Vergílio Ferreira, one of the most acclaimed Portuguese novelists of this century, was also a first-class essayist. Early in his career he joined ranks with the neo-realists, who focused on social themes, but he soon parted company from them over their increasing links with socialist realism, as well as his own discovery of existentialism. Under the influence of Dostoevskii, Malraux, Sartre, and Camus, Ferreira made his own way, weaving his personal reflections upon the modern themes of absence of meaning and value in a post-Nietzschean world without foundations, with a fine yet powerful sense of the aesthetic dimension of life. The language he inherited from the prose of the 19thcentury Portuguese master novelist Eça de Queiroz was a guiding inspiration for Ferreira, who envisioned the ideal writer as someone who could combine the best of Dostoevskii, Eça de Queiroz, and Malraux. The latter was one of the authors he most admired, not so much as a novelist, but as an essayist. As Ferreira said in an interview, “the Malraux of the novels aged quite a bit; the essayist I find very stimulating, almost as stimulating as listening to Bach” (Um escritor apresenta-se [1981; A writer presents himself]).
There is, indeed, a strong philosophical bent in the writings of this compulsive author, who throughout his life maintained a steady flow of volumes (40 in total) of fiction, essays, and, from 1980, five volumes of a journal, Conta-corrente (1980–87; Running a tab), which are filled with entries easily classifiable as essays. His novels are often philosophical, full of metaphysical obsessions (in that sense, they too are essays), but there are also several volumes of essays in which Ferreira’s thoughts are expanded in an analytical yet poetic style. Of these, perhaps Do mundo original (1957; Of the original world) is one key to understanding the mind of this thinker, “a kind of manifesto of his essayism,” as Eduardo Lourenço puts it, even though Ferreira would probably have chosen Invocação ao meu corpo (1969; Invocation to my body) as his most representative work.
Lourenço has written extensively about Ferreira; Ferreira himself considered Lourenço to be his best interpreter “because of his exceptional capacities as well as our solid affinity of ideas.” Lourenço has pointed out the reactive nature of Ferreira’s essayistic discourse, written always in response to someone else’s writing. Considering the issue of the originality of Ferreira’s thought, Lourenço writes: “Vergílio Ferreira’s essayism does not really proceed either from inner demands that are philosophical demands—in the
generic or the metaphysical sense—or, even less so, from the sociological or political.
The only vital object of meditation, the one in which while questioning he questions himself, in which by inventing justifications he justifies himself, is the one of Art. It is the living experience of Art—as an incomprehensible creative impulse, an incandescence of being and not as a finished product—that constitutes the matrix of all of Vergílio Ferreira’s thought” (O canto do signo, 1994).
Reading any of Ferreira’s journal volumes can be a pleasant introduction to the world of this artist and thinker, who writes fiction but who still prefers to blend it with essayism in his journal. In his later years he decided to subdivide his journal into two genres: one intellectual, addressing ideas and philosophical themes, the other more mundane, in which he writes of daily life. Pensar (1992.; Thinking) was a concretization of the former. Its title and format reveal an affiliation with Pascal’s Pensées, which Ferreira
explicitly mentions after describing his volume as “a sort of journal of the haphazard of thinking” (“ir pensando” in Portuguese expresses better the idea of continuity and openness). The fragmented nature of Pascal’s work is compared favorably to the completeness Pascal intended for it.
The other, more quotidian segment of the journal has already resulted in four volumes—Conta-corrente, nova série (1993–94; Running a tab, new series). Whether he writes about the ordeal of Lisbon traffic or about a television program he happened to watch, Ferreira never abandons his penchant for the reflective. For him, the “pure” essay is creative and problematizing (problematizante). He establishes a difference between the purely informative or analytical essay on someone else’s work and the “problematizing” essay, which should itself be an aesthetic creation, something in which “ideas detain themselves and stay where the work of art dwells”; thus “the essay comes close to the artistic work.” However, the closer the essay is to being a work of art the less questionable it becomes, “because one does not argue about emotions” (Conta-corrente, nova série, 1993).
About the essay as a genre he has written: “The essay (in Portugal) basically informs; but what is important is that the essay may discuss, that it may problematize… Infinitely more useful is the fertile error than the sterile truth. But there is an element which is to be incorporated in the essay and that particularly approximates it to literary art—one that particularly makes it a candidate to succeed the novel: emotiveness” (Um escritor apresenta-se).
In another interview he explained: “For me, the novel and the essay were always parallel activities. On the one hand, I do not see the essay as a process, a means, with a merely pedagogic objective. I cultivate the essay, seeking, through it, to explicate problems. I must make clear that the problematics which preoccupy me in my essays are more or less the same as in the novels. The ideal essayistic activity is one that extends the work of the fictionalist, and not one which is subsidiary or which happens in the intervals… if I prefer the novel to the essay, it is because, among other reasons, the novel places me immediately in life and in myself—one exists before, and only afterwards does one speak about what one is” (Um escritor apresenta-se).
Ferreira continued to write both essays and novels until the very end of his life, remaining obsessed with the same themes. In 1987 he published another volume of his collection of essays under the general title of Espaço do invisível (Invisible space), dealing once again, as in the previous volumes of the series, with figures such as Malraux, Queiroz, Sartre, Kafka, and Foucault, and with topics such as art, the critic, death, the novel, disquietude, and the nude. Ferreira was a novelist who never ceased being a philosopher and an essayist who never stopped being a writer of narratives.
Born 28 January 1916 in Melo. Entered a Catholic seminary in Fundão at age ten, remaining for six years, which had a lasting impact on his religious thought: he wrote a novel about this traumatic experience, Manhã submersa (1954; Submerged morning).
Studied classical philology at the University of Coimbra, graduated 1940. High school teacher in Évora, 1945–58, and Lisbon, 1959–81. Married: two adopted children.
many Portuguese prizes; Camões Prize; International Association of Literary Critics Award; Femina Prize; Europalia Award. Died in Lisbon, 1 March 1996.
Essays and Related Prose
Sobre o humorismo de Eça de Queirós, 1943
Do mundo original, 1957
Carta ao futuro, 1958
Da fenomenologia a Sartre, 1962
André Malraux: Interrogação ao destino, 1963
Espaço do invisível, 4 vols., 1965–91
Invocação ao meu corpo, 1969
Conta-corrente, 5 vols., 1980–87
Um escritor apresenta-se, edited by Maria de Glória Padrão, 1981
Arte tempo, 1988
Conta-corrente, nova série, 4 vols., 1993–94
many novels (including O caminho fica longe, 1943; Vagão “J”, 1946;
Mudança, 1949; Manhã submersa, 1954; Aparição, 1959; Estrela polar, 1962.; Alegria
breve, 1965; Nítido nulo, 1972; Para sempre, 1983; Em nome de terra, 1990; Na tua face, 1993).
Anthropos issue on Ferreira (October 1989)
Arenas, Fernando, “Beauty at the Surface of Love’s Nest: Myth and Narratives in Vergílio Ferreira’s Contemporary Writing,” Santa Barbara Portuguese Studies 3 (1997)
Décio, João, Vergílio Ferreira, a ficção e o ensaio, São Paulo: Século XXI, 1977
Godinho, Helder, editor, Estudos sobre Vergílio Ferreira, Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional- Casa da Moeda, 1982
Goulart, Rosa Maria, Romance lírico: O percurso de Vergílio Ferreira, Lisbon: Bertrand, 1990
Lourenço, Eduardo, O canto do signo, Lisbon: Presença, 1994
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