The Mystery of Literature



Chapter of the recently released book “Words for Walnice”


Turning to the experience of language, Maurice Merleau-Ponty spoke of a prodigy: it expresses perfectly under the condition of not expressing completely, all its strength being in this paradoxical way of approaching meanings, alluding to them without ever possessing them. . Not just a prodigy, language is also a mystery: it uses the body of sounds and signs to give us an incorporeal sense only achieved by virtue of sound and graphic corporeality. For this reason, at the very moment when she is obsessed with herself, it is given to her, as if by excess, to open us up to a meaning. Transgressing the materiality of words, it couples with the invisible. “Like the weaver, the writer works in reverse: he only has to do with language and that is how, suddenly, he finds himself surrounded by meaning”.[I]

The questioning book, continues Merleau-Ponty, is “an infernal machine, an apparatus for creating meanings”, since the moment of expression is that in which the writer, having printed an unusual twist on the available lexicon, makes it “secret a new meaning”, leaving it at the disposal of the unsuspecting reader who takes possession of it. The writer does not invite those who read him to rediscover what he already knew, but touches on existing meanings to make them discordant and conquer, by virtue of this strangeness, a new harmony that takes hold of the reader. Writing is that cunning that deprives instituted language of center and balance, reorders signs and meaning and teaches both the writer and the reader what without it they could not say or think, since the word does not follow or precede thought because it is its contemporary.

How to read a questioning book? The answer to this question is the work of Walnice Nogueira Galvão, a thinker in which deep knowledge of the humanities – philosophy, theology, history, anthropology, psychology, psychoanalysis – and of the arts – literature, theater, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, cinema – turns to the understanding of what Brazilian letters are and that, in doing so, transforms his knowledge into meditation, in a weaving that pulls the threads of the imaginary even when (or especially when) the writer wants to be a weaver of the real, but it really weaves the forms of the false.

Nothing is truer than the way in which Guimarães Rosa recovers feats, takes advantage of patterns of sertanejo life in the São Francisco region, takes up the legend of the pact with the Devil and the closed body, “one of the most cherished traditions of the sertão”.[ii]


Great Sertão: Veredas it is a chivalric novel. And it's not. Riobaldo is a pair of literate França and Diadorim, an enchanted princess. And they are not. The Devil is separated from God. And it's not.

Nothing is truer than the varied resources employed by Euclides da Cunha in the colossal effort to give meaning to the Canudos tragedy.


The Sertões is a realist-naturalist description of the war in Canudos. And it's not.

Among the countless dimensions of Walnice's reading of these works – literary, sociological, historical, political – that undo the feudal image of the sertão, I would like to mention here the one that seems to me to decipher the internal link between Great Sertão: Veredas e The Sertões: the theological-metaphysical dimension that sustains them and stamps them with the stamp of magnificent literary works.

I am not referring only to the place that Walnice Nogueira Galvão attributes to the guilt that tears Riobaldo apart and forces him to question whether the Devil exists or if there is only a “human man”, nor the “Cain complex” that makes The Sertões the most gigantic mea culpa of our literature, Euclid in search of forgiveness for an unremitting fault. I am referring to the search for “the meaning of these faults”: the origin and forms of Evil. Where, in the case of Grande Sertão: paths, the central place that Walnice gives to the case of Maria Mutema, “a parable that speaks of pure evil, evil in itself without motivation”[iii], a structuring account of the novel itself, built as a position and incessant replacement of what Walnice Nogueira Galvão deciphers as “the thing within the thing” and which, in the end, weaves the cosmic relationship between God and the Devil.

The issue of original evil moves Walnice Nogueira Galvão's interpellation by unraveling two works spun with the thread that defines the very being of literature: “it is and it is not”. First and last philosophical question: με óη (to be / not to be). And that is why it is also the first and last question of literature when Walnice writes: “The fetish of the text is shown in its greatest clarity when the narrator dwells on the description of dead Diadorim: “I don't write, I don't speak!” – so as not to be: it wasn’t, it isn’t, it doesn’t remain!” (GSV, 563) “So the text takes on the level of the real and pushes the real out, in such a way that what the text establishes becomes real”.[iv]

If the writer works in reverse, Walnice Nogueira Galvão, endowed with what Gracián called acute ingenuity – the one who captures the oxymoron as a founding structure of the real and the imaginary –, turns to Guimarães Rosa and Euclides da Cunha to reveal that they do not simply work inside out, but they create a world in reverse. This is why Walnice deciphers the riddle she goes through Great Sertão: Veredas or the journey of “the thing within the thing” as the change of every thing into its opposite, the reverse of its reverse. In other words, the origin of Evil, incessant contradiction of all things and all events that turn against themselves, opens the abyss, that is “the Devil in the street in the middle of the whirlpool”, “… reappears at intervals within the text, a summary text that the narrator composed for himself as an extract (both in the sense of “taken from” and “concentrated”) of his entire life experience, it is the main image that fixes this conception on the one hand, and on the other all the images of the thing within the thing. (...) In the narrator's conception, the devil governs within man, but also governs within all beings of nature (...) Everything happens as if the cosmos were God, a positive principle, but admitting the existence of a negative principle that bears the name of the Devil”.[v]

ţō óη με óη which is expressed in Riobaldo's final speech: “There is no Devil! That's what I say, if it is…”.

No case of The Sertões, the theological-metaphysical dimension of the topsy-turvy world created by Evil is unveiled from the moment Walnice Nogueira Galvão points out the difference between Euclides da Cunha's intent and the text actually written by him. Indeed, Euclides intends to offer a realistic, objective, impartial, scientific description of the war in Canudos, mobilizing all resources from the natural and human sciences. However, from its first lines, realism gives way to fiction and the book is not descriptive, but, from beginning to end, narrative, epic and tragic, or, as Walnice explains, “a and put tragic, impossibly heroless.

“The posture of the narrator – this narrator who, managing intertextuality, pretends to present a symposium of scholars – is peculiar. He intrudes on what he is narrating, in a conspicuous tone, and with some frequency he apostrophizes the authors and their subjects, always in the majestic plural. The narrator takes on the persona of a tribune, speaking to persuade. (...)

That's how The Sertões it constitutes a narrative from the first word; even what looks like description, or has the apparent object of describing, is already narration”.[vi]

Now, this narrative has at its core the millenarian dimension of Canudos. However, Walnice does not place her where we are used to finding her, that is, in the figure of Antonio Conselheiro. In a turn of the highest acute ingenuity, Walnice deposits her in the figure of Euclides da Cunha. Mixed scientist and tribune, but plagued with the origin of Evil, Euclid's source is the Bible. But a peculiar Bible: The Sertões takes place as a gigantic and malignant inversion of the archetypes of Genesis and Apocalypse.

“That's where the first part of Os Sertões begins, with its mimesis of Genesis, its disproportionate, tyrannical progress, narrating the chaos giving birth to the Earth. Everything there is convulsed and in motion (…) in the region of Canudos, the Genesis has not yet ended: the excesses of temperature are incessantly modifying the very morphology of the minerals, the lichen is in the process of attacking the stone to transform it into soil, and so on”.[vii]

Not only is Genesis not complete, but it takes place as the opposite of Genesis: instead of radiant light and kosmos, darkness, disorder, excess, convulsion prevail. However, it is not only Genesis that is inside out, also the Apocalypse in which the final redemption and glory in the Celestial Jerusalem are absent.

“And that is why everything is turned inside out in this Apocalypse, which is not paradisiacal, but demonic, of hell, of the underworld, of what is rejected by reason, of what confuses human understanding. (...) Instead of the air in which the City of God shines and the water that fertilizes it, there is only earth and fire”.[viii]

We perceive, then, that the thread that weaves the metaphysical-theological bond between The Sertões e Grande Sertão: paths allows us to understand why in this one we find the Apocalypse in reverse, when Walnice strikes us with her presence: “In a beautiful page, which I suppose is unique in the Brazilian novel, Guimarães Rosa constructs an apocalyptic vision with the virtualities of misery (...) This phantasmagoric and tremendous picture it shows the rural plebs unleashed, a collective monster that advances to take everything that has been denied it by centuries of misery and oppression. The horror of the vision leads the narrator to abstract its contents, in order to construct a negative allegory with them: “Don't even tell me you didn't – that's when I thought about the ugly hell of this world: that in it you can't see the force carrying on the hands. things justice, and the high power existing only for the arms of the greatest goodness”.[ix]

But not only that. With Walnice, we discover that The Sertões deciphers the title of the masterpiece of Guimarães Rosa: the paths they are the desire of a river, which, however, only exists in reverse, dry. Me on.


I pointed out how Walnice Nogueira Galvão reads challenging books. I now want to point out how she creates a questioning book. I refer to The Warrior Maiden, that challenges us from the moment we come across the spelling proposed and never abandoned by Walnice Nogueira Galvão – Maiden-Warrior –, indicating that we are facing a syntagm, since it is the internal unity of the two terms that constitutes the being of the archetype: a fierce virgin.

The questioning of the enigma of Grande Sertão: paths e The Sertões drags us through guilt in search of the origin of Evil. The literary reconstruction of The Warrior Maiden by Walnice challenges us to decipher another metaphysical enigma: the origin of to be of the feminine from the radical otherness of a woman who transgresses the culturally imposed limits to the genders.

The enigma is announced from the beginning of the book with the presentation of the female archetype built without the mother figure and emptied of all the attributes with which cultures invent being a woman.

First riddle: is the Warrior Maiden mythical or historical, imaginary or real? After all, the gallery mixes the threads of weaving: Palas Atena, Atalanta, Bellatrix, Camilla, Mu-Lan, Yansã, Durga-Parvati, Débora, Judith, Amazons, Valkyries, Diadorim, Joan of Arc, Catalina de Erauso, Simone Weil , Maria Quitéria, Clara Camarão, Bárbara de Alencar, Maria Bonita are figures who belong to times and spaces that are sometimes imaginary and sometimes real, inhabited by goddesses, saints, princesses, queens, jagunças, feats of patricians, revolutionaries, characters from poems, plays and novels, but also women of flesh and blood, whose feats are brought out by historical documents.

Second riddle: the figure of the Warrior Maiden spreads through cultural diffusion from a primitive nucleus or is it systematically constructed in the most different times and cultures from the presence of the sacred, as evidenced by the figures of Pallas Athena, Judite, Mu-lan, Yansã ?

These two enigmas, however, do not exhaust the interrogation. A third question is proposed by Walnice Nogueira Galvão: why can't we confuse the Warrior Maiden with other figures who also evade the destiny of wife and mother? Why not take her as a sorceress, hierodula, hetaira, prostitute and harlot, even though this identification has often been made, as in the case of Joan of Arc, a witch before becoming a saint, and even though these figures cause astonishment, fear and repulsion for the reckless exercise of a sexuality without a reproductive purpose?[X]

Now, compared to these figures, the Warrior Maiden “stands out for being another: she is not a mother, nor a wife, nor a prostitute, nor a sorceress, etc. A very special niche of hers must be sought where none of these resides”.[xi]

The Warrior Maiden's radical otherness is exactly what makes her a greater enigma than the ones mentioned so far. Therefore, the millennial construction of the archetype, collected by Walnice in an impressive collection of texts, opens a new interrogation.

“This character frequents literature, civilizations, cultures, history, mythology. Daughter of a father without a mother's contest, her destiny is asexual, she cannot have a lover or children. It interrupts the chain of generations, as if it were a deviation from the central trunk and nature had abandoned it due to its infeasibility. Her vital potency is turned backwards towards the father; as long as she is only from the father, she will not take another man. Larger woman, on one side, above anatomical determination; minor, on the other, suspended from access to maturity, trapped in the paternal bond, mutilated in the multiple roles that nature and society offer”.[xii]

It is necessary to go further, to descend to the origin, reaching the reverse of the reverse in order to find in it the properly metaphysical-theological dimension that sustains the invention of the Warrior Maiden in the vein of times and in the multiplicity of cultures, whether the warrior virgin is imaginary or be real.

For this, Walnice examines the unavoidable asymmetry brought by the archetype, since the Warrior Maiden always plays male roles, but “the opposite is not true: men rarely lend themselves to playing female roles”, except for theatrical traditions ( like the Greek theater, the Elizabethan one, the Japanese No and Kabuki, the Peking Opera) or, then, for debauchery, as in the carnival (and without forgetting Virginia Woolf analyzing male ceremonial garments such as university gowns, magistrates' clothes, military uniforms ). Walnice Nogueira Galvão deals first with the ambivalence that is expressed in these cases, and then turns to what is hidden beneath it: the asymmetry that indicates the inferiority of women in the face of power over which men have a monopoly and explains because maidens have always transgressed imposed limits.

However, if the ambivalence hides the asymmetry, what interests Walnice is what is hidden under the asymmetry itself, since there is practically no “feminine fantasy in the sense of forcing a man to have a woman's destiny”. This finding allows him to raise the hypothesis that “the warrior maiden, before being a female aspiration, can constitute a male fantasy”[xiii]. Thus, asymmetry “helps us to reason inside out”[xiv] to discover that we are facing “the mythical realization of a male maternity fantasy”[xv], the existence of innumerable cosmogonies in which the primordial One is hermaphrodite not being accidental, generating the two sexes when giving birth to the first father and the first mother, but also like Jehovah creating Adam with whose help Eve will be created. If psychoanalysis invented and publicized penis envy, it was silent about envy of pregnancy and – completes Walnice – nothing prevents us from considering the first as a compensatory fantasy for the second.

We are, therefore, led to the founding myths, reopening the field of the sacred, which had been opened with the interpellation of Grande Sertão: paths e The Sertões.

In Western culture, the exemplary founding myth is undoubtedly that of Pallas Athena, virgin – parthenos –born from the head of Zeus, revealing the imaginary desire for a male parthenogenesis and an unbroken pact, as the daughter will always be a maiden and will never become a woman through the mediation of a sexual partner. Once again, recalls Walnice Nogueira Galvão, the men of psychoanalysis, obsessed with the Oedipus complex, left Electra's complex in the shade: “the pair father-mature-man with daughter-dead maiden is a forgotten pair”.[xvi]

This, however, is not enough. Indeed, if the Warrior-Maiden is born without a mother (or motherless, like Diadorim), it will be necessary to ask if there is a child born without the assistance of the father.

From Pallas Athena we pass to the archetype of pietà, the mother embracing her dead son whose resurrection is announced. This archetype is present in Mediterranean cultures with Aphrodite and Adonis, Isis and Osiris, Selene and Dionysus, Astarte and Tamus, Thetis and Achilles, and, of course, Mary and Christ.

“These representations of the son's death and resurrection, guaranteeing the eternal return of the seasonal cycle, would be typical of regions where the seasons are very marked at their limits, where everything dies in winter and everything is reborn in spring. Expression of the feminine principle, the goddesses are variants of the same Great Mediterranean Mother (...) despite being an ever-virgin mother, in the sense of non-wife: she is Mother with the Son, fertilized by God. The father never matters or else it is strict parthenogenesis.”[xvii]

That, after this masterly journey, Walnice chooses Orlando for the final chapter of The Warrior Maiden, titled “Finish: the enigma”, should not surprise us. With the novel by Virgínia Woolf, the issue of gender difference takes up the enigma deciphered in the work of Guimarães Rosa, the “is and is not”, the character alternating as a man and a woman.[xviii]

However, at the end of the novel, Virginia Woolf leaves the enigma open: as a man, Orlando falls in love with an archduchess, but now, having become a woman, he meets her again as an archduke, leading her to exclaim: “you were a woman !”, to which the beloved retorts: “you were a man!”. And Walnice comments: Virgínia's attitude is one of “mocking inability to deal with such a portentous enigma”, acting like Clarice and Machado who, “at the risk of facing the enigma, did not dare to go further”.[xx]

That is why The Warrior Maiden makes us question: after all, why, after having deciphered the enigma of the Warrior Maiden, does Walnice replace, with Virgínia, Clarice and Machado, the “portentous enigma” of “is and is not”?

I think I can answer: because, questioning others and questioning ourselves, her work tells us that Walnice Galvão unveils the mystery of the being of literature, which gives being to what is not and steals the being from what is. ţō óη με óη.

*Marilena Chaui Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of Ideological manifestations of Brazilian authoritarianism (Authentic).


Antonio Dimas & Ligia Chiappini (eds.). Words for Walnice. São Paulo, Sesc editions, 2023, 390 pages (


[I] Maurice Merleau-Ponty “Le langage indirect et les voix du silence”, signs. Paris, Gallimard, 1960, p. 56.

[ii] Walnice N. Galvão The forms of the false. São Paulo, Perspectiva, 1972. p. 67.

[iii] Ibid p. 119.

[iv] Ibid., p. 90-91.

[v] Ibid p. 129

[vi] Walnice N. Galvão, “Critical Fortune”, in The Sertões. Critical edition and organization Walnice Nogueira Galvão, São Paulo, Ubu Editora/Edições SESC São Paulo, 2016, p. 625, 626.

[vii] Ibid p. 626, 627.

[viii] Ibid p.627

[ix] Walnice N. Galvão The shapes of the fake, op. cit. P. 67.68

[X] That is why Walnice turns to each of these figures, revealing that they express an “intransigent radicalization of female roles that seems to be an ideal of male culture” in which the man transits through multiple spheres of action and hopes, in each of them, to have at his disposal at his disposal a woman who performs a single function.

[xi] Ibid p. 34.

[xii] Ibid p. 11,12.

[xiii] Ibid p.140

[xiv] Walnice N. Galvão “A Maiden-Warrior”, Warrior Maiden.” São Paulo, SESC São Paulo, 2009, p. 9.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Walnice N. Galvao, The Warrior Maiden, op. cit., p. 141. “Problem their, after all”, writes Walnice, commenting with humor on the obsession of men of psychoanalysis with Oedipus to the detriment of Electra.

[xvii] Ibid p.141

[xviii] No less significant is that, when questioning what it is to be a woman or a man, Virginia Woolf does so through the character as a writer and writer. A novel within a novel? Would Walnice allow me to say that we have rediscovered the “thing within the thing”?

[xx] Ibid p. 236.

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