Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Black Tulips, a Golden Age, and me
There's stuff in The Black Tulip to make me smile, but just as much to make me wonder. Ethnically, I am, for better or worse, 100% Dutch, but I'm not really Dutch at all. The fact is, I'm fifth generation American. By what stretch of the imagination can I be said to be "Dutch"? I'm not. It's preposturous for me to make such a bizarre claim because I have more to share with someone from Tupelo, Mississippi, for instance, than I do with someone from, say, Zwolle, the Netherlands.
Good night, I don't know.
What this third trip to the Netherlands taught me, once again, is how little I understand of the Dutch character. For instance, really, we can start with this generalization: the Dutch have a simple but glorious penchant for what I am going to call "the finer things of life"--a good glass of wine, a sunny afternoon, a thoughtful painting, good music (of any genre, by the way), a cup of good stout coffee outside on the town square with a just few good friends.
The Black Tulip was convincing, to me, because I could believe that long quote from my last post--that the Dutch would award stupendous money to someone who could create the perfect tulip. There is, I think, a penchant in the Dutch character to love simple but rich things. Like flowers. Like tulips.
Here's another generalization: that penchant, that characteristic, that propensity is NOT in the character of most Dutch-Americans, who, like me, have become vastly more American, a people not unlike our neighbors, who would or could never be thrilled with such simple things. We've enrolled in the school that proclaims, "the one with the most toys wins."
Yet, to say that Americans are more materialistic is silly. It's just that the "material" we covet is different--and theirs is, well, classier. There, I've said it. I think it true.
Now what does Alexandre Dumas know of all of this, being French besides? Somehow The Black Tulip pictures a Dutch culture I recognize, not by being Dutch myself, but by having visited Holland, by wandering the Rijkmuseum a half-dozen times, by visiting the central square of dozens of Dutch cities and towns, mid-day.
How about this passage from the novel, another taken from the end, when the townspeople of Haarlem are celebrating:
"But the interest of the day’s proceedings for us is centered neither in the learned discourse of our friend Van Systens, however eloquent it might be, nor in the young dandies, resplendent in their Sunday clothes , and munching their heavy cakes; nor in the poor young peasants, gnawing smoked eels as if they were sticks of vanilla sweetmeat; neither is our interest in the lovely Dutch girls, with red cheeks and ivory bosoms; nor in the the fat, round mynheers, who had never left their homes before. . ."
That description is a Breughel painting, but it's offered in an almost endless sentence that only describes the scene by what it isn't. The world of the novel is the world of Holland's Golden Age. They had one. It's not a myth. There was a time in the life of the nation when that pocket-sized country and its fleet of ships ruled the world. Really. The whole country fits neatly into eastern Iowa, but at one time it was the richest nation on earth.
When people dream of what might be, when governments create legislation meant to end injustice and economic blight, as noble and just as that legislation might be, I'm enough of a Calvinist to assert that hopes should become unduly inflated because sin is always with us and there's no such thing as a golden age.
But there was in Holland. Honestly. How does that fact affect them? How does that affect me?
(to be continued)
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:15 AM