Resentment in Brazil



A chapter from the newly republished book “Resentiment”

“Yesterday's headline, 'Country needs 46 years to reach levels of 1o. World ', he left me overwhelmed. It is enough to imagine at what level the countries of 1o. World in 46 years. (Folha de São Paulo reader letter dated 1/9/2004).

Brazilians, in general, do not consider themselves resentful. In fact, the imperative of joy present in our culture favors the forgetting of grievances, and not the resentful remembrance of past mistakes and suffering. We are a forward-looking nation, a “forward” country. But resentment is still present among us, disguised in ironic, cynical or complaining language formations that look like – but are not – a progressive critique of our historical failings and our social insufficiencies. Faults that are not interpreted as debts (towards the past), payable through present action. On the contrary, we conceive of our social problems as insufficiencies that always seem unfair to us, the responsibility of another, of someone who would have the power to remedy our ills, but did not.

The resentment in Brazilian society is rooted in our difficulty in recognizing ourselves as agents of social life, subjects of our history, collectively responsible for solving the problems that afflict us. Its roots go back to the paternalistic and cordial tradition of command, which maintains subordinates in a relationship of filial and servile dependence in relation to the authorities – political or employer – in the expectation of seeing good behavior and class docility recognized and rewarded.

Let us take, as an example of the resentment camouflaged in Brazilian society, the speed with which a large part of the population seemed to forget, or forgive, the crimes of the military dictatorship, as if they had affected only a small portion of left-wing militants, of “radical” young people who did not represent the interests of the majority.

The traumatic events experienced by a minority group cannot be excluded from the collective experience of the society where this group is inserted. In Brazil in the 1990s, the children and relatives of politically disappeared people during the period of the military dictatorship promoted meetings, debates and public events that aimed to remove the murder of their loved ones from oblivion and return them to the memory of society from which they were banned due to repression. Such reminiscent events, in which the voice of former militants arrested and tortured, the children and companions of murdered youths, are essential for the political maturation of Brazilian civil society. They should not be confused with resentment policies, as some conservative analyzes make it seem: they would be reparation policies, fundamental so that hurt and indignation do not turn into resentment.

In Brazil, our commitment to happiness, partying and irresponsibility makes us reject memory and abandon projects to repair past injustices. Far from the social conditions of the countries of the so-called idealized and envied First World, we content ourselves with being recognized internationally based on the image of a happy, carefree and sensual people that the colonizers made of us, since the Letter of Caminha. Such a commitment prevents us from taking the reparation of injustices to the last consequences. We are in a hurry to “forgive” our enemies, afraid of appearing resentful – but resentment, an affection that dare not say its name, hides precisely in the reaction formations of hasty forgetting, so characteristic of Brazilian society.

The refusal of memory and reparation – the denial of resentment – ​​is not the same as forgiveness. It cannot be said that Brazilian society has forgiven the military for their abuses, their crimes, for twenty years of delay in the development of democracy. Nothing was forgiven because nothing was taken to the extreme, no former dictator was tried, no one had to ask for forgiveness. Contrary to what the Argentines did – we must consider the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo resentful? – Brazilian society tends to “cheap” the rescue of the great injustices of its history so as not to tarnish its reputation as the “last happy people” on the planet. But what a price we pay for this happiness for the English to see!

The alienation to the (supposed) desire of the Other – no longer the colonizer, but the current representatives of the developed world – makes it impossible for us to take over our history as subjects. We don't pass anything clean, we don't work out our traumas or value our achievements. For this very reason, we Brazilians do not recognize ourselves in the discourse we produce, but in the one that the foreigner produces about us. For that very reason, we are forever beholden to a lost identity. Who are we Brazilians? What are the signifiers that identify us to ourselves? This is what Stella Bresciani observes,[I] when asking why the search for identity, in Brazilian society, never ceases.

In Brazil, the construction of an identity – or, what would be richer, of a field of multiple identifications – is lost in the demand for recognition of our value by the most powerful nations. The search for recognition reproduces submission before the strongest, submission that is a condition of our resentment, our national “inferiority complex”. The apparently engaged criticism of our social ills often disguises the conformism of a large part of Brazilians, who limit themselves to lamenting our backwardness and the distance that separates our social reality from that of European countries or the United States.

What does the Brazilian not see in his culture, or in the set of its subcultures, that he has to ask another to recognize him? Why are the most striking turning points in our history, as well as the richness of our cultural production, not enough to represent us in our own eyes? Authors who thought of Brazil in the XNUMXth century, such as Gilberto Freyre, and, along the same lines, Darcy Ribeiro, consider that the feeling of a national identity disappeared precisely with the end of the colonial period, with the effort to whiten and Europeanize the local culture, as attempts by Brazil to become a bourgeois society.

Our “advance” towards modernity would have cost us the price of erasing our origins – contempt for the “dark races” of blacks and Indians, the devaluation of white Portuguese (coming from a country already in decline); the election of the French model (in culture) and English (in the management of capitalism) as ideals.[ii]

As a result, Brazilians represent themselves as fatherless: we do not value our Portuguese ancestors, we do not recognize great heroes among the founders of the nation, we do not take our national symbols very seriously. What could be a condition of great freedom, if we didn't resent it and didn't always seek, in politics, in religious practices, in mass culture, to recover figures of the authoritarian and protective father. Our supposed symbolic orphanhood did not produce a society emancipated from paternal authority, but a permanent submission to the authority of paternalistic rulers. real, abused, violent like the father of the primal horde of the Freudian myth.

cordiality and resentment

“Democracy in Brazil has always been a regrettable misunderstanding. A rural and semi-feudal aristocracy imported it and tried to accommodate it, wherever possible, to its rights or privileges – the same privileges that had been, in the Old World, the target of the bourgeoisie’s struggle against the aristocrats”.[iii]

It's just that, from the Brazilian colonial heritage, it's not enough to recognize the symbolic debt to the renegade races, blacks and Indians. It is necessary to continue the critical reflection, initiated by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, on the heritage of cordial authoritarianism that the Portuguese colonizer left us. Colonial Brazil was an agrarian society directed according to the particular interests of the first owners, who concentrated large tracts of land under their power. Each property functioned, closed in on itself, like a private republic whose lord made his own laws and applied them, with an iron hand, to his relatives and subordinates.

“In rural domains, it is the type of family organized according to the classic norms of the old Roman-canon law, maintained in the Iberian peninsula through countless generations, which prevails as the basis and center of the entire organization. Slaves on plantations and in households, and not only slaves but households, expand the family circle and, with it, the immense authority of the pater families”.[iv]

Contrary to what happened in the countries of Spanish America, or in North America, in Brazil the elites favored life in the isolation of farms to the detriment of cities. These, until the 1808th century (with the notable exception of Recife under Dutch domination) did not constitute what we call a public space. They were passing places, inhabited by some categories of manual workers, by the unemployed poor, by small traders who had little to offer, since the farms produced what was necessary for their own sustenance. We had here, at least until the arrival of the Portuguese royal family, in XNUMX, not an agricultural civilization, in the opinion of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, but a rural civilization, composed of true feuds that did not recognize subordination to any central power.

“Always immersed in itself, not tolerating any pressure from outside, the family group remains immune to any restriction or shock. In his demure isolation he may despise any higher principle that seeks to disturb or oppress him. In this environment, paternal power is virtually unlimited and few checks exist for its tyranny. (…) The private entity always precedes the public entity in them”.[v]

After independence and with the fall of the monarchy, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda refers to the improvisation of an urban bourgeoisie, which did not prevent the “big house mentality” from invading cities and organizing relations between classes, including in humbler occupations.[vi]

The predominance of private interests over public interests, of family morals over the laws of polis, of affective values ​​over the impersonality of courtesy rules, formed in Brazil a conception of the State contrary to what modernity instituted, as “the triumph of the general over the particular, of the intellectual over the material, of the abstract over the corporeal (…) family order, in its pure form, is abolished by a transcendence”.[vii]

This form of social interaction, governed by sensual tendencies, emotional outbursts and affective preferences, is the opposite of civility. That's what the famous thing is about cordiality Brazilian, in the expression of Ribeiro Couto consecrated by the work of Sérgio Buarque.

Well then: as paradoxical as it may seem, a cordial man is inseparable from the Brazilian modality of a man of resentment. It is for not accepting helplessness necessary in which the impersonality of the law launches the citizen, made by virtue of this impersonality responsible for the construction and its destiny, individual and collective; it is because public authorities are expected to satisfy the demands of love and practice justice based on affective preferences; it is by representing itself, before the Other (which in adult life, is inseparable from instances of power) as a child before protective and loving parents, that Brazilian society so often gives up the task of building a republican order, modern, adult.

From the elites' point of view, cordiality is doubly advantageous: by obscuring the impersonality of the law, it masks a series of abuses under the veil of favoritism and merit obtained in the name of affective preferences. In addition, the brazen exercise of this same favoritism tames the subordinate classes, who prefer to wait their turn in line for benefits than rise up in search of their rights.

From the point of view of the dominated, the cordial style of domination weakens the impulse that should lead to the permanent exercise of emancipation. In Brazil, compliance with the law and rights is often masked under the guise of a special favor. To be promptly treated in a public office, to obtain a place in the health services, to receive compensation for a just cause, everything seems, in the eyes of the poor who do not know their rights, a work of favor consented to by a benevolent authority. The cordial man prefers to enjoy the secondary benefits of his exploited position, but exploited in a tactful way, than to risk the loss of these false “privileges” by dissatisfying a boss or a paternalistic authority.

Even today, society still confusedly accepts this model of the ruler, which originated in the rural tradition, in which the political authority does not act as a representative of the interests of the majority, but as a father of the family, authoritarian or protector, who infantilizes and makes society passive, preventing its emancipation through the full flowering of republican institutions. The big house mentality is still present in the relations of domination and exploitation in many sectors of Brazilian society.

Social resentment, in Brazil, is the expression of generalized frustration at the failure of this infantile delegation of power. It is the result of cowardice – not exactly moral, but political – that leads us to retreat from the inevitable tension that pervades relations between classes, in exchange for the enjoyment provided by the sensual way of exploring bodies and enticing consciences.

In this case, call these relations late it does not represent a resentment towards the advantages of the First World, to which we submit full of envy and admiration; acknowledging our backwardness is a way of measuring the distance that still separates us from some elementary achievements of modernity, which in many countries have been in force for over a century.

The recovery of consciousness of the origin of our backwardness, which naturalizes historically produced social relations, is not equal to the rumination characteristic of memory pathologies, in resentment. It is work against the repetition produced by repression. The repression of origin not only has the effect of lowering our self-esteem, due to the lack of a strong feeling of national identity. It allows the unconscious perpetuation of our ills. Recognizing the origin is also a condition for making any change in the course of a country's history. Only the acknowledgment of history can prevent us from being condemned to repeat it. Hannah Arendt, in her reflection on the emancipatory importance of knowing tradition, resorts to Tocqueville's expression: if the past fails to shed light on the future, we will be condemned to wander in the midst of darkness.[viii]

The power of the father or the assembly of brothers

It's not missing father, tradition, affiliation to Brazilian society; the recognition of this erased affiliation is lacking, of the origin rejected in the name of identification with an idealized Other who is alien to our history. Recognition of our political and cultural heritage is lacking – necessary, but not sufficient for the emancipation of Brazilian society.

but none Father's name sustains itself, through the vertical transmission of heritage and tradition. It is the children who, eliminating the tyrant father to emerge as subjects, institute the symbolic representation of the father, support of the Law that makes coexistence possible in the name of a common good. What Brazilian society lacks is no longer a father, placed in a position of authority, of a plantation owner or a messianic leader, but the recognition of republican action by horizontal formations, which I would metaphorically call fraternal.[ix]

If resentment is one of the symptoms of what fails in the egalitarian project of modern democracies, its cure does not come about through appealing to the benevolence of the State (father), but through the strengthening of horizontal ties between citizens (brothers), to make the country not just a democracy but, above all, a republic. What was lacking in republican Brazil was not a father/founder whose image could sustain our self-esteem, but the creation of mechanisms for incorporating all social classes to the life of the newly proclaimed Republic.

Heloísa Starling emphasizes the imaginary counterpart of this precarious political project: “it lacked forming the republican foundation of the people, that is to say, it failed to recognize, in the Brazilian population, the existence of men united by law and capable of sharing in a certain way. imagination that allows them to overcome the limits of private and domestic life and represent, as common, certain feelings, values, principles and norms for the construction of their own destiny”[X].

The failed republicanism to which Starling refers is also reflected in the products of “imagination”, the literary and artistic works that represent society in front of itself. In this sense, the proposal to consolidate our cultural identity through the rescue of the colonial heritage, proposed by Freyre and Darcy, does not do the job at all. On the one hand, it is no longer enough to constitute the identifying field capable of representing contemporary Brazil in front of itself. For better or for worse, Brazil was transformed from a slave colony into a capitalist democracy, unequal but still modern, always indebted to a first world ideal that, in the dynamics of the international scenario, is clearly beyond our reach.

It is this unevenly modernized nation that lacks a sense of identity. The failure of the emancipatory project of Brazilian society and the emphasis on the economic over the political, which keep us tied to the conditions of the international financial market and prevent the creation of national alternatives, make it even more difficult for Brazilians to recognize what characterizes their country . The question: “What country is this?”[xi] it always returns, in opposition speeches, in newspaper headlines, in bar conversations. Who are we if we are not the Other, the foreigner with whom we would like to identify?

“This country is not serious”, says the response of ressentiment, repeating once more the comment of an Other.[xii] We are the scum, the rubbish, a failed project. We missed the development bandwagon and lived chasing losses. If the resentful response repeats the Other's supposed contemptuous look at our ills, the denial of resentment seeks to value Brazil by submitting to what the foreigner expects of us. The rescue of the colonial heritage proposed by Gilberto Freire represents a regressive solution that does not face the real conditions of the problem. Today Brazilian society, orchestrated by television, seems to recognize itself exactly in the stereotype formed from the black and indigenous heritage that translates into the fantasy of the country of carnival, batucada, mulatto women and “macumba-for-tourists”, in the words of by Nelson Rodrigues, who identifies us in the eyes of foreigners.

Either we complain about the lack of recognition and are always indebted to a “first world” that we will never reach – like the lament of the newspaper reader quoted in the epigraph of this chapter – or we install ourselves in a “national identity” recognized in the eyes of the Other , reducing our cultural diversity to the samba-sex-soccer triangle and again we resent the fact that this supposed identity is anchored on the continuations of the servitude of the Indian and the slave in relation to the demands and whims of the white man.

In this sense, the proposals of anthropofagia and, forty years later, of tropicália, represented humorous and daring attempts to overcome resentment by incorporating the origin, without aligning with the apology of backwardness. If the rich Brazilian cultural diversity does not favor any proposal of synthesis, anthropophagy and tropicália sought to reach, through satire (which in origin refers to the idea of saturation) the panel of our contradictions.

In politics, the paternalist-populist tradition of domination through which we try to fill the gap of an ideal father, also favors the conditions of resentment. Until the moment I write this chapter, it seems that Brazilian society has not overcome the desire for servitude (and protection) that makes us transform each new political leader, from a spokesperson for emerging desires and claims into a new father of the poor, with safe conduct to rule in the style of cordial domination with which we are familiar.

It's as if the republican tradition, which already has almost three centuries in Europe and the Americas, never finished taking root here; as if Brazilian society had never understood its role as an agent of the transformations that it itself demands that come to it not as legitimate conquests, but as evidence of paternal love on the part of the authoritarian State, whose rulers often present themselves as familiar, affective, protective--or irascible, when the winds blow against it. The tradition of the cordial man that permeates our political life demoralizes democratic institutions and generates resentment in society. It oscillates between passive waiting for the promises of the kind “father” to be fulfilled, disillusionment and sterile complaints.

Now, the origin of resentment resides precisely in the apartment between subjects and their power to act. In these terms, disappointment with unfulfilled promises does not predispose to action; it produces an army of passive complainers, ready to (re)align with what is worst among conservatives, as a form of bitter and sterile reaction, laden with desires for revenge.

Resentment is the reverse side of politics. It is the fruit of the combination between unfulfilled promises and the passivity they promote. The resentful, in politics, are those who gave up their condition as agents of social transformation to wait for rights and benefits guaranteed in advance. In this way, resentment is aggravated by paternalism, in which case the right to equal opportunities is associated, not with the achievements of popular struggles, but with the goodwill of a loving ruler. That is why resentment is not, as it may seem, the first step towards an effective turn in the power game. The passivity of the resentful position does not allow people to perceive themselves as agents of the power game that determines their lives. Resentment is the ground of affections reactive, of imaginary and postponed revenge, of the memory that only serves to maintain a repetitive and sterile complaint.

If ressentiment is the opposite of politics, it can only be cured by resuming the radical meaning of political action. The political act always implies a risk of destabilizing the order. Unlike resentful resignation, the submissive revolt of resentment, it is born from a bet on the possibility of modifying the structural conditions present at its origin.

*Maria Rita Kehl is a psychoanalyst, journalist and writer. Author, among other books, of Displacements of the feminine: the freudian woman in the passage to modernity (Boitempo).



Maria Rita Kehl. Resentment. 3rd. Edition. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2020.


[I] – Stella Bresciani, “Unfinished identities in XNUMXth-century Brazil – foundations of a commonplace” in: Memory and… (cit.), pp. 403-429.

[ii] – The permanence of an archaic economic model, permeated with remnants and vices of slavery, combined with the gentrification of customs and identification with European models, was analyzed by Roberto Schwarz in the famous essay “Ideias out of place”, from 1976 .

[iii] – Sergio Buarque de Holanda, Brazil roots (1936). São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1998, p. 160.

[iv] – Ditto, p. 81.

[v] – Ditto, p. 82.

[vi] – Ditto, p. 87.

[vii] – Ditto, p. 141.

[viii] – Alexis de Tocqueville, in the final chapter of Democracy in America: "From the moment the past ceased to shed its light on the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity."

[ix] – I worked better on this proposal in the text “A phratria orfã” in: Kehl (org.) Fraternal function. Rio de Janeiro: Relume-Dumara, 2000.

[X] – Heloísa Maria Murgel Starling, “The Republic and the suburb – literary imagination and republicanism in Brazil” in: Cardoso (cit) return to republicanism, p.179.

[xi] – Francelino Pereira.

[xii] – General De Gaulle.

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