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The Labyrinth of José Saramago's
Religious Speculation

(This is a translation of a chapter from the foregoing essay on the latent humanism in Saramago's Diary, in which such themes as reason, truth, the meaning of existence and religious feeling are discussed)

Alípio Maia e Castro
(English translation by Alfredo H. Alves)

As we have seen, Saramago takes delight in contemplating human nature in its rationality. It is true that "what we see in the world, from every point of view, seems to be a clear demonstration of human irrationality". Nevertheless, in Saramago's opinion this irrationality is not natural to man: it is a "sleep of Reason" which if "it turns us into irrational beings, makes of each one of us a little monster": a "monster of selfishness, cold indifference, cruel disdain"(1). And precisely because of this, Saramago pronounces himself, and in this he is consistent, against the "irrational use" of reason. He, thus admits the possibility and the fact that reason can be used wrongly.

Now, to use reason wrongly cannot but mean that it is divorced from the truth of things. Therefore, if Saramago condemns this wrong use - an abuse which deforms man - it is because he wants to save the truth that exists in reason. In this respect, reason draws close to truth if, in seeing a purpose in things, it affirms implicitly the existence of a Creator, which tradition, as we have seen, calls God. For there is neither purpose, nor nature, nor an order in things or in this world or in man if there is no Creative Spirit which has called them into existence with an intention or purpose which he wants them to fulfil.

That we do not perceive order in many elements in the universe is of little moment; we have only to perceive a purpose, any purpose whatever, in no matter how restricted a sphere, in order to arrive at the undoubted conclusion that there exists a Creative Spirit that is the Cause of that purpose.

It is at this juncture of the Cadernos de Lanzarote that we come upon a desconcerting labyrinth, possibly what its author has called his "labyrinthine life", although it is not always easy to follow Saramago's attempt to identify this with his "deep inner life"(2). Saramago's religious gropings are, in effect, nothing less than a labyrinth formed, we might say, by the seesawing of agonised advances when he uses his reason, and an equally agonised backing out when he forsakes reason altogether. Why this is so, we do not know, but may suppose it has to do with the darkness of the Saramaguian spirit which, not infrequently - either with unrelenting sarcasm or with a disillusioned smile - gives up the claims of reason.

On contemplating the beauty of the bay of Rio de Janeiro, Saramago, "who had never prayed in his life", feels an urge to "kneel on the deck and give thanks to whoever had invented the faculty of sight and the beauty of nature"(3). He is thus caught out with a capacity for admiration and wonder in face of creation, a reaction which in well-balanced and profound spirits is usually the beginning and the principle of wisdom and its concomitant, a sense of the religious.

No less disconcerting is what we can make of Saramago's thinking concerning the existence of God and His attributes. In non-scientific language - and with a touch of levity - he is at one with the philosophers when they express in the full rigour of their language that God is the uncaused Cause. Cause in itself (a se), the first cause of all creation, for Saramago speaks of "God [....] without doubt born of Himself"(4). And in consonance with this pure concept of a Divinity Who while uncaused Cause, and thus in His "in itselfness" lacks nothing and can receive nothing from anything which might enrich or precede it, Saramago says, although together with four rather abstruse and confusing sentences, that "God does not need man for anything"(5). And then, a few pages further on, much to reader's surprise, though without any attempt at reasoning but rather as a mere "perception of a cosmogonic hypothesis", he maintains that God created the human species because in His "divine weakness" He needed man "to keep Him company", for at a certain point after "eternity had begun", "He felt lonely"(6). There are yet other passages where together with a profession of disbelief, he presents us with a finite God, a limited being since He is material(7). And it is clear that such a limited god cannot be the Absolute, and if he is not, then he is not God. In this respect, Saramago is being consistent when in an article inserted in his Cadernos, he reminds the reader that this god (written a few lines before with a capital "G") "is for me nothing else but an interesting fictional character"(8). And in reality nobody believes in such a god because it is a product of imagination.

It so happens, however, that Saramago, although he does it unwittingly or perhaps unwillingly, sometimes speaks of God as a real and not imagined being. This occurs when he attributes the causality of the evil there is in the world to God, when he shows that he wants God's intervention and when, paradoxically, he wishes to shake himself free of Him.

Thus, for example, he confesses that: "according to my weak understanding, what He has made of the world up to the present is no great thing"(9). However, if we are to take writer's words seriously, the world that we know "is the best of all possible worlds"; and "God", whose "unfathomable nature" he thinks he understands, "logically [....] could not make another, because it would necessarily have to be less good than this one"(10). For Saramago, however, the evil is not so much in the world as in the "human species". Saramago, plainly outraged by the injustices and atrocities of man, attributes to an "error of divine prescience", to "a gross error of prescience" such things as unemployment and the unjust distribution of wells on earth(11). But although this could very well result in a negation of Divine Providence, Saramago speaks to us here of a real God.

Besides this, as we have noted above, some lines after having pointed out the "fictive character" of the God whom he has "so often" allowed "to intrude Himself" into his "writings", he tells us plainly: "I must confess that there have been moments in the course of my life when I have felt keenly the lack of his real presence and of a compelling intervention on his part [....] to force us to honestly face and so answer for our offences [....] against the idea of humanity"(12). And despite the expression of this yearning which we cannot but feel is sincere, we see him exclaim with equal sincerity: "My God, my God, when shall we see ourselves free of Thee?"(13).

All this is a darkness, all the advances and retreats, the verbal imprecisions - and yet no one would accuse Saramago of insincerity.

What we want to do in this short essay is to point out the fact, in our view undeniable, that Saramago is experiencing a religious problem, driven as he is to an aspiration to truth which however he finds himself unable to attain to. And if we speak here of a "problem", it is above all because there exists in Saramago's spirit factors that are irreconciliable or, to put it in a more hopeful light, factors that await a clear and resolute explanation.

In this respect, not a little intriguing is the aplomb with which an "atheistic writer" declares the following as evidence that he is a "Christian": "There is a piece of evidence that should no be forgotten: as far as my mentality is concerned, I am a Christian. So it is the person I am who writes about what I am made up of"(14). Whatever meaning might be attached to the word "mentality" - an ambiguous word on all counts - can a Christian mentality, no matter how elastic it is, make of a man an atheist?

Believing as we do that Saramago has still to plumb the depths of his humanism, it seems to us that he will only find Ariadne's string to his particular labyrinth when he decides once and for all to replace his "meditation on error" with a bold "meditation on truth", which he admits, as we have seen above, to be "philosophically more noble".

As we have pointed out, Saramago has said most forthrightly that "all pretence is vile"(15). Going one step further than this uncompromising gruffness, we would affirm that it is also vile to discover uncertainties where there are no uncertainties, to pretend that human reason has lost those fundamental certainties which enable it to know the basic truths about life. If humanism is to deserve its name it is because of its high opinion of man. And there is nothing more profoundly human than the reason's search for the meaning of existence. In fact, human reason reaches its highest point "when the 'why' of things is searched for in its very roots in quest of the ultimate answer [....]. In fact it is the sense of religion that expresses what is noblest in man because it is the highest point of his rational nature. It comes from man's natural longing for the truth and is the at the base of his free and personal quest for the divine"(16).

On thinking clearly over all this, to meditate on error, pushing "meditation on truth" to second place, is to imprision the possibilities of human reason in a strait-jacket, when human reason is per se open to everything that is; and this can result in disminishing the capacity to distinguish error from truth. No doctor can know much about disease if he does not have a sound knowledge of health.

(1). Cadernos III, 1996, p. 35, 5.II.

(2). Cadernos IV, 1997, p. 195, 9.VIII.

(3). Cadernos IV, 1997, p. 74, 17.II.

(4). Cadernos IV, 1997, p. 182, 28.VII.

(5). Cadernos II, 1995, p. 56, 23.II.

(6). Cadernos II, 1995, pp. 249-251, 11.XII.

(7). Cf. Cadernos II, loc. cit. e Cadernos I, 1994, p. 165, 1.XII.

(8). Cadernos V, 1998, p. 201, 9.XI.

(9). Cadernos V, 1998, p. 18, 12.I.

(10). Cadernos II, 1995, p. 250, 11.XII.

(11). Cfr. Cadernos IV, 1997, pp. 182-184.

(12). Cadernos V, 1998, p. 201, 9.XI.

(13). Cadernos V, 1998, p. 44, 13.II.

(14). Cadernos III, 1996, p. 81, 31.III.

(15). Cadernos II, 1995, p. 251, 13.XII.

(16). John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 33, nota 28.