In his acceptance speech for the award of the Vermeer Prize, writer Arnon Grunberg argues why he feels compelled to do what, as a nihilist, he never thought possible: to defend the status quo.

    Aaron GrunbergNovember 18, 202211:25

    Dear Secretary of State, dear guests, dear friends,

    A few weeks ago, the choreographer Hans van Manen advised me to spend the prize money associated with this honorable prize on the renovation of my kitchen. He himself had already said in 2000, when he received the no less respectable Erasmus Prize, that he regretted that the organization of that prize had informed him that it was not the intention that he would buy an expensive car with the prize money. He added that in an expensive car he would undoubtedly have been “hugely inspired.”

    It will be a relief to some of those present, not least the Secretary of State, that I don’t have a driver’s license and don’t want to renovate my kitchen.

    The Johannes Vermeer Prize is the only, the last state prize for the arts in the Netherlands. When I got a call in August from the chairman of the jury, Andrée van Es, she asked me if I accepted the prize. Unlike taxation, the acceptance of a state prize is not enforced here by means of the state monopoly on force.

    Whoever accepts a state prize voluntarily acknowledges that the state that awards it to him is decent enough. A state need not be more than that, probably a state cannot be more than that. There was a time when no laureate in the Netherlands had to underline this because the decency of the Dutch state was evident.

    Within that evidence, art offered a safe haven where the aversion to the status quo – which has always existed, to embrace the status quo is to embrace death – could escape the rules of decency. The sanctuary, however, is now everywhere and freedom is seldom claimed in the name of the fine arts. The fire of revulsion, which undoubtedly has an artistic core, has taken the form of a raging fire in recent decades, in which fewer and fewer people seem to be surprised by words such as ‘treason’ and ‘tribunal’. I don’t take those words lightly, I don’t think anyone should take those words lightly.

    That is why I feel compelled to do here what I thought I would never do when I started writing, namely: to defend the status quo, and if that is still an overstatement I would at least point out that the status quo has enough worth defending.

    I’m not naive

    I am not naive, the state is a danger, the state has only to turn on its side and innocent citizens and residents are crushed, and also the more deliberate crushing of those who may not be called innocent is not a pleasant sight . However, I lack belief in anarchism, I fear a war of all against all, therefore I speak of a necessary danger, and, for those who are already being crushed, of a necessary evil. Which is not to say that this crushing should be accepted without further ado.

    In 1882 Friedrich Nietzsche published The merry science, which contains the famous words: ‘God is dead! God remains dead! And we killed him! How do we console ourselves, murderers of all murderers?’ To add: “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”

    As Nietzsche foresaw, this death was not an end point. As long as we humans have been around, we have killed old gods and replaced them with new gods, who were supposed to bring us what the old ones hadn’t brought: redemption, preferably not until the next life. The gods who best controlled the balance between looking back to an idealized past and redemption in a near future, between melancholy and hope, held our attention the longest. Nothing, however, is more deadly to the gods than the hope of salvation which men project upon them.

    The state is one of the gods that came to visit us after the death of Nietzsche’s god, and the state has been made into a god par excellence, whose purpose was to pragmatically banish all suffering. In England there has been a minister against loneliness for some time, by which I mean that the expectation of salvation has become top-heavy. Whoever wants to protect the nation state, and I never expected to do this either, must first of all temper the expectation of salvation.

    The problem is not disbelief, sometimes wrongly called secularization, the problem is that disbelief is too small, too small, to use Nietzsche’s words, for the too great deeds that have resulted and still result from it. I also lack faith, I said. That lack is the engine of my writing and I have probably been called a nihilist several times for that reason. Nihilist has long been chiefly an invective, and though hardly any vice is foreign to me, including that of masochism, I should think it inappropriate here, in receiving such an honorable prize, to insult myself, and still, I can’t help but admit, I’m a nihilist. I talk about achievements, about my girlfriend and friends, about my sons, I talk about virtue and vice, but I don’t really believe in progress, not really or at least not really enough in love, not really in humanity in the humanistic sense of the word, neither in my own nor in that of my fellow men.

    Desire for truth

    In his study Nihilism and Culture from 1960, the sociologist J. Goudsblom explains that nihilism is more than a term of abuse. Nihilism begins with a commandment of truth, formulated by Goudsblom as follows: ‘One must cultivate truthfulness, even if it destroys much that is sweet and beautiful.’ In fact, a paraphrase of what Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “We desire truth, even if it is not good for us.”

    One whom this desire, this commandment of truth proved fatal, was the Athenian philosopher Socrates, Goudsblom and many others call him the first nihilist.

    A famous quote by Socrates, who probably contributed to this reputation, says: ‘To philosophize is to prepare for death.’

    That sounds gloomy, but it isn’t. Anyone preparing for death knows how important it is to enjoy a raspberry pie in the sun. Hans van Manen in turn knows the consolation of the expensive car. Also reading and writing, literature, it is nothing else than that, an active preparation for death.

    What does that mean? It means, first of all, that we can save ourselves the trouble of trying to outsmart death. That the consequences of our actions are often uncertain, that fate may be invincible and that every choice is potentially a tragic choice. State representatives chose to award me the Johannes Vermeer Prize, I chose to accept this prize, and I thank you for this prize.

    Every choice for something or someone is almost always also a choice against someone else, against something else. When we choose the truth, we often choose against ourselves. Literature, however, offers us the opportunity to study, not to overcome, domesticate the commandment of truth. The practiced reader may one day reach that exalted state where he can say he enjoys the commandment of truth.

    Yes, the gluttony is never far away, nor the gluttony to enjoy the commandment of truth. Perhaps that is what Albert Camus sensed when he observed that the absurd is sin without God.

    Why does a state award a prize to someone who can justifiably be called a nihilist? To someone who, in the words of Goudsblom, possibly destroys much that is beautiful and sweet?

    The writer Manès Sperber, born in Austria-Hungary in 1904, wrote a novel about Socrates, in which he gives a nice description of the social position of the philosopher and presumably also of the artist. Socrates’ wife, Xanthippe, takes the floor and answers the question of how her husband’s friends view him. She says, “A herb in their food, that’s you to them, cheaper than the oldest Syrian dancer, cheaper than nettle.”

    Dancing nettle

    A spice in the food of his friends, that is the artist. This year I still played dancing nettle, in our gardens I am the least among the nettles.

    Xanthippe exaggerated a bit. It would be crazy for a state to award prizes to nettles. But nettles have been crushed by states in the past, and in the present for that matter. Perhaps a prize is the other side of the coin, the other side of crushing.

    In Athens, a trial was started against Socrates for allegedly corrupting the youth and for ‘propagating a new religious practice’. Socrates did not accept this judgment of the state and it turned out to be a fatal choice.

    Sperber argues that Socrates’ defense was less about proving his innocence than about “disgracing his accusers and challenging his judges.” Although not all Athenians wished for his death, his actions left the judges no choice. His philosophizing no longer proved to be preparation, but became an exhortation to die himself, his pride was greater than his teaching, greater than life.

    It is a dangerous mistake to think, Sperber concludes, “that wisdom excludes all foolishness and protects against unwise conduct.”

    It is with this insight, this eternal insight I would say, that the novel is born, the testing ground of the nihilistic commandment of truth. Incidentally, Sperber’s novel was translated into Dutch by Gerrit Bussink and published by my own publishing house Kasimir, I was 20, with this eternal insight my debts also began. The publishing house went bankrupt, I became a writer.

    Sculpture Rhonald Blommestijn


    Why would a state award a prize to someone who can justifiably be called a nihilist? I just asked myself.

    I accept this prize because I am committed to the illusion that the state awards me this prize precisely as a nihilist, because the representatives of that state realize how deep the disbelief runs in the culture to which that state is partly indebted. It would be foolish to think that the culture we absorb, breathe, eat, listen to every day is cleansed of nihilistic blemishes. It would perhaps be more folly to think that such a purge is possible or desirable.

    I am under the illusion that the representatives of the state realize that fundamental disbelief should not only be regarded as an enemy, but also as a friend. Nietzsche called the nihilist the ‘unheimlichste aller Gäste’, let’s say the most thorny of the guests. But he remains a guest.

    As a guest in your midst, as a nettle in your midst, I want to temper the expectation of salvation, realizing that joy is different from salvation, that playing is different from redemption.

    Preparing for death cannot remain just a theoretical matter. Where theory and practice have drifted too far apart, the hypocrisy becomes unbearable.

    Any fantasy of one’s own death is nothing but vain, yet it is appallingly imaginative to think that history will skip you.

    I am under the illusion that the representatives of the state who award me this prize realize that such a prize is never far from the poisoned cup.

    If only because we cannot know when the new times will arrive.