Monday, 1 May 2017

Classical reception through comics (2): the Gallo-Belgian past in 'De Nerveuze Nerviërs'

Following on from my last blog post on Lambiorix, I will now discuss a much later instalment in the series. De Nerveuze Nerviërs (The Nervous Nervii), as I said then, was published in De Standaard from the very end of 1963 into mid-1964 and published in album form later that year.

The story is this: during a picnic, our usual set of friends Sidonia (renamed from the earlier Sidonie, which was Flemish dialect), Lambik, Suske en Wiske hear a mysterious blast during a picnic in the countryside. Lambik, Suske en Wiske go to check it out and find workmen blowing up rocks in a disused quarry. They return home, but not before Wiske spots movement in the rock opening which has been cleared by the blast. She and Suske sneak back at night to explore the cave, where they spy three poltergeists complaining about having been locked in the cave for 1,500 years and fantasizing about what they would do if they were ever freed. The poltergeists each have their own specialties: Twistorix plays music on a pipe, Pintorix prefers drink, and Zanziorix loves dicing. The three discover our friends and escape from the cave along with them, in the course of which they briefly take Suske prisoner until he is rescued by Jerom. In doing so, Jerom proves completely resistant to the temptations held out by the poltergeists, which mystifies and angers them. When our friends go to Professor Barabas’ house to find out more about the poltergeists, the latter hitchhike along unseen on top of the car. Professor Barabas’ computer (punch cards and all!) connects the poltergeists to the Nervii, and when Lambik doesn’t believe it, the Professor conjures up moving images from the past on the screen of the tele-time machine.

Then the lamp in the machine pops, and while he effects repairs Lambik is entrusted with guarding the lab from the poltergeists. Pintorix gets him drunk, after which Lambik loses the key to the lab to Zanziorix in a game of dice. While Lambik lies tied up in a different room, they force the Professor in the lab to explain the secret of Jerom’s ability to resist temptation, which turns out to be that he is descended from a long line of stable marriages and decent families, the first of whom were a Nervian couple. The poltergeists proclaim their intention to undermine the marriage of Santorix and Kokadildis in order to prevent the long line of morally upright ancestors for Jerom from ever coming into being. In a scuffle with the Professor, who wants to thwart this plan, they manage to transport themselves back to the Nervii.

When Jerom returns from taking the kids home to Sidonia, the Professor explains what’s happened and Jerom decides to return to the past in order to baulk the poltergeists’ plans. There, he deputizes for the Nervii’s sick druid and in doing so gets to know most of the village as well as being in a good position to see the harm the poltergeists are doing to society: men succumb to drink instead of returning to the family hearth after work, women fall into the trap of mindless consumerism wanting furs and jewellery instead of a simple family life, fathers do not know their children anymore, who then run wild by dressing funny, listening to Twistorix’ music and even joy-riding with a hay cart at one point. Though he is in a good position to witness this downward spiral for the village, including his ancestorys, Jerom is not much good at restoring the village to order.

With the help of a forest nymph who falls in love with him, however, the poltergeists get banished and Jerom is flashed back to the present in 1964, which saves him from having to marry her. When they get images of the village back up, though, they see a Roman column advancing on the village and taking Santorix prisoner. Jerom, Lambik, Suske and Wiske are sent back to the Nervii to help free him, which they do, but the Romans follow them back to the Nervian village. Sidonia is then flashed back too with a set of powerful magnets which, mounted throughout the forest, trap the rather metallic Romans. The Nervii and the Romans then make their peace, with Santorix saying they won’t mention this shameful Roman defeat in their national histories if they promise to leave the village alone forever. The Roman commander, Corpus Rondix, agrees and promises to get Caesar to write about the Nervii as the bravest of all the Gauls. Our friends get to home properly this time.

As with Lambiorix, the story is clearly allegorical for describing (deploring) the state of 1960s family life, and indeed when the story was first announced in the paper at the end of 1963, it was dedicated to the ‘Bond der Kroostrijke Gezinnen’ (Alliance of Child-rich [Nuclear] Families -  ‘gezin’ is Dutch for the nuclear family of mum, dad, kids, whereas ‘familie’ is bigger – I don’t think English has separate words for this). Contemporary references which heighten the obviousness of the allegorical dimension are Jerom’s redesign of his Druidic robes into a ‘New Look’ version; Twistorix’s nod to Chubby Checker taking the world by storm in 1960 with the twist, four years before the publication date of the album; repeated reference to the youth of the village as ‘teenagers’ (so in English!) and again re-using the English word ‘joy-riding’. A quick online search suggests the phenomenon was common at the time, as car use for the middle classes had pushed up the total number of cars in circulation, and thus easily available for stealing, and locks were unsophisticated and easily picked.

What interests me the most is that, 15 years apart (between 1949 and 1964), the Gallo-Roman past is being put to exactly the same kind of use in both Lambiorix and De Nerveuze Nerviërs. The ties to historical details are loose in both, though they are looser in NN than they are in Lambiorix, where the general model provided by Ambiorix’ resistance against a foreign oppressor was at least thematically suitable. Less than on specific historical events, both stories rely on a representation of the impeccable morality of the Belgae, the supposed ancestors of the modern Belgians if they are left to their own devices. In Lambiorix, it is only during Lambik’s temporary reign as caretaker for Lambiorix that the Eburones come to harm. In NN it is only after the poltergeists are re-released that the Nervian youth goes down the drain and their parents forget their proper roles within the family and within society; moreover, the poltergeists were re-released in the first place from the exile the Nervian druid had imposed upon them by Nieuwe Belgen: first the workmen who blast away the rock and then by Suske & Wiske, without whose interference, it is implied, the poltergeists would have had no reason to believe they could now be free. And restoration only occurs when everyone has left the Nervii alone again: when the poltergeists are magicked away by the forest nymph, when our friends are transported back to their own time, and when the Romans have been taught a lesson, and taught it so well that they promise never to return.

In both stories, it is made clear how far modern Belgians have deteriorated from this supposedly primeval goodness: our friends do much in these stories, as we have seen, but they don’t often make an impact for the better. No particular reason is given for the workmen’s activity in the quarry, but in any case it is they who blow away the rock which has sealed in the poltergeists. (I’m wondering whether we might perhaps read it as a swipe at the building for building’s sake development craze of the 1960s. Though there is lots of regret about Belgian/Flemish past zoning policy nowadays, I’m not sure how keen or otherwise popular opinion was when it was going on.) Even if I’m seeing ghosts where none exist, it is certainly the case that Wiske’s uncontrolled curiosity, arguably another moral failing, is responsible for their ultimate release from the cave. After that, it is Lambik’s inability to resist free drinks and know his limits, followed by his gambling away the key to the lab, which further the poltergeists’ dastardly schemes by allowing them access to the tele-time machine. In Lambiorix, the real hero is the Vrijschutter aka Lambiorix instead of any of our friends from 1949. In NN it’s Jerommeke, and this is precisely because his ancestry is uncorrupted, making him essentially a Nervian, still, instead of an outsider.

This raises the interesting question of ‘true Belgitude’. There is a fluidity to what constitutes it within the albums, as well as ambivalence about some of the traditional markers of it. In Lambiorix, two of the four ‘markers’ of an Oude Belg were love of a good pint and love of playing dice (alongside arguing lots and being fearless). But in the story Lambiorix himself only ever conformed to the latter two; it is his descendant Lambik who displays the former. So, if we can discern anything in this apparent inconsistency between these being aspects of ‘true Belgitude’ yet being frowned upon, it is, I think, that the King can rise above these human weaknesses of his people himself and is able to moderate them in others, whereas Lambik allows himself to be incapacitated by them, to a point where he can no longer lead his people. In NN, the stereotype of the Belgae which introduced Lambiorix is present as well as undermined. It is re-deployed when Lambik does not believe the poltergeists are really connected to the Nervii (as opposed to coming from elsewhere) but accepts it when he is shown an image of a Nervian village on the tele-time machine, and then a close-up of a hand draining a stein of beer in one go.

And just as he did in Lambiorix, Lambik in NN drunkenly gambles away the valuable charge with which he has been entrusted by a figure of authority. But at the same time the identification of two of the three poltergeists with beer and dice makes them vices alien to the innate goodness of the Nervii. So the needs of the different stories and their very different allegorical dimensions to an extent, dictate, that even the basic representation of essentially the same people (Eburones and Nervii are both called Belgae in the stories) from which the stories depart must differ to an extent. Though the characters do not age, the series as a whole does acknowledge the passing of time, and the stories show how Lambik in particular, in 15 years, has not changed. Does his sticking, despite the passing of time, to his embodiment of one kind of Belgitude, that of beer and dice and essentially a good heart, make him just as ‘proper’ Belgian, according to the framework of Lambiorix, as the alternative version propounded by Jerom in NN?

Despite their very different allegorical loads (the WWII allegory is stronger than the ‘youth of today’ one both in the weight of its theme and the force with which it is hammered home and shapes the story), there is, therefore, a strong conservatism at the heart of both stories, which labels change as bad. Apart from the light-hearted reference to the New Look, Pintorix’ pub is represented as an intrusion into village life which will inevitably – given the men’s powerlessness against such temptation – disrupt it, as detrimental as the consumerist lifestyle is to parental responsibility, which in turn gives free rein to innocent teenagers’ fascination with the radical departures in dress and music and leisure activity which the 1960s brought with them and so further disrupts society.

And in this moral conservatism, we find ourselves unexpectedly returned to classical antiquity. Tacitus’ Germania, an ethnographical work by this Roman author of the late 1st century AD, is an account of the German tribes [known to Rome] across the Rhine with their customs, habits, history (though not all are accorded one), location, material culture, etc. In this, he is no stranger to feelings of cultural superiority. But at the same time, he attributes to the Germans a morality, especially in man-wife relationships, which the work implies far exceeds that of late first century Rome in both ideal and practice:

Quamquam severa illic matrimonia, nec ullam morum partem magis laudaveris […] Sic vivendum, sic pereundum: accipere se, quae liberis inviolata ac digna reddat, quae nurus accipiant, rursusque ad nepotes referantur. Ergo saepta pudicitia agunt, nullis spectaculorum inlecebris, nullis conviviorum inritationibus corruptae.
(Ger. 18)

‘Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy […] She must live and die with the feeling that she is receiving what she must hand down to her children neither tarnished nor depreciated, what future daughters-in-law may receive, and may be so passed on to her grand-children. Thus with their virtue protected they [the women] live uncorrupted by the allurements of public shows or the stimulant of feastings.’ (again fairly archaic translation translation: Perseus)

Setting aside for a minute the implication that most of the responsibility for upholding this ideal is placed with the woman, the Germans of Tacitus are the ancestors of Suske & Wiske’s Jerommeke.

A second link is provided by Caesar’s Gallic Wars, whose claim that the Belgae were the most courageous of all the Gauls is referred to at the very beginning of Lambiorix and at the very end of NN, where it is applied most specifically to the Nervii. It is here that I see the clearest engagement with classical literature, to such an extent that I wonder whether these works would have been consulted prior to writing. About the Belgae as a whole, Caesar wrote this at the very beginning of his account:

Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae, propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissime absunt, minimeque ad eos mercatores saepe commeant atque ea quae ad effeminandos animos pertinent important (DBG 1.1.3)

‘Of all these, the Belgae are the grittiest, because they are furthest away from the way of life and civilization of Provence [before Caesar’s conquests, the only Gallic province, and so really quite close to Italy], and because merchants, who bring with them the sorts of goods most conducive to effeminizing fighting spirits, travel to them least of all’

He repeats these arguments, in an elaborated form, for the Nervii in particular, in book 2:

Eorum fines Nervii attingebant. Quorum de natura moribusque Caesar cum quaereret, sic reperiebat: nullum esse aditum ad eos mercatoribus; nihil pati vini reliquarumque rerum ad luxuriam pertinentium inferri, quod his rebus relanguescere animos eorum et remitti virtutem existimarent; esse homines feros magnaeque virtutis; increpitare atque incusare reliquos Belgas, qui se populo Romano dedidissent patriamque virtutem proiecissent
(DBG 2.15.3-5)

‘Beyond the borders of their [the Ambiani’s] territory live the Nervii. Of their nature and customs Caesar, after enquiry, found out the following: that there was no access to them for merchants; that they do not allow wine and other items which promote luxury to be imported, because they judge that by means of such commodities their spirits weaken and their strength decreases; that they are fierce men of great strength; and that they despise and knock the other Belgae, who have surrendered themselves to the Roman people and by doing so have thrown off their loyalty to the fatherland as well as their strength’

Schadee (2008) noted that the theme of corruption through contact runs through the entire account, as Caesar’s campaigns proceed and he goes further and further north. The function of this repeatedly emphasized ‘information’ about these tribes is to build up Caesar’s enemies into formidable candidates, which sets him up for increased glory if he defeats them, and will mitigate his shame if he does not defeat them. Within NN, the theme of corruption through contact is at the heart of the story in two senses. First, in the intrusion of supposed ‘civilisation’ disrupting a simple yet upright lifestyle: beer takes the place of Caesar’s wine; poltergeists take the place of Caesar’s merchants; and rock ‘n’ roll music (even if from a flute! I’ll leave you to imagine that) and dice arguably stand in for the other refinements of Roman living left unspecified by Tacitus (certainly Trimalchio’s dinner, the most hyperbolized example of this lifestyle, features a piper and board games). But alongside this, the Nervian village in which Jerom’s ancestors live is literally hidden away: the Romans, despite having conquered all around, do not know where it is, and it takes Zanziorix the dicer to point it out to Corpus Rondix. It is much easier to preserve yourself from what contact brings with it if you make yourself unavailable to contact at all. Tacitus’ Agricola, in a way, makes the same point, when he describes how through Agricola’s strategy of introducing Roman refined living into Britain:

Sequens hiems saluberrimis consiliis absumpta. Namque ut homines dispersi ac rudes eoque in bella faciles quieti et otio per voluptates adsuescerent, hortari privatim, adiuvare publice, ut templa fora domos extruerent, laudando promptos, castigando segnis: ita honoris aemulatio pro necessitate erat. Iam vero principum filios liberalibus artibus erudire, et ingenia Britannorum studiis Gallorum anteferre, ut qui modo linguam Romanam abnuebant, eloquentiam concupiscerent. Inde etiam habitus nostri honor et frequens toga; paulatimque discessum ad delenimenta vitiorum, porticus et balinea et conviviorum elegantiam. Idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset.
(Agr. 21)

‘The following winter passed without disturbance, and was employed in salutary measures. For, to accustom to rest and repose through the charms of luxury a population scattered and barbarous and therefore inclined to war, Agricola gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses, praising the energetic, and reproving the indolent. Thus an honourable rivalry took the place of compulsion. He likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the "toga" became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude.’ (translation: Perseus)

This is exactly the sort of stuff of which the absence was held responsible for the good morality of German women in the earlier quotation from the Germania. Thus NN in particular, perhaps because its lighter allegorical load gives the story more leeway, plays out the story of Roman imperialism as narrated by Tacitus and Caesar. Both the old Belgae and the new succumb to this tactic. Alongside the conservatism goes a profound pessimism. Plus ça change.

Schadee, H. (2008), ‘Caesar's Construction of Northern Europe: Inquiry, Contact and Corruption in De Bello Gallico’, Classical Quarterly, 58.1 : 158-80

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