n the subject of a “policy of the spirit” (política do espírito), we present two interviews with António de Oliveira Salazar conducted by António Ferro in 1932 and 1938.
“Allow me, Mr President, to bring up an issue which is both pertinent and of particular interest to me: the problem of the arts, letters and sciences. Does it not seem to you that the present climate of indifference, this lack of elevation and vigour, can be largely attributed to the absence of an intelligent and considered Policy of the Spirit directed towards the younger generations, aimed at bringing them to the fore and giving them a part in this time of incontestable renewal? All the great leaders, all the great commanders of peoples had such a policy. From the Medicis to Mussolini, from Francis I to Napoleon, the arts and letters have always been seen as indispensable to the elevation of a people and the splendour of an age. Art, literature and science make up a nation’s countenance; they are what is seen by the outside world... In Portugal, sad though it is to say it, this policy of the spirit, adopted by numerous Portuguese kings and statesmen in the past, has been lamentably neglected by the public authorities over the past fifty years. We have a balanced budget, we have roads, we are practically free of debt, we enjoy good credit abroad, we have remarkable municipal works, a burgeoning industry – yet nothing has been done for the promotion of literature or the plastic arts, which are suffocating, unable to extend their horizons beyond our own doorstep. The São Carlos Theatre, so rich in tradition, is closed to music. The problem of the National Theatre, to which you have devoted some attention, has been patched but not resolved. We do not have a single vanguard scene, a single theatre of arts, because the State will not even entertain the idea of funding such projects. We once had three symphonic orchestras. This year, not even one for appearance’s sake... Our literary output is feeble and timid. But forgive me... I realise that I am overstepping the mark, running away with myself on a topic which is of particular interest to me and which I am passionate about...”
Dr Salazar, who has a rare gift as a listener, always allowing those who are sincere to have their say, once again agrees with me: “What you say is true - sad, but true. It is a problem which we too feel must be tackled head on, as the climate can only be elevated and illuminated, as you say in your argument for a policy of the spirit, by means of the arts and sciences. But let us not forget that the circumstances of our country only recently allow us to even think about such problems. Do not forget how far behind we were with regard to certain fundamental necessities which had to come before even the promotion of the arts, however crucial beauty may be to the sustenance of the soul. How could I have commissioned a statue or painting for our country’s palaces when some were in such a state of disrepair when I took over the Ministry of Finance that their roofs were not fit to keep out the rain? Our problems must be classified and dealt with in the appropriate order. It is ridiculous to offer a man a dress-suit when he does not even possess a shirt... What is more, this is not all the duty of the state alone; private initiative has a major part to play in this renaissance. For instance, I wonder whether our publishers...”
“I am not defending our publishers,” I reply. “It is true that Portuguese publishers hold a select few in excessively high regard, and are seldom willing to risk launching a new name, a new personality.
But do we not also burden them excessively? Do not forget, Mr President, the extremely high import duties levied on paper, the responsibility for which lies with the Minister of Finance...”
“I shall put your complaint to him,” replies Dr Salazar with a smile.
I take this remarkable opportunity to unburden myself, to say it all: “But then there is also theatre, music, painting, the situation of young artists...”
“All of these are matters,” Salazar reassures me, “which will be resolved – slowly but surely. What I did for the National Theatre was certainly not much, but at least I sought to relieve the current management of the costs of work to which they were contractually obliged but which was making their lives impossible. I equally agree that we must breathe new life into the São Carlos Theatre, restoring its traditions. Defending our artistic heritage is one of the Dictatorship’s greatest tasks – one of the greatest and perhaps also least known. The meticulous, almost religious restoration of what we had and was at risk of being lost, or which had been practically lost already, is already being tirelessly pursued: first the temples, then the castles and the military monuments, the museums, the national palaces: Queluz, Mafra, the two in Sintra, Ajuda, the Necessidades – all these palaces will take three or four years and cost thousands to rebuild and beautify…”
“Forgive me if I remind you that while it is just and necessary to think of the preservation of our artistic heritage, it is equally just and perhaps even more urgent to think of the living art which must accompany our evolution, which must be the expression of our present. There are a couple of dozen young men, brimming with talent and youthful vigour, anxiously awaiting the chance to be of use to their country if only the State will notice them. I hope you will forgive me if I quote Mussolini once more: ‘For us,’ he said, ‘art is a fundamental and essential necessity of life, our very humanity’.”
And Salazar, broad-minded enough to consider any suggestion, replies: “We are in agreement. Thought and spirit must go on. We must stimulate them, keep them from stagnation. So tell those young men to remain confident, and to have the patience to wait...
can understand why people are annoyed by censorship,” replies Dr Salazar, “because there is nothing people hold more sacred than their thoughts and the expression of those thoughts. In fact I would go even further and agree that censorship is a defective and often unjust institution, subject as it is to the whim of the censors, the fluctuations of their temperament, the effects of their ill humour. A case of indigestion or a simple domestic dispute, for instance, can potentially lead to the impulsive deletion of an item of news or a passage in an article. I myself have been a victim of censorship in the past, and I admit that I felt hurt and angry, to the point of harbouring revolutionary thoughts...”
“Then why not do away with it?”
“That is impossible for reasons which I shall explain to you, but we do strive to restrict censorship to those cases where it is truly indispensable. For example, it is not acceptable to distort facts, either through ignorance or bad faith, to support unjustified attacks against the work of a government, harming the interests of the country in the process.
Allowing this would be tantamount to recognising the right to slander. Facts are facts, and we cannot allow doubts to be raised regarding the actions or figures which reflect the very life of the State if there are those who would chose to do so, as is the case in Portugal. It is a matter of decorum and public dignity. There can be a discussion of the basis and principles of a policy – a financial policy, for instance – but who in England or Switzerland or any civilised country would think to question the State’s own figures? Some, through malice or ignorance, go as far as to accuse the state of not doing things that are already being done, or even of not doing things that have already been done... Is censorship not justified in these cases as a means of clarification, a necessary corrective measure? To keep such cases of censorship to a minimum, I am considering creating an information bureau which newspapers can turn to whenever they wish to obtain the information they need to analyse – and even to criticise – the government’s work. However, I confess that my faith in such an institution is limited, as I have already conducted a small experiment of this sort which came to nothing.
In an attempt to prevent the misunderstandings and mistakes which can understandably occur in a field as delicate as finance, from the very beginning I placed the offices of my Ministry at the disposal of journalists in search of information. Well, in four years I believe only two have ever taken up this offer. Meanwhile, it did not in the least prevent the wildest atrocities from being circulated on matters which cannot be, nor should be, the subject of delusions or fantasy.”
“Might this bureau of information in any case be the first step towards the abolition of censorship?,” I hopefully ask.
Salazar, clearing his ground, replies: “One thing at a time... We now have the moral aspect of censorship, the need to intervene in personal attacks or abusive language. Our Press – which has improved considerably – used to cut a sad figure in the case of certain papers, rife with intrigue, insults, innuendo, egotism, provincialism and a low intellectual standard.
Newspapers are the people’s spiritual nourishment, and must undergo the same control as other foodstuffs. I can understand that this control irritates journalists, as instead of being placed in their hands it is handed over to the censors – who, also being human, are subject to their emotions – and this will always be, for those who write, a form of oppression and despotism. But I shall offer them a solution to this problem, or at least to this aspect of the issue: why not create a Journalists’ Association, just as we did a Bar Association? In this way, the moral function of censorship would be carried out by the journalists themselves, within their own profession. Does this not seem like a good idea to you?”
I hurry to reply: “It is not the first time we have thought about this, and I believe my colleagues would examine the proposal with pleasure, even joy, if such a Journalists’ Association were to signify the end of censorship...”
Dr Salazar goes on without answering me: “There is one more aspect in which censorship is compelled to intervene from time to time: the question of doctrine. There are two sides to this issue.
Pure science, even in the realm of politics, pure doctrine, without malice and in good faith, with higher intentions of reform, is absolutely legitimate, and we have already ordered that it be allowed to take flight and flourish.
But there is also the doctrine of immediate application: subversive doctrine, which is too cunning, too clearly cunning. In the face of this kind of doctrine, censorship unfortunately has no choice but to intervene, as in such cases it becomes a natural function of authority...”
“But why not replace it with a Press Law, even a strict one?,” I ask.
Salazar, exercising his usual realistic judgement, replies: “That would be an excellent solution if the courts were able to respond appropriately to offences of this nature. However, experience teaches otherwise...”
I cannot help asking: “Is this not at odds with your own legal instincts?...”
Courageously, Salazar replies: “Perhaps. But some evils are necessary. A good Press Law could keep certain abuses in check. But it will not prevent them altogether...”
t the same slow and casual pace we walk along the great building of the Instituto Superior Técnico designed by Duarte Pacheco, a true monument to national labour. In a large square opposite the stairway of the main entrance to the Institute, workers in immaculate white overalls are busy erecting a stage and rows of chairs.
I explain to Salazar, in reply to his inquisitive expression: “It is the People’s Theatre of the Secretariat for National Propaganda, rehearsing its first performance of the season before departing for the provinces. You cannot imaging the success of this initiative, which includes a non-stop tour of the country by three travelling cinemas. The arrival of our huge trucks in the remotest corners of the country, from smiling villages in Minho to the mountain hamlets of Beira, from sleepy communities in Trás-os-Montes to the whitewashed market towns of Alentejo and Algarve, is always a major event and a pretext for a lively local festival lasting well into the night, providing a supply of colourful memories and waking dreams to places otherwise devoid of history and romance.
The renewal of our folklore, which will culminate in the competition for Most Portuguese Village, the annual award of national and international literature prizes, the forthcoming reopening of the Theatre of São Carlos, the organisation of the Symphonic Orchestra of the National Broadcaster, the restoration of national monuments, the visible development of the visual arts, the success of our decorators in national and international exhibitions, the notable efforts of the National Board of Education, all these things will elevate the Policy of the Spirit – the watchword of the New State – from an aspiration to a reality. The Head of the Portuguese Government was right when he told me, six years ago, to ‘Tell those young men to remain confident, and to have the patience to wait’.”
And Salazar, immune to my enthusiasm, replies with his customary poise: “Some things have been done, but in truth we still have a long way to go, if indeed this undefined aspiration to improvement can ever be complete.
The question of the Spirit is always a delicate one, whether in artistic or literary terms. To what extent can or should the state intervene? There are countless examples elsewhere attesting to how turning artists and writers into civil servants is practically to destroy their creativity. Art is not made by punching a clock. Once it becomes an obligation or a duty it ceases to exist, or merely pretends to – in other words, it begins to cheat. On the other hand, the days of artistic patronage are long gone. The changing social and economic climate of our time has led to the gradual impoverishment of the great traditional rural families of wealth, stability and culture which in the past supported the lofty creations of the spirit driven by both sentiment and necessity. Their role cannot be taken over by the new millionaires, liable to lose their fortunes as quickly as they were made – only the State has the means to replace, albeit deficiently, the patrons or kings of old.
And I say deficiently, as it would be impossible, given the many claims on the State’s revenue, to spare sums anything like those which were once devoted to religious or military monuments. Compare the paltry achievements of today with the greatness of Mafra or Batalha. Indeed, I would venture that the current decay of art and literature is not so much a result of the actions of the State, as of the modern way of life. Great works of art are built in silence, but our age is a boisterous and terribly indiscreet one.
We no longer build cathedrals but football stadiums. Instead of theatres, more and more cinemas are opened. Instead of monuments, books. We do not pursue ideas, but images. On the other hand, mechanical media – the gramophone, the wireless – stifle and kill production. Life is, as a result, entirely exterior, entirely artificial. This is why, among artists, only architects and urban planners are increasingly in demand.”
take advantage of the buoyant mood: “The people like to be thought of, to be entertained, to be shown love... ‘To please the people without displeasing the upper classes’, said Machiavelli – and he wasn’t as bad as he was made out to be.”
“You are right,” agrees Dr Salazar, “and the Industrial Exhibition is proof of this. However, you cannot imagine how difficult it is to get a reaction from our lethargic people, and in particular our apathetic services. I’m going to tell you a story which sounds absurd, superficial, but which shows how difficult it has become for the government itself to make any progress whatsoever against ingrained habits. Music is, in my opinion, one of the great means of animating the people. It occurred to me that it would be interesting and useful to use the regimental bands, which are expensive but competent, to give concerts, for example on Sundays and Thursdays, in the parks of Lisbon and the surrounding area. Well, our efforts have been quite useless so far in spite of the goodwill of the Minister for War. And do not be surprised if one of these days I must go and deal with the issue of bands and bandstands personally. I am also thinking of proposing major popular cinema spectacles at which our people can watch films which are both educational and entertaining.
In this way we will gradually convince the people that we are thinking of them, that their happiness and well-being are among our greatest concerns…
I have just returned from abroad, but I follow the turn taken by the conversation to go even further afield and bring up our overseas possessions: “Have you read what is being said in Germany about our colonies, in particular Angola?”
“That can be explained,” replies Salazar, without alarm or anxiety “by the fact that the Versailles Treaty dispossessed Germany of her colonies and made some unfortunate cuts in Europe. Hence the attitude of a number of hot-tempered Germans who, concerned with their country’s growing population and harbouring aspirations to greatness, are now grasping at all manner of ideas, even those which do not distinguish between what is theirs and what belongs to others.
We must keep an eye on the problem – that is all.”
I recall one of my interviews: “Foch once told me that we Portuguese have only one way to defend our colonies, to secure them against all who might covet them: to administer them well...”
Salazar agrees and goes even further: “Foch was right, but I would say: to administer them well, and above all, to equip them to administer themselves will...”
I come to the point: “The problem of transfers is a terrible one, a constant affliction...”
“And one that is impossible to solve,” interrupts Salazar emphatically, “as long as Angola’s budget is not properly balanced. If we balance expenditure and revenue while doing everything to boost exports, consolidate the country’s credit, then the problem will work itself out in a satisfactory manner, just as we worked out Portugal’s problems.
We too experienced the transfer problem with the lack of foreign exchange mechanisms. Once the budget had been balanced and the State had secured high credit levels, the problem automatically resolved itself. Of course, another solution to the Angola crisis would be to pay fifty million escudos – if we had that amount – into the government budget every year to stop the leaks. But Angola is not a farm – it is the outline of an empire...”
“Has the situation not improved lately?,” I ask with instinctive optimism.
“Considerably!” the Head of Government promptly reassures me. “Dr Armindo Monteiro has worked very hard within his ministry, doing everything possible to bring Angola closer to Terreiro do Paço and to govern it almost as if he were there in person. The latest budget was balanced, although at great cost to Lisbon, and the effects of this are beginning to make themselves felt.
However, this balance must now become habit for the province. That is the only way for Angola to obtain the foreign credit it needs. Once its credit is secured, Angola will have no difficulty in raising the required amounts in difficult times, in compensating for unexpected deficits, having established widespread confidence that our colony has the moral and material means to honour its commitments...”
“But do you believe in the future of our Colonies? Do you believe they can enjoy a resurgence?”
The man of action – the man of today – gives way to the dreamer, the man of tomorrow: “I do, and it is only by believing that we can achieve such a future. Our Colonies should be the great schools of Portuguese nationalism. Spending time there should be obligatory for the majority of our army officers, all those in whom the cult of the Fatherland and the pride of our Race should be kept alight. To govern and administer them we should select the very best people, the most worthy and qualified, and never the rejects from the capital. If we wish to be a great colonial nation, if we want to look upon Angola as a Greater Portugal, then we need different processes, a different mentality: we must conduct ourselves in our colonies as if in our own country, not as someone travelling abroad...”
It must be getting late. In the shadows of the modest office on Rua do Funchal, Salazar’s countenance reminds me of that of Dante, that severe, slender, contained mask, a mediaeval fortress of an inner life as vast as the world itself... I am about to protest against myself, against this audacious and paradoxical image bordering on the ridiculous, when I hear Salazar’s voice drawing my attention to a bunch of orchids, beautiful as poetry on his desk: “Look how delicate these flowers are... Aren’t they wonderful?”
I look at the flowers; I look at the General State Budget, still open. I take my leave of Salazar and the image of Dante returns... Perhaps I am right after all, perhaps there is poetry, epic poetry, in the clear and sonorous harmony of balanced figures...
hat the average Portuguese person is ill acquainted with their country – or even the land on which they live and can call their own in a more concrete sense – is indicative of a more general national trait: the tendency to live one’s existence rather than comprehend it. Whether an indifference to consequence or sublime detachment, contemplative heritage or the simple reflection of a vital urgency which never left a great deal of room for theory, this trait is responsible for the painful and timeworn sentiment, widespread among leading figures of the 19th century, that we are absent from our own reality
In a kind of reverse confirmation of this pathological inclination to live as if that veil of disregard for what José Régio called “our things” were necessary to separate what we are from what we know of ourselves, the Portuguese are better equipped than anyone to live off images, myths, suggestions and a fierce curiosity for anything originating from abroad. One would be forgiven for thinking that a period of political and cultural nationalism such as that envisaged, and to a certain extent attained by the old regime might have changed this strange behaviour.
It is true that in terms of erudition, folklore or historiography, some progress has been made towards a more serious and concrete understanding of the various aspects of the Portuguese reality, renewing the heritage and legacy which, from the romantic period up to the likes of Matos Sequeira, Jaime Lopes Dias and Abade de Baçal – not forgetting Teófilo, Adolfo Coelho, Carolina Michaëlis or José de Vasconcelos – have played a part in enriching the tapestry of our experience of what it means to be Portuguese. Sadly, however, a great deal of this precious and irreplaceable knowledge lacked the bare minimum of structure needed to distinguish it from mere empirical description, and during Salazar’s rule, valuable works were contaminated with superficial folklore or nationalistic proselytism, restricting the “revelatory” character they might otherwise have had.
Meanwhile there were other works, well-known and memorable enough not to require listing here, used to pursue a kind of counter-image to that other knowledge of our things and ourselves, which were guilty of methodological naivety or voluntary and aggressive endorsement of a conservative and idealising vision of the Portuguese reality. Leaving aside the most active cultural “counter-image” of the last fifty years in this field, that of António Sérgio (a more dubious and complex counter-image than suggested by many of the continuations of its original inspiration), it is in detailed studies of the various aspects of Portuguese life that it is most clearly revealed and most influential.
We refer to works such as those of Magalhães Godinho, Luís Albuquerque or Barradas de Carvalho, which re-examine the traditional perspective on the Discoveries, or those of Mário Martins, Pina Martins and above all Silva Dias, who propose a new reading of cultural events crucial to our autognosis in the middle ages, in the Renaissance or in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Although not formulated according to the same or parallel structures, these works are united by a desire to “renew” in the course of the texts (historical, cartographic or cultural in nature) the widespread and influential image (or images) of the nation’s becoming, but almost all of them are imbued with a powerful and defining “ideological” perspective.
Such works include the great cultural contributions of António José Saraiva, Óscar Lopes, Augusto da Costa Dias, Alberto Ferreira, and from a different, more sociologising (and, in the case of the latter, more classically academic) angle, the works of Joel Serrão, Jorge de Sena, Manuel Antunes, José Augusto França, Coimbra Martins, Maria de Lourdes Belchior and Jacinto do Prado Coelho. In recent years, a natural fixation of cultural interest on the domains of politics, polemics and ideological questioning has excessively obscured a much more profound transformation of the various fields which enable Portuguese culture to access an autognosis which is at once more structured and complex, richer and more innovative.
Aside from or at the margin of the preoccupation with militant ideology – and little influenced by its exigencies – authors and works emerged which led to a profound renewal of the image of Portugal held by the Portuguese, in particular in those fields which had been placed firmly out of bounds due to the absolute necessity of the old regime to avoid examining the Portuguese reality too closely. It would not be accurate to attribute this new openness to the revolution of 25 April, as the last ten years of the old regime had already witnessed the emergence of initiatives in this vein, parallel to and coherent with the desire for aggiornamento which permeated the technocratic and more liberally inclined strata of moribund Salazarism and Marcelism. We do not refer here to key changes in the strictly cultural sphere, which was never isolated from the general European trend and paradoxically (or not...) was almost always the preserve of the “opposition”.
It is enough to think of the transformation, both in general cultural output (cinema, painting, novels, poetry, even theatre) and in critical thought, echoing with greater or lesser felicity the renewal under way on the international stage in this domain. Aside from the remarkable cultural acceleration of the consumer age and the global reach of the media, the phenomenon is not so different to what has always been observed in Portugal, at least far as the “cultured” classes are concerned. Accordingly, it is clear that nothing is more crucial to the country’s autognosis than the appearance of major works through which our image receives or announces a qualitative disruption on such a scale that it is only in its reflection that we become aware of the “other” that we are, the different country that we are becoming.
Neither is it a coincidence that the representative works of the younger generations, like those of Almeida Faria, Maria Velho da Costa, Nuno de Bragança or Armando Silva Carvalho, although innovative in literary terms, are centred on the appropriation of our reality as our own, as were key works of national autognosis such as A Muralha A Torre da Barbela, O Delfim, Bolor, Nítido Nulo or Diálogo em Setembro before them.
uriously, the preoccupation with Portugal as a specific autonomous historical destination rather than simply the backdrop for a timeless (Régio) or universal adventure of the soul, in terms of societal struggle (neo-realism), had during the old regime been almost exclusively a form of equivocal national mysticism oscillating between references to Hegel and the fraternal and passionate manes of Pascoaes and Fernando Pessoa. A certain form of dogmatic provocation, politically unofficial yet firmly within the bounds of the prevailing ideology, spearheaded by Álvaro Ribeiro, was greeted with enthusiasm by a wide spectrum of disciples, and with sarcasm or indifference by the dominant rationalist culture. However, the notorious movement associated with the celebrated “Portuguese philosophy”, to which the likes of José Marinho gave their sibylline endorsement, was not just an opportune and opportunistic reflection of the prevailing frenetic nationalistic triumphalism (in particular with its apologies of “Lusitanian humanism” and imperial reverie bordering on paranoia, which cost the country dearly), but a reaction, to a large extent justified, against a propensity for mimetism and the consequent indifference to ourselves it implies.
The reactionism, proclaimed or implicit, of the majority of its leading figures was also a reaction against an essentially negative image of Portuguese culture inherited from the ‘70s Generation (Geração de 70) and never criticised on the left as it should have been. The “pessimism” of this prominent modern group should be read in a positive light, in spite of the lack of realism which also infiltrated it and was immediately seized upon by the eternal Lusitanian right to reimagine the Portuguese reality in even more unrealistic terms than those which Portuguese philosophy made, in its most militant authors, into a kind of privilege. The unacceptably arbitrary or peremptory elements of its style or arguments notwithstanding, this “reaction”, obsessed with the quest for our specificity – albeit perceiving this quest solely in terms of practical prophetism, vaticination, out-of-control and fundamentally resented voluntarism, aptly captured the awareness of a need for the Portuguese people to change their stance towards their collective adventure.
It is enough to compare the two versions of the chapter “Sagres” in Miguel Torga’s “Portugal” to understand the extent to which, in the late ‘40s, the wave of nationalism embodied at that time by the men of “Portuguese philosophy” could affect the author of Bichos, one of the rare presentists with a sense for the concrete Portuguese reality, his habitual pessimism informed by the tradition of Oliveira Martins.... Recently, three Portuguese intellectuals (João Medina, António Quadros, José Augusto Seabra) with very different backgrounds and ideological positions, were engaged in a discussion of the image of Portugal, or rather, our relationship with it, triggered by an ironic article very much in the style of the ‘70s Generation entitled “Portugalinho” (little Portugal) by João Medina, a specialist in and admirer of the movement. It is unfortunate that, as is so often the case, this excellent opportunity to reconsider our new reality in the global context, initiated by João Medina, degenerated into disorderly polemic in which both parties were in the wrong, as there is indeed an urgent need to rethink our entire historical trajectory on the basis of the country we have become in the wake of our withdrawal from Africa – a need which has sadly been neglected so far.
And we must rethink it not just in terms of the most influential images and counter-images of our incurably Manichean cultural heritage, of primarily aesthetic and literary origin, as we have almost invariably done in the past. Without understating the importance of these images, we must now examine them, put them into perspective, discard them where appropriate, and earnestly question them on the basis of knowledge more closely in line with the living cause of the Portuguese reality, its enduring opacity, its sometimes terrifying structural shortcomings, which cannot be escaped by means of interpretative models or modules which only appear to clarify it with fateful excess, as this clarification does not leave behind even the residue of a collective realisation which would be truer to us in our actual reality, nor the tools to alter it according to the rhythm and requirements of our reasonable destiny as Portuguese.
From economics – at both the macro and micro level – from sociology, from ethnography, from social psychology, from anthropology, from historical and social psychoanalysis, not as mutually impervious fields of sterile knowledge but as pieces in a puzzle appropriate to our own mystery, we can and should expect a renewed image capable of replacing the schizophrenic polarisation of our culture into global viewpoints, in and of themselves undoubtedly justifiable, but excessively simplistic, autistic, lacking a genuine and serious inner reference to that which they negate and which, ultimately, gives them life. This perspective is not merely a formulation of or appeal to a syncretistic methodology, formless and unprincipled, intended to derive from our authentic existence as Portuguese a kind of divine fog in which tensions, conflict, even the horror or mediocrity of a common way of life might magically dissolve.
It is simply the renewed expression of a compelling need first felt over thirty years ago, at a time when the Portuguese and their history were in a state of either scandalous fervour or impotence, both nation and anti-nation, where even the past itself could not escape a Manicheism both superficial and, what is more, back-to-front or not far from it. It is not possible to build or live from an aseptic national image, separate from all ideological hypothesis or explicit bias. But this is precisely why nothing is more urgent than to revise, renew and relentlessly challenge the images – and the myths they embody – which are an inseparable part of our relationship with the fatherland that we were, are and will be, and of which those images and myths are the metalanguage in which our every discourse is inscribed. In spite of the indifference already castigated by the classics, there is of course a considerable amount of information of all kinds about what we are and do. That this information leaves a great deal to be desired, that it has neither the substance nor the audacity or intrinsic dynamism found in the output of other cultures engaged in constant self-criticism, polemic and readjustment cannot be disputed. However, the pain felt by every Portuguese for not having in their reach the many and resplendent mirrors in which more fortunate cultures can see themselves from head to toe in a single glance, while due to the factual inexistence of comparable and repeated restructurings of the “images” of the national whole, could be in part compensated for by ascribing greater importance to the works in which our image is refracted, or rather, dispersed. Precious fragments of self-knowledge – in many cases, including some of the most relevant, due to the gaze of others – are in plentiful supply in our unsatisfactory but never idle cultural output. What is more serious is that these fragments themselves exist in a domain of fragmented communication, at the mercy of an almost clandestine existence (submerged by vast quantities of largely over-valued information from abroad), and more sadly yet, disparaged without meriting serious consideration due to the simple fact of their domestic origin.
To cite a contemporary Portuguese author, either friend or foe, because one has learnt something from them or recognises some affinity with them is for us an anomaly, as eccentric as wearing an Alentejo overcoat. Only foreign references, however banal, are considered noble, and who can claim to above a reflex which is, so to speak, Portuguese? We all live as if no credit – vivifying credit and not just partisan exploitation of the work of others – were due to Portuguese cultural output, just as none is due to currency in times of crisis. We live in a mood of extraordinary historical deracination which only appears to be negated by the sentimental exaltation with which we experience ourselves as Portuguese. Positive images of ourselves abound in our collective and cultural memory even to the point of exaltation, paralleled only in the Semitic peoples or those which are our heirs. Negative images are equally abundant, in particular starting with the national crisis of the 19th century and the galvanising effect of the industrial revolution on Europe.
However, with only the rarest of exceptions, neither the former nor the latter are free of emotional bias. Above all, neither are the fruit of an in-depth examination of the Portuguese reality in all of its aspects, but rather the result of a political and ideological reflex, almost invariably of urban content and partially determined by patriotic motivations, either confessed or implicit, aimed either at glorification or provocatory defamation with a stimulating effect, as was the case for the majority of the ‘70s Generation. In all of these images, it is not so much a concrete presence that is the point of reference as a past or future mystified in such a way as to justify excessive hope or a brutal lack of faith in the fate of the country.
his permanent disconnect of the Portuguese from their own reality has not always followed the same pattern, and there was a period in which it barely existed, or at least was not manifested in forms as aberrant as those observed in the criticism and ultranationalism of the 19th (and part of the 20th) century. It is a function of the technological chasm which opened up between Portugal and Europe during the first and second industrial revolutions. Accordingly, the process of (re-)connecting or reconciliation with ourselves cannot take place until focus is regained, which will not happen any time soon. However, perhaps the ongoing dissonance does not have the same composition today as it did in the 19th century and perhaps, paradoxically, it is this very dissonance which has preserved a certain set values and a certain framework which, rather than portraying an image of depressing and humiliating archaism, preserve a form of wisdom which, in countries that compare favourably with our own, exacts too high a price or is a dream which can no longer be realised.
A prophetic reflection, or one as suspect as that which inspired the author of “A Cidade e as Serras” and others of his generation which ended up retracting their eulogies of civilisation? Adherence to the ecological fad which would be redundant in a country such as our own – one great pine forest with two coastal cities as landing fields for the demoniacal marvels which other Martians discover for us and give us (in exchange for a little sweat), just as we did on the coast of Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries?
Even if we wished to become an ecological paradise – which is, after all, almost what Portugal is compared to other European countries – we could not. We are neither an island, nor can there be islands immune to the great and devastating melting pot of all the incessantly renewed proposals emerging from the world’s creative centres. The new and minuscule country we have become will not decide for itself the way of life or destiny that will be its own in the dawn of a century of fable, of uncertain outcome but undoubtedly ever more “organic”, or rather, “organised” and self-controlled – though this control is not human in nature according to the established historical criteria. It can, however, through increasingly accurate, detailed and prospective knowledge of what is (or was) and will be, cope with the destructive element characteristic of techno-scientific aggressiveness so as not to entirely lose its own identity or, to employ a more fluid – albeit on the surface vaguer – concept, its soul. Like every social organism, a nation is a system which spontaneously creates certain defences to repel this form of aggression against its identity, but spontaneity is, here as elsewhere, not enough.
It is on the basis of a knowledge of the essential, of that which we cannot abandon without causing injury both now and in the future, that the key choices for our destiny should be made. Insofar as possible, self-determination is a task for the entirety of the Portuguese people, in full awareness and responsibility for their actions at every level, and not just for a technocratic/bureaucratic class endowed with random knowledge but above all a specific desire for power and privilege, and the only one so far to have created the Portuguese image as a result of which Portugal seems to “freely” choose itself when in fact it is (and has been) simply chosen by it.
Few countries paint an image of themselves as idyllic as that created by Portugal. While the previous regime took this inclination to unprecedented extremes, it is a more ancient heritage with a lasting echo. In “compensation”, a class of idlers inseparable from the tables of our country’s cafes “appears” to sketch a constant counter-image of this “idyllic” reality in the form of anecdotes and jokes which counterbalance the hypertrophy of our self-consciousness.
In fact, the two movements are complementary, and defamation – the muckraking which is such a Portuguese tradition – is a part of the same unrealistic and critical system. It is a typically bourgeois way of clearing one’s conscience, ultimately more harmful than the euphoriant, parochial image of ourselves that is spontaneous and popular. It is this image which has helped us to bear the unbearable over the centuries. The country’s jokes preserve and gloss with secret complacency that which on the surface they appear to criticise. In general, they are not based on any form of humour – the capacity to make oneself the object of derision or criticism – but on sarcasm, mauvais esprit, almost invariably relying on mere wordplay, and never or rarely on liberating, imaginative creativity with the corrosiveness of the Marx brothers or simply the “graciousness” which results from a state of detachment, of “grace”.
Portuguese wit is almost always malevolent, in stark contrast to one of the most narcissistic aspects of our mythical personality, the “kindness of our soul” and “mildness of our manners”... This is not to say that the “idyllic” nature of our image is entirely false or, more importantly, that it does not fulfil the glorifying function from which we take a small measure of comfort, but it is important to examine who is the actual subject of this mythology, who, specifically, fabricated, like some second nature, this overestimation of our capabilities and achievements, both individual and collective – and above all, who stood to gain.
In light of the lessons of history – insofar as such lessons can be learnt by one of the most amnesic peoples imaginable – the time has come to see ourselves as we are, the time for a national rediscovery of our true riches, our true potential and shortcomings. This is vital if we are ever to coexist with ourselves in anything like a natural manner. The Portuguese exist in a state of constant performance, so obsessive is their unconscious feeling of intimate fragility, and the resulting desire to compensate by making a good impression, both personally and collectively.
The reservation and modesty which we would have others believe are our second nature conceal, in most of us, a form of exhibitionism bordering on paranoia – a tragic display nothing like the uninhibited exhibitionism found in societies where the chasm between what one is and what one must appear to be falls short of the pathological extremes seen in our society. This is aptly exemplified by the “Cornélia” [a Portuguese game show broadcast in 1977] phenomenon, a strip-tease performed by an interposed bourgeois class in a society desperate to be seen, to exist with that hypertrophy which only the (unreal) image can provide, as it does not seriously exist in daily life. In spite of the persistent myth proclaiming that the Portuguese coexist peacefully, in reality they spy upon and control each other; in the place of dialogue, there is merely squabbling, and coexistence is nothing more than osmosis from like to like, devoid of mutual enrichment – one Portuguese will never admit to having learnt something from another, except their mother or father…
t is often said that Portugal is a traditionalist country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Continuity is forged, or safeguarded, by inertia or the instinct for social conservation – both here and elsewhere – but tradition is not made up of such continuity, it is the innovative adoption of things acquired, dialogue or combat within its walls, above all a creative inner subordination, a rare and unusual phenomenon indeed in Portuguese culture. It is the introduction of the alien or the foreign into the nation’s cultural output that is the norm, placing the author in the role of creator, which we always interpret as invention from nothing – the nothing which precedes us.
What is the origin of this wretched behaviour, not just intellectual in nature but ethical too? It is undoubtedly the profound gap between the “cultured” minority living in a state of perpetual battle and only able to overcome its desire for power by recourse to that fragmented disruption in Portuguese cultural output without distance to assert itself as “interesting”, on the one hand, and the anonymous masses of the Portuguese people which do not participate in the debate on the other.
After the revolution of 25 April, the ability of these two unequal groups to participate grew, albeit for the most part under ambiguous forms. It is not the people which now participate more extensively and with added fervour in the new cultural output, but merely the literate fringe which already existed in the old regime. Once again, a new kind of attention emerges which is directed towards the people and even relies on their hypothetical collaboration, but which for a long time can only be passive participation and not self-discovery, or rather, autognosis. The intellectual classes and the public at large have access to a greater degree of self-awareness with the discovery of a hidden Portugal, as demonstrated by excellent films and a number of recent attempts at theatre (such as the famous Trás-os-Montes or the theatre of Demarcy: Teresa Mota, Cornucópia, Grupo de Campolide, etc.), but we must not entertain too many illusions about the nature of this autognosis, which remains fundamentally similar to that embodied by the novels of Camilo, Júlio Dinis or Eça de Queirós in the 19th century.
Of these three examples, perhaps the one with the highest level of realism (i.e., the one characterised by the greatest degree of autognosis) is, contrary to established tradition, Júlio Dinis... Portugal in the 19th century resembles (both on the inside and the outside) Júlio Dinis more closely than it does Eça. However, it will only fully resemble itself when the gaze with which it sees itself is like that of, for instance, North American (or, within Europe, Italian) literature and especially cinema – the gaze of the Portuguese individual or the Portuguese as a whole, suitably aware of the life of the country in which they actually live and die – in other words, the gaze of Portugal as a subject, and not as an object as it is right now for all those of us occupied with Portuguese “culture” and the Portuguese reality.
published in the Abril magazine in March 1978 and in the 2000 book O Labirinto da Saudade