M2: Unit 2 – Chapter 7 (Preface 2)

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Preface 2: Siebenhaar 1927

Introduction by D.H. Lawrence

MAX HAVELAAR was first published in Holland, nearly seventy years ago, and it created a furore. In Germany it was the book of the moment, even in England it had a liberal vogue. And to this day it remains vaguely in the minds of foreigners as the one Dutch classic.

I say vaguely, because many well-read people know nothing about it. Mr. Bernard Shaw, for example, confessed that he had never heard of it. Which is curious, considering the esteem in which it was held by men whom we might call the pre-Fabians, both in England and in America, sixty years ago.

But then Max Havelaar, when it appeared, was hailed as a book with a purpose. And the Anglo-Saxon mind loves to hail such books. They are so obviously in the right. The Anglo-Saxon mind also loves to forget completely, in a very short time, any book with a purpose. It is a bore, with its insistency. […]

On the surface, Max Havelaar is a tract or a pamphlet very much in the same line as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Instead of “pity the poor Negro slave” we have “pity the poor oppressed Javanese”; with the same urgent appeal for legislation, for the government to do something about it. Well, the government did something about Negro slaves, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin fell out of date. The Netherlands government is also said to have done something in Java, for the poor Javanese, on the strength of Multatuli’s book. So that Max Havelaar became a back number. […]

If you ask a Hollander for a really good Dutch novelist he refers you to the man who wrote: Old People and Things That Pass (Louis Couperus) – or else to somebody you know nothing about. As regards the Dutch somebody I know nothing about, I am speechless. But as regards Old People and Things That Pass, I still think Max Havelaar a far more real book. And since Old People etc. is quite a good contemporary novel, one needs to find out why Max Havelaar is better. […]

Then why doesn’t Max Havelaar pall? Why can one still read every word of it? As far as composition goes, it is the greatest mess possible. How the reviewers of to-day would tear it across and throw it in the w.p.b.!  […]

The thing in Max that the public once loved, the tract, is really a back number. But there is so very little of the tract, actually, and what there is, the author has retracted so comically, as he went, that the reader can grin as he goes.

It was a stroke of cunning journalism on Multatuli’s part (Dostoevsky also made such strokes of cunning journalism) to put his book through on its face value as a tract. […] He was the passionate missionary for the poor Javanese! Because he knew missionaries were, and are, listened to! And the Javanese were a good stick with which to beat the dog. The successful public being the dog. Which dog he longed to beat! To give it the trouncing of its life!

He did it, in missionary guise, in  Max Havelaar. The book isn’t really a tract, it is a satire. Multatuli isn’t really a preacher, he’s a satirical humourist. Straight on in the life of Jean Paul Richter the same bitter, almost mad-dog aversion from humanity that appeared in Jean Paul, appears again in Multatuli, as it appears in the later Mark Twain. Dostoevsky was somewhat the same, but in him the missionary had swallowed the mad dog of revulsion, so that the howls of derision are all ventriloquistic undertone.

Max Havelaar isn’t a tract or a pamphlet, it is a satire. The satire on the Dutch bourgeois, in Drystubble, is final. The coffee-broker is reduced to his ultimate nothingness, in pure humour. It is the reduction of the prosperous business man in America and England to-day, just the same, essentially the same: and it is a death-stroke.

Similarly, the Java part of the book is a satire on colonial administration, and on government altogether. It is quite direct and straightforward satire, so it is wholesome. Multatuli never quite falls down the fathomless well of his own revulsion, as Dostoevsky did, to become a lily-mouthed missionary rumbling with ventral howls of derision and dementia. At his worst, Multatuli is irritatingly sentimental, harping on pity when he is inspired by hate. Maybe he deceives himself. But never for long.

His sympathy with the Javanese is also genuine enough; there was a man in him whose bowels of compassion were moved. Whereas a great nervous genius like Dostoevsky never felt a moment of real physical sympathy in his life. But with Multatuli, the sympathy for the Javanese is rather an excuse for hating the Dutch authorities still further. It is the sympathy of a man preoccupied with other feelings.

We see this in the famous idyll of Saidyah and Adinda […]. We see how it bored the author to write it, after the first few pages. He tells us it bored him. It bored him to write sympathetically. He was by nature a satirical humourist, and it was far more exciting for him to be attacking the Dutch officials than sympathizing with the Javanese.

This is again obvious in his partiality for the old Native Prince, the Regent. It is obvious that all the actual oppression of the poor Javanese came from the Javanese themselves, the native princes. It isn’t the Dutch officials who steal Saidyah’s buffalo: it is the princely Javanese. The oppression has been going on, Havelaar himself says it, since the beginning of time. Not since the coming of the Dutch. Indeed, it is the oriental idea that the prince shall oppress his humble subjects. So why blame the Dutch officials so absolutely? Why not take the old native Regent by the beard?

But no! Multatuli, Max Havelaar, swims with pity for the poor and oppressed, but only because he hates the powers-that-be so intensely. He doesn’t hate the powers because he loves the oppressed. The boot is on the other leg. The chick of pity comes out of the egg of hate. It is perhaps always so, with pity. But here we have to distinguish compassion from pity. […]

The bird of hate hatches the chick of pity. The great dynamic force in Multatuli is as it was, really, in Jean Paul and in Swift and Gogol and in Mark Twain, hate, a passionate, honourable hate. It is honourable to hate Drystubble, and Multatuli hated him. It is honourable to hate cowardly officialdom, and Multatuli hated that. Sometimes, it is even honourable, and necessary, to hate society, as Swift did, or to hate mankind altogether, as often Voltaire did.

For man tends to deteriorate into that which Drystubble was, and the Governor-General and Slimering, something hateful, which must be destroyed. Then in comes Multatuli, like Jack and the Beanstalk, to fight the giant.

And when Jack fights the giant, he must have recourse to a trick. David thought of a sling and stone. Multatuli took a sort of missionary disguise. The gross public accepted the disguise, and David’s stone went home. A la guerre comme a la guerre.

When there are no more Drystubbles, no more Governor-Generals or Slimerings, the Max Havelaar will be out of date. The book is a pill rather than a comfit. The jam of pity was put on to get the pill down. Our fathers and grandfathers licked the jam off. We can still go on taking the pill, for the social constipation is as bad as ever.