Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Adolfo Casais Monteiro and Portuguese Modernism

Notwithstanding its peripheral position in relation to the heart of Europe, its historical isolationism, its religious and political conservativeness, and a complacent population, Modernism arrived in Portugal about the same time it erupted in countries like France and Germany. The first stirrings take place between 1862 and 1870, a gestational period for the generation composed of Antero de Quental, Eça de Queiroz, Jaime Batalha Reis, Ramalho Ortigão, Gomes Leal and Oliveira Martins, that starts with the publication of Antero’s seminal Odes Modernas (1865) and ends with the satanic poet Carlos Fradique Mendes, a collective literary hoax (more about him in another post) and embodiment of the absolute rejection of the traditional values of religion, poetry and good taste. Around this time Darwinism was finding acolytes, church dogmas were in decline, German hermeneutics were applying critical reading to the Bible, Schopenhauer’s philosophy was opening cracks in the optimism of the era, and Charles Baudelaire was giving Romanticism the kiss of death. But like Oliveira Martins wrote in his preface to the Antero’s sonnets, the Portuguese poet did not need to have read Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy, then in vogue, to lose his faith in progress, science and religion – his own anguished, sceptical soul, always full of doubts and relentless in its search for truths, had never been deficient in generating its own pessimism. In those five years the abovementioned men matured and found their own paths in life, sometimes radically rupturing with the past.

But just twenty years later these men considered themselves beaten by life and their youthful dreams crushed, and Portuguese culture languished for a few more decades. Then in the 20th century Modernism made a new assault in Portugal, in two distinctive phases. The first, again, was contemporary of vanguard movements such as Futurism, Post-Impressionism, dada and Expressionism, and coalesced around an ephemeral magazine called Orpheu (1915), which in its only two numbers published the poems of Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, as well as prose by Almada Negreiros and Raul Leal and artwork by Santa-Rita Pintor, amongst many other featured writers. This glorious generation was summarily ignored by the public, which considered them fools and maniacs, and its quiet revolution would have evaporated into the ether had it not inspired a new generation, a decade later. The second wave begins in 1927 with the creation of a literary magazine called Presença, founded by writers like Miguel Torga, Branquinho da Fonseca, Edmundo de Bettencourt, João Gaspar Simões and José Régio. After a disagreement that led the first three to walk away from it, a new member joined its ranks in 1930: Adolfo Casais Monteiro.

Adolfo Casais Monteiro

Recently I finished reading O que foi e o que não foi o movimento da Presença, his book on history of the magazine, although it’s more of a collection of loose texts written over several decades, many of them written in Brazil, where he exiled himself in 1954 due to his overt opposition to Salazar. In the second half of the 1930s Casais Monteiro was banned from teaching because of politics. He made ends meet as a writer, translator and editor. Brazil was a favourite destination, due to the language, for those who couldn’t live in the dictatorship; other famous ex-pats include Jorge de Sena and Agostinho da Silva. In Brazil Casais Monteiro got a job at a university and also wrote articles for newspapers, besides continuing his literary studies. Notwithstanding the richness of information about its creation and purpose, the book is not so much a history as a defence of the magazine’s legacy and accomplishments against several of its critics, who according to the author have misunderstood, distorted or been hostile to its objectives. These critics range from intelligent and serious, like Eduardo Lourenço and David Mourão-Ferreira, to ideological lackeys launching attacks on political grounds. But before we try to make sense of why the magazine generated so much hatred, a few words about its three editors.

José Régio (1901-1969) was one of the most complete Portuguese writers of the 20th century: poet, novelist, short-story writer, diarist, essayist, playwright. As far as literary criticism goes, he gets credit as the first person to write about Pessoa and Sá-Carneiro from a critical perspective, in his 1925 college thesis, Pequena História da Moderna Poesia Portuguesa, a bold move considering these two poets were ignored by the academy. Régio was a trailblazer. Although João Gaspar Simões (1903-1987) dabbled in the novel, his fame nowadays rests solely on his pioneering literary criticism; we can single out two seminal biographies: Eça de Queirós, o Homem e o Artista (1945) and Vida e Obra de Fernando Pessoa (1950); he was Pessoa’s first biographer and one of his first editors, organizing his poetry between 1942 and 1945. These two gentlemen hailed from Coimbra, the nation’s oldest university, whereas Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972) was from Porto, where he briefly worked in the magazine A Águia (famous for the guidance of the poet Teixeirade Pascoaes). He was also a Pessoa scholar, in fact we owe to him the fundamental letter which Pessoa sent him (1935) explaining the genesis of his heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, one of the cornerstones of Pessoan studies. Pessoa collaborated with the magazine since its inception and there’s a whole book of just the letters he wrote them. Casais Monteiro was also a poet, although a late bloomer: according to him, he didn’t write poetry until he discovered Presença, at the age of 19. If they had done nothing else with their lives save recognising the greatness of their forerunners, that would have been a tremendous feat. As it is, they took up the cause of Pessoa’s generation, rehabilitated it, explained it, and divulged it to the general public. I just wish to make this absolutely clear to any person who may have enjoyed reading the poems of Alberto Caeiro, or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, or The Book of Disquiet: these three men gave the world the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and deserve our lasting gratitude.

João Gaspar Simões

Until 1940, Presença was the centre of Modernism in Portugal. Critics have argued, and certainly not incorrectly, that this new generation was not as radical and genial as the first one. Casais Monteiro doesn’t deny it, but he puts the question in different terms. For him, the first Modernism was chaotic and expressive, the second Modernism was theoretical and pedagogical, in the sense that it sought to educate the general public:

The Orpheu group subsisted – but kept itself as if segregated, unanimously held as a handful of ‘madmen.’ It remained a faction, it did not surrender, but only thanks to Presença will it slowly conquer the deserved place in the public’s esteem – and what a place: two of the greatest Portuguese poets, Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, and an extraordinary artist, Almada Negreiros! But how is it conceivable that they remained ignored? Precisely because they themselves cultivated this neglect, not just out of their love for ‘pretence,’ but even for a noble independence; finally because that generation did not have the essayists and critics who could fight for their values and impose them on the critics.

It’s hard not to feel his sense of pride in his role as the great ambassador of Orpheu, and he’s certainly entitled to a bit of vanity: Presença was the first to pay these artists homage. He’s also defending the importance of the critic in bridging the distance between the artist and the reader, this is critic’s job. For him the previous generation lacked this ability, or the will, to communicate with the public. Indeed Pessoa and the others did not care about publicity: Pessoa only published one book, Message, in his lifetime, Sá-Carneiro committed suicide in 1916, Santa-Rita died of tuberculosis and left orders to destroy all his paintings. As for the public in 1915, no one tried to make the effort to understand or appreciate the bold new language of these artists. Why, understanding, without judging, is another duty Casais Monteiro assigns to the critic. “The Orpheu generation offered especially an explosion of freedom, in the indiscriminate subversion of values, out of a necessity of opposing the corruption of the time with an absolute negation,” he writes, whereas the new generation gave it a ‘direction’ and also strove to explain their ideas to the public. What their followers did was incorporate the Orpheu in the history of Portuguese literature, from where it had been excluded as an abnormality.

But if the abnormal Orpheu was the great rejuvenator of literature, that means the writers deemed normal by the public had to come under fire from the magazine. Presença also fought for a “living literature” as opposed to a “bookish literature” (terms from a Régio article-manifesto from the earlier issues), that is, an academic, stuffy literature, concerned with good taste and afraid of offending. A living literature was willing to open itself up to new ideas, forms and ways of expression. In a country closed upon itself, they tried to introduce foreign writers and educate the public on modern European literature. The magazine wrote about Proust, Dostoevsky (already known since the 1880s in French translations), Thomas Mann, Gorky, Pirandello, Ibsen, and others. To understand why this ‘normal’ literature left much to be desired one would need direct contact with Portuguese literature between 1900 and 1940. But when Casais Monteiro writes that the Portuguese novel stagnated after Eça de Queiroz, he’s not talking lightly. The Portuguese novel remained ensconced between “urban naturalism and regionalism, also naturalist,” he writes, singling out the name of Aquilino Ribeiro, a writer I can attest extended the 19th century novel well into the new one, or Júlio Dantas (hilariously ridiculed in Almada Negreiros’ famous Anti-Dantas Manifesto) and Correia de Oliveira. None of these writers, to Casais Monteiro, was interested in a “living literature,” looking to the past and averse to creating a new language for the modern world, unlike the rejuvenated language of Pessoa and his comrades. Casais Monteiro quotes Jorge de Sena on calling Pessoa an “indiscipliner of souls,” a genius description. He continues, about the purveyors of “bookish literature:” “A literature of men to whom nothing was more terrifying as ‘shocking’ society and meeting its disapproval. Which did not happen with the great romantics [Almeida Garret and Alexandre Herculano] and certainly not with the Generation of ’70.” His exception is Raul Brandão, who was never as popular with the public as Aquilino. In their critical position, they had no qualms about upsetting some sacred cows, as Régio makes it clear in his manifesto about “living literature:”

Living literature is that into which the artist has breathed his own life, and for that reason starts living its own life. Being that artist a superior man due to his sensitivity, intelligence and imagination, the living literature that he produces will  be superior; inaccessible, therefore, to the conditions of time and of space. And that’s only why the plays of Gil Vicente are amazingly alive, and the comedies of Sá de Miranda insolubly dead; all the books by Judith Teixeira are not worth a song picked out from António Botto; the Sonnets of Camões are wonderful, and the ones by António Ferreira dull; a small preface by Fernando Pessoa says more than a big article by Fidelino de Figueiredo; there is more intimate strength in fourteen verses by Antero than in a little poem by Junqueiro; and a popular saying is more beautiful than a sentence by a man of letters.

José Régio
I nearly agree with him on every "duel" here.

Another danger that emerged in the final years of the magazine is the generation that came out of its adolescence between 1935 and 1940, affected by the Spanish Civil, fascism and the Estado Novo dictatorship, creating fertile ground for “social poetry” and the alignment of writers with the left. On the novel front, neorealism was on the rise, a movement that focused on the proletarian struggle and advanced the caused of the Revolution. Practitioners include Soeiro Pereira Gomes and Alves Redol, writers more concerned with portraying the exploited wretched than in matters of quality and style. Presença detested “routine, academicism, formalism and moralising hypocrisy,” it did not care about values but “the revelation of personality,” the total expression of the artist. “Making statements,” writes Casais Monteiro, “is not the role of a work of art, but of criticism or the essay; the domain of art is expression. Here’s a very simple thing that continues to be very obscure for a lot of people.” His motto was that art should be, not serve. In this they too followed Pessoa, who deplored political commitment and was concerned with pure aesthetics. In the late 1930s they certainly needed to defend the importance of originality, sincerity and personality. The magazine’s doctrine that enshrined plurality of views, total individual expression and intellectual freedom did not sit well with several factions. Not just with the fascist status quo (the magazine was born one year after the military coup) but also with the clandestine Portuguese Communist Party, which had nothing but contempt for writers and thinkers who refused to put their pens at the service of the Revolution, traitors of the proletariat. To the PCP intellectuals such as the men who edited Presença were nothing bourgeois intellectuals living in ivory towers, and the magazine was criticised by the left for being oblivious to the great social problems and for dehumanizing art with its stress on subjective individualism instead of collective aspirations. In sum, the PCP wanted the magazine to adhere to the tenets of socialist realism. But Régio, Gaspar Simões, and Casais Monteiro did not want their magazine to be a school, because a school “presupposes one, and only one master – at least in literature,” and they were against masters and fettered personalities. Amidst the outdated men of letters and the polarizing political situation, Casais Monteiro reiterates that Presença “was essential in establishing criticism as a responsible discipline, giving precedence to interpretation and situation over judgement, to aesthetic opinion over moral or social, in reaction against ‘normative’ criticism and the one that presumes to be scientific.” The magazine was a place that made “possible the exercise of free, anti-dogmatic criticism” without subservience to political instrumentalization of literature. As a doctrine and program, I feel a lot of sympathy for it, for its commitment to individuality and self-expression, especially because the PCP was hardly a role model of good behaviour. Although the underground party was probably the best organized force against the regime, it was a case of wanting to topple a right-wing dictatorship to implement a Soviet one.

The magazine terminated in 1940 due to a disagreement between Gaspar Simões and Casais Monteiro. Their relationship never healed after that, and Gaspar Simões spent the next decades denigrating and downplaying his former friend’s role in the magazine. Casais Monteiro, on the other hand, mocks his early infatuation with Freud’s theories, put to use in his biographies of Eça and Pessoa. In later years both men got into name-calling and refuting each other’s interpretations of the magazine’s legacy. And in this particular case I’m reading from Casais Monteiro’s perspective. Since both men have written their versions of the history of Presença, I can’t take everything Casais Monteiro writes in this book at face-value, and even if Gaspar Simões’ vanity and spitefulness are true, they not diminish his achievements as a tremendous critic. Casais Monteiro, however, never wavers in his admiration for José Régio, whom he considered the greatest Portuguese poet since Pessoa (a topic for a future post, I hope), and also pointed out his role in bringing attention to neglected writers like Camilo and Sá-Carneiro, overshadowed by the more popular Eça and Pessoa.

Although Presença died in 1940, fortunately it had sowed seeds that were beginning to blossom in original new ways. In the same year a seminal poetry magazine came out, Cadernos de Poesia, introducing a new generation of poets – Jorge de Sena, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Eugénio de Andrade, Ruy Cinatti – whose motto was poetry for poetry’s sake, independent from party guidelines. As Sena’s letters to Sophia show, the PCP also hounded them for the same motives. Vergílio Ferreira, who had written his first novels in the neorealist fashion, took a turn to Sartrian existentialism. Towards the end of the decade surrealism made its brief but powerful appearance in Portugal, in the form of Alexandre O’Neill, Mário Cesariny, Pedro Oom and António Maria Lisboa. One could say that Presença disappeared when it was no longer necessary. Unfortunately “bookish literature” continues to exist, but Portuguese literature has only come out richer and bolder from Presença’s opening the nation to new influences and ideas.


  1. Miguel, you have an inadvertent slip in dates in your first paragraph (see "the first stirrings" sentence). Otherwise, Eça is much modern than I thought--but as he seems! Anyway, wonderful post both for all that information on Orpheu and Presença and because that photo of Simões looks a little like Borges with indigestion. I should rip off your idea and one day do a similar post on Argentinean litmags like Martín Fierro and Sur and their modern descendents, etc.; literary history as seen via the perspective of magazines is always such a good time reading-wise for me, but it's so often overlooked in the blog world (at least the part I'm familiar with). In other words, props for being such a hardy trailblazer. Obrigado!

  2. Richard, thanks for the heads up; I hate typos, but the little bastards always sneak past me.

    A post on Argentine magazines would be very interesting. Borges was a contemporary of Presença; the 1910s-1940s were perhaps the golden age of literary magazines, it was amazing how so many were born and died in just a few issues, but the influences they left behind! Everyone was trying so many new things at the same time, what an exciting time it was. So much literary history comes from these ephemeral entities.

  3. Some of these names came up in the various Pessoa introductions & essays I read or glanced at, but I never really knew who they were or how they fit together - just a list of editors.

    So this is really valuable, thanks.

    Completely right about magazines, so much is explained by what was going on in magazines. I now vaguely see that this is just as true in mid-19th century Russia, Victorian England, etc. etc.

    1. Tom, it's always a pleasure to add another piece to the puzzle of Portuguese literary history.