Tzum | Review: Willem Jan Otten and Paul van Dongen – Who do people say I am

Tzum | Review: Willem Jan Otten and Paul van Dongen – Who do people say I am
Tzum | Review: Willem Jan Otten and Paul van Dongen – Who do people say I am

The son doesn’t want to budge

Faith remains an astonishing phenomenon. It is known that in specialty stores it is often on the same shelves as violence, oppression and abuse. Yet it is fair to also consider the other offers. Willem Jan Otten, who received the PC Hooft Prize for his reflective prose in 2014, has been doing so tirelessly since his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith in 1999. This is also the case now in 33 short essays about Christ appearances in films, novels and music; Who do people say I am?. ‘Co-author’ Paul van Dongen contributes in the form of gouaches and mixed techniques that communicate with the texts.

It is a well-known phenomenon that who or what intrigues you seems to appear in your field of vision more and more often. Think of girls with red hair or men with a boxer’s nose. It mainly says something about yourself. In these essays, Otten writes about Jesus in cultural expressions, pieces that were written during the corona epidemic Catholic Newspaper appeared, then also that he needs the thinking of others in order to think for himself. That’s why he started looking for other people’s answers. Or: responses’:

[…] Insofar as I believe, this often takes place through my representation of someone else’s faith, my confession is an empathy with that of someone else. And, to be honest, perhaps the closest I come to what I suspect faith is when I see another stumble or even despair about her or his faith. […] there are months when I tell myself that I am believed for by others; In these periods of aridity I tell myself that although I am ‘stupid’, the choir around me still sings.

A writer and poet, music and not least film lover like Otten, naturally finds the resonance of other people’s thoughts in books, music performances and cinema. Many names that appear in this edition are familiar to readers of his work. Think of Les Murray, Christian Wiman, Shusaku Endo and Denise Levertov. It is not necessarily believers who fascinate Otten. But he does say that the ‘my Friend’s friends are my friends principle’ plays a major role here. Where Friend is obviously written with a respectful capital letter. Strikingly enough, also in the question in the title attributed to Jesus himself.

The question in question appears in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and Otten makes it clear that as a writer he immediately understood that he did not have to give the Gospel answer here. He lets other writers and artists have a go. He appropriately calls the resulting searching texts by Otten and the rather Christian-traditional painted impressions by Van Dongen ‘always two ways of not understanding the same thing’.

In a country that is gradually moving away from the Christian faith, Otten’s literary publications sometimes seem like a desperate attempt to give others something of what has been self-evident for centuries. But by choosing inventive approaches it becomes evident that we are far from a godless nation:

God is dead, but we cannot get rid of his son, as became apparent in the course of the last century. He continued to visit us, just as he predicted just before his death. And what is equally important: the human ability to recognize him, to sense his presence, in the figure of a gardener, of a newborn, in the dog Perezvon, Titus Brandsma, in Harry Potter’s teacher Dumbledore, in a melody line by Olivier Messiaen, in the twelve Carmelite nuns as sung to the guillotine by Poulenc, in short, the desire to discern Jesus in something has remained unaffected. We apparently want to be able to continue to point out: there, in that form, ‘He is active’, even if His name is not mentioned.

Essayistic and poetically philosophical, Otten recognizes his own existential questions, which arise, for example, in the work of the theologian and thinker John Hull, who became completely blind around the age of thirty-five. Blind or deaf? Who hasn’t asked themselves that horrible question? Hoping that previously acquired images will continue to exist, blind still seems to be the ‘best’ option. But then Otten refers to Hull’s ‘deep blindness’, which means that ‘your visual brain cells’ die if you stop feeding them. An unexpected experience of God could compensate for the loss of sight for Hull.

It is one of the reflections on the question of where Jesus manifests himself today, recorded in white letters on black pages. Otten likes to emphasize that according to him it goes even further: how ‘Christ works’.

Whether this really ‘answers’ the question in the title is of secondary importance in a matter of faith such as this. Of course, it remains a case of opening yourself up, (wanting to) be receptive to it. And whether you want to interpret certain events and statements in a certain way. Not to project Jesus in various characters from books or films, Otten emphasizes. Yet here and there it certainly seems like it. Even Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, the oldest character in JK Rowling’s successful series, can be regarded as Christ figures to a greater or lesser extent in Otten’s view. It was Dumbledore who taught Harry, through Voldemort’s evil voice, to trust in love.

André Keikes

Willem Jan Otten and Paul van Dongen – Who do people say I am?. Skandalon, Middelburg. 152 pages. €27.99.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Tzum Review Willem Jan Otten Paul van Dongen people


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