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Dutch Gothic Literary Culture as an Epiphenomenon of Change

Dutch Gothic Literary Culture as an Epiphenomenon of Change
© Photograph by Adrian Sommeling

The Gothic novel was considered to be a predominantly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon up until recently. Time and again, its genealogy was traced back to British founding fathers and mothers. Lately, this perspective has been effectively challenged by, among others, the contributors to Avril Horner’s superb collection of essays, ‘European Gothic’ (2002). They demonstrate quite convincingly that the history of the Gothic novel is better understood as a process of “spirited exchange” between European literature on the one hand and English and North American writing on the other. This mutual exchange materialized through translations, creative misreadings and so on. We would like to inquire into this Anglo-European literary relationship by focusing on Dutch literature. Has there been a Gothic tradition to speak of in Dutch literature, and if so, how can it serve to mitigate the Anglo-centrism of Gothic studies?

At first glance, the history of Dutch fiction seems to corroborate rather than correct this view of the supposed dominance of the English Gothic novel. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dutch writers hardly ever tried their hand at this genre. Most of the Gothic novels that were published in the Netherlands were translations of English and German works, but for the occasional exception. This state of affairs changed after World War II. Seminal post-war authors such as Willem Frederik Hermans, Hélène Serafia Haasse and Gerard Kornelis van het Reve prepared the ground for a native brand of Gothic with the volume of short stories ‘Paranoia’ (1953), and novels such as ‘De verborgen bron’ (‘The Hidden Source’, 1950), ‘De vierde man’ (‘The Fourth Man’, 1981) and ‘Au pair’ (1989). In the wake of these literary giants, the genre finally caught on in twentieth-century Dutch literature, developing into a veritable trend from the 1980s onwards. Leading contemporary novelists such as Renate Maria Dorrestein, Helga Ruebsamen, Frans Kellendonk, Thomas Rosenboom, Vonne van der Meer, Manon Uphoff and Herman Franke have all produced works in the Gothic vein. Strangely enough, the increasing significance of the Gothic novel to Dutch literature has not received much notice thus far.

The Gothic novel, then, is a belated phenomenon in Dutch literature. Why? And how can we explain developments such as these? The days are long gone when it was acceptable to explain literary history as an epiphenomenon of social change. However, to approach literature as a self-contained system in which a new literary work can only be understood as a reaction to a previous work is equally reductive and outmoded. Moreover, any radicalization of literary autonomy is at odds with the best practices in the field of Gothic studies that analyse the Gothic novel as a form of “cultural work”. The genre in question has been fruitfully interpreted as a strategy for broaching the major tensions and fears that accompany the pursuit of emancipation and progress through reason (Hogle, 2002). Although the generic repertoire of the Gothic novel has changed considerably over time, its cultural function has remained more or less constant. Ever since its beginnings in the eighteenth-century, it has staged the tensions and conflicts generated by the often violent and abrupt onset of modernity. In order to fulfil this function, novelists have mobilized a whole gamut of themes, motifs and stylistic devices that evoke the emotions of horror and terror. Here one may think of tropes such as the secluded mansion that should offer its inhabitants protection from the outside world but in fact harbours major threats inside, the found manuscript that contains crucial clues but happens to be indecipherable, or stylistic play with the contrasts between light and dark, inside and outside, upstairs and downstairs, animate and inanimate, past and present.

The transformations of modernity tend to impose themselves in cataclysmic fashion as so many forms of revolutionary upheaval (the Agrarian Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, etc.). The Gothic novel performs cultural work upon these disruptions by throwing doubt on the supposed pastness of the past. Although the revolutions of modernity suggest that the link between past and present may be severed with one violent stroke, in the Gothic novel bygones are never really bygones. The dead refuse to be properly dead, what should be inanimate appears to be animate, family homes are haunted by unspeakable crimes committed in the past, and sinister echoes manifest themselves where silence should reign supreme.

The Gothic novel displays a fundamentally ambivalent attitude towards the blessings of progress. On the one hand, the genre seems to embrace modern values. By dwelling on the corruptions and perversions of the ancien régime, it seems to bid good riddance to the old order. On the other hand, the persistent lingering over institutions long gone expresses a nostalgic fascination with the pre-modern past. While investigating this ambivalence towards modernization and progress, we want to take the literariness of literature seriously as a medium-specific form of social commentary that offers a unique take on major historical changes. The genre of the Gothic novel provided late twentieth-century Dutch authors with a literary repertoire of themes, motifs, symbols and narrative devices for developing a highly salient perspective on post-war society. Let us explain.

In order to explain the marginality of the Gothic novel within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dutch literature, we would like to venture the hypothesis that there was no felt need for such a cultural form in Dutch culture in general, and Dutch literary culture in particular, at the time. If we compare the modernization of the Netherlands with comparable processes in Britain or France, we have to conclude that the phasing and pace of the first differed significantly from the second. In some respects, the Netherlands modernized much earlier, and in other respects much later, than Britain. Thus, the first modern European economy was created in the Dutch Republic during its so-called Golden Age (1580−1702). International trade was one of the Republic’s most important sources of income, and urbanization progressed considerably around that time. In 1600 at least one-third of the population were living in the cities. Moreover, Dutch farmers had already moved way beyond self-sufficient agrarian production by catering to the thriving cities, which necessitated a rationalization of farming methods as early as the seventeenth-century, long before the British Agrarian Revolution. However, other modern transformations such as industrialization, individualization and secularization occurred much later in the Netherlands. The central importance of the cities and of international trade implied that the landed gentry had already ceased to be a significant social force before the seventeenth-century. The Netherlands were basically ruled by upper-middle-class families who had gathered their wealth through commerce rather than inheritance. The Dutch class system was much more homogeneous and inclusive than its French or British counterparts, with the middling classes successfully absorbing large segments of both lower and higher social strata. The Dutch middle class exerted itself to educate, civilize and assimilate the lower strata with almost evangelical zeal.

During the nineteenth-century, the Netherlands fully participated in the revolutionary modernization of the means of transportation and communication (the introduction of the steam engine, the expansion of the railway network, the introduction of the telephone and the telegraph, etc.). Due to the ongoing struggle with the encroaching sea, the Netherlands have always been at the leading edge of civil engineering. Its contributions to nineteenth-century innovations in the fields of media and mobility perpetuated this tradition, in keeping with the proverb: “God created the world, and the Dutch created the Netherlands” (Van der Woud, 2006). Naturally, these infrastructural developments expanded the “lifeworld” of Dutch citizens both materially and intellectually. Soon enough, however, this expansion was countered by the development of the “pillarization” system towards the end of the nineteenth-century. Protestants and Catholics increasingly organized their political, social and cultural lives along the lines of separate “pillars”: that is, vertical social strata that cut through class differences, another factor which decreased the significance of class in the Netherlands. Protestants founded Protestant political parties, schools, universities, sports clubs and broadcasting organizations. They were supposed to marry other Protestants, do their shopping in Protestant shops, send their children to Protestant schools, vote for a Protestant party, etc. Catholics and Socialists organized themselves in the same manner. These pillars were instrumental in promoting the emancipation of marginalized social groups. Eventually, a fourth pillar was raised, namely that of the Liberals, not so much because they were in favour of pillarization, but because they were forced into it by the simple fact that the rest of society organized itself in this way. The pillarization system reduced the modernizing, expanding life world to monolithic, closely policed, separate spheres. This form of cultural apartheid remained intact up to the 1960s.

The different pace and phasing of the modernization of the Netherlands also comes out in the norms, values and tastes of the literary societies that exerted a strong impact on the evaluation and production of Dutch literature in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries (Singeling, 1991; De Vries, 2001). These societies were one of the means by which the educated middle classes sought to spread its utilitarian, bourgeois system of values. Literature was to serve the useful purpose of fostering the cognitive, moral and cultural elevation of mankind (or, to put it differently, the expansion of the middle class). The literary circles made literature subservient to their civilizing mission: that is, to their efforts to spread the light of learning and common decency over as many members of the Dutch population as they could possibly reach. Decency was basically identified with typically bourgeois values such as loving one’s neighbour, devotion to a higher purpose than one’s immediate self-interest, charity, thrift, diligence, loyalty, and so on. This intersection of social and literary interests did not exactly foster the rise of a native brand of Gothicism.

Initially, the literary societies were inclusive, in the sense that they wanted to civilize the whole of the Dutch nation. As such, they had no use for a fixation on the crimes of evil aristocrats that was typical of the eighteenth-century Gothic novel. At first, the non-denominational literary societies counted both Protestants and Catholics amongst their members, who were united in the common purpose of raising the cultural and moral level of the Dutch nation. The rabid anti-Catholicism of the early Gothic novel, which exposed the perversions of depraved clergymen with great relish, must have been offensive to the literary societies who did not have anything to gain from alienating their Catholic members. Furthermore, the early Gothic novel functioned as a machine for producing the thrills of horror and terror — black emotions that did not serve any perceivable social purpose. The literary circles held that literature was to cultivate the socially constructive emotions of empathy and sympathy in the reader. The enlightened, utilitarian frame of reference of the literary societies could not possibly accommodate the morally ambivalent, conflict-ridden Gothic novel, with its morbid fixation on a dark past which had supposedly been left behind.

When Dutch society became increasingly polarized along the lines of religious denominations in the course of the nineteenth-century, Protestants and Catholics organized their own literary circuits, promoting appropriate reading materials and modes of writing (Mathijsen, 2004). In fact, one could even argue that the production and consumption of poetry and prose was one of the first social spheres to become “pillarized”. Neither Catholics nor Protestants (nor Socialists, for that matter) were inclined to promote the Gothic mode. In fact, nothing could be further removed from their tastes. Entertaining stories were tolerated, but only if they taught useful moral lessons. Considering the fact that the literary societies exerted considerable impact on the production and reception of literature by organizing literary contests, handing out awards and providing a platform for discussing work in progress, we may safely conclude that this particular type of literary culture was hardly propitious to the flourishing of the Gothic novel on Dutch soil.

Also published on Medium.


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