"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 12, 2014

"The Hidden Force" by Louis Couperus

The Hidden Force (De Stille Kracht) is another account of Dutch colonialism, written 40 years later than the Max Havelaar, in 1900, by Louis Couperus. Although some things had changed in the Dutch East Indies - the "cultivation system" had been abolished - other problems remained the same. The double nature of government, where Dutch civil servants worked via the local aristocracy, still was in place. Also in The Hidden Force this system leads to a collision. A Javanese Regent who drinks and gambles is fired by the Dutch Resident, which leads to an attack on that Resident and his family by a sort of supernatural "hidden force," presumably called up by the Regent (these Regents in general were indeed considered by the local population to possess various spiritual and supernatural powers).

But the hidden force in the novel is much more than only one case of resistance against a particular civil servant - it can be seen (although with modern eyes) as a general symbol for the silent opposition of the Indonesian population against their conquerors, symbolic also for the difference between both cultures which in the end cannot come together. It is the reason why colonialism could not be successful, something which is demonstrated through the fate of the Resident, who after an extremely active official life, trying to do good for the local population as well, suddenly breaks down and quits his job.

In The Hidden Force Couperus sniffed out the decay and final doom of the Dutch empire in the East Indies - a great feat as to all purposes in 1900 Holland was at the zenith of its colonial power.

[Louis Couperus - Photo Wikipedia]

Louis Couperus was born in 1863 in The Hague and spent part of his youth in the Dutch East Indies (1873-1978), going to primary school and the gymnasium (grammar school) in Batavia. His family had many ties with the colony - Couperus himself had some Indonesian blood. Back in The Hague, Couperus studied Dutch literature; he also wrote poetry. Although he took his teacher's certificate, he did not aspire to a career in education and continued to write literature instead.

His first novel, Eline Vere, a psychological masterpiece about the tragic fate of a young heiress, a neurotic woman with a turbulent family, set in fin-de-siecle The Hague, was published in 1888. It was an immediate success and Couperus continued to publish critically and commercially successful work until his death. His oeuvre contains a wide variety of genres: lyric poetry, psychological and historical novels, novellas, short stories, fairy tales, travelogues and sketches. Couperus is one of the foremost Dutch writers of all time. There are some influences in his work from both naturalism and symbolism, and his language can sometimes be typically "fin-de-siecle poetic," but his dialogues are natural and above all, Couperus had a sharp psychological insight.

His greatest novels include, besides Eline Vere, Ecstasy (Extaze, 1892), Inevitable (Langs lijnen van geleidelijkheid, 1900), The Books of Small Souls (De Boeken der Kleine Zielen, 4 vols, 1901-03) and Old People and the Things That Pass (Van oude mensen, de dingen die voorbijgaan, 1906). Besides his "The Hague" novels, Couperus also wrote many historical novels situated in the ancient world.

But his greatest achievement is possibly The Hidden Force (De stille kracht), written in 1900 and inspired by a year long visit to the Dutch East Indies in 1899-1900, the country of his childhood. Many of the details of the novel, for example about the life and duties of a Resident, Couperus derived from his brother-in-law, who had the same position in the colony.

[The highway near Buitenzorg, Dutch East Indies - from Wikipedia]

The novel tells the story of the conflict between Resident Van Oudijck and the Regent Sunario, set in the fictional provincial town of Labuwangi in Eastern Java. Van Oudijck, a hard-working and efficient administrator, has Sunario fired because of his open drunkenness and gambling. He has to use all his authority to prevent the outbreak of a revolt by the local population. But then strange occurrences start frightening his household, supposedly supernatural powers called forth by the Regent: stones fly mysteriously through the air, breaking windows; whisky suddenly changes color; in the trees cry pontianak vampires, and above all, the wife of the Resident, Léonie, is attacked in her bathroom by some invisible presence that spits red betel juice (sirih) on her.

The fearful reaction of the Europeans to these supposedly supernatural events can be said to reflect anxieties inherent to colonialism. But Van Oudijck remains cool and firm and demands successfully from the Regent's family to stop all this foolishness. But then, when all is over, he suddenly breaks down psychologically: he degenerates into suspicion and superstition, even becoming physically ill, and resigns from the civil service to retire as a recluse to a quiet place in the countryside. He loses everything he was once proud of: his family, his future and his district. In the final analysis, his practical, logical world proved no match for the "hidden force."

It should be stressed that Couperus' novel is not a political book, in contrast to the Max Havelaar. The political interpretation is something we, with hindsight, put into it. The novel itself is a grand evocation of Dutch life in the East Indies, with all the smells and colors, and full of fin-de-siecle symbolism. Couperus believed in the power of "Fate," like the Javanese, and it is Fate that has the novel in its hidden grip.

There are two other important characters in the novel. In the first place Léonie, the (second) wife of Van Oudijck, who looks cool but is in fact a very erotic woman, who jumps into bed with every man she can lay hands on. Behind the back of Van Oudijck, who is always busy with his official duties, she has a relation with her own stepson, Theo, and also with the smart Don Juanesque Addy de Luce - although her stepdaughter Doddy is madly in love with Addy, too. The incident of the betel spitting so shocks Léonie, that she loses her mask of cool correctness and even is caught by her husband in a rendez-vous with Addy. She then leaves Labuwangi and goes to live in Paris.

And in the second place we have the history of the sensitive and artistic Eva Eldersma, the wife of Van Oudijck's controller. She has a central position in the social and cultural life of the Dutch community, organizing various cultural events to prop up European civilization and prevent the colonists from "going native." Eva also is the only European who notices the mystery of the "hidden force," which to her always seems to be present in the air of the East Indies. Her European culture is so different from the local culture that in the end she feels she cannot keep it up and returns to the Netherlands, disillusioned. 

[Residence in the Dutch East Indies - from Wikipedia]

To put it again in modern terms: the "hidden force" can be interpreted as the silent opposition of the colonized, as the symbol for the cultural gap which in a colonial situation can never be breached successfully. We could also say that colonial society, founded as it is on the right of the strongest, leads to moral decay, which slowly but irresistibly wrecks the Europeans. Behind a mask of propriety, colonial society was governed by avarice, exploitation, racism and violence - another type of "hidden forces" that wore out the colonists.

One notable motif in the novel is the spooky and threatening appearance of a hadji in white dress, who flits by at crucial moments in the story - as if Couperus could foresee the force that Islamism would become in the region. 

English Translation: Paul Vincent, published by Pushkin Press (2012). 
An older translation is also available at Gutenberg. 
Dutch original online at DBNL.