Quotation 5: ‘The future of liberalism’ by Alan Wolfe

Three ways of defining liberalism have come down to us. One emphasizes substance, the second procedure, and the third temperament.

The core substantive principle of liberalism is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take. Expressed in this form, liberalism, as in the days of John Locke, is committed both to liberty and to equality. The question is what those terms mean under the conditions of modern political life.

With respect to liberty, liberals want for the person what Thomas Jefferson wanted for his country: independence. Dependency, for liberals, cripples. Human beings have minds and bodies, and both, liberals believe, should be free to exercise their full capacities: minds, through open societies that allow everyone to develop their intellect, and bodies, through societies that guarantee sufficient economic security to individuals so that they are not dependent upon the arbitrary will of others for the basic necessities of life. When we have no choice but to accept someone else’s power over us, we fail to think for ourselves, are confined to conditions of existence resembling an endless struggle for survival, are unable to plan for the future, and cannot possess elementary human dignity. The autonomous life is therefore the best life. We have the potential, and are therefore responsible for realizing it, to be masters of our own destiny. This is why liberals insist on the importance of rights, including the right of people to practice their religion as they see fit, to speak for and assemble around causes in which they believe, and to possess a significant degree of control over their personal livelihood. Take away such individual rights—imagine a world in which religion (or irreligion) is coerced, freedom of speech curtailed, economic activity directed and controlled by the state, and no one allowed to organize and bargain collectively to improve their economic condition—and you have a political system that can only be called illiberal, whether it leans backward toward absolute monarchy or forward to some alleged socialist utopia.

Liberalism’s core commitment to individual autonomy does not mean that it refuses to accept the existence of authority, including authority that derives from supernatural forces or governmental power. (…) Much like conservatives, liberals believe that individuals live within an ordered world that necessarily constrains the ability of people to do whatever they want whenever they want to do it. For liberals, however, such constraints are not imposed by authorities over which people have no control or shaped by traditions they cannot influence; they are established instead by people themselves through some form of consent or social contract. Independence cannot exist without interdependence. Once we have left the state of nature, we require the existence of society.

This insistence on the importance of the social is frequently overlooked, but it cannot and should not be. “Men are not born free; they become free by means of Society and the State, which, while limiting the claims of individuals, in reality bestow upon these claims an effectual recognition and sanction, and elevate them from precarious facts to rights whose fulfillment can be confidently demanded,” wrote Guido De Ruggiero, an Italian historian of European liberalism, in 1927. “That is the real gain which the individual makes when he exchanges the uncertainty of natural liberty for civil liberty.” Or, as James Oakes, a historian at the City University of New York, put the point in more of an American context:

Society was the great discovery of enlightened liberals. They felt liberated by their conviction that most of the things that previous generations had taken to be “natural” or “divinely ordained” were, in fact, the products of human history. Families, political systems, even economies were, as liberals realized (and as we would put it), “socially constructed.” For liberals, humans were above all social beings. They were born tabula rasa and were thus the products of their upbringing, their environment. To function freely as a flourishing human being, everyone had to be, well, socialized. And if humans are the products of society, then the social institutions that shape them must be constructed so as to produce the kind of individuals each society wants.

Equality is liberalism’s second substantive goal. Liberals are not satisfied when only some people (…) have the chance to determine how they will live. Liberals believe in equality, but not as an end in itself; radical egalitarianism is more associated with the socialist tradition than with the liberal one. Liberals, rather, believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such a way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective; if independence is good for the few, it ought to be good for the many. How much actual equality there is in a society will vary from one to another, and one can imagine different kinds of liberal societies with different degrees of it. But any society that closes off opportunities for people to achieve their full human capacities, or that allows persistent inequalities to stifle the desire on the part of its least fortunate members to develop them, would not be a liberal one.

One frequently hears that liberalism’s commitments to liberty and equality contradict each other. I certainly do whenever I address conservative audiences: Which liberalism are you talking about, they immediately want to know, the “classical” form or the “modern” one? Classical liberalism, in this rendition, is all about respecting private property and allowing individuals to pursue what they determine to be in their own self-interest without the coercive hand of government interfering in their decisions. Adam Smith, the Scottish moralist who published The Wealth of Nations in the same year that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, is the philosopher par excellence of classical liberalism; were he alive today, many of his followers insist, he would be a champion of Thatcher or Reagan, leaders who are called conservatives but are better described as libertarians, or advocates of the free market. Libertarians, to rely upon a distinction associated with the twentieth-century British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, are advocates of “negative” liberty, the key principles of which are not difficult to grasp: one is that freedom consists in the fact that no one can tell me what to do; and the other holds that when I am free to make my own decisions, my success is due to my own efforts and my failures are my own responsibility.

For those who think this way, classical liberalism, because it puts freedom first, is worlds apart from the form liberalism has taken in the twentieth century, which asserts the primacy of equality. Modern liberalism promises equality through what Berlin calls a “positive” conception of liberty: it is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone, I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few. Positive conceptions of liberty hold that human beings ought not to be reduced to their passions or even their interests. They live for some higher sense of purpose than getting and spending and ought to be able to realize those ideals in the here-andnow through their own collective efforts.


Yet classical and modern liberalism are not nearly as distinct as those who insist on dividing them maintain. One, in fact, follows, if not logically, then certainly sociologically, from the other. Liberalism’s substantive commitments have to be understood in their historical context. In the eighteenth century, dependency was fostered by legacies of feudalism that made individuals subservient to their presumed superiors and, given the fixed status categories of the old regime, simultaneously created conditions that made it all but impossible for those in the lower orders to overcome their dependency. Under such conditions, autonomy and equality could both be furthered through the operations of a free market, for markets would provide opportunities for individuals to escape from the ties to which they were bound as well as give them a chance to improve their condition.

In more recent times, by way of contrast, dependency happens when people are too poor or too much the objects of invidious discrimination to develop sufficient autonomy. The eighteenth-century idea that people’s fates were intertwined because of the existence of society was transformed, during the twentieth century, into the conviction that government had to be called upon when necessary to make concrete the idea of the social; no more effective means existed by which those who already led independent lives could fulfill an obligation to offer assistance to those who did not. This was a solution not without its problems, for reliance on government, as I will argue later in this book, put a crimp into the consistency of all modern political worldviews. But the liberal proposition, tested by long experience, is that whatever dependencies result from using public policy to address modern inequalities, the resulting gains in individual mobility, development of physical and mental capacity, and racial and gender equality far outweigh them. This is why Smith, writing in the eighteenth century in opposition to the regulation of business by government, and Keynes, writing in the twentieth century in support of it, were, substantively speaking, both liberals. Their disagreements were over the means by which large numbers of individuals could achieve control over their lives, not over whether they should.

The same is not true of twenty-first-century Smithians. To advocate today what Smith advocated yesterday—a free market unregulated by government—is to foster greater, rather than lesser, dependency and less, rather than more, equality. This is not always the case; in the aftermath of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a reliance on the market could and did unleash pent-up human potential in ways that contributed, at least for a time, to both greater liberty and equality. But in the highly organized and concentrated forms taken by capitalism in the contemporary world, removing government from the marketplace does not allow large numbers of people to become entrepreneurs in ways that enable them to set the terms by which their lives will be led; it instead allows firms to reduce their obligations to their employees and thereby make them more dependent on the vagaries of the market. At the same time, it increases the gap between rich and poor such that, even if the poor improve their condition, which they do not always do, they do so in ways dramatically unfair compared to the other improvements taking place around them. And by ignoring the tendency of employers or other people in authority to prefer people like themselves to those who are different, it sanctions forms of irrational prejudice that keep members of stigmatized groups from reaching their full potential. You do not give people more control over their lives by reducing their real income, increasing their fears of unemployment, exposing them to greater risk of accident, threatening to take away their health care, lowering how much income they receive relative to society’s most well off, allowing their talents to be overlooked for purely arbitrary reasons of race and gender, and making them more dependent in their last years.

Liberalism’s substantive commitments to freedom and equality represent a political position; they are meant to defend particular goals against other political positions that either oppose such goals or assign a low priority to them. In the eighteenth century, liberalism’s opponents were those who protected a caste system in which favorable birth gave a small minority advantages available to no one else. In the twenty-first century, liberalism stands in opposition to forms of conservatism that justify hierarchies of unequal opportunity; versions of libertarianism that, by giving big business too much power, give ordinary people too little; and lingering legacies of socialism that run roughshod over individual rights in their determination to achieve greater equality. Liberalism in the substantive sense of the term is partial as well as partisan; to realize their substantive goals, liberals must organize on behalf of them and influence public opinion to obtain them.

In addition to its substantive content, liberalism can also be defined according to procedural means. Liberalism emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when constitution writing was all the rage, and the constitutional imperative reflected a desire to create rules that would enable competing interests within society to peacefully negotiate their differences. For liberals, proceduralism is the only realistic alternative we have to violence. In the absence of agreed-upon rules in the international arena, war is inevitable. Without adherence to procedures in domestic life, civil war threatens. Liberal thinkers have come up with a variety of terms to express this commitment to proceduralism, ranging from Locke’s social contract to such American constitutional practices as the separation of powers and checks and balances to the movements of the twentieth century to create international bodies designed to prevent war such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. What links all of them are the shadows cast by two political philosophers who called attention to the ubiquity of, and need for, force in the world of public affairs: Niccolò Machiavelli, the Florentine Renaissance man who gave the rulers of his day strikingly coldblooded advice about how to retain their power; and Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century Englishman, and rival of John Locke, who insisted that only a powerful sovereign could prevent a return to a barbaric state of nature in which life is, in one of the most chilling phrases ever written by a political philosopher, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To avoid such a fate, liberal proceduralists held, government must achieve sufficient neutrality between contending parties to win their trust, and that can be accomplished only through agreements to which all parties commit themselves.

Procedural liberalism, in contrast to substantive liberalism, refers to a moral ideal rather than a political goal; its goal is fairness or impartiality, the idea that anything that applies to any one person must apply to every person. Liberalism in this meaning of the term is not necessarily opposed to political conservatism, certainly not the anti-ideological conservatism of the twentieth-century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott or those followers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré to the United States and inspiration for contemporary neoconservatism, who have done so much to help us appreciate the importance of the American founding. Nor does it stand in opposition to libertarianism. If anything, libertarians have been even more vigilant than liberals in the protection of civil liberties against arbitrary power. And even those forms of socialism that left behind the idea of government ownership of the means of production in favor of a less intrusive commitment to the welfare state adopted a sympathy toward liberal proceduralism. Procedural liberalism’s real opposition is to absolutism: the notion that a ruler need not be bound by rules.

Understood in a procedural sense, a liberal is anyone who supports a constitutional form of government; believes in a government of laws rather than of men; holds that exceptions to general rules should be rarely if ever granted; and accepts the principle that the party in power cannot change the rules of achieving power to benefit itself.


In addition to sharing core substantive convictions and a preference for procedural means, liberals are characterized by a distinct temperament. The first use of “liberal” in a political sense took place in 1810, when Spanish delegates to the Cortés, or parliament, meeting in Cádiz, adopted the term to characterize a program seeking to end feudal privileges and to establish a more modern government. But the word “liberal” existed etymologically long before it existed politically. “Liberal” stems from the Latin liber, or “free.” Because it originated as an adjective whose meaning was dependent on whatever noun it was modifying, “liberal” has always had a rather capacious—dare one say liberal?—meaning; the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary points out that “liberal,” besides meaning free, can also mean generous, abundant, large, gentlemanly, unstinting, lax, candid, and unprejudiced. Legacies of that broad meaning abound today: students do not study something called the conservative arts and many societies claim to be liberal democratic while none call themselves conservative democratic. In ordinary usage, “liberalism” refers not only to a substantive political program and a morality emphasizing fairness; it also possesses a connotation emphasizing an openness to the world.

The liberal temperament has more to do with psychology than with politics or morality. “Liberalism” in this meaning of the term seeks to include rather than to exclude, to accept rather than to censor, to respect rather than to stigmatize, to welcome rather than reject, to be generous and appreciative rather than stingy and mean. Temperamentally, liberals are impatient with arguments rooted in fear and selfprotection. They tend to see the past’s improvements in the human condition as reason for anticipating continued improvement in the future. To be sure, liberals recognize that evil can lurk in the hearts of men and women and that some political systems—by definition, illiberal ones—have been evil in the extreme. But they hold that the existence of the bad does not make impossible the realization of the good. On the contrary, the fact that some societies lack liberalism’s generosity of spirit is all the more reason for liberals to insist on reform, not only in the public and political sense but in the private and human one.

As was true of liberal proceduralism, temperamental liberalism is trans-ideological. (…) Temperamentally speaking, liberalism is not defined by the positions one takes, but by the spirit in which they are taken.

* * *

By Alan Wolfe from The Future of Liberalism (2010).

Emphasis in the original. I have tried to strip this quotation from criticism and superfluous examples in order to shift the focus towards the “ways of defining liberalism”.


Article 9: Some remarks on the Catalan question

The Catalan question has starkly divided European politics in recent weeks. On the one hand, there are those who insist on the rule of law, constitutionality and anti-separatism. On the other, there are those sympathetic to self-determination, participatory democracy and regionalism.


However, we are not just dealing with different positions on this specific issue. The Catalan question illustrates a deeper divide in European politics between liberals on the one hand and radicals on the other. In a sense these are misnomers. Those called “liberals” here will include people who in no way are affiliated with liberal parties and the “radicals” will also describe some Christian democrats and other centrists and conservatives. Let me therefore clarify that these labels do not describe self-identified camps, but tendencies in European politics.

In any case, there is a need for a dialogue – not just in Spain, but in the whole of Europe – between these tendencies to counter the risk of losing common ground. This means acknowledging qualifications to our views and, even more so, to acknowledge that after those have been made there still are and will remain differences of opinion. What we gain from it is not the reaching of a consensus, but preventing the transformation of opponents into enemies; of safeguarding common ground. In that spirit, let’s start with picking apart some of the particular opinions amongst liberals and radicals on the Catalan question and then ask what this says about these tendencies


With regards to the outcome of the referendum the following can be said: liberals are right to qualify the “90%” outcome in favour of independence by pointing towards the turnout. In reality the pro-independence vote is closer to 42% on the eligible population and 31% on the total population. However, they forget two other points. First, the same turnout correction applies to the national government. For the national lower house the Rajoy’s Partido Popular has only received the votes of 22% on the eligible population and 17% on the total population, compared to 33% on the voting population. In Catalonia the respective numbers for his party were 8,4%, 6,2% and 13,4%. Second, “the people” – the collective of citizens which give momentum and legitimacy to fundamental political change – has rarely ever consisted of the great majority of the population, but has rather been formed by a sufficient minority.

Liberals do well to free radicals from their mythical notion of the popular will. They would do equally well to recognize that this is an issue of all elections and that in practical terms the independentists have the support they need. Politics remains after all not the art of the admissible, but the art of the possible.

This is also what liberals need to accept with regards to the legal standing of the referendum. It is undeniably true that it is unconstitutional and in breach of the rule of law. It is also beside the point. By blocking a political solution earlier and by refusing to deal with this as a political matter the Spanish government has enabled this situation to develop. Appeals to constitutionality and the rule of law as the sole standards by which to measure this referendum forget that these need to remain in line with political reality. They remain, we should not forget, means to the end of peacefully resolving of political differences. By excluding a persistent, strongly held and fundamental political issue the Spanish government has perverted the rule of law by using it for the exact opposite purpose: to place issues outside of the realm of political deliberation. This frustrating of the political process through a legalistic blockade does not exclude independentist politicians from responsibility – they should face the appropriate consequences – but it does make the Spanish government complicit.

For anyone who would object that this is unduly in favour of the radicals let it be clear that this might be an opinion of radicals, but it is not a radical opinion. It is the same position voiced by, for example, the Economist and Foreign Policy magazine. Both not exactly bastions of radicalism.


Speaking of possibility, a common cry is that it is possible to be both Catalan, Spanish and European. This is undoubtedly true. However, we should not confuse the possibility of multi-layered identities with a necessity of having this reflected in institutional structures. With or without the European Union, we remain European. Our identity as Europeans is not so flimsy and weak as to cease to exist when the Union does. The same applies, I hope, to Spanish and Catalan identity. In this sense it does not follow that Catalonia should not be independent from the Spanish state, because one can be Spanish and Catalan at the same time. People will remain Spanish and Catalan regardless of whether Catalonia is part of Spain or not. It is simply not an objection.

An opinion less voiced outside of Spain is that the Catalan referendum transgresses the (constitutionally established) unity of Spain. The answer to this should be simple: constitutional articles establishing the “unity” or “indivisibility” of the nation are the nationalist parallels to the articles establishing the “leading role” of the Party in the Communist regimes of old. They are mystical fables which should be struck from any European constitution in which they feature. They are an insult to the principle of “united in diversity” since they more often than not are employed as obstacles to further unify Europe and simultaneously threaten the diversity within member states.

This insistence on Spain’s unity is also the other side of arguments on the historical merits of Catalan nationhood which radicals also indulge themselves in. This kind of historical pedantry is just as much a form of poisonous nationalism as the constitutional emphasis on Spain’s unity. The temptation of radicals to rely on essentialist forms of nationhood are rightly condemned. This same sort of appeal to history has been used by Russian nationalists to deny the legitimacy of Ukrainian independence and it deserves the same reply: if Catalonia is not to be part of the Spanish state it will be because of how Catalans living now feel; what was or wasn’t the case hundreds of years ago should not be of concern to anyone today.


What then, does all of this say about the European politics? It comes down to a difference between those inclined to propagate universalism and judicialization, on the one hand and those who lean towards particularism and politicization on the other. The former, who I have called liberals, hope for Europe as a vehicle to supersede nationalism – hence their opposition against new nation states. Taken to its extreme, their utopia is one of a world of one humanity without nations. This latent distaste of cultural difference stands in defiance of the fact that people desire, value and cherish their particularities and fails to recognize that it would robs the world exactly of one of the things which enrich it.

Radicalism, the latter tendency, wants Europe to protect regions against bigger nations. However, the romanticism of radicals at times threatens towards the essentialist and to go beyond protection towards the rectification of past “errors”; a Europe of regions is a legitimate vision, but shouldn’t lapse into vulgar nationalism.

Liberal trust in the judiciary, the rule of law and the constitution comes from a specific distrust in politics, associated with special interest and contrasted with reasoned neutral arbitration and consensus. The danger is when these associations lapse into the denial of the reality of different interests in which a neutral perspective does not always exist. The view of a Europe where the judiciary is used to neutralize politics has been the concrete form of European integration over the past decades. It is a dangerous course which threatens more turbulent situations later on – as the Catalan issue demonstrates.

Still, radicals who give too much room for politics ought to remind themselves of Foucault’s “politics is the continuation of war by other means”. Politics has to be bound or else it will tear society apart and opponents will turn into enemies again and, in the worst case, transform common ground into a battleground. This is why, as sympathetic as one might be to Catalan independence, it is better to hope against a unilateral declaration of independence.

Note 7: Gavrilo Princip’s gun

And there it is. Small, almost tiny even. It is hard to imagine that a bullet from this gun could kill anyone. I am standing in front of the pistol Gavrilo Princip used to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand 103 years ago. As part of the exhibition at the House of European History, it is kept safe behind glass on a plastic stick, showing it standing up as one might hold it.

As I look at I am overwhelmed. The entire suffering of a century is contained in that one insignificant object. The one shot it fired executed millions, levelled cities, ripped apart the world. I think of all people who suffered because of it in trenches, in camps, in prisons, but also in normal homes of their own or of another. Of the countless lives scarred by combat, by rape, by hunger, by dozens upon dozens of different ways just because of this one gun.

Tears well up in my eyes and my throat swells as the thought reaches me that the daunting and massive shadow of this terror is just a fragment of the actual misery which that one weapon brought about.

I take a deep breath. I look away. I take another. I take a step. Another. I have myself under control again. I remind myself, as an educated person, that there were broader causes to the war, that there were numerous places where tensions were present, that what happened ten, twenty, forty, eighty years after cannot be reduced to that one bullet, even that a lot of what we celebrate today would not exist if history would have taken a different turn. Still, what if Gavrilo Princip had not fired that gun?

Quotation 4: ‘The abduction of Europa’ by Cees Nooteboom

From “The abduction of Europa”

“How does one become a European? In the first place by being one, and this can for example be attained by being born in The Netherlands. It has been said that this is also possible in Sicily, East Prussia, Lapland and Wales, but since I happen to be a Dutch European it seems best to me to talk about this. To become Dutch is easier than one would think. Who is prepared, in the persons of his forefathers, to push back the sea, to dry the land, to have himself be governed by Burgundians in the Middle Ages, to swap his duchies and counties early on for a number of provinces and then to unite them under the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, who wants to wage eighty years of war with Spain and to colonize island kingdoms on the other side of the globe and to wage war at sea over some resting monopolies with Englishmen who for centuries will express their rancour over every single lost battle in idioms such as double DutchDutch uncle, and going Dutch, who subsequently lets himself be made part of a French dream of imperial grandeur by a brother of Napoleon as a renewed Batavian and who will let himself be walked over one hundred forty years later by German armies for five years and during all this time continue to make calculations, eat herring, trade, keep the soil dry, and thank God paint as well, invent the microscope and pendulum clock, polish up naval law and harbour Europeans from very different backgrounds who have been driven out of their own paradises; who, finally, is possessed of good intentions for the rest of the world and who also à tort et à travers wishes to push on because he is convinced that he can get to know the world better than the world itself because he has gathered his knowledge as buyer, seller, administrator and victim; so who wants to take the burden on himself of being both very small and very big is Dutch. If his father and mother have additionally stayed in the right place during this prescribed period he will as such be born like this and thus meet the first requirement of being a European, and perhaps also to become one.


Because almost every writer starts with the decorum of his own life I wrote a novel when I was twenty years old in which a sensitive young Dutch man wanders through Europe to find a mysterious girl about which he has told in the Provence. The book was called Philip and the others, where the others where those who one meets while traveling and who express diversity. As you can see I started this reading in time. Of course the young man finds her, and of course he loses her, but only after he has populated the harbour of Copenhagen for her with all the personalities from his first, personal mythology, Scarlatti, Paul Éluard, the Spanish poet Bécquer and the Dutch poet Lodeizen, whom we carefully hide from you behind the shroud of our language since Dutch, together with Albanian, might be the most hidden language of the continent. After I finished that book and so was promoted to the status of writer, I should actually have died according to my friend the German philosopher Rürdiger Safranski, but this was because he didn’t like that I distanced myself from my previous innocence. Dying I didn’t do, I thought of something better, I went to Spain, and I never actually left there; an incurable European schizophrenia separates me in a southern and a northern being; in winter I life in Amsterdam and Berlin, in summer I’m at Spain’s mercy, one of those ever misunderstood hybrid beings which is at home in three places at once and nowhere at all at the same time, perhaps the first real Europeans, brave guineau pigs of the new continent, who have incorporated unity and diversity in their very being. We should be researched, we are very valuable to science. We read the Frankfurter AllgemeineThe GuardianLe MondeVrij NederlandLa VanguardiaLa Repubblica and if we have to Diário de Notícias and the Osservatore Romano, we despise the bêtise of large countries which speak no language other than their own and who ensure that this will be the case for another generation by camouflaging all other languages behind their own on television and in the cinemas so that even the sound of that other language is obscured; we are perplexed that those same progressives who weep when some insignificant bird species goes extinct laugh when they see someone, perhaps the last of his kind, wearing traditional Bavarian clothing; we feel humiliated when another McDonald’s wins over a plate of Swabian lungs, Florentine tripe, haggis from Edinburgh or stockfish in Navarra; we support regionalism if this is meant to preserve something essential and against it if it is directed against the Other; we despise the cancer of violent nationalism regardless if it comes from the Irish, Croats, Basques or Serbs; we are, in short, those people nobody listens to.”

From “Zeno’s arrow”

“[T]he names of the Miloševićes and the Karadžićes of the last century might have disappeared, the place names, Kosovo, Sarajevo, have remained unchanged, like Macedonia, Serbia, Herzegovina; those who want to die for them and who do that in reality are not lost in space, but in time, and the Europe of unification looks impotently at the Europe of bloody fragmentation. Exactly because it is an anachronism Europe is afraid to intervene, that is part of the past, it has already let itself be torn apart for this once before. But it also doesn’t want to take on the consequences of the tribal war, an unending river of refugees from this war and wars to come, which slowly flows in the direction of the West, where the weather map confirms its own predictions. The only country that momentarily bears the full burden of all this is Germany, three hundred thousand last year, five hundred thousand this year; as a reward it is called xenophobic by some. There are people who say that this Europe has enough vitality to absorb such amounts. However, there are plenty in Germany who say that Germany doesn’t have to do this alone – and then I do not mean those who say that Germany shouldn’t have to do it at all, and who evoke a wholly different and horrific déjà vu by how they make this clear. However, he who is eager to point this out might do better by taking a look at himself first. It does not take long to make the balance.

Is there no solution? The biggest folly is perhaps to think that the world ought to be logical, and with this I mean that no meaningless wars ought to be waged anymore in which people die for causes which you should not die for anymore. But who deiceds that? Can you measure that? We are occupied with our beautiful and magnificent unification, and now you come from under the rock of your dictatorship which secretly we have always blamed you for, and spoil the oh-so logical and promising, by the future so clearly prescribed path of history with your backward, anachronistic obsessions, which you moreover are the victim of! And look what you are doing to us! We no longer know ourselves anymore! Old ghosts of the past surface again, many things are surfacing, the pound is melting, the lira withers, money dashes bitterly around the world now it suddenly has become apparent that we cannot pay attention to everything at the same time because everything is connected to everything in a way which nobody has yet been able to figure out. Evil processions roam our apotheotic dreams, we are reminded of everything which we had wanted to forget, the stereotypes of the antiquarian puppet theatre are in fashion again: the egocentric Frenchmen who tackles Europe in a fury, the arrogant German who beats around him with his mark and so doing hits the perfidious Englishman who already had his hands on the dagger intended for Europe’s back, the corrupt Italian who lives above his means and trusts that the hardworking North will provide for this parasite, the Dutch who tell everything how it should be done and in the meantime profit of it all, the Danes who as the only sensible people realize just in time that something is rotten in Brussels and Strasbourg – oh, Europe!”

From “European memories”

“And if I were to have any recipes for this Europe of ours it would be that all countries which belonged to it at some point still do, that large countries should learn from the small and their history, that the extortionate rates which limit Intereuropean travel should be abolished, and finally that the South shouldn’t imitate the North in pursuit of a soulless modernity, and that the North looks long and attentively to the South and its pace and traditions, and with the South I mean the true South, that which everything originates from.”

From “Uralte Verwirrung”

“Last week I was in this same city. Then the subject was Europe, now it is, one more time, Germany. I recounted how I, on 10 May 1940, six years old, was made into a European with a great thundering blow by the arrival of German troops. I recite this because I can’t tell the story of my Europeanisation, let’s call it that, or that of my relation to Germany – and those two are related – without this peculiar signifying moment. It of course not true that my life started in this moment, but it does seem like it. How unimaginable as it might sound I have no conscious, precise recollection whatsoever of my time before that tenth of May. Never will I be able to write an A la recherche du temps perdu because those first six years, my childhood, are in fact perdu, lost, blown away, drowned in the noise of Heinkels and Stuka’s which bombed the airport of Ypenburg near The Hague. My father, who would die in a bombardment later in that same war, has put an armchair on the balcony and observes. Naturally he must have said something, but in my memory he says nothing, he sits there, looks over the pastures and sees the same as I, silly men with parachutes who fall out of the sky, who come to ‘occupy’ our country, for the first time that word meant something. Later I realized, or remembered, or made up that my dad despised me. I was shaking continuously, my back was washed with ice cold water so it would stop.

I remember two kinds of sound of airplanes, the hellish shrieking and screeching of those first days, the red horizon of burning Rotterdam, the accompanying sirens, anti-aircraft fire, distant explosions, and then, a few years later, unending monotone pounding, as if a bass the size of the heaven itself was being bowed, of the air force which was on its way to bomb Germany, it was a threatening sound, revengeful, fated doom and death were part of it, death which was being returned to where it came from. Lancasters was the name of these planes, and the answer to them were Werner von Braun’s V2s, which also happened to be launched near our house in the direction of London, a screech from the underworld which seemed to come forth from an apocalyptic glow, all of it the stuff of nightmares.

A few days later the troops came marching in. The enemy’s troops. Strangely enough I remember that as something which happened in complete silence, and that is not possible. They wore boots, there were banners, drums, orders were given which I would only hear later, when I saw the war movies, that loud shouting which is caught up in the wind and clashes against the ears. But back then I only heard that nothing which is called silence, and that must have been the silence of the adults around me, that of defeat. Only much later I realised that German must have been the first foreign language which I heard, certainly the first foreign language which I read. Proclamations of the Orstkommandant, death sentences on posters glued to the walls, the inescapanle voice which sometimes carried through windows on inside and announced another victory, a sign on a corpse which read ‘I am a looter’ , songs of troops marching which, when they marched in the other direction later on, did not sing anymore.”

* * *

By Cees Nooteboom from De ontvoering van Europa (1993).

These excerpts have been translated by myself. I mostly have tried to stick to Cees Nooteboom’s use of commas in Dutch, because it seems a conscious choice of style on his side.

Discourse 1: Enkele opmerkingen over Maarten Boudry

Er is al veel gezegd en geschreven over de recente commotie rondom academicus Maarten Boudry naar aanleiding van de volgende claim die hij maakte de dag volgend op de aanslag in Barcelona: “Religious fanatics, all other things being equal, are more vicious & brutal than this-worldly ones. There’s no negotiating with the Absolute”.

Ik moet eerlijk bekennen niet van alle kritiek kennis te hebben kunnen nemen die Boudry ten deel is gevallen. Desalniettemin vertrouw ik erop niet in herhaling te vallen. Daarnaast heb ik de hoop dat, zelfs als ik enkel voor mijzelf kan spreken, anderen zich zullen kunnen vinden in de komende redenering.

Laat ik ten eerste duidelijk zijn over wat ik precies bekritiseer. Boudry zelf probeert de kritiek vooral voor te stellen als een kritiek op zijn essay ‘Zinvol geweld’. In navolging van Tessa Boeykens, Dieter Bruneel en Laura Nys richt ik mij niet hoofdzakelijk daarop, maar op de tweet die ik hierboven geciteerd heb. Wel zal ik het essay, samen met het recente interview in De Morgen en zijn opiniestuk in diezelfde krant, aanhalen om Boudry’s tweet te verduidelijken.


Laten wij daar dan ook mee beginnen. In de tweet vergelijkt Boudry twee groepen met elkaar: religieuze fanatici en “wereldse” (seculiere) fanatici. Echter, aan wie denkt hij specifiek? De tijdkeuze – een dag na de aanslag in Spanje gepleegd door radicale moslims, die zelf kort volgde op een bijna identieke aanslag door een radicale rechtsextremist in de Verenigde Staten – doet vermoeden dat hij hiermee op zijn minst doelt op radicale moslims en radicale rechtsextremisten in het algemeen, maar mogelijk ook op de eigenlijk aanslagplegers in het bijzonder. Dit wordt ondersteund door het feit dat hij in reactie op zijn eerste uitspraak twee passages uit zijn essay contrasteert – één waarin hij salafi-jihadisme analyseert en een ander waarin hij hetzelfde doet met nazisme.

Boudry suggereert daarnaast dat er een schaal van verdorvenheid en bruutheid is. Op zichzelf een redelijk idee. De vraag doet zich wel voor hoe men zich beweegt op deze schaal. Wat maakt iemand meer of minder verdorven en bruut? Het antwoord van Boudry lijkt daarop te zijn dat dit afhankelijk is van de interne logica die geweld motiveren. Zo stelt hij dat “illusies zin kunnen geven aan geweld”. Illusies definieert hij als “foute overtuigingen die niet stroken met de werkelijkheid”. Hoe meer een persoon steunt op dit soort overtuigingen om de wereld rondom hemzelf te interpreteren, hoe potentieel verdorvener en bruter hij kan zijn als hij gebruik maakt van geweld. Zo stelt Boudry, in de door hem op Twitter aangehaalde passage:

Doordat het waandenken van het salafi-jihadisme zulke absolute en sacrale proporties aanneemt, is het in zekere opzichten nog haatdragender en gevaarlijker dan ‘louter’ aardse ideologieën zoals het nazisme en het communisme. De strijd speelt zich af op een kosmische schaal, en geweld krijgt een expliciet mandaat van het Opperwezen. Binnen een dergelijk denkkader is elk compromis onmogelijk.

Anders gesteld strookt het wereldbeeld van religieuze fanatici nog minder met de werkelijkheid dan het wereldbeeld van wereldse fanatici en dit maakt dat zij verdorvener en bruter zijn. Dit is volgens Boudry te vergelijken, omdat IS “maximale ruchtbaarheid” geeft aan geweld terwijl het nazi-regime “geen gratuite wreedheid” uit wilde uitoefenen en de Shoah “in alle discretie” uit wilde voeren.[1]

Het laatste deel van de tweet blijft dan nog over om te analyseren. Het onderstreept de vaststelling die hierboven gemaakt is dat interne logica de functie is afhankelijk waarvan geweld verdorvener en bruter wordt. Er is namelijk een onuitgesproken “want” tussen de twee zinnen. In feite stelt Boudry dat het wereldbeeld van religieuze fanatici zo weinig met de werkelijkheid strookt dat een (onderhandeling over een) compromis met andere denkkaders onmogelijk is, terwijl dit niet het geval is met wereldse ideologieën. Het is deze hogere mate van wereldvreemdheid die religieuze fanatici nog verdorvener en bruter maakt als zij geweld plegen.

Het impliciete gevolg van deze redenering is dat het volgens Boudry denkbaar is dat er een compromis gemaakt zou kunnen worden met de nazi’s. Dit is geen kritiekpunt van mij. Het is slechts een vaststelling op basis van wat hij geschreven heeft. Dat het denkbaar is betekent namelijk nog niet dat het wenselijk is volgens Boudry. Nergens lijkt hij te suggereren dat het bestaan van nazi’s überhaupt wenselijk is, laat staan het sluiten van een compromis met nazi’s.


Tot dusver de betekenis van Boudry’s uitspraak zoals geredeneerd vanuit zijn eigen woorden. Wat is hier inhoudelijk aan te bekritiseren? Men zou kunnen betogen dat wereldlijke fanatici er ook een concept van het Absolute op na houden. Ook zou men kunnen redeneren dat de feiten Boudry’s stellingen over de terughoudendheid van de nazi’s niet ondersteunen waardoor er geen voorbeeld meer is om aan te tonen dat er een verschil in verdorvenheid en bruutheid is. Een andere weg is om te laten zien dat, zelfs zonder aanwezigheid van het Absolute, het denkkader van de nazi’s geen compromis met andere denkkaders toelaat en zij dus potentieel even  verdorven en bruut zijn.

Deze drie redeneringen gaan echter nog steeds uit van wat, mijns inziens, de grote fout is die Maarten Boudry maakt. Zoals hij zelf stelt in zijn interview De Morgen: “Ik probeer het gewoon vanuit de daders te bekijken.” Boudry zegt dat om zijn vergelijking tussen radicale islam en nazisme te begrijpen men terug moet grijpen op zijn essay. In dit essay poogt hij de zinvolheid, het gemotiveerd zijn door een interne logica, van geweld aan te tonen.[2] Hiervoor is het inderdaad nodig om in de huid van de dader te kruipen.

Echter, het zijn niet de daders die de verdorvenheid en bruutheid van een daad bepalen, daarvoor moeten wij het perspectief van de slachtoffers aannemen. Het is vanuit de positie van het slachtoffer, van diegene die de daad ondergaat, dat een daad de attributen verdorven en bruut verkrijgt. Vanuit dit oogpunt lijkt de interne logica die geweld motiveert volstrekt daarnaast irrelevant voor het vaststellen van verdorvenheid en bruutheid.

Maakte het onderscheid tussen de motivaties van de terroristen in Charlottesville en Barcelona een verschil voor de slachtoffers? Veranderde zij de impact van de voertuigen? Was de angst in de straten anders? Dat lijkt onwaarschijnlijk.

Meer complex wordt het als wij het hebben over de Shoah en het terreurbewind van IS. Wellicht kan men aantonen dat het verschil in de redenering en handelswijze van de daders een verschil maakte voor de slachtoffers. Echter, dat moet alsnog eerst aangetoond worden vanuit het perspectief van de slachtoffers. Tegelijkertijd komen wij tot het besef dat hiervoor een absurde vraag gesteld moet worden: liever vergast door de nazi’s dan onthoofd door IS? Desalniettemin is de vraag legitiem als men een contrast wil verklaren, zoals Boudry zegt te willen doen, en het is niet zeker of IS de meer verdorven en brute partij zal blijken als men deze vraag poogt te beantwoorden. Er is bijvoorbeeld een uitgebreide literatuur over de ontmenselijking die de slachtoffers van de Shoah ervoeren.

De fout onderliggend aan Boudry’s tweet is dus dat hij een kenmerk van geweld dat enkel begrepen kan worden vanuit het oogpunt van de dader (zinvolheid) gebruikt om attributen vast te stellen die begrepen horen te worden vanuit het slachtoffer (verdorvenheid en bruutheid). Het is hierbij belangrijk om op te merken dat hij hier een sprong maakt die niet opgevuld kan worden door wat hij in zijn essay beargumenteerd. In de door hem op Twitter aangehaalde passage uit zijn essay stelt hij dat een grotere mate van wereldvreemdheid een denkkader “haatdragender en gevaarlijker” kan maken. Dit zijn kenmerken die mogelijk nog vanuit de dader gezien kunnen worden. Verdorvenheid en bruutheid niet. Boudry heeft dus in feite geen inhoudelijke onderbouwing voor zijn uitspraak.


Naast de inhoudelijke kritiek op zijn tweet is er ook een zekere morele kritiek te leveren. Er is namelijk iets ongemakkelijk aan Boudry’s uitspraak dat niet herleid kan worden tot de inhoud van zijn uitspraak. Sterker nog, als hij precies het tegenovergestelde had geschreven zou dit ongemak er nog steeds zijn. Om tot deze morele kritiek te komen is een beweging nodig weg van de formulering van de uitspraak naar de context waarin Boudry de uitspraak maakte en vervolgens verdedigde. Tessa Boeykens, Dieter Bruneel en Laura Nys kwamen al eerder dicht op een morele kritiek door te vragen wat de bedoeling is van Boudry’s vergelijking. Ik zal mij eerder richten op wat het gevolg is voor de status van de twee recente aanslagen door de manier waarop Boudry de vergelijking heeft gemaakt.

Om mee te beginnen is er de tijdkeuze: op de dag na de aanslagen in Barcelona die zelf kort volgde op de aanslag in Charlottesville. Zoals eerder opgemerkt gesuggereerd dit niet slechts een vergelijking tussen IS en het Duitse Nazi-regime, maar een vergelijking tussen de twee aanslagen. Wat is er problematisch aan deze tijdkeuze? Ik wil niet terugvallen op het idee dat er momenten zijn wanneer men bepaalde uitspraken niet zou mogen maken. Noch wil ik suggereren dat het als zodanig verkeerd is om een dergelijke vergelijking te maken. Wel stel ik dat er juiste en onjuiste manieren zijn om dit te doen.

Boudry’s tijdkeuze voor de uitspraak duidt op bepaalde een instrumentalisatie van de gebeurtenissen in Spanje en de VS. Dit blijkt ook elders. Voordat hij de hier bekritiseerde uitspraak maakte schreef Boudry op de dag van de aanslag zelf: “IS reminds us that jihadism is still the single most dangerous ideology today — not to be outdone by a bunch of stray Nazis. #Barcelona”. De gebeurtenis van de aanslag wordt ingezet als datapunt in een abstracte vergelijking tussen twee gebeurtenissen.

Nu is er op zich niet iets mis met instrumentalisatie. Het kan nodig zijn om een argument te maken. Problematisch is dat uit Boudry nergens tijd lijkt te nemen voor waardering van de tragiek van de gebeurtenis zelf. Van hoe zonde het is dat mensen het leven hebben gelaten. In plaats daarvan lijkt het dat zodra het nieuws Boudry bereikt hij overgaat tot discussie en polemiek. Het is daarom moeilijk om aan de indruk te ontsnappen dat Boudry zich verliest in het willen behalen van zijn gelijk. Dit wordt onderstreept het gebruik van de twee concrete gebeurtenissen als springplank om radicale islam en nazisme te contrasteren.

Deze vergelijking zelf wordt ook gekenmerkt door een zekere morele vlakheid. Boudry verzekerd ons dat hij de gruwelen van het nazisme nooit heeft ontkent, maar de vraag blijft of hij ze ooit heeft beseft. Men vraag zich af: “Waarom was het nazisme discreet over zijn gruweldaden, terwijl Boudry ermee pronkt?” Het lijkt alsof Boudry in zijn kruistocht tegen de “mythe van het kwaad” rondom geweld ook heeft afgedaan met de tragiek.[3] Dit is waar het ongemak over Boudry’s uitspraak uit voortkomt.

Boudry stelt dat het van belang is geweld te begrijpen, vermoedelijk met als doel om beter te kunnen voorkomen dat het plaats zal vinden. Maar is tragiek als bestanddeel van geweld niet een van de grote redenen waarom wij geweld willen voorkomen? Wellicht heeft Maarten Boudry dit toepasselijke gevoel voor tragiek wel. Dat is echter niet het beeld dat naar voren komt op basis van wat hij heeft geschreven. Het lijkt eerder alsof binnen zijn denken de aanslagen in Barcelona en Charlottesville slechts datapunten zijn in een logisch-abstracte categorisering van denksystemen. Dat is een jammerlijk manier om met de pijn van zoveel mensen om te gaan.

* * *

[1] Ter verduidelijking: mijn gebruik van aanhalingstekens hier is met name om aan te tonen dat ik Boudry citeer, niet om te suggereren dat deze uitspraken onwaar zijn. Ook wil ik onderlijnen dat ik deze uitspraken niet aanhaal om mijn focus te verleggen van de tweet naar de overige teksten, in dit geval zijn essay, maar om te benadrukken dat Boudry inderdaad meent dat de gradatie van verdorvenheid en bruutheid afhankelijk is van de interne logica die geweld ondersteunt.

[2] Met als doel het ontkrachten van wat hij “de mythe van het pure kwaad” noemt en te ontmoedigen om te spreken van “zinloos geweld”.

[3] Dit lijkt mij dan ook de reden waarom zovelen de neiging hadden om Boudry (misplaatst) van negationisme te beschuldigen, al kan ik uiteraard niet voor anderen spreken.

Note 6: Friend

Did I ever tell you there was a time I didn’t have friends?

To make matters worse I wasn’t just friendless, I was bullied as well. I don’t remember much from that time. Few of us do I suppose. All I remember is that it felt like a long, bleak, rainy autumn filled with endless grey skies. It didn’t surprise me when my mom told me, years later, that wasn’t invited to birthday parties for a whole year back then. That might sound petty, but it’s a pretty big deal when you’re six years old. People back then seemed mostly mean, capricious, and intend on causing me harm or embarrassment. And then there you were.

You liked to tell me what was on your mind and to listen to what I had to say. We shared stories, joked around and did all kinds of things together. One doubt always lingered though. Why were you friends with me? That I could never grasp. Friendship came to me as grace. Beautiful, but undeserved.

For years this was how I experienced friendship. I adored my friends, but in the back of my mind I never believed that you could consider yourself my friend. “Wasn’t it absurd”, I thought, “that a person would want to be my friend?” Being abandoned or cast out always were possibilities I feared. And then there you were.

It was December 2012, the end of my Erasmus exchange and the middle of yours. We had gone outside to escape the party for a moment. I could probably still point out the spot. We talked about our Christmas holidays, future plans, what we would be doing the next semester. “We’ll really miss you”, you suddenly said. When I asked you to explain, it became clear that this was what everyone agreed on when the subject of people leaving came up.

Finally I understood. What I had so long known rationally I now felt in my heart as well: that you are my friend, in your eyes as well as mine. It has made friendship only more precious.

At times, when we are all together, I wish I could lay still the conversation just to say: “I’m really happy to be here with all of you now.” At times, I wish I could embrace you for no reason. (You’re probably glad I don’t.) At times, I regret that you live so far away now, but I trust that we’ll meet again and I look forward to when we do.

Your every act of friendship brings forth a moment of beauty and life would have so much less meaning without it. Thank you for being there.

Article 8: Dorothy Ann’s last book

When my grandmother, Dorothy Ann Oswald, was still living in the Rosa Spier Huis, a retirement home for elderly artists, it had become a small habit of mine to take a moment to have a look around in her apartment whenever we visited her. This was not impolite nosing around just for the sake of it. I did it to find out what oma Dorothy, an Alzheimer patient, was still capable of both mentally and physically. That is how I stumbled upon a little green book with a similarly coloured ribbon marker. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.

Every time I was there I would find it on her bedside table in exactly the same position, prompting me to open it and see which page she was at. Wondering whether she was advancing I took note of the page she was at every time and indeed: slowly, but surely she worked herself through the book. After several months she even finished it. It is, as far as am aware, the last book she read front to cover.[1]

As the months progressed my grandmother deteriorated. Eventually the moment came where the Rosa Spier Huis was no longer able to provide the care she needed and thus she moved to a new elderly home. A move which necessitated her shedding most off her last belongings – already significantly diminished compared to her possessions when she still lived independently.

I knew exactly what I was looking for the moment when my father and I entered her old apartment to gather some last things. A little green book with a similarly coloured ribbon marker. Quickly I rummaged through the couple of piles of books which were left behind to find it and, together with some other interesting titles, it was taken back home.


After several weeks I started reading A Room of One’s Own and what I read was shocking. Not so much due to the content of the text, but because it seemed to touch upon almost every single aspect of my grandmother’s life. As if she purposefully had picked the book most resembling of herself as a person. The essay, written four years before my grandmother was born in 1933, is broadly about “women and fiction”, but more specifically about Woolf’s assertion that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. In other words, it is about women’s dedication to the arts. Women like my grandmother – a former ballet dancer at the Royal Ballet and teacher who dedicated herself to dance education in The Netherlands, skilled weaver, admirer of poetry who was able to recite by heart and so on.[2]

Woolf’s narrowing of the topic is done as to fulfil “what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer”. Namely, “to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever”. Reading this firstly caused me to chuckle since oma Dorothy was indeed an avid note taker. So much even that I was surprised that this book did not contain any notes. Likewise, it struck me as so fitting that the last book she read shared her striving for “a nugget of pure truth”. She herself pursued this among others through her active participation in Dutch Freemasonry and as an avid reader who interested herself in all topics, including world religions and philosophy. Just how essential this search for truth was for her I was confronted with when we were helping her move to the Rosa Spier Huis. I wanted to pick up a small carry-on suitcase only to find that it was incredibly heavy. When I opened it I saw it was filled with about twelve tomes of Plato’s writings.

Important to underline, however, is that the book is not simply about fiction, but about women and fiction; not simply about women’s dedication to the arts, but about women’s dedication to the arts in a world run by and for men. I wonder to what degree my grandmother would have recognized the struggles and attitudes recounted by Virginia Woolf. How many times she herself would have “flushed with anger” when being confronted with men who “insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women”. For she too was confronted with the various limitations put on women throughout her life and she too did not put up with them, but instead asserted herself as an independent woman.

It can’t only have been the topics and themes of the book which must have sparked recognition with my grandmother as it did with me though. The very world through which Virginia Woolf moves in her essay – that of a campus, of dining-halls, of bourgeois society, British bourgeois society, of London itself – must have come across as very familiar to her. My grandmother went to boarding school and lived independently in London as a sixteen year old pupil (her parents were living and working in East Asia). She too must have felt growing up how important it is for a woman to “have money and a room of her own”. Thinking of this it even crossed my mind that she might have started reading  A Room of One’s Own, because that’s what her apartment in the Rosa Spier Huis was intended to be.

A more sobering similarity is Virginia Woolf’s meandering style. She seems to jump from one thought to the other not so much associatively, but with deep ruptures between one moment and the other. Though Woolf turns this way of reasoning into something beautiful I can’t help to associate it with the disruptive and debilitating gaps of thought which my grandmother had as an Alzheimer patient. In a sense they are mirror images of each other. The one spontaneous against capricious, creative against destructive, but similar nonetheless.


I could go on like this for many more pages, drawing parallels wherever possible and at the same time there would still be so much which would not have been covered. I have made no mention for example on the central role which Singapore played in her life. On how everything in her life led back to that place for her. That doesn’t matter though. Dorothy Ann Oswald was an inexhaustible person, to want to convey who she was is in a sense impossible, not only since I only barely scratched the surface myself.

* * *

[1] Though she kept reading almost her whole life. When my father came back with her last possessions I was astonished to find that she, a woman with advanced Alzheimer’s, had started a new book – Philosophy Between the Lines by Arthur M. Melzer – in her new nursing home (another which she had begun to read in the Rosa Spier Huis didn’t come with her) with various underlined words, phrases and paragraphs as was her habit. In this way we can even know what probably was the last page she ever read.

[2] The connection with my grandmother is only further reinforced by the numerous poems which Woolf cites in her essay. Especially since the ones she cites – e.g. Tennyson – are exactly those poets my grandmother greatly appreciated.


On May 19 2017 Dorothy Ann Oswald died, aged 83.

A Room of One’s Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf is offered for free online by the University of Adelaide.