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Review

‘I’m not in it, are you?’

On As long as the tree blooms: A short history
of Frisian literature

Friduwih Riemersma - Fers2 nû. 4.12, 17 juny 2018

 

As long as the tree blooms

Translations came in Frysk, German, Dutch, English; not in Bilts

 

 

 

Op pompier hwet moais to skrjuwen
      Is gjin wirk onfoege swier,
Mar dat ’s altyd net to leauwen,
      Alle moaiens is net wier.To write something beautiful on paper / Is not work exceptionally hard, / But thats’s not always to believe, / All that is beautiful is not true.

—Waling Dykstra  

 

 

Historical and literary center Tresoar’s new book on Frisian literature history, officially written by Joke Corporaal, has 50 pages of effective text. An issue of the Frisian literary magazine Ensafh is thicker with 60 pages. On these pages, however, there can be more than 400 words, because the history book has an unusual little letter. But that does not happen. The layout follows the webshoptemplate, with red threads and ‘moods’—“Search for the genuine Friesland”—in ‘message’ fonts and bright colors. Heaps of photo material—sometimes of poor quality; writer Aggie van der Meer smiles at us from a broken image file—and text-decorating borders and lines and presses the text into an unfriendly insurance contract format, between page margins as narrow as a mourning margin, so that the book doesn’t sit right in the hand. Breaking legibility rules and screaming typography, that is not for the commercial publisher Bornmeer. Who wants to have such a book?

The province, suggests the colophon. Pupils and students and visitors of the Cultural Capital event, says the foreword. But there is no study book design. The essence of such design, clarity, is completely missing. Even though there is a name register, a subject index is missing. A logical, continuous chapter division, a necessity for a schoolbook, has given way to a hopping-step leap through the source literature history book Zolang de wind van de wolken waait (As long as the wind blows from the clouds), also from Tresoar. Meaningful titles for the contents, a requirement for textbooks, have not been found necessary and the pupil has to make do with titles that refer to neither literature nor history, such as “Frisian lowland”. You need to search for page numbers. After an hour of browsing, on each right page, but not one left side page, occultly upward written numbers suddenly appear from the book gutter: “2000>”. Forget about the pupils and students. The book is a shortlist of Frisian movement icons from Gysbert Japicx to Nyk de Vries. A who’s who, with photos of which the sight can never be undone: Simke Kloosterman, fairly less sexy than I always thought, does not have a Frisian stallion but some sluggish hack.

The introduction makes an impression as nonchalant as the book’s form and purpose. It says that “actually nothing is more Dutch than Frisian literature”, but what Frisian literature is, is not explained, let alone what literature per se is. Then it says that it is not special about literary history: “in 2018, Leeuwarden is for one year European Capital of Culture ... this book is about the process that preceded and followed, about the highlights but also about the low points of Frisian literature and language.” The “main text”—apparently there is also a minor text—about the context in which Frisian literature, whatever that may be, came into being. That’s fine, because literary history, i.e the systematic, critical organization of literary material on the basis of internal and external characteristics, has major shortcomings. In the first place, literary texts are poorly classified into superficial properties and even less if that has to be done gronologically. Homogeneous style periods can hardly be identified; work from different periods often overlaps more in terms of form, content and reception than work within an era, notwithstanding the pressure to follow a trend.

But after the introduction it appears that they meant that there would be no literature in the book. Ninety years ago, Jelle Brouwer, who would become the first director of the Fryske Akademy, criticized the predecessor of the history book, the handbook Fryske skriftekennisse by Douwe Kalma, for a contrasting reason. Brouwer said that a history book that names the names, pronounces the judgments and gives all the sources, the hundreds of pages of anthology that Kalma added, does not make one curious about Frisian literature. Does it not matter whether or not literature is included in a literature history book, is the question. An answer depends, of course, on the higher goal, of what one wants beyond the history book. Brouwer has always committed himself to broadening the horizons of children from less resourceful families and intellectual enrichment of students, and thus rejecting the idea of complete information; Brouwer did not want to kill the innate human curiosity for more and different. But of ideals or vision or even a form of humanism and responsibility—which certainly took shape in the Lyts hânboek of ’76, in the series Minsken and Boeken—one can not accuse our province. The new book is her final goal, as evidenced by the design. Those, who have literature requirements, look for a different webshop.

In chapter 1, the Frisian literature ignores the natural law that made Frisian Elfstedentocht possible and the cultural capital fountain in Dokkum impossible: the law that ice floats for the largest part under water. Not the Frisian literature, which has nothing under water: “Only the tip of the iceberg is left and the rest is gone.” The new history book places the beginning of the “tip” as usual in medieval texts copied in the then Frisian language. But where did the written language come from and what purpose would those texts have served, if not the same language was spoken by at least the elite of a particular group? Spoken language is an automatically copied system of symbols to convey deep meaning. Special, ‘artistic’ visualisation with these symbols is likewise inherited human behavior. “Disappeared”, in the “undulating water of time”, is reminiscent of the Titanic: sinking does not happen if not something cruelly forces it. The history book casually demarcates literature to written text and disconnects it from spontaneous human, i.e. oral symbol transfer. That is cunning. Because Frisian has virtually disappeared as a spoken language, but that does not matter if only the written “top” counts. Written text is now so vehemently supported by government that ‘in commission’ is not an exaggeration. Needless to say that this new text is not taken up critically in the corpus, but liturgically, like the copied legal texts that, according to the new history book, give “a unique picture of the world of the Frisians.”

Chapter 2 jumps to the seventeenth century. The promised context is absent. For example, who could read then? Illiteracy quickly declined in the golden age, but in 1827 only one in eight people went to school in Friesland. Obviously, the majority did not by no means reach the reading level for poems. In that vauüm, the history book mentions—the passage is so directly taken from other people’s research (and the history book is not annotated) that it is plagiarism—Johan van Hichtum’s ‘Ansk and Houk’. That poem is resistant to time and full of Virgil for the Virgi fan, but it is not translated into modern Frisian; the historiy book clearly means not to say, read it, but mentions it as a backcloth for the poet Gysbert Japicx. Japicx—the man, not his work—is then treated in a vignette that is separate from the chapters, just like the other vignettes inserted into the ground as unrelated tombstones. The chapter itself takes an unexpected turn. Poet / psalm translator Jan Althuysen comes as an example (from professors and students “who also had an interest in Frisian and that motivated others”). An example is an extra element, to skip for those who understand the story, but here it is stashed away: “It is the point of discussion that will keep returning in the following centuries: how should Frisian literature relate to the literatures around it? Besides striving for ‘high literature’ in Frisian, there was always a need for familiar pieces in the vernacular.”

The distinction between Frisian and Dutch literature, the politics of language and nation building, however, is a completely different issue than the obsession with the distinction between high and low culture that broke out in England at the end of the seventeenth, early eighteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century with the Frisian emancipation movement leader Douwe Kalma. But if one looks back, at Althuysen and his predecessors, where the two issues root in according to the history book, then there is nothing. The editors—Babs Gezelle Meerburg, Ans Wallinga, Goffe Jensma and Teake Oppewal—apparantly do not want to see any discussion about the discussion point. The reader will not know to whom Frisian literature “must” have an ethnic identity and who needs “familiar” literature in the “vernacular”. But was not that the jury of the ‘highest’ Frisian government prize for literature, which in 2015 awarded mainstream mystery fiction? Does a history book not only do justice to its own history if it asks a question about it?

New criticism has taught us to keep our emotions out of the text, but despair, is that possible? Because ‘should’ a history book not incite debate? Or do I, naive babyboomer, believe against better judgment in dialogue and the duty of civilisation offensives by the government, such as this history book, to raise the issues? But my co-writers said the same thing: that everyone looks in the book quickly if he is ‘in it’ and is glad if he is and angry if he’s not, so that the serious questions of today are lost sight of, and so that the literary history book offers no fundament for further. But Friesland, I replied (even before I saw the history book), has a canonization system that is typical of a minority culture, as we know. What one does is that one allocates time periods. Artificially one or two icons are created for those periods. And for the rest of the writers, the field is completely egalitarian and democratic. Every literator has an equal chance of a line in a book, an assignment or award, no matter how hard he works, and that means he always fights his colleagues and not jointly the system.

In addition, chapter 3 talks about the tradition of the pioneers, the Frisian rhymes of the Halbertsma brothers, the common stories, our collaboratively invented historical folktales, the Frisian pride epics, the deep-frisian collective mood of Douwe Kalma, the farm idyll of Brolsma and Postma and the folkloric loveliness from Gysbert Japicx to Tsjêbbe Hettinga, but remember that they did not cope at all. They have expressed themselves only short and weakly. They have not closed the rows. There is hardly anything left of their culture mission. Today’s literature is filled with selfishness, materialism and above all a chilling individualism. The back cover text is all too true and gloomy: “The Frisian literature is an expression of the uniqueness of Friesland. Throughout the ages, Frisian writers and poets have written in their own language: about themselves, about their language and about their country.” That— subsistence strategic—politically correct writing is a shift to a cultural Sklavenmoral, which is the decisive difference between past centuries and today. Not to be missed and, moreover, problematized by foreign minority literature studies. However, the history book does not notice it, and that although it says it looks not in the books but at the context.

After the chapter about the nineteenth century, which is badly written, the chapters quickly become of poorer quality. This may be because literary historic research focused less on the twentieth century. Almost no research has been done into post-war literature. Also, the history book is part of the problem that it signals at the end, that Frisian literature study is now virtually extinct, because it follows the trend to not view Frisian literature scientifically. But more likely are historical methodical inability and—because source criticism is skipped—lethargy. A vignette after chapter 4 talks about the critique on the Letterenfonds that for the Frankfurter Buchmesse of 2013 chose two peasant novels, and then gives a reaction from the writer Trinus Riemersma. The quote is so badly chosen and unclear that Corporaal promtly corrects Riemersma, but the point is: Riemersma was dead in 2013 already for two years.

Chapter 5 ‘Look at Europe’ does not have ‘Europe’ in the text, except for a quote from writer Anne Wadman, which is ripped from the context, about the fact that, according to Kalma [sic], writers should not orientate provincially. A loose cry so; there is no longer any line in the story. The non-theoretical approach to historiography in the history book blows up in their face. That this is really striking in the recent historiography, from the second half of the last century, is no wonder. Some of those directly involved in Frisian literature, such as literature researcher Antsje Swart, are still alive and have a living insight into what they have experienced: for example, was in the sixties truely, “democratization the motto” and not still—as moreover the non-fiction of Wadman and the fiction of the other “innovator”, Riemersma, emphasise—god and bible? In the postmodern conception of historiography, ‘facts’ no longer exist and meaning remains fluid. Such an outlook can be difficult for a non-scientist like Corporaal, but it will have been mainly at odds with the order to make a grand story. Implicitly but obviously the old-fashioned, uncritical pedagogy has been chosen for dishing out what is evident and needs no explanation: of true, fixed achievements in a straight-flowing time stream that channels all contradictions to “friend and foe agreed upon”—to a cultural nationalist unity.

In school history books that are under direct political control, an ideological adaptation of the past almost always occurs. Such historical books give the official stamp of truth to as authentically regarded knowledge, but which is no more than a knowledge claim, because rarely a substantiation can be put forward for the truths. Usually we do not care: we are for a history cannon, what else should we teach the children? In addition, all school book editors have to deal with commercial requirements and economic factors force them to make attractive selections, far-reaching reductions in material and perspectives, and a simplification of viewpoints (and in doing so often a lot goes wrong).

But there is also selection and interpretation that the editors certainly had control over: the literary canon formation. Until a literature has a canon, a top above the water, it is not at the level of development that can be studied scientifically, as is often thought, and here too. It is not like that. Academics do not allow themselves to be guided by canons because these fossilize subjects and turn study into parrotting. Canons are a quite closed system, they make certain work available and also define the concepts to assess that work. Folk literature usually has no canon—which is why it is not called ‘folk literature’ in Friesland, but ‘folk writings’—until the unregulated orally transmitted stories are collected, compared and perused according to these fixed lines. Canons bring predictable prejudices to explain texts. In connection with this, the rules for selecting canonical texts benefit the powerful and exclude the marginal groups, regardless of the quality of the work. Canonisation yields a strong model, in other words canons operate as a self-censoring force. That is why canons disturb the literature.

Moreover—chapter 6 is about the ‘trend’ of Frisian writers to write in Dutch—there is fossilisation. No progressive art was developed in Friesland in the course of the twentieth century. There has come no left theater, there is no self-aware and progressive literary movement, there are no political-literary manifestos, no ideologically mature public has been bred, and there is no debate at all about how neonationalism and neoliberalism choke free art. Hell no, rather threaten to write in Dutch than to take a critical look at the Frisian institutions that stand in the way of Frisian literature with their oppressive self-historicalization.

The final chapter is a list of facts without connection. If a cause or effect does happen to come up, this is mostly in the gray area between lie and deception. For example, the publishers Koperative Utjowerij and Friese Pers Boekerij would have lost their dominant publishing position by “the rise of the digital media.” “Major changes” it says, and that sounds plausible, because the worldwide meaning of the effect of technology on the publishing industry is that the sales market for the paper book goes down steeply as e-books and print-on-demands flood or circumvent the market. But that did not happen in Friesland. It still does not. Frisian literature barely has e-books and direct writer-reader sales. The Facebook wall of the writer’s association It Skriuwersboun, says the history book, “acts as the regular table for the more than two hundred members: writers, translators, journalists, teachers Frisian etc.” Act as is a cleverly chosen word: it appears to be synonymous with functioning, but while functioning also means working well, acting merely means serve as. On the Skriuwersboun wall there are about four messages per month, from the Boun board itself, without ‘likes’, let alone a reaction from one of the two hundred.

The historical revision is only really serious if it forces the Frisian literature in a certain direction. Canons, the more rigid they are, are not good for literature. They produce a set of rules to determine what great works are, what stifles the writers their freedom and also the spontaneous appreciation of the audience. Demotivating and discriminating is the impudent lie—Corporaal was in an editorial team with a woman as chief—that women did make it to editors from Frisian magazines, but not as editor-in-chief. What does this tell the female chief editors: nothing else than that their input is so futile that they can be overlooked, so that they can also leave it to a man, even if they always disregard work about a woman as a chick lit and so do the editorship as a guy.

The history book says nothing about a cause of the lagging behind of women in Frisian literature; the question why only emerges if there are loose ends in the story to be eliminated. But the rise of feminist literary theory showed that women have the most to gain from breaching the dead white male canon. In Friesland, the women’s brain drain has been gigantic, and / because only in the margins there was room for breasts, from such a margin came the female writer Elske Schotanus. But the momentum for overthrowing the canon has always been lacking because the Frisian literature was and is a product of cultural nationalism. The province has no art policy; only a language and culture policy. The minority culture Friesland is struggling to stimulate ‘its’ potential creative writers, including Schotanus, to write in its language and it commissiones writers to make a variety of documents about themselves, about Frisian language and about Friesland. The majority of what the Frisian youngsters do is copy. We already know that for a century. A bit less long, but at least twenty years, we know that for that reason publishing is no longer for a real audience, but only for a crowd that maintains itself with internal competition and writing to keep up appearances and yes & amen.

In summary, As long as the tree blooms: A short history of Frisian literature lacks historical method, precision, purpose and line, and is unreliable, selective, messy and poorly readable. Meanwhile, for quite some time, the highly creative people with the power to oversee and be critical from a distance, must be willing to accept intellectual and artistic loneliness. Because anyone who says things that matter and that is original gets immediate criticism from the traditional points of view. Thus, designating alternative paradigms requires proper self-assurance and a sense of correctness and just ground for what one does. And so one sees that the bit of critics that there is attacks a few facets, such as that this history book is teeming with typos. No critic has attacked the whole. No critic attacks the system that produces such a history book. Friesland has no critics. That fact is more serious than the history book itself.