Malebranche’s God

‘Malebranche’s God’  is a chapter of my novel The autopsy of Josefa Gordijn, but can be read independently. The translation from the dutch is mine.


‘Mr. Witbaard has studied theology’, says Hadewij, ‘so he knows everything about God.’

At school they call him Hans, but her mother thinks the difference in power between teacher and pupils should be apparent in the use of Mr. plus surname and right now she doesn’t want to fight, let alone be criticised.

Her mother looks up from her plate. She has prepared a chicken in the oven with a sauce of honey and mustard, one of Hadewij’s favourite meals, so allright, she will tell her some things about school. Her mother always wants to know stuff about school.

‘Is he a believer?’ her mother asks.

‘Yes, but not a christian.’

A hardly audible sigh. ‘A New Ager then. Yes, that kind is rather proliferating nowadays.’

Hadewij doesn’t ask what her mother means because she recognizes the tone: the implicit judgment explodes all over the table. Hypocrite, she thinks, just tell me that you don’t get it when people believe in God; when I was a child you vented those opinions out loud, but since I am in puberty you suddenly act oh so tolerantly. The good mother takes her daughters opinions seriously, right? If she would now say: You don’t agree with belief, do you? her mother would open her eyes very wide and say: what in heaven’s sake are you talking about? So she keeps her mouth shut, what is the use, but she can’t stand it, really, because her mother wins again. Her mother always wins. She will be glad when she won’t have to live here anymore, sitting at this table every day and looking at her mother over this orange tablecloth. They own two tablecloths: an orange one and a shocking pink one, with napkins in the same colours. Her mother has no taste. And eating in front of the telly is not allowed.

When there is still that slightly disapproving silence after a few bites, she says: ‘I have to do a project’, and then, brightening with the idea: ‘So I will need the computer a lot, the next few days, for research..’ If she would not have added the thing about research, her mother would expect her to work with the old Windows 95 computer and she doesn’t want that.

‘What is it about?’ her mother asks.

Suddenly Hadewij doesn’t want to talk about God anymore. ‘About the Enlightenment,’ she says. ‘We have studied Descartes. Do you know what dualism is?’

‘There are several dualisms,’ her mother who always needs to know better says. She teaches at the poly, so thinks she knows everything. There doesn’t exist a thing she doesn’t have an opinion about. So does her grandmother, really, but oma Joosje is not so blatant about it. Everybody in the family is very clever, except her aunt Jantien, and she resembles her, her mother says. She is part of the bad branch of the family, or, equally possible, she is like her father and her mother doesn’t dare tell her. He broke up with her when she was pregnant. But he didn’t know, and her mother was to proud to tell him. Well, she understands all too well why he broke it off! When she is eighteen her mother will tell her his name, she promised. Two more years. She snoops sometimes in her mother’s desk when she is away, but so far no name.

‘The dualism of body and mind,’ she says then. ‘I think I will write something about that.’

‘Your grandmother knows all about that,’ her mother says, standing up to clear the table.

‘Can be, but I want to do it myself,’ Hadewij says. She feigns not to see that she is meant to do the dishes, but goes quickly to her mother’s study and flicks on the computer.

First she checks her mother’s e-mail. No mail from Hans, not for a while now. Her mother thinks Hadewij doesn’t know her boyfriend’s name, but since she figured out her computerpassword (not difficult at all: her very own initials and birthdate, which is kind of touching when you think about it), she has regularly read her mother’s mail, almost for a year now. Hans, the same first name as Hans Witbaard’s, but it isn’t him, that would be the end, to use an expression of her mother’s. Although, she doesn’t understand what it means, the end of what? Her mother uses it when disagreeable things happen, and even applies it to her, Hadewij, sometimes. Meaning she is the disagreeable end, to what? To her mother’s real life, maybe? The life she would have had if she hadn’t become pregnant sixteen years ago and left by her boyfriend?

Hans Harkema works at an attorney’s office. Not quite the thing for her mother, really. Or rather, she is not the thing for him. That type doesn’t want a woman with an opinion about everything. Hadewij has seen them together, once, on the street, and her mother introduced him as Mr. Harkema, an acquaintance.

 Well, reading their mails, acquaintance isn’t it, exactly!

The funny thing about Descartes’ dualism is, that in those days they all thought physical things could not communicate with non-physical things like the soul or the mind. So, when she wants, say, to lift her finger, her non-physical will cannot send a message to the physical muscles in her finger because that message just cannot be read. So, how does her finger move? This is called the causality problem, Hans Witbaard says, so that is what she types in the Google-bar: Enlightenment + Causality.

Hits galore, and among the first ten she encounters a text from Utrecht University, ‘God and nature in the time of the great philosphical models’, pointing the way to a philosopher called Malebranche. Well, she has chosen french as part of her package and that name speaks to her, it has ‘mal’ in it and ‘branche’: ‘bad branch’, very fitting. So now she taps ‘causality and Malebranche’, arrives at ‘interaction between body and mind’ and a new word, ‘occasionalism’, which she thinks must mean something like ‘accidental’. Another thing that just fits into what she was thinking about, right? So that clinches it: she chooses to write about the occasionalism of Malebranche.

 Hadewij stands at the window, waiting until she has seen her mother bicyle away, ostensibly to the station, as if she would believe that!

When she is sure  her mother is gone, she starts. A large packet of honey crunchies. The tin of toffees she hides behind her dictionaries. Six cookies from the cookie tin. Each time the challenge is to take things in such a way that her mother doesn’t notice. This means she cannot take a slice from the new cheese which is still in its plastic, but her mother wouldn’t know how many pre-cooked chicken wings there are in the freezer. Two of those, then.

It is not enough, she will have to make a short trip to Albert Heijn, for crisps and maybe a pizza. Because she wants to phone Sasje, to come and blow together. Sometimes she has to ask Sasje to bring stuff with her, but today that isn’t necessary, she still has a bit of pocket money. Her mother doesn’t like Sasje because, so stupid, she confided in a weak moment about Sasje’s brother who she is a bit afraid of and who is a junkie and that Sasje admires him because he has the courage to lead his own life. Sasje is always superpolite to her mother, but it doesn’t help, Hadewij sees the concern in her mother’s eyes when the two of them meet, and she sees that hard, that principled thing as well: she sees her mother’s decision that it is not the right pedagogical procedure to meddle in your children’s friendships because that will drive them just so much more towards their bad company. Yes, she knows her mother and her principles, and what’s more, she knows all about raising children because she watches programmes about it, sometimes even together with her mother. Difficult teens, teen exchange, mothers of teens who go and live in another family for a week, teen survival in Africa, Jamie Oliver helping streetkids become cooks: and looking sideways at her mother then, she sees her hoping that compared with those mothers on the screen she isn’t doing too badly, but she is not going to reassure her then, she keeps silent. Her mother can’t stand it when she is silent on purpose, oh yes, she knows.

At Albert Heijn’s she buys a pizza and a box of crisps and a honeycake. Now this week’s money is gone, more’s the pity.

Wow, has she overslept, cosy in her mothers big bed, and did she need sleep! Sasje and she had blowed first in order to get hungry, and then they had eaten everything and then, when they couldn’t sit for the pain in their stomachs, they had put their fingers down their throats above the toilet. Hadewij has learnt this trick from Sasje, and she will learn another thing. Sasje has shown her two red lines on her arm where she has cut herself with a razor. Her brother does it too, you have to do it when you are angry and then it gives you a very good feeling: a feeling as if you are free inside, Sasje says. But she didn’t have a razor blade and her mother doesn’t shave, not even for her sollicitor, so that is for later. Besides, she doesn’t know whether she will want to do that, cut herself. What if it hurts anyway?

Today she has to work at her paper, there is only a week left. It won’t be difficult: a few clicks, some copying of information into a document, and then rephrase it all in her own words. An introduction, a personal opinion, done.

Well, Malebranche was a real darling, it turns out. God was superimportant for him, just because of this problem of causality. Because, when her free immaterial will wants to lift her material finger, which is impossible because will and muscles cannot communicate, right, God causes her muscles to move that finger at the very exact moment her will is wanting it. When her eyes direct themselves ttowards the sky, God causes the image of that sky to hit her material eye-nerves and send that message on to her immaterial mind to make her experience that blue sky. God is doing that kind of thing all day long for everybody and all the time at the very exact moment communication between material and immaterial is necessary. That is what ‘occasionalism’ means, not ‘chance’, as she thought at first, but something like ‘at the occasion of’. Compare it with two clocks that irrespective of each other show exactly the same time, Malebranche says. The first clock stands for the material, the muscles and sinews and nerves, and the second clock for the immaterial, the will and the mind and the soul, and if you didn’t know better those clocks seem related because thanks to the grace of God they show the same time, and that is why it seems to us that we see, for instance, the blue sky. That, by the way, is another thing God does: making us see colour, blue especially. Witbaard has told them that colour for Descartes and his followers is not a property of the object, but of our seeing. So God has invented blue! Just as easy he could have made her eyes receive grey or beige, but he chose blue, the most beautiful colour.

All this is what she writes, and in the bit reserved for her own opinion she writes that Malebranche’s solution to the problem of causality is great fun, because you can imagine God as a superbusy circus director of the universe. She imagines a circus like at Christmas in Carré1 with three different rings, and God, who can do everything because he is allmighty, is sitting there arranging clocks superquickly and still has energy to enjoy the circus: maybe the clock at the trapeze is going slightly wrong and everybody shouts aaahhh because it seems as if those four hands will not touch each other at the same time but God knows better and ooohhh the people sigh, the trapeze artist just escaped falling. Clearly God must love all those people who try their very best moving around, nobody falls and everything moves exactly right. God is love, Hans Witbaard says. And then, you have to think that it is of course not only that circus, but everybody in the whole world at the same moment, in India and New-Guinea and in the deep jungle of Surinam or Brazil where tribes of indians live no other person has ever seen, except for God because God moves them. Even when we sleep we move, looking, thanks to God, at our dreams. God is the power that moves everything, Hans Witbaard said when Sasje asked how we should imagine God, but for Malebranche all this is literally true and that makes her cry, almost.

Animals too? One would say so, because animals do look and feel and move all the time, but on the other hand, animals have no souls, no mind, no brain, those Enlightenment people thought. Maybe animals are purely material? Because if not, that would make it yet more difficult for God: take insects, there are million times as much insects as people. Every ant moved by Him, every foot of the millipede… She will look up how Malebranche deals with animals another time, because now she hears her mothers key in the front door and she won’t let her read her paper so she quickly saves her document.

A fight, again. She hadn’t cleaned the toilet thoroughly enough, so her mother asked whether she was ill that there was a smear of vomit under the edge, and she got angry and said that she had thrown up that awfool food her mother had left in the fridge. And then her mother got angry back and asked why Hadewij didn’t cook herself if she didn’like her mothers food. ‘You never move a finger in the house!’ And she, almost, had said: God doesn’t move a finger, you mean – but then her mother looked in the garbage bin and saw the pizzabox and looked at her as if she didn’t trust her: ‘Shouldn’t we talk?’ she asked, and she: ‘I don’t talk with you.’ And went to the computer without asking: ‘Now I have to work at my paper.’ Not true, for she already has more than enough material and the conclusion is finished as well. Nevertheless she stayed at the computer for the rest of the afternoon and half the evening, on purpose, and when her mother asked how long she thought she would need the thing still she said ‘You will know as soon as I am finished’, and her mother: ‘Next time you need my computer you will make an appointment.’

Why does her mother always have to push her nose into the fact that it is her computer? Everything is hers. It is her house, her food, her money. Not even her own room is truly hers, because she has to put her stuff in order the day the cleaner comes. She has no space, no proper spot, she doesn’t live anywhere. If only she could go and live with oma Joosje, but she doesn’t dare to ask. Her mother would probably say it was another sign of her only thinking of herself again, because of oma Joosje’s bone disease. Yet, it could be a good plan for that very reason, right? She could do stuff for her grandmother, right? No, wrong: her mother would just say if so why then didn’t she do stuff for her instead.

But she is glad she has explored the problem of causality a bit further because the followers of Descartes had more of those cool theories about God. Some of them thought that God in Malebranche’s view of things had too much on his plate, not because God couldn’t handle it, monitoring all those clocks, but because they preferred to give God a bit more freedom. That is why animals, and people as well according to some of them, have something they call ‘animal spirit’ or ‘animal soul’, which is a special force that regulates the communication between the immaterial sense experiences and the material body, and also makes them able to move. Descartes was probably the first with this theory, but in her paper she is going to name Leibniz especially, because he has the coolest argument. Instead of making all these clocks giving the same time, Leibniz says, God has made a special natural law in advance, before each person is born, for them to have their clocks go synchronically, so that God does not have to act again and again at every movement by man or animal. And why? Because Malebranche’s God, says Leibniz, keeps doing miracles synchronizing those clocks, millions of miracles a minute, and that makes God unfree which He cannot be.

She has been thinking about this and yes, she can see Leibniz’ point here: when God does a miracle it should not be something so ordinary as looking or moving, but a unique thing like that story about Jesus coming back to life, which she doesn’t believe in by the way. For Leibniz a miracle should be something special, but the thing is, for Malebranche seeing and moving ìs a miracle, and millions of miracles a second makes it even more special for him, something for which we have to be grateful. For this reason Malebranche calls our seeing ‘seeing with God’ or even ‘seeing in God’: God and we look together at the same thing, and because of that everything is superspecial.

Hadewij doesn’t know what to choose: Leibniz makes more sense, but Malebranche is more fun. For the moment this is what she puts in her conclusion: why she cannot choose.

And another fight: this time, of all things, because she was so stupid to tell her mother about her indecision about Malebranche and Leibniz. A fight about God, for God’s sake (hahaha). Although you cannot call it a fight really, because her mother never yells, only she does. A good mother stays calm. Rises above it. Starts explaining calmly why God is a projection of human longing. As if it is about that! Hans Witbaard cited someone, she forgot who, but she has written it down: ‘there are no clear and distinct answers here. We do not know and we cannot know. It is not about proof but about what your heart acknowledges to be true.’ That was so exactly what she was feeling about this, that she was tempted to read it out loud for her mother, but if she did, her mother probably would just laugh. And the idiot thing is, in these fights she always blurts out things to her mother she never would have said normally. If her mother thinks God is something for stupid people who cannot manage life by themselves, she is really saying that her own daughter is stupid and without responsibility for her life, right? So she does not have a choice but to go against her, right? And the strangest thing of all is, that she herself has said to Hans Witbaard that she thinks God is an interesting idea but she doesn’t know whether she can do anything with it – while when talking to her mother it sounded as if she really believes in God. She tried to put it right, really, but as soon as she starts saying ‘Hans Witbaard’ her mother jumps in and asks whether she is in love with him. The idea! Because of his belief in God, maybe? And what if she were – which she isn’t, not in the least. Why does her mother meddle so in her life, does she perhaps meddle in her mothers stupid love life? That Hans of hers in his three piece suit? That man, who clearly means more to her mother than she means to him? Who is the one dependent here, right? Although wait, ‘man’ is to neutral a word to describe her mother’s Hans. Not a dandy, not quite a player, a gentleman? ‘Smart’ is too positive – no, nothing of the above. It is that the way he dresses mirrors his priorities, or his values, Witbaard would say, and those are different from her mother’s. Money, satisfaction – superficial, that’s what she means. He is a superficial well-dressed man about town. He is a suit. But instead of some of this, she just says: ‘Well, Witbaard listens to me, at least.’ And does not wear suits, eiher. Is it so strange she looks forward to his lessons? In the general discussions he encourages her to say what she thinks even if she is not yet completely sure about it. Which she can never do with her mother because with her mother she feels stupid and then her mother wins again and she won’t let that happen if she can prevent it.

So now her mother thinks she is a Believer.

They haven’t spoken a word in two days. At least, she hasn’t spoken. Her mother says something now and then, to test whether she is still angry – but hah, she just leaves the room then. For it is too late now, no way her mother can make it well. Hasn’t she always said that people should decide for themselves what they stand for? And now she tries to brainwash her! Wants her to accept God doesn’t exist, when nobody knows for sure! Well, it will be a long time before she will ever tell her mother something private again.

Finally, the weekend again. Her mother will not sleep at home tonight. ‘A congress in Vlissingen’, she says, but Hadewij knows better, she will spend the night with Hans Harkema somewhere, bet? Pity Sasje has to go to a birthday or something, but she has kindly left her half a gram of marihuana, and with her pocket money she buys five snickers and a bag of chocotoff. Snickers taste best when you cut them in slices, the thinner the better, oma Joosje taught her this.

Hadewij has a quality time with Hollands next Top Model and Extreme Makeover Vlaanderen. On purpose she leaves the food her mother has left in the fridge, but eats hot french bread with cheese and the salmon her mother probably has meant for the next meal, for in the pasta, because there is a box of mushrooms as well. Bad luck!

After the french bread has gone she eats the rest of the salmon on a few slices of sliced bread out of the bin but that is a mistake: the bread is not fresh enough and too much salmon makes her stomach protest. The smell alone! On her fingers. She washes her hands at least ten times before she can put her finger in her throat.

Suddenly she thinks of Malebranche and sits, still, on her knees, before the toilet. If she wants to put her finger in ther throat, God will do that thing with his two clocks. And God would not want to do that, really, it is not a godlike thing to help her vomit. But he would, if she wants it, because of her free will. Because he wants her to have the freedom to decide. Her mother says that believing people are dependent, but now she understands why her mother has it wrong, it’s just the reverse, right? If it is true she moves her finger with God, how could she do that knowing she makes God do something he doesn’t want to? And if she still does something he does not want to, how can it be a miracle then?

Se leaves the bathroom, quickly, and immediately finds it is a miracle she did, because there is her mother’s key in the front door although she has said she would not be home before tomorrow morning. Hunched over the toilet she would not have heard that key and then her mother would have caught her out.

‘You are earlier than you said,’ Hadewij says.

‘Yes,’ her mother says, ‘we had a fight and I ended it, which I should have done a long time ago.’

Hadewij sees the tears falling down her mother’s cheeks.

‘O mum!’ she says. She is almost crying herself. Her mothers eyes are so blue, so blue.



 A theatre in Amsterdam