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The Future of the Past

Praça Do Comércio

2,483 words

“John of Gaunt’s speech having shown that patriotic verse can be poetry of a high order, Pessoa in Mensagem showed this still to be true. Most of the poems also go beyond patriotism: those in which King Sebastian figures are metaphors for the religious quest, and those about the ordeals of the seafarers dramatize the poet’s inner perseverance.”

— Jonathan Griffin (Introduction to Mensagem, 2007)

Walking the streets of Lisbon on a fine spring morning, one cannot help but be impressed by the Manueline and Pombaline architectural styles that grace the Portuguese capital. Everywhere you look, there are resonant echoes of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries imprinted on the bright stonework. Your imagination cannot help but soar at the sight of the limestone tracery on the cloisters of the Jeronimos Monastery. Lisbon boasts the work of architects like Diogo de Boitaca, who used calcario de lioz, gold-tinted minerals quarried from Ajuda to catch the sunlight; Juan de Castilho, who introduced the Plateresque style of ornamentation; and sculptors like Nicolau Chanterene, who added layer upon layer of fine-as-needle-point Renaissance design themes.

One’s heart takes off on a flight of fancy. Your ideas skip alongside the Azure-winged magpies flying over the Tagus River as you roam the Praca do Comercio, the former location of the Ribeira Palace, before it collapsed in the great earthquake of 1755. This episode saw one of the greatest libraries in Europe, filled with over 200,000 texts, be demolished by a natural disaster of epic proportions. Nearly two hundred years later, the Comercio was also the scene of the assassination of King Carlos the 1st in February, 1908.

Then, walking the vast length of the UNESCO-protected plaza, past the Pousada hotel and the bronze statue of King Jose riding his steed, watching as the horse’s hooves symbolically crush the snakes in his path, you drift towards Augusta Street and the Rossio with its own Triumphal Arch, the Arco da Rua Augusta, the city clock, and carved images of Glory, Ingenuity, and Valor.

Try to fit all of this in before sitting down around noon at a wrought-iron café table under the vaulted arcades of the Martinho da Arcada restaurant, where the mystical nationalist poet Ferdinand Pessoa would take Juliana soup and lead in the tertullas, café talks, with people like Bocage and Amalla Rodrigues. Their wit and cynicism would bounce, like spent carbine cartridge cases, off the beautiful azulejos antique tiles:

Europe is lying propped upon her elbows:
From East to West she lies, staring
Out, reminiscent, – Greek eyes from the shelter
Of romantic hair.
Behind her back, the left elbow is cast;
The right has the angle place.
That one says Italy in its repose;
This one says England where, gathered apart,
It holds the hands up to support the face.
She stares, her gaze doom-heavy, sphingical,
Out at the West, the future of the past.
The face with which she stares is Portugal.

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Lighting a Suave cigarette, one may well be tempted, as was I, to lift a laconic eye over the rim of a hand-crafted cappuccino, smiling with the literary memory of the legendary A Brasileira. Brasileira is another iconic coffeehouse established in 1905, and one which Pessoa, a resident of the Baixa district and friend, translator, and intriguer with arch-Satanist Aleister Crowley, used to frequent after the poet’s return from his sojourn to South Africa.

Pessoa’s collection of poems, Mensagem — messages — is a patriotic sequence of verse steeped in ‘Sebastianismo’, filled with references to Viriathus, leader of the ancient Celtic Lusitanians, Nuno Alvarez Pereira, a general who fought for the country’s independence from Castile, and kings and navigators. It soon became a national epic, one celebrated by Antonio Oliveira de Salazar’s corporatist regime. Mensagem also brings to mind the legend that Lisbon was founded by Ulysses upon his return from the Trojan Wars, a trope that also inspired the poet’s Hellenic-oriented muse:

Myth is nothing that is everything
The very sun that breaks through the skies
Is a bright and speechless myth-
God’s dead body,
Naked and alive.
This hero who cast anchor here,
Because he never was, slowly came to exist.
Without ever being, he sufficed us.
Having never come here,
He came to be our founder.
Thus the legend, little by little,
Seeps into reality
And constantly enriches it.
Life down below, half
Of nothing, perishes

Pessoa’s enigmatic verses make for the ultimate complement to the somewhat provincial and rather understated simplicity of raw masonry walls, ceramic tile roofs and the spider web of metal balconies that surround the city’s intimate little squares — balconies from which sultry sun-tanned young ladies in fashionable dresses hung in groups staring down upon the passers-by.

If one were to look up, you’d see towers topped by weather vanes and armillary spheres, national and imperialistic mementos since the time of Manuel the 1st, serving to remind tourists — like me — that Portugal was once a global nation in the true sense of the word. Not long ago, Portugal was the homeland of mariners in their famous caravels, like Bartolomeu Dias, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope; like Vasco de Gama, who led the first successful voyage around the coast of Africa to India; and like Pedro Alvares Cabral, who took a fleet west and discovered Brazil.

Indeed, Pessoa’s paean to Vasco da Gama, his death and ascension to heaven, invokes the Titans of the sea and the Gods of Olympus and compares de Gama to Jason, leader of the Argonauts:

The Gods of the storm and the giants of Earth
Halt the rage of their war and gape.
In the valley leading up to the skies
A silence falls: then there’s a stirring
And a specter rising in veils of mist.
Fears flank it while it lingers; its vestige
Rumbles in distant clouds and flashes.
On the earth below, the shepherd freezes
And his flute falls as in rapture he sees,
By the light of a thousand thunderbolts,
The sky’s vault open to the Argonaut’s soul.

Portugal, having become independent from Spanish-oriented Leon, doubled in size with the capture of the Algarve from the Moors in 1249. This situation placed it in the vanguard of the Reconquista under Alonso Henriques, who had already defeated the Moorish Almoravids at the Battle of Ourique in 1139, giving Portugal sufficient impetus to project itself to the very forefront of European overseas adventurism. (This time is now known as The Age of Exploration.) It was a Faustian impulse that propelled this embryonic sea-board nation to create one of the largest and longest-lived empires in world history. Portugal’s empire lasted almost six centuries, from Henry the Navigator’s capture of Ceuta in 1415 to the handover of Macau to the People’s Republic of China in 1999.

The Portuguese wisely invested in the lucrative ‘Indies’ spice trade — disproving Ptolemy’s theory that the Indian Ocean was land-locked by default — imported vast quantities of gold, turned Madeira into a virtual sugar refinery of the ‘sweet salt’ using Genoese and Flemish money, and investigated to see if the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John was real. They settled the Azores for wheat production, and secured the papal bulls Dum Diversas of 1452 and the Romanus Pontifex of 1455 granting Portugal the monopoly of trade in these recently discovered territories. All at the same time, they were developing maritime technologies that facilitated their advance at a rate of one degree per year in the southern latitudes. By 1445, Senegal and Cape Verde were within their grasp.

This momentum took these maritime entrepreneurs across the equator to present-day Sierra Leone, the Gulf of Guinea islands like Sao, Tome, and Principe, and then on to the Congo, Ethiopia, and close to the Tropic of Capricorn and Namibia. The Empire left behind a series of padroes, stone crosses, engraved with the royal coat of arms in order to lay legal claim to their discoveries as far afield as Mozambique and Goa.

After Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World for Spain in 1492, the Spanish and Portuguese crowns signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, establishing a duopoly of the world extant to Europe along the North-South meridian but leaving the longitudinal boundary of the partition ambiguous for centuries to come.

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Even today, Portuguese is ranked sixth among the world’s most widely spoken languages, a testament to the nation’s historical pedigree. Its familial traditions and maritime legacy became enshrined in the nation’s cultural psyche many centuries later in Salazar’s motto “Deus, Patria e Familia” meaning “God, Fatherland, and Family.”

Salazar, who had taken power in 1933, in many ways, symbolizes the honor and dignity of a once-great people. So while I sat amid the Bolivar cigar smoke and steaming bowls of Cozido a Portuguesa, I found my thoughts torn.

The defiant determination of the Estado Novo, as the essentially conservative nationalism of Salazar’s National Union Party, struggled to maintain its pluricontinental Portugal after the Second World War in the face of Soviet-backed Liberation Movements that sprung up across India, Angola, Mozambique, and Ouidah. This was due, in one sense, to a preference to support other nationalist movements, particularly those of a Catholic orientation, by providing safe ports for the Generalissimo’s forces to land vital ordnance and supplies during the vicious Civil War raging on the streets of Portugal’s closest neighbor. We also saw this tendency on display when Salazar’s government lent aid to Ian Smith’s Rhodesian regime after that brave little country’s decision to go ahead with its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965. Salazar also drew praise from the victorious Franco:

The most complete statesman, the one most worthy of respect, that I have known is Salazar. I regard him as an extraordinary personality for his intelligence, his political sense and his humility. His only defect is probably his modesty.

Ian Smith also claims in his biography The Great Betrayal (1997) that if Salazar’s regime had survived, then Rhodesia may never have fallen into Mugabe’s evil clutches. Unfortunately, Salazar undercut some of his accomplishments with his obsessive suppression of the proto-fascistic Blue Shirt Movement and his disdain for the pagan undercurrents in Hitlerian National Socialism:

We are opposed to all forms of Internationalism, Communism, Socialism, Syndicalism and everything that may divide or minimize, or break up the family. We are against class warfare, irreligion, and disloyalty to one’s country; against serfdom, a materialistic conception of life, and might over right.

Noble sentiments, indeed, and ones that caused American socialist historian David L. Raby, author of Fascism and Resistance in Portugal: Communists, Liberals and Military Dissidents in the opposition to Salazar 1941-1974 (1988) to label him proto-fascistic. Yet, one of the most noted mainstream historians of the far-right, Robert Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism (2005), describes Salazar as having “crushed Portuguese fascism after he had copied some of its techniques of popular mobilization.”

These contradictions led the God-fearing Salazar, while he served as Minister of the Colonies, to introduce his Colonial Act of 1930. The Act was a clumsy attempt to assimilate the indigenous people of the country’s various colonies, which predictably proved to be a backdoor route to citizenship for those who would inevitably seek a better future for themselves in the Fatherland.

Salazar’s regime justified its contrarian colonialist policies by arguing that it was the living example of Gilberto Freyre’s theory of Lusotropicalism, which claimed the Portuguese had a natural ability to sustain themselves in differing ecological and social environments and create harmonious multiracial societies. A form of hubris, of course, but one that Salazar genuinely believed underpinned Portugal’s national identity. This hubris has subsequently come back to haunt them in much the same way that de Gaulle’s abandonment of the Pied-Noirs in French Algeria in his over-hasty decolonization of North Africa also provided a platform for the reverse colonization of Metropolitan France by the inhabitants of its former territories.

Like France, where business groups have consistently pressed for migrant workers since the 1950s, Portugal has unsurprisingly also become a country of net migration following the end of the Estado Novo. By the mid-1970s, whole departments in the Paris region and other French cities had been overrun by peoples from the Maghreb and Mashreq. A Portuguese census in 2017 indicated an ever-growing foreign-born population of 416,682, mainly from Brazil, Cape Verde, Macau, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome, India, and Pakistan. Portugal is, in effect, replicating the French experience.

A Parisian journalist at L’Aurore left us a warning way back in 1954: “North Africans are specialists and record makers in the nocturnal attack. The Arab is, quite precisely, the thief who waits on the corner of the road for the late passerby, who he clubs for the sake of a watch. . .” Portugal is being similarly deluged by constant waves of anti-racist protests organized by immigrant leaders and far-left Antifa-style outfits, vicious, unprovoked attacks on bus drivers in heavily Africanized districts like the Massama area in Sintra, and recently, the murder of a young white student by three men from Guinea-Bissau.

This situation begs the question: why?

Why, indeed. Especially after the warning of the mass exodus of Portuguese settlers from their homes in the former colonies, Salazar’s clear determination not to give up on the nation’s foreign assets, the positive influence of Mussolini’s 1927 Labour Charter on Portuguese employment rights that gave the regime its Corporatist outlook, record economic growth which saw a 10% leap in GDP following Salazar’s clearing-out of the last remnants of the corrupt old regime and the appointment of a skilled technocrat cadre throughout the 1960s, the building of new motorway infrastructure, the phenomenal rise in elementary literacy levels from 33% in 1930 to 97% by 1960, the decades-long investment in higher education that resulted in the construction of the new University of Lisbon campus, and the sponsorship of Nobel Prize-winning scientists like Egas Moniz, a physician who developed techniques related to cerebral angiography and leucotomy.

Allied to this was the very effective counter-insurgency operations against guerilla fighters by specialist forces. This included the wise counsel of French right-wing intellectual Jacques Planchard, formerly of the post-Vichy Parti Populaire Francais; the services of the French anti-Communist all-action hero Yves Guerin-Serac; and the use of the State Defense and Surveillance Police that Salazar established in 1933, and the Direccao Geral de Seguranca (DGS) under Marcelo Caetano, to battle fifth-column Communists at home.

All of this proved, in the end, insufficient to prevent The Carnation Revolution.

Let us hope and pray that Andre Ventura’s national populist Chega (which translates to “Enough”), The National Renovator Party, who obtained a 50% increase — from an admittedly very low base — in their share of the votes in the Lisbon and Setubal constituencies in 2015, and the fledgling New Social Order, formed by ex-Hammerskins militant, Mario Machado, can return Portugal to its former greatness as a distinct and innovative nation whose future better reflects the glories of its past.

As Pessoa intimates in The Book of Disquiet (1982): “My past is everything I failed to be.”