A journey around the world visiting philosophers 1970
Months of intensive talks by Gerard Rijntjes, Leo Fretz and me with the NOS, the former Dutch Radio-TV Broadcast, about the idea of an International Philosophers Project on Dutch TV, preceded the travels to the USA, Japan and India. Without waiting for a formal okay, I decided to investigate whether philosophers from Japan or India could participate as well.
A well-known publisher asked me to keep a diary for publication.
I refused. I didn’t want anything to stand between me and the philosophers. Sometimes I regretted my decision although it was the right one. I didn’t want to play on two chessboards simultaneously: one in the front room and one in the backroom.
It was my first visit to the USA as it would be to Japan, China and India. The first call at Kennedy Airport was to Noam Chomsky to fix an appointment. Leaving the airport I saw an amazing scene. Four lanes with Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford limousines, driving at a quiet, flowing speed, middle-aged ladies behind the wheel, all with sunglasses like glittering butterflies, enjoying their matriarchal position. The scene radiated a sense of collective self-consciousness, and with such a power that I thought: this is never going to change. Impossible. Such a collective self-consciousness is impenetrable.
I visited Noam Chomsky in Cambridge at M.I.T., Leszek Kolakowski on the campus in Berkeley, Rudolph Carnap in his home in Los Angeles but failed to meet Herbert Marcuse as I was an hour late. He was too busy, leaving to Europe for holidays. He proposed to meet in the South of France. He would send me all the details where to find him, and told me not to ask anyone for directions. The intelligence services of the US, Great Britain and France followed him everywhere after vice-president Agnew called him the most dangerous man of the US. Students in those days carried banners with three M’s: Marx, Mao, Marcuse.
Talking to Rudolph Carnap, I had to be careful as a midwife who helps to deliver a baby. My aim was a debate between him and Martin Heidegger, if not face to face, then by satellite. When I finally uttered my intention, he looked at me a bit puzzled and said: “Arne Naess wrote Four Modern Philosophers, about Sartre, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and me. Naess is a very intelligent man. I don’t understand how he could write about Heidegger and me in one and the same book.” My response was indirect, saying that a few months ago I had read a Victorian etiquette book. It said that it was not suitable to place on your shelves books written by a woman next to those written by a man. He didn’t comment. But the egg was laid. Our talk was open-minded, without reaching a clear decision. Carnap explained to me how to get to the other side of the city. Three months later he died. A great thinker had left us. See video Philosophers, Part IV: Karl Popper & John Eccles. Popper explains the difference between his philosophy and the philosophy of Carnap and the Vienna Circle.
The summer of 1970 was full of unrest in Tokyo. Students protested heavily against the construction of the Narita airport. Watching the demonstrations I wanted to know what it was all about, and asked a student whether she spoke English. Yes, she did, as she was studying English. We spent the afternoon in a tea house, had dinner and talked about Japan, her dreams and my journey. We decided to spend the night in each other’s company. My room had sliding doors, a floor with two tatami mats and white stones beyond glass… a space of silence, concentration and dreams. After a while, I proposed that we would give each other a name we could easily remember. She wanted me to begin. I called her ‘Brigitte’; she replied with ‘Shinto’. Having read that Shinto means ‘truth’, I felt that ‘Brigitte’ wasn’t a match for ‘Shinto’. I asked politely if I could give her another name. “Alright”, she said. Feeling heavy and hesitant, because it was the name of my great love, I called her ‘Alma’. It means ‘soul’ among other connotations but I didn’t mention whose name it was. Some hours later, Alma told me that Shinto was her friend whom she always felt in her skin. I couldn’t believe my ears, and had to tell her that Alma was my wife and the mother of my three sons. She had trouble believing me, but my diary next to me was enough proof. Her expression “I always feel him in my skin” reminded me of The Woman in the Dunes, a movie by Hiroshi Teshigara. He filmed in one long uninterrupted shot the skin of a young woman for whom sand is her life. Japan’s culture fosters the secret of searching for the soul through the skin. Nature and kami are never far away although hidden under the disguise of modern life.
The next morning we left. If eyes could kill, we had died before reaching the outside door of the ryokan. To see a young Japanese woman in the company of a Western man early in the morning, was too much for the owners. Ethnic, racial walls, especially between women and men, are everywhere.
Logic and ontology
My encounter with Takeshi Umehara took place in Nagoya. My brother Leo who taught for nearly a decade at the University in Nagoya, was my interpreter. Prof. Umehara brought several presents with him. I felt ashamed. I had nothing to offer except an invitation for a debate with a European philosopher. During the exchange of questions and answers I was amazed about the time my brother took to translate my brief statements. Umehara, a prominent conservative and one of Japan’s best known scholars of philosophy, showed great interest for Martin Heidegger. He expressed his wish to have a debate with Jean Paul Sartre in order to present his views on the uniqueness of Japan’s philosophy and culture. I got worried. How to bridge the gap between a French existentialist philosopher, highly individualistic who defends that existence precedes essence (l’existence précède l’essence) and a Japanese ‘ontologist’ philosopher who wants to defend the ancient Japanese traditions?
I told my brother that such an encounter couldn’t result in a debate, let alone a dialogue. The logic and concepts of ‘being’ of both philosophers were so different that they wouldn’t understand each other. At least one has to speak the other’s ‘logic’ to bridge the ‘ontological’ gap.
Under the surface
The scene outside Kennedy Airport repeated itself although upside down: under the surface of an ultra-modern Japan, the kami were alive and nature sacred. In Japan I didn’t see the collective self-consciousness because of the different relationship existing between the individual and the social body. This time, I felt the deep structure of a collective consciousness, without the ‘self’ on a prominent, first place.
Writing about the meeting with Umehara, I wonder how it would be if after all those years the two of us could have a dialogue about the roots of human nature, before deep cultural differences master the innate structure of our intuitive knowledge. A dialogue in search of the Original Mind of Buddhism via our deeply rooted Japanese and European perspectives.
Once more Shinto
A few years after ‘Alma’ called me ‘Shinto’, I became chairman of the Japanese-Dutch Shinto, today the Japanese-Dutch Shinzen Foundation. And after leaving the board in 2010, its honorary chairman.
My visits to Madras and Calcutta, where I hoped to meet some philosophers, didn’t have the result I had hoped for. Summer holidays proved to be not the right time. But India stole my heart. Many journeys all over India would follow. India taught me that the way of life is not linear or a circle but a spiral, always moving up and down. The snake is India’s secret: it hides itself in the deepest layers of body and mind. Before leaving New Delhi, I bought an antique relief in stone in a market, with the intention to give it a special place in a house that only existed in my imagination.
After six weeks of travelling I returned to Amsterdam. Walking in its streets, I saw people and houses as images in a movie. Let’s call it creative alienation. My canal house in the old city where during the occupation of W.W. II German soldiers had posted the sign: Juden Viertel (Jewish Quarter), was for sale. The five-story house, 30 meters from front to back, needed complete restoration. The restoration would cost one million guilders. The buyer had to be a rich person. When we met, we understood and appreciated each other. No real estate manager or middle man. The deal we made would have a great effect on my life and the life of my family.
Urbanization dictates our future
My journey around the world, the encounters with philosophers but above all visiting one city after the other – each inhabited by millions of people of which many poor or even dying from hunger as I saw in Calcutta – lead to the realization that urbanization was dictating the future. Some demographers estimated that in the year 2000 three-fifth of world population would live in urban areas. I found it a frightening prospect. If the demographers were right and I had little doubt that they were, knowing that my country wasn’t in the forefront but always follows the general trends, I realized that in the near future silence, a dark night sky if the moon wasn’t full, clean air, water and some space around the house, would become rare and thus expensive.
Contrary to the plan of buying a house in Amsterdam after the sale of the old house, we decided to buy a farmhouse not far from Amsterdam. The hay and cow shit of last winter covered the floor of the interior space of 14 meters high, and of the inside stables. The Dutch stolp or stelp is of a rare beauty. The style of its construction goes back to the early seventeenth century. Today, it has lost its function as house for the farming family and its cattle, but its tradition of housing humans and animals under one high roof remains an inspiration for combining its space and functions in various ways. The Indian relief found its way on the chimney in the centre of the house.