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Reading Huizinga

Reading Huizinga

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Reading Huizinga
    Book Description:

    Johan Huizinga, one of the founders of cultural history, ranks among the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Published in the 1930s, his The Waning of the Middle Ages, Homo Ludens and Erasmus were immediately recognised as masterworks and widely translated. Perhaps the most influential is Huizinga's study of the formative role of play in human culture in the celebrated Homo Ludens. This engaging study by the renowned Dutch scholar Willem Otterspeer shows the same hallmark passion with which Huizinga immersed himself in history. For Huizinga, philology was the mother of all interpretative endeavour, the master skill from which all branches of humanities originate and to which they all ultimately return. Reading and writing were both part of a collective ritual that channeled human passion into beautiful forms, while passion, and how to master it, remained the fundamental fact of human life. Throughout this powerful analysis of Huizinga's oeuvre, Otterspeer remains faithful to his main philosophical tenets, in which contrast and harmony, memory and desire, are the warp and weft of his work. And again, this is precisely what Otterspeer does. Reading and writing, passion and detachment, method and mysticism are here combined in a way that would have delighted Huizinga himself.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-1148-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

    (pp. 13-18)

    Given that Dutch culture has no classic authors, no Pléiade serving as its literary pantheon, no living collective memory nourished by a curriculum, it is remarkable how persistently Johan Huizinga continues to be read. By his own simple definition, ‘to be classic means still to be read’, Huizinga is one of the Netherlands’ few classic authors. Dutch culture does have a few classic books, although their numbers are dwindling, but in the sense of a classic author, Huizinga’s only competition comes from writers such as Multatuli and Louis Couperus, Willem Elsschot and Willem Frederik Hermans. ¹

    Johan Huizinga, the most...


    • 1 LIFE
      (pp. 21-40)

      Johan Huizinga was reserved by temperament. ‘In a scholar, so much of his individual personality is left unspoken,’ he wrote of his teacher, the orientalist Hendrik Kern. He might have been describing himself. But he was also passionate. This passion could easily be concealed beneath the mantle of learning. Even so, the essence of his life, the lion’s share of which was spent in a study, was embedded in that passion, in the fundamental contradictions of that life and the form in which he kept them in check.¹

      The first and perhaps most important of those contradictions relates to the...

    • 2 WORK
      (pp. 41-58)

      What makes Huizinga a ‘classic’ writer is the harmony of his work. It is as if the unmistakeable unity of this oeuvre projects itself back into his life. Of course Huizinga went through a certain development. Politically he changed from a species of socialist into a species of liberal, the aesthetic cast of his work appears gradually to have been superseded by the ethical, his quest for a religious habitat was eventually stilled by what he called ‘taking delight in the world’. Yet there is essentially no development in Huizinga’s life – at least not in a linear sense. It...


    • 3 READING
      (pp. 61-77)

      ‘The things that can make life pleasurable remain the same,’ wrote Huizinga inThe Waning of the Middle Ages. ‘Now, as in the past, these are reading, music, the visual arts, travel, love of nature, sport, fashion, social vanity, and the intoxication of the senses.’ Clearly, there was no waning of reading habits in Huizinga’s day. To him, reading was asine qua non. And in his reading, the home-loving Huizinga, a man whose work centred largely on the history of his own surroundings and his own country, roamed distant frontiers. As a private lecturer on Buddhism, he avowed his...

    • 4 WRITING
      (pp. 78-94)

      Just as there can be poetry without poems, just as landscapes, people or facts may be poetic, history appeared to Huizinga as poetry, and so he approached it as a form of literature. Historiography as a profession was of little concern to him, and language was everything. He saw language as a natural resource with an inherent poetic richness. To appreciate this is to read the unity of his work as the unity of his character. To be sure, Huizinga went through a process of development, and modified his style over the years. But that is the stuff of biography....


    • 5 CONTRAST
      (pp. 97-112)

      Huizinga’s use of contrasts was a deliberate choice. History could only be perceived coherently, he wrote, ‘by resolving events into a dramatic scheme’. A cultural phenomenon could only be truly comprehended ‘by defining it within an equilibrium of continuing oppositions’. Huizinga used oppositions of this kind for their highly ethical as much as for their highly dramatic content. ‘Dramatic – since people always perceive great tragic contrast in an inevitable lack of mutual understanding: the benightedness of the conservatives and the hubris of the innovators. Ethical – since people always share a respect for what is dead and beautiful, and...

    • 6 HARMONY
      (pp. 113-128)

      Contrast was – in Aristotelian terms – the Prime Mover of Huizinga’s imagination. But its resolution, the quest for harmony, came a close second. Contrast generated tension and movement, harmony was balance and rest. Balance is perhaps the most important concept in Huizinga’s entire methodological constitution. It was both prescriptive and descriptive, it applied to both scholarship and culture.

      As a young linguist, he had opposed a one-sided, rational approach to language. As a historian, he argued against a one-sided emphasis on economic and quantitative history, and as a cultural critic he rejected a one-sided, materialistic development of culture. In...


    • 7 PASSION
      (pp. 131-147)

      It was in the multi-volume study of the French Revolution by the great Romantic historian Michelet that Huizinga read one of those anecdotes ‘whose apparent triviality bears the hallmark of their high probability’. Huizinga loved trivialities of this kind. For instance, the detail that convinced him that Beatrice was a woman of flesh and blood – rather than merely a literary symbol – was that Dante called her by the pet name of Bice. Michelet’s anecdote is about Robespierre. Many years after the Revolution, the aging Merlin de Thionville was asked why he had helped to secure Robespierre’s conviction. The...

      (pp. 148-166)

      The poet Marina Tsvetaeva said that she sinned ‘with all five senses’. And that is how Huizinga wrote. What he called ‘aesthetic observation’ was in realitysynaesthetic. Take this sentence by Herodotus, which Huizinga quoted on numerous occasions in his work, about the battle of Salamis: ‘And when [Xerxes] saw the whole Hellespont hidden by ships, and all the beaches and plains of Abydos filled with men, he called himself happy – and the moment after burst into tears.’¹ Huizinga comments: ‘Instantly it appears before our eyes: the sun on the white sails, the teeming multitudes, the glint of armour...


    • 9 METHOD
      (pp. 169-185)

      Huizinga was not a thinker. At least, that was his own view. ‘My mind did not incline in general towards problems of a theoretical nature,’ he wrote in his memoirs. Dabbling in theory was harmless, but he advised his students against delving too deep, since it would only distract them from the historian’s real work. But on another occasion, he reflected that history without theory was inconceivable. The same man who wrote that ‘a teaspoonful of theory’ was enough also wrote a whole series of theoretical essays and treatises which together filled a small volume.¹

      In those essays, Huizinga tried...

    • 10 MYSTICISM
      (pp. 186-202)

      After the death of the great Sanskrit scholar Hendrik Kern in 1917, Huizinga wrote a brief but incisive obituary inDe Gidson the man to whom he owed such a great debt. He concluded the piece on a mild point of criticism. Huizinga shared Kern’s preference for the Brahmins’ strict teachings on life rather than the Buddhists’ renunciation of worldly affairs. But he took a more nuanced view. Kern loathed those ‘sanctimonious monks’, as he called them, and freely ventilated his enlightened aversion to their religion’s penchant for system. Yet behind all that superficiality and gloom, wrote Huizinga, Buddhist...


      (pp. 205-219)

      As we saw in chapter 3, fairy tales possessed an enduring appeal for Huizinga. In his memoirs he singles out for special mention the tales of Hans Andersen, most notably ‘The Old House’ and ‘The goblin and the grocer’. But there is a third tale by Andersen with which he felt a particular connection: ‘The Drop of Water’, the story of an old man whom his neighbours called Kribble Krabble.¹

      The old fellow always wanted the best of everything, and if all else failed, he used magic. He liked playing with his magnifying glass, and one day he held it...

      (pp. 220-234)

      ‘A miraculous process of pupations’ was how Burckhardt had described history. And that was how Huizinga had fashioned it, literally, with form as thetrait d’unionbetween mutable life and immutable human nature. Life existed in infinite variations, forms were limited in number, while the essence of man remained virtually constant. Somewhere in between the varicoloured variety of the day and the profound realization of eternity, between that mosaic of anecdotes and the timeless narrative, were the historical forms, which served as ‘binding agents’. That was the only way to approach human identity, the true content of history. It was...

  8. CODA

      (pp. 237-244)

      The name of Huizinga refers to a place and a lineage. There is nothing uncommon about this, but in the case of Johan Huizinga it is more significant than usual. The Huizingas into which Johan was born can be traced back to the sixteenth century, to the Melkema family farm in the village of Huizinge. He was apparently not particularly proud of his name, describing it on one occasion as ‘extremely common’. The Huizingas also had droves of ‘Johans’;¹ the name was passed on from grandfather to grandson. Johan was the most mundane of names, unless one were to associate...