Johannes Klabbers is a Dutch/Australian writer and posthumanist therapist, currently living in Europe. He is the author of I Am Here: Stories From A Cancer Ward (Scribe Aus/UK 2016), which tells the story of an academic in the Australian outback who takes a voluntary redundancy and reinvents himself as a secular pastoral worker in the largest cancer hospital in the southern hemisphere. The Australian described it as “wonderfully insightful”. His website is johannesk.com and he tweets @johklab, is on Facebook @johkla and blogs on Medium @johannesk.
This piece is from Issue Twenty of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.
Grenswisselkantoor Centraal Station Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1967. Photographer: L.H.Hofland. Used by permission. Copyright: Het Utrechts Archief.
The country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love. It lives within me despite my knowledge of our marginality and its primitive unpretty emotions. Is it blind and self deceptive of me to hold on to its memory? […] All it has given me is the world but that is enough. It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colours and the furrows of reality, my first loves. The absoluteness of those loves can never be recaptured: no geometry of the landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscapes that we saw as the first and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservations.
—Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation
In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency.
—C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
i can’t work.
i can’t write.
there is nothing i can do.
i have to write something for tincture, they are waiting for it, my last piece for the last issue of tincture, the last episode of moederland. the deadline was wednesday. but i can’t write. can i write that i can’t write? can i write this? maybe this is the only thing i can write.
i go for a long walk.
it’s so beautiful. the autumn air is soft.
there was a death in the family, unexpected, violent. the funeral was the day before yesterday and all of a sudden i am here. i was never there before. for all but one of the major life/death events that occurred in the circle of family and friends over the past forty years i’ve been in australia on the other end of a phone, saying … what?
what can you say on the phone?
I have big news. I saw a leaf fall. It wasn’t just any leaf. It was one particular leaf. I was there to see the falling of one particular leaf. The only leaf to fall in exactly that way and I have something to tell you: Australia and Europe are different universes—and what I’ve done is move to a different universe and that universe is slowly revealing itself to me, ever so slowly, one falling leaf at a time. You can visit that other universe but you will not experience it as someone who lives there, someone who is of that universe. Why is it not another universe? We allowed science and technology to tell us that it is not a different universe. When James Cook came back he said, oh it’s ‘just’ on the other side of the earth, it is down under and they are earthlings, same as us. Different colour some of them, but still … and now technology allows us to talk to someone who is there at the same time, cheaply. Except it’s not the same time. It’s the middle of the afternoon there and it is early morning here—and it is spring … tra-la-la … but it is autumn here.
We were eager as beavers to allow science and technology to tell us all sorts of things and we believed them all. We watched the flower of the enlightenment turn into the rotting fruit of neoliberalism. We had nothing left. We held the dust of what was in our hands. We were bereft.
What is needed is a completely new way to think about all the things and what it is to be a human being. We have to forget everything we think we know and everything we think we understand and everything we believe in and everything we feel, and begin from scratch, with nothing. No assumptions, no assertions, no facts, no frameworks, no standards, no non-negotiables.
Ah, peace at last.
What am I?
How do I begin to think about that if I’ve let go of all my assumptions and assertions?
How do I even know if this is where I should begin?
I was born stupid1 and short-armed, but apart from regularly reminding me of my short arms, usually in an annoyed way when she was making me try on a coat in a shop, or a jumper, and the sleeves were too long, my mother never tired of telling people how intelligent I was. And like most people I guess, I just assumed that parents always spoke the truth. So I worked out how to roll up my sleeves and create the impression of intelligence, mostly by looking thoughtful and sad. The latter was easy enough since I was sad most of the time. My hamster died and we buried it with a little ceremony in my grandmother’s garden and I dug it up again a week later to see if it had turned into a skeleton yet. A few weeks later by way of consolation I received a kitten I named Kees after one of the workers who was digging up the street. I chased Kees around the house for hours on end until she had a fit and passed out. My father revived her by moving her little paws backwards and forwards across her chest. And then, when I was nearly six, he left me and my mother for a younger woman with bigger breasts.
It took me a long time to work out that my mother was wrong and that parents are capable of saying things that are not true. For example my father was an inveterate liar and a great practical joker. He loved the idea that a child would believe anything you said. Once he told me that chewing gum was made from old bicycle tyres. It was not until I was thirty years old that I suddenly realised this was not the case. It’s not that I actively believed for a quarter of a century that chewing gum is made from old bicycle tyres. It’s unlikely that I gave it any thought at all, but my five-year-old self had stored it in the part of my brain responsible for the things about which there is no doubt. And when I accidentally bumped into this ‘fact’, he’d been dead for more than ten years. It was like the last pocket money cheque he sent me (which arrived the day after I got home from his funeral), only funnier.
I went to a talk this afternoon by this guy. He is asking us to believe that Australia is in a different universe!
Well figuratively speaking he’s right of course. I mean kangaroos! Hellooooo! And Tony Abbott! Do you know who that is? A guy like that would evaporate in Europe. He wouldn’t be able exist. It is not possible. And what about Derryn H—
I’ve stopped listening.
No no, he clearly said: this is not a figure of speech. He was actually asking us to believe it. Believe me, he said, I know. I was there for nearly forty years. I went there when I was twenty and then, when I was almost sixty, I came back. And I’ll tell you this for nothing. Australia is an entirely different one of the ten to the power of five hundred universes.
yes australia is another universe. there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say to console someone on the phone. what they need is for you to be there, to see your tears, and they need you to see their tears. you need to be in the abyss together and hold hands or hug and say: “You must go on. I can’t go on. You must go on.”2
My father loved to laugh and he loved to make people laugh. I think that’s why my mother fell in love with him. I, too—too often—reach for a joke. The problem with him was that he also loved a drink or three and my mother didn’t drink, nor did my grandmother, nor anyone else in her family. Drinking was disapproved of. This would later turn into a problem for everyone. But his alcoholism was still in its early stages when he married my mother, and it’s easy to hide your drinking from people who don’t drink: it’s just not within their realm of possibilities that you would go to a bar after you kiss them goodbye at the end of the evening, instead of going home to go to bed and sleep.
My father was known as ‘De Blauwe Buik’ or Blue Gut on account of his girth. ‘Blauw’ is the equivalent of drunk-as-a-skunk in Utregs, the local dialect. It’s also a reference to the dark-blue uniform worn by the police who employed him, although after a few years he became a plain-clothes cop and managed to land the job of enforcing certain by-laws. One of the laws was ensuring that the fireworks that are sold here in the last months of the year for use on New Year’s Eve contained no more explosive than they should. Some of the confiscated fireworks found their way into my eager hands, much to the consternation of the local residents who were subjected by the then unscrupulous me to serious explosions in their letter boxes and the common stairwells of apartment buildings. But his favourite task was making sure that his favourite bars closed on time when he was on night duty. As long as he was drinking there, they could stay open without fear of prosecution.
Most of what constituted his beat, the railway station and the streets surrounding it, were demolished to make way for a brutalist shopping centre and a mass of grey soulless buildings that are now themselves having to make way for other, shinier but equally soulless buildings, just as they were beginning to be somewhat softened by familiarity.
As for the old town, where the buildings and streets remain more or less as they were for centuries, in the old shops, instead of bread and secondhand books, they now sell fashion—or interesting objects, old and new and new-but-made-to-look-old; and things from dead people’s houses; and all the banks have been turned into restaurants where extraordinary food experiences can be had.
You might say the family on my father’s side were street smart, always looking for a way to turn situations to their advantage and succeeding for the most part. For several centuries they made a good living running one of the inns in the centre of town where you could change your horses, have a meal and get a bed, as well make use of a range of less savoury services. But the family on my mother’s side spent their lives cleaning other people’s houses, working in the fields, and wishing they were just a little bit more intelligent and well read and less poor—and pretending that they were. So this is where I got my gift. I just did what everyone else did. This stood me in good stead when I moved to an English-speaking country where, when I had little or no idea what was being said. I did what migrants across the world have done for centuries. I tried to look intelligent and act as if I understood, by nodding and smiling. And generally it worked pretty well. I only got caught out a few times. Not many people are game to challenge other people’s understanding; if it seems like you do (or should) understand, most people assume that you do.
“what’s the first question?” i say into the voice recorder.
the first question is not ‘what can i do?’ but ‘are you able to do anything? are you capable of action? do you have agency? autonomy?’ note: i don’t say freedom, i sing it (á la Richie Havens at Woodstock at the end of a three-hour set, like a mantra) ‘freedom… freedom… freedom’ but i won’t use the word in a conversation. i am sad to say the meaning of the word ‘freedom’ has expired, it has been corrupted by capitalism and neoliberalism and third-rate right-wing politicians whose every other word is freedom—and one of the most odious is here, in this bloody country. but at least he is not the president.
what’s the second question?
wait. there is also the other part of the first question.
the dark side of the first question…
are you able not to do?
are you able to not do what you must not?
You might say this, right here, is my undoing. What was undone here, what was imposed on what exists, I somehow carry with me—if I can be said to exist. During the four decades of my disappearance, in London, Sydney, Hobart, Newcastle, Wagga Wagga, Melbourne, I continued to thinkfeelknow as if those spaces, these details, were still there somehow.
Unlike the ones that stayed behind, I had not been confronted each day with the objective reality that soon after I left they had demolished most of the parts of the city that still live in me. Because my mother worked until six I was able to roam the streets in the hours after school and I loved to stand in places like the post office and the station and watch people come and go and smell the well-worn leather briefcases and darned socks, and cumin-cheese sandwiches and currant buns and hard-earned cash in the pockets of the travellers and see the way the sun came through the curved windows and fell on the steel guard above the tickets counter, and the peculiar instability of the light emitted by neons that spelled C-H-A-N-G-E.
During my first year back here I walked the streets, bereft. I kept hearing the voice of my grandmother, clear as day, saying the street names—if I talked to her, I could almost bring her back—and seeing Saskia G, who lit up every room she walked into in 1972, waiting for a bus or crossing the road and going into Subway.
the funeral is in what they call a ‘mourning centre’ here, in the woods of the far north—i am from australia, but in this small country which is my motherland that means a mere two hours away. the cousin i’ve been avoiding since i arrived because his wife is a racist schoolteacher who teaches non-white children has been co-opted into driving my mother and my brother and me to the funeral since i don’t have a car. i fell out with the wife when she proudly recounted telling a mother who was speaking moroccan to her friend that ‘in the netherlands we speak dutch’. “who are you to tell people which language they should speak?” blah blah. can you imagine the rest of the conversation?
when we get out of the car i wonder if there is anywhere in the southern hemisphere where you can experience this unmistakable indolic smell, maybe in a Tasmanian forest? it’s not decay but it’s close. something is dead but it’s still capable of doing something, of having an effect, like the body in the coffin over there.
“Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.) It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know.”3
many words are spoken, not many of them ring true—people are addressing the coffin and using the word ‘you’ when referring to the dead man. i don’t know who they are: they are his people and i didn’t seen him for thirty years—and then his wife gets up to speak. the silence doubles. in her black shiny shoes which squeak as she makes her way to the front, are pink shoelaces. she is clearly an experienced public speaker, quite comfortable in front of a crowd and it is a crowd—there must be more than two hundred here. some of us know that all was not well in the marriage but most don’t. you wouldn’t expect her to refer to this in her speech but she does. she reads a poem she wrote. there is a moment, when everything stops. time stands still. she mentions the wind, there was a sudden breeze in the room, she said, and that’s when she realised she is alone now, he is gone. she resists alluding to the supernatural and i am grateful, but she cannot resist repeating the line about darkness and light, which is actually the weakest image in the poem.
I ceased to exist in my motherland in 1972, but when I speak Dutch no one can tell I’m not from around here. My problem is I don’t have fluency. When I try to have a conversation about poststructuralism or ontology or subatomic particles, what comes out is a trickle, stumbling, awkward. But here I am in easy conversation with an old man (slowly) walking a small bulldog.
I just about gave myself a hernia cycling to the other side of the city on my fold-up bike to see if the house my father lived in is still there. I’ve resisted buying a proper bicycle, as an act of refusal to become more like a normal Dutch citizen. The bike is a little rusty but it gets me around, albeit in an undignified and uncomfortable way. And I have to peddle twice as much as a normal Dutch citizen because the wheels are quite small.
The man tells me he’s lived here since 1965. I ask about the church I was hoping to see. At around the time he came to live here I fell off the wall surrounding the church playing soldiers and broke my arm in three places.
I know for certain the church used to be right here but there is a difference between one person knowing something and another person, who has been here more or less continuously the whole time, knowing it too and saying so. This is where language and culture begins. This is where the intricate entanglements of meaning which constitute, with one or two other minor additions, the entirety of our humanity, originate.
The small bulldog is growling and straining on the leash. He was expecting to be home by now and he doesn’t understand the delay—or perhaps he does, but he doesn’t care for it. The man tells me he’s seventy-eight—or was it eighty-seven? They say the numbers the other way around, starting from twenty-one, they say one and twenty. He may have said seven-and-eighty or eight-and-seventy. I tend to hear and remember the numbers back to front and I am forever dialling wrong numbers and giving too much or too little money to shopkeepers who regard me wearily.
The real problem with life (and living) is that it is entirely relational. What one’s ‘life’ is consists entirely of phenomena—and relata, relationships between things, whether living and/or sentient and/or conscious, or not, and intra-actions4. What this means is that the ‘self’ and one’s ‘life’ are, if not actually one and the same, then an inseparable unity—the self is relational. But we think of our lives/selves as a more or less stable object that exists for a certain period in time, regardless of context. But when the relational self, that ‘object’, ceases to exist in that particular context, it doesn’t makes sense to think of it as the same object.
I show the old man the scar on my arm. “This happened there.” I point at the approximate spot on the ground where I came to after losing consciousness for a minute or two due to the intensity of the pain. I clearly remember the uncanny feeling of seeing a shard of bone protruding from my arm. He looks with interest at the impressive scar. “It was quite high … the wall around that church,” I offer. “Nou nie eg5,” he says in perfect Utregs, a dialect which I now realise requires at least a few missing teeth to pull off. I spent the best part of the first fourteen years of my life, when I still had all my teeth, trying to unlearn, or at least disguise it. Now I like to turn it on when I’m talking to people who speak what they call Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands6, and watch their faces.
We say goodbye, both of us somewhat reluctantly, but he’s begun a tirade complaining about the churches disappearing and all the mosques that are being built, so it’s time to go. This is what’s happening in Europe now. An ordinary conversation in the street on an almost-but-not-quite-spring-like day can turn into a racist tirade at the drop of a hat.
And then it passed. It became a city to live in. It’s the city where I live.
you don’t see the devil coach horses or the hedgehogs, they mainly come out at night, but they’re here.
you buy a bird feeder and hang it on the balcony but you don’t put any food in it yet. it is too early. there are still plenty of berries and grubs and seeds around. let them forage! a curious koolmees7 arrives to have a look. she is determined that something to eat can be found. she recognises the shape of the device and its placement and she knows that humans put things to eat in there. or perhaps she doesn’t know about humans. she just knows about food and other birds and cats and the stars and the wind.
You must go on.
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.8
it’s four o’clock.
it’s getting dark early now that daylight saving has ended.
Saskia didn’t become a famous actress as we all thought she would, but a normal Dutch citizen with two big dogs that she loves and nice shoes; she goes on skiing holidays and changes her profile picture often, so Facebook tells me. I wrote her a message but I didn’t send it. Who wants to hear a voice from the past?
In a previous version of the world, it was more interesting to be from somewhere else than to be from ‘here’. But now everyone is anxious and afraid and we don’t trust people that are not from around here. But where you’re from shouldn’t matter in the slightest, except to yourself, in your imagination and your dreams and the memories and ideas about places that haunt you. Now, what matters is where you are. And now what matters is whether you accept ‘the new normal’.
Hawfinches have come to eat the hawthorn berries.
I left Australia but I’m from Wagga Wagga, I’m from Melbourne, I’m from Hobart and from Dover, just south of Hobart, and I’m from Newcastle and from Sydney, Rozelle, Forest Lodge, Gladesville, Pyrmont, and from London SE2. Most of my dreams are set in Wagga, although it rarely looks like Wagga.
And now I wait for dreams set in the Botanic Gardens and by the Yarra River, with flocks of white cockatoos screeching overhead, in the early morning before it gets really hot.
1. Apologies to Gerard van ’t Reve who began an autobiographical piece with the sentence, “I was born stupid, as my father used to say.” As I explain here, what I suffered from was rather the opposite—but it’s such a great opening I couldn’t resist appropriating the idea.
2. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable.
3. Beckett, ibid.
4. These words and concepts are borrowed from Karen Barad and probably I am using them not quite as she intended. See her book, Meeting the Universe Halfway.
5. Well, not really.
6. lit. General Civilised Dutch—as spoken by the then Queen and the people who rule the country, and own most of the buildings and all of the money.
7. A great tit.
8. Beckett ibid.
Thank you so much Daniel Young and Tincture for commissioning me to think about what it meant to me to move to the other side of the world for the second time in my so-called life, during my first year back in Europe and to write about it. RIP Tincture. Sadly missed but twenty issues to treasure! A wonderful achievement. And good luck Daniel. Finally, some time to write…