Just before he died of lung cancer in 1978, Belgium’s balladeer Jacques Brel recorded a song called “Mai 1940”. It was left off his last album Les Marquises, and not released until 2003. It’s about Germany’s springtime invasion of Belgium, about bayonets and refugees and men going off to war, ruining a wonderful world.
We were playing a tune like this one/When war woke up/As the spring was burning/Cannons passed by singing
Brel is famous for crooning about tortured love affairs, but his, and this song’s, transcendent theme is really the world’s fallenness. We dance, ecstatic with joy at the awesome beauty of being alive. Then a fascist walks in and we fuck it all up.
Under a sky bluer than usual/A few German soldiers crushed my belgitude
In human history, there are parties and there are wars, and Brel’s, and Belgium’s, poetic genius is grasping the line between the two. In his songs are frequently the transition from enraptured gladness to perfect misery, and back again. As he sings in “Les Singes” (“The Monkeys”), there were ten elephants for every soldier/but they showed up with sticks/And chased reason with the reason of the state.
July 21 is Belgian National Day, the 191st anniversary of a country founded by accident in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, a nation of clashing Latin and Germanic ethnic groups patched together by diplomats. On Belgian National Day, the tiny military parades through the streets of Brussels. The even smaller Air Force flies a few planes in the sky. And we who hold the passport begin a 192nd year of wondering what it means to be Belgian.
The word “belgitude” was invented by Belgian sociologists in the 1970s, to describe the painful reality of belonging to a country with little national pride, a history of being invaded, and bitterly divided politics.
Brel grabbed it. He knew what it meant.
A few blocks from where Brel grew up in Northeast Brussels, in the same neighborhood where I was born in 1977, I studied Latin and Greek as a teenager at the Athénée Fernand Blum. This was a humanistic education in skepticism about patriotism, power and organized religion. We studied Descartes, Camus and Sartre as sacred texts.
A recent article in the Economist explained the beauty of “Belgian Zen”, the art of “being comfortable in absurd situations.”
There are, of course, a lot of other things that are true about Belgium. It was a brutal colonial power in the Congo. It can be unbearably bourgeois and small-minded. Its high taxes crush innovation.
But that slice of the Belgian psyche called belgitude is still worth celebrating. It’s not only comic and ironic about the absurd, as the Economist points out. It also reckons straight-up with the sadness in this vale of tears, and in accepting fallenness, it carries a toughness and resiliency the human race needs to survive this century. And although Belgium has shed its traditional Catholicism, belgitude includes a prelapsarian trust and innocent belief in hedonistic feasting. Eat frites and drink Duvel for tomorrow we die. The real national religion is Bruegel.
Here’s how my mom, who was born in Baltimore and immigrated to Brussels in 1976, puts it: “When you’re French, you have to be proud of that, and when you’re American, you think that’s so special, but when you’re Belgian, you can’t have any of that, so you’re just about sharing whatever fun thing is happening right now.”
This year, a few weeks after watching fireworks in Pittsburgh on the 4th of July, I flew from America to Belgium for the first time since before the pandemic. The night I arrived, July 20, I took a long walk downtown from my childhood home in northeast Brussels, through Saint-Josse, a dense polyglot neighborhood dominated by Turks, Moroccans and Armenians.
In Brel’s day, downtown Brussels was a sooty, carbon jungle. Now it’s been cleaned up, thanks in part to pedestrian-only boulevards. Packed on summer nights. Kids on skateboards. Couples on dates. Tourists lining up for frites.
I sat down outside a small bar off the Grand’Place. A quartet of men strummed guitars around a table. Somebody was grilling sausages. I ordered a Dendermonde Tripel, a strong pale ale with the slight texture of a milkshake without any of the excessive sweetness. I’d never had the Dendermonde, which has aromas of brown sugar, orange peel and vanilla, and it tasted like honey.
In a fallen world, the air was warm and the night was humming. I walked home and felt free.
The next day, on Belgian National Day, the sky was bluer than usual.
John W. Miller