autobiographical work

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1950


Commentary on Celso Furtado's memoirs

Among Celso Furtado's many readers, perhaps few know that our greatest economist wrote, at the age of 25, a fiction book. The Tales of Expeditionary Life came out in 1945 and are only now being published again in this autobiographical work reunited in the care of Rosa Freire d'Aguiar.

To write literature with war experiences, pure memory is often enough. The soldier's existential situation in a foreign land always has an air of the unusual, at least enough so that the people and things seen gain, when evoked, an appearance of imagined reality, which is a good definition of literature. But read what the narrator himself says in this note that precedes his juvenile texts:

“The facts narrated in these tales are substantially true. But, because they are general traits, they do not belong to anyone. Many we shall find there; however, we will not lack the certainty that the general experiences fit all of us”.

And what is the truth of life in front? Then each one's luck depends on random combinations, and the other can suddenly be my killer or my savior. “My God” – says an old Italian woman to the GIs – “she swore they were tedescos. So serious, drinking, there is no difference. All are tall. The uniform is the same”…

It is this feeling of the arbitrary that gives the tales of the former soldier in Italy their peculiar tone. Something strange can always happen in a land occupied by two enemy forces, and where the boundaries between city dweller and peasant have already been blurred, the partisan ubiquitous and solitary and the man in the street squeezed between the invader and the liberator, both dangerous.

In this fluctuating environment, the soldier reconstructed by the author is an intellectualized young man capable of glimpsing in that chaotic Italy at the end of the war the agony of a civilization for which beauty was, for centuries, a true religion. The Tuscany of these expeditionary stories is the occasion for indelible encounters. The landscape, the house and above all the woman are outlined here as images haloed by a look that brought from his patriarchal and literate Northeast the passion of European culture and the desire to sublimate that painful contingency of his as an involuntary gunner.

That is why the tales of the young man in the olive green uniform are stories of love and admiration for a world that is like a dream even when plunged into the nightmare of violence. This is the spirit of the quasi-chronic “An Intellectual in Florence”, a fabric of erudite reminiscences sewn with a thread of unwrinkled candor. The purity of the man from the wild is satisfied in the sober lines of the landscape that inspired the oldest of the modern representations of nature.

The reader, still surprised to have discovered a lyrical vein in the respectable scholar of macrostructures, should continue his knowledge of this work, which intends to be autobiographical. He will then understand that he has a half-century journey under his eyes, along which the life of the man Celso Furtado is intertwined with the radical sense of the science of which he is a master: the economy taken as a tool of politics; or, in other words, the theory and practice of development.

Aware that “the world has changed”, but that in this “globalized” world Brazil continues to be a country of deep shortages and imbalances, Celso Furtado reconstructs his career as a public man and tireless planner, grouping his crucial moments around the term “ fantasy". The word is suggestive, as a variant of “imagination”; and one of Celso Furtado's theoretical opponents, Eugênio Gudin, already criticized him in the 1950s for resorting to imagination, "good for the novelist, but not for the economist"... But it is known that, for the orthodox Gudin, the evil of Brazil was the hyper-employment (sic) added to the heretical claim to make the State the promoter of development and social justice.

In any case, Celso Furtado's fantasy has been accompanied, since the beginning, by the attribute “organized”. The expression, taken from a phrase by Paul Valéry (“Ne sommes-nous pas une fantasy organisée?”), it seemed happy to me when I saw it in the title of the first edition of the work, in 1985. Behind its paradox, which combines desire and order, dream and reason, a basic dialectical conception prevails. The modern individual, the subject emerged from the Enlightenment, but soon entangled in the meshes of competitive capitalism, aims at the same time to preserve his degree of freedom, hard won by so many generations, and to live in a polis where human rights are not class privileges, but everyone's daily bread. In order to realize this beautiful fantasy, it is necessary to overcome the isolation and dispersion inherent in the division of labor and social discontinuity. Fantasy must organize itself in political terms. The prosaic name of this process is planning.

Celso Furtado learns from Keynes and from the Brazilian and international history of the 1930s that it is up to the State to “predict in order to provide” – Comte’s formula dear to those who bet on “social engineering” – and, by doing so, correct the distortions of the so-called free market . But his true school was the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) and its Latin American master, Raul Prebisch, “who guided us all”, as he acknowledges in the dedication of the organized fantasy. It is not by chance that his thought, although advancing through new conjuncture analyses, insistently returns to the debate of the 1950s around underdevelopment, “a phenomenon that had just been discovered and caused perplexity”. From that decisive decade, his entire intellectual biography would have as its axis the understanding of dependent societies and the ethical commitment to the progress of their people, in line with that of other ex-colonial peoples who came to see themselves as Third World.

The idea of ​​planning appears to him not only as an economic instrument and social technique, but, following Mannheim, as a political and cultural problem, considering the terrible experiences of fascism and Stalinism that he firmly rejects. “I could never understand the existence of a 'strictly' economic problem.” The coexistence of state presence and democracy, as outlined in the second Vargas government (1950-54) and in the times of Juscelino, was a rare achievement, an example of the much that political will could do in a tense or even adverse international context. .

Desire and imagination needed to walk at the same pace as the rational analysis of the possibilities of each situation, and it was this delicate combination that our ECLAC structuralist sought to apply to the construction of the Superintendency for the Development of the Northeast (Sudene) throughout the governments of Kubitschek, Jânio and Goulart. The juice of this company is counted in the fantasy undone, which is from 1988, and is now preceded by the Adventures of a Brazilian Economist, a beautiful evocation of the author's northeastern childhood years. There you can find the roadmap of his training and the synthesis of key ideas to which he adheres with all his conviction as a man and an intellectual:

“The first of these ideas is that arbitrariness and violence tend to dominate the world of men. The second is that the fight against this state of affairs requires something more than simple rational schemes. The third is that this fight is like a flowing river; it always brings new waters, no one really wins it and no defeat is final”. Accepting the relative content of successes and failures, Furtado recognizes himself as a thinker immersed in the current of history, where, as Machiavelli warned, it is up to fortune what escapes virtue.

The three volumes that are now composed in a single great work resemble a long symphony with the multiple harmonic variants (the counterpoints are the different conjunctures) of some melodic themes, which sound more and more intensely and dramatically until the advent of the climax to interrupt each other abruptly with the sharp dissonances of the March 1964 coup. What remains in the ear of the attentive reader is the melody: the fantasy has dissolved, but Brazil continues to demand from decent Brazilians the project of remaking it.

The question keeps returning: why plan? Because when it is not foreseen, the heads of the hydra are reborn even if they are not well cut off. Iniquity erupts at any moment in international relations, widening the distances between center and periphery, between stateless speculative finance and nationally or sectorally oriented productive investments. The other face of the process is the disparity within each country and each region: here, the concentration of income and power prevents the building of a real social democracy. In diachronic terms: the high productivity achieved in rich countries throughout the 1950s and 1960s, so often due to “selective protectionism” (as Prebisch had already noticed since 1949), corresponded, in general, to the stagnation of the economies that were trying to , in those same years, the first steps to consolidate its late industrial parks and its internal market.

Already in his first Chilean internship, Celso Furtado conceived dependence in a mobile context that should not be accepted with resignation (“the world is like that”, say those who have already given up on changing it), as faced with a virile spirit. And in this he differs to this day from economic bureaucrats, conformed chameleons and concordants in the inglorious operation of adjusting to injustice.

With the strictest discretion prevailing in this set of texts, there are rare moments when the reader is allowed to witness the author's subjective reactions. These emerge in episodes that talk about encounters or in dramatic scenes that the citizen Celso Furtado witnessed. I remember the visit to Getúlio, who supported ECLAC in a critical phase of the institution, and the conversations with Juscelino, with Jânio, with Goulart, with Santiago Dantas, with Arraes (whose overthrow he witnessed), with Kennedy, with Perón, with D. Helder, with Sartre, with Che Guevara…

In all dialogues, an equanimous intelligence is revealed, open to differences, anxious to understand them before judging them and, at the same time, the integral character that places the core of its moral identity in the fulfillment of each mission.

* Alfredo Bosi (1936-2021) was Emeritus Professor at FFLCH-USP and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL). Author, among other books, of Between literature and history (Publisher 34).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews / Folha de S. Paulo, No. 32, on 08/11/1997.


Celso Furtado. Autobiographical work: The organized fantasy; The fantasy undone; The tales of expeditionary life; Adventures of a Brazilian Economist. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 640 pages.


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