Saturday, 31 March 2012

Salvador Dalí: 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship

And now a break from literature.

In 1948, Salvador Dalí, considered the 20th century’s greatest artist (and not just by his egomaniac self), wrote a powerful how-to manual explaining, step by step, the creation of Art with capital A. Armed only with humour and his delusions of grandeur, Mr Dalí assumed the responsibility of saving modern art from itself by offering the world a ‘kind of culinary initiation to the Eleusinian mysteries of painting’ that will make any would-be painter capable of reproducing the ‘dalissence’ of the Spanish painter’s works. Oh, this tome will upset painters, especially dead ones like Paul Cézanne, and Mr. Dalí doesn’t withhold the fact that the book will be ‘cruel to modern painting’. But if he’s cruel it’s because he cares.

This document, this poetics ‘condemned beforehand to be the most original in the twentieth century” wasn’t widely read, which explains the dire state of modern art. But this humble blogger hopes that this review will lead to a revival of this neglected tome and to the regeneration of painting, the greatest, noblest of arts.

I should, however, warn readers with democratic sensibilities, who’ve been led to believe that everyone can create art. Mr. Dalí will categorically disabuse you of that illusion born from your likely living in a welfare state. The teachings contained in this manual are not for everyone. It’s not just because some lessons are defined by impossibility and absurdity, or because they’re physically demanding, but because they’re financially forbidding. For instance, he advises would-be painters that it’s better to be rich than poor, so one must learn to turn one’s work into gold (and no, I don’t think there’s a deeper alchemical subtext here, in spite of all the magical gobbledegook. Remember André Breton nicknamed him Avida Dollars, which means greedy for dollars), and to chew hashish only five times in one’s lifetime. (Oh, I can already hear the groan of disappointment.) His advice to be rich is reinforced by his secret teaching of the ritual of ‘sleeping without sleeping,’ which stimulates creativity but requires a servant to hold a bell. Of course the reader here stumbles into an impasse: for if he first must create art to become rich, then how can he hire a servant to help him practice the rituals that will stimulate his creativity? It’s a tortuous paradox, dear reader; Mr. Dalí wasn’t just the greatest painter of the 20th century, he was also the Zeno of the visual arts.

Most of the book’s secrets, indeed, have little to do with art and a lot with spiritualism and strange rituals. He explains what plants are better suited for a painter’s garden, and preaches sexual abstinence in order to channel the libido’s stored-up energies into painting. Regarding animals, he recognizes the stimulus spiders can provide painters, and he remembers us of the fun in building Araneauriums. Sadly he doesn’t dwell enough time on this topic since it’s ‘too frivolous for the tone of this book,’ which is an erudite and scholarly work. And here I must lodge a complaint against the book’s editing: Mr. Dalí could have done with a better editor. For if he dispenses with important subjects in a couple of pages, he taxes the readers’ patience by drawing out advices that any novice painter already knows. I give you as an example the oft-repeated lesson contained in all manuals that I probably shouldn’t even mention here because it’s a waste of time; I speak, of course, of the well-known importance of using a sea urchin’s skull to look at one’s pictures through a hole drilled in it. Yes, Mr. Dalí, we all learn about the sea urchin’s skulls in the first year of college; but since we don’t broach the construction of Araneauriums until the sixth year of Painting, I was anxious for your ideas about it, and hence my disillusionment.

There are also points where advanced students will disagree with him. According to him, a painting must be finished in six days, like God’s creation, when anyone who’s studied Mr. Rothko’s red canvases knows masterpieces can be done in one Sunday afternoon. He then obfuscates the matter even more by arguing that it’s impossible to know when a painting is finished, or whether a painting can ever been finished. Oh yes, Mr. Dalí not only enjoys the odd paradox but he’s fond of contradicting himself.

Regarding realism versus fantasy, Mr. Dalí favours fantasy since it’s faster to paint: “If you happen to be one of those droll painters who, instead of sky or earth, prefer to introduce elements borrowed from their fantasies, the painting will go even faster since you will only have to make skies ‘of a sort’ or earth ‘of a sort’ and, having no objective model to which you are bound you will immediately be satisfied with whatever comes out of you.”

Mr. Dalí is also very interested in the personal life of the painter. No wonder that he gives ample advice about the necessity of learning to live with a mistress and a wife, Mr Dali’s wife being Painting, and his mistress Gala, who will have to pass as his legitimate wife. He makes it clear that it’s of the utmost importance that mistress and wife get along in the household, and elaborates on the benefits of ‘being married to a Gala,’ but sadly doesn’t explain how to acquire one. (This blogger would humbly add that befriending poets and then stealing their muses, yields excellent results). Now, dear reader, if you think Salvador Dalí is being impertinent for invading the painter’s personal sphere, that’s only because he’s meticulous: every facet of the painter’s life will ultimately affect his art. In fact there is too much to write about this topic, which is why the author constantly promises future treatises that will develop some minor point. For in art nothing is too small. Art is in the details.

But Mr. Dalí doesn’t conclude this tome without offering genuine advice. Amidst the absurdism, the contradictions, the paradoxes, the mock secrets, it turns out that Dalí actually knows a lot about painting. And when the reader least expects it, he launches into a long analysis of the several types of brush, their cons and pros, and when and how to use them. Although Dalí spends almost two hundred pages making fun of the idea of that painting can be learned, he proves to be an excellent student of the basic rules that have been handed down from century to century. It seemed incongruous to me that his warmest praise is reserved for the ancients: “I would be perfectly capable of allowing my left hand be cut off, but this under the most interesting circumstances imaginable: on condition, namely, that I might for ten minutes be able to observe Vermeer of Delft seated before his easel as he was painting.” Dalí has a great admiration for this 17th century Dutch painter. He also exalts Raphael and the 15th century mathematician Luca Pacioli. At every turn he remembers the reader of the importance of the ancients, of studying them, of knowing how they worked, of learning to imitate them before breaking the rules.

It’s curious, but Dalí, the surrealist, the iconoclast, didn’t care much for modern art. Throughout the book he laments the loss of technique in modern painting (a sentiment shared by Giorgio de Chirico, the only painter ever to match Dali’s megalomania, and who in 1919 published the essay "The Return of Craftsmanship," making a break with his avant-garde metaphysical paintings that garnered him fame and returning to a classic style, a decision that damaged his career), and longs for the lost secrets of the ancients: “[I]n 1948 a few persons in the world know how to manufacture an atomic bomb, but there does not exist a single person on the globe who knows today what was the composition of the mysterious juice, the ‘medium’ in which the brothers Van Eyck or Vermeer of Delft dipped their brushes to paint, No one knows – not even I!”

This loss, Dalí claims, has led historians to speculate that the recipe was a tightly-kept secret. But he disagrees. In his opinion, “such recipes must in their time have been precisely  so little secret, so incorporated in the everydayness of the routine life of all painters, so much a part of an uninterrupted tradition of every minute of experience, that such secrets must have been transmitted almost wholly orally, without anyone’s even taking the trouble to note them down or, if so, only by means of that elegiac charcoal pencil with which the masters traced so many unknown, effaced and often angelic ephemerides.”

I think he brings this up to argue that modern painting has become an hermetic art, cut off from the quotidian, which is double ironic since his paintings are so dream-like. But Dalí, like I pointed out before, is not a writer worried about contradicting himself. The difference, however, is that perhaps Dalí could draw a Raphael-like painting if he wanted, or make a good effort at it. One wonders if Roy Lichtenstein could when he couldn’t even surpass the comicbook artists he plagiarized. What painters have lost is the ability to draw what they wanted. “Modern painters, having almost totally lost the technical tradition of the ancients, we can no longer do what we want to do. We only do ‘whatever comes out of us.’”

In tandem with this lack of technique, Dalí deplores the disappearance of beauty from modern painting. He complains of artists looking only for the ‘defective’ and lambastes critics who admire ugliness: “The moment a Venus resembles a toad, the contemporary pseudo-aesthete exclaims, ‘It’s powerful, it’s human!’ Certain it is that Raphaelesque perfections would pass totally unperceived before their eyes.” Instead he admires the ‘magic’ of the ancients and loves the beauty imprints on paintings, what he calls the ‘patina’ of the paintings.

I liked this book. It revealed a facet of Dalí I didn’t expect. I never imagined he’d come down so hard on modern art, especially because so many of his criticisms can be easily levelled at him. But then he has to be a bit blind about himself, doesn’t he, if he thinks he’s going to single-handedly save modern art? Half-serious, half-parody, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship is a hilarious diatribe masquerading as a manual for painters. His teachings are mostly useless because in the age of subjectivity, keeping pet spiders or knowing the composition of lapis lazuli is the same. When there's no need to know the difference from painting a secco from painting a fresco, there's nothing to teach. I think it's a powerful point he makes. It doesn't invalidate that I love Marini's stick-like horses and Pollock's drippy canvases. But if someone had the talent to take on his contemporaries, that was Dalí.

The book contains hundreds of illustrations by Dalí, down to some very unusual footnotes, and every page emanates independence of thought. He wasn’t just a brilliant painter but a fine writer too. Although it’s not a useful guide, it’s a rip-roaring read, and I got what I hoped for.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Vladimir Nabokov: Mary

In the 1920s the Soviet Revolution brings together six Russian émigrés in a sleazy Berlin pension. Several of them are at an impasse: the old poet Podtyagin despairingly waits for the visa that will allow him to continue his journey to Paris, where life is cheaper; Alfyorov counts the days until his wife arrives from Russia so they can start a new life together; and Lev Glebovich Ganin, the young protagonist, feels trapped in an unbearable relationship with a woman, without the strength to break it off. They’re all experiencing what Alfyorov calls ‘the sense of this émigré life of ours, this perpetual waiting. Russia’s social turmoil echoes throughout the novel, but Vladimir Nabokov merely uses the revolution as a backstage against which to build his story of love and memory. One day, Alfyorov shows Ganin a photo of his wife, and Ganin is certain it’s Mary, a woman he once loved when he still lived in Russia, and whose unexpected sight awakens old memories of love for her.

Notice that I wrote that it awakens memories of love. It is disputable whether Ganin builds genuine new feelings for Mary at this point in his life. The novel informs us that in the past their love was already ‘fraying and wearing thin.’ Ganin spends most of the novel promenading in the ‘bright labyrinth of memory,’ recreating the past “watchfully, fondly, occasionally turning back for some forgotten piece of trivia, but never running ahead too fast.” Ganin’s affair with Mary was an adolescent love that lasted only a few years, from the time when he was recovering from typhus at a hospital and she worked there as a nurse, tending him, till the outbreak of World War I, when he left for the front and stopped corresponding with her. His sudden love for Mary then is quite fragile. But for me the mind’s construction of reality is the main point the novel explores: the contrast between real emotions and our remembrance of them, how our state of mind can alter memories, and reality’s inability to live up to our idealized version of it.

Like I wrote above, as the novel starts Ganin is involved in a relationship with Lyudmila, a woman he’s growing tired of. But he lacks the courage to tell her he no longer loves her. He tries to avoid her but hesitates to give her the bad news. As the novel puts it:

He was powerless because he had no precise desire, and this tortured him because he was vainly seeking something to desire. He could not even make himself stretch out his hand to switch on the light. The simple transition from intention to action seemed an unimaginable miracle. Nothing relieved his depression, his thoughts slithered aimlessly, his heartbeat was faint, his underclothes stuck unpleasantly to his body.

But immediately after discovering Mary’s arrival he suddenly finds the determination with break off with Lyudmila. It’s like Mary becomes the ‘precise desire’ he needed to stop being powerless. This passage suggests that his newfound love for Mary may not be real at all, but just a psychological need he latched onto. It’s even debatable whether the Mary of the photograph is the Mary of his youth. The only evidence he has is an old photograph of a woman he’s certain is Mary. But Ganin’s temperament is volatile and his penchant for daydreaming may be an indication that he’s deluding himself. Although he’s mostly concerned with savouring the past, while living in a miserable condition surrounded by people he dislikes (and Alfyorov, even before Ganin knew he was Mary’s husband, already irritated him), he also imagines a beautiful new future whether he’ll live happily with Mary, working hard to support her. Mary is less a person and more a beacon of hope for Ganin. She’s more important to him as a symbol than as a real person.

I wonder to what extent Ganin’s love for Mary isn’t just a metaphor for Nabokov’s longing for the old Russia of his privileged youth. And to what extent does Ganin’s final decision about Mary not reflect the author’s own uncertainties about the possibility of ever returning to his homeland? There’s a lot of pessimism for the future of Russia in the novel, with Alfyorov representing the aristocracy that lost everything to the ‘gray scum’ of peasantry and workers who took over the power, and Ganin showing some sympathy for their cause. Politics, however, are almost absent from the novel, apart from a few references. Like Podtyagin says, “No politics, please. Why must we talk politics?” Podtyagin is a curious poet, who’s given up writing after feeling he’s wasted his life, but is prodded by Alfyorov to write about ‘Russian womanhood,’ which, he claims, is ‘stronger than any revolution and can survive it all.” This is of course the test of the novel, as Ganin is pitted against his love for a Russian woman. Although Alfyorov praises Mary for having endured the tribulations of the revolution, the novel asks if love has managed to survive it.

I didn’t care much for Mary. Published in 1926, and translated into English in 1970 by Michael Glenny in collaboration with the author, it’s Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel, and I don’t think it’s very good. I mean, after the dense, mind-splitting novel Knowledge of Hell, I guess it was the sort of light entertainment I needed to unwind. It has many good things about it: Ganin’s personality is hilarious at times and the author has no problems showing what a ruthless bastard he is. The novel has a fine sense of time and space: it opens with Ganin and Alfyorov suspended in darkness inside a modern ‘contraption,’ a faulty, dark elevator, a strange wonder that gives Alfyorov opportunity to philosophize about the symbolism of their first meeting. And I chuckled when the novel described Ganin’s job as a film extra as selling his ‘shadow.’ But the digressions about memory lack originality, and I found myself caring less about Ganin’s love for Mary and more about Podtyagin’s comical travails to acquire a visa from the authorities: the novel’s descriptions of him ping-ponging from one department to another recall Franz Kafka’s descriptions of bureaucracy in their absurdity and facelessness, although I read somewhere Nabokov wasn’t familiar with Kafka at the time. More probably he based Podtyagin on his own experiences as an émigré living in Berlin, and I can’t help thinking how much more interesting a novel about that would have been.

This novel left me disappointed. Vladimir Nabokov is, I’m sure, a great novelist, and I only have myself to blame for my stubborn devotion to reading writers chronologically. Novelists are usually known for one or two novels, but I tend to read the ones in their oeuvres no one talks about; sometimes I find hidden treasures, and sometimes I understand why no one talk about them. With that said, I’m anxious to jump into King, Queen, Knave.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

António Lobo Antunes: Knowledge of Hell

Knowledge of Hell (1980) is my introduction to António Lobo Antunes. It is not the first novel I read by him, but the reading of A Morte de Carlos Gardel, some time in 2007, has left but faint vestiges in my memory, which only remembers a scene about a junkie searching for money in his mother’s wallet and a general feeling that it was a difficult and perhaps not very rewarding novel. But my disappointment notwithstanding, I realized Lobo Antunes was not a novelist of plots or suspense but of language and metaphors. This Portuguese novelist writes in long sentences, juxtaposing different timelines, bridging several levels of action, mixing memories with reveries, and changing from a third person to a first person narrator within paragraphs. He’s not an easy writer.

Starting this second novel with his complexity in mind made the reading better but no less exhausting than before. Knowledge of Hell comprises several stream-of-consciousness diatribes built by the protagonist in his mind while travelling by car from Algarve, in the south of Portugal, back to Lisbon, to resume his service at the Miguel Bombarba Hospital for mental patients. The protagonist, like the author, is named António, wrote a novel called Memória de Elefante (the name of ALA’s first novel), served in Angola during the independence war and returned in 1973 to become a psychiatrist at the aforementioned state hospital. It’s tempting to read the novel as an autobiographical novel, a hateful confession, but I don’t think the interest of the novel hinges on the similarities with post-modernist games Philip Roth came up with decades ago. Whether António is the author is irrelevant, I think, for the feelings, whether real or fictional, remain powerful and believable. What mattered more to me was the force and anger in the protagonist’s voice, the commitment to drawing an unglamorous and even unpleasant portrait of himself the bizarre metaphors with which he transfigures the most mundane objects and concepts, and the vitriolic humour, all the things I missed in the first novel but which my brain was attuned to this time.

The protagonist is angry at many things; he goes back to his memories of the Angolan War (1961-1975) to rail against his country, with its ‘graveyards without glory’, at the horrors of the war that sill haunt him, with its dead children and broken soldiers and the maddening fear of dying; then he chastises his countrymen for their cowardice, and himself for his own cowardice, who silently collaborated with the dictatorship that made the war possible. Becoming a doctor at a state hospital, he castigates himself for his complacency before the the inhuman conditions in which his patients live; but he comes down harder on his colleagues, the psychiatrists, whom he describes as dangerous modern-day class of priests and jail-keepers, who have the power to decide who is sane and mad.

As the novel opens, António describes Portugal as an artificial place, of carton sea and paper sun, an artificiality that seeps into everything, into things and the thoughts and actions of people:

The sea of Algarve is made of cardboard like theatre scenery, and the English don’t realize it: they consciously spread their towels on the sawdust sand, protect themselves with dark glasses from the paper sun, stroll enthralled on the stage of Albufeira where public employees disguised as carnival barkers, squatting on the ground, inflict on them Moroccan necklaces secretly manufactured by the tourism board, and end the afternoon by anchoring in artificial esplanades, where they’re served make-believe drinks in nonexistent glasses that leave in the mouth the flavourless taste of the whiskey furnished the actors on television dramas.

As if in challenge of this reality, he describes himself, his past, his memories, his fantasies with chilling self-scrutiny, unembarrassed of the most sordid details and perhaps even masochistically enjoying laying bare all his fears and small daily acts that make him uneasy with himself. The protagonist uses the expression ‘knowledge of hell’ to explain the horrors he faces after he returns from the war and joins the hospital staff, greater horrors than being shot at or watching children die: the horror of being surrounded by madness, which he describes in raw terms, removed from the embellishment of madness we see in the media. But perhaps the real knowledge of hell is the journey of self-revelation he undergoes at the same time as he drives in his car.

Egotistic, compassionless, pedantic, he paints his peers as the custodians of truth, with the power to decide who’s sane and who’s insane, using their unscientific methods where treatment has no effect and diagnosis is the always the same. (This was written in 1980; with the advances of neuroscience in the last decade, which has given us a better understanding of the human brain, one hopes psychiatry is no longer the quackery that he describes here). He criticises his colleagues for their pretensions to altruism when in fact they treat their patients like wind-up dolls with predetermined reactions and feelings; he mocks them for still clinging to Freud’s outdated views on human behaviour, for spending their days discussing the new theories imported from France, England, the USA, instead of actually observing patients. He describes how they can destroy an individual with the right prescription of drugs, with the right electric shock treatment, how they can strip him of his personality and alienate him from his own self, just because they can. He recounts with disgust the endless meetings between himself and his colleagues. He also doesn’t spare the patients’ families, who use the hospital to get rid of them when they become nuisances. The protagonist frequently compares the hospital to concentration camps and his colleagues and himself to prison guards.

So then why does he collude with this? Because he’s no better than anyone else: he wants a regular pay-check, a house, a family, security. Instead of courage he has self-awareness, and he paints himself with equal disdain. He chastises himself for not having had the courage to study dentistry instead; and if he can’t or won’t do much to change anything, at least in his mind he can suffer for atonement. And he’s very good at devising tortures for himself. At one point he describes himself being dead, then he imagines eating his own body parts. One of my favourite episodes is when he pretends his family wants to commit him and his colleagues think he’s crazy, and he suffers the indignation and helplessness of being treated like a madman.

Lobo Antunes’ style, like I wrote before, is very complicated. He writes in long sentences, not as long as his countryman José Saramago wrote, spanning pages, but long enough to force the reader to remain focused. And his sentences are constructions of wonder; it becomes obvious that he polishes each one to the point of exhaustion. As the reader moves into the text he starts picking up certain words, adjectives, nouns, that reoccur; given his vast vocabulary, every repetition is a conscious choice and not an inability to come up with a synonym. For Lobo Antunes there are no synonyms: he uses exactly the word he wants to use, when he wants to use it, and each placement seems natural and inevitable like a sunset. He also repeats dialogues. The chapters tend to have two or three different strands of narrative running through them, intertwining and subtly changing each other. For instance, a question made by an officer to António in Angola may be followed by an orderly answering something in Lisbon, thus creating a symphony of dialogues where disparate speeches converge into one. It’s beautiful and terrifying. And buried in the hard work is the acidic humour, misanthropic and compassionate at the same time.

Knowledge of Hell is a superb novel and has given me the necessary boost to continue reading António Lobo Antunes. Already I blame myself for ignoring for so long such an important Portuguese novelist. Most of my attention had so far been focused on José Saramago. Just for comparison, I have read all seventeen novels by the Nobel Prize laureate, whereas this is just my second novel by Lobo Antunes, who’s also very prolific. Since 1996 he’s published at least a new book every year. Eleven books are currently available in English, making him perhaps the most translated Portuguese writer after Saramago. So I hope you’ll give him a chance too.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Mario Vargas Llosa: The War of the End of the World

“Canudos,” says a character from Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The War of the End of the World, “isn’t a story; it’s a tree of stories.” I can’t find a better description for the multiple narratives, vast cast of characters and always-changing relationships that constitute this epic novel about the War of Canudos, a civil war in the heart of Brazil that, from 1896 to 1897, pitted a religious community against the armies of the young Republic, and which Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, a journalist who witnessed the war, immortalised in the 1902 non-fiction account Rebellion in the Backlands.

In 1893 “a gaunt man, enveloped in a deep-purple tunic, whose hair came down to his shoulders and whose eyes looked like burning coals,” arrives in a little town called Canudos in Brazil’s sertão – the backlands, an arid, poverty-stricken stretch of land – with his followers and soon more people come to join them. This man is Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor, a mystic and wandering preacher who had been preaching in the backlands for many years before settling in Canudos to build a church and prepare his followers for the end of the world. Notorious amongst the lower classes for his spirituality and miracles, the preacher had become a beacon of hope and wisdom to the wretched, the freaks and the freed slaves. Preachers like him were common in the region, but the Counselor, like many leaders along history, managed to hold people in thrall, almost by magic, with his seductive voice and piercing eyes:

He gave his counsel when dusk was falling, when the men had come back from the fields and the women had finished their household tasks and the children were already asleep. He gave it in those stony, treeless, open spots to be found in all the villages of the backlands at the main crossroads, which might have been called public squares if they had had benches, tree-lined walks, gardens, or had kept those that they had once had and that little by little had been destroyed by drought, pestilence, indolence. He gave it at that hour when the sky of the North of Brazil, before becoming completely dark and studded with stars, blazes amid tufted white, grey or bluish clouds and there is a sort of vast fireworks display overhead, above the vastness of the world. He gave it at that hour when fires are lighted to chase away insects and prepare the evening meal, when the steamy air grows less stifling and a breeze rises that puts people in better spirits to endure the sickness, the hunger, and the sufferings of life.

I use this excerpt to show Vargas Llosa’s masterful ability to combine action description. As he explains the Counselor’s method of preaching, he also builds an image of the squalid, bleak world his followers lived in.

Canudos prospers. Thousands congregate there to live by the moral precepts imposed by the mystic: fraternity, communal sharing, equality before God. These people don’t trust the Republic; the fall of the monarchy didn’t improve their existence. They continued poor, and their isolation from the urban centres increased their mistrust of change and progress, as this passage shows:

[S]something had changed with the advent of the Republic. To people’s misfortune and confusion: Church and State were separated, freedom of worship was established, and cemeteries were secularised, so that it was no longer parishes but towns that would be responsible for them. Whereas the vicars in their bewilderment did not know what to say in the face of these new developments that the Church hierarchy had resigned itself to accepting, the Counselor for his part knew immediately what to say: they were impious acts that to the believer were inadmissible. And when he learned that civil marriage had been instituted – as though a sacrament created by God were not enough – he for his part had the forthrightness to say aloud, at the counsel hour, what the parishioners were whispering; that this scandal was the handiwork of Protestants and Freemasons. As were, no doubt, the other strange, suspect, new provisions that the towns of the  sertão – the backlands – learned of little by little: the statistical map, the census, the metric system. To the bewildered people of the hinterland, the sertanejos, who hastened to ask him what all that meant, the Counselor slowly explained: they wanted to know what color people were so as to re-establish slavery and return dark-skinned people to their masters, and their religion so as to be able to identify the Catholics when the persecution began. Without raising his voice, he exhorted them not to answer such questionnaires, and not to allow the meter and the centimetre to replace the yard and the foot.

When Brazil became a Republic in 1889, slavery was abolished, which precipitated the country into bankruptcy. Taxes were collected violently; thousands of freed slaves roamed the roads, begging. Periodical droughts assailed the backlands. These people, ignorant and neglected by the Republic, whose capital was far away, had only religion to rely on. And now even its traditions were endangered. The Republic meant secularism and civil marriage. As if someone had turned their world upside-down, the sertanejos flocked to Canudos in search of the only type of harmony they knew.

This community worried the authorities: for one thing it called itself monarchist because it regarded the Crown as the defender of the Church; furthermore it was becoming an independent power within the Republic. The local government decided to send a military expeditionary to disband it. They believed that the expeditionary force would frighten away the jagunços, the Counselor’s followers, but instead they marched to war like Crusaders marching to the Holy Land:

The rare travellers who met them on the road were amazed to learn that they were marching to war. They looked like a crowd heading for a fiesta; a number of them were dressed in their fanciest clothes. They were carrying weapons and shouted, ‘Death to the Devil and to the Republic,’ but even at such moments the joyous expression on their faces softened the effect of the hatred in their voices.

Little do the authorities realise that they are about to start a war with people who consider the coming of the Republican Army the beginning of the war of the end of the world, the Biblical war between good and evil which will decide the fate of the Earth and prepare for Heaven the martyrs who fight against the forces of the Devil:

The war that they were waging was only apparently that of the outside world, that of men in uniform against men in rags, that of the seacoast against the interior, that of the new Brazil against traditional Brazil. All the jagunços were aware that they were merely puppets of a profound, timeless, eternal war, that of good and evil, which had been going on since the beginning of time.

The first expedition is repelled. Three more, consisting of dozens of thousands of soldiers, carrying hundreds of thousands of rounds, and artillery, will have to come to finally crush Canudos, because the jagunços literally fight to the last man.

I wouldn’t hesitate to call this novel, were it not for its sophisticated use of non-linear storytelling, a modern 19th century novel: it’s a massive tome, running over seven hundred pages in my edition, containing hundreds of characters from several social classes and professions and with enough action to fill a trilogy. Canudos becomes an obsession to the Republic and Vargas Llosa analyses it from as many angles as possible to give a panoramic view of its effect on Brazil.

Vargas Llosa seems at ease when writing about politics and power struggles. In The Feast of the Goat he crafted an intricate narrative about the regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and his first novel, The Time of the Hero, shows the corruption in a military school. Here he weaves together the social unbalance within Brazil with a story of Machiavellian politics. At the time of the war Brazil was divided in two major centres: the capital, Rio de Janeiro, a rich, industrialised urban centre; and Bahia, poorer and predominantly agrarian, where the rich landowners, mostly monarchists, campaigned for the region’s autonomy. In the novel these Autonomists are represented by the Baron of Canabrava, a landowner who wants to maintain the timeless social order of Bahia. In opposition Epaminondas Gonçalves, the editor of a Republican newspaper, sees in Canudos an opportunity to wrest these remaining monarchists from their seats of power:

“Bahia,” says the editor, “is a bulwark of retrograde landowners, whose hearts still lie with the monarchy, despite the fact that we’ve been a republic for eight years. If it is necessary to aid the bandits and the Sebastianists in the interior in order to put an end to the Baron of Canabravas’s dictatorial rule over Bahia, I shall do so. We’re falling farther and farther behind and becoming poorer and poorer. These people must be removed from power, at whatever cost, before it’s too late. If that business in Canudos continues, Luiz Viana’s government will be plunged into crisis and sooner or later the federal forces will step in. and the moment Rio de Janeiro intervenes, Bahia will cease to be the fief of the Autonomists.”

The editor’s plan is to make it look like the Baron and his cronies are in fact aiding Canudos. This is not hard to prove. The jagunços, when the war begins, have no option but to pillage the haciendas and force the landowners into aiding them with the threat of reprisals. This is one of the many misunderstandings in the novel. Two groups call themselves monarchists: one comprises the landowners, who served the last King and fear losing their social privileges. The people of Canudos, also called Sebastianists, aren’t really monarchists; they just oppose the Republich, which they consider as the work of the Devil.

Dom Sebastião, by the way, was a Portuguese king who died in Morocco in 1578. A Christian fanatic who dreamed of a Crusade that would spread the Catholic faith throughout North Africa, he travelled there, with almost the country’s entire nobility, and got slaughtered. This precipitated the crowning of the Spanish Filipe II as the new King of Portugal, since D. Sebastião hadn’t left an heir. And so Portugal endured Spanish kings for eighty years. D. Sebastião is like a King Arthur figure: after his death prophecies were made that one day he’d return to save Portugal from a great evil. This messianic myth became known as Sebastianism and aptly describes the belief the people of Canudos had that the world was coming to an end and that the monarchy, as the pillar of the Church, played a role in its salvation.

As if this confusion between monarchists weren’t enough, the editor conspires to make it look like the British are also aiding Canudos to overthrow the Republic. For that reason he enlists a Scottish revolutionary with the task of sending British rifles to the jagunços. This revolutionary, Galileo Gall, doesn’t realise he’s just a pawn in a scheme to have the authorities intercept him to give substance to the foreign conspiracy.

But Gall has his own story. A freedom fighter and phrenologist, as his surname attests (his father studied with Franz Joseph Gall), he finds himself in Brazil because he’s on the run from European authorities due to revolutionary crimes. Upon discovering the existence of Canudos, he decides to join their cause, which he considers just. For Gall is an idealist desirous of playing a role in a great revolution that will bring to life the ideals of anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin:

As other children grow up listening to fairy stories, he had grown up hearing that property is the origin of all social evils and that the poor will succeed in shattering the chains of exploitation and obscurantism only through the use of violence.

Following his father’s footsteps as a revolutionary, Gall lives only to free Man from the chains created by the rich and the powerful. And in Brazil, amidst the social inequality and the lack of progress, he finds a country badly in need of a revolution:

He spent so many hours, by day and by night, wandering about the labyrinthine streets of Salvador that he might well have been taken for someone in love with the city. But what Galileo Gall was interested in was not the beauties of Bahia; it was, rather, the spectacle that had never ceased to rouse him to rebellion: injustice. Here, unlike Europe, he explained in his letters to Lyons, there were no segregated residential districts. ‘The mean huts of the wretched lie side by side with the tiled palaces of the owners of sugar plantations and mills, and ever since the drought of fifteen years ago that drove thousands of refugees here from the highlands, the streets teem with children who look like oldsters and oldsters who look like children, and women who are broomsticks, and among this multitude the scientist can easily identify all manner of physical afflictions, from those that are relatively harmless to those that are terrifying severe: bilious fever, beriberi, dropsy, dysentery, smallpox.’ ‘Any revolutionary whose convictions as to the necessity of a major revolution are wavering’ – he wrote in one of his letters – ‘ought to take a lake at what I am seeing in Salvador: it would put an end to all his doubts.’

Canudos is the revolution he’s been waiting for. But it isn’t the first he’s participated in:

 One of the things he prided himself on was the fact that he had fought, from March to May of 1871, with the communards of Paris for the freedom of humanity and had personally witnessed the genocide of thirty thousand men, women, and children at the hands of Theirs’s forces.

Ignoring that the massacre of the Paris Commune will soon repeat itself in Canudos, he accepts the editor’s mission to take the guns there. As he explains in an article he sends to a revolutionary magazine in France, L’Etincelle de la révolte, Canudos represents everything he’s been searching for:

Is there not something in all of this that sounds familiar to you? Is it not as though certain fundamental ideas of our revolution were being put into practice in Canudos? Free love, free paternity, the disappearance of the infamous line that is drawn between legitimate and illegitimate offspring, the conviction that man inherits neither dignity nor ignominy.

The solemn Gall, however, can’t imagine that the lofty life he pursues will run into collision with a threat taken from a soap opera: a vengeful husband trying to restore his lost honour. Practising sexual abstinence all his life to store up energy for his revolutionary efforts, Gall, by reasons he later can’t explain, rapes Jurema, the wife of Rufino, his guide. With her honour lost, Jurema follows Gall in tow as he rides to Canudos, knowing that Rufino won’t stop pursuing them until he’s killed both and restored his honour. In Rufino’s code of machismo the fact that she was raped means nothing.

Gall, for his part, doesn’t spend much time caring about her feelings either and can barely bring himself to find remorse. He regrets breaking his vow of chastity, of course, of losing his control when the revolution needs all his concentration, but in regards to the act itself he rationalises it thus:

He thought of Jurema. Was she a thinking being? A little domestic animal, rather. Diligent, submissive, capable of believing that statues of St. Anthony escape from churches and return to the grottoes where they were carved; trained like the baron’s other female servants to care for chickens and sheep, to prepare her husband’s food, to wash his clothes, and to open her legs only for him. He thought: ‘Perhaps she’ll be roused from her lethargy now and discover injustice.’ He thought: ‘I’m your injustice.’ He thought: ‘Perhaps you’ve done her a service.’

Gall’s subplot is one of my favourites in because it shows how the important and mundane depend on perspective and how the most idealistic, the most romantic, can also be the most callous of people. For Gall Jurema is unimportant, what matters is to get to Canudos, to fight and die for Mankind. Rufino thinks the opposite. His revenge blinds him to the revolution. Vargas Llosa shows, with understated irony, two ways of looking at life: we can look at the trees or at the forest. Gall sees the big picture but ignores the ordinary aspects of life. Rufino, who lived all his life as a hired hand for rich landowners, who, for his loyal service to the Baron of Canabrava, received Jurema as a reward, as if she were an object, fails to see the forces, social, political and religious, that have shaped his life and that have contributed to the creation of Canudos.

Gall never arrives in Canudos and Vargas Llosa leaves to the reader the task of imagining if he would have been disillusioned or not. After all, Gall wanted the liberation of Man from all shackles, including religion. Canudos was a religious community. Would he have adjusted? I anxiously waited for the arrival of the moment of irony when Gall would realise his inability to adjust to Canudos, and even though this moment never came I think he would have found that community a disappointment and not another Paris Commune.

But others disagree. “It was the realm of obscurantism, and at the same time a world of brotherhood, of a very special sort of freedom,” says a journalist who witnesses the war of Canudos and who speaks these words to the Baron of Canabrava in a conversation about Gall. “Perhaps he wouldn’t have been all that disappointed.”

This journalist, who remains nameless, is another piece in the puzzle called Canudos. A homage to and a parody of Euclides da Cunha, the journalist, a nearsighted, cowardly, drug-taking, whore-mongering man initially working for Epaminondas Gonçalves’ newspaper, travels with the expeditionary force, thinking, like everyone else, that a monarchist conspiracy exists. It’s only when he returns from the frontline, after having spent months in Canudos in the company of the jagunços, after getting separated from the soldiers, that he sets about to write the truth about Canudos. “It seems like a conspiracy in which everyone played a role, (…) a total misunderstanding on the part of all concerned, from beginning to end.”

In Canudos the journalist fins no foreign conspiracy to restore the monarchy in Brazil; no British guns; no foreigners giving orders, like some believed or invented. He meets the wretched and the poor, the freed slaves, freaks, priests, bandits and murderers turned into saints, and prostitutes turned into reputable women, all living in brotherhood. People driven by squalor, poverty, misery and disease into a community where everyone is equal, everyone works but everyone is happy because everyone shares and everyone has the same cause. Miserable people who prefer to fight rather than run for their lives. “It requires total conviction,” the journalist says about their armed resistance. “Profound, complete certainty...”

How then does this little town scare the Republic into eradicating it? Being himself a piece of the puzzle he can’t see the finished picture, but he intuits the strangeness of the situation. Frenzied masses of people become barbaric and violent with the idea of a monarchist revolt. People connoted as monarchists are haunted and murdered, their houses burned, their property stolen.

“Logical and rational that the mob should pour out into the streets to destroy newspaper offices,” he asks, “to attack private houses, to murder people unable to point out on a map where Canudos is located, because a handful of fanatics thousands of kilometres away defeated an expeditionary force? That’s logical and rational?”

He nevertheless fails to realise just how certain individuals use Canudos for political purposes, how propaganda created an atmosphere of fear and how journalists like him helped create it. Such insight is left only for the Baron and his private circle; they realise not only that their power is fading away but also that the Republic’s threat is not Canudos but the atmosphere of fear which empowers the army, especially Colonel Moreira César, a fanatical Republican:

“It’s as plain as day what their plan is,” says a monarchist to the Baron. “Canudos is the pretext for their man to earn even more glory and prestige. Moreira César crushes a monarchist conspiracy. Moreira César saves the Republic! Isn’t that the best possible proof that only the army can guarantee the safety of the nation? So the army is swept into power, and it’s the Dictatorial Republic.”

The editor’s conspiracy, however, has undesired effects. The arrival of the army in Bahia becomes disatrous: first of all, the war lasts longer than expected, which cripples the  region’s economy. Secondly the army, to maintain itself, resorts to pillaging haciendas. In short Bahia endures a military reign of terror. Readers of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians will recall a similar situation in which the army is called to defend the distant outpost from the barbarians and ends up abusing the citizens with impunity and arrogance in the name of freedom and security. If there’s one theme from Vargas Llosa’ novel that is more relevant than ever, this is it.

The War of the End of the World is a novelisation of real events, with a healthy dose of invention, whose outcome anyone can learn about on the internet. It tries to explain a complex event using the tools of the novel form, and the result is a panoramic look at a country on the verge of a major social upheaval. Vargas Llosa is a great stylist as the intertwined narratives moving intricately back and forth in time, manipulating the story’s suspense, can attest to; he’s also a psychologist whose understanding of human behaviour allows him to create complex individuals. His characters, animated by political, social, religious and personal forces, live dramas that, like a 19th century novel, contain the whole of the human condition: the majestic, the ordinary and the absurd. If we read novels in order to understand, reading Vargas Llosa gets one closer to understanding the world, others and perhaps even ourselves.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Grass Is A Municipal Institution: Jorge de Sena in America

I’d like to apologize for frequently writing about books that haven’t been translated yet, thus making it impossible for anyone interested to read them. I’ll try to change this in the future.

In 1959, Jorge de Sena, a Portuguese poet, novelist, literary critic, translator, left for Brazil for several many reasons: he wasn’t earning enough to support his family; he didn’t have, in a country famous for nepotism and a patron-client system, the right connections to get an academic teaching job; his professional obligations left him with  little time for writing and pursuing literary research; and he had been involved in an aborted revolutionary attempt to bring down Salazar’s regime, which meant he could be arrested, and likely tortured and killed, at any moment if his involvement were discovered. Thus, accepting an invitation from the University of Bahia, he left for the New World, where he resided until his death. In Brazil he earned his PhD with a thesis on the epic poet Luís de Camões. (Sena’s formal education was in engineering.) In 1964, when Brazil also became a dictatorship, Sena accepted an invitation from the University of Wisconsin to teach in the USA; in 1970 he moved to the University of California, in Santa Barbara, where he taught literature and foreign languages until 1978, the year of his death. He never got over the fact that, after Portugal’s return to democracy, in 1974, no academic institution invited him to teach there, his great dream.

Although Portugal has a long history of emigration, dating back to the 16th century, Sena didn’t see his situation as identical to the one of the average Portuguese emigrant, usually a person lacking in studies, poor, who’s looking to improve his social condition. “I didn’t come to America to be what I wasn’t, or have opportunities I never had,” he wrote. Being an intellectual, he wasn’t easily fooled by the American myth that is so attractive to the downtrodden. “And I’m in conditions of feeling acutely the fallacies of the American way of life, which the Americans, themselves, are feeling too.” He wrote numerous texts about the United States, between 1968 and 1978, and they were published posthumously in a volume called América, América; it  constitute a fascinating cultural document, the testimony of a foreigner living in the USA, in which the author tackles academic trends, the teaching of foreign languages, history and politics. Sena didn’t hate the United States, let’s make that clear right now. But being a thinker and a writer, he has that independence of mind – the reason why he couldn’t stand living in two dictatorships – that makes him prone to dig under the surface of ideas and find nuances others tend to ignore. That enables him to read with a critical eye a country famous for not reading itself very well and that badly reads (when at all) other countries. He’s no Alexis de Tocqueville, but he’s no less interesting. And he had a wonderfully dry humor.

Sena had a brilliant career in Santa Barbara; he was the chief of two departments: Comparative Literatures, and the department of Spanish and Portuguese Literatures, where he did a lot to promote the study of Portuguese. In spite of the respect from his peers, he wasn’t happy. He complained about “America’s frightful intellectual solitude.” A lot of his scorn was aimed at his academic colleagues, victims of the horror called specialization:

The dream of any American college professor, in humanities (imagine that), is not having a vast, informed and deep literary and general culture. No: if he had it or showed it, no one would believe him, nor truly respect him. He must be a specialist, the more microscopic the better, although no one really cares to check if he’s so with any competence (which no one is in condition of verifying)… No, he’ll be a specialist, for instance, on the Nicaragua novel, the Peruvian short-story, Lorca’s theatre, Machado’s poetry, Montaigne’s essay, Japan’s Noh theatre, etc., with absolute exclusion of everything that, in other contiguous and contemporary areas, may be in indispensable correlation with their speciality.

Sena was not a specialist. He felt comfortable writing about Portuguese, Brazilian, British and American literature, cinema theatre, classic and contemporary literature, and politics. His main area, if we can call it, was British culture and literature, whose works he translated, studied and wrote about extensively; and his knowledge of the US came as a by-product of British culture. “England can’t be used to explain North America, in the same way Portugal can’t explain Brazil. But, without both European countries, it’s impossible to truly understand the creations both began in the Americas.” Therefore he found his colleagues and their niches strange, as well as the society that, as he saw it, discouraged intellectual pursuit. “Indeed,” he wrote, “American life is neither conceived nor ready for an intellectual life, for that independence from everyday pettiness without which spiritual endeavours don’t enjoy the indispensable idleness necessary for its growth.”

The American has an obsession for vegetation around him. For me, a European urban creature, grass is a municipal institution whose existence is of no importance to me. If I, after giving classes, putting up with students, attending administrative meetings at college, then come home to wear myself out mowing the grass around my house, what time and strengths do I have left to read and write? None.

But this was the kind of behaviour he saw in his peers. Culture for the American academic, he found out, was strictly a professional matter that had no role in a social setting. People stopped being academics at home, as if it were something one could switch off. Sena, however, did not ignore that the US was rich in culture. “The difference between a profession and culture is not sensitive to most Americans who, nevertheless, are oftentimes more widely and seriously educated than many Europeans with pretensions to culture (one need only think of the number and richness of museums full of people or the intensity of musical life in the United States, to realize this is a deeper truth than the European thinks or the American shows).” But exactly because of this easy access to culture, Sena lamented that the average middle-class American, who lived with more affluence than the average European, seemed so uninterested in culture.

Sena also had a lot of admiration for the long academic tradition in the USA. He compliments its college education, which was becoming available to more students when he started teaching there. “Today, one of the most gigantic American revolutions is the in higher education, in a country which has had, since the 18th century, a college tradition (and the United States started existing on that same century, one hundred years later than for example Latin America).” He didn’t consider it contemptible to teach in the US, unlike other “Portuguese intellectuals (always eager to teach two students in an old Germany university instead of defending their culture before dozens of Americans.” However he also despaired at what he saw as the decline of its standards, caused, he argued, by economic interests:

The average American, if he used to believe in work, now believes in ‘specialization.’ This needn’t be, in any way, deep and exhaustive, and can even change overnight, according to chance and circumstances. Vocation, in the intellectual sense, is very rare in America, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and on exceptional levels. ‘Specialization’ is, above all, a way of living, a way for a person to thrust himself comfortably onto higher levels of pay and opportunities.

According to Sena, Americans are also not very fond of reading. If this sounds like the usual rant that Americans are dumb, Sena digs deeper into the matter by finding historical, cultural and even economic reasons to explain why he thinks Americans despise books:

The average American doesn’t have a tradition of building his personal library. The reasons come from the tradition of the one book that was the Bible. But also from the fact that a person only reads for momentary leisure (and this leisure, for the average American, is filled preferably with domestic tasks, or mechanical, or social) or out of professional obligation, with intellectual curiosity limited to the instruments necessary to performing a job well (…). A vast thirst for wide humanist culture, a tireless curiosity outside the limited fields of work, that’s what makes Americans suspicious of the depth and seriousness of the person who possesses them. He still preserves, before intellect, the mistrust of the European farmer he’s descended from… I, for instance, with my personal library, am a phenomenon looked upon with sacred terror, or with ironic superiority. So many thousands of books always increasing in number is pointless madness. What for, if the college library has everything, or can buy whatever we want? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to sell everything for good money? And these are questions that have been asked, with friendly seriousness, by academics.

Further ahead he argues that a library is too expensive to keep for a people that are always moving, travelling from one coast to another, from state to state every few years, without a fixed residence, making a library a burden. (And this reminds me of Zuckerman Unbound and the protagonist who reflects about the many cartons full of books that he’s carried about his life ever since he moved out of his parents’, always growing, until he has half a million pages of books. Books do tend to accumulate, don’t they?)

Sean also attempts to explain America’s famous contempt for the rest of the world from a historical perspective. “In a general way, Americans aren’t interested in the rest of the world. This isn’t so much the result of an imaginary or real conspiracy to keep them ignorant of the true meaning of the problems America may get itself involved in, as it is a tradition that comes from the actual origins of the United States – whoever came to America, in those times, came with their back to Europe, to found the Kingdom of Virtue, against the depravity of the Old World…” Real American culture is Puritanism; in spite of what has been written about the melting pot, Sena is quick to point out that the masses of emigrants that came later were constituted by illiterate, poor people, farmers and craftsmen, who had no knowledge of culture to speak of: the Italian, the Irish, the German who left to America knew only their birth villages, and their folkloric traditions, not Goldoni, Swift and Goethe, whom they didn’t bring it with them to America; and once there they absorbed the predominant culture, an isolationist Puritanism, which finds culture – and anything outside the Bible – useless. Culture in America then, in Sena’s views, has been reduced to a love for folklore and the exotic. “In the world, the American people are one of the most curious when it comes to foreigners: they live in constant fascination of the exotic, and, for them, everything that isn’t American, is strangely exotic.” For that reason, they wish that “the whole world, keeping some artificial folklore, will become totally uniform, with the same restaurants and the same service stations, from Cochinchina to Patagonia.”

Sena of course acknowledges that once upon a time there existed a great culture in the USA, and it is with patriotic pride that he invokes “Melville, who read Camões in Portuguese.”

But Melville was the offspring of an entire North-American culture from the 18th and 19th centuries, which was overwhelmed by rabble-rousing from below, with which, demagogically, dominant groups built their power and existing structures, over the millions of ingénues convinced that they’re the freest people in the world (and they are, in the sense that even an illusion of political freedom had never even crossed the minds of their village ancestors from Europe). And that rabble-rousing never considered, nor considers, culture an end in itself.

This cultural ignorance causes Sena many problems, professional as well as personal. He relates a time when a one of his son’s teachers, on finding out he spoke Portuguese at home, urged the child to speak only English and to refuse answering his parents if they spoke with him in Portuguese. And later he narrates an episode about a teacher who, knowing his children had been raised in Brazil, had to clear some pressing doubts in his minds:

Was it true or not that, on coming to America, they had abandoned the loincloth and covered themselves up completely for the first time? Given the geographical ignorance, the presumption of superiority, and the habit of only seeing Indians in movies and in National Geographic Magazine, that isn’t remarkable. What’s remarkable is that the man considered them human creatures at all.

Since Sena also taught Brazilian literature in college, he was sensitive to the many misconceptions people had about it:

America has ignored for too long that Brazil speaks Portuguese. Even nowadays, for the average American, all Latin America speaks Spanish, for that is the experience it has of Latin America’s borders, from Mexico (of which America incorporated, in a war of conquest, a vast chunk whose inhabitants still speak Spanish today) down to the Caribbean of tropical vacations.

And he was also horrified of the contempt his peers had of Portuguese literature, which exists since the 12th century. “And an American professor was telling me that, why, one semester should be enough for me to give an overview of Portuguese literature, since there isn’t Portuguese literature to fill more than that.” Sena, however, blamed Portuguese emigrants, and their descendants, for this sad state of affairs, for not having a more active role in defending their language and culture in the United States:

The Portuguese emigrant arrived from Madeira, Azores, Trás-os-Montes, not knowing of Portugal beyond the horizons of his village. The Americas (and Brazil had stopped being that Eldorado) offered him opportunities to become rich, of social climbing, etc., which he had never dreamed existed. To such a degree he hadn’t dreamt of it, that one of the traits of Portuguese emigrants, with rare exceptions, is their lack of ambitions, their contentment with a mediocrity that already seems to him an infinite ascension.

Thus, “due to the Portuguese colony’s talent for apparent integration and invisibility,” Sena claims Portuguese culture and literature became vulnerable in academia, also in part because of the intrigues of Spanish teachers who felt threatened and told their students Portuguese is a dialect of Spanish to dissuade them from studying it, and of Brazilian politicians who had economic interests in seeing the Brazilian variant of Portuguese taught instead of the continental one.

If I gave the impression Sena didn’t like living in the United States, that wasn’t my intention. Like he’d say, there are bad things everywhere. He certainly detested mediocrity and lamented the academic backstage politics that consumed so much of his time and strength and prevented him from focusing on what he truly cared about: teaching and literature. “Do I like living in America? It’s a difficult answer, for I don’t like living anywhere. Every day mankind seems monstrous and bestial to me, and life a tremendous bore with few consolations.” But then he also says: “In America, there are many things I love: I’m incapable of not loving the mankind I despise, and I’m also incapable of not accepting up to a point whoever allows me to exist,” for “no monster is entirely monstrous.” Nor does he portray the United States as monstrous, just an idiosyncratic, fascinating place.

All excerpts from Jorge de Sena’s book América, América, translated as competently as possible by me.