Graciliano Ramos – the ethical-political lesson



Considerations on the artistic and political trajectory of the northeastern writer

This October 27, 2022, marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of a classic of Brazilian literature: the Alagoan writer Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953). (The same day in October on which, 77 years ago, another prominent Northeasterner and political leader was born, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from Pernambuco.) My purpose here is to re-evaluate significant passages in Graciliano's troubled career, his convictions as a man of letters and his ethical-political principles as a communist militant. A critical intellectual who, at the extreme limit of what was possible, sought to harmonize “the fire of social passion” that had excited him since his youth with the demands of the literary craft and the complex contingencies of the time lived.


The intellectual in the eye of the hurricane

Studying the relationships between intellectuality, culture and politics in Brazil implies examining tensions between three cyclical frameworks: (a) writers and artists contesting hegemonic structures, with different strategies and tactics of action; (b) co-option of segments of the thinking elite by spheres of power and the resulting problems; (c) ideological interference on cultural creation and limits on freedom of expression. In either scenario, intellectuals balance on a tightrope between aesthetic intentions, philosophical positions, the production of knowledge, political-cultural criticism and the difficulties of survival in a country where their activities thrive around the university, the public service, media and government support.

Especially when aligned with critical thinking, intellectual work is part of the battle of ideas for cultural and political hegemony. It is a question of formulating, defending and disseminating visions, aspirations and values ​​that interfere in the conformation of the collective imagination and in the scales of value. I share Edward Said's perspective according to which the intellectual "is a being endowed with a vocation to represent, embody and articulate a message, a point of view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion for (and also by) an audience".

This role, according to Edward Said, has a “certain sharpness” in the critical appreciation of the structures in force in a given social formation, “since it cannot be performed without the awareness of being someone whose function is to publicly raise questions, embarrassments, confront orthodoxies and dogmas (rather than producing them)”. The intellectual thus perceived “is someone who cannot be easily co-opted by governments or corporations and whose purpose it is to represent all the people and all the problems that are systematically forgotten or swept under the rug”.[1] It means highlighting the vocation of unveiling misleading appearances, dodging routine judgments and putting to the test false consensuses, the half-truths of power and the imprisoning rhetoric of orthodoxy.

In the eye of the hurricane of ideological-cultural disputes, intellectuals do not escape dilemmas and mishaps. Now they are caught up in the arrangements of the ruling classes to stop more intense popular participation in social life and neutralize questions about the mystifying logic of the market as an instance of corporate organization; sometimes they face pressure to adapt their purposes to political circumstances. Not to mention the sometimes tenuous boundaries between the need to publicize their work to broader audiences and the sinuous forms of co-option by the conservative media. The room for maneuver oscillates between proximity to the State apparatus, non-submission to the established order and the embarrassment of reconciling symbolic production and ideology, or protecting the former from the dictates of the latter.

Graciliano Ramos faced personal trials, such as the absurd ten months and ten days in jail, without trial or conviction, a victim of the repressive wave unleashed by the government of Getúlio Vargas after the communist insurrection of November 1935. Financial troubles forced the former political prisoner to accept works in publications linked to the same government that had persecuted him, however, without endorsing the authoritarian ideology of the Estado Novo.

With the re-democratization of the country after World War II, he joined the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), in which he was received as one of the references in the cultural area, coexisting, however, with misunderstandings from the party leadership for refusing to adhere to the call socialist realism and giving in to Manichaeisms raised by the dark and bipolar world of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, in the second half of the 1940s. in the relative autonomy of literary, aesthetic and cultural production in the face of political expediency. He always believed that the specificities of creative work need to be preserved against the imposition of ideological precepts, although he may reflect them.


Co-option times

The generation of artistic talents that Graciliano Ramos was a part of experienced typical contradictions of a disorganized and fragile civil society, in the face of which the State loomed large as the subject of initiatives aimed at the conservation of hegemonies. This weakness of civil society has forced intellectuals, on different occasions, even in order to survive, to “accept to a greater or lesser extent their involvement with the state apparatus, a state that is always authoritarian and often dictatorial”.[2] The intensities of this involvement varied, from common intentions or complicit resignation to possible resistance or skillful opposition, requiring verification of each case or similar situations, in order to avoid simplifying generalizations.

One of the crucial moments of co-option of sectors of the intelligentsia took place during the Estado Novo (1937-1945), a period in which the Ministry of Education was commanded by Gustavo Capanema. Graciliano Ramos was one of the literary exponents who accepted to work at MEC. Before mentioning his experience, we must highlight the set of obstacles and limitations to the full exercise of intellectual life in a peripheral society that would reach the 1950s with half of the population still illiterate.

The university was emerging (the University of São Paulo was founded in 1934 and the National Faculty of Philosophy in 1939), the so-called cultural industries were far from being structured and radio would only become a mass medium in the second half of the 1940s. When a book sold two or three consecutive runs of a thousand or two copies, the press celebrated it as bestseller. In this framework, it was impossible to make a living from literature, which led writers, as a rule, to public jobs, in addition to seeking a source of additional income and prestige in journalism.

Writers hated the Vargas dictatorship and fascism, but they were paid from public coffers for services rendered to the Ministry of Education. For the government, it was important to attract skills to legitimize and conduct modernization projects that would guarantee the role of the State as an organizer of culture. The goal was to cultivate myths and traditions within the bourgeois vision, transmitting them to other classes through the school system and the media, in order to guarantee ideological supremacy.

Gustavo Capanema appointed writers to the top echelon of the MEC: Carlos Drummond de Andrade, chief of staff; Augusto Meyer and Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda for the Instituto Nacional do Livro and the Biblioteca Nacional, respectively; Rodrigo Mello Franco de Andrade for the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Service (conceived from a project commissioned to Mário de Andrade, who also contributed to the National Book Institute. At the invitation of Capanema, Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa detailed the project for the Swiss architect Le Corbusier for the new MEC building in Rio de Janeiro, a classic of architectural modernism. Cândido Portinari painted the murals of that building, in whose gardens Bruno Giorgi's sculptures are still found today. They were also named by Gustavo Capanema, as federal inspectors of secondary education, the writers Graciliano Ramos, Manuel Bandeira, Marques Rebelo, Murilo Mendes and Henriqueta Lisboa.

Graciliano Ramos brought bitterness to his tongue when he spoke of the marginal situation of writers who entered the public service: “Since the literary profession is still a remote possibility, artists in general get rid of hunger by entering public service”. With the publishing market restricted to capitals in the Southeast and South, living on copyright was a mirage. the masterpiece Dried lives (1938) took nine years to reach the second edition.

Your own previous trajectory illustrates this. In addition to being mayor of Palmeira dos Índios, Alagoas, in a two-year term (1928-1930) guided by inflexible honesty and priority given to the neediest areas, he was a senior official in two oligarchic state governments in Alagoas: president of the Official Press (1930- 1931) and Director of Public Instruction, equivalent to Secretary of Education (1933-1935). He accepted the invitations for financial needs and the idea that it was possible to serve the community without giving in to clientelism and the plague of corruption. In the first case, in addition to the bankruptcy of his fabric store in Palmeira dos Índios, he felt emotional exhaustion after two years as mayor, during which he moralized and modernized the municipal administration, cutting off the privileges of the “colonels” in the region, which cost him strong political strain.

Years later, Graciliano Ramos faced vicissitudes when he was detained by the Army in Maceió, in the wave of repression that swept the country after the unsuccessful rebellion of November 1935. His file at the Department of Political and Social Order (Dops) recorded: “Suspected of exercising subversive activity”. But he had nothing to do with the rebellion and he wasn't even an open communist yet. He was released on January 10, 1937, thanks to the efforts of his admirable wife, Heloísa de Medeiros Ramos, together with interlocutors from the literary world, such as the editor José Olympio, who had access to the presidential office.

As a former political prisoner, Graciliano Ramos struggled to find a job and was initially unable to bring his family to Rio de Janeiro. With the help of his friend José Lins do Rego, he managed to get his first payments for short stories and reviews published in the press. Eight of the 13 chapters of Dried lives they were published as short stories in five different newspapers, with only the titles changed. It was an artifice to earn the money needed to pay the pension bill in Catete and the doubled expenses with the later coming of Heloísa and the children to Rio de Janeiro.[3]

From the second half of the 1940s, Graciliano Ramos had to work three shifts to cover the family budget. He wrote in the morning; in the afternoon he carried out his tasks as a federal inspector of education; and at night, from 1947 onwards, he acted as editor of the Correio da Manhã. Financial turmoil persisted until his death on March 20, 1953, aged 60, and no doubt contributed to his depressions and bouts of alcoholism. In 1940, when the restraints required by the war also hit journalistic companies, he expressed his pessimism in a letter to his son Júnio: “In these miserable times that we are going through, even the idiotic stories that I wrote for The newspaper and for the Diário de Notícias they became scarce and disappeared altogether. I have written some horrors for a cheap magazine, but these miseries take little work and sell for a hundred milreis, exactly the price of a short story. A disgrace, everything a disgrace”.

The hardships forced him to accept writing chronicles about Northeastern traditions and customs and revising texts for the magazine Political culture, created by the Department of Press and Propaganda (DIP). With an average of 250 pages per issue, the magazine circulated from April 1941 to August 1944. It managed to attract liberal and leftist writers, for three basic reasons: political alignment was not required; the articles could deal with literary and aesthetic themes; the remuneration was rewarding, with the certainty of payment on time. The doctrinal support was provided by intellectuals identified with the Estado Novo, such as Cassiano Ricardo, Almir de Andrade, Menotti Del Picchia, Azevedo Amaral and Francisco Campos.

In charge of the regime's propaganda and censorship of the press and the arts, the DIP became a key player in the execution of the ideological project of the Estado Novo. The ideological propaganda machine fueled the personality cult of Getúlio Vargas and the construction of the dictator's image as a “father of the poor”. DIP's indoctrination device encompassed the radio (voice of Brazil e National Radio), the newsreels inspired by German and Italian counterparts, the newspapers taken over by the Union (Tomorrow, At night, The Illustrated Night e The state of Sao Paulo) and the school system (reformulation of curricula, mandatory teaching of morals and civics and distribution of millions of booklets, authentic propaganda manuals of the regime).

In addition to censoring matters deemed contrary to the “national interest”, the DIP paid monthly subsidies to journalistic companies, by way of publicity, ensuring the distribution of news favorable to the government in more than 950 vehicles, including newspapers, magazines, news agencies and radio stations. Vargas made the exemption for importing newsprint an instrument of pressure, as companies that dared to question government policies ran the risk of running out of raw material.

DIP knew how to take advantage of a phase in which newsrooms had small and generally poorly paid teams. While most journalistic companies lived with cash problems, aggravated by a narrow consumer market and a limited volume of commercial advertising, DIP publications paid 100 thousand réis for five pages (about R$ 300,00), while in the main newspapers the monthly salary of a good editor did not exceed 800 thousand réis.[4] Faced with such a picture, it is not difficult to understand why Graciliano, José Lins do Rego, Vinicius de Moraes, Érico Veríssimo, Mário de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Gilberto Freyre, Murilo Mendes, Tristão de Athayde, Cecília Meirelles, Adalgisa Nery and Cecília Meireles and many others wrote for government publications.

It is essential to point out that the nature of collaboration with DIP journals was not confused with complicity or adhesion, even though it indirectly served to legitimize the unified and conservative project of education and culture proclaimed by Vargas and executed with uncommon skill by Gustavo Capanema.

The vast majority of intellectuals were part of the state machine without any prerogative to define public policies, nor did they formulate the regime's discourses. “No one defended the Estado Novo; they were literary collaborations, chronicles, reviews”, attested journalist Joel Silveira.[5] With wisdom, Antonio Candido separated the intellectuals who “serve” from those who “sell themselves”, so that there are no hasty judgments about different cases of action in the orbit of power: “It would be convenient to emphasize more than one Carlos Drummond de Andrade “served” the State New as the official he was before him, but he did not thereby alienate the slightest bit of his dignity or mental autonomy. So much so that his contrary ideas were patent and it was as a member of Minister Capanema's cabinet that he published the revolutionary political verses of feeling of the world and composed the The People's Rose. (...) Others that it is not even worth mentioning, so that they could rest with less unhappiness in the bosom of God, were simply sold, without soul or faith”.[6]

One should not underestimate the ambiguity of the government itself. If he wanted to dissolve the leftist and liberal groups that gravitated around Minister Gustavo Capanema, it would be enough for Getúlio Vargas to consult the files of the political police to exonerate all MEC advisors. Obviously, he was interested in a tactical rapprochement with the progressive intelligentsia. In one way or another, it neutralized diatribes and guaranteed greater legitimacy to government actions in the cultural field. The coexistence of the opposites was facilitated by the climate of openness provided by Gustavo Capanema: access to his office dispensed with an ideological certificate.

During the phase in which he appeared on DIP's payroll, Graciliano never renounced a literature with a strong critical content. Consulting Graciliano's chronicles in Political culture, collected in the posthumous book Living in Alagoas, the absence of a single sentence praising authoritarianism or Vargas is noted. Likewise, it is possible to verify the corrosive irony with which he addressed social ills that remained unresolved, despite the redeeming rhetoric that permeated the official discourse.

Although holding a technical position does not exempt him from the paradox of joining a government that had imprisoned him, it is worth considering that it was an insignificant function, with a modest salary. Graciliano Ramos hated the Estado Novo to the point of spitting on the ground every time someone referred to the dictatorship in the literary circle at Livraria José Olympio. “It's our little tupinambá fascism”, he cursed. He never hid his deep discomfort with reviewing texts by other authors who published in Political culture. It bored him to amend articles that praised the Estado Novo. But not all collaborations served the regime's designs. Political proselytism occupied half of the magazine's pages; the remainder was devoted to culture, with essays, literary and art criticism.[7]

He had reason to regret his participation in the Political culture? Journalist Moacir Werneck de Castro, one of those who were not co-opted, responded categorically: “Graciliano had no reason to be ashamed of having worked there. If you carefully examine what he wrote, you will see that there was not the slightest political connotation in those chronicles of Northeastern customs”.[8]

The fact that they collaborated in Political culture and worked in MEC bodies did not prevent writers and journalists from placing themselves in the democratic resistance and in the front line against Nazi-fascism. In June 1942, 100 intellectuals – including Graciliano Ramos, Astrojildo Pereira, Samuel Wainer, Hermes Lima and Moacir Werneck de Castro – signed a manifesto describing the war as “nothing more than the decisive historical clash between the progressive forces that and consolidate democratic freedoms and retrograde forces committed to maintaining and extending slavery regimes throughout the world”. In the death throes of the Getúlio Vargas government, the First Congress of Writers, held in January 1945 in São Paulo, called for freedom of expression, amnesty, direct elections and economic development.


Engagement and resistance times

After the collapse of the Estado Novo, a good part of the intelligentsia plunged body and soul into politics – some in the UDN, others in the Brazilian Socialist Party, many in the Brazilian Communist Party, which finally gained the right to legality. The idea that, with the Allied victory in World War II, the immediate future should be rethought on egalitarian grounds was identified with socialist proposals for social justice. The task of writers and artists aware of their social and political role was to produce works committed to popular causes, and which raised the cultural level of the masses.

These certainties shared Graciliano Ramos and the writers Jorge Amado, Aníbal Machado, Astrojildo Pereira, Álvaro Moreyra, Caio Prado Júnior, Dyonélio Machado, Octávio Brandão and Dalcídio Jurandir; the visual artists Cândido Portinari, Di Cavalcanti, Carlos Scliar, Djanira, José Pancetti, Quirino Campofiorito, Bruno Giorgi, Abelardo da Hora and Israel Pedrosa; journalists Moacir Werneck de Castro, Aydano do Couto Ferraz and Aparício Torelly; playwrights Oduvaldo Vianna, Dias Gomes and Joracy Camargo; conductors Francisco Mignone and Guerra Peixe; pianist Arnaldo Estrela; architects Oscar Niemeyer and Vilanova Artigas; film critics Alex Viany and Walter da Silveira; filmmakers Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Ruy Santos; economists Alberto Passos Guimarães and Ignacio Rangel; actors Mário Lago and Eugênia Álvaro Moreyra, among others who joined the PCB.

Carlos Nelson Coutinho emphasized that, during decades of scarce pluralism, the PCB was practically “the only viable alternative for intellectuals (and not only intellectuals) who wanted to make the fight against capitalism and the option for a more just and egalitarian social order politically effective” .[9] And in the atmosphere of redemocratization, the party was a critical energy in favor of social changes, the dissonant voice in a party-political scenario characterized by the hegemony of conservative parties (such as rivals PSD and UDN) over center-left parties (such as the PTB and PSB). So much so that, in the election of December 3, 1945, the communists won a significant number of votes in some states, electing senator Luiz Carlos Prestes and 14 constituent federal deputies, including Jorge Amado and Carlos Marighella.

Months earlier, at the invitation of Luiz Carlos Prestes, then general secretary, Graciliano Ramos had joined the PCB. The euphoria with his entry, alongside respected names of the intelligentsia, can be attested in the headline on the front page of People's Tribune, spokesman for the party, on August 19, 1945, the day after the act of affiliation: “The writer Graciliano Ramos joins the Communist Party”. In the same issue, on a full page with the apologetic title “Graciliano Ramos, popular writer and popular activist”, the newspaper maintained that Graciliano’s choice was incontestable proof of the compatibility between party principles and freedom of expression: “Such a fact demonstrates that writers are at home within the party, develop their reasoning powers more deeply with the help of Marxism, and create conditions for the richest intellectual maturity.

But, in the tempestuous years of the Cold War, what awaited these privileged brains would not be the margin of intellectual independence that marked the ambiguous coexistence with the Estado Novo, much less the convergence of principles boasted by the People's Tribune. From 1947, with the worsening of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, the flags of the superpowers demarcated the abyss between capitalism and socialism. The repercussions at the domestic level were not long in coming. The PCB was persecuted by the reactionary government of Marshal Eurico Gaspar Dutra and by the conservative forces, which created, with the support of the press, an atmosphere favorable to the suspension of the party's registration in May 1947 and the annulment of the mandates of its parliamentarians in January 1948, following the diplomatic break with the Soviet Union. Harassed by repression, the communists abandoned the democratic front policy, which had encouraged 200 affiliations to the PCB between 1945 and 1947, and began to preach the insurrectionary path. The result was disastrous, with the party becoming isolated from public opinion and losing many supporters.

While Washington and its satellites clung to unhealthy anti-communism – of which McCarthyism on the cultural front was one of the most repugnant emblems – Moscow imposed socialist realism as an aesthetic paradigm on the allied CPs. Josef Stalin appointed Andrei Zhdanov as Commissioner of Culture, with the primary mission of controlling and framing intellectual production. Jdanovism would mutilate creative activity and artistic expression, subordinating it to dogmatic canons and impoverishing Marx's legacy. Literature and the arts should play an exclusively pedagogical role, spreading efforts to build a “new world” and “a new man” in socialist countries. It was up to “proletarian and revolutionary art” to contribute to the triumph of socialism, praising the achievements of the regime and worshiping Stalin's personality. At the same time, modern art, labeled “bourgeois, decadent and degenerate”, needed to be fought relentlessly. Experimentalism, abstractionism and cosmopolitanism were cardinal sins.[10]

Under socialist realism, it became problematic to protect artistic and aesthetic peculiarities in the face of ideological directives. It is not surprising that, in a context in which sectarianism established the rules, all kinds of misunderstandings arose. The view that aesthetic production should be linked to official policy reduced the creator's firepower. The intellectual, no matter how sympathetic to social struggles and the causes of the oppressed, could not stifle his concerns before the world, nor conform to being shown the tools of his trade. In essence, the dilemma of the communist intelligentsia was to manage to place itself in the zone of intersection between free thinking, valid attitudes of contestation and the extensive dissemination of ideas.

Graciliano Ramos represented an exception to the rule in adherence to Moscow's cultural policy, mechanically assimilated by the allied PCs. He dared to dissent from the so-called “fair line” and he did so out of strict consistency: a great artist of the word, he did not hesitate to defend his freedom as an author.

He highlighted the connections of intellectuals to the issues of their time. “There is no art outside of life, I don't believe in stratospheric romance. The writer is inside everything that goes on, and if he is like that, how could he dodge influences?”, he declared to Ernesto Luiz Maia (pseudonym of the journalist Newton Rodrigues), in an interview published in May 1944 by the magazine Renovation.[11] In a letter to Sister Marili Ramos, dated November 23, 1949, he wrote: “We were only able to put our feelings, our life on paper. Art is blood, it's flesh. Besides that there is nothing. Our characters are pieces of ourselves, we can only expose what we are”.

Graciliano Ramos focused on the everyday scarcity of the subordinate classes in the midst of the process of capitalist consolidation in a peripheral country. For him, analyzes of the social system would be compromised if they failed to appreciate central economic factors for the bourgeois hegemony among us. He reproached the novelists who did not dwell on the imbrications between the political dimension and the material infrastructure. But he did not slip into the deterministic discourse of vulgar Marxism, which reduces cultural creations to simple reflections of the economic base.

Detachment from reality translated, in the opinion of Graciliano Ramos, a type of literature “that only deals with pleasant things, does not get wet on winter days and therefore ignores the fact that there are people who cannot afford to buy rubber covers, (...) thinks that everything is right, that Brazil is a world and that we are happy”. And he went on to accuse of "insincere" literature "performed by fat citizens, bankers, stockholders, merchants, landlords, individuals who do not think that others have reason to be displeased."[12] By silencing the implications of a perverse mode of production, the writers gave up questioning the power of the ruling classes in setting the agendas of power and their harmful social and political consequences.

From his tormented childhood in Pernambuco to his maturity in Rio de Janeiro, passing through his two fruitful years as mayor of Palmeira dos Índios, Graciliano Ramos lived closely with the sufferings that came from economic oppression. The life story overflows and mixes with artistic inspiration, relativizing the boundaries between experience and writing: “I could never get out of myself. I can only write what I am. And if the characters behave in different ways, it's because I'm not one”.[13]

The case of Dried lives it is eloquent. The novelist exposes the surroundings of brutalities in the northeastern hinterland, in a perfect symbiosis of different elements: the man, the landscape, the land, the animals, hunger, humiliation, drought and wandering destinations. In a letter to the writer João Condé, in July 1944, he clarified: “What interests me is man, and man from that rough region. (...) I tried to listen to the soul of the rude and almost primitive being that lives in the most remote zone of the hinterland, to observe the reaction of this dull spirit before the outside world, that is, the hostility of the physical environment and human injustice. As little as the savage thinks – and my characters are almost savage – what he thinks deserves a note”.

There is nothing fortuitous in the fact that the latifundio, coronelismo and agrarian conflicts were portrayed with an interpellative breath. Its preferred option is to denounce exclusions without the tinge of prejudice. In a letter to Cândido Portinari, dated February 15, 1946, he refers to the link between the works, his and the painter's, with the humble people of the grotões. “You fix our poor rural people on the screen. There is no more dignified work, I think. We are said to be pessimistic and exhibit bias; however deformations and misery exist outside of art and are cultivated by those who censor us”.

But Graciliano Ramos did not accept constraints on literary elaboration. He wanted to protect words threatened by the devouring appetite of ideological precepts. He did not disguise his contempt for apologetic literature. In 1935, in a letter to the Minas Gerais critic Oscar Mendes, he pointed out: “I think that turning literature into a poster, into an instrument of political propaganda, is horrible. I read some Russian soap operas and, frankly, I didn't like them. What is certain is that we cannot, honestly, present goats from the field, men from the bagaceira, discussing social reforms. In the first place, these people are not concerned with such matters; then our bourgeois writers would not be able to penetrate the soul of rural workers”.

In the interview with Ernesto Luiz Maia, he was adamant in rejecting concessions to political-ideological impositions: “I do not accept eulogizing literature. When one political wing dominates entirely, literature cannot live, at least not until there is no longer any need to coerce, which means freedom again. Conformity excludes art, which can only come from dissatisfaction. Fortunately for us, however, complete satisfaction will never come.” The root of the equation, therefore, was to intertwine art and ideology, without one subjugating the other in its essential determinations.

To his friends, several of them younger and all of them communists, who attended the Sunday feijoada at his house, he repeated his terrible opinion of Zhdanov: “It’s a horse!” Lawyer Paulo de Freitas Mercadante, a regular at these meetings, recorded in the diary he kept at the time: “Graça does not accept ideological dirigisme, as the writer should not a priori define an objective. The assumptions that Gorky highlighted are the same as those of the great novelists, regardless of political convictions. The truth must be the instrument, and contrary to history and a concrete way of seeing it, everything is artificial”.[14]

Such positions complicated Graciliano Ramos's relationship with the PCB, from the second half of 1949 onwards. His name disappeared from the party press for a long time, and murmurs began to reach him that aspects of his work were being questioned in party instances. The epigones of Stalinism accused him of having stagnated in “critical realism” and condemned the “excesses of subjectivism” in his novels, to the detriment of “objective and participative analyses”. The objections embittered him. “I only know how to do what is in my books”, he defended himself. According to Paulo Mercadante, Graciliano Ramos respected ideological intervention when literary production brought, as in Balzac, the socioeconomic circumstances of his time. Aside from that, he saw no reason to introduce, in the essence of the characters, rhetorical outbursts that artificialized feelings.[15]

The bone of contention was prison memories. Why was the anthological reconstitution of the underworld of Getulista prisons so uncomfortable? Firstly, because Graciliano Ramos made restrictions on the communist uprising of November 1935, which served as a pretext for the repressive wave unleashed by Vargas: “a mess”, “a political error”. The failure of the rebellion was taboo within the PCB. Secondly, the profiles of leaders imprisoned in Frei Caneca were not in line with the revolutionary mythology. About the then general secretary of the party, Antônio Maciel Bonfim, code name Miranda, he fired: “Miranda knew how to say nonsense with terrible exuberance”.

He was ironic in relation to the influential Agildo Barata: “Agildo Barata's metallic voice gave us goosebumps. He was a dark, small, insignificant fellow, and it seemed to me unlikely that he could have managed to raise a regiment while in prison. His strength was manifested in his sharp, sharp gaze, in his brief, shaken, cold, razor-sharp speech.”[16] Graciliano Ramos did not hide the authoritarian militarism of former lieutenants who joined the PCB in the wake of the uprising. And he criticized the decision-making methods adopted by the collective of political prisoners: “Energetic statements, launched by two or three people, were enough to simulate a collective judgment”. It should be noted that such observations were contextualized passages in the humiliating atmosphere of deprivation and arbitrariness imposed by the Getúlio Vargas government on political prisoners.

prison memories constitutes a vigorous denunciation of the repressive and inhuman methods of the state of exception, as well as the sensitive revelation of the bonds of resistance, solidarity and affection that were woven between political prisoners in the midst of suffocating daily life. The hostile reaction of the PCB leadership to the book was unjustifiable. In Alfredo Bosi's view, despite Graciliano Ramos' thrusts, there is no ideological discussion in the book. Graciliano Ramos does not place himself as an interpreter of the reasons and consequences of the rebellion; he limits himself, “as an aloof and perplexed observer”, to criticizing the political voluntarism that blinded a correct analysis of the correlation of forces, at that historical moment, by the communist leadership. “The author simply did not set out to look at and, even less, evaluate his companions as subjects of a political drama”.[17]

PCB leaders wanted to read the originals of prison memories, but Graciliano rejected them: “If I have to submit my books to censorship, I prefer not to write”.


Tensions and counterparts

Within the framework of the PCB's internal contradictions, some writers and artists were at odds with Jdanovism, but remained faithful to the organization which, at the time, was practically the only left-wing alternative. Even among those who dissented, covertly or clearly, from the party's cultural policy, certain concessions were accepted, such as, for example, praising the figure of Luiz Carlos Prestes, in a local re-edition of Stalin's personality cult.

Even Graciliano practiced it, albeit in a restrained way. In the January 1, 1949 issue of the Working Voice, dedicated to the celebrations of Luiz Carlos Prestes' 50th birthday, Graciliano Ramos signed a complimentary profile, even if the tone is far from the torn grandiloquence of the other collaborators. He underlined personality traits and the courage of the secretary general. Only in the final paragraph did he let his admiration flow: “We have now reached a point where we do not distinguish any sign of opposition: there is in Prestes a fundamental, indisputable dignity. It is the essence of his character. They admire him with exaltation, they hate him with fury, they glorify and slander him. It would be difficult to find anyone who would deny him respect for the immutable, massive authority that leads him to serenely face hard fatigue and horrible sacrifices – things foreseen and necessary”.

The ideological straitjacket and the demands imposed on militancy left a significant part of the intelligentsia outside the party leadership, occupying themselves with activities in social entities, cultural and political movements that gave legal cover to the PCB, conferences, congresses, publications and subscriptions to manifests. This helps us to understand why renowned writers and artists never rose to the top of the hierarchy or exercised influence in the formulation of their ideas. Those closest to the Central Committee were limited to advisory functions or were entrusted with specific tasks, such as cultural representation in the Soviet Union, entrusted to Jorge Amado.

The leadership of the PCB oscillated between disapproval of aesthetic experiments that could scratch the canons of socialist realism and initiatives aimed at bringing together renowned writers and artists around the party. These initiatives ranged from helping comrades in financial straits to being included in entourages and delegations on visits to the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.

These counterparts extended to the participation of its writers in the party press, notably in magazines Fundamentals, For all e Problems. If, on the one hand, ideological control mechanisms affected intellectual production, on the other hand, it cannot be ignored that such publications constituted alternative means of dissemination and visibility for writers and journalists, many of whom were discriminated against by the traditional press due to their political engagement.

It is true that not all communist artists and intellectuals needed the party seal to gain prestige, as they had already earned public respect (including that of specialized critics) for their works and creations, regardless of political affiliation. Just think of Graciliano Ramos, Álvaro Moreyra, Aníbal Machado, Astrojildo Pereira, Oduvaldo Vianna, Cândido Portinari, Di Cavalcanti, Oscar Niemeyer, Villanova Artigas and Francisco Mignone.

Participating in the international delegations of the PCB was equivalent to a distinction in the whole of communist militancy, as well as a type of political recognition of the positions occupied in the cultural sphere, inside and outside the party. It is eloquent that even those who were reluctant and resisted Jdanovism, such as Graciliano Ramos, agreed to join the party's entourages - either because they felt distinguished by the choices, or because they considered it an extraordinary opportunity to get to know the ongoing socialist experiences and expand contacts abroad.

The fascination of every communist with the Soviet Union was reinforced by the myth of Stalin as the “genius guide of the peoples” and by the natural curiosity for what was going on there, fueled by party propaganda about the achievements of socialism. There was a lack of reliable information about the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, because the Western press was in charge of framing the countries of Eastern Europe in the false and distorted perspective of anti-communism.

Graciliano Ramos did not hide his desire to get to know the country that was leading the construction of a new society. Forming judgments about the bastion of socialism, without the caprice of idiosyncrasies and fanaticism. In his view, passions and hatred clouded the lenses of travelers. Either they deified the conquests, or they made them unusable, with no middle ground. “I need to be certain that socialism exists in the Soviet Union”, he commented to Heloísa Ramos, his admirable wife and fellow activist.

Upon returning to Brazil after 56 days abroad, Graciliano decided to write a book about what he had experienced. He gave it the dry title of Travel. It was his last work, published posthumously in 1954. It illustrates his ability to deviate from bragging about the Soviet Union. Despite frankly favorable impressions about education, health, culture and care for children and the elderly, his account in travel does not stop discomfort.

Starting with the pilgrimage to Lenin's tomb: “It's a procession that Muscovites have become accustomed to, as if fulfilling a duty. We are surprised that they have not tired of repeating the regular, monotonous march for more than twenty years”.[18] He did not hide his impatience with the excessive praise given to historical figures of international communism: “Posters and more posters; huge signs displayed on frames carried by many individuals. Portraits and more portraits: the leaders of the revolution, ancient and modern, from Marx and Engels to Mao Zedong and Togliatti. (...) The incessant acclamations hurt my ears”.[19]

He condemned the abundant policing in the streets and the mistrust of tourists. He almost abandoned the endless military parade in celebration of Labor Day, exasperated with the low flights of planes. Although he refers to Stalin as “the statesman who spent his life working for the people, and never deceived them”, he remarked on the exaltations of his virtues and his personality, saying that “the demonstration of unrestricted solidarity did not make a good impression on the outside”.[20]

In summary, Graciliano Ramos evaluated that the Soviet Union had progressed, however, the propaganda sometimes did not correspond to the facts. If he pointed out merits in social programs, he did not shy away from pointing out authoritarian excesses in the execution of government goals.

Such as prison memories, travel upset the party leadership. It is likely that the malaise surfaced in the prologue, when he warned that he would not deify the Soviet government: “I intend to be objective, not to pour myself out in praise, not to insinuate that, in thirty-five years, the October revolution has created a paradise with the best shaving razors, the best locks and the best blotter. These eastern offal are perhaps inferior to western and Christian ones. They did not cause me any inconvenience, and if I mention them, it is because I intend not to reveal myself too biased. I actually saw the great country with good eyes. If not, how could I feel it?”.[22]

Two PCB leaders went to the novelist's house to find out about the contents of the book. With two evasive phrases, Graciliano cut the dialogue short: “Everything is in manuscript. I still have to move a lot”.


Alignment and autonomy

Graciliano Ramos preferred to walk on a razor's edge, between conceptual fidelity to socialism and opposition to sectarian theses. He guided him with a thought regulated by reason, technique and emotion, in symmetrical proportions. If he saw intent to lower the literary standard for the sake of tendentious eloquence, he would fire off torpedoes. As in this speech by Luís da Silva, the protagonist of his novel Anguish: “'Proletarians, unite.' This was written without a comma and without a dash, in pitch. (...) That way of writing eating the signs made me indignant. I don't dispense with commas and dashes. Would you like to make a revolution without commas and without dashes? In such a revolution there would be no room for me.”[23]

The ethical foundation of Graciliano Ramos called for an effective social transformation, without ever negotiating the aesthetic substance of the revelation of reality. This was the case both in the period of shortage and co-option of the Estado Novo and in the phase of shudders within the Brazilian Communist Party, due to the controversies over socialist realism. In the same way that he rejected ideological tutelage over literary imagination, Graciliano Ramos discarded aestheticism devoid of human significance, with the additional sensitivity to understand that, in a literary work worthy of the name, form and content evidence the artistic and ideological positions taken by the author – positions defined by the distinctions that unite and separate them in the space of creation.

No matter how aligned they are with the oppressed, writers and artists cannot stifle their concerns, nor accept that partisanship provides them with the tools of their trade. The intellectual who surrenders to political dividends gives up the possibility of contributing to clarifying the enigmas of everyday life. Dogmatic postulates are based on points of view that, at one time, constituted the spiritual basis for existence, but that, in another context, support ideas, positions and attitudes that no longer correspond to objective situations, “anesthetize the thinking of individuals and groups” and overshadow the perception of renewal movements in the sociopolitical environment, as pointed out by Lucien Goldmann.[24] Cultural creation becomes conditioned by theorems that underestimate the variations of historical processes, crossed by continuities and discontinuities that call into question the intangible dream of a linear life.

For the dialectic to prevail in intellectual production, it is essential to ward off the threat of subtracting ideas in the name of the game of conveniences, as well as to consolidate the freedom that ensures the explicitness of the new. György Lukács maintained that art as a form of knowledge cannot be reduced to an ephemeral political calculation. Engaged writers and artists do not have to give up their independence of thought in order to conform to the stereotypes of militancy. An author's style is not shaped by decisions imposed from the outside, but by the evolution of the artist himself and his way of thinking.

As the world is in constant ebullition, horizons also change, interfering in the form and content of works of art. However, these transformations must be voluntary, based on deep convictions, and not guided by bureaucratic principles that stifle “the possibilities of the future still in germ”.[25] The artist's social commitment must not jeopardize the freedom of creation, because “even the most extravagant game of poetic fantasy and the most fantastic representations of phenomena are fully reconcilable with the Marxist conception of realism”.[26]

Resistance to dominating rationality has nothing to do with apathy or desertion in the face of the clamors of the hour. “The 'engaged' writer knows that the word is action: he knows that to unveil is to change and that one cannot reveal oneself without intending to change”, emphasized Jean-Paul Sartre in the presentation of the magazine Modern Times (October 1945). For the French philosopher, the function of the intellectual is to awaken consciences, preventing men from alienating or resigning themselves in the face of the questions around them.[27] The conscientious writer does not distance himself from the complexity of his time, nor dodges the problems that afflict society as a whole, but, as Graciliano taught, ensuring the integrity of aesthetic values.


Final considerations

We emphasize that, in the period that followed the denunciation of Stalin's crimes at the 1956th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1948, the PCB broke with the sectarian policy in force since 1958 and changed its programmatic line. In the Declaration of March XNUMX, the party advocated a nationalist and democratic government. The peaceful path to the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal revolution would be achieved by a united front encompassing the proletariat, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and “the sectors of the bourgeoisie linked to national interests”. In the pages of the party press, an intense debate began about the deformations of the Stalin era, with self-criticism from several intellectuals who had accepted the preaching of socialist realism.

Articles included in the October and November 1956 editions of the newspaper Popular Press, the official organ of the PCB published underground, summed up the feeling of rejection of dogmatisms. According to Jorge Amado, “the tremendous reflections of the cult of personality among us, our enormous errors, the absurdities of all sizes, the dehumanization that, like the most harmful and poisonous of herbs, flourished in the manure of the cult, here taken to the lowest forms ”. Astrojildo Pereira complained about the abuses practiced in the name of “revolutionary principles”, which denoted disapproval of intellectual work. After a self-criticism (“I include myself, one hundred percent, among those who most enthusiastically participated in Stalin's personality cult”), he fired: “The Franciscan poverty of our theoretical work has resulted in the stagnation of thought, in the dullness of the critical spirit and self-critical”.

Graciliano Ramos was no longer alive, at the end of the 1950s, to assess the repulsion of a considerable portion of the communist intelligentsia to the irrational imposition and passive acceptance of pamphlet art, during the height of the cold war. I think it is worth reiterating that, even misunderstood and even defamed, Graciliano Ramos never ceased to believe in socialism as a way out for humanity, nor to place himself as a party man. He never wrote a single line against the PCB, nor did he publicly show his divergences regarding socialist realism and the resulting contradictions.

I think that the balance sought by Graciliano Ramos between literature and political expression is due to his superior commitment to humanist values. He places himself from the point of view of marginalized social groups; groups that signaled the latent desire to break the fence of inequalities. In its fictional horizon, voices are projected that clamor for the enlargement of the level of conscience of the concrete totality of society, in particular of the subaltern sectors on which the deleterious consequences of capitalism fall. The novelist perceives the reflections of reality on social relations, correlating the universal and the particular, social dramas and intimate pain, ethical concern and moral grandeur.

Under no circumstances did he admit to negotiating the aesthetic substance of the revelation of reality. He rejected aestheticism devoid of human significance, with additional sensitivity to understand that, in a literary work worthy of the name, form and content evidence the artistic and ideological positions taken by the author – positions defined by the distinctions that unite and separate them in the space of creation. .

Graciliano embodied the critical intellectual who opposes the consensus forged by the dominant elites and ensures that the utopian discourse does not degenerate into messianic belief. “The artist must seek to tell the truth. Not the big truth, of course. Small truths, those that are known to us”, he clarified. In his novels, short stories, chronicles and memoirs, he confronted injustices without resorting to the false gold of slogans and propaganda formulas. He only needed sheets of paper and dry sentences to cast a powerful beam of light on the precarious contours of an alienated world.

By showing solidarity with lives degraded by discrimination and by structures that despoil work, Graciliano Ramos is telling us that the rescue of dignity depends on our ability to intervene in the public scene of politics with a transformative impetus. For this, he conceives an art that is irreducible to pamphletism, safe from naive or passing illusions, but organically committed to the long struggle for social emancipation.

*Denis de Moraes, journalist and writer, he is a retired professor at the Institute of Art and Social Communication at the Fluminense Federal University. Author, among other books, of Sartre and the press (mauad).

This text is based on issues addressed in my book Old Graça: a biography of Graciliano Ramos, which is completing 30 years of publication (José Olympio, 1992; Boitempo, 2012, in a revised and expanded edition).


[1] Edward Said. Representations of the intellectual: the 1993 Reith Lectures. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2005, p. 25-26.

[2] Carlos Nelson Coutinho, “Preface”. In: Denis de Moraes. Old Graça: a biography of Graciliano Ramos. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2012, p. 8.

[3] Denis de Moraes, old grace, ob. cit. P. 158-162.

[4] Interview by Licurgo Ramos Costa to Denis de Moraes, “The press underneath the cloth”, Valor Econômico, November 15, 2002.

[5] Interview by Joel Silveira to Gonçalo Jr, “The Intellectuals and the Estado Novo”, Mercantile Gazette, April 1-4, 1999.

[6] Antonio Candido, “Preface”. In: Sérgio Miceli. Brazilian intellectuals. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2001, p. 74.

[7] Denis de Moraes, old grace, ob. quote, p. 183.

[8) Moacir Werneck de Castro quoted in old grace, ob. cit., p. 186.

[9] Carlos Nelson Coutinho, “Preface”. In: old grace, ob. cit., p. 9.

[10] See Denis de Moraes. The surveilled imaginary: the communist press and socialist realism in Brazil (1947-1953). Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1994.

[11] The full interview by Graciliano Ramos to Newton Rodrigues, originally published in the magazine Renovation, is included, as an annex, in old grace, ob. cit., p. 349-356.

[12] Graciliano Ramos. Crooked lines. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 1989, p. 94.

[13] Graciliano Ramos quoted in Homero Senna. Republic of letters: interviews with 20 great Brazilian writers. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1996, p. 207.

[14] Paulo Mercadante quoted in old grace, ob. cit., p. 253.

[15] Paulo Mercadante quoted in old grace, ob. cit., p. 249-254.

[16] Graciliano Ramos. prison memories (vol. 1). Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2004, p. 248-249.

[17] Alfredo Bosi. Literature and resistance. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002, p. 222.

[18] Graciliano Ramos. travel. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2007, p. 69.

[19] Ibid, p 48-49.

[20] Ibid, p. 53 and 55.

[21] Ibid., p. 7.

[22] Ibid, p. 7 and 11.

[23] Graciliano Ramos. Anguish. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2003, p. 159.

[24] Lucien Goldmann. Criticism and dogmatism in modern culture. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1973, p. 33.

[25] György Lukács. Marxism and literary theory. Org. by Carlos Nelson Coutinho. Rio de Janeiro: Popular Expression, 2010, p. 274-275.

[26] György Lukács. Essays on Literature. Org. by Leandro Konder. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1968, p. 34.

[27] Jean-Paul Sartre. What is literature? São Paulo: Attica, 1993, p. 20-21.


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