learning labyrinths

Image: Eduardo Berliner.


Commentary on the book by Marcus Vinicius Mazzari

Shortly after his generous dedication to the extremely complicated task of annotating the two parts of the auspicious by Goethe, offering the Brazilian public valuable, precise comments, derived from his prolonged interaction with the greatest tragedy of modernity, Marcus Vinicius Mazzari brings to light an excellent collection of essays, learning labyrinths, dedicated to the understanding of fundamental themes of literary studies such as the Faustian pact and the formative novel (Bildungsroman).

As the errant suggestion of the title and according to the tentative nature of the chosen genre (essay), these are critical approaches that, although always accompanied by rigorous observations, still consider the vacillation and elasticity that the comprehensive treatment of literary issues demands. From the introductory pages, the dilemma of cohesion and disparity that the author's search for justifications warns: Goethe, Rosa, Keller, Pompéia, Musil, Bandeira, Brecht. Suggestively, the “red thread” of the English navy is borrowed, which, woven into the most diverse objects, accuses the crown and its ownership in everything, corresponding, in the elective affinities, to a “thread of affection and dilection” verifiable in the uneven notes of the girl Otília.

In Mazzari's set of essays, the fiber is widely sewn: it would be the comparative resource, as well as the dominant presence of authors from Brazilian and German literature, perhaps its weaving. As usual in the field of comparative literature, affinities and possible links between peers are used – comparing also means thinking (denken heißt vergleichen): Rosa and Keller approach each other in approaching their capital works, an “irrational autobiography” (big hinterland) and a “romantic life” (the green henry); also the books by Pompéia and Musil, “fictionalizations of boarding school experiences”; as well as Bandeira and Brecht in the “complex simplicity of lyrical expression”; and even Kafka and Grass, “resistance writers”.

However, the regulatory appearance of affinities is threatened from the very first moment of its formulation. Mazzari knows it: planting similarities and harvesting differences, frightening (remember the aversion of the girl Otília in the face of apes) understanding constitutes, dialectically, the discipline that, thus “conscientious and hesitant” – turns out to be original. That is to say, the oscillation between the even and the odd and the odd has nothing to do with the indecision of the method, but, overcoming the contradiction, concerns the seriousness of Mazzari's analytical procedure, admittedly experimental, as is proper to scientific investigation. To repeat the jagunço Riobaldo: monkey, here, “wears clothes”.

In the first and most extensive of the rehearsals, Mazzari faces Grande Sertão: paths, privileging its mixed status as a formative novel and a Faustian narrative. He draws on unusual knowledge of the German literary tradition and chooses decisive moments from the parzifal, by Wolfram von Eschenbach, to the narrative of the pactarian Leverkühn, by Thomas Mann, in order to approach the novel by Guimarães Rosa. Fair procedure, that the Minas Gerais writer’s familiarity with the German language, literature and culture – “in a recent survey, we verified the presence of more or less 360 titles in the writer’s library belonging to the Institute of Brazilian Studies of the University of São Paulo that attest to the coexistence with German authors and themes” – he complains, as well as the primary vocation of Rosa’s work, translated, from the sagarana, in the commonplace of the synthesis between regional and universal.

It is about questioning, therefore, the dimensions of the big hinterland, as well as facing the very legitimate question: what does a novelistic fabulation, “warlike and loving demand”, side by side with the names of Joyce, Proust, Kafka or Musil mean? In fact, as Mazzari says, the “impression of the extemporaneous” emerges. And doubly so: on the one hand, Guimarães Rosa echoes local regionalism, responding to the rural tradition of Brazilian literature, which distances it from the aforementioned names; on the other hand, in big hinterland there are elements of “an even more remote epic”, retreating to properties of the chivalric romance.

However, we could say that the “expression of the contemporary” also appears, that is, its conformity with the modern novel of other cultures, realized in the complex and multiform artifice of the sermo riobaldinus. For the critic, the question is inevitable: how to face the disorder, the devil in the text? According to the lesson of the old jagunço, God is patience, he waits for “spending” (training?). According to Mazzari's lesson, so too does the water of critical activity (it hits so much that it breaks).

Initially, the specificity of the Rosiano demo will be recognized, since the sertaneja narrative is opposed to the most important achievements of the literary motif of the pact: the popular book of 1587, History of D. Johann Fausten, Tragicall History of Marlowe, the auspicious of Goethe, the Doctor Faust of Mann especially. (As a contribution, let us recall that during Rosa's stay in Hamburg, according to an entry in her diary, the writer came across Selma Lagerlöf's 1891 novel, Like Berling, in which both the motif of the pact and the formation of the knight belong to the principal of the action.)

In Mazzari's study, the comparative method makes it possible to affirm the particularity that, in the big hinterland, resides under the sign of the “ominous”. For the comic element, so dear to Rosa in so many respects, does not belong to the devil – “The-who-never-laughs, the No-Jokes” –, contrary to Marlowe's malignant burlesque, Mann's ironic and with Goethe's playfulness; still diverging from the “pusillanimous and complaining” devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky's book. Following the study – an important step in the analysis –, an attempt is made to distinguish evil from evil, devil do evil, The Evil e das bose, in the confused speech of the narrator. From the initial appearance of the “error calf” as a possible manifestation of the evil one, passing through the stories of Aristides, Jisé Simpilício, Aleixo, Pedro Pindó, Jazevedão and even Maria Mutema, examples of evil in practice, Riobaldo’s speech builds up the sertaneja landscape as a space of “subdemonity” (an expression taken from Mann's novel).

We are led little by little, in this way, to the ever more human question with which the narrator deals: the man who “who knows?” is the devil and the God of man - Who knows? In this sense, Hermógenes is emblematic, a character still very expressive and impenetrable, “irreducible and unconditionally evil”, the evil in his acts and the bond with the devil, endorsing in him, still, the ominous feature. Explanatory here is the comparison with the Simplicissimus, by Grimmelshausen, which inserts the representation of evil into historical dynamics, summarized in the speech and actions of the character Olivier; the character of Hermógenes, in turn, seems to ignore presuppositions other than the spontaneity of congenital evil, accentuating the mythical nature of the character.

Still on the Faustian theme, we follow the preparation for the pact and its dubious realization. It is better understood, with Mazzari, the true mastery with which Rosa organizes the scene from the repeated references to the treatment effected by Hermógenes, from, above all, from the sequence of events and indications that announce the progress of Riobaldo's pact with the intensification of the adversities that hit the band of jagunços under the leadership of Zé Bebelo after the battle at Fazenda dos Tucanos: the restlessness and the encounter with the Catrumanos, the glimpse of the crossroads, the episode with the farmer Habão, the news of the arrival of João Goanhá , questioning the leadership.

The pact scene itself has elements borrowed from tradition, such as the choice of the number “three” (only Riobaldo’s third attempt will be “successful”), midnight, the allusion to the “dog that smells me ”, the situation arranged at the “crossroads” (still mirrored in the sky of the Cruzeiro do Sul), the clauses and the invocation. And there are also the effects of the pact: the cold and the fever and the end of dreams, the aggressiveness, the talk and the orders and the leadership conquered with violence seem to confirm the beginning of the “deadlines”.

However, peculiar to Rosa's novel is the indetermination that the silence of the pact and the subjective dimension of the scene produce. In this regard, the ambiguity of the scene that takes place inside the protagonist is highlighted: “Hey, Lucifer! Satan, of my Hells!”. Such vagueness and subjectivity of the agreement with the evil one are crucial to Mazzari's analysis, which directs the study towards the conclusion by shifting the focus from the Faustian tradition to that of the romance of formation. The simultaneous configuration of the modern and the extemporaneous in Rosa's novel contributes to the understanding of the “alchemical transformation of existence” in Riobaldo's trajectory according to the lineage of “initiation novels”.

The model – both in the sense of the initiation of the ancients and the formation of the moderns – is in many ways contrary to the notion of rupture (breakthrough) that the Faustian action commonly proposes. According to the paradigm of the formation novel, The Learning Years of Wilhelm Meister, happiness stems from knowing the limits that necessarily prune the subject's unconditional aspiration, a foreign element to the unstoppable satisfaction of desires and aspirations of the best known pacts. Unlike these, the “beginner” Riobaldo is unaware of the right move, but associates himself with the doubt inherent in the costly exercise of freedom, as exemplified by the passages in the narrative in which he overcomes his impetuous nature and avoids the consummation of rape or murder.

In terms of action, more similarities point to alignment with the species of the wilhelm meister: thus the flight from the parental home, for example, or the education of feelings with different women; thus the wide and diverse number of characters that cross the paths of the protagonist, the profusion of adventures; thus the teachings, the importance of Zé Bebelo, above all; thus the “viccissitudes and contradictions of reality”, the mistakes and the gradual maturation, “in the sense of an awareness of its role in the world”, guide Mazzari's critical decision: “Grande Sertão: paths can legitimately be seen in the tradition of the formation and development novel”.

Such an association, however, does not want to “pick up the moon and the stars with your hand and keep them in your little box”, to use Schlegel's expression mentioned in the essay on Keller. Incidentally, only in this one – a rare contribution to the study of German bourgeois realism, largely unknown to the Brazilian public –, given the complexity of the subject, is the critical question of the first essay complemented, unfolding the historical problematization of the concept (Education, formation) that entitles the modality (Bildungsroman, formation novel) and its forms of understanding. Perhaps this is the general movement of Mazzari's book, a movement of expansion, in which the essays, once read, expand translucently on top of each other. Not the old resource of the epic, formulated as a “perspective reduction of understanding” by Musil, but the expansion carried out through the most difficult ways as can be the works of Goethe, Rosa, Keller, Pompéia, Musil, Bandeira, Brecht.

*Daniel R. Bonomo Professor of Brazilian Literature at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

Originally published in the magazine Advanced Studies no. 71, April 2011.



Marcus Vinicius Mazzari. learning labyrinths: Faustian pact, formation novel and other themes of comparative literature. São Paulo, Publisher 34, 2010, 320 pages.


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