Social distancing - On the evening of Thursday 14 May, the Abraham Kuyper Lecture 2020 was broadcast via livestream. The outbreak of the Covid-19 virus meant that it was not possible to hold the Abraham Kuyper Lecture in the Westerkerk this year. The programme was held in the Aula of the Main Building at VU Amsterdam, without an audience present. The participants gathered in the empty foyer of the Main Building, standing a metre and a half from one another.
For the guest speakers, addressing an empty Aula took some getting used to. Every speaker hopes that people are listening to them, just as any writer hopes that people will read what they have written.
At the Abraham Kuyper Lecture 2020, the author Arnon Grunberg gave his address, entitled Blind Obedience. This year's Writer Writer in Residence juxtaposed the concepts of hope and trust using the story of Abraham, who was asked by God to sacrifice his son. Is Abraham someone who hopes and trusts that God will intervene if he accepts this command, or is he an immoral person who is too timid to disobey God and use his own judgment? The author and former Writer in Residence Christine Otten
hosted the lecture and invited Grunberg to deliver his lecture.
And why is this ancient story, which is shared by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, so important? When we are asked to make sacrifices, such as sacrificing our freedom for the sake of public health, this is something that shapes the way we think, argues Grunberg. Such sacrifices form the basis of our culture, they can blind us, they can make us happy - and yet there is a lot more to them than this.
We are currently making enormous sacrifices in the face of a virus that poses a significant risk to older people, and yet we do not give the same priority to those suffering from severe mental health issues and those who are suicidal. We send soldiers into war zones, and yet their lives are regularly torn apart by post-traumatic stress disorder.
We ask people to make sacrifices, but it seems that we do not always acknowledge those sacrifices, or even want to acknowledge them.
Grunberg sees Abraham as a murderer who will do anything to keep God happy. But the philosopher Victor Kal
of the University of Amsterdam disputes this vehemently: Abraham does not sacrifice his son, but gives him up in the hope of a future for his son.
Professor Jacqueline Bel
of VU Amsterdam, holder of the Multatuli chair for modern Dutch literature, compares Grunberg to Multatuli, who also fought for greater justice in society. Multatuli fought for the more humane treatment of workers, women and those living in the Dutch colonies.
Young writer and journalist Charlotte Bouwman
is best-known for her months-long protest at the Binnenhof - the very heart of Dutch democracy in The Hague. She was protesting against the long waiting lists for mental health services. Since the outbreak of the corona crisis, she has continued to protest from her home.
As a journalist, Bouwman would also like to write about her experiences with the healthcare system, but because of her protests she doubts whether the press would give her the opportunity to do this.
Before becoming a world-famous opera singer, Bastiaan Everink
served as a marine during the First Gulf War. He says that even in situations where orders have to be carried out without questioning, you can always form your own judgements.
Everink made a remarkable career switch, from marine to opera singer. But he still sees himself as a fighter, only now he fights using his voice. Then we listened to an aria from Hercules, an opera about Everink's life.
Rector Vinod Subramaniam
thanked Arnon Grunberg for all his work as Writer in Residence over the past year, despite all the issues caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus. He also reflected on Grunberg’s project with students regarding the scope of Article 1 of the Constitution. A video was shown in which students asked the questions that they considered as part of this project: why, for example, does equality for all living beings on Dutch territory not extend to animals? Who decides who is entitled to fertility treatment and which children can be born? The rector emphasized that it is very important for a university whose theme is ‘Governance for Society’ to continue asking these kinds of questions. He then presented Grunberg with the very first copy of Blind Obedience.
Grunberg accepted the publication from an appropriate distance. His Abraham Kuyper Lecture was an abbreviated version of this new publication (see below for information on how to order a copy of the publication).
The rector then announced VU Amsterdam’s new Writer in Residence, Maxim Februari, who will take up his position on 1 June.
Christine Otten, who was the university’s third Writer in Residence, thanked Arnon Grunberg, the thirteenth Writer in Residence, for his fascinating lecture. This year, it is not necessary to wish the audience a safe trip home.
Blind Obedience: the publication
Arnon Grunberg wrote his essay ‘Blind Obedience’ specifically in his role as VU Amsterdam’s Writer in Residence. His Abraham Kuyper Lecture was an abbreviated version of this new publication.
The publication is not available in bookshops and is the product of a collaboration with the VUvereniging
. If you would like to order a printed copy for just €10, please submit your order before 15 June using this link
Are you interested in other books by Arnon Grunberg and previous Writers in Residence such as Christina Otten, Nina Weijers, Bas Heijne, Ernest van der Kwast or Annelies Verbeke? The VU University Bookshop has created a collection for you in its digital bookstore which you can view at https://www.vuuniversitypress.com/vrije-schrijver/
Photography: Peter Valckx