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Session 115. The Dutch War of Independence Revisited by the Ulenspiegel Tradition: Troubled Times, Interculturality, and the Emergence of Belgian Literature (Abstract)

2014 MLA Convention

 

Thursday, 9 January

115. The Low Countries in Vulnerable Times

3:30–4:45 p.m., Arkansas, Sheraton Chicago

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Netherlandic Language and Literature

Presiding: Wijnie de Groot, Columbia Univ.; Thomas F. Shannon, Univ. of California, Berkeley

 

1. “Writing from a Centerless Periphery: The Later Works of C. Edgar Du Perron,” Johannes Burgers, Queensborough Community Coll., City Univ. of New York

2. “Between Empire and the Deep Blue Sea: A Critical Look at Colonialism in the Work of J. Slauerhoff,” Edwin Demper, Hunter Coll., City Univ. of New York

3. “The Dutch War of Independence Revisited by the Ulenspiegel Tradition: Troubled Times, Interculturality, and the Emergence of Belgian Literature,” Xavier Fontaine, Princeton Univ.

4. “Old-Fashioned or New Literary Genres? Paradigmatic Changes in Poetic Discourse since the ‘Narcissistic Turn’ of the Seventies,” Yves T’Sjoen, Ghent Univ.

 

Abstract

 

The Dutch War of Independence Revisited by the Ulenspiegel Tradition: Troubled Times, Interculturality, and the Emergence of Belgian Literature

 

Commonly considered to be the founding work of Belgian literature, Charles De Coster’s La Légende d’Ulenspiegel (1st ed. 1867, definitive ed. 1869) unsurprisingly constitutes a significant part of the Netherlandic heritage within the DBNL.[1] By infusing his French with archaisms and Old Dutch words, the author seeks to provide the reader with a language full of local color, still intelligible though not comparable to that of contemporary normative literature from France. More broadly speaking, beyond these linguistic peculiarities, it is through its specific setting that this novel falls fully within the domain of Low Countries’ culture. The peregrinations of Ulenspiegel—the famous Lower Saxon jester emanating from medieval Germanic folklore—are indeed now transposed to the old Southern Netherlands of the Renaissance and recast in a vast historical epic: the prankster, driven by the resistance of the people, joins the Gueux (rebel leaders) in their struggle against the Spanish oppression.

The literary revival of these troubled times is nevertheless far from being unilateral and merits scrutiny, both in terms of topicality and interculturality. On the one hand, it indirectly evokes a period of contemporary unrest. Faced with the Spanish occupation and its Counter-Reformist repressions, Ulenspiegel’s adhesion to the Low Countries’ resistance (sixteenth-century proto-nationalism) alludes to the young nineteenth-century state of Belgium, its resistance to the annexationist claims of Napoleon III and its internal political configuration, characterized by conflicts between the Liberal party (with Masonic leanings) and the Catholics. As to the so-called autonomy of national literatures, on the other hand, it is worth underscoring the author’s debt to major works from, respectively, French and German sixteenth-century canons: Rabelais’ novels and the Volksbuch (popular book) of the adventures of Ulenspiegel.

Such a generalized decompartmentalization, both in time and space, retrospectively contributes to a better deconstructive understanding of nationalism in general and of its underlying mechanisms through a case that, as part of nineteenth-century European Romanticism, explicitly puts the past-present dialectic as well as the national-international dialectic and interculturality at the core of its search for identity and the development of a national literature. I will discuss how Belgium created roots for itself and wrote its past history while projecting itself towards the future (prospective history). A strong emphasis will be placed on how perceptions of real and imaginary history influence each other, how pragmatic contingencies shaped De Coster’s work, and how the imaginary of the nation and nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe frames it.

 


[1] Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (Digital Library of Dutch Literature), see <http://www.dbnl.org/titels/titel.php?id=cost020lege01>.

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