Essay on emptiness

Part 1: Silence

The Star Palace, verlaten theater

Verslag van de leegte is a shared essay written by Domein voor Kunstkritiek’s most voracious writers. It addresses the silence and emptiness engulfing us in this time of corona. The kick-off theme was picked up by Arthur Kok, philosopher from Tilburg, the Netherlands, and Dutch writer Elske van Lonkhuyzen, who lives in Antwerp: What does it mean to be a human being in a time of pandemic, and can art provide alleviation? Elske took part in the first run of Dans&Durf/Dance&Dare in 2017. Arthur participated in the festival edition of Dans&Durf in 2019. Dans&Durf is a set of courses and a movement supported by DansBrabant and Domein voor Kunstkritiek/Domain for Art Criticism to encourage writers to seek new words for new dance.

Text: Arthur Kok

In the beginning, when the first measures were announced, I was eager to keep abreast of everything. I’d watch the news programmes (I never watch the news), obsessively read the paper (I do read the paper, but not obsessively), I’d keep clicking on all the Facebook and LinkedIn articles (OK, I do that normally too, but less openly, and with more shame, because I usually feel that I have better things to do). Admittedly, to me, there is a close similarity between a sense of urgency and loss of shame.

I must keep up to date, I told myself – especially now. Now things are going to happen. Current affairs have never been so current. Only nothing happened! I mean, things did happen, bad things, a crisis, a state of emergency, voices that interpreted and attacked others. But the result has actually been that less and less is happening in daily life. The future is dissolving into emptiness; into silence. What is a crisis other than a sequence of events leading towards nothing?

My role of spectator was a late calling. I don’t think I ever voluntarily saw a theatre from the inside before I was twenty-five. When I was twenty-four, I even considered joining a monastery. The background to this was a failed love affair and years of almost daily visits to the pub and coffee shop. They gave me the illusion of leading a free life, but ultimately turned out to be a grind; a constant repetition of the same thing.

If I were to call my desire for a monastic life a naïve whim, I would be short-changing my younger self. (To be clear: I never actually did enter that monastery).

I love silence. Long days of silence in the university library: restlessness to start with, game-playing on the computer. Imperceptibly the slow-down took effect. That’s when I discovered the books. I’d take them to the reading room. It was always silent there. This became addictive. First I read the books I found in the library, later I’d take along books from home. I always had a notebook with me to write in. I spent weeks there, and then months. They turned into years.

It was nearly always quiet in the reading room: a white room with white tables and white chairs, with a scattering of people. They were often the same people. Sometimes the university reading room suddenly filled up with people of a different sort. They moved uneasily and appeared restless. They spoke in slightly too loud whispers. As if they needed the silence but feared it at the same time. As if they were begging the silence to show them a little respect too. But silence shows no respect. From one day to the next they all disappeared again.

The measures are giving rise to concerns about money, about the future. Personally, this is not the worst crisis I have ever experienced. But collectiveness has something obsessive about it. Anyone not severely hit automatically feels guilty.

I once lost my job. I used my last money to buy a theatre season ticket, out of a need. A film is done before I see it. A CD I put on is finished before there is a listener. Theatre exists only in terms of its potential. Even if everything is preconceived and prepared right down to the last detail; even then it doesn’t exist yet. It doesn’t start until I am there too.

Just after the crisis began I received an email from someone I used to know. I was a bcc recipient. The world has changed – foundations have been swept away – a new reality demands new solutions – we can’t go on living as before – the moment has come to approach things in a different way – doubts and uncertainty come with this.

I read this sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee in my hand. The whole thing exudes a kind of muddled determination. I end up by becoming irritated. I don’t live my life the same way all the time. I do things differently every day. Doubts and uncertainty are an intrinsic part of my existence. I don’t need corona for that.

I want to say that this is not my worst crisis.
I want to say that I know what it’s like to be penniless, out of work and facing an uncertain future.
I want to say that there is always a way out, but it’s never free.
I want to say that I have never known security. At best the illusion of security. And even that was only limited.

I want to say that I don’t miss going to performances.
I want to say that as soon as performances start up again, I’ll be the first to go.