July 22, 2018


Summertime and the tourists are abroad, I among them, seeing the world through a veil of ignorance cast over it like the spider web in Miss Havisham’s room in Great Expectations, turning reality into a partial, shadowy existence of things, for as tourists we look at the world mostly with little knowledge of its history. We go past monuments to national leaders, heroes and eminent contributors to the arts and sciences, scarcely knowing what that contribution was, but smugly complacent in our ignorance, assume they must be important enough for us to stop and have our picture taken next to them. We wander around foreign cities with our eyes more on our smartphone than on the local sights, exchanging messages on social media accompanied by a selfie. Summertime and the living is queasy.

There is a statue of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) in his native Lisbon, in a district popular with tourists. The statue shows him to be sitting alone, as if in a cafe, his left leg crossed over his right knee, his left hand resting on the table. Across the table, as part of the sculpture, is an empty chair, placed there by the sculptor to represent Pessoa’s lonely life, though to say so is to give the empty chair a symbolic significance that was very probably not the sculptor’s intention; the chair had been constructed to attract passing tourists to sit and have themselves photographed as if having a chat with the great poet.

This is not a unique sculptural configuration to be seen in the world’s famous tourist spots. On the beautiful waterfront footpath on the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, for example, is a bronze statue of the great Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987). He is seen sitting alone on a bench with a book in his lap, the gorgeous curving beach with the picture-postcard Sugarloaf Mountain at the far end of the curve behind him. The empty space next to the poet on the bench is often taken by a tourist, sitting to be photographed or grinning at a smartphone while snapping a selfie.

Building monumental statues to poets is a centuries-old tradition. In London, as one enters Hyde Park from the Hyde Park Corner tube station, there is Byron just next to Park Lane, sitting in the clichéd pose of one deep in thought (as if that’s how poets waited for inspiration!). The Pessoa sculpture is in Lisbon’s famous Camões Square named after Portugal’s national poet, Luis de Camões (1524-1580), whose gigantic statue stands high in the middle of the square. Poets have similarly been honoured in other major cities — as Allama Muhammad Iqbal has been in Lahore where monuments in his honour include his statue in the Alhamra Art Centre, his tomb and his having the Lahore airport named after him.

All over the world, tourists get themselves photographed next to poets in bronze or visit their houses. Special tours take them to William Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon or Pablo Neruda’s Valparaíso. Once I was travelling in Chile with a group of friends and, happening to be near Valparaíso, they all wanted to visit Neruda’s house. “How many of you,” I asked my friends, “have read at least one poem by him?” No one had.

And that, I suspect, would be the answer of the majority of the tourists who infest the world. Why poets, who remain largely unread, are made into monuments remains a mystery: they are there because they are famous and they are famous because they are there. No doubt there are some among the tourists who have some acquaintance with their work, but the majority seems to have acquired a Googled sophistication based on Wikileaked gossip that passes for knowledge and inflates the ignorant with the delusion that they are educated. Such trivial gossip as the story about Shakespeare’s second-best bed gets talked about by people who can’t quote a line of his verse. Even the great national poets, such as Shakespeare and Camões, are known more by their statues than by their work. Few of us can even name the title of Camões’s epic work for which he is celebrated.

Agreed, ours is an age that is transitioning from classical learning to a narrower, specialised, technical learning, from books and classroom lectures to smartphones and online degrees. Where once being steeped in the humanities equipped one to play a leading role in a variety of professions, we now need that narrower training applicable to each particular job for a burgeoning population that needs employment. However, to flaunt ignorance as a democratic virtue in a classless society is a sham perpetrated by a manipulative oligarchy upon the majority, keeping them Twittering in their self-obsession where the one book they constantly have their eye on is Facebook.

The souvenir shops in Camões Square sell postcards of Pessoa printed with one-liners from his books. These are the sort of quotations that have an air of universal wisdom about them, giving people who buy the cards the illusion that they have acquired essential knowledge about the writer. One quotation that you will not find on the cards is this entry in Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet: “In today’s life the world belongs only to the stupid, the insensible, the disturbed.” When he lived his lonely life, sitting alone in the same café where a meaningless immortality has been conferred upon him, Pessoa made a remark that life was “an anguish of being exiled among spiders.” They are all over him now.

The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 22nd, 2018