Friday, 26 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz' Newspaper Writings




Eça de Queiroz’s newspaper writing produced almost as many volumes of fiction. He started writing for the press in the 1860s and continued up until his death, in order to increase his income since he never had the prolific rhythm necessary to life off his own fiction. He wrote about politics, famous figures of his time, literature, even roses and ancient cuisine. It’s impossible to make a fair overview of his interests, but I’ll quote from some of his most enduring articles.

In November 1800 Eça was living in Newcastle; part of his job as a consul was to stay up to date on European affairs and politics, and this prompted an article called “The Persecution of the Jews.” “The two ‘sensations’ of the month,” he begins “are undeniably the publication of Lord Beaconsfield’s new novel and the turmoil in Germany against the Jews.” Once again anti-Semitism was rearing its ugly head in Germany, although Eça was especially interested in the British press’ passivity about the matter. “I don’t see, for instance, that what is going on in Germany, in spite of exhaling an odious auto-de-fé smell, prompts London’s liberal press to be greatly indignant: and even a newspaper with the authority of the Spectator has already been forced to attenuate, after grave protestation from the Israelite community, articles where it described Jews as an isolated and selfish corporation, in the manner of Catholic communities, working only for their gain, closing themselves in the strength of their tradition and keeping sympathies and tendencies overtly hostile to the ones of the State that tolerates them. All of this is already disagreeable.

 He also notices with worry that Bismarck’s government has condemned the rise of anti-Semitism, and has no plans to interfere. “As soon as the ministry’s answer was known, a band of youths in Leipzig, who could be mistaken for Dominican friars, but were only Philosophy students, went about expelling Jews from beer halls, depriving them of the dearest and most sacred individual right for the Germany: the right to have beer!” As for the motive, he finds mostly envy. “The motive for the anti-Semitic furor is simply the growing prosperity of the Jewish colony, a relatively small colony, composed of only 400,000 Jews, but which due to its activity, tenacity, discipline, is carrying out a triumphant competition against German bourgeoisie.”

Eça always sided with the weaker and persecuted, and that trait of his personality is again evident in his September 1882 article, “The English in Egypt.” One of the longest articles he ever wrote, it’s an in-depth, intelligent analyses of the bombing of Alexandria, a fascinating history lesson on an episode few have heard of. In 1882, France and Great Britain sent ships to Egypt because a military uprising was putting at risk the payment of this country’s debts (created by the khedive Muhammed Tewfik Pasha) to European creditors. “Officially, however, the war ships were there performing a naval demonstration, but in fact were carrying out a foreign intervention – because troubles had occurred in Egypt and the khedive had declared himself besieged. (…) This means His Royal Highness is in his palace, surrounded by a gloomy populace that grabbed sticks, found a flag and placed it atop a pole, and has come to impose a formula tremendously unpleasant for His Royal Highness: less royal authority and more public freedom…”

“If His Royal Highness,” explains Eça, “keeps a few faithful regiments in his palace, then he puts on a general’s uniform and gives out orders to cut down his people: if unfortunately, however, the soldiers are in tandem with the citizens, then His Royal Highness declares himself besieged, and asks a stronger and less busy neighboring king to send him a division to restore order – that is, to ensure His Royal Highness keeps his royal authority totally intact, dispersing with bullets any attempt at public freedom. Nowadays this isn’t used in Europe indeed: but in the East, it seems, it’s still a very decent method of calming down national disapproval.”

Eça also traces the profile of coronel Ahmed ‘Urabi, the leader of the uprising. Although Eça realizes ‘Urabi has rebelled mostly to solve the problem of the soldiers’ pay, which had on hold for two years now, he had also become the bearer of the people’s complaints and a hero capable of carrying out progressive reforms. “But ‘Urabi brought three or four ideas that, if a decent Europe existed which allowed him to implement them, could be the beginning of a new Egypt, an Egypt owning itself, an Egypt ruling itself, an Egypt for Egyptians – not just a colossal race dependent on Muhammad Ali’s family, and certainly not a free alehouse for starving Europeans.”

What were ‘Urabi’s reforms? “In the first place, ‘Urabi wanted the end of the khedive’s absolute authority, Egypt ruled by an elected Parliament; and, as a consequence of that new regime, a radical reform in the use of public expenditure, which until then one part went to the khedive, one part to the Sultan’s harem, the sovereign lord of Egypt, one part for the tight-knit cohorts of foreign civil servants, one part, a large part, to pay the debt coupons in Paris and London, leaving so little for the needs of the country, to the point the army hadn’t received pay for two years now!” Of course Eça knows that what worried the imperialist powers was the matter of the debt: “‘Urabi did not deny the foreign debt, created by that splendid spender Isma'il Pasha, but recognized by the nation and warranted on its honour – but he did not tolerate that France and England were installed in Cairo, with the keys to the safes, waiting for the arrival of taxes in order to chomp on the lion’s share; in order to satisfy the European creditor’s voracity, the fellah was crushed with taxes, who, no matter how hard he worked day and night, in the end he had to seek the European moneylender. Remarkable thing! Europe officially presented itself as creditor, and in order to fill its pockets, secretly provided the usurer!...”

‘Urabi, however, was determined to reduce foreign influence in Egypt. “But the delicate point of ‘Urabi’s reforms was over the situation of foreigners in Egypt. There were monstrous interests there. ‘Urabi demanded the abolition of privilege by which foreigners living in Egypt and growing rich in Egypt paid no taxes. That horrible man didn’t want those special courts for foreigners, which, under the name of mixed courts, gave out two verdicts – a sweet one for the European, a bitter one for the Arab. Alas, that fatal man didn’t want civil servant jobs given exclusively to foreigners – and he didn’t want to pay, as it was paid, over three thousand contos of good Egyptian money to French, English and Italians living the good life in sinecures in every state department in the Nile Valley, and all of them as useful to the state as that Englishman who, with a letter of recommendation from Lord Palmerston, was nominated coronel in the Egyptian army, and at the end of nine years, after he had received around eighty contos in pay, he still had not seen his regiment and didn’t even have his uniform!”

Eça returns to the matter of the debt. “Ah! The matter about the creditors! The famous question of the Egyptian debt! In what did Isma'il Pasha spend those hundreds of millions that Europe loaned him, and that the poor fellah is paying? First of all, in bringing to life an economic idea – to convert Egypt, which is an agricultural country, into an industrial nation. Egypt produced sugar – why not refine it? It had cotton – why not weave it? And so, on the strength of millions, he began to cover the Nile’s banks with those colossal factories, of which nowadays only ruins remain – ruins of rusted iron and of rotten wood, so miserable and sad, next to the beautiful granitic ruins of the pharaonic temples, representing, like them, a people’s servitude, but, given its ugliness, unable of at least being useful, like they are, for aquarelles...”

“The khedive’s other reason to be ruined was his generosity. Who doesn’t know the illustrious legend? Who doesn’t remember the Suez Channel parties? There each expenditure cost millions. Two million for the Cairo lighting. Four million for the Ismailia banquet. Expenses with two thousand guests invited for a fortnight in Cairo and the Channel – seventy million!... For the champagne drank on those weeks of repast – two millions! The fellah paid.” Eça also remembers that he himself is to blame, since he was present and drank that champagne. 

Given the risk of an uprising that interfered with European interests, the war ships were sent to intimidate and pressure ‘Urabi. This of course led to nationalistic chants against the foreigners. “That was the situation on June 11. Alexandria had become a furnace of nervousness. The mosques preached a passionate crusade against the Christian: in the bazaars they spoke of foreigners as of rabid dogs, birds of prey, worst than the grasshopper who devours the harvests on the Nile’s fertile fields; and either because of the increasing fanaticism, or because misery wanted revenge – every good Muslim armed himself.” And soon the European powers found their casus belli to bomb Alexandria. “In those circumstances, a race war can grow from an alehouse joke. And, more or less, that’s what happened. On the morning of the 11th, on the Sisters Street, one of the richest ones in the European quarter, an Englishman, out of an old habit, whipped an Arab; but against all traditions, the Arab struck back with a blow. The Englishman gunned him down with a revolver. Not long after the conflict between Europeans and Arabs, in full force, spread throughout the quarter... This lasted five hours – until Cairo telegraphed orders for the troops, neutral until then, to calm the streets down. And the result, quite unexpected but understandable, for we know the Arabs only had sticks and the Europeans had rifles – was this: around one hundred Europeans dead; more than three hundred Arabs exterminated. The newspapers have called this the massacre of the Christians: I don’t want to be unpleasant in any way to my brothers in Christ, but I’ll respectfully ask that this be called the killing of the Muslims.” Using the murders of Europeans, the French and British ships claimed Alexandria was out of control and bombed it in order to restore order. Afterwards they invaded and restored the khedive to power, although they became the de facto rulers of Egypt until World War II.

Besides politics, Eça also wrote to express his admiration for those who had shaped his life. In June 1885 he wrote “Victor Hugo” in honor of the great French author (he always called him  Master) who had recently passed away. It contains some of Eça’s most beautiful pages. In an open letter to a newspaper editor who wanted to know Hugo’s importance to Eça’s generation, after explaining that the previous considered Hugo stiff and lifeless, he goes on to note that his generation has obscure him with useless praise: “As for the younger generation, the sacred Spring that gives flowers ‘in those published writers every morning,’ as the archbishop of Paris has modestly said – that generation always alludes to Hugo in mysterious way, calling him the ‘titan,’ the ‘colossus,’ the ‘eagle,’ the ‘volcano.’ One cannot tell from these statements the impression the La Légende des siècles left on them; because this manner of talking about a poet, treating him like a ‘volcano,’ is just an inept way of getting away from the severe duty of understanding.” Eça doesn’t fall into abstractions; he’s precise, concrete, illustrative. “I almost learned how to read with Hugo’s works: and each one penetrated me in such a way that, in the same way others may remember ages of their lives or states of spirit from a scent or a melody, I suddenly see, on rereading old verses by Hugo, a whole past, landscapes, houses I lived in, occupations and dead feelings… I was indeed created inside the Master’s oeuvre – the way you can be created in a forest: I received my education from the sound of his odes, from the vast exhalations of his anger, from the confused terror of his deism, from the grace of his pity and from the luminous mists of his humanitarianism.”

For Eça, Hugo’s greatness was the nobility and compassion for mankind he placed in everything he wrote. “One of Hugo’s greatness, quite French, is his vast clemency, his infinite pity for the weak and the small… And in this regard his life weighed considerably on our century. Hugo certainly did not invent mercy, but he popularized it. In the Gospel itself there’s still a lot of anger: Jesus has inflexible words of condemnation and punishment. Hugo, especially in old age, had reached such a state of ‘supreme compassion’ – that he forgave even tyrants, the ferocious exterminators of people, monsters.” This ethical imperative, for Eça, is indissociable from Hugo’s work. “Using a parallel analogy, I consider Hugo’s political action profoundly fertile. In his time, Hugo was not a statesman like Turgot: Hugo is the bard of democracy. His job is not to organize: his job is to sing it. He preaches, in radiant lyricism, the coming of the Kingdom of Man; and his rhythmic voice calls the multitudes to him. The instinctive human masses move only due to imagination and feeling: logic converts the educated man, but not the simple man.” For Eça, then, Hugo’s work had the importance of humanizing people, of expanding the possibility of human compassion, justice, and generosity.

But although Eça loved Hugo and followed French culture, for some time now scholars have seen in Eça a need to distance himself from France. If in the 1860s-70s he was unapologetically a Francophile, in the 1880s he started showing reservations about drinking too much from its culture and ideas. To his mind, Portugal was dangerously becoming a mere copy of France, a cheap copy, losing its own identity. He expressed these feelings in letters, in The Maias (through the mouth of João da Ega) and in an undated article (believed to have been written circa 1887) published only after his death. Called “Frenchness,” it’s an X-ray of Portuguese society and its infatuations with all things French: it translated novels, poetry and plays while neglecting national authors; translated even textbooks, manuals and scientific books; imitated fashions; adopted its tastes in painting and music. Eça, who had long been accused of being too French, inverted the accusation by casting himself as a victim: “Instead of being guilty of our denationalization, I was one of its melancholy results.” Quite autobiographical, the article explains how since his birth onwards French literature, language and culture were inescapable since they were a necessary condition to become someone in Portuguese society. This affected his entire generation, excepting a few figures. “I don’t want to write memoirs. Just to informally show how I and my entire generation (save for higher spirits like Antero de Quental and Oliveira Martins) had fatally become French within a society that frenchified itself and that, all over it, from the State’s projects to individual tastes, national traditional had died off, undressing itself from its Portuguese clothes in order to cover itself – thinking, legislating, writing, teaching, living, cooking – with rags from France!” Other countries, like Germany and England, were absolutely ignored, to the point Eça knew civil servants who asked him if England also produced literature.

Even if the article were an exaggeration (not by much), it’s worth reading for this great moment:

   Two or three years ago, that colossal comedian and show-off called Richepin published a book, Les Blasphémes, where he simply set out to end, once and for all, by means of some brilliant rhymes, mankind’s religious feeling, obscenely describing the intimate affections of his father and mother.  I was at Oliveira Martins’ house, and we all found this new of way of showing filial respect immensely funny. Antero de Quental, however, did not laugh.
   “This is very serious for us,” he said. “Because tomorrow, here and there, all over the newspapers, poems by young poets will show up starting like this:

My father was a thief, and my mother a whore!”

And just less than twenty hours later we were all reading, stupefied by this prophecy, Lisbon and Porto newspapers with poems where young men of the highest honesty, from highly honorable families, accused their mothers of prostitution and called their fathers ‘horny bulls.’” That’s where France will lead us.

In this article Eça also derided symbolists and decadent literature, singling out Paul Verlaine’s poetry for censure. Eça did not like the new directions literature was taking.

In the May 1890 article “Fraternity,” Eça reflects about the growing hatred between European nations (as if predicting WWI), and links them with the nationalist movements that swept across Europe during the 19th century. More prophetically, he sees that chauvinism and national rivalry has migrated from aristocrats and kings to the people. “It’s these irrational and violent antagonisms, as much as or more than state rivalries, that force nations into a rigid armed attitude where they lose vitality and grow agitated: and nowadays, unlike ancient times, love and caring for peace belongs to kings, and to the people the impulse for war.” For him the reason has to do with the fact that the intellectual class tends to adopt a supranational identity that reinforces cosmopolitanism. “This comes from the fact that power, or the influence on power, has moved from elites to the masses, from oligarchies to democracies. In the past oligarchies, made ‘cosmopolitan’ out of education, travelling abroad, alliances, a community of habits and tastes, similitude of duties to the Court, general tolerance that culture produces, and special affinities of the spirit created by classic culture, never hated other nations – because other nations were for them the other oligarchies with which they felt alike in all ways of living, thinking, acting, ruling. Democracies, on the contrary, deeply nationalistic and never cosmopolitan, keeping their own ways with traditional loyalty, and intolerant of foreign ways – only know each other (through the narrow notions of a fragmentary education) in their most nationally characteristic traits, and therefore irreparably opposite.”

Eça tried not to succumb to pessimism: he tried to see everything as a perpetual cycle of growth and decay, improvements leading to new challenges and problems, new problems to new solutions and social betterments. But he was also becoming skeptical of man’s infinite ability to improve himself, accepting some things were innate, and fearing that science and progress, for all their promises, were causing spiritual harm to man. So in February 1892 he wrote “The Decay of Laughter.” Eça has left many pages on the power of laughter – it was his favorite tool, after all. In 1878 he had written: “Laughter is the most ancient and still the most terrible form of criticism. Run a chuckle around an institution seven times, and the institution crumbles; it’s the Bible that teaches that to us, in the usually admired allegory of Joshua’s trumpets around Jericho.” But fifteen years later he was having doubts. He begins the text by quoting Rabelais that “rire est le propre de l'homme,” laughter is proper to man.

“But nowadays if, for the Meudon church and the Universe’s great benefit, Rabelais came back from the dead and again walked amongst us with his Gargantua, what would the noble master say? Perusing our books, going about our crowds, living our way of living, no doubt the good Rabelais would say that ‘crying is proper to man’ – because the large and pure laughter of his time would not be found on any face. Indeed, we children of this century, have lost the divine gift of Laughter. Nobody laughs anymore! Almost no one smiles.” He adds: “No one laughs – and no one wants to laugh.” And he tries to explain this impression. “I think laughter has ended because mankind has grown sadder. And it has saddened – because of its immense civilization. The only man left on earth who smile sounds the happy primitive laughter is the negro in Africa. The more educated a society – the sadder its face. It was the enormous civilization that we created in these last eighty years, the material, political, economic, social, literary, artistic civilization that killed our laughter, the way the will to rule and the bloody works necessary to bring it to fruition killed Lady MacBeth’s sleep. We have complicated our social existence so much that acting in it, given the tremendous effort it demands, has become a great pain – and we have complicated our moral life so much, to make it more conscious, that Thought, given the confusion it wrestles in, has become a larger pain. Nowadays the man of action and thought is irreparably fated to melancholy.” And he concludes: “The unfortunate wretch is destined to the infinite yawn. And his single consolation is that the newspapers call him and he calls himself – The Epitome of Civilization.

This, of course, didn’t stop him from continuing to write laugh-out-loud novels.

To date there is only one English translation of Eça's pieces for newspapers, his English Letters. It has some of his best articles, including the ones on Egypt and anti-semitism. Perhaps one day his later writings will appear.

Next week we'll find out what happened to Eça after his death.

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