Sunday, 22 December 2013

Satanism can be said to be the realism of the world of poetry: or how to invent a satanic poet



My posts can sometimes emerge from the paltriest of sources and go through a long period of gestation. For instance almost two months ago I decided to read Anterode Quental’s sonnets to post about them; this compelled me to go have a look at books about him; one of those books concerned a voyage he had made to America, and that sounded so interesting I checked it out at the public library; but inside I found something even more interesting – I discovered Antero had had a hand in co-creating a fictional satanic poet called Carlos Fradique Mendes. I always had considered Eça de Queiroz the sole creator of this fascinating character, who shows up in The Mystery of the Sintra Road and The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes. So imagine my excitement when the book about Antero briefly mentions a whole book devoted to the history of the creation of this globetrotter, friend of Charles Baudelaire and Portuguese representative of the literary school known as the “Northern Satanists,” which includes such luminaries as Ulurus, author of Dawns of Evil. I immediately dropped the book on Antero and purchased Joel Serrão’s O Primeiro Fradique Mendes (1985). 

Joel Serrão

The idea that someone could take the time to write an entire book about the genesis of a literary hoax had never occurred to me. But as Joel Serrão (1919-2008), historian, literary critic (of Fernando Pessoa, António Nobre and Cesário Verde amongst others) and editor, proves in his dense, heavily-researched book is that Fradique Mendes was far more than just a symbol of inertia and dissipation in Eça’s oeuvre; he was a watershed moment in the development of Portuguese Modernism. The book is all the more remarkable because Serrão had to condense the lives and literary trajectories of three distinct men into one coherent study: Antero de Quental, Eça de Queiroz, and Jaime Batalha Reis (1847-1934). The first two by now should be known to readers at St. Orberose; but it’s harder to find occasions to write about Batalha Reis because he wasn’t a man of letters – in fact he was an agronomist who publicly promoted Darwinism, a radical position for the time – but a cultivated man who hanged around with the literati. Serrão justly calls him an “admirable memorialist” because he left behind two important reminiscences about Eça and Antero. It’s not the first time Batalha Reis shows up at the blog, in fact, although he was probably overlooked when I wrote about Eça’s juvenilia, which he edited and wrote a gossipy introduction for. At the time I wrote that the introduction was probably the most important thing about the book, for the insight it gave into Eça’s life when he was in his twenties. Serrão would partially agree since he uses that introduction considerably for the section on Eça. Batalha Reis’ second seminal text was written when he was asked to contribute something to In Memoriam, a tribute book in honour of Antero de Quental edited by his dearest friends. Whereas Eça wrote hagiography, Batalha Reis went the route of anecdote, and described the episode that led to the creation of Fradique Mendes:

One day, thinking about the immense richness of the modern movement of ideas, whose existence seemed to be so absolutely unknown in Portugal, thinking about the Chinese-like apathy of Lisboners, immobilized, for years, in contemplation and the chiselling of half ideas – old, indecisive, second hand, and in poor use – we thought of filling one of the many lamentable lacunae by creating at least a satanic poet. This is how Carlos Fradique Mendes appeared.

And:

Our plan was immense and terrible: it was about creating a philosophy whose ideals were diametrically opposed to the generally accepted ideals, deducing, with implacable and impassive logic, all the systematic consequences of the starting points, as monstrous as they might have been. From that philosophy a poetry naturally came out, a whole special literature, which Antero de Quental, Eça de Queiroz and I proposed to build coldly, applying the processes revealed by analyses of modern Criticism, dismounting and arming emotion and feeling, as if they were known and reproducible material machines.

Batalha Reis plays another pivotal role in this tale: he owned the room in Travessa do Guarda-Mor, Lisbon, where a tight-knit group of academic students with literary aspirations met to discuss, party, sing and create poetry, between the years of 1867 and 1870. Although posterity called this assembly the Cenacle, not without a hint of malice, they were just a group of anarchic, irreverent young bohemians fresh out of university who were trying to find a purpose in life and who intensely felt the tedium of Portuguese society.

Another thing I discovered from Serrão’s book was the importance of Antero de Quental as his generation’s helmsman. Although Eça is by the far the most popular figure of the so-called Generation of ’70, Antero was the one who shaped the wild bunch at Travessa do Guarda-Mor into a movement that publicly intervened in socio-political matters of the time. The Cenacle had to distinct phases, before and after Antero. As Eça himself reminisced years later, before he brought Antero to Batalha Reis’ room, the Cenacle was just “mockery, satanic verses, night parties filled with Torres wine, and rags of facile philosophy,” biased towards art. Under Antero’s guidance, however, the group started claiming a more active role in society, culminating in the Casino Conferences (1871), a series of conferences where they introduced radical new ideas like socialism, secularism and literary realism, which the country was not receptive to and so the authorities closed them down. Serrão points out that Antero was one of the oldest members of the Generation of ’70 and its first major writer (Ramalho Ortigão, who was born in 1836, didn’t write anything until 1870), beginning his literary output in the early 1860s and inaugurating Portuguese Modernism with his 1865 Odes Modernas, and even if, as Serrão says, only 14 people bought the book, it was a quiet revolution in aesthetics (trivia: in 1867 he travelled to France and offered a copy to Jules Michelet).

Then Serrão does serious literary sleuthing. He combs the work of Antero and Eça looking for everything that may have predated the creation of their satanic poet, believed to have been concocted between late 1868 and June 1869, when Antero left to America. It’s a tour of force. Regarding Antero, Serrão stresses out his wavering spirit, unable to commit to a single idea for long, too sceptical for certainties, but nevertheless needing to fill some spiritual or ideological vacuum in his soul. His search for truths led him to try everything: religion, nihilism, socialism, Buddhism, Iberismo (the political idea that Portugal and Spain should form a federation), and suicide. Antero was a tormented man whose mind ebbed and flowed between belief and cynicism. Nowadays it’s generally accepted that he suffered from bipolar disorder which caused his mood swings. In one of his earliest periods of unbelief, circa 1863, he produced a sonnet that was new to me until now, “Sarcasms:”

The road to the infinite is deserted,
Of nothing is but the sky a mirror,
Eternity is a fossil: God is old,
And man looks at the sky with purpose!

The cross of Christ is but splinters,
Cumin seeds are wrapped in the Gospel;
Everybody gives God their advice:
No longer the word Word… just a byword!

None of this gives me trouble;
But Satan dying from cold too…
But no longer any evil to fight…

The doomed unable to give the Devil
His soul freely… out of boredom…
This is what hurts me, what kills me!...

According to the scholar, this poem marks the first appearance of what he dubs “Portuguese literary Satanism.”

Serrão also discloses some facts about Eça that are new to me. For instance, Eça was an actor in his academic years, which shows an inclination to create personae. Between October-December 1866 he wrote the first series of Prosas Bárbaras for the Gazeta de Portugal. I already knew that. At the time Eça was under the spell of Poe, Baudelaire, Goethe, and his texts tended to be macabre and blasphemous, often time focusing on the Devil. I’ll just transcribe this excerpt from one of his articles:

The Devil is the most dramatic figure in the History of the Soul. His life is the great adventure of Evil. He’s the one who invented the ornaments that turn the soul weaker, and the weapons that bloody the body. And yet, in certain moments of history, the Devil is the great representative of human right. He was freedom, fertility, strength, law. He’s then like a sinister Pan, where Nature’s deep rebellions howl. He fights priesthood and virginity, advises Christ to live, and the mystics to enter mankind.

What I didn’t know is that he quit this job and moved from Lisbon to Évora to become a one-man staff at a political newspaper. The newspaper belonged to the opposition and posed a considerable challenge to him, who had to invent several pseudonyms for fake editors, journalists and column writers. “First of all,” writes Serrão, “it’s important to stress that, in Évora, the former actor from the Academic Theater, in Coimbra, quickly realised that what was expected of him or, at least, what could be carried out by him was a particularly complex staging and theatrical performance because everything depended on a single actor in scene… First of all, he had the necessity of performing interest in the problems of this Alentejo city and to vouch for the political party that paid him to make the newspaper. But this wasn’t even what would be harder for him, as he quickly demonstrated in the columns of the Distrito de Évora.” Serrão argues that Eça was motivated by better wages and an opportunity to acquire experience. As I see it, it certainly shaped his forever negative view of politics and journalism. No doubt Eça’s experience as a hack journalist who sold his talents inspired the damning attack against this profession undertaken in O Conde de Abranhos. Another curious titbit: Eça’s first solo novel, The Crime of Father Amaro (1875), was serialized in a magazine run by Batalha Reis and Antero, who did not like Eça’s brand of realism, or perhaps realism as an aesthetic form.

All the biographical side of the book was fascinating. I think, however, that Serrão runs into trouble when he tries to marry the creation of Fradique Mendes with heteronymic theory. As we all know, the word heteronym was coined by Fernando Pessoa to designate the autonomous literary personae that wrote in their own styles – Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos. The scholar argues the case that Fradique Mendes was the first case of a collective heteronym. His main evidence is the several pseudonyms Eça created for his newspaper, as well as pseudonyms Antero adopted when he wrote reviews of his own poetry. I think his argument is feeble especially because this New Grub Street type of journalism was standard practice at the time and hardly a sign of authorial identity crisis or fragmentation. I fear Pessoa is such an unavoidable figure in Portuguese letters that it’s temping to see everything in light of his ideas. This is what Borges means about great writers creating their precursors and changing the way the past is read. But sometimes a pseudonym is just a pseudonym. Not to mention several of his own findings contradict his point. For instance, Eça the journalist created a correspondent called Eduardo Machado, who is a prototypical Fradique Mendes: he’s rich, he travels, and he hates the poetry of Teófilo Braga; curiously, Serrão attributes all these traits to Antero, meaning Eça was less interested in creating an autonomous literary persona than in eulogizing Antero as the most modern man of his era. By Serrão’s definition, a heteronym is when a writer creates a new persona that acts and thinks from a different mental position. But this also weakens his thesis, since the creation of Fradique Mendes was much in line with what its demiurges were going through (Antero’s crisis of faith, Eça’s obsession with the Devil), not to mention he come to live during “an announcement of a general collapse of traditional values” in Europe. Fradique Mendes wasn’t alien to them, he stemmed right from their milieu.

Whatever may have been the ultimate cause, what we know is that in 1868 Antero was back in Portugal from his trip to France. One day Eça took him to Batalha Reis’ room, where he became the Cenacle’s leader. In June 1869, Antero left again (that restless spirit), this time to America. In August, unbeknownst to him, the magazine A Revolução de Setembro published four poems by one Carlos Fradique Mendes. A note, written either by Eça or Batalha Reis, reads:

   The following poems belong to Mr. Carlos Fradique Mendes – a true poet, who for now only his intimate friends know.
   Inhabiting Paris for many years, Mr. Fradique Mendes personally met Charles Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle, Banville and all the poets of the new French generation. His spirit, in part cultivated by this school, is amongst us the representative of the Northern Satanists, of Coppert, Van Hole, Kitziz, and especially Ulurus, the fantastic author of the Dawns of Evil.

Fradique Mendes is praised for his subjectivism, his rejection of formulas and classic tradition, his individualism and spontaneity, which exemplifies “the chaos of philosophical, social and aesthetic conceptions in modern times.” Or as Serrão puts it, they were killing Romanticism. Fradique Mendes was a follower of Baudelaire, Poe, Nerval, and in a touch of genius they created a whole new school called the “Northern Satanists.” Ulurus in particular achieved temporary fame, being included by gullible literary critics in books of the time, and readers even ordered “the complete works of this diabolic and fantastic author” from Paris. Of the four poems, two were by Antero, one by Eça, and another by Batalha Reis. I’ll just translate Antero and Batalha Reis:

SONNET

The cross told the earth where it stood,
The flowery vale, the naked and mute hill,
“What are you, abyss and cage, where all
Things live in pain and blind, feral war?

Always working, you condemned slave,
What do you do that is good and great?
Beaten, you’re just mud, rude and formless;
Revolting, you are but fire and horrid lava…

But there is no high and free mountain
That can equal me! Love, firmness,
I alone am – I am peace… – you are war!

I am the spirit, the light! You are sadness,
The dark and vile mud!...” However earth
Responded: “Cross, I am Nature!”

THE OLD LADY

I

I like to see in the city’s streets
An old hunchbacked lady,
Full of wrinkles, full of longing
Envious, gazing at the youth,
So faithful, joyful, and carefree.

II

I think there’s beauty and poetry
In that longing envy of the past,
And in the old lady’s laughing face
One sees, poor thing!, just melancholy,
Sepulchral nostalgia for her engagement.

III

She stops alone, sometimes, in a corner
Looking at the ground as if awestruck;
And the poor, vain drooping head
Searches in the earth some divine light,
That has run out crushed and faint.

IV

Other times, smiling ironically,
She stops to stare at a gorgeous woman,
Who lives on the visions she produces,
And puts happiness and poetry
Where the old lady sees but ruin and prose.

V

In the wrinkled old lady I see
In her eyes unforgotten desire!
A broken string giving out its final note!
There she is looking at Spring with lust
And trembling in her hunchbacked walk.

Months later Antero returned from America, and in December of the same year he published the Macadam Poems, written by him but attributed to the satanic poet, giving him life once more. Antero, however, brought him back to bury him. He wrote a preface to the poems, but he wasn’t taken with his brand of poetry and told readers that “we should fight him” for going against the true purpose of poetry. “Satanism can be said to be the realism of the world of poetry. It’s the modern conscience (the turbid and frantic conscience of contemporary man!) [much like Antero’s.] seeing it itself in the spectacle of its own miseries and debasements, and extracting from those observations a sinister psychology, evil through and through, contradiction and cold despair. It’s the heart of the tortured and demoralized man, erecting his state into a universal law…”

At this point in life, Antero was very certain about what the true purpose of poetry was. “Isn’t its ideal, that is, its supreme law, on the contrary, to console, moralise, point out the spiritually beautiful, hope and belief? What is the meaning of the cold contraction of irony in the lips of the virgin made to smile and sing? Poetry cannot be the shout of agony: it’s the heart’s purest and most intimate voice: it’s even in death rattle, it’s especially in hours of duration, a hymn, carmen.”

Now Antero could of course be joking because I don’t sense any of this in his own tormented poetry. One would hardly turn to it for consolation and beauty. But I don’t think he was joking, I think for all his crises of faith he never stopped looking for a higher truth. His friends invariably called him a visionary, a saint, a mystic, a philosopher. His mind was always in the greatest of heights, looking for metaphysics, far from the earthly grime. I presume this is what also made him hostile to Eça’s realism. One was spirit, the other was matter. After this Antero never returned to his satanic poet.

Eça de Queiroz was by the far the person who used him more, and he became almost part of a life-long literary experience to blur the lines between reality and fiction. After the Cenacle friends persuaded Lisboners to order the Dawns of Evil, in 1870 Carlos Fradiques showed up in The Mystery of the Sintra Road, another literary hoax that had Lisboners believing in an amazing story of kidnapping. In 1883 he revised the novel, whose definitive version was published in 1885. But this was not the end of it. In the same year, writing from Bristol, Eça suggests to Oliveira Martins an idea for his magazine, Província:

What I thought of was the following: a series of letters about every sort of matter, from immortality to the price of coal, written by a great man who lived here sometime ago, after the siege of Troy and before the one of Pari and whose name was Fradique Mendes! Don’t you remember him? Ask Antero. He knew him.

The idea was to write a more realistic epistolary novel. The letters would be out of order, “one here one there,” he wrote, giving the illusion that letters had been lost and making references oblique, which was interesting stratagem. Even better, some were addressed to real people, like Oliveira Martins, Antero de Quental, Guerra Junqueiro. The actual letters would also be preceded by a study of and introduction to Fradique Mendes, written by a dear friend. This projected, which came to be called The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes, was published in 1900, shortly after Eça’s death. And it’ll be the next post’s subject.

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