Deutsche Chronik

Deutsche Chronik

Dies- und jenseits der Grenze. Translokale Prozesse und ihre Einwirkung auf den deutsch-niederländischen Grenzraum, herausgegeben von Viktoria Franke. Band 61 des Jahrbuchs Deutsche Chronik / Duitse Kroniek. Mit Beiträgen von Hanco Jürgens, Hermann Terhalle, Emile Smit, Jan Brauer, Rüdiger Haude, Peer Boselie, Jan Neefjes, Ursula Geisselbrecht-Capecki, Theo Salemink, Andreas Eiynck und Hans de Beukelaer. Preis: € 34, 80. Verlag Königshausen & Neumann https://www.verlag-koenigshausen-neumann.de/product_info.php/info/p8792_Dies–und-jenseits-der-Grenze–Translokale-Prozesse-und-ihre-Einwirkung-auf-den-Deutsch-Niederlaendischen-Grenzraum–Deutsche-Chronik-Bd–61.html. Erscheinungsdatum: Juli 2017

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Reception of the 17th-century New Prophets in a 20th-Century Novel

After I finished my monograph on the 17th-century New Prophet Friedrich Breckling, I discovered some interesting parallels between views on religion by New Prophets like Breckling and the protagonist in the novel Nader tot U (1966) by Gerard Reve (1923-2006). 

Nader tot U was published 1970 (Merlin-Verlag) in German, entitled Näher zu Dir. It refers to a Christian hymn by the English poet Sarah Fuller Adams (1805-1848), Nearer, my God, to Thee. I will cite from this German translation since there is no English one. 

Reve is considered, together with Willem Frederik Hermans and Harry Mulish, to be one of most important Dutch writers of the 20th century. He was born 1923 in a Marxist family and published 1947 the novel De avonden, which has become a modern classic in the history of Dutch literature (an English translation was published for the first time in 2016 by Pushkin Press: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/09/the-evenings-by-gerard-reve-review).

The novel Nader tot U contains four autobiographical letters in which Reve confesses openly to his homosexuality. 1966, the year in which the novel was published, he converted to Roman Catholicism. In the same year, Reve was accused of blasphemy and had to defend himself in a court of law. The reason for this was a passage in Nader tot U in which Reve expressed a highly subversive and provocative image of God. In this passage, he described God as a mouse gray donkey which he likes to kiss and have sex with (“und nach einer gewaltigen Kletterpartie, die Treppe zum kleinen Schlafzimmer hinauf, würde ich ihn dreimal nacheinander, ausdauernd besitzen”). After a two-year trial, he was dismissed of all charges.

Apart from homosexuality, another major theme of the novel is the frequent antisemitism within Marxist circles in the first half of the 20th century in the Netherlands.

I would like to say something on the theme of religion in the book because it seems to me, Reve reflects views on religion, which appear to be very similar to the ones of the 17th-century New Prophets in the Dutch Republic. Though I’m not aware of Reve’s exact reading of writings of the Prophets, I would like to suggest, on the basis of several passages in Nader tot U, that there must have been at least some reception.

First, the protagonist acts like a prophet:

“Dann, nach einem Spaziergang, bei dem ich laut prophezeite, würde ich zurückkehren und mich an den Tisch setzen  (ich würde von Kopf bis Fuß sauber gewaschen sein), und der Text begänne mit einer Zeile, wie sie zuvor noch kein Menschenkind geschrieben hat und wie sie danach niemand mehr würde festhalten können.”

Second, he writes, like the New Prophets, prophecies which are highly individual, ambigious and incoherent:

“So beginnt wieder, unentrinnbar, das Fortgleiten meiner Erinnerungen, die ich diesmal nicht versiegeln will, denn vielleicht ist die Zeit nahe, in der sich alle diese unglaubwürdigen und immer unzusammenhängenden Einfälle, kaum in Worte zu fassen, wie Fetzen unvollendeter Gespräche und wie beendeter, doppeldeutiger Behauptungen ohne deutliche Herkunft, zu einer von mir nie gewußten Prophetie zusammenfügen.”

Third, Reve refers to Neoplatonic terminology, which can also be found in Brecklings writings:

“Mikrokosmos, Makrokosmos.”

Fourth, Reve thinks of God as a mystery in which “auch die Vollendung und Rückkehr aller Dinge eingeschlossen ist: es ist eine Frage des Erkennens, und das kann jedes Kind.” This idea of God as a mystery, which can be recognized by any simple mind, is also present in Brecklings writings.

Fifth, Reve expresses the idea that ‘God is in us’, which was basically the central message of Breckling:

“Und vermutlich war überhaupt alles nichts als Illusion. Gott war die einzige Wirklichkeit, und wir waren nur wirklich, sofern er in uns war, und wir in ihm. Wenn das stimmte, und wenn es wirklich so wäre, daß Gott Liebe war, müßte es bedeuten, daß wir nur lebten, sofern wir liebten.”

Sixth, Reve believes that the message of God should be announced to all people and nations:

“Was konnte es bedeuten, daß er, der Gnadenlose Junge, nun selbst genauso wehrlos war wie jeder andere Junge, den er unterwarf und besaß? Sein Zelt war unter den Menschen. Es ließ sich nicht fassen, denn es war das Mysterium alles Mysterien, wortlos, dennoch mußte ich es allen Königen, Zungen und Nationen verkündigen, so lange ich noch atmete und lebte.”

Seventh, Reve thinks that prophecy leads to a  utopian sunrise among mankind:

“Nein, o nein, ich würde nie mehr die Hoffnung aufgeben, daß ich einmal das schreiben würde, was geschrieben werden sollte und was noch niemand, jemals, schriftlich festgehalten hatte: das Buch – schon wieder – das alle Bücher überflüssig machte und nach dessen Vollendung sich kein Dichter jemals mehr abzuquälen brauchte, weil es die ganze Menschheit, ja sogar die gesamte, heute noch in Haß und Angst verhaftete Natur erlösen würde. Dann würden die Menschenkinder einen Sonnenaufgang sehen, wie er noch nie gesehen worden war, und eine Musik würde ertönen, rauschend wie aus der Ferne, die ich noch nie gehört hatte und dennoch kannte.”

Reve thinks that Spiritualism in the 17th century constitutes the foundation of liberal society, a truth, which he believes was concealed by Marxism.Taking place in the 1960s, Reve depicts himself in the novel as a religious hippie, whose motto “sex, alcohol and dead” is a variant of the famous “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” or the much older “Wein, Weib und Gesang”.

Research project

 Zelfportret als de apostel Paulus, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1661. Quelle: Rijksmuseum


The Apostle Paul was an important Exempel for Breckling. Selfportrait as the apostle Paul by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1661. Source: Rijksmuseum

Monographie on Friedrich Breckling (1629-1711)

In this research project, I focus on the German Lutheran theologian Friedrich Breckling, who lived as a dissenter in the Dutch Republic. The title of the project is Rebel with a Cause. Religious Enlightenment and Social Reform in the Thought and Life of Friedrich Breckling (1629-1711). Breckling could be qualified as a ‘religious enlightener’. He was a harsh critic of the Lutheran church and undermined the correlation of orthodox religion and stability of the state in the German lands. He strived for a new balance between church, state, and individual. In his texts, he constructs a ‘counter culture’ as an alternative to Lutheran orthodoxy. In his Catalogus Testium Veritatis, he wanted to bring the persecuted and hidden Christians and their knowledge of “true Christianity” to the surface of society. ‘Tolerance’ was a constant theme in Brecklings writings. He was of opinion, that no authority could persecute anyone because of his or her religious beliefs. Anyone should have the freedom of conscious to express his or her opinion on religious questions and anyone could try to convince others of the validity of his or her convictions. Because of this, he promoted the idea of a public marketplace, on which everyone could ‘sell’ his or her ideas on religion and society, actually being an early promoter of a democratic shaped public sphere.

Breckling was a key figure between the third force network (Popkin) and Halle Pietism.