This is for texts that are – or are due to be – translated.
GEERT VAN ISTENDAEL
Some remarks about freedom of expression
What follows is not a statement I make as president of PEN Belgium Dutch Speaking (my function until January 2011). It is my personal opinion, nothing more, nothing less. It only commits myself.
In our international PEN Charter we read that members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong as well as throughout the world whenever this is possible.
In my opinion, this means that for PEN members and as a consequence for members of PEN Belgium Dutch Speaking, freedom of expression is absolute and should never be thwarted. On the other hand, I am not sure that all members of PEN Belgium Dutch speaking share this opinion.
That’s the reason why I want to make things clear. I repeat: what follows is only my personal opinion.
When we are talking about freedom of expression, we should keep in mind two aspects.
First, we have the legal and the constitutional aspect. What would be the limits here?
E.g. Do we have a right to insult somebody?
Everybody who tries to establish this in legislation runs a hell of a risk. You leave the judgement about what is insulting and what is not insulting up to the person who feels insulted. This is the road to arbitrariness. Now, law is and has always been designed to limit the realm of arbitrariness. Every extension of the realm of arbitrariness by legislation is contrary to the very nature of the concept of law.
Do we have a right to libel?
I know Anglo-Saxon legislation on libel is far more restrictive than Napoleonic legislation. But at least, both types of legislation give you something to hold on, e.g., in the case of allegations of criminal offence or when I threaten to kill or to attack somebody physically.
Is blasphemy allowed?
Again, I think it’s extremely dangerous to make laws about blasphemy. You will always put the judgement about what is blasphemous and what is not into the hands of the most fanatic zealots. They are the ones who see blasphemy everywhere, whereas the bulk of more moderate believers shrug their shoulders. This simply would put an end to freedom of expression. We have had lots of examples in the last two decades. Think of what happened to Salman Rushdie or Ayaan Hirshi Ali.
In our Belgian constitution, art. 19, we read:
Freedom of worship, free and public worshipping and the freedom to express opinions in all respects, are guaranteed, except when criminal offences are committed in the exercise of these forms of freedom.
Except. So there are some limits. Freedom of expression in Belgium can be limited and in fact, it is limited. E.g. there’s a law prohibiting negationism. There’s a law prohibiting racist utterances.
I myself am against these laws, but this doesn’t mean I will break them. I am a democrat and of course, I have to abide by the laws of my country. Otherwise, things ultimately will end in chaos.
Now, let us turn to the second aspect.
Every philosopher of law will tell you that the law never covers the entire length and breadth of life. Beyond the realm of law, there are other domains where you have to organize your behaviour according to other sets of rules.
Now we touch things like duty, politeness, decency, self control etc.
Let’s have a look at duty.
Do we have a duty to claim freedom of expression always and everywhere? No, we haven’t. I at least am not a citizen of the Netherlands where, after the sixties, people generally shouted: you must always do what you can do.
According to the Austrian-American philosopher Paul Feyerabend ‘anything goes’. One could interpret this as follows: you can do whatever you like. But according to me, one doesn’t have to do anything.
What are the practical consequences of all this?
This depends on everybody’s idiosyncratic inclinations and/or sensibilities and/or wilfulness. But, once again, we have already left the realm of the enforceable, of the punishable, in short, we have left the kingdom of law. We are now in the kingdom of free speech. You don’t have to give a damn about the shrill cries of the insulted. Or, equally, you can join their protest marches if you feel like it.
In conclusion, I would like to add a couple of remarks. They are the result of a series of observations I have made over the past ten years.
It is alarming to notice how easily people seem to feel insulted these days.
In this respect, I recommend growing what is called thick skin.
I think that those who pretend to defend tolerance cannot look away when they bump into people who are determined not to tolerate tolerance.
I think everybody has to decide how far they want to go, even when it’s too far, and nobody has the right to stop them.
I don’t think we can assume that the open society has been established once and for all. In his book The open society and its enemies, Karl Popper has written:
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
When writing this, Popper was thinking about Nazism and Stalinism.
I don’t think it would be wise to assume that the progress of rationality and Enlightenment can’t be reversed. It wouldn’t be wise to assume that the followers of rigid religions will change their minds. That idea would be an unbearable example of ethnocentrism and superciliousness. It is a haughty fallacy to think that someday, those others will understand they just have to think like we do.
I think it is in our own interest to carefully study the world religions which don’t give a damn about things like the Enlightenment or which simply aim at darkening it forever. We have to know that those world religions are trying to convert all of us, and also that they are working for eternity. Theirs is a transcendental dimension. I can only speak for myself, but I think and act in categories of radical immanence and temporality, which means that, in comparison with someone who is really religious, my term is short. Religions can wait for centuries.
Having said this, I want to point out the prime importance of tactfulness, delicacy, and a sense of compromise and compassion. But all this should never replace the honesty of an open mind, otherwise we will end up as cowards. Of course, sometimes painful and brutal clashes will happen. Of course, we are all sensitive and highly vulnerable poets. But we can’t afford to shy away from conflicts. At least, I can’t.
The latest fashion in cowardice is to give way to a kind of sentimental feeling of culpability. To be afraid of the wailing of self declared victims. You don’t help anybody by behaving this way, not the so-called oppressor and even less the so-called victim. Of course, there are enough historical and contemporary examples of real oppression and real persecutions. They should always be taken seriously. But that’s exactly the opposite of being sentimental about them.
We should abide by the law and, if we don’t, the law will force us to abide by it. That’s the way things should happen in a democratic, constitutional state.
But once we leave the kingdom of law, and enter the kingdom of free speech, nobody has a right to force us to say or do anything. Oh yes, one can always feel hurt, but one has to bear in mind that hurt feelings can never be the basis for legislation and, consequently, can never impose legislation. That would be equal to blackmail.
Freedom of speech is not meant for the nursery.
Freedom of speech is rather meant for the boxing ring.
Perhaps you don’t know, but the first principle of the noble art of boxing is respect.
Geert van Istendael
Honorary President of PEN Belgium Dutch Speaking.
MY POETRY AND THE FOURTH COVER
Out of my books
my poetry addresses the world:
„Here I am – me
and my guinea pig”, she says
thrusting her forefinger out of the pages
and pointing at my photo
on the fourth cover.
Crimea, the Alushta Park
Through cedars and cypresses,
through resinous pines – the bat-like squealing of
squirrels caught in the act of love play
their squealing abruptly broken by
the cry in no way agreeable in colour of
the gaudy peacock,
the cry like a
squirt of jet-black polish bursting out of the
tube chancing under
the heel of the boot
you are shining;
the disagreeable yet
perfect cry of the peacock – perfect because
anyone can understand what it means:
With all that protracted, inimical exodus through the wilderness,
forty years in all, wandering barefoot
through the sand of the dunes piled up high by the winds
for a season,
the prophets of this world are born even today
with the soles of their feet
With all the writing done throughout antiquity, the renaissance,
on papyrus, on velum, on paper, on stone,
with all the writing done, as in a curse, for Alexandrias,
against the fire, with no second thoughts,
the ones doomed to be writers are born even today
with calluses, with burns upon their fingers.
WHEN PARTLY DEFEATED…
Back in the days when my youth had something of
the zealous unrest of the gods
in my thirties when wearing a frown on my face
and partly defeated I’d
part with my past
so as not to be engulfed into the lye of ennui
I’d say to myself
„If reality is so ambiguous
why not your dreams, then, if
life is so confuse
what is there left to say about suicide?…
How much incoherence in
the general philosophy of the partly defeated…”
I’d be telling myself again and again and thus
I never came to sup with the apostle of spleen
the former apostle of aesthetics would come instead
in the form of dismay. „What’s the pay check you’re getting?” he would query.
“So what’s it to you?” I would ask
as the discreet continuation of some poem on understanding the youth of life and death
beyond contraceptive conceptions and words
And I was
as I’ve already told you
in my thirties and par-
and believed nonetheless
in my star quivering with
I remember someone writing about
the kangaroo’s leap of poetry
and I – that is a Thomas
Undoubting of sorts –
thought to myself, indeed, the poem could really belong to the
order of kangaroos
as it bears in the pouch of its metaphors
babies – as tiny they are as a
couplet, a stanza
I further realized it was exactly
about the poem and its babies in the pouch
that I had once written this haiku:
The tired kangaroo
is fast asleep. In its pouch
a cicada is chirping.
Translated by Florin Bican
THE BALLERINA AND THE POEM
comes on stage
together with the light. Poor
always rented always slight or rather exhausted by
nearly unnatural twists
of a dry voluptuousness. Her dance
positions aim at blackmailing the randy dodderers
who leer at her through monocles from
their poly-official boxes depending on
whatever party is in power.
sweet turns of staged inconstancy
why haven’t you left for Florida where – I hear –
ordinary immigrants thrive and especially
great artists? In
all the markets of life
in all the theaters their stages and wings
veiled in gossamer as you are
you appear part of the
hetero-ethnic minority of ghosts and even
somehow related to the narcissistic constriction of
an enervated poem that withdraws
into its own verbs and secludes itself seemingly
in a white aesthetic libido; a poem born
in harmony with the pleasure and sorrow
of singular destinies.
DIFFICULTIES WITH A SLOGAN
the slogan that says, „…of the world unite!”
isn’t so stupid except that
the world doesn’t yet know what to put in place
of the noun „workers.” Someone suggested „poets”
but it seemed awfully silly – well
consider for yourselves how ridiculous
the rallying cry sounds: „Poets of the world
and so forth and so on!” Ha-ha-ha!…. Although
invocation-exhortation to poets would have
a certain basis: it’s surely they who’d know best
how hard it is to find the right word
most of all in this instance when
people can’t figure out what noun to put
in place of the three ellipsis dots in the slogan
”…of the world,
Translated by Adam J. Sorkin and Călin Sobieţki-Mânăscurtă