Roberto Schwarz – essential

Patrick Heron, Three Reds in Green and Magenta in Blue: April 1970, 1970


Commentary on the literary critic's recently released book

It has just been released by Penguin, the publishing arm of Companhia das Letras, a collection with the Essential (as the title says) by Roberto Schwarz. Nothing more fair, in the year in which the critic – born in Austria, in 1938 – completed 85 springs.

Throughout this period, Roberto Schwarz established himself as an inescapable intellectual character on the Brazilian and, to a certain extent, global scene. For Franco Moretti, who signs the book's introduction, Roberto Schwarz is nothing less than “the greatest Marxist critic of our time”, which had already been predicted by Perry Anderson some time ago.

More difficult, however, is to define what, in the internal economy of Roberto Schwarz's work, constitutes the “essential” to be arranged in a single collection. We are faced, after all, with an author whose work presents a rigorous internal connection, as if almost nothing exceeded its fundamental core.

At first glance, such organicity – which does not exclude forks along the way – would facilitate the task. In a work where everything seems “essential”, it would be enough to choose at random some of his best-known essays, preferably those identifiable by the titles that resonate with the ears of those who have not yet read them.

However, when you look beyond the trees, towards the forest, what you see is “poisoned” flora, to recall one of the essays (this one, regarding Dom Casmurro) about Machado de Assis compiled in the book. This is because it is not immune to the history of which it is part, nor to the contingencies that life imposes, redefining the possible margin of maneuver.

It is in this complex relationship between intellectual itinerary, texts and contexts, therefore, that its “essential” originality can be captured. Even more so because, for those who follow the author, it is not difficult to imagine that he himself was responsible for choosing the essays, as well as for their internal layout. Rereading them in the light of this premise then becomes a fruitful interpretative key to understanding the way in which Roberto Schwarz visualizes, in the present, the meaning of his past work.

Modern ideas, peripheral place

It does not seem like a coincidence, in this sense, that the volume opens with the essay “Ideas out of place”, whose title was not always well understood. Published almost simultaneously in France and Brazil, in 1972 and 1973, respectively, the essay is decisive in the trajectory of Roberto Schwarz. Not only because it was written in the first years of his exile in Paris, but also, and above all, because it is in it that, for the first time, the Austro-Brazilian intellectual reveals in rigorous terms the direction of his studies on Machado de Assis.

If the idea of ​​thinking about Machado through nineteenth-century Brazil, and vice versa, had already occurred to him in the 1960s, especially after the 1964 coup, he lacked a specific interpretation of the Brazilian social process through which he could unveil the “objectivity” in Machado’s way. And this interpretation was only in fact carried out in exile, a moment when, after the traumas of 1964 and 1968, with the proclamation of AI-5, the critic who now returned to the continent of origin was able to rethink the Brazilian past based on the developments of the reactionary but modernizing military dictatorship in the present.

From France, Roberto Schwarz thus took part in the process of critical review of Brazilian social and political thought carried out by São Paulo intellectuals linked to the University of São Paulo and, from 1969, to Cebrap, then founded by professors dismissed after the AI-5, such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso, José Arthur Giannotti, Fernando Novais, among others – almost the same ones who, from 1958 to 1964, had been responsible for the so-called “Seminário de The capital". At the time a Social Sciences undergraduate student, Roberto Schwarz participated in the Seminar and, later, he would not tire of highlighting – often in a somewhat exaggerated way – the importance of the “new intuition about Brazil” created there for his own reflection on Machado de Assis.

In the 1970s, this process took on collective contours, which would elevate São Paulo intellectuals to the center of the Brazilian intellectual scene, at a time when the theme of interrupted national construction, without disappearing, was giving way to the issue of democracy. The specificity of Roberto Schwarz, in this scenario, lies in the way in which literature – or culture in general – is taken as a means of access to the Brazilian social process. With this, he would end up escaping some of the aporias that, despite advances in relation to the national-developmentalist imaginary, still limited the work of his teachers and/or colleagues at the Seminary of The capital.

Among them, the persistence of a certain idealization of the modern that we would not yet be, stands out, even though it sought to prove, in the same step, the unfeasibility of an “autonomous” national development capable of internalizing its decision-making centers, to resume the language by Celso Furtado. In an essay from the 1990s, “A Marx Seminar”, also compiled in the book, Roberto Schwarz would make a critical assessment of the experience, in which he resents the absence, in the group, of criticism of commodity fetishism and the commodification of culture. How can we criticize actually existing modernity if the horizon was still the search for a possible modernity?

The form of training

The essay “Ideas out of place” would appear as the introductory chapter of his doctoral thesis, dedicated to José de Alencar and the first Machado de Assis, and defended in France in 1976. The following year, shortly before Schwarz returned from exile, the study was published in a book in Brazil with the title – equally suggestive of the aforementioned mimicry – To the winner the potatoes.

In the essay, Roberto Schwarz argues that liberal/modern ideas seemed out of place in the XNUMXth century, since a good part of their social bearers (the elites) did not hesitate to proclaim them while at the same time reproducing them, without major complexes. , a social formation still marked by the colonization process and, even more importantly, by the enslavement of black Africans. For Roberto Schwarz, this “class shamelessness” configures the “objectivity” through which both the social process and the form of Machado's novels of the last phase can be read, one through the other.

To the extent that the “social is in the form”, as the young Lukács said, it is up to criticism to establish mediations between the two poles, reality and literature. But, in the case of a peripheral country, such a relationship cannot be thought of as it was in European realism.

Consider the case of the “importation of the novel and its contradictions in Alencar”, the theme of the second chapter of the 1976 doctoral thesis, also allocated as the second essay in the volume discussed here. By resuming the European realistic model, dyeing it with local material, José de Alencar reproduced, without mediation, the mismatch between form and reality, a decoupling that, in another key, can also be seen in the first Machado.

This will not be the case with the last Machado, argues Roberto Schwarz. With The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, the wizard of Cosme Velho (as the writer became known thanks to a poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade) reaches a new level, shifting his point of view to those above. And he would do so through the figure of the fickle narrator, the focal point from which the critic explains the form of the novels not as a realistic figuration of the overall movement of society – as in the Balzac read by Lukács, for example –, but rather as a a kind of literary translation of the dynamics of the homeland elites, which ultimately appear explicit in their lack of commitment to any project of building a modern nation.

By exposing the elites to ridicule, the Machadian narrator behaves like a true “class traitor”, in a role similar to that assumed by the French poet Charles Baudelaire before the French bourgeoisie, at least if we believe the interpretations of Walter Benjamin or Dolf Oehler, as is the case with Roberto Schwarz. So much so that the title of his book about the last Machado does not hide the kinship with Benjamin's characterization of Baudelaire: if he was the “lyricist at the height of capitalism”, the Rio writer would be our “master on the periphery of capitalism”.

With this book, published only in 1990, when he was a professor at Unicamp, Roberto Schwarz finally completed the project explored in “Ideas out of place”, while in exile. It was the last Machado who managed to find a way capable of translating into literary language the national impasses identified in the essay from the early 1970s. In terms of essentialities, the volume contains perhaps the main chapter of A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism, “Literary accumulation and peripheral nation”.

In Roberto Schwarz, it is as if Machado de Assis were the mediation through which the critic reconstitutes Marxism “from local contradictions”, the only way to prevent it from also remaining as an “idea out of place”. As he says in a 1976 interview with the newspaper Movement, reproduced in the book, if, on the one hand, Marxism also seems out of place on the periphery of the system, on the other, due to its materialist inclination – according to which “theory is part […] of reality, and its insertion in the process social is part of what it concretely is” –, it is in better conditions, compared to liberalism or conservatism, to re-elaborate ideas in the light of the place whose understanding is, after all, what matters.

The choice to place “Ideas out of place” as the first essay in the book is even more symptomatic because it is a non-chronological choice. There are previous essays in the volume, including one from his intellectual youth, “Fellini's 8 ½: the lost boy and literature”, originally published in the magazine Brazilian Civilization, in 1965, and strangely allocated as the last text of the book.

There is also the famous essay “Culture and politics, 1964-1969: some schemes”, his first text written in exile, published in 1970 in the magazine Modern Times. These are relevant essays, without a doubt, but they also reveal, by contrast, the qualitative leap represented by “Ideas out of place”.

Peripheral current affairs

Em Roberto Schwarz Essential, it is notable the small number of essays from the 1990s, 2000s or 2010s, a period in which Schwarzian criticism was revealing itself to be increasingly “negative”, going against the rise of neoliberalism. In addition to the aforementioned essay on the Seminar of The capital, written in 1995, in the first year of the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, one of the group's creators, appears in the 1999 text volume about Formation of Brazilian Literature, by Antonio Candido, and the essay on tropical truth, by Caetano Veloso, originally published in 2012.

One does not see in the collection, for example, an essay such as “End of Century”, from 1994, in which Roberto Schwarz outlines a diagnosis of the collapse of Brazilian-style modernization that would later be used as a critical kick by authors such as Francisco de Oliveira (in Platypus) and Paulo Arantes (in The Brazilian Fracture of the World). This is a decisive piece of writing to explain the inflection that the author's thinking underwent from the beginning of the 1990s onwards. For Roberto Schwarz, in a scenario in which modernization could no longer be seen as a way to achieve the construction of In a “modern” nation, the national-peripheral issue remained in force, but as a problem and not as a solution.

One has to wonder about the connection between this absence and the last ten years of Brazilian politics. Perhaps the rise of the extreme right, in the wake of events between 2013 and 2016, has stimulated Roberto Schwarz to review, in part, if not his fundamental diagnosis, at least his more cyclical analysis, perceiving in the governments led by the PT a possible national and democratic barrier in the face of the advance of neo-fascism.

In this scenario, the negative criticism remains, but now appears tempered by more urgent political considerations, challenges whose confrontation would require a tactical retreat in relation to the observation of an impasse that, however, continues to be structural. In an interview with FSP, in 2019, the first year of Jair Bolsonaro's government, Roberto Schwarz seems to return to the distinction between modern and traditional in order to define Bolsonarism as the return to the scene, supported by capital, of the “regressive background” of Brazilian society.

Just as in 1964, the elites would have joined an “anti-illustration bet”, now in reaction to the relative democratization experienced under the PT governments, mobilizing, to this end, the frustration of expectations regarding the limits of such democratic advance.

More recently, in the play queen lyre, Roberto Schwarz risked a more global analysis of the “ideological cacophony” of recent Brazil, not hesitating to explain the dilemmas of the left itself under attack. Return to theater – in the 1970s, he had already published the play The dustbin of history –is in itself significant. It was the possible mediation for the critic to risk a diagnosis of the Brazilian spirit of the times at a time when, as he himself acknowledged in a recent interview, given to me and published in the magazine Left margin, he did not see himself in a position to prepare a properly political-social essay analysis.

In the chapter on absences, it is also notable that an essay such as “National by subtraction”, from 1986, was not selected. In it, Roberto Schwarz takes up the problem of “Ideas out of place”, comparing it with “cosmopolitan” approaches, with a post-structuralist approach, such as that of Silviano Santiago. For the critic, if narrow nationalism, averse to any dialogue with external influences, is not a credible solution given the functioning of the world of ideas on the periphery of capitalism, the answer would not be the abandonment of the national question in favor of a abstract cosmopolitanism.

And if there is a line of continuity in Roberto Schwarz's thought, from “Ideas out of place” to the essays written from the beginning of the 1990s, it is exactly this: the defense of the national question not as a subterfuge for a nationalist perspective, in theory and/or politics, but rather, on the contrary, as an inescapable “objective” problem even for a Marxist reflection anchored in the class struggle. The determinations of the uneven and combined development of capitalism cannot be annulled simply by an act of linguistic subversion.

It is this peripheral perspective, in fact, that would guarantee the universal reach of both Brazilian literature itself and its criticism. From the perspective of the periphery, it is the system as a whole that appears in its most divisive aspect, even more so in times, like today, when social problems that were once restricted to “underdeveloped” or “developing” countries are also spreading. by “developed” countries.

The country of the future has finally become one of the mirrors of the present, but in a very different direction from that previously desired. From the vanguard of a world in dismantling, and with Machado in mind, Roberto Schwarz followed this entire process with a critical magnifying glass. And for this very reason he is, in fact, one of the greatest intellectuals of our time, an essential intellectual. And so it will be, at least as long as Brazil and the world continue to be what they are.

*Fábio Mascaro Querido Professor at the Department of Sociology at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Daniel Bensaïd: intellectual in combat (Thin Trace).

Originally published on cult magazine.


Robert Schwarz. Essential. Penguin-Companhia, 1st edition, 376 pp. []

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