Untranslated: “A thing doesn’t diminish in value if it makes you happy”: Eva by Carry van Bruggen — flowerville

Carry van Bruggen (1881 – 1932) was the main pseudonym of Caroline Lea de Haan, born in The Hague, one of sixteen children in a strongly religious Jewish family. She was clinically depressive and committed suicide. Not just a novelist, she also had a theoretical mind, writing studies on the development of individuality in literature (Prometheus, 1919) and on language (Hedendaagsch Fetischisme / Contemporary Fetishism, 1925). Van Bruggen’s second last novel, Eva (1927), is regarded by many as the sum of her life and writing. As the book has yet to be translated, this piece contains a fair amount of quotations to particularly illustrate the richness of inner reflection in van Bruggen’s unusual work. It is the story of young Eva, a teacher, from her adolescence to middle age. Eva is well-educated, knows French, English and German, and she makes references to Immanuel Kant, to Colette, and repeatedly to the major Dutch poet Joost van der Vondel.

Van Bruggen has been called the Virginia Woolf of the Netherlands and this is not wrong, however, her use of syntax is also reminiscent of Dorothy Richardson: long chains of thoughts, interspersed with dots. Woolf described Richardson’s sentence like this: “She has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes.” [1] All this elasticity and frailty are held in place and given shape by the structure of van Bruggen’s novel, and such structure can be considered in two ways: one is the conventional and chronological order of chapters, but more important is how recurrent themes give shape to Eva’s life, or the book, if one would want to assume a difference between books and life.

These themes are reflections on the self, words, silence, understanding, shame, wonder and life, and the book traces how Eva’s views on them changes through time.

The problem of gender relations underlies all these reflections: in this sense Eva is one of the very first Dutch books that approaches the subject and experience of (latent) bisexuality from a female side.

One can read Eva as a Bildungsroman, a story of a self, a coming to some form of non-premature reconciliation, from skinlessness to serenity, from vulnerability to openness, thereby discussing essential questions: What can words mean? What does it mean to understand something? What does it mean to love someone? What is wonder? It starts with the self being open to the world, but Eva cannot merely enjoy this openness; it is rather an experience of defenselessness against the outside world: “Expectation is never really without anxiety. You feel yourself like a flooded land”.

Her anxiety is accompanied by a strong and at the same time dizzying sensitivity to the manifold possibilities of the world, maybe not knowing what to do with those possibilities: “Yes, but there is immeasurably so much that happens in a person.” In her reflections on the nature of words, the changing things have to be trapped in so many new words and be carried by so many new deeds that she is overwhelmed, at least initially. “All the moments run over me like wagon wheels; every moment, separated from the others, can be felt differently… every hour contains thousands…”. Her writing can be characterized by a permanent investigation of what words can do, an exploration into the limits of language, how far words can stretch. On the one hand, an awareness that words cannot always grasp what one means: “Why are you quickly satisfied with some words… and how little they grasp… of what is hidden.” On the other, they can describe some aspects of life, but there is not necessarily a clear direction to those descriptions. This is not a bad thing. However,

Eva is in a stage of permanent overwhelmedness, intellectually and emotionally: “…and every word gripped you in one of your different beings…”. “They stood in front of the bookshelf which spanned the whole back wall of the room. She thought: every book has hundred pages, every page has hundred words, every word has a meaning. This is… a world, closed. A curiosity, a feeling of oppressiveness swelled in her, her eyes searched, from below to above, from left to right, holding on, letting go. She then averted herself.” She will write later that oppressiveness is a result of unanswered questions.

The problem of overwhelmedness raises the question of the nature of the self. The very self of Eva, a very vulnerable person, feeling powerless and lacking freedom, growing up like van Bruggen in a strongly religious family with the awareness that moral transgressions have dire consequences, may have added to the feeling of precariousness and of ‘tornness’, of two selves, how one ought to be and how one is: “I fell into two… I am two… I am two persons stitched in one, I am an in opposite directions turned two, I am one who is turned-against-myself. You have to speak free each of them so you also have to speak free yourself… if you don’t want to fall asleep in confusion, if you don’t want to suffocate in inner turmoil…”.

Van Bruggen’s study Hedendaagsch Fetischisme discusses the problem of tornness of the self with respect to how a rigid view of language disfigures the individual. She sees two opposing elements at work in the human soul: one is the drive to look at the self (zelfaanschouwing), which requires an unrestricted use of language, and the other a form of shame (zelfverberging), to not look at yourself, to hide yourself, not owning a language.

This inner separateness leads to the inability to communicate freely and spontaneously, to the torment of bad silence and of not being able to say anything in certain social situations. She does not know how to speak because she is afraid to be regarded as crazy, according to social rules and judgements over which she has no control and which remain sometimes inaccessible to her. Further problems related to the social sphere are those of shame in a direct gender context, which creates additional vulnerability. One example is the public discussion of menstruation, or the scene in which Eva gives birth and feels humiliated by men around her, standing, fully dressed. In another situation she is told very directly that she does not understand anything of importance, because she is a girl. This is also a reason for her to feel ashamed of her existence. However, where shame is a problem, Eva’s friend is wonder. It is a source of comfort, and it can give stability to the self: “And then wonder says: well this is then, life. And suddenly you breathe in its breath, the wonder(ment). You can say it yourself as well – ‘this now is life’ – but then it doesn’t mean anything… only if he says it to you: This now, then is life. The wind that blows, the staring skies… I who am  “I” and who say “I”… I-inside-I… and quieter now, even more quiet… because this is the heart… “I” waned, “I” is nothing… this is a precious knowledge, an instable, frail and uncertain knowledge…”.

The realization of the existence of this frail knowledge leads to the question of understanding, explored throughout the novel as van Bruggen describes the different yet contiguous acts of understanding (begrijpen) and fathoming (doorgronden). In Eva, this problem initially takes the form of herself feeling as if she understands everything; except for the fact that her knowledge, at that time, means an indistinguishable overwhelming mass, and it also means guilt: “Why do you understand everything… why does the knowledge of so many things stick on you? You can’t get rid of it, you can’t forget it. […] Why do you feel guilty only because you understand? […]” But later, when she has become more certain of herself, understanding is less beset by guilt, and she writes the formula: “Understanding is being.” She wishes to explore everything. And when reading Vondel, that ‘doorgronden’—a Dutch word that means ‘through and to the ground, coming to something to its base, understanding it thoroughly’—raises the question of how she views thought.

For Eva, thoughts have a strong connection to places. She asks someone: “Do you have this too, that places where you visit, that they keep your thoughts for you?” Places are significant because, in their coming together with her self, alienation can be overcome: “If there was no snow, you’d be able to hear the horse trot, if there was no snow it ought not to be so silent… so silent… if now suddenly within herself… where words became silent, echoes died, only poplars stood as high as the coloured rings round the moon. And now it is as if the silence within herself and the silence outside fall together, one breath is her own breath with the snow plane and with the flowing water.”

“Just now. Just now they stand in the dusk of the heap of planks and staring into the deep flowing water. It stares back to them above. Eye to eye they stand with the water… breath to breath with the plain, heart to heart with the silence… they are connected with everything together in one life, beneath the icy evening sky, underneath the dome of the new century.”

The feeling conveyed by this book can be described initially as one of broken intimacy, which in the process of Eva’s life changes to an intimacy unbroken and stronger than what can be expressed with words. It’s an intimacy towards life and the world, an undistorted closeness that is hard won. What Eva looks for is “nowhere and everywhere.” These concerns culminate in the question of how to live, and how to follow one’s own ambitions despite obstacles.

One answer is given: set yourself easy goals. Another answer takes the shape of love for the world but not unconditionally, therein more following Arendt’s amor mundi than Nietzsche’s amor fati. Not unconditionally, because the task of loving life becomes intricate for Eva when she has to disown her views in order to be socially acceptable in relation to questions of love and bisexuality. After falling in love, or becoming infatuated with the girl Andy, who then marries a man, the relationship cools from Andy’s side and Eva woefully thinks that she cannot be a man for her and therefore feels some kind of metaphysical shortcoming: it cannot be made good that she is not a man and was therefore rejected. Later on Eva gains the insight that her love for Andy is a love primarily for the other person, maybe independent of that person’s gender. The problem of being a boy or girl is secondary to love. This is also where her mature view of sex comes in, namely, that it is something beyond intellectual or ethical problems.

To Eva there are always differences between things and there is happiness in knowing those differences and finding the right words for them. According to her, things want to be understood. This is relevant because in her experience she is told she cannot think logically, and she feels that the world is different than logic, and everything is different, has a wrong name, and therefore everything has to be destroyed and built up again: not according to an example but according to one’s own insight, creating the world according to one’s own nature. This is how she finds inner peace: by giving shape to those overwhelming experiences of insight, of words and books and people, she can finally live an undistorted life, with the knowledge of the vast differences between people (“People are further removed from each other than the stars”) but also with the knowledge that those differences can be overcome, for instance when thoughts are connected to place or when one listens together to music: “But our eyes spoke to each other and I wasn’t a girl and he wasn’t a man and we trusted each other with what we both knew, that music is inexhaustible.” It is here where she experiences that to open oneself up to life is one of the highest, the greatest and most beautiful things. And beauty is for her a means of discovering herself: “A thing doesn’t diminish in value if it makes you happy”.

Carry van Bruggen (1881 – 1932) was a Dutch writer who worked as a teacher and was the author of a number of novels such as De verlatene (1910), Helen: een vroege winter (1913), Het huisje aan de sloot (1921) and De vier jaargetijden (1924). The philosophical conflict of the collective against the individual are fundamental to her writing as are explorations of the nature of language, which are elaborated on a theoretical level in Prometheus and Hedendaagsch Fetischisme.

dr flowerville teaches foreign literature at an unspecified university and occasionally blogs at http://fortlaufen.blogspot.co.uk. Twitter: @flowerville_II

All translations from the Dutch are by the author.

Book and Carry van Bruggen photos courtesy of flowerville.

Image: snow, evanrudemi, Creative Commons

[1] Woolf, Review of Revolving Lights (Romance and the Heart – TLS, 19 May 1923)