Forms of Social Transmission and the Making of the Public Self in Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
Khalida Ahmed is a Research Scholar at the Department of English, Gauhati University, Guwahati.
Jose Saramago’s novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984) offers interesting insights into the way the individual self interacts in and with public space, not through responses alone, but by means of the exploration of the possibility of relating the heteronymic selves that the Portuguese poet and writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) released in the early twentieth century. The novel also presents different dimensions relating to the functioning of media in the contemporary world by placing the figure of Ricardo within that publicly discernible space so as to contextualize the forms of social transmission that took place. Saramago’s narrative is both playful and probing in the manner in which the representation moves across the realistic and the imaginary planes. This paper looks at the nature of this interaction between the selves and examines the ways of reading how such configurations are opened up for reception in society.
Keywords: Public Space, Heteronymic Selves, Identity, Social Transmission, Media.
Situated in the time-track of the 1930s, Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984) takes on the processes of self-making and social formation through the figure of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) who was one of the greatest writers to emerge from Portugal in the twentieth century. Pessoa is known to have experimented with the construction of ‘social selves’, a process through which he constructed individuals with clearly defined personal histories – each figure having a specific background and personality. This was not confined to the individual – Ricardo Reis is such a ‘construction’ whose visibility in the social media of Portugal in the 1930s was a reality – and he was programmed by Pessoa to operate independently with a very different time chart and operative mechanism.
The 1930s also saw a lot of turbulence in Portugal, which was not merely political, but deeply embedded in the social fabric of the time. The creation of a figure such as Ricardo was not only an exercise in the process of making a doppelganger – a veritable double – but also a simultaneous exercise in exploring ways of understanding public reception in relation to how one is seen or perceived in society. We can see this to be part of a normalizing mechanism in today’s Internet-driven ethos where multiple accounts across different social media platforms are taken for granted. Having Facebook and Instagram accounts where the similarity index is authenticated through the means of difference insofar as that the same self appears to possess alternative dimensions depending on the platform one is situated in. The different ‘selves’ that Pessoa created in the public space were not, in his estimation, unreal characters, they were people whose situations were independently governed by who they were. Pessoa refused to submit to the view that the figure of Ricardo Reis was just another name he adopted: he contended that Ricardo was a wholly realized individual self with his own history and space in public space and memory. In the representation of Ricardo, Saramago follows this pattern created by Pessoa to articulate questions of identity and space. As Mary J. Daniel points out in her assessment of the narrative design of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis:
Throughout the novel there emerges a pattern of searching for a definitive sense of place as Ricardo Reis, the wandering Lusitanian who has at last returned home, readapts to the changing context of the city he left so many years before. (Daniel 36)
The examination of the circumstances is important here. Saramago makes Ricardo appear in Lisbon following the ‘biography’ of this Pessoan figure, but does so in a way that enables him to look at both the author and the heteronym on the same spatial plane. Ricardo comes to Lisbon to experience the ways of the city after a period of sixteen years which makes him conscious of the gaps that exist between his understanding and contemporary reality. In looking at the various dimensions of this identity equation, Saramago makes use of the platforms of media to address the circumstances in which his characters are placed. In this configuration of Reis in the public space, Saramago draws on the nature of the imagination with which Pessoa created each of these heteronymic selves. In this context, the elucidation of George Mahr sheds light on the matter: “Pessoa’s story illustrates the importance, and even the benefits, dissociation may have for creative experience....For Pessoa, then, heteronyms solved the problems that modernist self-awareness posed, by allowing him to write traditional, sensual verse that was nevertheless ironically self-aware” (Mahr 34). Configured to represent Ricardo as a man occupying the public imagination, Saramago places him in a world where he is part of the larger social fabric. Social media in the 1930s was constituted by the newspaper, and that is where we can find this process being played out so well.
Of the many challenges that The Year of the Death of Reis pose, perhaps the one most striking is that of inaccessibility, and it is not quite denial that blunts attempts to ‘know’, it is the configuration scheme where the chain of discourse binds each one – Ricardo Reis, Fernando Pessoa and Jose Saramago – in a dialogic matrix where the interpenetration is never completed, something that remains in process. If the non-materiality of Ricardo as a historical figure is considered as a frame he cannot free himself from, Saramago does not clarify such boundaries in water-tight markers. At the height of the European crisis of the 1930s, and the Spanish Civil War impacting the entire Hispanic world, Ricardo shuts himself off, or rather aspires to, but as Saramago chronicles it, that does not quite happen: “The world’s threats are universal, like the sun, but Ricardo Reis takes shelter under his own shadow, What I do not wish to know does not exist, the only real problem is how to play the queen’s knight. But reading the newspapers, he forces himself to worry a little, Europe is seething and perhaps will boil over, and there is no place for a poet to rest his head” (Saramago 319-20).
This act of reading the newspaper is what is used by Saramago to place the heteronymic conundrum square upon its head early on in the narrative:
Ricardo Reis goes to the newspaper archives, where everyone must go to…The unexpected death of Fernando Pessoa caused much sadness in intellectual circles…In his poetry he was not only Fernando Pessoa but also Alvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro, and Ricardo Reis. There you are, an error caused by not paying attention, by writing what one misheard, because we know very well that Ricardo Reis is this man who is reading the newspaper with his own open and living eyes, a doctor forty-eight years of age, one year older than Fernando Pessoa when his eyes were closed, eyes that were dead beyond a shadow of doubt. (Saramago 24)
The narrator of Saramago takes this long telescopic view of history addressing both experiences of reading the newspaper with the shadow as a hovering presence in the scheme of things.
How is this to addressed? One critic has referred to it as Pessoa’s “theatre of the self” (Zenith 47) so as to accommodate the modes of understanding the presence of Ricardo in the public world. It is necessary to see that these figures that Pessoa creates acquire validity through the process of public documentation in the social media of that time. In a poem written in 1926, ‘Ricardo’ contends that it is the very process of navigating the mediated world which creates problems for man in society:
How great a sadness and bitterness
Drowns our tiny lives in chaos
How often adversity
Cruelly overwhelms us!
Happy the animal, anonymous
Which grazes in green fields and enters
Death as if it were home;
Or the learned man who, lost
In science, raises his futile, ascetic
Life above our own, like smoke
Which lifts its disintegrating arms
To the non-existent heavens. (Reis 300)
The circulation of poems like these in the socially inscribed space creates the possibility of approaching the figure of Ricardo Reis as an individual. These lines from the poem appropriately draw attention to the difficulty of navigating through social media with the anonymity of the animal or the isolation of the recluse. In spite of the fact that the configuration of Ricardo was done in the 1930s, Pessoa anticipates much of the activities and interpenetrations of the digitally determined world today where the idea of the self is under the constant glare of social media.
Helena Kaufman comments on how Ricardo’s situation suggests a wider paradigm at work, something that addresses vital questions of identity and social presence in modern Portuguese history. In this context, Kaufman writes how perceptions “are characterized by an internal logic and ‘realism’ of presentation and constitute alongside myths and legends, also evoked throughout Saramago’s texts, one more form of recuperating the minor within history” (Kaufman 178). It is important to situate and contextualize the figure of Ricardo in the Pessoan scheme for the critical placement of his priorities. Helena Carvalhao Buescu rightly points out that the orientation of Ricardo is that of a Classicist: “Reis was a classicist formally trained as a physician, and all his poems incessantly repeat the typical crossing between Epicureanism and Stoicism that Horace’s odes, from whom Reis draws so deeply, displayed” (Buescu 75). The manner in which Ricardo is projected as having interest in newspapers is fascinatingly evoked in Saramago’s narrative. The opening pages of the novel shed light on the process of characterization that Saramago employs in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. When Ricardo arrives in Lisbon from Brazil after a long gap of sixteen years at the very end of 1935, the newspaper serves to span out developments that present more than the previous day’s events.
The narrator’s historically attuned eye traces the information in print as a visibly tired Ricardo moves across planes of personal memory and social history to mark out a frame of reference for which the newspapers serve as the veritable index. In the narrative, the newspaper facilitates a chain of recollections which cover the social landscape of the times very well. Saramago’s narrative process encompasses a wide variety of cultural registers in the course of the representation. The attention given to history and the lateral placement of contemporary developments alongside Ricardo’s playful erasure of the self may appear surreal but the frame of realism is consistently maintained. It is important to consider the opening sequence of the novel to place the representation of newspapers in the scheme of things, especially in the way it plays a part in the subsequent characterization of Ricardo Reis. As he settles down in the hotel room during his first night in Lisbon on his return from Brazil, Ricardo’s responds to the newspapers not just as them being documents of events that had taken place the previous day; he also sees in them the possibility of connecting his experience of the place and time which enables him to examine the social and cultural dimensions of Lisbon with fresh eyes:
These are the newspapers of my native Portugal, they inform me that the Head of State has inaugurated an exhibition in honour of Mousinho de Albuquerque at the Colonial Office, one is not spared imperial commemorations or allowed to forget imperial personages...The fifth national contest for beautiful babies, half a page of photographs of infants, stark naked, their rolls of puppy fat bulging, nourished on powdered milk. Some of these babies will grow up to become criminals, vagabonds, and prostitutes, after being photographed like this, at such a tender age, before the lewd eyes of those who have no respect for innocence….At the Coliseu they are showing The Last Wonder with Vanise Meireles, a statuesque figure clad in silver, a Brazilian celebrity. Funny, I must have missed her in Brazil, my fault. Here in Lisbon one can get a seat in the gallery for three escudos, a seat in the stalls costs five escudos and up, and there are performances daily and matinees on Sundays. (Saramago 17-18)
The survey and the sweep of the newspapers by Ricardo opens up diverse platforms – from photographic displays that document a contest for babies to the performances that occupy the public imagination at that time. What is noteworthy here is the attendant commentary that Ricardo places alongside the news that he faces; he speculates about the nature of the future that awaits the ‘babies’ as they move ahead in life, imposing upon them the possibility of following the general pattern of human behaviour and growth. It is interesting to see that Ricardo takes a long view of things, which may have to do with his Classical orientation. But Ricardo the poet and the person are not conceived as being unanimous in the way they perceive things. That is why this distinction between the two selves of Ricardo becomes so strikingly apparent. The poet who drew his inspiration from Classical writers such as Horace in the shaping of his craft was not really objective in approaching the world. This point is repeatedly made by Saramago in the course of the novel. The manner in which the newspapers offer the documentary information about the 1930s in Lisbon is supplemented by Ricardo’s process of appraisal. This means that Ricardo was aware of the complexities of locating the nature of information in contemporary media. There is a slant through which news is presented and filtered, and though this is something that is taken for granted, it is Ricardo’s observations that make the narrative so interesting. Saramago does not use quotations of any kind in his narrative to distinguish between the subjectivity of Ricardo and the reportage that makes up content of the newspapers. Moreover, the narrator seamlessly moves across the mental consciousness of Ricardo along with the situations he is placed in without indicating the transition. This creates an interesting effect which is seen in the way the flow of the narrative takes the different circumstances, both personal and public, placing them alongside each other. This does not take away from the fact that the characterization of Ricardo is done to show his peculiarity as an individual in the novel.
The mystery surrounding his personality notwithstanding, Ricardo is presented as someone who is incapable of cultivating the ‘objective’ point of view. This is very much in keeping with the figure of Ricardo that Pessoa created in his world of heteronyms. As Steffen Dix has argued, the element of objectivity was not part of the Pessoan representation of Ricardo Reis:
Although Reis never explicitly describes what he himself understood to be the concept of objectivity, one can presume that it involves a certain inability to form abstract ideas or imagine a ‘whole.’ Reis is fully aware that this incapacity to form abstract ideas would quickly appear an absurdity given that it is impossible to think or communicate without abstract concepts. (Dix 80)
This is an important point in the context of the novel. The individualization of Ricardo is one of the necessary narrative strategies that Saramago employs for the purpose of situating him in the world of 1930s Portugal. Without this process of individualization, Ricardo’s presence would not have been distinctive in the narrative. Newspapers and social media, especially the responses of Ricardo to them, occupy an important part in the novel. As is evident in the opening sequence of the narrative, Ricardo does not respond equally to all news reports, but picks them in accordance with his personal preferences. This is not about the news that he has access to or is familiar with, but it has a bearing on those items that he feels he would like to comment upon. In Saramago’s configuration, Ricardo’s responses are not always articulated in words or presented as part of his stated position regarding the different issues. What happens in the course of the narrative shows the importance of the interplay of the self with society with the platforms of different media playing their part in shaping the readers’ perceptions. In his novel dealing with the play of these multiple selves in conversation in public space Saramago visits not just the public memory that presents the social world of Portugal, he also looks at the contours of cultural life whose continuity is enhanced and marked by the relationship between the self and society, especially through the social media of the time.
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