16 de Abril de 2009
I read somewhere that Portugal is a country that has been in steady decline for the last four centuries. Allow me to correct that view. Portugal is a country that has been in steady decline for the last eight centuries, essentially ever since its birth. Being in steady decline is part of our nature. If success were to happen to us, say, by accident, we would lose our identity. Every Portuguese struggles with this reality. The Portuguese intelligentsia is constantly analyzing the causes of our poverty and misfortune, oscillating between a paralyzing pessimism and a miraculous solution that will fix the country and the people within a generation’s time. It is not surprising that we have turned into a bipolar and self-delusional nation. The thesis I adopt here borrows very little from genetics. The Portuguese are culturally streamlined for failure. No one knows precisely why it is so, but it is inescapable.
Portugal had its first national hero centuries before we became a nation. This is not unusual, but it’s a revealing start. Meet Viriato (179-139 B.C.), a warrior chieftain of a tribe (the “Lusitanos”) from the western Iberian Peninsula, who held off the Roman invasion for several years. Viriato was so good at throwing stones from cliffs at the Roman Legions and in using guerrilla tactics that he had to be murdered in bed by three of his own people, who had been bribed by the local centurion. When Hollywood runs out of the most obvious epics, they will immortalize Viriato on the big screen. Portugal will then lobby to choose a star that is Portuguese enough. Mark Ruffalo or Danny De Vito? Tough choice. Viriato gave us national pride. From the Romans, in turn, we got a unified language, industries, military roads, bridges, administrative centers, and a religion, when Rome converted to Christianity in the fourth century A.D.
Our second hero was the founder of the nation, Afonso Henriques (1109-1185 A.D.), son of the crusader-knight Henry, and Teresa, the illegitimate and favorite daughter of Alfonso VI, king of León. In 1096 A.D. Henry received from Alfonso VI a hereditary title to the province of Portucale (roughly, today’s north of Portugal). By then that land was a sort of buffer zone between Christian and Muslim territory. Muslims had moved to the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century A.D., after the Germanic invasion that contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. Henry was a loyal vassal to Alfonso VI, but upon the king’s death and the civil war that ensued between Galician, Castillian, Aragonese, and Leonese barons, he wisely remained neutral and abandoned his feudal obligations. After his death, his wife Teresa pursued this policy but when the Leonese Alfonso VII ascended to the throne, he forced Teresa to pay homage to the kingdom of Léon and Castilla. The nobles of Portucale, however, who had learned to appreciate their independence, rebelled against Alfonso VII and implicitly, Teresa. They were guided by Afonso Henriques, who had armed himself as a knight and managed to defeat his mother’s army. He would ultimately become an acclaimed and self-made king, by fighting the Muslims in the South and containing Alfonso’s march on Portugal.
I do not intend to bother you further by extending the list of Portuguese heroes, but Afonso Henriques’ accomplishments were worth mentioning on two grounds. First, gaining independence from our big and only neighboring kingdom (today’s Spain), left a wound that future wars and a Spanish occupation of the country from 1580 to 1640 A.D. did not help to heal. Modern relations between Portugal and Spain are excellent, that is, we no longer fear them and they continue to ignore us, a fact that our collective ego does not allow us to appreciate fully. Nevertheless, discussions over the control of the rate of streamflow in Portugal’s main rivers (unfortunately they all flow from Spain) or a mere soccer match are sufficient to unmask this hidden and mostly unidirectional tension between the two nations.
Secondly, although Afonso’s rebellion against his mother was purely political and less Freudian (hélas, his father had died) than I would like to think, it set the tone for centuries of betrayal, politically motivated marriages, illegitimate descendants, quasi-idiotic heirs to the throne, and a lethargic noble class; in short: a display of pure European monarchy. Luckily we became a Republic in 1910, but soon we smoothly transitioned to a dictatorship that lasted half a century, most of which ruled by Salazar (1898-1970). In 1974 a military coup d’état put an end to the dictatorship and eventually paved our way to “the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”
Today, Portugal has about 10 million people living within its borders and there are sizable Portuguese communities in France, the US, Brazil, Venezuela, and South Africa. The country is homogenous in terms of religion, ethnicity, and language, and there are no serious separatist claims, not even from the Azores and Madeira islands, two small and beautiful Portuguese archipelagoes cast away in the Atlantic ocean. Between 1886 and 1966, Portugal lost an estimated 2.6 million people to emigration, more than any West European country except Ireland. In the last two decades this understandable tendency to abandon the country has slowed down and has been counteracted by a flow of immigrants in search of labor from Brazil, countries of the former USSR, and Africa; 400,000 immigrants live today in Portugal. We have made considerable social and economic progress in the last 30 years. For instance, literacy levels have improved and this skill is widely used by the male population to read the sports press. A key event that triggered a number of structural changes in the country was our entry into the EEC (today’s European Union) in 1986. European money financed a number of projects and gave us a decent roadway. Still, a recurring topic in any discussion by and about the Portuguese is the need for a “change of mentality.” No one knows exactly what this is supposed to mean and how it can be done, but we all agree that it will be more difficult to achieve than building a few kilometers of highway.
The Portuguese discoveries remain to this day our greatest accomplishment. They were, however, a burden too heavy to carry. In fact, they still are. Let’s start with the word ‘discoveries’ and its two obvious problems. It is striking that two independent and similar actions, equally valid in merit, are judged differently by history, depending solely on when they occurred. “Who did what first” is an obsession well known to scientists but, unlike science, history can be rewritten to a large part just by playing with the dates. Thus, it is just a matter of time until someone comes up with the thesis that Brazil was not discovered by Cabral in 1500, but centuries before by the Vikings (who, apparently, got to North America before Columbus), or by the Chinese, even earlier, or by extra terrestrials, no one knows precisely when but presumably before anyone else. The second problem with the word ‘discoveries’ is that it is an example of eurocentrism and hidden paternalism (euphemistically speaking). Consider this: the Portuguese were the first Europeans to get to Japan, but even the Portuguese would not dare to say that we discovered Japan. Notice however how we talk about the arrival of Cabral to Brazil: we always refer to the discovery of Brazil as if the land was devoid of indigenous populations. This being said, what Portuguese sailors accomplished during the fourteen and fifteenth centuries was outstanding. Historians and intellectuals in Portugal should just agree, that what is difficult to explain is not why we were unable to rise to that level again, but simply how we did it in the first place.
Portugal’s empire has left us with huge shoes to fill. One of the several ways my Brazilian friends make fun of me is by repeatedly asking for the gold we took from them when Brazil was a Portuguese colony (1532-1822). Frankly, I would also like to know where that gold went. Portugal, the mother-country, remained poor and underdeveloped, even at the peak of the Empire, before the Spanish, the Dutch, the English, and the French took over the world.
The most valuable and enduring yet fragile legacy of the former Portuguese empire is its language. Five centuries ago it was confined to a small and marginal European country. Today, between 190 and 230 million people speak Portuguese throughout the world, in South America (Brazil), Europe (Portugal), and Africa (Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, and Sao Tome and Principe). The language ranks eighth among the most commonly spoken languages in the world (third among the western languages, after English and Castilian). Portuguese also has a presence in Asia, but in a vestigial (Goa) or decaying (Macau and East Timor) form. The transition to independence of Portugal’s former colonies in Africa and Asia was a disaster, not atypical of the dismantling of empires, but Portugal has a lot to answer for. The war in Africa for the control of the colonies, lead by Portugal’s dictator Salazar and continued by his successor, had a flavor of anachronism and hopelessness from the moment it started, in 1961.
With the independence of all major colonies, Portugal reassumed its role as a small country (administrative control of Macau for a few more years was irrelevant) and the burden of the ‘discoveries’ continued to crash down on the generations to come. This is perhaps the time to confess that in high school, I only learned the history of my country until roughly 1640. The curriculum was so bad and unbalanced that we did not have time to cover the last 350 years of the nation’s history. I thought this was tragic. Having decided to fix the problem on my own, I plunged into books from international sources, mostly thematic (on the arts, the sciences, and so forth). To my surprise, I came to the conclusion that it was as if Portugal did not exist during that period. Yes, the Portuguese colonies were mentioned, but always as if they were a passive achievement. Fine, there were references to Port wine, but Port wine is essentially an English creation on Portuguese soil. True, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake was vividly discussed by intellectuals like Voltaire and Rousseau, but it would be insane for the Portuguese to take credit for a natural catastrophe that killed 90,000 people. In short, it seems that my high school teachers were accidentally right. Why bother to study the history of the nation if the Enlightenment, the French, American and Industrial Revolutions, and even the Second World War were followed from a distance, receiving no direct contribution from Portugal?
Let me give you two examples. Take philosophy. Portugal’s seminal contribution to the field occurred in the XVII century, when the parents of the yet to be born Spinoza were kicked out of the country and headed to Amsterdam. Since then Portugal’s only input to the world of ideas has been the term ‘desenrascanço’, loosely translated as ‘disentanglement’ and defined by Wikipedia as “an ability to solve a problem without the adequate tools or proper technique to do so, and by use of sometimes imaginative resourcefulness when facing new situations”. Now, consider the Nobel Prize in science. As you scroll down the list of laureates and their findings, it is striking how the vast majority of the prized discoveries did not fade away into irrelevance. A clear exception is Egas Moniz, Portugal’s only laureate scientist. Moniz got a shared prize in 1949 for pioneering lobotomy. Today, this is a tragically obsolete technique that has helped no one, the arguable exception being Jack Nicholson, who played a neurotic lobotomized-to-be in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and won an Oscar for it.
Is it all bad? Of course not. Just focusing on more recent times, the Portuguese revolution of April 25, 1974 was a defining moment in our history. Only in Portugal could you witness a military coup like ours. First, almost no blood was shed. A total of four people were killed, by gunshots fired from the windows of the political police headquarters. This was a tragic event, but by any criterion the death toll for a revolution was low. Second, in less than two years the power effectively moved from the army to the people. The transition was not easy, though. Indeed, in 1975 the country risked a Marxist-Leninist takeover. However, on November 25, 1975 an attempt to seize power by the radical leftists was blocked by more moderate military forces, and that day marked the end of the political and social turmoil. Since then we have been living quite peacefully.
It also seems clear that the Portuguese have a remarkable capacity to respond to punctuated challenges, even when skills that we traditionally lack–organization, to name one–are required. For instance, we managed to successfully organize the Expo 1998, an enormous exhibition of cultures from all over the world, and more recently the 2004 European Soccer Cup was a success, just ask the Greeks. This capacity is probably best illustrated by the display of pragmatism of the Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782), prime minister to King Joseph I, in the aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. What is remarkable in his famous quote, “What now? We bury the dead and feed the living” is that he actually meant it. A third of the city’s population was lost and Lisbon was heavily damaged, but no epidemics followed and within less than one year the construction of the world’s first quakeproof buildings began. The Portuguese can indeed achieve great things and are not intrinsically lazy or incapable. The problem is that we are procrastinators by default. Unless the situation is life-threatening, the typical Portuguese will not abandon the couch and the remote control.
Every nation’s people, no matter how collectively mediocre, includes a few exceptional individuals. Some of my favorite countrymen are local politicians and cheesy singers, hardly geniuses and definitely non-exportable stuff. Luckily, we had a handful of talents in the last century. First and foremost: Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), a poet second to none, with the arguable exception of Luís de Camões (1524?-1580), author of The Lusiads, our great epic. Pessoa was actually a small crowd of poets trapped in the same body. His rationalized schizophrenia gave rise to five major writers, each with his own biography and, more importantly, an individual style and poetic universe. He was an admirer of Whitman, who took the multiplication of the self to an extreme level of complexity. More recently, two Portuguese novelists have gained wide international acclaim: José Saramago (1922-) and António Lobo Antunes (1942-). According to Harold Bloom, Saramago is “the most gifted novelist alive in the world today.” Lobo Antunes would probably say the same about himself. In a puzzling violation of the rules of logic, both may be right. Saramago’s talent lies in his capacity for constructing a plot around a bright and clearly defined idea–the Iberian Peninsula detaches from the European mainland and starts drifting in the Atlantic Ocean; a girl in Portugal’s Baroque period can see people’s souls; Jesus struggles with Christianity and his condition of martyrdom; everyone except a woman goes blind–and in delivering it in an almost paragraph-free, compacted and intricate prose, which at first scares the reader but has seduced him by page 20. Lobo Antunes is also a virtuoso of the language but in a different way. His novels tend to be more psychological, less plot-oriented, and offer a sad, though at times tender, portrait of the Portuguese social classes in contemporary Portugal. These two big egos have produced an impressive body of work and almost any of their novels is worth reading.
As far as music goes, Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999) is Portugal’s voice, and rightly so. Admired by everyone within the country and abroad, from Charles Aznavour to David Byrne, her phenomenal singing and personality single-handedly made the Fado popular all over the world, from Japan to New York. Incidentally, this city fascinated her and she spent extended periods of time here. Probably less well known to the reader is Carlos Paredes (1925-2004), a virtuoso of the Portuguese guitar. Paredes was a prodigious melodist and interpreter of his own pieces, and someone who breathed through the instrument with an intensity I have never found in another musician. This extremely modest and decent man has some collaborative pieces with the double bass Jazz player Charlie Haden, but his solo work is by far his best legacy.
Switching to painting, two names come to my mind: Amadeo de Sousa Cardoso (1887-1918) and Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992). Sousa Cardoso was a modernist born in the wrong place, who died at the wrong age of 31. From rural Portugal, he headed to Paris when he turned 19 and became a close friend of Modigliani. During his lifetime, his paintings were received with moderate success in Europe and the US, but his work has more recently gained international repute. Like him, Vieira da Silva also went to Paris as a young woman after spending her youth in Lisbon. In a sign of how disturbed our dictator was by talented people, she was refused Portuguese citizenship in 1940 and spent the rest of her long life outside of Portugal. Vieira da Silva became famous for her paintings of complex compositions and fragmented spaces. In recent years the country has somehow made peace with Vieira da Silva by building her a museum in Lisbon. Fortunately for everyone, this international artist is represented in several collections of European and US museums, and her career did not depend on Portugal’s guilt-assuaging actions, which came a little too late.
This brings me to the last of my remarkable countrymen: Aristides Sousa Mendes (1885-1954). Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat living in Bordeaux when the Second World War began. Portugal remained neutral during the war but our dictator was a supporter of Hitler’s actions. Sousa Mendes put his job at risk when he issued around 30,000 visas to Jews and other persecuted minorities, helping them to escape to Lisbon from where they eventually reached the US. He saved many people but could not save himself from Salazar, who put an end to his career. This Portuguese Oskar Schindler died in poverty in 1954. Israel first, and later democratic Portugal, have honored him posthumously.
Self-deprecating humor can be a sort of preemptive criticism that disarms potential external critics. I guess this applies here. This piece itself is the ultimate example of how unreasonable Portuguese tend to be when analyzing themselves. Part of the nonsense you’ve read reflects my own shortcomings but is ultimately a testament to my nationality. The other limitation is intrinsic to this type of exercise, as we tend to consider as idiosyncratic traits that foreigners could easily claim to be elements of their own culture as well.
What lies ahead? With the crisis of the welfare state, our inability to absorb immigrants, the overture of the European Union to more underprivileged countries, China’s economic threat to Portuguese fabrics and other key industries, the rise of synthetic substitutes for cork, cheaper and more attractive tourist destinations than our quasi-destroyed South coast and, last but not least, our lack of entrepreneurship and tradition in the sciences and higher education, well, it is difficult to claim that we have a bright future. Paraphrasing Lewis Carroll, it will take all the running we can do to continue declining as graciously as we’ve done so far.
Vasco Barreto, originalmente publicado no Natural Selections em Agosto de 2005
Há uma ou outra coisa com que não concordo, mas acho que está muito bem escrito e que toca no âmago de muitas questões e questiúnculas que nos atormentam o pensamento. Os bolds são meus.
16 de Abril de 2009
Um pensamento em “A Sketch of Portugal and Its People”
I randomly stumbled across your post while doing some research, and I was surprised of how much of it hit home for me. Just wanted to say thank you for writing it.
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