In the Port of Amsterdam

There are very few European cities that I’ve been able to return to; until this year Berlin was the only such case, whcih makes it particularly pleasant to have been able to revisit Amsterdam, which was the first foreign city I’d been to. The last time I went was in summer, whereas this Amsterdam was shrouded in fog and its canals covered in ice. I begin by walking from the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal out to Keyser’s Westerkerk, which has to be one of the best buildings I’ve seen, with it’s florid crowned spire, and from hence to Cuyper’s Posthoornkerk, an incongruous gothic revival structure near to the railway station. From there, I walk to the equally incongruous expressionist Scheepvaarthuis and the more conventionally modernist Beurs Von Berlage. Eventually, I take refuge from the cold in the Nieuwe Kerk. It’s an impressive enough building to begin with, with a wonderfully decorated trompe l’oeil organ and elaborate maritime monuments, but it also houses an exhibition on islamic art. I particularly like Indian manuscripts showing Biblical scenes; it’s odd seeing something like the Last Judgement with the appearance of hindu rather than christian gods. The exhibits are contained in cases lined with mirrors, which gives an odd fairground feel as one walks past mirrored walls on either side. Before long, I move onto the Bejinhof, and its English church with Mondrian decorated wood panels and some stained glass depicting the departure of Henry Hudson for the new world. Walking further on, I revisit the Tuschinski Theatre, which I had accidentally stumbled across during my last visit. This time I’m brave enough to have a look inside the interior of this art deco cinema before looking at the nearby lumbering Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappj building. It does seem odd that nearby Belgium’s main cities are mostly lacking in the modern, while Amsterdam had its own modernist school. I spend a bit of time looking round the Muntplein’s floating flower market, but have regrettably to decline the offer of a grow your own cannabis kit. I then go to the Oude Kerk, which is playing host to a modern art exhibition. There’s something quite special about a place where its main churches have been turned into art galleries and museums, but I can’t say I particularly like the exhibits. A set of glass spheres containing hydroponically grown weeds is diverting if not exactly sublime. As in Belgium, the quality of stained glass in Amsterdam’s churches is wonderful and the Oude Kerk also contains some especially surreal misericords. With that, I come full circle to the Centraal Station, with its gilded ornaments. Amsterdam always seems an odd mixture of similarly designed bourgeois houses with endless variations of stucco and plaster decoration, punctuated by odd acts of gothic, art deco and expressionism.

The dominant treatment of religion at the end of the nineteenth century was a naturalistic one, with the likes of David Strauss studying Jesus in historical terms or Durkheim’s sociological treatment of the subject. Durkheim saw religion as a form of social glue, defining it as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” As much as Comte, Eliot or Nietzsche, Durkheim believed religion to be increasingly untenable and saw a need for something to replace its societal functions. This sort of view seems in retrospect to be clear, logical, bold and largely erroneous. For an analysis of religion that was vague, confused, timorous and essentially correct, we have to turn to William James and his Varieties of Human Experience.

James essentially recognised that religion was an artefact of individual experience and that it could exist perfectly independently of doctrine, church and truth claims alike. Compare his definition to that put forward by Durkheim; “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine.” Where Durkheim proceeds from society as his first principle, James starts from the individual (“every individual soul, in short, like every individual machine or organism has its best conditions of efficiency. “) offering many personal and anecdotal accounts of religious experience whilst failing to address whether there were the dominant strain in religious observance or whether that could be better attributed to social considerations and conventions; in this sense he set the tone for people like Karen Armstrong, who also have a neat line in defining religion exclusively in terms of its minority aspects. The Jamesian account does have the advantage that he recognises the polymorphous nature of religion, with many self help movements having the elements of a religion; “there is little doctrinal theology in such an experience, with starts with the absolute need for a higher helper and ends with the sense that he has helped us… if the fruits of life of the state of conversion are good, we ought to idealise and venerate it, even though it be a piece of natural psychology.”

Like Durkheim, James sought to treat of religion naturalistically but unlike him, was perfectly content to shy away from the conclusions of that path. For example, he admits the possibility that religious experience may very be simply a mental phenomena but dismisses the possibility voiced by a doctor comparing mysticism to epilepsy that we do not generally looks for mental causes in all aspects of human behaviour (although of course that is exactly what we do look for now). Equally, when he attempted to consider religion in an entirely scientific light he spoke of hearing a whisper in his ear saying “bosh.” As Richard Dawkins has put it, James was a believer in belief; incidentally the Jamesian complaint that Nietzsche was ‘shrill’ predates every lazy form of abuse hurled to Dawkins himself. He did not share the religious experiences he documented and could not give them any form of firm objective foundation (“religion is nothing but an affair of faith.. it is essentially private and individualistic”) but continued to endorse them regardless. James is able to recognise the dangers of zealotry & fanaticism (although the idle canard that religious violence is always attributable to a non-religious cause originates with James); “crusades have been preached and massacres instigated for no other reason that to remove a fancied slight upon the God.”James also recognises that religion has given way to the dictates of secular society in many respects, implicitly recognising the limits of religion; “when we cease to admire or approve what the definition of a deity implies, we end by deeming that deity incredible,” although he sees in religion an antidote to the ”effeminacy’ of materialism and regrets that society did not hold poverty to be a virtue, both of which are views that history has rightly consigned to oblivion. Finally, James unfavourably contrasts the severe stoicism of Marcus Aurelius with the joyous resignation of christianity, while admitting that the christianity of Tolstoy and Marcus Aurelius condemned them to masochistic suffering. Equally, the paganism of a Whitman is viewed as lacking sufficient seriousness; either way, the answer as to what constitutes the good life is always rigged in favour of religion.



One of the first things I did in Amsterdam was to take a canal tour. For a city whose rings of concentric canals were described by Camus as being akin to Dante’s circles of hell (albeit in a rather more bourgeois version), there is no other way to intuit the geography of the city. Amongst other things, there is no better way to see the succession of bridges forming a row over the canals as they stretch into the distance, or to see the prow of the New Metropolis (a building on the harbour designed to resemble a ship) that faces out to sea, or to sail around the Dutch East Indiaman Amsterdam at the Ship Museum. Walking around the city by foot was a different experience altogether. The city streets that contain such sites as the Oude Kerk (swathed in scaffolding during my visit), the Nieuwe Kerk, and Royal Palace are much narrower than those of London (presumably they were never designed for any vehicular traffic) and with taller buildings. Needless to add the names of many of the stores were all too familiar (far more branches of the Body Shop were in evidence than I’ve seen in London), although the homogenisation was something that did not seem particularly threatening, more of a reassuring offset to the alien quality of the streets. This quality is a particularly blatant in certain respects; in keeping with the liberal reputation of the city much of it has a somewhat bohemian quality that easily offends anyone from a gentrified area of England. Conversely, much of the populace themselves seem to have a rather more officious attitude; walking down to the centraal station platform and having missed the unmarked ticket franking machine outside, I was accosted by a helpful Dutchman who was quick to demonstrate the error of my ways. The individual in question was only being helpful, but I think it unlikely that anyone would have been so helpful in Britain. Similarly, at an evening concert a woman coming in late and taking a vacant seat was requested to move to her allocated seat, a process which disturbed many of the people she had obviously been trying to avoid disturbing.

On the following day, the visit was to the Rijksmuseum and its large collection of Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings (I must express a marked preference for the latter, although only a small number of his works were present. I did incidentally have lunch at a cafe in the Rembrandt Square although oddly enough the cafe itself was devoted to Schiller, displaying many paintings that I was unaware of him having created). The building itself is one of the most impressive buildings in the city, along with the Centraal Station. Both were designed by the same architect and are designed in the same redbrick gothic style with murals and gold ornamentation ensnaring the walls denounced as being ‘too Catholic’ at the time). One interesting exception to this was the art-deco Tuschinski theatre; which I stumbled across entirely by accident.

The style of the buildings is actually not that remote from Keble College in Oxford (apart from the fact that Keble is not a particularly pleasing building to look at, having little more than eccentricity to recommend it) with that being the English city that Amsterdam (and the museum quarter in particular) most resembles. For a capital city it is extremely green and quiet with most traffic being confined to trams and bicycles in much the same way as Oxford, although the cosmopolitanism of the city does resemble London rather more (the national Dutch cuisine is only marginally better than that of England, hence the presence of Indonesian restaurants with overly helpful waiters everywhere).

The Rijksmuseum looks out over a large plain, upon which also reside the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. At the far end of the plain sits the resolutely neo-classical Concertgebouw, forming the official architectural opposition (even if it too is constructed from much the same red brick). Of these, my next visit was to the Van Gogh Museum (whose dour modern architecture renders any comment more or less specious) which houses an extremely impressive collection that also includes works from Whistler, Alma Tadema and Daumier (in an exhibition devoted to French Salon culture). The Van Gogh collection itself runs in chronological order from his early realist phase (which appears to have largely consisted of painting far more pictures of potatoes that can possibly be deemed healthy) to his merciful corruption by Gauguin and introduction to pointillism. It should be observed that when it comes to prints of Van Gogh none seem likely to do him justice; the thick smearing of oil in canvas and the vividness of the colours in paintings like his study of Quinces and Lemons or the Irises cannot hope to be replicated. I also attended an evening concert in the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw. Somewhat embarrassingly the quartet in question proved to be from Britain, but their performance of Schubert and Janacek was nonetheless extremely good (there was also a piece from Britten played to a standard that would doubtless delight anyone who actually liked Britten).

Another important feature of the area is the Vondelpark. Unlike the rather more manicured parks in Britain, this is more closely related to an arboretum or nature reserve. On a similar note, I also visited the Hortus Botannicus, which shared many of the same characteristics as the Vondelpark rose garden and the Rijksmuseum gardens, with the typically Dutch sculpted hedgerows enclosing many of the plants.