by Theodore Dalrymple (March 2013)

Recently I stayed in a flat in Paris for a few weeks that belonged to a friend’s sister who had died not long before aged seventy-six. It is a strange and slightly unsettling experience to move into the home of someone who has died not long before and many of whose effects are still present: the ordinary effects of day-to-day living (little labelled pots of tarragon and paprika, for example) as well as the records of lifetime (holiday photos and the notes taken more than fifty years before as a student of pharmacy). There were little lists of things to do, telephone numbers, books of recipes, and a tiny box of postage stamps for letters that will now never be written. Who in such circumstances would not reflect upon his own mortality and then, with a faint sense of guilt as if to do so were to demonstrate a lack of proper feeling, get on with his own life as if nothing untoward had happened? If we are still in good health do we not continue to feel that there will always be a tomorrow for us, even though we know intellectually that there will not? And are we not aware of a slight moral superiority over the dead, a sense of complacency, as if our continuation in life were a sign of our own cleverness or virtue rather than the mere consequence of having been born years later than the deceased?  

Among her books were manuals of English, dating from the time when she was in her forties. I suspect that she had always resolved to learn our language and had made intermittent efforts to do so, but never really succeeded. Such, at any rate, is the history of my own struggles with German, among several other languages.

She had been something a traveller, and likewise among her books I found a book about Portugal that dated from 1956. It was by an author of whom I had not heard, Yves Bottineau. I assume that she had been to Portugal about then, for her books about Iceland dated from the same era as her photographs of her trip there. I leafed idly though the book about Portugal, but with growing interest. I largely ignored the text, it was the photographs that captured my imagination. They were beautiful, but they were also photographs of beauty, natural but above all man-made.

Having just said that I largely ignored the text I will nevertheless quote a sentence from the first page:

This country, which enjoys in the eyes of the tourist the reputation of being a paradise, is in reality a very human land, that is to say nuanced…

Perhaps; but it was very difficult to take the nuanced view after looking at the photographs. Portugal looked indeed a paradise which gave joy to the eye but also a sadness to the heart, for such unspoilt beauty has now almost certainly passed from the world.

Of course, the photographer (a man or woman called Yan) pointed his camera in such a way as to exclude all that was ugly or discordant. Fifty years ago, perhaps, people did not yet suffer from the diseased feeling that the ugly is somehow more real, more authentic, than the beautiful, and therefore worthier of capture on film and in book. We now believe that to search out only the beauty to the exclusion of the ugly is in some sense a wilful derogation of duty when ugliness exists alongside the beautiful, as it almost always does in this life (let alone in the Portugal of 1956). And if one had to choose between the willing suspension of the perception of the ugly and that of the beautiful, the former would be morally worse, for it is an implicit denial of the suffering that often goes along with ugliness.

In development economics, there has long been a theory, indeed by far the most popular one to judge by the books available in most of the larger bookstores, that the wealth of some countries is bought at the expense of the poverty of others; and that it is not wealth that is in need of explanation, but poverty. Likewise in aesthetics: beauty is bought only at the expense of ugliness, the ugliness being the natural consequence of social injustice. To side with beauty is therefore a betrayal of suffering humanity, the exploitation of whose misery was and is the precondition of the creation of beauty. It would be interesting to know how many modern educated people would react to Le Portugal by Yves Botinneau, with photographs by Yan, by saying, ‘It couldn’t all have been like that.’

No doubt it couldn’t; and yet I don’t think a sensitive person could fail to notice the importance of aesthetics in Portuguese life – an importance that may well have been unconscious, but none the less real for that – at the time the photos were taken. For one thing, they are not just of the odd corner of life or of towns or of cities or of landscapes: many of them, including of the townscapes, are of extensive views that stretch for miles into the distance where there is literally nothing that offends the eye to be seen, no excrescence that spoils the panorama. I haven’t been to Portugal for a long time, but I very much doubt that it would be possible to take such photographs, certainly not so many of them, now. Surely there would be highways or tower blocks or something to spoil the view, that does to the eye what a stone in the shoe does to the comfort of walking.

I once had a discussion with a young student of philosophy with whom I happened one day to walk into a graceful square in an English provincial town that was (for me) entirely spoiled by a single sub-Mies van der Rohe glass building of fortunately stunted proportion, that was clearly built not in spite of being out of keeping with the classicism of the rest of the square but because of it, that is to say as an act of subversion or deliberate vandalism.

The young philosopher asked me why I could not still enjoy that part of the square that still existed; after all, the rest of the buildings were the same as ever they had been. I thought of an analogy.

‘Suppose,’ I said, ‘you are in a restaurant and the meal is delicious. Suppose also that someone at the next table to yours suddenly vomits copiously. Would it be reasonable of me to say to you, ‘Why do you not continue to enjoy your meal? After all, the food on your plate and the décor in the restaurant is still exactly the same as it was before the man on the next table vomited?’ An aesthetic experience is more than the sum of its individual components, and in fact the bad building in the square would not have caused me such pain if the other buildings had been equally bad. It was the contrast that made it painful.

Be this all as it may, the photos of Portugal taken in 1956 or just before showed nothing ugly, not even in the smallest detail of peasant life. For it is clear from the pictures that peasant life still existed in Portugal then. There were peasant fishermen, for example, whose large wooden fishing boats – rowed, not powered by engines – were objects of great beauty and elegance. It is unlikely that, during their construction, anyone thought specifically or consciously of elegance of shape or beauty of decoration, but nevertheless the constructors achieved them, as if they could do no other. The aesthetics were woven into the tapestry of their lives.

It was obviously a time of transition, for though the women, even in the port of Lisbon, still wore peasant costume that was distinctive according to the region from which they came, the men no longer did so. Women still carried baskets of bread under their arm and large and graceful earthenware pots of water on their heads which, whatever the inconvenience or drudgery of it, did wonders for their posture, which was dignified and upright. 

But it was the architecture that most struck me. Even quite humble homes in ordinary villages were elegant in a way that no modern housing, at least for the poor, is elegant. It achieved both uniformity and distinctiveness at the same time: one looks at it and immediately says to oneself ‘Portugal.’ It could be nowhere else.

The grander buildings, gothic, baroque and eighteenth century classicising, testify to a magnificent aesthetic sense down the ages; the taste changed, but it retained its perfection. Everything harmonises, an eleventh century castle with an eighteenth century church; nothing offends.

The other thing that astonished me was how beautifully and immaculately cared-for everything was. Nothing was out of place, everything was clean; but this orderliness gave no impression of anal retentiveness, as Switzerland does, but rather of a genuine aesthetic concern. Of course Portugal at the time was a dictatorship, that of Salazar, a near-fascist who nevertheless kept the country neutral during the Second World War. Was the country so beautifully kept because Salazar imposed his will on it by means of his secret police, or was it a spontaneous manifestation of the people’s love of what they had inherited?                    

Portugal at the time was deemed a very poor country (it is still the poorest in Western Europe). But when one looks at the picture of Lisbon taken from the city’s river, the Tagus, one has no impression of poverty but rather of a tremendous wealth that could have been accumulated only down the ages (perhaps it does not do to enquire too closely how it was accumulated). It must have been a rare privilege, though one hardly noticed as a separate datum of experience, to live among such beauty.

Yet people turned their back on this world as soon as they were able to do so. The peasants’ world, where machines scarcely existed, where large boats were still dragged onshore by teams of oxen and launched into the sea by the collective strength of scores of men, where barrels were made by hand and large quantities of wine moved by non-mechanised transport, where women had to go down to the well to fetch water, where they had to wash clothes in the communal troughs, and where everyone made his own entertainment, was very picturesque but also very hard, and not one such as I, who am physically lazy and find most tasks other than reading and writing intensely boring, would wish for myself. Lisbon may have been rich but not in the modern sense: few televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, telephones, cars, etc. and all things which have proved irresistible to mankind everywhere.

One of the questions that I have never been able to answer satisfactorily is why peasants the world over lose their aesthetic sense the moment they move from the country to the town, and become aficionados of kitsch. Those who until then had an instinctive understanding of form and colour seem to care about them no longer: I have observed this in India, Africa and South America. Indeed, they not only lose their instinctive good taste but acquire instinctive bad taste to replace it. What is the explanation for this? Is it that abundance and cheapness of acquired goods means that one no longer has to look at them with the same concentration as in conditions of relative shortage? Is it that, making almost nothing any more for oneself, one loses the appreciation of form and colour? Is it that, in the new conditions, all that belongs to the past comes to seem retrograde and associated in the mind with poverty and oppression? Is it that everything from the past – the earthenware pots, for example – come to seem almost childish by comparison with the modernity of aluminium pots and pans? Is it that life loses in intensity what it gains in extension?

There is certainly no turning the clock back: you cannot make eggs from an omelette, to reverse a well-known saying. Nor should we romanticise the lives of others by preventing them from voting with their feet and their purchases. But it would also be wrong to deny that in progress there is also loss. And Le Portugal by Yves Bottineau reminded me just how grievous that loss can be.

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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