"Fritzi" en het groteske

Research output: ThesisThesis fully internal (DIV)


‘And this is the final paradox: really to understand the grotesque is to cease to regard it as grotesque.’ — Geoffrey Harpham, On the Grotesque. Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (1982) This book, about a writer for whom it always remains to be seen whether she really is one, opens with some remarks about the presentation of her work as nonsense, as work that did not per se have to be seen or understood but to the contrary could stay in the dark, like the ornaments in hidden places in cathedrals. In 1981, when talking to H.A. Gomperts, F. [Fritzi] Harmsen van Beek described her writing literally as nonsense but she added that she loved to believe that 'it is indeed nonsense but I still do it, simply for the nonsense’. Gomperts replied that nonsense ‘has a slightly unusual meaning' in this case. The emphasis in this book is on the way in which F. Harmsen van Beek has `dis-covered' the nonsense of writing and interpreting; the way I use `dis-cover' here is the same as in Geoffrey Harpham's book On the Grotesque: in a grotesque way - that is, using the capricious, the irregular, the incompatible and the exaggerated - she exposes the inconsistent and hidden meanings of common concepts and wordings, so as to strip them of their impact and thus allows new ways of understanding. She has `dis-covered' concepts like writer, oeuvre, poetics, text and style, which have structured the thinking about literature in the post-war era. In a poetical manner she has undermined the fixed norms and values implicit in common thinking by replacing common wordings with ‘ambiguities’. She referred to her poetical method as a ‘Neerbraak’ (a Dutch neologism which might be translated with the German Abbau). She declared to want to 'move' her readers, but this word also has a slightly unusual meaning for her. In the light of the grotesque Abbau-tradition I studied her poetical texts, in which she explained her method, her poems and stories, as well as their reception. Specifically, I have defined this literary work as an inverted and provocative grotesque artefact in the first chapter of this book. In the first place it means that I have studied F. Harmsen van Beek's poetics and Abbau-method as well as her undermining and `dis-covering' work as options or variations within the grotesque (counter) tradition. This tradition (of which the history, incidentally, is only written in part) has shown remarkable periods in which the grotesque prospered along with long intervals of relative invisibility, as is discussed in chapter II. In the second place my perspective on the work as a grotesque artefact assumes that the attempts made by critics to assimilate this provocative artefact conflicted, owing to an incompatibility of the critic and author's assumptions with respect to the literary work. The analysis in chapter III of the attempts in the critiques to assimilate the literary work of F. Harmsen van Beek between 1965 and 1976 (the period central in this analysis) outlines this conflict with four differing approaches. I have described them as: a <symbolist> one; a <realistic> one, a <personalistic>; and a <grotesque> approach. In all four cases the assumptions with respect to the literary work were found to be problematic as they considered the work of literature as a coherent structure or text, specifically written to express a coherent meaning. Moreover the assumptions regarding the author as the director of the meaning expressed was also found to be problematic. The attempts to understand the work of F. Harmsen van Beek in terms of what is referred to as a <symbolist> theory of reading failed. This was due to the <symbolist> assumptions regarding the coherence of meaning, in the light of which this work manifested itself as hugely incoherent and as a `hypertrophy' of the separate parts at the cost of the whole. The attempts to understand her poems in terms of a <personalistic> theory of reading were frustrated (as the poet and critic Hans Andreus also concluded) due to a conscious endeavour of the writer to subvert these attempts to find the author's personality in her work. The attempts to understand her in terms of a <realistic> theory of reading failed due to a lack of psychological and causal coherence and consistency of the plots in her stories. The <realistic> perpective resulted in the plots and characters seeming only rudimentarily and sketchily outlined and the narrative function seeming derailed. A turning point in the reception of her work seemed to be initiated by the publication of Neerbraak in 1970, when the collection of stories was described as <grotesque> by several famous critics (Fens, Fontijn, De Moor). They highlighted her deviant or <grotesque> style and story form. However, this new approach did not deliver any new results. Paradoxically enough, F. Harmsen van Beek proved not to fit in with the (then new) research on the grotesque either. This was largely a result of the line of thinking that was fundamental to this type of research. As the work of E.M. Beekman (1970) on the grotesque in Paul van Ostaijen's prose for example shows, the research of the sixties and seventies perceived the <grotesque> exclusively as a genre or style. This type of research was more or less designed to analyse the <form> as a means to interpret the <coherent meaning> of the <text>. It was imbedded in the (then new) discipline of text interpretation, which was autonomist or (as was stated then) <ergocentrisch>, which meant that it focused on the ergon - Greek for `work (of art)' - solely. Due to its historical constraints, method and focus, the research on the grotesque found itself in a remarkably bad position towards its subject. This type of research had the fault that it forced itself to interpret the grotesque work of art. It put aside the characteristic problems of interpretation caused by this art. This was an unfortunate decision, as the meta-analysis in this book shows, for these problems are typical of the inverted relation of grotesque art with contemporary theories of reading, all of which prove to be (implicitly) poetically loaded. Contrary to older research, my book focuses on the relation outlined above and on problems of interpretation, evaluation, categorisation, classification and canonisation. As is explained in my Introduction, a clear distinction should be made between problems of interpretation at the (primary) level of reading (or criticism), and (related) problems of description and definition of the grotesque at the meta-level of literary theory. In the analysis of the writer's poetics in chapter IV, the problem is addressed of why a writer like F. Harmsen van Beek - euphorically read as a poet's poet, yet perceived as a sort of minor writer at the same time - was in the end only given a place in the margins of literature. My analysis shows that one of the reasons may be that her claims about how to be read and understood are far less obvious than normal. Her poetical utterances lack the imperative `Read me. Don't read the other fellows!' which, according to W.H. Auden, is implicit in most poetic explanations. In a way, she solicited for a misunderstanding (that is to say) being understood in ways unfit for her own work but common in her own time. Further research indicates that she claims a different function for art and (narrative) style than the (then new) approach to narrative, which also had a different perspective on the problem of mimesis altogether. In terms of classical narrative theories, F. Harmsen van Beek's work proved to be only more or less interpretation resistant, as is shown in chapter V. To analyse the typically inverted character of this work as such, implies: to show the presentation of das nicht-Vorstellungswürdige (Hans Robert Jauss) in her work. In other words: to analyse what is excluded from the (realistically or symbolically) represented domains of reality, yet is present in the poems and stories of F. Harmsen van Beek. A device used by this writer to represent the hidden is what she refers to as `dubbelzinnigheid' (ambiguousness). Contrary to that of writers in the realistic and symbolic tradition her method is secondary: she adapted their principles in an inverted way. Her grotesque method implies a downward swing in the words of Michael Mikhail Bahktin. To make the downward swing she specifically used the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic ambiguity. In many cases she used the innuendo or the sexual ambiguity. In chapters VI, VII and VII her method is analysed. Her method works as follows: the word's primary referent invites to construct a so-called referential and realistic interpretation (as is usual in our reading tradition), and there may be (as usual) an extra opportunity to transcend the referential in a metaphoric or symbolic-allegoric interpretation. Unique to this work (and to the grotesque) is the existence of a second referent, which is not at first apparent but manifests itself suddenly and induces that typical downward swing of all that is universal and elevated in the first interpretation: the abstract and trans-historical is made concrete and historical, physical, sexual and originally hidden. Thus the second referent, hiding in the well-chosen ambiguity, provokes the switching of reading strategy: readers switch from a referential and realistic interpretation to a hidden and forbidden interpretation. I believe the method, its working and effect to be characteristic for the grotesque aesthetic (counter)tradition and therefore studying the stories and poems of F. Harmsen van Beek under this tradition to be enlightening. Apart from the fact that its method is typically downward oriented (Mikhail Bahktin) and that its effect occurs all of a sudden (plötzlich, in the words of Wolfgang Kayser) and may indeed be experienced as a cognitive itch (Reuven Tsur): even more essential is the fact that this work thus invites readers to enter the domains of the hidden, the unformed, the humble, the unclean and the forbidden. This work shows the things which are not vorstellungswürdig (in the terms of our representational traditions), yet are represented by means of Harmsen van Beek’s inverted method, though without being exposed as unclean or humble or ugly or something like that. To describe the method as grotesque does not mean that labelling the second - forbidden - interpretation as grotesque is unproblematic, for the work of art represents the experience of reality as defined by Aristotle (this is discussed in chapter VI). For the same reason labelling this work as grotesque is problematic. It seems more reasonable to define the relation between interpretations as grotesque, that is as far as the first interpretation is slightly ridiculous, gross, exaggerated and even a tiny bit laughable in the light of the second, as I have shown in chapters IV en VIII. Using Jury Lotman's terms, I refer to the relation between one artefact and two different aesthetic objects; they are constructed from two radically different aesthetic angles. Reading the <grotesque> work in terms of the aesthetics of the grotesque does not imply constructing a GROTESQUE interpretation. For, paradoxically, `really to understand the grotesque is to cease to regard it as grotesque', as Geoffrey Harpham concluded as well at the end of part I of his book on the grotesque. The conclusion is then that reading the literary work as a representation of the experience of reality (in Aristotelian terms) begins where reading it as a so-called `grotesque' representation of reality ends. This is not to say that the fact that this work is ambiguous and that the second referent is forbidden is of minor importance for an understanding of this work, its workings and its place in the social domain. For the sudden emergence of the second referent provokes the ambiguous, `pornographic' reading, one that cannot gain form without problems: on the one hand because of the unfamiliarity of the readers with (the conventions of) this domain, on the other hand because it is taboo. The fact that this type of reading did not gain form in the reception of this work does not mean that the possibility of this type of reading did not occur to her critics and admirers. It is difficult to legitimize its place in the public domain, to find a function and meaning for this type of reading, as I have pointed out in chapter VIII. The realisation of a second (so-called pornographic) reading within the domain of grotesque literature (that is itself half hidden in the dark) offers a solution for this problem, as this book has hopefully shown. A more general question which poses itself in the context of this project, and which has been posed in recent research on the grotesque, against the background of anthropological research, is the question of the function for (artistic) representation of that which is hidden or <deformed> in a culture. The problem of the absence of form and the related problem of the taboo and the non-thing, seem to be problems experienced in all cultures and are represented by art (including stories, myths and rituals). The central problem here is that of categorisation and the representation of those issues in a culture that fall in no category or into several simultaneously. The specific question that poses itself in the context of my research, (and which is dealt with in chapter VI) is: is a writer and artists, such as F. Harmsen van Beek, who is a double talent, and who shifts between verbal and pictorial (visual) worlds of representation, predisposed to a specific sensibility for the possibilities and impossibilities of ordering, perceiving and representing? Is she more sensible to the non-things such as anomaly, ambivalence and ambiguity? This subdivision is made by the anthropologist Susan Stewart, who describes sub-classes of non-things. These <things> play a major role in grotesque art. The fact that exactly this type of thing appears abundantly in the work of F. Harmsen van Beek, indicates her perceptive eye for the problems of categorisation. Indicative of her great sensibility for that which falls inside or outside existing categories, is the fact that she devotes great detail in her observation of dust and dirt (see, e.g., Wat knaagt?). She in fact shows a sharp eye for all that falls apart, or is being formed. Writing about all these issues, also about that of categorization, points once again to the direction of a great sensitivity for the problems and implications of categorisation. Even more so, her writing indicates the possibility of recategorization through reformulation. Her appeal to not let ambiguity slip can be regarded as an appeal not to let slip the possibilities of recategorization. F. Harmsen van Beek tends to move not only between the verbal and the pictorial, but also, being the child of two illustrators and authors of children’s books, she moves between the imaginary world of the child and the adult. She is respectively candid and overly lucid: in one instance she is very detailed, the other moment she refuses to make any distinction at all (as demonstrated in the analyses in chapters V and VII). The results of all of this is that F. Harmsen van Beek shows in her stories and poems a dazzling way of moving between the general and the particular, the universal and the personal, the well-known, and the unknown, the rule and the exception, the cause and the effect, the logically thought through, and the aporetic, the aberrant, and the non-serious. Her method is anti-ordering and anti-Aristotelian in this perspective. Her approach functions not only as an artistic method, which, through an inversion of artistic conventions, represents the world; it is also as a critical method; it is a method that is deliberately used against the rules of orderly thinking. This method is employed with the help of the Abbau of meaning (or deconstruction of meaning), placing all kinds of <meanings> between brackets. Thus she creates a space for reconsiderations that go against accepted norms and expressions. She shares this aspect of deviance with other writers of the grotesque (such as Paul van Ostaijen, Til Brugman, Louis Paul Boon, Gust Gils, Witold Gombrowicz). In this regard, however, it should be noted that the work of F. Harmsen van Beek has no political or political-ideological meaning. A unique feature of F. Harmsen van Beek is the fact that she has especially applied her deconstruction method, although in a very lucid manner, to the world of the homely and the particular. Her Sprachhellhörigkeit (this term is used by Palm with reference to Morgenstern) is also exceptional: in no time at all, she may turn everyday language into puns, that is: into something utterly ambiguous. Her style is exceptional, albeit not completely unique. Just like other authors of grotesque works, she employs a style of writing that sounds like spoken language. (‘She writes with her voice.’) She forms a part of the narrating tradition that goes back to types of oral narration. The Russian Formalist Boris Ejchenbaum, described this type of narration as skaz. An important aspect of this style is that it seems to be like spontaneously spoken language. It even seems to be a rather primitive style, being everything but refined and <literary>, but which is in fact a thoroughly crafted artistic language (the Formalist linguist Victor Vinogradov speaks of an overly crafted language; the poet herself described crafting this language as making ‘a very complicated cryptogram’). One could even speak of a treacherous Abbau of referential and conventional meanings due to the <crypto grammatical> crafting of the language. As a result, the referential function of language is placed between brackets. In principal, the narrative style of F. Harmsen van Beek has a different artistic function than the strong referential, reporting style (darstellend-beschreibend) which forms the basis of so-called <mimetic-realistic> representations in literature and in the ‘traditional novel’ (to cite W.J.M Bronzwaer). The function and characteristics of this traditional style stand opposed to the style of F. Harmsen van Beek. This opposition is investigated in chapters VII and VIII. Despite the fact that the work of F. Harmsen van Beek is only slightly referential, her style, apart from being strongly reflective in a tacit way, is characterised especially by direct address (she often directly addresses the one spoken to) and this particular aspect of her style has seduced critics and fans, above all, to see in her work the person <Fritzi>. Such a reading flourishes on a dated <personalism>. In Dutch literature, readings like this are still to be found; readings formed by a non-crystallised vision of literary mimesis (such as has been discussed in chapter VI). As artistic representation, unconventional work such as this reflects rather on itself, than on the writer herself, as has been argued in chapters VII and VIII. Her unserious, mumbling, deliberately arguing narrators stand apart from those forms of <narration> that go back to the traditional format of an argument and the written culture: this culture is aimed at the transfer of information and as such should be serious. It seems to me that it was never the ambition of F. Harmsen van Beek to portray herself in, or to write herself into, our written culture. It rather seems to be the case that her work manifests itself as a number of only half legible side remarks placed in the margin of the written culture. When these remarks, rather against their initial purpose as side remarks, are placed in the centre of attention, they seem to contain quite some critique against the basic premises of the written culture. However, because these remarks are not written in the terms of this culture, they are also not quite legible in these terms. Therefore, the work and the writer herself stay more or less hidden. Symptomatic of this self-chosen marginal position, is the problematic aspect of the signature of her work. She rarely signed her work with her full (family) name. She considers the convention of printing the full name of a writer on the cover of books, to symbolize and establish their identity and authorship, as a pretentious act. Her own personal and marginal <side remarks>, although often directed at someone, are not signed, as that little personal note scribbled in the margins of a medieval manuscript (‘Hebben olla vogala’). As far as I know, she has only signed two small parts of her work. In December 1965, she wrote a poem for the Christmas edition of Vrij Nederland, about a ‘strayed kiss’ and this poem was signed with the sentence, ‘Gemaakt door F. Harmsen van Beek / Op een moment dat niemand keek’ -- ‘Made by F. Harmsen van Beek / at a moment when no one was looking’. (To me, this signature seems rather ironic, because in 1965 ‘everyone’ was looking at her: after all, she was ‘the most discussed topic in literary circles’ as De Moor wrote). The other signature dates from 1992 and is hidden in a small booklet by Frank Linschoten about his garden in Eext, entitled De tuin van Frank Linschoten en Pieter Baak (The Garden of Frank Linschoten and Pieter Baak). In this poem, she addresses the reader, who in 1992 thought that she has since long stopped writing, and whom she (just as she did in other places in her work) addresses as incidental passer-by: traveller, if you should ever hear a cricket cry for help: that’s me F. Harmsen van Beek.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusPublished - 2003

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