Sunday, 22 September 2013

I’m incapable of considering a crime someone thinking in a way that I don’t think: Fernando Pessoa takes on the dictatorship

In Portugal, and I presume abroad, interest in Fernando Pessoa’s life and work shows no signs of fatigue, nor does one notice an abatement in the phenomenon that the critic Eduardo Lourenço called the “great textual machine,” that is, the frantic and never-ending publication, not only of books, biographies, essays, studies and doctoral theses about this poet, but also of the disordered, fragmentary writings he left behind in a chest. Although fans of pessoana will have no complaints if they have no other goal than collecting everything he penned, not every critic has approved of this liberal state of affairs wherein a newly discovered poem and a handwritten note to his sweetie (the author of this blog won’t put it past him the possibility of writing one day about the poet’s collected love letters) received the same critical and editorial treatment. As far back as the 1970s José Gaspar Simões, arguably the father of pessoan criticism, while reviewing a then recent study of Pessoa’s esotericism showed reservations about this situation. The author of the poet’s first biography had reasons to defend a more judicious publication of the 25,000 or so texts and fragments that constitute the poet’s archives in the Portuguese National Library. Several publications follow the same pattern: a researcher (re)discovers a handful of texts – type-written or hand-written, complete (a rarity) or full of lacunae, lengthy or epigrammatic in their brevity – that seems to contain thematic or narrative cohesion that justifies its grouping together, writes a beautiful and informative introduction to said texts, and publishes them. The reader thinks he bought a Fernando Pessoa book, but he really just bought a critic’s introduction with some of the poet’s texts tacked on. Frequently the introduction inflates its size from pamphlet to book with spine. One could say that without Fernando Pessoa many literary researchers and scholars in Portugal would have to look for a new job. But I don’t begrudge them their introductions; without them, to put the texts in their proper historical and biographical context and to explain their relation to the rest of Pessoa’s work, these fragments would make very little sense. True, some of Pessoa’s writings relinquish introductions; for instance his letters or his failed detective short-stories stand easily on their own. The reader doesn’t require much guidance to understand the back-and-forth correspondence between, say, Fernando Pessoa and Aleister Crowley. A more complicated situation occurs when one reads a straightforward article Pessoa published in a newspaper and fails to grasp the importance of the text. In this case one rejoices at the critic’s gift of making everything clear. It happens, to me anyway, that I sometimes relish an introduction full of delicious details of the poet’s personal life more than the proper texts.

These considerations by way of preamble stem from my recently reading Fernando Pessoa’s Associações Secretas e outros escritos (Secret Associations and other writings, 2011). The book’s construction pattern does not deviate from what I laid out above: an editor, in this case José Barreto, selects a text, this time a newspaper article Pessoa published in 1935; he then adds the drafts of said article; next a preface to its publication in book form that never happened; then texts Pessoa wrote in reply to the reactions to the text; and finally an assorted collection of texts thematically linked to the article. The editor caps it off with a lengthy postface, for me the main reason to read this book. This book discusses and sheds light on Pessoa’s politics and his troubled relationship with the dictatorship of the Estado Novo.

To summarise, Portugal became a Republic in 1910. Political and social instability, however, plus a debilitated economy and chaotic finances gave the army, in 1926, justification to stage a coup. Historians call the period between 1926 and 1933 the Military Dictatorship. In 1928, the regime, unable to solve the financial and economical problems, invited a university professor called António de Oliveira Salazar to become the minister of finances; it also nominated General Óscar Carmona, one of the officers who supported the coup, for a position equivalent to that of prime-minister nowadays. Salazar carried out political and financial reforms and with Carmona’s help drafted the 1933 Constitution, which granted Salazar absolute power and inaugurated the Estado Novo, or New State. As early as 1926 the regime started practising censorship on the press and literature. In spite of that, some intellectuals and writers, as it always happens, welcomed and defended the regime. Fernando Pessoa counted himself amongst those, a position made clear by the pamphlet he published in 1928: O interregno: defeza e justificação da dictadura militar em Portugal (The interregnum: defence and justification of the military dictatorship in Portugal). This has led historians and critics to consider Pessoa a fellow traveller.

José Barreto offers a more complex and nuanced interpretation of Pessoa’s political position.

On Fabruary 4, 1935, Pessoa published in the Diário de Notícias an article called “Secret Associations,” in reaction to a bill presented by deputy José Cabral in the National Assembly, seeking to outlaw “secret associations,” although Pessoa quickly pointed out that the main purpose of said law consisted in going after the Free Masonry; more on this later.

Barreto calls the article the “most important political text the author published, as much for its content and timing as for the vast audience it reached.” It took the front page and two more inside. Add to this the fact that Pessoa managed to circumvent the censors and publish a text overtly critical of the regime, which resulted in the already increased printing running out. In the text, besides courage, Pessoa shows great wit in the way he dismantles the idea of secret associations:

Given the latitude of this definition, and considering that by “association” one understands a gathering of men, connected by a common goal, and that by “secret” one understands what, at least partially, is not done in the public’s view, or, done, is not made entirely public, I can , right now, denounce a secret association to Mr. José Cabral – the Council of Ministers. In any event, everything that is seriously or importantly done in meeting in this world, is done secretly. If Councils of Ministers don’t meet in public, neither do the committees of political parties, the tenebrous figures that guide sports clubs or the sinister communists who compose the boards of administration of commercial and industrial companies.

Barreto also states that this event marked the schism between Pessoa and the Estado Novo; until then not only had the censors left him alone (no doubt it also helped that he didn’t publish much) but the state itself had granted him a prize for the nationalist epic poem Message. Pessoa, in turn, had co-existed peacefully with the regime. After his defence of the Masons, though, the state started going after him and at last he experienced censorship when his attempts at replying to his critics in newspapers collided against an editorial wall lifted to quell the scandal. The censors had finally received orders to filter out everything that bore Pessoa’s name, adding him to the list of growing writers who would see their names and writings disappear from the public arena.

Pessoa, dabbler in astrology, voracious reader of esoteric books and expert on occult lore, had a natural tendency to admire the Free Masons. He even considered himself an initiate in some of its mysteries. Furthermore, as a liberal, he admired the Free Masonry for, to him, its role in shaping modern Europe as well as for the Masons’ contributions to sciences, arts and literature. To him the Free Masonry had originated from liberal Protestantism in the United Kingdom; one must never lose out of sight the fact that Pessoa had a British upbringing in Durban, South Africa. For my part I don’t share Pessoa’s enthusiasm for this secretive group of people; I wonder what Pessoa would think of his up-standing Masons if he knew of the political scandals involving Masons in recent years here in Portugal. But although he had genuine admiration for them, Pessoa in his replies to his critics also made it clear his defence really served as a pretext to attack the regime:

For a long time now it has become necessary to attack certain influences, infiltrated in lots of places and parties or pseudo-non-parties, which threaten, all over the world, the dignity of Man and the freedom of the Spirit. Decided, since always, to do what I could – within the limits of my intelligence and of my action – to oppose those forces, I used the 1st opportunity offered to me. It was Mr. José Cabral’s bill; it could have been anything else.

So why did Pessoa decide to attack the regime? Barreto offers a series of sensible explanations, although a man of Pessoa’s complexity never allows easy answers. From what I could understand, the article resulted from a conflict between Pessoa’s anti-reactionary positions and his profound sense of individualism. Politically, Pessoa accepted the status quo; he defined himself as what in Portugal we call a situationist. Let’s not confuse this with the Situationist International, a French avante-garde group of left-wing intellectuals founded by Guy Debord (of the Society of Spectacle fame) in the 1950s. In Portuguese, a situationist (situacionista) means a partisan of a certain political situation. In other words, Pessoa accepted the political situation created by the regime. But let’s read in his words the three forms of situationism:

   The first is conformity by doctrine; the second conformity by acceptance; the third conformity by non-opposition. I leave out one of the most vulgar – conformity for advantages – because that’s not what it’s about, at least for me.
   Conformity by doctrine means that the partisan is in agreement with the political programme of the situation he joins. Conformity by acceptance means that the partisan, without joining totally or partially to that program, nevertheless trusts in the situation and refrains from doctrinal points. Conformity by indifference is the same as joining just because it’s not hostile.
   I’m a situationist by acceptance. I don’t discuss political problems, constitutions or programmes. I trust, instinctively but not irrationally, in General Carmona and Professor Salazar.

A few lines later he states that he knows nothing of finances so he can’t pronounce himself about Salazar’s reforms. From what I understand of Pessoa’s position, he lived exclusively for literature and culture, aloof from the political and social matters, which he left in the hands of people he expected to understand those matters better than him. A fellow traveller (here I think of so many left-leaning writers who served the interests of the revolution) would want to have an active role in the policy and doctrine; Pessoa isolates himself due to a humble admittance of his ignorance. If we can judge Pessoa from a lack of participation as a critical voice, I think his example also has something to teach the multi-opinionated modern writer who thinks he has the competence to speak about every theme and social problem under the sun.

But, like I wrote, Pessoa’s upbringing in South Africa had also made him a liberal in the classic conservative tradition:

Besides the situationist that I am, I’m an absolute individualist, a free man and a liberal, and that means that I have a perfect tolerance for the ideas of others, that I’m incapable of considering a crime someone thinking in a way that I don’t think.

So we have here two opposing views: on the one hand, Pessoa didn’t like to get involved in politics, because he didn’t consider that his area of competence; on the other hand, he believed in the total freedom of the individual and saw the bill against secret associations as a curtailment of civil freedoms. In this sense Pessoa, who hated communists, goes so far as to accuse the bill of being a “communist bill” because he likened it to the erosion of freedom in the Soviet Union. Pessoa also ideologically opposed Nazism and Italian fascism, and unusually for his time stood up for Jewish people (he even believed to have Jewish ancestry). His lack of interest in the political situation also resulted from his liberal view with its suspicion of the State’s interference in the lives of people. As a nationalist (see his tourist guide), he believed Portugal needed to restore the former glory and greatness of its imperialist past, but this time thanks to culture, and he doubted the Estado Novo had the means to carry out this grand enterprise:

If the Portuguese nation wants to save itself from its current provincialism, it has to do it itself, and not the State for it, for in everything that belongs to the spirit we can’t depend on matter, and the State is matter.

The liberal Pessoa could only believe in personal responsibility and salvation. So we have an individualistic writer who didn’t like the state interfering in his life, and a mystic poet who doubted the state’s role in the spiritual regeneration of his country. Another factor contributed to his schism with the regime. Pessoa, who prized his independence, needed to find a way to distance himself from the state prize he had recently received for Message, which the state media praised as a poem that foresaw the dawn of the Estado Novo; in other words, the press made it look like Pessoa had written the poem as propaganda to ingratiate himself with the regime, as if he had written it on order. Indeed the poem displayed a complex brand of mystical nationalism wrapped in obscure symbolism and history, but Pessoa could never accept that the regime could make that glorious future happen, especially given the way the regime treated writers. Four days before Pessoa published the article a gathering of writers had signed a petition against censorship. Although Pessoa did not join the signatories, Barreto speculates that Pessoa used the article to voice his own displeasure of the political situation. I’d add that, considering Pessoa’s individualism, he found this way in order not to join a group. Writers had reasons to express concern. 1935 marked a turning point for censorship. On February 21, two weeks after Pessoa’s poem, Salazar gave a speech at a propaganda awards ceremony that changed the conception of censorship. Adolfo Casais Monteiro, another great Pessoa scholar, wrote in O País do Absurdo (The Country of the Absurd, 1974), of this shift. At the moment I do not have the book within my possession to quote from it, but he explains that before 1935 censorship just concerned itself with writers not writing against the regime; after 1935 writers started receiving directives on how to write to help create the New State. But to quote from Salazar’s speech:

To elevate, strengthen, aggrandize nations it’s necessary to feed in the collective soul the great certainties and to counterpoise the tendencies of dissolution with strong purposes, noble examples, wholesome habits.

The dictator had laid out the fascist version of socialist realism.

Throughout the year of 1935, his last, Pessoa continue to show signs of distancing himself from the regime. First of all he decided to stop publishing in Portugal (let’s not forget he had English poems published in England) save in newspapers famous for opposing the regime. He repudiated the pamphlet O interregno: defeza e justificação da dictadura militar em Portugal. As Barreto says, his gradual distancing from the regime and his repositioning as its opponent and critic continued steadily until his death in November. His loss of confidence in the regime also shows up in satirical and bitter poems about Salazar and the directives writers should adopt. Poetry, of course, remained his best means of self-expression. For the first time he had suffered censorship, and for a man who loved debate and to use his reason, it must have infuriated him to see denied the freedom to reply to his critics who promptly crucified in the newspapers. Poetry, however, never let him down. I finish this post with a poem that contains as much of stoic fatalism as it does of weary wisdom:

I heard all the wise man arguing.
I could laughingly refute them all.
But I preferred, drinking in the wide shade,
To hear indefinitely.

The boss bosses because he’s boss, and
It matters not if he bosses well or bosses badly.
Everyone’s great when it’s their hour.
Underneath everyone’s the same somebody.

Don’t envy pomp, and to power,
Since it rules, without rhyme or reason
Obey, for life lasts briefly
And so there’s not a lot to suffer.


  1. As always here on St. Orberose, Miguel, a valuable and nuanced view that informs me of something new. That "textual machine" seems to invariably slip in some work about a writer's political leanings (and I imagine particularly so in a country that has experienced a totalitarian state). It's interesting in Pessoa's case that his initial accedence to the regime seemed to come not from apathy or partisanship, but from a concession that he was inexpert in political matters. It's interesting too to see how he evolved.

    1. That "textual machine" seems to invariably slip in some work about a writer's political leanings (and I imagine particularly so in a country that has experienced a totalitarian state).

      Well, in fact the matter is more complicated than that; I think the educational system just overlooks this aspect of Pessoa; so you have badly informed people who think he was a fascist sympathiser (because of writings he later repudiated), and badly informed people who think he was an opponent of Salazar (because of a handful of satirical poems), when the truth is, as I tried to show, more complicated than that. Fernando Pessoa is immensely popular, a national brand really, but most people don't care to see what's underneath the brands, and the picture people make of Pessoa is the result of incomplete information from decades ago. Most people don't bother to update themselves.

      It's interesting in Pessoa's case that his initial accedence to the regime seemed to come not from apathy or partisanship, but from a concession that he was inexpert in political matters.

      Pessoa was an intellectual and writer through and through; he truly lived the life of the mind. In a letter to João Gaspar Simões, he wrote he'd like to contribute to his magazine, in so far as it regarded matters of literature and culture; he didn't believe he had authority for more. There's a modesty in that which sets him at odds with modern writers.

  2. Your description of the Pessoa industry, of its process, is itself a delight.

    All of that reading about Pessoa, and I knew more or less none of this.

    1. Tom, thank you. All we have now are the essay-intros; I think the last important work published was The Book of Disquiet. All the poetry is published too; everything that's left just won't top that. I can see the reasoning of the editors and researchers: it must be a lot easier to publish an essay along with a text by Pessoa than on its own, say in a specialized magazine or book of essays that no one will read. Which is a pity, because our modern Pessoa scholars are writing many interesting things.

  3. Very thoughtful commentary Miguel.

    The concept of a conformity by acceptance is particularly important. I think that in many aspects of life of almost everyone's life this comes into play. Of course Pessoa is talking about politics here, where it is often the most obvious.

    I am thinking about this concept in terms of religion and how people respond to it.

    1. I think that in many aspects of life of almost everyone's life this comes into play.

      It's certainly the easiest position; and as tempting as it may be to accuse everyone of being a sheep, the more I live the more I realize what a super-human strength one must have to live a relatively ordinary life.

  4. Very nice post, Miguel, both for the valuable Pessoa history lesson and for the reminder that I need to finish The Book of Disquiet one of these days. He seems to have had a more interesting than usual life for a writer--for better or worse.

    1. Richard, one is never finished reading The Book of Disquiet...

      He seems to have had a more interesting than usual life for a writer--for better or worse.

      Behind the façade of mundane clerk, he did have a quirky life: inventing warring poetic personas, composing horoscopes that predicted the deaths of friends, having correspondence with Aleister Crowley, attacking the government after receiving a state propaganda prize, not to mention the role his publisher, Olissipo, had in putting out scandalous homosexual literature that was confiscated.