Eça de Queiroz harbored a life-long contempt for newspapers. In 1882 he wrote to the novelist Silva Pinto: “The whole of Portugal knows the Diário das Notícias – the most lucrative enterprise in this good land, where journalistic speculators thrive, favored by the encouraging breath of good-faith and national stupidity. We have yet to ascertain what the corruption and imbecilization of the Portuguese people owe to the abovementioned institution for its kind, loyal and permanent services. At the time, the national press connived with political interests; people become journalists to open the door to a political career, a situation Eça portrays in O Conde de Abranhos. The investigative, impartial, factually rigorous journalism as we understand it nowadays did not exist. However he believed journalism, used wisely, could function as an instrument in reforming and improving society. He started collaborating in newspapers in 1866 and for decades nurtured the ambition of creating his own, serious, intelligent review, like they had in England, and in 1889 he finally achieved his dream – except it was a commercial fiasco. But prior to that he achieved tremendous, legendary success with a periodical called As Farpas.
As Farpas, a monthly, 11x14 cm, 96-page long periodical, started showing up in June 17, 1871. It cost 300 réis and were sold in several places, including the A.M. Pereira Bookstore, an editor that still exists and publishes books on Eça. The demon Asmodeus figured on its cover. The first number, with a print run of 2000 copies, quickly disappeared from the stands. A remarkable feature that nowadays would not cause any stupefaction: the magazine was signed by Eça de Queiroz and Ramalho Ortigão. At the time anonymity reigned in the press, since journalism amounted to little more than muck-racking. That its two authors had the courage to identify themselves was something that did not pass unnoticed. Even Eça’s nemesis, Pinheiro Chagas, observed that the authors “have presented themselves to the circus without mask, having therefore the honesty of their opinions and the courage of their critiques.” Anonymity was especially useful in the partisan skirmishes that constituted so much of the press, but As Farpas did not have a political loyalty, it refused to bow and adulate, and it would spare no one. A reader of the finest satirical magazines of the time - Punch, Tun, Vanity Fair, Whitehall Review – Eça set out to create something in that style. As a model he used Les Guêpes, de Alphonse Karr, a French satirical magazine popular in Portugal. In a letter to a friend dated May 1871 he explained the personality of As Farpas: “A fighting newspaper, a mordant, cruel, incisive, cutting newspaper, and above all a revolutionary newspaper.” And he added: It’s Les Guêpes, by Karr, worked over in a Peninsular fashion: more fire, more vigour, more violence and more intent. Considering the state of the nation, intelligent men who have in themselves the conscience of revolution – must not instruct it, nor indoctrinate it, nor argue with it – they must pierce it. As Farpas are therefore trait, buffoonery, irony, the epigram, the red-hot iron, the whip – placed at the service of the revolution.” Farpas, by the way, can mean the barb at the end of banderillas (a bull-fighting instrument) and an arrowhead.
According to Maria Filomena Mónica, As Farpas came out during a period of great instability both in Portugal and Europe. “The Paraguay War (1864-1870 interrupted the shipment of emigrants’ savings, a mainstay of the country’s economy and finances (1). The value of public funds on the stock market had decreased, exportations diminished, and the floating debt increased. However the political crises overwhelmed the economic one. Incapable of solving problems, Governments replaced one another at a vertiginous rhythm. Only on March 5, 1871, did Fontes Pereira de Melo, the man who’d give the regime some stability, rise to power (2). If the national situation was bad, internationally it wasn’t any better. In September 1868 Queen Isabel II, of Spain, was ousted and foreign prince, Amadeo of Savoy, chosen to sit on the Spanish throne. In Paris, between March and May 1871, the bloody days of the Commune raged. In Italy, it was a complete mess. In 1870 had declared himself prisoner inthe Vatican, having declared, to the scandal of freethinkers, the thesis of infallibility.”
Above all As Farpas fed on the nation’s general feeling of decay to shock the people out of their inertia by confronting it with all the corruption and incompetence that reigned in the kingdom, in the vain hope of kindling a moral and social renewal. Eça hailed from a very long – 16th century long at least – tradition of bemoaning a slow national decline that had followed after the glorious century of the Discoveries when it was a global power. As João Medina wrote apropos of As Farpas: “From the ironic melancholy of the author of O Arco de Sant’Ana (3) to the nervous soliloquy of Manuel Laranjeira, from loner from Vale dos Lobos giving up (4) to the consciousness of a true national suicidalism that did not elude a perturbed observer like Unamuno, from Herculano’s “It just makes you want to die” (5), to an identical type of despondency, but this time bleaker, more desperate: “It just makes you want to die – of shame,” written in a intimate diary, in February 1908 (6), from the anti-portuguese sarcasms of that ‘laughter that skirmishes’ from As Farpas to Eça’s confession, twenty years later, that the citadels he had tried to bring down with a simple clangor of trumpeting chuckles remained high and triumphant – throughout the whole of our 19th century and the turn of the next one Cassandras make themselves heard, now ironic, now pathetic, lashing the air with shouts, curses, orisons and appeals, using a voice that after indignant turns hoarse, and finally aphonic.”
Eça, as you may have guessed, chose the path of laughter. “Because, alas, we all know it: laughter is neither a cogitation, nor an idea, nor a feeling, nor a critique: neither is it disdain, nor indignation; it neither judges nor repels, nor does it think; it creates nothing, it destroys everything, it answers for nothing! And yet it’s the only asset in Portugal’s political world. A government legislates? Chuckles. It speaks? Chuckles. Represses? Chuckles. Falls? Chuckles. And here politics, whether thinking or creating, whether liberal or oppressive, will always have around, in front of it, enwrapping it, like the fluttering of a monstrous bird’s wings, always, perpetually, vibrating, cruel, implacable – the chuckle!”
I’m not going to cite extensively from the magazine; to give an idea of it it’s enough to stick to the first text; it’s a real autopsy:
“The country has lots its intelligence and moral conscience. Mores are dissolved, consciences running amok, characters corrupted. The practice of living has convenience as its sole direction. There is no principle that can’t be refuted. There is no institution that isn’t ridiculed. No one respects one another. There is no solidarity between citizens. No one believes in the honesty of public figures. A few happy money-lenders exploit. The middle class sinks progressively into imbecility and inertia. The people is miserable. The public services are abandoned to a sleeping routine. Contempt for ideas increases every day. We all live on chance. Perfect, absolute indifference from top to bottom! All spiritual, intellectual life halted. Tedium has invaded every soul. Youth drags agedly from office desks to coffee tables. Economic ruin grows, grows, grows. Bankruptcies follow one after another. Small commerce flounders. Industry weakens. The workers’ conditions are deplorable. The wage diminishes. The GDP also diminishes. Because of its fiscal action the State is considered a thief and treated like na enemy.”
Oh, but Eça is just warming up:
“The certainty of this indignity has invaded all consciences. It’s spoken everywhere: the country is lost! No one has illusions. It’s spoken in the councils of ministers and at inns. And what do they do? While chatting and playing the omber, they confirm that from North to South, in the State, in the economy, in morals, the country is disorganized – and then ask for cognac!”
“As for the people, they pray. That’s the only thing it does besides paying.” What does it pay for? “It pays to have ministers who don’t rule, MPs who don’t legislate, soldiers who won’t defend it, priests who preach against it. It pays those who dilapidate it, and those who are its parasites. It pays those who murder it, and pays those who betray it. It pays its kings and its jailers. It pays everything, it pays for everything.”
“In the Constitution the monarchy is not imputable. In politics it’s something else: there isn’t a party that doesn’t blame its ineptitude on the king – If it weren’t for the king! – that’s the predominant excuse of governments that don’t govern, or speechmakers who don’t write, and of schemers who don’t triumph.”
“Everybody is reconciled to each other! That’s how selfishness dominates. Corruption replaces philosophy. Each one bends greedily over his plate. Living forces are jobless!”
“Literature – poetry and the novel – stretches itself slowly, without ideas, without originality, yawning, full of sterility, keeping the old habit of being vain, and accustoming itself without particular repugnance to its new mission of being useless. Conventional, hypocrite, extremely false, it expresses nothing: neither society’s collective tendency nor the writer’s individual temperament. Everything around it has transformed, only literature has remained immobile. So that, dazed, absorbed, neither does it understand its time, nor does anyone understand it. It’s like a Gothic troubadour, who wakes up from a century-old sleep in a beer factory.”
Poetry is particular odious to him. “It speaks of the ideal, ecstasy, febre, Laura, roses, harps, Springs, pale virgins – and around that poetry the landowning, industrial, factory, positivist, practical, experimental world – asks, half stupefied half indignant: ‘What does this foolish girl want? What is she doing here? She’s a vagrant. Take her to the police.’”
“Contemporary poetry is a small collection of small sensibilities, individual in extremely small ways. Lyrical poet A tells us that Elvira gave him a lily under the moonlight! Lyrical poet B tells us that an atrocious despair invades his soul because Francisca is in somebody else’s arms! Lyrical poet C tells us of a night spent with Eufémia, under an arbour, gazing at the stars and declaiming verses.”
“There are chaster whorehouses than certain verse books, which are melancholy title Gasps and Preludes.”
“As for the novel, it’s the apotheosis of adultery. It studies nothing, explains nothing, paints no characters, draws no temperaments, analyses no passions. It does not have psychology, or drama, or characters. Pale Júlia, married with fat António, throws the marital handcuffs at her husband’s head and lyrically faints in the arms of Artur, scruffy and sickly. To increase the reader’s commotion and to exculpate the wife’s infidelity, António works, which is a bourgeois shame, and Artur is a bum, which is a Romantic glory. And it is upon this whorehouse plot that honest women have been spilling their sensitive tears since 1850! This is the topic that has deranged honest clerks and compromised women with families.”
“When a fellow manages to write three novels like this, public awareness recognizes that he has served the cause of progress and hands him the ministry of economy.”
“Once upon a time we were the nation of soup lines, processions, knife fights and taverns. It was understood that this situation was revolting to human dignity: we conducted many revolutions to get out of it. We continued to be exactly where we were. The soup line hasn’t ended. It’s no longer like before, with a picturesque crowds of beggars, believers, gypsies, thieves, workmen, henchmen, who picked it up at noon singing the benediction: it’s an entire middle class living off it, wearing a top hat and a vest.
This soup line is the state. Middle class lives off the state. The old count on it as a living condition. Starting with the first high school exams, young men see it as their rest and the promise of tranquility. The ecclesiastic class does not mean the caretakers of a belief; it’s still a crowd of good-for-nothings who want to live off the State. Military life is not a career, as it used to be, it’s idleness set up on the State’s expense. Landowners try to live off the State by becoming MPs earning 2$500 réis a day. Industry itself makes the State protect it and works above all for the State. The press up to a point also lives on the State. Science depends on the State. The State is the hope of poor families, and of ruined dynasties; it’s the natural occupation of mediocrities; it’s the bourgeois’ plaything. Why, since the State, poor already, pays so poorly that nobody can free himself from its tutelage to go into industry or trade, this situation perpetuates itself from father to son like a fatality.”
“Generalized poverty produces the humiliation of dignity. Everybody lives dependent of others: therefore we never have the attitude of our consciousness, we have the attitude of our interests.”
“Slowly man also loses the individuality of thought. He doesn’t think for himself: mental laziness overwhelms him. Since he doesn’t have to form character, because it’s useless and he’d have to bend it at every moment – since he doesn’t have to form an opinion because it’d be incommodious and he’d have to silence it at every turn – it’s normal to live without character and opinion. He stop using ideas, he loses love for education. He falls into ignorance and vileness.”
“He won’t buy a science book, literature, a history book. He reads Ponson du Terrail – on loan! The public’s indifference acts upon the writer – literature extinguishes itself.”
“No one owns original ideas. There are four or five stock phrases from long ago, which are repeated. Then there’s a yawn. Four people meet: five minutes later, the banalities exchanged, each person’s thought is aimed at getting rid of the other three.”
“The feeling of citizenship and nation is lost: the citizen has disappeared; and the whole country is nothing but:
A heterogeneous agglomeration of inactivities that bore each other.
A nation cut out for conquest, for tyranny, for dictatorships, and for clerical domination.”
“In Lisbon all vocations are binary. Each individual is what he is, and besides that something else. That something else is what he most enjoys being.”
Whew! So why does Eça care? Why does he write against this inertia, this indifference, this contempt for ideas? “We didn’t want to be accomplices in the universal indifference. And here we begin, serenely, without injustice and without cholera, to jot down day by day what we could call – the progress of decay.” And he asks the reader: “Do you find it unwise? Do you find it useless? Would you rather we created a serious, complete newspaper, with all its ineptitudes, all its slanders, a vast scheme of trivial ideas that faint from fatigue in the typographers’ hands?”
“We know not if the hand we are about to open is full of truths or not. We know it’s full of reprimands.”
“We are two mere sappers taking words from common sense. For now at the top of the hill only us. The bulk of the army is behind us. It’s called justice.”
“So let us laugh. Laugher is a punishment; laughter is a philosophy. Many times laughter is a salvation. In constitutional politics, laughter is an opinion.”
As you may imagine, a language of this strength elicited passionate reactions. In fact an American correspondent in Lisbon at the time described it as “written in a fearless and independent tone.” Nowadays it’s generally agreed that Eça ushered in a new way of press writing in Portugal. However the conservative, retrograde, patriotic wing attacked it. A Nação, the Fox News of the time, detested As Farpas. “Freedom and equality are impious and impure words,” it once declared. Vieira de Castro, a mediocre writer and MP involved at the time in a famous murder case (killed his wife and was deported to Africa), thrashed Eça under a pseudonym for believing that Eça’s views of politicians included him. António Enes, friend of one of Eça’s brothers, also used a pseudonym to not only accuse Eça of plagiarizing Les Guêpes but to criticize the usefulness of the magazine: “Morally appreciated, Mr. Ramalho Ortigão and Eça de Queiroz’ recent publication is a symptom of the social corruption it reprimands and caricatures.” And he adds: “It makes not penitents, but cynics. It does not stigmatize evil, it softens indignation produced by evil.” He doubts the magazine’s reformist powers: “Turn current society asunder, castigate its vices; cut out its rot, crush its damaging institutions, and you fulfill your duty as reformists convinced of your idea and strong in your virtues, but be prudent about not harming what’s wholesome, about not trivializing what’s good, about not ruining what’s useful, about not killing what you claim you want to improve.”
And of course Pinheiro Chagas, the eternal Adversary, fed up with the nation’s pessimism, used Eça to rail against this tradition of weakening the country’s self-esteem. “I hate chauvinisme, but the opposite manner doesn’t sound less burlesque to me. This manner has to do with the other about the decadence of Latin races. That we are inferior to Germanic races, it’s an accepted fact for science; that we Portuguese are the lowest of the Latin races, the national critics demonstrate it. Here we breath a frightening atmosphere of idiocy; the Portuguese race is definitely classified between the Hottentots and the Tapuias. It’s Distressing.” Considering that Chagas was precisely the type of mediocre Romantic writer who used literature to get himself a job politics. Exaggerations aside, Eça had performed a realistic X-ray of the nation; but an arriviste like Chagas couldn’t agree with that without counting himself amongst the frauds Eça struck at.
Although much lambasted, As Farpas found many defenders and even imitators. It became a fashion in fact to set up your own satirical magazine to excoriate and deride the government, the country, everybody and everything. Perhaps the most famous was Fialho de Almeida, whose escalating virulence trumped Eça’s without the virtues of his elegance and humour. At first an admirer, even a follower of Eça, Fialho became one of his enemies later in life, envious of his talent and success. Ironically, although As Farpas created a fashion that lasted decades, Eça didn’t write them for long. In October 1872 Eça left to take up the consulate in Havana, leaving Ramalho to write the magazine alone until 1882. By the time their partnership ended, Ramalho was already getting fed up with the humorous tone and had new plans for the magazine, plans that didn’t sit well with Eça. In a 1878 letter Eça explains:
“Until then [As Farpas] had been quite simply a little demolition instrument: a small catapult, varnished, made of black wood, with shiny iron works – now aimed at an absurd, an abuse, a vice, a system; now, higher, at an institution; once in a while, seldom, at an stock-character, a symbol of tendencies or ideas (seldom because [Ramalho] and I were horrified at personal names: in the proofs, before we combed the paragraphs, we picked out personal names). But by then Ramalho de Ortigão already had in mind giving to As Farpas a broader look.
He was tired of laughter, he said. As Farpas, according to the editor’s declarations, had two thousand subscribers; that meant from five to six thousand readers: what if, he proposed, we used such an audience to teach it some principles? I was terrified: teaching! In philosophy I was, I still am an easily tired tourist; in science an armchair dilettante. Converting the small happy catapult into an austere professor’s chair! I wisely moved to Havana.”
In October 1890 Ramalho suggested reprinting As Farpas in the following order: first his post-1872 volumes, then the original series. Eça refused, arguing that he wanted to revise his texts, but in fact he wanted to separate his run from Ramalho’s, which is quite inferior in talent as to be a completely different species. In November Eça sent him the proofs, without sparing him some subtle jabs: “Of As Farpas, you’ll notice that I was forced to clean up, pick out and straighten out the style. You were born with an already made style and wrote as well twenty years ago as you do now; that’s why you can reissue your articles without touching. I had create my style at the costs of hard work and tâtonnements. When I wrote As Farpas I was still in the barbarian period of form. It wasn’t decently possible to allow pages like these, out of joint and sometimes deprived of grammar, to show up in public. I had to remake each article’s toilette. But not a single sentence was changed in its intention or in its humorous personality.” Actually Eça change lots of things: he removed, he added, he rewrote. This edition came out under the name of Uma Campanha Alegre. Nowadays both versions exist on the market, although I only know the original version. According to scholars, Eça wrote As Farpas in its totality. Ramalho is accorded a mere brainstorming role, providing themes or giving suggestions, but the Eça is undeniably Eça’s. Ramalho, above all, lent his name to the magazine because he was older, had more connections in the editorial area, and at the time was better known than Eça. In any event, it’s a classic of Portuguese Literature, extremely readable, hilarious, quite relevant in its diatribes, and still a mirror to Portuguese reality that has barely aged. A persistent cliché is to say that nothing has changed in Portugal since As Farpas. Until I read it myself I used to think that was bunk; but once I started reading paragraph after paragraph I found myself nodding at everything, “Yep, that’s how it is nowadays.”
1 A war fought with Brazil. At the time Brazil was a destination for many Portuguese seeking to make a fortune. Many of them sent money back, which helped assuage the nation’s meager finances. Living off the money of emigrants who are swathed away by a country that can’t provide them with means for a dignified life, is a constant in Portuguese story since the Discoveries and extending to our current austerity era.
2 MFM mixed up the dates: as we know from the previous post, the Marquis de Ávila e Bolama was in power in March. Pereira do Melo replaced him in September and ruled until March 5, 1877.
3 Novel by Almeida Garrett.
4 Refers to Alexandre Herculano, a historian, poet, novelist, politician who grew dissatisfied with political life and retreated to a secluded life.
5) Herculano’s allegedly last words, on his deathbed, meaning that the nation’s condition was as horrible as to make you want to die.
6) From the diary of Manuel Laranjeira, a doctor and poet who corresponded with Miguel de Unamuno, and later committed suicide. Laranjeira wrote one of the classical books on why Portugal is fucked.