Willem Scholten, 42, loves to read. He reads a lot, and generally has multiple books going at any given time. The Studium Generale Science programme maker keeps track of the titles he has read in a small notebook. So far, in a year shaped largely by the coronavirus pandemic, he has read 42. “Those are all different types of books. Some will be thin, while others will be difficult world literature that requires complete focus. I just finished Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a masterpiece of about 930 pages. It took me eight months to finish it. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Nevertheless, Scholten feels it is important that he read such heavy stuff a few times per year. “Such books helped shape our history. They are our heritage. Moreover, it’s true that the more you know, the more you see. For instance, if you are familiar with the stories told in the Bible, you will have a better understanding of the works of art in a museum. Now, I’ve never read the Bible in full, but I did have a Catholic upbringing.”
Willem Scholten has served as Studium Generale’s Science programme maker for twelve years. Before Scholten started working at Erasmus University, he organised events for TENT in Witte de Withstraat, the platform for contemporary art.
Narcissus and Goldmund
While at secondary school, Scholten was introduced to literature full of Eastern mysticism and spiritual worlds. He attended a boarding school in Belgium where he sat school-leaving exams in fourteen subjects. “I disliked my Dutch teacher, until he started talking about mysticism in literature. That got me curious. I wasn’t sure who I was and what I wanted from life and asked that teacher what to read. He recommended Hermann Hesse. In my final year I read Narziss and Goldmund.” The book is about the turbulent friendship between two polar opposites: Narziss, a disciplined scientist, and Goldmund, an artistic soul who scours the world for beauty and love. Scholten identified with both protagonists.
When Scholten was 18, he chose to follow in the artistically minded Goldmund’s footsteps. “After six years at boarding school, I needed some adventure in my life,” he says with a smile. He did some travelling and enrolled in a Cultural Sciences degree. “I was quite attracted to freedom and art. Even as a child, I loved museums, and my uncle and aunt were artists. They would take to me exhibitions.”
At age thirty, Scholten was once again unsure who he was and what he wanted from life. He reread Narziss und Goldmund, and this time round, he identified more with the intellectual and introverted Narziss. “At different stages of your life, you will identify with different people.”
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Narziss and Goldmund is a Bildungsroman that focuses on the development of personality. “Maybe I prefer books about education because I still don’t know what my own goal is. If you know that you wish to become a heart surgeon, the steps ahead of you will be quite well defined. My road is a lot more indistinct. That used to make me feel insecure, but it doesn’t anymore. I’ve been around for 42 years.”
And, to get back to Narziss and Goldmund: “I now know that you’re allowed to be both. Sometimes you’ll be Narziss, and at other times you’ll be Goldmund. There’s no need to choose. I’m interested in too many things to be able to choose. We’re discussing books now, but I could talk for days about LP records or visual arts, as well, or about beautiful countries. We’re allowed to be interested in more than one thing.” He laughs, then adds quickly: “I should point out that I have nothing to say about sports.”
Number of books read annually: normally, about 25; so far this year, 42. Pandemic reads.
Main reasons to read: learning, relaxation
Favourite genre: magical realism
Most recent read: The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane
Dragging science into society
The main purpose of Studium Generale is to help students develop in cultural and social matters, in accordance with the German Bildung (‘education’) ideal. However, in his capacity as the programme’s Science programme maker, Scholten has recognised the combination of Narziss’s intellect and Golmund’s joie de vivre in his own work, too. “The best thing about it is to deliver actual content, to drag science into society. That is Studium Generale’s by-catch.”
Studium Generale often helps Scholten himself arrive at new insights. “A while ago we had a lecture on the popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami. At the end of the evening I told Ype de Boer, the philosopher who emceed the event, that I’m a great fan of Murakami’s. Because I’d read all his books and really liked them, I was looking for something similar. Ype de Boer said he didn’t know an equivalent off the top of his head, but would get back to me later. After a week he sent me an e-mail saying, ‘If you like Murakami, read Hermann Hesse.’ That was a bit of an eye-opener for me. My Hermann Hesse books are in a completely different section of my bookcase than all my Murakami books. I’d never linked the dots before.”