Wednesday, June 7, 2017
In the avalanche of journalistic opprobrium that greeted the President’s visit to NATO and his subsequent announcement of American withdrawal from the Paris Accords, one barb had a special sting for me. Somebody said that the President seemed determined to make America a world leader of a rank “about like Portugal’s.” Hold that thought.
Well, the Princeton Reunions, which are quite the covfefe, took place this past weekend, and we attended some of the more age-appropriate and intellectually respectable parts. These were very respectable indeed, featuring well conducted expert panel discussions on such topics as “A Book That Changed Your Life,” “Reflections on Class and Race,” and “Changing the Climate of Climate Change.” We also took in a terrific lecture on “Shakespeare’s Style,” and participated in the seminar of the forty-second reunion of Bob Hollander’s famous Dante course. As usual I saw hundreds of old students--in that fleeting, wholly unsatisfactory fashion of the four-second conversation.
What with one thing and another, I hadn’t been on campus much of late, and I took the opportunity to go by my old departmental office, where occasional bits of mail still show up. To my great surprise—and momentary consternation, given the logistical problem presented—I found there a hefty box of books. These were the “author’s copies” of my latest scholarly publication (Luís de Camões: the Poet as Scriptural Exegete) sent to me by my publisher in England. I had not been expecting them. I thought the publication date was in July or August.
When I retired a decade ago I wanted to continue reading and writing, but I also wanted to challenge myself with some projects outside my habitual beat. I have now published three such books, the latest and most conventionally scholarly of which involved the challenge of dealing with the Portuguese language in an archaic and highly classicizing form roughly analogous to the English of the Faerie Queene. It is the shortest book I ever wrote. It took me the longest time to write. It is also an allegory of the crisis in academic publishing; at fifty cents per printed page, it is roughly fifteen times the price of my first book (1969).
We don’t know all that much about Luís de Camões, who died in 1580, aged about fifty-five, except that he ticked most of the right boxes for the Renaissance Man contest: scholar, soldier, lover, adventurer, Portuguese patriot. Above all he was a very great poet, author of what I think is the finest of the secular Renaissance epics, the Lusíadas (Lusiads in English) as well as a large body of lyric poetry. He has a small number of fine religious poems. My book is an analysis of the most famous of these, an extraordinary poetic commentary on the psalm Super flumina (“By the Waters of Babylon”). It is quite the equal of Milton’s “Lycidas” in my opinion, though practically nobody, even among professional scholars of Renaissance literature, has ever heard of it. That is because it is written in Portuguese—which brings me back to the thought I trust you have been holding for the last four paragraphs.
Tiny Portugal was a most unlikely world “leader”. Its land mass is about the size of Indiana. In the year of Camões’s birth its population was approximately 1.25 million. In the earlier Middle Ages the Portuguese had been overwhelmed by African aggressors. In the later Middle Ages they were under constant threat from Castilian aggressors. The subject of the Lusiads is the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India (1497-1499). Within the period of about a century a tiny, marginal, thinly populated Iberian country had established a vast maritime empire in Africa, on the Asian mainland, and in the Malay Archipelago. It “owned” that half of South America we today call Brazil. This was an epic achievement that deserved an epic poet. As a “world leader” little Portugal was doing quite well for itself.
But history is all about change, and there is waning as well as waxing. “I saw that all the torments are caused by mutability, and mutability by the years,” wrote Camões in his poem; “when I saw how many deceptions time works on our hopes.” The political pillar of Camões’s world was Empire. Its spiritual pillar was the militant and intolerant Catholicism that several centuries of the Iberian experience of Islamic occupation had created. Both crumbled before the advance of modernity, leaving as memorials in widely disparate parts of the world some great buildings, some great art, and the Portuguese language with its linguistic and literary artifacts. Too many of the contemporary European intellectuals who inhabit literature faculties are disposed to excoriate history as opposed to trying to understand it. For them all history must be the reflecting pool of Narcissus. It is no wonder that great writers of the past who resist being remade in the postmodern image are having a particularly rough ride these days; but it is a pity, and a loss. To conclude that America is destined for a world leadership role “about like Portugal’s” seems premature; but should that day arrive I hope there will still be those who keep alive the memory of our great old writers.
façade of the Bom Jesus church, Goa (1605)