Politics in Poetry: Epic Poetry as a Critique of Dutch culture/Politiek in Die Poesie: Epiese Poesie as Kritiek Op Die Nederlandse Kultuur
Heynders, O. M., Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies
This article describes a Dutch volume of epic poetry, using a disciplinary strategy (concepts and devices from narrative studies) and a cultural analytical and rhetorical approach. The volume "Roeshoofd hemelt" by Joost Zwagerman (2005) is a political poetic text that raises fundamental questions on issues of mental illness and on consumerism in contemporary Dutch society.
Hierdie artikel beskryf die epiese poesie in 'n Nederlandse digbundel deur gebruik te maak van 'n dissiplinere teoretiese strategie (konsepte en tegnieke uit crie verhaalteorie) en 'n kulturele analitiese en retonese benadering. Die bundel "Roesthoofd hemelt" van Joost Zwagerman (2005) is 'n politieke teks wat fundamentele vrae vra oor die problemtiek van geestesgesondheid en die verbruikerskultuur in die kontemporere Nederlandse gemeenskap.
In Murder in Amsterdam: the death of Theo van Gogh and the limits of tolerance, Buruma (2006:96) depicts his native country as the "land of guilty memories", a society in which tolerance is exhausted. The essay is a reconstruction of what happened on the morning of 2 November 2004, when filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in the streets of Amsterdam by a young fundamentalist Moroccan student. Buruma tries to find out what the atmosphere in Holland was like at the time, how politicians reacted, and why Van Gogh on his bike was the prime target. One could say that on a first level the essay can be interpreted as a journalistic discourse, offering information on Dutch multicultural society. On another level, however, Buruma describes Van Gogh's background, and links this to his own education in the sixties in the prosperous bourgeois city, The Hague, where tolerance was the magic word. We can read this as the sociological perspective. One might emphasise how Buruma takes on the role of a historian of mentality in connecting the unpleasant discussion on the limits of multicultural society and the position of immigrants from Muslim background (1) to the traumas of World War II, in which many immigrant Jews were deported and the rest of the Dutch population stood by and let it happen. Indifference proves to be the other side of tolerance. Developing the line of argumentation from there, Buruma discusses from a philosophical point of view the shifts in right- and left-wing thinking, and points out that tolerance, freedom of speech and the ideal of equality got blurred in a discourse on the negotiation of values. The outcome of this was that many prominent Dutch intellectuals have come to consider Islam as a threat to the values of the Enlightenment.
One of the most confronting observations Buruma makes from the critical perspective of a relative outsider, is that irony is an essential part of the Dutch make-up. Filmmaker Van Gogh was a champion of irony. However, he also misused it, as Buruma (2006:112) makes clear:
[Irony] is indeed part of the tradition, and a great deal of humor depends on it. But there is a less positive side to this tradition. Irony can be a healthy antidote to dogmatism, but also an escape from any blame. (...) Irony is a great license for irresponsibility. Theo van Gogh liked to call himself the village idiot, as though that absolved him of everything. And yet he wanted to be taken seriously too. This wanting it both ways is a common disease in Dutch intellectual discourse[.]
This is a very sharp analysis of the typical Dutch feature of ironisation in debates, something that in the end is based on the ideal of the freedom of expression. To Buruma it is clear that irony is often rude and hurting or even devastating. In a speech delivered in Melbourne, in August 2009, he stresses the importance of realising what is said to whom under what circumstances. Something that can be said by one minority, is not accepted from others; something that can be expressed by an artist, a filmmaker, ironically trying to push the limits of what is permissible, will not be accepted from a journalist or an academic.
Political discourse in society is a complicated, many-leveled research object. It is, therefore, something that has to be discussed from various disciplinary perspectives. In this article, I will start from poetry and investigate how a significant contemporary Dutch writer presents a critical image of Dutch society in an epic poem. Joost Zwagerman, who after the death of Theo van Gogh decided that there was no longer any point in writing fictional novels, and became an important newspaper essayist and columnist in the years after 2004, (2) was involved in the tragedy himself. Van Gogh's film Submission, based on a scenario written by former Somali immigrant and then politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, considered deliberately insulting and embarrassing many Islamic people, was first shown in a highbrow cultural programme on Dutch TV, in which Zwagerman was the host interviewer.
I will use these introductory remarks as the backdrop to an argument that runs as follows. Tolerance in Dutch society has been declining since the end of the 1990s. While the state, or more precisely politicians such as former Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende (Christian Democrat) focus on norms and values, the everyday micropractice in society is becoming more harsh, rude and even xenophobic. Dutch citizens suffer from overconfidence, greed, fear and suspicion. This reality is discussed by current (mostly female) literary writers and public intellectuals, such as Marja Pruis (Casino, 2004), Desanne van Brederode (The awakening, 2004), Marjolijn Februari (De literaire kring, 2007), and Louise O. Fresco (The utopists, 2007), who reflect on political developments and criticise Dutch society in their works. (3) In this article I will discuss a poetic epic text, "Roeshoofd hemelt" (Flushhead heavening, 2005) and examine the ideas and narrative procedures by means of which in these poems the societal critique is put into effect.
2. The volume Roeshoofd hemelt
In the opening lines of this, his fourth volume of poetry, Zwagerman seduces the reader to enter a department store in which one can buy literally anything: huge relics and trade boxes, IKEA-cabinets and planet sex, a ladies' glove from the year 1803 and pornsignalling rollators. A little under a hundred pages later, we are thrown out of the supermarket with the same cheery meaningless rhetoric that invited us in:
Bij T-Mart ontvangt u zestig melkwegpunten als u schappend stukjes buitenwacht in uw singelasingelawinkelwagen deponeert. At T-Mart you get sixty Galaxy Bonus Points for de-shelving bits of outside world into your jolly, jolly-happy-soul trolly. (4)
The journey into the market results in a story of a man suffering from madness, depersonalisation and delusion. At …
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Publication information: Article title: Politics in Poetry: Epic Poetry as a Critique of Dutch culture/Politiek in Die Poesie: Epiese Poesie as Kritiek Op Die Nederlandse Kultuur. Contributors: Heynders, O. M. - Author. Journal title: Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies. Volume: 31. Issue: 3 Publication date: December 2010. Page number: 79+. © 2008 Literator Society of South Africa. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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