The mystery of L. León
In the 1980s, a man lived in a Volkswagen van behind the Spinoza building. This L. León, a dropout student, managed to produce three books on the University’s computer terminals. It’s perfectly okay to find these books a little strange, says their publisher, now 87-year old psychologist Ad van der Ven. León’s writings deal with the wisdom in Kung Fu films, the utopia of a ‘randomly drawn’ world government, and ‘pseudology’. But who was León? And was he really who he said he was?
This story is part of the new Vox, which can be found on campus this week. In this Vox we dive into the history of the 100-years old university and look towards its future.
With his index finger, he draws a map of the campus on the tabletop. ‘There,’ Ad van der Ven taps on the wood, ‘that was where he parked his Volkswagen van, in a dead-end street near the Psychology Lab. A van in which he also slept. He used to shower at the Animal Psychology department. They did experiments with rats and monkeys there, and they needed a shower on the premises for hygiene reasons.’ In the 1980s, psychologist Van der Ven worked at the Mathematical Psychology department. It was during this time that he first became acquainted with L. León, who was working from his van and the campus terminals on completing three books. Three books that, even if you really put your mind to it, you can’t read from cover to cover.
What you can do, however, is browse through them, and in the process get a glimpse of what L. León was about. He was a freethinker, a utopiast, and also a bit of a guru. ‘But,’ Van der Ven says, despite appearances ‘he was extremely down-to-earth.’ The psychologist often thinks back to his daily conversations with León. This must have been sometime in the late 1980s. Every day, Van der Ven saw the man sitting on a bench near the reception. ‘He had a book in his hands, which he pretended to read.’
Everyone just walked past him. ‘Staff, students, everyone saw him sitting there’, Van der Ven remembers, ‘but they just ignored him.’ León did look quite shabby, wearing the same jacket and tie every day. ‘He had been a lecturer in architecture at a university of applied sciences in Den Bosch,’ says Van der Ven. That was back in the days when León was still wealthy. ‘He even had a motor yacht, with which he used to go cruising on the Meuse.’
By the early 1980s, however, León had had enough of his luxurious, comfortable life. It may have been a midlife crisis, since León must have been around 50 at the time. To better understand what the human mind was made of, the architecture graduate decided to go back to the university and study Psychology in Nijmegen. However, he was not accepted onto the study programme. Van der Ven: ‘He was rejected because of his English. Even though his English was amazing. He was really proud of it. He even went to England every year. On the ferry, a customs officer once couldn’t believe he was Dutch, that’s how well he spoke English.’
By the early 1980s León had had enough of his luxurious, comfortable life
‘He was really good at languages anyway,’ Van der Ven continues. ‘He read a Spanish magazine every day, and also had a strong command of Turkish. He thought Turkish was the most logical language he knew.’ Such details show León to have been a quirky character. Like the fact that after six months of attending lectures in Pedagogy – where they did accept him – he walked out of the lecture hall never to return. But he didn’t leave campus.
Van der Ven is now 87. We are sitting in a small meeting room in the Maria Montessori building. The psychologist pushes his ears forward with his hands when I ask him a question. He has an appointment with the ear specialist soon. Other than that, he is still spry for his age. His gaze is sharp, and the gestures he makes with his trembling hands are wide. What keeps him so energetic? Van der Ven mentions golf and scientific research. He even combined the two: in 2012, he published an article in a renowned journal on the statistics behind golf scores. He is all too happy to lecture me on it, as well as on quantum mechanics, intelligence testing, and the psychology behind erotica. But he grows even more enthusiastic when he starts talking about León.
Back to the 1980s. One day, after lunch with his colleagues, Van der Ven sits down next to León. ‘I still remember thinking: what should I talk to him about? But that turned out not to be a problem. He did all the talking.’ This chat with León soon became a habit. ‘A completely new world opened up for me. The way he thought was so different from what I was used to. It’s hard to describe, but it was unlike anything else.’
‘At that time, I was really interested in Bhagwan,’ Van der Ven says. Bhagwan was an Indian spiritual leader with many followers in the US and Europe. ‘I also spoke to León about Bhagwan. But he had a very different perspective on such things. He was extremely pragmatic. When I asked him about enlightenment, he looked up. At the fluorescent tube lights.’
Lecture in Pseudology
Readers may not so easily recognise this pragmatism in León’s writings. I discovered his writings by accident while searching for a sociologist on the Radboud University website. Google’s unfathomable ways brought me to a minimalist, black-and-white page hosted on the domain of the Faculty of Social Sciences. It turned out to be a book, printed in the 1980s and put online in 2007. I was curious, so I clicked through. Each page was more bizarre than the one before. As if the sentences had been dashed off in a furious trance, filled with capital letters and sentences in bold, full of academic and literary quotations, jumping from anecdote to anecdote. What was this? And who was the author?
It was as if the sentences had been dashed off in a furious trance
León wrote three books. The first appeared in 1988 under the title The World Solution for World Problems: The Problem, its Cause, its Solution. In this book, León advocates for a ‘randomly drawn’ world government, consisting of one thousand individuals, who are solely in contact with one another via computer. Nation-states, party politics, elite formation: all these problems would be remedied, according to León, if world leaders were chosen at random from the mentally healthy population. León was also extremely concerned about the environment. He looked for the cause of nature’s degradation in a human population overshoot. Everyone therefore had a duty not to have more than one child, León argued. The book has almost 200 pages, including 72 appendices, which in turn have their own sub-appendices.
Léon’s second book was published in 1990, and entitled Tao Stoics: Late Twentieth Century Lessons in Wisdom or Subjects for Discussion. The author was inspired by the US TV series Kung Fu, in which an apprentice learns all sorts of Eastern wisdom from his master. León’s Tao Stoics consists of 256 short question-answer interactions between an apprentice and his master. You can learn more from this wise teacher than from lectures at the Psychology department, León argues. Nevertheless, the master advises his pupil to attend a lecture in ‘pseudology’ sometime. But don’t ask any difficult questions there, the master advises, or you can forget about getting a diploma.
León’s third book is equally critical of science and academia. The slim volume, entitled Negen criticatastroofjes: Gesprekken met een stupidoloog (Nine criticatastrophes: Conversations with a Stupidologist) is not available online, but can be found in the catalogue of the University Library (UB). The book is highly critical not only of psychologists, but also of sociologists. Instead of assuming that people are rational, León argues, the fundamental premise of sociology should be that people are incredibly stupid.
Negen criticatastroofjes was an ‘in-between project’ for León, says Van der Ven. The author was still working on a thick final volume. It was supposed to be about the philosophy of science, but the author did not get beyond the beginning and was never able to complete the work.
The fundamental premise of sociology should be that people are incredibly stupid
We owe it to Van der Ven that León’s unfinished oeuvre is still accessible today. ‘Not everyone had their own PC at the time,’ the psychologist explains, ‘but there were terminals at the university, connected to the big computer. I said to him: “Everything you say is getting lost. You have to write these things down.” At first he didn’t want to, but eventually I got him to do it. Then he started typing it all out himself, on the student terminals.’ León spent days, if not weeks, at those terminals. Not only did he produce an impressive amount of text, he also added substantial annotations. All of which are correct. León refers with equal ease to science-fiction author H.G. Wells, philosopher William James, and Homer’s Iliad.
Van der Ven published León’s writings for him. ‘I made something out of it, sorted and ordered it a bit.’ The books first appeared in print in a limited edition, and later became publicly available on the internet. The digital version of the Tao Stoics contains some more information about the author. Under the About the Author heading, there are three sentences about L. León:
‘The author was born in Nijmegen (The Netherlands) d.d. 9 August 1931 and died in Nijmegen d.d. 13 February 1992. His real name was Johannes Leonardus Mijling. His given name was Jan.’
Why do writers use pseudonyms? Until well into the 19th century, female authors used to hide behind male names. It was only around this time that publishers became willing to print their work. In modern day dictatorships, a secret pen name is the only way dissidents can voice their criticism. However, a pseudonym is not always required for publishing. For some authors, an alias is not something under which literary work appears, but a part of the literary work itself.
American literary scholar Katia Mitova writes about the Pessoa syndrome, named after Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Pessoa used many pseudonyms. He published poems, novels, even crossword puzzles under aliases. Pessoa himself preferred the term heteronym – other name. He used about 75 in total, although of course we don’t really know this for sure. Pessoa formulated a few rules for his heteronym production. The first rule was simple: tell as few people as possible about your heteronyms. And if you have to say something about it, make sure it’s not the truth.
A heteronym was a real personality
Literary expert Mitova argues that all these secret pen names were essential to Pessoa’s creativity. For the poet, a heteronym was not just a name to publish his work under. It was a real personality, one that Pessoa was allowed to channel. For instance, the writer thought some of his heteronyms were more shrewd than himself. They were simply better writers. The heteronyms were more creative and produced more extraordinary work, because they were different from Pessoa.
Was something similar going on with Mijling? Van der Ven starts laughing when I ask him about Mijling’s pseudonym. The psychologist doesn’t want to look so deeply for the reasons behind the alias. ‘I think Mijling didn’t want to become famous. He used to say: ‘There’s nothing as terrible as fame. It only brings disadvantages.’ I do recognise that.’ Van der Ven pauses for a moment. ‘With this interview, I will get a bit of fame, of course. But I’m doing it for him. I think it’s too important.’
The psychologist also published León’s real name. Why did he do that? ‘I asked Mijling about it, and he agreed. Maybe he also thought at the time that no one would read it.’
‘I’m going to be really honest with you: I didn’t read it all the way through either,’ Van der Ven confesses. ‘Bits and pieces of course.’ He is talking about The World Solution for World Problems. But the author’s entire work is tough going, as even his publisher acknowledges. ‘I can understand people reading it and thinking: what’s this crazy thing?’ Did any readers ever contact Van der Ven about Mijling’s books? ‘No, not a single one. You are the first. In all these years, I’ve never had any reactions to it.’
Mijling’s work is inaccessible. What also doesn’t help is that he developed his own mysterious terminology. In his books, Mijling uses a number of self-invented concepts, such as the above-mentioned ‘pseudology’, ‘Mind science’ and ‘ideation’. The latter concept in particular occurs a lot. ‘I never really understood what he meant by it myself,’ says Van der Ven. ‘But Mijling said that if you really want to understand humans, you have to do it from their ideation, their auto-imagination. Another, simple word
for that is “thinking”.’
Van der Ven explains that Mijling believed that humans were essentially different from other species because humans could imagine things. ‘In your imagination – your auto-imagination – you can travel to New York just by thinking about it. Then you can walk among the skyscrapers. But you can also think about Beijing, or the future or the past.’ In this state of imagination, ideas arise. ‘It’s always the idea that drives human behaviour,’ Van der Ven continues, ‘so if you want to understand behaviour, you have to understand the idea behind it. But this idea is what people are often unaware of.’
Perhaps the mystery author was born not from a womb, but from a brain
What ideas drove Mijling? Why did he remain on campus for years after walking out of the lecture hall? Van der Ven: ‘I don’t really know. He just stuck around here; he didn’t go back to Den Bosch.’
The more I explore Mijling’s work, the less I understand him. Not only is his work unfathomable, but so is his life. Indeed, he is untraceable on the internet and in newspaper archives. ‘Mijling’ is a common surname in the Nijmegen area, but ‘Johannes Leonardus’ and ‘Jan’ produce no hits for the period of his life. In the 1930s, the Provinciale Geldersche en Nijmeegsche Courant published any changes in the civil registry. Every few weeks, the newspaper carefully listed all deaths, marriages and births in the city. However, there is no record of the birth of Johannes Leonardus Mijling, not even in the August 1931 overview.
Pessoa created 75 heteronyms during his lifetime. For some, the Portuguese poet even wrote horoscopes, since he was an avid astrologer. But just as astrologers draw lines between celestial bodies to turn them into constellations, Pessoa also drew lines between his pen names. Indeed, his writing personalities knew each other. They even corresponded. The pseudonyms simply fitted together like Russian dolls. And I’m increasingly starting to wonder whether the same is not true for L. León and Mijling, as well as Van der Ven. Could it be that the mystery author was born not from a womb, but from a brain? A brain that needed someone who was different – different from others? The brain of a now 87-year-old psychologist?
Van der Ven talks imperturbably on about giving a speech at Mijling’s cremation. More than 30 years have passed since the psychologist had to say farewell to the eccentric writer. And yet, the way Van der Ven speaks of him, you would think Mijling was alive and kicking. Their relationship as described by the psychologist is much like that of apprentice and master in Tao Stoics. Doesn’t he recognise something of Mijling in himself? Van der Ven: ‘A student is still learning something. I’m not.’ He sighs. ‘I haven’t moved on an inch since our talks. And that while all the while I was listening to him. In essence, I’ve learnt nothing from him. But that wasn’t his fault; rather it was mine.’
As the interview comes to an end, I’ve got more questions than answers. I walk past the Spinoza Building. What do I see there at the end of the path? Is it my auto-imagination, or is that a Volkswagen van parked there?