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Word of the day: nu (now)

The previous days I was in search of words for lost time (à la recherche du temps perdu, op zoek naar de verloren tijd). I explored GISTEREN and VROEGER. This morning I left yesterday and the days of yore behind me and since then I have been searching for NU, now.


Where is NU? Our office dog Buffy is the only living soul in our institute who knows the answer. For Buffy there is no past (vroeger) and no future (toekomst). All there is for Buffy is an eternal now.

How do I know? Easy. Buffy is often barring the way on thresholds when there are no students in the building so that we have to step over the animal and its tail. Apparently Buffy cannot remember the times that we caused unintentional hurt and neither can it foresee imminent danger. That’s how I know.

I searched in literature for NU, but most authors don’t deal with the present. Even when they tell their story as if it is happening now. Proust and his lost time explorations do not help, because his NU consists of an ocean of VROEGER.

Joyce comes closer to the here and now because he allows us to witness the progress of Molly Bloom’s inner thoughts in which she mixes past, present and future to a glorious sensuous cocktail.

Beckett’s ruminations in ‘Worstward ho’ are enacted the moment the reader plugs in… no, stop! Beckett will lead too far afield. We’re talking Dutch words. A Dutch author then. The poet Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) wrote an insightful epigram on the nature of time.

Flus is weg; nu nu ook; ‘t aanstaande en is nog niet.
Hoe driftig zijn de stromen
Die m’in de dingen ziet;
Daar’s altijd wat voorbij, en altijd wat te komen,
En nooit en is er iet.

[Soon is gone; now now too, what’s coming’s not yet there.
What a whirligig are the currents
That one sees in things;
Something’s always gone and something’s always coming
But never is there anything.*

Hugo Claus, a Flemish author, poet and painter (1929-2008) wrote a sultry poem about the present. Just listen to it. Even if you do not understand a word, the lascivious meaning will come across and what’s more important the nature of NU.

In an interview Hugo Claus (in my opinion he and Willem Frederik Hermans are the only two Dutch writers worthy of the Nobel Prize) once said:

‘Alleen het onvatbare moment zelf telt. Wat eenmaal gemaakt is, bestaat eigenlijk niet meer. Ik denk er nadien niet meer aan terug. De hond laat zijn excrement achter. Daarom heb ik ook zoveel schilderijen verbrand, soms in een vreugdevuur. (Hugo Claus, Groepsportret, Amsterdam, 2004)

(Only the intangible moment itself counts. What has been made, does not really exist anymore. I don’t think back to it afterwards anymore. The dog leaves its excrement behind. That’s why I burnt so many paintings, sometimes in a bonfire)

Back to reality, back to now. All the way on my bicycle to the dentist I was thinking about NU and its fleeting character. I saw parents waiting in front of a school and buses full of school kids coming back from an outing. A pregnant mother was sitting alone in a little park opposite the dentist’s surgery. An old man tried to keep pace with a huge dog.

And when I lay back in the dentist’s chair I was trying to make sense of the mishmash of postcards stuck on the ceiling. When the dentist announced that he was about to anaesthetize the tooth before starting the root-canal therapy, my eye was caught by the image of a lonely woman in bikini sitting on the edge of an empty Turkish swimming pool and then… the needle went in and everything was forever and always NU, NU, NU, nu ook (now too) and there was no VROEGER (past) and no TOEKOMST (future), only NU.

* Translation: Ruud Hisgen, © 2013]