Chapter 19 - Literature and Journalism

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CHAPTER XIX

LITERATURE AND JOURNALISM

IN one particular modern Belgium presents a striking contrast to the mediaeval States that filled its place, and the contrast is in this instance based on progress. The Flemish communes represented the summit of industrial and financial success and prosperity, but theirs was a material and not an intellectual triumph. The age of Van Artevelde disclosed no literary genius. The Burgundian period was sterile in the field of letters, save for a few chroniclers who wrote in French, like Froissart and Commines, and whose achievements in the field of letters were done in Paris and not in Ghent or Brussels. It is true that the Flemish Text Society unearthed some mediaeval ballads in Flemish, of which no one outside Flanders had ever heard, but these, however interesting and suggestive, could never have been regarded as of sufficient importance to constitute a literature. It is also the fact that Willems thought he had discovered an original Flemish version of the famous Renard le Fox, and trumpeted it abroad as a proof of early Flemish literary genius. A little examination sufficed to show that it was nothing more than a Flemish translation from the French.

If the Flemings produced nothing remarkable in the way of literature during their political and industrial prime, they certainly did nothing during the three dark centuries that preceded the French occupation to establish a claim to intellectual pre-eminence. They had their schools of rhetoric, in which students were incited to declaim some of the old national ballads and thus save them from dying a natural death by being forgotten. But one fails to find any evidence of even literary interest. All the energy of the race was absorbed in the effort to keep alive and not to disappear from the family of nations. It is one of the wonders of history that a Belgian nationality, retaining its two component parts in the Flemish and Walloon communities, both at least 1,200 years old, should have survived to emerge as a single and stable State in the nineteenth century. The mind of the race was oppressed with the hard facts of its position; it had no time to indulge in flights of the imagination. The foreign yoke was so overwhelming that neither the patriot nor the poet could raise himself to such a flight of fancy as to imagine deliverance within the range of possibility.

It is consequently all the more remarkable that the attainment of her independence should have been followed in Belgium by one of the most striking literary revivals that Europe witnessed in the nineteenth century. In subjection her voice had not been heard, but on the morrow of her liberation she became articulate.

The first manifestation of literary genius came from Flanders. It was no doubt evoked by the aspersion cast on the Flemish tongue by those who assumed too confidently that French would be the language of the new State. Besides, the Walloon section of the nation enjoyed the possession of French literature, a satisfying repast for the Belgian public before, in a later generation, it furnished a stimulus to fresh and original exertions of their own.

Reference has been made in the chapter on The Two Races of Belgium to the works of Henri Conscience and Ledeganck, the Walter Scott and Byron, as they are called, of Flanders. These men of genius proved that, although Flemish might be in the phrase of a French writer "one of those languages that have had troubles," it was still a tongue in which the noblest thoughts of humanity could find expression. Ledeganck, although an ardent Fleming, was intensely national. He was all for the large Belgium, which included the brother people. Conscience was more pronouncedly Flemish. He had taken on his shoulders the propagandist role bequeathed by Willems, but under his direction Antwerp superseded Ghent as the center of the movement. Here Conscience founded a school which not merely exists, but gives abundant proof of activity today. Antwerp even produced its own poet as a rival to Ledeganck in Van Beers, who may be compared to Shelley or Keats. Other leaders of the Antwerp school were Theodore Van Ryswyck (father of the late burgomaster of Antwerp, who was one of the most brilliant of public orators), Pol de Mont and the Sisters Loveling. The last-named ladies were contemporaries of George Eliot and wrote somewhat in her style.

It might have been expected that this literary activity would have exhausted itself with the first impressionist movement, and that the leaders would have found no successors capable of giving the movement a fresh impetus. The national spirit that glorified the deeds of the Flemish communes could not but exhaust itself with the recitation of the deeds themselves. They did not admit of repetition. The first writers had appropriated and worked out the subject. Under such conditions it would not have been surprising if the Flemish literary movement, after blazing up, had burnt itself out. It was its striking feature that it experienced a second revival. What Conscience and Ledeganck did in the first phase, Maeterlinck and Verhaeren achieved in the second.

Maurice Maeterlinck, a student and then a professor at Ghent University, revealed himself to the world about twenty-five years ago. He wrote in Flemish, and his theme was not the narrow one of Flemish aspirations, but the broad and limitless one of human nature and human passion. Just as the theme was so wide, did he find Flemish too narrow and confined as the implement of his labor. He abandoned Flemish for French, and he left Ghent for Paris, thus consummating what might be called by his fellow citizens "the grand treason."

Like Conscience and Ledeganck, Maeterlinck had his affinity and complement in Emile Verhaeren. Twin stars shone together at each epoch in the Flemish firmament. Maeterlinck, as his "Douze Chansons'' well proves, indulged his genius in the play of poetry, but was at heart romanticist, philosopher, and moralist. Verhaeren, who condescended at times to the use of prose, was essentially poet. In him the Flemish landscape, the bare bleak sea-driven stretch of the dunes, the mirage-like fields of the polders, found their Wordsworth, with more than Wordsworth's force, and a daring in word pictures where he was timid. "Les campagnes hallucinees," "Les vagues des dunes," "Toute la Flandre," will prevent critics from pronouncing dull and uninteresting those lands of Flanders whose mystery he has fathomed and of which he offers the reader the key in his melodious verse, seemingly produced without more effort than a human sigh. But Emile Verhaeren, too, appeals to the wider public he can reach through the medium of the French language. The ambition of the individual in both these illustrious cases has proved too strong for the separatist inclinations of the born Fleming. In literature it is not true to say that it is more satisfying to be king in one's own village than an ordinary citizen of Rome.

If the Flemings provided what may be called the first sensations in Belgian literary activity, the Walloon movement which followed at an interval, has been scarcely less significant or meritorious. The Walloon writers of the three troubled periods - the Brabant Revolution of 1789, the transition period after the fall of the Empire in 1814, and the Belgian Revolution of 1830-31 - were among the most prolific and active pamphleteers that have ever been known. "Shoot me some of those pamphleteers," exclaimed an irritated Austrian Minister in 1789, and it would be difficult to discover a publicist who did more in preparing a revolution with the pen than Louis de Potter before 1830. The pamphleteer is only the historian in embryo whose mission will not allow of his waiting to write in extenso. It was, therefore, only natural that the establishment of peace should be followed by a marked development of historical study, elucidation and description. There was a natural explanation for this. Belgium had just been born, but although a new kingdom, it was an old country, and history had to be searched and described to explain the tardiness of its birth. It was under these circumstances that Gachard, Schayes, T. Juste, Kervyn de Lettenhove, Villenfagne, and others too numerous to name, explored the recesses of Belgian history, and set forth the sad national experiences of the hardest treated race in Western Europe. Vanderkindere, one of the latest and the ablest of these searchers after truth, has informed his countrymen in a bitter sentence that they could not expect to come back from those wanderings in subterranean regions without some of their plumage being burnt, and something of their pristine virtue left behind.

If Flemish writers produced the romance and poetry of the nation, it was the French-speaking community that provided the historians, the political writers, and the scientists. They were a band of highly meritorious scholars and Teachers, although none reached the higher level of genius. They had none of the stimulus provided by a definite mission of political or racial propaganda. Their principal object was to unearth historical documents, to group them in a harmonious whole, so as to convince the world that Belgium had existed with an almost unbroken thread of national life from the olden time. Their subject alone was interesting in their eyes. It never occurred to them that there was need to establish the superiority of prose set down in French to that expressed in Flemish, or to prove the greater fertility of Walloon intellect to that of the men of Flanders. The idea of comparison, competition, and contrast never entered their minds.

But the Flemish movement had always been aggressive in its character, and it was scarcely surprising that the productions of several men whose real genius could not be challenged in any assembly of intellect, should have imparted some measure of arrogance to the Flemish attitude towards the other race in the Union. It became a favorite phrase in the Flemish papers to declare that the Walloon intellect was sterile, and that it was satisfied to let France provide it with such literature as it might require. The Flemish attitude was provocative and a challenge. It gave rise to the Walloon movement which, in its way, has proved as remarkable as the Flemish, and may still be regarded as in the full swing of its vigor.

The Walloon movement has been double-winged. There has been a general effort, and it is still in progress, to preserve and revive the Walloon tongue, which is as old as the flemish, and which was in use at the Court of Pepin and probably of Charlemagne. The other side of the movement has been to enrich French literature by the great achievements of more than a few Walloon writers. Liege, the capital of Walloonia, took the lead in this movement just as naturally as Ghent and Antwerp had done in regard to the Flemish. Defrecheux and Vrindts supplied the Walloons with the popular ballads that the Flemings found in Ledeganck and Van Beers. More even than their Flemish colleagues are these singers the poets of the people. The poems of Vrindts, for instance, give in epitome the life of the stout Walloon race which has preserved its national characteristics amid the rivalry of the Empires by which Liege was surrounded.

While the movement at Liege remained preeminently and distinctively Walloon, the second branch of the reaction against Flemish arrogance and aggression concentrated its forces in Brussels. The Belgian capital became the center of the revival of national literature, expressed in the French tongue. The movement cannot be traced here in all its details. The first writers like Van Hasselt were swayed by the influence of Victor Hugo. The second and more numerous group, of which Camille Lemonnier, Georges Rodenbach, and Edmond Picard were the bright and particular stars, were largely influenced by the naturalistic tendencies of the modern French school. Poets such as Giraud, Gilkin, Mockel, and Severin have proved that the Belgian mind can soar to the heights of Parnassus, while M. Chainaye, a strenuous fighter against the aggressions of the "Mouvement Flammingant," has gone to the root of things in his "L'Ame des Choses." M. Maurice Wilmotte, less partisan than Chainaye, has taken his place as a leader of the French movement by his captivating sketch of the moral and political aspects of independent Belgium.

Of all these writers, however, one alone, it may be admitted, has passed the final test of literary fame, the acquisition of a European reputation, Camille Lemonnier. He is one of the finest stylists in any language, and his prose reads with the lilt of a song. For that reason translations of his best works are impossible. Those that have been attempted read harsh, and his metaphors defy transference to another scene. This is especially the case in his description of the Borinage and in his great novel "Le Male." The brutalities and coarseness of industrial life have never been brought out with a bolder hand, while behind them are portrayed the blurred features of our common humanity. Walloon as he is, Lemonnier has done full justice to Flanders in his "Contes Flamandes" and his monumental sketch of "La Belgique," which developed out of his contributions to Le Monde Illnstre. Enough has been done by this chosen band of "Young Belgium" to show that there is no truth in the Flemish aspersion as to the sterility of Walloon intellect; and it may even be predicted that the French revival in Belgium, having a wider audience, is likely to prove more enduring than the Flemish. Some proof of this might be found in the abandoning of Flemish for French by the two leading writers of Flanders.

Belgium possesses a very active and influential press. The papers published at Antwerp and Ghent are printed in Flemish, and those in Brussels, Liege, and Louvain in French. Of course, there are a few French papers in Flanders and a few Flemish in Brussels, but the rule is as mentioned. The principal role of each paper is to advocate the cause of the political party to which it adheres, and the original matter is confined to political propaganda. Political views in Belgium are extreme - there is no Central Party - and the press does not lag behind the demagogue in giving the freest vent to vituperation of the adversary. The rival party is denounced as devoid of all virtue, and as no moderation is expected from the other side, it is deemed weak to display it oneself. When the Belgian journalist becomes tired of attacking his own countrymen, he relieves his feelings by criticizing the people of other countries. The Second Empire was one of its favorite butts, so was England during the South African War. But during the last two years there has been evidence of greater restraint. The general European situation has inspired anxiety, and Belgian publicists have displayed a proper sense of their higher duties and responsibilities.

In Brussels there are several excellent dailies. The Independance Beige, the Journal de Bruxelles, and the Etoile Beige are all first-class papers to which able writers contribute. They also receive official information, and endeavor to instruct their readers as well as to promote the cause of the political party to which they are attached. M. Roland de Mares of the Independance is a publicist of European reputation. Among specialist papers the military weekly, La Belgique Militaire, takes a foremost place. Under the able editorship of M. Leon Chome, it rr j advocated the cause of army reform during the last thirty years, and is entitled to much of the credit for the changes brought about in the system of army recruitment.

The periodical press is of a somewhat spasmodic character. An incident or the commencement of a commercial movement will be heralded by the production of an illustrated journal or magazine, and for a time a very interesting periodical appears. The incident passes off, the movement fizzles out, whereupon the publication is dropped. Such was the case of La Chine et Sibcrie a few years back. The Congolese publications have also diminished in number. Among all the periodicals the most valuable is the Journal of the Royal Society of Belgium. In this have appeared the best works of historical writers like Gachard, Pirenne, Borchgrave, etc.

Closely connected with literature and journalism is the literary club. In Brussels there is a rather exclusive club located in the Park (near Vauxhall), known as the "Cercle Artistique et Litteraire," but beyond allowing an occasional conference or exhibition of pictures in its rooms it does not take a very active part in promoting either the status or the interests of literature. The Cercle Africain, held at the picturesque Hotel Ravenstein, is nominally intended for the use of those who have served in Africa, but it has a literary side also, and is the center of the propagandist movement in Colonel matters which finds expression in the Congo Illustre. As a rule, however, cercles or clubs meet at their chosen restaurant, and in this sense there is scarcely a town in Belgium without its little society. It would be more correct to say that each town has two rival "cercles," the Catholic and the Liberal, thus reflecting in social life the political divisions of the State.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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