Sixteenth-century sharpness

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Alcir Pécora*

By the happy initiative of Cilaine Alves Cunha and Mayra Laudanna, USP professors, the Editora of that University is launching Sixteenth-century sharpness and other essays, compilation of works by João Adolfo Hansen, retired professor of Brazilian Literature at the same USP, whose contributions in the areas of Literature and Colonial History, Rhetoric and even studies on the “Baroque”, have been of great importance since the late 80s. XNUMX. It can even be said that these disciplines gained new impetus in Brazil after Hansen's interventions, which usually articulate vast erudition and a remarkable capacity for conceptual systematization.

And what I say, in academic terms, is evident to me also in personal terms. This is not about giving a domestic testimony, of course, but about celebrating the book now available to everyone, but, with his joy, I also remembered the moment when I met him, during my qualification exam for doctorate, at USP, back in 1989. At the time, my thesis on Father Antonio Vieira caused some strangeness in the area of ​​Literary Theory, where I was developing it, due to the centrality it attributed to Theology and Scholasticism in the interpretation of sermons, displacing more traditionally accepted issues of a literary or sociological nature to the background.

Because Hansen, on that occasion, frontally reinforced what I proposed, becoming since then a constant, generous intellectual interlocutor, in the not always pleasant or stimulating environment of the Brazilian University. Exactly thirty years after that occasion, I clearly perceive how an academic career is built fundamentally from those decisive intellectual encounters that one manages to have, possibly more by luck than merit.

Returning, therefore, to the launch: the works compiled in Sixteenth-century sharpness deal with the representation of Portuguese-Brazilian colonial letters from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth centuries, and include an in-depth examination of central concepts of the period such as “reason of state”, “discretion”, “mirror of princes”, “sharpness”, “ingenuity”. , “emblems”, “companies”, etc., in addition to others referring to ancient rhetorical matrices, such as “ut pictura poetry","ecphrasis”, “commonplace”, “invention”, “elocution”, etc.

Having read them over the years, as well as following the state of the art in some of the areas of knowledge involved there, I allow myself to say that Hansen's studies constitute original contributions, and sometimes inaugural, in several subjects neglected by the Brazilian critical tradition. Without effort, I could highlight four points, which are present in all of his studies, and which, in my view, are representative of his importance for literary studies in Brazil.

The first point to highlight concerns the fact that Hansen produces a relentless critique of the modernist and nationalist teleology that prevailed in the field of Brazilian literary studies, radiated, above all, from São Paulo, and, in particular, from USP itself.

Such teleology, which treats the cultural history of Brazil as an evolution destined to achieve a national spirit, whose full realization would take place in São Paulo modernism, had several consequences, some quite reductive, such as submitting the concept of “literature” to that of “Brazil”, as well as losing interest, possibly like no other country on the American continent, in colonial literate production. This negligence ended up generating a large deficit of works on the period, which, when they exist, usually value precisely what they lack, namely, what is interpreted, in a deterministic and implausible way, as an extemporaneous prefiguration of national forms.

The second generically important point of Hansen's works is the effort to undertake a historical adjustment in the discussion of colonial letters, which is done both by refusing the current use of anachronistic categories that disfigure them, and by seeking to reconfigure them from the survey, collection and analysis of the available documentation regarding the texts and the circumstances of their production and circulation. That is to say, for Hansen, it is always a question of knowing letters from the historical practices in which they are carried out.

A third important point in Hansen's approach to colonial letters is the careful lexical adjustment, in which much of the vocabulary usually employed in the field comes under scrutiny and criticism. Some – not me, who fully share the same concern – point to some nominalist rigorism there, but I believe that is not the case: an inadequate vocabulary more or less surreptitiously introduces categories that are anachronistic or too crude to distinguish the meanings involved. in the works. Within the scope of this vocabulary adjustment, I would also say that the epistemologically dominant place in Hansen's analyzes tends to be that of rhetorical-poetic precepts and their uses in court societies.

I would point out as a fourth point of strength in Hansen's studies the opening of literary studies far beyond the exclusive consideration of fictional texts and genres, to which literary investigation tends to be reduced from a post-romantic perspective, which presupposes an autonomy of aesthetics – , which is strictly unsustainable under the terms of the Old Regime, in which the artistic fields are open to considerations of all kinds, whether historical, political or theological.

In fact, in addition to fictional prose or poetry, there is an immense wealth of genres to consider here, from family or business letters to notarial documents, from sworn opinions to princely mirrors, from moral treatises to panegyrics and epitaphs, etc. This posture gives a new perception of the richness of the literate production of the old regime, where the romantic approach only saw normativity, bureaucracy and flattery.

Obviously, these four aspects that I highlighted do not mean that Hansen's studies are free from criticism, or that new works cannot obtain alternative descriptions of each of the subjects addressed in the compilation, perhaps even more adjusted to their own assumptions. This, moreover, is what is most typical of studies in the Humanities, which always imply double attention to time and interpretive circumstances, in the search for an authorial essay. The enunciation I made above the key points of Hansen's texts aims only to highlight some of her virtues, which we would benefit from paying attention to.

Finally, I could not end my recommendation to read Sixteenth-century sharpness and other essays, not to mention the precise and non-transferable afterword by Leon Kossovitch, a retired professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP, who is worth as much for the knowledge he enunciates as for the company he keeps, as Leon has been João Adolfo Hansen's main interlocutor since his days training. I can't imagine a better interpreter leading the reading of the volume.

*Alcir Pécora Professor at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at Unicamp

Sixteenth-century sharpness and other essays

João Adolfo Hansen – Organization: Cilaine Alves Cunha and Mayra Laudanna – Edusp, 2019 (

Book excerpt

Read & See: Assumptions of Colonial Representation

Here, I will deal with some assumptions of the work that I have been developing on the Portuguese-Brazilian representation of the XNUMXth century. With it, I try to specify discursive logics and material and institutional conditioning of colonial representation, producing a historical differential that allows relativizing and criticizing its anachronistic appropriations.

Since the book I published in 1989 on the satire attributed to Gregório de Matos e Guerra, I have been carrying out an archeology of colonial representation, reconstructing it synchronically, according to the categories and precepts of its present, and diachronically, according to its appropriations and values- de-use.

Its present is obviously extinct, but its partial reconstruction is feasible through various documentary series, artistic and non-artistic, contemporary in the 1580th century. In this case, I propose a documental and genealogical critique of the categories taken for granted, starting by proposing a seventeenth century that lasts about two hundred years, while the Iberian institutions of the absolutist monarchy last, at least between 1750, the beginning of the Iberian Union, when Portugal and Brazil enter directly into the orbit of Spain and Italy, and XNUMX, death of d. João V and the beginning of the illustrated reforms of the Marquês de Pombal.

The dating is indicative, as, depending on the specific duration of the object studied, it could be advanced to the French Mission of 1816/1817, or backwards to much earlier. For example, for the Hellenistic art of the XNUMXnd century BC. C. or for certain Roman formulations about the Attic and Asiatic style, etc. The dating is indicative, in short, especially when we remember the cultural sedimentations that coexist in the cut, sometimes of very long durations that prevent us from unifying the more than two hundred years of the XNUMXth century in an anachronistic label, “The Baroque”, which is not necessary to use .

In order to reconstitute the symbolic systems that regulated discursive and plastic representations in the XNUMXth century, it is useful to establish homologies between them and other literate and non-literate, non-fictional, contemporary and previous practices, such as speeches by city councils, minutes and letters; regiments of Governors; royal orders, gangs, lawsuits, lawsuits and grievances of the Courts; customs books; slave purchase and sale contracts; inventories; Canon Law treatises and apologetic texts, such as Della Ragion di Stato, by Giovanni Botero, or Defensio Fidei by Francisco Suarez; the prince mirrors and countless others. The homologies function as units of hierarchical topics represented in different discursive, pictorial and plastic registers.

Through the homologies established between the various discourses and plastic and pictorial representations, the various material and institutional means and the various applied models, it is possible to define a mindset specific to Portuguese Catholic absolutism in the XNUMXth century. It is Aristotelian and neo-scholastic, having its operations specified in the Colony, where it evidently undergoes adaptations.

The conceptualization of the categories of this mindset according to the structure, function and value it had in its time, it allows the construction of a historical differential of representation to demonstrate that the conception of time, authorship, work and public in the XNUMXth century was different, which allows to highlight the radical discontinuity of the XNUMXth century mental form and the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment historiographical, critical and artistic programs.

Today, such programs continue to appropriate seventeenth-century representations, repeating categories of nineteenth-century romantic criticism as transhistorical universals or simply asserting the postmodernity of the operation. Archaeological reconstitution makes it possible to establish regimes of discursive and non-discursive representation ordered by Aristotelian and Latin rhetoric and interpreted by Catholic theology-politics; with this, it allows us to show that the forms of personality, “I” and “you”, which define the enunciative contract of the representations, are effects of the rhetorical application of precoded characters and affections, that is, they are not expressive psychological categories, because “I ” and “you” do not correspond to subjectivized individualities or endowed with human rights in the free competition of the cultural goods market. That is: “I” and “you” are representations obtained through the application of precepts of a non-psychological and non-expressive rationality, a mimetic rationality, typical of collective and anonymous schemes of the Portuguese court society of the XNUMXth century, transplanted to the tropic.

Koselleck proposed that the relationship between “past experience” and “future expectation horizon” is a useful historiographical criterion to specify the way men live the culture of their time. When the question is asked about the ways of representing the experience of the past and the expectation of the future for the remnants of the XNUMXth century that have come down to us, some specificities appear.

The main one is, as I think, the qualitative way of conceiving temporality as an emanation or figure of God that includes history as a providentialist project. For seventeenth-century Catholics living in Brazil, Maranhão and Grão-Pará, Angola, Goa and Portugal, God is the First Cause of all that is.

Thus, the colonial representation proposes that nature and history are simultaneously effects created by this Cause and signs that are reflections of this Thing, not finding at any time the Enlightenment notions of “progress”, “evolution”, “criticism”, “revolution” , nor the ideas of “aesthetics”, “originality", “rupture”, “aesthetic autonomy”. Nor a new discursive regime, “literature”, opposed to other regimes, such as “science”, “philosophy” and “history”. Neither the notions of “author”, such as psychological individuality, originality, criticism and ownership of rights over works competing in the market, nor market or “public”, such as “public opinion”, etc. Therefore, the postulation of the First Cause, God, makes nature and history read like books in which Providence writes the secret intention of its Will. I recall the Portuguese chroniclers, in Brazil in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, interpreting the arrangement of banana seeds in a cross as a prophetic sign of the Christian destination of the land.

In the same way, the figural interpretation of history made by Vieira, which establishes mirroring between biblical events and events of his time, for example, the Dutch wars and the Bragança policy, the discovery of America, the Jesuit mission and the catechism of Indians , affirming the essential destination of Portuguese history.

When we reconstruct these categories and these ways of organizing the experience of time, the Enlightenment categories transistorically generalized in literary history for its understanding, as evolution, progress, review, ideology etc., turn out to be anachronistic. The recognition of anachronism should prevent the continuation of universalizing the particularity of aesthetic and sociological categories and, with this, should lead to a review of Brazilian literary historiography.

Evidently, the work of archaeological reconstruction of these particularities is not just an antiquarian activity, in the archaic and regressive sense of the term “antiquarian” used by Nietzsche and now repeated by supporters of the so-called “postmodern” to pejoratively classify a kind of reactionary historian who only interested in the past. The past can only interest because it is dead forever.

It is precisely the differential of his archaeologically reconstructed death that may be of interest as material for an intervention in the present in which the notion of “Baroque”, applied to the remnants of the XNUMXth century, invents localist, nationalist and fundamentalist traditions that are by definition dubious and debatable, when one considers recalls its interested particularity.

Therefore, it seems pertinent to determine what, in the representations classified as “historical baroque” – representations that are, after all, ruins of the pre-Enlightenment society that did not know the concept, since it was not “baroque”–, today appears so alive as to allow the identifications of the present with a new baroque, which would no longer be historical, but only neo-baroque, post-modern or post-utopian.

The analogy is facilitated precisely by the metaphor of what, since the second half of the XNUMXth century, has been radically dead, seventeenth-century substantialism, and which today allows one to determine the difference between the arts of the Old Regime in relation to the Enlightenment arts produced from the second half of the XNUMXth century onwards. XVIII. It is the metaphor of the substantialism of colonial representations that has been transistorically appropriated in the “neobaroque” definitions of culture.

As I said, the representations of the XNUMXth century conceive temporality and history providentially, relating the experience of the past and the expectation of the future as predictability, since they affirm that the identity of God, First Cause, is repeated in all the differences of time, making all its moments analogous or similar.

The repetition of divine identity in time is an event that makes the gap between past experience and future expectation predictable. Thinking about this repetition, Vieira wrote a History of the Future, a title that has become paradoxical since the second half of the XNUMXth century, when the substantialism of Old Regime societies became ruinous and the discipline of history became the science of what no longer repeats itself. Thus, it is pertinent to deal with the way of defining the historical event figured as repetition in Vieira and other authors of the XNUMXth century to specify the nature of colonial representations.

In Vieira's representation, all the different pasts are given as analogous events stored by the memory of interpreters who comment on them illuminated by the light of Grace. The intelligibility model of time is figural, as interpreters establish specularity between two men, two events or two things, one of them always on the other side. Old Testament, always another New, stating that, by the divine presence in both, that which is latent as type No. Old it becomes clear how prototype No. New.

Vieira also claims that the same prophetic nexus applies to ancient and contemporary events in Portuguese history. From the point of view of prophecy, the future is and will be an image of the repetition of the identity that already occurred in several previous moments. Therefore, the actuality of the necessary and the power of the contingent of all times permeate the historical presence of the interpreter's present as an eternal substantial Presence.

(Sixteenth-century sharpness and other essays, pages. 25 to 29)

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