Manoel Bomfim and the burden of history

Image: Vlado Paunovic


O Unique Nietzscheanism in the work of the doctor and educator from Sergipe

Latin America: evils of origin (1905), by Sergipe physician and educator Manoel Bomfim, is still capable of enabling a consistent (re)reading of the historicity planes entangled with the national experience, something that certainly involves the meanings of being, and not being, Brazilian( The). The reading of this matrix text can configure, in some way, what we are and what we can still be. As Luiz Costa Lima once said: “Classic is the plastic text, capable of adapting to different 'truths', without seeming to be subject to one” (LIMA, 2006, p. 242).

In this sense, by decomposing the narrative structure of the well-known essay, we perceive different ways of elaborating the temporality underlying the republican dawn. However, a reference that has not yet been researched by the critical fortune of the book, which is that of Friedrich Nietzsche.[I] There is an underground Nietzscheanism, even if diffuse and refigured, moving part of the book's plot.

However, mapping the traces of this philosophy in the famous essay is not a simple task, as they are mixed with other bibliographic records, many of which are antagonistic. Manoel Bomfim's eclecticism made him transit through different lines of thought, crossing them even if at first they seemed conflicting. In addition, the work in question has a formal particularity: Manoel Bomfim seems not to have been concerned with carefully referencing the authors mobilized in the work, and passages from books were attached to the main text without a consistent visual distinction. Many of them have quotation marks, but it is not known who they belong to.

Concepts, categories and notions are moved around at work without knowing their origin. In any case, there is indeed a unique Nietzscheanism in Manoel Bomfim, as we consider the reading process as an inventive and creative exercise. The reader resignifies the discursive plane, given that interpretation is a non-restrictive horizon. Reading is “a creative practice that invents unique meanings and contents, not reducible to the intentions of the authors of the texts or the producers of the books” (CHARTIER, 1992, p. 214).

On the other hand, it is possible that Manoel Bomfim's Nietzsche is inserted in what Luiz Costa Lima called the precariousness of the Brazilian intellectual system. The author's Nietzschean reading must be understood within the horizons of the “auditory culture”, a constituent part of this system. Nietzsche's ideas, in dialogue with auditivity, may have been mobilized in order to incite persuasion, through staging, as a way to make the audience receptive, considering that the philosopher was becoming known by that generation. What Luiz Costa Lima suggests is the possibility of the rhetorical use of certain ideas as a way of prefiguring the reader.

Manoel Bomfim would not need, from the perspective of audibility, to rationally demonstrate Nietzsche's ideas. The important thing was convincing, regardless of the theoretical means used to do so (LIMA, 1981). This disposition of the Brazilian intellectual system can prove to be a very fruitful way to trace part of Nietzsche's thought in Latin America, considered by Manoel Bomfim himself as an “original” construct.

On the disadvantages of history for life: conservatism as a burden

The verification, in addition to a Nietzschean vocabulary inscribed in the book, of elective affinities seems credible. In this way, we will explore both the appropriations of this philosophy made by Manoel Bomfim and the possible distances between the two thoughts. Nietzsche and the Brazilian intellectual dialogued about the meaning of historical becoming, especially with regard to the restrictive (and reactive) role of the past, responsible for immobilizing the life and action of human beings along the planes of existence, making it impossible for them to act freely. The tone of criticism present in the 1905 Brazilian book seems to have changed little in relation to what Nietzsche wrote in O birth of tragedy (1872), in the second untimely consideration (1874) and in Thus spake Zarathustra (1883): the burden of history would eradicate the future (WHITE, 1994).

There are direct quotations from Nietzsche, but Manoel Bomfim did not say which books he specifically read. We traced a certain capillarity of the Nietzschean lexicon mobilized by the author through intertextual inferences. In one of the passages in which the philosopher appears, we perceive the disadvantages of history for life in Latin America: “Nietzsche is right when he says that disrespect and disrespect are an essential condition for all progress. The South American nations have to recompose their entire political, administrative, economic, social and intellectual life; if they don't want to die stagnant, petty and ridiculous, they have to fight a systematic, direct, formal fight, consciously directed against the past” (BOMFIM, 2005, p. 178).

The passage in question activates a whole network of Nietzschean conclusions regarding the meaning of history that were in line with the plot of Latin America. The “burden of the past”, to use Hayden White's well-known interpretation, would be responsible for avoiding the dynamism of life, preventing the elevation of free spirits. The authors placed here in an affinity mode were critical of the conservatism imposed by the labors of the past, responsible for the staticity of becoming, impassive of serving, then, human life; elaborating itself repeatedly without a sense of change being able to be extracted. Manoel Bomfim wanted, just as Nietzsche asserted, to transcend the excess of history: “and we, if we don't want to be devoured, we must fly, relieved of all the luggage that fills the sluggish spirits” (BOMFIM, 2005, p. 179).

But let it be clear: we do not want to assimilate Manoel Bomfim as a Nietzschean strictly speaking. The Nietzschean vestiges in Latin America they are multidirectional, and even if we see the ideas of “burden of history” and conservatism in the essay, they do not appear in a “pure” way, but connected in the most distinct ways with other currents of thought. For example: it is possible that, in certain situations, Nietzschean traces approach social Darwinism in terms of the semantics of the “struggle for life”.

Ultimately, it is counterproductive to choose a line of appropriation in the face of Bomfim's universalist eclecticism. For Roberto Ventura, the “unity of knowledge” sought by authors since 1870, unlike the disciplinary specialization that will define intellectual standards from the mid-twentieth century onwards, demanded a writing model that made possible “an eclectic concatenation of theories and knowledge disparate, presented as 'universal' knowledge” (VENTURA, 1991, p. 41).

Anyway, there is a concept created by Bomfim capable of connecting the reflections of Latin America with Nietzschean ideas about the “burden of history”. This is conservatism. It designates a way of acting socially, which in this case was transmitted to the ruling elites by the Iberian colonizers. Its semantic load indicates an aversion to change on the part, mainly, of Latin American politicians. According to the essayist: “They cannot stand things changing” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 116).

These individuals, responsible for local public administration, were incapable of perceiving the most basic principle of historical transformation: evolution. “In practice, all these men of the ruling classes are passive slaves to tradition and routine; they are active only to oppose any effective innovation, any real, progressive transformation” (BOMFIM, 2008, p, 116). It could be said that this way of dealing with the past instilled feelings of fear and even laziness, as they “kept it” because they believed that in this way they would avoid misfortune and the unforeseen.

A kind of “monster past” was claimed, which in one way or another immobilized the present and arbitrarily inhabited the future. Let’s just see the unfolding of this way of elaborating historical time in Latin American politics: “History will show us that, in South American nationalities, even before complete independence, a “conservative” party already appears, weighing decisively on the march of public affairs” (BOMFIM, 2008: 116-117).

It is true that Nietzsche's reflection was focused on historicism, in its form and content. The excess of history would appear as a social dysfunction. Here, a criticism was made of the conservation of the past, which in excessive proportions would hinder the activity of individuals. It was no coincidence that the philosopher even spoke of hatred for history (WHITE, 1994). Nietzsche's perception of historical time was contrary to the staticity of the past.

For the philosopher of Röcken, as it was for Manoel Bomfim, we should print a critical record of the present. In this way, history would come to be assimilated as the awareness of the becoming of things. This proved to be fundamental for Brazilian scholars to turn against congenital South American conservatism. In a way, the subject's crisis before the past would be established from the moment in which the plastic force of becoming presented itself, then, weakened in the face of the ascendancy of the antiquarian instinct that would choose not life, but truth as adequacy, which could to be perceived, to dialogue with Manoel Bomfim, as a disciplined social norm.

But what did they intend, in Manoel Bomfim's view, to preserve these ruling classes? The answer to this question is one of the paths that makes it possible, in theory, to verify an appropriation of Nietzschean semantics in Latin America: evils of origin. In the approximate case explored the sociology of the Frenchman Gabriel Tarde. The past, manifested in the form of conservatism, would impede life and progress, taken solely as a synonym for improvement. There would be submission to the will of some anticipatory horizon of destiny (metaphysical?) of experience. A fight should be undertaken against the rigidity of the human range of action due to a behavioral control derived from tradition.

According to Manoel Bomfim: “Only if it is precisely decadence, social resignation, and everything else that ties us to the past, is obstinately opposed to life and progress, which is nothing more than the incessant loss of habits, the struggle against established customs , the adoption of what is fashionable and what is new, as opposed to the tendency of the lazy and timid to imitate history” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 117).

The Northeastern essayist created an image to portray this way of experiencing time: that of subjects planted like trees, in which the extension of the roots prevented things from transforming around themselves. This disposition towards life implied the paralysis of becoming, the impossibility of perceiving things in the world in constant transformation. The past would reign through the sign of immobilizing repetition.

Manoel Bomfim then clarified his “burden of history”: “They are not satisfied with being immobile; they want the whole world to petrify and life to stop being an evolution and to be just a repetition, so that they see tomorrow what they see today, and what they saw yesterday – universal stagnation” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 117). It is perfectly believable that we verify this appropriation of Nietzsche by Bomfim because it is in the context of this argument that we find the direct reference to Nietzsche in the text. This conservative obsession, most likely drawn from a diffuse reading of the philosopher of Röcken, would be a feeling that dragged the performance and action of our politicians.

We can be more explicit about the “burden of history” affecting our public agents: “The feelings, and the customs, which are inspired by them, are always retarded, in relation to intelligence” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 118). Conservation could not be constituted, in this sense, as an active action by anyone, since this movement would demonstrate passivity. The past should not be taken as a noun, but as an adjective. Disposition that would break with its arbitrary impositions. Conscious efforts should be fostered to change the meaning of human becoming. This disposition would provide true self-knowledge to the subjects, molding themselves, not being, therefore, determined by the past.

In this sense, “The greatness of man is expressed by the constant effort to better understand his needs, to know something new; to continue, to conserve is the work of the dead; to live is to add something to what exists, to eliminate what is no longer suitable” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 118). This temporal decrepitude, the work of preserving the past, in which the transmissibility of culture immobilized the present and prefigured the future, devastated public agents. This was a burden, admitted Manoel Bomfim, of the colonial heritage.

The Iberian past presented itself as a Medusa, and this had strong social implications. The conservatism of the ruling classes materialized in the defense of group privileges, promoting advantages, abuses and iniquities. Wherever the past operated in the conservative way there would be a privilege that one wished to retain. “Society stopped, parked, is synonymous with finished and exhausted” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 119). What would be right would be the search for a way that would allow the vital overflow of becoming, which ultimately would mean transformation in all senses, a way that would open conditions for the satisfaction of new needs and a possible way for the claimed reforms.

Ultimately, one should not impede the development of becoming by conserving the past. In addition to this action making life dynamics impossible, it was a source of maintenance of social inequalities and class prerogatives. “Rectors suppose to stifle the approaching future, under the weight of old and distorted truths, inferred from extinct realities – dead abstractions, empty frames, because life is already diverse, always new, always changing” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 120). In yet another passage we see the harmful effects of history on life, which Manoel Bomfim projected for understanding the conservatism of South American leaders, subjects who used tradition as a form of domination: “To justify this inconsequential conservatism, an appeal is made to all common sense formulas; not the common sense that is inspired day by day by real needs, but a common sense that comes from parents and children, by inheritance and tradition, the common sense of other eras, referring to things and needs that no longer exist” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 121).

But not only the leaders were affected by the paralysis imposed by the historical past, which in the case of these agents was manipulated for their own and class benefit. Society itself as a whole was conservative in its behavioral intricacies. The past, the archaism, overlapped the other temporalities, making the plans of historicity static, unable to be plastically dynamized as life.

Manoel Bomfim argues that “these societies are generally archives of archaic institutions and customs with modern labels; a modern glossary designating an obsolete world. The ancient age has survived at all. Institutions remain unchanged, through multiple political revolutions; each one of them is an archaeological phenomenon, when it is not a fossil whose classification would be very difficult, if its affiliation did not exist in history” (BOMFIM, 2008, p. 122).

Conservatism was a colonial heritage, and it fostered its main vector: “social parasitism”, that is, the dynamics of exploitation that moved the history of Latin America. It would be characteristic of parasitism, from the moment that a social “organism” began to live at the expense of another, the aversion to transformation, which defined the progressiveness of historical development. The parasitic dynamic saw no need to change, it did not want to change the situation, as that would mean changing the status quo. We see, then, Bomfim's eclecticism adding Nietzschean traces, manifest in the perception of the burden of history, with an organicist explanatory logic of society.

The past, which materialized in tradition, should be available to men and women through a movement that would provide opportunities for the assertive unveiling of historical development, far from being the main protagonist of human historicity. That is to say, the very facticity of existence demanded plastic (and active) forms of relationship with temporality, given that there would be nothing to be lost with the horizons of transformation, since embedded in the devinience of experience, in the rhythm of such mutations, individuals , or societies, could open themselves to (im)possible worlds, making the past a non-static instance.

As Nietzsche writes, “When the sense of a people is hardened in this way, when history serves past life in such a way, when the historical sense no longer preserves life but mummifies it: then the tree naturally dies, from top to bottom, gradually towards the roots – in the end, even the roots perish together” (NIETZSCHE, 2003, p. 28).

In this direction, Nietzsche's theorization, empirically proven by Manoel Bomfim, indicated the possibility of the past paralyzing existence. Thus, and the two authors were in agreement, it would be necessary to deny it so that one could dive back into the experience and extract from it the conditions for an affirmative life. Thus, subjects should unburden themselves from the past, a movement that would make possible the emergence of the present and its demands, which once experienced became, once again, the mainstay for the dynamicity of human historicity.

*Piero Detoni He holds a PhD in Social History from the University of São Paulo (USP).


BOMFIM, Manuel. Latin America: evils of origin. Rio de Janeiro: Edelstein Center for Social Research, 2008.

CHARTIER, Roger. Texts, printing, reading. In: HUNT, L. (org.). The new cultural history. SP: Martins Fontes, 1992.

LIMA, Luiz Costa. On precarious existence: the intellectual system in Brazil. In: _____; Scattered Demand: Essays on Literature and Theory. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves Bookshop, 1981.

NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Second untimely consideration: on the usefulness and disadvantage of history for life. Trans. Marco Antonio Casanova. Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumara, 2003.

VENTURA, Roberto. Tropical style: cultural history and literary controversies in Brazil. 1870-1914🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1991.

WHITE, Hayden. The burden of history. In:_____. Tropics of discourse: essays on the critique of culture🇧🇷 São Paulo: Edusp, 1994.


[I] It should be said that the signal for the reception of Nietzsche in Bomfim was indicated by the historian Luiz Carlos Bento in his doctoral thesis (2015).

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