Chronicle of the Murdered Country

Image: Jan van der Zee


Comment about the book The anthropophagic soldier, by Tales Ab'Saber

Date: 1824-1826. Context: early years of the First Brazilian Reign. Scene: a German mercenary, Carl Schlichthorst, narrates an episode of everyday life in his book Rio de Janeiro as it is, 1824-1825 – once and never again.

“…stretched on a stone bench in front of a church, looking at the horizon of the sea,… close to me I heard the sound of a marimba played by a mimosa black girl who had approached and offered me sweets. In order not to disappoint the girl, I bought a piece of marmalade, drank from her jug ​​and asked her to dance. It didn't take long to wait…fado began, a dance that in Europe would be considered indecent and which here is entirely popular with young and old, white and black. ….The song that the beautiful daughter of Africa sang, as she danced, should be more or less like this:

There is no sky on earth,
But if I step on the sands,
From this carioca beach
I think I'm in paradise!”

The song continued, and so did the story. What is important, however, is to note the use that Tales Ab'Sáber makes of the reported passage. In an enchanting rhythm, he unfolds the meaning of the scene in his magical The anthropophagic soldier – Slavery and non-thought in Brazil. Words, phrases and figures taken from popular music; the “patriotic” hymnbook; of poetry; of prose or Brazilian plastic arts are used in a free association that tempers the rigor of the analysis with the ludic-aesthetic use of the language. The result “is the assembly of contradictions between ways of being in the slave society, possible images and psychisms and their positions in the framework of national power, whose suspended conflict produces a unique image, called Brazil in its origins”.

Francisco Bosco precisely observed that it would be incorrect to describe the work as a “psychoanalytic version of Brazilian history”, with the well-known Freudian vocabulary: traumas, repetitions, repressions or sublimations. Accordingly. This, however, does not prevent one from seeing the vestiges of psychoanalysis where they exist.

When reading Thales, it is almost impossible not to associate the 'Schlichthorst scene' with a dream scene. Common to both is the power of condensation, dramatization of latent contents ignored by uninformed perception. In the case of the cultural scene, what is brought to light are insinuated erotic manifestations; survival tactics of the weakest; hierarchical forms of power and oppression; incipient or persistent rebellions; unforeseen artistic innovations, in short, forms of life in action that do not find representation equal to their cultural, political, ethical and aesthetic relevance.

 Therein resides the central thesis of Tales: the unequivocal matrix of Brazilian culture was built by a people that until today, to a large extent, has seen itself deprived of the ability to represent what it lives and produces. The elements that make up the scene, on the one hand a foreign narrator, on the other a Brazilian enslaved woman, provide the genealogy code of the cruelty of our cultural ethos. The productive, positive Brazil, which invents ways of life, eroticism and conviviality, is only spoken of by foreigners – Debret, Rugendas, Expilly, Luccock, Graham, Ewbank,-, and not by Brazilians from the local white/mestizo establishment. The former slave-owning stratum and its current “neo-slavery” heir prevented the immense majority of the 'country Brazil' from raising the division between those who do little and have everything and the many who do almost everything and have nothing to the level of emancipatory thought. The lordly stratum of the colonial/imperial era and its continuators of the Republic until now, denied the Brazilian people access to social, political and economic citizenship that would allow them to constitute a thought consistent with the value of what they culturally produce.

In short, non-representation, non-thinking about slavery allowed the worst horrors to be perpetrated by masters against enslaved individuals. Since the name “could not be pronounced”, as Joaquim Nabuco said, it was as if the thing did not exist. Outside the scope of the word, everything was allowed.

This is a fundamental contribution by Tales to the subject of Brazilian popular culture and the lack of political representation of its subjects. The subject “people” will be silenced in the history of the country and the “subject of colonial power, slaveholders, will form the basis of the subject of national power”. Brazil was not only the country of “ideas out of place”, that is, of “slavery liberalism”. It also became a “place outside ideas”, that is, a cultural experiment split from its possible critical representation.

Alongside this, another major contribution by the author stems from this first fracture between experience and representation. It is at this point that he brings a psychoanalytical contribution that deserves to be underlined in bold. The lordly estate, in addition to excluding the culture of enslaved people from the country's representative unit, dug a gap between itself and European culture, with which it identified itself in an imaginary way. The consequences of the gesture were humanly destructive. The empty place of slavery was taken by the insane alienation of the powerful from themselves. The original slavery and neo-slavery never wanted to recognize themselves in the mirror of black and mestizo poverty, but they also never knew what to do to be admitted to the club of white Europeans and North Americans who reject them as members. They then created an identitary no-man's-land that still haunts them today, in search of a lost national identity.

This Brazilian cleavage, underlined by Tales in each paragraph, had a huge cost in lives and suffering. The privileged layer abused the culture and lives of others as much as they could. And, when these others claim the status of citizens to the whole party, the abusers' reaction is at least violent, at most insane and paranoid. The identity misery of those in power turns against the dispossessed or those who speak in their names, accusing them of wanting to “destroy” national unity; “our racial democracy”; the identity of a heroic people, capable of resounding cries.

Described in another key, the dilemmas of Brazilian whiteness broke the barrier of denial and showed themselves in the open. By wanting to pose as a showcase of national identity, with nothing to show, except the poor, black and mestizo culture that it despises and tries to hide, slavery and neo-slavery created an impasse: either they remain silent or they are forced to give voice to what would like to be muted. Hence the burlesque attempts to invent an origin myth that would bring them closer to the fetish of European/North American whiteness.

Thales gives some historical examples of such attempts. One of them is the poem “Nicteroy”, by Januário da Cunha Barbosa, one of the founders of the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute. In the poem, the writer tries to frame Brazil in the Greco-Latin tradition: “Niterói, son of the Giant Minas and Atlântida, was born in a few days…”. Guanabara Bay and its mountains are called upon to inscribe Brazil in the most authentic European tradition. "Beautiful origins, as Thales says, affirmative of our venerable brainless tradition." Another example, just as brainless, but more brutal: the premiere of the guarani, by Carlos Gomes, in 1870. The opera, based on the book by José de Alencar, narrates the myth of the origin of Brazilian nationality. On stage, Cecília and Peri, Europeanized nobles and caciques, and no blacks. Really black, only André Rebouças, the only black person in the audience, and the service staff: drivers, set builders, food and beverage servers and so on.

The “archaizing and politically reactionary kitsch” will gain other versions, says the author, and only in bright moments of culture will it be revealed. It was like this in Machado's “Brás cubismo”, in the modernism of 1922 and in tropicalism. In these intellectual events, the ambiguity or brutality of slavery and neo-slavery was denounced. In Machado, the cultural and political solipsism “among the rich” appears in the irony with which the personal issues of the characters in his last novels are treated; in modernism and tropicalism the critical artifice is different. Popular culture ceases to be the decoration of sambodromes, hot and sensual beaches, stadiums and samba circles for the English to see, and is recognized in its rich ethical/aesthetic substrate.

Thales' finding allows us to broaden the psychoanalytical understanding of what was stated. When thinking about the sociocultural practice of slavery and neo-slavery, one cannot help thinking about what is defined as refusal or denial in psychoanalysis. Denial, according to Freud, is a suspension of the judgment of reality caused by a trauma that divides the subject's ego. One part of the ego recognizes what it perceives, the other does not know the nature of what is perceived. To compensate for the lack of knowledge, in place of the perceived traumatic fact, the fetish appears, a reified substitute for the rejected reality.

The aforementioned double identity split is an example of the cultural effects of the defense of denial. In the first place, slavery and neo-slavery strived to erase the representations of the enslaved experience that brought them gains in aesthetic, sexual or material enjoyment. To do so, they tried to reduce the concrete culture of the people to the status of entertainment or jokes made for voluble conversations. Secondly, they tried, in vain, to appear to white Westerners as free from the “stains” of enslavement. Here, the denial strategy was to seek to whiten black and mestizo bodies and their own worldviews, by making their own the intellectual and sentimental questions of “civilized” peoples.

 Seen from the psychological aspect, it is important above all to emphasize the effects of the dismantling of this montage. From this angle, it is possible to assume that a good part of the current political reactions of hate is conditioned by the irruption of what has been denied in Brazilian cultural history. Two facts support this hypothesis. The first is the strong rejection of the ideal of whiteness by the social, racial and cultural descent of the enslaved. While there was complicity by the weakest in accepting the ideal of whitening, the intensity of cultural oppression went relatively unnoticed. The fiction of “racial democracy” and “communion” in national festive rituals – football, carnival, musical events – seemed to prove the effectiveness of denial. The moment there was a breach of the implicit pact between oppressors and oppressed, the gears began to jam.

 The rejection of the ideal of whiteness by important sectors of Brazilian intellectual, cultural and political life provoked a crisis in the identity of neo-slavery. These new sectors not only said no to the whiteness fetish but began its systematic deconstruction. In an unprecedented movement, due to the quality of political and cultural participation, those excluded from representation created their own discourse, analysis and intellectual legitimation paradigms.

The era of “politics without people”, of “life without representation”, began to crumble. The reaction of the neo-slavers was catastrophic. With nothing to oppose what is the engine and substrate of Brazilian culture, they went on the attack of what seems to threaten their fanciful cultural identity. They once again resorted to empty and decrepit signifiers as the anchor of their identity ideals: flag, nation, homeland, Brazil, family and others. But once someone shouts “the king is naked”, it is difficult to dress the king again. For this reason, all envy, all nullity, all lies, all insignificance, all cultural superfluity accumulated over centuries have been projected onto the enemies of white “civilization”. What is hateful in itself is projected onto the other. The old accusations of immorality, laziness, ignorance, animality and others made against enslaved people, especially throughout the XNUMXth century. XIX, were once again launched against oppressed groups, in order to defend the comedy of the Brazilian racial/political/cultural ideal of whiteness.

This narcissistic defense of identity survival leads us to understand a little more how the silent cruelty of so long could explode with unprecedented force. Before, political/economic/racial apartheid had a precious ally, the ideology of racial democracy. Today, it flew through the air. Only bad faith and the narrowest ideology allow people to believe in the unbelievable. Structural cruelty, exercised without explicit manifestations of hatred, could no longer stand up. It finally showed what a monstrosity it is made of.

The other factor responsible for dismantling the fetish of whiteness derives from the second split pointed out by Thales. The latter, the split between the real identity of neo-slavery and the illusory identity based on the European/North American ideal of whiteness, also showed its precariousness as a defense against the difference of the other. The neo-slaver does not want to be identified as black/mixed/poor and wants to have the distinction that he gives to white and rich Westerners. The irony, however, is that the cultural backwardness in which he has always lived has not allowed him to perceive the anachronism of the ideals he cultivates. The moment he was orphaned of identity recognition by the people, the neo-slaver was simultaneously delegitimized by those to whom he devotes the cult dedicated to every fetish, that is, blind and unconditional worship. The authorized spokespersons for the ideal of whiteness – the European/North American racial/cultural subjects – not only continued to deny him entry into the exclusive whiteness club, but saw the truculent reaction against the oppressed as further proof of his inability to to be "western".

The neo-slavery subject's demand for recognition was doubly frustrated. On the side of the “inferior” as well as the “superior”, the answer was no!. No to “Evil's stupidity”, as Thales said; no to the fraudulent appropriation of a culture made by others and never recognized by the impostor who appropriated it; no to the farce of an identity that chose the fetish of whiteness as a simulacrum of belonging to a cultural world to which it never belonged. The culture of hate has some of its roots in the impotent frustration of those who have assumed a semblance of identity whose inconsistency has finally been exposed.

With The anthropophagic soldier – Slavery and non-thought in Brazil, Tales AB'Sáber scored a milestone in our intellectual panorama. Seal of excellence from the first to the last page. A high point in Brazilian thinking, but also a breath of solidarity and solicitude, at a time when Brazil was being so reviled. In his text we find the echo of the same ethical indignation converted into the aesthetic virtue of Lucio Cardoso. Like Lúcio Cardoso in the Chronicle of the murdered house, he turned pain into artistic joy; of the affective enigma, literary curiosity; of crippling trauma, creative freedom and spontaneity. What is the best expected of a Brazilian psychoanalyst/citizen? For my part, nothing to add.

*Jurandir Freire Costa is a professor at the Institute of Social Medicine at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). Author, among other books, of The vestige and the aura (Garamond).


Tales AB'Sáber. The anthropophagic soldier – Slavery and non-thought in Brazil. São Paulo, n-1 Hedra, 2022, 334 pages (

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