Pierre Mertens, Perasma: A Novel (excerpt)
Antoon Van den Braembussche, The Silenced Past: Trauma and Taboo in Belgian Memories
Luc de Heusch, Ceci n’est pas la Belgique
Piet Van de Craen, What, if Anything, Is a Belgian?
Jacques Dubois, Wallonia: The Will to Remember
Marc Quaghebeur, The Sixteenth Century: A Decisive Myth
Sophie de Schaepdrijver, Death Is Elsewhere: The Shifting Locus of Tragedy in Belgian Great War Literature
Antoine Tshitungu Kongolo, Colonial Memories in Belgian and Congolese Literature
Serge Tisseron, Family Secrets and Social Memory in Les Aventures de Tintin
Philip Mosley, Anxiety, Memory, and Place in Belgian Cinema
Françoise Aubry, Victor Horta: Vicissitudes of a Work
Alexander Murphy, Landscapes for Whom? The Twentieth-Century Remaking of Brussels
Read an Excerpt
Yale French StudiesBelgian Memories
By Catherine Labio
Yale University PressCopyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMemory and Identity
LUC DE HEUSCH Ceci n'est pas la Belgique
Belgium: sixty kilometers of dunes where the summers were mild and the sea was gray or green, never blue (horrid Mediterranean blue, light without imagination). We didn't travel abroad yet. Only rich children did that. We were children of the north, neither poor nor rich, keen on a North Sea that was welcoming and rowdy, cold and rebellious. We loved the great movement of its tides, with its strong smell of seaweed and mussels. Protected by the breakwaters, it surrendered and recaptured right at our feet vast expanses of dreams.
How do you exile yourself from a happy childhood? Yes, when vacation time arrived, Flanders, with its sixty kilometers of beaches, was sweet for the Belgian children of the interior, who, drunk on salty green horizons, came-if they were children of the bourgeoisie-to build castles doomed to magnificent collapse. My homeland: a federation of fine sand castles, Flemish and Walloon fortresses, side by side, in a make-believe nation, confronting the gray and green sea that laughed at our shouts and our varied accents, covering them with its immense murmur.
This was the time when the great Belgian champions-Romain and Sylvère Maes-were on their way to winning three Tours de France. So, all the Belgian children on vacation at the North Sea became Belgians against the French. I also remember the nails that were (allegedly) thrown somewhere in France under the tires of our champions with the same agitation as I do the Nazi flag I saw hoisted over the Royal Palace of Brussels, where a few moments earlier the black, yellow, and red flag had still waved in the cruel blue sky of the spring of 1940.
To cure chauvinism, that childhood disease, and avert patriotism, that adult obsession, requires a very long training period, as well as a partial denial of the Father (Patrie) and an initiation. Art-unlike sports-invites us to do that.
But let's not move too fast. I promised my publisher a certain number of pages about Belgium, that country that no longer exists. Flanders and Wallonia are living under the terms of a no-fault divorce.
On that day, in the dazzling spring of 1940, when the war sent Belgium's little ones on vacation before the scheduled date, a few spellbound children followed the German army in the streets of Brussels, deserted by the entire adult male population, as it goose-stepped its way into the city to the fascinating racket of the victory drums. When the black, yellow, and red flag was lowered, I wept with shame. Shame at being a useless thirteen-year-old child abandoned to superb ogres by the adults.
That was the second time since the punctured bicycle tire affair that I felt Belgian. In the enraged throes of a betrayal. In school, we had been taught to be Belgians. Walloon children admired the feats of the Flemish commoners who had wiped out the French knighthood at the walls of Courtrai in the heat of the summer of 1302 [see Figure 2]. The evil king Philip the Fair had wanted to seize the beautiful and flourishing county of Flanders, which he considered an integral part of the future "Hexagon" of France. It's not something often mentioned, but in a sense that was a bilingual battle, since the elegant sons of the Count of Flanders, who led the sturdy battalions of Flemish weavers and fullers into the fray, spoke only French. And during vacation, between two swims, the Walloon children, from their shops of sand, silently, with the language of gestures, sold paper flowers to the distant descendants of those Flemish heroes, prototypes of the indomitable Belgian. Oh, seasons! Oh, castles! Shells were our national currency.
The story of the Count of Flanders (Gui de Dampierre) was indeed touchingly antidialectical. He won back his domain with the help of the wool workers, shaking up the French aristocracy whose help had been enlisted by a local bourgeoisie worried about the revolutionary fervor of the plebeians. Ever since that famous summer day in 1302, the "Flemish question" has been explained in symbolic terms as the legitimate defense of the patriotic lower classes slaughtering the foreign invaders by flailing a weapon called a "hello" (goedendag). A few days before the battle, at sunrise on 17 May, the proletarians of Bruges assaulted the soldiers of the French governor who had come to take possession of the county in the name of Philip the Fair. In the confusion of dawn, they dispatched (neatly) all those unable to pronounce correctly the Flemish battle cry: Schild en Vriend (Shield and Friend).
Yet that good francophone count, whose banner was brandished by the Flemish lower classes, is not part of any nationalist children's library. A few years later, when the weavers of Bruges formed a revolutionary government, another Count of Flanders, Louisde Nevers, would call for help from the King of France. And Flanders would definitely lose its Roman, Gallic half. The "Flemish question," naturally, is also many other things. These feudal muddles were flourishing on the frontiers of France and Germany. The countries between the Escaut (Schelde) and the Meuse (Maas), which had been the heart of the Carolingian Empire, had been hacked apart by the Treaty of Verdun (843). The Escaut had henceforth formed the boundary between the kingdom of Charles the Bald and the Lotharingia of Lothair, which had had no political future. As a result, while Flanders had become a vassal of the King of France, the Principality of Liège, practically independent, belonged vaguely (and increasingly so) to the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. For patriotic good measure, Flemish schoolchildren-in the days when Belgium existed-pitied the misfortunes of the (Francophone) residents of Liège, who had been massacred by a Duke of Burgundy-the awful Charles the Bold-because they had refused to become Burgundians.
The episode of the Dukes of Burgundy-there's the rub, the core of the Belgian problem, the moment when the Flemish and Walloon cities were brought to heel by history and were forced to finally submit to the good and harsh reasons of state and integrate themselves into a Nation. The mythmakers assigned to write the saga of the Belgian Ancestors would, however, grant the residents of Liège the right to resist the Burgundians. (Charles had not pulled his punches!)
The Liégeois were deemed to have been right, on the whole, for having insisted on their independence. (After all, a prince-bishop is certainly worth a grand duke.)
By contrast, the firm resolution of the Burgundians to rescue the other scattered limbs of the (future) Belgium from a bygone past was to be cause for rejoicing. Schoolchildren accordingly applauded the fierce plan of the Grand Dukes of the West to build a kingdom between France and Germany, to revive the old Lotharingia, and to offer the wonderful possibilities of the modern state to the (future) Belgians. Was not this new political ambition the path to economic progress? Those valiant Flemish commoners who had been right to fight the King of France had had their day. They were now deemed wrong to have impeded the development of capitalism. Let them be demobilized and let the rules of the guild be torn up! The Duke of Burgundy came to be portrayed as a progressive. The painting that blossomed at the time-usually referred to as Flemish-became Burgundian. So did Jan Van Eyck, painter and servant of Philip the Good.
If Philip the Good was not really good, he was not really bad either. After all, he depended on the prosperity of the rich cities of the north to guarantee his power and finance his nascent empire. But that didn't keep him from crushing them with taxes and it didn't keep them from revolting. The reasons of state that forced the Belgian nation into existence humiliated two thousand citizens of Ghent who had come to beg pardon of the good Duke Philip, bareheaded, barefoot, a rope around their neck.
Long live the common Estates General! With the medieval fiefs dispersed, the countries of the Meuse and the Escaut finally became the Burgundian Netherlands, the pays de par-deçà (the "countries on this side"): a fine space open to the arts and to trade-not to mention the war against Louis XI, who had his own reasons of state. He overcame Charles the Bold and the political plan of the Grand Dukes failed: Bruges was no longer twinned with Dijon. An abyss was created between the countries "on this side" and those "on that side." The wolves that devoured Charles's frozen face in Nancy also devoured the last traces of Lotharingia.
Strange fate: the (future) Belgium has been the product of an inexorable shrinking. Its lot is fission, segmentation, and disappearance. By contrast, one can recognize (great) nations by the slow and progressive swelling designed by their wise sovereigns. This swelling sometimes looks like a frog's, even though the people concerned like to adopt a more noble coat-of-arms. It is an irrepressible expansion that, rightly or wrongly (depending on whether one is inside or outside), grants from the start to the members of the group (swollen or expanded, depending on one's point of view) a very-too-strong sense of their identity, a feeling one would be ill-advised to challenge for it has now become nationalistic. Nothing like that has been going on in Belgium, where lightning has just hammered out a temporary coat-of-arms, giving the lion back to Flanders and granting Wallonia a rooster. Might the (future) Belgians have dillydallied along the paths of history? They were rich (not all), industrious, creative, whatever you want to call them, but it must be said that their fate rarely seemed to belong to them. Hence their fierce individualism and the notorious absence of a taste for grandeur. René Magritte of Wallonia and Marcel Broodthaers of Brussels have attested to the vitality of that "un-reason," or derision, which Ensor of Flanders made into the cornerstone of Belgian modern art. According to Broodthaers, Belgium is to a starving deserter, only a tricolor bone to gnaw on("Fémurd'hommebelge,"1965). Magritte opens painting to absolute freedom of thought and defies both linguistics and dialectics in the process.
Totally devoid of meaning-that's how the history of the (future) Belgium certainly appears. But is there anywhere else, in the history of others, a significant core, a crux of meaning that is not mythopraxic? Will Europe succeed someday in calmly rewriting the common and unfortunate adventure of the Christians who tore each other apart?
Let's get down to business, to that essence of Belgium the reader may not yet have seen very clearly. After the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, the countries "on this side" remained grouped under the fragile authority of his daughter, poor little Marie. She was quickly married off to a Habsburg prince able to defend the newborn Netherlands against the sly intrigues of Louis XI, who promptly decided to occupy Burgundy, forever depriving the Belgians of the joy of being Burgundians. This is how the future Austrian fate of Belgium began. But not so fast. First (and for a long time), we had to become Spaniards. Here's how: one day, the grandson of Marie of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria, the so-called "Charles Quint" (Charles V) (1500-1558) became the most powerful man in the world. Born and raised in Flanders, in Ghent, he inherited in succession the Netherlands (which he curiously called, no doubt out of nostalgia, "Circle of Burgundy"), Spain (hence, America), Austria, and part of Italy. Surely that man's heart was on the side of Spain, not on that of his hometown, which he punished harshly when its residents-trailing behind history-refused to pay new taxes to finance imperial enterprises. Charles V imitated his Burgundian great-great grandfather, the wise Philip the Good, and he demanded that 2,000 townspeople, scantily dressed and with ropes around their necks, come grovel before him. No need to add that the privileges of the city were definitely suppressed. That is what is meant by "reasons of state": an unfailing authority in the service of a bright vision of a dark future.
So, the (future) Belgians became Spaniards. They were still united to the (future) Dutch, but that did not last long. The Reformation was the poison distilled by history in the very Catholic veins of the Netherlands. It enjoyed a great success there. Alas for the (future) Belgians, Philip II, the son of Charles V, could not stand the Protestants. He appointed the Duke of Alba to the northern provinces, and there Alba lit the joyous and unifying stakes of the Holy Inquisition. Then, indeed, something that might look like a national sentiment took shape, in the guise of a common revolt against the tyrannical power of Spain. It would, however, signal the end of the political and cultural unity of the Burgundian Netherlands. Holland, which had victoriously stood up to the Spaniards, became a Protestant nation. It devoted itself to conquering the seas, while Flanders (her nose stuck to the ground) remained, along with Wallonia, within the orbit of Spain. So, the (future) Belgians remained Spanish and Catholic. Very Catholic. A strange fact: the arts continued to flourish. Rubens now held the torch of the (future) Belgian art, this time in Antwerp. But Rubens was really a Spaniard, just as Van Eyck had been a Burgundian. And, like Van Eyck, Rubens was busy settling some diplomatic matters for his master.
To complete their European vocation, the (future) Belgians became Austrians in the eighteenth century. The French Revolution-brilliant revenge of Philip the Fair-then made all of them, Walloons and Flemings alike, French. Finally, after Waterloo, eager to build a northern rampart against the ambitions of France, the Holy Alliance took the fate of the (future) Belgians firmly in hand and reconstituted the former Netherlands under the aegis of the king of Holland. Now we were Dutch. Was this the end of the tunnel? Had we reached the conclusion of this fragmented history? Was this the reconstitution of the Circle of Burgundy and of the United Provinces? Yes, of course, but not for long. The French-speaking citizens of the southern Netherlands (Flemings and Walloons) could not bear the authoritarian measures of the Dutch-speaker who was ruling in The Hague. The liberal Revolution of 1830 pitted the Catholic and French-speaking bourgeoisie of the southern Netherlands against the Protestant and Dutch-speaking bourgeoisie of the north in a magnificent Lévi-Straussian structural system. The Holy Alliance was furious, for the European equilibrium was in question once again. The rebellious Belgian bourgeoisie granted itself a liberal constitutional monarchy. In time, it stingily yielded a series of linguistic rights to the Flemish people who occupied half of its territory, and whose representatives, preoccupied only with the business of doing business, did not care very much about those rights. Belgian historians confidently proclaimed that the unity of the country had been realized and, as a result, the little Flemings and Walloons, an undivided people, began studying the marvelous common history of Belgium (each in his own tongue). This history centered on two events of considerable mythic impact.
In the middle of the coast, halfway between France and Holland, at the end of the nineteenth century, while an unknown painter, James Ensor, was inventing modern art all by himself in his studio, King Leopold II anointed Ostend Queen of the Beaches. The bourgeois-both Flemish and Walloon-cared little for the amorous escapades of that man, who had understood, before Lenin, that there is no great capitalism without imperialism. In Ostend, the king liked to scan, beyond the gray or green horizon, the invisible mouth of the Congo River, where the equatorial forest disgorged fabulous wealth in a stench of rotten wood. Wary at first, the Belgians rejoiced in the royal Testament that granted them as a colony what had long been, under the name of The Independent State of the Congo, the most beautiful private estate of the world. People the nundertook to glorify, for the benefit of the Walloon and Flemish schoolchildren, the unpopular king as the empire-builder who had suddenly made Belgium richer and more virtuous. For Belgians had only accepted the tremendous benefits of colonization in order to draw millions of fetishist and polygamous Africans out of savagery by clothing them, converting them, and teaching them to work (see Figure 3).
Excerpted from Yale French Studies by Catherine Labio Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsCATHERINE LABIO Editor's Preface: The Federalization of Memory....................1
I: Memory and Identity LUC DE HEUSCH Ceci n'est pas la Belgique....................11
PIET VAN DE CRAEN What, If Anything, Is a Belgian?....................24
ANTOON VAN DEN BRAEMBUSSCHE The Silence of Belgium: Taboo and Trauma in Belgian Memory....................35
JACQUES DUBOIS Wallonia: The Will to Remember....................53
II: The Work of Fiction PIERRE MERTENS Perasma: A Novel (excerpt)....................71
ANTOINE TSHITUNGU KONGOLO Colonial Memories in Belgian and Congolese Literature....................79
SOPHIE DE SCHAEPDRIJVER Death Is Elsewhere: The Shifting Locus of Tragedy in Belgian Great War Literature....................94
MARC QUAGHEBEUR The Sixteenth Century: A Decisive Myth....................115
III: "Sights" of Memory SERGE TISSERON Family Secrets and Social Memory in Les aventures de Tintin....................145
PHILIP MOSLEY Anxiety, Memory, and Place in Belgian Cinema....................160
FRANÇOISE AUBRY Victor Horta: Vicissitudes of a Work....................176
ALEXANDER B. MURPHY Landscapes for Whom? The Twentieth-Century Remaking of Brussels Belgian....................190