Lieke Marsman’s brilliantly ‘cool’ novel, The Opposite of a Person (translated by Sophie Collins), is at once a novel about love and language, people and the individual, nature and the ideas we wield over the natural world, writes Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie.
The Opposite of a Person, written by Poet Laureate of the Netherlands Lieke Marsman, and translated by writer Sophie Collins, is an intellectual book with a wry sense of humour. It is voiced by Ida, a recent graduate and Earth Scientist, who is working on a project to remove a now superfluous dam in Northern Italy. She thinks that she is in love with Robin, a PhD student, whose research interest is the Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi (b. 1798). Leopardi worked so hard that he gave himself blindness in one eye and a spinal condition – that sets the tone of Robin’s relationship to his subject. When it comes to Ida and Robin’s relationship, however, it is even more complex, and leads to a rumination on love, language and agency in the final chapter of the book. But really, Lieke Marsman, Sophie Collins and Ida — the three voices of these women — are The Opposite of a Person. As Collins writes in her translator’s note: “what you are reading is a composite voice. Nominally, it is Ida’s voice. But the voice of the book is a combination of Lieke and of myself. This makes it, I hope, a recognisably human voice”. It is a rhizomatic voice, interconnected, like a tree, which Ida says, “appears to us a certain way”, alone, but which appears to other trees connected, as part of a “collaborative structure” called the wood-wide web. In The Opposite of a Person, Marsman interrogates where these ideas of the person and the individual, the subject and the object – when “people no longer viewed themselves as a component of nature” or, like Ida, who “did sometimes fantasise about being a table” – come from, and how they might be remixed or re-approached, starting with the imaginative space of language.
Indeed, Marsman dedicates one segment of her book to mapping the interconnected history of science and philosophy in Western thought, through Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (b. 1473) to French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux (b. 1967). It is called ‘ON THE MOVEMENTS OF THE HEAVENLY BODIES’, which gives a sense of how these thinkers regard(ed) themselves, alludes to the quiet humour of Marsman’s prose, and explains how this tradition led us to put humans at the centre of the universe through to the Anthropocene. It begins with Copernicus’ treatise, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which puts forth that the Earth moves around the Sun: “a very practical solution to the Earth’s geocentrism, ensuring that the Earth be forced to give up her central role”, as Marsman writes. This de-centring of the Earth, of the Human, who considers it our Earth, seems an unlikely ancestor to the conclusions of the Enlightenment ideas that foreground contemporary scientific and philosophical thought. However, as Marsman clarifies, “the discovery that the Earth was not the centre of the universe led to panic: humankind went from main character to sidekick in a split second…Thus the focus on the human consciousness grew…with the question of what distinguishes people from animals and objects, humankind could once again congratulate itself on its uniqueness”. The Opposite of a Person is the sort of book that you want to read with a pen and a tab open on Google.
Marsman ingeniously uses language and the structure of the text to cross the threshold between human and object, queering the dominant relationship that so much of humankind has nurtured over the Earth, its land and its resources. We see this at its most beautiful when objects speak: “swords that killed kings”, “the heavy [wise and wistful] oak front door of the therapy practice”, or a “clay penis” that breaks and diverts Ida to “one of the…first recorded stories, the Atra-Hassis, written…on clay tablets”, now considered the “model” for Noah’s Arc. Though written in Dutch in 2017, this book could not be better situated, culturally speaking, than in the here and now of our times. It provides a language with which to think and visualise hyper-objects, such as climate change and (interspecies/inter-object) love, as well as extra-human interactions, such as “accepting that objects do not require humans in order to create meaningful relationships (think, for example, of a tree that is struck by lightning, or a tsunami that sinks an island)”.
There are resonances with Jennifer Peedom and Joseph Nizeti’s film River (2021), especially when Marsman writes that, “while we see dams as hubs of natural energy, they beg the question of whether you can use the word ‘natural’ when speaking of something that is essentially man-made”. Both illuminate a systems-based, ecological approach to navigating the future of Earth-Human interrelations (and how to repair them), and take as their focus the transportive, inter-connective body of the river. Thus, reading as part of a generation who were taught to reduce, re-use and recycle, to engineer our way out of imminent climate catastrophe, Marsman’s book bridges philosophical thought and human action to show that we can more profoundly change our relationship to the Earth by changing the syntax with which we define this relationship. These are active objects. And what is so successful about Marsman’s writing is how the seeming divergences that hold her book together, so often mediated by objects, finally coalesce.
In fact, The Opposite of a Person is an undeniably ‘cool’ book. It has confidence, a contemporary coolness, and a invested-ness in the nuance of current critical conversations, from sexuality to mental health to environment catastrophe. Marsman largely achieves this by way of the remix – of sampling, quoting and editing ideas and techniques that form aspects of her research, as well as her academic formation, her literary milieu. She uses this re-appropriation to create a space in which these ideas can be critiqued, evaluated and brought into current conversation. In this sense The Opposite of a Person has a distracted voice; Marsman roams across time periods, thinkers and formats of writing, whilst Ida is reminded of memories mid-thought, imagines alternative conversations between philosophers, and is fixated by “the three circles on the PowerPoint presentation behind her. Object Oriented Ontology – OOO. Her speech makes me think of the love I had for objects when I was little…” She “wonder[s] about the extent to which…theory regarding the right to exist is based on the fact that it can be so beautifully summed up via three little zeros”. As Marsman highlights throughout The Opposite of a Person, it is hard to consume an object – such as an idea, such as an object as permeable and vast as the ozone – when it appears so abstract to us. Where do we focus? But it is possible to talk about and visualise things when there is an intellectual, linguistic, image space in which they can exist, even if faintly or at a distance.
Thus, through the remix – the medium by which Marsman delivers her message – The Opposite of a Person is a testament to how ecologically informed, systems-based networks (of ideas, people, objects, words) can be used to interrogate and generate meaning beyond the structures through which the (social) sciences were formed to understand the world. In this vein, it is visible that Marsman writes with and from within a Euro-American tradition of thought (in The Opposite of a Person the descendants of this are ‘we’ and ‘us’); in this, she shows how those ideas that now pass as natural – namely, that Humans are distinct from and preside over ‘Nature’ – have been constructed, and as such are heuristic and necessarily open to change. It is hard to tell if this is an energising or a daunting way to end a book. The final pages are filled with water, a poem entitled ‘EVERYWHERE YOU GO YOU FEEL STRONGER’. It is effortless to read, fluid, running, porous, brilliant, cohesive and adhesive, with a high surface tension – so as I read the final stanza I “sit in the canoe / and wait for the river to take everything away”.
Lieke Marsman’s The Object of a Person (translated by Sophie Collins) is published by Daunt Books Originals and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.