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24 February 2005

The poem that rescued the wisgeer's ruined cottage

Fooey! A very nice piece of Free Software called Hello which allowed me to post images to this blog has crapped out and failed after just a few weeks. I have sent an e-mail to its Makers, asking for repair help, and so I should be able to post new images to Vleeptron perhaps by the end of 2009.

Meanwhile, in lieu of the Actual Image of this lovely poem, I will just type in the text. The poem is by the 17th-century Dutch poet Dirck Camphuysen. In the tiny dorp of Rijnsburg, there is a lovely ancient cottage at the corner of Spinozalaan and Camphuysenstraat. Around 1890, it was a toppling shambles headed for the wrecker's ball, when a scholar found it, and spotted this poem in a ceramic plaque at the crumbling front door.

The scholar had read a letter from the 17th Century, in which a visitor to the cottage's upstairs tenant had included the text of the ornamental poem by the front door. Thus the cottage in which the great wisgeer Benedict / Baruch Spinoza dwelt was rescued from destruction and oblivion, and you can visit it this very day, as I did (you take a local bus a few stops from Leiden), and took a photo of the wonderful poem that saved the wonderful cottage where once dwelt the wonderful wisgeer (in the wonderful nation).

I also prevailed on a gaggle of suspicious bicycling Dutch schoolgirls to hold my camera and photograph me standing next to the poem. If Hello ever works again, I'll post these marvelous images, and you will be able to see why I am so often mistaken for Richard Gere.

A post or two ago, I mentioned Weltschmerz ("world pain"), the sensation in one's spirit and soul from comparing How the World Could or Might Be, with How the World Really Is. (Don't try this at home, especially if you have loaded firearms in the house.) Camphuysen described Weltschmerz this way:

Ach! waren alle Menschen wijs,
En wilden daarbij wel!
De Aard waar haar en Paradijs,
Nu isse meest een Hel.

Oh! If but all men were wise,
And desired only well,
The Earth would live in Paradise,
Now it's just a Hell.

I cannot thoroughly or clearly explain why in recent years I have become so fascinated with Spinoza (1632 - 1677).

Well, actually, yes, I think I can give it a partial, interim whack. Of Spinoza's own philosophy and thoughts, I would be nervous to take an undergrad exam and hope for a B- or C+, because many documents (my Permanent Record) attest to my career as one of the crappiest, laziest students in the history of higher education.

But I stalk and haunt this dead filosoof -- another house he lived in, Domus Spinozana, is still available to visit in Den Haag, in a vibrant and delicious Muslim neighborhood -- largely because, for me, Spinoza embodies the spirit (geest) of Tolerance -- intellectual, religious, ethnic, political -- which arose in the Netherlands before Spinoza's lifetime and has endured ever since. While Spinoza lived, he would have been hanged or burned for his ideas in most other nations in Europe and the rest of the world. Once a mob gathered outside his Rijnsburg cottage -- the landlord, a surgeon, told them they should be ashamed of themselves and they left -- and once Spinoza was stabbed, but his cape deflected the blade. He kept the cape as a souvenir of a rare lapse of Dutch tolerance.

What got everybody all hot and murderously bothered? Would you pull a shank on me if I told you I believed that God and Nature are one and the same? Probably not -- but a lady Episcopalian minister once got real hot under the collar when I told her I was fascinated with and admired this theology. One can still find little corners where Spinoza's pantheism is still hotly refuted and condemned as authentic heresy.

Spinoza is often credited with inventing the first system of ethics which does not depend, as an ultimate foundation, on God's punishment for disobeying the system. Spinoza proves his ethical system the way Euclid proved his geometry, with clearly expressed definitions, one logical step at a time, and Heaven or Hellfire have nothing to do with it.

Upstairs in the Rijnsburg cottage, Spinozahuis, you can still see Spinoza's tools for polishing glass lenses. He supported himself as one of Europe's finest lens-grinders in order to keep his thoughts independent from the influence of universities or princes who might employ or seek to sponsor him. His early death was probably due to breathing in glass dust from the polishing process. There's buzz that he and the daughter of his surgeon landlord were sweeties. A bust in the garden shows him, surprisingly, to be a handsome and rather dashing, almost piratical figure.

Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg in 1656, at the invitation of the surgeon, a member of a non-conformist Baptist sect, when Amsterdam's Portuguese synagogue read the Anathema over him and excommunicated him. This is what was read out before Spinoza and the congregation:

"With the judgment of the angels and the sentence of the saints, we anathematize, execrate, curse and cast out Baruch de Espinoza, the whole of the sacred community assenting, in presence of the sacred books with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts written therein, pronouncing against him the malediction wherewith Elisha cursed the children, and all the maledictions written in the Book of the Law. Let him be accursed by day, and accursed by night; let him be accursed in his lying clown, and accursed in his rising up; accursed in going out and accursed in coming in. May the Lord never more pardon or acknowledge him; may the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn henceforth against this man. load him with all the curses written in the Book of the Law, and blot out his name from under the sky; may the Lord sever him from evil from all the tribes of Israel, weight him with all the maledictions of the firmament contained in the Book of Law; and may all ye who are obedient to the Lord your God be saved this day.

"Hereby then are all admonished that none hold converse with him by word of mouth, none hold communication with him by writing; that no one do him any service, no one abide under the same roof with him, no one approach within four cubits [about six feet] length of him, and no one read any document dictated by him, or written by his hand."

Anathemized, excommunicated, mobbed, stabbed, feared, detested -- only one place on Earth was safe for Spinoza to live, polish lenses and dream, and write and publish a little: the same place Descartes had found refuge for his fireplace dreaming (though his philosophy was banned from being taught in the Netherlands while he lived).

And dreamers ever since have been safe in the Netherlands, dreamers, refugees, artists, eccentrics, loonies, atheists, Muslims, homosexuals, Jews ... The only historic rupture in Dutch tolerance was during the German military occupation of World War II. Tolerance resumed fully and promptly upon the German army's disappearance in 1945.

The more I visit and snoop around the Netherlands, the more it seems like Vleeptron to me. I keep looking for its ugly, cruel, nasty, inhumane side, but never seem to find it. But I am just an ignorant American tourist in the Netherlands (though over and over and over again), and perhaps you are a real Dutch person, or just know dirty nasty stuff about the Netherlands and the Dutch people that I don't. Make me wise, post your Comments here.

And I for my part will have more to say about Vleeptron on Earth, the world's best sovereign impersonation of Utopia I have yet found, and I've been a place or two. Oddly enough, the Netherlands does all this Tolerance Stuff while ruled usually by a Queen, but a King may be coming in the future. The current Queen is Her Majesty Beatrix, and I have particularly warm feelings for her because of This Very Nice Thing she and her family once did in one of her royal possessions, the Caribbean island of Curaçao.


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