The Portuguese Enigma
by Patrick Swift

I brought back from my Lisbon trip two valuable acquisitions — both gifts from António Quadros: his essay, 'O Enigma de Lisboa', and a curious old guide to the city which spoke of things like the 'stony abandoned land' beyond the top of the Avenida da Liberdade (now the Ritz). The first contained several enlightenments, the second a mass of fascinating details.
The essay revealed itself to be a work of ideas, and a type of writing not easily rendered into English. Essentially a reflective philosophical exercise of the mind. A stylish performance. Modern English usage does not accommodate the gentle, slightly romantic, nature of this sort of writing. For instance, 'The variety of form and the variety of colour situates man before the reality of nature. They lend to wandering man, to epic man, to man with a mission, a support which is indispensable and irreplaceable. This is one of the greatest lessons of Lisbon, a city where nature reveals herself and is systematically symbolised, as though deriving by syllogism from an open concept of being and of being human.' What seems beautiful and meaningful in Portuguese loses in translation. Nevertheless, I found it rewarding to consider this little philosophy or psychology of the city.
The premise is that the development of a city is not accidental: that inevitably it expresses the very soul of a people. Quadros draws attention to the common misuse of the term 'Manueline' in reference to the architecture of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Portugal — this he calls Atlantic Baroque. A consideration of the meaning of the Manueline style is central to the essay. In the aesthetics of the city's structure there subsists, for him, an intentional element. Through this we can diagnose the psychological Lisbon through the psychographic evidence.
Lisbon is generally agreed to be naturally beautiful by virtue of its position. Rising on hills from the great expanse of the Tagus, it is, as Quadros puts it, beautiful 'a priori'. But, he adds, the significant thing is that in the structure of the town we find a form of urban landscape that instead of shutting man off from nature attempts to reconcile him to it. This trait is so persistent that it cannot be called accidental. It forms a psychological line that cuts across all those diverse elements that have gone to create the conglomerate we call the lisboeta, the Lisbonese, of today: the Luso-Latin, the Luso-Arab, the Luso-Semite, the Luso-Atlantic, the Portuguese. This long line of mixed cultures, races, civilisations and religions, that has resulted in the Portuguese of today had a persistent original element: a special relationship to nature. Something which came to be logically theorised in the work of the Portuguese, Espinoza.
Lisbon is a city impregnated by nature. Quadros sees in the cities founded by Portuguese in far-off Brazil, India, Africa, China- in Rio de Janeiro, Luanda, Macau — a re-creation of this spirit; a nostalgia for Lisbon. There is no other Lisbon in Europe, and similarly there is no other Rio in South America, no other Luanda in Africa. A characteristic of all these is the survival of nature in the urban context; nature living in the midst of the city. Lisbon is, for him, archetypal, symbolic, mythical.
This point of view is in itself so expressive of something central to the Portuguese character that it throws light on the enigma: to me, it is clear that the Portuguese are —  in a way impossible to define — unique and individual. They are apart from the European main stream yet closely involved in Europe at various points of history. To say the nation is 'Atlantic' does express something.
Any visitor travelling by road or rail into Portugal will have been struck by the vivid and startling difference immediately noticeable on crossing the frontier. This applies to any point of the compass, whether from Galicia, Estremadura or Andalusia. There is at once apparent in the air — the ambience — a radical change. H N. Savory in his prehistory of the Iberian Peninsula, goes into the reason for writing of Spain and Portugal as one whole. In doing so he succeeds in emphasising the point I am now trying to make. He draws attention to the climatic boundary that separates 'wet' Spain from ‘dry’. The temperate northern coastal strip with its heavy rainfall and its natural forest cover of oak, elm, and ash extends as far as the Tagus. Its eastern limits roughly coincide with the edge of the Meseta — the inland plateau of the Peninsula. This climate forms the raison d'être of modern Portugal. The western coastal strip has mild wet winters and sufficient summer drought to enable Mediterranean type flora to flourish even as far north as Galicia. This mingling of two diverse climatic conditions — the hot and dry and the mild and wet — is most apparent in the areas between the Tagus and the Douro. In other words, in the very heart of Portugal. The whole of this strip, with its particularly heavy and luxuriant vegetation, turns its back on the harsh interior and looks out to the sea. As Savory puts it, looking to sea-ways, leading in early days to the Mediterranean and northern Europe, and more recently to all parts of the world. It was the basis in prehistoric times for an 'Atlantic' cultural sphere (and this has particular interest for French and British prehistory).
All of this is very relevant to understanding the essence of Portugal. Quadros' essay extends this Atlantic idea to an understanding of the personality of the people. It seems reasonable to suppose that it was the settled and civilised farming communities of the seaboard who, persisting as such basic communities do, throughout changing phases of history and prehistory, lent the deepest notes to the personality of the nation. They had a genius for absorbing and transforming foreign influences from the very earliest times (Eastern influence, Greek influence, Celtic influence). Thus the notion that the recurrent dominations — Latin, Visigoth, Arab — and the great impact of the Jews (and Negroes?) could all have been absorbed, transformed and given a coherent character is not by any means fanciful.
Quadros calls the vital element in this sort of absorption and transformation a 'cult of nature'. He sees in it a key to the cultural and religious character of the Portuguese.
Your true Portuguese is deeply religious. Lisbon can be seen, if looked at from this point of view, as a town composed of temples to the cult of nature. The innumerable miradouros, and belvederes, each with its garden (a tiny bit of nature humanised), lodged on the edge of steep hills looking over those unsurpassable views, are temples of an esoteric cult. These places are nearly all legendary and sacred in some way. Even a short list is impressive — Castelo de S. Jorge, the fortress turned into a quiet garden where the peacock struts on the lawns; Senhora da Monte, like a little village square; Santa Luzia, gazing over the rooftops of the Alfama down to the river (a view unchanged since the caravels of the Order of Christ anchored off below); S. Pedro de Alcantara looking across at the Castelo de S Jorge over the dense life of the city beneath; the Alto de Santa Catarina, a strange little platform set perfectly for watching the ships pass up and down the river; Janelas Verdes, a rich profusion of greenery presiding over the rumble of activity along the docks. Lisbon in modern times again gives expression to this cult of nature: the magnificent park of Monsanto, incontestably one of the finest stretches of woodland within a city that exists, crowned by a hilltop that offers over immeasurable tracts of the Estremadura with the river rolling seawards.
There is an interesting point about the vegetation of Lisbon. When Lisbon offers us a park, it is not merely a rich growth of European trees and flowers — it is a feast of the exotic and strange, a botanic fantasy. Flowering trees and shrubs from the remote and luxuriant corners of India, Guinea, and Brazil fill the parks of Campo Grande, Ajuda, Estrela, Estufa Fria and the Jardim Botânico. And where in Europe is there a zoological garden which is so much a garden as that of Lisbon? The city is full of remote corners shaded in exotic foliage, little shrines to nature, mysterious retreats where couples linger amid the blessings of a beneficent earth goddess.
António Quadros carries this line of thought a step further. Maybe too far. Yet when one thinks of the city, and the streets that climb the numerous hills to little squares looking out on the river, it is difficult not to be convinced. The lisboeta is not satisfied merely with his parks and his gardened miradouros, he brings this cult into the intimacy of his daily life — his window becomes his gardened miradouro, his shrine to nature. Here he conducts this intimate dialogue between man and his primordial environment. Throughout old Lisbon, it is rare to find a house un-bedecked with a variety of pots, cases and boxes bursting forth with a host of different plants and flowers, some trailing many feet down towards the street. The cheering sight of a morning is the ladies of Lisbon watering and caring for their little window gardens; one of the joys of the capital.
The visual aspect of the city supports Quadros' thesis. There is an inherent impulse to grow in harmony with nature, with natural laws. The streets have their own logic in space and time. They follow the contours and do not attempt to contradict the natural lie of the city's position on the hills by the river. In the pictures of the Portuguese painters Carlos Botelho and Maria Helene Vieira da Silva we see confirmation of this feeling; and it can be seen from any of the miradouros, where the cityscape rises before one like a watercolour in faded wash. A gentle blending from yellow to green to blue and pink, with ever-present foliage breaking the lines. The configuration of Lisbon is essentially irregular — a natural form of growth. No great monuments strike across the accumulations of haphazard shape clinging to the steep hills; what monuments there are seem inevitable — pinnacles to a natural mountain of houses and streets.
Architecture reflects in turn harmony and devotion to nature. The applied arts — ironwork, azulejo, precious metal — show a tendency for the fluent and natural form. The spiral, the curve, the elliptical flowing line of the wrought iron of the innumerable balconies of old Lisbon show this. The jewellery, the filigrana, though admittedly pretty degraded in popular reproductions for tourism, is an ancient lisboeta art. In its way it too shows the same tendency. But above all the emergence of the Manueline style, Altantic Baroque, shows this marriage of the natural with the artefact in full flower. This is a triumph of Atlantic man. It emerges with the same burst of genius and energy that saw the discoveries and the rise of a type of Portuguese — the man with a sense of mission.
Quadros' essay had made me reflect on the phenomenon that is Lisbon. It is true that nature is present in and throughout the city. Where else in Europe is there a great central avenue with two complete and very natural gardens plonk in the middle? While the traffic roars up and down the Avenida da Liberdade one can meander by the flowing waters of these little gardens. It is almost possible to be unaware of the flood of poisonous machinery on both sides of these oases. But what Quadros is saying is that there is a 'Portuguese' truth. A Portuguese truth and, at a certain historical moment, a Portuguese mission, a national destiny.
It was between the times of D. Diniz and the great Manuel I that Portugal fulfilled its historic role, its great mission. This is not merely, as an English reader might suppose, a conceit of modern Portuguese reflection on more glorious times. The notion of a mission, of a nation with a high destiny was prevalent in the times of the Navigator. In Camões it is given expression on the epic scale (and Camões is one of the great poets of Europe). Other poets such as Guerra Junqueiro, Teixeira de Pascoais, and, more recently, Fernando Pessoa have been obsessed with the idea, have devoted a considerable amount of time and talent to the attempt to understand the national identity — a mission. Pessoa, whose talent belongs to the Parnassian level beyond national considerations, believed that the Portuguese epic cycle that closed with the era of the Discoveries had entered another phase and again awaited completion — that the nation had before it a destiny to fulfil.
Ideas of this order can only be interesting when expressed in forms that are convincing. What is important is that the idea informs literature of a high order, that the concept of 'man with a mission' haunts the Portuguese imagination.
Quadros sees in the Jerónimos at Belém the visible monument to this national mission accomplished through the Navigators. In discovering new continents, new seas, they were discovering a truth of Portugal — in other words, man's relation to nature. The spirit of man oscillates between transcendentalism and humanism, but there is the third dimension of nature herself. Through the dialogue between man and nature lies a way to God.
Unless one can grasp that notions of this order are the stock in trade of the Portuguese mind, one can never hope to understand Portugal. It is for this reason, I think, that so many modern visitors are fascinated and baffled by the mystery of the Portuguese character. To the rational, logical mind it is romantic madness; to the closed political mind it is nationalism. To such people, a passage like this from Quadros' essay, referring to the Jerónimos, cannot mean much:

I am going to say what a secular and ancestral voice says to all who penetrate the cathedral of Santa Maria at Belém, a cathedral of Portuguese religious feeling, consecrated to the Virgin, protectress of Portugal and whose patrons, significantly, are the Three Magi: 'Thus do you enter the kingdom of God through the gates of nature. It is nature, in the world of generation and corruption, in the world of birth and death, that human life unfolds. Do not aspire, egoistic man, for a unique and exclusive salvation for your soul. Meditate on what is inscribed here on this doorway: these are the roots of the earth and the waves of the sea, they are the creatures of the clay and the coral of the ocean, they are the continents and countries, the human race. Behold, man, your destiny: go round the world and ascend with it, if you wish for the triumph of redemption.

This attempt to relay some of Quadros' ideas is very crude. But it may give a hint of this side of the Portuguese personality. There is in Portugal a continuous form of dialogue carried on from generation to generation, and indeed between generations, and it hinges on the obsession with identity.
In the poetry of Camões where it is epic, it is in full flower of accomplishment. Despite the dark fates that haunt Camões (and find their most beautiful expression in his sonnets), his is a poetry of confidence. Camões, though in life a tragic figure, belonged to an age of optimism and achievement. His is a large and complex world, encompassing the full gamut of human agony and of human glory. It is when we come to Fernando Pessoa that the obsession in its more intimate and human scale is apparent. Pessoa belongs to the company of W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. He is one of the great poets of this century. Like Camões, he frequently comes across in his writing as a tragic figure. His poetry ranges from the epic to the lyric. But for the purpose of these remarks about the Portuguese character it is his extreme self-consciousness that is interesting. He was intensely aware of himself as a Portuguese. This was an extension of his fundamental introspection. His creation of a theory of poetry called 'sensationism' is very much in tune with the psychology Quadros tries to define in his reflections on Lisbon. In 'sensationism', Pessoa denied the possibility or validity of any form of 'objective' reality. To be open to the world in an affirmative way, to accept and to merge with experience, with life, was central to his aesthetic (though of course he would deny having an aesthetic). He used to quote Espinoza: a philosophy is right in what it affirms, wrong in what it denies. This is close to the idea of being at one with nature. It is worth while quoting Pessoa, for he is both witty and enlightening on being Portuguese:

We cannot admit a man writing in his native language unless he has something to say which only a man speaking that language could say. The great point about Shakespeare is that he could not but be English. That is why he wrote in English and was born in England. A thing that can just as well be said in one language as another had better not be said at all.
The Portuguese Sensationists are original and interesting because, being strictly Portuguese, they are cosmopolitan and universal. The Portuguese temperament is universal; that is its magnificent superiority. The one great act of Portuguese history
— that long cautious, scientific period of the Discoveries — is the one great cosmopolitan act in history. The whole people stamp themselves there. An original typically Portuguese literature cannot be Portuguese, because the typical Portuguese are never Portuguese. There is something American, with the noise left out and the quotidian omitted, in the intellectual temper of this people. No people seize so readily on novelties. No people de-personalise so magnificently. That weakness is its great strength. That temperamental non-regionalism is its unused might. That indefiniteness of soul is what makes them definite.

I am tempted to go on quoting this paradoxical mind. I must at least give one more sample both contrary and enlightening.

They [the Portuguese] have no stable elements as the French have, who only make revolutions for export. The Portuguese are always making revolutions. When a Portuguese goes to bed he makes a revolution because the Portuguese who wakes up the next day is quite different. He is precisely a day older. Other people wake up every morning yesterday. Tomorrow is always several years away. Not so this quite strange people. They go so quick that they leave everything undone, including going quick. Nothing is less idle than a Portuguese. The only idle part of the nation is the working part of it. Hence their lack of evident progress.

Considerable intimacy over a period of eight years has not lessened the mystery of this people for me. I can say this, too: Portugal is a closed book to any but the imaginative and generous spirit; it is no country for
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard's eye.

I would go further. It seems to me that a country so radically different in spiritual temper from the rest of Europe, a country where the religious instinct of man is alive, cannot but have a contribution to make in a world daily going more rapidly down the path of boredom and despair, of technocratic dreariness, the arid desert of modern civilised life.
Here are the last words of Antonio Quadros' essay:
We must take cognisance of what we are and of what others are and what they represent. If we wish to fulfill our vocation we must discover and realise our individuality, the character of our relationship with our end and our beginnings.
Lisbon is a unique city which has not yet taken account of what she is and what her value is. This is the key, I readily confess, to this essay which I offer on the place where I was born, where I live and where I will die.


Dublin Oil - Dublin Watercolour/ Ink - Italy - Oakridge/ Ashwell Watercolour - Oakridge/ Ashwell Oil - London Oil - London Watercolour/ Ink - France - Algarve Oil - Algarve Watercolour/ Ink - Self-Portraits - Trees - Portraits I - Portraits II - Porches Pottery - Books - Misc - Algarve Studio
Note: many of the reproductions displayed here are of poor quality

By Swift
Nano Reid - Some notes on Caravaggio - Italian Report - The Artist Speaks - X magazine - RHA Exhibition 1951 - Eça de Queiroz & Fernando Pessoa - The Portuguese Enigma - Notebooks - All

About Swift
Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal - IMMA 1993 Retrospective Catalogue - Dublin 1950-2 - By His Friends - X magazine - Poems - Further Quotes About - All

By His Friends
Anthony Cronin - John Ryan - John Jordan - C.H.Sisson - Martin Green - John McGahern - David Wright - Lima de Freitas - Katherine Swift - Tim Motion - Lionel Miskin - Jacques D'Arribehaude - Brian Higgins - George Barker - Patrick Kavanagh

Further Quotes
Brian Fallon - Aidan Dunne - Derek Hill - Brendan Behan - Lucian Freud - Patrick Kavanagh - Elizabeth Smart - Further Quotes About