If Dostoevsky had been a Latin, it is certain he would have been a Portuguese. One doesn’t sense this so strongly now that it is spring, since all springs everywhere are a denunciation of everything Dostoevskian. The soul of man no longer festers in a silent alienation. Spring turns it and the city inside out. The sun strikes the darker corners and elicits new life, growth, movement. The avenues are tendriled with living green. The cafes sprout awnings; the sidewalks mushroom tables and chairs. The city has reconstituted its links with nature; men have reestablished their connections with one another. Drinking a cup of coffee at an outdoors café becomes an act of communion—one of the necessary rites of spring. One separates oneself from the flow of traffic. Lisbon passes before one with its small breaches of drama, and one senses it re-impregnated with the archaic springs of life. There is a lilt to the sounds, a cadence to the movements, an intimation of some secret harmony. And beneath it all is the regulatory rhythm of sex, like some primitive mysterious heartbeat. One is always aware of sex in Portugal…even in the children. Its antinomies are encouraged and ritualized in costume, act, attitude. In spring the tension between the sexes is greatest, but so is the hope in the miracle of duality becoming oneness.
However, if one enters a Portuguese café in the winter, perhaps at the lower end of the Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon, one sees Portuguese men sitting alone at their tables, drinking not Russian tea, but tiny cups of black coffee and smoking their “black” cigarettes down to the very end with an expression of what one could call distance-absorbing…a kind of pensive nullification of their surroundings. If one then hears the language in the background with its peculiar Slavic mushiness, one distinctly has the impression that each man is quietly musing over his own Notes from the Underground. And it is not difficult to remember that not far away in the Praça dom Pedro IV (Rossio Square) the Portuguese Inquisition carried out its autos-da-fé.
Is the Portuguese soul more obscure, the language more difficult, the Tagus more inaccessible? The world knows Pushkin and Eugene Onegin better than Camoes and The Lusiades, Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamozov better than Eça de Queiroz and A Cidade e as Serras, the Red Square and the Kremlin better than the Praça de Comércio and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. England proved that it is not size that forces a country upon world consciousness. It could be a question of historical relevance. Vasco da Gama and Magellan made their own imprint upon the world and opened sluice-gates of escape and influence for Portugal, but they were not enough to keep Portugal contemporary. Portugal has had no Marx and Lenin to make her historically relevant. Tomorrow everyone will remember Confucius.
The sea and the sun transformed Greek character (just as the steppes and the snow transformed the Russian) and the Greeks in turn altered the complexion of the world. The Portuguese contain the sea and the memory of its vast transformations as secrets within themselves. One is always aware of the sea in Lisbon…not as a destroyer of the peripheries by which men bind themselves, but as a daily regulator of human life. Sitting at an outdoor café one can smell brine confused with the odors of the city…and one can always smell fish. Portuguese fisherwomen thread the edges of the sea in the early morning and file into the city with fresh catches of linguado, pescado, sardinhas, gaping in trays on their heads. Their cries end in a peculiar break that only a constantly rasped glottis could produce. They form a basic element in a vast street orchestra of peddlers and beggars, of the blind playing accordions led by the halt with money-boxes. Their repertory is irritating and strangely poignant with its reminder of the eternal human persistence to survive. They turn the corner to return tomorrow with fresh supplies of fish, fruit, vegetables, newspapers…with the same cries, the same music from the past. They return as yesterday returns and returns, and then one day, unnoticed, returns no more.
Portugal needs a Gorky to adequately portray its peasants. But perhaps the basic character of peasants is universal. Certainly Gorky described the Portuguese peasant as well as the Russian when he wrote of their peculiar vitality; their amalgam of sly cleverness, stupidity, simple virtue. Does the labor of Sisyphus, the brute interminable struggle with sea or with soil, produce the same kind of faces, the same kind of superstition and acceptance—at the same time erasing and sharpening, caricaturing and dulling? Or is there an Odysseus in each sailor; a Helen in each fishwife?
There are intimations of many profound contradictions in Portugal. What are these and why do they exist? What is their correspondence to contradictions elsewhere? There is elegance and coarseness; the elegance of the young men of the upper classes with their short jackets, shiny jet-black shoes and hair, their graceful attitudes; and the coarseness of the illiterate, horny-handed poor. There is intelligence and stupidity, great ugliness and great beauty…the rich and the poor. Perhaps one extreme evokes all the others in Portugal: the rich. A simple formula is to eliminate the aristocracy and one eliminates poverty…and also paradox, equivocation, contrast. But then what does one have? More automobiles, more television…and the face of the city changes along with the face of its people. Does it become less or more human? Sartre and Jesus can only love the poor. The rich have made contrasts possible…and also love.
The Portuguese sing of love in the Fado with a deliberately invoked nostalgic hopelessness. Suffering is common to all life, to all mankind; but the memory of it is not. Men suppress or mask its meaning and its recall. But at night in the little cafes in Lisbon where one drinks vinho verde, the lights dim, the talking stops, the guitars initiate a melodic motif, the Fadista wraps her black shawl about her, begins to sing, and each Portuguese summons his unique and universal misery. In Coimbra the students’ Fado perpetuates the suffering of the medieval troubador and the Fado is purer, more delicate, more sensitive—refined by the ages of all superfluity. But in order to understand love in Portugal, to apprehend the Portuguese saudade, it is never enough to be only a spectator, only a listener. One needs to be involved in love in Portugal in order to explore the possessiveness, the authority, the special conventions upon which the Latin male’s pride is based; in order to understand and feel the yielding and passivity, the intense maternity and earthy vitality of the Latin female. One needs to be involved in sex and the family and the Church in Portugal, with its land and with its sea.
But this is all beyond the grasp of a foreigner who has been here only a few days or weeks or months. Possibly the truth is like the black and white mosaic sidewalks along the Avenida da Liberdade. But if so, its patterns are elusive, obscure. The artist and the philosopher choose their vantage points and the pattern emerges—but one’s own perspective is either too close or too distant. A city, a country, a people, is stamped with uniqueness; but there is always that mysterious and paradoxical many within the one that forms the one and at the same time makes it so difficult to apprehend. Looking down from the Castelo de São Jorge at the red-tiled roofs and the rose, blue, yellow, white walls of Lisbon—or wandering through the narrow alleys of the Alfama, one has a multitude of impressions, a sense of the confusing many that composes the one. But the one resists definition.
Perhaps the kind of impressions that flow over one’s mind, the unsorted and unevaluated flotsam and jetsam that one collects walking down the street with one’s ears and eyes newly keyed like a child’s, depend very much on the country from which one comes. Only a Kleenex-habituated American would notice that everyone still blows his nose with a spotless starched white handkerchief. The paper napkins (guardanapos) served in the restaurants are one-fourth the size of those in the United States. But Kafka would notice that there is never a shortage of paper in the offices of a bureaucracy.
If Kleenex has not yet inundated Portugal, plastic has. Just as there are the traditional street peddlers of fish, fruit, vegetables, flowers, etc., there are now the peddlers of plastic. The latter evidently exercises a spell of its own. The Portuguese home is replete with it…from artificial flowers in plastic vases, plastic vines on the ceilings, plastic carpets, curtains, dishes, to even plastic candles that negate both function and decoration. The first step to the middle class is the loss of an archaic aesthetic sense; a denial of nature, and the hand as the adaptor of nature, in favor of the machine and its products; a denial of the unique for the universal commonplace.
But in Portugal one can escape the false interior by turning to the exterior. One is aware of the endless, patient, inventive work of the hand. Each stone in the pavement, hundreds of them, represent a flex of the muscle; a hammer raised and brought down…and behind it a man—feeling, perhaps thinking. The machine releases man from this labor, but does it bring dignity? One wonders, not about the stone masons, but the man who shines shoes. He sits at the feet of a businessman, in dark suit and tie, and works with industry and attention, occasionally giving a smart snap to his rag. Under his overalls he also sometimes wears a tie. Clean his hands, take off his overalls, and he could be a businessman too. What would he be in the United States? Perhaps the manager of a supermarket…certainly not a shiner of shoes.
It is the exteriors of the city that reaffirm the dignity of the work of the hand. Many Portuguese buildings are faced with colorful tiles; most of abstract design derived from the Moors; but others representing saints and heroes, geographical and historical pageants. The balconies are opulent with genuine flowers. The roofs are fretted with ironwork, stone vases, plaster arabesques—valid artificialities. Function is gracefully embellished and affirmed by decoration.
But regarding the charming, broken, irregular Lisbon skyline one suddenly remembers the disaster-prone Candide and the earthquake of a mere two centuries ago. One can still see the ruins of the Convento do Carmo in the Bairro Alto. The roof is gone and the walls are now only an alfresco equation; at high noon without shadows, and enclosing a totally vulnerable quadrangle, accessible to wind, sun, rain. All Lisbon suddenly seems vulnerable…not just to climate and time, which works out its necessities slowly and often with beauty and dignity, but to the sudden and capricious. The red tile-shingled roofs, the charming crochets and exaggerations, the chromatic mosaics, the protruding balconies, abruptly seem threatening and precarious. The strong evening wind has already toppled an occasional television aerial. The apartments appear too high and narrow and fragile, like a thin man lurching on stilts. One wonders if anyone ever has the courage to say that another bad earthquake would cause thousands of deaths, perhaps…Is there anyplace safe in Lisbon from flying tiles?
But even Dostoevsky did not think much about the potential evils of nature, except possibly of the Siberian winter…and that was inevitable. He thought only of the potential evil in the heart of man…and of man’s need for faith and bread. Does Leningrad have a spring like Portugal? In Lisbon the transition from winter to spring is perhaps relatively trivial, but nevertheless, it works its metamorphoses. There are parks in Lisbon where the hibiscus flower and children play their universal game of hide-and-seek. Caught in the spell of their unconscious happiness, one forgets the games their elders play seriously without innocence or joy. And walking along the streets one suddenly comes upon a square with a fountain and a statue of Neptune. The water soars upward and falls back in an endless symmetrical rhythm—a transformation of liquid into light and color and music—a reassurance of man’s capacity to create form and beauty; to evoke facets of diversity from the one and to turn back the many into an integrated and eloquent whole.
The exact date of this essay is unknown, but it was probably written in the mid 1960’s