The Embarrassment of Riches

by Simon Schama

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.


The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age is a book of essays by Simon Schama revolving around the thesis that Dutch culture, especially bourgeois Dutch culture, was characterized by what Schama calls "the moral ambiguity of good fortune." In other words, the Dutch in the seventeenth century were caught between two contradictory forces: the austere asceticism of Calvinist thinking and the enormous wealth that flooded the country in the midst of its economic boom of the period. The book is divided into four sections, each of which focuses on a different aspect of Dutch history or culture.

Part One: Becoming

In the first section of the book, Schama focuses on how the Netherlands became rich and Calvinist at roughly the same time. He uses the image of the "drowning cell"—an institution where Dutch vagrants were forced to work by pumping water out of a chamber where they would otherwise drown—as a metaphor for the Netherlands in general. Only through constant vigilance could the famously low-lying country keep itself above water. He argues that there is a "Moral Geography" in the Netherlands that gives its people a fear of drowning both in "destitution and terror" on the one hand but also "in luxury and sin" on the other.

In his second chapter, "Patriotic Scripture," Schama shows how the Dutch defined themselves as frugal but heterodox, putting them in cultural contrast with Spain, the Catholic kingdom that the Dutch rebelled against in the late-sixteenth century. Schama traces this self-identity through Dutch art, literature, and the works of Dutch theologians. Throughout the first part of the book, he is attentive to what he considers a peculiarly Dutch trait: the effect of extravagant wealth on the collective conscience of the Dutch people, who were also aware, through their Calvinism, of "the worthlessness and ephemerality of worldly power."

Part Two: Doing and Not Doing

Schama detects in Dutch art and popular culture another contradiction in the Dutch mentality. This one stems from the knowledge that the wealth that they accumulated through their successes as merchants and bankers was always liable to vanish, as indeed was the physical landscape of the Netherlands. Schama surveys Dutch art and literature, finding an obsession with disaster. He writes,

These arrests of nature, the providential slap in the face at the height of complacent celebration, was . . . a habitual trait in Dutch culture.

At the same time, the realization of their own fleeting presence in history led to a Dutch culture of indulgence that Schama sees in his examination of Dutch food and tobacco.

Similarly, the Dutch retained a sense of the fragility of their republican, decentralized form of government, which existed in a complex relationship with their own nationalism and the need for unity in the face of international threats. Ironically, the biggest threat to their national vitality was its greatest source: the wealth that Dutchmen celebrated even as they feared its fruits were making them complacent. Schama describes how these anxieties were borne out to an extent as he discusses the disastrous financial bubble of the 1630s and 1640s that centered on speculation into the tulip, itself a symbol of the Netherlands.

Part Three: Living and Growing

In the third section, Schama turns his analytical eye to the Dutch household. He interprets the Dutch obsession with cleanliness as a reaction to wealth, which he observes was often described in terms that evoked filth. In popular depictions of the home, Schama writes that the "physical labor of the home . . . was used to suggest moral strenuousness." He detects...

(This entire section contains 852 words.)

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this trend in popular culture and in high art, such as the paintings of Pieter de Hooch, which depicted neat, orderly homes tended by modest housewives and servants. According to Schama, the Dutch were unique in that they thus ascribed virtue more to their women than their men. At the same time, Dutch women were often portrayed as temptresses, "anti-mothers," and prostitutes that gave Amsterdam in particular a reputation for bawdiness.

Part Four: Watersheds

The final section begins by considering people who did not fit—or at least existed in a tenuous relationship with—the Dutch ideal, including the sizable population of Dutch citizens who were Jewish. More distressing to Dutch ideals, though, were vagrants and even people deemed social deviants, like homosexuals. These were targeted not just by the powerful Reformed Church, but by everyday Dutch people who regarded these alleged deviants as a national affront. They feared, Schama argues, that these deviants represented corruption that would lead to the destruction of the Dutch nation. In art and literature, destruction was predictably symbolized by floods, which resonated in Judeo-Christian theology as well as with Dutch men and women who looked anxiously at the dikes that held the sea at bay during storms. Overall, Schama writes in his conclusion, the Dutch were characterized by their contradictions:

[The Dutch were] adrift between the fear of the deluge and the hope of moral salvage, in the tidal ebb and flow between worldliness and homeliness, between the gratification of appetite and its denial, between the conditional consecration of wealth and perdition in its surfeit.