In memory of Alfredo Bosi

Jackson PollockFull Fathom Five 1947


Commentary on the intellectual trajectory and work of the literary critic

The multiple profiles that make up the intellectual and militant physiognomy of Alfredo Bosi can be glimpsed in the dozens of contributions bundled in the volume Reflection as Resistance (Companhia das Letras, 2018), conceived “to salute the eighty years of an illustrious critic”, glossing words with which Antonio Candido titled his homage. Opening with the poignant poem “Retrato”, by Ecléa Bosi, the volume then brings letters signed by great names in Brazilian culture (OM Carpeaux, Darcy Ribeiro, Murilo Mendes, CD de Andrade, among others) and then spreads through the sections “Readings in Dialogue”, “Testimonials”, “Esteem Essays”: a wide and varied spectrum of texts committed to dignifying the extraordinary human figure of the honoree, as well as a work that encompasses, in a span of half a century, 16 books, from pre-modernism (Cultrix, 1966) to Art and knowledge in Leonardo da Vinci (Edusp, 2017).

I cannot go into Alfredo Bosi's militant facet here, affectively and effectively linked, as Frei Betto points out in the text by ear that he wrote for Reflection as Resistance, “to the world of the excluded” and which, moreover, was contemplated in some of the contributions of this volume; but as for the literary critic, I would like to highlight, among so many luminous texts, the essay that closes the volume Heaven Hell, “The interpretation of the literary work”, devoted to the hermeneutic confrontation with symbolic forms that often reach the limit of opacity, making “this tenacious work called interpretation".

How Alfredo Bosi's theoretical conceptions were translated into his praxis as an interpreter is shown in several of the essays collected in Heaven Hell, like "The Athenaeum: opacity and destruction”, a true masterpiece of literary analysis that unveils the various facets of this “pedagogical or horror novel” through a hermeneutical deepening of the unifying tone that runs through it from the first to the last page, as well as the ideological contradictions that have settled in the core of the perspective adopted by the young Raul Pompéia.

Admirable is also the comparative approach, and at the same time differential, of Dried lives, by Graciliano Ramos, and first stories, by Guimarães Rosa; and no less fruitful, the approach, pioneering in terms of the relationship between symbol and allegory as well as the medieval concept of heartburn, from the poem “A Máquina do Mundo”, by CD de Andrade.

A golden moment in A. Bosi's critical production is certainly colonization dialectic (1992), which concretizes, in 10 chapters, the theoretical principles discussed in the essay “The interpretation of the literary work”. In clear and precise language, the author undertakes – in a movement somewhat similar to that operated by Erich Auerbach in mimesis – a transversal journey through five centuries of Brazilian history, allowing us to follow how the confrontation with texts by José de Anchieta, Gregório de Matos, Antônio Vieira (immense passion of the author), José de Alencar, Castro Alves, brings to light elements that help to elucidate contradictions that marked the Brazilian colonization process, contemplated over hundreds of pages in both its symbolic and material manifestations.

The concentric movement between the parts and the whole develops with supreme mastery, integrating data taken from the economic, political, and social spheres into the interpretation, and this starts with the essay on Anchieta: “The opposing arrows of the sacred”, images that, in the foreground , signify the “theodicies” of the two peoples who collided at the beginning of our colonization: “Unfortunately for the native peoples, the religion of the discoverers came equipped with horses and soldiers, harquebuses and cannons”.

However, the reader also has the possibility of seeing in the image of the “opposite arrows” the two languages ​​mobilized by Anchieta in his texts: in the language of symbols he expressed (in Latin and in the Iberian languages) the concerns and the characteristic raptures of the modern devotee, while the allegorical procedure, based on the Tupi language, covered the records that pursued the purpose of catechizing the indigenous people, which leads the interpreter to claim that the allegory was “the first instrument of an art for the masses created by the organic intellectuals of acculturation ”.

After the colonization dialectic it is worth noting the increasing importance that the figure of Machado de Assis assumed for this critic who, coming from Italian traditions, had only studied a single writer in academic works, Pirandello in his doctorate and Leopardi in his associate professorship. But then came the volumes The Enigma of the Look (1999) and, seven years later, Brás Cubas in three versions, which consolidated the author's position among the great interpreters of Machado's work, such as those discussed in the text that focuses on three matrix readings of posthumous memories: the “constructive”, which traces the intertextual links established by the narrator from beyond the grave; “mimetic” (or “sociological”), which in the studies of Raymundo Faoro and Roberto Schwarz reached its highest level; and, still, the “existential-expressive”, aspect for which A. Bosi reveals his greatest admiration and which, in his view, would be embodied in the analyzes of the “artist-critic” Augusto Meyer, “the most subtle of Machado’s readers” .

“Machado's perspective is that of the contradiction that is lost, the terrorist who pretends to be a diplomat. It is necessary to look at the mask and at the depths of the eyes that the cut of the mask sometimes allows one to glimpse”: this postulate of duplicity, the closing of a dense 1979 essay, would accompany the critic (always fascinated by the “enigma” of Machado’s gaze) for the following decades, even appearing in the title of one of his last writings, “The double mirror in a story by Machado de Assis” (in the volume Three readings: Machado, Drummond, Carpeaux, Publisher 34, 2017).

The founder of the Brazilian Academy of Letters therefore fell, as perhaps it can be sustained in an eventual balance of the critical trajectory of Alfredo Bosi, a place of the first magnitude, alongside his no less beloved Antônio Vieira, of whom the 4th chapter of colonization dialectic offers us a masterful read. And it is possible that this is the book that will remain as the greatest legacy of its author, having already radiated his influence beyond Brazilian borders, with translations into French, Spanish and English, in addition to a Portuguese edition (2014), whose preface is concluded by Graça Capinha in the following terms: “Trying to understand the past, I think that Alfredo Bosi was capable of bringing us closer to our present more truly and today, more than twenty years later, we realize that he even demonstrated that he was able to detect signs of what was then a possible future.

It should also be remembered that, in Germany, Michael Jaeger, one of the most prominent current interpreters of the auspicious, reaped fruitful subsidies in the colonization dialectic, consulted in the English translation, to deepen his work with Goethean tragedy. Relying on the extraordinary etymological and historical considerations of the Brazilian critic on the “colonial condition” – in particular on the words “culture, cult and colonization”, derived from the Latin verb lap (past participle: cultus; future participle: culturus) – Jaeger sought to demonstrate in his great study Wanderers Verstummen, Goethes Schweigen, Fausts Tragödie [The Pilgrim's silence, Goethe's silence, Faust's tragedy] that “the colonizing process represented by Faust and Mephistopheles unfolds through the space of Philemon and Baucis in all senses (from lap, cultus e culture) and drives the transformation of the world”.

It is clear that this “transformation of the world” is understood in a critical perspective, related to the immense Mephistophelian “colony” that Goethe sketched in the last act of the auspicious, and also having to do with a modernity that in the “Post-scriptum” à la colonization dialectic receives an expressive description: “dissemination of atomic waste, acid stains, the greenhouse effect, water poisoning, the risk of pesticides, the hell of megalopolises”. In this world driven by a “blind and dirty industrialization”, as Bosi still observes in the “Post-scriptum”, there is no more room for the old couple Philemon and Baucis, who in the opening of the fifth and last act of the auspicious he is greeted by a “Pilgrim” in verses of unsurpassed beauty: “The good couple who, with care, / had welcomed me, I would like to see, / But, will I still see him today? / So old then it was! / Candid and happy people! / Do I hit? call? — I salute you! / If you always enjoy happiness, / Of doing good in everything”. Shortly afterwards, the elders are massacred together with the Pilgrim, probably a figuration of Goethe himself, to make room for the aforementioned “transformation of the world”.

All those who have had the privilege of getting to know more closely the very generous figure who has just left us, as well as his wife Ecléa Bosi, will have no difficulty in associating them with the elderly couple that Goethe, also octogenarian, presents us with, with the highest resources of poetry, at the end of their tragedy – a couple who guide their entire existence by the aspiration to always and in everything do good. I myself began to join this privileged group of people as a student of Alfredo Bosi, already in the first year of graduation.

Since then, the coexistence has been continually deepening, and to the same extent, the feeling of gratitude for so many teachings, so many riches received has been intensified. When I concluded, in 2019, the study The double night of the lime trees: History and Nature in the auspicious by Goethe, a tribute in various aspects to the work of Alfredo Bosi, the desire naturally came to me to express my gratitude with the dedication that brings the couple who are now united in eternity to the mythical figures created by Ovid in Book VIII of Metamorphoses and re-elaborated, 18 centuries later, by Goethe: “for Ecléa, who was so fond of the episode of Baucis and Philemon, and Alfredo Bosi – venture to do good in everything”. The sadness that the departure of Alfredo Bosi causes in us, at such a tragic moment in Brazilian history, will certainly be mitigated by the message of resistance that his luminous passage through the world also bequeathed to us. In this sense, the words of Leonardo da Vinci that the great critic placed at the close of his last book are in force: “No being goes to nothingness”.

*Marcus V. Mazzari Professor of Comparative Literature at USP. author of The Double Night of the Lime Trees. History and Nature in auspicious by Goethe (Publisher 34).

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