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A provocative view of Portuguese identity

by ace
A provocative view of Portuguese identity

In O Labirinto da Saudade (1978), a fundamental work to understand contemporary Portuguese culture, Eduardo Lourenço identifies the Portuguese as a passive, lethargic, unoriginal and averse to audacity that, in order to escape from a decadent present, marked by crises and multiple catastrophes, he spends his time contemplating the caravels of the 15th and 16th centuries. The reader now will wonder if the philosopher is right, if the Portuguese today, those of the “best prepared generation ever”, who work in Europe and adapt and study and speak languages, remain downcast and in denial in relation to a reality that is not generous to them. Are we still going to be a people that oscillate between black depressions and exaggerated euphoria, between inferiority complexes and this “exaggerated benfiquismo” that, in fateful moments of glory, inspires us to shout that there is no one better than us?

Reading Lourenço and other intellectuals, writers and poets who meditated on issues related to Portuguese identity (from Oliveira Martins to Teixeira de Pascoaes, the list is endless), we get the feeling that the Portuguese have been living closed, obsessed with themselves, intrigued by the relentlessness of crises and the inability revealed by successive governments to find ways to overcome sadness and longing. For those who live outside Portugal and watch the conquests and misfortunes of the Portuguese from a distance, it never hurts to realize that there is a lot of sense in these descriptions and that even today we cry with that melancholy and boring song called fado. From the doorman of the building to Mrs. Maria on the third left, no one hesitates to shout that “this is getting worse and worse”, that outside (in Europe, in America), far from the schemes and corruptions, it is that one lives well and in abundance. In Portugal, says the same lady Maria, resentful of the stepmother life she led, it is just schemes, pleasantries and favors, and whoever wants to go far has to be a doctor's cousin or nephew. However, at the same time that this occurs, poor man who dares to criticize Portugal to a Portuguese: he is immediately shaken with patriotic hymns and references to the great centuries of history, the verses of Fernando Pessoa, the sermons of Padre António Vieira and the heroic deeds of the Discoveries.

Subscribing to the ideas of the aforementioned Portuguese philosopher, I would say that having many centuries of history is something that fills us with pride and, although only momentarily and due to the strangest reasons, makes us forget the miseries of the present. When Cristiano Ronaldo raised a trophy in Paris a few years ago, after the Portuguese soccer team won the French, it was not a player who was there, but Vasco da Gama teaching foreigners the meaning of being Portuguese. When Salvador Sobral won the Eurovision Song Contest and was greeted with tears and applause at Portela airport, Camões, Cabral and all the heroes of the country, condensed in that D. Sebastião, were there. All of this means that so much sadness and cuts and austerities turn any small victory into a kind of rediscovery of the Fifth Empire.

What I intend to affirm with this short article is that the 21st century, the opening of borders and advances in schooling have not saved us from this acute sadness, from this problem of existing poor, fatalistic, with brief flashes of euphoria. In this spiritual empire by the seaside, the backwardness, the provincialism, the envy and the bureaucrats of António Lobo Antunes' novel still live, which prevent Luís de Camões from Africa to bury his father's coffin. The exaggerated benfiquismo mentioned by Eduardo Lourenço is the result of decades of waning and fear and survives at the expense of optimistic political speeches that try to perpetuate the doldrums. In their own way, each Portuguese has carried the burden of discovery, has carried the historic cross of wanting to be a world without being able to be European or cosmopolitan or open to the world. We left Portugal without leaving the village, we carried the gloomy fado to New York, we ate cod and crust in Queens, we went on saying that everything is going wrong, that it used to be, and that if they were all like us, we would be better served. This is our evil, not being able to be who we should be, not knowing how to be others, remaining locked in a silent bubble that inspires us to believe in the fantasy that in Portugal the best food is produced, the best athletes, the best writers, the best everything the world will ever see.

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