The Spiritual Conquest of the World: Frederik van Eeden’s Notion of Utopia
On the eve of the twentieth century, after the decades of optimism and technological and economic progress that accompanied the eighteenth century, the traditional concepts of identity, community, society and the city no longer held. Society was drastically changing, and with the rise of mass-production, a large working class came into existence, which altered the appearance of the city both in reality and the poetic imagination.
Many reacted to these rapid, fundamental changes, among which the Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932). In his younger years, Frederik often travelled through Europe and in England he was brought in contact with socialism. From 1890 onwards, Van Eeden started to address the hardships and the social inequality the workers in society had to deal with in his writings, as he increasingly felt that he had a role to play regarding social matters. Gradually, the idea of founding a community that would convey the socialist principles which Van Eeden had adopted as his own came into existence. Van Eeden was convinced that all people are aware that society must change, and that we have the tools to change our destiny, but that these are used wrongly. He thought that founding a colony could be a step towards the realisation of a new future. This new future, which implied the emancipation of not just the workers but of all people, would primarily be a spiritual matter, not a materialistic one.
In 1898, Van Eeden founded (and financed) the colony Walden, named after Henry David Thoreauʼs Walden, in which Thoreau states that he “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately … [and] deep and suck out all the marrow of life (771).” The colony started out as an opportunity for Van Eeden and some of his artistic friends and patients to lead a simpler, fuller and happier life, but it soon functioned as a vehicle that had as its goal a social and economical change that would be beneficial not just to the community of Walden but to all people. Van Eeden’s Walden, however, sadly did not last long: 1907 saw the end of it. Although the Walden colony was short-lived, Van Eeden’s ideas on an ideal society were not. A couple of years before the founding of Walden, he wrote De Kleine Johannes (1885), a novel which is steeped in the tradition of naturalism. This work, consisting of 3 parts, tells the story of the boy Johannes, who lives with his father near the dunes in Holland. When in the nature which surrounds his house, Johannes communicates with the animals and when he encounters the elf Windekind, Johannes learns a lot about nature that normal people cannot know. The first part of the novel expresses the childhood of Johannes, consisting of the dichotomy between the idealist nature, which can be seen as a utopia, and the material human world, forming a dystopia, as Johannes encounters Death in the human world for the first time.
At the end of the first part of De Kleine Johannes, Johannes has to choose between the world of the elf Windekind, who represents nature and innocence, or the human world, represented by the Christ-like human figure of Markus Vis. He chooses the last, and promises Markus that he will try his best to help mankind rise above the misery it has to deal with. In the two subsequent parts of De Kleine Johannes, the protagonist tries his best to sympathise with the factory workers and the poor that Markus cares so much about, but Johannes still longs for the beauty of Windekindʼs realm and the happiness he felt there. In his longing for beauty, Johannes leaves Markus as he is drawn to Van Lieverlee, a so-called poet who persuades Johannes he is one of the lucky few who is highly perceptive to beauty and has to dedicate his entire life to this greater good. After a while, Johannes realises that this man is not so much a true poet but rather a poser, and returns to Markus and thus to poverty. De Kleine Johannes ends with a dream of Johannes, in which Windekind shows him the future of human society, living in large cities and in perfect harmony with nature and each other. Only at the very end of the novel does Johannes realise what his task in life truly consists of and does he see beauty in human society, although he feels serious changes have to be made and that it is his task to plant this seed of awareness in other people’s minds.
Although the city is first portrayed in De Kleine Johannes as a bleak place which oppresses and marginalises, a place which, paradoxically, expresses both the luxury of the belle époque and the misery of the working class, it is ultimately in human society and the city through which the utopian can be attained. De Kleine Johannes can be regarded as an expression of not only an urban utopian, but also as a utopia ‘of the mind’: it is also through revolutionising the minds of the people and the preservation of hope that a utopian society can begin to unfold itself on earth.
Eeden, Frederik van. De Kleine Johannes. 1885. Den Haag: Mouton & Co, 1952.
Fontijn, Jan. Tweespalt: Het Leven van Frederik van Eeden tot 1901. Amsterdam: Em. Querido, 1990.
Frederik van Eeden Biografie. Stichting BNL, n.d. Web.
Ley, Jos de, and Bernt Luger, eds. Walden in Droom en Daad: Walden-dagboek en Notulen van Frederik van Eeden e.a. 1898-1903. Amsterdam: Huis aan de Drie Grachten, 1980.
Mooijweer, Marianne Louise. De Amerikaanse Droom van Frederik van Eeden. Amsterdam: De Bataafse Leeuw, 1996.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. ed. Paul Lauter. New York: Haughton Mifflin Company, 2004. 765-800.
About the author:
I am Lisa van Vark, a student of the research MA programme Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University. During my studies, I encounter literatures from many different periods, perspectives and genres. I have, however, also explored other disciplines with great interest, such as philosophy. The intersection between literature and philosophy fascinates me in particular, an intersection which has sparked my interest in utopian and dystopian writings and led me to investigate, among others, the writings of the Frederik van Eeden. My research focused predominantly on his 1885 novel De Kleine Johannes, a novel which is generally seen as a Bildungsroman. In this research, I investigate the utopian aspects of this work, and suggest a utopian reading of this fiction. Besides utopian and dystopian fictions, I am also very enthusiastic about Romantic, Victorian and early 20th century literature, Jewish-American literature and memory studies.