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Holland for Beginners


Holland is the Western part of the Netherlands, just as England is the southern part of Great Britain. Outsiders often identify it with the whole, because of old, the center of power has been there: not only politically but also economically, intellecutally, artistically, and mediumistically, and whatever else exists as power. It is ruled by a large, urbanized area, which is called the ‘Randstad’. The most important districts of the Randstad are named Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leiden, The Hague, Delft, Rotterdam and Utrecht.


Although Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, but by all means the heart of Holland proper. Also because the government does not have its residence in the capital, but in The Hague,—for they hate centralism,—Amsterdam has taken an obstinate, undisciplined position during all of history, with some unmistakable anarchistic traits. They even use the term ‘Republic Amsterdam’. Whatever has to do with the arts and culture, resides in Amsterdam. Every Hollander or Dutchman who wants to achieve something in that field, moves to Amsterdam. Amsterdammers differ from Hollanders, just as Hollanders differ from Dutchmen.


Rotterdam is where the money is made. The cynism of history is, that, thanks to the German bombardment of 1940, it now looks like a German city. Its port, the biggest in the world is, in fact, a German port.


The neighboring countries, Belgium, France and Germany, stand with their face towards the European continent and their backs towards the sea, but Holland stands with its face towards the sea and with its back towards Europe. In that sense Holland also stands with its back to the eastern part of the Netherlands, with all the tensions this brings along. When there was the danger of a German invasion back in 1939, preparations were made to cut the river’s dikes as to flood the eastern Netherlands, so that Holland would become an unassailable island. In the Hollandish consciousness America is more nearby than Germany. Holland and Germany stand very close to each other, but back to back.


That orientation on the sea Holland has in common with England, Spain, Portugal and the former Republic of Venice. Perhaps such could be explained from their colonial past,—although the reverse may also be true,—except that for Holland the sea is not just the friendly element over which looted riches are transported, but also a threat. Holland is that part of the Netherlands which is under sea level. The world is created by God, but Holland by the Hollanders, they sometimes say.


That western threat by the sea—only to be compared with the eastern by the Germans—has lead to a magisterial architecture in Holland: that of dikes. But then these water-embankments, at once, form all the magisterial architecture there is. The cities know no stately symmetries, there are no grandiose palaces on grand plazas, for those are unfindably located in narrow streets. The governing center exists of a small inner court with a pump. There’s no Unter den Linden, no Champs Elysées, no Mall,—in no city an orderly parade can be held, such would only be possible on the sea walls. But then they never do any parades in Holland. Every right-minded Hollander—not to mention the Amsterdammers—would react in fury, or laugh oneself to pieces.


That is because the Netherlands never have been an absolute monarchy, like England, France, or Germany. Yet the Low Lands once were part of such an institution as outer provinces, namely of the Habsburger variety, ruled from Vienna and later, from Madrid, but then again Holland precisely attained its national identity by revolting against that in the sixteenth century, and by installing itself as a civil republic during the eighty-years war. The hereditary rights of it were in hands of the princes of the German house of Orange-Nassau, but none of it had anything to do with monarchism. Their title was ‘stadtholder’.


And in fact it’s all still the same today. Beatrix, Princess of Orange-Nassau, now bears the title ‘Queen of the Netherlands’, but this title refers to a monarchy only formally. When French troops occupied the Netherlands, at the end of the eighteenth century, the stadtholder fled to London; a little later on Napoleon appointed his brother Louis Bonaparte ‘King of Holland’,—an enlightened monarch, the later count Saint-Leu, who, after he got deposed walked through Marienbad with Goethe. After the return of the hereditary stadtholders, they believed they couldn’t settle for less and ever since the Netherlands have known queens and kings. Hence, the Oranges owe their royal crown to the French Revolution. But in essence, the present French republic is more of a monarchy than the Dutch is a kingdom. French are monarchists, just like the English, but the Dutch are republicans who are devoted to the grandchildren of a revolutionary, William of Orange, who once upon a time, by way of weapons, lead them out from under Spanish absolutism. The Netherlands are an ironic monarchy. Were all of the Royal Family to die of eating the wrong oysters tomorrow, the Netherlands would not set out on a hunt for some second cousin in Mecklenburg-Schwerin or Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha, who could be crowned king, but it simply would be over. Then the Netherlands will once again be the republic it actually is.


Only in one other occasion, at the end of the seventeenth century, a Dutch stadtholder became king: not of Holland, but of England. It bears a certain symbolic that during the reign of this ‘Dutch William’, English absolutism came to an end with the Declaration of Rights and the installation of the parliament—although not thanks to him, but rather in spite of him, nevertheless simultaneously with him.


The difference between the old Republic of the United Netherlands and the monarchists in the neighboring countries, was the difference between relativism and absolutism, between individualism and collectivism, between skepticism and dogmatism, between doubt and certainty. And so it still is—and that doubt manifests itself not rarely as self-denial too, sometimes even with the masochistic tendency for self-destruction. Dutchmen have a lower esteem of the Netherlands than foreigners. The Netherlands never sought to impose their language or culture on the colonies; one was satisfied with making money. ‘The Netherlands’ has a completely different ring to the Dutch, than ‘Deutschland’ to the Germans, or ‘La France’ to the French.


Unfortunately, as a result of that, all the other great sentiments, words and gestures also fall prey to Hollandish scorn. Allure equals affectation, fantasy is not desired, enthusiasm suspected, exuberance unsuited. What remains is the small: not the visionary but the realistical, not philosophy but psychology—the character-traits of the commercial spirit. The Hollander does not feel akin with Don Quixote but with Sancho Panza. The shadow side of the lack of absolutism in its history is that it never has known a court culture. There never was a king who expressed his imperial manor through palaces, statues, paintings, poems, theater plays; who kept orchestras and had symphonies composed for them, surrounded by dukes and counts, all in their own pomp and circumstance. Shakespeare or Mozart are unthinkable in Holland. Commissions were ordained by patricians who were as rich as thrifty and practically a-cultural. So it has remained. A square with a statue is a rarity in the Netherlands. From Rembrandt and Vermeer to Van Gogh and Mondriaan, painting is all that has succeeded in becoming big amidst small things. The humanist mocker and doubter Erasmus of Rotterdam, the protestant catholic, the illegitimate son of a priest, is the archetypical Hollander. The great Spinoza was the son of immigrants.


This artistic and philosophic ascetism is the emaciated face of doctor Calvin. Since the very beginning, the difference between Dutch relativism and the surrounding absolutism has equally been the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. Neither did Holland want to know anything of an absolutistic Pope, and in Protestantism it found an adequate expression for its obstinate mentality. In the sixteenth century, Calvinism was the motor of its fight against the Catholic Spanish king, and it made its debute with the iconoclastic fury, which, in many respects has continued until the present day.


In Holland everyone primarily is a Protestant in a cleared out and white chalked church, and only next a Protestant, Catholic, Atheist, Social Democrat, Liberal, or—in earlier days—Communist. The positive aspect of that state of mind is an imperceptibility for fanatism. Calvin himself of course was a fanatic, but the falling apart of the reformation into innumerable directions, eventually lead to the status quo of tolerance in Holland, that enabled someone like Descartes to work undisturbed, in Amsterdam, on his philosophy based on the certainty of doubt. The negative aspect is peevishness and a scanty idealization of sobriety. Goethe in Holland is just as unthinkable as Hitler.


In Holland solely the works of hydraulic engineering are absolutistic, which are directed against the sea, against the absolute, but by that also have reached the nature of the absolute themselves dialectically. And so it happened, dear foreigner, that even relativistic Holland only can exist thanks to the absolute.

[—Harry Mulisch, 1995]

This essay by Harry Mulisch, was originally published in Bij gelegenheid, as Holland voor beginners; Bezige Bij - Amsterdam; 1995.
Translation ©2008 Ingrid van der Voort

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