As I started Week 2 of the Darkest Timeline, I left the house and walked out into a veil of fog that silenced the usual morning noises and shrouded the usual morning sights. It felt like a fitting way to start a week in a newly unfamiliar world.
Unrepentant fangirl that I am, I had a Fernando Pessoa quote immediately leap to mind to describe how I felt. No, not my usual “Tudo vale a pena se a alma e pequena/Everything is worth (the effort) if the soul is not small.” A very different poem came to mind:
Nem rei nem lei, nem paz nem guerra,
Define com perfil e ser
Este fulgor baço da terra
Que é Portugal a entristecer —
Brilho sem luz e sem arder
Como o que o fogo-fátuo encerra.
Ninguém sabe que coisa quer.
Ninguém conhece que alma tem,
Nem o que é mal nem o que é bem.
(Que ânsia distante perto chora?)
Tudo é incerto e derradeiro.
Tudo é disperso, nada é inteiro.
Ó Portugal, hoje és nevoeiro…
Neither king nor law, neither peace nor war
Defines the profile or self
Of this dull flame of the earth.
Portugal is saddening –
Shining without light, without burning
An extinguishing will-o’-the-wisp.
No one knows what they want.
No one knows what soul they have,
Neither what is evil nor what is good.
(What distant anxiety weeps nearby?)
Everything is uncertain and final.
Everything is dispersed, nothing is whole.
O Portugal, today you are fog.
Or, for everyone out there who isn’t a student of epic poetry as a nation building exercise, Mensagem was written as an examination of Portugal’s glorious past in the face of an uncertain future. Luis de Camoes wrote Os Lusiadas as Portugal was reaching his peak during the Age of Discovery. It was the tale of Vasco da Gama’s journey to India just as The Aeneid was about Aeneas’s journey from Troy to Rome. The Aeneid tells the story of how one man founded Rome, but Os Lusiadas tells Vasco da Gama’s story as the crowning glory of an entire people’s accomplishments. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but at the time it was the equivalent of the moon landing. Vasco da Gama took one long voyage for a man (and his crew), but a giant leap for mankind.
Os Lusíadas was written by Camoes for King Sebastian. It was written to recount Portugal’s greatness, but also to warn the young king that it was his responsibility to maintain that legacy. Instead, Sebastian pursued madness, zealotry. He died somewhere in North Africa, his body never found, in a hopeless attempt to convert the heathen Moors. Heirless, his dynasty died with him. Portugal became part of the Spanish Habsburg empire for eighty years, beginning the long and slow decline that would define the Portuguese psyche ever since.
Fernando Pessoa wrote during a very different time. It was the Estado Novo dictatorship, and one of the regime’s favorite forms of propaganda was to hearken back the Age of Discovery. Pessoa wrote Mensagem for a contest being run by the Secretariat of National Propaganda. They loved it so much that he won in a category they had to create because Mensagem didn’t quite fit the parameters of the contest.
Here’s the thing: Mensagem isn’t a propaganda message. It’s a fucking wake up call. I left off the end of the poem: É a hora! (Portuguese. It’s the hour! or It’s time!) Valete, Frateres. (Latin: Farewell, brothers. or Live long and prosper.)
I feel like we’re living in that hour now. It’s the hour—but what hour is it? Our finest, or our last?
There’s a longing for a better past in the face of an uncertain future in Portuguese literature. Saudade. I’ve always thought it was beautiful, in part because I could never find anything like it in American literature. (Okay, mayyyybe Southern Gothic.) America never suffered a setback that it couldn’t recover from.
Portugal’s fall was self-inflicted by a mad king. I worry that America’s will be the same.