Marxism and shoot them, hut we in thernWest ma’ simply murmur that tliev exaggeraternand are often wrong. One needrnonly spend a few weeks in Sardinia,rnwhere the native island culhire effechvelyrninsulates the inhabitants from tiie sea,rnto understand that so mueh of historiographyrnis like Freudian psychology: It isrntwo-thirds ex post facto reasoning andrnone-third old wives’ tales.rnLast week, I conducted a fairlv inexpensivernexperiment to test the materialistrnthesis against which I had been prejudicedrnauMvay by spending a weekend inrnAmsterdam, a place I had neer been before.rnAmsterdam is called the Venice ofrnthe North. Why Venice? Well, don’trnyon see, it has all diose canals, just likernVenice, and the boats and the bridges.rnMy thinking was that—as the airline hcketsrnwere cheap, the hotels in the doldrumsrnof low season, I do not userncannabis, and was bringing m’ wife asrnchaperone—the worst that could happenrnwas that the thesis would be disproed —rnAmsterdam would turn out to be not thernVenice of the North — and I would returnrnhome with the satisfaction of havingrnbeen right all along. Which is exactlyrnwhat happened, and probabK I wouldrnhave let the matter rest without botheringrnto gloat about it had die failure of the thesisrnnot been so spectacular and, in somernstrange ways, so unexpected.rnThe first thing of which I am usuallyrnaware is the sound of speech, and the firstrnplace that Amsterdam brought to myrnmind was Copenhagen. I’liis is because,rnlike the Danes (and Scandinavians generally),rnthe Dutch speak a kind of deracinatedrnHyperamerican with a facility thatrnis at once arresting and repugnant.rnWhen one listens to the answer to thernsimplest question, say about die way tornone’s hotel, one is conscious of observingrnsomething unnatural yet titillating, likernsome cabaret exhibition of dexterityrnimagined by Magritte involving a snake,rna bird cage, and three small oranges.rnThen, if the questions and the correspondingrnanswers become more complex,rnthe circus-act image recedes and isrnsupplanted in one’s mind bv similes fromrnmagazine articles on artificial intelligencernand stills from HolK wood filmsrnabout aliens in human guise.rn”Do you speak English? I phoned forrna taxi an hour ago, and it’s still not here.”rn”I’heresalottatraffic authcre yaknow.rnYah yah okay 1 givemacall.”rnIt helps not at all that visually Dutch isrnso close to English. The visitor’s e’e, bewilderedrnby shop signs, keeps sendingrnconfused mes.sagcs of alarm to the brain,rnroughly along fiicse lines:rnCitizen, you have been asleep forrn?11 years. It is now the year 309rnE.U., and we are all .speaking Prosperanto.rnI’hc English wordrn”house” is “huis” in Pro.speranto.rnThe word “bread” has become “bananarnbrood with nuts.” The wordrn”ecu” has been changed to “eurouble.”rnThe oriier place I thought Amsterdamrnwas like is Chicago, because the Dutchrnautomaton’s deracinated speech fromrnthe future is very much like the apparentlyrnderacinated culture —including dress,rnmanners, convcrsafion, and cuisine — ofrnmost large American cities, which arernunfailingly comical in their provincial insecurity.rnNo doubt this insecurity isrnfueled from New York, and exacerbatedrnweeklv by the culture supplements of thernNew York Times, so that no restaurantrnchef in Chicago can put a T-bone steakrnon the menu without somefiiing like anrnromarin et ancliois tniflea after it unless hernwants to get himself arrested as a whiternsupremacist, any more than a theater directorrnin Detroit can put on a thoughtfidrnproduction of Pinocchio without beingrnaccused of antisemitism. Anyway, lookingrnfor a Dutch dish in Amsterdam is likernlooking for hash brownies in Riyadh, orrnasking CBS to screen an art film enfitiedrnThe Protocols of the Elders of Zion inrnprime fimc.rn”Do yon speak English? I’m trying tornfind somewhere that ser’es Dutch food.”rn”Sme, riiere’s a fantastic Cantonesernplace on die Reguliersdwarsstraat.”rnWhy yes, one almost finds oneselfrnriiinking at that point, the Cantonese onrndie Reguliersdwarsstraat, of course, howrncould I have been so foolish. It’s like forgettingrnabout the Pakistani on the Oosterdokskade!rn”Good Dutch food?”rn”Duck, they’ve got good duck. Greatrnscnice, nice, realK’ nice place.”rnThis brings mc to an aspect in therncharacter of the Venetians of the Northrnwhich an impartial observer would describernas a certain denseness, whereas arnhostile, irresponsible, prejudiced personrnmight let fly with the accusation of stupidity.rnIn diis, Amsterdam reminds me ofrnCambridge and that tract of midgeswarming,rndisease-ridden, blithely floweringrnswamp land called East Aiiglia tornwhich Holland is, I have to admit, gcophysicallvrnrelated far more closely than itrnis to Venice. A friend of mine once tookrna tailcoat, with its regulation stains ofrnclaret and vomit, to the dry cleaners inrnCambridge. The elderly woman inrncharge inspected it, stroked the stains tenderly,rnand announced: “F very nice, that,rnbu’ I wuii’t know wha’ to charge you, luv,rn’cuz here on the back i’s long like a coa’,rnbu’ ‘ere on the front i’s short like a jackit.”rnSurely you’ve had one of these in before,rnhe remonstrated, with all flie May Balls atrnCambridge over the last hundred years?rn”We ‘a e, an” I ne’er know wha’ to chargern’em!” answered the woman with a flirtatiousrnchuckle.rnNaturalh’ enough, from the point ofrnview of architecture, the spire-capped,rnhematite-redbrick town is reminiscent ofrnManhattan’s surviving shreds of NewrnAmsterdam, somehow reordered withinrnthe space of Boston. But although perfectlyrnexplicable historically, this impressionrnonly serves to enhance the eeriernsense of alienation from language, time,rnand place which grabs hold of the visitorrnon arrial. Like a fool I trudged to thernRijksmuseum, in the hope that the fire ofrnart would soon cauterize the infectiousrnfeeling—readers who wish me to carryrnon in this florid vein may send a check forrn$1 with large SASE enclosed-that therntown was taking the mickey. I will not sayrnanything about the Vermeers, becausernthe Vermeers are in fact quite amazingrnand very probably worth the price of arnjourney to Amsterdam, but the “NightrnWatch Room”! I thought they hadrnslipped somediing into my duck at thatrnCantonese joint, and that I was hallucinating.rnFor the first time, I understood thernhomespun fraud that is the Americanrncollege history of art in all its threadbarernubiquity. Tlie enonnous hall of the Rijksmuseumrngives the famous picture pridernof place, but it is surrounded on all sidesrnby dozens of paintings by Rembrandt’srncontemporaries. This is meant to showrnhow much better—greater, I think, is thernpreferred art-history term—he was thanrnanybody else painting in the early 1600’s,rnthough what it actually shows beyondrnreasonable doubt is that he was exactlyrnlike them, and I mean exactly, down tornthe last shiny buckle on the last of the idioticrnblack cones fliose people used asrnhats. The per’asive, ponderous conformityrnof both the painters and their rednosed,rnwhite-jabotcd, black-breechedrnsubjects, squeezed together in largern.»>/CHRONICLESrnrnrn