In 1900, when The Hidden Force was first published, Holland was at the height of its power in the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia. In 1899, the sultans of Acheh had been defeated and the whole island of Sumatra brought under Dutch rule. The smaller islands, such as Lombok, the Moluccas, and the Lesser Sunda Islands, were subjugated in the 1880s and 1890s. And Java already had been colonized for some time before that.
As it turned out, complete Dutch control over its Asian colony was only to last for about fifty years. But of course nobody could have known that in 1900. To the Dutch governors, planters, businessmen, administrators, police officers, scholars, geographers, soldiers, bankers, travelers, railway engineers, schoolteachers, and their wives, 1900 must have felt like the best of times.
It was also just then, at the very peak of Dutch power, that an idea of nationhood began to emerge among native intellectuals. A Javanese feminist, Radeng Adjeng Kartini, advocated education for women. And in 1908, her friend Dr. Sudara founded the Budi Utomo, the first nationalist association, inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi. National independence was not their immediate aim. They wanted a bigger say in the way they were governed. And there was growing sympathy for this view in Holland. The “liberal” policy, which meant the liberty of Dutch planters to exploit the colonies as they saw fit, was replaced by the “ethical” policy, which took a fuller account of native interests. But full independence would only come after World War II, during which the Javanese shook the foundations of European rule by showing the white imperialist, so to speak, without clothes.
In fact, the Europeans always were vulnerable. Colonial rule, in Indonesia as well as, say, India, had to be based to some extent on bluff; the idea of European supremacy had to seem natural, and for it to appear that way the Europeans themselves, as much as the native populations under their control, had to believe it to be so. As soon as the colonialists lost faith in their natural right to rule—a loss which Nirad C. Chaudhuri, speaking of the British in India, once memorably characterized as “funk”—the colonial edifice, built over time, often haphazardly, would begin to rot, slowly, at first imperceptibly, but relentlessly, until the whole thing came toppling down. Perhaps it is so with all authoritarian systems. Loss of nerve was certainly a factor in the collapse of the Soviet empire. So perhaps Mountbatten and Gorbachev had something in common.
But in the Dutch East Indies in 1900, I suspect, only a sensitive novelist, passing through, would have been able to pick up the smell of decay, or, at any rate, to put that smell into words. Louis Couperus was such a novelist. And The Hidden Force, written during a year-long stay in the East Indies, is one of the masterpieces to come from the colonial experience. It is still regarded as a great book in the Netherlands. Couperus was very famous in Britain and the US as well, during his lifetime: fifteen of his books were translated; Katherine Mansfield and Oscar Wilde were among his admirers. But he has been largely forgotten outside Holland. I don’t know why. The translation of the book under review, first published in 1922, is not great, but Couperus’s precious, elaborate, sometimes quite bizarre prose seems less dated in English than in the original Dutch. The reason is not just that the translator was unable to reproduce the luxuriance of Couperus’s style, but that the Dutch language itself has changed far more than English has since 1900.
The Hidden Force is a story of decay, fear, and disillusion. It takes place in Labuwangi, an imaginary region of Java. The writer’s vision of Dutch colonialism is that of a solid Dutch house, slowly crumbling in hostile, alien soil. The Dutch characters, even Van Oudijck, the chief local administrator, or Resident, of Labuwangi, initially so “practical, cool-headed, decisive (due to the long habit of authority),” are defeated by the hidden forces of the land they rule. The nature of these hidden, or silent, forces is indistinct. It is not quite black magic, associated with Javanese mysticism, although that plays a part. Couperus, a romantic of his time, believed in supernatural forces. He is quoted in E.M. Beekman’s illuminating introduction: “Ibelieve that benevolent and hostile forces float around us, right through our ordinary, everyday existence; I believe that the Oriental, no matter where he comes from, can command more power over these forces than the Westerner who is absorbed by his sobriety, business and making money.”
One character in the novel who commands such power (but power over little else) is the Regent Sunario, the native aristocrat whose family had ruled the region for centuries. Van Oudijck detests him. Sunario is the heir to a long line of local sultans. The Dutch administration kept these nobles on as vassal rulers with colorful ceremonial trappings, and some administrative duties, such as tax collecting. Van Oudijck, an “ethical” administrator, respected Sunario’s father, a Javanese of the old school, but sees Sunario as “a degenerate Javanese, an unhinged Javanese fop,” an “enigmatic wajang puppet,” gambling and indulging in native hocus-pocus. Sunario, for his part, views the Dutchman as a crude, base, foreign infidel, who has no business upsetting the sacred bonds and privileges of ancient aristocratic rule.
Couperus, in this book at least, is in no way an apologist for colonial rule. Quite the contrary. His descriptions of Van Oudijck’s priggish love of order, hard facts, and hard work, and the same man’s patronizing view of natives and contempt for half-castes, so typical of Dutch colonial administrators, are full of mocking irony. Van Oudijck’s disdain for the Eurasians is not always personal. His first wife had Javanese blood, and he loves his two children, even though his daughter, Doddy, looks and speaks like a typical Indo-European. It was the idea of the “Indo” that Van Oudijck cannot abide, the idea of something less than pure. Van Helderen, a Creole born in the Indies, warns the Dutch wife of a civil servant that the native population, “oppressed by the disdain of its overlord,” is likely to revolt at some point. He sounds remarkably prophetic. She, Eva Eldersma, a bored, artistic Dutch woman trapped in the colonial life, had sensed something foreboding in the air. She thinks it is the strangeness of the landscape, the climate, the people, whom she doesn’t understand. And he says to her: “You, as an artist, feel the danger approaching, vaguely, like a cloud in the sky, in the tropical night; I see the danger as something very real, something arising—for Holland—if not from America and Japan, then from the soil of this country itself.”
There is no doubt that Couperus felt the danger on his travels through Java. And remember, this was written when Dutch power was unassailable. But Couperus was not a prophet. So a vague sense of unease, of something being out of kilter, must have been palpable. There must have been a feeling, among at least some of the Dutch, of walking on treacherous ground, which could suck you in, however sturdy your big Dutch boots might be. To describe this feeling as guilt would be wrong and anachronistic. It might have been closer to a sense that the Europeans had bitten off more than they could chew, or a nagging awareness of the hollowness of their bluff.
Van Oudijck resists such feelings until near the end of the book, when he, too, is defeated by the silent forces of the East, forces manipulated, perhaps, by his opponent, the puppet-like Sunario. The struggle between the two men is a struggle between two types of power:one is supposedly rational, open, bureaucratic, and the other is magical, shadowy, mysterious, The hidden force of Sunario is associated with the night, with moonlight, while the power of the Resident is exercised mainly in daylight. As Beekman points out in his introduction, the Resident’s ceremonial sunshade, or pajong, is often described as a “furled sun.”
One is reminded of V.S. Naipaul’s descriptions of Trinidad, where the black plantation slaves would turn the world upside down at night. Then, hidden by the dark, they would call up half-forgotten remnants of African magic to transform their abject existence as slaves into a glorious parallel world of kings and queens. Naipaul describes this as a pathetic fantasy, and Couperus writes about the hidden force as something quite real. But both writers, like Conrad, are sensitive to the horror that lies behind it.
The conflict between Van Oudijck and Sunario comes to a head when the behavior of Sunario’s brother becomes impossible. He gambles and drinks, and instead of efficiently carrying on his tax collecting and other duties, steals money from the treasury to pay his debts. The Resident decides to take the unprecedented step of dismissing him, which would mean a frightful loss of face for an ancient noble family. The Regent’s mother, a princess, is so outraged that she throws herself at the Resident’s feet and offers to be his slave, if he could only forgive her son. But Van Oudijck stands firm. He cannot afford to compromise. Principle is principle. Adecision, once taken, must not be revoked. For he “was a man with a clear, logically deduced, simple, masculine sense of duty, a man of a plain and simple life. He would never know that under the simple life, there are all those forces which together make the omnipotent hidden force. He would have laughed at the idea that there are nations that have a greater control over that force than the Western nations have.”
Then horrible things start to happen. The Resident’s young wife, Léonie, as promiscuous as she is narcissistic, finds herself being spat on with blood-red sirih juice, apparently from nowhere, as she stands naked in her bath. (Couperus’s description of slimy splatters dribbling down her breasts, her “lower belly,” and her buttocks shocked his Dutch readers; in the original English translation such passages were bowdlerized.)Malevolent spirits stalk the Resident’s mansion. Stones sail through the rooms. Sinister figures in white turbans appear and disappear, like ghosts.Glasses shatter, whisky turns yellow. The Resident’s family leaves the haunted mansion in terror. Even his servants flee from the house. But the Resident stays put, working on his papers, ignoring the noises, the broken glass, the soiled beds, the hammering overhead. He has these disturbing events investigated, “punctiliously, as if he were investigating a criminal case, and nothing came to light.”
The Resident and the Regent come to a kind of agreement in the end—what agreement, the reader never knows—and the torments stop, but, like Dutch supremacy itself, the Resident’s authority begins to disintegrate even as it reaches its peak. And, again as was the case with the Dutch colonialists, the subversion, the fatal loss of nerve, occurs inside the ruler’s own heart.
Van Oudijck had ignored his wife’s sexual adventures, even though everyone else knew about them. He had been blind to her affairs with his half-caste son—her stepson—and with a handsome Eurasian boy called Addy, even though regular hate mail pointed these things out to him. He had not been aware of the jealousies that soured the air in his residency. But, now, suddenly, after he had resisted the hidden forces through sheer force of will, the tropical poison began to sap his spirit too. For the first time in his life the Resident felt the pangs of hatred and jealousy and he became superstitious, too, “believing in a hidden force that lurked he knew not where, in the Indies, in the soil of the Indies, in a profound mystery, somewhere, a force that wished him ill because he was a European, a ruler, a foreigner on the mysterious, sacred soil.” The moonlit Javanese night had exacted its revenge.
The Hidden Force opens an interesting and fresh angle on the idea of Orientalism. For Couperus made use of all the symbols that became the clichés of East and West, which Edward Said has identified with colonial apologetics: the East representing the passive female principle(the moon), and the West the vitality of the sun; the West being modern, rational, logical, industrious, creative, idealistic, and the East mysterious, mystical, torpid, sensual, irrational. And so on. But far from using these images of Occident and Orient to justify colonialism, Couperus shows the futility of European rule. For the hidden force of the East will vanquish the West, with all its rational pretensions.
More than that, The Hidden Force suggests that it is desirable that the East should do so. Van Oudijck’s spiritual defeat is also a small triumph of enlightenment. He loses the attributes that made him into the perfect Dutch administrator, to be sure. Where he had been stern and decisive before, “now he had an inclination to hush things up, to gloss things over…to muffle with half-measures anything that was too sharp…” His vitality is gone. His skin turns sallow. In short, he shows the danger signs of giving in to the torpor of the East, of “going native.” This happens, quite literally, at the end of the book, when Eva Eldersma, the artistic Dutch lady, goes to say goodbye to him, before leaving for Europe—she, too, has been defeated; she will never come back. She finds Van Oudijck living in a native village, or Kampong, in “a typical Indies mess.” He has found a kind of happiness there, living with a native woman and her extended family. He has lost his principles, but he has gained an insight, for his principles no longer blind him to reality. He has accepted the Indies for what it is.
The European dread of going native, which Couperus describes so beautifully, was a fear on two fronts, a political and sexual one. Both are of course linked. We laugh now at the image of Englishmen and Dutchmen in the jungle or the bush, dressing up for formal dinners in the heat. But there was a real purpose to this. For the stiff suit was one of the necessary caste marks to impress their subjects, as well as themselves, of the Europeans’ natural right to rule. Letting go of European proprieties, or “principles,” was a step toward letting go of power. In colonial households (Eva Eldersma’s for instance), “it was always a struggle not to surrender to lassitude, to let the grounds go wild…” When Eva’s husband is too hot and tired to dress for dinner in a black jacket and stiff collar, she “thought that terrible, unspeakably dreadful…”
No wonder the Europeans felt horribly humiliated when they were forced to bow, dressed in rags, to Japanese guards in World War II concentration camps. The Japanese knew perfectly well what they were doing. Like the black slaves in Trinidad, they turned everything upside down, except that this was for real. As the Dutch writer Rudy Kousbroek, himself a former prisoner of the Japanese, has pointed out, the most common expression among the Dutch survivors was:”We were treated like coolies”—that is to say, much like the way the Dutch treated many of their colonial subjects.
Then there was the sex. People forget what a sexual, even sexy enterprise colonialism was. And I don’t mean just metaphorically, in the sense of the virile West penetrating the passive, feminine East. (The idea, by the way, of Asia as the temple of Venus, and all her temptations, is as old as the ancient Greeks.)No, colonial life was quite literally drenched in sex. White men would enter the Kampongs and take their pleasure with native girls for a few coins, or even for nothing, if the men were cheap and caddish enough. Europeans enjoyed the droit de seigneur in the Kampong, and anyway, native women and half-castes were supposed to be unusually highly sexed. They still had this reputation when Eurasians moved to Holland in the 1940s and 1950s, usually to settle in The Hague, where I grew up. Girls of Indo or Indonesian extraction at my school were all supposed to be “hot.” And the languid boredom of colonial life encouraged endless wife-swapping affairs among the Europeans as well.
Casual tropical sex is personified in The Hidden Force by Léonie, the Resident’s wife, and her Indo lover, Addy de Luce. Both live for seduction. Neither of them has anything but sex on the brain. They are born voluptuaries. Léonie loves Addy. Every woman and girl loves him, with “his comely, slender sensuality and the glow of his tempter’s eyes in the shadowy brown of his young Moorish face, the curve of his lips meant only for kissing, with the young down of his mustache, the feline strength and litheness of his Don Juan limbs…”
The European fear of letting go, of being “corrupted,” of going native, was to a large extent, I suspect, the northern puritan’s fear of his (or her) own sexuality. If Couperus had shared this fear, his book would have been another Victorian morality tale. But he is not a puritan at all. He doesn’t judge his characters, even the voracious harebrain Léonie, harshly. Indeed, one feels that he himself would have fancied Addy. A dandy, a homosexual, and a romantic, Couperus understood the sensuality of colonial life perfectly. He was attracted to the sun—in the Mediterranean, as well as in the East—for just that reason. He cultivated the image of torrid indolence. His rooms in Europe would be heated to a tropical temperature, as though he were an orchid, and he pretended to spend most of his time dreaming. In truth, of course, like Noel Coward, who affected a similar pose, he worked very hard. But with his carefully tended, overrefined sensibility he might have seemed more in sympathy with Sunario, the “degenerate Javanese,” than with Van Oudijck.
Couperus’s readings from his work were legendary. He would complain if the flowers on stage weren’t exactly right. He did not read his prose so much as declaim it, in his high-pitched theatrical voice, like a male Sarah Bernhardt. My grandmother once attended one of these performances in a provincial Dutch town. She remembered how Couperus not only had the flower arrangement changed after the intermission, but how he had changed his socks and tie to ones of a slightly different shade of gray.
And yet Couperus, however rarefied his tastes, did not try to identify himself with the Javanese. He was born in the Dutch East Indies, where his father was a colonial official, but he remained completely European. He describes Sunario from the same ironic distance as he does Van Oudijck. If Couperus felt close to any group in particular it was with those who were neither one thing nor the other: the Eurasians. Both Van Oudijck and Sunario are pure in their ways, the principled, full-blooded Dutchman, or Totok, and the refined, pure-blooded Javanese; and that, in Couperus’s eyes, was precisely what was wrong with them. For Couperus celebrated the ambiguity he himself personified:aDutchman born in the Indies, a homosexual who was married to a devoted wife, a master of the Dutch language, but an exotic outsider in Holland—“an orchid among onions” as one of his obituarists called him.
The only characters in The Hidden Force who are entirely at ease with themselves, despite their European pretensions, are the Indos: Addy and his extended family, or Van Oudijck’s daughter, Doddy. They appear to have the best of both worlds. But I suspect this is more a reflection of Couperus’s sympathies than real life. For in fact the Eurasians probably had the worst of all worlds. They were legally Europeans, but they ranked low in a society obsessed by race and color. Some hardly spoke Dutch; others, like Van Helderen, who prophesied the native rebellion, spoke it almost too precisely. Like Van Oudijck, most Totoks respected the Javanese as a civilized race, perhaps more civilized in their way than the Europeans, by despised the Indos. They were commonly regarded by the Dutch as lazy and stupid, as well as oversexed. People made fun of their efforts to speak proper Dutch. Even Couperus has some fun with this—soething that is lost in translation. The Indos oversompensated by disdaining the natives, as though this would make the Dutch accept them as equals. Om fact, of course, it just made them seem more despicaable.
Rudy Kousbroek, who has written brilliantly about this extraordinary social geography, described his native Dutch East Indes thus:
Our tropical paradise was a madhouse, whose people looked down on one another in ways that no outsider could ever fathom. It was a factory of inferiority complexes, which produced all manner of contorted behavior tha still has not entirely disapperared.*
The fusion between Dutch and East Indian never took, culturally or politically, except in some individual instances of people highly educated in both cultures. Yet it is that blend, that ambiguity, if you like, that state of having the best of both worlds, which many Dutch writers born in the East, including Couperus and Kousbroek, have yearned for. This can result in mawkish regret. But the best of these writers came to see that their dream was bound to fail, as long as one side had its boot in the neck of the other. It would not work, no matter how well-meaning or idealistic the rulers might be. Of course, may rulers were neither. Van Oudijck was both, which is why he couldn’t understand why his native subjects hated him: “There was no logic in it. Logically, he should be loved, not hated, however strict and authoritarian he might be considered. Indeed, did he not often temper his strictness with the jovial laugh under his thick mustache, with a friendly, genial warning and exhortation?”
His insight into the tragedy of European colonialism made Couperus a great writer. And his sympathy for the hybrid, the impure, the ambiguous, gave him a peculiarly modern voice. It is extraordinary that this Dutch dandy, writing in the flowery language of fin–de–siècle decadence, should still sound so fresh. But we can only be grateful. For now that the dreams of ethnic purity are making a comeback, his voice is more urgent than ever.
August 11, 1994