I am fascinated by the relation between people’s looks and the freedoms they are given by others. An important aspect of this is that I do not believe that so-called public spaces are accessible for everybody. The way people dress, or the way they behave, can be a reason for others to exclude them.
The twentieth-century Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg wrote an evocative poem about this – about being out of place and not feeling welcome in the poshest hotel of the Netherlands’ poshest city (translation below):
Du Vieux Doelen
Het kijken van voorbijgangers braveren.
Doen of ik iemand ben bij elke stap.
Zoals ik deed als knaap en voor de grap,
om mij daarmee allure aan te leren.
Doen of ik niemand ben en zo riskeren
te zweven tussen schouderklop en trap,
tussen toenadering en achterklap,
maar altijd dupe van de hoge heren.
Voor obers en portiers ben ik het bangst.
Een klein vergrijp tegen de etiquette
moet ik bekopen met een blik die kwetst.
Ook al beweeg ik me op ‘t allernetst,
ze blijven uit de verte op mij letten.
Het eind waaraan zij trekken is het langst.
Hotel Du Vieux Doelen
At every step pretend to be someone.
Like I did as a boy for a laugh,
in order to teach myself some class.
Pretend to be no one and risk
both pats on the shoulder and kicks,
both friendly approach and backbiting,
but remaining the victim of gentlemen.
My greatest fear is of waiters and porters.
The tiniest breach of etiquette
must be paid for with glances like bayonets
However politely I move about,
they keep an eye on me from afar.
They always get the last laugh.
The poem is part of a series about The Hague, about the modernity of The Hague, and about the lonely flaneur wandering through the glittering city.
Apart from the wonderful rhyme in the original (‘kwetst’ – ‘allernetst’, etc.), this poem is also interesting for what it says about looks and belonging.
Two themes run through the whole of Achterberg’s series of poems about The Hague:
- the staggering modernity of department stores with customer lifts and ready-priced items, of shop girls and businessmen; and, perhaps most importantly, of huge shop windows with their live male window-dressers and lifeless female fashion mannequins.
- the loneliness of the man who walks through this modern space; the lack of meaningful, long-term relations he experiences; the city-dwellers’ business-like communication that is often wholly reduced to financial transactions.
By the time Achterberg was writing in the 1950s, this image of the modern city already had a long tradition in European writing (Baudelaire, Zola, Simmel, Benjamin…). Although attractive enough to many, it is a limited image that stresses the experience of wealthy male observers.
However, Achterberg is a more interesting poet than what I’ve just said suggests, and one of the ways in which he shows this is in this poem about the hotel Du Vieux Doelen. Here, the protagonist is not the wealthy but alienated flaneur who buys empty luxury and empty love on the streets of the city; instead, he is an outsider, not rich and educated enough to be at home in this hotel. Meanwhile, porters and waiters are the princes of the palace.
The poem is taken from Gerrit Achterberg, Voorbij de laatste stad, Paul Rodenko (ed.) (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1955, 1978), p. 148.