Monday 2 September 2013

Two Belgian Fables: The Intellectuals of Brussels (2013)

From The Philosopher, Volume 101 No. 2 Autumn 2013

Two Belgian Fables
From the Age of Absurdity 

By Frank Adam

A one-eared donkey who practises the art of listening. A string of tormented visitors who come to confide in him. Forget Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, let alone Augustine's, and instead try two of Flemish author Frank Adam's donkey tales, as they breathe new life into the genre of the conte philosophique.* Originally published in the press and in book form (illustrated by Klaas Verplancke), even adapted for the stage and radio, the listening donkey travels the desert, the world, and the realms of romance and eroticism. But here he gets caught up in a Belgian Absurdistan.

Illustration by Klaas Verplancke


'On the possible death of the king - and the courage to be cowardly'

Contradictory reports

The contradictory reports on the possible death of the king and the looming end of what was, at the time, still Belgium, galvanised the intellectuals of Brussels into immediate action.
    A little over midnight of the historic day on which manifestos started rolling from their tongues and rebellious, outraged silence from their sealed lips, they gathered at a secret location in the heart of Belgium's capital to gain insight into the state and fate of their country by consulting an Ouija board.

The Ouija board

'The Ouija board is a board marked with numbers, letters and short words, which can be selected with this little wheeled plank,' a designer explained while sliding a lacquered planchette onto the table in front of the donkey like a serving of Brussels waffles, then went on to blindfold him, as if providing his guest with a napkin.
    'The messages from spiritual entities that you will receive during your imminent trance will allow us to either communicate with the spirit of the dead king, or, should the monarch still be alive, obtain information about his condition from the spirit of one of his dynastic ancestors.'

The Belgian citizen

'Shouldn't the delegate for such an important task,' the donkey wondered, completely blindfolded by now, 'be a randomly selected Belgian citizen?'
    'As a matter of fact,' a children's philosopher said, 'a group of poets in the next room are trying their utmost to keep the Belgian people at a distance, by sending messages through social media. Wordy messages, which – just like their poetry – lure attention away from their meaning by enchanting readers with their form.'

Secret National Council of Intellectuals

The donkey heard what later turned out to be one of the poets enter the room and whisper above his ear, in an amused voice, that some of the citizens were spreading rumours about a Secret National Council of Intellectuals.
    'But don't the people have a right,' the donkey asked himself out loud, 'to be genuinely interested in the fate of their missing sovereign and his devastated country?'
    'We have chosen you, an impartial, non-Belgian medium, to find Our Majesty the King with the Ouija board,' a lawyer said testily, 'not to criticise him with it.'


Another poet came into the room and announced – less casually and cheerfully than the last – that a group of citizens had discovered the meeting's exact location.
    'I hereby request,' the donkey said with more force than intended, 'the assistance of a Belgian citizen while performing my task.'

Belgian winter

'Listen,' the lawyer said, 'we have always respected the people's whims. They just had to have their cultural events and community get-togethers with kebab, burkas and hashish. They wanted to hand out our hard-earned social security money to the Muslims like zakat. They wanted democracy, social media, homosexuality and crime for everyone. They sang the praises of Bin Laden's murderers to the heavens and welcomed the Arab Spring with childish ecstasy. But now that the chill wind of economic downturn, the banking crisis and moral meltdown has frozen their bones like a Belgian winter and left them rigid with fear, we have decided to put all their hasty proposals and rash citizen's initiatives on hold for the time being.'


'But what is your solution to the aforementioned crises in this country?' the donkey wanted to know. 'And don't you, as a Belgian intellectual, embrace democracy?'

The king

'Actually, we have prepared a range of solutions covering all problems,' a composer said, 'but it is up to the king to choose the right one. Just as some people claim that religious leaders throughout history have known there is no god even while persuading humanity to believe the opposite, there are those among the Belgian people who say there is no such person as the king, and that we have invented him. We hereby confirm not only the existence of our monarch – some of us have even had the honour of meeting him in person – but also our belief in him. If he is seriously ill, then that is precisely because of all the anxiety and audiences the Belgian people put him through every day.'

Democracy of the people

'And as for democracy, we profess the following belief: democracy of the people, like any other kind, is not guided by the imperative of reason but by the right of the most interesting. Most interesting of all is the false intellectual. The false intellectual does not proclaim the truth, but the truth people want to hear. Hearing that truth makes people find not just the false intellectual more interesting, but also themselves.

The false intellectual

Despite his day-job as a conjuror, the false intellectual is revered as a magician. He conceals any real problems in hollow rhetoric. In the arena of populism, the stage of false intellectualism, his voice drowns out the real intellectual's like a terrace chant. To the false intellectual, the intellect is the goal. Besides false intellectualism, the false intellectual also displays false modesty, false altruism, false activism, false cordiality, false indignation, false rage, false absent-mindedness, false amicability, false scholarship, false fearfulness and false cowardice. He bows humbly before the people with his words, but in his thoughts, he looks down on them as a haughty god looks down on his creation, or a colonial lord on his slaves.'

The true intellectual

'The true intellectual knows he can never speak up, that he is not welcome anywhere and will always end up in exile. True intellectuals see the intellect as a path. Besides truly intellectual, the true intellectual is also truly concerned, truly angry, truly enraged, truly hurt, truly ignorant, truly anxious and truly faint-hearted. The true intellectual has the courage to banish himself, the courage to be cowardly. The true intellectual really does have the ability to forget himself and the world around him.'


The world soon sent a reminder of itself in the form of a bang on the door and a crowd of indignant citizens surrounding the premises. Before he knew what was happening, the donkey, as a non-Belgian medium, had been delegated to lead negotiations at the iron gate outside the building.

The people's representative

The citizen who in turn had been delegated by the crowd – or by himself, that wasn't immediately obvious – had something indefinable and boring about him. Contagiously boring, in fact. His arguments were boringly well-founded, his conclusions boringly crystal-clear, his modesty so boringly overwhelming that the few citizens who had thrown books went to pick them up again, the intellectuals who had shouted abuse offered their apologies, everyone involved started forming small groups and monologues started cropping up on both sides, even tending towards dialogue in places.

Unfathomable expression

After the people's representative had melted back into the crowd – as boring and indefinable as he had stepped up out of it – the donkey, recalling his indefinable face with great effort, suddenly noticed the typically unfathomable expression of a sovereign in those boring eyes. Only then did he fully realise who the people's representative had actually been…

And now read about: The People Manager . . .

About the author: Frank Adam wrote the Belgian Fables while he was writer-in-residence at the European Writers' House Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the Ventspils International Writers' and Translators' House in Letvia, and the Villa Marguerite Yourcenar on the Mont Noir in France. His Belgian Fables, illustrated by Klaas Verplancke, are published in Dutch and French in Belgian and French media.  The book  will be published in autumn 2013 by Uitgeverij Vrijdag (Antwerp).

* The translation into English  from the Dutch is by Vivien D. Glass. A version translated from Dutch into French by Michel Perquy is also available, here.

Address for correspondence: Frank Adam email <>
His website is: and the website of Klaas Verplancke, the illustrator, is:

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