continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 1.2 / 2011: 129-135

The Poetry of Nachoem M. Wijnberg

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

continent. 1.2 (2011): 129-135.

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei


Successions of words are so
It is about this.
—Gertrude Stein


Nachoem Wijnberg (1961) is a Dutch poet and novelist. He also a professor of cultural entrepreneurship and management at the Business School of the University of Amsterdam. Since 1989, he has published thirteen volumes of poetry and four novels, which, in my opinion mark a high point in Dutch contemporary literature. His novels even more than his poetry are criticized for being inaccessible, which I generally take to be a compliment. It would be like saying that Fernando Pessoa is inaccessible, which he is not. Neither is Wijnberg.

When we think of the combination economist-poet we are immediately reminded of the American poet Wallace Stevens, who, as the story goes, had two stacks of paper on his desk, one for contracts, one for poems. We also know that Stevens wrote on the economy and that questions of economy and insurance surface at multiple points in his poems. The following text is a very preliminary attempt to point at the intersections between poems, novels, business, and poetry in Wijnberg’s work.

On the back cover of his novel De opvolging (The Succession, 2005), Wijnberg states the following: “[This is] a novel for whomever is interested in the workings of a company as much as in the workings of a poem.” Wijnberg thus claims that the way in which a company “works” may be similar to the way in which a poem “works.” The question is the obvious one, what does this similarity consist in? De opvolging tells the story of company in which bosses and company doctors, secretaries, children, clowns, and beggars have tons of meetings, recite poems, perform plays, tell jokes, and succeed each other, climbing up and down in the company’s hierarchy. De opvolging is a novel in which the career of people follows the career of words. It resonates with Gertrude Stein's sentences, "Grammar. What is it. Who was it" (1975, 50).

The words in Wijnberg's poems are like he characters in his novel. And if we keep in mind this allegorical reading of De opvolging, which is obviously only one of the possible readings, we may be able to understand some aspects of Wijnberg’s poetry.

    A repetition is already a pun. Look, that word is trying it again, as if it is afraid that by not doing it
    it would give up the hope that it will ever be able to do something.

    A pun is the opposite of the first word coming to the mind of someone who shouts it when he     
    suddenly discovers something. (104)

The repetition, the succession of the same word, is already a pun, a joke. The succession of the father by the son after the revolution is a joke. "Look he's trying it again!" The essence of a joke is a repetition. Archimedes’ “Eureka!” is its opposite. Poems can easily become jokes, depending on the way the words follow and repeat each other. In De opvolging, the careers of the bosses, good and bad secretaries, and company doctors easily become jokes, as they are “afraid that by not doing it [they] would give up the hope that [they] will ever be able to do something.”

Not only the repetition, but also the distance and difference between the words in a poem, their cause and effect relations can be read as company relations. This becomes clear when we, for example, read the first lines of the poem “Cause, sign” from Het leven van (The Life Of, 2009).

    A sign lets know what is going to happen, a cause lets it happen.
    If the sign also lets happen there is no reason to isolate it, because then I would isolate some-
    thing only because it’s different for me.
    If I didn’t have to write this myself, but would have secretaries to whom I could dictate it, I
    would be able to say more about it. (49)

Upon reading the first two lines we can already conclude that any word may be cause or sign or both. If a sign is also a cause there is no reason to discriminate it, yet to the poet they are still different. This difference only becomes expressible the moment he would have a secretary. Just like in De opvolging, the secretary introduces a distance; not in a company but in a poem. Hence the difference between “good” and “bad” secretaries in a company, where the good secretary of one boss may be the bad secretary of another one. The more we can say about the bosses of the company, or signifiers of the poem, the greater the distance we introduce between them and us.

We should take serious the relation between Wijnberg’s novels and poems. Although they operate on different scales, they explain and converse with each other. Another example may be the novel Politiek en liefde (Politics and Love, 2002), which deals with the relation, precisely, between politics and love. In the novel, Nicolai, a lieutenant in the Dutch army, is sent to Africa on a military mission. Upon leaving a receives a letter from his father.

    Dear son,

    Don’t do anything stupid before your father has advised you to do so. Your mother asked me to
    write a wise letter. I have been looking for wisdom for half a day and haven’t found much. If you
    borrow a small amount from a bank you become the bank’s slave, but if you borrow a couple of
    millions and spend them as quickly as possible the bank becomes your slave. What I want to   
    say is that you have to return from Africa in good health, and before you know it the world will
    be your slave [....] Signed with a kiss from your father. (88)

The line, “If you borrow a small amount from a bank you become the bank’s slave, but if you borrow a couple of millions and spend them as quickly as possible the bank becomes your slave,” returns as the title of poem in Het leven van: “If I borrow enough money the bank becomes my slave” (12-3), which elaborates this theme.

So both in the way that these poems are structured and in their subject matter, they refer to the structures of our economy, to the ever-continuing line of CEOs succeeding each other like words, to the distance between them introduced by bureaucracy, and giving and receiving as economical and poetical acts. Poem and economy map onto each other, as in another episode from De opvolging:

    Edward reads two of the beggar’s poems about presents.

    Of a holiday nothing remains, except for memories, and if some of them are bad I’d rather forget
    them all; if I get a present I’d rather get something that’s useful to me for a long time.

    If I may choose, I choose what I can use longest, long enough to partially forget that this was
    the present, because it feels bad when nothing is left of it.


    Giving away becomes destruction in the stock destruction economy [voorraadvernie
], that is a gift economy [geschenkeneconomie], encountering for the first time
    an economy in which there’s selling and buying on markets. Instead of destroying supplies someone can
    also quickly say that they aren’t worth anything anymore; if someone wants to take them I’d
    gladly give him something extra.

    In a stock destruction economy he is someone who each day wants to work more hours than
    his colleagues.

    If around a company there is a gift economy in which someone’s rank is determined and made
    visible by the gifts someone can give someone else, a company will be more often character-
    ized by an invisible or unclear system of ranks. (152)

Two poems about gifts present two different economical models, described by Wijnberg with the terms “stock destruction economy” and “gift economy.” Here we immediately recall the opposition introduced by George Bataille’s work on the concept of expenditure in The Accursed Share, where a “general economy” would surpass the stock destruction economy based on scarcity (capitalism) and become a gift economy (potlatch) and an egalitarian (communist) society. These claims are made both on the level of the poems and in their discursive explanation. They follow each other and on each other.

I would like to finish this introduction to Wijnberg’s writing with a translation from his novel De joden (The Jews, 1999), which develops the story of Hitler abdicating as chancellor of the Third Reich, appointing philosopher Martin Heidegger as his successor. In a conversation with two Russian actor-spies, sent by Stalin to figure out the situation, philosopher Walter Benjamin describes the abdication scene.

Lee Miller in Hitlers Bath

    Maimon: You were there when Hitler resigned?
    Benjamin: In the room we’re right now. The desk and the chairs are new. After his resignation Hitler
    would like to take his furniture to his new house. Martin naturally agrees. It is a sunny day. Martin is
    very nervous and complains about the heat. Martin is wearing his best dark blue suit, not his
    professor’s robe. Hitler is wearing his uniform. We enter the room and Hitler gets up and embraces
    Martin. Martin is not very good at embracing. Hitler shakes his hand. Hitler’s cap is on the desk. The
    cap has a metal lining. Hitler has strong neck muscles. Hitler says: A man is unclean. He takes a bath.
    Does he make the bath water unclean? I say: a man is unclean. He steps into a river. A little further a
    man steps into the river; does he become unclean? Hitler nods. I say: a man is standing in music.
    Another man hears the music but also sees the first man moving on the beat of the music in a way
    that he is certain that the music would excite different feelings in him if he wouldn’t to see the first
    man. Hitler says: a man is clean, listens to music, is suddenly touched and he doesn’t know by what.
    The conversation ends in the way you know it ends. Hitler picks up his cap from the desk and puts it
    on Martin’s head. (73-4)

Aware of the never ending debate on the question of Heidegger’s involvement in the Nazi regime, Wijnberg has the audacity to present the arguments of complicity in the religious terminology of cleanliness and uncleanliness, while at the same time recalling overtones of Hitler’s supposed love for Wagner, suggesting a relation between Benjamin and Hitler, and so on. The space of this introduction is to small to treat a novel like De joden, a reading of which together with passages from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe's Heidegger, Art, and Politics: The Fiction of the Political, Jacques Derrida's Of Spirit, Christopher Fynsk's Heidegger: Thought and Historicity, and Avital Ronell's The Telephone Book would be extremely elucidating and potentially open new avenues in thinking Heidegger's emphasis on poetry after the fall of the Nazi empire. But at this point we will have to curb our curiosity and follow the poet himself. The themes of the relation between business and poetry, but also Chinese landscape painting, love, Indian and Japanese poetry, and Western philosophy are analyzed and assimilated in Wijnberg’s work without ever losing the clarity of expression. It may be that, according to Alain Badiou, the “Age of the Poets” is over, but its end (Paul Celan) has exactly brought a new balance between philosophy and poetry, and it is this playful, but nonetheless serious balance that makes one hope that one day Wijnberg’s complete oeuvre might become available to readers across the planet.

Tiranë, Albania

February 15, 2011


English translations (all of them translated by David Colmer, who is preparing an English collection of Wijnberg’s poems entitled Advanced Payment):

Poetry International 

Words Without Borders

Green Integer Review

from Het leven van (The Life of)

As if every day he takes a decision that is as good as when he’d been able to think about it all his life.
The life of Kant, of Hegel, the days of the life of, select three or four of them.
Tell what he has discovered during those days as if he were the last one who knew so little.
Give me something that I can cancel against then I can prepare myself for it.
The reward is that I may continue with what I’m doing, it doesn’t matter how long it takes.
This has nothing to do with everything remaining the same if I say that I no longer want anything else.
I wouldn’t be able to say in which one and the other occur in a way that I if I knew something to
cancel that one against it wouldn’t be possible now.
The stars above my head and being able to say what belongs to what if I’ve let them in.

Observing the rules without observing the rules by going where the rules no longer apply.
I could also observe the rules there by applying them to what at great distance may resemble what
the rules are about.
But why would I do that, not to confuse someone who is seeing me from a great distance?
Behind this morning the morning prepares itself when the rules are everything I have.

A bank lends me money, if I don’t pay it back they tell my boss that he has to pay them my salary.
But they have to leave me enough to eat and sleep and an umbrella when it’s raining.
They can also empty my house, the furniture isn’t worth a lot, but every little helps.
Each morning I leave for work, if I don’t start early they’ll soon get someone else, no bank will lend
me money when the sun is shining.
My boss has given me a cat to raise as a dog.
Of course I know that it won’t work out, but I’ve asked for a week—maybe the cat gets lucky,
maybe I get lucky.
My hands around a cup of coffee, before I leave for work, warm-empty, cold-empty, as if hidden in
the mist over a lawn.
What I make when there’s no work left for me, I’m ashamed to say how little it is.
Once I’m outside I check it, if they watch out of the window they can see me doing it.
Suppose it is so much that I’d stay counting for hours, it’s getting dark and I’m still there.
They stay watching for a while once they’ve finished their work, but have to go home, I get that,
sure, I could also go home and continue counting there.
If it’s too little running back immediately won’t help, because nobody’s there anymore, and if I come
back tomorrow I may have spent what’s missing tonight.
Going somewhere where it’s warm enough to walk around without clothes during daytime, it helps
me to know that something’s more there than here.
For someone like me there’s work anywhere, it shouldn’t take a week to find work for me there.
Three times work and a home close to work, I may choose one and try for a week whether I want
to stay there.
If at the end of the week I don’t want to stay I’m back on the next day, then it was a week’s holiday.


If that’s against a rule, it’s yet another one that I cannot observe, or only so briefly that I cannot re-
member it later.
Anyways the rules are only there to help me remember what I need in order to do better what I do.
In that respect there’s no difference between the rules that I find in a book and the rules that I think
of early in the morning.
I know that because I’ve made a rule just now nothing has yet to observe it.

A sign lets know what is going to happen, a cause lets it happen.
If the sign also lets happen there is no reason to isolate it, because then I would isolate something
only because it’s different for me.
If I didn’t have to write this down myself, but would have secretaries to whom I could dictate it, I
could to say more about it.
If something is taken away from me I consider how it would be if the opposite had been taken from
That is what causes or signifies what is farthest away from what is caused or signified by what has been taken away from me.

For the translations of “The life of Kant, of Hegel” and “If I borrow enough money the bank becomes my slave” I was able to consult David Colmer’s wonderful translations.


Badiou, Alain. Manifesto for Philosophy. Translated by Norman Madarasz. Albany: SUNY Press, 1999.

Bataille, George. The Accursed Share, Volume I. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 2001. Print.

Stein, Gertrude. How To Write. New York: Dover Publications, 1975.

Wijnberg, N.M. De joden. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1999.

---. Politiek en liefde. Amsterdam/Antwerp: Uitgeverij Contact, 2002.

---. De opvolging. Amsterdam/Antwerp: Uitgeverij Contact, 2005.

---. Het leven van. Amsterdam/Antwerp: Uitgeverij Contact, 2009.