The beautiful and the misshapen

Hélio Cabral (Journal de Resenhas)


Commentary on the book by Cilaine Alves, an analysis of critical reception and the work of Álvares de Azevedo

Cilaine Alves' book on the poetry of Álvares de Azevedo is precious. It recovers and analyzes the critical reception of the work, processes and delimits the code and, finally, operates and conceptualizes the style. What it does, therefore, is to analyze a poetic and rhetorical system that, simultaneously, observes certain misconceptions of reception, circumscribes the author in question in an aesthetic-poetic code and remakes the stylistic route that synthesizes the record in poetic form. That is, Cilaine proposes, unusually and against conventional criticism, the reading of Azevedo's work and not the reading of Azevedo.

The author's critical reception of Macarius is divided in the book into two prisms. The first called “psychobiographical” criticism and the second “psycho-stylistic”. This is how he goes through the production of Azevedo's reception, observing Joaquim Norberto, José Veríssimo, Silvio Romero, Ronald de Carvalho, Afrânio Peixoto, Mário de Andrade and Antonio Candido. This process, therefore, is the starting point of the book.

Manoel Antônio Álvares de Azevedo, in the words of Antonio Candido in the Formation of Brazilian Literature (Ed. Ouro sobre azul), is, among the romantic poets, the one “that we cannot moderately appreciate: either we attach ourselves to his work, passing over defects and limitations that deform it, or we reject it vehemently, rejecting the magic that it emanates. Perhaps because it was a case of remarkable artistic possibility without the corresponding opportunity or capacity for realization, we have to identify with his spirit to accept what he wrote”.

Candido's assertion, in a way, can be considered the synthesis of part of the Brazilian literary criticism that read the romantic poets and, specifically, Álvares de Azevedo under the perspective of a psychostylistic one. This criticism transfers psychological aspects of the author, or rather, of the subject of the poetic enunciation to characterize the production. Thus observed, this poetry is impregnated with psychological concepts that could or could not be attributed to the author.

Depositary of a certain psychobiographical hue, Mário de Andrade in “Amor e Medo”, in turn, composes a vision of the poet based on his readings of Álvares de Azevedo. The core of the poetic discussion migrates from “doing” to “being”, that is, it disregards the poetic protocol and canon to consider the poet himself as an object of study, shifting the importance of literary study from the text to the text builder . Thus, “the theories that claim or try to prove that the poet was unaware of the practice of the sexual act sound out of place. The ideas that circulate around the 'fear of loving', the 'Oedipus complex' or anything of the sort would be interesting and timely on other occasions, but not as an interpretation of the contents of the works.” (The beautiful and the misshapen, p. 56)

Therefore, as we go through our masters, we get the impression that the reading of romantic texts should, above all, observe the personal aspects of affinity and empathy, and should not be guided by a paideia which is at the basis of the study of criticism that is concerned with text production. Under that aspect, echo some propositions such as: Álvares de Azevedo was “a man with a sick imagination”. Thus, he was (in)duly “labeled” as debauched, depraved, incestuous, angelic, homosexual, chaste, naive, etc.

In a footnote to the preface to the book, João Adolfo Hansen proposes, observing Mário de Andrade, speaking of Maneco de Azevedo: “Performing psychoanalysis of supposed symptoms of supposed neuroses of characters is only plausible, because the metaphorization of psychoanalytic discourses considered 'true' when applied to empirical historical subjects. Paper beings are purely functional, they are not subject to judgments of existence, they are unaware of real desire, etc.” (The beautiful and the misshapen, P. 10-11)

We could attribute such technical inaccuracy of Brazilian criticism to the assumption that, as it was an unquestionable moment of rupture, romanticism, unlike moments prior to the XNUMXth century, lacks precepts that establish a procedure, and, in this sense, what can be said about this production, it is limited to personal feelings, the pleasure of taste and poetic genius, subjective elements that disregard poetic practice in its original, primeval sense. After all, the poiein (ποιεῖν, to do), even for the romantics, it had not died, as, surely, for us post-romantics, or rather, post-everything has not died.

However, the romantic becomes effective as poetics by replacing a classical rhetoric – let's say Greco-Latin –, which foresees a subjectivized elocution, where there is programmatic space for the personalized discourse, generically taken, by the practice that understands the form as a “reflection of the own essence”, “infinite self-reflection”, thus a rhetoric that is essentially subjectivation of utterance. This project goes, therefore, through the invisibility of artifice.

In this way, reading Álvares de Azevedo, Sousândrade, Castro Alves and many others, one observes the pseudo-absence of procedure, which for them was programmatic and the effective result of the intended effect, based on aesthetic rules that sometimes proposed the immediacy of the subjectivated expression of the pathetic, as Schiller had already warned, sometimes poetry as infinite self-reflection, Schlegel's touchstone.

The critics understood, therefore, this rhetorical shift as a rejection of a rhetorical project, establishing the negativity of the procedure as a mere absence of a regularizing protocol of the poetic order, and, consequently, attribute to the work of Álvares de Azevedo some ineptness. In short, he misunderstood a certain “romantic” criticism of the romantics themselves.

One can also observe Candido when he speaks of Álvares' “poetry”: “he mixes Casimir tenderness and clear traces of perversity; desire to assert and submissive fear of frightened boy; rebelliousness of the senses, which leads, on the one hand, to the extreme idealization of women and, on the other, to the lubricity that degrades her”. Thus, literary criticism to date has pointed out a lot about their “psychopathologies” and little has helped us in the reading, in view of the aesthetic aspects, which must – especially for the production of the evil century – be analyzed very slowly.

The errors in reading the work of Álvares de Azevedo, according to the researcher, in view of the poetic code of the author, are verified by the non-observance of four basic characteristics of the paideia (παιδεία, education in the broadest sense) that circumscribe the poetics of sublimity, typical of romanticism: a dual system, soulful asceticism (ἄσκησις, áskesis, self-control), the infinity of the text and the Byronic hue.

The author observes that the poetry of Álvares de Azevedo is divided into two moments. The first one aims to “dissolve the contradictions of culture, seeking to unify the soul in a transcendental realm, singing faith and hope in an ideal civilization” (The beautiful and the misshapen, P. 71). And a second that effectively breaks with the world of culture from an “adoption of values ​​and ways of life condemned by the prevailing morality” (ditto ibidem), establishing a skeptical lyrical conscience that refutes the immortality of the soul.

These two moments, when superimposed on the field of poetic creation, correspond to their own poetic codes. In this sense, when poems aim at transcendence, they present vague and undefined metaphors that portray a certain spirituality and, when they express marginal life, they observe a code of dissatisfaction that dialogues with the direction of culture, through the exploration of material and sensitive life.

This binomial inequality characterizes the romantic proposal of understanding poetry as a progressive or infinite task that aims to bring the divine world closer to the earthly world, mediated by the “artistic self”, unique and ingenious. The thematic duplicity is associated with two conceptions of the ideal that singularly propose soulful ascetics.

To prove this thesis, Cilaine Alves chooses to observe the work Macarius. Thus, “while Macário reacts against the feeling of alienation of the subject and art in industrial civilization by professing a type of poetry that portrays such discontent, Pensaroso believes in the possibility of reaching an ideal civilizational stage with the advent of progress” (The beautiful and the misshapen, 77). It is worth mentioning that the author associates Macário's position, disbelieving in relation to culture, to Álvares de Azevedo's own poetic position, which seeks fulfillment in the infinite ideal.

On the other hand, this same search will also be built by the figuration of love-passion. In this way, Azevedo invariably revitalizes feeling in its essence as an idea and possibility of transcendence, of raising the spirit to the realm of the Absolute. The nuclear clash between everyday reality and the idealization of the infinite “provides the adoption of unrealized love” where the virgin and angelic maiden is the personification of this ideal.

Cilaine Alves infers, however, that, at a certain point in Twenty Years Lira, Álvares de Azevedo introduces a “critical self” into his work that questions the validity of the poetic posture adopted until then. That is, “exhausted from pursuing an elusive ideal”, conceives the preface to the cited book, transforming it into a self-criticism that assumes a discomfort, or even a disappointment with the “banalization of the sentimental poetic code” (The beautiful and the misshapen, p.87).

Such an act, which could and certainly could confuse the reception that perhaps gauged from it, perhaps, a symptom of schizophrenia, shows the author, to be absolutely programmatic within the romantic canon where reflection on the work, often, is inherent to the poetic system. Romantic art presupposes, therefore, an immanent critique capable of proposing a critic who is at the center of the text, and not external to it. Thus, “in the very idea that conceives the artist as a mediator between the finite and the infinite, between the eternal and the ephemeral, there is, paradoxically, a restriction that limits the scope of action of the romantic genius, preventing his free discretion leads to 'illiberality'.” (The beautiful and the misshapen, p.89)

Cilaine goes further, indicating that the poetic-elocution procedure that will allow the romantic poet to become the critic of his own work will be the irony that, simultaneously, is the self-elimination of subjectivity, burying the exacerbated sentimentality and, is, also, the mediator of the annulment of the poetic form, explaining an objective moment, that is, the irony of the form, as well expressed by Walter Benjamin.

The fourth element, raised inThe beautiful and the misshapen reviews “the greatest case of explicit Byronism in Brazilian literature”, as Hansen points out in the work’s Preface (The beautiful and the misshapen, P. 9), that is, in the work of processing and delimiting the poetic code of Alvares, an accurate analysis of what, rightly, traditional criticism had already observed in the work of Álvares de Azevedo: Byronism. However, never in a historicized way.

Therefore, a contribution of historical inscription of this “movement” of letters, socially observed, is offered. He highlights the importance of certain societies and magazines whose ideas indicated “the adoption of Byronic 'philosophy', of the bohemian lifestyle, in addition to criticism, through the 'bestialogical' genre, of false poets” (The beautiful and the misshapen, P. 134).

This aspect of the poetic code synthesizes the explicit binomial of the work, since the subject of the enunciation observes “the inapprehensibility of cosmic spheres and that science is not able to explain the mysteries of life” (The beautiful and the misshapen, P. 9). Faced with the impossibility of the world, it revitalizes, therefore, certain stereotypes contrary to “normal” worldly life. The author proves that this absolutely programmatic procedure in Azevedo's work corresponds to the sentimentally idealized sublimity of the pure maiden, the white lily, as a counterpart to the binomial that seeks infinity.

In the third and last part of the book, Cilaine Alves uses Alveresina stylistics, both in terms of duality (she called Álvares binomial), as it is the result of this expression, and in terms of the fusion of this process, since the work results in one . The style, therefore, encloses a proposed system, recovering in poetic form the stylistic binomial and, consequently, a fusion of elements that seeks the ideal.

To settle the duplicity imposed by the content, the author d'O Conde Lopo proposes, according to Cilaine, the operation of two styles, now the low and vezo, which accounts for Byronic bestiality, and now the high and sublime, which recovers the content of exacerbated sentimentality.

Thus, “while in the foundation of a visionary and platonic world, imitation refers to elevated, ideal and inapprehensible spheres, after this exhibition the representation seeks to portray, in a diametrically opposed way, the sensitive elements of prosaic everyday life, interpreting them in the key of a low stylistics” (The beautiful and the misshapen, P. 129).

Therefore, what the critics observed as imprecision, ups and downs, good and bad moments represent a subliminal poetic intention that aims to, “heteronymically”, account for several consciousnesses, and hence, a certain infinity of cosmic immensity. According to the author, this posture allows establishing the relationship between Kant's aesthetic thought and its particular assimilation by Schiller.

Stylistically, therefore, Álvares de Azevedo, at first, strives to bypass the sensitive world, seeking sublimity and, at a second, works on the representation of sensitive and corporeal nature, assuming conflicting experiences of everyday life (literary bohemia, material poverty of the poet , anonymity, etc.).

The beautiful and the misshapen undoubtedly constitutes a milestone in Brazilian literary criticism about romanticism, as it manages to standardize something that, for many, was unmanageable and, for others, the result of sick minds, soon close to incongruity, ineptitude and childishness: romantic poetry by Alvares de Azevedo.

* Paulo Martins Professor of Classical Letters at USP and author of Roman elegy: construction and effect (Humanites).

Originally published on Jornal da Tarde, on June 06, 1998.


Cilaine Alves. The beautiful and the misshapen: Álvares de Azevedo and romantic irony. São Paulo, EDUSP/Fapesp.


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