#129: THIS ENTERTAINING COUNTRY. The Delft housewife who got into the French cathedral with a mop and pail in my last essay no doubt scrambled out of my reading of Simon Schama’s grand book The Embarrassment of Riches (Random House, 1987), and the incongruity of the image may suggest something of Schama’s accomplishment. What could look more ordinary, more insistently middle-class, more going-about-its-business than the culture of the Netherlands and Belgium? The beautifully gabled brick houses, the quiet bustle of the canal towns, the stretching flatlands vibrant with flowers, the enclosures of the old Beguinage neighborhoods: everything seems arranged, fixed, settled for the foreseeable future. But Schama’s book, subtitled “An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age,” succeeds in showing us the effort and tensions that went into the making of the culture, until we realize how much geography, circumstance and deliberation went into the making, and the result comes to look singular indeed. Generously illustrated, magisterial in text, Schama goes into the work of reclaiming the land, and what the neighboring countries saw as “the impertinence of survival;” the see-saw influences of Calvinism and the old Catholicism; the fight for independence of Spain, and the use of the visual media in appealing to a religiously-shaped patriotism; and, after their world-changing success in trade and as the culture began to take on its distinctive shape, the place of women and the intensity of domestic life, their relations with children, their particular strategies of inclusion. Behind it all, though, is the central theme, as neatly caught in the title: how the culture, under the demanding severities and probing psychology of Calvinism, faced up to the fact that the Dutch had become very, very well-to-do—rich, we used to call it. As Schama puts it: “Riches seemed to provoke their own discomfort, and affluence cohabited with anxiety.” This question that so haunted the Dutch—what are the proper and moderate uses of worldly wealth, which may so easily become a mere scrabbling in the trough?—may have a special immediacy for American readers; not least so, as a friend suggested, because we imported some of our own ideas of the ordinary from Dutch culture, and in their defining tensions we will likely see our own. But what’s so lovely in Schama’s book is that, like all great historians, he takes the rug out from under the everyday and shakes it in our faces. He ends (“more grandiloquently,” he says) with Henry James: “All these elements of the general spectacle of this entertaining country at least give one’s regular habits of thought the stimulus of a little confusion and make one feel that one is dealing with an original genius.”
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