Inside Belgium’s heart of darkness
Yesterday Liza and I biked to Tervuren to visit the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, otherwise known more simply as the Africa Museum. In terms of sheer aesthetic creepiness, this museum is second only to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, but in moral terms it may be far worse because of what it says about the history of Belgium, colonialism, and science. Briefly, for those of my readers who don’t know, the Africa Museum was established by King Leopold II to showcase the Congo Free State, but which was in reality an active act of apologetic for, if not even deception about, the horrible brutalization of the Congo’s native peoples. Much of the Africa Museum today remains relatively unchanged since its start, revealing much about the mindset that constituted it.
It was hard to determine which was worse: the halls filled with cabinets of barely organized pre-European African relics, frequently mixed in with relics from other continents, including North America; rows upon rows of stuffed or formaldehyded animals, their flesh exuding the desire to decay, permanently postponed and demeaned; the idyllic paintings decking the exhibits that depict an Edenic Congo, hiding the viciousness of the colonial experience there; or the statues of noble savages, including one of a muscular warrior slaying the serpent, undoubtedly a vision of what Adam should have done instead of biting the cursed apple.
There were lots of children running around. Liza, like most Belgians, had visited the museum as a child, sort of the equivalent of my childhood trips to the New York Museum of Natural History or the Bronx Zoo. So, it was interesting to juxtapose the wonder of all that frozen nature experienced by the children and the horror experienced by us as adults — two sides of the same awe?
The archaic quality of the museum’s exhibits struck us, at one level, as a testament to the history of science, particularly the cycloptic quest for specimens and this endeavor’s sordid tryst with colonialism. The Congo was the original petri dish syndrome, long before the Manhattan Project or today’s development of the synthetic cell, when the scientist’s obsession for knowledge disregards all other ethical considerations. Indeed, the extent to which science has entailed the objectification of its subjects, then the Congo can also be seen as the first great tragedy of instrumentalization.
Indeed, at another level, the scent of pillage, materialistic obsession, and total disregard and even disdain for the individual identity of an ecosystem and its people wafted everywhere, whether it be all the pinned insects or stuffed animal skins, or the images of chopped hands, whipped bodies, and vast rubber plantations that we knew lurked behind those utopian depictions on the walls. For Liza and I, this museum stunk of avarice in all its varieties — economic, political, and scientific.
A docent informed us that the museum shall be undergoing a renovation in two years’ time, during which those halls memorializing the dark side of inquriy — the exploration of physical and cultural space as conquest, in which the explored is the consumed — would finally be taken down. “It’s an embarrassment,” she said. We felt that would be a profound mistake.
Liza and I have meditated together a lot about the riddle of embodiment in religion, particularly in the Bahai Faith, and I’ve been moving more and more in the direction of viewing the relationship between the spiritual and the material as an ecology, that is, an integrated and mutually enriching system. After all, a defining characteristic of nature is order, namely, that although everything is in process, everything nevertheless has its valuable part to play — a cosmos in the fullest sense of the old word.
This museum, however, reminded us of the duality that’s also within nature, at least as perceived by the human species, for there is also disorder endemic within that order: a diorama of a small serpent devouring a mouse head-first, the latter’s body gone limp as its identity was devoured, and a photograph of a mighty python who burst in the attempt to consume what looked like a dog, reminded me of Abdul-Baha’s remarks on the blindness, and indeed, the self-centeredness and self-destructiveness of animality.
Seeing the children made me think back to the awe I felt as a child whenever I read books about dinosaurs. A key feature of that feeling was the idea that there was “no one around to see it”: humanity is the element of consciousness within the physical universe, the force of self-awareness that remembers. Abdul-Baha frequently seems to oppose civilization to animality, and so perhaps that’s what he means — humanity records, reflects, and learns, nature does not, even if, unconsciously, traces of what was may be etched into the genetic code and the very flesh of things.
What was so wrong with Belgian science in the Congo, therefore, was that its obsession for specimen-gathering reduced science, that ultimate of conscious activities, into something beastly and impulsive — hunt, eat, sleep / search, collect, catalogue. Indeed, the entire Belgian colonial project, as Joseph Conrad understood, represented the descent of humanity into animality.
Thus, the Africa Museum, although it began as a way to coax or hide the truth, today stands as a testament to that descent, and all the horrors that such a fall brings upon the world. Yes, it’s a manifestation of humanity remembering, rather than slipping into the blissful and terrible momentariness of the physical. That’s too valuable to throw away just because we are too ashamed to keep the memories.
There’s a duality within civilization as well, though, at least as it’s been experienced in Belgium. If history is science, and indeed, humanity, remembering, then the current political and cultural discourse of Belgium is very much un-historical, that is, an attempt to misremember, if not even forget. Whereas the United States had its Congo deep within its borders and as a consequence had to constantly confront its own heart of darkness, Belgium could escape from the jungle and retreat back into the factories, bustling commerce, and vast urban sprawl of Modernity. In the view of many concerned Begians, the media and monarchy today continually downplay the colonial legacy in the Congo. Indeed, many everyday Belgians apparently believe that Belgium had left the Congo in a “good state” and it was Lumumba et al who “ruined it all”.
I wonder how much of the Congo’s raw materials gave rise to the squalid factories that then, in turn, birthed the Dutch-speaking labor union movement, which then, further in turn, led the way to the Leuven crisis and the current semi-partition of Belgium into its language zones and the intractable conflict constantly erupting out from it? Indeed, did the Flemish nationalists ever see an analogue in Congo to their own situation in their own homeland? My friend Liesbeth and I today were talking about the ongoing crisis with the federal government (or the lack thereof) and how it’s entirely a human crisis — there’s no resource shortage or geograpical problem underlying it, just entirely human affairs, like taxes and culture. The dark jungle followed the Belgians home, et il est en nous, en het is in ons.
And everywhere we went in the museum, around every corner, there was Leopold, staring at us from daunting busts and statues. The Roi-Bâtisseur, Koning-Bouwer: whenever I looked at his remorseless, marble visage, I kept seeing instead the faces of Niyazov and Nazarabayev, and whenever I would think of Leopold’s project-city, Brussels, I would see Asgabat and Astana. Gradually it dawned on me that perhaps the lessons of Sovietology could go some way to explain what Belgium is — or rather, what it isn’t. This is a country that should not have been, an artificiality shambled together from the ashes of empires, and like the post-Soviet states of today, it sought to forge an identity through enforcing uniformity in language, generating copious amounts of wealth, and frenzily building monumental symbols of political power.
In a sense, Belgium colonized itself, tried to clear away the jungle of dialects, duchies, and bishoprics with the orderly plantation of Franco-Catholic centralized rationalism. This museum, then, perhaps originally symbolized the triumph of the new nation-state, proof of the superiority of its model of civilization over barbarism, both internal with the Dutch-speakers and external with the Africans. The twice-revealed impotence of that nation-state against the Germans, and the subsequent decolonization in Flanders and the Congo, though, may have demonstrated the unsustainability of its Weberianesque narrative of sacralized societal instrumentalization and its secretly barbaric vision of being civilized.
The hollowing out of the Church and the federal government that’s so keenly felt today may thus perhaps be a manifestation of that narrative’s collapse. Belgium today is slowly disintegrating. Whether that process can be reversed, and if not, what lies at its terminus, slowly snaking ahead of us like the Congo River into the low-hanging mists of the future, is unknown. But in the dark, empty heart of that process you shall find standing there the Africa Museum.
[Note: Unfortunately, Liza and I didn't bring a camera. Except for the shot of the Africa Museum's exterior, which is a generic shot, the photos herein are from Flickr's Creative Commons. Click on them to see more.]