Like everyone else, I was very surprised with the victory of Carlos Moedas and the PSD / CDS coalition in Lisbon and the defeat of Medina and the PS / PRR coalition. And, like many good people, I was delighted. And I was also very happy when I found out which good minds advised Coins, who also have a good mind, in their campaign. The thing becomes a little more explainable.
Unfortunately, this great surprise is not enough to convince a person of the fatal wonders of Portugal of our age. Our age and many other ages past. On the contrary. The more you look at things from behind with eyes to see and the more scared and depressed you get. Sometimes for obvious reasons, other for obscure signs in which a spirit dedicated to interpretation cannot but detect the announcement of a simple and ominous truth: Portugal is bad.
Take the reasonably eccentric example of the opera. As far as I know – but it may be my ignorance -, there are only two operas by famous composers who take Portugal as their object: the Dom Sébastien, Roi of Portugal by Donizetti (released in 1843) and the L’Africaine by Meyerbeer (released in 1865), whose main character is Vasco da Gama. I have never heard, I confess, the first one (the bible, these things, the New Grove, refers to the current opinion at the time according to which it would be “a funeral in five acts”, and I read elsewhere that Camões died there trying to save D. Sebastião and his beloved, an African princess Zaida, persecuted by the Inquisition). But I heard the second one, of which I also have a DVD, in which Plácido Domingo (whom they still allowed to sing at the time) plays our great Vasco.
Besides Portugal, these two operas have something in common: they were the last operas of the two distinguished composers. And that’s where such ominous signs manifest themselves. During the rehearsals of Dom Sebastien, Donizetti began to act strangely, saying incomprehensible things and behaving erratically, to the point that, shortly afterwards, having fallen into a madness that would never leave him again, a nephew had to fetch him and commit him to a sanatorium. Meyerbeer had no better luck: the day after he finished writing L’Africaine, died suddenly. A detective mind would blame these two misadventures on the butler, that is, on the librettist of both operas, Eugène Scribe (in the second, drawing very vaguely on the Lusiads) But Scribe is, with Metastasio, one of the most prolific librettists of all time, and several composers healthily resisted his collaboration. Verdi, for example, survived him for many years. Discounting the syphilis from which Donizetti suffered, there is only one plausible hypothesis to explain this common misfortune: Portugal. Portugal, as I said, is bad.
Personally, it is with some apprehension that I think about this. Not that I’m composing any opera about the motherland, of course. But, for academic reasons, I am obliged, during this semester, to study the movement of ideas of the so-called “70s generation”, especially the ideas of Eça, Oliveira Martins and Antero de Quental, something I have been doing with discipline and interest, sorting out what I had thought before and trying to think, with the help of piles of books, some new things. As a result, a prudent distance that until now had been kept from Portuguese things, with infidelities in between, became a compromising and almost intimate proximity. Looking up close is different from looking away and is reportedly more dangerous.
In particular, I am grappling with generational admiration for the Paris Commune (1871) and its patriotic revolt against the ultimatum English (1890), that is, roughly with the period that goes from the Conferences of the Casino to the meetings of the group of the Vencidos da Vida. I am not going to talk here about the (sometimes complex and contradictory) positions of the various authors on the two events. By contrast, I want to note one obvious thing. In the space of my life, witnesses were registered to collective attitudes very similar to generation generation. Whether it is enthusiastic admiration for assorted revolutions across the world; whether it is about intemperate and recurrent manifestations of Anglophobia, concerning the most varied events, which is nothing to owe to the image of the lords cut to pieces floating in the Thames of Guerra Junqueiro.
This can only mean something significant about us. And sadly, nothing good. Without going into very sophisticated explanations, it says something about our imitative condition and our inferiority complex (it is, I think, the fair expression). Our imitative condition is that of spectators who aspire to ape in detail what they see on stage, systematically confusing tragedy with comedy and comedy with tragedy. The result is, of course, grotesque. And our inferiority complex usually manifests itself through the use and abuse of indignant bravado. There is no braggadocio that fails when we express our moral superiority over the perfidious Albion. Only people who think they are not intimate, unconfessed, inferior, can act in this way, imagining righteous punishments and exemplary revenge.
If a person starts thinking seriously about this, it’s hard to avoid falling into a kind of abyss of melancholy. Because these two attitudes – which, I say again, are repeated with impressive regularity, whatever the particular objects and cases – contaminate the whole of society, plunging it into an atmosphere of militant unreality. As it is easy to observe, this unreality prevents, from the outset, from thinking effectively politically and from taking the necessary steps to improve our situation. And more to do this. The creation of an atmosphere of unreality – which the government of António Costa, moreover, in its own way elevated to the status of supreme political art – can only contribute to our situation worsening and continuing to worsen, with no end in sight. Living this up close – living in the midst of it – doesn’t exactly caress the soul with sweet caresses. In sensitive people, it hurts her.
From what I have just said, if they see me, like the two illustrious men listed above, disappear overnight, without warning, from this column of the Observer and the universe in general, or if they catch me praising António Costa commically, calling him “our greatest statesman of D. Afonso Henriques” and “a clear spirit that illuminates our destiny and instills in us the strength that will lead us to the top of the European saber”, they already know whose fault it is. And no, it’s not from Scribe or syphilis. Yes, that’s what they’re thinking very well: from this blessed homeland, our beloved.
Meanwhile, Vasco da Gama, who (also he!) passes through the Inquisition’s dungeons, is loved by two women: Inês, his fiancée, and Selika, an Indian queen (the Portuguese, for Scribe, are happily given to amorous multiculturalism; in L’Africaine, it is true, only in Act IV and with the help of the old “love filter” trick that she had brought to Lisbon as a slave on her last trip. Selika, in turn, is loved by Nelusko, another slave that Vasco da Gama brought with him. In the end, and already in India, Selika sacrifices himself for the happiness of Vasco and Inês, committing suicide. Nelusko, heartbroken, seeing her dead, also commits suicide, while a ship, already just a small dot on the horizon (one imagines), transports Plácido Domingo and Ruth Ann Swenson back to Lisbon, away from the corpses by Shirley Verrett and Justino Díaz. This yes, this elevates the soul – and makes it, at least for a moment, as unlikely as the two hypotheses advanced in the previous paragraph.
PS: Alexandre Franco de Sá has just published an important book on populism, the reading of which would prevent many people from saying the absurd customs on the subject: Ideas without a center. Left and Right in Contemporary Populism (Don Quixote). I plan to write about him in the coming weeks.