Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831): Back to the Rhetorical Sublime
As we have just seen, at the end of the eighteenth century – before he came into contact with Van Hemert and Kant – Kinker had close ties with Willem Bilderdijk. At that time, Bilderdijk was one of the leading figures in Dutch literary life, and Kinker greatly admired him. However, in 1795 Bilderdijk had to leave the Netherlands for political reasons.
The political situation in the Netherlands in those days was complicated, to say the least. In the 1780s, in the wake of the American independence, there were stirrings all over Europe. The most famous result of this was of course the French Revolution, but in the Netherlands there were hotbeds of enlightened popular resistance as well. Militias of ‘patriots’ were set up, the so-called ‘exercitiegenootschappen’ (drill companies), which rebelled against the Stadtholder, Willem V, who was accused of absolutist tendencies. However, in 1787 the Prussian army invaded the Dutch Republic – the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, was the brother of Princess Wilhelmina, Willem V’s wife. Many patriots fled to northern France, only to return at the end of 1794 with French revolutionary troops. In January 1795, the Batavian Republic was inaugurated, as an associate republic of France.
Bilderdijk, a confirmed Orange supporter, resolutely (and loudly) refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new regime (which he was expected to do as a lawyer) and was forced into exile. After wandering for some time through England, where he met his second wife, and Germany, which he hated with a passion, he returned to the Netherlands in 1806. There were two reasons for his return. Not only had Willem V died in the meantime – he died on 9 April 1806, which Bilderdijk considered to release him from his oath of allegiance – but moreover it seemed that after this the political order would radically change. Indeed, on 5 June 1806, the Batavian Republic was renamed the Kingdom of Holland, and Louis Napoleon, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, ascended the throne. In 1810, however, Napoleon set his brother aside and incorporated the Netherlands into the French Empire. The Netherlands were to stay French until the end of 1813: after their defeat at Leipzig in October 1813, Napoleon’s troops were driven back behind the Rhine, the Netherlands became independent again and Willem I of Orange (the son of Stadtholder Willem V) became sovereign prince of the Netherlands and subsequently, on 16 March 1815, king of the Netherlands.
When Willem was installed as sovereign prince, Bilderdijk’s hopes for the professorship which Louis Napoleon had held out before him, rekindled, but in vain. Financially too, things were not going well for him and the relatively widespread recognition which he enjoyed was not enough for him. In short, these times were not to his liking. In the 1820s, the éminence grise of Dutch letters was to gain a small group of fanatical followers (who would later become known as the leading lights in the ‘Réveil’ movement). However, during that time Bilderdijk grew even more bitter: times were bad, immoral, sinful and this was borne out in his view by the fact that his immeasurable genius was not recognized. He died, aged 75, on 18 December 1831.
Bilderdijk’s Gedachten over het verhevene en het naïve (1821) (Thoughts on the Sublime and the Naïve) dates from this latter period. Despite the cultural pessimism and bitterness, this work is first and foremost an aesthetic treatise. Bilderdijk was particularly well-informed about the contemporary developments in his discipline, both in the Netherlands and abroad. The references to Dutch language writings on the sublime are implicit, but we may safely assume that his views on the beautiful and the sublime are in opposition to the Kantian tradition that both Van Hemert and Kinker tried to develop. Moreover, he conspicuously does not mention the translation that Matthijs Siegenbeek published in 1811 of the ‘mother text’ on the sublime, Longinus over de verhevenheid (Longinus on the Sublime). Instead of quoting from this translation, Bilderdijk translates numerous passages himself.
This clearly shows that Bilderdijk, as can be expected on the basis of his poetical views, harks back to the rhetorical sublime and puts the Kantian tradition that forms the point of departure for Van Hemert and Kinker completely aside. For Bilderdijk, a return to a state of pious pre-Enlightenment thought was desirable. He considered all these new philosophies as mere delusions, inspired by the arrogance of human understanding. How can our understanding fathom the world, if it is based on what we see and hear? Is not all perception by definition limited, even distorted? It is not understanding, but feeling that leads to wisdom; we cannot understand the true and the divine, we can only feel them. And who else but the poet has developed a more refined sensibility towards it? And which poet has a greater sensibility thanks to his unsurpassed genius? Bilderdijk.
It is in the light of this anti-rational logic that we should place Bilderdijk’s association with Longinus. At first sight, Bilderdijk’s text seems somewhat difficult to follow – just like Longinus’s treatise in fact. This is actually intentional: a tightly structured text might suggest that we are dealing with a theoretical exposition. Bilderdijk, precisely for programmatic reasons, has in mind a series of views, comments and insights that come from the liberated mind and sensitivity of the poet. For this reason, early on in this work, Bilderdijk makes a distinction between Poëzy and Dichtkunst (both meaning poetry) that is also to be found in his Kunst der poëzy (Art of Poetry): Poëzy is a straightforward outpouring of the feeling experienced, whereas Dichtkunst is no more than this feeling moulded into a system by understanding. It may be clear that the verse mongers who practise Dichtkunst will never attain the sublime of Poëzy. The products of reason (such as poetry) will always remain cold and distant; it is only when readers allow feeling to overwhelm them that they can come into direct contact with the divine. In this sense, Bilderdijk sees Poëzy as ‘wedded to’ philosophy (something Kinker also believes, albeit for different reasons), but this link was lost as a result of increasing specialization. Feeling could unite everything again, but people were not open to this.
After this anti-rationalist plea, Bilderdijk finally discusses the sublime. He repeats the familiar claim that the sublime cannot be proven as it is an ‘inner feeling’. He refers to Longinus, in whose work the identification of the sublime with the feeling of self-exaltation can also be found; this has an immediate and irresistible effect and leaves a lasting impression. Bilderdijk was a man of deep faith. However, his faith was far from orthodox; he was too stubborn for that. A central element in his thinking was the widespread ideal of ‘harmony’. He believed that the ultimate harmony (with God) could only be attained through feeling. In poetry, harmony expresses itself through a unity of rich imagery, language, form and content. However, we should be aware that, although this unity is beautiful, it is only sublime when it is ‘tremendous in richness and fullness.’ Stated in terms that remind us of Longinus: the experience of the sublime leaves us dumbstruck. However, what distinguishes Bilderdijk from Longinus is the former’s explicitly religious interpretation of the sublime. In his eyes, the beautiful is earthly, whilst the sublime brings man closer to the divine.