Nothing is our condition

Image_Adir Sodré


Commentary on a “political” short story by Guimarães Rosa

The great historical, national, political, economic, social issues, etc., are not exclusive prerogative of the novel, nor of the so-called realistic writers. They also contaminate the brief forms and pursue narrators averse, in principle, to the most ground realism, or to the most burning slogans of the time. This is the case of a short story by Guimarães Rosa, from first storiesOf 1962.

The title, “Nothing and our condition”, apparently philosophical, existentialist, immediately indicates its exemplary character; it is about the human condition; except that this exemplarity will be given by a rustic destiny that is almost ciphered, a destiny that will have to be interpreted, and that, unlike that of a Riobaldo from the Great Sertão: Veredas, for example, does not even offer us a version of it.

Our character, Tio Man'Antônio, barely speaks, and when he does, the few times he does, he touches the sphinx: “At home… I'm going home…”; “Pretend, my daughter… Pretend…”; “Pretend!”; “Not so much, daughter… Not so much…” — such are the reticent, laconic and incomplete sentences, always pronounced in the same pitch, as if composing an essential, oracular speech.[1]

Like his speech, Uncle Man'Antônio's gestures are truly enigmatic, gestures, by the way, in appearance, completely unreasonable, proper, when viewed from a distance, of a madman ("At times, often, even his omitted main gestures: that of, come instead, doing that would slowly move away from you, any things”).

“Destined”, enigmatic, encoded in his behavior and expression, this character who, from the depths of his abyss, mutters Shakespeare, “serious, great things, without sound or sense”, this character still carries an indefinable guilt and a vague hope, performing a true ritual of purgation.

a lot of questions

At the first reading of the story, and of its first part, especially the part that precedes Tia Liduína's death, which triggers the widower's metamorphosis, we accumulate question after question:

. a farm bought at the end of the world… why?

. an “individual and elusive” man… why? would there be something to cover up? Was he hiding from something, he, whose past “very real things nobody knew”?

. an infanda manor house (“I almost never referred to it by name”), which should not be named… why? why this discomfort when entering it? why didn't she feel good in it, so good, so giving and terraced?

. this dressing “in a low livery”… why? would you be the last man of a noble house?

. and what to think of his “main omitted gestures”, pushing away something invisible but tangible, which bothered him so much?

. and the landscape, then? why contemplate it so much, to the point of almost losing sight?

. why this need to admire the astonishing landscape, its “tops and bottoms”?

. why this ritual of “hope and atonement”, this endless ascent and descent, crossing “rocky paths, on the edge of cliffs and crevassas — caves of tremendous height (...) abysmal, very deep”, enduring “dryness, solitude, heat and cold"?

. what is the reason — this is the biggest intrigue — for purgatory, given that the topography of its mountain (“From the balcony, given the clear day, already at a distance of so many leagues they could see it, punctuating the clear air, in certain turns on the road, approaching and departing, not even sequential") reproduces the spiral mountain of Dante's Purgatorio?

. why must this man be, better said, this “Destined One” he had become at the end of his journey, why must he be, returning to the title of the short story, an example of “our condition”?

In short, we are faced with a tale with exemplary pretensions, shaped in a fabulous tone and starring a sphinx, oracular, almost superhuman character, who lives to atone for an indefinable guilt and nourishing a vague hope.

If we pay attention, however, to the extraordinarily suggestive scenario that describes Guimarães Rosa, a manor house at the ends of the world and on top of a mountain, a manor house, on the one hand, symbol of our colonial past, with all its historical weight still sensitive , and, on the other hand, a fascinating and mysterious landscape, a magical and “legendary” great sertão,[2] with all its supernatural appeal, and in the middle, pressed, an individual, “individed” that is, elusive and visionary, fulfilling a ritual of atonement and hope, begins to emerge an explanatory key.

As opposed to the great-sertão, his ghostly depiction, as opposed to the fairy-tale characterization of the character himself (“a man of more excellence than presence, who might have been the old king or the younger prince in future fairy-stories ”), a large house grew, painted in almost realistic colors: “What — two-story, deep-seated, with high ceilings, long, and with so many unused corridors and rooms, smelling of fruit, flowers, leather, wood, fresh cornmeal and cow dung—it faced north, between the lemon yard and the corrals, which were an ornament; and, at the front, a wooden staircase with forty steps in two hauls leading to the veranda space, where, from a rafter, in a corner, the bell rope used to command the enslaved slaves still hung.”

Such a large manor house, described with so much realism, to the point that we could almost smell its unmistakable odors, could now explain the “omitted main gestures” of Uncle Man'Antônio, his repugnance as if to push something away; his discomfort when entering it; his inability to name her.

The ancestral, collective guilt that the manor house symbolizes, and the character embodies, also clarifies purgatory, the ritual he performs, of “atonement and hope”, motivated by an obscure yearning for salvation; the manor house thus explained why he also turned to the landscape, to the great sertão, in search of transcending his historical condition as a patriarch, which he had begun to deny with his uniform of “low livery”.

The manor house, which symptomatically would only disappear with the fire, with the character himself, this manor house on the “very difficult farm of Torto-Alto” ​​was able to explain even the physical conformation of Uncle Man'Antônio, his resemblance so deep with her, tall and crooked like her, and his discomfort, he who bent all over, as if too tall, when he entered the gloomy solar (“But, each time, he bent down, in a way, to enter, as if the high door were shy and alien, invited, to good shelters").

Having established the guilt, established the contrast between the big house and the big backlands, the contrast between history and the yearning to transcend it, we are able to understand the meaning of the “deaf plan”, of the “enormous, made fantasy ”.

The project, which turns the character's life upside down, begins in the second part of the tale, the part that begins the narration itself, and which we can call the fabulous realm of make-believe.

We now move on to an interpretative paraphrase, in line with our initial hypothesis, which attributes to the manor house, as a symbol of our far from rosy colonial past, the cause of the uneasiness of the sphinx and elusive patriarch, and who sees in the great sertão, landscape of metaphysical vocation, a possibility of transcendence, a hope of salvation.

Before that, a small digression is in order, due to the thematic kinship between the story that we are now interpreting and the telenovela that is part ofthese stories, from 1969, a delicious saga about pride, written in 1964 at the request of José Olympio to be part of the book The seven capital sins.

In “Passenger Hats”, the title of the saga, we also identify a general malaise. In it, however, the origin of the discomfort of the tormented four-hundred-year-old boy who narrates the story, Nestorzinho Leôncio Aquidabã Pereira Serapiães Dandrade, is indisputable, and who fights to remove his beloved, Drininha, from the proud lineage embodied by Vovô Barão, a man “unconvertible, such is his torsion. ”, a man who “seemed to be — the indeclinable mountain”: the weight or curse of blood. It is pride as a family heirloom and at the same time class, historical heritage.

the aesthetic imperative

Thus, if in the first part of the tale we see a farmer, with an uncertain past and a certain “tention” (“Vivia, fez tention”), lead his life up and down, daily and fervently, a mountain, sometimes heading to the next village, sometimes to the big house on the top of the hill, humbly mounted on a lowly donkey, (after the lamb and the dove, the most Christian of animals) with a vague sense of guilt and a vague hope of salvation, and almost losing my sight, literally, with contemplating and questioning the fairytale landscape of “bottoms and peaks” and its “treacherous ups and downs”, if in this part, therefore, of a waiting compass, of a summary of concerns, we feel that something is about to happen (it is the “ hope”) and something is purged (it is the “expiation”), which we summarize in the idea of ​​ritual, — in the second part an unexpected event triggers a revolution in the character’s life.[3]

His wife, Tia Liduína, dies, and Tio Man'Antônio goes against his daughters' expectations; “Incongruo”, he practices open mourning, opening the house from room to room; in a kind of epiphany of time, which now presents itself, when contemplating the landscape, no longer “segmented”, “serial”, but in a single blow, “in the glimpse”, taking it from the back, from the inside out, — it redefines itself “unbreakable”, dispensing with past and future.

In fact, by opening the main house at once, wide, as if it were a kind of coffin, narrow and oppressive, the character is reborn, metamorphoses, becoming “another kind, decorous, person ”, physical and moral metamorphosis, to the point of resembling him almost to the mountainous landscape, to the mountain topped by the sky, the “thin (...) dark gray (...) the pale blue eyes”.

Consoling his daughters, responding to one of them, Felícia (“Father, is life made up of treacherous ups and downs? Is there not going to be a time of happiness for us, of true security?”), Uncle Man'Antônio reaches its maximum motto: “Pretend, my daughter… Pretend…”

This finding will become, by default, a capital step in the story, a real project, the “deaf plan” that will guide the protagonist's entire conduct: “On the contrary, however, Uncle Man'Antônio conceived. — 'Pretend!' he ordered, at once, meekly. A project, to be believed and acted upon, he raised. One, which started. 'Pretend!'”

What project is this?

What revolution will this be?

We can say that, in Kant's gloss, we are facing an aesthetic imperative, but an aesthetic imperative that, while also seeking to universalize itself, in action, in work, (let's not forget the exemplary ambition of the short story) does not cease to be, in the last instance, ethical.

Make-believe, that aesthetic imperative that governs the world of the carochinha, which is, in short, the ultimate foundation of the world of fiction, is Rosa's response to the weight of history, to our historicity, to our precariousness, to the transience of things, the answer at last to “our condition”.

The aesthetic (and ethical) imperative, “Pretend!” fiat luxury of the world of creation, breaking forth like the fiat luxury of the creation of a new world, it will even reinterpret the meaning of “nothing”. Everything happens as if the lack of the definite article in the title — “Nothing and our condition” — was already indicating that, instead of a period, nothingness, with such lack of definition, must be seen above all as a starting point, as an undefined starting point, but inevitable for anyone who wants to transcend their own condition.

It is therefore a question of a positive reinterpretation of nothingness. It is as if the initial lack of definition, more than a joke about the logical and ontological impossibility of defining nothingness, meant, in fact, the previous condition of transcendence.

Wielding such a flag of creation, Tio Man'Antônio sets to work, beginning his long and paradoxical life curve, a story of simplicity and magnificence, of dematerialization and absolute spiritualization (“from transparency to transparency”), and which will end in a kind of consecration by fire, — a story of simplicity and grandeur, assimilating the superb mountain and culminating in the foundation of the myth.

Having already stripped himself of the pain of mourning, with the liberating phrase (“Make believe…”), he begins, first, stripping himself of the landscape, “dismantling the appearance of the place”, dismantling the physical reality of the region, smoothing over fields and plains the “mountain ramps”.

His “flat deafness” then came to light—consummating “an enormous, made fantasy”.

Stripped of the landscape, Tio Man'Antônio strips himself of his daughters, as he festively celebrates, throwing a party to marry them, the first year of his wife's death.

Stripping down but growing in our eyes, prospering but continuing to work, praying and laboring, — pretending, in his words, we have thus reached the apogee of the fabulous kingdom of make-believe.

the social reform

In this third part of the short story, the stripping of the character is radicalized, whose “most usual gesture was as if he let go of everything, any object”. Prospero, at the height of prosperity, “everything was undervalued, however, for Uncle Man'Antônio”.

The “human weaknesses” made one think of a “greater justice”. Figuratively speaking, it was as if the farmer now turned to the humble plains, after so long turned to the superb mountain, “high—as a result of no act.”

With an eye on social disproportions, the protagonist strips himself of his riches, sending them to his daughters and sons-in-law in the city, strips himself of his lands, donating them to the servants, along with his famous motto, carrying out a silent reform agrarian history, the “much altered history”.

If, with the “deaf plane” in the second part of the story, we follow the birth of the aesthetic imperative and its transformation into a work, into an ethical commandment, now, with the agrarian reform, we witness the conversion of the same principles into a political principle, of organization of society. society.

In other words, having redefined the physical landscape, after his own physical and moral redefinition, Uncle Man'Antônio deepened his project, redefining the human and social landscape.

Stripped of everything and everyone, in short, with the exception of the main house, where the work of the former serfs was governed, so that they could also prosper, but still hated “for thousands of years and animally”, because “always majesty”, he began to retreat and quiet down. , ceasing to interrogate the landscape, “adjusting to emptiness and re-importance”, to the gentle death of the just, “as if a thread had been threaded through a needle’s eye”.

birth of myth

In this last part of the tale, with the death of Uncle Man'Antônio, we become aware of the last clause of the contract he dealt with the servants, “the required parts of a text, without deciphering”: the “red will be”, — which crowns the paradoxical movement of detachment and grandeur, triggered by the “Make yourself count!”, the imperative of the world of creation but capable of creating a new world, that aesthetic imperative that was born in order to deny the historical order of the manor house, of “our condition”, and affirm the supernatural, metaphysical, redemptive, storic nature , from the great sertão.

The body and the house are set on fire, causing such a monumental bonfire that it was as if the mountain itself, “so vain and rogue”, was burning “splendidly”.

With the disappearance of the trinity, character/big house/mountain, consumed in the purifying fire, Uncle Man'Antônio finds himself consecrated, converted into “Destined”, elevated as he was, but by personal work, “high” then but made “the consequences of a thousand acts”.

After pretending to have nothing, stripped of everything, he pretended to be nothing, stripping himself of his own spoils. Pretending to be nothing, he finally reached Being, sacrificed, consecrated. Uncle Man'Antônio reached the status of myth.

Here we need to open a parenthesis.

The landscape, physical and metaphysical, of the short story, as a figuration of life, is not rigidly fixed in a single direction, it is not easily allegorized, let's say. Closer to the symbol, the grande-sertão[4] points more or less in three directions: 1) sometimes it points to dangerous life, with its “bottoms and peaks”, its “treacherous highs and lows”; 2) sometimes it points to ordinary life, with its apparently natural disproportions between the humble shallows and the superb mountains, “as consequences of no act”; 3) and now points to true life, with its lofty example, “on wings”, always threatening to ascend, transcend, “vanish”.

Such a mobility of meaning, such a symbolic feature of the landscape, which accompanies the development of the character, his history of simplicity and grandeur, is also present in the various representations of the manor house. We can say that it supports four changes of facade, each of which corresponds to each part of the story.

Thus we have: 1) the astonishingly real manor house of the ritual of atonement and hope; 2) the castle “suspended in the pervious”, in the fabulous realm of make-believe; 3) the Freyrian manor house, open and terraced, a kind of island or lighthouse “from where the world became bigger”, and when he ruminated on agrarian reform in his lands; and 4), with the death of the farmer, in the “Red Willow”, the astonishingly astonishing manor house, or simply House, the last address, spelled twice at the end, in capital letter and mystery.

rosian idealism

Interpreting “Desenredo”, by Tutameia (1967), in which Jó Joaquim unravels the story of his fickle beloved, fickle even in the name, which does not stick, Livíria, Rivília or Irlívia, in which Jó Joaquim “created a new, transformed, higher reality”, Davi Arrigucci Jr . (1993) locates “Rosian idealism”.[5]

Jó Joaquim, against the evidence of facts, against objective reality, he, who had been deceived twice by her, remakes the life of his beloved, erasing her adulteries, purifying her entirely, creating a new reality, and in which everyone comes to believe, the people, himself and even the woman herself.

The paradox is that the new story works, unlike history, which usually goes wrong... Against realistic mimesis, it is as if Rosa postulated the truth of the imagination, the poetic truth, for which, Aristotelianly, the implausible, because credible , reaches the status of true.

In the same way, with his aesthetic imperative, Tio Man'Antônio creates another reality, an “enormous, made fantasy”. From the beginning of fiction, from the sphere of aesthetics, we see, little by little, the birth of a whole new order, moral, social, political, economic, unraveling, like Jó Joaquim, an oppressive historical plot, “grounded deep” in the history of the country, ultimately transcending it through creative imagination, through the truth of poetry.

Rosian materialism

We know that the great literature problematizes, but obviously does not solve. For this reason, let us not take the generous destiny of Uncle Man'Antônio, transcendent, as a political prescription. The writer was not naïve, and, moreover, his apolitical nature, his non-partisanship, better said, by conviction and by position, was well known, as the famous interview with Günter Lorenz in 1965 shows.[6]

Never expected from him any pronouncement in defense of any cause. He was not going to speak of the Peasant Leagues of his day, then recently liquidated by the military coup of 64, nor would he speak of our own, the Landless Movement. But his responsibility as a writer, his commitment to human destiny, and above all his essential solidarity with the poor, with the oppressed, with his mythical vision of the world, shall we say, not to make history too long, did not leave him oblivious to the tremendous social injustices that suffocate us.

Such essential solidarity does not translate, however, only into adherence to the perspective of the humble; it is also, and mainly, translated on the literary level itself. Contrary to Graciliano, to recover the fertile opposition of Alfredo Bosi, his anti-mimesis of aridity, with its stylistic exuberance, its poetic overflow, its abundance of linguistic inventions, also mimics, and mimics, curiously and paradoxically, a utopia, an original speech which never existed, but would potentially exist in man. Here's what literature truly mimics his.

You might object that this is invention, pure invention, and not mimesis, so… But what invention is this in which a higher and deeper humanity is recognized? The original speech, that Grande Sertão: paths it constitutes a maxim maxim, it does not fail to mimic, because it potentializes it, a humanity that the writer recognizes in germ, in a state of prehistory.

It disconcerts and makes one meditate more and more on the inexhaustible poetic richness[7] who excavated this extraordinary literature from such an arid and miserable human and natural environment. In addition to giving a voice to those who don't have one,[8]the poetization, in a high sense, of the great sertão, of a fabulous world known to be condemned to perish in the hands of progress, allows us to glimpse the social position of his prose.

In other words, it is necessary to take seriously today, in these times of progress for the sake of progress, increasingly dusty and apocalyptic, its political relationship with language. The “reactionary” of the language, as he defined himself, already saw dangerous affinities between the owners of progress and their opponents, the progressives. The writer teaches us that, before the sertão became the sea, it was up to transform it into what it was, because it could be — a sea of ​​poetry.[9]

*Airton Paschoa is a writer, author, among other books, of the life of penguins (Nankin, 2014)

Published in USP Magazine n.º 47, Sep/Oct/Nov/2000, under the title “Casa-grande & grande-sertão in a short story by Guimarães Rosa (interpretation essay)”


[1] The italics are all from the original.

[2] I take advantage here of Antonio Candido's observation about the “great general principle of reversibility” that informs the Great Sertão: Veredas, responsible for the “various ambiguities” of the book, “ambiguity of geography, which slips into the legendary”; of social types, knights and bandits; affective, between Otacília, Nhorinhá and Diadorim; metaphysics, between God and the Devil, and stylistic ambiguity, the “great matrix”, popular and erudite, archaic and modern, etc. (“The man of the opposites”, thesis and antithesis, Sao Paulo, Ed. Nacional, 1978, 3rd ed., p. 134-5).

[3] The woman's sudden death participates, according to Alfredo Bosi (1988), in that “semantic universe of 'suddenly'”, so vital to Rosa's characters in the first stories, making them pass from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. In the poetic saying of the critic: “In the grey, the event. The epiphany” (“Heaven, hell”, Heaven Hell. São Paulo, Attica, 1988, p. 24).

[4] To get an idea of ​​the multiple symbolic resonances of the grande-sertão in the universe of Rosiano, see the breathtaking interpretation of Davi Arrigucci Jr. of the writer's masterpiece ("The mixed world — romance and experience in Guimarães Rosa", New Cebrap Studies, n.º 40, Nov/94).

[5] “Methods and techniques of analysis and interpretation of literary work”, postgraduate course at FFLCH/USP, 1st sem/93.

[6] “Literature and life – a dialogue between Günter W. Lorenz and João Guimarães Rosa” (Art in Magazine no. 2, São Paulo, Kairós, 1979).

[7] For a formal understanding of lyricism in Rosa, see Roberto Schwarz (“Great Sertão: speech", The mermaid and the suspicious, São Paulo, Paz e Terra, 2nd ed., 1981).

[8] See, still on the famous interview with the German translator, the thought-provoking comment by João Adolfo Hansen, “The imagination of the paradox” (Art in Magazine no. 2, São Paulo, Kairós, 1979).


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