239 Things

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239 Things

They were stern, yet loving. He was never short of food, though it was rarely ever tasteful. Finishing off his plate was such a lengthy process that the last bites were usually cold. Nothing out of the ordinary happened while he played on the streets. Every now and then, his report card showed a fail. There was only one thing that worried him. Worry might be too strong a word; rather, something had occurred to him. Something must have gone wrong somewhere down the line. Something he could not grasp. No curse had befallen him, yet no blessing either.

The teacher often arranged the students in a line. After all, line was the most practical way to manoeuvre a group from A to B. From class to the schoolyard for recess, from the street to the swimming pool for swimming lessons. It was fun standing in line because at least you knew something unusual was bound to happen, unlike when sat your desk. But standing in line did not always foretell a pleasant event. If ever the class was suddenly asked to stand in line, one could rest assured that at the end of the hall you’d be awaited by a white coat holding an injection needle. And without fail, he was always the first to be called. To bare his arm, to stretch open his mouth. It took a while for him to notice. Initially he believed fate to be at work, until he began to realize that maybe there was something actually wrong with him.

At home and leaning over a never-ending plate of food, he began to inquire. His father took him aside, which was in itself a foreboding act. It must be something from the adult world, the scope of which was difficult to discern.

‘Thousands of years ago, in another country, the alphabet was invented. We’re not exactly sure why, but they decided that the letter A should come first. And it’s been like that ever since. Don’t think that the A will ever move to another spot in the alphabet. This is one of the few things in life that you can be certain of. Just like the A will always be the first letter of Aarsman. That’s why an Aarsman is usually at the front of a line. At least, when lines are arranged in alphabetical order. Of course, there are many other names that begin with an A. But, think about it, how many names do you know that begin with two As? That’s the reason Aarsmans usually are called up first. There may be times when this is unpleasant, but usually itturns out to be quite useful. Like when Sinterklaas comes to school, and you’re called up for presents. For example.’

Father saw wrinkles of thought forming on his son’s forehead.

‘You’ll have to bite the bullet, but you’ll see, in due time you’ll only ever want to be first. Why do you think we have sayings like the early bird catches the worm? And how about don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today?”

Holy smokes, Hans Aarsman thought. The name came from his father. And he went on and on about how wonderful it was to carry that name. But indeed, if something pleasant was to happen, the Aarsmans were always at the frontline.

“The early bird catches the worm.” And: “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” He repeated the idioms, tasted them, they lay ready on his lips. They came in handy if ever at a loss of words. He added a new one: “First come first served.” Some seemed to have been invented especially for little boys who had to stand at the front of the line against their will. But strangely, on his quest for new idioms, he encountered many that declared the very opposite. Like: “Haste makes waste,” and: “The first shall be the last.” In fact, idioms seemed to go in every possible direction. “Waste makes haste.”

The idioms were still contradicting themselves when one night it wasn’t he, but his brother, who was the last to finish his plate. He noticed this because the last bite to disappear into his mouth was not cold as usual, but in fact, lukewarm. Without truly deciding to, he started upping his tempo. For the first time, he saw the advantages to being fast. If something was to happen, he might as well get it over with immediately. The way he saw it was, when his classmates were standing, shivering standing in a row, he’d already had his injection. And while the others were still being examined, he could leisurely recline. Before he knew it, he’d gotten used to being a double A’d Aarsman.

And then things changed. He noticed how nervous he’d turn when not standing first for inoculations and dentists. He sped behind his desk the very moment he returned from school to do his homework. He scarfed down the food on his plate. With everything he did, he though: if it has to happen, then let’s have it done at once! And so, until this very day, he speeds through all, both the fun and the not-so-fun in record time. A birthday party? Don’t stick around too long. Don’t overstay your welcome. Should a bill or form arrive in the mail, Hans Aarsman will fill them in that very night and toss them into the nearest mailbox. Never owing anydebts. His name is always at the top of a list. There’s no avoiding that man! No group manifestation without his name at the top of the list. And that’s how I succeeded in being able to have my say right here. That’s one thing, but there’s another undeniable aspect to the last name.

It happened in the biology classroom. The first years of middle school were all about the body: blood circulation, digestion, the nervous system. Then came the other mammals, from big to small, from whale to mole. And then came the cold-blooded animals, the frogs and the crocodiles. He must have been sixteen when they came to the multicellular organisms. After which came the parasites, organisms that couldn’t sustain life on their own and needed a host to survive. This could be a plant, an animal, or a human. They crawled in, started their feeding, and laying their eggs. Ringworm, lintworm, hookworm. How they came from pigs, how cross contamination occurred. One by one, the teacher drew them on the blackboard. His thoughts were wandering – there were quite a few parasites to be named – when the sound of his classmates jeering jolted him back to reality. The teacher had drawn a creature on the board. A moon-shaped staff. Was it hairy? He doesn’t remember, but can clearly recall the title it was given: Aarsmade (n.b. translated from Dutch into: Arse Maggot.) The jeering was deafening, and they were pointing… at him. The precise nature of the aarsmade is still not entirely clear to him. When the teacher understood the cause for the uproar, she quickly wiped the drawing off the board. Never again was the aarsmade spoken of. By the teacher, that is. His fellow classmates eagerly entertained themselves for weeks, conjuring variations of his last name. How utterly inspirational nature can be. Go ahead, try it, it’s not hard to come up with a few yourself. At the time, buttguy and assdude were by far the most successful. Don’t react to their taunting, he had resolved, and he didn’t.

When the Americans started napalming Vietnam a few weeks later, man, plant, and animal were burnt to a cinder. The school was so caught up in these events that the creature and his unfortunate namesake were cast into the oblivion. Still, he was slightly fearful that the aarsmade would rear its head during examination week. What if one of the questions was: name three human parasites? But the teacher was sure to avoid, at all costs, any question that concerned that possibly hairy, moon-shaped little staff.

These days I sporadically hear a nearly inaudible chuckle when phoning an institution, or I’ll see the corner of a mouth turn upwards at a counter. The most spectacular would be the time I reported the disappearance of my bicycle. The policeman on duty pulled an earnest face: “I can’t believe they never told you that it hardly costs a thing to change your name! A strange name will even be changed for free!”

But I’d never do that. Above me and below me, the phonebook lists a plethora of Aarsmans. Do I abandon them? I know them all. They’re all descendents of my grandfather. Until recently, that is. In the 80’s, a small migration took place. Dozens of Aarsmans from outside Amsterdam moved into the city and connected themselves to a phone line. They, too, had understood the benefits of alphabetic order.

A few months ago, the newspaper wrote of an Olga Aarsman who competed in the miss Ajax pageants. She’s no cousin of mine, and she didn’t win.

The first time I noticed how interesting the effect of name giving was to me, was during my first year at the Rietveld Art Academy.

'Create a panorama.' That was the assignment.

As a perfect example of my generation I didn't find out how to actually make a panorama, instead I went to see the dentist and asked him to make a frontal x-ray of my teeth. I printed it on an A3 and thought: this is a panorama and I'm going to call it 'City by night'. The text belonging to an image can unlock or represent an entire world. The tension between the word, its meaning, the image and its visibility can serve as a playground. Marcel Duchamp referred to the function of the title in arts as an invisible colour.
Sometimes the invisible is a promise. Like a pregnant belly. What's inside, will receive a name. It's the cherry on top.

Today I want to talk about names because life begins with having a name. I will introduce name giving with a juicy piece of gossip. I thought I had reached closure in my first sad love story when I was eighteen years old. But the final scene came later.

Not that long ago I opened my facebook and saw a couple of baby pictures. My ex-boyfriend just had a baby. I read the title of the photo album: my name, followed by at least ten exclamation marks. He had named his baby daughter Annelein. Midas Dekkers once said: Your name is a poem. Parents try to fill it with meaning that is supposed to comprehend the greatness of your being.

I rebooted my computer and logged on and off of Facebook but the site was not the problem. By naming his daughter Annelein he had managed to create a connection between him and me.

Of course we are not really connected. Of course it's only a name. Every sane person knows there's no harm here. Then why did it feel so poisonous?
The gesture is so much bigger than the actual event. It's an exercise of power.

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet’

The North American Indian treated his name as a part of the self. His name is just as important as his eyes or teeth. Malignant use of his name is as harmful as hurting his body. There are Aboriginals who keep their names a secret to protect themselves against evil. There are Indian tribes that demand their members to change their names after one of the members has died. Some Indians have to deserve their name, until that time they are called 'boy' or 'girl'. Other Indians will never say their own name out loud when they're close to a river because the water can take away their soul and evil will get hold on them.

People have names, art works have titles, products carry a brand, plants and animals have a terminology.

If I remember correctly there are Aboriginals whose names refer to natural phenomena. The name Karla could, for example, mean 'fire'. When that person dies, they never use that name again and have to come up with a different name for 'fire'. That's how their worldview is under constant change. The associations connected to the word 'fire' will have to be reborn.

In theory I appreciate a worldview that claims authority in this way. Not because I am willing to view the world in the same way and not because I would be able to, but because you never know when Karla is going to die.

Some people speak on behalf of the law; others speak on behalf of art. There's always a connection between claiming power and the usage of names. Americans tell me: 'Hi! What's your name? Annelein? Oh hi, Annelein. Nice to meet you Annelein.'

A friend of mine thinks it's disgusting that cashiers are forced to wear nametags. It makes them submissive.

You can tag someone and reduce him or her to a notion. Or, in the case of products, turn their name into a concept.

You I Love (Ya lyublyu tebya)

Boy A

Be Kind Rewind

Lon (The Professional)

All That Heaven Allows

Mia aioniotita kai mia mera (Eternity and a Day)

L'amour en fuite

Drle de Flix

Victor Victoria

Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris)

The Thin Red Line

Enduring Love

Human Nature

Imitation of Life

Nichts als Gespenster


Rebel Without a Cause

Suddenly, Last Summer

The Cranes are Flying

You I Love (Ya lyublyu tebya)

"I love love” she said, closing her eyes. ––Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
Love loves to love love. ––James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

When we say we ‘love’ or are ‘in love’, what is it we love in someone?

Her face, his hands, her smile, his voice? The smell of his hair, those little sleepy eyes of hers, his gait, her enthusiasm, his music collection, intelligence, independence, her witticisms, carefulness, the touch of her skin? His broken fingernails? The way she looks when she looks away, the little, funny mark on his right shoulder? Just how he says ‘hullo’ on the phone? Some ‘objet petit a’ that escapes definition, outsores language, a thing we cannot grasp or touch – or, on the contrary, something you can point out, point at exactly, a ‘punctum’?

His, her, your ‘blinding originality’ as Roland Barthes puts it? Or nothing, not even something special in this other person? Couldn’t the original thing be what we share, what makes us unique, together? (Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux (1977), s.v. Atopos)

It’s your eyes and eyebrows – your smile – no, I wouldn’t know, it’s everything all together, everything about you. ––Knut Hamsun, Victoria (1935 – my translation (rw))

How it, he, she makes you feel: special, extraordinary, normal, simply happy, yourself, someone else, timeless, neither old nor young? Doesn’t love affect more than bodies and minds, but the fabric of time itself? Why do we forget about time when we are together, but think of nothing else simultaneously: its slipping through our fingers, the prospect of parting – and the waiting and longing when we are apart? Is this true: love needs time, but for love there is no such thing as time?

It takes no time to fall in love. But it takes you years to know what love is. ––Jason Mraz, ‘Life is Wonderful’, from the 2005 album Mr. A-Z

Imagine a girl (a young man, a boy, an elderly woman, just someone) being born, growing up, going to school, learning lots of languages, seeing the world, visiting other countries, going abroad, studying something, somewhere, say France – falling in love, very much in love with this other French girl (young man, boy, elderly woman etc.). Just think of some details, the one noticing the other, the other too impressed by the brave new world around her, a chance meeting (in a park, yes in a park, in Paris, in the springtime of course), first glances, then, later, the first touch.

It will be a love affair, even if they don’t know it yet, each day, every moment is an empty page. There is rapture all around.

They talk, look at each other, drink cheap wine from even cheaper glasses, laugh, talk even more, listen to music, go to movies, the park, the zoo, discuss books, the theatre, whatever they like. Anything is possible. (There is more looking of course, hesitation and not holding back at the same time.)

The two of them speak English, usually, sometimes some words in French, they seem to have grown to understand each other, even their silences. They have been together for two, three months now, eat meals together, share each other’s rooms and beds, at intervals. There is a moment, one time, in full summer, a warm, dark, damp night (or early morning).

Be Kind Rewind

‘Je t’aime,’ the other whispers.
She shudders, wavers, waits.
I love you, too.

How long does it take to learn the language of love? If you learn to say ‘I love you’ in one tongue, is it possible to understand (really understand) the other speaking another, to make yourself understandable? In this (imaginary?) universe ‘I love you’ cannot be translated, nor understood, if you don’t understand it first. ‘Ti amo’, ‘Ik hou van je’, ‘Je t’aime’, ‘Ich liebe dich’, ‘Jeg elsker deg’, all mean something else.

How does love translate, if it is, actually, itself a ‘translation’?

Is it necessary to know what love is to know what love is?

Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris)