A colleague of mine from Anthropology once told me that one of the landmarks in the evolution of our species was the moment when we started to put flowers on the graves of our dead. The flowers were useless from a pragmatic point of view, yet they fulfilled a fundamental need: that of remembering, of keeping alive (even if only for a short period of time) the memory of those we had loved and who had loved us. The function of those flowers was, just like art: symbolic. Apparently useless, yet, for that very reason, of paramount importance – what makes us human and allows us to relate to others, merging past and present with future – which is precisely what poetry does.
I belong to the generation of the 25th April 1974, the year of our revolution, which put an end to a Fascist regime that had lasted 40 years under the dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. My generation grew up learning all there was to learn about separate spheres, an ideology that ascribed to women the duty of rearing children in the Catholic faith, with the kitchen as their headquarters; but it also grew up secretly listening to protest songs that spoke about socialism and a better world, about resistance and freedom. Yet socialism in our Europe came to mean different things. In 2000, I participated, along with a group of 103 other writers, in the inter-European cultural initiative, the Literatur Express, which retraced Tolstoy’s journey by train between Lisbon and Berlin, passing through various cities in Western Europe and Eastern Europe. In Moscow, in an interview, I spoke of “socialism” and the interviewer stopped recording and told me that he refused to talk about dictatorships. I had spoken of socialism in the sense of freedom and justice, but the journalist had understood socialism in the sense of “communism” as in the dictatorial regime in the USSR…
More than 20 years have passed since that interview, and almost 50 years have elapsed since I used to listen with friends to songs that spoke of what are, for me, the fundamental pillars of true democracy: peace, decent housing and food, free health care and education – and access to art. In the times we are living in now, I can’t help thinking back to those days of 1974, when everything seemed possible. For me, for the generation that experienced a bloodless revolution and the legacies of the various victories of the 60s (the end of racial segregation, the decolonization process, the student movement, the environmentalist movement, the emancipation of women, the conquest, by sexual minorities, of a voice and a place of their own), it is deeply sad to recognize what I knew only in theory: that no victory is irreversible, that no conquest is definitive – above all, that no triumph of justice is safe from looting and devastation.
In the last decades, we have witnessed a new global war motivated by the interests of large economic groups serviced in turn by new technologies and social media. The threat of the destruction of our fragile ecosystem hangs over us; what had been absolutely unthinkable a few decades ago has now become reality and with it the danger of the downfall of democracy, with the collusion of high finance and neo-liberalism and the fierce escalation of neo-Fascisms. Oxfam International called this situation “obscene”. As Noam Chomsky notes in a splendid book that came out in April 2017, Requiem for the American Dream: The Ten Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power, two of the principles for the concentration of wealth and power are “to keep the rabble in order” and “to attack solidarity”. This doesn’t just apply to the United States; it is, rather, a global phenomenon. And Europe, our Europe, which saw the birth of the great social revolutions, where democracy began and where, already in the 20th century, public policies on health, housing, education and culture were fully developed, our Europe is no longer the defender of rights, but has started to join the army of those who attack them.
There is a poem by Fernando Pessoa, “The Castles”, where Europe is centre stage. The poem begins by stating “Europe lies propped on her elbows: / From East to West she lies, staring out, remembering, / Her vision obscured by Romantic curls,/ Greek eyes”. Pessoa’s poem was published in 1928 and concludes with a Europe majestically facing West: “Her gaze doom-heavy, sphinx-like, she stares/ Out at the West, the future of the past. // The face staring out is the face of Portugal”.
In 2013, I published a book called Escuro [Dark], in which I have a poem titled “Europe”, which is a response to Pessoa’s poem. But my Europe could never be his Europe; mine had been kidnapped, despoiled and was in need of reviewing herself and her history:
[Europe] does not have much to gaze at, only people murdered
by multiple disguises: chemical light,
blazing fires, names amputated
by numbers, tables crammed with numbers.
Did she ever see anything? What thefts and furies
formed her landscapes? And standing
before her finest art (symphonies open
as clouds, dazzling colours,
rocks painted with exquisite lines,
with touching marks and words),
even standing before her, so distant, so beautiful,
what winds stirred her hair?
Even with the sudden breeze of the new century,
what futures did she see? Wars destroying
lands and people, the blue light of the moon
on the trenches, the purest of impieties gleaming
She has no eyes to see with now, if she ever
had: she lost them in other wars.
All she can do is struggle, like a suffering dolphin
trapped in the net. She has no eyes, no hands,
Europe sees nothing. She does not even have elbows
to hold up justices or goodness.
And even here, were she to look over here, she would see nothing,
Only more screams. No voice. No south.
No dazzling sphinx.
I was very angry with my Europe when I wrote that poem, because entering the second half of the twentieth-century meant understanding that the progress and the well-being of a people could be seen as its capacity both to increase social well-being and to nurture education and culture. Yet the neo-liberal policies of the last few decades have been intent on undermining both: education and culture. Formal education has been transformed into a mass of endless, muddled bureaucracy, for the most part useless. Lack of culture and education only leads to a deep failure in critical thought, aggravated by the idea instilled into people of boundless consumption, which creates only a false feeling of joy – a void that ultimately leads to depression. And how useful this has proved for some governments here, in our Europe: to use depression as a path to oppression.
For me, an alternative continues to be solidarity. Emmanuel Levinas spoke of the face of the Other demanding responsibility; Walter Benjamin spoke about the need to pay attention to the tradition of the oppressed. We have not yet been totally stripped of our citizens’ rights; we have not yet been completely cut off from participation in politics. Therefore, solidarity, in its many different forms, can be a way of resisting and of building a kinder and more compassionate world. Other alternatives are the refusal to remain silent, even when fear looms. And art too – in my case, the art of poetry. In its ability to build worlds, poetry can be a brilliant mechanism for enhancing human strength. Thus, the beautiful question in William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” “Can I see another’s woe / And not be in sorrow too?”, or his famous lines “Some are born to sweet delight / Some are born to endless night”, can be read as a way of denouncing that absence of love and solidarity (or sympathy, feeling with) which is a real abomination. William Blake was writing about the cruelties of his own England in the late eighteenth-century, but also about the world and the place of the other throughout time. I believe that art can reinforce an ethics of care and a poetics of affection, because it feeds on “memory transfusions” – which can produce in us both emotion and locomotion, moving us, in the double sense of the word.
Attacking solidarity means opening up a route for hate. And hate produces aberrant things, like hate itself, together with xenophobia, racism, homophobia, sexism. That is why everything is connected: the political-economic contexts and poverty; poverty and violence; violence and gender inequality; and the various, terrible, unspeakable discriminations – of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexualities. But if Europe is under threat of becoming a space ruled by the hegemony of the so-called financial industries, it is still, at the same time, a dreamed land of escape and rescue. I’m thinking, of course, about the refugees, human beings fleeing the Iraqi crisis, the civil war in Syria or in the Horn of Africa, those against whom some of the countries of our Europe erected walls – sometimes of silence, sometimes bureaucratic, sometimes real. And all this is being done in the name of nationalisms and unity, trying to erase the fact that 20th-century Europe already includes other continents, such as Asia or Africa, and other religions, such as Hinduism or Islam. For me, what is extraordinary is to be Babel and to inhabit Babel, to be able to dwell in a multifaceted space; because to be Babel also means to be human. And, ultimately, this is what ultra-conservative ideologies want to destroy with their insistence on national identities and their attempt at erasing history.
In my last book I have a poem titled “Prayer in the Mediterranean”. In it one can hear the voice of the refugees, reminding us that the Mediterranean, that warm sea that bathes Europe, does not in fact belong to anyone, and should be a common space, just like the earth we live on:
Prayer in the Mediterranean
Instead of fishes, Lord,
give us peace,
a sea of innocent waves,
and, once we reach the shore,
people who see with their hearts,
voices that accept us
The voyage is so hard,
even the foaming waters wound and boil,
and, during the crossing,
rise high enough
Lord, let there be no
deaths this time,
may the rocks keep their distance,
may the wind drop
and may your peace finally
spread and multiply
But after the raft,
after the war, the tiredness,
after the generous, open arms,
Lord, some fresh bread
would be good
and a little fish, if possible,
from the sea
that is also our sea
(transl. Margaret Jull Costa)
This is also my Europe, the one I was born in, the one I don’t want to give up; capable of having “voices that accept” the voiceless, of having “generous, open arms”. A space of Possibility, as Emily Dickinson described poetry.
In the fiercest of times, history has taught us this: the need for connection that we find in each other, through the acceptance of the other’s body, but also through the sharing of words, and painting, and music, and dancing, or the sheer joy that we can find in a cry of astonishment.
In the first century before Christ, the Jewish religious leader and scholar Hillel the Elder wrote: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” In the 1980s, the American poet Adrienne Rich added: “If not with others, how?” I don’t know of a better message.
You can find the German translation here.