Amsterdam was a centre of magic and mysticism 2

Henk Schutten

Translation of an article which appeared in Het Parool, 6 December 2008

The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica devotes an exhibition to the author Gustav Meyrink

Chidr, a mysterious personage with a green visage, plays a major role in Gustav Meyrink’s novel The Green face. Those who encounter Chidr with a flaming cross on his brow, stand eye to eye with the underworld. Chidr derives from the Qur’an and emerges in countless Jewish tales and stories from the Middle East, for Meyrink was a well-read author. The German writer, best known for his novel Der Golem – about a clay figure brought to life by a rabbi – had a predilection for tales of the bizarre and the macabre. Although The Green face is set in Amsterdam after World War I, the novel also contains allusions to the magical Amsterdam of the seventeenth century, when the city was full of mystics, spiritualists and theosophers, according to Theodor Harmsen, author of Gustav Meyrink, Der magische Schriftsteller, seine Freunde und sein Werk.

The burning Nicolaaskerk in Amsterdam marks the downfall of the city.

‘Amsterdam was a centre of magic and occultism because of its liberal climate; books were published here which could not be printed elsewhere’, Harmsen explains. ‘That is why the city exerted a strong appeal on people from esoteric circles’.

Thus the novel refers to the Amsterdam biologist and anatomist Jan Swammerdam, a great seventeenth-century scientist. ‘But Antoinette de Bourignon, a mystic who often corresponded with Swammerdam, also occurs in the novel. Swammerdam was one of her disciples. His personal mystical beliefs caused him to doubt whether he ought to persist in his scientific studies: who was he, after all, to dissect creation?’

Harmsen calls The Green Face a ‘spiritual initiation novel’, largely set against the backdrop of the Jordaan in Amsterdam. The story ends in a sort of apocalyptic whirlwind. The Nicolaaskerk near Amsterdam’s Central Station collapses in a sea of flames, somehow recalling the destruction of the Twin Towers. Little is left of Amsterdam, a corrupt city, although one blossoming apple tree remains standing, symbolizing eternal and cyclic life.

According to Harmsen, the apocalyptic end points to the social and political unrest at the time: ‘The novel appeared in 1917, when the First World War was raging in Germany. The Netherlands were neutral, which may be why Meyrink chose a fictitious post-war Amsterdam as the backdrop for the novel’s cosmic revolution.’

Gustav Meyrink was born Gustav Meyer in Vienna on 19 January 1868, out of an extramarital liaison between an aristocratic baron and an actress. He grew up in Munich, Hamburg and Prague and seemed destined to become a banker. After a few years, however, he turned to a career in writing. He moved in old fin-de-siècle European circles and corresponded with renowned intellectuals like Martin Buber, Hermann Hesse, Alfred Kubin, Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig. When exactly Meyrink was staying in Amsterdam is a well-kept secret. Harmsen suspects it was sometime between 1904 and 1907, when Meyrink did a lot of travelling.

What is certain is that the German writer did his best to capture the authentic Amsterdam in his descriptions. On show in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica on Bloemstraat is one of Meyrink’s notebooks, with observations about the city and various expressions, songs and doggerel verse typical of Amsterdam, all of which found their way into the novel verbatim. Meyrink died at the age of 64 in 1932, shortly after his son Harro, who had become crippled as a result of a skiing accident, took his own life. Towards the end of his life, Meyrink became more detached from the occult and magical tradition.

‘Meyrink was driven by an indeterminable feeling of unease fed by an increasingly intense longing for metaphysical knowledge and experience’, says Harmsen. ‘He was fascinated by the grotesque and the occult, but on the other hand it also repelled him. That message he wrapped in amusing horror and ghost novels.

The book: Gustav Meyrink, Der magische Schriftsteller, seine Freunde und sein Werk, by Theodor Harmsen, published by In de Pelikaan, € 39,50. Ebook € 20,00.

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2 thoughts on “Amsterdam was a centre of magic and mysticism

  • sylvie de gens

    Goedemidag, RITMAN LIBRARY.
    3 or 4 (or 5?) months ago i have visited your wonderful library in search of more infos and books about and from the fantastic G. Meyrink. Malheureusement, I did not see the NOTEBOOKS, in which he talks so much about the old XXX. Is it possible to take a look at these? Are they written in german of nederlands?
    Dank U voor info.
    Met vriendelijke groten,
    S. de Gens, duitsland

    • BPH Post author

      Dear Mrs de Gens,
      Only one of Meyrink’s notebooks is to be found in the collection of the BPH (ca. 1915); it is in German. Three similar notebooks are to be found in the Bayrische Staatsbibliothek (BSB), Meyrinkiana XI (See for a catalogue of the Meyrink collection in the BPH: Theodor Harmsen, Der magische Schriftsteller Gustav Meyrink, seine Freunde und sein Werk. Amsterdam 2009, available in our webshop).

      Best regards,

      José Bouman
      curator BPH