Paths between literature and history

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1950


An intellectual autobiography sketch

I believe that at a certain point in our lives, personal memory transcends us; so what we say may have some meaning in the sphere of history and culture. Moreover, only this hope redeems us from the sin of talking about ourselves, an inveterate habit that we cultivate so often, and which is, in the words of Umberto Eco, the very essence of bad taste.

Where to start? By the notebook in which the teenager copied his favorite poems mixing sonnets by Camões and Sá de Miranda – The sun is great, the birds fall calmly – and Berceuse of the richest rhymes, by Guilherme de Almeida, which rhymed tears com miracle but... But in this intimate anthology there were also poems made for crying, poems that I read secretly, in a low voice, moved to the critical point of the lump in my throat. And was the little dead of Vicente de Carvalho and were the swans, by Júlio Salusse, taken from a literary magazine in the 1950s. The triplets have echoed in my memory until today:

One day a swan will surely die;
When that uncertain time comes,
In the lake, where perhaps the water turns red,

May the swan live, full of longing,
Never sing again, nor swim alone,
Nor ever swim beside another swan.

Leafing through this notebook today, so many years later, I'm looking for the name of a contemporary poet who had awakened in me the desire to bring him to the company of the classics, romantics, paranasians and symbolists who at the time deserved the care of the handwritten copy and the emotion of the lonely reader. And I find a sonnet by Drummond,'“Legacy” (which begins with a perplexed interrogation: What memory will I give to the country that gave me / everything I remember and know, everything I felt? / In the endless night, time has already forgotten / my uncertain medal, and my name laughs. And two pages ahead, Cecília Meireles's “Night Prayer”. How, then, could the self-absorbed teenager imagine that, half a century later, invited to give a lecture on the occasion of the centenary of Cecília Meireles, he would discuss the feeling of absence from the world that is the theme of those fourteen verses transcribed in his notebook? Was it all the work of chance or a secret coherence set up by a vocation that ignored itself?

But, consciously or not, the call to Literature was strong, so strong that, when it came to choosing my profession, I didn't hesitate for a single moment: I wanted to be a Portuguese teacher, and I followed the direct path, which was to take the Neo-Latin Letters course. at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo. Allow me to recall the first class I attended, given by the late Professor Ítalo Bettarello, who taught the subject of Italian Literature. I say remember, because I already mentioned this passage in the introduction I wrote for the collection of essays Poetry Reading. It went like this: “The class was about Italian literature. All freshmen, and most inexperienced in the language of bel paese là dove il sì suona”.

The São Paulo of the second post-war period was no longer that Italian-Brazilian city of the 1920s that the modernists sang and told about. But, solemnly disregarding didactic precautions and betting everything on the word of the philosopher and on the greater strength of our eagerness to learn, Professor Ítalo Bettarello opened his course by reading the initial period of Aesthetica in nuce by Benedetto Croce: If you are interested in considering qualsiasi poems to determine what you need to do, you can discern no allá prima, costanti e necessari, due elementi: un complesso d'immagini e un sentiment che lo anima.

Translating: “If we are willing to consider any poem to determine what makes us judge it as such, we discern at first glance, constant and necessary, two elements: a complex of images and a feeling that animates it”.

Everything else depended on this vision, which was both simple and profound.

The example which illustrated the doctrine was taken from Virgil. Croce analyzes the Third Canto of Aenida, in which Aeneas tells how he landed in Epirus, where the Trojan Helenus reigned with Andromache. Desiring to see his fellow citizens escape disaster, Aeneas goes to meet the queen outside the city walls, in a sacred grove beside the waters of a stream that they had named Simoente in memory of the river that flows through Troy. Andromache is celebrating funeral rites before an empty tomb where she has erected two altars, one for Hector, her first husband, and the other for her son Astyanax.

Seeing him, she is taken aback and faints. Aeneas remembers the truncated words with which, coming to himself, Andromache had questioned him wanting to know if he was a man or a shadow. Then comes the no less troubled answer from Aeneas who, in turn, asks him to recall the past. And the painful and prudish evocation of Andromache that revisits her fate as a survivor of the massacre, as a slave drawn by lot and made concubine of Pyrrhus, who, however, rejected her and gave her as a slave to Helenus; and the death of Pyrrhus by the hand of Orestes, and the release of Helenus who became king. The story follows the procession of Aeneas with his people through the city, which, being small, in every way imitates the glorious and destroyed Troy of their common ancestors (Canto III, 295-355).

After reading the episode, what do we have? Images of people, images of things, of gestures, of attitudes, it doesn't matter if they are historically real or just current in the poet's fantasy. (This last finding would weigh heavily on my future way of seeing the relationships between poetic figures and historically attested facts). Not single or isolated images, because through all of them runs the feeling, a feeling that is no more of the poet than ours, a human feeling of poignant memories, of chilling horror, of melancholy, of nostalgia, of tenderness, and even of something which is puerile and at the same time pious, like that vain restoration of lost things, those toys forged by religious piety, of the silly troy: something ineffable in logical terms, and that only poetry, in its own way, can fully express.[1]

In a way, Croce's doctrine of poetry as the figuration of a certain pathos, as an intuition of a movement of the soul, gave theoretical status to my naive but intense fruition of the poem capable of leading me to transcribe in the notebook texts that moved and enchanted me. Looking back today at the passage from passionate reader to scholar armed with an aesthetic theory, I would say that without that first disposition of mind towards the poetic, the instruments learned on the benches of college would be of little use to me. Passion is not enough to interpret the poem, but it is absolutely necessary, and Literature professors who matured before the structuralist phase of literary criticism know that only those who had their own juice could cross the sand of linguistic schemes without withering away in saddest aridity.

As is well known, Crocia's doctrine gave remarkable clues to understanding the link between fictional image and subjective movements, which is the positive balance of the Italian philosopher's legacy and one of the matrices professed by Spanish Stylistics. But, to the extent that Croce drastically denied the aesthetic pertinence of poetry's other relationships (with historical discourse, with philosophy, with morals, with religion, with scientific knowledge...) it created serious impasses for the interpreter who intended to make a historical-social reading of the literary text.

I became aware of these limits when, after finishing my studies in Literature, I received a scholarship to study Italian literature and philosophy at the Faculty of Arts in Florence, in the academic year 1961-1962. The hegemony of Crocian thought, evident until the 1950s, was already being replaced by other theoretical sources, basically existentialism and Marxism.

Existentialism did not separate the affective motives of the lyrical self and its philosophical and political options. For the thinker of existence, the human being who creates a work of art thinks his own subjective life and, at the same time, dramatically lives his thought and engagement. Making literature was, for Camus, a vital choice that included emotion, theory and political project. The same requirement ran through all of Sartre's work.

As for Marxism, it is necessary to remember that, in Italy at the beginning of the 1960s, the central figure was Antonio Gramsci, whose dense polemical texts against Croatian idealism were read with reverence by the fierce left-wing intelligentsia spread across all universities. . An example that well illustrates the difference between the Crotian and Gramscian approaches is found in the way of analyzing Dante's work, in particular the Divine Comedy. Croce clearly distinguished, in the work, what poetry meant, that is, moments of high lyrical and imagistic expression (the episodes of Paolo and Francesca, Ulisses and Ugolino, for example), and what would be non-poetry, that is , the steps of theological or political reflection, numerous above all in Purgatory and Paradise.

For Gramsci and for the Marxists, however, it seemed arbitrary to separate lyric and doctrinal background, lyric and ideological conviction. In any case, Croce always reaffirmed, until his last writings, the imaginary status of the work of art, which can cover the entire realm of the possible, while the sciences must stick to the universe of the real that can be attested and verified. The possible includes everything that is real plus what could become it, and in this last sense, the possible is also the object of desire and fantasy, which, in turn, are at home when it comes to creating a work. of art.

These distinctions made by Croce still seem valid and useful to me when it comes to thinking about the multiple relationships between literary history and historiography itself.

Returning to Brazil, in 1962, I had to teach Italian Literature, an activity that occupied me intensely until 1970, when I started to teach the subject of Brazilian Literature. Those who lived through those turbulent years in Brazilian history will agree with me that it is not easy to order didactically the contradictory wealth of cultural currents and countercurrents that characterized both the period prior to the 1964 military coup and the so-called years of lead, which advanced into the following decade. Trends overlapped or mixed up. Existentialism yielded to Marxism (it was the way of Sartre, then the guru of non-conformist intellectuals), or else it returned to its phenomenological origins, through the action of Ricoeur and Gadamer, masters of hermeneutics, here represented by the proposals of the journal Brazilian weather directed by Eduardo Portella. In the field of literary analysis, Stylistics, which depended in part on the Croatian aesthetics of expression, was discarded by structuralism or, more generally, by formalism. This, driven by Stalinist censorship, had moved from the Slavic world to France, and had as an inspiration the great linguist Roman Jakobson, who had theorized the functions of language.

Study of Pirandello's narrative itinerary

In 1964, I defended my doctoral thesis on Luigi Pirandello's narrative itinerary. I studied his short stories and novels which, with rare exceptions, preceded his theatrical work. Strictly speaking, my approach distanced itself both from the sociology of literature and from the structural analysis of narrative, then in full fashion. What attracted me to Pirandello's work was the conflict between the characters' subjective lives and the masks they had to put on in order to survive in society. It is the Pirandellian theme par excellence, which his dramas would obsessively enact. I was interested in seeing the same contrast in his regionalist, Sicilian novels, in The late Mattia Pascal, his masterpiece, and in the plots of Novel for a year, some of which would provide material for the dramas of its mature phase.

It did not seem to me, then, that orthodox Marxism or structuralism had probing instruments capable of apprehending the quality of the pathos that pulsated in Pirandellian situations. Existentialism, in the form of personalism, which was inspired by Max Scheler, and had been worked on by French and Italian Christian philosophers (Lavelle, Le Senne, Mounier, Pareyson), deepened the person's relationships with the other, which could be a starting point for studying Pirandello's narrative. Deep down, however, what it brought to light was not the feeling of communion, but it was precisely the rupture, the impossibility of the subject living with his family context and, tragically, the effective impossibility of freeing himself from that same context. An existential situation that, strictly speaking, derives from the emergence of the romantic subject, which Marxist sociology identifies with the bourgeois self, using, in my view, the term “bourgeois” in an excessively generic way.

Thesis on myth and poetry in Leopardi

Still within the discipline of Italian Literature, I defended the thesis of Habilitation, in 1970, entitled Myth and poetry in Leopardi. Like the work on Pirandello, this thesis was unpublished and may remain so for a long time, as there are still unresolved issues in it. The central hypothesis was ambitious and derived, now, from the emphasis that Lévi-Strauss' structuralism gave to myth as a matrix narrative form. But, instead of analyzing Leopardi's work as a combination of basic mythemes (which would be following the structuralist model, which is syntactic), I preferred to recognize in the poet's fundamental themes the lyrical reinterpretation of some myths of our Judeo-Christian or Greco culture. -Roman, such as the myth of Edenic nature, the myth of lost paradise or the fall, and the Promethean myth of man's resistance to the power of the gods, that is, to the power of destiny; which resulted in giving the analysis a semantic model.

This focus is not in Lévi-Strauss, who, incidentally, preferred indigenous myths to the permanent themes of Western tradition. Who approaches the Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian tradition is Paul Ricoeur, whose work The symbol of evil was one of my theoretical supports. Definitely, structuralism would not be my path, because, even dealing with a theme linked to the corpus From this current, as is the case with myth, I ended up knocking on the doors of the hermeneutic method.

Paul Ricoeur treats myth as a complex of meanings inherent to our tradition and, as such, susceptible to understanding by the thinker who lives in a regime of familiarity and almost co-naturalness with figures and feelings typical of their cultural heritage.

However, the fact of recognizing some biblical or Greek myths in Leopardi's work did not exempt me from historicizing his reconstruction, made by a poet from the first decades of the XNUMXth century who lived in Italy, then divided into duchies, principalities, foreign kingdoms and pontifical domains, still outside the romantic current that dominated France, England and Germany. Hence the need to understand the cultural conditions that led the poet to argue with Madame de Staël and to ardently defend the unsurpassable beauty of Antiquity in opposition to the neo-Gothic fashions of Germanic or Celtic Romanticism. Leopardi, still a teenager, had admirably translated the Second Canto of the Aenida in addition to numerous Greek poems.

A classic in the middle of the XNUMXth century? In reality, a philosopher-poet who did not believe in the linear progress sung by liberals. It is not by chance that his pessimism was praised by another radical pessimist, Schopenhauer, the best German reader of Leopardi. But there was at the heart of his bitterness the desire to resist, which his last poem, The broom, he admirably expresses it, as the broom is the flower that resists the lava that descends on the arid slopes of Vesuvius. It was a counter-ideology, which did not feed on hopes forged by party politics. A pessimism that asks for the solidarity of men against the evils that come from nature itself, better stepmother than mother. Nor was it by chance that Leopardi inspired the chapter on Brás Cubas' delirium, as Otto Maria Carpeaux luminously pointed out in a revealing article.

In summary, I resorted to the hermeneutics of myths, but I could not ignore the political and cultural situation in Leopardi's Italy. Different paths of critical thought began to cross and gave a tone of perplexity to my attempts to interpret literary texts.

Literary history and historiography

What my theses left me as an intellectual legacy, at the end of the 1960s, was and is an acute and fundamental problem. The problem of the relationship between poetry and history, and therefore, the relationship between the discourse of literary history and that of historiography taken in its broad sense, which encompasses social history, economic history and political history. And it was precisely in those years that, thanks to the generous indication of the poet and friend José Paulo Paes, I was invited to write a literary history, the A concise history of Brazilian literature, which I published in 1970.

One of the greatest difficulties that literary history has been facing, since the romantic period in which the literary identity of peoples and nations began to be postulated, is precisely choosing its priority object. Is the literary historian's raw material everything that has been written and that can be considered representative of a certain culture? To answer in the affirmative is to take the word “literature” in its broad sense of written material on a wide variety of topics. Either your subject is the literary text in the strict sense, which gives priority to poetry, fictional narrative, tragedy, comedy, drama, in short, to textual genres in which imagination or feeling predominates, without obligatory relationship with the attestable truth of the represented acts? It should be noted that this dilemma was already formulated in Croce's opposition between poetry and non-poetry, encompassing in the latter all the didactic, political, scientific, religious elements, etc., which would form the cultural structure of a work, but would not give it the poetic and artistic identity, constituted by the synthesis of image and feeling, intuition and affectivity.

The two models of literary history in Brazil

I had at my disposal two mutually exclusive models, which had marked the tradition of Brazilian literary history since the end of the XNUMXth century: the sociological model represented by History of Brazilian Literature by Sílvio Romero and the historical-aesthetic model represented by History of Brazilian Literature by José Verissimo. It is enough to read carefully the introductions that each of these literary historians wrote for their respective works to realize how different and even polemically opposed they were. In another context, which was more familiar and close to me, the opposition rebounded in the polemic that Afrânio Coutinho, in the 1950s and 1960s, assumed when he postulated an aesthetic-stylistic approach to literary historiography, opposing it to historicist or sociologizing criticism, that came from the Romanian tradition, and that would remain in force in most Brazilian universities.

At the University of São Paulo, alongside traditional historicism and the philological tradition, sociological interpretation was mediated, in the teaching of a critic of the stature of Antonio Candido, by attention to the peculiarities of each author and, above all, to the properly literary structures of the studied works, as can be easily verified by reading the fine text analyzes that integrate the chapters of the Formation of Brazilian literature. It is a capital work that since the moment of its publication has been fertilizing university studies of our literature.

In Rio de Janeiro, regardless of academic practices, criticism had been showing exceptional vigor since the 1930s and 1940s, and it is strictly fair to highlight at least two names that honored this house, taught me a lot and continue to teach me. me, Augusto Meyer and Álvaro Lins. To which I add the name of a scholar who is particularly dear to me, Lúcia Miguel Pereira.

Although I understood the reasons for those two sides (which, by the way, at the time of the 1970s, seemed discarded by the structuralist discourse, which was neither historicist nor aesthetic), my theoretical training left me in a somewhat atypical. I closely adhered to Croce's aesthetics, which gave an identity to poetry and art in general as an intuitive, figural and expressive form of knowledge, maintaining, as we have seen, a fundamental distinction between the poetic act and other discursive practices.

But (and there is a lot of strength in this adversative conjunction...), but reading Gramsci and particularly the moral and cultural resistance that had marked me and my generation throughout the years of lead led me to decisively insert the literary text into the plot of the ideological history in which it was conceived. Both instances were demanding and were present when choosing the authors and judging the works, which at times were valid as representatives of a certain mentality, at times by themselves as well-executed aesthetic creations.

Although no one should be a judge in their own cause, it seems to me that, in the elaboration of the concise history, I managed to respect both requirements without losing awareness that they were different perspectives to the point of not allowing for a comfortable eclecticism. In other words: a poem or a novel may be sociologically or politically significant, but these qualities do not, by themselves, elevate them to the status of works of art. In any case, the best works of all literature are always valid for the two criteria, the representative and the aesthetic.

Turning to an example to get out of a discourse that risks falling into the trap of abstraction, I remember that, when studying the northeastern novel of the 1930s and 1940s, one of the richest periods in the history of our realistic narrative, I used the concept of tension between the narrator and his material; concept finely elaborated by Lucien Goldmann in his essays on the sociology of the novel. I then focused on the works of Jorge Amado, Érico Veríssimo, Marques Rebelo, José Lins do Rego and Graciliano Ramos, which allowed me to reflect on novels of minimum tension and maximum tension. A dialectical approach in its relationship between work and society, but which always assumed the literary value of the corpus to be interpreted.

Between historicism and the dialectical method

Analyzing and interpreting texts in the classroom, I increasingly suspected that recognizing the difference between aesthetic and social levels, while necessary, was not enough. It was necessary to dig deeper into the field of literary theory and the theory of historiography to understand those relationships that should not remain in a regime of mere exteriority.

First, it was necessary to map similarities or analogies. Both literary history and general historiography deal with unique and, strictly speaking, unrepeatable phenomena. One work of art is not the same as another, however much both have common characteristics of form or meaning. The same happens with a historical fact. The event is that which will not return, just as it was, in space and time, be it a battle, be it a revolution, be it an election, be it a coup d'état.

The uniqueness or unrepeatability of a work and a historical event demands from the literary or social historian the ability to select significant works or events, an indispensable operation due to the growing and cumulative number of works and events. To operate selectively, both must be guided by a certain perspective, which will define their meaning criteria. For only what it means remains or, in principle, should only remain. Uniqueness or unrepeatability, on the part of the object; selectivity and perspective, on the part of the scholar – these are some common characteristics that bring together the literary critic and the historian.

Where would the zones of differentiation begin? In line with German historicism there would still be a considerable field of analogies. The culturalists heirs of Dilthey, and, more remotely, of Vico, recognized broad cultural movements in the history of civilization that corresponded to certain well-demarcated historical periods. Hence the admission of great styles of the time in which acts, facts and works are inserted: the Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Arcadianism, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Symbolism, to name a few. to remain only with the denominations of movements mapped until the end of the XNUMXth century.

Knowledge of these styles would therefore be a first step towards grouping personalities and works, discriminating what they would have in common among themselves within the ideological trends of their time. Burkhardt, for example, already spoke, before Dilthey, of the Renaissance man, the bearer of certain constant attributes, such as the cult of the individual, and it is known how much Nietzsche drank from this source when creating the figure of the superman. The Baroque and Romanticism provided similar descriptions, to the point that sometimes the literary historian fell into the begging of the principle of considering a work as baroque because it was composed in the baroque period, which, in turn, was baroque because it had produced works with characteristics … baroque.

One of the less fortunate results of historicism to the outrage was and is precisely that of underestimating the uniqueness and unrepeatability of the work of art, insofar as it departs from categories of style common to a certain period and tends to erase the differences that separate one text from another, one poet from another. , a narrator of another. Likewise, certain thematic or stylistic similarities or coincidences between works from different times invite pure historicism to see tight chains of influences, sometimes going so far as to believe that a certain work generated another writing much later, transforming intertextuality into paternity at a distance. .

I remember a professor of Brazilian Literature who stated, without a shadow of a doubt, that St. Bernard, by Graciliano Ramos, only became possible because, before him, Machado de Assis had written Dom Casmurro: the proof was that both narrators were very jealous... I don't know how Graciliano, who did not excel in good humor, would have reacted to this speculation.

The admission of historical styles maintained, in any case, its coherence and validity, and I did not avoid it when ordering my literary history. But, as I said, I suspected that similarities were not enough, much less the subordination of individual experiences to a common cultural or ideological background. Where would the effective differences begin? How to emphasize, in the historical-literary discourse, the unique character of the work of art? How to show that the aesthetic act is born of a peculiar affective, cognitive or ludic experience, which was stylized in a certain way, and not in another, with its own subjective resonances, which the linguistic form made more or less communicable to other human beings? Moreover, they are not always perfectly communicable, as the language of the poem or prose is not always transparent, requiring the effort of interpretation.

To answer this difficult but unavoidable question, the sociological critique of strict observance did not have finely tuned instruments, as it worked and still works with great unifying categories such as social class and historical-social type, categories that contain beforehand the list of defining marks of the authors and their characters. For the determinist critic, saying that a work was produced by an aristocrat or for an aristocratic public provides the key to understanding the character of the characters or the metaphors of the poem. The question remains: what individualizes a poetic text and differentiates it from another if both were produced within the same social class and to be read by an audience belonging to that class? This was one of the crucial questions that I intended to face throughout the 1970s, in the midst of an objectivist tide, represented both by structuralism and Marxism, two systemic and classificatory approaches to symbolic phenomena. A dilemma with no way out in sight, or a problem to be equated?

Although marked by existentialist and hermeneutic readings, which tended to deepen the writer's subjective instances and to recognize the margin of freedom of his stylistic options, I must say that the historical-social understanding of literary texts seemed to me not only an epistemological necessity, but an ethical-political imperative, moving away, even partially, from Croce's orbit, of idealist inspiration. I remember my reading of Goldmann, which was added to previous readings of Gramsci, and would be added, in the same 1970s, to readings of Hegel, Adorno, Benjamin and Simone Weil. They were all philosophers who opened the gap of the critical spirit in the compact body of dominant ideologies, and lit the light of ethical and aesthetic awareness in the opacity of economic determinations and political oppression.

The lesson of Otto Maria Carpeaux

And at this point, it is time to do justice to a historian of Western culture to whom I have already dedicated my A concise history of Brazilian literature, Otto Maria Carpeaux, whose History of Western Literature had become my bedside book. And what did Carpeaux teach me along with his immense erudition?

Carpeaux taught, among so many other fundamental things, the half-truth of sociological determinism. Machiavelli had already estimated the proportions of human will and the force of fate when he spoke of met à virtù met à fortuna, adding with his relentless realism that fortune should probably be attributed to a little more than half of the causes of acts performed by human beings. Transposing the proportion pointed out by the Florentine secretary to the analysis of the literary work's factors and passing it through the sieve of Carpeaux's dialectical historicism, what would we have? A renewed concept of tension between the poles of determinism and creative freedom, a difficult balance between socio-historical categories and authorial individuation, a renewed and difficult balance between dominant ideologies and counter-ideologies articulated throughout artistic creation.

I recognize now, looking back, that there was at work in my spirit a purpose to overcome, conserving (in the Hegelian sense of the term “dialectics”) the drastic opposition of poetry and non-poetry, art and ideology.

The core of Carpeaux's dialectic in the elaboration of History of Western Literature lies precisely in its capacity to identify in the great literary texts not only the mimesis of the hegemonic culture, but also its counterpoint that marks the turning point, the resistant gesture of difference and contradiction. This keen eye, which recognizes both orthodoxy and its necessary heresies, discerns even in the writing of the ancients, so crystallized by the scholastic tradition, the multiple forms of dissent.

Read what Carpeaux wrote about the poet Lucan, who was driven to suicide for plotting against Nero (65 AD). your epic Pharsalia, was considered by Latinist scholar Gaston Boissier to be the poem of opposition sous les Caesars. Lucan, who was stoic, like his contemporary Seneca, who also committed suicide in the same year of 65, did not idealize the holders of imperial power. Unlike Virgil, who invented a divine genealogy to ennoble the figure of Augustus, Lucan prefers the great vanquished, Cato – Victrix causes diis placuit, sed victa Catoni – "The victorious cause pleased the gods, but Cato that of the vanquished."

I chose this example, a true paradigm, as I could have chosen hundreds of others in which Carpeaux apprehends an author's sense of resistance in the face of the hegemonic discourse of his time. Almost always, the source of this critical awareness comes from the memory of past times considered better, the Golden Age. It is the austere simplicity of the Republic, predating the corruption of the Empire in the history of Rome. It will be, later, the purity of the primitive Church contrasted with the decadence of the papacy, in the minds of the reformers and the neo-evangelical movements of the Middle Ages. Sometimes, it is not the memory of a mythical earthly paradise, but the utopia of the Kingdom, of an egalitarian society or of universal communism that leads the writer to confront his contemporaries and, with his eyes fixed on the day to come, unmask the traps of current ideology.[2]

From the mirror to resistance – the elaboration of The being and time of poetry

I believe that in the mid-1970s, the groping that I experienced between aesthetic and ideological demands finally gave way to an intuition of the route that needed to be taken without falling into a stuck Manichaeism. The path was that of analyzing and interpreting poems whose strength and beauty imposed themselves on my sensibility, seeking in them the two fundamental relationships that they could entertain with the dominant ideology in their context. The mirroring relation and the resistance relation.

To capture the first relationship, which can be called speculate, the social and cultural history that conditioned the work chosen for analysis provides the basic data. Historicism has always been prodigal in collecting contemporary material from the author and his literary activity, informing itself about his family environment, his basic and higher education, the books he read, the intellectuals he frequented, the literary or political groups and the cultural fashions of his time and, in the Marxist perspective, the class to which he belonged, or to which he aspired to belong, as well as the class of his readers. We could call this operation reconnaissance work, which gives the literary historian's discourse a strongly remissive character to the extent that the work refers to the context, and this, in turn, determines, or, in a milder language, conditions The work.

But the mirroring relationship is not the only one. The narrator's or poet's perspective can see or glimpse what the ideology covers up or falsifies. In this confrontation between the fictional process and the rationalizations of hegemonic thought, we find the vital core of resistance literature. The concept and its basic forms occupied me for a long time since I wrote, around 1976, the essay “Resistance Poetry”, chapter of The being and time of poetry, which came out the following year, until the compilation Literature and resistance, recently published.

The essay mapped out some forms of resistance poetry: metalanguage poetry, myth poetry, biography poetry, satire poetry, and utopia poetry, and ended with an analysis of Leopardi's long poem, “The broom".

Forces and forms of resistance in Brazilian literature and history

Much of what I have been speculating and writing, from the 1980s until today, both in the field of literary interpretation and in cultural history essays, is marked by the perception of contrasting movements within the styles of the time (movement of contradiction that the dialectical method de Carpeaux points out in his great History). Or within the very works that come into tension with the dominant ideologies of their time or, even more dramatically, come into tension with themselves.

It is possible, but I cannot say with absolute certainty, that the choice I have made of works that particularly attract me lies in the representation of existential situations permeated by contrasts and conflicts, both social and psychological. In any case, the contradictions exist, and from them comes a sense of intellectual vivacity that gives them a recurrent relevance, even if the conflicts owe to ideologies and counter-ideologies of other times. The speech asks for examples.

Antonio Vieira - What social forces led the settlers of Pará and Maranhão to expel Father Vieira from these mission lands, and what social and cultural forces led the Portuguese Inquisition to imprison him for two years by filing a lawsuit that resulted in his banning preaching ministry in your homeland?

In both cases, the reckless Jesuit had acted on the basis of projects that openly contradicted the established power. Defending the Indians of the North in the name of an evangelization plan that prevented the pure and simple enslavement of the workforce, Vieira hindered the path of the seizing colonists whose incursions into the interior had precisely that objective. Defending the right of New Christians to remain in Portugal, where their capital would be indispensable for financing the Company of the West Indies, Vieira became suspicious of the Inquisition, which promptly took advantage of the gaps that his prophetic writings opened by making the establishment coincide of the Fifth Empire with the reunification of the tribes of Israel and their return to the Promised Land.

Both the protected freedom of the Indians and the preaching of this messianic time were counter-ideological components fed by this unrepentant dreamer, who paid the price of his utopias hard. But if Vieira's work were a mere mirror of colonial ideology or the orthodoxy of the Holy Office, what would his eloquence be worth to us? It would have just become pasture and repast for purist grammarians.

Basilio da Gama - the uruguay – Still in the context of Colonial Brazil, see the fertile ideological contradiction that permeates the beautiful poem by Basílio da Gama, the uraguay, so justly admired by Machado de Assis. Studying him, I thought that the essay I was going to dedicate to him could have no other title than “The shadows of lights in the colonial condition”.

The Lights, who came from Pombaline Portugal at a time of tactical alliance with Spain, through the Treaty of Madrid, considered it rational and useful to expel the missionaries from the Seven Peoples in order to submit the region to Portuguese rule in exchange for Colonia do Sacramento, which would pass to Spanish crown. That was the reason for the Lights, explained by the action and speech of Gomes Freire de Andrada, who led the colonial troops, invaded the region of the Seven Peoples and tried to persuade the indigenous chiefs to cede the mission lands.

An echo of the will of the Marquês de Pombal is the proposal assumed by Basílio da Gama, which aims to give his protector one more and definitive proof of the abjuration of his past as a novice of the Society of Jesus. It so happens, however, that luckily for the poem's dialectical readers, Basílio was more than a flatterer in verses opaquely laudatory of power: he was an artist and a man sensitive to the integrity and beauty of the Guarani people harassed by the superior forces of the colonial army.

The poem's Second Canto is exemplary as a point and counterpoint of a disconcerted duo in which the heroic voice, resistant to death, will be that of the rebellious peoples. Sepé Tiaraju, who would become a figure of legend in the gaucho songbook, comes unarmed and alone, without bows and quivers or any gestures of deference, without showings or signs of courtesy, towards the supreme military authority. This image gives the measure of the American man, at the same time free and capable of reasoning, for it is of reason that his companion Cacambo will speak to the general:

O famous General,
Well that our grandparents were spoil
From the perfidy of Europe, and from here
With the unavenged bones of kin
If you see the valleys whiten in the distance,
I, unarmed and alone, come looking for you,
I expect so much from you. AND WHILE GUNS

The missionary's speech is supported by a reasoned proposal for peace. The Indian shows confidence in the validity of human reason that would bring everyone closer together: WHILE WEAPONS GIVE WAY TO REASON... But the outcome of the Guarani meeting with the general makes it clear that there are two reasons in conflict: that of natural law, or jus gentium, alleged by scholastic theology and postulated by missionaries; and the reason of State, nothing less than the right of force, which, in the name of the “peace of Europe”, alleged by Gomes Freire de Andrada, will expel the missionaries and devastate the Seven Peoples, which today are majestic and melancholic ruins.

In the same poem coexist the colonial ideology of the flatterer of the Marquês de Pombal and the voice of the vanquished, to which the poet grants the timbre of slaughtered heroism.

Other resistance figures

The direction of gaze establishes perspective. Literary history tends to select its objects, and it does so with more rigorous criteria, with a finer sifting than social and political historiography, whose corpus The reference framework needs to be as open and inclusive as possible to avoid the risk of generalizations made from a small, pre-selected number of examples.

Literary history deals with unique and highly individualized objects, poetic and narrative works, which can be grouped according to the great styles of the time or, in the operation we have been trying, according to accentuated tendencies of an existential or ethical nature. So I was able, after having written resistance poetry, seek similar relationships in the field of the novel and expose them in the text Narrative and resistance, which is part of the aforementioned collection. Rereading powerfully critical narrators such as Raul Pompéia, Lima Barreto and Graciliano Ramos opened new perspectives for me to detect latent internal differences in the concept of resistant narrative.

Leaving the orbit of Brazilian literature, but not of the Brazilian experience, I had the pleasant surprise of finding, in a book of short stories by Albert Camus, L'exil et le royaume, a narrative whose theme is the perfect metaphor for the concept of resistance, the myth of Sisyphus, the rolling stone that the Greek hero tries in vain to take to the top of the mountain. The story is called "La pierre qui pousse", “The Rock That Grows”. To the delight of the Brazilian reader, the stone, in this case, lies in the center of a square in front of the Church of Bom Jesus, in Iguape, a colonial and caiçara city that Albert Camus visited, taken by Oswald de Andrade on the occasion of his visit to Brazil.

the author of Plague he imagined the meeting between a French engineer, who is working in Iguape, and a black Sisyphus, a sailor who had made a promise to Bom Jesus in a moment of danger at sea: he had promised to carry a fifty kilo stone on his head and place it on the altar of the patron saint on his feast day. However, our devout sailor had danced the previous night in a long session of macumba, which left him exhausted. He is unable to carry the stone and falls midway. Who will replace him in fulfilling the promise will be the French engineer, thus contrasting the idea of ​​life as an absurd weight thanks to an unexpected gesture of solidarity. Life will continue without meaning, but even so, or for that very reason, we must hold each other's hands.

Returning to the orbit of Brazilian literature

Camus' black sailor carried an excessively heavy stone as much as he could, but he couldn't bear to carry it to the altar of Bom Jesus. If we go back in time and dwell on the unfortunate fate of a great black Brazilian poet who died half a century before Camus came to Brazil, Cruz e Sousa, we will see the same image of the stone, but superimposed on other stones, raising a wall behind which the poet says sandwich.

Cruz e Sousa lived and died in a period of Brazilian and Western history when, in science and current ideology, the thesis of the existence of superior and inferior races prevailed. Colonialism and Eurocentrism came together to stigmatize the black as a representative of an archaic stage and, therefore, inferior in the evolutionary scale of the human being. Even reputable scientists attentive to the richness of Afro-Brazilian culture, such as Nina Rodrigues, considered blacks incapable of an intellectual performance similar to that of whites, in addition to having violent feelings, morally below the demands of European civilization. This was the context of the ideas and prejudices that Cruz e Sousa had to face throughout his brief and painful existence. And how did he express his revolt as a man and artist whose skin was seen as a stigma?

Read his prose poem entitled “O emparedado”. The poet sees himself between four high stone walls raised by prejudice; but what most astonishes and disgusts him is to catch the man of science bringing with his own hands stones and more stones to wall him up and prevent him from denouncing the ignominy of his condition. I don't know of any passages in Brazilian literature that are more lucid and vibrant than the challenge that black Dante throws at the stronghold of the dominant ideology, racist anthropology.

He challenges science by calling it a “dictator of hypotheses”, which is admirable, because what was science at the end of the XNUMXth century would no longer be so in the XNUMXth century, especially from the illuminating studies of Franz Boas, which had so much influence in the anthropological thought of Gilberto Freyre. But when Cruz e Sousa, nonconformist, asked what was the color of his feelings, his imagination, his dreams, his poetic forms, vehemently showing that the world of symbols and artistic creation has nothing to do with the chemistry of the epidermis, he was alone, without the support of the wise men of his country and time. What better example of the tension between poetry and ideology, to the point where poetry is anti-ideological resistance itself?

It is understandable that deterministic sociology prefers to collect cases in which literature is nothing more than representation of dominant ideologies. Old historicism already followed, in its own way, this path, proving a + b that every literary work reproduces the fundamental traits of the culture of its time. The positivists, who, as is known, created Sociology (from Comte, who baptized the new science, to Durkheim, their great master between the end of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXth) had no doubts about the “environment” factor as causative principle of the literary work. And, in this sense, they returned to the dogma of Count De Bonald, patriarch of French conservative thought, who defined Literature, tout court, as an “expression of society”.

What the critical theory of culture, from Benjamin to Adorno, came to discover, starting in the 1920s and 1930s, was precisely the opposite of this generic formula. The best literature does not passively welcome the image of society that everyday life is anesthetized by discourses based on what is there. This was already the embryo of the hypothesis of tensions formulated by Goldmann. And anyone who has read, as I had the privilege of doing so, the numerous examples of counter-ideology that populate History of Western Literature from Otto Maria Carpeaux, he learned a lesson in resistance that marks him for life.

Towards the history of ideologies as cultural history

In the mid-1980s, having already taught several courses on colonial literature, I felt the need to deepen my knowledge of the cultural sources of the texts I interpreted in the classroom. I then had the opportunity to research the Roman archives of the Jesuit Writers House and the vast collection of the processes of the Portuguese Inquisition that are preserved in the library of Torre do Tombo installed in the National Assembly in Lisbon. From these researches were born the essays on Anchieta, Vieira and Antonil that would integrate the colonization dialectic, only published in 1992.

I will not dwell, for brevity, on the reconstitution of the various working hypotheses that I have tried to bring together in this work. The central objective was to detect the multiple relationships that colonization, worship and culture have among themselves.

The three concepts are expressed by words that have the same Latin root, the verb lap. Among its various meanings, lap means cultivating the land, occupying and dominating the land of others, that is, the colony, evoking and invoking the dead and the gods, through the cult transferred from the matrix to the conquered land, and, finally, building a universe of knowledge and an intellectual project , which the term culture fully expresses. Colony = cultivation + cult + culture.

But, despite this etymological affinity, what history revealed to me was a field of tensions that were rarely well resolved between the material project of colonization and the ideal values ​​of worship or culture. If at times the interests of the colonizer found an echo in the word of our first economist, the sagacious Jesuit Antonil, adviser to the sugar plantation owners, or else the incursions of the bandeirantes were extolled by the forgers of nobiliarchies, at other times the agents of the conquest process would be judged for the ardent word of the greatest of the sacred orators of our language, Father Antônio Vieira.

In the context of the Second Empire, José de Alencar, patriarch of the Brazilian novel, voted in the Senate against the Lei do Ventre Livre, following in the footsteps of the conservatives Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcelos, already disappeared at that time, and the Marquês de Olinda, still active and fierce slaver. Alencar's old-fashioned romantic culture endorsed the status quo; but the same romantic culture inspired words of deprecation and judgment in the pen of Gonçalves Dias, patriarch of Indianist poetry and author of a notable prose, “Meditação”, an early emancipationist libel.

Two romantic Indianist writers: one endorsed the mercantile and inhumane practices of colonization; the other denounced, with the weapons of worship or culture, the iniquities of a process that decimated indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans. I attributed the term “dialectics” to this game of yes and no, aware that the concept itself no longer enjoyed, in those years of the 1980s and 1990s, the same prestige that it had enjoyed in previous decades.

The book contemplates other situations in which ideological conflicts come to the fore. In a liberal Old Republic, a province governed by its own constitution, with a positivist, anti-liberal background, between progressive and centralizing, is embedded in Rio Grande do Sul. The contrast will not only be made of ideas, but of political projects, which the 1930 Revolution fully demonstrated. In the social positivism assumed by the victorious Gaucho politicians in 1930 lies the archeology of our welfare state.

Another example that touches so many of our generation: in 1956, President Juscelino Kubitschek launches his modernization plan that will culminate in the founding of Brasília; in the same year, a supporter of JK launches a masterpiece that is entirely based on the revaluation and deepening of the archaic matrices of the backlands of Minas Gerais – Guimarães Rosa publishes Grande Sertão: paths.

Anyway, not to say that I ignored the present, what does it mean to be postmodern? Break with modern rationality, or take the technical processes and ideological assumptions of capitalist modernity to their ultimate consequences? Is postmodern anti-modern or ultra-modern? If nothing is simple in the concept of colonization, neither are the faces of contemporary civilization uniform.

Have I learned any lessons from this itinerary that has lasted half a century? Certainly the suspicion that culture is a tense encounter of mirrors and resistances, transparencies and opacities, which sometimes gives it the appearance of an enigma. Returning lately to the work of the sorcerer who inhabits this house and all of us, it was the word “enigma” that occurred to me when I set out to decipher his gaze, in which I seemed to glimpse a mixture of implacable criticism and stoic resignation. Rereading Machado de Assis, this has been the path I have been following, and only God knows if it will be the last.[3]

* Alfredo Bosi (1936-2021) was Emeritus Professor at FFLCH-USP and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL). Author, among other books, of Literature and resistance (Companhia das Letras).

Originally published on Advanced Studies magazine Year 19, no.o55, 2005.


[1] In poetry reading (org. by Alfredo Bosi), São Paulo, Ática, 1996, pp. 7-9.

[2] Otto Maria Carpeaux gives, in his history of western literature, numerous examples of literature resisting the dominant ideology. I commented on some significant cases in Literature and resistance, Sao Paulo, Co. das Letras, 2002, pp. 36-40

[3] Statement given during the III Cycle of Conferences “Caminhos do Crítico”, at the Brazilian Academy of Letters, on May 10, 2005.

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