Ruy Coelho

Image: João Nitsche


Commentary on the intellectual trajectory of the anthropologist and cultural critic

On December 21, 1920 – exactly 100 years ago, therefore – the anthropologist, cultural critic and sociology professor Ruy Galvão de Andrada Coelho (1920-1990) was born. Student at the newly created Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters (FFCL) at USP, contributor to the legendary magazine Climate, pioneer among Brazilian anthropologists in carrying out field research abroad, renowned author in Honduras, professor and director of the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH) at USP. The biography is large and respectable.

Ruy Coelho came from a traditional São Paulo family, with origins that lead him to the patriarch of Independence, Joaquim Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, and to Santo Antônio de Sant'Ana Galvão, Friar Galvão. In 1938, after passing through Liceu Rio Branco, he entered the Faculty of Law at USP, but abandoned the Legal and Social Sciences course soon after. The following year, he would start, at the same time, the courses in Philosophy and Social and Political Sciences at FFCL.

It was during this period that he established friendship with a group of students and recent graduates such as Antonio Candido, Paulo Emílio Sales Gomes, Décio de Almeida Prado and Gilda de Mello e Souza, with whom he would launch himself in the magazine Climate. The periodical, dedicated mainly to the arts, circulated from 1941 to 1994 and published 16 editions, registering the beginning of the career of these and other intellectuals.

Na Climate, Coelho was a free essayist, a joker, as he described himself, writing on varied subjects and demonstrating his wide erudition. In an interview for illustrated, in 2002, the then FFLCH professor Antonio Candido would remember being impressed by his friend's culture, his extensive reading in various subjects, his admirable ability to concentrate and his good knowledge of music.

“According to Antonio Candido, Coelho’s debut article, which was entitled Marcel Proust and Our Times, is perhaps the most important text published by the magazine”, comments the postdoctoral fellow in Social Anthropology from USP Rodrigo Ramassote, technician in social sciences at the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (Iphan). From 2014 to 2018, Ramassote carried out his postdoctoral research at FFLCH on Coelho's academic trajectory and intellectual production.

For Ramassote, Coelho's contributions to Climate illuminate research interests that would permeate his entire career. This is especially visible, according to the researcher, in the text on Proust and in Introduction to the Critical Method, published in the tenth issue of the journal.

“These two articles already reveal some intellectual concerns that will accompany Ruy throughout his career. It is no coincidence that this article on Proust, for example, already has a very strong interest in issues related to psychoanalysis, personality and the sociocultural context”, analyzes Ramassote.

The magazine's experience took Coelho to the mainstream press. He was a literary critic of O State St. PaulSão Paulo newspaper e morning leaf and film columnist Diary of São Paulo between 1943 and 1944. Almost in the same period, between 1942 and 43, he taught Sociology at the Colégio Universitário, attached to the FFCL.

From works in the press, the young Coelho went on to deepen his academic career. In 1944, he traveled to Illinois, in the United States, to do his graduate studies at Northwestern University, supervised by Melville J. Herskovits. A unique decision when compared to the paths taken by his generational colleagues, who continued their academic training in Brazil.

Coelho leaves for the United States possibly motivated by his cosmopolitan profile and erudition – already made public in the texts of the Climate – and for the interest in the studies of culture and personality that animated the American anthropological scene. It was during this period that he took part, in 1946, in field research among the Ojibwa Indians of Lac Du Flambeau, in the State of Wisconsin. It was also between 1947 and 1948 that he went to Trujillo, Honduras, where he carried out research among the black Caribbean people (now called Garifuna), resulting in his doctoral thesis. The Black Caribbean of Honduras (Perspective Publisher).

“By deciding to research among the Garífuna, he joined a transnational academic network, articulated around Herskovits, interested in studying the preservation of African sociocultural practices and institutions in the New World”, points out Ramassote. “Network formed by the Brazilian Arthur Ramos, the Cuban Fernando Ortiz and the Haitian Jean Prince-Mars, among others.”

With this work, Coelho becomes a pioneer in the internationalization of social sciences in Brazil, being the first anthropologist to carry out field research outside the country. He is also the first to produce academic research on the Garifuna in Honduras, which would make him a mandatory author in the Central American country from the 1980s onwards, when his thesis was published there.

“There is no article, no research, no thesis written in Honduras on the black Caribbean that does not make reference to Ruy's work”, says Ramassote, who was in Honduras to conduct his research and spoke with other academics about the centrality of Ruy's work. Rabbit in the country. “Ruy established a set of themes and issues that continue to be the subject of reflection among Black Caribbean researchers in Honduras.”

This pioneer spirit in internationalization and this prominence in the Honduran scene would come accompanied, however, by little interest from Brazilians for his work. Unavoidable in Honduras, in Brazil Coelho would be little read. A situation that Ramassote hopes to see transformed, mainly due to the increased interest of Brazilian anthropology, in the last 20 years, in the Caribbean.

“What caught my attention is this dissonance between a little-known figure here and a very renowned figure in Honduras”, explains the researcher. “I hope that this discrepancy is better equalized, that Ruy is also read around here, because he has an interesting contribution as a pioneer of research on the Caribbean in Brazil, as a pioneer in the production of a thesis on an Afro-Caribbean population.”

From the United States, Coelho would go on to teach at the University of Puerto Rico, in 1949, where he had a passage peppered with dissatisfactions that led him to go, in just 11 months, to the Department of Social Sciences at Unesco. In his new job, he was co-responsible for organizing a cycle of research on racial relations in Brazil, where he returned permanently in 1952, assuming the chair of Sociology 2 at the FFCL as assistant professor. With the new position, Coelho would invest in sociological theory and in the revision of the concept of social structure, relating it to psychological dynamics.

In Ramassote's view, the shift to sociology would not have been as sudden as it might seem at first. Despite focusing on classical authors from the sociological field such as Auguste Comte, the subject of his Habilitation, the studies developed by Coelho from then on would not fail to carry the interests demonstrated since the time of his Climate, As the title of his thesis attests, Social Structure and Psychological Dynamics.

“I believe that these works, although they were written with a view to the chair of Sociology 2, are closely linked to certain anthropological interests”, comments the researcher. Therefore, Coelho's main contribution to the discipline would not be in the texts he produced, but in his attitude as a teacher.

“Ruy's greatest legacy for sociology is not exactly found in the books he wrote”, he analyzes. “Because everything he wrote, to some extent, refers to his anthropological training. It is more the interdisciplinary stance, a stance averse to any very rigid boundary between sociology and anthropology, which he always cultivated in the classroom and in the orientations in which he was involved.”

Coelho remained at USP until 1971, when, at the height of the military dictatorship in Brazil, suspicion of subversive activities fell on him and his wife, Lúcia Maria Salvia Coelho. This would lead the couple and their children into exile in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, where Coelho would integrate, from 1974 to 1977, the Department of Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of Provence.

His return to Brazil would take place in 1977, accompanied by the resumption of teaching activities at USP and culminating in his taking over as director of the FFLCH in 1982. He would also be invited, in 1984, to teach at the University of Coimbra, where he would act in the creation of the degree in Anthropology of the Department of Life Sciences.

Still on Coelho's legacy, Ramassote adds to the professor's “viscerally interdisciplinary” posture, which came from his dissatisfaction with “deceptive artificialisms of disciplinary divisions and academic borders”, the incessant search for theoretical-conceptual refinement. A legacy, complements Ramassote, “which he always cultivated and encouraged among his students and disciples”.

* Luiz Prado holds a degree in journalism from ECA-USP.

Originally published on Journal of USP .



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