‘The poet has fallen,’ said Remco Campert when he collapsed on his 75th birthday, in 2004, in the De Kleine Komedie theater and regained consciousness after a heart massage.
Since then this seems to me to be the highest attainable: to be able to put a joke in perspective even at the most frightening moments. My greatest fear is to end up in a situation so terrible that there is nothing left to laugh about. After the most shocking thing that ever happened to me, the sudden death of a close friend, it took me three days to joke again. The time between death and joke was very heavy.
Heavy and light, they are good words to categorize experiences with, just like full and empty, in the sense of: full of meaning, or meaningless. If you put those concepts on two axes, you can arrange everything in a matrix. What is light is not necessarily empty. Things can also be full and light – that’s the quadrant where I want to be.
It is also the quadrant where most of Campert’s oeuvre can be found. My favorite story is Party every day, in which drunken writers and artists dance, tumble from the cupboard and set off fireworks in the meadow. Everything about the story is casual and at the same time absurd and ordinary, just like it feels when you’re tipsy. The day after the party, the main characters recover with glasses of brandy and plates of spaghetti. Snoekie and Alfred played a game of chess and after three moves each lost their queen. They had a long giggle about that. ‘What a laugh it is,’ said Snoekie.”
I often have that last sentence in my head. As long as you can laugh, there is hope. Or as Campert wrote in Metamorphosis (1951): “I have not lost hope/ but the humor/ I have lost hope”. “Remco saw fun in everything. Preferably in adversity,” said Campert’s friend and fellow columnist Jan Mulder this week in the Gazette of Antwerp† That light-heartedness was described with a certain nostalgia in all Campert odes this week. As if, now that the light-footed poet has slipped around the corner, we finally fall prey to heaviness.
That is not a crazy fear, because lately I have been missing lightness in the public debate. Mild irony and the ability to put things into perspective à la Campert seem out of fashion. How come, I wonder. Have we changed, or is it the world?
Campert himself might say the second. In the column bundle My sole proprietorship (2009) he wrote fearing that the future will bring only disasters. Yes, they used to be there too, but then they seemed further away and, moreover, surmountable: “The world seemed to be saveable. I see less benefit in that thought now.” This also had implications for himself, as we read elsewhere in the volume. “Violent social events don’t lend themselves very well to the kind of column I’m trying to write. (…) Since the swine flu has been renamed the Mexican flu and has officially started to spread around the world, I see no reason to be jolly about it anymore.”
The more violent the social events, the less room for joviality – that was also clear in Campert’s collection open eyes (2018), with poems about the war in Syria, attacks in Paris and Zaventem and refugees in the Netherlands. It was certainly no longer “all for laughs” in that; the light tone was gone. “The world has never before entered so hard in the poems of Remco Campert,” according to the back cover.
Campert was able to put his near-death experience in De Kleine Komedie into perspective, but not the refugee crisis. The light-footedness ran up against a wall. Perhaps it’s just easier to be light-hearted about things you can’t do anything about, such as our mortality and the absurdity of everyday life, and such an attitude becomes difficult when injustice is involved. After all, then we can also choose to take action, instead of putting things into perspective. There is something detached about a light-footed attitude: by laughing you keep your worries at bay. But if you want to get involved, you have to address those concerns.
How can you keep the light when the world comes in harder and harder? I don’t know if Campert got out of there. At least not myself yet.
Floor Rusman (email@example.com) is editor of NRC
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of 9 July 2022