The New Carthage/Introduction
Georges Eekhoud was born in Antwerp in 1854. His mother came of German and Dutch parentage; his father, who came of Flemish stock, died in the boy's eleventh year. The boy received his schooling in Switzerland and upon his return to Belgium was destined for the profession of engineering by his uncle and guardian, but the plan failed dismally and Eekhoud was sent to military school, from which, after some months, he ran away. He was then cast off by his family, and as the income of his fathers estate was insufficient for his needs, he turned to journalism as a means of earning a livelihood. After a time his grandmother, a woman of some wealth, took him into her home; here he enjoyed a period of leisure and study. Upon her death he inherited a comfortable fortune, which he invested in an estate at Capellen, to the north of Antwerp. His subsequent experience as a gentleman-farmer, although it was an economic failure, provided him with the opportunity of acquiring that familiarity with the psychology, the life and the customs of the peasantry which became the essential foundation of so much of his art. In 1881 he once more had recourse to journalism, this time in Brussels, where he became literary and musical critic of L'Etoile Beige. During the period which elapsed between his arrival in Brussels and the foundation of La Jeune Belgique, Eekhoud became acquainted with the group of men who were striving to give Belgium a contemporary national literature. Chief among them were Camille Lemonnier, Theodore Hannon, Max Waller (Maurice Warlomont), the founder of La Jeune Belgique, and the group of contributors to that magazine who have since achieved world-wide recognition: Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, George Rodenbach and Charles Van Lerberghe.
Before 1880 the literary revolt instituted by the younger men centered at the University of Louvain, where the future writers, painters and musicians—among the latter Jan Blockx, the Flemish composer, and Van Dyck, the Wagnerian tenor—were supposed to be studying law, but were, in reality, far more exercised over the future of the arts in Belgium. The movement was a healthy and normal expression of youthful vigor accompanied by the publication of many manifestos, a good deal of unconventional thinking, writing and talking, some humorous escapades which thoroughly shocked the University authorities, and an atmosphere of rousing collegiate life.
From Louvain the headquarters of the movement were transferred to Brussels. La Jeune Belgique, which under the editorial direction of Max Waller had brought the work of Verhaeren, Maeterlinck, Rodenbach, Van Lerberghe and Eekhoud to the attention of the public, was charged with decadence by L'Art Moderne, the organ of the lawyer, Edmond Picard. To Waller's doctrine of "Art for art's sake," Picard opposed the ideals of an art embodying a social content, and preeminently reflecting the Flemish race consciousness as in an earlier day it had been reflected in the paintings of the Flemish masters. The conflict over the form and content of Belgian literature and the attitude of the Belgian writer produced a schism in the movement, the writers of nationalistic tendencies rallying to Picard's magazine, while the Parnassians, as they came to be called, found a haven in La Jeune Belgique. In this schism Eekhoud, with Maeterlinck and Verhaeren, gave his allegiance to the revolutionary and nationalist program. And that part of the contemporary literature of Belgium which is best known to the world outside its native land has been produced neither by the few inheritors of the Parnassian tradition who, although living in Belgium, have written as Frenchmen, nor by the writers of the Walloon, nor by the writers of the Flemish school who have written in the Flemish language, but by those writers who have created a body of literature which, in the quality of its spiritual content as a record of racial experience, is purely Flemish, though written in French.
Unlike many of the other contributors to the Belgian literary renascence, Georges Eekhoud combines with a passionate love of his native land a broadly cosmopolitan culture. His contact with English literature has been especially significant as an influence upon his art. Of the Victorians, Dickens and De Quincey have profoundly impressed him; Dickens because of his humanitarian motive, De Quincey because of his hatred of the middle class and his sympathy with the criminal and the downtrodden. But Eekhoud's most effective service to English literature has been done as an interpreter and translator of Elizabethan writers. His "Au Siècle le Shakespeare," a striking volume of criticism, has done much to make popular in Belgium the writings of the Elizabethan masters. In addition to this book he has published translations into French of Beaumont and Fletcher's "Philaster" and Marlowe's "Edward II." His single original play, "Perkin Warbeck," is a tragedy founded upon the career of the Flemish pretender to the throne of England; and when the Great War beat down upon Belgium he was preparing for the press a volume of "Etudes Élisabéthianes." As a critic he has chosen to interpret that period in English literature which gave expression to a life closely akin to that of which his own art is a record.
To adequately understand the reaction to experience of which Eekhoud's novels and tales—"Kees Doorik," "Kermesses," "Nouvelles Kermesses," "Cycle Patibulaire," "Mes Communions," "Escal-Vigor," "La Faneuse d'Amour," "La Nouvelle Carthage," and its sequel, "L'Autre Vue"—are the expression, we must recall the character of the Flemish mind as it has found expression in literature. The Walloons, whose culture is purely Gallic, are logical, primarily intellectual, musical and scientific. They have, in letters, the French respect for clearness of conception, for lucidity and precision of expression, for purity of style and for intelligent discrimination. The genius of the Flemings, however, is emotional rather than intellectual, and among its characteristics have been the conflicting tendencies of religious mysticism and an almost pagan love of the sensual aspects of life. They think profoundly about life less than they feel strongly about it. They are steeped in the tradition of their glorious past, and they are keenly aware of an immediate and insistent present.
Until the middle of the last century the Flemish genius had achieved its fullest expression in painting, perhaps because even until three years ago Flanders was an essentially picturesque country. When the movement toward the creation of a national literature began to assert itself, the younger writers derived the method of their art not from a literary tradition, but quite consciously from the tradition of Flemish painting. For their inspiration they sought in the life about them, but they sought with eyes that had been taught to see by Rembrandt, Rubens, Teniers, Jan Steen, Ruysdael and Van Ostade. The qualities of mysticism, sensuality, love of nature and of life, and emotional enthusiasm were the first to be registered in the art of the Flemish writers, and to the service of literature they brought the sensitive feeling for form and color and the robust love of the material world which had always been characteristic of the art of their great masters. Almost as compelling was the influence of the various French schools of literature; realism, especially psychological realism, and subsequently symbolism, captivated the minds of the younger Flemish writers. Consequently the method of realism, which they soon began to apply to the life of the spirit, produced a literature that is mystic and symbolic in essential direction, but which finds its symbols in the life about it, a life in which there is a fusion of the romantic, enigmatic past and the industrial present to which the character inherited from the past is seeking to adjust itself. The most important tendency in the recent literature of Belgium is, however, the transfer of the method of painting to the subject matter of literature; the vision of the Belgian writers is the vision of their painters, taking delight in color and form, wooing the four other senses through its vivid appeal to the eye, founded upon accurate observation and delicate perception.
Georges Eekhoud found in the life of the peasantry the subject-matter for his art. He is a regional writer, and the region which he describes is the country to the north of Antwerp; the polders of the Scheldt and the wastes of the Campine. The polders of the Scheldt are rich plains, thickly inhabited by a vigorous and sturdy race of small farmers. The Campine is a far-reaching and sandy waste that stretches over a great part of the provinces of Antwerp and Limburg. Its little towns are scattered and have infrequent communication with the outside world; it is a wasted, dreary, forbidding country of cold, stagnant pools, dull marshes, russet heather and tenacious furze, and a sky that is by turns leaden and coppery. The peasants manage only with hardship to wreak a living from the sandy soil; they are brutally sensual, ignorant, superstitious, fatalistic and almost savage. It is with the life and the customs of this region that Eekhoud's art is chiefly concerned, and his preoccupation finds its analogue in recent English literature in the novels and tales of Thomas Hardy.
In "The New Carthage" Eekhoud turned his attention to the life of Antwerp. And in order that his fundamental intention in writing the book may be immediately apparent, I quote the following paragraph from the body of the novel:
"To paint Antwerp, its life, its harbor, its river, its sailors, its dockers, its luxuriant women, its rosy and chubby children whom Rubens, in other days, had thought sufficiently plastic and appetizing to populate his heavens and Olympuses; to paint this human mob in its own ways, its costume and surroundings, with the most cherishing care for its special customs and morals, without neglecting the correlations which accentuate and characterize it; to interpret the very soul of the city of Rubens with a sympathy bordering upon assimilation—what a program and what an objective!"
It is to this conception that Eekhoud adhered in writing "The New Carthage," and the novel is essentially a record of the life of the whole city. Its protagonist is Antwerp itself, or, more definitely, the proletariat of Antwerp as its life is experienced by Laurent Paridael. The novel is largely autobiographical; Laurent, like Eekhoud himself, is left an orphan at the age of eleven and committed to the care of a wealthy uncle, who, like Eekhoud's uncle, the Mayor of Borgerhout, is a manufacturer of candles. But this identification of Laurent with Eekhoud, beyond offering us an assurance that the novel is written out of an experience which the author has lived, is scarcely of major interest.
The fundamental content of the novel lies in its social feeling. Being a Fleming, Eekhoud reasons about life less than he feels it. He has a profound sympathy with the poor, the weak and the downtrodden. He denounces with bitter contempt the hypocrisy of the capitalistic organization of industrial society and the complacent philosophy of the bourgeoisie. Spiritually, morally and philosophically, Eekhoud is an anarchist. He distrusts all organization as setting an arbitrary limit upon life, as imposing its special utilitarian categories upon the mass of humanity. He challenges the cruelty of our contemporary industrial civilization, and sternly bids us face the facts of reality, however unlovely they may be. His own reaction to life's unloveliness seems, at first sight, supremely discouraging. If there were no organization, he tells us, there would be no evil, since evil is but a term applied to certain actions by an artificial society. Moreover, since atavism is the most potent force in nature, civilization begins and ends in savagery. This, however, is but one half of his doctrine. The other is contained in the following passage:
"And then, too, Antwerp will undergo a moral regeneration also. She will be restored again to her true children. You will see it, Paridael; the oppressed masses are becoming insubordinate. I tell you that a new order will soon come into being! A breath of emancipation and youth has blown across the mob; there is something better here than a rich and proud city; there is a people no less interesting who are commencing to revolt against the representatives who serve them badly and compromise them."
Eekhoud, like Whitman, puts his faith in humanity and in an essentially spiritual democracy. If he seems to advocate anarchy, we must remember that this anarchy is but a logical extension of the democratic principle. His vision of the future is a social order in which the masses will have achieved self-expression. Like that other great Belgian artist, Constantin Meunier, he celebrates the modern beauty of labor and of the crowd. With Meunier and with Verhaeren, Eekhoud has made his art a vehicle for the wider social feeling and the plea for social justice which, in these days, is our chief concern.
I have endeavored, in this translation of "La Nouvelle Carthage," to enable the reader to obtain something of the effect which is produced by the original French. But Eekhoud, although a great writer, is in no sense a stylist. He is controlled by his emotion and by his conception, and his prose is exuberant and often rhapsodic; in his work we have a clear case of content creating its own form.
It has been necessary to delete one paragraph from the chapter entitled "The Runners," and several passages from the chapter dealing with "The Riet-Dijk." These passages are purely descriptive, and to French readers their frankness would have its warrant in the tradition of literary realism; in this matter Anglo-Saxon and Gallic taste are at variance.
Lloyd R. Morris.