There must be a cosmic leak


salon ruigoord

Yesterday, I spent some time at Ruigoord. Ruigoord is a small artist enclave in the Western harbour area of Amsterdam. The village is an oasis of imagination, which has been trying to keep the spirit of the 60s alive. Counterculture, a gay anarchism, psychedelic drug culture, artistic expression and some new spirituality values continue to define life in Ruigoord. When you enter the village, white graffiti on one of the houses – which are used by artists as their workspace – reads: “So much inspiration in such a small place; there must be a cosmic leak.”

Of course, you don’t have to be an adherent of a more bourgeois lifestyle to raise criticism about Ruigoord: isn’t the message of Ruigoord a little outdated? Isn’t it more about drugs than about artistic expression? Is everybody really living along that well, or is there also strife and competition? And of course: aren’t commercial interests to exploit the hippie paradise taking gradually taking over the more communitarian values of Ruigoord?

Despite whatever reserves anybody may have, I am a believer of Ruigoord, and as many Christians have recently explained me, to believe you ultimately have to jump. Obviously, it is not very likely that Christ has in fact risen from the dead, but you just have to believe it, right? Centrally located in Ruigoord is “the church”, a former catholic church (already an interesting feature in the protestant north of Holland), which is now used for creative rituals and parties. Next to the church, you find the “municipal” building, which doubles as the consulate of Doel (almost abandoned village in Belgium) and the embassy of Christiania (free state in Copenhagen).

For me, the place which for me is the most authentic contemporary expression of the spirit of Ruigoord is the Salon, opposite the church. Salon Ruigoord is the workspace of Michael, which is used for various experimental public activities, such as poetry performances, music and lectures. These happenings are an eclectic mix of classical hippie philosophy and culture and more contemporary urban worldviews and cultural expressions.

This particular evening I was listening to three fringe thinkers: Thomas Meijer, Leonie Klooster and Joost Emanuel. Devoid of any academic mannerism, they each developed in their own way scholarly theses on truth, meaning, fiction and the insanity. An important topic through all talks was the distinction between the “true” person or soul – the spiritual origin of human beings – and their purported “masks” which we put on or “personae” we play in society. The  message of these philosophers of Ruigoord was not only the worldview of perennialism – the idea that there is a true core in all world philosophies which is ancient and eternal, but also the message of the pure soul corrupted by society.

I am not sure if this particular message is still important in our day and age. Joost Emanuel, a gifted speaker, gave a speech which resembled a sermon. I called him a preacher of the new age and he replied he’d more thought of himself as a preacher of the now age. But do we still live in times in which pretending to have a global message is still possible? Isn’t the appeal to a universal rational truth precisely that element of protestant Christianity we would like to move beyond? It appears to me that Western hippiedom very much resembles precisely the strife for truth and purity of Northern European protestant culture. It had never occurred to me before that hippies are actually the calvinists of the late 20th Century.

Dagen Zonder Lief

dagenzonderliefThe Dutch are very nice, up until the moment they get drunk. The Flemish are very nice, but only from the moment when they get drunk. Twelve years ago I decided to move from the Netherlands to Belgium to study in Ghent. After being tormented for two years by the sheer inaccessibility of the Flemish, I planned to exchange Ghent for Amsterdam. Three films prevented me at that time from acknowledging my defeat. The first one is Any Way the Wind Blows, which I mentioned in an earlier blog post. The other two were Steve + Sky and Dagen Zonder Lief by the Flemish movie director Felix van Groeningen.

Several things had struck me from that movies. For a long time, Holland had always been considered more liberal, more cultural, more progressive and more open than Belgium. The Flemish had therefore developed a love-hate relationship with the Dutch, which usually tipped towards hate. But at the beginning of the 2000s something changed. The Netherlands had currently seen the rise of Pim Fortuyn, while the Belgium were governed by very progressive and liberal governments. In the youth scenes of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels a new cultural generation developed, which was self-conscious, ironic and romantic at the same time. It was a culture which could define itself on its own, without feeling the necessity to compare what was happening in the Netherlands.

In music, we could witness the rise of bands like Soulwax, dEUS and Das Pop. In film you first had the still very ironic Iedereen beroemd! but then there were the aforementioned films. Most striking to me personally must have been Dagen Zonder Lief. For me, it was as if everything I always failed to grasp about the Flemish became suddenly perfectly clear.

The film features a young woman, who returns back to her hometown Sint Niklaas after she had left for the United States, only to find her former social life in scatters. Although the value of friendship is an important theme in the film, it also evokes a much deeper sense of nostalgia, a deep sense that the past is irreversibly lost and that the only thing which remain from the past are hurt and regret. For me, this movie instantaneously excited in me the desire to be Flemish myself. Had I been born in the wrong body? Suddenly it all made so much more sense, the Sorrow of Belgium as Hugo Claus had famously put it, and which could only be cured by Herman Brusselmans assertion: Mijn haar is lang (My hair is long).

Two years ago I finally left Belgium, over six years after I originally anticipated to leave and eight years after my first major Belgium-breakdown. I could finally go in recovery from the disease which is called Flanders. Yesterday I accidentally ran into a group of actors from Belgium, in Amsterdam. I learned that their company was seated in Sint-Niklaas – the infamous background of Dagen Zonder Lief and the town where I had taught ethics in a local high school during the last two years of my stay in the country. While we were discussing the poor state of the theatre scene in Sint-Niklaas, I learned to my great surprise and some embarrassment that I was talking with almost half of the cast of that precious movie. Reality had overtook me and the image I carefully crafted in my mind of the life in Flemish towns of early twenty somethings at the end of the 90s suddenly collapsed. Finally, while Belgium is currently being consumed by the N-VA, I can proudly say I am completely cured.


Jan Mayen

One of the most exotic parts of Europe is the almost deserted island Jan Mayen. In the sixth century, the island was discovered by the Irish monk Brandaan in a expedition to see if there were any pagans left at the outer edges of Europe. The black island featured a terrifying smoking mountain. Brandaan understandably believed he had found the gates of hell. 

Jan Mayen is a small isolated island in the Arctic Ocean, lonely situated between Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. The Dutch conquered stationed some troops on the island in the 17th Century, to support their whale hunt, but deserted Jan Mayen again after 1650 when the whales were gone. In the 20th Century the Norwegians discovered that the island provided ample opportunity for the fox hunt. Equally successful as the Dutch whale hunts, all foxes were gone by the 1920s and few Norwegians desired to stay on the freezing island afterwards. 

Because Jan Mayen could not be occupied by the nazi’s during WOII, the Norwegians who were manned the weather station formed a small independent free state. They actually needed to defend themselves against the nazi’s on several occasions, of which some plane wrecks still testify. 

Jan Mayen has one of the most minimal histories of any European place. The remoteness of the island is striking: to reach the island you need to board on a 20 meter long sailboat, the Aurora, which leaves from the quays of Iceland. The journey takes two days. The only tourist attraction is the ascent of the Beerenberg, the characteristic volcano on the island.          

Since Europe is currently facing a crisis, as a result of nationalism and an unstoppable influx of immigrants, I would like to urge everybody to undertake a trip to Jan Mayen. It appears extremely necessary in a time when national borders are being redefined to discover what had been perceived in the 7th Century as the border between with the underworld. Jan Mayen might offer us refreshing and possibly spiritual new look on contemporary Europe and its outer edges.