Sunday, 20 April 2014

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian



A few years ago, I was chatting with a friend in a Lisbon esplanade. I wish I could say the esplanade belonged to a famous café with a long literary history, like A Brasileira, Martinho da Arcada or the Café Nicola, typical tourist haunts, but it was in fact a filthy tavern in a byway close to the National Theatre. The setting lacks class, but the following story does not deserve to take place in a café patronized by Fernando Pessoa and Eça de Queiroz. When a friend whom we had been expecting arrived, he carried with him a copy of No Country for Old Men, and excitedly informed us that this was going to be the Coen Brothers’ next movie. Of Cormac McCarthy, its author, I had never heard. But my friend raved about the novel and curiosity prompted me to buy it the next time I visited a bookstore. I found it to be rubbish. The movie, notwithstanding the usual technical excellence I expect from the Coens, wasn’t stellar either, for McCarthy’s ponderous voice managed to quell their characteristic absurdist worldview. Not deterred by this misstep, and this time influenced by the film adaptation of The Road, I went and bought that novel. It was rubbish too. For my part, I should have obeyed my instincts and given up Cormac McCarthy. But his fans surged in his defence. They explained it all to me, it had all just been a bit of rotten bad luck. Of all the novels I could have chosen, I had to read those two, his worst ones, they confided in me. It made sense to me, they were his most recent novels, and we all know writers deteriorate with age. That’s my experience with Philip Roth, José Saramago and Milan Kundera. The second law of thermodynamics is unmerciful. Entropy, inherent vice, and all that. Ah, how much sense it did make! It had all been a mistake, and I felt foolish for I had caused it, failing to remember my natural sciences. Furthermore, they told me great things about him, that he was a serious writer, a writer who only wrote about “life and death,” all contemporary fiction seemed trite compared to the augustness of his books. Humbled, I asked for recommendations, I wanted to read Cormac McCarthy’s greatest novel where he wrote about life and death. And here the experts, like scientists at the turn of the 20th century taking sides on the wave-particle duality controversy, held two opposing views. Some believed that McCarthy’s greatness was constituted by discrete wave packets of suttrees. Others argued that his genius was best explained as blood meridian particles. Well, since I had no clue what a suttree was, for I don’t have a degree in quantum literature, I read Blood Meridian.

It’s rubbish, of course it’s rubbish. To a smaller degree, if it’s any consolation, than the previous two. But instructive to show why I don’t care about this author. Cormac McCarthy is a writer of very limited talents, with a meagre repertoire of tricks. In fact he only has two: blood and eloquence. I suspect he applies one or another, or both, to all his novels. The plots, from what I can glean, always involve someone chasing someone to kill him. The author’s great virtue lies in subtly changing the number of people chasing and being chased. For instance, in No Country for Old Men there’s one Anton Chirguh chasing a guy to kill him. In Blood Meridian there are lots of Anton Chirguhs chasing lots of Injins and Mexicans and civilians to kill them. McCarthy depurates this formula in the apotheosis that is The Road, in which father and son are chased by everybody. If ambition means upping the ante, I guess McCarthy is a very, very ambitious writer. This is basically the plot of horror movies and The Terminator series. McCarthy tries to hide the blood with the eloquence, that is, there’s usually an erudite psychopath babbling, in that inimitable tone that philosophy de pacotille produces, about evil and chance and fate and power. When in a novel like The Road there’s no coin-flipping psychotic polymath, but only the blood, then you realize just how vacuous the author’s style is.

Eloquence requires command of an abundant vocabulary, a fault Cormac McCarthy can’t be accused of. Now I don’t sneer at a large vocabulary, being addicted to dictionaries myself, but I don’t think it’s anything impressive either, precisely because there are dictionaries and thesauruses that writers can consult. I expect a writer to have a large vocabulary, it’s the least I expect of him. But even his vocabulary leaves something to be desired. One of his tricks is sneaking in as many Latinate words as possible, which gives his sentences an aura of mysterious density to his English-language readers. Unfortunately this trick, I’m afraid, will not impress a Latin-based language speaker. Lave, discalced, carafe, accrescence, and abscission don’t give me particular agony since they’re all similar to words I daily use: lavar, descalço, garrafa, acrescência, abcisão. Blood Meridian has the added fact of employing Spanish words, and you can imagine why that doesn’t pose a particular challenge for me either. So I must scratch vast vocabulary from the list of things to praise McCarthy for.

So what else? The characters? But there aren’t characters to speak of. They’re mostly intangible ciphers. McCarthy doesn’t like interiority, or common psychology, anything that gets inside his characters, or even things like back-story. He’s never interested in the past, only the future, his writing is pure movement, always going forward. Basically he writes as if his novels were screenplays (and No Country for Old Men is a novel converted from a film script), describing only things that can be captured by a lens: a sunset, a cavalcade, a thumb on a trigger, a wound, etc. As a principle, there’s nothing wrong with this. Lots of writers I admire don’t focus on the interior either, José Saramago and Leonardo Sciascia just to name two examples. And yet their characters do come across as far more tangible, more complete I guess. I agree with William H. Gass that you can keep adding more traits to a character and he’ll never become more real for that. I can even do without characters, or I wouldn’t be a Borges lover. But if characters must exist, I prefer Anna Karenina, baroque in her motives and psychology, to the aridness of the kid.

For reasons that aren’t incomprehensible to me, McCarthy is often compared to Herman Melville, and his judge Holden to Captain Ahab. It could not be otherwise. They’re both translucent phantoms with no substance save a few discursive moments – the eloquence – where they shine by the grace of a language full of thunder. Moby Dick, to my mind, is an inconstant novel with moments of genius; once I claimed that Ahab’s final speech was the best speech not written by Shakespeare, and I stand by that. In fact I’ll transcribe it verbatim because this post is in want of actual good prose, if we wait for McCarthy to provide it we’ll be he all eternity:

"Starbuck, of late I've felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw—thou know'st what, in one another's eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act's immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. 'Tis Ahab—his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, yell hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he's floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he'll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D'ye feel brave men, brave?"

Judge Holden also commands a silvery tongue. He speaks in parables and symbols, insinuating more than signifying, in that opaque style that will have literary critics eating from his hand for decades to come. The climax of all his yapping is the discourse on War, with a capital W because that’s the kind of writer McCarthy is:

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

To go back to the plot, since we’re comparing both novels, it’s fair to say that they’re also similar in that nothing happens of importance for most of their pages, until suddenly in the last fifty pages everything rushes towards a fizzling conclusion. The pursuit of Moby Dick quickly takes a backseat to Ishmael’s cetacean trivia, whereas the Glanton gang promenades harmlessly through a lovely landscape where they commit amazing acts of cartoonish violence without law opposing them, even though the area is crawling with soldiers, until something is conjured out of nowhere to put an end to their picnic by the mesas. And then a few pages later the kid and judge Holden meet again. Incidentally, the gang has the habit of ruining the populations they work for; the idea of heroes becoming an unwanted occupational force was explored much better by J.M. Coetzee in Waiting for the Barbarians. I wouldn’t want my readers to go away empty-handed without a sound recommendation. Moby Dick had something that Blood Meridian lacked, an interesting character like Ishmael. Anyone who’s read the great whale novel knows Ahab is not the protagonist, it’s Ishmael, that wonderful, garrulous, obsessive narrator. Ahab and his grudge are just the price we have to pay for Ishmael’s company. Unfortunately McCarthy wants me to pay thrice, once for the bland kid, once for the amorphous gang he wanders into, and finally for judge Holden, an apparition whose symbolism as a supernatural being, possibly the Devil or the personification of War, is so obvious it was fated to be considered profound by academe, for whom it was tailor-made.

Plot, vocabulary, characters. What next? Ah yes, the prose is awful. Readers claim that McCarthy writes biblical prose. I personally don’t know what they think that means, but I have a very strong belief that it means syntactically plain prose, because that is the nature of ancient languages. His biblical prose is this:

By full dark the blackened ribracks leaned steaming at the fires and there was a jousting over the coals with shaven sticks whereon were skewered gobs of meat and a clank of canteens and endless raillery. And sleep that night on the cold plains of a foreign land, forty-six men wrapped in their blankets under the selfsame stars, the prairie wolves so like in their yammering, yet all about so change and strange.

The author’s secret is that he uses the conjunction and all the time, which as Guy Deutscher explains in Through the Language Glass, is how texts in ancient languages used to be written, without recourse to subordinate clauses. It’s also why “the narrative style of ancient languages such as Hittite, Akkadian, or biblical Hebrew often seems soporifically repetitive.” That’s because they lacked the “syntactic technology” to create subordinate clauses that added complexity to their sentences. As Deutscher argues, ancient languages developed this capacity when their societies started “growing in complexity” and had to expand the uses of language for administrative, legal and judicial purposes. I’m sure there is a lot to admire about the way illiterate shepherds wrote in the Levant region eons ago, but I do like my syntax a bit more intricate. Reading McCarthy’s sentences is like reading an English textbook for foreign students, full of simple telegraphic, declarative sentences that use the SVO structure, before you’re experienced enough to graduate to, I don’t know, Philip Roth. It’s a style, of course, even a popular one. If mediocrities like Hemingway and Raymond Carver got away with it, why shouldn’t McCarthy do so? But I prefer writers who’ve updated their syntactic software, like Vladimir Nabokov and Saramago.

I guess I’m obliged to speak about the violence now. I’m a very insensitive person so children hanging from trees and spilled brains on the prairie don’t leave me shrivelled in a corner, catatonic. I remember laughing at the baby on the spit in The Road, it was such a ludicrous, telling moment, McCarthy admitting he knew no other means to hold a reader’s attention than by throwing snuff movie images at him. If only they arrived to the sound of Riz Ortolani’s score…

What does this novel intend to tell me? That the world is vile and dark and ugly and unredeemable? But I already know that, I’ve read Kaputt and The Skin, I’ve read Joseph Conrad, I’ve read Blidness. Ten novels to say what Jorge de Sena condensed in a single sentence? “I’ve convinced myself that mankind is incurably vile, with a few pretty hours once in a while, and we can’t demand from it more than it can give us.” That’s the power of concision. I guess that’s why he’s a poet and McCarthy a mere novelist. Cormac McCarthy published Blood Meridian in 1985. From what I hear, it was a bad time: Reaganism, Thatcherism, the Cold War, impending nuclear extermination. Perhaps he wrote this novel to teach his fellow countrymen something about the Real World®. Although I’ve never met an American, I’m told they’re these affable but gullible and innocent little creatures who think the world is a bubbly place, like the Hobbits, unaware of all the evil orcs at Mount Doom. As didactic fiction, I have no doubts Blood Meridian is an invaluable instrument. Still, thank God for mature writers like Gabriel García Márquez, who published Love in the Time of Cholera around the same time. With its optimistic sentimentality and promising happy ending in the face of a world going to hell, I dare say he was far braver and more radical, for going against the grain, than this predictable pamphleteer of formless doom.

I could go on, but why bother? More than his one-dimensional characters, his repetitive plots, his simplistic prose, flaws I can tolerate in many writers I admire, what repels me is the authoritarian demeamour his writing conveys. I think a long time ago the world created two types of readers. There were those conceived high in Aristophanes’ clouds. And down below, by the ground, next to dirt and the blood, there were those conceived during the long siege of Troy. From time to time I can admire the blood-splattered walls and the looting, but ultimately my view of the world and existence is just too absurdist to take seriously the gloomy solemnity of an agelaste like McCarthy. If the Catholic Church ever needs a third part for the Bible, McCarthy could ghost-write it. He has the appropriate tone, that thundering tone of someone hurling down timeless truths at the poor mortals, so full of bilious certainty, incapable of ever considering that he masters only a provincial truth. But what else to expect from a man who doesn’t understand Henry James and writers who don’t write about “life and death?” I bet it’s never even occurred to him that there’s nothing vaguer than talking about these extremities. Life is everything that composes it so I fail to see how any writer can not write about something he’s inextricably part of. As for death, it’s sad that the man who’s so fond of it, who one would presume has spent considerable time meditating about it, really thinks he writes about it. No one can know death, only an approximation of it. At best a writer can write about dying, the fear of death or the mourning of a dead person, but actual death, or Death, as I’m sure he’d prefer it, what is that thing other than a fugitive abstraction? This subtle difference is why he can only write about Anton Chirguhs killing people; it’s a subtle but immense difference, it’s the difference between The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and this silly little novel.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Ernst Jünger: Storm of Steel




What do Jorge Luis Borges, André Gide, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll and the Nazis have in common? They all admired Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, the author’s memoirs of World War I. Lieutenant Jünger (1895-1998) enlisted in the German army in 1914 and fought in the trenches for most of the war, until an almost lethal chest wound forced him to abandon the frontline in 1918 to go restore his health in a hospital. The war’s centennial is upon us, and there’s no better way to remember it than reading the books its soldiers bequeathed us.

From what I understand, a few circumstances distinguish this book from other memoirs. First of all, Robert Graves, Vera Brittain and

Time only strengthens my conviction,” Jünger wrote in the introduction to the 1929 English edition, “that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart.” The reader has been warned: this is not an ordinary war book.

But for all its detachment and objectivity, Storm of Steel is not the apologia of war-mongering machismo. Jünger writes with elegance and impartiality of the successes and failures he witnessed in the trenches, alternating measured descriptions of battles with peaceful moments of soldierly comradeship. And although many of the events he lived through disturbed and horrified him, at not point did he abandon himself to morbidity, on the contrary Jünger was a man inebriated with life.

The memoirs begin with his arrival in France and describe the excitement that had electrified the young men of generation and persuaded them to join the great adventure that war promised to be:

We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience. We thought of it as manly, as action, a merry duelling party on flowered, blood-bedewed meadows.

Arriving all cocky and immersed in romantic ideals about War, with a capital W, their first taste of enemy fire, however, quickly showed them that instead of pursuing glory on the battlefield they’d have to worry about surviving first of all. And survival meant developing instincts, which they quickly did and retained until they abandoned the trenches:

This was something that was to accompany us all through the war, that habit of jumping at any sudden and unexpected noise. Whether it as a train clattering past, a book falling to the floor, or a shout in the night – on each occasion, the heart would stop with a sense of mortal dread. It bore out the fact that for four years we lived in the shadow of death.

In war men show their adaptability. Soldiers become used to gunfire and artillery fire, to missions in the middle of the night, to surprise attacks, even to the novel experience of gas attacks, used for the first time in WWI. But for Jünger, meticulous analyst of war and psychology, the true enemy of the soldiers was the routine that set in and threatened to demoralise them:

A contributory factor in the chronic overtiring of the troops was the way that trench warfare, which demanded a different way of keeping one’s strength up, was still a novel and unexpected phenomenon as far as the officer corps was concerned. The great number of sentries and the incessant trench-digging were largely unnecessary, and even deleterious. It’s not a question of the scale of the earthworks, but of the courage of and condition of the men behind them. The ever-deeper trenches might protect against the odd head wound, but it also made for a defensive and security-conscious type of thinking, which we were loath to abandon later. Moreover, the demands made by the maintenance of the trenches were becoming ever-more exorbitant. The most disagreeable contingency was the onset of thaw, which caused frost-cracked chalk facings of the trenches to disintegrate into a sludgy mess.

The first war to also use trenches instead of the old-fashioned ritual meeting of armies on a battlefield, Jünger and his comrades also discovered how a war of attrition and waiting demanded developing skills to adapt to a totally new way of fighting, or not-fighting, demanding of men a physicality that left the author riveted:

We’re real Renaissance men who can turn our hands to anything, and the trenches make their thousandfold demands of us every day. We sink deep shafts, construct dugouts and concrete pillboxes, rig up wire entanglements, devise drainage systems, revet, support, level, raise and smooth, fill in latrines; in a world, we do all possible task ourselves.

War as a test, as self-improvement. Never complaining, Jünger accepted these challenges to find out his own limits.

When Storm of Steel doesn’t focus on Jünger’s personal conflict, it remains a fascinating, informative historical document about World War I. Jünger describes the conditions of the trenches, the effects the war of attrition had on the soldiers, the relationships between the soldiers and the occupied civilians. In some cases the invaders, Jünger included, were billeted in private homes and lived with the owners, who had the task of serving them. In his factual style, when he discusses the occupied population he doesn’t resort to sentimentality; writing from the perspective of the defeated, perhaps Jünger would try to vie for sympathy, but he sticks to cold facts:

The French population was quartered at the edge of the village, towards Monchy. Children played on the steps of dilapidated houses, and old people made hunched figures, slinking timidly through the new bustle that had remorselessly evicted them from the places where they had spent entire lifetimes. The young people had to stand-to- every morning, and were detailed to work the land by the village commandant, First Lieutanant Oberländer. The only time we came into contact with the locals was when we brought them our clothes to be washed or went to buy butter and eggs.

Not only did they use the civilians to aid the war effort, but for logistic reasons they also had to reorganise whole villages and towns:

Since the civilian population was still living in the village, it was important to exploit all available space. Gardens were partly taken up with huts and various temporary dwellings; a large orchard in the middle of the village was turned into a public square, another became a park, the so-called Emmichplatz. A barber and dentist were installed in a couple of dugouts covered with branches. A large meadow next to the church became a burial ground, to which the company marched almost daily, to take their leave of one or more comrades to the strains of mass singing.

World War I was arguably the first war where battles left the battlefields and entered urban centres. Artillery fire razed whole quarters to the ground, burying people under the rubble. Anybody died, whether they were behind or in front of a rifle. In this war only the rats had a good time. “They are repellent creatures,” writes Jünger, “and I’m always thinking of the secret desecrations they perform on the bodies in the village basements.”

This is a tremendous book, almost without peers for what it seeks to accomplish. Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt seems like a descendant, but even the acidic Italian takes the anti-war stance. It’s natural companion is Homer’s The Iliad. Both broach the theme of war with solemnity, admiration even, portraying it as the natural sport of men. But neither fails to also capture the serene stillness between the battles, the intimate moments shared between the soldiers: Achilles’ mourning of Patroclus or Priam’s request that Achilles return the corpse of Hector are no more moving than the libations Jünger and his comrades offer to fallen soldiers. They lived as if they were inside a mythical story and lived as intensely as they could. And yet I don’t think Storm of Steel argues the case for war. Jünger’s descriptions don’t revel in death and destruction. I think he argues something deeper and more despairing: we’re all excited by war, it’s intrinsic to our nature to look up to men who perform amazing feats and defy death, to turn people into heroes, we should be honest about our fascination with war. Some people – pacifists, people politically leaning to the left, people who think human consciousness is a tabula rasa and that war is just something printed on it due to cultural, political, social indoctrination – will find this a horrifying notion because it goes against their hopes that men can change. But like a character says in Wim Wenders’ movie The Wings of Desire, no one has ever written an epic poem about peace. And what’s the founding text of Western Literature? The Iliad. Jünger was on to something.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Society wants to sleep, that’s the only truth: Adolfo Casais Monteiro and Intellectuals



Here we are for the final post on Adolfo Casais Monteiro’s O País do Absurdo. He devotes many articles to topics close to him, by vocation and training: literature, the role of intellectuals in society and Sartre’s famous engagement. I haven’t read such insightful considerations about writers and politics since Czesław Miłosz’ The Captive Mind. But that was a different, if tremendous, beast. Miłosz focused on four Soviet writers who followed the party line, his goal was in understanding the mechanics of their servitude to the Soviet Union and how they came to defend a monstrous regime. Miłosz wrote of concrete cases, made ponderous portraits of writers fettered to an ideology. Casais Monteiro doesn’t give us portraits of journeymen, in fact he despises them; he’s more interested in rebellion; he’s less concrete and more interested in tailoring ethical rules to guide the actions of writers living in dictatorships. Perhaps that makes this part of the book dogmatic, but he was a man in exile fighting with whatever means he had for democracy in his country; he could not afford to believe in art for art’s sake. At best these meditations could offend Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov; but I think most writers would appreciate his call to arms.

Casais Monteiro, as I’ve explained before, belonged to a group of literary critics who helped introduce Modernism in Portugal. The group extolled individual expression over programmatic writing, holding Fernando Pessoa as their role-model. Even so, Casais Monteiro did not ignore that writers were also men, and so had social and political concerns like any other men. Casais Monteiro knew this better than anyone else, for in his private life, when he wasn’t directing his literary magazine, he was publicly and actively opposing the regime. For him it was clear that writers could not remain passive in the struggle for justice, freedom and human dignity; for him every writer should stand up for these rights because a writer could not exist without them. To deny them would be to deny himself. In the 1940s he didn’t need to preach this, Portuguese intellectuals adhered en masse against Salazar. Resistance expressed itself in many forms: some were like Aquilino Ribeiro, his books from the 30s and 40s portray a Portugal without signs of oppression, but in his daily life he was an outspoken opponent; there were journeymen from the Neo-Realist school, closely linked to the Communist Party, who turned literature into propaganda; and some were more active than others, like Jorge de Sena, who also exiled himself after a failed uprising. There were many forms of fighting.

There were also the mediocrities that served Salazar, but nobody remembers them, history has expunged them, the price for the good times they had during the regime. For those intellectuals who stood by their principles and refused to capitulate, it was a hard time to live in Portugal, as Casais Monteiro shows in this excerpt. “A while ago a Brazilian journalist told me that, on a trip to Lisbon, he inquired at the National Secretariat of Information (António Ferro’s famous NSI) after the home address of João Gaspar Simões; the higher clerk’s reply, an ‘intellectual,’ was to manifest surprise and strangeness at the fact that Brazilian writers took seriously figures that in Portugal no one gave importance to – and he didn’t give him the address… and indeed this has been the job of the Estado Novo ‘intellectuals:’ to call the others worthless.” One couldn’t expect less. This division had nefarious consequences for Portuguese culture, even to this day. Most of the good intellectuals were against the regime, which means the regime could only divulge the mediocre culture that remained subordinated to it; this mean exporting a culture of no interest to the world. As such, the reach of Portugal’s culture dimmed during the regime, even in a country that shared the same language like Brazil.  For that reason Casais Monteiro can lament that the “Estado Novo has done nothing in favour of Portuguese culture in Brazil,” since it only publicized its official culture, resulting in half a century of lost opportunities to export the real great writers Portugal had. “The Portuguese Estado Novo’s type of authoritarianism does not consist in the defence of a type of culture, but in the ignorance of any culture,” he wrote. Things were hard on the living but the dead also endured travails, especially because they could not stop the regime from appropriating their work for its own perverse ends. One example is how the regime tried to ‘find’ in Eça de Queiroz the seeds of the Estado Novo’s authoritarian doctrine. “These people’s mentality can’t do better! And poor Eça is used by them, as [Almeida] Garrett was used, as even [Guerra] Junqueiro was used, to set up a sideshow which, they think, is really going to convince anyone, here or there, that they are the legitimate heirs of the culture represented by these great names. The fact that a Garrett, an Eça or a Junqueiro placed freedom above all other rights, seems a minor detail to them.”

True, things were never totally bleak for the living, as Casais Monteiro acknowledges. “Looking at half a dozen of good books recently received from Portugal, only if I were a professional pessimist could I refuse to see that, in spite of everything, there’s still a living Portuguese literature.” But the conditions under which this literature was produced were heinous. His friend José Régio, one of the first men to write about Fernando Pessoa, saw his plays banned from the National Theatre. Others were watched, arrested, interrogated, barred from jobs and spanked. Everything was made to make life harder for them. “It’s sad, however, that this literature can only live with every sort of hazards to their authors: because the literary prizes won’t be for them, nor the well-paid newspaper collaborations, and especially, woe betide them!, any decently-remunerated positions that would allow them to create, with a bit of economic peace, and with a trusting eye towards the future, the work that they can only give us at the cost of the reader can’t imagine how many sacrifices.” And when I think this I feel humbled, humbled by the rich literature that emerged during those years, in the margins of power, in spite of it, under siege by vituperation and contempt, and yet so many amazing writers, especially poets, for I don’t think narrative fiction thrived under the regime, but ah the poets!, Jorge de Sena, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Alexandre O’Neil, Mário Cesariny, Ruy Belo, José Régio, Miguel Torga, Eugénio de Andrade, Herberto Helder, Manuel Alegre, Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão, Natália Correia, Natércia Freire, Ruy Cinatti, Vitorino Nemésio, António Gedeão, António Ramos Rosa. Time and money stop me from writing about all of them.

There were notorious cases of persecution. “If an honest government intended to find four of the finest figures to represent Portugal in any international conclave with dignity, they couldn’t have chosen better than whom the gang currently in power did, gathering the four figures of Jaime Cortesão, António Sérgio, Mário de Azevedo and Vieira de Almeida. But, as the news agencies tell us, the place where they gathered them was in prison, which is in fact, for many years now, the way Portuguese fascism has always found more convenient to honour the highest talents of thought, of science, of literature, of teaching, etc. The non-talents go to the Academy, to Universities, to international congresses and, evidently, to government.” This incident was notorious for a few reasons. Firstly, these four men were in their seventies, some in poor health, when they were arrested, a sign of how petty, paranoid and cruel the regime could be. Amongst them was a man Casais Monteiro greatly admired: Jaime Cortesão (1884-1960), physician, poet and historian, perhaps the greatest historian Portugal had in the 20th century, the ultimate authority on the Portuguese Discoveries.  Casais Monteiro no doubt respected the intellectual, but he also venerated him for other motives. In 1927, less than a year after the military coup, the resistance attempted the first uprising, in Lisbon and Porto. Casais Monteiro, then a student, joined the barricades to defend the Republic, and there he met Cortesão, of the uprising’s chief organizers. “Victorious in one part of the country, the uprising was overwhelmed; but in Porto it resisted for as much as possible, until the siege imposed surrender; and it’s from that brief period that I keep the first image of Jaime Cortesão, in the revolutionaries’ headquarters, where some students had gone to volunteer to fight on their side. It was the first time I saw him, and long years passed before the 17-year-old student could meet the exemplary hero – precisely to remind him of the episode, and to tell him what his figure and example meant, during all those years, for our resistance against tyranny.” Cortesão had been a volunteer in World War I and served as combat medic. In 1927 he was the director of the National Library, presiding over a new generation of future great historians. After the uprising he exiled himself in Spain and then France. In 1940 he returned to Portugal, and after a brief arrest he was allowed to leave for Brazil, officially ‘banned,’ where he lived until 1957, at which time he returned to Portugal. The second reason why this case was notorious was precisely because the Brazilians didn’t like the regime arresting one of their favourite honorary citizens. In Brazil Cortesão had become a college professor and written seminal books on Brazilian history, including one on the foundation of São Paulo, and in 1952 the Brazilian government had invited him to organize an exhibition to celebrate this city’s fourth centennial anniversary. After an aggressive campaign in the Brazilian press, Salazar released him. One day I hope to write more about him.

Another writer evoked by Casais Monteiro is Aquilino Ribeiro (1885-1963), who in his seventies decided to upset the regime with a violent novel called When the Wolves Howl. For Casais Monteiro, he was the epitome of the combative writer. “Here is Aquilino Ribeiro, at the age when it’s conventionally said that people are only good for retirement, heroically laying bare, in the pages of When the Wolves Howl, the true face of the Estado Novo, showing how it ‘solves’ the national problems, how the people are for its implacable machine an unimportant detail – and showing how its ‘justice’ is done. And now dragged to the defendant’s chair, not giving an inch to the siege by the dictatorship’s watchdogs, not losing spirit, and, on the contrary, forging new weapons from the self-portrait of infamy the regime has offered him by charging him – here’s the great writer in all the youth of his spirit and of his dignity as man and writer, refusing to sleep in the shade of laurels, in an admirable example of unshakeable firmness.” Aquilino, it must be remembered, had been a defender of liberties for decades, ever since his youth, when he’d joined anarchists and republicans to overthrow the monarchy and create the Republic. In fact he was once arrested when his rooms exploded because of explosives kept there – his rooms were a workshop for bombs. Because of this novel he was subjected to a lawsuit for denigrating state institutions. In Brazil both the novel and a book on the lawsuit were published with prefaces by Casais Monteiro. Aquilino is a controversial figure to this day, believed to have been involved in the assassination of a king. Yes, you read that right.

Casais Monteiro’s admiration for men like Cortesão and Aquilino informs his meditations about the role of the intellectual as a resister, and it leads him to consider the relationship between literature and politics. In that regard, I like how he inverts the question of judging writers for their politics. “The sadness of our time is that their good intentions, whether they be communist or monarchic, socialist or miserably liberal, leads the work of great writers to be judged as if their political position were essential for its understanding. Why, the truth, the clear but so poorly accepted truth, is that those political positions are nothing more than attempts by the citizen that exists in every serious artist to find, in the plane of social action, a way of participation; but neither does this invalidate his work, nor is it invalidated by it.” This is a very generous view: instead of seeing them as fellow travellers, or useful idiots, turning them into passive receivers of trends, he sees in the politicization of writers their search for tools to give concreteness to their need to have an active role in society, even if it sometimes takes them to defend murderers and criminals. But this is the price to pay. The alternative is to remain indifferent, to evoke neutrality in the name of abstractions, a road that to the author leads to more dangers since this indifference in writers who do not want to “interfere in politics” only “drives them into being handcuffed when politics, which does not repay them in the same manner, decides to interfere in the field of intelligence, either to suppress it, either to borrow the quill. Then the intellectual wakes up, and he sees that his splendid isolation was not, as he supposed, a ‘virtue’ of intelligence, and that he needs to defend it, to be able to cultivate it.” For him the writer must resist because he has no other option. “Society asks him not to touch taboos, that he quietly produce his poems or his novels. I mean, society is the first one to push the writer towards what it’s customarily called a ‘purely aesthetic’ attitude. There it’ll be effectively at ease. But not him. Because there is no ‘purely aesthetic’ attitude. That’s another of the lies of society, one of its ways of not taking knowledge of what, if it opened its eyes, it could still see against it. Society wants to sleep, that’s the only truth.”

This dogmatism leads him to divide intellectuals in two groups: “Intellectuals are part of society, and that forces us from the start to accept their division in two classes: those who serve it, and those who serve man beyond society. Certain poorly understood ideas, and a lot of confusion around the word ‘bourgeoisie,’ are responsible for the assumption that, living in a bourgeois society, the writer ‘represents’ it. Why, this is an absurd assumption. No society is made of a single piece; inside it, the tension of opposite tendencies is permanent. More than any of its members, the intellectual is, by the nature of his activity, a ‘resistant.’ When he really accepts it, and defends it, assimilating his ‘interests’ to its – that is, turning into one the interests of the spirit and those which, in a more vulgar sense, refer to material conveniences – the intellectual is, according to all probabilities, a civil servant of intelligence, a bureaucrat of ideas, who doesn’t deserve, or stopped deserving the name of intellectual.” This inevitably leads him to reassess the meaning of Sartre’s engagement, a term that for him has been much misunderstood, and he tries to purify it. “Not to complicate it, to sum the question up as much as possible, we can say this: Sartre used that word to indicate the intervention of the writer, but in no way his submission. He meant, on using it, not the dependence on a party, but interest, participation. The engagé writer will then be he for whom it’s indispensable to intervene in the problems of his time, who doesn’t consider himself an isolated being, exempt from responsibilities in what happens in the world arena, and who, on the contrary, is more obliged than anybody else to take an active part in events. In sum, the engagé writer is the one who isn’t in the margin, or above what’s going on, but instead is fully immersed in life, and is, as much as or more than anybody, responsible.” I find this quite sensible, participation without ideologies and parties. I do prefer my writers this way, involved but too undisciplined to serve masters.

Well, we reach the end of O País do Absurdo. Hopefully these three posts have given you an idea of who Adolfo Casais Monteiro was. Although I’m done with him for now, one day I intend to return to him to write about his poetry.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Adolfo Casais Monteiro Part II: a dictator has no other yearning than suppressing censorship



After Adolfo Casais Monteiro’s valiant defence of the First Portuguese Republic, let’s see him get deeper inside Salazar’s regime. Or better yet, let’s go outside the regime to look at it from another angle: the empire’s colonies. Portugal, if I’m not mistaken, was the last European empire to crumble, and only after a bloody war that lasted thirteen years. In 1961 the imperial remnants woke up and began to fight for their freedom, in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea. The war only ended in 1974, after the dictatorship fell and independence was granted to all the colonies. But there wasn’t fighting only in African jungles, there was also political, diplomatic fighting taking place at international organizations. For the most part, Casais Monteiro was disappointed with the “‘democratic’ assemblies that are the UN and NATO.” According to him, they did not do enough to emancipate the colonies, and in fact hindered their democratic aspirations. “Such organizations continue to serve interests, and not to defend principles – except when those don’t collide against interests.” For him it was bad enough the UN had accepted a country that disrespected the basic human rights enshrined in the UN charter. “How can they continue to keep their eyes shut, regarding the stubbornness with which mr. Salazar insists in compromising before the eyes of public opinion, making it clear they’re protecting the pure essence of intolerance, of tyranny and of oppression, feeding in their democratic midst the serpent of fanaticism, helping the use of fear and of violence as a way of government?” But it was NATO, and America behind it, that made his blood boil, having accepted Portugal’s membership because of Salazar’s anti-communist stance, ignoring his disrespect for civil liberties. But we’re all used to this, right?

But the colonies. After the Portuguese Empire reached its zenith in the 16th century, a slow decline imposed upon the nation, and it started losing bits of itself. By the end of the 19th century it had lost Brazil and its wondrous gold mines, and it was down to a few locations in India (Macau, Goa) and Africa. They meant more as a national symbol than for any genuine usefulness, not to mention Portugal never had enough people to properly populate them or the money to exploit its most valuable resources: diamonds, oil, etc. The colonies represented above all the delusion that Portugal was still a powerful nation, that stretched across the globe. It was propaganda for internal consumption, of course; but as Casais Monteiro notes, it was the lynchpin of the regime. “Contrarily to what happens with the political regimes of France and England, the colonial problem constitutes, for Portugal, a matter of life and death. Not for economic motives, but because a regime of strength cannot withstand the consequences of stepping back. Salazar cannot admit another solution other than the current situation; to compromise would be, for him, death. Negotiating would be the inevitable end of the dictatorship; to even accept an autonomous statute for these territories would be to abdicate of the supposed patriotism that stops him from accepting the simplest of evidences. At the same time, to discuss with the colonies’ enslaved peoples would be giving them more rights and more freedom than to the Portuguese. How could Salazar discuss with them, when he never discussed with his countrymen, nor granted them the right to disagree?”

It was because Salazar could not give up the colonies without ruining himself that he failed to see, or ignored altogether, the winds of change that swept Europe after World War II. The experiences of France and England with Algeria and India should have prepared Portugal for the colonial twilight, but instead it presumed to be exceptional and immune to the decadence of the other European empires. But this was more propaganda to reassure the flock in Portugal. “The truth is that we, Portuguese, had never thought about the colonial problem. We accepted a condition established as evident by itself. We were – we are still, woe betide us! – a politically immature people sentimentally solving difficulties, accepting the commodious traditional version of a paternalism that would make of the blacks sacrificed to colonialism a sort of children who wanted nothing but the white man’s ‘protection;’ we thought the other nations exploited the blacks – but not us!” And so one day the colonies became a big problem that forced Portugal, so used to secrecy and to solve everything indoor, preferably with lots of censorship to the mix, had to go wash its dirty laundry not only publicly but at the UN. But this also had its entertaining side, like when a literary critic was invited by Salazar to go to the UN Assembly regurgitate the same propaganda the regime spewed at home. “I’m amused to see the excellent literary critic Franco Nogueira being derailed into diplomacy in such an untimely moment, having no other option but to echo, from the UN’s tribune, the absurdities that in Portugal are uttered, which is not overly harmful – for it’s as if nobody heard them. But at the UN – poor Franco Nogueira! – in the face of all those ex-colonized and semi-colonized still, to utter the same things that are published in the dailies of Portugal to reassure the same people uttering them – it’s too ridiculous, besides being too regrettable. If the stones from the sidewalk don’t rise, it’s only because for every sidewalk stone there are two PIDE [secret police] agents.”

Adolfo Casais Monteiro was a passionate supporter of the colonies’ independence, and I’ll wrap this theme with this excellent meditation of the right to self-rule: “Indeed, if a people only has the right to self-rule AFTER it’s achieved maturity, we need a criterion for maturity: and who is going to establish it? how to define the ‘political, moral and economic capacity’ that would be necessary for such?
   Every dictator claims precisely, against the will of the people they oppress, this alleged lack of maturity. They suppress the instruments of democracy to save their nations from disorder and the chaos they’d fall into if their wise iron hand did not lead them. It must be asked: on what grounds can we deny to the African people the right to govern themselves, without falling back into the same attitude of dictators?” This could have been written about the Arab Spring two years ago.

Let’s move on to censorship and propaganda. These two instruments are essential for the survival of the regime. Propaganda because it creates the illusion the regime is stronger than it looks. One idea Casais Monteiro likes to repeat is that dictatorships are less strong than they seem. “Indeed, tyranny has nothing virile. It’s craven in its own essence. It claims to be strong – but it lacks strength to accept fighting face to face. It needs crowds dragged by whatever means, bought by whatever means, or simply forced. Of crowds absolutely devoid of personality, good only for taking pictures, in order to use that democratic reason to convince the world that the regime of force… expresses the popular will.” And then censorship, not only to silence dissent, but to protect its own supporters. “It’s not only its adversaries that the Estado Novo wants to shut up – I’d almost say: it’s the actual consciousnesses of its flock that it needs to hide the truth from, the tremendous truth: the total insubstantiality of power, secured only by force. And wouldn’t force, without the censorship, start to wobble?” Censorship is one of his favourite targets, and it gives him occasion to dissect the mind of the dictatorship with his usual mordant wit:

   A dictator has no other yearning than suppressing censorship. I know a country where they’re elaborating a media law for years now… to replace it. This moving ingenuity hasn’t yet succeeded, of course, in reaching its goal because the most industrious lawmen can’t find a way of making a media law from whose articles they can obtain the same results a censorship committee does. How to make a law with articles like this: ‘It’s forbidden to denounce any theft or abuse when these are committed by the State?!’ Or else: ‘The press cannot say that there is hunger, that there are people in prisons, that the police beats up political prisoners?!’
   The dictator’s wish for legality even becomes touching. His greatest desire is to be, like the Tsar of all Russias, the “little father.” And on that behalf he does everything: he fires teachers, he closes down schools, he opens up always more jails, he always steals more money, everything in the hope that, paying here, exonerating here, one reaches at least the ‘union of the national family,’ his much intended goal. His greatest surprise is when, for instance, forced by international circumstances to ‘open the faucets’ for a few days, for an electoral simulacrum, suddenly there is, from every direction, the terrible voice of public opinion shouting: We don’t want this regime! Then the Boss, tears in his voice, speaks his bitterness for seeing that, after so many years in that ideal regime, it seems there are some who are in disagreement with him.

And so it’s time for Salazar to make his big entrance. Casais Monteiro, like the decent human being he is, can’t hide his absolute repulsion for Salazar. Thankfully he channelled that nausea into fascinating analyses of how dictators think. Let’s begin with this apt analogy that I think is original to him:

   Dictators speak, to their countrymen, in the same language that occupation troops use with citizens of a foreign country. More concretely: Salazar, and any of his minions, addresses his people in the same style used by Hitler’s generals in proclamations directed at French or Italians. Summing up, and even more concretely: in the same way the occupation authorities began by giving sweet advices, and making mellifluous declarations of love, spontaneously asking for cooperation, to end up making (and performing) the most horrifying threats, so does our little tyrant lack any other note in his musical sheet: he directly goes from asking love to offering a beating.
   I speak metaphorically. Salazar does not ask love, for he doesn’t know what that is; and he doesn’t offer a beating, because that would be a sincere declaration, a thing which he admittedly rejects.

And from this he extracts what may be the best definition of a dictator ever: “Tyrants are, in truth, an occupational force.”

Casais Monteiro gets more specific. He points out Salazar’s quiet sadism and the joy he has in making people quake in fear of him, and why it’s so satisfying for him to reduce his enemies to silence. “Yes, the crime is to have an opinion, or better yet: it’s to challenge the never satisfied vanity of mr. Salazar, for whom the chorus of his grovellers is not enough. What he wants is the silence of his adversaries, it’s to rule over a cemetery from which no voice rises anymore. But I’m not being precise: I fully know that mr. Salazar’s pleasure is knowing that his adversary is alive, but gagged; knowing that he has a voice, but can’t speak, it’s to trundle through a people, and knowing it suffers.” He also has something to say about the perennial myth that Salazar, whatever flaws he had, was a man of honour. Casais Monteiro is very succinct on that point: “If dictatorships kept their word… they wouldn’t be dictatorships. If mr. Salazar kept his word today he’d still only be a Professor of Finances in the Faculty of Law in Coimbra (…). Wherever there’s a dictator, ‘keeping one’s word’ is an expression that has stopped making any sense.” And yet his apologists continue to insist in this remarkable virtue. Another topic very dear to his defenders, which I’ve mentioned before, is that some people take umbrage at him being called a fascist. Salazar was not a fascist! His regime was something totally different than Fascism and Nazism; for God’s sake, look at the evidence, he was a Christian and everybody knows Mussolini and Hitler were atheists! No, really, this argument is used. Casais Monteiro concedes the fact that Salazar was a one-of-a-kind fascist. “Salazar is not a dictator who shouts the supposed virility of force to the four winds; in that regard he’s distinguished himself from Hitler and Mussolini, and even Franco. Salazar never ordered anyone to be shot – but many people have been “allowed to die” by him. Portugal had and has its death camps, but he never ‘sentenced’ his opponents to one of them. When the police shoot someone dead, it’s as if by personal inspiration, or by ‘excessive zeal.’ Salazar likes a “proactive slap” and this gives him the look of a professor accused of hitting his students, who smiles mercifully when he’s accused, as if to say that boys need to be treated like that, in order to respect the authority of the master…”

In the third and final part Adolfo Casais Monteiro discusses intellectuals and Sartre’s engagement.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Well order is exactly that: the absence of opinion – Adolfo Casais Monteiro Gets Political




Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972) lived a plentiful life: he was literary critic, teacher, novelist, poet and editor. Today he’s better remembered, if he’s remembered at all by the younger generations, as a literary critic involved in the seminal modernist magazine Presença. His first poetry book came out in 1929, after discovering this magazine, which he directed from 1930 until 1940, when it ceased publication. One day I intend to write about his poetic oeuvre. As one of the most important forces behind the organization and divulgation of the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, whom he personally met and corresponded with, his name has earned immortality as a footnote in every critical edition of the great poet. I don’t know if he’d have like to be remembered as a literary critic only. He was also an outspoken enemy of the Portuguese dictatorship. For him, an intellectual, civic action was a moral obligation, and he paid his convictions dearly: he was arrested several times and in 1937 he was forbidden to teach. He had to make ends meet translating, editing and writing for newspapers and short-lived magazines. This love for freedom started at an early age. Once he wrote that “I was not yet eighteen when the dictatorship enthroned itself. I was a student, and as such I took part, in Porto, in the first popular reactions against the military rule that since May 28, 1926 had suppressed democratic institutions. I wrote in little student journals and others that a censorship still without the efficiency it’d later acquire did not totally stop from channelling ideas and feelings contrary to the situation.”

In 1954 he exiled himself in Brazil, a safe harbour for many Portuguese ex-pats during the dictatorship: his hero Jaime Cortesão, the poet Jorge de Sena, the philosopher Agostinho da Silva, the historian Joaquim Barradas de Carvalho, to name just a few. Free to continue his literary studies, he was hired as teacher in several Brazilian universities and penned many books on literature and literary theory. Perhaps he would have liked to be remembered as a literary critic only. But he was also a political thinker, a man who acted on his convictions, and in Brazil he also used his freedom to create a focus of opposition against the dictatorship, writing for many periodicals about Portugal’s real situation. At the time the regime’s propaganda machine was busy spreading the usual disinformation in Brazil, trying to convince Brazilians that Salazar was a beloved leader who ruled according to popular will and within the bounds of legality. Casais Monteiro and others fought back creating an oppositionist newspaper called Portugal Democrático, which served to alert Brazilians to the tyranny, terror, injustice and violence being practiced in that modern European country. The stated purpose of his political writing was “to explain that Portugal is not the Estado Novo;” he feared Brazilians would confuse the two and believed that every Portuguese had a duty to clarify them: “It is the task of every Portuguese writer and journalist living in Brazil not to let the Brazilian people have doubts on this fundamental point: the struggle being fought in Portugal is not one faction against another, it’s a whole people against an oligarchy.” He had to emphasize this point because the regime also tried to minimize these dissenting voices by accusing them of being mouthpieces for other factions, namely the communists, that wanted to rule in Portugal. The reason he and so many ex-pats fought was not just political, it was “especially a structural nausea for moral deformity, for subservience, for the cult of false values of every kind; men who not only could not ‘collaborate,’ but can’t even ‘breathe’ in the national atmosphere instituted by the Estado Novo mentality.” I think he would also like to be remembered as a freedom fighter. Before he died he was preparing the publication of an anthology of political writings, called O País do Absurdo. This book was only posthumously published, in 1974, when Portugal was finally a democracy again. I don’t presume to know his mind, but I think his great disappointment was dying without seeing this dream come true.

O País do Absurdo (The Country of the Absurd) is a political book without party loyalties or ideologies (I think the author was a communist, but I’m not sure), committed only to uphold freedom, democracy and honesty as higher values. It’s an angry book, a diary of indignation inside which Casais Monteiro registered the crimes and lies of the regime. It’s also an autopsy of totalitarianism, full of insightful intuitions about the minds of dictators and the mechanisms of violence and censorship. And since he was a poet and literary critic, he does not neglect to discuss the role of intellectuals and writers in relation to politics. It’s a very passionate book, a paean to human dignity, remarkably modern in its arguments.

Before we continue, a quick history lesson is in order. Portugal’s golden age, historians agree, were the 15th and 16th centuries, when the country was (relatively) rich and in tune with European ideas. But after a short-lived exuberance, the country closed upon itself and started a slow decay. There were many motives. The king concentrated all the power unto himself, choking self-initiative and restricting freedoms that could harm his influence. In 1536, at the request of the king, the Inquisition settled in Portugal, and the recently-formed Company of Jesus took over education, destroying whatever was left of Renaissance Humanism. The Discoveries and the imperial expansion also stimulated the country’s depopulation, rendering the national economy dead, but rather than giving rise to a mercantile class, it created a parasitical court that thrived around the king. Portugal kept out of the major social and intellectual developments in Europe for centuries. Foreign travellers remarked that coming to the Iberian Peninsula was like entering a barbarian continent, and perhaps they were right. And this isolation continued until the first decades of the 19th century. Between 1828 and 1834 a civil war was fought between two royal brothers: D. Pedro, representing liberalism (in its original meaning), wanted to create a constitutional monarchy; D. Miguel wanted to maintain the absolutist regime. D. Pedro and the liberals won and began the slow process of returning Portugal to Europe. Further developments occurred in 1910 when republicans overthrew the monarchy on October 5. The First Republic remains a controversial topic in Portuguese history: several have accused it of being chaotic, disorderly and a veil under which a dictatorship operated; others have pointed outs its many improvements: it extended the right to vote to more citizens; it gave women more rights, including the right to divorce; it allowed freedom of press; it created a national educational system. Its economy was precarious and its governments were constantly rotating because of crises, but historians also recognize that in its final years, after initial predicaments and difficulties, it was finally reaching stability. But just when that was happening, on May 28, 1926 there was a military coup that allegedly intended to end all the disorder caused by the Republic; the militaries in fact promised to return to democracy quickly after necessary measures had been taken. Of course this was a lie, and the militaries didn’t solve any of the country’s fundamental problems, so they called a professor of Finances called António de Oliveira Salazar to sort out the finances. And in no time he became the de facto leader of the country, calling his regime the Estado Novo, or New State. Politically Salazar was a fascist, with some local traits, which many of his apologists use to claim he was never a fascist. One of their favourite arguments is that Hitler and Mussolini were atheists and Salazar was a Christian, so they weren’t the same. Whatever the case may be, it’s a fact that Salazar declared 3 days of national mourning after Hitler’s suicide. Salazar’s solutions for Portugal was reverting everything that had been achieved since 1834 and reinstating the ancien régime for modern times. Or as Casais Monteiro puts it, “The great task of the dictatorship, before Salazar and with Salazar, was this: to destroy the efforts made during a century to integrate Portugal in liberal European society.”

Adolfo Casais Monteiro grew up during the Republic and at school learned to live according to the values and ideals that gave birth to it, regardless of the practical results. For him the chaotic, weak Republic was a lie invented by the militaries to justify the coup. He has two objectives in the book: to defend the spirit of the Republic; and to destroy the myth of order. “The first ‘reason’ in the mouth of a defender of the Estado Novo, when he’s obliged to explain himself, is the infamous ‘order.’ Before it was disorder, then the dictatorship came, and it established order. There is yet to come someone who can provide a rational justification of what such order is. One won’t require a lot of effort to arrive at the conclusion that such formula merely means the satisfaction of irresponsibility, and that it doesn’t have any real substance. The person satisfied with the order that he says exists in Portugal shows, in fact, his lack of interest in the national life, his total abdication as a political man, and as a thinking being. It’s the commodity of not thinking, the consolation of having an appearance that spares him reflecting about any problems.” For the author, “order is exactly that: the absence of opinion.”

Perhaps Adolfo Casais Monteiro’s memories of the Republic were too idealistic. Historians do point out that it was a period of instability, terrorism and uncertainty. But he doesn’t ignore its problems, he only thinks that was lost was far more important than was gained. “The Salazarist order enthusiast believes that before the Estado Novo was chaos. There were revolutions, there were strikes, there were bombs even! Now, all of that is over, and look at him satisfied. It doesn’t cross his mind to ask how and why it ended, and he doesn’t even think necessary to ask his buttons what was the ‘price’ of that cost. Only appearances matter to him. He can go out without fear that a strike will force him to go by his own foot, or that a revolution will stop him from leaving his house altogether. And yet… if he could be honest to himself, he’d see that ‘order’ didn’t solve any of the problems that before May 28 motivated the strikes and revolutions, that the Estado Novo did not suppress discontentment, did not put an end to injustice, did not solve social problems, and that it simply increased the army and police’s strengths, beginning to resort to violence as the only solution and irresistible argument.”

In fact the myth of order, for Casais Monteiro, only proved the weakness of the regime. “If the friend of order wished to think (assuming there is a friend of order capable of thinking), I’d advise him to ask himself why is there censorship, if there is order? For wouldn’t the existence of order make the need for censorship inexplicable? And the political police? And if he tells me that that is necessary to shut up the malcontents, I must reply to him: either the Estado Novo is so weak it can’t exist in a regime of free discussion, and so it’s actually weaker than the weak republic; or order only comes down to the fact that a minority is oppressing a majority by force, which, at the end of 30 years of Estado Novo, is really incomprehensible.”

For him, the weakness of the Republic were in fact its virtues. “The Estado Novo itself vainly preaches its ‘order’ and its permanence in power, as if they were virtues, when in fact one and the other are due only to what the Republic could not use without reneging the best of its meaning: violence, coercion, intimidation, the gag.” The republic could not use the instruments of the dictatorship without becoming a dictatorship too. “The freedom to accuse, from 1910 to 1926, gave place to the prohibition to do it; everything had been criticised; since 1926 nothing can be criticised.” He returns to this idea many times, namely that the Republic was too benevolent to its enemies and ultimately wrought its own destruction. “The main flaw of the Republic however was its belief in the invulnerability of the institutions, as if there were in them a virtue capable of, by itself, save the regime from all crises. But the powerful from before its coming remained powerful, and they could prepare its death behind the back of that same Republic that let them live, without realizing that its main defence was in consolidating the regime, promoting the politicization of the small bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in order to form a real public opinion.”

He blames the Republic only of naivety and an excess of blinding idealism; its architects believed that creating a democratic regime would by itself heal the country’s deep problems. “Such illusion was one of the fundamental aspects of that generous idealism on which all the Republican propaganda was founded, believing that the change of political institutions would result, as if by a miracle, in social progress. And it would indeed have been a miracle if, with only that change, the country had transformed itself from a poor country into a rich country, without touching privileges and laws.” The problem, to him, is that the republic did not take into account the fact that the population still lived in almost feudal institutions, between a priggish local nobility and a church which less than a century ago ruled under the authority of the Inquisition. These circumstances created an apathetic population that remained constrained by the old social order. “If the Republic did a lot for instruction and education of the people, it did not however give to fundamental problems the solutions that would have been necessary for that education and that instruction to transform society, and suppress economic unbalance.” And he repeats: “Indeed, the idealism of the revolution of October 5 did not take into account an adversary rooted in the country’s life, and which was far more dangerous than all the monarchs and their incursions: the misery of some, and the excessive wealth of others. The great mass of people lacked, and continues to lack, economic independence, the minimum conditions of human dignity, that permitted them to constitute a conscious electorate.” One of the old institutions that had much to lose, and helped the dictatorship, was obviously the Catholic Church. “The truth is sad, it’s but necessary to affirm it: the Church has been the only moral support of Portuguese fascism, the Church created in its bosom the dictator, only she can get the country rid of the poison that has poisoned Portuguese society.” Casais Monteiro was talking about Acção Católica. “Salazar fed himself on every modern theoretician of authoritarianism, with Maurras leading the charge, but the nursery where his spirit was formed is called Acção Católica. And only a Portuguese who knows that phase of national life can understand the conservatism that characterised that nominally religious organization, and which nowadays, I hope, has recovered a function more in accordance with its name and its affiliation.”

The political apathy he speaks of was perhaps the Republic’s greatest enemy. The Republican ideals thrived especially in Lisbon and Porto, the main urban centres, but outside them, throughout the countryside – Portugal was then very rural – these ideals had difficulty setting roots. After all, after 400 years of absolutism and 300 of Inquisition, one couldn’t expect great results in less than a century of changes. “This mentality was not invented by the Estado Novo. It merely turned into a principle of rule what, as a survival of absolutism, constituted yet the state of a large majority of the country’s population, and which liberalism failed to eliminate: the absence of a political consciousness. Except that, while liberalism tried to elevate the mental level of the Portuguese society, the Estado Novo’s concern was to reduce it to the levels of the lower layers of people, thinking it was enough for a government to know, and that a people doesn’t have to know anything, or have an opinion.” The great crime of the dictatorship, though, was to crush even what little results had been achieved since 1834 in politicizing the Portuguese. “The Estado Novo, resorting only to suppressing the Portuguese people’s possibilities of a political education, taking away from them what little responsibility they had achieved, only placed them in the situation previous to liberalism, restoring the type of government precisely under which Portugal was dragged into decadence: absolutism. Even baptized as ‘organic democracy,’ after the last world war, with the fall of its models and protectors, fascism and Nazism, the regime kept the same authoritarian traits.” Here Casais Monteiro is referring to a gambit by Salazar to legitimize his regime when Europe decided not to go fascist after all. He allowed preparations for free elections and created the Movement of Democratic Unity (MUD). The problem is that MUD received considerable support from the population and Salazar realized that if free elections took place, he’d be kicked out. Heartbroken by this betrayal, after all he did for the Portuguese, he unleashed a witch-hunt to punish thousands of people who supported MUD: people were arrested, fired, intimidated and spanked; the usual…

Salazar, as Casais Monteiro loves to show, was a despicable, lying little ogre incapable of telling the truth or honouring his word. Casais Monteiro’s deference for the Republic is proportional to his contempt for him. Next post is mostly about Salazar.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Saint Augustine: Confessions



Saint Augustine (354-430) was born in present-day Algeria and is one of the great Church Fathers. His Confessions (written in 398) are called the West’s first autobiography, so that’s a strong reason to read them. But it’s not a book I enjoyed reading; for me it’s a cruel, misanthropic book redolent with Christianity’s typical contempt for the human dimension in behalf of a super-human view of what men and women should be. It is a paradoxical autobiography: in its essence it’s about an ordinary, all too human man; at the same time, it’s a condemnation of everything that is normal in people. Saint Augustine’s life is remarkable for how unremarkable it was.

His mother, Monica, was Christian, his father was not a believer for many years, but he was tolerant. “Though he had not yet come to faith, he did not obstruct my right to follow my mother’s devotion, so as to prevent me believing in Christ. She anxiously laboured to convince me that you, my God, were my father rather her husband.” He had, from what I can gather, a happy childhood.

How was young Saint Augustine? He was a normal child: had trouble learning foreign languages, had a “love of games,” a “passion for frivolous spectacles,” a “restless urge to imitate comic scenes,” and – heaven forbid! – he “used to steal from my parent’s cellar and to pocket food from their table” to “satisfy the demands of gluttony.” How absolutely ghastly, he was just like you and me! Somebody call Father Merrin. He also found pleasure in “doing what was not allowed,” of course he did. His adolescence was no less odious: “I had become deafened by the clanking chain of my mortal condition, the penalty of my pride. I travelled very far from you, and you did not stop me. I was tossed about and spilt, scattered and boiled dry in my fornications. And you were silent. How slow I was to find my joy!” And let’s not forget he indulged in “fornication.” Some of his problems are downright sad: “I even dared to lust after a girl and to start an affair that would procure the fruit of death.” He started well, but then degenerated into a saint.

Let’s go back to his hatred for school and learning. He discovered God more or less the way I did: “As a boy I began to pray to you, “my help and my refuge,” and for my prayer to you I broke the bonds of my tongue. Though I was only a small child, there was great feeling when I pleaded with you that I might not be caned at school. And when you did not hear me, which was so as ‘not to give me to foolishness,’ adult people, including even my parents, who wished no evil to come upon me, used to laugh at my stripes, which were at that time a great and painful evil to me.” I was just like that. When I was a kid and had a vague idea of God, I used to ask him to help get good grades. But it never worked so I figured I was talking to a void and gave up the practice.

Saint Augustine hated school and the arts, and he studied Greek and Latin with some aversion, but at last he realized it was useful in helping him read and write, talents he took with him into life. “This was better than the poetry I was later forced to learn about the wanderings of some legendary fellow named Aeneas (forgetful of my own wanderings) and to weep over the death of a Dido who took her own life from love. In reading this, O God my life, I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from you, and my miserable condition in that respect brought no tears to my eyes.” Yes, to him literature is horrible, pulling him away from God! So centuries ago art was already being blamed for immorality. “What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying fro his lack of love for you, my God, light of my heart, bread of the inner mouth of my soul, the power which begets life in my mind and in the innermost recesses of my thinking.” Well, I agree with him there, if all I had to read was Aeneid, I’d despair too.

Let’s despise bookish people a bit more: “Let there be no abuse of me from people who sell or buy a literary education. If I put to them the question whether the poet’s story is true that Aeneas once came to Carthage, the uneducated will reply that they do not know, while the educated will say it is false. But if I ask with what letters Aeneas’ name is spelled, all who have learn to read will reply correctly in accordance with the agreement and convention by which human beings have determined the value of these signs. Similarly, if I ask which would cause the greater inconvenience to someone’s life, to forget how to read and write or to forget these fabulous poems, who does not see what answer he would give, unless he has totally lost his senses?” Certainly, you have a point, reading and writing have more uses than literature, but it’s not either-or, don’t be so annoyingly pragmatic. But Saint Augustine is quite strict about what he reads, and he uses incredible criteria, namely whether or not the name of Christ is included in it: “This name, by your mercy Lord, this name of my Saviour your Son, my infant heart had piously drunk in with my mother’s milk, and at a deep level I retained the memory. Any book which lacked this name, however well written or polished or true, could not entirely grip me.”

No, I really do not like this man.

But then, when you’re least expecting something memorable from all this curmudgeonly talk, there’s a line or a passage brimming with love for life and empathy. I love for instance this description of babyhood:

Little by little I began to be aware where I was and wanted to manifest my wishes to those who could fulfil them as I could not. For my desires were internal; adults were external to me and had no means of entering into my soul. So I threw my limbs about and uttered sounds, signs resembling my wishes, the small number of signs of which I was capable but such signs as lay in my power to use: for there was no real resemblance. When I did not get my way, either because I was not understood or lest it be harmful to me, I used to be indignant with my seniors for their disobedience, and with free people who were not slaves to my interests; and I would revenge myself upon them by weeping. That this is the way of infants I have learnt from those I have been able to watch. That is what I was like myself and, although they have not been aware of it, they have taught me more than my nurses with all their knowledge of how I behaved.

His ruminations on friendship are even better. There are many epigraphs to plunder from him. Like this one: “Friendship can be a dangerous enemy, a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation.” Friendship was approved by him; he realised the folly of loving people who would die, of course, and they distracted him from love he could offer to God, but even friendship was irresistible to him:

   There were other things which occupied my mind in the company of my friends: to make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together, well-written books, to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity – just as a person debates with himself – and in the very rarity of disagreement to find the salt of normal harmony, to teach each other something or to learn from one another, to long with impatience, for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival. These and other signs come from the heart of those who love and are loved and are expressed through the mouth, through the tongue, through the eyes, and a thousand gestures of delight, acting as fuel to set our minds on fire and out of many to forge unity.
   This is what we love in friends. We love to the point that the human conscience feels guilty if we do not love the person who is loving us, and if that love is not returned – without demanding any physical response other than the marks of affectionate good will. Hence the mourning if a friend dies, the darkness of grief, and as the sweetness is turned into bitterness the heart is flooded with tears. The lost life of those who die becomes the death of those still living.

What a moving and perspicacious description. I want to steal this entire passage.

The apotheosis of the book, though, is his relationship with Monica, his mother, a woman he revered, kindness and meekness personified. Before he converted, she was already a believer, and through her diligence she helped his father convert too. “So she was brought up in modesty and sobriety. She was made by you obedient to her parents rather than by them to you. When she reached marriageable age, she was given to a man and served him as her lord. She tried to win him for you, speaking to him of you by her virtues through which you made her beautiful, so that her husband loved, respected and admired her.”

More on the wonderful Monica:

Another great gift with which you endowed that good servant of yours, in whose womb you created me, my God my mercy, was that whenever she could, she reconciled dissident and quarrelling people. She showed herself so great a peacemaker that when she had heard from both sides many bitter things, such as the bilious and undigested vomit that discord brings up, the crude hatred that come out in acid gossip, in the presence of one woman who is a friend and in the absence of another who is an enemy, Monica would never reveal to one anything about the other unless it might help to reconcile them.

I should reinforce that these pages of filial devotion are extremely beautiful. The book follows them until her death, at which Saint Augustine was present, and these are pages full of joy and sadness, joy because she’s finally going to be with God, and sadness because no matter how stoic he is, he can’t forget she’s his mother:

While she was ill, on one day she suffered a loss of consciousness and gradually became unaware of things. We ran to be with her, but she quickly recovered consciousness. She looked at me and my brother standing beside her, and said to us in the manner of someone looking for something, “Where was I?” Then seeing us struck dumb with grief, she said, “Bury your mother here.” I kept silence and fought back my years. But my brother, as if to cheer her up, said something to the effect that he hoped she would be buried not in a foreign land but in her home country. When she heard that, her face became worried and her eyes looked at him in reproach that he should think that. She looked in my direction and said “See what he says,” and soon said to both of us “Bury my body anywhere you like Let no anxiety about that disturb you. I have only one request to make of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.” She explained her thought in such words as she could speak, then fell silent as the pain of her sickness became worse.

And when she finally dies:

I closed her eyes and an overwhelming grief welled into my heart and was about to flow forth in floods of tears. But at the same time under a powerful act of mental control my eyes held back the flood and dried it up. The inward struggle put me into great agony. Then when she breathed her last, the boy Adeodatus cried out in sorrow and was pressed by all of us to be silent. In this way too something of the child in me, which had slipped towards weeping, was checked and silenced by the youthful voice, the voice of my heart. We did not think it right to celebrate the funeral with tearful dirges and lamentations, since in most cases it is customary to use such mourning to imply sorrow for the miserable state of those who die, or even their complete extinction. But my mother’s death meant neither that her state was miserable nor that she was suffering extinction. We were confident of this because of that evidence of her virtuous life, her ‘faith unfeigned,’ and reasons of which we feel certain.

Don’t be fooled by the previous excerpts, this is quite possible the happiest book I’ve ever read. The narrator is happy for himself after he converts in a garden in Milan, he’s happy for his father because he’s converted too, and he’s happy for his mother because she unquestionably gone to Heaven. And those are the best parts, Saint Augustine’s deep perception of human feelings and relationships.

But there’s so much here I can’t applaud. I can’t stand the man’s self-abasement. Humiliation seems to be a requirement for loving God, and I don’t see what’s so dignified about that. I found myself wondering if many of his sins were real or if he just invented them, exacerbated them to paint himself even worse. I also didn’t link the connection between sadness and his growing proximity with Christianity. “As I became unhappier, you came closer,” he says. He seems to be saying that people need to be a debilitated state of mind to convert. It reminds me of a video I once saw with Christopher Hitchens, author of God is not Great. Already knowing that he was dying from cancer, a journalist asked him if this closeness to death made him reconsider his atheism, and he made a good point of how sinister some church people were in wanting to convert atheists, not in the prime of their health, but when they were old and feeble, afraid of dying and thus more vulnerable.

But my biggest problem is that his defence of God or nothing can only lead into totalitarianism: “But when God commands something contrary to the customs or laws of a people, even if that has never been previously done, it has to be done. If it has fallen into disuse, it must be restored. If it has not been established, it must be established. If it is lawful for a king in a city within his realms to give an order which none before him nor he himself had previously issued, and if it is not contrary to the social contract of this city to obey, or indeed if it would be contrary to the social agreement not to obey (for there is a general consensus in human society that kings should be obeyed), then how much more must God, the government of all this creation, be unhesitatingly obeyed in whatever he commands!” And from this type of servitude you can only go to misanthropy. Everything Man does is bad, everything good can only have come from God. It’s a horrible logic, but he repeats again and again. “My God, I give thanks to you, my source of sweet delight, and my glory and my confidence. I thank you for your gifts. Keep them for me, for in this way you will keep me. The talents you have given will increase and be perfected, and I will be with you since it was your gift to me that I exist.” Indeed, man is a passive creature waiting to be filled with his wisdom. “There are For I did not know that the soul needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth.” And if nothing outside God is good, there’s no other purpose in life than serve him: “‘You are great lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable’ Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him,’ carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud.’ Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

A few months ago I joked about The Prince’s cruel view of life. But I also pointed out that at least it had been born from a Humanist will to put man in control of his own life. That’s how the book ends, recognizing that man is not fettered to fate, that he can change his circumstances by his own efforts. The Confessions stand in opposition, offering an apology of subservience. Basically both books have to be treated the same way, a few good ideas must be salvaged and the rest forgotten.