AN INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK OF FLEMISH MODERNIST PAUL VAN OSTAIJEN

By Hannah Van Hove

Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) has justly been hailed as one of the greatest innovators and experimenters in Dutch literature. During his short but prolific literary career (he was only thirty-two at the time of his death), he continually sought to question pre-conceived ideas regarding the role of poetry and art, engaging with various early twentieth-century avant-garde movements in order to stretch the boundaries of conventional literary form. Known primarily as a poet, he also wrote satirical prose pieces, a film-script, some translations of Kafka and numerous important articles on art – all of which have contributed to his deserved reputation as Belgium’s “prophet of modernism.”[1]

Paul van Ostaijen was born in Antwerp on the 22nd of February in 1896 to a Catholic family. Expelled from a Jesuit college, involved with the Vlaamsche Bond (an association of Flemish nationalist pupils who believed in “self-education on all fronts”) and influenced by writers such as Émile Zola and Joris-Karl Huysmans, he became known for his strong opinions regarding art, literature and politics from a young age. His first published piece of writing, an article entitled ‘The Art of Today’, appeared in 1914 in a Flemish magazine whilst he was working as a clerk at Antwerp city council, and the oldest remaining poems in his handwriting date back to this year, illustrating the fact that reflection on art and poetry went hand in hand in his career.

Van Ostaijen - Opdracht

Poems from Occupied City, original wood engravings and drawings by Oskar Jespers. Translations by Hannah Van Hove Please click on images to enlarge them.

Music-Hall [Music Hall], Van Ostaijen’s first collection of poems, appeared in 1916. It opens with a poem of the same name in five parts that evokes the artificial world of cabaret whilst engaging with the unanimous idea that it is through collectively experienced events that the individual becomes united with his or her environment. Unanimisme [Unanimism], a French literary movement attributed to the writer Jules Romain and his collection of poetry La Vie unanime [Unanimous Life] (1908), was a strong influence in this work; drawing on its ideas of collective emotion and collective consciousness, Music-Hall is concerned with exploring humanity’s fraternal tendencies, seemingly suggesting that the longing for wholeness of the self (a recurrent theme in Van Ostaijen’s poetry) can be alleviated through the search for subjective experiences of oneness with the environment and with other people. Yet although unanimism is heavily drawn upon, the speaker in the poems seems very much aware of the illusory and fleeting nature of such collective experiences. As the title makes clear, Music-Hall (showing influences of fin-du-siècle dandyism) puts early twentieth-century city life and its various modes of entertainment in the limelight, with modern words such as kino [cinema], tram [tram] and fiets [bicycle] making early appearances in Flemish poetry.[2] However, as Thomas Vaessens has pointed out, the countryside nevertheless occupies an important position in this debut collection, often figuring as a place for contemplation and inner thought.[3]

In June 1917, Van Ostaijen wrote an article entitled ‘Expressionism in Flanders’ which placed the work of his Flemish artist friends (including painters Floris Jespers and Paul Joostens, the sculptor Oscar Jespers and sculptor and painter Rik Wouters) against the background of the latest developments in the European visual arts. What is remarkable about Van Ostaijen’s critical writing during this time is the fact that, from the very start, he is able to interpret these different European movements as being of great historical significance. As Cyrille Offermans points out, Van Ostaijen’s articles dating from 1915-1918 show him conceiving of the movements of expressionism, futurism and cubism as similar expressions of the same urge for renewal.[4] Sasha Bru, in Democracy, Law and the Modernist Avant-Gardes, has stated that Van Ostaijen was “almost single-handedly responsible for the breakthrough of expressionism” in Belgium.[5] He explains:

Flemish expressionism shared with German expressionism the conviction that modernity was a condition of servitude from which humanity had to break free.[6]

In October 1918, Van Ostaijen’s second collection of poetry, Het Sienjaal [The Signal] appeared. In this collection, which Van Ostaijen would later label humanitair expressionisme [humanitarian expressionism], the “collective soul,” which he searched for and glimpsed in Music-Hall, has become a concrete possibility. Concerned with universal solidarity, the recurring theme throughout is “an osmosis of the I and the outside world” in which the individual is truly united with their environment.[7] Artists and writers (Marcel Schwob, James Ensor, Francis Jammes and Else Lasker-Schüler, among others) are represented as role models. A central figure in this collection of poetry is Vincent van Gogh, evident in the eponymous poem in five parts, the first word of which sets the tone of the collection: Profeet [Prophet]. Possessing a visionary gift, the figure of Van Gogh not only represents the future of art, but equally the future of humanity. Van Gogh thus acquires a god-like status in the beginning of the twentieth century, an era thought by Van Ostaijen to be in need of spiritual renewal. In Het Sienjaal, pain and suffering are recurring themes, interpreted, in accordance with the Catholicism of his upbringing, as an inevitable (though positive) phase on the way to happiness. Just like Christ’s suffering brought deliverance to humanity, so every person (and especially the signal-giving leader) should transform that suffering into new life and new light. Assuming a prophetic tone, this volume of poems thus presents a utopian future of love and equilibrium to his readers. As Vaessens pointed out in an article written in 1996,

Wie [vandaag] kennis neemt van de hoge dichterlijke pretenties van de dichter van Het Sienjaal, zal wellicht de ironische trek van de postmoderne lezer om zijn lippen voelen spelen.[8]

those encountering the high poetical pretentions of the poet of The Signal today will no doubt feel the ironical twitch of the postmodern reader play around his lips.

This interpretation of the poet as prophet, as a sort of priest, also seemed outdated to Van Ostaijen when, a couple of years later, he condemned his earlier work as buiten-lyriese hogeborst-zetterij [hyper-lyrical presumptuousness], rejecting The Signal’s rhetoric tone laden with pathos.[9]

At the end of 1918, Van Ostaijen, fearing being sent to prison for publicly protesting against Cardinal Mercier’s visit to Antwerp earlier in the year, moved to Berlin.[10] Here, he made the acquaintance of writers and artists such as George Grosz, Heinrich Campendonck, Georg Muche, Herwarth Walden (editor of Der Sturm), and Wassily Kandinsky. Inspired by Der Sturm and his encounters with Dadaism, Van Ostaijen started to engage with a much less ethically-minded and more formal expressionism. The poetry produced during his Berlin years is a radical break away from his first two publications; the unanimist and ethically obliging poetry of Music-Hall and Het Sienjaal makes way for poems that express the chaotic and senseless nature of life in the post-war era.

Van Ostaijen - TangoBezette Stad [Occupied City], a chaotic visual representation of Antwerp during the war, appears in 1921. As in De Feesten van Angst en Pijn [Feasts of Fear and Agony] (written between 1918 and 1921 and published posthumously in 1928), verse is represented rhythmically and visually but typography (arranged and illustrated by Van Ostaijen’s friend, the Flemish artist Oscar Jespers) replaces Van Ostaijen’s handwriting. The typographical experiments present throughout the poems, which can be traced back to the works of Apollinaire, place the words in different formats, typefaces and colours, seemingly ripping them out of conventional syntax. The negative nihilistic evocation of war-time Antwerp in Bezette Stad is in stark contrast with the utopian optimism of Het Sienjaal. Bezette Stad can thus be interpreted as not only a representation of a war-stricken city, but as an illustration of the demise of a civilisation built on the foundation of Reason. As Kristiaan Versluys points out, if we are to follow Van Ostaijen’s guidelines and read the poems aloud whilst taking the unstable typography into account,

ontstaat [er]een bonte mengeling van gefluister en geschreeuw, ironische bombast en snedig understatement, crescendo en decrescendo, uitroepen en interjecties.[11]

a colourful hodgepodge of whispers and screams, of ironical grandiloquence and biting understatement, of crescendo and decrescendo, of bellows and interjections takes place.

Versluys goes on to say that this shrill chattering of discordant voices mirrors the senselessness of modern society, with the German occupation of the city functioning as a metaphor for the omnipresent absurdity characteristic of modern life.[12] Bezette Stad has thus often been read as an “anti-Sienjaal”, a reading corroborated by Van Ostaijen’s statement that:

Bezette Stad was een vergif, als tegengif gebruikt. Het nihilisme van Bezette stad kureerde mij van een oneerlikheid, die ik eerlikheid waande, en van buiten-lyriese hogeborst-zetterij. Daarna werd ik een doodgewoon dichter, dit is iemand die gedichtjes maakt voor zijn plezier, zoals een duivemelker duiven houdt. Ik maak geen aanspraak op de medalje van burgerdeugd.[13]

Occupied City was a poison, used as an antidote. The nihilism of Occupied City cured me of a dishonesty, that I had thought honesty, and of hyper-lyrical presumptuousness. After that I became a common poet, that is to say, someone who writes poems for pleasure, like a pigeon-fancier keeps pigeons. I lay no claim to the medal of civic virtue.

Kathrin Kötz has pointed out that the nihilism present in Van Ostaijen’s Berlin writing does not represent a wholehearted Dadaist commitment to that mindset; rather, she argues, it confines itself to the proclamation of nihilism without putting it into acts.[14] Though Van Ostaijen did not go as far as most of his contemporary Berlin Dadaists, he found the movement very appealing, most evident in the film script he presumably wrote around 1919 (posthumously published), entitled De Bankroet-jazz [Bankruptcy Jazz].[15] A homage to jazz and dada, this is one of the only works in Van Ostaijen’s oeuvre explicitly concerned with the political situation in post-war Germany.

Both in De Feesten van Angst en Pijn and in Bezette Stad, the modern city is represented as locus of inner division and spiritual torment. The formal experiments, the tortured typography and the emphasis on the isolated word mirror these feelings of existential angst. As Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy have argued, the recurrent theme of longing for wholeness of the self is expressed both positively and negatively throughout Van Ostaijen’s work. Formulated positively (as is the case in Music-Hall and Het Sienjaal), it concerns a longing for a profound solidarity between the “I” on the one hand, and the “not-I” on the other. Understood negatively (as is the case in De Feesten van Angst en Pijn and Bezette Stad), this longing for completeness of the self manifests itself as a desire to renounce the sharply defined, isolating boundary surrounding the “I” and to abandon the constricting bonds of logic and common sense.[16]

One of Van Ostaijen’s acquaintances in Berlin was the philosopher Salomo Friedlaender who, under the pen-name of “Mynona”, wrote prose pieces called grotesken [grotesques] that influenced Van Ostaijen greatly. Around the same time he encountered the fantastical prose of Paul Scheerbart, who he would call “Germany’s greatest writer,” and the work of Franz Kafka. Kafka makes such an impression on Van Ostaijen that he translated five of his stories when he returned to Belgium, publishing them in 1925 in the magazine Vlaamsche Arbeid (thus presumably making Van Ostaijen one of the first ever Kafka-translators).[17] Van Ostaijen himself started writing various “grotesques” in Berlin. These idiosyncratic satirical prose pieces, most often concerned with mocking aspects of bourgeois society, ranged from twenty words to around forty pages in length. Their sharp and biting character has been compared to the caricatures of George Grosz and, according to Wildemeersch, these stories can be understood in the tradition of the “anti-novel,” concerned with undermining the credibility of the great nineteenth-century novel.[18] Three small collections of Van Ostaijen’s grotesques were published during his life-time: De Trust der Vaderlandsliefde [Patriotism Incorporated] (1925), Het Bordeel van Ika Loch [The Brothel of Ika Loch] (1926) – which appeared with an Indian ink drawing by René Magritte as its frontispiece – and Vogelvrij [Outlawed] (1928).

Van Ostaijen - EuropaIn May 1921, Van Ostaijen left Berlin and returned to Antwerp, only to be conscripted to the Belgian army and sent back to Germany at the end of the year as a soldier in the Belgian occupation forces. Once discharged, he became an antique book merchant and art-dealer, first in Antwerp in 1924 and then in Brussels from October 1925 until March 1926, dealing in paintings by artists such as Max Ernst (apparently selling one of his paintings to Tristan Tzara), Joan Miró, Juan Gris, Paul Éluard and James Ensor.[19] Throughout this time, Van Ostaijen continued to write prolifically on the arts, publishing articles on, amongst others, Picasso and Campendonck and attempting to form a group of “post-impressionist artists” (an initiative which never got off the ground). The poetry he wrote in this later phase of his career has been understood as an attempt at “poésie pure,” a practice predominantly concerned with poetry’s musicality that, in Flanders, can be traced back to the 19th century poetry of Guido Gezelle. Van Ostaijen himself, in his essays on his new poetics and the relationship between the plastic arts and poetry, classified his later poetry as belonging to the category of het organiese expressionisme [organic expressionism] as opposed to that of het romantiese expressionisme [romantic expressionism] (which Van Ostaijen’s first publications belonged to, as he later believed). According to Van Ostaijen:

De romanties-expressionistiese optiek is wat de impressionistiese was, een som van ervaring, nu echter verhoogd door een kompositioneel-bindende pathetiek der uitdrukking. De organies-expressionistiese optiek is deze van het eerste zien, van het eerste bewustzijn van de buitenwereld, van de eerste platoniese herinnering.[20]

The romantic-expressionist approach is that of the impressionist one, a sum of experiences, now however heightened by a compositional-binding pathos of expression. The organic-expressionist approach is that of the first [act of] seeing, of the first consciousness of the outside world, of the first platonic memory.

In a similar vein to T. S. Eliot, Van Ostaijen states that the poet’s emotions should have no bearing on the quality of the poem. As Marc Reynebeau explains, rather than expressing how happy, touched or helpless the poet feels, expression must proceed not from the naming of an emotion, but from the configuration of the words which are able to express much more than their respective meanings put together.[21] In his ‘Gebruiksaanwijzing der lyriek: Paralipomena’ [‘A User’s Guide to Lyrical Poetry: Paralipomena’], Van Ostaijen explained that he considered poetry essentially “word art”, inferring that form and content are indivisible. In the work of art the content is only known by the form and can therefore never be reduced to mere content (understood as the “message” or “subject” of the poem) alone.[22] The lyric becomes an end in itself, based on the isolated word (torn away from any kind of regular syntax) and word-association (which pushes the image conventionally conjured up by the word into the background). Van Ostaijen’s later poems are often characterised by wordplay, exquisite detail to the musicality of words, associations through alliterations, and stem forth from what Van Ostaijen calls a fulfilment of “the transcendence of the word.” A crucial passage in ‘Gebruiksaanwijzing der lyriek’ explains:

Wat bedoel ik met dat vervuld-zijn door het transcendens van het woord? Is het de zin van het woord of is het alleen zijn klankwaarde. Het stellen der alternatieve is, meen ik, verkeerd. […] Noch dit noch dat is volstrekt, namelik: dat de woorden enkel tekenen zijn voor de fenomenen of dat de fenomenen slechts en fonction van de woorden lyries bestaan. De resonans van het woord in het onderbewustzijn, – resonans die naar de oppervlakte te voeren mij de feitelik lyriese taak schijnt – zij ligt tussen de zin en de klankwaarde […].[23]

What do I mean by this being steeped in the transcendence of the word? Is it the meaning of the word or only its sonorous quality. The positing of alternatives is, in my opinion, wrong. […] Neither are absolute, namely: that words are merely signs for phenomena or that phenomena exist solely lyrically in function of the words. The resonance of the word in the subconscious – and to me the lyrical task is to bring this resonance to the surface – is situated between the sentence and its sonorous quality […].

In September 1927, Paul van Ostaijen, a long-time sufferer of lung disease, was sent to recover in a sanatorium in the Walloon village of Miavoye-Anthée. From here, with Gaston Burssens and Edgar du Perron, he set up the magazine Avontuur [Adventure] (February 1928–April 1928) which aimed to accommodate een meer fantaisistiese literatuur [a more fantastical literature].[24] His letters dating from this time show his plans to return to Brussels and to resume work, but on the 18th March 1928 Paul van Ostaijen succumbs to tuberculosis. Had he lived, the collection of his later poems, published in 1928 as Posthumous Poems, would have been entitled Het Eerste Boek van Schmoll [The First Book of Schmoll]; like a piano student who first learns to play the simpler pieces of Schmoll, Van Ostaijen’s playful title suggests he felt he was only at the start of his poetic career.


Notes:

[1] Dirk Aerts and Marc Somers, Het Bordeel van Ika Loch: De Antwerpse literaire avant-garde in de jaren twintig (Antwerpen : Museum voor het Cutltuurleven, 1993), p.15

[2] Paul van Ostaijen was nicknamed “Mister 1830” around the time of writing Music-Hall, due to his dandyesque appearance and unfashionable clothing style. The Antwerp poet Maurice Gilliams, in The Man in Front of the Window (1943), describes Van Ostaijen as “Orpheus in Biedermeier costume” (as quoted in Nina Onzia, Van Ostaijen: Een Reflectie op Kunst (Antwerpen: Tentoonstellingshuis Hellemans, 1985), p.11).

“Kino” is a German word employed by Van Ostaijen in the poem ‘Music-Hall’, rather than the Dutch word “bioscoop.”

[3] Thomas Vaessens, ‘De lichte waanzin van het onmogelijke: Kleine poëtografie van een pretentieus dichter’ in De Stem der Loreley: Over Paul Van Ostaijen, ed. Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996), pp.58-80, p.64.

[4] Cyrille Offermans, ‘Tegengif: Van Ostaijen’s Poëtica in het spoor van de Europese avant-garde’ in De Stem der Loreley: Over Paul Van Ostaijen, ed. Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996), pp.39-57, p.40.

[5] Sasha Bru, Democracy, Law and the Modernist Avant-Gardes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p.6

[6] Quoting Peter Nicholls, Modernisms. A Literary Guide (London: Macmillan, 1995), p.142. Bru further points out that expressionism in Belgium, unlike German expressionism which voiced its political ambitions most explicitly in practical political terms after the war, gained practical political momentum mainly during the war. For more on this, see Bru, p.91 and Geert Buelens, ‘“The Collectivists Go Collectively Backwards.” Paul van Ostaijen, Expressionism, the November Revolution and (Inter)nationalist Politics’ in Historical Avant-Garde, Poetics and Politics, ed. Sasha Bru et al. (Leuven: Peeters and Alpha Copy, 2005), pp.61-81.

[7] Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy, ‘Inleiding’ in De Stem der Loreley: Over Paul Van Ostaijen, ed. Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996), pp.9-12, p.10.

[8] Vaessens, p.66. All translations my own.

[9] Paul van Ostaijen, Verzameld Werk, IV, ed. by Gerrit Borgers (Antwerp: De Sikkel, 1957), p.330.

[10] This demonstration had been organised by Flemish nationalists and provoked the anger of Belgian officials who sentenced four protesters to prison, one of which was Paul van Ostaijen. However, whilst Antwerp was being occupied by German troops, these protesters were presumably safe for the Germans tactically proclaimed themselves sympathetic to the Flemish nationalist cause.

[11] Kristiaan Versluys, ‘Van music-halls tot maanstraalstraten: De stadspoëzie van Paul van Ostaijn’ in De Stem der Loreley: Over Paul Van Ostaijen, ed. Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996), pp.80-97, p.88.

[12] Versluys, p.88. However, it has also been pointed out that Bezette Stad is not a volume of poetry completely devoid of hope as it occasionally seems to suggest that the complete destruction of civilization and citizenship might lead to a new beginning (Buelens and Spinoy, p.10).

[13] Van Ostaijen, Verzameld Werk, IV, p.330.

[14]Kathrin Kötz, ‘Paul van Ostaijen? Nooit van gehoord! Paul van Ostaijen en de Duitse literatuur’ in De Stem der Loreley: Over Paul Van Ostaijen, ed. Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996), pp.239-252, p.243.

[15] This film script has been translated into English by E.M. Beekman and appeared in The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1970), pp. 145-162. It is available here via Jstor.

[16] Buelens and Spinoy, p.11.

[17] According to Kötz, p.243.

[18] Onzia, p.13; Georges Wildemeersch, ‘Verteller in narrenpak’ in De Stem der Loreley: Over Paul Van Ostaijen, ed. Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996), pp.202-209, p.205-206.

[19] Onzia, p.20.

[20] Van Ostaijen, Verzameld Werk, IV, p.277-278.

[21] Offermans, p.51-52.

[22] Paul de Wispelaere, ‘Paul van Ostaijen als wegbereider’ in De Stem der Loreley: Over Paul Van Ostaijen, ed. Geert Buelens and Erik Spinoy (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996), pp.270-275, p.272.

[23] Van Ostaijen, Verzameld Werk, IV, p.374.

[24] Van Ostaijen, Verzameld Werk, IV, p.400.


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