I have always disbelieved those who would argue that the topography of a country, that is to say its purely geophysical characteristics, is dominant in the shaping of the personality of its people. Stalin used to call them vulgarizers of Marxism and shoot them, but we in the West may simply murmur that they exaggerate and are often wrong. One need only spend a few weeks in Sardinia, where the native island culture effectively insulates the inhabitants from the sea, to understand that so much of historiography is like Freudian psychology: It is two-thirds ex post facto reasoning and one-third old wives’ tales.
Last week, I conducted a fairly inexpensive experiment to test the materialist thesis against which I had been prejudiced anyway by spending a weekend in Amsterdam, a place I had never been before. Amsterdam is called the Venice of the North. Why Venice? Well, don’t you see, it has all those canals, just like Venice, and the boats and the bridges. My thinking was that—as the airline tickets were cheap, the hotels in the doldrums of low season, I do not use cannabis, and was bringing my wife as chaperone—the worst that could happen was that the thesis would be disproved—Amsterdam would turn out to be not the Venice of the North— and I would return home with the satisfaction of having been right all along. Which is exactly what happened, and probably I would have let the matter rest without bothering to gloat about it had the failure of the thesis not been so spectacular and, in some strange ways, so unexpected.
The first thing of which I am usually aware is the sound of speech, and the first place that Amsterdam brought to my mind was Copenhagen. This is because, like the Danes (and Scandinavians generally), the Dutch speak a kind of deracinated Hyperamerican with a facility that is at once arresting and repugnant. When one listens to the answer to the simplest question, say about the way to one’s hotel, one is conscious of observing something unnatural yet titillating, like some cabaret exhibition of dexterity imagined by Magritte involving a snake, a bird cage, and three small oranges. Then, if the questions and the corresponding answers become more complex, the circus-act image recedes and is supplanted in one’s mind by similes from magazine articles on artificial intelligence and stills from Hollywood films about aliens in human guise.
“Do you speak English? I phoned for a taxi an hour ago, and it’s still not here.”
“Theresalottatraffic authere yaknow. Yah yah okay I givemacall.”
It helps not at all that visually Dutch is so close to English. The visitor’s eye, bewildered by shop signs, keeps sending confused messages of alarm to the brain, roughly along these lines:
Citizen, you have been asleep for ?11 years. It is now the year 309 E.U., and we are all speaking Prosperanto. The English word “house” is “huis” in Prosperanto. The word “bread” has become “banana brood with nuts.” The word “ecu” has been changed to “eurouble.”
The other place I thought Amsterdam was like is Chicago, because the Dutch automaton’s deracinated speech from the future is very much like the apparently deracinated culture—including dress, manners, conversation, and cuisine—of most large American cities, which are unfailingly comical in their provincial insecurity. No doubt this insecurity is fueled from New York, and exacerbated weekly by the culture supplements of the New York Times, so that no restaurant chef in Chicago can put a T-bone steak on the menu without something like au romarin et anchois trufflés after it unless he wants to get himself arrested as a white supremacist, any more than a theater director in Detroit can put on a thoughtful production of Pinocchio without being accused of antisemitism. Anyway, looking for a Dutch dish in Amsterdam is like looking for hash brownies in Riyadh, or asking CBS to screen an art film entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in prime time.
“Do yon speak English? I’m trying to find somewhere that serves Dutch food.”
“Sure, there’s a fantastic Cantonese place on the Reguliersdwarsstraat.”
Why yes, one almost finds oneself thinking at that point, the Cantonese on the Reguliersdwarsstraat, of course, how could I have been so foolish. It’s like forgetting about the Pakistani on the Oosterdokskade!
“Good Dutch food?”
“Duck, they’ve got good duck. Great service, nice, really nice place.”
This brings me to an aspect in the character of the Venetians of the North which an impartial observer would describe as a certain denseness, whereas a hostile, irresponsible, prejudiced person might let fly with the accusation of stupidity. In this, Amsterdam reminds me of Cambridge and that tract of midgeswarming, disease-ridden, blithely flowering swamp land called East Anglia to which Holland is, I have to admit, geophysically related far more closely than it is to Venice. A friend of mine once took a tailcoat, with its regulation stains of claret and vomit, to the dry cleaners in Cambridge. The elderly woman in charge inspected it, stroked the stains tenderly, and announced: “I’ very nice, that, bu’ I wun’t know wha’ to charge you, luv, ‘cuz here on the back i’s long like a coa’, bu’ ‘ere on the front i’s short like a jackit.” Surely you’ve had one of these in before, he remonstrated, with all the May Balls at Cambridge over the last hundred years? “We ‘ave, an” I ne’er know wha’ to charge ’em!” answered the woman with a flirtatious chuckle.
Naturally enough, from the point of view of architecture, the spire-capped, hematite-redbrick town is reminiscent of Manhattan’s surviving shreds of New Amsterdam, somehow reordered within the space of Boston. But although perfectly explicable historically, this impression only serves to enhance the eerie sense of alienation from language, time, and place which grabs hold of the visitor on arrival. Like a fool I trudged to the Rijksmuseum, in the hope that the fire of art would soon cauterize the infectious feeling—readers who wish me to carry on in this florid vein may send a check for $1 with large SASE enclosed-that the town was taking the mickey. I will not say anything about the Vermeers, because the Vermeers are in fact quite amazing and very probably worth the price of a journey to Amsterdam, but the “Night Watch Room”! I thought they had slipped something into my duck at that Cantonese joint, and that I was hallucinating.
For the first time, I understood the homespun fraud that is the American college history of art in all its threadbare ubiquity. The enormous hall of the Rijksmuseum gives the famous picture pride of place, but it is surrounded on all sides by dozens of paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries. This is meant to show how much better—greater, I think, is the preferred art-history term—he was than anybody else painting in the early 1600’s, though what it actually shows beyond reasonable doubt is that he was exactly like them, and I mean exactly, down to the last shiny buckle on the last of the idiotic black cones those people used as hats. The pervasive, ponderous conformity of both the painters and their rednosed, white-jaboted, black-breeched subjects, squeezed together in large bunches one on top of the other, like office workers packing an elevator at lunchtime, makes for an unforgettably hideous spectacle, something like a Russian newspaper cartoon from the Japanese war of 1905 or an illustration from some mimeographed brochure about the Yellow Menace.
Which brings me back to the Cantonese on the Reguliersdwhatever, and to the reasonable suggestion that the countries of Europe, already reduced to the status of imperial cantons, are not far from achieving the degree of deracinated uniformity allotted them in that collaboration of Moscow and Washington which is known as Brussels. Canals and bridges will not save their souls as they have saved the soul of Venice, whose survival had been preconditioned by the lingering disunity of Italy and made possible by the recalcitrant archaism of the region’s myriad discordant social institutions. The grandees painted by Rembrandt all wore cone-shaped hats, but when the time came, they all donned baseball caps; they all said grace before supper, but when the time came, they all lit up giant spliffs; they all loved their neighbor, but when the time came, they all got together and sold their country down the river.
The grandees of Italy’s regions, who alt ate different food, said grace in different languages, and loathed their neighbors, were never in a position to do such a hat trick. As a result of this whim of history, for which the topography of Venice is perhaps no more than a useful foil and a beautiful symbol, I can still cross the Rialto to the Madonna and eat local soft-shell crabs, which are now in season in the lagoon. For diversity is not listening to rap music in Vienna, or speaking Urdu with a taxi driver in Paris, but living in Venice like a Venetian. Which is precisely what I, chastened by my experience of Amsterdam, propose to do until the Grand Canal becomes a municipal parking facility and they use the Frari to warehouse frozen bananas.
I am no flibbertigibbet. I would happily live in Chicago as a Chicagoan. But how can one?
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