Many Belgians, I’m told, dispute the proposition that Belgium makes sense as a single entity, and argue that the country should be carved up. Last week, Rachel and I visited friends in Mechelen, who also took us on day trips to Ghent and Antwerp. But even though we were in Rubens country, the more southerly spirit of Brueghel was never too far away, either. Five days and three cities don’t give me much of a basis for generalization, so I’ll just say I was impressed by a seeming obsession with bodies and embodiment, which I found evidence for almost everywhere I looked.
Our hosts told us that event planning in Belgium begins with a consideration of where the planners will go to eat after the event is over. An intense focus on good food and drink, they add, is one of the very few things that unite the Flemish and the Walloons.
On Antwerp’s street of prostitutes under glass, most of the Johns looked like me: older, grizzled men exuding a strained bonhomie. The display of nearly naked flesh was at once troubling and refreshingly honest. Here, in a city that was once the richest in the world, commodification is taken to its logical extreme.
We were reminded of other bodies put to more horrific uses, whether in the Belgian Congo by the genocidal King Leopold,
or right here in Belgium, by the Nazis and their collaborators, who warehoused Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, intellectuals and other undesirables in an old castle in Mechelen until there were enough to ship off to the death camps.
As the carvings above the entrance to the cathedral in Antwerp make clear, the wholesale extermination of enemies has been an obsession of Europeans for a very long time.
An angel of dismemberment presides over the wounds of God.
We saw representations of bodies everywhere we looked: bodies with both classical and grotesque physiques alike, the classical sometimes multiplied to a grotesque degree.
On the roof of a mansion, a stone figure plays its grotesquely extended nose like a horn.
Statues of mythic figures decorate many street-corners, some religious,
The guild halls of Antwerp are crowned with gilded figures—
except for the Butcher’s Hall, which rivals the cathedral in height and was meant to evoke the stacks of meat sold inside.
The cumulative effect of all these bodies is a kind of carnival atmosphere — a carnival cut loose from its religious and agricultural moorings, so that it now never truly ends.
Which is probably just how a Medieval or Renaissance peasant would understand modern consumer culture, if they could come visit us in a time machine.
But we who cross time zones in a few hours are the only time travelers. And the cities reinvent their pasts and present to make us comfortable.
There are signs in English for Belgian chocolate, Belgian waffles, Belgian beer. The tourist is a traveler who will pay anything to avoid surprises.
And as they do almost everywhere these days, less desirable travelers may make places of transit their habitation, squatting like marginalia in a 14th-century manuscript beside and beneath our illuminated texts,
sleeping in the gutter.
The past we prefer to see is dotted with castles and peopled with well-hung giants,
even when they occupy the very point of embarkation for thousands of forgotten war refugees.
Every Elm Street has its nightmares,
just as any bird can be an ill omen to one who believes in omens.
But remember: We never stop smiling under the skin.
In Antwerp, I photograph a skull on the side of a church — a memorial to an artist in a city that seems very proud of its art.
Two hours later, the same carving appears in a plaza, enlarged 1000 times, facing the sky.
The reasoning behind this is all a little too high-concept for my taste.
But then, I’m a poet. Antwerp’s botanical garden, recently remade into a Garden of Poets, is more my kind of thing.
To me, all bodies are grotesque — as infinitely variable as evolution will allow.
The Stool of Poets has four legs, ensuring that it won’t tip — but it will nearly always wobble.
The doctrine of the Trinity, by contrast, has proven notoriously unstable.
We climb high enough to see how the city feeds on its land and water, where it discharges its waste,
and we descend to consume still more food and beer
under the sign of the severed hand, Antwerp’s traditional emblem.
But we leave to the local youth the task of painting the town red.