Culture as tradition

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1953–54


Lecture in the Funarte series “Brazilian Culture: Tradition Contradiction”

“Culture as tradition” is a theme that, at first glance, seems obvious. Evidently, when one thinks of culture, one thinks of a process that has been worked on for many years, for centuries, and which is received and transmitted.

Initially, I would like to relate a personal experience that has a lot to do with the topic. Twenty-some years ago I was a student at an Italian college at the University of Florence. He had received a scholarship to study Aesthetics at the Faculty of Letters in Florence and had already finished the Neo-Latin Letters course at USP. Florence is a unique city; naturally, everyone knows that it is the great center of Renaissance art. But at that time, at least from the point of view of domestic comfort, and what can be judged by our average standards, closer to the North American style, Florence was a very uncomfortable city.

I lived in the attic of a six-story house that didn't have an elevator. The house had served since the seventeenth century as a hostel for servants, grooms of the Serristori counts. It was a very old house, and a prosaic thing like, for example, a shower, did not exist in that house. Thus, anyone who had the somewhat strange and disturbing habit of taking a shower frequently should walk ten or twelve blocks and look for a public bathing place at the downtown train station. Which was a bit of a pain, especially in winter. So I decided that, despite my income being very meager, I should buy an electric shower.

The lady of the house was a romance widow, extremely avaricious, and she was uneasy about my habits. Imagine how much water I would use... She also feared that the installation of that contraption, which she barely knew, would damage her apartment. Let the water that ran from the bath flood the apartment! Because on the floor, tiled with a lot of art, there was no place to drain the water, there was no drain, as a shower was not foreseen by those who built the house four hundred years ago. I saw that I needed to take some practical action. But what could I do? She advised me the following: that I buy a large plastic basin, a basin, and put myself inside that tub to take a bath, but be very careful not to spill outside. Once the bath was over, I was to pour the water through the attic roof. But as I would inevitably wet the surroundings of the basin, she gave me a bag of sawdust, which I was to spread out to dry the floor. Then I would take all the sawdust, pile it up in a rag, and dry it in the sun (if any) on the roof. It was a very complicated operation, and even a Brazilian fanatic about taking a bath was discouraged. It would be easier, really, to walk the ten blocks to downtown.

But what struck me, even though this was 25 years ago, is what came after. In fact, I went to a home improvement store and bought the biggest potty there, a huge plastic tub. Very happy, I returned home with that very uncomfortable package. At the apartment I showed the package to the widow. She looked at me with a stern look. I felt that she had done something wrong. She asked me: "Was it you who carried that basin from the store to here?" I answered yes, and she told me a sentence that could serve as a motto for this lecture. She looked at me with a mixture of astonishment and, perhaps, a hint of disdain, and said: “You are cultured, but you are very democratic.” This is because I had carried the basin down the street. She thought that I, being an educated person, should belong to a certain human group that didn't carry a plastic potty on the street. She made that distinction.

At the time it was strange, I even thought that she was saying a nonsense, that the two parts of the proposition, that is, the two sentences that she had uttered, were contradictory, almost creating a paradox. The first part was this: “You have culture”, and the second was: “but you are very democratic.” I mean, I would normally expect that one idea would follow the other, that there would instead be a but, therefore, a logo, which would be a conclusion of the first part. “You have culture, so you must be democratic.” But really, that sentence that struck me as strange, so much so that I never forgot it, and that I had a lot of difficulty discussing at the time, kept behind it centuries of a conservative ideology, of very different social classes, of equally diverse cultural strata. I realized that I was dealing with a person who spontaneously expressed a very strong class logic.

But I think it's worth thinking about. What she said in her spontaneity, deep down, was this: Culture is something we have. Because she said: “You have culture”. So culture is something that we have, like owning a house, a car, in short, a good, a consumer good, a circulation good, something that can be obtained, that can be bought and, finally, own it. And then I realized that having culture, that is, this sum of cultural objects, also gave the right to certain privileges, different from the habits of other people. I mean, people who had culture should exhibit certain behaviors, and they should be spared from certain actions, certain more painful, heavier jobs, which should be destined to people who didn't have culture. Indeed, culture appeared as a division.

This first conclusion immediately leads us to situate culture in class society as a commodity, as something that can be obtained, or, if we go back a little to a pre-capitalist society, or backward capitalist society, we can say that culture is also something that is inherited, an inheritance. The two concepts are more or less close. What she said in her spontaneous sentence was this: culture is a good, a very special good, a good that comes close to luxury goods, superfluous goods, and only rich people, only groups with purchasing power who have of leisure can enjoy this good. And even more: culture gives a person a halo, a halo of difference. It is different, something like, in the society of the Ancien Régime, the aristocracy was.

We can say that, after the Industrial Revolution, aristocracy no longer exists, nobility of blood no longer exists, nobility of privilege no longer exists. We can even accept this as a historical fact accomplished by the bourgeois revolution. But culture, or a certain conception of culture, ended up replacing the idea of ​​aristocracy in capitalist society, which was only potentially democratic. Culture serves as a watershed: there are people who have it and there are people who don't. Sometimes this seems like a fatality, like being or not being noble, it's something that comes, it's a root asset, it's a family asset. I would call this vision of culture reified, that is, a vision that considers culture as a set of things. To be cultured, to have culture, is to have access to books, to have access to records, to have access to very sophisticated sound equipment, which are expensive, require space.

The architecture itself begins to function according to these new needs. Those who are cultured and need a big sound system will also need a special room in their house. What happens? Architecture begins to mold itself according to these specific needs, which is the opposite of the idea of ​​poverty. Because the architecture of poverty is a multifunctional architecture. In a poor house, the same space can be used for eating, sleeping, working; finally, the multipurpose space, its flexibility, is characteristic of a culture of poverty. But to the extent that you want to imitate the rich way of life, or that you are actually rich, the functions have to be drastically separated. There will be kitchen space, living room space, dining room space, living room space, book space, record space; and more, the television space, the space of informal conversation. And not infrequently space by space. The spaces will be multiplied, differentiated and there will be no tolerance for the conviviality of functions.

I believe that it must be in the linguistic and social subconscious of the people who came from a colonial stratification, or else from a pre-capitalist stratification (with very different nobility and people), the idea that culture has to be seen in itself, isolated and reified. Hence, who knows, the idea of ​​a Secretariat of Culture, a Ministry of Culture, a Palace of Culture. The palace is the place where culture must be seen, appreciated in itself, praised, without having a direct relationship with everyday life, indeed without having to have any direct relationship with everyday life, because this is not, in fact, considered as culture . It is verified, by this concept, that culture cannot be democratic: You are very cultured, but very democratic.

By the reifying concept the two instances become exclusive.

If we want, on the contrary, to build a democratic society, I think that, in this regard, we must deeply rethink the concept of culture and destroy in our spirit or, at least, strongly relativize the idea that culture is a sum of objects. Because objects, considered “in themselves”, paintings, books, statues, occupy a certain place in space, they are always the other. As much as I contemplate this painting, insofar as I consider it as a fact, as an object outside of me and outside my conviviality, I will look at it a bit like a believer looks at a fetish. It is the idea of ​​fetishism. It's something I don't understand, I'll never understand, and in fact it's really good that I don't understand, because that gives the object a mystery, a fascination, a magic, which distances itself from me and makes me revere it. , as something I will never achieve.

In the mass society we live in, this happens all the time. Not that people are always in front of works of art, they are in front of works of technology, works that industry multiplies. And the fact that people do not participate in the construction of these objects, because they are the work of a very specialized industry, the fact that they help themselves and look at these objects, buy, sell, but are not able to understand their internal mechanism, is alienating , profoundly alienating. This should produce in us a certain feeling of guilt. I'll give you an example: I have a watch that was given to me by a person who is very dear to me. This watch is beautiful. When I look at him, precisely because I am more and more convinced that culture is participation, I feel a vague sense of guilt. Why? Because this clock not only marks the hours, the minutes, the day, the month: in short, not only what the clocks show, but it also marks the phases of the Moon. There's a moon on it, against a starry sky, that walks across the dial. At a certain moment when it is a new moon, it disappears, then returns in the crescent, reaches the splendor of the full moon and decreases again, until it disappears under the dial.

Why do I feel guilty? I should simply be enchanted by an object, so rich, such a beautiful object, an object that has within itself so much science, so much precision, so much technique, that it mixes astronomy with watchmaking. But that's exactly why I feel some embarrassment because I don't understand how this is possible, I don't understand how the machine of the whole world can be inside a clock. I imagine that there must be a series of devices that every seven days move that moon, and they do it in such a subtle way that the moon, every day, travels through a part of that sky. But it is something that greatly transcends my knowledge, perhaps because I am a person trained in Literature, in Human Sciences, and do not have a deeper scientific knowledge.

I imagine that this is a typical situation: thousands of us, millions of us who belong to mass society, are at all times dealing with objects that signify the fruit of refined culture, of centuries, and we don't understand them. But we put the watch on our wrist with the greatest of ease, we look, we buy, we sell, we have with these objects a relationship of use, consumption, wear and tear; probably, one day we will forget these objects, we will lose them and we are, so to speak, unworthy of using what we do not understand. This microphone that I'm using, this computer that we press, and suddenly everything lights up, it's a miracle. It was not possible for prehistoric man, for man in the Middle Ages, for man in the Modern Age, for man even in the XNUMXth century, it would be an amazing miracle, and we perform it all the time, all this without the slightest commotion, we are only irritated when the light goes out. Then we called to complain that there was no electricity. It seems that it is a duty that others provide us with this miracle. There are really few who can understand all the mechanism that comes from the waters of the dam to the wires of our house and produces for us the phenomenon of light.

I say that all these examples illustrate the idea that having culture is having a high sum of objects of civilization. It is an idea (or an attitude) that barbarizes us; deep down, we are barbarians in the sense that we use goods but are unable to think about them. However, culture is thought life. The cultural project that we would like to succeed in a democratic society is one that displaces the concept of culture and even the concept of tradition. Instead of treating culture as a sum of enjoyable things, things for consumption, we should think of culture as the result of work. Shift the idea of ​​merchandise to be displayed to the idea of ​​work to be undertaken. I think this is the key idea, the project that I would say is recuperative: a conception that rescues the mercantile, exhibited and alienating character that culture has assumed and is assuming in class society.

Culture is a process. The word culture has a Latin root; comes from the verb colo, which meant “to cultivate the earth”. In the case of Rome, as it was a civilization with agrarian roots, the terms that referred to advanced intellectual culture were still linked to a whole metaphor, to an entire imaginary of the earth. Unlike the Greeks, whose word that comes closest to culture is paideia: that which is taught to children. Paidós, pedagogy, pedagogue. The Greek concept of culture is focused on the child, on the child's soul that must be worked on until it becomes an adult. It is a concept that seems more humanizing to us. In the case of the Romans, no. The Roman concept is practical, it refers to something that works outside of us, the earth. It is the cultivation of the soil (colo) from which the participial forms of the past (cultus) and the future (culturus = that which is going to be cultivated) emerge.

Hence, the three dimensions (1) cultivation; (2) worship; (3) culture. In the spirit of the Roman language, culture is linked to hard work, to the work of conquest, to the work of victory over nature, which is sometimes brutal because its first phase consists of the domination of the earth. It can be said today that it is a somewhat “repressive” view of culture, whereby nature has to be tamed, domesticated; just as “education” means “the act of pulling up what is down there”, that is, making an effort to wrest from the instincts a force that produces something higher.

But any consideration that is made implies, deep down, the idea of ​​work: whether in the Greek line, which is more sympathetic to us today, as it links culture with children, culture with people; or from the Roman point of view, in which culture is compared to the action of clearing the land, then sowing, then watering, then pruning, mainly pruning. If we leave the branches, the plant does not bear fruit, it remains a wild, thorny thing, so it is necessary to prune it, cut it down so that only the trunks and a few main poles are left from which the leaves, flowers and fruits will come out. But both one concept and the other carry within themselves the idea of ​​a process: culture is always a result that is achieved. I must work out my thoughts to eventually write. This is culture.

The fact that I buy a book and – this often happens – I don’t read it, but I buy it to have it and be able to look at it and hold it in my hand, or else to have a disk, to have a painting, in short all that which objectifies culture, makes no sense for this conception, which I would call ergothic, using the etymum ergon (Greek), which means action and work. Ergothic conception of culture: culture as action and work. I consider this fundamental because it undoes that first concept, which was, by the way, the concept of the housewife who judged me to be too democratic to be cultured. If culture is a sum of objects that people have or inherit, rich people have it and poor people don't. The culture of the poor would be nothing, they would need to obtain those goods in order to be cultured. Which is opposed to the idea of ​​work, because, in this, everyone has access to culture: it is no longer a question of class, human beings will be cultured if they work; and it is from work that culture will be formed. It is the process and not the acquisition of the final object that matters.

I believe that this ergothic and procedural vision of culture can help us a lot. In the first place, from an ideological point of view, we started to give importance to the moments of the productive process. It is the production (as art) that forms the cultured man, and not the consumption of symbols, which, naturally, will be part of the process, but not as an absolute. And secondly, from a more universal educational point of view, instead of thinking about selling cultural goods, we will think about studying and creating works. Obra means exactly work, as a process and as a result. A house is under construction; finished, it's a work. of opus derives the verb to operate; to operate, worker. Work is what the worker does. We thus escape the bonds and break the shackles of a static and bourgeois conception of culture. And we began to reflect on ideas that could have profound consequences, especially for education.

I will give some examples to particularize these ideas, trying to show you how I understand the so-called “acquisition of knowledge”. These are very simple examples, and many of them are drawn from my own experience.

Today there is a lot of talk about ecology. Ecology, a word of Greek origin that means “knowledge of one's own home”. Because echo comes from Oikos, "House". The world is our home, ecology is the science that studies our home. It's a very simple thing deep down, yet so important for what we see of the devastation of nature. How do you acquire an ecological culture? There are hundreds of books on ecology, there are books from primary school to university, from practical advice to an extremely complex science that unites biology with geography and other human sciences. There is actually a science called ecology.

Now, who has an ecological culture? Is it the person who reads these books? These books can be read, we can pick a good bibliography and read these books. And after reading it, we move on to another science, or another activity, and that remains as dead matter. Because we assumed that to know ecology was to own those books. But it's not true. Ecology, like any other science, is a set of human works. We have to be workers. If we are workers of ecological knowledge, all that cultural tradition that has existed for so many years and which formed this science, will be assimilated by us and we will build it as a new science. See what happened in the city where I live: I live in a city close to São Paulo, which belongs to the metropolis, to Greater São Paulo, a city called Cotia.

This city, like all the others on the outskirts of São Paulo and also on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, is terribly threatened by pollution, the destruction of nature, the invasion of highly toxic factories. And what the factories want is exactly that. What do industrialists want? Staying close to the center, close to Rio, close to São Paulo, and on the side of the road, because that's where it's easier to take products and it's also easier for workers who live in dormitory towns to get there. For this reason, the cities that communicate with the axis, with Greater Rio or Greater São Paulo, are threatened by the most terrible pollution. But what to do?

People who live on the outskirts have already fled the big city, many of them wanting to avoid pollution, and ended up in the backyard of the metropolis. Then they start fighting; and to fight you have to work, you have to study.[1] They begin to see, for example, that one of the fundamental characteristics of peripheral cities is that they have no zoning laws. And why is there no zoning law? The citizen goes to City Hall and realizes that the mayor does not want to pass a zoning law. Because, with the law, he would be prevented from setting up factories where his industrial friends want. But he also wants many factories to set up, because they earn taxes. For this reason, he and the councilors, his allies and clients, will systematically sabotage that group of impertinent citizens called ecologists who are enemies of progress, who are demanding what he does not want to do.

Later, citizens learn that they also need to go and talk to state officials and they go knocking on the doors of the Secretary of Metropolitan Affairs. He is a very important person, who doesn't understand anything about ecology, but who is there after all and welcomes citizens in a room full of armchairs and cushions. The militants, although already educated, feel a little coerced inside because of the pomp and oratory with which they are received, but then they leave empty-handed. The Secretary hasn't thought about it, but he promises to; in fact, he doesn't want to “mess with the mayors”. You'll see, they will be able to vote for him in the next race for the candidacy for governor of the state. A mayor used to be chairman of the party's municipal board, and now he's going to antagonize a mayor because of this group of annoying ecologists? Afterwards, these same citizens begin to go through all the technical and advisory bodies of the State (Sabesp, Cetesb, Consema...) and begin to deeply understand administration and, at the same time, get to know which industries pollute in fact, which those that do not pollute, and will learn about laws and ordinances, and will talk to deputies from all parties.

In six months they become experts in ecology and acquire a political knowledge of the subject, but they also begin to realize with great astonishment that the most competent, most technical people do not feel the specific problems as much as they do. Or if they understand them scientifically, they don't usually make a connection between their knowledge and political action; vice versa, politicians make no connection with scholars. They begin to realize what? The absurdity of the world, which is already something. Things in the bureaucratic world are unrelated, no one has anything to do with anyone (or if they do, they prefer not to say they do), everyone is posted behind their own window, potentially irritated by the people who go there to annoy the “sweet idleness” of the departments. A beautiful lesson. But it is not to despair.

Usually when we start to understand things more deeply we get desperate, but politics is an art that practices the virtue of hope. The militants finally realize that what they are doing is culture: they are intimately linking two instances so diverse that they even seem disparate: the laws of the State and knowledge of the environment. They unite and produce culture.

If there are no militants like that, ecology books will remain on the shelf and will continue to be perfectly useless. You can buy five bound meters of ecology and display them in your home: “See, I really like ecology! My passion is ecology, I'm crazy about nature, I don't cut down even a tree!” But all that knowledge will be knowledge that John Dewey called “inert”. A very happy expression. “The school tends to transmit inert ideas.” Inert means that they do not act. Now, is this culture? Initially we would think that yes, that culture is those books. But culture is not these objects, culture is the work done by people who really want to know from the inside the mechanisms, either of Nature or of the State; in this case, the two things end up being together.

Another example: when talking about “popular culture”, it seems that we are at the heart of tradition. Many people thought I was going to give a lecture on folklore: “Professor Bosi is going to give a lecture on 'Culture as Tradition'. What is he going to say?" “He will talk about folklore; probably popular culture”, because there is no culture as deeply traditional as popular culture. The word Folklore in Old English it means “speech of the people”, “wisdom of the people”, “knowledge of the people”: folklore and popular culture are synonymous words. We use the English word, but if we wanted to say “knowledge that the people have”, popular knowledge in the objective sense, we would be saying the same thing. What is folklore knowledge?

This is an important issue right now. There are secretariats of culture, ministries of culture, palaces of culture; finally, the State, as a State apparatus, intends to preserve it. There is the Fundaçao Pró-Memória, a Foundation that works precisely in the restoration of old works, in their conservation. There are things to be conserved, not only objects but also ceremonies, cults, parties, music, all of this is popular culture. If someone asked me: “What should the State do with popular culture? Oh! What a serious responsibility! What should the State do with this culture that is there, deteriorated, corrupted by mass communications? What to do with it?” The first thought that occurs to me is drastic: do nothing! “Please don't mess with what's none of your business!” The first idea that would come to my mind would be this: the State is such a different structure, so heterogeneous, so foreign to popular culture that it really is best not to force unwanted contacts.

My master in folklore is Professor Oswaldo Elias Xidieh, who lives in Marília, a long time away from the university routine. He taught me, and I believe it, because the examples he gave me were proof: popular culture doesn't die, it doesn't need injections here, injections there. If it is, in fact, popular, as long as there are people it will not die. Popular culture is the culture that people make in their daily lives and under the conditions in which they can make it.

People, concerned about the institutions themselves, complain: “Ah! In my country, in the countryside, there were certain street parties, but now everything is dying. What do we do?" But Xidieh is not impressed by the change in appearances because she knows the process continues day-to-day. She lived the popular experience to the core, went to candomblé, went to umbanda, strengthened friendly relations with saint-mothers, got up to a thousand requests in umbanda, and made a beautiful sociological analysis with them. In short, he taught me not to concern myself with “conserving popular culture” in itself, but with conserving the people. Understand: the important thing, the fundamental thing here, are the cultural agents. If the social system is democratic, if the people live in conditions – let's say “reasonable” – of survival, they themselves will know how to manage these conditions so that their culture is preserved. Not because of culture itself, but as an expression of community, groups, individuals-in-group. It makes no sense to want to absolutize folklore, just as it is not healthy to absolutize objects of so-called “high culture”.

I could only understand these ideas more deeply, from the inside, when, in the same city on the outskirts where I live, I went to a São João party in a redneck neighborhood. There are some hillbilly neighborhoods around São Paulo. Don't think that to get to know a hillbilly neighborhood you have to take a plane and fly to Araçatuba, or go to Paraná. The most archaic caipira culture is not far from the city of São Paulo. It is a phenomenon that has already been well studied and that explains itself: around the village of São Paulo, the Jesuits went to take refuge from their enemy majors, some delinquents also known by the name of “bandeirantes”, who wanted to imprison the Indians and lived always at odds with the priests. When an impasse was reached, the Chamber of São Paulo decreed the expulsion of the Jesuits. Driven out of Vila de São Paulo de Piratininga, the focus of the bandeiras, they went to nearby settlements. One was called Aldeamento dos Pinheiros, which today is the neighborhood of Pinheiros, in São Paulo. Others were Embu, Cotia and São Miguel Paulista.

They are cities that are still around São Paulo today, some of them were Jesuit settlements, where a small square, a small colonial church dating back to the Baroque period, is still preserved here and there. The Jesuits were there, taming the Indians – I don't want to say that they wanted the natives' absolute freedom: they were an alternative for the Indian who, either was enslaved by the bandeirante and sold to the sugar plantations, to the sugar mills in Bahia, or was settled with the Jesuits. And nuclei of indigenous culture were formed which, over time, became nuclei of caboclo, caipira culture. The so-called caipira, paulista culture, more traditional dates back to that time.

But let's go back to the feast of São João to which I was invited; it was a party of rustic Catholicism. A party of rustic Catholicism is a party without a priest, because priests belong to a range of educated Catholicism; evidently, they are people who study, they are men who belong to a certain literate culture. Although they approach the illiterate people, they do not participate directly in what would be the rustic Catholicism that the Church incorporates, whenever it can. But something gets very stubborn. I realized on this feast of São João that there was no priest. There was a chaplain. Around ten o'clock the chaplain appeared. He was not a priest, he was a layman and he had not received the slightest formal religious education. I asked: “Are you going to start the prayers now?” I thought he was going to ask for church prayers, but he said: “Ah! These are prayers that I learned from my father, who was also a chaplain in Sorocaba, who learned from my grandfather, who was also a chaplain in Arariguama, in the XNUMXth century.

Then I realized that chaplain was a lay religious function whose purpose was to lead prayers. He started with some traditional Christian prayers: Hail Mary, Our Father, and the time came when he prayed a prayer that is rarely said today, the Salve Rainha, an ancient, medieval prayer. And when he started to pray, I was appalled, I saw those rednecks standing on the ground, all very upset with a dose of pinga, people I knew as construction workers in that middle-class neighborhood, which was invading the lands of the old hillbilly culture . I knew those people as maids, bricklayers and construction workers.

The impression one had is that they no longer had any culture and, at most, listened to the radio with batteries. Because they listened to the radio, their culture was mass culture. They listened to stack radios, they liked Roberto Carlos. And why wouldn't they have the right to listen to the radio and like Roberto Carlos? But I thought that was all. And it wasn't. When the chaplain began to sing the Salve Regina, I was astonished: he was praying in Latin, not only was he praying, he was singing. And he sang very beautifully. Because the lyrics were in Latin, but the music was a rural samba from São Paulo, a very well sung rural samba. After the Salve Regina, he began a litany, also in Latin.

The litany of Our Lady is very long and, naturally, all made up of invocations. Some very beautiful: mystical rose, ivory tower; in Latin: mystical rose, eburnea turris. And the people respond:pray for us“. He was singing and a black lady was in front of about thirty people. Everyone sang, everyone sang in Latin. The lady went ahead chanting differently according to the invocation. When, for example, “ivory tower” was said, she would raise her arms: “zeburn tower".[2] And they were very solemn, very beautiful evolutions, one for each invocation. And that's how I watched this phenomenon of rustic Catholicism. It wasn't candomblé, it wasn't macumba, it wasn't an African cult. Our caboclo from São Paulo, at least until recently, did not know these Afro-Brazilian forms. Above all, he knew rustic Catholicism, which he inherited from the Portuguese and, somehow, simplified, adapted by the Jesuits.

I was facing an authentic and extraordinary phenomenon of culture as tradition and culture as work, because that was worked on and experienced, naturally in a cyclical way, on every feast of São João. But my astonishment that night didn't seem to be ending any time soon because, after that, they went to wash the saint. There was a stream, a stream at the bottom of the allotment, I had never noticed, it was their little river. This stream was used for washing the saint; in this case, San Juan. They went in procession and I followed. I saw that the person in charge of taking the saint to the water had his hands outstretched, hands open, but empty. And so it went to the edge of the creek. She bent over the brook, bathed her empty hands, got up, all the while singing a series of very old processional hymns. Then they came back. Only after I asked did they tell me that they had stolen the São João from the chapel. But that doesn't mean anything, because popular culture is not fetishistic, it doesn't deal with things but with meanings, and meanings are within the spirit. So much does it deal with the meaning that the saint was washed without the saint. A metaphysical wash, but one that was nevertheless carried out with the same fervor and the same songs, nothing has changed. Let's say then that some curious anthropologist, student of popular arts, goes there to capture that moment and record that melody, which was really of great beauty, full of final, emotive, rises and falls of voice, as only an improviser really is able to do; or let's say that someone gifted with plastic taste wanted to photograph all those movements, the washing of the saint without saint; or that some surrealist filmmaker said: “Let's see how to wash a saint made of air”.

All this would come to us here, and I could go to the art museum in São Paulo, on a bored night: “Let's watch this phenomenon of popular culture”. I think it would really be, at the very least, a profanation, or an act of consumption, people would see those things, it wouldn't mean anything. Because culture is built by doing; for them, the party was full of meaning. Not that we are prevented by a barrier of social class from seeing things, but seeing is very different from participating. It is a seeing that does not apprehend certain basic meanings. But sometimes a merger can happen.

I'll give you another example. In the village of Carapicuíba, which is also close to São Paulo, on the third of May, there is the Santa Cruz festival, one of the most traditional, oldest, rarest festivals in Brazilian folklore. It is on the third of May, because in the old days it was thought to be the day of the discovery of Brazil, and in this village of Carapicuíba there is a family that has been celebrating Santa Cruz for years and years. I live relatively close and will always attend this party. They plant a cross in the square, which is a square from the XNUMXth century, and then some viola players and a very strange instrument that looks like a zabumba play along with a rustic viola. And they dance.

What impressed me is that their dancing seemed like an Indian dance, a dance that doesn't jingle with the body. The Indian, from whom the caboclo from São Paulo, the Tupi Indian, shuffles his feet, does not jingle with his body, only his feet make the rhythm. On this Feast of Santa Cruz, they approach the cross, bow and return, approach and return, three or four times. And they sing something incomprehensible, I couldn't understand a word, although it was probably in Portuguese. And since today there are faculties of Tourism, with folklore courses, the professors send their students to do research. If you have to do a folklore festival, go to Carapicuíba because there is a festival on the 3rd. But, at that last festival, I had a certain displeasure to see buses and buses stopped, tourist buses stopped in that small square. Recorders in hand, they wanted to interview those caboclos, asking the most absurd questions: “Is the government not helping you?”, “Don't you think this party is in decline because the government has not provided funds?” They looked and did not know what to answer. But I found it curious because even from the greatest evil, which are the faculties of tourism, some good can come out.

These girls who took the course were simple people, they were poor people. I noticed by the color, there were many mulatto girls who were taking these courses. And they were really in love, they forgot a little about what the teacher had told them to ask and wanted to join in the dance. The Santa Cruz dance is very solemn, just for men, after those evolutions they retire and it's over. There is a moment, however, before the dance ends, when they form a kind of cordon and go around the square. At that exact moment, the assistants can enter, they are invited to join the dance. And I looked right at that fusion of races and cultures that was happening in front of me. While the rednecks kept their bodies rigid and made hieratic, very solemn gestures, only moving their feet, the mulatto girls from the college swayed and swayed.

Clearly, they were experiencing the Santa Cruz dance as a real samba. They turned it into a samba, and everyone danced together, they fulfilling their devotion, without looking to the side, in that solemn ritual, and they swaying, moving in all directions, translating the feast of Santa Cruz into their rhythm. Just look at the complexity of the process! The mass culture, in this case, the university subculture of the schools of tourism, was unintentionally entering in full, with all its unconsciousness; and as its agents were also people (the mulatto students), another profile was produced, differentiated and, however, still traditional, of the feast of Santa Cruz.

But I go back to what Master Xidieh told me: popular culture is just like that. Popular culture was incorporating and assimilating a form, also its own, the urban samba of Afro-Brazilian origin, which gave the ceremony another dimension.

But it is not just the hieratic, solemn trait that is part of popular culture. Popular culture is also playful, it likes humor. In the beach town of São Sebastião, master Xidieh collected a series of stories from the time when Jesus walked through this world, stories that the people tell, stories that intertwine with narratives from the Middle Ages and the so-called “Apocryphal Gospels”, anonymous stories that speak about the wanderings of Jesus, Our Lady, the apostles... and which, evidently, are not found in the four canonical texts of Mark, Matthew, John and Luke. The Church let the "Apocryphal Gospels" run, but did not canonize any, as it was practically impossible to control their sources. Xidieh transcribes in the book Popular pious narratives[3] some of these histories told by the caiçaras of São Sebastião and that reinvent cases of the apocryphal tradition. Many of them have as their hero, or anti-hero, Saint Peter who, according to the popular view, was given to trickery, he was the smart guy of the apostles. But it is the unsuccessful tricks of Saint Peter that give the narratives a comic background. That's the joy of the redneck, seeing the smart one get out of it when he comes across someone smarter than him. I'm going to tell one of these stories to give you an idea of ​​what this treasure of redneck culture is.

Saint Peter was very annoyed with Jesus' habit of fasting. And always staying in a poor house, where we get little food. He was always grumbling saying: “Who can not settle down. What is this mania of walking the streets. We get hungry walking all the time. If only we went to the houses of the rich..." Jesus heard Peter's complaint and said: "All right, Peter, let's go today to the house of a rich man. Who knows if we can do better.” So they knocked on the door of a rich man. There were three of them: Jesus, Peter and his brother Andrew. The rich man opened the door and thought: "I'm going to play a trick on those bums who are there, who are begging instead of working." And he said quietly to his servant: “Put these three in a big bed. During the night, each one will get a beating, only they won't know who gave the beating, and they'll even be able to accuse each other.”

And since St. Peter was walking around the house at that time looking for food, he didn't notice anything. But at the end of the night, when they went to sleep, the master of the house said again to the servant: "Look, to the one who lies down on the edge of the bed, give a sweet, but only to the one on the edge of the bed." St. Peter listened. And naturally, when it was time to choose his place on the bed, he said to Jesus and André: “I want to stay on the edge, I don't get used to anywhere else, only on the edge”. And so he stood on the edge. During the night the servant came and gave the one on the edge a mighty beating, as the owner had ordered. And Saint Peter was in agony, unable to say anything. He got up and was walking around the house, when he heard his boss say, "Now it's time for you to give a reward to the one who stays in the middle." Saint Peter ran there and said to Jesus: “Look, I didn't get used to being on the edge, it's not my place. This bed is very weird, I want to be in the middle”. Jesus accepted and Peter stood in the middle. Some time passed, the employee came and gave another memorable beating to the one in the middle. Then São Pedro said: "I'm not lucky at all, maybe this is not my place".

He got up and heard the third recommendation: “The gift itself is for the one in the corner, for this one is the good gift”. So he went to bother André who was in the corner and said: “André, go to the middle, I want to stay in the corner”. And he got the third spanking. Early in the morning, Jesus thanked them for the good inn they had received, for the comfortable bed, and they left. He asked: "So Peter, do you think it's good to stay at a rich man's house?" And Peter replied: “It is not good, no. The people can be in the corner, in the middle or on the edge that they are always beaten”.

This story, in addition to the narrative and the grace it has, brings the whole problem of class relations. The people know that the relationship with the rich is very dangerous, a relationship very full of disappointments. It's good to be careful and it's better, after all, not to ask for an inn at a rich man's house. And there are many other stories. In the practice of popular culture, close to everyday life, there is a wisdom that is often translated into canonical forms. It can be translated into anecdotes or proverbs that are often contradictory.

Anyone who thinks, starting from a generic view of popular culture, that it is very homogeneous and that it always says the same things is wrong. I started researching proverbs when I wrote an essay on some stories by Guimarães Rosa. I consulted an excellent work done by Professor Martha Steinberg on English proverbs compared to Brazilian ones.[4]

Although it confirms the assumption that popular wisdom is reproduced in similar ways in every part of the world, the researcher found a new fact: English proverbs are very similar to Brazilian proverbs, but different from North American ones. Everything indicates that the North American popular practice has created its own roots, peculiar ways of being, while the English and Portuguese (in this case, Luso-Brazilians) conserved the common source, which is medieval life. I think this hypothesis is worth testing. Another thing I checked: there are contradictory proverbs in content and form. For example: "Help yourself and God will help you". What does this proverb mean? That you shouldn't expect everything from God, you have to work, help yourself to get something. It's a realistic saying. Anyone who wants to be helped by the High must make some effort, not always wait for a miracle.

But there is another proverb that says the opposite: “Better who God helps than who gets up early”. That is, what's the use of getting up very early if the day is unlucky? Better who God helps. And there is still another who says: “God helps those who get up early”. After all, who does God help? It is clear that these are different experiences. There is the experience of those who got up early to plant, because they know that the time before sunrise is good, and that by doing so, everything will work out. For God helps those who get up early. When the rains come, everything will be sown and everything will grow. But there is that other who knows that, at harvest time, floods, drought, fire, the collapse of the cruise can come. So what's the point of being up early to sow? Better who God helps...

There is in popular wisdom the presence of contradictions, reversible things and perishable things. The strongest trend, however, lies in the high probability that things will come back. Because nothing seems definitive in the culture of the people. This is one of the recurring themes of cordel literature, the old man who reappears, everything that “died” continues and may even return. Xidieh believes that people, deep down, not only do not like the idea of ​​hell forever, but tend to believe in reincarnation. The more archaic-popular a culture is, the more it would tend to accept, even if not explicitly, the possibility of reincarnation. How many “Catholics” in Brazil (and even card-carrying communists) go to spiritist sessions or to the terreiro in the hope of communicating with their dead! The people would be horrified by the idea of ​​definitive death, of total condemnation. People did evil, but it was not for evil. There is always some way of rescuing the sinner, if not in this then at least in another generation.

The temporal correlate of reversibility is the cyclic conception of existence. Every year you plant, every year you reap. Rain comes, drought comes. Mass culture, when it wants to imitate the strength of popular practices, tries, but does not always succeed, to capture their reversibility character. It promotes large events attended by thousands of people, who rave, scream, sweat, but then go home, the party is over. What is missing, then, is that perspective of the party coming back, in its own time, which is so grateful to popular-traditional culture. But when that perspective exists, everything merges, like at carnival. When mass culture manages to reproduce the phenomenon of reversibility, it will be halfway to popular sentiment. The cycle is the figure of life that is not extinguished forever with death.

All these ideas are opposed to the conception of culture as a finite and disposable commodity, outside intersubjective life. Culture as process, culture as work, culture as act-in-time: this is the thread I am trying to untangle here.

A last instance to call is the reality of memory. To speak of culture as tradition without mentioning memory is not to touch the nerve of the subject.

Memory is the living center of tradition, it is the assumption of culture in the sense of work produced, accumulated and redone throughout History. For Plato memory is active. Learning is remembering, remembering is learning. Plato is known to have believed in reincarnation, affected as he was by Pythagorean philosophy and perhaps by certain Eastern religious traditions persisting in classical Greece. Plato's theory of learning presupposes the existence of other lives prior to the present one. Whoever remembers with sharpness and depth, uncovers what was covered in his own soul. What psychoanalysts would call “doing anamnesis”, a term, by the way, already used by Plato in the Meno and in other dialogues.

For the orthodox psychoanalyst memory does not go back beyond childhood; for Plato, memories go back to distant times, to a time when the soul could contemplate ideal and eternal truths. All souls have a thirst for knowledge and they already had it in previous lives. It turns out that the gods, cruel in their wisdom, were not pleased to see a thirsty and eager soul given a glass of water before it made a sacrifice, at least the sacrifice of waiting. Knowledge demands the purification of patience. Souls would have to wait a while for the desire to become interiorized and spiritualized within them; only in this way would desire be transformed into knowledge, since between one and the other there would be the time necessary for memory. The water offered by the gods was drawn from a river called lethe, river of oblivion.

If souls, driven by the thirst of unrestrained desire, drank the water of the lethe, without the pause of sacrifice, instead of learning, they would fall into lethargy, which is a state of drowsiness, stupefaction, unconsciousness. They would revert to their brute instincts and, satiated and numb very quickly, they would be unable to make the leap that leads to knowledge through memory. But those souls who waited and did not eagerly swallow the waters of the lethe would reach non-forgetting, un-concealment, a-letheia, alétheia. Whoever suffers the desire that, once satisfied, leads to numbness, manages to reach the truth, which is pure memory, liberating memory. Because oblivion ties us to the weight of a dimensionless present, when it is caused by the violence of the senses and the shackles of conscience. Woe to those who forget! Societies that forget their past, even their recent past, will wander and make stupid mistakes without finding the exit door that is reflection on the past.

According to Plato, memory is the path to the perfect republic. Everything that Plato writes has a purpose: to prepare the citizen, to educate him to build the polis, the perfect republic. And the perfect republic is made up of men who have memory, men who sought the truth by remembering. Evidently, for us this is a lesson. Recently, I had to study Nicaragua's history, in this struggle that all of us, all minimally decent people, have to endorse, which is the struggle for Nicaragua's survival in the face of US imperialism. Recently, having to write something about Nicaragua, which is a raw nerve in Latin America, hurting like any raw nerve, I went to see the arguments of Nicaragua's enemies, those who are dominating US politics. It is an absolutely brutal argument, absolutely delinquent, because they say that Nicaragua will follow Cuba's destiny, and the US cannot stand that. And that Nicaragua is undemocratic because of Sandinismo and because of relations with the USSR. These are the arguments that are circulated and that American public opinion sometimes swallows.

And I went to study the history of Nicaragua. I went to do what? An act of memory, of alétheia, of unveiling. What is hidden? That the North Americans invaded Nicaragua, since the last century, forty times! And that in the middle of the last century, an American pirate named Walker landed with American sailors and deposed the president, and he himself became president of the Republic of Nicaragua. He, filibuster, North American pirate. His first act was to re-establish slavery in Nicaragua, which had already been abolished before 1850. So we ask: Did the USSR exist in 1850? Did the Sandinistas exist in 1850? Did the Cuban danger exist in 1850? No! So why did they invade Nicaragua in 1850? The arguments are now hypocritical, because the desire is really to dominate Central America. History as unveiling is an unmasking. History must be studied in order to unmask the present and to prevent, if possible, the future.

In this line of memory, there is a work by Ecléa Bosi[5] which gives a quite different course to our Social Psychology. It is an interview with eight old people who lived their childhood in São Paulo. All over 70 years of age, each one reconstructs the city's history from their own point of view. We get to know what books don't always bring. For example, the Revolution of 32. Recently we have heard a lot of debate about its meaning. You must remember that there was, some time ago, a president named João Batista Figueiredo, the son of a general, Euclides Figueiredo, from São Paulo, who fought in the Constitutionalist Revolution.

In São Paulo, this movement is a kind of great school mythology. Many of the current members of the Academia Paulista de Letras, almost all septuagenarians, fought in 1932. 1932 is also an unforgettable milestone for the upper classes of São Paulo, who felt marginalized by the Revolution of 30. Moreover, the progressive intellectuals of São Paulo They were always very divided in the face of the movement's interpretation, because, on the one hand, the Revolution of 30 had effectively been a step forward compared to the old oligarchic Republic, and the measures taken between 1930 and 1934 were effectively renewing. Getúlio was a statesman of great vision and, in those years, supported or encouraged by the lieutenants, he had changed the face of the Brazilian State. On the other hand, there was the constitutionalist “revolution”, which called for a liberal law and rejected the centralism of 30; This liberal side was sympathetic, although it was manipulated by the wealthy classes of São Paulo who had been stripped of power, and who joined in an armed movement against Getúlio Vargas.

All this was contradictory, it was dramatic, it was alive. In Memory and society there are testimonials from old people who participated in 1932. One of the interviewees worked at the Instituto do Café, where the first combat group left. The revolution was set up by the Instituto do Café precisely because it was the landowners (or the graduates, their children) who felt harmed by the lieutenants. It was the agrarian oligarchies that funded the beginning of the movement. And this interviewee was a senior official at the Institute. When he recalls the period, he gets up, ignores or forgets that he is talking to the interviewer: “I, Abel, tell posterity that I saw the first death in 1932, in Praça da República…” and starts to tell, act by act, what happened in the trenches and what was the greatness of 1932. The whole story emerges. It is a living document, truly unique, because the witness identifies with the core of (his) History; and although it can be said to be deeply ideological, it is still authentic.

Afterwards, Ecléa interviewed a maid, daughter of slaves, called Risoleta. This black woman, currently blind, is a clairvoyant. She sees the future. Like the blind men in a Greek tragedy whose eyes were torn out so that they could better see reality. Her job today is to see the future. She worked for half a century as a maid in the home of 400-year-old São Paulo residents who were part of the 1932 Revolution. “My bosses were in favor of 1932. My boss, Aníbal, was against Getúlio. I was from Getulio, but I couldn't say anything”. And she continues: “I was quiet. And I still had to make food for the soldiers.” One day she started the campaign: “Give gold for the good of São Paulo”, an intense campaign. Even today, there are old people who wear a wedding ring with the inscription “I gave gold to São Paulo”. It became almost a unitary expression: “gold-for-the-good-of-São-Paulo”, “everything-for-the-good-of-São-Paulo”.

And every time she spoke gold, she spoke for the good of São Paulo: “It was the golden age for the good of São Paulo. My boss, from the Junqueira family, very rich, coffee landowners, the first great coffee barons in São Paulo. The Junqueiras, with blue eyes, married each other, hence a series of deformations... One day my mistress was in a corner gathering gold for the good of São Paulo. She put on little broochs, put on bracelets, put on rings, earrings, there was a lot of gold for the good of São Paulo. Then I saw a tiny little broach, I thought it was a little thing. So I went to her and asked: 'This little booklet that you are putting there in that pile, could you give it to me, because one day I won't be able to work anymore and, if I got sick, would I have at least one little booklet to sell. He can?' And the mistress replied: 'Nothing like that! It's all for the good of São Paulo'.”

Risoleta was very sad, withdrew and came to the conclusion that she couldn't stay on that side. Not that she didn't want the best for São Paulo, but she couldn't stay on that side, on that social class. Until the end of her life she voted for Getúlio Vargas. The Estado Novo did not exist for her, because for the most popular elements that word did not exist. She stayed with Vargas until 1954, until her suicide. So she cries a lot and says: “It was Brigadier Eduardo Gomes who killed Getúlio, and now they are going to kill Oswaldo Aranha.” The simplest people never believed in suicide, they thought it was enemies who killed him. Even the poor Brigadier, a person so upright and so reputable, was accused by her.

I think the intersection is important; anyone studying 1932 has to read Abel's testimony. Despite all the ideological burden, he was committing his class, his person, he fought in a trench, he suffered those struggles in the flesh. And Risoleta's testimony is also extremely important, because she was outside her class, but also inside because she worked, she gave her sweat so that those four hundred people from São Paulo could lead the life they led. She was the daughter of slaves, the granddaughter of slaves, and all that in 1932 still had a lot of power.

The last testimony I can give is this: last year I had the opportunity to speak about education and constitutions. I read all the constitutions and what they deal with education. And imagine my surprise when I found that the 1934 constitution was more progressive than the 1946 one! The 1934 charter, made by deputies elected for that purpose, was a democratic constitution for the time. And reading your articles on education I found that, for example, on the issue of public education, it was a very progressive constitution. It says, for the first time, that primary education should be free, universal education. It was the proposal of democratized education. And even more, for secondary and university education, there should be a “tendency towards gratuity”.

That is to say, it was a constitution that already thought about the evolution of mass society, and that the State should be attentive to provide for the needs of these same masses for free education. That of 1946, as much praised as the constitution of redemocratization, is only so from an institutional point of view, but from the point of view of State participation in democracy it is not, because it is the one who inaugurates this figure called “paid public education” . It explicitly says that students who can, must pay for university, which obviously leaves room for a series of interpretations. That was until the 1967/69 constitution, the last, practically granted, that we had, which proposes the granting of scholarships and paves the way for the privatization of education. Now, isn't it good to remember? Isn't it good to go back to thinking about previous constitutions? Thus, the memory that Plato spoke of is an access to the truth and an access to democracy. Exactly the opposite of what that lady said: “You have culture, but he is very democratic”. I wish she could have said: “You have culture, that's why you are very democratic”.

* Alfredo Bosi  (1936-2021) was Emeritus Professor at FFLCH-USP and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL). Author, among other books, of Heaven, hell: literary and ideological criticism essays (Editora 34).

Originally published on the website of IMS Thought Art.


[1] What is reported below is a very summarized memory of an ecological struggle that involved the community of Cotia throughout 1984. Despite the setbacks suffered, the problem ended up being felt, and, it seems, the authorities municipal and state governments are preparing projects for “rationalization of land use”. Let's wait.

[2] Hillbilly variant of Turris eburnea.

[3] Oswaldo Elias Xidieh – Popular pious narratives, São Paulo, Institute of Brazilian Studies – USP.

[4] Martha Steinberg: 1001 proverbs in contrast, Sao Paulo, Attica, 1985.

[5] Eclea Bosi, Memory and society. Memories of old. Sao Paulo, TA Queiroz, 1979.


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