Mimicry, Slippers and sandals
My father wore the ugliest sandals – when I was young and lived at home. Sturdy sandals that would still be wearable today, so to speak – that’s how sturdy they were. Whatever I wore later, it would never be sandals like that. I was sure of that from the age of about ten. I remember that some of his sandals – he had several pairs and they really did sometimes wear out – were "Loints", a make that evoked feelings of pity in me. I had never heard of them again and recently looked them up on the internet. I discovered that the firm of Loint still existed, and when I checked their website I found some pretty nice shoes. Made in Holland. The make turns out to be almost a century old and has a modern, classy image; it’s environmentally friendly; it gives designers plenty of scope. A kind of Dutch version of "Camper", which makes hip, but also comfortable, good-looking Spanish shoes. I’m taken aback. Loint was not as hip as that in the past, as I recalled.
What’s more, only last month I bought some Camper slippers – not Loints, but still the Spanish equivalent – in a beautiful Antwerp gallery where they sold shoes and art and coffee. If you ask me, my father wouldn’t have dared show his face in a shoe shop where you could drink coffee, and where slippers cost more than sixty euros. But perhaps I’m wrong, and you were given a cup of coffee back then with a pair of Loints. I haven’t got children, but I’d like to know what my children would make of my Campers. Of course, they’re slippers, totally uncool. But they’re very nice slippers. Do I think they’re nice the same way my father used to think his Loints were nice, or are my slippers really nice? I hope the latter.
The similarity between my father’s sandals and my recently purchased slippers is significant. That similarity says a lot, about me and my father, and about generations in general.
I know that children resemble their parents. Not only physically, but also in their behaviour and the things they do and think. My father was a photographer and I owe my interest in images to him. My mother was left-wing and because of her I tend to identify with the underdog. I took things from my parents, but I also rebelled against them and deliberately tried not to adopt certain characteristics. Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes not. My mother often twisted the truth and despite my efforts to do better, I notice that I sometimes do the same. Not in her way, but in mine. It may be a shame that I didn’t succeed in not adopting this characteristic of my mother’s, but at least I know that’s how it is. My father is sometimes a bit spineless, and finds it hard to say “no”, and I’ve mimicked that characteristic a little too. Despite attempts to mend my ways. But I’m aware of this too. And I’ve resigned myself.
Part of the resemblance between me and my parents is conscious, but the really galling thing is the unconscious resemblance, the resemblance that exists, but which I didn’t think would be there. It may be frustrating to realise that I didn’t succeeded in doing things differently from my parents – however hard I tried. It is even more frustrating to realise that even in small things I turn out to be just like them, without my having explicitly tried to act like them or, on the contrary, to act differently. I’m like them without having rebelled against them and without having consciously mimicked them. That’s what I felt when I saw the resemblance between my father’s sturdy Loint sandals and my nice new Campers.
The fact that I’m like my parents is not even my biggest frustration. The fact that I’m like anyone, that’s what bugs me. Someone who lived before me and taught me how to live, that’s what bugs me. It’s a good thing, though, that that someone is my father, or my mother. It would have been much worse if I had learned and adopted life from an arbitrary resident of De Bilt – the village I come from. Life feels so autonomous. It’s my life. Not someone else’s. And then it turns out that there is after all someone else whose life resembles mine. That idea deprives me of my freedom. Loint sandals and Camper slippers tell me there’s no way out, that I’m much more part of a continuum than I would care to admit. My life isn’t stand-alone and isn’t free. It is embedded in preceding lives and offers me less freedom that I would expect a life to offer.
For a moment I thought I may have misjudged the significance of the similarity between those slippers and sandals. Something quite different was involved. Perhaps shoes always resemble each other. Perhaps there is only a limited number of possible shoes and so in the course of time it is inevitable that that shoes should again start resembling those of a few years previously. Perhaps there are only a thousand different possible shoes, a thousand different shoes that we find attractive and comfortable – shoes with pointed toes, square toes, block heels, no heels at all. Brown shoes, yellow, black-and-white checked shoes. Every possible combination gives a total of a thousand pairs of shoes, and that’s all there are. It’s possible. In that case it wouldn’t be that odd that my father’s shoes resemble mine. After all, shoe fashion must repeat itself if there is only a limited number of possible shoes. But to be honest I don’t think this idea applies. I don’t think that the resemblance between my father’s sandals and my slippers is to do with those sandals and slippers. The resemblance is to do with me – with us.
There’s nothing odd about the fact that I resemble my parents. On the contrary, it is logical and useful. What could I do as an ignorant and incompetent newborn child? Some of my activities were dictated by my nature: I had to eat and I had to defecate. And so that’s what I did. But there’s bags of time for other things besides eating, defecating and sleeping. What was I to do with the time? The same as the people around me! Walking, making sounds, moving. What else was I supposed to do? I hadn’t a clue, and so I mimicked my parents and other people nearby.
What was I supposed to think? What language was I supposed to speak? What taste would suit me? I had no idea of any of these, and so I borrowed my parents’ ideas, their language, and their taste. Not that I was always aware of this, not at all. But looking back at my development it seems to me only logical that I should resemble my parents, however frustrating that may sometimes be. I couldn’t have managed it by myself. I wouldn’t have learned to walk. I wouldn’t have known a language, and wouldn’t have had any ideas or taste.
I repeat my parents and so things are repeated from generation to generation. Repetition is useful. Repetition helps us to learn. I learned to cycle by repetition, and by repeatedly falling. Learning words was a matter of repetition. If you just repeat something often enough, you learn it. That’s how we learn over the course of time, from generation to generation: repetition after repetition after repetition. So that mankind can learn.
On the one hand I can see that repetition is necessary and works. On the other it’s frustrating. But my initial frustration has subsided a little. My immediate reaction on seeing the similarity between my father’s sandals and my slippers was one of anger and disappointment. “Could I really not have escaped this fate?” For years I would not have got beyond this reaction – from my adolescence up until a year or so ago. A few years back I would have had only a negative reaction on seeing the casual, unconscious resemblance between those slippers and sandals. But I’ve mellowed, and when I look my slippers now – I’m wearing them as I type this piece – it gives me a peaceful feeling. When I reflect on the inescapable similarity of generations, my feeling changes from rebellion to resignation. I don’t live a self-contained life, and I don’t need to. My life is not only mine. True, it began about forty years ago and if I’m lucky it will last at least as long again. But instead of a clearly demarcated life with a hard end and a hard beginning it is perhaps more a fluid whole of many decades, perhaps centuries, within which I exist for eighty years or so. My life is also to some extent my father and mother’s life. And should I have children – you never know – my life will also be to some extent theirs. Where once I rebelled I now have a feeling of resignation. I’ve no need to feel frustrated because my life is not completely mine, and is less free than I hope or assumed. Instead of frustration I feel a reassuring embeddedness. Though why the feeling should be reassuring, I honestly don’t know yet. Perhaps I’m less alone now, now that through my slippers I feel connected with a past and with other people. Perhaps in the future others will feel connected with me too. Through their slippers, or through something else.