A Response to Sarah Beeks
Door Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Sarah Beeks’ article ‘Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer as a Luxury Immigrant: A European Public Intellectual and The “Refugee Crisis”’, which was published in FKW Zeitschrift für Geschlechterforschung and visuelle Kultur1 and which I read with special interest, could benefit from a few additions.
In her careful and valuable analysis of my Brief aan Europa [Letter to Europe], Beeks identifies two episodes which she qualifies as ‘problematic’ (op. cit. 112-113). Apart from the fact that the mere label ‘problematic’ has little argumentative value in itself, she fails to fully appreciate the literary context of the episodes within the letter as a whole in both cases. First, Beeks objects to the declaration of love addressed to Madame Europe because, to Beeks, it emphasizes her physical beauty, reducing the addressee of the letter to ‘a fetishized object’. Moreover, Beeks says that ‘an important as well as highly disputable detail in this respect is that the rape of Europe by Zeus is here euphemistically called to become a woman’ (op. cit. 112, her italics). However, the declaration of love focuses upon Europe’s old age rather than her physical beauty.2 Moreover, in the light of her unnaturally old age of millennia it is clear enough that Madame Europe is a metaphor for the continent, which makes Beeks’ accusation of a fetishizing gaze rather ridiculous. As for Beeks’ second objection, it seems slightly odd to speak of a euphemism in the case of a reference to a myth. A description can be called euphemistic if it minimizes or embellishes the reality it refers to, but in the case of a myth this objective reality, enabling us to measure the degree of euphemism of its description, is lacking. The terminology that Beeks considers euphemistic is conventional in antique references to Zeus’ abduction of Europe.3 In this particular context of a fictitious letter to the same mythological character at a very advanced age the euphemism is motivated by considerations of politeness preventing the writer from speaking of the distinguished elderly lady’s past in crude terms.4 Beeks (ibid. 112) suggests that ‘Europe’s eager sexual willingness towards Zeus’ is emphasized, quoting: “U vond het machtig mooi. U slaakte kreetjes van opwinding, zoals meisjes van goede komaf dat in die lang vervlogen tijden plachten te doen” [You thought it was power- fully beautiful. You let out cries of excitement, as upper-class girls were wont to do in those long gone days] (ibid: 7), but that passage is taken from the description of Europe’s reaction to the appearance of the magnificent bull on the beach of Libya, which precedes the abduction to Crete and has nothing to do with any sexual desire or act.5
Second, Beeks objects to the comparison of immigrants to animals at the end of the letter (op. cit. 112-113). She acknowledges the fact that the comparison with bulls and eagles echoes the reference to Zeus at the beginning of the letter, but surprisingly she insists that the comparison is depreciatory. The context makes clear unambiguously that the immigrants are compared to the supreme god himself. The evocation of both the shapes assumed by Zeus in the myth of Europe is functional in the context as it suggests that the arrival of the immigrants, like the arrival of Zeus with the princess Europe in the distant mythological past, marks a new dawn for the continent.
Beeks concludes her article with the insinuation that my literary involvement with the migration issue is nothing but a marketing strategy.6 First, it seems rather dubious from a methodological point of view to judge any author’s sincerity on the basis of the sales success of his or her books. Second, the very issue of sincerity vs. marketing raised by Beeks is explicitly thematized and problematized in the story of Djibi, the second intermezzo of my novel La Superba, which was reprinted in the collection Gelukszoekers from which Beeks quotes the Brief aan Europa [Letter to Europe].7Third, Beeks surprisingly forgets to mention that all the revenues of the collection Gelukszoekers were donated to ‘Werken zonder grenzen’, an organization that helps immigrants and refugees, as it is specified on the cover of the book.8 In other disciplines the willful suppression of data that disprove one’s conclusion would be considered fraud.
1 FKW, Zeitschrift für Geschlechterforschung und visuelle Kultur, 66, September 2019, 101-117. Obviously the present response to that article has been offered for publication to FKW, but its editors informed me that the journal is organised according to a predetermined program which does not allow for academic debate.
2 The passage quoted by Beeks is the following: “Ik heb u innig lief en voor mij bent u nog net zo mooi als toen u een meisje met een mand vol bloemen op de rug van een stier de zee overstak en oog in oog met een adelaar vrouw werd, of mooier nog dan dat […]” [I love you dearly and to me you are just as beautiful as when you crossed the sea with a basket full of flowers on the back of a bull, and when you face to face with an eagle became a woman, or even more beautiful than that] (Gelukszoekers, 16–17). However, the sentence continues: “[…] omdat de geschiedenis uw gelaat heeft gegroefd en getooid met karakter en droeve wijsheid, maar we moeten onder ogen zien, u en ik, dat u oud bent” [because history has grooved your face and adorned your appearance with character and sad wisdom, but we must face it, you and I, that you are old]. See also: “Ik zou het niet over mijn hart kunnen verkrijgen om enige dame oud te noemen en ik zou terugdeinzen voor ieder woord dat zou kunnen suggereren dat u uw jeugd achter u hebt gelaten, want ik houd van u en zou niets liever willen geloven dan dat u eeuwig jong bent, maar u bent elke leeftijd voorbij en hebt zelfs de onsterfelijke Griekse goden overleefd. In de wereld is alleen the zee ouder dan u. [I would not have the heart to call any lady old, and I would recoil from every word that could suggest that you have left your youth behind, for I love you and would like to believe nothing more than that you are eternally young, but you have passed every age and have even survived the immortal Greek gods. In the world only the sea is older than you are] (ibid. 8); “Hoewel ik my ervoor zou wachten u oud te noemen, bent u te oud om uzelf nog te verjongen en om iets anders te doen dan uw herinneringen te exploiteren” [Although I would recoild from calling you old, you are too old to rejuvenate yourself and to do anything other than to exploit your memories] (ibid. 9). Cf. ibid. 12, 16 et passim.
3 Cf., e.g., suneunasthéntos autêi Diós, Apollodorus, Library, 3.1.
4 At the beginning of the letter the event is referred to as “[Zeus] bezat u” [Zeus possessed you] (ibid. 8), which is less euphemistic than the phrase quoted by Beeks.
5 The description recalls Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2.858-868.
6 “The reader starts wondering to what extent the author’s occupation with these refugee stories is driven by a marketing strategy” (Beeks, op. cit., 115).
7 See Gelukszoekers 29, 35, 38 and especially 57, 60-61, 64-68.
8 In 2016 a sum of €15,907.63 was donated to ‘Werken zonder grenzen’.
Beeks, Sarah (2019): ‘Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer as a Luxury Immigrant: A European Public Intellectual and The “Refugee Crisis”’, FKW, Zeitschrift für Geschlechterforschung und visuelle Kultur, 66, 101-117.
Pfeijffer, Ilja Leonard (2015): Gelukzoekers. Amsterdam, De Arbeiderspers