Saturday, 3 March 2012

Grass Is A Municipal Institution: Jorge de Sena in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. América, América sounds fascinating. Maybe someday soon it will be translated into English. Though Sena wrote about America several decades ago, I am an American that shares some of his sentiments.

    I am often frustrated by what I see as an anti intellectualism and anti - cultural attitude that is often prevalent in many of my fellow citizens. Part of this seems to stem from a natural anti-elitism that many Americans share. In my opinion, anti-elitism can be a good thing, but often it is taken into an unfortunate direction and manifests itself into a distrust of deep thinking as well as an aversion to seeing the world through the eyes of others.

    With that said, I agree with Sena "that there are bad things everywhere".

    1. Hi, Brian. I'm curious to know what US citizens make of Sena's views about their country. So thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I would love to read this book. Someday, who knows. So thanks for all the work.

    The mocking of academics is ahead of its time. Things have certainly not improved.

    1. Yeah, Sena sems prescient here. He was an expert on Pessoa; I think you'd like to read his book on the heteronyms.