Thursday, 4 June 2015

Eça and friends bring down a government

Let’s recap the history of the Casino Conferences: in 1867 the poet Antero de Quental, recently returned to Lisbon from a stay in Paris, joined the dilettante group that met at Batalha Reis’ quarters. Before Antero, Eça reminisced decades later, this Cenacle “was four or five demons, full of incoherence and turbulence, making a huge lyrical-philosophical fuss.” He also stated that prior Antero’s arrival “nothing could have sprung from it save clowning, satanic verses, wine-soaked nights, and scraps of facile philosophy.” Eça perhaps exaggerates, it wasn’t exactly a den of never-do-wells: its young members came from universities, had solid educations, were in tune with modern ideas and were bright and capable. But they lacked a leader to shape that amorphous mass glittering with promises of genius into something vital, forceful, transformative. That’s not to say that with the advent of the author of the Odes Modernas the group instantly sobered up; after all Fradique Mendes, a faux satanic poet, a delightful literary hoax, counts Antero amongst his progenitors. Young as they all were, they had a taste for pranks. But under Antero’s guidance the Cenacle became a repository for cultural and political ideas and discovered the impetus to promote and defend them in public. Thus the Casino Conferences were born, a series of lectures that in a sense introduced modernity into Portugal: foreign ideas like socialism, the Realist aesthetic, the separation of State and Church, the educational reform, idea that grew in importance as Portugal in moved from a monarchy to a republic, had their first endorsement there.

On May 16, 1871, Antero published a manifesto drafted by him and signed by him and Adolfo Coelho, Augusto Soromenho, Augusto Fuschini, Eça de Queiroz, Germano Vieira de Meireles, Guilherme de Azevedo, Jaime Batalha Reis, Oliveira Martins, Manuel de Arriaga, Salomão Sarogga and Teófilo Braga. The location chosen for the conferences was a casino in the Largo da Abegoria owned by Mr. Zagalo (incidentally the name of the narrator of O Conde de Abranhos). When the government closed down the peaceful conferences that merely wanted to discuss lofty ideas, Eça joked at the irony of the government allowing the casino to function as a place where semi-naked dancers could sing dirty songs and good-for-nothings could indulge in a wide variety of vices.

As we already know, things didn’t go well for the conferences. They coincided with the conflagration of the Paris Commune and left the government in paranoid panic. With a dispatch issued on June 26, the prime-minister, the Marquis of Ávila e Bolama, shut down the conferences that had started a month before, originating a constitutional controversy that brought down his government, in power for less than a year now. He probably never imagined that his decision would so strongly polarize public opinion and mobilize several personalities to lash out at its authoritarianism. Everyone commented the case: the members of the Cenacle, the MPs, the Church. Even Alexandre Herculano (1810-1877), emerging from his exile, condemned the Marquis’ decision. The father of modern Portuguese historiography, Herculano was one of the nation’s most admired personalities of his time: a beloved poet, a soldier in the civil war against the absolutist monarchy, a disillusioned politician, a freethinker who rejected all official honors and retreated into self-imposed exile to keep away from mediocrity, nicknamed the “man of bronze” for speaking truth to power, his rare proclamations tended to carry the gravitas that the discredited political class coveted. To put his moral stature into perspective, he was in Portugal what Hugo was in France or Lincoln in the USA. The Generation of ’70, educated on his books and reverent of him, was probably happy to have him on its side. However it was in Parliament, where the matter refused to die, that the government prepared its best defenses and suffered its worst attacks.

It’s ironic that the government was destabilized due to the actions of one of the pillars of public order: the police. After Adolfo Coelho, in the fifth conference, traduced Portugal’s outdated and vapid educational system, the police commissioner, seated in the small audience of “about one hundred people, mostly university students, and just one or two journalists and a lady,” sent a report to his superiors. He described the lecture’s tone as “bitter, and sometimes verbally virulent, especially every time he referred to our teachers, whom he judged inept and ignorant, attacking with even greater violence the University of Coimbra’s teaching staff.” Although Eça, Antero and others had hailed from Coimbra, it was still the nation’s intellectual center of conservative thought, a bulwark of tradition. The conference’s offenses may never have reached public opinion, for the same report assured the government that “there had not been the slightest demonstration, generally speaking, of its having been well accepted by the audience.” Social upheaval hardly seemed to loom on the horizon; but nevertheless the police alerted Lisbon’s civil governor, who in turn pursued diligences to bring the matter to the royal general attorney’s attention. If the conferences had been ignored, perhaps nowadays no one would have know them: Antero was the mere author of a book called Odes Modernas that had only sold 14 copies, to close friends; Eça had written a detective novel. Actually the Casino Conferences made them. The police, being its usual self, panicked and frightened the government into hasty action, overreacting against a dangerous group of insignificant revolutionaries.

Nowadays the conferences have a salient role in history: it was a watershed moment, a conceptual turn: Eça imposed Realism, ever since the dominant style of Portuguese letters (much to my chagrin); Antero gave us poetry that wasn’t about “Elvira’s skirts,” like Eça joked about Romantic poetry; later, with the historian Oliveira Martins, he’d disseminate socialist ideas. At the time, though, no one could predict that they were ushering in the 20th century. When the opposition attacked the prime-minister and when his government fell, that wasn’t an endorsement of these ideals. The controversy had to do mostly with a legal technicality. The Constitution was rather ambiguous: for instance Article 145 allowed citizens to publicly express ideas, but it granted the government to prosecute them for abusing that right. This is a bit vague, who judged when the right to express ideas had been abused? At the same time, there were things you could not speak against: when Coelho attacked religion and catholic teaching, and demanded the separation of State and Church, he was breaking the penal code’s Article 130 which upheld the “respect for the state religion.” The opposition could hardly support him without giving the impression of sanctioning a felony and coming off as more radical than the radicals. As Martens Ferrão, royal general attorney (and possible model for characters like Counselor Acácio and the Count of Abranhos) stated, “analysis and criticism cannot be confused with insult and disdain for institutions; the first is freedom, but the second is abusing discussion.” It was a tangle of thorns. Furthermore, more similarities united government and opposition than differences separated them. Left and right as we understand them didn’t exist s know them: there were the very conservative conservatives, and the slightly less conservative conservatives. Besides, the fear the Paris Commune had provoked, with echoes of the 1848 revolutions, gave the government a measure of justification to proactively crack down on the conferences and curb the threat of rebellion. How not to be afraid? Part of paris had declared itself autonomous from the State, in the “capital of the civilized world!” It was a historic event; Eça even revised The Crime of Father Amaro to sneak references into it. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to under the government’s rash proactiveness. But it was this proactiveness that got the government in trouble: did it have the right to prohibit the conferences or should it have used the judicial branch and bring the organizers to court? We’re not nitpicking here: although the government interrupted the conferences it did not criminally charge the lecturers with any crime; but if they didn’t commit a crime then they should have been allowed to lecture; and if they did then the government effectively allowed felons to go without trial. Furthermore, according to the law the police commissioner could suspend a public meeting if it disturbed public order; but first he should have issue a warning the lecturers to moderate their speech. Such warning was not given. Not only that, but he spent a whole month monitoring the lectures without ever intervening, which is tantamount to sanctioning illicit behavior, if such a thing occurred. In other words, the police stood by for whole month while crimes were allegedly being committed in its presence. These are some of the arguments Eça would later use in As Farpas when he vehemently defended the conferences’ legality. As a judge’s son, he knew the law inside out and how to use it to his advantage.

The lecturers, however, were quite prepared, perhaps even eager, to stand before a judge and plead their case. As Antero and Batalha Reis wrote in an open letter signed by the lecturers, no example was known of a “court that deliberated over the felony’s reality without the accused being, in accordance to the law, prosecuted by the alleged abuses. The crime, therefore, remained, in contempt of the dispatch, to be hypothetic, and so the signatories continued to wait eight days for the competent authorities to proceed against them, as it was their duty, since they hadn’t done so before the dispatch, as it was their absolute duty.” As it were, the members of the Cenacle were not allowed to exercise the “sacred right” of legally defending themselves: but perhaps that’s what the government feared, to have eloquent, intelligent young men turning the witness stand into stages for their performances. The letter obtained no reply, but in Parliament it remained an embarrassment: did the government have or have not the authority to do away with the courts in this matter? Martens Ferrão (general attorney, it’s important to remember) argued that, yes, the decision to interrupt the conferences was justified because they had strayed from their legitimate purpose when they attacked institutions and state religion, which obliged the government to act swiftly. When this line of reasoning started crumbling under the opposition’s counter-arguments (a dangerous line had been crossed that put in danger the autonomy of the courts), the establishment changed its strategy to declare that the conferences were a “teaching seminar,” which broke the law since none of the lecturers had a teaching license (not true, by the way, some were teachers), and no one could teach anything in Portugal without an official license. If that wasn’t enough, they dressed them up as “associations,” also forbidden, unlike “meetings,” which were legal. Don’t ask me to explain the finer points, I myself don’t see the distinction. The arguments are weak and desperate, no doubt, motivated by despair and the need to survive.

Let me just reiterate that in Parliament few MPs were publicly on the side of the conferences. Both wings merely worried about the question of principle, an abstract right. The courts’ independence had come out damaged and that did not contribute to social stability. “Prosecute them, but don’t dissolve them, for you do not have the right to do so,” said the MP Luís de Campos. However he quickly added that he only defended “ the right granted to every Portuguese citizen to meet, talk and discuss, nothing else,” without professing any sympathy for “the sayings and reflections” of the lectures, “for I don’t know the doctrines they supported in them, and I don’t want to know.” This was the closest thing to support Antero and the others could expect. The police had been an excellent evaluator of feelings: indeed the conferences were not particularly popular. Another MP claimed that “the intrusion of powers, the confusion of responsibilities, are never justifiable, no matter how fair the cause and intention be or seem, because they harm written law in the basic contract, and create precedents that may be fatal to freedom.” And he added: “If there was a crime, the Government granted, against the law, impunity; by using the arbitrary system of prevention, it allowed the existence and the continuation of a crime, which remain unpunished after all.” So the Government’s error was failing to arrest all the rabble-rousers. But a principle had to be defended, and by God they’d defend it with all their rhetorical prowess. “We maintain that we want all abuses punished, and that if the current laws were deficient, then we’re ready to reform the current legislation, in order to ensure the punishment of all crimes and of all abuses; but we likewise maintain, and more vehemently, that we want to keep the full and plain exercise of this right, for the ones who don’t abuse it and for those who abuse it, for the former and the latter. If abuse occurs, we want a firm, swift and severe punishment. Until the abuse occurs, we won’t admit restrictions. It’s enough to punish the man because he, by speaking, committed an abuse, and it’s enough for punishment to come when an abuse has been committed. But it’s not admissible, nor is it necessary, to forbid him from speaking just on suspicion or the possibility that he may commit a crime. Wait until the crime has occurred and then punish it, and don’t punish beforehand with the futile pretext or mere declaration that a crime could have existed.” Another MP defended the advantages of allowing non-Christian faiths to proselytize, a crime according to law. “With the freedom of worship there will be more religious fervor; the propaganda and education of our holy religion will become more active, and our clergy, like in the Church’s early centuries, will be the Earth’s true Sun, the world’s true light. It can’t be crime amongst us what in other countries is law, where, not just tolerance, but true religious freedom in all its effects exists.” This was basically applying free market tenets to the state church: if the government stopped protecting it, it’d force it to become more competitive, becoming more efficient.

The nation did not lack legislation that protected freedom of speech; instead it seemed to lack a habit of tolerating freedom. There was freedom, but not the habit of using it fully. When someone cross the limits of good taste, when someone revealed new ideas, in a country badly used to that, the government got nervous because it didn’t know how to react. Above all, the controversy showed the conceptual, mental abyss between the aging political class and the new generation of artists and thinkers. Martens Ferrão was the typical conservative: Fatherland, Christianity, laissez-faire economics, public order, suspicion of progressive ideals, fear of the proletariat – he saw in those young men a tremendous danger for society. “Every time I see freedom separated from order,” howled the Marquis of Ávila e Bolama, “I see it in licentiousness and not true freedom, and behind freedom lurks despotism…” And who can say he wasn’t sincerely afraid for freedom? A lover of discipline, a veteran politician, he was not going to give up the foundations of his mental framework because of a bunch of kids, not when he had been through popular upheavals and knew what that entailed. So he could never condone conferences in wherein “they propagated the doctrine that the cause for the Peninsula’s decadence was the monarchy and Catholicism,” alluding to Antero’s second conference. Furthermore, the government must have been on the verge of a collective apoplexy when they learned that Salomão Saragga was going to deliver a lecture on critical readings of Jesus Christ’s life in light of historical findings, where his divinity would be put into doubt, and his teachings compared to other great names of history. “This is Jesus Christ competing with Plato, with Socrates and other to find out who was more divine – if Jesus, if them!!!” There was no way they could ever see eye to eye.

Religious freedom, freedom of the press, educational reforms, economics, nothing was left out of the debates that raged in Parliament for months. Here was a country discussing progress versus stagnation, internationalism versus isolationism. Although not in the way they had anticipated, the lecturers had gotten the entire country discussing their ideas. Ironically, if the police had not overreacted, the conferences may have passed unnoticed. But the resulting panic catapulted Antero, Eça and the others into a dubious stardom and for the next decades they became crucial participants in Portuguese society. As for the government, on September 11, 1871, the Marquis of Ávila e Bolama, weakened by this controversy, presented his resignation after ruling for less than a year.

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