Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972) lived a plentiful life: he was literary critic, teacher, novelist, poet and editor. Today he’s better remembered, if he’s remembered at all by the younger generations, as a literary critic involved in the seminal modernist magazine Presença. His first poetry book came out in 1929, after discovering this magazine, which he directed from 1930 until 1940, when it ceased publication. One day I intend to write about his poetic oeuvre. As one of the most important forces behind the organization and divulgation of the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, whom he personally met and corresponded with, his name has earned immortality as a footnote in every critical edition of the great poet. I don’t know if he’d have like to be remembered as a literary critic only. He was also an outspoken enemy of the Portuguese dictatorship. For him, an intellectual, civic action was a moral obligation, and he paid his convictions dearly: he was arrested several times and in 1937 he was forbidden to teach. He had to make ends meet translating, editing and writing for newspapers and short-lived magazines. This love for freedom started at an early age. Once he wrote that “I was not yet eighteen when the dictatorship enthroned itself. I was a student, and as such I took part, in Porto, in the first popular reactions against the military rule that since May 28, 1926 had suppressed democratic institutions. I wrote in little student journals and others that a censorship still without the efficiency it’d later acquire did not totally stop from channelling ideas and feelings contrary to the situation.”
In 1954 he exiled himself in Brazil, a safe harbour for many Portuguese ex-pats during the dictatorship: his hero Jaime Cortesão, the poet Jorge de Sena, the philosopher Agostinho da Silva, the historian Joaquim Barradas de Carvalho, to name just a few. Free to continue his literary studies, he was hired as teacher in several Brazilian universities and penned many books on literature and literary theory. Perhaps he would have liked to be remembered as a literary critic only. But he was also a political thinker, a man who acted on his convictions, and in Brazil he also used his freedom to create a focus of opposition against the dictatorship, writing for many periodicals about Portugal’s real situation. At the time the regime’s propaganda machine was busy spreading the usual disinformation in Brazil, trying to convince Brazilians that Salazar was a beloved leader who ruled according to popular will and within the bounds of legality. Casais Monteiro and others fought back creating an oppositionist newspaper called Portugal Democrático, which served to alert Brazilians to the tyranny, terror, injustice and violence being practiced in that modern European country. The stated purpose of his political writing was “to explain that Portugal is not the Estado Novo;” he feared Brazilians would confuse the two and believed that every Portuguese had a duty to clarify them: “It is the task of every Portuguese writer and journalist living in Brazil not to let the Brazilian people have doubts on this fundamental point: the struggle being fought in Portugal is not one faction against another, it’s a whole people against an oligarchy.” He had to emphasize this point because the regime also tried to minimize these dissenting voices by accusing them of being mouthpieces for other factions, namely the communists, that wanted to rule in Portugal. The reason he and so many ex-pats fought was not just political, it was “especially a structural nausea for moral deformity, for subservience, for the cult of false values of every kind; men who not only could not ‘collaborate,’ but can’t even ‘breathe’ in the national atmosphere instituted by the Estado Novo mentality.” I think he would also like to be remembered as a freedom fighter. Before he died he was preparing the publication of an anthology of political writings, called O País do Absurdo. This book was only posthumously published, in 1974, when Portugal was finally a democracy again. I don’t presume to know his mind, but I think his great disappointment was dying without seeing this dream come true.
O País do Absurdo (The Country of the Absurd) is a political book without party loyalties or ideologies (I think the author was a communist, but I’m not sure), committed only to uphold freedom, democracy and honesty as higher values. It’s an angry book, a diary of indignation inside which Casais Monteiro registered the crimes and lies of the regime. It’s also an autopsy of totalitarianism, full of insightful intuitions about the minds of dictators and the mechanisms of violence and censorship. And since he was a poet and literary critic, he does not neglect to discuss the role of intellectuals and writers in relation to politics. It’s a very passionate book, a paean to human dignity, remarkably modern in its arguments.
Before we continue, a quick history lesson is in order. Portugal’s golden age, historians agree, were the 15th and 16th centuries, when the country was (relatively) rich and in tune with European ideas. But after a short-lived exuberance, the country closed upon itself and started a slow decay. There were many motives. The king concentrated all the power unto himself, choking self-initiative and restricting freedoms that could harm his influence. In 1536, at the request of the king, the Inquisition settled in Portugal, and the recently-formed Company of Jesus took over education, destroying whatever was left of Renaissance Humanism. The Discoveries and the imperial expansion also stimulated the country’s depopulation, rendering the national economy dead, but rather than giving rise to a mercantile class, it created a parasitical court that thrived around the king. Portugal kept out of the major social and intellectual developments in Europe for centuries. Foreign travellers remarked that coming to the Iberian Peninsula was like entering a barbarian continent, and perhaps they were right. And this isolation continued until the first decades of the 19th century. Between 1828 and 1834 a civil war was fought between two royal brothers: D. Pedro, representing liberalism (in its original meaning), wanted to create a constitutional monarchy; D. Miguel wanted to maintain the absolutist regime. D. Pedro and the liberals won and began the slow process of returning Portugal to Europe. Further developments occurred in 1910 when republicans overthrew the monarchy on October 5. The First Republic remains a controversial topic in Portuguese history: several have accused it of being chaotic, disorderly and a veil under which a dictatorship operated; others have pointed outs its many improvements: it extended the right to vote to more citizens; it gave women more rights, including the right to divorce; it allowed freedom of press; it created a national educational system. Its economy was precarious and its governments were constantly rotating because of crises, but historians also recognize that in its final years, after initial predicaments and difficulties, it was finally reaching stability. But just when that was happening, on May 28, 1926 there was a military coup that allegedly intended to end all the disorder caused by the Republic; the militaries in fact promised to return to democracy quickly after necessary measures had been taken. Of course this was a lie, and the militaries didn’t solve any of the country’s fundamental problems, so they called a professor of Finances called António de Oliveira Salazar to sort out the finances. And in no time he became the de facto leader of the country, calling his regime the Estado Novo, or New State. Politically Salazar was a fascist, with some local traits, which many of his apologists use to claim he was never a fascist. One of their favourite arguments is that Hitler and Mussolini were atheists and Salazar was a Christian, so they weren’t the same. Whatever the case may be, it’s a fact that Salazar declared 3 days of national mourning after Hitler’s suicide. Salazar’s solutions for Portugal was reverting everything that had been achieved since 1834 and reinstating the ancien régime for modern times. Or as Casais Monteiro puts it, “The great task of the dictatorship, before Salazar and with Salazar, was this: to destroy the efforts made during a century to integrate Portugal in liberal European society.”
Adolfo Casais Monteiro grew up during the Republic and at school learned to live according to the values and ideals that gave birth to it, regardless of the practical results. For him the chaotic, weak Republic was a lie invented by the militaries to justify the coup. He has two objectives in the book: to defend the spirit of the Republic; and to destroy the myth of order. “The first ‘reason’ in the mouth of a defender of the Estado Novo, when he’s obliged to explain himself, is the infamous ‘order.’ Before it was disorder, then the dictatorship came, and it established order. There is yet to come someone who can provide a rational justification of what such order is. One won’t require a lot of effort to arrive at the conclusion that such formula merely means the satisfaction of irresponsibility, and that it doesn’t have any real substance. The person satisfied with the order that he says exists in Portugal shows, in fact, his lack of interest in the national life, his total abdication as a political man, and as a thinking being. It’s the commodity of not thinking, the consolation of having an appearance that spares him reflecting about any problems.” For the author, “order is exactly that: the absence of opinion.”
Perhaps Adolfo Casais Monteiro’s memories of the Republic were too idealistic. Historians do point out that it was a period of instability, terrorism and uncertainty. But he doesn’t ignore its problems, he only thinks that was lost was far more important than was gained. “The Salazarist order enthusiast believes that before the Estado Novo was chaos. There were revolutions, there were strikes, there were bombs even! Now, all of that is over, and look at him satisfied. It doesn’t cross his mind to ask how and why it ended, and he doesn’t even think necessary to ask his buttons what was the ‘price’ of that cost. Only appearances matter to him. He can go out without fear that a strike will force him to go by his own foot, or that a revolution will stop him from leaving his house altogether. And yet… if he could be honest to himself, he’d see that ‘order’ didn’t solve any of the problems that before May 28 motivated the strikes and revolutions, that the Estado Novo did not suppress discontentment, did not put an end to injustice, did not solve social problems, and that it simply increased the army and police’s strengths, beginning to resort to violence as the only solution and irresistible argument.”
In fact the myth of order, for Casais Monteiro, only proved the weakness of the regime. “If the friend of order wished to think (assuming there is a friend of order capable of thinking), I’d advise him to ask himself why is there censorship, if there is order? For wouldn’t the existence of order make the need for censorship inexplicable? And the political police? And if he tells me that that is necessary to shut up the malcontents, I must reply to him: either the Estado Novo is so weak it can’t exist in a regime of free discussion, and so it’s actually weaker than the weak republic; or order only comes down to the fact that a minority is oppressing a majority by force, which, at the end of 30 years of Estado Novo, is really incomprehensible.”
For him, the weakness of the Republic were in fact its virtues. “The Estado Novo itself vainly preaches its ‘order’ and its permanence in power, as if they were virtues, when in fact one and the other are due only to what the Republic could not use without reneging the best of its meaning: violence, coercion, intimidation, the gag.” The republic could not use the instruments of the dictatorship without becoming a dictatorship too. “The freedom to accuse, from 1910 to 1926, gave place to the prohibition to do it; everything had been criticised; since 1926 nothing can be criticised.” He returns to this idea many times, namely that the Republic was too benevolent to its enemies and ultimately wrought its own destruction. “The main flaw of the Republic however was its belief in the invulnerability of the institutions, as if there were in them a virtue capable of, by itself, save the regime from all crises. But the powerful from before its coming remained powerful, and they could prepare its death behind the back of that same Republic that let them live, without realizing that its main defence was in consolidating the regime, promoting the politicization of the small bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in order to form a real public opinion.”
He blames the Republic only of naivety and an excess of blinding idealism; its architects believed that creating a democratic regime would by itself heal the country’s deep problems. “Such illusion was one of the fundamental aspects of that generous idealism on which all the Republican propaganda was founded, believing that the change of political institutions would result, as if by a miracle, in social progress. And it would indeed have been a miracle if, with only that change, the country had transformed itself from a poor country into a rich country, without touching privileges and laws.” The problem, to him, is that the republic did not take into account the fact that the population still lived in almost feudal institutions, between a priggish local nobility and a church which less than a century ago ruled under the authority of the Inquisition. These circumstances created an apathetic population that remained constrained by the old social order. “If the Republic did a lot for instruction and education of the people, it did not however give to fundamental problems the solutions that would have been necessary for that education and that instruction to transform society, and suppress economic unbalance.” And he repeats: “Indeed, the idealism of the revolution of October 5 did not take into account an adversary rooted in the country’s life, and which was far more dangerous than all the monarchs and their incursions: the misery of some, and the excessive wealth of others. The great mass of people lacked, and continues to lack, economic independence, the minimum conditions of human dignity, that permitted them to constitute a conscious electorate.” One of the old institutions that had much to lose, and helped the dictatorship, was obviously the Catholic Church. “The truth is sad, it’s but necessary to affirm it: the Church has been the only moral support of Portuguese fascism, the Church created in its bosom the dictator, only she can get the country rid of the poison that has poisoned Portuguese society.” Casais Monteiro was talking about Acção Católica. “Salazar fed himself on every modern theoretician of authoritarianism, with Maurras leading the charge, but the nursery where his spirit was formed is called Acção Católica. And only a Portuguese who knows that phase of national life can understand the conservatism that characterised that nominally religious organization, and which nowadays, I hope, has recovered a function more in accordance with its name and its affiliation.”
The political apathy he speaks of was perhaps the Republic’s greatest enemy. The Republican ideals thrived especially in Lisbon and Porto, the main urban centres, but outside them, throughout the countryside – Portugal was then very rural – these ideals had difficulty setting roots. After all, after 400 years of absolutism and 300 of Inquisition, one couldn’t expect great results in less than a century of changes. “This mentality was not invented by the Estado Novo. It merely turned into a principle of rule what, as a survival of absolutism, constituted yet the state of a large majority of the country’s population, and which liberalism failed to eliminate: the absence of a political consciousness. Except that, while liberalism tried to elevate the mental level of the Portuguese society, the Estado Novo’s concern was to reduce it to the levels of the lower layers of people, thinking it was enough for a government to know, and that a people doesn’t have to know anything, or have an opinion.” The great crime of the dictatorship, though, was to crush even what little results had been achieved since 1834 in politicizing the Portuguese. “The Estado Novo, resorting only to suppressing the Portuguese people’s possibilities of a political education, taking away from them what little responsibility they had achieved, only placed them in the situation previous to liberalism, restoring the type of government precisely under which Portugal was dragged into decadence: absolutism. Even baptized as ‘organic democracy,’ after the last world war, with the fall of its models and protectors, fascism and Nazism, the regime kept the same authoritarian traits.” Here Casais Monteiro is referring to a gambit by Salazar to legitimize his regime when Europe decided not to go fascist after all. He allowed preparations for free elections and created the Movement of Democratic Unity (MUD). The problem is that MUD received considerable support from the population and Salazar realized that if free elections took place, he’d be kicked out. Heartbroken by this betrayal, after all he did for the Portuguese, he unleashed a witch-hunt to punish thousands of people who supported MUD: people were arrested, fired, intimidated and spanked; the usual…
Salazar, as Casais Monteiro loves to show, was a despicable, lying little ogre incapable of telling the truth or honouring his word. Casais Monteiro’s deference for the Republic is proportional to his contempt for him. Next post is mostly about Salazar.