Spain in the last century produced three philosophers that I want to read: Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936), José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) and George Santayana (1863-1952), who nevertheless wrote in English and belongs to American letters. Of Ortega y Gasset I intend to read What is philosophy? and The Dehumanization of Art, while Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty intrigues me. Of the three so far I’ve only ventured into Miguel de Unamuno, particularly known for essays like The Tragic Sense of Life and Our Lord Don Quixote, and the novel Mist, all available in English.
It says a lot of my prejudices, however, that I chose the lesser-known book Por tierras de Portugal y España over his more famous books. Through Portuguese and Spanish lands, says the title. I couldn’t wait to learn what impressions, written between 1907 and 1912, the author had formed from his Portuguese travels and readings. For Unamuno doesn’t just describe villages and customs; he also discusses history, then-current topics like the 1908 regicide and the republican movement, and the literary scene, which the author knew very well, calling friends many of the important Portuguese authors of the time. I admit I found the first part of the book, dealing with Portugal, much more interesting than the second part describing his travels in Spain. Not for the obvious reasons but because for this book lover descriptions of Guadalupe and the Canary Islands don’t hold a candle to a good analysis of a poem. And I have my theories why he didn’t bother to write about, for instance, the Generation of ’98. The short articles that constitute this book began as newspaper articles for Spanish readers; so one understands why he lingers in Portuguese culture and literature instead of lecturing about the Spanish poets his readers no doubt knew already. Another reason for this differential treatment: Unamuno sets out as one of the main purposes of the book to educate the Spanish reader on the culture of a neighbouring country he doesn’t know very well. “Here in Spain, Portuguese literature is not as well known and appreciated as it should be, although both languages are so close that without great effort we could read Portuguese.” In broad strokes he explains this isolationism: “The Spaniard, especially the Castellan, is disdainful and arrogant; and the Portuguese, like the Galician, is suspicious and impressionable. Here, it’s customary to disdain Portugal and to make it the target of derision and mockery, without knowledge of it; and in Portugal there are those who imagine that the Spaniards dream of conquering them.” Indeed, Portuguese and Spaniards live in a famous state of mutual and apathetic ignorance: we ignore each other’s novelists, poets, philosophers, historians, musicians, and filmmakers, with a few exceptions. Unamuno, who shows love and admiration for Portugal in these pages, uses whatever resources he has to bridge this gulf of apathy. “I make a journey here at least once a year and each time I return more enchanted by that suffering and noble people.” And I wonder, did Portugal create an equivalent paladin of Spanish culture? I hope so.
Needless to say, the Portuguese part of Por tierras de Portugal y España has received attention from Portuguese people long before me. I don’t think we can resist knowing what foreigners think of us, with our chronic insecurity, and especially what Spaniards think of us, a people we, as Unamuno accurately points out, feel suspicious about. Anyone who’s read Eça de Queiroz’ The Maias has an obligation to remember João da Ega’s famous quip that Portugal should just be sold to the Spanish. But, specifically, the interest of Portuguese editors focuses more on his impressions of our literature than of his travels through our villages. Besides Por tierras de Portugal y España, my knowledge of Unamuno comes from Portugal: Povo de Suicidas, a strange book that collects the articles about Portuguese literature from the first one, leaves out the others about travels, and then adds three more articles Unamuno wrote on Portuguese culture. This book, more curiously, was published before the complete translation of Por tierras de Portugal y España. We care to know what Unamuno thinks of our poets, but we don’t care about his observations in, for instance, the Alcobaça monastery (William Beckford, author of Vathek, wrote a book on that exact topic, and I’d love to acquire it) and fishing in Espinho.
This second book I mention, a Portuguese construct, lays bare what interests us so much about Unamuno; it’s right there on the cover; what in the first book is the title of an article and a tentative remark inside it, in the second book it becomes the defining moment of a thesis: the no doubt controversial view that the Portuguese nation, as a whole, is suicidal. Yes, somewhere in the book Unamuno says this about the Portuguese, not without good reasons. But few things show the age of this book like these sweeping generalizations that hark back to the old times of stereotypes and paternalism. Unamuno, however, doesn’t force the point, which stems from his close readings of our intrinsic fatalism, sentimentalism and sadness. Unamuno, both in Portugal and in Spain, is concerned with finding the national identities of these countries. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that Miguel de Unamuno makes good intuitions about what makes the Portuguese people tick. What separates us, though, is how we handle those idiosyncrasies of the soul. We both see the Portuguese as sad, suffering players in a tragicomedy of cosmic proportions. But whereas he celebrates these traits, I, well, I deplore them.
To Unamuno, the Portuguese identity coalesces around a few key concepts: pessimism, fatalism, martyrdom, sadness, resignation, and longing for past glories, symbolised by saudade, the famously untranslatable pain one suffers in the absence of one’s loved ones. He arrives at his conclusions studying what was then modern Portuguese literature. “Without denying the value of some of the Portuguese classics, I must say that, in my understanding, Portuguese literature worthy of being read dates back from the last century, from the Romantic period, from the epoch of Almeida Garrett and Alexandre Herculano. I think its true golden age is now.” I agree that few of our classics have any value, in fact I think most of our classics on the whole form a barren desert inhospitable to most people, Portuguese included. But we disagree on the golden age. For me Eça de Queiroz starts putting the Dark Ages out to pasture but it’s not until the 20th century that we can boast of a tremendous body of literature. If this sounds harsh, bear in mind that Unamuno mainly lists names no one, save those tasked with the cumbersome ordeal of writing histories of Portuguese literature, reads anymore. It’s not his fault the generation he knew fell by the wayside. It’s more worrying his glib treatment of Eça, but all in due time.
First of all, let’s meet the bygone writers Unamuno extols. Unamuno opens the book with a paean to Eugénio de Castro (1869-1944), a largely forgotten poet, and particularly to Constança (1900), a poem about Constança Manuel, a Castellan princess and the legitimate wife of D. Pedro I (1320-1367), whose adulterous affair with Inês de Castro was immortalized in Luís de Camões’ The Lusiads. According to history and legend, Pedro and Inês married in secret but the King, due to political pressure, could not approve their union, so he ordered Inês’ execution; when Pedro became king he persecuted her assassins, tortured them to death, then dug up her corpse and crowned her queen. Myth or not, it has all the ingredients worthy of a sentimental, passionate, melancholy nation. As Unamuno puts it, the adulteress is always more interesting than the legitimate wife, the reason why Inês has received more attention from writers. Not just Camões but his contemporary, António Ferreira, wrote about her, in the tragedy A Castro. Unanumo praises Eugénio de Castro for his bold move in showing the tragic love story from Constança’s point of view. “It’s an intimate and silent tragedy, the tragedy of the poor wife who sees her closest and most fraternal friend steal the heart of her Pedro; it’s this martyrdom that Eugénio de Castro tells us in verses of exquisite and profound sweetness and saudade.” We can already see Unamuno collecting notes for his general theory of the Portuguese psyche:
Portuguese literature – I’ll speak of it generically in another time – is characterised by two dominant notes: the amorous note and the elegiac note. Portugal seems to be the country of sad loves and great shipwrecks.
In this regard, there’s a Portuguese work profoundly and notoriously representative, a work full of painful passion. It’s called Amor de Perdição, by Camilo Castelo Branco. Few works can be read with more tragic and concentrated passion. In it, together with Inês de Castro, who there becomes Teresa Clementina de Albuquerque, there’s also a sort of Constança, Mariana, who, not even being the wife of Simão Botelho, Teresa’s beau, follows him along and serves him in prison and, when he dies in the ship that carried him to exile, she jumps in the sea embracing the corpse of the one she loved unrequitedly. In all the literatures, there are few characters more firmly delineated than Mariana.
Camilo Castelo Branco, remember him. We’re coming back to him. For now let’s see to what depths of pathos Constança can sink:
Poor Constança suffers in the innermost of her heart when she discovers that Pedro’s love for Inês is devouring his soul. This suffering purifies and sublimes her, to the point of thinking about running away with a page boy in order to be considered an artful adulterous, allowing thus for Pedro and Inês, free of remorse, to love each other in daylight.
Martyrdom, masochism, suffering, the obsessive notes of Portuguese literature, played over and over. As great as Unamuno’s descriptions of the poem – I’d hazard a guess that they’re better than the poem itself – may be, it’s what he extracts from it that I find so fascinating:
The cult of pain seems to be one of the most characteristic feelings of this melancholy and saudoso Portugal. In the wonderful poem, Pátria, the most unequal but also the most intense and vigorous work of the greatest of its poets – and one of the few, scarce few, left in all of Europe, in this so unpoetic age – Guerra Junqueiro, the most vibrant stanzas are the ones where the Saint Nuno Álvares – whose life was magnificently narrated by Oliveira Martins – invokes pain.
Once again, the cult of pain. Guerra Junqueiro (1850-1923), by the way, an anti-religious, republican pamphleteer, is also not read anymore, nor is the historian Oliveira Martins. Unamuno then momentarily turns the gaze inward:
The cult of pain is found in the Portuguese perhaps even more than in us, the Spaniards. And in them it doesn’t adopt a certain character of ferocious bravery that was adopted by us. Their anxiety for martyrdom didn’t take them as much as it took our grandfathers to the madness of martyring others.
But we also had the Inquisition and one of Portugal’s great contributions to world vocabulary was auto-da-fé, which isn’t just the fancy title of a novel by Elias Canetti. Furthermore, without a taste for martyring others I don’t think we’d have had Baltasar and Blimunda. But I shouldn’t interrupt Unamuno when he’s waxing poetics on pain:
I’ll never forget that morning when, in the pleasing quietness of Coimbra, secluded at Eugénio de Castro’s home, we read, he and I, that passage from Os Trabalhos de Jesus, by Father Tomé de Jesus, in which the good friar describes the misery, affliction and suffering Christ endured during the nine months he was shut up in his mother’s belly. The good Portuguese friar, who wrote his work while captive of the Moors, in Morocco, possessed a fertile imagination to invent refinements of suffering. His book, all of it full of lyrical effusions and inflamed orations, is a vast hymn to pain – sometimes diffused, others emphatic, of an emphasis more Spanish than Portuguese.
It’s commonly said that when a writer writes literary criticism he’s really writing about himself. I wonder, then, what does it say about Unamuno that he’s infatuated with sadistic fantasies hurled at a holy foetus? Still, if good criticism can also be measured by what it teaches us, Unamuno gets high marks: I had no idea we had, in our classics, a book that imagined the pains of foetus Jesus. All of a sudden, José Saramago seems less blasphemous than just part of a long tradition. It’s this clarity, this ability to recontextualize writers, that I admire in criticism.
Besides Eugénio de Castro, Unamuno praises other antiques few people outside specialists care to read: João de Deus (1830-1896) “a charming prodigy of grace, sweetness and sentiment,” Correia de Oliveira (1878-1960) a poet who explodes in “prophetic fulminations,” and Almeida Garrett (1799-1854), whose startlingly original Viagens na Minha Terra he quotes over and over in his travels. Garrett, in all fairness, is a different case; he’s part of our curriculum and, together with Camilo, our best prose writer before Eça. Things become less nebulous when he turns to Antero de Quental (1842-1891), a master of the sonnet:
Quental is something else. The famous sonnets of Antero de Quental – in his country he’s simply called Antero, just that, like Camilo Castelo Branco is simply called Camilo – are something frequently bony and hard; the conceptual and abstract elements show up very raw, not always well covered by fantasy. However, what depths of despair! What intensity of religious hurting! Poor Antero, who ended up killing himself, is a soul that can be placed alongside the ones of Thomson (…), Senancour, Leopardi, Kierkegaard and the most desperate. In Spain we have nothing like him. Next to him, Campoamor is a falsifier of scepticism. Quental was one of the souls most tormented by the thirst of infinity, the hunger of eternity. There are sonnets by him that will live on so long as the memory of people lives, for, sooner or later, they’ll be translated into all the languages of men tormented by the sphinx’s stare.
My favourite tribute to Antero, though, comes when Unamuno quotes the historian Oliveira Martins:
This man, fundamentally good, if he had lived in 6th century or in the 13th century, would have been a companion of St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi; in the 19th century, he’s just another eccentric, from that cut-out of eccentricity that is indispensable, for in all the eras the heretics were indispensable.
I’ve began to love this Oliveira Martins (1845-1894). If this rich book had done nothing more than introduce me to him, it would have already done a lot. Oliveira Martins is also not widely read these days, which is understandable since historians have shorter shelf lives than poets. After all, who still reads Edward Gibbons? But after I read this book I started checking out his books in the library, and was greatly impressed; one of the most remarkable was a book about Portuguese maritime history, with topics ranging from French corsairs’ raids in our coast to the role of the legend of Prester John in our chronicles. It’s not unthinkable that we’ll hear of Oliveira Martins again at St. Orberose.
Teixeira de Pascoaes (1877-1952) is another poet who gets high marks from Unamuno, and deservedly so; Unamuno devotes an article to As Sombras, one of the finest books of poetry I ever read. So much so I need to write about it one day. It’s a book infused with gentle religious mysticism that in Pascoaes becomes a pantheistic and polytheistic outlook culled from many religions, including Buddhism, represented by a memorable poem about Buddha. Unamuno uses the book to make a curious remark about Portuguese Christianity:
The Spanish Christ – Guerra Junqueiro once told me – was born in Tangiers; he’s an African Christ, and he never gets far from the cross, where he’s full of blood; the Portuguese Christ walks in the fields with the peasants and eats with them, and only at certain times, when he has to fulfil the demands of his role, does he hang himself on the cross.
His final words on As Sombras end with a lovely image:
If this book had been published in French, by some literary artisan – even though none could have done it – of the boulevard, with friends in the Mercure group who had applauded him, he’d by now have started having imitators in these parts. However, he’s an obscure Portuguese poet, who lives his life and his songs on the margins of the Tâmega, secluded in Amarante.
I, however, since I appreciate these almost ignored flowers, that are born and flourish away from the wide paths of nations, where the dust of those paths can’t find them, go pick them up so that I can call others to come enjoy them too.
Now aren’t we bloggers like him, going to the farthest byways to pick up the almost ignored flowers to call others to come enjoy them too?
But his most heartfelt encomiums go to Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890), the Romantic novelist. In the course of his travels in Portugal, Unamuno must have read some two or three novels by him, wonderful companions to have in the train. I’ve never read a Camilo novel I didn’t like, and his Mysteries of Lisbon inspired an outstanding movie. But he belongs more to the romance than the novel, if that makes any sense. I think he was an efficient storyteller with a clumsy prose but a great talent for anecdotes and social satire, qualities Unamuno downplays. For him, Amor de Perdição is “the most intense and most profound love novel ever written in the Peninsula and one of the few books that represents our shared Iberian soul.” The man is obsessed with national identity, there’s nothing to be done. He credits Teixeira de Pascoaes with telling him about the novel: “It was the fire with which he spoke to me of Amor de Perdição, of Camilo Castelo Branco, that led me to read that eternal classic amongst works of passion, very superior, in my view, to Manon Lescaut, of Abbé Prévost, even though the fact it’s a Portuguese book has obscured it next to the French one.” Remarkable how even then, when Portugal had a reasonably important empire, our language had difficulty traversing borders. Unamuno goes on: “Amor de Perdição, by Camilo, is one of the fundamental books of Iberian literature (Portuguese, Castellan and Catalan).” Now I think he’s just straining it.
With Unamuno’s obsession with martyrdom and suffering, with his infatuation with mystical effusion, with his Romantic outlook, what does he think of Eça de Queiroz?
While his name and his works conquer prestige and fame outside Portugal, in his country it’s normal to find illustrious and cultivated Portuguese who reject and renege him, considering him frenchified, one who disdained his country. And yet, underneath the French clothing, how profoundly Portuguese Eça de Queiroz is! His despair and his haplessness are quite Portuguese, and also Portuguese his irony. But, in truth, it’s quite natural that his countrymen have difficulties in forgiving his disdain and his sarcasm.
Well, if illustrious and cultivated men can’t see the greatness of Eça, are they really illustrious and cultivated? I get the feeling Unamuno doesn’t like Eça very much. Unamuno tries to overcome this disliking by distorting what makes Eça so outstanding and by projecting onto him the traits he admires so dearly in Portuguese literature. Sure, Eça belonged to the realist school, emerged from an irreverent generation that publicly decried the previous Romantic generation, mocked a tragic view of life, had a sense of humour, made Victor Hugo the punch line of many jokes in his novels, but deep down he’s just like them! Perhaps he did become a bit like them in the end.
The mocking and satirical note walks, in Portugal, hand in hand with the erotic-elegiac note. It seems to be a people that knows not but to cry or mock. And mocking tends to be a way of crying. The Romantic German poet Heinrich Heine mocked in order not to tear his breast with moans. And does the reader think the irony of Eça de Queiroz, his implacable satires, are not as painful and whining as the most plangent elegy? Read The Illustrious House of Ramires and, next, The City and the Mountains, works already translated into Castellan. If one wants to know Eça de Queiroz, however, read above all The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes. It’s here that one sees how corrosive a supercritical spirit can be.
Now, to the average reader these three titles are just three titles, but to a reader like me who’s read Eça’s almost entire fiction, and who can organize it chronologically, these three books are taken from what is called the author’s last phase, his weakest too. It’s the phase marked by the loss of his edge, the one where he made peace with his country and mitigated his social criticism, rejected his realism in favour of nationalism and sunk so low as to write a ridiculous novel idolizing the countryside and demonizing the city. It’s not the kind of simplistic moral fable I’d want someone to use to judge the talent of a writer who once wrote a satirical tale about Adam and Eve from a Darwinian perspective. Contemplating the statue of Eça de Queiroz in Lisbon, he speaks of him as “Eça de Queiroz, the man who didn’t believe in his people, or at least didn’t believe in the Portuguese city, and searched for Portugal in the mountains, far away from contact with civilization (…)”. For him, clearly, Eça was little more than The City and the Mountains. Unamuno couldn’t help expressing some of his own prejudices here. In the final article of the book he launches into a passionate, Rousseauian defence of nature and all its virtues. He’s free to love what may be Eça’s worst novel, but does that give him the right to recommend a castrated, domesticated Eça? These three novels, are they really the ones best showcase Eça’s talent? Not a renowned masterpiece like The Maias, not the relentless study of lust that is The Crime of Father Amaro, not the laugh-out-loud attack on religious hypocrisy that is The Relic? Almost as damning as distorting Eça is his omission of realist poet Cesário Verde (1855-1886), a great innovative poet who helped to move away from the antiquated lyrical tradition of the past into a more naturalistic and urban poetry, effectively setting the stage for Fernando Pessoa.
So after going through several authors and identifying several common traits of Portuguese literature, Unamuno can finally say that the Portuguese nation is a suicidal one:
Portugal is a sad people, even when it smiles. Its literature, including its comical and jocose literature, is a sad literature.
Portugal is a nation of suicidal people, perhaps a suicidal nation. Life for it doesn’t have a transcendental purpose. They want to live, yes, perhaps; but for what? It’s best not to live.
To prove his point he enumerates several figures that committed suicide: Antero de Quental, Camilo Castelo Branco, the sculptor Soares dos Reis, the poet Manuel Laranjeira, the army officer Mouzinho de Albuquerque, the writer Trindade Coelho. I can add the poets Florbela Espanca and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa’s friend.
Like I wrote before, Unamuno makes many shrewd observations about the Portuguese spirit. If I feel any anger for this book it’s not because he misrepresents it, it’s because I know it all too well. I do think our literature, which is a spitting image of our spirit, is masochistic, sad, sentimental and resigned. He endorses all these traits, whereas I loathe them for what they’ve given to Portuguese literature: the insipidness, the “melancholy lyricism,” to quote Saramago, the plangent I of so much of our 19th century poetry, a preference to sing personal misfortunes than inventing characters and narrating situations, which has resulted in a mediocre novelistic tradition. Perhaps nothing different could be expected from a national tendency for sentimentalism, masochism and resignation. If few things have changed in over a century, I think it’s because of several historical reasons: first of all, the chaotic 1st Republic, then half a century of dictatorship that exacerbated some of these psychological traits; and since 1974 an inability to heal the traumas of the dictatorship, not to mention a terrible economic depression. But the Portuguese writers I admire escaped from Unamuno’s straitjacket: Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago. And could that be the reason why they’re also the most successful Portuguese writers? Of the three, none was more singular than Eça de Queiroz, the first author of detective fiction in Portugal (The Mystery of the Sintra Road) and also one of its first practitioners of fantasy (The Mandarin), two genres that never prospered in Portugal, perhaps because they require creative imagination. Eça did two things well: he wrote in an impeccable style; and he had a peerless sense of humour. Since Eça every Portuguese novelist has obsessed over style to the point most of our novelists are practically incomprehensible. But few have tried to emulate his sense of humour. Eça was like a lightning in an endless night, illuminating everything for a brief moment before the shadows obscured things again. Fighting an entire culture is hard. It wasn’t until Saramago that a Portuguese novelist again exhibited ornate prose, a talent for storytelling and a sense of humour, all in equal proportions, making the real heir of Eça. But Saramago is sometimes accused of not being a real Portuguese writer, he’s too magical realist, too South American for that; the same way I learn from Unamuno that Eça once upon a time wasn’t considered a real Portuguese writer, just a frenchified one. Unamuno just avoids accusing Eça of self-hatred. Maybe that’s my problem; I can live with it. Perhaps the problem is that I’m exposed to globalization, perhaps I just have wrong expectations of what literature should be; perhaps I should be more accepting of the unique identity of Portuguese literature with its emphasis on misery. Perhaps Agustina Bessa-Luís is a better writer than Jorge Luis Borges. Perhaps The Baron in the Trees and The Master and Margarita are literary offenders. Perhaps Vladimir Nabokov was a fool for innovating the novel when in the 1950s Portuguese novels were still being written like they were in the 19th century. Perhaps that’s all true. In that case I prefer my Portuguese writers with a touch of the French or the South Americans, or in Pessoa’s case of the British. I so wish writers of their stature and genius were the norm in our literature instead of the chronic joyless, self-centred whiners.
Miguel de Unamuno, to recapitulate, has written an excellent book about Portuguese literature and identity. I can’t disagree with any of his general views save his hearty endorsement. But for anyone who, in a remote chance, may read this book, I hope it becomes clear this book shows not what’s great about Portuguese literature but the direction it has to move in for its own good, I daresay for a place in the world.
This post was written for the 2013 European Reading Challenge.
This post was written for the 2013 European Reading Challenge.