Critique of the Dutch in Java in The Hidden Force by Louis Couperus

The Hidden Force, a prominent work of the Dutch writer Louis Couperus, is a wonderful synthesis of the tentative attitudes and ideas of the Dutch colonial culture at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Ardently adjoining an interest in anarchism and social structure, passion to spirituality, transparency in the analysis of sexuality, devotion to aestheticism and morality, Couperus presents the antagonistic realities of the Dutch in Java. Providing the misfortunate example of the Dutch familys clash with the Indian hidden forces, Couperus unlocks the conflict of the cultures and deepens into the disparagement and psychology of colonialism, which were unusual for the time. The primary Couperuss critique is the futile attempts of the Dutch to forcibly connect the Western rationalism and the Oriental mysticism of Java that entailed a vivid prediction of the European colonial tragedy.

1. The Hidden Approach to Criticize the Colonialism

Until the recent times, the scholars of the Dutch East Indies period did not pay much attention to The Hidden Force by Couperus as a critical source of the Netherlands colonial rule. The name and the whole theme of the novel seemed to play with magical overtones drawing attention away from the very essence that the Dutch writer put into his work. In order to present the critical attitude to colonialism in The Hidden Force, Couperus uses rather a signal language than speaking in a straight line. That, in fact, is not difficult to understand considering the historical background of glorifying the colonial era and events described in the novel, particularly written with a pen of the contemporary. Jenny Watson (2013) claims that The Hidden Force does not contain the positive view of colonialism, (…) but rather criticizes not just aspects of the Netherlands approach to colonial management but also the system of colonial rule as a whole. (104)

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In order to grasp the reasons why Couperus raises the topic, it is crucial to initially familiarize with the authors biography. Even though Louis Couperus is known as a Dutch writer, he can easily be considered a product of both Dutch and the Indies. Couperus was raised with the Indies traditions of the higher officials in mind and spirit as his family belonged to the elite class of Indies society accustomed to live in Holland after pursuing career in India (Nieuwenhuys & Beekman123). His family was very different in terms of the Dutch society of the period, inspirited with the Indonesian way of life that helped them stand out. Likewise his family, Couperus stood out of his Holland compatriots with his warmer temper that tightly linked him to the Indies roots. He spent his adolescent years in Java and came back to visit his partial homeland on several occasions throughout his lifetime.

During one of those trips, he wrote his novel The Hidden Force, where he depicts the atmosphere of the time and place with an extreme sensitivity of a man who embodied the European mind and Java soul. The novel lies just in between the two comprehensible for the author worlds of the Dutch colonists and indigenous population. The mythical nature of Javanese traditions is as acceptable and apparent for Couperus as the rationality of the Dutch colonists. He does not deny the existence of the first as he believes it is real just as the second one. That makes a great difference to the moods of his European coevals, who desperately believed in the mind supremacy over the mystical nature of the Java reality. Representing the protagonist, the commissioner of an East Javanese residency Van Oudijck, Couperus writes: But it was not his nature to yield to mystery. He denied mystery. It was not there: there was only the sea and the cool wind (12). Simultaneously, he provides the contrary thoughts of the Javanese servant thinking of how strange those Dutch are gazing at the sea at it is not clear for them that there are the spirits to rule (Couperus 13).

As an experienced observer and esthete, Couperus sees all the beauty of nature and the nature of the mindsets of two culturally different groups of people, up to the predictions of what can happen as a result of the misunderstanding and denial. The tragedy of the protagonists family is the example of inevitable failure of the colonialism under the hidden forces of Java, which he could not enunciate this directly as no one in the society of his time would understand it in the way he did. From such a perspective, The Hidden Force is a hint, a signal that Couperus gave to the Europeans blind elites to recover the sight of the situation that existed.

2. Western Supremacy of the Rational Imperialism

In pursuance of the gradual analysis of the Couperuss concealed critique of the colonialism, it is possible to follow the plot of the novel and analyze the main characters to see the crucial aspects of his critique. First of all, it is possible to catch the authors criticism over imperialism as the whole. As it was previously mentioned during the previous estimations, the novel was not a once called to be about magic; however, as Robert Nieuwenhuys and E. M. Beekman boldly claim, it is about the tragedy of the resident as the colonial ruler in an alien land (129). In the portrayal of Van Oudijk, Couperus created a microcosm of the flawed imperialism that has a face of the nobility and pride.

Van Oudijk, the central character and local resident, and his family comprising a much beloved second wife Leonie and his mixed-race children from the previous marriage live in Lambuwangi. From the very beginning, a reader sees Van Oudijk as a balanced person, overwhelmed with the feelings of duty and devoted to his family. Nevertheless, the more story gains momentum, the more protagonist goes into the conflict with the Javanese ruling Adiningrat family, and the more it becomes clear he is not flawless. Under the image of a moral official, the caring head of the family and person of good intentions, the reader sees the real face of Oudijk with a twisted sense of what is necessary and whose actions negatively impact others. Van Oudijk seems to be a classic representation of the Dutch colonists as a whole. His arrogant attitude to the Adiningrats and superfluous security in his position, in addition to the repeated admitting of older brother, younger brother relationship, uncover the very essence that the Netherlands have over its colony (Watson 111). Oudijk cannot accept his fellow-ruler of the district, Sunario, seeig him as unreal, not a functionary, not a regent, merely fanatic Javanese (46). That is a vivid example how the Dutch see their colony. In addition, he cannot understand the colonial ruler positioned into the totally different world with the mystery fluctuations, so he fiercely refuses to accept the possibility of this hidden force. Being obeyed with the set of established European logical formulas, Van Oudijk does not operate his ideas but stays blind to the true Java realities. Couperus directly underlines it with the next words:

…the European, proud in his might, in his strength, in his civilization and his humanity rules arrogantly, blindly, selfishly, egoistically, amidst all the intricate machinery of his authority, which he slips into gear with the certainty of clockwork, controlling its every movement… (132).

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By means of a confrontation between Oudijk as the representative of the Dutch colonists and Sunario as a representative of the Java community, Couperus contradicts Europeans to Indonesians. However, what do those hidden forces mean? They also seem to be a symbol, which E.M Beekman thinks are a power Couperus liked to associate with Asia: a paradoxical strength of aggressive passivity that can destroy its victim without any overt or cognitive means (32).

As Sunarios views, an extremely deep spirituality cannot fit the logical European concepts of Van Oudijk; the last one simply calls his counterpart a crazy fanatic. Europeans cannot understand Java people; however, even though the first ones called the second ones fanatics or not, the hidden force of deep faith and temporizing of the second provided the inevitable demise of the first.

In order to underline the indiscretion of the European contemptible intervention in the existing laws of the Java way of living, Couperus presents Eva Eldersma as an alter ego of Van Oudijk. With her example, author illustrates the way the European comes into a natural interaction with the Indonesian as the secretarys wife, Eva, is so much sympathetic toward the society and culture she lives in. While Van Oudijk tries to push his Europeanism into the tropics, Eva finds it ridiculous. She daringly declares Were idiots here (…) we Europeans in this country! (175). To forcibly impose a European stamp on the Java traditions is in the very essence of the European idea of supremacy, which the Dutch brought to their colony. Nevertheless, Western rationalism and logocentrism are not the key to every door, to every culture. There are different rules Java operates with, the hidden force, so much denied in its appearance, but so much felt with its effect on the Van Oudijks further life.

3. Cultural Dominance and Cultural-Ethnical European Paranoia

As it was previously mentioned, the idea of European supremacy was reinforced with the idea of the European cultural dominance over the barbarians represented by Java people. Couperus finds it as a false proclamation which unfairness needs to be trounced. Except the fact that the Dutch did not see the Java culture as an equivalent culture, they also feared its effects on their own identity. Many scholars describe the ethnical and cultural European paranoia in their works; however, Couperus finds it not only as nonsense but also as a warning sign of the conflict that can bring to the defeat of the oppressors.

Susie Protschky indicates it as one of the fundamental paradoxes of Dutch rule in Indonesia, when Europeans expected one another to live disconnected from the landscapes that they colonized, as well as from the Asians whom they governed (and, in many cases, shared homes with)(14). One of the reasons of such a separation was a fear to go native as to go naive like the indigenous people who believed in spirits and mysticism in everything. Through the novel, the reader encounters different types of separation and denial. First of all, the Oudijk family feels the impact of the mystical powers over them, but still with the all European logical flatness denies the fact that the hidden force constantly strikes them. The other form of denial is demonstrated by Eva Eldersma who tries to make the artificial and outlandish official dress parties or create the Dutch design over her house on the exotic background as the nature of Java impacts her vulnerability. The fear of the darkness as the part of the native landscape make the Dutch associate Java with something wild, while the light in their mind is something from the side of the European civilization. Therefore, Couperus tries to unfold the way the Dutch as colonists fear the lands they transplanted themselves into but still try to implement the rules that cannot work. However, the obvious natural differences or religious beliefs between two cultures are seen by the Dutch not as something equivalent but as the light and darkness, civilization and barbarism.

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On behalf of cultural and ethnical issue, Couperus involves the burning issue of sexuality and mixed-race relations between the Dutch and Java people. He makes it more complex with identification of what is considered to be immoral and unacceptable. Protschky underlines in her research that sharper racial distinctions between Europeans and Asians were drawn in intellectual and official circles, and that moral degradation came to be associated with racial mixing (14). Furthermore, Francis Gouda, making a research of the 1900 Dutch Indies, notifies the dependence of the social status to the intercultural marriages. European woman who voluntarily abdicated her honor and humiliated herself by embracing a native groom acquires the civil status of her husband and suspends her of the European community, while European mens invisible bonds with the Indian woman remain unbroken (168-169). With the intensification of racial regulations at the time, Couperus also raises the transracial issue in few different ways. In one way, he criticizes those regulations as they create a quicksand and cannot be controlled. There is Van Oudijks sensual wife Leone who totally breaks the rules of European morality. There are interracial children of the main character from the previous marriage. His familys behavior is offensive with various prohibited relationships, including interracial sex, the quasi-incestuous relationship between his wife and son. Van Oudijk cannot control it just like Netherlands could not control the interracial relations. Furthermore, Couperus underlines the role of the Dutch woman who behaves sexually promiscuous and the hidden forces of Java which punish her for misbehaving in the human norms of purity. That is a turning point of the novel that changes the status of dissolute civilization being judged against the rules of the righteous barbarian forces. While Europeans hang a social stigma over the mixed couples, Couperus shows the hidden natural force of the Java spirits that is probably more pure in its essence than the European one.

Therefore, it becomes clear that being a person whose ideas go beyond the scope of the mindsets of his time, Couperus had a great philosophical understanding of the colonialism so much popular over the 19th-20th centuries in Europe. His novel hides a critique and sometimes openly protests against the whole idea of imperialism as a flawless political advocacy over the different territories which culturally do not belong to the superior European culture. With the symbolic characters and their misfortunate life situations, Couperus himself criticizes the approach that the Dutch colonies use to rule the lands which are compelled with the unseen hidden forces. It is about all the levels of human interactions where the Dutch and Java clash: social relationship, political dependency, racial transgression, cultural dominance, and subversion. Couperus tries to explain that East and West are physically and metaphysically exclusive. As the person raised in both traditions, Couperus understands that they cannot be dependent of each other, probably only in interaction and fusion. Furthermore, his critique entails a prediction as in the situation of the protagonists family that futile attempts of the Dutch to connect forcibly the Western rationalism and the Oriental mysticism can only bring the conflict, not the peace. That was his innovative vision of the European colonial tragedy.

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