Autonomy in the Journal of Dutch Literature

Last year I participated in a symposium at the University of Utrecht on The Ethics of Autonomy. Many of the contributions to that symposium now appear in revised form in a special issue of the Journal of Dutch Literature, edited by the symposium organizers, Frans Ruiter and Wilbert Smulders. I contributed a response to the whole, Autonomy Proliferates. The issue is in English, but all the titles have Dutch versions as well, and I particularly appreciate the rather more poetic-sounding version of mine, “Autonomie bloeit.”

Most of the essays discuss the work of the Dutch novelist W.F. Hermans, a writer for whom literary autonomy was, as Ruiter and Smulders argue in their own contribution, a central concern. But the journal issue is really very wide-ranging, both in terms of approaches and in terms of the subject matter which the pretext of autonomy makes possible. A number of essays take up the cultural theories of Pierre Bourdieu: Ruiter and Smulders draw close parallels between Bourdieu and Hermans; Thomas Vaessens makes a provocative argument against accepting what he calls Bourdieu’s “faith in autonomy”; Laurens Ham complicates Bourdieu’s framework in his study of the continuing struggles over autonomy in contemporary Dutch literature from Multatuli to the present; and as for me, well—no surprises about my theoretical touchstones, if you know me for the fanboy I am.

That’s not to say that the contributors are all in lockstep. In addition to the controversy between Ruiter and Smulders and Vaessens about autonomy and responsibility, strikingly different views of autonomy emerge in the other essays, by Derek Attridge, Aukje van Rooden, Marc de Kesel, and Arnold Heumakers.

Hermans was a new writer for me and a great pleasure to explore, even if only in translation. His output is mostly unavailable in English; Ina Rilke has translated two of his novels, The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep. I glance at the latter in my contribution to the special issue. The JDL special issue also includes English translations of two short pieces of Hermans’s writing: a biting manifesto, “Unsympathetic Fictional Characters” (trans. I. Rilke), and an enigmatic early story, “An Emancipation” (trans. M. Hutchison).

[Edited 12/27/15: Ham’s essay, “The Specialism of Unspecificity,” is not only about contemporary writing—nor, of course, is Bourdieu his only theoretical interlocutor, any more than he is for any of the other scholars here.]