Diary of s Journey Through Europe
Part IV, Belgium
by Theodore Dalrymple
Once again we cross a European border – this time between Holland and Belgium – without knowing exactly where it is. But strangely enough for two very flat countries, the landscape changes. It is much more pleasing on the Belgian side. The fields are a lighter green, there are more trees, the houses have more character and individuality. It is an altogether more rural landscape, less like a horticultural factory.
A Belgian journalist explained this to me by saying that the Belgians – or rather the Flemish – are Catholics and therefore less meticulous and obsessional than the predominantly Protestant Dutch. They don’t mind asymmetry and (to put it bluntly) mess as much as their Calvinistic neighbours, for whom the wresting of as much as possible from the land is a duty, a sign of election and, in Freudian terms, anal retentiveness.
The problem with this kind of explanation is: how does one know if it’s true? Are there no neat Catholic countries and messy Protestant ones? Perhaps the real reason for the difference in landscape is that Belgium is only two thirds as densely populated as Holland.
Be that as it may, it is astonishing that so unspectacular a scenery as that of the Low Countries should have stimulated the best landscape painting in the western tradition.
We arrive in Ghent after dark. I know it is ridiculous, given the historical importance of the city, but I associate it in my mind, and probably will do so to my dying day, with the poem by Robert Browning, ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.’ This is because I was made to learn it by heart as a child, and I remember diving under the bed covers with the poem and a torch on Sunday night to make sure that had committed it to memory by the next day, to avoid mild physical chastisement. The child is father to the man.
It not being the tourist season, the darkened streets of the city centre were deserted, and as we searched for a hotel, the first stanza went through my mind like a refrain:
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris and he;
I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three…
But although it was late at night, and there were three of us – my wife, my dog and I – I can’t really say ‘And into the midnight we gallop’d all three.’ Crept would be a better word.
We found a hotel and I asked in French for a room. The receptionist replied in English and this wasn’t because of my accent: she spoke to my wife, a Parisian, in English too. This was our introduction to Flemish nationalism, which proves that no country can be too small for national separatism.
Belgium is two thirds Flemish-speaking and one third French. Flanders (Flemish-speaking) is much richer than Wallonia (French-speaking), and resents the subsidies it pays to its linguistically-snobbish but economically depressed step-sibling. The Royal family is French-speaking, but is almost the only symbol of Belgian nationality. Many think the country will go the way of Czechoslovakia (not Yugoslavia): there will be an agreed separation. A prince of the Royal family might come to reign in Flanders, the religious difference making union with Holland unlikely, while Wallonia might seek union with France, though France does not reciprocate the desire, because the last thing it needs is yet another population to subsidise. Besides, the very word ‘belge’ makes the French laugh.
At first sight, there is something mean-spirited about the nationalism of small nations. For example, 80 per cent of the books sold in Flanders must be in Flemish; and now, after a recent law, anyone applying for public housing must be able to speak Flemish. I remember being irritated to go to an exhibition in Barcelona and finding the explanations written only in Catalan (even though I can read it with reasonable ease), to the exclusion of Spanish.
Yet the fear of being overwhelmed culturally by neighbours is entirely understandable. What is interesting in Europe is the strength of both centrifugal and centripetal forces. The politicians, who want to be important in a way that the merely national stage will never allow them to be, desire an organisation that is a) a launching pad for a career of international importance; b) a pension plan for them when they lose power in their own countries; and c) a vast trough to feed at. This explains why no European politicians of any importance reject the idea of the European Union, however damaging it may be to their own country‘s interests.
Co-existing with this drive to Gleichschaltung – to coin a phrase – is a growing ethnic and regional particularism. Far from the two trends opposing each other, they are in synergy. The weakening of the national state in Europe strengthens the undemocratic and self-appointed centre. What is left to the regions is essentially folk-dancing, national costume and parking regulations (the latter are actually very important and add or detract considerably from the quality of modern life).
Anyone who comes to Ghent and Bruges comes for the art. How easy it is to slip into dithyrambs about the urban architecture of the two cities! (Ghent has less the atmosphere of being preserved in aspic.) Yet I doubt that life was a bed of roses in the heyday of the cities. I remember once reading a biography of a Duke of Burgundy – Philip the Something-or-Other, Good, Bad or Indifferent – and in the very first paragraph was mentioned a King of Majorca, who was connected to the Duke in some way, and who spent fourteen years naked and imprisoned in an iron cage. If that’s how kings were treated, it is unlikely that lesser fry received much official tenderness.
Flemish art has been made to serve the turn of Flemish and even Belgian nationalism, but Memling was born in Germany and in any case Flanders was a province of Burgundy. We apply our current-day national categories to the past, when the categories could not have existed. We don’t like the complications of shifting identities, because then we have to think.
Anyway, I find it difficult to understand why Memling and Van Eyck are called primitives, when their work, scarcely ever equalled, is so exquisite and sophisticated. I remember once reading a book about Japan, which described it as primitive before the arrival of Commodore Perry. I was speechless with a combination of rage and astonishment. I can quite see why someone might call a party of tattooed British drunks primitive, but not Japanese civilisation.
The most famous single work of art in the two cities is the Ghent altarpiece, by the Van Eyck brothers, in the cathedral of St Bavo. The young man at the admission kiosk to the chapel in which it is displayed – behind bullet-proof glass – was simultaneously listening to, or should I say hearing, rock music on headphones and reading, or should I say looking at, a pornographic magazine. I nearly apologised to him for interrupting his spiritual devotions; no doubt he would have replied with a disquisition on the inalienable human rights that he was so nobly exercising.
The altarpiece is not only magnificent, but it has had an exciting personal history. Among other adventures, it has been kidnapped by both Napoleon and Goering, narrowly missing being destroyed at the end of the War to prevent it from falling into the hands of the clearly victorious conspiracy of Judeo-Masonic aesthetes.
Moreover, in 1934, several of the panels were stolen, though all but one, which was never found again, was returned with a ransom demand for 1,000,000 francs (90 10,000 franc notes and 100 franc 1,000 notes, to be exact). A copy of the missing panel was made by Jan Van der Veken. It is true that, though very skilfully done, it is less luminous than the other panels, but I wonder how many visitors would spot the difference if they were not told there was a difference. And this raises questions about the aesthetic value of fakes, copies and simulacra which I am afraid I cannot answer. This is not because I lack space to do so.
The thief was widely believed to be one Arsene Goedertier, who confessed on his deathbed that he knew where the panel was but refused to tell anyone. He was a 58 year-old stockbroker who had a heart attack shortly after addressing a meeting of the Catholic People’s Party. It is possible that the panel even now is in the cellar of some mad millionaire’s mansion. There he gloats over it, not because it is so beautiful, which of course it is, but because he is depriving other people of the chance to see it. What is a pleasure worth, if everyone can share it?
On the other hand, even more intriguingly, it might be in the little suburban home of a minor bureaucrat, wallowing in the pleasure of his sole power to do anything really nasty, in revenge for his soulless occupation.
My wife and I being doctors, we went to the Dr Ghislain Museum in the old lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Ghent. How splendid the architecture of Victorian asylums was! Dr Ghislain was the Belgian equivalent of Pinel in France and Tuke in England, who struck the chains off the lunatics: a few decades later, it must be admitted.
The museum is devoted to the history of psychiatry. There was an exhibition on called ‘Pain.’ As is now de rigueur in modern museumology, all boundaries were dissolved in the exhibition: pain was taken as meaning every kind of disagreeable sensation and mental state, and therefore the exhibits were a total mish-mash that prevented any proper reflection on the subject.
The most interesting artefact in the permanent exhibition was a large bath with a cover with a hole in it, through which the head of the patient could emerge. I thought at first that this was a contraption to prevent patients from drowning themselves while in the bath (I once had a patient who did so, while being observed by two nurses whose mind was presumably on something else); but no, the bath was a means of sedating disturbed patients. They sat in the bath until they calmed down.
This took me back to my days as a junior doctor. There were two very large and matronly nurses on my ward – in those days nurses still had starched aprons – and they used to threaten a spell in the bath to any old person in the ward who was making a nuisance of himself by wetting the bed or demanding a cup of tea.
A catalogue of antiquarian books came the other day, and it had a copy for sale of Dr Ghislain’s magnum opus, a textbook of psychiatry in two volumes, the second devoted to such matters as the design and heating of asylum wards. Unfortunately, it was $800.
We reach Brussels. We have selected a hotel in a French hotel chain that we use frequently, that is on the outskirts of the city. We choose it a) because it is cheap, and b) because we can smuggle the dog in without passing the reception, which is always in another building from our bedroom. The food in these hotels is neither good nor totally inedible, but always exactly the same. I suspect it is delivered by underground passage from a subterranean central kitchen somewhere in one of the less frequented departements of France.
Moreover, these hotels are always in an industrial area, eerily deserted at night, which is why they are cheap. This one appears to be next door to a nuclear power station, whose giant cooling towers are thoughtfully supplied with lights so that terrorists can aim at them with a sporting chance of success.
Oddly enough, I love the complete anonymity of these hotels and the areas in which they are located. It comes as a great relief not to have to pretend anything at all. In grand hotels, though I always pay my bills, I feel like a little boy, a bit of an impostor. I fear that a member of staff will tap me on the shoulder and say to me, ‘You can’t really afford to stay here, sir, can you?’ (his ‘sir’ infinitely ironical), or ‘You don’t have chandeliers at home, sir, so why should you stay here?’
We have come to visit a friend. Her husband is Jewish but she is not. Her two sons, though not Jewish, have taken to the religion, and are both strongly Zionist. They have both done military service in Israel, but one has returned to Belgium.
Now he has a girlfriend: a married Moroccan woman, an orthodox and believing Moslem who wears the whole tent-like outfit with a slit for her eyes – from her own choice.
I try to grasp what, if anything, all this means, but I just can’t. I don’t understand the modern world. As the prisoners used to say in the prison in which I worked, trying to explain how they were feeling after they had strangled their girlfriends, ‘I can’t get my head round it, doctor, it’s doing my head in.’
As we come out of the Cirio bar, a wonderful fin-de-siecle establishment right in the very heart of Brussels (and Belgian beer is, of course, nectar of the gods), a drunken student, who is celebrating the university’s special day, throws a glass at us and other people nearby. It shatters on the ground in front of us, and it is not inconceivable that one of us could have been injured in a nasty way.
Fortunately, there is a police car not far away and the police see what happens. They charge after the student, who sobers up at once in his flight into the crowd. I confess, though I am ashamed to admit it, that when I saw the police giving chase, my first thoughts were not of the student’s human rights.
Whoever first thought that youth was idealistic? It is selfish and egotistical. I know, because – hard though it is now to believe it – I was a youth once.
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