241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things


The following texts result from Nabokov's teachings at universities around the USA:

Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.
Scene from Nabokov's Lolita

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.

Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development.

Nakobov in 1919

The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement.

A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

Rozemund Uljée kicks off the Studium Generale programme with a lecture on how two great thinkers have defined reality - referring to past ideas that changed the way reality is conceived.

Pierre Huyghe

Part I: Plato’s unchanging realm of the real

The starting point is situated with Plato, the father of modern western philosophy. Firstly, Rozemund will give us an idea of his vision on ‘the real’ and his legacy. Plato can be seen as the first representative of the idea that we can only access ‘the real’ through reason. Plato asked himself how we come to a universal understanding of existence, from all our sensory encounters. Plato makes a distinction between the phenomenal world- perceived with our senses - and the world of ideas.

Furthermore, the latter constitutes the underlying structure of the phenomenal world, and should be seen as the true reality. For him the phenomenal world is not reliable because it is the perception of our senses, and thus fleeting: things that come into existence, then pass away. Plato tells us that whereas with our senses we perceive elements as beautiful, justified and good, it is only through reason that we can have an idea of Beauty, Justice or the Good itself. This should be seen as the explanation of Plato’s negative attitude towards art. Since it is a mere imitation of the realm of ideas, art is a copy of a copy - and thus of secondary value.

Ribbons, Ed Atkins, 2014

Part II: Why art can't do without Nietzsche


Since Nietzsche, the idea of the privileged place of reason in order to find ‘the real’ has been questioned most radically. Nietzsche was a pioneer, who paved the way for the end of a higher world order like Plato’s that informs our reality. Famously declaring ‘God is dead’, it is Nietzsche’s view that there is no such thing as a higher reality and that the reality we live in is the only reality that does exist. He states: ‘To recognize another world is to deny life itself’. This is the reason why Nietzsche is so interested in Nihilism – the realisation that reality doesn’t know a higher meaning and value. In this sense, in constructing a dualist worldview where objective knowledge is possible, Platonism and subsequent philosophies (including Christianity) serve as an antidote to a primal and original form of nihilism in the world – as the despair of meaninglessness of reality. This saying ‘no’ to a higher reality is an important part of what Nietzsche calls a ‘re-evaluation of all values.’

Denying a ‘higher’ reality constitutes a turn toward our physical, material, chaotic and finite world. This results in a situation in which man does not let himself be governed by a reality better than his own, but instead is granted the possibility to create it himself – to create meaning within reality itself. This liberation is regarded by Nietzsche to enable different perspectives with which we can look at the truth.

Nimbus II, 2012, Cloud in room, Berndnaut Smilde


‘’We might think of truth as of a sculpture: by looking at it from only one side, we don’t understand or appreciate the whole sculpture. Only by walking around it and looking at it from all different angles can we properly appreciate it. People like Plato, who offer an access route to reality through Reason, say: “there is only one truth and it must be looked at in this way.” Such an insistence paralyzes our understanding and makes it impossible for us to be free.’’ Nietzsche calls those who do not restrict themselves to only one specific reality perspective the ‘free spirits’ – and these are for him ‘The Artist’.

He says: ‘Art is worth more than truth. Art nothing but art! It is the great means of making life possible, the great seduction of life, the great stimulant to life. Art is the only superior counterpart to the will to life-negation.’

Transcription Afra Marciel

There came a day when someone decided that an end should come to the many unanswered questions in the world. This person opened an office with visitation hours, just like a city hall or the post office. You’d draw a number, and once it was your turn, you’d walk up to the counter and ask the employee your most pertinent question. With an answer in hand, you’d walk out the door feeling satisfied.

I wish it existed. Only I wouldn’t know which question I’d ask first, because I have so many: where does the light go when I turn off the switch? What came before the big bang? Where is the end of the universe? Is there a God? What is infinity? Do invisible things exist? And if that wasn’t enough, the answers to these questions would most likely prompt even more questions.

I’m in Berlin, standing in front of the doors to the institute for “unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems”. The building is on a corner and covered in white sandstone and tall mirrored windows in metal frames. “Denkerei” is written in pink letters above the front door. At first glance, the building is more reminiscent of a bank office or a fancy, but dated, hotel. To the left and the right of the door, the windows are covered in sentences such as:

-Thinker at your service

-Institute for theoretical art, universal poetry and outlook

-General secretariat for accuracy and for the soul

Everyone is welcome to enter the Denkerei and to present his or her question to its staff. I imagine that this employee then pulls a thick tome out of a heavy safe, leafs through and recites the answer, with a finger all the while pointing at the sentence at hand. But no, that’s not how it works. The Denkerei is no oracle, no storehouse of answers. This is where scientists, artists, politicians and writers come to think, reason, and discuss.

I try to open the front door. At first, it refuses to budge. It’s only when I lean against it with my entire weight that it opens. I step inside. The door swings shut. Street noises are far behind me. Is there a connection between the heaviness of a door and the weight of a place?

I find myself in a grand space, standing on a gleaming wooden floor that stretches over the entire surface of the building. Smooth white walls, a thin table occupied by a gigantic floral arrangement, chairs lined up on an empty stage, but also a sitting corner, and a bar above which lamps bearing the Denkerei logo emit a soft red light. Artworks are hung on the walls: painted panels that portray an intriguing play on perspective. This space is a cross between a waiting room, a gallery, and a hotel lobby.

At the table, a man sits behind a stack of newspapers. I recognise his face from the presentations I’ve seen on Youtube. It’s Bazon Brock: artist, dramatist, professor of aesthetics, and founder of the Denkerei. Through Wikipedia I found that he presents lectures while standing on his head and that he temporarily lived inside of a glass display case, but luckily now he’s simply sitting on a chair at a table.

“Anyone can walk in and ask a question”, Brock explains. If the question is interesting enough, the Denkerei will hold a symposium for it. Thinkers from different disciplines such as biology, geology, philosophy and medicine, but also from literature and the arts come together in order to explore the question and to utilise knowledge from these many different areas. All the while, thinking itself is sharpened. “Poets teach scientists how to think, and scientists teach poets how to ask questions”, Brock tells me. This doesn’t lead to ready-made answers: questions stay unanswered, even after a whole symposium is dedicated to it.

The Denkerei does not intend to find an answer, a quick fix nor a solution. The act of thinking is the main goal, which is not as simple as it may seem. “Learning to ask the right questions is essential” says Brock. You need to know which questions you’re asking and how to formulate them. We don’t learn this at school. Instead, we learn how to produce answers, which means that we often forget the nature of the questions that precede them.

In other words, the Denkerei does not supply answers nor does it bandage brooding brains. There is no intention to placate, like a visit to the doctor might: even though you might still feel ill or be in pain, you’ll feel better knowing you’re carrying an illegible prescription in your bag. A formulaic salvation that will rid you of your illness or pain, an answer to your question so that you’ll need not think further.

The Denkerei is far removed from anything of the sort. After twenty minutes of questioning Bazon Brock, I’ll leave this place with at least as many new questions.

“If you can formulate a good question, you’ll understand that an answer is also a question. An answer is a question in a different form.” After Brock has spoken this last sentence, he leads me to the door. Through the window I can see that despite the falling rain, the sun is shining.

Maybe questions exist precisely because there are answers.

Dorien de Wit's visit to the Denkerei in Berlin is part of her research into bringing art, science, and society closer to one another. This research was made possible through funding by the Amsterdam Foundation for the Arts (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst).

I owe my first encounters with the frog theory of Brisset (a man who was declared Prince of Thinkers for having proved on linguistic grounds that man descends from the frog) to ’Pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions that has been developed by the French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). ’Pataphysics plays with philosophical notions, scientific discoveries and technical attainments. In this way Jarry invented a de-braining machine, developed Perpetual-Motion-Food, and calculated the surface of God.

Jarry was not only influenced by the sciences, but also by morosophers like Brisset. And Victor Fournié who claimed that the same sound has the same meaning in all languages, brought Jarry to the fundamental insight that IN-DUS-TRY means one-two-three, in all languages.

’Pataphysics is, in the first place, a science; according to Jarry it is science par excellence.

Several institutes for ’Pataphysics have been founded: Collège de ’Pataphysique in Paris, and in the Netherlands, in utmost secrecy, De Nederlandse Academie voor ’Patafysica, the NAP, also called Bâtaphysics. Unlike the Dadaists, the bâtaphysicians did not feel the need to rebel or revolt, as Bâtaphysics celebrates the equal value of all situations. Other than the surrealists, the bâtaphysicians do not seek refuge in the subconscious, although they appreciate it as an imaginary solution; not only do they view daily life as a hallucinatory adventure, they also regard logos and rhetoric as the quintessential psychedelics. Furthermore, the NAP embraces Dadaism and surrealism as pataphysical phenomena.
Pataphysicians travel across the planet with a keen interest in everything they find in their way. They assemble the wildest collections, impose order without ever attaining any, and leave behind a trace of imaginary constructions. Pataphysicians, just like morosophers, explore realms that elude the maps of regular science. The researchers measure the immeasurable, put the unheard-of into words and instrumentalise the incorporeal. And, vice versa, they manage to expose in the most banal object an unexpectedly pataphysical dimension. They disclose the area of possibilities where every occurrence is ruled by its own laws. The pataphysicians are collectively astonished about the consensus omnium and defend one man-science. Anyone can become a member without tricolon, circumcision or piercing. The only effort one must make is to donate generously.
Is Bâtaphysics the missing link between art and science? Bâtaphysics is not art; all art is – consciously or not – pataphysical. All the more so when she exposes new regularities or laws. With the Expertologists of the Insect Sect we can say: Bâtaphysics is not art, but real.

The NAP approaches all phenomena with the same curiosity. Everything is investigated for its unique natural laws, for what makes it something exceptional and monstrous. Every ordering produces its exemplary demons, but even order itself is monstrous. According to Jarry, monstrosity defines beauty. Every aesthetic theory is a teratology. Bâtaphysics holds that nothing normal or abnormal exists, every event is equally monstrous ergo beautiful.

‘A camel is a horse designed by a committee.’ If necessary, the NAP single-handedly creates the deserts in which the camel appears to be the ideal animal.

Bâtaphysicians appreciate time, space, identity, profession, nationality and other beacons that man steers by in daily life as imaginary solutions. If bâtaphysicians use a pseudonym, a mask or a disguise, if they pass beyond trodden pathways, or if they use a different calendar, it is therefore no protest against the status quo, but an attempt to taste and challenge the bâtaphysical character of existence.

Bâtaphysics solves problems that are experienced as problematic by nobody. Moreover, Bâtaphysics is like Expertology in that it frees us from problems by turning them into emblems, into polyhedrons of ideas.

’Pataphysics was born out of a fertile mixture of science, faith, art and morosophy; in other words, these signs of human inventiveness are pataphysical attempts to get to grips with the idiocy of existence.

On the one hand, ’Pataphysics can lead to remarkable creations. On the other hand, ’Pataphysics stands for an ethos. ’Pataphysics is no philosophy or literary view, but a perspective. Put more strongly: ’Pataphysics has to be lived by first and foremost. This does not mean that you display eccentric behaviour, but that you are aware in your every act, no matter how banal, of the pataphysical character of what you do and think.

You can thus write most ordinary books, go to church, have intercourse, be married, read the papers and still be a pataphysician. It is not about a resigned detachment, nor is it about an ‘innere Emigration’ or postmodern irony, but about an awareness of the fantastic nature of your behaviour and a keen eye for the exceptionality (idiocy) of even the most common routine. In other words: the world is really the true Academy for ’Pataphysics. Everyone and everything is pataphysical, the only difference is between those who are aware and those who are not. A difference of almost nothing makes a whole world of difference: routine that is approached ignorantly and passively numbs the mind, but the same routine experienced with an awareness of the inherently pataphysical character of it can lead to enthusiasm, even ecstasy.

The Novel of Nonel and Vovel 

The Novel of Nonel and Vovel 

The art world is enamoured with many “-isms”: they sound distinguished, contemporary, intelligent, and articulate. But more than anything else an “-ism” is an idea-clustered temporal designation, right for a specific space-time coordinate. It has become a protective cloak for art workers to arm themselves with “-isms” when venturing out on a mission, as it supposedly demonstrates an understanding of a current moment, false or not.

There is one “-ism”, however, which seems oblivious to trends, hypes, and professional commodification, yet which is markedly contextual and genuine, and demands you to undo any protective clothing: heroism. Though its ring might sound unfashionable and outdated, yes even archaic, artistic practice and the heroic make for good bedfellows, yet recently this natural match has been prone to amnesia. Heroism, in this sense, is not at any time to be confused with ego, politically correct righteousness or misplaced didactic sentiments. For are we not grandly fed up and done with chatter about morals and values from a pedantic and paternalistic state, and societal pressures to perform in some way or other?

Do we really need post-modern tales of the epic, populated by modern-day art heroes who are larger than life? (no, please) Have we not regurgitated art movement after art movement, biennial after biennial, the next big theoretical turn after the other, and the – pick a number – next “radical” vision of the next star curator on the block? All that has nothing to do with heroism. So what is this notion that allows us to accrue a particular value from our precarious labour that is not measured monetary terms. Is there, in an era of capitalist consumption, room at all for an artistic heroic that refuses to comply with flavour-of-the-day expectations, and generates meaning out of necessity rather than out of market or policy demands. (yes, there is!)

Heroism is not to be found in tweaking the market till your fingers bleed, lest your concepts dry for a few crumbs of recognition and square metres of gallery space…or that coveted thank you note in an expensively produced catalogue. Heroism is modest, often undetectable, for it goes against the grain of our conditioned and framed vision. To have the courage to read, create, think, write and perform against the grain is what constitutes the life and blood of critical intellectual and creative practice. Somehow we seem to have lost this in the maze and haze of appropriating other “-isms”. So say it softly and say it sweetly: “there is no -ism in heroism”.