The Belgian context
No solid ground

Photograph by Roger Fenton: The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Anonymous Gift
Photograph by Roger Fenton: The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Anonymous Gift | © Curator's Discretionary Grant from The Judith Rothschild Foundation, and Thomas Walther Gift, 1997

Caroline Godart studied philosophy, feminist and queer theory, film and literature in New York. Since returning to Belgium, she has worked as dramatic adviser, editor, writer and theater critic in Brussels. In the run-up to the Brussels premiere of “Conference of the Absent”, she has been exploring the subject area of absence in the Belgian context.

By Caroline Godart

What does it mean to belong to a non-existent nation? Or to a country whose existence seems so evanescent, so chimerical, that it must disappear at the least historical hiccup? Because Belgium was born from an arbitrary, strategic decision: not from any wish of its own, but as a buffer, should one be needed, against French expansionist ambitions. Fresh from the defeat of Napoléon at Waterloo, the crowned heads of Europe – all brothers or cousins – rushed like greengrocers to wrap populations into little packages encircling French territory. A mythological birth! See how Belgium is almost like Athena, bursting forth from one of Jupiter’s migraines!

The lack of a common language – and thus of a shared history solidified over centuries – makes Belgium a country without an identity of its own, without an easily recognized self-image to brandish at the world like a flag while yelling about the pathos of love for country and people. None of that, or anyhow not in terms of a single country: Belgium is absent from itself. The constructions of identity claimed with varying degrees of vehemence by the constituent communities (Flemish and Bruxelloise/francophone/Walloon) only serve to confirm the evanescence of the country they form despite themselves. Absence constitutes this country, not because something was taken from it but because Belgium never did have the ancient, heroic and tedious type of national narrative confected by France, Britain or Russia. Belgium was never «timeless», it has no «destiny», no devotion to anything beyond survival until its likely undoing at the hands of one or another of the independence movements.

Fertile space

Paradoxically, it is this country’s lack of a grand narrative and a national hero that make it a place to flourish – for me personally and for others who prefer the fraughtness of a community unsure of itself to the prison of established ground and identity.  A barely solidified country, perpetually threatened with disappearance, accommodates those who can rejoice in chance and transformation.

Yet this absence of self is also at best a source of frustration and at worst one of cruel injustice. Governments take months going on years to form; you barely get by in the other language, and so you end up speaking English; there’s a sense of inferiority, sometimes resentment, towards larger, more powerful neighbours. And most of all, nobody remembers anything.  Amnesia is endemic here, accentuated when required via the multiplicity of the non-nation. Take the infernal and emblematic case of the colonization of the Congo: taught badly in schools or barely at all; French and Flemish speakers each blame the other group; the lack of national consciousness allows a cowardly approach to colonial oppression, neither responsibility nor reparation.

This is why the call by Rimini Protokoll to let the absent speak reaches the heart of Belgian identity, which is itself an absence, a community never truly able to imagine itself, and as such a fertile space both for emulation and – sadly – for mediocrity.

Caroline Godart

Caroline Godart
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Caroline Godartis a Brussels-based writer, the holder since 2014 of a PhD in comparative literature from Rutgers University (USA). She is the author of The Dimensions of Difference: Space, Time and Bodies in Women’s Cinema and Continental Philosophy (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), among other publications. She is a co-editor of the journal Alternatives théâtrales, and an associate playwright at La Bellone. She teaches literature and philosophy at ERG.