The Tower of Belem at the mouth of the Tagus River represents what a child, coerced by that instinctive and perpetual drive for order, silently tries to create at the seashore from sand, shells and ropes of seaweed. Begun at the end of the fifteenth century it rises from the Tagus River as a tribute to an archaic need for unity. It also celebrates the primeval imagination of childhood; the desire to transcend the narrow limits of the familiar world; the need to pass beyond the realm of the ruled, the predictable, the secure—and to encounter chance. Constructed on the boundary of the known and the unknown it performs the dual function of the boundary: to salute both the departure and the return. It greets the pilgrim and the prodigal son, the crusader, fortune-hunter and outcast, as it always has—with an equivocal message. When one understands the message of the boundary, one understands one’s own life.
When he wrote of that triste e leda madrugada, of that sad and happy dawn of his departure, the Portuguese poet Luis de Camões expressed the ambiguous nature of the crossing of boundaries. One must leave behind all that is secure and cherished…and confront chaos. But at the same time one rids oneself of the burden of the prosaic and conventional. It is this delicious terror, this freedom, that marks the passing of the boundary.
Today I experience a lonely voyage in reverse of Camões. That triste e leda morning of departure is not from the shores of the Old World but of the New. Instead of the Tagus the boat slips out of the Hudson River. The skyscrapers of New York, forming a jagged, irreversible, manmade skyline, diminish in the distance. There are no trees, no flowers to which one says goodbye…only pavement, concrete and glass. The land has been converted into a great city where nothing is known or cherished. As one sails from the shores of this New World, one has a sense of departure, not from the familiar and simple and secure, but from the strange and confused and absurd. To the right is the gigantic Statue of Liberty with her arm upraised. One leaves the myth of freedom and the frontier behind.
The last night aboard ship I dream persistently of the Old World: of towers and castles, of great walls and boundaries…and then suddenly I am thrust from sleep. There is a moment of disorientation…a feeling of change, of hiatus. I lift my head and look around the narrow cabin, at the other bunks where everything is motionless—only a hand dropped down over the side, a tuft of hair poking out from between the sheets. Silence. That is what is strange…no creaking, no throbbing. The room is oddly stable. The engines are stilled. The immense heartbeat of the ship has stopped. Motionless. No rocking to and fro; no pitching back and forth. The cradle is still. A feeling of alienation. One is deprived of the rhythm, the sound and movement that has regulated waking and sleeping for a week.
What has happened? The clock on the dresser is ticking resolutely in the silent cabin. 9:25. The boat is not due to dock at Lisbon until noon. It seems like night without any portholes to let in the day. There are noises in the passageway. I put on my clothes quickly, quietly, open the door and run along the passageway to the elevator. A few people are hurrying about, some in their bathrobes and slippers. The whole atmosphere seems charged with an air of change, as if a society has suddenly broken apart without warning; as if no one recognizes its connections any longer and communication is no longer important. Eeryone is now concentrated at a point of departure, ready to leave in separate directions. Up on deck there is more confusion. People greet each other distractedly, as if already parted and concerned with other affairs. I run along the deck trying to find a place at the rail. The ship has not stopped after all. It is still moving, but it has now entered the River Tagus and is gliding serenely past the land. There, almost close enough to touch is the Tower of Belem!
How curious an anachronism this old fortress seems in the gray light of the October morning…slapped by waves, besieged by winds! It obstinately survives its past. I catch sight of Gothic surfaces intricately carved and decorated in the Manueline style…and then I am pushed aside. The port side of the ship is massed with people. The starboard is less crowded and from there I can see the river. It is full of activity, a commercial coming and going intimately linked to the quotidian needs of the land…an activity deeply rooted to the past. Near its beginnings the Tagus encircles the tenacious ramparts of medieval Toledo. From this center it flows across the Spanish plains into Portugal where it becomes exclusively Portuguese, dividing the north from the south, demarcating Lisbon before it disappears into the Atlantic tides, and regulating the life of the fisherman. The fishing boats depart as they have for centuries, in pursuit of sardinhas, linguado, pescado, bacalhau; and arrive with a fresh catch sold at this very moment in the markets and on the streets of Lisbon by the fishwives, varinas.
In the salt air with the spray wet on my face I imagine the little boats and everything on the river as free, patternless, independent of land…with the power to leave, with the power to arrive, like the sea birds who curve and vault about the ship. I forget the prosaic and remember the poetic and historical role of the river. “O Tejo que se abre aõ Oceano e por onde saíu e entrou a Glória de Portugal.”
This conjunction of river, land and sky is in essence what the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Moors, the Crusaders, a whole multitude of past voyagers have seen on arrival. But the traditional view is obliterated at points, at other points contradicted or usurped by the modern. The past and present interrupt each other in a series of confusing, shifting images. Perhaps it is totally different after all, both the viewed…and the viewer. The wind raises brief white crests upon the restless and determined current of the river. The shadow of an antique Phoenician sail cuts across the path of the liner. Dream and reality merge for a moment, then separate. On the heights above Cacilhas across from Lisbon an immense blunt white statue of Christ extends a benediction to the tourist…and to American enterprise in the emergent skeleton of a new bridge. Behind this great modern dinosaur Lisbon coagulates into a dense vista of hills and narrow valleys encrusted with pastel buildings, red-tiled roofs. The Castelo de Saõ Jorge still dominates the slopes where the Crusaders battled the Moors.
After his second visit to Portugal in 1800 Robert Southey wrote nostalgically that he “would give one eye to blind Fortune if she would let me look on the Tagus with the other.” If today one could look at the Tagus with the eye of Southey one would perhaps see it as he saw it: charming, picturesque. Or if one could arrive as Camões, one would seek that comforting secure embrace of one’s own land, impatient as with the embrace of a mother who can no longer satisfy one’s needs, and yet curious to see familiar features, flesh and blood features emerge from the long memory of one’s generic past.
I arrive as a stranger. A sea-bird swoops and cries and I remembers those wild cries whistling down the ship’s ventilators and dying away in my cabin. It is at this moment of arrival on the river that I feel myself in limbo, between ocean and land, between the past and the present. From the all-absorbing oneness of the sea, the world has turned again into an intricate multiplicity. The ocean has relinquished its passenger; the land has not yet reestablished its claims. The change between the fluid dissolving panorama of the ocean’s horizon, the vanishing points of sea and sky—and the uncompromising elevations and depressions, the rejecting facades of the land, strikes one as too abrupt. The banks of the river, although widening into a kind of inland lake, seem intrusive and restrictive. One has a feeling of discordance between body and environment; a need to regain one’s sense of perspective. The view suddenly shadows, trembles, fades, retreats like the images of a dream.
I look down at the white-flecked current of the river feeling that I have discovered the secret pulse of Portugal: that the Tagus is the nexus between land and sea; and that in the Tower of Belem, now slowly left behind as the ship moves upriver, the Portuguese have somehow symbolized this transition as of profound importance. This singular monument, rising abruptly at a point of transition, has a puzzling dreamlike urgency. Its nautical motifs are interwoven with the symbols of sacrifice and salvation and one has an intuition of it as in some way linked with the motives for pilgrimage: with the need to discover and to create; to escape from order and to impose order; to experience the new, the strange, the unique; to shed the old and commonplace. Driven by these paradoxical needs the pilgrim once set sail from this spot. Today driven by the same paradoxical needs one departs and one arrives…but where? Is one’s voyage illusory? How does it compare with those of Luis de Camões, Fernão Mendes Pinto, Vasco da Gama, Fernão Magalhães.
In his Peregrinação Fernão Mendes Pinto wrote that he left the shores of his native Portugal to seek his fortune. As Satan was invented to explain evil, Fortune was that mysterious agent invented to explain chance. It had its own rules. One could seek it only by entering a domain exempt from routine cause and effect; by risking everything and accepting the consequences. In order to escape the oppressive destiny of his daily life Fernão Mendes Pinto was ready to offer himself to “both the good and the bad” that might befall him. It was this offering of the self that defined a peregrination. It was an attempt to break the confining limits of self and society; to atone for failure and to transcend that failure. It defined both the secular and the holy pilgrimage, both the search for fortune and the search for meaning. At the same time it was a crusade—an attempt to claim something for God and King…and finally for the self.
Before he left for India, Vasco da Gama spent the entire night praying in a small hermitage nearby, now the site of the magnificent Convent of the Jeronimites. After consecrating his departure, according to Camões’ Lusiades, on the following day he went towards the boats in the “virtuous company of a thousand diligent priests…in solemn procession and with prayer to God.” His countrymen stood in “aweful amazement on the beach, as the fleet gave its canvas to the wind and vanished from their sight.”
Vasco da Gama set sail with a purpose: penetrating the ocean’s distances and charting chaos in the name of God, fulfilling the strange and lonely vision of Prince Henry the Navigator, bearing with him the hopes of his people. He returned with the gift of his discovery, a passage to India—and to the world beyond. Upon his return to the banks of Belem the cornerstone of the Tower had been laid…but as a boundary mark it was in a sense already obsolete. Designed by Garcia de Rezende it had been intended as a fort to protect Lisbon from pirates. Later it became a prison for political and military criminals, and it also served as a customs house. But what was its true significance? To commemorate? To protect? To imprison?
On this mist-heavy morning I imagine the crowds of Portuguese seeing their heroes off, watching them arrive. The long banks of the Tagus no longer witness such arrivals and departures. A few years ago the Queen of England arrived and rode from the docks in a slender, elegant white coach with brocaded cushions. In 1961 the hijacked Santa Maria was met by a cheering crowd as she threw anchor in the Tagus. But there are no more pilgrimages to strike the soul with “aweful amazement.”
By now practically everyone is on deck. There is hardly space either at the port or starboard sides. Some passengers are planning to disembark and their luggage is piled up around them at the gangplank exits. Most of the other passengers look forward to a day sightseeing in Lisbon. The sailors have roped off a part of the deck and they are ready with ropes and hawsers to secure the ship. Huge cranes hover ready to pick the entrails of the hold. I climb up beyond the restless mass of passengers, up to the small deck where the officers have their quarters. I must grasp somehow the meaning of the River, of the Tower, of the arrival. This moment is crucial…this feeling in limbo. All one’s life is suddenly focused now on this question of alienation, of transition, of freedom, of the boundary. These seem to be the clues somehow to voyages, to pilgrimages, to arrivals and departures, to life itself.
But I am distracted. There is movement and noise everywhere. Below on the docks stolid swarthy Portuguese run to secure the ropes. A little dog follows them about excitedly, his barks lost in the general tumult. Porters wait to carry luggage. There is a small group of people on the upper terrace of the customs house straining to see those on the ship. Some are waving. Below the passengers surge about the gangways, their visitor’s cards clutched in their hands, waiting impatiently to leave the ship. I catch sight of the sensitive little Spaniard with the perfect coiffure who owns a beauty shop somewhere in Oklahoma. He is going back to Granada to visit his mother who lives in the caves of the Sacramonte. Near him is the pudgy Puerto Rican who is going to study medicine in Barcelona. A crowd of middle-aged women and one chinless old man, wearing blue insignias, on their way to visit the shrine at Fatima, are gathered around their priest, clamoring for his attention. They call themselves pilgrims, pilgrims to Fatima.
Henry Adams called himself a tourist in France, but he was something more than that. It was as a fugitive from what he called the multiplicity of the present that he was irresistibly drawn to the great Gothic cathedrals of the past. He opened Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres with a vivid image from the boundary: of a tower between heaven and earth, of Saint Michael “watching across the tremor of the immense ocean—‘immensi tremor oceani.'” It was this medieval symbol of pilgrimage that animated Adams’ long reverie about the unity of the Middle Ages. Some of these boundary marks of the past still stand. Whereas once they had the magic power to initiate pilgrimages, they now serve principally as tourist attractions. But occasionally they reveal their paradoxical message to the outcasts, the prodigal sons, the refugees from the New World. They still have the power to evoke not only a confusion of historical images, but an imagination of those profound emotive forces of the past. They summon from oblivion one’s own dreams of childhood…and for a moment the tourist is converted into pilgrim.
Extending down from the crown of one of Lisbon’s many hills one can see the ancient walls of the Castle. At one time crossing the boundary meant leaving these walls, crossing the fields, setting forth over the land. It meant risking the irrevocable loss of the familiar. The world was once full of such walls, of boundaries, marking the division between cosmos and chaos; between the known world and the “unpeopled world behind the sun;” between land, sea and sky; between faith and heresy; between the kingdom and the wilderness.
In the other direction beyond the Tagus one can still see the dark horizon of the sea…the sea that above all was a periphery by which people bound their lives. But at the same time it was a destroyer of peripheries. It signified an end to the finite and the beginning of a crucial and perilous voyage into the infinite. In a real physical sense it dispossessed the voyager of the land and of all that to which man is most rooted; of all that shapes and contains his identity.
If today on the ocean, one still has the sensation of being thrown to the horizons—of divestment, alienation and escape—it is only an illusion. It is the New World, the frontier, that partly works this metamorphosis; that never allows one to take shape and to be rooted. The modern ocean liner cleaves its furrow between fixed ports of arrival and departure. Unlike the Santa Maria and the Vittoria it is not open to discovery. The passenger is as protected from fortune, from chance, from chaos, as if he were in a cradle. The ship imposes a quotidian order of its own, a substitute for the life one has left behind. One need not face infinity nor the elemental self stripped of habit. Habit is reinforced. One is returned to the nursery, encapsulated, guarded from an alienating and cleansing encounter with the primeval.
A jet plane rips the skies overhead and fills the vacuum with sound. The skies, like the seas, could be an interregnum of expurgation and revelation, of preparation for a renewed encounter with land. But speed telescopes and diminishes. One settles down in the plane, puts on one’s slippers, enjoys a meal, perhaps a movie, and arrives with one’s definitions intact. Speed and comfort have turned the pilgrim into a tourist, a consumer of space and time. Desire, desperation and dreams no longer forge paths into the wilderness. Paths have become superhighways, paved and oiled for the pleasure-seeker and the collector of places. Ironically one travels between contracting poles where one encounters the features of conformity, the geography of absurdity. Thousands become tourists demanding packaged tours to packaged places. Countries are consumed one after the other. The past is devoured undigested. Everything is designed to divest the traveler of any meaningful experience…to mask his deep loneliness and isolation.
And yet there are moments of vulnerability and of crisis that nothing can mask; that suddenly break open the brittle shell of habit; that reverse the conventional and unquestioned meaning of things. Arrivals appear as departures, departures appear as arrivals…and I arrive on the shores of the Old World with a sense of returning home. It is this return that assumes importance. Is it also a kind of pilgrimage?…or is it a defeat? Can one no longer accept change and the challenge of the unknown, the delicious terror of freedom? Threatened by a sense of his own weakness and ignorance does the child run back to the arms of his mother; run from the seashore and his dreams of omnipotence; run from his little fort of sand?
The narrow line of the boundary places in sudden conjunction the Tower of Belem with the Statue of Liberty and they begin to yield their secret. The fortress and the frontier! From its commencement Western history has been a pilgrimage in one direction, away from the Walls, the Castle, the Fort, the Tower; a succession of departures beyond the framework of belief and law…towards freedom. The unknown has been planted with the cross and the flag, explored and charted…but there has been no return. The American pilgrims pushed forward frontiers, opened up virgin territories, broke open mythic cultures. But they left something gaping, undone. Tempted by visions of freedom and progress they converted themselves from pilgrims to pioneers and transformed their world into a place of no return—a world of the boundary, a realm of continual transformation, of Ouranos divorced from Gaia. Ironically, perhaps because of that refusal to accept the limitations of the frontier, their children attempt to destroy all lines of demarcation, all boundary marks; to produce mass in the guise of form; to convert image into process; to annul both the end and the beginning, genesis and judgment, center and circumference. They have charted chaos by denying the principles of cosmos. They no longer see the world as a unity, but as a frontier; no longer as an image but as a condition of explosive liberation from traditional connections. Like contemporary art they have created a world that demands a moratorium on judgment and a willingness to accept the reversal of image into process. Freedom has turned the pilgrim into pioneer and then paradoxically the pioneer into a captive of the frontier.
The pilgrim set out on a search for truth and returned home with the mysterious potentiality to deepen the meaning of the prosaic. The tourist, at once the victim and the victimizer—like Odysseus in his role of magician and trickster—everywhere destroys the individual and unique. He reduces the aberrant and alien to a safe mediocrity. His thoughtless usurpation and restless sense of incompletion is transmuting the Old World irrevocably into the frontiers of the New. Unlike Odysseus he cannot escape the boundary to return and put his house in order.
The crowds push forward onto the gangplank. The little dog retreats, the porters rush up with their carts. The tourist itineraries are prepared, the orbits established. The time has come to leave the boat. But this moment in limbo becomes a long lifetime…with one saying, “I belong not only to the voyage but to the point of departure, not only to the present but to the past, not only to the sea but to the land…” But the words are spoken to the wind…no one listens. A fugitive from the frontier, I walk down the gangplank and onto the dock, onto historical Portuguese soil, only to find that I can no longer fit within the framework of the past. I search for familiar landmarks, but find them absurdly altered by time, traditional patterns remaining as meaningless fragments within the imposed uniformity of the present. I, the voyager, have put on disguises that, unlike Odysseus, cannot be thrown off at the crucial moment of self-revelation.
* * * * * * * * * *
Above the Tower of Belem the sky is in constant movement. Beyond is the sea. Odysseus, metamorphosed, sailed the Portuguese horizon. He parted with saudades on a “triste e leda madrugada,” knowing the ambiguity of departure. For every voyage there must be a return.
I arrive as a stranger, in limbo between the past and the future, between unity and complexity. Beyond the frontier one flees the absurd geometry of the future.
I who am abandoned on a frontier without limits, without a history, without an architecture to mark the known from the unknown…return to Portugal to seek some message from the past, some symbol of my voyage. I arrive with a fado from the sea, from the wind, in my heart. I sense the secret of my saudades when I see the Tower of Belem.
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