Voorzichtige professionalisering en schoorvoetend intellectueel engagement - PEN Nederland in de jaren dertig | Amsterdam University Press Journals Online
Volume 16, Issue 3
  • ISSN: 1384-5829
  • E-ISSN: 2352-118X


PEN Nederland, the Dutch PEN Club, was set up at a time when the field of literature in the Netherlands was gaining greater structure: authors’ associations were being formed, which can be seen as a sign of cautious professionalisation, and all sorts of processes of distinction were appearing. In this regard, PEN Nederland can be considered a civil society in which people unite voluntarily around shared interests, aims and values that take shape within a specific organisational structure, but who also want to distinguish themselves from ‘lesser’ writers: participation in PEN was only possible by nomination and a ballot. The main aim was to create a group of distinguished ladies and gentlemen who were sufficiently representative to receive and address foreign guests. In the thirties, practical, material and immaterial values turned out to be closely interwoven at PEN Nederland. This is evident from the actions it undertook in the area of translation. It’s true that it was material concerns that were most important here – the aim was to increase the quality of translations – but the practical considerations were legitimised by an ideal: the quality of the Dutch literary heritage in an international context. Personal connections and shared interests also took shape between PEN Nederland and the Vereeniging Nederlandsche Vertalingen (VNV) (Dutch Translation Association), which was founded in 1932. It was mainly Johan Schotman, a member of the board of both PEN and the VNV, who repeatedly succeeded in getting the translation issue onto the agenda, despite all sorts of opposition, and this in the context of PEN international too. At an international PEN congress in 1935, for instance, Marinetti, the representative from the Italian PEN centre, took over Schotman’s initiative in favour of an international translation policy and tried to suit it to his own nationalist ends. At the end of the thirties, translation issues were pushed aside by the political discussions that started to monopolise discussions. Politically speaking, PEN Nederland, just like PEN International for that matter, was caught in a fundamentally ambivalent position. The basis of this was a matter of deontology: a code of behaviour, a collection of standards and rules of conduct that formed the guidelines for action and which had both practical and idealistic aspects. In the first half of the twentieth century, writers and other intellectuals developed a deontology against political meddling by governments, but at the same time felt called to become involved in social issues on the basis of this independent position (or their claim to it). The ‘true’ writers felt a form of responsibility. In their own view, they engaged in politics without engaging in politics, because they acted on the basis of their own set of immaterial, independent intellectual values. The claim to independence, to sole rights to intellectual values, and to universal authority, of course also implied a form of distinction. This makes it immediately clear that this deontology had a complicated and even paradoxical logic. In the years to come, this claim to independent intellectual leadership, which needs pay no heed to modern socio-economic developments, which surpasses politics in directorial power and which is an essential ingredient of the deontology of the modern author, came under repeated pressure, both nationally and internationally. However, PEN again and again fell back on its original intellectual outlook, although in time this deontology came to be formulated differently and adapted to new circumstances in negotiation with other spokespeople in the literary field such as Menno ter Braak and E. du Perron, who after all wanted to defend the same claim to independent authorship. PEN Nederland adopted a very detached position in the national and international debates on this that constantly flared up. Politics was to be avoided at all times. We see this attitude in the question of whether PEN Nederland should participate in an international PEN initiative to give talks on Berlin Radio (1932), in the case of the German writer Heinz Liepmann, who was prosecuted in the Netherlands (1934), in the action linked to the murder of García Lorca (1936) and in a protest to be made to Franco regarding the imprisonment of Arthur Koestler (1937). The aim was always to remain detached from political differences and political propaganda, while at the same time standing up for the intellectuals who were silenced, imprisoned or executed by their governments as political or religious opponents. In the thirties, the international PEN congresses were also the stage on which political action and attempts to avoid politics were the order of the day. In the final instance, the PEN notion of using international contacts between intellectuals as an instrument by which to work for their safety did imply taking up a particular political position. Ultimately, to react to political issues – such as the imprisonment of an author – on the basis of an independent intellectual position was a political act. Nevertheless, the idea that PEN served a purpose that transcended politics remained alive throughout the decade. PEN Nederland followed this course quite consistently: in principle no politics, but action was permitted if the personal rights of a writer were obviously being violated. This embodied PEN’s deontology. The tendency was to avoid all action that might be given a political interpretation, but when push comes to shove, one is ready, on balance, to undertake action of cautious engagement. Its justification is not political, but a higher, intellectual one. The ‘intellectual nobility’ that characterises artisthood and the higher unanimity that guides the action are considered of paramount importance. When the Second World War broke out, PEN Nederland had to make its voice heard, having been urged to do so by a circular from the International PEN Club in England. Here too, such notions as mind and responsibility were the relevant points in defining the position to be taken. The war put the members of PEN under pressure to preserve international solidarity. PEN Nederland opened its meeting on the war that had broken out with a word from the chairman ‘on the necessity, especially in times of war, to honour the intellectual significance of an association such as PEN’. A reaction was ultimately drawn up in which the writers were summoned to resist the dangerous forces the war unleashed, but only ‘by means of their work’.


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  • Article Type: Research Article
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