Philosophical essays are not particularly popular as a genre, which makes the great success in Flanders and the Netherlands of Patricia de Martelaere’s first collection of essays, Een verlangen naar ontroostbaarheid (A Longing for Inconsolability), which sold over 15,000 copies, all the more surprising.
The book’s defiant subtitle is ‘About Life, Art and Death’. Whether considering Wittgenstein, Freud, art, religion, diaries or love, De Martelaere’s talent lies in treating ostensibly difficult subjects clearly and without alienating the reader. Her obstinacy, perverse and infectious sense of humour, courtly style and deep erudition allow her to address and inform readers of all backgrounds.
Verrassingen, Surprises: the name of this collection of eleven new and scintillating essays prepares the reader for remarkable standpoints and conclusions. The title of the first piece alone (‘Home: A Place to Get Sick of’) is enough to show that the author hasn’t lost her edge. Refererring to Freud, Jung, Stendhal and Valéry (and swinging back and forth between literature and philosophy), she concludes that home is where the boredom is: a kind of psychic relaxation which makes psychological space for the re-emergence of inspiration. In the essay ‘The Exemplary Writer’ De Martelaere confronts the American writer Richard Rorty who aims to use literature to promote feelings of solidarity and empathy between people. In the course of a clever argument about ethics and literature De Martelaere discusses the capacity of artists to reveal more than that which can be seen or said. This is the ethical meaning of art, but it should never be made subordinate to an interpretation or message.
The ‘Prescribed Variations’ on concepts such as ‘seeing’, ‘longing’, ‘body’ and ‘moon’ have the density of aphorisms and reveal De Martelaere’s astounding capacity to express complex material clearly while immediately linking it to a challenging vision. An essay, as she states earlier in the book, is born of the paradoxical desire to explain and adorn reality, it longs to explore and to embellish. It is like a trial marriage between Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. Whether the subject is taboo, time, nature, Borges, Beckett, Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, as long as De Martelaere is pulling the strings we need not fear that this trial marriage will be anything less than fruitful.