A Man Leaping Into the Future
It is difficult to define precisely what the term ‘essay’ means. Montaigne would have been amazed to see how newspaper articles, meditations and even columns, once collected, are suddenly labelled ‘essays’. Yet everyone has some idea of what the ideal essay should be: a well thought-out piece, personal but well-informed, in which a thought is unfolded, tested and weighed. Oek de Jong, who occasionally wrote essays in the years when he wasn’t working on a new novel, proves that he knows what the essay genre is all about.
Initially, Een man die in de toekomst springt seems like a collection of travel stories. In the overpowering second story ‘The Creation of Adam’, the writer kneels down near a mound of dust by a bus-stop in Palermo and prays: ‘Bless me, lay your hands on my head and bless me-I need your love. Call me from the bushes where I have retreated.’ Slowly the book becomes an account of an attitude to life and the story of a search for forms of religion in a world gone mad. In his essay about the great twentieth-century Flemish poet Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928), De Jong writes that the exuberant typography of his poetry is ‘the reflection of a collapsing world and, at the same time, the only possible response to the catastrophe: a dancing vitality that mocks all laws (…) Van Ostaijen is a man leaping into the future.’
De Jong reveals deep knowledge in essays on Vermeer, Caravaggio and Caspar David Friedrich, about mysticism, and about the nonsensical idea that ‘the novel has no future’. More often than he cares to admit, he turns out to be influenced by the Calvinism he renounced long ago. Later, he sought the altruism of the mystics, with their liberating leap from acting and knowing to non-acting and non-knowing. At present, De Jong finds himself somewhere between the two, and in this he too seems to be the voice of a generation and a time: grown up in the church, later choosing other paths and, towards the end of the century, consciously commuting between two spheres of influence - ‘Caspar David Friedrich’s longing for symbols and meaning and Francis Bacon’s rough and illusionless physicality.’