Echoes of Modernism – São Paulo in the 1950s

Salem Arif Quadri, The Divine Comedy of Dante, Inferno Canto XXI, 1976-7


Considerations on the effects of accelerated growth on the style of sociability and cultural life

There is no more commonplace than what talks about the rapid growth of the city that “cannot stop”. Less trivial, perhaps, will be the allusion to the effects of this accelerated time on the style of sociability and cultural life. Effects that it is possible to identify and describe, without resorting to the heavy artillery of the social sciences, simply giving free rein to the spontaneous rumination of the immediate and raw matter of everyday life, supported by the counterpoint of memory. A pure exercise in remembrance, which anyone who has turned fifty is capable of doing. Thirty something years is enough, in our case, for a work of an almost archaeological nature.



It is not uncommon, nowadays, when I visit São Paulo, to go at night or at dawn to the bar, which is always open, at the Hotel Eldorado, on Avenida São Luís. From there, it is possible to glimpse, with the desired lack of sharpness, the Praça Dom José Gaspar and the important stretch of the avenue. Well chosen table, maybe our gaze can encompass, in a single stroke, the Municipal Library and the places occupied, in the past, by four bars: Paribar, Mirim, Barbazul and Arpège. It is, of course, a sentimental and nostalgic excursion: without contradicting Paul Nizan, it is necessary to recognize the privilege of adolescence in the “ages of life”. Or, at least, in the ages of life, as they were defined, according to Philippe Ariès, by the school and family model that the bourgeoisie imprinted on the socialization process.

It was in 1954 that I started going to the Municipal Library. A high school student, he used to go there to pick up books on philosophy, literature, and political theory. Which, at the time, for me, corresponded to Greek Philosophy, Sartre and Camus. Drummond and Rilke. H. Hesse, T. Mann, Trotsky, etc. But what I found was, above all, a population that shared my reading, ignorance and quirks, to which I was quickly incorporated. The reading room was not the only unusual space: in the lobby, around the statue of Minerva, the worshipers of the goddess (as these frequenters were fiercely named by young professors at the Faculty of Rua Maria Antônia, jealous of the technicality of their university knowledge) they wove an endless discourse, where art, literature, philosophy and politics were in permanent osmosis.

Ideological imagination worked in a state of ebullition and all vanguards – in thought, art and politics – were happily mimicked. All this, of course, without the asceticism of the Schools and without an economy of grandiloquence or without much sense of measure. An undoubted lack of realism, which was, however, compensated in some way by a lot of liveliness and an ever alert attention to contemporary cultural experience. A kind of immediate reaction to the present: thus, for example, it was barely published Noigandres and, with my friend Celso Luis Paulini, we knocked on the door of Augusto de Campos, for a long conversation, into the night, about poetry.

But above all what was notable, thinking retrospectively, was a global relationship, so to speak, with culture, ensured, perhaps, by a kind of diffuse “leftism”, rebellious in the face of any form of compartmentalization, institutionalization or doctrinalism. Leftism that oscillated between the poles of anarchism and Trotskyism, just not tolerating the intolerable side of Stalinism. Something that could perhaps be expressed in the following motto: socialism, yes, but with Proust and Kafka.

Nor was there any lack of the beginning of a properly political organization, in an attempt to institutionalize a Socialist Youth (of which Paul Singer was the most prominent figure). But organization was not the strength of this group of teenagers. Let's say that the trademark was the purest spontaneity, theoretically desired and practically lived. Which, incidentally, makes the persistence of the group (or groups) more surprising, which, paradoxically, ended up institutionalizing itself, not long ago, in the form of the Society of Friends of the Mário de Andrade Library.



Freed from the weight of educational institutions and political parties, this particularly flexible population ignored the tension that normally opposes intellectual styles, such as “political” and “artistic”. The “politicians” (when they were not also “artists”, like Baron De Fiori – other “politicians” of the time were Leôncio Martins Rodrigues, Maurício Tragtemberg and Carlos Henrique Escobar) were, moreover, less numerous than the artists, in whose The rows were dominated by theater people. This is what you can see, remembering the names (in order of appearance on the scene) of Manoel Carlos, Cyro del Nero, Flávio Rangel, Antunes Filho, Fernanda Montenegro, Fernando Torres and Augusto Boal, among others – as a playwright that he is, Roberto Schwarz might make it onto that list.

The Library lobby was not, however, an island. Mainly at night, its regulars scattered around the surroundings. Starting with the benches in the garden, especially next to the bust of Mário de Andrade, which some even tried to steal. There were even those who had their heads wounded in this rather surrealist attempt to pay homage to the poet, whose heavy bust seemed to dodge the homage thus rendered to him. The square proved to be an excellent place for the unfolding of literary-political-metaphysical gatherings; and all the more pleasant as we were its only users on those quiet nights. Place of choice, of which we vaguely considered ourselves the owners and to which we did not feel reluctantly relegated, even when the lack of money closed any other possibility.

It was enough, however, for someone to have more resources, for the permanent seminar to migrate to the other side of the street, towards the privileged space of the bars. And there was no shortage of bars, in the square itself and on the adjacent Avenida São Luís, with the seductive style of Parisian Cafés. The tables on the sidewalk in Paribar (where Sérgio Milliet often pontificated), in the Dom José Gaspar square itself, were arranged as if in continuity with the benches in the garden. Moving from one side to the other did not imply a jump or discontinuity. At most, perhaps, a subtle promotion, something like a gain in dignity, which compensated for the loss of exclusivity or hegemony.

We were, of course, far from being hegemonic in these bars, where “jeunesse dorée" From São Paulo. A people that already distinguished itself from ours by the clothes and the consumption of imported drinks – our pockets reached the beer with some difficulty. Would it be possible to imagine, today, a group of philosophy students from USP, enthusiasts of the IV International, peacefully attending Pandoro? Today, barely comparing, this style of intellectual bohemia appears to me as a kind of “primitive communism”, prior to the painful work of the social division of leisure. Without much communication, there was certainly no hostility between those who came from the Library and the “innocent à Mirim”, as I nicknamed the others, thinking of a poem by Drummond.

Our bars were syncretic and ignored any kind of specialization, such as the one that would emerge in the mid-1960s (to my surprise, when I returned to Brazil after two years abroad), with bars like Ferro's or Redondo, which already possessed a frankly corporate nature.

Let's counterpoint with the Arpège. Unlike the others already mentioned, it was not a Parisian style bar. It was just a snack bar, but it took the common vocation of social osmosis to which we refer to an extreme. With the Library crowd, plastic artists, journalists, university students and all imaginable forms of political, cultural or simply sexual dissidence converged at Arpège. As for university students, it was not uncommon to see the right and left of the Faculty of Philosophy gathered around a beer, amicably pondering their differences, in an unimaginable scene after 64 and, above all, after the great repression of 69. It was as if global society could be mirrored in its entirety in the bar's narrow space, in a form that is more communitarian than societal.

In a word, everyone knew each other and São Paulo still appeared as a sweetly provincial city. Nobody imagined, I believe, in those 1950s, how the silent demographic growth would reverberate, soon afterwards, in this small world, transforming the University and the style of intellectual bohemia so quickly and radically. In less than a decade, our School has become a Mass University and our pubs have been swept out of the city centre. By the mid-1960s, we had already lost our São Paulo homeland.



The city, therefore, de-provincialized itself, for the sake of its cultural life, increasingly "professional". But it's impossible, for someone who was a teenager in the 1950s, not to miss that city that he discovered then, at the same time that he discovered himself. In fact, I have the impression that, even after maturity, we continue to carry with us, as a kind of inalienable mental prosthesis, the urban landscape of our adolescence.

Especially when, like ours, this matrix is ​​that of a perfectly livable and comfortable city, where people still walk around, day and night. A city that dressed us like made-to-measure clothing, especially while our gaze did not reach far beyond the limits of Praça Dom José Gaspar and Avenida São Luís, whatever our political ideals.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of some essays (Peace and Earth).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, on January 22, 1988.

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