Of all Pessoa’s creations, Ricardo Reis is both the most classically-minded and the one who dwells closest to the classical sense of fate that fado seems to echo. ‘Each man fulfils the destiny he must fulfil’, he writes:
Like stones that border flower beds
We are arranged by Fate, and there remain,
Our lot having placed us
Where we had to be placed.
Let’s have no better knowledge of what
Was our due than that it was our due.
The images of collapse, resignation and decay in fado – homologically registered in falling vocal lines (what Rodney Gallop called fado’s ‘drooping cadences’) – cannot help but associate fado with an absence of agency, the mirror image of a ‘collapsed’ and fatalistic people. But in placing fado against political ideology it is never altogether clear how the music ‘sizes up’. In hymning decay/decadence, could the music in fact have been a retort to an Estado Novo whose very raison d’être was to arrest further decay? What is the significance in the fact that the State was unable to completely adopt and assimilate fado, that it was unable to paper over the cracks that fado revealed? Is it conceivable that fado could be what Roland Barthes called an ‘acratic language’ in its refusal to be assimilated?
António Osório, the author of A Mitologia Fadista, would vehemently deny such a claim. For Osório fado, in addition to idealizing poverty and objectifying women, hymned a defeatism bound up in ‘saudosismo, “the fumes of India”, Sebastianismo, the “spectres of the past”, the petulance of Marialva, a lachrymose predisposition, … narrow-mindedness … [and] a distaste for life’. Going on to parody the famous Amália Rodrigues song ‘Tudo Isto É Fado’, Osório wrote:
Misery, prostitution, sickness, dishonour, debasement, all this is ‘fado’. It explains and, indirectly, absolves all ills. Before the ‘laws of destiny’, willpower shows itself to be non-existent; the ‘philosophy’ of fado condenses into an inexorable fatalism, ultimately nothing more than the fatum mahumetanum defined by Leibniz: free will can never be because men and events are automatically governed by the ‘force of things’. The corollary can be instantly deduced – no one is responsible for anything.
Such an opinion was undoubtedly persuasive in Portugal in 1974, when Osório was writing. Apathy in the face of authoritarianism had festered for too long and change was needed. Fado was discouraged but refused to crawl away and die in a pool of its own tears. Why? One suggestion is that the power of fado’s mythemes and the ease with which it can be connected to ideas of Portugueseness – however problematic such a concept remains – enforce its appropriateness and effectiveness as a staging of a traumatic jouissance that has meaning far beyond the world of fado music. It could be argued that Osório overstated his case and, effectively, centred fado and the ‘fadista mythology’ as a cause rather than a reflection, as a constitutive element in the formation of subjectivity rather than the recognition of a subjectivity already constituted around a radical loss. He does seem to recognize this possibility at certain points, such as his consideration of how a similar experience is to be found in modern literature:
[M]an’s impotence in the face of circumstance, the central experience of fado, does not only permeate the work of contemporary Portuguese writers, because it is at the heart of Kafka, of Beckett, of all the representative writers of our time. The seeds of dejection proliferate in these times of oppression and individual paralysis.
Locating ideology within a framework suggested by Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek may help us here. In doing so, we can posit the Symbolic as the realm of language, or discourse, that attempts to ‘explain’ the Real but which never can, for the Real remains that which cannot be symbolized. Yet that very lack in the Symbolic Order constitutes a gap and it is because of this gap, if we follow Žižek, that ideology is needed. To use a metaphor not entirely inappropriate with Lisbon in mind, if the Symbolic acts as a wall to obscure the Real, a wall that has, however, seen better days and which threatens to allow the chill of the Real in through its cracked tiles and holed plaster (to be punctured, as it were, by the Real), then ideology is the sheen of new plaster needed to fill those fissures. A music more concerned with crumbling, decay, collapse and the wounds that rupture the sheen of everyday ‘bearing up’, a music, moreover, which dwells on melancholy and which actively seeks to remain unreconciled to the world can perhaps be a music closer to challenging ideology than might at first be imagined.
Can it be that fado operated, then and occasionally still, as a sublimation of the forces operating on the modern subject, that, furthermore, it has occupied the place of what Catherine Belsey calls an ‘abolished particularity’? Belsey suggests that ‘the abolished particularity returns as resistance, marking the speaking being’s loss of the unnameable real, which is still there, but no longer there-for-a-subject. This resistance makes itself felt not only in individual experience, but also as incoherences in the apparent homogeneity of culture itself.’ The stubbornness of fado’s mythemes, the persistence in which the same elements of Lisbonness, shame, jealousy, collapse, flight, the seasons and saudade are endlessly and imaginatively recombined, suggests an unwillingness to move on from the objectification of loss, a process akin to Freud’s definition of melancholy. But what does it mean to be ‘cured’ of this stubbornness except to be taken once more into the Symbolic realm, a realm one might be unwilling to recognize as one’s own?