Alfredo Bosi (1936-2021)

Alfred Bosi


Commentary on the work of the essayist and literary critic

It is unusual for such a powerful articulation of literary criticism, political thought and social history as the one that the professor Alfred Bosi displays on its trajectory. Perhaps the culmination is in the colonization dialectic (1992). Although composed of essays from different ages, the same gait allows the author to surprise the colonial condition in different documentary registers.

But early in his career, Bosi wrote A A concise history of Brazilian literature (1971), a milestone in a systematizing effort that was later repeated in several collections. In the final part of that book, the author noted in some examples of national literature how negative and critical awareness did not lead to overcoming. On the contrary, it dissolved in resignation and the coexistence of opposites. He then proposed a division of the contemporary novel in which the usual social-regional/urban-psychological sorting would be replaced by another. His starting point was the concept of tension, originating from Lucien Goldmann and Györg Lukács.

In bourgeois society, the novel form emerges as an expression of the contradiction between a problematic hero and the conventional world in which values ​​do not correspond to current practices. Or, as professor Davi Arrigucci Jr. repeated in his classes at USP, paraphrasing Lukács: the hero seeks authentic values ​​in a world that has lost its way. His shock doesn't translate to disruption; if so, Bentinho would act like Othello and Dom Casmurro it would have a tragic end, not a bourgeois solution, as my teacher taught. The late Mattia Pascal, by Pirandello, is a fine example of a character who can change his name and life, thanks to chance. At first she experiences freedom, but what Fortune[I] What it gives him comes at the cost of an unbearable loneliness and he finds himself once again enveloped by a new social mask, no less oppressive than the previous one.

Bosi ranked the Brazilian XNUMXth-century novel among those of least tension; criticism; internalized; and transfigured. The variable that allowed this taxonomy is the hero's relationship with the world. As we will see below, what interests us is his criticism of minimal tension novels, marked by an “appeal to spatial and historical coordinates”, very close to the picturesque, the chronicle, the documentary and the reportage.[ii]

The critique of literary populism

The example chosen by Bosi was the work of Jorge Amado. As criticism requires, alongside the use of techniques, a judgmental element,[iii] he allowed himself to expose his evident indisposition with the author regarding his formal oversights and slang.[iv]

Jorge Amado thematized the marginalized and attributed to them romantic and sensual attitudes, to which he added political overtones. This ideological collage, borrowed from folkloric types, was the height of the writer's ideology, Bosi asserted. It ensured easy consumption of the works and, at the same time, the propagation of the ideology. This is brought to the characters from outside by the omniscient author, invested with the role of the story's demiurge. Ideology is a guide to action. It is not produced by the marginalized, it is revealed to them. Therefore, the author's worldview could change (as indeed happened with Jorge Amado[v]) and only the stereotypes, the picturesque and the unmotivated use of slang would remain, “which is, in the mind of the bourgeois intellectual, the image of the people’s eros”[vi]. It is here that Bosi calls this type of novel “literary populism”, defined as a “mixture of misconceptions” that passes for “revolutionary art”.

Bosi made a list of Jorge Amado's novels that would have passed as a “proletarian novel”; then added other books that she classified as “lyrical testimonials”; “partisan preaching”; “great frescoes” from the cacao region; and “cool chronicles” of local customs. The general sense of the novelist's production departed from the ideological literature of the 1930s and 1940s and dissolved in the “tasty” and “spicy regional”.

Bosi could have added a fundamental text that would support his argument: The Underground of Freedom, a work published in three volumes in 1954. It could fit into a type of party propaganda and had nothing spicy.

Unlike other books that Jorge Amado preferred to forget[vii], underground of freedom it was a partisan operation that intended to go beyond political propaganda and sensual appeal. The author carried out a transposition of socialist realism to Brazilian literature, according to the norms published by the Soviet leader Zhdanov. Socialist realism was not a style but a literary instrument, as well defined by Otto Maria Carpeaux[viii].

In those volumes, Jorge Amado made an effort to create this literary instrument in Brazil, but shortly afterwards came the so-called de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union (1956) and he abandoned communism. Though successful in early editions, the novel has not stood the test of time. It's just that there wasn't even the provincial appeal, the local color and the exciting descriptions that later predominated in Gabriela clove and cinnamon or in a book full of eroticism like Great Ambush, to cite just two examples.

Underground of Liberty it was a book that tried to translate historical characters into literary types: thus, Carlos Marighela is one of the Bahian leaders who confronts the cold and betrayal of a Trotskyist current in São Paulo; the villain is Trotskyist, obviously, and represents Hermínio Sacchetta, leader of the PCB who joined Trotsky after the events portrayed in the book[ix]. The novelist's freedom to be anachronistic is not born of an aesthetic demand, but a political one, in the strictest and most factious sense. Caio Prado Júnior is the model for a communist character, but marked by indecision (due to his class origin) and, together with the villain, cultivates the degenerate painting of a painter who perhaps refers to Tarsila do Amaral[X]. We were still marked by the polarization, noted by Walter Benjamin, between the “aestheticization of politics”, by the fascists, and the “politicization” of art, defended by the communists.[xi]

There were examples of proletarian literature that pursued formal innovations, despite their incipient nature, such as Industrial park (1933) by Pagu. Even Ranulfo Prata's more conventional writing in lighted ships (1937) about the life of workers in the port of Santos is still read with interest. Finally, the works of partisan dissemination are still important as a historical document and it is regrettable that Jorge Amado has prohibited the re-editions of some of them. Marcos Silva demonstrated the importance of the world of peace for the debates on the Cold War in Brazil[xii]. But the historian is looking at the work with a different lens. For Bosi it was a manifestation of “literary populism”.

From criticism to resistance

The term was not coined for nothing. bosi posted the concise history in 1971, when the “populist” policy had been defeated by the 1964 coup, and its sociological criticism was well established; and it published a third edition, revised and enlarged, in 1987, when part of São Paulo's university historiography and philosophy renewed the charge against the Revolution of 1930, the experience of the Brazilian Communist Party and populism.

The trajectory of populism has already been[xiii] and criticized many times. It is curious that Bosi kept the term, since throughout the so-called New Republic his political positions were far from the udenist moralism of the PSDB. But the PT itself harbored a critique of populism. Furthermore, an author to whom Bosi dedicated colonization dialectic[xiv]did not reject the concept. In 1987, Jacob Gorender wrote combat in the dark where he considered charisma, manipulation and demagoguery to be entirely secondary. The essence of the phenomenon was class collaboration, not the type of leadership [xv], which does not differentiate populism much from any European social democratic pact, except for its more pronounced economic limits in the periphery. If this is true, it is quite likely that Jorge Amado's condemnation can be relativized and the lyrical testimonies, frescoes and chronicles may have played some role, albeit limited.

The 1990s brought another challenge: politically, neoliberalism; in terms of culture, postmodernism. It was in this context that Bosi wrote about literature and resistance. Since his first writings, he has dealt with the characters' malaise in the face of social instability. It's to get around life's hazards and misfortunes that we accept the masks that define us. They oppress, but, after all, it is necessary to be protected from reality by ideas, new or old, fair or unfair, as historian Fernand Braudel would say.[xvi]. This was the case of the above The late Mattia Pascal, by Pirandello, an author about whom Bosi wrote at the beginning of his university life.

Modernity could be criticized, but from the angle of a determined negation. That is, it should be overcome by an affirmation that contains what is denied by it. Modernity never ceased to have its antagonistic pole that made it a self-critical movement, as Sergio Paulo Rouanet emphasized in The Reasons for the Enlightenment (1987). For many critics, however, this dialectical reading had become a thing of the past and given way to postmodernism.

Beyond and not short of the national

In the past, it would have made sense to rescue the Gramsci / Croce polemic about art and politics (to quote two authors dear to Bosi). In the XNUMXst century, there was almost no more reference to that kind of debate and the ideal of a national culture (not necessarily nationalist) dissolved. The relations between “literature and national life” (Gramsci), “literature and society” (Antônio Candido) were left behind, as Celso Frederico pointed out.[xvii] What remained was the neo-fascist rescue of fanciful nationalism. The national popular – as a means and not an end – was beyond our time and not behind. The cultural islanding of Brazilian regions that Vianna Moog attributed to the colony is now replaced, modified, between identities.

Populism has become more and more common sense, summing up to a condemnation of everything that does not follow neoliberal dogmas. But just as its critics tended to disregard real achievements of the working class, its mere positivization misses the limits of the politics of class conciliation in the capitalist periphery. Alfredo Bosi himself dealt, in his Dialectic of colonizationo, with the contradictions of positivism and the varied origins of Brazilian labor legislation.

Criticism of Jorge Amado was directed at a structure in which minimal tension prevailed and underestimated the novelist's momentary capacity to narrate class and racial conflicts (even stereotyped ones), but which time faded. For Bosi, revolutionary art reveals itself through transfigured tension. This, which was already emerging in Guimarães Rosa, would allow “renovating from within” the act of creation, to the point of breaking with the “typological entity “romance”[xviii]: an overcoming. Perhaps there is more here than a lofty exercise in literary criticism.

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Caio Prado Junior – the meaning of revolution (Boitempo)


[I] In the case of this novel, in addition to other lexical meanings, fortune also appears in the literal meaning of wealth in the form of money.

[ii] Bosi, Alfredo. A concise history of Brazilian literature. 3 ed. São Paulo: Cultrix, 1987, p. 443.

[iii] It seems extreme, for example, the judgment that Bosi addresses to the book Dead Sea as a mere document: strictly speaking, a non-literature.

[iv] There could be something of his Catholic upbringing here, albeit on the left.

[v] The change in ideology did not imply abandoning the progressive field. The work tent of miracles can be read as a manifesto against racism published during the dictatorship, in 1969. Silva, Marcos. “The Inseminating Archanjo: Freedom Laughs at Dictatorship in tent of miracles". Amerika – Mémoires, identités, territories, Rennes, July 2014, p. 12.

[vi] Bosi, cit., p. 459.

[vii] think about Communist party men and things ou peace world.

[viii] See Secco, L. The Battle of the Books: Formation of the Left in Brazil. São Paulo: Atelier, 2018.

[ix] Sachetta responded with a very good article called “The Basements of Decency”.

[X] Jorge Amado lived with Tarsila and Caio Prado Júnior in PCB activities, such as the Associação Cultural Brasil – URSS.

[xi] Musse, Richard. “Notes on Art and Politics in Adorno and Benjamin”. In:

[xii] Silva, Mark. “A trip to the left: Jorge Amado without (the world of) peace”; History Project, Sao Paulo, no. 58, pp. 240-269, Jan.-Mar. 2017. Marcos was my teacher and organized a Jorge Amado Critical Dictionary, what of per se already reveals the unique nature of Jorge Amado's impact on Brazilian culture.

[xiii] Gomes, Angela C. “Populism and the social sciences in Brazil: notes on the trajectory of a concept”. Time, Rio de Janeiro, Vol. 1, no. 2, 1996, p. 31-58.

[xiv] Together with Dom Pedro Casaldáliga and Celso Furtado.

[xv] Gorender, Jacob. combat in the dark. São Paulo: Ática, 1987, chapter 2.

[xvi] Daix, Pierre. Fernand Braudel: a biography. São Paulo: Record, 1999, p.504.

[xvii] Frederick, Celso. “Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism”, the earth is round, 29 / 7 / 2020, in

[xviii] Bosi, Alfredo. concise history, quoted, p. 444.


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