Politics in Poetry: Epic Poetry as a Critique of Dutch culture/Politiek in Die Poesie: Epiese Poesie as Kritiek Op Die Nederlandse Kultuur

Article excerpt


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.

1. Introduction

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. …


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