Janet LedgerMidland Landscape


Commentary on Henry Burnett's Newly Released Book

Meio-dia is the name of a new book by philosopher, musician and composer Henry Burnett. The work is a minimal memory whose title – like its author – is multifaceted and can lead the reader either to one of the most beautiful metaphors of Nietzschean philosophy: noon, the moment of the shortest shadow or the hour without shadows, or the famous stanza of the song by Caetano Veloso: “sunshine, let the leaf bring and translate”, a precious stanza both for vegetables and for poets and song writers.

Henry Burnett (for those who know his books and songs) has a wide command of the philosophical and musical world of Nietzsche and Caetano Veloso. However, Meio-dia, in his first piece entitled Aunt Lucy speaks of a sun, perhaps less known, of the Amazonian midday, specifically that of Belém. From the suffocating, oppressive and historical sun, historical because it has already melted many European makeups and delusions in the Amazon and, perhaps, has melted the dream of old Aunt Lucy Burnett, a Scottish, cultured and distinguished lady who, somehow, understood (disappointedly) that elegance in Scotland and Brazil are not the same thing.

In fact, ostentation would be a more appropriate term for us Brazilians, a gesture that dispenses with elegance: this can be seen in the very criticism that the narrator makes of his father, the man who “boasted a bourgeois arrogance incompatible with his meager income” (Aunt Lucy, P. 17). In any case, aristocracy is an aphrodisiac and forever seduced the Burnett boy. What little is understood, perhaps, is that one of the most aristocratic gestures – revealed by Aunt Lucy herself – consists of the gesture of saving books.

His gift of books to his nephew and the question, “Are you ambitious?” cannot be disconnected in the text, since what is “bastard” (this was how the nephew was previously seen by the austere aunt) can often be what seduces and redeems the nobility. By the way, isn't this one of the great lessons given by one of the great masters of reminiscence? Wasn't it Proust himself who described the nobles' secret taste and curiosity for the buzz that comes from the servants inside the kitchens? Servants who appear in the story of erotic advantages for children and youth of the narrator: “Babysitters, maids, imprecise women” (Games children, P. 37), in the test of the first steps with Don Juanism, including Don Juanism with one's own body, with one's own memory, because there is no memory without naughty, memory with “the time to open and close the towel” (idem).

From childhood reminiscences, the house with a “wooden and cotton wall in the backyard” (Scenario a little later, P. 27). Time when cotton was planted by grandmothers and mothers for the use of homemade medicine or for urgent cases of kids who used cotton from the backyard when they pierced their foot or stanched scraped knees (all this hidden from their mothers). Melancholy of a city, memories of cotton, which bring lightness and wounds at the same time, and even the artificial Cidade Nova de Ananindeua, which once again had nothing, made backyards disappear, cotton plants and made the pharmacology around every corner.

The reader, therefore, will realize that a very peculiar memory “is the absence of a house” (The house, P. 31). This apparent emptiness in childhood can reveal, in adult life, advantages for other forms of life, other ways of living or changing city(s), such as, for example, comparing the sound of rain “on other people's roofs”, comparing the smell of rain in São Paulo and Belém (Night rain, Sao Paulo, P. 33). With the absence of a home and the absence of a father, it would therefore be natural to seek shelter in the church. But our narrator was already a goner. From there he learned the “catechesis of joy” (from the encounter with “beautiful sisters” who no longer wanted to be pure) and the formation of an “atheist-ecumenical” (Take 3, p. 41).

Burnett's book is even mildly political. He already speaks of a time when churches learned to enjoy spreadsheets; talks about the way in which capitalism humiliates patriarchs: whether from the father good viefore who loved fine dining and ate “bread and water” (Father, P. 105); of the wise old man who needs to re-register at the bank because “his money is blocked” (dry life, P. 71) or the musician friend who needs to compose his songs, penniless, on the sidewalk, party music “by the hand of someone who never celebrates” (Take 10, P. 72). It speaks of kindness, this micropolitical act, such as the double kiss on the forehead of Frau Fisher, the German lady, whose tenant no longer spoke to her (why do we insist on the idea that German men and men are not friendly?). From the desire to contemplate the beautiful face of a Turkish woman and hesitate because of the harshness of the Turkish man: the Don Juan castrated by political and sexual beliefs who only says: “I could see your face in the reflection of the glass of a tea shop” (Berlin, P. 82).

The work always launches into a constant reflection on non-places, on things that are born bastards, it can be a person or a city, as is the case of Lisbon, with its “old and tender people”, which “lives its solar climate and calm, alive and sad, ambiguous” before the question: “do you belong to Europe”? (Lisbon? P. 93). The theme of the absence of the house then becomes something so obsessive that, at certain times, it needs an aesthetic exorcism, unfolding in small stories, as is the case of silences (p. 92), where people live and have sex, “where the reality of the despair of the drowned cannot be seen” (idem). At another moment, the supposed house turns into a nightmare, as in the short story the house taken by Julio Cortázar, in which the inhabitants are slowly expelled, where you can “never go through the garden again, reach the other side of the street” (Fear, P. 84).

The book is also a small musical memorial. It can be said that someone can abandon their dreams, but, perhaps, never give up singing in their day-to-day life. In Burnett's case, he writes, thinks and sings. Burnett has no memory of a Odyssey even, however, if it does not have an Odysseus, it does not mean that it does not have a rhapsode that composes in the “failure of the unheard of” (penultimate take, P. 113). Speaking of rhapsodes, the famous North American singer Tony Bennett once declared, in an interview, that he was impressed by the clarity of João Gilberto's voice (one of Burnett's spiritual fathers). João Gilberto was silent, perhaps because he had already realized that in the near future another voice, coarser and without a guitar, would supplant him. Musical and political mourning that did not fail to affect the narrator: “Your silence before the country that you helped to imagine, and of which nothing remains” (João Gilberto, P. 104).

The book also offers the reader two very moving Kafkaesque scenes. What to say about Language e Take 16? In São Paulo, Burnett hears the “hardest praise of all his life” (Take 16, P. 99). Praise said by Celso Favaretto, in which the narrator himself, still on the ropes, tries to assimilate the blow: “I had no chance in music, but I should keep doing it, despite that” (idem). Just like the small Kafkaesque characters, without hope, but who do not give up imagining doors to enter and exit, Burnett does not know very well about his listeners, like a message sent in a bottle, he does not give up singing. What about the lesson given by his daughter? The daughter (currently a musical partner of the composer) who is learning to speak, who invents animals and words, “as if they existed for her as she exists for me” (Language, P. 98), a legitimate Odradeck (Kafkaesque character similar to a spool that ran and talked without caring about its meaning) who also knows how to sing.

Finally, Burnett's book raises the following question for all of us: what is it, after all, to be anachronistic? Would Burnett be the “anachronistic of the North” (Take 15, P. 95) in a country where you feel nostalgia for dictatorships and in a world that until then thought plagues were medieval things? I prefer to say that Meio-dia it is extemporaneous, where nothing is apparent. It is not by chance that the book has in its epigraph a quote from Walter Benjamin, the philosopher who brought the theory of Leibnizian monadology to history. If for Leibniz, each fragment of substance is an infinite part, a mirror of the universe, a postcard is an infinite part of a past that still shines for us, the glow of a lost city. Meio-dia it's beautifully like this: a monad and a postcard.

*Flávio Valentim de Oliveira is a professor of philosophy. Author, among other books, of Slaves, savages and madmen: studies on the figure of animality in the thought of Nietzsche and Foucault (Ed. Dialectics).



Henry Burnett. Meio-dia. Rio de Janeiro: Editora 7 Letras, 2021.


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