Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Jorge Luis Borges on detective tales

Jorges Luis Borges liked detective tales. He wrote them alone, he co-wrote them with Adolfo Bioy Casares; together they created the detective Don Isidro Parodi. He devoted a lecture to detective tales in Borges, oral. His book reviews for El Hogar showed a preference for detective novels. And he selected many for his two book collections. One of the most remarkable things about the most intellectual of modern writers is how he was a great lover and defender of popular genres and traditional storytelling. But in hindsight this was expected: Borges liked logic and rationality, and structures, and for him there was nothing more rational and structured in literature than the detective tale.

Obviously, Borges also had something to say about this genre in his conversations with Osvaldo Ferrari. Ferrari, for his part, is mostly silent throughout the conversation, so this is mostly Borges reminiscing, without needing anyone to goad him.

First of all, why does he like detective tales? He likes them because of their adherence to order; Borges chastises the psychological novel because “in a psychological novel everything is allowed, any extravagance is allowed that corresponds to the personality of the character. Oppositely, in a very chaotic time for literature, logical rigour was saved by the detective tale, for a detective tale is an intellectual tale; that is, it’s a tale that has a beginning, middle and end, where nothing is inexplicable. So there’s a logical satisfaction in detective tales.” It’s not the first time he argues this; he wrote almost the same thirty years before this conversation in a prologue for Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. Borges is nothing but coherent. The conversation does not include hardboiled fiction, a subgenre Borges did not like because it had too much sex and violence and not enough reasoning and mysterious crimes. Still he did not like outlandish for outlandish’s sake. The method to carry out a crime, as surprising as it may be, should first and foremost be credible. When he discusses locked room mysteries - Dickson Carr, Israel Zangwill, Gaston Leroux – he regrets that too many finales disappoint him because ‘trivial,’ they fail to live up to the premise. In fact I think one of the few locked room mysteries he enjoyed was a short-story by Chesterton.

According to Borges, the detective tale has been “unjustly calumniated,” one presumes by critics, highbrow writers and some pedantic readers like me. “And yet, [it’s] a genre invented by a man of indubitable genius – Edgar Allan Poe – and who then inspired writers like Dickens, like Stevenson, like Wilkie Collins, like Chesterton; it seems to me these names are enough to push away all criticism.” But they’re not, Borges, they’re not! The world is wicked, people are intolerant, they label everything and criticise without knowing! What do you reply to that? “Of course it can be said that there are horrible detective texts, the same way there are horrible sonnets, horrible epics, horrible historical novels; alas, any genre we mention has given malefic fruits. But I think we need only the works of the writers I’ve just mentioned and who aren’t the only ones, for why not think of Nicholas Blake or in Ellery Queen or in Eden Phillpotts, who’d be enough to save the genre.” I’m not convinced they are, but perhaps a few more names would.

The conversation focuses on three writers: Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and G.K. Chesterton. Poe, of course, is the foundation of the genre, everything emanates from the three or four “tales of ratiocination” he wrote. “Now, in the case of Edgar Allan Poe, what is strange is that he established certain rules within the detective story, which were abided by its most famous followers, like Conan Doyle, for instance. That is, it’s the idea of a detective, who solves crimes personally – everything told by a friend, verging on stupid, who admires him. That’s sketched in Auguste Dupin: it’s his friend who tells his exploits. Then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took this and gave it a character of intimacy, which, of course, doesn’t exist. In Poe’s detective tales, which can be terrific – in the good sense of the word: the case of “The Crimes of Rue Morgue;” or mere intellectual games like “The Purloined Letter,” one certainly won’t find the intimacy that exists in the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. I was re-reading with my sister Norah the tales of Sherlock Holmes, which is a form of going back to the past, for we used to read them together many years ago, in several latitudes. But we could also verify that in these Conan Doyle tales the plot almost doesn’t matter; what matters is the friendship between the two characters, and the relationship – that relationship between a very intelligent person (Sherlock Holmes) and an almost professionally foolish person like doctor Watson. The fact that they are friends, of liking one another, that we feel this friendship, is more important than what happens to them.”

I think this is a very interesting idea, the importance of friendship in the Sherlock Holmes tales, and the buddy angle has certainly been explored in recent iterations of the character. But I also think Borges is being too unfair on poor Watson, calling him professionally foolish. That does sound like the Watson from the movies, for cinema does not need a narrator and thus Watson’s presence is justified by comedic relief, but I never had the impression, reading the original tales, that he was a simpleton.

Here’s another literary theory Borges likes. “Sherlock Holmes is a sort of tender myth of the human memory. Sherlock Holmes is in every memory, its name is immediately identified. We can even consider the tales bad, but regardless there’s something in some of these tales… something the author didn’t understand, for Conan Doyle didn’t like these tales; and he tried to kill Sherlock Holmes in one of them, but people demanded that he resurrect him, that he come back. So he had to write the return of Sherlock Holmes.” Now this is similar to something he once wrote about Franz Kafka, namely that one day he could belong to the “memory of the world,” that is, his work becoming so universal that it’d become anonymous, like a myth. Borges seems to think this condition is the greatest glory literature can aspire to. And here’s a bit of trivia: Borges considers “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” the best Sherlock Holmes tale. I don’t remember it at all, but I read the whole lot a long time ago. Perhaps it’s time to revisit a few.

Finally he moves on to G.K. Chesterton. For Borges, detective tales reach their apotheosis in the work of Chesterton. Unlike the others, Chesterton didn’t just create one famous detective; he created several – Father Brown, Gabriel Syme, Mr. Pond, Horne Fisher, Gabriel Gale, all diverse but equally entertaining and very humane. Chesterton was a writer of immense talents, not just a great crime writer but a literary genius; many of his lines are the best I’ve read in English. Like Borges says, he was excellent at describing things. Here’s what he says about his detective tales. “In Chesterton’s case, of course, they’d come to be, I’d say, the masterpieces of the genre; for these detective novels are also supernatural tales; in each case a supernatural solution is suggested. And then there’s a solution that we must accept as rational, given by Father Brown, or by any other detective created by Chesterton. And besides that those tales – as Xul Solar made me notice – are like theatrical plays, they’re like paintings too… I don’t know if you remember that Chesterton started by trying to become a painter; and then abandoned painting and drawing for literature, but in literature he continued to be a painter.”

And now I feel like re-reading Chesterton again.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Wendell Potter: Deadly Spin

A few years ago, around the time the United States Supreme Court upheld President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Act, paving the way for a more inclusive national healthcare system in America, I was reading Wendell Potter’s Deadly Spin, an exposé on the lobby that operated from the shadows to crush its reform: the health insurance companies.

After some years in journalism, Wendell Potter joined a major health insurer to work as a public relations executive. In 2007, after a two-decade career, he abandoned his lucrative job to become a whistleblower, disgusted and disappointed, unable to cope with the lies he had to fabricate and the vulnerable people he had to destroy in order to protect the public image of his clients. His main tasks involved defending the company’s image, killing media scandals that might jeopardize its profits and affect the price of the stocks, and shaping a positive public perception of insurance companies, considered by public opinion to be motivated solely by greed. This included convincing the American public that a national health case system would run counter to its best interests. All of this manipulation was done “in such subtle ways that I could never even acknowledge to myself that I was purposely trying to mislead.” At first, Potter didn’t consider his work immoral. In fact the work he and his colleagues performed had a zing of sexiness and elegance. “I didn’t feel then that we were doing anything unethical or underhanded. We were all well read and well educated and could hold our own at any cocktail party, regardless of the subject. We were charming and articulate and sophisticated. We all wore nice clothes and ate at the best restaurants and had kids in good schools and houses in the right zip codes. We knew people in Congress and White House. We talked every day to reporters at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. we were powerful and influential – not nearly as much so as our CEOs, of course, but what we did and said mattered. The American dream didn’t get any better than this.” What Potter slowly realised, however, was that his American dream was being paid at the expense of the misery of millions of Americans.

Three reasons led Potter to abandon his lucrative job and start fighting the health insurance industry: Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko; witnessing the non-profit organisation Remote Area Medical (RAM) providing free medical care to thousands of citizens of Tennessee; and his part in the handling of the ‘horror story’ of Nataline Sarkisyan, a seventeen-year-old girl who died because Potter’s company, CIGNA, refused to pay for an organ transplant that could have saved her life.

Potter’s about-face started around the time Michal Moore released Sicko. When the documentary premiered in Cannes, Potter had an agent in the audience taking down notes. As soon as the session ended, he ran to a telephone to transmit to Potter the contents of the documentary: it unfavourably compared the US health care system with other countries’, and was predictably hard on insurance companies. When the documentary premiered in the USA, Potter went to see it to get a first-hand notion of what the industry was up against. One of his jobs was to show a ‘rapid response’ to crises, and Moore was a crisis for the industry. But the effect it had on him, as he watched case after case of Americans who were denied health care even though they had paid for it all their lives, was to make him question the ethics of his employers. Even so, he and the top health insurer executives got together to delineate strategies to destroy the documentary’s effect, to silence it. After a successful premiere in America that attracted political support, the PR machine initiated a fear-mongering campaign, which Potter describes in detail, that crippled the impact of the documentary on American society. However it’s a testament to Moore’s ability to raise controversial topics that he managed to terrify the industry into such a fierce response as Potter describes.

Another factor in turning Potter into a whistleblower is related to a trip he made to the Appalachians, to visit his parents. Making a stop at Wise Country, Tennessee, he had opportunity to witness the work of RAMin the town. RAM is a non-profit organisation that provides free medical care thanks to volunteers; originally it was created with the intention of operating in foreign nations, but it soon became evident that in America, especially in its poorer rural areas, there were also millions of Americans who couldn’t afford health care, either because they were so poor that they couldn’t pay for it or because companies deemed them uninsurable because they’d be “drains on profits.” On the day Potter stopped in Wise County, he saw a scene that seemed to belong to an African refugee camp: queues of dozens of thousands of men and women, old and young, waiting hours – some had slept the night there to get a good place - to be seen by volunteers who had set up their ‘offices’ in barns and tents. It seemed too amazing to be true, but there existed a whole socio-economical class that couldn’t afford health insurance in the United States, due to the greed of the companies and their draconian measures to artificially inflate prices in order to report profits that met Wall Street’s expectations. Potter asked himself if this scene of misery is something that should be happening in the allegedly most developed country in the world.

The death of Nataline Sarkisyan was the last straw. CIGNA refused to pay for a transplant operation that could have saved her life. When CIGNA refused the payment, her parents started a media campaign against it. When Potter got hold of the situation, he realized that this ‘horror story’ was better dealt with if they simply paid the operation. In this business, he explains, threatening with the media tends to work. And indeed in Natalie’s case CIGNA relented. But it was too late and she died before the operation. This only worsened things and CIGNA feared the impeding backlash. Potter had to oversee the operation to kill the scandal since her parents refused to let the story go. Ironically, the costs of restoring the company’s image after the hard blow caused by Natalie’s death were several times more than the cost of the operation itself. If a young woman hadn’t died, this irony could actually be amusing. Spending millions on anything but health, however, is one of the industry’s great crimes. In order to deal with Michael Moore, they also spent millions of dollars. And during the PR campaign against the health care reform, in 2009, it was spending as much as $700,000 a day just to defeat Obama’s reform. Money that could actually be used to pay for treatments and save lives. In face of so much venality, Potter got fed up and quit.

Deadly Spin would have been interesting enough if Potter had merely narrated his disenchantment with the job, but that’s just the skeleton holding together many other stories: like the history of PR in America (amongst other episodes, he regales us with the ironic story of Edward Bernays, the Jewish-American PR pioneer who discovered that his 1928 classic, Propaganda, was being used by Joseph Goebbels to start a campaign against Jews); or the history of healthcare – another irony: although an emblem of the Left, national health care was actually created in 1883 by Otto Von Bismarck, the father of the German empire. The reason is that at the time communism was becoming very attractive to the working masses with its promises of better living conditions; an NHS was a means conservative states saw to curtail the expansion of communism. This strategy was known by a lovely turn of phrase: “turning benevolence into power.” Although a national healthcare system has become a mainstay of just about any modern state, Potter traces the main reason why it failed in the USA for so many decades – corporate greed – and describes the PR methods and media campaigns that companies have used to shape public opinion, from the start of the 20th century to the historic debates of 2007-2009.

Potter is especially thorough when he discusses the work of public relations. I like his simple distinction between PR and advertisement: “PR people do not create ads that can be seen or heard or touched. They create perceptions without any public disclosure of who is doing the persuading and for what purposes.” This can be done in many ways: for instance, making smoking look cool, sexy and even beneficial to one’s health – for an example we have the scandal involving British philosopher Roger Scruton, who in leaked e-mails was asking Japan Tobacco incredible fees for articles he’d disseminate in high-profile newspapers promoting smoking. This method benefits from using the authority of renowned people – after all, who’d think a philosopher, such a noble figure, to be a mercenary for big tobacco? A similar technique is using the authority of scientists: for instance, companies that want to convince the public global warming doesn’t exist can always find a reliable scientist to write the right report claiming the problem doesn’t exist at all. My favourite technique is Astroturfing: “The term means creating a false grass-roots movement so that a carefully crafted campaign or event seems to be happening spontaneously.” Since companies tend to be universally despised by people, they delegate the fight to hand-picked ‘citizens’ – secretly organized, financed and directed by them – to make it look like any opposition against something that threatens their interests is just a public demonstration of civism.

Potter continues: “PR subtly convinces you to change the way you think. Advertising urges you to do something now; PR is patient. Advertisers pay for the time and space devoted to their messages. Good PR usually gets free media space because it is presented as unbiased information.” This, of course, is also the fault of journalists. “As budgets drop, especially at newspapers, there are fewer reporters and fewer resources for investigative journalism. Canned information from companies is used ‘as is’ more frequently, often without fact-checking.” So instead of doing proper investigation, journalists nowadays rely more and more on public statements issued by companies. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s had already formulated this thesis in Manufacturing Consent (1988), but it’s nice to receive confirmation from someone who was once on the other side. Furthermore, media access to the companies is protected by people with Potter’s former job, who, through their connections – don’t forget he was a journalist – controlled who had access to the information, and how and why.

So how does PR work? “Distract people from the real problem; generate fear; split communities with rhetoric, pitting one group against another; encourage people to doubt scientific conclusions; question whether there really is a problem; and say one thing in public while working secretly to do the opposite.” And, Potter cautions, never trust a company that claims to be “part of the solution.”

Potter builds an excellent argument that health insurance companies in no way care about people. On the contrary, in their greed-driven amorality they’ll do anything to get rid of patients they consider ‘drains on profits.’ Potter describes in great detail how companies investigates their clients to know whether or not they’ll be profitable, and tells of employers who earn bonuses for doing nothing but reviewing patients’ records in search of information that may allow the companies to rescind unprofitable contracts. This is a complete distortion of the original purpose of health insurers, of course. And why do they get away with it? Because they’re big employers, Potter informs us, and so local authorities, wary of rising unemployment, don’t want to cause them trouble, and because they spend huge sums on lobbying and campaign contributions to politicians. Thanks to political protection, health insurers paradoxically continue to see their profits go up while millions of American families are declaring bankruptcy.

Change, then, Potter defends, must come from well-informed citizens and not politicians. Although these companies often succeed in manipulating public opinion, it’s a testament to the public’s ability to discern truth from lies the fact that elaborate, aggressive and expensive PR stunts are necessary to maintain the distortion. They only do so at the expense of billions of dollars. People aren’t that stupid after all. It’s important to remember that before we think nothing can be changed. The first step to change things is searching for information and raise awareness. Deadly Spin is a good place to start. It can instruct readers how to become conscious of the daily techniques used in media to shape their opinions, how to spot them, and how to develop defenses against them. Once you know what you’re fighting against, once you actually know there’s something you should be fighting against, everything becomes much easier. And his lessons about PR can be applied to just about any other company: cars, tobacco, drinks, fast food. Just for that insight Deadly Spin is well worth reading.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian

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

It’s rubbish, of course it’s rubbish. (1) To a smaller degree, if it’s any consolation, than the previous two. But instructive to show why I don’t care about this author. Cormac McCarthy is a writer of very limited talents, with a meagre repertoire of tricks. In fact he only has two: blood and eloquence. I suspect he applies one or another, or both, to all his novels. The plots, from what I can glean, always involve someone chasing someone to kill him. The author’s great virtue lies in subtly changing the number of people chasing and being chased. For instance, in No Country for Old Men there’s one Anton Chirguh chasing a guy to kill him. In Blood Meridian there are lots of Anton Chirguhs chasing lots of Injins and Mexicans and civilians to kill them. McCarthy depurates this formula in the apotheosis that is The Road, in which father and son are chased by everybody. If ambition means upping the ante, I guess McCarthy is a very, very ambitious writer. This is basically the plot of horror movies and The Terminator series. Then McCarthy tries to hide the blood with the eloquence, that is, there’s usually an erudite psychopath babbling, in that inimitable tone that philosophy de pacotille produces, about evil and chance and fate and power. When in a novel like The Road there’s no coin-flipping psychotic polymath, but only the blood, then you realize just how vacuous the author’s style is.

Eloquence requires command of an abundant vocabulary, a fault Cormac McCarthy can’t be accused of. Now I don’t sneer at a large vocabulary, being addicted to dictionaries myself, but I don’t think it’s anything impressive either, precisely because there are dictionaries and thesauruses that writers can consult. (2) I expect a writer to have a large vocabulary, it’s the least I expect of him. But even his vocabulary leaves something to be desired. One of his tricks is sneaking in as many Latinate words as possible, which gives his sentences an aura of mysterious density to his English-language readers. Unfortunately this trick, I’m afraid, will not impress a Latin-based language speaker. Lave, discalced, carafe, accrescence, and abscission don’t give me particular agony since they’re all similar to words I daily use: lavar, descalço, garrafa, acrescência, abcisão. Blood Meridian has the added fact of employing Spanish words, and you can imagine why that doesn’t pose a particular challenge for me either. So I must scratch vast vocabulary from the list of things to praise McCarthy for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Did I actually write this?
2 Who was the imbecile writing this shit?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Ernst Jünger: Storm of Steel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 12 April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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