Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, who died on Saturday 30 October, was not just a prominent Dutch novelist but also a Doctor of Philosophy. A university was founded specially for him. For one evening. A joke, but serious at the same time. A contradiction typical of Mulisch's work.
'It did start as a joke, but it got more and more serious', says Erno Eskens, now at the International School of Philosophy (ISVW). He used to organize the monthly philosophical café Felix & Sofie in the Felix Meritis cultural centre in Amsterdam. 'Mulisch developed a great idiosyncratic philosophy in The composition of the world, in which contradictions could co-exist. After all, a high C and a low C are the same note in some senses, even though they are different in others. We all thought it was an original book. Wouldn't it be nice to give him a doctorate for it, we thought.
In no time the people who dreamt up this plan had found ten professors willing to take part. Most of them were even prepared to come in their academic gowns, although the rules say these are only to be worn at academic ceremonies. A few of the professors hesitated on this point. And Mulisch himself had to have his arm twisted: he wasn't sure he wanted to play along with the joke.
So Felix & Sofie submitted a request to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, asking Minister Loek Hermans to establish a university especially for this doctoral ceremony. Eskens: 'The ministry was doubtful: what if we then started applying for all sorts of grants? So we put it in the statutes that the university would only exist for two hours and was not eligible for any grants. Then Hermans was up for it.
Non sine cum laude
11 June 2002 was the big day. The minister himself - outgoing at the time - signed the certificate and there were ten heavyweight professors involved (three in the board and seven to ask probing questions in the viva voce that is part of a Dutch PhD ceremony. Mulisch graduated Non sine cum laude, or 'not without with honours'. Eskens: 'That was a Mulischian contradiction in terms thought up by the professors.'
Mulisch wondered whether he had the right to use the title Doctor of Philosophy from then on. Eskens thinks he did: 'The university really existed, even if only for two hours. And the professors really did bestow the doctorate.'
The Heerenstraattheater cinema in Wageningen will be showing the film based on Mulisch's magnum opus The discovery of heaven this week. Screenings: Thursday 14.30 and Sunday 15.45.