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will o' the wisp

Bloem is not the only Dutch writer to have used the November weather of the Low Lands to set a dreary, forlorn tone. Willem Elsschot's novella 'Will o' the Wisp' ('Het dwaallicht', 1946) starts:

A dreary November evening, with a soaking drizzle that drove even the bravest of us from the streets, and it was too far to trudge through that icy curtain of rain to the bar I always drank at.

'Will o' the Wisp' was the last published work of Flemish novelist Willem Elsschot, and it remains one of his most cherished stories.

Elsschot - Will o'the Wisp / Het Dwaallicht - 1

Best known for his novels 'Soft Soap' ('Lijmen', 1924) and 'The Leg' ('Het Been', 1938) and the novella 'Cheese' ('Kaas'), Elsschot has a towering reputation in Dutch literature as one of the greatest stylists, whose work remains as sparklingly fresh and shrewdly ironic as when it first appeared. Only some of his work is available in English, and while a translation of 'Will o' the Wisp' exists (translated by Alex Brotherton and published as 'Three Novels', 1962, also including 'Soft Soap' and 'The Leg'), it is sadly out of print and virtually impossible to find. Perhaps at some point a publisher will dare a reissue, but in the mean time some extended quotes will give a taste of this little masterpiece...

Because 'Will o' the Wisp' is a timeless piece of literature. At a mere 50 pages, it forms the concentrated statement of the themes that run through all Elsschot's work, and that here take on a mythical, even mystical quality. Elsschot was a sharp but compassionate observer of man's yearnings - from his most lofty aspirations to his basest desires - and his inevitable disillusionments. Here, with deceptive simplicity, he shows human endeavors to amount to no more than chasing phantom lights in the distance.

Elsschot - Will o'the Wisp / Het Dwaallicht - 2
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responsive, nobile, projects

In a long overdue overhaul of this website, but in time for its 10th anniversary later this year, I have implemented three changes:

  1. A responsive layout, meaning the site adapts gracefully to the plethora of different screen sizes out there, and in particular should improve readability on tablets and phones.
  2. A new font to replace boring old Verdana. Nobile is a no-frills webfont selected for pleasant long-reading.
  3. The start of a new portfolio section with a number of recent projects. More to be added in the future.

Traditional features like the monthly background image (now in its 86th month) are of course unchanged.

Any bugs or glitches? Let me know!

iffr: the fall of the romanov dynasty

A challenging close of the IFFR on Saturday with a Grand Talk program that consisted of a screening of the 1927 USSR propaganda film 'The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty', German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk reading a chapter from his forthcoming book, and a discussion between Sloterdijk and Romanian director Andrei Ujica to connect these two trains of thought.

The following is from some notes scribbled in the dark, so rather sketchy...

Esfir Shub's 'The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty' - a silent film performed with live piano music - was made for the 10th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Looking back on the period 1913-1917, from the eve of WWI to the establishment of the socialist state, it is composed entirely of archive footage, pioneering a new subgenre of documentary filmmaking as well as opening an astonishing window on life in Russia and Western Europe a century ago.

The film's communist propaganda frame shows most explicitly in the title cards, which sarcastically comment on the old Russian order of landowners, priests and bourgeois capitalists - let alone the perfidious European order of speculators, industrialists and "capitalist plunderers fighting for markets", who all stand to gain from the approaching WWI. The titles also frequently employ ironic quotation marks, denouncing the "holy fathers" and "his majesty".

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty - 1

Sloterdijk commented on the film saying that if you would take out the title cards, the impression that remains is one of moving masses - endless, agitated, marching masses of people without individuality. "The effect is unheimisch, as if whoever still considers himself an individual is betraying the collective."

This observation provides the link between the film and the chapter from his new book, announced by his publisher as 'Modernity's Enfants Terribles' ('Die schrecklichen Kinder der Neuzeit'). Also dealing with the fate of the last czar, Nicholas II, and his family, it explores the events of WWI, both in Europe and Russia, and the start of what he terms a "century of disinhibitions".

After the "total degradation of individuality" of WWI, 'civil life' would never be the same again. In a variation on Heidegger's concept of "being-unto-death", Sloterdijk talks of "being-unto-a-mass-grave" - a new existential state in post-war Europe that at the time was signalled by Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset in 'The Revolt of the Masses' (1930). This state of perpetual agitation made demobilization impossible in many parts of Europe, including Germany, and led the masses to abandon what Mussolini called "the horror of comfortable life" for a march forever forward - and ultimately into WWII.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty - 2

The same agitated, revolutionized masses were what Lenin found when he returned to Russia after the February revolution of 1917. Thoroughly steeped in the history of the French revolutions of 1789 and 1793, he realized that the only way forward for a revolutionized people was more revolution, in an iterative process to prevent at all costs a return to normality - a principle later perfected by Stalin and Mao.

In 1917 Russia this meant first, the October revolution and after that, all-out class warfare. This included the establishment of the infamous Cheka - which created an "informalization of executions" by uniting in one organization prosecution, judge, jury and execution - as well as the gulags and persecution of former royals. In this context the fate of the czar's family is telling: while Lenin first planned to stage an edifying show trial, he later abandoned this idea in favor of having the family summarily executed in a Yekaterinburg cellar.

For Sloterdijk this event also symbolized a wider break with the past, a cutting off of historical continuity, in line with Lenin's maxim that the revolution doesn't need historians. The archetype of the new, modern man that emerged during this time is the bastard, that is, the child that doesn't inherit from the previous generation. It is the one who is free from the weight of history, and the most motivated to climb the social ladder - the self-made man who embodies the century of disinhibitions.

It will be interesting to see how Sloterdijk develops this archetype in his book and who, exactly, are 'Modernity's Enfants Terribles' - especially in light of his observation that today we are again seeing a rising hatred of individuality and liberalism.