How God Survived His Death in Books


Really there’s nothing I believe,
and I doubt everything, doubt even You.
But sometimes, when I think You do indeed exist,
then I think that You are Love, and all alone,
and that in like despair You seek for me
as I for You.
Gerard Reve
Translated by Tanis Guest
During the Second World War, whose end he would not live to see, the internationally renowned Dutch historian Johan Huizinga began work on his last book, without the aid of a library. It was published posthumously immediately after the war under the title Violated World. Reflections on the Chances of a Restoration of our Civilisation (Geschonden wereld. Een beschouwing over de kansen op herstel van onze beschaving, 1946). One of Huizinga’s findings was that ‘modern mankind in Europe and America is totally focused on acquisition and pleasure. He also wondered: ‘Can we expect a revival of Christian faith?

He was not alone in his concern about materialism as a view of life and the acceleration of the process of secularisation, described at the time in terms of ‘the abandonment of faith’. After the war authors of various denominations continued to respond, in writings that often included the word ‘personalism’ in the title, to nihilism in its various manifestations, from the tragic to the banal, to the Freudian reduction of the human mind to a bunch of sublimated instincts, and to the conviction that science makes any teleological or finalistic and metaphysical explanation of the existence of the world and man redundant and absurd.

Authoritative critics examined whether there was any role left for a ‘Christian’ dimension in literature, and if so, what. For example, in 1952 C. Rijnsdorp published In Three Stages (In drie etappen), a study of the role of Calvinism in literature. He found that the attempt to develop a separate Protestant literature had failed, both in the interwar period and after World War Two. In the same year A. Westerlinck wrote an essay on ‘The Catholic Novel in Our Time’ (‘De katholieke roman in deze tijd’), in which he concluded that the Catholic novel had assumed a very problematic character. Should the Catholic writer ‘edify’ and avoid such tricky themes as religious doubt, sexuality and the power of evil, or should he explore them freely? The God who is present in the contemporary Catholic novel, writes Westerlinck in 1952, appears not to be primarily the God of the certainties handed down by the church hierarchy, but ‘the God of Mystery and particularly the Deus absconditus, who, confronted with the conundrum of a gruesomely corrupt mankind, shrouds himself in secrecy.

In Flanders so eminent a Catholic author as Gerard Walschap (1898-1989) had attempted back in the 1930s to renew the Catholic novel and broaden its scope. His plea met with intense Church opposition and led in the pamphlet Farewell Then (Vaarwel dan, 1940) to his departure from the Church and the loss of his religious faith.

Somewhat later Louis-Paul Boon (1912-1979) and Hugo Claus (1929-2008), standard-bearers of the generation of Flemish writers who made their debut during or soon after the Second World War, stressed the repressive force of religion in their work. This is a central theme in Boon’s novel The Bird of Paradise (De paradijsvogel, 1958), which some commentators called a religious novel stood on its head. They saw Boon’s book as a highly critical account of religious man. In it religion is unmasked as a human creation whose function is to oppress. Religion prevents man from living a paradisial, pagan life.

In the play Friday (Vrijdag, 1969) Hugo Claus demonstrates the transition from paganism to Christianity and the bankruptcy of Christian culture. The sense of sin and necessary penance is blown up to huge proportions in a play that is at once symbolic and visionary, anti-Catholic and anti-social. In 1970 Claus adapted De Roja’s La Celestina as The Spanish Whore (De Spaanse hoer). The name ‘Celestine’ is a clear reference to heaven, in which the author locates an inhuman God, a strange hunter who cultivates His prey and kills His own progeny. Claus often refers explicitly to Christian rituals, which are an object of both recognition and rejection. In his symbolic novel About Deedee (Omtrent Deedee, 1963), adapted as a play, Interior (Interieur), in 1971 and in 1989 filmed as The Sacrament (Het sacrament), the annual Heylen family party, which flouts all bounds of decency, follows and parodies the ritual of a Catholic mass.

A donkey at the turning point

In 1951 Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995), who in his debut novella Preserves (Conserve, 1947) had been sharply critical of the both quantitatively and politically insignificant Mormons, had a serious clash with the Catholic community in the Netherlands, which felt insulted by the passage in his novel I Am Always Right (Ik heb altijd gelijk) where the drunken protagonist brands Catholics as ‘the most squalid, crazy, grovelling, screwedup part of our nation! But they fuck like there’s no tomorrow! They multiply! Like rabbits, rats, fleas, lice. W.F. Hermans, who in his essays combats every form of absolute truth and dogmatic thought and regards belief in God as a dangerous threat to human freedom, was cleared on 20 March 1952 of having had the ‘intention to insult’ — as the indictment read — in I Am Always Right, since such an intention cannot be present in the utterances of a fictional character. A writer, in the view of the judge at the time, must always be free to create people with widely different natures and opinions.

In the rapidly secularising society of the 1960s other incidents of this kind were to take place. When in the spring of 1963 Jan Wolkers gave a reading of the story ‘Artificial Fruit’ (‘Kunstfruit’) from his collection Candyfloss (Gesponnen suiker, 1963), the deputy-mayor of Bergen ostentatiously left the auditorium because of the obscene nature of the story. A year later, in 1964, the previously mentioned Calvinist leader C. Rijnsdorp responded with shock to a crucifixion scene at the end of The Obedient Deceased (De gehoorzame dode, 1964) by Willem Brakman (1922-2008). Questions were later asked in the Upper House of Parliament by Senator Algra on the blasphemous nature of the scene. In 1966-1968 the same senator was to play a major part in the so-called ‘Donkey Trial’, in which Gerard Reve (1923-2006), then still known as Gerard van het Reve, was accused of blasphemy. In ‘Letter to my Bank’ (‘Brief aan mijn bank’), included in the collection of letters Nearer to Thee (Nader tot U, 1966), the homosexual author had reflected that God, were he to be reincarnated, would assume the form of a Donkey and had then described union with Him through His ‘Secret Orifice. Before the trial Reve was received with great ceremony into the Roman Catholic Church. The judicial process continued for two years. On 2 April 1968, after the case had gone to appeal, the highest court in the land upheld the previous acquittal by a lower court. In Dutch Literature, a History (Nederlandse Literatuur, een geschiedenis, 1993) Frans de Rover concludes: ‘It would be wrong to see the Donkey Trial as a (final) backlash of the denominational spirit in the Netherlands against modern literature. The progress and conclusion of the trial are rather the affirmation of a liberal attitude, the new Zeitgeist: individualism, the right to freedom in one’s spiritual and physical experiences — in short, the philosophy of “the Sixties”.

The Old Brake Shoe

What image of God was it on which the authors of the so-called ‘valedictory’ generation in the Netherlands, Jan Wolkers (1925-2007), Maarten ‘t Hart (1944-), Maarten Biesheuvel (1939-), Jan Siebelink (1938-) — all from strict Calvinist backgrounds — and others, turned their backs?

It was an omnipotent, all-seeing, vengeful God, who demanded absolute obedience and submission to his commandments and decided arbitrarily who was to be elected or rejected for all eternity. In an interview Jan Wolkers recounted how as a child he asked his father whether he would obey if asked by God to kill his son, as with Abraham and Isaac, and how his father replied without hesitation: yes! In the story ‘White Chrysanthemums’ (‘Witte chrysanten’) from the collection Nightshade (Nachtschade), Jan Siebelink’s 1975 debut, we read: ‘My father was not gloomy by nature, but it was the religion of the Veluwe that with its scrawny, wasted arms had choked off my father’s joyful feelings.’ The God of Siebelink’s father was not the God of love from the New Testament, but the avenging one of the Old Testament. In his substantial novel The Other Side of the River (De overkant van de rivier, 1990), as well as in his other collections of stories Siebelink describes again and again the suffocating weight and the terror of an extreme orthodox faith peddled by fanatical disciples.

In the autobiographical novel A Flight of Whimbrels (Een vlucht regenwulpen, 1978) Maarten ‘t Hart, the product of a rigid Calvinist upbringing, throws the Church elders out of the house when they come to lecture his mother even as she lies dying of throat cancer, adding the bitter reflection that God is a god who hates humanity so violently that He has invented throat cancer for them. In Bearers of Bad Tidings (De aansprekers, 1979) the son, who has lost his faith, says a moving farewell to his Bible-thumping father. For the writers of the valedictory generation, radical renunciation of the faith of their childhood by no means involves the complete denial of the culture and biblical texts that have shaped them. The residue of this is still felt in later work as a nostalgia for the past with which they may or may not have come to terms.

A strict religious upbringing often resulted in frustrations because of sexual taboos, in complete incomprehension in the face of a God who offers no help when it really matters, in complexes fed by fears of hell and damnation, shame and a sense of sin. Rudy Kousbroek (1929-), who was born in Indonesia and spent his childhood in boarding schools and a Japanese internment camp, cites as his most dreadful memory the assurance of the headmistress of the boarding school that he, a boy of twelve, would die before dawn if he did not pray for forgiveness for the ‘pornographic’ stories he had told in the Photo dormitory. The young Kousbroek refused, underwent paroxysms of terror as dawn approached, but found that he was still alive and saw it as final proof that God did not exist. In his essays, inspired by Neopositivism, among which the five collections of Anathemas (Anathema’s, 1968-1984) appealed strongly to Dutch readers, the struggle against all kinds of manifestations of religious irrationality is a constant theme.

For the generation after Wolkers too faith in God remains a topic that provokes a resistance that has its roots in a Christian upbringing. In The Garden of Mercy (Het Hof van Barmhartigheid, 1996), the first book of the third volume of Toothless Time (De tandeloze tijd), the magnum opus of A.F.Th. van der Heijden (1951-), two of the principal characters, Albert Egberts, who has studied philosophy in Nijmegen, and Thjum, an actor in Amsterdam, have a long conversation about God. The Albert character, who has many similarities with the writer, has devised the name ‘The Old Brake Shoe’ for God. It is a metaphor for everything that frustrates, inhibits and opposes him, a blanket name for everything that is stronger than himself.

In his voluminous novel The Task (De Opdracht, 1995), Wessel te Gussinklo has the fourteen-year-old Ewout reflect on and question the existence of God, who has summoned his Dad to heaven without giving him the chance to say goodbye. It is obvious to Ewout that God does not really exist and that is precisely why the word God expresses ‘the supreme, a vastness that linked all things together, giving them coherence and warmth. In his adolescent fantasies he too would like to achieve such divine status, but in the actual conversations with the other participants in the summer camp in the Veluwe National Park, he reveals himself with his ideas on power, leadership and superiority as expressed in his admired models — Jesus, Churchill, Roosevelt, even Hitler — as a sad, obsessed, paranoid young man.

Mulisch takes from God

If God does not exist, man obviously feels the need for other interpretative systems such as Reason, Progress or History to explain the world and human existence. In the pamphlet Farewell and Thanks (Salut en merci, 1955) Gerard Walschap again argues that proofs of God’s existence in fact prove nothing and that Christianity is an aberration that is perpetuated deliberately or otherwise. God is superfluous and to improve his lot man must trust in science and technology. However, Walschap’s progressive optimism in Farewell and Thanks is strongly tempered by thoroughgoing cultural pessimism.

For W.F. Hermans too the exact sciences are the only universal rock for man to cling to. In Sleep no More (Nooit meer slapen, 1966) Professor Nummedal says that science is man’s titanic attempt to free himself from his cosmic isolation by comprehending. Although Hermans is a great promoter of the study of nature, his vision of it cannot be called optimistic. The title The Sadistic Universe (Het sadistische universum), which he twice (in 1964 and 1970) gives to a collection of his essays, makes that all too plain.

Harry Mulisch (1927-2010), who with Gerard Reve, W.F. Hermans and Jan Wolkers is one of the giants of post-war Dutch prose, does not believe in God and agrees with Marx when, following Feuerbach, he says that it is man who has created God in his own image, and not the other way round. God’s omnipotence has been transferred to technology and secularisation goes hand in hand with the technological revolution. The God who for centuries has kept mankind together in what the Catholic Church calls ‘the mystical body of Christ’, has been replaced by the Unio Technica. In his ambitious philosophical essay, The Composition of the World (De compositie van de wereld, 1980), though, Mulisch argues that the world of technology has become as hazardous for today’s earth-dwellers as nature was for the Neanderthals. After the death of God he predicts the death of Man, who will vanish through the agency of the artefacts (cars, nuclear bombs, computers, etc.) that he himself has produced. The way in which, by deciphering the genetic code of DNA and with the help of biotechnology, man has almost succeeded in producing human beings, how through evolution he has appropriated almost all powers ascribed to the angels and is on the point of conquering heaven itself, is the theme of Mulisch’s magisterial novel The Discovery of Heaven (De ontdekking van de hemel, 1992). In it God terminates his pact with man and ensures that the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, the legacy of Moses, are taken back to their place of origin: heaven. In The Discovery of Heaven the God who created heaven and earth is replaced by an omnipotent narrator who rules over creation. The literary scholar and critic Frans de Rover comes to the conclusion that via the detour of this capacious novel God has his Word restored by the writer Harry Mulisch, thus turning the Judaeo-Christian God quite literally into a literary God.

After the ‘death of God’ the writing ‘I’ of the author himself takes God’s place at centre stage. The author does, however, still rely on myths, stories, rites and symbols that have been handed down in religions to illuminate the precarious human condition. Marcel Moring (1957-), for example, in his novel In Babylon (1997), has created a first-person narrator who does not believe in God, but does believe in the explanatory power of stories. This Nathan Hollander, a writer of fairy tales from a Jewish family of scientists and clockmakers, believes that surrender to God leads to the loss of human dignity and self-awareness, but does not think that science provides an alternative. Science, after all, gives an insight only into the operation of things, whereas the only way of really knowing the world consists in the telling of stories. These retain their revelatory value even after postmodernism has proclaimed the end of the Great Stories.

Sincere pretence

The place occupied by God in the oeuvre of Gerard Reve is an odd one. Brought up in an atheistic family with dialectical materialism as his guiding dogma and initially tortured by his latent homosexuality, the author develops, from his much-discussed first novel The Evenings (De avonden, 1947) onwards, an image of God that runs completely counter to the trend towards secularisation. Reve’s God is an immanent, incarnate God with whom man can be on confidential and intimate terms, and this was felt by some orthodox Christians, as outlined above, to be quite simply blasphemous. In contrast to the unapproachable God of the Calvinists, the God to whom Frits van Egters, the main character of The Evenings, appeals to behold the plight of his parents, is an accessible and understanding God. In Mother and Son (Moeder en zoon, 1980) Reve gives an account of the evolution of his faith which culminated in his official acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church. One can also read what Reve understands by the experience of faith in the correspondence with Josine Meijer which extended from 1959 to 1982 and was published in 1984 as Letters to Josine M. (Brieven aan Josine M.). The same applies to his poetry, collected in 1973 under the title The Singing Heart (Het zingende hart). The feminist literary scholar Maaike Meijer concludes an analysis of Reve’s ‘Religious Songs’ in the Dutch magazine Bzzlletin with the following affirmation: ‘Through the polemical retrieval of everything that has been suppressed in religion (sexuality, woman, evil) Reve restores expressive force to religious language.

The reciprocity of the relationship between God and man, in which, in Reve’s view, God needs man just as badly as man needs God, since both are alone and long for each other, also manifests itself mutatis mutandis in the work of the promising writer Frans Kellendonk (1951-1989), who died prematurely of Aids, and who describes belief somewhere as ‘sincere pretence. In 1986 his most important novel The Body Mystic (Mystiek lichaam) caused an uproar because of the supposedly anti-Semitic utterances of the protagonist, father Gijselhart, to the Jew Bruno Pechman, who has got his daughter pregnant. As had previously happened with Hermans, Brakman and Reve, some critics promptly identified the ideas of a character with those of the author. However, the core of The Body Mystic is the lost pact between God and human beings, heaven and earth, individual and community, of which the marriage between man and woman is a symbol. Homosexuals are excluded from that pact since they are not capable of procreation. Believing is therefore a kind of creativity. In an essay of 1983 called ‘Image and Likeness. On God’ (‘Beeld en Gelijkenis. Over God’), Frans Kellendonk says that he imagines himself as God’s blind helper, who through his work creates himself in His image and likeness, just as He creates Himself through him.

The experience of belief in the work of authors like Reve and Kellendonk is in stark contrast to the ‘religion (that) in our literature (is) at best the virtuoso but impersonal discovery of a do-it-yourself, cut-out heaven, as Willem Jan Otten (1951-) cogently put it at the end of 2001 in the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland. In recent years Otten himself, in the footsteps of his wife, the writer Vonne van der Meer (1952-), has turned increasingly towards the Church. Otten’s background was even less religious than that of his wife, and yet he was baptised. Writers who had freed themselves by trial and error from the faith of their childhood were forced to look on ruefully as one of their colleagues, without their ‘hereditary baggage’, was received into the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church.

By Joris Gerits
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 2002