Monday, 2 December 2013

You know I have the greatest of vocations to speak on the phone and no vocation at all to write letters: Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner’s letters once more

This second post about the letters of Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen focuses on their work and also their personal lives. As one would expect, they read and commented each other’s work through their correspondence. Sophia informs Sena that she’s translating Dante’s Purgatorio, which she considers her masterpiece, how unexpected. Although separated by an ocean, she tries to find ways of working with him, inviting him to collaborate on magazines she edits. One such magazine is called Litoral. “My idea is to have ‘correspondents’ in Brazil, Rome, Paris, Spain, England giving each one news of what shows up in the country where they are. If you know any people for this let me know.” In Brazil she wanted him and the other great expat, Adolfo Casais Monteiro, to write book reviews. “Collaboration will be paid, although I’m not quite sure how,” she vaguely assures him. “My idea would be to try to gather in the magazine what’s left of the consciousness, lucidity and creative spirit in this terrible moment of unconsciousness, blindness and propaganda. Therefore your presence is for me extremely important, fundamentally necessary.” Efforts like this, often personal endeavours, short-lived and somewhat crude, were the only way of keeping some discussion about literature and culture going in a country that had no interest in promoting culture. But such magazines didn’t last long because of police persecution and also because of bureaucratic barriers. Even so Sena did not fail to send her some of his poems for publication, from his masterpiece The Metamorphoses:

It’s monumental, at least in size and ambitions – and, as you see, it couldn’t be more recent: it was written yesterday. It’s part of that collection about several works, of which I read you some, at home. I hope that book, with some 14 long poems, will be published this year by COR. I’ve called it tentatively Museum, but I think it’ll end up being called The Metamorphoses. They’ll all be accompanied by what they illustrate… This I send you now will be illustrated by a Sputnik…

My Sena anthology doesn’t have the pictures that go with the poems, in fact I only saw them when I checked out the original book at the national library. Meanwhile Jorge de Sena is also sending Sophia short-stories for a collection called Andanças do Demónio. Her critique of them contains a line I particularly loved. “I don’t understand very well the meaning of the second tale. In verse I don’t need to understand, but in prose I do.”

In December 1962 Sophia writes to him about The Metamorphoses:

Here I am, amazed above all by Velázquez’ Girls and then with Goya, Dürer, Greco. But the Girls are an unbelievable masterpiece: a work of eternity, time, silence, suspension, space, realism, geometry, magic: the union of all the abstract values with all the concrete values.

That’s high praise indeed, coming from a poet of Sophia’s stature. Sena is also happy with his book, calling it the most “ambitious poetry book I’ve ever published, although it’s not yet my Lusiads…” Here I disagree; of course it only becomes him to expect his work to progress, that is the dream of all writers I suppose, but I don’t think he ever surpassed the masterpiece that is The Metamorphoses, perhaps only The Art of Music was a serious rival. By the way, at one point he describes this book as a “musical Metamorphoses,” which is a totally apt description.

Sena wasn’t just occupied writing poetry; much of his fame still rests on his vast output of literary criticism. Just to get an idea of how busy he was, here’s this excerpt from December 1962:

Just today I sent for Ocidente the first part of my medieval studies – will they come out? I have, by my side, the proofs of my History of English Literature, to make the index… I have, until the end of the year (it’s pretty clear I can’t), to deliver my anthological studies on Garrett and Pascoaes. I just signed the contract for the publication of The Book of Disquiet, of Pessoa, whose originals I’ve received. Ática insists on his English poems, for which I’m writing a preface. I received two scholarships, one federal and another on a state level, for the creation of a critical edition of Camões’ Lyrics. Then, after New Year’s eve, I’ll have to go to Rio de Janeiro, without delay, to set up the necessary Camonian machine. I’m concluding a monumental study on Inês de Castro and Portuguese politics until the end of the 16th century (which includes the structural analysis of [Renaissance playwright António Ferreira’s] A Castro). I’m busy with an immense translation, because I need that money. Saturday I have the final exams of English Literature, whose 4th year specialization I supervised, with a course on Shakespeare…

To say that the man killed himself with work is not an understatement or a metaphor. In fact he worked so much he complains in his letters of lack of time (and sometimes the will) to write poetry. The reason the man worked so hard, I guess apart from being a workaholic who genuinely loved to investigate literature, was to support his numerous family, I don’t know how many kids he had, but he had lots of them. That was also a reason why he never returned to Portugal, because he never received an offer to teach that could allow him to support his family, something that left him bitter because he wanted to leave the USA and help the reconstruction of Portugal after 1974. Lack of time, fatigue and the quibbles of the quotidian are running themes, as both often regret not having the time to do the work they want. Sophia, in particular, often uses Sena as a shoulder to cry on:

Francisco and I are both very exhausted from hard work. I start feeling incapable of doing everything I want to do. To be at the same time poet, wife of D. Quixote and mother of five children is a triple exhausting task. I never accepted that it was necessary to choose between poetry and life because both seemed the same to me. But now I feel totally incapable of doing everything, of fulfilling everything that comes to me.

To Sophia, Sena also helped mitigate the isolation she felt living in an authoritarian society, without a network of friends that shared their ideals and values. As I wrote in the previous post, Sophia and her husband, Francisco, were not only harassed by the state but also by the left-wing intellectual class for their refusal to become fellow travellers, a situation that no doubt deepened her sense of haplessness. Janeiro de 1960:

   Forgive me the long silence: you know I have the greatest of vocations to speak on the phone and no vocation at all to write letters.
   In fact I’ve been horribly dispersed without articulating ideas.
   We need you so much. Here you were a support in a world so different than me that I can’t even understand it. Thank God we have received from several sides good news of you, besides this letter.
   So, in spite of missing you, I’m happy to know you’re there. I hope you find the time, peace, freedom and availability to be able above all to work in your oeuvre. May you write your ‘mid-life work.’
   Forgive me such a disordered letter. I’m writing with two broken pens and on a paper that smudges everything.

On December 22, 1960, she writes:

We’re all of us fine, thank God. Francisco has had a lot of work and everything would go well if it weren’t for the political climate. You and I can write poems, essays, stories. He can’t write what he wants, nor say what he wants, nor realize himself the way he wants. He can’t make his “mid-life work.” This is the same for many people, but it seems to me it’s especially despairing for him.

Jorge de Sena, writing on December 24, 1960, in spite of his usual bitterness, always has a reassuring word for them:

It’s Christmas’ eve, of a Christmas I don’t believe in, but which I’d wish true, on behalf of a mankind that I increasingly consider irrevocable in its wickedness. And I increasingly believe that nothing survives save, beyond everything else, the trust that only friendship gives, and a desperate love for mankind, which, anyway, death, one day, will turn perfectly useless. So, here I am, with Mécia, sending you, and to Francisco, to everyone there, our most affectionate greetings and wishes for a happy new year.

For all the bleakness of live, what transpires most clearly from the book is these poets’ friendship. They were two highly intelligent people and their conversations could take very interesting artistic turns. For me the highlight of the book is their long discussion about ancient civilizations, which starts with Sophia’s love for Greece taking her to Athens:

   What is extraordinary there is that sunlight is the mystery. At the Acropolis at noon, with the sun at its zenith, everybody talks in hushed tones. The tourists themselves, so exuberant in Italy, are transformed.
   Italy also marvelled me – but it’s different. Venice and Florence are worlds built by man centred on himself. They’re not religious worlds. In Greece everything is built like a reconnection of man to nature. In Venice and Florence, nature would be little without what men built: there’s just city. But the Greek temples are only comprehensible situated in the world surrounding them. The connection between architecture and the air, the light, the sea, the cliffs, the spaces is total. And that connection is simultaneously rational and mysterious, profoundly intimate.

When Sena replies that he’s translating Cavafy, Sophia opines on the Greek poet:

Cavafy sometimes seems like a disciple of Ricardo Reis, but is far from the perfection and “total diction of Pessoa,” is in fact a bit “down to earth” and his Hellenism is very Hellenistic. His verses have a lot of charm but seem like a copy. What he says is very stereotyped. But it’s a poetry that evokes an ambient – a warm and husky world – a Hellenistic world with lots of fin de siècle literature. Cavafy’s imagination is more of a novelist’s imagination than a poet’s imagination.

I don’t have an opinion on this, I only know Cavafy from one or two poems, which I liked.

On the other hand, Sophia didn’t like visiting Mexico:

I came here because it was our marriage anniversary and also because there’s a duty to see. But it’s a world that I can’t nor wish to integrate. It seems to me a deviation from man: terror, human sacrifices, an art of grimacing, a great feast of cruelty. The fact that they invented zero is not enough.

Interesting that her opposition is founded on a moral view of man, although I also see an aesthetic judgement: ancient Greece is the world of beauty, of the muscular nudes, of the right proportions, of reason. Latin and South American cultures is more like modern art, irrational, non-realistic, non-figurative, crude by comparison. Sophia was a dyed-in-the-wool classicist, so I’m not surprised by her view. But it prompts a hilarious reply from Sena:

It’s been in my plans for a long time now to visit Mexico, an opportunity I still haven’t had, for having mainly used others to go to Europe. But the truth is that beyond my interest in pyramids and Quetzalcoatls, and how much pity I may retrospectively feel for Montezuma lying in his bed of roses, the red skins, even with Aztec, Toltec, Mayas and Incas (metaphorically going to Peru now), have always awakened only relative curiosity in me; and it’ll be my prejudices as a liberal that make me not say that they awaken some disgust in me. Decidedly, anthropology, in the sense of fascination for “primitive” people and of only refined cruelty, has not been and isn’t “my cup of tea.” And since I don’t have in the symbolic past blame for having murdered them to civilize or suppress them, which belongs to Latin and North Americans, I feel perfectly exempt from the drooling vertigo of admiring feathered headgear.

It gets weirder, and it ends with an interesting reflection: “I find myself so irrevocably Western that, from Persian on, everything is greatly indifferent to me – given that the exotic for exotic’s sake has never interested me – poetry is something else, and lately I have been deepening my meagre readings of Chinese letters, about which, for the Portuguese scale, I would be a PhD capable of writing for literary pages.” For me the interesting bit is Persia.

This in turn leads to a debate about Western civilization. Sophia with her usual etherealness:

   Western civilization has betrayed immanence. Perhaps that betrayal started in Socrates and Plato who drank it in “Asia’s Wisdom.” Being stopped being in phyisis and started being in logos. The people of India has always wanted to pass into the other side of nature. Physis was illusion and appearance to the Indian man – which labyrinthically came from Plato to Christianity. And transcendence started. Fidelity to immanence became a sin. Man ceased to be one with his body, and with woman. Words mean sex became cuss words – they don’t mean sex but non-identification of being as sex. They mean divorce, using them is creating that divorce.
   I think we’re in Kaos. Perhaps it’s a beginning. In the beginning was Kaos. Through Kaos we’ll recognize physis as being. We’ll recognize the country of immanence without blemish.

Sena refutes her with his typical bluntness:

   I believe, in opposition to what you say (but you already sense it and don’t dare say it), that the treason started when Christianity grew from being a Palestinian thing and robbed half from the Jews and another half from the classic world, to create a two-thousand-year-old shame. Socrates had no blame in that.
   You speak of India, and everything in us, and the Greeks too, descends from what became another thing throughout the centuries. But, to me, my world ends in Persia which is still “West.” For that reason I’m curious to see India which also repels me, and Japan, which, like China and the Asian Southeast, is the “other side.” I still hope I’ll see it.

But don’t think Sena makes apologies for Greece’s murky past either:

[R]emember that all that was a colossal mystification, at the gods’ expense, by the collection of cities that politically were the most perfidious and oligarchic, slavering, racist, supremacist, etc., which invented democracy only to falsify it. The Parthenon is a miracle that happened to them, in spite of, not by favour of the gods, but by their strength. Everything else are thousands of years of talk – and that’s why, for instance, The Illiad, which I find extremely beautiful, is horrendous to me, as apologia of the martial machismo that still sends nowadays little soldiers to the Africas and the terrorists to the bombs, which are paid by the “cities” to continue in power.

I love how he manages to connect ancient Greece with modern democracies, to insinuate that not a lot has changed. That’s true insight. I could spend hours reading their thoughts about anything, if they kept this level of erudition and provocation.

The book’s last letter is sent by Sophia no longer to Sena, but to Mécia, I suppose in response to the news of his death:

I know that very hardly someone exists that is someone his equal. And I can’t accept these eighteen years of absence that could have been eighteen years of friendship, meetings, conversations, common laughter, afflictions and communicated joys.
   I started being Jorge’s friend for my profound admiration for his poetry. Then I discovered his loyalty, his sympathy, his human warmth, his human greatness that was inscribed in the greatness of his poetry.

And with these words, thus ends our glimpse of a great literary friendship.


  1. What rich letters. They are not all like this are they? Illness, children's birthdays, any of that stuff? Trouble with publishers.

    Thanks for organizing all of these highlights.

    1. They're a mixed bag, very domestic, very gossipy, also concerned with transcendental matters. Nothing about trouble with publishers, perhaps the letters between Sena and Saramago, who was his editor once, if they're ever published. Saramago could write some very business-like, trite letters.

      Sena's letters are a small industry nowadays: you have six or seven different volumes to different people, writers, critics, philosophers, how the man found the time to write so much is a mystery to me.

  2. Replies
    1. Happy 2014, toutjour!

      Well, I had no idea there was a movie. But I haven't read the novel anyway, so it may be best to wait.