Summary of The Origin of Consciousness

How did human beings who lived five thousand years ago view themselves? How did they make decisions and how did they reflect on their past? Julian Jaynes (1920 – 1997) proposes a radical answer to these questions: until a few thousand years ago human beings did not ‘view themselves’. They did not have the ability: they had no introspection and no concept of ‘self’ that they could reflect upon. In other words: they had no subjective consciousness.

Jaynes calls the mental space of these pre-conscious people the bicameral mind. It is a mind with two chambers, the mind that is divided in a god part and a human part. The human part heard voices and experienced these as coming from gods. These gods were no judging, moral or transcendent gods, but were more like each person’s problem solvers. They were hallucinated voices that provided the answers when a person entered a stressful situation which couldn’t be solved by routine.

This is not to say that people with a bicameral mind were barbarians waving their bludgeons and uttering monosyllabic sounds. They were social creatures with a fully developed language. But language alone is not enough for consciousness, according to Jaynes. The pivotal question is which concepts are available in a language. Consciousness, in Jaynes’s definition, is a box of conceptual tools that is not ‘included with the hardware’. It is ‘software’ that had to be invented, like tools such as the wheel. The most important transitional phase towards this new mentality occurred between 1000 and 500 B.C., an era from which textual sources are available: the most telling ones are the Iliad, the Odyssey and of course the Bible.

Jaynes’s definition of consciousness
It is important to notice how Jaynes defines consciousness. It has nothing to do with perception or sensation. This means that many common connotations of the word are excluded. For example, the ‘conscious experience’ of a bright color red, or a sharp pain. These examples of subjective experience, that fascinating aspect of our mental life, is not what Jaynes wants to explain. However fascinated he may be by the question ‘where the color red is’ when we watch the setting sun – nothing but gray matter in our heads, after all – he is searching for another holy grail: how is it possible that we can pose these kinds of questions at all? Our puzzlement about our experience of the setting sun presupposes an advanced way of looking at ourselves, an advanced, reflective theory of mind. How did that ability evolve?

So then what is consciousness in Jaynes’s definition? As a first approximation: it is a process, not an immediate sensation. It is a narrative way of thinking which makes us capable of making judgments and decisions. It is a sort of self management. With consciousness, we do not need voices of gods or other superior beings. We have the capability of picturing ourselves as individuals with memories, a past, a future and a (more or less) free will. A conscious individual can view himself ‘from above’ and give orders to himself. He has tools, as it were, to isolate scenes from his life and to project these on an imaginary screen. To edit those at his own wish, and combine them into different scenarios.

Where does this ability originate from? Jaynes:

Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world.

What does this mean: ‘metaphors or analogs of behavior in the real world’? It means that the language in which we reason is built from metaphor. Take the concept of memory. We imagine memory somewhat like a container which can hold mental stuff, which can become full, in which one sometimes pokes in vain. Such a container does not really exist, but it is a useful way to visualize an aspect of our mental behavior.

In a sense, our entire mental vocabulary is figurative or metaphorical. Even the way in which we imagine time is metaphorical: a spatial extendedness. We place events on a timeline, on which left and right are analogue to before and after. Thus, a coherent story about the ‘self’ can be told, that wonderful fiction. No easy accomplishment! It must have been a long road for humandkind to invent it.

The bicameral mind of the Iliad
What did the world look like before consciousness came into being? Jaynes searches for answers in the Greek epic the Iliad (eighth century BC). According to Jaynes, this work of literature was created in a time in which the bicameral mind was already breaking down, but was still operational to an important degree.

The remarkable thing about the heroes of the Iliad is that they don’t show initiative and do not reason about their behavior. Everything is given to them by their gods. These tell or instruct their fellow humans something, and man acts accordingly. The gods are in charge and man can only be his puppet. Jaynes:

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon (1:197ff.). It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath on the beach by his black ships, […] a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, […]

The ever present involvement of gods is regarded by many historians as only a poetic device, a playful way of the writer(s) of the Iliad to enliven the deeds of the protagonists. Jaynes, however, argues that the gods should not be taken as a literary trick. Instead, their presence in literature is a faithful reflection of their omnipresence in everyday experience.

The gods are, as mentioned before, no judging, moral gods, but were perceived more like authorative personal problem solvers of each man. In disturbing or very novel situations man hears – hallucinates even – what he has to do. According to Jaynes, in a similar fashion as schizophrenes in our time, who still hear voices that tell them what to do.

So this is the bicameral or two-chambered mind. A mind that is not yet undivided (individual) and does not make conscious decisions. In a sense, this mind does not make decisions at all, since all action is either a matter of routine or directly based on what is spoken to man by his god-side.

The origin of the bicameral mind
Jaynes speculates about the origin of the divided nature of the bicameral mind. Imagine, he proposes, a stage in the evolution of mankind where there was a primitive language, but nothing remotely like consciousness, like self-management. We imagine a social context of a small group of hominid hunter/gatherers. Language was to these creatures a great tool for exchanging information and enforcing power. Initially, language was exclusively audible, always something external. Only when complex solitary behavior was required, was there an evolutionary advantage for some form of internal speech. It is plausible that the first inner speech acts were copies of the most elementary external communicative act: a spoken command from one person to another.

This internalization of a communicative act – which by definition always involves two parties – is a possible explanation for the origin of the divided nature of the bicameral mind. The inner voice speaks, man acts upon it. In an early stage these voices might have been echoic repetitions of an order made by a leader. In more advanced stages they could have incorporated more and more knowlegde and intelligence and might have been ascribed to higher beings which transcended the direct social circle: the god-king for example.

This mental structure constituted the cohesive force of the social hierarchy in early civilizations. The voice was the authorative force which controlled human action. Remember we are talking about a time without a written law. This explains why real-life authorative figures like kings were identified as gods. They were in a very real sense gods. Namely in the sense that they were, ultimately, the voice that had to be obeyed. The origin of the belief in after-life becomes understandable from this perspective. After the king died, his imagined voice did not vanish immediately (Jaynes re-interprets the puzzling Old-Egyptian word ka, which scholars have translated as soul or ‘cosmic double’, as meaning bicameral voice).

The breakdown of the bicameral mind
The bicameral mind grew organically from a straightforward social structure. And the knife cuts both ways: the bicameral mind depended on such a structure in which it could thrive (schizophrenia can be viewed as a relapse that is utterly disfunctional in modern society). As societies grew larger and increasingly more complex, all kinds of intermediates/priests, ‘intermediate gods’ and idols were necessary to manage affairs (idols, according to Jaynes, are a way to invoke the speech of the god).

It is conceivable that a society that is organized in such a bicameral-bureaucratic way becomes vulnerable at a certain level of complexity. Indeed, there are many historical examples of dynasties that collapsed, apparently without external cause such as disasters. Another factor that would undermine the bicameral mind was the invention of writing. As a result, the voices could no longer remain the highest authority. They would be replaced by the Law, carved in stone or written on paper.

The rigid bicameral mind might not be flexible enough to deal with complex social dynamics. Whatever the direct cause was – a big earthquake of flood? – from all sources it appears that in the second millennium B.C. it was a chaos of mass migration and war in the area we now call the Middle-East. From that era stems the first evidence that the bicameral mind was eroding.

The pictures display something that had never been seen before: a king who kneels before an empty throne. The texts from this era speak of gods having left humankind:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance,
The good angel who walked beside me has disappeared


A king who kneels before an empty throne… Cuneiform from the reign of King Marduk of Babylon, around 1230 B.C.

A lament that in a certain sense can still be heard today. The difference, however, is that the longing for God in our age is a romantic longing. The people who lived three millennia ago felt abandoned in the most literal, practical sense. They had nothing to guide them.

The origin of consciousness
By leaps and bounds, with intermediate phases we will probably never know of, and undoubtedly with relapses into old mentality, a new mind came into existence. A few crucial ingredients were needed. An important and very basic ingredient is the trick of spatializing concepts. Certain concepts are only imaginable if they are cast in spatial metaphor. The concept of time is a crucial example. The brilliant idea to imagine time as a spatial thing, for example a line, opens a world of possibilities. It makes history possible, both for a person and for a people. We daily rewrite our ‘autobiographies’. Keeping track of that is an essential element of consciousness. It makes a stable concept of ‘self’ possible.

Another crucial component of consciousness is the insight that human behavior is not caused by a god, but by the person himself. The initial cause of action had to be internalized. Some chapters of the Origin are about the complex evolution of this invention. A brief account of this extremely interesting phase follows here.

When the bicameral mind began breaking down, man had to start making decisions. In the bicameral age, the decision making process had been a non-conscious one: some inaccessible mental process (after all, most intelligent behavior stems from processes that are inaccessible to us) which resulted in an inner voice instructing what to do next. Man’s first attempts at making his own decisions are called divination. Examples are the studying of omens, watching the stars, throwing and studying sticks and bones (sortilege), ‘reading’ animals’ intestines, etcetera. These are all methods that project the will of the gods, who were still thought to exist, into the external world. So decision making was in this phase a process that took place in the world, not in the mind. Jaynes:

What is important here is to understand provoked divination such as sortilege as involving the same kind of generative processes that develop consciousness, but in an exopsychic, nonsubjective manner.

Iliad and Odyssey as transitional period
The next big steps took place when these ‘exopsychic’ methods were internalized. And so the gods were not needed anymore, at least not as instigators of human action. Man learned to picture himself as cause of his own action. And what would be better candidates for the instigators of action than sensations of the intestines? In the Iliad these are kradie, which is the heart, and phrenes, the lungs, and thumos, roughly the feeling of an adrenaline rush, or being in a state of fight-or-flight. It is thumos which can give strength, thumos which can be spoken to a and which can even speak itself to a man. Phrenes can be filled with anger. Noos is perception, derived from noein, to see. In the Iliad this objective meaning gets for the first time, however hesitatingly, the metaphorical, subjective meaning that is so important for consciousness (to ‘see something’ with your mind’s eye). ‘Speak, conceal not in noos, so that we both may know’.

The next important step is that these concepts get even more metaphorical attributes. The lungs can not only fill with anger, something can also be ‘put inside them’, a representation for example. Jaynes:

All these metaphors are extremely important. Saying that the internal sensations of large circulatory and muscular changes are a thing into which strength can be put is to generate an imagined ‘space’, here located always in the chest, which is the forerunner of the mind-space of contemporary consciousness. And to compare the function of that sensation to that of another person or even to the less-frequent gods is to begin those metaphor processes that will later become the analog ‘I’.

In the Odyssey these words get richer and more consciousness-like meanings. The thumos can give a command, the phrenes can even contain the description of a future event, or a secret. The kradie (heart) gives Odysseus a warning for imminent danger. These are all functions which were in previous eras accomplished by the gods. The process will finally result in an ‘I’ which unites them all.

Once the invention of this mindspace is completed, it leads to an explosion of Old-Greek philosophy. An entire new domain of knowledge emerges. From what stuff is this newly discovered Mind made? Is it immortal? The first great figure of this new order is Solon of Athens, with his revolutionary slogan: ‘know thyself’ – an advice that would have been unthinkable in the bicameral age.

The Bible
Jaynes also uses the Old Testament as a source of evidence. He reads it as a history of mentality. He invites us to compare the books of Amos and Ecclesiastes. Amos is an example of the bicameral mind (‘And God said unto me..’). Ecclesiastes, written six centuries later, is an example of subjective consciousness (‘I said to myself:…’).

The era of the prophets is a transitional phase. Only they can still experience the visions or auditory hallucinations of the gods. But also these figures lose their power. Around 400 B.C. the prophets have left the stage.

After the transition to a new mentality, the time is ripe for a religious reformation. The teachings of the New Testament can be seen as a religion for ‘people with consciousness’. Sin and contrition are now internalized.

Vestiges of the bicameral mind
An entire part is dedicated to the vestiges of this old mentality in our own minds. This interesting part, which I will not summarize here, contains all kinds of indirect evidence for the development of our present psychological state. I already mentioned schizophrenia, but also historical phenomenons like oracles and prophecy are taken into account. Until the present age we are reminded that there are phenomena like mediums, possession, hypnosis… these are all mental states that resemble the ancient bicameral mind in the sense that they depend on a lower level of consciousness and an externalization of control.

Review of The Origin of Consciousness

I always thought that the invention of fire and the wheel were the most important breakthroughs in the history of mankind. After reading The Origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind (Julian Jaynes, 1976) I wonder if conceptual innovations were not at least as revolutionary. Jaynes makes us realize that mental abilities that we take for granted are in fact hard-won achievements.

Brain gymnastics
Understanding The Origin requires quite a bit of brain gymnastics. I remember reading for an hour and a humble eight pages or so, feeling excited but exhausted and having to put the book aside. I would not believe someone who says to have read the entire book within a few days – and claiming to have understood it. It takes time to process the concepts and the new perspective they give on all kinds of familiar phenomena.

Jaynes begins by analyzing subjective consciousness in all its parts. What would remain if we would subtract all these items from our bag of mental tricks – would we still call what remains consciousness? Jaynes asks us, for example, the following. Imagine a culture in which people do not view the future as ahead of them, like we do, and neither as something that they fall into backwards (like the old Greek are said to have pictured it in a certain era). Instead, imagine that in this culture there is no way to visualise time in either direction. In other words: a way of thinking in which time cannot be imagined in a spatial way. Which implications would this have for the psychology of the those people? As Jaynes argues, a lot depends on this apparently simple trick.

Idols from Mesopotamia

Idols from Mesopotamia

And so the demolition continues (read the quotes or the summary for a more in-depth account), until finally we can more or less imagine a mentality that differs so radically from our own that it is indeed questionable if we would be right to call it consciousness. Once Jaynes has ‘broken down’ our own subjective consciousness, he then proceeds in the opposite direction, as a kind of ‘reverse mind engineer’. He demonstrates how humankind invented, in the course of centuries, a self and an I which can move in a metaphorical space.

Jaynes makes us understand that for the people with a pre-conscious mentality, the ‘gods’, so curious from our perspective, served the purpose of both propelling and explaining behavior. Propelling behavior, because they were the voices telling people how to act on certain occasions. Explaining behavior, because they were entities that explained behavior in a kind of proto-mentalistic vocabulary. A vocabulary which lacked concepts such as consideration, choice, memory – let alone the concept of free will.

The tricky business of evolutionary psychology
Evolutionary psychology consists, broadly speaking, of two methods. Method one, the modern approach, is to perform experiments – literally in the psychological laboratory – after the workings of modern human mind. On the basis of what is found there – the talents, the twists, the apparent anachronisms – something is deduced from the psychological environment in which the human mind evolved. Method two is the classical philology: the analysis of word use in ancient texts.

Julian Jaynes uses both methods to reach his spectacular conclusion. And he attaches much value to the textual method two:

‘Let no one say that these are just word changes. Word changes are concept changes and concept changes are behavioral changes.’

The strongest chapters are those in which he traces the evolution of the meaning of words that were the predecessors of our current mentalistic vocabulary – most notably chapter 5 of the second book: The Intellectual Consciousness of Greece.

Can we learn from textual sources about the way people thought in a certain time? Jaynes’ main posit – the fast evolution of human consciousness between 1000 and 500 B.C. – rests on this assumption. But one could object: how can we be sure that the writers of the Iliad were faithful to reality? Wasn’t it a stylistic ‘matter of speaking’ to attribute the cause of human action to the gods? Jaynes rejects this option, and I agree with him on this issue. He convincingly explains that the difference between Iliad and Odyssey, between Biblical Amos and Ecclesiastes, is not merely a difference in language. The characters in these stories move in essentially different psychological worlds, in which they perform radically different acts. ‘Word changes […] are behavioral changes.’ (This approach also comes across clearly in Metaphors we live by by Lakoff and Johnson. The metaphors that we use to describe our everyday actions even determine these actions. For example: a culture which incorporates the metaphors ‘time is money’, operates in a different way from a culture in which this metaphor does not exist. This is not merely a matter of putting the same process in different words. Instead, the words create the difference.)

The less crucial chapters, which are even more speculative, are the method-one chapters. Especially Chapter 5 of Book 1, The Double Brain, in which Jaynes relates the anatomy of our brain to the structure of the bicameral mind. Indeed, it is a nice coincidence that our brain has two sides and that the bimameral mind is also dual in nature. But the question if the latter can be reduced to the first might be not so crucial after all. Suppose that future research would arrive at radically different insights about the organisation of our brains – not our minds. I feel that this would still leave Jaynes’s central position concerning the organisation of our minds unaffected. After all, we are dealing here with mind and metaphor, with ‘software’, not with the hardware of the brain.

Another speculative argument, gathered both from ancient texts and present-day psychology, is that the voices which are still heard today by schizophrenics are remnants of the old bicameral mind. According to Jaynes, this aspect of hallucination was crucial to the inner voices. But still I am inclined to say: would it really matter if the voices were hallucinated or ‘simply’ heard? Wouldn’t this be a ‘difference in volume’, and not a functional difference (Dennett proposed, during an early conference on the book, the alternative that the voices might have had the character of ‘jingles’: repetitive fragments of music and speech). Jaynes would probably object that this does imply a functional difference, because the absolute authority of the voices could only be attained by the force of hallucination.

Like every author who proposes a revolutionary theory, Jaynes can’t resist putting a huge amount of circumstantial evidence on the table. The entire third part/book can be read as such: Vestiges of the bicameral mind in the modern world. The ‘necker cube has flipped’ and a lot of psychological phenomena must now be put in the new perspective. Although his examples are inspiring and pretty convincing, Jaynes has made himself vulnerable. Because it may seem to some readers that if one of the pillars of his theory would be removed, the entire building would collapse. However, I consider his theory foremost as a collection of mutually reinforcing hypotheses, none of which is crucial.

Three obstacles to understanding
There are a few obstacles that need to be cleared before one can accept Jaynes’s central argument. Put very briefly, this argument goes as follows:

‘In a distant past, people had no subjective consciousness, that is to say no elaborate concept of self. Instead, they heard voices that told them how to solve dilemma’s according to social norms. Subjective consciousness as we know it only came into being after a period of social chaos, which forced people to invent new concepts to deal with this changed environment – and thereby creating a new environment. The new subjective consciousness that emerged is basically a collection of metaphors.’

Put this briefly, this train of thought is hard to follow. That is why I want to remove three main obstacles along the way. First, the voices. What on earth are we to make of those? Secondly, the relation between structure of society and the individual minds therein. And finally, the relation between language, metaphor and mind. The story of Odysseus will nicely unite these three problems and their understanding.

1. The voices
So what about these voices of the gods? Is Jaynes making supernatural claims about the minds of ancient mankind, as some naive readers have understood it? Not at all. From one perspective, there is nothing strange about people hearing and obeying voices. I also hear ‘a voice in my head’, but I experience it (fortunately) as coming from ‘me’, as an ‘internal’ monologue or dialogue. And although the voice in me does not have the force of a hallucination, I still don’t have that much control over it. What I do have is the ability to direct it a little bit and to confront it. I can frame it; it is embedded in a mental organisation in which it can have an antagonist voice. My voice has all kinds of tools and a lot more ‘space to move’, which makes it more flexible than the bicameral mechanism of ‘voice-speaks-I-obey’.

A second difference, of course, between my voice and bicameral voices is that the latter are hallucinated. I must admit that although Jaynes defends his case in a good way, I still find it hard to accept that hallucinations were a normal part of mental life of past millennia – at least on occasions: people were not hallucinating all the time. Somehow, a change of ‘cold’ concepts is easier for me to accept than the ‘high temperature’ with which trains of thought were supposedly experienced in this past.

2. Society and mind
Let alone the problem with the voices, many people will understandably just not buy the idea that mankind without consciousness was capable of all the great accomplishments it achieved: the invention of agriculture, pyramids, etcetera. But remember how much intelligent behavior we conscious beings are capable of without using conscious thought. Conscious thought is only required at certain occasions. Which brings me to the second point. I find it plausible that, in relatively simple and predictable social environments, consciousness is actually not that crucial in everyday life. I am reminded of a Dutch documentary in which an old, old-fashioned farmer is asked by his son: ‘but father, what is your personal opinion on this matter?’ After a long silence, father responds: ‘What do you mean, personal opinion?’ (This charming piece of dialogue is quoted in historian Geert Mak’s book Jorwerd: the death of the village in late twentieth-century Europe, which original Dutch title translates literally as – very appropriate in this context – How God left  Jorwerd.) I quote it here to stress that any person who is embedded, as this farmer is, in a stable, highly cyclical social and economical environment, may not need a lot of introspective conscious thought to function normally.

I am not claiming anything as drastic that this farmer is ‘not conscious’. But compare his mind to the mind of a lone, nomadic person. Any person who is drifting and is insecure of what the next day will bring, has to represent the world and his place therein in different and probably more advanced ways than people in highly organized and predictable societies. This shift towards higher complexity and individuality is what happened to mankind as a whole in the course of millennia.

3. Metaphor, mind and the story of Odysseus
The relation between society and mind brings me to Odysseus. This unbound and lawless hero had to get by without the stability of a social structure. According to Jaynes, the transition from one mentality to another began in a period of social chaos, in which humankind was torn from its old social equilibrium. That is why the figure of the lone Odysseus, this ‘hero of the new mentality of how to get along in a ruined and god-weakened world’, is pivotal. Not just in the Origin, but in the history of mankind. Jaynes points at an eery coincidence, namely that the Odyssey, which for Jaynes serves primarily as a source of evidence on the level of word usage and word meaning, is on a topical level about the very same matter that the Origin is about! The theme of the Odyssey is the journey of its hero towards a new identity. This long journey involves testings, deceit, disguises and recognition. These are concepts that are mostly unheard of in older writings such as the Iliad. So the emerging theme of the Odyssey is the discovery of a new self, the adventures of a mind that is no longer a puppet of a god.

Is this thematic similarity between the Odyssey and the Origin a weird coincidence? Not if one accepts Jaynes’s profound idea of what the Odyssey meant to people in those days. First, he reminds us that epics like the Odyssey were primarily orally transmitted by travelling poets (aoidoi), who in times of social chaos travelled from refugee camp to refugee camp. Next, he stresses that these chanted poems were to the audience much more than mere entertainment: ‘Poems are rafts clutched at by men drowning in inadequate minds.’ In other words, these poems provided people with new ways of thinking about themselves, at a time at which the old bicameral ways of thinking were no longer useful.

So the Odyssey has even more historical significance than we thought it had. The above implies that besides being a beautiful metaphorical account of a historical process – mankind’s discovery of a new mentality – the adventures of Odysseus are the discovery of the new mentality! Jaynes claims that (a poem like) the Odyssey, in oral form, was the vehicle that helped establishing and spreading a new way of thinking. It was a collection of active ‘memes’. Returning to the opening question of this paragraph: on second thoughts it makes perfect sense that the first text in which these new concepts of consciousness are to be found, is not about, let’s say, interior decoration, but about the discovery of consciousness itself.

It amounts to this: mankind invented consciousness by telling itself a story about a loner who discovered consciousness. That is how the story of Odysseus has the fascinating property of being at the same time a metaphor for an invention and the invention itself. This can be so because in this case the invention is metaphor. The 0dyssey, this new story, these new concepts, these new metaphors, constitute a new ‘space’ that allows a new kind of human mind to inhabit it. In my view, Jaynes’s treatment of Odysseus unites many crucial elements of his main argument. It teaches us something about the relation between psychology and society, about lost authority and finding a new voice, and about the relation between metaphor and mind. Jaynes:

From a will-less gigolo of a divinity to the gore-spattered lion on his own hearth, Odysseus becomes ‘Odysseus’ (p.277)

Controversy, neglect and praise
Almost fourty years after its publication, the dust still hasn’t settled. In many academic debates, the name Jaynes pops up, always good for a stir in the discussion. The book gets more and more credits for its pioneering role. There is a growing sense of acknowledgment that it has, at the very least, created an new and serious topic for discussion. In the words of an early reviewer:

‘even as the skeptic marshals arguments against Jaynes’s theory, ‘he has to think about matters he never thought of before, or, if he has thought of them, he must think about them in contexts and relationships that are strikingly new’ (Hilgard quoted in Gliedman, Julian Jaynes and the ancient mindgods).

Still, for such a controversial book, it is remarkable how few scholars have made an attempt at an in-depth discussion, either favorable or unfavorable. A clever mind like Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, still does not know what to make of it: ‘either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I am hedging my bets.’ Pascal Boyer, in his thought-provoking book Religion Explained, does not even mention Jaynes, and neither do a lot of handbooks of consciousness or evolutionary psychology! Why all this hesitation? Marcel Kuijsten, editor of the recent book on the topic, Reflections on the dawn of consciousness, Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory revisited, blames this on two things. First, the apparent outrageousness of the theory, which not every respected academic would risk his reputation on. And second: the expertise that is required to encompass a broad spectrum of academic disciplines, ranging from neuroscience to Old-Greek literature.

I would add another problem: the fact that some of the arguments are impossible to falsify or affirm. Consider the sequence of events that Jaynes pictures when he ponders on the prehistorical evolution of the bicameral mind, namely as a means of internalizing social control for a group of hominid hunter/gatherers. This bold and tantalizing sort of speculation has no or very little backup of any historical evidence. It is ‘reverse engineering’, it is idealized history, in big chunks and with giant leaps. It depends very much on one’s taste and intuitions if one becomes convinced. Personally, I find myself exhilirated, but I guess many scientists are simply allergic to this type of reasoning. Daniel Dennett, however, as one of the early advocates of the book, has the following opinion:

If we are going to use this top-down approach, we are going to have to be bold. We are going to have to be speculative, but there is good and bad speculation, and this is not an unparalleled activity in science. […] Those scientists who have no taste for this sort of speculative enterprise will just have to stay in the trenches and do without it, while the rest of us risk embarrassing mistakes and have a lot of fun.

The Origin and its intellectual kin
How does the Origin relate to other publications of the era? Apart from is pioneering role, it is not in all respects a revolutionary book. As an exponent of the cognitive revolution in psychology, it is clearly akin to the spirit of the age. It rejects behavioristic approaches of psychology and favors the view that we must not be afraid of mentalistic terms. Or compare the Origin to the aforementioned Metaphors we live by (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), which also stresses the importance of metaphor in language. The crucial link is that metaphors itself can be the invention. Interestingly, the Origin was published in the same year as Dawkins’s pioneering The Selfish Gene, which introduced the concept of the meme. I wonder if and when Jaynes read Dawkins, but he probably would have liked the implications that the concept of the meme has for human psychology as an evolutionary process.

An interesting question is how Jaynes’s work relates to the research field that emerged in the nineties: Embodied Embedded Cognition (EEC). That is the idea that much of our behaviour does not merely result from ‘computation’ in our brain, but takes shape as an interplay between brain, body and world. So this movement is somewhat of a counter-revolution against the cognitive revolution that I see Jaynes part of. But remember that it was Jaynes who reminded us that there was a phase in our history in which an even larger part of our mental behavior was ‘embedded’ in the external world. To make a decision was in this stage an external process more than it is now: it was to peek in the intestines of animals, to watch the stars, and things like that (note that this was the period after the collapse of the bicameral mind). A large part of this behavior has since been internalised via metaphor. I suppose that Jaynes, despite his frequent use of ‘internalisation’, would agree with the advocates of EEC that it is an interesting question to which degree our thinking still takes place in the external world.

The merit of Jaynes is that he lets us think about consciousness in a new way. It is by sketching an alternative mentality that our view of ourselves suddenly becomes ‘three-dimensional’. It does not really matter if his sketch of the bicameral mind is right to the level of detail – how could it be, considering the scarce evidence? The merit is that the new perspective is created at all.

Two important things have become clear to me since reading The Origin. First: consciousness depends very much on language and the concepts that a language has at its disposal. To put it in a different way: one could imagine a grammatically fully developed language that still would not produce consciousness in the minds of the people who speak it. And second: how relative is the truth of our own mentalistic jargon! Aren’t our current words for mental processes almost as fictional as the good old gods? That bunch of metaphorical expressions, these ‘loanwords’ we use to denominate ‘processes in our heads’?

I must admit that I had often goose bumps while reading. Jaynes is a lyrical writer on the occasions he wants to convey the overwhelming scope of his subject matter. The final paragraphs on Odysseus are an example of his lyrical style. He deals with evolutionary psychology in the most spectacular of historical contexts. This deserves more than a reserved, scientific writing style. And so Jaynes’s words radiate a palpable awe of his subject.

The main character in Jaynes’s story is mankind itself, in its succession of mental stages through many millennia. Mankind, which lost its gods and had to figure things out on its own. Poor mankind, which invented all kinds of tricks to discover the intention of its lost gods: throwing sticks, poking in the intestines of animals… Mankind, which began so bravely with its first attempts at introspection. And which was so clever to use its existing vocabulary as source of metaphors to invent a new, inner territory. But also: a mankind that is doomed to carry on forever without divine support…

This is a history of Biblical proportion. I think that Jaynes is not exaggerating when he draws the parallel with the Genesis story of man’s Fall. Indeed it is fascinating that even the Bible mentions a watershed in human history. It is the parable of Adam and Eve who eat from the tree of knowledge (self knowledge?) and who from that moment on can no longer be in direct contact with their God. I would not go so far as calling this passage proof of Jaynes’s theory, but it got me thinking again about the relationship between god and humankind. It is nowadays common to consider God an invention of the human mind: we are supposed to have invented God, killed God, and now God is dead – at least to some of us. But Jaynes reverses the historical order: ‘The voices which had to be obeyed were the absolute prerequisite to the conscious stage of mind in which it is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself.’ So in a very real sense, ‘God’ or ‘the gods’ or ‘the voices’ came first and ‘we’ came later. That is if we mean by ‘we’ a humankind that has subjective consciousness. I am glad that for the first time I seem to be able to put in perspective this Biblical order of things, which had always been incomprehensible to me.

Goodbye gods, goodbye unassailable authority. Nevermore the comfort of voices that tell us what to do. So that is our unfortunate fate, but also our grandeur. I have never read a book on evolutionary psychology of such a deep significance.

Quotes from The Origin of Consciousness

The bicameral mind

The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination’ of anyone. They were man’s volition (p 202).

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. […] The beginnings of action are not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives; they are in the actions and speeches of gods. (p 72)

Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips? They were voices whose speech and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard today by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices. (p 73)

Sound is a very special modality. We cannot handle it. We cannot push it away.

And if one belonged to a bicameral culture, where the voices were recognized as at the utmost top of the hierarchy, taught you as gods, kings, majesties that owned you, head, heart, and foot, the omniscient, omnipotent voices that could not be categorized as beneath you, how obedient to them the bicameral man! (p 98)

The breakdown of the bicameral mind

Populations were continuously increasing. As they did so, problems of social control by hallucinations called gods became more and more complex. The structuring of such a control in a village of a few hundred back at Eynan in the ninth millenium B.C. is obviously enormously different from what it was in the civilizations we have just discussed [Mesopotamian and Egyption theocracies] with their hierarchical layers of gods, priests, and officers. (p 194-195)

And as this complexity develops, there is the first unsureness, the first need for personal gods to intercede with the higher gods, who seem to be receding into the heavens where in one brief millenium they will have disappeared. (p 202)

One who has no god, as he walks along the street
Headache envelops him like a garment. (p 225)
[inscription on stone tablet, +-1230 BC, Mesopotamia]

What is authority? Rulers without gods to guide them are fitful and unsure. They turn to omens and divination […]. (p 227)

What is important here is to understand provoked divination such as sortilege as involving the same kind of generative processes that develop consciousness, but in an exopsychic nonsubjective manner. (p 241)

As the gods recede into special people called prophets or oracles, or are reduced to darkly communicating with men in angels and omen, there whooshes into this power vacuum a belief in demons. The very air of Mesopotamia became darkened with them. (p 232)

The evolution of subjective consciousness in Greece

As the gods are heard progressively less and less, these internal response-stimuli of progressively greater stress are associated more and more with men’s subsequent actions, whatever they may be, even coming to take on the godlike function of seeming to initiate action themselves. (p 258)

These [internal body sensations] are then the supposed substantives inside the body that by literary metaphor, by being compared to containers and persons, accrue to themselves spatial and behavioral qualities which in later literature develop into the unified mind-space with its analog ‘I’ that we have come to call consciousness. (p 271)

Poetry, from describing external events objectively, is becoming subjectified into a poetry of personal conscious expression. (p 274)

In a word, Odysseus of the many devices is the hero of the new mentality of how to get along in a ruined and god-weakened world. […] (p 273) It is a story of identity, of a voyage to the self that is being created in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. (p 276)

Sometimes attributed to Solon […] is the famous ‘Know thyself’[…] This again was something inconceivable to the Homeric heroes. How can one know oneself?’ […] Suddenly, then, we are in the modern subjective age. (p 287)

All this curious development of the sixth century B.C. is extremely important for psychology. For with this wrenching of psyche = life over to psyche = soul, there came other changes to balance it as the enormous inner tensions of a lexicon always do. The word soma had meant corpse or deadness, the opposite of psyche as livingness. So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. And dualism, the supposed separation of soul and body, has begun. (p 291)

Transition to subjectivity in the Bible

They [Old-Testamentary prophets] were transitional men, partly subjective and partly bicameral. And once the bright torrent was released and the call came, the nabi [prophet] must deliver his bicameral message, however unsuspecting (Amos 7:14-15), however unworthy the nabi felt (Exodus 3:11; Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 20:7-10). What does it feel like to be a nabi at the beginning of one of his bicameral periods? Like a red coal in one’s mouth (Isaiah 6:7) or a raging fire shut up in one’s bones that cannot be contained (Jeremiah 20:9) and that only the flowing forth of divine speech can quench. (p 300)

And then the voices are as a rule no longer actually heard. In their place is the condsidered subjective thought of moral teachers. Men still had visions and heard dark speech perhaps. But Ecclesiastes and Ezra seek wisdom, not a god. They study the law. They do not roam out into the wilderness “inquiring of Yahweh.” By 400 B.C., bicameral prophecy is dead. (p 312)

Behavior now must be changed from within the new consciousness rather than from Mosaic laws carving behavior from without. Sin and desire are now within conscious desire and conscious contrition, rather than in the external behaviors of the decalogue and the penances of temple sacrifice and community punishment. The divine kingdom to be regained is psychological not physical. It is metaphorical not literal. It is ‘within’ not in extenso.’ (p 318)

Subjective consciousness

Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. (p 55)

Consciousness is a much smaller part of mental life than we are conscious of, since we cannot be conscious of what we aren’t conscious of. (p 23)

We have said that consciousness is an operation rather than a thing, a repository, or a function. It operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog ‘I’, that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it. It operates on any reactivity, excerpts relevant aspects, narratizes and conciliates them together in a metaphorical space where such meanings can be manipulated like things in space. (p 65-66)

Conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts. Consciousness operates only on objectively observable things. Or, to say it another way with echoes of John Locke, there is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of something that was in behavior first. (p 66)

[…] the presence of voices which had to be obeyed were the absolute prerequisite to the conscious stage of mind in which it is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself, can order and direct, and that the creation of such a self is the product of culture. In a sense, we have become our own gods. (p 79)

But the mind is still haunted with its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities; and the yearning, the deep and hollowing yearning for divine volition and service is with us still. (p 313)

In the cab – short story

‘What do you think of our city?’ my taxi driver asks. Since I have taken many cabs in this town, I have a polite answer prepared: ‘The weather is nice, the food is great and…’ The taxi driver finishes my sentence: ‘And the women are beautiful! Right?’ – ‘Indeed, the women are nice’.

But I don’t feel like elaborating on the qualities of this South American city. Sure, the temperature is pleasant, but the monotony of cloud covered days becomes a bore after a while. The cuisine is as limited as the climate, and the women live with their parents, or with their children. I stare out of the car window, watching the scooters weave frantically in and out of lanes. I wonder what I am doing here, away from my home country and family and friends. Can happiness be found abroad? Or should I try to find happiness from within… Yes, I should probably try that one day…

‘So the women are beautiful here, huh?’ the cab driver interrupts my thoughts about personal growth. ‘Our women are warm. Women in Europe, they are cold. Muy frio. In your country, are the women cold?’ He smiles at me in his rear-view mirror, and for a second I think I see a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.

‘Yes, indeed. We are a cold people,’ I reply. ‘You are exactly right, Sir. You know why? It’s because of the weather in our country.’

‘So it is cold in Holland?’ he asks. I have this answer prepared as well: ‘In Holland it is winter. The fields are covered with snow and ice for three long months. The wind howls over the flat fields.’ – ‘Snow and ice? Then it must be freezing…’ My cab driver has become curious, maybe he is genuinely interested in a climatological explanation for our glacial personalities.

‘Sir, winters in Holland are exceptionally gloomy. We feel as if the sun doesn’t care about us anymore. When autumn comes, people point at the sky and say to each other: see how low the sun is in the sky … and they shiver.’

‘For us that is hard to imagine,’ the cab driver remarks pensively. ‘We like the warmth. We like to dance outside!’

‘For us it is hard to imagine too. When it is summer, how impossible for us to imagine that the sun will be gone in a few months! In October is our traditional festival of sacrifice. We dance on the village greens and do a collective prayer, some kind of ancient song, in which we beg the sun to come back.’

My driver considers this for a few moments. ‘And what happens after the festival?’

‘After the festival people go on with their business. But each day we get a little colder and more depressed.’ I notice that I am backing up my words with gestures and facial expressions, in true Latin spirit. ‘Of course we try to be courageous,’ I assert. ‘We are a resilient people. But the constant darkness gets the best of some of us…’ After a short pause I continue: ‘The number of murders by strangulation dramatically increases in this time of year.’ I make the gesture of two hands holding something tightly.

The cab driver looks sceptical. I hastily add: ‘The regulations for firearms are very strict in our country,’ and I proceed: ‘When December comes, the sun doesn’t even rise above the horizon anymore. For a week we live in a dark twilight, and mid December the darkness becomes complete. To some people, the despair becomes unbearable.’ I avert my gaze, it’s hard to speak now.

‘I am sure your people find a solution’, the driver says, encouraging me to continue.

‘Indeed, Sir. Just at the time when we think all hope is lost, and the number of murders and suicides has become insanely high, the Queen addresses our nation, in a heartwarming television speech.’

‘Ah yes, you have a Queen…’ The eyes of the driver light up. He has probably lived in a republic his entire life.

‘Every year around this time, but never on the exact same date, the moment probably inspired by her Majesty’s intuition, she holds a television speech. The bouquet on the desk next to her always contains the following flowers: the carnation, the tulip and the gladiolus. The gladiolus symbolizes our determination to withstand and conquer the darkest days.’

‘And how do your people receive the Queen’s speech?’

‘Oh, Sir, that’s almost impossible to describe. The shimmer of hope in our souls, when she raises her head and looks in the camera with her wise, sad eyes… At that moment we feel she is a Queen who suffers with us. You see, darkness envelops everybody, even persons from Royal descent. The Queen may have more and brighter lamps in her palace, but the winter hail that clatters on her royal roof is the same that hits ours. And just like us, when she looks out of her window, she sees no horizon, only darkness. Without a horizon, there is no hope… But hope she gives us…’ I am silent now, empathizing with the fate of my fellow countrymen, far away in the northern hemisphere, across the wide Atlantic Ocean.

‘I can see now why you want to visit our country,’ the cab driver says, ‘Your country must be hell on earth.’ He thinks for a moment and turns around to look at me and smiles: ‘But a freezing hell, without a fire!’

‘Haha! Yes, indeed sir. That is exactly right. A hell without a fire. Our country is a timeless pool of freezing despair, without a sun to tell time and to tell when our horror will end. And that is why I came to your country. Your country gives me the hope to live again. I want to thank you most gratefully. Your country is the country of light. And the women are very nice.’

My cab driver looks in the distance with a smile and says: ‘Yes, Sir, our women are nice.’

I see that we have almost reached my destination. I check the meter and count my money. Should I give a tip? No, no tip this time. That would just be cold money.


Cartagena (Colombia), February 2013

'Por amor usa preservativo'

‘Por amor usa preservativo’

Reve’s Faust: review of A circus boy

‘It is beyond doubt that I am evil’. So reads the first sentence of the previously untranslated novel A circus boy (1975) of Dutch writer Gerard Reve (1923-2006). The reader who thinks Reve is kidding, await quite a few shocking passages. I translated this novel, which has the same dark mood and black humor as all of Reve’s work, but uses a cunning, thought-provoking narrative trick in the final chapter.

The universe of A circus boy could have been a co-creation of Marquis de Sade and Louis Ferdinand Céline, with production design by the Grimm brothers. It’s gloomy and dark, but not nihilistic: romantic longing pervades all things, and salvation is desperately sought. Our hero toils and stumbles his way through life, aware of the nearness of death, blundering in his attempts at finding love. Relief is provided by the author’s use of black humor.

The first chapter of the novel is a prologue in which the protagonist declares himself, in a magnificent style and with biblical force, to be an untimely born, wicked to the core. In the second chapter we meet him decades later, in the love bed in the tower chamber of his castle, with his boyfriend Jackal, whom he tells lascivious fairy-tales.

Gerard Reve in the 1960's

Gerard Reve in the 1960’s

Only late in novel we learn what crime our protagonist has committed, in his days as a young truck driver, and why he feels so guilty. The entire ninth chapter is a rape scene from the perspective of the protagonist violating a teenage girl. It is brilliantly written and as painful to read as the notorious rape scene in the movie Irreversible is hard to watch. Reve pushes us to the limit here, challenging us to stay with our main character and confronting us with our own impulses that urge us to continue reading.

Much later in his life, our protagonist will come face to face with his victim, in a plot twist that revolves around the Queen, Whom our main character is now acquainted with, having become a famous writer. Will his horrible secret be revealed and will he do penitence? Will the tormented conscience of our anti-hero find some kind of peace? Read the last three chapters, a marvelous display of dialogue between the queen and him.

In A circus boy Reve slightly departs from his usual way of structuring his stories. Most of Reve’s books are composed as a chain of thoughts, mostly memories, and memories within memories. These memories are connected through mood, not through plot, and are often concluded with a kind of prayer. Part 1 and 2 of A circus boy unfold in this way. But in the final two parts an actual conflict is presented and settled: a criminal who looks for redemption. Who would have thought, an actual story in a Reve novel? It still might not quite be your average page-turner, but at least there are a series of events which are announced by the writer and which are slowly unfolding, punctuated by teasers and cliff-hangers. Reve wanted to write, in his own words, a ‘kitchen-maid novel,’: a novel that makes his girlish readers (m/f) blush with excitement, eager to find out the details of the plot. (Only once has Reve written a novel more suspense-ridden: The fourth man, a crime story. It was made into a movie by Paul Verhoeven.)

Reve uses a cunning narrative trick in the final chapter, but I have to bite my tongue here. It has to do with a request of the Queen. The implications of this trick are so intricate and ambiguous that it is up to each reader to

Reve with goat, 1969

Reve with goat, 1969

judge for himself what the deeper meaning might be. It’s great, devious fun, but it might also reveal Reve’s profound, mystical view of the divine machinery of guilt and salvation. The author himself, in an interview for Belgian television (1975), said:

‘One could say, boasting a little: [A circus boy is] Reve’s Faust. It is a book of big dimensions that has more facets and depth, and is less one-sided than my other books.’

So where comes the circus boy into play? There is none, really. The writer/protagonist admits, in his final dialogue with the queen, that as a writer he feels like a circus boy, pulling off an act to please his audience. The audience watches his acrobatic movements high in the air, admiring him, half hoping for his fall, all the while enjoying the entertainment. This confession of the writer comes soon after the sort of-confession his protagonist makes about his crime. Again, it is an interesting narrative circus act, where the protagonist/writer and the actual writer overlap. Although, strictly speaking, it is his protagonist who utters the words, we feel that Reve is including himself in his own story here, making a confession about his authorship.

So on a certain level, A circus boy is a story about writing, about the art of entertaining an audience. We see this self-referential theme often with seasoned artists: as their fame becomes an important factor in their lives, and as they become more conscious about how their art works, they naturally begin including the relation with their audience in their work: it is an interesting source of conflict. When Reve wrote A circus boy, he had been a writer for almost three decades, the last decade of which had been very succesful. In the mid-seventies he had become nothing short of a national celebrity, even with his own bizarre tv-spectacle.

On another level, this is a highly fictionalized and romanticized autobiographical novel. For sure, Gerard Reve did not live in a castle, but in a primitive, self-built house on a patch of wasteland in the south of France. He was never a truck driver in his youth – he used to be the penniless writer – nor did he visit the queen on a regular basis. And let’s hope he never raped a teenage girl. But all this drama is an example of Reve’s tendency, blossoming in the Seventies, to create a highly dramatized, decadent version of his own life.

So is this a very self-conscious novel, is it about the nature of Reve’s authorship and the fictionalized account of his life? Should we treat it like a Charlie Kaufman script? I believe not. Sure, the final chapter is a nice tease, and a thought-provoking ending of a book that needs a worthy pay-off. But apart from plot structure, this work of Reve, as all of his novels, is about mood. There will be readers who catch that mood, because it resonates, and there will be others whom it will escape completely. If it resonates, the reader enters a state of fever and wants to keeps reading, to stay in that mood and have it amplified, not caring so much about plot.

This mood arises from a way of perceiving the world and wanting to be saved from it. It is about being acutely aware of the senseless details of one’s immediate surroundings and the wish to escape from it. It is about the underlying, desperate feeling ‘that everything was inescapably horrible but that the worst was yet to come.’ (chapter 6). It is about the hyper-realistic, apparently futile details of a turning weight of a clock, whose motions the protagonist is forced to see in every detail, while performing the brutal and senseless act of love with ‘Harry’ (chapter 4). Perceiving a thing he does not desire, doing a thing he does not desire, then remembering another thing he does not wish to be reminded of, and all the while hoping, begging to be saved from this horrible reality.

Gerard Reve has won all major Dutch literary prizes, but he has hardly been translated into English (apart from Parents worry, not available anymore, and the short novel Werther Nieland, included in The Dedalus book of Dutch fantasy). In the Netherlands, Reve has published books that, since the Sixties, have consistently sold well, and he has gathered a following with an almost religious fervor.

I consider it a great literary injustice to Anglo-Saxon readers that they are denied the chance to read his work.

This is the reason I have translated A circus boy. Enjoy.

Theo van Gogh’s polemic prose

Like any fine caricaturist, Theo Van Gogh the columnist was a penetrating observer. He didn’t bluntly insult people. He captured the fleeting but telling ‘facial expression’ and then magnified it many times. Not everybody enjoyed being under his scrutiny… He was assassinated by a Muslim terrorist in November 2004. To put in perspective what Van Gogh had written about Islam in Holland, I have collected and translated a few essential quotes.

Van Gogh (born in 1957 as great-grandson of the famous painter’s brother Theo) was a well-mannered interviewer and a good listener. He was of the opinion that ‘good tv interviewers pull a vacuum of loneliness into which the interviewed shed a glimpse of their unhappiness’. As a movie director, he cared about his actors and was stimulating and cooperative. But as a columnist, he ruthlessly attacked the slightest bit of hypocrisy that he sensed in a person.

This article contains a translated sample of Theo van Gogh’s quotes, taken from his columns. Vicious, vitriolic character attacks on Dutch politicians and media personalities.  A bad boy, indeed. And a pretty darn good columnist too. I hope that, reading these quotes, the adolescent joy will come across of crossing that line of good taste.

First, a rather tame example:

The most annoying example of a moral theologian at work among our interviewers is Wilfried de Jong, a bellowing indignated, who pretends to turn television into Art, with himself as the ‘correct’ protagonist. De Jong knows everything in advance and has until now never been caught displaying even a single bit of interest in his guests. […]

Wilfried de Jong is the type of person that climbs from servant to master and prospers in dictatorships. His programs are of some interest to people who take an interest in exercises in totalitarian thinking.

I should mention that Van Gogh is writing about a respected TV-interviewer of quality programs. He was a far from obvious target and while reading these lines, many must have shaken their heads in disagreement. But the core of truth in Van Gogh’s caricature gradually dawned on me, until it finally hit home years later. This was on the occasion that De Jong publicly humiliated, on a live TV-show, soccer player Patrick Kluivert, who had long been the scapegoat of the nation. Indeed, quite a display of totalitarian thinking.

Theo van Gogh, foto door André Bakker

Theo van Gogh. Foto: André Bakker

Stylistically, Van Gogh often used the trick of feigning reverence or pity, only to strike back twice as hard in the next sentence.

On the front page ‘the plagiarism’ of Margriet de Moor was mentioned. The author claimed that she had acted ‘in good faith’, and although of course she lied, I didn’t experience the malicious delight I usually feel when our Literators have once again been unable to resist a colleague’s candy jar. That is, the books of Mrs. De Moor are written so helplessly that one wishes her readers a permanent plagiarism.

He had his favorite targets, whom he kept attacking whenever he thought it appropriate – or when he was bored. He was quite happy to quote from his own pieces. Perhaps because he had to excel himself each time, the caricatures could evolve into the bizarre:

Mrs. Barend, recently described by me as ‘a plastified mummy who had still lived on Anne Frank’s attic’ came stumbling in behind little Frits: an old man walked his corpse. I found them two pathetic persons, with their: ‘I don’t want to see him on Boudewijns funeral’, and I had to remind myself that compassion is our highest virtue, even for an Auschwitz-pimp who wants to ban me from funerals.

Van Gogh mostly attacked well-respected public figures and spared people who were already under attack by the intelligentsia. He especially despised the ‘champagne socialists’, whose pity with the poor and immigrants he felt was gratuitous.

The Second World War was an ever-present system of reference in these debates. As a moral touchstone, and also by providing a handy jargon for polemic prose. Because of their connotations, words like collaboration, transportation, etc. were hard to resist. Van Gogh saw no problem in using these analogies. However, he mocked others for unjustly using the war in debates:

In lack of arguments, madam Grewel often talked about her experiences during the Occupation, on which she based her moral superiority in matters such as traffic poles, euthanasia and bad weather. […] I have to admit that I found her too stupid to respond to when she railed at me in De Groene [magazine], but also that I greeted her friendly once the final decline had begun and she publicly displayed, in true progressive spirit and like a shaven numbskull, the disadvantages of cancer. With her death, the shadiest efforts of social democracy have gone.

The assassination of Fortuyn
During the rise of the charismatic populist politician Pim Fortuyn (1948 – 2002), the aspect of bored playfulness in his writing made way for something more fundamental. Something urgent was at stake and polemic became a more grim matter – more than just a means of stirring things up, more than a matter of taking stabs at local politicians and B-celebrities.

Van Gogh chose sides with Fortuyn, as the only one of the opinion leaders. Two months before the assassination of Fortuyn, Van Gogh had written:

The funny thing is: Fortuyn and his sympathisers are constantly accused of ‘inciting hatred’, but it is rather the other way round. That Prince Pim still hasn’t been shot on behalf of the politically correct crowd, by some saviour, may be called a true miracle.

The day after the assassination of Fortuyn, Van Gogh wrote a column in which he congratulated the ones he thought were to blame:

What to do with such fine democrats? They aren’t worth spitting on and remind us of antisemites, real ones I mean.

A few months later he wrote a long article, an analysis of the political circumstances that had led to the murder – entitled: Good riddance.

There was a lot of hot air in Fortuyn’s revolution, but it was undeniable that he brilliantly defied all laws in dealing with the electorate. A future prime minister who declared he would continue to visit dark rooms… never before had the political been more personal and the personal more political. […]

The rage of Van Dam, Kok, Van Kemenade, Melkert and all those other champagne socialists was probably also related to the sense that the Left was losing its natural dominance in the public debate in the weeks preceding the sixth of May. It was as if Fortuyn would break the power of the paralyzing Sixties all at once. The gentlemen panicked, as for the first time in Dutch history the outcasts of the nation threatened to actually come into power. That wasn’t the plan. Fortuyn was the hated face of this impending revolt.

The Left was swept away and had only its trite lingo left. A lot of babbling about ‘extreme right’, ‘racism’, ‘the revival of fascism’, thus creating a climate in which murder becomes an act of heroism. There is something perverse about the eagerness with which Volkert van der G. [Fortuyn’s murderer] was denounced a ‘madman’, by politicians as well as the media. A madman frees our guilty conscience from the thought that we might have overreacted a tad. […]

The question comes to mind if in other so-called democratic countries the free press would line up so servilely behind the establishment. […] the lackeys of the government hobbled on, indignant beyond belief. But the people wouldn’t listen anymore. Couldn’t the people be dethroned? […]

In Marcel van Dam’s paradise, there is no place for ‘inferior people’. It’s a place where, as the Germans say, ‘klammheimliche Freude’ reigns when a certain baldy is disposed of. Dirty faggot, he had it coming. […]

Many called Fortuyn’s funeral a case of ‘mass hysteria’. Maybe this is true, but personally I was reminded of  the last journey of Falcone, the Italian Mafia fighter for whom thousands of scared citizens clapped their hands raw. There was one difference: in Fortuyn’s case, the Mafia sat in the Church, with in the front row a  yawning prime minister, who left through the side exit. While he left with his head down, the crowd outside were chanting You’ll never walk alone. Due partly to Kok’s cowardness –  whose policy, soaked in humanitarian small talk, caused seven thousand muslims to be murdered as  ‘our boys’ stood there and watched [Srebrenica], – Holland has become very special. Kok has specialized in condolences, with impressive displays of conscience. An expert in condolences, that came in handy now.’

In the article, Van Gogh mentioned his telephone conversations with ‘the divine bald one’ (Van Gogh liked to address Fortuyn with the words ‘Oh beloved Leader’) and sighed how he would have loved to see the republican, as Prime Minister, shake hands with the Queen, who reputedly hated him.

How I would have granted him the sour smile of that creature.

Hirsi Ali and the Islam
Van Gogh befriended Ayaan Hirsi Ali and supported her cause of denouncing Islam as backward:

It is the paradox of our society that our (just) tolerance gives free play to fanatics who more than anything want to dominate the Free West. Member of parliament Hirsi Ali was completely entitled to speak as she did. The attacks on her are echoes of the retarded Middle Ages. How shady can a muslim be?

Although he had scoffed religious individuals and communities before, notably Christians and Jews, he was especially hard on the Islam in the later years of his life. The phones must have rung off the hook at the so-called ‘anti-discrimination hotline’:

It’s not my fault that some fellow-citizens cling to the fundamentally intolerant religion of a little-girl-fucker who roamed the desert around 666. We may thank Allah that there are hundreds of thousands of reasonable Muslims in this country who don’t defile His name. But they too are intimidated by the at first sight pittoresque rural constables of Mecca’s thought police, who try to sell the blood that steams from their sewers by whining about ‘respect’.

He ridiculed the policy of appeasement of the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen.

It’s kind of cute, a politician with aspirations of becoming prime minister who shits his pants so much for Allah’s callous hand that he keeps passing around the hat for the multicultural society. Maybe Cohen could enhance the harmony in Amsterdam by playing doormat to the Mosque goers, on which the true believers could wipe their feet. A wave of compassion will go through his party and once again we humble autochthones will experience the delight of our multicultural society.

In the summer of 2004, he directed Hirsi Ali’s anti-Islam film Submission. It was aired about two months before his assassination. At this point it was probably hard for Van Gogh to keep insisting he was just a ‘village idiot’ who wouldn’t be harmed.

In a collection of his columns, published in 2003, he had written in the preface:

This book is called Allah knows best because it is my dark suspicion that the new Middle Ages of Mecca are on the verge of outbreak; and because I, being a professional atheist, feel very unsafe in a climate that is dominated by ambitious mayors who are merrily ‘appeasing the masses’ and drinking tea with dubious mosque boards, while on the 4th of May Moroccan youngsters play soccer with funeral wreaths. Ever since 9/11, remember, the knives are out and the fifth column of goat fuckers marches on relatively unhindered. What else can I say? We live in a nightmare of good intentions and misunderstood idealism.

Three years before his death, in a non-polemic, melancholic column, Van Gogh had written about the ideal woman. In a puzzling, seemingly isolated sentence, he announced:

I will die on the street, even though such is uncomfortable.

march 2007

The quotes in this article are my own translations, taken from columns that Van Gogh published in various media, among which his own website (Dutch) and the free newspaper Metro. They were later republished in two collections of columns, called De gezonde roker (The healthy smoker) and Allah weet het beter (Allah knows best).

Gerard Reve – A circus boy – first chapter

A circus boy

Hymn for M.

Oh Thou who knowest and understandest all,
Things Thy Son has no time for, nor patience,
To Thee, dear Mother, I sing this song:
Borne of Thee, I return to Thee.
May it not be long before I am one with Thee.

1 – Birth


First chapter


Wherein the writer contends that he was born uncommonly evil; wherein he attempts to explain his morbid outlook on earthly existence.


It is beyond doubt that I am evil.

(That man is completely evil, and may be said to be incapable of any good, is well established and, fortunately, it is not disputed, except by a few fanatics and lunatics. The question still remains whether man is partly or wholly guilty of his own wickedness. I believe that about half of man’s wickedness stems from nature and birth, while the other half is accounted for by his own free will and choice, which lead him on a path of death and destruction. If human existence were to have any validity and assurance of Eternal Salvation, such would exclusively be through God’s infinite and inscrutable mercy, which is the first, last and only hope of mortals. But this aside.)

If ever the circumstances under which a creature was born established how wicked it was and unworthy of living, it was the circumstances of my birth.

My birth transpired in an extremely labourious manner and lasted thirty-four hours of nigh uninterrupted contractions, which slowly strangled me, again and again, as the cruel prelude of Spanish executions in bygone times. I was born breathless and blue. It was towards the hour of six in the evening; complete darkness reigned outside, and a bitterly cold wind carried with it the first wet flakes of a rising and howling blizzard.

No men were present at my birth: the old, beardy doctor Montezinos, a caring and well-liked alcoholic who was never drunk, had gone away during one of the brief interruptions between contractions, to quickly consume some morsels of scrapple at the residence of a school friend of my parents who lived nearby. When he entered the delivery room again, he had trouble wresting my miserably cold little body from the hands of the midwife, who was slapping my chest and back. He tried to elicit a noise out of me but at first he had just as little luck as she. With improvised ingenuity, he kneaded my chest with his hairy claws, already bent by the onset of arthritis, permanently deforming it into the start of a sunken chest. But now, finally, I let out the requisite noise: first cooing, then squeaking, then screaming. I was born and, for better or for worse, breathing, and destined to live, and to die only much later.

’Blessed are those who scream,’ said the old doctor Montezinos, ’tis an essential virtue, we all depend upon it.’ He was intoxicated but never conclusively proved his drunkenness, and into the small room of the poverty-infested dwelling in Amsterdam, second floor, number 68, Van Hall Street, he belched the smell of recently consumed scrapple, of which microscopically small fragments stuck in his beard.

In addition to the midwife, Doctor Montezinos, the new mother and me, a neighbour was also present in the delivery room: this woman, who lived on the first floor and had been abandoned by her husband, a consumptive basket maker, lived off the small sums of money sent to her at highly irregular intervals by a mother or aunt from the province, and she knew the art of laying on hands, card reading and similar secrets that she, however, never applied for money or gain. She touched my clammy crown that had narrowly escaped Death, and muttered something like: ‘You see? Oh, wait, actually not.’ After discerning a slight unevenness, she had wrongly concluded that I had been born with a caul. ‘Much light shall shine upon him. Bright light. Many lamps. And everyone will look. A lot of people.’ She sighed and half fainted, as she was used to doing on such occasions.

The doctor had just taken himself off, filling the house and staircase with the lingering scent of his regurgitations, when disaster struck anew: my mother had no milk. They had misjudged her tensely swollen breasts, believing they were full of sustenance for a newborn. I refused to drink, which was puzzling. Were the nipples clogged? The midwife, already an expert in the art of infant-slapping, now began squeezing and pressing my mother’s breasts to no end. Full, they were indeed, but the liquid that abundantly gushed forth was not the requisite creamy-white juice of life, but a seeping, half-fermented fluid, which contained almost no nutrients.

In a months-long, unresolved battle between adult determination and childlike repulsion toward life, I was alternately fed buttermilk, watered-down cow milk, dissolved sugar, diluted carrot juice and warmed rice water, endlessly defiling bed linens, curtains, wallpaper, floor and furniture. The adults won the battle, and again I continued living, and acquired the resistance to withstand a multitude of childhood diseases.

I must have been sick almost constantly during the first years of my life, from what I have been told. Still very vaguely, and undetermined with respect to place and circumstances, I have retained these images in my memory: small spaces full of whispering under dim, subdued lamplight; the movements and accompanying little sounds of someone mixing and dissolving tablets, potions and powders; a figure that supports my head and tries to feed me something that is either too hot, too cold, too sweet or too bitter.

In later memories, the images become sharper; the voices are louder and I understand the words. Also, I know more or less by name what it is that I am supposed to drink or swallow. And I know that I am ill and that I will stay ill my entire life.

In one of these remembered images, I am sitting motionless on a chair inside the room, close to the window. Outside, a weak winter sun hangs low and languid over the ugly blue-gray roofs of ugly houses. I am three or four years old, and I am in pain, because I am sick. The pain, deep and throbbing, is just behind my ears, in both the hinges of my jaw, which is wrapped in a cloth, as if I were a dead body that has yet to enter a state of rigor mortis. If I breathe through my nose, the pain seems to spread forward from around my ears, and upward to just below my eye sockets. If I breathe through my mouth, the pain pushes deeper inward, filling almost the entire cavity of my mouth. I ceaselessly alternate these two modes of inhalation, lest the pain advance too far from its starting point, and, moreover, I move as little as possible, because moving creates a draught, and a draught creates coolness, and the slightest coolness on my face increases the pain.

Perhaps it was then that the overpowering and all-eclipsing realisation forever settled in me that to live and to act, or to live and not to act, is all equally pain, and fear, and dismay, and that it is disastrous and a great misfortune to be born and to live.

Continue: the Second chapter.

Many thanks to co-translators Jaason von Banniseht en Mireille Mazard

Second chapter – A circus boy

Second chapter


Wherein the writer exchanges thoughts with his friend Jackal about the fate of mankind and modern means of communication; wherein he makes oral profession of his ecstatic, sensual love for Jackal. 

When Jackal’s parents got their first television, the device was not purchased from an ordinary television merchant, but delivered by a film projectionist from a cinema. The purchase was combined with that of a large sideboard, though this piece of furniture and the television were not attached. The sideboard had such a strange shape and appearance that a furniture maker had to be called to adjust the other pieces of furniture to the sideboard by gluing imitation wood carvings to the legs and the backs of the chairs.

The television had a clear image for about five weeks, until the end of autumn, when it started to display a lot of falling snow, only to become permanently silent more than a month later, blind and dumb. The film projectionist had meanwhile moved to a completely different city. The television and the sideboard, though acquired as a single lot, did not belong together, but furthermore the television set itself turned out not to be a single unit: it consisted, rather, of two halves, each from a different brand, such that any warranty or claim would be in vain.

Jackal’s father, who was very experienced in these kinds of transactions, also never missed an opportunity to buy old radio devices at the market for a few guilders, which he dismantled and stripped of the big, old-fashioned tubes that were often coated with golden or silver metal, and which, in the early days of telegraphy, were called lamps, and, indeed, bore a certain resemblance to electric light bulbs. He looked at and inspected each of the lamps most carefully, especially the ones that had somewhat distinctive shapes and sizes, and ones that carried a second, smaller lamp on top. These compound lamps, in particular, drew his undivided attention: he gazed through cracks in the metal coating and held them to his ear, shook them with the most cautious, careful movements, and listened near the blinded heads of the lamps to the faint murmur of the wires, as if he could still hear the far-away transmitters of strange countries and peoples from long ago. All the lamps were finally placed upright in feeble cardboard boxes, and stowed away in the attic. If one lifted these boxes without exercising extraordinary caution, the bottoms would fall out and the lamps would rain down upon the bare attic floor, at risk of shattering.

‘Those devices never worked’, Jackal said bitterly. ‘None of those devices ever worked.’ He shook his head.

‘Big devices, I suppose?’ I asked.

‘Huge, colossal devices. Gigantic encasements.’

‘Yes. But you have to take into account that a device that does work would probably soon cost, say two hundred fifty guilders,’ I argued. ‘And that would not even be a big device, but one might just as well say a small device, actually. Such a very large device that doesn’t work, for, let’s say, two guilders and fifty cents, that’s not expensive at all, really. Did he also make his own wool carpets on a 429.50 guilders costing do-it-yourself knitting device or six terms of 99 guilders 75 cents within six weeks Your own 85 x 11 centimetre hearth rug bigger sizes on demand?’

‘No, not that,’ Jackal mumbled dully.

‘What a childhood,’ I stated. ‘I bet it rained all the time?’

‘On Sunday afternoons, I don’t know if I ever told you this,’ began Jackal, ‘my father and mother went upstairs to the bedroom. The door was locked. For half an hour, an hour, something like that, I don’t remember exactly. I don’t know what took place there, but afterwards, when they came down, a mood hung, a doom, something so disastrous in the house, impossible to describe. I forgot when it was, but I believe there was almost an entire year in which I cried for days on end.’

‘He was not ever allowed anything,’ I established, very pleased with my own cleverness.

‘You suppose so?’ Jackal sneered. ‘Yes, I still remember hearing my mother say one day, I don’t remember where or to whom: “And then he wants it again in the morning.” ’

‘When you’re with me you can always have your way, Jackal. I want to be a mother to you, who always will allow, you. I mean, always, whenever you want. I’m your bride, your slave, you may look at pictures in a book when you possess me and ride me, just as you please. We can build a small pub table that fits exactly over my neck and shoulders, so that you won’t have to suffer hunger and thirst during your wonderful ride through the land of love. Jackal, I don’t know how I should tell you this, but I am absolutely crazy about you. I’m a man, am I not, but if you stand in front of me, I don’t know why it happens, I want to give myself to you like a woman, with body and soul, honestly.’

Jackal was quiet. I was really completely at a loss for words, but with a fatal urge, I babbled on. ‘Surely, many of your toys were broken in your childhood, Jackal.’

‘Huh? I once got an electric railway train,’ began Jackal. ‘Did I never tell you this? My parents had apparently chanced upon a second-hand one.’

‘From people whose child had recently died,’ I said. Jackal did not react to my words, and, for a brief moment, it seemed as if, what fortune, he had never heard me utter the sentence at all.

‘But it didn’t come with a transformer,’ he continued.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘And that’s how it got connected to the electricity in the wrong way, and for a short while it worked, and then the engine burnt out.’

‘How do you know that?’ Jackal snapped. ‘Have I told you this before?’

‘No. Ah, Jackal. I love you so much. You shouldn’t tell me these stories. I can’t bear it. It drives me crazy. When was that? How old were you? Seven, eight years old?’

‘Eight, I think’, said Jackal. ‘It occurred around the time of the Pinocchio book, and the dollhouse that my sister got from my father.’

‘Didn’t you get a dollhouse yourself?’ I asked. At the very moment I said it, I really did not want to live anymore, but I was also mad with a fear of dying. What reason or excuse could God invent to have Mercy on my poor soul? ‘Yes, sure, Thou rejectest me’, I spoke inaudibly, ‘but hast Thou not created me as I am? Canst Thou reject me while I am precisely the way Thou hast made me and declared me to be?’ I had the imperative feeling that there were only two possibilities: either Jackal or God would push me into the endless Night entirely and irrevocably, for all eternity. ‘If it is the same to Thee, then reject me,’ I whispered, ‘but let Jackal stay with me forever.’

‘I had gotten a Pinocchio book,’ Jackal continued. It was the first book of my own. And my father built a dollhouse for my sister Margriet. Not that it looked like anything, but it was still fun. It even had little paintings in it. And those paintings were the pictures from my Pinocchio book.’

‘Life is really unbearable and impossible to live, Jackal,’ I said softly. I spoke even before I had contemplated my words, but now that I had, I knew I meant it, deeply and painfully, with my entire heart, and that I had not said it out of boredom, nor to be funny, nor to mock Jackal. He was now standing at the window. It did not rain yet. A lead sky hung over the city. ‘In bed, with each other, and we’ll never get out,’ I thought.

I saw how the eternal light of the autumn afternoon illuminated Jackal’s hips and put the arch of his back not in the twilight, but made it stand out quite clearly. Maybe he wore the same clothes as in the photograph he had shown me once, on a merciful day, in which he, seventeen or eighteen years old, had sat on Santa Claus’s knee at a Yuletide celebration, for fun, surrounded by the branches of a Christmas tree, that were decorated with sparkling death snow, silver death lanterns, glass death clocks and the golden, fallen hair of the Angel of Death. It was actually impossible, so many years later, but I wanted to see it this way and it was how it ought to be, that the dark velvet trousers he was wearing now were the same as the ones he had worn in that photograph, resting warm and tight on the knee of the undignified creature of masquerade, and that this would be equally so for the gray striped shirt, and ah, as well, if it pleased God, for his incomprehensible sleeveless knitted sweater, checkered black and grey, a labyrinth of love which would remain a mystery forever, and which he was wearing now, and which, as he rested his elbows on the windowsill, was just slightly pulled up, up to half a palm’s width above his waistband. I loved Jackal, and I was condemned to love him more and more, as long as I would live, but I could never tell it, nor express or show it, the way it was and the way it consumed me.

‘I am dust and ashes,’ I spoke, as one in a stupor. I stood up and got a few steps closer to him. Jackal’s figure had something indisputably imperative, almost majestic about it: even at his young age, one could clearly tell from the way he looked that his father had once been the second most Important person in the country. ‘Allow me to take off your clothes,’ I whispered. ‘May I see you standing naked? I will fold everything up very neatly.’ I now stepped very close to him. His breathtaking, voracious mouth with the big boy lips, which still also were those of a man, opened slightly, and his mouth curled, as if readying itself for devastating mockery, but he said nothing.

With trembling fingers, staring outside as if deep in thought, in order to hide my ardent longing to behold his body, I started unbuttoning his shirt under his sweater. Jackal allowed me to have my way, lifting his arms to let me slide his shirt and his sweater off his upper body. I lay them, like the ermine mantle of a young king, over the back of a chair, which was actually a throne. How could it be that Jackal reigned by denuding himself, whilst for all other mortal beings nakedness made them defenceless? As I continued undressing him, it was as if he became even mightier, more merciless and cruel.

I had removed his shoes and socks, and now I slid his dark, tight school pants down from his hips and legs, slowly, as if in a silent act of ceremony, whilst I knelt and took on the servile posture of a penniless tailor in a fairytale, reverentially supporting each of his feet, to let him step out of both of his pant legs. I laid his trousers over the armrest of the chair, in such a way that the tender bulges in the back, where the fabric had been granted the task to hold and warm Jackal’s buttocks and protect them against the unchaste and ravishing looks of men who harboured deviant desires, remained very clearly discernible in the material, which was still warm.

Jackal now stood completely bare, with the exception of his light blue, tiny imitation silk underpants, which traced his remarkable masculine shapes with exceptional fidelity. I looked at his Love, which could be called covered, but hardly concealed, considering its size, that I wanted to see rise and rear like a beautiful predator disturbed in his sleep, with all the longing of my heart that was eternally addicted to Jackal. After I laid down his velvet trousers over the chair, I again came close to Jackal, and my hands reached for the elastic cord of the last small piece of cotton that still covered the Truth, but Jackal did not wait for me, and with a few swift gestures removed the final curtain that still covered the Mystery of all mysteries, and which stretched over his blond Member in a tender, heavenly blue glow. His nakedness was as dizzying as it had been almost a year ago during our first encounter, when I had started to undress him with the same shyness, almost without daring to say or ask anything, because how could a Boy like him ever love someone like me?

I began touching and stroking Jackal with the same shiver of insecurity as I did back then: just like then, I could not find the courage to touch his belly right away, and I first touched and caressed his boy neck, but while doing so I had to look, whether I wanted to or not, at his rider’s hips and his dark, enormous sex.

‘If I seek out a boy and give him to you, Jackal,’ I began uneasily and with a slightly hoarse voice, because how could you know in advance how it would unfold, ‘then it should be a boy with a narrow, shallow groove and a small cave, but with a big mouth: so that he may nicely scream and bawl with pain, and cry, while you slowly work your way into him from below.’ I now touched, in proud reverence, the lower part of his back, and felt with my fingertips the tender parting where his posterior began, and then, barely touching his skin, with the back of my hand I caressed both the arched indentations at the outsides of his tight, motionless boy buttocks, while I breathlessly kept looking at his dark groin.

Jackal’s buttocks tightened more vigorously under my touch. His breath came deeper and heavier. I saw his weaponry rise with little jerks, and exaltation made my timidity abate. I knelt down to kiss the arms under which I would want to serve him forever; I blew cautiously on this improbably large horn of love and abundance, and I felt that I was lifted up and carried by an inaudible music of the spheres, which filled the entire universe.

Continue: Third chapter

Many thanks to co-translators Jaason von Banniseht en Mireille Mazard

Third chapter – A circus boy

Third chapter


Wherein the writer begins the wondrous story of his purchase, from the possession of a foreign Prince, of a young mestizo, who has to serve Jackal as a slave; wherein he furthermore makes mention of his camping experiences.

It did not take long before Jackal and I, both completely undressed, laid in each other’s arms in a breathless embrace. We had laid down on the beautifully arched cedar resting bed, decorated with Persian gold, bought in Pompeii on one of my foolhardy journeys, piteously broken in the middle but carefully repaired, and which, with a probability bordering on certainty, had belonged to the young love companion of the Roman emperor Titus.

We resided in my Chateau La G., in the R. valley, a pleasant place to stay in autumn, in the tower chamber, which was easy to heat, and offered a view over almost the entire little town nearby.

At first I could not speak from emotion, as I felt Jackal’s cool, supple boy skin that smelled of fresh hay and Russian leather against my paltry limbs that shivered from the fever of love. It was a happiness that frightened me: how could this Mercy have been granted to me, one who was untimely born, who, with all my attempts at penitence, my devotion and my pilgrimages, had always led such a reprehensible, sinful, yes, from a moral point of view, repulsive life? I had committed many of my sinful, deviant excesses on my journeys, and my thoughts now went back to them, with deep remorse and regret. How much I had desecrated my own body and, in so doing, that of the Creator! If I deserved anything at all, it had to be the eternal, hellish torture of irrevocable Judgment, and in no way the delight of this bed of love. I yearned to be judged and chastised for my words and deeds at this very instant. If the Most High imposed such a punishment already in this life, could He charge Jackal with the execution of it?

‘When will you finally really hit me, Jackal?’ I whispered. ‘You are a man, aren’t you, and not some kind of queer? When will you give me a sound beating again, like there is no tomorrow?’

Jackal smiled. ‘Do you remember, Jackal, how you handled that unfaithful Mestizo back then, whom I had bought for you in a foreign country? If you hit me like that, I mean the way you chastised that adulterous creature of love… Oh, Jackal, how madly did I love you then. That was when my love had only really begun. Do you remember?’

‘Not exactly,’ Jackal said softly. He now relaxed his entire, mighty, lazy body, and he laid back, placing his hands behind his neck, the way Boys always laid back at summer camp after chopping wood or days of pointless path-finding, or after having conducted some useless research about indistinct animals living in the wild that were no longer there: near his tent, such a boy then laid back on the short, uncut grass, which had already turned to hay because of the drought, whilst his largely innocent Boyness was clearly outlined in his thin cotton pants, smeared with lichen stains. A cursed, but indelible memory stopped by and came over me: of a boy who once, in my youth at a summer camp, had laid like that, backward on the ground, in all his ignorant shamelessness, half hidden behind a tent… where I had spied on him, each time he was lying there, from under the curtain of another tent… when I had been maybe ten or eleven years old; the boy possibly of the same age, with the odd name Wijnand. With all my desperate, dark, cruel longing for his body and his voice, I had, for days and days of emptiness and loneliness, waited for an incident, anything, that could lead to his humiliation and punishment and his subjection to severe pain. And that longing had been fulfilled – truly the only time in my life that any of my sinful desires had ever been directly realised. I would have liked to tell Jackal about it immediately, so that the cruel incident of so long ago, which I had not shared with anybody until now, would give him the same, dark ecstasy as I had felt back then, on that particular afternoon, years and years ago, which had overwhelmed me for the rest of my life.

‘What is a Mestizo, actually?’ Jackal wanted to know.

‘They are often exceptionally beautiful boys,’ I started. ‘A Mestizo is born of an Indian mother, but conceived by a white man. They can’t count, but they are said to be very diligent. That’s why I bought him for you, when I was most deeply moved by his naked beauty, although his master did not want to give him away, not even for the highest bid. I had a book with me… But let me start from the beginning…’

‘He was unfaithful, you said?’ Jackal asked. ‘To whom?’

‘He would one day be unfaithful to you, in his randy, adulterous audacity, Jackal, with that sluttish, young blond bear of a mailman in V., but nobody could know that at that time. He was not even in the country yet! He was still in a foreign, faraway country. He still belonged to an entirely different person. He didn’t belong to you and you hadn’t even laid eyes on him! But I saw him, in the court of the young Prince, whose guest I was, and who overwhelmed me with generosity. There were also boys, dressed as girls, dancing with shiny jewellery and rings in their cute ears.’ I laid my hand on Jackal’s dark Member, and cupped it loosely and tenderly. While speaking the last sentence, Jackal’s breathing had quickened a little, and his Member, although not yet in a state of alarm, let alone ready to fire, had nevertheless become distinctly more robust.

I thought it miraculous and, at the same time, heavenly that I was allowed to tell him what we had been through together, accurately and faithfully, whilst he nevertheless already knew everything I was about to recount.

‘One day, Jackal, I will write everything down. It will become a book which contains everything, everything regarding our Love: I will write it down so beautifully that the rich, in their lascivious houses in the hills, will have it read to them by their slaves, whilst they are seated in front of an early fire, with a strum of music and strings played, not as a melody but as a backdrop: a dark lute, or a deep, sweetly moaning flute made of soft fig wood. The night falls, but the rich man, in his hedonism never satisfied, and the slave, having become tired and hoarse from reading, is generously plied with enticing beverages, such that he may continue to read without his voice failing him.’

Jackal smiled again, and nodded. In silent, grateful ecstasy, I started, at first hesitating, but gradually with a bolder, moving voice, to evoke the beloved story for Jackal, which would once again have to make him yearn, and make him gluttonous for love and through cruelty intemperately randy.

‘Listen, Jackal. I traveled far away, alone, and I arrived in a remote, strange country, where I enjoyed the hospitality of an opulent Prince, who possessed nearly everything and ruled all the land. They were a completely foreign people. At night, seated in front of the fire, the Prince asked me everything about my country, and how people loved one another there, and we talked until the deep of night. The Prince was still young, and beautiful, and powerful, and rich, but he was also very Lonely. He, however, never mentioned that.

I was given a chamber for the night in the guest pavilion of the princely palace, and lay awake for a while, listening to the wonderful, far-away music and the dancers’ voices, and I was still full of thoughts about the wondrous things the Prince had told me about his faith and his love.

I slept deeply, for a long time, and the sun was already high in the sky when I awoke and heard feeble noises outside which I could not identify. I stood up from the lush, golden, lily-shaped bed that the Prince had ordered to be swiftly carried into my room on the previous evening after my arrival, and stood at the opened window. My breath was taken away by what I saw, Jackal. A small, round pond was situated in front of the pavilion, where a fountain poured out its crystal clear water, softly splashing. Sitting crouched at the well was a boy, drawing water into two beautiful copper buckets that seemed to be made of gold, so shiny were they. He was almost naked, that boy, Jackal. He wore only sandals on his naked feet and, held tight over his groin by thin cords, a very small triangular cloth of supple, almost transparent leather. I looked at him half from behind, half from the side, but his face was turned somewhat in my direction, such that I could, to a great extent, discern his countenance. I knew two things, Jackal. I knew that I would do everything within my power and give everything to be able to bring him back for you. But I also knew that I had seen the same boy face before, once, long, long ago. It could not have been the same boy, because the memory was from too long ago, Jackal. But it was the same face as that of the boy that I… I once had a boy… had him… It was in a… Are you asleep?’


‘So I took with me that young, almost naked Mestizo at the well, for you, Jackal. But he looked like a different boy, a boy from long ago. Do you know what I did to that boy, cruel, sweet beast of mine? Shall I tell that one first…?’

The sound of Jackal’s moan set off a jubilant resonance in me, because I knew that he was longing and eager to hear the story that I had never told to anyone, that I had carried with me in the deepest secrecy for years, but that I would now reveal to Jackal, and only to him.

‘What I did then, I would do again now, Jackal, countless times, for you, always, again and again…’ I panted lightly. I looked at Jackal, who was smiling again, and now I caressed his huge club of love, which rose with a slight shock with each caress, only to descend slowly again. Jackal felt no shame, and he smiled at me, and my own shame, which had, for such a long time, covered my secret with silence, parted from me, and I could tell him about the incident that I had kept a secret for so many years.

How long ago did it happen? I think I was ten or eleven years old, attending some kind of summer camp. I do not remember if it was a camp  organised by my school, or by a club that wanted to bring young people into closer contact with nature. I actually believe that I, like always, did not belong there – I mean that my stay and participation were not in accordance with the regulations: I did not attend the school where all the other boys of the camp went, and by no means was I a member of the youth club that would have organised this and that. I think that a good acquaintance of a friend of a neighbour had managed to place me in that summer camp for boys, probably in the nick of time, a few days before the start of the summer holiday. The camp lasted three weeks, but I stayed only nine or ten days: the period during which, for some reason, the place of an absent or sick boy was vacant.

(Tented camps in a valley, and then a hurricane, or a river dam that breaks, and immerses the families of eighty-one boys and eleven youth leaders in grief – I don’t know why, but I always remain unmoved whilst reading such reports, breathing a little faster at the most; when a rat or a dog or a cat is run over, it moves me a thousand times more.)

People also sang at the camp. None of the youth leaders were pretty: they had small mouths, and some of them drooled.

One often went hiking, in large groups, where one had to walk two by two, and the leaders tried to turn hiking into a kind of march, setting the example by making their arms swing out emphatically, in time with their steps.

During the evenings we were read to from a book, in which it was explained how stupid the people from long ago really were, because they believed in all kinds of little gods and even in God, until they had gradually come to their senses and started to measure the temperature of gases.

The camp did not only consist of tents: there were also at least two wooden barracks, where one was not always allowed inside and which remained reserved, mostly for use in inclement weather.

One afternoon, I was alone in one of these barracks that had high, dusty windows, through which one could not look outside. The weather was only moderately good: it was windless and overcast, with brief spells of extremely light, barely noticeable drizzle. Almost everyone at the camp had gone, participating in one of the countless, inevitable hikes. I do not remember how many people the camp counted. In one’s memory, one always imagines huge numbers, but the total number of persons, including the staff, probably did not exceed three dozen.

Neither of the barracks had been meant as living quarters. Rather, they were large sheds that had had something to do with poultry farming, as the entire encampment stood on the site of a former chicken farm. One barrack was completely barren and empty, but the other, where I was that afternoon, had, on one side, been very minimally equipped as a day room, possibly for gatherings of the local boy scouts: a wooden barrel and an empty wooden spool, put down like a mushroom that had once been wound with underground electrical wires, served as tables, and all kinds of crates and boxes served as chairs, and there was even a sort of a counter or bar, constructed from orange crates and overlaid with plywood. A few worn smoker’s ashtrays made of enamel or porcelain with tobacco advertisements on them were placed on that counter and also elsewhere on the other very basic furnishings. Empty bottles and jam jars without labels, which apparently could no longer be returned for deposit money, were placed on the ground. Some kind of statuette that was made of stone or porcelain, about a quarter of a metre in height, or possibly even significantly smaller, stood on the bar, close to the wall.

I was alone in the barrack, and in my hand I kept a thin, flexible willow branch, that I had cut off somewhere and that I uselessly let swish about, and that I used now and then to deal out welts on the wooden walls and random objects that I took for targets.

I can now surmise with certainty that, apart from me, no one else was present at the entire camp that afternoon other than a boy and a leader. Of all the boys that comprised the camp, not one of them had handsome looks or anything cute about them, except for one boy, and exactly this boy had not left with the others but had stayed behind in the camp, just as one of the leaders had. This boy, who carried the remarkable name ‘Wijnand’, did not usually participate in strenuous games or long hikes, because he was said to have an ailment, asthma, or diabetes or weak lungs or a whistling heart valve – I do not remember what it was: maybe he has already died long ago, but I still suspect, I do not know why, that, in reality, there was nothing wrong with him.

He was exceptionally beautiful, this Wijnand, in any case according to the standards of worship that I upheld at my tenth or eleventh year of age and, therefore, I had never dared to approach him. In a crucial way he was different from the other boys, and like me, did not belong to the group, although in a completely different way than me: I believe that he was from a somewhat well-off family, at least compared to the paupers from which everyone else descended, including me, and it could possibly be that his parents had a say in the camp, which they might have supported financially, as the boy enjoyed a certain cautious protection and was spared in all kinds of ways.

His appearance, which I can still summon with photographic clarity after so many years, attracted me in an imperative and inescapable manner, which confused me profoundly. Despite his somewhat fragile, vulnerable physique and his clearly shy expression, I attributed the brute, unpredictable power of an animal to him, and secretly gave him the name Brother Fox, whispering it in the darkness of my tent in my camping bed, while I touched myself thinking of him. In my opinion he looked like a mighty fox, and I revered him. His face was narrow, with deep-seated, grey eyes, and his dark, lank hair, here and there slightly discoloured by the sun, was cut short on the back and on the crown, but kept fairly long on the front, where it often fell very elegantly over his forehead. He had a big, sharp nose and a distinctly chiselled mouth, which was sturdy in comparison to the rest of his slender face, and readily showed his somewhat irregularly implanted, razor-sharp fangs. I believed he was older and stronger than I, but now suspect with assurance that he could not have been older, and that my imagination that had made him physically stronger than myself, was completely influenced by my desperate reverence for him. (Only many, many years later have I understood that he, this Wijnand, sought me out and must have been attracted to me, but I could not conceive it, and was avoiding and fleeing him in all my desperate longing.)

He wore somewhat better clothes than we did, mostly finely striped shirts, which were still quite expensive when they were in fashion, and short, black cotton trousers, carefully chosen or even tailor-made, and his shoes as well, were made from expensive, supple, unpainted leather a model of mountaineering boots which city dwellers took for luxurious footwear. I worshipped his expensive, moss-green stockings, which boys in those days wore just up to the knee, and which may or may not have been decorated with wool tassels, one of which he sometimes lowered with a casualness that completely overwhelmed me.

That afternoon he had, as mentioned, stayed at the camp, but I did not know where he was. At least one of the leaders must have stayed as well, but where he was – in the barrack, in one of the tents – I also did not know. I had stayed behind on account of some pretext: that my foot hurt, supposedly injured after a jump, something of the sort.

In the barrack, where I was alone, an almost perfect silence reigned: the drizzle made hardly any sound on the corrugated iron roof. I walked around the well-trodden, dry clay floor, and hit a willow tree branch with force against the wooden walls, such that the green skin on the tip of the branch was stripped. I stopped in front of the wooden crate counter and struck forcefully the plywood countertop that was painted in a dull black, ink-like watercolour as I approached the side of the barrack that had been set up to be a day room. Fine dust whirled up after my blow, and the ashtrays and the statuette danced and wiggled. The ashtrays remained more or less in their places, but the statuette moved in my direction towards the edge of the counter. Again, I struck my branch on the poor, thin plywood surface; and the statuette, hopping up a few millimetres and turning slightly on its axis, shifted again towards the edge, while the ashtrays stayed more or less where they were. I struck the withered, loudly resonating wood a third and fourth time. With the fourth blow the statuette reached the edge, and a small part of its stand went over, but after a few wobbles, it remained standing. I hit the top for a fifth time, now harder than any of the previous times. The statuette jittered, shifted along the edge, toppled, and fell. Most of the barrack floor consisted of tamped, smoothed out clay, but all around the counter they had made primitive flooring that consisted of evenly placed bricks, apparently originating from a demolition. The statuette fell backwards onto this brick surface, and broke into three big pieces, which I gathered and fitted together. I managed to put together the pieces in a precarious and unstable configuration, and to put down the statuette in its entirety in such a way that it remained standing, such that, upon superficial inspection, the damage was not even visible. At that moment the barrack door opened, squeaking loudly. I stood motionless and had to hold my breath for a moment: Wijnand stood in the doorway, curiously looking about whilst his eyes adapted to the faint light. He must have walked outside for some time, in the drizzle, because part of his hair was soaking wet, part of it was half-drenched, and covered with fine drops of water. He entered, closed the door, and slowly walked towards me. I stood frozen, expressionless, but I also knew, in immense depth of a suddenly all-encompassing knowledge, that something decisive would unfold in my life, which I would be unable to change, because it had already been inescapably predestined before all time.

‘What are you doing?’ Wijnand asked, still standing at a short distance from me. It was as if at first I only saw the movements of his mouth, and only much later heard the sound of his voice and understood his words.

‘I am looking at all kinds of things,’ I answered hoarsely. ‘Don’t you think that’s a funny statuette?’ Wijnand walked towards the counter and stretched his hand towards the statuette. At that moment, I heard someone outside, at the barrack door. Once again I knew that everything that would follow was now immovably definite and already dictated before the dawn of time.

The door opened. Only the youth leader that had stayed behind at the camp was standing in the doorway. He was ugly, and I remember considering him to be old, the way young people think everyone is old who his ten years their senior. It is possible that he was not much beyond his late twenties, but there was already something bony and worn out about him, in his somewhat saggy clothes, and the black beret that he wore tightly over his head completed his nameless insignificance.

‘So? What are we doing here?’ he asked in turn. Little saliva bubbles were visible at the corners of his mouth. He stood very close to us. At that very moment the broken, put-together pieces of the statuette crumbled in Wijnand’s hands and clattered down onto the counter and floor.

‘He is smashing beautiful statuettes, that sort of thing’, I said. ‘Probably because he’s bored.’

It was as if the walls echoed my words, and gave them an even more imperative clarity. Wijnand turned around and stood before us, his hands displayed helplessly. His bestial, big boy mouth trembled: he apparently wanted to say something, but he had to swallow first. With a few quick movements, which I did not have to think out because they had been ordered already before the creation of all things, I grabbed him, pulled him towards me face down, forced him to bend down, locked his neck between my legs, and with a swift gesture handed the youth leader the willow branch that I had clenched between my teeth during the short struggle. I knew that nothing I did was ambiguous or required an explanation, but that the youth leader had wanted and desired the same unavoidable thing as I from the very first moment. Without hesitating for even one second, he accepted the branch from me. The door of the barrack, which had remained open, now started to close, as I had always known it would because of the draught, slowly at first and then faster, and finally flew shut with a firm slam.

‘Why did you do that?’ the youth leader asked, but it was not at all a question that required any answer. Wijnand’s voice, which reverberated up to my groin through the skull of his bones, started to stammer something, but the youth leader was already making the willow branch whistle through the air and, with brute force, intending to inflict as much pain as possible, let it land on the tight seat of Brother Fox’s black pants. A cry rose from his throat, part scream and partly turning into a fierce sob, but the next welt already came down. I now smelled the dazzling fragrance of Wijnand’s boy sweat, and on the inside of my thighs became aware of the warmth of his tender yet muscular boy body. I pulled up his waistband with both my hands to make the thin cotton of his short pants tighten to the utmost over his small, hard and high buttocks.

The youth leader struck another blow, with almost athletic force, and Wijnand’s crying passed into a hoarse roar that reverberated through my upper legs into my whole lower body. He seemed to have regained breath only then to try to wrest himself free. I kept him locked down with all the force I could muster, but I also knew that it was impossible for me to ever let him go before I…

The youth leader now hit a little lower, just above the edge of the legs of Wijnand’s short trousers, which I still held tight as a drum skin. The boy’s electric cries became fiercer and higher in tone. Jerking his neck and shoulders, he did everything he could to pull out of my grip, while he tried to protect his bottom with his hands.

‘He really should get it on his bare buttocks,’ I spoke slowly and loudly without looking at the youth leader. He now let the next blow strike across Wijnand’s naked upper thighs, with the stripped extremity of the branch, then again a little lower, with truly unmatched calculation and cruelty. I felt his entire body rise in a wave of pain, whilst his cries became shriller, so hoarse they almost whistled. His head was banging about between my knees, in a frenzy, and his wet, warm hair sprinkled my bare legs. ‘I loved him, Jackal. I loved him… finally, finally I understood… and I kept thinking the same thing, the same words over and over again: Fox song, fox song… that is what I kept thinking, Jackal… Fox song… and then… My groin flooded with my own love-juice, Jackal, you know that?’ Do you like what I am telling you?’

‘Yes…’ I now manipulated Jackal’s member with all the ingenuity that love availeth.

‘Jackal, listen… That boy, back then… I had him whipped, but for whom…? In whose name could I have him whipped? Back then I had… nobody… I was alone in this world… I did not know you yet, Jackal. But now… I know boys like Wijnand, now… I know where they live, and what they’re up to together, Jackal… I know where they go to school, those little whores from technical school, with their whorish arses… We take them home, one at a time, or in pairs, two friends, of which one has to watch while we chastise the other, the pretty one. His velvet trousers go down, Jackal… We tie his hands behind his back… And I whip him for you, for you, Jackal… You are dressed from head to toe in tight, dark leather; you are also wearing leather gloves… You pull his buttocks apart, for me, for my whip… a thin riding whip… and I whip him, I hit him… in between, in between… that little whore… right there… in his crack, on his small notch and on his blond boy purse underneath, his whorish purse… with the thin whip… that he… ’

Jackal’s lower torso jolted, and from his silent barrel he now fired: two, three, four times; the first shot went over our heads and landed somewhere behind us, in the bookcase. His mighty body vibrated some more, and then lay silent. He had closed his eyes, his head tilted a bit, with his face turned halfway towards me. It seemed as if he were already sleeping . I touched the threads of the wondrous web of love that he had just spun with his white blood, which formed a net around his blond groin, in which I hoped and prayed and longed to be held forever as a prisoner of Love.

At first I did nothing but look at Jackal’s face. I could now ask him to touch me, and tell me the things that could for some moments cure my deadly wound, but I decided not to interrupt his holy slumber. I touched myself, cautiously speaking my words of worship, very quietly, almost inaudibly, while repeatedly halting, to listen to his slow, deep, satisfied breathing. Outside, the evening turned to dusk. My gaze rested on his mouth in the twilight. I could not find peace in the thought that he would have to die one day.

Many thanks to co-translators Jaason von Banniseht en Mireille Mazard

Tim Krabbé’s random word

I once gave myself the assignment of inventing a completely random word. Completely random, is that possible? And all of a sudden, there it was: Battoowoo Greekgreek (Tim Krabbé, The Rider). 

The word Battoowoo Greekgreek (in Dutch: Batüwü Griekgriek) has, since the day Tim Krabbé entrusted it to paper, acquired a modest fame. Hundreds of thousands of readers of The Rider cherish the word. Maarten Ducrot confessed, when he was still a professional rider: ‘Whenever I hit absolute rock bottom I always think of those immortal words from The Rider by Tim Krabbé – Battoowoo Greekgreek – and everything seems just fine again’. So the word has prospered pretty well for a modest random word. About time to examine if it is random at all! But first I want to stress that the result of this examination could, of course, never harm the magical, almost divine quality of the word. That goes almost without saying.

Even so, there is something at stake here. The random word is, within Krabbé’s oeuvre, a miniature of an important theme. Many of his characters want to escape the monotony of their existence by doing something random or unpredictable. Not just as a revolt against ‘society’ but as a revolt against being under submission of their own instincts and drives – or even more fundamental forces of the universe. The main character of The Vanishing jumps from a third-story balcony when still an adolescent, thereby proving he is no slave of his own fear of heights. He wants to be able to do anything, according to the ‘arbitrariness of his will’. Compared to this, the creation of a random word is a pretty modest deed of anarchy. Has the writer Krabbé accomplished what his characters so often can?

The rider

The Rider

A first fundamental problem emerges: the randomness of an isolated, short sequence of numbers or letters is hard to assess. Only with longer sequences can anything be concluded in a statistically significant way. Look at the following extreme case. From the two-digit binary sequence 01, we cannot tell if it was generated by randomness of an underlying system. Fortunately, Batüwü Griekgriek is not such an extreme case, and it can be assessed to a certain degree.

According to the mathematical definition, randomness means absence of pattern. A series of numbers is random if it has no regularities. This implies that the series can not be abbreviated or rewritten as a shorter series. The technical term for this is informational incompressibility. A series that systematically contains repetitions (111111), alternations (010101) or symmetries (001100) – to name but a few elementary examples of pattern – is not random. So Krabbé’s word seems to disqualify in this respect: it contains a repetition of the letter sequence: griek (greek), which is even an existing word in its own right.

But hold on. In a random sequence of binary characters, surely a repetition of two zeroes or two ones would be no problem. So why disqualify the double occurrence of the syllable ‘greek’?

To answer this, we must first know from which ‘word container the word is drawn’. Which properties has the set of possible words? In case of number series we assume that all digits from 0 till 9 are allowed, in every possible order. In the case of words this is more complicated. The smallest parts might not be separate letters, but syllables. Related to this matter, is a more or less stringent criterion of pronounceability. A letter sequence like jklaafgyy lkolj does not qualify as a word candidate. Let’s assume that Krabbé’s word container was restricted to what is pronounceable. Note that the set of pronounceable words is bigger that the set of representative words, which by the way would be far more difficult to define. Regardless of exact definition, common sense of native Dutch speakers tells that Batüwü Griekgriek is not a representative Dutch word.

So we have seen that in the container of random words no total letter anarchy prevails. Considering this, the repetition ‘griek’ is already less unlikely: it could be a single repetition and not a – very unlikely – fivefold repetition on letter level. So is the repetition just as likely as the repetition of, for example, the number 6 in a decimal series? No, not even close, because there are many more syllables than decimal numbers. But the exact probability depends, again, on the content of the ‘word container’. Is the repetition frequency of syllables therein a faithful reflection of the repetition frequency of syllables in dutch words? (I guess those are predominantly onomatopoeias and ‘primal words’ like mama). Or is the likelihood of repetition a blind ‘one devided by the number of syllables’ in the container? In the latter case, the chances of a repetition of ‘griek’ would be very small, since there are thousands of syllables.

So because of the repetition, Batüwü Griekgriek is not a very representative random word. I think Krabbé knows this and I suspect that he has chosen the repetition for a different reason. Research shows the following: if people are asked to invent a random sequence of binary numbers, they shun repetition more than they should. The chance that they write a 0 after a 1, is 0.6 instead of 0.5. This is a manifestation of what is called the gambler’s fallacy: the false notion that the roulette wheel has a bias towards variation/alternation. I think that Krabbé has deliberately not wanted to fall in this trap. And he has even added a little extra on top of his flagrant repetition. He seems to say provocatively: ‘I know, this word contains a repetition. If you guys think it couldn’t be random, go lose your money in the casino’.

But maybe I am on the wrong track. Maybe the writer has truly written the first word that came to mind on one of his bicycle rides. That’s what he suggests in the quote. This spontaneous creation explains the repetition in a different manner. Whenever people invent a fantasy rime or a nonsensical little song, repetition and alternation occur very often (tatee tom tom tatee tom). In the context of this article: these words are in a container that has a lot of repetition and alternation in it. So in this context of spontaneous language production, the word Batüwü Griekgriek ís a pretty representative random word.

Was Krabbé sincere when he wrote: ‘And all of a sudden, there it was.’? Wouldn’t it be to cheat his readers if he had considered many word candidates, altered a letter here and there, until he had finally found a word that met his standards? On the other hand, the ultimate deed of Krabbé-esque randomness is not one that comes easy. It often takes his characters careful planning. And isn’t it also essential to the process of writing? To ponder and rewrite endlessly, until finally something apparently spontaneous is on paper?

The Rider, by Tim Krabbé on Goodreads