Speech Arnon Grunberg

Honorable State Secretary, ladies and gentleman, dear friends,

A few weeks back, the choreographer Hans van Manen advised me to spend the bursary associated with this esteemed prize on having my kitchen remodeled. Upon receiving the no-less-esteemed Erasmus Prize in 2020, he told me, he had expressed his regret at hearing from the organizers that it would not be fitting for him to spend the prize money on an expensive car. To which he added that an expensive vehicle like that would undoubtedly have served as “a major source of inspiration”.
For a number of those present here today, and not least of all for the state secretary, it will come as a relief to hear that I do not have a driver’s license and that I have no intention whatsoever of having my kitchen remodeled. But Van Manen’s wise advice applies here too, when one stops to think about how such a kitchen makeover might contribute to me striking out in new directions in my writing, which one might assume to be an intended side-effect of this prize.
The Johannes Vermeer Prize is the only, the one remaining, national prize for the arts in the Netherlands. When Andrée van Es, the jury chair, called me in August, she asked if I would be willing to accept this prize. Unlike the levying of taxes or the collection of traffic fines, the acceptance of a national prize in the Netherlands is not enforced with the aid of the state’s monopoly on violence. There are undoubtedly countries where things work differently, but in this case I would still have been permitted to say no.
By willingly accepting a state prize, those who do so are acknowledging that the state awarding that prize is of reasonable enough repute. Which is all that a state needs to be, which is probably all a state can be. I am not talking this evening about the literary and esthetic discernment of the Dutch state, which is usually, as behooves more-or-less reputable states, farmed out to citizens who are perceived as experts.
There was a time when the reputability of the Dutch state went without saying, when no laureate needed emphasize the significance of accepting a state prize. Those times are behind us now. Aversion to the status quo has always been with us – to embrace the status quo is to embrace death – but that aversion has become more widespread, and currently includes the view by which those individuals who keep the institutions on track, who comprise the framework of the state, are traitors and members of a fifth column. I do not take those terms lightly, I think that no one should take those terms lightly.
It has not always been the case that differences in insight on matters of aesthetics and ethics – that is to say, on politics – caused opponents to automatically accuse each other of acting in bad faith. Just as it was not so very long ago that people would have been startled by the all-too-frivolous bringing to bear of concepts such as “treason” and “tribunals”.
And so I see myself confronted here this evening with the need to do something I thought I would never do when I first started writing; namely, to defend the status quo, and if that seems to be putting it too strongly still, allow me to at least point out that the status quo contains much worth defending. Imperfect as that status quo may be. In my view, it is shortsighted to believe that destroying the imperfect will result in something more perfect.
The sanctuaries of the status quo, the sanctuaries of the political system that provide structure for the state, have been desecrated: in America, that desecration has been physical; in the Netherlands, for the time being, it has been only verbal. Normally speaking, it is the artist who desecrates in the name of truth or beauty, but that is not to say that every desecration or every violated taboo contributes to art. Or to society. I am not naïve, the state is a leviathan, the state need only roll onto its other side and innocent citizens and residents are crushed, while the more cognizant crushing of those who perhaps cannot be termed “innocent” is no pretty picture either. Yet I lack all faith in anarchism, and so I speak of a necessary danger and, for those who are already being crushed, of a necessary evil. Which is not to say that such crushing should be accepted as a matter of course.
In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche published The Gay Science, which contains the famous words: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderer of all murderers?” To which he adds: “Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us?”
As Nietzsche perceived, God’s death was not the end of the line. As long as we humans have existed, we have foresworn our old gods – which is a kinder way to report their murder – and replaced them with new gods who were to give us what the old ones had not: recompense, and preferably not only in the life to come. Those gods who achieved the best balance between nostalgia for an idealized past and recompense in the near future, between melancholy and hope, maintained the most durable grasp on our attention.

The state is one of those gods who came a-knocking after the death of Nietzsche’s god. Some might prefer the term “government”; I myself prefer “state”, because it better expresses the ominous, perpetually cautionary character of the institution meant to protect us from civil war. Nothing is more ruinous for the gods than the messianic expectations people project upon them, and nothing is more ruinous for the relationships between people than that same set of expectations. People, it seems, tend to humiliate, ostracize and slaughter the enemies of redemption. Those who wish to kill off the gods need only inflate people’s expectations of them.
In the end, there is only one theological problem. How can God be both good and omnipotent in the face of such an incredible amount of suffering? The only genuine answer is that God is not good, at least not towards us. By which I emphatically do not wish to suggest that the lion’s share of theologians have been arguing in bad faith for the last few millennia.
People have made of the state a god to whom they ascribe above all the power to pragmatically banish all suffering – England, for example, had for a time a Minister of Loneliness – and that is why the drums are being banged so loudly today. The expectation of recompense has become top-heavy. Anyone wishing to protect the nation-state – another thing I never expected I would find myself doing – must start by tempering that expectation.
The problem is not unbelief, incorrectly referred to at times as “secularization”; the problem is that this unbelief is too slight – too slight, to speak with Nietzsche, for the oversized deeds that have flowed from it and which continue to flow from it. I too lack belief, as I’ve noted before. That lack is the motor behind my writing, and that is probably why at times I have been referred to as nihilist. For quite some time, “nihilist” has been primarily a term of abuse, and although few vices are foreign to me, including the vice of masochism, I would consider it unfitting here, on the occasion of receiving such an esteemed prize, to abuse myself. Yet still I can do no other, I must confess to it: I am a nihilist. I talk about achievement, about my girlfriend and my friends, about my sons, I talk about virtue and vice – the human comedy, let’s not forget, remains a source of enjoyment – but I do not truly believe in progress, not truly or at least not truly enough in love, not truly in humanity in the humanistic sense, neither my own nor that of my fellow humans. Western man, as the philosopher Foucault saw most acutely, has become a confessional animal. How can I stand here this evening without confessing something? But confession, lest we forget, is not the same as self-abuse.
In his study Nihilism and Culture, the sociologist Johan Goudsblom explains that nihilism is more than a term of abuse. Nihilism starts with an adherence to the absolute value of truth, summarized as follows by Goudsblom himself: “One must cultivate veracity, even if it destroys much that is loving and lovely.” A paraphrase, in fact, of what Ludwig Wittgenstein said earlier about longing for the truth, even when it’s not good for us.
Why should a state award a prize to someone who, with a certain degree of justification, can be called a nihilist? A state which, for the sake of its own survival, surrounds itself with functionaries who feign belief in all kinds of things, who believe for example that lessons can be learnt from history, while Voltaire knew already that the only thing history teaches us is that history teaches us nothing.

Goudsblom, and he is certainly not alone in this, feels that the first nihilist was the Athenian philosopher Socrates, who spoke a great deal about truth, but rarely in concrete terms, even though he repeatedly claimed that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. Which is admittedly an improvement over what the Bible says, if only because he avoids the word “love”.
Another of Socrates’ famous statements is: that philosophy is “a preparation for death.”
That sounds gloomy, but it isn’t. He who prepares for death knows how important it is to relish a slice of raspberry pie on a sunny patio. Reading and writing, literature, are that as well; an active preparation for death.
What does that mean? First of all, it means we can spare ourselves the trouble of trying to outwit death. That time is limited and humans mortal, that the consequences of our actions are usually uncertain, that fate is perhaps invincible and every choice a potentially tragic one. Representatives of the state chose me to receive the Johannes Vermeer Prize, I chose to accept this prize and I thank you for it.
Every choice in favor of someone or something is almost always a choice against someone else, against something else. If we choose in favor of the truth, we often choose against ourselves. Literature provides us with the opportunity to examine the imperative of truth, not to defeat it: to domesticate it. The capable reader may someday achieve that exalted state in which he can claim to relish the imperative of truth. Yes, the appetite for exaltation is never too far away. Perhaps that is what Albert Camus was feeling when he noted that the absurd is sin without God.
The Austro-Hungarian author Manès Sperber, born in 1904, wrote a novel about Socrates in which he provides a neat, albeit indirect, description of the social status of the artist, the writer and the philosopher. In it, we hear Socrates’ wife Xanthippe comment on how her husband’s friends see him. She says: “A spice in their meal, that’s what you are to them, cheaper than the oldest Syrian dancer, cheaper than stinging nettles.” A spice in his friends’ meals, that’s what the artist is. During this past year I acted the part of the dancing nettle; in our gardens I am the least among nettles. Xanthippe may have been exaggerating a bit. It would be all too odd, after all, if the state were to award prizes to stinging nettles, or should I resign myself to that fate? A nettle bedecked with laurels.
Besides which, many nettles past and present have been persecuted by the state. In Athens too, Socrates was put on trial for corrupting young people and “propagating new religious practices”. Although Socrates claimed to have no students, there were indeed among his followers a few individuals who later went on to become dubious leaders. From time immemorial, artists and philosophers have cozied up to those in power, while those in power have often been pleased to adorn themselves with the trappings of the philosopher or artist. But, as Sperber writes: “Fleeting is power, ineradicable only the memory of its misdeeds.”
Socrates chose to defend himself against the state, and that proved to be a fatal choice. Sperber states that he was not so much interested in demonstrating his innocence as in “putting to shame his accusers and challenging his judges”. Although the Athenians were hardly unanimous in calling for his death, his behavior left the judges no other choice. Socrates had preached moderation all his life, but when push came to shove he himself couldn’t summon up that moderation. His pride was greater than his teachings, greater than life itself.
Of which Sperber writes that it would be a serious mistake to think “that wisdom rules out all folly, and offers protection against injudicious behavior.”
It is with this insight, this eternal insight I am inclined to say, that the novel begins, the test laboratory for the imperative of truth.
Why should a state award a prize to someone who could, with a certain degree of justification, be called a nihilist? That was the question I asked myself just a minute ago. Perhaps the state has decided to do so because nihilism is first of all and primarily a cultural, a pre-eminently European, phenomenon as well. It would be foolish to believe that the culture we absorb, inhale, consume and listen to on a daily basis is cleansed of all nihilistic blemish. It would perhaps be a major folly to believe that such cleansing is possible or even desirable.
I cling to the illusion that the state is awarding this prize precisely to me, as a nihilist, because the representatives of that state realize how deeply unbelief is embedded in the culture to which that state is in part indebted, I cling to the illusion that they too realize that fundamental unbelief should be seen not only as an enemy, but also as a friend. Nietzsche called the nihilist the “unheimlichtse aller Gäste”, let’s say the most nettlesome among guests. But a guest nonetheless.
As a guest in your midst, as a stinging nettle in your midst, I have tried to do justice to two sets of obligations, those of the guest and those of the nettle, as I understand the obligations of the stinging nettle to be.
Preparing oneself for death cannot go on being merely a theoretical affair. There where theory and practice lie too far apart, hypocrisy becomes unbearable.
All fantasy about one’s own death is nothing but vanity, yet to suppose that history will somehow skip over you bears witness to an appalling dearth of fantasy.
I cling to the illusion, and it is with this comment that I conclude this word of thanks, that the representatives of the state who are awarding me this prize realize that such a prize is never far removed from the cup of poison hemlock.
If only because we have no way of knowing when a new age will dawn.
I thank you for your kind attention.

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