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letters from holland

Only a few years after Aldous Huxley wrote about his travels in Holland, Czech writer Karel Čapek devoted a whole book to the country: 'Letters from Holland' ('Obrázky z Holandska', 1932), part of a series of European travel books he wrote in the 1920's and '30's.

Čapek's keen-eyed and charming observations of the Dutch landscape, people and bicycles are welcomely laidback after Huxley's Euclidean allegory, though both travelers remark on many similar Dutch features and customs. Here, for instance, is Čapek's description of this "nation on bicycles" and the effect it has on the national character - an early example of psychogeography.

Karel Čapek - Letters from Holland - 1
And then those bicycles. I have seen various things in my time, but never have I seen so many bicycles as for instance, in Amsterdam; they are no mere bicycles, but a sort of collective entity; shoals, droves, colonies of bicycles, which rather suggest the teeming of bacteria or the swarming of infusoria or the eddying of flies. The best part of it is when a policeman holds up the stream of bicycles to let pedestrians get across the street, and then magnanimously leaves the road open for more; a regular swarm of cyclists dashes forward, headed by a number of speed champions, and away they pedal, with the queer unanimity of dancing gnats.
I saw nuns on bicycles and farmers on bicycles leading cows. People eat snacks on bicycles and take their children and their dogs for rides on bicycles, and courting couples go pedalling along, arm in arm, on bicycles, towards a blissful future; a nation on bicycles, in fact. When the bicycle has become a national habit to such an extent as that, we may well consider what effect it is likely to have on the national character. Personally I should say that:
  1. A man on a bicycle gets used to looking after himself and not getting mixed up with somebody else's bicycle.
  2. He waits for his opportunity and starts pedalling away the instant he gets the tiniest ration of elbow-room.
  3. He goes dashing along without having to exert himself overmuch, and without making the least fuss about it.
  4. Even when he sometimes rides in pairs or in a crowd, a man on a bicycle is more isolated and self-centred than a pedestrian.
  5. A bicycle brings about a kind of equality and uniformity among people.
  6. It teaches them to rely on the force of inertia.
  7. And it fosters in them a sense of peace and quietness, such as is associated with cotton-wool.

(Not sure about the cotton-wool, but #5 especially would seem to be deeply engrained in the Dutch character.)

However, the real highlight of the book are Čapek's illustrations - simple, almost doodle-like sketches that manage to capture the essence of his subjects in a mildly satirical way. Note, for instance, how almost all his Dutch landscapes are symmetrical, either vertically or horizontally, or both.

Karel Čapek - Letters from Holland - 2

Karel Čapek - Letters from Holland - 3

Karel Čapek - Letters from Holland - 4

Vertically, because it struck him how "the Dutch built their towns of houses and water chiefly because in that way they could produce two towns at a single blow, so to speak: one on top and the other mirrored in the water." And horizontally - with even the omnipresent bicyclists choreographed symmetrically along the straight roads - to emphasize the tidy and ordered strips of land and water.

For one thing, these renowned polders are unusually rectilinear; when the Dutchman set about producing his land, he did so in a properly human manner, that is, with the aid of a foot rule, just as when planks are sawn up. Crooked is the history of man but rectilinear are his works.
Karel Čapek - Letters from Holland - 5

Karel Čapek - Letters from Holland - 6

The only thing Čapek doesn't sketch is the Dutch light - he apologizes for it explicitly - as "it is so pure and transparent that you can see every outline and detail to the very edge of the world". Paradoxically, his line drawings, eliminating all detail to keep only essence, work very well to convey the glass-like clarity of the Dutch landscape.

travel advice


Travel advice ('Reisadvies') at the train station...


I see an adder and, a yard away,
a butterfly being gorgeous. I switch the radio
from tortures in foreign prisons
to a sonata of Schubert (that foreigner).
I crawl from the swamp of nightmare into
a glittering rainfall, a swathing of sunlight.

Noticing you can do nothing about.
It's the balancing that shakes my mind.

What my friends don't notice
is the weight of joy in my right hand
and the weight of sadness in my left.
All they see is MacCaig being upright,
easy-oasy and jocose.

I had a difficulty in being friendly
to the Lord, who gave us these burdens,
so I returned him to other people
and totter without help
among his careless inventions.

- Norman MacCaig

John Fowles used the two pivotal lines from this poem as a motto for his essay 'The Nature of Nature'. MacCaig's poetry, with its beautiful and deceptively simple evocations of the Scottish landscape and wildlife, indeed makes for a natural ally in Fowles' argument for appreciation of nature.

But MacCaig's natural observations are never simply that - he is no naive nature poet but decidedly modern - and a central theme in his work is the act of observation itself. Many of his poems explore the problematic relationship of the conscious 'I' with the natural world surrounding it, where the 'I' might attempt to merely "notice" - impassionately, Zen-like - but inevitably consciousness intrudes - "balancing", analyzing, judging.

Another way of putting this would be that his poetry wrestles with the pathetic fallacy, which he both mocked and self-consciously employed ("being gorgeous"), but ultimately couldn't escape altogether because 'pure', objective observation doesn't exist. It always comes back to the observer, even if, as in one of his best-known poems ('A Man in My Position'), this is explicitly flagged as a problematic notion.

Hear my words carefully.
Some are spoken
not by me, but
by a man in my position.

In 'Equilibrist' (1980) observation is only the starting point for a more complex ethical balancing act, which the poet performs, crucially, without the traditional pole (to stay with the metaphor) of religion. MacCaig used to call himself a Zen Calvinist, half in jest and half, perhaps, as shorthand for the kind of crypto-atheist balancing he describes here. On the one hand rejecting a personal, emotional God in favor of meditation on an impersonal universe, while on the other still existing "among his careless inventions".

They only take up the first four lines, but already these inventions are of a bewildering variety - from adder to butterfly, from torture to sonata - and thus grouped together it's no wonder they should shake the narrator's mind.

One contrast is between the natural phenomena which exist immediately, here and now, and the human doings which arrive as sounds from far away in place and time. Should these be weighed equally, or should their distance and mediated presence somehow be taken into account? (A familiar question in our age of globalization, which forces us to constantly balance distressing facts from around the world against our immediate environment, safely behind our screens.)

Next, the radio offers the full spectrum from beastly to heavenly human activities, and again the question arises how, or if at all, such things can be weighed against each other. And then MacCaig describes their effect (or only the music's?) on him in natural terms - swamp, rainfall, sunlight - in a kind of reverse pathetic fallacy: imbuing human artifacts with natural objectivity.

And finally there is the contrast between the outer and inner equilibrist, balanced and tottering.

For more on MacCaig, the documentary 'Norman MacCaig: A Man in My Position' (1977) offers a great portrait of the poet, interviewing him both in Edinburgh and out rambling in Assynt, where you suspect he's had a wee dram.