Mário de Sá-Carneiro, A Cosmopolitan Modernist

by Fernando Beleza (Volume editor) Simon Park (Volume editor)
Edited Collection XXII, 186 Pages


Although he committed suicide at the age of twenty-five, Mário de Sá-Carneiro left behind a rich corpus of texts that is inventive, playful, even daring. The first collection in English to be dedicated to his work, this volume brings together scholars from Portugal, Brazil, and the USA to reassess Sá-Carneiro’s contribution to Portuguese and European Modernism(s). In the book, established researchers and younger scholars delve into the complexities and paradoxes of his work, exploring not only the acclaimed novella Lucio’s Confession, but also his poetry, short fiction, and correspondence. Each essay engages in the necessary task of placing Sá-Carneiro’s work in a wider literary and artistic context, bringing back to his texts the creative energy of early twentieth-century Europe. Plural in their methods, the essays propose multiple lenses through which to tackle key aspects of Sá-Carneiro’s œuvre: his aesthetic and artistic influences and preoccupations; his negotiations/performances of identity; and the ways in which his work emerges in dialogue with other Modernist authors and how they in turn engage with his work. Though he is sometimes overshadowed by his more famous friend and artistic comrade, Fernando Pessoa, this collection shows just how much one misses, if one overlooks Sá-Carneiro and other writers of the Orpheu generation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword (Richard Zenith)
  • Preface (Fernando Beleza / Simon Park)
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Figures
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Note on Translations
  • Introduction: The Making of a Cosmopolitan Modernist (Fernando Beleza / Simon Park)
  • Part I: Intersections
  • Mário de Sá-Carneiro: Intersectionist (Fernando Cabral Martins)
  • ‘Novela Romântica’: A Paradox
  • ‘Sete Canções de Declínio’: Montage
  • ‘Asas’: Synecdoche
  • ‘Aquele Outro’: Apostrophe
  • Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Orpheu, and the Modernist Blague (Ricardo Vasconcelos)
  • The Modernist Blague
  • Blague and the Reception of Orpheu
  • Fernando Pessoa and ‘Manucure’
  • Crossing Over: Mário de Sá-Carneiro Between Life, Work, and Death (Miguel Almeida)
  • Mystification
  • Modus operandi
  • The Relationship Between the Author and his Characters
  • Confessional Writing
  • Death and Exaggeration
  • The Death of the Author
  • Conclusion: What is Real, Then?
  • Part II: Cosmopolitanism
  • Mário de Sá-Carneiro and the Demons of Dance (Fernando Curopos)
  • ‘Eu serei então um bárbaro?’: Art, Dance, and Artistic Belonging in Mário de Sá-Carneiro (Simon Park)
  • Peripheral Desires, Modernist Fantasies: Mário de Sá-Carneiro’s Queer Cosmopolitanism (Fernando Beleza)
  • The Avant-Garde, Cosmopolitanism, and Queer Sensibility in ‘Manucure’
  • Portuguese Modernism and the Ends of Fantasy
  • Part III: Dialogues
  • Lúcio’s Unreadable Testimony (Pedro Eiras)
  • Desire and the Abyss
  • Literature and Life
  • On the Unreadable
  • A Phantom Presence: Mário de Sá-Carneiro in Fernando Pessoa’s Poetry (Mariana Gray de Castro)
  • If You Want to Kill Yourself, Why Don’t You Want to Kill Yourself?
  • Lisbon Revisited (1926)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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It took about fifty years for Fernando Pessoa, deceased in 1935, to be recognized as a major European Modernist and not just a Portuguese prodigy who wrote under many different names. A hundred years have passed since the death of Mário de Sá-Carneiro, who still tends to be confined to Portuguese Literature departments – even in Portugal. Mário de Sá-Carneiro, a Cosmopolitan Modernist seeks to pull him out of that fascinating but vision-skewing space, so that we can see the writer more completely, in his relations to the rich cultural and literary milieu of Paris in the lead-up to World War I; and more complexly, in his relationship to other Portuguese Modernists and to the Portuguese literary tradition. Sá-Carneiro was not a passive receptor of Cubism, Futurism, and the still lingering spirit of Decadence; he assimilated elements from these movements into his poetry and prose, making for a body of work that, while singularly his own, can be profitably juxtaposed with the work of other writers and artists from his generation.

In their introduction to this book, which helps to redress the comparative lack of critical attention paid to Mário de Sá-Carneiro, the editors point out that it would be absurd to exclude all talk of the writer who habitually overshadows him, Fernando Pessoa, for the simple reason that the work produced by the two men in the years 1913–16 was promiscuously collaborative. This interconnectivity, though obvious enough, deserves closer study. It is commonly believed that the first writer mentioned was especially indebted to the second; in fact the opposite is true. Fernando Pessoa was influenced by almost every author he read attentively, including Mário de Sá-Carneiro, whose output was less varied but not less original.

Pessoa was the theoretician of the ultra-Symbolist, ultra-Decadent aesthetic known as Paulismo, which took its name from his poem ‘Pauis’ [‘Swamps’; the singular form of the word is paul], written in late March, ← vii | viii → 1913, but he Eliotically ‘stole’ the style from his best friend, who was sending him poems and prose pieces with the same sensorial vocabulary of ontological mystery couched in twilit atmospheres. Consider just the first sentence of a poetic prose passage contained in a letter posted by Sá-Carneiro to Pessoa in February: ‘Erravam pelo ar naquela tarde loira eflúvios roxos de alma e ânsias de não ser’ [Violet emanations of the soul and yearnings of nonbeing wafted in the air of that blond afternoon].1 Those words would have been perfectly at home in the subsequently written ‘Pauis’.

The Modernism initially pursued by Sá-Carneiro (and partly embodied in Paulismo) was a response to local literary tendencies such as Teixeira de Pascoaes’s Saudosista movement but also, and more importantly, to Oscar Wilde. Pessoa quickly became obsessed with the Irish writer’s work and sexual life story, but it was Sá-Carneiro who first read him closely. The opening poem from his inaugural collection, Dispersão [Dispersal], written between February and May of 1913, contains two lines that are pure Wilde: ‘A vida, a natureza,/Que são para o artista? Coisa alguma’ [What are life and nature/For the artist? Nothing at all].2 The next two lines describe his own poetic vocation and are a correction of Wilde: ‘O que devemos é saltar na bruma,/Correr no azul à busca da beleza’ [We must leap into the mist and run/Through the blue in search of beauty]. Existentially scattered, without clearly defined borders, Sá-Carneiro made the artistic pursuit of beauty his centre.

Oscar Wilde cultivated a beautiful lifestyle; he was not concerned to create beauty in his work, which we love because it is wonderfully observant, witty, and provocative, shimmering with eloquence. Max Nordau, in Entartung [Degeneration] (1892), did not rail against Wilde because of his Decadent literature but because of his Decadent person: his cult of dandyism, his scandalous attitudes, his flippancy, his flamboyance. Wilde’s plays and The Picture of Dorian Gray are peopled with dandies, of course, but they ← viii | ix → tend to function as mouthpieces for the author’s transgressive opinions. In Sá-Carneiro’s novel and short stories, the characters dare to transgress traditional sexual boundaries, and his poems, which are structured around intently self-gazing, first-person narrators, achieve an exquisite, almost excruciating degree of linguistic refinement.

In 1914, posing as a disciple of Max Nordau, Pessoa drafted a book review – perhaps with a vague idea of publishing it pseudonymously, or anonymously – that analyzed the ‘degenerate’ aspects of A confissão de Lúcio [Lucio’s Confession] (1913), but the reviewer’s most interesting comments were about the author’s alleged ingenuousness in sexual matters. He joked that the novel was really Mário de Sá-Carneiro’s inadvertent confession that he understood nothing about sex and how amorous relationships work. ‘Quanto mais sexualmente nos fala, menos sexual se nos revela’ [The more sexually he speaks to us, the less sexual he shows himself to be].3 The reviewer, with this concluding remark, seems to be affirming that the novelist is not only inexperienced but also uninterested in actual, physical sex. This might well have been the case. Although Sá-Carneiro’s tendency to sexualize everything he writes about suggests, at first glance, that he was frustrated, getting out in literature what he did not get in real life, the tendency is suspiciously consistent: his writing is almost never not highly sexualized and sensual. The sex and sexual language in his work, rarely erotic, are inseparable from his exacerbated aestheticism. There is no blushing, no sense that the author is hiding something, repressing, or compensating for something. He experiences his jouissance right there, in his writing.

Fernando Pessoa was a centrifugal artist. Besides creating heteronyms, he envisioned a millennial Fifth Empire for Portugal, and he explored spiritual realms that perhaps could be improvements on the earthly realm into which he was born. The search for beauty will sometimes strike a path toward God or toward a more perfect social order, but Sá-Carneiro had no interest in religion or politics. Self-othering, which was as crucial a notion in his work as it was in Pessoa’s, brought him endlessly back to his ← ix | x → indefinitely, ambiguously, ungraspably ideal self. Pessoa was an agonistic conqueror, Sá-Carneiro a super-narcissist, whose self-exaltation was tinged with melancholy, due to the disconnect between his ideal and his reality. More human than Pessoa, who was forever striving to transcend death, Sá-Carneiro admitted and celebrated fragility, delicacy, brevity, uncertainty – all of the tenderest ingredients that go into beauty. The painter of his own portrait, luxuriously delineated in his poetry and prose, he was both Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward, and he was also his own beloved, Sibyl Vane – all of whom had to die an unnatural death for the sake of the portrait. I don’t know if Sá-Carneiro’s extreme self-sacrifice to his aesthetic ideal was properly a Modernist performance, but the result is uniquely compelling in the history of Portuguese, and European, literature. This admirable, necessary collection of essays reveals new facets of that extraordinary accomplishment.

1 Translations in this foreword are my own.

2 I am following Jorge Uribe, whose doctoral thesis mentions this poem and the early letters sent to Fernando Pessoa as flagrant evidence of Sá-Carneiro’s familiarity with Wilde. See: Jorge Uribe, ‘Um drama da crítica: Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater e Matthew Arnold, lidos por Fernando Pessoa’, PhD thesis, University of Lisbon, 2014.

3 Lisbon, BNP, MS E3/14E-75, 76.

| xi →



XXII, 186
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
Mário de Sá-Carneiro Portuguese poetry Portugal Poetry A Cosmopolitan Modernist
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XXII, 186 pp., 8 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Fernando Beleza (Volume editor) Simon Park (Volume editor)

Fernando Beleza is Lecturer in Portuguese at the University of New Hampshire. Simon Park is Camões Teaching Fellow in Renaissance Portuguese at the University of Oxford and College Lecturer in Portuguese at Merton College, Oxford.


Title: Mário de Sá-Carneiro, A Cosmopolitan Modernist
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