- Regarding Manneken Pis: Culture, Celebration and Conflict in Brussels by Catherine Emerson
Catherine Emerson’s book examines how Manneken Pis, the 61 cm tall bronze statue on the corner of Rue de l’Étuve and Rue des Grands Carmes in Brussels, has come to symbolize the city. In its first chapter, the book explores the folklore related to the statue, [End Page 640] which was made in 1619—and in particular the role played by the Friends of Manneken Pis, a society created in the last fifty years that aims as much at evoking the folklore related to the statue as to promote it for the purpose of tourism (hence its relative unreliability). Chapter 2 surveys the statue’s physical and social locations within Brussels, and Emerson uses four different interpretative approaches to the statue, echoing Manneken Pis’s physical location at a crossroads. Indeed, throughout this book, emphasis is placed on the multiplicity of interpretations to which the statue has been subjected. Emerson adds her own, in particular using Bakhtin’s definition of carnival and his description of grotesque realism ‘with its frankness about bodily functions and its recognition that these are something universal’ (p. 5). This is the focus of Chapter 3, and the author points to the fact that if Manneken Pis is to be viewed as a carnival figure, it is also always used to articulate tensions and disputes that go to the very heart of Belgian identity and even the existence of the state itself. At the same time, as is shown in Chapter 4—which is dedicated to the role the statue has played in criminal acts, wartime tensions, and disputes between the different communities of Belgium—Emerson is keen to underline that celebratory uses of Manneken Pis, as well as those articulating the conflicts in society, arise from the significance of the fountain in the city. Chapter 4 closes the volume with a series of examples where Manneken Pis is seen as the very embodiment of the dysfunction of the Belgian capital city. Somehow Manneken Pis also manages to represent the division along the linguistic–cultural line in the country, with a typically nuanced and, in many ways, very Belgian conclusion: ‘Manneken Pis is not sufficiently identified with either community, but is popular enough with each’, so much so in fact that ‘neither would want to give it up’ (p. 100) as it represents Belgian self-expression without linguistic choice, at the heart of so many disputes in Belgian political life. Most of all, for Emerson, the statue symbolizes Brussels owing to its very survival in a capital notorious for its changing landscape. It is more enduring than almost anything else in the city. And she is very adept at teasing out the connections made between past and present interpretations and/or rereadings of the statue by contemporary artists such as Delphine Boël’s highly sexualized Manneken Pis or Frank van Passel’s 1995 film of the same title. This makes for an interesting and well-researched work on a Belgian cultural singularity.