There was a point in "Going Dutch," Russell Shorto's critical appreciation of our adopted country's social welfare system, when I thought he was about to recognize a pervasive quality of Dutch culture that I've always felt, but never seen clearly expressed. Interestingness often feels like the revelation of something we already knew subconsciously, so I was prepared to be interested when I read:
It’s true that I have grown to appreciate many aspects of this system. But honesty compels me to reveal another side. There is a mood that settles into me here, deepening by degrees until its deepness has become darkness...Something about this place rekindles the existential rage of my youth. Why are we here?
"Existential" is a word I often use to describe Dutch culture, confusing natives and immigrants alike, and I'd hoped that someone more articulate was about to clarify my meaning for me. But Shorto's essay glances off that target to bury itself in the broad backside of Dutch collectivism, consensus and conformity. True (and at times annoying) enough, living here is sometimes like an extended visit to the DMV. "What makes you think you're so special?", translated into Latin, could easily be the national motto of the Netherlands.
But there is a powerfully individualist flip side to Dutch culture, visible even in the well-known admonition to "just be normal" that Shorto quotes, like most people, incompletely. The full saying is: Just be normal and you'll be crazy enough. The Dutch system is based on an existential appreciation of the basic weirdness of everyday human existence. It attempts to minimize the common material wants that typically fuel market economies and make people more fearful, competitive, rushed, violent, status-oriented, more crazy, than they need to be. Like Freud in reverse, the Dutch system is designed to remove the sources of common unhappiness and free the individual to ask, "Okay. If I'm not here simply to survive, why am I here?"
That question, as strict and bare as the interior of a 17th-century Protestant church or "the calm, bland streets and succession of broad windows giving views onto identical interiors", leaves you stranded with yourself in a way that might very well inspire an existential rage in someone who believes that individual value and happiness are dependent upon being special in some way. I think this is one of the reasons why ex-pat bitching sessions inevitably resolve into complaints about Dutch "service." There's always a whiff of "Don't these people know who I am?" in the air. (A phrase which, translated into Latin, could easily be the national anti-motto of the Netherlands.)
Dutch culture doesn't exactly deny the possibility of individual transcendence. But it does make you wonder. Maybe that kind of happiness, if it exists at all, just isn't something you can pursue.