Toward a Multicultural Ethics and Decolonial Meta-Identity in the Work of Fernando Sylvan
Toward a Multicultural Ethics and Decolonial Meta-Identity in the Work of Fernando Sylvan
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter seeks to flesh out Sylvan’s stance against Empire by interfacing his essayistic production with his poetry. For instance, in his O Racismo da Europa e a Paz no Mundo, written during the heightened period of anti-colonial struggle in Africa and Asia, Sylvan offers a theorization and cursory genealogy of European and European-American global hegemony, ranging from the European historicization of itself as ‘the standard civilization,’ the fantasy of European superiority, and its resignification of difference in order to retain the balance of global power. This chapter thus contextualizes Sylvan’s anti-imperial thought with that of postcolonial and decolonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Enrique Dussel; in addition to elaborating the points where Sylvan’s thought further problematizes and contributes to the theorization of contemporary global power.
In recent decades, the study of Lusophone literatures has offered numerous new theoretical perspectives and problematizations of issues pertinent to postcolonial theory and the interrogation of colonial forms of power, both local and global. One geopolitical realm of postcolonial Lusophone literary production that has been relatively under-studied is that of East Timor. Indeed, the particularities of East Timorese history have yielded a rich, if not fragmented, body of literature and cultural reflection that highlights and draws upon the repercussions of territorial occupation (Portuguese and Indonesian) on a multiethnic population. The different projects of cultural invention have sought to explore, question, and push the edges of an East Timorese nation-sign in the historical and intersecting aftermaths of European colonialism, postcolonial, or re-colonial genocide, humanitarian displacement, and neocolonialism in the period of late capitalism.
One of the greatest contributors to such an intervention was this chapter’s subject, Fernando Sylvan. Born Abílio Leopoldo Motta-Ferreira in 1917 in Dili, the capital of then Portuguese Timor, he moved to Lisbon as a child, then Cascais to the west of the Portuguese capital, where he lived until his death in 1993. He presided over the Sociedade de Língua Portuguesa [Portuguese Language Society] and received significant acclaim for his poetry in the 1970s. His poetic oeuvre focused, to a certain extent, on themes such as love, deemed universal by the heteronormative male gaze at the gates of the Eurocentric literary canon. Much more significant were his poetic explorations of his Timorese roots from exile, Timorese experiences of resistance against the excesses of European and Indonesian occupation, and the place of East Timor vis-à-vis imperial historicization and global forms of power.
Portuguese colonial presence on the island of Timor was consolidated in 1702 with the establishment of Lifau as the capital and the location of the colonial government seat. Portuguese mercantile presence dates back to the early sixteenth century with outposts scattered throughout Southeast Asia. This presence was not sustained, of course, without significant resistance from different Timorese ethnic groups and kingdoms, and faced Dutch military incursions as the Dutch East India company sought to expand its own colonial presence in what is today Indonesia. Following raids by the Topasses, the Portuguese colonial administration moved its headquarters to Dili in 1769, the present-day capital of East Timor, a nation-state of 1.2 million inhabitants on the eastern half of the island.
The Portuguese crown, followed by the Portuguese Republic, maintained political control over East Timor until the fall of the right-wing Estado Novo1 regime in 1974, with a brief interruption during World War II, when Japanese expansion occupied the island from 1942 to 1945. Japanese occupation was preceded by another occupation – that of a Dutch-Australian military coalition in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. The centuries-long Portuguese colonial presence on the island was, many historians have argued, characterized by rampant negligence. Colonial travel writers of the past and historians today point out ‘the poor infrastructural condition of the colonial establishment, its military vulnerability, and the patrimonial character of the colonial society’ (Roque 306).
Following a visit to East Timor in the early twentieth century, Portuguese poet and traveler José Augusto Fernandes declared that it was a ‘damnable colony’ and a ‘hellish place’ (Fernandes 6–8). Raphael das Dores, a coronel stationed in East Timor at the turn of the twentieth century, wrote extensive official documents regarding the colony’s ethnic makeup, native political structures, and resources to be extracted for the sake of imperial development. In his Apontamentos para um diccionário chorographico de Timor [‘Notes for a Chorographic Dictionary of Timor’], published in 1903, he describes a colonial project that has failed due to interethnic politics, the influence of missionaries, and especially the negligence and lack of investment on the part of Portugal’s Overseas Ministry. Colonial governance of Portuguese Timor had been located in Macau, thus underlining the lack (p.108) of importance given to Portugal’s easternmost colony. This dysfunctional state of affairs led das Dores to declare:
é minha convicção que, para que Timor possa deixar de ser um cancro nos réditos públicos e gravíssimo encargo para Macau, como tem sido, ou, para melhor dizer, para que entre no convívio da civilização, seria indispensável que um Ministro do Ultramar que conhecesse perfeitamente a colónia, ou chamasse quem a conheça, formulasse dedicadamente um plano sobre a sua administração. (7)
[it is my conviction that, for Timor to cease being a cancer on public revenues and a grave burden on Macau, as it has been – or, to put it better, so that Timor may enter civilization – it would be indispensable for an Overseas Minister who knows the colony well, or knows someone who does, to formulate a plan for its administration.]
Raphael das Dores’s loathing for East Timor points to his investment in turning it into a lucrative colony for the Portuguese crown. He thus offers terse observations regarding the failure of the Overseas Ministry to develop a substantive agricultural economy based on the exploitation of native labor. He repeatedly underscores the Ministry’s failure to ‘civilize,’ and subsequently dominate, the various ethnic groups that comprised the colony. It was arguably to this end that he undertook his next project of imperial knowledge production on the colony. Published in 1907, das Dores wrote a Tetum-Portuguese dictionary, a complementary follow-up to the Jesuit Sebastião Apparicio da Silva’s Portuguese-Tetum dictionary, published in 1889. Raphael das Dores’s preface to the dictionary interestingly calls for the political elevation of Tetum to the status of co-official language of the colony – which it holds today in the postcolony. This further highlights how colonial objectives of domination of native others through linguistic translation shapes the ethnolinguistic landscape of the postcolony: a particularly relevant issue considering that the linguistic makeup of East Timor consists of roughly 30 different Austronesian and Papuan languages. While Portuguese is considered the colonial language, Tetum is also a colonially imposed language. As such, it has been met with significant resistance in the decades following Portuguese colonialism.
The 1920s brought forth further anthropological and ethnographic works from Portuguese travelers. In 1928, Alberto Osório de Castro published what João Paulo Esperança calls ‘um peculiar livro de viagens’ [‘a peculiar travel book’] (1) written in poetic prose with lengthy descriptions on the flora and fauna of Timor Island, as well as its inhabitants. Another traveler, Paulo Braga, also wrote extensively on Portugal’s easternmost colony, publishing (p.109) five books on Timorese cultural life with such revealing titles as A Ilha dos Homens Nus [‘The Island of Naked Men’] (1936) and Timor 1930: País de Sonho e Encantamento [‘Timor 1930: Country of Dreams and Enchantment’] (1930). The titles themselves indicate the exoticism and primitivist notions of human purity (located outside the West) with which Portuguese travelers signified the island.
Travelers, or knowledge producers, from other European imperial nations also wrote on the topic of colonial inefficiency in East Timor and Portuguese civilizational incapacity. In his study of the flora and fauna of Southeast Asia, The Malay Archipelago: the land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel with studies of man and nature, the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace dedicates a chapter to Timor Island. In addition to naming, categorizing, and establishing taxonomies of plant and animal life, Wallace also offers reflections on the colonial organization of human life he encounters in the Dutch and Portuguese domains, thus underscoring the intimate bond between imperial consciousness and the production of colonial knowledge. Wallace’s reflections inscribe both Portuguese and Timorese otherness vis-à-vis northern European standards of Western civilization. He offers lengthy descriptions of ethnic categories and ways of life, prefaced by the epistemic statement, specifically regarding the capital, that ‘there is no sign of cultivation of civilization about it’ (145). What follows, therefore, is a catalog of otherness:
The mountaineers of Timor are a people of Papuan type, having rather slender forms, bushy frizzled hair, and the skin of a dusky brown colour. They have the long nose with overhanging apex which is so characteristic of the Papuan, and so absolutely unknown among races of Malayan origin. On the coast there has been much admixture of some of the Malay races, and perhaps the Hindoo, as well as of Portuguese. The general stature there is lower, the hair wavy instead of frizzled, and the features less prominent. The houses are built on the ground, while the mountaineers raise theirs on posts three or four feet high. The common dress is a long cloth, twisted round the waist and hanging to the knee.
In the realm of literary production, Joseph Conrad, one of the twentieth century’s most impactful writers of Empire and its field of meaning through tales of European agency in the global South, also inscribed East Timor as a place of overlapping otherness. In his 1915 novel, Victory, Swedish businessman Axel Heyst finds himself residing in the Dutch East Indies, modern-day Indonesia, as a result of a business endeavor. He tours different islands of the Dutch colonial domain, as well as the French and Portuguese (p.110) colonies. In relating Heyst’s time in Dili, Conrad’s narrator introduces the city as ‘that highly pestilential place’ made up of ‘God-forsaken villages’ that are home to ‘a very hungry population clamorous for rice’ (15). As is customary in Conrad’s fiction, it is the otherness of colonial poverty that serves as the background for the Eurocentric action of the novel. There is, though, a connection between the images of abject ‘uncivilization’ with which Conrad’s narrator inscribes the Timorese residents of Dili and the otherness of the Portuguese vis-à-vis the embodiment of Europeanness that is the protagonist.
While in Dili, Heyst becomes acquainted with Morrison, a British expatriate who is being pursued by the Portuguese colonial authorities. Having spent a significant time under persecution in Dili, Morrison seems relieved to finally find a fellow white man:
He had been wandering with a dry throat all over the miserable town of mud hovels, silent, with no soul to turn to in his distress, and positively maddened by his thoughts; and suddenly he stumbled on a white man, figuratively and actually white – for Morrison refused to accept the racial whiteness of the Portuguese officials. (17)
The articulation of the Portuguese as not racially white is very much a confluence of darker racial features (in comparison with those of Heyst), the geographical location of Portugal on the southern margins of Europe, and – perhaps most importantly in the context of colonial endeavor – the perceived Portuguese inability to fulfill the paternalistic mandate of the white man’s burden. Morrison’s conception of the Portuguese as not racially white arguably owes much to anthropological reflections on the racial makeup of Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Contributors to the field of racial taxonomy – an integral academic component of eugenics – such as William Ridley argued famously that ‘Africa begins beyond the Pyrenees’ (272), and that Europe was made up of three races: the Teutonic of northern Europe, the Alpine of central Europe, and the Mediterranean of southern Europe which shared anthropometric characteristics with North African racial groups. As Portugueseness resides on the limits of a phantasmatic European episteme, it is thus unsuited to articulate such an episteme on the other. The Portuguese deficit of whiteness is thus both the explanation and consequence of Portugal’s colonial incapacity.
This series of political and cultural reflections on colonial East Timor from different imperial perspectives traces a spectrum of global imperial power, manifested by claims to European notions of civilization that posit Great Britain over Portugal over Southeast Asia. Rather than focusing on what (p.111) this position of relative subalternity means for the legacies of Portuguese colonialism and post-imperial identity,2 this chapter is more concerned with the various layers of colonial historicization that have ensnared and signified East Timor and the experiences of its residents, as well as how writers of the past half-century have grappled with this palimpsest of imperial signification. Imperial inscriptions of East Timor have inevitably influenced and structured the political decisions taken over its inhabitants, from colony to postcolony, re-colony, and postcolony once again, impacted by foreign interests, such as those of Portugal, Indonesia, Australia, and the United States.
Portuguese colonial presence, tenuous as it may have been, nonetheless inserted the colony and its people into the logocentric, imperially formulated realm of History, the Western narrative of the past and reigning realm of intercultural meaning. As Luís Madureira reminds us, the goal of postcolonialism’s idiom of inquiry must continue to be ‘to reconsider the history of slavery, racism, and colonization from the standpoint of those who endured its effects’ (‘Difference’ 141). Part of the challenge taken on by some East Timorese writers has been to fathom a realm of meaning that eludes the structure of representation that, despite Portugal’s imperial limitations, accompanied colonial domination, slavery, and economic exploitation of natural resources on the island.
Aside from political documents tracing the physical space, ethnic makeup, and linguistic productions of East Timor, the colony was a central focal point for much Portuguese orientalist fiction in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Grácio Ribeiro’s Caiúru (1939) is a prime example of the orientalist strand of fictional portrayals of East Timor and Timorese lives. The semiautobiographical novel follows a young Portuguese man on the island following his deportation from Portugal for involvement in the clandestine communist party. Within the context of the plot’s central intercultural encounter, the foundation of the protagonist’s identitarian performance is the access to land, bodies, and capital afforded to him by his whiteness within the imperial field of meaning. In the Western narrative of time and space, whiteness, as the racial embodiment of Westernness, bestows upon its subject such freedom to consume, as we explored in Chapter 1.
(p.112) This access to bodies is, of course, constructed through different forms of intersectionality that inform identity politics in the colonial space and the imperial realm of power and meaning. The protagonist’s experience on the island is, in other words, framed by the intermingling of whiteness, masculinity, and capital, most glaringly underscored by the detailed account of the protagonist’s purchase of a nona, a term that became part of colonial Portuguese parlance in East Timor for an unofficial female sex worker, often thought of as a paid mistress or lover (amante). In his A terra, a gente e os costumes de Timor (1939), the aforementioned Paulo Braga offers a detailed exoticizing account of the presence of nonas in public spaces, namely Dili’s bazaars:
Nas ruas de Dili e nos bázares desfilam as nonas, saltitantes nas sóquinhas e nas sandálias, reluzentes nas sêdas e no ouro dos cordões, das cruzes e das escravas. São as amorosas de Timor, semelhantes às amorosas de todo o mundo, talvez mais exóticas e mais originais. […] E, no bázar, a gente acotovela-se, animada. Com o europeu, cruzam o indiano, o árabe, o china, o timor. […] Pisam o empedrado ou o cimento os sapatos de lona e borracha dos ocidentais, as sandálias e os chinelos dos chinas, as socas das nonas e os pés descalços, num amálgama cosmopolita e simpático.
E tudo se resolve na tarefa do negócio. Só o europeu não compra, nem vende. Não o leva alí uma finalidade de interesse comercial, mas apenas uma curiosidade ou uma imposição sentimental. Vai ver as nonas que existam e as possibilidades de nonas que porventura apareçam. Por isso, não olha géneros agrícolas e pecuários ou os artefactos expostos. Procura, apenas, as mulheres. (11, 35)
[In the streets of Dili and in the bazaars parade the nonas, bouncing in their sandals, gleaming in their silk garments, gold necklaces, crosses and gaudy bracelets. They are the call girls of Timor, like call girls from around the world, perhaps more exotic and original. (…) And in the bazaar, people joyfully rub elbows. The European encounters the Indian, the Arab, the Chinese, the Timorese. (…) On the stone or cement walkways step the canvas and rubber shoes of the Westerners, the slippers and sandals of the Chinese, the clogs of the nonas and bare feet, in an agreeable cosmopolitan mixture.
All actions here revolve around business matters. Only the European does not buy or sell. He is not guided by commercial interest, but only curiosity or a sentimentality. He goes to see the nonas who are there and the chances of nonas appearing. As such, he does not look at agricultural commodities or the artifacts on display. He looks only for women.]
(p.113) Braga’s exoticist take on the circulation of bodies in Dili suggests that the presence of nonas seems inextricably tied to the development of the bazaar space as a locale of interethnic contact, where different bodies hold different cultural, racial, and sexual currencies. Moreover, Braga seems to reveal a key component of colonial reality and the significational formation of colonial space. The presence of nonas exists in a market space of supply and demand that is very much dictated by a foreign male gaze pertaining to an international masculine bourgeoisie. Through such an economy of desire embedded in a colonial economy and societal compartmentalization, regulated by the aforementioned gaze, socioeconomic stability is facilitated for subaltern bodies almost exclusively by foreign desire in the market. The sexual case of nonas is perhaps most clearly indicative of this, but the same is also true for most goods on sale at the bazaar. In the excerpt above, there is a pronounced consumer/vendor divide that is very much articulated in terms of a foreigner/native dichotomy.
Another literary text that asserted white imperial agency vis-à-vis colonized otherness in terms of inter-gender politics and interracial sex is the short novel A nona do Pinto Brás (Novela Timorense) [Pinto Bras’s Nona (A Timorese Novel)] (1992) by Filipe Ferreira. Esperança argues that, due to prose similarities, this may have been the literary pseudonym of famed colonial historian Luís Filipe Ferreira Reis Thomaz (2). It was not only white Portuguese masculinity that found in East Timor the ethnic and racial topography necessary to inscribe itself. Isabel Tamagnini’s Diário de uma Viagem a Timor [‘Journal of a Journey to Timor’] (1882) serves as a vivid example of how the act of writing the colony and its inhabitants also permitted the expression of notions of white womanhood, and especially white female agency, within an otherwise masculine concentration of colonial power. Although the diary is written for an intimate audience (Tamagnini’s cousins and friends in Portugal) during her travels in the Far East, it gives Tamagnini the opportunity to articulate a personal narrative of the metropolitan aristocracy through the imperial field of meaning that ensnares the colonial space through racial and sexual taxonomies.
In the final decades of Portugal’s political control over East Timor, Portuguese colonial presence remained sparse, especially outside of Dili. Nonetheless, the furthest colony from the metropolis maintained a central symbolic place in Portugal’s late imperial narrative of a ‘pluri-continental nation,’ as evidenced by its presence in the nation’s motto: ‘from Minho to Timor.’ Its symbolic impact on the imperial narrative derives, mainly, from its role demarcating the empire’s expansive boundaries, the domain infamously articulated by the mapa cor de rosa [pink map]. As a signifier of Portugal’s overseas empire, Timor was deployed as part of the linguistic (p.114) representation of a Portugal that was ‘not a small nation,’ this being the oft-repeated clause that customarily followed, preceded, or substituted the ideological assertion that Portuguese national territory extended from the Minho region of northern Portugal to Timor.
In the face of international pressure to decolonize following World War II, Estado Novo propaganda defended the persistence of Portuguese colonial presence in Africa and Asia on the grounds that these holdings were not colonies, but overseas provinces that were integrated and equal parts of the pluri-continental nation. In fact, the term integration became a core component of Portugal’s late colonial propaganda machine and its imperial re-historicization. This reformulation of the colonial past into a narrative of cultural syncretism that occulted the quotidian and institutional violence of colonial power was most famously, though not exclusively, undertaken by Gilberto Freyre. As noted in Chapter 2, the Estado Novo funded Freyre’s tour of the Portuguese colonies in the 1950s following his previously established historical arguments that the Portuguese were colonizers more concerned with benevolent intercultural contact and sympathy than nefarious financial aspirations. He thus conceived Portugal and its colonies as equal parts of a Lusotropical civilization. In one of the written products of his journey through ‘terras portuguesas’ [‘Portuguese lands’], O Luso e o Trópico [The Luso and the Tropical] (1961), Freyre defines an integrated society:
Integrar quer dizer, na mesma linguagem especificamente sociológica, unir entidades separadas num todo coeso, um tanto diferente da pura soma das suas partes, como se verifica quando tribos ou estados e até nações diferentes passam a fazer, de tal modo, parte de um conjunto, seja nacional ou transnacional, que dessa participação resulta uma cultura, senão homogênea, com tendência homogênea, formada por traços mutuamente adaptados – ou adaptáveis – uns aos outros. Assim compreendida, a integração contrasta com a subjugação de uma minoria por uma maioria; ou – pode-se acrescentar – de uma maioria por uma minoria, contrastando também com a própria assimilação. (313)
[In specifically sociological terms, integrating means uniting separate entities in one cohesive whole, a little different from the pure sum of its parts, as verified when different tribes or states and even nations become part of a collective, be it national or transnational, which participation results in a particular culture that, if not homogenous, has homogeneous tendencies, formed by mutually adapted – or adaptable – traces. Understood in this way, integration contrasts with the subjugation of a minority by a majority, or – we may add – that of a majority by a minority, thus contrasting also with assimilation.]
(p.115) The Lusotropical civilization is one in which, according to Freyre, all ethnicities partake. The legitimization of this narrative hinged on its position as a transcontinental nationhood in which all ethnicities purportedly wanted to participate. Freyre attributes the Lusotropicalism of then Portuguese Timor, despite sparse Portuguese political presence and investment, to Timorese loyalty to the Portuguese: ‘Só por espontânea lealdade dos nativos de Timor aos portugueses é que Timor continua lusotropical’ [‘Only through the Timorese natives’ spontaneous loyalty to the Portuguese does Timor continue to be Lusoptropical’] (Aventura 409).
In voicing the imperial narrative, Freyre must speak for, and thus construct, the desire of the colonized subject to be part of a reformulated field of imperial meanings. The inscription of cultural difference in the Lusotropical narrative must simultaneously provide an answer to the perennial colonial question: What does the other want? The true – not imperially historicized – desire of the colonial other must first be prevented from participating in signification – the making of meaning – and then spoken over, the desire of the colonized being articulated from the desire of the imperial writing subject.
Freyre explains this phantasmatic Timorese desire for Portuguese presence by reverting to his consistent line of argumentation tracing a Portuguese ethos that resides between Europe and the global South. In contrast to Morrison, the drifting Englishman in Conrad’s Victory, Freyre’s narrative celebrates Portugal’s supposed deficit of Europeanness and uses it to explain Timorese desire for the Portuguese, especially in comparison with the Dutch presence on the Western half of the island:
Timor, metade holandesa, metade portuguesa, foi não só invadida por japoneses como agitada por ásperas revoltas de nativos contra o ‘europeu.’ Mas europeu – imperialista europeu – era, aos olhos desses nativos insurretos, o holandês; o português, eles o consideravam português: à parte dos europeus. (Aventura 409)
[Timor, half-Dutch, half-Portuguese, was not only invaded by the Japanese, but also shaken by harsh revolts by natives against the ‘European.’ But European – imperialist European – was, in the eyes of the native rebels, the Dutch; they considered the Portuguese simply Portuguese, separate from Europeans.]
Following Portuguese decolonization in 1975 and the declaration of Timorese independence on November 28 by the leftist Fretilin (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente) party, the Indonesian military, led by President Suharto invaded East Timor on December 4, 1975. The invasion was carried out with significant Western support, namely from the (p.116) United States, with the goal of preventing the spread of Soviet-supported communist presence in Southeast Asia. East Timor was now part of at least two more imperial narratives – that of expansionist Indonesia as the nation’s twenty-seventh province, and that of the neoliberal United States, which posited East Timor as a threat to capitalist markets in the region. This signification of newly independent East Timor as a threat to an existing political and economic regional and global order was also central to Australian foreign policy regarding East Timor, and also to Suharto’s rationale to invade. East Timor became ensnared in Suharto’s New Order narrative and his return to a particular version of Pancasila, the political philosophy of the Indonesian state: a version that distanced itself from populist socialism. Most importantly, the political narratives of Indonesia, Australia, and the United States were profoundly intertwined and served one another. Not surprisingly, historian David Hicks begins his book Rhetoric and the Decolonization and Recolonization of East Timor (2014) with a concise summary of East Timorese experiences of global power: ‘As always for the people of Timor, their lives would be changed by others ignorant of their concerns and geographically distant’ (2).
Decolonizing the Pluri-Racial Nation, or, Fernando Sylvan’s Ambiguities
East Timor’s place at the limits of Portugal’s imperial narrative is also reflected in its almost invisible place among an international readership in Portuguese. Although this has changed slightly following the international attention garnered by the 25-year Indonesian occupation, it was very much the case before Portuguese decolonization and largely continues to be the case for contemporary writers. The relative lack of critical recognition of East Timorese letters has largely relegated to the margins of Lusophone literary and cultural studies one of the most prolific thinkers of Portugal’s imperial project (especially its final decades), Portuguese national identity, and its relationship with the ethnic diversity of its colonial holdings – Fernando Sylvan. His prolificacy encompasses and traverses literary genres and even academic disciplines ranging from political theory to education and ethnography. Sylvan published nine collections of poetry; two theater screenplays; innumerable articles on a range of topics pertinent to Timor, Portugal, Brazil, and East Africa; and 11 books on Portuguese imperialism and East Timorese folklore in addition to a series of personal memoirs.
The decade of his most significant poetic production (1972–82) was anteceded by his most prolific period of essays and cultural reflections, a period that notably intersects with the beginning of the end of Portugal’s (p.117) overseas empire. Indeed, in order to more fully understand the voice behind his verse of the 1970s, it is important to consider the nuances of Sylvan’s essayistic work, especially regarding his poetic engagement with the practices and legacies of Portuguese colonialism and a global world order.
At the height of the Estado Novo’s international promotion of Portugal as a ‘pluri-continental’ nation, Sylvan’s work served as an ambiguous interlocutor to such a narrative. His earliest publications seemed to align themselves with Estado Novo propaganda and the Lusotropicalist narrative of the Portuguese empire and ethos. In 1960, he published the essay ‘Arte de Amar Portugal,’ which found a receptive audience among Lusotropicalism’s apologists, especially its central invocation of Portugal as a ‘pátria’ [‘fatherland’] with which even someone of non-European descent born in a Portuguese colony could identify.
Published in 1962, his Comunidade pluri-racial [Pluri-Racial Community] expanded the arguments delineated in his earlier essay while proposing models for the praxis of Portugal as a multiracial community. The book’s publication came at a very significant time for Portuguese colonial politics and its Lusotropical narrative – namely the beginning of anti-colonial struggles in Angola and the integration of Portugal’s Indian colony, Goa, into post-independence India. Sylvan thus offered a cultural and political blueprint for the idea of a multiracial community as its real-world counterpart began to disintegrate.
Sylvan’s work here does not call for an anti-colonial stance, but instead proposes policies that would enable Portugueseness to become a truly multiracial communal entity without assimilation into a metropolitan cultural expression. He calls for a Portuguese consciousness from ‘Minho to Timor’ across lines of ethnicity, while maintaining ethnic identities. His theory of a multiracial and transcontinental community operates under an ambiguous dichotomy of nation versus state. The nation, Sylvan argues, should not be a ‘discipline of the state’ (Comunidade 22). Such a state-driven version of the nation fails to express
a floração total dos indivíduos e, ao contrário, obriga-os a marcharem e a aceitarem conclusões que são alheias à sua dor e ao seu sorriso, que não demonstram, portanto, nem a sua alma, nem o seu pensamento. O acontecimento da Pátria fica então comprometido fortemente e por ela se toma o que não é mais do que uma disciplina de Estado geradora de um Estado que só pode subsistir pela força.
[the full flourishing of individuals and, to the contrary, forces them to accept conclusions that are far removed from their pain and from their joy, that do not demonstrate, therefore, either their soul or their (p.118) thoughts. The affairs of the Nation become, then, greatly compromised and understood as merely a discipline of the State, generating a State that can only exist by force.]
The central ambiguity, if not contradiction, of the work lies in the proposed alternative to a state-driven model of nationhood with the metropolis as its cultural and racial core. Sylvan calls for a
função pedagógica em que seus agentes estejam plenamente inteirados dos imperativos nacionais do seu magistério. Só uma engenharia social pode dar a esses agentes as linhas mestras do seu labor e ser alicerce do entendimento de Pátria Portuguesa para além da quotidiana vivência de Estado político.
[pedagogical function in which its agents fully comprehend the national imperatives of their education. Only a social engineering project can offer such agents the tools through which to understand the Portuguese nation beyond its quotidian existence as a political state.]
At the heart of Sylvan’s proposal is the utopia of a transcontinental and multiracial narrative of nation that does not serve nor emanate from the state.
This requires, as he points out, a rethinking of interpellation into such a narrative, a process that would thus be contingent upon a new mode of institutional action. This would be what Sylvan calls an ‘instituiçãocorpo’ [‘body-institution’] (23) through which individuals across ethnicities identify with the community. He posits the ‘body-institution’ as opposed to the ‘instituição-pessoa’ [‘person-institution’] (23); or rather, argues that the former must precede the latter. The pedagogy of a community operating within Sylvan’s model implies an institution that is simultaneously a frame of identification – the frame through which individual ethnic identity must emerge.
The fundamental conflict in his proposal, to put it clearly, resides in the call for the maintenance of ethnic specificities while suggesting that the community/nation take precedence over ethnicity in the way that individuals relate to History. His version of interpellation seems to present a twist of W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness (Du Bois 3). Rather than racial/ethnic consciousness and national consciousness consistently problematizing one another, national consciousness, according to Sylvan’s reformulated interpellation, must take precedence over ethnic consciousness. Moreover, it is the frame of national consciousness that should formulate notions of ethnic identification. Sylvan nonetheless argues that through this (p.119) process, ‘conjuntos étnicos diferentes poderão em breve, de motu-próprio, processar-se em Estado e transcender-se em Pátria’ [‘different ethnic groups will be able to, in their own way, articulate themselves as part of the State and transcend themselves in the Nation’ (Comunidade 24).
Within the overarching identitarian framework of transcontinental Portugueseness, ethnicity is to be simultaneously maintained and transcended. Through this ambiguous process, nation, particularly transcontinental Portugal, becomes the ‘região única ideal onde grupos de homens da mesma raça ou de raças diferentes unidos em trânsito histórico têm no eterno a sua morada mental futurante’ [‘unique ideal region where groups of people of the same race, or of different races, united in historical movement, have a future and eternal psychic home’] (Comunidade 41). The interpellation into a narrative of a common past becomes the preferred path toward the fundamental feature of Sylvan’s tracing of a nation that supersedes ethnicity and the state – a common future as a shared psychic space.
Beyond the undeniable utopianism of this formulation, Sylvan does, to some degree, take the dominant Lusotropicalist narrative of Portuguese imperialism to task, demanding that it be what it claims – a nation, not a colonial structure:
O sentido de exploração, de enriquecimento fácil, de alheamento dos supremos interesses autóctones que ditou a implantação no Ultramar Português das primeiras empresas e sociedades e actividades económicas pessoais, se não teve nunca razão de ser, muito menos poderá hoje ser justificado. O que não foi ainda rectificado, terá de o ser, porque não se pode sacrificar o destino de milhões aos interesses apenas de alguns, porque não se pode escoar o Ultramar em benefício da Metrópole, porque não será possível concretizar a unidade sem ser no interesse igual de todos.
[If the logic of exploitation, of easy accumulation, of the marginalization of native interests that established within the Portuguese maritime empire its earliest companies, societies, and personal economic activities made no ethical sense then they are much harder to justify today. What has not yet been rectified must be, because the destiny of millions cannot be sacrificed for the interests of a few, because the overseas territories cannot be drained for the benefit of the metropolis, because it will not be possible to achieve unity if it is not in the equal interest of all.]
Sylvan does not, therefore, focus on a narrative of Portuguese transcontinentality, but rather underscores the importance of a shift in economic (p.120) policies that informed the relationship between metropolis and ‘provinces.’ In pinpointing the ‘interests of a few’ driving Portuguese colonialism’s economic endeavor and concomitant system of representation, Sylvan conceives of this pluri-racial nation as one based on the redistribution of power – its geographic, racialized, and gendered location. In his view, the starting point for this shift would be economic:
Tudo o que se prometer, tudo o que se fizer ficará incompleto, melhor mesmo, impossibilitado de expressar-se, se à amplitude de uma acção política e à profundidade pedagógica se não juntar a revolução de uma acção económica. Quer dizer: sem esta revolução, a amplitude política será virtual e não real e a profundidade pedagógica será também virtual e não real.
[All that is promised, all that is begun will remain incomplete, or rather barred from expressing itself, if to breadth of political action and pedagogical depth we do not add an economic revolution. In other words: without this revolution, political breadth will be merely virtual and not real, and pedagogical depth will also be virtual and not real.]
Rather than reading Sylvan’s stance as one that simply places more importance on class and economic processes over race on the path to the goal of social justice, he understands imperial racial meanings to be part of the ideological support and text for economic exploitation – racial difference being an imperial criterion for the division of labor. Unlike Freyre, Adriano Moreira, and other Lusotropicalist proponents of his time, Sylvan recognizes, perhaps only tacitly, the systemic racism of the status quo in further elaborating the political and economic contours of his version of the multiracial nation:
É importante também que as actividades económicas não sejam um motivo de discriminação racial […] a verdade é que uma actividade económica que distribui o trabalho segundo a raça não pode subsistir se não se rectificar. Constitui mesmo uma indignidade de quem o impõe ou o consente, pois que, uma vez abolido o esclavagismo, não pode manter-se qualquer atitude que ainda que só de longe com ele se relacione.
[It is equally important that economic activities not be a motive for racial discrimination (…) the truth is that an economic activity that divides labor cannot continue if it is not rectified. This constitutes an indignity for he who imposes such a distribution as well as for (p.121) he who allows it, since, as slavery has been abolished, any practice or attitude even distantly related to it must be deemed impermissible and unsustainable.]
This particular passage effectively underscores the intersectionality of imperial exploitation and the profound presence of imperial discourses of racial difference that continued to mark the implementation of Portuguese colonialism during the Estado Novo’s embrace of Lusotropicalist narratives effacing race-based subalternity from the public record. As recent historians, beginning with Gerald Bender and his Angola under the Portuguese: The Myth and the Reality, have uncovered, forced labor based on race was rampant throughout Portugal’s colonial holdings during the Lusotropicalist period. A contemporary of this era of late Portuguese colonialism, Sylvan offers here an ambivalent rebuttal to Lusotropical claims of improved race relations while also subscribing to the tenets of Estado Novo propaganda of pluri-racial nation as utopian goal.
Despite criticizing contemporary economic policies driven by the imperial metropolis, Sylvan does not displace the central tenets of metropolitan imperial culture, namely the glorification of early modern Portuguese imperial endeavors. Interestingly, he juxtaposes the colonial economic exploitation undertaken by colonists of the mid-twentieth century to the, for him, laudable accomplishments of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese involved in the period known as ‘the Discoveries’:
Na verdade, esses colonos que daqui saíram descalços e no Ultramar acumularam quantias que não se podem técnicamente explicar, não levavam já consigo o espírito de aventura que era a característica da nossa gesta, espírito que ainda foi uma das forças poderosas que animaram os Descobrimentos.
[In truth, those colonists who left here (the metropolis) barefoot and accumulated inexplicable wealth in the overseas territories did not take with them the spirit of adventure characteristic of our history, the spirit that was a powerful force behind the Discoveries.]
Revealingly, such a contrast fundamentally plays into the metropolitan reformulation of the Discoveries and the colonial encounter they entailed by stripping from the equation the exercise of power they inaugurated. This rearticulation of the Discoveries, unlike the emancipatory practices we explore here, is much more closely aligned with the Lusotropicalist reformulation of power relations for the sake of a narrative based on the lack of violent social and economic structures.
(p.122) The excerpt above also points to another limitation of Sylvan’s theorization of the transcontinental community and its multiracial narrative. It indicates that his articulation of the community, despite its evocation of intercultural negotiation of meaning and denunciation of economic and racial exploitation, does not displace the centrality of metropolitan cultural signifiers. The championing of a truly egalitarian intercultural exchange central to the community is usurped by a continuity in metropolitan cultural hegemony.
Another of his works, published two years later, O Racismo da Europa e a Paz no Mundo [‘The Racism of Europe and World Peace’] (1964), fleshes out Sylvan’s understanding of European colonialism and its discursive underpinnings. In doing so, the book contradicts some of the positions taken by Sylvan in Comunidade Pluri-Racial by gesturing toward a more radical political position regarding European imperial endeavors and the field of meaning these reproduced. In his preface, Sylvan frames O Racismo as a book that ‘expressa um grito longo de crente desobediência à Europa’ [‘expresses a long cry of faithful disobedience to Europe’] (18) while also offering ‘fórmulas de vigoroso combate à atávica aceitação do jugo europeu’ [‘formulas for vigorously combating the atavistic acceptance of the European yoke’] (O Racismo 18).
Sylvan begins his exploration of European racism, specifically the racial underpinnings of European colonial projects, by targeting the philosophical core of Empire – the phantasmatic formulation of selfhood and otherness. He argues that European thought and philosophical reflection ‘raramente têm entendido o que é o Homem, ou raramente se têm interessado por tal entendimento. Compenetraram-se de que o Homem era o homem europeu’ [‘has rarely understood what is Human, or has rarely taken an interest in such an understanding. They have convinced themselves that Man is European man’] (O Racismo 21). In this regard, Sylvan pinpoints what Enrique Dussel would later theorize as the ‘archetypal foundational I’ (8) operating behind European colonial discourse – the psychic heart of an imperial Weltanschauung and scene of writing from which the Western narrative of History and imperial field of meaning is articulated. Aimé Césaire notably situated this ‘I’ as that of the ‘Western humanist’ – one whose injunction is carried out by the practitioners of a colonial order, those who should not ‘object to the European colonial enterprises’ (Discourse 3–4).
Aside from pointing out the European philosophical equation of European man as the embodiment of humanity, Sylvan also posits Eurocentric humanitas as fundamentally monological: ‘os europeus colocaram-se a si próprios na posição de mestres, quando os mestres verdadeiros são os que nesse plano são colocados pelos que com eles aprendem’ [‘Europeans placed themselves in the position of masters, when the true masters are those (p.123) deemed such by those who learn with them’] (O Racismo 23). The articulation of a phantasmatic other and speaking for this other, foreclosing its desire and inscribing in its place, reproduces the self-position of European man as I. This is the core of the monologic field of imperial meaning where the imperial I is also the ‘civilização-padrão,’ [‘standard civilization’] (O Racismo 26), which Sylvan contrasts with the search for a true Human existence. In ‘dilating’ (O Racismo 25–26) its signifying field into an exercise of global power, Europe failed to serve itself in the aforementioned quest: ‘porque os homens e os povos só em amplitude se servem quando o fazem sem medida de espaço e tempo, como garantia de que todos e um se acontecem’ [‘because humans and peoples are only served without limits of time and space, as a guarantee that all have a right to exist’] (O Racismo 26). Sylvan crucially separates Césaire’s Western humanist from a greater understanding of humanitas, the latter being a fundamentally dialogical undertaking, never carried out through a hegemonic scene of writing.
For Sylvan, it is from this foundational monologicism that emerges the fallacy of European supremacy. He asserts that the early modern field of imperial meaning where racial inequality was established by a singular site of articulation led to a fantasy of superiority that later European and European-descendent generations could not prove (O Racismo 83). Sylvan does not argue, however, that such generations did not try. He asserts that such superiority and the range of identities it implies exist only in a symbolic realm over the Real void of such superiority. As such, its subsequent atrocities occur through the repeated performance of superiority as the tool to reproduce the symbolic distance from the Real. For Sylvan, this is both a theory of Empire and a call to action against it. He argues, furthermore, that racial and ethnic signification can unite as much as it has divided so long as notions of supremacy are elided. Herein lies the fulcrum of his potential decolonial ethics – a dialogism that forecloses notions of centrality and supremacy. The resignification of difference from its original colonial articulations, he argues, must be ushered in by ‘os povos que viveram sujeitos a regimes coloniais’ [‘the peoples that lived under colonial regimes’] (O Racismo 135) in response to the excesses reproduced by Europeans and Euro-Americans – those who have carried out the fantasy of a ‘civilizaçãopadrão.’ He elaborates:
não se trata propriamente de uma luta de afro-asiáticos contra os demais povos, pois eles não desejam anular o resto dos homens ou obstruir a marcha da Humanidade no novo caminho que se intui. O que acontece é ter-lhes competido forçar o novo rumo, rumo em que os europeus e os euro-americanos não foram capazes de abertamente se (p.124) lançar, em grande parte por considerarem para si próprios um perigo a igualdade de direitos. E em perigo afinal se coincidiam, porque coagindo os demais a si próprios se não libertavam, porque não pode haver liberdade parcial em conceito, que o conceito de liberdade é só um.
[this is not necessarily a struggle of Afro-Asians against all other peoples, as the former do not wish to destroy the rest of humankind or to obstruct the march of Humanity down the path proposed here. Rather, it has fallen to Afro-Asians to inaugurate a new path, one that Europeans and Euro-Americans were unable walk, in large part because they considered equality to be a threat to their interests. The threat, though, was inevitable, because in oppressing the rest they never fully freed themselves. There could be no partial freedom, as there can only be one concept of freedom.]
Sylvan’s stance notably asserts that Europeans are also ensnared by the imperial field of meaning in which they reside, while echoing Malcom X’s iconic 1964 speech ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’: ‘It’s liberty or death. It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.’ In this regard, the decolonial movement for anti-imperial freedom inaugurates a gesture toward a revised global intercultural understanding and coexistence that dissolves the cyclical nature of Empire. This must come, Sylvan argues, from outside of Europe’s ‘civilização-padrão.’ Empire’s field of meaning must be reconsidered, beginning with the scenes of writing that it consistently and systemically negated.
It is this decolonial ethics that one finds operating in Sylvan’s poetry of the 1970s and ’80s. The poetic medium arguably allowed him to develop his theses in ways that the prose medium and its political surveillance in 1960s Portugal did not allow. While he openly denounces European colonialism in O Racismo na Europa e a Paz no Mundo, Sylvan once again appears to be much more ambivalent on the matter in Comunismo e Conceito de Nação em África [‘Communism and the Concept of Nation in Africa’] of 1969. While the focus of Comunismo is his opposition to the adoption of Marxist-Leninist political and economic doctrines by anti-colonial movements, Sylvan concludes with a defense of Portugal’s narrative of a multiracial transcontinental community. He argues that Portugal was able to successfully transcend colonialism into nationhood, sublating a web of colonies into a transcontinental nation by way of a ‘fenomenologia cultural […] possibilitada com o miscigenamento’ [‘cultural phenomenology (…) made possible by way of miscegenation’] (Comunismo 90).
(p.125) While he defines colonialism as an imbalanced cultural and political structure based on clearly demarcated human taxonomies, Portugal, in Sylvan’s opinion, transcended such a structure ‘pelo pensamento, pelo amor e pela erótica’ [‘through philosophy, through love, and through erotics’] (Comunismo 90). Sylvan thus restates the heart of Freyre’s conceptualization of Portuguese colonial endeavor. He credits António Salazar, the Portuguese dictator at the time of writing,3 for promoting a cultural phenomenology that reinscribed intercultural colonial contact into a supposedly horizontal multiracial transcontinental collective. Moreover, he supports African nations’ struggle for political autonomy, while arguing that ‘para que sejam livres ficaram a dever aos portugueses o seu caminho primeiro’ [‘to become free, they owe much to the Portuguese for opening this path’] (Comunismo 85) and that without the Portuguese multiracial model, ‘também os outros povos, colónias, não poderiam prever-se em condições de Nação’ [other peoples, colonies, would not possess the conditions necessary for a Nation’ (Comunismo 97).
Despite misrecognizing Portugal’s late imperial narrative as a model for an egalitarian cultural exchange and coexistence, Sylvan’s critique of communism as a problematic political ideology for African nationhood and national autonomy furthers his dialogical approach to intercultural ethics and epistemology. His argument against the implementation of a strict Marxist-Leninist state is grounded in an understanding that its view of History and class struggle is particular to a European industrial capitalist reality that is not easily translatable to African colonial societies. This is particularly the case of what he understands as the foundational binary operating at the core of Marxist History – that of bourgeois subject versus worker/producer. The Marxist-Leninist political structure that stems from here does not, therefore, adequately account for the realities of rural peasants and intra-ethnic politics. In this regard, Sylvan sees the communist model as yet another form of epistemic violence stemming from Europe. Most interestingly, he takes issue with the teleological nature of the Marxist view of History, namely its implied fixing of meaning. It is here that Sylvan expresses himself as a sort of pre-Derridean deconstructionist – arguing against a hold on meaning that implies a center/margin dichotomy barring emergent scenes of writing.
Although he does not adequately flesh out how non-European anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles grappled with Marxism, reformulating it and (p.126) effectively de-Westernizing it,4 Sylvan nonetheless reveals the theoretical foundations of his intercultural ethics vis-à-vis colonial politics. For him, the fixing of meaning, whether colonialist or Soviet communist, always implies a center with claims to authority and notions of origin, along with the privilege to articulate the terms of the relationship between the phantasmatic center and its margins. This quest against centrality can be found at work in his poetry of the 1970s and ’80s.
Despite his failure to openly, consistently, and thoroughly condemn the Portuguese state’s narrative of a pluri-continental nation, Sylvan’s cultural thought nonetheless reveals a steady stance against discourses of inequality and marginalization. His greatest political shortcoming, though, was not recognizing these discourses in the last decades of the Portuguese imperial project. Publicly opposing the state’s narrative while residing in the metropolis may not have been an option at the height of the Estado Novo’s censorship and its secret police tyranny. Despite his public support of the Estado Novo in this period, the ethical standards to which Sylvan held the Estado Novo’s narrative and the avant la lettre theoretical exploration of European colonial discourse warrants critical attention. Even at the level of the state, Sylvan’s writings are fraught with ambiguity, one that can be read as walking the tightrope of censorship, the fine line between freedom and imprisonment. He lauds António de Oliveira Salazar – the ideological embodiment of the state – while also calling for a decentralization of the state in relation to the life of the pluri-racial community; arguing that the latter must be in a constant state of intercultural flux.
During the peak of his essayist production, the 1960s, Sylvan occupied an inevitably ambiguous position among metropolitan cultural elites, especially as a Timorese intellectual working in imperial Europe. His exile and transcontinental identity arguably played a role in his questioning of the center/margin dichotomy through which European imperial maps operated. In the Estado Novo narrative of late imperial Portuguese colonialism – one that rhetorically diluted (without ever erasing) the centrality of the metropolis, Sylvan found a political expression of his own intercultural ideals. His poetry in the following decades, in the last years of the Estado Novo and after its demise, arguably offered him a politically safer platform through which to grapple with imperial power and its global field of meaning. In doing so, he became not only one of the founding voices in the formation of a Timorese literature written in Portuguese, but also provided a (p.127) map toward a critical scene of writing that negotiates Timorese experiences in the turbulent past.
The poetry of Fernando Sylvan thus reveals a complex working through of East Timor’s situation and resituation in imperial narrativization and global politics. In light of East Timor’s complex past vis-à-vis local and global forms of power, Sylvan’s poetry reflects overlapping openings for nation, diaspora, and post-nation within an articulation of meaning that seeks to elude imperial forms of power, while working with what such power has bestowed upon human relations. Writing against Empire, his poetry seeks a new conceptualization through which to experience a present indelibly shaped by imperial power. In doing so, the elusion of imperial power resides more specifically in imagining global human relations outside of the epistemological framework inherited from European expansion.
Like the work of later Timorese writers and poets, such as Xanana Gusmão, João Aparício, Luís Cardoso, and Ponte Pedrinha, Sylvan’s poetry straddles both a delinking of imperial meaning and a gesturing toward a scene of writing in flux. It spans both occupational periods of East Timor’s recent history – Portuguese colonialism and Indonesian occupation. As such, it inevitably engages with the philosophical/discursive cores of domination, much like his O Racismo da Europa e a Paz no Mundo. From here, his poetry goes a step further by tracing paths toward self-enunciation vis-à-vis and against discourses of domination fomented by fantasies of sameness and otherness that inform subjectivity within modern power. While O Racismo da Europa is centered on a European subject – an individual interpellated into the field of imperial meaning with the implied end of reproducing said field, Sylvan’s poetry is written against the signifiers of colonial otherness and the mechanisms of interpellation into it.
In doing so, moreover, he also inevitably tackles the foundations of imperial sameness working within the system of meaning while questioning its false cohesion. Such engagement targets the dialectical reproduction of each floating piece of the phantasmatic dichotomy by seeking a poetic scene of writing that sidesteps the notions of origin and centrality that inform narratives of imperial supremacy. In response to this theory of a European imperial ego, Sylvan’s poetry can be read as containing not necessarily a postcolonial identity, but rather a deliberate scene of writing through which to work out the parameters of postcolonial identity and self-enunciation against Empire and the identitarian possibilities contained therein. In this regard, one can approach the scene of writing operating in his work as a poetics of meta-identity, the lyrical I, the voicing force of the poem, as an ontological site through which to reflect on the contours of decolonial identities. In doing so, he stages a right to signify from which time and space (p.128) can be delinked and reimagined. In this sense, Sylvan’s poetic decoloniality expresses identity as a battleground through which to engage Empire and to imagine signification beyond and against imperial power.
The role of poetry as an artistic medium through which to express anti-colonial thought and collective meanings has a profound history within Timorese liberation movements, especially within Fretilin and its precursor, the Associação Social Democrática Timorense [Timorese Social Democratic Association]. Sylvan can thus be considered an early proponent of the poetic genre as political weapon. Anthony Soares, in his study of the emergence of a poetic tradition in East Timor, temporally locates the intensification of poetic production in ‘the final years of Portuguese colonial rule and throughout the Indonesian occupation’ (‘Poets’ 134) due to the ‘pressing need for political self-expression’ (‘Poets’ 134). Soares highlights the connection between poetry as a mode of formulating anti-colonial collective narratives to the political goals of the Associação Social Democrática and Fretilin in order to foment greater political and cultural literacy as an everyday praxis of liberation. To this end, a national literature is conceived as one in which participation shall not be limited to a small cultural elite. Rather, the promotion of reading and writing becomes, for Fretilin, a vehicle for political and cultural participation within the framework of nation, itself the political vehicle for postcolonial collective autonomy. The focus on literacy is undoubtedly logocentric, and especially problematic in its promotion of Portuguese (spoken by a small minority) as the national language, as Soares also points out: ‘this view of the value of a national literature is at once liberating and limiting’ (‘Identity’ 83). Several poets and writers, including Sylvan, have nonetheless taken on the ambiguous task of decentering the written word through the written medium.
Soares goes on to point out the subsequent limitations of directing literary work ‘towards a single purpose, potentially devaluing any creative impulse that seeks to explore other areas suggestive of dissonant voices reading from a different political manual’ (‘Identity’ 83). Sylvan’s poetry, as we shall see, takes poetry as a political medium beyond many of the limits Soares pinpoints. His poetic oeuvre, in other words, gestures toward greater forms of liberation beyond nation, locale, and logos, thus taking the later conception of Timorese poetry to new levels: ‘a Poesia de Libertação é rica de aspirações humanas justas e profundas. Nela, o poeta abstrai-se e subtrai-se dos seus próprios interesses para se identificar com os do seu Povo’ [‘Liberation Poetry is rich in just and profound aspirations. In it, the (p.129) poet abstracts and subtracts himself from his own interests to identify with those of his People’] (Timor-Leste 5).
Sylvan published his first two collections of poetry in 1942, but took a hiatus from poetry that lasted more than two decades, publishing his next collection in 1965: 7 Poemas de Timor [‘7 Poems of Timor’]. The temporal proximity of the publication of 7 Poemas de Timor and Racismo da Europa e a Paz no Mundo possibly accounts for the former building upon the latter, or rather the former offering a subaltern experience of the latter while eluding Empire’s signifying process. The very order of the collection’s short poems follows the poetic mission of displacing notions of origin and centrality that are at the core of Empire’s function of defining and ascribing meaning. Similarly, the collection problematizes Empire’s fantasy of a fixed scene of writing – or, to use Walter Mignolo’s term, the ‘zero point’ – as ‘the site of observation from which the epistemic colonial differences and the epistemic imperial differences are mapped out’ (Darker Side 80).
The collection begins with ‘Navio’ [‘Vessel’], which begins with the enunciation of a very particular geographical location before separating from the locale:
- É o pico-avô da minha Ilha.
- Subi muitas vezes aos seus três mil metros.
- E foi no seu alto
- Que meu sonho-menino construiu um navio.
- Ninguém tinha compreendido
- Que a ilha
- Não era terra isolada pelo mar. (7 Poemas 7)
- is the great peak of my island
- I climbed its three thousand meters many times
- And it was at its high point
- That my child-dream built a ship
- No one had understood
- That the island
- Was not a piece of land isolated by the sea.]
(p.130) The first two stanzas seem to imply a locale of origin from which a trans-spatial journey ensues – Tata Mailau, also referred to as Mount Ramelau, is the highest point of East Timor. For Sylvan, it seems to suggest a primordial site of interpretation, the place from which the world begins to become knowable, as does the viewer/interpreter’s place within it. In the same poetic motion, he is also inscribing a particularly East Timorese place from which the global is understood through the particular signifiers that compose the Tetum language. The term ‘pico-avô’ [‘grandfather peak’] is the literal Portuguese translation of the Tetum for highest peak, tata mailau – tata mai meaning ‘grandfather’ and lau signifying ‘mountain.’ Like the langue of Empire,5 Tetum’s collection of signifiers suggests an earth made knowable through metaphors, using the known to grasp and integrate the unknown. It is, therefore, from local knowledge that the decolonial global journey begins.
The final stanza inaugurates a brand of newness in terms of articulating an ontological and geo-cultural site in relation to a global politics shaped by Empire. It is a newness that is inevitably twofold vis-à-vis both an imperial spatial understanding produced by global power and a local narrativization of life in the then colony. The utterance ‘no one had understood’ emphasizes the emergence of a particular scene of writing from which a different global and intercultural narrative may arise. Such a narrative would offer a new mode of understanding time and space, and with it the radical possibility of a shift in existing fields of meaning.
The poem, and the collection as a whole, arguably begins to put such a possibility into action. From the signified place of the island, the rewriting of it begins. Therefore, if there is to be a notion of origin in the collection, it is one that is perpetually decentered and affected by the ensuing signification that takes place. The ending of the state of isolation indicated in the final line leaves the island – as point of departure – open to resignification, in this case at the hands of Sylvan’s gaze of exile. The articulation of a nascent scene of writing vis-à-vis Empire is thus conducted by way of a global journey, somewhat parallel to that of Sylvan’s own experience as a colonial exile in the metropolis.
The next poem in the collection builds further upon this journey – on trans-spatial movement serving as metaphor and metonymy of a decolonial meta-identity. The poem is tellingly titled ‘Rota’ [‘Route’] and seems to pick up where ‘Navio’ left off:
- (p.131) Não sei se o mar tem voz
- Mas a sua voz
- Desde pequeno me falava lento.
- Foi ele que me disse
- Que havia Espaço e Tempo.
- E comecei a viajar sem medo da viagem.
- E nunca mais parei
- Com medo da paragem.
(7 Poemas 9)
- [I do not know if the sea has a voice
- But its voice
- Since I was a child spoke to me slowly.
- It was the sea that told me
- There was Time and Space.
- And so I began traveling without fear of the journey.
- And so I never paused
- With fear of the stop.]
The poetic ubiquity of the sea in Sylvan’s work, and this collection in particular, posits it as the metaphoric means of traveling through and resignifying time and space, as ‘Rota’ indicates. The title itself is a term with significant colonial historical weight in Portuguese, reverting back to Portugal’s early modern imperial glory of the so-called ‘Discoveries.’ To this day, the term is a fundamental part of a Portuguese imperial narrative, evoking images of early imperial maps laying out the routes taken by Portuguese ships connecting markets, natural resources, commodities, and, of course, bodies. In homage to Portugal’s imperial past, for instance, Adidas named the soccer ball used during the 2004 European Football Championships hosted by Portugal ‘Roteiro,’ the map of routes. In his reading of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century roteiros, Luís Madureira underscores their functional and symbolic importance as an ‘attempt to codify and stabilize both nautical knowledge and the boundaries of Portugal’s maritime dominion’ (Imaginary 34).
The sea itself, as an aesthetic trope, is also deeply imbricated in imperial cultural production, ranging from poetry to cartography. This is the case, for instance, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), when Marlow expresses (p.132) his childhood curiosity for spaces represented in maps. In the context of Portuguese imperial expansion, Luís Vaz de Camões’s epic Os Lusíadas [The Lusiads] (1572), which mythologizes Vasco da Gama’s voyage into the Indian Ocean, construes the sea as a site of imperial glory, as well as of perilous obstacles such as the Adamastor, the overcoming of which contributes to the poetic grandeur of Portuguese endeavor. In a later poetic epic of a different sort, the modernist Mensagem [Message] (1934) of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, the sea occupies a central location in Pessoa’s reinscription of Portuguese imperial history toward the goal of a national revival. Pessoa’s collection effectively recanonized the figures and symbols of Portugal’s imperial past, especially as the poem’s historical reformulation was quickly embraced by the nascent Estado Novo regime in Portugal as the nationalist text par excellence.
These imperial deployments of the sea as trope make Sylvan’s use of it all the more important for his project vis-à-vis Empire and its re-narrativizing of imperial terminologies, reappropriating it as a means through which to unite subaltern experiences of imperialism across geographies. The sea as trope is thus newly infused with symbolic value, a sign taken from Empire’s order of knowledge, meaning, and desire, and placed into an emergent terrain of decolonial cultural meaning. Rather than imperially articulating a collection of spaces connected by and subsumed into imperial desire, the sea becomes part of a counter-narrative – not of a necessarily different past, but a different version of the imperial past told from a scene of writing that has been silenced to some degree. As such, this also implies a shift in content between narratives. For instance, while violence and excess were ambiguously both celebrated by and elided from imperial narratives, they are brought to the forefront in potentially decolonial reconfigurations of the past and present. This shift in content would subsequently bring forth a different subject to be interpellated into decolonial sign-systems and reordered desire.
It is arguably with these historicizing implications in mind that Sylvan deploys the sea trope/sign, reclaiming it from Empire’s field of meaning, adding a decolonial layer to its palimpsest by enunciating his own route as a gendered, racialized, colonized subject interpellated into Empire. It is by way of the sea, a route through it, that both his body and the colony can enact a transition from existing within Empire as a product of knowledge to problematizing Empire by inscribing meaning. This meaning, though, more specifically in the realm of identity, offers a fissuring vis-à-vis Empire’s desire for reproduction. It is at the level of the subject-as-inscriber that Empire’s field of meaning is perpetuated. For the racialized/colonized subject, the performance of identity, particularly the inscription of the ego within the (p.133) existing symbolic realm of Empire, implies psychic and significational parameters different from those of the colonist subject, for instance. For the sake of Empire’s homeostatic balance, colonized identities must be performed in a way that renders the colonized subject knowable to Empire’s gaze and surveillance.
It is through the metaphoric journey of identity, in conjunction with the actual journey of exile, that the lyrical I pursues its ultimate poetic goal: the quest for untranslatability. This implies, for Sylvan, inaugurating a knowing subject that persistently forecloses the possibility of becoming a knowable object within Empire. In the process, Sylvan’s writing subject must snag the translating of time and space away from the imperial ego pointed out in O Racismo da Europa e Paz no Mundo, thus inaugurating an identity that is untranslatable.
As Cixous and Clément’s text excerpted in Chapter 2 points out, Empire is founded upon translating bodies into meaning, the absolute Other into otherness: the reduction of a ‘person’ to a ‘nobody’ to the position of ‘other’ (71). The translation to which I refer here regarding imperial signification is not the transfer of the same (or at least as similar as possible) signified from the signifier in one language to a signifier in another. Imperial translation, rather, refers to the significational operation by which imperial inscription – travel writing, early modern natural sciences, contemporary political discourses, etc. – shifts physical entities as well as actions into Empire’s field of meaning. This is ‘translation’ more in the sense of the Portuguese or Spanish false cognate trasladar, meaning to move, transfer, or change. In Heideggerian terms, this is the epistemological shift of phenomena from earth to world, transferring the unknown into knowable otherness, undertaken by the subject/being, in this case the imperial ego. Through this process of imperial translation, bodies, spaces, and matter become part of Empire, stripped of their own sense of selfhood; the now othered body having its desire and ego foreclosed from Empire’s narrative of time and space.
In this regard, the journey of the lyrical voice/writing subject away from origin into a flux of identity reveals not only a right to signify that is staged, but also a mode by which selfhood may elude its translation into otherness. In order to avoid imperial translation, the emerging decolonial identity must, as ‘Rota’ suggests, travel ‘without fear of the journey’ while avoiding stoppages and fixities. The ‘fear of stops’ underscores the need for constant resignification; that is, the persistent manipulation of significational postponement. A core aspect of such postponement, and larger quest for untranslatability is the elision of centrality, an apparent attempt at erasing its trace. If we read ‘Rota’ as a continuation of ‘Navio,’ we can identify, in (p.134) the former, a physical departure from an enunciated origin in the latter. In articulating a meta-identity in constant flux, the departure from the origin also implies its displacement from a privileged place of centrality. Origin, therefore, is merely a point of departure and ceases to be the central signifier to which proceeding meaning refers.
The relationship between center/origin and play, which Derrida ascribes to the history of the West and its structuralist discourses, ‘is in fact the concept of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which itself is beyond the reach of play’ (Writing 279). The center is, in other words, as a phantasmatic ‘certitude,’ ‘paradoxically, within the structure and outside it’ (279; emphasis original). History, for Derrida, always a significational operation, implies an origin or end (arche or telos) that ‘may always be reawakened or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of a presence’ (279). The privilege of the central signifier lies is in its ability to elude play and postponement, thus reinforcing presence through its implied marginalization of meaning outside the center.
A centerless meta-identity thus forecloses the psychic foundation of imperial interpellation. It renders impossible the hailing of the subject into the realm of meaning through a historicized ideal ego – a text that becomes an image of totality for the interpellated subject. The ideal ego is, for the imperialized subject/identity, the primordial center of the imperial field of meaning. It is the crystallization of an entire discursive plane into one image through which the subject is enjoined to reproduce said signifying field. The erasure of origin, or the point of origin within meaning, implies, therefore, a persistent erasure and reinscription, or at the very least a reordering, of the entire realm of meaning. Subsequently, the concept of an ideal ego, as an inaugurating moment of the subject, is rendered null. This would thus imply a global intercultural politics in which resignifications are in constant and overlapping intermingling predicated on an elided relationship between self and other due to the erasure of centrality.
The repercussions of Sylvan’s untranslatable meta-identity would be twofold: the inauguration of postcolonial identities that do not attempt to grip reality through a rhetoric of origin and phantasmatic authenticity, and the foreclosure of imperial reification through a consistently centerless entity that can therefore not be made knowable through Empire’s epistemological reliance on the articulation of centrality. Empire’s system of differences, how earth is rendered and organized into world, is, as Sylvan seems aware, constructed through fantasies of centrality (i.e. the imperial ego/archetypal foundational I) that enunciate a core of sameness around which overlapping spectrums of otherness are at play. As Derrida never ceases to remind us, it is through a core of signified centrality that Western presence is consistently (p.135) articulated through historicity. What Sylvan proposes through his poetic meta-identity is a decolonial subject embedded in a centerless, and thus shifting, system of meaning; a system that, in its undeniable utopianism, dovetails with and even surpasses his ideal view of the Portuguese ‘pluri-racial community’ in his 1962 book.
In his treatise on decolonial approaches to Empire, Mignolo argues for displacing the Cartesian dictum of Reason – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – with ‘I think where I am,’ as ‘one basic epistemic principle that legitimizes all ways of thinking and de-legitimizes the pretense of a singular and particular epistemology, geo-historical and bio-graphically located, to be universal’ (Darker Side 81). Sylvan, I would argue, goes a step further in his decolonial expression, arguing for a ‘where’ that is, itself, in flux as global power’s flows of capital, ideas, and people is also counter-enunciated by the subject in transit. In doing so, Sylvan also enacts Mignolo’s decolonial mission – ‘not rejecting Western epistemic contributions to the world. On the contrary, it implies appropriating its contributions in order to de-chain them from their imperial designs’ (Darker Side 82). A centerless scene of writing in flux through a field of meaning that is also devoid of a center would inevitably reformulate Western epistemic contributions while displacing any notions of Western centrality which such contributions may imply. In this regard, Sylvan offers a quotidian praxis of decoloniality through identity as an epistemological and meaning-producing function in opposition to centrality.
Postnation against Empire
This praxis and quest for an untranslatable meta-identity against Empire can also be found in Sylvan’s poetry after 7 Poemas de Timor, in different incarnations with varying political implications. His next poetic endeavor garnered significant international attention – the poem Mensagem do Terceiro Mundo [‘Message from the Third World’] of 1971. Translated into several languages, it was first published in recognition of the United Nations’ declaration of 1971 as the International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Prejudice. Sylvan here situates the poetic voice/scene of writing within a particular collective – the Third World.
The centerless scene of writing, however, allows for a movement between and through different existing collectives, communities, and categories that inform global meanings. In doing so, the narrativization of time and space can never be fixed in one such category of subjective existence in the world impacted by imperial power. A movement through categories, or ‘overlapping territories and intertwined histories’ to borrow Benita Parry’s terms (336–61), perpetually resignifies such categories as well as the larger (p.136) field of meaning in which they may be embedded or against which they struggle. The constant quest for untranslatability, of which Mensagem do Terceiro Mundo is an example, implies a rethinking of what Rey Chow calls ‘dominant conceptualizations’ (25). In the case of East Timor, such conceptualizations, especially postcolonial nationhood, have largely failed in the realm of political autonomy, ultimately compromising the lives of its inhabitants.
Sylvan’s movement away from nation (one that is increasingly ambivalent as he constructs his oeuvre) has much to do with its political impossibilities historically beginning with the establishment of colonial power on non-European land. Both the formation of the colony and the transition to nation are violently informed by transnational events and currents of power, bodies, and capital. As many a theorist – political, literary, or otherwise – has stressed in different ways, the postcolonial nation in the strictly geopolitical sense has become an instrument of Empire. Partha Chatterjee’s famous warning regarding nationalist projects immediately comes to mind: postcolonial nationhood often implies a ‘representational structure [that] corresponds to the very structure of power nationalist thought seeks to repudiate’ (38). Decades prior to Chatterjee’s observation, Amílcar Cabral shared a similar sentiment referring specifically to global political and economic constraints in his theory of imperialism, notably that colonialism establishes the conditions for neocolonialism. Furthermore, the impact of imperialism (whether through colonialism or neocolonialism) ‘on the historical process of the dominated people is paralysis, stagnation’ (Cabral 128).
The postcolonial nation, in the ruins of colonialism and in inevitable transition into neocolonialism, is thus always already a post-nation in the international political and economic realm. The fomentation of a specifically national realm of meaning that informs national subjectivity is naturally impacted by Empire’s continued webs of power and influence. It is this tension between the formation of a national ethos against Empire’s field of meaning and the imposition of a national narrative marginalizing ethnic minorities that has constituted an ongoing debate in the realm of postcolonial studies, ethnic studies, diaspora studies, and cultural theory in general. Edward Said arguably brought the argument to the forefront of cultural thought, positing nationalism as a necessary tool against Empire while also underscoring the pitfalls of discourses of essence that often undergird notions of national identity. In this regard, nationalism is to be transcended. Homi K. Bhabha notably elaborates on Said’s take regarding nationalism and national culture, underscoring the hybridity at the core of any culture and cultural identity. Benita Parry finds Said’s position to (p.137) be an ‘equivocation on the necessity of inscribing cultural identity before it can be transcended, of working through attachments in order to emerge beyond them’ (346). For Parry, there appears to be an irreconcilable fissure between ‘conserving specific structures of communal subjectivity invented by dominating peoples, and that which conceptualizes the subject as split, unfixed and disseminated’ (346).
Stuart Hall, working ambivalently against the grain of Said and Bhabha, offers a defense of ‘cultural identity’ in terms of one shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’ that ‘continues to be a very powerful and creative force in emergent forms of representation amongst hitherto marginalised peoples’ (‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ 223). Hall nonetheless recognizes ‘the impossibility of “identity” in its full, unified meaning. In this regard, Hall seems to straddle the same line as Said, between nation and post-nation, or the larger critique of identitarian essences. Hall thus asks the ultimately central question: ‘Is it possible, acknowledging the discourse of self-reflexivity, to constitute a politics in the recognition of the necessarily fictional nature of the modern self, and the necessary arbitrariness of the closure around the imaginary communities in relation to which we are constantly in the process of becoming “selves”?’ (‘Minimal Selves’ 45; emphasis original). In posing such a question, he gestures toward his larger theoretical argument regarding the project of self and its enunciation in time and space, which seems starkly aligned with Said:
One is aware of the degree to which nationalism was/is constituted as one of those major poles or terrains of articulation of the self. I think it is very important the way in which some people now (and I think particularly of the colonized subject) begin to reach for a new conception of ethnicity as a kind of counter to the old discourses of nationalism or national identity.
In the final excerpt, Hall appears to suggest a theory of identity in the postcolonial moment that resonates with Sylvan’s play and flux of identity. The ‘necessarily fictional nature’ of identity, echoing Lacan’s ‘fictional direction’ of the imago and ego, allows for shifts in collective identities based on the exigencies of the present.
The poetic movement in Sylvan’s oeuvre from the spatial signifier/local conception of the ‘grandfather peak’ to the transnational conception of the Third World, speaks to the ‘reaching’ for a new conception, one based on constructing links of resistance through the same transnational means through which Empire has been enacted and solidified. Sylvan’s meta-identity/decolonial scene of writing finds its practice by way of (p.138) ‘overlapping terrains’ that offer intersecting signifying chains of resistance. Hall concludes his essay ‘Minimal Selves’ by reminding us ‘every identity is placed, positioned, in a culture, a language, a history […]. But it is not necessarily armoured-placed against other identities. It is not tied to fixed, permanent, unalterable oppositions’ (46). In a similar vein, Sylvan’s meta-identity seems to be poetically performed and inscribed through the shared experiences of a multitude of identities. Sylvan would perhaps thus pluralize Hall’s statement as ‘every identity is placed, positioned, in unfixed cultures, languages, and histories.’ The category ‘Third World’ subsumes, of course, a plethora of subject-positions across race, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, age, ethnicity, and language. On the spectrum of power and subalternity, the term Third World has come to refer to varying experiences of subalternity and marginalization vis-à-vis the concentration of power, privilege, and capital.
Sylvan’s poetic project reveals an awareness that each system of categorization does not imply one rigid mode of identity. Identity, rather, is situated across and through the intersections of these categories.6 At the same time, these are transnational categories in the signifying field of Empire that inform where identity is situated at the national level. The globality of Empire thus demands a critical centerless inscription of identity that expresses itself against Empire by way of trans-local intersectionality. As such, anti-imperial movements have seldom been driven by solely national forces – the documented collaboration of Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral, Guevara, Malcom X, Fidel Castro, and Mao Zedong in the political arena constitutes perhaps the most resonant examples from the tumultuous post-World War II era. More than common experiences of subalternity, the enunciation of ‘Third World’ evokes a form of consciousness and anti-imperial conceptualization that offered a scene of writing against Empire. The placement of Sylvan’s poetic meta-identity into the title Mensagem do Terceiro Mundo reveals an urgency to move through different anti-imperial conceptualizations in order to delink Empire’s significational and political edifice. These are not only overlapping terrains but also intersecting signifying chains of resistance.
In the poem Mensagem do Terceiro Mundo, there is no written mark of Timorese identity, but as a colonized space and collection of residents subjected to the reproduction of imperial power, it is a decentered presence. The poetic meta-identity speaks through the name of an existing decolonial scene of writing – the Third World – in order to partake in a reordering of (p.139) imperial historicity. As a decentered scene of writing, the meta-identity finds in the Third World conceptualization a mode of inscription through which to carry out a reordering of an existing system of differences regarding time and space. In this sense, the poem particularly labors to insert the ‘Third World’ – an imperially originated term of colonial ‘underdeveloped’ otherness, now as a decolonial site of enunciation – into the existing imperial, First World narrative of History:
- Não tenhas medo de confessar que me sugaste o sangue
- E engravataste chagas no meu corpo
- E me tiraste o mar do peixe e o sal do mar
- E a água pura e a terra boa
- E levantaste a cruz contra os meus deuses
- E me calasse nas palavras que eu pensava.
- Não tenhas medo de confessar que te inventasse mau
- Nas torturas em milhões de mim
- E que me cavas só o chão que recusavas
- E o fruto que te amargava
- E o trabalho que não querias
- E menos da metade do alfabeto.
- Não tenhas medo de confessar o esforço
- De silenciar os meus batuques
- E de apagar as queimadas e as fogueiras
- E desvendar os segredos e os mistérios
- E destruir todos os meus jogos
- E também os cantares dos meus avós.
- Não tenhas medo, amigo, que te não odeio.
- Foi essa a minha história e a tua história.
- E eu sobrevivi
- Para construir estradas e cidades a teu lado
- E inventar fábricas e Ciência,
- Que o mundo não pode ser feito só por ti. (non. pag.)
- [Do not be afraid to confess that you sucked my blood
- And inflicted wounds on my body
- And removed the sea from the fish and the salt from the sea
- And the pure water and good land
- And raised the cross against my gods
- And silenced the words I thought.
- (p.140) Do not be afraid to confess that you invented yourself wrongly
- In the torture of millions of me
- And that you only gave me the ground you refused
- And the bitter fruit
- And the labor you did not want
- And less than half the alphabet.
- Do not be afraid to confess your efforts
- In silencing my drums
- And in extinguishing my fires
- And unraveling secrets and mysteries
- And destroying all of my games
- And also the songs of my grandparents.
- Do not be afraid, friend, for I do not hate you.
- That was my history and your history.
- And I survived.
- In order to build roads and cities by your side
- And create factories and Science,
- Because the world cannot be built by you alone.]
The first line of each of the first three stanzas – ‘Do not be afraid to confess’ – seems to target imperial narrativization, a message from a decolonial scene of writing to the imperial scene of historicization. In this regard, ‘Do not be afraid to confess’ can be read as ‘do not be afraid to inscribe’ – that is, do not be afraid to inscribe the violence carried out, but which was historicized imperially in a mode divorced from the experiences of those who received such violence. As such, the poetic voice at work here targets specifically what is left out from imperial historicization. The events to which the poem refers (religious imposition, destruction of non-European modes of knowledge, silencing of the colonized, forced labor, theft of land, and genocide) are, moreover, acts of historicization in themselves. All are acts through which the colonized becomes a text and an amalgam of subject-positions within Empire. As acts of narrativization that inscribe meaning, they are practices of imperial jouissance – acts that follow Empire’s desire for reproduction.
In this vein, the decolonial spirit of the poem evokes Žižek’s argument that jouissance is not historical, but the very act of historicization: it is ‘the non-historical kernel of the process of historicization’ (Plague 49). In other words, jouissance is not what is written, but the writing itself – the act of inscription that produces the phantasm of historical presence and the field of meaning in which it is embedded. By enjoining the First World to confess, Sylvan’s poetic voice is demanding that imperial scenes of writing (p.141) integrate their mode of writing the signifying field into the field itself. As with all forms of jouissance according to Lacanian theory, ‘I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gulf separating me from it’ (Žižek, Plague 49). For Lacan and Žižek, jouissance, such as the violent acts of signification at the core of Empire, implies an ‘excessively intense encounter [that] affects the subject’s ability to assume the full ontological weight of his world-experience’ (Plague 48). Obliging the imperial subject to confront jouisssance, the violence of meaning-production, by placing it into Empire’s realm of meaning thus constitutes an attempt to destabilize Empire’s subject-constituting function.7
In this regard, the poem puts into practice what Fanon called for at the end of Wretched of the Earth: ‘The Third World is today facing Europe as one colossal mass whose project must be to try and solve the problems this Europe was incapable of finding answers to’ (238). For Fanon, most notably, this project must imply ‘a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man’ (239). The final stanza of Sylvan’s poem dialogues, in many ways, with Fanon’s declaration – Europe or the First World, Empire at large in its global impact, is to be survived, overcome, and improved. This would imply, of course, a breaking of Empire’s monological scene of writing, gesturing toward a dialogical and decentered post-Empire worlding or field of meaning.
Importantly, the utopian objective is left for the poem’s final lines. The core of the poem is reserved for the articulation of a decolonial scene of writing composed of overlapping terrains that constitute the Third World. If Fanon, like Amílcar Cabral, called for the creation of a ‘new man’ – itself a decolonial scene of writing, Sylvan’s poem and decolonial meta-identity add further nuance to such an endeavor. As we have explored, Sylvan’s decolonial philosophy crucially avoids centrality and notions of essence. The decolonial scene of writing would thus have no temporal or spatial beginning or end, in addition to eluding Empire’s monologism. To this end, the poetic voice does not seek to locate a voice within the larger Third World conceptualization, but opens the conception to its inherent pluralities and experiences, especially those of suffering, by evoking ‘as torturas em milhões de mim’ [‘the torturing of millions of me’].
The poetic meta-identity, without a specified beginning or telos, can thus speak through established scenes of writing, such as the Third World, while expressing them in the plural. Third World is itself an overlapping of experiences of Empire. As such, it functions in the poem not only as a (p.142) decolonial conceptualization of the global, but also embodies the centerless spirit of Sylvan’s project. The poetic voice captures Third World scenes of writing through which the meta-identity speaks as ‘millions of me’ – the singular voice is always already in the plural, thus negating any attempt at monologism, by conjuring up the particularity of each of those millions of experiences without bestowing notions of centrality to any of them. This in itself represents another departure from imperial signification – what Bhabha calls the ‘metonymy of presence’ (171), through which the stereotype is constructed. In colonial discourse’s taking of ‘one’ to signify ‘all,’ it articulates a central core of otherness – a set of signifiers that serves to represent a particular category of otherness into which subalterns are interpellated. By evoking a decolonial meta-identity, a poetic identity and voice that opens possibilities of meaning-production for decentered/ marginalized identities, Sylvan does not cease to point out, overtly or implicitly, Empire’s significational dependency on centrality.
The movement of Sylvan’s poetic meta-identity and interconnected quest for untranslatability finds yet another layer in his 1981 collection, Cantogrito Maubere: 7 Novos Poemas de Timor [‘Song-cry Maubere: 7 New Poems on Timor’]. Published during the period of Indonesian occupation, backed by the US and Australian governments, the title refers to a national struggle for liberation against an imperially funded and sustained invasion. Nonetheless, such a specific struggle is conveyed, in some of its poems, through geopolitically unspecific imagery pertaining to the larger fight against Empire. This is the case with ‘Passagem do Testemunho’ [‘Passing the Testimony’]:
- Há quinhentos anos que gritamos
- contra a violência das grilhetas e do chicote
- nos nossos corpos e almas dos nossos avós.
- Há quinhentos anos que gritamos
- porque foi só isso que nos ensinaram
- nas nossas vidas dos nossos avós.
- Mas na contra-fraternidade da violência
- aprendemos a gritar liberdade construção independência
- para as nossas vidas dos nossos netos. (17)
- [For five hundred years we have cried out
- against the violence of the fetter and the whip
- on our bodies and on the souls of our grandparents.
- (p.143) For five hundred years we have cried out
- because that is all they taught us
- in our lives of our grandparents.
- But in the counter-fraternity of violence
- we learned to cry freedom construction independence
- for our lives of our grandchildren.]
Where in Mensagem do Terceiro Mundo a larger imagined terrain of collective experience within Empire is deployed while also integrating myriad global subject-positions and particularly historically grounded identities without a center, ‘Passagem do Testemunho’ offers the opposite. While it is part of a collection of poetry with a nationally charged title, it nonetheless speaks to other historical experiences of Empire. Therefore, even when East Timor’s present appears to be central, it is still decentered in favor of a spatially and temporally unspecific identity that conveys a field of meaning where ‘the millions of me’ can speak and signify. The space of articulation in which this meta-identity operates is one that emerges from Empire’s atrocities and signifying chain.
Moreover, the geographically and temporally undefined scene of writing of the poem intertwines the Timorese struggle against Empire with centuries of anti-imperial struggle from around the globe. Beyond trans-spatial connections of anti-imperial endeavor, the poem also undoes temporal divisions (pertaining to generations as well as categories of past, present, future) in terms of theorizing such a struggle. The final lines of both the second and third stanzas are the most potent examples of this (‘in our lives of our grandparents’). The suffering of the present generation is inseparable from the suffering of the previous, while the resistance of the present generation will be inseparable from that of the next. The current collective conceptualizations and overlapping terrains also intermingle with those of the future. These are not to be thought of as separate, rather suffering and resistance are not to be firmly located in temporal bounds. In this regard, Sylvan urges us to think of decoloniality as always already in tension against Empire from its very emergence.
Throughout Sylvan’s work explored here, a case can be made that in his deployment of overlapping terrains, a notion of centrality is at work; namely subaltern experiences used by the poetic scene of writing to summon non-dominant conceptualizations. It is, in other words, the subaltern (p.144) experience that enables such a movement. Within the movement through the overlapping terrains, however, there is an integral awareness that subalternity is not one experience, but an amalgamation of different experiences conditioned by overlapping discourses of race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, and place. In this regard, the movement and speaking with subalternity also annul any notion of centrality and authenticity that may arise therein. The meta-identity in constant mutation serves, furthermore, to underscore that within the amalgamation of experiences, none of these is ever fixed. The avoidance of centrality at the level of constructing emerging terrains, communities, or collectivities is mirrored by the individual meta-identity’s elusion of authenticity within subalternity.
Regarding decolonial identity politics, Sylvan evokes Paul Gilroy’s fundamental argument in The Black Atlantic against the recovery of ‘hermetically sealed and culturally absolute racial traditions that would be content forever to invoke the premodern as the anti-modern. It is proposed here above all as a means to figure the inescapability and legitimate value of mutation, hybridity, and intermixture en route to better theories of racism’ (223). The articulation of a fixed authentic subaltern experience would result in a centrality that compromised the ultimate goal of Sylvan’s poetic meta-identity: a decolonial untranslatability. Sylvan’s poetry, as a theorization and exploration of identity within and against Empire’s field of meaning, brings forth a poetic voice representing an experiment in identity, speaking, inscribing itself, and reordering the realm of meaning through which it moves toward a politics of untranslatability. This would safeguard a wider participation in signifying processes while not allowing meaning to become fixed.
(2) For a larger discussion on the tenuous place of Portugal and the Portuguese empire within a global economic system, see Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s seminal essay ‘Between Prospero and Caliban: Colonialism, Post-Colonialism and Inter-Identity.’ Equally important is Luís Madureira’s response to it in ‘Is the Difference in Portuguese Postcolonialism the Difference in Lusophone Postcolonialism?’ and ‘Nation, Identity and Loss of Footing: Mia Couto’s O Outro Pé da Sereia and the Question of Lusophone Postcolonialism.’
(3) Although Comunismo e Conceito de Nação em África was only published in 1969, Sylvan completed it in 1967, when Salazar was still head of state, prior to passing the baton to Marcello Caetano in 1968 due to health concerns.