hers remain, in total six hours of music. But each work is a monument, literally and figuratively. In 1996, the Koninklijke Concertgebouw Orkest, led by Mstislav Rostropovitch, performed Symphony number 2 by Galina Ustvolskaya. After the concert was over, the audience was literally dumbfounded. They were so completely astounded by the performance that they were silent for minutes before breaking into applause. For Ustvolskaya, music was the only important thing and all else was vanity. For this reason, and for the fabulous power of her music, she is a hero to me.

In Cherry Duyns’ documentary, Reinbert de Leeuw visits the withdrawn composer (Ich bin menschenscheu) and we catch a glimpse of the building and her tiny flat where she spent most of her life.

Portet van Michel de Montaigne

Portet van Michel de Montaigne

In our day and age it would be impossible to physically transport yourself to the 16th century, unlike in the Middle Ages when bilocation was still deemed possible. You may have found professor Barabas’ time machine quite useful. Otherwise a word of advice from Negro Kaballo, the horse from Erich Kästner’s De 35ste mei might be of use. I’ve also considered Hendrik Willem van Loon. As a boy I read his book, Pioniers der Vrijheid, where he receives visits from countless long dead historical figures at his home in Veere. But ultimately, I must to my dismay admit there is but one way— through the mind. This is how I first met Montaigne through his Essais, and it’s how I later found myself in conversation with him.

Portet van Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne’s library

Mister Montaigne, it is a great honour to be here in your extraordinary library and be granted the opportunity to exchange thoughts with you. My first question, if I may, concerns how you write. Do you have a method, and if so, could you describe this?

Dear sir! My arguments arrange themselves to but one order: coincidence. I record my thoughts just as they enter my mind. At times they appear in such great masses that they crowd one another, at other moments they siphon in one by one. I would like to show how it is in my nature to proceed, however unorganised it may seem. I express my thoughts in the same manner as they manifest. Luckily, the subjects I describe are of such a nature that it would not be unacceptable to speak of them while being essentially ignorant, or by speaking of them in superficial terms. There are certain things I’d like to understand better, but I’m not prepared to pay the price for such insight. I’ve decided to live my life on a pleasant note, avoiding exertion as much as possible. I wouldn’t break my head for the world, not even for science, however worthy it may be. All I expect from a book is for it to entertain me; and when it comes to studying, my sole desire is to know and understand myself and to how to live and die. This is the finish line for which I’ll allow my horse to break a sweat.

You write associatively, do you also read in that way?

When I’ve had enough of one book, I pick up another. I only start reading when doing absolutely nothing begins to bore me. Because I find the classics most rich and exciting, I hardly bother with modern works. I likewise avoid the Greeks because during my youth I learned too little of them to properly understand their literature. There are modern books that I find simply entertaining, like Boccaccio’s Decamerone, Rabelais and The Basia by Janus Secundus. If they belong to that category, they’re certainly worth the attention. The Amadis and similar writings couldn’t interest me, not even in my youth. It may sound audacious or arrogant, but I must admit that my old, slow mind is no longer stimulated by Ariosto, not even by the good Ovidius: his nonchalant, imaginative style that used to spellbind me can now hardly keep my attention.

But you quote many classics in your work. For example, Cicero comes up quite often.

Cicero! Now there’s somebody. I find his way of writing, and for that matter all similar styles, to be irritating. His forewords, explanations, planned formats, and idiomatic discourse take up the grander part of his work. The lively and essential is smothered under his endlessly fabricated sentences. When I’ve read him for an hour, which is a long time for me, I ask myself what I truly gleaned from it. I usually come to the conclusion that he’s merely blasted wind, and that he has yet to come to the arguments that support his plea, and hasn’t even touched upon the core of what interests me. Because I only hope to grow wiser, and not more eloquent or smart, his Aristotelian tricks of reasoning are not my interest.

I prefer for an author to begin with the essence. I’m perfectly acquainted with definitions of death and lust; there’s no need to dissect these terms for me. I long for a plea that immediately cuts into the core of the issue, but his constantly circumvents the essence. I’m not waiting for someone to grab me by the hair and, like a herald, declare “Listen carefully!’ fifty times over.

During their religious ceremonies the Romans said: Hoc age (pay attention), just as we say ‘Sursum cord’ (lift up your hearts) during mass. These words are absolutely redundant for me. Generally speaking, I long for books that supply knowledge, not those that blow air into knowledge. Seneca, Plutarch, Pilinius and their contemporaries do not make use of Hoc age; they want their readers to be on their qui-vive all by themselves.

So you actually find Cicero to be a bit of a nag.

Well. When it comes to Cicero, I share the common opinion that he did not have many exceptional qualities besides his knowledge: he was a good citizen, and kind-hearted like most fat and boisterous folk. But frankly, he was quite a big wimp and his ambition was an exercise in vanity. I can’t forgive him for believing his poetry decent enough for publishing. It’s one thing to write bad verse, but to be ignorant of the blemish that his poetry places upon his glorious name shows an utter lack of insight. But his eloquence is unparalleled. I doubt anyone will ever equal him in that respect.

Thank you for your answers. The future reader will surely have an understanding of how you read and write. Now I’d like to ask you a question concerning a wholly different matter, namely your thoughts on death. One of your statements on death is ‘philosophising is learning how to die’. Could you clarify this for me?

My apologies, but to answer you I must continue on the subject of Cicero. Cicero says that philosophising is nothing more than preparation for death. Study and contemplation, in a sense, detach the mind from one's self and situates it outside of the carnal. This is a condition that is similar to death and within it embeds a lesson; all wisdom and human reasoning eventually teach us to not fear death. Death is inevitable. But, if we fear it, it becomes an on-going source of suffering for which no relief exists. We cannot escape it, regardless if we keep a constant watchful eye as though in enemy territory. Death perpetually hangs over us like the boulder of Tantalus.

So, the final destination is death. We must remain aware of this. But how can we, if we fear death, take one step without falling into a nervous stupor? Any man who hasn’t reached the age of Methusalem will believe he’ll survive another twenty years.

Horatius writes: ‘Take every day as your last. Then, each surplus hour will be a happy one.”

Yes, that’s true. We don’t know where death awaits us, let us expect him at every moment. Awareness of death is awareness of freedom. If you’ve learned to die, you’ve unlearned to be a slave. If you’re prepared for death, you’ve freed yourself from subjection and constraint.