Reading Huizinga

Willem Otterspeer
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2010


Door Ingrid Rowland, Professor of Art History, University of Notre Dame, Rome

Like his genial subject, Willem Otterspeer’s essay on the life and work of Johan Huizinga is nearly impossible to classify: part literary analysis, part biography, part historiography, and above all a poetic meditation on a timeless writer. Perhaps the best word to describe this companion to Huizinga is ‘lyrical’, a recurrent adjective in both men’s work, and a good description, in each case, of their style (although it should be noted this reviewer is reading both in English translation). As Otterspeer insists, ‘only those who read [Huizinga] as a writer will appreciate the enduring value of his work’ (p. 14).

Yet Reading Huizinga is not exactly a literary biography; instead, Otterspeer has identified a series of themes that guided Huizinga’s research throughout his life. He presents these themes, to resonant effect, as contrasting pairs, noting how frequently Huizinga himself was drawn to contrasts: Life and Work, Reading and Writing, Contrast and Harmony, Passion and Synesthesia, Method and Mysticism, Extrapolation and Metamorphosis. By beginning with ‘Life’, he creates a clever, and welcome, opportunity to provide a brief biographical account of a man whose life was filled with deep satisfactions, but marked as well by tragedy, both the national tragedies of the First World War and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and personal tragedies: the death of his first wife and his son Dirk. These events, like Huizinga’s bourgeois upbringing and his Christian faith, certainly shaped his view of history, but only to increase his generosity of outlook: he is a singularly compassionate observer of humanity, but also of animals and of nature. Otterspeer presents his subject as a thoroughly engaging character, whose qualities of civil restraint are especially appealing in our own brash, image-conscious era. Yet the exuberance of Huizinga emerges with equal clarity from this presentation, and certainly the writer of Homo Ludens could only have been a playful soul himself, and only a passionate lover could write about medieval romance with the empathy that pervades The Waning of the Middle Ages.

This most international of intellects was also profoundly rooted in Dutch soil. Otterspeer writes with particular eloquence about the role of local character in Huizinga’s portrayal of Haarlem, Groningen, Amsterdam – the places that he himself had lived, this eager student (from afar) of Indian religion and the pot-latching Tlingit’s of the Pacific Northwest. Small countries, to his mind, had a special role to play in culture at large; so, he would prove by extension, do people whose outlooks have been formed at the margins of the world’s great powers. Huizinga can find revelation in the clash of armies, in Jan van Eyck’s signature as witness to Giovanni Arnolfini’s wedding or the shimmering blue and yellow of a Vermeer dress; he has an early Netherlandish painter’s eye for detail, but he also dares to gather up nations or epochs in an epic sweep.

Otterspeer has a kindred eye for detail: he summons up the essence of his author in a choice gathering of quotations. But he, too, is a master at marshaling these details in the service of a larger point. His procedure by contrasts allows him to bring out the deep complexities of Huizinga’s outlook, which is the outlook of a historian who can pinpoint every fatal contradiction in the chivalric code of honor, as he does in one chapter of The Waning of the Middle Ages, and yet be so captivated by armor-clad Joan of Arc that he almost omits her from his masterwork for fear that she will take it over. He can see straight through the shortcomings of Erasmus and still appreciate him. He can recount every appalling excess of medieval violence and still imbue the era with irresistible color. Otterspeer brings out the zeal of Huizinga as enthusiast while reminding his readers that this zeal is never naïve; if there is something disarmingly old-fashioned about Huizinga the gentleman, this same gentleman was also an intellectual radical, making havoc of every disciplinary boundary in his own era and ours – and yet, at the same time, serving as rector of his university (in a triumphal display of Dutch independent-mindedness).

Reading Huizinga will have special significance for English-speaking readers. The book known for decades as The Waning of the Middle Ages (a collaboration between Huizinga himself and Fritz Hopman) was an abridged 1924 ‘translation and consolidation’ of the Dutch original, specifically tailored by author and translator to an American reading public. The complete Dutch text was only made available in English in 1996, by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch, as The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Almost eighty years after its initial publication, this great study found a warm new welcome and an enthusiastic new audience. Even in those years of culture wars and rampant jargon, Huizinga’s clear, unmistakable voice could prevail with its gentle force above the clashing cymbals.

What are the enduring values of Johan Huizinga’s work? Otterspeer returns again and again to the generosity of its sentiments, the beauty of its thought, but above all, to the great historian’s ability to open his readers’ eyes, and, just as importantly, to open their hearts. His own study, imbued with Huizinga’s spirit, does the same refined, gentle work. Beverley Jackson’s translation rings true. The book has been attractively produced for Amsterdam University Press; it makes a splendid companion for new readers of Huizinga and for longtime admirers.