José Cavalcante de Souza (1925-2020) – II

Thyago Nogueira (Journal de Resenhas)


Intellectual Profile of the Greek Teacher and Translator

Professor José Cavalcante de Souza died in São Paulo on May 23, as a result of a stroke that had hit him a few years earlier and left him practically immobilized in his arms and legs. I visited it with JAA Torrano a couple of years ago; he was quite fragile, but his head was still good, remembering everything and speaking slowly.

He said to me in a low voice: “illness is a very annoying thing”, and I remembered that, in the years we spent together, I had never seen the sick teacher. What I retained in the memory of that meeting was the mention of the publication of the Iliad of Homer, whose translation he was doing, little by little, throughout his life and had long since been finished. He, however, always very strict, hesitated to make it public. I think it is an immense luxury to die leaving Iliad translated in the drawer.

A Iliad It was the teacher's favorite book. He wanted his translation to convey the beauty and sound of hexameters and, as much as possible, be close to the original. Years ago, when he celebrated his golden anniversary, the daughters organized a party for their parents and among the guests were some professors of Greek and also Leon Kossovitch of philosophy. At the end of the party, Professor Cavalcante asked Leon and me to accompany him to the room, which was already empty, and he, taking a certain amount of typewritten sheets of paper, invited us to listen to the reading of his translation of the first song of the Iliad. Gift from the gods: an experience difficult to describe.

Professor Cavalcante began his teaching career at the University of São Paulo in 1956, when the Greek course was directed by French professor Robert Aubreton. I remember that, when I entered the Faculty, in 1963, I noticed a certain movement among the professors for two reasons: on the one hand, the return of Professor Aubreton to France, after ten years in Brazil; on the other, the defense of Professor Cavalcante's titular thesis. The two reasons came together because Professor Aubreton insisted on being present on the panel.

Professor Cavalcante's thesis, entitled “The characterization of the sophists in the first Platonic dialogues”, was published in Bulletin nº 308 of the then Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters of USP, in 1969. Perhaps it is opportune to clarify that the Doctorate on “The Plato's Banquet”, under the guidance of the French professor, had been defended in 1961 and published in 1966. Both reveal, from the outset, the philosophical tendency of Professor Cavalcante's research. If, for ten years, Professor Aubreton created at USP a tradition of university work for classical studies, it was now up to Professor Cavalcante to continue this work. And so it was.

Subsequently, becoming professor of Greek, Professor Cavalcante accumulated several administrative functions related to the Greek, Literature and Faculty courses. In the specific case of the Greek course, he never missed his class load, divided equally among all professors. In the division of classes, he had a certain preference for philosophical subjects, but he could dedicate himself to reading any text. He was an excellent teacher, not only because of his broad and deep knowledge or his teaching experience, but also because of the inner strength that he emanated and stimulated his students. He believed that a good teaching job would guarantee the survival of the course, since, at that time, it was necessary to be attentive to insinuations about the existence of courses with few students. The Greek courses had few students, few entered the entrance exam and the curriculum structure did not allow openings.

In general, the Greek course maintained the basic structure of previous years. Sometimes, the professor would propose a change in the program, which was not always accepted by all professors in the area. However, as he was a boss open to discussions, he listened to the opposing arguments and, conciliatory, won the dispute with the argument that he would implement the new discipline and be its first teacher.

I remember two occasions when this happened. Once, there was a proposal to introduce a discipline on the pre-Socratics; again on archaic Greek lyric. Criticisms regarding the two disciplines focused on the difficulty of dealing with very fragmented and difficult-to-translate texts. In addition, there was a lack of good translations of the poems and fragments and the supporting bibliography. The professor liked the pre-Socratics and the works of German philosophers, which had good repercussions at the time, but they were too difficult for a second year of Greek.

In short, the disciplines were taught by him and the results were positive. There was no one who did not like the courses, above all, for the innovative way of presenting the fragmentary material which, being fragmented, opened the possibility of other interpretations. In both cases, the professor organized the material, looking in the library for everything that could be consulted, and translated several texts of the texts used. The results were positive because they opened new lines of research in the area of ​​Greek, as confirmed by the monographs and theses that appeared later.

The collection of poems by lyric poets, which he translated and used in his Lyrics course, was published in the magazine Finisher of Evils, 4, from Unicamp, in 1984 []. Likewise, the first volume of the Collection The Thinkers about “The pre-Socratics” (Abril Cultural, 1973), which he organized and translated with the collaboration of several colleagues, has its embryo in the course of the pre-Socratics.

In 1970, Professor Cavalcante expanded his teaching activity, starting to teach ancient philosophy in the Philosophy department. It was a difficult moment, in the middle of the military dictatorship, when the department lost several important professors: some deprived of their political rights and others exiled. The department ran the risk of even being closed down due to a lack of professors and, above all, tenured professors. For this reason, they turned to Professor Cavalcante, who would never refuse to collaborate in such a serious situation. Other teachers also came to help rebuild the picture. Since then, he began teaching classes in ancient philosophy, and when the situation resolved, he continued until retirement. As if that weren't enough, I think it's important to note that he left one of his best articles in the magazine “Discurso”,2 published by the Department of Philosophy: “A reminiscência em Plato” (1971) [ /discurso/article/view/37720], in addition to “For a reading of Aristotle's Physics”, “Discourse”, 11, 1979 [] .

In early 1988, Professor Cavalcante retired from the University of São Paulo. I remember that your last graduate course in Letters was about the translation and commentaries of the pythics of Pindar, a poet whom he greatly admired and enjoyed translating. He came to classes, with his typed sheets, which contained his precious translations. I don't know if he translated them all, because he never published them, but the Pythian Ode VIII, appeared in the magazine Almanac, 8, in 1978, well before its course.

Then he went to Unicamp. Not only did he change his place of work, but also his home: he went to Valinhos in the interior of São Paulo. It was a complete separation from colleagues and friends at USP. We rarely heard from him. When I met him again, in São Paulo, he had suffered a stroke a few years before, but had managed, in 2016, to publish the translation of Phaedrus, with the help of JAA Torrano, and to re-edit the Banquet, both by Editora 34. On the day of the reunion, I took Plato's two books with me for him to sign, which he did with great difficulty.

*Filomena Hirata is a retired professor of Greek language and literature at USP.

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