“I Don’t Know” by Elisabeth Pearson

Self Portrait 1935 – by Dutch painter J.H Moesman

How do you understand a city, let alone one as unique as Amsterdam? You can observe the architecture, the infrastructure, the history of the land, politics, the economy, the people, religion, wars, and the art. But after taking all of these aspects into account, from listening to Joppe Schafer’s crash course on Amsterdam, to chapters in Delta Urbanisms, or Betsky’s False Flat I have concluded that understanding features of a city alone do not make one understand a city itself. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to understand Amsterdam. Why? I have lived in New York City for twenty plus years. I have studied the history, the landscape, the art, its people, but, more importantly, I am lucky enough to have lived it. Still, I am trying to understand the city of New York. So again, how am I to understand a city as complex as Amsterdam? I found Nescio’s point of view from Young Titans the most encompassing means to help me understand Amsterdam. Through the innate uncertainty and juvenility in his writing, Young Titans shows Amsterdam in a light digestible to a spectator. Further, it seemed Nescio himself was trying to understand it too; together, the reader and the narrator attempt to understand the city, themselves, and their place on earth. 

While reading Nescio, there was a juxtaposing sense of youthful hope, melancholy, and pure uncertainty as he navigated Amsterdam and parts of the Netherlands. While reading Nescio I was struck by the narrator, Koekebakker’s, sense of invincibility, observation of the monotonous cycle of nature, and his active uncertainty – as opposed to passive. These themes were further fleshed out by natural features in his experiences by the water, dikes, and horizon.

The characters of Koekebakker, Bavink, Bekker, Hoyer, and Kees’, invincibility complex created a lens throught which the reader could experience Amsterdam. An invincibility complex is a psychological term relating to the notion of the personal fable coined by psychologist David Elkin. The personal fable and invincibility complex relate to the tendencies for teenagers to have egocentric fantasies. This concept was shown when Koekebakker narrated that “back then, in our crazy days, we were God’s chosen ones, we were God himself” (Nescio 35). Moreover, the scene is set to understand Amsterdam through a selective group of Dutch characters who engage in a type of introspection where they explore a playground of the unknown: Amsterdam.

Necsio’s acceptance for not knowing was an inspiration while reading Young Titans. Nescio writes “the unknown doesn’t bother me… knowing that all this (Amsterdam and nature) exists whenever I decide to think about it. I… feel like God himself, who is infinity itself. I sit there aimlessly; God’s aim is aimlessness. But to keep this awareness always is granted to no man” (Nescio 50). This relates to the idea of understanding and how Nescio alludes that understanding is a journey that has no destination. Understanding is infinite like the horizon. For example, as Nescio stood at the top of the Rhenen Tower outside Amsterdam he felt his “heart went out into the distance, to the red sky in the west” but even if he flew off into the distance he would have “found only that the distance had turned into the nearby and [his] heart would have gone out to the distance once more” (Nescio 50). This exemplifies Koekebakker’s appetite and awareness for the unknown, but reluctantly realizing it is not something one can claim ownership of. Thus, understanding the city of Amsterdam is not a task that can be checked off a list, but an endless journey full of active meditation and awareness.

Nescio also interacts with his understanding of Amsterdam through some of its key features: the dikes and water. Often Koekebakker would reference his experiences at dikes and how they were a spot to be with his friends. As a group they were drawn to the water. Betsky lends some insight to this matter as he believes “Nature, both internal and external, has always caused the Dutch to feel ambivalent” (Betsky 16). Throughout Nescio’s Young Titans, scenes take place sitting at the dike observing the nature around them. The characters take in man-made features like the limestone and bricks, as well as natural features like animal noises and the stars. Perhaps the characters are attracted to the water, a quintessential Dutch feature because it resembles their thoughts and limits. Nescio writes, “My thoughts are an ocean, they wash woefully up against their limits” (Nescio 50). Even here Nescio concludes that his thoughts have limits and parts unknown are inevitable.

Lastly, Nescio’s connection to nature and to Amsterdam is seen in the monotony of Dutch life. There is a reassurance in nature’s routine – parts that are known. Yet it is human nature to crave the unordinary. “Every day we longed for something, without knowing what. It got monotonous. Sunrise and sunset and sunlight on the water and behind the drifting white cloud – monotonous – and the darker skies too… all the things I had seen so many times…” (Nescio 50). This youthful perspective of Koekebakker longing for “something” that he does not know shows an adolescent craving for a deeper connection to the area around him. Koekebakker feels that there is more to the routine of the sun rise and set and the water and the dikes in Amsterdam.

While reading Nescio provided deep insight into Amsterdam and the mind of Nescio, I would not be able to conceptualize Amsterdam as a city without understanding the geographical features and characteristics mentioned in Delta Urbanisms and Betsky’s False Flats. Before reading Betsky I did not understand the importance of the negative space that water fills. In art, negative space is the space around and between subjects. Thus, when I thhink of a city I tend to think of the parts with infrastructure and a society. However, Betsky proves otherwise. Since its conception, Amsterdam’s entire existence is “essentially artificial” because they created a city through controlling forces of life: most prominently, water (Bestky 16). Betsky also points out that a luxury in the Netherlands is space. This space is created through thoughtful innovation and technologies discussed more in depth in Delta Urbanisms.

 Delta Urbanisms lent crucial knowledge towards understanding the features of Amsterdam. For example, understanding the difference between a dike town, a polder town and a dam town was important information, albeit dull taken by itself – unless you are a ‘geographile’ of course. Thus, knowing that a dike town is one that provided a “strategic and safe place for human settlement” by preventing flooding through drainage (Meyer 67) versus that of a dam town created to protect the hinterlands from flooding are features intrinsic to Dutch life. Moreover, understanding and appreciating space and features helps “us make sense” out of the reality created in Amsterdam (Betsky 44).

Nescio, Latin for “I don’t know”, was the pseudonym for Dutch writer Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh. After reading Young Titans I understood that Nescio, or Grönloh, was comfortable to not be sure of himself, of Amsterdam, or of the world. While there are certainties, like the repetitive cycle of nature, the narrator found himself craving more – craving the horizon. Nescio bathes in the action of not knowing and the journey of understanding. He does not trade in his awareness of uncertainty to become a passive individual and thinker. Nescio is proud that he does not know. And thus, inspired by Nescio, I attempted to read through his journey of uncertainty and live through it as I formulated this paper. As one who has studied the Dutch history, geography, and literature at an introductory level, the journey of answering this question has only furthered my knowledge in understanding Amsterdam as a city.

While I may never be able to understand Amsterdam, its nuances, the life, the energy, the intangible features that make it so, learning about the city through the lens of Nescio has offered so much. I understand that Amsterdam is infinite and, perhaps, Nescio would see it as a deep red horizon. Daunting at first, but beautiful when I declare, “I don’t know”.

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