On being a ‘thinking woman’ in the Netherlands

II On being a ‘thinking woman’ in the Netherlands

Because of the lack of biographical information, we do not know whether the outbreak of war in August 1914 was connected with her decision or not, but at any rate soon afterwards the writer Carry van Bruggen left Amsterdam and went to live in the village of Laren. Her marriage was on the rocks. Laren was not far from Amsterdam. Since the 1880s this simple farming village had exercised a great attraction on artists, intellectuals, mystics, philosophers and idealists of all kinds. They had turned their backs on the artificial bourgeois society, and what was in their eyes an authentic rural village offered them an alternative. The popularity of Laren can be compared with that of other artists’ villages that flourished at the time, such as Monte Verità in Switzerland or the Worpswede in Germany. A well-known Dutch poet who lived in Laren in a simple wooden hut called villages like these ‘villages with a soul’.

The non-conformist new woman Carry van Bruggen, by now a single mother who had to support herself and her two children, was able to continue her work as a writer in Laren. As Virginia Woolf had remarked, if there is a profession that it is easy for a woman to exercise, it is that of the writer. This is certainly true of Carry van Bruggen. She published a number of articles during the war, was editor-in-chief of the Amsterdam Women’s Chronicle for two years, translated from French and English, wrote a novel — A coquette woman? — that was published in 1915, and finally published her major essay Prometheus in 1919. Prometheus and her novel Eve are still regarded as her most important works.

Laren heralded a new phase in her life: that of the intellectual, thinking woman. In the 1915 interview from which I quoted in the first lecture, she formulated it in the following words: ‘I believe that I am not really a born artist, but someone who is naturally good at thinking. The thinking element seems to be more highly developed in me than the artistic element’. She eventually recorded her views on the subject in the strongly autobiographical novel of 1920, From the life of a thinking woman. An interviewer at the time was not very impressed by her metamorphosis, for he noted: ‘I glanced at her keen features with the sparkling eyes. It is not the face that goes with the “woman who thinks!”’.

After my first lecture, in which I focused on her identity as a Jew in the prewar years, I would now like to concentrate on the combative, idiosyncratic position that the thinking woman Carry van Bruggen adopted in her articles and essays during the war. Contrary to what has been supposed, I consider that the war of 1914-1918 exerted a strong influence on the writing of her major essay in cultural history, Prometheus. I also hope to show that the debate on Jewry and culture, to which she had contributed with her prewar, so-called Jewish books, is of greater importance for the understanding of Prometheus than is usually assumed.

Although the Realpolitik of the warring parties kept the Netherlands out of the First World War, the course of the war was closely followed in the neutral country. After all, despite the policy of strict neutrality that it had followed for more than fifty years, the circumstance could still arise in which the Netherlands might be attacked by England or Germany. That was why the government called a general mobilisation in July 1914. Once the war had broken out, the population was confronted by it an another way too. More than 800,000 Belgian refugees soon flooded into the Netherlands, that was deeply concerned about their fate. A large measure of unity and a sense of community were required to cope with the consequences of the war. Hence, just as in the countries that were at war, though distinct from the military mobilisation, a process of national mobilisation and self-mobilisation got under way that can be described as ‘the engagement of the different belligerent nations in the war efforts both imaginatively, through collective representations and the belief and value systems giving rise to this, and organizationally, through the state and civil society’.

It was thus a political and cultural process intended to formulate national ideals and to generate a sense of national community. Across all levels of society, people were trying to gauge the importance of the war. It was not just as a crusade for the survival of the nation; the values embodied in the nation were equally at stake. In Germany, according to the German intellectuals and artists who contributed to a large extent to their definition, it was the spiritual values of German Kultur that determined the essence of the nation as a cultural community. The French and the English, on the other hand, talked about a war to preserve a civilisation which was in every respect the opposite of the German ideals. The function of this internal mobilisation process was thus to join forces against the foreign enemy. However, in the search for unity and the need for a sense of community within its own borders, it often targeted the domestic enemy too. The extent to which this took place depended on the degree of national integration that had taken place before the war. In France the Jews experienced the war as an important moment of integration, but in Germany the authoritarian regime alienated them from the national community. In Eastern Europe nationalism and processes of state formation were accompanied by severe anti-Semitic pogroms, and in Turkey the national mobilisation process led to the Armenian genocide.

In the Netherlands, that traditionally had a strong orientation towards German culture, but maintained close economic ties with the two warring parties of England and Germany, the debate on the values propagated by the warring parties was launched without much delay. Some Dutch nervously adopted a neutral position, while others opted openly for the German side and others did the same for the English side. As the war progressed, the English sea blockade, which had very damaging effects on Dutch trade, caused a considerable drop in Dutch sympathy for the Allies. Immediately after the outbreak of the war, reflection had got under way in the ranks of the intellectual élite of Dutch society about the specific national characteristics. From the first Carry van Bruggen had a keen eye for the dangerous forces that this mobilisation process could unleash. ‘As a woman I have no country’, wrote Virginia Woolf in the 1930s. The position adopted by her Dutch colleague Carry van Bruggen in the war, however, cannot be interpreted in terms of the traditional internationalism of the women’s movement. Her critique of the foolish premises and ambitious pretensions of nationalism and patriotism arose from her fear of the homogenising tendencies of the mobilisation process. They held little promise for her as a Jewess. This also meant that she was keenly opposed to Zionism, which she regarded as at least as homogenising

Soon after the outbreak of the war in 1914, she reacted in a particularly vigorous way to the criticism of a Zionist reviewer. He accused her of having seriously damaged the cause of Zionism with the alarming picture that she had presented of the demise of Jewry and the Jewish milieu in her novel The little Jew.

People had had to put up with a lot war propaganda recently, but, as she cynically wrote, matters were now made even worse:

Instead of some eagerly awaited self-reflection, an attempt to arrive at a general and high, let us say neutral rationality — we get a Zionist Idealism and a Zionist Truth, it is rather overwhelming.

The Zionists put Zionism above all else — just as the Germans put the German army above all else, she added with a sting. The Zionists even wanted to subordinate literature to their idealism. But her work was not intended to serve Zionism; her work should be judged on its own intrinsic merits.

The debate on the Jewish people, Jewish language and Jewish land that had begun before the war continued unabated in the Netherlands after August 1914. The war provided Zionism in the Netherlands with unexpected impulses. After the fall of Antwerp, many Eastern European Jews fled from there to the Netherlands. They met with kindred spirits among the Mezrachists, the orthodox members of the Netherlands Union of Zionists, founded in 1899, with whom they felt an affinity in many ways. Unlike the Dutch Jews, the Antwerp Jews still spoke Yiddish as their mother tongue. Moreover, they had grown up in regions where the Eastern Jewish Haskala — Enlightenment — had led to a literary Hebrew renaissance in spite of its assimilatory character.

Carry van Bruggen’s brother, the poet and lawyer Jacob Israel de Haan, felt increasingly drawn to this group of predominantly young Mezrachists and began to study Hebrew. He was deeply shocked by the war and claimed that poets could not remain neutral, but as poets they should express their hostility to violence. ‘If the Poets are silent now, who will speak?’, he wrote to the editor of a cultural magazine. ‘There is disagreement among the Jews on our attitude towards the war. My duty as the poet of the Zionists is to guide our idea.’ He had nothing positive to say about the position of the German Zionists: ‘They are more German than Jewish’. Part of a poem that he had sent to the liberal cultural monthly De Gids was turned down for publication on the grounds of being too ‘Jewish-National’. ‘At this time’, he was told, apparently ‘when he used the term his people he was referring to a different people from the Dutch’, although De Haan did not accept this accusation on the basis of his role as a Zionist Dutch Jew. Still, the problem of a double loyalty, with which principled Zionists were confronted when war broke out, also touched him, as can be seen from the following strophe that he wrote at the time:

We fight brothers against brothers,
And impotently weaken our own strength,
We deprive our mothers of sons,
And our people of its essential force.

As ‘the poet of the Jewish poem’, the honorary title that he acquired after the publication of his successful collection The Jewish Poem in 1915, De Haan was acclaimed by the young Mezrachist Zionists. Whatever one thinks of the quality of his poems, wrote a Socialist Zionist, it was his honour to be the first poet to give poetic voice to the Zionist longing.

Symptomatic of the growing self-awareness of the Dutch Zionists was a questionnaire that was conducted among Dutch male and female writers in 1916. In connection with four questions, they were asked to formulate a standpoint on the Jews in Dutch literature. The total of 52 replies that the editors received form a unique but also extremely problematic historical source for the views on the subject held by the most famous Dutch men and women writers of that moment. In response to the question whether they recognised ‘typical differences’ between the work of Jewish authors in the Netherlands and their non-Jewish colleagues, many responded in full agreement. Some attributed these differences to a ‘racial’ difference. ‘Racial characteristics often have such a long after-effect’, one of them wrote, ‘and can often still be felt a long time afterwards, just as the Semitic type has preserved and maintained its anthropological characteristics over the centuries. The Jew is a curious mixture of properties: fear and courage, humility and pride, reticence and oiliness, diffidence and impudence, often combined in a single person’.

Others admitted that their ignorance of the subject prevented them from answering the questions. A few of them recorded their strong rejection of all the talk about ‘pure’ Dutch. A leading literary figure of the period, Albert Verwey, criticised the generalising nature of the questions: ‘I believe that the picture that we form of a specifically Jewish character has more a practical and social value than a critical and literary one’.

The great protagonist of the so-called Movement of the Eighties, Willem Kloos, wrote that he had never thought in terms of a fundamental difference between Jews and other people. If there were differences, they had in any case nothing to do with ‘race’, he claimed. Jacob Israel de Haan answered that he had never carried out a study of the question of Jews in Dutch literature, and referred to the article that I mentioned in my first lecture by Victor van Vriesland on the cultural emergency of the Jews, from which De Haan had learnt a lot. Another author wrote that Jewish writers produced ‘a more colourful and imaginative language and a more melodious, more musical prose’. On the other hand, he wrote, ‘they savour the word in its pure meaning, and also in its expression of a sound, less purely than the Aryan Dutch do’. Some made the excuse that the war did not leave them the time to reply to a questionnaire. Those who did respond often projected their idea of good literature in the answer to the question whether the Jews could enrich Dutch literature. In that case, it was assumed that the effect of the Jews on ‘dull’ Dutch literature could be nothing but positive. The prominent writer Frederik van Eeden wrote that the Jewish author might help ‘the heavy Dutch dough’ to rise.

Without a serious analysis of the responses, the editors concluded that, whatever the answers might have been, ‘our conviction would remain unshaken that we are a single and separate group’. So why was the questionnaire held at all? ‘To obtain a clearer picture of our position in the intellectual world of the Netherlands’, they wrote. ‘For it is determined on two sides: by what we do ourselves, and by the estimate that is made of what we do’. ‘After all the writing of the last few months’, they wanted to know what the present situation was. It was also useful to lift the taboo on the topic — after all, everyone knew how the Dutch ‘had nothing but good to say about the Israelite in public, but drew up the full balance in the living room’. The questionnaire had now convincingly demonstrated above all ‘our difference, our specificity’. It was positive that the Jewish contribution to Dutch literature was generally viewed in a favourable light, but under the present circumstances the Jewish people was ‘doomed’ to come off worst. What a boon to humanity the creativity of the Jews would be if they were ever to have a state of their own ‘like every normal people’.

It can be concluded from the responses to the questionnaire that the scientific discourse on race that was popular abroad at the time had also taken root in the Netherlands. The European nationalism of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the new sciences such as anthropology, psychology and sociology were closely connected with one another. Around the turn of the century it was believed that mental properties were biologically determined and differed from one another depending on race, class and nation. This biologism also resonated in the writing of history. It was assumed that the language, ethnic origin and character of a people were interconnected, and this type of thought was therefore particularly prevalent in anthropology and linguistics. Individual and collective characteristics were deduced from an essential characteristic. Pronouncements about others, Jews, or women were often accompanied by references to anthropology and psychology.

An example of this essentialist discourse in the Netherlands is the Handbook of the Dutch language which was published in 1914. It was the work of the linguist Jacob van Ginneken, who is considered ‘the most flamboyant Dutch linguist of the first half of the twentieth century’. An entire chapter was devoted to what he called the ‘Jewish language’, and elements from Van Ginneken’s argument can be found in several responses to the 1916 questionnaire. Like his contemporary and fellow linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, he studied language as a psychological and sociological phenomenon. He therefore began his chapter on the ‘Jewish language’ with a list of ‘special words that are in use by the Dutch Jews’, compiled on the basis of the work of the influential Dutch writers Herman Heijermans, Samuel Goudsmit, and Carry van Bruggen.

The chapter on the Jewish language in the Handbook immediately played a role in the Dutch debate on Zionism and culture. Jacob Israel de Haan accused Van Ginneken of ‘scientific anti-Semitism’, and adapted his argument to suit his own ends. ‘It is a warning for us’, he wrote. ‘We do not want to be Dutch Jews or Jewish Dutch for longer than necessary, we want to be Jewish Jews’. Soon afterwards De Haan was the target of an article by the writer Carel Scharten, entitled ‘The Jews in literature’. Scharten once again raised the question that had been at stake in the Kunstwartedebatte — the question of the identity of the Jewish writer — but he gave it a very different twist. The poet, he wrote, ‘who is the singing soul of his people — that poet can never be a foreigner, and thus can never be a Jew’. In making a connection between language and people, and between race and language, he thus denied De Haan his status as a Dutchman or his status as a poet.

Carry van Bruggen had also responded to the 1916 Zionist questionnaire. She wrote that the question raised was not an isolated one, but that it had to be seen in connection with nationalism and nationalist sentiments in wartime. As for the possibility of a difference between Jewish and non-Jewish writers, she referred to the power of suggestion: ‘we see what we believe’. She strongly toned down the importance of the questionnaire, in fact she thought it was all a load of nonsense, the product of ‘renewed patriotic and chauvinistic feelings’. The Zionists were not charmed by this disparaging answer, but it can hardly have come as a surprise to them. A year and a half earlier, she had openly taken a position on the question in a way that admitted of no ambiguity. When asked what her position was in the debate on Jewish literature, she had replied that she did not want to know about any kind of Tendenz art. ‘I have nothing to do with Zionism’, she had replied. ‘And if Jewry is not entirely outside the fields that interest me, it occupies only a secondary place. Humanity takes precedence’. With this pronouncement she asserted her opposition to any form of essentialism, whether Jewish or not.

Carry van Bruggen had deliberately entered a new stage in her life in 1914. As she herself recognised, it was heralded by Helen, a novel published in 1913 about the development of a young girl into an intellectual woman. Van Bruggen’s reflections on female identity led to a large number of articles and novels. In 1915 she published the essay ‘Two modern women’, in which she investigated the conventional ideal picture of a woman as, in her own words, ‘chaste, loyal, monogamous and above all maternal’. The title of this essay was a deliberate reference to the classic Dutch work on the subject, Betsy Hasebroek’s Two women. This nineteenth-century writer had written in 1840 that it takes courage to opt for the mind: ‘But regard yourself then as a pariah of society. […] Ask the world for neither love nor friendship, for it will refuse you both.’

Carry van Bruggen’s answer to the question of why men kept women so imprisoned in an ideal model, that of the incarnation of virtue and purity, was that men had less insight than the ‘modern woman’. The man was still the master in love, and the only happiness that a woman could hope to find in love lay ‘in subjection, in self-chosen slavery, in service’. She had already dealt with this question in Helen, and she returned to certain aspects in several articles and in two novels, A coquette woman? (1915) and — more autobiographically — in From the life of a thinking woman (1920). Her view of the intellectual woman added to the ambivalent identity of Carry van Bruggen as an assimilated Jew a new ambiguity: that of the woman who thirsted for love, but could only receive it if she surrendered her identity as a thinking woman.

Her new identity eventually alienated her from the writers who had served as her standard in the past. With the exception of Frans Coenen, Frederik van Eeden and Arthur van Schendel, Carry van Bruggen did not have anyone to support her in her new course. She now had no time for the ‘thoroughly non-spiritual and materialistic work’ of the Dutch writers. It showed ‘too little background of ideas and philosophy, too little reflective insight, too little self-knowledge, and thereby too little knowledge of people’. She had never been a completely realistic writer, but now she gave free rein to her meditative side: ‘asking oneself what “I’ means, what its place is in the collectivity’. The change of direction was bound to lead to a break in her style of writing. The naturalism which still marked In the shadow and Little knitting school was obsolete. She now threw herself into writing articles and essays in which she tried to find her place as a thinking assimilated Jewish woman at a time when an infernal war was raging a few hundred kilometres from Laren.

The three essays that Carry van Bruggen published in Groot Nederland in 1915 and 1916 were the prelude to Prometheus. This essay of 550 pages was the formulation, as she had stated in her interview of 1915, of an answer to what the ‘I’ meant and what its place in the collectivity was — a question that confronted her during the war, partly under the influence of the ‘chauvinism and patriotism’. These essays delivered a keen criticism of the core of the mobilisation process that had been triggered by the war, both in the Netherlands and abroad, and which was intended to enhance the feeling of community within society to further the war effort. Her aim, instead, was to formulate a value system of her own.

In the essay ‘Humour and Idealism’ she criticised the prewar attitude to life, which had lost its meaning in the present era. Now there was a need for ‘a general, moral justification of life’:

We no longer want a sterile wisdom that is bound to give the lie to life and to make it the object of ridicule and scorn, the superficial wisdom with which ‘the intellect’ shows off in the lecture hall and debating society —, but a wisdom that incorporates and reconciles itself with ‘one-sided’ life, not a ‘doctrine’ for the church and the political assembly, not an ‘ideal’ like one’s Sunday best, but a wisdom for every day and every hour, one-sided, and yet coexisting in full brotherliness with our insight, and thereby fully accepted

‘The Inn of Tranquillity’, the well-known story by the English novelist John Galsworthy (whom she admired and translated), had given her a ‘smiling certainty’ and provided her with that formula that promised ‘tranquillity and certainty’: whoever accepted another person ‘as perforce a creature of God’, including everything displeasing in that other person, could also accept himself or herself as a similar link, including everything that the other person despised. That did not mean that the world was once again divided into two camps, but that you could act and choose sides with full conviction without any detriment to yourself. ‘That is what is gained, that is the new spirit.’ People were no longer beings with a will and purpose of their own, but they belonged to the complete entity from which they derived their meaning and value.

In the second essay, ‘Realism and Romanticism’ — two metaphors that were frequently used at the time in all sorts of fields — Carry van Bruggen placed that new philosophy of life within a broader cultural and historical context in an attempt to outline the contours of the future. Realism was an attitude that was typical of the pre-1914 materialistic past that she disliked, while Romanticism looked forward to a new postwar future with a sense of community and bonding. ‘It is clear that we are entering a new era’, she wrote. ‘We can feel a revival of philosophical interest, of religious desire, around us, and the call for ethical and moral convictions can be heard everywhere’.

Her third essay, ‘Love of one’s country, love of humanity and education’, unfolded the basic idea of Prometheus. This boiled down to what Goethe put in the mouth of Prometheus in addressing Pandora: ‘Wenn du, in immer eigenstem Gefühl umfassest eine Welt; dann stirbt der Mensch. [‘If you embrace a world with your innermost/most personal feeling, humanity dies’.] She elaborated this idea in connection with the dominant patriotism and referred in particular to the German ‘self-aggrandisement’. Contrary to what the propaganda would lead one to believe, this patriotism had nothing to do with genuine love of people. It was pure self-love, pure self-deception and self-aggrandisement that saddled terms like fatherland and national language with meanings that they did not have at all. Patriotism was an outmoded form of collectivism. True love elided the ‘I’ and sought to suspend all distinction. Nowadays individuals thought for themselves and followed their own conscience. That was why every ideal had now become an opposition ideal, ‘a Prometheus ideal’.

She took this idea further in the essay Prometheus, which owed its length to the inclusion of an extensive critical study of the development of individualism in West European literature. Carry van Bruggen was an adherent of Hegelianism, which was exceptionally popular in the Netherlands at that time. By thinking in oppositions which achieved a temporary form of reconciliation at a higher level, she hoped to gain insight into what she regarded as a very fragmented world in which nothing was certain any more. Although that initially led to doubt, a haven for existence could be found through comprehension. In Prometheus she showed step by step how the individualist (Prometheus) and the collectivity (Jupiter) were inextricably intertwined despite their being contradictory phenomena. Prometheus is the one who can penetrate par excellence the unreason of the collectivity, but at the same time he realises that he can never win the struggle against this collectivity. A quotation will suffice to illustrate what Van Bruggen thought and wrote on this problem:

Our world is thus a world of broken, detached particles of the Unity, of things that have become dispersed, contrasts, by means of which the Unity, as it breaks, becomes conscious of itself in man, and as it becomes conscious of itself, it also becomes conscious of its brokenness and strives for recovery, to regain its former perfection. We clearly experience how, as that Unity constantly breaks into fragments and becomes aware of itself in the contrasts, it yearns to return to its former state. What is broken wants to be whole again, what has become detached yearns for its origin.

It is important to recognise that Prometheus can also be read as an extended analysis of Carry van Bruggen’s own condition of being different in modern society. Unlike ‘the others’, she was one of those who were in search of unity, was aware of the fact, and wanted to announce her insight to those who felt the same way. That is typical of the modern Prometheus, who has no choice but to ‘die and decay’, she wrote. For the genuine, thinking person, the individualist, who is Prometheus, rebels against the society that with all its ambivalences is fixated on life. Individualists will have to follow their own conscience in acting, and their actions will only be justified by their pure intentions.

It is illuminating to see Carry van Bruggen’s essay Prometheus in the context of the critique of mass society that can be found during and after the First World War in the writings of the assimilated German Jewish intellectuals Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and those who were later to form the Frankfurter Schule: Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. In his analysis of their anti-positivist criticism, Steven Asscheim notes that all of them ‘in quite different — yet quintessentially Weimarian — ways were attracted to heterodox, radical, and even subversive modes of thought’. They were very suspicious of rationalist technological modernity and liberal bourgeois democracy. They all criticised the human and behavioural sciences, and embraced political and cultural alternatives to the negative modernity that they detected in those social sciences. They also shared the need to formulate a reply to the ‘Jewish “theologico-political” predicament’ (cf. Strauss). According to Asscheim, that led them increasingly to recognise the symbolic and actual importance of Jewish issues and to integrate them in the core of their work. ‘Consciousness of the “Jewish Question” and their own Jewishness informed, sometimes quite profoundly, both the critiques and the alternatives they posited.’ His conclusion also seems to me to be apposite to the philosophical quest of Carry van Bruggen:

All sought anti-reductionist, humanizing, and redeeming possibilities rather than forms of hardness and domination. … For Arendt this entailed a thorough rereading of the Western tradition, pressing for a valorized understanding of politics and reconceptualizing freedom as action instead of some kind of internalized, apolitical ‘will’.

Like Arendt, Strauss and others, Carry van Bruggen incorporated her Jewishness in a general system in Prometheus. She developed this system in reaction to the collapse of prewar paradigms that she experienced, as they did, in the war years: ‘our position is bankrupt’, she wrote in 1916. Prometheus was Carry van Bruggen’s commentary on that wave of collective reductionism that the First World War had unleashed with patriotism and chauvinism. She had determined her place as a thinking woman in her time: ‘The idealism of the mature person of every era knows neither clan nor fatherland, experiences tribal borders and national boundaries as artificial and inhuman, and feels collective interest to be an infringement on […] the rights of others!’.

The reception of Prometheus is a cause célèbre in Dutch cultural history. Carry van Bruggen was convinced that she had written something of great value, and wanted to place the essay in the most prominent Dutch cultural periodical, De Gids. As was usual at the time, she contacted the editor in the middle of 1917 to have her essay placed in instalments. In June 1917 the editorial secretary of De Gids sounded out a member of the editorial board, the well-known cultural historian Johan Huizinga, who was at that moment completing his own work The Autumn of the Middle Ages. The secretary confessed to Huizinga that he had spent an afternoon on her proposal, but it was as though he had been ‘listening to three gramophones simultaneously’. The parts of the manuscript that she had sent were full of clichés and it looked like a jumbled mess. The pages sent to Huizinga were enough for him to make up his mind. ‘I am not very impressed’, he wrote back:

An antithesis and synthesis like this is, in the end, a pretty cheap affair. If you know so little about the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation that you kick the terms around like a football; when you are naïve enough to consider those tendencies which point in a particular direction to be characteristic of a period and turn a blind eye to the rest; and, finally, when you confer on a cultural tendency the properties which suit your argument, then, yes, it is easy to put world literature from Aeschylus to the overrated Galsworthy in the service of an antithesis.

Carry van Bruggen would have to make a selection from her work herself, but, he wrote to the editorial secretary: ‘for God’s sake not too much, my hidden senses predict a major disappointment’. Huizinga sent the editorial team a memo stating that he was ‘moderately’ opposed to publication. What he had read was so tedious. The historian Huizinga must have hated Carry van Bruggen’s typological approach, with all its simplifications, schematisations and lack of attention to historical specificity. Prometheus no longer stood a chance of being published in De Gids.

When Prometheus was finally published in two parts in 1919, it did receive some positive reactions, but the importance of the book when it was published was certainly not recognised. It was only fifteen years later that Menno ter Braak, whose judgement in literary circles was feared and respected, wrote how much he had been affected by reading the essay. He felt a spiritual affinity with Van Bruggen. It was ‘a pamphlet’, he wrote, ‘that takes sides and then spins the account out, because it has to say one thing to the bitter end’. However, he did not like the ‘quasi-professorial didacticism’ and ‘semi-scientific schematisation’ of the author. Still, the work had a great influence on him. It is partly thanks to the positive reaction of Ter Braak — one of the greatest Dutch writers of the twentieth century — that Prometheus did not fall into oblivion. It was reprinted in 1946 after the Second World War and played at that time a modest part in the postwar debate on nihilism. There was a further reprint in 1980 prompted by the brief upsurge of interest in her oeuvre on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of her birthday.

The last major essay by Carry van Bruggen, Contemporary fetishism, which had first appeared in 1925, was also reprinted on that occasion. It can be regarded as her reply to both the issue of the ‘Jewish language’ of ten years earlier and to the debate on Zionism and culture, in which the question of the national language came to play such an important role. Language, she explained in this essay, should be regarded as the most absurd example of nationalism. Her view was largely based on the functional view of language of the French linguist Michel Bréal, whose work she knew and cited in her study. She used a number of examples to make it clear to the reader to what an extent the linguisticians of her day made language fit into their biologistic and nationalistic set of ideas. She ridiculed the fashion of the time to almost automatically explain whatever a person was or did in terms of ‘national character’, ‘intermarriage’ or gender. Language consisted of no more and no less than ‘groups of signs and sounds’, she claimed, which did not express anything in themselves. Celebration of the mother tongue was as stupid as celebration of a pile of stones — in fact it was even more stupid, because the material of the stones was not of their own making, but language was. In unmasking the (mother) language as the fetish of her time, Carry van Bruggen once again expressed her opposition to the essentialism which was so popular in her day, whether it came from a Jewish or a non-Jewish quarter.

It was the trail-blazing aspect of Carry van Bruggen’s theoretical writings that irritated the reviewers. They were irritated both by the content of her work and by her person. Huizinga called Prometheus ‘overambitious carrying on’, and a reviewer of Contemporary fetishism called it ‘rank nonsense’ by a ‘headstrong, obstinate school mistress’. Such characterisations recall the traditional opposition to intellectual women writers. The fact that Carry van Bruggen practised a genre — the literary historical and philosophical essay — without the required university education was regarded as an assault on the existing hierarchy. Carry van Bruggen tackled the theme of discriminatory formalism on several occasions in her work. She caustically ended the article on patriotism from 1916 with the remark that, since the author was a Jew, her argument would not be accepted because a Jew was supposed not to understand anything about patriotism. Since she was a woman, it would be similarly rejected, because women were considered to be feeling, not thinking, beings. Finally, opponents would always use the argument that the writer was self-taught. The turning down of Prometheus for publication in De Gids was painful, but it did not come as a surprise to her.

Carry van Bruggen hoped with the writing of Prometheus to achieve ‘satisfaction and tranquillity in the face of the astonishing element of human activity’. The modern Prometheus, she wrote,

[…] has to understand that all is appearance and illusion. He will be one-sided without belief and will struggle without hope, that is, rationally accept his unreason and find his highest morality in a readiness to accept his part in the general Guilt. And then, cured of arrogance and short-sightedness, he will authentically realise, in the demise of his ‘illusions’ and ‘ideals’, the unity of Rise and Fall.

It was a vision of life and the world that could give her satisfaction as an intellectual Jewish woman, although as a thinking woman Carry van Bruggen was still keenly aware of what another female writer had written in 1840: that the thinking, intellectual woman need expect neither love nor friendship from the world. In her novel Eve, which I shall discuss in the third lecture, which is entitled ‘On being a Woman Writer in the Netherlands’, she finally attempted to incorporate love too in her philosophy of life.