This essay is written as an observation, diagnoses, lament and eulogy to Dutch literature by a literature enthusiast who is concerned about the (non-existing) influence that Dutch and Flemish writers have on this world. This is merely my point of view and the light that I shine on this subject will probably cast only more darkness over this subject than there already has.
An Englishman an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. It’s an old adage to many a joke, each a play at a peoples’ expense. Now imagine many people of many nations sitting around a bar. For once the national poking isn’t on bravery in war, the state of politics or the ugliness of certain women. On this occasion, the discussion revolves on the highest form of art; the art of the world, literature. Jingoistic boasting hails from all fronts, The Englishman reels off Chaucer, Wordsworth and Milton amongst a mountain of others. The Frenchman names Proust, The German Goethe and the Russian Tolstoy. A barrage of names and novel ensues, and the biggest names are often found in the smallest of places; Joyce, Pessoa, Kafka. Through patriotic huffs, even the humblest Scotsman finds Robbie Burns, the Swede Strindberg, even the Romanian has Cioran. There is however, a single exception, the victim of this sick joke; the Dutchman. Asked to recount a famous poet of note, a novelist or philosopher, and the Dutchman remained silent. There was nothing to say. The Dutchman left the table and started crying. I will explain why the Dutchman was forced to leave, and why, in all likelihood, he won’t be returning soon. His departure was a consequence of himself, his language and his writers.
On the problems of Dutch identity & nationality
“The boundaries of my language represent the boundaries of my world.” ~ Wittgenstein
To understand a language and its literature we must first understand the native speakers of this language. Only then can we grasp, understand the world of this language and know why its literature doesn’t have a significant impact on the international stage. One easily hears and reads the difference between German and French writers, which is logical; they are two different worlds. Now let us look at a mostly unknown world. The Netherlands is a very prosperous country. With one of the highest standards of living it is one of the best places to be. It has a welfare state and proper education system that teaches pupils a lot. But – a large but – what hasn’t been learnt (or
understood for that matter) until now is the appreciation of art and the effect it has on society. And it would be foolish to only blame the education system. We Dutch are to blame as well. Never in the world has there lived a people so unaware and ignorant to its own art. There once had to be a time when they weren’t. There has to be, otherwise all these cathedrals, churches and beautiful palaces wouldn’t have been built. But in vain… these forefathers have died long ago and now we are left with their practical, dull and shallow offspring. “What is art? What is language? What is poetry?”, so the Dutchman asks. His world is a modern one, an economical one. “Who has time to write a book?”, he asks himself. “And who has time to read one?”, he asks himself again. “Is it profitable to write a book? Can I make a living out of it?” Reading is leisure and there is no time to sit around and think. Money has to be made until the sun sets. Then he sits down on his lazy couch and worries about things he has seen on the news, worries about what Netflix series to watch, worries about if there are still snacks left in the cupboard.
But I hear you think: “Isn’t this a problem of all modern men, of all modern countries?”, and I would have to say yes. Of course every modern nation has a high and low culture. People who are interested in art and who are not, but there is a claim to make that in the Netherlands the people have never cared about their art or language for that matter at all. And if they cared about it, it would be painting or music but never literature. There are other small countries that don’t have a big impact on international literature. Think about Denmark and Norway, but these countries respect their language a lot more and their national literary tradition as well. Only in high circles of Dutch culture – a place full of pseudo-intellectuals and leftists – are people really concerned about the rape of our language which is committed by more than 90% of Dutch citizens. This disregard for national literature or art is not only a problem of literature or art but also one of national pride. The Dutch are one of the most anti-nationalistic people that there are. It would be a hard chase for a people that hate its own identity more than the Dutch. When someone claims to be proud of the Netherlands or claims to be amazed about our history one immediately is called a right wing extremist. Even I, the diagnoser of this masochistic disease, feel a kind pathetic disgust to be proud of my own country. If a people can not be proud of its country and its history, how can it celebrate its literary tradition? How can it build up a canon? It can’t and therefore doesn’t have one.
On the problems of small languages
“You should keep in mind that the Netherlands is a small country and in many ways it is a disadvantage to be born in a small country. […] The Netherlands has nothing at all, I find that so terribly sad.” ~ W.F. Hermans
When we look at countries like England or Germany we can see a lot of writers from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century that are read spontaneously by readers across the world. For England we have Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Wordsworth and Dickens. In Germany we have poets like Herder, Hölderlin, philosophers like Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Fichte and Schopenhauer and of course Goethe and Schiller. In the Netherlands there is only one writer from the 19th century who is spontaneously read. He is maybe the most famous writer from the Netherlands, Multatuli. Other than outside of school or university no other writers are read by a literary audience. The only reason that the playwriters from the 17th century such as Joost van den Vondel and P.C. Hooft are still read is because students are forced to read them. Of course writers like Spinoza and maybe Erasmus are still read, but these philosophers wrote their books in Latin. Therefore I don’t see them as part of the Dutch literary tradition. Of course they are important, but for this essay I only focus on books written in Dutch. The reasons for this poor literary tradition cannot be the fault of the Dutchman alone, it can also be found in the problem of having a small language base. The most famous work from Joost van den Vondel is the Gysbreght van Aemstel. A play that is based on the fall of Troy, situated in medieval Amsterdam. This work is almost unreadable for modern Dutch speakers without annotations. Even works from the beginning of the 20th century have a whole different spelling and an archaic vocabulary. From this it can be concluded that the Dutch language has changed much faster than other languages like French, English, German and Spanish. The hypothesis that I propose for this quicker evolution in language is the size of the language speaking population. The smaller and less dense a population the faster a language changes. This is due to argotic language, dialects – which the Dutch have a lot – and mistakes in grammar and spelling. If there are less people to correct each other on their errors than these errors become the norm. Also with an additional disregard and disrespect for language, grammar and spelling change even quicker. If a language changes too much, than we can’t understand our past. We can’t read our old writers and poets and can’t build a Dutch canon. How to change this rapid evolution of language into a slower one like German or English, I do not know. The experts on Dutch language speech for stricter rules in grammar and spelling, but I propose that this only causes further alienation from the Dutch speaking base.
On the problems of contemporary writers
“To the mediocre, mediocrity is a form of happiness.” ~ Nietzsche
We Dutch are like our land below the see. Flat, practical, tasteless, boring and small. And of course our writers are as well. In the last 20 years there hasn’t been written one major work that was groundbreaking in Dutch literature. The last great (post-war) writers had their best work published from 1950 to 1980. Maybe in this period we find a handful of works that are translated and read by a small international group of readers. After 1980 I can still name a few books that were groundbreaking. After 2000 I can name none. Of course there are some contemporary writers which have written good novels, but nothing grand, nothing impactful, nothing great like a Multatuli or Hermans. One could argue that the post-war writers had a huge pile of material to work from. Namely WW2. This of course is true. Reve, Mulisch and Hermans ( the great three post-war writers) wrote a lot about the war. But this shouldn’t be an excuse for contemporary writers to not have any material. Modern life gives heaps upon heaps of material to work from. Just look at the American novelists. But alas, they don’t. Even postmodern writers can’t be found in this sea and marsh of a land. Almost all writers from the Netherlands still write 19th century style novels. No experimentation, no new form, no nothing. I won’t say that everything that is written now is bad, but it will never impactful on an international level. We Dutch are doomed to read our mediocre contemporaries until… I don’t know when.
Conclusion & on the problem of optimism
“Optimism is cowardice .” ~ Spengler
The Dutchman… I can only imagine how he felt when leaving that table, when leaving that restaurant. It must have been a feeling of shame, a feeling of self-doubt. Knowing that his best days were behind him. Like an elderly man sitting in a chair, gazing out of a dusty window, lamenting his bygone years. I weep for him. But is there nothing to celebrate? Nothing to cheer for? Nothing to hope for? There must be a flock of fresh new writers on the horizon, right? As an optimist, I can only say yes. Yes there are new writers coming. Saving and redeeming Dutch literature and bringing it to a higher sphere! But optimism has a lot of problems (we could write hundreds of essays on the problems of optimism). One of these problems is naivety. In my heart I wish for a new dawn of national pride in the form of great literary works. But my brain knows that it’s very unlikely. “The best times are behind me”, weeps the elderly man. Therefore I can only be an old whaler on a stormy sea with a thirsty heart and salty tears. Forever waiting for my white whale to come.