Saudade, Sebastianismo: Portugal

Today’s poem provoked me to some thoughts about Celticism.  Can you remember the theme tune from Titanic?  I think it will get you in the mood.

Texeira de Pascoes (1877-1952)

Who's that coming through the mist?

Who’s that coming through the mist?

Shadow of life, speak! Come tell me
your eternal secret.
O Cosmic shadow
shine out. I want to find myself
on your intimate, suffering breast.
I want to see you and get to know you, O life!
I want to touch your divine essence.
I want to see you in person and not
by means of lies and mere appearances.
Ah, tell me the very last word,
the magical word, that has been
a pallid, scarcely perceptible murmur,
an indeterminate vocal reflex
more a living light-struck silence,
in the mouthes of prophets and saints…
and a mechanical, dull imagein the dry, arid mouth of the wise…
and perfume in the opening flower,
and the vagueness of mist, water on the lips,
the avid and mute verb on rough rock
and light’s soft sound on soft sand
gorgeous song of the seven choirs
the Rainbow where divine love exists.
Feverish scream in the mouth when the sun burns
and sepulchral pallor in the sad moonlight.
It is what I, afflicted, say to the dark shadow
of life. And the dark shadow awoke
and a nocturnal voice, in my ears,
grew resounding splendidly, and spoke like this:

Listen to your heart if you want
to know the eternal living essence
which is bound up in transitory forms
where I was a little blind girl and a captive
in those forms I cried with tragic bitterness,
I suffered death, exile and misery
until one day, I was freed at last
from the brute density of matter.

Behold, look at the melancholy spirit,
the original: see the huge shadow
that was torn from top to bottom like
the black temple veils.

And from this formless
strange, cosmic shadow emerged
a scarcely visible ghostly glowing,
a faint form that little by little opened
its eyes in a Nebulous look.

And then the ethereal Mist wanted
to be a star and break apart in light
and the shining star wanted to be a frozen world
bathed in the blood of Jesus.
Then the bright chilled star
on the lips of dawn which impregnated it
turned itself into a tender green plant
which afterwards became, miraculously,
a creator also…

Last month I was in Portugal walking the Camino from Ponte de Lima to Santiago. We stayed in a beautiful country manor home in Calheiros, near Ponte de Lima. On a misty morning as we looked out over the valley, Francisco, the owner, spoke to me about Sebastianismo. Sebastian was a king of Portugal who disappeared in a calamitous battle in North Africa in which the cream of the Portuguese nobility was wiped out. He was young and the people thought of him as a good king so they did not want to accept that he had died. In the troubled years that followed a feeling grew that he had not, in fact, died, but had sailed out to the western sea and would return some day to restore justice and peace. The yearning for an ideal past and the idea that through the mists some day “a shining Star” itself the embodiment of an “ethereal Mist” will appear continued well into the twentieth-century: Sebastianismo has been potent in Portuguese and Brazilian politics and culture.

“Look at the mist on the hills,” said Francisco.  “That is Sebastianismo.”  How do you connect mist and the returning king?

The idea of the returning king has echoes of King Arthur. If you remember the Arthurian legend, the king also sails out into the western sea and will return. The cosmic battle of good and evil with a human king involved was cannily picked up by Tolkein in his Lord of the Rings books, which are larded with a Celticism he took from The Song of Ossian. One of those books is even called The Return of the King.  Ah, the plucky little hobbits who overthrow the mighty empire of the evil wizard: they are Irish, aren’t they? Or looking a different direction, think of cheeky Leonard di Caprio in Titanic helping his girlfriend to “fly” for that brief moment as they sail into the Western sea: that is part of the same Celtic deal too. The Titanic soundtrack could swell in the background of many a celticising legend.

This all suggests that there is more to the lyrical gallic connection than some people would like to admit- a melancholy feeling that, even when times are hard, you can yearn for a beautiful past and an impossible future. This yearning in Galicia goes by the name saudade, and the same word is used in Portugal and Brazil. Indeed there is a movement of poetry in nineteenth-century Portuguese poetry that is called “saudesista“.

Texeira de Pascoes (1877-1952) was born in Amarante. He was the founder of the “saudesista” movement, which explores “saudade” in all its forms. The poem above is his definition of “saudade“: he says that “saudade” was born of the fusion of Roman and Semitic blood and is, therefore, both pagan and Christian at the same time. I think you can appreciate in the poem the mythological thinking that goes into making the shadow of life an expression of saudade.

I was struck by the line “tell me the very last word/the magical word” because it chimes in with another book I have been reading recently: Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, Historia de los Heterodoxos Españoles. I was searching for an account of the life of Prisciliano, a fourth century heretic who gained a vocal following in Galicia that came to threaten the church so much he was eventually executed. St Martin of Tours protested at this judgement.

According to Menéndez Pelayo, Prisciliano’s ideas were a mish-mash of Eastern mysticism and Manicheanism. The Manicheans believed that God could not have made all the evil in the world since God is good, so they invented a demiurge as the creator of evil. Observing the world, however, one could not deny the evidence of God’s grace. This grace, they said, comes from the sparks of divine breath that God breathed into his first Creation, and since then he has remained distant. The soul’s job is to work its way back to God.

I think you can see how this heretical belief could lead into saudade/sebastianismo: the soul is yearning for divine reunion. Divine sparks left in God’s creation come together in the mist.

This might have been my own fanciful imagining alone if it were not for Texeira de Pascoes mention of the “very last word/the magical word”. Here the coincidence becomes more striking. Texeira de Pascoes is not asking us to imagine Gandalf. The Manicheans and, by extension Prisciliano, believed that when the body died the Soul went on a journey to reunite itself with the Creator. On this journey it was important for the Soul to know the secret words in order not to be thwarted by the powers of evil. Actually that does sound a bit like Gandalf, come to think of it, as he struggles to make the grade as a White Wizard. Amongst the Albigensians, who could be seen as a later incarnation of Priscilianism, Gandalf would have made a fine Perfect, one of their elders who by discipline and meditation earned the “white cloak”.

In the trial of Prisciliano it was asserted that he and his followers gathered in moonlit woodland glades. Does this make him a distant ancestor of the saudesistas? Or does it just mean that Texeira de Pascoes read Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo and had the same thoughts that I am having?  Anyway the woodland connection was sufficient justification for the painting of the day also: a figure coming through the trees.

This post has been a whirlwind of readings, thoughts and ideas. I think I am going to have to keep reading!

About Jason Preater

Working on Projects
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