The Bath of Mrs. “Never”

Dora Longo Bahia, Liberdade (project for Avenida Paulista II), 2020 Acrylic, water-based pen and watercolor on paper 29.7 x 21 cm

By Remy J. Fontana*

Canudos and the favelas and poor outskirts of Brazil follow the same perverse and decimating logic

“Never”, as we know, is not exactly a person's name, although this was how she answered the question about her name. And she didn't do it out of whim or coquetry, nor because that was actually what she called herself, strange as that was, but to protect the last flame she had left of her human condition. Having lost everything, I had paid too high a price to live a reality that now seemed like madness, all that seemed to be left was her name, which she would not hand over to anyone, not even if she was destroyed or “cut into pieces”. This resolution had “something immutable, indisputable and definitive”.

Not even his real name, at that time and under those circumstances, gave him an indisputable identity, his personal mark, revealing a unique personality, since a name, in order not to be just a registry office or an abstract vocabulary inscription, only acquires full validity to designate a person when it is associated with the history of their relationships and referred to contexts and experiences that give them a unique character, in such a way that the person makes the name, not the name the person.

What importance would a name have in the midst of that hecatomb, from which he emerged as a deplorable figure, like a human rag? What possible correspondence would there still be between his emaciated body, his soul, if he still had one, and a name, his own or any other?

The fact that she used a foreign word indicated that she was not a native of the land, although she was on home soil recently devastated by the barbarity of a massacre, where death was announced with the noise of the bombing of the incipient republic.

The character, fictionalized by the Hungarian Sandor Marai, emerged from the brutal decimation of the Canudos stronghold, one of the rare survivors, in his reconstruction of the Brazilian classic: Euclides da Cunha – had been left out, but “it could also have been like that”.

The ignominy ended on October 5, 1897, after four military expeditions over the course of ten months, when seven to ten thousand soldiers, at that point almost as ragged as their opponents, eight years after the Proclamation of the Republic, killed nine thousand starving , cadaverous, gone mad, the rebels of Canudos and their leader, prophet, Antônio Maciel, the Counselor.

If the “social question” as a matter of the police has been one of the classic expressions of the secular dominance that crosses the history of iniquities in this country with respect to subordinate classes, perhaps we could expand the formula, adapting it, designating the “question of extreme poverty”. ” as an army case.

In validating this tragic semantics, it would suffice to invoke two past examples, Canudos and Contestado, and a current one, from a current situation that follows the same perverse and decimating logic, that of the favelas and poor peripheries of Brazil.

In all three cases, contrary to what Marechal Bittencourt would have proclaimed in Canudos, the young republic did not triumphantly carry the banner of “democratic ideas” to the sertão, except for the reiteration of cynicism, and for the mystifying discourse that crosses times, times of our country's history.

Perhaps it is not fortuitous the fact of designating “favela” – one of the hills in the vicinity of Canudos -, the gatherings in the hills and destitute peripheries of our cities, whose demographic movement dates back to the population expelled from the backlands at the touch of sweeps, bazookas or extreme poverty. from colonial slavery, entering the republic, first militarized, then oligarchic and in the sequence lacking consistency in terms of its values, and effectiveness in terms of its mechanisms and institutions.

But we are heading towards the bathroom, or more precisely, the trough.

The three rebel prisoners, brought before the marshal who had carried out the genocide, could barely be distinguished by the rags that covered their sun-dried skin, stained with blood and reeking of gunpowder. It had been known that one of them was a woman, but how could she be recognized under such conditions?

“Which of the three was she?”

No trace, no perception helped to reveal the female condition among those who presented themselves with only rags and bones. By exclusion, after some scrutiny identifying a mestizo, by the hat, and a black, by the clay pipe adhered to his chest, the third person remained, indistinct by “gender”, neither male nor female. The marshal, with no other option, had to instruct a soldier, since he thought it unworthy to address that “scum” directly, who asked who the woman was.

“I am the woman,” came a hoarse, strangely accented voice.
“I am the marshal. What do you want?"

How to establish communication in such circumstances, where on the one hand, dejected, there is a creature to whom silence is imposed in the face of the difficulty of formulating ideas or the mere articulation of words and, on the other hand, the imposition of a sovereign reigns marshal, as if presiding over a court-martial?

It is under these conditions that she is asked about the whereabouts of the Counselor, if he was alive, what he intended to do, who she was, at the end of which the marshal repeats “What do you want?”

What could this woman want?

In the case of Mrs. “Never”, however, we are far from the sophisticated and abstract elaborations of psychoanalysis regarding what women want, and closer, the better, within the objective reality of the abject conditions that make the lives of many “…poor, coarse, animalized and brief”.

"What do you want?"
Opening his eyes, in a hoarse and serious voice, he said:
“I want to take a shower.”

What could only be taken as an understandable desire for someone in such regrettable conditions, covered a deep dimension, coming not only from his entrails or from the surface of his skin that begged for restorative waters to give him hygiene and well-being. What was going on, and what I was half-consciously looking for, was a ritual to recover the dignity that had been offended and annulled; what she wanted in the midst of the stupor she was in was to recover a sense of herself, to rediscover herself as a person endowed with humanity, beyond the radical animality from which she was painfully emerging from months of deprivation, misery and now as a survivor of the slaughter of the Conselheiro's camp, which had degraded her more than a lethal disease.

When nothing remains, when everything seems lost, when defeat exposes its brutality, when life, itself reduced to a tenuous breath that seems to grant a last glance at what was, this is the moment of a possible epiphany or an irremediable collapse .

Stripping naked, getting into an improvised bathtub, in a campaign tent, exposing an emaciated body to the looks, between perplexed and concupiscent, of some soldiers could constitute an insurmountable obstacle to female modesty.

If it was her body that, thanks to the effusions of the clear, cool waters, was revealed through the eyes of others rather than her own, it was due to an inner perception that regained her identity with every movement she made to detach herself from her. if from the tectonic plates of dust, gunpowder and blood; to the point of fully mastering herself not only of what explicitly denounced her as a woman – that even the squalor of her flesh did not overshadow the sensitive exuberance of her forms – but also to the point of recovering the disposition of a haughty spirit, which now made her face her tormentors with fearlessness and serenity.

Resuming control over her body, now irrigated by warm blood and perfumed by the musk soap provided by the marshal, she emerged transfigured, in a metamorphosis that disturbed the senses of masculinities long deprived of the release of their impulses, and even more disturbing for revealing itself as a cultured foreigner, in that land of miserable caboclos decimated by the “civilizing” violence of the new regime.

That was a “real” woman, in the surprised eyes of the officers, who thanked them for showering with a “Thank you gentlemen”, with the moral assurance of someone who knew that a defeat, no matter how crushing – even though she was not a combatant, as the wife of a doctor who was in Canudos by chance -, or a failed fight, need not bend the spine of those who only defend their lives, nor lower your chins or slacken your posture.

Now he could respond to the marshal's concerns about the fate of the Counselor, who did not cut off his head but, on the contrary, sent him the message that he was alive, and that the cannons were useless, because even though they had destroyed Canudos, tomorrow there would be ten Canudos in Brazil. "And the day after tomorrow, a hundred."

Amid such doubts about the possible reappearance of the rebel, or of other mystics, “barbaric prophets” agitating the sertão, fearful of a frightened public opinion, which now led the people of the cities to celebrate in the streets the crushing of “those dangerous people ”, the marshal feared a political scandal if he was not able to show the Counselor's head.

And this concern on the part of the military, fearful of a resurgence of the wild specter of revolt, has perhaps since then been one of the matrices of the continuous suffocation of this same people, reinstated in successive generations in their miserable condition, on the lookout for a libertarian crevice, through which would come a new messianic leader, once again frustrating his hopes, until the moment he discovers that he can only expand them, where he can advance, when he trusts his own forces, knowing how to organize them, to then bathe in the clear waters of a conquered freedom.

The image of the survivor of Canudos emerging “gloriously” from her bath could be interpreted, in the condition of an ordinary woman, as a Marianne of the French revolutionaries, or not so ordinary, as our Marielle, as a symbol of freedom, taking the place of the mystic, religious icon or populist leader.

Parodying “the tree of liberty” by the radicals of 1789, who knows, maybe we would not institute a “bathtub of liberty” for our “ugly, dirty and wicked” to celebrate the new times, those that have not yet arrived, unfortunately.

*Remy J. Fontana, sociologist, is a retired professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).


Sandor Marai, Verdict in Canudos. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002.

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