Ger Groot

Beauty and Truth neighbours once more

22 maart 2006

Considering there are many highly literary works of non-fiction from Flanders and the Netherlands, Ger Groot asks how justifiably the position is that literature means ‘fiction’. A look at a number of highlights.

According to the renowned Dutch literary historian Knuvelder, a small disaster occurred around 1270, when Jacob van Maerlant, author of mainly narrative history books, wrote Der naturen bloeme (Flowers of Nature). The event marked the introduction of the treatise or, as another literary historian put it, the ‘shackling of literature in the chains of didactics’. It has been suggested that Middle Dutch literature never recovered from it or, indeed, that Dutch literature in general never has. The pedantic, unimaginative presentation of facts allegedly cast a huge shadow over the unrestricted imagination of real literature.

Frits van Oostrom, who wrote a biography of Van Maerlant, does away with this rather imbalanced vision of the most productive and possibly most influential author of Middle Dutch literature. Although Van Maerlant’s emphasis was on truth, Der naturen bloeme is a story well told. The author attempted to avoid unrestricted fantasy and unlikely hear-say - just as, after all, he had done in his history books, always keen on separating legend from history. And, Oostrom continues, are beauty and truth really the arch enemies romanticists have made them out to be? Is not this just a prejudice still dominating our idea of literature?

Rightful place

Van Oostrom not only restores Van Maerlant to his rightful place in the history of Dutch literature, but renders him a man of flesh and blood whom, the reader feels, he gets to know quite well. This is all the more commendable since there is very little information about Van Maerlant’s life and person. Van Oostrom was therefore obliged to reconstruct him from circumstantial evidence - information about the times and places where he lived and worked, and the hundreds of thousands of verses he wrote. Van Oostrom’s reading of Van Maerlant’s work displays great acumen and a keen sense of words revealing the author. Surprisingly, these are not all found in the most revealing passages - Van Maerlant also speaks his mind, quite openly at times, in the more informative and ‘didactic’ verses derided by Knuvelder. Perhaps he did so because he thought no-one looking for his opinions would look there.

Van Oostrom’s rehabilitation of the neglected author is most convincing, a fact confirmed by its great success. The Maerlant biography sold unexpectedly well, and won the 1996 AKO Prize for literature - shocking to some, because does not an award for a work of non-fiction say something about the state of ‘real literature’? Besides, Maerlant’s wereld (Maerlant’s World) was not the only work of non-fiction on the shortlist. Others included Willem Otterspeer’s Bolland biography. The previous year’s list featured Darwins hofvijver (Darwin’s Pond) by Tijs Goldschmidt, and the year before that there was Een verlangen naar ontroostbaarheid (Desiring to be Inconsolable), a collection of philosophical essays by Patricia de Martelaere. Biographies did well in terms of prizes and sales, perhaps because as stories they come closest to the ideal of the novel.

Real or not?

How tenable is the position that, ideally, literature is fiction? No doubt this has the charm of simplicity, but it does not always work. For instance, who would not regard Huizinga’s Herfsttij der middeleeuwen (The Waning of the Middle Ages. A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) - one of the greatest successes of Dutch literature last century - a work of literature? On the other hand, is a book automatically a work of literature if it describes events which have not really happened? And what is ‘not real’? What about treatises, which are usually considered part of the same genre as essays, are they real or not?

In the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant Hugo Brandt Corstius once wrote that literature is about how a story is told, while non-literature is about what is being told. While this opinion is not uncommon, it is debatable. If literature is about how, then you are not far from formalism. The novel that is all about form is, no doubt, every literary critic’s dream, but readers usually want something else. Besides, while content is more important in non-fiction than in fiction, essays, historical novels and scientific treatises are by no means formless or indifferent to formulation. There is simply no content that can do without form, just as no form exists without content. In a period when many fixed ideas (e.g. the author as genius, the ‘I’ cult) are becoming obsolete, the notion that literature means fiction can also be expected to lose ground. Van Oostrom’s biography’s success and the emancipation of non-fictional genres are, therefore, not so much signs of a weakening of ‘real literature,’ but exponents of a wider notion of what literature really is, and what can and cannot be considered literature.

Following on from this, the guidelines for the new GB Prize, successor of the AKO Prize, have been changed, now stipulating that fictitiousness is no longer an advantage. The criteria have become less clearly defined, however, and people sometimes all too lazily use the measure of footnotes, saying that books with footnotes cannot be considered literature.

Metaphors And Evolution

One thing is certain. Several works and authors of non-fiction that emerged over recent years have literary merit. One of the most surprising works was the almost unclassifiable Darwins hofvijver (Darwin’s Pond), by the evolutionary biologist Tijs Goldschmidt. An account of his long sojourn at Lake Victoria, it tells the story of his study of the ecological system and his attempt to trace the processes which determine the evolution of certain fish species. The book is a mixture of personal diary, research report, introduction to evolutionary biology, and general contemplation of the advantages and disadvantages of Western development aid. The latter, Goldschmidt discovered to his horror, not only financed his research, but in its attempt to increase the return of the local fishery, apparently catastrophically upset the ecological balance of Lake Victoria.

What makes the book so unusual is the original blending of a number of distinct genres, which Goldschmidt did not attempt to merge, but serve to strengthen the book as a whole. Dramatically, yet unsentimentally, Goldschmidt describes the sense of the surreal which he experienced as a biologist researching fish species which, because of the economic developments, were on the verge of extinction. The question which of the two species would be the first to reach its full potential (and become extinct) not only makes for a gripping read, but underlines the absurdity which, Goldschmidt feels, beset his stay in Africa. It is a beautiful, understated, yet moving account of an uninterrupted series of failures. Goldschmidt nevertheless manages to maintain the reader’s interest in the smaller details of his field research which, despite everything else, keep science slowly moving forward.

Ironic picture

Goldschmidt is not alone in painting an ironic picture of scientific progress. In psychologist Douwe Draaisma’s work, the history of science resembles what Nietzsche once called the ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen (the eternal recurrence of the same). A few years ago, Draaisma wrote the wonderful Het verborgen raderwerk (Hidden Cogs, 1990), a history of the clock and how the increasingly complicated machinery produced by man helps visualise the workings of the human brain. Draaisma continued his research, resulting in De metaforenmachine: een geschiedenis van het geheugen (Metaphors of Memory. A history of ideas about the mind, 1995), an adaptation of his PhD thesis of the University of Utrecht. As expected, the book features the obligatory footnotes, but on a modest scale. Apart from that, however, Draaisma avoided being restricted by the traditions of academia.

De metaforenmachine is a fascinating journey through the history of philosophy and psychology, which have attempted to develop an understanding of the puzzling phenomenon that is memory by means of various models and metaphors produced by the latest technological developments. Each time, however, these metaphors have proven inadequate or even impeded an understanding of our mental processes - for example, around the turn of the century, memory was imagined as a photograph, a little later as a film. The main problem with these ideas was that it was unclear who the observer was.

The problem was solved by the first electronic calculators - our brain is a computer, our memory a kind of hard disk. But this metaphor too had its limitations, and has been replaced by that of the hologram. This one, however, has reintroduced the problem of the old photo and film metaphors, because who sees the hologram? As Draaisma dryly establishes, the memory of the psychology of memory does not seem to be very good. Sceptical about modern scientific tendencies to represent the mind through objects, he ends his book with a remarkable plea in favour of long-discredited psychological introspection. In it he establishes that the ‘I’ he experiences himself is, after all, never the ‘I’ constructed by science. And why, at this point of stalemate, would the somewhat rickety science of psychology be the only one right?

Matter Of Dreams

Draaisma’s book is, therefore, more than a chapter in the history of psychology - it is also a lucid reflection on science. And although Draaisma takes science seriously, he refuses to be trapped by its pretensions and fashions. He knows what he is talking about, which is why he can pose such pertinent questions on the borderline between science and treatise. And he is not alone. A.J. Dunning, emeritus professor of cardiology, published a collection of treatises about the incompetence of medical science (Broeder ezel, Brother Donkey) and, later, one about forms of extreme human behaviour (Uitersten, Extremes). Both works reveal a conscious distance between the author and human rationality, which he certainly does not consider omnipotent.

In his collection of (travel) treatises, Stof van dromen (Matter of Dreams, 1997), Dunning goes one step further, venturing into the difficult border land between science and the philosophy of life. People learn more and more about the (material) grounds of existence but, as Dunning says, this does not mean that the great riddles of life have been solved. Perhaps they have become even greater, because a number of old answers, particularly religious ones, have given way to our increased knowledge and cannot easily be replaced. What remains is the recognition that our own perplexity is the same as that of people in the past. Although our hopes may no longer include the expectation of salvation - used by previous centuries’ art and literature to solve the riddles of life - the experience they spring from is the same. Recognising this may be some (if small) consolation.

Dunning’s best essays are those which assess this solidarity with the past - his meditations on Fra Angelico, Petrarca and the book of Job - in short, the final chapters of the collection, where he detaches himself from his own scientific background. The reverse is true for the treatises by Arnold van den Hooff, emeritus professor of histology who, in his collection De schok der biologie (The Shock of Biology, 1995) ventures into the border land between physics and philosophy. A scientist, Van den Hooff starts from a materialist point of view, but without subscribing to the crude reductionism of older materialism. Indeed, his insight into the enormous complexity of the subject shows that there can be no such thing as ‘crude reductionism’. According to Van Hooff, rather than despise the mind, his approach is to emphasise the nobility of the subject. This is a congenial starting point, sometimes leading him to remarkable new insights into ancient matters, particularly when he allows himself to be inspired by his own field - cancer and brain research. That is when it becomes apparent, often in passing, what sharp philosophical insights this scientific research is capable of. Tackling the ancient delusion of immortality, for instance, Van Hooff claims that cancer cells’ refusal to die is a symptom of a pathological, destructive disorder which, he suggests, we should take more seriously in our philosophical contemplations - immortality is an illness, not an ideal. Seldom has philosophical wisdom been worded more beautifully and scientifically.

Nevertheless, there are not many Dutch treatises exploring the borderland between exact science and literature - neither are there many foreign ones, for that matter. The leap across the disciplinary divide is more easily made by those in the humanities, particularly historians who, in their language and means of expression, have a greater natural affinity with literature. According to Willem Otterspeer’s impassioned plea concluding his collection Utopieën van een onvermoeibaar mens (Utopias of an Indefatigable Man, 1996), it is their natural habitat. ‘Once, literature and history were inextricable, [but] at a certain moment […], history writing submerged into science, while literature plunged into language’. Otterspeer deplores this - with reason. The scientification of history has made it, he feels, a discipline without teeth, and, one may add, without relevance. Knowledge of history, after all, becomes relevant and effective only when it is acquired by many (in that too it deviates from knowledge of the natural sciences), and that only happens when its story is told in an interesting, involved way.


There are plenty of notes in Jo Tollebeek’s essay collection De ekster en de kooi (The Magpie and the Cage, 1996), but these essays on history writing are so eloquent, that the notes do not detract from it one bit. A few years ago Tollebeek attracted the spotlight with his impressive study De toga van Fruin (Fruin’s Toga, 1990), a collection of post-1860 Dutch historical thought. That Tollebeek’s collection focuses on history writing is hardly surprising - in Groningen, where Tollebeek has been teaching over the last few years, history writing is regarded not only as a reflection of what is found through research, but as an independent creation shaping the past. What we call history is what is created by the history writer today. This does not mean, however, that Tollebeek allows the historic past to be entirely created by the historian’s imagination, which this Groningen approach (vehemently opposed by Otterspeer) is sometimes accused of. In a wonderful article about the historic sensation, a concept derived from Huizinga, he shows that to the constructing historian, history remains a reality. Documents, buildings, places, utilities and letters can, he writes, acquire special meaning simply because they have been visited, written or touched by the people he writes about. At that point, history becomes tangible and that moment, as Huizinga already wrote, may be the experience that drives the historian. Ironically, this is where Tollebeek and Otterspeer, whose inspiration is very different, coincide and write with the same passion, in almost the same words, about the subject they love.

Tollebeek is Flemish of descent and education, and the difference between him and Otterspeer reflects a cultural diversity which, without being sharp and absolute, can be found in many Dutch and Flemish works of non-fiction. The former is often Anglo-Saxon in orientation, while Flanders is more noticeably influenced by continental, particularly French thinking. However, this is not necessarily clear-cut, as is evident not only from the great influence of thinkers like Derrida and Foucault on the Groningen approach to history, but also from the style and structure of Tilburg-based Léon Hanssen’s Huizinga en de troost van de geschiedenis (Huizinga and History’s Consolation, 1996), a critical study of the work and influence of Johan Huizinga. It is neither a biography, nor a rendering of Huizinga’s thoughts or a scientific test of them, but a broad, erudite and surprising study of Huizinga’s impact on Europe’s recent (cultural) history. The originality of Hanssen’s method is immediately evident from the first chapter, in which he poses the seemingly banal question what Huizinga’s real name was. Almost no-one called him by his name. Some seem to have called him Han, but for the rest ‘his name was attached very loosely,’ as he himself once wrote. This sheds a significant light on his personality. Not very keen on familiarity, Huizinga made history with a book which, although dealing with the late Middle Ages, expresses a melancholy rooted in his own life. Hanssen managed to link this information to Huizinga’s personality mainly because he dares to ask seemingly insignificant questions. This method is one of the most important fruits of Deconstruction, the school of thought which has developed in France over the last decades and inspired Léon Hanssen.

Dutch critics were, nevertheless, not all positive about Hanssen’s study, partly because there is much scepticism about this style of thought in the Netherlands. That critics are not always experts themselves, however, has been convincingly proven by Flemish essayist Stefan Hertmans in a damning essay about George Steiner. For years Hertmans has hotly disputed ‘post-modern nonsense,’ which is partly why he is honoured in the Netherlands as a great and erudite thinker. Hertmans’ philippic is one of the highlights of his collection Fuga’s en pimpelmezen (Fuga’s and Blue Tits, 1995), covering the border land between art criticism, culture criticism and politics. His essays’ great charm is in their power of observation and description on the one hand - most impressive in Hertmans’ essays on music (Janácek, Jerrett and Shostakovich) - and his refusal to leave it at this impressionist empiricism on the other. With the help of people like Barthes, Žižek, Virillo and Derrida he manages to highlight the unexpected, contradictory and surprising in that which he observes.

Essay writing in the Netherlands is often guided by observations and bright ideas, but Flemish essays tend more towards intellectualism which, in the best of them, does not weigh them down, but gives them more breadth. This is the case, for example, in Bart Verschaffel’s collection of essays Figuren (Figures, 1995), which was not paid the attention it deserves. Verschaffel writes with great power of observation and a strong ability of reflection about architecture, urban development, painting, history writing and theatricals. There is, for example, a brilliant treatise about where history goes once it has happened, and how various ways of thinking about the past manifest themselves at different locations (underground, in the old city, at the historic fairground).

Verschaffel’s style contrasts with that of the collection Doorkijkjes (Vistas) by Dutch essayist Piet Meeuse. Yet, both deal with the same themes - the meaning of images, the history of painting (some beautiful essays), the inescapability of interpretation, and the meaning of paintings by Magritte. Meeuse’s essays’ charm is in the author’s refusal to jump too quickly from observation to theoretical exposé, thus losing details, tastes and colours of the concrete. This deliberate impressionism is very Dutch, and gives these essays their special character. Sometimes, however, it results in a theoretical naiveté which seems to deliberately ignore the ideas of the past - although at crucial moments, Meeuse proves to be knowledgeable enough to know what is out there.

Dutch essays and non-fiction seem to swing between these two mainstreams at present. Empiricism and rationalism have been the Scylla and Charibdis of Western thought at least since the seventeenth century, but their modern representatives among essayists seem less shy. Beauty and truth, literature and science, which have been avoiding each other for so long, are becoming neighbours once more. Once, after all, it took no effort at all, as in the work of Jacob van Maerlant, the learned poet who it all started out with.

Otterspeer’s collection offers several beautiful examples of this. His essays are all odes to erudition and selfless learning, as well as the institutions which have made it possible throughout the centuries - particularly universities. He writes movingly about this old-fashioned ideal - a Utopia, he calls it - and with an infectious enthusiasm that triumphs over the - sometimes imbalanced - sarcasm which plagues his Bolland biography. Otterspeer is part of a tradition of Dutch essayists and columnists that considers ‘foolish’ anything not immediately rational and transparent. This collection honours particularly the maître à penser Rudy Kousbroek, and no doubt this - very Dutch - culture of exposure of the pompous has its merits. However, as Willem Jan Otten - especially since his brilliant collection De letterpiloot (The Letter Pilot, 1994) one of the Netherlands’ most interesting essayists - pointed out in a discussion with Kousbroek, this tradition is currently threatening to stagnate in its conviction that it is right. As a result, it is gradually losing touch with the great questions of life (faith and reason, good and evil) which even its most brilliant exponents have not solved, and which now demand an answer, another answer, once more.

This, however, makes Otterspeer’s plea for his ‘utopian’ culture no less worthy of consideration, and his erudite capita selecta from history no less compelling. An example of what the personally written history he pleads for might look like could well be the voluminous study Dromen van Cocagne (Dreaming of Cockaigne. Medieval fantasies of the perfect life) by Herman Pleij. A history book, the author is clearly present, although he never - as far as I can see - uses the word ‘I’. The obvious pleasure Pleij took in writing it, as well as his eloquence reveal the great author he is. He has become well-known over the last few years with numerous articles and essays, including the hilariously funny Het Nederlandse Onbehagen (Dutch Discomfort, 1991) about the Dutch national identity. Dromen van Cocagne starts with medieval fantasies about a land where fried chickens fly directly into its citizens’ mouths, then broadens into the most diverse fantasies about the perfect life, varying from the predictions of the Apocalypse and Heavenly Paradise, to the gardens of delight, where the rich and noble take an advance of this in earthly bliss. In the book, Pleij undertakes a journey through history, literature, theological history and even garden architecture - sometimes almost losing the reader on the way, but holding his interest through his superior eloquence. As is true for Van Oostrom’s Maerlant, it is a happy union of science and style - with a bibliography, but without footnotes, the unmistakable guardians of the academic esprit de sérieux.


  • Douwe Draaisma, Het verborgen raderwerk. Baarn, Ambo, 1990.
  • Douwe Draaisma, De metaforenmachine: een geschiedenis van het geheugen. Groningen, Historische Uitgeverij, 1995.
  • A.J. Dunning, Uitersten. Amsterdam, Meulenhoff, 1990.
  • A.J. Dunning, Stof van dromen. Amsterdam, Meulenhoff, 1995.
  • Tijs Goldschmidt, Darwins hofvijver. Amsterdam, Prometheus, 1994.
  • Léon Hanssen, Huizinga en de troost van de geschiedenis. Amsterdam, Balans, 1996.
  • Stefan Hertmans, Fuga’s en pimpelmezen. Amsterdam, Meulenhoff, 1995.
  • Arnold van den Hooff, De schok der biologie. Nijmegen, Sun, 1995.
  • J. Huizinga, Herfsttij der middeleeuwen. Amsterdam, Contact, 1997. (Fully abridged and illustrated edition.)
  • Patricia de Martelaere, Een verlangen naar ontroostbaarheid. Amsterdam, Meulenhoff, 1994.
  • Piet Meeuse, Doorkijkjes. Amsterdam, De Bezige Bij, 1995.
  • Frits van Oostrom, Maerlants wereld. Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 1996.
  • Willem Jan Otten, De letterpiloot. Amsterdam, Van Oorschot, 1994.
  • Willem Otterspeer, Utopieën van een onvermoeibaar mens. Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 1996.
  • Herman Pleij, Dromen van Cocagne. Amsterdam, Prometheus, 1997.
  • Jo Tollebeek, De ekster en de kooi. Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 1996.
  • Bert Verschaffel, Figuren. Leuven/Amsterdam, Van Halewijck/De Balie, 1995.

About the author

Ger Groot is a philosopher and political commentator. His translations include the work of George Duby, Simon Schama and Jacques Derrida. He contributes to publications like NRC Handelsblad and De Groene Amsterdammer, and teaches at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam.

Considering there are many highly literary works of non-fiction from Flanders and the Netherlands, Ger Groot asks how justifiably the position is that literature means ‘fiction’. A look at a number of highlights.