Spinoza’s bed

Hierna neem ik een stukje tekst op dat de Poolse dichter Zbigniew Herbert in zijn reeks Dutch Apocrypha schreef over ‘Spinoza’s bed’. Maar ik begin met een paar alinea’s uit de bespreking van Jessa Crispin die gisteren verscheen in The Smart Set from Drexels University: “Must Love Kids. How do you determine the success of a woman? For many, the answer lies in the children,” zijnde de bespreking van twee boeken: Susan Hertog, Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power [Ballantine Books, 2011] en Barbara Almond,The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood. [University of California Press, 2011]

Ze citeert van Barbara Almond: “We expect everything from mothers, and we excuse little.” Moeders blijven een eeuwig thema. Aan het eind van haar bespreking geeft ze dan de volgende ontboezeming over Spinoza:

“Doing a little daytime drinking with a friend recently, the conversation circled around to our mothers. We went through the usual list of complaints, dredging up old hurts and comparing stories. My friend told me he had recently read that Spinoza, through his entire life, carried with him the bed in which his mother died. He carted it from residence to residence, sleeping every night literally in his own mother’s deathbed. Sure, it was a different world, before IKEA and constantly renewing mattress technology, but come on. He surely could have swapped or sold the bed, but he held onto it. And if Spinoza — fucking Spinoza, man! my friend said, shaking his head — couldn’t let go of his mother issues, then we must be doing all right, him and me.

There’s another side to that, of course: That if Spinoza — fucking Spinoza, man! — couldn’t get over his mother issues, then surely we are all doomed to the same fate, no matter how much psychotherapy or how many philosophical structures we go through. I didn’t say it out loud then, because really, there’s not enough alcohol in the world to make that all right.” [van hier]

“Een goed bed, en een behangsel voor het selve,” vermeldt de inventarislijst die na Spinoza’s dood werd opgemaakt. Nadat hij na zijn vaders dood voor de rechter om zijn erfenisdeel had gestreden dat zijn zuster hem had willen onthouden, liet hij nadat zijn deel hem toegewezen was, alles tenslotte aan zijn zuster Rebecca, op het ledikant na, waarin zijn moeder Deborah overleden was en waarin hij waarschijnlijk geboren was. Het is op z’n minst opmerkelijk dat dit bed het enige was waar hij belang aan hechtte. En dit bed vergezelde hem dus bij zijn verhuizingen – minstens vier, wellicht meer (we weten niet waar hij zoal in Amsterdam onderdak vond).

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Nu dan het stukje van de Poolse dichter Zbigniew Herbert (1924 - 1998) in zijn reeks uit eind 70-iger jaren Dutch Apocrypha:

"Spinoza's bed"

IT IS AN amazing thing that our memory best retains images of great philosophers when their lives were coming to an end. Socrates raising the chalice with hemlock to his mouth, Seneca whose veins were opened by a slave (there is a painting of this by Rubens), Descartes roaming cold palace rooms with a foreboding that his role of teacher of the Swedish Queen would be his last, old Kant smelling a grated horseradish before his daily walk (the cane preceding him, sinking deeper and deeper into the sand), Spinoza consumed by tuberculosis and patiently polishing lenses, so weak he is unable to finish his Treatise on the Rainbow. . . A gallery of noble moribunds, pale masks, plaster casts.

In the eyes of his biographers Spinoza was unmistakably an ideal wise man: exclusively concentrated on the precise architecture of his works, perfectly indifferent to material affairs, and liberated from all passions. But an episode in his life is passed over in silence by some biographers, while others consider it only an incomprehensible, youthful whim.

Spinoza’s father died in 1656 (sic = 1654). In his family Baruch had the reputation of an eccentric young man who had no practical sense and wasted precious time studying incomprehensible books. Due to clever intrigues (his stepsister Rebecca and her husband Casseres played the main role in this) he was deprived of his inheritance. She hoped the absentminded young man would not even notice. But it happened otherwise.

Baruch initiated a lawsuit in court with an energy no one suspected him to have. He hired lawyers, called witnesses, was both matter-of-fact and passionate, extremely well-oriented in the most subtle details of procedure and convincing as a son injured and stripped of his rights.

They settled the division of the estate relatively quickly (clear legal rules existed in this matter). But then a second act of the trial unexpectedly followed, causing a general sense of unpleasantness and embarrassment.

As if the devil of possessiveness had entered him, Baruch began to litigate over almost each object from his father’s house. It started with the bed in which his mother, Deborah, had died (he did not forget about its dark green curtains). Then he requested objects without any value, explaining he had an emotional attachment to them. The judges were monumentally bored, and could not understand where this irresistible desire in the ascetic young man came from. Why did he wish to inherit a poker, a pewter pot with a broken handle, an ordinary kitchen stool, a china figure representing a shepherd without a head, a broken clock which stood in the vestibule and was a home for mice, or a painting that hung over the fireplace and was so completely blackened it looked like a self-portrait of tar?

Baruch won the trial. He could now sit with pride on his pyramid of spoils, casting spiteful glances at those who tried to disinherit him. But he did not do this. He only chose his mother’s bed (with the dark green curtain), giving the rest away to his adversaries defeated at the trial.

No one understood why he acted this way. It seemed an obvious extravagance, but in fact had a deeper meaning. It was as if Baruch wanted to say that virtue is not at all an asylum for the weak. The act of renunciation is an act of courage-it requires the sacrifice of things universally desired (not without regret and hesitation) for matters that are great, and incomprehensible.

From Making Introductions – John Carpenter and Zbigniew Herbert [hier of hier]