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Fernando Pessoa’s Mystical Nationalism

“God wills, man dreams, the work is born.”

The opening lines of Fernando Pessoa’s poem “Prince Henry the Navigator” invoke what Pessoa himself termed “mystical nationalism.” Like Pessoa himself, this term has various and multi-faceted meanings.

On the one hand, a biographical note left behind by Pessoa defined a “mystical nationalist” as a man against Communism and Socialism. This man also holds views that are deeply “anti-reactionary.” How can this be, especially given Pessoa’s poetic odes to the heroes of Portugal’s imperial past?

Like British poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the transatlantic T.S. Eliot, Pessoa sought to use the Modernist revolution in letters, which supposedly freed artists from past restraints of meter and form, to capture a profound sense of Portuguese-ness. As Eliot’s “The Wasteland” summarizes the abject poverty of a new Western world without God or traditions, Pessoa’s Message collection articulates a desire for rebirth of lost glory.

In order to fully appreciate the later work of the mad poet Pessoa, one must not only understand him—that archetypal flaneur of Lisbon whose face and image adorn a million coffeehouses—but also the former imperial greatness of Portugal.

Pessoa was not your average Lusitanian. After the death of his father, his family relocated to British South Africa, where Pessoa excelled in English language schools. A born writer, Pessoa began contributing to South African newspapers at a tender age. Upon returning to his beloved Portugal in 1905, Pessoa started his rather unusual career as a bon vivant, business translator, and man of letters.

In between bouts of coffee drinking at Lisbon’s Cafe A Brasileira, Pessoa wrote a veritable army of unpublished work and helped to run Modernist literary journals like Orpheus’s Generation. He also keenly observed the dramatic changes that were then altering Portugal forever.

In October of 1910, republicans lead by the writer Teofilo Braga dethroned Manuel II, the last King of Portugal. Like the later Spanish Republic, the First Portuguese Republic sought to erase the “stain” of monarchism, reaction, pre-capitalism, and empire with a new system of individual rights, civil rights, and an identity based in an adherence to governmental law.

Like others, Pessoa got caught up in the widespread enthusiasm for the new First Portuguese Republic. As a man of the middle class, Pessoa believed that the republic held the keys to a better economic future. However, such materialist deductions were nothing compared to Pessoa’s mystical passions. The poet, according to Darlene J. Sadlier in “Nationalism, Modernity, and the Formation of Fernando Pessoa’s Aesthetic,” saw in the republic a chance to make a new, modern, and thoroughly Portuguese spirituality. The operational name of this identity was “Republican Sebastianism.”

However, Pessoa’s support for the republic began to wane. Republican Sebastianism, which sought to replace the much older belief in Sebastianism, or an imperial faith that the martyred child King Sebastian (who died fighting the Muslims at the Battle of Alcacer Quibir) would return one day to save the nation. Republican Sebastianism, which simply sought to make Portugal a cultural and political power once again, lacked the Christian mysticism of the original. Namely, Sebastianism, which remains a part of reactionary thought in both Portugal and Brazil, sees in the lost King Sebastian, who not only died fighting the hated Moors, but who also kept the tiny Portuguese nation from falling into the hands of the Castilian monarchs, a testament to the God-given glory of the Portuguese nation.

The First Portuguese Republic proved to be a failure all around. Historian Hugh Kay described it as a political order of “continual anarchy.” Worse still, the instability of the republic did not deter it from its anti-clerical mission. Led by Prime Minster Afonso Costa, the First Portuguese Republic moved to block the Roman Catholic Church from pursuing its purpose as a redoubt of arch-conservatism in the face of republican radicalism. As later aped by Spanish republicans in the 1920s and 30s, Portuguese republicans enacted the “wall of separation” law in 1911 that closed seminaries, nationalized church properties, ended the observance of several holy days, and secularized burial grounds. In one decisive thrust, the Portuguese First Republic claimed power over both life and death—a power more properly belonging to God and Jesus Christ.

Many point out that rampant fiscal insolvency caused by Portugal’s ill-planned involvement in World War I led to the military coup d’erat of May 28, 1926. However, as was seen later in Spain between 1936 and 1939, the deeply conservative Portuguese military, which included some junior officers influenced by Integralism, saw that republicans had created an anti-Catholic, anti-family, pro-capitalist state that ran contrary to the basic character of the Portuguese people. By purging liberals, republicans, and secularists, the military dictatorship paved the way for the “Estado Novo” (“New State”) of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. The corporatist Catholicism of Salazar’s state, which is still derided by scoffing neckbeards in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro who call themselves Communists, socialists, and liberals, wisely kept Portugal out of the Second World War, oversaw a flourishing and stable economy, and, along with South Africa and Rhodesia, led the good fight against Communism in Africa until 1974. When Salazar was removed thanks to the Carnation Revolution, the great and ancient Portuguese Empire went with him.

By the time he set down to craft Message, Pessoa saw in Salazar’s state the possibility of achieving a Portuguese Fifth Empire. Importantly, Pessoa envisioned this empire not as a material entity, but as a spiritual one. Pessoa’s poem “Prayer” contrasts the bleakness of the Portuguese First Republic (“All we have left, in this hostile silence, / Is nostalgia and the universal sea.”) with the possibilities of the New State (“Make us reconquer the Distance—of the sea / Or of another frontier we can possess!”). The sea, which Pessoa calls simply the “Portuguese Sea” in another poem, embodies the old Portuguese Empire of Ferdinand Magellan and the poet Luis Vaz de Camoes, the author of the neoclassical epic The Lusiads. The new Fifth Empire is made up of both the sea and the new frontier of spiritual and mental life. By directly invoking Camoes in Message, Pessoa articulates a desire for a new Portuguese expansion.

Imperium within and imperium without are defining characteristics of the Portuguese nation. The Integralism of order, the church, history, tradition, and hierarchies are the lifeblood of all great peoples, even for known occultists like Pessoa. Even more essential for Portuguese Catholics and for Catholics across the world, the Christian faith is a universal creed. This does not necessarily mean that Christianity is a multiculturalist faith. Rather, Christianity is an imperium whereby ultimate authority over disparate lands and peoples must be submitted to God and the church. This is the ultimate lesson of Pessoa’s “mystic nationalism”—Portugal, as the first great Catholic empire to navigate the world’s oceans, has a divine right to conqueror beyond its Iberian homeland.

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