of heart and mind

by Joke Debaere

As my presence on stage has been fairly silent the past 4 months and will be more silent than usual in the coming ones, I wanted to give you some news about the novel I am writing, which is the reason for the break I am taking from the stage.

I can zoom in on many different aspects of the book and the writing process, but let me start by sharing one of the opening scenes, the day of the main character, Sarah’s, high school graduation. Her marks are excellent, as usual. Yet she feels no excitement, only a great tiredness of having had to carry the weight of six strict academic years. That evening, she goes to a farewell party in town where a young guy who studies gardening kisses her. He then teasingly and cynically tells her: “You Latin and Greek princesses have no idea of what happens in the real world.” The guy, Jerome, is right, so she thinks. Apart from the very cool friendship with Jasmine who is not afraid to express some darkness and goes to parties like these with a tame rat on her shoulder, dressed in Gothic clothes, she has indeed been living in a bubble. Studying dead languages, but what for? An unexpected meeting with the young man of the art house the next day, a man who she is intensely and very platonically in love with, evokes the idea in her to go to Paris, that notorious artistic town.

So, soon after that, she left for Paris, leaving in the middle of the night without sharing the plan in advance with her parents, except for a little note on the kitchen table. Only going away in such a secretive way can assure her that she will actually go to Paris and won’t let her fears take over.

At a movement workshop in Paris, she meets a Flemish guy called Jelle with whom she will eventually perform on the streets. Through him, she connects with a group of young people who are familiar with cultural notions such as postmodernism, or the notorious saying of Nietzsche that god is dead, which she has never heard of before. It makes her look back at her upbringing in a small west Flemish conservative town with an even stronger estranged and rebellious feeling. What was it worth, all those years of studying, if only to lead to discovering that the world around her was drenched in realizations about the modern Western age she had never heard of? Philosophy was simply no subject all those years. Yes, she heard about Plato’s cave in some history lessons, but it didn’t go much further than that. Let alone the fact that the very academic upbringing only gave her a mirror for feelings and thoughts she felt but could never even describe before. She became intoxicated by the way the Parisians talk so easily about the way our society is broken, searching for more absolute values, yet lost as where to find them. But then a tragic event in Paris unexpectedly throws her back into that silent sleepy town she so hoped to escape from.

I won’t share all the twists and turns of the storyline with you, as I do hope some of you might want to read the full story once it is translated into English.

What I can say is that she goes into an inner fight with this postmodern notion that all big values and truths in our Western secular society are broken. A love-hate affair, you could say. She decides to go and study philosophy in Amsterdam. Not only following her curiosity but also, in an almost blind or semi unconscious way, her way of dealing with the tragic event in Paris. Like she is following footsteps, picking up the pieces of the puzzle that had such an impact on her.

My aim as the writer of this novel is not to share philosophical papers, I am not sure whether I would even be able to do that, despite my many hours of self-study. My main interest is in the way ideas can move someone to act in certain ways and the other way around. I think one might also call it a variation on the classical search to strike a balance between the heart and the mind, feelings and ratio.

A story in which philosophy plays such a significant role could easily become a dense and difficult one. Yet my aim is to deliver a novel that has the strong heartbeat of Sarah’s evolving life events, things that ideally will make you want to turn the pages to see what will happen next to her: meetings with people, her romantic love, her love for travelling, for towns, for thinking and for friendship. Along those ‘beats of the story,’ I am working on connecting those events to more abstract philosophical ideas. So yes, in a way Sarah’s quest is also mine, as this parallel can also be seen as a mind–heart dynamic. Trying to strike an inspiring or inspired mind–heart feeling–ratio balance.

Most of the story will be shared through Sarah’s perspective. Part of my year long process was finding a person-perspective that felt most natural to me. Following all the events in her own words (first person) feels the most intimate and simple road – a combination which I quite like. It simply feels less distant than me taking the position of some sort of ‘god’, the creator of her fictional existence, and pretending to know all about her with an eye that sees all (third person). Since when in real life can we ever analyze other people with that much authority? We are at times even big mysteries to ourselves.

The story of what happened to me while trying to bring this novel to a whole is a different story all in all. A story that started in 2004, with me sitting in my small desk in Antwerp, writing some quick scenes about a girl, Sarah, and her boyfriend, Ruben. The story was far from finished when I signed a contract for this book with a Dutch publishing house. Me and my family were over the moon as you can surely understand, yet time was not right to bring all the dots together of the more than 300 scenes I was writing in the following years.

The challenge I put myself up to these cold winter months in my hometown was to finally tackle those old problems. I realized somewhere in September of 2016 how alive this story still was within me. I could walk through the story so to speak in my mind, feel and see all the corners of it, zoom in on it, zoom out. Yet, so I realized, I was not taking anyone else with me on that journey. Like Dante inviting Beatrice to walk down with him through the worlds he created, I wanted to take you – the reader – with me through that fictional life of Sarah that moved me so much.

I have different titles in mind for this novel. As the product evolves, so evolves what I regard as the core of it. One of the options is ‘Requiem for a Butterfly’ The other one is ‘against the wind’ A third one could simply be ‘Sarah’. We’ll see.

Last but not least I want to mention that I have been extremely fortunate to be so very well received at the UVA university of Amsterdam, department philosophy. I have attended a class on ‘evil’ and more people than I could ever wish for have spontaneously offered their help, on various levels. From helping me to get the names of the streets in Amsterdam right, to sharing stories of their student years, to taking the time to show me around in the building. I will be going back within a while for a second round of conversations and visits. After all those years of imagining her life in Amsterdam, it was a truly fantastic experience to go and check where my imagination and reality fought with each other, or where they fitted smoothly into each other, like those Russian dolls.

The publishing house – for those who wonder – is unaware of my present process. I wish to update them only once I have the first draft ready from a to z. It doesn’t need to be the final version, but the basic story for them to read. We’ll see what happens next. I am open either to sending it to other publishing houses or publicizing it myself. There are big pro’s and big con’s for every option, in my eyes. All depends on the people you meet along the way.

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