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Reve's God and the Paradox of Intimacy

Gerard Reve was quite infamous for the enigmatic world view that speaks throughout his novels, in particular for his singular religious experiences that are almost always sexualized, and for the (homo)sexual acts that seem to be rituals in a partly mythological and partly Christian lifeworld. Add to all of that a dash of sadomasochism, and it becomes easy to understand how being a fan of Reve can seem like participating in some secret religion.

The prime example of his controversy is the scene in which he describes having sex with God, incarnated as a one-year grey mule, in his book “Nader Tot U” (Closer To Thee), resulting in Reve being sued for blasphemy by a member of the Dutch parliament. Initially Reve was found guilty but was not punished, and amazingly Reve contested this verdict in High Court and decided to deliver his defence himself. In this defense, he argued convincingly that the scene for which he was being sued was in fact, despite its seemingly offensive sexual nature, an expression of a genuine conception of God.

“God is het diepst verborgene, meest weerloze, allerwezenlijkste en onvergankelijkste in onszelf. (…) ik vermag niet in te zien waarom dit Godsbeeld minder recht op expressie zou hebben dan dat van bij voorbeeld de emanente God der wrake, die mensen tot het bedrijven van zonden predestineert, om ze vervolgens voor deze zonde voor eeuwig te verdoemen.”

Contrasted with the transcendent God of the Old Testament, an archetypical father figure that “predestines humans for a sinful life and then punishes them for it”, the God of Reve is understood as the most concealed, the most defenseless, and yet the most essential part of human being. In this essay, I propose to understand this in terms of intimacy. I am inspired by an insight of the Dutch philosopher Cornelis Verhoeven in his essay “Een aanslag op de intimiteit” (“An attack on intimacy”): “Het meest elementaire is maar in zeer geringe mate ons bezit en ons recht; het is even onmogelijk het te geven als het te veroveren” (my translation: “The most elementary is only in a very limited degree our possession and our right; it is just as impossible to give it as it is to conquer it”). Intimacy is of this category. Intimacy cannot be enforced, or even given without losing its intimate character; it is instead an event that one undergoes and leaves none of the parties unaffected.

Intimacy is impossible without vulnerability. That is why intimacy to me seems to be an interesting perspective on Reve’s religous writing, because in his relation to God he requires God to be equally vulnerable (and equally affected by the darker aspects of a love relation) as the human seeking Him. The intimacy between God and man is such, that in seeking God man finds the essence of his being, but also vice versa, that only in seeking the human God creates himself.

In the poem ‘Dagsluiting’ (the final prayer), also included in ‘Nader Tot U’, Reve writes:

Eigenlijk geloof ik niets
en twijfel ik aan alles, zelfs aan U.
Maar soms, wanneer ik denk dat Gij waarachtig leeft,
dan denk ik, dat Gij Liefde zijt, en eenzaam,
en dat, in zelfde wanhoop, Gij mij zoekt
zoals ik U.

A lot of readers of Reve tend to interpret his religious writing in terms of irony only, but I think that is an oversimplification. Reve’s writing is reactive, provocative, emancipating, but his ironic relationship with faith has a deep seriousness to it. If God is truly intimate, that is, concealed, defenseless, then his meaning cannot be communicated straightforwardly: intimacy disappears when it is illuminated and put on display as an active involvement. In the sphere of intimacy, he has to be named without being named, communicated without transforming the radical passivity of a shared touch into a digestible thesis. Reve’s irony prevents at all times that God becomes a closed off idea. So instead of being inconsistent with a genuine religious experience, it seems to me that Reve’s irony is to the contrary the suitable way of expression: the sphere of intimacy with God can only be hinted at, brought forward in a concealed manner, allowing not only doubt about the genuineness of this religious experience from others, but also by Reve himself (“I do not really believe anything / and doubt everything, even You”). Intimacy implies a vulnerable passiveness, a defencelessness against suffering, uncertainty, despair, desire, lust… it is human, all too human. At the same time, there is also no intimacy without some form of communication. A potential counterargument to my interpretation could be that is not possible to have an intimate relationship with someone whose very being you doubt. But Reve’s God is a God of the heart, not the vacuum of a negative theology or the God of philosophers, and it is perhaps precisely through the very experience of doubt and of suffering that Reve feels intimate with God because He is thought to share in his suffering and desperation.

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Because Reve defines God as the utmost intimacy of human being, God itself is not omnipotent, but a priori this passive openness to suffering itself. “God is Eenzaam, en Hij is een Lijdende God” (God is Lonely, and He is a Suffering God), says Reve in ‘Het Boek van Violet en Dood’, and “Als God drinkt, dan is dat niet zonder reden.” (And if God drinks, it is not without reason). That is why Reve’s God is so tragic: in this intimate relation, God desperately requires redemption by the human just as much as the human requires redemption from God (“But sometimes, when I think that You live truthfully, / then I think, that You are Love, and lonely / and that, in similar despair, You seek me / as I seek You”). That Reve often identifies God as Love with a capital ‘L’ is yet another indication that God is the imperfect, all too human, two-unity of desiring and suffering. God and human are essentially interchangeable in their sin and longing for redemption. Because Reve’s imagination of Love is sadomasochistic, the intimacy I speak of here does not presuppose God’s comfortable presence, or a peaceful dialogue. Instead, the sadomasochistic nature of this religious intimacy includes a certain cruelness and silence of God.

A consequence of this extreme intimacy is that God is not something beyond this world, but rather the extreme and essential expression of it. Any notion of an after-world is therefore completely irrelevant for Reve, as God is an tragic expression of this life, of perpetual desiring and suffering. I think that Reve’s religious experience cannot be separated from a pessimism that is beyond chagrin, but instead has metaphysical significance. Therefore I cannot help but see similarities in the pessimism of Reve and that of Schopenhauer, whose pessimism even resonates in the most fundamental claims of his metaphysics: as the world is essentially Will, a perpetual desiring with no other target than itself, and as desire is the ground of suffering, the world turns against itself and is, in its metaphysical ground truth, suffering. Only in Reve’s later works, and interviews, have I found references to Schopenhauer that nevertheless strengthened this perceived connection.

To conclude, in Reve’s universe religion and sexuality enter a mystical union. What strikes me is that now that sex increasingly loses its taboo, it is also increasingly represented as a fun activity. But it is the passivity, the receptive capacity to be touched by someone, beyond our control, that makes sexuality intimate. In these times where sex is normalized and the intimacy of love is instead almost a taboo, a scary “private” resistance to the all-seeing eye of the internet and the media, a unique mind such as Reve’s is all the more interesting. In Reve’s work, sexual acts are never flat out sex. Instead, they are his intimate prayers.

In contrast to the opinion of many that Reve’s sexual utterances in his work are an unnecessary or offending distraction – take for example the poem “Revelation” where Reve says “happy tidings:\ God jerked off while He thought of me”) – I think they are all very curious tributes to an intimate relationship. They can be politically incorrect, compulsory, ugly, sorrowful, idolizing… in other words, they display sexuality not as a rational activity, but as the preparedness to lose control in the devotion to an other. This is the paradox of intimacy that Verhoeven notes in his essay. In the intimate region where we belong the least to others and can close ourselves off the easiest from them, we are simultaneously no masters over ourselves and are the most dependent.