What does it mean to discuss the Formation of Brazilian Literature?

Image: Jenny Olsson


Comments on some formulations by Roberto Schwarz

         In the recent report published in Magazine Piauí About Marxism in Brazil, Roberto Schwarz raises a question, in the second paragraph, that seems to be at the center of our contemporary problems. He tells us: “This somewhat neutral designation serves to avoid chapel quarrels and terminology that would prevent many Marxists from recognizing the common direction of the works — let's suppose — of Caio Prado Junior, Celso Furtado and Antonio Candido, to remain symbolic figures. Added to the addition of a dozen other authors, many of whom cordially detest each other, it is a set endowed with consistency and elucidative power, whose scope has not yet been properly appreciated"[I]. The end of the last sentence might go unnoticed, were it not for another moment when Schwarz makes a similar elaboration, now limited to Antonio Candido: “Books that become classics immediately, as was the case with Formation of Brazilian Literature, published in 1959, sometimes pay for it, without the debate that should correspond to them. Forty years later, Antonio Candido's central idea has barely begun to be discussed"[ii].

         More than twenty years separate the two formulations, and the author seems to insist on the fact that Antonio Candido was not properly appreciated. The posing of the problem may seem absurd from one or two points of view. It can be said that, no, Candido's central idea was indeed discussed, since the book not only generated debate at the time of its publication but was also the subject of varied analyses, with the most diverse degrees of competence. To stay only with the classics, we can remember the book by Haroldo de Campos (The kidnapping of the baroque) and that of Afrânio Coutinho (The concept of Brazilian literature). Not to mention the various texts on Candido that were produced, for which it suffices to refer to the text by Abel Barros Baptista, “The canon as formation”, in his The wild book. In one way or another, these texts, in addition to the hundreds of others that can easily be found in the bibliographies of theses or articles about Candido, discuss the author's central idea, although they may not properly appreciate the scope of his elucidative power. Another way of approaching the apparent absurdity of the formulation is to say that the Basic was not discussed, because its theoretical assumptions were abandoned in the decades following the 1964 coup. Formulated somewhat aggressively, we could say that the book was not discussed because no one is interested in the questions it raises anymore, whether by authors outside of fashion that he discusses (with the exception of one or another that still reappears in our debates), whether by focusing on the relationship between literature and the historical structures that his work proposes.

         All of this is true. The work was discussed and its assumptions and objects were abandoned. But there is still a third hypothesis that I would like to raise, and which seems more appropriate to update the discussion. Perhaps it could be said like this: Candido's central idea — like that of his peers in the first quote — seeks to give an intelligible form to a process that ended the Military Dictatorship. It may seem like yet another absurdity, but let me explain: studies on Brazil in the traditional training, founded in the mid-1930s (but with origins at the end of the XNUMXth century), always looks at the Brazilian past with an eye on the present. It is never a question of simply historicizing the patriarchal family in the Colony (Freyre) or the meaning of colonization (Caio Prado) or the formation of a literary system (Candido), but of thinking about this process as part of something that is still ongoing and , therefore, that needs to be seen from the dilemmas of the present. Formation, in the sense that this tradition gave to the term, was a historical process that presupposed the dissolution of colonial life and the implementation of bourgeois sociability in the country.

The contradiction from which all this theoretical reflection seems to take its greatest advantage is the fact that, even though it is not a bourgeois country, Brazil was already a capitalist country (in the sense of Caio Prado), and the emergence of a bourgeois society in a country Capitalism since its inception implies overcoming the position occupied by the country within the capitalist system that it helped to found. The Dictatorship ended the formation process precisely in the sense that it made the country bourgeoisie — it industrialized and introduced modern cultural practices, with all that this implies in terms of infrastructure and ideology. The current dilemma, before 1964, was to make the country more bourgeoisie to overcome the colonial liabilities that coexisted with brutal forms of capitalist exploitation. The formation of this bourgeois sociability was, at this stage, a task with a strong progressive connotation. The problem is that the dilemma was resolved without the arrival point approaching anything previously imagined: we became bourgeoisie in a dictatorial regime that did not imply any of the positive aspects that this arrival point previously supposed.

         One way or another, we got to where we expected and, suddenly, all the reflection of previous decades, in fact, was relegated to being outdated, because it responded to the demands of a present that no longer existed. And it is from this newness that the lack of discussion that Schwarz talks about seems to come from. It is not that we have not debated the book, or that we have not sufficiently valued the achievements of that generation, or that our intellectuals have lacked the acumen to perceive the strong explanatory reach of all those works: it is that the historical process that made those works works were readable and discussed ended immediately after their publication. The assumption here is that the discussion and perception of the elucidative scope are from the historical process itself and not from an intellect that fluctuates in time and space. If the story doesn't move, the thought stays where it left it. Exactly for this reason, the most common relationship to training is not meditation on its argument and its attempt to demonstrate it, but simply on its assumptions. The body of the argument has completely lost its interest and relevance. Haroldo de Campos takes 20 pages of the book for his controversial response and intends to dismantle Candido's argument, and a large part of national intelligence accepted this type of procedure as if it were possible to refute almost eight hundred pages of detailed analysis from the most diverse group of writers as valid. . Obviously the procedure is not valid, but what matters is why it appears as valid for people who, otherwise, are in full use of their mental faculties. Now, perhaps it is because only that minimal part of the book could still be intelligible, with its argumentative body obsolete by the continuation of the historical process. In fact, this is the most common response to the book: it's a thing of the past, we've already surpassed this old national and particular and universal etc. thing.

         The intellectual stance after 1964 was not just counter-formative, but anti-formative. It presupposed the updating of the country's intellectual paradigms detached from the continuity of the evolutionary line of its self-reflection. We could introduce deconstruction, structuralism, cultural studies and whatever comes next without referring to the set of new paradigms brought from the best American and French universities to our own tradition of reflection on national things. This is because the content of expressions such as “national things” or “Brazilian problems” or “interpretation of Brazil” simply disappeared from the radar as a possibility of approaching problems, because the fundamental contradiction to which these expressions referred — capitalism without bourgeois society and the process of constitution of this new form of sociability — disappeared from the historical soil from which reflection itself arises. This update may have been the fundamental step in the definitive bourgeois ideological modernization that the Dictatorship implemented in the country.

The only possibility for reflection, beyond theoretical eclecticism, was meditation on the causes of failed training, and in this direction goes not only Schwarz's studies on Machado, but also almost his entire generation, in terms of consistency and strength. enlightening. He ends a melancholy text, “End of Century”, with an even more melancholy retrospective note: “In passing it becomes clear how narrow and provincial our idea of ​​modernization was, for which the problem was not in the march of the world, but just in our relative position within it.”[iii]. The statement has elucidative force in relation to the change that would need to be made: the previous vision, that of formation, considered the problem of modernization — bourgeoisization — as something related to our position within the world system and not related to the global development of the system. In other words, the formative vision imagined that the problem was the distance that separated us from the bourgeois paradigm, when the real problem was the global development of the bourgeois society in which we were inserted.

Each step towards that paradigm appeared to us as a real movement, but it was, in fact, an optical illusion: with each step we took, the system took a step with us, maintaining our relative position exactly as before. The steps glimpsed towards formation would have been false steps, but the main thing is in the historical location of the author's own reflection: they only appear to us as false steps and formation as a kind of optical illusion because we have managed to bourgeoise our sociability in a way full and the steps, now, even in what they had as an optical illusion, are evidently steps to the side. The affirmative aspect of the new formulation of the problem is that to reach the positive aspects that the formative process entails, it will be necessary not only to reorganize our position, but the march of the world itself. In other words, the problem gains in internationalism and forces us to rethink not what is necessary for our formation, but to reinterpret our history in terms of what it has to reveal for the general march of modern development. Better for us, as we gain global importance. Worse for us, as we lost the historical ground that made this same reflection possible.

But returning to the initial question, what would it mean, from this updated point of view, to discuss the Formation of Brazilian Literature? That is, to discuss it not in its own terms (the formative process), but in terms of following the historical process that seems to make its argument unreadable? Now, it means reinterpreting literary material in light of the discovery — not of intelligence, but of history — that the steps towards formation were false steps. Because, even if they really appeared as steps forward, their global meaning was not the intended formation, but a readjustment to the levels of development of the bourgeois world at the time, that was the problem. Discuss the Basic It is always a comparative work that makes our tradition reveal what there, in the other that we took as a paradigm, was provisional and overvalued. It means, ultimately, turning your eyes to that set of moldy material to see, in each movement, the false step. Look again at the journalism of Luzes (Hipólito da Costa, Evaristo da Veiga), or at the work of Frei Caneca, or at the forgotten novelists (who still remembers Teixeira de Souza, anyway?) and look for exactly the moment in which that the falsehood of the step reveals itself, so that, in this falsehood, we can see the other side, the one on the other side of the Atlantic, in what is also false and provisional. In other words, seeing the truth of the system in the false.                         

The task is herculean and of global interest, not just provincial interest. It seems to be indeed urgent, because it puts national problems back into intelligible terms for our time and avoids adhering to the uncritical resurgence of formation, as if 64 had not existed. This is another dangerous and contagious trap: on the one hand, imagining that the out-of-dateness of training implies the abandonment of reflection on the national problem (in a social sense and not in an identity sense); on the other, imagine that it is possible to continue thinking about it in the previous terms. This is both in literary and political-ideological terms. Literature: not seeing in the formed system the precariousness of a peripheral country, seeing in the exaltation of our precariousness an acceptable artistic solution, and not taking the authors of the formative period for what is false in them. Ideology: imagine that it is possible, at this point, for a development and national integration pact that repositions us in the world based on prestige and our peculiarities. Politics: not seeing the usual scammers as the scam that is coming around the corner. Rethinking the formation of an updated point of view and, therefore, being able to debate it, seems to mean involving the present in the argument with its retreat to rethink the past from this retreat.

But let me ask the question one more time to give one last answer. What does it mean to discuss Formation of Brazilian Literature? Maybe it means waiting. Waiting for something similar to a formative process to be resumed in our concrete lives so that the book's argument becomes readable and can finally be discussed. But this new process, it seems, cannot be merely national, that is, formation can no longer be our process, but a link between our historical process and the progress of the world. Only the naive can see something like this forming on the horizon.  

Filipe de Freitas Gonçalves is a PhD student in Literary Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

[I] Roberto Schwarz, An acclimatization of Marxism in Brazil: the journeys of a generation and a project to transform the country. Piauí Magazine, December 2023, p. 46. ​​Also available in: Roberto Schwarz tells how Marxism affected his generation (uol.com.br).

[ii] Roberto Schwarz, The seven breaths of a book (in: idem. Sequências Brasileiras. Companhia das Letras, 1990), p. 54.

[iii] Roberto Schwarz, End of century (in: idem. Sequências Brasileiras. Companhia das Letras, 1990), p. 198.

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles