José Cavalcante de Souza (1925-2020)

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By PAULO BUTTI DE LIMA*

Portrait of Greek Teacher and Translator

To remember José Cavalcante de Souza, we can borrow what was said by a Parnassian poet about a French Hellenist of the XNUMXth century: “no difficulty of the Greek could stop him, and his voice expressed a passion such as I have not known in any other man of our generation. The sight of just the Greek characters transported him with joy; in reading, it was visible that he was animated inwardly; in the commentary, it was an enthusiasm. His noble face lit up. With his pleasure in talking about the Greeks, he was excited to the point of forgetting the material demands of existence and well-being”.

Those who attended USP's Faculty of Letters in the early 1980s could still follow Professor Cavalcante's courses at the Colmeias building. At his side, a group of professors was in charge of teaching Greek and Latin who were responsible for an important renewal in classical studies at several Brazilian universities and who aroused a wide interest in ancient languages ​​in the country.

Cavalcante would then read excerpts from the Iliad in the original language, and made brief comments on the most complex aspects of the Homeric poem, its meter and, in general, its poetic structure, addressing a restricted audience of initiates. In addition to Homer, he paid particular attention to authors such as Pindar, Plato, and later Aristotle. Many of those who attended the Letras rooms with a certain frequency came from the Philosophy course, where we were introduced to pre-Socratic reflection thanks to the edition he organized for the collection “Os Pensadores”.

It is no coincidence that José Cavalcante de Souza chose to publish, among Platonic works, two translations of dialogues about love: the Banquet and the Phaedrus. One might, in fact, describe his relationship with all ancient Greek literature as an intense love affair.

More curious are the themes he explored as an introduction to these dialogues. In the translation of Banquet, appeared in 1966, it explains the nature of a critical edition of the ancient text. In other words, it prepares the reader for what not can find in a translation. It thus expressed the hope that a future reprint of this work might include the object to which the reader was being directed: the original text. Or rather, the result of the incessant search for the original lesson, as evidenced by the critical apparatus.

Already in the translation of Phaedrus, published in much more recent years, presents a delicate, subtle paraphrase, referring to the initial part of the dialogue. It is clear to the translator that, in front of these philosophical texts, we are in the vestibule of a palace. The translator is a kind of guide, or even a steward, who prepares us for an experience that he cannot, as a translator, offer his readers. He must only announce it, with gestures at once timid and solemn. Evoking the image of the vestibule for the Platonic text, Cavalcante describes it as “a broad reasoning about the main cultural and cultural forms of delirium, responsible for the greatest benefits to men”. The entrance to the building is adorned by deities – Apollo, Dionysus, the Muses and Eros. However, it must not be statues that we admire in this architectural journey towards philosophical work, but the very deities of the pagan world.

Interestingly (always according to Cavalcante), Plato, after placing us in front of this treasure, leads us not into the interior of the palace, as would be expected, but… “outwards”. Which is soon explained: "for the demonstration of the immortality of the soul" and the discovery of the order of the universe. This reverent and fearful guide and translator of the ancient work, having pointed to the vestibule of the house and to what is on the outside, is discreetly silent about what remains inside, in the philosopher's dwelling.

* Paulo Butti de Lima is a professor at the University of Bari, Italy. Author, among other books, of Plato: a poetics for philosophy (Perspective).

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