Johan Huizinga, “In the Shadows of Tomorrow” (1935)


(Continued from part 1.)

Huizinga was famous in European academic circles long before Homo Ludens. He became a chair professor, at the University of Groningen, at the age of 32; his inaugural lecture was titled, “The aesthetic component of historical perception,” which in retrospect sounds like a statement of intent for his entire body of work. From the 1910s onward, and especially after The Autumn of the Middle Ages, he went from one success to another, finally becoming rector of Leiden University (where Descartes had once studied) in 1933. Around that same time, his work began to take on a more polemical aspect, as a reaction to the rise of fascism.

Huizinga consistently opposed fascism; from the beginning, he saw it as anti-intellectual and culturally destructive. In 1933 he caused an international incident by banning the German delegation from a conference at Leiden, upon having learned that the leading delegate had written an anti-Semitic pamphlet. In 1940, after the German invasion of the Netherlands, he turned down an opportunity to emigrate to the United States, while this was still possible. In 1942, the occupiers forced him to resign all of his academic appointments, and he was arrested and sent to an internment camp in August of that year. Of course, the Nazis followed a very different standard for treating prisoners in Western Europe than on the Eastern Front — Huizinga was released less than three months later due to poor health, and in the meantime was even allowed to indirectly protest by giving a history lecture to the other prisoners on the failed Spanish siege of Leiden in 1574. From then until his death in February 1945, he lived in the Dutch countryside as a guest of one of his Leiden colleagues, working on a few last writings that were published posthumously.

schaduwenPage numbers taken from what seems to be
the only English edition of
Shadows in print.
(Cluny Media, a small Roman Catholic publisher.)

But today we have before us In the Shadows of Tomorrow, a polemical essay written in the relative calm of 1935. This fairly short, but popular work, which sustained seven editions in just three years, contains an articulate critique of fascism and is representative of Huizinga’s political views; even his final essay The Damaged World, written in 1943, is primarily an expanded version of Shadows and repeats much of its content. And yet, politics is only a minor focus of the book; Huizinga did not see the crisis of the 1930s as purely political. As always, the object of his interest was culture itself — not only its condition at the time of writing, but its long-term future.

We are living in a demented world. And we know it. It would not come as a surprise to anyone if tomorrow the madness gave way to a frenzy which would leave our poor Europe in a state of distracted stupor, with engines still turning and flags waving in the breeze, but with the spirit gone.
Everywhere there are doubts as to the solidity of our social structure, vague fears of the imminent future, a feeling that our civilization is on the way to ruin. They are not merely the shapeless anxieties which beset us in the small hours of the night when the flame of life burns low. They are considered expectations founded on observation and judgment of an overwhelming multitude of facts… We see forms of government no longer capable of functioning, production systems on the verge of collapse, social forces gone wild with power.”

opening lines (Shadows, 1)

With his usual poetic style, Huizinga expressed what many of his readers were feeling; no doubt this was why Shadows sold well. For the same reason, contemporary readers might also find themselves unexpectedly unnerved. At the same time, one might roll one’s eyes a bit — if people said these same things a hundred years ago, and yet we are still here, then perhaps there was never any real cause for concern (well, except for that “world war” business).

But then, history moves more slowly than the individual human life. Perhaps Huizinga was observing the start of a process that only now is reaching its conclusion. He begins his attempt to characterize “the outward manifestations of the cultural disorder” with what would appear to be one of modern society’s greatest strengths, namely scientific achievement. “For there we find combined unmistakable and steady progress, an equally unmistakable appearance of crisis and an unshaken belief that to preserve and to continue is both imperative and beneficial.” (33) What he says about it is arguably more applicable to our time than to his own:

The means of apperception themselves are beginning to fail us… The phenomena which physics embodies in exact formulae are so remote from our plane of life, the relationships established in mathematics lie so far beyond the sphere in which our thinking moves, that both sciences have long since felt themselves forced to recognize the insufficiency of our old and seemingly well-tested logical instrument. We have had to familiarize ourselves with the idea that for an understanding of nature one may have to work with non-Euclidean geometry and more than three dimensions. Reason in its old form, wedded as it is to Aristotelian logic, can no longer keep up with science… Science seems to have approached the very limits of our power of thought. It is a well-known fact that more than one physicist suffers this continuous working in a mental atmosphere for which the human organism does not seem to be adapted, as a heavy burden, oppressing him sometimes to the point of despair… The layman may indulge in a longing for the comfortably tangible reality of older days… But the science of yesterday has now become poetry and history.”

(Shadows, 36-37)

If we remove Huizinga’s rhetorical ornamentation, this passage reduces to the observation that the increased abstraction of scientific progress unavoidably excludes most of humanity from ever participating in it. This is not a problem of education or professional training. As Huizinga readily points out, the average person is far more technically sophisticated now than at any time in the past: “The human subject has more knowledge of himself and his world than ever before. Man has become greatly more capable of judgment…extensively insofar as his knowledge extends over a very much wider range and especially insofar as a certain degree of knowledge is spread over a much greater number of individuals.” (42) The problem, rather (according to Huizinga), is that the specific kind of “thought” required in order to advance modern science is one that is fundamentally beyond the physical capabilities of the human brain. Even trained professionals are unable to perform it without suffering extreme stress. In this way, scientific inquiry becomes limited to an ever-shrinking handful of literal, if I may use a crude expression, freaks of nature (or geniuses, if you prefer a more refined term), who are not subject to the same physiological limitations as everyone else. Forget the “layman,” even “the closest professional colleagues can no longer fully understand one another.” (36)

Huizinga picks physics as his example because this tendency is most evident when one looks at the cutting edge of science. To be sure, many (probably most) scientific research topics do not require such an extreme strain, but for that very reason, many of the people working on them resemble journeymen more than scientists, receiving advanced degrees for what is actually fairly routine programming and laboratory work. The more intellectual rigour and originality the topic requires, the closer the picture is to what we observed previously for modern mathematics, whose very depth and difficulty has turned it into a kind of game, governed by certain unwritten and ultimately arbitrary conventions; one cannot understand what is really happening if one is not already one of the “players.” As a result, even as science becomes more central to modern life, more and more people become completely alienated from it, and finally lapse back into irrationalism:

The human being of today seldom, if ever, looks to science for his philosophy of life… There is a strong tendency away from science. People no longer believe in its capacity for guidance, and not altogether without reason; there has been a time when science claimed too large a share of the world’s mastery. But there is also something else besides natural reaction: deterioration of the intellectual conscience. The impulse to achieve a maximum of objectivity and exactness in thinking on the rationally comprehensible, and to apply the test of criticism to such thinking, is weakening. A vast and murky twilight seems to have spread over numberless minds… And to justify all this, what actually is the abandonment of the logical principle itself is paraded as the necessary revolt against the supreme rule of reason.”

(Shadows, 51)

But it seems to me that this is a perfectly logical and predictable consequence of Huizinga’s previous point — it is inherently impossible to “achieve a maximum of objectivity and exactness in thinking” when, in Huizinga’s own example of physics, “the disturbance of the process caused by the fact of observation itself is such as to render full objectivity unattainable. Causation then comes to the borderline of its validity, behind which there lies a field of undetermined occurrence.” (36) If the phenomena of science are not “rationally comprehensible,” in principle, to the kind of “rationality” that is available to conventionally talented, educated people, then it does not make any sense to expect “numberless minds” to think critically about them. The ensuing ugly rebellion against logic is very unfortunate, but humanity is simply not given any other consolation.

(Both sides of this conflict frame it in ideological terms. But that is quite secondary. The problem is that science may as well be “black magic” to most of humanity. Being unable to assess its objectivity on their own, people can only accept it on faith. Many do, but others figure: if that is all there is, then why not accept something else instead?)

This is the cause of the paradox that puzzles Huizinga. On one hand, “We live in a world which is infinitely better informed about itself, its nature and its possibilities than at any time in history. We know better than our ancestors what the universe is and how it functions, how the living organism operates…how the historical sequence of events is to be understood.” On the other hand, “In a society characterized by universal popular education, extensive and immediate publicity of day-to-day life [Another phrase that takes on an unintended, but eerily topical meaning in 2020. -FL], and advanced division of labor, the average person grows less and less dependent on his own faculties of thought and expression.” (41-43) The growing rift between cutting-edge scientific progress and the rest of humanity turns the scientific ideal into a kind of religious mystery, which ironically allows all kinds of pseudoscience and junk science to run wild, simply because the “average person” has no way to tell the difference using only “his own faculties of thought.” Huizinga makes exactly this observation in the case of Freudian pseudoscience, but really what he says is much more generally true:

…[T]he mind trained in exact observation and analysis, when faced with the task of sociological (that is, inexact) interpretation, shows itself completely lacking in norms by which to judge and evaluate scientific evidence. And thus in this unfamiliar field it is led to jump from any ‘hunch’ to the most far-reaching conclusions which would crumble into nothingness the moment they were subjected to the test of the philosophical-historical method. If, then, the constructions so arrived at are furthermore accepted in wide circles as recognized truths, and their technical terms passed about as ready-made instruments of thought, large groups of a low critical average are accordingly given a welcome opportunity to play at science to their hearts’ content.”

(Shadows, 57)

For the ordinary person, the only possible internal safeguard against unreason is culture, which must be acquired through an individual, free choice: “Only the personal will to culture, in whatever field and however pursued, raises modern man above this level.” (44) A common refrain throughout Shadows is that culture and education are not the same thing, and in fact can be put in mutual opposition in times of crisis. “Our time, then, is faced by the discouraging fact that two highly vaunted achievements of civilization, universal education and modern publicity, instead of raising the level of culture, appear ultimately to produce certain symptoms of cultural devitalization and degeneration.” (47) Of all the problems discussed and lamented in Shadows, this may be the most important for our time.

Just as barbarism can prevail in a society with a high degree of technical perfection, it may equally coincide with that other positive characteristic of society, universal education. To determine the level of culture from the degree of illiteracy is to deceive oneself with an outworn belief. A certain modicum of school knowledge in no way guarantees the possession of culture…
Delusion and misconception flourish everywhere. More than ever men seem to be slaves to a word, a motto, to kill one another with, to silence one another in the most literal sense. The world is filled with hate and misunderstanding… For the shallow, semi-educated person the beneficial restraints of respect for tradition, form and cult are gradually falling away. Worst of all is that widely prevalent indifference to truth which reaches its peak in the open advocacy of the political lie.”

(Shadows, 150-151)

Huizinga’s first concern here was with the ideological abuse of universal literacy, which turned the latter into a mechanism for the dissemination of political propaganda. He extensively criticizes political sloganeering and demagoguery in many places throughout Shadows, at one point asking, with regard to political advertising, “Is there reason to speak of a certain intoxicating effect?” (46) But his term “semi-educated person” has a broader meaning. Later, in The Damaged World, this thought was fleshed out as follows:

It can hardly be denied that all of the widely recognized defects of our culture are rooted in the structure of contemporary life, which inhibits the growth and development of individuality. The product of the industrial age is the half-educated man. Mass education, together with the outward leveling of the classes, as well as the excessive ease of spiritual and material exchange, has caused the half-educated man to become the dominant type in society. But the half-educated man is the sworn enemy of individuality. The vast numbers of such people, and their sameness, stifle the seeds of the individual in the soil of culture. The two monstrous mercantile/mechanical media of our day, film and radio, make them accustomed to a dangerous one-sidedness of perception… The half-educated man receives culture, or rather the surrogate that he consumes instead of culture, as a ready-made substance.

“Culture and individuality,” The Damaged World

In Huizinga’s time, this identification of mass education with cultural decline must have seemed like (and, to an extent, was) reactionary grumbling. Perhaps it was really a prophecy of the future. Looking back, it seems to me that access to education of reasonable quality, for large numbers of people concurrently, was a gift of the militaristic authoritarian state as it emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The great empires were in need of millions of men to fight their wars, and millions of women to work back home and raise the next generation of troops. But, even for these grim purposes, it was no longer sufficient for all of these people to remain only as disposable cannon fodder. In order to fight well and work efficiently in the industrial age, in order to understand increasingly complex instructions and function in increasingly complex organizations, the human cog in the wheel now had to read, write, and think logically on the level needed to acquire technical knowledge. He also needed the motivation to fight, which could be provided by ideological propaganda, but as a part of that, he needed the capacity for self-sacrifice, a moral value that requires some cultural development. Before he could feel part of the nation’s history and culture, there first had to be a history and culture for him to embrace; the historical concept provided by the imperial state may have been almost entirely mythological (something that Huizinga also criticizes), but self-mythologization is itself a cultural function. Elsewhere in The Damaged World, (“Recovery of culture through self-limitation and restraint?”) Huizinga wrote, “If we perceive culture as a living reality, it follows almost automatically that culture is born of individuality, and therefore individuality is where it maintains its health.” But the converse is also true — culture is created by individuals, but new individuals are in turn created by culture.

Two closely related concepts.

The imperial state certainly did not do this out of benevolent goodwill, but nonetheless it cultivated Huizinga’s “seeds of the individual” in a much larger population than ever before or since. Huizinga’s concern over fascism, a kind of malignant tumor on the “structure of contemporary life,” unfortunately leads him to take the structure itself for granted. He criticizes the “half-educated man” presumably for not living up to some standard of being “fully educated,” but you can also look at it from the other side — a half-educated man at least has half of the full education. The contemporary man, however, will soon have none. The fact that you and I are sitting here at all, that we have the ability to be interested in Huizinga and talk about his work in coherent statements — that is not a principle of the society in which we live, but rather a complete historical coincidence, a small piece of rubble left over from the massive culture-building program of the great empires. That we have any individuality at all (if indeed we do) is something that happened completely by chance.

Perhaps the modern state hates classical culture because it, too, understands that it is an impostor, living off what someone else had built. In self-justification, it argues that culture itself is to blame for war and imperialism: indeed, in their genesis they are linked, but that is because vast numbers of educated and cultured people were once needed. By contrast, the modern state believes that it does not need its own citizens, not even to fight. That is literally what its pocket intellectuals say. As a result, mass education has become a useless burden to be cast off at the first opportunity. The elites still need a thin layer of professional and technical service personnel, but those people will be expected to educate themselves — there is always a small handful of the most determined, talented, and lucky people who will overcome any obstacles placed in their way, and that handful is all that the state will need. As with every other contemporary tendency, the dismantling of mass education will occur with great fanfare under the slogan of making education more accessible.

I cannot help wondering if this might be the one permanent outcome of our ongoing epidemic. Education is being moved onto the Internet, at such a frenzied pace and with such concentration of resources that moving it back offline later does not seem to be part of the plan, regardless of the future public health situation. In one sense, online education really is more accessible, and some people will even benefit from it: adults with serious inner motivation, who already have the discipline needed for effective self-study, and who already had the chance to grow up in a different world. But for anyone who needs oversight in order to develop these qualities (especially children), the situation will be quite different. Mass education has never really been able to provide students with adequate individual contact, but now, even group interactions will present a considerable organizational challenge. In other words, mass education is abrogating, not only the notion of individual instruction, but also the more basic task of socializing its charges into a functional group — these burdens are simply being transferred onto the pupils and their families. Essentially this is a regression to the early 19th-century mode of education, where each family had to hire their own tutors and governesses, if they could afford them.

In a world of absolute indifference, a single meeting with a single person who shows interest in you as a human being can become a defining moment in your life. All education, from the most disadvantaged public school to the most elite university, works on this principle, especially when it comes to the liberal arts. It is very difficult, but possible to learn engineering or even mathematics by reading a textbook. But the purpose of studying the liberal arts is not to learn about culture, as one does from the textbook, but rather to become cultured. Individuality awakens through dialogue with culture, as personified by its carriers. The real value of a university education is, and always has been, the chance to meet a Huizinga or Losev and be drawn into their world as it unfolds before you. Yes, you could just read their books instead, but without any guidance, you’ll never know that these books exist. And, soon enough, you will not be able to find such guidance, in principle, anywhere in public view. It will move to some place that has been made invisible to the eyes of commoners.

stanfordNew York Times, January 19th, 1988.
In 2020,
Inside Higher Ed is shocked to find
that there is now
“no curriculum at all.”

When students protest against courses on “Western civilization,” they presumably believe that in this way they can force the elite of society to be more democratic. The idea is that rich and powerful people send their children to Harvard and Princeton, so by ideologically “improving” the curriculum at these institutions, this next generation of elites can be made to feel more empathy toward other groups in society. What will actually happen, however, is that all of the truly rich and powerful people will quietly leave Harvard and Princeton. These institutions will continue to exist, but only as “brands,” just as there are expensive but tasteless clothing brands whose sole purpose is to pander to the nouveau riche who don’t know any better in order to make them part with their money. Real education will take the form of a network of private tutors whose very existence will not be revealed to anyone outside the elite. Promising young scholars will be recruited directly into the network and shuttled from one mansion to another by private jet and limousine, perhaps without ever being formally employed. The rest of us will never know who or where they are. But even counterfeit, candy-wrapper education will not necessarily be any easier to obtain — unburdened by the duty to provide social mobility, universities will be free to double their tuition any time they want.

Puerilism we shall call the attitude of a community whose behavior is more immature than the state of its intellectual and critical faculties would warrant, which instead of making the boy into the man adapts its conduct to that of the adolescent age.”

(Shadows, 115)

With great numbers of both the educated and the ignorant, the play-attitude toward life of the adolescent has become permanent. At an earlier stage we have already alluded to the prevalence of a state of mind which might be called one of permanent adolescence. It is characterized by a lack of sense of decorum, a lack of personal dignity and of respect for others and the opinions of others, and an excessive concentration on self. The general weakening of judgment and the critical impulse has prepared the soil for the spread of this attitude.”

(Shadows, 120)

Although Huizinga warned that “puerilism” has a universal character, “knows no ages, it attacks young and old alike,” (123) most of the examples he cites are still limited to certain specific types of public activity, such as the ideological abuse of athletic competitions by fascist governments. But from a contemporary point of view, he is giving a matter-of-fact description of the entire world in which we live. Contemporary society literally looks to teenagers and celebrities as unsullied sources of truth, and views emotional intensity and lack of self-control as signs of authenticity.


Each head of state is more carnivalesque than the previous one. All public speech is unbearably one-dimensional, made up of cut and pasted fragments of bureaucratic and ideological jargon. The adolescent state does not consider itself bound by its word and, in fact, does not understand the very purpose of negotiation, seeing in it only weakness. Citing “the politically Left-thinking sociologist Karl Mannheim,” (98) Huizinga warns that the puerilism of the state will result in a greater level of violence becoming accepted throughout all of society:

As we have already indicated, the growing ‘democratization’ of society will in the end familiarize all classes with these ‘State morals.’ ‘Hitherto the ethic of plunder has been consciously admissible only in marginal cases and has been confined to the ruling groups. But so far from this element of violence and the ethic on which it rests waning with the democratization of society, it becomes the publicly acknowledged philosophy of the whole society.’ …Mannheim reveals here an alarming consequence of the theory of political amorality, to wit, that this theory cannot remain the exclusive property of the State, that smaller quasi-public groups will also help themselves to it and adapt it to their ends.”

(Shadows, 98-99)

At the level of individuals rather than groups, puerilism confuses selfhood with self-gratification. Contemporary society actually claims to place very high value on the individual. Merchants no longer rely on “that striking but superficial symptom of general puerilism, the so-called crazes with their rapid world-wide popularization,” (117) but instead offer personalized products and “experiences” to each customer separately. You are encouraged to develop differentiated tastes, to have detailed opinions, to “express yourself” and “be creative.” If you don’t want to do this, there’s something wrong with you; perhaps you have not fully accepted yourself. Perhaps, in extreme circumstances, someone somewhere might feel a painful urge to abandon their individuality and become more like others, but I can’t imagine anyone freely admitting to a lack of selfhood.

The value of “self-expression” is understood to be somehow intrinsic, largely disconnected from its content or end result. Trying to envision its essence — what it looks like in the Platonic world of ideas — what I come up with is a kind of cosmic prime-time talk show, whose host invites you to talk about your struggles for all eternity before a sympathetic audience as infinite as it is faceless. The universe celebrates you for being yourself, listens in rapt attention as you dwell on every emotion you have ever felt, no matter how minute, from early childhood to adolescence to the present day. As soon as you run out of things to talk about, you start over from the beginning. The very existence of these feelings is sufficient proof and validation of your uniqueness. You’re perfect just the way you are. You’re a hero.

Since the rise of the various forms of popular despotism [In the sense of “mob rule.” -FL], heroism has become the catchword. Heroism is a political tenet, it is even represented as the new ethic replacing the old which so many think no longer necessary or useful… The enthusiasm for the heroic is the most telling sign of the great revulsion away from knowing and understanding to direct experiencing and living which we have called the focal point of the cultural crisis.”

(Shadows, 110)

Indeed, heroism is an ethical concept first, a political one second. Fascist states used it to motivate their followers: “‘The principle of Fascism is heroism, that of bourgeoisie, egoism.’ Thus read the election posters which in the spring of 1934 adorned the streets of Italy.” (105) But although this slogan disparaged “egoism,” the alternative that it proposed was couched in the language of radical individuality — not “collectivism” or “the greater good,” but “heroism.” The full history of this idea is much longer and broader than the fascist movements of the 1930s. For a full century prior, the idea of heroism fascinated thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and artists such as Beethoven and Wagner; in certain cases, some of what these people said and did could be viewed as laying the groundwork for fascism, but in general these connections have been greatly overstated. Fascism itself was a byproduct, an evolutionary dead end, of a much greater drive to break down traditional ethics and somehow transform human society, human thought, ultimately humanity itself. There may be disagreement on what the end result should look like, but the drive itself is a bedrock principle of contemporary society, perhaps the one value that modern culture truly has. And so, the “enthusiasm for the heroic” is alive and well, albeit in debased form; its ethical purpose remains totally unchanged.

heroHow to convince modern man to wash his hands.

Huizinga writes, “The exaltation of the heroic is itself a crisis phenomenon. It shows that the ideas of service, task and fulfillment of duty no longer exercise the necessary motive power on the public at large. They have to be amplified as through a loud speaker.” (111-112) But the whole point of heroism is to replace these ideas. The only “duty” to speak of is the duty of the universe to fulfill your desires. Whatever you wish to be, in that instant you become; you can design and redesign your self at will, like choosing an avatar in a video game, with countless prefabricated options to click on.

At meetings of scholars statements are heard which even a short time ago would have been thought too senseless to be comical…a speaker at the Congress of Philologists held in Treves in October 1934, declared that what one should expect from science was not so much truth as ‘whetted swords.’ When another of those present showed himself lacking in respect for certain instances of nationalist interpretation of history, he was reproached by the chairman with ‘lack of subjectivity.’ Note, all this at a congress of scholars.
This is what our civilized world has come to. Let it not be thought that the degeneration of the critical spirit confines itself to the countries where extreme nationalism has triumphed. Any observer can find numerous proofs in his own environment of a certain indifference of large numbers of educated people to the degree of truth embodied in the figures of the world of ideas. The categories fiction and history…are no longer clearly distinguished. It is no longer asked whether the truth-content of intellectual matter is up to standard. The ascendancy of the concept of ‘myth’ is the clearest example. People accept a representation in which the elements of wish and fantasy are purposely included but which nevertheless proclaims to…serve as a guide-rule for life, thereby hopelessly confusing the spheres of knowledge and will.”

(Shadows, 67-68)

But what about those of us who are unable to wish away the unreality of this fantastic ersatz identity — who, on the contrary, feel their consciousness to be a thin candle flame, flickering in the draft after the door has been thrown open; who feel, on a visceral level, how easily it can be extinguished? Virtually all of the cultural problems identified by Huizinga in Shadows (as opposed to political and economic problems) are immediately recognizable in our lives, sometimes in ways that he probably never imagined, which proves that the cultural crisis he described is indeed civilizational, an expression of the dominant tendency in human history rather than a localized malady of the 1930s. It is therefore no surprise that Huizinga could only think of vague and rather unsatisfactory assurances, such as, “The grounds for hope are of a very general nature… In every organism it is always the symptoms of disturbance, irregularity, and deterioration which attract the most attention. The disease symptoms of our civilization manifest themselves very painfully and noisily. It is possible that in the great body of mankind the healthy flow of life nevertheless continues more powerfully than it would seem. The disease may work itself out.” (155) But once the “disease” has grown to the point where it becomes the organism, it is the “healthy flow of life” that comes to be viewed as the “disease.” Huizinga himself is part of what is being “worked out,” which ultimately includes all history and culture.

He knew that, “It is not from intervention by social organizations that we must expect deliverance. The foundations of culture are not such that the organs of society, whether they be nations, churches, schools or parties, could reaffirm or strengthen them. What is required is an internal regeneration of the individual.” (161) There is a timeless quality to this exhortation — whether intentionally or not, it echoes, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” But, by nature, it cannot be broadcast or made into a mission statement for some mass movement. There are very few people whom it can reach.

Huizinga’s prescription is essentially a kind of revival of Stoicism: “The new askesis will not be one of renunciation of the world for heavenly bliss; it will be one of self-domination and tempered appraisal of power and pleasure…a surrender to all that can be conceived as the highest.” (Shadows, 163-164) Like Hellenistic philosophy, this is a secular worldview; Huizinga has already given up on the possibility that it may have any religious content. In The Darkened World (“Should we expect a rebirth of Christian faith?”), he further justified this position as follows: “Can we truly believe that, in the foreseeable future, people of average spiritual constitution will again live by notions of death on the cross, resurrection, predestination or the Last Judgment? Here we do not mean only that they will express their faith in these terms, but that these notions will become their life and, as a part of it, their culture?.. Contemporary humanity in Europe and America generally strives to acquire and experience pleasure. More and more people become solidified in routine and vulgarity, which are not at all alleviated by belonging to one Church or another.” Unfortunately, these same arguments apply equally well to his secular vision. The original Stoicism had a much richer theoretical foundation, and was far more organically suited to its times, and it still failed. If people are unable to appreciate eternal life, it’s not clear why they would then be able to see any value in culture.

When it came to practical thinking, Huizinga was completely helpless, as befits a philosopher-historian who felt most at home in the Middle Ages. In The Darkened World, he made an attempt to propose some sort of solution to the crisis, but got no further than a vague Anglophilia (tempered, however, by a strongly-worded criticism of the Boer War), followed by a hazy vision of some kind of federated “legal union” between large and small countries, which would discourage militarism while resolving disputes fairly. Unfortunately, as we now know first-hand, a supranational body can suppress the individual just as effectively as a single state — in fact, much more so, since it bypasses any elected national authority — and has no reason to refrain from exercising this power. Huizinga affirmed his belief in democratic principles, but they, too, turn into empty words if there is no culture to sustain them. He dreamed of “a vast number of men of good will” united by a “fellowship…of the spirit” who will bring new life to culture and “work in the direction of a renewal and a reconstitution of civilization,” (Shadows, 156) but what we now know with absolute certainty is that every such person will be alone.


Dear Huizinga,
These eight sonnets are dedicated to you. They came into being thanks to your book In de schaduwen van morgen…[These words] could be understood in very different ways. I personally heard them more as ‘In the shadow of dawn’ than as ‘In the shadow of the future.’ But after I read the book itself, I understood that, contrary to my expectations, your emphasis in this title is on the schaduw more than the morgen.
Nonetheless, I unconditionally accept your assurance that you are an optimist and not a pessimist. To clarify: speaking in high style, you are more Isaiah than Jeremiah… The pillars of society have collapsed, pessimism has become a luxury one can no longer afford. At the moment of reckoning with the past, the future persuades us that even the most refined philosophy is nothing more than cowardice. Only action promises salvation. But what kind of action? This is not seen clearly. We live in the mist before the dawn.
That is the title given to the sonnets that I have dedicated to you. I attempted to sketch the outlines of eight characters in the twilight before the morning. They are: an engineer, sleeping in his apartment across from a factory; a girl, combing her hair; a conductor, setting out on the first morning round across the city; a young married couple in their bedroom; a poet recalling the cafe that he visited the previous evening; a cleaning lady starting work on a house; a boy beginning his studies early in the morning; and finally, an aging couple beginning everything anew, so to speak, on a new foundation. I had to work for a long time…as I wrote, I often had to reread what you wrote and what Isaiah wrote, before I could finally view these lines as worthy of the spirit of your book.

letter from Martinus Nijhoff, 1936

The author of this letter was an accomplished Dutch poet of the early 20th century, though he appears to be largely unknown outside the Netherlands. As he explains, In the Mist Before the Dawn is a collection of eight sonnets inspired by In the Shadows of Tomorrow — perhaps not so much by the content of Huizinga’s book as by its somber mood and poetic, image-rich style. Each poem presents a small, intimate scene with just one or two people, trying to capture an instant in which they are struck by some sudden thought.

At first glance, it’s hard to say how much attention Nijhoff paid to the substance of Huizinga’s thoughts — Shadows never really argues that “the most refined philosophy is nothing more than cowardice,” that sounds more like Nijhoff’s own preoccupation that he preferred to read into Huizinga’s book. And yet, in a strange way, these poems lay bare the central collision of Shadows: the lost, frightened individual mind asserting its existence through some simple human feeling that no longer seems to have a place in an increasingly abnormal world.

In the Mist Before the Dawn has never been translated into English. I have therefore taken the liberty of loosely translating sonnet IV in blank verse:

Hij knoopt, om ‘t licht te temperen voor ‘t kind
Dat in zijn bedje zich ligt om te keren
Een zakdoek om de peer heen, en begint
Doodstil zich voor de wastafel te scheren.

De vrouw, zich slapend houdend, hoort zich zweren
Dat zij beminnen zal wat zij bemint:
O licht, wees vuur, ontsteek de morgenwind
Opdat de ziel tot het vlees toe vertere.

Hij ziet dat zij het voorhoofd fronst; haar hand
Balt zich; deze is zijn vrouw, zij huilt; hij ziet
Diep, diep de spiegel in, hun huis in brand;

Hij ziet dat, eens, en of hij wil of niet,
In weerwil van zijn vrees zijn wens geschiedt:
Hij, zij en ‘t kind trekkend naar ander land.

He ties a handkerchief to veil the lamp
So that the light does not disturb the child
Who tosses now in bed. He stands before
The sink, in silence, and prepares to shave.

His wife still holds on to her sleep. He hears
Her murmured vow to keep on loving them:
O light, come set the morning wind on fire,
Let nothing, neither soul nor flesh, remain.

He sees her deeply furrowed brow; her hand
Is clenched; this is his wife, she weeps; he sees
His home in flames, reflected in the mirror.

He sees his fearful dreams becoming real,
Against his will, in spite of it: himself,
His wife, their child as exiles in strange lands.

(Conclusion: part 3.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s