Thursday, 20 February 2014

At what precise moment had Portugal fucked itself up?

In Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, a character asks, “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” The novel was published less than 150 years after Peru declared national independence from the Spanish Empire. It seems, to me anyway, a tremendous question to ask of a relatively young nation. But Vargas Llosa shirks his responsibilities to give an answer. An answer would, perforce, require him to rethink Peru since 1821, but in fact the novel’s action is set around the 1950s. Actually I suspect he never intended to meditate very deeply on that question, and no doubt posed it as provocation that he was sure would grab headlines, the mercenary.

How different the situation in Portugal, where national autognosis has been an obsession for many centuries! What do I mean by national autognosis? I mean that kind of critical, intellectual, even literary activity that occurs when a once prosperous nation has fallen from grace, when it suffers traumatizing economic or political turmoil that changes forever its self-perception, when it becomes painfully aware of its irrelevancy in the history of nations and of its lagging behind in the march of progress. Portugal, because it’s an ancient nation that enjoyed about a century and a half of economic prosperity, came relatively late to national autognosis. But the fuckingupness of the nation hasn’t, since circa the 16th century, ceased to preoccupy every thinking Portuguese.

Let us quickly review Portugal’s history to know where we are. This is a long post, by the way, so kindly bear with me. The country achieved its independence in 1139, seceding from the Kingdom of León. Its first king, D. Afonso Henriques, literally waged war against his mother, Dona Teresa, to secure the county that would later become th Kingdom of Portugal. Its borders, since they were fixed in 1297, haven’t changed much, making it, geopolitically speaking, one of the oldest and most stable nation-states in Europe, spared of the turmoil that reshaped the map of Europe countless times since the beginning of time. For its first centuries, Portugal’s kings promoted policies looking inward: ridding the peninsula of the Moors, mainly by conquering more territory southwards; fostering an internal economy based on its modest resources; and populating the land. Occasionally Portugal also had to defend itself from the rapacious Spaniards, who wanted to unite the entire peninsula under the new Kingdom of Spain. That meant that Portugal, in the westernmost corner of the continent, was virtually cut off from the rest of Europe, a state of affairs that would affect the reception of new ideas throughout its history.

The domestic policies continued well into the 15th century, around which point a turn took place. King D. João I died in 1433, being succeeded by his son D. Duarte I, who ruled until 1438, year of his death. His brother D. Pedro assumed the role of regent until Duarte’s son, D. Afonso V, was old enough to rule, which he did until 1481. Amidst these royal successions, though, one of D. João I’s other sons, the Infante Dom Henrique, remained busy with his passion for seafaring, cartography and astronomy. Although D. Afonso V maintained the policies of his forebears, the Infante, almost single-handedly, promoted the first modern nautical journeys into the Atlantic and along the African coast. In 1419 his sailors occupied the archipelago of Madeira, already known since the previous century, and in 1427 discovered the Azores. In 1434 Gil Eanes crossed the Cape Bojador, at the time the farthest known point of the African coast. Using a new type of ship, the caravel, the discoveries took them down to Senegal, Lagos, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone. The Infante was a curious man, a mixture of Renaissance scholar and fervent mystic, whose discoveries were also motivated by the search for the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John, rumoured to be somewhere in Africa. He died in 1460 and D. Afonso V, more interested in conquering territory in Northern Africa, neglected further journeys. His son, D. João II, however, took them to new heights: during his reign, Diogo Cão discovered the Congo River and explored the coast of Namibia; Bartolomeu Dias crossed the Cape of Good Hope (previously known as Cape of Torments), becoming the first European to sail in the Indic river from the West; the settlement of São Tomé and Príncipe, discovered back in 1470, began; and in 1495, when he died, the King was busy outlining the first sea journey to India. His son, D. Manuel I, entrusted the mission to Vasco da Gama. During his reign, Vasco da Gama arrived in India through the sea (1498) and Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil (1500). Under his reign Portugal also decided to establish a military presence in the Orient, in order to protect the new commercial routes, with D. Afonso de Albuquerque conquering several main locations like Ormuz, Goa and Malacca, where they could produce the profitable spices. Portugal was finally an empire, and rich.

D. Manuel I was the first Portuguese king to make a splash in European courts. He also married Dona Maria of Aragon, which resulted in a climate of peace in the peninsula. His 1516 embassy to Rome, wonderfully described by Damião de Góis in Crónica do Felicíssimo D. Manuel, is legendary and contributed to creating a new imaginary for writers and painters across Europe, with the wondrous novelties brought from Asia, including an Indian rhino which Albrecht Dürer famously painted. The embassy (besides having the secret purpose of negotiating the implementation of the Inquisition in Portugal, o what rich irony!) was meant to show off Portugal’s riches. With it, D. Manuel I wanted to say that Portugal had arrived. The euphoria was short-lived, though. It was true that for a while, Portugal could see itself as an equal of Europe’s most advanced nations, and there was probably no other time in history when Portugal was so close to Europe than the 16th century: culturally speaking, it was a Golden Age, with poets like Luís de Camões and Sá de Miranda, and humanists and scholars like Damião de Góis and João de Barros breathing the spirit of the Renaissance.

But as much as it created an illusion of power and fortune, the Discoveries were also the unravelling of Portugal. One of the immediate consequences was the depopulation of Portugal: thousands of people abandoned the kingdom for the Indies with the ambition of becoming quickly rich with a shipment of spices; for that reason internal economic activity was abandoned, agriculture, one of the country’s main sources of wealth, decreased. Portugal went from being a nation of producers to one of merchants. Perhaps this could not have been catastrophic if actual money, from so much commercial activity, entered the country to improve it. Instead, the Discoveries also consolidated an indolent aristocratic class which used half their fortune to build churches and monasteries in order to buy their soul’s quick entrance into Heaven after spending the other half in every imaginable vice on Earth. The Portuguese empire, unlike the English one, wasn’t one of private initiative, it was mostly a royal project, and so financed by the King. Ships sailing to India were insured by the royal treasury, at great expense to the country, and the king himself had monopoly on some goods. In fact, although Portugal was allegedly rich from all the oriental trade, in 1560, just one century after the death of the Infante D. Henrique, the Kingdom declared bankruptcy, the first of many in its history. The causes were diverse, but especially that the fortunes of India were dissipated in Europe by a dissolute aristocracy, who left the country to rot. Oliveira Martins, in his genial book Portugal nos Mares, also shows how many of the ships were lost because of bad maintenance and excess of cargo, a recipe for disaster, while being insured by the Crown. Greed, in the form of cutting corners, was our doom. He was writing, however, at the end of the 19th century, this problem was imperceptible at the time. Another factor was the bad management of the empire itself, which was in the hands of corrupt, self-serving civil servants far away from the supervision of the King. The cupidity, deception and incompetence behind those who ran the empire in the orient, was the subject of one of the first works of national autognosis, Diogo do Couto’s O Diálogo do Soldado Prático, a mordant critique of Portugal’s administration in India.

For a while, though, criticism was more of moral than economical or political order. Although Luís de Camões wrote The Lusiads, that magnificent propaganda pamphlet, to justify his pension, his lyrical poetry tells a very different, more honesty story about what it was like in the Indies. As a soldier who travelled to India to become rich and who returned destitute, and only thanks to the intervention of friends who crowdfunded his passage home, he was resentful of everybody but himself making easy money off the Indies, and he channelled his indignation into his sonnets, lamenting the immoral, chaotic times he lived in, when the wicked thrived and the poor starved:

In base prisons I was for a time held,
Disgraceful punishment for my errors;
Even now crawling I bear my irons
Which Death, to my sorrow, already broke.

I sacrificed life under my own risk,
For Love wants neither lambs nor little sheep;
I saw grief, I saw pain, I saw exiles:
It seems it was ordained in this manner.

I took joy in paucity, knowing well
That it was a disgraceful form of joy,
Just from seeing what a happy life was.

But my star, which at last I understand,
The Blind Death and the doubtful Destiny,
Have made me feel afraid of appetites

Here’s another one:

Here in this Babylon, from where runs out
Matter produced by the world’s great evil;
Here where immaculate love has no worth,
Since our Mother, who wills most, all things soils.

Here, where evil is honed, and good reviled,
And tyranny has more force than honour;
Here, where mistaken and blind Monarchy
Thinks that a vain name will show it the truth;

Here, in this labyrinth, where noblemen
With effort and knowledge go begging at
The doors of covetousness and vileness;

Here, in this dark chaos of confusion,
I am fulfilling the course of nature.
See if I’ll ever forget you, Siam!

But I am being unfair to his epic poem. Although it is mostly a glorification of Portuguese history and a justification of empire, Camões inserted a prophetic condemnation of the Discoveries in the form of an old man who delivers a sombre speech when Vasco da Gama’s ships are sailing from Lisbon to India. This figure has become part of Portuguese culture: an Old Man of Restelo means someone who is always complaining and only says negative things. However Camões describes the figure as ‘venerable,’ meaning someone who is respected. This nuance is usually overlooked by those who use the term as an insult. Anyway, his speech begins thus:

O frantic thirst of honour and of fame,
The crowd's blind tribute, a fallacious name;
What stings, what plagues, what secret scourges curs'd,
Torment those bosoms where thy pride is nurs'd!
What dangers threaten, and what deaths destroy
The hapless youth, whom thy vain gleams decoy!
By thee, dire tyrant of the noble mind,
What dreadful woes are pour'd on human kind:
Kingdoms and empires in confusion hurl'd,
What streams of gore have drench'd the hapless world!
Thou dazzling meteor, vain as fleeting air,
What new-dread horror dost thou now prepare!
High sounds thy voice of India's pearly shore,
Of endless triumphs and of countless store:
Of other worlds so tower'd thy swelling boast,
Thy golden dreams when Paradise was lost,
When thy big promise steep'd the world in gore,
And simple innocence was known no more.
And say, has fame so dear, so dazzling charms?
Must brutal fierceness, and the trade of arms,
Conquest, and laurels dipp'd in blood, be priz'd,
While life is scorn'd, and all its joys despis'd?

(Translated by William Julius Mickle)

And then King D. Sebastião, to whom The Lusiads was dedicated, went and got himself killed in North Africa, and Portugal lost its sovereignty to Spain from 1680 to 1640. I’ve told the story of D. Sebastião several times in my blog, but I never tire of it because it’s so funny. To make a long story short, D. Sebastião was an almost-nubile, possibly homosexual (nothing wrong with that, but consequential for what’s coming) religious fanatic who wanted to convert the whole of North Africa to the Christian faith; so he and his army travelled to Morocco, where they were massacred in what history calls the Battle of El-Ksar el Kebir. And that wouldn’t necessarily have been a tragedy if he had left at least a royal baby, but according to rumours, either he didn’t fancy the weaker sex very much or he favoured chastity. Either way there was a crisis of heirs and the Spanish got the throne of Portugal. Ironically, even though D. Sebastião was one of Portugal’s worst kings – essayist António Sérgio called him an ass – he lives on in the popular myth that one day he’ll return to lead the Portuguese to a new golden era. This is known as Sebastianism. As it turned out the Portuguese Restoration, in 1640, was a lot less dramatic than that, and the Kingdom regained its sovereignty after a revolutionary coup d’état.

And this is when national autognosis went full mode. You see, between the spurious Golden Age of the 15th century and the grimy age of the 17th century, many changes had taken place. The Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and the mismanagement of the empire during the Spanish rule had widened the distance between Portugal and Europe. The nation was poor, practically medieval still, and cut off from the rest of the continent by a country that was no better, perhaps even more fanatic and obscurantist, if that was possible. Foreign travellers visiting Portugal called its people– O Fate, thy irony doth sting! – the Indians of Europe. And culturally speaking, this century was a desert: almost no thinkers, poets, or scientists of renown. Naturally, all thinking Portuguese, who had some contacts with the learned, modern outside world, wanted to understand what had happened to Portugal, where it all had gone wrong. You see, Jared Diamond hadn't yet written Collapse. The population on the whole was illiterate. The King still detained absolute power. Although a few humanists existed, the spirit itself did not. The Sephardic Jews, an enterprising, moneyed, cultured class, were expelled and relocated to the Netherlands, auguring the Dutch Golden Age. Portuguese people, the well-read anyway, who know a thing or two about culture, do love to point out that Baruch Spinoza was of Portuguese descent, never pausing to reflect on why he wasn’t an actual Portuguese.

After the Restoration progress was made, of course, to bridge the gulf between the country and the continent, to reform it in light of the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. But this is a story mostly of high expectations, failures and disappointments. The history of national autognosis is mostly a history of bemoaning, because things never seemed to get any better, no matter the good will of some rulers or the intellect of some reformers, and everybody who thought he had a brilliant new idea to lead Portugal out of the Dark Ages eventually came to no good. Perhaps the first noteworthy figure was Luís António Verney, author of O Verdadeiro Método de Estudar (The True Method for Study, 1746). Verney spent years in Italy where he savoured modernity, and he wrote a book telling the Portuguese all about it, but most of his proposed ideas were never implemented. Even so as the century ended, things seemed to be improving, with the creation of the Academy of Sciences, in 1799. 

But the 19th century started with the Napoleonic Invasions, which kept everyone busy until 1814, then continued with liberal revolutions and a civil war that would decided whether Portugal would have an absolutist king or a constitutional monarchy. The constitutionalists won. Amongst the liberals three men occupied themselves with understanding how Portugal had become what it was. One was Alexandre Herculano, Portugal’s first historian in the modern sense of the word, author of the seminal História de Portugal (1846-1853), a gigantic endeavour that appliedfor the first time the scientific, rational model of historiography. Herculano’s history of Portugal has some 1600 pages and tackles only about the first one hundred years of Portuguese history. The church reacted so viciously to the first volume that he changed his plans of covering the country’s history until the Restoration. The church’s main objection was that he did not give credence to the myth of divine intervention on the creation of Portugal. No, really. In 1139, D. Afonso Henriques allegedly won the Battle of Ourique against the Moors thanks to a vision of Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels, who told him he’d come out victorious, and after the battle, which he did win against a larger opponent, he proclaimed himself King of Portugal. But Herculano wasn’t having any of that nonsense. Perhaps to get even with the church he followed this book with História da Origem e Estabelecimento da Inquisição em Portugal (History of the Origin and Establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal, 1854-1859). This ignoble institution had only ceased to exist in Portugal since 1821. Herculano’s great friend, Almeida Garret, wrote Portugal na Balança da Europa (1830), a political book comparing Portugal to the other European nations, and it was a book that dealt with a very modern topic. You know how sometimes people ask if the Iraqi or the Afghans are ready for Democracy, since they lack historical experience of it? Well, Garrett was asking the same question of the Portuguese people in 1830. A fascinating book. A third man was Mouzinho da Silveira, who reformed the state, the laws and the courts and joined the fight for the Constitutional Charter of 1826. He was also a perceptive man who realized that Portugal, without Brazil, which had declared independence in 1822, would have to rethink itself, since it could not continue to live on its gold, obtained with slave trade. But easier said than done: the country simply remembered that it had some lingering African colonies, mainly Angola and Mozambique, which became the empire’s last bid for relevance in a world where it was becoming irrelevant.

In the second half of the 19th century we had the social and political satires of Eça de Queiroz and Antero de Quental’s Causas da Decadência dos Povos Peninsulares (Causes for the Decadence of the Peninsular Peoples, 1871), synthesising Herculano’s motives for Portugal and Spain’s backwardness since the 17th century: the Counter-Reformation, the Absolutist Monarchy which stifled private initiative; and the economic model of the Discoveries that left the country rotting. Perhaps, however, the best author of national autognosis of this era was Oliveira Martins, a historian who continued the work of Herculano, his mentor. In his history books he was rational and scientific, he was merciless and had no time for romanticism, and he seemed to enjoy digging up all the nasty, shameful things about Portuguese history that everyone prefers to forget. For that reason he’s been accused of being too negative and anti-nationalistic, and perhaps that explains why it’s virtually impossible to buy his books other than through second-hand shops. His indignation was a sign he cared, and his writings about the Discoveries, economy, emigration, depopulation, and politics were ahead of their time and very influential to those that matter. He may well be the cornerstone of modern national autognosis. His influence is visible on the work of rationalist essayist António Sérgio and philosopher Eduardo Lourenço. 

In the 20th century there were other writers fascinated with the deplorable state of the country. The most important was no doubt Fernando Pessoa, whose symbolic epic poem Message prophesies the rise of Portugal as a major new power that will renew the world. One of the poem's most famous verses is the claim that Portugal has yet to fulfil itself, that is, perform its Destiny. When it does, the world better watch out. But for now we’re waiting, for something. For D. Sebastião, perhaps. We can also add Jorge de Sena in his poetry, and José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes in their novels. Perhaps the most recent contribution to this literature was a book called Portugal, Hoje: O Medo de Existir (Portugal Today: The Fear of Existing, 2004 - a title that doesn't leave anything to the imagination), from philosopher José Gil. His book is not so much interested in knowing how we got here, but rather in describing what here means. It’s pure acid, but a faithful image of what Portugal is nowadays, with its neuroses, its taboos, its fears, and its anemia.

Perhaps all former empires wallow in this internal reading. Perhaps the Mongolians miss their old empire. Maybe Iranians look back with nostalgia on Darius I. In the book Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk discusses the Turkish word huzun, which is the collective melancholy or sadness Turks feel for living in the shadow of a former empire. Perhaps that sentiment is expressed in our language by saudade, the spiritual pain one feels for something that is absent, unreachable, a person or an idea or something vaster, like a sense of purpose or a lost past. Saudade shapes Portuguese mentality; some, like the poet Teixeira de Pascoaes, even saw it as the essence of the Portuguese spirit, its identity. I do think we Portuguese feel, sometimes consciously but mostly unconsciously, the pain of not being an empire anymore, of our reduced stature in the world. We refuse to resign ourselves to our irrelevance.

One of the best books on national autognosis is Eduardo Lourenço’s O Labirinto da Saudade, which I recently read. Eduardo Lourenço is a renowned thinker who’s lived most of his life in Vance, France. He’s taught at the University of Grenoble and the University of Nice. Born in 1923, he’s the author of an extensive bibliography on sociology, philosophy, literature and history. I have an ambivalent affair with Lourenço, whom I’ve read here and there, marvelled by his perspicacy in certain affairs but enervated by his boring, rambling style, close to the French philosophers he loves, sometimes full of vapid circumlocution. I think his attempt at understanding the fragmentary nature of modern society in Chaos and Splendour, for instance, smacks of the worst vices Jean Baudrillard indulged in in Simulacra and Simulation. His essays on Pessoa, however, can be insightful and informative, although I still think Sena was a better and clearer literary essayist. But O Labirinto da Saudade is something else. Subtitled “mythical psychoanalysis of Portuguese destiny,” this labyrinth of longing, pining, nostalgia, sadness, sorrow, or however you wish to translate it, is one of the most perceptive studies of how the Portuguese people see themselves.

The book was published in 1978, just four years after the Carnation Revolution that ended 48 years of dictatorship and 13 years of a pointless war with the rebellious African colonies. During the 20th century, the dictatorship held on to these colonies as the last redoubt of national greatness. Writing in the preface to the 2000 edition, Lourenço states that he published the book when

Portugal had just lost its old empire. And with it – I thought – a certain way of imagining its past through a mythology responsible for the end of our history as colonizing nation. It then seemed that the apparent fiasco of our imperial mythology offered a good occasion to “rethink Portugal,” to lay bare the roots of a collective behaviour that had taken us, not to the end of empire, which was inevitable, but to an absurd war, politically anachronistic and ethically contrary to the same mythology of our “exemplary” colonialism, with its famous Christian humanism being used as reference and insurance.

As you can tell from this tone, there was no rethinking Portugal for anybody. As he concedes, “It would be absurd if [the nation] had gotten rid of, as if by miracle, a past, a memory, an identity that was forged and exalted precisely with the Discoveries and of which the colonial adventure was the consequence.” Having for centuries believed ourselves to be the centre of the world, or at least of an empire, it’s hard for us to accept that we’re just like everybody else, even though perhaps we were not even that.

The book is about the images we create of ourselves, the images we create to see ourselves in the world. Lourenço sometimes writes passages that seem like utter gibberish, but to a Portuguese reader they ring so true in their painful and accurate diagnosis:

Our genesis as a State was of the traumatic type and from that traumatism we never fully rose to the full assumption of historical maturity promised by heavens and centuries to that shoot, incredibly fragile in its genesis  and mysteriously strong in how it dared to subsist. (Perhaps it’s not by chance that the historiographical myths connected to the birth of Portugal have such a Freudian profile with maternal sacrileges and broken words, Teresa and Egas Moniz…) The fascinating mixture of braggadocio and humility, of Moorish carelessness and Sebastianist confidence, of “happy unconsciousness” and black presage, which constitutes the Portuguese backbone, is connected to that act without history which is how the time of birth is for every thing born. Through diverse mythologies, of historians and poets, that act always showed up, and with reason, as something in the order of the unjustifiable, of the incredible, of the miraculous, or, in sum, of the providential. It’s more lucid and wiser than all the positivist explanations, that feeling that the Portuguese always had to believe themselves assured of their national being less for their simple ability and human cunning, than for another, higher power, something like the hand of God. This popular reading of our collective destiny expresses correctly the effective historical relationship that we maintain with ourselves as a national entity. In it is reflected the awareness of a congenital weakness and the magical conviction of an absolute protection that subtracts that fragility from the regrettable oscillations of any human project without the arrow of hope guiding it. This conjunction of an inferiority and superiority complex has never been defused as it should have along our historical life and, therefore, it mysteriously corrodes us as the root of the unrealistic relationship that we keep with ourselves. Depending on the contingencies of the international or global situation, one or the other complex rises to the surface, but more frequently both at the same time, one the inverse image of the other.

Portugal, as he puts it, and perhaps inspiring the title of José Gil’s book (which references this one), is a country that can’t deal well with its own existence, an inner conflict which does not allow us to accept who we are. Our existence was shaken when we lost our sovereignty to the Spaniards, but at the same time we never managed to cope or adjust to the role Europe saw us in during the first glorious years of the Discoveries, when we were so close to modern Europe.

Of the two original components of our historical existence – triumphant challenge and the difficulty of quietly accepting that triumph – we deepened then, and particularly, our “difficulty of being,” as Fontanelle could have said, the historical difficulty of subsisting with political plenitude. It thus became clear that national consciousness (in those who could have it), our reason of being, the root of all hope, was our having been. And from that ex-life The Lusiads are its trial by fire. The national living that was almost always a startled, restless life, but confident and trusting in its star, weaving its web from the strength of the present, guides itself in that epoch towards a future utopian beforehand because of the primordial, obsessive mediation of the past. Unhappy with the present, dead as immediate national existence, we started simultaneously dreaming the future and the past.

A backward country, we continued looking backwards, to our mythical past, whose glory crushes any present endeavour. We are just never good enough for the past we are judged against constantly. A country that is terrified of the world and isolates itself. A nation deprived of the “kingdom of freedom” when we embraced the Inquisition.

That national sycophantism at the service of God was enough to feed our vanity as defenders of faith, but it converted us into ecstatic worshippers in the best of cases and refined hypocrites in the worst, creating in us a sort of indifference to every truth that isn’t collectively lived, to genial inventors of “consensuses” and “average truths” that naturally could never have led us to Descartes, Pascal, Torricelli and especially Espinosa.

Lourenço describes us as a sad, humourless people – everything Manuel de Unamuno extolled about our spirit - sarcastic in a malignant way, always pretending, always acting, with dire results to the relationships Portuguese have in the quotidian, an unease that atrophies their mental and emotional development, leaving them amputees, unanchored in anything concrete. A nation once of colonizers, or at least emigrants who left to make fortune in the colonies, and now of emigrants who go work for other people, in France and the USA. A poor nation that always saw itself as rich and lived above its means. Although this is a cliché that the markets hurl against Portugal to justify the current austerity measures, it’s a cliché that has been repeated by ourselves too many times throughout history not to be a truth, although, as Lourenço says, “it’s so organic it’s become invisible, like everything that is normal.” Although Lourenço throws enough jabs to get anyone upset, I don’t think he’s ever off the mark; I think this is a rigorous view of what it means to be Portuguese. Of course this spirit and mythology is better expressed in literature, which is why he’s always commenting on Eça de Queiroz, Antero de Quental, Oliveira Martins, Fernando Pessoa, Almeida Garrett, Teixeira de Pascoaes, Ramalho Ortigão, and others. But I’d need a post twice this long to get into that. My purpose was mainly to bring attention to this salient aspect of Portuguese thought.

Anyway, yesterday, coincidentally as I was writing this, I saw on the news a beautiful example of this inability to stop pining for the old empire, and the pervasiveness of imperial imagery. We just can't forget the Discoveries. Yesterday a new map of Portugal was unveiled. The four people in this picture are, from left to right: Nuno Crato, Minister of Education, Assunção Cristas, Minister of Agriculture, Cavalo Silva, the President (aka as the prick responsible for José Saramago’s self-imposed exile in Lanzarote), and his wife. And that thing in the middle is the new map of Portugal, which, on the whole, is exactly like the old one save it shows the exclusive economic zone, all the sea area that Portugal owns:

But what’s creepy is the rhetoric behind the unveiling of the new map. According to the President, this map will allow students to understand that Portugal is “huge.” “It’s an initiative of great pedagogical value, in the sense that it’ll give our children and our youngsters the perception of the true dimension of Portugal, that Portugal is not just a narrow coastline stretch to the west of the Iberian Peninsula, it’s also a great exclusive economic zone.” Words from the man who tried to ban The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from a European literary prize. “Now in schools this immense Portugal can be studied in the most varied perspectives,” he added, because this map is to be distributed to all schools, where it’ll hang in a prominent spot for all the children to stare at, in rapture of the great country they live in.

This rhetoric is pathetic, it’s desperate. If a country needs to remember people of its EEZ in order to feel good about itself, then it’s because its amour-propre has hit rock bottom. Really, who cares that the EEZ is 15 times the size of Portugal? Unless we can live in the middle of the Atlantic, Portugal is still tiny. But what really worries me is how similar this rhetoric is to the one espoused by Salazar’s propaganda machine decades ago. During the dictatorship there was also a map that showed that Portugal was not a small country. Here it is:

In case you can’t see it well, that’s the map of Europe with Angola and Mozambique super-imposed on it. Territorially speaking, Portugal was indeed great, almost the size of Europe, if we indexed the colonies’ territories to it. "Portugal is not a small country," it proudly says. The colonies are gone, so now we have the EEZ. It’s sad, it’s embarrassing. Are we in such a need to affirm ourselves, to remember, to ourselves first of all, that we exist, that we’ve stooped to borrowing techniques from Salazar?

Eduardo Lourenço is right. It’s so organic it’s become invisible, like everything that is normal. So much for national autognosis. At least it produces good reading material from time to time.


  1. Miguel, I know this post is months old, but I've kept it in my mind to read at leisure when I had time (of course, now, a day when I have no time, is the day I pick to read it). This is a great guide for those of us engaging Portuguese literature from afar and via translation, just immensely helpful. I'm curious about that notion of pan-national psychological malaise (and wonder if a word like "saudade" or "huzun" exists in other such cultures - is there something similar for the malaise that followed the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, for example?).

    That map is rather sad, especially with the Portuguese mainland scrunched up against the border of the map (an "uncomfortable tangent," as they say in drawing classes). If they'd framed it so it was stuck way up in the upper right corner they could almost have made it seem like an island. I trust that, as they come along, you'll post about contemporary writers who appear to challenge Portugal to get up out of its long rut. Anyway, a great, helpful piece - thanks.

    1. Scott, all these months later, it's good to know it's been of use to someone.

      If they'd framed it so it was stuck way up in the upper right corner they could almost have made it seem like an island.

      Saramago's stone raft come to life at last.

      I trust that, as they come along, you'll post about contemporary writers who appear to challenge Portugal to get up out of its long rut.

      I'm terrible at contemporary Portuguese literature; or perhaps contemporary Portuguese literature just sounds terrible to me. I must say I don't have great faith in the new generation: Tavares, Tordo, Peixoto, mãe. Saramago, and even Lobo Antunes, are the last of an era of polemic, ballsy writers who enjoyed a good public skirmish; the young ones just want to look good on late night talk shows, tweet jokes, post on FB and update their blogs with news of where they'll be signing autographs tomorrow, because that's fucking important...

      I'm in a bad mood today...