M2: Unit 2 – Chapter 7 (Preface 3)

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Preface 3: Edwards 1967


Eduard Douwes Dekker, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Multatuli’, was born in 1820 in Amsterdam, the son of a Dutch sea captain. In 1838 he went to Java, where he entered the East Indian Civil Service. […]

In 1846 he married Everdine, Baroness van Wijnbergen, the Tina of Max Havelaar. A son, Eduard, the ‘little Max’ of Havelaar, was born to him in 1854, and a daughter in 1857.

In January 1856 he took up the appointment of Assistant Resident of Lebak. However, within three months he had resigned from the East Indian Civil Service altogether, and left Lebak, following he events narrated in Havelaar. […] In 1859 he wrote Max Havelaar, under the circumstances described in his introductory note to the edition of 1875. The manuscript was entrusted for publication to Jakob van Lennep, a well-known lawyer, journalist and historical novelist. Van Lennep recognized the value of Havelaar; but the possible consequences of such a literary bombshell obviously frightened him. Not only did he subject it to drastic editing (scrapping and disguising proper names etc.), but, by circulating it only cautiously, he also did his best to prevent it from coming quickly into ‘the wrong hands’, contrary to the vehemently expressed intention of the author.

Nevertheless the book caused a great sensation – sent a ‘shudder’ through the whole body of the Dutch nation, as Multatuli was later contemptuously to recall. Con-temptuously… for the success of  Max Havelaar did nothing to improve the lot of ex-Assistant Resident Eduard Douwes Dekker. He was not reinstated; nor did the Javanese receive immediate justice, although Havelaar eventually led to many reforms.[…]

It is interesting to compare him with the other figure of world stature produced by the Netherlands in the last century – Vincent van Gogh.

To an outsider’s eye, Van Gogh and Multatuli – the one so internationally famous, the other so kittle known – bestride the narrow world of the Dutch nineteenth century like colossi. Both were egocentric reformers intensely concerned for the human condition. Multatuli swore an official oath to protect the Javanese, and took it literally, with the effects recorded in Havelaar. Van Gogh went as evangelist to the brutalized miners of the Borinage and tried to follow Christ literally by giving all he had to the poor and sleeping on the ground, until he was sacked by his horrified superiors in Brussels. To the end of his life Multatuli swore he was a man of action and not a writer; and Van Gogh always remained an evangelist at heart.

In the art they practised, both were autodidacts. In Multatuli’s case it is a wonder he ever managed to struggle out of the morass of sentimental, parochial thinking that prevailed in the Holland of his day and whose influence is seen in his embarrassing poems (though he fully recognized their badness). Both men had the first prerequisite of genius – vitality. This vitality, this energy surges in every line of Havelaar, for instance in the tempestuous use of italics, stresses and capitals, which has been faithfully reproduced in the present translation.

Although Multatuli fared much better than Van Gogh, neither was properly appreciated in his own day. And even now, in spite of the great Van Gogh collections in the Netherlands, and the Multatuli Society and Multatuli Museum there, one sometimes suspects that the Dutch, at any rate, do not quite see the difference in kind between these two and all the other painters and writers of their time in Holland – that difference which we can only call genius.  […]

Finally, both men died in exile – Multatuli in Germany, Van Gogh in France. […]