Euclides da Cunha: An odyssey in the tropics

Ana Holck (Reviews Journal)


Commentary on the American biography of Euclid by Frederic Amory

One trait characterizes the reception of Euclides da Cunha: if critical reflection on his small work remains poor, his biographical approach is quite rich. To his main contributions – that of Eloy Pontes, with The Dramatic Life of Euclides da Cunha (1938), Sylvio Rabello, with Euclid da Cunha (1949) and Olímpio de Sousa Andrade, with History and interpretation of The Sertões (1960) – adds journalistic coverage of the war in Canudos, made in 1974 by Walnice Nogueira Galvão, in in the heat of the hour, as well as the collection of his correspondence, in 1997, also carried out by Walnice, in collaboration with Oswaldo Galotti [Correspondence from Euclides da Cunha, Edusp].

To these titles is added the work of a North American Euclidean Frederic Amory. Amory's work, unfortunately dead before the translated edition of his book, is distinguished from that of his peers by its greater emphasis on the psychological understanding of the subject. Perhaps he was doubly benefited by his condition as a foreigner: if he knew the Brazilian bibliography as well as his colleagues, he still had a collection, especially on English and European evolutionism, to which they did not have access; on the other hand, he was not hampered by taboos that have jeopardized the understanding of the writer from Rio de Janeiro.

We have an example of this greater freedom at the beginning of An Odyssey: the author is astute to note the correlation between nomadism, to which the boy Euclides was subjected after the early death of his mother, and the professional nomadism of adults. Amory could have done so using well-known biographical data. He uses, however, a bolder trump card: the testimony offered by a letter from the writer's father, Manoel Rodrigues Pimenta da Cunha, to his son, dated December 16, 1906.

Who knows the Correspondence from Euclides da Cunha you will not find her there. In Amory's words, "his father belatedly admonished him about his readiness to travel anywhere, on any errand, without bothering to support and care for his wife and children, or his old father." The remark would not cause discomfort to any national biographer if it were not for his source: it is in The Tragedy of Pity, in the book in which Dilermando de Assis, in 1951, defended himself against the accusation of having destroyed Euclides' home and for murdering him.

 imaginary sick

But this is just a hitherto unexplored data. Nomadism was just the first psychological trait that Amory stopped at. Without it actually constituting a psychic ailment, I was in his proximity. For the evils that afflicted Euclides were not only physical – the hemoptysis attacks, the malaria he contracted in the Amazon – but psychic: the obsession with the ghost of a woman dressed in white who appears to him both in São José do Rio Preto and in Amazon. Teodoro Sampaio, a friend and collaborator of his, went so far as to state that Euclides “maybe was an imaginary patient”. Data of this nature are detailed by Frederic Amory.

Likewise, it takes forward a hypothesis already formulated by Olímpio de Sousa Andrade about his Florianism. Contrary to what is usually said, the permanence of his adherence to the enigmatic Marshal belies that his disappointment with the Republic was almost instantaneous. This explains why he saw the defense of republican institutions in the Canudos struggle, a position that does not completely disappear even after he recognizes the fraud of the supposed monarchical conspiracy, that is, even during his stay in Canudos.

It is true that his political position derived from a rigid Social Darwinism, at least naive, if not extravagant. Thus his chronicle of March 17, 1872, published in State of Sao Paulo, began with a strange “let's be optimistic”. NoThe Sertões, I would say that the presence of the Army in the fight against the advisers would still be justified if the shell shots served to open the way for the integration of the sertanejos to civilization.

But it is no less true than the portrait of Floriano, in the sphinx, dated February 1894, referring to the meeting with the President during the Revolt of the Armada, is as mysterious as the character it describes. What position was that of someone describing the situation of a city liable to be bombarded by ship cannons, while the narrator receives an unexpected inspection visit from the marshal-president: “We performed clumsily. We shuffle the roles of the play that leads to a game of unhappy antitheses, between senators armed to the teeth, fighting like soldiers, and platonic soldiers crying out for peace – in the face of a legality that wins through the suspension of laws and a Constitution that strangles too tight hugs of the who adore her”?

Euclid's hypothesis of Florianism is certainly plausible, but no less grounded in Euclid's narrow understanding of society. We fail to detail other valuable observations. For example, the suppression by Portuguese publishers of On the Edge of History (1909) from the essay “Ancient Brutality”, unfortunately lost since then, because in it the Portuguese were also denounced for the mistreatment to which they subjected the indigenous people, in the extraction of latex.

It is worth noting that, as a biographer, Amory also focuses on Euclides' written work. If he has the merit of extending it even to articles of little relevance, that is certainly not where the great qualities of the biographer lie. If he is fair in verifying Euclides' naivety in praising the caucheiros who revolted in Acre, he fails, however, to note that their boss, the gaucho Plácido de Castro, after being victorious, would become an equally great landowner. explorer.

river Darwinism

Observations of how far Euclid could push his social Darwinism are equally excellent: his analysis of the Purus comes close to asserting a “river Darwinism”, while, in a moment of depression, he could resort to an “inverse Darwinism”; or the recognition of the “disconnected content” of Contrasts and clashes (1907) or the ease of peremptory statements on topics he barely knows, such as Russian history or German history.

It is only regretted that, with all its qualities. Amory has not attacked two mainstays of Euclid's usual interpretation. In the first case, his position is surprising. As far as I know, before unknown land. The construction of The Sertões (1997), no interpreter of Euclid took the trouble to check what a certain Ludwig Gumplowicz would have said, whom Euclid considered, in the “Preliminary Note” of his great book, “greater than Hobbes”.

Amory incorporated the French translation of Der Rassenkampf (1883), published ten years later, La Lutte des races, which was probably the edition read by Euclid. It is therefore all the more strange that Amory corroborates Euclid's interpretation of him. Gumplowicz's text, now an almost ignored name, is quite simple. For this very reason, it is surprising that the Brazilian author and his American biographer continue to affirm the opposite of what the Polish precursor of sociology said. In his own words: "The initial factors" (of race) are intellectual: language, religion, custom, law, civilization, etc. It is only later that the physical factor appears: the unit of blood”. How could it be clearer? Race is not a biological factor, but a social one. Strong race is only the one that calls itself that because it won. The weak will remain weak until they tip the balance.

The second mainstay that remains intact in Amory's biography concerns the alleged superimposition that would be fulfilled in The Sertões, which has been said, since José Veríssimo, to be simultaneously a work of science and literature. But here the fault is less serious. After all, a biographer is under no obligation to have a more refined conception of what literature is.

* Luiz Costa Lima is Professor Emeritus at PUC-Rio. Author, among other books by unknown land. The construction of The Sertões (Brazilian Civilization).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, No. 11 in March 2011.


Frederick Amory. Euclides da Cunha: an odyssey in the tropics. Translation: Geraldo Gerson de Souza. São Paulo, Editorial studio.

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