The Embarrassment of Riches: AN INTERPRETATION OF DUTCH CULTURE IN THE GOLDEN AGE by Simon Schama (Knopf: $39.95; 704 pp., illustrated)
This account of the Netherlands in the 17th Century is a brilliantly written interpretation of the cultural development of a nation that attained a high level of wealth, power, and civilization while scarcely out of the diapers of its infancy. Seldom has the Western world witnessed the achievement of such all-encompassing national excellence; and perhaps never in such a brief span of time. Envied by the rest of Europe, the Dutch themselves were embarrassed by all this, as the title of the book suggests. Simon Schama sets out to resolve the mystery by posing the question who the Dutch were, what made them tick, and what constituted their culture. His theory charts an ambitious course, supported by an overwhelming quantity and variety of resources, including sermons, tracts, diaries, travel accounts, official documents, literature, and especially the voluminous repertory of 17th-Century Dutch burgher art. All these he summons as documents of belief, as impressions of a collective Dutch mentality (of mainly artisans and merchants) that, no matter from what perspective Schama approaches it, inevitably reveals a wondrous symbiotic coincidence of polar opposites.
The specific subjects carefully examined in this book deal mainly with the daily life of the ordinary Dutchman. Schama focuses on local customs related to eating, drinking, clothing, personal possessions, love and courtship. He also investigates social issues, like the (relatively feminist) view of the woman in her role of spouse and mother, midwife, wet nurse, maid, or courtesan. Attitudes, strangers, Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals are also scrutinized, as is the ambivalent status of the bank and the stock exchange. Interesting also is Schama’s analysis of the municipal and individual responsibilities toward law enforcement and charities, while he brings the full force of his argument to bear on the role of the family, especially the child (which is emblematic of Dutch society in general; i.e., always in the process of becoming). In terms of today’s standards, the Dutch were an enlightened people. Schama discusses all these topics, and many others, within the moral context of a more or less uniform Calvinist society that, while being constantly admonished by fiery preachers, was perhaps more directly governed by a divinely perceived principle of social equilibrium. In developing his thesis, Schama not only substantially amends Max Weber’s theories concerning the relationship between capitalism and Calvinism but also presents a new cultural interpretation of the Golden Age. Yet, although his work introduces an abundance of materials usually not considered in cultural histories, and while he thereby significantly alters traditional views of this era, his argument is too sweeping to be convincing.
Schama’s principal approach in these essays is analogical. Admittedly engaging in cultural generalizations, he bases his thesis about the successful Dutch on the way they perceived themselves. Their collective self-portrait is that of God’s chosen people. Like Israel of the Old Testament, they viewed their favored position as a blessing, but also as a test; their land (and water) was regarded as moral geography. Indeed, good and ill were never far apart for the average burgher.
Schama sees the essence of 17th- Century Dutch society as a multilayered structure of cultural paradoxes that the surprising Dutch transformed into a delicate polarity. Unfortunately, he tends to turn his insightful perception of the dual (practical and ethical) exercise of Dutch wealth into a paradigm for all other aspects of that society as well. Every image has a counter image, every picture a reflection, every thesis an antithesis. His conclusions, therefore, while persuasively drawn in many instances, tend to lose their impact in overstatement.
The pervasive double (self) image of the Dutch reflects Schama’s own colorful metaphoric style, which--perhaps inadvertently--tends to become part of the polar equation he describes. Indeed, the symbiotic relationship between virtue and vice that symptomizes the Golden Century is expressed in unlikely pairs, such as tavern and church, the call to arms and the call to love (Mars and Venus), wife and whore, saturnalia and the sermon, “Stygian fires” or the “ship of state” as a “ship of fools” (set adrift on the great historical ocean). He shows how the notorious “tightfisted burghers” could also behave as “free-spending prodigals.” He describes the Dutch fear of “becoming authors of their own undoing, simply by overdoing things.” And, in discussing Dutch genre painting he contrasts “solitary matrons saying grace over a humble meal” with “leering procuresses presiding over a sexual transaction.” Sometimes the colorful and humorous metaphors get in the way of the thought: “While Dutch herrings slid down the gullet, (the navigational laws of) Grotius stuck in their craw”; or, the English ridiculed the Dutch for “the lowness of their High Mightinesses.” Similarly, Jan Steen depicts his children not as putti , but as “hell raisers”; Schama also sets rhetoric back a few years by traumatizing Ruskin with his reference to “De Witt’s pathetic fallacy.” And toward the end of the book, he invokes the ghost of Mark Twain as he concludes that “news of the death of traditional Dutch culture was . . . greatly exaggerated.” This, for good and for ill, is vintage Schama.
There are some important subjects that are not covered in this work. A smorgasbord of information about the common habits of the average citizen, the book is strangely silent on topics such as education, the (significant) participation of non-Dutch students at Dutch universities, the role of foreigners as major investors in the stock market, participation in the political process, as well as the position of the arts (music and theater) and artists in Dutch society, to name a few. It is unfortunate, since these topics would have contributed toward a more complete understanding of this extraordinary people.
This monumental book has one monumental shortcoming. Not unlike the golden Dutch that Schama so eloquently describes, it tends to undo by overdoing. Nevertheless, it is a highly informative and beautifully presented interpretation of a unique culture. I consider it a major contribution to the understanding of Dutch history as well as of Western Civilization.