Conjunctions:31 Radical Shadows

Of Monotony

Born in The Hague, Louis Marie Anne Couperus (1863–1923) can fittingly he seen as the (only slightly delayed) Dutch answer to Oscar Wilde. Like Wilde, Couperus was well known as a dandy. Couperus also spent much time abroad: as a teenager he lived for a few years in the Dutch East Indies, as an adult he made frequent voyages to the Far East and lived in France and Italy for more than ten years. The most important—and striking—similarity between the two writers is their delightful ability to ironize philosophy by foregrounding the fascinating idiosyncrasies of character to be found in their narrator(s). Such is the case with “Of Monotony” a piece which, like many which Couperus wrote in serial form for Dutch newspapers, mixes autobiography with armchair philosophy. After reading only a few of the serials, however, a certain coyness quickly becomes apparent: the biographical references suddenly seem less reliable, and the philosophy accordingly less casual. Many of Couperus’s novels and travelogues were skillfully and generously translated into English during the first quarter of the twentieth century, while his short stories, arabesques and serials—among which some of his best work is to be found—prove much more scarce. This is “Of Monotony”’s first appearance in English.


This is about the monotony of hours and days, of people and things, of souls and their emotions. This is about gruesome monotony which the gods, just as people after them, have invented and arranged, in order to make our lives unbearable with regularity and natural laws and such.

     This is about the monotony of the seasons, which alternate with the most unrelenting monotony. Never does spring suddenly blossom, like a wonder, in the month of December. Never does the beauty of a landscape of ice surprise us just after we have eaten a peach. The seasons follow on the heels of one another as they have done throughout the ages since the earth has orbited the sun. Never has the sun orbited the earth, for instance, or so it is alleged …

     The seasons bring neither wonder nor surprise. They bring the monotonous days which pile up on us. Every day begins with morning, and each morning I am compelled to take my shower and put on my clothes …

     Monotony paralyzes every spontaneous flight of my soul in the morning. How then to give her flight during the remainder of the day? Like a slave, my corporality, already often stronger than my soul, has bathed and clothed itself. A breakfast awaits me every morning, at the same hour—just about—. If only, for once, a supper awaited me, with oysters, game and champagne! Oh well, it probably wouldn’t appeal to me anyway …

     I am monotony’s slave. Monotony is the gray, shrouded matron who regulates my entire life with boredom. She allows me, once I have dressed myself—and not before—to go out into the street. The street rises around me like yesterday. Never once has the street become an enchanted wood, and why after all doesn’t the street turn into an enchanted wood? Hoogstraat always remains Hoogstraat and Scheveningsche Weg never leads to any other surprise than the sea. The sea is never monotonic—she is always different—but how monotonous she is in her changeability! Her changeability is monotony: she never does anything but change in tint and tone. I can’t stand her these days because of this repetitious whimsicality …

     My hours revolve with monotonous occupations, activities and recreations. If my lunch isn’t ready at one o’clock, I’m unsatisfied with that breach of monotony in my life, and if it is ready, the undisturbed regularity of monotony irritates me. We have divided the day into columns of mornings, afternoons, evenings, nights. The nights are always dark. At twelve o’clock it is always twelve o’clock.

     I am always myself. It’s hopelessly monotonous always to be myself. why don’t I live a hundred existences! If only I were someone else every day! If only tomorrow morning were presently to become a party, a night of orgy, and if for once, as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning, I were to find myself a Roman emperior being worshipped, with incense burning, or … a young goat-herder who lets his goats graze along the ancient coasts of Laconia … Or a bird in flight, a flower blooming, a waterdrop … Good heavens, I would even like to be a cricket, a normal cricket chirping in the garden, or, if necessary, Lucrezia Borgia in an imaginary Renaissance. But I am always myself. The same chains bind me: every day, every hour. I even have a fairly enviable existence, but I find it hopelessly monotonous. Every once in a while I can get up a bit earlier or go to bed a bit later, but that changes nothing about the monotony which tyrannically rules and regulates my poor life. I also bear my name for my entire life. I have sometimes taken on another name on my travels, in order to put up some resistance to the unrelenting monotony of my name, but … then I couldn’t pick up my letters at the post office. That was very annoying, and I cursed my infringement upon monotony …

     Actually, I’ve always inhabited the same body. It has grown somewhat since childhood and changed slightly over the years, but, closely inspected, it has remained the same. In this body I have always dragged along the same soul.

     I wouldn’t want to trade my body-and-soul for some other physical-psychic combination. But I would want to adopt thousands of other appearances and still remain myself. I’m so used to my body-and-soul-monotony that I would take on the variousness of existence-and-being as if it were just a masquerade. I am the servant, the slave of my monotony.

     I am, monotonously and unchangeably, always a man, a Dutchman, a writer, someone from a good family, and I always have the same vices and virtues. Sometimes they bore me very much with their monotony. They sound in me again and again with the same tone; they never change in tint. Now, today, for once I would like not to be a man, a Dutchman, a writer or from a good family … But I am such a servant and slave to my monotony that I cannot now say what I would want to be and how I would want my vices and virtues changed in tint and tone.

     I think I would most like to be a magician. If I only knew where magic is studied! I would sell my soul to devil or demon to get magical powers. To become invisible now and then by a flick of the wrist … To conjure up a sudden Moorish palace in the clouds in which only myself and my love of the moment would be allowed to live. To disallow the pillars to stand immovable in monotonous rows but, with a gesture of my staff, to make them dance a cracking tango around us. To have stiff pillars bend and turn with agile voluptuousness. To transform the rational monotony of life and world, with a magic word, into the glorious madness of ceaseless metamorphosis. To make waves out of clouds, and to make a crystal palace floor out of the unbearable sea, over which the true, varying choruses of multiplicity and thousand tonality would float. To bathe my tired soul filled with spleen—a spleen resulting from monotony—in the prismatic-colored bath of endless change.

     The tiresomeness, the boredom of being what one is on the day after yesterday, to go down the unrelenting road and have to be thankful, one’s whole life, for monotony, for it usually demands thankfulness. It rings the monotonous bell of our small prosperity, our minimal luck; it doesn’t want the wonder and the various ecstasies, and if we dare not to be thankful, it breaks its baker’s melody, its nursery rhyme—which is supposed to make us drowsy in our shrill longings—off, with a false tone, and leaves us standing in desperation and cowardly nostalgia for it and its oppressive gifts and goodnesses. Oh, to break with monotony forever!

Come with me; I am the magician! Come with me, you tired and bored! I have now sold my soul: I know the magic which will conjure up eternal change for you, the change of tint, the change of tone, the luxury of eternal surprise. Together we will be who we want to be, we will have what we will have, repeatedly, our loves and our desires will change, repeatedly; our magic castles will flow in and through each other, repeatedly; we will pick grapes among the Northern Lights on icebergs which float in the Mediterranean Sea, we will be mad with changing moods, the stars will rain through each other, and the sea will celebrate her ascension and drift among the clouds. The moon will lie down at our feet like a pale mirror and reflect every metamorphosis of our selves and our being. We will have reached what we longed for: we will be various and powerful through my magic: mornings will shine fantastically with thick masses of clouds and nights will be luxurious with the darkness of thousands of shining suns; every change that you desire I will conjure up for you! I will change you from prince to beggar and from beggar to fakir, from man to woman and woman to man, I will make rubies bloom from lotus stems, and in your feelings, passions and emotions you won’t recognize your own soul! I will make the universe, the world, life, change, alter, swarm and transform for you until Monotony itself shall resound with millions of tones and glitter with billions of tints.

However, I will not be able to make this variation in your soul, which will after all still remain your own:

     I will not be able to give you Satisfaction and Luck. And you will still continue, as will I, who was your magician, to long for the one inaccessible change—in air, in light, in yourself or in whom, or whatever—which would give you, not the magic dazzle, but true happiness and contentment.

     You tired and bored, I have deceived you: I was a powerless magician. Tomorrow, along with me, you will get out of your bed a little earlier or later than today, you will have breakfast as always and clothe yourself as always and your occupations and recreations will await you as always and it will be summer if it is summer and it will become evening when evening must come and the air and the sea and the clouds and the waves will surely change, but your soul will feel the same as it always has and it will, after the dazzlement with which I deceived you, be piously, cowardly thankful to Monotony, that matron in her makeshift cloak who cannot be dispelled, for returning and taking you by the hand to the gray path of days and hours which unfurls before you-to the pale, vague Unknown, which you cannot know or see through, to the End, to the mysterious End …

Louis Couperus (1863–1923) wrote eighteen works of long fiction, of which The Books of Small Souls and Old People and the Things That Pass are among the most well known. He was a celebrated writer during his own lifetime, both in his native country of the Netherlands and abroad.
Duncan Dobbelmann has a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center and has published a chapbook of prose poems called Tronie (Harry Tankoos Books). He has published an article on the poet George Oppen in Paideuma and co-authored (with Isabel Roche) an essay on the Bennington College curriculum for The College Curriculum (Peter Lang).