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It is imperative to reexamine the issue of national literature. After all, is the main focus literature or its qualifier?

It is known that the specific meaning of the term “literature” was only established at the end of the 1832th century; that it was accepted academically, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, under the rubric of history of literature, which at first included only old and national literature; that the historiographical criterion was so imposed that Gervinus, in the name of objectivity, stated that, “for the historian of literature, aesthetics is only an auxiliary means” (XNUMX).

It is also known that the reaction against this narrow historicization manifested itself at the beginning of the 1960th century (Croce and the Slavic Formalists) and reached its peak between the 1980s and XNUMXs.

For the theory of literature to establish itself among us, it would have to contradict a way of thinking that had been established since Gonçalves de Magalhães [1811-82]. In his “Discurso sobre a História da Literatura do Brasil” (1836), literature was presented as the quintessence of what would be best and most authentic in a people. And, as the country had become independent without a feeling of nationality that would integrate the regions, the service it would immediately render would be to propagate it.

Given the conditions of a rarefied and uncultured public, it would therefore have to tell an excited, enthusiastic and soon sentimental word, which entered the ears more than required intelligence. Within this short circuit, interest was directed towards the formation of a State and little concerned with literature itself.

This conjecture, moreover, was fulfilled in a century fundamentally focused on technological development and which sought – in the field that came to be called the human sciences – deterministic explanations, which seemed to extend the deterministic causalities established in the field of natural sciences.

Hence the importance that Sílvio Romero would assume and the timidity with which his opponent, José Veríssimo, attempted a reasonably close approximation of what constituted the text. In short, nationality, historical-deterministic explanation, sociologism and easily accessible language were traits that kept literary work far away from the reflexive circuit.

Machado's genius would have suffered the same ostracism that buried Joaquim de Sousândrade if the novelist had not learned to use capoeira tactics in social relations. First sign of his cleverness: not insisting on the exercise of criticism. If he had persevered with articles like his "Instinct of Nationality" (1873), he would probably have multiplied ferocious enemies. In return, the creation of the Academia Brasileira de Letras put him in cordial relations with the scholars and with the compadres of the “owners of power”.

His intellectual salvation, however, was paid for by the stabilization of the lines established since Independence. Thus, neither the speculative streak that made Germany a center of reference – even when, in the 18th century, it was politically a zero to the left – nor the ethical-pragmatic line that would distinguish England.

Instead of one or the other, we have maintained, like all of Hispanic America, the tradition of the word rhetoric, and that without even bothering to study rhetorical treatises. The lexicon could be complicated, extremely complicated, as in “Os Sertões” or even in Augusto dos Anjos, as long as all that was nothing more than a mist, with the appearance of an erudite.

This mark of Brazilian literature was maintained during the golden years of international theoretical reflection (between 1960 and 1980); those who rebelled against it, like Haroldo de Campos, were marginalized. While, in those decades, the theory of literature echoed even in neighboring areas – the reflection on the writing of history and the reexamination of anthropological practice –, in our days, the theory is at a low ebb.

But that does not make our case any less endowed with particularized characteristics. Although theoretical reflection and literary work no longer have the prestige that the former had gained for some time and the latter had maintained since the late XNUMXth century, this does not prevent theoretical, analytical and literary works from appearing in the so-called First World. important books of literature, while among us, with the exception of the novel, both poetic and theoretical works run the risk of their titles not even reaching the attention of readers; and, as they do not circulate, the possibility of finding editors becomes progressively less.

For globalization has corresponded to the constitution of a greater abyss separating the developed world from the rest. This indicator seems to emphasize that the study of literature itself needs to be reformulated; that its drastic separation from neighboring areas, above all from philosophy and anthropology, is catastrophic for it.

And this for two reasons: on the one hand, because literature does not have the conditions to know itself – its region that can be conceptualized, both in prose and in poetry, is that of fiction, that is, the one that defines itself as what And what is not. And, on the other hand, it is unable to compete with products from directly industrial or electronic media.

Two immediate consequences stand out: (a) the scarcity of theoretical reflection helps to perpetuate traditional critical judgments. Our literary canon is maintained less for ideological reasons than for lack of alternative; (b) with this, it increases the impossibility of an effective comparison with works from other literatures, which, then, remain unknown and, because they are unknown, increase the abyss between ours and other literatures.

Is there anything to be done about it? A suitable starting point would be to reexamine the issue of national literature. After all, when we dedicate ourselves to literature, is our main focus literature or its qualifier, is it from this or that nationality? Does the concept of national have no limits? Nobody considers the nationality of scientific knowledge.

The extension of the concept of nationality to literature and culture in general was explainable in the context of the XNUMXth century. Keeping it, these days, means reducing literature, at best, to a document of everyday life. But how to undertake this questioning without theoretical reflection?

* Luiz Costa Lima is Professor Emeritus at PUC-Rio. Author, among other books by History, Fiction, Literature (Company of Letters).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, on August 27, 2006.


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