Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The distance among close relatives

Evan Penny Distorted faceI was talking with a northern-Dutch friend the other day about North/South differences in the Netherlands.

The dividing line here is the Grote Rivieren, the three large rivers cutting across the middle of the country and separating the more industrial, Calvinist north from the more agrarian Catholic south.  As in the US, its a divide of both language and temperament; curiously, the qualities are geographically reversed in both countries as compared to the UK.

And, in all three instances, the north and the south glare at each other across their geographic divide.

I was surprised by stories of how a shopkeeper in Maastricht might delay service if he recognized a northern accent, or how locals seemed to make a deliberate effort to elongate the differences in southern pronunciation.  For such a small country, and with so many similarities, wouldn’t they tend to get along better?

DSC01895 The whole situation reminded me of the perceptual distances I learned in art class.  My early efforts at life drawing were really just sticks and lines (upper right), good gesture drawings, but no Matisse.  As things improved (lower right) I was able to capture more character, but the faces sometimes looked bizarre and troubling.  Dave - Negative FaceMy instructor told me that there’s a point where things are close enough that they are seen as a distortion of the familiar, rather than unfamiliar, and therefore uncomfortable to look at.  The way people react to chimps, puppets, and “The Polar Express” are all examples of the phenomena.  In art, it suggests that you’re getting close to getting it right.

I wonder if there is a similar thing going on North / South.  While we are different from the French or the Japanese, maybe we see contrasts with our own countrymen as self-distortions.  The differences between Arnhem and Maastricht don’t seem very pronounced to me as an outsider, but it seems like people are very attuned to it here.

Wall sculptures by Evan Penny

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