Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Fearful kings who reduced their kingdoms to ashes, in holocaust of the chimerical purity of faith

So Oliveira Martins has positioned all the pieces on the chessboard - Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and Arabs – and explained their contributions to the history of the Iberian Peninsula, racially, socially, religiously and administratively. So it’s time for Portugal and Spain to emerge from this cultural hodgepodge, and for the author to prove his thesis that there’s a peculiar Iberian identity or spirit.

After the fall of the Visigoth Empire, and while the Arabs were busy running things, a group of freedom fighters reconvened in the Asturias, under the rule of Pelagius (685-737), who formed the Kingdom of Asturias, whose main capital, after many relocations, was definitely established in Oviedo by King Afonso II (791-842). Later the Asturias became the Kingdom of León when King Fruela II (875-925) moved the court to León. Although king is mostly a matter of speech, according to the author: “The army was a horde, and Pelagius a new heereskoenig, like the ones in the first waves of Vandals and Suevi. A new royalty is certainly being sketched, but in a spontaneous way, to the law of Nature. Only later, when the Asturians established a court in Oviedo, do monarchies and councils reappear.” And about Pelagius: “Pelagius’ personal worth and gifts elected him leader. He was not a king in the old way, because in the middle of that disorderly mob there weren’t proper institutions: men, abandoned by a fallen civilization and hating current civilization, found themselves alone with Nature.” And this was the man who started the Reconquista. As I write this, and as we enter the period when the modern Iberian states emerge, I’m reminded of what Eco wrote about every nation needing an enemy to reaffirm its identity against it: without Islam, Portugal and Spain may not have existed. Still, it was an arduous, long process.

The movement of the Reconquista, simultaneously initiated by North and East, gave place to the formation of the kingdoms of León and Navarra. The latter split into three states: Navarra, Castile, and Aragon, of which the second to last was the first to fuse with Leon. From Leon split Portugal; but with time Castile-Leon absorbed into itself all the remaining peninsular States, until, at the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th, with the return of Navarra by the Pyrenees, with the fusion of Aragon and the conquest of Granada, it came to call itself the Spanish monarchy.

Portugal, then, is the oldest-standing state in the region, since it declared its independence in the 12th century and stabilized its borders circa 1250, whereas the other kingdoms kept popping up and disappearing, expanding and shrinking, until they all turned into what we today call Spain. It’s also here that a Portuguese tongue starts flowering,  since all the other tongues disappeared until Castellan became the main one, although Martins makes an aside for Galician, which has survived into our days.

The importance of Galician in Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries is preponderant: it is the tongue of the court of Oviedo; and the occasional independence in which Galicia found itself for certain periods in relation to the monarchies of Leon and Castile had given the language a strong impulse of also independent constitution. Today, on observing the documents of those ages, one recognizes the possibility of Galician having been adopted by the monarchy of Leon-Castile, supplanting Castellan. If that had happened, we could now observe the differences which the political independence of the two peninsular nations would have exercised on one single popular language.

But we were talking about the Reconquista. The Christians hit hard, had a lot of victories, riding down from the North to Gibraltar, although it’s not as easy as it seems: it’s going to take centuries; started in the 8th century the Reconquista isn’t officially over until 1492, when Granada surrenders to Ferdinand II and Isabella I, the same who financed Columbus’ absurd theory that you could reach the Indies sailing East.

There’s lots of interesting stuff about the treatment of prisoners here:

It’s at the beginning of the 11th century that the Christian kings start to recognize the usefulness of the Moorish populations brought by the conquests to their empire. Until Afonso VI (1065-1109) prisoners of war, when they escaped the carnage of conquest, were reduced to the most ferocious captivity. The procedures of the Muslim emirs, whose eloquent consequences the Mozarab population showed, were not up until then imitated by the Christian sovereigns. Afonso VI, whose admiration for Arab culture is known, could better evaluate the nefarious consequences of an always sterile slavery, and compare them with the ones of a submission that would come to be fecund in wealth for the kingdom, in power for the Crown.

The captives of the conquest of Toledo, in 1085, are the first Moors who amongst Christians find an analogous regime to the one of the Spanish captives under Saracen dominion: they’re allowed the use of their own religion, they’re permitted to negotiate with the naturals, and even marriages between the two races are allowed. How could it be otherwise, when the king himself wedded an Islamic woman. Even for the ones who did not gain freedom – if the fortune of war imposed them captivity – conditions were now incomparably better than they had previously been, even if they reneged their faith to obtain moderation in the tortures with which they were persecuted. Toledo’s example is followed in Valencia and everywhere; the son-in-law of Afonso VI, D. Henrique, and his son, the first Portuguese king, follow the lessons of León, when they extend their dominion to Tejo and conquer Lisbon and Santarém, keys to Portuguese Extremadura (1147). Starting from the 11th century, the influence of the Muslim inhabitants in the progress of Spain’s population acquires a historic importance.

This tolerant goodwill is not going to last. Of the Reconquista there’s not a lot more to say. The Christian monarchs, backed by a powerful Church, are back in business. So let’s jump to Martins’ thesis of a peninsular nature or identity or personality. He tells us that “now we shall go seek in characters and biography.” He doesn’t have a lot to show for, he ignores lots of people who really have made the Iberian Peninsula a remarkable place. His main point, I think, is explaining why the Iberians, of all the nations, were responsible for the Discoveries, the apex of their history and the last time they left a mark in the world. So he ignores lots of people who had nothing to do with it, and instead focuses on religious figures because to him it was religion that created the mentality that led to sea-faring heroes like Columbus and Vasco da Gama. In case you forgot part one, Martins thinks the two defining traits of Iberian are hombridade, that is, nobility of character, worthy pride, and religiosity. He pretty much ignores the former. His list of greats is certainly not a list a sane person would conjure:

Each one of its members is a great man. It’s Jimenez, it’s Loyola, it’s Camões, it’s Columbus, it’s Cortez, it’s Gama, it’s Pizarro, it’s Albuquerque, it’s Calderon, it’s Saint Theresa, it’s Lope, it’s Cervantes, it’s Murillo, it’s Ribera, it’s Torquemada, the ferocious inquisitor, it’s the Duke of Alba, pious and unmerciful captain – it’s Felipe II and John III, fearful kings who reduced their kingdoms to ashes, in holocaust to the chimerical purity of faith.

So if we take out Cervantes, Calderon and Lope de Vega, and two painters, we’re left with two saints, a torturer, two sailors, four soldiers infamous for massacres, three monarchs, and Camões. Yes, the book is a bit tendentious. Anyway, let’s start with religious mysticism:

The spontaneous and non-erudite origin and the moral and non-metaphysical character of Spanish mysticism are the reason for the new look – and eminently distinct from Europe’s – that presents this mental phenomenon – the first no doubt in importance for the determination of collective physiognomy, and the indisputable source of the extraordinary national energy in the 16th century.

His analysis of how mysticism permeates everyday life, especially the arts, is especially notable:

Mystics are tragic or naïve, in the manner of the Spanish soul which is composed of a natural tenderness and violent explosions. Painting reproduces this violence in the works of Zurbarán, Herrera and Ribera. Trivial, rude, brutish, violent, mad: squalid monks, frightful visions, dilacerated Prometheuses, human monsters, tortured by forces and pain, stretched over darkened canvases, in dark backgrounds, at intervals sliced by obfuscating flashes. Tenderness is reproduced in the paintings by Murillo, flooded with light and blue, in the heart of which, amidst flowers and palm trees, play groups of blonde angels circling around the Virgin’s throne. Murillo’s paintings express with paints the canticles of Saint Theresa to her great beloved; in the same way Ribera’s paintings show the visions, the frightful terrors of Saint Ignatius before his trip to Italy.

And he continues.

But in painters and saints, Spanish mysticism has yet a singular character which evidently derives from the way it was formed: realism. Several times critics have noted the difference there is between Murillo’s Virgins and Rafael’s Madonnas. The Spaniard lacks the undefined feeling of a vague idealization which animates the Italian’s creations: Murillo’s Virgins are of this world – beauteous Andaluzian girls. Also Saint Theresa’s love is a true love, and not an idealist absorption. Mystics feel, see the beloved object. The feelings are real, translate emotions from the senses, and not states of speculative reason.

It’s a pity he didn’t do the same for Calderon and Lope’s theatre. Oliveira Martins, polymath that he was, also wrote literary criticism. But this religiosity wasn’t just the stuff of art, it also produced a palpable mentality with physical consequences:

Catholicism gave us heroes. Protestantism gave us wise, happy, rich societies, free in what concerns institutions and external economy, but none capable of grandiose actions, because religion starts by shattering in the heart of men that which makes them liable to boldness and noble sacrifices.

This mysticism also produced a new religious outlook in the wake of the Christian crisis during the Renaissance. As we all know, Protestantism was born from a need to reform the Church, emphasizing individuality and freedom. Much is said about Luther and Calvin, influencing the North of Europe. Spain, however, contributed with its own, inverse solution: absolute, blind obedience in the form, after much wandering and mental anguish seeking for an answer, of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s Company of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.

The Jesuit conceived and fulfilled in another way the religious reform of Southern Europe: it attenuated the terrible doctrine of Grace, it avoided the rigid prescriptions from the Church Doctors, it invented the indulgent spiritual direction, the lax morality, the acquiescent casuistic, easy devotion and probabilism. It made an adequate and complacent religion and, to give it consistency, it gave to the methodical and mechanical direction of imagination the role which in Protestantism was assigned to the voice of consciousness and order in existence. With genial perspicacy, the Company discovered the educational principle of men: to form a sensual imaginative atmosphere inside which ideas would germinate, to conveniently prepare the middle to model and accommodate thoughts from its inside.

I don’t know what my readers think, but this is terrifying! This brand of religion also emboldened the Spanish monarchy, which Martins praises as being the first in Europe to centralize its power in an absolutist way. “Leaders of civil society, they were the patriarchs of religious life. All the forces of the nation – moral, social, material – were in their hands.” In this regard, his big hero is Charles V, “true heir to Charlemagne, defender of the Christian world, hovering above the Pope, and almost as monarchic in the spiritual as in the terrenal.” Martins also likes to remember us that it was the kings who imported the Inquisition to Iberia, against the wishes of the Vatican. That’s something worth thinking about, even the Pope though the Spanish Inquisition was too much. In some way all this fervour invigorated the Discoveries. Martins’ reasons for Columbus’ expeditions, if historically true, are deranged: “His ambition is to bring from the discovery money to equip an army of ten thousand horses and one hundred thousand infantrymen, with which it’ll go conquer Jerusalem.” I didn’t see this in the movie where Marlon Brando plays Torquemada!

The conquest of Jerusalem is for him the end of which the discovery will be the means: in the same way that for Saint Ignatius penitence was the road to reach the same enterprise. Mysticism is the beginning that incites and impels the two heroes: both find at the bottom of the soul the burning faith that exceeds human means. Ignatius left from Barcelona in rags and penniless, ignorant of the tongues, deprived of all the instruments of conquest. If the results of the adventures were diverse the mental state of both men was one and the same, although clothed in different purposes.

After religious mysticism which produced a new conception of Christianity, and which created the spirit which animated the audacious heroes of the Discoveries, the crowning glory of Iberia is Luís de Camões, who sang those same Discoveries in The Lusiads, the greatest epic poem of the Renaissance… according to Portuguese scholars. But the making of his poem also augurs the collapse of Iberian civilization. Indeed Camões’ death coincides with the temporary unification of the peninsula (1580-1640), when Portugal was annexed by Spain during the rule of Felipe II. Felipe II, as you may surmise, is another wacko, who gave orders to build the El Escorial, a magnificent, useless mausoleum (setting of Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra), that helped bankrupt Spain, which had already spent fortunes arming an Invincible Armada for nothing.

The great irony, and Martins the economist is aware of this, is that the Discoveries, the greatest contribution of Iberia to the world, were also its undoing, since “in time it led both peninsular nations to abandon European interests, giving themselves body and soul to the task of exploiting their colonial possessions.” At the same time, “the discoveries, augmenting in a way until then unknown the sphere of commercial activity, giving exceptional importance to banking institutions and credit, did not invent – for such facts pre-existed – but gave prominence to two forms of mercantile activity, pregnant with grave social consequences: the bank and speculation.” So Portugal was also responsible for the 2008 Economic Crisis. This is why history is important, it lets you understand things, it takes you back to the origins. So to sum up the fall of modern Iberian civilization: “Jesuitism undermined it, intolerance destroyed it, New World gold filled it with rotten corruption. And yet even in its fall was Spain heroic; and the ferocious cruelty with which it applauds its suicide, full of mad rapture, demonstrates the extraordinary strength of these men who not even at the edge of the tomb were capable of exclaiming contritely: peccavvi!” The chapter on how Portugal and Spain did everything in their power to basically sabotage themselves is a real horror show.

If Oliveira Martins sounds like a crypt-fascist, well, maybe he is, since he advocated “democratic Caesarism,” which is a contradiction in terms. At the same time he was also one of the earliest promoters of Socialism in Portugal, so he was confused in several ways. I think, however, that his main problem is that he inhabits too deeply the characters, like an actor he gets under their skin to see things from their perspective. There’s a wild excitement in these pages as he narrates the exploits of absolutist kings, zealots and conquerors. He’s extremely sympathetic to his dramatis personae. I think this is a novel form of writing history, and it’s a way of trying not to pass judgements, since he realizes historical conditions did not allow these men to be anything other than what they were. Even so he doesn’t mellow the terrible consequences of their actions and decisions.

If he can be accused of something – and he has – is that he’s quite selective in his choice of figures to produce his thesis that there is such a thing as a unique spirit or mentality in Iberia. I don’t think he ends up proving it. And others are given the short shrift who certainly deserved a mention:  cosmographer Duarte Pacheco Pereira, cartographer João de Castro, humanist Damião de Góis, to say nothing of Cervantes, Goya, and El Greco. Martins’ infatuation with religion and a tragic way of envisioning life made him ignore all that is picaresque, burlesque but also rational about Portugal and Spain, and their great contributions to 15th and 16th century geography, mathematics, botany, zoology, nautical sciences and cartography, but none of that fits at all with his fin-de-siècle portrait of cultural decadence. But I forgive him because it wouldn’t have been such a delectable yarn otherwise.


  1. I wonder if Martins could have read Thomas Carlyle, particularly On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), in which the heroes are Dante and Robert Burns but also Cromwell and Napoleon (and Odin!). It is a Great Man of History classic, and certainly proto-fascist in some ways, although today's left-right designations do not really work with him. I can imagine Carlyle coming up with a list of great Hispanic men that looks like that of Martins.

    Anyway, this is all pretty interesting. Where else could I read about it?

    1. Some authors, even though they don't confirm that Martins read Carlyle, notice the similarities between their views of history, so it's a feasible theory.

      There's a catalogue of Martins' library, 1.600 books. I'll check if Carlyle was present.

      Anyway, I don't know what you mean at the end. Read about what? More Iberian history? Oliveira Martins?

    2. Yeah, I mean Martins, at this level of detail. I mean, I suppose there is a book in English somewhere, since there are so many books. But I prefer reading about it here.

    3. I suppose there is a book in English somewhere, since there are so many books.

      I just noticed he doesn't even have an English Wikipedia page. The prospects are not good, he's no Eça. He may have been translated at the turn of the 20th century, maybe.

      It is sad but if Portuguese literature is already given the short shrift, non-fiction is in even worse conditions.

    4. Good news, Tom!

      I had a look at the catalogue of Oliveira Martins' library, at the National Library. And it mentions two books by Carlyle:

      Carlyle, Thomas
      The French Revolution: a history / by Thomas Carlyle. – Copyright ed. – Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1851 – [3] vol. (Collection of British authors; vol. 203-204)

      Carlyle, Thomas
      The Life of Friedrich Schiller, comprehending an examination of his works / by Thomas Carlyle. Tauchnitz ed. – Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1869. – VIII, 344 p. (Collection of British authors; vol. 206)

      Neither is Heroes, but he knew Carlyle so it's probable he read it.