Saturday, 12 April 2014

Society wants to sleep, that’s the only truth: Adolfo Casais Monteiro and Intellectuals

Here we are for the final post on Adolfo Casais Monteiro’s O País do Absurdo. He devotes many articles to topics close to him, by vocation and training: literature, the role of intellectuals in society and Sartre’s famous engagement. I haven’t read such insightful considerations about writers and politics since Czesław Miłosz’ The Captive Mind. But that was a different, if tremendous, beast. Miłosz focused on four Soviet writers who followed the party line, his goal was in understanding the mechanics of their servitude to the Soviet Union and how they came to defend a monstrous regime. Miłosz wrote of concrete cases, made ponderous portraits of writers fettered to an ideology. Casais Monteiro doesn’t give us portraits of journeymen, in fact he despises them; he’s more interested in rebellion; he’s less concrete and more interested in tailoring ethical rules to guide the actions of writers living in dictatorships. Perhaps that makes this part of the book dogmatic, but he was a man in exile fighting with whatever means he had for democracy in his country; he could not afford to believe in art for art’s sake. At best these meditations could offend Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov; but I think most writers would appreciate his call to arms.

Casais Monteiro, as I’ve explained before, belonged to a group of literary critics who helped introduce Modernism in Portugal. The group extolled individual expression over programmatic writing, holding Fernando Pessoa as their role-model. Even so, Casais Monteiro did not ignore that writers were also men, and so had social and political concerns like any other men. Casais Monteiro knew this better than anyone else, for in his private life, when he wasn’t directing his literary magazine, he was publicly and actively opposing the regime. For him it was clear that writers could not remain passive in the struggle for justice, freedom and human dignity; for him every writer should stand up for these rights because a writer could not exist without them. To deny them would be to deny himself. In the 1940s he didn’t need to preach this, Portuguese intellectuals adhered en masse against Salazar. Resistance expressed itself in many forms: some were like Aquilino Ribeiro, his books from the 30s and 40s portray a Portugal without signs of oppression, but in his daily life he was an outspoken opponent; there were journeymen from the Neo-Realist school, closely linked to the Communist Party, who turned literature into propaganda; and some were more active than others, like Jorge de Sena, who also exiled himself after a failed uprising. There were many forms of fighting.

There were also the mediocrities that served Salazar, but nobody remembers them, history has expunged them, the price for the good times they had during the regime. For those intellectuals who stood by their principles and refused to capitulate, it was a hard time to live in Portugal, as Casais Monteiro shows in this excerpt. “A while ago a Brazilian journalist told me that, on a trip to Lisbon, he inquired at the National Secretariat of Information (António Ferro’s famous NSI) after the home address of João Gaspar Simões; the higher clerk’s reply, an ‘intellectual,’ was to manifest surprise and strangeness at the fact that Brazilian writers took seriously figures that in Portugal no one gave importance to – and he didn’t give him the address… and indeed this has been the job of the Estado Novo ‘intellectuals:’ to call the others worthless.” One couldn’t expect less. This division had nefarious consequences for Portuguese culture, even to this day. Most of the good intellectuals were against the regime, which means the regime could only divulge the mediocre culture that remained subordinated to it; this mean exporting a culture of no interest to the world. As such, the reach of Portugal’s culture dimmed during the regime, even in a country that shared the same language like Brazil.  For that reason Casais Monteiro can lament that the “Estado Novo has done nothing in favour of Portuguese culture in Brazil,” since it only publicized its official culture, resulting in half a century of lost opportunities to export the real great writers Portugal had. “The Portuguese Estado Novo’s type of authoritarianism does not consist in the defence of a type of culture, but in the ignorance of any culture,” he wrote. Things were hard on the living but the dead also endured travails, especially because they could not stop the regime from appropriating their work for its own perverse ends. One example is how the regime tried to ‘find’ in Eça de Queiroz the seeds of the Estado Novo’s authoritarian doctrine. “These people’s mentality can’t do better! And poor Eça is used by them, as [Almeida] Garrett was used, as even [Guerra] Junqueiro was used, to set up a sideshow which, they think, is really going to convince anyone, here or there, that they are the legitimate heirs of the culture represented by these great names. The fact that a Garrett, an Eça or a Junqueiro placed freedom above all other rights, seems a minor detail to them.”

True, things were never totally bleak for the living, as Casais Monteiro acknowledges. “Looking at half a dozen of good books recently received from Portugal, only if I were a professional pessimist could I refuse to see that, in spite of everything, there’s still a living Portuguese literature.” But the conditions under which this literature was produced were heinous. His friend José Régio, one of the first men to write about Fernando Pessoa, saw his plays banned from the National Theatre. Others were watched, arrested, interrogated, barred from jobs and spanked. Everything was made to make life harder for them. “It’s sad, however, that this literature can only live with every sort of hazards to their authors: because the literary prizes won’t be for them, nor the well-paid newspaper collaborations, and especially, woe betide them!, any decently-remunerated positions that would allow them to create, with a bit of economic peace, and with a trusting eye towards the future, the work that they can only give us at the cost of the reader can’t imagine how many sacrifices.” And when I think this I feel humbled, humbled by the rich literature that emerged during those years, in the margins of power, in spite of it, under siege by vituperation and contempt, and yet so many amazing writers, especially poets, for I don’t think narrative fiction thrived under the regime, but ah the poets!, Jorge de Sena, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Alexandre O’Neil, Mário Cesariny, Ruy Belo, José Régio, Miguel Torga, Eugénio de Andrade, Herberto Helder, Manuel Alegre, Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão, Natália Correia, Natércia Freire, Ruy Cinatti, Vitorino Nemésio, António Gedeão, António Ramos Rosa. Time and money stop me from writing about all of them.

There were notorious cases of persecution. “If an honest government intended to find four of the finest figures to represent Portugal in any international conclave with dignity, they couldn’t have chosen better than whom the gang currently in power did, gathering the four figures of Jaime Cortesão, António Sérgio, Mário de Azevedo and Vieira de Almeida. But, as the news agencies tell us, the place where they gathered them was in prison, which is in fact, for many years now, the way Portuguese fascism has always found more convenient to honour the highest talents of thought, of science, of literature, of teaching, etc. The non-talents go to the Academy, to Universities, to international congresses and, evidently, to government.” This incident was notorious for a few reasons. Firstly, these four men were in their seventies, some in poor health, when they were arrested, a sign of how petty, paranoid and cruel the regime could be. Amongst them was a man Casais Monteiro greatly admired: Jaime Cortesão (1884-1960), physician, poet and historian, perhaps the greatest historian Portugal had in the 20th century, the ultimate authority on the Portuguese Discoveries.  Casais Monteiro no doubt respected the intellectual, but he also venerated him for other motives. In 1927, less than a year after the military coup, the resistance attempted the first uprising, in Lisbon and Porto. Casais Monteiro, then a student, joined the barricades to defend the Republic, and there he met Cortesão, of the uprising’s chief organizers. “Victorious in one part of the country, the uprising was overwhelmed; but in Porto it resisted for as much as possible, until the siege imposed surrender; and it’s from that brief period that I keep the first image of Jaime Cortesão, in the revolutionaries’ headquarters, where some students had gone to volunteer to fight on their side. It was the first time I saw him, and long years passed before the 17-year-old student could meet the exemplary hero – precisely to remind him of the episode, and to tell him what his figure and example meant, during all those years, for our resistance against tyranny.” Cortesão had been a volunteer in World War I and served as combat medic. In 1927 he was the director of the National Library, presiding over a new generation of future great historians. After the uprising he exiled himself in Spain and then France. In 1940 he returned to Portugal, and after a brief arrest he was allowed to leave for Brazil, officially ‘banned,’ where he lived until 1957, at which time he returned to Portugal. The second reason why this case was notorious was precisely because the Brazilians didn’t like the regime arresting one of their favourite honorary citizens. In Brazil Cortesão had become a college professor and written seminal books on Brazilian history, including one on the foundation of São Paulo, and in 1952 the Brazilian government had invited him to organize an exhibition to celebrate this city’s fourth centennial anniversary. After an aggressive campaign in the Brazilian press, Salazar released him. One day I hope to write more about him.

Another writer evoked by Casais Monteiro is Aquilino Ribeiro (1885-1963), who in his seventies decided to upset the regime with a violent novel called When the Wolves Howl. For Casais Monteiro, he was the epitome of the combative writer. “Here is Aquilino Ribeiro, at the age when it’s conventionally said that people are only good for retirement, heroically laying bare, in the pages of When the Wolves Howl, the true face of the Estado Novo, showing how it ‘solves’ the national problems, how the people are for its implacable machine an unimportant detail – and showing how its ‘justice’ is done. And now dragged to the defendant’s chair, not giving an inch to the siege by the dictatorship’s watchdogs, not losing spirit, and, on the contrary, forging new weapons from the self-portrait of infamy the regime has offered him by charging him – here’s the great writer in all the youth of his spirit and of his dignity as man and writer, refusing to sleep in the shade of laurels, in an admirable example of unshakeable firmness.” Aquilino, it must be remembered, had been a defender of liberties for decades, ever since his youth, when he’d joined anarchists and republicans to overthrow the monarchy and create the Republic. In fact he was once arrested when his rooms exploded because of explosives kept there – his rooms were a workshop for bombs. Because of this novel he was subjected to a lawsuit for denigrating state institutions. In Brazil both the novel and a book on the lawsuit were published with prefaces by Casais Monteiro. Aquilino is a controversial figure to this day, believed to have been involved in the assassination of a king. Yes, you read that right.

Casais Monteiro’s admiration for men like Cortesão and Aquilino informs his meditations about the role of the intellectual as a resister, and it leads him to consider the relationship between literature and politics. In that regard, I like how he inverts the question of judging writers for their politics. “The sadness of our time is that their good intentions, whether they be communist or monarchic, socialist or miserably liberal, leads the work of great writers to be judged as if their political position were essential for its understanding. Why, the truth, the clear but so poorly accepted truth, is that those political positions are nothing more than attempts by the citizen that exists in every serious artist to find, in the plane of social action, a way of participation; but neither does this invalidate his work, nor is it invalidated by it.” This is a very generous view: instead of seeing them as fellow travellers, or useful idiots, turning them into passive receivers of trends, he sees in the politicization of writers their search for tools to give concreteness to their need to have an active role in society, even if it sometimes takes them to defend murderers and criminals. But this is the price to pay. The alternative is to remain indifferent, to evoke neutrality in the name of abstractions, a road that to the author leads to more dangers since this indifference in writers who do not want to “interfere in politics” only “drives them into being handcuffed when politics, which does not repay them in the same manner, decides to interfere in the field of intelligence, either to suppress it, either to borrow the quill. Then the intellectual wakes up, and he sees that his splendid isolation was not, as he supposed, a ‘virtue’ of intelligence, and that he needs to defend it, to be able to cultivate it.” For him the writer must resist because he has no other option. “Society asks him not to touch taboos, that he quietly produce his poems or his novels. I mean, society is the first one to push the writer towards what it’s customarily called a ‘purely aesthetic’ attitude. There it’ll be effectively at ease. But not him. Because there is no ‘purely aesthetic’ attitude. That’s another of the lies of society, one of its ways of not taking knowledge of what, if it opened its eyes, it could still see against it. Society wants to sleep, that’s the only truth.”

This dogmatism leads him to divide intellectuals in two groups: “Intellectuals are part of society, and that forces us from the start to accept their division in two classes: those who serve it, and those who serve man beyond society. Certain poorly understood ideas, and a lot of confusion around the word ‘bourgeoisie,’ are responsible for the assumption that, living in a bourgeois society, the writer ‘represents’ it. Why, this is an absurd assumption. No society is made of a single piece; inside it, the tension of opposite tendencies is permanent. More than any of its members, the intellectual is, by the nature of his activity, a ‘resistant.’ When he really accepts it, and defends it, assimilating his ‘interests’ to its – that is, turning into one the interests of the spirit and those which, in a more vulgar sense, refer to material conveniences – the intellectual is, according to all probabilities, a civil servant of intelligence, a bureaucrat of ideas, who doesn’t deserve, or stopped deserving the name of intellectual.” This inevitably leads him to reassess the meaning of Sartre’s engagement, a term that for him has been much misunderstood, and he tries to purify it. “Not to complicate it, to sum the question up as much as possible, we can say this: Sartre used that word to indicate the intervention of the writer, but in no way his submission. He meant, on using it, not the dependence on a party, but interest, participation. The engagé writer will then be he for whom it’s indispensable to intervene in the problems of his time, who doesn’t consider himself an isolated being, exempt from responsibilities in what happens in the world arena, and who, on the contrary, is more obliged than anybody else to take an active part in events. In sum, the engagé writer is the one who isn’t in the margin, or above what’s going on, but instead is fully immersed in life, and is, as much as or more than anybody, responsible.” I find this quite sensible, participation without ideologies and parties. I do prefer my writers this way, involved but too undisciplined to serve masters.

Well, we reach the end of O País do Absurdo. Hopefully these three posts have given you an idea of who Adolfo Casais Monteiro was. Although I’m done with him for now, one day I intend to return to him to write about his poetry.


  1. Great post Miguel.

    I often think about the role of intellectuals and intellectualism on society at large. I find it to be fascinating topic. While Adolfo Casais Monteiro was focused on the issue in context of a dictatorship, your commentary indicates that his thinking should, to some extent be applied universally.

    1. Brian, thank you for reading.

      I think he intended to apply this universally, yes, for the problem, as he puts it, is not just one of dictatorships but of societies at large due to their inability to appreciate the fact that the writer is an outsider. And he applies it to all writers, because for him no writer can stand idle wherever freedom is threatened, since the lack of absence negates his own identity as a writer.

      These are very interesting ideas, I especially wished he had developed more on the topic of art for art's sake, his denial that such thing exists merited more consideration, since it's such an enshrined idea nowadays.