The City and the Mountains
José Manuel dos Santos and António Soares

There are books that invite us to take in the currentness of their astute observation and daring imagination — an actuality based on a sound foundation of clarity and the cornerstone of foresight. And we know that this actuality, which is so surprising yet so charming to us, does not exist by chance, luck or accident. It is a form of shrewd, creative intelligence that comes closer to the truth, all the while stealing from ensuing times, so as to be more itself in what has not yet been but is beginning to be.

luis palma

Luís Palma
From the series ‘Peripheral Landscapes’
Oporto, 1997


If there was ever one work that anticipated what the passage of time would later reveal, this is the one. If there was ever a book in which the city and the country both reveal and set themselves apart, look at and measure each other up, compare and contrast themselves, that book is the last novel by Eça de Queiroz, the great 19th century Portuguese writer. Harold Bloom compared him to Balzac and praised his genius. In The City and the Mountains, there is a list of reasons, a breviary of explanations and a compendium of arguments that time has purified, decanted and placed on the scales. On its plates is weighed what enhances or cheapens the country, what commends or disparages the city.

In this book, where irony runs alongside the starling, playful movement of the restless, wandering ideas that guide it, rural and urban landscapes, old and modern doctrines meet, questioning, challenging and interpreting each other. On the verbal chessboard drawn by these words, the lyrical contemplation of natural beauty, to which the poet Horace gifted an undying song (fugere urbem and carpe diem), and the metaphysical meditation on the pessimism of life by the German philosopher Schopenhauer gave a hopeless voice (‘life is never beautiful; only the images of life are beautiful’ and ‘The safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy’) are pieces that are played, with their advances, retreats and zigzags, in a zero-sum game.

After years of writing books of imperious, merciless, ferocious and moralistic criticism of his country of birth, this descriptive narrative reconciled Eça with an ideal Portugal – idealised by nature and the people who lived close to it. In a dialectic of theses and antitheses, in a style that is simultaneously salient and subtle, investing everything that it touches and names with the mobile glow of truth, the roots of life search for the origins of happiness. The conflict between the archaic and natural pantheist religiosity, with its sacralising force, and the modern secularisation and artificialisation of existence, with its utilitarian automatism, highlights the gains and losses of Nature and Technique, Preservation and Progress, Permanence and Change, Culture and Civilisation, Cyclical Time and Linear Time.

Without having read The City and the Mountains, but as if he had predicted it, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, (the centenary of whose death the current issue of this magazine recognises) said years later:

Besides, nature, by all the feelings that it aroused in me, seemed to me the most opposite thing in the world to the mechanical inventions of mankind. The less she bore their imprint, the more room she offered for the expansion of my heart.

Swann's Way

Geographically symbolised by Paris, in France, and Tormes, in Portugal, The City and the Mountains gives to each of the aforementioned domains, connected by a coordinating conjunction in the title, a character that turns them into contrasting worlds, opposite visions, compared concepts. In this opposition between the centre of Civilisation (but periphery of Nature) and the centre of Nature (but periphery of Civilisation), the writer archaically defends, in this singular work, the countryside against the city. By doing it so clearly at this time of his life, he makes us rethink all of his work under a light that shines from the end to the beginning, inviting us to an interpretative judgment of his previous statements, negations, obliquity, bias, complexity, metamorphosis. Following his youthful feuilletons, which would be later gathered in Barbaric Prose, until just before The City and The Mountains, there is a realist programme that the first texts do not announce and the last ones betray.

In The City and the Mountains there is the retrieval of a bucolic and pastoral lineage, which from time immemorial has been present in the highest human dreams of peaceful happiness and is visible in philosophy, art, literature, politics. This is profoundly different, however, from the programme announced by Eça and his friends, in the Conferências do Casino [Casino Conferences], with patriotic haughtiness, doctrinal passion and revolutionary fervour. It is as if that urgent desire to save Portugal from its own decadence (its atavism, vices and obsessions), which formed the militantly active period of the Geração de 70 [Generation of 1870], had been replaced, in Eça’s final years, by a poetic feeling of peace and contemplation, where those ‘defeated by life’ started to believe that they had found in the Portuguese land and mountains a locus amoenus. This led to the conclusion that Portugal could find its salvation in its profound, solid and ancient qualities, as long as that treasure was preserved, protected and passed on. (The painter Graça Morais, in whose work lives the memory and mnemonic of an immemorial world, also addresses this, both visually and verbally, in the ‘Book of Hours’ published in this issue).

In The City and the Mountains, the existential conversion of the protagonist Jacinto coincides, or at least converges, with the philosophical conversion of the author Eça de Queiroz. But Eça’s conversion does not dismiss or completely reject the ideas, ideals and goals of a feverish and regenerating past – it sublimates and relativises them, giving them a different shape and dimension.

In A Morgadinha dos Canaviais, the writer and doctor Júlio Diniz brought to the literary actuality of the time the topic of the wholesome and redeeming passage from the city to the countryside, the regeneration that it creates in body and soul. In Camilo Castelo Branco (a novelist whose ‘parochialism’ some oppose to Eça’s ‘cosmopolitism’), the duality countryside-city and what it means in the writer’s worldview, is present, for example, in A Queda de um Anjo [The Fall of an Angel] and Coração Cabeça, Estômago [Heart, Head, Stomach]. In the history of Portuguese literature, this countryside-city polarity comes from Gil Vicente and Sá de Miranda, and includes, among others, Camões, Bernardim Ribeiro and Rodrigues Lobo.

The City and the Mountains is a treatise on conversion and a kind of late ‘bildungsroman’. In it, José Fernandes, the narrator-character, confronts the protagonist Jacinto, his urban and hypercivilised friend who lives at no. 202 on the Champs-Élysées in Paris and who had fiercely rejected the countryside, with his spectacular and unexpected rural conversion. This miracle was magically achieved on a trip to the Portugal of his ancestors, through his interaction with that rural landscape, people, air, smells and flavours, saving him from neurasthenia, dissatisfaction, and the meaninglessness of an urban life filled with the accessory and stripped of the essential:

— And this Tormes, Jacinto, your reconciliation with Nature, your renunciation of the lies of Civilisation is a beautiful story…

In another passage of the narrative, Zé Fernandes highlights and stresses the correctness of Jacinto’s profound transformation, by reflecting about himself and what he sees when, after a long stay in the Portuguese countryside, he momentarily returns to the city of Paris:

With a lit cigar I contemplated the Boulevard, at that hour with the full speed and racket of its massive sociability. The dense torrent of buses, rattletraps, wagons and two-horse carriages, its dark humanity crawling on hoofs and wheels in a restless hurry, the continuous and crude movement quickly made this spirit dizzy, after having been accustomed for five quiet years to the peacefulness of the immutable mountains. I childishly tried to rest my eyes on a immobile form, a bus that had stopped, a carriage that had come to a halt in a sudden slip of a weak horse: but soon a hurried torso slipped through the door, or a bunch of dark figures eagerly climbed onto the bus – and soon the resounding rolling resumed. Immobile were certainly the rigid buildings, as rigid were the cliffs of stone and lime that contained and disciplined the breathless torrent. But from street to roof, in every balcony, in every façade, there were signs on top of other signs, squeezed against other signs – even more tiring was to realise the relentlessness of work, the sturdy fastidiousness of profit, which panted behind the dignified and silent façades. As I smoked my cigar I was strangely taken over by the feelings that Jacinto had experienced amid Nature, and that amused me so much. By the café entrance, among the indifference and hurry of the City, I also felt, like he had in the Countryside, the vague sadness of my fragility and loneliness. I was certainly lost there, as if in a world that was not fraternal towards me.

In writing The City and the Mountains at the end of his relatively brief life, Eça de Queiroz, without ever having complete awareness of it or an acquired premonition, appropriated for himself the inscription represented in a melancholic painting by Nicolas Poussin, which speaks of death and the dead, present even in an ideal and Edenic country. In the memorable work by the French painter, we find the inscription ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ (I too [was] in Arcadia), which was taken from Virgil’s Eclogues, influenced the Renaissance and the ideas adopted by the court of Lorenzo de Medici, and inspired a well-known painting by Guercino.

This philosophical, gnostic, poetic and artistic tradition carries on, sometimes visible, sometimes hidden, passing on its baton to Rousseau and the German Romantics. With this fatefully final and admirably surprising work, it is as if Eça were one of those astonished and curious shepherds from Poussin’s painting, who observe and try to decipher the message ‘Et in Arcadia ego’, at the same time joyful and funereal, epicurean and stoic, sibylline and wise.

Connecting the memory of a timeless past to the acute consciousness of a time of change that was his own, Eça de Queiroz gave to The City and the Mountains a future actuality, making it the right, inspiring and indispensable work to introduce and present the dossier on ‘City, Countryside’ of issue no. 18 of Electra. In this novel written in Portuguese at the end of the 19th century, in its words and images, pass the topics and motifs, the appraisals and musings with which its author knew how to observe, sense and interrogate the world as the place of Nature and Culture, Civilisation and Barbarism, where life is made and unmade, affirmed or negated.

If there are permanent topics in human culture, this is one of the most tenacious. Since the various Antiquities, in the West or the East, in the North or the South, the topic of the opposition between the countryside and the city has arisen in several symbolic forms, philosophical creations and artistic expressions. In Europe, one of the most lasting manifestations of this confrontation is revealed in Jean de la Fontaine’s fable about the town mouse and the country mouse (1668), whose first version belongs to Aesop (7th century BC). A few centuries after the Greek fabler imagined it, the Roman poet Horatius turned this story into a poem. With narrative and stylistic differences, depending on the author of each version, the founding and fundamental motif remains the same: the dialectical confrontation of the advantages and disadvantages of the city as opposed to the countryside, and the benefits and hazards of the countryside as opposed to the city.

It was about this relationship between human communities determined by nature, climate, geography, geology, ecology, history, culture, anthropology, economy, demography, sociology, law, politics, and religion that the renowned Welsh essayist and critic Raymond Williams wrote a book that became a classic: The Country and the City.

Considering the ‘English case’, having a detailed and thorough knowledge, and showing what is heuristically indicative, hermeneutically significant, semiologically symptomatic, scientifically representative and epistemologically universal, Williams studies the economic, social and cultural phenomena that have taken place in Great Britain throughout the centuries. Among them, the precocious and groundbreaking Industrial Revolution was of crucial importance (for example: the change from traditional farming to developed agrarian capitalism). The expansionistic phase of the British Empire, with its colonies, also had fundamental consequences.

In connection with these historical phenomena, the author analyses the changes that occurred in the countryside and the city, examining, with methodical intelligence, the transformations, whether fast or slow, superficial or profound, slight or radical, ephemeral or permanent, predictable or unpredictable, which emerged in the relationship between these two worlds – the rural and the urban. The transformations configured Nature and culture, life and society, classes and genders, work and leisure, bodies and ecosystems, sensibility and thought, information and the view of the world and human beings. These two worlds and the relationship between them defined, determined and differentiated the opportunities and choices, settlements and exoduses, rootedness and mobility, inclusions and exclusions, assimilations and transgressions.

By conducting this study of sound scope and ambitious reach, Raymond Williams examines the responses of literary creations, philosophical conceptions and critical and social thought to the changes and ruptures, mediations and metamorphoses, reforms and revolutions that occurred in space and time. This essay by the Welsh author also provides us with important contributions to the history of the very concept of ‘development’.

Inquiring, with intentional focus, into what has happened in history and culture since the 16th and 17th centuries (the golden age of the pastoral genre in European literatures, an attitude that looks for solace in the natural, idealised world, as respite, counterpoint and protection against the conflicts and aggressions of the urban or court society and which finds inspiration in Hesiod, Virgil and Ovid), this cultural critic and sociologist focuses on the great works of English Romanticism, such as those by William Blake and Wordsworth. Considering the new urban literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, he carries on to analyse the passage to social modernity, with Dickens in the Victorian era, and Joyce’s literary revolution, even reaching the interpretation of science fiction.

From the 19th century until now, we have quoted Camilo Castelo Branco, Júlio Dinis, Eça de Queiroz, Charles Dickens, Stendhal, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, Zola, Proust, Joyce. But we could add, among others, the American and Russian writers. This is how Tolstoy begins his novel Ressurrection, writing with a totalising cosmic pantheism and an acute and unprecedented ecological consciousness:

Though men in their hundreds of thousands had tried their hardest to disfigure that little corner of the earth where they had crowded themselves together, paving the ground with stones so that nothing could grow, weeding out every blade of vegetation, filling the air with the fumes of coal and gas, cutting down trees and driving away every beast and every bird – spring, however, was still spring, even in the town.

Although at different times and in varied form, in the works of the aforementioned writers, and many others, we can find the weighty topic of city-countryside, in all of its declinations, drifts, detours and displacements. But we have not yet mentioned the one who took the energy and impetus of this topic to a point of delirious lucidity. That author was Charles Baudelaire. In The Painter of Modern Life, The Flowers of Evil or Paris Spleen, the poet created a gallery of figures and archetypes, among which the flâneur stands out and pontificates. But also the foreigner, artist, madman, widow, street entertainer, gambler. Between solitude and the crowd, awe and ennui, ideal and spleen, ‘the horror of life and the ecstasy of life’, Baudelaire turns his poems (both in verse and in prose) into fables of modern life and manifestos against the much celebrated ‘progress’, establishing a challenging and unsettling urban mythology of modernity.

As it is said by those who make what they say coincide with what they see: ‘you need luck for everything in life’. Baudelaire (and Proust) were lucky enough to find in Walter Benjamin the philosopher-critic who, by casting an intense, lucid light on his work, knew how to give it a shadow that expanded its body, projecting it onto the large, long and livid wall of time. As Benjamin shows in his remarkable essay Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, this was a unique and visionary moment of change and experience, discovery and shock, loss and contradiction.

In his work La Otra Voz. Poesia y fin de siglo [The Other Voice. Poetry and the end of the century], Octavio Paz wrote:

The romantic hero was an adventurer, a pirate, a poet turned freedom fighter or a solitary figure along the bank of a deserted lake, lost in sublime meditation. Baudelaire’s hero was the angel fallen into the city, dressed in black, his elegant and threadbare costume stained with wine, oil, and mud. […]

Although the human adventure — its passions, madnesses, illuminations — continued to unfold in the new poetry, its speakers had changed. The ancient natural world had disappeared with its forests, valleys, oceans, and mountains populated by monsters, gods, demons, and other marvels; in its place appeared the abstract city and, among the old monuments and venerable plazas, the terrible newness of the machines. A change of reality: a change of mythology. In the past, man spoke with the universe, or thought that he spoke with it: if it did not answer, it was, at least, his mirror. In the twentieth century the mythical speaker, the mysterious voices, have vanished. Man remains alone in the enormous city, sharing his solitude with solitary millions. The hero of the new poetry is a loner in a crowd, or more exactly, in a crowd of loners. It is the H.C.E. (Here Comes Everybody) of James Joyce. We discovered that we were alone in the universe. Alone with our machines. Milton’s industrious devils must have rubbed their hands with glee. It was the beginning of the great solipsism.

At the turn of the century, cities and fields were battlefields and citadels of combat. With everything that ended and began (empires and revolutions), with the political, scientific, technological, architectural and artistic transformations, the city and the countryside became real and symbolic geographies of over- -determination and overexcitement. Between pólis and cosmos, culture and nature, the poet Antero de Quental lived his inner drama (psychological, but also philosophical and political) as a universal tragedy. Of Cesário Verde, in whose poetry the countryside and the city confront each other, Fernando Pessoa / Alberto Caeiro said:

luis palma

Luis Palma
From the series ‘Territoriality’
N 630, Spain Map Road, 2004


In the evening, leaning out my window, q
Watching the fields out front in the corner of my eye,
I read Cesário Verde’s Book
Until my eyes were burning.

I felt so sorry for him! He was like a man from the country
And he walked through the city like he was out on bail.
But the way he looked at houses,
And the way he saw the streets,
And the way he had of taking things in,
Was like someone looking at trees,
Or lowering their eyes to the road where they go walking
Or taking in the flowers in the fields…

That’s why he had that great sadness
He could never really say he had,
But walked in the city like someone walking in the country,
Sad like pressing flowers in books
And putting plants in jars…

Among the constellation of poet heteronyms that Pessoa created to give faces and voices to all of his inner and outer worlds, we find the most rural (Alberto Caeiro) and the most urban (Álvaro de Campos). And, in The Book of Disquiet, Bernardo Soares sees Lisbon as a physical and metaphysical place: ‘But, after all, the universe also exists here in Rua dos Douradores. Even here God ensures the continuing presence of the enigma of life.’

At that time, but as if he were living in a different time, the ‘old man of the mountains’, as the poet and painter Mário Cesariny called him, looked at the Marão mountains and saw the Universe and the infinite. Teixeira de Pascoaes turned his poetry (including his prose) into lightning and thunder whereby primordial and universal Nature is affirmed, giving man a cosmic face that is both solar and lunar. In Tales from the Mountain, New Tales from the Mountain and Bichos, Miguel Torga brought to his books those people-characters who were not even able to read them. And the Brazilian Guimarães Rosa, with the The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, opens a new language within the language that everyone speaks.

In those frenzied and bellicose decades, when every land trembled and every sky collapsed, the countryside and the city served to divide and classify, praise and condemn. Philosophical, political, religious, moral and social geographies were organised according to the coordinates of those domains. Aware of their cultural and political positions, we only have to read Heidegger and Jünger (also bearing in mind their forest cults and habits) to know this.

In visual arts and cinema, in photography and music, in literature and architecture, in dance and design, and in theatre and comics, currents and movements, schools and works, eras and authors were all drawn to the city and the countryside. In that choice, they have looked for what best defines them, what distinguishes them the most. To speak of romanticism or realism, naturalism or impressionism, futurism or surrealism, is to speak about these similarities and distances. In Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven, Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti, The Siesta by Van Gogh, The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, Aurora by Murnau, the Paris of Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Le Métro by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu, Rite of Spring by Manoel de Oliveira, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Raised from the Ground by José Saramago, The Obscure Cities by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, ‘City Sickness’ by the Tindersticks, Garrowby Hill by David Hockney, the Bruder Klaus chapel by Peter Zumthor, Delirious New York and Countryside, The Future by Rem Koolhaas, we find various visions, representations and evocations of the city and the countryside, in a list that would have to be endless in order to be complete.

In our technological and ecological, narcissistic and mass-produced, ludic and amnesiac days, the topic of the city and the countryside moves across the screens of all the systems, devices and equipment that populate our daily lives, fills page after page in newspapers, magazines and books which we leaf through without slowing, and gives sound to voices and silences. It is a theme that induces radical life changes, generates hopes and misunderstandings, creates illusions and disappointments, ignites imaginations and urgencies. It is a concrete and abstract topic, real and fictional, individual and collective, material and immaterial, economic and social, anthropological and cultural, existential and metaphysical. Similarly to others addressed by Electra, it is truly indispensable to the understanding of our time and what happens in it.

The countryside and the city as opposition, counterpower, complement, alternative, change, rupture. Many want to have the countryside in the city and the city in the countryside. They look for the countryside without countryside and the city without city. They demand that all distances become closeness and they turn contiguity into remoteness. They wish for holidays without end and work without beginning. Some consider that today everything is urban and others remind us that the countryside has almost spread across the entire surface of the planet. Some reinforce and dramatise the opposition between countryside and city, while others believe that dichotomy is simplistic and false.

From philosophy to ecology, urban planning to architecture, geography to history, literature to art, economy to sociology, medicine to politics, this is a topic that can be addressed in multiple ways and approached from various perspectives. In this ‘Subject’ of Electra, we find some of these ways of trying to reach and understand it.

In those years when the present of all wars became both its own past and future, a man born in the Prague ghetto – and who lived a brief life, looking at the world with eyes that carried a beautiful and terrifying lucidity – was able to express through his parables the meaning of non-meaning.

One of his short stories is entitled ‘Children on a Country Road’ and ends in this way:

Our time was up. I kissed the one next to me, reached hands to the three nearest, and began to run home, none called me back. At the first crossroads where they could no longer see me I turned off and ran by the field paths into the forest again. I was making for that city in the south of which it was said in our village:

‘There you’ll find queer folk! Just think, they never sleep!’
‘And why not?’
‘Because they never get tired.’
‘And why not?’
‘Because they’re fools.’
‘Don’t fools get tired?’
‘How could fools get tired!’

With this ending to Franz Kafka’s short story, at once so innocent and so perverse, we can begin to understand a few things. Of those things, Electra has spoken and will continue to speak. In the end, its goal is to never forget that other truth that Kafka also told us:

Life is a continuous distraction, which does not even allow for consciousness of what it distracts us from.



luis palma

Luís Palma
From the series ‘Peripheral Landscapes’
Lisbon, 2018

luis palma

Luís Palma
From the series ‘Facts and Fictions’
About appropriation, #1, 2016