Zbigniew Herbert: Dutch Apocrypha
ZBIGNIEW HERBERT’S SERIES “Dutch Apocrypha,” written during the late 1970s, is intriguing. Why did one of the finest living Polish poets turn to a parable-like prose genre he calls “apocrypha” and why did he then choose to write about a small country like Holland in the 1600s?
True, a collection of Herbert’s essays on Dutch art will soon be published by Ecco Press, to be entitled Still Life with a Bridle, and containing the “Dutch Apocrypha.” Also, Herbert had written other non-Dutch “apocrypha,” for a volume tentatively titled Attila’s Fiancée to appear in Polish. But he abandoned the project several years ago, and there is no sign he will return to it, at least in the form he imagined in the early 1970s.
The term “apocrypha” is Herbert’s own label to designate an event from history that he himself interprets, feeling that he must re-present history because conventional historians have misled us. Herbert’s subjects come from Western European history, from Chinese history, from mythology — all imbued with his experience of Communist rule in post-World War II Poland.
But Herbert’s continuing fascination with Dutch art — to the extent that he would write a book length collection of essays on the subject — is perhaps more difficult to explain. For more than a decade, Herbert had been speaking about “a book on Dutch art” he hoped to write. This was to be a major scholarly effort, requiring extensive investigation of seventeenth century documents and looking at paintings in museums. The center of his interest was clearly the Holland of the Golden Age of the seventeenth century. He was especially attracted to the earlier, anonymous Dutch painters who did not call attention to their personalities — as well as to later artists like Vermeer or Van Goyen who had found a closeness to the contours of life Herbert thought had been denied to more recent artists.
Above all, the relationship between art and society in the Dutch Golden Age seems to fascinate Herbert. As Herbert mentions in an essay, “The Prince of Art,” Holland had no princely patrons of art as in Italy. Instead, it was the middle classes who avidly collected. Herbert refers to the “collective hero, the Dutch bourgeois of the seventeenth century.” The painters in turn “tried to augment the visible world of their small country and to multiply reality by thousands, tens of thousands of canvases.”
Furthermore, Herbert valued highly the concreteness of Dutch art. His own poetry includes many poems on objects — “A Stool,” “An Armchair,” “A Pebble.” A whole collection is, in fact, entitled Study of the Object. It is no wonder that Herbert found a kindred attitude in such painters as Vermeer, the painter called “Torrentius,” or the many others busy rendering countless still lives. Holland was certainly the country of the concrete, the tangible object par excellence. In an essay entitled “Delta,” Herbert asks:
“Why precisely in this country are a great-grandmother’s bonnets, a great-grandfather’s frock coat made from Scottish wool, and a spinning wheel preserved with special care — an almost religious attention?”
The attachment to things was so great that pictures and portraits of objects were commissioned as if to confirm their existence and confirm their life. Other reasons for Herbert’s interest in seventeenth-century Holland are speculative perhaps, but nevertheless should be mentioned. Like Poland, Holland is a small country surrounded by powerful and often imperial neighbors. Consequently the Dutch valued resourcefulness, the careful management of limited means. They stressed the virtues of defense rather than offense. Their themes avoided untoward patriotic rhetoric and self-glorification, an approach which constituted the focus of another of Herbert’s essays on Dutch art entitled “The Non-Heroic Subject.”
Probably Herbert himself could not say why Dutch art has prompted such an obsession. In the conclusion of his essay on the Dutch painter Terborch, Herbert admits he can give no tidy conclusion, only a lesson in humility: “We will never solve all the secrets of the imagination.” —John Carpenter, November 4, 1990
CORNELIUS DREBBEL WAS a famous inventor and scholar but his colleagues treated him with reserve, reproaching him for lack of seriousness. It is a fact he was more inclined to spectacular demonstrations of his numerous abilities than to carry out systematic research. This is probably why no university ever offered him a chair. The royal courts, however, adored him.
In 1604 he appeared in England. Within a short time he won the sympathy of the higher spheres and the Monarch himself; the material proof of this was an annual pension paid from the royal purse, and an apartment in Eltham Palace. Drebbel then became what might be called a full-time manufacturer of unusual things and phenomena: a supplier of miracles, producer of bewilderment and vertigo.
According to contemporary accounts two events in particular (among many) caused a real sensation and remained for a long time in human memory: a demonstration of the navigation of a submarine, constructed by the inventor, which traveled from Westminster to Greenwich without emerging from the waters of the Thames; and a great meteorological pageant in Westminster Hall in London before the King, Court, and invited guests. At the pageant Drebbel’s machine hurled out thunder and lightning; suddenly in the middle of summer it became so freezing that walls were covered with frost and those who were present shivered from cold; at the end a warm, heavy rain fell and everyone melted in delight. There was no end to the applause in honor of this man who, by the power of his genius, made nature’s forces compliant to his will.
Drebbel’s head was full of ideas both big and small, serious and ridiculous, intelligent and completely insane. He constructed a special ladder to help obese people mount a horse, he worked out a new system to drain marshy terrain, he built flying machines (malicious people called them falling machines), he made a small hammer to hit parasites on the head that was connected to tweezers which pulled the victim from the hair, he invented a sensational technological process for dying fabrics, also an effigy that could be set in the wind and emit frightening cries and moans. This is just a small number of the inventions of this man of unusual resourcefulness.
Who was he in fact, a charlatan or scholar? Because we cannot look inside his soul, which has resided for a long time in the other world, we must concentrate our attention on what he left on earth. Drebbel’s library in particular, a true curiosity, provides valuable indications for those who want to study the nature of his intellect, fertile, with strokes of genius, and undisciplined at the same time.
The very arrangement of the books makes one think that Drebbel read scholarly works together with treatises by alchemists. The writings of Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci and Giordano Bruno stood side by side with Paracelsus, The Seventh Veil of Isis, The Temple of Hiram, and The Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom. The weed of Gnosis was rampant in the garden of the natural sciences. On the margins of dissertations in the field of mechanics, chemistry, and ballistic science Drebbel drew esoteric diagrams and wrote the sonorous names of the Kaballa: Binah, Geburah, Kether, which means Intelligence, Force, and the Crown of Knowledge.
Drebbel thought the world could not be explained in purely scientific categories, that sometimes the immutable laws of nature are not obligatory, making room for miracles and dazzling wonder. Probably this is why he built a perpetual motion machine, improving it throughout his life (he realized his enterprise was hopeless from the physicist’s point of view). One has to admit that on this path of madness he obtained certain results. His pendulums, windmills, spheres of light metal with weight hanging from them moved for a long time indeed, and when movement stopped, the inventor pushed them with a finger like a Demiurge, awakening sleepy matter from a nap.
After centuries when my bones have crumbled, Drebbel thought, and even my name dissolves in mist, someone will find my clock eternally striking. I don’t count on human memory but on the memory of the universe. I want my existence to be proved like the existence of God with an unmistakable and infallible proof: from movement, ex motu.
The Hell of Insects
JAN SWAMMERDAM WAS frail and sickly since birth. He was kept alive only by the art of two eminent physicians. But efforts to awaken his sleepy humors brought no results. In school he studied well but without enthusiasm, he did not show any definite interests. His father owned the prospering pharmacy “By the Swan” next to the town hall in Amsterdam; soon he became reconciled to the thought, but not without regret, that after his death his beautiful shop filled with smells of botany and chemistry, a collection of natural oddities and a crocodile hanging from the ceiling, would pass into the hands of a stranger.
After long hesitation Jan decided to study medicine at the University of Leyden. The family praised his intention and promised appropriate material aid, nourishing the quiet hope that a change of environment and scholarly discipline would positively influence and toughen the wishy-washy character of their only child.
Jan succumbed to the charms of knowledge and in an exaggerated way — he studied everything. He attended lectures on mathematics, theology, and astronomy, he did not neglect seminars where they read texts of ancient authors, he was also enthusiastic about oriental languages. He gave the least attention to his chosen domain of knowledge, medicine.
“God is sorely trying your father,” wrote Jan’s mother, “adding worries about his son’s fate to the torments of old age. You are wasting this precious time of youth as if wandering through a forest instead of pursuing a straight path toward your goal. If within two years you do not receive a doctor’s diploma, your father will stop sending money. Such is his will.”
Jan did finish medicine. But during his entire life he did not dress a single wound. The new passion that never left him until death was the study of the world of insects. Entomology did not yet exist as a separate domain of science; Jan Swammerdam established its foundations.
However the study of the antennae of the dung beetle, of the digestive system of the wasp or the legs of the mosquito did not bring Jan either revenue or fame. To make things worse he was convinced he was wasting his life, devoting it to a barren and useless occupation. Religious, with inclinations toward mysticism, Swammerdam suffered because the objects of his studies were creatures on the lowest rung of the ladder of species, on the garbage heap of nature, in a neighborhood close to the hot vestibule of hell. Who can perceive God’s finger in the anatomy of a louse? Is not the one-day damsel fly a splinter of nothingness rather than a permanent brick of existence? Therefore, he envied astronomers who could study the movements of planets and discover the architecture of the universe, the laws of harmony and the will of the Eternal.
At night he was visited by messengers from the Heavens. They gently persuaded him to abandon his frivolous occupations. Swammerdam did not defend himself, only apologized. He promised to reform but he knew he would never have the courage to burn his manuscripts, his beautiful, precise drawings and observations. Angels who know the secrets of the heart left him and then a pandemonium would begin: small creatures flying low, crawling on the ground, with the devil’s faces and the devil’s fierceness; they dragged Swammerdam’s tortured soul down into dust and ruin.
The fates smiled on him only once, and ambiguously at that. The Prince of Tuscany proposed twelve thousand florins for his collection of insects on condition that Swammerdam come and live in Florence — a tempting proposition — and that he accept Catholicism. This last condition was unacceptable for a man tortured by conflicts of conscience. He rejected the magnanimous offer.
A few years before his death (he died at the age of forty-three) he looked like a decrepit old man. Swammerdam’s weak body resisted for a strangely long time, as if death despised its miserable prey and sentenced him to a long agony.
He experienced then that the world which he had studied descended inside him: it nestled there and ravaged him from within. Long trains of ants marched through the corridors of his veins, swarms of bees drank the bitter nectar of his heart, large gray and brown moths slept on his eyes. The soul which usually flies to infinity at the moment of death left Swammerdam’s tortured body prematurely. It could not bear the rustle of the wing cases, nor the senseless buzzing that disturbs the pure music of the Universe.
GERRIT WAS BORN in a small village near Veere, and like all the men in his family he was destined for the vocation of fisherman. In the normal course of events, after a laborious life he would pass on his boat and house to his sons, while he would be content with two yards of bitter soil. But nature, which is usually so careful in allotting shapes to all its creatures, made him different. To the distress of his parents he grew beyond measure; at seventeen he reached the height of eight feet and five inches. Undoubtedly he was the tallest man that ever walked Dutch soil. In a mountainous country it might have been somewhat concealed; here, on a broad plain, his height was a constant though unintended provocation.
Endowed with huge strength he was normally quiet, gentle, and sad. He did not have friends; girls shunned him. Most of all he liked to sit in the corner of a room and watch how the dust of the earth swirled in a beam of sunlight.
Not particularly held back by his parents, Gerrit decided to set forth in the world and make a profession of his anomaly. He wandered from village to village, from town to town; at country fairs or popular holidays he broke horseshoes, bent iron bars, threw barrels full of beer into the air lightly as balls, and stopped a galloping horse with his naked hands. He competed hard with the other wonders of nature: a pig with two heads, a six-legged dog, a horse that knew how to count, as well as magicians, tightrope walkers, swallowers of melted sulfur, and clowns with stuffed bellies who fell face down in the mud.
Amid charlatans, fortune-tellers and rat catchers, in a deafening racket of drums, trumpets, and the shouts of dancing processions, in the smells of meat, garlic, and sweet pastry, Gerrit towered high above like a mast — and let us admit it, he earned little. In his blue eyes lurked the worry of a father of a numerous family; Gerrit’s numerous family was his huge, never-satiated body.
One autumn morning of 1688 Long Gerrit was found in an alley not far from Nieuwe Gracht in Haarlem. He was lying with his face down; his doublet was soaked in rain and blood, he had been stabbed repeatedly with a knife. Most likely there were many murderers, and the cotton pouch with money on his chest led one to believe it was not a robbery. The body was given to the University of Leyden, so he did not even have a decent burial. A few preachers, however, mentioned the murder in their sermons; one of them who was carried away by rhetorical fervor said Gerrit was dealt as many blows as Julius Caesar. It is not clear why this elevated analogy was used.
Perhaps the preacher wanted us to understand that the healthy republican spirit bestows equal hatred on giants and on caesars.
ONE CAN SAY with slight but certainly not great exaggeration that before travel began, a map existed first. Just as originally the hazy and impersonal outline of a poem has drifted for a long time in the air before someone dared bring it to earth, giving it a shape understandable to men. Thus maps, the music of sirens’ songs and challenges for the daring suggested to the Dutch a bold plan to navigate to China by a northern passage: a dark, narrow, icy corridor rather than the commonly used tropical route, full of murderous pirates and equally murderous competitors.
The matter must have been treated in full seriousness, because the Estates General established an award of 25,000 florins for whoever would successfully realize this intention bordering on madness. Two experienced men of the sea, Captain Jacob von Heemskerck and the Pilot Willem Barentsz, set out with a crew and two ships on a great reconnaissance. It was May 1597. The green strip of land quickly disappeared from the eyes, and after barely three weeks the sailors were surrounded by an inconceivable polar world. On June 5, one of the deck hands shouted that he saw a flock of huge white swans on the horizon. These were actually mountains of ice. The sailor’s mistake indicates not so much poetic imagination as a poor knowledge of polar hell.
After many dramatic episodes, adversities of weather and fate, struggles with an ever more incomprehensible environment (these wonders increased gradually, allowing partial adaptation), less than four months after leaving Holland further navigation became impossible. The ships were imprisoned by autumn ice on the shore of Nova Zemlya. A decision was made to winter there. For this they needed a house.
By happy coincidence they found wood on the island, brought by ocean currents from Siberian forests. It was hard as rock but they managed with this resistant material. The ship’s carpenter died at the beginning of construction; the frozen earth did not want to accept his mortal remains, and his body was buried in a crevasse of ice. Time was running out — the days were shorter and shorter, the temperature fell in an appalling way. Those who worked on the construction complained that when they put nails in their mouth according to the carpenter’s custom, they froze to their lips and had to be torn off with the skin.
On the third of November the last board was finally nailed to the roof. The happy sailors decorated their home with a branch formed out of snow.
So here was the house: a miniature of their homeland, a shelter from frost and the polar bears that hunted the Dutchmen. There was hardly a day they did not meet them eye to eye; rifles, flintlocks, muskets, halberds and fire were used but did not help much; the stubbornness and persistence of all these animals were almost human as they would suddenly appear like white, bloodthirsty phantoms, climbing the roof and trying to enter through the chimney. They sniffed and panted threateningly at the house’s door.
The chronicler of the expedition rarely permits himself to express emotions except for pious sighs to the Creator. At one point in his report he adopts the emotional term “beast” for the bear, and uses it until the end. In the middle of a polar night the bears’ siege came to an end and polar foxes appeared; the chronicler has a tender and warm term for them, “creatures.” They obediently entered the traps that were set, provided meat (it tasted like rabbit) and fur. Once again it was shown the mythical brotherhood of men with those on all fours contains a certain dose of hypocrisy.
On earth that was not destined for man in God’s plans, on the cruel, dazzlingly white and blindingly black chessboard of fate, stood a house. A fire set in the fireplace gave more smoke than warmth. Icy wind played in the cracks caulked with moss. Sick with scurvy and consumed with fever, the men lay on bunks that hung from the walls, snow burying the small house and its chimney. The polar night confused all measures of time and reality. At the end of January the sailors succumbed to a collective hallucination just like wanderers in the desert who have visions of an oasis — they saw an unreal sun above the horizon. But the funereal darkness of polar night was still to last for a long time.
It would be a mistake to think the hibernation of the Dutch was a kind of passive resistance. On the contrary, the energy that sparked from them is cause for admiration. They were busy, bustling like good Frisian peasants on their barren holdings. They carried wood for the fire, nursed sick companions, repaired the house, some of them wrote about the peculiarities of the surrounding world, they hunted, intricately practiced culinary arts, read the Bible aloud, entered four to a barrel while the ship’s barber poured hot water over them; he also cut their hair, which grew amazingly fast as if the body wanted to cover itself with fur. They sewed clothes and shoes from the hides of the animals they caught, sang pious and indecent songs. They repaired a clock that constantly froze, a clock that was consolation that time is not an abyss or black mask of nothingness but can be divided into a human yesterday and a human tomorrow — into a day without light and a night without glimmer, seconds, hours and weeks, into doubt which goes away and hope that is born.
He who struggles with the elements in a deadly contest, with an adversary a hundred times stronger, realizes he has a chance only if he concentrates all his attention, will, and cunning to counter the blows. It requires a special reduction of the entire personality, a degradation to animal impulses dictated by instinct. It is necessary to forget who one used to be. What counts is only the very moment of thunder, fire, storm, blizzard and earthquake. Any human surplus, any superfluous thought, feeling or gesture can bring catastrophe.
The handful of Dutch sailors exposed to the utmost ordeal transgressed these iron rules at least two times. They added a human accent to the laws of struggle with impersonal nature. But perhaps it was not just a risky extravagance or sentimental song about attachment sung in the icy wilderness, but an important element of self-defense. Both events are related to their new home. Because — after all — it was a home.
On January 6, 1598, the day of Epiphany, without paying any attention to what was happening outside, the shipwrecked men decided to celebrate the holiday as in their homeland. Even sober Captain Heemskerck gave in to the madness, giving an order to measure out to the crew from diminishing supplies a sizable portion of wine, and two pounds of flour; with this they baked a plumcake and biscuits. The mulled wine with spices put the crew in such high spirits they started to dance; many times they went through their favorite “bungler,” a hat dance, and a reel. They arranged a contest to decide who would become the Emperor of Nova Zemlya, and selected an Almond King. He was a very young sick sailor, Jacob Schiedamm, who died soon afterward, but on the memorable evening he smiled for the last time, to his companions rather than the world. The chronicler says everything took place as with their dear ones in Holland, which he summons only once with the solemn incantation “patria.”
It is not known who first had the idea — it might have been a product of collective imagination — but when the house was finally built (to tell the truth it was a dog house) they decided to give it some style. A triangular portal was painted in black over the low door, and the two windows were placed symmetrically on the front wall (the house was without windows). An eave made from ship boards was arranged in tiers and nailed to a flat roof. Soon it was swept away by a snowstorm, clearly hostile to these aesthetic subtleties.
When on June 13, 1598, they started back on two wretched boats no one had the courage to turn their head back and look at the deserted home — that monument to fidelity with a triangular portal, and two false windows where pitchy darkness lurked.
IT IS AN amazing thing that our memory best retains images of great philosophers when their lives were coming to an end. Socrates raising the chalice with hemlock to his mouth, Seneca whose veins were opened by a slave (there is a painting of this by Rubens), Descartes roaming cold palace rooms with a foreboding that his role of teacher of the Swedish Queen would be his last, old Kant smelling a grated horseradish before his daily walk (the cane preceding him, sinking deeper and deeper into the sand), Spinoza consumed by tuberculosis and patiently polishing lenses, so weak he is unable to finish his Treatise on the Rainbow. . . A gallery of noble moribunds, pale masks, plaster casts.
In the eyes of his biographers Spinoza was unmistakably an ideal wise man: exclusively concentrated on the precise architecture of his works, perfectly indifferent to material affairs, and liberated from all passions. But an episode in his life is passed over in silence by some biographers, while others consider it only an incomprehensible, youthful whim.
Spinoza’s father died in 1656. In his family Baruch had the reputation of an eccentric young man who had no practical sense and wasted precious time studying incomprehensible books. Due to clever intrigues (his stepsister Rebecca and her husband Casseres played the main role in this) he was deprived of his inheritance. She hoped the absentminded young man would not even notice. But it happened otherwise.
Baruch initiated a lawsuit in court with an energy no one suspected him to have. He hired lawyers, called witnesses, was both matter-of-fact and passionate, extremely well-oriented in the most subtle details of procedure and convincing as a son injured and stripped of his rights.
They settled the division of the estate relatively quickly (clear legal rules existed in this matter). But then a second act of the trial unexpectedly followed, causing a general sense of unpleasantness and embarrassment.
As if the devil of possessiveness had entered him, Baruch began to litigate over almost each object from his father’s house. It started with the bed in which his mother, Deborah, had died (he did not forget about its dark green curtains). Then he requested objects without any value, explaining he had an emotional attachment to them. The judges were monumentally bored, and could not understand where this irresistible desire in the ascetic young man came from. Why did he wish to inherit a poker, a pewter pot with a broken handle, an ordinary kitchen stool, a china figure representing a shepherd without a head, a broken clock which stood in the vestibule and was a home for mice, or a painting that hung over the fireplace and was so completely blackened it looked like a self-portrait of tar?
Baruch won the trial. He could now sit with pride on his pyramid of spoils, casting spiteful glances at those who tried to disinherit him. But he did not do this. He only chose his mother’s bed (with the dark green curtain), giving the rest away to his adversaries defeated at the trial.
No one understood why he acted this way. It seemed an obvious extravagance, but in fact had a deeper meaning. It was as if Baruch wanted to say that virtue is not at all an asylum for the weak. The act of renunciation is an act of courage — it requires the sacrifice of things universally desired (not without regret and hesitation) for matters that are great, and incomprehensible.
IT WAS ACCIDENTALLY discovered in the 1920s — to be exact in 1924 — in an antique book shop in Leyden. Three sheets of cream-colored paper of the dimensions 11.5 by 17 centimeters, with traces of humidity, but the handwriting well-preserved, the small, clear letters completely readable. An unknown person had pasted the letter onto the inside of the cover of an old, once very popular romance called The Knight with a Swan published in 1651 by the Amsterdam firm Cool.
The majority of scholars have written skeptically about this discovery, for example Isarlo, Gillet, Clark, de Vries, Borrero, and Goldschneider; only a young poet and historian from Utrecht, van der Velde (parenthetically stabbed with a dagger in mysterious circumstances not far from Scheveningen), fiercely defended the authenticity of the letter to the end of his life. According to the young scholar its author was none other than Johannes Vermeer, and its recipient Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a naturalist whose merits in the field of improving the microscope are well known. The scholar and the artist were both born in the same year, on the same day, and spent their entire lives in the same city.
The letter shows no traces of corrections or subsequent interpolations, but it contains two spelling mistakes and a few changes of letters; obviously it must have been written in a hurry. A few lines have been crossed out so decidedly and energetically that we will never learn what foolish or shameful thoughts were covered forever by the blackness of the ink.
The handwriting with its pointed letters, “v” written like an open eight, a somewhat wavy movement of the pen as if someone was speeding up and then suddenly stopping, reveals a striking similarity if not identity with the only preserved signature of Vermeer in the register of Saint Luke’s Guild in 1662. Chemical analysis of the paper and ink allows us to date the document at the second half of the seventeenth century. Everything indicates, then, that the letter could have been written by Vermeer’s hand yet we lack irrefutable proofs. We know that technically perfect falsifications have been made.
All those who spoke against the authenticity of the document put forward numerous arguments, but to tell the truth they are not too convincing. Scholarly prudence and even a far-reaching skepticism are undoubtedly praiseworthy virtues. But one could sense something between the lines of the critical remarks that no one clearly stated: the main reservations were caused by the letter’s content. Let us suppose that if Vermeer wrote to his mother-in-law Maria Tins, asking her to lend him a hundred florins for the baptism of his son Ignatius, or let us also imagine he offered one of his paintings to his baker van Buyten as a guarantee against a debt, I believe no one would protest. But when after two and a half centuries the Great Mute speaks with his own voice, and what he says is an intimate confession, a manifesto and a prophecy, we don’t want to accept it because we have a great fear before a revelation, and a lack of consent to a miracle.
Here is the letter:
“Undoubtedly You will be surprised I am writing rather than simply dropping by your laboratory before dusk, as so often happens. But I think I do not have enough courage, I do not know how to tell you to your face what you will read in a moment.
“I would prefer not to write this letter. I hesitated for a long time, because I really did not want to expose our long friendship to danger. Finally I made up my mind to do it. There are, after all, things more important than what unites us, more important than Leeuwenhoek, more important than Vermeer.
“A few days ago you showed me a drop of water under your new microscope. I always thought it was pure like glass, while in reality strange creatures swirl in it like in Bosch’s transparent hell. During this demonstration you watched my consternation intently, and I think with satisfaction. Between us there was silence. Then you said very slowly and deliberately: ‘Such is water, my dear, such and not otherwise.’
“I understood what you wanted to say by that: that we artists record appearances, the life of shadows and the deceptive surface of the world; we do not have the courage or ability to reach the essence of things. We are craftsmen so to speak who work in the matter of illusion, while you and those like you are the masters of truth.
“As you know my father owned the tavern ‘Mechelen’ at the market place. An old sailor often came there who had wandered all over the world, from Indochina to Brazil and from Madagascar to the Arctic Ocean. I remember him well. He was always quite tipsy but told splendid stories, and everyone gladly listened to him. He was the attraction of the place, like a big colorful picture or exotic animal. One of his favorite stories was about the Chinese emperor Shi Huang-ti.
“This emperor ordered his country to be surrounded by a thick wall, to shut himself off from everything that was different. He burned all books so he would not have to listen to the admonishing voice of the past; he forbade cultivation of any of the arts under penalty of death. (Their complete uselessness was blatantly clear when they were compared to such important tasks of state as building a fortress, or cutting off rebels’ heads). Thus poets, painters, and musicians hid in the mountains and remote monasteries; they led the life of exiles tracked by a pack of informers. On the squares, piles of paintings were burned, fans, statues, ornate fabrics, objects of luxury and all things that could be considered pretty. Men, women and children all wore the same ash-colored clothes. The emperor declared war even on flowers; he ordered their fields to be buried under stones. A special decree announced that at sunset everyone was to be at home, the windows tightly covered with black curtains because (you know yourself) what incredible pictures can be painted by the wind, clouds, and the light of sunset.
“The emperor valued only science. He showered scientists with honors and gold. Every day astronomers would bring news of the discovery of a new or imaginary star. In servile fashion it was given the name of the emperor, and soon the entire firmament teemed with luminous points of Shi Huang-ti I, Shi Huang-ti II, Shi Huang-ti III and so on. Mathematicians labored to invent new numerical systems, complicated equations and unimaginable geometrical figures, knowing only too well their labors were sterile, of no use to anyone. Naturalists promised they would develop a tree whose crown was embedded in the ground and whose roots reached the sky, also a wheat grain as large as a fist.
“At last the emperor wished for immortality. Physicians performed cruel experiments on men and animals to discover the secret of the eternal heart, the eternal liver, eternal lungs.
“As it often happens with men of action, the emperor desired to change the face of the earth and sky so his name would be inscribed forever in the memory of future generations. He did not understand that the life of an ordinary peasant, shoemaker, or a grocer was far more worthy of respect and admiration, while he himself was becoming a bloodless letter, a symbol among countless symbols of madness and violence monotonously repeating themselves.
“After all the crimes, all the devastation he caused in human minds and souls, his own death was cruelly banal: he choked on a single grape. To remove him from the surface of the earth nature did not exert herself to produce a hurricane or deluge.
“Probably you will ask: why do I tell you all of this, and what is the connection between the story of the foreign ruler and your drop of water? I will most likely answer you not very clearly or coherently, hoping you will understand the words of a man who is full of forebodings and anxiety.
“I am afraid that you and others like you are setting out on a dangerous journey which might bring humanity not only advantages but also great, irreparable harm. Haven’t you noticed that the more the means and tools of observation are perfected, the more distant and elusive become the goals? With each new discovery a new abyss opens. We are more and more lonely in the mysterious void of the universe.
“I know that you want to lead men out of the labyrinths of superstition and chance, that you want to give them certain, clear knowledge which according to you is the only defense against fear and anxiety. But will it really bring us relief if we substitute the word necessity for the word Providence?
“Most likely you will reproach me that our art does not solve any of the enigmas of nature. Our task is not to solve enigmas, but to be aware of them, to bow our heads before them and also to prepare the eyes for never-ending delight and wonder. If you absolutely require discoveries, however, I will tell you that I am proud to have succeeded in combining a certain particularly intensive cobalt with a luminous, lemon-like yellow, as well as recording the reflection of southern light which strikes through thick glass onto a gray wall.
“The tools we use are indeed primitive: a stick with a bunch of bristles attached to the end, a rectangular board, pigments and oils. These have not changed for centuries, like the human body and nature. If I understand my task, it is to reconcile man with surrounding reality. This is why I and my guild brothers repeat an infinite number of times the sky and clouds, the portraits of men and cities, all these odds and ends of the cosmos because only there do we feel safe and happy.
“Our paths part. I know I will not convince you, and that you will not abandon polishing lenses or erecting your tower of Babel. But allow us as well to continue our archaic procedure, to tell the world words of reconciliation and to speak of joy from recovered harmony, of the eternal desire for reciprocated love.”
CORNELIS TROOST, TEXTILE merchant and unknown hero of history, is dying.
It is not true our entire life appears in front of our eyes before death. That great recapitulation of existence is an invention of the poets. In fact we sink into chaos. Within Cornelis Troost there is a confusion of days and nights, he does not distinguish Monday from Sunday, he confuses three in the afternoon with four in the morning; when he is alert he waits, listening to his own breathing and his heart. He asks for a clock to be put on a table in front of his bed, as if hoping he will experience the grace of cosmic order. But what is nine o’clock if it does not mean sitting at the desk in the office, the noon hour without the stock exchange, four o’clock from which dinner is taken away, six o’clock without coffee and a pipe, eight o’clock deprived of all meaning because they have removed the table, supper, family, and friends. O holy ritual of everydayness, without you time is empty like a falsified inventory which corresponds to no real objects.
The angels of death keep vigil at his bed. Soon the naked soul of Cornelis Troost will stand before the Highest Judge to account for his deeds. We who know little about divine matters, are interested in a human, unimportant question: was he happy?
Friendly fate led him by the hand that memorable April day when half a century earlier he wandered through huge, noisy Amsterdam, clutching a letter that recommended him to a relative who was a shoemaker. It contained a request to kindly accept the boy and teach him the profession. That letter, conceived by a teacher in the country, had only one drawback: there was no address.
Then, as it happens only in fairy tales, a handsome man dressed in black appeared before the lost boy: Baltazar Jong, a textile merchant who without asking many questions took him to his house, gave him a bed in the attic and entrusted him with the responsible function of message boy. Thus without effort or merits Cornelis passed from the purgatory of twine and lasts — which seemed to be his destiny — to the heaven of silks and laces. Such was the beginning of a stunning career, as it is only a natural course of events and not a career when the son of a mayor becomes mayor and the son of an admiral becomes an admiral.
Cornelis Troost commendably passed all the steps of the merchants’ profession. He was a conscientious and zealous apprentice, scribe, warehouseman, accountant, salesman favored by the ladies because of his constantly pink cheeks, finally a kind of personal secretary of Jong. Then he changed his quarters from the attic, which meant he was now treated as a member of the family, not numerous but upstanding and consisting of the master, the lady of the house, and a daughter.
At about this time he performed an unusual deed: carrying an important, confidential message, he skated the distance from Amsterdam to Leyden in less than an hour along frozen canals. (Ungrateful human memory has not recorded this fact as it deserved). Mr. Jong took care to put a healthy soul in the healthy body of his pupil. He sent him to dancing lessons, taught him the flute and a few Latin proverbs. The one Cornelis liked most was Hic Rhodus, hic salta, and he would insert it in his conversations with important persons only too often, sometimes even without much sense.
Mr. Jong was a man of broad horizons, educated and subtle. He had collected a sizable library. The Classics stood in the first rows, while shamefully hidden behind them were passionate accounts of faraway voyages that were to push his grandson to the stormy life of an adventurer. He bought paintings, and was interested in astronomy. In the evening he strummed a guitar and read Latin poets; he preferred, however, his native Vondel. He systematically enlarged his collection of minerals. Above all he adored Livy, oysters, Italian opera, and light Rhine wines. His sudden death plunged his family and friends in genuine sadness. He died as stylishly as he lived — at a full table, as he was lifting a sponge cake dipped in wine to his mouth.
Without waiting for tears to dry Cornelis Troost asked for the hand of the daughter of his deceased master, Anna. He was not moved by a mercenary motive, at least he did not think so, although at the same time he realized he had entered his adopted family not by the front door but by the attic. At this moment he felt as noble as Perseus who frees Andromeda chained to the rock of an orphan’s mourning.
His proposal was accepted (who could better lead the business of the firm?) and the wedding was arranged quickly (the malicious said too quickly). It was not too ostentatious as circumstances did not allow it, but the tables bent under the food and beverages. Because of an excessive number of toasts washed down with wine, grain spirits, rum, and beer, Cornelis spent the wedding night in a state of complete unconsciousness.
A year after the wedding an only son was born, given the name of Jan at baptism.
The firm (it carried now the name “Jong, Troost and Son”) was doing excellent business thanks not only to favorable conditions but above all to Troost’s talents and his unusual merchant’s intuition. Born a peasant, he knew his countrymen were conservative to the marrow of their bones. One would think the owner of a large textile store would be interested in fashion. Troost simply ignored it, considering it a nuisance like a runny nose which from time to time bothers an organism full of healthy habits and tastes. If he paid attention to the “latest rages” of fashion it was only in the domain of accessories: ribbons, shoulder straps, buckles, and eventually feathers. He firmly believed that true elegance does not demand a broken line or richness of colors but is satisfied with the calm, simple line of a cut, as well as noble black, purple, and white. He was also, if one may say so, an ardent patriot of native industry. He was convinced — and persuaded his clients — that the best wool comes from Leyden, the cotton from Haarlem has no competition, Amsterdam’s silk fabrics are truly without equal, and there are no better velvets on earth than those from Utrecht.
Cornelis Troost, owner of the firm “Jong, Troost and Son,” worked untiringly six days a week, but he devoted Sundays and holidays entirely to his family. From early spring until late fall, after hearing a Service, the Troosts would set out on faraway excursions to the “Three Oaks,” the dunes, or to an inn “Da Zwaan” situated in a picturesque and secluded spot. Here is a picture: Cornelis marches in front (always some hundred feet ahead, as if bursting with the memory of his old skating exploits), silent Anna is walking with small steps behind him. The servant with a basket of monstrous dimensions full of victuals, and small noisy Jan riding a cart harnessed to a goat, close the procession. Both parents spoiled their only child beyond all imagination. A rest. Lunch in the shade of old elms: cream, wild strawberries, cherries, rye bread, butter, cheese, wine and cake.
In the early afternoon the family would come to the inn “Da Zwaan,” famous for its excellent cuisine and situated near a major road crossing. Gallows stood there; one could tactfully go around them by choosing a path through the meadows. Inside the inn it was always crowded and noisy. Heavy odors of tobacco, lamb fat, and beer wafted in the air. Cornelis Troost usually ordered hutsepot — one could not find a better one in all the United Provinces — a salmon in green sauce, incomparable crepes, and candied chestnuts (he would put them thoughtfully in his pocket fearing a sudden attack of hunger on the way back). Washed down with a double beer from Delft, all this put body and soul in a state of satiated melancholy.
The return would take place slowly, in reverse order: Jan rode in front, next to him the servant freed from her burden, behind them Anna fearfully looking back, and at the end Cornelis, who would frequently stop. As if suddenly struck by the beauty of existence and the loveliness of nature he craned his neck and greeted the passing clouds with loud singing not completely concordant with principles of harmony:
Good evening, good evening,
my dear Joosjeor: Lush oaklands, lovely crags
Noble witnesses of my pleasures. If now or several years later Cornelis Troost was asked whether he was happy, he would not have known what to answer. Happy people, just as people who are healthy, do not ponder about their own condition.
O Wonderful clock measuring weekdays and holidays! It is true that Cornelis Troost never stood in the blinding glare of great historical events. But could one say that in the drama of the world he played a secondary role? He met his fate of textile merchant as others meet their roles of warriors, heretics, or statesmen. He rubbed against history only once, fleetingly, as in a dance — it happened during the visit of a foreign monarch.
At that time Troost was an Elder of the guild, and he went to the town hall for the welcoming ceremony wearing an orange sash, yellow ribbons below his knees and at his shoulders. He wore a fanciful hat decorated with black ostrich feathers which with every breath of wind almost took flight. From the depths of his heart he hated these clothes, pompous as costumes of opera singers, but he did not regret this masquerade because he saw the monarch face to face, that is, from a human perspective. Later he repeated an endless number of times: “I saw him quite close, and you know he is pale, fat, small, about half a head shorter than me.” He was bursting with great republican pride.
After the reception there was a procession in honor of the monarch, combined with shooting into the innocent sky. For the second time Troost had an occasion to try out his beautiful Florentine rifle. The first time it happened in his own garden when he fired at an owl suspected of disturbing the peace at night. The stock of the rifle was decorated with an engraving of “The Judgment of Paris” against a background of a vast mountainous landscape. Cornelis valued this part of the weapon most, considering the metal pipe a superfluous addition.
After these historical events life continued to roll in its ordinary groove. Business went splendidly, but Jan gave his parents constant troubles and worries: he did not study, ran away from home and preferred the company of total scoundrels. The prodigal son always returned to the bosom of the family, however, where a biblical scene full of tears, repentance, and forgiveness took place. It seemed that in the end matters would settle down favorably for everyone. Only Anna was getting weak, and so it was decided to accept a third servant; among many candidates a young Frisian peasant by the name of Judith was selected.
Her beauty was not dazzling, but it awoke in the soul of the master of the house hazy, sweet memories of distant childhood. He liked her very much, and gave her ribbons and barrettes matching her red, fluffy hair, asking her not to tell anyone about it. He persuaded his wife to permit Judith to help him in the store in the evening. It might have happened two or three times that they stayed alone and locked the door with a key. But the bad tongues of the neighbors gossiped about the scandal. Anna suffered ostentatiously but in silence.
Cornelis started to go more often to the barber. He played the flute for hours. He became talkative, loud, and excessively gay. One day he confided to Anna that he wanted to order a portrait. A painter was recommended who lived on Rozengracht. He was, or else had been, a fashionable portrait painter and was also known for his religious scenes. Festively dressed he went to him: the name escaped his memory, but passersby showed him the house. The painter received him not too politely. He had closely set, piercing eyes, and the thick hands of a butcher. He was dressed in a long, stained apron and had a strange turban on his head. All of this would have been bearable, but the price for the portrait that this boor gave him — three hundred florins — confused Cornelis (he immediately calculated it against yards of good woolen fabric). An embarrassing silence followed. At last the painter declared that he could portray Cornelis as a Pharisee, and then the price would be considerably lower. At this point it was the hurt pride of the textile merchant that took over. He wanted to be represented as he was, at the peak of success, in a gentle glow of happiness but without unnecessary symbols and decorations, with his own large head surrounded by luxuriant hair, his keen eyes looking into the future with confidence, a thick nose, the mouth of a gourmet, and also strong hands, resting near the frame of the painting, in which one could entrust not only the business matters of the firm “Jong, Troost and Son” but also the fate of the city (at the time Cornelis dreamt of being a mayor). It is not surprising that the contract for the painting was never signed. Later someone gave him the name of another famous portrait painter from Haarlem; but he did not contact him because his mind was preoccupied with serious problems and worries.
One never knows when or from where a storm will come that shakes the foundations of a house (and it seemed it was eternal), and in the sudden flash of lightning show the emptiness of plans arduously put together during an entire life. Jan, the only son, the hope and future heir of the firm, ran away from home for good. He left a letter that he had found a job on a ship, and even gave its name. But it was quickly discovered there was not such a ship. Thus only a grim supposition remained that the boy — in fact already a man — had joined the pirates, those scoundrels who throw the Bible, rosary, and logbook overboard and finish a life of crime in dungeons or on the gallows.
For the first time Troost felt wronged, helpless, and humiliated. Anna suffered also but quietly, in the depths of her impenetrable maternal being. On the other hand the extensive suffering of Cornelis encompassed many different spheres of his soul: he was frightened by the unexpected blow of fortune which had been well-disposed until now but suddenly revealed its true, sneering face. He felt stripped of his good name and merits. A cruel sentence constantly returned in his thoughts: “I am now just a father of a criminal.” He lost faith in the only human immortality which expressed itself in the hope that the name Troost — surrounded by human respect and trust — would be repeated forever in the guild of textile merchants.
What is more, the affair with Judith (according to Cornelis there was no affair) was becoming more and more notorious. Indeed after closing the shop he stayed longer and longer with her, ample cause for gossip. Acquaintances answered his greetings with a wink and an impish smile which probably meant, “Well well, we did not know you were such a brave boy.” On the other hand during church service his neighbors in the pew preferred to stand on the stone floor, to let him know the void surrounding him expressed severe rebuke. For the good of the firm, therefore, he decided to let the girl go. He accompanied her to the square from which carriages were leaving in the direction of Hoorn; he hugged her in a fatherly way, pressing into her hand fourteen florins and eight stoovers.
She disappeared in the crowd. He did not know whether she entered the carriage. If she went to the tavern on the other side of the street “At the Black Cock,” which had the worst reputation (sailors hungry for cheap love knew it well), her fate was sealed. This thought and especially the lustful images associated with her haunted him for years.
He worked with his old energy, but without the enthusiasm that gives wings to all enterprises. Sometimes it happened that he refused to buy large shipments of merchandise even on advantageous terms, saying: “I leave it to the young; now I make the rounds of my estate and check walls, locks, and chains.” The business, however, went no worse than before. In the spring Anna died.
Now he was alone. He thought for some time that he should crown the memory of himself and Anna with stone. It was to be a bas-relief built into the wall of Nieuw Kerk representing the couple holding each other’s hands, with a quotation from the Bible underneath: “Thus I repent and do penance in dust and ashes.” But the common sense of Cornelis, which never abandoned him even when he approached spheres not subject to reason (rarely, it is true), suggested that he who truly humbles himself before the Lord does not erect marble monuments to himself. He pushed the temptation aside. “A simple plaque on the floor of the church will be enough,” he said, surprised at his own modesty.
The new idea liberated unsuspected reserves of initiative, inventiveness and enthusiasm. He managed to convince his exceedingly economical guild brothers (for years he had been dean of the guild) it was necessary to build an orphanage. The spirit of a young entrepreneur entered Cornelis, more, an apostle of a cause. He tried to be everywhere at once: he organized collections, banquets, and lotteries to add to the funds of the enterprise, he approved plans, supervised the progress of construction, conferred for hours with masons and carpenters about every detail. He liked to stroll in the courtyard of the future orphanage and draw with his cane against the sky the still nonexistent walls and windows, floors, mouldings and steep roof.
He spent evenings at home “in the yellow room” whose windows gave onto the garden. An armchair upholstered with red cordovan stood there in which Mr. Jong (how many years ago it was) read his Latin poets half aloud. It was the most venerable piece of furniture in the household, like a flagship commanding a flotilla of beds, tables, benches, chairs, abysmal wardrobes, and cupboards. Cornelis would take a few books from the library at random and sink into that armchair, leafing through the last number of the Dutch Mercury in which there was always so much interesting news about floods, court intrigues, the exchange, miracles and crimes. He did not read much; he listened to the hubbub of the street and murmurs in the house. A strong smell came from the garden of narcissus, wild roses, and saffron.
As he let himself be carried away by sounds and smells he had the experience that time was no longer docile. Before, during his youth, he was its master; he knew how to stop or accelerate it like a fisherman who imposes his own rhythm on the current of a river. Now he felt like a stone thrown to the bottom, a stone covered with moss over which a mobile immensity of incomprehensible waters was rolling.
The book would slip off his knees. He fell into torpor. More and more often the servant had to wake him for supper.
Soon after his birthday which was celebrated with pomp (he had turned sixty), he fell sick. The doctors diagnosed a jaundiced fever, recommended peace, and gave assurances that the patient would quickly return to health. Cautious Cornelis made a testament and ordered that debts be paid back ahead of time. The state of the firm was as follows: assets, 12,000 florins; liabilities easy to collect, 9,300 florins; 5,100 florins in valuable papers and shares in the East India Company.
He was getting weaker and weaker, now he no longer got up from bed. The physicians prescribed herb compresses, different potions: quinine wine, tincture of aloes, extract of gentian. They also let his blood, and in the end recommended that spider heads in walnut shells be applied to the chest of the patient; and if that did not help, verses from the Bible would be substituted for the spider heads. Clearly science was discretely giving way to faith.
Every day around five — it was a sunny, very warm summer-an old friend of Troost would come, Abraham Anslo, once a preacher famous throughout Holland, today a silent old man with a sparse gray beard and permanently tearing eyes. He sat at the foot of the bed. They smiled to each other, their dialogue taking place beyond words and time. The patient had a huge need to confess his doubts, spiritual perplexities and anxieties. He could not understand the Other World at all. The empty blue skies frightened him. Very likely it was an impious rebellion of the imagination, above all of the pagan senses. He was absolutely unable to understand how one can exist without a house, without creaking stairs and a banister, without curtains and candelabras; also without the cloths which had surrounded him throughout his life. What implacable force takes away from us the coolness of coarse silk, black wool flowing through the hands like a gentle wave, linen recalling the surface of a pond covered with ice, velvet tickling like moss, laces that seemed to whisper women’s secrets?
Anslo would leave before dusk, and touch the hand of his friend with cold fingers for goodbye.
Not much time remained.
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow a servant would enter with breakfast and give a short cry.
Then they would cover all the mirrors in the house, and turn all the pictures to the walls so the image of a girl writing a letter, of ships in open sea, of peasants dancing under a tall oak, would not stop the one who wanders toward unimaginable worlds from going on his way.
(Translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter)
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